Friday, November 15, 2019

Todd Wood's Take on Danuvius

Todd Wood is always interesting to read, even if I don't share his chronological leanings.  He has thoughts on the new Miocene ape from Bavaria, Danuvius:
Based on the fragmentary remains, we make some really interesting observations about the anatomy of Danuvius. These apes had strongly opposed big toes, which would allow them to effectively grip things with their feet. Their tibiae (shinbones) have the kinds of joints that would allow them to walk upright, and their femora (thighbones) support that conclusion. These apes might have been in some way bipedal. The arm bones they found have traits that are associated with suspensory locomotion, like hanging from tree branches. The body size was fairly small, about the mass of a bonobo.
As I mentioned in my post, I think the evidence for bipedalism is vastly over-stated and, even if it can be shown that this “Extended Limb Clambering” is shared by other fossil ape finds from the region, there is no particular reason to think that these critters were ancestral to later hominins. It is entirely likely that they exhibited a separate adaptation to this particular style of locomotion.  Todd raises some other questions, though, that are not answered in the paper:
So why not address similarities of Danuvius to later fossil hominins? The authors are trying to establish a new means of locomotion that they call Extended Limb Clambering (ELC). So they compare Danuvius to living primates (where the authors know how they get around), and they're interested in comparing it to contemporary Miocene apes of Europe. But they're not all that excited about other comparisons to later fossil forms like Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, or Orrorin. They also don't relate their findings to later fossil apes in Europe like Graecopithecus or the Trachilos tracks, both of which have been linked to hominins or bipedality. Perhaps they don't think those things are worth talking about (maybe because they're skeptical of Graecopithecus like I am), but I guess I just don't agree.
I think that part of the reason that these questions are not raised is because there is so much of a gap between these finds, chronologically and geographically. There is simply with which to relate them. As Todd points out, the hominin status of Graecopithecus is dubious, at best, and, even if the Trachilos tracks are hominin, they are still quite a distance from Bavaria and six million years later in time.

For now, this fossil ape stands on its own.  If we find other evidence of incipient bipedality in other forms in the area and can relate them to later forms, then the picture might change.  For now, though, Danuvius is a very interesting, odd Miocene ape. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Upright Ape?

Multiple outlets are reporting on the discovery of a fossil ape that appears to have at least a partially facultatively bipedal stance.  Here is the Fox News version of events:
The remains of an 11 million-year-old ape suggest that our ancestors started to stand upright millions of years earlier, according to scientists.

A team of researchers claims the fossilized partial skeleton of a male ape that lived in the humid forests of what is now southern Germany bears a striking resemblance to modern human bones. In a paper published on Wednesday by the journal Nature, they concluded that the new species — dubbed Danuvius guggenmosi — could walk on two legs but also climb like an ape.

The findings “raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans,” Madelaine Boehme of the University of Tuebingen, Germany, who led the research, told The Associated Press.
Here is how the Nature paper actually reads:
Here we describe the fossil ape Danuvius guggenmosi (from the Allgäu region of Bavaria) for which complete limb bones are preserved, which provides evidence of a newly identified form of positional behaviour—extended limb clambering. The 11.62-millionyear-old Danuvius is a great ape that is dentally most similar to Dryopithecus and other European late Miocene apes. With a broad thorax, long lumbar spine and extended hips and knees, as in bipeds, and elongated and fully extended forelimbs, as in all apes (hominoids), Danuvius combines the adaptations of bipeds and suspensory apes, and provides a model for the common ancestor of great apes and humans.
First, this is way-the-heck back there, some five and a half million years before the first actual evidence of bipedalism (Orrorin). Second, there are no “hip” remains. The only post-cranial remains are long bones.  Much is inferred.  In hominins, the femoral neck and the connection to the femoral head provide much diagnostic locomotion information.  The fossil remains for this region are very scant, consisting only of a partial head.  Much of the argument for even some bipedality rests with the tibial angle, to wit:
The near perpendicular tibial angle is a shared character between hominins and Danuvius and supports the inference of a habitual valgus knee position and bipedalism for the new genus.
I think a new genus designation is certainly warranted. I have grave reservations about the “bipedalism” designation. We have possible evidence from Crete at 5.5 million years for bipedalism in the form of footprints. That is as far north as it gets.  All of the other evidence we have for the emergence of hominins and bipedalism comes from North Africa.  It is far more likely that this represents an independent adaptation/homoplasy for this hominoid.   If we had more evidence from later in the Miocene or, better yet, the Pliocene, then this might carry more weight.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Denisovans More Closely Related to Modern Humans than Neandertals

Science Daily has a post relating recent research on the genetic studies involving the Denisovan material from Siberia.  The research, done by CNRS in France has this to report:
Now a team of scientists from the Institut Jacques Monod (CNRS / Université de Paris) has measured and photographed another fragment found in Denisova Cave. Genomic analysis reveals it is the missing piece of the same phalanx whose proximal fragment enabled initial sequencing of the Denisovan genome.

Together with colleagues from the PACEA laboratory (CNRS / University of Bordeaux / French Ministry of Culture) and the University of Toronto (Canada), the scientists compared the new fragment to the phalanges of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. Their analysis indicates it is very close to the latter, and less like the former..
This research suggests that there was considerable population mixing and genetic variability in this population, given the news that came out last year detailing the finding of a child skeleton that was, as nearly as the researchers could tell, the offspring of a Neandertal and a modern human.This just continues to solidify the idea that these groups interbred routinely throughout the late Pleistocene. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

More Information About the Denisovans

Discover Magazine has an article on new finds at Denisova and their context in early modern human evolution.  Bridget Alex writes:
Nestled in foothills of Russia’s Altai Mountains, Denisova Cave has been a research mecca since 2010, when fossil DNA from the site revealed a previously unknown human lineage, now called the Denisovans. Scientists have been working hard to reconstruct the cave’s history, through ongoing excavations as well as new analyses of materials recovered years ago.

First, what everyone wants to know: Yes, they found more human remains. In addition to the four Denisovan specimens (one pinky finger, two adult molars and a baby tooth), the cave has yielded 12 fossils from ancient humans, including teeth, toes, fingers and unclassifiable fragments.

Based on their genomes, proteins and physical appearance, the collection contains four Denisovans, three Neanderthals and one hybrid cross between the two human types. Excavators have also found four more fossils that belong to the Homo genus, but haven’t yet been assigned to a particular human species. Additional DNA sequences, recovered directly from the dirt, suggest the presence of even more individuals.
As reported last year, Denisova 11 has been determined to be the offspring between a Neandertal mother and Denisovan father. As with other finds in Asia, we are finding that there appears to have been considerable population mixing over the course of at least 100 thousand years. Although the article indicates that the Neandertals were “sandwiched” in between two modern human occupations, that is difficult to square with any hybridization model. I suspect that the habitation patterns were more complex.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Space X Launch Fails After Rocket Bounces Off Firmament

I think I worried my family last night by laughing so hard at this story that they thought I was going to herniate.  Those of you who follow the news know that Babylon Bee is in a tussle with Snopes about whether or not their stories constitute “fake news.”  Anyone with two grey cells to rub together knows the difference, including Snopes, but they are trying to get the Bee de-platformed because quite a few of the Bee's stories point out the idiocy of some of their favorite political positions.

Anyway, the Bee is not above poking fun at just about anything in the Christian world and I missed this story when it came out.
A SpaceX launch ended in tragedy Thursday as the rocket intended to carry a cellular satellite into orbit around the earth bounced off the firmament described in the opening chapters of Genesis, sources confirmed.

The rocket accelerated higher and higher above the flat earth and toward the sun and moon a mere 3,000 miles away before suddenly bouncing off the glass-like dome containing the earth.

“We totally didn’t see this coming,” a SpaceX launch expert told reporters moments after the crash. “Where we seem to have gone wrong is in using NASA’s fake globe model rather than employing flat-earth models drawn by conspiracy theorists operating off ultra-literalist readings of the King James Bible.”

“We won’t make that mistake again, I tell you what,” he added.
They manage to skewer the literal reading of Genesis and the biblical evidence for a flat earth in one post.  Many Christian writers, including Phil Senter and John Walton, have written about the language describing the firmament and have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that it can only be read as a hard dome because that is how the ANE people saw it. 

Humor at its best.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Lutheran Church Tackles Creation Days

Christian Post has an article on the recent Lutheran Synod resolution involving the “creation days.” Michael Gryboski writes:
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod passed a resolution at their convention affirming the belief that God created the Earth “in six natural days.”

At the 67th Regular Convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod on Tuesday, the theologically conservative denomination adopted Resolution 5-09A, titled “To Confess the Biblical Six-Day Creation.”

“We confess that the duration of those natural days is proclaimed in God’s Word: ‘there was evening and there was morning, the first day,’” resolved the resolution.

The resolution also declared that the creation of Adam as the first human being was a “historical event” and rejected the claims of the theory of evolution.
As noted in the article, there is some debate about what the word “natural” means in this context.
Another delegate expressed concern over the alleged “lack of clarity” on the definition of the word “natural” as used in the resolution.

Supporters responded that the term “natural” was defined by the Bible’s own words, describing the days as having an evening and a morning.
This has always struck me as a peculiar defense given how the scriptures actually reads:
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. (Genesis 1:14-19, NIV)
Every translation reads pretty much the same way.  That happens on the fourth day. Without the sun and moon, you cannot have “evening and morning.”  There is no reasonable context for it.  To argue this implies that the entire universe revolves around a 24-hour earth day.  We know this is not so.

It is notable that the vote was 662 in favor and 309 against, so there is quite a bit of dissent about the resolution.  The rider involving evolution, while not taking center stage, is a slap in the face to those congregants who accept it.  The rising science of coalescence theory is hard to square with the idea of Adam and Eve being the first humans.   As Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight put it in their book Adam and the Genome,
As our methodology becomes more sophisticated and more data are examined, we will likely further refine our estimates in the future. That said, we can be confident that finding evidence that we were created independently of other animals or that we descend from only two people just isn’t going to happen. Some ideas in science are so well supported that it is highly unlikely new evidence will substantially modify them, and these are among them: The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population.
I always find it somewhat interesting that these large denominations fight tooth-and-nail over social issues that are somewhat fluid in society, such as homosexuality and female ordination, and yet, for issues in which there is actually hard, scientific evidence, retreat to a very flat, conservative interpretation of scripture.

Interestingly, the new T-shirt being issued by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America celebrates both science and LGBT rights.  That is not true for the science part.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

New Poll From Gallup on Human Origins

Gallup has released a new poll on what people think about human evolution.  Here is their takeaway blurb:
Forty percent of U.S. adults ascribe to a strictly creationist view of human origins, believing that God created them in their present form within roughly the past 10,000 years. However, more Americans continue to think that humans evolved over millions of years -- either with God's guidance (33%) or, increasingly, without God's involvement at all (22%).
Beyond this are details in the numbers.The poll was conducted from June 3-16 and contained a random sample of 1015 adults.  Some of this is not new and has changed little since the last poll.  There is a high correlation between those with a college education and those who accept human evolution.  The correlation is also high between those who have no religious affiliation and those who accept human evolution.

Other interesting tidbits from the attached PDF:
  • Acceptance of God-guided human evolution does not seem to change with political party affiliation, gender or ethnic background
  •  Acceptance of God-guided human evolution rises only slightly with age
  • The idea that God created humans in their present form drops substantially from 55% (Republican) to 34% (independent and Democrat) as well as ideology (54% Republican, 29% democrat)
There are more observations buried in the data. Have a look.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Chris Stringer: Meet the Relatives

Chris Stringer has a post in the Financial Times titled Meet the Relatives.  It is sort of a whirlwind tour through the evolution of the genus Homo.    He writes:
The discoveries of Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Denisovans and Homo naledi in the past 15 years remind us that the fossil record of humans is still very patchy — stone tools are scattered across much of Africa as a witness to widespread human occupation, yet fossil evidence has been recovered from less than 10 per cent of that continent’s area.

The percentage coverage for Asia is hardly any better: there is, for example, currently only one significant human fossil from the whole of the Indian subcontinent. The discoveries of the past few years underline just how much evolutionary history remains unknown, with other extinct lineages no doubt still to be revealed.

Many of the new finds challenge how we classify fossils in relation to Homo sapiens today. I continue to call the Neanderthals a different species from us, based on their distinctive skeletons and skulls; others feel that the recent evidence of interbreeding and increasing evidence of sophisticated behaviour mean that we should merge them, and the Denisovans, into our species.
I think that the discovery of the Xuchang hominins indicates that there has been considerable population mixing for several hundred thousand years.  As I wrote at the time:
These two Chinese skulls stand at the crossroads of these population movements. While showing clear Neandertal characteristics, they also express modern traits, possibly reflecting mixing with the late, modern human arrivals represented by the recent modern human finds at Daoxian. Yet they also express a clear link to ancient East Asian populations. The implications of these skulls are stark: there has been widespread population mixing and regional continuity in Europe and Asia for at least 400 thousand years. Not only did the Neandertals feel enough cultural kinship to mate and have children with these East Asian people, the early modern humans coming out of Africa did, as well. As Chris Davis of China Daily News put it: “One big happy family.”
Whether this represents such behavior at the peripheries of different species or that of one polytypic species is, as yet, unclear.  It is very clear that our understanding of how these populations interacted is rudimentary, at best. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Earliest Art Made By Humans?

Artnet News has a post on a discovery in Henan Province, China that purports to be the oldest indications of consciously-created art.  From Sarah Gascone:
Abstract patterns carved on bone fragments discovered in China could be the oldest art ever made, dating back to between 105,000 and 125,000 years ago.

The marks on two bones were found at a site in Henan Province thought to be populated by Denisovans, an extinct species or subspecies of ancient humans, according to a new study in the Cambridge University Press journal Antiquity. The markings on the weathered rib bones contain traces of ochre on one specimen, the earliest evidence of pigment’s use for decorative purposes.

The newly discovered artworks pre-date even the 73,000-year-old markings—thought by some to be abstract drawings—found last year on a rock excavated from a South African cave, and previously thought to be the earliest-known example of human artistic activity.
Here is an image of the markings:

Photo Credit: Francesco d’Errico and Luc Doyon.

There seems to be a persistent thought that people of this age simply could not make art of this kind. I think it more stems from the fact that this kind of representation rarely survives in the fossil record. We know that as far back as 300k, there was division of labor and that there was quite a bit of population mixing this far back.  There is also a record of Neandertal cave paintings at 65k.  It is nice to find this kind of artistic expression but it ought not to surprise us. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

DNA Proteins Revealing Information About Human Evolution

Since the advent of population genetics and modern techniques to examine DNA, research has focused on, first, Mitochondrial DNA and then nuclear DNA.  Now we have another weapon in our arsenal.  Matthew Warren of Nature News relates new research done on palaeoproteomics.  This is the study of proteins found in fossilized human ancestors.  How is this possible, you ask?
Some time in the past 160,000 years or so, the remains of an ancient human ended up in a cave high on the Tibetan Plateau in China. Perhaps the individual died there, or parts were taken there by its kin or an animal scavenger. In just a few years, the flesh disappeared and the bones started to deteriorate. Then millennia dripped by. Glaciers retreated and then returned and retreated again, and all that was left behind was a bit of jawbone with some teeth. The bone gradually became coated in a mineral crust, and the DNA from this ancient ancestor was lost to time and weather. But some signal from the past persisted.

Deep in the hominin’s teeth, proteins lingered, degraded but still identifiable. When scientists analysed them earlier this year, they detected collagen, a structural support protein found in bone and other tissues. And in its chemical signature was a single amino-acid variant that isn’t present in the collagen of modern humans or Neanderthals — instead, it flagged the jawbone as belonging to a member of the mysterious hominin group called Denisovans. The discovery of a Denisovan in China was a major landmark. It was the first individual found outside Denisova Cave in Siberia, where all other remains of its kind had previously been identified. And the site’s location on the Tibetan Plateau — more than 3,000 metres above sea level — suggested that Denisovans had been able to live in very cold, low-oxygen environments.
As the author notes, this kind of research has opened many other doors that, up until now, have been shut to researchers. The realization that proteins have much longer staying power than DNA could radically reshape our understanding of human evolution:
Previously, scientists had recovered proteins from 1.8-million-year-old animal teeth and a 3.8-million-year-old eggshell. Now, they hope that palaeoproteomics could be used to provide insights about other ancient hominin fossils that have lost all traces of DNA — from Homo erectus, which roamed parts of the world from about 1.9 million to 140,000 years ago, to Homo floresiensis, the diminutive ‘hobbit’ species that lived in Indonesia as recently as 60,000 years ago. By looking at variations in these proteins, scientists hope to answer long-standing questions about the evolution of ancient human groups, such as which lineages were direct ancestors of Homo sapiens.
Whether that level of resolution will ever be possible remains to be seen, especially given that the modus operandi of modern palaeontology is focused on clade relationships. It will be interesting to see.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Patterns in the Fossil Record

Science Daily has a post on research about patterns in the fossil record that comes out of the Santa Fe Institute.  They write:
Throughout life's history on earth, biological diversity has gone through ebbs and flows -- periods of rapid evolution and of dramatic extinctions. We know this, at least in part, through the fossil record of marine invertebrates left behind since the Cambrian period. Remarkably, extreme events of diversification and extinction happen more frequently than a typical, Gaussian, distribution would predict. Instead of the typical bell-shaped curve, the fossil record shows a fat-tailed distribution, with extreme, outlier, events occurring with higher-than-expected probability.

While scientists have long known about this unusual pattern in the fossil record, they have struggled to explain it. 
Now, at last, there is something of an answer.
“Within a lineage of closely related organisms, there should be a conserved evolutionary dynamic. Between different lineages, that dynamic can change,” says [Andy] Rominger. “That is, within clades, related organisms tend to find an effective adaptive strategy and never stray too far. But between these clade-specific fitness peaks are valleys of metaphorically uninhabited space. It turns out, just invoking that simple idea, with some very simple mathematics, described the patterns in the fossil record very well.”
Sometimes, it just pays to rethink something from a different angle. This may open up doors to understanding other patterns in the fossil record.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Neandertals Occupying Open-Air Site in Israel

There is evidence of Neandertal occupation at an open-air site in northern Israel called Ein Qashish.  From the researchers:
Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.
The vast majority of Neandertal sites in France and the Levant are cave sites so this represents a sharp contrast in societal behavioral patterns.  The site appears to have been repeatedly occupied by Neandertals from around 70 to possibly 54 thousand years ago, representing potentially an 18 thousand year span, although the span is probably 70-60 kya.  Although the hominin remains at the site are fragmentary,  a designation of Neandertal was made based on the morphology of a third molar and a complete femur. 

This is more evidence that Neandertal society and life-styles were much more complex and advanced than most researchers have allowed.

Here is a link to the open-access PLoS ONE paper, Persistent Neanderthal occupation of the open-air site of ‘Ein Qashish, Israel.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Ancient History of Neanderthals in Europe

The Max Planck Society has a post in PhysOrg, a highly-regarded science site, on the history of Neandertals (they have used the old spelling). 
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have retrieved nuclear genome sequences from the femur of a male Neanderthal discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, and from the maxillary bone of a Neanderthal girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium. Both Neanderthals lived around 120,000 years ago, and therefore predate most of the Neanderthals whose genomes have been sequenced to date.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the research was how much evolution within Neandertals was revealed:
Intriguingly, unlike the nuclear genome, the mitochondrial genome of the Neanderthal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany is quite different from that of later Neanderthals—a previous report showed that more than 70 mutations distinguish it from the mitochondrial genomes of other Neanderthals. The researchers suggest that early European Neanderthals may have inherited DNA from a yet undescribed population.
As with what is going on in human fossil research in China, it seems as though there is a tangled web of relationships between human populations extending through both time and space.  Whatever complexity we envision for these groups, it is probably far more so.  As I wrote about the Chinese material:
The implications of these skulls are stark: there has been widespread population mixing and regional continuity in Europe and Asia for at least 400 thousand years. Not only did the Neandertals feel enough cultural kinship to mate and have children with these East Asian people, the early modern humans coming out of Africa did, as well.  As Chris Davis of China Daily News put it: “One big happy family.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that our simplistic notions of population replacement and regional continuity are probably wrong. Is evolution occurring in these human groups? It absolutely is. Just how these puzzle pieces relate to each other is the question.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Paul Braterman: Why Historical Sciences Are More Useful Than "Rule-Seeking" Sciences

Paul Braterman has a post that comes in response to what can only be called a Usenet forum on young earth creationism.  His post outlines the value of historical sciences.  Ken Ham has been highly critical of historical sciences with his patented “Were you there?” shtick. Braterman counters this nicely.  He writes:
What about reproducibility, prediction-making, and testing against observation, traditional hallmarks of good science?

All we need to be able to reproduce is our observations, not necessarily the event that caused them. We cannot duplicate the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, but we can duplicate the observations from which we infer that it occurred. We cannot duplicate the formation of the Cretaceous limestones of Europe and North America, but we can repeatedly confirm that they contain similar microfossils, showing them to be of the same age. And when we speak of prediction-making in science, we are using the word “prediction” rather loosely, to include relevant information about the past. Thus when William Halley used Newton’s physics to work out the trajectory of the comet that bears his name, he “predicted” that the comet would have appeared previously around 1531 and 1607, in accord with recorded observation.
While some of the examples he gives could be solidified a bit, they are instructive on why historical sciences are very bit as useful and rigorous as observational science.  He also invites comments.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Ark Encounter Suffers Serious Rain Damage, Insurance Refuses to Pay

The Ark Encounter suffered serious rain damage...let that one sink in for a second...and the insurance company is refusing to pay out to cover it.  From the Christian Post:
The Young Earth creationism museum Ark Encounter in Kentucky filed a lawsuit against an insurance company for refusing to cover $1 million in repairs that were needed following damage caused by heavy rainfall.

Filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Northern Division at Covington, the suit is leveled against the Allied World Assurance Company.

According to the suit, Allied World refused to cover the $1 million cost in road repairs that had to be done in response to about two years of heavy rainfall that damaged the Ark Encounter property.

“Defendants continue to contend that Plaintiffs’ loss is not covered because the physical damage was caused by faulty design or workmanship, even though the Defendants have already conceded that the policy language provides coverage for damage resulting from faulty design or workmanship,” stated the lawsuit in part.
The story, unfortunately, does not include the insurance company's (Allied World) response to the charges, which are stated in the harshest words by Ark Encounter: 
“At all times relevant hereto, Defendants acted with oppression, fraud, and malice toward the Plaintiffs, entitling Plaintiffs to an award of punitive damages.”
While I sympathize with Ark Encounter in trying to recoup the losses from an insurance company, the idea that the Ark Encounter suffered rain damage...the jokes write themselves.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Bill Nye, the Non-Science Guy

Alex Berezow, of the American Council on Science and Health, writes that Bill Nye is a terrible spokesman for science.  He writes:
It was clear that something was amiss a few years ago when, amid Nye's renewed celebrity status, it came to light that he aired an episode of Eyes of Nye that perpetuated anti-GMO propaganda. Nye was subsequently criticized by the scientific and (especially) science writing communities. Not long thereafter, Nye had a change of heart.
Good! Better late than never. But was this "conversion" based on a new understanding of biotechnology or simply a calculated marketing move? Evidence points toward the latter. As late as 2015, Nye was still pushing anti-GMO nonsense. That year, he published a book called Undeniable, which promoted evolution over creationism. The book entirely lacked references (quite bizarre for a science book)...
Yes, it was bizarre. I read the book. It was awful, filled with vague arguments, invective and special pleading. Probably the low point for Nye, however, has to be a complete 180° turn around on sex and gender.  In the original show, he had a segment on people that were XY and people that were XX and he described them accurately as men and women and argued that you couldn't change that.  Now, with Bill Nye 2.0 we get “My Sex Junk” (warning: do not watch if you do not have a strong stomach).  Berezow continues:
Ultimately, it seems that Bill Nye just panders to whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear. He thought (incorrectly) that they wanted to hear why GMOs were bad, so he altered his message when he got pushback. He won't get pushback for exaggerating climate change, so it's likely he'll keep this up for a while.
I don't think Nye actually believes the climate hysteria. Because if he did, Nye would support whatever means necessary to stop it, like nuclear power. After all, he's a mechanical engineer. But lo and behold, Nye is opposed to nuclear power. Big surprise. Audiences don't like nuclear power.
Nye is disdainful and contemptuous of young-earth creationism, yet employs exactly the same shtick that they do: pontificate in areas of which they have knowledge.  Unfortunately, now, people will remember Nye for the new show and not the informative old one, where he seemed to know his limitations. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

William Reville: Science Should Not Antagonize Religion

William Reville, writing for the Irish Times, argues that the strategy that many of the outspoken atheists have of trying to promote science over religion is not working:
Associating science with secularism exposes science to collateral damage when secularism is resisted and Harrison summarises: “The thesis that science causes secularisation simply fails the empirical test and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy.”

Why then do prominent scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris (“Science must destroy religion”), and the late Stephen Hawking (“Science will win because it works”) still campaign to replace religion with science? Firstly, it seems to me that if these scientists knew their history they would realise that they are supporting a failed strategy. Secondly, the specific factors that motivate these scientists, and understandably so, such as fundamentalist terrorism and creationism, are also vigorously opposed by mainstream religion. Yet they campaign against all religion, the mainstream as well as the extreme fringes.
Dawkins has a history of using this strategy, to the point of arguing that bringing kids up in a religious home is tantamount to child abuse. That doesn't wear very well.It is a short read but worth it.  Readers of this blog know that I am a Christian but oppose young-earth creationism because I believe it to be scientifically groundless, theologically suspect and a millstone around some believers' necks who are struggling with the data. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Bat-Winged Dinosaurs in the Jurassic

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” —Dr. Seuss

A new discovery in China (natch) indicates that, during the Jurassic, there were flying dinosaurs that, effectively, used the same sort of propulsion system used by modern bats.  From Science Magazine:
A number of tiny, bat-winged dinosaurs flew the Jurassic skies, according to the strongest evidence yet for such creatures—a well-preserved fossil of a starling-size fluffball that may have looked a little like a flying squirrel. The find, recovered near a farming village in northeastern China, suggests dinosaurs were experimenting with several methods of flight during this period, but many were an evolutionary dead end.

“This fossil seals the deal—there really were bat-winged dinosaurs,” says Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved with the study.

Scientists were already confident that a number of dinosaurs could fly. There are birds, of course, which are technically dinosaurs and appeared during the Jurassic period, at least 150 million years ago. Other dinosaurs sported feathers on their hind- and forelimbs, effectively giving them four birdlike wings.
Evidently, most of these creatures were very small, some the size of a starling.  It seems that the idea of flight was much more common during this period than was originally thought.  Here is an artist's reconstruction.

The more we discover, the stranger it gets.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Large Denisovan Fossil Discovered

Nature News is reporting on a jaw fragment that has been discovered on the Tibetan Plateau that is close to 160,000 years old. From the story:
The research marks the first time an ancient human has been identified solely through the analysis of proteins. With no usable DNA, scientists examined proteins in the specimen’s teeth, raising hopes that more fossils could be identified even when DNA is not preserved...
Until now, everything scientists have learnt about Denisovans has come from a handful of teeth and bone fragments from Denisova Cave in Russia’s Altai Mountains. DNA from these remains revealed that the Denisovans were a sister group to Neanderthals, both descending from a population that split away from modern humans about 550,00–765,000 years ago. And at Denisova Cave, the two groups seem to have met and interbred: a bone fragment described last year belonged an ancient-human hybrid individual who had a Denisovan father and Neanderthal mother.
One of the most important aspects of the study is that it opens the door to answering questions of other fossils through protein analysis:
Previous research identified Neanderthal remains using both proteins and DNA — but the success of the latest study could lead to a greater emphasis on getting ancient proteins out of fossils that haven’t yielded DNA, says Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. The method could prove particularly useful for older samples or those from southeast Asia and other warm climates, where DNA degrades quickest.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Let the Fireworks Begin

Pat Robertson didn't exactly call Ken Ham an idiot, but he came close. And Ken Ham didn't exactly call Pat Robertson un-Christian, but he came close.  Christian News is reporting on a story in which Pat Robertson called young earth creationism ‘nonsense,’ and ‘embarrassing.’  On recent 700 Club airing, Robertson said the following:
Well, the truth is the dinosaurs were extinct maybe … about 50 billion years ago [ed: Robertson misspoke here], and this planet has been [around] much longer than that,” Robertson asserted. “And there was a course that they were trying to hustle around called creation science that was just nonsense, and it was so embarrassing, so we wanted to make sure we told the truth.”

“You know, this universe that we live in is about 14 billion years old and there’s no question about it,” Robertson claimed. “And we have tremendous geological records and all the rest of it. And that 6,000-year stuff just doesn’t compute. But we, as Christians, we need to know the truth.”
Ham was quick to respond:
“It’s not those of us who take God at His word who are ’embarrassing’ — it’s the other way around!” he wrote on Friday. “Those like Pat Robertson who adopt man’s pagan religion, which includes elements like evolutionary geology based on naturalism (atheism), and add that to God’s word are destructive to the church. This compromise undermines the authority of the infallible word.”

Ham said that buying into the world’s Godless teaching is “a major reason why there’s been (and continues to be) an exodus from the church of the younger generations.”
I think that there are quite a few reasons why young people are falling away from the church. I, personally, think that the biggest reason is theodicy, which is an incredibly thorny issue.  It is hard to explain to kids why their prayers often go unanswered.  I am not remotely convinced that it is because people are being educated by “Godless teaching.”

Robertson is correct that the evidence overwhelmingly supports a universe that is almost 14 billion years old.  It is is also quite true that the people who reject this position do so for religious reasons.

Is it nonsense?

One of the characteristics of the home school curriculum that my youngest daughter has is that she uses Bob Jones University science textbooks.  You have to read these things to believe them.  Her most recent subject was glacier formation.  The information about that was pretty straightforward but then it delved into the differences between the standard geological column view and the creationist (referred to in the book as creationary) view.

In the geological column, there is evidence of at least twenty major glaciations dating back hundreds of millions of years, culminating in the cryogenean period of the Pre-Cambrian.  The creationary view wants to compress all of these into a single glaciation between 700 and 1300 A.D.


While it is quite true that there was a “mini” ice age around 1100 A.D., it is categorically nothing like that recorded in the geological record.  The last big glaciation, the Younger Dryas, is recorded as having happened some 13 thousand years ago and its cause is still unknown.

Reading the young-earth arguments, one gets the impression that the author is struggling to fit the known evidence into a model that is just untenable.  It is like reading The Genesis Flood by Morris and Whitcomb, with all of the “must have,” “could have,” and “probably” phrases.The notion that this model must be right because “the Bible says so” permeates the text.  Unless students go to conservative Christian colleges which teach the same thing, they are going to encounter standard geologic and astronomic information in their courses.  Telling people that “the Bible says so” when their eyeballs tell them otherwise is not a good strategy for winning the souls and minds of the millenial generation. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

New Ark Encounter Film Out

Film Threat has a review of a new film out about the Ark Encounter, the Ken Ham-inspired theme park in Petersburg, Kentucky.  The film, by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, is called We Believe in Dinosaurs.  Alan Ng gets right to it:
The film brings in two of its experts for a testimonial. First is geologist Dan Phelps, who (you guessed it) is not a creationist. His big beef is the lies and misstatements of facts presented by Ham and AiG, particularly those in his field of expertise and how this monstrosity of a museum does nothing but tarnish the reputation of the people of Kentucky.

Next, is a former creationist, David MacMillan. As a young Christian, MacMillan was a fervent apologist for creationism. He was a lifetime member of the original Creation Museum and a volunteer “ready to give an answer” about evolution. He wrote blog posts until he did some deep soul and fact searching and came around to finding faults in what he believed. Now, cast aside by the church, who once hailed him as an expert, MacMillan shares his new revelations about Ham and company on sites like the Huffington Post.
Ng does note that the creators of the film do not blast Christianity, per se, and do try to portray Ham in a fair light. That does not change the fact that his site spreads deception and misinformation on a regular basis. I have not see this film yet but plan to as soon as I can.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

On the Heels of the Discovery of Homo luzonensis...

A new study from the journal Cell suggests that there were multiple migrations of individuals into Southeast Asia with the Denisovan genome.  Here is the summary from Cell.
Genome sequences are known for two archaic hominins—Neanderthals and Denisovans—which interbred with anatomically modern humans as they dispersed out of Africa. We identified high-confidence archaic haplotypes in 161 new genomes spanning 14 island groups in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea and found large stretches of DNA that are inconsistent with a single introgressing Denisovan origin. Instead, modern Papuans carry hundreds of gene variants from two deeply divergent Denisovan lineages that separated over 350 thousand years ago. Spatial and temporal structure among these lineages suggest that introgression from one of these Denisovan groups predominantly took place east of the Wallace line and continued until near the end of the Pleistocene. A third Denisovan lineage occurs in modern East Asians. This regional mosaic suggests considerable complexity in archaic contact, with modern humans interbreeding with multiple Denisovan groups that were geographically isolated from each other over deep evolutionary time.
These data, in combination with the new Luzon material further suggest that the population interrelationships in Southeast Asia were complex, with considerable mixing between Denisovans, archaic Homo sapiens, eastward-migrating Neandertals and who knows how many other groups. We know from the material in China that the fossil material of even 100 thousand years back exhibits multiple origins.  As I noted about the Xuchang hominins at the time:
These two Chinese skulls stand at the crossroads of these population movements. While showing clear Neandertal characteristics, they also express modern traits, possibly reflecting mixing with the late, modern human arrivals represented by the recent modern human finds at Daoxian. Yet they also express a clear link to ancient East Asian populations. The implications of these skulls are stark: there has been widespread population mixing and regional continuity in Europe and Asia for at least 400 thousand years. Not only did the Neandertals feel enough cultural kinship to mate and have children with these East Asian people, the early modern humans coming out of Africa did, as well. As Chris Davis of China Daily News put it: “One big happy family.”
The presence of the hominins in Luzon, as well as the new research reported here suggests that this complexity comprised all of East Asia.

Monday, April 15, 2019

New Species of Hominin Found in Phillipines

From a story in UPI:
At the completion of excavations on the island of Luzon, scientists had unearthed several teeth, part of a thigh bone, and a few hand and foot bones. The fossils comprise the "the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Philippines," according to the latest study.

The fossilized bones, dated to between 67,000 and 50,000 years ago, feature a mix of anatomical characteristics, some that recall more primitive hominins and others similar to those of more modern human species.
Callao Cave is toward the northern tip of Luzon. The corresponding article from Nature seems to indicate that the fossil remains from this cave are “all over the map.”  The premolars indicate size and shape affinities to later Homo, while some of the characteristics are australopithecine (!).  This is also true of the hand elements. 

Although we have found human fossil remains in East Asia for some time (1896 on), there are large gaps in our knowledge, especially from the first appearance of Homo erectus to the advent of modern humans.  These fossils, while giving us more  information than we had, muddy the waters a bit.  Once upon a time, Grover Kranz (RIP) tried to convince me that australopithecines could be found in East Asia, but his evidence was based on a badly crushed occipital bone. 

It is clear from the presence of H. floresiensis and the current evidence that primitive traits were being retained in some groups but, as the authors point out, we need quite a bit more fossil material to make any definitive assessments. 

Monday, April 01, 2019

Neandertal Penny Whistle Discovered

Researchers working at the site of Vindija, in Croatia, have discovered what looks, to all appearances, like a penny whistle.  The find is located in layers that also contain Neandertal tools and fossil remains and is mostly complete.   Made of wood, the instrument has faint indentations between the holes that could be decorative, in nature.  Fred Smith, of Northern Illinois University states that this is the most advanced Neandertal object in existence and shows that these hominins were capable of complex, artistic expression.  More here from Nature

Monday, March 25, 2019

Genetic Data Suggests That Early Modern Humans Migrated From South to East Africa

Science Daily is running a story that supports the idea that modern humans migrated from South to East Africa before exiting the continent.  Up until recently, all of the evidence seemed to suggest that South Africa, while having evidence of modern humans at Klasies Rivers Mouth, Border Cave and other sites, did not contribute to the migration out of Africa.  That has changed.
The Huddersfield-Minho team of geneticists, led by Professor Martin Richards at Huddersfield and Dr Pedro Soares in Braga, along with the eminent Cambridge archaeologist Professor Sir Paul Mellars, have studied the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA from Africans in unprecedented detail, and have identified a clear signal of a small-scale migration from South Africa to East Africa that took place at just that time, around 65,000 years ago. The signal is only evident today in the mitochondrial DNA. In the rest of the genome, it seems to have been eroded away to nothing by recombination -- the reshuffling of chromosomal genes between parents every generation, which doesn't affect the mitochondrial DNA -- in the intervening millennia.
Before going further, it is worth noting that purveyors of the mtDNA evidence have been burned before by incorrectly using the programs to input the information. Originally, those results supported a hard-line Out-of-africa model of modern human origins (Stringer and Andrews 1988), a model we now know is incorrect. Onward.The paper is available through Scientific Reports, which is open-access.  What is missing from this hypothesis is good human fossil material from South Africa which is between 160 and 200 ky.  The most current remains we have are around 120k.  More work needs to be done on this.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

More Information From Denisova

Nature News is reporting about some more evidence from Denisova, following up on the bombshell news last year that bones discovered there belonged to a person (who they named “Denny”) who's father was a Denisovan and mother a Neandertal. From the story:
In the years that followed the discovery of Denisovans, scientists used DNA sequencing to attribute a few molar teeth from the cave to the same group4. They have also found other remains that harboured Neanderthal DNA. The analysis of Denny fills in some important details about the two groups. “We knew that Denisovans and Neanderthals had been there. We just didn’t think they interacted this intimately,” says [Svante] Pääbo. “It was so amazing to find direct proof — to find these people in the act, almost, of mixing.”

Denny’s discovery has also convinced Pääbo and other scientists that the remains of similar individuals, with recent ancestry from two groups of hominin, will be found — perhaps also in Denisova Cave. Researchers who analysed Denny’s genome found signs that the chromosome set that was contributed by her father, although clearly Denisovan, harboured some Neanderthal ancestry, which hints at earlier encounters between the groups2. “We should be able to pick up these individuals,” says [Katerina] Douka.
The Denisova cave appears to have been occupied for several hundred thousand years, being originally settled by either Denisovans or Neandertals, no one is sure which. Subsequent to this, it is unclear how much interbreeding actually occurred. 
“It’s still a head scratcher,” adds Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, who works with Douka and Brown. “It’s either an incredible piece of luck, or interbreeding happens so frequently that we might expect to find these types of occurrence in the archaeological record.”
One thing becomes increasingly clear with each new discovery, however: the complete replacement model of modern human origins, as espoused by Stringer and Andrews, is dead.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

More Evidence For Bipedality at 4.5 MYA

Out of Case Western Reserve comes a study of some new fossil material that sheds like on early human bipedal adaptation.  From ScienceDaily:
Scott W. Simpson, PhD, led an analysis of a 4.5 million-year-old fragmentary female skeleton of the human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered in the Gona Project study area in the Afar Regional State of Ethiopia.

The newly analyzed fossils document a greater, but far from perfect, adaptation to bipedalism in the Ar. ramidus ankle and hallux (big toe) than previously recognized. "Our research shows that while Ardipithecus was a lousy biped, she was somewhat better than we thought before," said Simpson.
While the weight of evidence has always a bit more than slightly favored the facultative bipedality of Ardipithecus ramidus, this research provides greater support for this hypothesis.  In my class, I stress the difference between facultative bipedality (practiced by Ardipithecus) and obligate bipedality (practiced by every other hominin).  Additionally, from the article1:
The more complete adoption of bipedality in the australopiths resulted in the loss of functionally critical adaptations to arboreality present in Ardipithecus such as a grasping, opposable hallux, an antero-posteriorly broad pelvis with reorganization of the origin (and most likely function) of the hamstring muscles, and a more derived humero-femoral ratio. The changes in the size and structure of the dentition in the subsequent australopiths (larger molar and premolar crowns, increased enamel thickness, more robust mandibles) indicates a major behavioral and dietary shift for most hominins (perhaps excluding the species indicated by the Burtele foot) that occurred about 4.2 Ma with the earliest appearance of Australopithecus (Leakey et al., 1995, White et al., 2006).
Many of these changes, then, appear to have occurred somewhat rapidly, once the early hominins moved away from the forest and into the fringe.  Once we thought that bipedality originated in the forest/fringe.  The Ardipithecus data have killed this hypothesis. 

1Scott W. Simpson, Naomi E. Levin, Jay Quade, Michael J. Rogers, Sileshi Semaw. Ardipithecus ramidus postcrania from the Gona Project area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution, 2019; 129: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.12.005

Monday, March 04, 2019

Neandertals Had Same Gait as Modern Humans

A virtual reconstruction of the skeleton of the La Chapelle Neandertal has revealed that Neandertals had exactly the same bipedal pattern that modern humans had.  From the ScienceDaily article:
Since the 1950s, scientists have known that the image of the Neanderthal as a hunched over caveman is not an accurate one. Their similarities to ourselves -- both in evolutionary and behavioral terms -- have also long been known, but in recent years the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. "Focusing on the differences is back in fashion," says Martin Haeusler, UZH specialist in evolutionary medicine. For instance, recent studies have used a few isolated vertebrae to conclude that Neanderthals did not yet possess a well-developed double S-shaped spine.

However, a virtual reconstruction of the skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints has now delivered evidence to the contrary. This computer-generated anatomical model was created by the research group led by Martin Haeusler from the University of Zurich and included Erik Trinkaus from Washington University in St. Louis. The researchers were able to show that both the individual in question as well as Neanderthals in general had a curved lumbar region and neck -- just like the humans of today.
This is the final nail in the coffin of the absolutely atrocious report that came out in 1913, written by Marcelin Boule1, in which he described the skeleton of the La Chapelle Neandertal as stooped over and primitive, doing his best to derail any possibility that Neandertals were related to modern humans.  Boule's work is an object lesson in how an, otherwise, respected scientist can let personal opinions completely cloud their scientific judgement. 

1Boule M (1911-13) L’homme fossile de La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Ann Paléontol 6:111–172, 7:21–56, 85–192, 8:1–70

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Charles Darwin and the “Christian Right”

Interesting.  Nobody ever talks about the “anti-Christian left.” They are always referred to as “progressives” as though their ideas are brand new when, in fact, some of them date to the turn of the last century.  No matter.

Paul Rosenberg, of Salon, has a post that appears in Raw Story titled The brilliant science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified.  The story first ran in May of 2015 but I did not see it at the time.  To be fair, Rosenberg opens the piece with the following paragraph:
The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.
The problem I have here, of course, is that he doesn't define “Christian Right.” Reading between the lines, one might reasonably conclude he means Young Earth Creationists but, all the same, there should have been something here. Onward.  Having exonerated Darwin, however, he then makes an unwarranted leap beyond that initial paragraph. 
Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary.
The bold is mine. He makes a point of separated YEC from OEC in the first paragraph and then conflates them in the second. Further, it is not clear in any sense why the “necessity” of life would obviate the need or existence of God.

The work of Jeremy England is key to this idea.  He has developed a mathematical formula to describe the fact that carbon atoms found in living organisms are better at harnessing external energy than inanimate groups.  As Rosenberg puts it, this puts the nail in the coffin of the idea that the second law of thermodynamics precludes evolution.  In fact, to use his phrase “thermodynamics drives evolution.”

The rebuttal to the claim that the second law of thermodynamics precludes evolution is pretty low-hanging fruit: the earth is obviously not a closed system.  It gets its energy from the sun.  Therefore, the idea that God is not active is not even addressed by the research.  Consequently, despite what Rosenberg writes, God may, indeed, be playing quite a large role.  This is yet another instance in which the existence of God cannot be tested one way or the other but the evidence makes the YEC position harder to maintain. 

Darwin Day Celebration in Knoxville

On Saturday, February 16, there will be a Darwin Day celebration at the Frank H. McClung Museum on the University of Tennessee Campus.  Here is the information.  The event will be from 1:00 to 4:00 and is open to the public.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

New Florida Bill Would Advocate Teaching of Controversial Subjects

Emily Mahoney of the Tampa Bay Times writes that a new bill by senator Dennis Baxley (R, of course) has been promoted to allow teachers to teach alternatives to evolution and climate change.
A bill that would allow school districts to teach Florida students alternatives to concepts deemed “controversial theories” — such as human-caused climate change and evolution — has been filed in the state Legislature.

The language of the bill sounds fairly unremarkable, requiring only that schools “shall” teach these “theories” in a “factual, objective, and balanced manner.” But the group that wrote the bill, the Florida Citizens Alliance, says the bill is needed because curriculum currently taught in Florida schools equates to “political and religious indoctrination,” according to their managing director, Keith Flaugh.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said that schools need to teach “different worldviews” on issues like evolution and climate change. He asserts that textbooks now skew toward “uniformity” of thought.

“Nothing is ever settled if it’s science, because people are always questioning science,” Baxley said. “If you look at the history of human learning, for a long time the official worldview was that the world was flat. Anything you now accept as fact comes from a perspective and you learn from examining different schools of thought.”
First, a concession: I sympathize with the sponsors of the bill about the political and religious indoctrination. The Department of Education is lock-step with the DNC platform and, as such is hostile to “alternative” political views and religious expression. They tend to support every left, liberal cause that comes down the pike to the point where some teachers that I know won't be members of the national organization because they know that is where their membership money is being funneled.  This is one of very many reasons that we don't place our kids in public school. 

Secondly, though, this seems a whole lot like much ado about nothing.  While senator Baxley might want alternatives to established scientific theories taught, the text of the bill provides no language for that.  If anything, it gives teachers room to tee anti-evolutionary ideas up and knock them into the next fairway.  Climate change is a bit more sketchy.  It is a science in its infancy and, even fifteen years ago, researchers were warning of a coming big freeze (think The Day After Tomorrow, which came out in 2004).  Some still are.  There is a growing body of evidence that we are affecting the climate in some way, but it is still too early to tell how.  There is no value in cutting off debate in this arena.  The same cannot remotely be said about evolution, which now has over 150 years of supporting research behind it and is, in the minds of those who study it, almost beyond the realm of doubt. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Mutation Rate in Humans Has Slowed Down

I am not quite sure what this means, yet. Researchers at the Aarhus University, Denmark, and the Copenhagen Zoo have discovered that, when compared to our nearest taxonomic relatives, our mutation rates have slowed down. Science Daily has the scoop:
"Over the past six years, several large studies have done this for humans, so we have extensive knowledge about the number of new mutations that occur in humans every year. Until now, however, there have not been any good estimates of mutation rates in our closest primate relatives," says Søren Besenbacher from Aarhus University.

The study has looked at ten families with father, mother and offspring: seven chimpanzee-families, two gorilla families and one orangutan family. In all the families, researchers found more mutations than would be expected on the basis of the number of mutations that would typically arise in human families with parents of similar age. This means that the annual mutation rate is now about one-third lower in humans than in apes.
Why is this important for the study of human origins?
The higher rates in apes have an impact on the length of time estimated to have passed since the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived. This is because a higher mutation rate means that the number of genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees will accumulate over a shorter period.

If the new mutation rates for apes are applied, the researchers estimate that the species formation (speciation) that separated humans from chimpanzees took place around 6.6 million years ago. If the mutation rate for humans is applied, speciation should have been around 10 million years ago.
The six-to-eight million year point for the LCA never made a whole lot of sense to me. If the fossil material from Orrorin, at 6 mya really does reflect bipedality, then the split has to have been much earlier.  The material from Ardipithecus kadabba is very sketchy with regard to bipedalism (one toe bone found ten miles away), but the fragmentary post-cranial bones can be confidently identified as being hominin, in nature.  Furthermore, the fossil material is dated to between 5.6 and 5.8 mya.  That would leave a very short period of time.  It cannot be pre-split because the fossil material exhibits derivations in the hominin direction, rather than the modern ape direction. 

If this study holds up, it will change how we view the search for the LCA. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My Favorite Fossil Post Up on BioLogos

Unbeknownst to me, my “My Favorite Fossil” post on BioLogos is up.  You can view it here.  Comments welcome in both places. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

'Swiss Army knife of prehistoric tools' Found in China

Science Daily is on a roll.  This came out a bit back during the late semester crunch and I didn't get a chance to post about it.  Stone tools have been found in south China that appear to be made using the Levallois technology, which originated during the Middle Stone Age, in Africa.  They write:
A study by an international team of researchers, including from the University of Washington, determines that carved stone tools, also known as Levallois cores, were used in Asia 80,000 to 170,000 years ago. Developed in Africa and Western Europe as far back as 300,000 years ago, the cores are a sign of more-advanced toolmaking -- the "multi-tool" of the prehistoric world -- but, until now, were not believed to have emerged in East Asia until 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
And now the, somewhat, startling conclusion:
With the find -- and absent human fossils linking the tools to migrating populations -- researchers believe people in Asia developed the technology independently, evidence of similar sets of skills evolving throughout different parts of the ancient world.
This particular conclusion seems somewhat ignorant of the fossil record, which clearly has hominins in the area that have distinct Neandertal traits.  The authors, in fact, even mention the possibility that the appearance of the tools might be tied to these earlier migrations, then seem to dismiss this for reasons that are, in my mind, not clear. 

The site, itself, Guanyindong Cave in Guizhou Province, is not new, having been excavated in the 1960s and 1970s.What is new is the date of 80-170 kya.  Levallois tools were thought to have arrived in the area around 30-40 kya and are seen as the artifacts of a late migration.  This re-dating of the sediments of Guanyindong Cave means that these kinds of tools were in the area some 100 ky earlier than was originally thought.  I do, however, think their evidence for independent origin is sparse. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

New Data on Neandertal Anatomy

Anatomists have reconstructed the rib cage of the Kebara 2 Neandertal to get a better understanding of the trunk of our nearest relatives.  Science Daily has the story:
An international team of scientists has completed the first 3D virtual reconstruction of the ribcage of the most complete Neanderthal skeleton unearthed to date, potentially shedding new light on how this ancient human moved and breathed.

The team, which included researchers from universities in Spain, Israel, and the United States, including the University of Washington, focused on the thorax -- the area of the body containing the rib cage and upper spine, which forms a cavity to house the heart and lungs.
What did they find?
The reconstruction of the thorax, coupled with the team's earlier finding, shows ribs that connect to the spine in an inward direction, forcing the chest cavity outward and allowing the spine to tilt slightly back, with little of the lumbar curve that is part of the modern human skeletal structure. "The differences between a Neanderthal and modern human thorax are striking," said Markus Bastir, senior research scientist at the Laboratory of Virtual Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Spain.

"The Neanderthal spine is located more inside the thorax, which provides more stability," said Gomez-Olivencia. "Also, the thorax is wider in its lower part." This shape of the rib cage suggests a larger diaphragm and thus, greater lung capacity.
In my anthropology class, I teach about the effects of Bergmann's and Allen's rules of body morphology. In the case of Neandertals, the adaptations to the cold were shortened distal limb segments, a large, projecting mid-face and a tendency toward barrel-chestedness. The new study reinforces these ideas.

Interestingly, it should be noted that the Kebara Neandertal is found in Israel, not known for its cold climate.  It is hypothesized that the Neandertal population came down from Eastern Europe to escape the cold (the tundra line was at Vienna).  What is peculiar about the Kebara 2 Neandertal is that it consists only of a body.  Whether he died and his head fell in a stream or some animal carried it off, there is no cranium.  Oddly, what we do have is one of the bones that is preserved least in the fossil record: a hyoid.  It is this that has given us the most information about the Neandertal vocal tract.

Fun stuff.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Meanwhile, in Indiana

From the NCSE comes a story of new legislation being pushed in Indiana that would require public schools to teach young earth creationism.  Glenn Branch writes:
Indiana's Senate Bill 373 would, if enacted, provide that "[t]he governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation." The bill was introduced on January 10, 2019, and referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.

The sponsor of the bill, Dennis Kruse (R-District 14), has a long history of sponsoring antievolution legislation. In 1999, while serving in the Indiana House of Representatives, Kruse pledged to introduce a law to remove evolution from the state's science standards, according to the South Bend Tribune (August 27, 1999). Instead, however, he introduced bills that would permit local school districts to require the teaching of creation science — House Bill 1356 in 2000 and House Bill 1323 in 2001. Both bills died in committee.
This isn't the first time I have posted about this guy.  A search of this blog will show numerous entries.  He simply doesn't give up.  This one will probably die in committee, as well (no one wants to pursue a losing court case) but it should remind us that we are still playing whack-a-mole on a national level.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Brain of Little Foot

Science Daily had a story just a bit back about research done on the new information surrounding the Little Foot australopithecine remains from South Africa.  They write:
MicroCT scans of the Australopithecus fossil known as Little Foot shows that the brain of this ancient human relative was small and shows features that are similar to our own brain and others that are closer to our ancestor shared with living chimpanzees.

While the brain features structures similar to modern humans -- such as an asymmetrical structure and pattern of middle meningeal vessels -- some of its critical areas such as an expanded visual cortex and reduced parietal association cortex points to a condition that is distinct from us.
One of the things that comes out in the paper is how much reorganization of the cranium we share with the higher primates, suggesting that quite a bit of brain evolution occurred prior to the Last common ancestor. The paper is currently free (at least I had no trouble accessing it) at If not, the abstract is.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Creationism Linked to Conspiracy Theories?

In a remarkably ham-fisted article, Medical Xpress is peddling the notion that belief in creationism and conspiracy theories are linked.  They quote the authors of a study on the phenomenon thus:
“We find a previously unnoticed common thread between believing in creationism and believing in conspiracy theories,” says Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg. “Although very different at first glance, both these belief systems are associated with a single and powerful cognitive bias named teleological thinking, which entails the perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities.”
This is a stretch. By their own admission, this is only modestly significant. The R2 for this model is 0.26, which means that only 26% of the model is explained by the variation.  Modest, indeed.  They continue:
“By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events,” Dieguez says. “We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called 'post-truth era.'”
This is a completely reductive view of the world. It automatically assumes that there is no teleology to the world, that everything is chance and that there is no God. This is no better than when the Jesus Seminar started out with the assumption that none of Jesus' miracles could have been real.

My guess is that the a large percentage of the people that believe in conspiracy theories also believe in a whole host of other odd things, such as a flat earth.  I know quite a few young earth creationists and not a one of them subscribes to any conspiracy theories.  What drives their understanding of creation is a particular interpretation of the Bible.  Further, many of them are analytical thinkers.

More junk science.