Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lucy Fell From a Tree?

New research from John Kappelman suggests that the australopithecine specimen known as Lucy, the famous find from the 1970s that put hominins on the map, died from a fall from a tree.  Jen Viegas writes:
In order to assess Lucy's cause of death, Kappelman and his team studied her remains, which include parts of her skull, hand, axial skeleton, pelvis and foot. The scientists used computed tomographic scans to analyze these parts in detail, and then compared the findings to various documented clinical cases where the cause of death is clearly noted.

In addition to discovering that Lucy's cause of death is consistent with a fall from a high place -- presumed to have been from a tall tree due to where her remains were found in the Afar region of Ethiopia -- the fossil clues presented another key piece of evidence.

Fractures in Lucy's upper arms suggest that she stretched out her arms in an attempt to break her fall. This tells us that she was very much alive when she toppled to her demise, and did not die of a heart attack or from some other cause beforehand.
Somehow, given the important role that she has portrayed in the pantheon of human evolution, and the lightning rod she has been for creationists, it seems sad that she came to such an ignominious end. Oh well, we all have to die somehow. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Amanda Glaze: Teaching Evolution in the South

Vox has an interview with Amanda Glaze, a professor at Georgia Southern University, about what it is like to teach evolution in the south.  Sean Illing writes:
Earlier this year, she produced a video for about the challenges she’s encountered as a science educator. 
Teaching science, evolution in particular, can be a thankless job in this part of the country. In some communities, you’re colliding with a culture and a worldview that is both central to the identity of people and deeply threatened by scientific materialism.
“It is such a deeply personal and gut-wrenching reconstruction of identity,” Glaze says, “and you really have to be empathetic to that personal restructuring experience to understand why so many people reject evolution in spite of knowing a lot about it.”
One of the principle comments that she makes is that, while we suspect that evolution rejection is higher in the south, we really don't know for sure:
I am hoping that with the national study data we’re assembling now I can finally answer the question as to whether people in the South are more resistant to evolution than others. As of right now there has not been a study to look at this nationally. So what we are going on is based on the breakdown of small studies that suggest that religiosity is a big factor, more so in some places than others, and that literal interpretations of creation are one of the leading points of contention.

It might turn out that there are other regions that are just as likely to accept or reject, but right now we don't have data to represent those areas. We are making inferences based on the different data sets that are out there and the things that they appear to point to as we learn more. That is precisely why this national study is important.

What we do know is that, at the very least, the South seems to be the region that is the most widely vocal in their anti-evolution positions. It will be very enlightening to see what happens now that we have, and are continuing to collect, data from around the country.
I would be most curious to find out this as well. Given that I have never lived anywhere in this country outside the south, I have no perspective on this, unfortunately. Read the whole thing.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Of Stone Tools and Human Cognition

One of the things that is taught in human origins classes all over the world is that the earliest stone tools were likely made at the site of Dikika, and date to around 3.4 million years ago.  That perspective has now been called into question with the observation that monkeys can create exactly the same kinds of tools—by accident. Sarah Knapton, writing in the Telegraph has this:
In a discovery that calls into question decades of research, a band of wild bearded capuchin monkeys in Brazil were seen hammering rocks to extract minerals, causing large flakes to fly off.

Previously archaeologists believed the flakes were only made by humans through a process called ‘stone-knapping’ where a larger rock is hammered with another stone to produce sharp blade-like slivers which can be used for arrows, spears or knives.

The flakes were thought to represent a turning point in human evolution because they demonstrated a level of planning, cognition and hand manipulation that could not be achieved by other animals.

But the new research suggests that flakes can be made without any such foresight. In fact they can simply be made by accident.

“The fact that we have discovered monkeys can produce the same result does throw a bit of a spanner in the works in our thinking on evolutionary behaviour and how we attribute such artefacts,” said Dr Michael Haslam, lead of the Primate Archaeology project at the University of Oxford.
This is possible and it may be that some of the earliest “tools” aren't any such thing. When hominins started using tools in a concerted fashion has always been a large question in the evolutionary picture. It is very clear that by what we know as the Acheulean, manufactured by Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, the hand axes are clearly human-made. Before that, maybe more research needs to be done to verify that what we think is human behavior actually is.  It is natural to want to impart human intelligence to our ancestors as far back as we can, in an effort to “humanize” them but, sometimes, this might be just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Joel Edmund Anderson: The Heresy of Ham

In my convalescence, I finished Joel Edmund Anderson's The Heresy of Ham: What Every Evangelical Needs to Know About the Creation-Evolution Controversy.

The book is a work of passion, borne out of exhaustive examination of Answers in Genesis and some terrible treatment by fellow “Christians” who hew only to the young earth model and cannot see beyond that. The book covers the early church and how the church fathers saw the collected works that became the Bible and how it addressed the numerous heresies that arose in the first two centuries after Christ. Then it works directly into how the Reformation altered the understanding of the early church and the theological chaos that followed. He finishes up with how young earth creationism, as practiced by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis is heresy. This is laid out succintly here:
The heresy of Ham that is actively “subverting, destabilizing, and destroying” the core of the Christian faith is the claim that a modern, scientific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as literal history is fundamental prerequisite for the trustworthiness of the Gospel of Christ. It is the claim that if the universe is not 6,000 years old, if there was no historical Adam and Eve, and if there was no worldwide flood 4,000 years ago, then that would make God a liar, that would mean there is no such thing as sin, and that would mean Christ died for nothing. Such a message is heresy, and that message has subverted, destabilized, and destroyed the Christian faith of many people, has destroyed careers, and unfortunately, has taken root within a significant portion of Evangelical Christianity.
Along the way, he quotes liberally from the writings of the Hammish one, himself, who clearly has no idea how science is actually practiced.  One point that he makes, though, that is quite interesting is that, when comparing Ham to enlightenment thinkers who sought to divest the bible from the practice of science, he notes that Ham is, in fact, no different.  For example:
In an ironic twist of fate, we find that Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins are both thorough Enlightenment thinkers who share the same fundamental worldview. Both have determined that the physical sciences are the ultimate determiner of truth and reality, and the trustworthiness of the Bible is dependent on whether or not Genesis 1-11 is scientifically accurate. Such thinking actually turns the medieval notion of theology being the “queen of the sciences” on its head.
He is quite correct about this. If we are to take the Primeval History as scientifically accurate, and it is the foundation of our faith, then it MUST reflect reality.  The two are inextricably linked: if we find holes in the scientific accuracy of the PH, then our faith crumbles.  It can do nothing else.  If, on the other hand, we view parts of the PH as non-literal, then science and faith can be decoupled, a position that Ken Ham is unwilling to take.  Yet, if we decouple them, then faith thrives and scientific discourse retains its integrity.  Otherwise, we have what Michael Dowd calls “Flat Earth Religion.” It is not capable of growing theologically or spiritually and it is always on the defensive, always fending off attacks from mainstream science.  Young Earth creationism cannot grow spiritually because it is eternally tied to how it understands physical reality.  That is ironic, indeed.

This, to me, is the central heresy in not just Ken Ham's understanding of reality but in young earth creationism, in general: that is it tied to physical reality and that our understanding of who God is, is tied to this reality.  It deprecates the spiritual realm in favor of what is tangible and observable.  In some senses, young earth creationists argue that the physical world is all there is and that the PH reflects this physical world.  So much for faith.

He ends his book with a clarion call in the last chapter:
Many sincere Evangelical Christians today are desperately trying to “get back to the early Church,” thinking for some reason that back then things were just perfect. “If only we could get back the to the early Church,” some think, “then we would be the kind of Church Christ wants!” As well-intentioned as that kind of thinking may be, the fact is, it is entirely misguided. Our challenge as Christians today isn’t to “get back to the early Church.” Rather, it is to take the creedal [sic] fundamentals of the Christian faith—the Capital-T Tradition that defines the Church and that articulates what Christians have always believed—and translate that Living Tradition to our world today, and thus let the transforming power of the Holy Spirit work through the Church, which is the Body of Christ, continue to redeem, not just individual people, but communities, societies, and ultimately the world.
P.S. A caveat to the book: I would ordinarily give it five stars because of the content but, as I noted above, it was clearly written in passion and frustration.  As a result, it is written in a very colloquial, almost conversational style.  The advantage to this is that you feel the frustration that he feels.  The disadvantage is that the prose is, often, repetitive and he sometimes makes assertions that are not directly or completely sourced, and the reader has to go elsewhere to determine their veracity.  From an academic perspective, this is annoying.

I enjoyed this book, despite the slight misgivings above and, if you, like me, have always wondered whether or not young earth creationism borders on heresy, this might answer the question for you.  

On the Other Side...

Whew.  Made it.  Sort of...  There is still a long way to go in terms of healing and getting things back to normal, but the surgery seems to have gone well and the doctor is over 95% confident that he got all of the cancer.  It was more aggressive and widespread than even he thought it would be, based on the biopsy and had begun to perforate the capsule of the prostate.  Another three months or so and it would have gotten out.  As it is, we are going to watch it like a hawk, just to be on the safe side.

Onward and upward.