Friday, January 18, 2019

'Swiss Army knife of prehistoric tools' Found in China

Science Daily is on a roll.  This came out a bit back during the late semester crunch and I didn't get a chance to post about it.  Stone tools have been found in south China that appear to be made using the Levallois technology, which originated during the Middle Stone Age, in Africa.  They write:
A study by an international team of researchers, including from the University of Washington, determines that carved stone tools, also known as Levallois cores, were used in Asia 80,000 to 170,000 years ago. Developed in Africa and Western Europe as far back as 300,000 years ago, the cores are a sign of more-advanced toolmaking -- the "multi-tool" of the prehistoric world -- but, until now, were not believed to have emerged in East Asia until 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
And now the, somewhat, startling conclusion:
With the find -- and absent human fossils linking the tools to migrating populations -- researchers believe people in Asia developed the technology independently, evidence of similar sets of skills evolving throughout different parts of the ancient world.
This particular conclusion seems somewhat ignorant of the fossil record, which clearly has hominins in the area that have distinct Neandertal traits.  The authors, in fact, even mention the possibility that the appearance of the tools might be tied to these earlier migrations, then seem to dismiss this for reasons that are, in my mind, not clear. 

The site, itself, Guanyindong Cave in Guizhou Province, is not new, having been excavated in the 1960s and 1970s.What is new is the date of 80-170 kya.  Levallois tools were thought to have arrived in the area around 30-40 kya and are seen as the artifacts of a late migration.  This re-dating of the sediments of Guanyindong Cave means that these kinds of tools were in the area some 100 ky earlier than was originally thought.  I do, however, think their evidence for independent origin is sparse. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

New Data on Neandertal Anatomy

Anatomists have reconstructed the rib cage of the Kebara 2 Neandertal to get a better understanding of the trunk of our nearest relatives.  Science Daily has the story:
An international team of scientists has completed the first 3D virtual reconstruction of the ribcage of the most complete Neanderthal skeleton unearthed to date, potentially shedding new light on how this ancient human moved and breathed.

The team, which included researchers from universities in Spain, Israel, and the United States, including the University of Washington, focused on the thorax -- the area of the body containing the rib cage and upper spine, which forms a cavity to house the heart and lungs.
What did they find?
The reconstruction of the thorax, coupled with the team's earlier finding, shows ribs that connect to the spine in an inward direction, forcing the chest cavity outward and allowing the spine to tilt slightly back, with little of the lumbar curve that is part of the modern human skeletal structure. "The differences between a Neanderthal and modern human thorax are striking," said Markus Bastir, senior research scientist at the Laboratory of Virtual Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Spain.

"The Neanderthal spine is located more inside the thorax, which provides more stability," said Gomez-Olivencia. "Also, the thorax is wider in its lower part." This shape of the rib cage suggests a larger diaphragm and thus, greater lung capacity.
In my anthropology class, I teach about the effects of Bergmann's and Allen's rules of body morphology. In the case of Neandertals, the adaptations to the cold were shortened distal limb segments, a large, projecting mid-face and a tendency toward barrel-chestedness. The new study reinforces these ideas.

Interestingly, it should be noted that the Kebara Neandertal is found in Israel, not known for its cold climate.  It is hypothesized that the Neandertal population came down from Eastern Europe to escape the cold (the tundra line was at Vienna).  What is peculiar about the Kebara 2 Neandertal is that it consists only of a body.  Whether he died and his head fell in a stream or some animal carried it off, there is no cranium.  Oddly, what we do have is one of the bones that is preserved least in the fossil record: a hyoid.  It is this that has given us the most information about the Neandertal vocal tract.

Fun stuff.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Meanwhile, in Indiana

From the NCSE comes a story of new legislation being pushed in Indiana that would require public schools to teach young earth creationism.  Glenn Branch writes:
Indiana's Senate Bill 373 would, if enacted, provide that "[t]he governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation." The bill was introduced on January 10, 2019, and referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.

The sponsor of the bill, Dennis Kruse (R-District 14), has a long history of sponsoring antievolution legislation. In 1999, while serving in the Indiana House of Representatives, Kruse pledged to introduce a law to remove evolution from the state's science standards, according to the South Bend Tribune (August 27, 1999). Instead, however, he introduced bills that would permit local school districts to require the teaching of creation science — House Bill 1356 in 2000 and House Bill 1323 in 2001. Both bills died in committee.
This isn't the first time I have posted about this guy.  A search of this blog will show numerous entries.  He simply doesn't give up.  This one will probably die in committee, as well (no one wants to pursue a losing court case) but it should remind us that we are still playing whack-a-mole on a national level.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Brain of Little Foot

Science Daily had a story just a bit back about research done on the new information surrounding the Little Foot australopithecine remains from South Africa.  They write:
MicroCT scans of the Australopithecus fossil known as Little Foot shows that the brain of this ancient human relative was small and shows features that are similar to our own brain and others that are closer to our ancestor shared with living chimpanzees.

While the brain features structures similar to modern humans -- such as an asymmetrical structure and pattern of middle meningeal vessels -- some of its critical areas such as an expanded visual cortex and reduced parietal association cortex points to a condition that is distinct from us.
One of the things that comes out in the paper is how much reorganization of the cranium we share with the higher primates, suggesting that quite a bit of brain evolution occurred prior to the Last common ancestor. The paper is currently free (at least I had no trouble accessing it) at If not, the abstract is.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Creationism Linked to Conspiracy Theories?

In a remarkably ham-fisted article, Medical Xpress is peddling the notion that belief in creationism and conspiracy theories are linked.  They quote the authors of a study on the phenomenon thus:
“We find a previously unnoticed common thread between believing in creationism and believing in conspiracy theories,” says Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg. “Although very different at first glance, both these belief systems are associated with a single and powerful cognitive bias named teleological thinking, which entails the perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities.”
This is a stretch. By their own admission, this is only modestly significant. The R2 for this model is 0.26, which means that only 26% of the model is explained by the variation.  Modest, indeed.  They continue:
“By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events,” Dieguez says. “We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called 'post-truth era.'”
This is a completely reductive view of the world. It automatically assumes that there is no teleology to the world, that everything is chance and that there is no God. This is no better than when the Jesus Seminar started out with the assumption that none of Jesus' miracles could have been real.

My guess is that the a large percentage of the people that believe in conspiracy theories also believe in a whole host of other odd things, such as a flat earth.  I know quite a few young earth creationists and not a one of them subscribes to any conspiracy theories.  What drives their understanding of creation is a particular interpretation of the Bible.  Further, many of them are analytical thinkers.

More junk science.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

British Columbia Leading War in Canada against Creationism...Or Is It?

Support for young earth creationism is, apparently, somewhat variable when it comes to the different Canadian provinces.  This is not surprising, since one might reasonably same the same thing about the fifty United States. is reporting on efforts in British Columbia to assert control over this situation.  Mario Canseco writes:
There are many reasons for these regional variances. Over the past two decades, British Columbia has positioned itself as closest to secularism than any other region of Canada. Fewer British Columbians describe themselves as having “a religion” every time the census rolls around. Still, the last municipal election saw candidates running for school board seats – and winning – after outlining creationist views. Quebec has always been a land of contrasts when it comes to religion. The presence of a crucifix inside the National Assembly is debated extensively in a province where fewer residents are attending church services than ever before.
The odd thing here is that the writer of the piece has invoked a non-sequitur in the interpretation of the data, it seems.  He remarks that 55% of residents of BC would "keep creationism out of schools," but that conclusion doesn't follow from any of the graphs presented.  That is not the question asked.  The questions being asked are whether or not humans evolved or were created within the last 10,000 years.  While it is quite true that the two concepts are similar, one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Furthermore, it is not clear where he is getting his 55% number from, nor where he concludes that BC is leading the pack.  Eyeballing the graphs seems to indicate that BC is behind Alberta and Quebec in their acceptance of human evolution.

I am not sure I would put a lot of faith in this. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Little Foot Finally Extricated

Nature News is reporting on the excavation and description of "Little Foot," a fossil initially discovered twenty years ago by Ron Clarke, at Sterkfontein Cave, in South Africa.  Colin Barras writes:
After a tortuous 20-year-long excavation, a mysterious ancient skeleton is starting to give up its secrets about human evolution.

The first of a raft of papers about ‘Little Foot’ suggests that the fossil is a female who showed some of the earliest signs of human-like bipedal walking around 3.67 million years ago. She may also belong to a distinct species that most researchers haven’t previously recognized.

“It’s almost a miracle it’s come out intact,” says Robin Crompton, a musculoskeletal biologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, who has collaborated with the research team that excavated the skeleton.
Why has this task taken so long and why is it so important? Barras continues:
By late last year, Clarke’s team had successfully removed enough bones to reconstruct more than 90% of the skeleton, and the specimen was unveiled to the world. No other Australopithecus fossil comes close to that level of completeness. For comparison, the most famous Australopithecus — Lucy — is around 40% complete.
Clarke and colleagues have posted a number of papers on the BiorXiv biology pre-print server. One of the papers is titled "The skull of StW 573, a 3.67 Ma Australopithecus skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa."  Because these papers are unpublished, they are open-access. 

As Clarke and Kuman notes, this fossil is unlike those of Australopithecus africanus, a species ubiquitous in South Africa but more closely resembles, in some ways, Au. afarensis (Lucy) and Au. anamensis, both of which are north east African variants of Australopithecus and are the earliest members of that genus.  The fossil has been included, taxonomically, with a species originally described by Raymond Dart in 1948: Australopithecus prometheus.  Given its early date, the researchers argue that it cannot be descended from Au afarensis but must be coeval with it.  This suggests that both are descendants of an earlier species that had a large home range. 

More pieces to the puzzle. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

BioLogos: My Favorite Fossil

BioLogos is running a little series called "My Favorite Fossil."  Here is one by Ryan Bebej on Maiacetus inuus, a fossil whale.  I have also submitted one but it is currently being edited.  I will have another post when it is up. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

50th Anniversary of Epperson

The fiftieth anniversary of Susan Epperson's battle to overturn the Arkansas anti-evolution law came a few days ago.  Scientific American has a good recap written by Glenn Branch, as well as the current state of things.  In the post, Branch notes something that is often downplayed in a media circus dominated by personalities like Ken Ham:
And in a controversy dominated by a polarizing science-versus-religion stereotype, it is often insufficiently appreciated that a substantial portion of the faith community also supports the teaching of evolution. Entire denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have issued statements affirming the compatibility of their faith and evolution, for example, while more than 16,000 individual clergy of the Christian, Jewish, Unitarian and Buddhist faiths have joined a grassroots effort to do the same.
As the professor says: read the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Diane Douglas Unsuccessful at Limiting Evolution in Arizona Public Schools

Ars Technica is reporting that Diane Douglas, who had campaigned on editing the Arizona public school science standaards, has lost a primary race to another Republican challenger, scuttling her attempts.  John Timmer writes:
As we noted in our earlier coverage, Douglas has in the past suggested that schools teach intelligent design, which is the idea that life arose and diversified due to the intervention of an intelligent agent rather than evolution. It's an idea that was generated for religious purposes, and its teaching has been ruled an imposition of religion by the courts. She has also misunderstood the status of a scientific theory in suggesting that it reflected the idea that our knowledge of evolution is uncertain. These beliefs seem to have motivated her intervention into the science standards.

In September, however, Douglas' attempts to inject her beliefs into Arizona's classrooms ran into a couple of problems. To begin with, she faced a number of challengers during the Republican primary for her position; two of them received more votes than she did, meaning she won't have her party's nomination for re-election. Then, at a state school board meeting, the Arizona Science Teachers Association suggested a number of changes that restored details of climate change and evolution to the proposed standards.
Once again, I think that it is absolutely essential that people who are running for these positions should have to pass a basic test in scientific knowledge.  That is the only way to weed out the nonsense.

Hat Tip to Rob Mitchell.