Archive for January, 2011

It’s time for a book review: Jerry Coyne’s “Why evolution is true”. My review will be in three parts, the first of which will give me the chance to display my ignorance of biology. Such ignorance should not be underestimated – many of the questions I ask below are not rhetorical. I just don’t know enough to answer them. Regardless, I tried to read the book critically.

Firstly, the book was an enjoyable read and I learned a lot. Coyne writes quite well – one reviewer complained that he doesn’t have Dawkins’ flair, but who does? He has the occasional inspired metaphor or turn of phrase …

“The story of life on Earth is written in the rocks. True, this is a story book torn and twisted, with remnants of pages scattered about, but it is there, and significant portions of it are still legible.” (pg 21)

Explanations are clear and logically laid out, and his biological and historical examples (especially the story of Robert Scott) are mostly well selected. A good example of Coyne’s clarity is in explaining to the oft-heard claim that chimps and humans are 98.5% alike:

“… recent work shows that our genetic resemblance to our evolutionary cousins [chimps] is not quite as close as we thought … to consider an analogy, if you change only one percent of the letters of this page, you will alter far more than 1 percent of the sentences … more than 80% of all the proteins shared by the two species differ by at least one amino acid.” (pg 230)

I have a few gripes, however.

Gripe 1: On page 67, he shows a photo of a human baby with a small, tail-like protrusion, while two pages later he informs us:

“… some species of whales retail vestigial pelvises and rear leg bones, but one whale in 500 is actually born with a rear leg that protrudes outside the body wall. These limbs show all degrees of refinement, with many of them clearly containing the major leg bones of terrestrial mammals – the femur, tibia, and fibula. Some even have feet and toes!” (pg 69)

What?! There are whales with legs, feet and toes?! Why not show us a photo of that?! Why hasn’t a suitable skeleton been mounted in a large truck and parked outside the creation museum? That’s the stuff I want to see. (more…)

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… is a dangerous thing, so the saying goes. There a two ways to interpret that saying: 1.) knowledge is power, so even a little bit can be dangerous; 2.) A little bit of knowledge can be dangerously misleading, as it doesn’t accurately represent the whole scenario.

As an example of interpretation 2, Sean Carroll has taken the opportunity to blast Chris Ormell over at Cosmic Variance. In this case, Ormell knows just enough to reach some ridiculous conclusions about modern physics and astronomy. My personal favourite is:

Instead it was discovered that light does not travel in absolutely straight lines, but bends slightly due to the Earth’s gravitation. It is a minute effect and detectable only with great difficulty, but its consequences are deadly. If this degree of bending occurred in outer space, the light from the nearest star would have completed a circular trajectory on its way from its source to our telescopes.

which is complete bollocks. It could only possibly be true if space is filled with black holes, like this:

The red line shows a particular path of light passing near a rotating black hole – I did a few simulations of this for my masters thesis. But space isn’t full of black holes. Even the stars in our galaxy take up something like 1 part in a trillion trillion trillion of the volume of our galaxy.

Carroll’s response is great, and well worth a read.

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