Daphnia

Daphnia

This little guy is a crustacean which has its molting synthesis activated by Halloween genes (as do insects because, gasp!, they share a relatively close lineage). Some of the names of these genes are Spo, Spok, Spookiest, Phantom, Disembodied, Shadow, and Shade.

How we evolve

Seed has an article about How We Evolve. It’s a fantastic read that I won’t try to break down since it’s already written in an enormously friendly manner. I do, however, want to focus on one part.

“Intelligence builds on top of intelligence,” says Lahn. “[Culture] creates a stringent selection regime for enhanced intelligence. This is a positive feedback loop, I would think.” Increasing intelligence increases the complexity of culture, which pressures intelligence levels to rise, which creates a more complex culture, and so on. Culture is not an escape from conditioning environments. It is an environment of a different kind.

There’s the pervasive notion that human evolution has stopped because we have this flat-seas type of environment where no selection pressure is applied except in the most extreme of circumstances. Indeed, this is a major subject of the article (I guess I did break it down a little). I just find it tremendously unfortunate that even biologists have it in their heads that humans face such limited evolution; the recent comments from Steve Jones are especially disheartening. It’s just something everyone needs to face: evolution happens and nothing stops it except extinction.

World Beard Championship

A top contender

The competition gets tougher every year.

The Dishonest Firing of an Honest Woman

I try to make it a habit to not use much of anything I find on PZ Myers blog. It’s not because I don’t like his blog – I do, it’s great – but I’d rather not be stealing the man’s ideas or topics (there’s enough science to go around). But he recently made a post about the travesty that’s been happening to Christine Comer. As a few of you may know, she was forced to resign from her position as the Director of Science for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) because she circulated some information about a talk denouncing the bullshit that is intelligent design. It didn’t denounce the religion of intelligent design, but rather the faux science that it is. Because the TEA has a neutrality policy on the issue, Comer was told she’d either be fired or she could resign (and keep her pension). She resigned.

Comer currently has a lawsuit pending which contends what happened to her was illegal because teaching or endorsing creationism is unconstitutional.

So what we have now is a report released from Texans for Better Science Education (TBSE), an organization, despite its name, actually devoted to destroying science in favor of magic. Fortunately, Steven Shafersman has a full account of what’s actually going on.

Now, let’s examine the incidents of “insubordination” and “misconduct” that TBSE’s Mark Ramsey and DI’s John West claim disqualifies Chris Comer’s claim that her employment was terminated illegally. In the TBSE timeline, Ramsey emphatically makes the accusation that, “During her employment at the TEA, Comer received…three disciplinary letters spanning at least eight separate incidents, and seven of these eight incidents had nothing to do with evolution.” But there’s more to this charge than meets the eye. Chris began work at TEA in 1997, and until 2007 there is only one serious charge in all the documents against Chris. This is the June 12, 2003, Letter of Reprimand and Notice of Disciplinary Probation from Ann Smisko, Associate Commissioner. Chris was accused of getting a small amount of money from a TEA Comprehensive Assessment Training in Science (CATS) grant to Alamo Community College District (ACCD) for travel expenses. Chris was told the money was from the San Antonio Education Foundation, not from the ACCD. Also, she could not provide receipts for the reimbursed travel expenses. In fact, she received no funds from either the CATS grant or ACCD as the continued investigation showed.

A second charge was that she took money as a consultant for work on the Texas Atlas Project, another CATS project, which was conducted on her own time. Employees are forbidden to take any money for consulting without submitting a Disclosure Reporting Form, and Chris failed to do this. This is a very minor infraction. For these two charges, the letter was the only disciplinary action Chris received, because, in fact, the charges were so minor. The letter states that “the disciplinary action is based on information available at this time and the preliminary findings of the Internal Auditor.” There were no further findings or charges. She was told later that she was completely cleared of suspicion, but Ramsey and West don’t want to inform you of that. The mistaken Letter of Reprimand and Notice of Disciplinary Probation should have been removed from Chris’s file, and Ramsey and West should apologize to her now.

Now this is important: the charges in this letter were the only misconduct charges Chris received during the first nine years of her employment at TEA. The remaining seven incidents all came during one year after the Perry-McLeroy-Scott-Reynolds anti-science cabal started to take over the TEA. Thus, contrary to several statements by Comer antagonists, Chris did not have (1) “a history of disciplinary issues” as Ramsey wrote, (2) “a long history of disciplinary problems” as West wrote, and was not (3) “an employee who has no legal case against the agency because she abused her position for years” as Lizzette Reynolds wrote (p. 16 of pdf file). Each of these claims increases in malice and untruthfulness. What is their motivation to direct so much animosity at Chris Comer?

So what we have is a set of creationists who have been given authority on subjects over which they have no grasp going around and firing people for teaching the unifying principle of an entire field of science. What’s more, they’re dragging this woman through the mud by claiming that she has all sorts of infractions and insubordinations. In reality (a place these creationists seem to deny as much as possible), Comer had a minor infraction plus 7 made-up infractions which were attributed to her for the sake of destroying science (something which doesn’t jive well with this blogger’s url) only after a set of creationists gained authority.

Let’s hope these patently dishonest creationists are successfully sued. Maybe then Texas will realize it needs to throw these yahoos out.

Just a little more astronomy

This is a bit much astronomy for a primarily biology blog, I know. Unless something great pops up, this will be the last astronomy post for at least a little while.

Some new research into the tidal forces of stars and their planets has yielded some interesting results.

Planets around small mass stars may only have a billion-year window during which life can form. This is the implication of research into the tidal forces that can pull a planet into a tighter orbit around a star.

The so-called habitable zone around a star is loosely defined as planetary orbits in which water would be liquid, not vapor or solid, on the planets’ surface. These orbits are closer-in for smaller (less bright) stars.

However, habitability is not a permanent property of a planet.

“For some planets around low mass stars, they are not going to hang around in the habitable zone forever,” says Rory Barnes of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the University of Arizona. “They are going to be pulled out.”

The pulling is due to tidal forces that arise because the gravitational attraction between planet and star is not uniform over their surfaces.

Barnes and his colleagues have shown that the tidal forces around a small mass star can draw a planet from the habitable zone on the order of a billion years, as reported in a recent issue of Astrobiology Journal.

If some of these migrating planets can be detected, they could provide a test of the Gaia hypothesis, which says that life can force changes to a planet in order to keep it in a habitable state.

So basically life may only have a 1 billion year window to form. That certainly isn’t the case across the board since this research applies specifically to low mass stars. But is it at all surprising that life on Earth originated somewhere between 200 million and 1,000 million years ago, i.e., within the first billion years of the planet’s existence?

Water may be more recent on Mars than previously thought

For anyone wondering, it’s pretty conclusive that Mars once had water on it. Here we have a new sign that ancient Mars was wet more recently.

“This is an exciting discovery because it extends the time range for liquid water on Mars, and the places where it might have supported life,” said CRISM principal investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “The identification of opaline silica tells us that water may have existed as recently as 2 billion years ago.”

Notice that this extends the range of time that Mars is thought to have harbored liquid water – in other words, the point isn’t to show confirmation of water in the history of Mars. That’s been known for quite some time, despite public perceptions.

“What’s important is that the longer liquid water existed on Mars, the longer the window during which Mars may have supported life,” Milliken said. “The opaline silica deposits would be good places to explore to assess the potential for habitability on Mars, especially in these younger terrains.”

No, science only has a bias toward reality.

Apparently, some people think science can be either conservative or liberal. Well, it can’t. So why do the nuts over at Conservapedia think otherwise? What’s more, why do they think creationists tend to win debates with ‘evolutionists’?

Morris also said regarding the creation scientist Duane Gish (who had over 300 formal debates): “At least in our judgment and that of most in the audiences, he always wins.”

You may be wondering, who the fuck is that guy? Well, that’s Henry Morris, one of the founders of the Institute for Creation Research – an organization which does nothing but undermine science. Apparently, Conservapedians believes if they cite the opinion of a creationist on the issue of debating evolution that they have an air-tight case that creationists tend to defeat those EVILutionists in debates. This is about as valuable as those text polls FOX News took after the presidential debates where McCain apparently destroyed Obama, winning roughly 90% of the votes. What’s more, the fact that even if there were some empirical way to measure debate winningness*, it wouldn’t matter since, just as Hitler has no bearing on the truth value of evolution, the random opinions of anti-science mooks is rather irrelevant.

*Creationist would likely reject such a measure were it possible since they believe science to only be science when it gives them results they already like.