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Archive for March, 2007

Iraq War Casualties and Iran

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

In view of the misinformation about Iraqi war casualties frequently read in the press (“several 10,000 civilians dead”), and in view of the ominous developments concerning Iran, it seems appropriate to draw attention to the survey published last October in the leading British medical journal “Lancet”, conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health using cutting edge survey techniques. According to a report published by the BBC on 26 March 2007:

“The British government was advised against publicly criticising a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the war, the BBC has learnt.”

“Iraqi Health Ministry figures put the toll at less than 10% of the total in the survey, published in the Lancet. But the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser said the” Lancet “survey’s methods were “close to best practice” and the study design was “robust”. Another expert agreed the method was “tried and tested”.”

For the Iraqi Health Ministry survey, “the Iraq government asks the country’s hospitals to report the number of victims of terrorism or military action. Critics say the system was not started until well after the invasion and requires over-pressed hospital staff not only to report daily, but also to distinguish between victims of terrorism and of crime.”

For the Lancet survey ”the researchers spoke to nearly 1,850 families, comprising more than 12,800 people. In nearly 92% of cases family members produced death certificates to support their answers. The survey estimated that 601,000 deaths were the result of violence, mostly gunfire.”

“President Bush said: “I don’t consider it a credible report.” But a memo by the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to “best practice” in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq.””

“However “Speaking six days after Sir Roy praised the study’s methods, British foreign office minister Lord Triesman said: “The way in which data are extrapolated from samples to a general outcome is a matter of deep concern….””

“Dr Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway London University says that most of those questioned lived on streets more likely than average to witness attacks: “It would appear they were only able to sample a small sliver of the country,” he said. Dr Spagat has previously conducted research with Iraq Body Count, an NGO that counts deaths on the basis of media reports and which has produced estimates far lower than those published in the Lancet.

If the Lancet survey is right, then 2.5% of the Iraqi population – an average of more than 500 people a day – have been killed since the start of the war.”

Even if casualties are overestimated in the Lancet report, they appear to be certainly much greater than the “several 10,000” often mentioned. On top of this, we have the more than 4 million displaced people (about 2 million in neighbouring countries, particularly Syria and Jordan), and the catastrophic collapse of most of the infrastructure including medical services (which must have led to a very large loss of life not directly attributable to violence and therefore not included in above reports).

And all this in the name of Western civilisation and democracy.

An attack on Iran would very likely have even more serious consequences.

The Origin of Life

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

An argument frequently used by adherents of “Intelligent Design” is the improbability of life having arisen spontaneously. Citing Stuart Kauffman 1993 (The Origins of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York Oxford), page 287: “Improbable features of current organisms imply improbable origins. If the probability that a protein catalyzes a given reaction is 10 to the power of minus 20, and if a minimal contemporary organism such as a pleuromona-like organism has on the order of 1000 or 2000 enzymes, then the probability of their joint occurrence by chance is, say 10 to the power of minus 40 000. More likely that, as Hoyle says, the whirlwind assemble a 747 from scraps in a junkyard.”

However, the detailed investigations of Stuart Kauffman suggest that life is not improbable, it is “an expected, emergent, collective property of complex systems of polymer catalysts.” “ It “crystallizes” in a phase transition leading to connected sequences of biochemical transformations by which polymers and simpler building blocks mutually catalyze their collective reproduction”. And such a “collectively reproducing polymer system is relatively probable”.

A blog is not a suitable place to discuss the theory in detail, the reader is referred to: Kauffman (pages 287-341) where a detailed account of the mathematical theory and evidence for the hypothesis is given, and where experiments are described to test for the in vitro creation of self-reproducing biochemical systems.

Even if not all aspects of the hypothesis should turn out to be correct, it is important that a problem such as the origin of life can be theoretically and experimentally examined and should not be left unexplained by referring it to “Intelligent Design”, ultimately a meaningless phrase which does not explain anything.

Genetic Engineering and dramatic collapse of bee populations

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

This is an extract from the international edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel (22.3.07). It reports on dramatic declines in population sizes of bees in Europe and North America.

“Walter Haefeker is a man who is used to painting grim scenarios. He sits on the board of directors of the German Beekeepers Association (DBIB) and is vice president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. And because griping is part of a lobbyist’s trade, it is practically his professional duty to warn that “the very existence of beekeeping is at stake.”

The problem, says Haefeker, has a number of causes, one being the varroa mite, introduced from Asia, and another is the widespread practice in agriculture of spraying wildflowers with herbicides and practicing monoculture. Another possible cause, according to Haefeker, is the controversial and growing use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

As far back as 2005, Haefeker ended an article he contributed to the journal Der Kritischer Agrarbericht (Critical Agricultural Report) with an Albert Einstein quote: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Mysterious events in recent months have suddenly made Einstein’s apocalyptic vision seem all the more topical. For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing — something that is so far only harming beekeepers. But the situation is different in the United States, where bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.”

Review of Satire, Politik und Kunst

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Here is the first review of my book “Satire, Politik und Kunst”, Lulu 2006.

http://www.lulu.com/content/378808

frontcover.jpg

The book is in German, and so is the review. It is by a distinguished German polyglot, Josef Alvermann. He has wide interests, among others in Chinese and Japanese language and culture, and is a brilliant photographer and writer.

Die Grundvoraussetzungen der satirischen Tätigkeit wie der Wissenschaft sind Beobachtung, Analyse und Kritik. Beobachtung setzt Beachtung, ja Achtung voraus, und erst in die Be- und Verwertung gehen aufgrund der Polaritäten von richtig und falsch, wichtig und unwichtig usw. Elemente der Geringschätzung ein. Wissenschaft vermerkt dann das Positive; Satire gibt die Unzulänglichkeiten an. Die Wissenschaft wie die Tiefenpsychologie deckt auf, ‚entdeckt’; der Satiriker aber weist nur hin. Er legt (und stellt) nicht bloß, sondern macht nur aufmerksam auf Öffentliches und Offensichtliches. Er schüttelt oft den Kopf, schmunzelt, lacht und klagt und fühlt sich nur zu ‚Aufdeckungen’ genötigt, wo Unzulänglichkeiten, und es langt ja in der Welt hinten und vorne nicht, ihre Unschuld verloren haben und mit Feigenblättern und Feigheiten kaschiert werden. Doch wo Achtung endet, beginnt Verachtung, und die heitere Satire wird ernst. Der Satiriker selbst muss jedoch auch dann heiter bleiben. Ist es dem Autor des Buchs ‚Satire, Politik und Kunst’ gelungen? Den schnellsten und besten Indikator dafür stellen wohl die aussagestarken grafischen Arbeiten dar, die mehr als die Hälfte des Bandes einnehmen und durch ihren Humor und ihre Kunst viel Freude bereiten. Die unzimperlichen Texte, die in fröhlicher Umkehrung der Regel Illustrationen der vielen Abbildungen sind, enthalten – dem Stichwort `Politik´ im Titel gemäß – auch Verärgerungen und Verletzungen aktueller Art, die in den vielen Grafiken zeitlos verarbeitet wurden. Schön, dass sie nun auch einem breiteren Publikum zugänglich sind! Ich wünsche dem mutigen Werk viel Erfolg! Josef Alvermann, Baden-Baden.

18 Mar 2007
by Josef Alvermann

Some sections of the book can be read at

http://satire-politik-kunst.blogspot.com/

(more…)

Definite evidence for Intelligent Design

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Having given the matter considerable thought over the weekend, I have now convinced myself that only intelligent design can explain what we see around us. I hope you will be able to follow me in this. (The size of the figures indicates their value for the argument).

1.) Can this high intelligence have arisen by chance?

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Glotz nicht so blöd!

2.) Can this apotheosis of beauty, here assembled for a beauty contest, be the result of chance?

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Dumme Weiber!

3.) If this cannot convince you, can you explain this divine beauty by chance or natural selection?

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Unbeschreiblich schön!

Natural selection, that silly idea, cannot possibly have led to this goddess from behind, because the beauty seen here is not natural but supernatural (divine). And this gives me another idea. The fools who reject the idea of intelligent design, often argue that not everything is perfect in this world. But they forgot to consider that not a God but a Goddess may be behind it all. After all, we all know that female entities are not perfect, they sometimes make mistakes although they will never admit it. So, we have killed three flies with one stroke: neither chance nor natural selection, nor an infallible God are responsible for the mess, a Goddess is. Sic demonstrandum est!

Illustrations form my book Satire, Politik und Kunst http://www.lulu.com/content/378808

Faster Evolution in the Tropics: Convincing molecular evidence

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

This is a follow-up to questions about a paper discussed in a seminar which I gave two weeks ago at the School of Environmental Sciences and Natural Resources Management.

I have given a causal explanation of the much greater species richness in tropical than in cold-temperate environments in my post “Faster Evolution in the Tropics ? Effective Evolutionary Time”. A recent paper by Wright, S., Keeling, J. and Gillman, L. in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) 103, 7718, 2006) specifically tests this hypothesis using molecular evidence from tropical and cold-temperate tree species and finds convincing evidence. The authors used the ITS (internal transcribed spacer) –region of ribosomal RNA-encoding DNA of 45 pairs of phylogenetically independent congeneric or conspecific rainforest trees. One representative of each pair was from the lowland or low mountainous region in the tropics, the other from the highest possible latitude and altitude. The pairs did not overlap in their geographical distribution, and trees belonged to genera that were as species-rich or richer at high latitudes than in the tropics (which excludes the possibility that higher molecular substitution rates in the tropics were a consequence of faster speciation). In order to reduce the effect of genetic drift, population sizes of all species examined were large. – The speed of molecular evolution was found to be twice as great in the tropics than at high latitudes.

A brief note on this paper appeared in Science NOW Daily News, 1 May 2006, based on interviews with Jim Brown of the University of New Mexico, and me. Here is the interview with me, which clarifies some points and implications of the paper.

1) Have other scientists put forward empirical evidence that species evolve faster in the tropics before this study, or is this the first? And if there have been other kinds of studies, how is this one different or more enlightening?

There are several studies which provide strong evidence in support of various partial aspects of the hypothesis of faster evolutionary rates in the tropics, such as accelerated mutation rates, shorter generation times, and availability of many vacant niches which can absorb newly evolved species. There also are some studies which suggest faster rates of molecular evolution. However, the latter have never solved the problem of whether faster molecular evolution is the result of underlying metabolic rates (mutation rates especially) as suggested by the hypothesis, or whether faster molecular evolution is the result of higher speciation rates (in other words, which way round should the story be read). Allen et al. 2002 provide very strong evidence that metabolic rates are correlated with generation times and mutation rates, and they conclude that these finding support Rohde’s hypothesis, but only by inference. The present study, to my knowledge, is the first that provides direct and convincing empirical evidence that the hypothesis in toto is indeed valid.

2) What factor do you believe this study suggests might be responsible for the difference in molecular evolution rate between temperate and tropical regions?

As just said, the factor responsible was shown, in this study, to be increased mutation rates at higher temperatures, (as well as shorter generation times).

3) Are there weaknesses in the method that this group used?

I cannot see any. The authors have been very cautious: they state that further studies are necessary to definitively rule out the alternative explanation that genetic drift in small populations may be responsible. But this alternative really is only a remote possibility, considering that temporary reductions in population size in the evolutionary past are not more likely for tropical than cold-latitude species (as pointed out by the authors themselves).

4) What are the implications of species evolving faster in the tropics, either on how biodiversity is distributed around the world

The hypothesis predicts that evolution is faster not only in the tropics but in habitats which have higher temperatures and energy inputs generally, for example in deepsea sites which are fed by volcanic hot water upwellings. Scientists should therefore put special emphasis on studying such spots, if they want to get a true understanding of marine diversity. – Also, global warming will affect different areas of the globe differently. A re-distribution of diversity patterns must therefore be expected, although changes due to different evolutionary rates will take some time.

- or on how scientists conduct studies of evolution?

Looking at the vast number of evolutionary and ecological studies, some using very sophisticated statistical analyses, one is struck by the fact that potential DIRECT temperature effects on diversity until recently have been largely neglected. Such effects may be far greater than any effects due, for example, to area, heterogeneity of the habitat etc. etc. Many of the older studies are therefore quite useless. I don’t want to mention specific authors or books, but even some of the most widely cited monographs on general ecological and evolutionary patterns lead the reader astray because of the neglect of such direct temperature effects, concentrating instead on factors that are at best of secondary significance, such as area.- (It may be of interest that one of the truly great contemporary ecologists, when I presented my ideas at a symposium in the U.S., at first thought me “mad” (he told me and others), but he is now fully “converted”).

5) Does this speedier pace have any impact on species conservation in tropical locales?

It is obvious, of course, that devastation of tropical habitats has far greater implications for reducing global plant and animal diversity than devastation of cold-latitude habitats, because of the vastly greater species diversity in the tropics. Important here is to realize that species numbers in such tropical (and other) habitats are vastly underestimated, because parasites, the huge number of small invertebrates and microorganisms, most of which have not even been described yet, are usually ignored. Such species are not only of aesthetic and theoretical interest, but may play very significant roles in ecosystems. The role they play is even less well known than the species themselves. – To understand the cause of increased diversity in the tropics is of great significance: it may lead to more realistic estimates of diversity of these smaller organisms, because evolutionary rates will vary depending on the metabolism of these organisms. However, metabolic rates of these organisms are largely unknown. The present study may induce others to follow this up and look at mutation rates and their temperature dependence in various groups of organisms lower down the “hierarchy”.

Altogether, I believe that this paper is of extreme importance and will stimulate a lot of further research.

Here is the reference by Allen et al.:

Allen, A.P., Brown, J.H. and Gillooly, J.F. (2002). Global biodiversity, biochemical kinetics, and the energetic-equivalence rule. Science, 297, 1545-1548.

Advice to Travellers (Don’t eat raw snails in Beijing)

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

In the Sydney Morning Herald 12.3.07, a brief notice appeared that drew attention to meningitis (a serious brain disease) acquired by 40 customers in a Beijing restaurant who had eaten insufficiently cooked snails. No details were given, but it is very likely that the infection was caused by a nematode (roundworm) larva (Angiostrongylus) leading to eosinophilic meningitis. The infection may be fatal. The natural definitive host of this parasite is the rat, but other vertebrates including humans can become infected as well. Infection is acquired by eating infected invertebrates. So, be careful when you eat raw snails, mussels etc. in any country around the Pacific. Details of the symptoms, life cycle etc. can be found in
Marine Parasitology: http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5045.htm

Scientific integrity and money

Friday, March 9th, 2007

I am posting this in response to Chris Fellows’ comment about university interference in expressing one’s opinion (see post “Comments on Richard Dawkins: the God Delusion”). I am shocked that this has happened here. Universities are supposed to be institutions of free learning and research, and the guarantee of free expression of opinions should be the foundation of any university deserving that name. But, of course, universities these days are also money-spinning enterprises, forced to contribute significantly to financing themselves by attracting funds on the “free market”. This has the very unfortunate consequence that there often will be a conflict of interest between objective research and results expected by the money givers. It should be prohibited to receive funds from a source that has some interest in the outcome of the research. Take the tobacco industry. Why has it taken so long until anti-smoking laws were introduced? Important factors certainly were the “research” reports financed by the tobacco industry claiming that tobacco was not so bad. Or take the environmental impact studies financed by the uranium mining companies or land developers. I do not claim that all the people doing research financed in this way were corrupt, and I do not claim that all reports were doctored, and I do not claim that the companies tried to influence the outcome of the research in any way, but one is perhaps more careful in arriving at conclusions adversely affecting the activities of the financiers than if the money had come from independent sources. After all, one wants continuing research support. Therefore, as a matter of principle, such financing of research should be forbidden by law.

Does the case of UNE and its arrangement with the Australian College of Natural Therapies mentioned by Chris Fellows fall into this category? I don’t know what kind of arrangement the university had. Did it profit financially by it, directly or indirectly (by increasing student numbers)? Whatever the case: a university actively interfering with publishing an opinion is similar to a government doctoring research reports (see my post “Scientific Integrity and Global Warming”). It corrupts the whole process of free research and learning.

Intelligent Design

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007
An extract from my book Satire, Politik und Kunst (Lulu 2006).
http://www.lulu.com/content/378808
The figures are intelligent designs from this world (a self portrait) and from others.

I

Intelligent Design

Hier nehmen wir einmal ein englisches Wort, nämlich “Intelligent design”. Die offizielle Begründung: die Deutschen sind nicht dumm genug um an so etwas zu glauben, die inoffizielle: mir fällt das deutsche Äquivalent gerade nicht ein.

Der Begriff ist in der Deutschen Allgemeinen Enzyklopädie für Alles und Jedermann, Verlag Neuschwanstein, Köpenick, 25. Auflage 2006 so definiert:

“Intelligent Design
Denglisch für gottverdammte Dummheit. — Bedeutung: Der Gottvater sitzt in seiner Werkstatt und holt sich von Zeit zu Zeit Geschöpfe aus der Natur, die er vor etwa 6000 Jahren geschaffen hat, um nachzusehen, ob alles noch funktioniert und um sie gegebenfalls aufzupolieren. Bei Pferden kontrolliert er die Schwänze, ob sie auch noch zum Fliegen-Verscheuchen gebraucht werden können; bei den Eseln, ob ihre Ohren noch lang genug zum Wackeln sind; beim Menschen, ob die Arschlöcher noch gross genug zum Reinkriechen sind. Beweise: Der grosse Philosoph Leibniz hat schon vor 300 Jahren bewiesen, dass wir in der besten aller Welten leben, was natürlich nur möglich ist, wenn jemand nach dem besten sieht. Zwar hat Voltaire das bespöttelt, doch er zählt ja als Philosoph bekanntermassen überhaupt nicht. Somit kann die Sache also als erwiesen angesehen werden. Literatur: Die Heilige Schrift, die Théodicée von Leibniz, Candide oder die Beste der Welten von Voltaire.”

Man kann das natürlich auch anders beweisen. Vergleichende Untersuchungen haben gezeigt, dass alle anderen denkbaren Welten tatsächlich viel schlechter sind als unsere, wie im folgenden illustriert ist.

Ein tolles Exemplar aus dieser Welt (Ich) (siehe auch “Ein deutsches Wörterbuch “V”),

intdesign2.jpg

Es hätte aber auch so sein können.

intdesign.jpg

Oder so: denkt Euch, als Maschine und dann auch noch als Frau. Ich frage Euch, in welcher Welt wolltet Ihr lieber leben?

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Comments on Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Monday, March 5th, 2007
Richard Dawkins, the well known evolutionary biologist and popularizer of evolutionary science (The Selfish Gene) has recently published a book that has been on various bestseller lists for months. It argues against the necessity of assuming the existence of a personal God, and draws attention to much harm done by religions in history and now. In the following I comment on some points made in the book. (See also post “Intelligent Design”)

Dawkins’ war against religion may seem somewhat quixotic to those who do not believe in a personal god and live or lived in countries where religion is unimportant. However, this is of course quite wrong, considering the dangerously evil influence fundamentalist religion has in the United States (Dawkins’ aptly named American Taliban and the rulers influenced by them), and the Middle East, to mention only the two most obvious cases. One can only hope that these people listen to what Dawkins has to say, although this may be wishful thinking. After all, criticism of religion has a long history (just remember Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstauffen), but religions still flourish, and in many parts of the world, it seems, more than ever.

Turning now to Dawkins’ arguments. He bases his arguments largely on the role of natural selection, which has led to the evolution of complex systems. Hence, he concludes, a God hypothesis supposedly needed to explain such complexity is superfluous. It seems to me that a God hypothesis is not needed whether natural selection is the predominant factor shaping evolution or not. The theoretical investigations of Stuart Kauffman (The Origins of Order. Self-organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press 1993) suggest that the overriding importance of natural selection in evolution is doubtful. He concludes that many traits of organisms have evolved not because of natural selection but in spite of it. Stephen Wolfram’s (A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media 2002) extensive computer simulations of many systems have shown that simple “rules” in programs lead to complex characters. It is likely that genetic programs behave similarly. Therefore, natural selection acting on a very large number of mutations gradually leading to complex characters may be only one component in the process leading to complexity, and not necessarily the most important one. Many mutations will lead to complexity anyway. Further evidence against the overriding significance of selection is the prevalence of nonequilibrium conditions in nature (Klaus Rohde. Nonequilibrium Ecology. Cambridge University Press, 2005). The role of interspecific competition and natural selection, in such systems, is not as great as in equilibrium systems; historical events are important, and competition may go this way or that (diminishing the evolutionary impact of competition and therefore of natural selection). All of this does of course not rule out that natural selection plays some role as well, but it does mean that this role needs much further investigation.

Concerning the historical and social impact of religions, there can be little doubt that it has often been disastrous, to mention only the crusades, inquisition, forced conversion of natives in many continents leading to many millions of deaths. But I cannot quite agree with Bertrand Russell who said that the only good produced by religion (I assume he meant the Christian one) is the Gregorian calendar and one other minor achievement, which has dropped from my memory. After all, much charitable work, Bach’s cantatas and passions, much religious art (the Isenheim altar), architecture (the mosques of Cordoba and Isfahan, the blue mosque in Istanbul, the medieval cathedrals) and writings were inspired by religion. Richard Dawkins is of course right when he says that historical conditions made other inspirations at the time difficult. Mozart might well have been inspired by the Big Bang (after all he was a Freemason). But the same can also be said about the evil influence of religion. Is religion perhaps only a most effective way of establishing group coherence (as indeed suggested by Dawkins), and has it been the only available choice over much though not all of history? Groups tend to stick together much more closely when they feel threatened. Islam over centuries was almost a model of tolerance (at least towards other monotheistic religions); fundamental Islam has arisen at a time when Moslem countries felt overpowered and exploited by Western countries (much of this due to aggression driven by fundamental Christianity). The large Buddha statues in Afghanistan survived for centuries in a Moslem country; they were destroyed only now. Why? – So, assuming that Richard Dawkins’ crusade against religion succeeds, is it possible that some other mechanism of group coherence will take over? Could it be a virulent racism (some of which we have had already) or a national/cultural chauvinism that preaches conversion of others to one’s own supposedly superior language, culture and values in general (much of which has been abundant in history as well)? In this context, Dawkins’ emphasis on religion might even be dangerous, if (and I repeat if) it deflects attention from other important issues. Would it be perhaps more useful to concentrate on social and economic inequalities and try to suggest recipes for their amelioration? One can foresee the displacement of large populations due to global warming and virulent upheavals as a consequence. Keeping an eye on religions may be less fruitful, under such circumstances, than on social and economic inequalities.

In toto: this is an inspiringly and wittily written book, one must hope that the Taliban of any hue will not only read it but change their beliefs when reading it! As to the moral of the future, suggested by Dawkins to be universal love including not only humans but animals as well, this is the moral philosophy based on compassion, of the atheist Arthur Schopenhauer and atheistic Buddhism.