Saturday, 22 October 2016

Windsurfing Mute Swans!

Mute swan, Cygnus olor
Credit: Wikipedia
Windsurfing in Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) | The Wilson Journal of Ornithology

A lovely example of a structure evolved for one purpose being used for another, unrelated purpose was published very recently in a short communication in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

The author, Olle Terenius, of the Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, described seeing mute swans, Cygnus olor, using their raised wings to windsurf for some considerable distance. Regrettably, the full text sits behind a paywall.

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were observed using tailwind as a support for high-speed water transportation on three different occasions in three different locations in Sweden. With the wings arched over the back, they traveled ∼100 m in an inlet of the Baltic Sea in Stockholm, several hundred meters in Lake Hjälstaviken in Enköping, and ∼350 m in Lake Krankesjön in Lund. The speed of the movement was estimated to be much higher than normally seen for swimming swans. The first observation included two Mute Swans traveling one after another in the same direction, the second observation was of one single individual traveling towards a group of conspecifics, and the third observation was of a single individual traveling by itself. This behavior may serve as a means of medium-distance water transportation in this heavy bird species.

The mute swan is the world's heaviest flying bird and it takes some considerable effort for them to get airborne. When they do, however, they are powerful fliers, reaching speeds of 50-55 mph. So, using windsurfing as a means of locomotion on water not only saves considerable energy but gives them a 'running' start when taking off since the inertia in a relatively heavy body will already have been partly overcome. To paddle through water at the speeds recorded by Olle Terenius would have required about the same energy as a person playing squash.

What we have here is an example of nature using a structure for a purpose other than the main one selection pressure clearly selected it for. Interestingly, there are several examples of this principle from the evolutionary history of birds which involve feathers and wings. Firstly, feathers probably evolved as insulation in dinosaurs, then wings which were feathered modifications of the increasingly redundant forelimbs in the bipedal theropod dinosaurs, were probably used for gliding and maybe mating displays in addition to keeping the owner and its eggs warm. Then flight became the main function of the wings. Now swans are using these wings for windsurfing sails. We also have the example of wings being used for swimming, in penguins and some diving birds.

This principle is also behind what appear superficially to be irreducibly complex structures, for example, Michael Behe's notorious E. coli flagella, where structures evolved for one purpose were used for another because they were available, so evolution had something to work on.

Nature is ever invented simply because nature doesn't read the rule book. If it works it will be used. Utilitarianism rules because there is no plan or pre-designated purpose for anything.

'via Blog this'

Friday, 21 October 2016

Double Dose Of Frog DNA Plagues Creationism

The genome of the frog X. laevis (top) is roughly double that of its relative, X. tropicalis (bottom).
Credit: Professor Atsushi Suzuki, Hiroshima University
Doubling down on DNA - Scienmag

There are so many different forms of creationism that it's difficult to find any consistency between any two creationists and even in the same creationist at times. This make it handy for them to move the goalposts around of course because they can always change this or that definition or declare this or that impossible or possible according to the needs of the argument in hand.

However, there are a couple of pieces of dogma that are fairly consistently trotted out and are common to most flavours of creationism:
  • Mutations are always harmful and can't give rise to new information.
  • New species can't arise by natural processes so have to be created.

It must come as a shock then when a scientific paper is published showing both of these to be untrue, and untrue moreover in the same species!

Something Fishy About Jaws!

Life reconstruction of Qilinyu, a 423-million-year-old fish from the Kuanti Formation (late Ludlow, Silurian) of Qujing, Yunnan, in Silurian waters.
Photograph: Dinghua Yang
Early fossil fish shows where our jaws came from - Uppsala University, Sweden

A couple more of those little unknowns that drives science forward may have been solved this week by a team from Uppsala University, Sweden and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, China.

The first is where did our jaws come from in our evolutionary past and the second is where exactly do the 'armour-plated', fish-like placoderms fit in with the evolution of bony fish and via them, the tetrapods, including us mammals. The Silurian placoderms lived over 400 million years ago and it was not clear whether they were the direct ancestors of the bony fish or a sister clade with the ancestral bony fish along with the cartilaginous fish.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Stone Age Cave Painters Recorded A New Species!

Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison | Nature Communications.

For a creationist claim, the assertion that no new species have been seen to evolve takes some beating for its sheer denial of the readily available data. Now geneticists working at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, have shown that even the Stone Age painters of the caves such as Lascaux Cave, France, captured one such event in their art. Their findings were published yesterday in Nature Communications.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Lessons From Cyprus - Aphrodite, A Goddess For All Men

Birth of Venus (Aphrodite). Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
When you're the goddess of love, everyone, and especially men, are bound to sit up and take note, especially if your beauty is legendary.

Cyprus, that beautiful, arid island in the eastern Mediterranean and possession of every Mediterranean power from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, and latterly Britain, is the place of legend. It is remote enough to be mysterious and culturally distinct, yet close enough to the major centres of regional power to be familiar. Not surprisingly, Cyprus had its own gods and its own legends about gods but, unlike those of Minoan Crete, we know quite a lot more about these gods if for no other reason than that, again unlike Minoan Create, the culture which worshipped the Cypriot gods didn't get wiped out in a sudden catastrophic natural disaster.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Irish Catholic Bishop Now 'Irrelevant'.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell
Fine Gael TD: Archbishop’s opinion on abortion ‘is not at all relevant’ | Irish Examiner.

A measure of just how much contempt there is in the Irish Republic for the Catholic Church can be seen in an astonishingly frank attack on Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of Ireland, for his comments on the subject of the proposed liberalisation of Ireland's draconian abortion law, which is enshrined the Constitution.

A Fine Gael TD, Kate O’Connell, told the Irish Examiner,

Sunday, 9 October 2016

'Kind' Pope Francis Bashing the Gays Again!

Pope Francis: A 'global war' seeks to destroy marriage.

A few days ago in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, the Pope gave an almost perfect illustration of how the Catholic Church is completely incapable of reforming itself without giving up being the Catholic Church.

He reportedly told an audience of priests and seminarians that there is a 'global war to destroy marriage'. He was of course referring to moves to legalise same-sex marriage and so give equal human rights to homosexual couples rather than to stigmatise, persecute and deny basic rights to them as the church would prefer.

So what has happened to Pope Francis' proclaimed desire to reach out and be more inclusive to homosexuals? It's been defeated by the old guard which, maybe better than Pope Francis, understands that to rescind basic dogma and discard centuries of church teaching is to admit that the church was wrong. And that calls into question the entire doctrine of papal infallibility and the 'eternal truth of God's revealed word'.

Dogma that can be abandoned for the sake of keeping those currently flooding away from the Catholic Church because of its continued persecution of minorities, shows a church ready and willing to abandon principle for the sake of popularity. This may reflect the current reality that the church exists in a marketplace for ideas but it sits badly with a hierarchical and autocratic establishment more used to telling people what to believe, declaring truth by fiat and ensuring compliance with threats of ostracisation.

A cult that depends on an in-group versus out-group mentality needs to actively identify external 'threats' to protect itself from and ensure cohesion and compliance, so what's the point of 'reaching out to' and 'embracing' these threatening minorities? Best keep them at a distance and dehumanise them, the better to attack and persecute them! Then you can present yourself as the defenders of something sacred from the forces of evil storming the barricades.

The Catholic Church, even more so than other Christian sects, and probably on a par with Islam in this regard, resembles a sex cult for the sexually dysfunctional. The sexual ambiguity, confusion, and ensuing feelings of guilt of the priesthood is revealed as much by their public homophobia and obsession with sex as by their private homosexuality, paedophilia and frequently predatory sexuality. Priests and nuns who willingly (at least publically) adopt a celibate life-style believing this will somehow make them 'pure' are trying to cope with something for which therapy would probably be more appropriate and effective - a mental condition brought on by their sex-obsessed cult in the first place.

The Pope's attack on the liberalisation of marriage and what amounts to taking the institution of marriage away from the church and handing it back to a secular, increasingly inclusive, society, illustrates the arrogance of the Catholic Church underpinning its assumption of supreme authority over people and their institutions. It also amounts to his admission of defeat over his attempts to reform the Catholic Church and give it a kinder face. He has now retreated behind the stockades and is seeing an increasingly liberal and tolerant, kinder and more inclusive world, as a threat, and moves to take away his church's privileges to persecute and victimise the minorities of its choice, as as waging war. It's time to pull up the drawbridge, drop the portcullis and prepare for the siege.

And so the Catholic Church will remain mired in the Middle Ages, paralysed with fear of reform because reform means giving up Medieval superstitions. The tide of history has turned and the Catholic Church is being swept away along with the other detritus of a pre-scientific, fearful, demon-haunted world where magic held sway.

'via Blog this'

Saturday, 8 October 2016

It's Time To Dump Trump!

I don't normally comment here on American politics, if for no other reason that I'm not American and believe Americans should decide their own affairs.

However, Donald Trump provokes me to make an exception. Donald Trump is not fit to run a used car lot, let alone the most powerful nation in history with a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying everything on this planet several times over. He has shown himself to be emotionally unstable and quite incapable of controlling his most hateful impulses. He has a sociopathic, even psychopathic disregard for other people. This latest revelation should have done for him as a serious presidential candidate but it

Altruism and Spiders

A female dark fishing spider (left) and its male counterpart, which sacrifices itself as a food source immediately after mating. A new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Gonzaga University has found that this cannibalism can benefit the male's offspring.
Photo: Karina I. Helm
Ultimate sacrifice: Spider's post-sex cannibalism aids offspring | University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Altruism is one of those evolutionary traits that creationists claim not to be able to comprehend for a couple of reasons:
  1. It seems to require some sort of morality and a knowledge of outcomes, and they normally find it hard to think why anyone would do something for someone else if there is no promise of a reward. At least that is normally behind their claim that you need their god to be moral.
  2. How can a trait which is detrimental to the individual in that it causes loss or harm, be advantageous in the Darwinian sense, and so be passed on differentially in preference to a trait for selfishness?

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Even Educated Bees Do It!

The buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris.
Source: Wikipedia
Associative Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect | PLOS Biology

It's now well known that humans are not the only species capable of learning new skills and passing these on to others.

Despite the old religious-based view of humans as having a unique intelligence not seen in other animals, and thus standing us apart from the rest of 'creation', like tool construction and use and the ability to solve problems, learning and culture are now being seen in a whole range of other animals. Until now though, this had been confined mostly to vertebrates and almost exclusively to mammals and birds.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Does God Favour Axolotls?

Early development reveals axolotl mysteries -- ScienceDaily

You can understand a creator being quite fond of axolotls. There is something fascinating about them, especially the way they look and behave a lot like some sort of fish with legs and even breathe underwater using gills.

Basically, the Mexican axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, is a big salamander which spends most of its life as a tadpole. They even breed in their juvenile form and only become land-based adults when their water dries up. They also have a massive genome by mammalian standards, all packed into just fourteen chromosomes. Their genome is far larger than any other known amphibians but this appears to be due almost entirely to repetitive gene duplication.

Monday, 3 October 2016

We Owe It All To Pollution!

Dr Rosalie Tostevin. Field work in Namibia.
Source: UCL
Credit: Fred Bowyer
Low-oxygen waters limited habitable space for early animals | Nature Communications.

The great thing about science is the way it all meshes neatly together. Although there may currently be gaps in our understanding these gaps are getting smaller and the piece that fills the gap almost always neatly fits in with what we already know.

Of course, there may be occasions when the piece doesn't quite fit and so we need to look again at the surrounding science, but in the long run, these conflicts are always resolved to smooth out the wrinkles and fill in the cracks.

And another one of these little gaps looks as though it might have been filled in. Despite the ever and unrealistically optimistic hope of creationists that the very next gap will be found to be where their god lives, no such god was found by science yet again. The answer was entirely consistent with what we already know - which is inevitable, when you think about it. It is inevitable because science is about reality and reality is consistent.

Talking Neanderthals Give Creationists Earache!

Tympanic membrane (grey), ossicular chain (yellow, green, red), and bony inner ear (blue) of a modern human with a One-Eurocent coin for scale.
© A. Stoessel & P. Gunz
Morphology and function of Neandertal and modern human ear ossicles

Creationists struggle with archaic human like Neanderthals, Homo erectus and H. habilis trying out various ways to dismiss them as diseased and deformed individuals, forgeries, etc.

The slightly less delusional ones have learned that there are limits to the amount of evidence that can be denied without looking more than a little insane, so have learned to accept a form of evolution, albeit a ludicrously rapid one which requires several fully-formed new species to spring into existence every generation. To these, all hominids are merely minor variations and have all developed from the fully human people who supposedly got off the Ark about 4000 years ago.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Has The 'Intelligent Designer' Been Tweaking Zika?

Fatal Zika Virus Infection with Secondary Nonsexual Transmission - NEMJ Correspondence

Parasites in general and viruses like the zika virus in particular continue to be an embarrassment to creationists who insist everything is intelligently designed for a purpose.

The main embarrassment of course is in explaining why it designed them in the first place, although 'The Fall' is regularly trotted out as the excuse. But, this gives away the fact that the 'intelligent (sic) designer' is the Christian god and that intelligent design 'science' is fundamentalist, Bible-literalist Christianity posing as science to try to sneak past the 'Establishment Clause' in the US Constitution.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ostrich Eggs Cracking Creationism

3.8-million-year-old ostrich eggshell fragments from Laetoli, Tanzania.
Image credit: Terry Harrison.
Source: Sci News
Protein sequences bound to mineral surfaces persist into deep time | eLife

An open access paper published yesterday shows something which should be frightening the wits out of creationists frauds, even if their willing dupes won't understand or accept the significance of it. An international team of researchers has shown the proteins can persist in the fossil record for at least 3.8 million years - some 50 times longer than DNA.

The protein was found bound to the fossilised fragments of ostrich eggshells. The finding open up the possibility of detailed analysis of human evolution where DNA has not survived.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Doing Science With Elephants

Straight-tusked elephants (models)
Source: Wikipedia
Elephant history rewritten by ancient genomes : Nature News & Comment

How can elephant DNA teach us about why science works and creationism doesn't?

Creationists, with their simplistic black vs. white view of the world, often pour scorn and derision on science for changing its collective mind so frequently. This comes of course from a mindset which values 'certainty', no matter how illusory, more highly than truth. Truth is sacrificed in the search for the cosy comfort of 'certainty'.

But science doesn't look for certainty. Science simply tries to get as close to the truth as possible and a truth which can be demonstrated. The analogy is of a car being driven to a destination. Every movement on that journey is a sign of progress, not a sign of failure. Constant change of position is the method of progress. Science has to change its collective mind to make progress. Religions fail to make progress because they can't change their collective minds without abandoning their religion. With religions, the dogma is everything.

So what has this to do with elephant DNA?

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Christians 'Cleanse the Streets' After Gay Pride March

The Freethinker - The voice of atheism since 1881 » In Belgrade, priests ‘cleanse’ the streets after Pride event

In an orgy of gratuitous anti-gay hate and abuse, Serbian Orthodox Christians, incensed at a gay pride parade in the Serbian capita, Belgrade, held a rally and march to ritually cleanse the streets of 'homosexual contamination'. The parade had been heavily protected by police preventing Orthodox and far-right nationalist extremists violently breaking it up as earlier years.

Amongst the expressions of Christian 'love' was a banner showing a homosexual being pushed into Hellfire by a Christian with a cross. The love of Jesus

Mexican Priests Still Raping Children

"I personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children. We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed".
Catholic Church ACQUITS Mexican priest who admitted to raping 30 young girls | Daily Mail Online

In an extraordinary move, and one which flies in the face of official Vatican pronouncements on the subject of child-abusing Catholic priests, the Archdiocese of Mexico has formally acquitted an HIV carrying priest of any wrongdoing even though he admitted having sex with about 30 girls aged between 5 and 10 over many years.

The assaults were committed on indigenous girls in the southern province of Oaxaca which has a predominantly indigenous population and where the influence of the Catholic Church is very powerful, especially amongst the indigenous people. No criminal charges have yet been brought against the priest, José Ataulfo Garcia, despite his admission, almost certainly due to the Church's political influence in Mexico.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Americans Losing Faith

The factors driving the growth of religious ‘nones’ in the U.S. | Pew Research Center

In another attempt to understand the recent rapid growth in the 'nones' - those who don't self-identify with any religion - the Pew Research Centre took another look at the data to identify the factors driving this rejection of organised religion:

The share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing: While nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, fully 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

But there are differing ideas about the factors driving this trend – and its implications for society. While it appears the U.S. is becoming less religious, some contend that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, they say, the growth of the “nones” may simply indicate that people who are not religious are becoming more forthright and willing to say they have no religious affiliation, perhaps because being a “none” has become more socially acceptable.

Clearly this topic is exercising the minds of a lot of worried people. Although this study is a relatively superficial treatment of the phenomenon, analysing only a few factors such as age, former religion and strength of former religious commitment rather than any underlying cause of change in opinion, it shows a number of interesting and related trends. An earlier Pew Centre FactTank report had shown some of the reasons people give for rejecting religion, including a better understanding of science, but it would have been good to see some analysis of lifestyle changes such as ready access to information and exposure to the behaviour, ignorance and downright stupidity underpinning religious fundamentalism.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Death of a Modern Exorcist

Fr. Gabriele Amorth. 70,000 exorcisms.
World Famous Exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth Dies at 91 |Blogs |

The thing about the modern Catholic Church is its modernity and the way it has enthusiastically embraced science and abandoned those old, mediaeval, unscientific superstitions like a flat Earth, six-day creation and the inferior status of the black, brown, yellow and red-skinned races.

They've even turned their back on the notion which lead to the persecution of women as witches - a world in which evil spirits could enter and take over human... er... except they haven't.

No, really!


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