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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More on Cane Toads in Australia

Posted by jlwile on May 27, 2011

In my previous post, I discussed the cane toad invasion of Australia. While studies of the invasion have shown a new mechanism of selection that is distinct from classic natural selection, they have also shown how limited the range of evolutionary change in cane toads really is. This is consistent with the creationist view and quite contrary to the evolutionist view.

In this post, I want to discuss the changes that the cane toads have produced in other Australian animals. As you might expect, as a foreign species spreads across an ecosystem, it is going to have an effect on the already-established species there. In general, one expects the effects to be negative, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Indeed, a large study designed to assess the damage that the cane toad invasion has done to the already-established animals in Australia says:1

Overall, some Australian native species (mostly large predators) have declined due to cane toads; others (especially species formerly consumed by those predators) have benefited; and for yet others, effects are minor or are mediated indirectly rather than through direct interactions with the invasive toads.

So in the end, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. However, what I find interesting are some of the details of how these animals have changed in response to the cane toad invasion.

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Cane Toads in Australia

Posted by jlwile on May 25, 2011

A cane toad (click for credit)

A reader E-MAILed me asking about an article she had read regarding cane toads in Australia. The article seemed to have some implications regarding evolution, so she asked if I would look into it. Since I will be speaking to homeschoolers in Australia near the end of June, I wanted to learn more about this issue. As a result, I looked into it, and it is all quite fascinating.

Cane toads are not native to Australia. Indeed, there are no toads that are native to Australia. They were brought there from Hawaii in 1935 in order to control sugar cane pests in northeastern Queensland.1 Now you would have thought that those in charge would have learned from the famous rabbit fiasco that was recognized as a serious problem in Australia by the turn of the century, but apparently they did not. Instead, they brought the cane toad in to control the pests and, not surprisingly, it started to spread far beyond where it was originally brought. The map below shows you how incredibly far it has spread in only about 75 years.

A map of the original introduction of the cane toad (black), the current extent (brown line), and the expected range (green). Click for credit.

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Something We Can Learn From the Harold Camping Nonsense

Posted by jlwile on May 23, 2011

A truck advertising Harold Camping's Failed Prediction of Judgement Day (click for credit)

I am sure that you’ve probably read everything you want to read about Harold Camping and his failed prediction that the Rapture of the church would occur on May 21, 2011. However, I would like you to indulge me for just a moment, because I think his failed prediction can actually teach us something about how we Christians need to respect the Bible a bit more than we currently do.

Look at the picture of the van above. It proclaims Camping’s prediction of the coming Judgment, but note what it says on the bottom right. It says, “The Bible Guarantees It.” Now, of course, anyone who knows much about the Bible knows that it actually guarantees that no one (not even the angels) knows the hour or the day of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36). Thus, to say that the Bible guarantees Camping’s prediction is absurd.

Unfortunately, however, many Christians make one of the the same mistakes that Harold Camping made. They may not be so Biblically illiterate as to think they can state the date of the Rapture, but they do claim the Bible says something when, in fact, the Bible doesn’t even come close to saying that.

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Mass Does, Indeed, Warp Spacetime

Posted by jlwile on May 20, 2011

An artist's representation of how the mass of earth warps spacetime, which is represented by the blue grid. (Public Domain Image)

There are lots of experimental results that seem to confirm Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. For example, general relativity predicts that time passes slowly in the presence of strong gravitational fields and quickly in the presence of weak gravitational fields. The Global Positioning System confirms this prediction every second of every day.1 However, there are some fundamental assumptions of general relativity that are significantly more difficult to confirm.

One of those fundamental assumptions has to do with the very nature of gravity itself. General relativity says that what we perceive as the force of gravity isn’t really a force at all. It is merely a consequence of the way that mass warps spacetime, which is a four-dimensional construct that combines the three typical dimensions of space (length, width, and height) with time. While this assumption produces all sorts of testable predictions that have been confirmed experimentally, the assumption itself has never been directly confirmed…until now.

In April of 2004, Gravity Probe B started circling the earth from pole to pole. It did so for 15 months, and all the while, precise observations were made of four gyroscopes that were roughly the size of ping-pong balls. The gyroscopes were covered with a superconducting surface. Once they started spinning, they each produced a nice magnetic pointer. Those pointers were actually able to measure two effects that the earth’s mass has on the surrounding spacetime.

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Dr. Karl Giberson Does Not Want You To Think For Yourself!

Posted by jlwile on May 18, 2011

There is a very interesting discussion going on at Patheos. Dr. William Dembski posted part 1 of a four-part discussion with Dr. Karl Giberson. Essentially, it is Dr. Dembski’s review of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, a book co-written by Dr. Giberson and Dr. Francis Collins. The book’s goal is to promote theistic evolution. It claims to show that real science supports evolution and that evolution is not contrary to Christianity.

I actually agree with the second part of that statement. While there are those who think that the concept of evolution is inherently anti-Christian, I most certainly do not. Jesus tells us that we are to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), and there are many theistic evolutionists (Dr. C.S. Lewis, Dr. Alister McGrath. Dr. John Polkinghorne, and Dr. Alvin Plantinga, for example) who have produced amazing fruit for the kingdom of God. To assume that these people hold to an inherently anti-Christian idea borders on the absurd.

Where I disagree with this book is in its first statement – that evolution is supported by real science. Dr. Dembski apparently disagrees as well, judging by his review of the book. While his comments are useful, they are not what I find really interesting about this discussion. The interesting stuff comes in Dr. Giberson’s response, which is part two of the discussion.

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Oh Dem Young Bones

Posted by jlwile on May 16, 2011

An osteocyte-like structure found in a supposedly 70-million-year-old fossil (Click for credit)

In three previous articles (here, here, and here), I discussed bones that are supposed to be millions of years old and yet have soft tissue and large organic molecules in them. This is quite hard to understand if the fossils truly are that old, since soft tissue and large organic molecules are expected to decay fairly rapidly, even under ideal conditions. For example, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how large organic molecules such as protein and DNA could be preserved over time suggested that even if a fossil were kept at the freezing point of water, collagen (a protein found in bone) should decay away so that it becomes undetectable in just under three million years.1 Nevertheless, collagen has been found in fossils that are supposed to be more than twenty times that old!

Of course, if you are desperate to believe in an ancient earth and are therefore forced to think such fossils are really that old, you could hope that either very special conditions existed for the fossils in which the soft tissue and proteins were found, or you could hope that the soft tissue and proteins were the result of some kind of contamination. A recent paper in PLoS ONE has, in my opinion, laid both of those hopes to rest.

The paper examines samples from a mosasaur fossil that is 70 million years old, according to scientifically-irresponsible dating techniques. A microscopic analysis of this fossil showed all sorts of amazing things. For example, when the bone was etched with acid and then examined with a microscope, several structures that look like mature bone cells (called osteocytes) were found. In addition, all sorts of fibrous tissue was found, and amazingly enough, that fibrous tissue absorbed dye just like connective tissue from a modern bone!2

But what was the fibrous tissue made of? The authors show beyond all reasonable doubt that it contained collagen, which is a complex protein found in all bones. In my mind, their detailed analysis is part of what makes this paper so important.

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Another Homeschooled Superstar

Posted by jlwile on May 4, 2011

Evan O'Dorney, a homeschooled superstar
(picture courtesy Intel)

I have met a lot of really impressive homeschooled students over the years. Some of them have won spelling bees, geography bees, debate tournaments, and the like. Some of them have risked their lives going as missionaries to countries where they could have been killed for sharing the Gospel. Some of them have sacrificed greatly to help others in need. Some of them have dedicated themselves to raising another generation of homeschooled students. Some of them simply radiate the love of Christ to all who have the privilege of meeting them. I am usually not surprised, then, when I read about a specific homeschooled student and his or her special accomplishments.

However, I have to admit that I was shocked to open up the March 25, 2011 issue of Science and read a short interview with Evan O’Dorney, the winner of this year’s Intel Science Talent Search. If you aren’t familiar with this program, it is the nation’s most prestigious high school science competition. Students from across the nation submit their original science research, and the winner receives a $100,000 scholarship to the university of his or her choice. There 39 other awards given out, ranging from $75,000 to $7,500. I was privileged enough to work with a high school student (Alexis Michael) who ended up receiving an award from this competition back in 1993, when it was named the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

It didn’t surprise me that Science ran an interview with the winner of this prestigious competition. They generally do that each year. What surprised me was that the article actually mentioned that the winner is a homeschooler.

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The MassHOPE Convention

Posted by jlwile on May 2, 2011

Last weekend, I spoke at the MassHOPE convention. I have spoken there many times over the course of the past 15 years, and it is one of my favorite conventions. It is held in a great facility, and it is very well-organized. Also, while I was young, I used to spend a lot of time in Massachusetts because my father grew up there. It is always fun to go back and listen to people who talk like my dad.

I gave five talks while I was there. Two of them were on homeschooling. I dealt with elementary science in one of the talks and junior-high/high-school science in the other talk. In my elementary science talk, I stress how important mathematics is for science, and I tell the parents that while science is important, during the K-6 years, mathematics is even more important. Thus, if you want to stress anything during the K-6 years, stress the math. That will pay off huge dividends in science later on. As a result, while you should do some science in the K-6 years, you should do it only from time-to-time. You should be stressing mathematics, reading, and writing during that time in your child’s life.

What I find interesting is that most parents seem to instinctively know this already. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me after I give that talk and tell me that they have been doing just that for quite some time. However, they have always felt vaguely uneasy about only doing science from time-to-time and are glad that someone like me has validated what they are doing. I think this is an example of how parents really do know what’s best for their child’s education, even when they don’t have the benefit of advice from an “expert.”

My other three talks were on science. I talked about the scientific evidence for Christianity, about the prophecies in the Old Testament that have been fulfilled in both history and in the life of Christ, and about the amazing science that you find in the Bible. I got two questions from that last talk which are worth covering in this post.

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