The Loom

Of Stem Cells and Neanderthals

Last October, word leaked out that something might be seriously amiss with the embryonic stem cell lines approved by President Bush for federally funded research. Today, the full details were published on line in Nature Medicine. It’s an important paper, and not only because it points out a grave problem with the current state of stem cell research. It also shows how scientists who do cutting-edge medical research are looking back at two million years of human evolution to make sense of their work. At a time when antievolutionists are trying hard to wedge creationist nonsense into science classrooms, this is something worth bearing in mind.

This new research focuses on the sugar molecules that coat our cells like frosting on a cake. Two of these sugars are common on virutally every mammal. They are abbreviated as Neu5Ac and Neu5Gc. These sugars are clearly essential to survival. When scientists altered the genes of mice so that they couldn’t produce them, the mice died. The sugars probably have several vital roles. They probably work as identity badges, judging from the fact that mammal cells also have receptors that can lock onto these particular sugars and only these particular sugars. Cells need to recognize each other for many reasons, such as when they are developing together to form a complex organ like a liver or a brain.

A surprise was in store for scientists who began looking for these two sugars in the human body. They found plenty of Neu5Ac, but they found practically no Neu5Gc. This is no minor difference, abbreviations aside. Neu5Gc is very common in other mammals. In gorillas, our close relatives, it makes up between 20% to 90% of this group of sugars. In us, zip. We are unique, in fact, among mammals for lacking this molecule.

Ajit Varki of UCSD led the research that established that Neu5GC is missing from humans. He decided to figure out how it disappeared. Other mammals make Neu5Gc by tinkering with Neu5Ac. The enzyme that does the actual tinkering is known as CMAH. This enzyme is pretty much identical in mammals ranging from chimpanzees to pigs. In humans, Varki and his colleagues discovered, the gene for CMAH is broken. It produces a stunted version of the enzyme which can’t manufacture Neu5Gc, and so our cells end up with none of these sugars on their surfaces.

The CMAH gene is broken the same way in every person that has been studied. That strongly suggests that all living humans inherited the mutation from a common ancestor. Since chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, have a working version of the gene, that ancestor must have lived less than six million years ago. Scientists can even say exactly how the gene mutated. A parasitic stretch of DNA known as an Alu element produced a copy of itself which got randomly inserted in the middle of the CMAH gene.

But Varki didn’t stop here. He joined with experts on extracting ancient biomolecules from fossils. They ground up bits of bones of Neanderthals, which split off from the ancestors of living humans about 500,000 years ago. In 2002 they reported that they found Neanderthal Neu5Ac, but no Neu5Gc. Neanderthals probably inherited the same mutation as we carry. Thus, the mutation must have struck hominids before 500,000 years ago.

To narrow their estimate further, the researchers looked closely at the Alu element that had caused the mutation. They compared its sequence to the original version from which it had been copied. They also looked at related versions in other primates. Studies have shown that this parasitic DNA mutates at a relatively steady rate. So by comparing the mutations in the different versions, they could estimate how old the sugar-disrupting mutation was. They came up with 2.7 million years ago, plus or minus 1.1 million years. While this estimate spans a couple million years, it still falls nicely between the range suggested by earlier research.

This study was the first to pinpoint a mutation that produced a signficant biological change in the hominid lineage. Just three years later, we have hundreds to choose from. But the loss of Neu5Gc still remains an important discovery because it is a loss. As I wrote in an earlier post, losing genes may actually be as important to human evolution as gaining new ones. Losing genes can sometimes release us from restraints that prevented our ancestors from exploring new ways of living. Exactly what advantage giving up Neu5Gc provided isn’t clear, according to Varki, but he has some suspicions. Parasites have evolved receptors that can grab onto both sugars, an important step in invading a cell. It’s possible that losing one of these sugars helped our ancestors become more resistant to some disease.

Varki also points out that the elimination of Neu5Gc might have been particularly important for the hominid brain–which, perhaps not coincidentally–went through a huge expansion roughly around the time that the Neu5Ac mutation occurred. In other animals, Neu5Gc is abundant on the cells of most organs, but exceedingly rare in the brain. It is very peculiar for a gene to be silenced in the brain, which suggests that it might have some sort of harmful effect. Once a mutation knocked out the gene altogether, hominids didn’t have to suffer with any Neu5Gc in the brain at all. Perhaps Neu5Gc limited brain expansion in other mammals, but once it was gone from our ancestors, our brains exploded.

This is not merely a just-so story. In Varki’s lab, researchers are breeding mice that can’t produce Neu5Gc and others that make too much. If Varki is right, the alter mice should wind up with altered brains.

Now for the stem cells.

Varki has been puzzled by the fact that some scientists over the years have reported detecting tiny amounts of Neu5Gc in humans. If, as Varki has found, the genetic machinery for making this sugar is broken beyond repair, how are they getting it? He and his researchers have spent several years attacking the problem. Their experiiments indicate that we pick up the sugars from the foods we eat–in particular beef and other meat from mammals. Our cells absorb the foreign Neu5Gc and stick them on their surfaces, alongside their normal Neu5Ac sugars. It’s possible that their similarity fools our cells into making this mistake. This happens only rarely, but often enough that we develop antibodies to Neu5Gc. In other words, our bodies know that Neu5Gc is the enemy.

It occurred to Varki that something similar might be happening in the production of embryonic stem cells. Once these cells are taken from an embryo, scientists traditionally lay them on top of a layer of mouse embryo cells and calf serum, which provide a supply of food for them. This food, it turns out, is loaded with Neu5Gc, and Varki–working with Fred Gage of the Salk Institute–discovered that it ends up on the human stem cells like frosting on a cake. And Varki and Gage found that human antibodies against Neu5Gc readily attack the stem cells.

If these stem cells were put in people, they might well be destroyed by antibodies. And even if they weren’t, the foreign Neu5Gc on their surfaces could cause problems. Both Neu5Gc and the normal Neu5Ac help cells recognize each other, which is crucial during development, when cells stick together to form new structures. Confused cells could wind up producing developmental defects.

Now I suppose that opponents of embryonic stem cell research might seize on this research. Most of the embyronic stem cell lines now being studied could never be implanted in people to provide a new supply of neurons or heart tissue, because they’d be attacked as foreign tissue–exactly the sort of trouble that stem cells were supposed to avoid. Better to scrap the whole line of research and just focus on adult stem cells. (This article in Forbes seems to push this line.)

But this doesn’t really make sense on strictly scientific grounds. Scientists could just scrap their existing lines of stem cells and start new ones, making sure that they can’t take up Neu5Gc. This would be a challenge, but not an impossible one. Varki and Gage suggest feeding stem cells on serum taken from the person who is going to receive them, for example. Since we really don’t know whether embryonic or adult stem cells are going to work as cures, why should scientists simply walk away from embryonic stem cells in the face of a challenge?

The irony is that scientists who rely on federal funding have no choice but to walk away. Starting a new stem cell line is expressly verboten under Bush’s decree, because it crosses the moral line he has drawn in the sand. Varki and Gage’s results will spell certain doom for embryonic stem cell research only if the government wants it to.

I have noticed that members of the Discovery Institute, the headquarters for lobbying for Intelligent Design, are also speaking out against embryonic stem cell research. It will be interesting to see if they try to embrace Gage and Varki’s research while still trying to cast doubt on evolution. How on Earth, I wonder, could someone promoting Intellgent Design or Young Earth creationism make sense of these scientific results? How could they explain away so many facts that line up to present us with an evolutionary history taking us down through millions of years, from our common ancestor with other apes, to the first hominids to evolve large brains, to the rise of Neanderthals and our own species, to the latest breakthroughs in medicine? I do try to imagine how they would do this from time to time, but without much luck. I think I’ll keep track of real science instead.


Update, Monday January 24, 2005: The paper is not on the Nature Medicine site yet. I will post a good link as soon as one becomes available.

Update, Monday, 3:00 pm: Welcome, citizens of Slashdot and Metafilter. There sure are a lot of you!

Nature Medicine has made the PDF of the Varki paper available for free on their home page. (Scroll all the way down.)

Update, Friday, 5 pm: Here’s a follow-up post on why I don’t think this proves the handiwork of an Intelligent Designer.

Comments

  1. #1 christopher
    January 23, 2005

    I wonder if anyone has undertaken an earnest study of just the problem Mr. Zimmer postulates- how could flat-earthers possibly believe what they do, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary?

    To be more specific, who has studied the anti-rationalist impulse sufficiently to tell us why some h. sapiens simply do not look to rationalism to guide their views?

  2. #2 ~DS~
    January 24, 2005

    Great article! One question Carl, you wrote The irony is that scientists who rely on federal funding have no choice but to walk away. Starting a new stem cell line is expressly verboten under Bush’s decree, because it crosses the moral line he has drawn in the sand. This confused me. Could a new ESL be started using private funds in the US?

  3. #3 Stephen Frug
    January 24, 2005

    In answer to Christopher’s question, there are lots of reasons that people follow non-rationalist ideals, and you can find them in sources ranging from evolutionary psychology to history to literature. If you’re curious, here’s a good place to start: Michael Shermer’s book Why people believe weird things : pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time.

  4. #4 sennoma
    January 24, 2005

    Give the BushCo injunction against new lines and the amount of money already invested in existing ones, I’d guess that one of the first lines of enquiry to open up as a result of this study will be into ways to rid the cells of acquired antigens.

    Could the ES cells be cultured on a human-derived substrate long enough to lose the exogenous sugars? That is, what’s the turnover rate for acquired cell surface carbohydrates?

  5. #5 Carl Zimmer
    January 24, 2005

    In answer to Sennoma’s question, the researchers tried feeding the contaminated stem cells on Neu5Gc-free substrates. While the Neu5Gc was reduced on the stem cells, it still remained pretty high. They say the only real solution is starting from scratch. I wish I could point you to the original article, but it hasn’t been posted yet.

  6. #6 Walt Pohl
    January 24, 2005

    Are there really any flat-earthers? I thought the Flat Earth Society was a joke.

  7. #7 Monty Williams
    January 24, 2005

    I wonder how this (loss of sugar) might be related to the problem that humans are unique in that we cannot manufacture our own Vitamin C.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=14703305&dopt=Abstract

  8. #8 Carl Zimmer
    January 24, 2005

    In response to Monty–the ability to synthesize vitamin C actually disappeared long before we split off from chimpanzees, as evidence by the fact that other primates also lack the ability.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=10572964

  9. #9 sean
    January 24, 2005

    “Are there really any flat-earthers? I thought the Flat Earth Society was a joke.”

    Yes, there indeed are, although most that I’m personally aware are part of very closed communites, such as Amnish communities. I saw an interview with a man who left his community. He mentioned something about travelling around the world to his minister, who promptly screamed at him, “The earth is flat! God and the holy book say there are “four corners of the earth” !”

    There are even more bizarre beliefs out there. One of my uncles is a big speaker for some of the weirder conspiracy-theory groups out there. (The guy’s a nutcase, seriously. And has _lots_ of people that believe his spew.) One of his theories is that the world is indeed round, but that we live on the inside of it. He has an interesting experiment to prove it, as well, although I’ve never personally bothered to try it. It has to do with laying buoys with vertical flat faces in a straight line on the ocean spread over several miles, and sight them using a telescope. If the earth is convex then, logically, you’d expect to see the edges of the further buoys below the closer ones, but apparantly it’s just the opposite. Again, no clue if that’s actually true, and even if it is, I’d expect there’s a far more rational explanation… but that’s the kind of nutcases we have in this world.

  10. #10 Joel De Gan
    January 24, 2005

    This creationist “science” they are trying to get in the classroom is only an American issue, the rest of the world is not burdened by this sad fundamentalism.
    If this actually gets into schools, I pity future generations in America.
    I have read many articles about the current administration hamstringing scientists and even suppressing research, especially if that research could possibly cast bad light on current policies.

  11. #11 Walt Pohl
    January 24, 2005

    Wow. The internet, if nothing else, should have taught me that no opinion is so weird that no one actually holds it. (Though I do believe that the Flat Earth Society actually was a joke.)

  12. #12 Neil Aschliman
    January 24, 2005

    Hello Carl, big fan of your work.

    As a reluctant student of zoology at “the most conservative campus in the nation,” I regrettably confirm that there are flat-earthers among us. And oh, they are abundant and ferocious in nature.

    One of the favored Kiplingesque tales explaining the loss of ascorbic acid synth concerns a fruit-rich primate diet rendering the metabolic pathway superfluous and expensive. However, when considering this or other just-so stories (as Carl noted with this article and the loss of Neu5Gc), be constantly aware of the dangers of panadaptationism that Gould and Lewontin strongly argued against. It could be, as Crick said, a “frozen accident.”

  13. #13 Retro
    January 24, 2005

    “To be more specific, who has studied the anti-rationalist impulse sufficiently to tell us why some h. sapiens simply do not look to rationalism to guide their views?”

    I’d like a study on why some h. sapiens vehemently object to a moral code of ethics…

  14. #14 John Haugeland
    January 24, 2005

    A well written article, but for one detail: that’s not what Irony means.

  15. #15 Nate
    January 24, 2005

    Quite simple, really, how people who believe intelligent design explain all this:

    They’ve assumed an intelligent designer creating the system. Said designer is usually assumed to know an awful lot (in the rare cases where it isn’t omniscient).

    Thus, it makes complete and total sense, according to the intelligent crowd’s perspective, that the human body wouldn’t have any Neu5Gc. If we’re assuming it’s bad (seems to be the implication of this article), and we assume that there’s a designer with large amounts of knowledge, then the designer likely wouldn’t include it in the system it’s designing.

    Why would it not use it in humans, but in all the other mammals? Possibly to differentiate us from the others, at a guess; clearly, if you assume that there was an intelligent designer that structured and implemented the world as we know it, humans are the most impressive piece of work it did, and it might like to set them apart from the others. Or maybe it designed us last, using what it had learned from doing the others first to improve our biological systems.

    I know a couple folks who believe the intelligent design thing (not all of them are Christians, by the way; various religions have been getting into it, like Judaism), and this is, I think, how they might explain it. You can apply a pretty similar argument to just about any quirk of biology as far as intelligent design goes, if you feel like it; I’ve seen them do it.

  16. #16 Tim Wright
    January 24, 2005

    The inverted earth test using a telescope and two bouys in the ocean would probably work – assuming you’re standing up and not on the same level as the bouys. You’ll quite simply see over the first bouy.

    To really test that hypothesis, you’d need three equally spaced bouys and measure the distance between them. Or line the first two bouys up perfectly and see where the third one is.

    It’s a pity that people who are likely to believe that the earth is inverted probably don’t have the basic geometry skills to prove themselves wrong.

  17. #17 Guillermo Castro
    January 24, 2005

    Very interesting article (yes, I am one of those slashdotters). Have there been any research on what effects (short and long term) of a human accumulating the Neu5Gc sugar has? If this sugar is mainly acquired from eating beef and other meat products, maybe the vegetarians were right all along :)

    If the body sees the Neu5Gc as the enemy, maybe this can cause premtaure celular breakdown, or some other consequence.

  18. #18 Tomppa
    January 24, 2005

    Very interesting stuff intead, but world is a big big place so it can’t be very hard to do stem cell research outside the bushland.

  19. #19 Lysol
    January 24, 2005

    How dare you even suggest that Bush’s stance on the killing of babies to cure adults is wrong. These so called scientists are destroying morality in America.

  20. #20 Ronan Cunniffe
    January 24, 2005

    Re: measuring curvature of Earth.
    I can’t lay hands on where I read this: that Alfred Russell Wallace (appropriately!) did this demonstration for flat-earthers in 19C. His method was to use bridges over a straight section of canal (i.e. still water is flat wrt. gravity). To each of 2 (3?) bridges, he fixed a pole with a flag on it at a measured height above the water. The second bridge also had a second flag a pre-computed distance below the normal flag.
    I can’t remember if he flagged three bridges and measured from a fourth or flagged two and used a telescope at the same measured height on a third. Either way, the lower flag of the middle bridge was in line with that on the end bridge, as he expected.
    The response of the flat-earthers? That this was conclusive proof that the Earth was flat, of course!
    Haven’t posted here before, was trying to sum up my response to the site (been reading a while)… *never* a dull article yet!
    RC

  21. #21 ST
    January 24, 2005

    Fascinating article. We know that this is all part of the evolution “theory”. But my question is, have scientists even begin to consider the slightest possibility that the absence of Neu5Gc in humans could be a fact to prove that the evolution was all cock and bull after all?

  22. #22 Nick Lighfoot
    January 24, 2005

    After reading the article, the author appears to be trying to make the leap that somehow having a theory about where the differences in sugar content came from actually had an impact on current research. I see no such indication. Scientists know what animals these sugars exist in and how they affect the immune response to these cells without having any idea how the differences came about. The evolutionary theory behind it has no impact on the current stem cell research. In fact, as far as I’m aware research into evolutionary theory has an impact on only one area of science, and that’s evolution.

  23. #23 SargeZT
    January 24, 2005

    Interesting. However, would this have any effect on the current research done? Even assuming that it’s been contaminated since the first lines were created, all research has been done in non-hominids (From what I’ve gathered).

    So, given the near-impossible task of creating new lines, the research would still be good, right?

  24. #24 Dark Ager
    January 24, 2005

    My main problem with evolution is philosophical. If in fact, there is no purpose to us being here, any moral code ceases to have any meaning as well. Most people are not living their lives without any moral code or values. To assume such a position is to place a hitler in the same category as a ghandi. What’s the difference if we are all here by accident. And if there is no meaning to the universe then to what extent can we even say there is any meaning in our conversation or language. Thus evolution is a philosophical impossibility.

    Grace,

  25. #25 Colin Fuller
    January 24, 2005

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, even though I have no particular scientific background. I also find it alarming and somewhat discomforting that creationism persists to this day with such zeal.

  26. #26 Matt
    January 24, 2005

    Has Mr Zimmer considered that this article isn’t particularly far removed from that which might be written by an anti-evolutionist, differing only in bias?

  27. #27 Anon
    January 24, 2005

    I find it alarming that “creationists” are lumped together in the same manner as “evolutionists”, rather than keeping an open mind.

    A disturbing amount of “evolution theory” is not exactly cast in stone – by pretending that our current understanding is the one right answer, we limit our ability to actually do science. Instead of blindly believing that all elements of “creationist” theory (and all objections raised to “evolutionist” theory) are wrong, simply because they may contradict current theory or because someone doesn’t like the messenger.

    A good scientist will always keep an eye out for their own biases, to ensure that they aren’t getting in the way of their own understanding.

    And that doesn’t make me a creationist either.

  28. #28 Autoversicherung
    January 24, 2005

    does that mean they will open up the collection again?

  29. #29 Chronos Tachyon
    January 24, 2005

    Re: stem cells = killing babies…

    I don’t understand how any human being could possibly believe that killing a little clump of 8-64 cells could be considered taking a human life. It has no brain to feel pain. In fact, it’s early enough that it could split into two parts and become identical twins, so it’d be a horribly convoluted theological argument that it already has a soul. (If it does, which twin gets it?)

    When is Operation Rescue going to start rioting in front of fertility clinics? That’s where embryonic stem cells come from, after all, not abortion clinics. In IVF, they extract multiple eggs, fertilize them all, then only implant the two or three that look healthiest. Over half go to waste. Stem cells come from the runners up that would be thrown in the garbage otherwise.

  30. #30 Jared
    January 24, 2005

    I want to respond to the individual who commented, “If in fact, there is no purpose to us being here, any moral code ceases to have any meaning as well.”

    I’m sorry, but that has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. “Since nobody put us here, we don’t have a purpose, so all the rules are meaningless.” What the hell kind of crap is that? I’m serious, I want a response, what kind of crap is that?

    Let’s generalize it just a little bit more. Since somebody didn’t instruct you to do something, it isn’t worth doing. Nobody instructed you to breathe, so why keep breathing? I’ll tell you why: because it feels good.

    And that’s the thing about being a moral person: it makes you feel good. Being nice to people and not robbing them blind or killing them in their sleep gives people a good feeling, and that good feeling is the basis of the ultimate moral rule: do unto others as you wish done unto yourself.

    This is the catastrophe of the creationist mindset: “if we’re wrong, there is no point.” bzzt, wrong, you’re totally ignoring all of the potential we possess as a race. The proper mindset is “If we’re wrong, the point is anything we want it to be.” — It is very similar to an existing human mindset: “Because we can.”

  31. #31 John Haugeland, again
    January 24, 2005

    Yes, there indeed are, although most that I’m personally aware are part of very closed communites, such as Amnish communities.

    Dear Sean: Amish communities aren’t closed at all. Having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, I’m proud to explain that this prejudice is quite false. The Amish, Mennonites and Pennsylvania Dutch communities are wonderful, welcoming people which make an active effort to maintain community relations with the outside world. The tendency is taken to an extreme in Amish communities, who are currently engaging in a program of population exchange in order to prevent the problems typically associated with inbreeding.

    There are a number of myths surrounding the Amish. They are a sophisticated, urbane people with a strong understanding of sciences, including technology. They maintain telephone systems and electrical systems in the community and modern medical care, in the name of preventing disaster. The Amish do not actually abhor technology as is so commonly believed; they simply believe that God has chosen a certain amount of work for an individual to survive, and that it is inappropriate to use machinery to avoid this work. Tractors are against their beliefs. Contact with the outside world is not.

    This creationist “science” they are trying to get in the classroom is only an American issue, the rest of the world is not burdened by this sad fundamentalism.

    Horsepuckey. Joel, this sort of xenophobia is drastically inappropriate. There are more than a dozen governments in Africa and another half dozen in Asia currently resisting the donation of AIDS medication because they believe in an analogue to creationism. There are no fewer than four seperate religious groups currently lobbying the British government to remove natural selection (it’s not evolution) from the schoolbooks at the moment.

    Please sheathe your anti-american rhetoric. It’s ugly and disappointing. Don’t think that just because you don’t know of something occurring outside the borders that it isn’t there; given what you just said, I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that you can’t even name the British prime minister before Tony Blair. Ignorance isn’t absence.

    If this actually gets into schools, I pity future generations in America.

    There are three states in the US which currently state that natural selection is a theory. Before you go trumpeting how awful and bible thumping they are, please remember that they are correct. Not only is natural selection unproven, but there are still significant flaws and significant events in known biohistory which natural selection does not adequately explain.

    Do not take this to mean that I am one of the religious types you seem so happy to discard out of hand; even though I defend their right to believe what you discard without contrary evidence, I tend to believe in natural selection because as a computer scientist I have successfully engaged in experiments which at a small scale model a system superficially related to selection. However, the issue in my eyes is akin to Newtonian physics: the beliefs are compelling and drawn from best data, but once you get the faintest clue what you’re talking about, you realize that it cannot be a complete model, because some things remain impossible.

    Please do not act as if natural selection is fact, or even as if modern scientists take it as fact; it is a rough and at least partially flawed model. Simply because we do not understand a better system modelling does not mean that natural selection is suddenly correct; there was a point at which Gods provided the most accurate model for the behavior of lightning. (Before you fly off the handle, please note that the observational systems for weather developed around beliefs regarding Thor/Yun Tze/Melios/etc predicted lightning quite well; in one sense they were significantly scientific. Just because the underlying principles are wrong doesn’t make them any less scientific; remember, we once believed that Radio operated first on the Phlogiston, then the Ether, then atmospheric resonance. In a thousand years, the Ether will probably also seem borderline religious. Gods were the model by which humanity once understood the world. Religion and science are not mutually exclusive.)

    I have read many articles about the current administration hamstringing scientists and even suppressing research, especially if that research could possibly cast bad light on current policies.

    With the notable exceptions of stem cell research, which may have attached moral issues, and of environmentalist concerns, whose data is suspect not only from the US but also from all other nations, there are no such tendencies. What you have heard is almost certainly well-intentioned false memory. This is why adults provide reference: merely repeating what you heard is not only irresponsible, but can distract from the real issues at hand.

    Wow. The internet, if nothing else, should have taught me that no opinion is so weird that no one actually holds it.

    May I take it then, Walt, that you have never been to New Jersey?

    (Though I do believe that the Flat Earth Society actually was a joke.)

    You believe incorrectly.

    It could be, as Crick said, a “frozen accident.”

    Neil, you took the words right out of my mouth. It worries me that science reporters seem unaware of the principle of commuted error running parallel to important adaptation, and the discarding of the concepts of partial adaptation and middle-ground adaptations.

    I’d like a study on why some h. sapiens vehemently object to a moral code of ethics…

    Retro, you may begin by showing us a code of ethics or a moral system (the two are fundamentally different concerns) on which we may all agree. Once you’ve achieved what thousands of years of philosophers, leaders, the revered and the moderate have failed to do, perhaps you’d be so good as to solve world hunger and the Clay Institute prizes?

    There’s no vehement objection to ethics involved in the multiple millenium debate over core ethics. It can be successfully argued that the world’s beliefs regarding allowable and appropriate behavior have come together more in the last two hundred years than the rest of our history summed. Please remember that, as humans, we are limited; it is not so simple to say “this is right” as you seem to want it to be. Before you get onto a rant, please find solutions which we may all agree upon to euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, religious doctrinal law and class/caste/race/gender equianimity.

    This is hubris, pure and simple. One cannot unify ethics without being so arrogant as to believe one has the “correct” system in hand. In order to dissolve my claims of speaking above one’s ability or position, you need only provide a list of what the rest of the species has been struggling to put together since the dawn of recorded history. You seem like a smart chap; have at it. I’ll give you a dollar when you’re done.

    They’ve assumed an intelligent designer creating the system.

    Nate, you’ve assumed quite the opposite. One of the easiest ways to shake an atheist grounding themselves in evidence is to remind them that since the birth of the Universe is not understood, the burden of proof is not actually on the religious to find God, but on the scientific to find an alternative.

    As Knuth points out, the physical systems we currently believe in can easily be seen as part of the Great and Ineffable Plan. Until you speak directly with the spirit of Nietzsche, please do us the favor of not pretending you are able to disprove God. If you were, which you are not, the Catholic Church would have drowned you by now.

    Thus, it makes complete and total sense, according to the intelligent crowd’s perspective, that the human body wouldn’t have any Neu5Gc.

    You have created this statement; nobody said that but you. It is not good argument to fabricate a quote that you expect someone to be willing to say for the purpose of attacking their beliefs; this is a seemingly characteristically unsubtle case of argumentum ad hominem.

    If we’re assuming it’s bad (seems to be the implication of this article)

    The article is careful to imply no such thing.

    and we assume that there’s a designer with large amounts of knowledge, then the designer likely wouldn’t include it in the system it’s designing.

    This doesn’t make any sense. We took the combustion engine out of jet planes to make scramjets; does that suddenly make combustion engines a bad idea? What may be good for a design at point A may not be good for a derived design at point B. You would do well to attempt to design something complex, so that you understand this, before again commenting on complex design, much less the proposed actions of a God.

    Why would it not use it in humans, but in all the other mammals?

    Wouldn’t you like to know? Dozens of possible reasons come to mind. Why not try coming up with more than one unsubstantiated explanation before using this utterly groundless speculation to attempt to attack a position which you initially fabricated besides?

    clearly, if you assume that there was an intelligent designer that structured and implemented the world as we know it, humans are the most impressive piece of work it did

    Yes, because clearly if some being created the universe, then from our perspective of being familiar with an estimated five percent of the species of a single planet, we’re the greatest ever, and sliced bread can go hang itself.

    Doesn’t it embarrass you to speak in this fashion?

    Or maybe it designed us last, using what it had learned from doing the others first to improve our biological systems.

    We have evidence of species derived from other species more recently than the most recent known hominid development. By any known measure this is demonstrably false.

    not all of them are Christians, by the way; various religions have been getting into it, like Judaism

    “Getting into it?” It’s built right into the manual. Get a clue please.

    and this is, I think, how they might explain it.

    Making speculative explanations by putting words into someone else’s mouth and then attacking those explanations as if they showed the people you’re attempting to speak for as ignorant is utterly reprehensible; this sort of behavior will get you flunked out of any logic, philosophy, discriminatory authoring or debate class, and for a damned good reason.

    The Jesuits have an impressively enlightened stance on natural selection, and believe that the mechanism both exists and is in operation. Furthermore, the Jesuits believe that Man descended from the Apes. How can that be rationalized with the Bible? It turns out to not be at all difficult; if you’d bother to learn the things you seem to be so happy to trash, you might discover that nearly a quarter of the branches of Christianity, including the Catholic Church, have adopted natural selection as fact under the suggestion that it is part of God’s great plan.

    Your arguments fall apart under simple scrutiny. Do not comment on the stances of groups until you’re at least casually aware of them; this is slander, pure and simple.

    The inverted earth test using a telescope and two bouys in the ocean would probably work – assuming you’re standing up and not on the same level as the bouys. You’ll quite simply see over the first bouy.

    Tim, the effect works at equivalent altitudes, too. It’s a lensing effect caused by the tiny density differences in atmosphere over great distances.

    To really test that hypothesis, you’d need three equally spaced bouys and measure the distance between them. Or line the first two bouys up perfectly and see where the third one is.

    The Navy did this not long after GPS went up, as this effect has been known for centuries.

    It’s a pity that people who are likely to believe that the earth is inverted probably don’t have the basic geometry skills to prove themselves wrong.

    It’s equally a pity to see people lambasting one another’s proficiencies when assuming a well-known curiosity of a more complex system fails under basic scrutiny. Try the experiment before assuming an entire society, once populated by tens of thousands of scientifically aware Victorials, hadn’t the temerity to even attempt what they’d claimed to see. Even with basic geometry skills in place, this experiment gives exactly the data they suggest; it’s a question of misunderstanding why that occurs, not getting false data as you imply.

    Guessing to suggest other people didn’t even try is disgusting.

    Very interesting stuff intead, but world is a big big place so it can’t be very hard to do stem cell research outside the bushland.

    Tomppa, as the article explains, stem cell research is not illegal in the United States; rather, there is a moratorium on federal funding for agencies which develop new cell lines. To wit, California has invested three billion dollars in funding stem cell research over the next ten years; that sum represents nearly 30% of the current stem cell funding on Earth, private and public combined.

    There is nothing at all unethical about apportioning federal funding according to sciences whose moral considerations are settled; it can in fact be argued that this is the only ethical way in which to behave. It is quite trendy to hate Bush for refusing to fund something until people are certain they think it’s right, but in fact here he has done the right thing. There are many legitimate reasons to hate the man; use one of those instead. In this case, he did the right thing. The populace of the United States is hotly divided on the topic of stem cell research, and to fund it federally when nearly half of us believe that it’s a moral outrage would be irresponsible in the extreme.

    Don’t get me wrong: I see this as equivalent to the 18th century debate over the morality of autopsy: silly, extreme conservationist and morally impositional. Nonetheless, as the occupant of a nation which is not driven by my personal belief system, I recognize that my government has the responsibility to act with caution and to err on the side of constraint. California had a vote; California believes 85% that stem cells are right. Therefore, California may ethically fund this research. The nation had a vote; the nation only believes at 55%. That is not enough of a majority to act on such a topic.

    Bush did the right thing here, for once.

    How dare you even suggest that Bush’s stance on the killing of babies to cure adults is wrong. These so called scientists are destroying morality in America.

    Um. You don’t have to kill a baby to scrape the umbilical cord with a knife, captain informed genius. Would that lysol could eliminate you with the rest of the diseases I would be a happier man.

    We know that this is all part of the evolution “theory”.

    The theory is called natural selection. The word “evolution” simply means “progress from an earlier state,” and is tautologically provable: to make a move in chess is evolution, for example. However, you are quite correct to point out that natural selection remains a theory, and I might add one with significant flaws.

    But my question is, have scientists even begin to consider the slightest possibility that the absence of Neu5Gc in humans could be a fact to prove that the evolution was all cock and bull after all?

    I would be interested to discover what path of logic led you to this exposition.

    After reading the article, the author appears to be trying to make the leap that somehow having a theory about where the differences in sugar content came from actually had an impact on current research. I see no such indication.

    Perhaps you should investigate the research, then. Knowing about sugar development paths has had a major impact on a variety of branches of medicinal research; a visible example regards salts instead, in that Multiple Sclerosis has a new potential genetic therapy treatment underway because the process of pinning branch differentiation allowed us to more quickly track down a set of genes which we currently believe to be the basis of the broken sodium/chlorine exchange paths.

    There is a big difference between being unaware of evidence and evidence not being there; when one is unfamiliar with a topic, that difference baloons into a legitimate reason to keep one’s mouth shut.

    The evolutionary theory behind it has no impact on the current stem cell research.

    False. Read a book.

    In fact, as far as I’m aware research into evolutionary theory has an impact on only one area of science, and that’s evolution.

    Doctors, anthropoligists, historians, breeders, genetic therapists, genetic researchers, exterminators, ecologists, and computational biologists would take issue with this statement. Again, please do not confuse ignorance for lack of validity.

    Interesting. However, would this have any effect on the current research done? Even assuming that it’s been contaminated since the first lines were created, all research has been done in non-hominids (From what I’ve gathered).

    Yes. Most research has been done in mice and pigs whose immune systems have been largely or wholly replaced with human immune systems. This discovery leads to a better understanding of an entire class of rejections which we once believed to be representation of difficulties in the technique, but which we now understand may simply be a question of contaminated tools. By comparison, imagine attempting to work with antibiotics, only to discover that all your telomere protiens had been denatured by heat or acid. Things which should have worked instead failed. This may be no different (it is as yet unclear.)

    So, given the near-impossible task of creating new lines

    California currently has more than two hundred new lines, and corporate medical research is estimated to have literally thousands. The Bush moratorium just means you can’t get federal funding; there is still state, university, private and corporate funding, and biological research is one of the few areas of cutting edge science which can viably be performed on an individual budget. Remember please that two of the seven known antibiotic families were discovered through individual experimentation on individual hardware and budget. Stem cell research just means a person needs access to an umbilical cord, which is legally available with written permission to any random individual at a hospital in all but two states in the nation.

    If in fact, there is no purpose to us being here, any moral code ceases to have any meaning as well.

    This is a legitimate and defensible viewpoint with which I strongly disagree. Should it be the case that we came from chemistry instead of God, is it suddenly any less wrong to kill another person? (There is of course the question of genetic imperative.)

    To assume such a position is to place a hitler in the same category as a ghandi.

    Well said.

    And if there is no meaning to the universe then to what extent can we even say there is any meaning in our conversation or language.

    Isn’t the current conversation, including both strong debate and uninformed whackos, evidence enough? Memes are being exchanged, and there’s the good chance that one of us will inform another of us, or change another of our minds. To me, that seems like justification on its own: even if God didn’t create us, learning gives reason for discussion, in my opinion.

    Thus evolution is a philosophical impossibility.

    I strongly recommend you read Kuhn; he discusses this topic both from his own and from historic viewpoints at length.

    I also find it alarming and somewhat discomforting that creationism persists to this day with such zeal.

    Remember please that the basis of the word “zeal” is “zealot,” the name of a caste of Jewish holy warriors (in many ways equivalent to Paladins.) The reference here in my opinion is not coincidence: humans have a tendency to keep to their existing beliefs, even when the current evidence shows otherwise.

    This isn’t actually nessecarily a bad thing. Many times, dead lines of research seemed quite obviously correct, often for more than a hundred years; my earlier examples of the Ether and the Phlogiston persisted with seemingly good data for more than a thousand years, but it turned out that the earlier elemental model of the Greeks which they replaced was quite a bit closer to what we currently believe to be the truth.

    In many ways, the philosophy of the Greek Skeptics can be here enlightening. It is not nessecarily bad to stick to one’s guns; it’s just that we only notice another sticking to their beliefs when our own are in contrast. It might be worthwhile to look up the spotlight fallacy, a special case of biased sample which I believe to be at play here.

    Has Mr Zimmer considered that this article isn’t particularly far removed from that which might be written by an anti-evolutionist, differing only in bias?

    Well put.

    I find it alarming that “creationists” are lumped together in the same manner as “evolutionists”, rather than keeping an open mind.

    There’s no such thing as an evolutionist; the term you’re looking for is Darwinist (though it ought to be “selectionist,”) and in fact it’s correct to lump them together, specifically because neither group is keeping an open mind. To wit, this seems to be the position you yourself later take; I just feel it appropriate to contrast the presumption taken. Otherwise, I quite agree with you.

  32. #32 khayyam
    January 24, 2005

    One request – could we recognize that evolution and survival of the fittest are separate theories? I think some people are criticizing evolution when they mean to be criticizing survival of the fittest. I don’t understand how this article could be construed as disproving evolution. Evolution is perfectly compatible with the basic idea of an intelligent designer – evolution would merely describe the way in which the intelligent designer achieved his ends.

  33. #33 js
    January 24, 2005

    Fascinating article. I’m curious about the idea of parasitic DNA. Is this a common occurance within the human genome?

    As far as a lack of philosophical justification for evolution… Wow. There are so many things wrong with the proposition that without an external purpose, evolution can’t exist. First off, it begs the question by assuming that there is a purpose to life, and second, it denies individuals the freedom to decide on their own what that purpose is. It denies the idea that humanism can exist secularly, which it clearly can (see Bertrand Russell). It denies personal responsibility for actions to place everything “philosophically” at the feet of God. If the poster is interested, reading Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” may be a good start for further discussion on this topic.

    As for the idea that evolution is a theory, and that by not examining creationist concepts of, well, creation we somehow short-sheet science… That’s flawed as well. You might as well be saying arguing that because we’re not examining the possibility that we’re all elaborate programs in a Matrix simulation, we’re not truly pursuing science.
    Dealing with meta-issues like whether or not God exists are matters of faith and philosophy. They cannot be argued in a scientific manner with any credibility and are best left to theologians simply because the methods of evaluating claims cannot be placed within a scientific context. Yes, God may have created fossils to fool humans or to give delightful subterranean texture to the earth, but the argument is fundementally unfalsifiable and thus has no place except as a contrast to the scientific method.
    (Sorry for the long comment…)

  34. #34 js
    January 24, 2005

    To John Haugeland: Most of that was well-written, and makes me a little sheepish about my apology for going long. One thing on which I would differ to the point of noting is that you say the burden of proof is upon science to disprove God. This is false in two ways.
    First off, even if one assumes that God is an abstract and does not adhere to a literalist view of any religious text, the experiments and mathematical formulations that lead us to what we know about the Big Bang are reproducable and verifiable. Anywhere aside from theology, those are the attributes that we use to evaluate the correctness of a theory. That lays the onus on those who believe in things not verifiable to prove the existence of them, not on those who can show their work in experiments or mathematics.
    Second, God cannot be proven or disproven. From a scientific view, the only reason to argue against God controlling every single action and reaction in the universe is that it complicates the system needlessly. Aside from that, all of the arguments are philosophical. Science cannot assume the burden of proof because there is no proof to be had.
    That is why faith is the fundement upon which belief sits, rather than knowledge.
    I believe in God, but find God to be rather irrelevant with regard to experimental results. The morality of the experiments may be another matter.

  35. #35 John Haugeland, yet again
    January 24, 2005

    One request – could we recognize that evolution and survival of the fittest are separate theories?

    No, we cannot. Evolution is not a theory at all, and survival of the fittest is a mechanism. Mechanisms are not subject to verification – it is whether those mechanisms are in use which is subject to verification.

    Fascinating article. I’m curious about the idea of parasitic DNA. Is this a common occurance within the human genome?

    This is under quite a bit of debate at the moment. The current prevailing belief is that yes, this is extremely common, that this represents the bulk of material espoused in codons, and that in fact hemoglobin is an invader.

    It denies the idea that humanism can exist secularly, which it clearly can (see Bertrand Russell).

    This is more a matter of debate than as you characterize it. A competing viewpoint, particular to the religious, is that life without faith is meaningless despite the meanings that the live attempt to ascribe to life, as they are in defiance of The Real Plan ™. Be careful not to make assumptions of your own, even when “verified” by philosophers (which would be argumentum ad verecundiam.)

    It denies personal responsibility for actions to place everything “philosophically” at the feet of God.

    No, no. He’s attacking a specific line of thought there. Simply because the absence of holy justification can be used to defy human accountability doesn’t mean that every argument involving the reliance on holy justification leads to the removal of human accountability.

    As for the idea that evolution is a theory, and that by not examining creationist concepts of, well, creation we somehow short-sheet science… That’s flawed as well.

    No, it isn’t. This is a critical requirement of the scientific method: the refusal to accept as fact something for which one has no evidence. Natural selection is a theory, and it is flawed. Regardless of how one feels about creationism, one cannot state that natural selection is fact; not only do we have no evidence, but we haven’t had recorded history long enough to even have compelling examples outside the theoretical progress derived from speculation on the fossil record.

    It is most certainly in defiance of proper scientific procedure to treat natural selection as anything but theory, especially in the light that there are numerous known flaws in the principle.

    You might as well be saying arguing that because we’re not examining the possibility that we’re all elaborate programs in a Matrix simulation, we’re not truly pursuing science.

    The Greeks discarded this argument almost 2500 years ago. You would do well to learn about the Skeptics, who made this same mistake. Science is the observation and deliniation of the percieved; it is explicitly within the experienced world, and by definition cannot access or address theoretical possible alternate worlds.

    Besides, this is a flawed analogy. Nobody made the argument that because we’re not exploring creationism that suddenly natural selection isn’t science. The argument made was that natural selection is a theory rather than a fact. The two are not parallel.

    and makes me a little sheepish about my apology for going long

    This is a bit like getting into a head-on car wreck with someone and feeling sheepish about scratching their paint.

    One thing on which I would differ to the point of noting is that you say the burden of proof is upon science to disprove God.

    Feel free to learn to read at any time; I go out of my way to show how this is not true. I do not need for you to explain to me a point I already made, and certainly not with the offensively hollow rhetoric of faith guised as science which follows. Please don’t bother to comment on anything else I’ve said, as it’s clear you’re reading what you want to see rather than what was actually said.

    if one assumes

    You’ve already departed from science in the very first sentence of your commentary on the difference between faith and science. The first and foremost tenet of science is that you are forbidden from making any assumptions, no matter how badly you want for them to make your non-point for you.

    the experiments and mathematical formulations that lead us to what we know about the Big Bang are reproducable and verifiable.

    What the hell gave you this idea? Not even half of astrophysicists believe in the big bang; the currently popular theories in physics are the N-Brane topological model, the superstring giant entanglement model, and the steady-state prevented redestruction quantum noise model.

    Just because you can say something is verifiable and reproducible doesn’t mean that it actually is. The big bang has never at any point been believed to be concrete and accurate. There is no point in scientific history at which it was not challenged by at least one compelling counter-theory, and it’s beginning to look quite false; there are many parts of current known physics which seem to preclude the Big Bang and the original Great Singularity from having been possible in the first place.

    Science commentary generally should be reserved for those with an at least high-school level familiarity with science. The Pennsylvania State physics curriculum formally requires that two current alternatives to the Big Bang be taught, and I suspect it’s not alone (I know that both California and New York have similar provisions, but am not familiar with the requirements of states beyond those three.)

    Read a book.

    Anywhere aside from theology, those are the attributes that we use to evaluate the correctness of a theory.

    Nice try. Theology is explicitly devoid of theories. This is a very confused thing to say. “But I was talking about science!” The contrast you drew is faulty, and serves no purpose other than defamation.

    That lays the onus on those who believe in things not verifiable to prove the existence of them, not on those who can show their work in experiments or mathematics.

    1) That’s not how you use the word “onus,” which implies a pervasive need to support rhetoric. One uses onus when one believes the arguments in question are delivered already known false; the hypothetical you posit as fact is in no such situation. The word you’re looking for is “burden,” not “onus.” Read a book.

    2) Mathematical models are approximations; no mathematical model may ever be proof of a physical system by definition. Read a book.

    3) Science currently broadly believes that our understanding of the underlying system of physics is fundamentally flawed, and there are many aberrations in data which support that no current model for physics can be correct. No amount of handwavery about supposed experiments which supposedly prove the Big Bang can change that. Read a book.

    From a scientific view, the only reason to argue against God controlling every single action and reaction in the universe is that it complicates the system needlessly.

    Apparently you’re unaware of the difficulties surrounding the nondeterminism in quantum mechanics, the difficulties surrounding distributed causality trees (you probably call those “quantum universes,” given that your scientific degrees seem to come from Star Trek university,) and various issues in ethics regarding willpower and self-motivation.

    “God does not play dice.” — Albert Einstein, regarding quantum mechanics

    “Determinism doesn’t affect science” — Well meaning yokel on the intarweb, arguing something he doesn’t understand

    Yes, God may have created fossils to fool humans or to give delightful subterranean texture to the earth, but the argument is fundementally unfalsifiable and thus has no place except as a contrast to the scientific method.

    Simply because you do not have faith does not mean that exposition and debate of faith is valueless; the arrogance and dismissal esposed herein are frightening. Many scientists hold anger over how much Good Science ™ was discarded because the theoretical magnates of the day held no belief that the research was valuable; is it really so hard to believe that you might be making the same mistake?

    In fact, there is nothing whatsoever fundamentally “unfalsifiable” (try disprovable) about the proposition that fossils were deposited for our benefit; there are many mechanisms by which background radiation signatures open up observational windows into the timeline, and alternately we might discover that God screwed up and left His fingerprints on a T. Rex skull.

    Please, please learn to differentiate between something which is impossible and something you don’t know how to do. That you’re making all of these sweeping generalizations based on these supposed impossibilities is ignorant in the light that virtually none of them are at all impossible.

    There was a time at which to get a message from Marathon to Athens was impossible in under the speed of a human’s running. To use that form of “impossible” to define what may in the future be possible is both ignorant and defiant. “Not feasable,” sure; feasibility changes.

    Just because you don’t know how we’ll do things in 500 years doesn’t mean that your current understanding of what’s within our reach is suddenly both correct and complete. Given how many impossible things we’ve already accomplished, such as heavier than air flight, the control of the forces of lightning, the walking upon of the moon, and the alteration of the behavior of the very Sun itself, I should think that most people in this modern era would have the sense not to attempt to define what is possible.

    Unfortunately, they apparently do not.

    I’ll posit a hypothetical, which I suspect you’ll also discard out of hand. Consider the case that there is a God, and furthermore that we at some point find a mechanism by which He acts within the universe. At that point, the debates over creationism are not only no longer academic, but in fact would have been critical to our understanding of the world.

    Do not wave your hands at how evil it is for everyone else to ignore other people’s beliefs (in science,) and then act as if you’re not doing exactly the same thing (with regards to religion.) It is all well and good to observe that with current scientific mechanisms God may neither be proven nor disproven, and it is also important to realize that God cannot be disproven.

    This does not mean that God cannot be proven, and for you to suggest so by pretending that the pursuit of theology is valueless is a baring of the deepest and most offensive kind of anti-science. You are participating in the attempt to disbar study based on your own beliefs. You are not a scientist.

    Aside from that, all of the arguments are philosophical.

    The word you’re looking for is “academic.” Philosophy is the love of knowledge, as coined by Aristotle, and was originally applied to the fight against theology. For you to suggest that theology is philosophical is diametrically opposed to the definition of the word ; theology is faith, and philosophy seeks to eliminate the reliance on faith.

    Science cannot assume the burden of proof because there is no proof to be had.

    Oh, horseshit. Explain the universe, bearing in mind that the Big Bang isn’t even universally accepted by physicists. Why shouldn’t physics bear the same burden of proof as do other systems attempting to explain our existence?

    The fundamental basis of science is to support the burden of proof. For you to suggest that it isn’t there is nothing better than your assuming faith under the guise of science.

    That is why faith is the fundement upon which belief sits, rather than knowledge.

    If you genuinely believe that all people base their beliefs on faith rather than knowledge, I pity you. If you believe this at the same time as believing yourself a scientifically oriented individual, I openly revile you.

  36. #36 John Haugeland, yet again
    January 24, 2005

    One request – could we recognize that evolution and survival of the fittest are separate theories?

    No, we cannot. Evolution is not a theory at all, and survival of the fittest is a mechanism. Mechanisms are not subject to verification – it is whether those mechanisms are in use which is subject to verification.

    Fascinating article. I’m curious about the idea of parasitic DNA. Is this a common occurance within the human genome?

    This is under quite a bit of debate at the moment. The current prevailing belief is that yes, this is extremely common, that this represents the bulk of material espoused in codons, and that in fact hemoglobin is an invader.

    It denies the idea that humanism can exist secularly, which it clearly can (see Bertrand Russell).

    This is more a matter of debate than as you characterize it. A competing viewpoint, particular to the religious, is that life without faith is meaningless despite the meanings that the live attempt to ascribe to life, as they are in defiance of The Real Plan ™. Be careful not to make assumptions of your own, even when “verified” by philosophers (which would be argumentum ad verecundiam.)

    It denies personal responsibility for actions to place everything “philosophically” at the feet of God.

    No, no. He’s attacking a specific line of thought there. Simply because the absence of holy justification can be used to defy human accountability doesn’t mean that every argument involving the reliance on holy justification leads to the removal of human accountability.

    As for the idea that evolution is a theory, and that by not examining creationist concepts of, well, creation we somehow short-sheet science… That’s flawed as well.

    No, it isn’t. This is a critical requirement of the scientific method: the refusal to accept as fact something for which one has no evidence. Natural selection is a theory, and it is flawed. Regardless of how one feels about creationism, one cannot state that natural selection is fact; not only do we have no evidence, but we haven’t had recorded history long enough to even have compelling examples outside the theoretical progress derived from speculation on the fossil record.

    It is most certainly in defiance of proper scientific procedure to treat natural selection as anything but theory, especially in the light that there are numerous known flaws in the principle.

    You might as well be saying arguing that because we’re not examining the possibility that we’re all elaborate programs in a Matrix simulation, we’re not truly pursuing science.

    The Greeks discarded this argument almost 2500 years ago. You would do well to learn about the Skeptics, who made this same mistake. Science is the observation and deliniation of the percieved; it is explicitly within the experienced world, and by definition cannot access or address theoretical possible alternate worlds.

    Besides, this is a flawed analogy. Nobody made the argument that because we’re not exploring creationism that suddenly natural selection isn’t science. The argument made was that natural selection is a theory rather than a fact. The two are not parallel.

    and makes me a little sheepish about my apology for going long

    This is a bit like getting into a head-on car wreck with someone and feeling sheepish about scratching their paint.

    One thing on which I would differ to the point of noting is that you say the burden of proof is upon science to disprove God.

    Feel free to learn to read at any time; I go out of my way to show how this is not true. I do not need for you to explain to me a point I already made, and certainly not with the offensively hollow rhetoric of faith guised as science which follows. Please don’t bother to comment on anything else I’ve said, as it’s clear you’re reading what you want to see rather than what was actually said.

    if one assumes

    You’ve already departed from science in the very first sentence of your commentary on the difference between faith and science. The first and foremost tenet of science is that you are forbidden from making any assumptions, no matter how badly you want for them to make your non-point for you.

    the experiments and mathematical formulations that lead us to what we know about the Big Bang are reproducable and verifiable.

    What the hell gave you this idea? Not even half of astrophysicists believe in the big bang; the currently popular theories in physics are the N-Brane topological model, the superstring giant entanglement model, and the steady-state prevented redestruction quantum noise model.

    Just because you can say something is verifiable and reproducible doesn’t mean that it actually is. The big bang has never at any point been believed to be concrete and accurate. There is no point in scientific history at which it was not challenged by at least one compelling counter-theory, and it’s beginning to look quite false; there are many parts of current known physics which seem to preclude the Big Bang and the original Great Singularity from having been possible in the first place.

    Science commentary generally should be reserved for those with an at least high-school level familiarity with science. The Pennsylvania State physics curriculum formally requires that two current alternatives to the Big Bang be taught, and I suspect it’s not alone (I know that both California and New York have similar provisions, but am not familiar with the requirements of states beyond those three.)

    Read a book.

    Anywhere aside from theology, those are the attributes that we use to evaluate the correctness of a theory.

    Nice try. Theology is explicitly devoid of theories. This is a very confused thing to say. “But I was talking about science!” The contrast you drew is faulty, and serves no purpose other than defamation.

    That lays the onus on those who believe in things not verifiable to prove the existence of them, not on those who can show their work in experiments or mathematics.

    1) That’s not how you use the word “onus,” which implies a pervasive need to support rhetoric. One uses onus when one believes the arguments in question are delivered already known false; the hypothetical you posit as fact is in no such situation. The word you’re looking for is “burden,” not “onus.” Read a book.

    2) Mathematical models are approximations; no mathematical model may ever be proof of a physical system by definition. Read a book.

    3) Science currently broadly believes that our understanding of the underlying system of physics is fundamentally flawed, and there are many aberrations in data which support that no current model for physics can be correct. No amount of handwavery about supposed experiments which supposedly prove the Big Bang can change that. Read a book.

    From a scientific view, the only reason to argue against God controlling every single action and reaction in the universe is that it complicates the system needlessly.

    Apparently you’re unaware of the difficulties surrounding the nondeterminism in quantum mechanics, the difficulties surrounding distributed causality trees (you probably call those “quantum universes,” given that your scientific degrees seem to come from Star Trek university,) and various issues in ethics regarding willpower and self-motivation.

    “God does not play dice.” — Albert Einstein, regarding quantum mechanics

    “Determinism doesn’t affect science” — Well meaning yokel on the intarweb, arguing something he doesn’t understand

    Yes, God may have created fossils to fool humans or to give delightful subterranean texture to the earth, but the argument is fundementally unfalsifiable and thus has no place except as a contrast to the scientific method.

    Simply because you do not have faith does not mean that exposition and debate of faith is valueless; the arrogance and dismissal esposed herein are frightening. Many scientists hold anger over how much Good Science ™ was discarded because the theoretical magnates of the day held no belief that the research was valuable; is it really so hard to believe that you might be making the same mistake?

    In fact, there is nothing whatsoever fundamentally “unfalsifiable” (try disprovable) about the proposition that fossils were deposited for our benefit; there are many mechanisms by which background radiation signatures open up observational windows into the timeline, and alternately we might discover that God screwed up and left His fingerprints on a T. Rex skull.

    Please, please learn to differentiate between something which is impossible and something you don’t know how to do. That you’re making all of these sweeping generalizations based on these supposed impossibilities is ignorant in the light that virtually none of them are at all impossible.

    There was a time at which to get a message from Marathon to Athens was impossible in under the speed of a human’s running. To use that form of “impossible” to define what may in the future be possible is both ignorant and defiant. “Not feasable,” sure; feasibility changes.

    Just because you don’t know how we’ll do things in 500 years doesn’t mean that your current understanding of what’s within our reach is suddenly both correct and complete. Given how many impossible things we’ve already accomplished, such as heavier than air flight, the control of the forces of lightning, the walking upon of the moon, and the alteration of the behavior of the very Sun itself, I should think that most people in this modern era would have the sense not to attempt to define what is possible.

    Unfortunately, they apparently do not.

    I’ll posit a hypothetical, which I suspect you’ll also discard out of hand. Consider the case that there is a God, and furthermore that we at some point find a mechanism by which He acts within the universe. At that point, the debates over creationism are not only no longer academic, but in fact would have been critical to our understanding of the world.

    Do not wave your hands at how evil it is for everyone else to ignore other people’s beliefs (in science,) and then act as if you’re not doing exactly the same thing (with regards to religion.) It is all well and good to observe that with current scientific mechanisms God may neither be proven nor disproven, and it is also important to realize that God cannot be disproven.

    This does not mean that God cannot be proven, and for you to suggest so by pretending that the pursuit of theology is valueless is a baring of the deepest and most offensive kind of anti-science. You are participating in the attempt to disbar study based on your own beliefs and predjudices, while claiming evidence which does not exist. You are not a scientist, and should not delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

    Aside from that, all of the arguments are philosophical.

    The word you’re looking for is “academic.” Philosophy is the love of knowledge, as coined by Aristotle, and was originally applied to the fight against theology. For you to suggest that theology is philosophical is diametrically opposed to the definition of the word ; theology is faith, and philosophy seeks to eliminate the reliance on faith.

    Science cannot assume the burden of proof because there is no proof to be had.

    Oh, horseshit. Explain the universe, bearing in mind that the Big Bang isn’t even universally accepted by physicists. Why shouldn’t physics bear the same burden of proof as do other systems attempting to explain our existence?

    The fundamental basis of science is to support the burden of proof. For you to suggest that it isn’t there is nothing better than your assuming faith under the guise of science.

    That is why faith is the fundement upon which belief sits, rather than knowledge.

    If you genuinely believe that all people base their beliefs on faith rather than knowledge, I pity you. If you believe this at the same time as believing yourself a scientifically oriented individual, I openly revile you.

  37. #37 Abhi
    January 24, 2005

    Very nice explanation. Maybe you should become the spokesperson for stem cell research to all the congressmen(and women).

  38. #38 Abhi Sharma
    January 24, 2005

    Very nice explanation. Easy to understand.

  39. #39 corey lawson
    January 24, 2005

    Morality and Science…

    where are the people crying for the government to stop teaching physical anatomy and conducting autopsies?

    Remember, back in the 1600’s, there was significant moral outrage regarding the few scientists who cut up human bodies to see what was inside. It wasn’t Aristotle’s 4 humors. It wasn’t really all that different than a cow or goat on the inside. But God forbid that anyone found out you had done something like this.

    As far as moral outrage goes, why is it OK to genetically engineer a mouse, or pig or sheep, to have its immune system replaced with a human analogue? On one hand, “we’re messing with the mechanisms of life”, on the other hand, we’re doing it without blinking an eye, but it’s ok because it’s on other animals?

    Knowing what we know is good. Knowing what we don’t know is also good. Not knowing what we don’t know, and making decisions by thinking we do know, is…bad.

  40. #40 Mike
    January 24, 2005

    John Haugeland, you are a testy god of debate. I salute your lucidity.

  41. #41 Nick Thursby
    January 24, 2005

    Regarding the very first comment, why did you use the letter ‘h’ to denote the word ‘homo’ for Homo Sapiens?

    It would seem that there are many conservative viewpoints being hammered into our heads – maybe enough to make one feel that they can’t use the correct scientific term to describe a human.

    Just because you are a Homo Sapiens doesn’t mean you are gay.

    Start acting like a real human and stop being so afraid to say it like it should be. Conflict is part of a dualist reality, but you don’t have to bend over and take it where to sun doesn’t shine just because you are afraid of offending someone.

    There is no political correctness in science.

  42. #42 Monty
    January 24, 2005

    Three quick points about the ESC contamination story:
    1. The NIH registry contains a number of uncharacterized cell lines grown on human feeder cells. They lack the sugar contamination described in the Nature Medicine study. So do a number of private lines created after the Bush ban on federal funding post Aug. 9, 2001 ESC’s. NIH chief Zerhouni has made this point in public forums at various points for the last year.
    2. ESC research is at such an infant stage that worrying about the effects of using them in clinical trials is premature to say the least. Researchers have few clues about getting the cells to differentiate into useful tissues. Once they solve that one, they can worry about the feeder cells.
    3. No one is going to use these contaminated cells in clinical trials anyway. The whole point of therapeutic cloning is to grow cloned cells of a sick person to use as transplant tissues, not cells borrowed from the NIH registry. Cloned transplant tissues will be grown on human sera feeder cells, no doubt, obviating the Varki et al concern.

    Basically, this is an interesting but largely irrelevant result. Everyone has known about the murine feeder cell issue for years, so this report adds little to change the big picture.

  43. #43 iridium_ionizer
    January 24, 2005

    There are several reasons for fundamentalist Christians disbelief in evolution. I think this is mainly a problem of communication between academia and believers. Believers feel insulted when academia marginalizes them as ignoramuses because they don’t believe in evolution. Sure some believers are hard headed, some are poorly educated, and some preachers don’t want their congregations getting their truth from (and giving their money to) other sources.

    But agnostic and atheist academia should realize that they won’t convince any believers that science isn’t hogwash if they continue belittling their beliefs. Although one shouldn’t taint the scientific method with personal beliefs, faith and scientific rigor can coexist in the same mind.

    Instead of attacking in non-scholarly public forums by saying, “this is why those people are stupid” one could say “whether you believe in a higher power or not, this evidence leads us to conclude this is how it happened.” It seems that too many remember that “Why Earth happened?” is an implicitly religious question, while “How Earth happened?” is not.

  44. #44 Carl Zimmer
    January 24, 2005

    Monty:

    Thanks for the information. Based on what you say, I still don’t see the paper as irrelevant. For one thing, I can’t find a paper that clearly showed how animal feeder cells produce antibody-provoking stem cells. Also, even in the basic science stage, the presence of these non-human sugars on cells could have had weird effects on how the cells recognized one another and developed–interfering with progress towards clinical trials. And when it comes time to shift from basic science to trials, will the Bush-approved Neu5Gc-free lines be up for the challenge? How many lines are there? Probably not many, I’d guess. If they should prove unsuitable, scientists will have to go abroad or to private sources for new lines.

  45. #45 Brent Early
    January 25, 2005

    Religion is about the control of simple-minded people. This last election was a disaster for all thinking people. I come from an ultra conservative, Pentecostal, background. Thanks due to a decent education; I have learned the truth. I can tell you that ALL fundamental religion should be banned from the Earth. It devalues ALL human beings except those within ones own group. Each little sect believes they have marching orders from their god to attack and deny basic human rights to all of the “enemies” of their god. And their “enemies” are anyone who doesn’t believe, exactly, the way they believe. Now, I believe these people have empowered a NUT who will do more damage to the human race than Hitler. I’m just hoping, in regards to stem cell research, that private money will kick in and circumvent the moronic blunder, which the American people, or the rigged voting machines, have placed upon us and we will make progress in spite of “W” and his boneheaded followers.

  46. #46 George
    January 25, 2005

    I know what I know as a logical scientist but I still struggle hard with some ideas in faith. The biggest problem with evolution is at the core of the very beginning. If we came from the primordial soup then why does everything in any soup we make fall back to its common non-organic beginnings? Some of these soupy mixtures get labled organic “for a few seconds or days” but like anyone trying to prove a point we s t r e t c h it a little ;-). Maybe we have both a grand design and later a grand cascade of adaptation. Maybe both are true. That is probably why the struggle is so heated! Doesn’t the big bang sound like alot like ….”Let there be light”? Why should they conflict? To me they fit like puzzle. Sure there are some problems we can’t fit together but scientists have not solved all thier issues. No one attacks the validity of the whole of science because of what it does not know or has not found out yet in cetain places. So many discriminate against faith. Even the time factor of billions of years can be explained and fit in. Why is a day a day to us who travel inside this space and time? Doesn’t relativity twist and bend time from other perspectives? Why can’t a few billion years of our time be 7 days to someone outside of our time line? Who’s “relative” measure are we using? Are we comaparing the correct measure and from the correct perspective. Why couldn’t the first day of light be the big bang at ground zero and the night be a moment after as the universe moves away from that point. It may look totaly dark for a “time” “moment” whatever. Then light and then dark again as it ebbs away. Other simple ideas from the ten commandments like “childeren obey your parents”! Ever see what happens to a wild animal baby when it doesn’t obey it’s parent? Does punishable by death mean anything to wild animals? Is that the “law of the jungle”? or some other law? Seems to me that “creation” follows these bilical writings much better than we do and this was written for us according to the book. We make elaborate arrogant explanations and write it all off. Blast it like some plague. Put it down like some irrelevent rantings. It is the simple ideas that bring me back to respecting and make me think beyond writing off the “wisdom of ages”. Why do we write off hundreds of our ancestors who pondered millions of brain hours “processing time” on many thoughts like a collective pier to pier computer…….then we simply just write off hundreds of years of processor time for our mere speck of existance? I hate to think that I would be so arrogant only to find out some time later that I was putting down accumulated knowledge from my fellow man and all that collected wisdom just because I want to rant like some spoiled child “Na na na Boo boo” I did it first and I did it right. What do you think?

  47. #47 sennoma
    January 25, 2005

    js asked: I’m curious about the idea of parasitic DNA. Is this a common occurance within the human genome?

    and John H replied: This is under quite a bit of debate at the moment.

    Can you point me to that debate? It’s not at all controversial that repetitive sequences (such as Alu repeats) make up about a third of the human genome. Alu repeats, for instance, make up about 10% on their own. (Warning, that link’s a pdf.)

    I don’t know that I’d call such things parasitic. Some are retroviral in origin and so might fit the description, but for instance the Alu repeats are thought to be derived from a ribosomal RNA gene by way of an ancient gene duplication event.

    I just skimmed them, but this and this look like good introductions.

    The current prevailing belief is that yes, this is extremely common, that this represents the bulk of material espoused in codons, and that in fact hemoglobin is an invader.

    Repetitive DNA is not commonly found in coding sequence, if that’s what you mean by “espoused in codons”.

  48. #48 Baughdvnleob
    January 25, 2005

    To everyone calling Natural Selection a theory. Its a mathematical truth. The proof is a syllogism with four assumptions, all of which have been shown to be sound by data. To whit (1) Not all offspring produced can survive (an outcome of Malthus’s economic work), (2) There is variation among offspring (do you have kids? Are they the same in appearance?), (3) This variation affects the chance of survival of the offspring, (4) This variation is at least partially heritable (do you have kids? Do they resemble you?). Natural selection necessarily follows when these four things are true.

    Evolution is a theory. Natural Selection may not be a complete model to explain evolution. That does not mean Natural Selection does not occur, nor does it mean that it isnt a perfectly accurate description of processes that do occur. It just means it isn’t the whole story. I’ll note that Natural Selection only implies evolution in situations where the same traits are favorable over many generations, and then evolution, to some degree, automatically follows. (Evolution here being defined in the population genetics sense of change in gene frequencies over time). The controversy is over “Macroevolution” (as misused by creationists to mean the evolution of species from other species; the term actually denotes selection above the species level in the scientific literature – see Gould’s work on Punctuated Equilibrium for an excellent example). Natural selection doesnt necessarily imply speciation, and many intelligent design proponents argue that speciation doesnt happen.

    With apologies for loose citations; but would any of you seriously go to the primary literature to find them anyway?

  49. #49 Dr Zen
    January 25, 2005

    Ho hum, Haugeland. Excoriating the wicked for not being scientific and then falling foul of the fallacy so often indulged in by creationists: that natural selection’s being a “theory” means it is no better than a conjecture.

    Need it be pointed out to you that science deals in models, not truths?

    Science says “it looks as though dinosaurs left their remains in mud and over time those remains became fossilised”. Only the religious waste their hours arguing over whether they *actually did*. Who knows, perhaps we will one day mount our time horses and ride back to the Jurassic (or not, if young-earthers are right!) and the truth will be revealed to us (although there will always remain the doubt that we *actually did* go back into the past, and the greater doubts that we *actually do exist* and so on). When that day comes, we can change our model.

    Haugeland is one of the new breed of religionists: skilled enough in the language of science to create strawmen to “prove” this and that, and able to use that language to obfuscate the aims of both science and creationism. If I might quote the blustering fool, I openly revile him.

  50. #50 Samuel
    January 25, 2005

    As I read your article I noticed that you left no room for a “creationist” explaination of the research. I could be wrong, but isn’t it the job of science to take the data and come up with conclussions based off data? It seems to me that you have a theory and you are trying to make the facts fit into that theory. If humans are missing this sugar, and the rest of the animal kingdom has it, wouldn’t that make humans unique? Could this evidence also support the creationist theory? Now I do not dispute that people have evolved and have changed over the course of their history, but these changes were based off of a response to the enviroment. As stated before, if two things are different and when you put them together, they die, then how can they be related? Last thought, if we have been evolving then why hasn’t the human race evovled into the next step? Data should tells us the story, not the way we feel about the topic.

  51. #51 Plane_talker
    January 25, 2005

    Wow, what a lot of great debate flowing form such a simple and small article.

    Here is my contribution.

    The quality of Logic is rigor.
    The preciousness of an irrational beleif is in part its excuseing its holder from the need of rigor.

    That a person is deserveing of the protection of law ,but the same entitity was a moment earlyer no person and not deserveing any protection of law is irrational beleif.

    By holding the irrational beleif that no person is injured no matter what is done to a feotus no rigor is required in determineing what is “Live” and “Human”.

    The point of birth is chosen as the point of human lifes beginning , for no rational reason other than that it asnwers so well to personal want.

    Do thake care about placeing ridicule onto those who think without rigor , prefectly rigorous logic does not define Human life well enough without recourse to the unproveable.

  52. #52 John Haugeland
    January 25, 2005

    I AM GOD!!!

  53. #53 Sunflower Pyxie
    January 25, 2005

    Reply to Dark Ager (evolution and philosophy)

    The statement “Thus evolution is a philosophical impossibility” is not an apt conclusion based on your previous statements. One of the first lessons in philosophy is how to derive conclusions from “ifs” and “thens.” The literal problem in your text stems from you saying, “if . . . there is no purpose,” and “if there is no meaning,” and then drawing a factual, concrete conclusion, such as “thus evolution is a philosophical impossibility,” from mere possibilities. In other words, it would be accurate to say “if . . . there is no purpose, then evolution . . .”

    And the other problem? Well it seems to me that your real, underlying, and heretofore unidentified problem with evolution is your inability (hopefully not your incapability) to see meaning in life itself, much less your own.

    The solution: Do More Philosophy! As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

    Reply to John Haugeland, yet again

    About “philosophy” as coined by Aristotle– philosophy is from Philo=Love (or pursuit) of and Sophia=Wisdom, not knowledge. There is quite a difference there, as one can have an abundance of knowledge without an ounce of wisdom.

    And, although it may have been “originally applied to the fight against theology,” it’s goal is not to debase it. “Philosophy tries to go beyond the standard answers to these questions that we may have received when we were too young to seek our own answers. the goal of philosophy is to get us to answer these questions for ourselves–to make up our own minds about our self, life, knowledge, art, religion, and morality without simply depending on the authority of parents, peers, television, teachers, or society . . . Philosophy examines these beliefs.” The goal of Philosophy is autonomy.

    Therefore, while it does not seek to “eliminate the reliance on faith,” it seeks to ensure you know why you believe what you do and have a good reason for doing so.

    Reply to Brent Early

    “Religion is about the control of simple-minded people.”

    No, Organized Religion is about the control of simple-minded people.

    “True Religion is not a system of philosophic belief which can be reasoned out and substantiated by natural proofs, neither is it a fantastic and mystic experience of indescribable feelings of ecstasy which can be enjoyed only by the romantic devotees of mysticism. Religion is not the product of reason, but viewed from within, it is altogether reasonable. Religion is not derived from the logic of human philosophy, but as a mortal experience it is altogether logical. Religion is the experiencing of divinity in the consciousness of a moral being of evolutionary origin; it represents true experience with eternal realities in time, the realizatioin of spiritual satisfactions while yet in the flesh. . . .

    “Religion lives and prospers, then, not by sight and feeling, but rather by faith and insight. It consists not in the discovery of new facts or in the finding of a unique experience, but rather in the discovery of new and spiritual meanings in facts already well known to mankind. The highest religious experience is not dependent on prior acts of belief, tradition, and authority; neither is religion the offspring of sublime feelings and purely mystical emotions. It is, rather, a profoundly deep and actual experience of spiritual communion with the spirit influences resident within the human mind, and as far as such an experience is definable in terms of psychology, it is simply the experience of experiencing the reality of believing in God as the reality of such a purely personal experience. . . .

    “Faith unites moral insight with conscientious discriminations of values, and the pre-existent evolutionary sense of duty completes the ancestry of true religion. The experience of religion eventually results in the certain consciousness of God and in the undoubted assurance of the survival of the believing personality.”

    So it seems we simply need less organized religion and more true religion.

    Thanks,
    Sunflower Pyxie

  54. #54 eudoxis
    January 25, 2005

    “The irony is that scientists who rely on federal funding have no choice but to walk away. Starting a new stem cell line is expressly verboten under Bush’s decree, because it crosses the moral line he has drawn in the sand. Varki and Gage’s results will spell certain doom for embryonic stem cell research only if the government wants it to.”

    With all due respect, Carl, the hESC are highly valuable for a diverse array of research into areas like mechanisms of cell differentiation, gene expression in early development, and so forth. With an eye to therapeutic interventions the federally funded lines were not going to be used in human subjects. The implications of the present study range far wider: because embryonic cell lines everywhere use xeno-components in culture, they are affected by the same marker. With other cell lines, derived from more differentiated tissue, therapeutic success has been hampered by the short life of allografts and this could very likely be explained by Neu5Gc rejection. Grafting issues are much more immediate for those cell lines and the research on the early or embryonic stem cells will carry on, despite a limitation in funding (relieved by private and state monies).

  55. #55 Monty
    January 25, 2005

    Carl,

    I understand what you are saying , but your points are why I suggested the paper is largely irrelevant, not completely irrelevant.

    You write:

    1. “…For one thing, I can’t find a paper that clearly showed how animal feeder cells produce antibody-provoking stem cells.”

    This is beside the point — the Goteborg unexpanded lines on the NIH registry, (there are about 12 of them, NIH Code: SA04–SA19* Provider’s Code: Sahlgrenska 4–Sahlgrenska 19*) and some private lines, lack these antibodies regardless of someone finding the mechanism you are looking for.

    2. “Also, even in the basic science stage, the presence of these non-human sugars on cells could have had weird effects on how the cells recognized one another and developed–interfering with progress towards clinical trials.”

    This objection is true of every animal study of human disease and is a minor worry. In the first place, no one knows how to differentiate these cells into useful tissues, contamination or no, so worrying about it now is potentially worthwhile but not a major concern. What mechanism have you found that suggests these sugars would alter differentiation among the contaminated ESC’s? Chimps and mice look pretty well differentiated into specific organ tissues to me.

    3. “And when it comes time to shift from basic science to trials, will the Bush-approved Neu5Gc-free lines be up for the challenge? How many lines are there? Probably not many, I’d guess. If they should prove unsuitable, scientists will have to go abroad or to private.”

    They will have to do this, regardless of the contamination issue. Read the last point of my previous post. Ain’t nobody using the Bush cells, or any private ones for that matter, for clinical trials in useful numbers anyhow. The whole point of therapeutic cloning is *cloning*. The clinical trial cells will come from a union of an egg and a cell from a sick person, grown into a colony under conditions that didn’t provoke the contamination that everyone is so excited by.

    The real objection you could have made to my post is that since the Goteborg lines are still on ice, there is no guarantee they will successfuly expand into colonies. This is a legitimate concern.

    Hope this doesn’t sound harsh, I understand why everyone is interested in the paper, but you have to keep your eye on the big picture. Apologies for typos, haven’t finished my coffee yet.

  56. #56 eudoxis
    January 25, 2005

    Monty: “Ain’t nobody using the Bush cells, or any private ones for that matter, for clinical trials in useful numbers anyhow. The whole point of therapeutic cloning is *cloning*.”

    I agree with most of your post and I also think that the response to the current study is exaggerated.

    A little quibble, though. Cloning is a separate issue. Nobody is going to use any of these cells for incorporation into human embryos not only because it would be ludicrously unsafe, and yes, we knew about that years ago, but also because it’s a totally different (un)ethical issue that has not been accepted, either by the public at large, or by public funding agencies.

    (Separately, it is my understanding that all the NIH lines were initially propagated on murine feeder cells. Even feeder-free media is murine conditioned. )

    Carl: At one end of of the HESC research is destruction of human embryos to create stem cell lines, partly limited by federal funding, but not banned. It’s legal to create new embryonic stem cells, and there are a number of such lines (just for example, the 17 Doug Melton/HHMI lines), but the federal government isn’t going to pay for them.

    At the other end is the experimental use of those stem cells which is primarily for therapeutic intentions. Even those goals are very distant (but more immediate than cloning).
    Differentiated cells are the obvious choice for targeted grafting. The “Bush stem cells” are ever intended for anything but basic science research.

  57. #57 Wayne
    January 25, 2005

    As someone stated earlier, the problem with creationist theory (or any religious attempt at explaining the physical world) is that religion is fundamentally improvable. Many people say that “science” is a faith just like any religion. The argument is that we can never know everything and we have to, at some level, trust someone else to be telling us the truth.

    The major difference between scientific “faith” and religious faith is that science has a built in repair system. Religion, just like science, is based on theories. The theories that make up science were devised by people over the years based on experimentation and observation. The theories of Religion were devised by people a long time ago based on a combination of old stories passed down through the generations and political ideas of the current time period.

    Most importantly, scientific theories are constantly being updated and refined. Religious theories are set in stone (sometimes literally). They cannot change because they are passed down from a being who is absolute.

    Believe it or not, this is just the argument Bush used to win this last election!! His main argument about Kerry was that he changes! Bush somehow managed to use Kerry’s willingness to think about problems and learn from mistakes, against him. This is what we are seeing here again from the religious people on this board. Because science is able to change (since it is based on theories that are constantly evolving) it is not to be trusted! You should instead believe in the religious explanation; that will never change. You can sleep well at night knowing that tomorrow you won’t have to learn a different answer to the question.

    The initial argument here was a little more subdued. It said “why don’t you consider creationism along with evolution as a possibility since science is supposed to consider all possibilities”.

    A reformulation of the same argument is: “how can you say that evolution is the truth when science has not disproved all of the other theories?”

    Science considers every known possibility and then cuts them down until you have the most likely answer. That’s how you come to a conclusion. You think about everything and then go with the one that makes the most sense. Yes, that means ignoring some that are possible but unlikely. The key here is that science does not totally ignore theories that didn’t make the cut. We have often ignored theories in history that ended up coming back as the right answer (although usually they were ignored in the first place through the insistence of religion). Since science has a built in mechanism for change and refinement it will always be able to keep up with human understanding. This is something that religion can never do.

    Science does not have “truths” like religion does. As I said before, scientific “truth” is simply the best current theory. What people find comforting about religion is that is does have “truth” in the sense that it will never change because it will always be considered “right” by the faithful. This is a fundamental roadblock that the deeply religious have a hard time with. Why should they believe in something that is less stable than what they believed in before? The answer, of course, is that nothing is certain so you need to go with the best answer, not the most secure or the easiest.

    People looking for “the meaning of life” and a “purpose” are terrified of science because it gives no clear answers to those questions. Indeed, the clearest answer that it can give is that isn’t one! I try and imagine living all of my life with the comfort of knowing (absolutely) that my life has a “higher purpose” and then to be confronted with the idea that it might not be true. It seems clear to me why so many people refuse to believe in something as simple as evolution, it breaks their faith, their safety blanket that they have always lived under. It is unfortunate that religion cripples its followers by making it hard for them to accept “real life” but this is why we are slowly but surely moving into a rational world. Finally we are pulling out of the plateau of human mental evolution known as “the dark ages” where religious persecution maintained a low level of technology and understanding by controlling the lives of people through religion.

    Fear not scientists, we are winning all over the world and eventually science will be the only religion!

  58. #58 Intrepid
    January 25, 2005

    In response to Wayne, I think you may be the first person I would categorize as a scientific loon.

    If, as you put forth, science does not and cannot answer the fundamental questions that you readily admit people do seek, then there will always be room for religion and philosophy. People are not suddenly going to stop asking these questions, even more so if the scientific process and investigations cannot answer them despite continual evolution and adoption of better theories.

    Worse, you proclaiming some false, pre-emptive victory over the failings and demise of religion or the like of such coming in the near future is absurd and is more religious-like than that of a thoughtful scientist.

    btw, people who seek answers to such philosophical questions are neither necessarily or exclusively religious nor always start to seek those answers coming from a religious background. I hardly think a scientist who asks for answers to those questions is terrified of the very job and thought processes he holds, demonstrates, and carries on with daily. Further, I think you may be surprised how scientific findings are used by some as evidence of Intelligent Design, but not as proof against religion.

    I’m always amazed at the arrogance displayed by both “sides” of the religion versus science issue, mainly to promote the exclusivity of one over the other. A Nature paper evolves into a religious debate, and people still manage to use an explanation of the paper to turn it into a pre-emptive attack against Intelligent Design protagonists and the like. Wake up! Neither science or religion hold dominion over the lives of humans; they each are utilized by individuals as they see fit to live their lives, which includes influence over themselves, others, and the things around them. That religion and science butt heads in the political spectrum is hardly surprising; it’s to be expected.

    Another note–back to the alluded to statement that one (science) is going to “win” somehow simply assumes one or the other (science or religion) is the dominant decision maker in the mindset of people. Maybe at the rational level, but rationale is not the all-encompassing driver of human existence, belief, or drive.

    Finally, science and religion are indeed each based on faith and thus, regardless of process thereafter, so both have the failings faith brings to the table, whether that be of process or in god(s). Science cannot answer the “all being” questions because it is based on the faith and verification of observable acts. Religion is not testable or wants to be in the way science processes back onto itself. The reason I make this point is that for many years, some people have guessed that science and religion were going to coalescence into some (bastardization) of spirituality and cross-over belief system. Looking at the comments as well as the political world, this has come sooner than later. The world is more based result bearing ideals–if religion suits the purpose, use religion, if science advances the issues and ideals, use science, if medication forms your world, use medication, if legislation, then pass laws, if violence, beat someone down, etc. etc. Call it a results-based philosphy. If that be the case, if, then neither science or religion is going to dominate, since to progress, both will be used as the situation suits.

  59. #59 Sunflower Pyxie
    January 25, 2005

    Reply to Intrepid –

    That last thing you were talking about — “The world is more based result bearing ideals–if religion suits the purpose, use religion, if science advances the issues and ideals, use science, if medication forms your world, use medication, if legislation, then pass laws, if violence, beat someone down, etc. etc. Call it a results-based philosphy. If that be the case, if, then neither science or religion is going to dominate, since to progress, both will be used as the situation suits.” — That’s called the ends justifying the means, or the antithesis to real morality; a reflection of such sad times in which we live.

  60. #60 dan
    January 25, 2005

    This is very interesting stuff. I consider myself an evolutionary creationist, in that I believe in both, and the Bible is allegorical. What if the Neu5Gc sugars were harmful to some particular cell that was necessary to further an engineered being. Carl Sagan would have had a good time with this!

  61. #61 Betty E
    January 25, 2005

    I wonder if any of your readers have read Zechariah Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles” and his more recent book, “Genesis Revisited.” He is the only author I have read who connects the evolution and creation issues and makes sense of both. I order these books from Amazon.Com and sincerely recommend them to anyone who desires a well-rounded education.

  62. #62 JS
    January 25, 2005

    Mr. Haugland: An insult does not an argument make, even if you post it twice.
    For all your “read a book”s, you have proven yourself fundementally unable to read a comment. I realize that I will be subject to a scathing reply that insults my person and my beliefs, but your diatribe is inherently flawed. No doubt this will be contested by someone with such a high internet opinion of himself.
    Try reading what I said again.

    It denies the idea that humanism can exist secularly, which it clearly can (see Bertrand Russell).

    This is more a matter of debate than as you characterize it. A competing viewpoint, particular to the religious, is that life without faith is meaningless despite the meanings that the live attempt to ascribe to life, as they are in defiance of The Real Plan ™. Be careful not to make assumptions of your own, even when “verified” by philosophers (which would be argumentum ad verecundiam .)

    Yes, I realize that to the religious a non-religious life is meaningless. To a Yankees fan, a Red Sox life is meaningless. Having a belief does not make it so.
    And the reference to Russell was to point out a man who lived his life with meaning and without God, as a secular humanist. The allusion also plays to his scholarly work, but the point stands on its own when arguing against the idea that without God, Ghandi and Hitler are equivalent. Your misuse of fallacy certainly impressed yourself, I’d wager.

    As for the idea that evolution is a theory, and that by not examining creationist concepts of, well, creation we somehow short-sheet science… That’s flawed as well.

    No, it isn’t. This is a critical requirement of the scientific method: the refusal to accept as fact something for which one has no evidence. Natural selection is a theory, and it is flawed. Regardless of how one feels about creationism, one cannot state that natural selection is fact; not only do we have no evidence, but we haven’t had recorded history long enough to even have compelling examples outside the theoretical progress derived from speculation on the fossil record.

    I apologize for using an idiom, and in a semi-intentional malaprop way (“short-sheet” for “give short shrift”). But, again, had you bother to read it prior to your high dudgeon, you’d notice that I was saying that examining creationism at the same time as evolution does not inherently discredit either. I believe that they should be both presented, and arguments for both made, letting rational people choose which one they believe in. And John, I believe there is more credible evidence for the idea of natural selection than there is for the idea that the world is just over 4,000 years old. Trying to shift this into making me defend natural selection as perfect is a straw man.

    You might as well be saying arguing that because we’re not examining the possibility that we’re all elaborate programs in a Matrix simulation, we’re not truly pursuing science.

    The Greeks discarded this argument almost 2500 years ago. You would do well to learn about the Skeptics, who made this same mistake. Science is the observation and deliniation of the percieved; it is explicitly within the experienced world, and by definition cannot access or address theoretical possible alternate worlds.

    Besides, this is a flawed analogy. Nobody made the argument that because we’re not exploring creationism that suddenly natural selection isn’t science. The argument made was that natural selection is a theory rather than a fact. The two are not parallel.

    Yes, John, I know about the Solipsists. Might you assume that in some cases my allusions are intentional? The idea of intelligent design may be disregarded for the same reason that we disregard the idea of The Matrix with regard to research is because it is irrelevant. If God puts my fingers to the keyboard, or if invisible sprites make me type, or if I only think I am typing, all of those are irrelevant to the action of typing because every time I press the “e” key, an “e” appears on the screen. The philosophy is irrelevant to the data.
    But please, keep beating your straw men. Say again that I am somehow arguing that teaching creationism denegrates natural selection, or that I am saying natural selection is perfect.

    and makes me a little sheepish about my apology for going long

    This is a bit like getting into a head-on car wreck with someone and feeling sheepish about scratching their paint.
    I try not to shit on other people’s blogs, John. You might try it some day.

    One thing on which I would differ to the point of noting is that you say the burden of proof is upon science to disprove God.

    Feel free to learn to read at any time; I go out of my way to show how this is not true. I do not need for you to explain to me a point I already made, and certainly not with the offensively hollow rhetoric of faith guised as science which follows. Please don’t bother to comment on anything else I’ve said, as it’s clear you’re reading what you want to see rather than what was actually said.

    Feel free to take yourself more seriously than you deserve John. Oh, well, carry on then.
    You stated that the burden of proof was on science to show a different creation of the universe than the one provided by religion. Perhaps if you’d learn to write it would be easier on us who can’t read. But feel free to reply with another 1000 words of masturbatory prose.

    if one assumes

    You’ve already departed from science in the very first sentence of your commentary on the difference between faith and science. The first and foremost tenet of science is that you are forbidden from making any assumptions , no matter how badly you want for them to make your non-point for you.

    Wrong. I can assume for the sake of argument that Newtonian physics are true throughout a system if I only need to demonstrate that F=MV. I can assume that pi is only 3.14 if I need to find the approximate area of a pizza. There is a difference between science and pedantry, John. But please, don’t bother yourself to learn it.

    What the hell gave you this idea? Not even half of astrophysicists believe in the big bang; the currently popular theories in physics are the N-Brane topological model, the superstring giant entanglement model, and the steady-state prevented redestruction quantum noise model.

    Just because you can say something is verifiable and reproducible doesn’t mean that it actually is. The big bang has never at any point been believed to be concrete and accurate. There is no point in scientific history at which it was not challenged by at least one compelling counter-theory, and it’s beginning to look quite false; there are many parts of current known physics which seem to preclude the Big Bang and the original Great Singularity from having been possible in the first place.

    Science commentary generally should be reserved for those with an at least high-school level familiarity with science. The Pennsylvania State physics curriculum formally requires that two current alternatives to the Big Bang be taught, and I suspect it’s not alone (I know that both California and New York have similar provisions, but am not familiar with the requirements of states beyond those three.)

    Read a book.

    Ow, ow, John. My straw man hurts. Read the comment again. I didn’t say that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe, I said that what we know about it comes from verifiable and reproducible experiments. Please don’t bother to burden my argument with your misapprehensions. I was making an epistemology argument, not one about which theory should be favored.

    Anywhere aside from theology, those are the attributes that we use to evaluate the correctness of a theory.

    Nice try. Theology is explicitly devoid of theories. This is a very confused thing to say. “But I was talking about science!” The contrast you drew is faulty, and serves no purpose other than defamation.

    Wrong again, John. Perhaps you’d like to read some theology before you assume yourself an expert. Theology is full of theories and arguments, over fundemental doctrinal problems (like those of free will, evil, revelation, salvation). Paul Tillich explicitly has a theory of ontological symbology that is theological in nature. But hey, don’t let me get in the way of your rant.
    That lays the onus on those who believe in things not verifiable to prove the existence of them, not on those who can show their work in experiments or mathematics.

    1) That’s not how you use the word “onus,” which implies a pervasive need to support rhetoric. One uses onus when one believes the arguments in question are delivered already known false; the hypothetical you posit as fact is in no such situation. The word you’re looking for is “burden,” not “onus.” Read a book.

    John, “onus” means “burden.” Read a book.

    2) Mathematical models are approximations; no mathematical model may ever be proof of a physical system by definition. Read a book.

    Yes. But they are quite often good enough as evidence to support a theory about a physical system. And the accuracy of mathematical models are quite often good enough to be used to predict experimental outcome. What is this book you keep refering to, John? Is it one that argues math is irrelevant because numbers can only exist as abstracts? (That’s me, applying a straw man flourish to your argument. See how that works? It’s in books.)

    3) Science currently broadly believes that our understanding of the underlying system of physics is fundamentally flawed, and there are many aberrations in data which support that no current model for physics can be correct. No amount of handwavery about supposed experiments which supposedly prove the Big Bang can change that. Read a book.

    Once again, I did not assert the Big Bang as fact. Read the comment.
    From a scientific view, the only reason to argue against God controlling every single action and reaction in the universe is that it complicates the system needlessly.

    Apparently you’re unaware of the difficulties surrounding the nondeterminism in quantum mechanics, the difficulties surrounding distributed causality trees (you probably call those “quantum universes,” given that your scientific degrees seem to come from Star Trek university,) and various issues in ethics regarding willpower and self-motivation.

    “God does not play dice.” — Albert Einstein, regarding quantum mechanics

    “Determinism doesn’t affect science” — Well meaning yokel on the intarweb, arguing something he doesn’t understand

    Apparently, you are unaware that an insult does not constitute proof.
    So, I say that a deterministic God is irrelevant, and you argue against that… how, exactly? Oh, by saying that I get my science from Star Trek. Even with quantum non-determinism, there’s no reason to say that God’s not capable of controlling what appears to be random events to us. Except that there is no reason to say it, and a system in which it is not said is simpler and thus more likely to be correct. Once again, God is irrelevant to science. Arguments over ethics and self-determination are philosophy, not science. Perhaps you’re a Hegelian, unable to see between the two?

    I’ll continue this in a second comment.

  63. #63 js
    January 26, 2005

    Yes, God may have created fossils to fool humans or to give delightful subterranean texture to the earth, but the argument is fundementally unfalsifiable and thus has no place except as a contrast to the scientific method.

    Simply because you do not have faith does not mean that exposition and debate of faith is valueless; the arrogance and dismissal esposed herein are frightening. Many scientists hold anger over how much Good Science ™ was discarded because the theoretical magnates of the day held no belief that the research was valuable; is it really so hard to believe that you might be making the same mistake?

    I do have faith in God, John. Please, the straw man, he begs of you to stop. As for the “mistake”? Do you not realize that theological arguments are super-systemic? That whether or not there is a God, gravity still works?
    In fact, there is nothing whatsoever fundamentally “unfalsifiable” (try disprovable) about the proposition that fossils were deposited for our benefit; there are many mechanisms by which background radiation signatures open up observational windows into the timeline, and alternately we might discover that God screwed up and left His fingerprints on a T. Rex skull.
    Again, you assume that the burden is on me. Try proving that God left the fossils, rather than assuming the future discovery of fingerprints.

    Please, please learn to differentiate between something which is impossible and something you don’t know how to do. That you’re making all of these sweeping generalizations based on these supposed impossibilities is ignorant in the light that virtually none of them are at all impossible.
    I will grant that it is possible that God created fossils for our benefit if you agree that it is possible that this conversation is occuring in a computerized sensory projection that perfectly models our expected nerve impulses. Alternately, I’ll admit that either proposition is totally unverifiable if you do.

    There was a time at which to get a message from Marathon to Athens was impossible in under the speed of a human’s running. To use that form of “impossible” to define what may in the future be possible is both ignorant and defiant. “Not feasable,” sure; feasibility changes.
    There was a time when it was possible for a God to cause death by speedy arrows due to an angered priest. You’re arguing that my framing is off, while I’m arguing that you don’t have any clue about how theology relates to science.

    Just because you don’t know how we’ll do things in 500 years doesn’t mean that your current understanding of what’s within our reach is suddenly both correct and complete. Given how many impossible things we’ve already accomplished, such as heavier than air flight, the control of the forces of lightning, the walking upon of the moon, and the alteration of the behavior of the very Sun itself, I should think that most people in this modern era would have the sense not to attempt to define what is possible.
    Can I get some fries with your hubris? To argue that because in the future something might be possible, therefore all things are possible (mechanical or epistimelogical) is conflating two separate realms of knowledge. Even if we can go faster than light in this future of yours, A will still equal A, and will not equal not A, no matter how advanced our science.

    Unfortunately, they apparently do not.

    I’ll posit a hypothetical, which I suspect you’ll also discard out of hand. Consider the case that there is a God, and furthermore that we at some point find a mechanism by which He acts within the universe. At that point, the debates over creationism are not only no longer academic, but in fact would have been critical to our understanding of the world.
    Yes, I’ll grant your hypothetical. Unfortunately, you forgot to attach it to an argument. (My response, however, is that if it is proven that this is God beyond all shadow of a doubt, then this is not God. God requires faith, and proof destroys faith).

    Do not wave your hands at how evil it is for everyone else to ignore other people’s beliefs (in science,) and then act as if you’re not doing exactly the same thing (with regards to religion.) It is all well and good to observe that with current scientific mechanisms God may neither be proven nor disproven, and it is also important to realize that God cannot be disproven.

    You know, you’re begging the question with that last part. God can neither be proven nor disproven, and so it is important to realize that he can’t be disproven? Yes, but he also can’t be proven. You’ve shown nothing but a circle.

    This does not mean that God cannot be proven, and for you to suggest so by pretending that the pursuit of theology is valueless is a baring of the deepest and most offensive kind of anti-science. You are participating in the attempt to disbar study based on your own beliefs and predjudices, while claiming evidence which does not exist. You are not a scientist, and should not delude yourself into thinking otherwise.
    Wait, your argument is that since God cannot be disproven, that it’s anti-scientific to argue that God cannot be proven? What farce did you reach this by? First off, science can’t prove anything. If you believe it can, you’re not a scientist. It can show things that are reliable for experimentation, but the causal structures fall into theories, which are proven or disproven, modified and mutated, based on the best availible knowledge.
    Please, try proving God’s existance without assuming God’s existance. (And if you want to make this really fun, come at me with Descartes). You can’t do it, no matter how much you insult me.

    Finalized in next comment.

  64. #64 js
    January 26, 2005

    Aside from that, all of the arguments are philosophical.

    The word you’re looking for is “academic.” Philosophy is the love of knowledge, as coined by Aristotle, and was originally applied to the fight against theology . For you to suggest that theology is philosophical is diametrically opposed to the definition of the word ; theology is faith, and philosophy seeks to eliminate the reliance on faith.
    Your poor Greek is showing. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and Aristotle was not anti-theology. He was monotheistic and quite open about it. Perhaps you should, as you say, read a book. Further, what I meant was “philosophical,” as philosophy is not science (certainly not post-Popper). Science can tell us what a photograph looks like, perhaps even what nerve pathways are triggered, but cannot tell us exactly why we find something beautiful. Science can tell us a lot about stem cells, but it cannot tell us whether or not their use is ethical. That’s for philosophy and religion.

    Science cannot assume the burden of proof because there is no proof to be had.

    Oh, horseshit. Explain the universe, bearing in mind that the Big Bang isn’t even universally accepted by physicists. Why shouldn’t physics bear the same burden of proof as do other systems attempting to explain our existence?

    The fundamental basis of science is to support the burden of proof. For you to suggest that it isn’t there is nothing better than your assuming faith under the guise of science.
    You mistake science here, and overstate religion. First off, science can’t explain many things due to an inherent limitation: observation. Science even means “to see.” What we cannot verify with experimentation is like a rotted stair: interesting but not worth stepping forward on. There are things which are unobservable, and the existence of God is one of those things.

    That is why faith is the fundement upon which belief sits, rather than knowledge.

    If you genuinely believe that all people base their beliefs on faith rather than knowledge, I pity you. If you believe this at the same time as believing yourself a scientifically oriented individual, I openly revile you.
    You use big words, but seem to be an idiot. Belief in God can only be justified by faith. If you believe otherwise, I invite you to prove the existence of God. If not, I invite you to concede and quit.

  65. #65 Don Pointer
    January 26, 2005

    John Haugeland needs some education. Thank you, JS, for doing battle with this obviously closed mind. There have also been some comments here separating natural selection from evolution and this makes no sense. The mechanism for evolution was very clearly laid out by Darwin as being variation within a population and survival of the fittist which means that when the environment changes, those organisms better fitted to the change, by virtue of the variations, will differentially reproduce, ie, natural selection. You cannot separate them.

  66. #66 Baughdvnleob
    January 26, 2005

    Don:
    See my above post on Natural Selection and Evolution. Yes, reading Darwin is good, but there are other ways in which evolution can occur. Mass extinction events certainly have nothing to do with natural selection, because they wipe out clades, not just individuals, and often are totally random with respect to traits. But that does constitute evolution by any scientific definition. (Yes, gene frequencies do change, etc…).

    John/JS: Ok, simple facts of logical argumentation (which John seems in denial of and JS seems to be defending, though not clearly) – (1) the burden of proof is always on the positive statement. So, in a debate over the existence of God, the side arguing he exists has the burden of proof. Read any book on logic or rhetoric. (2) It is nigh impossible to prove a negative. The only time this is possible is when we can argue to a contradiction from assuming something false. Now, we could try this by assuming “God exists”, except no one ever wants to define God, so its impossible to argue to a contradiction because we don’t know what we’re talking about. Further, if i call the zero-point field God, then he exists, but he’s just the ambient energy in empty space that manifests as the spontaneous generation and destruction of particle – anti-particle pairs. So, give an explicit definition of God, and maybe someone can disprove him. Regardless, the burden is on you to prove he exists.

  67. #67 Rod James
    January 26, 2005

    Comments refer to “flat earthers,” apparently people beneath contempt. Emotionally I agree. However, it is as difficult to allow oneself to fervently believe without logical verification as it is to believe in the constantly questioning, scientific method without questioning religious belief. Many creationists need verification of belief more than any scientist needs verification of fact. They do not believe in themselves enough to imagine complex rationality and simple belief can exist side by side in themselves. This lack of confidence in themselves and their faith is the reason for anti-rationalistic compulsion. They deserve pity for their self-imposed limits more than ridicule.

  68. #68 Erato
    January 26, 2005

    Roses are red,
    Violets are blue,
    Neu5Gc is sweet
    ‘Til there’s Alu.

  69. #69 Cory Finch
    January 26, 2005

    Stating that evolution is only a theory, or that it has not been proven, is equivilent to stating that gravity is only a theory and that it has not been proven.

    Certain things are unprovable. Such as the existence of other people.

    There is no scientific theory comepeting with evolution. Creationism is not a scientific theory because it denies physical evidence, (the fossil record), there is no physical evidence for it, and it relies on assumptions for which there is no evidence, namely God (or gods if you prefer). Before you tear into me for denying the existence of God please note that I am not an athiest.

  70. #70 js
    January 26, 2005

    Thank you, James, for helping me articulate some of what I was trying to get across. I have to say that I enjoy analytical philosophy much less than I enjoy, say, existentialism. And since I’ve had these arguments before, I tend to assume on the part of the rest of the people in the conversation that they’ve heard the arguments and counter-arguments before, and in reading over the conversation there are many times in which I should have been clearer with either my writing or my thinking.
    As far as proving/disproving, that was why science and philosophy diverged in the early part of the 20th century (at least in my opinion). Experiments are hard enough without having to worry about whether anything can ever be truly proven in a probablistic universe, or the problem of infinity.
    Belief in God is inherently irrational, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
    (But, jeez, I’m done with the derail already. Sorry folks.)

  71. #71 Cory Finch
    January 26, 2005

    I must apologize. I just realized that my statment was not done properly. ‘physical evidence’ should read ‘empirical evidence’. And ‘no physical evidence, should read ‘no empirical or mathematical evidence’ Finally the statment about the unproven nature of God has the same mistake.

  72. #72 js
    January 26, 2005

    Whups. Not James, Baughdvnleob.
    To James: The argument may be semantic. Remember that Newton’s model of gravitational functioning, his whole paradigm, has been shown to be inaccurate in the very large and in the very small. Einstein may, at some point in the future, be proven so wrong in his conception of gravity that it requires another paradigmic shift. So, while we have gravity, we’re never going to be totally sure of why or how accurately enough to state that we have, once and for all, proven how or why.
    So, pretty much every person willing to accept the data can say that natural selection occurs. The exact why can never be proven because it requires too many weak legs to hold up any answer (this does not mean that we should stop trying to distill one).

  73. #73 Baughdvnleob
    January 27, 2005

    JS: Regarding your last comment, see my first post – Natural Selection is a mathematical truth. Even Darwin realized that (You can read Origin to find its a sequence of syllogisms). No one is currently seriously contesting natural selection, and iirc, no one ever has. The evolution of one species from another is contested by intelligent design proponents. I give a fuller explanation above. But it is critical to separate natural selection from evolution (even as defined by biologists), because one is merely a process that occurs measurably and routinely (and follows logically) when certain conditions are met, whereas evolution requires extrapolation beyond the bounds of premises which are known to be certainly true. (We have evidence suggesting those are true, we could argue probabilistically that they must be true a large part of the time in a stochastic universe, but the timescales over which they operate exceed our powers of observation and they arent premises which are logically guaranteed).

  74. #74 js
    January 27, 2005

    Yes, it’s a mathematical truth that it does occur.I’ll stop being so fast and loose with my natural selection versus macro-evolution terminology. And I’ll even to cop to having been (though not here) fast and loose with “survival of the fittest.”
    You’re right.

  75. #75 Mike Maxwell
    January 27, 2005

    Jared on January 24, 2005 06:24 PM writes…

    “And that’s the thing about being a moral person: it makes you feel good.”

    I would imagine that Adolf Hitler felt good about killing Jews. Does that make him moral by your definition?

    Of course you don’t quite define a moral person as one who does things that make him feel good. But you don’t seem to have any other criteria to decide what is moral.

    To use the term from Jack London, if we’re nothing more than a glorified “yeast”, where’s morality? Nowhere.

  76. #76 js
    January 27, 2005

    Mike- Morality can be defined easily (in general) without having a God to justify it.
    How about this: it is immoral to cause suffering, and the effort taken to avoid causing that suffering should be proportional to the suffering.
    You could also that it’s immoral to tread upon rights (though where rights come from gets sticky).
    Or, another way, even a Godless man can love his neighbor as himself.

  77. #77 John Haugeland
    January 27, 2005

    I find it amusing that the IP JS posts from is the same one someone using my name posted “I Am God!!!1!1eleven” from.

  78. #78 js
    January 27, 2005

    John- I find it amusing that a) you didn’t bother to reply to the arguments, and b) that there doesn’t seem to be any way to track IP in commenting. Maybe I don’t have your L337 haXXorz skillz.
    But hey, if that’s the best you’ve got, John. Why don’t you post those IPs here?

  79. #79 Baughdvnleob
    January 27, 2005

    Mike/JS – This is mostly in response to Mike, but i wanted to develope the rights argument because its actually rather simple logically.

    First, every person has a heirarchy of values. That is to say, all values can be well-ordered using one person’s opinion. A value is anything you can act to gain or keep. It could be something as simple as a car, or anything as esoteric as justice or equality. (The proof is that we can always eventually come to a decision between two alternative courses of action – hard decisions are merely between values of nearly equal value). I’ll note that values heirarchies can change over time, thus it should really be said that at any instant in time a person can well-order their values.

    Second, assume that free will exists. Without free will, the concept of rights makes no sense, but neither does the concept of morality. (If i am predetermined to do x, is doing x really right or wrong? There are no alternatives under determinism).

    Third, every person is equally valuable a priori.

    Thus, we should all be able to choose to act on our heirarchy of values. If i believe a new computer is more valuable (to me) than a car, then i should purchase the new computer (assuming i can’t do both). If i believe privacy is more important than security, i should be allowed to advocate my beliefs. Note that, by symmetry, no one should be allowed to _force_ their beliefs on others. I should not force you to buy a computer instead of a car if you value the car more. The alternative is special pleading – that some people have more worth than others and should get to dictate to others what they should be doing. This clearly violates #3.

    Rights are, by definition, the freedom to pursue something without infringing on others freedom to the same. Canonically, these are expressed as the rights to Life, Liberty and Property. Any in-depth analysis reveals that these are really all the same right, and that none of them exists if any one of them is denied.

    The only way a right can be violated is by the initiation of force, either physically or not (coercion, blackmail, etc… these are all instance of force. Persuasion is not.) Thus, rights respecting societies legislate laws that ban the use of force by citizens, and only respond with force to its initiation. (retributive force). Such governments in pure form are minimalist. See Robert Nozick – Anarchy State and Utopia for an awesome discussion.

    Thats the justification for a rights-morality system. Cheers.

  80. #80 js
    January 28, 2005

    Baughdvnleob- It might be helpful here to mention that you’re making the classical Liberal argument, and kind of working from Mill backwards toward Locke.
    Playing devil’s advocate, the first postulate to attack is that all people are a priori equal. People are clearly not equal in ability or station, so why treat them as if they were? For Locke, it’s because God made us all (the Natural Law argument), but since God cannot be proven, that’s a bit of a rotted stair (it helps you make a case, but you shouldn’t stand to long on it).
    For Mill, the reason to do this is because societies that have more liberty prosper in a utilitarian way. Then it becomes a game of “prospers by what measure,” with all the attendant quantification problems of utilitarian justification.
    There’s also a reason why property was changed for the Declaration of Independence. With an absolutist property right, there can be no taxation that is not voluntary. In fact, with an absolutist view of any of those rigths, the social contract breaks down and we’re left in a state of nature (which is also often a state of war with our fellow man). Of the three rights, the right to property is the weakest because it is the most public of those rights. If you take the other strain of Enlightenment thought that was inherent in the creation of the US government, Rousseau’s general will, you’ll see that property is the right that most often runs afoul of it, because it is the right that tends to make people unequal in treatment the most, thus conflicting with the a priori postulate of equality.
    Wow. Gone from discussions of evolution right back through the role religion should play in government to the creation of our government. This has been a long derail. I hope Zimmer doesn’t mind.

  81. #81 Mike Maxwell
    January 31, 2005

    PM writes:
    > Morality can be defined easily (in general)
    > without having a God to justify it.
    > How about this: it is immoral to cause
    > suffering,

    What do you base this on? The Nazis obviously didn’t agree with you!

    > You could also that it’s immoral to
    > tread upon rights (though where rights
    > come from gets sticky).

    Indeed!

    > Or, another way, even a Godless man can
    > love his neighbor as himself.

    True, he _can_; but the question is, in the absence of a God who declares that neighbor worthy, why _should_he?

    Putting it differently, if the Godless man were a Nazi, and his neighbor a Jew, gypsy, or homosexual, how would you have persuaded him he should love that neighbor?

  82. #82 Jari Anttila
    January 31, 2005

    John Haugeland: Natural selection is a theory, and it is flawed. Regardless of how one feels about creationism, one cannot state that natural selection is fact; not only do we have no evidence, but we haven’t had recorded history long enough to even have compelling examples outside the theoretical progress derived from speculation on the fossil record.

    Obviously this “natural selection” isn’t the same thing that appears in biology textbooks by that name, and which have been directly observed both in labs and in the nature.
    It’s not dependent of any “speculation” on the fossil record.

    If there’s no evidence of NS, then how on earth this study (pdf) was made?

    It’s not a good idea to redefine words without warning other people. Or to use their colloquial meaning in a scientific context like John H. did for the word “evolution”.

    About creationism outside US: although there are vociferous individual antievolutionist proponents elsewhere (also here in Finland), the highly-organized and well-funded creationist movement in America is the only notable case. US creationism has real political influence, and it produces practically all of the antievolutionist propaganda which is circulating in the world. I’ve found it rather uninteresting to listen to the Finnish creationists, because everything they say is just a parroted and time-lagged copy from their fellows in US.

    About proving/disproving God: It is commonly agreed among scientists and theologians that science cannot disprove God. That’s because “God” is not a theory, hypothesis or an explanation for anything. “God” is a label or a sticker that can be put on anything that science has or has not yet revealed. If we know how something happened, believers can say: “God did it that way”, and even more that if we don’t know.
    Likewise, most theologians loathe the idea of proving God, because it would seriously alter the meaning and need for faith.

    John Haugeland: Not even half of astrophysicists believe in the big bang; the currently popular theories in physics are the N-Brane topological model, the superstring giant entanglement model, and the steady-state prevented redestruction quantum noise model.

    What a canard!
    Something like: “Not many scientists believe in atomic particles any longer, because the currently popular theory in physics is the quark model…”

    Feel free to explain us, John, how the pre-BB branes or strings refute the standard BB cosmology, in which the nature of the initial approximated singularity is irrelevant.

    John Haugeland: The big bang has never at any point been believed to be concrete and accurate. There is no point in scientific history at which it was not challenged by at least one compelling counter-theory, and it’s beginning to look quite false; there are many parts of current known physics which seem to preclude the Big Bang and the original Great Singularity from having been possible in the first place.

    This makes sense only if you think that the Big Bang -theory = “Great Singularity”, which is not the case.

    Here’s one (actually two) new confirmation of the relevant part of the BB:
    Echoes of Big Bang found in galaxies

    Regards

  83. #83 js
    February 1, 2005

    Mike- The Nazis were generally religious. You might want to avoid trying to use them for support (Godwin and all).
    And the Catholics certainly did their fair share of evil under the auspices of God, during the Inquisition. And the Protestants had witch burnings.
    So, where, exactly, do you get the idea that people with God are more moral?
    Why should one love their neighbor in the absense of God telling them to? Well, that seems to be a question that reflects poorly on people who believe in God, doesn’t it? I mean, someone who doesn’t have God can, and should, love their neighbor as themselves because they know that’s what they would want in return. Golden rule and all. But if you, without God, could not be trusted to do that, well, that looks worse for your side than for mine.
    I can hand you a shovel if you want to dig deeper faster.

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