Thursday, November 29, 2007

Catholic church sponsors stem cells research

This certainly comes as a surprise. The Catholic church in not only supporting stem cells research, but it is also now funding it (at least one project). From Science (Nov 23, 2007):
With the support of the pope and the Italian Episcopal Conference, which represents all the bishops of Italy, Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni announced last week that he has provided University of Milan-Bicocca researcher Angelo Vescovi with €380,000 to isolate stem cells from naturally miscarried fetuses and test whether the cells can help people afflicted with multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
I don't know if there are any additional challenges with this compared to regular embryonic stem cell research. But considering the past opposition of the Church, this is indeed a positive development:
It's the first time Italy's Catholic Church, which has strongly opposed embryonic stem cell work and all in vitro fertilization practices, has funded any stem cell research, says Vescovi, who openly sided against ES cell research in a 2005 referendum in Italy. The overall project will cost about €2 million, and Vescovi says the remaining funds have been pledged by private and public sources. He now seeks regulatory approval in Europe or the United States to start clinical testing of his fetal stem cells in the next few months.

Turkey mulling prosecution of local "God Delusion" publisher

First a caution: Turkey has NOT taken any action yet. But an Istanbul prosecutor is indeed looking into the matter:
A prosecutor is investigating whether to prosecute the Turkish publisher of a best-selling book by atheist writer Richard Dawkins for inciting religious hatred, reports said Wednesday.

Publisher Erol Karaaslan said Wednesday he would be questioned by an Istanbul prosecutor as part of an official investigation into "The God Delusion" written by the British expert in evolutionary biology.

But how does The God Delusion incite violence? Yes, it is anti-religion and it does point out violence in the name of religion - but does that count as incitement? Ah...there is the issue of the attack on "sacred values":
Karaaslan could go on trial if the prosecutor concludes the book incites religious hatred and insults religious values, and faces up to one year in prison if found guilty, Milliyet newspaper reported.

The prosecutor started the inquiry into the book after one reader complained that passages in the book were an assault on "sacred values," Karaaslan said.

Karaaslan said he will be questioned Thursday and faces prosecution both as the book's publisher and translator. The book has sold some 6,000 copies in Turkey since it was published by his Kuzey publishing house in June.

Lets see if Turkey keeps its sanity. It is one of the more moderate Muslim countries, and it would be a huge step backwards if it gets into this unnecessary controversy. There is always a freedom of not reading a book - just don't buy it. But I'm actually impressed that a Turkish press actually published The God Delusion. I was also surprised to see copies of it in some bookstores in Pakistan this past summer. But it was in English and that is ok. Trouble can start only if it ever gets translated in Urdu.

But Turkey was just involved in another idiotic controversy over author Orhan Pamuk:

Pamuk went on trial over his comments about the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century, but the charges were later dropped. Pamuk was later awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2006.

On, the positive side, who knows Dawkins may also get a Nobel Prize after this.

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for the link, and read the full story here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ancient synagogue found in Galilee

Remains of a synagogue dating back to 4th or 5th century have been found in the Galilee area.
The synagogue ruins are located at the foot of the Mt. Nitai cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, amidst the remains of a large Jewish village from the Roman-Byzantine period. The first season of excavations there have revealed the northern part of the synagogue, with two rows of benches along the walls. The building is constructed of basalt and chalk stone and made use of elements from an earlier structure on the site.
The dates for the establishment of the synagogue are not settled yet:

Archaeologists differ among themselves as to which period the ancient Galilean synagogues belong. The generally accepted view is that they can be attributed to the later Roman period (second to fourth centuries C.E.), a time of cultural and political flowering of the Jews of the Galilee. Recently, some researchers have come to believe that these synagogues were built mainly during the Byzantine period (fifth and sixth centuries C.E.), a time in which Christianity rose to power and, it was thought, the Jews suffered from persecution. Dr. Leibner noted that this difference of scholarly opinion has great significance in perhaps redrawing the historical picture of Jews in those ancient times.

But the cool part is that of the discovery of a mosaic decoration that shows an artisan working on some project (see the picture with this post):
The excavators were surprised to find in the eastern aisle of the synagogue a mosaic decoration which to date has no parallels -- not in other synagogues, nor in art in Israel in general from the Roman-Byzantine period. The mosaic is made of tiny stones (four mm. in size) in a variety of colors. The scene depicted is that of a series of woodworkers who are holding various tools of their trade. Near these workers is seen a monumental structure which they are apparently building. According to Dr. Leibner, since Biblical scenes are commonly found in synagogue art, it is possible that what we see in this case is the building of the Temple, or Noah’s ark, or the tower of Babel. The mosaic floor has been removed from the excavation site and its now in the process of restoration.
Read the full story here.

And while we are talking about history, there is a story about the Hittites using diseased rams to spread disease (Tularemia or rabbit-fever) amongst the enemy to weaken them (nothing to do with science & religion - but an interesting news story) - thus an early use of biological weapons.

The historical documents hint that the Hittites – whose empire stretched from modern-day Turkey to northern Syria – sent diseased rams to their enemies to weaken them with tularemia, a devastating bacterial infection that remains a potential bioterror threat even today, says the review.

Experts caution that more evidence is needed to firmly establish that the Hittites intended to spread disease using the animals. But they add that if this proves true, it might represent the earliest known use of biological warfare.
Read the full story here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is science rooted in faith?

There is an interesting and provocative op-ed piece in Saturday's New York Times titled, Taking Science on Faith. Its written by Paul Davies, who is a cosmologist and an astrobiologist and is the Director of an intriguing/fascinating institute called Beyond, located at Arizona State University. Paul Davies has a regular habit of coming up with interesting questions and is known to think outside of the box. He wrote one of my favorite op-ed piece in NYT after President Bush announced his vision for Moon-Mars exploration. In the Mars article Davies suggested (in all seriousness) that the biggest cost for a mission to Mars is bringing people back to Earth. So we should have a one-way trip! The first batch of astronauts should build a colony up there and spend the rest of their lives on the Red planet. Sign me up!! Its not going to happen - but please read this fantastic article, Life (and Death) on Mars, at least for its out-of-the-box thinking. on to Saturday's article. The main point of the article is that science is rooted in faith - faith that there is an underlying order to the universe.
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
No argument here. And this is seen in the light of natural laws:
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
These are tough questions. For Davies, if there is no reason for the laws to be ordered, then this is "deeply anti-rational".
After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Thus, scientist's reliance on order is based ultimately on faith. Then he goes on to include religion in the equation (ha ha):

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

Sure, but isn't the idea of a rational universe with an underlying mathematical reality traceable to Pythagoreans and Plato, and the notion of an ordered universe tracing back to the pre-Socratics? A lot of this was borrowed by Christianity and yes, Newton and many other scientists of his day, did get the inspiration of their ideas from religion. In fact, they did not have really separate spheres of science and religion - all of their work was to uncover the workings of God. I think Davies is preparing us for his final point:

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Woa?? I'm not sure about his final conclusion. Again we go to the beginning of his article. If by faith, he only means a belief in an underlying order, then I don't think scientists would disagree with that statement. Furthermore, this faith may be quite justified as it (order in nature) has been tested (i.e. there is order on all scales) over and over again and we have no reason to believe that this is not the case.

But if by faith he means something about the particular origin of these laws, then this is parallel to the question of origin of the universe. We can always keep on pushing the origins questions back and back. What was before the Big Bang? If it was Multiverse before the our Universe, then where did the Multiverse come from? Can we come up with a testable theory for answering this question? Does the fact that we do not have an answers to these questions lead to the view that science is not independent of faith? I think Paul Davies has shifted focus from the origin of the universe to the origin of universal laws and he is playing fast and loose with the word "faith", conflating religious usage with everyday use of the word. However, this is not to say that science has (or ever will) answers to these questions. But what does it mean not to have these answers - and this is where Davies' article comes in.

It is a good read, and you can find the full article here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Did "Noah's flood" trigger European farming?

There is considerable debate amongst researchers about whether there was an actual flood that became the basis of Noah's flood story. One hypothesis is that the Black Sea got flooded about 8000 years ago, and that this may be the source of the legend. Now it appears that the same flood may also have triggered farming in Europe:
The flood believed to be behind the Noah’s Ark myth kick-started European agriculture, according to new research by the Universities of Exeter, UK and Wollongong, Australia. Published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, the research paper assesses the impact of the collapse of the North American (Laurentide) Ice Sheet, 8000 years ago. The results indicate a catastrophic rise in global sea level led to the flooding of the Black Sea and drove dramatic social change across Europe. The research team argues that, in the face of rising sea levels driven by contemporary climate change, we can learn important lessons from the past.
And its is pretty cool that Black Sea used to be a fresh water lake:
The collapse of the Laurentide Ice Sheet released a deluge of water that increased global sea levels by up to 1.4 metres and caused the largest North Atlantic freshwater pulse of the last 100,000 years. Before this time, a ridge across the Bosporus Strait dammed the Mediterranean and kept the Black Sea as a freshwater lake. With the rise in sea level, the Bosporus Strait was breached, flooding the Black Sea. This event is now widely believed to be behind the various folk myths that led to the biblical Noah’s Ark story. Archaeological records show that around this time there was a sudden expansion of farming and pottery production across Europe, marking the end of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer era and the start of the Neolithic. The link between rising sea levels and such massive social change has previously been unclear.

The researchers created reconstructions of the Mediterranean and Black Sea shoreline before and after the rise in sea levels. They estimated that nearly 73,000 square km of land was lost to the sea over a period of 34 years. Based on our knowledge of historical population levels, this could have led to the displacement of 145,000 people. Archaeological evidence shows that communities in southeast Europe were already practising early farming techniques and pottery production before the Flood. With the catastrophic rise in water levels it appears they moved west, taking their culture into areas inhabited by hunter-gatherer communities.
Read the full story here.

And while at it, please read this (hilarious) story of Donald Duck being expelled from Noah's ark. Apparently the Ark story in Disney's Fantasia 2000, featuring Donald Duck, strays too far from the Biblical account (watch a clip of Fantasia 2000 showing the ark story - its only six minutes long and is quite entertaining; did Noah really outsource his work to DD??). But may be the criticism is justified - after all, there is no strong evidence that there was indeed a historical Donald Duck. The jury, I think, is still out on this.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Off-topic: Journalists beaten up in Pakistan

Sorry for some off-topic posts. But the situation in Pakistan is quite serious and journalists, students, and lawyers need all the help they can get. If you are in the US and are wondering how to help, you can find some suggestions here.

It is time for Musharraf to go! Here is a lead article from the Economist on the subject and an op-ed piece by Pervez Hoodbhoy in the Los Angeles Times. The main question now is how long will he drag this process and how many institutions will he destroy before being forced to leave the office (the judiciary and the press are already experiencing his wrath). And here is an editorial in today's Washington Post on Mush and his personal ambitions:

Like many autocrats before him, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has confused his own fortunes with those of his country. Over the weekend he told a visiting U.S. envoy that only he could save Pakistan from terrorism and lead it toward democracy. In fact, the opposite is true: It is increasingly clear that Gen. Musharraf has become the foremost obstacle to ending Pakistan's state of emergency and revitalizing what has been a losing battle against Islamic extremists. The Bush administration, which has been trying to rescue Gen. Musharraf, needs to accept that Pakistan's rescue can begin only with his departure.

Every major step Gen. Musharraf has taken in the past two weeks has been aimed at preserving his hold on power, at the expense of his country. The state of emergency he declared did not facilitate the army's fight against extremists, as he claimed, but it allowed him to fire a dozen Supreme Court judges who were considering legal challenges to his highly manipulated "reelection" as president. Yesterday the new judges appointed by Gen. Musharraf dismissed most of the challenges; they are paving the way for him to remain president even as they destroy the nascent independence of the Pakistani judiciary.

Gen. Musharraf has sought to appease the Bush administration by announcing parliamentary elections for early January. But he has refused to lift the state of emergency and has suggested several times that he will hold the vote under de facto martial law. That would save Gen. Musharraf from the political and legal challenges that could flow from a restoration of the rule of law, since his actions after he suspended the constitution have been hugely unpopular and blatantly illegal. It could also allow him to control the results of the elections and prevent a strong showing by Pakistan's two largest secular political parties, which oppose him. But it would make a mockery of democracy and ruin the chance for Pakistan's moderate center -- its political parties, jurists, journalists and civil society groups -- to unite with the army against the growing threat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
You can read the full editorial here.

And to reinforce the point, here is the full story from BBC about journalists beaten by police in Pakistan today:
More than 100 journalists protesting against media restrictions and emergency rule have been arrested in Pakistan, eyewitnesses say.

Most were held in Karachi and several detained in Hyderabad.

Police baton-charged the Karachi journalists after they tried to stage a protest march. Some of them were hurt.

When President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule on 3 November, radio and TV news was banned, as was criticism of the government.

Here are some pictures from the protest:

Is the Discovery Institute simply trying to be cute?

The Discovery Institute is the major force behind the Intelligent Design movement in the US and it is now alleging that the teaching material associated with the recent PBS documentary, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, brings religion into classroom. huh?? Here is the story from New Scientist:
In a bizarre twist to the evolution wars, supporters of intelligent design are accusing the producers of a TV science documentary series of bringing religion into US classrooms. The Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, Washington, alleges that teaching materials accompanying Judgment Day: Intelligent design on trial, broadcast on 13 November, encourage unconstitutional teaching practices.
You may be wondering why. Well here it is straight from their own website:
The PBS teaching guide is a companion piece to the NOVA docudrama about the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial and claims to provide for teachers “easily digestible information to guide and support you in facing challenges to evolution.” The guide instructs teachers to introduce religion into science classes with discussion questions like “Can you accept evolution and still believe in religion? A: Yes. The common view that evolution is inherently antireligious is simply false.”

“This statement oversimplifies the issue and encourages teachers to prefer certain religious viewpoints in the classroom, betraying Supreme Court law concerning religious neutrality,” says attorney Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs at Discovery Institute.

“The Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the government must maintain ‘neutrality between religion and religion’," says Randal Wenger, a Pennsylvania attorney who filed amicus briefs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. "Because the Briefing Packet only promotes religious viewpoints that are friendly towards evolution, this is not neutral, and PBS is encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.”
Seriously, this is their main argument. So, I guess in a post Dover-trial world, the Discovery Institute is now reduced to fighting these kinds of frivolous battles. Stay tuned - the next big battle will be on the definition of "is".

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Doomsday cult: A Russian version

Yes, the End is near again. This time the prediction is coming from a Russian cult, whose 30 members have barricaded themselves in a cave 400 miles south-east of Moscow, and are threatening to blow it up if approached by the police.
The group calls itself the "True Russian Orthodox Church". Members are waiting for the end of the world, which they are expecting to happen next May.

They say they have enough food and water to last out the winter, as well as large quantities of petrol.
The problem is that this group also includes four small children. But the cult leader did not join them (yes, he was indeed the smart one).
The group was founded by a former engineer, Pyotr Kuznetsov, who had fallen out with the Russian Orthodox Church.

He is thought to have ordered his followers into the cave but did not join them. He is now in custody and is undergoing psychiatric examinations.
Read the full story here. And while at it, here is a brief description of the classic text, When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger about a social and psychological study of a doomsday cult and here is wiki-description of his theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Is Flying Spaghetti Monsterism really a religion?

It appears that this question will be addressed at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). (If you don't know about Flying Spaghetti Monster, you can get more information from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster). The annual meeting of AAR in San Diego has a panel that will be addressing the role of parody religions and the definition of religion itself (full story here). The title of the panel is Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody.
The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."

Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, "in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative)."

The authors recognize the topic is a little light by the standards of the American Academy of Religion.

"You have to keep a sense of humor when you're studying religion, especially in graduate school," Van Horn said in a recent telephone interview. "Otherwise you'll sink into depression pretty quickly."

But they also insist it's more than a joke.

Indeed, the tale of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its followers cuts to the heart of the one of the thorniest questions in religious studies: What defines a religion? Does it require a genuine theological belief? Or simply a set of rituals and a community joining together as a way of signaling their cultural alliances to others?

In short, is an anti-religion like Flying Spaghetti Monsterism actually a religion?

Joining them on the panel will be David Chidester, a prominent and controversial academic at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who is interested in precisely such questions. He has urged scholars looking for insights into the place of religion in culture and psychology to explore a wider range of human activities. Examples include cheering for sports teams, joining Tupperware groups and the growing phenomenon of Internet-based religions. His 2005 book "Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture," prompted wide debate about how far into popular culture religious studies scholars should venture.
And if nothing else, the panel is doing a fantastic job of bringing American Academy of Religion to popular culture, and vice versa. Read the full story here . (thanks to Jeff for the story)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Praying for rain in Georgia

I was used to hearing about calls for prayer rains in Pakistan. After a drought, the government would request mosques all over the country to offer special prayers for rain. Sure...ok, it is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan with a deeply religious society. But I did not expect a prayer for rain from the steps of a state Capitol in the US:
As Georgia descends deeper into drought, Gov. Sonny Perdue has ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle and asked President Bush for help. On Tuesday, the governor called on a higher power. He joined lawmakers and ministers on the steps of the state Capitol to pray for rain.

While public prayer vigils might raise eyebrows in other parts of the nation, they are mostly shrugged off in the Bible Belt, where turning to the heavens for help is common and sometimes even politically expedient.
Hmm...first the Patriot Act and now this. It appears that the US is getting more and more inspiration from Pakistan.

However, here is the Atlanta freethought society:
The loudest opposition to Perdue's move came from the Atlanta Freethought Society, a secular group that planned to protest at the vigil.

"The governor can pray when he wants to," said Ed Buckner, who was organizing the protest. "What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia.
And if you still don't believe it, watch the video of the Georgian Governor requesting rain and read the full story here. Incredible!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fox News and its discussion over The Golden Compass

The consistent thing about Fox News is that it manages to have every discussion at the lowest possible level. So here is an earth-shattering discussion over the new upcoming film, The Golden Compass (nope...nothing important to report from the world). The issue is over the atheistic tone of the film (and the book), which is meant to attract kids. This can potentially be an interesting topic, and we can ask the question, if religiously themed movies (and books) for kids are or should similarly be challenged? Or should we leave the films alone, and if you don't like the topic, don't see it? So below is a clip of the Fox News discussion. But please do check out the trailer of The Golden Compass here. It looks fantastic! (And, yes it has Eva Green and also talking animals....what more do we want in a movie??).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Malaysia's "Islamic car"?

Nope, this is not from the Onion. A Malaysian firm has plans for an Islamic car.
The Malaysian carmaker Proton has announced plans to develop an "Islamic car", designed for Muslim motorists. Proton is planning on teaming up with manufacturers in Iran and Turkey to create the unique vehicle.
And it runs on a prayer! is still a regular car (but it does require fuel that is located underneath some Muslim countries). So what is Islamic about it:
The car could boast special features like a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf.
So basically, a severly limited GPS unit that only gives one direction and a glove compartment! But it is an interesting marketing strategy once again showing that capitalism really has no religion. Oh, and I am guessing that there will be a special model for women in Saudi Arabia: the same car, but with no way to get into the driver's seat.

Read the full story here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nova episode on Intelligent Design and the Dover Trial

A reminder that Nova episode titled, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, will be aired this coming Tuesday (Nov 13) at 8pm on PBS (check your local listings). There is a nice companion website to the show that incudes audio/video extras and other related stories.

Today's New York Times also has an article about this Nova epsiode and here is show's producer, Paula Aspell, talking about her motivation to focus on the Dover trial:
But then, she said, she started to read news accounts of the six-week trial, held in central Pennsylvania in the fall of 2005. She read the court transcripts too. She remembered that in many polls almost half of Americans said they did not accept evolution. “As someone concerned about science literacy, that concerns me — a lot,” she said.

And she thought that there was plenty of drama to be found in the stories of the science teachers in Dover, Pa., who refused to obey when the school board instructed them to present intelligent design as an antidote to Darwin; the parents who sued the board; a community divided by religion and politics; and a court full of witnesses who, though they did not rival the Scopes trial protagonists William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow for rhetorical flair, offered an abundance of spectacle.

And finally there was the judge who heard the case, John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed to the federal bench by President Bush. In a blunt verdict Judge Jones condemned the school board members’ position as “breathtakingly inane,” cast doubt on the honesty of some of their testimony and ruled that intelligent design was a religious creed with no place in a public school science class.

It was too good to pass up, Ms. Apsell said. The result is “Judgment Day,” a two-hour “Nova” segment that will have its premiere on PBS on Tuesday. With interviews and courtroom re-enactments, the film takes viewers through the trial, illuminating the theory of evolution, the flaws of intelligent design, the politics of those who back it and the course the case ran in Dover.
Read the full article here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Controversy over Turkana boy exhibit in Kenya

Here is an interesting convergence. The Evangelical community of Kenya and scientists, both oppose the display of Turkana boy, the remains of a 12 year-old prehuman ancestor who died roughly 1.5 million years ago. The reasons are of course completely different.
Bishop Boniface Adoyo, the head of the 35 Kenyan evangelical denominations, is leading opposition to the exhibition. “I do not dispute that as humans we have a history, but my family most certainly did not descend from the apes,” he said. The bishop was invited to view the new Human Origins gallery before it opened this month, and said that he would call on his flock to demonstrate outside the museum if evolution was described as anything other than merely a theory.
Yes, merely a theory that is the backbone of modern biology and is accepted as much as merely the thoery of gravity.
Lining up against the evangelical movement is the country’s most famous fossil-hunting family.

Richard Leakey, who led the team that unearthed the skeleton in the far north in 1984, dismissed the creationist argument. He said: “Science is at the very foundation of our ability to deal with the new century, so if we bring it down to the idea that science may be unChristian . . . well, how stupid can you get?”

Much of the museum’s collection is based on finds made by his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, in the 1920s.
While Leakey and other scientists are opposing Bishop Boniface's brand of creationism, they are not happy with the exhibition either:
Dr Leakey has his own concerns about displaying the skeleton, arguing that it would prevent access for scientists, who still have a lot to learn from Turkana Boy.

Read the full story here.

There are also plans to ship Turkana Boy (a.k.a Nariokotome Boy) to US for a tour of couple of museums, and that has also raised concerns amongst scientists. From Science (Oct 5, 2007):

When Ethiopian officials announced plans last year to send the famous human ancestor "Lucy" to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, many paleoanthropologists were furious at the risk to an irreplaceable specimen. The late F. Clark Howell of the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that Lucy's journey would "start an avalanche" of exhibits of original hominid fossils. Last week, Howell's remark began to seem prescient: Officials at the National Museums of Kenya announced government approval for their plans to send Nariokotome Boy, the partial skeleton of a 12-year-old, to The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

The 1.5 million-year-old fossil, the most complete skeleton of Homo erectus found, continues to be a source of scientific data, and many researchers are angry at the news. A traveling exhibit is "prostitution" of the fossils, charges Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, whose team discovered the skeleton in 1984.
Perhaps its a good idea to keep Turkana Boy rest in peace for research and avoid both controversies.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Off-topic: More student protests in Pakistan

There were protests at few more universities today. In Islamabad, Quaid-Azam University (QAU) students staged a rally (from The Emergency Times):
Yesterday the students of Quaid-e-Azam University in tandem with faculty mainly from the natural sciences department staged a protest in thier campus roughly 400 people strong. Intelligence agency officials were reported to have been present aswell.

Today a similar protest was staged in a larger number and another successful rally was staged with morales running high. After the protest was officially over the police once again showed up but thankfully no untoward incidences occurred.
There were protests also at Hamdard University, Islamabad:
Recent reports have been confirmed that this afternoon a gathering outside Hamdard university comprising of students, lawyers and journalists managed to stage a vociferous protest within the premises of the nearby district court. Decrying the martial law and shouting slogans for Musharrafs immediate resignation they rallied together for a considerable period until the police showed up. Thereafter they resisted police baton charging succesfully and managed to retain their stronghold of the district court and remained there effectively making their point. They dispersed before any more serious action could be taken but some lawyers are reported to have been arrested form the premises.
And in Lahore, apart from the LUMS rally, there was protest staged at National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES) a.k.a. The Foundation for Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST). After the cops arrived, here is how the events unfolded (this is how it was updated on MetrobloggingLahore):
14:23hrs: Police at FAST-Lahore
14:45hrs: One protesting student arrested by Police.
14:52hrs: Gates closed, seems like students are being dispersed.
14:59hrs: Police raided inside the Campus. 3 Arrested.
15.04hrs: Campus surrounded well. No one can come in or go out!
15:19hrs: Devestated by the situation. Students are trying to reach GEO and ARY news channels.
15:29hrs: Photos are being taken by the students 'emselves. GEO and ARY teams are approaching soon.
15:49hrs: Student arrested. One name revealed as: "Zaki". Reported as beaten by the Police.
15:53hrs: Police released 3 students arrested earlier. Faculty members and former University Directors are out there with the studnets.
16:17hrs: Female Students are allowed to go. Abdallah Zaki remained in custody for some time.
16:19hrs: Cops allowing Female students to leave. Liaqat Majeed Sheikh (LMS), current permanent faculty of FAST and former faculty member of Pak-AIMS has burst with harsh tone, protesting against Musharraf's policies and unsolicited steps.
16:26hrs: Policemen gone. Students were addressed by faculty.
16:44hrs: Peaceful protest ended, peacefully. Patience of Faculty Members, Students and Police Management (as they haven't been seen 'that' brutal and released the students) is commendable. Some more updates by the students.
16:45hrs: "Do not participate in the protest! we will not delay exams-- mids or finals and will not give any holidays so concentrate on ur studies!" - Campus Admin urged responsibly.
17:06hrs: Protest Plan of Friday will be announced later. There were at least FIVE faculty members including Senior Professors were taking part. Arrested guy was not among protestors! (See details).
Hopefully, more protests to follow.

Off-topic: Student protests in Pakistan

Lawyers have some company now. For the last two days, students from one of the most prestigious universities in Pakistan, LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) have staged protests against the imposition of Emergency (read Martial Law) in Pakistan. Here are some pictures and you can read about the rally from, Emergency Times. Students are also protesting because two of their faculty members were picked up by police from the premises of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
and here is a video of LUMS protest:

Creationism & Evolution: A lecture by Eugenie C. Scott

As part of Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College, Eugenie C. Scott gave a lecture on Creationism & Evolution: A Historical Perspective on September 27, 2007. Here is the abstract for her talk and below you will find the full video of her lecture:

Since the early part of the last century, American society has been witness to a very public dispute between those who deny the evidence for biological evolution and the scientific community that has been responsible for working to unearth and interpret that evidence. The public image presented by those who reject evolution has taken many forms over the years, from a reliance on the Bible as an inerrant text, to the more recent formulation of "intelligent design," which attempts to present the creationist argument as one of scientifically equal weight to that of evolutionary biology. Dr. Scott will discuss the history of these controversies and offer her thoughts on the future tactics of the creationists.

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott is a physical anthropologist and Executive Director of National Center for Science Education (NCSE). She is the author of Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction and is considered the leading critic of creationism and its offshoot intelligent design.

Here is the video:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Off-topic: What will be the cost of one General's ambition?

Yes, this is off-topic, but being from Pakistan, it is hard not to say anything about yesterday’s events. Musharraf has now imposed emergency in Pakistan. This is supposedly not a full-fledged martial law and it focuses only on the judicial system and the media – the two groups that have been the most vocal opposition to Musharraf. So like any other despot, he has taken the decision to replace most of the Supreme Court justices that have given decision against the government and have banned the media from criticizing the government.
Any criticism of the head of state, members of the armed services and any other senior member of government is banned.

Anyone breaking these rules faces a three-year jail term and a 10 million rupee ($167,000) fine.

Now this is the way to run a successful government - if you say otherwise, you will end up in jail (only for 3 years).

His justification for these steps: the Supreme Court was hindering in the working of the government (for giggles or tears, you can read the full text of emergency here) . Yes, he is right. Checks and balances really screw up the “absolute” power of the government. However, there is a more naked reason for his actions: the Supreme Court was about to issue a ruling on the legality of his election as a President.

So how are things shaping up? Currently, there is a blackout of news in Pakistan. The transmission of private television stations has been blocked and state television is providing the only version of events in there. Fortunately, Dubai-based Pakistani channels are still broadcasting to the international community.

The problem is that Pakistan is indeed facing a serious threat of extremism. There have been several suicide bombings in the last few months and the areas bordering Afghanistan are in an open rebellion. Most people in Pakistan, especially in major cities, are also terrified of these developments. However, instead of taking these moderates into confidence, Musharraf has spent all of his political capital (and all of state machinations available to him) on making sure that he is in power. His political actions have created resentment against the army amongst the educated, middle-class Pakistanis – his natural allies in the fight against the Taliban elements of the northwest. This was particularly evident in the lawyer’s movement against Musharraf this past summer.

So what will be the impact of today’s events? It is still too early to tell. There is going to be pressure from the US and the EU (the only two places that have any influence on Musharraf’s actions). It also appears that the Supreme Court judges will not go without a fight. While Musharraf sent out the emergency order, an 8-member Supreme Court panel issued a judgment nullifying the emergency order.

The key issue is that the fight against the Taliban cannot be won without the political will of moderate Pakistanis. Without a proper political ally, the military cannot subdue violence in the northern areas. Now the hopes for free and fair elections have receded completely and there is a good chance that resentment against the army (already at an all time high) will only increase in the coming months in all sections of the population. This unity of opposition against the army will provide a good opportunity for Taliban-style extremists to enhance their influence in Pakistan.

How much will Pakistanis have to pay for the power ambition of one man? The next couple of months will give us some hint. And it will not just be Pakistan. The location of Pakistan - between China, India, Afghanistan, and Iran – with its population of 160 million, ensures that the international community will also end up paying a high price for the hubris of one General. that I have blown some steam over this issue, we can return to science & religion.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Teaching of evolution: The South Africa version

Evolution will be taught in schools in South Africa from next year. Wait a isn't being taught these days?? Here is an article that predicts a science & religion clash over this in South Africa:
A clash between secular and religious conscience could unfold in South Africa’s education system -- and different interest groups are set to line up against one another.

The teaching of evolution to grade 12 learners from next year might trigger an uproar among South African parents, teachers and religious sectors.
Come many times will we have to say that this is not an inevitable clash. But here it is:
Josef de Beer, a lecturer in the faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg, said teachers of evolution might have religious concerns. “My experience in teaching evolution in a foundation-year programme at the University of Pretoria is that many students find evolution problematic because of their religious beliefs.”
And a more concrete example:
At a recent conference on teacher training, a teacher said: “I am disappointed about the fact that evolution attacks God’s creation. It also mixes Genesis with idol worshippers of Babylon, which were never there when God created planet Earth.”

Another said he thought the topic should be voluntary because he didn’t think it suitable for people who believe in God. “I am totally against evolution,” another teacher said.
And if this isn't enough, you can add the issue of race in there too:
Matters came to a head after snippets of a video, Tiny Humans: Finding Hobbits in Flores, was shown. The video traces the origin of tiny prehistoric humans somewhere on an Indonesian island. They are depicted as short and dark-skinned people. This offended some black teachers. They said that evolution was a racist theory. It “terribly undermines black people, everything bad gets a black colour. It means blacks were apes,” they said.
Ok...lets put South Africa also on the evolution-controversy watch-list.
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