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.