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.

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 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.