Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 8 wrap-up

I could have gone on and on…AiG also uses several other species to bolster its claims that all animals were once vegetarian and can become so again- piranhas, spiders, vampire bats, Darwin’s finches…

I collected vast amounts of research on all of these topics (I recommend “A Test Of Pollen Feeding By A Linyphiid Spider” for a truly gripping read) and was about to launch into yet another dissertation.

But enough is enough. All of these articles share the same similarities- AiG badly misconstruing the original research, citing only what they thought would support their views and conveniently ignoring the rest. I can only repeat myself so many times.

So, in conclusion and review:

The adaptations of carnivores cannot be explained away by stating that carnivores somehow miraculously transformed after the Fall as entirely new genetic material was inserted into them. This is an unscientific fairy tale, not anything that can be supported by any amount of research. Nor can today's carnivores easily adapt to a vegetarian diet. The papers that AiG cites (when they are not busy basing their speculations on 50-year-old first-person anecdotes about vegetarian lionesses) invariably come to conclusions far different than those that AiG draws. And those conclusions firmly support evolution as the mechanism for the production of carnivorous adaptations. As carnivores evolved, so did their prey, in an endless dance where one has shaped the other over countless millennia.

As Robinson Jeffers wrote: in “The Bloody Sire”:
What but the wolf's tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk's head?

Monday, July 30, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 8D

“"They embrace each day with curiosity, mischief, and the desire to eat."

Keas and Answers in Genesis

I will admit, off the bat, to a bias here. I have an inordinate fondness for keas, the clever New Zealand parrots who are both natural comics and inveterate experimenters. I happen to own a copy of the book that AiG references in their article on keas- Kea-Bird of Paradox by Judy Diamond and Alan Bond. On their webpage, though, AiG conveniently left out the subtitle of this fine book:
The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot

So what does AiG say about these mischievous birds? They do get several points right- keas are indeed very intelligent, playful, destructive parrots who have an odd predilection for mutton that once led to their destruction as sheep-killers. However, when it comes to the account of how and why the kea became such an omnivorous, manipulative, clever animal, the explanations of the kea researchers who spent three years in the field observing and documenting kea behavior and uncounted more hours recording behaviors of captive keas and studying kea remains in museums definitely part ways with those of the AiG article author Paula Weston, a journalist with no biological training listed in her bio.

The AiG article claims that the feeding behavior of keas is not related to their evolutionary history.
The diet changed simply because of the kea’s general adaptability, intelligence, curiosity and mischievousness.
The latter is the most likely theory, and has nothing to do with ‘evolution’.
AiG misses the boat entirely. Kea feeding behavior- as well as their intelligence, playfulness and exploratory nature- has everything to do with evolution.

The kea and its close New Zealand relative, the kaka, form a parrot group which diverged from the other groups of parrots long ago. They are not closely related to any existing parrots and diverged from the ancestral parrot stock 15-20 million years ago, shortly after the first parrots evolved 20-23 million years ago.
Page references in the following are from my copy of Kea- Bird of Paradox. Unlike most other parrots, both the kea and the kaka are omnivorous. The kea evolved in a world very different from the one it inhabits today. New Zealand, as an isolated island, had a unique fauna, with many species unrelated to any others anywhere in the world. Among its now-extinct fauna was the moa, a gigantic flightless bird, and the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle that ever existed, which fed on the moas. Moa carrion provided a source of food for keas.(12) Although AiG claims “Naturalists believe keas were originally herbivores, like other parrots, and that we can look at their current feeding patterns to help understand the past.” Diamond and Best state “At the time of the moas, keas probably fed much as they do today.” (14) Keas did not depend on any one particular foodstuff- although New Zealand beeches were a main food source. Keas are opportunistic feeders, who compete with many other native species for most of their food, and their lives depend on being able to find and take advantage of anything edible that becomes available. . If moa carrion wasn’t available, sheep carrion would do, and if sheep carrion was not available, live sheep would do- keas simply pecked holes in their backs and scraped out the fat underneath the skin. (32) As Diamond and Best wrote, “In a world of dietary specialists, the kea survived as the ultimate generalist.” The kea is what the authors called an “open-program species, (148)” a pattern that has evolved several times, a notable American example being the coyote. Open- program species evolve in environments where there is fierce competition for available resources, where an animal never knows where its next meal is coming from. A more common response to such situations is to specialize- if you are the best adapted to exploiting one particular resource, you will survive as long as that resource is available. This is the path taken by koalas and pandas. The open program species, on the other hand, survive by being intelligent and curious enough to find and recognize any available food source in their environment and take advantage of it.

The authors are quite clear that the open-program behavior is a result of evolution. “Open-program animals evolve in response to a particular constellation of features.(149)” They also discuss how the kea has evolved another behavior- social play.

Unlike mammals, most birds do not exhibit social play. Keas are members of one of only three of the 27 orders of birds that have species that have been observed in social play.
In these orders, only a few species of birds actually show social play- “thirteen species of parrots, seven species of corvids, and several hornbills and Eurasian babblers.” Keas and some corvids (members of the crow family) are by far the avian masters at social play.

What does research show that the birds who engage in social play have in common? They live in groups, adults take care of the young for long periods of time and continue to associate with their young even after they become independent, and they breed later than other birds. Thus, the birds that do exhibit social play are not just random species; they share characteristics that allowed social play to evolve independently in each family of birds. In addition, these characteristics are the same ones that are apparent in mammals that show the most complex social play, such as wolves and primates. “Because birds and mammals share only a very remote evolutionary history, it seems likely that social play has evolved convergently in these groups, with possibly several independent origins.”

So it is not creation that shaped the kea, but evolution. As Diamond and Best conclude:

One can create a sort of evolutionary “recipe” to describe the factors that promote flexibility in animals. For the kea, the first ingredient is a lineage predisposed to sociality. Next comes the relatively low food abundance, so the animal has to be prepared to accept an enormous range of foods. Add to this the short-term limitations on food availability, so the animal must constantly shift food sources. And finally, include delayed maturation and lenience by adults toward the young, so the young have time to play. Against the dramatic backdrop of the formation of the New Zealand islands, this recipe transformed a rater ordinary forest parrot into one of the world’s most unusual birds; a species so flexible that it managed to survive even the extermination of much of its original ecosystem.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 8C

Lions and tigers and cantaloupes- oh my!

In yet further installments of their idea that carnivores can easily turn vegetarian, Answers in Genesis presents several articles and makes some broad statements to support their idea that, even today, lions and tigers can be vegetarians.

Many pet owners speak of the capacity of meat-eating animals to live on vegetarian diets…we have heard that during World War II, when meat was expensive and in short supply, zookeepers successfully kept lions and other carnivorous species alive by supplementing their diet with vegetables.
Tigers and pigs…together?” states that, at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, tiger cubs have nursed on pigs, and piglets on tigresses. This much is, actually, true. The article then goes on to state that this is done because the cubs grow better on pig milk. As usual;, no scientific source is provided for this statement; their citation is just a link to a news article touting the tiger zoo’s economic success.

In reality, this cross-fostering is being done as a show for tourists- along with these popular exhibits, visitors to the park can watch a circus complete with tigers jumping through flaming hoops, feed a tiger a bottle or watch women wrestling crocodiles. And the “successful tiger breeding program” isn’t adding tigers to the wild- in fact, the Tiger Zoo has sold over 100 of its tigers to China for use in making traditional medicines.

Incidences of animals adopting young of another species are extremely common, so much so as to be a staple of “feel-good” nightly news stories such as a cat raising a squirrel or a cheetah raised with a golden retriever.

There is a great deal of scientific study of this phenomenon, known as “cross-species fostering.” It is commonly used, for example, to raise more individuals of endangered species and to study which behaviors in a species are instinctive and which are learned.

The article concludes in its footnotes, “The scenes at Sriracha Zoo demonstrate that if nutritional needs are satisfied, there is no need to hunt.” This is an utterly puzzling conclusion. Cubs do not hunt anyway, and the adult tigers are not being fed salad for dinner- they subsist on meat. “The staple of these tigers’ diet is raw chicken carcasses from a nearby poultry processing plant."

Well- that may no longer be true, since avian influenza killed 80-100 tigers at Sriracha. One notices that in dozens of photos and films of the tigers online, there are never any adult pigs…

AiG next tries to convince us that lions can be vegetarians. They offer us a story of a lion that supposedly never ate meat. This book, “Little Tyke-The Amazing True Story of the World Famous Vegetarian African Lioness ” by Georges Westbeau , was first published in 1956 but recountied a story that happened many years before, and, as one reviewer noted, “no explanations offered. Ripley's believe it or not is offered as a witness.”

A reading of the full text shows us several things. The author starts out by claiming the story is “to remind us of Biblical prophecy.” Biblical references are sprinkled throughout the story. The lioness was used extensively as a spectacle to draw tourists to the town.
In the years that followed, Little Tyke brought thousands of visitors to the town. She appeared in practically every magazine and newspaper throughout the world, as well as in news-syndicate stories and over television.
They even used her in contests-
We advertised the fact that we were willing to pay one thousand dollars in cash to any person who could come up with a formula including meat that Little Tyke would eat, but nothing worked.
They do not, of course, give any information on how such a contest was judged!

She also appeared in parades, helicopter dedications, hotel press conferences, etc,
She was even made to pull a sled though snow for the press value.
I quickly took several more pictures, for this was another historical and unbelievable "first." Later that afternoon I developed the negatives in my darkroom and then made several large prints. I then called a friend of mine who worked for the newspaper, and I was proudly and pleasantly surprised the next day when I saw the fruits of my efforts displayed on the front page of a newspaper in the
largest city in our state.The following day the wires of the Associated Press picked it up and carried it to the far corners of the earth.
They made money by selling pictures of her lying down with a lamb.
There had been so many requests for pictures of Little Tyke and the lamb lying down together, that we had thousands printed to sell at a nominal cost.
After a television appearance in which, as part of the filming, she was made to stand in the sun for most of two days while retake after retake was done of her pulling a child in a cart, she developed a respiratory problem and died.

The author firmly believed that animals were carnivorous not by physiology, but because of starvation.
There, in their shipwrecked state, without sufficient God-given food of the fields, they have learned to devour each other in their pitiful flight, just as man has repeatedly done and will do this day if circumstances bring him to a tragic plight without food.
And, of course, even if the Westbeaus really didn’t feed meat to Little Tyke, they admit that much of her diet consisted of milk and eggs- which are animal proteins. Cats cannot survive without a source of animal protein; they absolutely cannot be vegans. For example, cats require taurine, an amino acid found only in animal proteins. Without it, they go blind and develop fatal heart enlargement. The remainder of her diet was said to be cooked grain. The cooking would be essential as cats cannot digest uncooked grain. Even if one makes the rather feeble claim of "yes, but that's still a vegetarian diet and could be possible in Eden!" one still has to account for where all the milk and eggs will come from, and who will cook the grain for the wildcats!

It certainly appears that the Westbeaus were out to create a story of the gentle, Biblical lioness laying down with the lamb. In their day, they certainly received enough publicity. However, using a more than 60-year-old tale as evidence for the ability of lions to become plant-eaters is ludicrous.

So, once again, AiG has made some outlandish proofs but offered no real support for them.

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 8B

Not a hard nut to crack…

Now, back to more of explanations from Answers in Genesis as to why carnivores should, in a pinch, be able to go back to eating fruits and vegetables…

Palm vultures
In their article on palm vultures, AiG claims that the palm nut vulture uses the same tool that other carnivorous vultures have- a sharp beak- to consume palm nuts rather than meat. It states that “Perhaps such observed behaviour is a legacy of a time when animals and birds gorged themselves peaceably on 'every green plant',” and implies that other carnivores can be vegetarian as well-“many pet owners speak of the capacity of meat-eating animals to live on vegetarian diets”- a claim we will be returning to later.

Unfortunately, the link that AiG provides to its source of palm vulture information, is defunct. The article, now found here, tells a bit of a different story than what AiG claims. While AiG states “But for the palm nut vulture, oil palm husk is such a favoured food, that when it is available, all meat options are rejected,” this article states “The Palm Nut Vulture eats the husk of oil palm nuts and raphia fruit husks as well as wild dates, upas and some other fruit. It also eats crabs, molluscs, etc, picked up on the sea shore, and stranded and occasionally live fish which are snatched from the water surface. Giant snails and locusts also feature occasionally. The diet of the adult will be up to about 60% fruits”.” Nowhere does it state “all meat options are rejected.”

In reality, palm nuts are not what we typically think of when we imagine “every green plant”- nutritionally, they are far different from leafy vegetables or most fruits. Palm nuts, like many other nuts, are an extremely rich source of fat and protein, made easily accessible because the oil-rich layer is on the outside of the fruit, not inside a hard shell like other nuts. Oil palm nuts are, as one would expect, even richer in oils than most other palm nuts. In addition, unlike most other fruits, palm fruits stay on the tree for long periods of time and are available when other nutritious foods are scarce. As one expert on the topic noted, “Clearly, the fruits of palms, often rich in oils or carbohydrates, have not gone unnoticed by hungry animals.”

Palm nuts are such a valuable food source that even animals who do not normally eat other plant material will feed on them. One study in Brazil (Seasonal Variation In Fruit Pulp Consumption And Fruit
Removal Of Syagrus Romanzoffiana- (Arecaceae) By Non-Flying
Terrestrial Mammals In A Semi-Deciduous Forest Fragment In
Botucatu, Sao Paulo, Brazil, found here ), for example, found that animals that were attracted to and consumed palm fruits included mountain lions and tayras (a type of weasel.) Another review, just of new reports of palm-seed eaters made since 1989, added maned wolves, badgers, coyotes, bush dogs, dung beetles, and caracaras (a falcon relative) to the list, along with hundreds of other species.

In one fascinating study, when oil palms were planted in a region of Colombia, in which they are not native, local black vultures began to feed on the fruits, and even ignored carrion left out in an attempt to lure them away from the plantations.

So, in closing, palm fruits are a rich source of nutrients, and it is far from unusual for otherwise- carnivorous animals to use them as a food source. A vulture that eats palm nuts is in no way physiologically equivalent to one that lives on lettuce.

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 8

It's all in their heads...

I'll answer this question in more than one part, as this will get a bit long.

Question 14:
Why do carnivores present a problem for creationist theory?
Possible answers
  • They don't
  • Supposedly, all animals were originally designed as herbivores, so why were the carnivore modifications (like fangs and claws) created in the original animals?
  • Why would a just God have created killer animals?
  • They aren't mentioned in the Bible
The correct answer is Supposedly, all animals were originally designed as herbivores, so why were the carnivore modifications (like fangs and claws) created in the original animals?
In the supposed idyll of Eden, all animals were herbivores, implying that all were created as herbivores and were to remain so. Then, of course, Adam messed things up. But, if all the original animals were herbivores, why would they need fangs, claws, poison, webs? And why would herbivores need great speed, chemical defenses, quills or bad tastes?

Marcsana;s reply:
14. There are a few proposed models for carnivores, venom, and other such phenomena after the fall. One of them include [sic] genetic variation, that is, this was revealed in the genetic code after the fall. This poses much less of a problem for creationists than spontaneous generation and information-adding mutations is for evolutionists.

My reply:
This argument makes little sense and truly strains the bounds of credulity.

Let us look for just a moment at how many species would have had to change after the fall, according to this argument:
  • All living things that eat other animals, of course- that means not only carnivorous mammals, but the vast majority of bird species, almost all reptiles, all amphibians, and almost all fish (if fish are counted as “beasts of the earth,)
  • All parasites- and almost half of all species on Earth today are parasitic
  • All saprophytes- living things that survive on dead matter- all fungi, many invertebrates and some vertebrates

In other words, the vast majority of living things on earth.

Marcsana postulates that there are “a few proposed models” for such changes. As his primary information source appears to be the creationist website Answers in Genesis, (hereafter referred to as AiG) I looked up what they had to say about such models. So, rather than focus on the many, many problems with Marcsana’s theory (which would be a a treatise much too long for this blog!), I will focus specifically on those models.

The kinkajou
Kinkajous are South American members of the order Carnivora. AiG tells a story of a kinkajou researcher who needed to trap kinkajous for radiocollaring and tried many baits. Chicken didn’t work, nor did hard liquor. Finally, he hit upon using bananas- which worked. And his studies showed that the kinkajou was, after all, a fruit-eater.
AiG claims that “just because an animal has teeth usually associated with meat-eating, it doesn’t mean that it has to eat meat.” and thus implies that kinkajous are vegetarian but retain the skull structure of a meat-eating carnivore.
Let's play "Find the Kinkajou Skull!

Here are the skulls of various small members of the orders Carnivora and Primates. One of these skulls is of a kinkajou. Which one? Remember, according to the creationists we are looking for the one with long pointy teeth...

Now, let's look at three of these skulls more closely.

This skull is a marten, a member of the weasel family that is almost exclusively carnivorous. Note the length of the skull, which provides plenty of jaw attachments for strong muscles. Also note the very pointed molars, which serve as efficient meat-slicing knives. The canines are quite long, reaching down below the incisors.

This skull is a golden-headed lion tamarin, a small South American primate that feeds primarily on fruit. Note the more-rounded skull shape and the much smaller, non-pointed molars. The canines are still large, but not as big as the marten's.

This is a kinkajou skull. Note the rounded shape, smaller canines and small molars. The skull of the kinkajou definitely shows adaptations to a frugivorous way of life. The dentition of the kinkajou resembles the tamarin's more than the marten's.

Kinkajous are procyonids- members of the raccoon family. None of the procyonids are totally carnivorous; all eat at least some plant matter, and their skulls show adaptations to this.

Also, lest a totally incorrect myth be started, Roland Kays, the subject of the National Geographic article that inspired AiG , is no creationist. His scientific publications have been on topics such as how evolution shaped the social structure of kinkajou groups and how the kinkajou and primates are examples of convergent evolution.

Oh- and the answers to the skull quiz...
Row 1- American badger, black-footed cat, brown lemur
Row 2- Palawan stink badger, island gray fox, marten
Row 3- Ring-tailed lemur, kinkajou, golden lion tamarin

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 7

Unintelligent design

I am going to group the next four questions together, as they all cover the same topic- imperfect design.

Question 12:
We humans have lower back pain, varicose veins, and childbirth difficulties- what do these have to do with evolution?
They are shared with chimpanzees
They cannot have evolved because they are harmful
They are examples of inferior design
The correct answer is They are examples of inferior design.
One would expect that if humans were created by a perfect creator , in his image, as the pinnacle of his creation, that they would be examples of perfection in design. Alas, it isn't so. We, along with all other living things, have plenty of 'jury-rigged' and non-optimal designs that do the job, but lack elegance. Our aching backs and varicose veins are legacies of our four-footed ancestors. Humans are relatively recent bipods, and our structure is still very much like a four-legged animal. We lack the necessary musculature to strengthen our backs, and our veins are not well-designed for the pressures that an upright stance puts on them. Female pelvises are not optimally designed for the passage of large-headed infants, as the human species has only recently undergone a tremendous spurt in brain growth.

Marcsana’s response:
2. Our aching backs have nothing to do with four-legged ancestors! I would recommend researching a bit into what all is involved with walking. Bipeds and quadripeds [sic] have vastly different structures; There is no way to compare the two with any accuracy. We are created in the image of God. You do quote that correctly. But something happened in the Genesis accounts that accounts for defects. That is called sin. The curse fell on all creation which is why everything has a propensity toward death. Our DNA code was spoiled giving us our problems which have been getting progressively worse since the fall. Vericose [sic] veins are formed because the valves don't operate the way they should.

My response:
I thought we were having a discussion of science here. Do you have a non-supernatural explanation for any of this? Otherwise, it is just unanswerable speculation. If you are to take this line of defense, you might as well simply adopt the saying I have seen on bumper stickers- “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”- it would certainly cut down on your writing load!
I am not sure what research (other than on creationist websites) you have done into the biomechanics of human locomotion.
One of the best reviews of this problem is AG Fuller’s “Emergence and optimization of upright. posture among hominiform hominoids. and the evolutionary pathophysiology of. back pain”
In this article, he postulates that the muscle stresses that lead to back pain are a result of transformation of the vertebrae. As we became upright, the transverse spinal process, to which muscles that stabilize the back attach, moved from the front of the vertebrae, where it is found in monkeys and most other primates, towards the back of the spine. While this transformation helped us carry our babies on our backs, it also led to stress on our backs. As he explains,

The human lumbar anatomy differs from the anatomy
in cercopithecoid monkeys in three major ways: 1) dorsal
repositioning of the lumbar transverse processes that oblit-
erates osseoligamentous mechanisms of spinal support; 2)
conversion of the iliocostalis lumborum muscle to a high-
leverage lateral flexor muscle; and 3) conversion of the
longissimus lumborum muscle to a high-leverage extensor
muscle. The first of these changes is shared with all the
hominiform hominoids, the second is shared with the
great apes, and the third is a feature mostly in members of
the genus Homo.
The effects of these three major types of transformation
is an increase in the degree of dynamic, muscularly driven
compressive forces on lumbar disks and a greater risk for
strains and tears in the muscles of the lumbar region be-
cause of their increased leverage. These features are evo-
lutionary innovations that suit the human body plan as
well as the evolutionary path and lifestyle of the human
lineage. They have supported an upright bipedal species
capable of carrying heavy objects and the young across
great distances, whether walking or running. In this fash-
ion they have helped our species to more or less conquer
the world. Nonetheless, these changes seem to be the prin-
cipal suspects for any relative increase in the susceptibili-
ty to back pain that humans may exhibit relative to the
other mammalian species.

You actually hit one statement right on the money- varicose veins are indeed “formed because the valves don't operate the way they should.” And why don’t they? Because these valves evolved in four-legged animals, where the trip up to the heart put less pressure on them. The purpose of our leg valves is to prevent blood flowing backwards on this trip. Because we are upright, the pressure on these valves is much greater than it was in our four-legged forebears and the valves cannot handle the increased pressure very well.

Question 13:
Which of the following animals has the most ideally-engineered eye-i.e., from an engineering standpoint, the eye that makes the most "sense" in the arrangement of its structures?
The correct answer is Squid.
The eyes of mammals, including humans, have retinas that are are inside-out. The nerves and blood vessels come out through the light-sensitive area of the retina, producing a blind spot. They then spread over the light-sensitive area of the retina, providing a barrier to light entering the eye. An ideal design would be to have these nerves and capillaries behind the retina. Human eyes aren't designed this way- but squid eyes are. Once again, why should the pinnacle of creation have an imperfect design?

Marcsana’s response:
13. This design in the eye actually protects us from damaging effects of light.

My response:
Really? Then why is the same design present in all nocturnal mammals and birds? They certainly do not need the shielding. And many squids are diurnal shallow-water or surface feeders. Why don’t they have the same protection?
In addition, even if there were some protection against excess light conferred by this design there are still significant disadvantages. Our blind spot is due to this design, as is susceptibility to blindness caused by retinal problems (not just in humans, but in other animals as well- progressive retinal atrophy, for example, is the most common cause of blindness in dogs)
As for Marcsana’s claim that “this design in the eye actually protects us from damaging effects of light,” I must presume that his argument is derived from claims made on creationist websites such as “Is Our ‘Inverted’ Retina Really ‘Bad Design’?” This page claims that the choroid (the net of blood vessels over the retina) acts as a “heat sink” dissipating away heat generated by light striking the retina, at the same time that it brings nutrients to the energy-demanding retinal cells.. It references several papers (most published over 40 years ago) on this issue- but, as is usual for creationist articles, provides no direct links to the articles cited. Actual articles on the choroid, such as this one paint a different story. While the choroid does dissipate heat, much of the heat it dissipates is from the choroid itself. The choroid is pigmented, and this pigment absorbs the light that does not reach the photoreceptors. It is excess heat, not light itself, that is damaging to the retina. In fact, the choroid’s blood flow doesn’t increase in response to light alone.
The role of the choroid in providing energy is important. However, octopus retinal cells are also energy-hungry, and their nutrition is provided quite adequately by blood vessels located behind, not over, the retina.
And here’s an interesting little tidbit on eye evolution. Modern-day vertebrates have one type of photoreceptor cell, insects have a different one. Scientists decided to look at the animal that is the modern-day descendant of the last common ancestor of vertebrates and insects, a marine annelid worm called a ragworm. And what did the scientists find? That the ragworm contains both types of photoreceptors…

Question 14
What one characteristic below do all mammals share?
Five digits per limb- either complete or vestigial
Give birth to live young
Hair at all stages of development
Well-developed sense of sight

The correct answer is Five digits per limb- either complete or vestigial.
Yes, that includes whales that have five digits per flipper, bats that have five digits per wing, horses and antelopes that have vestigial remains of five digits, etc. Five digits isn't the most effective design for many of these creatures- so why should all show the remnants that are easily explained by theorizing that they all descended from a five-toed ancestor? The answer is not "Give birth to live young" because the monotreme mammals, the platypus and echidna, lay eggs.

Marcsana’s response:

5. Evolutionists frequently hop on the poor-design bandwagon before all the facts are in. It is only supposed that these creatures have a weaker design.

My response:
So what are the facts, Marcsana? Note I didn’t state that the design is weaker- but it is suboptimal. Fish don’t have any bones in their flippers; why do whales have five? Goats end up with two usable hooves, horses with one, tapirs with three- why do they all have five digits? Even though some aren’t used? Pandas have five digits, but they need a “thumb” to strip bamboo- why do they have a “thumb” that’s really a radial sesamoid bone and not a true digit? While it makes perfect sense for all mammals to have five digits if a common ancestor did, it doesn’t make any sense at all to create them that way. It certainly doesn’t confer any design advantages.

Question 16:
Why do men and other male mammals have nipples?
Some male mammals give milk
As embryos, all mammals start out phenotypically female
Males need them to produce hormones
There is no reason, they were just created that way
The correct answer is As embryos, all mammals start out phenotypically female.
Only later in development, after the nipples have formed, does a hormonal surge form male sexual structures. This would be an odd thing for a perfect creator to explain, as male nipples are not only useless, they can be dangerous (males can get breast cancer!)

Marcsana’s response:
16. Nipples serve as a sexual stimuli. They have a purpose on men. Furthermore, cancer came after the fall not before.

My response:
Well, there’s a reason for the old saying “as useless as tits on a boar.” Are you seriously stating that nipples on a boar or an elephant or a mouse serve to generate sexual pleasure? Even in men, studies have shown that only about half of males are aroused by nipple stimulation.

If anyone would like more information on the fascinating topic of suboptimal structures, please see my quiz Evidence for Evolution- Unintelligent Design.
There, you'll find many more examples, such as my favorite...humans can't produce vitamin C because the gene needed to do so is broken (most mammals can produce their own vitamin C. ) Well...the gene is broken in the great apes as well- in exactly the same way. So now you know the answer to at least one of the questions on that quiz! :>)

Friday, July 27, 2007

A small break for a new fact

As I continue this discussion with Marcsana about evolution, one of the joys of the effort lies in the fact that I am constantly finding new and wonderful facts (something, alas, that would threaten creationists rather than delight them!)

I ran across a random fact this evening in a Science Week article- a mention that "
It is of interest that a cell-surface sugar modification that is lost in the human lineage due to genomic mutation is reported to reappear in human cancers."

Hmmm- interesting! And not something I had heard before. So I delved a bit more into this fascinating statement- and here is what I found.

Cells are covered with chains of complex sugars. At the end of these chains are often various compounds called sialic acids, which help, among other things to regulate water metabolism in cells.

One particular sialic acid, N-glycolylneuraminic acid, is found widely throughout the animal kingdom, including in the great apes. However, humans do not normally produce this particular sialic acid. This isn't because we have lost or never had the gene necessary to do so; instead, this gene has been deactivated by a mutation, and genetic analysis showed that this mutation is approximately 2.9 million years old- after we split from the branch of the primate tree that went on to become chimpanzees and bonobos, and about the same time that a tremendous growth spurt in hominid brain size occurred.

Several scientists have speculated that this mutation helped allow the growth of human brains and also may have allowed human populations to grow due to conferring some disease resistance.

In another fascinating implication, scientists studied the prevalence of variants of this gene in different human populations , which supported a multiple African origin for all human races.

Research has also shown that some tumors can turn the gene back on and produce
N-glycolylneuraminic acid.

So there you have it. One short sentence led to a world of discoveries, all supporting evolution in varied and interesting ways. Life is so much richer when you are open to new knowledge, rather than fearing it as something that may threaten your worldview.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 6

Question 10:
The hair stands up on the back of our necks when we are afraid. What does this have to do with evolution?
Possible answers
Only humans have evolved this gesture
Our ancestors looked bigger when they were frightened if their hair stood up
It shows our muscular structure is similar to that of apes
Correct answer: Our ancestors looked bigger when they were frightened if their hair stood up
To get an example of this physiological phenomenon, one need look no further than the family cat when it's scared by a dog, puffing up and hissing. This 'piloerection' is nearly universal among mammals- chimpanzees do it too. However, in modern-day short-haired humans, the gesture has lost its original significance. If it is not an evolved response, why should we have it at all?

Question 11:
What do goosebumps have to do with evolution?
Possible answers:
Our ancestors were warmer when they fluffed up their hair
They prove we are related to birds
They are unique to humans
Correct answer: Our ancestors were warmer when they fluffed up their hair
Again, this is easily observable in modern-day birds and mammals. Also, again, it's easily explainable by evolution, but not by creation. As one scientist put it, 'Goosebumps were obviously 'created' to erect and 'fluff up' the hair or fur on a hairy or furry mammal ancestor, thereby improving its insulation value against the cold. Since most of us nowadays have so little body hair as to render it useless for insulation purposes, goosebumps are another vestigial reaction whose tool (fur) is no longer with us.'

Marcsana’s response (to both questions)
You say that the hair standing on our necks is evidence of our ancestors. This is preposterous. Before making such a bold claim, one must first PROVE evolution, which can't happen. This question assumes evolution to be true and is, therefore, argumentative. Before stating evolution as fact, you should show a mechanism that ADDS information to an organism. Not one has been found. You also need to show some transitional fossils in the record, and yet there are none. You could probably also make a reasonable case how life can from nothing. But there's not. There is also that huge information hurdle to jump over. Nothing in nature adds or gives information. An intelligent source must add information and since our DNA is packed with untold libraries of information, we need a source. But non-living things do not give rise to information. Just a few problems. Having hair stand up is not good evidence of millions of years of man's evolution.

My response:
Firstly- I am going to do two things here. So far, both in this conversation and in email correspondence, Marcsana has been less than attentive to answering direct questions. I’ve tried to address all of his. So I have a few such questions to start with. I’d appreciate direct answers to these questions in your own words, Marcsana. I’ll also happily answer any direct questions you ask of me in return.
  1. Why do we have piloerection at all?
  2. Why does the hair stand up on our necks when we are frightened or otherwise experiencing extreme emotion?
  3. Why do we have goosebumps at all?
  4. Why do we have goosebumps only when we are cold or experiencing extreme emotion?

Secondly- as to the information argument (which has absolutely nothing at all to do with goosebumps or piloerection) I have been preparing a post about creationist language, and I’ll discuss it there.

Transitional fossils also have exactly squat to do with our prickly neck hairs. In the interest of not taking up vast megabytes of Internet space on topics that simply aren’t relevant to this discussion (but are immensely important aside from it) , I refer anyone interested in this topic to my quiz Evidence for Evolution- Transitional Fossils.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 5

So that's how I got those stripes on my head???

OK, I need to inject a little levity into this discussion...

My Question:
Bacteria and viruses are mentioned in the Bible.

Possible answers: True or false

Correct answer: False

Marcsana’s response:
9. Actually, Scripture mentions round earth ideas, expanding universe, and dark matter.

My response:
Again, a nimble sidestep. The question was whether or not bacteria and viruses are mentioned in the Bible. They aren’t.

Creationists have only two choices when it comes to Biblical inerrancy. Either every single word in the entire Bible is irrefutably, absolutely true, or at least one statement in the Bible is allegorical, exaggerated, or otherwise untrue. If there is at least one untrue statement, then the Bible is not an infallible resource.

If every word in the Bible is true, then much of what we currently believe- inside and outside of the scientific realm- is untrue. Just a few examples of what must be true if every word in the Bible is inerrant fact:
  • If you place mating goats in front of streaked branches, they will produce streaked kids. (Genesis 30:37-39)
  • Rabbits are ruminants that chew the cud. (Leviticus 11:5-6, Deuteronomy 14:17)
  • Ostriches abandon their eggs and do not raise their young (Job 39:13-16)
  • Mustard seeds are the smallest seeds in existence (Mark 4:31)
  • Insects have four legs (Leviticus 11:20-23)

And I could go on, we should all be out killing witches, men should marry those they have raped and never, ever divorce them, it’s OK to set bears upon kids who tease you for baldness…

And let’s not even get into the matter of verses in the Bible that are contradictory (just how many of each kind of animal were on the Ark?)!

Now, of course, Biblical apologeticists come up with counterarguments for most of these…for example, they claim that grasshoppers were stated to have four legs because their hind legs didn’t count as legs or that the Hebrews really didn’t mean to say that rabbits were chewing the cud - but that’s all splitting hares- er, hairs. And no one’s got a really good explanation about those streaky goats…as a goat breeder and student of the genetics of goat color, I’d really like to get that one working for me!

The point still remains. These statements are in the Bible. No matter how you explain them, they are incorrect. If there is some information in the Bible that is not correct, the doctrine of inerrancy fails.

The Bible is full of wonderful allegories and stories that reflect the knowledge of a pastoral people in Mesopotamia. However, it fails utterly as a science textbook.

And I think I'll resort to my studies of the codominance of alleles at the Agouti locus in goats when I want to have some striped kids rather than tossing around some firewood.

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 4

Here’s a shorter one…

The question
Male humans have one less pair of ribs than female humans.
Correct answer- False
Although the Bible states that Eve was created from Adam's rib, males have exactly as many ribs as females.

Marcsana’s response:
8. Ribs can grow back. Basic biology.

My response
The question specifically asks if males have fewer ribs than females. They don’t. No dispute.

But as for Marcsana’s claim- ribs regrowing after removal may be basic biology…if you are a salamander. Mammals, including humans, do not regrow removed ribs.
Mechanics of bone regeneration
Bone has the capability to regenerate, forming new osseous tissue at locations that are damaged or missing. Although this capability extends to regeneration of whole limbs in some animals, in humans regeneration is on a more limited scale and occurs during defect healing, e.g., after the removal of bone screws; fracture healing; distraction osteogenesis (during limb lengthening), and integration of orthopaedic implants with the host bone.

Edited to add:
I did some more research on this subject. Answers in Genesis claims that entire ribs, when removed, will regrow. However (as is, unfortunately, typical for the site) they had no checkable references or sources. So I did some research on my own.
Ribs do have some capacity for regeneration, consistent with the quote above. Free Bone Grafts states that the maximum donor size for rib grafts is 14 cm. (about 5.5 inches)- not the length of a whole rib. When entire ribs are removed, grafts or scaffolds are used to stimulate bone regrowth, such as a gel matrix
bone graft, or, esperimentally, beta-tricalcium phosphate cylinders. Without the scaffolding, rib regrowth may not occur at all. Nor is the bone that regenerates identical to the original- as an article in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery stated, "Regeneration after a proper costectomy [rib removal] is possible, but the regenerate is thin, flat, and lacking cancellous bone." So, in summary, as expected, some rib regrowth is possible, but easy regrowth of entire ribs is not.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 3

A tale of tails...

My question:
Human embryos have tails.
Possible Answers- True or false
Correct answer- True
A delicious (although not entirely accurate) witticism on this situation is that 'Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,' or embryonic development mirrors the evolutionary process. Although the human embryo doesn't entirely follow the evolutionary path, it does in some respects. If we never had creatures in our background with tails, why would our embryos ever have them?

Marcsana’s response
7. Embryos don't have tails. You may want to do a bit more research and see how the whole of idea of vestigial organs is debunked.

My response:
There is absolutely no question that tails in humans do exist- both in all embryos and occasionally as vestigial tails in babies. Here are some links and information from scientific sources:

Fetal development: What happens during the first trimester?
“[At 9 weeks post-gestation] the embryonic tail at the bottom of your baby's spinal cord is shrinking, helping him or her look less like a tadpole and more like a developing person.”

The Fetus- Tail
“True vestigial tails… contain normal skin, connective tissue, muscle, vessels and nerves.”
“Fetal tail is a normal feature during embryonic development that should regress by the 8th week. Its persistence has been described beyond the 8th week… During the 5th-6th week, the human embryo has a tail with 10 to 12 vertebrae. Then, it starts to regress, reducing the number of vertebrae by fusion, leaving the vestigial coccyx. By this process, at 8 weeks, it disappears, although the exact moment varies. The persistent tail probably arises from the most distal non-vertebrate remnant of the embryonic tail.”

Human tails
“Bartels …described five types of rudimentary
caudal appendages in man: three of these are variations
of a “soft” tail presumably arising from the embryonic
tail, the fourth is a bony tail caused by hypertrophy of the
sacrococcygeal vertebrae and the fifth is a true animal
tail containing additional vertebrae. “

Human tails and pseudotails.
“The true, or persistent, vestigial tail of humans arises from the most distal remnant of the embryonic tail. It contains adipose and connective tissue, central bundles of striated muscle, blood vessels, and nerves and is covered by skin. Bone, cartilage, notochord, and spinal cord are lacking. The true tail arises by retention of structures found normally in fetal development.”

I should mention here an argument found on many anti-evolution and anti-abortion websites- claims such as “the end of the spine sticks out noticeably in a one-month embryo, but that's because muscles and limbs don't develop until stimulated by the spine . As the legs develop, they surround and envelop the coccyx, and it winds up inside the body”

This is a misstatement. See the source “The Fetus-Tail” above for an explanation of what really occurs- dynamic change in the structure that becomes the coccyx. The same source goes on to state that humans never have true tails- “It doesn't have any bones in it; it doesn't have any nerve cord either.” which is also proven false above.

Modern-day scientists do not claim that the coccyx is vestigial, in the sense of “now useless.” The point is, the coccyx evolved from vertebrae that were once part of a tail, now fused together into something that is called “a tailbone” for a reason.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 2

Continuing the discussion from below:

My question:
Evolution is impossible because it breaks the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (disorder) of a system increases over time.
Possible answers: True or false
Correct answer: False
This misinterpretation of the Second Law is common. This law applies only to a closed system, with nothing going in or out. Environments on Earth are not such systems. In addition, nothing in the Second Law contradicts local reverses in entropy. For example, snowflakes and mineral crystals are more orderly than their components. As one scientist said, 'Everything in this world that works, works by temporarily and locally reducing entropy. ' All the Second Law says is that, for the system as a whole, entropy will increase over time. Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel prize in 1977 for his work on the Second Law. His papers include one on how the Second Law does not contradict evolution. Arch-creationist Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research responded 'Prigogine's theoretical ideas are buttressed with a large amount of complicated mathematics which few biochemists and molecular biologists can understand, but it all does look deliciously scientific.' This is a classic example of poor logic.

Marcsana's response:
6. The Second Law of Thermodynamics argument is a trick. The universe is a closed system. The Earth is not. What does this mean? Nothing. Evolution still can't happen. Why? Because two things are missing from this system. You need a mechanism to harness energy and you need something to convert it into a usable form. If you dump sunlight on scattered Boeing 747 parts for 2 million years, you will have wreckage. The parts can't harness or use harnessed energy. You can't take the parts of a cell and say they could use the sun's energy. You also posit a common mistake. You use snowflakes and mineral crystals as an example of something more orderly than its components. While they are complex structurally, they contain only tiny amounts of information. Therefore, this is called ordered complexity. Life is vastly different and falls under the category of specified complexity.
You can't use crystals and snowflakes as an example of how the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics doesn't violate evolution.

My response:
Note that Marcsana sidesteps the subject of this question- whether evolution contradicts the Second Law- and basically admits that it does not.

He switches the topic to a different one- very similar to the argument in Q. 5 discussed below. He seems to be stating that there are no natural systems to harness energy or to convert it into a “usable form” (whatever that means.) As discussed below, many such systems exist; the iron chloride world that allows acetates to form being just one of these.

Marcsana reiterates a rather tired creationist argument with slight rewording. They seem to be very fond of Boeing 747s, but the usual tirade is that a tornado in a junkyard (rather than sunlight) cannot produce a 747 from scattered parts. This story has been trotted out so often that there are innumerable websites devoted to it.

There are many problems with this story, as well as the sunlight variant. Here are just a few of them:
  1. The tornado argument operates under the same fallacy I discussed in my last post- no scientist thinks that molecules evolved through entirely random processes. The evolution of some steps facilitated others. Look at our 747 this way- what if I could magnetize some of the parts so that they would be attracted only to parts they should connect to? Then, the tornado, by mixing the parts, could bring together some of the parts that “should” be together. This is similar to the processes discussed below, where iron-sulfur compounds provided a perfect substrate for acetates to form.
  2. The originator of this argument, Fred Hoyle, claims that a yeast cell and a 747 have about the same level of complexity. Yet no scientist claims that a yeast cell arose from nothing- there were many intermediaries- just as Orville and Wright did not build a 747 in their garage!
  3. People who set out to build a 747 have a target in mind- a 747. Producing an award-winning sculpture or a motorcar will not satisfy them. Yet evolution has no such directed goals. Thus we cannot complain that the tornado doesn’t produce a 747 when we can’t expect to look for one in the first place.
  4. This argument also, of course, ignores any meaningful time scales.

The second argument- “crystals do not contain information, living systems do” is also deeply flawed.
  1. First of all, the crystal example is intended to show that local reverses in entropy occur. This has nothing do with information storage. There is no doubt that a snowflake is much more ordered than water vapor.
  2. Secondly- what is meant by “information”? After all, I am typing this on a computer, which most agree can store vast amounts of information- ultimately as ones and zeroes. DNA, our genetic blueprint, is constructed from just four bases. Every word in the English language is formed from 26 simple letters.
  3. And again, this argument has very little to do with the reality of evolution.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A creationism vs. evolution discussion,. Part 1

I am a chief editor and administrator for FunTrivia; the largest trivia site in the world. I have written many quizzes as well. Among those of which I am proudest are a series called “Evidence for Evolution” which explores and refutes various creationist arguments and claims. Naturally, these quizzes, as well as my first quiz on evolution, “Evolution and the Creationists,” have been the target of creationist criticism.

One recent writer , whose FunTrivia handle is “Marcsana,” took the time to write quite a long critique of that first quiz. I decided to explore some of that critique here. As it’s long, we’ll go question by question.

My question:
Question 5:
A popular argument by creationists is that evolution could never have occurred because it is so unlikely. As one example, they have stated,' There are n! (n-factorial: n x n-1 x n-2 x...x 1) ways of an enzyme or DNA strand of n parts forming prebiotically. Since the smallest proteins have at least 100 amino acids, the chance of forming a particular enzyme prebiotically is at most 1divided by 100!, which is small enough to be disregarded.' What is wrong with this argument?
Possible answers
  • Complex molecules don't form by chance alone
  • Larger proteins have fewer amino acids
  • The math is incorrect
  • Enzymes can only be formed in living things

The correct answer is Complex molecules don't form by chance alone.
While this argument correctly demonstrates that no given protein could have come into existence all at once by pure chance, such a demonstration is irrelevant to current origin-of-life research. As Iris Fry points out, 'origin-of-life theories rely on various organizing principles, including selection mechanisms and catalysis, that are supposed to have limited and constrained the wide scope of possible prebiotic possibilities, thus constructing the scaffolding out of which the living arch eventually emerged'

The critique from Marcsana:
5. You have the following explanatory material: [repeats Fry quote above.] Actually, such a demonstration IS relevant to current origin-of-life research. Complex molecules, proteins, or anything else can't just evolve because it is mathematically impossible. Iris Fry says that origin-of-life theories rely on various organizing principles including selection mechanisms and catalysts...but never mentions one. Why? Because no known mechanisms or catalysts exist. And natural selection can only go so far. This has been observed operating with existing information in a species. Never has it been observed changing a species into another one.

My response:
I’ll deal with the “we have never observed one species changing into another” argument in another post, as it isn’t specifically related to the main question- can complex molecules evolve? It seems Marcsana says no- it’s mathematically impossible, and no known mechanisms or catalysts exist that can facilitate what Fry claims, that such organizing principles allowed the evolution of complex molecules from simpler ones. Unfortunately, Marcsana gave no references, scientific or otherwise, to support his claim. Therefore, it’s difficult to understand what is meant by “no known mechanisms or catalysts exist.”

Let’s look at the potential for evolution of complex molecules. For a moment, let’s suppose “no known mechanisms or catalysts exist” (although they do, and we’ll discuss that later.)

The chief mistake that creationists make is thinking that, just because one event has a tiny probability, that event could never occur. The problem with this line of thinking is that, rather obviously, the probability of an event occurring rises dramatically when you have more opportunities for that event to occur. To put this in plainer English- if I buy one lottery ticket and have to guess 6 random numbers to win a prize, I am very unlikely to ever win. But I cannot therefore state that the probability of winning the lottery is so infinitesimally tiny that no one will ever win. There are millions of people attempting to win and guessing at the numbers, and thus millions of trials. And, as we know, someone usually does win the lottery.

The same is true of forming molecules. Even if the chances of forming a particular molecule are very tiny in one trial, if there are billions upon billions of trials, the chances of that molecule being formed are very great.

There is an elegant explanation of this in “Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics,and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations

To quote this fine article briefly:
Okay, you are looking at that number again, 1 chance in 4.29 x 1040, that's a big number, and although a billion starting molecules is a lot of molecules, could we ever get enough molecules to randomly assemble our first replicator in under half a billion years?

Yes, one kilogram of the amino acid arginine has 2.85 x 1024 molecules in it (that's well over a billion billion); a tonne of arginine has 2.85 x 1027 molecules. If you took a semi-trailer load of each amino acid and dumped it into a medium size lake, you would have enough molecules to generate our particular replicator in a few tens of years, given that you can make 55 amino acid long proteins in 1 to 2 weeks [14,16].

So how does this shape up with the prebiotic Earth? On the early Earth it is likely that the ocean had a volume of 1 x 1024 litres. Given an amino acid concentration of 1 x 10-6 M (a moderately dilute soup, see Chyba and Sagan 1992 [23]), then there are roughly 1 x 1050 potential starting chains, so that a fair number of efficient peptide ligases (about 1 x 1031) could be produced in a under a year, let alone a million years. The synthesis of primitive self-replicators could happen relatively rapidly, even given a probability of 1 chance in 4.29 x 1040 (and remember, our replicator could be synthesized on the very first trial).

Now let’s get back to the claim that “no known mechanisms or catalysts exist.” Not so. In fact, the scientific literature on this subject is overwhelmingly large and complex. There are two major theories for the mechanism of origin of complex organic molecules, and hundreds of experiments have been done and articles published on each one. One, often known as “genes first,” or “the RNA world,” deals with RNA, which can both store information and act as a catalyst for self-replication. As replicated molecules would have some mutations, selection would operate upon them. The second, known as “metabolism first,” or “the iron-sulfur world,” deals with the creation of organic materials in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Let’s look at that hypothesis more closely.

In the ocean even today, deep-sea vents are areas of extreme chemical activity. In one type of vent, water warmed beneath the earth bubbles up through tiny chambers of iron sulfide. Each tiny chamber acts as a chemical reactor, as the iron sulfide surface provides a substrate for molecules to grow. One molecule that forms easily in such chambers is acetate, a vital molecule in many organic reactions. Living bacteria have an acetate-production mechanism almost identical to that which produces acetate in these vents. These tiny chambers also functioned much like cell walls, allowing chemical structures to be protected while they formed.

The chemistry of these reactions is quite complex, but here are some sources:

Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks

The emergence of life from iron monosulphide bubbles at a submarine hydrothermal
redox and pH front

From geochemistry to biochemistry:
Chemiosmotic coupling and transition element clusters in the onset of life and photosynthesis

And this is only a tiny slice of the immense body of research surrounding just one of the mechanisms by which organic molecules evolved.

So, in closing, it is mathematically and scientifically possible for complex molecules to evolve, and several mechanisms have been shown to produce the proper conditions for such evolution to occur.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nuts, flakes, and crunchy granola

It all seemed so simple two years ago.. here we are with this beautiful property in a prime agricultural area. Three greenhouses (two of them with heating and fans and all that cool stuff) a shop with a loft and an apartment and a tractor shed, several acres of arable land, an orchard... heck, some farmer-type will want to lease the place, right? After all, it had been originally used as an herb farm... And the original owner said she'd help us, with all her contacts in the ag world, find suitable tenants. We could lease out the place for something close to the cost of our mortgage. What could go wrong?


The original owner did indeed find us some prospective tenants, who ran a farmer's market. Their grand idea was to convert the shop building into a home for themselves and their six children.

Home sweet home?

Well, we were foolish enough to actually consider the idea.

From the beginning, they balked at paying the rent we asked. They fought against signing a contract for the lease. They refused to agree to fix the aged septic system or test the well for bacteria yearly. They wanted a break on the rent so they could afford to "fix up" the shop. And on and on and on... And the original property owner said we weren't being fair to them, that we should just trust them...

After months of wrangling, concessions, stress and grief that I needn't describe in detail, but that involved lawyers and heated phone conversations, the deal was off. Phew.

And, several months later, we found out they lied to and ripped off the original property owner as well.

So there we were, trying to rent some greenhouses, a shop, some pasture space... Ads on Craigslist, ads in the local paper, fliers posted all over Clark and Mutnomah Counties, etc. etc. So what did we get?
  • "Um...is it private, man? Like....really private? Like, can I park my trailer there?"
Translation- "Can I turn your property into a meth lab?"
  • "I need some space for my horse and my daughter's horse. We'd like to rent your pasture."
Translation- We actually rented the pasture to this woman, who was consistently late with the rent. We found out when we called one day and her mother answered the phone that she was actually running a horse dealing operation and sending the poor critters to auction. Bye-bye.
  • "Can I rent the shop for my auto repair business?"
Um-no thanks.
  • "Can I park an RV on the property and live there with my whole family?"
Um-no thanks.
  • "Why not?"

And the place appeals to art studio types. The first one had plans for some type of glass gallery under the stars...that idea faded quickly. The second actually did rent our small apartment for part-time usage (yay!- a sane person!) And now we are in negotiations with someone who wants to start a small art commune on the place, complete with teepee installations and a recording studio... we'll see where that goes.

Meanwhile, the lovingly-renovated greenhouses stand empty and forlorn. Doesn't anyone just want to raise some nice petunias or something?