Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Two contrasting perspectives on OOL research

The highly esteemed Franklin M. Harold is the author of a newly-published book: In Search of Cell History: The Evolution of Life’s Building Blocks, University of Chicago Press (2014). According to the publisher, this book investigates the full scope of cellular history. The content is broad and includes the relationship between cells and genes; the status of the universal tree of life with its three stems and viral outliers; and the controversies surrounding the last universal common ancestor. Extensive discussion is provided of the evolution of cellular organization and the fossil evidence for the earliest life on earth. The publisher explains: “In Search of Cell History shows us just how far we have come in understanding cell evolution—and the evolution Read More ›

Professor John Rendle-Short: a paradoxical life?

Many readers of this blog owe a debt of gratitude to Professor John Rendle-Short, and this is the case whether you know his name or not. Described as an “esteemed and highly respected paediatrician”, his career was extraordinarily productive and influential. In Australia, about 2600 doctors graduated from the University of Queensland with knowledge of child development and health gained under his leadership. Since 1984, the Rendle-Short Gold Medal has been awarded to medical students gaining best marks in paediatrics and child health. His academic work started in 1950 when he became a Registrar to neonates in Cardiff. He authored a textbook, A Synopsis of Children’s Diseases, that passed through six editions and was used as a standard text on Read More ›

Wavelength dependent optical fibres in the mammalian eye

It is well known that the mammalian eye has an “inverted” structure, whereby light reaching the retinal surface must pass through a layer of cellular tissue before reaching the light-sensitive cells: the rods and cones. The cellular tissue can be expected to degrade the clarity of vision, and this has been interpreted by some as convincing evidence that the eye has not been designed intelligently, but has been cobbled together by processes characterized by chance and contingency. Responses have majored on the concept of optimization: the inverted structure provides benefits that compensate for any disadvantages. Most evolutionary biologists appear to be unconvinced, and the issue of eye design has become an icon of evolution: proof that intelligent agency was absent Read More ›

Design principles in the feather

Before biomimetics, there was little interest in studying biological materials to gain inspiration for human invention. This is because researchers assumed that living things originated via “blind watchmaker” mechanisms. Since most researchers had discarded any thoughts of intelligent agency, it seemed only natural to think that living things would not help the human quest for improved or innovative designs. However, this stance has been almost completely replaced by a much more positive perspective. Somehow the “blind watchmaker” has morphed into an immensely skilled craftsman. Now it is realized that life forms display structures with design elegance, the watchmaker is considered to behave as though he is not only sighted, but also astoundingly intelligent. “Biological materials such as the feather are Read More ›

Naturalism’s tightening grip on education and science

Within the UK, we have a large number of vocal and influential people who want to exclude all expressions of biblical Christianity from education, whether state funded or independent. Their first target is to banish the concept of creation and replace it with the exclusive teaching of evolutionary theory. These crusaders present themselves as speaking for Enlightenment science and they make much of the supposed consensus within the scientific community about these issues. Their latest success has come with the Department for Education (DfE) requiring church schools converting to academies to adhere strictly to the evolutionary account of origins when teaching science. The new development has been warmly welcomed by the British Humanist Association’s Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal: Read More ›

New insights into why bone is both strong and supple

Having experienced recently an injury to my arm with breaks in three places, I have a fresh appreciation of the remarkable properties of bone. The focus of this blog is not the healing process, but rather the remarkable strength of bone and its ability to withstand intense impacts. The research work under consideration looked at the molecular structure of bone, which means we look with the perspective of nanotechnology. Like many materials, bone has crystalline regions and amorphous regions. The crystalline components (made up of calcium phosphate platelets) are located within a disordered material (the collagen protein matrix). There is also a significant amount of water within bone, and much of it appears to be structural. “[U]p to 28% of Read More ›

A liberating voice on the feathered dragons

Evolution: Education and Outreach is usually a disappointment. The journal could do with more philosophically savvy writers and more critical reviewers. The various contributions provide very little evidence that they understand Kuhn’s thesis about the way science develops. Most of the authors are working in a silo and fail to understand anyone who operates outside their tightly defined paradigm. A notable exception was Daniel R. Brooks (2011) who wrote on “The Extended Synthesis: Something Old, Something New” (blogged here). Another is the theme of this blog: a review of Alan Feduccia’s “Riddle of the Feathered Dragons” by Egbert Giles Leigh Jr. What caught my eye was the acknowledgement that Feduccia provides a “powerful criticism of prevailing views of bird evolution”. Read More ›

Introgressive hybridization and the Galapagos finches

A branching pattern of variation was central to Darwin’s concept of speciation. As one population of organisms follows one trajectory, another population may spin off in a different direction. When they are sufficiently far apart, they are considered to be separate species. The Galapagos finches have been regarded as exemplars of Darwinian transformation, even leading to the claim that one newly developed population is “behaving as a separate species”. However, the most recent study, from one of the smaller islands (Floreana), concludes that the most likely cause of the disappearance of one of these species is hybridization. “The authors suggest that hybridization may have been responsible for the disappearance of the large tree finch from Floreana, and that it may Read More ›

Scientism as expounded by the New Atheists

The past 10 years has witnessed the rise of New Atheism, particularly in the US and the UK, with leaders who write best-selling books and attract a vociferous following. No doubt the sociologists of science will come up with some interesting things to say about this movement, but it is highly significant that the New Atheists have created deep divisions within their own intellectual community. The latest salvo expressing discontent has been fired by Massimo Pigliucci, evolutionary biologist, philosopher of science and advocate of atheism. In an academic paper, Pigliucci argues that the term “new” does not have anything to do with the public advocacy of atheism. Nor is there novelty in the arguments they use to advance their atheistic Read More ›

Quantum effects confirmed for photosynthesis

Quantum phenomena in biology are receiving the attention of more and more researchers, with photosynthesis being the process getting the most attention. Back in 2007, it was apparent that quantum effects were effective for “explaining the extreme efficiency of photosynthesis”. Then, in 2010, the photosynthetic apparatus of cryptophyte algae was the focus of research, because its pigments are farther apart than was expected for efficient functioning. In a News & Views article in Nature, van Grondelle & Novoderezhkin discussed evidence suggesting that a process known as quantum coherence is part of the explanation. They added: “This is the first time that this phenomenon has been observed in photosynthetic proteins at room temperature, rather than at much lower temperatures, bolstering the Read More ›

Neanderthals behaving like us

There are two competing paradigms about Neanderthal capabilities and culture. The first considers Neanderthals to be cognitively inflexible, with a limited use of technologies that was unresponsive to environmental change. The second recognises a much wider range of behaviours and technologies, with adaptation to specific local conditions. The paper considered in this blog belongs to the second of these perspectives: the reported work considers artefacts from a cave that was occupied by Neanderthals and dated about 90,000 years ago. “Here, we present evidence for behavioral variability and complexity among Neanderthals at the beginning of Marine Isotope Stage 4 (MIS 4) at the Abri du Maras located above the Ardeche River in southern France. Using residue analysis of stone tools with Read More ›

Antarctic acorn worms break a “crucial evolutionary link”

Earlier this year, in March, Nature reported that soft-bodied worms from the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada, given the name Spartobranchus tenuis, have been identified as ancient examples of acorn worms. They were hailed as a “missing link” in the vertebrate family tree: “a crucial evolutionary link between two distinct living groups of animals: enteropneusts and pterobranchs.” The evidence supporting this was said to be the tubes constructed by Spartobranchus tenuis. Living enteropneusts (acorn worms) do not have tubes, whereas living pterobranchs (minute colonial organisms) do. Professor Simon Conway Morris affirmed the significance of the newly discovered fossil tubes with these words: “By finding enteropneusts in tubes we begin to bridge this evolutionary gap.” At the time, these issues Read More ›

Rethinking the consensus on coral reef talus

Whether you are a diver, a geologist, or simply someone with an interest in natural history, you are likely to have a misconception about the structure of coral reefs. The error is ubiquitous in textbooks and is reinforced by media treatments of the topic. Everyone ‘knows’ that coral reefs have a central zone of organically bound material (the reef core), a leeward zone of flat lying sediments (the back-reef lagoonal area) and a seaward zone of steeply-dipping rubble (the reef talus). The misconception relates to the reef talus. The source of the erroneous view can be traced to Charles Darwin, who sought to follow his mentor (Charles Lyell) in explaining the past by reference to present-day processes. “Darwin and his Read More ›

Neural tissue preservation in a Cambrian arthropod

Palaeontologists have been developing some highly sophisticated tools for analysing fossil specimens. Of particular interest are techniques that probe the details of soft tissue preservation. In the research considered here, the 30 mm specimen was found at the Chengjiang lagerstatte locality in southwest China. It had large, claw-like appendages on its head and many jointed legs. It is assigned to the arthropods and thought to be a probable extinct chelicerate. It is referred to as one of the megacherian (meaning “great hand”) species with the genus name Alalcomenaeus. To analyse the soft tissues, a 3-D model of the specimen was produced using a CT-scanner and, at the same time, an X-ray microscope documented the distribution of selected chemical elements. In Read More ›

A jaw-dropping placoderm fish

People who think sharks are “primitive” fish may be commended as being reasonably up-to-date with the evolutionary literature, but they need to take note of a new fossil fish that has thrown all the ideas into the melting-pot. Only a year ago, as an apparently coherent story was beginning to emerge, a specialist in vertebrate biology explained that the common ancestor of all jawed vertebrates on Earth resembled a shark. “The common ancestors of all jawed vertebrates today organized their heads in a way that resembled sharks. Given what we now know about the interrelatedness of early fishes, these results tell us that while sharks retained these features, bony fishes moved away from such conditions.” (Source here) For more, go Read More ›