Monday, February 29, 2016

Neandertals and Modern Humans Had Longer Period of "Intimate" Contact

New research suggests that the earliest time that Neandertals and moderns humans got jiggy with it was around 100,000 years ago.  This is a break from the conventional (if you can call an argument five years old “conventional”) argument that most of these interactions occurred between 50 and 60 thousand years ago.  According to Jennifer Viegas, in Discovery News:
Remains of a Neanderthal woman who lived around 100,000 years ago in the Altai Mountains of Siberia reveal that human and Neanderthals mated much earlier than previously thought.

One or more of her relatives were actually humans, a new study shows.

It has been known that Neanderthals contributed DNA to modern humans, so people today of European and Asian descent retain Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, but the Neanderthal woman offers the first evidence that gene flow from interbreeding went from modern humans into Neanderthals as well.

The study, published in the journal
Nature1, "is also the first to provide genetic evidence of modern humans outside Africa as early as 100,000 years ago," Sergi Castellano, who co-led the study and is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told Discovery News.

Given the now closely intertwined histories of Neanderthals and
Homo sapiens, Castellano added that "it is better to refer to Neanderthals and modern humans as two different human groups, one archaic and one modern, and not different species."
This last point is hotly contested. The prevailing wisdom is that they were two different species that could interbreed when they came into contact but had their own stable genomes. If the time of contact can be stretched from 100 kya to 50 kya, though, it lends more credence to the ideas that their lifestyles were largely compatible, especially given the new information from Schöningen, which seems to indicate complex patterns of subsistence emerging as early as 300 kya. Oddly, missing from the story is that the researchers suggest that these hybridizations may have occurred in the ancestors of the Neandertals in Southwest Asia, not northern Europe.  This would one of the natural corridors for people coming out of Africa, although recent research has focused on the Arabian peninsula for that migration.

1Kuhlwilm, Martin, Gronau, Ilan, Hubisz, Melissa J., de Filippo, Cesare, Prado-Martinez, Javier, Kircher, Martin, Fu, Qiaomei, Burbano, Hernán A., Lalueza-Fox, Carles, de la Rasilla, Marco, Rosas, Antonio, Rudan, Pavao, Brajkovic, Dejana, Kucan, Željko, Gušic, Ivan, Marques-Bonet, Tomas, Andrés, Aida M., Viola, Bence, Pääbo, Svante, Meyer, Matthias, Siepel, Adam, & Castellano, Sergi. (2016). Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals. Nature, 530(7591), 429-433.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Idaho Bible Reference Bill Amended to Omit Science

ID Education News is reporting that a bill that had been drafted that would permit the use of the Bible as a reference for various school subjects has been amended to omit the sciences. According to Kevin Richert:
A bill designed to clarify the role of the Bible in public schools is headed to the Senate floor — for some rewrite.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 1342 to the floor for amendments. And the committee discussion offered a glimpse into how the bill might be reworked.

For one thing, senators said they wanted to delete references to using the Bible to teach astronomy, biology and geology. They also said they wanted to rework the bill to address not only the Bible, but other religious texts.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said she was amenable to both changes.

As currently written, SB 1342 would allow the use of the Bible as a reference work, “to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, astronomy, biology, geology, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study where an understanding of the Bible may be useful or relevant.”

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, suggested striking the sciences from this list — as a safeguard against using the Bible to teach creationism. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against teaching creationism in public schools.
Good idea, since the Bible is not a science textbook.  Hat tip to the NCSE.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Human/Gorilla Split at Eight MYA?

Scientific American is running an article, which details work by Gen Suwa and colleagues, in the Afar Triangle, where nine gorilla-sized teeth were found in 2007 that have now been securely dated to around eight million years ago.  The researchers named the species Chororopithecus abyssinicus.  Charles Choi writes
The age and location of these fossils strengthen the view that the human and the modern ape lines originated in Africa and not Asia, the researchers said.

"Until now, no mammalian fossils south of the Sahara have been securely dated to 8 million to 9 million years ago," Suwa said. "Any and all fossils from this crucial time period of Africa would help unravel the story of human origins and emergence. These are the first such fossils."

In addition, until recently, "most scientists, especially geneticists, thought that the human-chimp split was as recent as 5 million years ago, and that the human-gorilla split was only about 7 million to 8 million years ago," Suwa said. "This contradicted the fossil record. For example, fossils thought to be on the human side of the split such as
Ardipithecus kadabba from Ethiopia and Sahelanthropus from Chad were 6 million years old — or, in the case of the Chad fossil, perhaps 7 million years old."

The new findings suggest that
Chororapithecus is 8 million years old, so "the actual gorilla-human split must then have been up to several million years before that," Suwa said.
More pieces to the puzzle. The other mystery, of course, is when the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived.

Update: Mississippi Bill Dies in Committee

NCSE is reporting that HB 50, the Mississippi “Academic Freedom” bill proposed by Mark Formby has died in committee.
Mississippi's House Bill 50, whose principal sponsor acknowledged was intended to allow teachers in the public schools to present creationism, died in the House Education Committee on February 23, 2016, when a deadline for bills to be reported out of committee expired. HB 50 was the first antiscience bill in the state since 2010.

If enacted, the bill would have allowed teachers "to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught" — and blocked administrators from preventing the teaching of pseudoscience.
Things might have gone okay for the bill had it not been for the fact that Formby tipped his hand by suggesting strongly that the bill could be used by teachers to teach creationism. The publicity that generated was probably enough for the committee to realize that there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that, if enacted, the law wouldn't be challenged in court.

Aside: while the Discovery Institute went public recently with its repudiation of the bill's intent (to teach creationism), it is naive, given what we know of what happened in Dover and the general leanings of the promoters of these sorts of bills, not to think that the ultimate goal of most of them is to either teach creationism or attempt to take evolution out of the curriculum. Despite the lofty ideals of “academic freedom,” every one of them has focused almost exclusively on evolution. Sometimes climate change and synthetic biology are thrown in just to disguise the bill's true intent. It is here, in Mississippi, however, that we have the smoking gun.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Discovery Institute Weighs in on the Mississippi Academic Freedom Bill

On the website Evolution News and Views, Sarah Chaffee of the Discovery Institute attempts to distance the position of the DI from that of young earth creationists—a position I have not known them to take up to this point.  She writes:
In most states where academic freedom bills for science education are considered, it's the critics who are wrongly claiming that the bills would authorize the teaching of creationism.

But if media accounts from Mississippi are accurate, it appears that at least some legislators who support academic freedom legislation wrongly think it would permit creationism. The Mississippi legislature is currently considering HB 50, which was taken virtually verbatim from Discovery Institute's model academic freedom bill for science education. The language of the bill clearly does not authorize the teaching of creationism. It does not even authorize the teaching of intelligent design. Unfortunately, some of the bill's sponsors apparently think otherwise.

To clear up the confusion, Discovery Institute has sent a letter to the Mississippi House Education Committee explaining what the language of the bill would really do and asking the Committee either to drop the bill because of the inaccurate statements put out by some of its sponsors or to make clear that the legislature understands that the bill does not protect creationism.
This is a critical stance for the DI because, while they have always hidden behind the “academic freedom” legislation as being good for academics in general (when in fact, the central premise behind the vast majority of the academic freedom bills has been to bring creationism in through the back door) they have never explicitly endorsed young earth creationism, likely because they know that academically, it is a scientific non-starter and cannot be separated from a narrow, early 20th century misreading of the early chapters in Genesis.

The letter is produced in the post and has the stark admission that the current Mississippi bill was drafted used a model bill for academic freedom that came from the DI, itself.   There are problems with how evolution is presented in the letter, however.  The DI still seems focused on the role of mutation and natural selection, without considering all of the other ways in which evolution acts.  This is especially evident in their continued use of the partial Lynn Margulis quote in which she argues that mutations don't create new species.  Of course they don't.  But in combination with genetic drift, flow, selection and a host of other mechanisms, they provide one part of the puzzle to how new species form.

I will be curious to see how this bill fares, now that the mask is off regarding its proposal and also how this letter from the DI is received. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ken Ham and the Church of Darwin

Ken Ham was the subject of an article on Christian News Service, which began the piece with the astounding claim that Ham is "a biologist."  He has a bachelor's degree in applied science, with an emphasis in environmental biology.  That doesn't make him a biologist.  No matter.

Michael Chapman writes:
In an interview on VCY America on Feb. 10, two days before the international Darwin Day, host Jim Schneider said to Ken Ham, “I was disturbed in my spirit to hear we have House now and Senate resolutions declaring Feb. 12 to be Darwin Day, and as much as that grieved me, it grieved me even more though to see that churches are doing the very same thing.”

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum, said, “Churches are doing the very same thing. And think about this: At the same time, they’re trying to throw nativity scenes out of public places, take Christ out of Christmas, and then they claim there’s separation of church and state but there is no such thing as church and state.”

“The First Amendment doesn’t even have that terminology in it,” said Ham. “The establishment clause is about the state not establishing a church. But the state has established a church, it’s the Church of Evolution, with Darwin as the high priest, if you like, and a lot of these teachers and professors as priests in this religion of evolution that they’re imposing through the schools.”
Welllll...where to start.

January 13 is Stephen Foster Memorial Day, January 15 is Lee Jackson day, January 18 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, February 4 is Rosa Parks Day, February 15 is President's Day, February 15 is Daisy Gatson Bates (I had to look her up) Day, February 28 is Linus Pauling Day, March 7 is Casimir Pulaski Day (Had to look him up, too)...Do I need to go on?

So why would “Darwin Day” be a problem? It is a problem because, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Ham thinks evolution is a religious point of view. There is not a shred of evidence for this perspective but that is the one he has. Consequently, to create a Darwin Day is to create a “church” holiday. The post continues:
“Molecules-to-man evolution is a fairy tale,” said Ham, author of The Lie: Evolution. “That’s really what it is. It’s man’s story, in rebellion against God, to try to be his own god, to try to explain life without God. We need to make people realize what it is.” “We actually, we have this on our website too, we actually will encourage you to say ‘not the theory of evolution but belief in evolution,’” said Ham. “The reason is because when people say theory, the idea of a theory is that there’s evidence for it. There’s no evidence for evolution, so it’s not even a theory.”
It is unconscionable for Ham to regard evolution as having no evidence when quite the reverse is true.  This brings me to a harsh accusation.  Even Todd Wood, the young earth creationist in Dayton, Tennessee, who actually works with biological data, recognizes that there is a mountain of evidence for evolution, even if he chooses not to accept it. 

For Ham, on the other hand, to continually state that evolution has no evidence despite the multitude of people who have shown him otherwise is a lie.  It simply is.  Ken Ham makes no effort to learn even the basics of evolutionary theory because he chooses not to.  That is his choice, but to pontificate from AiG and state that evolution has no evidence is irresponsible, arrogant, duplicitous and mendacious. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

40,000 Year-Old Bracelet Found at Denisova Cave

A bracelet has been discovered at the site of Denisova Cave that excavators have dated to c. 40,000 years BP.  Archaeology Hub has the story:
In what is quite an amazing discovery, scientists have confirmed that a bracelet found in Siberia is 40,000 years old. This makes it the oldest piece of jewelry ever discovered, and archeologists have been taken aback by the level of its sophistication.

The bracelet was discovered in a site called the Denisova Cave in Siberia, close to Russia’s border with China and Mongolia. It was found next to the bones of extinct animals, such as the wooly mammoth, and other artifacts dating back 125,000 years.

The cave is named after the Denisovan people — a mysterious species of hominins from the
Homo genus, who are genetically different from both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Here is the image of the bracelet from this site:

We know very little about the Denisovans, except that they coexisted with Neandertals and early modern humans and that their genetic fingerprint is present in modern-day Melanesian populations.  Here is a link to the National Geographic special that was done a few years back that covers the basics behind these mysterious hominins.  This find gives us a window into their culture. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Importance of Schöningen to the Story of Human Evolution in Europe

A lake site in northern Germany, near Schöningen, has lifted much of the veil of how advanced Homo heidelbergensis was during the later Lower Palaeolithic.  As Heritage Daily reports:
The excavations in the open-cast coal mine in Schöningen running from 1994 until today show that we have long underestimated the cultural capacities of Homo heidelbergensis. Schöningen is a key site for documenting both a high resolution record of past climatic change and how hominins lived in northern Europe during the Ice Age. Since 2008 Professor Nicholas Conard and Dr. Jordi Serangeli of the University of Tübingen have led the excavations with a major international research team in close cooperation with the Cultural Heritage Office of Lower Saxony.
the Journal of Human Evolution is making available for a time, all of the papers of a special issue on the site. That is how important it is. That link is here

What has been discovered, since the opening of the excavations, is that Homo heidelbergensis created advanced bone and stone implements, engaged in complex hunting behaviors and exhibited behaviors consistent with a high level of “planning depth.”  Further, they appear to have lived in a society with divisions of labor and a highly advanced communication system.

This has been referred to by the authors of one of the papers as “paradigm shifts in human evolution” and appears to represent, at least at this site and at this time period, a radical change in the way that humans were dealing with their surroundings.  In other words, at around 300,000 years ago, we seem to have the roots of modern human behavior, in Europe.  How much earlier this behavior actually shows up is, at the moment, anybody's guess.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Human Evolution in Two Minutes

I missed this when it came out.  The Indian Express has a link to a video done By Yale University Press by John Gurche, the same artist who did the Tower of Time, a wonderful mural that adorned the halls of the Natural History Museum, in Washington D.C. for years.

This video shows human evolutionary change as a morphing set of images.  Here it is.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Here's Irony For Ya...

A study has found that residents of South Africa, historically the hotbed of human evolutionary studies, have a poorer understanding of human evolution than their neighbors.  Jacaranda FM reports:
The study, published in the South African Journal of Science this month, used responses from visitors to the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg. “South Africans were less likely to accept human evolution than their international counterparts,” the article said. “The survey I did was mainly of adults who would never have learned of evolution at school,” said author of the study, Professor Anthony Lelliott from Wits University in Johannesburg. The study surveyed more than 800 visitors and assessed their understanding of human evolution and the concept of “cradle”. The article explained that 60 percent of the people who rejected evolution used a religious foundation as the reason.
I guess that in a rural setting, most of the people living in South Africa would not encounter this information or understand its true significance. Still, the entire region has been at the forefront of this research for decades, and yet most people still reject it. The hold of creationism is strong, it seems, no matter where you go.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Indigenous Arabs Direct Descendents of Modern Human Wave From Africa?

PhysOrg is running a story about research coming out of Weill Cornell Medicine and Qatar.  Abigail Fagan writes:
The investigation, published online Jan. 4 in Genome Research, sequenced the genomes of 104 Arabian Peninsula natives and compared them with 1,092 genomes from worldwide populations. The researchers compared each pair of genomes in the sample, which allowed them to cluster research participants by genome similarity so that an evolutionary tree emerged. The genomes of indigenous Arabs resulted in a unique cluster separate from the initial African population, illustrating the formation of a distinct population. European and Asian clusters diverged after the Arab population.
These data reinforce the "southern route" model of early modern human origins, which argues that early modern humans left Africa initially by crossing over or ferrying over the northern tip of the Gulf of Aden, near what is currently Djibouti.

Sorry for the light posting

I have been in poor health for the last month or so and have not been able to post much.  Sorry for the absence.

Mural Depicts Plant Evolution

The Amherst Bulletin has a story on a unique mural that adorns the botanical museum at Smith College, in Northhampton, Massachusetts.  Mickey Rathbun writes:
The mural is situated in a long, light-filled corridor that runs between the Church Exhibition Gallery and the Palm House at the Lyman Greenhouse. Until now, says the botanic garden’s director, Michael Marcotrigiano, “This had been an absolutely unvisited hallway. The only time people came in here was when they came to the spring bulb show and were waiting in line for the bathroom. I thought it would be the perfect place for a plant history mural.”

Marcotrigiano, who came on board at the botanic garden in 2000, said he first broached the mural concept in the early 2000s with Madelaine Zadik, the garden’s manager of education and outreach. But nothing came of the idea until 2006, when Zadik noticed a photograph in the Gazette of a Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation van, the side of which was adorned with a realistic forest scene. Zadik showed Marcotrigiano the picture and asked, “You’re looking for a muralist?”
Here is an image from the mural, which is sixty feet in length.