Shared errors

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a post which first destroys some creationist misconception, but then, far more interestingly, goes on to interpret a recent peer-reviewed paper on copy number variants, or CNVs. The whole piece is worth reading, but what I think is worth of a little extra attention is the brief point our shared errors.

An architecture does not imply intent or purpose, but they often imply a history. The pattern described — that chimps and humans share some common structural elements in their genomes — is better described as evidence of common ancestry than of well-designed function. An intron, for instance, is a piece of random, usually useless DNA inserted into the middle of the sequence of a gene that must be excised from RNA before it can be used to make a functional protein. It’s a little piece of garbage that must be cleaned up before the gene product can do its job. That a human and chimpanzee gene has identical introns is an example of an architecture, true enough, but it is of a shared error. Some all-knowing god—he seems to be consistently making the same mistake.

Okay, let’s take the recent hoo-hah with Coldplay and Joe Satriani. Basically, Satriani is claiming Coldplay ripped off one of his songs. There is some fairly compelling evidence to this claim, but it is far from airtight. What we have are four of the same chords repeating through parts of the songs, but only three consecutive notes are truly in common. We can potentially call this one a coincidence (especially since this song has been around forever and Satriani is only suing now that after Coldplay has won a slew of awards. Essentially, we see two instances of people creating similar things.

Now let’s consider someone learning the Satriani song. I don’t feel like finding the actual chord progressions, so let’s just say it goes A, B, C, D. The person begins to learn things, but is apparently a horrible musician and substitutes an F# for the C. Okay, fine. So we have a version of the song out there which is now A, B, F#, D. Now let’s say this person has a friend who wants to rip the song off. But instead of listening to the original Satriani version, he listens to the mutated version with the F#. Now we have some evidence of a copycat. It isn’t very strong evidence because there is just one error. In both instances, we have just four chords. But let’s say another error is made further along in the song. A chord in the bridge is misinterpreted by the original person learning the song. And, naturally, the copycat makes the same error. As we go deeper and deeper into errors, we begin to get better and better evidence of a common origin – the friend was learning from the interpreted version of the song, not the Satriani version, because it is unlikely he would make, say, 5 of the same errors as his friend. The chance for coincidence shrinks while the odds of identifying the correct source rise.

The way this is like CNVs is that we are seeing common errors being made again and again – and these errors are present in both human and chimp genomes. Of course, it should be noted that it isn’t entirely clear if these errors were directly inherited from a common ancestor or if it was the hotspot for ‘making’ errors is what was inherited, but at any rate, it is evidence for our common ancestory with the other apes. There are far too many common errors being made to simply file this under ‘God did it’. The evidence says that is – still and again – superfluous.

CO2 found on exo-planet

I need to get back to some science. Fortunately, CO2 was recently detected on an exo-planet.

NASA said its Hubble Space Telescope has discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of “hot Jupiter” planet HD 189733b, which orbits a nearby star 63 light-years from Earth.

The planet is itself too hot to support life — its surface is about 1,800 degrees F (1,000 degrees C).

But the astronomers said the observations are a proof-of-concept demonstration that the basic chemistry for life can be measured on planets orbiting other stars.

So the CO2 itself doesn’t mean anything particularly important, but it does lend credence to the idea that it is only a matter of time before astrobiology becomes an enormous field. How exciting would it be to finally confirm that we aren’t all alone, afterall? Granted, we may never make contact with any life we find, most obviously if it isn’t intelligent, but also simply because it may be so far away. This CO2, for example, was produced at 63 years ago. Assuming there was life that close (which would be almost as tremendous as the discovery of the life itself) – and it was intelligent – it would be 126 years before we could make two way contact; that’s 63 years for our (presumably) radiowaves to travel at the speed of light, reach the life-bearing planet, and then 63 years for a return message, provided the exo-life even gave a damn.

The irony

The atheist sign in Washington state is still causing discussion. Unfortunately, some of that discussion is ironic.

But upon further review, we also feel that some of those protesting the sign make a good point about the message. Rather than just being a statement for atheism or observing the Winter Solstice, it steps over the line and attacks religion. The sign sponsored by the atheistic Freedom from Religion Foundation calls religion “myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

A key aspect of the message being sent out by humanists and atheists is that religion has a privileged position in our society and it is precisely unworthy of that position. To say this group was over the line is to undermine the notion of free and open discussion.

So, while we’ll defend the right of the atheist group to hold its views, we do think the message itself should have been monitored and disapproved. In this holiday season when people of certain religions are celebrating peace, as is their right, a mean-spirited message is out of place on public property.

So if a religious group puts out a message which says something to the effect of “May we defeat the evil that is Satan” then that is a “mean-spirited message [that] is out of place” during this season of celebrating peace, right?

The more pertinent point here, actually, is that certain religions aren’t actually celebrating peace. They’re celebrating their belief in myths and the sense of community these myths tend to harbor. That’s part of the reason the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers have Christmas trees in their homes during the season. They obviously aren’t celebrating any myths, but they are celebrating their love of family and community.

As I’ve said in the past, religion clearly brings a sense of community with it and that can be a good thing (and may be a contributing reason to its existence in our evolutionary history). What this atheist group is doing is celebrating what brings them together – reason and rationality. That is, a lack of belief in devils and angels are other fabrications of the mind are one common thread which strings these people together. For that, we all, too, should embrace the unharmful, open discourse that threads us together as a nation based upon liberties and freedoms.