Monday, 25 September 2017

Women! For Pity's Sake Don't Drive!

Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving must remain because they ‘lack the intellect’ of men, says leading cleric | The Independent

Women should not be allowed to drive cars because, at the best of times, they have only half the intellect of men and, when they go shopping, this falls to only a quarter!

This comes on the authority of Saudi Arabian cleric and head of the Saudi government's religious edict authority in the southern province of Assir, Sheikh Saad al-Hajari.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

St Francis' Bread - Such Big Claims; So Little Evidence.

Statue of St Francis in his home town of Assisi

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On the Authenticity of a Relic: An Archaeometric Investigation of the Supposed Bread Sack of Saint Francesco of Assisi | Radiocarbon | Cambridge Core

To read the headlines, you might be tempted to believe a miracle has been prove true by scientists.

What's been proven, if anything, is just how little evidence is needed before the promoters of religious superstitions start to proclaim proof.

The mythical miracle this time is one I confess I had never heard of and about which the details, as with all the best of miracles, is sadly in very short supply. It is the 'miracle' of St Francis of Assisi's bread which, in 1224, so the story goes, a sack-full of which appeared on the doorstep of the Franciscan Friary of Folloni in southern Italy, so saving the brothers within from starvation, the friary being cut off by snow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Doing the 'Impossible': Recycling Old Genes

Humans and fish share about 70% of their protein-coding genes, but only about 0.5% of their regulatory long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs)
Genomic Recycling: Ancestral Genes Take On New Roles

And another sacred creationist dogma crashes and burns.

Imagine! You're a creationist fraud trying to make an even better living by taking yet more money off people who feel so important that they believe they must have a close personal relationship with the creator of the Universe! You're feeding them all sorts of sciencey-sounding stuff because, despite convincing them that science is all wrong, they still have a nagging doubt that it might not be, so, to be on the safe side, you want them to think that even if it is right occasionally, it supports their preconceived ideas and confirms that they know better than all those wacky scientists.

You've convinced them that something called the Second Law, combined with something really mysterious that only really clever people can understand called Information Theory means that evolution can't happen, because it would mean creating new information - and that is impossible. You've sold them the idea that mutations are always harmful so any mutation in DNA would result in virtually instant death with no hope of passing it on and anyway, even it it was passed on, the offspring wouldn't survive.

You've even got them using computers and swarming the Internet telling bemused scientists and other educated people that they've got everything all wrong and science has failed, without the least sense of irony!

Then along come a team of scientists and publish a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, complete with evidence and pictures and long words, that explains how we got a lot of our genes through mutations of old ones and that mutations have given them completely new information, so now they have a different function to the originals in creatures in our remote ancestry a couple of hundred million of years ago.

The question now is how do you misrepresent the science? Do you ignore it altogether? Do you lie about it? Do you dismiss it all as a big conspiracy? Or do you just do what others do and declare that anything you and they disagree with must be wrong, by definition?

That's the dilemma now facing the Hams, Hovinds, Behes and Demskys of the creation industry. They're not going to accept the evidence, admit they were wrong and go and look for proper jobs of course. The money is too good and the living is too easy.

In fact, the science shows is that not only are there as many as 20,000 long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) genes in the human genome – about the same number as the protein-coding ones – but the lncRNAs have lately been revealed to serve as master switches in a wide variety of biological processes. They turn genes on and off and affect other regulatory genes, controlling cellular fate during fetal development, as well as cellular division and death in the adult organism. These master regulators may therefore hold the key to elucidating or even treating a variety of diseases.

Igor Ulitsky and his team – research students Hadas Hezroni, Gali Housman and Zohar Meir, and staff scientists Drs. Rotem Ben-Tov Perry and Yoav Lubelsky of the Weizmann Institute of Science - managed to identify a class of mammalian lncRNAs that had evolved from more ancient genes by taking on new functions.

His team members developed a series of algorithms that enabled them to find such “recycled” genes in the mammalian genome. First, they identified nearly 1,000 genes that code for proteins in chickens, fish, lizards and other non-mammalian vertebrates, but not in humans, dogs, sheep and other mammals. The scientists hypothesized that at least some of these genes, after losing their protein-coding function, started manufacturing lncRNAs in mammals. By comparing “gene neighborhoods” in the vicinity of lncRNAs and of genes that had stopped coding for proteins, the researchers revealed that indeed, about 60 lncRNA genes in mammals – or 2% to 3% of lncRNAs shared by humans and other mammalian species – appear to be derived from ancestral genes. Their genetic sequence is in some cases similar to that of the ancient genes, but they have lost their protein-coding ability.

“It is hard to know what caused these genes to lose their protein-coding potential more than 200 million years ago, when mammals evolved from their vertebrate ancestors,” Ulitsky says. “But the fact that these genes have been conserved in the genome for so long suggests that they play important roles in the cell.”

Identifying such “fossils” of protein-coding genes in the mammalian genome will facilitate further study of human lncRNAs and may ultimately help scientists understand what happens when their function is disrupted. For example, lncRNAs help create different types of neurons in the fetal brain; their failure to properly determine the fate of these neurons may contribute to epilepsy. Because lncRNAs are involved in controlling cell division, their malfunction may be implicated in cancer. Finally, manipulating lncRNAs may make it possible to treat certain genetic disorders.

As the scientists say in an open access paper in Genome Biology:


Only a small portion of human long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) appear to be conserved outside of mammals, but the events underlying the birth of new lncRNAs in mammals remain largely unknown. One potential source is remnants of protein-coding genes that transitioned into lncRNAs.

We systematically compare lncRNA and protein-coding loci across vertebrates, and estimate that up to 5% of conserved mammalian lncRNAs are derived from lost protein-coding genes. These lncRNAs have specific characteristics, such as broader expression domains, that set them apart from other lncRNAs. Fourteen lncRNAs have sequence similarity with the loci of the contemporary homologs of the lost protein-coding genes. We propose that selection acting on enhancer sequences is mostly responsible for retention of these regions. As an example of an RNA element from a protein-coding ancestor that was retained in the lncRNA, we describe in detail a short translated ORF in the JPX lncRNA that was derived from an upstream ORF in a protein-coding gene and retains some of its functionality.

We estimate that ~ 55 annotated conserved human lncRNAs are derived from parts of ancestral protein-coding genes, and loss of coding potential is thus a non-negligible source of new lncRNAs. Some lncRNAs inherited regulatory elements influencing transcription and translation from their protein-coding ancestors and those elements can influence the expression breadth and functionality of these lncRNAs.

Hadas Hezroni, Rotem Ben-Tov Perry, Zohar Meir, Gali Housman, Yoav Lubelsky and Igor Ulitsky
A subset of conserved mammalian long non-coding RNAs are fossils of ancestral protein-coding genes
Genome Biology201718:162

© 2017 The Authors.
Published open access
Reprinted under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)

So, about 55 'fossil' protein-coding genes in the human genome from 200 million years ago have not only mutated without harming their hosts but they have evolved new processes and been co-opted for entirely new uses by radically changing the information they contain.

How's that for impossible?

'via Blog this'

Declining Christianity in USA

America’s Changing Religious Identity:

A major new report published today by PRRI has revealed a continuing decline in religious affiliation with 'nones' now comprising 24% of the population.

There is now a marked generational shift in religious affiliation with 38% of the key 18-29 year-old age group identifying as 'nones' against just 12% for the 65+ age group. White Christians now comprise just 24% of the 18-29 year-olds against 63% of the 65+ age group.

The report also reveals the continuing decline in White Christians who fall below 50% for the first time in a PRRI survey, although other surveys have also reported a similar recent finding. This group, which in 1976 comprised 81% of all American adults, now accounts for just 43%.

Two other significant findings were the increasing ethnic transformation of American Catholicism which, 25 years ago was 87% White, compared to 55% today, and the increasing polarisation of American politics on religious grounds. 73% of Republicans are White Christians compared to just 29% of Democrats. A decade ago, 50% of Democrats were White Christian.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Religious Belief in UK Continues to Plummet!

British Social Attitudes: Record number of Brits with no religion.

The catastrophic (from the point of view of those who earn their living from it) decline in religious belief in the UK continues apace according to the authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey. 'No religion' has rockets by 5% in just one years, from 48% in 2015 to 53% in the latest (2016) survey.

More than half (53%) of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48% in 2015. The proportion of non-believers has increased gradually since the survey began in 1983, when the proportion saying they had no religion stood at 31%.

Church of England decline continues
The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard. Just 15% of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican, half the proportion who said this in 2000.

The proportion of non-believers has risen from just 31% in 1983 when the survey began.

One again the church of England has seen the biggest decline and has now fallen to 15%; half what it was in the year 2000. By contrast, the proportion of self-identified Catholics has remained stable at around 5%. Other religions account for a further 6%.

The fall in religious affiliation has been driven mostly by a decline in the proportion of 18-24 year-olds identifying with a religion, but there was a decline in all age groups between 2015 and 2016. 'No religion' in the 18-24 year-old age group increased to 71% from 63% in 2015; a stunning 8% rise in a year! In this group, Anglicans now comprise just 3%

The Anglican Church has seen the sharpest decline amongst the 18-24 year-old age group. It now stands at just 3%, and this is the group set to produce the next generation. The only age-group in which affiliation to the C of E exceeds non-belief is the 75+ group. Even in that group, non-belief comes second. The decline in religious affiliation of British-born people is even greater than these figures suggest, since it has been masked to some extent by an increase in Islam due to non-EU immigration and in Catholicism due to EU immigration from Catholic Eastern European EU member states such as Poland.

This increase follows the long-term trend of more and more of us not being religious. The differences by age are stark and with so many younger people not having a religion it’s hard to see this change abating any time soon. The falls in those belonging to the Church of England are the most notable, but these figures should cause all religious leaders to pause for thought.

We know from the British Social Attitudes survey that religious people are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion. With falling numbers some faith leaders might wonder whether they should be doing more to take their congregation’s lead on adapting to how society is changing.

Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes at the National Centre for Social Research

Ironically, Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool explained that the decline is because people are becoming more honest! (Honestly!). Quoted in the Guardian, he said:

In this modern world people are more willing to be honest and say they have ‘no religion’ rather than casually saying they are ‘C of E’. This honesty is welcome … But saying ‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism. People’s minds, and hearts, remain open.

These figures really should now raise serious questions about the role of the Anglican Church (especially) in UK public life. How can it now be justifiable that Anglican bishops occupy 26 seats by right in the unelected Upper Chamber of the UK Parliament? These sentiments were voiced by Andrew Copson for Humanists UK (Formerly the British Humanist Association) and by Terry Sanderson for the Secular Society:

How can it be right that 97% of young people today are not Anglicans, but some 20% of the state schools to which their children will go belong to the C of E? More generally, how can the Church of England remain in any meaningful sense the national legally established church, when it caters for such a small portion of the population?*

Andrew Copson, Humanists UK’s chief executive.

These statistics indicate that the time has come for this country to have a serious debate about the place of religion in our society.*

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society

*Quoted in the Guardian

The very sharp decline in religious affiliation amongst the young is probably a reflection of the increasingly liberal, secular views of the younger generation with liberal attitudes toward equal rights, same-sex marriage, etc. These are all areas in which the Christian churches have traditionally been conservative and hostile to a greater or lesser degree. Public squabbling about the ordination of women, the role of women in the church, the issue of gay priests, opposition to contraception and women's reproductive rights, and hostility to homosexuality and transgender in particular, on top of the multiple child abuse and financial scandals, have all worked against the church.

Secular morality has moved on, leaving the Christian churches mired in their own increasing irrelevance, yet unable to adapt and remain Christian. Unchangeable dogma keeps them anchored to the spot as society moves on without them.

And of course, improved education in science and the continued association of fundamentalist Christianity with the patently absurd fairy tales in the Bible, has caused young people to reject religions as primitive superstitions which are used as excuses for denying basic human rights to people and undeserved privileges for the clergy.

'via Blog this'

Friday, 15 September 2017

Frog Shocker!

Atlantic Coast leopard frog, Rana kauffeldi

Source: Wikipedia
New study contradicts assumption that true frogs diversified as they expanded their range around globe | The University of Kansas

One of the nice things about science is that, properly done, it can throw up some surprises, even overthrowing some preconceptions and axioms.

Science demands we constantly question and reassess our assumptions and preconceptions. It is not for those who prefer simple certainties over difficult truths.

For example, it is generally assumed that when a species colonises new geographic regions with new ecological niches, it will tend to adapt and radiate into several new species; that range extension itself is a major driver of speciation.

But this is not always so, it seems.

Papua New Guinea Missed The Flood?

Locations of people studied from Papua New Guinea. Each language group is represented by a circle; the area indicates the number of genotyped individuals, and the color indicates the top-level language phylum. The study found that people speaking different languages were strongly genetically distinct from each other.

Credit: Science doi: 10.1126/science.aan3842
A Neolithic expansion, but strong genetic structure, in the independent history of New Guinea | Science

It's just another of those pieces of information that creationists have to avoid, of course, but the people of Papua New Guinea have been isolated from the rest of the world for 50,000, and people in some mountain valleys have been isolated from their neighbours for 10-20,000 years!

So, if you subscribe to the Young Earth Creationist superstition, these people are much older than Earth, have been isolated since before Adam and Eve, and appear to have avoided the Biblical flood entirely.

Yes! It is a silly superstition, isn't it, yet some apparently otherwise normal adults believe it!

Anyway, back to reality.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Birds Sing To Avoid Confusion.

Cinnamon Becard (Pachyramphus cinnamomeus).

Credit: Matt Brady/Macaulay Library
Using song playback experiments to measure species recognition between geographically isolated populations: A comparison with acoustic trait analyses | The Auk

An interesting piece of research published yesterday shows how birds use song to recognise members of their own species, so avoiding hybridisation between closely related species, especially when there is little or no difference in appearance.

The researchers believe they have identified 21 new species of bird from Central and South America in the 72 related populations examined where different songs effectively produce isolated breeding populations.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Just Another Child Abuse Scandal.

Smyllum Park, Lanarkshire, as it appears today.
Hundreds of Scottish orphanage children allegedly buried in mass grave | UK news | The Guardian

Normally, when people talk about systematic, institutionalised child abuse, we think of priests and male teachers abusing vulnerable children in their care or over whom they have trusted authority. It speaks of the sheer volume of these cases that yet another exposure barely rate a mention in the news any more. It's as though we have come to expect men of the cloth to abuse their power for their own gratification.

But, despite the documented abuses in Ireland and Spain where it was nuns, sometimes with the connivance of priests, who were doing the abusing, it still comes as something of a shock when we hear of female clerics abusing children. Somehow it seems even sicker when a supposedly maternal female is looking at children as a source of amusement and sexual or sadistic gratification, yet these cases seem to have been no less prevalent in institutions where nuns were in similar positions of power over children as are the abusive priests.

Today, we have another shocking example.

Snake Evolution in Progress

Barred Grass Snake, Natrix helvitica

Photo: Wolfgang Böhme
Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species | Scientific Reports

Arguably the most attractive British snake of the three native species, and certainly the largest, is the grass snake.

Now it seems, according to a paper published in Scientific Reports a few days ago, it is the Western representative of what is an example of speciation in progress. It also illustrates the conflict between genetics and taxonomy.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Six Million Year-Old Cretan Footprint Problem - For Creationism!

Trachilos footprint

Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski (CC BY)

Six Million-Year-Old Human Footprint Discovered in Crete Raises Major Questions About Our Evolution

A neat illustration this week of how the popular media distort and misrepresent science in order to appeal to a wider audience and in doing so, feed and reinforce popular misconceptions.

First, we have MSN news announcing that six million year-old human footprints have been found in Crete. This then, of course, is presented as raising 'major questions' about our evolution. Creationists groups on Facebook and elsewhere are already full of claims that this proves science has got everything about evolution all wrong, either neglecting the six million years of explaining them away as proving science even gets the dating wrong.

The source of this story was the press release from Upsala University, Sweden, which announced the publication of a paper by a team based there. Unlike the MSN headline - "Fossil footprints challenge established theories of human evolution" - the headline on this press release was more muted (and of course more accurate). No mention of human footprints there, although there was an attempt to associate the discovery with current understanding of human evolution.

But what understanding was challenged, exactly?

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Collapsing Churches! It's Those Gays Again!

The dark symbolism of the ceiling collapsing in Malta’s oldest Catholic church.

When the roof fell in in the Ta’ Giezu church in Rabat, Malta, Claire Chretien, a devout Christian who writes for the LifeSite blog, knew exactly what had caused it.

It was same-sex marriage.

She wrote:

MALTA, August 25, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – In what could be considered symbolic of the state of the Catholic Church in Malta, or even most of Europe, the ceiling of the country's oldest Catholic church mysteriously collapsed this week.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Priest Blames God For His Kiddie Porn Collection

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta
Priest, paedophile, pornographer and gambling addict
A priest says he downloaded child porn to ‘get revenge on God’ for his poker losses | Miami Herald

A former Catholic priest has come up with a novel excuse for downloading and distributing child pornography. According to a report in the Scranton Times Tribune, he told a Wayne County court that he did it to get revenge on God because of his gambling addiction!

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta, 55, a resident of Mahwah, New Jersey and a priest at the Holy Spirit Church in Union, New Jersey, was arrested in September 2016 and charged with 20 counts of downloading child pornography and 20 counts of disseminating images of children involved in sexual acts. He plea-bargained this down to one admitted case of disseminating child pornography in return for the other 39 charges being dismissed.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Filling The Gaps - How Viruses Might Have Evolved

Virus particles

Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/SPL/Getty
Antarctic mystery microbe could tell us where viruses came from | New Scientist

A recent discovery in Antarctica could shed some light on the origin of viruses.

Ricardo Cavicchioli of the University of New South Wales in Australia and his colleagues found a microorganism, an archaean, Halorubrum lacusprofundi R1S1, in lakes on the Rauer Islands, Antarctica. That's not unusual in itself; new organisms are discovered daily. What was slightly unusual with this particular one is that it contains an independent plasmid that the team have names "pR1SE". Plasmids are small fragments of DNA, often circular, that are self-replicating and often carry a gene that is beneficial to the organism. Bacterial antibiotic resistance is often carried on a plasmid and, as such, can be transferred to other bacteria.

More Malevolence From the Nasty Designer?

Leprosy turns the immune system against itself, study finds | University of Cambridge

It must be difficult being a dedicated creationist. You need to believe so many diametrically opposed views simultaneously.

This paper presents an almost perfect example because a dedicated creationist must hold at least two such views simultaneously. They need to hold to the view that this bacterium was intelligently designed to circumvent the human immune system (that the same designer had designed to protect us and then had apparently regarded that as a problem to be solved!) and to the view that something capable of this degree of mendacious malevolence is an omni-benevolent, maximally good god.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Tiger Snakes Won the Venom Wars

Australian Eastern tiger snake

Source: Wikipedia
Why tiger snakes are on a winner - UQ News - The University of Queensland, Australia.

Venomous snakes make interesting subjects for study in that they represent an example of a complex evolutionary arms race which can be traced in their venom. This is often a complex mixture of related but subtly different chemicals, often coded for by genes which are themselves subtly different versions of one another.

The arms race is due to snakes usually preying on a range of prey species, each of which has selection pressure to evolve resistance to the snakes venom. But, if the snake merely responded to one prey's resistance by changing it's venom, this might be less effective against another of its prey species, so there is evolutionary pressure on the snake to retain it's 'older' venom but supplement it with a newer version as well. This occurs by gene duplication, then mutation of the 'spare' copy.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Seriously Christians? Really?!

Joshua 'stopping the sun'.
There are actually adults who believe the sun can stand still and performs strange manoeuvres in the sky!

Not just that but they believe these could be visible only in a small village or town, and non-one else on Earth would see them!

Seriously! There are actual grown ups who believe the following:

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel. And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, unto the camp to Gilgal. But these five kings fled, and hid themselves in a cave at Makkedah.

Joshua 10:12-17

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Retracing the First Americans' Footsteps

Postglacial viability and colonization in North America’s ice-free corridor | Nature

One of the enduring mysteries of the story of the human migration into North America is the exact route taken and the timing of the migration(s). There is now no real doubt that North America was populated first with a subsequent rapid spread into Central and South America, and that the people came from Siberia via the Beringia; the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, the remnants of which are the Aleutian Islands.

Looking south through what was once the “ice-free corridor” in present-day Canada. A new study suggests that humans couldn’t have traversed through the corridor until about 12,600 years ago - too late to have been the route taken by the first inhabitants of North America.

Credit: Mikkel Winther Pedersen

Now the relatively new techniques for recovering and analysing environmental DNA (eDNA) is helping to fill in these gaps.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Dinosaur Extinction? It Was Them Gays Who Caused It!

Anthony Othman, paleontologist,
Curator at the Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky
‘Homosexuality Led to Extinction of Dinosaurs’, Claims Top Scientist – World News Daily Report

[Update] This turned out to be a satirical item.

The fundamentalist Christian unhealthy obsession with homosexuality took a slightly unusual turn a few days ago.

Instead of blaming the latest earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, terrorist attack, influenza outbreak or forest fire on homosexuality, the curator of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, palaeontologist, Anthony Othman has a new theory; dinosaur extinction was caused by homosexuals!

No! Really! Read on.

Just Another (Not) Missing Link!

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, from the Late Jurassic period.

Artist's impression. Photograph: Gabriel L O/AFP/Getty Images
Chilesaurus and Ornithischia | Biology Letters

One of the mysteries of dinosaur evolution has been explained. It's another of those 'missing' links! It's a transitional species between two major groups of dinosaur - the herbivorous species like stegosaurus and the carnivores like T. rex.

Publishing in Biology Letter Matthew G. Baron of the Department of Earth Science, Cambridge University, UK and Paul M. Barrett of the Natural History Museum, have shown that a dinosaur from the Late Jurassic, found in Chile, formerly believed to be a theropod dinosaur turned vegetarian, is actually the stem species that was the progenitor of two quite different groups - the saurischians and the ornithischians.
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