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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is Earth special?: Found! Twenty light years away - the new earth ... or not?

According to Britain's Daily Mail, a recently discovered planet
appears to confirm the suspicions of most astronomers that the universe is swarming with Earth-like worlds.

I would be very surprised if most astronomers believed that, considering the odds. A few planets like Earth? Sure, that stands to reason. But "swarming" - not likely.

Even the hyper Mail admits,
Of the 220 or so exoplanets found to date, most have either been too big, made of gas rather than solid material, far too hot, or far too cold for life to survive.

The hype is, "We don't yet know much about this planet, but scientists believe that it may be the best candidate so far for supporting extraterrestrial life." But that's not saying much so far because none of the other planets are anywhere close.

It would be nice if this was really the new Earth, as the Mail huffs, but ... this planet orbits a very old red dwarf star (Gliese 581), which raises the serious question of how many heavy elements it has. Heavy elements are thought necessary for life as we understand it. Older stars, formed earlier, have less of them to give, and perhaps none. Wait for further info before making your travel plans.

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Darwinism and popular culture: Darwinian atheist Richard Dawkins as pop cult figure

Dawkins is rated by Time Magazine as one of the mag's 100 most influential people (#7 as of June 19, 2007). Of course, in fairness, he only got about 51, 000 votes, whereas South Korean pop star Rain got nearly a half million. Meanwhile, here's himself on YouTube.
If you want to understand why the intelligent design controversy cannot go away, read By Design or by Chance?.

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Intelligent design and popular culture: Czech translation of "politically incorrect" guide to Darwinism and intelligent design

Go here if you read Czech, otherwise, go here.

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Junk reclaimed: Junk DNA now hailed as "powerful regulator"

Yes! See here:
Large swaths of garbled human DNA once dismissed as junk appear to contain some valuable sections, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California-Santa Cruz. The scientists propose that this redeemed DNA plays a role in controlling when genes turn on and off.


It turns out that most of the segments described in the research paper cluster near genes that play a carefully orchestrated role during an animal's first few weeks after conception. Bejerano and his colleagues think that these sequences help in the intricate choreography of when and where those genes flip on as the animal lays out its body plan. In particular, the group found the sequences to be especially abundant near genes that help cells stick together. These genes play a crucial role early in an animal's life, helping cells migrate to the correct location or form into organs and tissues of the correct shape.

The intelligent design advocates have long maintained that junk DNA would not turn out to be junk, so this should be a score for their side, but watch fora ll sorts of people to deny that. For an interesting discussion of that problem, go here, but you have to hunt and peck on "junk" DNA.

Why is there an intelligent design controversy? Read By Design or by Chance?, my overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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Humungous fungus: A challenge to what a life form is exactly

A 9.65 square kilometre fungus (the size of 1600 football fields) is apparently a single individual:
The world's biggest fungus, discovered in Oregon's Blue Mountains in 2001, is challenging traditional notions of what constitutes an individual. The underground fungus--estimated to be between 2000 and 8500 years old--is also deepening our understanding of the ecosystem, ...

Of course, if the tree-killing Armillaria fungus were not a single individual, how would it know? Here's more on the fungus among us.

The discovery lets humans off the hook for perpetuating Armillaria. This one did quite well without any human input, as far as we know.

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Me?: Something against Francis Collins? No!

Someone suggested recently that I have something against Language of God author Francis Collins. Not at all. I have written three reviews of Collins’ book, The Language of God. Two were “kind” reviews, intended for the Christmas market.

Basically, if you have some mouthy teen shouting that he won’t go to church any more because he has discovered polynomials (and thinks you don’t know any algebra at all) - and because there is no God, science rules, and therefore he is going to go out and get his thingummy pierced - Collins is a good choice.

On the other hand, I admit to deep disappointment in the intellectual substance of Collins’ arguments, which I unpack in the multipart review at Access Research Network.

Note to all, especially Collins fans: C. S. Lewis is not a security blanket, and the debate over the origin of free will, morality, altruism, and consciousness has moved on from his day. Today's atheist is not usually a genial, classical God-denier; he is a radical materialist who honestly believes that we are all just robots replicating our selfish genes. And he cannot wait to get his gospel onto the curriculum of publicly funded schools, as "evolutionary psychology," forcing everyone's nose into his nonsense.

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Intelligent design controversy: Another reason to pay little attention to legacy mainstream media coverage

A journalist friend laments the demise of the foreign correspondent, resulting in increasingly awful news coverage of countries one does not live in:
Previously, you could not claim to be a serious "national" or big-city daily unless you had at least a handful of permanently-posted foreign correspondents, in as many as possible of the world's major capitals. The advantage these guys had, over tourists, was that they could learn something about the place they'd been sent to. It takes at least two years for a foreign correspondent, even if he knows the local language, to get the hang of what is going on around him in any given country.

Today, almost all foreign coverage is supplied by ambulance-chasers who are flown in to cover some sensational event in a "trouble spot," & then flown out as quickly as possible. (Every day he is on the road means extra expenses for his media organization.) He is on-site typically for five or less days, not five or more years. What he knows about where he is going depends entirely on what was written in the Lonely Planet guide, & whether he achieved an Internet hook-up while en route. He is looking chiefly for "visuals" & "human interest," & he will invariably need help even to give instructions to a taxi driver.
So that is the person who, armed with quick factoids from the Darwin lobby, is assuring us all that the creationism menace looms worldwide and only enforcing Darwinism/materialism will save us.

As I said before,
There are a few honourable exceptions, but much as it pains me, as a journalist, to say it, I do not have a good feeling about the ability of most legacy media organizations to cover the growing [intelligent design controversy] story, as it develops in different cultures. It took me three years to clearly understand what the controversy is about. Sure, many people in the media are way smarter than me, but they are not going to get there just by listening to cranks, conspirazoids, hysterics, ward heelers, witch hunters, flacks, and lobbyists. My book, By Design or by Chance?, cites something like 77 other books (according to some unhappy person whose job it was to count). I wouldn't have put two and one half years into doing all that research and boiling it down into an easy read if the answers were obvious and easily found in an afternoon.

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Summer reading: Naturalism as self-defeating?

A friend recommends this book, World Without Design by Michael C. Rea.
Philosophical naturalism, according to which philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences, has dominated the Western academy for well over a century; but Michael Rea claims that it is without rational foundation, and that the costs of embracing it are surprisingly high. The first part of World Without Design aims to provide a fair and historically informed characterization of naturalism. Rea then argues compellingly to the surprising conclusion that naturalists are committed to rejecting realism about material objects, materialism, and perhaps realism about other minds.
Well, that's pretty much what I found while doing research for The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul. Anyway, from what I can tell, the scruffier brand of naturalists/materialists hate the guy's arguments, so he must be on to something.

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Complex central nervous systems developed early, new findings suggest

The complex vertebrate nervous system is very old, according to recent findings at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, published in Cell, and is descended from a common ancestor of worms and vertebrates.
The rise of the central nervous system [CNS] in animal evolution has puzzled scientists for centuries. Vertebrates, insects and worms evolved from the same ancestor, but their CNSs are different and were thought to have evolved only after their lineages had split during evolution. Researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory [EMBL] in Heidelberg now reveal that the vertebrate nervous system is probably much older than expected. The study, which is published in Cell, suggests that the last common ancestor of vertebrates, insects and worms already had a centralised nervous system resembling that of vertebrates today.
and therefore
Such a complex arrangement could not have been invented twice throughout evolution, it must be the same system," adds Gáspár Jékely, a researcher from Arendt's lab, who contributed essentially to the study.

Which means, in turn, that there was even less time for complex nervous systems to get started "purely by chance" than has previously been supposed. No wonder thre is an intelligent design controversy.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

NEW!! Evolution in the light of intelligent design - look up intelligent design topics here.

Animations of life inside the cell, indexed, for your convenience.

Anti-God crusade ... no, really! My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

Catholic Church A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

Collins, Francis My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God

Columnists weigh in on the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

Darwinism dissent Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin

Gilder, George A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

Intelligent design academic publications.

Intelligent design-friendly students should be flunked, according to bio prof Evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Intelligent design controversy My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent design controversy timeline An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Intelligent design and culture My review of sci-fi great Rob Sawyer’s novel, The Calculating God , which addresses the concept of intelligent design.

March of the Penguins A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

Origin of life Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

Peer review My backgrounder about peer review issues.

Polls relevant to the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

Stove, David O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

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