Saturday, December 31, 2011

Science Timeline in Nature

Nature News has an interactive timeline of all of the major science stories of the year here. It is a good recap.

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Gee, Who Knew?

Every so often, Science Daily comes out with a story that, perhaps needs to be restated but is amusing nevertheless. They write:
Climate changes profoundly influenced the rise and fall of six distinct, successive waves of mammal species diversity in North America over the last 65 million years, shows a novel statistical analysis led by Brown University evolutionary biologists. Warming and cooling periods, in two cases confounded by species migrations, marked the transition from one dominant grouping to the next.
I am quite sure that there is more to the Brown study than meets the eye since this information simply reflects what we already knew about how natural selection works in the wild. The story does, in fact, provide detailed information about mammal extinctions and radiations. It is the way in which Science Daily words the headline that is amusing.

This “lack of randomness” was the crux of a piece that I wrote for CFSI a bit back. If anti-evolutionists or ID supporters are willing to argue that evolution is a “godless, random process” then they have to be willing to argue that climate change on the planet is also a random, godless process, since that is what drives biotic change. I haven't heard any of them say that yet.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bad Science Stories of the Year

Now that I have a working draft of my next BioLogos post done, I can, in good conscience, blog again. Science Daily has a good story on the bad science stories of the year and in there is one of my favorite scientists, Michele Bachmann, who manages to completely mangle the concept and definition of science when she can. Kate Kelland writes:

After Bachmann used an appearance on a television show to tell a story of a woman from Tampa, Florida, who said her daughter had become "mentally retarded" after getting an HPV vaccine designed to protect against cervical cancer, doctors said they feared the damage done may take many years to reverse.

"It's tempting to dismiss celebrity comments on science and health, but their views travel far and wide and, once uttered, a celebrity cancer prevention idea or environmental claim is hard to reverse," said SAS's managing director Tracey Brown.

"At a time when celebrities dominate the public realm, the pressure for sound science and evidence must keep pace."

Wow, did I really just read that? Bachmann sometimes seems like a one-woman war against sound science, one battle at a time.

Please don't vote for this woman.

This article reflects the state of scientific education. I don't think people should be able to exit high school without being able to pass a test on basic science education. That ought to be square one.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

I pray that everyone will have a safe, blessed and joyous Christmas and that the new year will be rich and rewarding.

Love, in Christ,


Thursday, December 22, 2011

On the Other Hand... looks like they did not have as good a sense of smell. Work by Katerina Harvati suggests that Neandertals had a reduced sense of smell compared to modern humans. reports:
"The sense of smell is directly linked to memories to an extent that no other sense is. This explains why smells immediately incite strong emotions concerning past events and also strong feelings about people," Katerina Harvati, of the University of Tubingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology in Germany, said in a university news release.

The better sense of smell in
H. sapiens may be related to the evolution of social functions such as recognition of related people, enhanced family relations, group cohesion and social learning, Harvati and colleagues suggested.

"Although traditionally olfaction in primates and humans has been considered a less important sense, our study reevaluates its potential significance for human evolution, and particularly for the social evolution of our own species,
Homo sapiens," they concluded.
We also know that Neandertals had longer nasal passages and larger noses—in part to help the air, which was cold, reach body temperature when it reached the nasal membranes.To help this , the infraorbital plates swung out from the middle of the face. Whether this is related to the study by Harvati is not clear.

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iTunes Trailer for the Hobbit

iTunes has a 1080p version of “The Hobbit” trailer here. It looks like, rather than being “The Hobbit”, it is actually “2941, Third Age,” since it seems to encompass quite a few of the events that led up to “The Lord of the Rings.” In this sense, it really may be a prequel.

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New CFSI Post

My newest post for CFSI is up. It is loosely based on why a word-for-word interpretation of the scriptures is, very often, a bad thing.

The CFSI site will continue to operate, just with limited funding so I will continue to write for them, but perhaps more erratically. Please keep coming by the site to see what is there.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Neandertals Lived in Houses

Yahoo News Canada is reporting on research in Moldova that reveals what we already know was going on in the Russian steppes—that Neandertals were living in house-like structures. They write:
Researchers from the Museum National d'Histories Naturelle in Paris said it suggests the early human ancestors settled in areas where they built structures to live for extended periods of time.

The circular house was made up of 116 large bones, including mammoth skulls, jaws, 14 tusks and leg bones.

And inside at least 25 hearths filled with ash were also found, suggesting it had been used for some time, the Mail said.
They were every bit as intelligent as we are, just very environmentally-challenged. It is nice to find more evidence of this.

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A Trailer For the Hobbit


Monday, December 19, 2011

Christianity in Evolution

The Independent has an article on a new book out by Jack Mahoney, called Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration, in which the Jesuit priest addresses the concept of evolution and how it can be incorporated into the theology of Christ. Peter Stanford writes:
Mainstream Christianity long ago dropped overt hostility to Darwin, and even manages to speak of him fondly on occasion, but it has held back from the next logical step, bringing theology and evolution into meaningful dialogue.
Oh? That is not my understanding of the modern mainstream evangelical's take on evolution. Ken Ham and John Morris oversee legions of followers who are told to have nothing whatever to do with Mr. Darwin and anything he stands for. Onward:
This time round, Christianity in Evolution risks causing similar ripples when it argues that embedding evolution in theology would necessitate a wholesale reappraisal of such time-honoured Christian concepts as Original Sin, the Incarnation and the Fall. So Mahoney presents the life of Jesus, the divine made human, not so much in terms of a sacrifice made to atone for our sins, as countless generations of Christians have been told, but as part of an evolutionary cycle. "God [in the person of Jesus] became a member of the human species in order to provide the human race with a human expression in Christ...of the divine altruism that would counter any innate evolutionary tendency to aggressive self- or tribal interest."
This is not so different from what George Murphy has written (if I have interpreted him correctly) and I have a sneaking suspicion that your average Christian will view this perspective rather dimly, as they did his. The concept of original sin is very well-grounded in modern Christianity, and, recent discussions of the genetics of modern humans notwithstanding, is viewed in more of a spiritual, emotional way than a scientific one. I will have to put this on my to-read list.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Has Died

From the obituary in Reuters:
As a journalist, war correspondent and literary critic, Hitchens carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence.

In his 2007 book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," Hitchens took on major religions with his trenchant atheism. He argued that religion was the source of all tyranny and that many of the world's evils have been done in the name of religion.
Hitchens often took on creationism, debating William Dembski, and David Berlinski along the way. While I did not share his theological leanings , he was an extraordinarily good writer and, even in his criticisms of religion, often had at least one blow that hit the target. He will be missed.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Transgenerationally Acquired Resistance?

A new article by Rechavi et al, in the journal Cell ( is reporting on research involving the introduction of a flockhouse virus into a nematode, which then triggered an immune response to suppress the virus. This response, apparently was then transmitted to its offspring in a non-Mendelian fashion. As the authors put it:
We have described here a series of genetic experiments that provide support for the existence of non-Mendelian, multigenerational inheritance of extrachromosomal information. This information is transmitted in the form of small RNAs, viRNAs, which are induced by an episode of viral replication and which are propagated through the germline in a non-template-dependent manner. Our results therefore support the Lamarckian concept of the inheritance of an acquired trait.
This will, no doubt, raise eyebrows and spawn a number of independent tests to confirm the results. Cornelius Hunter hopped on the bandwagon, writing:
This is of course reminiscent of the pre Darwin theory proposed by Jean Baptiste Larmarck that evolution occurs via traits developing not via random change but in response to need, and then the passing of these traits to later generations. Evolutionists harshly criticized, ridiculed and blackballed Larmarckism in the last century but now even they are finding it difficult to deny the accumulation of evidence.
Three things Hunter overlooks here is that Lamarck came up with his theory of acquired inheritance in absence of any other model out there to explain biological descent with modification, he was looking at large order traits such as appendage length, hair color and whatnot and that, despite some growing evidence for epigenetic evolution, there is still a vast amount of evidence for evolution based on the well-heeled processes of mutation, selection, drift and flow. It should, nonetheless, be interesting to see what comes of this.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

The Meaning of “Biblical Literalism”

Todd Wood points us to an article by Joshua Moritz on The Search For Adam Revisited: Evolution, Biblical Literalism, and the Question of Human Uniqueness that shows up in the journal Theology and Science. It appears to be open-access and I had no trouble securing a copy. Although the focus is on the idea of how to interpret the creation narratives in a literal, yet textually faithful fashion, Moritz, in quite concise language, points out the glaring origin of modern young-earth creationism and how different it was from the understanding of biblical literalism of the day:
Even more recently, such as at the time of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), the actual face of biblical literalism was quite different than one might expect—especially if one has in mind young earth creationism with its insistence upon a 10,000 year old recently-created earth and its focus on ‘‘flood geology’’. Around the time of the Scopes trial in the early twentieth century, there is no record of any biblical literalists within normative Christianity who interpreted the Bible as claiming a recent creation in six 24-hour days or that Noah’s flood had anything to do with how one should interpret the record of global stratigraphy. Indeed, literalists at that time saw Noah’s flood as a local phenomenon and ‘‘even the most literalistic Bible believers accepted the antiquity of life on Earth as revealed in the paleontological record.’’ The one exception to this general rule was the Seventh Day Adventists—a sect of Millerites who, after 1844 (and disillusioned by Christ’s failure to return), regrouped under the leadership and supernatural visions of the teenage prophetess Ellen G. White—a charismatic young woman ‘‘whose pronouncements Adventists placed on par with the Bible’’. White and her Seventh Day Adventist followers harbored no doubts about the correct reading of the early chapters of Genesis because in a trancelike vision White was ‘‘carried back to the creation’’ by God himself, ‘‘and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six [24 hour] days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.’’ White likewise saw that during Noah’s flood, God created all the various geological layers of sediment and fossils by burying the organic debris and causing ‘‘a powerful wind to pass over the some instances carrying away the tops of mountains like mighty avalanches...burying the dead bodies with trees, stones, and earth.’’ Thus, from the divine dreams of Ellen White young earth creationism was born and, ironically, it was conceived in stark opposition to the reigning biblical literalism of the day.
Most young earth creationists that I know are, I believe, unaware of this information. How, or if it would change their Christian walk is unclear. It is instructive to read Ron Numbers' The Creationists to see how dominant the Adventists were in the formation of modern-day young earth creationism.

The article is a good expose on how the scriptures would read if we really did read them literally, which is quite differently than our modern understanding of them is. He reiterates the position that is held by Paul Marston and others, that there is absolutely nothing in the passages that indicates that Adam and Eve are the only people around during the account in Genesis.

Although the paper is largely devoid of scientific observations, he ends by reminding those of us that tend to think too highly of the scientific endeavor that it is not the be all and end all that we think that it is:
While the doctrine of creation demands that Christians take science seriously, a large part of taking science seriously is to understand that science, as such, is not (and never has been) in the business of making unalterable pronouncements about the nature of reality. Because there is so much terrain in both science and theology that remains unexplored we must press onward in faith, sobered by a good dose of epistemic humility, and taking care in the meantime to not greatly exaggerate the reports of Adam’s death.
That said, if all the evidence points in one direction, how long do we ignore it?

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Archaeological Evidence: Neandertals and Modern Humans Interacted and Interbred

The Newsroom at the University of Colorado has released news of a study that links the archaeological evidence in Europe with Neandertal/early modern human interaction and, probably, interbreeding. They write:
Anthropologists using computer modeling to determine how early hominins adapted to climate change during the last Ice Age, have gained new insights into why Neanderthals disappeared as a distinct population some 30,000 years ago.

The scientists believe Neanderthals interbred with more numerous modern humans until they ceased to exist as their own population.

This is called "gene swamping" and is not uncommon. The authors further argue:
“Neanderthal genes make up between one and four percent of today’s human genome, especially in those of European descent. Their legacy lives on in our genome and possibly in our cultural knowledge.”
Modern humans begin to show up in Europe during the Early Würm/Late Würm glaciation, between 35 and 40 thousand years B.P. A good representation of these hominins are those from the cave of Mladeč, which, while being classified as modern humans, have characteristics reminiscent of Neandertals. Even the later hominins such as those from the central European site of Dolní Vĕstonice, show archaic characteristics such as expanded occipital buns (a bulge at the rear of the vault). This all makes sense within the context of hybridization between the two groups of people. Fred Smith was right.

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Sightly Off-Topic: Ken Ham Comes Through

Recently, a rural pastor in Pike County, Kentucky, made national news when he forebade congregation members from engaging in interracial marriage if they wanted to take part in the church. has this to say:

In early November, [Pastor Melvin] Thompson proposed the church go on record saying that while all people were welcome to attend public worship services there, the church did not condone interracial marriage, according to a copy of the recommendation supplied by the Harvilles.

The proposal also said "parties of such marriages will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services" or other church functions, with the exception of funerals.

The recommendation "is not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve," the copy supplied to the Herald-Leader read.

Well, as they should have, the Christian community (not to mention the secular one) rose up in arms against this as being un-Christian in spirit and theology.

Not far away, this is what Ken Ham had to say:
From a biblical perspective, all humans are descendants of one man and one woman—Adam and Eve (1 Corinthians 15:45; Genesis 3:20). Thus, if the Bible’s history is accurate, biologically, only one race of human beings exists.

Modern observational science confirms that this is the case. When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2000, scientists announced that they had put together a draft of the entire sequence of the human genome and “the researchers had unanimously declared, there is only one race—the human race.
He went on:
Certainly a couple from different cultural groups needs godly counsel, as do all couples, to help ensure they understand their roles in marriage and the differences they have that could potentially cause problems. However, if a man and woman trust Christ as their Savior and believe it would please Him for them to marry, nothing in Scripture disallows this, from either a biological or a spiritual perspective.

Christians must think about marriage as God thinks about each one of us. When the prophet Samuel went to anoint the next king of Israel, he thought the oldest of Jesse’s sons was the obvious choice due to his outward appearance. However, we read in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’”
It is encouraging to see modern Christian leaders stepping up and condemning this nonsense. That is occurs at all, even in rural Kentucky is very disheartening.

P.S. It should be pointed out that the church reversed its ruling. Still, that it happened at all is quite something.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Checking in on BIO-Complexity

So, it has been a year and a half since the Center for Science and Culture, the wing of the Discovery Institute, inaugurated BIO-Complexity, the new journal devoted to objectively examining the evidence for intelligent design. At the time, I wrote the following, concerning the viability of the journal:
The only other way that this would work is if competent scholars in biological complexity were to submit papers. Then the journal would probably get a wide variety of papers, some supportive of ID (maybe) and some not. Even if some of them were not supportive, though, the board would be foolish not to publish them. If it only accepted ID friendly papers which were then reviewed by the biological community as a whole and found wanting, it would be another nail in the coffin for the scientific argument for ID.

The Discovery Institute have set themselves up a huge task here and are finally putting their cards on the table. Lets see what kind of hand they have.
Now we know what kind of hand they have. It is not very good. Since its debut, eighteen months ago, the journal has produced...

five research articles.

That is one article every 3½ months. Even brand new journals in the sciences have at least five to seven articles per month. Further, the current year, which is now in its waning days, has seen only two articles. That is slightly better than one article every six months.

It gets worse. Three of the five articles are either single-authored or co-authored by Douglas Axe, who is the managing editor and only four authors represented are not on the editorial board.

This is inbreeding if I have ever seen it. This level of production is every bit what I feared: the lack of impartiality has given rise to a journal that is slanted in one direction: support of ID. In April of this year, Todd Wood wrote the following:
In the larger scheme of things, I am sensing a discouraging pattern to BIO-Complexity publications. As I quoted above, the journal is supposed to be about "testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life," which is a great goal. But this is the fifth paper published by BIO-Complexity, and it's the fifth paper that focuses on perceived inadequacies of evolution. So when are we going to test "the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life?"
The number of papers that do address the merits of the ID explanation for life simply aren't there. Why not? Surely in eighteen months, at least two or three papers discussing research in this area would have been submitted for publication. Where are these papers? Where is this research?

Is it possible that the intention was never to address this laudable goal? Was it always to write papers trying to poke holes in evolutionary theory? It certainly seems that way. The problem is, based on their output and the lack of diversity in authorship, they cannot even do much of that.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Modern Humans Out of Africa Earlier Than Thought?

The Australian is reporting on the find in Arabia of stone tools purported to be crafted to modern humans that date to around 100 000 years ago (date derived by thermoluminescence). They write:

Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist with Britain's Birmingham University and head of the Dhofar Archaeological Project, said: "After a decade of searching in southern Arabia for some clue that might help us understand early human expansion, at long last we've found the smoking gun of their exit from Africa."

The discovery also challenges current thinking about the route the migrants took, say Dr Rose and his colleagues, including geochronologist Bert Roberts of Wollongong University.

The article shows up in PLoS1. This is intriguing and certainly adds one more piece of the puzzle but I am not sure why it so earth-shattering. We already know that we have hominins in the Levant that pass, in most ways, for modern humans and are dated to between 90 and 110 000 B.P. We also have the Herto remains at 140-160 000, which are also mostly modern. A glance at the map shows that the gap between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula is very narrow here and it would not have been a problem to navigate the waters at this point. This just represents another migration route of many. The authors of the paper call the assemblage that was discovered a Nubian variant of the “Middle Stone Age,” which tracks as a post-Acheulean industry and is present in various forms in Africa from about 300 000 years B.P. down to around 40 000 or so. Here is the map from the article:

As you can see, there is Nubian in both Arabia and in the Nile valley. Interestingly, when you get to the Levantine peninsula, you run into “modern” humans creating Levantine Mousterian, another Middle Palaeolithic industry, which means they had contact with the Neandertals who were escaping the cold to come south during the early Würm glaciation. It is during the Early Würm/Late Würm interglacial period that the early moderns get the bright idea to head north, out of the Levant.

1Rose JI, Usik VI, Marks AE, Hilbert YH, Galletti CS, et al. (2011) The Nubian Complex of Dhofar, Oman: An African Middle Stone Age Industry in Southern Arabia. PLoS ONE 6(11): e28239. doi:

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