Friday, May 9, 2008

Your Cousin's a Platypus

Yes indeed, somewhere in your family tree there's a platypus. OK, you might have to go back a few years, but there's one there somewhere near the end of one of those branches. Yes, about 165 million years ago the platypus branched off the same mammalian path that we derived from. Go back a little further and you'll find a few reptiles as well that share some genes with you and me. The funny thing about the platypus though is that they kept a few more of the traits of their reptilian cousins, they lay eggs for instance, making it one of only two monotremes (egg laying mammals) in the world. However, like other mammals, it has fur and produces milk, although here again is another oddity, they lack nipples. The males also possess venomous spurs on their hind legs that are loaded with a venom so potent it can kill a dog. All of these eccentricities can be studied to determine when and maybe even why so many of our features evolved.

I love imaging a creationist, or ID (intelligent design) believer, reading these lines, face going red, blood pressure skyrocketing. NO! It was bad enough when science tried to tell them that we are related to monkeys, but a platypus? One of nature's oddest creatures, seemingly a random mixture of spare parts left over from a beaver, a duck, a lizard and maybe even a mole, has had it's genome decoded as reported in the journal Nature. Of course, it's just another piece of the evolutionary puzzle to aid the study of human evolution which will help scientists in innumerable areas, but particularly the development of the immune, nervous and reproductive systems. While scientists are hard at work with their latest scientific propaganda coup, I'm sure the ID folks will be hard at work with building another museum in the States to show their view of the world.

I may be getting a little ahead of myself here. If you are a European reading this, or for that matter, from almost anywhere else in the world besides the US, you might be unaware of the fact that there is a controversy over whether or not we are all here due to evolution. While evolution is known as a theory, it is one of the most solid theories yet proposed, with enough scientific data supporting it to sink a battleship. Yet, there is a hardcore group of people who believe that ID should be taught alongside the theory of evolution to children in biology class. What exactly is ID though? Many of the proponents of the idea go to great lengths to separate it from creationism. Their basic argument being that whereas creationism "typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence". They (IDers) try to present their idea as scientific method, a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed. In other words because there is complexity, it must be designed, the old burden of proof argument, whatever has not been proved false, must be true. Unfortunately for them absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Before you laugh these people off, you must consider the forces that are behind this movement. They have taken their case of teaching ID in schools all the way to the Supreme Court in the US, where fortunately they failed, but unfortunately will try again. They have produced a movie, one that I am loathe to advertise here, but one that you should know exists, as many people will see the documentary style and take it as fact. It is called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Fortunately there are many honest scientists out there who are working to counter the lies that these people are setting forth. Among it's fear mongering lies, the movie puts much of the responsibility for the holocaust on Darwin's theory. Also, in case you missed it, there is the Creation Museum, located somewhere in the wilds of Kentucky. Preparing to celebrate their first year anniversary, this $27 million "museum" presents the history of the world through a literal interpretation of the bible. In this museum dinosaurs exist together with people and scenes from the bible are portrayed as fact, no not metaphors, fact. Lastly, I'd like to remind all of you what happened when the question of whether or not the Republican candidates for the presidency of the US of A believed in evolution was posed:

Back in the real world, the scientists compared the platypus genome with human, mouse, dog, opossum and chicken genomes and found that the platypus shares 82 percent of its genes with these animals. Comparing us with the platypus means that we can say something about our common ancestor, which was one of the earliest mammals, so that means that we can ask questions about what happened to make us mammals. When the platypus was first brought back to England, many people thought it was a hoax, that there was no way it was a real animal, of course science proved them wrong. Today, I think most people would also view the ideas and beliefs being put forward by the Christian right as some kind of joke but therein lies the danger. If we don't stay on our guard, not only could we lose the knowledge gained from evolutionary theory in the past 150 years, but you never know, the world could go flat again.