Friday, February 24, 2006

The Mimivirus

In a recent Discover magazine, the cover story was about this recently discovered virus, named Mimivirus. Normally, viruses are smaller than bacteria, and with very little genetic material. Mimivirus is around the same size as bacteria and has more genes than a typical bacteria. This virus has thrown out the old conception of the supposedly lifeless parasites, viruses now look like one of the oldest lifeforms on Earth. Scientists are suggesting that viruses might be another form of life. The smaller viruses could have decended from giant viruses, such as Mimivirus, as less genetic material was needed to invade and multiply. Some scientists are even thinking that the nuclei in our cells originated from such giant viruses invading a primitive cell. So, what this could mean is that we are all evolutionarily decended from viruses.

There is something else that caught my attention, which I will address later, "Biblically correct tours."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

In the theory of Intelligent Design (ID), there is some being that designed life, the universe, everything. If this is true, then the designer created viruses and programmed cancer into our genes. Both cancer and viruses have one purpose, the destruction of life. Cancer is a mutation in DNA that reprograms cells to multiply without bound. Cancer cells may also invade other cells, spreading the damaged DNA. Viruses are microscopic parasites that only function when attacking living cells. A virus injects its DNA or RNA into a living cell. The cell's DNA then becomes altered to change the cell into what can be called a virus factory. After the living cell has produced some number of viruses, the cell bursts and more viruses are spread to attack other cells.

Why would a designer of life also create things that only serve to destroy life?

Once, I asked a friend this very question. She replied by saying that Satan created cancer and viruses as punishment for our sins. This explanation means that there are two intelligent designers. Not only that, but the second designer is more powerful than the first. Consider two engineers. The first engineer builds a bridge. The second engineer builds a bomb to destroy the bridge. Whether the bridge remains standing depends on which engineer is the better designer. However, the ID theory allows only one all-powerful designer, so this explanation can't be valid.

Another explanation I have heard is that the intelligent designer created cancer and viruses as a way to limit our life spans. Aging is programmed into our cells, scientists currently think it has to do with the deterioration of cellular mitochondria. People die all the time from causes other than cancer and disease, often times from organ failure due to old age. People of all ages, including children, die from cancer and viruses. These are horrible ways to die. Cancer is atrociously painful, and then you have things like the Ebola virus and HIV. A benevolent designer would not create destructive forces such as cancer and viruses when a simpler, and more kind, solution to the lifespan problem is to increase the rate of aging. This means that the designer is malicious, designing the destruction of the life it created. However, ID proponents hold the intelligent designer to be a loving being, so this explanation can't be valid either.

We must look for more explanations for the existence of cancer and viruses.
On February 14, the Ohio Board of Education removed a mandate that high school biology classes present a critical analysis of evolution. From the New York Times article:

"Darwin's defenders celebrated the reversal as a sign of a backlash against the inroads made last year by critics of evolution. But leaders of the Discovery Institute, the intellectual home of intelligent design, warned that Ohio's move would create a backlash of its own.

'It's an outrageous slap in the face to the citizens of Ohio,' said John G. West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the institute, referring to several polls that show public support for criticism of evolution in science classes.

'The effort to try to suppress ideas that you dislike, to use the government to suppress ideas you dislike, has a failed history,' Mr. West said. 'Do they really want to be on the side of the people who didn't want to let John Scopes talk or who tried to censor Galileo?'"

This quote is an example of the absolute ignorance shown by most intelligent design supporters. John Scopes was charged with a crime because he taught evolution in school. West is on the side of the people who didn't want to let Scopes talk. Galileo was silenced by the Catholic church for suggesting that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Yet again, West is on the side of the people who tried to censor Galileo, people who wanted to suppress science because it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Mr. West says "suppressing ideas that you dislike... has a failed history," yet, isn't that exactly what intelligent design promoters are trying to do to evolution? They aren't trying to eradicate evolution, but they are trying to diminish its signifigance and to debase 150 years of scientific study.

The reason that ID supporters can get away with this kind of statement is because most American people don't know who John Scopes was, or what Galileo did. Most people would read this as "'Do they really want to be on the side of the people who didn't want to let so-and-so talk or who tried to censor that-one-guy?'" Then they would think, "No! In America, we have freedom of speech and censoring is wrong, of course we don't want to be on their side!" But the American people are on the side of the very people who are supporting censorship!
Here is why this whole "evolution is just a theory" thing bothers me so much.

A scientific theory isn't "just a theory." It isn't something one man thought up while reading the newspaper in the morning. A scientific theory has to hold up to intense scrutiny. If any fact is found to falsify a scientific theory, the theory is wrong, no doubt about it. Every new fossil we find tests the theory of evolution. If an animal is found out of its natural time, evolutionarily speaking, i.e. a rabbit next to a dinosaur, then evolution is wrong. However, this hasn't happened in the one hundred and fifty years since Darwin proposed the theory. Sure there are gaps in the fossil record, that is one problem with fossils, not everything that dies is preserved. It takes very special and rare conditions for bones to fossilize. Still, we have fossils stretching back 3.5 billion years (an enormous number) and not a single one is out of place.

"The oldest known structured fossils are most likely stromatolites. Now understood to be formed by the entrapment of minerals by mucous-like sheets of cyanobacteria, the oldest of these formations dates from 3.5 billion years ago. Even older deposits (3.8 billion years old) of heavy carbon that are indicative of even earlier life are currently proposed as the remains of the earliest known life on Earth." ~Wikipedia article on fossils

You can even see a plausible chain of animals leading to the evolution of birds. You have a dinosaur. Then, a dinosaur that looks sort of like a bird, see Dromaeosaurids. Then you have a dinosaur with feathers, see Sinornithosaurus. Then you have a bird that looks a lot like a dinosaur, see Archaeopteryx. This is the sort of thing people are talking about when they say there is overwhelming evidence for (macro)evolution.

I'm not saying that God doesn't exist, there is no way for anyone to know if he does or not. Which is precisely why Intelligent Design is not science. There is no way to prove that the intelligent designer exists or doesn't exist. If you can't verify or falsify a theory, then it isn't science. Intelligent Design involves faith, by design, but faith is absent from science.
I just read something that bothers me. A person wrote (paraphrased) "evolution isn't a science because it hasn't been observed in the present." Everytime a strain of bacteria becomes resistant to a certain type of antibiotic, that is evolution. Penicillin barely works anymore because most strains of bacteria have evolved to resist it. Say you have an infection and you treat it with antibiotics. Out of the millions of bacteria causing the infection, one of them might have a genetic mutation that prevents the antibiotic from killing it. So that bacteria survives, then multiplies. Now you have a whole new strain of bacteria resistant to the original antibiotic. This happens all the time. Welcome to evolution.
Okay, as the first post, I will give some information about myself. My name is Mat Leonard. I am studying physics at Kansas State University, and I will be graduating this May 2006. This blog is mostly concerned with the conflict between evolution and creationism. However, I will probably write about other scientific concerns as I see them. While I am not a biologist or religious, I feel I have enough knowledge of both to make cogent arguments. Any comments or criticism is welcome and I will try to reply to any that might arise.