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February 5, 2006

Evolution Measure Splits State Legislators in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 3 — Faith's domain is evident everywhere at the Utah Legislature, where about 90 percent of the elected officials are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Prayers are commonplace, and lawmakers speak of their relationship with God in ordinary conversation.
So it might be tempting to assume that legislation relating to the divisive national debate about the teaching of evolution in public schools would have a predictable outcome here.

Senate Bill 96 is proving that assumption wrong. The bill, which would require science teachers to offer a disclaimer when introducing lessons on evolution — namely, that not all scientists agree on the origins of life — has deeply divided lawmakers. Some leaders in both parties have announced their opposition to the bill, and most lawmakers say that with less than a month left in the legislative session, its fate remains a tossup.

One of the reasons why is State Representative Stephen H. Urquhart, a Republican from southern Utah whose job as majority whip is to line up votes in his party. Mr. Urquhart announced last week that he would vote against the bill.

"I don't think God has an argument with science," said Mr. Urquhart, who was a biology major in college and now practices law.

Mr. Urquhart says he objects to the bill in part because it raises questions about the validity of evolution, and in part because the measure threatens traditional religious belief by blurring the lines between faith and science.

Supporters of the bill, which passed the Senate on a 16-to-12 vote one day before Mr. Urquhart's announcement, still predict that it will pass in the House. They say the bill is not about religion, but science. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican and former Mormon missionary, has not said what he will do if the bill reaches his desk.

"I don't have to talk about religion — it's of no meaning and it's not part of this discussion," said State Representative James A. Ferrin, a Republican and the sponsor of the bill in the House. "It's not about belief, it's about not overstepping what we know."

Opponents of the bill, including State Senator Peter C. Knudson, the Republican majority leader, openly laugh at talk like that.
"Of course it's about religion," Mr. Knudson said.

He and other lawmakers say that part of the debate here is in fact over what kind of religion would be buttressed by the legislation. Although the Origins of Life bill, as it is formally known, does not mention an alternative theory to evolution, some legislators say they think that voting yes could be tantamount to supporting intelligent design, which posits an undefined intelligence lurking behind the miracles of life and which differs greatly from the Mormon creation story.

"There are people who say, 'That's not my religion,' or that it will only confuse our children," said State Representative Brad King, a Democrat and the minority whip in the House, who also plans to vote against the bill. "For me, it's sort of that way," added Mr. King, whose father, a Mormon bishop, taught evolution at the College of Eastern Utah.

Others say that Mormonism, with its emphasis that all beings can progress toward higher planes of existence, before and after death, has an almost built-in receptivity toward evolutionary thought that other religions might lack. Still others oppose the state's inserting itself in matters of curriculum, which are mostly under the control of local school districts.

Advocacy groups who follow the battle over the teaching of evolution nationally say that what happens here could be important far beyond state borders.
"It's being watched very closely because of the very conservative nature of the state," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington. "If the legislation is rejected in Utah, it would be a very strong signal that the issue should be avoided elsewhere."

Missouri's legislature is considering a bill requiring "critical analysis" in teaching evolution. An Indiana lawmaker has called evolution a type of religion and proposed a bill banning textbooks that contain "fraudulent information."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky, a Republican, pointed out in his State of the State address earlier this month that alternative explanations for the origins of species can already be taught in Kentucky schools. A spokesman for Mr. Fletcher said he was not advocating alternatives to evolution, but merely pointing out the options.

The Utah bill's main sponsor, State Senator D. Chris Buttars, a Republican from the Salt Lake City suburbs, said he was not surprised by the debate it had inspired. He said ordinary voters were deeply concerned about the teaching of evolution.

"I got tired of people calling me and saying, 'Why is my kid coming home from high school and saying his biology teacher told him he evolved from a chimpanzee?' " Mr. Buttars said.

Evolutionary theory does not say that humans evolved from chimpanzees or from any existing species, but rather that common ancestors gave rise to multiple species and that natural selection — in which the creatures best adapted to an environment pass their genes to the next generation — was the means by which divergence occurred over time. All modern biology is based on the theory, and within the scientific community, at least, there is no controversy about it.

Even so, one important supporter of the bill, State Representative Margaret Dayton, a Republican and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said her convictions had been underlined in recent days. "A number of scientists have been in touch with me, and I can verify that not all scientists agree," Ms. Dayton said.

Utah's predominant faith has also made its stance less predictable on other issues touching on religion in school — notably school prayer. Enthusiasm for the idea has been muted or ambivalent, said Kirk Jowers, a professor of political science and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Professor Jowers pointed to the awareness among Mormons of their religion's minority status in the nation and world.

"It was kind of a realization that if you push to have prayer in school, then outside of Utah, the prayer would not typically be a Mormon's prayer, so is that road you want go down?" Professor Jowers said.

February 13, 2006

At Churches Nationwide, Good Words for Evolution

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, "A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all."

In the basement of an apartment building in Evanston, Ill., the Rev. Mitchell Brown said to the 21 people who came to services at the Evanston Mennonite Church that Darwin's theories in fact had compelled people to have faith rather than look for "special effects" to confirm the existence of God.

"He forced religion to grow up, to become, really, faith for the first time," Mr. Brown said. "The life of community, that is where we know God today."

The event, called Evolution Sunday, is an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project, started by academics and ministers in Wisconsin in early 2005 as a response to efforts, most notably in Dover, Pa., to discredit the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools.

"There was a growing need to demonstrate that the loud, shrill voices of fundamentalists claiming that Christians had to choose between modern science and religion were presenting a false dichotomy," said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and the major organizer of the letter project.

Mr. Zimmerman said more than 10,000 ministers had signed the letter, which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is "a foundational scientific truth." To reject it, the letter continues, "is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children."

"We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator," the letter says.

Most of the signatories to the project and those preaching on Sunday were from the mainline Protestant denominations. Their congregations have shrunk sharply over the last 30 years. At the same time, the number of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians has risen considerably, and many of them, because of their literalist view of the Bible, doubt evolutionary theory.

The Clergy Letter Project said that 441 congregations in 48 states and the District of Columbia were taking part in Evolution Sunday, but that was impossible to verify independently. Around Chicago, two churches that were listed on the project's Web site as participants in the event said they were in fact not planning to deliver sermons on the subject.

Still, those who did attend sermons welcomed what they heard. After the service at St. Dunstan's, Brett Lowe, a 41-year-old computer engineer, sat in a pew as his son Ian, 2, and daughter, Paige, 6, played at his side. "Sermons like this are exactly the reason we came to this church," Mr. Lowe said.

"Observation, hypothesis and testing — that's what science is," he said. "It's not religion. Evolution is a fact. It's not a theory. An example is antibiotics. If we don't use antibiotics appropriately, bacteria become resistant. That's evolution, and evolution is a fact. To not acknowledge that is to not acknowledge the world around you."

Jeanne Taylor, 65, a recently retired registered nurse attending services at St. Dunstan's, said the Bible was based on oral tradition and today "science is a part of our lives."

At the Evanston Mennonite Church, Susan Fisher Miller, 48, an editor and English professor, said, "I completely accept and affirm the view of God as creator, but I accommodate evolution within that."

To Ms. Fisher Miller, alternatives to evolutionary theory proposed by its critics, such as intelligent design, seem an artificial way to use science to explain the holy. "It's arrogant to say that either religion or science can answer all our questions," she said. "I don't see the need either to banish one or the other or to artificially unite them."

Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting for this article.


February 21, 2006

Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition

In the recent skirmishes over evolution, advocates who have pushed to dilute its teaching have regularly pointed to a petition signed by 514 scientists and engineers.

The petition, they say, is proof that scientific doubt over evolution persists. But random interviews with 20 people who signed the petition and a review of the public statements of more than a dozen others suggest that many are evangelical Christians, whose doubts about evolution grew out of their religious beliefs. And even the petition's sponsor, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says that only a quarter of the signers are biologists, whose field is most directly concerned with evolution. The other signers include 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine.

The petition was started in 2001 by the institute, which champions intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution and supports a "teach the controversy" approach, like the one scuttled by the state Board of Education in Ohio last week.

Institute officials said that 41 people added their names to the petition after a federal judge ruled in December against the Dover, Pa., school district's attempt to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

"Early on, the critics said there was nobody who disbelieved Darwin's theory except for rubes in the woods," said Bruce Chapman, president of the institute. "How many does it take to be a noticeable minority — 10, 50, 100, 500?"

Mr. Chapman said the petition showed "there is a minority of scientists who disagree with Darwin's theory, and it is not just a handful."

The petition makes no mention of intelligent design, the proposition that life is so complex that it is best explained as the design of an intelligent being. Rather, it states: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

A Web site with the full list of those who signed the petition was made available yesterday by the institute at dissentfromdarwin.org. The signers all claim doctorates in science or engineering. The list includes a few nationally prominent scientists like James M. Tour, a professor of chemistry at Rice University; Rosalind W. Picard, director of the affective computing research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Philip S. Skell, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Penn State who is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

It also includes many with more modest positions, like Thomas H. Marshall, director of public works in Delaware, Ohio, who has a doctorate in environmental ecology. The Discovery Institute says 128 signers hold degrees in the biological sciences and 26 in biochemistry. That leaves more than 350 nonbiologists, including Dr. Tour, Dr. Picard and Dr. Skell.

Of the 128 biologists who signed, few conduct research that would directly address the question of what shaped the history of life.

Of the signers who are evangelical Christians, most defend their doubts on scientific grounds but also say that evolution runs against their religious beliefs.
Several said that their doubts began when they increased their involvement with Christian churches.

Some said they read the Bible literally and doubt not only evolution but also findings of geology and cosmology that show the universe and the earth to be billions of years old.

Scott R. Fulton, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., who signed the petition, said that the argument for intelligent design was "very interesting and promising."

He said he thought his religious belief was "not particularly relevant" in how he judged intelligent design. "It probably influences in the sense in that it makes me very interested in the questions," he said. "When I see scientific evidence that points to God, I find that encouraging."

Roger J. Lien, a professor of poultry science at Auburn, said he received a copy of the petition from Christian friends.

"I stuck my name on it," he said. "Basically, it states what I believe."

Dr. Lien said that he grew up in California in a family that was not deeply religious and that he accepted evolution through much of his scientific career. He said he became a Christian about a decade ago, six years after he joined the Auburn faculty.

"The world is broken, and we humans and our science can't fix it," Dr. Lien said. "I was brought to Jesus Christ and God and creationism and believing in the Bible."

He also said he thought that evolution was "inconsistent with what the Bible says."

Another signer is Dr. Gregory J. Brewer, a professor of cell biology at the Southern Illinois University medical school. Like other skeptics, he readily accepts what he calls "microevolution," the ability of species to adapt to changing conditions in their environment. But he holds to the opinion that science has not convincingly shown that one species can evolve into another.

"I think there's a lot of problems with evolutionary dogma," said Dr. Brewer, who also does not accept the scientific consensus that the universe is billions of years old. "Scientifically, I think there are other possibilities, one of which would be intelligent design. Based on faith, I do believe in the creation account."

Dr. Tour, who developed the "nano-car" — a single molecule in the shape of a car, with four rolling wheels — said he remained open-minded about evolution.
"I respect that work," said Dr. Tour, who describes himself as a Messianic Jew, one who also believes in Christ as the Messiah.

But he said his experience in chemistry and nanotechnology had showed him how hard it was to maneuver atoms and molecules. He found it hard to believe, he said, that nature was able to produce the machinery of cells through random processes. The explanations offered by evolution, he said, are incomplete.

"I can't make the jumps, the leaps they make in the explanations," Dr. Tour said. "Will I or other scientists likely be able to makes those jumps in the future? Maybe."

Opposing petitions have sprung up. The National Center for Science Education, which has battled efforts to dilute the teaching of evolution, has sponsored a pro-evolution petition signed by 700 scientists named Steve, in honor of Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist who died in 2002.

The petition affirms that evolution is "a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences."

Mr. Chapman of that institute said the opposing petitions were beside the point. "We never claimed we're in a fight for numbers," he said.

Discovery officials said that they did not ask the religious beliefs of the signers and that such beliefs were not relevant. John G. West, a senior fellow at Discovery, said it was "stunning hypocrisy" to ask signers about their religion "while treating the religious beliefs of the proponents of Darwin as irrelevant."
Discovery officials did point to two scientists, David Berlinski, a philosopher and mathematician and a senior fellow at the institute, and Stanley N. Salthe, a visiting scientist at Binghamton University, State University of New York, who signed but do not hold conservative religious beliefs.

Dr. Salthe, who describes himself as an atheist, said that when he signed the petition he had no idea what the Discovery Institute was. Rather, he said, "I signed it in irritation."

He said evolutionary biologists were unfairly suppressing any competing ideas. "They deserve to be prodded, as it were," Dr. Salthe said. "It was my way of thumbing my nose at them."

Dr. Salthe said he did not find intelligent design to be a compelling theory, either. "From my point of view," he said, "it's a plague on both your houses."

Anti-Darwin Bill Fails in Utah

In a defeat for critics of Darwin, the Utah House of Representatives on Monday voted down a bill intended to challenge the theory of evolution in high school science classes.

The bill had been viewed nationally, by people on each side of the science education debate, as an important proposal because Utah is such a conservative state, with a Legislature dominated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science. The amendment stripped out most of the bill's language, leaving only that the state board of education "shall establish curriculum requirements relating to scientific instruction."

Legislative officials said the bill was not likely to be revived before the scheduled adjournment of the Legislature on Wednesday. The Origins of Life bill, in its initial form, would have required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species. It did not mention any alternative theory to Darwinism, but was viewed by some supporters and opponents as part of the drive to encourage the teaching of intelligent design, which says that life is too complicated to have evolved without an architect.

Some Mormon legislators opposed the bill because they agreed with Mr. Urquhart that science and religion should remain separate, others because they thought intelligent design was not in keeping with traditional Mormon belief.

Casey Luskin, a spokesman for the Discovery Institute, a research group based in Seattle that has promoted the ideas of intelligent design, called the vote "a loss for scientific education," but said it was a purely local Utah matter.

A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Joe Conn, said Utah's vote would resonate.

"If the creationists can't win in a state as conservative as Utah, they've got an uphill battle," Mr. Conn said.

February 21, 2006

Palm Trees and Lake Fish Dispel Doubts About a Theory of Evolution


William Baker/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
WHERE'd they come from? Some scientists say the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), top, evolved side by
side with the H. belmoreana, above, on a Pacific island.

Ad Konings

New research suggests the arrow cichlid, top, which eats insect larvae, evolved in Lake Apoyo from the Midas cichlid, above, which feeds on snails.

Sooner or later, everyone encounters a kentia palm. Its ability to grow in low sunlight has made it one of the world's most traded houseplants.
"If you've been to a wine bar or to Starbucks, there may have been one in there," said William Baker, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.

"Whether you realize it or not, you're familiar with this palm," he said.

As ordinary as this houseplant may be, however, Dr. Baker and colleagues have found that it has an extraordinary story to tell about evolution.

The kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) is found in the wild only on a single remote island in the South Pacific. Based on a recent study, Dr. Baker and his colleagues have concluded that roughly two million years ago, an ancestral species of palm tree living on the island split in two, and one became the kentia palm.
The idea that members of a species living side by side can split into two species is controversial. Some scientists have presented evidence that the process has produced several species of plants and animals, but their ideas have met with intense skepticism.

Two new studies in the journal Nature — one on the kentia palm and a second on fish in a Nicaraguan lake — are impressing some leading skeptics, however.
One reason for the skepticism is that another way for forming new species is well supported by evidence. When a population becomes isolated by a geographical barrier, it can evolve into a new species.

Birds swept to a remote island, for example, may reproduce only among themselves and not with the rest of their species back on the mainland.
Over generations, the birds can acquire a unique set of mutations. They may evolve to be so different from the mainland birds that the two populations can no longer interbreed. They may sing different courtship songs, for example. They may be able to mate, but their hybrids may prove to be sterile. Based on a vast amount of research, scientists agree that this process — called allopatric speciation — drove the evolution of many species.

But some scientists have suggested that some species evolved without geographical barriers and that a new species could emerge from an old one even when all its members were living side by side. The key was for some individuals to begin to mate with one another and not with the rest of the species. If this tendency could be inherited, then two genetically distinct populations could emerge. Ultimately, they would become two separate species.

Mathematical models have suggested this process — known as sympatric speciation — can happen under certain conditions. And scientists have discovered a handful of cases in which, they argue, sympatric speciation took place. Fruit flies from a species that originally lived on hawthorns in the United States, for example, have shifted to apples in the past 150 years. Their DNA suggests that they are diverging from the hawthorn population.

But sympatric speciation has drawn fierce criticism. Skeptics have argued that many cases of sympatric speciation could just as easily have been produced by allopatric speciation. Two species sharing an island may well have evolved allopatrically elsewhere, for example, only later moving to the island in two separate invasions.

The two studies published this month in Nature are among the best ever published, in the opinion of some of sympatric speciation's toughest critics.
In one study, Axel Meyer of the University of Konstanz in Germany and his colleagues examined two species of fish that live in Lake Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake in Nicaragua. One species, the Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus), has a big body and uses powerful jaws to crush snails at the lake bottom. The slender arrow cichlid (A. zaliosus) lives in the open water, where it eats insect larvae.

Lake Apoyo formed less than 23,000 years ago when its volcano became extinct and filled with rain water. Dr. Meyer's team studied the DNA of the two cichlids and compared it to that of fish in neighboring lakes. They concluded that the Midas cichlid originally invaded the lake, perhaps swept in during a hurricane. The arrow cichlids then branched off the Midas cichlids, evolving a distinct body and no longer breeding with their parent species.

The origin of the arrow cichlids did not take long, geologically speaking. "It was less than 10,000 years, but it could be as short as 2,000 years," Dr. Meyer said.

Dr. Meyer suspects that the arrow cichlid evolved from slender Midas cichlids and shifted from a diet of snails to a diet of insect larvae. They enjoyed more reproductive success if they mated with other slender cichlids, because their offspring could swim efficiently in the open water. Over time, the fish may have evolved the mating preferences that now help keep the two populations distinct.

Dr. Baker and his colleagues present a similar picture of the kentia palm. The kentia palm grows only on Lord Howe Island, 350 miles east of Australia. The island is home to a similar species, Howea belmoreana. The kentia palm grows about 50 feet high, while Howea belmoreana reaches only about 20 feet. Kentia palms thrive on exposures of soft sedimentary rock, while Howea belmoreana grows mostly on soils formed from volcanic rock.

By studying the palm's DNA, Dr. Baker and his colleagues found that the two Lord Howe species are much more alike than either is to any other living palm. Based on the mutations accumulated in each species, they estimate that an ancestral palm arrived on the island long after the island formed about seven million years ago.

About two million years ago, the sedimentary outcrops began to be exposed on the island. This was also the time when kentia palm split off from Howea belmoreana. Dr. Baker and his colleagues propose that the kentia palm evolved from palms that colonized the new outcrops. They were still close enough to the other palms to interbreed. But growing on the sedimentary soil may have changed the growth of their flowers.

The scientists have found that the kentia palm flowers seven weeks earlier than Howea belmoreana, making it almost impossible for them to interbreed.
"It's hard to imagine a more watertight case," Dr. Baker said.

Critics have raised a few possible alternative explanations for each study. It is possible, for example, that the palms might have evolved through geographic isolation on other islands. Their descendants then colonized Lord Howe Island, and then the other islands sank underwater. (Lord Howe is expected to disappear in 200,000 years.)

But even these critics consider these alternatives a bit of a stretch.

"I've read these papers fairly carefully, looking for weak points," said Douglas Futuyma of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "But I can't find any."


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