Thursday, May 17, 2018

World Religion News: Human Evolution Exhibit Censored to Avoid Offending Ultra-Orthodox Jews

It seems that even Judaism has a wing that rejects evolution.  Gee, who knew.  World Religion News has the story:
Authorities of Jerusalem's Natural History Museum frequently covers their human evolution exhibit under a sheet to keep the ultra-Orthodox visitors from being offended . The display title written in Hebrew reads, “The beginning of human evolution and culture.” The exhibit provides in detail the gradual and slow transformation from ape to modern homo sapien. It has a number of skulls, ancient hunting tools, and models along with written explanations. The matter came under scrutiny when a member of the museum staff asked a visitor to leave when she asked the authorities why they censor the display. Chaya David, the visitor in question, said she was shocked and saddened by the incident, terming it not only unwarranted but also not legal.
I sure hope it doesn't read “Homo sapien.” That binomial is never singular. Very early in my graduate career, I put that in a paper and my advisor fried me alive. Beyond that, though, if the story is accurate, why not inform the museum visitor why the display had been covered?  The story also notes:
Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not regard the scientific evolutionary theory as valid. They accept the Biblical version as the valid one. The Bible states humans were created differently from other animals. The traditional reading of the Holy Bible states that the world came into existence 5,778 years back.
Rabbit Hole: One unusual point about this story: 5778 years back puts creation at 3670 B.C. This is some 334 years after the figure that was concocted by Bishop Ussher. It is further important to note that Ussher's date was not the only one around. Everybody from Bede to Newton had their own estimates, all being within about 300 years of each other. Given that they were all working from the same source, what accounts for the discrepancy? Answers in Genesis is happy to provide the answer:
The testimony of so many ancient writers seems to confirm the antiquity (extreme age) of the use of the Julian year—that is, three hundred and sixty-five days with the addition of one extra day every four years. Hence, Ussher had very good reasons for selecting the length of the year that he did. In fact, modern scholarship recognizes this. In 1940 W. G. Waddell translated the works of Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century BC, and has the following translation for a portion of the work: “Saites added 12 hours to the month, to make its length 30 days; he added 6 days to the year, which thus comprised of 365 days.”
Only 4.5 billion years off.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How Intelligent Was Homo naledi?

Discover Magazine (and other outlets) are running a story which questions how important cranial size is to overall intelligence.  The focus of this inquiry is Homo naledi, the small-brained hominin that is now thought to be no more than 200ky old.  Lee Berger, who was on the team that discovered Homo naledi has always argued that, because of the comparative difficulty of navigating the cave, that she was placed in the Rising Star Chamber intentionally.  At issue is the brain size:
When it comes to brain volume, previous research established that Homo naledi‘s was 465-560 milliliters. (In today’s study, the authors acknowledge those earlier numbers, based on virtual reconstructions, but also perform their own physical reconstructions and measure the volume with a water displacement method, arriving at a similar range of 460-555 mL.)
This is very small. As the authors note, contemporary hominins possessed brains well over 1000 cc at this point. It was the complexity of H. naledi's brain that surprised people:
Homo naledi‘s inferior frontal and lateral orbital gyri were organized notably more like that of other members of the genus Homo than that of australopiths. These are parts of the brain associated with complex behaviors, such as communication, planning and tool-making, that are particularly important in our lineage.

Finding Homo naledi‘s brain was structurally similar to that of larger-brained members of the genus tells us two important things. First, it means Homo naledi itself was likely capable of more complex behavior than australopiths with a similar brain volume but different brain structure. Second, it torpedoes the old notion that Homo brains grew steadily in size and complexity until reaching the evolutionary pinnacle that is Homo sapiens (/sarcasm, just a touch).
As we discover that early Homo was behaviorally more complex than we thought, it also forces us to rethink what went on later in hominin evolution and re-evaluate evidence of complexity in H. erectus and archaic H. sapiens

Friday, May 11, 2018

Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Galapagos Creationism Center to be Built

The Adventist News Network is reporting that a new creationism center will be built on the Galapagos Islands:
A large incentive project for scientific research will soon become a reality in the Galapagos Archipelago, located 1,200 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. Construction on the Creationist Center, maintained by the Adventist Church through its institutions, will begin in August. Geovanny Izquierdo, president of the Church in Ecuador, confirmed the date for construction this week. The 741 square meter piece of land is located in the center of Santa Cruz, the most populated island in the archipelago. The building will include, initially, the Creationist Center, some administrative rooms for the Loma Linda Adventist College and new headquarters for the Central Adventist Church.
There is something deeply ironic about this. Of course, it wasn't just the Galapagos Islands that allowed Darwin to develop the theory of Natural Selection. His travels to Patagonia also paved the way for it. Nonetheless, this is almost like the U.S. presence in Guantanamo Bay or an embassy on foreign soil.  They will certainly be viewed as a curiosity by the incoming scientists.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

What in the Hay-ull is Wrong with These People??

Yankees pitcher German was just yanked in the top of the seventh while throwing a no-hitter.  I hate these managers!!!!  In 1972, Preston Gomez yanked a pitcher throwing a no-hitter and got no end of crap from the baseball writers.  But NO, we have to bow to the god of the almighty pitch count!!  The pitch count is All, save the Pitch count!!!  Does it not occur to these knuckleheads that the fans might want to see a no-hitter?  Does it not occur to these knuckleheads that the pitcher might want the opportunity to throw one?  a no-hitter is usually a once-in-a-lifetime event for a pitcher.  To rob him of this opportunity is unconscionable. 


Update:  I would hate be someone that roots against the Yankees.  After German got removed, Betances gave up three runs on three hits and then holder gave up a run, leaving the Yankees in a 4-0 hole going into the bottom of the eighth.  What did they do?  They scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth and won it in the bottom of the ninth on a three-run walk-off homerun.  They deserved to lose but won, no thanks to Aaron Boone. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

New Laetoli Footprints Demonstrate Full Bipedality

A story running in Newsweek and the Washington Post (and other outlets, presumably), details research into the newly discovered fossil footprints at Laetoli dated to 3.6 mya that clearly show a modern human gait.
Two sites in Laetoli, Tanzania, feature footprints of human ancestors who lived about 3.6 million years ago. They were members of the genus Australopithecus. That's the genus of “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year-old human ancestor whose fossilized bones were discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.

David Raichlen, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Arizona, has studied the Laetoli footprints and compared them to footprints made by human volunteers in laboratory settings. He examined footprints of individuals walking normally and also those walking with bent knees and bent hips. (Scientists who study locomotion use the acronym BKBH). The Laetoli footprints more closely match modern human footprints.

“Upright, humanlike bipedal walking goes back 4 to 5 million years,” Raichlen told The Washington Post in advance of a symposium on the evolution of human locomotion, which took place Sunday at the Experimental Biology 2018 conference in San Diego.
This dovetails with the recent findings that Ardipithecus, a hominin dated to around 4.4 mya, likely could travel equally well on the ground or in the trees.  Oddly, the WaPo article doesn't mention this.  

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Slander of “Darwinism”

Kenneth Miller has written yet another extraordinary essay, this one on the nature of the term “Darwinism” and how it is pejoratively used by those insistent on trashing evolutionary theory.  He writes:
He could have just said he didn’t believe in evolution, or that evolution had flaws. Or, he could have said that a book with a whole unit on evolution was just too much. But William Buckingham, of the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania, didn’t use the “E” word when he explained his objections to the biology textbook selected by the science teachers at Dover High School. Instead, he invoked a term that didn’t even appear in that textbook. Prentice Hall’s Biology: The Living Science, he claimed, “was laced with Darwinism from beginning to end.” Surely, he must have thought, “Darwinism” was a disqualifying slander that everyone could understand.
Buckingham, who was singled out for special re-probation by Judge Jones at the end of the trial, was at once ignorant and pejorative.  He was ignorant in that Darwin was not the only one to develop the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace being the other one. He meant to be pejorative (in the same way that all of the Discovery Institute writers intend) because he knew that the term “Darwinism” carries with it the baggage of animus and atheism.As Miller notes, when an entire branch of science is referred to by its founder's name, then it takes on the air of an ideology, rather than a legitimate field of study.  The ideology can then be characterized as agenda-driven, attempting to tear out the heart of morality and decency.  None of this, of course, is true but the perception is rampant.  Miller also points out something of which I hadn't thought:
The overuse of Darwin’s own name facilitates another line of attack, by pretending that the field relies entirely on Darwin’s own work, fashioned in an age before the modern sciences of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology emerged to confirm and expand his ideas. This allows the pretense that evolution is a stolid, unchanging field, with few new ideas that might refresh its 19th century heritage. Any scientist would scoff at this, of course, knowing the vigor that new discoveries constantly infuse into evolutionary biology. But to laypeople, unfamiliar with the rapid pace of scientific discovery, this can be a persuasive argument.
This would be no different from referring to modern physics as “Newtonism”  despite the vast advances that have been made since Newton's time.  Miller laments that these perceptions are hard to fight against because they appeal to emotions rather than empirical thought. Further, there are those of the atheist perspective who argue that, as humans, we are no better or special than any other species on the planet.   For this, though, he has an answer:
We are the children of evolution in every sense, part of Darwin’s fabled “tangled bank.” We must never forget that. But we must also remember that we are the only creatures to emerge from that thicket and make sense of it all. “Darwinism” does not diminish us. Rather, it puts the human experiment into a truly scientific perspective. We are not just hairless bipedal primates. We are creatures capable of the fugues of Bach, the verses of Yeats, the stories of Twain, the creations of Dalí and, for that matter, the mathematics of Gödel, Ramanujan and Turing.

In contemplating the lessons of evolution for our species and our culture, this is how we should overcome the mindless use of “Darwinism” as a slur. Some may feel demeaned by our evolutionary heritage, but I would argue that the more appropriate emotions are joy and delight. Joy that we are approaching a genuine understanding of the world in which we live, and delight at being the very first stirrings of true consciousness in the vastness of the cosmos. Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious—the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph. That is the great truth of our story.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Kent Hovind is Baaaacccckkkkkk!

Hemant Mehta writes for Patheos that Kent Hovind is back in the news.  You kind of have to read through the vitriol a bit:
In 2009, the IRS took control of Dinosaur Adventure Land, Kent Hovind‘s Creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, so that they could sell it off and recover the money Hovind owed for committing tax fraud. (It was a sad day for, like, three people.) Hovind was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was eventually released in 2015.
While there were attempts by Hovind’s son to buy back the property, that never worked out and the park has officially been closed since 2009.
You know what that means.
Hoving [sic] has built another Dinosaur Adventure Land! This one is in Repton, Alabama, and the grand opening takes place this Saturday.
That is not really what got Mehta's attention, however. It was this:

In the bottom left hand corner  is an image of Jesus holding a velociraptor as if it were a cute, cuddly kitten.  In the video, he speaks of evolution as being dumb and evil and “if you fell for that lie, we are here to show you the truth.”  The accompanying video is difficult to watch, as it largely contains Hovind's peculiar interpretation of  the book of Revelation, which is even murky to scholars who have been studying it for centuries.  That doesn't stop Hovind. 

I was never sympathetic to the case that got him thrown in gaol for a few years, but it is clearly evident that prison has not dulled his enthusiasm or oddness. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ardipithecus May Not Have Been Entirely a Facultative Biped After All

In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, several researchers have concluded, using 3D morphometric analysis have discovered that Ardipithecus ramidus, while still having facultative (didn't have to but could) bipedalism, when it did walk, its bipedal gait was nearly human.  From the abstract:
We show that hamstring-powered hip extension during habitual walking and climbing in living apes and humans is strongly predicted, and likely constrained, by the relative length and orientation of the ischium. Ape pelves permit greater extensor moments at the hip, enhancing climbing capability, but limit their range of hip extension, resulting in a crouched gait. Human pelves reduce hip extensor moments but permit a greater degree of hip extension, which greatly improves walking economy (i.e., distance traveled/energy consumed). Applying these results to fossil pelves suggests that early hominins differed from both humans and extant apes in having an economical walking gait without sacrificing climbing capability. Ardipithecus was capable of nearly human-like hip extension during bipedal walking, but retained the capacity for powerful, ape-like hip extension during vertical climbing. Hip extension capability was essentially human-like in Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus, suggesting an economical walking gait but reduced mechanical advantage for powered hip extension during climbing.
This positions Ardipithecus as the classic intermediate in terms of bipedal locomotion.Although there are many traits in Australopithecus afarensis that are still transitional in terms of the rib cage, dentition and aspects of the hip, it is clear that the major adaptations for bipedalism were in place nearly a million years earlier.  This also suggests that it is not out of the realm of possibility that the fossil footprints in Crete really do reflect a bipedal hominin.  At the risk of positing heresy, the fact remains that we really don't know exactly where hominins first appeared.  This study also reinforced the distinct separation between apes and humans in terms of iliac shape, and that this split must have taken place even further back in time that we have supposed.

The Independent has a news story on this here.  One of the authors, Herman Pontzer remarks:
“It kicks us out of this old paradigm of thinking about human evolution,”...“In that old picture that is everywhere where you have the evolution of man going from crouching thing to upright thing to a human – as much as we have known that is not right, I still think people have it in their heads.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

New Homo sapiens Fossil Found in Arabia

A new fossil finger has been unearthed as Arabia that purports to be 87 ky old.  UPI is on it.
The fossil was found buried beneath the sands of the Nefud Desert, which today stretches across the Northern Arabia Peninsula. The site where the fossil was found was once home to a freshwater lake.
Around the time humans showed up, a climatic shift brought monsoons to the region, spawning grasslands. Animal fossils suggest antelope grazed the land and hippos swam in the ancient lake.
Researchers measured ratios of radioactive elements in the finger bone and compared the ratios to those found in animal fossils with confirmed dates. The analysis confirmed the age of the human fossil, the oldest found in Arabia.
"This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant," Huw Groucutt, a researcher with the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a news release.
How do we know it was from Homo sapiens?
Among these finds was a well preserved and small fossil, just 3.2 cm long, which was immediately recognized as a human finger bone. The bone was scanned in three dimensions and its shape compared to various other finger bones, both of recent Homo sapiens individuals and bones from other species of primates and other forms of early humans, such as Neanderthals. The results conclusively showed that the finger bone, the first ancient human fossil found in Arabia, belonged to our own species.
I do not have access to this article as neither the lab nor UT has a subscription to Nature: Ecology & Evolution. Aside: Given our focus on materials science and computing, I kind of get why ORNL does not have a subscription.  UT, not so much.  This journal should be in their wheelhouse.  According to the abstract, the find is securely dated and:
The palaeoenvironmental context of Al Wusta demonstrates that H. sapiens using Middle Palaeolithic stone tools dispersed into Arabia during a phase of increased precipitation driven by orbital forcing, in association with a primarily African fauna.
Maddenly, there is no information in the abstract about the morphology of the find, especially given that Neandertal and early anatomically modern phalanges are remarkably similar. I am sure they were able to differentiate it, but I would sure like to know how.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Babylon Bee: Ken Ham Arrested For Vandalizing Grand Canyon Signs To Read ‘JUST 4400 YEARS OLD’

I love the Babylon Bee.  They will skewer anything.  This post announces that Ken Ham was caught vandalizing signs in the Grand Canyon:
Dozens of informational signs throughout the park tell visitors that the Colorado River carved the canyon over the past six million years—but Ham allegedly painted over these signs and wrote “CANYON JUST 4400 YEARS OLD—WAKE UP!” national park rangers said at a press conference.

“We found Ham hiding behind a large rock formation with several cans of spray paint and a Sharpie after seeing his Facebook posts and pinging his phone to determine his exact location,” one ranger said. “All evidence points to this being a one-man operation. Pretty much all of our visitor signs were ‘corrected’ by Ham—even the big one at the main entrance.”
If you hadn't figured out that this was satire, the last sentence in the article should have been a big clue:
At publishing time, Ham had miraculously escaped captivity and was seen painting over signs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
The really funny thing about this post by the Bee is that it elicited a correction by the site “Business 2 Community,” which ran this:
Ken Ham, a spokesman for creationist, being arrested for vandalizing the Grand Canyon National Park signs to read “Just 4,400 Years Old” is satirical news. There is no truth to a report that an Australian Christian fundamentalist and young Earth creationist living in the United States found himself in trouble after he painted over signs at the country’s popular national park.

In case you don’t know, Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, a Creationist apologetics organization that operates the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter.
As of now, the site that Ham runs, Answers in Genesis, has yet to respond to the article.In fact, as nearly as I can tell, they have not acknowledged the existence of the Babylon Bee, whatsoever.