Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ark Encounter Set to Open July 7

The Ark Encounter, the offshoot of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, will be opening its doors on July 7, with much fanfare and hoopla.  Laurie Goodstein writes:
In the beginning, Ken Ham made the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. And he saw that it was good at spreading his belief that the Bible is a book of history, the universe is 6,000 years old, and evolution is wrong and is leading to our moral downfall.

And Ham said, let us build a gargantuan Noah’s ark 45 minutes away to draw millions more visitors. And let it be constructed by Amish woodworkers, and financed with donations, junk bonds and tax rebates from the state of Kentucky. And let it hold an animatronic Noah and lifelike models of some of the creatures that came on board two-by-two, such as bears, short-necked giraffes — and juvenile Tyrannosaurus rexes.

And it was so.

Ham’s “Ark Encounter,” built at a cost of more than $102 million, is scheduled to open July 7 in Williamstown. Ham and his crew have succeeded in erecting a colossal landmark and an ambitious promotional vehicle for their particular brand of Christian fundamentalism, known as “young earth” or “young universe” creationism.

It was not smooth sailing. The state tried to revoke the tax rebates after learning that Ham would require employees to sign a “statement of faith” that would exclude people who were gay or did not accept his particular Christian creed. Ham went to court and in January, he won.
Ham comments that he does not want his park to be thought of as “entertainment” (then why the zip lines?) but should, instead, serve a religious purpose as a reminder to the present world that God, once upon a time, flooded the world.  On the other hand, God also said that he would never do it again, so this is, perhaps, a cautionary park.  Interestingly, as a testament to how far the country has shifted to the left, we have this:
A group of local atheist activists, the Tri-State Freethinkers, recently tried to put up billboards on the highway approaching the ark, calling it the “Genocide and Incest Park,” but no billboard company would agree, said the Freethinkers’ founder and president, Jim Helton, so the group plans to protest at the ark’s grand opening. “The moral of the flood story is horrible,” Helton said. “We’re not saying he can’t build his park. But we don’t think it’s appropriate for a family fun day.”
While I don't for a minute support the premise of the Ark Encounter that there was a world-wide flood, it is difficult to believe that the message that the ark puts forth is a horrible lesson.  In what way?  Is it not inclusive and diverse enough?  The moral of the flood story is that humans have evil intentions and desires that are contrary to God's word and that God, in the past, has cut off humanity for such behavior.  That is pretty much straight-forward Christianity.  Perhaps that is problem: the ark is religious in nature, something the Tri-State Free Thinkers group adamantly opposes.  It likely would not matter what the moral was. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Is Louisiana's LSEA Bad Science?

It isn't, according to University of Shreveport political science professor Jeff Sadow. He argues:
[Senator Karen Carter] Peterson’s annual exercise persisted — until this year. With Democrat John Bel Edwards now governor, neither she nor anyone else filed a bill to repeal the act. That’s because the author of the law, former state Sen. Ben Nevers, a Bogalusa Democrat, serves as Edwards’ chief of staff. In the past, surely knowing her bill never would make it out of committee, Carter kept trying regardless as an apparent attempt to make Jindal look bad. She has no wish to do the same to Edwards.

But Peterson’s and others’ opposition to the act should disturb anybody who desires academic excellence in Louisiana education. The law creates a minor incentive for science classrooms to explore important issues and develop critical thinking skills. It also stands as a bulwark against the potential imposition of politically motivated orthodoxy masquerading as science. To oppose the act reveals an intolerance of freedom in academic inquiry — and a willingness to indulge a totalitarian impulse seeking to control information and knowledge.
Here is the problem that I see: the modern creationism movement has taken great pains to divorce the notion of creationism from the Bible, or any organized religion. They treat it as science, and promote it as such. They don't promote it as religion. To be sure, every court case that has been adjudicated has shown that it is, but because of this, the teaching of creationism now masquerades as “Teaching the Controversy” “Teaching the Full Range of views," or “Teach the Strengths and Weaknesses.”  Oddly, enough, these methodologies don't include all of scientific inquiry, but just happen to focus on evolution (and sometimes climate change).  Waiting in the wings is “scientific creationism,”  a view supported by a large number of legislators, it seems. 

Yes, it is true that we should keep science agenda free (and that is becoming increasingly hard in this over-politicized culture), but the LSEA does not do this.  If anything, it promotes the stealth agenda of ID and creationism.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

New Book Out: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

The Religion News Service has a story about a new book that has been published that will likely set many fundamentalist evangelicals' teeth on edge and rattle their cages.  The book is titled How I changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science (which I just picked up as a Kindle e-book, seconds ago) Cathy Grossman writes:
Creationist Christian tourists may soon flock to the Ark Encounter, a literal vision of Noah’s story in Genesis come to life in July as a theology-packed tourist attraction in Williamstown, Ky.

But this month, another group of evangelicals is making a very different case – minus any animatronic critters — in a new book, “How I Changed My Mind About Evolution.”

It promotes the idea that one can be serious about Christian faith and still accept a scientific Darwinian account of human origins. BioLogos, the organization of pro-evolution Christians in the sciences founded by famed geneticist Francis Collins, teamed with InterVarsity Press to publish a collection of 25 personal essays from clergy, scholars and scientists.
It should be a good read. The Kindle version is only $8.84.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another Republican Gets Evolution Wrong

This time, it is Rush Limbaugh, who, in one of his daily shows, questioned the wisdom of evolution.  Writing about the unfortunate incident in which the gorilla, Harambe, was shot to protect a human child, Rush stated:
A lot of people think that all of us used to be gorillas, and they're looking for the missing link out there. The evolution crowd. They think we were originally apes. I've always had a question: If we were the original apes, then how come Harambe is still an ape, and how come he didn't become one of us? "Well, that's why they're all missing link, Mr. Limbaugh. Your question is absurd." Here's one more from Ashley Byrne from PETA. "You know, the gorilla's endangered, he was 17 years old. They've had him for quite a long time."
Rush, if my children came from my wife, why is my wife still alive? This notion that evolution is strictly linear has been known to be wrong since the time of Charles Darwin, yet it is perpetuated by people who don't like evolution but won't learn anything about it.  This is why we have systematics.  As a refresher to Rush, here is a diagram that I concocted during one of my back and forths with someone about my BioLogos post on hominins of the Middle Pliocene:

In this example, there is no straight lineal relationship between any two forms.  In fact, the one salient feature of systematics is that it can only delineate taxonomic sister groups, it cannot delineate ancestor-descendant relationships.  There is no such thing as the "missing link."  Viewed within this prism,  it becomes apparent that transitional forms abound in the fossil record.  Think of the form Gerobatrachus hottoni, otherwise known as the “frogamander.”  It has the basal characteristics of both frogs and salamanders and represents the stem group to both of those forms.  Everything that follows in each node, leading to salamanders and frogs, is transitional.

This is how modern evolutionary theory is practiced.   It would sure be nice if some news people would learn this.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Jimmy Carter Visits Ark Encounter, Rains on Ken Ham's Parade

Ex-president Jimmy Carter visited the not-yet-open Ark Encounter site in Petersburg, Kentucky, on June 10, at the invitation of LeRoy Troyer, head of construction.  Unfortunately, he did not sign on to Ken Ham's, shall we say, compressed, understanding of time:
“I don’t have any doubt in my own mind about God who created the entire universe,” said Carter, who holds a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy, in a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post. “But I don’t adhere to passages that so-and-so was created 4,000 years before Christ, and things of that kind. Today we have shown that the earth and the stars were created millions, even billions, of years before. We are exploring space and sub-atomic particles and learning new facts every day, facts that the Creator has known since the beginning of time.”

This stated belief does not align with the stance of Answers in Genesis.

“Christians need to trust God's Word as their final authority. The Scriptures never change," says one Creation Museum exhibit description. "One does not build their faith upon models and reconstructions, which may change as we learn more.”
Interestingly, in their own press release on the visit, Answers in Genesis made no mention of Carter's contrasting views, only that he “praised the quality of the work and shared his impressions of the project that his architect friend Mr. Troyer has designed and built for Answers in Genesis.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

H. floresiensis Not As Young or As Unique As We Thought

In other words, so much for the pathology argument.  Many news outlets, National Geographic being one of them, are reporting on new fossils that closely match those of Homo floresiensis that were found at Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores in the late 1990s.  Adam Hoffman writes:

The 700,000-year-old human remains are the first found outside Liang Bua cave, the site on Flores that yielded the original hobbit fossils. The much older samples show intriguing similarities to H. floresiensis, including their small size, and so provide the best evidence yet of a potential hobbit ancestor.
“Since the hobbit was found, there have been two major hypotheses concerning its ancestry,” says Gerritt van den Bergh, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia and a contributor to the work.

According to one theory, H. floresiensis is a dwarfed form of Homo erectus, an ancient human relative that lived in East Asia and parts of Africa until about 143,000 years ago. But other researchers think the hobbits evolved from even earlier, smaller-bodied hominins such as Homo habilis or Australopithecus.
“These new findings suggest that Homo floresiensis is indeed a dwarfed form of Homo erectus from Java, a small group of which must have gotten marooned on Flores and evolved in isolation,” van den Bergh says.
The article goes on to note that the competing argument, that the fossils of Liang Bua represent some kind of pathological condition, and that they maintained this condition for some 700 ky, is now untenable. Clearly this is a side-branch of human evolution.The other key finding is that they also had stone tools, specifically a “straightforward core and flake” technology. Further, the tools show a striking similarity to those found at Liang Bua, suggesting that there was remarkable cognitive "stability" in this population. 

The more we think we know about human evolution, the less, it turns out, that we do.  For now, the entire article is available from Nature for free here

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Neandertals Too Inbred to Survive?

Science Daily is running a story on research published in the journal Genetics that posits that Neandertals were so inbred that their genetic load (the number of bad genes in a population) was so high that it reduced their fertility by 40%.  From the Genetics Society of America:
Previous studies of DNA extracted from Neanderthal remains revealed that these Eurasian hominids were much more inbred and less genetically diverse than modern humans. For thousands of years, the Neanderthal population size remained small, and mating among close relatives seems to have been common.

Then, 50,000-100,000 years ago, groups of anatomically modern humans left Africa and moved to the homelands of their distant Neanderthal cousins. The two groups interbred, mingling their previously distinct genomes. But though a small fraction of the genome of non-African populations today is Neanderthal, their genetic contribution is uneven. Neanderthal sequences are concentrated in certain parts of the human genome, but missing from other regions.

"Whenever geneticists find a non-random arrangement like that, we look for the evolutionary forces that caused it," says [Kelley] Harris.

Harris and her colleague Rasmus Nielsen (University of California, Berkeley / University of Copenhagen) hypothesized that the force in question was natural selection. In small populations, like the Neanderthals', natural selection is less effective and chance has an outsized influence. This allows weakly harmful mutations to persist, rather than being weeded out over the generations. But once such mutations are introduced back into a larger population, such as modern humans, they would be exposed to the surveillance of natural selection and eventually lost.
There is something odd about this analysis, that I think the writer is getting wrong. While it is quite true that drift has an outsized role in small populations—leading to founder effect in some populations (such as Ellis van Kreveld on the Pitcairn Islanders), when deleterious mutations reach a larger population, they don't get weeded out, they get masked. Most really bad alleles are recessive and only express themselves in the presence of a parent with a like allele.  In the presence of a dominant allele, they don't express themselves. 

I will be curious to read the research that derives from this.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Humans and Fire

It had been conventional wisdom that the origin of bipedality occurred in a forest/fringe environment and that a move to the savannah during the dry-out at the end of the Pliocene accelerated the evolution of humans.  That was thrown into turmoil when it was discovered that Ardipithecus ramidus possessed facultative bipedal characteristics at 4.4 million years but lived in an entirely forested environment.

Now, it seems, the savannah is seen as playing a different role in human evolution.  Charles Q. Choi, of Scientific American writes:
A longtime theory holds that early humans discovered how to use fire accidentally—perhaps while making stone tools they found that striking rocks against each other could generate sparks, and then gradually learned fire had many uses.

The problem with such serendipity-based explanations is that they "raise more questions than they answer," says evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Parker at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. For example, these theories do not address when or where the discovery might have occurred, why it did not happen earlier or why other animals that use stone tools—chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, crab-eating macaques and sea otters are known to do so—did not also develop fire use, Parker notes.

Parker and his colleagues suggest in a study published in the April Evolutionary Anthropology that humans developed fire use as a natural response to environmental changes. Previous research found that roughly 3.6 million to 1.4 million years ago—as the genus Homo emerged in Africa—the continent regularly experienced bouts of aridity, causing forests to shrink and dry grasslands to spread. Earlier studies suggested these climate shifts may have driven humanity’s ancestors away from a life climbing trees and toward one of walking upright on the ground, Parker says.
Yes, but there have been, as alluded to above, issues with these previous studies. If bipedality originated in the forest, as a response to who-knows-what, then they already possessed it when the drying out began. But this is not the crux of Parker's research:
Parker and his colleagues suggest in the new study that our ancestors not only grew accustomed to fire but learned to exploit it as a naturally occurring resource. This adaptation, called pyrophilia, may have set the stage for more active and deliberate human use of fire.

The research team's models suggest early humans benefited from wildfires in a number of ways: The blazes would have made it easier to find food, much as Martu Aboriginal women in Australia still rely on fire to clear brush for more efficient hunting. The models also indicate that early humans might have combed the charred remains of wildfires to dine on animals, seeds, nuts and tubers cooked in the flames—benefitting from a chemical process that not only makes many foods easier to digest but kills germs and neutralizes some toxins.
This has not been proposed before and it will be interesting to see if more evidence of this is found. Read the whole thing.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Ken Ham Extends the Olive Branch

Ken Ham has offered to take Bill Nye on a tour of his new Ark Encounter (or at least show him the door, as the story goes).  Czarina Ong writes:
Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham and "The Science Guy" Bill Nye have had their differences, especially concerning creationism, but Ham wants to set these aside. This is why he recently invited Nye to visit the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky.

"I want to publicly invite Bill Nye to come visit the Ark. I want to show him personally, or just show him where the entrance is, and let him go on his own, whatever he wants to do," Ham says in a video message posted on his Facebook page. "I'd be thrilled to be able to show Bill Nye through the Ark, and so I'll be interested to know if people out there think Bill Nye will take up my invitation. I hope that he does."

The Ark Encounter is a unique themed attraction park featuring a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark. It contains life-like figures of the animals that were saved during the Great Flood. The park also shows how Noah and his family managed to survive and weather 40 days of non-stop rain.

The Ark Encounter is still closed and will open on July 7, but the Creation Museum is already in operation.
It has become conventional wisdom in recent years that the Nye on Ham debate a few years back was what gave the Ark-n-Park the boost that it needed to get enough of the remaining donations and that, plus junk bonds, put it over the top, allowing construction to begin.  There is no word yet on whether or not Bill Nye has accepted.