Kentucky about to give tax breaks to Ark Park

. . . and tax breaks for this execrable exhibit, which presents the Ark as fact, are the same as taxpayers’ funding of the park. A new alert from the Freedom from Religion Foundation says this:

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority is expected to give approval tomorrow (Tuesday, July 29) of major tax incentives for a proposed $172.5 million Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County.

Ark Encounter is a project of Answers in Genesis, which describes itself as an “apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and which created the Creation Museum in Boone County about 40 miles away. The museum’s founder, Ken Ham, famously debated Bill Nye earlier this year. “God has burdened AiG to rebuild a full-size Noah’s Ark,” Ham wrote on his website.

The plan calls for a 510-foot wooden ark , reportedly to cost $24.5 million alone, as part of the 800-acre Ark Encounter park to open partially constructed in summer 2016. As of February, the group had only raised $14.4 million. The park is also to include a “pre-flood themed area,” live animal shows and a “Tower of Babel” featuring a theatre and “first-century village.”

A Kentucky program allows eligible tourism attractions a 25% rebate on sales tax collected for such items as admission tickets, food, souvenirs, etc., over a ten-year period. The rebate might total as much as $18.25 million.

If the tourism board votes yes Tuesday, as expected, final approval would be sought within two months. The state first granted preliminary approval in 2011 for up to $43.1 million in sales tax rebates over 10 years, with Gov. Steve Beshear’s very open blessings. Answers in Genesis withdrew the appication after funding delays and has had to reapply.

Public help has already included a $62 million municipal bond offered from the city of Williamstown, where the park is to be located. Bloomberg News reported that tourist attractions have defaulted on such bonds as Williamstown offered, with the added risk of legal challenges based on the state/church entanglement.

This of course means the State of Kentucky is not only in the religion business, but is forcing its citizens to subsidize telling lies to children.

If you’d like to protest, the FFRF has contact information (I’ve corrected their email link, which is the easiest way to protest). You will, of course, be most effective if you’re a resident of Kentucky, but if you have two minutes to write a short email, it might be worthwhile.

Office of the Secretary
24th Floor, Capital Plaza Tower
500 Mero Street
Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
(502) 564-4270


Catholicism and theistic evolution

Below is part of a short post called “What does the Catholic Church teach about evolution,” appearing on The Catholic Difference, produced by the Parish of St. James in Hopewell, Virginia—very close to where I went to school in Williamsburg. This is pretty much official Catholic doctrine as I understand it. The emphasis in the second paragraph is mine.

Doesn’t the theory of evolution go against the biblical account of creation?
This question can be answered only if we understand clearly what the Bible actually says about creation. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis indicates clearly that the so-called “six day” account of the creation is a poetic description of the origin of the world, which makes two points very clear: first, that everything in the universe was created by God and that, therefore, contrary to what some other religions teach, nothing in creation is to be worshipped as though it were a god or a part of God. The story of the creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a scientific document giving the scientific details of how the universe came into being and how it has developed since its origins.

The view prevailing among most theologians today is that there is no conflict between the evolution model of the origin and development of life and the truths presented in the Book of Genesis. It still remains true that the origin of every human soul is a new act of creation by God and creator. (That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person.)

A few points:

1.  They use the old canard that Genesis wasn’t meant to be a “scientific document giving scientific details.” I wish they’d just be explicit and say “Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken as literal truth: it’s an allegory.” That goes for the whole Bible, which is often excused by theologians as “not a textbook of science.” But if the Bible is an allegory (i.e., an extended metaphor), are there any parts of it that are true? Tell us, Catholics, which ones? And how do you know?

And if it’s “very clear” that Genesis is mere poetry and not fact, why do roughly half of Americans feel otherwise? Where does it say in Genesis: “WARNING: The following book is allegory, and is not intended as a representation of fact. DO NOT CONSTRUE IT OTHERWISE.”? It’s curious that Church fathers such as Aquinas and Augustine, who were presumably very careful readers of Genesis, did construe much of it as fact!

2. The Catholic Church certainly does not see all of Genesis as an allegory. Church doctrine is still that all modern humans descend from Adam and Eve, the sole ancestors of humanity. Science tells us that that is wrong: that the bottleneck of the Homo sapiens lineage was around twelve thousand people, not two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his extended family).  Now how Adam and Eve continue to relate to Original Sin is something for Catholic fabulists to decide. If the Church maintains, as they still do, that Adam and Eve were the only two ancestors of humanity, then they are in clear conflict with science. If they agree that Adam and Eve were made-up metaphors, then either Jesus died for that metaphor or Catholics must confect a new story about where “original sin” came from. This is a severe problem for Catholicism.

3. Before genetics definitively ruled out Adam and Eve, the one big conflict between Catholicism and evolution was the Church’s insistence that somewhere in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens, a soul was inserted by God. Not only that, but each new human being involves God creating a new soul.

Of course what a soul consists of isn’t defined explicitly, but its insertion is a violation of naturalistic evolution. A soul is obviously something that distinguishes us from all other species, and is presumably something connected to the possibility of an afterlife.  But the statement above implies that it’s also something deeply connected with the human ability to be “conscious” and to “think,” “feel,” and “decide.”

Well, some animals can do all that, but they don’t have souls.  And all of those mentations can be explained by evolution, for we see them in our soul-less relatives.  No, I thought a soul was something more than that.  To Alvin Plantinga, the human trait that cannot be explained by evolution is the “sensus dvinitatis,” the ability to apprehend truth that leads us to perceive and worship God.  Plantinga argues, falsely, that humans’ ability to perceive truth is something that also couldn’t have evolved, though I don’t think he’d see the sensus as a soul. I won’t go into detail about how our ability to perceive truth (and our inability to perceive many truths) can be explained by natural selection, with no God needed. I’ve done that here, and I do that in my book.

It’s time for Catholics to tell us precisely what they mean by “soul,” and how they know that our species has it but other creatures don’t.  Maybe they’ve done this, but I’m not about to go digging into the theological literature again. All I know is that they haven’t specified exactly when God put it into the human lineage.

4. Please, religionists, if you do accept evolution, stop calling it a “model”! That is a term that creationists used when opposing the “creation model” with the “evolution model.” Call evolution either a “theory” or a “fact.” It’s far from just a model.

Sam Harris on the Israel/Palestine conflict

If there are two hot-button topics in the liberal atheist community, they would be Sam Harris and Israel. For reasons I have yet to fathom, Sam evokes an extraordinary amount of rancor among atheists. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I think that some Harris-haters resent his goal of making them think about hard questions. (Really, is it that hateful to ask people to think about whether torture or ethnic profiling might be justified?). Too, he and the late Christopher Hitchens were the biggest atheist critics of Islam, and for reasons that are not as obscure (a double standard applied to non-Westerners), liberals tend to give Muslims a pass that they wouldn’t give to, say, Catholics or Jews.

I don’t always agree with Sam—I take issue with his stand on guns and on the existence of objective morality, for instance—but he’s always thoughtful, eloquent, and amiable. He doesn’t condescend to or sneer at anyone, and you can hardly call him strident. His book The End of Faith is the founding document of New Atheism, closely followed by Letter to a Christian Nation. Even if you disagree with everything he’s written since then (and I much admire his small books Lying and Free Will), you must admit that he brought nonbelief back to the table as a viable (and publicly discussed) option.

Nevertheless, his latest piece, “Why don’t I criticize Israel?” (available on his site as both a 15-minute talk and a written transcript) will surely provoke outrage.  I thought long and hard about deciding whether to even mention it, because though it will surely produce comments, they are not necessarily the kind of comments I like to hear. But in the end I thought it was useful to inspire discussion, in the hope (perhaps vain hope) that discussion might be enlightening. Several readers, who emailed me about this piece, thought so, too—or maybe they just want to see fireworks! So I urge you to go to his site and either listen to or read Sam’s take.

If you comment, I expect civility, and I expect you to know your facts. Do not, for instance, call Israel an “apartheid state,” for that is not only grossly untrue, but denigrates the real apartheid that South Africa experienced. (Arab citizens of Israel are not segregated or denied voting rights, for instance, as were South African blacks. They have precisely the same rights as non-Arab citizens, except they do not have to serve in the Israeli Army, though they can volunteer to do so.) I also expect readers to have either listened to or read Sam’s whole piece, and to discuss the views in that piece. This is not a place to simply rant about Israel and/or Palestine.  Address Sam’s contentions, or other people’s. There is plenty there to fuel a discussion.

And what I’d really like to hear is whether readers have a workable solution to the conflict.  After long pondering, I don’t think there is any. Three times the Palestinians have been offered a peace deal, and three times they’ve either turned it down or ignored it. One or another of those deals included the two-state solution, the demolishing of  the vast majority of settlements on the West Bank (with the retention of a few settlements compensated by giving Palestine Israeli land), the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine (in one rejected deal), and so on.  It is now clear that Palestine will sanction only a solution that will destroy Israel—by insisting on the “right of return” that would flood Israel with Palestinians and turn it into an Arab state. If your “solution” involves getting rid of Israel, say so explicitly.

My take, which you’ll know if you’re a regular, is that the sworn intention of Palestine as a nation is to destroy Israel as a nation.This is no secret, nor is it a matter of dispute. If you doubt it, I strongly urge you to read the Hamas Charter, which is precisely as Sam has characterized it: it not only mandates the destruction of Israel, but refers to the old forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which anti-Semites formulated as a tool for destroying Jews. Here are three excerpts from that charter:

For Zionist scheming has no end, and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates. Only when they have completed digesting the area on which they will have laid their hand, they will look forward to more expansion, etc. Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present [conduct] is the best proof of what is said there.

. . . This is the Charter of the Islamic Resistance (Hamas) which will reveal its face, unveil its identity, state its position, clarify its purpose, discuss its hopes, call for support to its cause and reinforcement, and for joining its ranks. For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave, so much so that it will need all the loyal efforts we can wield, to be followed by further steps and reinforced by successive battalions from the multifarious Arab and Islamic world, until the enemies are defeated and Allah’s victory prevails. Thus we shall perceive them approaching in the horizon, and this will be known before long: “Allah has decreed: Lo! I very shall conquer, I and my messenger, lo! Allah is strong, almighty.”

. . .  The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said:The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).

It amazes me that people prefer to ignore this, or pretend it isn’t there.  Do you think that Hamas isn’t serious about their own charter? And remember that the Palestinian Authority is now allied with Hamas.

The main disagreement I have with Sam is, perhaps, a semantic one. He first says this:

I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion.

But then says this:

Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable.

I agree with Sam that a state based on religion itself is hard to justify. But although Israel is a “Jewish” state, it is a culturally Jewish state, although it encompasses Jews from atheists to Orthodox (about 50% of the “Jews” in Israel consider themselves “secular,” and between 15% and 37% see themselves as atheists). The country is, then, much less religious than the U.S. and any Muslim nation. The Israeli constitution guarantees religious freedom for all, including nonbelievers. It is not a theocracy in the sense that Iran, or even Saudi Arabia, is. This confusion, I think, explains the ambiguity in Sam’s piece.  The “justification” was not to establish a religious state, but to give people of Jewish “culture” a refuge from the pogroms that occurred throughout Europe and the Middle East. (Although I’m an atheist, I would have been rounded up and sent to the camps during the Holocaust.) What I am saying is that I think Israel has a right to exist in more or less its present form (without, of course, the war), and that a solution that makes it an Arab state is untenable and unjustifiable.

I won’t go on, except to say that Sam points out the moral disparity between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and I largely agree with him. One excerpt:

So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas.  That doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. [Note: I was not suggesting that Israel’s actions are above criticism or that their recent incursion into Gaza was necessarily justified. Nor was I saying that the status quo, wherein the Palestinians remain stateless, should be maintained. By “siding with Israel,” I am simply recognizing that they are not the primary aggressors in this conflict. They are, rather, responding to aggression—and at a terrible cost.]

Sam’s final statement is quite eloquent, and addresses the aims you’ve already seen in the Hamas charter. The extreme exponents of Islam, as seen in Hamas and even more radical groups, want nothing more than the imposition of their faith on the entire world, and the total extirpation of the Jews. That is why you can see in the Arab media, even in state-sponsored newspapers and television shows, caricatures and hatred of Jews as vile as you could have seen in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany. For some reason liberal supporters of Palestine ignore the kind of bigotry they’d attack vociferously if it came from America (or Israel), or allude to it only briefly before they go on to demonize Israel (which of course does not publish state-sponsored ethnic hatred). That is why you hear from the Arab world, as Sam notes, both denial of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a call for a new Holocaust. How can one side with people like that?

Sam’s final words:

What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.

This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.

If you think that groups like Hamas will be satisfied with a peace that gives them their own state but leaves the state of Israel still in existence, you’re fooling yourself. Palestinians have rejected that several times. And if you think that such groups will be happy even if they wipe out Israel, and then will have no further quarrel with the West, then you’re also fooling yourself.  Finally, if you think that all the anti-Western and anti-Israeli rage from Arabs is inspired by Western oppression and has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, you’re fooling yourself most of all.

Readers’ wildlife photos

You may or may not know that Steve Pinker is an avid photographer (where does he get the time?), and he’s proffered some of his photos for display on this site. They come in five categories: primates, reptiles, cats, birds, and herbivorous mammals. I’ll show one of each, but there are several in each category, so expect more in the future.

These are all photos he took on a recent trip to Uganda, and include his captions (I’ve added the links):

Colubus satanas aka black and white colobus:

black & white colobus staring down from tree-L

Agama atricollis: Blue-headed tree agama:

blue-headed tree agama staring at photographer-L

Leopard (Panthera pardus) descending from tree:

leopard descending from tree-L

Profile of a giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) against the Nile:

profile of giraffe against Nile-L

Merops oreobates (Cinnamon-chested bee-eater):

cinnamon-chested bee-eater Ndali-L

All of Steve’s photos from Uganda are here, and his complete gallery, meticulously catalogued, is here. He promises to send pictures from Tasmania, where I think he is now.

Monday: Hili dialogue

A tired boy is kissed by a tired cat:

Jerry: I like you immensely.
Hili: The same here.


In Polish:

Jerry: Ogromnie cię lubię.
Hili: Ja ciebie też.


But of course I suspect she likes me only for the noms. . .

The best job in the world

Juhi Agrawal has a number of posts of her interactions with large cats while she was working at The Cheetah Experience, a rescue, breeding, and rehabilitation center in Bleomfontein in South Africa.  Just the other day we saw her being pounced on by Parda, a black leopard who was much taken with her. Here she is having an experience I’d give my eyeteeth for: having a baby leopard sleep on her chest:

and another, with an adult cheetah:

This is clearly the best job in the world.

There are other videos at her site, and I’ll undoubtedly post some of them later.


A nest of loggerhead turtles hatch, babies head to sea

I’ve seen mother sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach (in Costa Rica), but I’ve never seen them hatch. Here’s a great short video of 100 baby loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) hatching in the Florida Keys. The explanation is below; I always wondered how they knew where the water was:

Using infrared lighting, a live-streaming, high-definition “turtle webcam” positioned on a beach in the Florida Keys recorded the hatch of about 100 baby loggerhead sea turtles on Friday, July 25, just before 9 p.m.

Friday evening, the 3-inch-long babies erupted from a hole, came out en masse and headed to the Atlantic Ocean under dim moonlight.

The camera uses infrared lighting so hatchlings won’t be confused by artificial light and will go to sea — guided by moonlight reflecting on the water — instead of pushing further onto land.

Wikipedia reports that the females reach sexual maturity between 17 and 33 years (that’s a long time!), and have a total lifespan of 47-87 years. They are also reported to produce four clutches in a year and then go quiescent for 2-3 years before reproducing again. Let’s do a calculation. Assume that they become sexually mature at 25 years (the average of 17 and 33), and live an additional 42 years (assuming an average lifespan of 67 years).  Let’s say they reproduce once every 2.5 years (the average of 2 and 3). That means they have 16.8 reproductive bouts. If they produce 400 eggs per bout, that’s a total lifetime output of 6,720 hatchlings.  If the population is stable, each female produces two surviving adults per lifetime. The pre-reproductive mortality of newly-hatched turtles is therefore about 6718/6720, or 99.97% (I hope I’ve calculated correctly). That means that there is a huge juvenile mortality.

Remember, the turtles don’t have a huge juvenile mortality simply because they produce so many offspring; rather, they produce so many offspring partly because they face such a high mortality rate; evolution is compensating for the environmentally determined survival rate. It was the population geneticist Ronald Fisher who realized this—not for sea turtles, but for anything that produces a large number of offspring.

A new feathered dinosaur suggests that most dinosaurs had feathers

What better evidence that birds arose from dinosaurian reptiles than the discovery of a fossil with both scales and feathers? Further, the fossil comes from the right time period: after reptiles had already evolved but before we see modern flying birds with fully-developed feathers.

Of course, we already knew that birds are the only living descendants of dinosaurs—some biologists classify them as dinosaurs—but as we go earlier and earlier back into the evolution of dinos, we’re beginning to find that many, perhaps most, had feather-like structures. That is what we call a “preadaptation”—a feature that could be co-opted later for a different useful function: in the case of birds, gliding and then flight. (“Preadaptations,” of course, didn’t evolve because they’d be useful in the future, for natural selection doesn’t anticipate future needs; it produces features that enhance reproduction in the here and now. But those features can be hijacked for other things later, like penguins’ vestigial wings that became modified for swimming.)

The earliest feathers, as we’ll see on the specimen I’ll show shortly, are small, filamentous structures that occur along with scales. They were of no possible use for flying or gliding, but they wouldn’t evolve unless they enhanced the animal’s reproduction (or its proxy, survival). What were they for? The authors of the paper we’re discussing today suggest this (my emphasis):

Here we report a new ornithischian dinosaur, Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, with diverse epidermal appendages, including grouped filaments that we interpret as avianlike feathers. This suggests that all Dinosauria could have had feathers and that feathers arose for purposes of insulation and signaling and were only later co-opted for flight.

So what is the finding? The researchers found a 150 million-year-old fossil of an ornithischian dinosaur in Siberia. The beast was about 1.5 meters long (4.5 feet), so it wasn’t large. The important thing is that it was an ornithischian dinosaur rather than a theropod dinosaur, and (I’m going from memory here) all of the decently-preserved feathered dinosaurs that were found previously were theropods. Although there were earlier suggestions that some ornithischians had feather-like structures, the preservation was not nearly as good as that in the new fossil.

The finding is important because ornithischians are in a completely different evolutionary group from theropods, which were saurischians. The former were herbivores and had hips like birds. “Ornithischian” means “bird-hipped,” even though, confusingly, modern birds descended from the other group, the theropods, a carnivorous subgroup of the saurischians. (“Saurishian” means “lizard-hipped.”)

Here’s the dinosaur family tree showing the two different groups and their difference in skeletal morphology. Note that birds (“Aves”) are descended from theropods:

Screen shot 2014-07-27 at 4.47.03 AM

Now if both sauriscians and ornithschians were feathered, that means either that both groups evolved feathers independently, or that they inherited feathers (probably rudimentary filaments that later evolved into full plumage) from their common ancestor. The latter possibility is more likely given the probable developmental complexity of feathers. But even if feather evolution was independent in the two groups, it still suggests that most dinosaurs, not just the theropods whose descendants became birds, had feathers. T. rex (a theropod) could have been covered in down!

But let’s back up and see the details. The new report in Science by Pascal Godefroit et al. (reference and link below, no free download) reports the finding of feather and scale impressions on an ornithischian dinosaur they named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus (there were actually six skulls and many bones).  The source of the name and conditions of preservation are given by the lead author in a “news and views”-type piece in National Geographic:

The dinosaur’s name essentially means “Kulinda River running dinosaur.” Zabaikalsky Krai is the region of Siberia where it was discovered (which explains its species name, zabaikalicus).

“There were lakes and there were volcanoes there, lots of volcanoes,” Godefroit says. The plant-eating dinosaurs likely died and fell to the lake bottom, where eruptions soon after covered them with a fine ash. That is what preserved the feather imprints with the fossil bones.

“We don’t know how big this fossil bed is, and it is likely we will find more when we go back,” Godefroit says.

The authors of the paper were working in four countries—Russia, Ireland, Belgium, and the UK—showing once again the international character of science. Since I’d like the readers to be able to read at least parts of scientific papers, I’ll put the paper’s abstract below, which is not too technical:


Middle Jurassic to Early Cretaceous [JAC: the Cretaceous went from 145 million years ago to 66 million years ago] deposits from northeastern China have yielded varied theropod dinosaurs bearing feathers. Filamentous integumentary structures have also been described in ornithischian dinosaurs, but whether these filaments can be regarded as part of the evolutionary lineage toward feathers remains controversial. Here we describe a new basal neornithischian dinosaur from the Jurassic of Siberia [JAC: the Jurassic was earlier, from about 201 to 145 million years ago] with small scales around the distal hindlimb, larger imbricated scales around the tail, monofilaments around the head and the thorax, and more complex featherlike structures around the humerus, the femur, and the tibia.The discovery of these branched integumentary structures outside theropods suggests that featherlike structures coexisted with scales and were potentially widespread among the entire dinosaur clade; feathers may thus have been present in the earliest dinosaurs.

 Here’s a figure from the paper showing the reconstruction of the skeleton; the scale lines, which apply to the bones, are 1 cm. (2.54 cm/inch)

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 3.46.07 AM

The skull, also with a 1 cm scale:

Screen shot 2014-07-27 at 5.44.28 AM

A reconstruction, showing the downy filamentous “feathers,” by the authors:

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.21.54 AM

Reconstruction of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus. A basal ornithopod dinosaur, with feathers and scales, from the Middle to Late Jurassic of southeastern Siberia. [Drawing by Pascale Golinvaux (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)]

And a more colorful reconstruction from the National Geographic piece. The colors are, of course, imagined:


(From National Geographic): This illustration of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, a newfound feathered dinosaur, shows it in its natural environment. ILLUSTRATION BY ANDREY ATUCHIN

Here are impressions of scales on the leg (tibia and tarsus):

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.18.01 AM

Large arched scales on the tail (B and C):

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.18.10 AM

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.18.19 AM

Below are the “feathers” on the arm bones (humerus and part of radius and ulna). B. shows enlargement of the white box in “A”, with the filamentous structures growing out of “compound structures”, and C is an interpretive drawing. The authors note:

These occur as groups of six or seven filaments that converge proximally and arise from the central regions of a basal plate. Individual filaments are 10 to 15 mm long. Those on the humerus are wider (0.2 to 0.4 mm) and straighter than those on the femur (0.1 to 0.2 mm). These groups of filaments. . .  resemble the down feathers of some modern chicken breeds, such as the Silkie, which are devoid of barbules.

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.20.43 AM

The fact that feathers appear to be growing out of scale-like features suggests, as biologists have long assumed, that feathers actually evolved from scales, though the authors suggest that the “scales” on birds’ legs and feet are not persistent scales derived from their reptilian ancestors, but evolved back from feathers! Since scales certainly preceded feathers in the fossil record, this shows that truly new structures, certainly involving new genetic information, can evolve (and then be lost, reverting on birds’ feet to scales). That belies the common creationist criticism that new genetic information can’t evolve (we saw that from one commenter earlier today).

Here are some “monofilaments” around the rib cage. These are distributed widely around the head, neck, and thorax:

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.24.12 AM

Enlargement of above (box), showing filaments:

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 4.24.21 AM

Here’s the money paragraph from the paper:

. . . the integumentary structures in Ornithischia, already described in Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong, could be homologous to the “protofeathers” in non-avian theropods. In any case, it indicates that those protofeather-like structures were probably widespread in Dinosauria, possibly even in the earliest members of the clade. Further, the ability to form simple monofilaments and more complex compound structures is potentially nested within the archosauromorph clade. . .

Here’s the final statement in the National Geographic article:

“This does mean that we can now be very confident that feathers weren’t just an invention of birds and their closest relatives, but evolved much deeper in dinosaur history,” [Godefroit] adds. “I think that the common ancestor of dinosaurs probably had feathers, and that all dinosaurs had some type of feather, just like all mammals have some type of hair.”

Even so, Godefroit suggests that the largest dinosaurs likely had the fewest feathers, as they wouldn’t have needed them for insulation. “Just like elephants in Africa don’t need fur,” he says.

That suggests that feathers evolved in smaller dinosaurs as insulation, and the largest ones simply lost them, just as elephants, which evolved from much smaller animals, lost their hair (although their mammoth relatives in colder climes either did not, or re-evolved hair). I like the idea that feathers conferred insulation on these creatures, though a signalling function (which means that the feathers probably were colorful, and may have had different colors and patterns in different species) is not out of the question.


Godefroit, P., S. M. Sinitsa, D. Dhouailly, Y. L. Bolotsky, A. V. Sizov, M. E. McNamara, M. J. Benton, and P. Spagna. 2014. A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. 2014.  Science 345:451-455.

Readers’ beefs of the week

There were a lot of angry and critical attempts to post this week; this is only a small selection. But my epidermis is thick, and sloughs them off.

Reader “William” comments on “The Jesus Delusion” (about Don McLeroy and his claim of 500 witnesses to the Resurrection).

The poor scoffers will never be able to explain away the empty tomb. It must be a real headache for them :(

What empty tomb? Archaeologists have never found one, and I’ve never fretted about it for a second.


Reader “Neil” commented on “Confused science writer claims that atheists might not exist

I’m confused why atheists would choose to bring a child into this life when they would only die in 70 or 80 years. At worse, a child could live a life of suffering with something like heart disease or depression. If there’s no purpose in life, what’s the purpose of reproducing? It seems just too cruel.

I’m confused about why religious people would choose to bring a child into this life given that it is likely to burn forever in the afterlife. As for “no purpose in life,” that’s the usual blatantly false claim that “purpose” can come only from God. We make our own purposes. In fact, as anyone knows, having children can be an immensely gratifying experience. Part of that gratification, of course, comes from evolution! All of our evolved morphology, physiology, and behavior was shaped to one end: leaving copies of our genes. That is why people strive to copulate so ardently (the orgasm is, of course, an evolved neurological device to promote reproduction, but we wily humans have short-circuited it), and why, to a large extent, they want children so badly and get such satisfaction by having them.


Reader “Jason J” commented on “Another creationist drops by to show that there’s no evidence for evolution“. In that post, I countered a reader’s creationist arguments by claiming that he (“Steve”) was “blinded by faith.” Jason’s response:

“He’s blinded by faith.”

Isn’t that the truth.

“For we live by believing and not by seeing. Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.” (‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭5‬:‭7-10‬ NLT)

I hope this message reaches someone looking for answers. Look around you. God’s people are at work each day, are we blind to how many millions of people are spreading God’s word just as he commanded? Are we blind to the millions of missionaries feeding, clothing and caring for the underprivileged? Are we blind to God’s beauty? Just look at the night sky or the way the sunset dances on the mountains. Most of all, how long will we stay blinded to his grace? He has already forgiven us, we need only repent. Isn’t that the hard part though? We’re human. We should know everything right? We should know how we came into existence, how our bodies formed with nature to provide us with a justification for our godlessness. After all, if heaven is real, then we have a lot to account for. My friends, admitting I’m wrong is the hardest thing for me to do, but it lifts a weight off my shoulders. Christ is the only way, and once you choose the path of righteousness in your heart, you will positively never be the same. If you prayed right now, “Jesus, come into my heart. Forgive me of my sins. Empty all of me and fill me back up.” what could it hurt? Jesus wants a relationship with you, if you would just for one second let go of your pride. Just stop and think of your eternity.

In Jesus’ name.

I’m not sure where Jason has admitted he’s wrong! The telling statement here is “if heaven is real. . .”.  Well, what’s his evidence for that? I’ll believe in heaven if Jason can give me some real evidence for that paradise that isn’t based on wish-thinking, revelation, or dogma. What makes him think he’s right and that Jews, who don’t believe in Heaven, are wrong?

In Ingersoll’s name.


Reader “Max” commented on “Burger King introduces a “gay pride” burger, Christians worried that believers may consume one inadvertently

SHAMESHAME on all of you QUEER basturds – You should be on your knees begging all mighty GOD for forgivness not crowing on this web site

This is all about a gay pride hamburger wrapper, for crying out loud! If haters and homophobes such as Max could just live their lives as a gay person for a week or so, perhaps they’d realize that it isn’t a “sinful choice,” but some form of internal imperative. Perhaps then they’d take a a different view. Or isn’t it pretty to think so?


Reader “Anon” commented on “David Berlinski makes an ass of himself defending intelligent design

Psalms 10:7 “His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness.”

Jerry, it seems like you have built a group of emotional haters and scoffers with no foundation. I Pray for You good sir :)


As Dan Dennett said, I’d much prefer the sacrifice of a goat (followed by a nice goat curry) than ineffectual prayer. As for “emotional haters and scoffers,” well, yes, we despise and scoff at false, delusional, and malicious beliefs (see Max above). But there’s plenty of foundation, to wit: no good evidence for God or the truth claims of Christians.


Reader “Cliff Claven” (you’ll remember that as the name of the postman on the t.v. show “Cheers”) commented on my post “Dead genes for tooth enamel“, which reported findings of nonfunctional, vestigial genes for tooth enamel in animals that either lacked teeth or lacked tooth enamel. That is, of course, evidence of evolution from animals with enameled teeth:

This is all a great proof of devolution. It turns Darwin’s tree of life upside down and puts the more complex and complete prototypical forms at the top, with many tendrils of decaying forms branching down to the modern era where life limps along with bullet-ridden DNA, full of scar tissue and missing many functional genes that blessed antecedent life forms. If the ancient forms are superior to the modern forms, that poses a greater challenge as to origins.

And on the topic of tooth enamel, the teeth of neanderthal skeletons exhibits superior enamel density and folding. Neanderthals were also larger in size with modern proportions and larger brain cases. The genetic and morphological evidence is that modern humans are devolved, inferior forms.
The university of California at Santa Cruz has done some interesting work documenting loss of many genes in primates and humans.

The Occam’s Razor solution to fitting the genomic and phylogenetic timeline puzzle together in the most straightforward fashion is to start with order and complexity (i.e., low entropy) and progress downward to data loss and corruption (i.e., high entropy). This argument is especially strong when one realizes that speciation arises from loss of genetic diversity, not gain. It is the loss of countervailing genes that unmasks and increases the expression of those that remain, an effect which is multiplied in reproduction, particularly in small breeding populations with already limited genetic diversity.

Here is a fellow who knows almost noting about evolution, for he ignores the increase in complexity over evolutionary time in many lineages. Yes, of course genes have been “lost”, but many, many genes have been gained, including those genes that arise and diverge via gene duplication and selection: genes for globins, genes for the immune system, and so on. Drosophila workers, who have a great genetic toolkit, are only beginning to find out the large number of genes that arise de novo: not simply via duplication, but via snipping and fusing different parts of the DNA. Further, why do those “lost” genes remain in the genome, for that certainly testifies to evolution! There is no other explanation for why humans have three inactivated genes for making egg-yolk protein, or why cetaceans have hundreds of inactive olfactory-receptor genes, which helped their land-living ancestors smell.

As for speciation resulting from the loss of genetic diversity, the man is simply, flatly, embarrassingly, dead wrong. Speciation via allo- or autopolyploidy arises when new genetic information is incorporated into a population through hybridization. As for “small breeding populations,” some species do arise beginning that way, including those colonizing distant islands and evolving subsequently; but we have no evidence at all that their loss of genetic diversity has anything to do with the reproductive isolation that characterizes speciation. Rather, that isolation comes from natural selection producing new traits: new male features and female preferences, adaptation to new ecologies, other forms of selection that cause genes to diverge in ways that make hybrids inviable or sterile, and so on. We now know of many genes involved in reproductive isolation, and I can’t think of any case in which loss of genetic information is involved in speciation.

Of course, this fellow is only parroting his religious party line: we can’t have the creation of genetic novelty, but we can have de-evolution, which, of course resulted from the Biblical Fall.


Reader “Winston Smith” (you’ll remember that that was the name of the main character is George Orwell’s 1984) had a short but sweet comment on my post about “Eben Alexander’s bogus trip to heaven”, about the neurologist’s “heaven” experience when unconscious from meningitis:

typical foul mouthed atheist

When you have no arguments, criticize your opponent’s tone. 


And, just to show that atheists can be foul-mouthed too (something you should already know if you frequent certain websites), here’s one that didn’t make it through for using profanity and making no new points at all. Reader “Fuck You” commented on “Afghani mullah rapes ten-year-old girl; family wants to kill her“:

Fuck. These. People. I’m so sick and tired of these religious fucktards. That’s exactly what they are. They believe in this bullshit scripture telling them that they are apparently ‘God’s chosen ones’. Well, guess what? You’re not. There is no god, you stupid fucking cunts. Get your heads out of your arses and study science. There is no god and you are not important in the grand scheme of things. You do not get to dictate other people’s lives, you pretentious fucking dickwads.

I’m suggesting that this person go proffer his comments on Pharyngula, where he—I’m assuming it’s a male—can participate in the general scatalogical merriment and suggest rude actions with porcupines.


Reader “Milan” forever lost his/her posting privileges by telling me not to post about religion in a comment on “Ken Ham calls U.S. space program a waste, since the Bible tells us that alien life doesn’t exist (and would be damned anyway)

Who gives a crap what bronze age goat herders and their lunatic advocates of today say about anything…stop giving them media attention.

Well, those lunatic advocates are causing harm, and if we ignore them, they’ll just get stronger. I suppose one could have said the same thing to Martin Luther King about the southern segregationists (not that I’m anything like Dr. King!). People don’t realize that shutting up about religion, particularly if you see it as inimical—as “Milan” apparently does—is just enabling its persistence.

But of course saying what I should or shouldn’t post about is generally a banning offense, so Milan sings with the choir invisible.



Sunday: Dobrzyn

Cats and cherry pie are today’s subject (and were yesterday’s activities); in one case, we’ve combined them. All of these photos are from Saturday.

Andrzej and I cracked about 400 g. of walnuts from their garden; the nuts were destined to be crushed and incorporated into the piecrust. Some of them were huge, and produced beautiful whole nutmeats. This one was so lovely that I had to eat it:

A walnut

Malgorazata pits cherries; in the foreground you can see some of the walnuts we cracked:

M pitting

Here’s a video showing the machine in action:

Pouring the cooked cherries into the walnut crust:

Pie, filing crust

Fancifying the crust:

Pie, making crust

Malgorzata suggested that we use the leftover dough to make a cat for the pie. I immediately leapt on the idea and made a cat face:

Making cat face

Here is the finished and cooked pie with the cat face. Oy, was it good! The buttery walnut crust is a perfect complement to the slightly acidic cherries:

P1060250 2

After lunch, a walk to the river with Cyrus (Hili decided to sleep in):

Here’s a panorama of the bluffs along the Vistula, a view of Andrzej’s and Malgorzata’s property, two local kids on bikes, and the d*g Cyrus:

A post-walk snack: fresh raspberries from the garden, washed down with a glass of fresh cherry juice (it accumulates in the pitting machine):


And of course the Princess was about to receive her due fusses. She slept atop me, but also slept on the big couch, assuming the supine feline position:

Hili upside down

Of course there’s only one thing to do when a fluffy white cat belly is exposed:

Belly rub


And, finally, after several months, detente: Hili and Cyrus shared the couch for the same time. Malgorazata and Andrzej were elated: the very vision of Isaiah fulfilled in their living room!


The princess waits for her wet noms, which, as staff, I was assigned to give her:

Awaiting food


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