Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thinking about Evolution

I have absolutely no formal training in biology, and because of that there are tons of basic things I don't know. However, lately I've really enjoyed being a biology nerd and doing lots of reading mostly on genetics and development. Also, the Theory of Evolution is a major piece of my atheistic worldview, so the more understanding I can gain the better I can support my position.

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a creationist, which is why I ended up watching the Boonstra movie. One of the major portions of the Boonstra argument (and I think this is a standard creationist position) was that the theory of evolution doesn't explain the origin of life therefore god did it. In my discussion I repeatedly demanded that a distinction be made between evolution and abiogenesis. My point was that evolution works if life developed spontaneously, was seeded by an advanced alien race or was sneezed into existence by the Great Green Arkleseizure. I still believe that this is a correct understanding, but I need to be careful how I phrase the statement. For rhetorical purposes it is useful to make a distinction between origins and evolution, but based on the some recent research on chemical replicators (the the biology nerd in me gets really excited about) it would probably be false to say that natural selection had no part in the origin of biological life.

In the study reviewed on pharyngula and neurologica some enzymes were able to assemble themselves spontaneously from simpler chemicals. The researchers relied on natural selection to optimize the reaction. From PZ Myers:

"They started with a very rough sequence, one that inefficiently catalyzed an A + B E sort of reaction, but that not only worked slowly, but also produced faulty products that eventually killed the reaction after a few cycles. Then they tweaked it to form a minus-strand enzyme, and then they subjected both the plus and minus strand forms to natural selection! They made copies with mutagenic PCR (so they had a range of random variants), ran it through several cycles of in vitro selection for more efficient forms, and ended up with two RNA enzymes that were good at building copies of each other."

And from Steven Novella:

"Specifically, what they found was that when they added different versions of their self-replicating RNA with limited raw material to the same test tube, the different RNA “species’ competed with each other. The more “fit” RNA species, those better able to compete for raw material and replicate, dominated the resulting brew of RNA. Further, different RNA species combined together to form new versions of RNA - the molecules evolved - with more fit molecules being selected for."

While this is almost certainly not how life started on this planet, this is a nice proof of concept that more complex chemical structures can build themselves from simpler components.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Shawn Boonstra is a Slimy Liar for Jesus

I confess. I couldn't leave well enough alone. The Out of Thin Air DVD was sitting on my TV and I watched the remaining 3 sessions during dinner last night. Not much to report. Just the expected quote-mining, logical fallacies and lies. And of course Goodwin's Law was confirmed. Dr. Timothy Standish was less slimy and more knowledgeable, but did nothing to stop Boonstra's lying. Nothing new was presented as I expected, and now I'm done with it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's Hard Out There for a Christian

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say
all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,
because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they
persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matthew 5:11-12
I have to admit I'm a sucker for Top 10 Lists and Countdowns, so of
course I couldn't let this list of the Top Ten Instances of Christian
Bashing in America, 2008
pass without comment. The list includes the
YouTube video "Prop 8 The Musical" where Jack Black plays Jesus,
Crackergate and Barack Obama defaming Christianity by not being
'Christian enough'.

In a country that won't elect an atheist to high public office, modified
a state's constitution to ban gay marriage, and has a healthy government
funded faith based initiatives program it seem to be a stretch to claim
that Christians are "treated like second-class citizens". Christians
have the majority, hold positions of power and are treated with undue
levels of deference, yet if anyone should want to disagree with them
they claim they are being persecuted or subjected to hate speech. I
guess I can see why Christians are desperate to be persecuted. That is
how they know that they are doing what Jesus wants them too. I just
have no sympathy for them and their over sensitive persecution complex
when it seem like they are the ones doing most of the discrimination.