Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Neanderthals Were Not Primitive

The wooden pointed tool immediately following its recovery.
Found the oldest Neanderthal wooden tools in the Iberian Peninsula | CENIEH - Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana

Coincidentally, the subject of Neanderthals being in some way more primitive that the modern humans with which they are now know to have interbred, came up in a Facebook group today. Apparently, there are some Africans who make the racist claim that somehow non-Africans interbreeding with Neanderthals in Eurasia resulted in non-Africans incorporating 'backward' features, leaving Africans more highly evolved.

This is, of course, nonsense and is exactly the reverse of the thinking that Europeans used to try to justify the slave trade and the European nations annexing most of Africa, the New World, East Asia and Oceania on the grounds that these places were inhabited by inferior, under-developed and less highly evolved people. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, or deliberate misrepresentation of the Theory of Evolution.

The fact is that everything alive today has been evolving for the same length of time and so is as well or badly adapted to its current environment as anything else, because the degree of adaptation is entirely in the context of the population's environment. Given the rate at which early European explorers died of diseases in Africa and South and Central America, a much better case can be made that they were much less well adapted to that local environment than the local population.

In the early days of European exploration of West Africa, there was a popular saying, "Beware, beware the Bight of Benin! Few come out though many go in". The Bight of Benin is the bay where the west coast of Africa first turns south after going East under the 'bulge' at the top. So many of the sailors who landed in or south of the Bight of Benin died of tropical diseases that it held back European exploration for some considerable time and only the lucrative slave trade tempted them further south.

Now back to the Neanderthals after that brief excursion into Africa.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

No Transitional Neanderthal Forms!

Neanderthal skeleton and artist's reconstruction.
Source: Wikipedia
Credit: Photaro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Appealing to their ignorance and desire for confirmation of their bias, creationists fraud often dupe their followers with assertions that there are no transitional fossils showing evidence of change from one species to another. This is nonsensical, of course, because all archaic fossils are transitional between their ancestors and their descendants.

Having said that, however, there is a very good reason why there are no transitional forms between some earlier species and later ones - the later ones did not evolve from the earlier one as a superficial reading of the geological column might suggest. I explained this some years ago using the apparent 'transition' from red squirrels to greys in Britain, but there is an even better European example from our own ancestry.

Neanderthals were first discovered in 1829 in Belgium but it was not until 1864 that, following other discoveries, they were identified as an archaic species of humans and a different species to Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis. This was just a few years after Darwin's Origin of Species and before any of the many African hominin fossils had been found.

The temptation then was to assume these archaic hominins were ancestral to modern humans. But there was one major problem - there were not and have never been any fossils showing intermediate stages between Neanderthals and humans. Creationists, of course, looking for easy answers and clutching at any reason to dismiss evolution as an explanation, would have gladly waved the absence of these intermediate as 'proof' that there was no evolution - that modern humans were created fully formed a mere few thousand years ago. They conveniently forgot to explain why an apparent earlier attempt to create humans appeared to have failed or how Neanderthals fitted in with their Bible stories and had been around for tens of thousands of years before Earth itself was created, but these considerations rarely trouble creationists, who can be found arguing that a 20 million years unchanged coelacath proves Earth is 6000 years old, without the least sense of absurdity.

So what have we got, taking just the European 'geological column' in isolation and in the absence of any other fossil evidence from Africa or Asia? What we have is Neanderthals showing only slight change over time for maybe 250,000 years, then they disappear completely to be replaced almost instantaneously by modern humans about 50,000 years ago. Well, obviously, Neanderthals, after a long period if equilibrium, suddenly and far more quickly than can be explained by gradual evolution over time, changed into modern humans, didn't they? Obviously there was something going on in Europe 50,000 years ago. There was some mechanism for changing one species into another almost overnight, or there was some way in which modern humans had popped up and Neanderthals had died out.

That was the simple, superficial and wrong interpretation of what little evidence there was.

But now we have more and more detailed information. Now we know there was a migration of an even earlier hominin out of Africa into Eurasia and that this species, in Eurasia evolved into at least two and probably three other species, one of which was Neanderthal. We now know that descendants of this archaic hominin that remained in Africa, now the species we call H. sapiens or modern humans, followed their archaic ancestors out of Africa into Eurasia and there they met, interbreed to a limited extent with, and one way or another replaced the Neanderthals over a period of just a few thousand years - the blink of a geological eye and on a scale that would barely register in the geological column.

What looked like punctuated equilibrium by some mysterious and unexplained mechanism, or special creation by magic by an even more inexplicable mechanism, was nothing more than the replacement of one species by another across its range and a species that had evolved slowly over time somewhere else.

There are no transitional forms between Neanderthals and modern humans because there was no transition. Neanderthals are our first or second cousins, not our parents or grandparents.

I wouldn't expect a creationist dupe to understand the distinction, of course, because it's not what they want to understand.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Christian Cult of Child Abuse

The Twelve Tribe cult's base at Klosterzimmern near Deiningen, Bavaria
European court upholds German move to take kids from sect

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that members of a Christian sect do not have the right to abuse children and that the German child-protection agency that intervened and took the abused children into care was right to do so.

The case had been brought by four families, members of the fundamentalist Twelve Tribes sect, who had had their children taken away. A fundamental tenet of faith for the cult is that children need to be beaten regularly to drive the Devil out of them. According to one former member, daily beatings of the cult's children are normal.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Good News From the Catholics

Europe's Young Adults and Religion | St Mary's University Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.

A recent poll conducted jointly by St Mary's University Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, UK and the Institute Catholique de Paris, France makes miserable reading for it's target readership - 2018 Synod of Bishops, due to be held in Rome in October 2018. In brief, it shows the massive haemorrhage of church members is continuing apace especially amongst the young. The survey was concerned with the religious views and practices of the key sixteen to twenty-nine year-old.

The key findings are:

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Triple Alliance

Brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus)
Credit: Tauchgurke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the fascinating aspects of evolutionary ecology is how two or more species can become inextricably bound together in an evolutionary alliance of mutual dependency.

One such alliance, actually an alliance between three completely unrelated species, can be found in the Amazon jungle, centred on one of the strangest and more specialised mammals, the three-toed sloth. The three-toed sloth (in fact there are four closely related species, all in the South and Central American jungles) is one of the most slowly moving mammals on Earth, spending almost all its time hanging beneath tree branches high in the canopy, eating leaves or sleeping. However, they descend from the trees to the forest floor once a week to defecate, which they do in a large pile.

Its slow speed, although conserving energy, makes it especially vulnerable to depredation by harpy eagles, jaguars and other predators, so its descent to the forest floor to defecate is all the more puzzling, placing it at additional risk when it could simply defecate in the trees where its faeces could simply drop to the forest floor.

But all this begins to come together and make sense as an alliance with other species.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Chimpanzee Gestures Confound Creationists

Bonobo and chimpanzee gestures overlap extensively in meaning

The thing about evolutionary biology is that researchers can't help providing evidence for it. It's not intentional; it's not as though there is any doubt, it's just that the reality is that species evolved from common ancestors. So, inevitably, reality shows the evidence.

Take, for example, this piece of research published yesterday on the subject of bonobo (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzee (P. troglodytes) and their use of non-verbal communications or gestures which both use extensively to communicate with others of their species.

Monday, 19 February 2018

All-female Fish Makes Creationism Look Stupid

Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa)
Photo credit: Manfred Schartl
Universität Würzburg: No sex for all-female fish species

No wonder American creationists all seem to be uncritical fawns of Donald Trump, hoping he'll build a wall to shut Mexico out. Right on the Mexican border with Texas, that centre of Christian fundamentalism and creationism, is a little fish that could cause the whole thing to come down - creationism that is, not the wall which hasn't even been started yet, the truculent Mexicans not agreeing to pay for a Trump foible.

The little fish, the Amazon molly, Poecilia formosa, like the newly emerged new species of crayfish I wrote about earlier, is all-female and reproduces asexually. The daughters are all clones of their mother.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

An Intermediate Spider-Scorpion!

Chimerarachne yingi, preserved in amber in exquisite detail.

Photo: Bo Wang
Part spider, part scorpion creature captured in amber | Science | AAAS

Continuing with what has turned out to be another dreadful week for creationism, we now have two papers about a 100 million year-old species, beautifully preserved in exquisite detail in amber, which has characteristics of both spiders and scorpions.

Spiders, a group of arachnids are characterised by modified body appendages called spinnerets which extrude silk, and, in males, a pair of pedipalps which are used to insert sperm into females. All but the most primitive spiders also have smooth, non-segmented abdomens. Scorpions, on the other hand have segmented abdomens and lack spinneretes and pedipalps. They also have the characteristic tail.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Yet Another Newly Evolved Species

Marbled crayfish, Procambarus virginalis
By Chucholl C. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
An aquarium accident may have given this crayfish the DNA to take over the world | Science | AAAS

Like most weeks, it's been a pretty dreadful one for creationists so far as scientific research is concerned. Another week and still not one iota of support for creationism or its lab-coated mock-science version, intelligent (sic) design. Instead we have the usual plethora of papers which quite incidentally, and with no effort or intent on the part of the authors, refutes creationism and confirms evolution.

I've already written about two - bacteria evolving to digest plastic and the extraordinary evolutionary history of the house dust mite. Now we have this observed evolution of a new species of crayfish which fills all the criteria for what creationists call 'macro-evolution', which they claim is impossible. Later, I'll be writing about a beautiful example of a fossil of an intermediate ancestor of both spiders and scorpions - again, something creationists tell their dupes don't exist. That one 'impossible' thing and one 'nonexistent' thing in the same week!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Mites Evolving All Around Us

A scanning electron microscope image of an American house dust mite, Dermatophagoides farinae.
Image credit: Ellen Foot Perkowski
House dust mites evolved a new way to protect their genome | University of Michigan News

Unless you have a microscope or exceptionally good eyesight you are never likely to see one but you are living now with millions of them in your carpets, furniture and beds. They are of course the ubiquitous house dust mites, and they have an interesting and unusual evolutionary history.

This history in turn is probably responsible for a unique solution to a common problem faced by all organisms - how to cope with those pieces of non-coding DNA called transposons, part of the junk DNA, that can randomly relocate themselves within a genome, causing mutations and diseases. Transposons behave a little like independent strands of DNA with evolutionary pressures to survive despite evolutionary pressure on their 'hosts' to control them.

Bacteria Evolved to Eat Plastic

Feeding on plastic | Science

One of the more subtle aspects of evolution, and one that creationists are either unable or unwilling to understand, is the difference between genetic information and the meaning of that information. A paper published in March 2016 by a Japanese team, illustrates that principle very well. It is about the discovery of a strain of bacteria that has evolved the ability to digest the man-made plastic, poly(ethylene teraphthalate) (PET).

Currently, the world-wide production of PET is over 50 million tons and none of it was biodegradable - until now!

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Evolutionary Transition To Modern Humans

Brain shape evolution in Homo sapiens: brain shape of one of the earliest known members of our species, the 300,000 year-old cranium Jebel Irhoud 1 (left). Brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved gradually. Brain morphology has reached the globularity typical for present day humans suprisingly recently (right).

Copyright © 2018 MPI EVA/ S. Neubauer, Ph. Gunz
License: CC-BY-SA 4.0
Modern human brain organization emerged only recently | Max Planck Society

The fossil record shows a distinct gradual transition to the modern human brain and cranial capacity from more ape-like origins, even within the species we recognise as Homo sapiens.

This is the finding of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, according to an open access paper published a few days ago in Science Advances. The finding also illustrates nicely how science incorporates new information, even information that at first glance doesn't seem to fit what we thought we knew, and how that new information can lead to a revised understanding and an improved explanation.

Monday, 29 January 2018

New Poll - Creationism Declining in USA

In U.S., Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low

Slightly encouraging news a couple of days ago from a Gallop poll in the USA. I say slightly encouraging because the change is small on a small data set (just 1011 adults aged 18 or over) and the same poll is also disappointing in other ways.

The poll shows that belief in creationism as the best explanation for humans fell to 38%, the lowest since polling began in 1981 and below 40% for the first time.

However, a two percentage point fall is within the margin of statistical error on that size data set. None-the-less, it is encouraging - for the USA.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Modern Humans May Have Left Africa 200,000 Years Ago

This ancient jawbone suggests our species left Africa 40,000 years earlier than expected | Science | AAAS

The story of when and where modern humans first left Africa is continuing to develop and looks like becoming more complicated than first thought when the evidence seemed to point to a single migration by a small group around 50,000 years ago.

A large international team led by Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University have concluded that the jaw bone found in a Misliya Cave on the western slope of Mount Carmel in Israel is that of a Homo sapiens, but that it is between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. This is some 40,000 years earlier than modern humans were believed to have left Africa to begin their world-wide dispersal. The previous earliest H. sapiens remains were those found nearby in the Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and Qafzeh Cave in Israel, dated to between 80,000 to 120,000 years old.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

How Creationists Lie To Us - Creation Ministries

When you show the world you need to lie for your faith
You show the world you know your faith is a lie
This meme recently popped up in a Facebook group I help administer.

It is of course a lie.

The lie originated in one of the usual creationist disinformation sites, Creation.com, the online front for Creation Ministries, the Australia-based creationist organisation from which Ken Ham split when he realised America was a more lucrative place for scamming fundamentalist Christians, in an article penned by Jonathan O'Brien, a Creation Ministries staffer.

O'Brien is notorious for, amongst other things, his claim that the primitive carving of a rhinoceros in front of some leaves at Angkor in Cambodia is really a carving of a stegosaurus, a creature with which it has very little real resemblance, and the claim that because a volcanic cone in Mexico grew in a year, this is evidence that mountains did not take millions of years to form, so could all have formed in the last few thousand years (ignoring the fact that most mountain ranges are not volcanic in origin but are due to plate tectonics).

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Pope Attacks Sex Abuse Victims.

Bishop Juan Barros
Pope accuses sex abuse victims of slander

In an astonishing end to his less than triumphal visit to Chile, Pope Francis shocked his hosts by, not to put too fine a point on it, calling those accusing a Catholic Bishop of assisting a cover-up of child abuse, liars.

His visit had been met with demonstrations and much smaller crowds than previous visits because the Catholic Church in Chile is currently embroiled in the now traditional clerical sex abuse of minors scandal. Police had to use tear gas and water cannons to break up one demonstration outside the Pope's open-air address in the centre of Santiago.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Neanderthals Had Sex With Anyone

Upper view of the Montmaurin-LN mandible.
The Montmaurin-La Niche mandible reveals the complexity of the Neanderthals’ origin | CENIEH - Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana

We now know that modern humans interbred with at least two, probably three and possibly more different hominin species when they left Africa. What this new analysis shows is that Neanderthals also interbred with archaic hominins and may not even have formed as single lineage in Eurasia.

Instead, this analysis by a team of scientists from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (National Research Centre for Human Evolution - CENIEH) in Spain, led by José María Bermúdez de Castro, together with the French researcher Amélie Vialet, from the Musée d'histoire naturelle (Natural History Museum) in Paris, suggests that Neanderthals may have diversified, evolved as isolated populations, then interbred with one another so that later Neanderthals were a mosaic of earlier and divergent populations.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Birds of a Feather - New Species Evolve

Large cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris)
Study of Darwin's finches reveals that new species can develop in as little as two generations

Birds of a feather: U of T researchers discover Amazon bird to be rare hybrid species

This week we have a couple of examples of new species arising - that thing that creationists insist can't happen. The evolutionary process that created them was hybridisation which occurs very much faster than the more usual (at least in vertebrates - speciation by hybridisation is common in plants) divergence by a combination of genetic drift and natural selection. And in these cases, the species are birds.

The first is from those devil figures for creationists - Darwin's finches or Galapagos finches. This was originally reported and commented extensively upon last November and revealed an observed incidence of apparent speciation when a vagrant male appeared on the island of Daphne Major. This was much larger and had a larger, more robust beak than any of the other three species present on the island. It also sang with a different song.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Two More Catholic Clerics - Two More Sex Abuse Scandals

Archbishop Anthony Apuron stands in front of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Hagatna, Guam, Nov. 2014.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Grace Garces Bordallo
Guam archbishop faces new sexual assault allegation | CRUX

The US Pacific territory of Guam, which is almost wholly Catholic, has been rocked by a series of allegations that vehemently homophobic Anthony Apuron, Archbishop of Agana, sexually abuses altar boys in the 1970s. He has vigorously denied all the allegations and has not been criminally charged, but now another accuser has come forward.

The latest accuser, a relative of Archbishop Apuron, has claimed in the local media that he was abused by Apuron in 1990. This latest allegation has been reported to the Vatican. According to Archbishop Michael Byrnes, an earlier Vatican tribunal investigation into the earlier allegations has reportedly concluded and reached a verdict late last year but, for reasons unknown, has not yet made its findings public. Archbishop Byrnes has been given administrative responsibility for the diocese while Apuron is on administrative leave.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Changing Our Mind When the Evidence Changes

European brown bear (Ursus arctos)
Photo credit: Ivan PC
The Iberian brown bears do not descend from those fled from the north during the Ice Age / News / SINC - Servicio de Información y Noticias Científicas

To a creationist, with their simplistic black vs white, right vs wrong mentality, the fact that science can make mistakes or that the understanding is provisional - and all scientific understanding is provisional, even the best-supported - tells them that science, unlike their firmly held and unchangeable dogmas, is unreliable and therefore wrong. Little better than a guess, in fact.

To a scientist, and to anyone interested in truth rather than simple certainty, however, discovering that you have been wrong is actually welcome news and news that was well worth doing the research to discover because it means that what you now think you know is closer to the truth than it was before. Science works because scientists can and do change their minds when the evidence changes, unlike fundamentalist religions, where not changing your mind and not even questioning the dogmas is a prerequisite.
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