Friday, November 24, 2017

New Jebel Irhoud Date Causes Rethink of Chinese Dali Skull

Newsweek (Yes, that Newsweek) has a story on the reexamination of the Chinese Dali cranium, in light of the revised dates for the Jebel Irhoud skulls.  Kastalia Medrano writes:
Known as the Dali skull, it was discovered nearly 40 years ago in China’s Shaanxi province. It belonged to a member of the early hominin species Homo erectus. Its facial structure and brain case are intact, despite being dated to around 260,000 years ago. The Dali skull is so old that archaeologists initially didn’t believe it could share features with the modern Homo sapiens.

But Xinzhi Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing believed that due to the overwhelming physical similarities, Homo erectus must have shared DNA with Homo sapiens. After decades of this idea being dismissed by mainstream academia, Wu and a colleague, Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M University, recently reanalyzed the Dali skull and found it may force us to rewrite our evolutionary history after all. It’s incredibly similar to two separate Homo sapiens skulls previously found in Morocco. “I really wasn’t expecting that,” Athreya told New Scientist.

If we’d found only the Moroccan skulls, and not the Dali skull, it would make sense to keep believing all modern humans evolved in Africa. But the similarities show that early modern humans may not have been genetically isolated from other parts of the world, like what we know today as China.

“I think gene flow could have been multidirectional, so some of the traits seen in Europe or Africa could have originated in Asia,” Athreya told New Scientist.
Okay, now the nuts and bolts.Dali has always been thought to occupy that rarified space between Homo erectus  and early modern Homo sapiens.  It was always thought to be between 200 and 250 kya, and optically-stimulated luminescence dating (a variant of thermoluminescence) places it between 258 and 267 kya.  My analyses of the skull suggested that it was, in no way, shape or form, a modern human but it did not tend to cluster with the Neandertals in terms of head shape.  Athreya and Wu have done an extensive multivariate analysis and conclude (from the article, likely behind a paywall:
When just the facial skeleton is considered, Dali aligns with Middle Paleolithic H. sapiens and is clearly more derived than African or Eurasian Middle Pleistocene Homo. When just the neurocranium is considered, Dali is most similar to African and Eastern Eurasian but not Western European Middle Pleistocene Homo. When both sets of variables are considered together, Dali exhibits a unique morphology that is most closely aligned with the earliest H. sapiens from North Africa and the Levant.

These results add perspective to our previous view of as Dali a “transitional” form between
Chinese H. erectus and H. sapiens. Athough no taxonomic allocation is appropriate at this time for Dali, it appears to represent a population that played a more central role in the origin of Chinese H. sapiens. Dali's affinities can be understood in the context of Wu's Continuity with Hybridization scenario and a braided-stream network model of gene flow. Specifically, we propose that Pleistocene populations in China were shaped by periods of isolated evolutionary change within local lineages at certain times, and gene flow between local lineages or between Eastern and Western Eurasia, and Africa at other times, resulting in contributions being made in different capacities to different regions at different times.
In combination with the Xuchang remains, the reanalysis of this skull suggests that, indeed, there is a long and complex interrelationship between different hominin groups that dates back some 400 thousand years. From the paper:
In the braided-stream network model, evolutionary change in China was the result of a shifting network of gene flow among distinct regional Chinese populations, as well as between Chinese and Western Eurasian populations. These were not isolated evolutionary lineages; gene flow both within China and between Eastern Eurasia, Western Eurasia and Africa was intermittent and could explain the similarities in aspects of the neurocranium found here between Dali and Western Eurasian Middle Pleistocene humans. Gene flow would best be described as a braided stream network with periods of isolated evolutionary change within a local lineage at times, and periods of gene flow between local lineages or paleo-demes at other times, resulting in contributions being made in different capacities to different regions at different times.
It is pretty clear that our simplistic models of Recent African Replacement and Multiregional Evolution need to be reworked. It is becoming more apparent that what we are looking at either a polytypic species with a huge geographical range or a syngamion of related species that intermixed regularly. The Xuchang skulls were, apparently, not unique.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Flat Earth Convention in North Carolina

Nuts, I wish I could have gone to this. Stephanie Pappas, at Live Science writes:
A conference aimed at disputing the idea that the world is round just wrapped up in North Carolina.  The first-ever 2017 Flat Earth International Conference (FEIC) was held in Raleigh on Nov. 9 and 10, featuring some of the big names in round-Earth denial. Among the speakers were Darryle Marble, who once took a level on a plane to "prove" the Earth doesn't curve; Mark Sargent, the creator of the Flat Earth Clues YouTube Series, who believes all life is enclosed in a "Truman Show"-like dome structure; and Jeran Campanella, a YouTube and online radio personality, who makes flat-Earth, 9/11 Truther and other conspiracy theory videos. [7 Ways to Prove the Earth Is Round]
Apparently, it was quite a smorgasbord of conspiracy theoreticians.  It is always great fun to see how the science is twisted and one can never quite tell if they are serious or not. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

ID Supporter Has Wikipedia Page Erased

Okay, this is just snotty.  Günter Bechly is a palaeontologist who was at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany.  Recently, Dr. Bechly came out in favor of Intelligent Design.  For this crime, he has had his Wikipedia erased.  According to David Klinghoffer, at Evolution and Science Today (used to be Evolution News and Views):
Our distinguished paleontologist colleague Günter Bechly was erased from Wikipedia after he came out as a proponent of the theory of intelligent design. That, in turn, was after he had already been pushed out of his curator role at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, for the same reason. The editors at Wikipedia obscured their treatment of Günter, a world-class expert on dragonflies, by claiming his heresy on ID had nothing to do with the decision to excise him. Instead, they innocently proclaimed that it was due to the realization that he isn’t “notable” enough for the online encyclopedia.

I’ve already pointed out the problems with this contention, and noted that the editors of Bechly’s page and of the grossly distorted Intelligent Design page itself make little effort to hide the ideological axes they grind. There’s little mystery about what happened to Dr. Bechly, or to another ID advocate, Walter Bradley at Baylor University, whose Wiki entry was shredded to near nothing. This is one way the scientific consensus on evolution is maintained, by threatening dissenters. For a scientist, having your accomplishments erased is the ultimate punishment. Wiki editors meanwhile indulge atheist nobodies with extensive biography entries.
Aside from Klinghoffer's usual histrionic bluster about silencing people who disagree with “Darwinism,” (Ken Ham, Henry Morris, John Morris, Stephen Myer, Michael Behe and, yes, even Klinghoffer, himself, have Wikipedia pages) the timing is very suspicious.  Additionally, if you thought he was well-known enough to have a Wikipedia page, why is he suddenly not so?  His page needs to be restored. This just makes Wikipedia look bad and smacks of censorship.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Neandertal to Modern Transition Full of Fits and Spurts

New evidence suggests that Neandertals survived longer on the Iberian peninsula than elsewhere in Europe.  The redating of the Zafarraya Neandertal from the late 20k's to between 38 and 40 ky saw a revision of theories about Neandertal extinction. Now more evidence has been unearthed suggesting that this window is more secure.   From The Statesman:
Neanderthals may have survived at least 3,000 years longer than thought in what is now Spain – much after the species had died out everywhere else, a study has found.

The findings suggest that the process of modern human populations absorbing Neanderthal populations through interbreeding was not a regular, gradual wave-of-advance but a “stop-and-go, punctuated, geographically uneven history.”

Over more than ten years of fieldwork, researchers excavated three new sites in southern Spain, where they discovered evidence of distinctly Neanderthal materials dating until 37,000 years ago.

“Technology from the Middle Paleolithic in Europe is exclusively associated with the Neanderthals,” said Joao Zilhao, from the University of Barcelona in Spain.

“In three new excavation sites, we found Neanderthal artefacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in Western Europe,” said Zilhao, lead author of the study published in the journal Heliyon.
It seems pretty clear now that the model of rapid replacement of Neandertals does not hold. This kind of evidence, along with sites such as Lagar Velho, suggest that the transition, at least in this region was long-term, with much hybridization.  We still do not know exactly how long Neandertals persisted in this region.  It makes perfect sense that they would have been the last ones to undergo the transition (however that happened) because the earliest Aurignacian sites, associated with modern humans, occur in far eastern Europe as the wave of moderns came through during the Würm I/Würm II interglacial.

The question that I have is why didn't the earliest modern humans, represented by the Jebel Irhoud remains, come through the Strait of Gibraltar?  North of that, all you find are archaic, all the way down to the Zafarraya remains.  I wonder why this is.

Monday, November 13, 2017

And, Apparently, The Stolen Bone is Only One Problem...

The journal Nature is reporting on a scandal of sizable proportions involving a site of early human occupation in Europe.  Ewen Callaway reports:
Serious concerns have surfaced about three research papers claiming evidence for one of the earliest human occupations of Europe.

In an extraordinary letter posted to the bioRxiv.org preprint server on 31 October1, archaeologists allege that the papers, published in 2013, 2016 and 2017, included material of questionable provenance, and that results reported in the 2016 paper were based on at least one stolen bone. Editors at the journals concerned are publishing expressions of concern about the papers.
The bioRxiv paper is available from the site and, since it is a preprint server, is accessible to anyone wishing to read the story. Here is the bombshell from the paper:
A series of recent papers on the Early Pleistocene palaeontological site of Untermassfeld (Germany) makes claims that are of great interest for studies of earliest Europe and are at odds with the described pattern: the papers suggest that Untermassfeld has yielded stone tools and humanly modified faunal remains, evidence for a one million years old hominin presence in European continental mid-latitudes, and additional evidence that hominins were well-established in Europe already around that time period. Here we evaluate these claims and demonstrate that these studies are severely flawed in terms of data on provenance of the materials studied and in the interpretation of faunal remains and lithics as testifying to a hominin presence at the site. In actual fact any reference to the Untermassfeld site as an archaeological one is unwarranted.
The site is said to have been occupied beginning around a million years ago, which was an astounding claim when it was made.  Critical, however, is that, despite the wealth of archaeological, taphonomic, faunal and floral evidence from the site, there have never been any hominin remains found. 

The article is lengthy but is a fascinating account of a palaeontological mystery and sleuthing.  If the accusations are true, it is blow for the study of early human European occupation and puts a stain on the whole proceedings. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Ken Ham Comes to Alberta

Young earth creationism is ubiquitous in home school curricula here in the United States.  Ken Ham is trying to make that the case in Canada, as well.  There has been pushback. Bill Kaufmann of the Calgary Herald writes:
Australian-born Ken Ham, a leading Christian fundamentalist proponent of creationism over evolution, is scheduled as a keynote speaker at the Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA) convention in Red Deer next April.

Ham spearheaded the building of a Noah’s Ark-centred creationist museum in Kentucky, and the educational books he’s authored includes Dinosaurs of Eden: Did Adam and Eve live with dinosaurs?

“Those who believe that only the uneducated reject evolution perhaps do not realize that evolution, far from fact, does not even qualify as a theory,” states an entry on his Answers in Genesis website.

“Evolution is a belief system about the past.”

It also offers a line of textbooks in areas of biology, geology and “creation apologetics.”
This is total nonsense. I would quote Todd Wood at this point, but he is probably tired of me quoting him. Suffice it to say, evolution is one of the most well-tested theories on the planet.  If you choose not to “believe” it, that is fine but to say that it is not a theory is just ignorant and foolish.  The more Ken Ham writes, the less I think he knows about how science works.   And now the pushback:
But Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan said while home schoolers have every right to invite speakers like Ham, it raises questions about what those children are being taught as science.

“None of that belongs in science curriculum, which should be mandatory for everyone regardless of whether they’re funded by Alberta Education or not,” said Khan.

“Having a bunch of kids lacking in basic science education is a problem for society writ large.”

He questioned whether Education Minister David Eggen is doing enough to ensure real science is being taught outside conventional classrooms.

While the AHEA doesn’t receive provincial funding, they’re expected to teach fact-based science, said Eggen’s spokeswoman Lindsay Harvey.

“All students, no matter what format of education they receive, are expected to learn from the current Alberta curriculum,” said Harvey.
I am generally not in favor of government oversight in home schooling. When that happens, you tend to get an agenda that seems to be tolerant of everything except “conservative” values.  Having said that, I wonder about all of these kids who wind up going to secular universities and having their faith blown apart by grounded, empirical science.  You can't mandate to homeschoolers what they should and should not teach unless you force a specific curriculum on them but stories like this shine a spotlight on home schooling that might be detrimental in the long run.

I wonder if Ken Ham is even aware of the damage that he is causing.  As Joel Edmund Anderson put it in his book The Heresy of Ham:
I believe that the paranoia, divisiveness, and frustration that the young earth creationist movement fosters wherever it goes should serve as an indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. This is not simply a case of Christians having a difference of opinion on a certain topic.  This is a case of a movement willing to declare war on everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, who does not capitulate to what they have unilaterally declared to be true.
I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Purchase: Adam's Quest

I hate it when books come out that escape my attention.  Such is the case with a book titled Adam's Quest, by Tim Stafford.  In it, Stafford has interviewed eleven scientists who have struggled with their understanding of how their faith fits in with their pursuit of science.  In a sense, this is like the book Four Views on the Historical Adam, in that it surveys Christians from different perspectives.  He has interviewed young earth creationists, supporters of intelligent design and evolutionary creationists.

As readers of this blog will note, I have been extremely critical of young earth creationists and intelligent design supporters, not so much for their beliefs (which I also find issue with, though) but for their ham-handed and often deceptive way in which they treat the scientific evidence for an ancient earth and evolution.  At least Todd Wood, one of the assembled scientists, has also had issue with this and, from what little I have read of Kurt Wise, he has as well.

Patheos has a short introduction to the book, which focuses on the first group, the young earth creationists, and some of their consternation at the way that science is examined.  There is a passage with a particularly damning quote from Kurt Wise about this:
After that, Wise lost interest in creationist apologetics, especially as he began to realize that many of the creationist evidences from his reading were wrong. “At first I thought it was ignorance.” As he learned more though, he became convinced that the mistakes in creationist literature were willful. … Wise concluded that for many creationists the end justifies the means. For them, “it doesn’t matter if what you say is true. It matters if it brings people to the right conclusion.” (p. 15-16)
This is, perhaps, why I find people like Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis so contemptible. They pretend to address the scientific concerns in an honest way but misinterpret evidence, arrive at faulty conclusions and smear hard-working scientists as a matter of course.  As i just told my oldest child, I am not going to come right out say they are lying, but it sure looks like it. 

Perhaps one of the scariest parts of the book and one of the principle reasons that I picked it up are in the sample that is available from Amazon, in which the author recounts his upbringing, which is almost word-for-word what I experienced growing up.  He then recounts every Christian parents' nightmare: the falling away from the faith of one of his children, in part because of the strains of learning correct science and being told that he could not be part of his circle of church friends if he continued to accept an old earth. 

Right now my children are in a home school group that is heavily young earth creation-based and I know that several of the parents of their friends would be horrified if they knew that I was an evolutionary creationist.  I simply don't advertise it. One of them thinks of Ken Ham as a hero of the faith.  How would it be of value for me to confront her with the notion that I think he is a charlatan and a heretic? 

As of yet, my oldest child does not seem to be tracking in any scientific direction so I doubt that this will have a huge impact on his life.  The same does not seem to be true with my second child, who is enamored with botany.  She will hit evolutionary biology head-on in college and I will have to prepare her for that and how to hold onto her faith throughout.  That will be, perhaps the greatest challenge that faces me. 

I look forward to reading this book with interest and would encourage downloading the sample.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Uh Oh

Answers in Genesis is expanding into Canada, according the its leader, Ken Ham.  Patheos reports the following:
Answers in Genesis, the Creationist ministry run by Ken Ham, is evolving. Ham says that an Answers in Genesis–Canada is scheduled to open in 2018, with an online store launching earlier. It’ll be run by Calvin Smith, an Ontario native who has spoken about Creationism at churches across the nation since 2001.
From the Answers in Genesis website:
According to a recent study, a mere 15% of Canadians have any kind of creationist belief. The church there desperately needs AiG resources to be equipped to stand on the authority of the Word of God and boldly preach the gospel. We’re excited to be part of encouraging and equipping our Canadian brothers and sisters through speaking events, resources, conferences, and more.

AiG produces the world’s leading creation-apologetics resources including books, DVDs, curricula, the Answers Bible Curriculum (used in over 10,000 churches), and one of the top Vacation Bible School (VBS) programs used by over 5,000 churches last year.
For those of us who view Ken Ham's efforts in this direction with great apprehension, this is not good news. As Joel Edmund Anderson and Ted Davis note, Ken Ham preaches heresy and revisionist history. The more I read of the AiG site, the more I am convinced this is true.It is worth quoting Anderson again, 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.
Amen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taboo on Incest May Go Back at Least 34K Years

ZME Science is reporting on a study done from the site of Sunghir, in Russia that preserves “complex social structures,” indicating that, even at 34,000 years ago, there were precautions against inbreeding. Why do we think this?
The Upper Paleolithic burial site contains the complete remains of an adult male, the symbolically incomplete remains of another male, as well as those of two younger individuals. All of these people lived at this site during the same time. Unusual for similar finds from this period, all the four males were buried together.

When a team of scientists at the Cambridge University and the University of Copenhagen analyzed the genomes of these individuals, they were surprised to find they were not closely related. At most, one of the adults was no more related to the boys than a great-great-grandfather.

The researchers speculate that artifacts found at this location, which includes pieces of jewelry, may have been used in ceremonies and rituals that celebrated the exchange of mates between groups. Perhaps such exchanges foreshadowed modern marriage ceremonies.

In addition to the evidence that modern humans formed close-knit communities more than 30,000 years ago, this evidence also indicates that they deliberately sought mates beyond their immediate family.
Humans changed from a promiscuity-based relational strategy to pair-bonding at some point in their evolutionary history, which resulted in more stability.  Read the whole thing. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Effect of Neandertal DNA on Modern Humans

After the 2013 sequencing of the Neandertal DNA, Janet Kelso, of the Max Planck Institute undertook a study to see what genes present in Neandertals still had an effect on modern humans.  The study employed the data from a genotyping project done by UK Biobank, which surveyed 500,000 people.  What did they find? 
Kelso and her team first narrowed the sample to include only the 112,338 individuals with white European ancestry (whose genomes contain Neanderthal DNA), and used these data to tease out which traits are influenced by Neanderthal genetic variants. The traits they identified included those that affect hair color, skin color, skin tanning and burning, sleeping patterns, mood, and tobacco use.

For example, being a self-described night owl and being prone to daytime napping were both traits positively influenced by Neanderthal variants, as were loneliness, low mood, and smoking. Genetic loci associated with having red hair were found to be devoid of Neanderthal variants, suggesting red-headed Neanderthals were either rare or non-existent. The new study also supports Capra and colleagues’ previous observations that Neanderthal variants are associated with sun-induced skin lesions, mood disorders, and smoking.

That traits such as skin color, sun-burning, and sleep patterns were identified by the analyses might be explained by the Neanderthals’ adaptations to life at more northern latitudes, suggests Capra. But for other traits, he notes, determining how the effects seen in present-day people might once have affected Neanderthals themselves “is one of our crucial challenges.” For example, he says, “of course, Neanderthals were not smoking.”
Maybe I am behind the times but I did not know there was a “trait” for tobacco use. I figured you either did that or you didn't. Like Robin Williams says in Dead Again: either be a smoker or don't be a smoker. Choose it and be it.

I suspect we will continue to find effects of the Neandertal genome, especially since our understanding of how much interbreeding there was continues to change.  It is also a testament to the stability of the human genome that, even after a separation of some several hundred thousand years, interbreeding was still possible.  

Friday, October 06, 2017

Creation Museum Having Positive Impact on Economy of Florence, KY

Cincinnati.com is running a story about the impact that the Creation Museum is having on the economy of a nearby town, Florence, Kentucky.  Chris Mayhew writes:
Comfort Suites opened 84 rooms off Houston Road at 5905 Merchant St., Florence, in July. A busload of tourists from Alabama visiting the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter filled 24 Comfort Suites rooms for three days Sept. 27-29.

Tourism for Newport on the Levee, Downtown Cincinnati and the Creation Museum bring regular visitors, owner Ravi Narsinghani said.

Comfort Suites was Narsinghani's second hotel in Florence he owns with his brother. The brothers will open a third Florence hotel soon.

"We have an upscale extended stay coming," he said.
It is good that the local economies are getting a needed boost from this, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

NCSE Post Reflecting on Kitzmiller, Twelve Years Later, by Eugenie Scott

NCSE has a guest post by Eugenie Scott, in which she remembers some of the points about Kitzmiller that might not have been public at the time.  It is part one of two.  In the run-up to the Kitzmiller trial, the plaintiffs did not know who the judge would be:
Well, the case was assigned to John E. Jones III, a fiftyish Republican who had been appointed by George W. Bush to the federal bench a few years before. “Intelligent design” proponents were delighted! In their blogs, they were quick to point out that Jones was a mover and shaker in Pennsylvania GOP politics, was a self-described conservative Republican, and was a church-going Lutheran, who certainly would be likely to find the ID policy constitutional.

I must say, our lawyers, who pay attention to judges more than we science types do, were a little apprehensive. What was this guy going to do? He’d only been a federal judge for a couple of years, so there wasn’t much of a record to go on.

His being a person of faith wasn’t an automatic concern. It’s so easy to misconstrue the creationism/evolution controversy falsely as “science versus religion,” when really it is one particular religious perspective versus everyone else’s. People are sometimes surprised to learn that our best allies in support of teaching evolution are other Christians: Catholics and mainstream Protestants— such as Disciples of Christ [with which Transylvania University is affiliated]—don’t want children taught Monday through Friday in science class that God specially created the universe in its present form 6,000 years ago, and then have to straighten them out on Sunday—because their theology is that God created through evolution.
One of the things that came out of the trial was how much the defense lied about what their true motives were. Although her post does not mention these events, it is an interesting account.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Why Is Homo floresiensis Still Such a Mystery?

Cosmos Magazine has an article by Debbie Argue, biological anthropologist from Australian National University, about Homo floresiensis and why it has been a struggle to accurately and adequately place this hominin within the framework of human evolution.

 Here was the initial assessment:
Peter Brown and colleagues originally proposed two competing hypotheses about the origins of H. floresiensis. One is that the species is an early hominin similar to the earliest identified in the Homo genus. The fossils for these species are known only from Africa and are between one and two million years old. This implies that the ancestors of H. floresiensis could have got to Flores Island in the vicinity of a million years ago and survived there until at least 60,000 years ago.

Their alternative hypothesis was that H. floresiensis is a dwarfed descendant of Homo erectus, which is the only known non-sapiens hominin to once have existed in Indonesia. Its remains have been found on the island of Java. According to this view, the dwarfing of H. erectus was an evolutionary response to being isolated on an island with a limited food supply. Just as the Asian elephant evolved into the dwarfed Flores stegodon after becoming marooned on the island, H. erectus could have met a similar fate.
It was also proposed that this hominin might have expressed microcephaly.  This idea failed to explain other aspects of the skeleton, however, such as its diminutive height (around 3 feet), long arms and feet and primitive skull features. Here is an image of H. floresiensis compared to a modern human, who had been running around the landscape for at least 100k years while H. floresiensis was extant.



This all saw at least some resolution with the discovery and description of some remains  on another areas of the island Flores that were very similar to the H. floresiensis remains but dated to some 600 thousand years earlier than the remains in Liang Bu.  This lent more credence to the idea that H. floresiensis was, in fact, an offshoot of Homo erectus.

So, Argue, along with Colin Groves, Bill Jungers and Mike Lee, performed statistical tests (this story does not say which kind, a peculiar omission) on a number of different hominin species, comparing them to H. floresiensis.  What did they find?
We therefore hypothesise that H. floresiensis shared a common ancestor with H. habilis. We do not know who that ancestor was or when it lived, but it would have to be older than the oldest H. habilis specimen known, so older than 1.75 million years. The implication is that the H. floresiensis ancestor evolved before that time in Africa, dispersed from that continent, and arrived on Flores earlier than 700,000 years ago, judging by the age of the jaw and teeth found at Soa Basin. This represents a hitherto unknown movement of very early hominins out of Africa.
Presently, the earliest evidence for hominins outside of Africa come from Europe, the Near East and Asia, and date to between 1.5 and 1.8 million years ago. Argue's hypothesis would suggest that H. floresiensis appearance in east Asia represents a separate migration out of African sometime either before or after the wave that saw Homo erectus show up in Trinil and Sangiran, in Indonesia.

Questions still abound as to why this species never saw the evolutionary trajectory that other hominins went through in terms of cranial expansion, increase in height and changes in brachial and crural indices. On the other hand, if evolution proceeds through what we have termed systematics, then advanced traits will show up in related species and if the ancestors of H. floresiensis were cut off, they would just go on their merry way.  We know that such a pattern holds for H. naledi, in South Africa, which coexisted with archaic Homo sapiens, in some way, shape or form. 

The article ends on a very peculiar note, in which she suggests the remote possibility that H. floresiensis is still alive out there, somewhere:
Could the Hobbit still exist in the wild mountain forests of Flores? When H. floresiensis was announced, the media picked up on the local folklore that small human-like creatures roam the forests. Descriptions of sightings are well recorded and quite detailed. The similarity to H. floresiensis is intriguing. But most researchers would say ‘show me the bones!’
This reminds one of the stories involving the Yeti/Sasquatch/Abominable Snowman, which likely derive from the finding of the bones of the Miocene ape Gigantopithecus, which was close to ten feet tall, when standing.  Is H. floresiensis still out there?  Probably not, but I am sure that the cryptozoologists haven't given up hope. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Genetic Model Identifies Paranthropus boisei as Vector For Transmission of Herpes Virus

CNN (usual caveats) reports on a study that identifies Paranthropus boisei as the likely transmission vector of genital HSV-1.  From the story:
Herpes has been around a long time, to say the least.
Ancient chimpanzees genetically passed oral herpes (herpes simplex 1, or HSV-1) to the earliest humans millions of years ago when our lineage split. And we almost missed out on catching that other scourge, genital herpes (HSV-2) -- almost. Unlike HSV-1, HSV-2 didn't make the leap to early humans on its own.
Unfortunately for modern humans, millions of years ago, an early human ancestor was in the right place at the right time to catch HSV-2. And it might not have happened if it weren't for that meddling hominin species Paranthropus boisei, according to a new study in the journal Virus Evolution.
Why Paranthropus boisei, you ask? After all, P. boisei was not even on the main line of human evolution, coexisting with all manner of early Homo species at the same time, who likely out-competed them into extinction.  From the article, which is highly technical:
Paranthropus boisei would have been well placed to act as an intermediate host for HSV2. It most likely contracted the infection through hunting or more likely scavenging infected ancestral-chimpanzee meat. Processing (with or without tools) and consumption of raw meat would act as a simple path for ChHV1 to have crossed into P.boisei via open cuts or sores. Tropical refugia during hot dry periods may have driven chimpanzees into higher concentrations in certain areas, driving them into contact and competition with P.boisei and H.habilis as the margins of tropical forest blended into more open savannah-like habitats (Julier et al. 2017). Violent confrontation or hunting/scavenging and butchery practices would have provided a viable path of transmission for HSV2. Homo habilis remains have been recovered from the same layers as stone tools and bones carrying evidence of butchery, supporting a possible transmission–through-hunting/scavenging hypothesis for the initial anc-chimp to H.habilis transmission (Clarke 2012). Paranthropus aethiopicus, P. boisei, and P. robustus are associated with the Oldowan stone tool complex (De Heinzelin et al. 1999), and P.boisei explicitly with butchery (Domínguez-Rodrigo et al. 2013) lending support to the hypothesis that bushmeat hunting/scavenging and butchery may have led to the initial transmission of HSV2 to the hominins.
The entire exercise is very mathematical and relies on somewhat limited evidence of P. boisei behavior. It is, nonetheless, intriguing since it posits considerable interaction between the various hominin groups. 

Here is a mugshot of one of the perpetrators, the Zinj skull from Olduvai Gorge, found in 1959. 


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Did Humans Become a Distinct Species 350, 000 Years Ago?

The hits just keep on coming.  On the heels of the discovery in Morocco, at Jebel Irhoud, of a skull with some modern characteristics dated to 315 thousand years ago, we now have a genetic study that proposes that our species emerged between 350 and 260 thousand years ago.  How did a genetic study reveal this?  Science News reports:
The trick was retrieving a complete version of the ancient boy’s DNA from his skeleton to compare with DNA from people today and from Stone Age Neandertals and Denisovans. Previously documented migrations of West African farmers to East Africa around 2,000 years ago, and then to southern Africa around 1,500 years ago, reshaped Africans’ genetics — and obscured ancient ancestry patterns — more than has been known, the researchers report online September 28 in Science.
The ancient boy’s DNA was not affected by those migrations. As a result, it provides the best benchmark so far for gauging when Homo sapiens originated in Africa, evolutionary geneticist Carina Schlebusch of Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues conclude.
In line with the new genetically derived age estimate for human origins, another team has proposed that approximately 300,000-year-old fossils found in northwestern Africa belonged to H. sapiens (SN: 7/8/17, p. 6). Some researchers suspect a skull from South Africa’s Florisbad site, dated to around 260,000 years ago, qualifies as H. sapiens. But investigators often place our species’ origins close to 200,000 years ago (SN: 2/26/05, p. 141). There is broad consensus that several fossils from that time represent H. sapiens.
What is important to understand is that we have the fossils from Herto and Omo that date to between 150 and 200 thousand but that does not mean that is the earliest time that our species may have actually showed up. The Jebel Irhoud material is only partly modern—in the face mostly—and we do not know how the genetics for this population would look. It is possible that, as some investigators are saying, the Jebel Irhoud material represents the earliest fossil representation of our clade and that over the next 100 thousand years, the modern form fully evolved.   

Q&A With Lee Berger on Human Evolution

The Sunday Times has an interview with Lee Berger about human evolution, in advance of his new book, co-written with John Hawks, Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story. As was reported earlier, the original fossils were undated but appeared to be reflective of an early stage in the development of Homo. This idea was shattered when new dates were derived.  As I wrote at the time:
Homo naledi, however, was missing a date—until recently. Nearly everyone in the scientific community thought that the date of the Homo naledi fossils, when calculated, would fall within the same general time period as other primitive early Homo remains. We were wrong. The radiometric dates—recorded using several methods carried out at different laboratories—yielded almost identical ages of between 236 and 300 thousand years before the present (BP). This was an order of magnitude younger than we expected. To say we were surprised would be an understatement.
Interestingly, the interviewer asks no important questions about Homo naledi or the Dinaledi Star cave, itself.  Amid all of the sturm und drang of his tortuous relationships with Ron Clarke and Philip Tobias (✟ 2012), there is one interesting question about human evolution in general:
Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?

I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!
This has been a contentious issue: whether or not the fossil remains were “placed” there or were brought in by scavengers. What is also not clear is if the book was published before the new dates became available, or not.  I will have to buy the book to find that out.  While the rest of the interview is a tad unsubstantive, it is interesting.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Five Peculiar Fossils

Colin Barras of The New Scientist has a very short, very peculiar article on five hominin fossils that have been used to define new species and addresses the validity of each in very cursory fashion.  The strength of the article is in the links that it provides.  About Sahelanthropos, he writes this:
Features at the skull’s rear suggest it sat atop a vertical spine like that of a human, hinting that S. tchadensis walked upright. To make sure, other fossils will be needed – particularly from the legs. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a thigh bone was found with the skull, but this has not yet been discussed in a scientific paper. With so little evidence to go on, some are sceptical that S. tchadensis can really yet be defined as a hominin rather than some other form of ape – yet.
These are the least of its problems, as it is likely a surface find. Aside from this, when Wolpoff and colleagues examined the cranial base, here is what they found:
The prominence of the nuchal muscles, so important in head balance and loading, and shoulder movements, is enhanced by the significant development of the tuberculum linearum. The point is not that the TM 266 cranial rear and posterior portion of the cranial base was unlike hominids because the region looks like apes, but that TM 266 had a posture that is not upright because the region reflects nuchal functions similar to those of apes.

The foramen magnum - orbit plane angle does not directly address posture or locomotion in these hominoid primates (contra Zollikofer et al., 2005). Without a key postcranial element such as a pelvis or femur, none of these data provide compelling evidence for upright posture or obligate bipedal locomotion, and the various details of the nuchal plane argue against it. This functional implication has a phylogenetic consequence—by itself it is sufficient to disprove the phylogenetic hypothesis that TM 266 was a hominid.
This isn't skepticism. This is the door slamming shut.  It can be a surface find and still be a Miocene ape. In my recent piece for BioLogos, it did not occur to me to include this fossil since there are so many problems with it.  At this point, in Africa, the earliest reasonable evidence we have for hominins is Orrorin tugenensis

Read the whole (short) thing.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Neandertal Child Gives Clues to How They Developed

Gizmodo is running a story about the discovery and examination of a Neandertal child, from El Sidrón Cave, in Spain, who died under mysterious circumstances:
The first step was to determine the chronological age of death by performing a dental analysis. The specimen, dubbed El Sidrón J1, exhibited a mix of baby and adult teeth. Incremental markings on the teeth, which are counted like rings on a tree, showed that the boy died at 7.7 years of age. The skeletal remains exhibited no signs of trauma, no signs of sickness, or any other physical abnormalities. El Sidrón J1, aside from experiencing an untimely death, appears to have been a perfectly normal and healthy Neanderthal child.

The researchers then compared the skeleton’s biological stage of development with what would be expected in a modern human of the same age. To their surprise, they found few differences between the two human subspecies in terms of the pace of growth.

“The comparison...indicate(s) that there was no noticeable difference in the growth and maturation of this Neanderthal juvenile in comparison with modern human juveniles,” said study co-author Luis Rios, a Member of the Paleoanthropology Group at Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, at a press conference held yesterday.
Research has generally shown that Neandertals developed a bit more quickly than modern humans but, in one critical area, this study did not back up that claim.
Perhaps more significantly, analysis of the Neanderthal skull shows that El Sidrón J1's brain was roughly 87.5 percent the size of an average adult Neanderthal at the time of death. The brains of modern humans, on the other hand, reach 95 percent the size of an adult at that age. Previous studies have suggested that the larger brains of Neanderthals underwent rapid growth during these formative years, yet this new research would seem to contradict such claims.
There is a bit of circularity going on here, though because the child is being aged based on dental development and, if for some reason, the dental development does not completely track with either the current estimates or there were some developmental insults, the age might be off.  This is speculation on my part, though.  In any event, it gives us more to understand the developmental biology and ontogeny of these very, very close relatives.  

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Forbes: Ark Encounter Local Tax Scandal Not Very Scandalous

I bit back I reported on the sale, not once but twice, of the Ark Encounter for $10 that, to all appearances, looked like a tax dodge gone bad.  Now Peter J. Reilly, who has written extensively about the Kent Hovind case, argues that, no it really was not that scandalous.  About the back and forth sale, he writes:
That had me a little excited, but as it turns out there is no federal tax issue. If you look at the Forms 990 filed by Answers in Genesis and Crosswater Canyon, you will find that Crosswater and AIG are both 501(c)(3) organizations and that Ark Encounter LLC is wholly owned by Crosswater making it, absent a special election, a disregarded entity. Transactions between the owner of a disregarded entity and the the disregarded entity are, for federal tax purposes, you know, disregarded. Status as a disregarded entity might not a apply for various local tax purposes. I wrote about an Orthodox Jewish school in Lakewood NJ that got tripped up by that. Apparently a similar rule applies in Kentucky, but I'm not equipped to dig deep there at this point.
Reilly sees that the coverage in the news about the transfer was very one-sided (and I did rely on that for my posts), but that there really was an ethical issue. He continues:
Ark Encounter's complaint of unfair treatment by the media might have some merit. Linda Blackford's coverage appears to me to be pretty solid and balanced, but some of what has been in the blogosphere has not been. For example, consider Dan Arel's headline - Ken Ham Sells Ark Encounter Land To Himself For $10 To Avoid Paying Taxes. I don't see that as a fair characterization as to what happened. Hemant Mehta's treatment on Patheos, though quite critical, is fairer and gives full credit to the new sources. Derek Welch of World Religion News got it backward saying that Ark Encounter sold the property to its subsidiary. The transfer was actually upstream.

On the other hand, I'm not displeased to see how they were hoist on their own petard when they transferred the property to beat the city tax. Overall the whole thing strikes me more as clumsy than smacking of deep conspiracy. All in, I think it was a mistake for the Ark to try to be frugal when it comes to supporting local services. Apparently, they think $500,000 is enough, but anything the city got over and above that would be from higher attendance.
The whole thing certainly left a bad taste in the mouths of the people of the Town, including the mayor. It also struck many, if legal, unethical. For someone like Ham, who decries the downfall of civilization because of moral failure, this seems a tad hypocritical.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Greek Fossil Site Vandalized

Someone has vandalized the site containing the 5.7 million year old footprints in Crete.  Australian News Limited reports:
Some four to 10 prints appear to have been hacked out of the rock.

And graffiti has been sprayed over much of the remainder.

It’s an attack with devastating implications for the science of understanding humanity’s past.

“We are fortunate that many of the best tracks remain — the people who did it clearly didn’t know what they were looking for,” Professor Bennett writes. “Our guess is that they were simply intending to sell them.”

The site had been recognised under Greek heritage laws, and local authorities were supposed to be watching it.

Greek media reports a 55-year-old man has been arrested in western Crete and that many of the prints may have been recovered.
I certainly hope so. And I certainly hope that very hefty fines and possibly jail terms will be levied against those involved. As for the people in the organization that was supposed to be watching the site, I hope they are out of a job.

Time will have to tell how much damage was actually done but this is nothing less than a travesty.  Because truly stupid people are never in short supply, many of the Neandertal sites in Europe were also looted before they could be fully excavated.  This should be embarrassing to the Greek government. 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

5.7 Million Year-Old Human Footprints Found on Greek Island of Crete

Great Googlymoogly!  This one is lighting up all over the Internet.  Fossil footprints have been found in the southern Greek Island of Crete, near the village of Trachilos, that appear to have the distinctive heel-toe-off gait of bipedal humans.  The catch? The prints are 5.7 million years old!  From PhysOrg:
Human feet have a very distinctive shape, different from all other land animals. The combination of a long sole, five short forward-pointing toes without claws, and a hallux ("big toe") that is larger than the other toes, is unique. The feet of our closest relatives, the great apes, look more like a human hand with a thumb-like hallux that sticks out to the side. The Laetoli footprints, thought to have been made by Australopithecus, are quite similar to those of modern humans except that the heel is narrower and the sole lacks a proper arch. By contrast, the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus ramidus from Ethiopia, the oldest hominin known from reasonably complete fossils, has an ape-like foot. The researchers who described Ardipithecus argued that it is a direct ancestor of later hominins, implying that a human-like foot had not yet evolved at that time.

The new footprints, from Trachilos in western Crete, have an unmistakably human-like form. This is especially true of the toes. The big toe is similar to our own in shape, size and position; it is also associated with a distinct 'ball' on the sole, which is never present in apes. The sole of the foot is proportionately shorter than in the Laetoli prints, but it has the same general form. In short, the shape of the Trachilos prints indicates unambiguously that they belong to an early hominin, somewhat more primitive than the Laetoli trackmaker. They were made on a sandy seashore, possibly a small river delta, whereas the Laetoli tracks were made in volcanic ash.
And now, the other shoe.  How do we know how old the fossil footprints are?  
The coastal rocks at Trachilos, west of Kissamos Harbour in western Crete (Fig. 1a–c), lie within the Platanos Basin, and present a succession of shallow marine late Miocene carbonates and siliciclastics of the Roka Formation, a local development of the Vrysses Group (Freudenthal, 1969 ; van Hinsbergen and Meulenkamp, 2006; Figs. 1d, e and 3a, b). At the top, this marine succession terminates abruptly in the coarse-grained terrigenous sedimentary rocks of the Hellenikon Group (Figs. 1d and 3e, f), which formed by the desiccation of the Mediterranean Basin during the Messinian Salinity Crisis (van Hinsbergen and Meulenkamp, 2006), an event dated to approximately 5.6 Ma (Govers, 2009). The succession (Fig. 1d) contains an emergent horizon with well-preserved terrestrial trace fossils and microbially induced sedimentary structures (Fig. 3d) immediately overlying shallow water ripplemark structures (Fig. 3c).1
So, the authors are a tad more circumspect than the writers of the PhysOrg story.  The authors posit two hypotheses for their results: 1. the tracks represent the gait of a basal hominin, which explains the non-divergence and shape of the big toe as well as the shape of the ends of the other toes, which resemble those of a human foot and not a non-human foot.  This fits approximately with the dates of the north African remains of Orrorin and, perhaps, that of Sahelanthropus (although that is pretty much a surface find).

The Messinian Crisis was a period of time during the Miocene epoch during which the Mediterranean Sea almost completely dried up.  This crisis began around 6 million years ago and ended around 5.3 million years ago with what is known as the Zanclean flood.  It is estimated that once the barrier at the Strait of Gibraltar was broken, the Mediterranean Sea refilled within two years, which means that the sea level rose at an estimated 30 feet per day.

Okay...now, lets go back here, to the story that came out about four months ago, establishing the possibility that the last common ancestor to apes and humans was in Europe.  In that study, a jaw with human root patterns and an isolated premolar that have both been attributed to Graecopithecus, were re-examined and found by the researchers to have hominin affinities, a surprising conclusion, given their age of 7.15 million years.  At the time that story appeared, I remarked that it was a bit of a stretch to hang one's hat on one premolar and partial ape-like mandible, but in the context of the new finds, maybe not so much.  This strengthens the (admittedly far-fetched) notion that our ancestors did, in fact, originate somewhere in southeast Mediterranean Europe and, over the course of the next two and half million years ago, migrated south to north Africa.

As Per Ahlberg was quoted as saying:
"This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate. Whether the human origins research community will accept fossil footprints as conclusive evidence of the presence of hominins in the Miocene of Crete remains to be seen."
This is huge news.  Even if we can't place the LCA in southern Europe, we now have bipedalism extending back into the late Miocene. 


1Gerard D. Gierliński et al, Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete?, Proceedings of the Geologists' Association (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.006


Will Moroccan Schools Teach Evolution Again

Writing for the Morocco World News, Amal Ben Hadda wonders if the discovery of more early modern human remains from the site of Jebel Irhoud will prompt the government to reintroduce evolution into the curriculum:
While these new discoveries are “shaking up” the scientific community, we should ask ourselves why these theories of evolution are not being taught in Moroccan schools. Why is this scientific approach to revealing the origin of humanity not considered in the manuals programs?

From a religious perspective, some Muslim scholars support the study of human evolutionary theory. The different levels of human conception are mentioned in many verses in the Quran. However, the exegeses of these verses have been influenced by Talmudic interpretations of the Torah and have been accepted as authentic versions of the human “genesis”. As an example of this influence, there is the creation of woman from Adam’s rib. This version, interpreted from the Torah and resumed by mainstream Islamic exegeses, doesn’t exist in the Quran.

In the original text of the Torah, the chapter Genesis shows in 1:27 that man and woman were conceived at the same level and no one is superior to another. However, this woman was diabolized by the patriarchal tradition. Only the version of the creation of woman from Adam’s rib named Eve is considered by the creationists as per the interpretations of the Genesis 2:23.
It is interesting to note that Islam seems to have the same issue that Christianity does in that modern interpretations of scripture have taken hold within a large subset of Muslims regarding this issue.  In Christianity, the days of creation were never originally written as seven sequential, 24-hour periods, yet that is the perspective of a large number of conservative evangelical Christians.  He author calls for a neutral interpretation of the Koran.  I would argue that we need a similar interpretation of the Bible. 

Friday, September 01, 2017

Meanwhile, Over in South Korea...

The Korea Times is running a story about the controversy over creationism in South Korea.  Park Jae-hyuk writes:
The deep-rooted dispute over creationism has arisen here again after Park Seong-jin, the designate for SMEs and startups minister, was found to have worked for an institute supporting what most scientists regard as pseudoscience.

Creationism is a fundamentalist Christian movement that denies the theory of evolution and considers Biblical creation stories as proven facts.

Although Park told reporters this week that he “respects” the theory of evolution despite his religious beliefs, controversy over the issue will highly likely go on, given that opposition parties are expected to mention it during the upcoming confirmation hearing.

“As a Christian, I have a faith in a religion based on creation, but I do not believe creation as a science,” the minister nominee told reporters. “I’ve never individually studied creation science either.”

In response to his remarks during a symposium at Yonsei University in 2007 that “People armed with belief in creation should be deployed in every fields of society,” Park explained the remarks were just made for guests from the United States.

Saying that faith is not subject to qualification, Cheong Wa Dae has dismissed the controversy. Park quit his position as director at the Korea Association for Creation Research (KACR) just a day before his nomination.
It is not a given that this will create problems for South Korean science any more than the appointment of Betsy DeVos will in this country. That is predicated, however, on the idea that the two forms of government are broadly similar in behavior. If they are not, then things could change.Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

More Bad News From Turkey

It seems that, in Turkey, there will be no teaching of evolution any longer.  NPR reports:
When children in Turkey head back to school this fall, something will be missing from their textbooks: any mention of evolution.

The Turkish government is phasing in what it calls a values-based curriculum. Critics accuse Turkey's president of pushing a more conservative, religious ideology — at the expense of young people's education.

At a playground in an upscale, secular area of Istanbul, parents and grandparents express concern over the new policy.

"I'm worried, but I hope it changes by the time my grandchildren are in high school," says Emel Ishakoglu, a retired chemical engineer playing with her grandchildren, ages 5 and 2. "Otherwise our kids will be left behind compared to other countries when it comes to science education."

With a curriculum that omits evolution, Ishakoglu worries her grandchildren won't get the training they'll need if they want to grow up to be scientists like her.
While it is certainly true that this kind of thing also happens sporadically in the United States, like here, what is going on in Turkey is entirely religiously-based.  The interpretation of scripture, in this case, the Koran, will always come first. 

Henry Morris was once asked where Hell was.  His response was that it was directly beneath our feet.  When pressed with the knowledge of observations that there is no place for Hell in the center of the earth because the earth is solid down to the core, he replied that the sounding equipment had to be wrong because that is where the scriptures tell us it is.  It is very hard to fight against that level of strict ideology.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

New DNA Analysis Allows for Greater Understanding of Modern Human Prehistory

From Science Daily:
A University of Utah-led team developed a new method for analyzing DNA sequence data to reconstruct the early history of the archaic human populations. They revealed an evolutionary story that contradicts conventional wisdom about modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The study1 found that the Neanderthal-Denisovan lineage nearly went extinct after separating from modern humans. Just 300 generations later, Neanderthals and Denisovans diverged from each other around 744,000 years ago. Then, the global Neanderthal population grew to tens of thousands of individuals living in fragmented, isolated populations scattered across Eurasia.

"This hypothesis is against conventional wisdom, but it makes more sense than the conventional wisdom." said Alan Rogers, professor in the Department of Anthropology and lead author of the study that will publish online on August 7, 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As the authors note, there is mounting evidence of a migration from Africa to Europe, likely by way of the Strait of Gibraltar, in which Acheulean stone tools are introduced by a group which became known as Homo heidelbergensis.  This group, subsequently, split, likely gave rise to the Neandertals  and the Denisovans a bit later.  Then, a second wave of migrations around 90 to 100 ky happened, during which there was hybridization between Neandertals, moderns and Denisovans.

We live in a time where we now have the genomes of archaic Africans, Eurasians, Neandertals, Denisovans and early moderns and can compare them using site pattern analysis.  These authors found that
  • In contrast to previous studies, this one indicates that Neandertal population size was large, on the order of tens of thousands of people, in isolated populations
  • The split between the Neandertals and Denisovans was early, on the order of 744 thousand years ago.  
  • By the time you find these hominins in the fossil record, they had already split from the Denisovans, which explains why the Atapuerca Sima De Los Huesos hominins resemble Neandertals more than Denisovans.
  • Therefore, Neandertal features are thought to have emerged over a long period of time in Europe. 
This analysis will help us rethink our understanding of the fossil material from Gran Dolina, which now likely represents a population from which both the Denisovans and Neandertals split.  This makes sense, given the general, non-derived nature of the fossil material from there.  Things are slowly (maybe?) falling into place.

1Alan R. Rogers, Ryan J. Bohlender, and Chad D. Huff. Early history of Neanderthals and Denisovans. PNAS, August 2017 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1706426114

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New 13 Million-Year-Old Miocene Ape Discovery in Kenya

National Geographic (and other outlets) is reporting on a new skull discovered in northern Kenya, near Lake Turkana that is 13 million years old and may reflect the morphology of a sister group to the stem group of hominoids, the group that contains modern apes and humans.  Michael Greshko writes:

“We’ve been looking for ape fossils for years—this is the first time we’re getting a skull that’s complete,” says Isaiah Nengo, the De Anza College anthropologist who led the discovery, supported by a National Geographic Society grant and the Stony Brook University-affiliated Turkana Basin Institute.

Roughly the size of a lemon, the skull belongs to a newly identified species of early ape named Nyanzapithecus alesi. Some of its features resemble those of today’s living Old World monkeys and apes, and the face bears a striking resemblance to today’s infant gibbons.

What’s more, N. alesi offers insight into early apes’ brains, the team reports in their study, published today in Nature. With a volume of about seven tablespoons, N. alesi’s brain cavity was more than double that of other Old World monkeys from the time.
The Miocene is generally thought of as the “Age of the Apes” because there were so many genera (30) and species (over 40) of apes pretty much all over the Old World. As the authors note, however, up to this point, most of the remains have been just jaws and teeth.  This skull is an incredible find and will add immensely to our understanding of this time period. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Full Page Ad in Chattanooga Times Free Press: Livesay Resign!

A number of alumni and former faculty of Bryan College took out a full-page ad in the Chattanooga Times Free Press calling on President Stephen Livesay to resign from the college and for the Board of Trustees to resign as well.  The ad showed up in the print edition of the paper but has been transcribed to a page on Change.org here.  It reads in part:
President Livesay has failed to act biblically toward believers who disagree with him. Consistent reports from a number of those who have worked at the College show that Livesay does not follow the mandates of Matthew 18:15 and Ephesians 4:13-16 to discuss his differences with other believers in a humble, loving way that could promote correction and reconciliation. Instead, he treats all disagreement with his views as evil and uses deception, threats, and job termination to silence dialogue and hide dissent.
President Livesay has continued to incite the opposition of Christian men and women of proven faith and integrity. Pastors, Christian professionals, faculty and staff who have made sacrifices over many years for Christ and His ministry at Bryan College, and some of Bryan’s brightest and most faithful students, alumni, and friends have spoken up again and again against Livesay’s failures in godly servant-leadership. Yet he has refused to repent and goes on dividing and damaging the body of Christ at Bryan (John 17:20-21).
Rather than doing its job as a supervisory body that exercises authority over the president, the Bryan Board of Trustees has passively and blindly followed the president.
It is difficult to know what effect this letter will have on Livesay. There is nothing quite like being universally disliked.  It is clear that the fortunes and reputation of the college have taken a huge hit, so much so that Mike Adams, the conservative columnist and faculty at UNC Wilmington, has suggested that the college be shut down.  There are very few things worse for a Christian college than to be accused of ethical violations and moral turpitude.  I'm not sure how this one is going to turn out.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ken Ham Takes Potshot at Bill Nye on Climate Change

Ken Ham...Bill Nye...a plague on both of your houses.  While Bill Nye is out trying to save the world, and Ken Ham is out trying to save the world, the two of them tangled again.  First, Bill Nye was quoted as saying that we will only get serious about climate change when the older generation, who he claims comprise the largest group of climate change deniers, dies off.  From Mandy Mayfield:
“Climate change deniers, by way of example, are older. It's generational,” Nye told the Los Angeles Times. Nye said that he is calling them out with “due respect,” acknowledging that he is “now one of them.”

“We're just going to have to wait for those people to 'age out,' as they say," Nye went on, adding that “age out” is a euphemism for “die.” “But it'll happen, I guarantee you — that'll happen.”
Ken Ham took exception to this. As the Gospel Herald Society notes:
Ham accused Nye of "decrying the older generation" with his comments.

"He knows the younger generation are by and large more brainwashed in secularism and evolutionary teaching and are generally not taught how to think critically," Ham said. "Thus, he is hoping the younger generation will be more supportive of his false anti-observational science views of climate change."

As earlier reported, Nye previously came under fire when, on the season finale of his Netflix show, "Bill Nye Saves the World," he suggested that American families ought to be penalized for having "extra kids" as a solution to overpopulation and climate change.
Well, first off, accepting evolutionary theory and the evidence for an old earth do not constitute a rejection of critical thinking.  If you accept the argument that scientific evidence supports the young earth position, then you need to apply critical thinking to this argument.  Many problems occur when you do.

Here is an example of what I mean: I recently attended a Classical Conversations home school meeting in advance of the new school year.  At the meeting, someone had, for sale, a timeline of history.  I noticed a few odd things about the timeline.
  • It began in 4004 B.C., a date commonly accepted in young earth creationist circles but reflecting a somewhat facile interpretation of the biblical chronologies, which have been shown by numerous theologians and biblical historians to be incomplete or replete with symbolism.  
  • It places the world-wide flood squarely at 2500 B.C.
  • The early Egyptian, Minoan and Sumerian histories are completely absent.  The reason for this is, of course, that if the flood happened in 2500 B.C., anything happening elsewhere in the world not recorded in Genesis simply didn't happen.  No Chinese histories dating back prior to the Shang Dynasty are recorded, either.  
How do you square these things with “critical thinking?”  Objectively, these histories reflect real people, living in real places, doing real things.

As far as Bill Nye is concerned, whatever there was of the objective, humble scientist that did "Bill Nye, The Science Guy" seems long gone, replaced by some loud, obnoxious SJW in a lab coat.  Where once he gave kids a presentation on what it means to be either XY or XX, he is now hawking "Sex Junk" a truly awful video on sex.

Further, his idea of penalizing American families for having extra kids is laughable on its face.  Our population replacement rate is already treading water, as it is.  In Europe and Japan, the populations aren't replacing themselves.  In Japan, schools are closing down because there are not enough rising students to fill them.  If a population does not replace itself, society collapses.  This fact seems to be lost on these climate warriors.

Both Bill Nye and Ken Ham have incredibly warped views on science.  One was a mechanical engineer and the other has an undergraduate degree in science education.  Apparently, neither of those backgrounds are being put to good use. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ken Ham Sells Ark Encounter Land Back To Himself

And Hey Presto!  Just like that, it is back again.  The Lexington Herald Leader is reporting that the land on which the Ark Encounter sits, has been sold back to Ark Encounter, LLC for...$10.  From Linda Blackford:
Three days after state tourism officials suspended an $18 million tax incentive, officials at a Noah’s Ark theme park have sold their main parcel back to their for-profit entity for $10.

The issue started in late June after Ark Encounter LLC sold the parcel to its non-profit affiliate, Crosswater Canyon for $10. The deed continues to describe the property as worth $18 million even though the Grant County PVA has assessed the land for $48 million.

Ark Encounter officials have declined to say why they sold the property in the first place, but the move in June coincided with their refusal to pay a safety assessment tax levied by the city of Williamstown. City officials worried that the sale might be the first step in the ark park claiming non-profit status, which would exempt it from property taxes.

But on July 18, state tourism officials said the land sale breached the sales tax rebate incentive agreement, which was with Ark Encounter LLC, not Crosswater Canyon.
Of course Ark officials have declined to say why they sold the land back.  I am quite sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Ken Ham and company somewhat nakedly tried to get out of paying $700,000 in infrastructure taxes to the city of Williamstown by executing an ethically questionable business deal and then, discovering that the $700,000 was a paltry sum compared to the $18 million in tax incentives over the next ten years and seeing how the sale played out in the media, went back on it.  I was going to write “did the right thing,” but I am not sure doing the right thing crossed their minds.

The only consolation in this is that Ken Ham is out $20.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Continuing Downward Spiral of Bryan College

As if things could not get any worse for Bryan College, news has now surfaced that a much beloved professor, Phillip Lestmann, a tenured professor of mathematics, has been fired for voicing concern about the college and, in the face of recent controversies and scandals, circulating a petition calling for the resignation of President Stephen Livesay.  This petition reads, in part:
President Livesay has failed to act biblically toward believers who disagree with him. Consistent reports from a number of those who have worked at the College show that Livesay does not follow the mandates of Matthew 18:15 and Ephesians 4:13-16 to discuss his differences with other believers in a humble, loving way that could promote correction and reconciliation. Instead, he treats all disagreement with his views as evil and uses deception, threats, and job termination to silence dialogue and hide dissent.

President Livesay has continued to incite the opposition of Christian men and women of proven faith and integrity. Pastors, Christian professionals, faculty and staff who have made sacrifices over many years for Christ and His ministry at Bryan College, and some of Bryan’s brightest and most faithful students, alumni, and friends have spoken up again and again against Livesay’s failures in godly servant-leadership. Yet he has refused to repent and goes on dividing and damaging the body of Christ at Bryan (John 17:20-21).
 From Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed:
The professor was criticized by the administration for having helped organize an "opposition group" -- and that charge has many saying that disagreeing with the administration has become a firing offense, making academic freedom impossible.

That dismissal appears to have added to the push for change at Bryan, with the petition quickly gathering support among alumni.

Bryan's name honors William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the 1925 trial of John Scopes, a public school teacher accused of teaching evolution. The trial took place near campus, and while Bryan's anti-evolution stance fell from favor elsewhere, it has never fallen with leaders of the college.

Tensions have been growing at Bryan since 2014, when the college issued a "clarification" to the college’s statement of faith, which all faculty members must endorse, asserting the historicity of Adam and Eve. While the college has long had a statement of faith stressing belief in the Bible and various core values, the detail about Adam and Eve struck many faculty members and alumni as going too far, and as a move that would limit the ability of some professors to stay (some indeed left).
The other controversy involved the hushed-up dealings with a Christian camp counselor indicted and jailed over sexual molestation charges. In the wake of this incident, the president, Stephen Livesay, has configured the Bryan College Board of Directors to be supportive of his agenda, and critics have argued that the new board is little more than a mouthpiece for Livesay.

Conservative columnist Mike Adams, who just participated in the Summit Ministries workshop, hosted at Bryan College (to which my son Marcus went last year), tweeted the following: 
Someone has also posted a tweet taking aim at the College's absolutely appalling decision to give Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis, an honorary degree in science:
Things will likely get worse for Bryan before they get better, if they get better.  I already know of one person who is a graduate of the college who has requested a transcript from them because he fears that they might shut down.  That would, in many ways, be very sad.  I have visited the college.  It is very pretty and has, from all reports, thriving programs in many disciplines.  Further, the faculty are Godly men and women and should not have to pay for the numerous sins of their president and administration. 





Monday, July 24, 2017

Busted! Ken Ham's Ark Encounter Loses $18,000,000 in Tax Incentives From State of Kentucky

WUKY and other outlets are reporting that the Kentucky Board of Tourism has suspended $18 million worth of tax incentives for which the Ark Encounter had applied prior to its construction.

A general timeline: The Ark Encounter, LLC is set up as a for-profit company for the purpose of overseeing the construction of the Ark Encounter.  This company applies for the tax incentives to help defray the cost of the construction.  Despite controversy, Ham defends the use of the tax incentives.  Ark Encounter LLC also issues junk bonds  for this purpose.  The Ark Encounter opens on July 7, 2016 to much fanfare.  Ken Ham declares that he expects over two million visitors the first year.  Ticket prices are set at $40 for adults, $28 for children 5-12.

Well, after a year, controversy has continued to swirl around the Ark Encounter.  Instead of 2 million visitors for the first year, the Ark Encounter has drawn only 1.1 million visitors.  Ken Ham blames the lack of hotel space for this problem rather than, say, really high ticket prices.

After a year, the city of Williamstown complains that the Ark Encounter has brought in little to no business for local establishments.  Faced with growing infrastructure costs due to increased traffic because of the Ark Encounter, the Mayor of Williamstown, Rick Skinner, informs Ark Encounter, LLC that it will be imposing a 50-center per ticket tax to help pay for the upkeep of the town.

One day prior to the tax going into effect, Ken Ham sells the land on which the Ark Encounter sits to Crosswater Canyon, a non-profit organization owed by the Creation Museum, for $10.  Arguing that they are now a religious organization, Ark Encounter, LLC refuses to pay this tax.  The city of Williamstown pushes forward, threatening a lawsuit.  This brings us to the most recent update.

The Louisville Courier-Journal is now reporting that Ark Encounter, LLC, has had its tax incentives suspended by the state of Kentucky's Board of Tourism.   Deborah Yetter writes:
Kentucky has suspended tax breaks to the Ark Encounter, saying it breached a deal that provides the religious-themed attraction with $18 million in state tax incentives.

The Northern Kentucky theme park, dubbed the "Ark Park" because it features a 510-foot-long model of Noah's Ark, was notified by state officials on Tuesday that the owners have violated an agreement with Kentucky by transferring the property from a for-profit company to a nonprofit company.
It is difficult for me to believe that the managers of Ark Encounter, LLC, did not know that the optics of this deal would look terrible.  Yetter continues:
Earlier in the week, Mike Zovath, chief action officer with Answers in Genesis and principal of Crosswater Canyon, couldn't say why the property was transferred to a nonprofit.

"However this works out, we want to do things that are in the best interest of the Ark Encounter, Crosswater Canyon and everybody that's involved here and works here," he told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

But Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner fears the move was taken to avoid paying taxes.

"We're skeptical of their thinking and their lack of communication right now," Skinner said.
Ken Ham and the managers of the Ark Encounter have allowed their focus on profits above all else to deflect blame for the park’s low attendance and behave unethically. All involved in the Ark Encounter, LLC and Crosswater Canyon should be ashamed of themselves for this naked shirking of responsibility and cash grab. I am quite certain that Ken Ham will protest this move by the tourism board.  I hope he does.  It will only reveal more shady dealings that, I am sure, are there. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ark Encounter Update: Did Ken Ham Just Escape $700,000 in Taxes?

The International Business Times is reporting that Ken Ham has sold his for-profit Ark Encounter to its parent organization, Crosswater Canyon, a non-profit company, for ten dollars.  Linda Blackford writes:
On June 29, Williamstown city attorney Jeffrey Shipp sent a letter to the biblical amusement park Ark Encounter, rejecting its request to be exempted from a new safety tax because its is a religious organization.

Shipp said it was clear that Ark Encounter is a for-profit entity, which is how it has been listed with the Kentucky secretary of state’s office since 2011.

But the day before, Ark Encounter LLC sold its main parcel of land — the one with the large-scale Noah’s Ark — for $10 to its nonprofit affiliate, Crosswater Canyon. Although the property is worth $48 million according to the Grant County property valuation administrator, the deed says its value is only $18.5 million.

That’s the latest salvo in an escalating dispute between local officials and Ark Encounter, but some people are worried that Ark Encounter’s maneuver is a precursor to declaring itself exempt from all taxes, including property taxes that help finance Grant County schools.

“I believe this is the first step,” Williamstown city councilman Kim Crupper said. “The impact would be far larger than just Williamstown.”

The council is scheduled to meet Tuesday night with Ark officials to continue talking about their differences, but Crupper and Mayor Rick Skinner said they think a lawsuit is imminent.
This came about because the city of Williamstown, in order to shore up its police department and roads, decided to impose a 50-cent tax on each ticket sold at the Ark Encounter. Tickets run $40 for adults, plus $10 for parking.

The mayor, Rick Skinner stated that the taxes would add up to approximately $700,000.  Numerous reports already circulate the the Ark Encounter has brought next to no business to the local economy.  All of this comes after the Ark Encounter, LLC received some incredible tax breaks. From the Lexington Herald Leader story:
The tax break allows approved tourism sites to recover as much as 25 percent of their investment through a rebate of state sales taxes paid by visitors. The theme park also will receive tax breaks from Grant County and the city of Williamstown. The state also designated $11 million in road funds for an expanded interchange off Interstate 75.
If this is true, this is a huge black eye for the Ark Encounter and paints a huge target on Christianity. While I have no respect for Mr. Ham and consider this theme park monstrosity one of the most egregious examples of the Disney-ization of Christianity, its effect will reach much further than Williamstown, especially if a lawsuit occurs.  What will strike your average reader is that Ken Ham, after using every trick in the book to get the ark-n-park built, is now shirking his responsibility to the community because his ark is not bringing in the numbers that he thought it would.  This will, further, give ammunition to those who do not agree with the tax exemption of churches.

It all looks very suspicious and underhanded on the part of Ken Ham and Ark Encounter, LLC.  Blackford's article closes with this:
Skinner said he is disappointed in how the town’s relationship with Ark officials has deteriorated, but he said he would wait to comment further until Tuesday’s meeting.