Category Archives: Evolution, Science

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

280px-Palm_Valley_NT
Palm Valley — Wikipedia

How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?

Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?

Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.

It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.

Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.

The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.

Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed.

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said. read more »

Darwin Day — and exploding some myths about Charles Darwin

12th February is Darwin Day.

There is an International Darwin Day website that is currently making a special pitch at Americans for recognition. For good reason, no doubt, given that today’s newsletter from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science contains the following (with my emphasis):

As a universal figure of such profound importance, his birthday should be a national celebration — a day to honor the advances brought about by reason and science. 

But a resolution to this effect, introduced in the U.S. Congress, has little support outside a handful of Democrats. Frighteningly, Darwin is still considered a controversial figure, especially among conservative Republicans.

For anyone who does not yet know, just about everything we have that Darwin produced is available in digitized format at Darwin Online.

And I happily live in a suburb where the Beagle crew called in back in 1839 and work at a university that eventually took the name of Charles Darwin.

But here’s the highlight of this post, brought to us by Freethought Blog The Ace of Glades:

Darwin was no racist, and Hitler was no ‘Darwinist’

Culture Wars: Do Non-Human Animals Have Cultural Behaviours?

culturallivesAn interesting discussion has appeared in Salon.com. It’s an excerpt from The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Whitehead and Rendell. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

There are now, however, enough solidly demonstrated examples . . . for the study of social learning to be accepted as a valid and growing field within mainstream animal behavior science. . . While behavioral ecologists may question the evidence and suggest alternative explanations, they are generally not appalled by the very notion of chim­panzee or whale culture.

The fiercest critics come mostly from anthro­pology and psychology. Here, it is the very concept of animal culture that is anathema, not the nature of the evidence. It is part of the paradigm in most of the social sciences, insofar as the social sciences have paradigms, that humans are unique in having culture or, at least, in being overwhelmingly cultured. Culture in other species, if it exists, is an epiphenomenon, not ter­ribly important. It is the challenge to this paradigm that is being resisted.

And finally

We have got ourselves an idea of what we mean by “culture.” We have seen how controversial the notion that nonhumans might have culture is in some quarters. We have also seen how quickly things are changing in the way we understand these issues. read more »

The Argument from Design Meets a Third Contender, and Bayes

William Paley
William Paley

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.

But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there.

Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not admissible in that second case as in the first?

For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive — what we could not discover in the stone — that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g., that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed in any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. (William Paley, Natural Theology, p. 1)

William Paley’s famous argument for creation by a designer consists of two distinct arguments joined together:

  • Artefacts like watches and living organisms like eyes have special functions. Watches to tell the time; various kinds of eyes to see in various types of environments: “each such entity exists because of its function” (p. 42);
  • Such functionality implies a designer both conscious and intelligent.

Biologists accept the first argument.

The second proposition seems right given the axiom that a cause must precede every effect. The effect is the ability to see. It must therefore follow that the eye was caused to exist for this specific function. In other words we have a teleological argument for the existence of eyes. They appeared for the purpose of enabling sight.

According to Paley there are only two alternatives. A complex organism, such the eye, must have come about either by

1. a conscious designer

or

2. blind chance aided by no other mechanism

read more »

Priorities

While we clog our synapses with irrelevant ancient texts let’s hope Guy McPherson has it wrong . . . . .

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uy0pli8E9ic]

.

And part 2 with some pretty good priorities . . . . read more »

Universal Floods and Australian Dreamtime Myths

firstfootprintsI have almost completed reading First Footprints: The Epic Story of the First Australians by Scott Cane. It is based on the recent TV series of the same name. So few Australians know much about the history of aboriginal Australia and reading/viewing a work like this inspires one to call out for making such knowledge a core part of every Australian school’s curriculum. It not only has the potential to encourage an unprecedented respect for our indigenous brothers and sisters, but also the hope of deepening our understanding of the way our environment changes and challenges its inhabitants over the long term.

The story starts with the staggeringly incomprehensible eruption of Mount Toba in central Sumatra, Indonesia, around 74,000 years ago. It dropped up to three metres of ash over much of India and Pakistan. It pushed out a 40 metre tsunami that was registered in the English Channel. “It blew 3000 cubic kilometres of volcanic rock into the air, beyond the world’s atmosphere and at least 40 kilometres into space at a rate of about 10 million tonnes per second.”

http://folks.co.in/blog/2012/12/18/indo-europeans-2-natural-history-of-languages/
http://folks.co.in/blog/2012/12/18/indo-europeans-2-natural-history-of-languages/

Darkness covered much of the world; forests turned to grassland; extinctions occurred; temperatures fell; and a world already facing droughts from an emerging ice-age plunged into even more devastating “mega-droughts” and perhaps the coldest the earth has ever been in the past 125,000 years.

The human population suffered horribly — reduced, perhaps, to a population of 50,000 people in which there were as few as 4000-10,000 breeding females. (p. 13)

The first evidence for human settlement in Australia comes in the wake of this event. Human survivors downwind and east of the eruption may have been the first to arrive; or perhaps the first settlers belonged to those who began their trek from Africa and followed the southern Asian coastline till they reached here. The founding population of Australia came in a wave of around 1000 people — according to genetic research.

Spreading_homo_sapiens_la.svg
From Wikipedia

They were met with megafauna: 3 metre high kangaroos, 7 metre long “lizards”, 2 metre high “geese”, herds of “wombats” standing 2 metres at the shoulder, lions lurking in trees ready to pounce on prey below. One way to control wildlife threats was to burn the forests and long grass around their dwellings and so remove the cover for the predators. Aborigines have continued to use fire for the same purpose into modern times — clearing out the long grass to remove threats of snakes and expose the holes where edible goannas hid. Later more sophisticated “fire-farming” was developed and changed much of the landscape of Australia into liveable “gardens” of plots that were regularly recycled for hunting and foraging.

I’d love to talk also about the nomadic feats of these early colonizers, all that we can learn about them from their rock art, and the way they used “Dreaming” (collections of tales of myths) to hold their communities together and to even guide them across vast distances like topographical maps. But the real reason I began this post was to talk about something of interest to those of us who have grown up with the Bible as our “foundation stone” of “true myths”.

The Dreamtime and the Flood Myths

18,000 to 15,000 years ago retreating glaciers ushered in a “wholly new” (Holocene) era of a warmer and wetter world. Sea levels rose. read more »

The Top 10 + 1 Signs You Don’t Understand Evolution At All

A theologian prominent in the blogosphere has posted an article Why People Reject Evolution. It is a re-post of one of those flippant smart-alec type blog-posts that put-downs with ridicule those with views the theologian in question himself once held. We can only wonder why he shows so little compassion or understanding as he now mercilessly mocks and taunts those who continue to stand fast where he once stood. Is this some sort of Freudian attempt to suggest one was once a total idiot and therefore deserving of mockery? I’d prefer to think that once we emerge from views we now find embarrassing that we’d attempt to approach others with those views with more depth of understanding and compassion.

The first thing that hit me about the list of reasons people reject evolution was that they bizarrely omitted the central fact about the theory of evolution that probably all the books of evolutionary scientists I have ever read stress most emphatically. How can a list of reasons people reject evolution omit the one thing about the theory of evolution that is most central according to the view of nearly all evolutionists?

Here are the “top ten” reasons in headline form from the linked article. See if you can see the one key fact missing:

1. You think “it hasn’t been observed” is a good argument against it.

2. You think we’ve never found a transitional fossil.

3. You think macroevolution is an inherently different process than microevolution.

4. You think mutations are always negative.

5. You think it has anything to do with the origin of life, let alone the origins of the universe.

6. You use the phrase “it’s only a theory” and think you’ve made some kind of substantive statement.

7. You think acceptance of evolution is the same as religious faith.

8. You think our modern understanding of it rests on a long series of hoaxes perpetuated by scientists.

9. You don’t like Pokémon because you think it “promotes” evolution.

10. You think it’s inherently opposed to Christianity or the Bible.

Hang on! Did the author(s) of Genesis really write account(s) they (if only they knew) would be consistent with evolution?

Ah, the author of this blog-post comes to the rescue and explains:  read more »

Bright Simon’s Guide to Being Smarter Than God

Tip Hillman has launched a new atheist Kickstarter project called Bright Simon’s Guide to Being Smarter Than God in an effort to

  • 1. inspire non-believers and
  • 2. encourage fence-sitters to embrace science and rational thinking.

It’s for a younger audience, and begins:

Kick scientific truth forward! Let’s produce Bright Simon’s first book, posters and t-shirts to promote freethinking, facts, and fun.

Thanks for stopping by to take a look at Bright Simon’s Guide to Being Smarter Than God. It’s a multi-faceted project that includes a printed book, posters, stickers, and T-shirts, all designed to promote science and rational thinking. It revolves around an atheist character, Simon, who contrasts the dubious claims of beliefs with the verifiable proof of science. His motto is “Aren’t You Curious?” and his goal is to promote knowledge and secular-based virtues in a friendly way through popular culture.

To fund the project $8000 needs to be pledged by August 30th.

Check out the details and how you can help, and see the carrots on offer at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tiphillman/bright-simons-guide-to-being-smarter-than-god

brightSimon

Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.

Theistic evolutionists are creationists

From Jerry Coyne’s comments on responses to Bill Nye’s attack on creationism (reformatted), posted on his blog, Why Evolution Is True:

Theistic evolutionists are creationists, pure and simple; they differ from straight fundamentalist creationists only in how much of life God was involved in creating, ranging from

  • those who think God set the whole plan in motion, knowing it would culminate in that most awesome of species, US,
  • to those who think that God tinkered with mutations to create the right species (see the philosophical work of Elliott Sober),
  • to those who think that humans are set apart from other species because God inserted a soul in our lineage (that’s the official view of the Vatican). 

That is being anti-evolution as scientists understand it, since we see evolution as a naturalistic process that has nothing to do with deities.

Sadly, far more Americans are theistic evolutionists than naturalistic evolutionists: the proportions among all Americans are 38% to 16% respectively (40% are straight creationists, 6% are unsure). We have a long way to go.

Evolved Morality

I  loved this video clip of Frans de Waal’s talk, Moral Behavior in Animals. (It was recently linked on Jerry Coyne’s Evolution is True blog.) It demonstrates that more animals than humans have evolved moral attributes of empathizing with others, offering others consolation, “prosocial” tendencies such as caring for the welfare of others, and a sense of fairness. The talk begins by balancing the themes we used to hear so often about our nearest animal relatives being so aggressive and territorial by showing that they also “believe in” reconciling after fights.

Or if you are short of time and want to jump to the funniest part where we see outrage over an unfair deal . . . . .

The Fanboy Defense — An Excuse for Doing Nothing While the World Burns


I smoke because Picasso smoked. And because Hitler didn’t.

— Albert Finney

Pablo Picasso 1962
Pablo Picasso 1962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re all for evolution, but . . .

Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic, in his recent piece called “Creationists vs. Evolutionists: An American Story,” explains why the U.S. has seen a recent uptick in the number of people who believe in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC). Is it because of the endless hammering by the holy hucksters on TV? Is it because of the 24-hour, nonstop Right-wing noise machine? Is it because of politicians who pander to ignorance and supernatural mumbo-jumbo?  Of course not. It’s because of those mean old “new atheists.”

Jerry Coyne’s response over at Why Evolution Is True effectively debunks Wright’s distressingly poor thesis, especially the part where we were supposed to have been in the middle of a truce between science and superstition until extremely rude people like Richard Dawkins forced people to choose. I can add very little to Coyne’s remarks.

What intrigues me is this idea that people would choose to support or not support a given scientific theory based on the people associated with it. Over at the HuffPo, Michael Zimmerman, the founder of the Clergy Project, asks: “Who’s Responsible for the Evolution/Creation Controversy?” You know the kind of article it’s going to be from the start when he adds, “It’s Not As Simple as Some Would Have You Believe.” Ah yes, the old “plenty-of-blame-to-go-around” piece, as predictable as earwigs after a hard rain. But catch what he says about men (and women, we suppose) of the cloth and their role in the debate:

read more »

Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins

Barking Owls

New neighbours have moved in for a few months — two owls who think they’re dogs and bark instead of hoot.

Discovered them recently when I heard dog-barking sounds coming from up in a tree. That experience always requires investigation and this is what I found. Unfortunately I could not get a video of them but I captured the sound nonetheless.

Here’s the Wikipedia article on Barking Owls.

The last few days I’ve only ever seen the one perched in the tree. Hope the explanation is that its mate is hidden in a fork of a nearby tree caring for eggs.

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