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? 

Here's an Interesting Idea: Modern Humans Teamed with Dogs to Outlast Neandertals

National Geographic is reporting on a study done by Pat Shipman for a new book titled The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.  As Shipman relates: 

Předmostí is one of a series of archaeological sites in Central and Eastern Europe. They're really weird sites because they're full of dead mammals. Before modern humans came into Eurasia, there was little evidence that Neanderthals were killing mammoths on a regular basis. They're huge! Attacking them with handheld weapons was probably too intimidating, unless you came across a baby mammoth.

But once modern humans arrive on the scene, you start finding these sites with dozens and sometimes hundreds of dead mammoths. At some, the bones are so concentrated that if the mammoths were alive they couldn't stand in the territory where their bones are.

These mammoth megasites, as they became known, contain an outrageous amount of mammoths. So what's changed that is going to enable modern humans to kill all these animals? Neanderthals couldn't, and they weren't inept. Distance weapons of the kind that humans had might have been helpful, but you had to track the darn thing as it died.

And that's where wolf dogs come in, because wolf dogs are found with lots of mammoth bones. Some of these sites even have beautiful tent-shaped huts made out of mammoth bone. This suggests people were there for a long time. They were living there and building these settlements where the animals died.
Pat Shipman is married to Alan Walker, who was part of the team that excavated and described the Lake Turkana Homo erectus boy, an almost complete skeleton that changed much of what we thought about Homo erectus at the time.  This would be a good read.  Not sure I buy the argument yet, but it is certainly worth consideration.

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.