Chronicling the follies of religion and superstition, the virtues of skepticism, and the wonders of the real (natural) universe as revealed by science. Plus other interesting and educational stuff.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

Your Inner Fish

Have you ever wondered why our bodies look the way they do? Paleobiologist Neil Shubin sets out in this three-part series to find the answers in a surprising place: the ancient animal ancestors that shaped our anatomy.

In the first episode, “Your Inner Fish,” he journeys back to a time, some 375 million years ago, when the first fish crawled up onto land. Shubin’s quest for the fossil record of this primeval predecessor takes viewers from highway cuts in rural Pennsylvania to the remote Arctic. After years of searching, he and his colleagues finally found a fossilized fish, known as Tiktaalik, that had enough strength in its front fins to do pushups and heave itself out of the water. Remarkably, we can trace the ancestry of our own hands and arms all the way back to these fins. Viewers also meet the scientists who discovered the DNA recipe for constructing the human hand — an essential set of instructions passed down from fish like Tiktaalik and shared today with a surprising number of other animals, from chickens to chimpanzees. Along the way, Shubin makes it clear that we can also thank our fishy past for many of our body’s quirks, such as hernias.

In the second episode, “Your Inner Reptile,” Shubin exposes our reptilian roots. He searches for our ancient ancestors at fossil sites in the Karoo Desert of South Africa and on the tidal flats of Nova Scotia. He also reveals modern-day links to the past through visits to a fertility clinic in Chicago and a biology lab in London. Along the way, he explains how major transitions in the history of life paved the way for our ancestors’ evolution into mammals. Shubin identifies some amazing connections: the amniotic sac was an innovation to keep our reptile ancestors’ eggs from drying out; our complex teeth can be traced to ferocious beasts that lived millions of years before dinosaurs; and our hair is linked to the whiskers of reptile-like mammals that lived much of their lives in the dark. Our reptilian ancestors — from fearsome predators to creatures as small as a paper clip — are responsible for more than a few features of modern humans.

In the final episode of the series, “Your Inner Monkey,” Shubin delves into our primate past. He travels from the badlands of Ethiopia, where the famous hominid skeletons “Lucy” and “Ardi” were found, to a forest canopy in Florida, home to modern primates. En route, he explains how many aspects of our form and function evolved. We learn that a genetic mutation in our primate ancestors conferred humans’ ability to see in color — but it was an advantage that led to a decline in our sense of smell. The shape of our hands came from tree-dwelling ancestors for whom long fingers made it easier to reach fruit at the tips of fine branches. Shubin concludes by tracing the evolution of the human brain — from a tiny swelling on the nerve cord of a wormlike creature, to the three-part architecture of a shark’s brain and the complex brain of primates. As Shubin observes, “Inside every organ, gene and cell in our body lie deep connections with the rest of life on our planet.”

Anonymous asked
"Cosmos" is great and all that, but why no mention of PBS's "Your Inner Fish"?

Omg! I’m so woefully ignorant! Had no idea this existed. Thank you! I have some catching up to do.

http://www.pbs.org/your-inner-fish/watch/

Vsauce, the master answerer of life’s toughest questions and professional blower of minds, tackles something so philosophical in his latest video that you’ll start to wonder what in the hell our purpose is on this Earth. And if it’s any different than a purpose of a rock. It starts with the discussion of art and then fakes and forgeries of art and what forgeries really mean and what it means to be original and eventually leads into a discussion on how we’re pretty much all just forgeries too. He ends by pointing out that you are quadrillionth cousins with water, rocks and the clothes you’re wearing.

Bill Nye’s Take on the Nye-Ham Debate

…I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence…

…After the debate, my agent and I were driven back to our hotel. We were, by agreement, accompanied by two of Ham’s security people. They were absolutely grim. I admit it made me feel good. They had the countenance of a team that had been beaten—beaten badly in their own stadium. Incidentally, if the situation were reversed, I am pretty sure they are trained to feel bad about feeling good. They would manage to feel bad either way, which is consistent with Mr. Ham’s insistence on The Fall, when humankind took its first turn for the worse. And by his reckoning, we’ve been plummeting ever since….

The Real Darwin Fish

Why creationists hate Tiktaalik.

…If evolution is true, and if life on Earth originated in water, then there must have once been fish species possessing primitive limbs, which enabled them to spend some part of their lives on land. And these species, in turn, must be the ancestors of four-limbed, land-living vertebrates like us.

Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an “anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal.”

"It has a neck," says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. "No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist." Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it’s quite the transitional form…

Oklahoma Biology Teachers Don’t Understand Evolution

Much of the debate about evolution in public schools concerns the content of textbooks. But a new study points to another worrisome trend: teachers who have misconceptions about evolution might be passing those ideas along to their students.

Researchers surveyed Oklahoma high school biology teachers, and found that 23 percent of them misunderstand several key concepts.

Among the specific findings:

25 percent strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, “Scientific evidence indicates that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time in the past.”

36.8 percent strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement, “Complex structures such as the eye could have been formed by evolution.”

40.8 percent strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, “‘Survival of the fittest’ means basically that ‘only the strong survive’.”

17.1 percent strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement, “The earth is old enough for evolution to have occurred.” (And, 3.9 percent were “undecided.”)

32.9 percent strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, “Evolution is a total random process.”


The authors of the study assess the implications:

As teachers are critical determiners of the quality of classroom instruction, it is vital that they be capable of making professionally responsible instructional and curricular decisions. For biology teachers to make such decisions about evolution, they must possess a thorough knowledge of evolutionary theory and its powerful role in the discipline of biology.

Second, when teachers hold science misconceptions, they may critically impede student conceptual development of scientific explanations. Teachers with misconception-laced subject knowledge will convey inaccurate or incomplete ideas to their students, resulting in a less than accurate biological evolution education, likely fraught with errors…. Therefore, teachers may be a primary factor in the acquisition, propagation and perpetuation of students’ biological evolution-related misconceptions.

Read the full scientific paper here.

(Source: io9.com)

As a species, humans manifest a quality called neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Neoteny has physical ramifications—scarce body hair and a flat face are two examples—but it also has neurological ones. Namely, we have an extraordinary capacity to continue learning throughout life. If neoteny helps to explain our ability to learn, researchers are now figuring out what drives us to take advantage of it. In 2008, a group of scientists set up a novel fMRI study. When a sub­ject’s curiosity was piqued by a question (“What is the only country in the world that has a bill of rights for cows?” for instance), certain regions of the brain lit up. Those areas, known collectively as the basal ganglia, correspond to the brain’s reward centers—the same ones that govern our desire for sex or chocolate or total domination in Call of Duty 4. When people say they have an itch to figure something out, they’re not speaking metaphorically. They’re looking to get high on information. Curiosity, then, is not some romantic quality. It is an adaptive response. Humans may not be the fastest or strongest creatures, but through the blind luck of evolution, we developed the desire and capacity to continually update our understanding of the world. And that has allowed us to master it—or get darn close.

thatscienceguy:

The Alien World of the Cambrian

If you were to wake up one day and find yourself surrounded by these amazing creatures, after first freaking out, you would probably come to the conclusion that you were on some alien world.

But in actuality these are all real organisms from earths distant past - the Cambrian period. Artists and animators have joined forces with paleontologists to produce these visualisations of the various fossils found all over the world.

It is likely planet earth will never see a period like this again, and however horrifying it may have been, that is disappointing.

I have listed the names of the arthropods in the captions of each photo.

awkwardsituationist:

crypsis is the ability of an organism to blend in with its environment, as seen here in (click pic) grasshoppers, mantids, geckos (three in the fifth photo), toads (three in the ninth photo), snakes and katydids, all of which have evolved to mimic or become inconspicuous amongst leaves. photos by (click pic) john cancalosi, christian zeigler, mattias klum and thomas marent.

"…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." - charles darwin

The Debunking Handbook

This guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download. 

Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there’s no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation.

The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them, such as:

-The Familiarity Backfire Effect
-The Overkill Backfire Effect
-The Worldview Backfire Effect

It also looks at a key element to successful debunking: providing an alternative explanation. The Handbook is designed to be useful to all communicators who have to deal with misinformation.

It’s 8 pages and a must read for anyone who cares to correct misinformation and debunk myths in themselves and others.

The Debunking Handbook

This guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download.

Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there’s no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation.

The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them, such as:

-The Familiarity Backfire Effect
-The Overkill Backfire Effect
-The Worldview Backfire Effect

It also looks at a key element to successful debunking: providing an alternative explanation. The Handbook is designed to be useful to all communicators who have to deal with misinformation.

It’s 8 pages and a must read for anyone who cares to correct misinformation and debunk myths in themselves and others.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Really Starting To Scare Conservatives

The wingnut panic over the show Cosmos is incredibly amusing to me. It’s understandable, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is really good at being clear and concise about science and he eviscerates right wing attempts to muddy the waters with precision. I particularly liked this quote from an interview on Inquiring Minds: “I claim that all those who think they can cherry-pick science simply don’t understand how science works,” because science, unlike theology or musical taste, isn’t a matter of just taking what you like and leaving the rest behind. What is interesting—and threatening—about Cosmos is it asserts interconnectedness of science. Evolution and the “big bang” theory are inseparable, and knowing how old and vast the universe is makes it much, much easier to understand how evolution works.

This runs strongly counter to the conservative approach to science. Conservatives don’t want to be perceived as anti-science, so they claim a general support for it and then just suddenly and coincidentally have “reservations” about science that runs against their political interests. So you have people who wouldn’t dare dream of saying that physics as a field is wrong, but somehow still manage to convince themselves the that laws of physics are suddenly suspended when they point to the conclusion of man-made climate change. Or they have to accept that sexual reproduction, by its nature, creates descent with modification, but they somehow decide that this can’t be true over vast expanses of time. Cosmos makes that kind of cherry-picking hard to pull off. Tyson knows that if you understand, for instance, how dog breeds came to be, you understand evolution and can’t reasonably deny that, over much longer periods of time, you could get way, way more genetic diversity through natural selection.

In my post last week about these issues, I asked why Christian fundies are much less interested in building the case against the old-and-vast universe, even though they clearly don’t believe in it any more than evolution, than they are trying to sow doubt about evolution. This, even though the age and the size of the universe tend to argue against their god more than even evolution does. I neglected to mention that I suspect the main reason is tradition. The fight between evolutionary biologists and fundies predates many of the theories about the universe and certainly predates the popularization of those theories. It’s an arbitrary accident of history. You know, like a lot of evolved features are.

I cannot emphasize enough the arbitrary nature of the attacks on evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists are not interested in crafting legitimate criticisms of science. They just want to cough up a bunch of random “reasons” to disbelieve the science so that their followers can latch onto that as an excuse for why they reject science, and that’s it. That’s why they put astrophysics mostly on “ignore” and focus on evolution, because all their followers need to know is that “criticisms” exist and they can feel good about believing a bunch of bullshit.

PZ Myers has a fun post up about one of the fellows at the Discovery Institute taking cheap potshots at Cosmos and it’s fascinating, because it shows how much his job is to create the illusion that there are “questions” about evolution and that’s it. The point is not to create counter-theories and it’s certainly not about grappling with the overwhelming amount of evidence from various fields of science that point to an old universe that we evolved very recently, relatively speaking, in. It’s about tossing up a few distracting lies, like “biologists can’t explain the eyeball”, and allowing believers to comfort themselves with the lies. But it really comes across as lame if you take a wide view.

The fellow in question, Jay Richards, was all agitated about the evolution episode of Cosmos.

But on the first episode, where Tyson explains that the universe is over 13 billion years old and that there are likely many universes and that we are like a dust speck in Bill Gates’ mansion in our relative size to the universe, he had nothing much to say on Twitter. Which is interesting, because the size and age of the universe are much harder to comprehend than the possibility that an eye evolved over a few hundred thousand generations. But that’s the point: He isn’t interested in comprehending either physics or biology. He is interested in throwing up a few nonsensical claims that supposedly cast doubt on evolution and calling it a day, safe and secure in the knowledge that the fundies he’s pandering to won’t look or think any further about the issue than to feel comfortable dismissing it out of hand. It’s actually kind of weird, if you think about it.

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