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Monday, September 26, 2005

Monkey see...

Sorry about not posting recently.

I've been a funk for the last couple days and not one with a beat you can dance to. Well, I just bought the latest Terry Prachett, as well as the latest Neil Gaiman, and the fourth season of Gilmore Girls is released tomorrow on DVD and since I've been saving for the past month, I can actually afford it.

Anyway, for your reading pleasure, I present the first recent newspaper article about evolution that's actually pretty good.

decoding chimpanzees' DNA allowed scientists to do more than just refine their estimates of how similar humans and chimps are. It let them put the very theory of evolution to some tough new tests.

If Darwin was right, for example, then scientists should be able to perform a neat trick. Using a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory, they should be able to predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species' DNA and the two animals' population sizes.

"That's a very specific prediction," said Eric Lander, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader in the chimp project.

Sure enough, when Lander and his colleagues tallied the harmful mutations in the chimp genome, the number fit perfectly into the range that evolutionary theory had predicted.

The article explains, in non-technical language, why evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory and why, by contrast, ID is not.

Asked to provide examples of non-obvious, testable predictions made by the theory of Intelligent Design, John West, an associate director of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based ID think tank, offered one: In 1998, he said, an ID theorist, reckoning that an intelligent designer would not fill animals' genomes with DNA that had no use, predicted that much of the "junk" DNA in animals' genomes -- long seen as the detritus of evolutionary processes -- will someday be found to have a function.

(In fact, some "junk" DNA has indeed been found to be functional in recent years, though more than 90 percent of human DNA still appears to be the flotsam of biological history.) In any case, West said, it is up to Darwinists to prove ID wrong.

"Chance and necessity don't seem to be good candidates for explaining the appearance of higher-order complexity, so the best explanation is an intelligent cause," West said. [emphasis added]

No, it is up to the people positing a scientific theory to provide evidence supporting it.

The article then goes into a basic overview of evolution.

Rather than just take the usual newspaper tactic of "he said, she said" pairing off one quote by a biologist with another quote by someone from the Discovery Institute, Weiss and Brown do a good job, given the length constraints of a newspaper article, explaining what evolutionary theory is.

On the geek scale*, I give this one a π.

(*The geek scale was originally created in the Annals of Improbable Research to grade cafeterias in various research institutions. It ranges from an i, good only in your imagination; to π, 'cause everyone knows pie is good.)

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