Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Acceptance of Evolution Drops Among Republicans

The Pew Forum has released the results of a new poll that seem to indicate that acceptance of evolution has stayed relatively unchanged in most demographics since 2009.  Among Republicans, however, it has dropped.  They write:
About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap.
Other items of interest revealed in the poll:
  • It did not seem to matter whether or not the questions focused on humans or other animals in terms of acceptance of evolution
  • men accepted evolution more than women (65% to 55%)
  • College graduates had higher rates of acceptance than people with high school education or less (72% to 51%)
  • younger respondents had much higher rates of acceptance than retirement age people (68% to 49%)
It is not a surprise that Republicans are moving away from evolution.  The party as a whole has beeen pushing away from that position for years and most of the recent Republican presidential candidates had (usually uninformed) anti-evolutionary position.  Only Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney deviated from this view.  As the public schools continue to degrade and more conservatives tune out public education in favor of home schooling, the acceptance rate will continue to drop and I predict a greater partisan discrepancy three years from now. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Science Daily: Neanderthal Genome Shows Early Human Interbreeding, Inbreeding

More clarity.  A new study coming out of the University of California at Berzerkeley posits that not only did early modern humans and Neandertals interbreed, but Neandertals inbred, as well.  From the story:
Population geneticist Montgomery Slatkin, graduate student Fernando Racimo and post-doctoral student Flora Jay were part of an international team of anthropologists and geneticists who generated a high-quality sequence of the Neanderthal genome and compared it with the genomes of modern humans and a recently recognized group of early humans called Denisovans.

The comparison shows that Neanderthals and Denisovans are very closely related, and that their common ancestor split off from the ancestors of modern humans about 400,000 years ago. Neanderthals and Denisovans split about 300,000 years ago.
It is not clear to me when you make the species break but for two species to interbreed several hundred thousand years after they split is unusual.  Dogs and wolves, for example, don't have nearly that time depth.  The split must have been a very subtle one, then.  As to how they know that Neandertals interbred without having two related Neandertals on hand, here is the explanation:
In another analysis, Jay discovered that the Neanderthal woman whose toe bone provided the DNA was highly inbred. The woman's genome indicates that she was the daughter of a very closely related mother and father who either were half-siblings who shared the same mother, an uncle and niece or aunt and nephew, a grandparent and grandchild, or double first-cousins (the offspring of two siblings who married siblings).
Depending on how large the population was, this may have been a necessity. it may also be an artifact of sampling. This happens in modern human populations as well but is not common.  As the authors note, there are quite a few unanswered questions.  For example, they really have no idea how much interbreeding between Neandertals, Denisovans and modern humans took place.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Conservative Drinks From the Wrong Bottle

Granville Sewell has written a piece for Human Events, titled Intelligent Design Theories Gaining Steam in Scientific Circles.  As nearly as I can tell, he has gotten everything wrong.  Lets start with who Granville Sewell is.  He is a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and a long-time supporter of intelligent design.

First, the title is indefensible.  Whether or not he, himself, came up with it, there is no evidence whatsoever that intelligent design is gaining ground in scientific circles.  In fact, there is contra-evidence.  There have been no intelligent design-based articles published in any of the mainstream journals and the only journal that is devoted to it, Bio-Complexity, has had one article and two critical reviews published for the entire year of 2013.  The article is co-written by two members of the editorial staff, to boot.

 He writes:
Darwin thought he could explain all of this apparent design through natural selection of random variations. In spite of the fact that there is no direct evidence that natural selection can explain anything other than very minor adaptations, his theory has gained widespread popularity in the scientific world, simply because no one can come up with a more plausible theory to explain evolution, other than intelligent design, which is dismissed by most scientists as “unscientific.”
This is ignorant nonsense with an arrogant tone attached to it.  The theory of evolution has gained widespread popularity because, as a theory, it is incredibly robust, with over 150 years of evidence to back it up, coming from the fields of biology, palaeontology, biogeography, microbiology, molecular biology, geology and others.  Every year, the evidence for evolution continues to pile up as we fill in more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.  Witness recent discoveries that have shown that the first tetrapods evolved in the late Devonian in shallow seas, that feathers evolved and diversified in dinosaurs as a means of insulation before they evolved into a means of flight, or that the femur of Orrorin tugenensis shows transitional characteristics between late Miocene apes and the earliest hominins.  These are not minor adaptations.  They show selection and evolution across taxonomic levels and reflect predictions about what would be found in the fossil record IF evolution were true.

He writes: 
But, in recent years, as scientific research has continually revealed the astonishing dimensions of the complexity of life, especially at the microscopic level, support for Darwin’s implausible theory has continued to weaken, and since the publication in 1996 of Darwin’s Black Box by Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, a growing minority of scientists have concluded, with Behe, that there is no possible explanation for the complexity of life other than intelligent design.

Contrast the publication record of Bio-Complexity with the journal Evolution which, in 2013 alone, published 200 articles. Furthermore, Journal Citation Reports lists 29 journals that have "evolution" in the title. This does not even count those that publish articles on evolution, such as The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Cell and Systematic Biology to name just a few.

With regard to the "growing minority of scientists,"  if he is referring to the "Dissent From Darwin" list put out by the Discovery Institute, that constitutes no evidence against evolution whatever.  When I analyzed the list a few years back, I found:
13 physicists, 1 plasma physicist, 10 biochemists, 24 chemists, 8 engineers, 7 mathematicians, 2 psychologists, 13 geneticists, and 5 medical doctors.
There are only five geologists on the list, and one lone palaeontologist on it. 

Like most ID writers such as David Berlinski, Cornelius Hunter and David Klinghoffer, he argues that there is dichotomy between accepting evolution and ID:
If you believe that a few fundamental, unintelligent forces of physics alone could have rearranged the basic particles of physics into Apple iPhones, you are probably not an ID proponent, even if you believe in God. But if you believe there must have been more than unintelligent forces at work somewhere, somehow, in the whole process: congratulations, you are one of us after all!
Here is one-dimensional, reductionistic thinking on display. it is either/or. There is no third option, the evolutionary creationist, who argues that the evidence for evolution of life, in all of its 3.5 billion year existence, can be explained as the work of a fantastically inventive and creative God, who took great joy in watching his creation unfold. It is also the thinking of someone who has taken no time to actually learn the basics of evolution and what the evidence is that supports it.  As long as this is the case, we will continue to be subjected to substandard prose such as this offering by Dr. Sewell. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

New Study on Neandertal Burials

Science World Report has a story on a study done by New York University. From the press release:
Neanderthals, forerunners to modern humans, buried their dead, an international team of archaeologists has concluded after a 13-year study of remains discovered in southwestern France.

Their findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirm that burials took place in western Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans.

“This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them,” explains William Rendu, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City.
The subject of Neandertal burials has been debated for quite some time and there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate. The weight of evidence suggests intentional burial, however. In 1989, Robert Gargett wrote a paper called "Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial," in which he argued that the evidence was lacking. The comments on the article were a sight to behold, some of the most caustic I have ever seen. Dave Frayer wrote, of the remains at La Chapelle aux-Saints:
...we know of no example of a naturally produced rectangular, straight- walled, flat-bottomed pit in the middle of a karstic shelter. That such a natural phenomenon would have occurred and a skeleton would have found its way into it is so unlikely as to make it impossible to consider seriously that the pit sunk into the marl was not the result of deliberate human activity. The manner in which the skeleton lay, on its back, one arm folded and legs flexed, is a strong indication of intentional burial. This seems an unlikely position for accidental death and, in any event, is one that is repeated in numerous other interments1
This seems to be the recent consensus, as well. The focus of the new research is on the cave floor, of which the authors state that the depression discovered was unnatural and suggests a burial.  The other peculiarity is that the remains were found in such good shape, showing no signs of carnivore activity or environmental degradation.  In fact, of the entire suite of Neandertal remains that we have, the La Chapelle fossils are among most well-preserved.  Filling in the pieces.

1Gargett, R. (1989) Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial. Current Anthropology 30(2): 157-190

Monday, December 16, 2013

More on the Texas SBOE Decision to Adopt Scientifically Accurate Textbooks

Church & State has a short piece on the back story behind the adoption of the new scientifically-sound textbooks in Texas.  They write:
In the latest twist of a long-running battle, the Dallas Observer reported in October that the board has narrowed its biology textbook options down to 14 titles – and not one of those choices includes any theories that run counter to evolution.

Unfortunately, no credit is due the board for this development. Many of its members wanted creationism in the books, but textbook publishers refused to put religious concepts into secular science books.

The recent turn of events surprised some observers. Board chair Barbara Cargill is an avid advocate for creationism. In fact, she and her allies invited a few dozen people to review the textbook options this summer, including a handful of known creationists.

Critics believe the review process was stacked to aid creationists. The board has long leaned toward teaching creationism, and this year additional anti-science advocates secured spots on the oversight body.
Textbook writers are highly-tuned to the science they practice and the publishers know that the writers will jump ship rather than have their reputations ruined by putting their names on substandard textbooks. For most of them, money is not the object. It is a labor of love. To have their work watered down is unacceptable.

Judging from the article, some of the board thought that they could get the material changed.  Now that this has not happened, there is no time to go through the selection process again.  What a shame.

This, once again, underscores the need for people on these boards to be scientifically literate.  People that are anti-evolution should have to be able to articulate why, from a scientific perspective, they are that way and defend those answers.  The vast majority won't be able to and it will become clear that they know little of the subject and are basing their decisions on religious perspectives.  I am not sure how, politically, that sort of accountability structure would be set up but these problems will persist until they are.  They just need to be stopped at the door because, as one of my readers once put it, these sorts of viewpoints are religiously-motivated, will tend to persist and their adherents will not budge.   We saw this with Don McLeroy who, in the face of experts in various biological fields, remarked: "I disagree with these experts. Someone has got to stand up to experts." Hard to argue with logic like that.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Creation Museum Not Charging Admission For Children Under 13 in 2014

The AP is reporting that the Creation Museum in Petersburgh, KY, run by Ken Ham, is not going to be charging admission for children the entire 2014 calendar year.  From the story:
The free admission to the Creation Museum is for children 12 and under and lasts the entire year.

In an online posting, museum co-founder Ken Ham says the offer is part of the museum's "Standing Our Ground — Rescuing Our Kids" theme.

Since it opened in 2007, the museum has drawn criticism for exhibits that scientists say contradict evolution science.

Ham says the museum has collected about $225,000 in child ticket admissions in 2013, so the offer "is going to significantly impact our bottom line." But Ham said he is hopeful that private donations would fill the gap.

Children must be accompanied by one paying adult.
The somewhat more jaded among us also note that the museum has had flagging attendance the last few years and that this may be a means of trying to boost that. This sort of thing is a common way to get people in the door—restaurants often have "kids eat free" days—and often will bring up profits and raise visibility despite the loss of revenue from the move.  Revenue for the museum was 5.1 million dollars in 2012, in a year in which they actually took a loss for the first time.  Assuming a status quo in revenue, $225, 000 represents 4.4% of the take, so it is not an insignificant amount.  Private donations have been drying up, which is why the construction of the Ark-n-Park is in jeopardy. The issuance of junk bonds for it and this move for the museum, itself, are risky. 

I would like to ascribe the lofty motives that Mr. Ham to the fee waiver and I hope they are purer than they look on the surface.  On the surface, it looks like they are trying to stop the bleeding. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Orrorin tugenensis: As Close to the Last Common Ancestor As We Have Gotten?

Based on work by SUNY Stoney Brook, it has been learned that the femur of Orrorin tugenensis, the six-million year-old presumed hominin, also called the "millenium man," has a mix of traits that align it with not just early hominins but late Miocene apes.  Science Daily reports:
According to Dr. Alm├ęcija, their study for the first time compared the six-million-year-old Millenium Man femur (called BAR 1002'00) using state-of-the-art morphometric techniques to not only other available hominin fossils but also great apes, hylobatids (ie, gibbons and siamangs), and most importantly to fossil apes that lived in the Miocene. The analysis included more than 400 specimens.

"We discovered that
Orrorin's femur is surprisingly 'intermediate' in both age and anatomy between quadrupedal Miocene apes and bipedal early human ancestors," said Dr. Alm├ęcija. "Our paper provides quantitative results of the Orrorin femur as a unique mosaic and stresses the need to incorporate fossil apes into future analyses and discussions dealing with the evolution of human bipedalism, an investigation that should stop considering chimpanzees as default living 'starting point' models."
As the authors note, this is not so different from what was concluded about the gait of Ardipithecus ramidus and that the examination of that hominin led to the idea that, perhaps, modern apes are poor models for early hominin morphology and that the modern apes diverged from the last common ancestor (LCA) in entirely different directions. It is exciting to get to a point where there are obviously transitional characters between hominins and non-hominins. 

The other thing that is quite striking is that there is no obvious dividing line between being a quadruped and a biped and that the transition took some time and was gradual.  Don Johanson, in Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, word:
You don’t gradually go from being a quadruped to being a biped. What would the intermediate stage be–a triped? I’ve never seen one of these.
It appears that he may have been wrong, at least about the gradual part.

Monday, December 09, 2013

More Trouble on the High Seas

The Ark-n-Park may be in for more difficulties if animal rights organizations get a hold of it.  Gwen Pearson has written an article for WIRED in which she calls into question some of the methods the builders are using to house the actual animals that are supposed to be part of the exhibit.   She writes:
I’ve helped manage and care for a wide assortment of wild and domestic animals, big and small, over the course of my career. There is a HUGE amount of paperwork, documentation, and inspections involved in having captive animals. It is, frankly, a gigantic pain in the ass, and the animals are healthier and receive better care because of all the annoying, complex rules. That’s why the Ark project set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head.

Keeping animals in captivity is really, really difficult. By gathering animals together in an artificial environment you concentrate all the poop and pee, and just make it easier for diseases to rapidly spread. (Got a kid in daycare? You know exactly what I’m talking about.)

As caretakers we have an ethical duty to provide captive animals with the food and environment they need to stay healthy. Doing that takes specialized knowledge. If you have raptors or game birds, they can get bumblefoot just from the wrong kind of perches. Feeding an imbalanced diet, or just not noticing a raptor is off its food, can tip a bird into a metabolic crash. Ducks can get a fatal type of herpes that spreads rapidly, despite our best efforts.
Evidently, Ham has scaled back the number of animals in the exhibit, dropping the plans for exotic species.  Given that this is an amusement park and not a "real" ark, this is a good thing.  There is something deeper and more disturbing about this whole endeavor, though, that she touches on:
But the fact that how to house and care for their animals is the LAST part of their planning process — a plan to build what is supposed to be a historical artifact made specifically to hold animals — says a lot.
This is an attraction that exists to promote a religious message. It’s not about animals at all. The welfare of the animals and their biology is less important than their ability to reinforce a religious myth.

This isn’t a new issue for creationists. The Museum of Creation and Earth (formerly run by the Institute for Creation Research, and not connected to Answers in Genesis) was recently denied membership in the San Diego Museum Council, in part because of “their animal care and the protocol and care of their exhibitions…a lot of areas that were not in line with membership guidelines.”
I once listened to a lecture by Tony Campolo, How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshiping Nature, in which he lamented the fact that, as Christians, we had ceded the care of the planet and the practice of good ecology to largely secular organizations and had attained a reputation of apathy with regard to these matters.  Now we find that the creators and designers of the Ark Encounter are no better than those that came before.  I cannot find it now (help?) but I saw an interview with a city councilwoman in which she stated that there was little reason to enact conservation legislation since the earth was only six thousand years old and would not be around much longer.  These sorts of things make Christians look irresponsible and ignorant.   

Friday, December 06, 2013

Oldest Human DNA Recovered

Using the fossil material from the Sima de Los Huesos cave, at the Spanish site of Atapuerca, geneticists have recovered DNA.   From the National Geographic story by Karl Gruber:
Analysis of the bones challenges conventional thinking about the geographical spread of our ancient cousins, the early human species called Neanderthals and Denisovans. Until now, these sister families of early humans were thought to have resided in prehistoric Europe and Siberia, respectively. (See also: "The New Age of Exploration.")

But paleontologists write in a new study that the bones of what they thought were European Neanderthals appear genetically closer to the Siberian Denisovans, as shown by maternally inherited "mitochondrial" DNA found in a fossil thighbone uncovered at Spain's Sima de los Huesos cave.

"The fact that they show a mitochondrial genome sequence similar to that of Denisovans is irritating," says Matthias Meyer of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, lead author of the study, published Wednesday in Nature.

"Our results suggest that the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and Denisovans may be very complicated and possibly involved mixing between different archaic human groups," he said.
Although the report argues that the Atapuerca remains show a greater similarity to Denisovans than Neandertals, we already know that modern Europeans and East Asians have Neandertal genes in them, indicating that admixture was occurring.  Milford Wolpoff has been arguing for decades that archaic Homo sapiens represents a polytypic species that has genetic ties to modern human groups in different parts of the Old World.  While it certainly appears that Neandertals were distinctive, this information, in conjunction with various studies (here and here) of the Denisovans and African archaics indicates that this model may be the more correct one. 

Lost in the shuffle, however, is that the ability to recover this DNA is an astounding feat of science and portends for great advances in human palaeontology in the future.