Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Am I a Theistic Evolutionist?

I am reading Long March of the Koalas and the author, Fred Clark, makes some interesting points about the term “Theistic Evolutionist.” He suggests that it is a term without meaning for several reasons:
  • It does not necessarily apply to all who might be Christians that accept evolution—it includes people that are not scientists, despite making use of the “ist” suffix. 
  • He argues that we cannot apply the word “theistic” to the word evolution.  It is an inappropriate use of the word because it is being applied to the discipline of evolution, which is non-theistic. He writes: “Sir Isaac Newton earnestly believed in God's active, pervasive providence, but he never saw fit to christen his theory as “theistic gravity.” 
  • His final argument is that when we merge the two terms “theistic” and “evolution,” we conflate the metaphysical understanding of the process and the observational understanding of it.
I will have to think on his argument some, but he makes some valid points. He does not, however, tackle the phrase “evolutionary creationist”  Thoughts?

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Few Other Things I Picked Up

I also snagged these on Amazon.  It may take a bit to get through them but they look interesting.

The first one is written by folks from the Interdisciplinary Bible Institute. The second one by “Progressive Christian blogger” Fred Clark, who writes the "Slacktivist" blog for Patheos. Both are inexpensive. 

D.H. Williams: Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants

Just purchased this from the Amazon Store:

As readers of this blog will have guessed, I am growing increasingly disenchanted with modern evangelicalism (actually I have been this way for some time) and am trying to figure out “where to go from here.” I am not burned out on God, I am burned out on how modern evangelicalism is practiced by so many that I see: completely devoid of any engagement with the world on its terms. We don't try to help people understand our way of life or viewpoints, we just take potshots at modern science and wage a “war on culture.” Further, because the modern evangelical movement is so divorced from its roots, we can't tell people why we believe what we do. We have thousands of years of some of the best thinkers of all time on our side and we don't even know who they are or what they wrote.

In some senses, I am no different, because I have immersed myself so heavily in the science end of things. Consequently,I know why the science arguments put forth by many modern evangelicals are junk. The problem is that, because they don't want to engage the people promoting mainline, established science, the junk science keeps being recycled. The Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate was not really a debate and, in hindsight, little of value came out of it.

The one thing I have not done is construct a concrete, concise understanding of why I do believe what I do. Hopefully, this book, along with prayer, will help me clarify my thoughts

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas From Our House to Yours!!

From Jim, Melanie, Marcus, Madeline, Daniel and Daphne.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

John Wilsey: Is the Evangelical Right Actually Conservative?

John Wilsey, writing for the Christian Century asks a very important question: Is the Christian Right actually conservative.  The post is mostly an (well-deserved, IMO) indictment of modern evangelical Christianity:
Many on the evangelical right have also jettisoned the intellectual, credal, and liturgical traditions of Christianity. There’s not much new in that. The anti-credal trend goes back to early-19th-century America. But it continues, and this “crisis of authority” has profound ramifications, as Molly Worthen, Thomas Bergler, D. H. Williams, and other scholars have noted.

This is a major problem. If we take Russell Kirk’s emphasis on order in conservatism, then it is difficult to classify rightist evangelicalism as conservative. At the beginning of his Roots of American Order, Kirk defines order as “a systematic and harmonious arrangement” that “signifies the performance of certain duties and the enjoyment of certain rights in a community.” Disorder is “a confused and miserable existence” wherein “the commonwealth cannot endure.” Kirk’s understanding of order as central to conservatism is one rule by which we ought to measure the legitimacy of conservatism in American evangelical Protestantism.

As a result of turning away from objective authority, evangelicals have a sentimentalized religion. Sentimentalism yields a self-referential faith. Kirk calls this “egoism,” which is antithetical to “humility, charity, and community.” Sentimentalism turns inward and rejects the outside world. Self-help and self-defense messages abound, along with constant appeals to stay relevant for the young people. Bergler terms this process “the juvenilization of American Christianity.”
This goes hand in hand with the "Disney-ization of Christianity" and Mark Noll's perspective that the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that there is no evangelical mind anymore, but that the Church has abrogated its responsibilities in modern society and academia. Todd Wood, the young earth creationist down in Dayton, TN, lamented this a bit back, arguing that the church has set up a parallel culture with all the trappings of secular culture, only recognizable by the fact that its members go to church on Sundays.  Further, he notes that this culture is poorly done, which leads young people to abandon it.

So the modern evangelical movement spends that vast majority of its time focusing on the modern culture wars—homosexuality, gay marriage, pre-marital sex, evolution and other related issues—and in so doing, forgets that it has a rich history of three or four millenia, filled with some of the greatest minds that have ever lived. Consequently, instead of academic centers of Christian thought, we get the Creation Museum and pastors like Brad Shockley.  No wonder people are leaving the church in droves.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Case of Eric Metaxas or "Evolutionary Theory as Bug Zapper."

Eric Metaxas is, by all accounts, a very dynamic and charismatic speaker, who has written a very highly regarded book called Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.  This book, which has been read by my son Marcus, who thoroughly enjoyed it, was on the New York Times bestseller list for some time.

Unfortunately, as with all Christian public speakers, eventually, they get drawn to evolution.  They simply cannot help themselves.  We saw this recently with Ben Carson, now we see it with Eric Metaxas.   He has an article on the Christian Post called "Unlocking the Darwin Debate."

Aside: Okay, I get the need for revenue but The Christian Post has to be one of the most irritating websites I have yet encountered.  It has obnoxious video ads that you cannot turn off, bottom banners that keep popping up even after you have read them and buggy scripts that freeze the browser. I have already complained once to them.  

Onward. He writes:
Of course, like digital code on a hard drive, DNA can be corrupted. The most recent iteration of Darwin's theory claims that these corruptions — called mutations — are the engines of evolution.

But here's the problem: We don't have a single example of a mutation resulting in a net gain of information. Not one.
How does he know this? Has he read the genetic literature?  What does he mean by a “net gain of information?” Mutation is not the engine of evolution. That is a simplistic, inaccurate view of evolution, written by someone who hasn't done the basic research on the topic. Evolution is a complex process that involves not just mutation but genetic drift, flow and selection.  Even that is a simplistic description.  The idea that mutation cannot lead to a gain in information is nonsense.  There are plenty of examples of mutations in which there is a gain of information.  In fact, when a mutation happens, there is not a loss of information, there is simply a change of information.  What happens when a mutation happens that is beneficial and selection acts upon it to spread it throughout the population?  How is that a loss of information?  Further, there are numerous instances in which genes have been duplicated through mutation, resulting in gain of information.  As the New Scientist points out:
Several species of abalone shellfish have evolved due to mutations in the protein “key” on the surface of sperm that binds to a “lock” on the surface of eggs. This might appear impossible, but it turns out that some eggs are prepared to be penetrated by deviant sperm. The same thing can happen in fruit flies, and likely in many other groups too. In yeasts, the mutations that led to some new species forming have not only been identified, they have even been reversed.
The idea that mutation conveys loss of information is also clearly refuted by the evidence from the fossil record of common descent. We can see in the fossil record where species have arisen. This can only happen through the processes of drift, flow, mutation and selection. In all cases, this is clearly a gain of information.

It is disappointing that speakers like Metaxas feel that they must tackle evolution with the gusto that they do other areas of their faith.  That he is such a dynamic speaker is surely a draw to the modern evangelical crowd.  That he knows nothing about evolution is lost on both him and his audience. 

Rise of Anti-Evolution Bills: UPDATE

PhysOrg also has a post on this research that includes an animated GIF to show the progression.  From the post:
The study also found that antievolution bills show evidence of 'descent with modification,' suggesting that anti-evolutionist legislators copy bills recently proposed or passed, rather than writing new bills from scratch. In addition, although the antievolution bills usually avoid mentioning creationism, most could be tied directly to creationism through statements in the legislation or by the bills' sponsors.

"Creationism is getting stealthier in the wake of legal defeats, but techniques from the study of evolution reveal how creationist legislation evolves," Matzke said.
I will be curious to see how the Discovery Institute spins this.

Nick Matzke Tracks the Rise of Anti-Evolution Bills in the United States

The Los Angeles Times is running a story about Nick Matzke's efforts to chronicle the rise of anti-evolution bills in the United States.  The catch: he is using evolutionary principles of descent with modification to show where they came from and how they "adaptively radiated."  Karen Kaplan writes:
The forces opposed to teaching evolution in U.S. public schools just got a new reason to resent the bedrock scientific theory: A researcher has used the principles of evolutionary biology to show that laws ostensibly aimed at improving science education are firmly rooted in efforts to make classrooms safe for creationism.

The analysis of dozens of bills introduced in state legislatures around the country reveals how a single innovation from a small Louisiana parish (population 156,325) was incorporated into 32 subsequent bills through a process the study describes as “descent with modification.” Two of those 32 bills became law and now “negatively affect science education” for students throughout Louisiana (population 4.7 million) and Tennessee (population 6.5 million)
The article is a phylogenetic masterpiece, showing stem and crown groups, based on the wording of different bills in different states.  There is one takeaway that is obvious, based on looking at the graph.  Bills have been forwarded in the following states:
  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
In other words, “all over the map.”  Only five of those are southern states, belying the notion that the Bible Belt is the only place you find this kind of legislation. His conclusion:
The creationist antievolution movement has reinvented itself not once but twice in the decade since Kitzmiller. The first guise was “academic freedom,” but after the success of the Louisiana SEA [Science Education Act], AFA [Academic Freedom Act] proposals were almost completely replaced with SEAs. The inclusion of global warming in the SEAs indicates that societal debate over evolution education has the potential to leak into other societal debates where high-quality science education is inconvenient to certain established interests. The passage of SEAs in Louisiana and Tennessee have spread language devised in Ouachita Parish, population ~150,000, to negatively affect science education in two states with ~11.2 million people. Additional policies on the books in other states (table S1) indicate that science educators have substantial work to do to ensure that science classes teach the best science available, rather than false critiques and controversies promoted by creationists. Advocates for science education should not be dissuaded by the strategic vagueness of SEAs: The creationist origins of modern antievolution strategies are clear (table S1), and at least 63 of 65 antievolution bills considered here can be tied directly to creationism through statements in the legislation or by sponsors (SM).
The article is free to non-subscribers (or at least it is at the present moment) and, despite being somewhat technical, is a good snapshot of how these bills have proliferated.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

ICR Planning Its Own Museum

Not to be outdone by the Petersburg, Kentucky, the Institute for Creation Research is planning a creation museum at its headquarters in Dallas, Texas.  Robert Wilonsky, of City Hall Blog, writes:
The institute, which spent months in court fighting the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to dispense master’s degrees in creationism, has been trying to raise funds to build the 30,900-square foot museum for years. There’s a concept proposal floating around that dates back to 2011.
In the September issue of its magazine Acts & Facts, its chief executive officer, Henry Morris III, says he finally got enough money to move ahead with the project.
The ICR, if you will recall, was once located in sunny California, near San Diego, but relocated to Dallas because they wanted to confer masters degrees in creationism to their students and the California Higher Education Commission said no.  They lost the fight in Texas as well and still cannot dispense graduate degrees in creationism.

The ICR has to get the project past city hall, which may be quite a hurdle because the location of the ICR is zoned for “Industrial Research.” It will be interesting to see how this one turns out.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It Pains Me To Think...

...how many people there are out there like televangelist Brad Shockley, who displays not just a frightening ignorance of science but the Bible as well.  As David Edwards of Raw Story writes:
On Sunday’s broadcast of Let The Bible Speak, Shockley lamented that the creationist view on dinosaurs was “rarely credited” by the media.

“We often have a difficult time convincing others this is the proper explanation,” Shockley said. “The creationist accepts the teaching of Genesis and teaches that dinosaurs were created on day 5 [and] day 6.”

The pastor noted that humans were also created on day 6 and “shared this world with the dinosaurs” and “all of these events took place approximately 6,000 years ago.”

According to Shockley, schools were using dinosaurs to “indoctrinate” children with lessons about science and evolution.

“Realizing mom and dad couldn’t not defend their religious beliefs, they ignorantly stumble into believing the theories of evolution and abandon their faith,” he insisted. “Evolutionary doctrine on dinosaurs denies the Bible, creation, the existence of God and, by default, ultimately denies Jesus Christ is the son of God and our redeemer.”
At one point he quotes the book of Job's lurid description of behemoth, with passages such as “...a flame goeth out of his mouth...” and suggests that this is a trait that we associate with dinosaurs. No, in fact, we don't associate that with dinosaurs at all. We associate that kind of thing with dragons.He suggests that this is a trait that was lost over time, a convenient excuse for the fact that we have never found any such thing.  He argues that given the amazing things that we find in the animal world today, we should have no trouble believing in dragons.  Really??? 

Nothing short of amazing.  

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Ted Cruz on NPR

On the way in to work this morning, I heard part of an interview with Ted Cruz, who was asked pointedly if he accepted the current position on global warming.  He clearly said that he did not and said that the pursuit of climate change strategies are, in fact, thinly disguised attempts by liberal politicians and crony capitalists to gain power.  I think that he is, perhaps, at least partially correct about that.  I also know that the climate of the planet does change.  Our planet is 4.5 billion years old and has undergone considerable change.  What is not clear is how much we are responsible for the current trajectory.  Some, I am sure, but how much I honestly don't know.

Then, because he clearly rejected the science on climate change, he was asked if he accepted other mainstream science perspectives, such as, pointedly, evolution.  He refused to answer the question. Rarely have I seen a better evasion of a question. He remarked that it was the job of scientists to question all of science and then went right back to climate change.

He clearly doesn't want to rile a large segment of his base by coming right out and agreeing with evolution but he also doesn't want appear anti-science. I am quite sure that he has advisers that are keenly aware of how most Republicans are perceived with regard to science and they want to avoid the recent example of Ben Carson's missteps in this area. That Cruz launched his candidacy from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia did not help, or that his father was quoted as saying that evolution is a lie perpetrated by Marxists. He has taken no official stance on this issue (unlike Carson, who thinks that Satan had a hand in crafting the theory!) but is not going to be able to avoid the question forever.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Discovery Institute Reports on Why College Students Leave the Faith and Fails To Ask the Important Questions

According to a story in the Religion News Service, more people are turning away from the faith because of their belief that science and religion are incompatible.  Tessa Rath writes:
In the report, Are Young People Losing Their Faith Because of Science?  John West, Associate Director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which is the international hub of the intelligent design movement, highlights the challenge young people face dealing with matters of science and faith. For helpful information and resources, download the report here.
I am always just a hair suspicious when I read things by John West because the DI has a noticeable and biased slant on this kind of news against evolutionary theory.  You have to sign up for the newsletter Nota Bene to get the report but can unsubscribe at any time, the site reads.

The report really isn't a report, in the formal sense.  It is more of a boiled down summary of one, with some references to previous research.  It begins with an anecdote about one Jesse Kilgore, who grew up in an evangelical environment and then, in turmoil because of what he was taught in a biology class, committed suicide:
Jesse had been raised in a devout evangelical Christian home, and his
father served as a military chaplain. He enjoyed defending his faith to his
friends and acquaintances. However, in the last months of his life, Jesse had
been hiding a deep secret from his father: A college professor had
recommended that Jesse read atheist biologist Richard Dawkins’ book The
God Delusion, which argues that science refutes belief in God. The book left
Jesse devastated.
In the days following Jesse’s suicide, Jesse’s father learned that his son
had revealed his growing inner turmoil to a few selected friends. In fact, just
an hour before he took his own life, Jesse confided in his uncle, Rich May:

He started telling me about the fact that he had been taking this biology class and as a result there were a lot of things that really challenged his belief and kinda shaken him and made him lose his faith in what he believed in. [He] specifically mentioned, too, that his professor recommended that he get The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
This story is absolutely tragic, but I suspect that there is considerably more to the story than this, especially since the young man had made references to suicide before he encountered Dawkins or evolution.  Furthermore, as the Sensuous Curmudgeon reports, Kilgore was a young earth creationist and probably hit some pretty hard walls when he got to college.

This brings into sharp focus the possible reason that many people might be leaving the faith when they get to college and to some very important questions of the young adults that are leaving the church that West never gets around to asking, such as:
  • Were you taught that the earth was created six thousand years ago?
  • Were you taught that evolutionary theory was wrong and misguided?
  • Were you taught that there was a world-wide flood that destroyed all life on earth?
  • If you were taught young earth creationism, how did it affect your faith when you found out that there is no scientific support for it?
There are probably some other questions that could be asked, but these would give a good indication of the backgrounds of some of the kids that leave the faith, and whether or not (as I believe), young earth creationism played an important role in that decision.

Much of what the “report” purports to say has already been written and there is really nothing new here that hasn't been known about the faith “fall-off” for some time. It is unfortunate that the Discovery Institute never saw fit to ask the important questions about why this is happening.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Google Graphic

Google has a graphic of the timeline of human evolution that is pretty cool.  The rest of the graphic is, as nearly as I can tell, long bone and skull fragments.  Go to Google to see it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Scorecard on What YEC Sites Think of Homo naledi

Naturalis Historia posted a scorecard  on what the various opinions of Homo naledi are depending on which young earth creationist site you visit.  I have read and responded to the AiG post, which was flawed in its approach from the outset (it assumed that all australopithecines were only apes).

Hat Tip to Todd Wood at CORE.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New DNA Information From Denisova Teeth

Many news outlets are reporting on new findings from the Denisova teeth that were discovered a few years ago.  Here is what the Chicago Tribune has to write:
According to a new analysis of a huge, recently-discovered fossilized molar, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Denisovans lived for roughly 60,000 years in Asia alongside both Neanderthals, their close cousins, and more distantly related Homo sapiens - us. Their complicated genetic legacy suggests that they interbred with both species, and, possibly, with another hominid group that has yet to be discovered.

"The world at that time must have been far more complex than previously thought," Susanna Sawyer, an author of the study, told National Geographic. "Who knows what other hominids lived and what effects they had on us?"
It is taking us a bit long to wrap our brains around the fact that we are the only version of Homo on the planet now and have been for probably fifty thousand years. Prior to our ascendancy, there may well have been three or four related species—part of a syngameon—that occupied the landscape at approximately the same time and, as the researchers point out, likely interbred.  We know that archaic Homo sapiens in Africa interbred with the moderns there and that the moderns that left Africa interbred with the Neandertals and the Denisovans that they encountered.  One big happy family until we ruined the party.  More to come I am sure.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

New BioLogos Post on the Daoxian Modern Human Teeth

My BioLogos post on the new anatomically modern human fossil remains from the South China Daoxian Cave is up.  As always, comments welcome here and there.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Deal Breaker

Ring of Fire has a post on Ben Carson and, if he is being quoted in context, then he has said some truly daft things.  That Dr. Carson is an evangelical Christian is not in dispute, and I personally think it is good to have someone who is so up-front about their faith on the campaign trail.  That is not the problem.  Here is what Justin Lane writes:
During a recent campaign event at a church in Nashville, TN, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson explained that he believes in creation and thinks the theory of evolution is the work of Satan.

“They say, ‘Carson, ya know, how can you be a surgeon, a neurosurgeon, and believe that God created the Earth, and not believe in evolution, which is the basis of all knowledge and all science?'” Carson posited.

“Well, you know, it’s kind of funny. But I do believe God created us, and I did just fine. So I don’t know where they get that stuff from, ya know? It’s not true. And in fact, the more you know about God, and the deeper your relationship with God, I think the more intricate becomes your knowledge of the way things work, including the human body,” he said.

Carson went on to explain that the theory of evolution, specifically, is the work of the devil.

“I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary,” he said.
Evolution is one of the most highly documented, well-supported scientific theories on the planet and he thinks that it came from Satan? Really?  This is, ostensibly, a highly educated man.  I simply cannot take seriously anyone who thinks this, no matter what their other accomplishments might be.  Nor can I vote for a person who thinks this. 

I simply cannot.

Carson is also on record as saying that he thinks that the pyramids in Giza were built by Joseph to store grain.

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post adds this:
Ben Carson’s ideas about things like the pyramids, combined with what he has said about other more immediate topics, suggest not only that his beliefs are impervious to evidence but also an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty. It isn’t what he doesn’t know that’s the problem, it’s what he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know. He thinks that all the archeologists who have examined the pyramids just don’t know what they’re talking about, because Joseph had to put all that grain somewhere. He thinks that after reading something about the second law of thermodynamics, he knows more about the solar system than the world’s physicists do. He thinks that after hearing a Glenn Beck rant about the evils of Islam, he knows as much about a 1,400-year-old religion as any theologian and can confidently say why no Muslim who doesn’t renounce his faith could be president.
In this way, he is not very different from many evangelical Christians who seem to be afflicted by an illness that convinces them that they can dismiss any scientific theory they don't like by reading one article on the subject.  If Carson does not moderate his public speaking on these subjects, he will continue to look foolish.  That is a shame because I think he genuinely wants to help the country and has some good ideas.  Just not the scientific ones. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ben Carson Repudiates Young Earth Creationism

A persistent meme among the media is that Ben Carson is a scientifically ignorant guy who thinks the earth was created six thousand years ago.  Not so fast.  The Christian Post is reporting on comments Carson made specifically addressing that issue.   Stoyan Zaimov writes:
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson clarified that he believes that God created the world but does not believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, as young Earth creationists claim. Carson also criticized those who claim there is no way the Earth can be billions of years old, saying that such people put themselves "in the same category as God."I certainly believe that God is our Creator. And interestingly enough, if you look at our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, it talks about certain inalienable rights given to us by our Creator," Carson told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in an interview.
He still doesn't like evolution. 

Bill Nye at The University of Tennessee Tomorrow Night

Bill Nye will be giving the inaugural Ken and Blaire Mossman Distinguished Lecture at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena. Here is the blurb. From the announcement:
Widely known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Nye is creator and host of the Emmy Award-winning children’s television show of the same name, which aired on PBS from 1992 to 1998.

A scientist, engineer, comedian, and inventor, Nye has authored five children’s books about science. His first book for a general audience, Undeniable—Evolution and the Science of Creation, focuses on the discoveries and principles of evolution.

Nye’s mission is to make science entertaining and accessible and to foster a scientifically literate society by helping people understand and appreciate the science that makes the world work. Nye also seeks to raise awareness about climate change and the value of critical thinking and reason.

He is CEO of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest group. He also holds a few unusual patents, including an improved toe shoe for ballerinas, a device to help people learn to throw a baseball better, and a magnifier made of water.
Come if you can.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Human Evolution = Apartheid?

About seven years ago, a Texas county official by the name of John Wiley Price made unwanted national news when he referred to the astronomical term “Black Hole” as racist. From the original story:
Later, Price told MyFOXdfw.com that he believed it and other terms were racist.

"So if it's 'angel food cake,' it's white. If it's 'devil's food cake,' it's black. If you're the 'black sheep of the family,' then you gotta be bad, you know. 'White sheep,' you're okay. You know?" Price said.

Price said people should watch their words when it comes to stereotypes.

"I think people should always be careful. You know, I'm okay if I'm 'bartering' with you. ... But if I try to 'Jew you down,' Oooooh. Is that racist? I thought it meant the same thing? No, maybe it doesn't."
Rather than confirm that the term “Black Hole” is racist, this story, instead, confirmed that science education had completely failed Mr. Price.That he could not distinguish between an astronomical term and a racial epithet was truly amazing.

A story today from South Africa is broadly similar in its absurdity.  As PhysOrg reports:
Some prominent South Africans have dismissed the discovery of a new human ancestor as a racist theory designed to cast Africans as "subhuman", an opinion that resonates in a country deeply bruised by apartheid.

"No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon. Sorry," said Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of the powerful trade union group Cosatu, a faithful ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

"I am no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon—finish en klaar (Afrikaans for "that's it")," he said on his Twitter account, which is followed by more than 300,000 people.

His comments were backed by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which was historically involved in the fight against apartheid.
Cloaked in the fight against apartheid to give it legitimacy, this perspective is nothing more than anti-evolutionary creationism.  Incredulous, Richard Dawkins comments:
It "breathes new life into paranoia," said prominent British biologist Richard Dawkins on his Twitter account this week. "Whole point is we're all African apes."
He is correct. Importantly, just like Mr. Price, science education has failed Mr. Vavi. We are not descended from baboons. We never were. The large-bodied and small-bodied primates split sometime around the Oligocene Epoch, some 35 to 40 million years ago.  Baboons went one way and the apes went the other.

I am waiting for the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis to jump all over this.  The DI has attempted to link evolutionary theory with eugenics and racism before. As far as AiG is concerned, evolution is just plain evil. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Elizabeth Mitchell, Homo naledi and the Straw Man

Elizabeth Mitchell, of Answers in Genesis, has written the rebuttal to the eLife Science paper on the new hominin find from South Africa, Homo naledi.  Sadly, her opening premise suffers from a fatal logical error, and all that follows proceeds from this premise. She writes:
Berger’s team believes the bones paint a mosaic picture of a species mixing human-like “Homo” and australopithecine ape features. Composites constructed from four partial skulls in the assemblage have small brain capacities—560 cc and 465 cc—that overlap the usual brain capacities of australopithecines. Such braincases are much smaller than those seen in most archaic humans1 and less than half the average for modern humans.
Hidden in this paragraph is a theme which runs throughout the post: that australopithecines were apes.  Compare, for example, these passages.  First, what Berger et al. write about the shoulder girdle:
The shoulders are configured largely like those of australopiths. The vertebrae are most similar to Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, whereas the ribcage is wide distally like Au. afarensis.
Now, what Mitchell writes:
Homo naledi’s shoulder joints and curved finger bones are typical of tree-swinging apes. Its flared hips are typical of australopithecine apes. The lower ribcage widens just like the ribcage of australopithecine apes.
When Raymond Dart discovered the first australopithecine specimen, in 1924, the first thing he noticed was that

it was not an ape.

As I wrote in more detailed fashion here, the find had several characteristics simply not found on any ape. First, the foramen magnum, the hole through which the spinal cord exits the head, was not at the back of the head, as in apes, but was on the bottom of the skull. Second, the teeth were not those of an ape, but had the dimensions of human teeth. In apes, even infant apes, the canines extend beyond the tooth row. In this skull, they did not. Third, the skull was simply too large to be that of an infant ape, based on the development. Fourth, there had never been found any apes in South Africa. Dart was a good anatomist and knew that what he had was not quite human—the skull was too small for that and the front of the face was too ape-like, but he also knew he did not have an ape.  That is why Dart gave it the name he did: Australopithecus africanus, “Southern Ape-Man from Africa.”   

Since this discovery some ninety one years ago,  the validity of this genus has only been reinforced, with the additional discoveries of more than ten different species of Australopithecus, all with variations on the same theme, and all with the following non-ape characteristics:
  • human-like teeth (although quite large in some species)
  • modern double-s shaped vertebral column
  • short, wide hips that resemble humans and not apes
  • a valgus knee, with the femoral-tibial articulation at an angle, instead of straight up, as in apes
  • a laterally-bending proximal femur to accomodate the wide hips and the connexion to the tibia and
  • a modern gait (reflected in preserved 3.6 million year old footprints at Laetoli)
There are countless other small anatomical characteristics that separate apes from these early hominins but the ones outlined above are enough to demonstrate that the initial premise of Dr. Mitchell is, simply, incorrect.

But there is something deeper at work here.  Pick up a paper on australopithecines, any paper, written in the last sixty years and you will find discussions of how these forms differed from each other and, more importantly, how they differ from apes.  Are they human?  Manifestly not.  In some early species, there are characteristics that are, indeed, intermediate between apes and early humans. But even that gives rise to the concept of transitional traits and forms in the fossil record.  That is where the problem lies.  If australopithecines can be painted as apes from the outset, then the task of showing that the new Homo naledi specimen is not different from australopithecines, and therefore, apes, becomes easier.

Then she writes something startling:
The question then is what is Homo naledi? Even the evolutionary anthropologists are not in agreement on that point, though most seem to have jumped on the Homo bandwagon. Yet while the fossil record contains many legitimate examples of extinct varieties of humans, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, after assessing the published reports, we beg to differ with Berger’s assessment of Homo naledi. We do not believe Homo naledi deserves its Homo designation. [Emphasis Mine]
When did they these fossil forms go extinct? There is no evidence of extinction in the accounts in the Bible. Other writers do not seem to think they went extinct during the flood.  David Menton is firm in his conviction that Homo erectus represents a post-Babel population:
Neanderthals buried their dead and may have worn jewelry. Homo erectus seems to have divvied up jobs to prepare food and sailed the high seas. Even with little to go on, we can be fairly certain the Denisovans wore jewelry, and the much-maligned “hobbits” left tools useful for dicing up lunch. All uniquely human traits—traits that show creatures made in the image of God.
Which one of the biblical patriarchs had an angular torus, large brow ridges, thick cranial bones and a cranial capacity of 900 cubic centimeters? All of these traits would have stood out in any population. The variation present that Menton squeezes into one happy family vastly exceeds that present in any other naturally-occurring genus on the planet, let alone species. 

She finishes her post with the same, time and time again rebutted argument that the reason that Homo naledi is not a human is similar to australopithecines and, therefore, is nothing more than an ape.  This is the vacuum chamber/wind tunnel that AiG operates within.  Despite clear, decisive anatomical evidence to the contrary, the writers keep telling themselves that australopithecines were nothing more than apes.  The argument still has no credibility.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The York Dispatch: The Losers Are Winning in Dover

The York Dispatch has an editorial on the aftermath of the Dover trial and how it has affected the plaintiffs in the case.  In short: not well.  First they remind us of the words of John Jones III at the trial:
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for (intelligent design). It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."
Despite this, as the editorial outlines, Bryan and Christy Rehm have been the target of veiled attacks and have been ostracized:
The Rehms, whose days in Dover Township are numbered, recently told The York Dispatch that they've had enough of the negativity that has followed them since the trial. They're moving.

"It just never goes away," Christy Rehm said. "We have proof it never goes away. We still feel it. We have neighbors that aren't so friendly with us."

Religious literature regularly fills their mailbox, and people call them "heathens" behind their backs, they said.

"We've given so much time, effort and energy to this district," Christy said. "A lot of people — a lot of our friends — have walked away, and we're still here. People just don't stay here."
What a rotten Christian witness from people who don't seem to know better but should.  I am sure there are quite a few people who didn't treat them this way, but the stench remains.  This is one reason (out of many) that I am almost done with modern evangelical Christianity.  Not Christianity, just the way people in the modern evangelical movement practice it.  I have a friend who went that route (not for the same reasons) a few years ago and converted to Orthodoxy.  That is looking better and better. 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Or is Homo naledi Actually Homo erectus?

California Magazine, from the University of California at Berzerkeley, has an article written by Glen Martin, in which he details the skepticism about the taxonomic status of Homo naledi, specifically, that it does not represent a new species.  Martin writes:
The popular science press went bonkers last month with news that fossilized bones of a previously unknown hominid had been discovered in a cave system in South Africa. Dubbed Homo naledi by lead researcher and University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, these proto-humans appeared to have lived somewhere between 1 to 3 million years ago, used tools, walked upright, and may have buried their dead, a practice that has only been attributed to our own species, Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals.

So there was a lot of talk of a “missing link”—the biggest find in paleoanthropology since Lucy, the skeleton of a female
Australopithecus, was excavated from a gully near Ethiopia’s Awash River in 1974. (Donald Johanson, the lead researcher in Lucy’s discovery team, founded the Institute of Human Origins, which later moved from Berkeley to Arizona State.)
As I mentioned in my post on the find, echoed by PZ Myers, at Pharyngula, this notion of a “missing link” is a straw man that has been created by the popular press and jumped on by organizations like the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis.  Martin continues:
Amid all the hoopla and confetti, however, a growing number of scientists are advising caution. They’re not denying the importance of the find; the fossils, they say, are invaluable. But they contend that the bones may not represent a new species. The evidence these skeptics point to suggests that the finds may actually be bones from
Homo erectus, the earliest known hominid to manifest the general proportions, stance and gait of modern humans. H. erectus had a long tenure on the planet, living from about 2 million to 70,000 years ago. The species was widely distributed (from Africa to East Asia and possibly southern Europe), used tools and fire, and may have constructed rafts to cross wide bodies of water.
Berger maintains that the skulls are too small, with too many primitive characteristics to be Homo erectus.  Once again, though, we come to the problem of how old the bones are.  Here, White is particularly critical:
One tibia, for example, was white on one end, a clear indication it had been snapped off in the recent past,” said White. “This (region’s) complex is extensive and like Swiss cheese, and it’s a favorite with spelunkers. You find beer cans next to fossils that are 3.5 million years old. So it’s important not to jump to conclusions.”
If the bones are late, as is possible, then the finds (or at least parts of them) might represent a Homo erectus population that has late primitive retentions. Even if there is more than one species present, there is no getting around the fact that the small, primitive cranium is where the Homo erectus traits are found, as well.

Berger is quoted as saying that this debate should play out in the published literature.  I suspect it will and that, eventually, we will figure out what sorts of primitive and derived traits the cache in the cave actually represents, even if we might never know exactly how old they are.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

PZ Myers on Casey Luskin

PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, has some harsh words for Casey Luskin's examination of Homo naledi.  In the post, he points out something that I have pointed out in several posts for BioLogos and in my rebuttal to Luskin's post on Homo naledi: a complete lack of understanding of systematics:
I’m not going to dissect every point in Luskin’s tediously long article in detail — really, he’s just echoing every question anyone has asked about H. naledi in the last few weeks, in an attempt to construct a litany of doubt — but I have to point out the numerous ways he misrepresents evolutionary biology to pretend that H. naledi is somehow a refutation of Darwin. As I’ve pointed out many times before, Luskin is a scientific illiterate who doesn’t actually understand anything remotely biological, from genetics to embryology to molecular biology to, now, paleontology. Actually, this isn’t the first time Luskin has tripped over himself in a rush to deny — he also didn’t like Tiktaalik. So this is just more of the same.
Luskin has a bad case of missinglinkitis. This is the idea that there is a linear series of steps in a progression leading from ape to human, and all we have to do is find each frame in the movie and we can replay everything in science class. He wants a “link”, a word he uses multiple times, and he wants “transitional fossils”, unaware that every individual is a transition between parent and progeny.
The key is to focus on the traits, something that Luskin and other Intelligent Design supporters fail to do. Myers further points out, as I did, that just about every fossil that we find is a mosaic of traits and when we follow the trait patterns, we can develop phylogenies.  This line of thinking has led to remarkable understanding of the evolution of Devonian tetrapods and the transition from theropod maniraptoran dinosaurs into birds. 

He also makes light of a point that Luskin makes about the venue that Berger and colleagues took when they wanted to publish the paper:
I have to mention two other lesser points from the paper. Luskin really knows nothing.

The technical paper, “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” appeared in a lesser-known journal, eLife. It’s a great find due to the sheer number of bones that were found, but to my mind its publication in eLife is an immediate hint that this fossil isn’t an earthshattering “transitional form,” because if it were, we almost unquestionably would have seen the fossil published in Science or Nature.
No. Wrong. A lot of scientists resent the tyranny of the magical CV-enhancing powers of those two journals, and think they have an inflated and dangerously dominant reputation. eLife is an entirely credible new journal which, to all appearances, has a robust reputation for good, solid peer-review…and is also open source. There are a lot of scientists who are eager to see scientific information disseminated more widely without the limiting restrictions of traditional journal publishing, and Lee Berger, the lead investigator in this work, doesn’t need the résumé reinforcement that publishing in Nature or Science provides.
This is only half-correct. While it is quite true that many scientists like to publish in open-source publications like eLife and PLoS, this is not always the perspective of the managers and department heads, many of whom would much prefer that their researchers publish in high-profile journals, like Science and Nature.  I know this to be true through my work not just in publishing but in dealing with funders.  They like flashy papers.  This often (but not always) conflicts with the desires of the researchers, themselves.  Even though there are plenty of researchers who would like just to publish and get the information out there as fast as possible, I know of quite a few researchers who don't mind padding their resumes a bit with high-profile papers because they are angling for a position higher up on the academic food chain.  We would love to think otherwise, but it just isn't always true. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Casey Luskin on Homo naledi

Casey Luskin has written a piece for Evolution, News and Views, in which he examines the hype surrounding the new Homo naledi find.  It would take more time than I have to tackle it point by point, but I will hit the high notes.  He writes:
It has long been recognized that we are missing fossils documenting the supposed transition from the apelike genus Australopithecus to the humanlike Homo. Despite what you may be hearing in the media, Homo naledi does not solve this problem.
That's okay. It wasn't meant to. It fills in a bit of a puzzle, that is all. We now have more information than we had about this transition, which appears to have been complex.  He continues:
Some have envisioned the hallowed intermediate link being a creature with an apelike body and a human-like head. For some time, Homo habilis was claimed to be such a candidate -- until cooler heads prevailed, as I noted earlier. Others have hoped we'd uncover something with a more Homo-like postcranial (below the head) skeleton but a more australopith-ape-like body. Indeed, almost exactly four years ago, in a post titled "Hominid Hype and the Election Cycle," I noted these precise arguments with regard to Australopithecus sediba.
Coincidently, we're right now in almost exactly the same place in the election cycle, and seeing almost identical claims about this new fossil discovery. Indeed, Homo naledi was discovered (and is being promoted) by the same researcher, Lee Berger, that unveiled (and promoted) sediba, although, as we'll see, naledi has a very different and unique set of traits from sediba.
One of the issues so far has been the dating of the remains.  Luskin, in quoting Carol Ward's concerns about lack of dating of the fossils, makes a legitimate objection in that we do not know how old the bones are.  That is a problem.  As I pointed out in my BioLogos post, we can date the cave floor, we can date the cave walls and we can date the cave ceiling but we have little to no idea when the bones were dropped in.  It is clear that the floor of this cave was not a living floor.  He writes:
The main claim about Homo naledi is that it is a small-brained hominin (when compared to humans) that has other features that are very humanlike -- especially its hands and feet. As the news headlines suggest, there has been an immense amount of hype about this species, consistent with the hype surrounding Australopithecus sediba, which again was discovered and promoted by the same researcher, Lee Berger. However, while there are some humanlike aspects of its body plan, my overall impression is that this is a highly unique species that doesn't fit well into previously established categories.
He is also correct about that.  It doesn't.  H. naledi has characteristics that link it with many different hominins and the combination of traits is unique.   This is not a problem it is, as Carol Ward commented, shows us that there was considerable hominin diversity at this time and, apparently at other times in the past.  The problem is that he uses selective passages and slanted wording to imply that the case for it having "human" traits is overblown.  For example:

  For example, Luskin writes:
The hands are claimed to be humanlike but they have key unique features and, unlike human hands, are tailored for climbing. ABC News reported: "Homo naledi had human-like hands and feet, but Tattersall said it was impressive that it also had climbing features, more similar to an ape." CNN reports: "Its hands are superficially humanlike, but the finger bones are locked into a curve -- a trait that suggests climbing and tool-using capabilities." And even Berger states: "It's pretty clear from those fingers that they're [for] climbing."
All of this is done to shift the emphasis away from the fact that, while the hominin did possess primitive traits, it also possessed derived ones. Let's see what Berger actually writes about the find:
The hand shares many derived features of modern humans and Neandertals in the thumb, wrist, and palm, but has relatively long and markedly curved fingers (Kivell et al., 2015). The thumb is long relative to the length of the other digits, and includes a robust metacarpal with well-developed intrinsic (M. opponens pollicis and M. first dorsal interosseous) muscle attachments.
Note the characteristics that Luskin leaves out.  With regard to our understanding of its taxonomic designation, Luskin writes:
Even Berger admits, "It doesn't look a lot like us." He also states: "There may be debate over the Homo designation" since "the species is quite different from anything else we have seen."
It wouldn't be surprising if later analyses change our understanding of the fossil.
He then puts in the following quote from an interview of Carol Ward in The Scientist:
Carol Ward, a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri who was not involved with the study said she was disappointed by the lack of empirical data presented in the paper. "There are only tiny composite pictures of the fossils, so you can't see them and there are no comparative data comparing it to anything else," said Ward. "There's nothing we can use to make our own judgments about the validity of what they are saying."
The problem is that he leaves out a rather significant statement about the find that precedes that. Here is the entire passage from the article (emphasis added):
“H. naledi possesses a combination of primitive and derived features not seen in the hand of any other hominin,” the authors wrote, but Carol Ward, a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri who was not involved with the study said she was disappointed by the lack of empirical data presented in the paper. “There are only tiny composite pictures of the fossils, so you can’t see them and there are no comparative data comparing it to anything else,” said Ward. “There’s nothing we can use to make our own judgments about the validity of what they are saying.”
Luskin has done two things here.  By removing the ellipses in from of the initial part of the quote, he suggests that this is a self-contained thought, which it clearly is not.  Further, by not quoting the initial statement of Ward's, he omits that she sees not just primitive but derived traits as well.  This is a pattern throughout his piece.

He phrases the rest of the piece in the form of four controversies.

The first is “How Old is Homo naledi?”  The irony here is that Luskin could very easily have focused on this topic and left it at that.  He has Berger over a barrel, here.  We don't know how old the bones are.  We have zero idea when they were dropped in. Gunter Brauer had a problem in the 1990s with an important skull in the transition to early modern humans, Eliye Springs, which washed out a bank where the spring entered Lake Turkana.  Great find, no idea what its age is.  As I mentioned in my blog post on Homo naledi, the South African cave sites present a serious problem for dating the hominins in which they are found.  Some success has been had but many finds are simply given wide chronological ranges.

Consequently, if Homo naledi is between 2 and 3 mya, it represents a find that is near where the transition is thought to occur, based on the presence of early Homo in East Africa, although the Ledi jaw may suggest an earlier transition.  On the other hand, if it is late, say 1 mya, then it simply represents a dead end that retained many primitive traits.

Here is what Luskin writes about this:
But some of naledi's advocates think they know what to make of the fossils, despite the compete current lack of an age for these fossils. How do they know? Evolutionary assumptions, which drive a desire among some that the bones should turn out to be somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million years old.
This is not entirely true and Luskin knows it, or ought to. There are perfectly valid reasons to suggest that this find is this old, even if we do not, in fact, know its age. For one thing, we know that we have hominins in East Africa that have derived traits toward modern humans between 2.3 and 1.8 million years ago.  Consequently, we know that the transition to this form(s) took place somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 million years ago.  Further, this tracks with the discovery of the Ledi jaw, which has a mix of australopithecine and early Homo traits and is dated to 2.8 mya.  Therefore, do we know how old the Homo naledi fossils are?  No, we don't.  Are the estimated dates just being driven by evolutionary assumptions?  Clearly not.

Controversy Number 2: “Is Homo naledi a single species?”  Luskin writes:
The question of whether the bones currently assigned to Homo naledi represent a single species may seem like an academic one but it actually could bear directly upon whether it's something like a transitional form, or nothing of the kind. Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks the bones represent multiple species because of the two different types of skulls found in the cave.
Where Luskin is going with this is that, if there are, in fact, two different species in the cave, then some of them might just be modern human.  He continues:
The fact that Berger appeals to sexual dimorphism (different morphologies between males and females of a single species) to explain the different skulls is revealing. It shows that there is indeed a challenge to his "single species" claim. However, if there are multiple species, then you don't necessarily know that humanlike hands and feet didn't come from something more like us, whereas the small heads came from another species more like an australopith. We just don't know.
Here, he glosses over something very important:  even the human-like skeletal material has characteristics that are not modern for example:
  • The small heads have both angular and occipital tori, characteristics only found on Homo erectus.  No australopithecine has these and no modern human does, either.
  • The faces, while being small, lack australopithecine traits such as canine jugae and anterior pillars.  Further, there is limited post-orbital constriction, a more modern characteristic.
  • Even the “human-like” hands and feet have characteristics that are primitive. For example, Berger writes: 
    The talar head and neck exhibit strong, humanlike torsion; the horizontal angle is higher than in most humans, similar to that found in australopiths. The calcaneus is only moderately robust, but possesses the plantar declination of the retrotrochlear eminence and plantarly positioned lateral plantar process found in both modern humans and Au. afarensis...The phalanges are moderately curved, slightly more so than in H. sapiens. The only primitive anatomies found in the foot of H. naledi are the talar head and neck declination and sustentaculum tali angles, suggestive of a lower arched foot with a more plantarly positioned and horizontally inclined medial column than typically found in modern humans...Overall, carpal shapes and articular configurations are very similar to those of modern humans and Neandertals, and unlike those of great apes and other extinct hominins. However, the H. naledi wrist lacks a third metacarpal styloid process, has a more radioulnarly oriented capitate-Mc2 joint, and has a relatively small trapezium-Mc1 joint compared to humans and Neandertals. Moreover, the phalanges are long (relative to the palm) and more curved than most australopiths.
Therefore, appeals to there being modern humans in the cave along with australopithecines are not warranted. Maybe there was more than one species in the cave and one of them was an australopithecine. What remained, however, was not modern human.  There are no modern humans walking around with angular and occipital tori.

But say there is more than one species down there, and these different species represent different times in the history of hominin evolution.  Would this be a bad thing? What it would mean is that there is a good deal of variability in the human fossil record, something we already suspected anyway.  We know that expanded diversity existed as far back as Ardipithecus.  Why would it not be present at other times?

Controversy No. 3: Did Homo naledi Bury Its Dead?  Here is Luskin:
A major claim being promoted in the media holds that Homo naledi ritualistically buried its dead, a testimony to its supposedly human-like intellect.
Even if this story is true, it's not the case that this species buried its dead in any manner like humans bury their dead. The bones weren't buried in the ground. Rather, it seems like the bodies were just tossed into the back crevice of a cave and left there to rot...
Luskin is correct that the media attention to this is overblown and sensationalistic. Luskin goes on, then to quote many different researchers who are skeptical about this claim (skepticism that I think is warranted, by the way) But let's see what Berger et al. say about it. First, the word “burial” never appears once in the original paper by Berger et al. That information comes from the supplementary paper by Dirks et al., who write this:
The Dinaledi collection displays taphonomic characteristics indicative of a depositional history that involved several stages of burial with surface modifications and breakage patterns consistent with repeated reworking of at least part of the assemblage within the confines of the Dinaledi Chamber, involving both biotic and abiotic agents (Supplementary file 2). The distribution of bone material and skeletal part representation indicative of limited winnowing (Table 1) indicate that the fossils of H. naledi must have found their way into the chamber via a difficult route that precluded any other large vertebrates from finding a way in. The distribution of the fossils within reworked material derived from Unit 2, as well-articulated remains in Unit 3 suggests that H. naledi fossils entered the chamber over an extended period of time; that is, not all remains were deposited at once.
So that is what we know, and that is all we know.  First, I was wrong in my post on BioLogos, this is not a standard karst cave with a top opening of any kind.  Consequently, there is no way for the bones to have gotten there unless they were placed there.  There is one possible explanation that is not mentioned by Dirks that is not in the account by Luskin:
Flowstone formation continues today (Flowstone 3), changing the morphology of cave passages. This makes it possible that a more direct access-way or easier passage may have existed when hominins entered. A different entrance into the chamber may also explain the presence of rodent bone concentrations in Facies 1b. However, sedimentation patterns indicate that the accumulation of Unit 2 with fossils occurred below the current entry point into the chamber, and alternate routes did not involve vertical access shafts that connected directly to surface in either the Dinaledi Chamber or nearby Dragon's Back Chamber.
This doesn't address the reliability of the burial hypothesis but it does suggest that it might have been much easier for the bones to get where they were.  I suspect that Jungers is correct in his hypothesis about whether or not they were intentionally buried.

Controversy No. 4: Does "Homo" naledi Belong in Homo? Luskin writes:
Ian Tattersall told ABC News: "We're [probably] looking at a cousin rather than an ancestor, but who knows."

"Who knows..." That is exactly right. Even Berger stated: "We need to be very cautious about proclaiming everything we find as the direct ancestors of humans, it's clear there are a lot of experiments going on out there."
Much is left out of this series of statements. Let's go back to the ABC article from which it is quoted:
Researchers said the newly discovered species most resembles other hominids such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis.

Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the find was incredibly important and could shed important light on Homo sapiens, modern humans, as a species and the many other early hominoids.

“It’s really very exciting,” Tattersall told ABC News. “What this is doing is definitely increasing the perception that we have -- that evolution of hominids was one of vigorous experimentation of evolution.”
Why would the find shed any light on Homo if it did not have any characteristics of Homo? As numerous researchers have commented, it absolutely does.  Many of the characteristics that align it with Homo erectus have been pointed out, as well as other deviations from australopithecines.

Much of what Luskin is trying to accomplish in this section is focused on the fact that, while the Dinaledi finds have characteristics that align them with Homo, they also have some that align them with australopithecines and maybe we are over-interpreting the early Homo ones.  He then vaguely supports his case by using a series of quotes from researchers who are skeptical that we know exactly what H. naledi actually is.  For example, he writes this:
Schwartz himself wrote a scathing op-ed in Newsweek, "Why the Homo Naledi Discovery May Not Be Quite What it Seems." He argued that "Homo naledi" may in fact represent multiple species, and probably doesn't belong in Homo:
Interestingly, he then quotes Schwartz, who points out only the australopithecine portions of the anatomy, to the exclusion of any of the modern traits that it has.  While it is quite true that there are differing opinions about what these finds represent, it is equally true that there are Homo traits present.  Consequently, to simply lump them in with australopithecines is inaccurate.  It may be years before we have enough information to make a sound judgment about exactly where this fits in the pantheon of human evolution, but for now, we can safely say that, whether or not there are one species present or two, a hominin with some of the traits of early Homo was present at this cave.

But even if

it turns out that H. naledi is, in fact, Au. naledi, after much reflection.  Then it just means that australopithecine diversity is greater than we thought it was and that there were many different morphs that exhibited a wide range of traits, some of which were derived in the direction of Homo.  That we don't know exactly which form gave rise to an early Homo form is not a deal-breaker.  Remember, systematics does not reveal ancestor-descendant relationships, but, instead, sister taxa.  Au. sediba and H. naledi are two different forms that express a mosaic of traits, some of which are advanced and some which are not.  They are both considerably more advanced than the australopithecines that preceded them.

Luskin is focused on the fact that H. naledi is probably not the missing link between the australopithecines and early Homo that everybody was hoping for.  That is beside the point.  The point is we now know quite a bit more about this stage of human evolution.  Even if the bones turn out to be younger than we thought, it still gives us information about human evolutionary development that we did not already have.  That's okay.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Debating Homo naledi on Premier Christian Radio

I took part in a debate on Premier Christian Radio last Thursday with Fuz Rana, of Reasons to Believe, on the new Homo naledi find and the respective cases for evolution and intelligent design.  It was quite fun and very cordial and respectful.  The host, Justin Brierley did a very good job of moderating and asking the right questions.  Let me know what you think.  Fuz spent some time talking about the book Who Was Adam? he co-wrote with Hugh Ross which, I am embarrassed to say, I have not read yet.  I need to do that post-haste. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Alabama Adopts Pro-Evolution Curriculum Stance

The state of Alabama has adopted an educational stance that includes an active attempt to teach evolution, rather than a passive one.  The Associated Press carries this:
The current state standard says students "should understand the nature of evolutionary theories," but such knowledge isn't required.

The new standard goes further, stating in the preface: "The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution."
This is a step in the right direction. Another thing that the article points out is that the new standards were unanimously approved by “Republican-controlled Alabama State Board of Education.” Not the same bunch of Republicans that you find on the Texas State Board of Education, that's for sure.

Darrel Falk's Post on Homo naledi

Darrel Falk has a short post on Homo naledi, in which he discusses the nature of the science and misconceptions that we have had with regard to human evolution.  He writes:
Interestingly, besides all the PR associated with the discovery, it is documented by likely the finest Nova/National Geographic production I have ever seen on human evolution, which is available to view online here. I've watched the first hour of the two hour special which will appear next Wednesday evening (Sept 16) on PBS. I love it because it shows in absolutely exciting detail how the science is done. It also shows how wrong earlier paleontologists were regarding the nature of our early ancestors—they weren't 'killers' as depicted in early film and scientific literature. They were plant eaters with likely the occasional meat meal. The natural forces associated with the evolution of the human body were NOT selection for the fittest killers. Indeed, although not specifically discussed in the film (I've not quite finished it), cooperation was likely a much more important shaper of the distinctively human mind than competition.
As was outlined in the Nova special, it was the work of Bob Brain, who discovered that marks in the skull that had been attributed to interpersonal violence on the part of australopithecines, were, in fact, created by large cat predators.

My BioLogos post on Homo naledi will be out shortly.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Nova Special: Dawn of Humanity

Nova will be airing a special tonight (9/16) on the Dawn of Humanity, focusing on the new Homo naledi finds from South Africa.  The video is also streaming on the PBS site here.  I am currently writing up a piece for BioLogos which should appear soon.  So, too, is Elizabeth Mitchell of AiG, from what I understand. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

York Daily Record: Ten Years Since Kitzmiller

The York Daily Record has an issue on the ten year anniversary of the Kitzmiller decision that devastated the intelligent design movement.  Among the articles, an interview with Judge Jones, the fate of the book that started the problem, Of Pandas and People, and the social and legal consequences of the decision. About Pandas:
In a deposition, school board member Bill Buckingham said he did not know how they were donated to the high school. Another member of the board, Alan Bonsell, denied that he knew anyone, except his father, who was involved in giving copies of the books.

During the trial, Buckingham said members of his church felt there was a need to give money, but that he did not consider that a collection. Bonsell said that he got an $850 check from Buckingham.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III wrote in his decision that the "inescapable truth" is that both Buckingham and Bonsell lied during their depositions.

Today, only one "Of Pandas and People" book remains, in the Dover Area School District's administration building, according to the library catalog. The catalog also reports there's one copy of the book that's listed as "lost."

So, what happened to the other 48 books? With the exception of three copies, nobody seems to know.
Hopefully, into the circular file. That is certainly where it belongs.

Judge Jones, when asked about the misconceptions that the Intelligent Design community derived from the case:
I would say the main one is the role of precedent.

In the Kitzmiller case, there's a very clear line of cases from higher courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, that set out tests that we use in deciding whether a particular policy violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. Those are etched in stone.

Now, people may disagree with those tests, but I have to, had to, as a federal judge, apply them. I have frequently said since the Kitzmiller case that I think any federal judge in the United States would have decided it exactly the same way that I did by applying those tests.

Now, they may have written the opinion a little bit differently, but the result would have been the same. That is, that the board, at that time, had a clear religious motivation, and violated the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment by its policy introducing intelligent design into the curriculum. The misconception arises because, frankly, people either deliberately — or from a lack of understanding — think that we make this stuff up as we go along, and that we're not bound to apply these precedents, these mandates, from higher courts. And that's exactly what I did in deciding the case.
All of the articles are fascinating examinations of the make up of the ID movement and its aftermath.

Hat tip to the NCSE.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Early Homo in South Africa

The New York Times is reporting on a new find out of South Africa, by Lee Berger and his team, that indicates the presence of early Homo there.  John Noble Wilford writes:
The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal
eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Dr. Berger said.
Here is the link to the first paper, Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa, and here is the link to the taphonomic paper, Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. Here is the picture from the main paper, as well as the abstract:
Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology. H. naledi has humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist. It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb. These humanlike aspects are contrasted in the postcrania with a more primitive or australopith-like trunk, shoulder, pelvis and proximal femur. Representing at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times, this is the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.

What does this mean?  Well, the principle problem is that we still have no date for these remains, so it is difficult to place them chronologically.  Berger is standing by his contention that early Homo arose from something like Au sediba, despite evidence to the contrary recently uncovered in Northeast Africa.  If the date is late, somewhere on the order of one million years, then a migration model might explain the appearance of such an advanced hominin in this area.  If it turns out to be much older, then other models might have to be entertained.  More thoughts on this find later.

Friday, September 04, 2015

William Provine Has Died

William Provine, a tireless crusader for evolutionary theory and opponent of creationism, has died.  He was 73.  Provine was a professed atheist, as the NCSE story relates:
Provine was a vocal and persistent opponent of creationism. He wrote thoughtfully on evolution and creationism, e.g. in his essay on "Evolution, Religion, and Science" in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006), but he was perhaps most famous for his views on the connection between evolution and atheism. He once asserted, "As the creationists claim, belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people" — a consequence that he welcomed. His views were formed in graduate school, where, he related in his memoir, "[a]fter reading [Theodosius] Dobzhansky several times and listening to [Lynn] Throckmorton, my belief in purposive nature disappeared for good." He was eager to share his views.
Evolution only makes you an atheist if you have a very limited view of God that has to fit into a young earth creationist box.  I wonder if he ever read the writings of B.B. Warfield and Bernard Ramm.  I do not know if he ever debated a theistic evolutionist, but I do know that constantly debating young earth creationists might very well give one a jaded view of organized religion.

I have long thought that atheism derives, largely, from socio-cultural perspectives and that science cannot “make” someone an atheist.  The fact that the BioLogos Institute exists at all ought to be a good indication of that.

Put another way, if two people examine the same data and conclude that they support evolutionary theory in exactly the same way and one person comes away thinking  “Well, this obviously shows there is no God,” and the other person comes away thinking “Wow, look at the awesome power of God's creation,” then the driver is clearly not science.

The story does not relate the cause of death but I do know that Provine lived decades longer than he thought he was going to be able to.  He came to the University of Tennessee in the late 1990s to give a talk on evolutionary theory and intimated at the time that he had a malignant brain tumor that he thought was untreatable.  Apparently, they treated it very effectively. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

What Would Happen If the Discovery Institute Started Enabling Comments?

Ann Gauger, writing for Evolution, News and Views, has a particularly vacuous post on What If People Stopped Believing in Darwin? For example, she writes:
What would change?

Well, textbooks would change, for one. And a newfound humility might briefly sweep the halls of academic biology. Biology students might feel free to express their opinions on origins. The world would see a new flush of academic freedom.

Guess what? It's happening right now, but it's happening slowly, not overnight. That's because more and more people are recognizing that evolutionary biology's explanatory power is inversely proportional to its rigor. Yet there is still an enormous amount of pushback from people strongly invested in the Darwinian story.
What is your evidence for this, Ann? On what basis do you write this? It certainly doesn't match anything that I read.  One of the principle reasons that nonsense like this gets written on this blog is that they can get away with it with no impunity because the DI specifically does not enable comments. In fact, they don't even publish the email addresses of the members.  One actually has to contact a middle man (Casey Luskin) who then passes on messages.

So how about it, DI?  How about enabling moderated comments for the articles on this blog?