Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding a short e-mail message announcing a presentation in Austin by Barbara Forrest. The Austin American-Statesman (2007 Nov 29) reported, "Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, 'FYI.'" Less than two hours later, Lizzette Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, complained to Comer's supervisors, writing, "This is highly inappropriate ... I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities ... it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
The e-mail message that Comer forwarded, which was originally sent by NCSE, announced a talk by Barbara Forrest on the history of the "intelligent design" movement and her expert testimony in Kitzmiller v Dover, in which teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was ruled to be unconstitutional. Forrest is a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a member of NCSE's board of directors; she also is the coauthor (with Paul R Gross) of Creationism's Trojan Horse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
The e-mail was then cited in a memorandum recommending Comer's termination, the American-Statesman noted:"They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, [but] 'it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.' The memo adds, 'Ms Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.'" Other reasons for recommending her termination were listed in addition.
But Comer told the newspaper that she thought that the longstanding political controversy over evolution education in Texas was the main cause of her termination: "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott suggested that Comer's termination seemed to be a warning to TEA employees. "This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."
Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which advances a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right, also expressed her concern. "It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller told the American-Statesman. Alluding to previous battles over the place of evolution in Texas science standards and textbooks, she added, "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."
The news soon attracted further attention and comment. First to decry Comer's termination was Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which promptly called on the TEA to rehire Comer in a press release dated November 28, 2007. AU's executive director, the Reverend Barry W Lynn, remarked, "It's a sad day when a science expert can lose her job merely for recommending that people hear a speaker defend sound science ... Officials in Texas seem intent on elevating fundamentalist dogma over academic excellence and common sense."
Then, in a report dated November 29, 2007 (available online at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/tea-science-director-resigns.htm), Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science contended that the real reason that Comer was forced to resign was her defense of the integrity of science education during her long tenure at TEA. Describing Comer as a martyr of science, he added, "But she will not be a victim," predicting that scientists and science teachers in Texas will be "outraged by her treatment by a state agency that is now publicly and officially forgoing accurate and reliable science to serve the ideological and religious biases of a small minority of state public education officials."
Barbara Forrest herself was aghast at the news, telling NCSE, "In my talk, I simply told the truth — about the history of the 'intelligent design' movement, about the complete rejection of its claims by the scientific community, and about the Kitzmiller trial and my involvement in it. Maybe the TEA can't afford to take a position on what constitutes good science education — maybe it must remain neutral on whether or not to lie to students about evolution — but if so, that's just sad."
Bringing the issue to national attention was The New York Times. Ralph Blumenthal reported (2007 Dec 3):
After 27 years as a science teacher and 9 years as the Texas Education Agency's director of science, Christine Castillo Comer said she did not think she had to remain "neutral" about teaching the theory of evolution. But now Ms Comer, 56, of Austin, is out of a job, after forwarding an e-mail message on a talk about evolution and creationism — "a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," according to a dismissal letter last month that accused her of various instances of "misconduct and insubordination" and of siding against creationism and the doctrine that life is the product of "intelligent design".
"I don't see how I took a position by FYI-ing on a lecture like I FYI on global warming or stem-cell research," Comer told Blumenthal. "I send around all kinds of stuff, and I'm not accused of endorsing it." The article added, "But she said that as a career science educator, 'I'm for good science,' and that when it came to teaching evolution, 'I don't think it's any stretch of the imagination where I stand.'"
The following day, the Times expressed concern about Comer's termination on its editorial page, and in Texas, too, newspaper editorials were critical of the TEA. Additionally, the American Institute for Biological Sciences issued a press release on December 6, 2007, expressing outrage at the fact, expressed in the memorandum recommending Comer's termination, that "the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism." "When it comes to science education, we absolutely cannot remain neutral on evolution. Evolution is the unifying principle of modern biology," asserted Douglas J Futuyma, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. "Within biological science, the reality of evolution is not controversial."
And Barbara Forrest herself released a statement through NCSE on December 5, 2007, deploring the situation.
In forcing Chris Comer to resign as Texas Director of Science, the Texas Education Agency has confirmed in a most public, unfortunate way the central point of my Austin presentation, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse", the mere announcement of which TEA used as an excuse to terminate her: the "intelligent design" (ID) creationist movement is about politics, religion, and power. ...If anyone had any doubts about how mean-spirited ID politics is, this episode should erase them. ... For the last nine years at the TEA, after twenty-seven years as a science teacher, ... Comer was doing her part, and she got fired for doing it.
The coverage continued, with details emerging about what it was like to work at the TEA. "We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it," Comer told the Austin American-Statesman (2007 Dec 6). Over the past year, she related, the TEA began increasingly to scrutinize and constrain the activities of its employees in the curriculum department: "We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't speak," she said. "They just started wanting everything to be channeled." According to the newspaper, Comer maintained "that her ouster was political and that she felt persecuted for having supported the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms." A spokesperson for the TEA was quoted by the American-Statesman as responding, "Obviously, there was a concern about the forwarding of that e-mail ... that she was supporting that particular speaker and [how] that could be construed ... as taking a position that could be misinterpreted by some people," and as contending that Comer evinced a lack of professionalism in other ways.
Comer then appeared on NPR's "Science Friday" on December 7, 2007, relating her story to the show's host, Ira Flatow. After receiving the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, she said, "you know, I had a half minute and I said, gee, this is really interesting. And then, I looked up the credential on my computer, I Googled Barbara Forrest and I said, oh my goodness, this is quite a credential[ed] speaker. And then I thought to myself — you know, I'm telling my biology teachers almost on a weekly basis, teach the curriculum, teach the evolution curriculum because it's part of the state-mandated curriculum. And now, I should be — you know, I should be walking the talk here, and I — there's nothing wrong with this e-mail, of course."
Comer told Flatow that there were previous indications that the TEA was discouraging its employees from taking a stand on evolution. At a meeting during which employees were told that they must be careful about what they say and do, Comer recounted, she mentioned the topic of creationism:" And she said, I'm so glad you brought that up ... because it's important for us to realize that if the company line is that we endorse creationism, then that's what we have to say. I was shocked. I said, my goodness, even the president's ... own science adviser, was not held to that standard. And she said, well, I'm just telling you." Comer was apparently referring to John H Marburger III, Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, who told The New York Times (2005 Aug 3), "Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology," adding, "intelligent design is not a scientific concept."
The TEA's commissioner Robert Scott was interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 9). He denied that Comer was forced to resign just for forwarding the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, alluding to "other factors" that he was not able to discuss. Asked, "Was her advocacy of evolution over creationism an element in her dismissal?" he replied, "She wasn't advocating for evolution. But she may have given the impression that ...we were taking a position as an agency — not as an individual but as an agency — on a matter." "Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution? Texas students are required to study it," the reporter asked. Scott replied, "You can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too. I don't know all the facts, but I think that may be the real issue here." He did not explain how Comer's behavior was supposed to constitute faith-bashing.
While on "Science Friday," Comer thanked her supporters, saying, "Science educators and rational minds have really gone to bat and have written letters, made e-mails, and sent phone messages. It's really been an incredible response." More was to come.
The Society for the Study of Evolution released a statement (available on-line at http://www.evolutionsociety.org/download/ComerLtr_RP_JS_DW.pdf) reading, in part:
Professional ethics demands that one not "remain neutral" when science is deliberately misrepresented by creationists. Chris Comer thus acted responsibly and professionally in forwarding the announcement about an educational lecture regarding "Intelligent Design" creationism. In contrast, the administrators who called for her termination and who forced her resignation acted irresponsibly and in direct opposition to the professional standards expected of those who oversee science education. Their comments, quoted above, make it clear that they have sacrificed not only a dedicated public servant but also the facts and the very nature of science to partisan political ideology. It is a sad day for Texas when TEA administrators resort to Stalinist-style purging to suppress the truth about the bankruptcy of arguments.
Similarly, as the Austin American-Statesman (2007 Dec 11) reported, "More than 100 biology faculty members from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution." Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, Austin, told the newspaper, "I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," and his colleague David Hillis added that the Comer controversy represented "an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies." The letter was signed by biologists from across Texas, at both public and private universities.
Alan I Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, drove the message home, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (2007 Dec 11):
As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of science curriculum director Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, stands as both shocking and sad. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the official explanation for it. ... Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is 'no.' ... If today's students are to thrive, education leaders cannot pick and choose which scientific facts they want to accept.
A common theme in the coverage of the Comer controversy is that it foreshadows a likely clash over the place of evolution in the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the state science standards that determine both what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state. The Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 13) summarized, "The resignation of the state's science curriculum director last month has signaled the beginning of what is shaping up to be a contentious and politically charged revision of the science curriculum, set to begin in earnest in January. ... in disciplinary paperwork [officials at the TEA] stressed that she needed to remain neutral in what was becoming a tense period leading up to the first review of the science curriculum in a decade."
In 2003, there were concerted, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to misuse the TEKS to compromise the treatment of evolution in the textbooks then under consideration (see RNCSE 2003 Sep–Dec; 23 [5–6]: 4–7), and it is expected that such attempts will recur — especially since the new president of the board, Don McLeroy, is himself a vocal creationist (see RNCSE 2007 May–Aug 2007; 27 [3–4]: 6–9).
Although creationists in Texas, including McLeroy, have disavowed any intention of trying to include creationism in the TEKS, there are clear signs that they will press to include language attempting to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. Mark Ramsey, representing a group styling itself Texans for Better Science Education, was characterized, for example, as wanting "weaknesses in evolution" to be taught. (Ramsey is also associated with the Greater Houston Creation Association, as Texas Citizens for Science reported.) NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott told the Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 13), "It all boils down to the idea that to counter evolution you teach students that evolution is crummy science in the hopes that students will reject it ... It's a way of getting creationism in without the 'C' word."
For her part, Comer told the Morning News, "Any science teacher worth [her] salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy" over the scientific status of evolution. That, she said, was her approach during her tenure at the TEA, where she frequently responded to questions about evolution education in Texas: "We have teachers afraid to teach it, parents who don't want it taught and parents who do want it taught. It comes from all different angles." She added, "For all the years I was there, I would always say the teaching of evolution is part of our science curriculum. It's not just a good idea; it's the law." But now she is not optimistic about the future of science education in Texas, lamenting, "The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance."
Creationists have been making these design arguments, but the birth of the "intelligent design" movement probably did start at SMU [Southern Methodist University, site of the ID movement's first conference], [in] 1992. It was here that [Phillip Johnson] and Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and William Dembski, debated with ... influential Darwinists the proposition that neo-Darwinism [depends] on a prior commitment to naturalism. Johnson ... states, "Once it becomes clear that Darwinism rests on a dogmatic philosophy rather than on the weight of the evidence, the way will be opened for dissenting opinions [i.e., intelligent design creationism] to get a fair hearing." They hadn't got there yet. We don't have a fair hearing yet. But, we gotta keep working on it. This is not something that happens overnight. (The transcript and the audio recording of McLeroy's speech are available on-line at http://www.tfn.org/publiceducation/textbooks/mcleroy/index.php.)With Comer's termination, the process of gaining that hearing appears to have advanced quite a bit.
Evolution #1: _____ Over Time;This type of "fill in the blank" learning is definitely not "inquiry-based"; instead, it is an intellectual insult to students, teachers, and scientists, as is the content of Explore Evolution. In my judgment, science and science education will suffer disastrous consequences should the creationist agenda presented in Explore Evolution, and promoted at the Teacher Symposium at Biola University, be included in any science curriculum.
Evolution #2: _____ Descent;
Evolution #3: _____ of Change: Natural _____ acting on random _________.
The National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine recently released Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a book designed to give the public a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the current scientific understanding of evolution and its importance in the science classroom. In a January 4, 2008, press release, National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone was quoted as saying, "Science, Evolution, and Creationism provides the public with coherent explanations and concrete examples of the science of evolution. The study of evolution remains one of the most active, robust, and useful fields in science."
As its title suggests, the book also addresses creationism in its various forms, including young-earth, old-earth, and "intelligent design" creationism, and concludes, "No scientific evidence supports these viewpoints." Observing that "[c]reationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because ... many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution," Science, Evolution, and Creationism also quotes both leading scientists of faith (including Francis Collins and NCSE Supporter Kenneth R Miller) and religious leaders and groups (including the late Pope John Paul II and the over 10 000 signatories of the Clergy Letter Project), who see no conflict between their faith and science.
Science, Evolution, and Creationism takes a decidedly firm line on the necessity of including evolution in science education, warning, "Many teachers are under considerable pressure from policy makers, school administrators, parents, and students to downplay or eliminate the teaching of evolution. As a result, many US students lack access to information and ideas that are both integral to modern science and essential for making informed, evidence-based decisions about their own lives and our collective future. ... Given the importance of science in all aspects of modern life, the science curriculum should not be undermined with nonscientific material."
This third edition is twice as long as the second edition, issued in 1999. The current book was written by a committee including a number of NCSE Supporters and members and chaired by NCSE Supporter Francisco Ayala, the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and the author most recently of Darwin's Gift (Washington [DC]: Joseph Henry Press, 2007).
After its release, stories about Science, Evolution, and Creationism appeared in such major media outlets as The New York Times (2008 Jan 4), Reuters (2008 Jan 3), ScienceNOW (2008 Jan 4), United Press International (2008 Jan 4), and the Associated Press (2008 Jan 3), which noted, "Josh Rosenau, a spokesman for the California-based National Center for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution, said the new report is important because the debate over evolution in school is not going away."
Both NBC and ABC ran segments about the book on their nightly newscasts on January 3, 2008. Robert "Mac" West, a paleontologist and museum consultant who serves on NCSE's board of directors, told ABC's Dan Harris, "We don't want to be in the position of misleading our youngsters about what science is and what it can tell us about how the world works." NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch told NBC's Pete Williams, "This is a definitive statement from a leading scientific authority about the scientific bankruptcy of intelligent design creationism."
The journal Nature offered three cheers on the publication of Science, Evolution, and Creationism in its January 10, 2008, editorial, remarking, "The document succinctly summarizes what is and isn't science, provides an overview of evidence for evolution by natural selection, and highlights how, time and again, leading religious figures have upheld evolution as consistent with their view of the world," and also citing Kevin Padian's testimony in Kitzmiller v Dover as "a more specific and also entertaining account of evolutionary knowledge."
In its January 12, 2008, editorial, New Scientist also praised the book, focusing on its avoidance of portraying science as opposed to religion ("The US is a religious country and, as Glenn Branch of the advocacy group National Center for Science Education points out, if the issue was 'God versus science' many Americans would choose God") and its emphasis on the practical applications of evolutionary theory ("understanding evolution is critical to agriculture, medicine and specifically to tackling viruses such as SARS and HIV").
Newspapers across the country took the opportunity presented by the publication of Science, Evolution, and Creationism to reaffirm their editorial commitment to the integrity of science education, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (2008 Jan 6), the Tuscaloosa News (2008 Jan 6), the St Louis Post-Dispatch (2008 Jan 7), and the Toledo Blade (2008 Jan 9), which wrote, "Regrettably for American students caught in the middle, education on evolution could be watered down unless the National Academy of Sciences and others without a religious ax to grind get the last word."
Copies of Science, Evolution, and Creationism are available from the National Academies Press (call 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242; or visit the National Academies Press's website), for $12.95; a PDF version is also available for free download at the National Academies Press's website (http://www.nap.edu/sec).
This issue marks the first appearance of NCSE's new logo in RNCSE. In July 2007, NCSE's board of directors decided to consider replacing or re-imagining our logo. NCSE invited our members and other interested individuals to submit designs for a new logo for the board's consideration.
To give the widest scope for the creativity of our participants, we gave only a very general set of guidelines. We asked that entries not contain misleading motifs, such as the image of marching hominins (evolution is a branching process). We also asked participants to try to avoid images that are overused, like dinosaurs, and warned that skeletons in general evoke the image of death for many people and are thus unsuitable. However, these were guidelines, not rules; one submission used both dinosaurs and a skeleton, and it was selected as a finalist.
Submissions ranged from abstract symbols to photographic montages. Several people submitted re-imaginings of our old logo; DNA and trees of life were other popular themes. A number of people submitted logos with apples, presumably to represent education; unfortunately, the apple also has certain biblical implications that we would rather avoid!
The winning entry is by graphic artist Andrew Conti. He described his entry as follows:
I have taken Charles Darwin's original notebook sketch of the tree of life and reworked it with rounded and more organic lines. By doing so, it is my intention to give a sense of open-minded and creative playfulness, while at the same time tying a direct link to the science and history of scientific understanding that is the focus of the NCSE.
All of us in the NCSE family extend our gratitude to Conti and our deepest thanks to all our participants for their continuing support of NCSE and science education.
The "Ottosdal objects" are spherical and subspherical objects that were found in 3.0 to 3.1 billion-year-old (Precambrian) pyrophyllite deposits in South Africa (Jackson 1992). The objects have been the subject of much attention and speculation by various fringe groups, including Christian and Hindu creationists and advocates of "ancient astronauts". These fringe groups argue that the objects are either actual or possible "Out-of-Place Artifacts" (OOPARTs), which are supposedly direct evidence of a civilization that existed either billions of years ago or before the Biblical Flood. Advocates of "ancient astronauts" further speculate that the Ottosdal objects were manufactured by intelligent extraterrestrials.
The oldest known article that advocates an artificial origin for the Ottosdal objects is Barritt (1979). This article appears in the October 2, 1979, issue of the National Enquirer as a short version of Barritt (1982), which repeats and adds much additional material to the descriptions and discussion presented in Barritt (1979).
Barritt (1982) was published in the June 11, 1982, issue of Scope Magazine. In 1982, this magazine was well known for its sensational stories and photographs. In addition to comments by an anonymous Wonderstone "mine official", Barritt (1982) includes comments from Brenda Sullivan, a South African representative of the Epigraphic Society of Arlington, Massachusetts, and Roelf Marx, Curator of the Klerksdorp Museum. According to this article, Sullivan speculated that the objects were artifacts and clear evidence of "a higher civilisation, a pre-flood civilisation about which we know virtually nothing." Barritt (1982) noted that Marx and JR McIver, a professor in the Department of Geology of the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, lacked a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the objects. Barritt (1982) also quoted Marx as allegedly stating that a specimen of the Ottosdal objects slowly rotated on its axis while locked in a "vibration-free" Klerksdorp Museum display case.
Later, Jochmans (1995), a young-earth creationist, included the Ottosdal objects in his list of "top ten outof- place artifacts" and described the objects as being composed of "manufactured metal" and a "nickel-steel alloy which does not occur naturally." He clearly claims that these objects are artificial in origin. In his short discussion of the objects, Jochmans (1995) repeats the claim, possibly taken from Barritt (1979, 1982), that Marx had observed one of the objects slowly rotating on its axis while locked in a "vibration-free" display case. Inspired by Jimison (1982) — whose 1982 article appeared shortly after Barritt's and may have been derived from it — Hindu creationists Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999) published a short description of the Ottosdal objects after corresponding with Marx. They argued that the Ottosdal objects are a possible example of artifacts having been found in geologic strata as old as 2.8 billion years. They discounted the identification of these objects as limonite concretions made by AA Bisschoff, a geologist at the University of Potchefstroom, because the objects were supposedly harder than steel, had grooves that appeared unnatural, and did not have the form and other characteristics of concretions.
On February 25, 1996, the National Broadcasting Company, a US television network, broadcast "The Mysterious Origins of Man" (for a description, see BC Video, 1996). The program contained a short segment on the Ottosdal objects. It described these objects as "metallic spheres" with fine grooves encircling them. The program claimed that anonymous "lab technicians", later revealed by Cremo as working for the Emerald City Metallurgical Engineering Company, could not find any explanation for the grooves. BC Video (1996) confused the Klerksdorp Museum with the Ottosdal pyrophyllite mines by stating that the objects were found in mines at Klerksdorp. The "Stratographic Column" [sic] web page (BC Video 2003) stated: "Perhaps the oldest artifacts ever discovered are these metallic spheres found in Klerksdorp, So. Africa."
In a web site, which briefly appeared on the Internet (Anonymous 2001), a three-grooved Ottosdal object was promoted as an alien artifact called the "Cosmos". In addition to rehashing material from a number of other sources, this web page offered the opinion of Elizabeth Klarer, a South African psychic and UFO enthusiast. She proposed that this Ottosdal object had been placed in the pyrophyllite by an "advanced race" and has an "optic disc", which "contains secrets of the universe". She predicted that a "chosen person" would open the optic disc and use its "secrets" to save the earth. Most importantly, the "Cosmos"web site (Anonymous 2001), contained several close-up photographs of a three-grooved Ottosdal Object from various angles.
For a brief period of time, a Klerksdorp Museum web page (Klerksdorp Museum 2002), contained the text from a letter from John Hund of Pietersburg, South Africa. This letter provided an account, which remains unsubstantiated, of the alleged results of an examination of an Ottosdal object by the California Space Institute, a multi-campus research unit of the University of California. The letter stated that scientists at the California Space Institute tested an Ottosdal object and concluded that its balance "... is so fine, it exceeded the limit of their measuring technology ..." and "... to within one-hundred thousandths of an inch from absolute perfection ..." This implication of these alleged findings is that no known natural process can explain the formation of the Ottosdal object. The letter also stated, by way of further qualifications, that the California Space Institute was the organization that made gyroscopes for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Numerous other web pages and message boards have discussed the Ottosdal object after Klerksdorp Museum (2002). Typically, they consist of rehashed, quoted, or paraphrased material from Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999), Jochmans (1995), Govradhan Hill Publishing (1996), Heinrich (1996), Klerksdorp Museum (2002), or some combination of these sources. However, little of what is on these pages represents any new or better information.
Discussion of the physical nature and origin of the "spherical" objects by conventional scientists is limited to Nel and others (1937) and popular articles by Cairncross (1988), Pope and Cairncross (1988), and Heinrich (1996, 1997). Nel and others (1937), who first described the geology and physical characteristics of the pyrophyllite deposits, simply report the occurrence of pyrite concretions within them. In response to Barritt (1982), another article, and an episode of a 1980s South African Sunday television program called "50-50", Cairncross (1988) and Pope and Cairncross (1988) argued that the Ottosdal objects are natural concretions. Cairncross (1988) noted that the grooves on these objects are often exhibited by concretions and reflect the layering of the sediments in which they grew. In an internet report on these objects, Heinrich (1996) speculated that the objects were possibly of metamorphic origin. Firsthand observations of specimens of the Ottosdal objects by Heinrich (1997) noted that these objects are neither the "perfectly round"nor "singular"objects as claimed by creationists and other fringe groups. To demonstrate the true nature of these objects, it is necessary to examine both the objects and the literature that has grown around them systematically.
To investigate the physical nature and origin of the Ottosdal objects, the pertinent literature was reviewed. This review included studying popular articles, books, and web pages, and various scientific papers on the geology of the Precambrian strata containing them, relevant mineralogy, concretion formation, and various other topics. Additionally, attempts were made to verify the various opinions and observations, which had been posted to various web pages, for example at the Klerksdorp Museum (2002).
I was also able to examine the actual specimens of the Ottosdal objects to determine their physical properties. Susan J Webb of the University of the Witwatersrand and Allan Frazier of Online Minerals acquired five Ottosdal objects for me to examine. After being photographed, three of these specimens were sliced on a trim saw. A sample from one specimen was analyzed using petrographic techniques. Samples from two specimens, Ottosdal-2 and Ottosdal-4, were analyzed using X-ray diffraction techniques. In addition, a sample of pyrophyllite taken from the same mine as the objects was analyzed with petrographic and X-ray diffraction techniques.
Barritt (1982) shows a photograph exhibiting the empty spaces left by Ottosdal objects in the face of a cut in the pyrophyllite quarry. The photograph shows that the objects are not randomly scattered through the pyrophyllite, but occur as a very narrow layer, perhaps in volcanic deposits that were later metamorphosed to pyrophyllite.
A number of sources describe the Ottosdal objects as being spherical. Barritt (1982) initially describes them as having three longitudinal grooves and being "... so perfectly made that they look though they were cast from a mould". Barritt (1982) quotes both Marx and Sullivan as referring to these objects as "spheres". Pope and Cairncross (1988) describe the objects as being "almost perfect spheres", while Cairncross (1988) simply described them as being "round." Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999) and Govradhan Hill Publishing (1996) further claim that the Ottosdal objects are "metallic spheres" and are "isolated and perfectly round". They state that at least one of these objects exhibits three grooves. They show a photograph in which it appears spherical. BC Video (2003) and John Hunt, as quoted in Klerksdorp Museum (2002), simply described the objects as "metallic spheres".
In contrast, various sources also describe the Ottosdal objects as having shapes that are neither true spheres nor "perfectly round". For example, a photograph on the last page of Barritt (1982) shows a three-grooved Ottosdal object that is clearly an ellipsoid. Barritt (1982) also gives the dimensions of a specimen in the Klerksdorp Museum as being "exactly" 3.3 cm (1.3 inches) high and 4.0 cm (1.6 inches) long. Barritt (1982) further contradicts himself and other fringe publications by quoting an anonymous mine official as stating that all of these objects are "oval" in shape. Jochmans (1995) also contradicts himself by describing them as "... metallic spheroids look [sic] like flattened globes ..." Finally, Roelf Marx (personal correspondence in 1996, including an "information sheet" on Ottosdal objects) notes that the Ottosdal objects, which he has observed, are not all spheres, but "some" of them are "oblong in form". From these descriptions, it is apparent that the authors have either greatly exaggerated the spherical nature of these objects or have been very careless in their descriptions of their shapes.
As shown in photographs that were once posted to the Cosmos web page, Anonymous (2001), the Ottosdal object exhibiting three grooves is not perfectly spherical as various authors claim. Judging from the photographs, this three-grooved object appears to consist of two Ottosdal objects that have closely intergrown together. Additional photographs of another grooved Ottosdal object in the Klerksdorp Museum, which were sent to me by van Heerden (personal correspondence, including an article, an "information sheet," and pictures of Ottosdal objects, in 2007), also clearly show that the object is not perfectly spherical.
Hund, as cited in Klerksdorp Museum (2002), claimed that an Ottosdal Object examined by the California Space Institute was balanced "... so fine, it exceeded the limit of their measuring technology ..." and "... to within one-hundred thousandths of an inch from absolute perfection ..." In personal correspondence in 2002, Arnold, who works at the California Space Institute, indicated that he remembered examining an Ottosdal Object, that Hund had loaned them. However, Arnold denied that anyone told Hund that the object had the extraordinary properties described in the letter as quoted by Klerksdorp Museum (2002). He suggested that there was "some error in transmission" and that Hund had completely misunderstood what had been told him. In addition, Arnold noted that the claim made by Hund that the California Space Institute makes gyroscopes for NASA is completely false. Judging from my correspondence and from personal examination of actual Ottosdal objects, the claim that the California Space Institute found them to be perfectly balanced and shaped spheres lacks any substance and credibility.
A careful examination of the Ottosdal objects demonstrates the imaginary nature of the "perfectly spherical" descriptions given by various authors. As first noted by Heinrich (1997), the Ottosdal objects, which were collected from the Wonderstone mines by Webb and Frazier, exhibit a wide range of shapes including spheres, flattened spheres, discs, and clusters of two to four spheres grown together like soap bubbles. Although three specimens are roughly spherical, they definitely are not "perfectly round"as various fringe group authors claim. All of these Ottosdal objects, including the "Cosmos" illustrations by Anonymous (2001), are well within in the range of shapes exhibited by natural concretions.
The size of the Ottosdal objects varies over a relatively small range. Cairncross (1988) notes that these objects vary in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. Barritt (1979, 1982) reports that they are as large as 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter. Marx (personal correspondence in 1996) reports that these objects vary in size from 3 to 5 cm (1.2 to 2 inches) in diameter. The five specimens that were studied for this paper varied from 3.6 to 8.5 cm (1.4 to 3.3 inches) in length and 1.3 to 5.2 cm (0.5 to 2.0 inches) in height. The ratio of height to maximum length of the five objects studied varied from 0.30 to 0.83.
A variety of descriptions of the composition of the Ottosdal objects have been published. For example, Jochmans (1995) claims that the Ottosdal objects are composed of a "... nickel-steel alloy, which does not occur naturally ..." The source of this claim is unknown, although it might be an imaginative elaboration of the descriptions by Barritt (1982), where they are described as "metal spheres". According to Barritt (1979, 1982), an anonymous mine employee reported that there were two types of Ottosdal objects. The employee described the first type as being solid all of the way through and composed of a bluish-white "metal" having a reddish tinge and embedded flecks of white "fibres". The second type was hollow with a thin skin and was more common. Barritt (1979, 1982) adds that this "skin" is about 0.5 centimeter (0.2 inch) thick with a sponge-like whitish center. Descriptions of these objects given by Cremo (1993, 1999) and Govradhan Hill Publishing (1996) appear to be a summary of the descriptions given by Barritt (1982). Marx (personal correspondence in 1996) reports that the Ottosdal objects have a hard concentric shell that exhibit "perfectly concentric grooves" that surround either a spongy substance or material resembling charcoal. Cairncross (1988) describes two types of Ottosdal objects. One type exhibits a brassy metallic color and the other exhibits a dark earthy brown color. Based only upon visual inspections, Cairncross (1988) speculated that the former might be composed of pyrite (an natural iron sulfide mineral) and the latter of siderite (natural iron carbonate). According to Marx (personal correspondence in 1996) and Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999), Bisschoff concluded that the specimens, which he examined, consist of limonite. The color of the five specimens of Ottosdal objects that were studied by the author were dark reddish-brown, red, and dusky red as defined by the color chart of the Munsell Color Company (1975).
The internal structure of three Ottosdal objects, specimens Ottosdal-1, Ottosdal-2, and Ottosdal-4, was determined by cutting them open with a trim saw. All three of these objects exhibit a spectacular radial structure, which breaks into concentric shells. They are clearly natural concretions. Internally, the concretions were found to be both porous and friable. One of two noticeably "grooved spheres"which was cut on the trim saw exhibited faint ghosts of flat laminations cross-cutting its radial structure. A prominent internal lamination was specifically associated with the external groove. The cut surface also failed to support the claim that grooves had been artificially cut into the specimen.
The analysis of two Ottosdal objects, specimens Ottosdal-2 and Ottosdal-4, by X-ray diffraction techniques revealed that they consist of two different minerals. As confirmed by petrographic and two X-ray diffraction analyses, specimen Ottosdal-2 consisted of hematite, a common naturally occurring iron oxide. Xray diffraction analyses by MA Holmes of the Geosciences Department at the University of Nebraska (personal correspondence in 2007, including X-ray diffraction data and diagrams) demonstrated that specimen Ottosdal-4 consists of wollastonite (CaSiO3), a common metamorphic mineral, along with minor amounts of hematite and goethite, a hydrated iron oxide. Holmes also confirmed that Ottosdal-2 consisted of hematite.
Marx (personal correspondence in 1996), Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999), and Govradhan Hill Publishing (1996) also claim that some of the Ottosdal objects are harder than steel. Marx further implies that this hardness is typical of all, not just one or some, of the Ottosdal objects. An examination of the five Ottosdal objects collected for this study found none of them to be harder than 4.0–5.0 on the Mohs scale (a rating of 7–8 is typical of hardened steel). Marx, who openly admits to having "no geological training", and Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999), and Govradhan Hill Publishing (1996), whose source for the hardness claim was apparently Marx, are clearly mistaken about these objects' being harder than steel.
In correspondence sent to Bruce Cairncross (1988) and me, Marx stated that a reporter had falsely quoted what he had said about the rotation of the objects. According to him, it was true that the Ottosdal objects had rotated in their museum cases. However, he unequivocally stated that the claim by Barritt (1979, 1982) that the Klerksdorp Museum display cases were free of outside vibrations is completely false. According to his correspondence, Marx clearly told the reporter that vibrations from underground blasting in local gold mines regularly vibrated the museum's display cases and caused the Ottosdal objects to rotate. Judging from Marx's firsthand accounts, it is clear that the claim that these objects rotated under their own power is completely false.
The descriptions of the physical characteristics and properties of the Ottosdal objects found in the literature of fringe groups badly distort reality. They also show a profound lack of expertise by fringe authors in making basic observations concerning the physical characteristics of the objects that they are discussing.
The first-hand evidence indicates that the Ottosdal objects are composed largely of hematite, wollastonite, pyrite, or some combination of these minerals. Trained geologists, Nel and others (1937) and Cairncross (1988), concluded that the Ottosdal objects are composed of pyrite within the pyrophyllite deposits. The presence of Ottosdal objects composed of hematite and wollastonite is proven by X-ray diffraction and petrographic analyses. Given the difficulty of identifying fine-grained minerals from visual inspection alone, it is understandable that Cairncross (1988) confused either hematite or wollastonite with siderite. In addition, hematite and geothite are often called "limonite" when they occur as a massive earthy mass lacking any observable crystals. Thus, the identification of some of these objects as consisting of limonite by AA Bisschoff is a general specimen description for these minerals when detailed mineralogical analyses are lacking.
The internal structure of the hematite Ottosdal objects indicates that they are natural concretions that are pseudomorphs after original pyrite concretions. It is well known that limonite, goethite, and hematite will form such pseudomorphs in these situations. This transformation occurs when oxidizing chemical reactions transform pyrite into limonite, goethite, or hematite while keeping the external shape of the pyrite. The porous and friable nature of the hematite concretions is likely the result of a decrease in the volume of the concretions as they were transformed from pyrite to hematite.
The Ottosdal object composed of wollastonite is also readily explained as a natural concretion. The Wollastonite often forms as the result of the interaction of silica-rich fluids with calcium carbonate during the metamorphism of volcanic deposits to pyrophyllite, which also silicified adjacent beds of lava (Nel and others 1937). The relict structure of the object is also typical of natural deposits.
In contrast to the various observations provided by the fringe-group literature, the sizes and shapes of the Ottosdal objects fall within the range of shapes observed for natural concretions. The intergrown nature, which some of the objects exhibit, is quite typical of natural concretions. The observed and reported sizes of these objects fall well within the size range of concretions, which can vary from a few millimeters to over 6 meters (up to 18 feet) (Dietrich 1999; Raiswell and Fisher 2000).
The longitudinal grooves exhibited by some of the Ottosdal objects, as noted by Cairncross (1988), were caused by sediment laminations. The grooves in the concretions represent individual laminae within the host sediments. These laminae were slightly finergrained than overlying and underlying sediments. As the concretion grew within the sediments, it grew at a slightly slower rate within these laminae than in adjacent layers, which resulted in the formation of the grooves. How this process can produce longitudinal grooves and ridges on spherical and subspherical concretions is well illustrated by innumerable iron oxide concretions found within the Navajo Sandstone of southern Utah called "Moqui marbles" (Chan and others 2004). The longitudinal ridges and grooves exhibited by these concretions are more pronounced and irregular than those in Ottosdal objects because the sediment in which they grew is coarser than the sediments in which the Ottosdal objects formed.
It is also clear from this investigation that the fringe-groups literature contain blatantly incorrect information about the physical character of these objects. For example, the various claims that the Ottosdal objects are perfectly round are refuted by both direct observation of the actual specimens and published photographs of them. In addition, the supporters of these objects are non-natural in origin are completely wrong in their claims that the objects rotate in "vibration-free" cabinets, are "perfectly balanced," "are hard as steel", and are composed of a "... nickel-steel alloy, which does not occur naturally ..." Jochmans (1995) even incorrectly noted that the objects were found in a silver mine. It is quite clear that the those who argue for an artificial origin for these objects have based their interpretation on misconceptions and misinformation about the physical characteristics of these objects. As a result, they completely failed to make a credible case that these objects are anything other than interesting, but completely natural, geological concretions.
Finally, the case of the Ottosdal objects is not unique. It appears that lay people often mistake concretions of various shapes for intelligently designed and manufactured artifacts. For example, the Moeraki Boulders of New Zealand, which are natural "cannonball" concretions, have been mistaken for the sail weights of Chinese junks. Natural concretions found by explorers on Seymour Island, Antarctica, were misidentified as artifacts. Concretions from the bottom of the Bay of Cambay (Khambat) have also been mistaken for ancient artifacts (Heinrich 2002). In a similar case, Kuban (2006) argues that an alleged shoe print mentioned by Cremo and Thompson (1993, 1999) and other fringe archaeologists and creationists, as having been found in Triassic strata within Nevada, is "... most likely a broken ironstone concretion ..."
An examination of the Ottosdal objects indicates that they and their grooves lack any indication of being artificial. They are just another example of how concretions have been mistaken for intelligently designed and manufactured objects. The misidentification of natural objects as the by-products of "intelligent design" is an important lesson that needs to be learned by many fringe group members.
I thank Allan Fraser, Susan J Webb,and Desmond Sacco for their successful efforts at obtaining specimens of Ottosdal objects for my study. I also thank H van Heerden for pictures of Ottosdal concretions currently on display in the Klerksdorp Museum and Roelf Marx and Frans Waanders for giving copies of hard-toget handouts and articles concerning these concretions. Finally, I thank Kevin R Henke for taking the time and trouble to review this article for me.
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Science, Evolution, and Creationism is the latest offering from the National Academy of Sciences in an ongoing program to inform the public about evolution. The book first discusses the nature of science in the context of evolution and then considers evidence for biological evolution. This is followed by an analysis of creationism, a brief conclusion section, and supporting materials.
Chapter 1 presents as good an explanation of the nature of science and the relationship between science and religion as I have seen. For example, from a discussion of genetic distances among species: "... some genes that control the production of biochemicals or chemical reactions ... essential for cellular functioning show little variation across species ..." Scientists involved with education and many science educators will have seen all this before in similar forms (Cartwright and others 2000; Pojeta and Springer 2001). One notable addition is an extensive discussion of Tiktaalik, the fish/amphibian transitional fossil discovered a few years ago in the Canadian Arctic. Many "intermediate forms" have been discovered, but this is one of the most important. Because it is new, its addition to the book is valuable. I could wish that the explanation included a graphic comparing the limb bones of lobe-fin fish, Tiktaalik, and amphibians.
Chapter 2 does a significantly smoother and more comprehensive job of presenting evidence than other similar publications I have read. Each line of evidence is clearly developed, so a literate reader should easily follow the argument. The authors avoid the laundry-list approach of briefly presenting a lot of information in superficial detail. Instead, very nice explanations of methods, such as radiometric dating, and particular examples, such as human evolution, make a compelling case by showing enough of the evidence and inference that lies behind the modern theory of evolution to give a flavor of its richness. There are a couple of minor errors. The scope of origin of sedimentary rocks is misrepresented. Some sedimentary rocks, like rock salt, form in place and are not made of particles deposited from fluids. The book also states that the sun is the center of the solar system. The sun's displacement from the center is quite significant for orbital dynamics and, ultimately, for the earth's climate.
Chapter 3 concerns creationism. Evidence supporting the theory of evolution is contrasted with the observation that young-earth creationists reject any facts that contradict their interpretation of the Bible. Because the theory of evolution is open to falsification by contradictory evidence (if any were to be found), whereas creationism must be accepted on faith, evolution is scientific and creationism is not. In response to the often-made claim that "no one has seen evolution", the authors refer to the regular emergence of resistant strains of microorganisms: evolution in action. This is a strong point, but it could be even stronger if they mentioned the development of polyploid plant species in historical time, and the evolution of the HIV virus, a macroevolutionary jump that took place in the 1970s or early 1980s.
"Intelligent design" is demolished even more effectively. "Intelligent design" assumes that scientific questions can have only two possible answers: undirected evolution or design. However, failure of scientists to identify a specific mechanism for evolution of a complex structure like the vertebrate eye does not automatically validate "intelligent design". In addition, there is still no evidence to support any "intelligent design" assertions, and all of this is made very clear in this chapter. Chapter 3 concludes with a reminder that the courts have consistently ruled that creationism (including "intelligent design") is religion and therefore not allowed in a science classroom.
The rest of the book consists of a brief conclusions section, a list of frequently asked questions, additional readings, biographies of committee members, and an index. The conclusions are simply a succinct summary of the first three chapters. The FAQ list will be more valuable, because most of the questions are the sort that creationists feed to their listeners, and the answers are clear and apt. Most of the additional resources are articles from the scientific literature and books written at a popular level, so they will be more accessible to the nonscientist. They are organized into broad subject categories, such as "books on evolution" and "books on the origin of the universe and the earth." Most of the books listed are less than ten years old; some older classics (such as Gould 1980) are included as well. The reader is referred to the National Academies of Sciences website for a list of science education and evolution websites. Many of these links are already broken, but the links to government websites and to reputable organizations such as NCSE should be stable.
Any open-minded reader will become convinced that evolution is the only persuasive scientific explanation of the diversity of life ceron earth. The difficult work that faces scientists and science educators consists in reaching those who do not want to listen. I have become convinced over the years that books like this one are necessary but far from sufficient tools. Their greatest value is in informing willing teachers of the strong arguments and evidence supporting the theory of evolution. This book also will help youngsters educate themselves and give them the evidence and arguments they need to challenge the dogma of their peers.
In conclusion, Science, Evolution, and Creationism results from no macroevolutionary leap. It is the sympatric daughter species of its predecessor (NAS 1999). Larger, more versatile, and better adapted to its sociopolitical environment, this book should do well in a shifting landscape.
Cartwright P, Kaesler RL, Lieberman BS, Melott AL. 2000. A Kansan's Guide to Science: An Introduction to Evolution and the Nature of Science, Including Origins of the Universe and the Earth and the History of Life. Lawrence (KS): Kansas Geological Survey.
Gould SJ. 1980. The Panda's Thumb. New York:WW Norton.
[NAS] National Academy of Sciences. 1999. Science and Creationism. 2nd ed. Washington: National Academy Press.
Pojeta J Jr, Springer DA. 2001. Evolution and the Fossil Record. Alexandria (VA): American Geological Institute.
Just as fossils provide a window into the past, evolution leaves a footprint on DNA. In The Making of the Fittest, Sean Carroll explains some of the overwhelming evidence for evolution provided in DNA, bringing to life new examples from sequences of DNA that once coded for genes no longer used, remnants of ancestral lives, and evidence of evolutionary change. As Carroll explains, "every evolutionary change between species, from physical form to digestive metabolism, is due to — and recorded in — changes in DNA" (p 14). Using this forensic evidence of evolution, Carroll reveals how these relics provide new "sources of insights into traits and capabilities that have been abandoned as species evolved new lifestyles" (p 16). Carroll also deals a blow to the claim that evolution occurs completely at random, and that order and complexity of nature are surely outside the realm of random processes. The descriptions offered in The Making of the Fittest provide powerful examples of how evolution actually works, and why evolution matters. A few are discussed below, but definitely read The Making of the Fittest, and evaluate the data for yourself.
Carroll's first example, of bloodless fishes in the Antarctic, shows the wonderful way science operates. An unconfirmed observation of bloodless fishes living in the cold waters of the Antarctic challenged the working hypothesis that all vertebrates must have red blood cells, contingent on their requirement for the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin. Years passed, with no verification of these strange fish. However, eventual proof of the actual existence of bloodless fishes — which turned out in fact to have blood that lacked red blood cells and hemoglobin — then fueled more empirical work. Scientific research, in the form of actual observations, data, and facts, provided an explanation of how these fishes came to exist without hemoglobin, in a story that is a much more awesome and compelling than any just-so story that could be written.
The evolutionary explanation, described by Carroll, shows, in uncontestable detail, how bloodless icefish have evolved in response to "opportunity and necessity". This evolutionary narrative takes place over the past 55 million years, during which temperatures of the Antarctic Ocean have dropped, from about 20° C to less than 0° C in some locales. A cold environment presents challenges to living organisms, which have to adapt in response: for example, since fluids like blood move much more slowly in colder temperature, animals in such environments compensate by evolving less viscous blood and/or increasing the surface area for oxygen exchange.
The protagonists of our evolutionary narrative are fishes of the teleost suborder Notothenioidei, commonly known as icefish, which dominate the fish fauna of the freezing coastal regions of the Southern Ocean. Notothenioid fishes in the Antarctic have either much lower hematocrit percentages (that is, a lower percentage of red blood cells in their blood) or no hemoglobin-containing red blood cells in their blood (and are therefore considered bloodless). The bloodless icefish have relatively large gills and scaleless skin with unusually large capillaries. Modifications in the heart and gills facilitate the transfer of oxygen from water to tissue. Icefish also synthesize antifreeze glycoproteins (AFGP1–AFGP8) that inhibit growth of ice crystals and therefore prevent freezing of tissues.
Enter DNA ... providing a window into the past and evidence of change. Bloodless icefish in the Antarctic have genes for hemoglobin, but the genes have accumulated mutations, and are now functionless. The presence of relict hemoglobin genes points to an ancestral way of life, no longer followed by the fish, and provides evidence for descent with modification. Moreover, the DNA sequence of the antifreeze glycoprotein (AFGP) informs us how the evolutionary change occurred. The notothenioid AFGPs (a family of at least eight different isoforms — various forms of the same protein) are composed of a simple glycotripeptide repeat, (Thr-Ala/Pro-Ala)n, with the disaccharide galactose-N-acytylglactosamine attached to each Thr, and the dipeptide Ala-Ala at the N terminus (Chen and others 1997). The smallest AFGP isoform consists of four repeats; the largest of 55 repeats. Variation abounds among these isoforms, and AFGP polyprotein precursors contain various combinations of these isoforms. Additionally, there are multiple genes and multiple AFGP copies per gene, which contribute to high levels of circulating proteins and suggest extensive duplications gave rise to this protein family (Chen and others 1997).
The first AFGP gene characterized was from the Antarctic notothenioid Notothenia coriiceps (Hsiao and others 1990), and a search of Genbank found that the 3' flanking sequence of the Notothenia coriiceps AFGP gene, starting from the termination codon to about 100 nucleotides downstream, to be about 80% identical to the coding sequence of the C terminus (50 residues) of the trypsinogen cDNA of Atlantic plaice, providing a potential pathway for evolution of the antifreeze protein from a digestive protein. Analysis of both the AFGP gene and the trypsinogen gene from the giant Antarctic notothenioid Dissocstichus mawsoni showed 4–7% sequence divergence (Chen and others 1997). And, as can only be predicted and tested within an evolutionary framework, a transcriptionally active chimeric gene that encodes both the AFGP polyprotein and the trypsinogen protease was found (Cheng and Chen 1999). Evolution works "by tinkering with materials that are available — in this case a little piece of another gene's code — rather than by designing new things completely from scratch" (p 26). The Making of the Fittest is full of similar descriptions of evolution in action. Mutation, heritable variation, and differential survival in a changing environment provide an explanation of evolutionary change that is overwhelmingly consistent with, and supported by, our observations across all major groups of organisms.
A common misconception about evolution is that it proceeds by random chance, and many creationists use this myth to discredit evolution. Carroll dismisses this misconception, offering a clear and understandable description of the mathematical power of evolution to produce change. Carroll uses everyday examples — winning the lottery, dying in various kinds of accidents, and saving money — to address commonly held misconceptions about the probability of evolution, specifically the potential for random events to generate complexity and the ability of selection to cause significant change. Critics of evolution want people to believe that mutations cannot lead to new information. Carroll clearly shows where these arguments fall apart. He first points out that while mutations are random, selection determines what chance occurrences are retained." Given enough time identical or equivalent mutations will arise repeatedly by chance and their fate (preservation or elimination) will be determined by the conditions of selection upon the traits they affect" (p 155). Carroll also draws an analogy between the power of natural selection and that of compounding interest, explaining that "small differences among individuals, when compounded by natural selection over time, really do add up to the large differences we see among species" (p 43). Understanding the power of selection as an analogy to the practice of compounding interest could better prepare everyone for an age of global climate change as well as a global economy.
Carroll states, quite rightly, that "DNA decisively confirms [Darwin's] picture of evolution" (p 16), and shows how molecular data continue to inform our understanding of how natural selection operates as a mechanism of evolutionary change in his discussions of the distribution of color vision and olfactory sensitivity in groups of mammals, population responses to environmental change, microbial resistance to antibiotics, and sicklecell trait in humans. Expecting natural selection to explain all evolutionary change, however, would be terribly near-sighted, ignoring much of the results of research in evolutionary biology, population genetics, and molecular biology over the last 150 years. Development, mutation, gene duplication, gene rearrangement, and genetic drift must be incorporated into a complete understanding of evolutionary change.
Carroll has two other books (Carroll and others 2001; Carroll 2005) that address some of these topics in more depth. It is unfortunate that, in a time when evolutionary biology forms the backbone of so much research into medical advances and provides a greater understanding of the genetic components of human health and disease, Carroll felt the need to include a chapter on discussing creationism, including "intelligent design". The chapter is, however, sadly needed, as antievolution groups continue to undermine sound science education. Critics of evolution continually disregard the predictive power of evolutionary explanations, which, as Carroll clearly shows, explain how icefish evolved from ancestors with the capacity to synthesize hemoglobin, later lost as they adapted to living in freezing cold water. To be sure, those voicing dissent will not be satisfied until every nucleotide substitution and gene duplication event is historically identified and mapped, and in the interval will insist that we reject the entire evolutionary explanation in favor of a supernatural explanation with no evidence at all. Believing that the adaptations of icefish were designed by an intelligent agency is about as scientific, and intellectually satisfying, as Kipling's explanation of how the leopard got its spots.
The scientific evidence for evolution provided by Carroll will probably not enlighten those who refuse to accept the nature of scientific investigation and oppose Darwinian evolution. But The Making of the Fittest should be required reading for those teetering on the edge of accepting evolution, as well as anyone interested in learning more about the great epic of life. Its appeal to a wide audience also makes the book of great value to teachers who can mine the text — available in a quite affordable paperback version, happily — for opportunities to teach students about the nature of science and fresh and exciting examples of how evolution works.
Carroll SB. 2005. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. New York: WW Norton.
Carroll SB, Grenier JK, Weatherbee SD. 2001. From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design. Malden (MA): Blackwell.
Chen L, DeVries AL, Cheng C-HC. 1997. Evolution of antifreeze glycoprotein gene from a trypsinogen gene in Antarctic nothenioid fish. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 94: 3811–6.
Cheng C-HC, Chen L. 1999. Evolution of an antifreeze glycoprotein. Nature 410: 443–4.
Hsiao KC, Cheng C-HC, Fernandes IE, Detrich HW, DeVries AL. 1990. An antifreeze glycopeptide gene from the Antarctic Cod Notothenia coriiceps neglecta encodes a polyprotein of high peptide copy number. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 87: 9265–9.