Thursday, April 30, 2015

Meanwhile, Out in Sunny California...

In the public school district of San Luis Obispo, a teacher has been reprimanded for bringing up creationism in a science class.  Kaytlyn Leslie writes for the Tribune:
An Arroyo Grande High School teacher violated state teaching standards by requiring students to discuss creationism as a viable alternative to evolution during life science classes, district officials said.

The teacher, Brandon Pettenger, seems to be no longer teaching the life sciences class, although Lucia Mar Unified School District officials declined to confirm that.
So what was he teaching? Not clear. The story continues:
After investigating complaints about Pettenger, Fiorentino said his department found no evidence that Pettenger was letting his personal religious beliefs influence his teachings.

“I don’t believe that the intent was something religious on the teacher’s part,” Fiorentino said. “Based on my investigation, it was just a way to motivate those 11th-graders into discussion.”

He said this appeared to be the first time any discussion of creationism had been a part of Pettenger’s curriculum.
If this is the case, there is no justification for removing him from the life sciences class. Whatever the rest of the world thinks, groups like AiG think they are doing science, even if none of it stands up to scrutiny. That needs to be addressed on one level because the kids are going to encounter it at some point and need to be aware of it.

A Geologist Reminds Us That Evolution is Not The Only Obstacle to Young Earth Creationism

The focus of the debate on science and creationism has largely been on evolution and that is what you find most of on sites like AiG and the Discovery Institute.  Typically, in the public schools, debates do not rage about the age of the earth.  They center on evolution.  David R. Montgomery, of the University of Washington and author of The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood
reminds us that evolution is not the only obstacle to young earth creationism.  He writes:
I don’t have to travel very far to make this case. There’s a slab of polished rock on the wall outside my department office that refutes so-called Flood Geology: the view that a global, world-shattering flood explains geologic history after the initial creation of Earth by God. This eight-foot-long slab is a conglomerate – a rock made from water-worked fragments of older rocks.

It’s what you’d get if you buried a riverbed composed of many different types of rock deep enough below ground for temperature and pressure to forge it into a new rock. Preserved in it, you can see the original particles of sand, gravel and cobbles made of various kinds of rock. And if you look closely you can see some of the cobbles are themselves conglomerates — rocks within rocks.

Why does this disprove the creationist view of geology? Because a conglomerate made of fragments of an older conglomerate not only requires a first round of erosion, deposition, and burial deep enough to turn the original sediments into rock. It requires another pass through the whole cycle to turn the second pile of sedimentary rock fragments into another conglomerate.

In other words, this one rock shows that there is more to the geologic record than creationists describe in their scripturally-interpreted version of earth history. A single grand flood cannot explain it all. Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.
Montgomery also reiterates the claim that young earth creationism is a break with established tradition:
Young Earth creationists imagine that people lived with dinosaurs and that Noah’s flood shaped the world’s topography. In fact, this brand of creationism, embodied by Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, is actually one of the youngest branches of Christianity’s family tree.
Articles abound on just how badly the geological record accords with a strict, literal reading of the Genesis flood. Here are what I think are some of the best.
Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Update on the Trouble in Massachusetts: People Respond

MassLive ran a follow-up story on the Holyoke controversy involving the creationism debate, after hundreds of people wrote letters. Here are some that MassLive ran:
chick-a-puppy -- The solution is simple, do not teach religion in a science class and everyone is happy. If you want to teach intelligent design, creationism, or anything else do it at home or Sunday school.

Freesoul -- Genesis, Chap I, verse 1: "In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth." So much for the big bang theory. Class dismissed.

Death and Taxes -- What about the third belief that life was brought to earth by aliens. It's about as plausible as the rest.

Ymir -- That's biogenesis. Different subject.
The idea that evolutionary theory somehow explains life's origins seems to be ingrained in the public conscience.

Trouble in Massachusetts

Nestled in the small town of Holyoke, Mass. is a controversy over the proper role of scientific debate.  Mike Plaisance of MassLive (a conglomerate of regional newspapers) reports on events at Dean Technical High School:
Inclusion of creationism in a school project here is inappropriate and a concern but not a surprise, teachers union president Agustin Morales said Monday (April 27).
Morales said teachers have told him they feel it is inappropriate that a project at a school here is including discussions about the faith-based belief of creationism in the instruction about evolution.

Some people have said that the separation of church and state is asserted in the U.S. Constitution
and that any favoring of one faith over another in a public institution like a school is unfair to those of other faiths who have equal stake in such institutions.
Stories are now abounding in the news about how college and college administrators are avoiding subjects that are controversial (Glenn Reynolds has one a day, it seems).  The outline of the course, which is reproduced in the embedded story, weaves in the humanities and the life sciences into a mock debate involving students playing the roles of school board, science teachers, media and other related organizations.  What it aims to teach is, truly critical thinking in this area and, if adhered to, would represent a welcome addition to the curriculum.  If the intent of the instructor is to open the class in open discussion of the merits of creationism in the form of a debate, there ought not to be anything wrong with that and I was quite ready to think this was a great idea until I read this:  
[Principle Barry] Bacom is aware that some people might find it inappropriate that a public school is including what many consider to be faith-based teaching in a lesson plan, he said. But he said the creationism vs. evolution debate is ingrained in the national consciousness and thus natural for students to learn.

It is a matter of exposing students to the full range of ideas and not a situation where he is pushing so-called creationism beliefs on teachers or advocating that creationism be taught, he said.
[emphasis mine]
That last sentence made my hair stand on end.  It is right out of the Discovery Institute Playbook.  Consequently, this does need scrutiny, if nothing else to verify that proper science is being represented.  Debates between mainstream science and young earth creationism can and should occur, especially in a class-room setting.  Hopefully, that is what is happening. 

Unfortunately, all of this is occurring within the backdrop of the fact that the school system is failing and has been for years, to the point where the state is about to step in and seize control of it.  What role this plays is unclear.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Very, Very Busy. Back to it now.

I have been extraordinarily busy and have not had a chance to finish up any posts.  Back to it, hopefully.

Monday, April 06, 2015

AU, Baptist Ministers Seek to Intervene in Ark Encounter Suit Against Kentucky

Baptist News is reporting that two Baptist ministers have joined forces with Americans United for Separation of Church and State to intervene on behalf of the state of Kentucky in its defense of denying tax breaks to Ark Encounter.  Bob Allen writes:
Americans United for Separation of Church and State submitted documents March 30 asking a federal court in Frankfort, Ky., to let the quartet intervene in a lawsuit filed Feb. 5 by Answers in Genesis alleging discrimination when the state turned down $18 million in state tax credits for the Ark Encounter project being built in northern Kentucky.

“In their complaint against the State of Kentucky, Ark Encounter has made it clear that a key purpose of the park is to try to convert people to their narrow brand of Christianity,” Chris Caldwell, one of the four, told Baptist News Global. “They are free to do so, but I strongly believe they have no right to force me to help pay for it with my taxes.”

Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., joined Paul Simmons, a one-time professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and two others asking the court to give them a stake in the case. Caldwell is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
Whether this changes the complexity of the suit is not clear.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

New Dates For Little Foot Push It Back to Au. afarensis Time-Period

On the heels of the Ledi jaw dates for early Homo at 2.8 million years ago, and the corresponding tentative conclusion that only Au. afarensis could emerge as a possible ancestor for early Homo, to the exclusion of any of the other australopithecines, comes a redating of the Australopithecus specimen from the cave of Sterkfontein to 3.67 million years ago.  From the story in Science Daily:
Ronald Clarke, a professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand who discovered the Little Foot skeleton, said the fossil represents Australopithecus prometheus, a species very different from its contemporary, Australopithecus afarensis, and with more similarities to the Paranthropus lineage.

“It demonstrates that the later hominids, for example, Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus did not all have to have derived from Australopithecus afarensis,” he said. “We have only a small number of sites and we tend to base our evolutionary scenarios on the few fossils we have from those sites. This new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa.”
So, what is Au. prometheus, exactly and how does it differ from the other australopithecines in the area?  From the paper by Granger, et al.1:
This species was named on the basis of a parietooccipital fossil from Makapansgat23. It has been suggested22 that several other Sterkfontein and some Makapansgat specimens also belong in this species making Australopithecus africanus and A. prometheus contemporaries in the assemblages of Makapansgat Member 3 and Sterkfontein Member 4. A. prometheus differs from A. africanus in features including Paranthropus-like larger, bulbous-cusped cheek teeth, a longer, flatter face, incipient supraglabellar hollowing and a more vertical rounded occiput22. (Note that we use the term hominid in the traditional sense to include humans and their ancestral relatives but exclude the great apes.)
One of the raging debates in human palaeontological studies concerns whether or not the robust australopithecines, Au. robustus and Au. boisei, represent their own clade, Paranthropus. This perspective is based on traits that are shared to the exclusion of other australopithecine species.  Opponents of this view argue that quite a few of the traits that make up this clade are functional in nature, involving mostly the chewing complex, and that as such, Au. robustus and Au. boisei are  outgrowths of Au. africanus.

The story continues, quoting Ron Clarke:
It demonstrates that the later hominids, for example, Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus did not all have to have derived from Australopithecus afarensis," he said. “We have only a small number of sites and we tend to base our evolutionary scenarios on the few fossils we have from those sites. This new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa.
Hope so, because right now, here is how it looks:
  • P. robustus (or Au. robustus) only in South Africa
  • P. boisei (or Au. boisei) only in East Africa
  • Early Homo only in East and Northeast Africa
  • Au. africanus only in South Africa
  • Ar. ramidus only in North East Africa
  • Au. afarensis only in North East Africa
As Slim Pickens would say: “What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is a-goin' on here?”

All of this sort of leads to the question of who the last common ancestor of humans and modern apes was.  All we have to go on is a badly crushed skull from the Sahel River area in Chad that is purported to be somewhere around 7 mya, but is, in reality, a surface find, and some hominin-looking post-cranial remains from the Tugen Hills, in Kenya that are dated to between 5.6 and 6.1 mya.  By the time we get to Ar. ramidus, at least facultative bipedalism is in place, although there are still quite a few ape-like traits.  What is not clear from the report by Granger et al, is how the morphology compares to earlier hominins.  For example, can the traits observed in Au. prometheus be derived from Ar. ramidus?  If so, then it still represents a possible precursor and something like Ar. ramidus gave rise to both the australopithecines and the paranthropines.  The fact that the discoverers are calling it Australopithecus suggests that it shares enough derived traits with the australopithecines as a whole to be called that.  If the traits cannot be derived from Ar. ramidus, then it raises the possibility that the paranthropines and Ar. ramidus share a common ancestor.  At this point, until some systematic analyses can be done, we simply don't know. 

Of course, all of this is contingent on the dates holding up.  The article gives a pretty good run-down on how isochron dating works and indicates that the dates are consistent with what would be expected given the deposition.   I am sure that more will come out about this very shortly.  Until then...

1Darryl E. Granger, Ryan J. Gibbon, Kathleen Kuman, Ronald J. Clarke, Laurent Bruxelles, Marc W. Caffee. New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein Member 2 Australopithecus and Member 5 Oldowan. Nature, 2015