Free Harvard course anyone? (or "Justice" on YouTube)

Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 6:18 PM Bookmark and Share
Ever since taking our only class on the topic in high school, philosophy has always been my most neglected of interests. During my teenage years, the internet was a relatively new and rapidly growing wealth of information. Even then it seemed to provide access to more ideas and data and history than one could digest in a single lifetime. I read a few random essays here and there, and recall finding  some of John Stuart Mill's works quite agreeable.  Of them all, I remember having relished reading through his essays on Liberty and Utilitarianism.

Busy with science and math classes as an undergraduate, I managed to squeezed in a class or two. Sadly, however I still lack much experience soaking my brain in the major philosophical works of the past and present, including those most applicable to my more scientific interests.

Once again, the internet provides an opportunity just too good to refuse! 

Over on Jerry Coyne's blog, he posted a link to the Harvard course Justice.   A fantastic opportunity to hear a top notch lecturer and learn about some really practical and interesting topics all for just one hour of your time each week. 

The lectures for each week are available free online via Harvard's YouTube page and I fully intend on devoting an hour each week for the next few months to watch them all.

If you'd like to follow along as well, you can get caught up with what's below (just two episodes as of September 27, 2009):

So what's the course about?? Lecturer Michael Sandel explains in the first video above, but here's the gist of it. In the course, the students will be reading the classic works by folks you've likely heard of (Lock, Kant, Mill, etc..).  The video we'll see looks like it will be a lot of debate and reflection back to the big ideas coming out of that reading.  In addition to those classics, they'll also
...take up contemporary political and legal controversies that raise philosophical questions. [The class] will debate equality and inequality, affirmative action, free speech versus hate speech, same sex marriage, military conscription - a range of practical questions. Why? Not just to enliven these abstract and distant books, but to make clear - to bring out - what's at stake in our every day lives including our political lives, for philosophy.
The first lecture begins with a couple hypotheticals - the first of which I had heard before and I clearly remember being quite frustrated with as I found myself caught justifying my hypothetical "moral actions" with logic and moral presuppositions that just didn't seem work as well as I had thought.

The examples basically work as follows [spoiler alert!].  You're faced with a life or death decision: your holding a steering wheel of an unstoppable trolly car facing one of two options: whether to take the tracks to the left and kill 5 people or take a right and kill 1 person.  The decision is easy - right. Right? Right... or is it. After all, we should clearly aim to prevent as much death as possible! Right?

Next, consider a similar but slightly different scenario.  There's a single rail with 5 people down the track (say, in a tunnel) each facing certain death by an approaching runaway, unmanned trolley car. You and one rather large stranger are on a bridge above the tracks when you notice the gravity of the situation.  You know for certain that (don't worry about how, just assume you do) that pushing the bulky stranger towards the edge, down onto the tracks ahead of the car, will derail it saving the lives of the 5 people that would otherwise certainly perish.  So now - fighting that urge to make excuses here - what do you do?  Still just as simple as 1 life versus 5 lives?? Do you push, or let the 5 workers die?  Seems like the same question, right, so why isn't the decision so easy this time?

In the first episode Sandel presents these and a couple other hypotheticals to highlight and compare two of many kinds of moral reasoning - that is, ways of basing our decisions on some moral foundation, some basis for establishing what is right or wrong, good or bad, etc. - that we each use to make decisions on a daily basis.  In this case, these are
  1. Consequentialist moral reasoning, which "Locates morality in the consequences of an act."
  2. Categorical moral reasoning which "Locates morality in certain duties and rights."
The classic question of whether we look to the "ends" or the "means" (or both? or something else?) in establishing the moral value of our potential decisions.

While I'm looking forward to the rest of the lectures (and hope some of you are too), I should mention Michael Sandel's warning to students about the risks of taking his course:
To read these books, in this way, as an exercise in self knowledge. To read them in this way can carry certain risks. Risks that are both personal and political. Risks that every student of political philosophy has known. These risks spring from the fact that philosophy teaches us - and unsettles us - by confronting us with what we already know.

There's an irony - the difficulty of this course consists in the fact that it teaches what you already know it. It works by taking what we know from familiar unquestioned settings and making it strange. That's how those examples worked. Those hypotheticals with which we began, with their mix of playfulness and sobriety. It's also how these philosophical books work. Philosophy estranges us from the familiar - not by supplying new information, but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing.

But, and here's the risk, once the familiar turns strange it's never quite the same again. Self knowledge is like lost innocence - however unsettling you find it, it can never be un-thought or un-known.

What makes this enterprise difficult - but also riveting - is that moral and political philosophy is a story, and you don't know where the story will lead. But what you do know is that the story is about you.

Those are the personal risks. Now what of the political risks? One way to introduce a course like this would be to promise you that by reading these books and by debating these issues you will become a better more responsible citizen. You will examine the presuppositions of public policy, you will hone your political judgment, you will become a more effective participant in public affairs. This would be a partial and misleading promise.

Political philosophy for the most part hasn't worked that way. You have to allow for the possibility that political philosophy may make you a worse citizen rather than a better one. Or at least a worse citizen before it makes you a better one. And that's because philosophy is a distancing (even debilitating) activity.

...philosophy distances us from conventions, from established assumptions, and from settled beliefs.
In short, one could justify not taking such risks by something like the following: If the greatest philosophers of the past centuries couldn't resolve these issues - who are we to think we can do it?! As Sandel puts it, "Maybe it's just a matter of each person having his or her own principles, and there's nothing more to be said about it?"

This might seems like a reasonable objection, but to this he offers the following reply:
... the very fact [these questions] have recurred and persisted may suggest that though they are impossible in one sense, they're unavoidable in another. And the reason they're unavoidable, the reason they're inescapable, is that we live some answer to these questions every day... just throwing up your hands and giving up on moral reflection is no solution.
Hope to see you in class ;)

$32,000+ raised for Doctors Without Borders

Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 8:36 PM Bookmark and Share
About a month ago I wrote about how one DPR Jones had launched a campaign to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières (parent organization to Doctors without Borders) following the apparently fraudulent fund raising activities of YouTube evangelist VenomfangX.

DPR Jones and a number of others banded together just over a week ago, and hosted a 24 hour blogTV event that pulled in over $32,000 for this great organization - a fantastic accomplishment and one that did not go unrecognized... they got a personal "thank you" from the director of MSF in the UK:

A job well done, folks!!!

If you'd still like to contribute, I believe you can still donate via through the end of 2009.

The Mathematics of Darwin's Legacy

 at 7:06 PM Bookmark and Share
There's a short post over at the Origins blog at that mentions a conference that had escaped my notice until now - looks like it could be pretty interesting.

Any mathematical biologists that do work with evolutionary models might have some Thanksgiving plans to reconsider (like say, celebrating in Portugal during the "Mathematics of Darwin's Legacy" conference) ?

Mid-week Reptilian #2: Common Snapping Turtle

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 12:18 AM Bookmark and Share
The Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is perhaps my favorite of all the turtles and tortoises.  Belonging to the family Chelydridae, they and their cousins the Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) are the only two species in the family. As such, they're relatively unique among other Testudines (1, 2, 3) which isn't at all surprising by the looks of these prehistoric little beasties.

Widespread in North and Central America, there are 4 known subspecies of common snapper: the Northern (C. s. serpentina), Florida (C. s. osceola), Mexican (C. s. rossignoni) and the Ecuadorian snapping turtle (C. s. acutirostris). Effective as predators and scavengers, they've been know to eat pretty much whatever creatures they can catch, carrion, and some plant matter. 

Hatched from eggs like all other turtles, snappers begin life about the size of a silver dollar, and sport an impressively long tail and cute little umbilical scar (yes, turtles do have belly buttons!). Eggs are laid in mid- to late summer and hatch around 2-3 months later. In colder latitudes hatchlings might overwinter in the nest, and emerge the following spring.

A larger individual seen during mid-June, 2009 near Aurora, NY. 
Possibly a female traveling overland looking to lay her eggs.

Humans are thought to be the primary "predators" of adults, though they have also been known to wind up as some other carnivore's dinner.  Egg predation by various species has been documented (e.g. raccoons, foxes, hognose snakes, etc.) and seems common. Hatchlings are of course are more susceptible than adults to predation due to their small size, but as a friend of mine nicely documented while out with his camera one day - they too can put those jaws to work when he need arises...

Great Blue Heron trying to eat (or escape from?) 
a young Common Snapping Turtle. Ithaca, NY
Photo by: Raghuram Ramanujan (C) 2007

Oh, and in case you were wondering, these guys as well as other turtles seem to be more closely related to birds than are lizards and snakes - though not as close as the crocodilians.

Lawrence (Larry) Slobodkin (1928-2009)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 3:02 PM Bookmark and Share
I just read in the New York Times that the influential ecologist Lawrence Slobodkin passed away on Friday.  You might take a few minutes and give his obituary a read.

One could learn a whole lot of ecology just by reading the many studies and publications that followed from some of his work - particularly the classic 1960 paper by Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin (a.k.a. the H.S.S. paper or the paper that gave us the "green world hypothesis").

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) awarded him their highest honor in 2005, the Eminent Ecologist Award.  They said of him...
Larry Slobodkin is one of the premier ecologists of our time. He has made lasting contributions to the theoretical and empirical development of ecology. Beyond this, however, many of us have been greatly influenced by the wonderfully original and insightful perspectives that flow from his unfettered mind.


  1. Hairston N G, Smith F E & Slobodkin L B. Community structure, population control, and competition. American Naturalist 94:421-5, 1960. (PDF)
  2. More at the Wikipedia page...

Hilarious Nature Blog: "F*** You, Penguin"

Monday, September 21, 2009 at 8:12 PM Bookmark and Share
If you can find humor despite (or because of?) lots of f-bombs, and are capable of seeing something as both vulgar and hilarious - man, have I go the the nature blog for you!  The theme seems to be talking a lot of smack to or about cute fuzzy critters.  It's called "F*** You, Penguin" and it's just down right awesome. 

Apparently, the author also has produced a book with a similar theme:

Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but hey - I've got a colorful sense of humor! ;)

Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron get spanked

 at 3:02 AM Bookmark and Share
[Hat tip to PZ Myers]

Science Quiz anyone?

Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 9:06 PM Bookmark and Share
The Pew Research Center has a nice online science quiz on their website to help illustrate the level of science understanding among the general public. While fun, it is a little depressing... click here and take the quiz, and you'll see what I mean.

AFTER you take the quiz, share the link with some friends then check out the full report.
[Hat tip to The Skeptical Teacher]

It's International Rock Flipping Day!!

 at 7:05 AM Bookmark and Share
So why aren't you outside looking under rocks!?

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Sunday September 20th is International Rock Flipping Day - a day to grab a friend or family member and head outdoors to go explore the variety of really cool critters to be found under rocks (or logs, or old plywood, or...).

It's super easy to participate!

To maximize your fun, and minimize any risk of harming you or the critters tucked away under those rocks, please read over the short list of tips and rules here or here.  A camera is a must!

Want to share what you find or see what others found this weekend?? Lots of things are already showing up over at Wanderin Weeta's blog, and you can also upload photos to the Flickr group "rockflippingday".

So turn off your computer, maybe call up a friend or neighbor or round up the family, and head outside to your nearest patch of woods, rocky shoreline, or desert wash and flip a rock or two!  Get outside and have some fun!

Free Origin of Species on November 19th!

Friday, September 18, 2009 at 12:01 AM Bookmark and Share
Well, "free" so long as you don't mind that fundamentalist Christian introduction (which I've mentioned previously). In that introduction, the notoriously science illiterate Ray Comfort tries to demonizes Darwin and makes the usual creationist blunders in an attempt to topple the theory of evolution and promote his version of creationism. Yes, that's right - Ray and his side kick Kirk Cameron are rallying the troops to evangelize on 50 college campuses (hopefully mine!) with free copies of the Origin of Species. I really hope someone follows them around and tapes the responses they get!

Here's the details straight from the horse's mouth:

If anyone can grab an extra one (or ten), I'd love a copy!!!

Ray Comfort's introduction can be read at either of: (
[Hat tip to PZ Myers, R. Dawkins]

Rachel Maddow on the too-hot-for-the-U.S. movie, "Creation"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:55 AM Bookmark and Share
[Hat tip to Hemant Mehta]

I love Rachel's comment after the clip:
"Don't you worry about - in the long run - what happens to a country that starts disbelieving all the stuff that has been proven?"

Mid-week Reptilian #1: Red-tailed Hawk?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 3:23 PM Bookmark and Share
As the first subject of this themed series of posts, I thought the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) would make the perfect subject. Why? Well, what better species to pick for the first mid-week reptilian!

I know, I know - it's a bird, but just let me explain.

My early interest in reptiles got me into reading about herpetology - the study of reptiles and amphibians. Growing up in the dry prairies of Colorado, reptiles were much easier to come by that amphibians and to be honest, amphibians never really did it for me. Sure, some are downright amazing, but they just didn't grab my attention as much as the squamates (snakes and lizards), testudines (turtles, tortises), crocodilians (alligators, caimens, etc.), and the last of the sphenodonts, the tuataras.

In high school, I got into birding and reptiles fell by the wayside. After all, birds are more visible, can be observed year round, and there was a pretty big birding community I was able to join and learn from.

After moving to western New York a few years ago for grad school, I found the world of amphibians more accessible.  I also met a lot of top-notch biologists and learned a lot more about bird, reptiles and amphibian biology, (in addition to the math I came to learn in grad school).

As luck would have it - those added insights (especially from phylogenetics) provided me with my long desired excuse to at last feel justified in my lack of enthusiasm for amphibians despite my love of all things feathered and scaley:

Reptiles (green field) are a paraphyletic group comprised 
of all non-avian, non-mammalian amniotes. [Source]

That's right - in terms of evolutionary relationships, birds are basically reptiles. The amphibians? They're off on a more distantly related branch of tetrapods! Ha!  So ignoring the biological history and their ecological similarities, and speaking a little tongue-in-cheek, one could almost compare "herpetology" to something like "fluffy-ology" - the study of all mammals excluding the cetaceans and  including the birds.  Yeah, you could still do some really cool and important science as a fluffy-ologist, but in terms of their actual relationships it's kind of a strange way to group these organisms.

So with that phylogenetic evidence in hand, I'm casting off the amphibians and sticking to the proper clade of reptilia for this series of posts - lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and yes... birds.

Red-tailed Hawks

...are ubiquitous in North America.  There are a number of field-identifiable subspecies types, various color morphs within and across subspecies and (like many birds) also show different plumage as juveniles.  This makes for a dizzying array of plumage variation, and plenty of natural variation to wonder about.  For example, have a look at the variation documented in just one subspecies (the "Harlan's Hawk") in a recent article in the magazine Birding.  Here's one of the cooler tail patterns on an adult Red-tailed Hawk from the article:

Unusual tail pattern from this article in Birding, by William S. Clark. [see below]

Links to more information: 

Independent lines of evidence and Evolution

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 7:09 PM Bookmark and Share
Here's a nice video from by DonExodus going over the importance of independent evidence in science. Well worth 10 minutes of your time if you're unfamiliar with how the fossil record, embryology, comparative anatomy, and genetics all independently support the scientific theory of evolution.

Looking at the Data on U.S. Health Care & Spending

 at 2:53 PM Bookmark and Share
Here's an article from taking a look at some of the data on cost and effectiveness of health care services both internationally and within the U.S.

The videos use data from the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, and from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and recently released data on the "Statistics and Indicators for 30 Countries"

Follow the link in the article to play with the per capita spending data shown in the first video above.

Obama's critics on the speech to students

 at 11:21 AM Bookmark and Share
With commentary on Obama's speech starting to pop up in various news sources, so to are the wacky statements made by some of the critics. For example, from this CNN piece:
"The president's speeches tend to be [about] what's wrong with the country and what can we do to fix it," said Bill Hogsett, a parent from Dallas, Texas.

"I believe this is the greatest country on Earth, and I try to teach that to my children. ... I don't want them hearing that there's a fundamental flaw with the country and the kids need to go forward to fix it."
Yes, that's right - apparently acknowledging problems and trying to fix them is very bad.  Even worse if you expect the next generation to deal with those problems! Oh, the horror!

So are these acknowledgments somehow unpatriotic? Would recognizing a "fundamental flaw" invalidate a belief that this "is the greatest country on Earth"?  Heck no. Our founding fathers recognized that no country - even this one - is not immune from having flaws.  That's why we have the ability to amend our constitution - so that those flaws can be corrected.

In any case, I hope you read Obama's speech - it's arguably the best speech made by a president specifically to students and will hopefully have some impact on the students that were fortunate enough to have heard it.

Where can you watch Obama's Speech to Students?

Monday, September 7, 2009 at 10:07 AM Bookmark and Share
Right here! The live presentation should be shown below on Tuesday September 8th, 12:00pm (EDT). [Edit: a copy of the speech has replaced the White House live feed.]

More information at the White House media resources page and blog.

Update: Is Obama going to politicize the speech?

Will he try and "indoctrinate" the youth of America? Will the speech be full of political advertising? Is this address really unprecedented? We have to just wait and see on the first two questions - but to help us judge his speech and answer them, we have some historical precedent to consider.

To establish this benchmark for Obama's speech tomorrow, lets take a look at Reagan's 1988 speech to students, and Bush senior's speech in 1991 and see how they did on keeping politics, policy and personal beliefs out of their speeches:

Reagan was relatively strong in pushing religion on the students, and was pretty sloppy with his history:

[Transcribed from above]... For America to gain greatest benefit from all the exciting new technologies that lie ahead, we will also need to reaffirm our traditional moral values, because these values are the foundation on which everything we do is built. So yes, I would encourage you to study the math and science that are the basis of the new techologies, but in a world of change you also need to pay attention to the moral and spiritual values that will stay with you unchanged throughout a long lifetime.

And again, I would say that the most important thing you can do is to ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution, and that is a vision that goes beyond economics and politics. It's also a moral vision, grounded in the reverence and faith of those who believed that with God's help, they could create a free and democratic nation. They designed a system of limited government that - in John Adam's words - was suited only to a religious people, such as ours. Our founding fathers were the descendants of the pilgrims. Men and women who came to America seeking freedom of worship, who prospered here and offered a prayer of thanksgiving - something we've continued to do each year...

Bush Sr. seems to have been a little bit less questionable in his speech, though it still was thick with his policy.

Seeing these two speeches, there is something to be said for keeping the president in check when he speaks in the classroom. How will Obama do? I myself hope to see Obama leave out culture, faith, and national policy (unlike Reagan and Bush) - and instead I hope he talks to (not at) the students about the personal and social importance of working hard to get a good education, providing them with some solid advice and encouragement to do their best to obtain that education.

Final Update

The text of the speech is available here.

Almost time for International Rock Flipping Day!

Friday, September 4, 2009 at 11:05 PM Bookmark and Share
I just noticed on Bug Girl's blog that Wanderin' Weeta is hosting the annual International Rock Flipping Day on Sunday, September 20th.

You're going to join in too, aren't you?

Here in western New York there are plenty of flippable pieces of Devonian shale, and plenty of cool critters living underneath them: various insects, snails, slugs, Scutigera centipedes and other Myriapods, earthworms, a few salamander species, half a dozen or so species of snakes (no venomous species save the few locales away from Ithaca with rarely seen Timber Rattlesnakes and Eastern Massasuagas - no way I'll find one near Ithaca, unfortunately).

While encouraged to flip a rock or two (or three) I think I might have some fun with it... maybe flip a few rocks in a number of different habitats?  Maybe flip progressively larger rocks until I can't flip anything more?  Some urban, some rural, some wilderness?  Other suggestions, anyone?

Hope you get a chance to join the fun! :)

Paraphrasing the rules over on Wanderin' Weeta's blog - if you're joining in for the first time, here's a quick rundown of the procedure:
  • On or about September 20th, find your rock and flip it over.
  • Record what you find. "Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry."
  • Replace the rock as you found it; it's someone's home, but...
  • as David Steen suggests - "If there are critters underneath, don't place the rock back on top of them, move the animals to the side, replace the rock and let them scurry back."
  • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group.
  • Send me a link. My e-mail address is in my profile, or you can add a comment to any IRFD post.
  • Wanderin' Weeta will collect the links, e-mail participants the list, and post it for any and all to copy to their own blogs. (Maybe we can Tweet it, too, this year. Use the hashtag #rockflip.)

Michael Behe and Intelligent Design Creationism v2.1

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 8:41 PM Bookmark and Share
Over at, you can watch this video of John McWhorter and Michael Behe (of the Discovery Institute and Dover trial fame) discuss Behe's intelligent design creationism (ID) writings and beliefs.  Why waste the 45 minutes it takes to watch it?  Because it's evolution in action, folks - and you don't see that happen every day. ;)

If you've ever been around any of their cousins the mustelids you probably don't see the initial example of the skunk as something incapable of having evolved by natural selection and mutation.  Alas, we see in this example that ages old  "God of the gaps" fallacy rearing it's ugly head. That mistaken idea that because they (or even the royal "we") don't understand something, that this somehow implies that intelligent design creationism is true.

Skipping ahead to 16:00, another common mistake - that evolution is completely random.  Certainly, the theory of evolution includes random or mostly random mutations - including the single base pair mutations in the protein coding regions of DNA -  but it also involves these and other kinds of mutations in the regions of DNA that regulate gene production, and "bigger" mutations like the insertion or deletion of whole regions of DNA, polyploidy, and so on.  To say evolution "doesn't work" because you can't get enough variation out of single base pair mutations alone is, well, irrelevant even if it was true. 

At 17:30 John sums up the whole ID-God connection by summarizing his understanding of Behe's stance.  After going through Behe's claims that evolution and the process of random mutation is insufficient to explain life as we know it, he says
John:   It seems that ... and this is something that you seem to understandibly pull back from getting too specific about in the book, but correct me if I'm wrong, it would seem to me that your idea is that random mutation alone cannot explain these things and that their must have been some sort of intelligent designer, and that intelligent designer would, I presume, be God. Right?

Behe: Well I certainly think so, I'm a run-of-the-mill Christian, you know, but in the book I try to act as... I'm a scientist and the scientific evidence points to design, it doesn't ... there's no signature on the molecular machinery saying who did it.  If somebody else wants to think it was a space alien or something exotic well they're free to do it.  The structure of molecular machines doesn't force you to believe one versus the other, but certainly I think - and most theists will think that God is a major candidate for the role of designer.
Make no mistake - ID is not science, it's religious in nature no ifs ands or buts about it.  Moving on to the rest of his response...

First - he basically says "random mutation alone" can't explain it, therefore it was God.  This is horrible logic.

Second - the "I try to act as... I'm a scientist" line is hilarious. This has nothing to do with the validity of ID or the rest of Behe's claims, but might Behe sometimes have problems deciding which hat to wear when speaking about intelligent design (creationism)? Like I said... religion, not science.

At 19:30 John, asks him how he's so sure that we've hit a wall and that science just can't explain some things (the implication being that it must have been intelligently designed).  His response (starting at 20:00) is quite telling:
... well, you can never be completely sure in science, it's the nature of the discipline, and I never claimed - and certainly don't now - that I have some sort of logical proof for [intelligent] design...
... in my mind [the evidence is] clearly pointing strongly to design or something very similar to it.
This kind of "no proof" but "evidence" thing is annoying. So far, the only "evidence" I've seen suggesting a designer is the same sort of "evidence" children have that Santa Claus exists.

They see presents, they have an a priori belief that Santa brings them presents, so they find the "evidence" consistent with their beliefs and as such, compelling that their beliefs are true.  Now, if you get rid of that a priori belief and actively look for evidence that would lead you to that belief (i.e. staying up all night on Christmas Eve hiding behind the couch, waiting to see who brings the presents) well then intelligent design simply falls completely apart. There are plenty of other explanations that do a better job of explaining the evidence than ID, and as such scientists see no reason to afford it any standing as a way of understanding the natural world.

But what about my claim that we see Intelligent Design evolving in this video?  Let me explain.

In Dembski's book "Signs of Intelligence," Behe tries to explain what sort of biological evidence we might look for that would point to a designer.  He refers to one such example as the irreducibly complex system:
But what type of biological system could not be formed by "numerous, successive, slight modifications"?  A system that is irreducibly complexIrreducible complexity is just a fancy phrase I use to mean a single system that is composed of several interacting parts, where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.

...[He then explains how a mouse trap doesn't work if you remove one of it's parts.]...

An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.  An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.  Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then, if a biological system cannot be produced gradually, it would have to arise as an integrated unit for natural selection to have anything to act on.
The main point here: it needs to have existed for it to have evolved.  If you could prove something couldn't have evolved, the theory of evolution needs some revising (or, if you commit the fallacy of false dichotomy, this implies intelligent design is true).  Lastly, it'll be important below to notice that we really only need existence here - he says nothing about what kind of function the precursor serves, just that it functions.

Now, to find such system we'd essentially have to prove a negative - so right off the bat we're never going to prove something "irreducibly complex" and we're certainly not in the realm of science, right?  Well actually, no we can prove things are NOT irreducibly complex by showing that such a system can be missing a part but still be functional.

For example early systems ID proponents claimed were irreducibly complex turned out not to be: the bacterial flagellum, the eye and the blood clotting cascade all have substantial evidence suggesting they are not irreducibly complex. There is nothing suggesting they could not have evolved through mutation and natural selection. 

Does this bother Behe? Of course not - he has an a priori belief he isn't looking to disprove, so evidence doesn't matter to him. How does he square up with the evidence against his irreducible complexity claims?  Around 26:00 he addresses this problem after John brings it up by (re?)defining "irreducible complexity".

Now, above, remember we only needed some function of a precursor system for it to be deemed not irreducibly complex. But now, Behe seems to abandon his earlier definition, and adopts a similar but practically very different definition that makes these problems go away.  He responds to John (around 27:45) with

I think what they're doing is that they're mistaking the idea of irreducible complexity. They're infusing what I think of as irreducible complexity with ... their own ideas.  They think that irreducible complexity is that you can't make a machine that does something similar to the machine you're thinking about, with fewer parts. But that's not true, and I wrote about that in Darwin's black box...

I have to pause him here - notice the "something similar" addition to the above definition from Dembski's book?  Why do we need similar function for evolution to take place?  If my grasping fingers make horrible fins for swimming, are they incapable of evolving into webbed fins?  Anyway, he goes on not providing a correct definition (other than adding you must be able to get from one to the other by incremental changes), but by actually using this incorrect definition to refute his critics.
There is something called a bacterial flagellum - I'm sure you're familiar with it. It's kind of like a little rotary motor. Like an outboard motor. And I wrote about that in Darwin's Black box, and said it was irreducibly complex.  And, after the book came out it was discovered that there was a subpart of it that could act kind of like a pump, kind of like a gas pump in your car.  And some people said "Well, if we take this away, it still works - so therefore the flagellum is not irreducibly complex." But I counter that... "Well, no it is because when you take away that part, the flagellum no longer works as a rotary motor."
Did you catch that? Now, it doesn't just need to exist so that it might evolve into a flagellum, any precursor to the flagellum for some reason now has to serve as a flagellum?  Seriously?!

While it might look like a refined more precise definition, this again is just the "God of the gaps" argument. If scientists find evidence of similar building blocks existing to serve other purposes, we still say it's irreducibly complex because we don't have the transitions. Like the endless demand for more and more transitional fossils, this game can go on forever.

This folks, is one of those little tiny mutations that drive the evolution of intelligent design creationism and you can see it happening from the pages of his writing to this video on the web.  Classical creationism (in a quasi-macroevolutionary sense) has evolved to intelligent design creationism under the selection imposed by empirical knowledge and scientific theories about our natural world. It has to adapt, or people stop believing it.  Gravity, the way the earth orbits the sun - these all shaped the evolution of dogmatic religious belief in recent history.

In a quasi-microevolutionary sense - you know, the kind of evolution that even young earth creationists admit happens fast enough to observe - intelligent design itself is also evolving through tiny incremental changes that bring this belief system added fitness.  If a modification makes it more convincing as correct and less clearly wrong, that version will more likely persist - even in the mind of one individual. Intelligent design simply adapts to the shrinking gaps in our knowledge - pushed deeper and deeper into the cracks each time new discoveries are made, each time reinventing itself as it's reiterated in debates, rewritten in books and blogs, each time inching away from any conflict with reality.

Well, then again, maybe the whole thing is really just intelligently designed?

What will come of the wolf hunts in Idaho, Montana?

 at 1:26 AM Bookmark and Share
Last week marked the beginning of the first wolf hunts in the lower 48 states in decades, following their recent removal from the endangered species list.  Montana and Idaho are both selling permits, which is good news to a lot of ranchers, deer and elk hunters, and other livestock owners - and bad news to a lot of wolf lovers.  One big question both sides are interested in is what will the impact be on the wolf populations?

According to this LA Times article, wolves are by no means as abundant as they used to be. 
Protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1973, when they were nearly extinct in the continental United States, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho in the 1990s and have since formed a large number of hunting and breeding packs that are beginning to range as far as Oregon.

The federal government concluded that the wolves, which now number about 1,650, had recovered, and lifted the endangered-species protections this year.
In Idaho, licenses to hunt wolves have been on sale for just over a week now, with over 9,000 already sold.  And yes, that means there are literally thousands more wolf hunters in Idaho this fall than there are individual wolves in all of the western U.S!

So, like, no more wolves - right?  Wrong.

First, the number of licenses is only the number of folks who get the opportunity to try and hunt a wolf. Unlike rabbits or squirrels, wolves aren't so easy to find so the vast majority of hunters are going home empty handed.  Indeed, some of those buying wolf tags won't even try to hard to find wolves - instead having them just in case they come across wolves after their livestock or while hunting other species like deer or elk.

To clarify things, we really need consider the quota set by the state wildlife agencies...

In Montana, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks department set the quota at 75 wolves of their estimated 500 wolves.
Commissioners approved a harvest quota of 75 wolves across three wolf management units. For northwestern Montana, the commission approved a quota of 41, with a subquota of two in the North Fork of the Flathead River area; a quota of 22 was approved for western Montana; and a quota of 12 in southwestern Montana.
In Idaho, the quota was set at 220 wolves, based on the 2008 estimate of a minimum of 846 in the state. 
Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission voted 4-3 for the wolf-hunt plan, with the three dissenters holding out for an even more aggressive hunt to target 49 percent, or up to 430, of Idaho’s wolves. Chairman Wayne Wright, one of the dissenters, declared, “Now’s the time to do the right thing. … Neither our state’s economy, our ranchers, our sportsmen or our elk herds can wait any longer.”
For reference, that's over half of the the 1,600+ wolves in the northern Rockies south of Canada (which harbors over 60,000 wolves), especially if you take that 846 as a minimum. More on the Idaho Fish & Game Commission's August 2009 decisions regarding the wolf hunts can be found here.

Using the more optimistic estimate of 1,000 wolves in Idaho being claimed by others, this still seems like a high quota that at best looks like it would yield zero growth or a decline in the state's wolf population.  I'm suspicious as to how this level of harvest could be sustained for multiple seasons given that the growth of the wolf populations has been below 20% annually in these areas in recent years, but who knows.  Throw in unexpectedly low reproductive rates these next few years and some combination of illegal poaching and/or the hunts going over quota and it looks to look a little more risky - though still not catastrophic.

So what's going to happen to the wolf populations in Idaho and Montana?  Who knows, but optimistically (or pessimistically, depending on how you feel about wolves) the population seems like it'll be maintained at near their current levels, maybe with a small decline the next year or two.  On the other hand, while I doubt they'll hunt them down to near extinction, hunting pressure could reduce them down to near or maybe even below the population size necessary to maintain their delisted status, though I doubt it.

I guess like so many things - only time will tell.