RNCSE 25 (5-6)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Articles available online are listed below.
Click "Print Edition Contents" for list of articles in the print edition.

Print Edition Contents: 25 (5-6)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Contents
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
2

NEWS

  1. On, Wisconsin?
    Andrew J Petto
    From local school districts to the state legislature, evolution is a hot topic in the Badger state.
  2. Anti-Evolution Legislation in Utah
    Glenn Branch
    The next chapter in an ongoing story of one state legislator's attempt to insert religion into science curriculum.
  3. Updates
    News from Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and the United Kingdom.

NCSE NEWS

  1. News from the Membership
    Glenn Branch
    A sampling of our members' activities and accomplishments.
  2. ICR's Henry Morris Dies
    Remembering the architect of creation science.
  3. NCSE Thanks You for Your Support
    Recognizing those who have helped NCSE financially.

FEATURES

  1. The Lay of the Land: The Current Context for Communicating Evolution in Natural History Museums
    Robert "Mac" West
    NCSE board member Mac West addressed a group of museum educators and administrators, asking,With all those dinosaurs and fossil critters, is evolution front and center in museums ... or not so much?
  2. Creationism and the Laws of Thermodynamics
    Steven L Morris
    A physicist calculates how much energy is available on earth to drive life's evolution. It turns out that we have entropy to burn!
  3. The Life Science Prize
    Michael Zimmerman
    A long-time supporter of evolution education tries to pin down a creationist on the terms of an intellectual competition to prove evolution ... and has some fun in the process.
  4. Non-Mineralized Tissues in Fossil T rex
    Joe Skulan
    Creationists have cited recent research reporting the recovery of "soft tissue" from dinosaur bones as proof that these remains must be young. What is the real story of fossilization?
  5. You Tell Me that It's Evolution ...
    Arthur M Shapiro
    A lepidopterist's research project is unexpectedly stymied by young-earth creationists.
  6. I Know a Place ...
    Phil Plait
    The creator of the Bad Astronomy web site invites readers into the world of science ... where we can know what we have not experienced first-hand.
  7. Framing the Issue: The "Theory" Trap
    David Morrison
    Anti-evolutionists make a lot of hay claiming that evolution is "only a theory".Trying to argue about the meaning of the word "theory"may be fruitless.

MEMBERS' PAGES

  1. Entropy in Muffins: Why Evolution Does Not Violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics
    Patricia Princehouse
    Energy order and disorder in baked goods: a simplified explanation of a scientific concept.
  2. Books: Getting Physical
    Books that explore thermodynamics, the Big Bang, and the age of the earth.
  3. NCSE On the Road
    An NCSE speaker may be coming to your neighborhood. Check the calendar here.
  4. Letters

RECAPITULATIONS

  1. Response to John C Greene
    Sheldon F Gottlieb reacts to Greene's thoughts on the Claremont Conference
  2. Reply to Gottlieb
    John C Greene replies

BOOK REVIEWS

  1. Into the Cool by Eric D Schneider and Dorion Sagan
    Reviewed by Sonya Bahar
  2. The Counter-Creationism Handbook by Mark Isaak
    Reviewed by Tim M Berra
  3. Organisms and Artifacts by Tim Lewens
    Reviewed by John S Wilkins
  4. Why Much of What Jonathan Wells Writes about Evolution is Wrong: Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells
    Reviewed by Matt Cartmill
  5. Evolution 101: Finding a Solid Introduction: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evolution by Leslie Alan Horwitz and Evolution: A Very Short Introduction by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth
    Reviewed by Andrew J Petto
  6. Evolution — Why Bother?
    A film produced by the BSCS and AIBS
    Reviewed by Karen Mesmer
  7. The Plausibility of Life by Marc W Kirschner and John C Gerhardt
    Reviewed by Andrew J Petto

Creationism and the Laws of Thermodynamics

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Creationism and the Laws of Thermodynamics
Author(s): 
Steven L. Morris
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
31–32
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

INTRODUCTION



Pseudoscientists love to use "abracadabra" words to dazzle an ill-informed audience, and for creationists, the word "entropy" fills the bill nicely. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that, in an isolated system, the entropy tends to increase. As entropy may be considered a measure of disorder, the orderliness of living systems and the complexity of organic molecules are taken by creationists to be a violation of this law of physics, requiring divine intervention.

An example of this sort of thinking is provided by Henry Morris (1989: 32, emphasis in the original):
The universe is not "progressing from featurelessness to states of greater organization and complexity," as Davies and other evolutionary mathematicians fantasize. It is running down - at every observable level - toward chaos, as stipulated by the scientific laws of thermodynamics. Local and temporary increases in complexity are only possible when driven by designed programs and directed energies, neither of which is possessed by the purely speculative notion of vertically-upward evolution.
An even less intellectual effort is provided by Ross (2004: 108):
One feature of the law of decay (the second law of thermodynamics, or the entropy law) seems especially beneficial in the context of sin: the more we humans sin, the more pain and work we encounter.
Thank God for torture chambers, and congenital diseases!

A perfectly adequate response to such nonsense is to point out that the earth is not an isolated system, and therefore the condition required by the Second Law is not met. We can surely say more than just this, however. After all, entropy is not merely some nebulous concept of disorder, but an exactly defined quantity in physics. For example, 18 grams of water at 25° C has an entropy of 70.0 Joules per Kelvin (Lide 2004-5: 5-18; 6-4). Since entropy can be calculated precisely, it is possible to determine what restrictions the laws of thermodynamics really place on evolution. To do this, we should first look at how entropy is defined mathematically.

THE CALCULATION OF ENTROPY



The change in the entropy of a system as it goes from an initial state to a final state is

ΔS = ∫ dQ
T


which simplifies to

ΔS =  Q
T
if the temperature is constant throughout the process. In this equation:
S is the entropy in units of Joules per Kelvin (or J/K),

ΔS is the change in the entropy during the process,

Q is the flow of heat in units of Joules (or J) (Q is positive if heat flows into the object, and negative if heat flows out of the object), and

T is the temperature in units of Kelvin (or K).


For example, suppose that two cubes of matter at temperatures of 11 K and 9 K are brought together, 99 Joules of heat spontaneously flow from the hotter to the colder cube (as shown), and the cubes are separated. If the heat capacities of the cubes are so large that their temperatures remain essentially constant, the change in entropy of the entire system is

ΔS =  Qcolder  +  Qhotter  =  99  +  -99  = 11 - 9 = +2 J/K.
Tcolder Thotter 9 11


Notice that this change of entropy is a positive quantity. The entropy of any system tends to increase, as energy flows spontaneously from hotter to colder regions.

THE ENTROPY OF SUNLIGHT



To examine the change of entropy necessary to generate life on earth, begin with a square, one meter long on each side, at the same distance from the sun as the earth (93 million miles) and oriented so that one side fully faces the solar disk. The amount of radiant power that passes through this area is called the solar constant, and is equal to 1373 Joules/second (Lide 2004-5: 14-2). In the absence of the earth's atmosphere, the entropy of this sunlight would equal this energy divided by the temperature of the sun's surface, known from spectroscopy to equal 5780 K. The result would give the entropy of this amount of sunlight as 0.238 J/K every second.

A more sophisticated analysis of the energy and entropy that reaches the surface of the earth is given by Kabelac and Drake (1992: 245). Due to absorption and scattering by the atmosphere, only 897.6 J of energy reaches one square meter of the earth's surface through a clear sky every second (731.4 J directly from the solar disk, and 166.2 J diffused through the rest of the sky). For an overcast sky, all the energy is from diffuse radiation, equal to 286.7 J, according to Kabelac and Drake's model. The entropy that reaches this square meter through a clear sky every second is 0.305 J/K (0.182 J/K directly from the solar disk, and 0.123 J/K diffused through the rest of the sky). For an overcast sky, all the entropy is from diffuse radiation, equal to 0.218 J/K (see figure, p 32).

So, for one square meter on the earth's surface facing the sun, the energy received every second from a clear sky is 897.6 J, and the entropy received is 0.305 J/K. If we are to apply these numbers to a study of life on earth, we must spread these quantities over the entire earth's surface (of area 4πr2) rather than the cross-section of the earth (of area πr2) that receives the rays perpendicular to the surface. Therefore, these numbers must be reduced by a factor of 4 to represent the energy and entropy that an average square meter of the earth receives every second, as 224.4 J and 0.076 J/K, respectively.

THE ENTROPY BUDGET OF ONE SQUARE METER OF LAND



The average temperature of the earth's surface is 288 K (= 15° C = 59° F) according to Lide (2004-5: 14-3). To maintain this temperature, that one square meter must radiate 224.4 J of energy back into the atmosphere (and ultimately into outer space) every second. The entropy of this radiation is

ΔS =  Q  =  224.4  = 0.779 J/K.
T 228


Assuming sunny skies, this one square meter of ground gains 0.076 J/K of entropy every second from sunlight, and produces 0.779 J/K every second by radiating energy back into the sky for a net entropy creation rate of 0.703 J/K every second. In effect, the earth is an entropy factory for the universe, taking individual high-energy (visible) photons and converting each of them into many low-energy (infrared) photons, increasing the disorder of the universe. As long as life on earth decreases its entropy at a rate of 0.703 J/K or less per square meter every second, the entropy of the universe will not decrease over time due to this one square meter of earth, and the Second Law will be obeyed.

How much energy and entropy are contained in life on the earth's land surface, compared to a lifeless earth? The average biomass occupying one square meter of land is between 10 and 12 kg, mostly as plant material (Bortman and others 2003: 145). Taking 11 kg as an average,we can calculate how much energy it would take to create this biomass from simple inorganic chemicals. This can be done by reversing the process, and asking how much energy is released when combustion reduces plant life to ashes. The answer is the heat of combustion, which for wood (which we may take as representative of plant life) is 1.88 x 107 J/kg (Beiser 1991: 431). Multiplying these two numbers together, the energy required to generate the amount of life currently found on an average square meter of land is 2.07 x 108 J.

If this life is generated at the earth's average temperature of 288 K, its entropy decrease will be

ΔS =  Q  =  2.07 x 108  = 7.18 x 105 J/K.
T 228


The earth's bodies of water are relatively sterile, and can be ignored; if life on land can be generated, the sparse amount of life in water can certainly be generated as well.

WHAT THE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS TELL US



We are now able to determine what restrictions the laws of thermodynamics place upon the evolution of life on earth. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, heat is a flow of energy and must obey the Law of Conservation of Energy. The average square meter of land surface on earth receives 224.4 J of energy from the sun every second, and contains

2.07 x 108 J of energy stored in living tissue. The ratio of these two values is

2.07 x 108  = 9.22 x 105 seconds = 10.7 days.
224.4


If all the solar energy received by this square meter is used to create organic matter, a minimum of 10.7 days is required to avoid violating the First Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system, the entropy tends to increase. The average square meter of land may balance the entropy increase due to radiation by generating a maximum entropy decrease of 0.703 J/K every second through the growth of life without violating this law. The difference in entropy between this square meter with life and the same square meter in the absence of life is 7.18 x 105 J/K. The ratio of these two values is

7.18 x 108  = 1.02 x 106 seconds = 11.8 days.
0.703


A minimum of 11.8 days is required to avoid violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Third (and final) Law of Thermodynamics, which states that S = 0 J/K for a pure perfect crystal at 0 K, has no application to creationism.

CONCLUSION



Shades of a Creation Week! As long as the evolution of life on earth took longer than 10.7 or 11.8 days, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics are not violated, respectively. Even for an overcast sky, these numbers increase to merely 33 and 43 days respectively. As evolution has obviously taken far longer than this, the creationists are wrong to invoke entropy and the laws of thermodynamics to defend their beliefs.

Of course, solar energy is not going to be converted into the chemical energy of organic compounds with 100% efficiency. It takes a growing season of several months to reestablish the grasses of the prairie, and forests can take centuries to regrow. What this study has shown is that the time constraints for these two laws are very similar. Can creationists seriously argue that there has not been enough time for the sun to provide the energy stored in the living matter we find on earth today? If not, then they cannot honestly rely on entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to make their case, either.

References

Beiser A. 1991. Physics. 5th ed. New York:Addison-Wesley.

Bortman M, Brimblecombe P, Cunningham MA, Cunningham WP, Freedman B, eds. 2003. Environmental Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. New York: Gale Group.

Kabelac S, Drake FD. 1992. The entropy of terrestrial solar radiation. Journal of Solar Energy Science and Engineering 48 (4): 239¨C48.

Lide DR, ed. 2004¨C2005. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. 85th ed. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press.

Morris HM. 1989. The Long War Against God. Grand Rapids (MI): Baker Book House.

Ross H.2004. A Matter of Days. Colorado Springs (CO):NavPress.

About the Author(s): 
Physics Department
Los Angeles Harbor College
1111 Figueroa Place
Wilmington CA 90744
morrissl@lahc.edu

Steven L Morris received his BSc in astronomy from the University of Toronto and his PhD in physics from the University of Calgary. After two years as a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCLA (which included a one-year winter-over at the South Pole, Antarctica!), he spent two years as a physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico before returning to Los Angeles. He currently teaches physics and physical science at Los Angeles Harbor College.

Non-Mineralized Tissues in Fossil T rex

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Non-Mineralized Tissues in Fossil T rex
Author(s): 
Joe Skulan, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
May-August
Page(s): 
35–39
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
In the March 25, 2005, issue of Science, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer and her co-authors reported the discovery of intact blood vessels and other soft tissues in demineralized bone from a 65- million-year–old specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex housed at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR). Scientists’ reaction to this discovery has been cautious; Schweitzer and others have not provided the biochemical data necessary to decide whether or not the “flexible vascular tissue that demonstrated great elasticity and resilience” is, in fact, T rex soft tissue. But while scientists have been appropriately skeptical of Schweitzer’s claim, many young-earth creationists improperly have seized on it as evidence that the T rex fossil from which Schweitzer extracted the putative soft tissue, and fossils generally, are not more than a few thousand years old.

The absolute ages of all fossils ultimately hinge on radiometric dating techniques, the validity and accuracy of which are beyond reasonable doubt. These techniques are derived from the pre-eminent scientific enterprise of the 20th century: nuclear physics. If we did not know enough about radioactive materials to date things, then we would not be able to build atomic bombs. I would eagerly admit that the earth was young if it meant that A-bombs were not real, but that Faustian bargain has been made and we must live with it. Multiple analyses using several independent radiometric techniques show that the rocks in which the MOR T rex was found are about 65 million years old. The age of this fossil is a settled fact. The question that I want to ask here is why creationists see the preservation of soft tissue as evidence that the MOR T rex is relatively modern. The answer lies not in the muddled thinking of creationists, but in the careless and ambiguous way that paleontologists themselves discuss “fossils” and explain how fossils form.

Fossils and Fossilization

While “fossil” originally referred to anything that originated in and was dug out of the earth, including gems and metals, the term in English has been used mainly in its modern sense since the early 19th century. But what is this modern sense? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Ignoring a handful of etymological fundamentalists, for the past few centuries “fossil” has had two distinct meanings: the remains or traces of ancient life (the time-based definition), and an object of biological origin that has undergone the process of “fossilization” (the process-based definition). The creationist challenge to the age of the MOR T rex is an equivocation based on this dual definition:

1. A fossil (time-defined) is old.

2. The MOR T rex is not a fossil (process-defined) because the presence of soft tissue demonstrates that it is not fossilized.

Therefore, the MOR T rex is not old.

The argument is invalid because each of the premises defines “fossil” in a different way. Few arguments used by creationists are as easily refuted as this, because most errors in creationists’ reasoning are not simple logical fallacies, and arise instead from misinterpretations of empirical evidence and hence requiring detailed refutation. But the equivocal use of “fossil” is not a creationist invention; it is a bad habit that they learned from paleontologists themselves.

It is curious that a term so central to their science should be used so carelessly, but paleontologists rarely differentiate the two definitions of “fossil,” and often use them interchangeably, even in situations that demand precision, such as in reference books. For example, Herve Bocherens (1997: 111) writes:
The chemical composition of fossilized vertebrate tissues is the result of the uptake, exchange, and loss of chemical elements, in two different sets of circumstances. First, during the life of the animal. ... Second, during the diagenetic evolution of the mineralized tissues (i.e., fossilization) this original organization of the chemical elements is altered ... [emphasis added]
Statements such as these are so common in paleontological literature — especially as throw-away remarks in prefaces and introductions — that they tend to roll smoothly off the brain without critical evaluation. But this passage is quite ambigious. Fossilization, here defined as the “diagenetic evolution of the mineralized tissues,” is a process. Unmineralized tissues apparently cannot undergo fossilization. But can unmineralized tissues be fossilized? “Fossilized” also implies a process-dependent definition of “fossil,” because, under the time-dependent definition, becoming a fossil simply is a matter of getting old, something that hardly qualifies as a process; calling a bone “fossilized” simply because it is old would be as meaningless as calling an old chair “antique-ized.” So if unmineralized tissues can be fossilized, then there must be some way of becoming fossilized other than through fossilization, and T rex soft tissue could be described as “unfossilization-ized fossilized tissue.” But if unmineralized tissues cannot be fossilized, this would imply that unmineralized tissues cannot be fossils. What, then, are “fossil” leaves, soft-body animal “fossils”, and petrified wood?

The topic of Bocherens’s article is not fossils per se, and the problems I point out here have no real bearing on the bulk of his excellent and informative article. Nevertheless Bocherens’s confused discussion of “fossilized” and “fossilization” is typical of the careless way that many paleontologists use “fossil,” especially when discussing “unusual” fossils such as ancient soft tissue.

For example, in reference to the purported T rex soft tissue in an interview with a BBC reporter (BBC 2005), Schweitzer said:
This is fossilised bone in the sense that it’s from an extinct animal but it doesn’t have a lot of the characteristics of what people would call a fossil.
As with Bocheren, this statement sounds reasonable until you think about it. “Characteristics of what people would call a fossil” presumably refers to decay of soft tissue, petrifaction or some other process. But what does “fossilized bone in the sense that it’s from an extinct animal” mean? Here Schweitzer clearly intended to use “fossil” in the time-defined way, but instead of simply using the word “fossil”, she adds the chronological qualifier “from an extinct animal” to “fossilized” — a term that connotes process. This leads to exactly the same confusion that we encountered in Bocheren. And again, as with Bocheren, I do not mean this as a critique of Schweitzer’s science. I cite these passages in order to demonstrate that we think so little about how we use “fossil” and related terms that even careful and accomplished scientists use them in careless and ambiguous ways.

What We Don’t Know

What accounts for this confusing hybrid terminology? The answer is the widespread assumption that the two definitions of “fossil” are logically dependent on each other; either because organic remains must be fossilized in order to become old enough to be a fossil, or because as things become old they inevitably become fossilized. These assumptions belong to the vast netherworld of scientific pseudoknowledge; bits of received wisdom that crowd encyclopedias and textbook introductions; answers to questions so basic and obvious that they are overlooked as things that must have been thoroughly discussed and decided generations ago. In the conflict over Schweitzer and her colleagues’ discovery, pseudoknowledge confronts pseudoscience.

The standard textbook account of “fossilization” might be termed the “Tin Man” story: soft tissues decay, the resulting cavities are filled with minerals precipitated from groundwater, and the original biominerals transform into or are replaced by other substances. This process results in a replica of the original object in which the original substance has been heavily altered and largely or entirely replaced by other materials.

The Tin Man story of fossilization is something of a fossil itself, having been around in essentially its present form since at least the end of the 18th century. The third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1795, describes “Petrafaction” as follows:
A petrified substance, strictly speaking, is nothing more than the skeleton, or perhaps image, of a body which has once had life, either animal or vegetable, combined with some mineral. Thus petrified wood is not in that state wood alone. One part of the compound or mass of wood having been destroyed by local causes, has been compensated by earthy and sandy substances, diluted and extremely minute, which the waters surrounding them had deposited while they themselves evaporated. These earthy substances, being then moulded in the skeleton, will be more or less indurated, and will appear to have its figure, its structure, its size, in a word, the same general characteristics, the same specific attributes, and the same individual differences. Farther, in petrified wood, no vestige of ligneous matter appears to exist.
More modern variants simply embellish this story with chemical language, substituting atoms, molecules, or minerals for “diluted and extremely minute” substances, for example. Pulling a book off my shelf at random, I encounter this:
After an animal dies, if it is to become a fossil, it must be buried before the elements destroy the carcass, completely…. After burial, minerals carried by percolating groundwater are deposited in vugs within the bone structure, or they may actually replace bone salts, literally turning the bone to stone. (Jacobs 1993: 47)
Both passages give readers the sense that scientists have a pretty good understanding of what happens to fossils in the ground. In reality we have no such understanding. Indeed, it is only in the past 15 years that paleontological geochemists begun to address, in a serious and organized way, basic questions about why some things endure long enough to become fossils. To date, these efforts have revealed important details about the chemical behavior of some fossils in some settings, but we are a long way from the kind of systematic knowledge implied by the cited passages.

The new understanding we do have of fossils unfortunately has been used to revamp and reinforce the Tin Man story, rather than to challenge it. For example, in the introduction to their textbook on dinosaurs, Fastovsky and Weishampel (2005: 8–10) write:
Bone is made out of calcium (sodium) hydroxyapatite, a mineral that is not stable at temperatures and pressures at or near the surface of the earth. This means that bones can change with time, which in turn means that most no longer have original bone matter present after fossilization. This is especially likely if the bone is bathed in the variety of fluids that is associated with burial in the earth. ... If, however, no fluids are present throughout the history of the burial … the bone could remain unaltered, which is to say that original bone mineralogy remains. This situation is not that common, and is progressively rarer in the case of older and older fossils.
This explanation of what happens to buried bones is vastly better than most. It makes the important but seldom articulated point that bone will not necessarily decay just because it is unstable, and leaves open the possibility that unaltered bone and soft tissues can survive. The authors make no implausible claims, and it is possible that a century from now we will know that everything they wrote was entirely correct.

But we are not living a century from now, and in the meantime much of what Fastovsky and Weishampel present as fact is really educated conjecture. We do not know that most fossil bone no longer contains its original bone material; we do not know that for bone to survive unaltered it must be isolated from fluids throughout its history; most importantly we do not know that the preservational state of bone is directly related to its age. As in the previously quoted passages, Fastovsky and Weishampel present their story of how things become fossils as if it were based on well-understood facts. And their story still largely is the Tin Man story: except under extraordinary conditions, fossils undergo the same replacement process that was expounded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica over 200 years ago.

It is this habit of presenting conjecture and tentative knowledge as settled fact that makes paleontologists vulnerable to creationist attacks based on “extraordinarily” well-preserved fossils. In reference to the MOR T rex, the ICR claims:
Would evolutionary theory have predicted such an amazing discovery? Absolutely not, soft tissue would have degraded completely many millions of years ago no matter how fortuitous the preservation process. Will evolutionary theory now state — due to this clear physical evidence — that it is possible dinosaurs roamed the earth until relatively recent times? No, for evolutionary theory will not allow dinosaurs to exist beyond a certain philosophical/evolutionary period. (Sherwin 2005)
The discovery of intact T rex soft tissue indeed would challenge prevailing scientific thinking, if not, as the author claims, “evolutionary theory”. This discovery can be reconciled with the Tin Man story only by invoking extraordinary causes. These invocations come across as makeshift attempts to prop up an exhausted hypothesis — which in fact they are. From the same BBC article previously cited:
Dr Schweitzer is not making any grand claims that these soft traces are the degraded remnants of the original material — only that they give that appearance.

She and other scientists will want to establish if some hitherto unexplained fine-scale process has been at work in MOR 1125, which was pulled from the famous dinosaur rocks of eastern Montana known as the Hell Creek Formation. (BBC 2005; emphasis added)
Rich Deem, writing at the creationist site godandscience.org, explains:
[Schweitzer] indicated that the bones have a distinct odor, characteristic of “embalming fluids.” Therefore, it is possible that the bones landed in some chemical stew that preserved the soft tissue inside from decomposition….The new study reveals that the cortical bone within T rex [femora] may, under certain conditions, retain cellular and subcellular details. Under normal conditions, fossilization replaces living material with minerals. In this case, the soft tissue was protected from degradation, possibly through some chemical process, then desiccated to prevent further changes. (Deem nd; emphasis added)
Creationists know a weak spot when they see one, and dodgy phrases like “some hitherto unexplained fine-scale process” and “some chemical stew” advertise a weak spot like a giant gorilla balloon over a used car lot. The fact that the weakness is in our understanding of fossils, not of evolution or the age of the earth, is a subtle distinction that creationists do not make and their audience does not grasp.

Often the best defense is a frank admission of ignorance. “How do you explain the presence of soft tissue in a 65 million year old fossil?” Based on what we really know about fossils (and assuming the soft tissues are real and not just globs of glue) the best answer to this journalistic question is “I have no idea. But since we don’t know very much about why things become fossils in the first place, that’s not surprising. What we do know is that this particular fossil is 65 million years old.” Neat narratives like the Tin Man story are betrayals of the honest ignorance that is the heart and engine of science.

Things Fall Apart

Everyday experience teaches us that dead organisms and their traces do not last long when they are exposed to the ordinary wear and tear of the earth’s surface: scavengers of all sizes, the effects of sunlight, mechanical and chemical weathering, and so on. From this experience it is easy to apprehend the notion that things spontaneously fall apart unless some process intervenes to preserve them. To the extent that “fossilization” means anything, it means preservation from destruction.

Organic remains must not be destroyed if they are to endure, yet there is a subtle but important error in jumping from this tautology to the view that preservation is an active process. Preservation is nothing more than the evasion of the process of decay. Decay, not preservation, is the active process; and decay can be avoided in many — perhaps in infinitely many — ways. If nothing happens to stop it, a dead organism will become a fossil. This applies to all parts of the organism, soft tissues as well as hard.

Imagine that, before you leave your house in the morning, you put a rock on your kitchen table. When you return home that evening, you expect the rock to be there. It would never occur to you to think of a cause for its still being there, because things that do not happen do not have causes. If nothing happened to change it, the rock still would be there after a week, or a year or a hundred years. Not finding the rock where you left it is what would demand an explanation, regardless of how long you left the rock untended.

This reasoning would also apply if you built a house of cards on your kitchen table. A house of cards is intrinsically less stable than a rock, so upon your return you would not be surprised to find that it had collapsed. In fact, you might be surprised to find it still standing, especially if you had been gone for a long time or you owned cats. But even so, if the house of cards did survive, you would not invoke a special process to explain this. You might say “I didn’t expect that — it must be stronger than I thought,” but I doubt that you would ask yourself what stabilizing force, or process, intervened to spare your creation. Merely extending the time that you left the house of cards standing would not change this. If you checked back in a billion years from now you would be amazed to find your continent in the same place you left it, not to mention your kitchen and its tabletop sculpture. But if you did find the house of cards intact, it still would not demand a cause. Again, things that do not happen do not have causes.

The same is true of fossils. We may be surprised to find fragile structures and materials, that in ordinary experience are impermanent, preserved after millions of years; but preservation does not have a cause. Preservation simply means that nothing has happened. This is not to deny that the continued existence of fossils has explanations, and it is true that certain conditions strongly favor the preservation of fossils; but these explanations and conditions are not the cause of the fossil’s survival, any more than not taking a pain killer is the cause of pain. The fossil owes its survival to its own intrinsic stability.

The Stability of Unstable Things

No part of any organic remain is absolutely stable. For example Fastovsky and Weishampel are correct when they note that apatite in bone is unstable at surface temperature and pressure. Indeed bone apatite is unstable at any pressure and temperature and will tend to recrystalize into other, more stable, minerals. But, as Fastovsky and Weishampel point out, this does not mean that bone mineral actually will make this change. The mere fact that something is unstable does not mean that it will decay, just as the fact that a house of cards is unstable does not mean that it will fall down. Decay happens only if the bone is in an environment that permits it.

But even if we know that a material is unstable and is in an environment that permits it to decay, we still know nothing about how quickly that decay will happen. It can be easy to determine the thermodynamic stability of materials, but it is notoriously difficult to predict the rate at which an unstable material actually will decay into something else, or even if it will decay at all. All forms of carbon other than carbon dioxide are thermodynamically unstable in the earth’s oxygen rich atmosphere, yet we live in a world full of carbon-based paper, plastic, tables, clothes, and carpets; and have adopted one of the most thermodynamically unstable forms of carbon, the diamond, as a symbol of permanence. Many familiar minerals, including pyrite, feldspar, and quartz, are unstable on or near the earth’s surface. Yet we do not marvel at the discovery of intact grains of quartz in half-billion year old sandstone.

Human versus Chemical Time

The crux of the creationist argument that the MOR T rex could not be more than a few thousand years old is the commonsense idea that the older the fossil, the more altered it will be. This also is part of the Tin Man story. But the relationship between age and alteration is not as straightforward as common sense would suggest, because the humans experience time differently than molecules and atoms.

The various processes that cause decay tend to work on very short time scales. As humans, we would regard a chemical compound that completely degrades after one minute as extremely unstable, but from a molecule’s point of view a minute is a very long time. A molecule that has survived for a minute has beat the odds; it has survived trillions of bond-straining vibrations and contortions, and assaults from an army of chemical agents that destroy most molecules almost the instant they form.

Radioactivity provides us with a well-studied example of how decay processes work. Atomic nuclei contain protons and neutrons. In theory protons and neutrons could be combined in an infinite number of ways. For example, we could combine one proton with 100 neutrons and make a nucleus of hydrogen-101. But this nucleus would be so unstable that it would break apart the instant that it formed. Almost all conceivable combinations of protons and neutrons are so unstable that for all practical purposes they cannot exist.

There are about 4800 exceptions, nuclides that are stable enough to be studied. About 400 of these nuclides are so stable that they are called “stable nuclides”: they either do not decay, or decay so slowly that we have not observed it. The remaining 4400 nuclides are known to decay, with half-lives ranging from a few millionths of a second to over one trillion years.

Among these unstable nuclides, the median half-life is about two minutes. This means that if you randomly assembled nuclei and measured the half lives of those that were stable enough to hold together for a millionth of a second or so, the average half life would be about two minutes. From a human point of view, two minutes is a very short time. But in the first two minutes of its existence, nature has expended half of its destructive arsenal at any randomly constructed nucleus; such a nucleus will experience the same total intensity of destructive forces during its first two minutes that it will experience during the next trillion years. In terms of the likelihood of decay, two minutes is half way to a trillion years. About 97% of unstable nuclides have half-lives shorter than 75 years. So, from a nuclide’s point of view, a human lifespan and the age of the universe are about the same.

The same is true of the molecules and crystals that make up organic remains. When thinking of how a dead plant or animal decays, we tend to concentrate on processes that occur on time scales that are easy for humans to observe, and then extrapolate these into the future. But humans observe only the very early stages of decay, a period corresponding to the first few minutes in the life of a nuclide. Even so, we observe the same steep decline in the rate of decay that nuclides display. A raccoon that dies in your attic will decompose rapidly for a month or so, but thereafter will change little for many years. Unless someone moves it, the coyote skull on my shelf will still be there tomorrow, 20 years from now, and 1000 years from now.

From the point of view of a fossil, 1000 years probably is a lot closer to 100 million years than it is to a month. If the preservational state of a fossil correlates in any law-like way with its age, it most likely is with the nth root of its age, and not its age directly.

Conclusion

Anyone who believes that fossils must undergo radical transformations in substance that are proportional to their age will always be confounded by discoveries such as those reported by Schweitzer and others (2005). For over 100 years the scientific world regularly has been surprised by accounts of fossil bones that are so “extraordinarily well preserved” that microscopic details, such as the cavities left by bone cells, still can be seen. Yet such preservation is not only common, but in some categories of fossils it is the rule. Probably most fossil bone preserves microscopic detail, and exquisite preservation also is common in plant, mollusk, and many other kinds of fossils.

Exquisite preservation is surprising only because it clashes with poorly supported preconceptions about what fossils are and how they form, preconceptions that are reflected in loaded yet ambiguous terms like “fossilization.” We cannot properly describe any fossil as “extraordinary” unless we first know what “ordinary” is. This is something that paleontologists only are beginning to understand.

The creationists have found a real weakness in the way scientists discuss fossils and hardly should be blamed for using this weakness to their advantage. The creationist challenge provides us with a good opportunity to clarify our thinking, and with object lessons in the dangers of using poorly defined terms when clarity is needed, and substituting time-honored narrative for real knowledge.

References

[BBC] British Broadcasting Corporation. 2005 Mar 24. T rex fossil has “soft tissues”. Available on-line at ; last accessed May 1, 2006.

Bocherens H. 1997. Chemical composition of dinosaur fossils. In: Currie P, Padian K, editors. The Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. San Diego: Academic Press. p 111–17.

Deem R. nd. Dinosaur soft tissue found in T rex bones. Available on-line at ; last accessed May 1, 2006.

Fastovsky DE, Weishampel DB. 2005. The Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jacobs L. 1993. Quest for the African Dinosaurs: Ancient Roots of the Modern World. New York: Villard.

Schweitzer MH, Wittmeyer JL, Horner JR, Toporski JK. 2005. Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science 307: 1952–5.

Sherwin F. 2005. The devastating issue of dinosaur tissue. Acts and Facts 34 (6): 5. Available on-line at ; last accessed May 1, 2006.

About the Author(s): 
Joe Skulan
Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Wisconsin, Madison
1215 W Dayton St
Madison WI 53706
jlskulan@geology.wisc.edu

Entropy in Muffins

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Entropy in Muffins: Why Evolution Does Not Violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics
Author(s): 

Patricia Princehouse, Case Western Reserve University

Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
27
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

 


Anti-evolutionists get a lot of mileage out of this chestnut because it uses scientific terms like “thermodynamics” and “entropy” to bolster their contention that evolution is unscientific. In fact, local increases in complexity/order are not only completely consistent with thermodynamics, but even expected by the theory. Nevertheless, anti-evolutionists contend: “Evolutionary theory stands in obvious defiance of the Second Law” and “Evolution teaches that life increases in complexity, and therefore defies the second law. …The second law says that everything in our world and in the universe is like a wound-up clock that is running down” (http://www.pathlights.com/ce_encyclopedia/Encyclopedia/18law03.htm or http://evolutionfacts.com/Appendix/a25.htm; see also http://www.cryingvoice.com/Evolution/Physics.html (link broken)). This ruse works best with an audience that is already inclined to hope that evolution is not true, and requires that the audience does not already understand thermodynamics. This burdens the defender of evolution with having to explain not only all of evolutionary theory but thermodynamics on top. I’ve found that the following explanation often works pretty well to help folks understand basic implications of the Second Law as it relates to life on earth and evolution.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has to do with entropy — the entropy of the universe increases during any spontaneous process. A traditional way to understand this is that disorder increases in an isolated (closed) system. This is where some muffins come in handy.

 

  1. Imagine you have 6 muffins hot from the oven and 6 frozen in the freezer.You place the dozen muffins in a special box alternating hot with cold muffins. You place a lid on the box, which will not allow any heat inside the box to escape or any outside temperature to affect the muffins. All heat in the muffins will remain in the box (a closed system).
  2. Inside the box, your system is highly ordered: hot, cold, hot, cold. The average temperature in the box is obtained by averaging the temperature of all the muffins together. As time goes by, the heat from the hot muffins mixes with the cold from the frozen muffins to produce a situation where all muffins are the same temperature. Notice that the average temperature is still the same as it was when the muffins first went into the box; only the arrangement of the heat has changed. Entropy has increased; your system is no longer ordered.
  3. To keep your system ordered, you would have to have some sort of action or intervention system that would continue to heat the hot muffins and cool the frozen ones. This energy would have to come from outside the system (as it does in the case of a refrigerator, which must be plugged into an external energy source). So you could keep the system ordered, but to do so you would have to have an open system (where energy can flow in).
  4. Life is similar.You might have two human beings who seek to increase order by making the two human bodies into three. In a closed system, this increase in order would be impossible. But humans exist in an open system where they take matter and energy in and can spin out additional humans at the rate of one every 9–12 months.
  5. This is because the earth is not a closed system. Energy from the sun is like a giant generator powering life on earth. Plants increase the order and complexity in their own bodies as they grow from seed to flower (using the sun’s light directly plus the minerals and water in the earth and the carbon from the atmosphere). Herbivores use the energy in plants, carnivores use herbivores, and so on. So a huge cascade of complexity is built on the very simple source of energy from the sun.
  6. If the earth were a closed system, then every living organism on earth would be defying entropy on a daily basis. But...
  7. The earth is not a closed system; thus, respiration, growth, reproduction, and evolution happen on earth on a daily basis without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
  8. Many physicists think the universe as a whole is a closed system. That is, not only will the sun burn out some day with the result that life on earth will no longer have the external energy source it needs (actually worse things will probably destroy life on earth before that, as the sun will probably expand and cook everything well before it burns out), but eventually all the energy in the universe — currently arranged like the muffins in the closed box — will even out to the point where no order will exist at all.When the muffins are all the same temperature, the game is over.
  9. However, many physicists think that long before the universe falls into total entropy, other things will happen to the overall structure of the universe, so it hardly makes sense to talk about the entire universe as a closed system anyway.

One caveat: Do not look for the muffin example to cover all of physical theory comprehensively. It discusses entropy in terms of the classical theory of thermodynamics. Quantum mechanics and relativity theory put a different spin on it. Since we do not really have conservation of energy in general relativity, it is hard to say what a really comprehensive thermodynamics will look like once the physicists work it out. However, the more Einsteinian versions of thermodynamics thus far all look far worse for the anti-evolutionist objection than does the classical theory. For a more advanced treatment of classical thermodynamics, see http://www.entropylaw.com/.
 

About the Author(s): 

Patricia Princehouse
Department of Philosophy
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland OH 44106

Patricia Princehouse teaches evolutionary biology and the history and philosophy of science at Case Western Reserve University, and also serves as the president of Ohio Citizens for Science (http://princehouse.homestead.com/NaturalSelection.html).

Review: Into the Cool

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
25
Year: 
2005
Issue: 
5–6
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
44–45
Reviewer: 
Sonya Bahar, University of Missouri at St Louis
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Into the Cool
Author(s): 
Eric D Schneider and Dorion Sagan
2005. University Of Chicago Press.
As readers of RNCSE are undoubtedly all too aware, a familiar creationist argument runs as follows: since the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that disorder is increasing, how can evolution, which involves an increase in complexity, possibly have occurred? The answer has been repeated before almost every school board in the country, and in more than a few courtrooms: first, the Second Law of Thermodynamics addresses an increase in the total entropy of a system, but does not in any way preclude local decreases, and, second, there are other driving forces aside from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as the last few decades of research on self-organization in complex systems have amply shown. How those other “organizing” forces actually drive evolution, self-organization, and complexity, however, remains a wide-open question and a very active area of interdisciplinary research.

Eric D Schneider and Dorion Sagan weigh in on the argument with their new book Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermo-dynamics and Life. Their central thesis is contained in the striking catchphrase “nature abhors a gradient”; they propose that it is the flow of energy down gradients that is the central driving force that balances the Second Law’s drive toward disorder. It is a striking and provocative thesis and certain to inspire new ways of thinking in many scientists studying complexity in biological systems. Unfortunately, the catchphrase is unlikely to provide as sweeping a solution as the authors propose, and it is packaged in a book that suffers from a number of flaws likely to put off many readers. The book may aim for the sharp clarity of Richard Dawkins, or the charm and scintillating wit of Stephen Jay Gould (the flyleaf even makes a comparison to Darwin!). But, plagued by overblown hyperbole and intellectual sloppiness, it falls far short.

The book begins with a clichéd review of the history of science. Newton enters, straight out of central casting, accompanied by his faithful “clockwork universe”, and endless references to apples. A wince-inducing chapter subheading reads: “Clunk Goes the Clockwork Cosmos”. The section begins with a description of Robert Boyle’s work in the “twilight of thermodynamics”. One would think that authors who show a deep concern for time’s arrow (“Thermodynamics had released the arrow of time,” they write on page 36. “It went quivering into Newton’s shiny smooth apple, generating heat as friction.”) would appreciate the distinction between twilight (end of the day) and dawn (beginning), which is, historically, where Boyle was in relation to the history of thermodynamics. One might be struck by the quivering-arrow metaphor, but the metaphors fall too thick and fast to be taken seriously. “The wake-up call [of thermodynamics] is still reverberating in the collective scientific mind, still groggy from Newton’s dreams.” “Classical thermodynamics upset the Newtonian applecart.” You get the idea.

The authors set up a false dichotomy between the “celestial clockwork” and thermodynamics, which “messed all that up. It measured loss, and implied that — despite the magnificent motions of the planets — time moves in only one direction. The direction of burning.” But Newton was familiar with burning: he was an alchemist, whose mystical views strongly influenced his science. Neither scholars nor the readers of a popular science book (and Into the Cool, published by a university press, appears to aim to be more than that) should be treated to such a cartoon version of the history of science.

Having dispensed with Newton and Boyle, we enter the history of thermodynamics. Following a discussion of irreversibility, the authors’ attempt at metaphor turns ugly as they refer to Ludwig Boltzmann’s suicide as “an irreversible act”. If this is an attempt at humor, it is unnecessary and cruel.

Into the Cool becomes equally problematic when it moves toward the exposition of the authors’ “grand theory” that thermodynamic gradients drive evolution. This exposition, to the reader’s great frustration, is approached, but never consummated. The mechanism by which a system’s motion down a gradient leads to complexity remains unexplained, unless one can infer that this occurs simply because competition for more efficient methods of exploiting gradients drives evolution. The authors do make this point, but they constantly imply that more is going on than this — but what that “more” is, they never clearly articulate.

The authors replace clear exposition of a scientific idea by the use of sweeping metaphors that hold little substance. “Separate from the world, we are yet inextricably connected to it.” (How are we separate from the world?) A paragraph later: “Metastable processes underlie the selves we mistake for things.” And finally, one which had this reviewer’s metastable self reaching for the unstable equilibrium of a stiff drink, “… the cyclical pendulum of scientific overreaction has perhaps reached its apex, coming to just that point where the potential energy of its historical emphasis is ready to give way to the kinetic energy of physics as a factor in macroevolutionary explanation” (p 152).

Excessive tendency toward metaphor and cliché could be forgiven, were it balanced by clear exposition of a strong idea. The idea of the central role of gradients in the organization of life is tantalizing, intriguing, and definitely worth pondering. But the authors never settle down to a clear exposition of how gradients lead to increased complexity. They skitter from one subheading (“Mousetraps and Dynamite”, “Toward a Science of Creative Destruction”, and so on) to another, never staying in one place long enough to build a coherent argument. The book is also frustratingly filled with scientific inaccuracies: bifurcation is confused with bistability (Figure 6.1), hysteresis is mistakenly defined as “retardation or lagging” (p 129), population biology is confused with population genetics (p 145), and on the same page we are told that “Darwin connected all living beings through time to a single origin.” Did he?

More frustrating than the inaccuracies, and the arguments that begin but are never completed, are the arguments that simply make no sense. The authors decry algorithmic models of complexity, inexplicably conflating such models with the idea that the laws of physics change, and condemning both “inevitable casualt[ies] of a thoroughgoing evolutionary world-view.” How does the emergence of complex structures from simple algorithmic rules relate to the notion of the gradual changing of fundamental constants of nature? If there is a connection, it is far from obvious, and it is certainly not explained.

Despite its inaccuracies and hyperbolic atmosphere, Into the Cool raises provocative questions as to the role of thermodynamic gradients in the origin of complexity and in evolution. It is a shame that Schneider and Sagan develop these ideas neither clearly nor fully, and fail to set them in the context of other well-studied influences on the development of complexity in living organisms. Had they done so, the authors might have made a much stronger case for the primacy of gradients.

About the Author(s): 
Sonya Bahar
Center for Neurodynamics
Department of Physics & Astronomy
University of Missouri at St Louis
One University Boulevard
St Louis MO 63121
bahars@umsl.edu

Review: The Plausibility of Life

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
25
Year: 
2005
Issue: 
5–6
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
52–53
Reviewer: 
Andrew J Petto, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma
Author(s): 
Marc W Kirschner and John C Gerhardt
2005. Yale University Press.
The diversity of life forms throughout the history of life on earth is so engaging and impressive that it is easy to overlook the other side of the coin: the continuity that connects all organisms to an array of common ancestors. In fact, any evolutionary model that used only data on divergence and none on conserved traits would fail to make any sense of the emergence of new species from ancestral ones. In The Plausibility of Life, Kirschner and Gerhardt focus on a number of conserved “core cellular processes” shared by all living things. Their thesis is that these core processes represent successful innovations that are inherited by evolutionary descendants. However, they argue that the success of these processes lies not in their highly specified functions, but in their abilities to produce quite variable outcomes under different environmental conditions.

In essence, this is the negation of the “irreducible complexity” argument of “intelligent design” proponents. The authors show how a single molecule with a highly specified function can perform a different one under different environmental conditions. In other words, the molecular imperative for the cell is flexibility, not specificity. The apparent specificity that we observe is so reliably produced, they argue, because the genome is selected for adaptability. How else could such complex organisms so full of complex biochemical and developmental pathways be produced with so few genes?

Kirschner and Gerhardt explore several specific examples in the text that illustrate their points quite effectively. They give examples of metabolic processes, body-plan evolution, developmental and regulatory change, and morphological specialization (for example, adaptations for flight). Two of the key concepts are weak linkage and exploratory behavior.

The first of these is based on the observation that there are many steps between the DNA sequence for a particular protein and the outcome of the process in which that protein will participate. In a number of well-documented cases, a protein produces a weak signal that produces a particular effect only under specific conditions. The “linkages” between the form and function are “weak” or “easily forged and broken” without any significant genetic change in the organism (p 110–1). This allows new pathways and new linkages to be formed to produce new pathways and products while retaining substantially the same DNA sequence.

Exploratory behavior is viewed from both organismal and cellular perspectives as the basis for the appearance of complex organization from simple actions. In the case of ant foraging, it is clear that the brains of ants do not encode territorial or resource “maps” but build a successful complex foraging strategy based on the accumulation of the results of random foraging behaviors. In the case of the development of blood vessels and nerves, the authors show how these structures emerge in response to signals generated by the target tissues so that they grow in the “right” directions and connect to the “right” cells. This exploratory behavior — whether cellular or organismal — produces complex outcomes from simple conditions, and, as the authors point out using the examples of the pattern of blood vessels that we all can see in the skin of our arms and hands, highly variable ones even within the same individual.

These two examples capture only a bit of the flavor of this book, which extracts the results from contemporary research and presents them in a format for nonspecialists. The authors succeed in illustrating their points from the biochemical to the behavioral levels of the organismal hierarchy with examples from each of the levels in between. They are frank about what is known and what is still to be learned, but they present a strong case for the conservation of core processes that allow for the evolution of complex, highly specific functions, but that also allow organisms to adapt these structure-function complexes to a variety of conditions with a variety of outcomes depending on the environment in which the organisms operates. Indeed, in their view of the evolution of complex structures, what is now a mousetrap could easily have started out as a starting gate or a spring latch. The conserved core process is geared to producing components, but the assembly and final configuration are anything but foreordained.

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413
ajpetto@uwm.edu

Reviews: Evolution 101

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Evolution 101: Finding a Solid Introduction
Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto (Reviewer)
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
50–51
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evolution
Author(s): 
Leslie Alan Horvitz
Indianapolis (IN): Alpha Books, 2002. 310 pages
Work under Review
Title: 
Evolution: A Very Short Introduction
Author(s): 
Brian and Deborah Charlesworth
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 135 pages.


As we travel around the country talking with people about evolution education, one question comes up over and over: “What would you suggest as a good way to get the basics of evolution so we know what we are talking about?” There ought to be an easy answer, but there are very few books available that are suitable for a general audience. There are, however, two books that we always carry to these public events: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution and Evolution: A Very Short Introduction. Ideally, the book written for a general audience would combine the best aspects of these two … and eliminate the worst.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide is the more “user-friendly” because of its design and format. It is brightly colored and the cover has that distinct bright orange border that marks it as one of a series of Complete Idiot’s Guides, making it stand out among the books on the shelf. The text is accessible and broken up by a number of boxes, sidebars, highlights, and special features. One of the best of these is a bulleted list at the end of every chapter entitled “The Least You Need to Know”. This book is easy to read, and it is easy to pick up again after a few days without having to go back and re-read several pages or sections. The book is also strong on the historical and cultural contexts of both evolutionary thinking and of anti-evolutionism.

The main problem with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution is that it is full of errors. Some of these are terms that are misused throughout. For example, Horvitz uses ”development” as a synonym for “evolution” — an error we keep trying to prevent people from making. He defines a mutation as “differences in offspring of an organism” (p 101) — something most biologists refer to as biological variation. On page 215, he asks which of two Australopithecines “truly represented early hominids?” The correct answer, of course, is “both”, but Horvitz seems to be more interested in which of these taxa is the direct ancestor of modern humans, in which case the correct answer is most likely “neither”. And on page 287, he conflates hybridization (“cross-breeding”) with selective breeding.

For every concept clearly described and explained, there seems to be one of these serious, fundamental errors. Because of these problems, it is difficult to recommend this book, despite its general ease of use and attractiveness to the general public. At least it should not be used without proper supervision.

Evolution: A Very Short Introduction is everything that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution is not. The contents are thorough, well-organized, and up-to-date. There are eight very succinct chapters with writing that is clear and to the point. The format is not user-friendly, however. The text is densely packed and there are few illustrations and other “diversions” from the text.

The writing is excellent, as one would expect from these authors, and the contents, of course, are accurate. The authors give a clear explanation of the current state of evolutionary theory and research, as well as exploring some unanswered questions and some disagreements among scientists regarding particular models or research issues.

For all that Evolution: A Very Short Introduction has to offer, it is not a book that would be picked up off the shelf at the local bookseller’s or library. We often recommend it to general audiences, but make it clear that it has to be read carefully, because there is so much “coverage” of important information in a very few words. The reading level is not difficult, but it does require that the reader be conscientious and attentive to the text. This is not for the casual reader.

In the end, the book we would like to see is one that combines the best aspects of these two: one that is accurate and up-to-date, but also “user friendly”. To be useful to a general readership, the many checkpoints, sidebars, marginalia, and end-of-chapter lists help to reinforce what can be complex content. On the other hand, these reference points for the reader can improve understanding of evolution only if they contain accurate information.

Even though neither one of these alone completely meets the need for a good, clear account of the basics of evolution, together they contain valuable resources. Neither, however, should be used as the sole source of information for a general audience.

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413
ajpetto@uwm.edu

The Life Science Prize

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Life Science Prize
Author(s): 
Michael Zimmerman, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2005
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
33–34
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.


In February 1870, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder with Charles Darwin of the concept of natural selection, responded to an advertisement in a journal entitled Scientific Opinion placed by members of the Flat Earth Society. The event, most recently told by Ross Slotten in his biography of Wallace (The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), was described by Wallace as “the most regrettable” incident in his life. The ad enticed Wallace because, short on funds, he saw an easy way to make some money. The Flat Earthers “offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could prove that the earth was a sphere.” The society said it was ready to put up £500 if the contestant would match. An impartial judge would review the evidence and award the money to the winner. As Slotten says, “The offer was perhaps too good to be true, but because of his knowledge of the techniques of land surveying Wallace knew that he could easily win the bet.” Indeed, he did — but the Flat Earthers began years of lawsuits and harassment of Wallace.

On February 14, 2004, a slow Saturday, I received an e-mail from a Teno Groppi inviting me to contend for the “Life Science Prize”. Like the Flat Earthers over a century earlier, Groppi and his friends outlined a contest in which both parties would put money in escrow and a “judge” would decide on the winner. Groppi said the “Life Science Prize” required a $10 000 deposit from me and from my presumptive opponent, one Joseph Mastropaolo. Groppi went on to add, “If the evolutionist proves evolution is science and creation is religion, he wins the $20 000. If the creation scientist proves that creation is science and evolution is religion, then the creationist collects the $20 000. The standards of evidence will be those of science: objectivity, validity, reliability and calibration. The preponderance of the evidence prevails.” Groppi concluded his note with the following challenge: “If the task is too threatening for individual evolutionists, Dr Mastropaolo will entertain suggestions for terms that will bolster the courage of Darwinian dogmatists.”

Coming to Terms

Having decided years before that it is futile to debate creationists, and knowing full well that the “Life Science Prize” was a scam designed to lure the unsuspecting into just such a debate, I decided to have some fun. I immediately wrote back saying how pleased and proud I was to be invited to contend for the prize. I also outlined my terms: “We would agree, at the outset, on our definitions. ... For a definition of evolution, we would use that which is in virtually every biology textbook for the past half century: Evolution is a change in allele frequencies in a population over time. For creation we would use that promoted by the Creation Research Society.

“Members of the society,” I continued, “had to sign the following oath attesting to the fact that they believe in the following:
1) The Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired thruout [sic], all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the student of nature, this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.

2) All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during creation Week as described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since creation have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds.

3) The great flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Deluge, was an historical event, worldwide in its extent and effects.

4) Finally, we are an organization of Christian men of science, who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman, and their subsequent Fall into sin, is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all mankind. Therefore, salvation can come only thru [sic] accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.


Alternatively, if you prefer a simpler definition of creation, I would be happy to go with that offered by the now defunct Bible-Science Association. Their statement of faith reads: ‘Belief in Special Creation; Literal Bible Interpretation; Divine Design and purpose in Nature; a Young Earth; a Universal Noachian Flood; Christ as God and Man—Our Savior; Christ-Centered Scientific Research.’”

I went on to address two additional points. “You talk about some debate. That confuses me. I’m not sure what the contest you propose has to do with a debate. Certainly you are not implying that a collection of individuals who are not necessarily educated in science, religion, or philosophy somehow serve as the judge for this contest.

“You also talk about handing the money to ‘the judge,’ which leads me to believe that you do not really mean that there will be a debate of the sort alluded to above, but you fail to mention who the judge might be. I propose that we select an individual with impeccable credentials in both science and religion. Perhaps someone like Dr Francisco Ayala. He is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Science, as well as an ordained [priest]. Of course I would be open to someone else, as long as his or her credentials were appropriate. At a bare minimum, I would require that the judge be a member of the National Academy of Science. I would then propose that both Dr Mastropaolo and I submit a text of, say, no more than 2000 words to the judge outlining our case. The judge will then determine the winner.”

“Negotiations”

Groppi wrote back telling me that “change in allele frequency is about as meaningless a definition of evolution as can be offered.” And then the fun really began. I had been copying Mastropaolo on my e-mails, and he too railed against my proffered definition of evolution and provided his own “rules” for the debate, including his own definitions. He asserted, for example, that “evolution is the development of an organism from its chemicals to its primitive state to its present state.” And he said that the “judge” would be “a superior court judge” since, after all, “there is no science outside the intellectual jurisdiction of the superior court judge.” He also began a series of ad hominem remarks by stating that I “may not be competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.”

I responded by indicating that I might be able to make arrangements for a federal district judge from the 9th circuit in California (assumed to be the most liberal circuit in the country) to serve. Alternatively, I said that I could get a local judge in Wisconsin to participate if he preferred. I also said that, through my connections as a consultant a number of years back to NBC, I might be able to attract the interest of either Dateline or Jay Leno. And, I added, that because of my past work as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, I should be able to generate some fairly hefty media attention — but he would have to firm up the rules and the definitions, as well as set a firm date for our contest. Mastropaolo repeatedly told me that I had the rules and continued with various ad hominem attacks. He wrote, for example, “Evolutionist hallucinators so out of touch with reality are psychotic by medical dictionary definition, and therefore not mentally competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.”

When I repeatedly said that the “rules” I had been given made no sense, Mastropaolo composed an e-mail to me in the name of Teno Groppi. He chastised me for not “paying attention,” and then, under Groppi’s e-mail header pasted in rules from his own web page saying that I had been given those rules days before.

Knowing the opposition

After completing a web search to try to figure out who Mastropaolo was, I sent messages to some of the organizations with which he claimed to be affiliated. I wrote, for example, to the Institute for Creation Research where Mastropaolo claimed to hold adjunct faculty status. The response I got back was fascinating: “Dr Mastropaolo is not on ICR’s staff.” When I wrote back numerous times pointing out that Mastropaolo regularly claimed affiliation with ICR, I was told that while, in fact, he did hold adjunct status, it did not mean anything and that they did not want to correspond with me any longer!

Mastropaolo was also listed on the advisory council of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation so I wrote to the director, Hugh Owen, explaining about the e-mail fabrication undertaken by Mastropaolo. We engaged in quite an extended exchange while Owen claimed to be “investigating” the matter. Somewhat surprisingly, he asserted what I can only call a belief in situational ethics when he claimed that “in our Catholic Christian tradition, the morality of an action depends on the object chosen, the circumstances of the action, and the end in view,” and asserted that Mastropaolo did not really do anything wrong because my motives were not pure enough! He then demanded that I apologize to Mastropaolo for my attempts to destroy his reputation or he would contact my “superior”.

After I told Owen how to file a formal grievance against me at the University, he wrote a letter to my Vice Chancellor demanding that he do something about my unfair attacks on Mastropaolo. Needless to say, nothing came of his letter. (Indeed over the past two decades, at two different institutions, my supervisors have received many such letters complaining about me because of the very public stances I’ve taken in support of evolution and sound environmental practices.) Owen also said that he would no longer correspond with me, adding, “I will continue to hope and pray that we will meet in Heaven one day.”

Are they really serious?

My experience with the Life Science Prize extended over two months, involved detailed correspondence with numerous people, all of whom made it clear that they would refuse to discuss the matter any further, and each resulted in a letter of complaint to my supervisor. Since the level of frustration evidenced by my correspondents continued to rise with every e-mail, and since the ad hominem attacks on me increased over time, I consider the experience to have been a great success. And none of this even considers the fun I was having responding to each e-mail pointing out the lack of substance in the responses I was receiving while begging for an opportunity to work out an agreeable arrangement to permit me to contend for the Life Science Prize. Because all of this was done in a semi-private setting, with copies of the e-mail exchanges being distributed to a select group of people, the circus-like atmosphere usually associated with “debates” never took place.

One last point! Although the rules associated with the Life Science Prize were similar to the challenge to which Alfred Russel Wallace responded, apparently anti-evolutionary forces took their challenges more seriously a century ago; the “winner” of the Life Science Prize would walk away with $20 000 while the “winner” of the flat earth challenge would have earned approximately $91 980 in today’s dollars.

About the Author(s): 
Michael Zimmerman
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
College of Letters and Science
800 Algoma Blvd
Oshkosh WI 54901