Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Holy Jurassic Park, Batman!

Wired has a story on “How to hatch a dinosaur” by Thomas Hayden. He writes:
Over the past several decades, paleontologists—including [Jack] Horner—have found ample evidence to prove that modern birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, everything from the way they lay eggs in nests to the details of their bone anatomy. In fact, there are so many similarities that most scientists now agree that birds actually are dinosaurs, most closely related to two-legged meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptor.
But “closely related” means something different to evolutionary biologists than it does to, say, the people who write incest laws. It’s all relative: Human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking, from chimpanzees, but at that scale we’re also pretty hard to tell apart from, say, bats.
That's funny. Here's where the Jurassic Park comes in:
These regulatory genes—the master switches of development—contain the recipes for making certain proteins that stick to different stretches of the genome, where they function like brake shoes, controlling at what time during development, and in what part of the body, other genes (for things like growth-factor proteins or actual structural elements) get turned on. The same basic molecular components get deployed to make the six-legged architecture of an insect or fish fins or elephant trunks. Different body shapes aren’t the result of different genes, though genetic makeup certainly plays a role in evolution. They’re the result of different uses of genes during development. So making a chicken egg hatch a baby dinosaur should really just be an issue of erasing what evolution has done to make a chicken. “There are 25 years of developmental biology underlying the work that makes Horner’s thought experiment possible,” says Carroll, now a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Every cell of a turkey carries the blueprints for making a tyrannosaurus, but the way the plans get read changes over time as the species evolves.
That is one of the best definitions of hox genes that I have ever seen. The problem is that you are looking at a developmental level that is very basic.  It will be interesting to see how this is applied in the next few years.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Leonard Steinhorn Wants to Know How The GOP Became the Anti-Science Party

Writing for HufPo, Leonard Steinhorn has some comments on the GOP and the race for their nomination.  He writes:
It would be easy to take this Republican drift from reality and rationality as evidence that the party is comprised of know-nothings and the uninformed. "Anti-knowledge" is how New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labels the GOP. But in truth there are as many educated, thoughtful Republicans as there are Democrats, people who in their lives and businesses apply strict standards of evidence and rationality to their daily decisions. Perry is certainly no rube, having governed the second largest state in the nation for ten years, and Bachmann is a former tax attorney. If higher education is any gauge, Republicans and Democrats typically split the vote of those with a college degree.
It is quite unusual to read a political commentator writing these things since it seems to be a meme in the media that Republican = ignorant. Anecdotally, it is also hard to counter this meme.  Many of my friends that are democrats tend to view me as an anomaly: a thinking republican.  But someone can be very intellectual and thoughtful and yet have no knowledge of a particular subject.  I don't know beans about psychology and couldn't tell you a single theoretical construct in the field. This doesn't make me stupid or anti-intellectual. It does, however, make me ignorant.  He mentions the GOP distrust and general disdain for liberalism in this way:
This disdain for liberalism has an interesting genesis given that so many red states have benefited from liberal governance in the form of rural electrification, water projects, and transportation infrastructure, and indeed many white southern and Great Plains politicians were once ardent New Dealers. That all changed, of course, with civil rights, which turned many white Americans from friends of liberalism to its most ardent foes. By enforcing civil rights, liberalism became a literal enemy of their way of life and a figurative threat to anyone who didn't want to accept the reality of a plural, diverse, and cosmopolitan America.
I have difficulty accepting all parts of this hypothesis.  For one thing, your average Republican doesn't mind paying for infrastructure such as roads, electricity, running water and so on.  They do, however, mind paying for things like Solyndra, rapid transit between large cities and the incredible expansion of the welfare state, including many benefits for illegal aliens.

For another, it flies in the face of much evidence that the conservative churches were some of the driving forces behind desegregation. For another, one is reminded of pictures taken at the time of conservative Charlton Heston marching in civil rights parades.  It is more likely the association between liberalism, atheism and evolution that is driving their distrust.

Most conservative Christians that I know tend to view evolution (and maybe climate change, I am not sure) as a tag-on.  They see people living what they see as good, Godly lives with proper theology and behavior and see that as desirable.  If these people also happen to reject evolution and climate change, so much the better.  This does not require an examination of these theoretical constructs, only an acceptance of others' perspectives on them.

Of all of the presidential candidates, only Ron Paul (who has since dropped out) and Rick Santorum openly ridiculed evolution and suggested that it was not a Godly perspective.  Indeed, most candidates don't so much reject evolution as include intelligent design in an almost ecumenical fashion.  Michele Bachman, for example, wants both taught so kids can choose which one they want to believe in.  While this is ignorant of science, it is not caustic or hateful.

The charge of anti-intellectual populism is harder to shake.  I think that there are two large issues here: the growing liberalism of academia over the last four decades, and the general contempt that many in academia feel for what they consider the uneducated masses.  I spent enough time at the University of Tennessee (nineteen years) to know that, at least at that institution, both of these perspectives are entrenched.  When you add to this the vocal hyperatheism of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom are intellectuals of one sort or another, many conservatives have no problem rejecting the whole package.

He continues:
Let's be clear: science and religion are not incompatible. The Catholic Church has made its peace with evolution and has no problem with the science of climate change. The current director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis X. Collins, is a born-again Christian who accepts evolution and simply sees the hand of God in its creation.
But for many evangelical Christians it's far more convenient to reject science than to deal with the dissonance between scientific explanations and what's written in the Bible. To them, science is yet another tool in the secular assault on their religiosity. Unlike the good book, it is not to be trusted. The Scopes Trial remains very much alive for them.
It is not so much that they are rejecting science as much as they are rejecting mainstream science.  Most evangelicals are quite happy with the brand of “science” that is promulgated by organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research which teach the straight recent earth creation model.  It is this brand of science that has quite literally taken over the home schooling market—crowding out any mainstream curricula.  Most aspects of modern science are seen to be at odds with the evangelical mindset and many evangelicals, and those who write for these institutions have adopted the Henry Morris viewpoint: “When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data.” (source unknown) This meme is so strong that many evangelicals would rather, as Steinhorn notes, avoid the science question altogether than delve into the evidence.  It makes complete sense that their candidates would do the same.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Out-of-Africa Replacement Model”: Piling On

On the heels of the recent DNA arguments supporting hybridization between early modern Homo sapiens and archaic Homo sapiens in Africa comes fossil skeletal evidence.  As the Telegraph reports:
A study on human remains found in the Iwo Eleru cave in Nigeria, West Africa, shows that Stone Age humans in the area shared characteristics with much older human relatives. Palaeontologists leading the study believe their findings provide evidence that modern humans and older subspecies of human might have coexisted and even crossbred in Africa. The findings add weight to theories that ancient species of human lived alongside the anatomically modern humans after they first appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago.
Quoted in the article is Chris Stringer, one of the progenitors of the Out-of-Africa replacement model of modern human origins which was based on mitochondrial DNA studies done in the late 1980s.The article continues:
Professor Stringer said: "The majority view was that once modern humans emerged in Africa 150,000 years ago, it was kind of the end of the story and modern humans took over. "I think the reality is that the ancestral forms didn't just disappear but hung around alongside those that had evolved into modern humans. "Somewhere lurking in bits of Africa were these more archaic people and we are starting to get a picture of that."
I suspect that it is going to get very hard to pin down exactly where Homo sapiens starts. It is becoming more and more clear that anatomically modern Homo sapiens and archaic Homo sapiens went for the occasional “roll in the hay.” If so, as I pointed out earlier, there simply was no “speciation event.” This goes more to supporting the multiregional evolution model, as it applies to Africa, in which there was selection for more modern genes. This model may also apply to Europe, with the mixing of modern humans and archaic humans there. I suspect that this will spur reexamination of the early modern material from there, such as Mladeč, where the material dates from the Early Würm/Late Würm interglacial period.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Where Did the Cretaceous Birds Go?

As evidence continues to pile up supporting the theropod dinosaur-to-bird transition, the question has arisen: where did all of the Cretaceous birds that did not give rise to modern birds go?  Science Daily has this report:
Now a team of paleontologists led by Yale researcher Nicholas Longrich has provided clear evidence that many primitive bird species survived right up until the time of the meteorite impact. They identified and dated a large collection of bird fossils representing a range of different species, many of which were alive within 300,000 years of the impact.
"This proves that these species went extinct very abruptly, in terms of geological time scales," said Longrich. The study appears the week of Sept. 19 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Aside: the next time I see a scientist use the word “prove” I am going to strangle them. Scientists don't prove anything. They provide support for a hypothesis or they reject a hypothesis.  Onward.  The common consensus about the dinosaur extinction is that it was, in large part, caused by a huge meteorite that fell to earth toward the end of the Cretaceous in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The crater reflecting this impact is 110 miles across and, while it probably wasn't the entire cause of the dinosaur extinction, it wiped out a good chunk of 'em.The article continues:
Yet modern birds are very different from those that existed during the late Cretaceous, Longrich said. For instance, today's birds have developed a much wider range of specialized features and behaviors, from penguins to hummingbirds to flamingoes, while the primitive birds would have occupied a narrower range of ecological niches. "The basic bird design was in place, but all of the specialized features developed after the mass extinction, when birds sort of re-evolved with all the diversity they display today," Longrich said. "It's similar to what happened with mammals after the age of the dinosaurs."
Another piece of the puzzle!

No Dinos in Heaven Screening at New York Academy of Sciences

Laure Parsons writes that there will be a screening of the movie No Dinos in Heaven at the New York Academy of Sciences on October 25, 2011 at 7PM and that a discussion with Eugenie Scott and Greta Schiller will follow. If you are in the area, stop by to see this movie. Here is the press release:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Agitation Against Creationism in the UK

David Attenborough has joined a group of scientists who are arguing that the government must forcefully ban the teaching of creationism in schools.  Duncan Geere of Wired UK has the story:
While in power, Gordon Brown's Labour government released guidance to schools that creationism shouldn't be taught in science classes, but stopped short of enshrining the recommendation into law. The coalition government hasn't acted on the subject either. Attenborough has joined three Nobel prize winners and Richard Dawkins in protesting against creationism and intelligent design, asking for it to be completely banned.
The former director of education for the Royal Society, Rev Michael Reiss, who has in the past referred to evolution as "god's work", is amongst the signatories. He told the Telegraph: “Evolution is an extremely powerful idea that lies at the heart of biology. At the same time, it's a sufficiently simple concept that there's no good reason why it should be left out of the primary curriculum.”
It is not clear how far this will go or what impact it will have. That Richard Dawkins is part of the organization will have a polarizing impact, I am sure.  Attenborough has a world-wide reputation as one of this generation's greatest naturalists and has made many wonderful documentaries about life in the wild. 

Svante Pääbo: DNA clues to our inner Neanderthal

Here is short video in which Svante Pääbo gives a short presentation on "Your Inner Neanderthal."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Crocodile From Hell

First we had the Frog From Hell, then we had the Snake From Hell and now, it seems, that we have the Crocodile From Hell.   National Geographcic is reporting that a 60 million year-old crocodile has been found not far from Titanoboa.  Christine Dell'Amore writes:
A Colombian coal mine where scientists found the largest known snake species has offered up another gem: A new species of 20-foot-long (6-meter-long) prehistoric croc. (See pictures of Titanoboa, the biggest snake ever found.)
The 60-million-year-old Acherontisuchus guajiraensis lived alongside the snake and a bevy of other reptiles in an Amazon-like river system, which wove through one of Earth's earliest rain forests before eventually emptying into what's now the Caribbean Sea.
There are no primates alive at this point (Plesiadapis has been demoted to tree shrew). Good thing, too. I doubt this would have been a fun place to live.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sigmund Comments on the BioLogos/Discovery Institute Rift

Jerry Coyne has a guest post on his blog by Sigmund.  Sigmund has noticed the bad feelings between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos and has seen fit to comment on it.  He writes:
The slow descent into irrelevancy of BioLogos continues apace. From its inception by Francis Collins in 1997, the BioLogos Foundation’s original emphasis on increasing the acceptance of science amongst evangelical Christians has been gradually replaced by a more traditional focus on ‘worship’ and an increasing defense of Christianity from the challenges of secular reason.
This is a mite peculiar since many of the posts recently that I have seen including my own don't deal with what he describes whatever. My series of posts deals with the evidence for human evolution and three days ago, Dennis Venema started a series of posts on the basics of evolutionary theory. While it is true that Pete Enns expends much energy writing excellent columns on the nature of biblical interpretation, there are quite a few posts about basic science and, ironically, Sigmund writes that BioLogos has gotten away from science yet the whole purpose of his post is to illuminate a rift between the two organizations that is science-based.

He comments on the recent reaction to Dennis Venema's review (which I thought was smack on the money) of Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell by the author.  Meyer argues that complex specified information such as that found in the cell can only come from intelligent causes, while Venema states that there are natural causes that can create complex specified information without the need to invoke a designer.  Meyer responds to this charge (in a way that Sigmund describes as “shifting the goalposts”) by arguing that he was only writing about biopoesis, not established life.  Darrel Falk responded to Meyer's article in a way that Sigmund finds baffling. Sigmund and Falk are both fully aware that Meyer moved the goal posts, however Sigmund writes: 
It was at this point that the real problems with the new BioLogos strategy become apparent. Falk, needing to see the best in every Christian, comes across as the theological equivalent of Woody Allen in the aftermath of the nymphomaniac scene in ‘Play it again Sam’. Falk spends almost the entire article wondering “How did I misread those signs?” and getting sidetracked into talking about “complex specified information” an imprecise term regarding complexity, only used by ‘Intelligent Design’ supporters.
While it is clearly a case of the usual dishonest creationist tactics of trying to be vague and then shifting the goalposts when caught out, Falk doesn’t seem to be able to state the obvious.
I feel for Darrel here, because, as Christians, we are called to see the best in people, even in a scientific setting. But Darrel has been on the receiving end of questionable Discovery Institute practices before at the Vibrant Dance conference.  Commenting on it at the time, Steve Matheson wrote: 
The question is not whether Christians should point to the things they agree on. It's not about whether affirmations of shared belief are beneficial or appropriate when Christians find themselves in disagreement. For me and, I suspect, most of the critics that Falk was referring to, the question is whether BioLogos should cosponsor a conference on faith and science with organizations that seek to mislead people about science.
Here, Steve is referring to both the Discovery Institute and Reasons to Believe, an organization that Todd Wood has dealt with. I have written about them as well.

Those of us who follow Jesus Christ want to believe the best in our fellow Christians but the sad fact is that we have examples in Christendom where scientific evidence is very poorly treated or misrepresented outright. I would never accuse Ken Ham of not being a Christian. But I would also never state that he honestly treats the scientific evidence.  It is our duty to point out these errors in the hopes of reaching our fellow Christians and informing them that honest scientific inquiry can go hand in hand with Christianity.  If the goal posts get moved, it is our duty to point that out as well.  Darrel has done this.  We might fault the force of his response, but we should not fault his intentions.   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New CFSI Post Up

My new post is up over at the Center for Faith and Science International, on conservatism and evolution.  Comments, as always, are welcome here and there.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

David Klinghoffer, Evolution and Conspiracy Theories

Give David Klinghoffer credit for tenacity, or what Linus van Pelt called “mule-headedness.”  Not content to link Hitler and the Discovery Channel gunman to “Darwinism,” he now does so with the 9-11 conspirators in a new post for Evolution News and Views called “Darwinism and 9/11 Conspiracy Theories.”  He starts out innocently enough, describing the 9/11 conspiracy theories and how they were debunked by Popular Science.  He even has a serviceable definition of conspiracy theorism:
The tendency, hardly limited to the faculty fringe, is to want to repudiate the intuitions of common sense in favor of recondite alternative understandings. These purportedly expose the true, secret inner workings behind the façade of society and nature and, in the process, cast the very sources of our intuition in the most sinister light. This is the essence of conspiracy-thinking.
He comments at length about a story in Slate by Jeremy Stahl, in which Stahl argues that it is very hard to dispel a conspiracy theory because those accepting it simply think you are part of the conspiracy. Then he drops the hammer:
What I found striking about the first installment in the Slate series, by Jeremy Stahl, is the parallels with what we know about the thought and writings of Evolution Truth activists: our ever-loving friends in the Darwin Lobby. You may recall the news of a few months back that Glenn Branch, deputy director of the Darwin-lobbying National Center for Science Education, had collaborated with 9/11 Truth conspiracist James H. Fetzer in editing a special number of the journal Synthese on "Evolution and Its Rivals. That issue of the journal became so notorious for the incivility of its contributions that a whole fracas broke out and made the pages of the New York Times."
Interestingly, in typical DI fashion, the supplied link doesn't go to the New York Times.  It goes to an article by Casey Luskin, who then supplies the link in paragraph five of his article.  In that article, Mr. Luskin also notes that James Fetzer is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.  That charge sticks like glue: James Fetzer's ideas are whackadoodle with regard to this issue and his ideas have been rebutted very soundly. But then Klinghoffer writes this:
When he burst on the scene a century and a half ago, in the Eric Hufschmid role, Darwin offered precisely a conspiracy theory: a radical overturning of common sense, in this case the understanding that nature reflects design. That was replaced now with an unseen and unseeable material mechanism that simply and comprehensively explained how everything we thought we knew about life's development was totally wrong.
This is nonsense. It would only be true if Darwin was the first one to come up with an evolutionary scenario for the diversity of life. He wasn't. Evolutionary scenarios exist as far back as John Ray and Darwin's contemporary, Jean Baptiste Lamarck and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had their own.  Darwin didn't introduce a conspiracy theory, he illuminated one of the growing questions of biology: how did populations change over time.  He simply provided a mechanism.  The only reason Klinghoffer thinks that it is a conspiracy theory is that he has bought into one of his own: that evolutionists are covering up the fact that evolution has no empirical support.  As long as he continues to believe that evolution has no empirical support, then anything they write is part and parcel of this conspiracy theory.  It doesn't matter how much evidence there is.  It is like trying to explain something to someone while they are  holding their hands over their ears and saying “La la la, I can't hear you.”

He writes:
Once posited, it tells a story that accommodates any observation. This is the brilliance of paranoia. Though Meigs cites Marxism and fundamentalist creationism as parallels, Darwinism offers one just as apt. Whatever nature brings forth can be squeezed to fit the effectively unfalsifiable Darwinian mold, which always turns out to predict, in retrospect, whatever is found.
Interesting. Why does he not include intelligent design in this list? All he has to say is “God did it that way.” It does not matter what the observation is, that is just the way He did it. It is foolproof. This has been the constant roadblock for supporters of ID since its inception.  It is completely unfalsifiable.  There are no hypothesis tests you can run.

It is amazing that Klinghoffer, who plainly does not understand basic predictive historical science, would state that evolution is unfalsifiable when it clearly is (If we found a human skull in mesozoic strata or dinosaurs in the Cambrian, the party would be over for evolution), and miss the fact that ID is not.There is a conspiracy theory all right.  It is just not the one that Klinghoffer envisions. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

NPR on the Literal Adam and Eve

In the wake of the resignation of John Schneider at Calvin College, NPR has an article on their web site on the latest Christian controversy, the literal Adam and Eve debate. Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes:
[Dennis] Venema is a senior fellow at BioLogos Foundation, a Christian group that tries to reconcile faith and science. The group was founded by Francis Collins, an evangelical and the current head of the National Institutes of Health, who, because of his position, declined an interview.
And Venema is part of a growing cadre of Christian scholars who say they want their faith to come into the 21st century. Another one is John Schneider, who taught theology at Calvin College in Michigan until recently. He says it's time to face facts: There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence.
"Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost," Schneider says. "So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings." To many evangelicals, this is heresy.
The evangelical community certainly has its back against the wall on this one. Once upon a time, it was okay to take pot shots at young earth creationism because scientific support for that position is not well-founded. This is different. For many, an acceptance of Christianity does not hinge on how old the earth is or how the creation narratives are interpreted. Whether or not Adam and Eve exist, however, calls into question the very notion of salvation in Christ. That strikes a chord. Schneider resigned and even Daniel Harlow, who also writes in this area stated that he now has a cloud hanging over him:
"Evangelicalism has a tendency to devour its young," says Daniel Harlow, a religion professor at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school that subscribes to the fall of Adam and Eve as a central part of its faith.
"You get evangelicals who push the envelope, maybe; they get the courage to work in sensitive, difficult areas," Harlow says. "And they get slapped down. They get fired or dismissed or pressured out."
This is the scandal of the evangelical mind of which Mark Noll wrote. As I wrote the other day, this will probably get worse before it gets better and, as the national spotlight shines down on it, it may reveal a cavernous divide in modern Christianity.  I pray that this is not the case.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Trouble At Calvin College

A report is coming out of Calvin College, in Michigan that a professor has left after a controversy surrounding his position on a literal Adam and Eve. Will Pavia writes:
Professor John Schneider is the latest Christian scholar to leave his post amid a controversy that is gripping America’s evangelical community. In a country where surveys suggest that four in ten people believe in the biblical account of the origins of Man, some are calling this a “Galileo moment”, akin to the agonies suffered by the Roman Catholic Church over the suggestion in the 17th century that the Earth revolved around the Sun.Professor Schneider and a colleague, Professor Daniel Harlow, had published papers noting that it was becoming ever harder to maintain that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve. He suggested that Christians needed to abandon the idea that the Fall was an historical event.
Uproar ensued. Readers and influential evangelicals all over America called for both men to be fired. Professor Schneider left his job. The college said that he had sought early retirement but Professor Harlow, in an interview with a Christian newspaper, said: “John was pressured to leave.”
Professor Harlow then announced that he would be taking a sabbatical and would no longer write on so controversial a subject. “At this point in Calvin College’s history, it cannot handle that,” he said. “I cannot handle that. It’s taken a heavy physical and emotional toll on me.”
The Christian community needs to get a grip on this because the evidence is not going to go away. It is only going to get better. Christians that take a strict literal approach to Adam and Eve are going to find themselves increasingly cornered and distrustful of modern science and its efforts to understand the history of humanity. I have used Daniel Harlow's articles in research and quoted from them in this blog before. It is sad that he is leaving this discussion because he has much to bring to the table and his absence will only hurt the dialogue.

There are a number of different viewpoints on how to tackle the literal Adam and Eve question, which was covered in Christianity Today and of which I wrote in a post for CFSI. As Darrel Falk points out, it is possible that there were two people that were hand-picked by God to begin his relationship with the human race. This is not much different than God's covenant with Abraham, although it does not address the issue of the soul. If there were other people around at the time of Adam and Eve, did they have souls? Could they see Heaven? It is difficult to reconcile the idea that there were anatomically modern human beings around that were not part of God's plan for humanity.

I do not know where this discussion is going to go. Like the case of Bruce Waltke, though, there is obviously a sizable reluctance to address the possibility that Adam and Eve were not real people but part of an allegorical tale meant to teach us what our relationship to God is, what sin is, and why we were created in the first place. This controversy will get worse before it gets better.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Nature News Story on Au. sediba

Nature News has a story on the Australopithecus sediba skeleton described by Lee Berger and colleagues.  Ewen Callaway writes:
At around 420 cubic centimetres, A. sediba 's puny brain compares to those of other Australopithecus specimens and chimpanzees. But a high-resolution synchrotron scan of the brain's impression on the skull shows enlarged frontal areas that are normally associated with humans and linked to higher cognitive abilities, such as planning. A. sediba's pelvis also looks wider than those of other australopiths, raising doubts about the idea that the human pelvic shape evolved to accommodate large-brained babies. "Whatever is driving a relatively human-like shape of the pelvis, it is not a big brain," says Berger. The orientations of its leg and ankle bones suggest that A. sediba walked upright, and its nearly complete ankle resembles that of a human. But its long arms, and some features of its feet and shin bones, are similar to those of a chimpanzee. Taken together, these features suggest that A. sediba was adapted for both bipedalism and tree-dwelling.
This is a wonderful mosaic. As I wrote yesterday, though, it is not clear where it fits. There are three possibilities: A. africanus gives rise to A. sediba and A. habilis and A. rudolfensis.  Here, the two species of early Homo have been demoted and all three have transitional characteristics that represent a general trend toward modernity (after Walker and Wood).

The second scheme has A. africanus giving rise to A. sediba, which then goes extinct, and H. habilis and H. rudolfensis (in some fashion), one of which then gives rise to H. ergaster.  This posits that the traits present in both early Homo and A. sediba represent a general trend toward modernity. 

The third scheme has  A. garhi giving rise to early Homo with A. africanus giving rise to A. sediba, which then goes extinct.  The advantage of this is that A. garhi has modern-like limb proportions and is found in northeast Africa, not far from early Homo, while A. africanus and A. sediba are both found in south Africa.

Which one of these is right?  Are any of them right?  Who knows.  What we do know is that these critters have relationships to each other in some way, shape or form.  

Friday, September 09, 2011

Dennis Venema: Ask an Evolutionary Creationist

Dennis Venema has a new post over at BioLogos that is in the form of a Q&A and touches most of the main tenets of evolutionary creationism.  Check it out

Thursday, September 08, 2011

More on Au. sediba From CNN

CNN has a story on Australopithecus sediba with some better pictures.

Au. sediba Now Considered Possible Ancestor to Homo

New research is suggesting that the overall anatomy of Australopithecus sediba makes it the best candidate for being ancestral to Homo.  The article in Science Daily is quite long and delves into the specific traits that Lee Berger suggests are thought to evolving in the direction of HomoThey write:
Lee Berger, the project leader from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, explains what these new findings mean for modern humans. "The many advanced features found in the brain and body, along with the earlier date, make it possibly the best candidate ancestor for our genus -- the genus Homo -- more so than previous discoveries, such as Homo habilis"
The age of the Au. sediba fossils has been constrained to about 1.977 million years, which predates the earliest appearances of Homo-specific traits in the fossil record. Until now, fossils dated to 1.90 million years ago -- and mostly attributed to Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis -- have been considered ancestral to Homo erectus, the earliest undisputed human ancestor. But, the older age of these Au. sediba fossils raises the possibility of a separate, older lineage from which Homo erectus may have evolved.
This position seemed odd to me at first because there is already evidence of “early Homo” dating back to 2.3 million years ago. Then it occurred to me that this article makes a tacit assumption that is not stated: Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis are not really Homo, but are Australopithecus. This is an argument that has been made by Alan Walker and Bernard Wood who suggest that, despite the size differential between H. rudolfensis and the late australopithecines, they are more similar than different.This levels the playing field and then Au. sediba simply becomes the branch of Australopithecus from which Homo sprung.

Taxonomy is a black art and we run the risk of tying too much significance to our taxonomic designations.  If we argue that Au. sediba gave rise to H. ergaster, despite the fact that there are already two species of Homo running around, it conjures up ideas of convergent evolution where an earlier australopithecine gave rise to Homo habilis and Au. sediba gave rise to Homo ergaster.  If, however we demote earliest Homo down to australopithecine status, the difficulties vanish “like the snows of yesteryear” as Isaac Asimov would say.  Look for this to be challenged as well. 

R.I.P. Out-of-Africa Replacement Model?

"When two groups of people meet, they may fight but they will always mate." 
-J. Lawrence Angel

It now seems that the last bastion of uniqueness for modern humans as a species is crumbling.  If true, this is huge news.  Science Daily is reporting that even after their origination in Sub-Saharan Africa, modern humans may have interbred with archaic Homo sapiens.  They write:
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team led by Michael Hammer, an associate professor and research scientist with the the University of Arizona's Arizona Research Labs, provides evidence that anatomically modern humans were not so unique that they remained separate. "We found evidence for hybridization between modern humans and archaic forms in Africa. It looks like our lineage has always exchanged genes with their more morphologically diverged neighbors," said Hammer, who also holds appointments in the UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, the school of anthropology, the BIO5 Institute and the Arizona Cancer Center.
This wasn't done by comparing modern DNA with ancient DNA, however.   They write:
First, the team sequenced vast regions of human genomes from samples taken from six different populations living in Africa today and tried to match up their sequences with what they expected those sequences to look like in archaic forms. The researchers focused on non-coding regions of the genome, stretches of DNA that do not contain genes, which serve as the blueprints for proteins. "Then we asked ourselves what does the general pattern of variation look like in the DNA that we sequenced in those African populations, and we started to look at regions that looked unusual," Hammer said. "We discovered three different genetic regions fit the criteria for being archaic DNA still present in the genomes of sub-Saharan Africans. Interestingly, this signature was strongest in populations from central Africa." The scientists applied several criteria to tag a DNA sequence as archaic. For example, if a DNA sequence differed radically from the ones found in a modern population, it was likely to be ancient in origin. Another telltale sign is how far it extends along a chromosome. If an unusual piece is found to stretch a long portion of a chromosome, it is an indication of being brought into the population relatively recently.
Aside from the assumptions that go into such research, it will likely send shock waves through the discipline, and will certainly require the revision of some cherished models concerning the origins of our species. It certainly rules out the idea that there was a speciation event in a cladistic sense and stretches our species back much further than we had originally thought.  Look for these results to be challenged soon.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

New Film by Greta Schiller: No Dinosaurs in Heaven

Greta Schiller has a documentary film out called No Dinosaurs in Heaven, which I think is a very odd title and is likely to add fuel to the fire that “evolutionists” regard religious conviction as insignificant and a source of humor.  The link to the trailer is here.This is a section of the press release:
NO DINOSAURS IN HEAVEN explores the problem of creationists who earn science degrees in order to sneak their anti-science beliefs into the classroom. As a stunning visual counterpoint, Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education leads a raft trip down the Grand Canyon, where the creationist and evolutionary explanations of this natural wonder are juxtaposed. The film moves from the Grand Canyon to the American Museum of Natural History to actual middle school science classes in New York City, where public school teachers find themselves on the front lines of this struggle.
Screenings are available from Laure Parsons at There is no mention of the cost on the site, itself, although the distributor has these figures: universities: $289, high schools and public libraries: $99 and private rental for $150.  I doubt I will be seeing it in the foreseeable future. 

Friday, September 02, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Rick Perry

I wish I wasn't such a big fan of Christopher Hitchens. The man can write better than just about anyone that I know and, even if I disagree with his religious perspectives, he is very insightful and thought-provoking.  About Rick Perry, he writes:
Is there any evidence, if it comes to that, that Perry has ever studied the theory of evolution for long enough to be able to state roughly what it says? And how much textual and hermeneutic work did he do before deciding on the "inerrancy" of Jewish and Christian scripture? It should, of course, be the sincere believers and devout faithful who ask him, and themselves, these questions. But somehow, it never is. The risks of hypocrisy seem forever invisible to the politicized Christians, for whom sufficient proof of faith consists of loud and unambiguous declarations. I am always surprised that more is not heard from sincere religious believers, who have the most to lose if faith becomes a matter of poll-time dogma and lung power.
More is not heard from sincere believers because, despite his ignorance of modern science, Perry resonates with his evangelical base. He hasn't said anything that a large majority of them would disagree with. In most of rural America (fly-over country for the DNC), young earth creationism is lingua franca and this is the base he is trying to reach. He also knows, however, that he can't alienate the rest of the country so he hedges his bets by waffling on the age of the earth. I doubt he knows what that is, either.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Texas Freedom Network Chides Rick Perry

The Texas Freedom Network hopped all over Rick Perry for his statement that, in Texas, they teach both creationism and evolution.  Jose writes:
In a galling display of irresponsibility, Gov. Perry today once again waded into the culture wars for political gain when he told a young boy while campaigning in New Hampshire that “in Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.”

Gov. Perry:
A) We don’t
B) Your comments could place school districts in legal peril
C) Your comments are harmful to public education

It is outrageous that Gov. Perry would erode respect for and trust in public education in Texas, simply in order to promote his political aspirations. Texans and Texas schools are working to prepare our children for college and 21st-century jobs. Gov. Perry’s irresponsible comments wrongly suggest otherwise.
I am reminded of the comment made to one of my other posts in which the writer suggested that the whole creation/evolution debate had become “politically negotiable” rather than an aspect of scientific inquiry. That is sad.  Perry has already gone on record as stating that evolution has “got some gaps in it” although I doubt he would know what those were.  It might be a surprise for him to know that every scientific theory has unanswered questions.  The problem is that is not what he means by “gaps.”

Politics and science: bad mix.  

Oldest Acheulean Site in the World

Science Daily is reporting the finding of the oldest Acheulean site in the world, so far, at Kokiselei, on the west bank of Lake Turkana, six miles from where the almost complete 1.5 million year-old Nariokotome skeleton was found. They write:
The Acheulian tools at Kokiselei were found just above a sediment layer associated with a polarity interval called the "Olduvai Subchron." It is named after Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, where pioneering work in the 1930s by Leakey's parents, Louis and Mary, uncovered a goldmine of early human fossils. In a study in Earth and Planetary Science Letters last year, Lepre and Kent found that a well-preserved Homo erectus skull found on east side of Lake Turkana, at Koobi Fora Ridge, also sat above the Olduvai Subchron interval, making the skull and Acheulian tools in West Turkana about the same age.
This is not terribly unrealistic or unpredictable. We know that Homo erectus appears on the landscape between 1.78 and 1.9 million years ago and that Oldowan tools date back to almost 2.4 million years ago at the site of Gona. It does mean that cognitive jumps were being made earlier than we thought, however and broadens our understanding of the abilities of early Homo erectus.

More pieces of the puzzle.