Saturday, April 22, 2017

Is Homo floresiensis a Sister Species of Homo habilis?

A short blurb in Science Magazine attempts to lay to rest one of the nagging questions in recent human evolution: where did the diminutive “hobbits” originate?  A report by the Australian National University suggests that Homo floresiensis is a sister species of Homo habilis
Data from the study concluded there was no evidence for the popular theory that Homo floresiensis evolved from the much larger Homo erectus, the only other early hominid known to have lived in the region with fossils discovered on the Indonesian mainland of Java.

Study leader Dr Debbie Argue of the ANU School of Archaeology & Anthropology, said the results should help put to rest a debate that has been hotly contested ever since Homo floresiensis was discovered.

"The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis. It means these two shared a common ancestor," Dr Argue said.

"It's possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere."

Homo floresiensis is known to have lived on Flores until as recently as 54,000 years ago.
How do we know this?
Where previous research had focused mostly on the skull and lower jaw, this study used 133 data points ranging across the skull, jaws, teeth, arms, legs and shoulders.

Dr Argue said none of the data supported the theory that Homo floresiensis evolved from Homo erectus.
I think that it is passing peculiar that we have found absolutely nothing else like this in over 100 years of searching in this area, but who knows what these smaller islands have hidden in them. This also raises interesting questions. Since we know that early Homo got as far as Russian Georgia, is it possible they got as far as Flores? That's a long way.  Is it possible that incoming Homo erectus out-competed them in most places except for a few small refugia?  Also possible.   Hopefully more information will turn up to help us answer these questions.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Slightly Off-Topic: The March for Science

The Christian Science Monitor wonders aloud if science and political activism can co-exist.  Amanda Paulson writes:
The foray into activism and politics is a tough one for some scientists. And although the organizers have taken pains to note the march is nonpartisan, concern that the focus will become political has sparked some controversy and debate among scientists.

Many supporters of the march note that science is already political, and that ignoring its importance to policy is disingenuous. The march is needed, they say, due to the increased attacks on science, threats to slash funding for research, and lack of understanding of what scientists do.

But critics worry that despite all the declarations that the march is “non-partisan,” it will be viewed by many Americans as anti-Trump and anti-Republican, and that it will only increase the partisan divide and cement the impression in some people’s minds that scientists are driven by ideology rather than evidence.

“I worry there will be people there carrying signs that have incendiary messages, and it’s that one percent that will become the meme for the conservative blogosphere,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University. He cringes imagining rural America’s reaction to, say, a sign saying “Make America smart again.”
One of the things that I have anecdotally noticed in the thirty some years that I have been associated with science in one way, shape or form, is that people have a tendency to develop their socio-cultural viewpoints irrespective of the science that they practice. For example, I have never seen science turn a Christian into an atheist, or vice versa.  Richard Dawkins once wrote that evolution allowed him to “ an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  In other words, he was already an atheist.  He was just now using evolution as a cover to justify it.  Given that I know other people that view evolution as displaying the glory of God, the argument that one is tied to the other is somewhat suspect.

One thing is certain: there are already quite a few people out there that have watched the democratic party and its associated left-leaning groups implode after the election and thought to themselves “Good thing I voted for Trump.” The very same thing could happen here if the March for Science is hijacked by leftist groups. It could very well result in Trump and his advisors thinking that, why yes, it would be perfectly appropriate to start cutting these budgets.

The organizers have a golden moment on their hands.  If they can show the world that the scientific endeavor is benefiting all of humanity in noticeable, tangible ways, then it will have done its job.  If it descends into Trump-bashing and elitism, then expect that the general public's support for science, which is already at an all-time low, will continue to erode and, yes, expect budgetary cuts.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Texas State Board of Education In the Crosshairs Again

The Texas State Board of Education is revising standards for science again, in response to criticisms that they allow for the teaching of creationism.  Andrea Zelinski, of the Houston Chronicle, writes:
The Texas State Board of Education on Wednesday took a preliminary vote to compromise on a pair of high-school science standards that critics say encouraged the teaching of creationism.

The 15-member board voted unanimously to change language in its standards to take the pressure off teachers to delve deep in evaluating cell biology and DNA evolution.

"I was very pleased with how smoothly everything went," said Ron Wetherington, an evolutionary anthropologist at Southern Methodist University and member of the High School Biology Streamlining Committee that recommended the board modify language in the standards to save teachers class time.

Standards using words like "analyze and evaluate" are like "dogs whistles," he said, that ideological groups see as an opening to explore creationism and intelligent design as explanations for the origin of life.

The first change to the standards, if confirmed by a second vote on Friday, would require students to "compare and contrast scientific explanations" for the complexity of cells, instead of "evaluate." The change would return the standard to the original language recommended by the committee, reversing an addition in February authored by Republican board member Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands.
As the article points out, Texas has had a long and heated battle with creationists on the board, led by Cargill and Don McLeroy, continually watering down the standards.  Hopefully, things will look up for students of science in Texas.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Off Topic: Freeze Frame!

It seems that we are having a hard time getting our aging rockers to live past the age of 71.  The latest casualty is J. Geils, who's band had some pretty large hits in the 1980s.  From Boston's WCVB TV:
"A preliminary investigation indicates that Geils died of natural causes," police said in a statement.

The J. Geils Band was founded in 1967 in Worcester, Massachusetts, while Geils, whose full name was John Warren Geils Jr., was studying mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Geils served as the band's guitarist and vocalist. Bandmates included Danny Klein, Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz, Stephen Jo Bladd, Peter Wolf and Seth Justman.

The band, whose music blended blues rock, R&B, soul and pop, released 11 studio albums and built a large following due to their energetic live shows as well as their unusual use of the harmonica as a lead instrument. The band broke up in 1985, but reunited off and on over the years.
I never, honestly, listened to much J.Geils Band music, not being that much of a fan of stripped-down rock, but it was hard not to like the tongue-in-cheek aspect of many of the songs, including “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold.”


And, of course, the obligatory...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Creationism in Ireland and "Alternative Facts"

I am not sure how this term “alternative facts” managed to become common parlance. The Irish news is reporting on a traveling roadshow that is trying to educate young kids that dinosaurs and humans coexisted (as Barry Lynn notes: "only on the Flintstones").  Paul Ainsworth writes:
AN organisation is to tour Ireland with an event teaching children that dinosaurs and humans existed on Earth at the same time.

The ‘Prehistoric Preachers Dinosaur Roadshow’ is hosted by Creation Ministries, which promotes the belief that the world is only around 6,000 years old.

The fundamentalist Christian organisation says the roadshow - to visit four venues across the north during May before moving to five locations in the Republic – will teach the “true history of the world to young and old alike”.

Children are offered the chance to sit on life-size replicas of dinosaurs and take home an “educational free gift”.

However, it has been warned that the message that dinosaurs did not die out 65 million years ago flies in the face of conventional understanding of natural history, with one critic dubbing the claims put forward by organisers as “dangerous alternative facts”.
There are no such things as “alternative” facts.  There are scientific observations about observable phenomena that generate hypotheses.  If several thousand of these hypotheses support a particular model, then a theory explaining the phenomenon is generated.  That is how we have gravitational theory, cell theory, plate tectonic theory and, yes, evolutionary theory.

Facts are instances in which so many concurrent observations have been made that support a particular understanding of some natural phenomenon that it is regarded as a near certainty.  Everyone on the planet agrees that marble is a rock.  No one has ever observed marble behaving in such a way that makes one suspect that it is not.  Therefore, it is a FACT that marble is a rock.

Theoretical constructs, on the other hand, are open to examination and change.  Young earth creationism is a theory that the earth was created six thousand years ago and that modern science supports this.  That can be critically examined.  When it is, however, it is found that no hypotheses that are constructed to test this theory have been found that DO support it.  Put simply, the theory has no empirical justification.  Further, it is found that the primary advocates of this theory put it forth from a religious and not a scientific perspective.

But you knew this.

The problem is in calling these“alternative facts.” They are not. They are scientifically unsupportable statements made about observable phenomena and that is what they need to be called.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Arkansas Creationism Bill DOA

In a short note, NCSE is reporting that the Arkansas bill authorizing the teaching of creationism and ID alongside evolution never made it to a vote:
When the Arkansas legislature recessed on April 3, 2017, House Bill 2050 (PDF)— which would, if enacted, have allowed "public schools to teach creationism and intelligent design as theories alongside the theory of evolution" — apparently died.

Introduced on March 6, 2017, by Mary Bentley (R-District 73), HB 2050 was filed as a shell bill, with only its title, subtitle, and a description of its purpose provided. Bentley apparently never provided the text of her bill to the legislature.
And there was much rejoicing.


Monday, March 27, 2017

James McGrath: The Implications of Creationism

James McGrath has put together a nifty flow chart showing the implications of young earth creationism.  Enjoy. 

The problem, of course, is that your average young earth creationist would look at these conclusions and say “Well, yes.  They are all wrong” without really understanding the implications of that statement.  Even young earth creationists like Todd Wood admit that it all hinges on how Genesis is read.  Since Genesis 1-11 can only be read one way, then the science must be wrong.  It just has to be. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Onion: Archaeologists Uncover Last Human To Die Happy

The Onion has a story on how a team of archaeologists has discovered the last human to die happy:
“It’s truly incredible—Felix unequivocally demonstrates that early humans were still capable of dying completely fulfilled as late as the Upper Paleolithic,” said lead researcher Evgenia Halytsky, who went on to say that scientists had previously believed any such trait had disappeared many millennia earlier. “The vast majority of research points to our species almost never experiencing even a day of serenity for the last million years, so Felix totally upends any of our previous notions about human evolution.”

“To think that only 300 centuries ago, a human being actually died happy,” Halytsky added.

Researchers said that a spectral analysis of the remains indicated wear in Felix’s lower extremities consistent with a long, confident gait. Additionally, forensic odontology tests revealed that the man had never grinded his teeth, stunning scientists who had until now accepted that this behavior had become ubiquitous at roughly the same time humans developed abstract thought and the capacity to project into the future.
How does the phrase go: “Nobody ever lay on their deathbed thinking they hadn't spent enough time at the office.” Read the whole thing.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Increased Blood Flow to the Brain Helped Human Intelligence

PhysOrg is running a story about research that focuses on the role that blood flow played in the evolution of human intelligence.  Roger Seymour writes:
My eureka moment occurred when I realised that the size of an artery can be gauged by the size of the hole in a bone that it passes through.

This meant that the rate of blood flow to the brain could be measured by the sizes of the carotid canals in fossil skulls from human evolution.

It was a nice idea, but it took the enthusiasm of my student Vanya Bosiocic to turn it into a piece of research. She travelled to museums in Australia and in South Africa, gaining access to priceless fossil hominin skulls to make the measurements.

We found that the size of the carotid canals increased much faster than expected from brain size in 12 species of our human ancestors over a period of 3 million years.

While brain size was increasing 3.5 times, blood flow rate surprisingly increased sixfold, from about 1.2ml per second to 7ml per second.

This indicates that our brains are six times as hungry for oxygen as those of our ancestors, presumably because our cognitive ability is greater and therefore more energy-intensive.
We require a huge amount of fuel to keep our brains functioning and, while correlation is never causation, there is a distinct correlation between our massive increase in brain size during the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene and the appearance of more sophisticated stone tools, evidence of hunting and, eventually control of fire.  One of the other factors that may have had a role in this was the increase in protein intake in the form of animal meat.  Human evolution is a very complex entity because as we evolved and our brains increased in size, we began to manipulate our surroundings in a more significant way.  This, in turn, changed how we adapted and evolved in response to them. 

PSA Undetectable

Yay.  Still cancer-free!