Saturday, January 27, 2007


Britain boosts intelligent-design debate

London UK - British teenagers may soon be debating creationism and intelligent design in religion classes that give equal time to the Darwinists and atheists who reject these views of the world's origins.

Newly published school guidelines reflect the growing influence of a bitter battle over evolution being waged on the other side of the Atlantic, by conservative American Christians who want to put God back into the secular state school system.

The guidelines, issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, place the issue firmly in religious education class, rather than the science classes where American intelligent-design proponents want it to be handled.

Continued at "Britain boosts intelligent-design debate"


A search for "Atheism" at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website returned:

How can we answer questions about creation and origins? Learning from religion and science: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Atheism - Year 9

About the unit

This unit suggests activities that can be used in teaching and learning about creation and origins. It can be adapted to local circumstances and for different age groups. It illustrates the provision of the non-statutory national framework for religious education (RE) and can be used or adapted to deliver an agreed syllabus or other guidelines. This unit focuses on creation and origins of the universe and human life and the relationship between religion and science. It aims to deepen pupils’ awareness of ultimate questions through argument, discussion, debate and reflection and enable them to learn from a variety of ideas of religious traditions and other world views. It explores Christianity, Hinduism and Islam and also considers the perspective of those who do not believe there is a god (atheists). It considers beliefs and concepts related to authority, religion and science as well as expressions of spirituality. Pupils have opportunities to discuss, question and evaluate important issues in religion and science. They also have opportunities to reflect on and evaluate their own beliefs and values, and the beliefs and values of others, in relation to questions of truth and purpose. This unit can be adapted for other religions - using responses from other religious traditions to the key questions, including accounts from scientists who are members of that religious tradition and sources of authority such as sacred texts - according to your agreed syllabus or other guidelines. The unit should take six to seven hours.

Other excerpts:

1) Future learning

Pupils could go on to:

*investigate and role-play particular disputes between religion and science, eg Galileo, Darwin and Dawkins, and particular meeting points between science and religion, eg Einstein, Teilhard de Chardin

*explore and write about attitudes to science and religion in Islamic and other cultures

*study a GCSE unit on an aspect of religion and philosophy.

2) The pupils should understand the terms used in discussions of the origin and purpose of the universe and human existence. High-achieving pupils can research debates around creationism and intelligent design themselves. They should make use of published materials that seek to offer support in the teaching of science and religion at key stages 3 and 4, especially those that set out many of these views for classroom use.

3) Resources (Sample selection)

A devil's chaplain: Selected writings (Amazon Astore UK | US) - this resource is available from the World of Richard Dawkins website.

A guide to science and belief – by M Poole (1997) this publication addresses the view that science and belief are in conflict.

The Christian Bible: Genesis 1 - 3 - includes the text that Christians associate with the
creation of the universe.

[1: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.]

The Qur'an: Surah 25:59, 7:54-56, 21:30-33 - some of the texts that Muslims associate with the creation of the universe.

[25:59. He Who created the heavens and the earth and all that is between, in six days, and is firmly established on the Throne (of Authority): Allah Most Gracious: ask thou, then, about Him of any acquainted (with such things).

7:54. Your Guardian-Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and is firmly established on the throne (of authority): He draweth the night as a veil o'er the day, each seeking the other in rapid succession: He created the sun, the moon, and the stars, (all) governed by laws under His command. Is it not His to create and to govern? Blessed be Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds!

21:30. Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?

21:31. And We have set on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with them, and We have made therein broad highways (between mountains) for them to pass through: that they may receive Guidance.

21:32. And We have made the heavens as a canopy well guarded: yet do they turn away from the Signs which these things (point to)!

21:33. It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course.

7:55. Call on your Lord with humility and in private: for Allah loveth not those who trespass beyond bounds.

7:56. Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order, but call on Him with fear and longing (in your hearts): for the Mercy of Allah is (always) near to those who do good.]

British Humanism Association - this association’s website offers materials for teaching and learning about Humanism.


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Friday, January 26, 2007


Study provides first genetic evidence of long-lived African presence within Britain

Genetics: January 24th, 2007 - New research has identified the first genetic evidence of Africans having lived among 'indigenous' British people for centuries. Their descendants, living across the UK today, were unaware of their black ancestry.

The University of Leicester study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published today in 'European Journal of Human Genetics' (see below), found that one-third of men with a rare Yorkshire surname carry a rare Y-chromosome type previously found only among people of West African origin.

The researchers, led by Professor Mark Jobling of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, first spotted the rare Y-chromosome type, known as hgA1, in one individual, Mr X. This happened while PhD student Ms Turi King was sampling a larger group in a study to explore the association between surnames and the Y chromosome, both inherited from father to son. Mr X, a white Caucasian living in Leicester, was unaware of having any African ancestors.

"As you can imagine, we were pretty amazed to find this result in someone unaware of having any African roots," explains Professor Jobling, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. "The Y chromosome is passed down from father to son, so this suggested that Mr X must have had African ancestry somewhere down the line. Our study suggests that this must have happened some time ago."

Although most of Britain's one million people who define themselves as 'black or black British' owe their origins to immigration from the Caribbean and Africa from the mid-20th century onwards, in reality, there has been a long history of contact with Africa. Africans were first recorded in the north 1800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian's Wall.

To investigate the origins of hgA1 in Britain, the team recruited and studied a further 18 males with the same surname as Mr X. All but one were from the UK, with paternal parents and grandparents also born in Britain. Six, including one male in the US whose ancestors had migrated from England in 1894, were found to have the hgA1 chromosome.

Further genealogical research to identify a common ancestor for all seven X-surnamed males suggests that the hgA1 Y chromosome must have entered their lineage over 250 years ago. However, it is unclear whether the male ancestor was a first-generation African immigrant or a European man carrying an African Y chromosome introduced into Britain some time earlier, or even whether the hgA1 Y chromosome goes back as far as the Roman occupation.

"This study shows that what it means to be British is complicated and always has been," says Professor Jobling. "Human migration history is clearly very complex, particularly for an island nation such as ours, and this study further debunks the idea that there are simple and distinct populations or 'races'."

In addition, Professor Jobling believes that the research may have implications for DNA profiling in criminal investigations.

"Forensic scientists use DNA analysis to predict a person's ethnic origins, for example from hair or blood samples found at a crime scene. While they are very likely to predict the correct ethnicity by using wider analysis of DNA other than the Y chromosome, finding this remarkable African chromosome would certainly have them scratching their heads for a while."

Background Info: 8 per cent of the UK's 54 million inhabitants belong to ethnic minorities, and over one million classify themselves as 'black or black British' according to the 2001 census. Most owe their origins to immigration from the Caribbean and Africa beginning in the mid-20th century. However, in reality, there has been a long history of contact with Africa.

Africans were first recorded in the north 1800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian's Wall. Some historians suggest that Vikings brought captured North Africans to Britain in the 9th century. After a hiatus of several hundred years, the influence of the Atlantic slave trade began to be felt, with the first group of West Africans being brought to Britain in 1555. African domestic servants, musicians, entertainers and slaves then became common in the Tudor period, prompting an unsuccessful attempt by Elizabeth I to expel them in 1601. By the last third of the 18th century, there were an estimated 10 000 black people in Britain, mostly concentrated in cities such as London.

Source: Wellcome Trust


Based on the paper:

Africans in Yorkshire? The deepest-rooting clade of the Y phylogeny within an English genealogy

Turi E King, Emma J Parkin, Geoff Swinfield, Fulvio Cruciani, Rosaria Scozzari, Alexandra Rosa, Si-Keun Lim, Yali Xue, Chris Tyler-Smith and Mark A Jobling

Eur J Hum Genet advance online publication, January 24, 2007; doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201771


The presence of Africans in Britain has been recorded since Roman times, but has left no apparent genetic trace among modern inhabitants. Y chromosomes belonging to the deepest-rooting clade of the Y phylogeny, haplogroup (hg) A, are regarded as African-specific, and no examples have been reported from Britain or elsewhere in Western Europe.

We describe the presence of an hgA1 chromosome in an indigenous British male; comparison with African examples suggests a Western African origin. Seven out of 18 men carrying the same rare east-Yorkshire surname as the original male also carry hgA1 chromosomes, and documentary research resolves them into two genealogies with most-recent-common-ancestors living in Yorkshire in the late 18th century. Analysis using 77 Y-short tandem repeats (STRs) is consistent with coalescence a few generations earlier.

Our findings represent the first genetic evidence of Africans among 'indigenous' British, and emphasize the complexity of human migration history as well as the pitfalls of assigning geographical origin from Y-chromosomal haplotypes.


Learn about Genetics


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Thursday, January 25, 2007


Komodo Dragons: News, Video, Further Reading


1) News from Chester Zoo and related Nature paper
2) "The Dragons of Komodo" (Video from Indonesia Network)
3) Further Reading
4) Recent Posts

1) News from Chester Zoo and related Nature paper

January 2007: Enter the dragons - meet the latest Chester Zoo additions, the long-awaited Komodo Dragon babies born to virgin mum, Flora.

Flora, one of the zoo's two female Komodo dragons - the world's largest lizard - became an overnight Christmas star when it was revealed in a groundbreaking article in the world's leading science journal Nature (see below), that she had laid a clutch of fertile eggs without ever being mixed with, or being mated by, a male dragon.

After an anxious wait, Chester Zoo's keeping staff are celebrating the hatching of five baby dragons. Two fertile eggs still remain in an incubator.

The arrival of the five babies - which measure 40-45 centimetres in length and weigh 100-125grams each (larger than many full grown adult lizards) - brings a happy end to Flora's story which began last year.

When Flora laid her eggs back on 21st May, they were put in an incubator where three of them collapsed after only a couple of weeks. When they were opened however, staff were astounded to find that they contained embryos - showing that they were fertile.

Scientists at Liverpool University under the guidance of Dr Phill Watts carried out genetic fingerprinting on the three eggs and on the adult Komodo dragons at the zoo. This 'paternity' testing proved that Flora was indeed both the ‘mother’ and the 'father' of the fertile eggs.

Kevin Buley, the zoo's Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates, said: "Flora is oblivious to the excitement she has caused but we are delighted to say she is now a mum and dad. When the first of the babies hatched, we didn’t know whether to make her a cup of tea or pass her the cigars."

The five new additions are currently being cared for in the zoo's specialist off-show area where they are enjoying a diet of crickets and locusts and receiving specialist care in their early days. The dragons will eventually be moved into a purpose-built baby dragon enclosure on public display.

Currently black and yellow, the new dragons - all male - will eventually lose their bright colouring as they grow.

"Even though they are only a few days old, our baby dragons are doing very well and receiving the expert care they need at this time. We haven’t made a decision on names yet - as Komodo dragons can live for over 40 years, we want to get the names just right," added Kevin.

The incubation period for Komodo eggs is between 7 and 9 months. Flora and sister Nessie are part of a European zoo breeding programme to help protect this threatened species, and can be seen in the zoo's Islands in Danger exhibit which was opened by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Further Information:

• Five of Flora’s seven eggs have so far hatched. The first baby started to emerge on the 15th January. Other eggs hatched on the 17th, 18th, 21st and 22nd. Zoo staff are keeping their fingers crossed for the two remaining eggs, which could hatch any day.

• The study published in Nature was written in conjunction with London Zoo and the University of Liverpool.

London Zoo provided further DNA material from hatchling dragons which have also been proved to have been produced parthenogenetically.

• Komodo Dragons are the largest lizards in the world, with adult males growing up to 3 metres in length and weighing up to 90Kg.

• There are now believed to be less than 4000 Komodo Dragons left on the planet. They survive on only 3 islands in Indonesia - Komodo, Flores and Rinca - and are still under threat in certain areas of their range as a result of habitat loss and the disappearance of their mammal prey.

• Komodo Dragons are known to be excellent swimmers and can swim across the sea from one island to another.

• Although they are not considered to be poisonous, the saliva from a Komodo Dragon contains a host of deadly bacteria. Wild dragons will ambush and bite their prey and will then track it for up to 2 days until it eventually dies from blood poisoning.

• The first human inhabitants of Komodo were the Ata Modo. They believed that they were created at the same time as the Komodo Dragon when a beautiful spirit woman Putri Naga gave birth to twins - one of the babies was a human child, the second a Komodo Dragon. [Source: Chester Zoo]

Related Nature paper:

Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons

Phillip C. Watts, Kevin R. Buley, Stephanie Sanderson, Wayne Boardman, Claudio Ciofi (see below) and Richard Gibson

Nature 444, 1021-1022 (21 December 2006) | doi:10.1038/4441021a

Parthenogenesis, the production of offspring without fertilization by a male, is rare in vertebrate species, which usually reproduce after fusion of male and female gametes. Here we use genetic fingerprinting to identify parthenogenetic offspring produced by two female Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) that had been kept at separate institutions and isolated from males; one of these females subsequently produced additional offspring sexually. This reproductive plasticity indicates that female Komodo dragons may switch between asexual and sexual reproduction, depending on the availability of a mate - a finding that has implications for the breeding of this threatened species in captivity. Most zoos keep only females, with males being moved between zoos for mating, but perhaps they should be kept together to avoid triggering parthenogenesis and thereby decreasing genetic diversity.


2) "The Dragons of Komodo" (Video from Indonesia Network)

3) Further Reading:

3a) Excerpts from the evolution section of The Biogeography of the Komodo Dragon:

...They share a common past with dinosaurs but are not direct descendants. Both dinosaurs and monitor lizards belong to the subclass Diapsida (Ciofi, 1999).

...Fossil evidence supports the idea that Komodo dragons may be relics of a larger distribution, stretching as far as the eastern portion of Flores to Timor. Fossils from pygmy elephants, stegodont, found on both Timor and Flores suggest that the two islands may have been close enough to allow migration during the Pleistocene era.

3b) In March 1999 the journal Scientific American published an article by Claudio Ciofi titled:

"The Komodo Dragon: On a few small islands in the Indonesian archipelago, the world's largest lizard reigns supreme":

...Wolfgang Bohme of the museum of natural history in Bonn has contributed much to our understanding of the rise and evolution of the Varanus genus, based on morphological data. Dennis King of the Western Australian Museum and Peter Baverstock and his colleagues at Southern Cross University are continuing research into the evolutionary history of the genus through comparisons of DNA sequences and chromosomal structure of varanid species and related families. They have concluded that the genus originated between 40 and 25 million years ago in Asia...

...The limited resources of an island could have driven the evolution of the pygmy elephants, because smaller individuals, with lower food requirements, would have been selected for. In contrast, today's Komodo dragon may have evolved from a less bulky ancestor; the availability of the relatively small elephants as prey may have been a driving force in the selection of largeness that resulted in the modern threemeter Komodo...

...Further attempts to reconstruct the Komodo's evolutionary history require more comprehensive fossil finds and accurate dating of the islands that harbor extant populations. The work of King and Baverstock, as well as the integration of paleogeographic data and genome analysis, should shed more light on the origin of the species...


4) Recent Posts:

"Komodo Dragon Virgin Birth Expected at Christmas"

"Bad News For Tolkien Fans - Flores 'Hobbit' Is Just A Miniman"

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Australia: Nullarbor caves reveal ancient megafauna thrived in dry climate

Paleontology: In 2002, a team of cavers exploring the vast, treeless Nullarbor Plain of southern Australia made what some palaeontologists described as the "find of the century" - a dozen skeletons of the extinct marsupial 'lion', Thylacoleo carnifex [images], as well as the bones of giant wombats, short-faced kangaroos and thylacines.

Until then, no complete skeleton of Thylacoleo was known to science, so the Western Australian Museum launched "Operation Leo" to recover these fossils, supported by the Rio Tinto WA Future Fund.

Now in early 2007, the first analysis of these subterranean treasure troves - led by Dr Gavin Prideaux*, Rio Tinto Research Fellow at the Western Australian Museum - has appeared in the latest issue of the prestigious international journal Nature.

Fossils from the caverns, dubbed the Thylacoleo Caves, show that the Nullarbor ('no trees' in poor Latin) was once home to at least 69 species of mammals, birds and reptiles, including 23 different types of kangaroo, ranging from pint-sized bettongs to 3-metre tall giants. Eight of the kangaroo species are entirely new to science, and include an unusual wallaby with large 'brow-ridges', and, ironically (in the now treeless Nullarbor Plain), two tree-kangaroos - modern relatives of which inhabit rainforests in tropical Australia and New Guinea.

Expedition crews led by Western Australian Museum palaeontologist, Dr John Long (now Head of Science at Museum Victoria in Melbourne), spent a month camped in the middle of the Nullarbor during 2002, 2003 and 2004.

"We collected hundreds of specimens during each expedition and were stunned by the amazing preservation of the fossils. Many of the skeletons are complete. As palaeontologists, we spend most of our time trying to identify and reconstruct extinct animals from fragments. All of a sudden, it was information overload," said Dr Long.

Fossils were dated using changes in the Earth's magnetic field, uranium-series dating and optically stimulated luminescence by a team of geochronologists including Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts (University of Wollongong). The researchers found that animals fell into the caves between about 400,000 and 800,000 years ago, through the same narrow entrances that cavers abseil through today. Since then, the caves have been sealed for much of the time, which accounts for the pristine condition of the bones. "The dates place the animals in a period when Australia was locked into a long-term trend of increasing aridity in one of the driest regions of the continent", Professor Roberts said.

The researchers reconstructed the ancient Nullarbor environment from oxygen and carbon isotopes contained in the enamel of kangaroo and wombat teeth, and from the modern geographic ranges of species in the fossil fauna that are still living today.

Surprisingly, the climate half-a-million years ago was very similar to that of today, although the region must have had substantially more tree cover to support such a high diversity of herbivores.

"Some time during the last 400,000 years, the Nullarbor vegetation changed from fire-sensitive woodland to the shrub/grass mosaic we see today. We think that an increase in wildfires best explains the shift, given that climate change was not a significant factor," Dr Prideaux said.

The study also has implications for the debate over what finally drove the megafauna to extinction 40,000-50,000 years ago. The authors argue that if the Nullarbor animals were well adapted to dry conditions for at least 400,000 years before they disappeared, then it is unlikely they succumbed to Ice Age aridity.

"Our work removes another pillar of support from the idea that the megafauna were driven to extinction by climate change, especially given that most of the large species were not Nullarbor specialists - they were widespread across much of Australia. But the jury's still out on whether or not the change in the Nullarbor vegetation is correlated with the arrival of humans, as seems to have been the case in other parts of Australia," said Dr Prideaux, who earlier this month published a separate study in the journal Geology [2] revealing that megafauna from the Naracoorte Caves in southeastern Australia were resilient to climate change for half-a-million years before humans arrived.

The palaeontologists now have their eye on a deep sediment pile in one of the Thylacoleo Caves, which may preserve a record extending back millions of years. Study of bones from the various layers will help build up a detailed view of the evolution of the Nullarbor animals, and their responses to an increasingly dry climate.

"The Thylacoleo Caves are undoubtedly one of Australia's most important fossil localities. It's been a privilege to work on these sites, and we can't wait to get back out there to start the next phase of the project,” Dr Prideaux said. [Source: University of Wollongong]


[1] An arid-adapted middle Pleistocene vertebrate fauna from south-central Australia

Gavin J. Prideaux, John A. Long, Linda K. Ayliffe, John C. Hellstrom, Brad Pillans, Walter E. Boles, Mark N. Hutchinson, Richard G. Roberts, Matthew L. Cupper, Lee J. Arnold, Paul D. Devine and Natalie M. Warburton


How well the ecology, zoogeography and evolution of modern biotas is understood depends substantially on knowledge of the Pleistocene. Australia has one of the most distinctive, but least understood, Pleistocene faunas. Records from the western half of the continent are especially rare.

Here we report on a diverse and exceptionally well preserved middle Pleistocene vertebrate assemblage from caves beneath the arid, treeless Nullarbor plain of south-central Australia. Many taxa are represented by whole skeletons, which together serve as a template for identifying fragmentary, hitherto indeterminate, remains collected previously from Pleistocene sites across southern Australia. A remarkable eight of the 23 Nullarbor kangaroos are new, including two tree-kangaroos.

The diverse herbivore assemblage implies substantially greater floristic diversity than that of the modern shrub steppe, but all other faunal and stable-isotope data indicate that the climate was very similar to today. Because the 21 Nullarbor species that did not survive the Pleistocene were well adapted to dry conditions, climate change (specifically, increased aridity) is unlikely to have been significant in their extinction.

[2] Mammalian responses to Pleistocene climate change in southeastern Australia (open access)

Gavin J. Prideaux, Richard G. Roberts, Dirk Megirian, Kira E. Westaway4 John C. Hellstrom, Jon M. Olley

doi: 10.1130/G23070A.1

Resolving faunal responses to Pleistocene climate change is vital for differentiating human impacts from other drivers of ecological change. While 90% of Australia's large mammals were extinct by ca. 45 ka, their responses to glacial-interglacial cycling have remained unknown, due to a lack of rigorous biostratigraphic studies and the rarity of terrestrial climatic records that can be related directly to faunal records.

We present an analysis of faunal data from the Naracoorte Caves in southeastern Australia, which are unique not only because of the species richness and time-depth of the assemblages that they contain, but also because this faunal record is directly comparable with a 500 k.y. speleothem-based record of local effective moisture. Our data reveal that, despite significant population fluctuations driven by glacial-interglacial cycling, the species composition of the mammal fauna was essentially stable for 500 k.y. before the late Pleistocene extinctions.

Larger species declined during a drier interval between 270 and 220 ka, likely reflecting range contractions away from Naracoorte, but they then recovered locally, persisting well into the late Pleistocene. Because the speleothem record and prior faunal response imply that local conditions should have been favorable for megafauna until at least 30 ka, climate change is unlikely to have been the principal cause of the extinctions.


Also of interest, a 2005 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access):

Prolonged coexistence of humans and megafauna in Pleistocene Australia

Clive N. G. Trueman, Judith H. Field, Joe Dortch, Bethan Charles, and Stephen Wroe

PNAS | June 7, 2005 | vol. 102 | no. 23 | 8381-8385

Recent claims for continent wide disappearance of megafauna at 46.5 thousand calendar years ago (ka) in Australia have been used to support a "blitzkrieg" model, which explains extinctions as the result of rapid overkill by human colonizers. A number of key sites with megafauna remains that significantly postdate 46.5 ka have been excluded from consideration because of questions regarding their stratigraphic integrity. Of these sites, Cuddie Springs is the only locality in Australia where megafauna and cultural remains are found together in sequential stratigraphic horizons, dated from 36-30 ka. Verifying the stratigraphic associations found here would effectively refute the rapid-overkill model and necessitate reconsideration of the regional impacts of global climatic change on megafauna and humans in the lead up to the last glacial maximum. Here, we present geochemical evidence that demonstrates the coexistence of humans and now-extinct megafaunal species on the Australian continent for a minimum of 15 ka.


Gavin Prideaux is author of:

Systematics and Evolution of the Sthenurine Kangaroos

This work represents an exhaustive review of one of the most important late Cenozoic radiations of Australian marsupials: the short-faced, or sthenurine kangaroos. Sthenurines originated in the Miocene, diversified in the Pliocene, and radiated in the Quaternary to become one of Australiaâs most conspicuous mammal groups, the only lineage of browsing marsupials comparable in diversity to the browsing artiodactyl guilds of other continents.

The culmination of 12 years research, the monograph details the taxonomy of the sthenurines, redescribing each of the six genera (two new) and 26 species (four new), and is amply illustrated with line drawings and more than 100 pages of plates. It presents the first cladistic analysis of sthenurines, and by synthesizing systematic, functional morphological, biochronologic and zoogeographic data, considers the major directions of adaptive change within the group, and the major environmental factors that drove their evolution.

It is one of the most comprehensive studies of an extinct marsupial lineage ever made, and should be an essential reference for students of Australian late Cenozoic vertebrates, marsupial evolution, environmental change and Pleistocene extinctions.


Recent posts include:

"Humans Responsible for Australian Extinctions"

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Titanis walleri: 'Terror bird' arrived in North America before land bridge

A University of Florida-led study has determined that Titanis walleri, a prehistoric 7-foot-tall flightless "terror bird," arrived in North America from South America long before a land bridge connected the two continents.

UF paleontologist Bruce MacFadden said his team used an established geochemical technique that analyzes rare earth elements in a new application to revise the ages of terror bird fossils in Texas and Florida, the only places in North America where the species has been found. Rare earth elements are a group of naturally occurring metallic elements that share similar chemical and physical properties.

"It was previously thought that Titanis immigrated to Texas across the Panamanian land bridge that formed about 3 million years ago connecting North and South America," said MacFadden, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF. "But the rare earth element analysis of a fossil Titanis bone from Texas determines its age to be 5 million years old. This shows that the bird arrived 2 million years before the land bridge formed, probably across islands that formed what today is the Isthmus of Panama."

The study will be published* January 23 (2007) in the online version of the journal Geology and featured in its February print edition.

The terror bird was carnivorous, weighed about 330 pounds, had powerful feet and a head larger than a man's. It is known in the fossil record from a single toe bone in Texas, and in Florida by about 40 bone fragments from different skeletal regions. MacFadden's team also analyzed six specimens from the Santa Fe River in north Central Florida.

"We found that the Titanis fossils were 2 million years old and not 10,000 years old as had been suggested," MacFadden said. "This also shows the last known occurrence of Titanis in the fossil record and reflects its extinction."

When an animal dies, its porous bones absorb groundwater as they fossilize. As the local groundwater conditions change, the rare earth elements' concentrations change, resulting in a unique chemical signature.

"We used rare earth elements because they're highly specific to certain time periods and different groundwater conditions," MacFadden said. "This is the first time that the uptake of rare earth elements during the early stage of fossilization has been used to determine the age of fossils in North America."

Geologists have used the technique to study igneous and metamorphic rocks, but only one other researcher worldwide has applied this technique to date the age of fossils: professor Clive Trueman from the University of Southampton in England.

"It is very difficult to assess the age of fossil bones directly as they are too old to be carbon dated," Trueman wrote in an e-mail. "Bones can also be moved after death, further confusing their true age. MacFadden's approach compares bones of disputed age with those of known age. If the chemistry matches, the bones are of the same age irrespective of their final resting place."

David Gradstaff, a professor and chairman of the geology department at Temple University, said the technique is timely and important.

"If a fossil gets moved or reworked from its place of formation, it will have a fingerprint that is different from the others nearby," Grandstaff said. "Who knew that all these fossils essentially have a tag that says 'hey, I'm from over here!' "

Co-authors of the study include Richard Hulbert Jr. of the Florida Museum of Natural History; Joann Labs-Hochstein, who at the time of the study was a postdoctoral student of MacFadden's; and Jon Baskin of Texas A and M University.

Source: University of Florida News Release "'Terror bird' arrived in North America before land bridge, study finds" (Tuesday, January 23, 2007.)


Based on the Geology paper:

Revised age of the late Neogene terror bird ( Titanis) in North America during the Great American Interchange
Bruce J. MacFadden, Joann Labs-Hochstein, Richard C. Hulbert Jr, Jon A. Baskin
Volume 35, Issue 2 (February 2007) pp. 123 - 126
DOI: 10.1130/G23186A.1


The giant flightless terror bird Titanis walleri is known from Florida and Texas during the late Neogene. The age of T. walleri is problematic because this taxon co-occurs with temporally mixed (i.e., time-averaged) faunas at two key sites. Thus, prior to this study, T. walleri from the Santa Fe River, Florida (type locality), was either as old as late Pliocene (ca. 2.2 Ma) or as young as latest Pleistocene (ca. 15 ka). Likewise, T. walleri from the Nueces River, Texas, was either early Pliocene (ca. 5 Ma) or latest Pleistocene (ca. 15 ka). In order to better resolve this age range, the rare earth element (REE) patterns of T. walleri from the Santa Fe River, Florida, were compared to two biochronologically distinctive groups (late Pliocene versus late Pleistocene) of fossil mammals from the same locality. Similarly, the REE patterns of T. walleri from Texas were compared to two groups (early Pliocene versus latest Pleistocene) of fossil mammals from the same locality. The REE patterns of T. walleri from Florida are indistinguishable from those of the co-occurring late Pliocene mammals. Likewise, the REE pattern of T. walleri from Texas is indistinguishable from those of the co-occurring early Pliocene mammals. Given these REE constraints, the revised age of T. walleri is early Pliocene in Texas (ca. 5 Ma) and late Pliocene (ca. 2.2-1.8 Ma) in Florida. As such, T. walleri is interpreted as an early immigrant during the Great American Interchange prior to the formation of the Isthmian land bridge. No evidence currently exists for Pleistocene T. walleri in North America.



Brodkorb, Pierce (1963): A giant flightless bird from the Pleistocene of Florida. Auk 80(2): 111-115.

Full Text

The large, flightless birds of the superfamily Phorusrhacoidea have had a known history confined, until now, to Argentina and Uruguay, and, in time, to the period from the Oligocene to the early Pleistocene. This paper extends the known geographic occurrence of the group to North America and its known geologic range into the late Pleistocene. The fossil here described from a fluvial deposit in northern Florida, is a bird of tremendous size, larger than the African ostrich and more than twice the size of the South American rhea.


Recent posts include:

"Tarbosaurus: Rare dinosaur fossil unearthed by Korea-led team"

"'Terror Birds': Argentine fossil points to largest bird ever found"

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Monday, January 22, 2007


Microraptor gui: Dinosaur May Have Resembled the Biplane

From the Washington Post: When the Wright Brothers first took to the sky in a biplane, they were using a design nature may have tried 125 million years earlier. A new study of one of the earliest feathered dinosaurs suggests it may have had upper and lower sets of wings, much like the biplanes of early aviation. Today, the biplane is widely considered an old-fashioned rarity.

And the design is no longer seen in birds, though it's not clear if it was a step on the way to modern birds or a dead end, tested by nature and discarded.

The intriguing possibility of a biplane dinosaur Microraptor gui is suggested by Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University in this week's online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Continued at "Dinosaur May Have Resembled the Biplane"


Based on the open access PNAS paper:

Sankar Chatterjee and R. Jack Templin
Biplane wing planform and flight performance of the feathered dinosaur Microraptor gui
PNAS published January 22, 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0609975104


Microraptor gui, a four-winged dromaeosaur from the Early Cretaceous of China, provides strong evidence for an arboreal-gliding origin of avian flight. It possessed asymmetric flight feathers not only on the manus but also on the pes. A previously published reconstruction shows that the hindwing of Microraptor supported by a laterally extended leg would have formed a second pair of wings in tetrapteryx fashion. However, this wing design conflicts with known theropod limb joints that entail a parasagittal posture of the hindlimb. Here, we offer an alternative planform of the hindwing of Microraptor that is concordant with its feather orientation for producing lift and normal theropod hindlimb posture. In this reconstruction, the wings of Microraptor could have resembled a staggered biplane configuration during flight, where the forewing formed the dorsal wing and the metatarsal wing formed the ventral one. The contour feathers on the tibia were positioned posteriorly, oriented in a vertical plane for streamlining that would reduce the drag considerably. Leg feathers are present in many fossil dromaeosaurs, early birds, and living raptors, and they play an important role in flight during catching and carrying prey. A computer simulation of the flight performance of Microraptor suggests that its biplane wings were adapted for undulatory "phugoid" gliding between trees, where the horizontal feathered tail offered additional lift and stability and controlled pitch. Like the Wright 1903 Flyer, Microraptor, a gliding relative of early birds, took to the air with two sets of wings.


The evolution of powered flight in birds from theropod dinosaurs is recognized as the key adaptive breakthrough that contributed to the biological success of this group. The transformation of wing design from nonavian dinosaurs to early birds is beginning to unravel in recent times from a wealth of fossil record from China. Hundreds of small, exquisitely preserved, feathered theropods were discovered in the Early Cretaceous Jehol Group of northeastern China as they died some 125 million years ago, smothered in the "Cretaceous Pompeii." Both anatomy and phylogeny strongly suggest that these theropods, including Sinosauropteryx, Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx, Microraptor, Sinornithosaurus, Cryptovolans, and the early bird Confuciusornis, show constructions ranging from small winged, arboreal theropods to fully winged, active flying birds. They offer new insights into the origins of feathers and flight, favoring the arboreal ("trees-down") over the cursorial ("ground-up") hypothesis. Among these recent finds, Microraptor gui offers the best evidence that arboreal dromaeosaurs might have acquired powered flight through a gliding stage where both forelimbs and hindlimbs were involved.


Sankar Chatterjee also presented a paper on the Microraptor gui at the Geological Society of America - 2005 Annual Meeting in Salt lake City, Utah. The press release below (relevant to the foregoing PNAS paper) is followed by a link to an abstract of the paper Chatterjee presented:

Wright Brothers Upstaged! Dinos Invented Biplanes

The evolution of airplanes from the Wright Brothers' first biplanes to monoplanes was an inadvertent replay of the much earlier evolution of dinosaur flight, say two dino flight experts.

According to paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee and retired aeronautical engineer R.J. Templin, a small early Chinese dinosaur called Microraptor gui used a two-level, biplane wing configuration to fly from tree to tree in the early Cretaceous. Among the evidence for the early biplane is that Microraptor had unmistakable flight feathers on its hind limbs as well as on its wings, says Chatterjee, a distinguished professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The Chinese paleontologists who first reconstructed Microraptor had guessed that its four wings were used in tandem, similar to those of dragonfly.

Chatterjee will present the new biplane flight findings at 4 p.m. MDT on Sunday, 16 October (2005), at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Salt Lake City.

"The most unusual thing is that they have flight feathers not only on the hand section, but also on foot," said Chatterjee. Flight feathers differ noticeably from other feathers in that they are asymmetrical with interlocking barbules to keep their shape. The leading edge of each long feather was narrower than the trailing edge, which helped streamline the body in flight. The hooked, interlocking barbs gave strength and flexibility to the feather and prevented air from passing through it in flight.

Some present-day birds, especially raptors as well as the earliest Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx, also have (or had) feathers on their legs, Chatterjee says. But these are not flight feathers and appear adapted to streamline the legs during catching and carrying prey so they don't interfere with flight.

Another key element to discovering Microraptor's flight secrets was setting some realistic limitations on how the dinosaur could move its hindlimbs - something that was initially overlooked by Chinese researchers who found the fossil. Chatterjee and Templin studied its anatomy and found that like any dinosaurs, Microraptor held their hindlimbs in erect, vertical plane, permitting forward and backward motion.

"The problem we faced is that the legs of Microraptor, like on any dinosaur, could not be splayed sideways," as the Chinese paleontologists assumed. That means Microraptor could not have extended its rear limbs to form a wing directly behind the front wing. More likely, and more aerodynamically stable, would have been a rear wing that was held lower than the front wing - what from the side would look like a staggered biplane configuration, Chatterjee explains.

Chatterjee and Templin fed Microraptor's flight data into a computer simulation that they have previously used to successfully analyze the flying abilities of pterosaurs and Archaeopteryx. Based on the aeronautical analysis, it appears that Microraptor flights looked rather like those seen today among some "monoplane" forest birds - something called undulating phugoid gliding, Chatterjee said. In other words, Microraptor launched from a high branch and dove off, falling head-first until it reached a speed that created lift on its wings. With that lift the feathered dino then swooped upwards and landed in the branches of another tree without having to flap its wings and expend muscular energy.

"The biplane wing configuration was probably a very first experiment in nature," says Chatterjee of the early flying technique, which was also used by another feathered dinosaur from China, Pedopenna, he said. Archaeopteryx achieved fully powered flight with monoplane configuration, as its wing became even larger than those of Microraptor, but foot feathers were lost.

"It is intriguing to contemplate that perhaps avian flight, like aircraft evolution, went through a biplane stage before the monoplane was introduced, said Chatterjee. "It seems likely that Microraptor invented the biplane 125 million years before the Wright 1903 Flyer."

The discovery of Microraptor and other small, exquisitely preserved feathered dinosaurs from China also helps to settle a century-old controversy over whether avian flight began in trees (trees-down theory) or on the ground (ground-up theory). These fossils show various transitional stages-from wingless, tree-dwelling theropod dinosaurs to fully winged, active flyers, Chatterjee said.

The central theme of the trees-down theory is that gravity was the source of energy: a small climbing dinosaur first parachuted down, then began to stay aloft longer by gliding, and finally acquired powered flight. As those abilities developed, feathers became larger and more specialized, providing greater lift and thrust. The Chinese feathered dinosaurs show these transitional stages of flight.

In contrast, the ground-up theory has a theropod struggling toward flight directly from the ground, against gravity, without any gliding stage. Such long feathers around the feet would make it hard for Microraptor to run on the ground, says Chatterjee, supporting the idea that it was a tree dweller, thus reinforcing the trees-down theory.

Based on the presentation "The Feathered Dinosaur Microraptor: Its Biplane Wing Planform and Flight performance"


Sankar Chatterjee co-authored the 2003 Letter to Nature "Neuroanatomy of flying reptiles and implications for flight, posture and behaviour" (doi: 10.1038/nature02048):

Opening paragraph

Comparison of birds and pterosaurs, the two archosaurian flyers, sheds light on adaptation to an aerial lifestyle. The neurological basis of control holds particular interest in that flight demands on sensory integration, equilibrium, and muscular coordination are acute. Here we compare the brain and vestibular apparatus in two pterosaurs based on high-resolution computed tomographic (CT) scans from which we constructed digital endocasts. Although general neural organization resembles birds, pterosaurs had smaller brains relative to body mass than do birds. This difference probably has more to do with phylogeny than flight, in that birds evolved from nonavian theropods that had already established trends for greater encephalization. Orientation of the osseous labyrinth relative to the long axis of the skull was different in these two pterosaur species, suggesting very different head postures and reflecting differing behaviours. Their enlarged semicircular canals reflect a highly refined organ of equilibrium, which is concordant with pterosaurs being visually based, aerial predators. Their enormous cerebellar floccular lobes may suggest neural integration of extensive sensory information from the wing, further enhancing eye- and neck-based reflex mechanisms for stabilizing gaze.


Sankar Chatterjee is author of the book "The Rise of Birds: 225 Million Years of Evolution":

Among the Dockum fossil beds of West Texas in 1983, paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee made a momentous discovery: the fossilized remains of a curious creature subsequently dubbed Protoavis, or primordial bird. In The Rise of Birds, Chatterjee writes that Protoavis predates Archaeopteryx, previously known as the "first bird" by some 75 million years, and that it is more closely related to the modern bird than its Johnny-come-lately rival. But Protoavis is only the starting point for this sweeping, detailed, and beautifully illustrated history of bird evolution. Chatterjee examines the many recent discoveries of bird fossils all over the world and comes to some fascinating and often surprising conclusions: the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, for instance, or their near-extinction (along with the dinosaurs) when large meteors fell to earth almost 65 million years ago. From the distinguishing characteristics of avian anatomy to theories about the first avian flight, Chatterjee's book is a thoughtful and accessible look at one of the most flourishing products of evolution. (Amazon Astore - links below)


In 2003 National Geographic wrote in the article "Four-Winged Dinosaurs Found in China, Experts Announce":

"Paleontologists in China have discovered the fossil remains of a four-winged dinosaur with fully developed, modern feathers on both the forelimbs and hind limbs.

The new species, Microraptor gui, provides yet more evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and could go a long way to answering a question scientists have puzzled over for close to 100 years: How did a group of ground-dwelling flightless dinosaurs evolve to a feathered animal capable of flying?"


A post from Friday, September 22, 2006:

"Archaeopteryx: Ancient birds flew on all-fours"

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Activation of Brain Region Predicts Altruism

Duke University Medical Center researchers have discovered that activation of a particular brain region predicts whether people tend to be selfish or altruistic.

"Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism," said study investigator Scott A. Huettel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.

Results of the study appear Sunday, January 21, in the advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience and will be published in the February 2007 print issue of the journal. The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Altruism* describes the tendency of people to act in ways that put the welfare of others ahead of their own. Why some people choose to act altruistically is unclear, says lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley, a graduate student in Huettel's laboratory.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, successful playing of the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses harmless magnetic pulses to measure changes in oxygen levels that indicate nerve cell activity.

The scans revealed that a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated to a greater degree when people perceived an action - that is, when they watched the computer play the game - than when they acted themselves, Tankersley said. This region, which lies in the top and back portion of the brain, is generally activated when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.

The researchers then characterized the participants as more or less altruistic, based on their responses to questions about how often they engaged in different helping behaviors, and compared the participants' brain scans with their estimated level of altruistic behavior. The fMRI scans showed that increased activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person's likelihood for altruistic behavior.

According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.

"We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism," Tankersley said.

The scientists suggest that studying the brain systems that allow people to see the world as a series of meaningful interactions may ultimately help further understanding of disorders, such as autism or antisocial behavior, that are characterized by deficits in interpersonal interactions.

The researchers are now exploring ways to study the development of this brain region early in life, Tankersley said, adding that such information may help determine how the tendencies toward altruism are established.

C. Jill Stowe, a decision scientist in Duke's Fuqua School of Business, also participated in the research. [Source: Duke University]


Based on the Nature Neuroscience 'Brief Communication':

Altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency

Dharol Tankersley, C Jill Stowe and Scott A Huettel


Although the neural mechanisms underlying altruism remain unknown, empathy and its component abilities, such as the perception of the actions and intentions of others, have been proposed as key contributors. Tasks requiring the perception of agency activate the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), particularly in the right hemisphere. Here, we demonstrate that differential activation of the human pSTC during action perception versus action performance predicts self-reported altruism.


From Eric Strong's "The Evolution of Altruism":

The concept of altruism is best understood through example: an African wild dog voluntarily "babysitting" the pups of a pack, while the pack's hunters search for food; a bird giving an alarm call to warn others of an approaching hawk, and thus drawing attention to itself in the process; a man jumping into a swimming pool to save a drowning stranger. While these acts obviously require different levels of sacrifice on the part of the altruist, on average we can expect all of them to decrease his number of expected offspring.

This is where the paradox of altruism arises. If, by definition, altruism reduces an individual's fitness, we should expect Charles Darwin's natural selection to select against the altruistic trait and eventually reduce its representation within a population to zero.


Scott A. Huettel is co-author of "Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging":

"This textbook provides a true introduction to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which has become the dominant research technique in cognitive neuroscience. Although there is extraordinary interest in fMRI among researchers and instructors alike, two problems have hampered the study of this technique. First, existing texts are targeted toward practicing scientists in the field and assume a level of expertise not possessed by most students. Second, most students do not have access to fMRI equipment and data, so they have no opportunity to gain hands on experience. This textbook overcomes these limitations by presenting a comprehensive overview of all aspects of fMRI, designed with undergraduate students, graduate students and beginning researchers in mind. The authors' goal was to create a book that is sufficiently scientifically rigorous for scientists in the field, but also accessible enough to be easily read and understood by beginning students. The book can be used as the primary text for classes in fMRI, or as a secondary text for cognitive neuroscience, research methods or other courses."


A review of Kindness in a Cruel World: The Evolution of Altruism by Nigel Barber:


Beginning with Darwin's theory of evolution, Barber shows how the original notion of a dog-eat-dog world where survival of the fittest is the only rule must now be modified by new findings on altruism. In bees, for example, the workers evolve without reproductive ability and exist only for the good of the hive and the propagation of the queen bee's genes. In addition, vampire bats will spontaneously share food through regurgitation, evidently so that the favour will be returned when food sources are scarce. In humans, reciprocal arrangements depend on trust, so moral emotions, like guilt, embarrassment, resentment, and pride, have evolved to guard against the temptation to cheat, which would destroy the basis of trust on which so much depends. Barber brings the revealing insights of evolutionary psychology to these examples and more, and delves into related issues including sex differences in kindness, new approaches to rehabilitating criminals, the connection of kindness to health, and the political manifestations of altruism in the environmental movement.


Recent Posts:

"Evolution - The hitchhiker's guide to altruism"

"Why altruism paid off for our ancestors"

"'Spectrum of empathy' found in the brain (Current Biology)"


Books on 'Evolution and Altruism' from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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The Root of All Evil: The God Delusion (Online Video)

Video: The God Delusion, Part 1 of Richard Dawkins' "The Root of All Evil" mini-series, is again available online (click on the above link).

The program was produced by Channel 4 (UK) whose website states:

In this two-part Channel 4 series, Professor Richard Dawkins challenges what he describes as 'a process of non-thinking called faith'. Dawkins is well known for bringing to a wide audience the complex scientific concepts that underpin evolution. His first book, The Selfish Gene (Amazon UK | US) was an international bestseller.

Truth lies and faith

He describes his astonishment that, at the start of the 21st century, religious faith is gaining ground in the face of rational, scientific truth. Science, based on scepticism, investigation and evidence, must continuously test its own concepts and claims. Faith, by definition, defies evidence: it is untested and unshakeable, and is therefore in direct contradiction with science.

In addition, though religions preach morality, peace and hope, in fact, says Dawkins, they bring intolerance, violence and destruction. The growth of extreme fundamentalism in so many religions across the world not only endangers humanity but, he argues, is in conflict with the trend over thousands of years of history for humanity to progress - to become more enlightened and more tolerant.


The above also links to a book review of The God Delusion (UK | US) written by Daniel Dennett (Author of Breaking the spell: Religion as natural phenomenon) for 'Free Inquiry':

...What do I wish were different in Dawkins' book? The same thing I wish were different in mine. Sometimes he just cannot conceal his mounting impatience with the arguments he has obliged himself to consider, and when his disrespect, or even contempt, shines through in spite of his strenuous efforts - I know just what he's going through - he must surely lose many readers. Good riddance to them? Well, no, this is a problem. Serious argument depends on mutual respect, and this is often hard to engender when disagreements turn vehement. The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod's legendary prisoner's dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent's work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way." Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow - or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive. But this is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy. For one thing, you fear that hyper-patience will appear patronizing and simply drive other, swifter readers away. For another, we are dealing here with arguments that in most instances no longer have identifiable living exponents. Who stands by the Ontological Argument today? There are historians of philosophy and theology aplenty who will lovingly teach the argument (and its variants and rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals) but with few exceptions they don't defend it. It is treated as a interesting historical example, a Worthy Attempt, a jewel in the treasure-house of religion and philosophy, but not as a consideration that demands a response in today's arena of argument. That being so, giving the argument the Full Rapoport Treatment would be misplaced effort, comically earnest...


Richard Dawkins' homepage at Oxford University is not very informative but he now has an official website at

This is split into the "Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science" (a variation on the Discovery Institute's "Center for Science and Culture"?):

"The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS or RDF) is a non-profit organization founded by biologist Richard Dawkins in 2006. It is trusteed by Dawkins and Claire Enders in the United Kingdom along with Karen Owens in the United States. As of November 2006, RDFRS has not been approved for non-profit status in the United States following its application 6 months prior. On this fact, Dawkins commented "I don't know too much about these things, but what’s annoying is how religious organizations get such an easy ride, while we really have to argue for it" (Wiki)

The original "Introduction to the Foundation (Video)" is no longer available - probably as a result of sorting out the Foundation's charity status - but the transcript began:

"I have just visited my local branch of Britain's biggest bookshop chain, and this is what I found: six books on astronomy and nineteen books on astrology. The real science is outnumbered three to one by the pseudoscience. There were twenty books on angels, which means that angels and astrology together (39) outnumber the totality of books on all the sciences (33). When you add in the books on fairies, crystal healing, fortune telling, faith healing, Nostradamus, psychics and dream interpretation, it is no contest. Pseudoscience outnumbers science by at least three to one, and I didn't even begin to count the far larger number of books on religion. This is not, of course, an academic bookshop. Oxford is well supplied with those, and they'd show a very different result. I made my counts in a popular bookshop, presumably typical of the nationwide chain of which it is a part - indeed, the chain's buying policy is centralized in London, and we may be sure that strenuous and expensive efforts are made to reflect popular taste. As a statistical generalization, the general public, as opposed to an academic readership, prefers irrational books over books that reflect what we know about the real world.

A recent Gallup poll concluded that nearly 50% of the American public believes the universe is less than 10,000 years old. Nearly half the population, in other words, believes that the entire universe, the sun and solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, and all the billions of other galaxies, all began after the domestication of the dog. They believe this because they rate a particular bronze age origin myth more highly than all the scientific evidence in the world. It is only one of literally thousands of such myths from around the world, but it happened, by a series of historical accidents, to become enshrined in a book - Genesis - which, by another series of historical accidents, has been translated and disseminated to almost every home in the land plus - infuriatingly - every hotel room. Even before science told us the true story of the origin of the world and the evolution of life, there was no reason to believe the Jewish origin myth any more than the origin myths of the Yoruba or the Kikuyu, the Yanomamo or the Maori, the Dogon or the Cherokee. Now, in the 21st century as we approach Darwin's bicentenary, the fact that half of Americans take Genesis literally is nothing less than an educational scandal.

The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give. They are not just useful, they enrich our lives in the same kind of way as the arts do. Promoting science as poetry was one of the things that Carl Sagan did so well, and I aspire to continue his tradition."

The 'other half' of goes to "The Official Richard Dawkins Website" where you can read Chapter 1 of The God Delusion:

"Carl Sagan, in Pale Blue Dot, wrote:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

All Sagan's books touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries. My own books have the same aspiration. Consequently I hear myself often described as a deeply religious man. An American student wrote to me that she had asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' But is 'religion' the right word? I don't think so. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'.

Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, 'For then we should know the mind of God', is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man. The cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, sounds more religious than Hawking or Einstein. She loves churches, mosques and temples, and numerous passages in her book fairly beg to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for supernatural religion. She goes so far as to call herself a 'Religious Naturalist'. Yet a careful reading of her book shows that she is really as staunch an atheist as I am." [Atheism]


Recent posts include:

"Intelligent Design: 'A War on Science' (BBC Horizon Video - 49 mins)"

"'The Only One in Step' by Richard Dawkins"

"Anti-Religion Extremist Dawkins Advocates Eugenics"

"Notes on Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos by Richard Dawkins"

"Evolution: Richard Dawkins on 'The Colbert Report' (Video)"

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