Friday, April 30, 2010

Noah's Ark Find: Leading Creationists Think It is a Hoax

Foxnews has a follow-up story on the Noah's Ark find in which some of the leading supporters are interviewed. Most think it is a hoax.
Dr. John Morris, lead archeologist at the Institute for Creation Research, says "I'm leaning towards that the Chinese people have been deceived."

Morris has led 13 expeditions to Mount Ararat looking for the ark. He knows the area well and says of the recent find, "At best, it is an elaborate deception."
And in thirteen expeditions, he has found nothing?? Randall Price had this to say:
"I think we can't rule out the possibility that this is a hoax, because a lot of the things that happen in that region of the world, and especially with the Kurdish guides that are involved, are designed to try to extract money from gullible people," Price said.
As they say, there's enough wood from the original cross of Jesus to build an ark. That won't stop people from trekking up the sacred mountain, or people taking advantage of them.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Josh Rosenau, Jerry Coyne, and the "New Creationism"

Jerry Coyne is an atheist. He makes no secret of it and, while he is considerably less acerbic than either Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers, it does spill out sometimes. Josh Rosenau noticed, in his zeal, he got some things wrong. Coyne writes:
I’m coyneing the term “New Creationism” to describe the body of thought that accepts Darwinian evolution but with the additional caveats that 1) it was all started by God, 2) had God-worshipping humans as its goal, and 3) that the evidence for all this is that life is complex, humans evolved, and the the “fine tuning” of physical constants of the universe testify to the great improbability of our being here—ergo God. New Creationism differs from intelligent design because it rejects God’s constant intervention in the process of evolution in favor of a Big, One-Time Intervention, and because these ideas are espoused by real scientists like Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. (Note that Miller, though, has floated the possibility that God does sometimes intervene in the physical world by manipulating electrons.) New Creationism is bad because, while operating under the deep cover of real science, it tries to gain traction for dubious claims about the supernatural.
Aside from the oh-so-cute play on his name, his closing premise is wrong. But first, Josh:

Two main thoughts occur. First, this is the creationism that preceded the Enlightenment. It's not, in any sense, new. And there's already a term for it: Theistic Evolution.

Second, the term "New Creationism" is not new. Creationist Henry Morris used the term "neo-creationism" to describe his strategy in 1997. A chapter in Scott's sourcebook on the controversy has a chapter titled "Neo-creationism." Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh used the term "New Creationism" in 1997 to describe a particular front in the Science Wars then waging, in which certain social scientists rejected biological explanations for human behaviors. Creationist Paul Garner titled his work of young earth creationism The New Creationism. It was published last year.
His main complaint stems from the belligerence with which Coyne presents this, however. He has his own definition to add:
coyne: (v) To invent a new pejorative which adds heat, not light, and which tends to collide with established usage.
Back to Coyne. The closing premise to his paragraph is incorrect. Evolutionary creationists do not use science as a "deep cover" to gain traction for anything. One of the complaints that theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists have about the "science" that is performed by recent earth creationists is that the science is always secondary to the particular theological perspective such that if it conflicts with the literal reading of scripture, it must be disposed of and "right thinking" science instated in its place. Theistic evolutionists understand that the physical world is the creation of God but that it behaves in accord with laws and processes that God has laid down.

When Jesus came to earth, he didn't say "I have come to make you understand science better." He came to save our souls. The world kept spinning on its axis and things kept evolving. Coyne gets that there are differences between ID supporters and TEs but because he has adopted a reductionist way of thinking about the universe, anything beyond the observable world doesn't exist. Consequently, any appeal to it, even outside the realm of science, is unacceptable. It isn't the science of Kenneth Miller that Coyne objects to. It is the religion of Kenneth Miller.
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Noah's Ark Update: Yep, Its a Hoax

PaleoBabble is reporting on the Chinese "expedition" to Mount Ararat to find Noah's Ark. Now it seems that Randall Price who has been trying to find the Ark for years and is probably the most knowledgeable man about the subject is reporting that it is a hoax. PaleoBabble quotes Price as saying:
To make a long story short: this is all reported to be a fake. The photos were reputed to have been taken off site near the Black Sea, but the film footage the Chinese now have was shot on location on Mt. Ararat. In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese, are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. In the winter of 2008 a Chinese climber taken by Parasut’s men to the site saw the wood, but couldn’t get inside because of the severe weather conditions. During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.
This is sad on many levels. First, (even aside from the lack of scriptural support that such a vessel exists on that mountain), given what we know of geology, water movement, and the fossil record, there is very little reason to accept that there was a world-wide flood. Such a search is, therefore, misguided and an enormous waste of resources that could be used to reach people for Christ in other ways. Indeed, such a spectacular undertaking that makes FoxNews only serves to remind people with even a modicum of scientific knowledge how "out there" many Christians are.

Second, it is sad that there are those out there who would go to such lengths to dupe well-meaning Christians with such claims only to show how gullible they are. As the saying goes: "Haven't ya got anything better to do with your time?" PaleoBabble is correct, though, that Price showed true class by owning up to the fact that it was a hoax and he had been taken in, although it is not clear how taken in he really was.

Hat tip to Chris Massey
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Noah's Ark Update

One of my readers points out that there are videos and photos of the expedition to Noah's Ark. They are here. They have clearly found something. If the videos are to be believed (we've been down this road before), it is a wooden structure of sorts. I will be curious to see what comes of this. The structure is reportedly at an altitude of 12 000 feet.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Noah's Ark Found?

Yeshiva World is reporting that a group of Chinese and Turkish evangelicals have found the legendary boat atop Mount Ararat. The story, which came from Fox News (who's page won't load now) has this to say:
The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.

Yeung Wing-Cheung, from the Noah’s Ark Ministries International research team that made the discovery, said: “It’s not 100 percent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 percent that this is it.”

There have been several reported discoveries of the remains of Noah’s Ark over the years, most notably a find by archaeologist Ron Wyatt in 1987. At the time, the Turkish government officially declared a national park around his find, a boat-shaped object stretched across the mountains of Ararat.

Nevertheless, the evangelical ministry remains convinced that the current find is in fact more likely to be the actual artifact, calling upon Dutch Ark researcher Gerrit Aalten to verify its legitimacy.
Gerrit Aalten is the head of, a site dedicated to the discovery of the Ark. On the site, one can find pictures of fossils found on Ararat. As to why they are looking on Agri Dag specifically, a reference to the theologian Philostorgius is given, although the translation of his work that is quoted makes it fairly clear that he based his assumption that the Ark was on Agri Dag because that is near the source of the Euphrates River. As I said in an earlier post, Urartu is a huge area. The article continues:
Representatives of Noah’s Ark Ministries said the structure contained several compartments, some with wooden beams, that they believe were used to house animals.The group of evangelical archaeologists ruled out an established human settlement on the grounds none have ever been found above 11,000 feet in the vicinity, Yeung said.

During the press conference, team member Panda Lee described visiting the site. “In October 2008, I climbed the mountain with the Turkish team. At an elevation of more than 4,000 meters, I saw a structure built with plank-like timber. Each plank was about 8 inches wide. I could see tenons, proof of ancient construction predating the use of metal nails.
This is no different than every other excursion up the mountain that claimed to see the structure—you go all the way up there for the find of the millenium and you don't bring down any photographs? Color me skeptical.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Ken Ham's Updated Statement on Bruce Waltke

Many evangelicals are still reeling from the controversy surrounding the resignation of Bruce Waltke from Reformed Theological Seminary and the event has been a wake up call for scientists who profess a faith in Jesus Christ. It is not surprising, however, that the reaction by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis has been different. Here is what he has to say:
It is so obvious to me that the BioLogos Foundation (now headed up by two Nazarene college professors who are ardent evolutionists and liberal in their theology) have loved having a world renowned scholar like Waltke endorse them, as they are being very aggressive in pushing their liberal theology agenda on the church. In fact, if you want to see where compromising evolution/millions of years with the Bible leads to, go to the BioLogos website and read their question and answer section.
This is an example of what Chaplain Mike wrote in his response to the dismissal of Dr. Waltke. It doesn't matter how devoted to the cause of Christ he was. It doesn't matter how much Christian scholarship he was responsible for. If he accepted evolution, his theology was liberal. Liberal? Liberal theology is rejecting the divinity of Christ. Liberal theology is rejecting the trinity. The simple acceptance of evolution does not a liberal theologian make.

Here is the litmus test Chaplain Mike described: evolution. Its evidence notwithstanding, if you accept it, you are branded as compromising your understanding of the Bible. No other viewpoint of scripture can be correct. Sad.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Internet Monk is Mad

Chaplain Mike has a simply devastating post on the Bruce Waltke fiasco and what it means to modern evangelicalism. He puts forth a plea to the evangelical community to actually learn the science that seems to be so vexing:
If certain groups of Christians doubt that the evidence leads to the almost universally accepted conclusions of the scientific community, I suggest that we should be encouraging believers to pursue scientific vocations, to gain credibility by practicing honest accountable research, to do the hard work of coming up with compelling alternative models, and to make their case in the public arena.
The principle problem here is, of course, that with organizations like the ICR and AiG, they think they are learning the science. It isn't science they are learning, of course, but some bassackwards pseudoscientific deductions from a narrow interpretation of scripture. These deductions are completely at odds with accepted science in a host of different disciplines. Given the nature of scripture and the time-depth involved since the Bible was written down, they cannot help but be so. That the writers of these organizations are not even bothering to try to learn the science is obvious from Brian Thomas' horrendous post about Australopithecus sediba, on which I commented here.

Chaplain Mike then lists eight common practices of creationist groups that those of us familiar with this controversy have come to know so well. The post has the air of someone who has "had it" with creationists and isn't going to take it any more. Along the way, he has two particularly stinging criticisms:
  • Creationists ignore the complex history of interpretation when it comes to critical Biblical texts like the early chapters of Genesis. To them, there has only been one accepted view of the creation narratives throughout the ages, until some geologists started suggesting that the earth might be older than previously thought, which led to “liberal theology” and all its resultant social ills.
  • Creationists ignore the history of their own views. They fail to understand, for example, that the theory of a worldwide flood that changed the actual physical structures of the earth has its roots in “visions” by Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White, a teacher most Bible-believing Christians would find wanting in terms of theological acumen.
Among the early Sabbatarian Adventists, White was considered a prophetess, although the value of her visions have been debated. She appears to have supported Arianism, as opposed to trinitarianism, however, which is not an SDA position. The deluvial visions that she had in the late 1800s became the basis for the writings of George McCready Price in the 1910s and 1920s. Price's writings were full of unsupportable assertions on the geological record that were ignored by competent geologists. Sadly, these views were picked up in the 1960s and 1970s by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb for their book The Genesis Flood, which inspired a new generation of creationists. As Davis Young puts it:
All the evidence of the rocks tells us that they were not produced or arranged by a flood. The views of earth history offered by Woodward, Catcott, G.M. Price, Whitcomb and Morris, and John R. Rice are simply and obviously incorrect.
In Bruce Waltke's video, he asserts that to ignore the wealth of scientific evidence for evolution would put evangelical Christianity in the same camp as various cults that refuse to interact with the world. I wonder if that is strong enough. The complete rejection of the clear evidence of God's created planet suggests that a strange gnosticism is at work, where the record of God's creation is ignored or distorted so that a particular interpretation of His Word can go unchallenged. It is difficult to see how the modern evangelical church can be helped by such a movement.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Acts and Fiction: The ICR Tackles Australopithecus sediba

Brian Thomas of the ICR has a take on Australopthecus sediba in the recent news section of their web page. It doesn't start out well:
Evolution's search for the "missing link" between man and ape has a long and troubled history. Australopithecus sediba is the latest fossil find that is claimed to represent evolutionary human ancestors. But the remains of this extinct ape provide several solid clues that contradict any evolutionary relationship to man.

First, the remains were dated at 1.9 million years, which is at least one million years younger than evolutionary ages assigned to some fully human remains.1 If Au. sediba really were an ancestor to man, then its kind would have morphed into mankind and ought therefore not exist (as man's ancestor) after mankind had already arrived on the scene.2 Fossil ages from both species overlap considerably according to standard dates, thus failing to line up chronologically with an evolutionary scenario.
Well, first, evolution has never searched for the "missing link" of anything. There is no applicable concept in evolutionary biology for the concept since it is biologically meaningless. If Thomas has only read the popular press, he probably would have picked up on this term. It doesn't shows up in any of the Science papers on A. sediba, which one would hope Mr. Thomas has read.

The rest is just nonsense. He doesn't define what he means by "fully human." Therefore, one can only guess which hominids he is referring to. If he is referring to modern humans, he is 900 000 years off the mark. If he is referring to Homo erectus/ergaster, his timing is right but these remains aren't fully human by any stretch of the imagination. Even a cursory glance at these remains reveals this. It is therefore, not possible for A. sediba to "morph onto the scene" after the appearance of modern humans since even Homo erectus wasn't around at this point.

Additionally, how does the fact that the species overlap fail to "line up chronologically with an evolutionary scenario?" This is only true if one holds a strictly unilineal, vertical view of evolution, one that wasn't held even by Darwin. Such a view reflects a complete lack of either understanding or education in evolutionary theory by Mr. Thomas, suggesting he is not remotely qualified to write this essay.

He then completely misquotes Bill Jungers and his analysis of Ardipithecus. Thomas writes:
Just a few months ago, anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy promoted Ardi as an ape who walked upright. But to William Jungers of Stony Brook University Medical Center--who, like the rest of the world, was only able to review the evidence after Ardi had already been proclaimed a walker in the publication of its initial study--the reconstructed skeleton "really doesn't show any adaptations for bipedalism at all."
What Jungers was actually quoted as saying was this:
None of the known foot components, no matter how well adapted to climbing, preclude Ardipithecus from walking upright on the ground. Jungers, however, thinks "it really doesn't show any adaptations for bipedalism at all." In fact, he says, many components of Ar. ramidus don't make Ardi look that much more adept at walking upright than chimpanzees—a primate that White et al. disavow as a model for early human evolution. In a summary paper led by Lovejoy, the authors describe Ardipithecus as a "facultative upright walker," one that can walk on two legs if needed (to carry something in the forearms, for example) but that isn't necessarily prone to do so. (emphasis mine)
Jungers wasn't talking about the skeletal reconstruction, he was talking about only the foot. He further indicates that, while he does not accept all of the evidence for bipedalism in Ardipithecus, he agrees that it would have been more bipedal than a chimpanzee.

Thomas then completely misreads the account of Berger's search for taphonomic data to understand how A. sediba died and to see if there is any residue of an endocast. Here is what Thomas writes:
For such soft samples as brains and insect eggs to have been preserved for thousands of years would be "special" enough, considering how quickly such organic materials decay. But to expect someone to believe that brain tissue escaped decay for 1.9 million years is asking far too much. It would be like expecting someone to believe that Au. sediba was man's ancestor--even though its skeleton was entirely ape-like and it supposedly lived long after its own descendants.
What Thomas doesn't seem to understand here is that Berger is looking for fossilized remains. Throughout hominid palaeoanthropological research, numerous brain endocasts have been found. In fact, one was recovered with the first australopithecine found, in 1924. Along with the face and a partial skull-cap, the fossilized brain of Australopithecus africanus was presented to Raymond Dart at the University of Witwatersrand. Immediately, he recognized that he was not looking at a run-of-the-mill primate but, rather, one that had human traits. This, and other discoveries, have led researchers to reconstruct how the brains of these early hominids differed from those of later ones. In fact, it has given rise to one of the most celebrated disagreements in palaeoanthropology, that between Dean Falk and Ralph Holloway, about just exactly how modern the brains of australopithecines were.

Thomas is completely unaware of this. Consequently, his comments are not just uninformed, they are ridiculous. The ICR's writers, once again, demonstrate that they are simply unwilling or unable to comprehend basic science.

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Post at BioLogos

My first post over at BioLogos is up. It is an edited version of my take on Casey Luskin's attack on the Smithsonian human origins exhibit. Wander over and comment, if you like.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

More on the JPL Dust-Up

The lawsuit filed by the JPL employee who claims discrimination based on his acceptance of Intelligent Design has made its way to the media. A story in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune has picked it up, as have a few other news outlets. At this point, details are still sketchy. The story, by Emma Gallagos, states:
David Coppedge is an IT employee who has worked on JPL's Cassini mission since 1997, but he is also a Christian who edits a blog titled "Creation-Evolution Headlines." The blog promotes the theory of intelligent design - the idea that an intelligent being - not evolution or random processes - is responsible for creating life and the universe.

"I think it's unfortunate that JPL, which is interested in exploring the origins of the universe would be hostile to the argument of intelligent design," said Coppedge's attorney William Becker, Jr.. "If anything, JPL is the premier space exploration resource in the world, it ought to have an openness to this theory."
On the other side of the fence, Dover looms large:
But a case like his probably won't have a shot in court, because courts have viewed intelligent design as a religious belief, rather than a scientific theory, according to Gary Williams, a professor at Loyola Law School.

Certain kinds of religious activity are protected if they are not intrusive - such as wearing certain religious garb - but speech during work hours is not included, he said.

So even if intelligent design is viewed as a religious belief, employers have the right to restrict what their employees discuss in a work context, Williams said.
Mr. Coppedge's attorney may argue that Intelligent Design is science and does not fall under the restrictions to which religious speech is subject. If he does, and if it is applicable, the defense will argue that the Jones ruling in Dover in 2005 established that ID is religious in nature and is, in fact, subject to those restrictions. It is a question of how narrowly ruled the Dover decision was. If it can be extended, then this could turn out very badly for ID.

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The Christian Post on Australopithecus sediba

Eric Young of The Christian Post has an article on their site addressing Australopithecus sediba. The article is very quick to land on the popular press for some misinformation. He writes:
Two fossils that were discovered in South Africa nearly two years ago are causing a stir today after two articles published recently in the journal Science introduced them as members of a new species that “might help reveal the ancestor” of the genus Homo. While some – mostly media – have been quick to hail the species as the “missing link,” many more have cast their doubts over the discovery, which some say might not even be a new species.

Some critics further say the find expands the cloud of uncertainty rather than “cast new light,” as Science claimed in its introduction of the papers.
It is unfortunate that scientists cannot disabuse the popular media of the term "missing link" which has no biological reality whatever. Its use then forces scientists to explain what a particular find really means. This "backpeddling" gives ammunition to those who would suggest that evolution does not occur or that palaeontologists do not know what they are doing. Neither is the case.

While not having much new information, the article is reasonably fair in portraying the views of both the YEC and evolutionary biologists' sides.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Anthony Flew Has Died

Anthony Flew, the renowned atheist who caused quite a stir a bit back when he endorsed Intelligent Design, has died. The article states:
Flew had become well known to a generation of students as an official atheist philosopher, much to the chagrin of his father, a Methodist minister, who is said to have prayed for him every day. In an early, seminal essay, Theology and Falsification (1950), Flew tried to show that the hypothesis of an almighty and loving God was unfalsifiable and therefore empty. He claimed the "endemic evil" in theology was that, however terrible the world, religious folk continued to believe in an all-powerful, benevolent deity. For them, no horror was, even in principle, allowed to count against this. But then, how could there be meaningful evidence for God's existence? Thus, theism suffered a "death by a thousand qualifications".

Thus, it came as shock to some of his humanist friends when in 2004, he confessed to a change of mind concerning God. He announced in a video entitled Has Science Discovered God? that aspects of biological order, especially in DNA, had led him to believe in intelligent design after all. Commentators seized on this, but the revelation was less dramatic than it appeared. He still disbelieved in revealed religion and immortality. He did, however, express concern about the damage his writings on the subject could have done.
He is preceded in death by Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, also of this persuasion. Flew's review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a year and a half back is not to be missed.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

JPL Employee Alleges Demotion Because of Support for Intelligent Design

A NASA employee that works at the Jet Propulsion lab in Houston has filed suit, alleging that he was demoted because of his support for Intelligent Design. The PR Newswire, working off of a story from the Discovery Institute, has this to say:
The lawsuit (court number #BC435600) was filed by David Coppedge, an information technology specialist and system administrator on JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn, the most ambitious interplanetary exploration ever launched. A division of the California Institute of Technology, JPL operates under a contract with NASA. Coppedge was a "Team Lead" Systems Administrator on the Cassini mission until JPL demoted him for allegedly "pushing religion" by loaning interested co-workers DVDs supportive of intelligent design.

"For the offense of offering videos to colleagues, Coppedge faced harassment, an investigation cloaked in secrecy, and a virtual gag order on his discussion of intelligent design," said attorney Casey Luskin of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Luskin serves as a consultant to the Coppedge lawsuit. "Coppedge was punished even though supervisors admitted never receiving a single complaint regarding his conversations about intelligent design prior to their investigation, and even though other employees were allowed to express diverse ideological opinions, including attacking intelligent design."
Obviously, if this is true, there is no excuse for it. As long as he is performing his scientific tasks to the best of his abilities, what he thinks of ID should be irrelevant. We will have to see how this plays out. It would be nice to have a source other than the Discovery Institute, but at this point, all of the newswires are picking up their story. I think we will have to wait for more elsewhere.

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Deepak Chopra on Evolution

"And if Oprah Winfrey married Deepak Chopra, she'd be..." Sorry. Deepak Chopra made news last week by apologizing for causing the California earthquake because his meditation was so strong. Yesterday, he tackled evolution in SFGate. He writes:
I'm thinking about a short segment of the program about red colobus monkeys in Africa. They and their cousins, the white-and-black colobus, subsist on a diet of tough, toxic tree leaves, and being large monkeys, they must consume a huge quantity of leaves to get enough nourishment. But the particular vegetation they eat is high in cyanide, and every day a colobus ingests enough poison to kill a human being. They survive because of bacteria in their intestines that helps neutralize the cyanide. Yet in the process the colobus has bad indigestion — as the narrator intones, "They don't seem to like their diet very much." And indeed, the monkeys on camera look listless and sour-faced.

But the red colobus recently made a life-altering discovery. They found that if they eat a bit of charcoal from the abandoned fires of local villagers, their indigestion is cured.

The Golden Bamboo Lemur has a similar diet, indicating that this is not a unique adaptation. It is also true that many monkeys suffer from parasites and the ingestion of foods high in cyanide help to keep the parasites in check. He continues:
What we are witnessing is an intelligent discovery on the part of creatures who stand far below Homo sapiens on the evolutionary chain, and that discovery is being passed on from mother to child without genetic adaptation. To me, this means that quite a blow has been struck for intelligence being innate in the universe. It suggests that evolution itself has never been random but is guided by the principle of intelligence — not "intelligent design," which is a red herring supplied by religious conservatives.
They are not far below humans on the evolutionary ladder that they aren't intelligent. This is another example of primates exercising their grey matter to solve a problem, and is not different from the Japanese Snow Monkeys washing their potatoes because they discovered that they taste better. It is an adaptive behavior that is passed on. How this makes it a "force" is anybody's guess. As such, it is, like Intelligent Design, untestable.

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Teacher Resigns in Connecticut

A school teacher in Connecticut, Mark Tangarone, has resigned his position, effective at the end of the year, rather than retire in two years, as was his plan. Why, you ask? As Patricia Gay writes in the Weston Forum:
Mr. Tangarone, a 17-year veteran of the Weston school system, claims that a program he wanted to teach about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln was rejected by the school administration because it involved teaching evolution — the scientific theory that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor.

“I find it hard to believe that in this day and age that a teacher such as myself can be ordered to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution,” he said.
The response of the school administrator, Mark Ribbens, is astounding:
“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic as part of a TAG project, and further, parents who would object if evolution was part of a presentation by a student to students who do not participate in the TAG program.”
Philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life? If it is a scientifically satisfactory explanation for the diversity of life, and it is being taught as science, what difference does it make how philosophically unsatisfactory it is? Is that how we are to treat all scientific disciplines? There are, doubtless, those who would treat modern astronomy's explanation of the origins of the cosmos as "philosophically unsatisfactory." Should we not teach it on that basis? Should we not teach modern geology? It conflicts with flood geology, which many people find philosophically satisfactory, even if it has no scientific merit.

Those who let philosophical predilections hijack their duty to teach good science have no business in the education field and should step down or, as in the case of Don McLeroy, be voted out of office.

Hat tip to BioLogos.

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Not Out of the Trees?

The Independent has a story about research indicating that our earliest human precursors might not have been as arboreal as originally thought. Michael McCarthy writes:
Humanity's immediate predecessors may have had trouble climbing trees, research suggests – so they may not have been as ape
-like as many experts believe.

Scientists have arrived at this conclusion after making a close study of the way chimpanzees scale trees – virtually vertically and with ease – and then comparing chimpanzee ankle joints with those of hominins, humans' ancestors.

The hominins lived between 1.5 and 4.1 million years ago, a relatively short time after proto-humans and chimpanzees split from a common ancestor (generally thought to have been between four and eight million years ago). Many experts have argued that this ancestor was probably quite chimpanzee-like, and as a result it has been widely assumed that the earliest humans were ape-like, too.
Given what we know about the bipedalism of Ardipithecus and Australopithecus afarensis, this doesn't seem to me to be too much of a surprise. It is quite possible that bipedality evolved due to selective pressures for a more terrestrial lifestyle, perhaps because they were being out competed by the precursors of modern chimpanzees.

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BioLogos Post on Bruce Waltke

Here is BioLogos' post on Bruce Waltke and evolution in which the video in which he strongly suggested that the church needed to come to grips with evolution is discussed. One paragraph, in particular, stands out:
The fact that Dr. Waltke felt he was unable to leave the video in place, despite the fact that he still agrees with its contents, is an extremely important statement about the culture of fear within evangelicalism in today’s world. Leading evangelicals who support evolution are rightly fearful of personal attacks on the integrity of their faith and character. Even when they believe that scientific data must be taken seriously, and that science has revealed the ways in which God created the world, they are more willing to be associated with those who are clearly wrong about God’s truth as revealed within His World, and who are thereby also wrong about how they understand His Word. How will the Church ever come to discern truth and falsehood if academic discourse is neutered for fears of public perception? This situation, before us, more than any that we are familiar with in the one year history of, poignantly demonstrates the importance of the task we all have.
Sadly, a few days after this was written, Dr. Waltke was asked by the Reformed Theological Seminary to resign his position. As it has been so many times in the past, the evangelical church is now at a crossroads. While there are many organizations that seek to unite the church with modern scientific teaching, there is an increasing radicalization of the evangelical church due to the influence of fundamentalist doctrine. Purveyors of this influence have completely rejected everything that modern science has to offer, instituting, instead, a doctrine that, scientifically, dates to the early 1600s. Such a doctrine is manifestly at odds with both a traditional understanding of creation and what God has revealed to us through the world that He created. This view is doing serious harm to the Christian message and to our ability to speak to the world about Jesus. As such, it cannot go unchallenged. I think this is our wake-up call.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

USA Today Article on Bruce Waltke

Here is the USA Today article by Scott Jaschik on Bruce Waltke that was mentioned around the net yesterday. Waltke was asked to resign his post at Reformed Theological Seminary. The article has this to say:
"If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult ... some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God's Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness," he says, according to several accounts by those who have seen the video. Those words set off a furor at the Reformed Theological Seminary, where Waltke was — until this week — a professor. (The seminary is evangelical, with ties to several denominations.)
This whole situation is very sad. Probably the best quote from the article is from Ron Dreher of BeliefNet, who said:
"Don't mistake me, I believe that any and every religion, and religious institution, has the right, and indeed the obligation, to set standards and to enforce them. But is this really the hill these Reformed folks want to die on?"
My wife said last night that the whole situation scares her because, even someone like her, who tries very hard to stay out of the argument, can see the increasing polarization in the evangelical church. It reminds me of a line from the movie Ladyhawk: "Great storms announce themselves with a single breeze."

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Carl Zimmer on Australopithecus sediba

Carl Zimmer of Slate has an article on the hoopla surrounding A. sediba's discovery as well as all of the other discoveries that manage to galvanize the public's attention and promote some misinformation in the process. He writes:
Whenever scientists make a major discovery about human evolution, we get treated to a lot of misconceptions. The most popular of them all is the myth of the missing link—the idea that paleontologists are on an eternal quest for ancestors linking us directly back to earlier forms of life. Last May, for example, scientists reported the discovery of a 47-million-year-old fossil of a primate called Darwinius. "Fossil is evolution's 'missing link,' " blared a headline in the Sun."The beautifully preserved remains—dubbed Ida—is believed to be a direct connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom," the article said—a sentence that makes no sense the first time you read it and then somehow manages to make even less sense the longer you look at it.
At the heart of the article is the concept of collateral ancestry as opposed to unilineal ancestry. It is the second that gives rise to the term "missing link." Such a term is ludicrous in light of what we know of how evolution proceeds. Collateral ancestry is where different related species share derived traits relative to their ancestors. An example of this would be feathers in dinosaurs and early birds. Feathers appeared in dinosaurs, likely, for insulation initially. Some of these dinosaurs went extinct but at least one branch kept evolving. This branch then, perhaps, split into two or more branches, one of which became birds. That is very simplistic but you get the idea.

It is likely that this sort of thing happened in human evolution as well, with several sister species being on the landscape at the same time, one of which gave rise to later hominids. As Berger notes, A. sediba may not be ancestral to later hominids at all. Zimmer concludes:
But that's OK. Even if A. sediba doesn't turn out to be a close relative, it gives us a glimpse at the remarkable diversity of hominins that walked the Earth 1.8 million years ago. And no matter which hypothesis wins out, A. sediba is evidence that these are exciting times to study human evolution.
He is absolutely correct about that.

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The School Choice Debate Across the Pond

The British have some different ideas about how to do some things in education, that's for sure. Yahoo News UK and Ireland is reporting on some controversy that has erupted about how to fund some schools not under state control. The article notes:
The Conservatives' plans to allow parents and teachers to set up schools have been denounced as "barking mad" by a teachers' leader. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), raised concerns that children could be taught more about subjects like creationism than literacy and numeracy if the plans go ahead.
Steve Hackett called the British public school system "Darktown" because of what he thought was its demoralizing, dehumanizing atmosphere

What typically happens over here is that schools that want to teach creationism (like Paideia Academy) are private in nature and do not get any state funds. To use state funds for such a school would violate the establishment clause. It appears that no such clause exists in the british system. The counter position is this:
"The Conservatives will create a new generation of independent, free, and non-selective schools. This will give all parents, not just the rich, what they want - smaller schools with smaller classes, good behaviour, great teachers and restored confidence in the curriculum."
Education is not neutral. One of the reasons those of us that have our kids in private school have gone that route is because of the increasing liberal, morally relativistic bent that is in the public schools. On the whole, I think that private schools more than give the public schools a run for their money, creationism aside. Many of these parents feel that they are up against the wall with regard to their kids' education. While I cannot condone the teaching of creationism, I can understand how they would want a school that taught traditional values and curricula.

It is unfortunate, however, that along with this movement to try to educate children more in keeping with traditonal values, certain subjects suffer greatly. This might not be the case if the radical creationist movement did not have such a stranglehold on the evangelical church.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Casey Luskin on The Smithsonian Human Origins Exhibit

Casey Luskin has an article on Evolution, News & Views on the Smithsonian exhibit called "What Does It Mean To Be Human?" Luskin addresses the standard creationist argument that gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution. He quotes from the educator's guide, which reads:
Misconception: Gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution.

Response: Science actually predicts gaps in the fossil record. Many species leave no fossils at all, and the environmental conditions for forming good fossils are not common. The chance of any individual organism becoming fossilized is incredibly small. Nevertheless, new fossils are constantly being discovered. These include many transitional fossils—e.g., intermediary fossils between birds and dinosaurs, and between humans and our primate ancestors. Our lack of knowledge about certain parts of the fossil record does not disprove evolution
Luskin responds:
Did you get that? Ignoring the fact that transitional fossils are often missing even among taxa whose records are very complete, now Darwin’s defenders argue that their theory “predicts gaps in the fossil record.” How convenient!
This is a semantic trick. It is the same as saying Black Holes don't exist because we cannot see them. Such a statement completely overlooks the fact that there is a very large amount of evidence, based on how astronomical bodies behave under the influence of strong gravimetric forces, that, yes indeed, Black Holes do exist. I would venture to guess that very few professional astronomers doubt the existence of Black Holes.

Because we are missing sections of the fossil record, even large sections of the fossil record overtrivializes the fact that we do have very good fossils to work with and almost unbroken sequences of fossils of many different orders. Luskin, in fact, ignores the second part of the paragraph that he quotes.

That we have gaps is unavoidable. Evolutionary theory doesn't predict gaps. Geology predicts gaps. There is simply no way short of a miracle that we would have completely fossil rich preservation sites for every conceivable depositional environment. Such an expectation misunderstands how geological processes work. Expecting such a fossilized environment misunderstands how taphonomy works. Luskin continues:
What's ironic, however, is that if you ask the question How Do We Know Humans Evolved? the answer you’re given is, “Fossils like the ones shown in our Human Fossils Gallery provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.” So whether you find fossils or you don’t, that’s evidence for evolution.
Here's irony for you. The human fossil record, in fact, is replete with transitional forms. Here are a few:
  • The recently discovered and described Ardipithecus shows the transition to from a quadupedal gait to bipedalism.
  • The material from Hadar and Laetoli show more advanced bipedalism relative to Ardipithecus in A. afarensis, which still possesses slightly curved fingers to grasp limbs, indicating that some time was still spent in the trees.
  • A. afarensis also shows remarkable features in the face that are exactly intermediate between apes and later humans.
  • There is a flurry of different australopithecine forms between 3.5 and 2.0 million years ago, some robust, some gracile. All are related and yet are different, showing regional variation and change through time.
  • The remains attributable Homo habilis, whether they be one species or many, show brain expansion on a basically australopithecine face (this is especially true with KNM-ER1470).
  • There is a remarkable series of gradations from what is considered Homo habilis to what is considered Homo erectus or Homo ergaster. There is disagreement about how many species are represented because the material is quite variable—and shows considerable change over time. This is also why we are having trouble figuring out which group early Homo came from.
  • There is considerable disagreement about when Homo erectus ends and archaic Homo sapiens begins due to the transitional nature of much of this material. This has led some, such as Milford Wolpoff, to suggest sinking H. erectus into the Homo sapiens line, arguing that it represents one long lineage.
  • It is also clear that some traits persist in some populations longer than others. Homo antecessor, from Spain, shows incipient archaic Homo sapiens characteristics at 800 000 years ago, while over in Germany, the Mauer mandible from Heidelberg, still shows H. erectus traits.
  • Over in China, Homo erectus (Zhoukoudian, Hexian) persists until around 250 000 years ago, while at 200 000, obvious changes have occurred in the face (Dali, Maba) in the Homo sapiens direction.
  • Modern human traits do not appear all at once, but rather over a period of 60 to 80 000 years in Africa (Herto, Klasies River Mouth, Border Cave) and the Near East (Mugharet-es Skhul, Jebel Qafzeh). Early "modern" specimens still show a mix of archaic and modern features
I could go on for pages and pages. The point is that, despite the fact that we have gaps in the fossil record, what we do have is good enough to make some pretty dang good assessments of what happened in the past. The human fossil record is a wealth of information about our history as a species. To dismiss it out of hand because there are gaps is simplistic at best and ignorant at worst. He ends by quoting the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, who passed away a few years ago:
But the exhibit gives no evidence of dissent from the official party line, such as an admission from Ernst Mayr in 2004 that "[t]he earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus, are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap,” and therefore we’re in a position of “[n]ot having any fossils that can serve as missing links."
Mayr was a brilliant evolutionary biologist but he did not work in the human fossil record. He is incorrect about his assessment. There are fossils of all shapes and sizes between the late australopithecines and Homo erectus. The problem is that there is no agreement about what they represent. It is, nonetheless, not an unbridged gap. Finds like Australopithecus sediba help to bridge that gap. Maybe it is not a direct ancestor to early Homo. It still show the progression toward the Homo line in one of these late australopithecines.

The fact that there are gaps in the fossil record has nothing to do with the fact that evolution has or has not taken place. How does Mr. Luskin explain the areas where there aren't gaps?

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Disturbing News From Reformed Circles

By way of one of my regular readers, I was directed to a post by Michael Bird over at Euangelion about some news from the halls of Reformed Seminaries. It is not good. He writes:
First, there was the Peter Enns affair at Westminster. Now truth be told I'm not sold on Enns' model of applying the incarnation to Scripture (J.I. Packer and John Webster have given reasons for rejecting that model), but Enns' attempt to situate the Old Testament in the context of ANE literature is fairly standard and uncontroversial in Christian circles outside of North America. Second, we have this week seen the resignations ( = dismissals) of two of the most eminent Evangelical Professors of biblical studies in the USA, Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman, from their adjunct posts at Reformed seminaries. Waltke was fired because he asserted in a video that evangelicals should embrace evolution as being consistent with the biblical accounts of creation and Longman was fired because he stated in a video that belief in a historical Adam was not necessary.
I am not reformed in my thinking and, therefore, will not tread to deeply into this area but I have been led to believe that part of most reformed confessionals is a statement that Adam and Eve were historical individuals and our current predicament results from their fall away from grace. Consequently, to alter from that perspective would seem to me to be a significant step. Having said that, there are perfectly good theological arguments for doing so. He argues that it is a result of a "resurgence" of fundamentalism. He comments further:
Perhaps the chief irony in all of this is that B.B. Warfield, who is revered in some circles as a virtual emmanation of the Logos, was himself a believer in Evolution (or at least held do its compatibility with the Bible). So it seems that even B.B. Warfield (peace be upon him) could not teach in many Reformed Seminaries these days! Note, I'm not saying that theistic evolution is the model of choice. Yet special creation, theistic evolution, and progressive creation are all consistent with a Christian worldview and a high view of the Scriptures.
I should add that it was B.B. Warfield's seminal paper "On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race" that was a huge stepping stone to me accepting that there was scriptural justification for accepting that evolution is possible in God's creation. The news above seems to indicate that the increasing radicalization of North American Christianity to conform to the fundamentalist perspective has begun to affect the academy. Something is, indeed, rotten in Denmark.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Slightly Off-Topic: Devo!

An Ohio historical museum has received one of the red hats worn by Devo during their heyday in the 1980s. As the story in the Deseret News reports, the band made a name for itself with a number of hits, including "Whip it." The story notes:
The Ohio Historical Society says it has received a small collection of artifacts from the band and its official archivist. The items include stickers, T-shirts, costumes and a flower pot-style hat worn in the band's memorable 1980 video.

Three of the band's founding members grew up in Akron and met at Kent State University in the 1970s.

The group's name came from a theory the human race is in a process of devolution, which members read about in an anti-Darwinism pamphlet.
"Are we not men?"

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Friday, April 09, 2010

Palaeontology Ramping Up in China

Randy Boswell of the Ottawa Citizen has an article on work that is going on in China involving the transition from Dinosaurs to birds and the work of a Canadian palaeontologist:
But a Canadian scientist working in China has scored a paleontological hat trick in the past month alone, co-authoring three papers that detail the discovery of two new species of the extinct reptiles -- including one with a striking resemblance to the roadrunner -- and reveal a previously unknown feature of "feathered arms" in a birdlike dinosaur with the posture of a penguin.

Corwin Sullivan, an evolution expert raised in Ontario and B.C. and educated at the University of Toronto and University of Victoria, says the flurry of published studies is "mostly a coincidence of timing," but also reflects how China has emerged as the world's richest fossil hotbed, particularly when it comes to tracing links between dinosaurs and birds.
The amount of material that is coming out of this area is staggering and there is much more to come.

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Australopithecus sediba Articles in Science

The Science Magazine articles on A. sediba are out. They are free for the time being. You just have to register at the site. The two articles cover the morphology of the finds as well as the geology of the Malapa Cave, in which they were found.
There is an extensive list of traits listed of both the cranium and face tabulated along with the other australopithecine species and early Homo. According to Berger and his team, it tells us the following:
The closest morphological comparison for Au. sediba is Au. africanus, as these taxa share numerous similarities in the cranial vault, facial skeleton, mandible, and teeth (Table 1). Nevertheless, Au. sediba can be readily differentiated from Au. africanus on both craniodental and postcranial evidence.
The face has the scooped appearance of australopithecines, with nice anterior pillars and the cranium is small, with a size of about 420 cubic centimeters. For reference, our heads are around 1400 cubic centimeters in size. On the Homo side, however, the vault is expanded and the face is considerably narrower than that of your average australopith. Compare it to this front shot of Australopithecus boisei specimen OH5, taken by David Brill. This lateral flaring of the cheeks is characteristic of all australopithecines to one degree or another and is not found in early Homo at all.

From the neck down, the skull has a mix of australopithecine and early Homo traits. The australopithecine traits include comparatively long arms, a somewhat conical-shaped rib cage and a small stature. On the other hand, it has a pelvic structure much more like later Homo, suggesting even better walking and running abilities.

Berger and his team have, I think, correctly placed this critter in the genus Australopithecus, but it clearly does have some characteristics that presage early Homo. What those mean is not yet clear but there was a general shift toward more modern characteristics in all of these hominids at around 2 million years ago.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

CNN Story on Australopithecus sediba

CNN has a story on the new hominid, complete with picture, which is now tentatively being called Australopithecus sediba. It is truly remarkable, with obvious characteristics of early Homo and yet what appear to be some nifty-looking anterior pillars. Here is the image that appears on the CNN site. Until we get a full description, what this find appears to represent is a very primitive Homo with some australopithecine facial characteristics and some Homo facial characteristics along with a slightly expanded cranium. This pattern is later seen in specimens like KNM ER-1470, Richard Leakey's famous find in 1972.

Here's the problem. As I mentioned in the first post about this find, if you are familiar with the facial skeleton of the gracile australopithecines, you can see those characteristics in this specimen. If you are familiar with the facial skeletons of the specimens attributed to Homo habilis, you can see some of those characteristics as well. The fact that this specimen has both is a big deal. That Anika Smith can dismiss it out of hand strongly suggests that she doesn't have the background to understand what she is looking at.

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Local Man Wants Biology Book Banned

Hitting close to home, a parent from Farragut, a town adjacent to Knoxville, wants a biology book banned because of its denigrating reference to Christianity. The story notes:
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre is recommending that the Knox County school board hear Kurt Zimmermann’s request. But he’s also asking that the board uphold the review committee’s finding...Zimmermann in December requested that school officials immediately remove the book “Asking About Life” from use in his son’s class as well as from all students’ use because it contains “a clear bias” by the authors against Christianity, according to documentation he submitted to school officials.

On page 319 of the text, the authors describe creationism as “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.” Zimmermann said the use of the word “myth” could “mislead, belittle and discourage students in believing in creationism and pointedly calls the Bible a myth.”
The passage in question does not seem to represent a clear bias against Christianity, unless you believe that the only valid definition of Christianity is one that includes a seven-day creation. It does present a bias against young earth creationism, however. Whether or not it should be called a myth is not clear. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines myth in the following way:
a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
We often think of the word "myth" as describing something untrue. Using the correct definition, however, its use in the textbook was entirely accurate. The Genesis account that details the creation of the universe in seven days is a traditional story that has been handed down since the time of Moses and represents the oral tradition between God and the children of Israel. What any of this has to do with biology is anybody's guess. If Mr. Zimmerman believes in creationism, then he is going to have trouble with the entire book, and likely any other book that is chosen.

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More on the Hominid Discovery

The Telegraph has a larger, more in-depth article on the discovery in South Africa of the early Homo remains. Richard Gray writes:
Experts who have seen the skeleton say it shares characteristics with Homo habilis, whose emergence 2.5 million years ago is seen as a key stage in the evolution of our species.

The new discovery could help to rewrite the history of human evolution by filling in crucial gaps in the scientific knowledge.

Most fossilised hominid remains are little more than scattered fragments of bone, so the discovery of an almost-complete skeleton will allow scientists to answer key questions about what our early ancestors looked like and when they began walking upright on two legs.
This discovery was hinted at months ago but no details had been forthcoming. One of the problems that continually plagues palaeoanthropology research is sections for which the fossil record is not as good as we would like it. There are a number of Homo habilis fossils that show a clear evolution of Homo but only a few instances in which it appears as though there is a clear transition between australopithecines and Homo habilis. This may change that.

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New Hominid from South Africa Fills Gap

Lee Burger has discovered a hominid specimen that fills some of the holes between australopithecines and early Homo. The article by Christopher Szabo, in Digital Journal notes:
The near complete skeleton was found by Professor Lee Burger of the University of the Witwatersrand (known locally as ”Wits”) in Johannesburg. He was exploring cave systems in the Sterkfontein region near Johannesburg in an area dubbed the ”Cradle of Humanity” for all the finds originating there.
More in a bit, I am sure.

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NPR Interview with Francisco Ayala

NPR has an interview with Francisco Ayala on the show Faith Matters, that is available as an audio file or a transcript. The interview is hosted by Michael Martin. One particular question and answer:
MARTIN: Why do you think it is that after decades now of grappling with scientific information and discovery about the way the universe functions, about the origin of the universe, that we still have not come to peace with this?

Prof. AYALA: Well, a good number of people in United States (unintelligible) have not come to peace with science, and that is based on poor scientific location and typically poor religious education. I would go farther, you know, I would say that for people who understand the consequences of their faith and that understand science, it is how the statements that are made contrary to science by proponents of so-called creationism or intelligent design, those are statements.

Although they are made in good faith usually, but they are contrary to the religious faith. Science is compatible with belief an impotent [sic] [should be omnipotent] and benevolent God, creationism is missing out, because if all organisms were designed by God, God will have a lot to account for. You know, the world is full of cruelty and then we have earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. It's much better to explain those things as the result of natural processes than accuse them today, particularly the sign of the creator.
Read the whole thing.

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Anika Smith Comments on Hominid Discovery

Anika Smith of the Discovery Institute has written a comment on the hominid find that could help bridge the gap between the australopithecines and early Homo. It is silly. She writes:
Another year, another fossil with some serious media backing. This week it's a Homo habilis said to be "almost-complete" — of course, the report from the Telegraph also claims that Homo habilis was "previously unknown," so you might want to take that with a grain of salt.

In fact, you might want to read a bit more before you throw that OMG Missing Link Found! party I know you were planning. (Squatch is going to take it hard when you cancel his first music gig since the Sonics left town.) This is the same species that was reported in an AP article from 2007 which disowned
Homo habilis as a human ancestor. As far back as 1999, a paper in Science explained that this species should not even be considered a member of the Homo genus.
These statements suggest a complete lack of familiarity with the fossil record of these hominids. The reason that there is disagreement with the designation of Homo habilis is because there is considerable morphological variability within the specimens that make up Homo habilis as well as disagreement about how much the earliest specimens differ from the late australopithecines.

The article referenced from the NYT suggests that Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived on the same landscape for c. 500ky or so and thus, one was not unilineally descended from the other. So? That doesn't mean they didn't both have a common ancestor or that Homo habilis survived after Homo erectus split off. There are plenty of examples of descendant species coexisting with their progenitors. More silliness from the Discovery Institute.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Jay Richards and Casey Luskin on When to Doubt a Scientific Consensus

Jay Richards has a piece in The American on doubting a scientific consensus. I became aware of the piece through the Discovery Institute because he is a Senior Fellow there. Richards' paper is on global warming and he approaches the problem from a process perspective, rather than a data perspective. He lists twelve criteria for determining whether the consensus is evidence-driven or just "groupthink." Climate science is in its infancy as a science, coming of age only in the last twenty or so years. That does not stop Casey Luskin from comparing climate science to evolutionary theory, an established science, in a piece for Evolution, News & Views. It is not a warranted analogy. He writes:
Many of Richards’ criteria are clearly applicable to the debate over intelligent design (ID) and neo-Darwinism. For example, Darwin’s defenders make heavy use of personal attacks, and Richards suggests we ought to consider skepticism “When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.” Likewise, Richards’ criteria of “When scientists are pressured to toe the party line” or “”When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish” also have immediately obvious relevance to the ID-evolution debate.
Luskin makes broad, sweeping accusations here without a bit of evidence (even in the form of links to stories) to support them. To be sure, he is referring at least in part to Expelled! although, if so, he should mention that all of the points in the film have either been rebutted or contested. What other personal attacks is he talking about?

One of Richards' criteria for debating the consensus is when "different claims get bundled together." Richards' example of global warming is that a) the earth is warming and b) humans are responsible for this warming. He is quite correct that one can use different kinds of evidence to determine that there has been warming (although nothing like what was seen in the Jurassic where the average daily temperature for a large part of it was in the neighbourhood of 70 degrees). It is quite another thing to determine what the cause of that warming is, and that is where the conflict has arisen. The techniques to measure this kind of change and account for all of the variables present is monumental and scientists are only now getting a handle on what all of the data means. That does not mean that the earth is not warming.

In a swift smoke-and-mirrors move, Luskin now claims that the debate within the climate community and the debate over "Darwinism" are similar. He argues:
So the “bundling of claims” occurs dramatically in the Darwin debate as well, where modern day Darwinians bundle (1) “change over time,” (2) “common descent”, and (3) “random mutation + natural selection as the primary mechanism driving change” into one claim – “Evolution” – but they refuse to acknowledge the nuanced positions of critics who may accept (1) and/or (2), but doubt (3).
It is quite true that there are people out there who argue that the fossil record shows exactly what we think it does but are not keen on the notion of evolution. Davis Young might fall into this category, although I do not know how he has addressed the concept of evolution in recent years. There is really only one road for this perspective: progressive creation. There are some very serious roadblocks to this way of thinking. For one thing, one has to explain the incredible wastefulness of the whole creative enterprise. By most conservative estimates, over 90% of all species that have ever been created have gone extinct. While it certainly falls in the category of argument from personal incredulity, one has to wonder why God would make a creature and then, just a few tens of thousands or million years later, create one that looks a little bit like it but not quite—a few modifications here and there—and then kill off the first creature. The fossil record is replete with examples of this. In some instances, such as in the human line, it looks like there were multiple hominid species on the planet at the same time, all but one of which eventually died out.

One also has to explain other issues, which include the existence of pseudogenes that were once functional and are no longer but which are shared by humans and higher apes. These include the GLO gene for the formation of vitamin C, the RT6 gene on the T-cell lymphocyte, the NPY1 gene, involved in kidney cell formation, the urate oxydase gene, which involves the formation of purines, and Galactosyltransferase, involved in the formation of breastmilk. This represents a small list of the total number of human/ape shared pseudogenes. There is also the existence of ERVs, of which there are over 98 000, most of which are shared by humans and higher apes.

It is also somewhat simplistic to relegate all of the evolutionary changes to "mutation+natural selection" when there are many other processes, such as gene flow, genetic drift (founder effect, in some instances), and stochastic biogeographic events. What is also buried in this definition is the tempo and mode of evolution, delineated in the seminal works of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and augmented by the systematics revolution of the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, evolutionary development.

Luskin also doesn't point out that the progressive creation position isn't testable in any scientific fashion and has yet to be adequately defended by its supporters at the Discovery Institute.

At the end of the article, he quotes Michael Crichton and, if I understand what he is saying, he has completely misread him. He quotes Crichton as writing:
The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. … There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. … Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”.
Crichton is referring to how scientists speak, not the views that they hold. When Crichton wrote the essay that Luskin is referring to, it had just been declared that there was a consensus that global warming was anthropogenic in nature and that the debate was over. Crichton is stating that this is a political statement and not a scientific one and that in a truly scientific environment, the hypothesis that global warming is anthropogenic should always be tested. That was the problem.

There is not a reputable astronomer on the planet that doubts that the sun is 93,000,000 miles away. There is not a physicist on the planet that doubts that E=mc2 describes the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light. Do they speak of it as being a consensus? No. That doesn't make it false. There are very few biologists or palaeontologists who doubt that evolution has happened. In fact, they are certain of it. That is the nature of the evidence. When the Discovery Institute trots out their "Dissent from Darwin" list, it is populated by physicists, medical doctors, and materials scientists. In fact, the list has everything but palaeontologists and biologists, the two groups that can actually competently evaluate the evidence.

It is easy to say that biologists and palaeontologists have "a consensus" that evolution happened and then quote someone like Crichton who argues that "a consensus" isn't science, therefore, "Darwinism" isn't science. That is just another in a long line of straw men that the DI seems to erect. I can make that kind of analogy also by telling you that an AMC Pacer is better than a Mercedes Benz. After all, a Pacer is better than nothing, and nothing is better than a Mercedes Benz, therefore, it follows that a Pacer is better than a Benz. This doesn't change the fact that AMC is out of business and Mercedes Benz is not. If you ask any one of over 95% of the biologists out there, they will tell you that evolution has happened and is happening. That is not "consensus." That is evidence.

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