Tag Archives: Evolution

The scientific sin of a ‘just-so story’

In his enormously popular but scientifically questionable bestseller The Naked Ape, the writer Desmond Morris suggested that lipstick was an attempt to make women’s facial lips resemble the engorged sexually aroused genital ones. It might be a superficially attractive argument, but upon the slightest degree of scrutiny it vanishes in the haze, for there is just no evidence for this to be true. If it were true, we would expect to see selection for lipstick wearing, and higher reproductive success in women who wear lipstick. It also doesn’t account for the changes in styles and colours of lipstick, or the fact that most women haven’t worn lipstick for the vast majority of human history, yet still somehow managed to give birth to a healthy cohort of progeny. It is an example of the scientific sin of a ‘just-so story’ – speculation that sounds appealing, but cannot be tested or is devoid of evidence.

Rutherford, Adam. 2018. The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 83

And they told me that God made wings so they worked perfectly the first time

Well that’s what I was taught by the creationist men of God when I was part of their world. Wings had to work perfectly the first time or what use were they? So went the rhetorical question and we were all shook our heads in disbelief at how foolish people of the world were for thinking otherwise.

But a couple of nights ago I could not resist following the build up to watching David Attenborough’s new program, The Empire of the Ants. The catch line that intrigued me was the promise to show how some ants had learned to cooperate with others who were not genetically related to them. (Others, true to expected form, fought unrelated groups to the death for territorial control.) The whole program was absolutely fascinating (as most of Attenborough’s docos are) but one episode in particular thoroughly amused me. . . .

Queen ants about to fly away to establish a new colony are heavy with fat reserves and swollen ovaries and have sprouted wings just for the new occasion — their maiden flight to mate then start a new colony. They climb to the top of a plant to get some height for a take-off, but often times they make complete fools of themselves trying to make respectable use of their wings. We are shown footage of queen ants starting lift off but quickly tilting backwards or sideways and falling back down to the ground. Why didn’t God give them wings (and the instinctual know-how using them) that worked and got their heavier bodies up and away the first time?

Gracelessly tipping abdomen over antenna after getting air-born for about one second.

It’s not as if they would need the wings afterwards. Once they had found their new space they had no need for the wings anymore and naturally wanted to get rid of the encumbrances. Again amusing footage showing the poor things struggling to dislodge their “back-packs” with nothing but legs! God lacked the forethought to arrange at least two of those six legs for that purpose. Those queens were obviously struggling with even more difficulty than a child trying to figure out how to dry its back after a bath.

Out! Damned wings!

Sex and Death

Well I just had to laugh (I even saw the photographs) . . .

I first heard of the custom when living in Singapore. Strippers hired to perform before an image of the deceased as part of the ceremonies pending the actual cremation. I thought the idea was to give the deceased one last good time. Maybe it’s hard to grasp if we’re not familiar with the Chinese custom in crowded Singapore of setting up a marquee or special area for the coffin of the deceased on the property of the apartments where he or she lived, or nearby, with friends and relatives coming to visit over the days prior to the cremation ceremony. Candles, decorations of models of the things the deceased loved in life (paper cars, boats, money…), other religious paraphernalia all around, and lots of chairs and water bottles for the visitors. There would always be someone there to maintain the vigil, even through the night.

And some (by no means all — unless I was protected by the locals from ever finding out) of these spaces, I learned, even arranged for a private striptease dancer to perform before the picture of a male deceased.

And all of that was before the last day when crowds would assemble, with musicians and dancers, to drive the coffin off in a specially decorated truck leading a street procession to the place of cremation. What a send off.

Well, today I was reminded of all of the above with the following news:

China cracks down on funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, attract larger crowds

Hired to attract crowds! Now that was different from the Singapore custom, that’s for certain. If I can ever remember where I filed it I will dig out the Singapore newspaper photo of the Chinese dancer there definitely facing and performing for the deceased. But in China the image is definitely indicative of a more general entertainment:

Now that’s definitely not what Singapore Chinese modesty was all about. Unless, as I said, I was protected because I was considered to be just another foreigner who would not understand.

What piqued my more serious interest in the story this time, however, was the suggestion that the ceremony might be traced back to “fertility worship”. One last ditch effort to ensure the deceased would still be able to, well… I’m not quite sure what. Anthropologists would be able to explain it, no doubt.

And given the eclectic interests of Vridar, I am further reminded of the Gospel of John. See Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John where I look at an article by Jo-Ann Brant discussing the way that gospel plays with the idea of a marriage anticipated by Jesus really being his death.

It all seems rather appropriate, I supposed, given that what made death possible (as opposed to evolving like ever dividing cells that go on forever and never die) was sex. Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall is all about the way cell death evolved to remove and discard the less good bits from the mix.

 

 

Go to the Bonobo, thou Sinner, and learn how to love the stranger and be a Good Samaritan

H/t Rosa Rubicondior, a scientific research paper discusses experiments indicating that we humans are not the only ones who have an ethic of helping out strangers in need: Bonobos respond prosocially toward members of other groups by Jingzhi Tan, Dan Ariely and Brian Hare. It’s an amazing read. A Bonobo stops doing something that’s “fun” when it sees a complete stranger (another Bonobo from no other community it knows) who is unable to get food and not only stops play, but goes to considerable effort to get the food to that needy stranger. And there’s no reward. It appears to know the commandments of Zeus, Allah, Yahweh and Jesus Christ and obeys them out of unselfish love.

Beware, Humans. If you don’t pull your socks up God will forsake you and go to the Bonobos who are more worthy!

 

 

The Origin of Large Life Forms

Interesting article by Diana Hayward on yesterday’s ABC Science page:

Algae explosion 650 million years ago is why we’re here today, ANU researchers say

The key section:

That climatic catastrophe was a global thawing of what Professor Brocks calls a “Snowball Earth”.

Fifty million years before the algae began to bloom the Earth’s oceans were frozen.

But a global heating event caused the glaciers to melt and as they did they released nutrients into the ocean.

“This increased phosphate fertiliser in the oceans,” Professor Brocks said.

And when the Earth cooled to more hospitable levels it created perfect conditions for algae to spread.

“It appears this huge release of nutrients after the melting of this snowball Earth event triggered the evolution of this larger algae and replaced bacteria.”

“Algae are incredibly large in comparison to bacteria. And you need large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food webs to create the burst of energy towards higher and bigger organisms,” Professor Brocks said.

So it all started with global warming and the subsequent explosion in algae.

 

Lost Tribes of Humanity

Brought myself up with the latest discoveries on human origins last night with BBC doco The Lost Tribes of Humanity. It told me that everything I had been taught about Neanderthals at school was wrong, and enlightened me on how to pronounce this other type of human I’ve come across in my reading from time to time, the Denosivans, introduced me to the term “hominin”, and backed my wife’s suspicion that I probably do carry around Neanderthal DNA in my genome.

From http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v15/n3/abs/nrg3625.html

Neanderthals

  1. Neanderthals did leave artistic remains. The marks left on rocks were tested for various options such as side-products of cutting other things like skins on the rock surface and the eventual conclusion was that the marks were made as deliberate designs. (I learned they had no art.)
  2. Neanderthals adorned their bodies. Remains of certain bones indicate that wings were cut for feathers, not for meat. Feathers in abundance points to body decoration. (That was new.)
  3. Neanderthals buried their dead.
  4. They were not wiped out by the arrival of Homo Sapiens. The two types of human lived side by side for thousands of years, probably learning from one another.
  5. Modern humans interbred with Neanderthals. Most people of non-African origin have some Neanderthal DNA; about 1 to 2 percent on average of their DNA is Neanderthal. (I was taught the two could not interbreed.)
  6. The above fact indicates that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals very early in their trek out of Africa — probably when they first met Neanderthals in what today is the Middle East. This scenario would explain why modern humans across the globe contain Neanderthal DNA — with the exception of most Africans.
  7. Possibly up to 50% of all the Neanderthal DNA is still extant today, collectively, in modern humans. (We each contain around 1-2% of Neanderthal DNA but we don’t all contain the same DNA bits.)

Denisovans (D’nEESovins)

  • Races native to Australia and Papua New Guinea contain up to 5% of the Denisovan genome. Denisovan DNA is also found among the peoples of India, Himalayas and China. Up to 60 to 80% of Denisovan genome may be spread around in modern humans.

“The Hobbit” / Homo floresiensis

I was following the controversy surrounding these bones when they were first discovered in Indonesia and for a time was unsure if we would find we had a new type of human species or modern human inflicted with something like dwarfism. But the jury has apparently long been in by now and they definitely have been classified as a distinct variety of human.

Interestingly their small size was not the effect of being cut off on the island (animals so cut off tend to become smaller, presumably because less resources are therefore required to survive) but they were found to be small before their settlements were cut off by rising seas.

Though they have left remains indicating their human-ness their brains were the size of chimp brains. Sounds bad for a human, perhaps, but then as someone else pointed out recently on another program, we now know from our technological advances that it is not the size of a computer that matters so much as how it is organized. Even “bird-brains” can be very intelligent.

Archaic Africans

This group was new to me. We know of their past existence in Central Africa entirely from DNA samples among people of African descent — beginning in a laboratory in San Francisco of all places. They split off from the earliest human line then connected again some millennia later with the line leading to us.

So we don’t even need to dig up fossils to learn of the existence of other species or tribes of humans.

Interbreeding can have been through a range of activities, including adopting orphaned babies and raiding for mates.

My science fiction fantasy: Will we one day be able to piece together all the different bits of remaining DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans and Archaic Africans and somehow put them together again the way Humpty was sort of reassembled — not literally in laboratories, god forbid, but on paper/digital files — and get some idea what those other branches of hominin were like compared with our pre-mongrel ancestors?

 

The Australian Magpies

I loved this program when it was first broadcast a few months ago and appreciated the ABC’s Radio National “re-releasing” it as a podcast. I always love watching magpies and so often notice fascinating behaviours. For some years many times I went outside to hang the washing out the same magpie would fly down and perch on the clothes line, looking intently at me as if to greet me and spend some time with me. In Australia we easily take their beautiful song for granted so I was pulled up with some surprise when an overseas tourist expressed amazement at the sound.

Anyone interested who hasn’t yet heard the program, do listen to

The colourful life of the Australian Magpie

The opening seconds is all you need to hear their sound.

Other details that fascinated me:

  • they are listening for the sounds of grubs etc beneath the grass
  • they recognize individual human faces
  • in the event of the loss of the male partner the female soon accepts another male replacement who continues to care and provide for her chicks
  • their black and white colour is no camouflage but functions as a highly visual signal for territorial purposes

 

Mountains Driving Evolution

SE chart simple FINAL
Selenium abundances in the oceans over the past 550 million years. Note severe depletion of this vital trace element at three major extinction events (red triangles), suggesting this was a possible factor in these extinctions. Credit: John Long & Ross Large. From Phys.Org; Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-11-elementary-theory-mass-extinctions-life.html#jCp

Okay, it’s a bit old, but awards have just been bestowed upon the scientists involved so it’s worth noting once again. Some fascinating science news by science reporter Natalie Whiting:

‘Eureka moment’ research into ocean selenium levels asks: Did mountains control evolution of humans?

Their research has shown that almost every major growth period or extinction in the Earth’s history correlates with a change in the amount of the trace element selenium in the ocean.

When there are high levels of selenium, there is growth; when levels fall, there are extinctions. . . .

. . .

“These three mass extinction events are put down to things like global anoxia — a lack of oxygen in the oceans causing extinctions, or cooling events, like ice age events.

“But none of these events or causes in themselves are total explanations for the widespread extinctions both in the oceans and on land in some instances.

“So our explanation of the trace element depauperation (poor development) in the oceans is a very good example of something that covers all the bases and actually gives a better explanation for some of these events.”

Then there’s header that I like:

A twist on Darwin’s theory: Did man evolve from the mountains?

The research has provided strong evidence that it is the movement of tectonic plates which releases trace elements, like selenium, into the ocean.

“So we’ve added a new dimension where you might say that really it’s plate tectonics which controls evolution. Because, indirectly, plate tectonics controls the chemistry of the ocean, and the chemistry of the ocean has a big control on evolutionary pathways,” Professor Large explained.

“That’s why I often say to people basically man came from the mountains. It’s mountain building, and the erosion of all those nutrients into the ocean, that controlled man’s evolution.”

Further, a discussion on The Conversation:

Plate tectonics may have driven the evolution of life on Earth

 

Male and Female and Shemale created He them

bearded dragonWhat on earth was God thinking?

When is a female a female? And when is a male a male? These are the questions that scientists continue to ponder after the latest research on an Australian lizard that reverses its sex when exposed to high incubation temperatures.

The study shows central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) that are born with male chromosomes, but can lay eggs, have other strange characteristics.

Super-female bearded dragons are ‘more male than male’

“A bearded dragon can have male sex chromosomes but be a functioning female. Yet it can be more male-like in the way it looks, in its temperature and in its behaviour. They are more male-like than the actual males,” Professor Shine said.

 

What Is Euhemerism?

chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Hu...
Chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Huxley. Caption read “A great Med’cine-Man among the Inquiring Redskins”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: This post reflects my perspective. Neil is not responsible for any of the following content. –Tim]

We have Thomas Huxley to thank for the word Darwinism, which he coined in 1860 in a review of On the Origin of Species. In modern times, of course, creationists have misused the term, applying it to any theory of natural evolution, and even to the study of abiogenesis. They continue to embrace the “ism” since bolsters their assertion that evolution is a kind of belief system, just as irrational as religion.

What is Darwinism? 

Simply stated, Darwinism is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Technically, the terms Darwinism and biological evolution are not entirely synonymous, since theories of evolution existed before Charles Darwin. I recall being taken aback when I first read that Charles’ grandfather Erasmus had written a poem suggesting all forms of life were interrelated and had evolved to their present state. And well before Charles published his book, Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had proposed a theory of evolution based on the idea that organisms acquire traits during their lives, and later pass them on (somehow) to their offspring.

Darwinism differs from other competing theories of evolution in its mechanism for change. It makes no sense, then, to apply the term to other theories that posit some process other than gradual modification through natural selection.

Nor is it technically correct to call today’s modern synthesis “Darwinism,” since it embraces two other important foundational concepts, namely mutation theory and Mendelian genetics. So those who would today call an evolutionary biologist a Darwinist betray their ignorance of evolution, Darwin, and biology in general.

A less familiar term, euhemerism, from time to time suffers similar misuse. How should we define this word? We might explain it, following Dr. Richard Carrier, as “doing what Euhemerus did.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what was that?”

read more »

How Widespread Is McGrathian Old-Earth Creationism (MOEC)?

Mega Millions tickets
Mega Millions tickets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago, my much-adored and much-missed mother-in-law came to visit us. This was back when we lived in Ohio. I loved her almost as much as my own mother, which is the only reason I agreed to buy her lottery tickets. She had a different, perhaps “old-world” view of the universe. Dreams could tell a person what number to play the next day. Doing certain things in a certain order might cause desired numbers to “come up.” The future was foreordained, and if you were lucky, God might drop you a hint.

As a materialist and well-documented anti-supernaturalist, of course, I consider the investment in the lotto as a tax on people who don’t understand math. With great embarrassment, I asked the clerk at the counter for the tickets. Climbing back into the car, I handed them over and said, “I hope you realize you’re the only person on Earth I’d ever do this for.” And she smiled.

I don’t recall exactly what happened after that, although I can tell you she didn’t win. Normally, when the local station showed the pick-3 and pick-4 numbers during Jeopardy!, she’d claim those were the numbers she was going to play. “Shoulda played it. Nuts. Tsk-tsk.”

Earlier, I referred to that kind of thinking as old-world. But maybe “old-school” is more apt. In any case, if you think God can affect or predict the outcome of random events — if you think he runs a rigged table — then this is the logical conclusion. God plays dice, and they’re loaded.

When James McGrath takes potshots at Mythicism or Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) (often comparing one with the other), I’m often reminded of those lottery tickets I bought over a decade ago. Was my mother-in-law right? Is my view of randomness wrong?

Take a look at what the people over at BioLogos have to say on the subject. 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

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes about current research on religion, including his own. One of his online 2012 articles, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. Now I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. Who could possibly argue with:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (God Delusion, p. 51)

 

atran
Scott Atran

But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises. Fighting religion with reason and facts just doesn’t work because that sort of tactic completely misunderstands what religion is. Religious people know their beliefs are counter-intuitive and do not conform to the commonsense systems of thought that govern our everyday functioning in the physical world. Indeed, Atran argues, that’s the point of religion, and there is a clear benefit to groups and individuals within groups because of this. I will explain the arguments and evidence in future posts.

Till then, there is a clue to Atran’s conclusions in the following observation:

Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard. (In Gods We Trust, p. 276. )

I expect to post more articles referencing Scott Atran’s works (In Gods We Trust is only one of his titles that I have beside me to read) on the nature of religion in the coming year and more) but till I start in earnest I leave here his concluding distinctions between Science and Religion. read more »