Friday, May 27, 2016

What Were They Building?

The Atlantic (and some other news outlets) is running a story about a remarkable discovery at Bruniquel Cave, in France, of a structure that was created by Neandertals living in the area.  Ed Yong writes:
Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had been deliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones.

These weren’t natural formations, and they weren’t the work of bears. They were built by people.

Recognizing the site’s value, the caver brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. Using carbon-dating, Rouzaud estimated that a burnt bear bone found within the chamber was 47,600 years old, which meant that the stalagmite rings were older than any known cave painting. It also meant that they couldn’t have been the work of Homo sapiens. Their builders must have been the only early humans in the south of France at the time: Neanderthals.
One truly interesting thing about this find is that it was only made with the aid of torches, which means that the Neandertals who built the structure also had them.

The original discovery had taken place in 1999 but, as of yet, the stalagmites had remained undated. The story continues:
After drilling into the stalagmites and pulling out cylinders of rock, the team could see an obvious transition between two layers. On one side were old minerals that were part of the original stalagmites; on the other were newer layers that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off by the cave’s former users. By measuring uranium levels on either side of the divide, the team could accurately tell when each stalagmite had been snapped off for construction.
Their date? 176,500 years ago, give or take a few millennia.
Most of the burials and other artistic evidence we have from the Neandertals comes from between 50 and 70 thousand years ago, during the height of the “classic” Neandertals, in France and Germany. This discovery, which is thought by some researchers to be cultural or religious, pushes that back a good 100 thousand years.

We are learning a good deal about the hominins that occupied Europe during the Middle Pleistocene and it is surprising.   The recent analysis of the German site of Schöningen, was revelatory, in that it showed hominins living in a setting where there was division of labor, highly advanced communication system, the creation of advanced bone and stone implements and complex hunting 300 thousand years ago.  It is clear that, over the course of the next 200 thousand years, continued cognitive advances were made. “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” says Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.

More pieces of the puzzle. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New Book Attacks Creationist Explanation of the Grand Canyon

A new book edited by Carol Hill (who has written some very good articles for the ASA journal Perspectives on the Christian Faith, here and here) and others, in the words of the Arizona Daily Sun “Takes Aim at Grand Canyon Creationism.” Emery Cowen writes:
When it comes to relaying the history of the Grand Canyon, a new book co-authored by longtime Flagstaff resident Wayne Ranney takes a different approach to one of the world's most famous geologic features.

What sets the book apart is how it places religion front and center in its discussion of the canyon’s geology. In 240 photo-rich, textbook-style pages
“The Grand Canyon Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” highlights the stark divide that continues to exist between some religious views of the canyon’s formation and the prevailing science about its more than 6 million-year-old evolutionary history.

The book does what geologists have failed to do for decades, said Ranney, a former geology professor who has written several books on Grand Canyon. It directly confronts a sector of Christian believers, called Young Earth Creationists, who maintain that the Grand Canyon’s layers were created in one year during Noah's flood and that the event happened along a timeline of Earth’s history that goes back just 6,000 to 10,000 years.

Page after page of the book is dedicated to explaining those beliefs and then showing how the canyon’s geology conflicts with and debunks them
Lets leave aside the author's notion that this book provides a “different approach” to the formation of the canyon, since The Tusayan National Geographic Bookstore has one (count 'em, One) book espousing the creationist perspective, called The Grand Canyon, A Different View, edited by Tom Vail, while every other book takes the mainstream science approach to the formation of the canyon.

This new work is a welcome book to combat the nonsense of Tom Vail.  When I was at the Tusayan Bookstore a few years ago, I waded through the book—which has to be seen to be believed—and realized that the devotion to the young earth model causes people to concoct absolutely unbelievable geologic scenarios that simply do not stand up to any sort of scrutiny. As Geologist David Montgomery writes:
Digging deeper into the book, I read that the canyon itself was carved when the sediment that formed the rocks now exposed in its walls was still soft. I was puzzled that the authors did not try to explain how a mile-high stack of saturated sediment remained standing without slumping into the growing chasm—or how all the loose sand and clay later turned into solid rock. The book simply stated that, according to the Bible, Noah’s Flood formed the Grand Canyon and all the rocks through which it’s cut in under a year. There was no explanation for the multiple alternating layers of different rock types, the erosional gaps in the rock sequence that spoke of ages of lost time, or the remarkable order to the various fossils in the canyon walls. The story was nothing like the tale I read in the rocks I had spent the day hiking past.
That is one of so many problems with the creationist view (for example, why did the walls of the canyon not collapse, since they were composed of mud and clay and less than a year old?) that it is difficult to take it seriously.

Given that Vail's book was placed in the Science section of the Grand Canyon Bookstore, we can only hope that this one will be placed right next to it.

P.S. anyone with an interest in this area of geology should pick up David Montgomery's The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood, from which I quoted above. It is a great read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

All in the Service of a Message

A Youngstown, Ohio school district has come under fire for its inclusion of a video for tenth grade science that is produced by Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, who was once interviewed favorably in the Intelligent Design blog Uncommon Descent (and not so favorably by The Guardian).  Yahya has a long history of being an Islamic creationist, holocaust denier and was jailed for a time in Turkey for unseemly behavior involving his organization and young girls.  

The story, by Zack Kopplin, in the Daily Beast, has this:
Youngstown, Ohio, students are learning creationism in school with materials from a Islamic, Holocaust-denying group accused of being a sex cult.

A curriculum map (PDF) recommends teachers in this public school district show a creationist video, Cambrian Fossils and the Creation of Species, as part of 10th-grade science education. The video claims that the Cambrian Explosion “totally invalidates the theory of evolution.” The Cambrian Explosion was a time period, nearly 550 million years ago, where, over the next tens of millions of years, the number of species on Earth experienced a (relatively) rapid expansion by evolutionary standards. Christian creationists regularly point to this explosion of life as evidence for creation by God and against evolution.

Blink and you’d miss the Islamic connection in the video. A black screen flashes for less than one second that says “this film is based on the works of Harun Yahya.” In the right corner, there’s a gold bubble that says, “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” in Arabic.
As alluded to above, it seems that U.S. ID supporters and creationists are perfectly happy to hitch their wagons to people like Yahya, as long as the message is anti-evolutionary. This is disturbing, since it obscures the other poisonous aspects of Yahya's message. Kopplin continues:
Youngstown City School District is trying to “teach the controversy,” which is an old creationist argument for sneaking religion into schools, Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Rob Boston told The Daily Beast.

“The district is doing its students a disservice by pretending that a controversy exists when none does,” Boston said. “That the district is apparently inadvertently using material produced by an evolution-denying, anti-Semitic Islamic TV preacher who has been accused of running a sex cult only makes the situation worse.”
All in the service of a message.

All Europeans of Belgian Descent?

Tech Times is reporting that all modern Europeans are descended from a population from Belgium.  James Maynard writes:
Ancient DNA left over from the last ice age shows that all Europeans, at one time, were descended from early humans living in Belgium. Analysis of genomes also suggested our distant ancestors underwent significant evolutionary changes during the Ice Age and a few thousand years following that frigid era.

A total of 51 genetic samples were examined in the latest study, a vast improvement in understanding compared with the four examples available previous to now.
The study suggests that all modern Europeans sampled could trace their ancestry back to a large population living around 37,000 years ago in what is now Belgium.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Todd Wood, AAPA and Evolutionary Creationism

I started writing this post a bit back and it has taken me awhile to get back to it.  

I did not get to the annual American Association of Physical Anthropologists convention this year due to a confluence of scheduling and health issues.  Hopefully next year.  In any event, Todd Wood did.  He had some thoughts on what he found and, along the way, took a parting shot at evolutionary creationism. The picture at the top of the blog is a keychain with a replica of the OH 5 Australopithecus boisei skull on it.   He writes:
I had some interesting feedback from my comments on the AAPA conference I attended in Atlanta. Before that, let's admire my cool new key chain that I picked up at the exhibitor booth for the Kenya National Museum. Yes, the very same Kenya National Museum that put the KNM in KNM-ER 1470! They had full-sized casts available too, but I was on a budget. Even though it's tiny, my new skull is pretty neat.

My keychain actually has relevance to one of the more curious comments I got. One reader enjoyed reading my comments because I didn't sound like an average creationist. I admit that stung a little (I should sound like a creationist, right?), but it was meant as a compliment.
News flash. I got one of those very same keychains a few years ago. It lasted exactly a month before it broke. The skull still sits on my night table.  Onward.  No, he don't sound like a regular creationist.  His knowledge of science, especially biology is much higher than that of your average creationist.  It is easy to pick apart the false claims of Robert Menton or Elizabeth Mitchell (to name a few) because, even a cursory reading of their output reveals that they know little about what they write.  No so with Todd Wood, who has taken other creationists to task for their batty science.  Wood also wrote once upon a time (probably much to his everlasting regret) that the evidence for evolution is very good:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

I say these things not because I'm crazy or because I've "converted" to evolution. I say these things because they are true. I'm motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure. People who say that are either unacquainted with the inner workings of science or unacquainted with the evidence for evolution. (Technically, they could also be deluded or lying, but that seems rather uncharitable to say. Oops.)
Consequently, it is with not a little bit of consternation that we read the following:
I have been doing what I do for a long time now, and I have a great deal of personal peace and confidence about my position as a creationist. I just don't feel a need to constantly reassure my audience or even myself that I'm a creationist. I suppose some might think that I should be more indignant because of all these evolutionists undermining the truth or some such, but I'm far more unsettled by fellow evangelical Christians promoting evolution than by non-Christians doing it. They really should know better.
My initial reaction to this statement was to think I had been insulted.  Why should we know better????  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this statement on Wood's part cuts to the principle disagreement between young-earth and evolutionary creationists.
In a nutshell, and very generally: Young earth creationists are absolutely convinced that their view of scripture represents objective reality and that the science can be interpreted in different ways.  Evolutionary creationists, on the other hand, are absolutely convinced that their view of science represents objective reality and that the scripture can be interpreted in different ways.

Todd Wood thinks that evolutionary creationists should know better because the scripture has to be interpreted exactly the way it is written.  Therefore, evolution has to be wrong.  While he admits that there is “gobs and gobs” of evidence for evolution, it simply cannot reflect biological reality because it counters what is clearly written in the Bible.

Evolutionary creationists, on the other hand, look at the evidence for evolution and find it absolutely overwhelming, reason that God would not lie to us about his creation, acknowledge that there have been many studies that argue that the primeval history does not reflect a word-for-word account of events, and conclude that young earth creationists are reading the Bible incorrectly.

While it appears on the surface that this represents a fundamental disagreement about the primacy of scripture, such is not the case.  This disagreement revolves, instead, on what the purpose of the scripture in question is.   Once again, in a very general sense, the young earth model promotes the view that the primeval history serves not just as a powerful statement about the creative action of the one true God, but also as an account of how He brought his creation into being.

For your average evolutionary creationist, while the first holds true, the second not so much. The generally default position of evolutionary creationists is that the second, while being absolutely important (hence its presence in scripture) is not a literal account but, instead, establishes the primacy of God as ultimate creator.

For example:

My family and I were reading Genesis last night because we are going to read through the Bible in a year with the kids and, listening to my wife read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and how drastically it differed from the account beginning with Terah and leading to Abram, it struck me how much like traditional Mesopotamian myth the Primeval History sounded.  As Conrad Hyers put it:
The Bible is credited with stories which, when reduced to their most literal dimensions, are on the level of a child's garden of verses. Instead of the oceanic depths of Genesis, we are shown a small fishpond of space and time: six literal days, a young earth, a small and recent universe, and a reduction of geological ages to the effects of a single flood. It is as if Genesis were a kind of Alice in Wonderland where one is invited to believe at least three impossible things before breakfast!
This is not true only of the creation story, but of the story of the flood, and my sixteen-year-old is starting to wonder about it, asking questions about dinosaurs, life spans and so on. These accounts are, on their face, fantastic. For example, he correctly pointed out that the tower of Babel would not be able to stand due to the laws of physics and wondered who the "we" was in the passage.  I didn't even broach the issue of the vertical limit.  Most theologians view this story as satire, a direct attack on the Babylonian ziggurats and paganism, and, thus, not literally.  Further, there has been no demonstrable evidence that a world-wide flood ever occurred. 

It has been common in recent years for people like Ken Ham to insinuate rather broadly that those who accept evolution are not really Christians.  Recently, he has extended that to old-earth creationists in general.  This sets him at odds with just about every mainline denomination and every old-earth  creationist that I am aware of.  Most evolutionary creationists (myself included) and even Old earth creationists are perfectly willing to see people like Ham and Wood as saved members of the Kingdom of God who will find their eternity with the Father.   Wood, I am pretty sure, is content to see ECs and OECs as Christians.  It is disturbing that Ham does not.  To use Wood's phrase: "he should know better."