Sunday, November 19, 2017

Neandertal to Modern Transition Full of Fits and Spurts

New evidence suggests that Neandertals survived longer on the Iberian peninsula than elsewhere in Europe.  The redating of the Zafarraya Neandertal from the late 20k's to between 38 and 40 ky saw a revision of theories about Neandertal extinction. Now more evidence has been unearthed suggesting that this window is more secure.   From The Statesman:
Neanderthals may have survived at least 3,000 years longer than thought in what is now Spain – much after the species had died out everywhere else, a study has found.

The findings suggest that the process of modern human populations absorbing Neanderthal populations through interbreeding was not a regular, gradual wave-of-advance but a “stop-and-go, punctuated, geographically uneven history.”

Over more than ten years of fieldwork, researchers excavated three new sites in southern Spain, where they discovered evidence of distinctly Neanderthal materials dating until 37,000 years ago.

“Technology from the Middle Paleolithic in Europe is exclusively associated with the Neanderthals,” said Joao Zilhao, from the University of Barcelona in Spain.

“In three new excavation sites, we found Neanderthal artefacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in Western Europe,” said Zilhao, lead author of the study published in the journal Heliyon.
It seems pretty clear now that the model of rapid replacement of Neandertals does not hold. This kind of evidence, along with sites such as Lagar Velho, suggest that the transition, at least in this region was long-term, with much hybridization.  We still do not know exactly how long Neandertals persisted in this region.  It makes perfect sense that they would have been the last ones to undergo the transition (however that happened) because the earliest Aurignacian sites, associated with modern humans, occur in far eastern Europe as the wave of moderns came through during the Würm I/Würm II interglacial.

The question that I have is why didn't the earliest modern humans, represented by the Jebel Irhoud remains, come through the Strait of Gibraltar?  North of that, all you find are archaic, all the way down to the Zafarraya remains.  I wonder why this is.

Monday, November 13, 2017

And, Apparently, The Stolen Bone is Only One Problem...

The journal Nature is reporting on a scandal of sizable proportions involving a site of early human occupation in Europe.  Ewen Callaway reports:
Serious concerns have surfaced about three research papers claiming evidence for one of the earliest human occupations of Europe.

In an extraordinary letter posted to the bioRxiv.org preprint server on 31 October1, archaeologists allege that the papers, published in 2013, 2016 and 2017, included material of questionable provenance, and that results reported in the 2016 paper were based on at least one stolen bone. Editors at the journals concerned are publishing expressions of concern about the papers.
The bioRxiv paper is available from the site and, since it is a preprint server, is accessible to anyone wishing to read the story. Here is the bombshell from the paper:
A series of recent papers on the Early Pleistocene palaeontological site of Untermassfeld (Germany) makes claims that are of great interest for studies of earliest Europe and are at odds with the described pattern: the papers suggest that Untermassfeld has yielded stone tools and humanly modified faunal remains, evidence for a one million years old hominin presence in European continental mid-latitudes, and additional evidence that hominins were well-established in Europe already around that time period. Here we evaluate these claims and demonstrate that these studies are severely flawed in terms of data on provenance of the materials studied and in the interpretation of faunal remains and lithics as testifying to a hominin presence at the site. In actual fact any reference to the Untermassfeld site as an archaeological one is unwarranted.
The site is said to have been occupied beginning around a million years ago, which was an astounding claim when it was made.  Critical, however, is that, despite the wealth of archaeological, taphonomic, faunal and floral evidence from the site, there have never been any hominin remains found. 

The article is lengthy but is a fascinating account of a palaeontological mystery and sleuthing.  If the accusations are true, it is blow for the study of early human European occupation and puts a stain on the whole proceedings. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Ken Ham Comes to Alberta

Young earth creationism is ubiquitous in home school curricula here in the United States.  Ken Ham is trying to make that the case in Canada, as well.  There has been pushback. Bill Kaufmann of the Calgary Herald writes:
Australian-born Ken Ham, a leading Christian fundamentalist proponent of creationism over evolution, is scheduled as a keynote speaker at the Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA) convention in Red Deer next April.

Ham spearheaded the building of a Noah’s Ark-centred creationist museum in Kentucky, and the educational books he’s authored includes Dinosaurs of Eden: Did Adam and Eve live with dinosaurs?

“Those who believe that only the uneducated reject evolution perhaps do not realize that evolution, far from fact, does not even qualify as a theory,” states an entry on his Answers in Genesis website.

“Evolution is a belief system about the past.”

It also offers a line of textbooks in areas of biology, geology and “creation apologetics.”
This is total nonsense. I would quote Todd Wood at this point, but he is probably tired of me quoting him. Suffice it to say, evolution is one of the most well-tested theories on the planet.  If you choose not to “believe” it, that is fine but to say that it is not a theory is just ignorant and foolish.  The more Ken Ham writes, the less I think he knows about how science works.   And now the pushback:
But Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan said while home schoolers have every right to invite speakers like Ham, it raises questions about what those children are being taught as science.

“None of that belongs in science curriculum, which should be mandatory for everyone regardless of whether they’re funded by Alberta Education or not,” said Khan.

“Having a bunch of kids lacking in basic science education is a problem for society writ large.”

He questioned whether Education Minister David Eggen is doing enough to ensure real science is being taught outside conventional classrooms.

While the AHEA doesn’t receive provincial funding, they’re expected to teach fact-based science, said Eggen’s spokeswoman Lindsay Harvey.

“All students, no matter what format of education they receive, are expected to learn from the current Alberta curriculum,” said Harvey.
I am generally not in favor of government oversight in home schooling. When that happens, you tend to get an agenda that seems to be tolerant of everything except “conservative” values.  Having said that, I wonder about all of these kids who wind up going to secular universities and having their faith blown apart by grounded, empirical science.  You can't mandate to homeschoolers what they should and should not teach unless you force a specific curriculum on them but stories like this shine a spotlight on home schooling that might be detrimental in the long run.

I wonder if Ken Ham is even aware of the damage that he is causing.  As Joel Edmund Anderson put it in his book The Heresy of Ham:
I believe that the paranoia, divisiveness, and frustration that the young earth creationist movement fosters wherever it goes should serve as an indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. This is not simply a case of Christians having a difference of opinion on a certain topic.  This is a case of a movement willing to declare war on everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, who does not capitulate to what they have unilaterally declared to be true.
I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Purchase: Adam's Quest

I hate it when books come out that escape my attention.  Such is the case with a book titled Adam's Quest, by Tim Stafford.  In it, Stafford has interviewed eleven scientists who have struggled with their understanding of how their faith fits in with their pursuit of science.  In a sense, this is like the book Four Views on the Historical Adam, in that it surveys Christians from different perspectives.  He has interviewed young earth creationists, supporters of intelligent design and evolutionary creationists.

As readers of this blog will note, I have been extremely critical of young earth creationists and intelligent design supporters, not so much for their beliefs (which I also find issue with, though) but for their ham-handed and often deceptive way in which they treat the scientific evidence for an ancient earth and evolution.  At least Todd Wood, one of the assembled scientists, has also had issue with this and, from what little I have read of Kurt Wise, he has as well.

Patheos has a short introduction to the book, which focuses on the first group, the young earth creationists, and some of their consternation at the way that science is examined.  There is a passage with a particularly damning quote from Kurt Wise about this:
After that, Wise lost interest in creationist apologetics, especially as he began to realize that many of the creationist evidences from his reading were wrong. “At first I thought it was ignorance.” As he learned more though, he became convinced that the mistakes in creationist literature were willful. … Wise concluded that for many creationists the end justifies the means. For them, “it doesn’t matter if what you say is true. It matters if it brings people to the right conclusion.” (p. 15-16)
This is, perhaps, why I find people like Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis so contemptible. They pretend to address the scientific concerns in an honest way but misinterpret evidence, arrive at faulty conclusions and smear hard-working scientists as a matter of course.  As i just told my oldest child, I am not going to come right out say they are lying, but it sure looks like it. 

Perhaps one of the scariest parts of the book and one of the principle reasons that I picked it up are in the sample that is available from Amazon, in which the author recounts his upbringing, which is almost word-for-word what I experienced growing up.  He then recounts every Christian parents' nightmare: the falling away from the faith of one of his children, in part because of the strains of learning correct science and being told that he could not be part of his circle of church friends if he continued to accept an old earth. 

Right now my children are in a home school group that is heavily young earth creation-based and I know that several of the parents of their friends would be horrified if they knew that I was an evolutionary creationist.  I simply don't advertise it. One of them thinks of Ken Ham as a hero of the faith.  How would it be of value for me to confront her with the notion that I think he is a charlatan and a heretic? 

As of yet, my oldest child does not seem to be tracking in any scientific direction so I doubt that this will have a huge impact on his life.  The same does not seem to be true with my second child, who is enamored with botany.  She will hit evolutionary biology head-on in college and I will have to prepare her for that and how to hold onto her faith throughout.  That will be, perhaps the greatest challenge that faces me. 

I look forward to reading this book with interest and would encourage downloading the sample.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Uh Oh

Answers in Genesis is expanding into Canada, according the its leader, Ken Ham.  Patheos reports the following:
Answers in Genesis, the Creationist ministry run by Ken Ham, is evolving. Ham says that an Answers in Genesis–Canada is scheduled to open in 2018, with an online store launching earlier. It’ll be run by Calvin Smith, an Ontario native who has spoken about Creationism at churches across the nation since 2001.
From the Answers in Genesis website:
According to a recent study, a mere 15% of Canadians have any kind of creationist belief. The church there desperately needs AiG resources to be equipped to stand on the authority of the Word of God and boldly preach the gospel. We’re excited to be part of encouraging and equipping our Canadian brothers and sisters through speaking events, resources, conferences, and more.

AiG produces the world’s leading creation-apologetics resources including books, DVDs, curricula, the Answers Bible Curriculum (used in over 10,000 churches), and one of the top Vacation Bible School (VBS) programs used by over 5,000 churches last year.
For those of us who view Ken Ham's efforts in this direction with great apprehension, this is not good news. As Joel Edmund Anderson and Ted Davis note, Ken Ham preaches heresy and revisionist history. The more I read of the AiG site, the more I am convinced this is true.It is worth quoting Anderson again, here:
The heresy of Ham that is actively “subverting, destabilizing, and destroying” the core of the Christian faith is the claim that a modern, scientific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as literal history is fundamental prerequisite for the trustworthiness of the Gospel of Christ. It is the claim that if the universe is not 6,000 years old, if there was no historical Adam and Eve, and if there was no worldwide flood 4,000 years ago, then that would make God a liar, that would mean there is no such thing as sin, and that would mean Christ died for nothing. Such a message is heresy, and that message has subverted, destabilized, and destroyed the Christian faith of many people, has destroyed careers, and unfortunately, has taken root within a significant portion of Evangelical Christianity.
Amen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taboo on Incest May Go Back at Least 34K Years

ZME Science is reporting on a study done from the site of Sunghir, in Russia that preserves “complex social structures,” indicating that, even at 34,000 years ago, there were precautions against inbreeding. Why do we think this?
The Upper Paleolithic burial site contains the complete remains of an adult male, the symbolically incomplete remains of another male, as well as those of two younger individuals. All of these people lived at this site during the same time. Unusual for similar finds from this period, all the four males were buried together.

When a team of scientists at the Cambridge University and the University of Copenhagen analyzed the genomes of these individuals, they were surprised to find they were not closely related. At most, one of the adults was no more related to the boys than a great-great-grandfather.

The researchers speculate that artifacts found at this location, which includes pieces of jewelry, may have been used in ceremonies and rituals that celebrated the exchange of mates between groups. Perhaps such exchanges foreshadowed modern marriage ceremonies.

In addition to the evidence that modern humans formed close-knit communities more than 30,000 years ago, this evidence also indicates that they deliberately sought mates beyond their immediate family.
Humans changed from a promiscuity-based relational strategy to pair-bonding at some point in their evolutionary history, which resulted in more stability.  Read the whole thing. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Effect of Neandertal DNA on Modern Humans

After the 2013 sequencing of the Neandertal DNA, Janet Kelso, of the Max Planck Institute undertook a study to see what genes present in Neandertals still had an effect on modern humans.  The study employed the data from a genotyping project done by UK Biobank, which surveyed 500,000 people.  What did they find? 
Kelso and her team first narrowed the sample to include only the 112,338 individuals with white European ancestry (whose genomes contain Neanderthal DNA), and used these data to tease out which traits are influenced by Neanderthal genetic variants. The traits they identified included those that affect hair color, skin color, skin tanning and burning, sleeping patterns, mood, and tobacco use.

For example, being a self-described night owl and being prone to daytime napping were both traits positively influenced by Neanderthal variants, as were loneliness, low mood, and smoking. Genetic loci associated with having red hair were found to be devoid of Neanderthal variants, suggesting red-headed Neanderthals were either rare or non-existent. The new study also supports Capra and colleagues’ previous observations that Neanderthal variants are associated with sun-induced skin lesions, mood disorders, and smoking.

That traits such as skin color, sun-burning, and sleep patterns were identified by the analyses might be explained by the Neanderthals’ adaptations to life at more northern latitudes, suggests Capra. But for other traits, he notes, determining how the effects seen in present-day people might once have affected Neanderthals themselves “is one of our crucial challenges.” For example, he says, “of course, Neanderthals were not smoking.”
Maybe I am behind the times but I did not know there was a “trait” for tobacco use. I figured you either did that or you didn't. Like Robin Williams says in Dead Again: either be a smoker or don't be a smoker. Choose it and be it.

I suspect we will continue to find effects of the Neandertal genome, especially since our understanding of how much interbreeding there was continues to change.  It is also a testament to the stability of the human genome that, even after a separation of some several hundred thousand years, interbreeding was still possible.  

Friday, October 06, 2017

Creation Museum Having Positive Impact on Economy of Florence, KY

Cincinnati.com is running a story about the impact that the Creation Museum is having on the economy of a nearby town, Florence, Kentucky.  Chris Mayhew writes:
Comfort Suites opened 84 rooms off Houston Road at 5905 Merchant St., Florence, in July. A busload of tourists from Alabama visiting the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter filled 24 Comfort Suites rooms for three days Sept. 27-29.

Tourism for Newport on the Levee, Downtown Cincinnati and the Creation Museum bring regular visitors, owner Ravi Narsinghani said.

Comfort Suites was Narsinghani's second hotel in Florence he owns with his brother. The brothers will open a third Florence hotel soon.

"We have an upscale extended stay coming," he said.
It is good that the local economies are getting a needed boost from this, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

NCSE Post Reflecting on Kitzmiller, Twelve Years Later, by Eugenie Scott

NCSE has a guest post by Eugenie Scott, in which she remembers some of the points about Kitzmiller that might not have been public at the time.  It is part one of two.  In the run-up to the Kitzmiller trial, the plaintiffs did not know who the judge would be:
Well, the case was assigned to John E. Jones III, a fiftyish Republican who had been appointed by George W. Bush to the federal bench a few years before. “Intelligent design” proponents were delighted! In their blogs, they were quick to point out that Jones was a mover and shaker in Pennsylvania GOP politics, was a self-described conservative Republican, and was a church-going Lutheran, who certainly would be likely to find the ID policy constitutional.

I must say, our lawyers, who pay attention to judges more than we science types do, were a little apprehensive. What was this guy going to do? He’d only been a federal judge for a couple of years, so there wasn’t much of a record to go on.

His being a person of faith wasn’t an automatic concern. It’s so easy to misconstrue the creationism/evolution controversy falsely as “science versus religion,” when really it is one particular religious perspective versus everyone else’s. People are sometimes surprised to learn that our best allies in support of teaching evolution are other Christians: Catholics and mainstream Protestants— such as Disciples of Christ [with which Transylvania University is affiliated]—don’t want children taught Monday through Friday in science class that God specially created the universe in its present form 6,000 years ago, and then have to straighten them out on Sunday—because their theology is that God created through evolution.
One of the things that came out of the trial was how much the defense lied about what their true motives were. Although her post does not mention these events, it is an interesting account.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Why Is Homo floresiensis Still Such a Mystery?

Cosmos Magazine has an article by Debbie Argue, biological anthropologist from Australian National University, about Homo floresiensis and why it has been a struggle to accurately and adequately place this hominin within the framework of human evolution.

 Here was the initial assessment:
Peter Brown and colleagues originally proposed two competing hypotheses about the origins of H. floresiensis. One is that the species is an early hominin similar to the earliest identified in the Homo genus. The fossils for these species are known only from Africa and are between one and two million years old. This implies that the ancestors of H. floresiensis could have got to Flores Island in the vicinity of a million years ago and survived there until at least 60,000 years ago.

Their alternative hypothesis was that H. floresiensis is a dwarfed descendant of Homo erectus, which is the only known non-sapiens hominin to once have existed in Indonesia. Its remains have been found on the island of Java. According to this view, the dwarfing of H. erectus was an evolutionary response to being isolated on an island with a limited food supply. Just as the Asian elephant evolved into the dwarfed Flores stegodon after becoming marooned on the island, H. erectus could have met a similar fate.
It was also proposed that this hominin might have expressed microcephaly.  This idea failed to explain other aspects of the skeleton, however, such as its diminutive height (around 3 feet), long arms and feet and primitive skull features. Here is an image of H. floresiensis compared to a modern human, who had been running around the landscape for at least 100k years while H. floresiensis was extant.



This all saw at least some resolution with the discovery and description of some remains  on another areas of the island Flores that were very similar to the H. floresiensis remains but dated to some 600 thousand years earlier than the remains in Liang Bu.  This lent more credence to the idea that H. floresiensis was, in fact, an offshoot of Homo erectus.

So, Argue, along with Colin Groves, Bill Jungers and Mike Lee, performed statistical tests (this story does not say which kind, a peculiar omission) on a number of different hominin species, comparing them to H. floresiensis.  What did they find?
We therefore hypothesise that H. floresiensis shared a common ancestor with H. habilis. We do not know who that ancestor was or when it lived, but it would have to be older than the oldest H. habilis specimen known, so older than 1.75 million years. The implication is that the H. floresiensis ancestor evolved before that time in Africa, dispersed from that continent, and arrived on Flores earlier than 700,000 years ago, judging by the age of the jaw and teeth found at Soa Basin. This represents a hitherto unknown movement of very early hominins out of Africa.
Presently, the earliest evidence for hominins outside of Africa come from Europe, the Near East and Asia, and date to between 1.5 and 1.8 million years ago. Argue's hypothesis would suggest that H. floresiensis appearance in east Asia represents a separate migration out of African sometime either before or after the wave that saw Homo erectus show up in Trinil and Sangiran, in Indonesia.

Questions still abound as to why this species never saw the evolutionary trajectory that other hominins went through in terms of cranial expansion, increase in height and changes in brachial and crural indices. On the other hand, if evolution proceeds through what we have termed systematics, then advanced traits will show up in related species and if the ancestors of H. floresiensis were cut off, they would just go on their merry way.  We know that such a pattern holds for H. naledi, in South Africa, which coexisted with archaic Homo sapiens, in some way, shape or form. 

The article ends on a very peculiar note, in which she suggests the remote possibility that H. floresiensis is still alive out there, somewhere:
Could the Hobbit still exist in the wild mountain forests of Flores? When H. floresiensis was announced, the media picked up on the local folklore that small human-like creatures roam the forests. Descriptions of sightings are well recorded and quite detailed. The similarity to H. floresiensis is intriguing. But most researchers would say ‘show me the bones!’
This reminds one of the stories involving the Yeti/Sasquatch/Abominable Snowman, which likely derive from the finding of the bones of the Miocene ape Gigantopithecus, which was close to ten feet tall, when standing.  Is H. floresiensis still out there?  Probably not, but I am sure that the cryptozoologists haven't given up hope.