Friday, June 29, 2012

The Diet of Australopithecus sediba

There is some suspicion that Australopithecus sediba, discovered by Lee Berger (or, rather, his son) may be on the line that eventually leads to Homo. This is not clear but right now, it is as good as any model we have. We now know a bit more about what Au. sediba ate. According to Science Daily:
Australopithecus sediba, believed to be an early relative of modern-day humans, enjoyed a diet of leaves, fruits, nuts, and bark, which meant they probably lived in a more wooded environment than is generally thought, a surprising find published in the current issue of Nature magazine by an international team of researchers that includes a Texas A&M University anthropologist.1
The goofy thing is that these hominins (or at least the ones we have) ate much more of these kinds of items than any other hominin we have discovered. In fact, their diet is much more like that of a chimpanzee than a hominin. This probably means nothing more than that is what they had access to but it does mean they were having a diet different from the robusts. Au. sediba’s teeth are gracile, in comparison to those of the robusts or earlier australopiths. It was definitely a forested environment.

1Amanda G. Henry, Peter S. Ungar, Benjamin H. Passey, Matt Sponheimer, Lloyd Rossouw, Marion Bamford, Paul Sandberg, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Lee Berger. The diet of Australopithecus sediba. Nature, 2012;

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Earliest Evidence of Animal Life

Science Daily is reporting on evidence for animal life around 585 million years ago, the first concrete evidence of such. They write:
The discovery was made by U of A geologists Ernesto Pecoits and Natalie Aubet in Uruguay. They found fossilized tracks a centimeter-long, slug-like animal left behind 585 million years ago in silty, shallow-water sediment.

A team of U of A researchers determined that the tracks were made by a primitive animal called a bilaterian, which is distinguished from other non-animal, simple life forms by its symmetry -- its top side is distinguishable from its bottom side -- and a unique set of "footprints."
This is during the Ediacaran Period, which ran from 635 million to around 540 million years ago, part of the Neoproterozoic era. More pieces of the puzzle. Yay!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kansas Just Got Stranger

Jack Wu is running for a seat on the Kansas State Board of Education. Why is this news? Because, while he is not exactly a member, he regularly shows up for services at the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka. If you are not familiar with these fine folks, you should be. Lets see what they, themselves say:
“Thank God for Tsunami. Thank God for 3,000 dead Americans! Yes! Thank God for Sept. 11 and 3,000 dead sodomite Americans in 2001. God sent the Muslim planes to destroy fag New York's twin towers and hurl 3,000 vile Americans into Hell. Even so, God sent Tsunami last week to execute vengeance upon another 3,000, carcasses swallowed up in Asian jungles, and concerning each of whom it shall be said: ‘He shall be buried with the burial of an ass.’ Jer. 22:19” -- WBC flier, January 1, 2005
It is difficult to find a more vile organization than this one. Most of its vitriol is reserved for homosexuality but that is not the focus of Jack Wu. No, his website is very clear:
Let's be specific. Evolution should never be taught in public schools as science. Evolution is false science! God made the heaven and the earth and created humans from the dust of the earth! The very bad teachers that teach that men descended from apes via evolution need to have their teaching licenses revoked. Yes, students should be taught that God created everything.

School administrators are always complaining about budget problems and lack of funding for this or that. Haha, that's funny. I have a really simple solution to solve that problem: Eliminate funding for evolution textbooks and pseudo-education. We'll save a ton of money! Tell those evolution textbook publishers to recycle their waste of paper, and tell those evolution teachers to teach truths instead of lies.
Ironically, this position is not that different, if at all, from that of Don McLeroy, who probably wouldn't be caught dead in a WBC service. Further, I am not sure that even groups like AiG and the ICR would want to be associated with this guy.

I don't give the guy two cents for his candidacy but if someone like McLeroy can become the head of the school board then Jack Wu could, conceivably, win a seat. If he does, it will say some very bad things about the state of Kansas politics. It is a given that nobody in higher education will take the school board seriously at that point.

First the Loch Ness Monster, now Westboro Baptist Church...not a good week for the foes of evolution.

“Many miles away Something crawls to the surface Of a dark Scottish loch” -Sting

This is almost painful to read. The Scotland Herald has a story on the arrival of school children from the great state of Louisiana who are being taught that the actual existence of the Loch Ness Monster is proof that evolution has never happened. Rachel Loxton reports:
Thousands of children in the southern state will receive publicly-funded vouchers for the next school year to attend private schools where Scotland's most famous mythological beast will be taught as a real living creature.

These private schools follow a fundamentalist curriculum including the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme to teach controversial religious beliefs aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism.
and a bit later:
One ACE textbook – Biology 1099, Accelerated Christian Education Inc – reads: "Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the 'Loch Ness Monster' in Scotland? 'Nessie' for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur."
The bit about the private schools getting vouchers is true. That is here. did a piece on the ACE textbooks. They fill in the remainder of the above quote:
“Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”
I have written on the apologia textbooks before but these books seem to be every bit as bad. It is nothing short of astounding that the authors of the ACE textbooks, in their zeal to disprove evolution, have settled upon an animal for which No Credible Evidence Exists. It is not just bad science, it is cryptozoology of the worst sort. What is next? Evolution can't be true because of if it were, how would it produce the regular octopus and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? Humans could not have evolved from lower ape forms because Bigfoot still roams the earth?

The second quote is just standard young earth creationist nonsense, continually perpetrated by Answers in Genesis and the like and has been rebutted so many times that the arguments can now reasonably be classified as lies.

Karl Giberson once said:
“Ken Ham and his Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY are becoming less relevant, as they speak for - and to - an increasingly smaller band of hyper-conservative biblical literalists. Ham's followers, ironically, are what (we've been warned about): a cult, with their own separate science.”
I have resisted calling young earth creationism a cult. Stories like this one make it increasingly difficult to do so.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Goofed.

In the previous post, I misread my source and thought that PCA Creation Study Report I posted was the 2012 report. It was pointed out to me that it was not, it was the 2000 report. Sorry about that. The 2012 PCA convention is going on right now. One thing my source pointed out was that, during the 2012 sessions, a talk was being given by Dr. Gregg Davidson, Professor of Geology at the University of Mississipi titled “The PCA Creation Study Committee a Dozen Years Later: What Does Science Say Now?” The accompanying abstract in the program was:
"The Creation Study Committee reported their results in 2000 without establishing a firm position on the age of the earth. The report encouraged the PCA to consider what additional scientific understanding might develop in the future to assist in answering the question of age. This seminar will provide an update on the scientific evidence for an ancient earth using examples non-scientists can easily apprehend. Pastors and theologians are generally familiar with the biblical arguments surrounding questions of the age of the earth, but few have access to scientific data they can understand. Most rely on information from young earth organizations that do not adequately or accurately reflect conventional scientific understanding. When information from these sources is passed on to students and congregations, Christ, as the author of truth, is poorly represented. More importantly, our members are inadequately prepared to wrestle with challenges to their faith when encountering the actual scientific evidence even if convinced it is wrong. The seminar will explicitly acknowledge the authority and preeminence of scripture over natural evidence, while also recognizing that God's natural creation can sometimes aid in choosing between plausible biblical interpretations.
This sounds promising and I certainly hope that the committee will give it serious thought. What this does not address, however, is biological evolution, which, as I mentioned in the last post, was very badly garbled. It is true that there is a somewhat steep learning curve when it comes to this stuff but if you want to be honest with your flock, you need to at least get the basics.

Thanks for the correction.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The PCA and Earth History: Litle Progress

A reader sent in the most recent PCA Historical Center Creation Study, a part of the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. The link to the complete study is here. It begins with a historical account of how the Genesis days were treated. In this account, evolution is featured prominently. Sadly, their exposition of it is predictably garbled. They define “naturalistic evolution” as:
“The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments” (National Association of Biology Teachers). This rules out any supernatural activity of God in the origin and development of life and of humans, and hence makes a naturalistic metaphysic the basis of science.
It does nothing of the sort. It simply states that there are knowable, observable processes that produce evolutionary effects in organisms. It says absolutely nothing about supernatural activity because evolutionary theory does not deal in origins of life. It deals in the modification of life after it appeared. Science is metaphysically neutral. One can make unwarranted extrapolations based on one's preconceived understanding of how nature works, but the results of science simply are. The scientific testing and engineering involved in airplane design is metaphysically neutral, as is the appearance of two species of salamander in the Great Basin where there was once one. Their definition of science is equally garbled.

A large chunk of the document deals with interpretations of the first six days of Genesis. This is equally problematic. When it gets to the objections to the “calendar day” model, the writers make some extraordinarily wrong and biased assumptions and conclusions. They write:
Some have asserted that this view “seems not to take science seriously and impugns the veracity of God because, on the one hand, it dismisses central conclusions of the current scientific consensus on cosmogony and, on the other hand, it supposedly requires one to view the general-revelation evidence as to the age of the earth as misleading.” This criticism is based on the assumption that man is able to interpret general revelation correctly without the light of special revelation. That assumption reverses the proper principle of Biblical interpretation, which is, that special revelation must govern our understanding of general revelation. Those of us who hold the Calendar-Day view make no apology for arriving, after careful consideration of the facts, at conclusions that differ from this so-called consensus. It is not the veracity of God which is impugned but the evolutionary presuppositions of the majority (not consensus) of the scientific community whose assumptions are regularly passed off as facts. Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to fault the Calendar-Day view for differing with current scientific dogma when creationists of all stripes claim to reject the most dominant aspect of that dogma, namely, evolutionary origins of the species. One unique strength of the Calendar-Day view is that it leaves no room to accommodate any version of evolutionism, Theistic or otherwise, while some other theories seem bent on finding some common ground with it.
First, the criticism is not based on the idea that man is able to correctly interpret the data without special revelation. The criticism is based on the fact that God has revealed to us the inner workings of His creation and they do not accord with a strict literal (and theologically debatable) interpretation of the scriptures. It does not reverse the proper interpretation of biblical interpretation, it assumes that the works of God are to be believed just as the word of God is to be believed. How is it that people that writes these things never once reexamine their own biblical interpretations in the light of the data? That never fails to astound me.

The writers then make an unwarranted assumption that “creationists of all stripes” reject evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory has absolutely nothing to do with arguments about the age of the universe. It is the inferred age of the universe that allowed for the formulation of evolutionary theory. This is the oldest creationist argument in the book and the fact that the writers are unaware that it was disproven over forty years ago is disturbing. It makes one think that they have read only Henry Morris in formulating their opinions. They then argue that it is a strength of the Calendar day argument that it rejects evolution. They can reject evolution if they wish, but they do not speak for me or anyone else that accepts evolutionary creationism.

Much more could be written that I do not have time to write. Read the whole document to see where the PCA is going with regard to this issue. It seems to me that they are adopting a flat reading of the scriptures and, despite giving lip service to the historical debates, regard those debates as unimportant to the current discussion. The document is heavily influenced by young earth creationism and, as such, is myopic and narrow in its interpretations and understanding of science.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

25th Anniversary of Edwards Vs. Aguillard June 19

June 19 (yesterday) marked the 25th anniversary of the overturning of the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act” in Louisiana by the Supreme Court. The act required that if evolution was taught, then young earth creationism had to be taught as well.

The court ruled that, since it involved the public school system of Louisiana, the act violated the establishment clause. As several people have noted, it was this particular court case that gave rise to “cdesign proponentsists,” the transitional form between “creationists” and “design proponents” that appeared in the drafts of the appalling book Of Pandas and People and led to the modern-day “intelligent design” movement.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ken Willard Continues To Kick Up Dust

The AP has news that Ken Willard, currently a member of the Kansas State Board of Education but running for the state legislature, is attempting to raise awareness that the state science guidelines do not include the “evidence against evolution.” John Hanna writes:
Some board members expressed surprise that the early work on guidelines would receive much public notice, especially with it being months before the board is likely to consider adopting the standards. But from 1999 to 2007, the state had five sets of science standar as conservative Republicans gained and lost board majorities, bringing Kansas international attention and some ridicule. Kansas' current standards, adopted five years ago, are evolution-friendly.

Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, distributed a nine-page letter criticizing the draft multistate standards from the group Citizens for Objective Public Education Inc., which lists officers in Florida and Kansas. The letter suggested that the draft standards ignore evidence against evolution, don't respect religious diversity and promote secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works.

"I hope that it will be taken seriously and not as just information from a bunch of crackpots," Willard said. "Anybody who deigns to take a questioning position regarding anything to do with evolution is pretty well named to be a crackpot or a kook of some sort."
I went looking for the Citizens for Objective Public Education, Inc. and couldn't find them. Florida Citizens for Science couldn't find them either. They do not seem to have a web presence at all. In this day and age, I find that very odd. NCSE went digging and discovered that the organization is a scant three months old and that the president of the organization is a young-earth creationist. Why do I not find this surprising.

I have written Ken Willard asking for a copy of the letter. We will see if he responds.

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The Hand of a Neandertal?

TG Daily is reporting on a story that the hand prints in the famous cave of El Castillo have been redated and are over 40 thousand years old. If this is the case, it likely predates the arrival of the early moderns into the area and may be
Neandertal in origin. Emma Woolacott writes:
Such paintings can't be dated using standard radiocarbon dating, as they contain no organic pigment. But an international team used a new method to examine 50 paintings in 11 caves in Northern Spain, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo.

They dated the formation of tiny stalactites on top of the paintings using the radioactive decay of uranium, giving a minimum age for the pictures.
It would be really neat if they were hand prints of Neandertals and would give us another window into their thought processes, which seem more like ours every day.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bonobo DNA Sequenced

The Los Angeles Times is reporting on a story from Nature in which the complete genome sequence of the Bonobo or Pygmy Chimpanzee, has been sequenced. Eryn Brown writes:
“There's a common ancestor that we and these apes were derived from. We want to know what that ancestor looked like,” said Wes Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the research. “By adding the bonobo to the mix, we have a better idea.”

Now, with all the great ape sequences complete, scientists can better use genetics to help determine whether a particular trait cropped up for the first time in humans, said Kay Pruefer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.
Bonobos and Chimpanzees separated around 1 million years ago and are now very different behaviorally.

As an aside, much whooping and howling occurred when this story first appeared this morning. The headline now reads “Scientists map genome of the bonobo, a key human relative.” When it first came out, it read “Scientists map genome of the bonobo, a key human ancestor.” The comments were swift and brutal. Many accused the writer, Eryn Brown, of not knowing anything about science. What most don't realize is that the article is often written without the headline, which is then put in by an editor. In this case, it is likely the editor who didn't know, not the author.

It was also a tad heart-warming to see so many of the readers actually knew the correct relationship between humans and bonobos.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Phillip Tobias Has Died

Phillip Tobias, a preeminent anthropologist who worked tirelessly to raise the standard for palaeoanthropology in South Africa, has died. From the Scotsman:
But for Tobias’ endeavours, the honours would probably have gone to East Africa, the territory of the more famous Leakey team, Louis and Mary. The Leakeys were great self-publicists and they made sure that East African discoveries – especially those they made in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya’s Rift Valley – featured prominently in international media at a time when South Africa was mostly renowned for its apartheid policies.

However, Tobias, who was an anti-apartheid activist as well as a distinguished scientist, lived long enough to see the tide turn and South Africa take centre stage in the great debate on humanity’s origins. The huge shift in perceptions was largely Tobias’ doing. It was no mean feat to keep the torch alight for evolutionary studies in a land governed by white right-wing Christian fundamentalists who passionately dismissed the idea of evolution.
Tobias was partly responsible for the changes in attitudes in South Africa that led to the downfall of apartheid and, along with many biological anthropologists of the time, championed the idea that race, as a biological concept, is meaningless. He will be missed.

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Ken Ham: Coming to a Billboard Near You!

Apparently, Ken Ham is taking his Creation Museum to Billboards across the Country. According to Dylan Lovan of the AP:
Ham said there are 20 different billboard styles, though some feature other prehistoric animals like mastodons. A billboard near Interstate 64 in Louisville features a flying pterodactyl and says the museum is "101 miles ahead." So far the signs have appeared in 25 states.

The high-tech museum near Cincinnati has animatronic dinosaurs, models and fossils, and teaches that the giant reptiles were created by God in a matter of days along with all other living things a few thousand years ago. Paleontologists say fossil evidence shows dinosaurs were present on the earth tens of millions of years ago, well before humans arrived.

Science educators that have long criticized the museum and said the Creation Museum's campaign is meant to attract young people interested in dinosaurs to a place that delivers a religious message and a version of history that conflicts with scientific findings.

"It's a hook, it's a bait to get people to say, 'Hey let's go to that museum' — and then the other message is brought out," said Steven Newton, a program director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.
The catch is, as you can see from the ads, there is no information so most people think they will be going to a natural history museum, with standard mainstream scientific information about dinosaurs. What you get, instead, is the young-earth creationist message that dinosaurs and humans coexisted on the landscape which, as Barry Lynn points out, is “only true in the Flintstones.”

The advertising will probably work and bring more people in. That is unfortunate.

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Friday, June 08, 2012

More Trouble in Kansas

“Whooooo could imagine that they would freak-out somewhere in Kansas.”
—Frank Zappa

Well, it seems that the Kansas evolution debate is kicking up again. Courtesy of the AP:
Kansas is now among 26 states helping to draft new science standards alongside the National Research Council, with the goal of creating standard, nationwide guidelines. A first draft became public last month, and the Kansas board is scheduled to hear an update on Tuesday.

Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said a final draft could be ready by the end of the year, and the board would then decide whether to make those standards the state's standards.

But the decision may not be made until after the November election — in which five of the 10 board seats will be on the ballot.

Board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, said he's troubled by the first draft of the proposed standards. In the past, Willard has supported standards for Kansas with material that questions evolution; guidelines that he and other conservatives approved in 2005 were supplanted by the current ones.

Willard said the draft embraces naturalism and secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works. He said he intends to raise the issue Tuesday.

"That's going to be very problematic," Willard told The Associated Press in an interview. "They are preferring one religious position over another."
The current standards are here. In no instance are “biological evolution” and “random” even in the same paragraph. In fact, the standards go out of their way to avoid the trap that the NABT fell into a decade or so back when they referred to evolution as “undirected.” Therefore, the statement that Willard makes charging that one religious position is being chosen over another, is without merit.

But you knew that already.

The fact that Willard objects to evolution being listed as a “well-established, core scientific concept” indicates that, like God-only-knows how many other Republican politicians, he hasn't got a clue how much evidence there is supporting it, or, likely, even what it is. He has just been listening to all of the wrong people. Maybe that is his fault and maybe it isn't but it doesn't help matters.

Look for this to heat up.

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Middle Pleistocene Hominin Height

Science Daily has a story on work being done with the material from the Sima de los Huesos cave at Atapuerca. 27 complete long bones have been discovered there and from these, it has been possible to estimate the height of Homo heidelbergensis. Science Daily writes:
The results suggest that both men and women in the Sima de los Huesos population were on average slightly higher than Neanderthal men and women. "Neither can be described as being short and both are placed in the medium and above-medium height categories. But, both species featured tall individuals," assured the experts.

The height of these two species is similar to that of modern day population of mid-latitudes, like in the case of Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

The humans who arrived in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic era, Cro-Magnons or anatomically modern humans, replaced the Neanderthal populations. They were significantly taller than other human species and their average height for both sexes was higher, falling in the very tall individual category.

Height remained the same for some 2 million years.
We know from the remains at Turkana that, at least for some individuals, height close to that of modern humans had been achieved by 1.3 million years ago.This probably reflects (amongst other things) a massive increase in protein in the diet, which would come about by increased hunting, something present in late African Homo ergaster. More pieces of the puzzle.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Off Topic: Ray Bradbury Has Died

Ray Bradbury has died at the age of 91. I believe he was the last great of the Golden Age of Science fiction that produced Isaac Asimov, Lester DelRey, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe W. Campbell and others of note. I read his short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” when I was in junior high school and the story has haunted me ever since.


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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Gallup: “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins”

Here is the original Gallup poll report.

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I am in a weeklong summer teaching institute so I probably will not get a chance to post this week. In the meantime, have a look at a new Gallup poll on acceptance of evolution. HuffPo has a post by Michael Dowd. It is disappointing.

Hat Tip to the best man at my wedding, Jon Reid.

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