Berenstain Bears co-creator, Stan Berenstain, dies

Link to CNN story.

Stan Berenstain, who with his wife created the popular children’s books about the Berenstain Bears, has died.

In more than 200 books, the Berenstain Bears, written and illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain, helped children for 40 years cope with trips to the dentist, eating junk food and cleaning their messy rooms.

The first Berenstain Bears book, “The Great Honey Hunt,” was published in 1962. The couple developed the series with children’s author Theodor Geisel — better known as Dr. Seuss, then head of children’s publishing at Random House — with the goal of teaching children to read while entertaining them.

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U of Iowa faculty petition against ID released

…and has spawned some press coverage, here in the Ames Tribune and here in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, making us the first state to have faculty from all Regent universities speak out against intelligent design. I’ll briefly address some of the comments.

In the first article, U of I physics professor (and signer of the DI’s “Scientific dissent from Darwinism” petition) Fred Skiff elaborates one giant strawman:

“It’s part of science to consider what blinders you might be wearing,” Skiff said. “Materialists put conditions on science that things can only exist if they satisfy materialism. I think that is a mistake.”

He said scientists need to be open to the possibility of God and the idea that the world could be “bigger than their imagination.”

“They say that can’t be true because it doesn’t fit into their conception of the world,” he said. “That’s not science’ that’s metaphysics. It’s not looking at the world around you. It’s closing your eyes and saying that ‘Nothing can exist except for things that can fit into my theory.'”

Skiff is using a typical Discovery Institute tactic here, equating accepting evolution with an atheistsic worldview. Too bad it’s just wrong. Many scientists are, indeed, “open to the possibility of God.” Many even consider themselves evangelic Christians. (Check out the “clergy letter project”, where over 9,000 Christian clergy have signed seeking to “preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.”) But they realize God just ain’t something you can investigate scientifically. Additionally, even most scientists who are atheists would admit that there may be more out there–but that’s not a question of science, it’s a question of personal philosophy. Skiff and others try to conflate the two, despite the fact that science is a field where two people can have polar opposite personal philosophies, and yet still reach the same scientific conclusion using a materialistic *methodological* philosophy. This happens every day, and I’d assume that Skiff’s own research also investigates only naturalistic phenomena.

Skiff said he believed the statement is intimidating to he and his colleagues who are open to intelligent design because it institutes the philosophy of materialism as the definition of science.
“They are saying that anyone who doesn’t have our point of view isn’t a legitimate scientist,” he said. “That’s coming on pretty strong.”

Untrue. I don’t know Dr. Skiff, and have only seen him once (and was thoroughly unimpressed, described here). He may very well be an excellent physicist, and I don’t doubt for a minute he’s a “legitimate scientist.” I just think he’s letting his religious views cloud his judgement in this matter. You can read the petitions for yourself: U of Iowa’s; Iowa State’s; and U of Northern Iowa’s. Nowhere does it say that people who support ID aren’t “legitimate scientists.” The fact that he (and so many other) ID supporters feel that way is simply their own paranoia.

Speaking of which, from the Gazette article:

He [Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute] criticized the ISU statement signed by professors opposing intelligent design as a slap at Gonzalez’ academic freedom.

”This is a wonderful development,” he said. ”It shows that people opposed to intelligent design are no longer acting like McCarthyites.”

Again, you can read the ISU statement for yourself. Nowhere is Gonzalez targeted, and nowhere does anyone say Gonzalez can’t research ID (not that he is, anyway). It simply says that it ain’t science.

Also in the Gazette article:

Gonzalez said Avalos and a few other intelligent design critics have created a hostile environment for him at ISU by circulating the statement and speaking out in the media. But Gonzalez said he thinks many ISU faculty silently support teaching intelligent design as science.

”It would be nice if someone took a poll to find out what the real opinions are,” he said.

Gonzalez said intelligent design is still too controversial to teach in high school, except as part of what he regards as the controversy over evolution. He also wouldn’t mandate that anyone teach it either. Partly, he said, because few teachers really understand it.

I find the irony here delicious. He acknowledges that few teachers understand ID. I’d wager this applies to most of the general public as well–they know ID as simply the “goddidit” argument, without a deeper understanding of exactly what ID says. Yet, Gonzalez thinks that many of these same people would “silently support” teaching ID. Does he think the faculty in general are more educated on the issue than secondary school teachers? I doubt it. One professor at ISU whose field is veterinary medicine, when the statement reached his/her department, even remarked that ID was something “for physicists to grapple with.” !! They don’t realize this is something ID advocates are trying to get into *every* department, by undermining the very nature of science.

Officials at the Iowa Department of Education know of no school districts in the state teaching about intelligent design, department spokeswoman Kathi Slaughter said.

In my opinion, this is the way it should be. Though I think the whole “debate” is largely a waste of time and effort (since there *is* no real “challenge to evolution,”) at least here in Iowa it’s largely being carried out at the university level, rather than in our secondary schools. Maybe we’ll succeed at other states’ expense, making Iowa a state of science. Once again, if you’re in Iowa and are interested in getting involved, check out our website, or email us at iowascience AT gmail DOT com.

Edited to add: bummer, as noted in the comments, Missouri beat us to the punch.

Edited again to add: I see Dembski is claiming ” ID proponents were bypassed” when we circulated this. Not true at all–I don’t even know who on the faculty is an “ID proponent” besides the already-mentioned Fred Skiff (and I can’t say how it was circulated within the physics department, if it went there at all). It was mostly passed along through word-of-mouth, and generally sent to entire departments or colleges at a time. The idea that we were bypassing certain people on a faculty this large is a joke.

Evolution of resistance–bacteria win again

Resistance to antibiotics has been a concern of scientists almost since their widespread use began. In a 1945 interview with the New York Times, Alexander Fleming himself warned that the misuse of penicillin could lead to selection of resistant forms of bacteria, and indeed, he’d already derived such strains in the lab by varying doses of penicillin the bacteria were subjected to. A short 5 years later, several hospitals had reported that a majority of their Staph isolates were, as predicted, resistant to penicillin. This decline in effectiveness has led to a search for new sources and kinds of antimicrobial agents. One strategy involves going back to a decades-old approach researched by Soviet scientists: phage therapy. Here, they pit one microbe directly against another, using viruses called bacteriophage to infect, and kill, pathogenic bacteria. Vincent Fischetti at the Rockefeller University has used this successfully to kill anthrax, Streptococcus pyogenes, and others. Another novel source of antibiotics has come from our own innate immune system, one of our initial defenses against microbial invaders.

An enormous variety of organisms produce compounds called cationic antimicrobial peptides. A component of our own innate immune system, these are fairly short strings of amino acids (less than 100 a.a.’s) that have a net positive charge. It is thought that these peptides work primarily by disrupting the integrity of the bacterial cell wall, essentially poking holes in the wall, causing death of the cell. Since the peptides are targeted at the bacterial cell wall structure, it was thought that resistance would require a fundamental change in membrane structure, making it an exceedingly rare event. Therefore, these antimicrobial peptides might make an excellent weapon in the fight against multiply drug-resistant bacteria. Additionally, the remarkable diversity of these peptides, combined with the presence of multiple types of peptides with different mechanisms of action present at the infection site, rendered unlikely the evolution of resistance to these molecules (or so the common thinking went). However, evolutionary biologists have pointed out that therapeutic use of these peptides would differ from natural exposure: concentration would be significantly higher, and a larger number of microbes would be exposed. Additionally, resistance to these peptides has been detailed in a few instances. For example, resistance to antimicrobial peptides has been shown to be essential for virulence in Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella species, but we didn’t *witness* that resistance develop–therefore, it might simply be that those species have physiological properties that render them naturally resistant to many of these peptides, and were never susceptible in the first place.

Antimicrobial resistance is always a problem—it can render antibiotics much less useful, and make deadly infections almost untreatable. But resistance to these peptides could make us all vulnerable. The peptides of our innate immune system are one of our first lines of defense against an immense variety of pathogens, and we don’t know what the outcome may be if we compromise this essential level of protection. But realistically, could such resistance evolve within the bacterial population?

Dr. Michael Zasloff of Georgetown University was originally a doubter. In this 2002 Nature article, he states in conclusion:

Studies both in the laboratory and in the clinic confirm that emergence of resistance against antimicrobial peptides is less probable than observed for conventional antibiotics, and provides the impetus to develop antimicrobial peptides, both natural and laboratory conceived, into therapeutically useful agents.

Certainly in the short term, resistance was unlikely to evolve for the reasons I mentioned above. However, if these peptides are used over an extended period of time, could the mutations necessary to confer resistance accumulate? This was the question asked in a new study by Dr. Zasloff along with colleagues Gabriel Perron and Graham Bell. Following publication of his 2002 paper where he called evolution of resistance to these peptides “improbable,” Bell challenged Zasloff to test this theory. Zasloff took him up on the offer, and they’ve published their results in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

They tested this using strains of E. coli and Pseudomonas fluorescens. They started out growing these bacteria with low concentrations of a peptide antibiotic called pexiganan, a derivative of a peptide originally isolated from a frog. (Carl Zimmer has an excellent post on this same topic here). The experimental design was quite simple. They grew the bacteria, took a portion of the growth, and added that to a new tube with fresh media. Gradually, they increased the concentration of pexiganan in the growth medium. In all, they did 100 serial transfers of the bacteria (correlating to ~500-600 generations of bacteria), and the end result were–voilà!–bacterial populations that were resistant to the peptides.

Creationists/ID advocates (such as chemist Phil Skell) often claim that “evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology,” or that “evolution has little to do with almost all research in biology and biotechnology”, etc. etc. And sure, the theory of evolution didn’t *directly* result in the discovery of peptide antibiotics. But advances in biotechnology do not exist in a vacuum, and we have seen what can occur from the misapplication of these types of technologies, unguided by an understanding of underlying evolutionary principles. Peptide antibiotics have not yet been used clinically to treat human infections, but imagine if they had gone into widespread use without a thought given to the evolution of resistance to these peptides. Imagine if they had gone into widespread use prior to an investigation of the relatedness of various peptides to those produced by humans. Imagine if, as a result of not considering these implications, we had lost an ancient protection against bacteria—-which *evolved* over millions of years of host-pathogen interaction–due to a mere advancement in biotechnology. While I enjoy proving the evolution-doubters wrong, I hope it never comes down to that kind of situation in order to do so, and I hope this example is instructive to those who claim that evolution isn’t useful.


Dramatic decrease in measles in Africa

Wonder what the anti-vaccination crowd makes of this?

Measles cases and deaths fall by 60% in Africa since 1999

Largely due to the technical and financial support of the Measles Initiative and commitment from African governments, more than 200 million children in Africa have been vaccinated against measles and one million lives have been saved since 1999. Measles cases and deaths have dropped by 60%, thanks to improvements in routine and supplementary immunization activities in Africa.

This dramatic drop has occurred in only a few years, coinciding with a massive measles vaccination campaign throughout the African continent (discussed briefly in this post and in the article linked above). Typically, anti-vaccine folks say that the drop in infectious disease mortality that coincided with increase in vaccination rate was actually due to improvements in diet and sanitation (which, granted, can definitely do a lot to decrease infectious disease morbidity and mortality), but no notable improvements have been made in these areas over the past 5 years during the measles vaccine campaign. Think any of them will finally admit they’re wrong?

Yeah, me either.