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Saturday, 12 April 2014

How American Muslims Silenced Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: ‘They Simply Wanted Me to be Silenced’ | TIME.com

Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., USA has caved in to pressure from Muslim students and rescinded its plan to honour Ayaan Hirsi Ali with a an honorary degree on 8 May.

If there is anyone who can be described a role model for Muslim girls who want to take control of their own lives, then it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A former muslim and member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2008, she is an outspoken advocate for women's rights and a critic of Islam. Born in Somalia and raised as a strict Muslim, she survived a civil war, beatings, genital mutilation and a forced marriage before escaping to Holland and finally renouncing her faith in her 30s. She described the moment thus:

I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, "I don’t believe in God." I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

A fuller account can be read here, in one of the most inspiring and powerful arguments for Atheism I have ever read.

Brandeis University was founded as a secular, co-educational establishment in 1948, soon after World War II and the Holocaust, when many US universities were racially, religiously and gender segregated. It had been assumed that Ali epitomised all that the University stood for, hence the honour. However, Muslim students raised a petition, pointing to a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which she said of Islam:

Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

Brandeis University claimed to be unaware of this and decided it was not something they wished to be associated with and withdrew the offer of the honorary degree.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has responded in typically measured and dignified style with:

Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called "honor killings," and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not "overlook certain of my past statements," which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The "spirit of free expression" referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me "to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues." Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to "engage" in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck — and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed women and girls everywhere.

And so American Muslim girls in general, and Brandeis students in particular, have been deprived of the opportunity to hear one of the most inspiring advocates of the principles of secular, liberal freedoms and human rights that Brandeis University was founded on. They have been denied this by those to whom everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands for and represents is anathema - the right of women to control over their own bodies and their own destinies and the extension of full human rights and the right to respect and dignity to all members of society.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

The Internet Is Making Theists Think

Top: Internet use. Bottom: Religious affiliation
How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion | MIT Technology Review

Americans are following many European countries in losing their faith. The change hasn't been so spectacular as in many European countries where Atheists/Agnostics are now in a clear majority, but the growth has been a steady 0.5 percent per year over the last 20 years, rising from just 8 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2010.

The obvious question is, why is this happening? There are many social and psychological factors involved in relative religiosity, not the least of which is income inequality with those in the lowest income groups and forming the lowest social strata tending to be more religious and more fundamentalist, while those in the higher social strata tend to be less religious and more moderate.

Similarly, some studies have shown a correlation between educational attainment and religious belief with those receiving only basic education again being more religious and more fundamentalist, and those with higher degrees of education being less religious and more moderate. But then there is an obvious correlation between education and income, and so between social position and education.

Relationship between countries' belief in a god and average
Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
A third factor, as found by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2008), is a correlation between IQ and religious belief with a higher IQ tending to correlated with lower religiosity. Again, though, there is an obvious link between IQ, educational achievement, income and social position.

Now Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has analysed data from a widely-respected American General Social Survey carried out by the University of Chicago and has found a correlation between religious belief and time spent on the Internet which suggests that, as the time on the Internet increases so religious belief falls. Downey says this can only account for about 50 percent of the fall in religious belief but nevertheless, there are several possible causes.

It is always possible that the correlation does not indicate a causal relationship but that both are causally related to a third factor - like income, IQ, education, etc, but it doesn't come as a surprise. I and many others have often remarked on how the exposure of the 'moderate' or thinking theists to the mindless gibberings and downright dishonesty of the fundamentalists must surely cause them to ask some fundamental questions about the origins of their own beliefs. Exposure too to the blatant money-making scams being perpetrated on line by pseudo-pious frauds clearly seeking to exploit the credulous gullibility and thirst for cognitive dissonance-relieving confirmation bias in the ranks of fundamentalism and creationism, must cause honest and intelligent people to wonder just how much credulous gullibility played in their own religious beliefs.

It is noticeable to people like me who cut our teeth in the early days of the Internet in serious debate fora, or user groups as they were then known, where some serious theologians, scientists and philosophers participated and debate was mostly polite and good natured, that, as access to the Internet increased and the fundamentalists began to come on line, how the standard of debate deteriorated.

Within a few years debate had become almost ritualised name-calling, cursing, hysterical shrieking about burning in Hell, Satanism, "Darwin was a Communist!", "WE SAVED YOUR BUTT IN 2 WORLD WARS, U F**KING COMMIE!!!!!", etc, etc, followed quickly by creationist scam sites, people selling prayers, trashy books full of copy and paste Bible quotes, begging for donations to "help spread the word of the Lord" or using religion as an excuse for far-right political extremism. The serious theologians equally quickly melted away, being subjected to the same abuse as the scientists and atheists from the same religious fundamentalists and people using religion as a cover for their behaviour.

It's hard to believe that this didn't have, and still isn't having, a negative effect on the intellectually honest theists of whatever religion. If it didn't then they have much to be ashamed of. When your 'faith' can give rise to, and permit, such behaviour isn't there something fundamentally wrong with it? When your faith can't be defended with polite respect, honest argument and an open-minded willingness to understand the other point of view, is it worth defending? And when your faith is being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable attitudes and behaviour and has become the tool of the fraud and the sociopath, shouldn't it be actively opposed? Or was it ever thus?

And then there is the exposure to the high-profile professional religious apologists who earn their living peddling long-refuted fallacies to eager audiences, often with a clear right-wing political, even subversive, agenda seeking to overthrow, for example, the US secular constitution, and replace it with a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. People for whom having an argument refuted or shown to be lies is not regarded as a reason not to try it on someone else. It must be hard for the liberal or left-leaning theist in the USA to see his faith becoming more and more the domain of the swivel-eyed, often racist, usually misogynist and invariably anti-science, anti-choice, anti-welfare, anti-liberal, pro-wealthy, pro-corporate, pro-war, selfish and greedy - in short, nasty - right, and probably the antithesis of everything they thought their religion stood for.

So, no, it's not hard to see why increased Internet access and the time spent on line is correlated with reduced belief in the supernatural and an increased dissociation from the fundamentalists.

Then of course there is the ready and free access to information. Even those lacking much in the way of a formal education can quickly educate themselves in any subject they wish. The association between ignorance and superstition is well-established and a parasitic memeplex like religion which thrives in an ignorant culture has an obvious antidote in the form of knowledge, hence the association between (lack of) education and religiosity.

The Internet is providing that antidote.

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Vatican Backs Code of Silence Over Child Abuse

Pope Francis "We will not take one step back..."
Italy's bishops pass Vatican-backed rule that child molestation does not have to be reported - Europe - World - The Independent

In stark contrast to what Pope Frankie claims to be doing to clean up the Catholic Church, the Vatican has been complicit in a policy adopted by Italian Bishops that states they are no longer required to report child-abusing priests and nuns to the police.

The 'speed' with which Vatican reforms are progressing can be gaged from the fact that only in the last few months has the Vatican seen fit to strengthen its laws on abuse of minors to include sexual abuse of children. Astonishingly, this was not even considered an abuse of minors when the law was first drawn up.

[I] personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children. We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.

Pope Francis
(Statement made on day of Italian Bishops' Conference statement)
This legalistic excuse comes from a treaty between the Vatican and the Italian state in 1985 which stipulates that priests are not obliged to inform the police of crimes learned of through their ministry. The Italian Bishops' Conference, which published the guidelines last Friday, say they came from a suggestion by the Vatican's office that handles sex abuse allegations.

Last month Pope Francis had complained that, "No-one else has done more [to tackle child sexual abuse]. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked."

[the Vatican is systematically placing the] preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.

In 2010, to great publicity and in response to the growing world-wide outrage at these sexual and psychological abuses as more and more victims found the courage to be open about what they had suffered at the hands of predatory paedophile priests and nuns, the Vatican had instructed bishops to report these offences to the authorities - but only where required to do so by the local law. The Vatican has never seen it as the moral duty of Bishops to protect the vulnerable from predatory clerics by adopting a zero tolerance policy and reporting all such cases even when not required to do so by local law.

Now we see the Vatican office supposedly responsible for dealing with the problem, recommending a policy of strict legalism regardless of the fact that this gives a degree of protection to offenders and removes a little protection from the vulnerable. Obviously this offices sees it as dealing with the problem to prevent it being exposed.

The 'problem' is seen as one of embarrassment and damage to the Catholic Church, not damage to the victims of these abuses. The solution is a Mafioso-style code of silence or a 'no snitching' rule.

As reported on the BBC website, the long litany of Catholic Church abuse scandals includes:
  • Germany - A priest, named only as Andreas L, admitted in 2012 to 280 counts of sexual abuse involving three boys over a decade.
  • United States - Revelations about abuses in the 1990s by two Boston priests, Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, caused public outrage.
  • Belgium - The bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April 2010 after admitting that he had sexually abused a boy for years.
  • Italy - The Catholic Church in Italy admitted in 2010 that about 100 cases of paedophile priests had been reported over 10 years
  • Ireland - A report in 2009 [The Cloyne Report] found that sexual and psychological abuse was "endemic" in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages for most of the 20th century.

BBC News - Pope Francis asks forgiveness for child abuse by clergy

These are the same people who claim to be guardians of our morals and who demand the right to be consulted on all legislation inasmuch as it related to a woman's rights to her own body, the rights men have over them, what consenting adults may or may not do in the privacy of their own bedrooms and who may form a legal relationship with whom.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fundamentalist Threat To EU Freedoms

Mamber states of the European Union
Pro-Life Citizens' Initiative Worries E.U. Scientists | Science/AAAS | News

In an astonishingly arrogant move, a small, highly organised and well-financed group of Christian fundamentalists, posing as a European citizen's initiative, is seeking to exploit and subvert the democratic process. In the EU a petition with over 1 million authentic signatures collected across at least eight member states must be considered by the European Commission (the legislative body of the EU) for possible legislation.

If the Commission agrees with this petition, embryo stem-cell research will be illegal, and something having its origins in primitive superstition will be mandatory on all 28 current, and all future EU member states. This is because Christians believe a magic entity called a 'soul' enters a zygote at conception and thus a cell, or small group of cells, which could not possibly have independent existence in that state, is a fully human individual with full human rights. No evidence of the 'soul' has ever been found.

This superstition, which has its origins in the infancy of our species, views a reification of the entity they assume to inhabit our bodies and to be looking out at the world through the 'windows' of our eyes, as the real person, not the body in which it finds itself, and thus entitlement to human rights is conditional on this magic thing. Christians believe this thing survives after the death of the body. Since the body is a mere vehicle for this 'soul', it has no value in it's own right. This superstition led Christians in earlier times to happily kill people for such imaginary crimes as witchcraft, having the wrong religion or even questioning the authority of the Church hierarchy, believing that they were liberating this 'soul' from a corrupt body or a body which had been possessed by evil demons, thus turning an abhorrent crime against humanity into a moral crusade for the benefit of the ruling class who designated the 'crime' of doubt and dissent as a mortal sin in the first place.

Curiously, they seem to have turned this convenient view of human life on its head and now claim it as a reason not to destroy the zygote or the early stage of embryonic development, the blastocyst, claiming as a reason, with typical hypocrisy, the human rights they denied people in earlier times when they had the power to deny them.

This fundamentalist group, which also attracts support from conservative Muslims in the EU, is exploiting the fact that the recent expansion of the EU into the former Eastern Europe, Balkans and Baltic states has incorporated a large number of conservative Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians into the EU.

The EU, which is a federation of autonomous states each having its own laws and legal system within an overarching EU framework of consumer protection, environmental protection and employment rights, had the current compromise policy: the union does not sponsor research that is illegal in the country where it would take place. In addition, the commission never funds research activities that create human embryos for research purposes. The fundamentalist want to impose the same blanket policy onto everyone, regardless of the level of support for their superstition in the local population.

They are seeking to exploit an unrelated European Court of Justice ruling on the patenting of the human genome. In the case known as Brüstle v. Greenpeace, the court had ruled that the processes and products of human embryo stem-cell research are not patentable. The fundamentalist argue that this "indicates that fecundation is the beginning of human life and in the name of human dignity excludes the patenting of any procedure that involves or supposes the destruction of a human embryo."

There is little doubt that, if they succeed with this, they will seek to have abortion, contraception, same-sex marriages, even divorce outlawed, opening up the way to an all-out attack on women's rights and equality legislation and even the compulsory teaching of biblical creationism as science in schools, and against the strong post-war trend in Europe away from religion and towards secular humanism.

The European Union, unlike the USA, has no overarching constitution, mandatory on all member states. Although freedom of religion is enshrined in the European Human Rights Convention, to which all new members must subscribe in their national laws, and the EU is deliberately secular in it legislation and organization, there is no secular constitution as such and so nothing equivalent to the US 'Establishment Clause'.

Perhaps it's time we had a secular constitution and the equivalent of a Supreme Court to enforce it and to protect our rights against the religious fundamentalists who have never gotten over the withdrawal of what they see as their divine right to govern us. One of the reasons for the foundation of the EU in the first place was the belief that there had to be a better way to conduct affairs in Europe than how they had been conducted for the previous 1900 years, with the obscenities of warring factions and nation states based on different religious cults, priest kings and robber bishops that had been the norm, culminating in the bestialities of two world wars with deaths numbered in the tens of millions, each side being urged on and blessed by the clerics who assured them they were doing God's work.

The secular humanism of EU has given us two full generations of peace for the first time in European history. The last major war in Western Europe was fought by our children's grandparents. War in Europe is unthinkable now and is receding into a folk memory. We are now better than that.

They must not be allowed to take our Europe and our grandchildren's future peace and prosperity away from us.

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Discovery Shows Science Changing Its Mind

Australopithecus sediba
Human 'missing link' fossils may be jumble of species - life - 09 April 2014 - New Scientist

News this week that doubt has now been cast on what had been hailed as a new species of Australopithecus showing striking 'transitional' features between these pre-hominid apes and the hominids. A new analysis by Ella Been of Tel Aviv University, Israel suggests what were believed to be the fossils of one adult female and a juvenile male found in the same location at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008 may actually be two adults and two juveniles of different species - one each of australopithecine and hominid.

This emerging dispute interests me especially because it touches on something that many creationists and other scientifically illiterate people purport to find puzzling about science. If science is the best way to discover the truth, why is it full of disputes and disagreements, often resulting in a change of mind and even a 'rewrite of the science books'. Isn't it better to stick with dogma which hasn't been changed for a couple of millennia so you know where you are?

I'll deal with that in a moment. First, the dispute and it's background.

The exciting thing about the supposed new species, named A.sediba by its discoverer, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, was that it appeared to have a hominid lower body, complete with feet which were close to those of Homo sapiens, and the more chimpanzee-like skull and upper body of an australopithecine. As an interesting sequel to this find, the Boston Museum of Science, MA, USA, asked visitors to walk barefoot across a mechanised carpet that analysed their footprints, and found that one in thirteen had differences in foot-bone structure similar to those of A. sediba.

This suggested that modern humans might well trace their ancestry back not to the Ethiopian Highlands as 'Lucy' (A. afarensis) suggested but to much further south. Of course, this is still consistent with the picture of H. sapiens having evolved in Africa from chimpanzee-like apes which had earlier diverged from the other three African primates; the picture merely shifted further south.

So, a few years ago we had to change our minds a little. From it being fairly safe to assume H. sapiens had evolved in Ethiopia we now needed to allow for the possibility that it might have been in South Africa instead. A little less certain and a little more uncertain and a suspension of belief pending some more evidence. Now we may have to shift it back again as the balance of evidence changes.

The doubt raised by Ella Been revolves around her analysis of vertebra and lower jawbones from the supposed two individuals. She sees close similarity between the boy's vertebrae and the vertebrae of the 1.5 million year-old 'Turkana Boy' (H. erectus) while the adult female has undoubtedly australopithecine vertebrae. This suggested two different species. Then her colleague, Yoel Rak, also of Tel Aviv University, noticed a notch on the boy's lower jawbone which looked australopithecine while a similar notch on that of the adult female looked hominid. Conclusion: there are four individuals, not two; one adult female and one juvenile male australopithecine and one adult female and one juvenile male hominid, the bones of which had become intermixed.

At this point, and admittedly not being in possession of all the facts, I think I would be tempted to ask if just one adult or one juvenile bone had been duplicated, because this would be indisputable evidence of two or more partial skeletons. I assume, since none is mentioned, that none have been found. On that basis I'm inclined not to change my mind that much, just yet.

The question remains to be resolved and one thing is sure - it will only be resolved by evidence. Until that evidence is forthcoming, it remains for science an unresolved question. The interesting this is to see how science copes with evidence which seems to refute an idea. The only honest answer to the question of where the Homo genus split off from the Australopithecus genus is one which reflects the current uncertainty and the respective strength of the evidence for and against while allowing that both could be wrong.

A central tenet of evolutionary theory is that variation within taxa becomes variation between taxa as species diverge.

Lee Berger, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Of course, those with an interest in one side or the other will champion their particular views. Lee Berger says that the position of the bones as found makes it likely that they were from one individual. He concedes that the juvenile vertebrae do look like H. erectus but suggests that they would lengthen as he grew to become more australopithecine. To which Been points out that other fossil Australopithecus children have long vertebrae.

Berger also argues that Been's and Rak's analysis would also make sense if A. sediba really was transitional between Australopithecus and Homo because a mixture of features is exactly what we would expect as species diverge over time.

All this is mere detail, of course. It actually matters not at all whether humans evolved in South Africa out of A. sediba or in Ethiopia out of A. afarensis, or out of an as yet undiscovered species. There is little doubt that we evolved in Africa. And even if someone were to discover that modern humans evolved in Europe or Southeast Asia after all, then that would be sensational but nothing more. We would not need to change anything other than our minds, the next editions of the textbooks and some museum displays. And our knowledge would move a little closer to the truth, which remains the truth regardless of our beliefs.

So why is this a better way to determine the truth than going with dogma, and what's the use of 'truths' that keep being disputed and changed?

Imagine you're in court, on trial for something you didn't do. One witness produces evidence which suggests you are guilty and another produces evidence which suggests you are innocent. Would you want the defence and prosecution teams to argue and debate the merits of the evidence, pointing out the flaws in it and the other possible interpretations - maybe that footprint did look like yours but thousands of people have those shoes; maybe you did once own that gun once but it had been stolen in a burglary which you had reported to the police, and the DNA at the scene was not your DNA.

Or would you want the jury to listen to someone who said it was an accepted 'fact' that people like you are criminals and there is an old book which says so, so the jury didn't need to bother with the pros and cons of the arguments over the significance of the evidence when even the experts couldn't agree. They could just go with what the old book says and save a lot of time and expense. After all, it's having an opinion that matters, not whether it's right or wrong. In any case, dogma was deemed to be right so whatever agreed with dogma would be right automatically, and the dogma said you were guilty. Why bother with a trial at all even?

Hands up those who would like to be tried by dogma and not have the jury bother with the evidence and what the experts say about it!

The point is that only by constantly reassessing and disputing the evidence can it be fully tested, assessed and appropriately weighted at the bar of informed opinion. This can only be done by people who are prepared to abandon earlier ideas and adopt new ones when the evidence changes and to whom all conclusions and 'beliefs' are conditional and transient and informed by evidence. It takes a special form of arrogance, and more than a little intellectual dishonesty, to insist that there can be knowledge without evidence. Even in the cases of a wrongful convictions, it is evidence which eventually proves the conviction to be unsafe or wrong.

Dogma is the antithesis of intellectual honesty and explains why science progresses and develops but religions remain unchanged until they cease to have any relevance and are swept aside by the tide of evidence which eventually overwhelms them or they are forced to change to avoid extinction.

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Friday, 4 April 2014

More Blunders By The Unintelligent Designer

I've written several blogs already about the 'design' mistakes in the human make-up and other blunders in design of natural things of which any self-respecting intelligent designer would be thoroughly ashamed (see list following this article). Here I look at a few of the less obvious ones - less obvious that is because they are less visible and often something we take for granted as 'normal'. This list is based on an article written by Claire Ainsworth and Michael Le Page, published in New Scientist, 10 August 2007.

Inefficient Respiratory System

It's considered a real achievement and a feat of endurance for a super-fit human, after prolonged training, to climb Mount Everest without oxygen tanks and breathing masks. It was first done as recently as 1978. Everest is a mere 8,848 Metres high. In 1975, a jet flying at a height of 11,264 Metres sucked a griffon vulture into its jet engine.

The problem with mammalian lungs like ours is that we draw in fresh air, which mixes with the stale air left in our lungs, trachea, bronchioles and alveoli, so it's already partly stale by the time it gets to the alveoli where gas exchange takes place. We then breathe out as much as we breathed in, leaving a substantial amount behind to contaminate the next intake. Physiologists refer to this as the 'dead space'.

Because of this, we need particularly large bronchioles to shift enough oxygen in and get rid of enough carbon dioxide and, with particularly high demands such as sprinting we can literally run out of breath. Our muscles don't get enough oxygen and burn sugars anaerobically leading to a build-up of lactic acid causing our muscles to fail eventually. The ensuing 'oxygen debt' means we need a prolonged period of recovery from exhaustion as we burn off the excess lactic acid. In short, just when we need it most, our respiratory system can fail and so it imposes a severe limitation on our abilities. Additionally, in order to shift enough oxygen and carbon dioxide across the alveolar membrane into and out of the blood, their lining needs to be very thin and is easily damaged leading to emphysema.

Birds, on the other hand, have a different system. Fresh air not only goes into their lungs on inspiration but into storage sacks too. When they breath out, fresh air from the storage sacks is pushed through the lungs, flushing out all the stale air, so a bird's lungs get fresh air in both phases of their respiration. So, they are able to make do with finer tubes and more robust alveoli and can sustain prolonged effort with little muscle fatigue. In fact, the action of the wing muscles actually increases the rate of respiration without additional effort. Mammals, on the other hand get no special assistance from their locomotory system and need to bring in additional 'accessory' muscles to increase respiration when necessary, imposing yet another demand on the system.

Creationists believe these two systems were intelligently designed by the same designer who appears to have used the worst design for humans. Biologists, on the other hand, point out that evolution is utilitarian and makes do with whatever works, provided each improvement gives some advantage. They also point out that with an evolutionary system based on accumulated small changes over time, and which can't go in reverse, large-scale reorganisations are impossible, so branches in the evolutionary tree of life are often stuck with whatever worked for their ancestors because evolution can't and doesn't plan ahead. Instead evolution often consists of evolving work-arounds for inefficient earlier 'designs' so far as this is possible.

An Inbuilt Mutation Maker

You might expect the system for copying DNA would be about as error-free as possible given the importance of our DNA to us. However, we have four different DNA polymerase enzymes for doing it with, three of which are not very good at it. The best one only makes about one mistake in one million bases copied but the worst can be as error-prone as one mistake in one hundred bases. The reason for this seems to be that to be accurately copied the DNA needs to be fairly perfect already for the enzyme to 'fit' in the right place. The problem with this 'perfectionist' enzyme is that it stops working when it hasn't got a perfect DNA to copy. The ones with a 'near enough is good enough' approach can happily plough on when they are copying mistakes but aren't too worried about adding a few more along the way. So, the tradeoff is between perfect replication which fails to complete the task, leading to cell death, or getting the job done but with mutations.

The advantage of this is that at least the cells replicate and repairs and growth get done and things like blood cells get replaced, and, in the case of the immune system, novel mutations are partly how new antibodies get produced. The downside is cancer, genetic defects in children and maybe ageing, about which more later.

It should not be beyond the wit of an intelligent designer to create a perfectionist enzyme which can cope with errors in the DNA it is replicating and to produce antibodies some other way, if indeed an intelligent designer designed the reasons for needing an immune system in the first place. Evolutionists however, point out the utilitarian and unplanned methods of the evolutionary process and how this process can produce exactly what we can see - a utilitarian DNA replication system, the negative side of which normally only expresses in later life after the genes causing it have been passed on to the next generation, and how it doesn't care if some of the next generation carry defects so long as some get an advantage from it.

Muddled DNA

Similar to the above but to do with how chromosomes swap chunks of DNA when they pair up to be divided in the first stage of egg or sperm production. We have one of each pair from each of our parents so in this stage, bits of our father's DNA can end up on the same chromosome as bits of our mother's DNA and vice versa. The problem is this often goes wrong and one chromosome ends up with two copies of the same gene and the other has none. Some chunks can even end up getting inserted the wrong way round. If the chromosome with the missing gene ends up in a egg or a sperm which results in a new individual, the conception might not be viable, or it can result in a child with a missing gene. Either outcome is unlikely to be an advantage. If the duplicated gene ends up in a new individual, the outcome is far less likely to be detrimental and, in the long term, because one copy is now free to mutate with no loss of function, there will now be increased variability and something for the environment to naturally select.

For some reason, primates have unusually high rates of gene duplication and the two with the most are humans, followed closely by chimpanzees. Presumably, creationists would dismiss this as mere coincidence and not indicative of a close relationship, even though a lot of the duplicated genes are common to both.

There would appear to be no reason at all for an intelligent designer to design such an imperfect method for passing DNA on to the next generation and one which can result in children with genetic defects and often a short life expectancy or a severely reduced quality of life and restricted opportunities, although creationists often dismiss this as somehow the fault of the victim and the intended outcome of the all-loving designer because they deserved it.

Evolution, on the other hand, explains it as an uncaring, unplanned, utilitarian process which may give the species an advantage in an environment in which species evolve in response to differential natural selection from variations in the population and where the advantages of evolving evolvability the better to cope with a changing, hostile and selective environment are manifestly obvious.

Left: Mammalian eye. Right: Squid eye

The Blind Spot

As almost any half-decent creationist fraud will keep pointing out, Darwin said the complexity and apparent perfection of the eye are difficult to explain. What they won't do, however, is tell you he was showing how this is a problem without an evolutionary process to explain it and he then spent several pages explaining in considerable detail how evolution can explain it. Creationist frauds are of course used to misleading people who want to be mislead and for whom even picking up 'Origin of Species' would be regarded as a sin, let alone reading any of it, so they can be fairly confident they'll get away with it with an audience notoriously averse to fact-checking.

But the mammalian eye is far from perfect and is actually built the wrong way round. Moreover, the squid eye is far more efficient and evolved much earlier than the vertebrate eye, as are some avian eyes which are even built on the the same basic plan as the mammalian one.

The consequence of being built the wrong way round is that the nerves from the retina, on which the image is focussed, run over the front of the retina so light needs to pass through them. They then have come together to form the optic nerve which must go through the retina resulting in the blind spot. To compensate for that, our brain needs to fill in this area of our vision otherwise we would literally see a black area just off center. In actual fact, our brain makes up what we think we see by 'seeing' whatever is around the missing area.

Try this for yourself. Take a sheet of paper and make a circular blob about the width of your little finger nail in diameter. Now mark an 'X' about 8 cm (3 inches) to the left of it. Now, cover your left eye and move the paper towards you focussing on the 'X' with the blob still to the right of it. The blob will seem to disappear but you will 'see' plain paper. Try it with different coloured or even patterned paper. A significant part of our field of vision is invisible because of our blind spot and a portion of what we 'see' is made up by our brain. And all because our eyes are built the wrong way round. Squid eyes do not have a blind spot because they got eyes built the right way round and there appears to be no good reason why a squid eye design would not work in a mammal.

There is no conceivable explanation for this stupid design in terms of an intelligent designer who had earlier designed the molluscan eye. In terms of evolution however, there is no way a design can be copied from a different branch of the evolutionary tree, so eyes have evolved independently several times, each with a different solution to the same problem. Once the mammalian eye started to evolve, even with the wiring the wrong way round, it would have given it's carrier an advantage. Any attempt to reverse the trend and start again would have involved a loss of function and so would have been quickly eliminated by natural selection. Apart from that, there is no planning or intelligence in evolution, so no mechanism by which evolution can decide to start again with a better design. Evolution can only work on what is, not on what should be. So mammals are stuck with an imperfect yet adequate eye, 'designed' by an uncaring, unconscious, unintelligent yet inevitable process.

Built-in Self-Destruction

Being built of eukaryotic cells, i.e., complex cells which, over time, have incorporated other prokaryotic cells like bacteria into themselves as organelles with particular functions, we have inherited these organelles on which our cells now depend. One of these is the mitochondrion which carries out the main energy supply function by burning glucose to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by adding a third phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ATP is then used to power metabolic processes by releasing some of the energy stored in this phosphate bond and being reduced back ADP and phosphate. The mitochondria brought their own genome with them, most of which has now migrated across into the cell nucleus to become part of our normal DNA, but thirteen essential genes have remained behind and, with mitochondria being essential to us, we are entirely dependant on these thirteen genes.

The problem is, the process used to make ATP from sugar, phosphate and ADP in the mitochondria produces highly damaging substances called free radicals which can damage DNA causing mutations to accumulate throughout our lives. These mutations are believed to be the main reason for ageing and may be partly responsible for age-related illnesses such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

If an intelligent designer intended us to develop age-related illnesses and to have built in senescence then putting the life-support system close to the furnace where it could be damaged and degraded over time was the right way to go about it, otherwise, it can't possibly be described as intelligent. As an evolutionary process however, it produces individuals which have time to breed and pass on these design faults before the faults manifest themselves, and that is all that evolution needs to work. In fact this may even be a long-term benefit to the same genes in the next generation as the senescence and death of the parents, once they have reproduced will free up resources for the next generation. No one ever accused a gene of not being selfish and having scant regard for the welfare of its carrier so long as their utility value has been realised in the form of another generation.

Ineffective Enzyme

This is not strictly a design flaw in humans as such but a flaw in something that, like almost all living things on Earth, we are utterly dependant upon. Probably the most abundant protein on Earth is an enzyme. The reason it is so abundant is that it makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality. It is called ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCo for short) and is also the slowest known enzyme. RuBisCo is the enzyme in photosynthesis responsible for taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and building the chains of carbon in sugars which form the backbone of all organic substances.

But RuBisCo is incredibly bad at doing what it does, only carrying out about three reactions a second against tens of thousands of reactions a second for some enzymes. And it makes lots of mistakes. It finds it difficult to tell oxygen molecules (O2) from CO2 and often incorporates it by mistake, causing a chain reaction which causes a loss of carbon and wastes energy. Some plants have evolved mechanisms for reducing these mistakes but they appear to have been evolved several times independently.

Photosynthesis was one of the big steps in evolution when the cyanobacteria evolved this ability to almost literally eat the atmosphere instead of having to eat other organic substances. Some cyanobacteria then got incorporated into eukaryotic cells similarly to the way mitochondria became incorporated and so green plants were able to evolve. This gave life on Earth a huge boost in biomass but produced a toxic atmosphere containing molecular oxygen - the waste product of photosynthesis spat out from the carbon in CO2. This led to the first mass extinction until other bacteria managed to evolve ways of using all this spare oxygen.

And that's probably why RuBisCo makes its frequent mistakes. It evolved in a low oxygen environment where such mistakes were rare and insignificant but it gave its carriers such a huge advantage that the mistake has become fixed. Any tendency to change it would result in something even worse so living things have to make do with what they've got. No planning; no ability to go in reverse, and no one to stand back and think of a better way and start again. The fact that lots of plants have evolved different ways to compensate for RuBisCo's inefficiency shows that it not ideal for purpose. No omnipotent intelligent designer would come up with something which has to be compensated for. Evolution, on the other hand...

Further reading:
The Unintelligent Designer.
The Unintelligent Designer - Arms Races.
Unintelligent Design - The Head Case.
Unintelligent Design - Forming Alliances.
Unintelligent Design And Vitamin C Deficiency.
Creationists Don't Have A Leg To Stand On.
Ungodly Complexity.
Unintelligently Designed Brain.
Evolution. It's Enough To Give You Goosebumps.
Tasteless Rebuff To Intelligent Design.
Unintelligent Design.
Unintelligently Designed Teeth Cause Ray Discomfort.
Edible Frogs And Unintelligent Design.

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Thursday, 3 April 2014

Turin Shroud Forgery Shows Changing Fashions in Art.

Shroud of Turin depicts Y-shaped crucifixion - life - 02 April 2014 - New Scientist

The 14th-century medieval forgery known as the Shroud of Turin, which some Christians still insist was the shroud used to wrap the body of Jesus in following his legendary crucifixion, may show how perceptions of crucifixion and how it was depicted in art changed over time.

Carbon dating has shown that the flax used to make the linen cloth grew in the late 13th or early 14th century, not long before the shroud made it's first public appearance in France. This evidence confirms the evidence from the image itself that the shroud is a medieval European forgery. Strangely, the claim that it is the genuine shroud of Jesus never explains how the linen travelled back in time some 1400 years to 1st-century Palestine and then came forward again to 14th-century France, but such details are of little consequence to people who are desperate for evidence or to a church which habitually tries to trick people with fakes and phoney tales of miracles.

The image on it appears to have been a crude attempt to reproduce a body around which the shroud was wrapped and to make the body look like it had been crucified by painting some 'blood' on the arms. The artist appears to have either been unaware that wrapping a cloth around an object does not reproduce a three-dimensional image of the object, or he/she tried to reproduce an image that many people would assume such a process would produce.

If the forger had thought about it at all, it must have been something of a dilemma to either reproduce a realistic image as produced by wrapping it round the body, that no-one would recognise as the figure of a man unless projected onto a cylindrical mirror, or to produce something laughably unrealistic to an unbiased observer but that uncritical people would recognise as a human figure and allow confirmation bias and an eagerness to be fooled to gloss over the errors. The latter psychological process is the one normally used by religions to fool people with similar 'miracles'.

From the Gorleston Psalter, c.1320-30
Now a study has shown that the forger either deliberately or by chance, reproduced a pattern of blood flow on the left forearm which would be expected if the crucified body depicted had been crucified not in the traditional cruciform position, with arms outstretched, but in a 'Y' shaped position with arms raised above the head. This may well reflect the changing perception of how crucifixions were carried out, and might be because the forgery, like many of his contemporary 14th-century artists, depicted it as a 'Y', like Rubens did less than two hundred years later but unlike the more traditional poses depicted by more contemporary artists.

It could be that the artist just decided to draw the rivulets of blood parallel to the arms for artistic reasons.

Matteo Borrini, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
We can see how the forger was influenced by other artistic and cultural traditions and assumptions of his/her time in the depiction of Jesus as a European in the same pose used for the effigies of important people on their tombs. The hands, which are too small for the size of the face - a common mistake in early art - are discretely folded over the genitalia - something that would have been difficult to maintain whilst wrapping a body in a shroud and something that would not have been regarded as important since there was no expectation that anyone would see the body naked again. But obviously, if you're going to put an image of Jesus on display you don't want to show his naughty bits because that would be disrespectful and you can't use the traditional artistic device of a loincloth because bodies aren't normally buried in them.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Life On Mars? Death For Creationism?

Search for Martian Life Clears Another Hurdle

I wouldn't want to add to the discomfort and general air of despondency which must be pervading creationist pseudoscience circles these days, so any creationist frauds reading this should stop immediately.

Creationist pseudoscientists have recently had to endure (and ignore) the discovery, which is surely beyond any reasonable doubt now, that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and formed a ring species with them and other species of humans, typical of an evolving and diversifying group of closely related species. Then we had confirmation of the Big Bang inflation and so the virtual certainty of the multiverse theory being correct.

Now they are now getting closer to what must be their nightmare scenario - the evidence is growing that there was formerly life not just on another planet but on Mars, our near neighbour in the solar system, and that it evolved there may millions of years ago when there was flowing water and habitable lakes on Mars.

The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in Woodlands, Texas, USA was told that the Curiosity Mars rover team are now reasonably confident that contaminants from Earth can't account for the carbon compounds Curiosity has obtained from martian rocks. In controlled experiments using Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) equipment the team have eliminated accidental contamination from an organic reagent brought from Earth for future analysis. They report that the findings are persuasive and offer "compelling" evidence that chlorinated methane, ethane and propane found in the rocks are of martian origin.

This is a long way from proving that there was even simple life on Mars but, apart from it raining down from the Cosmos in the cosmic dust, meteorites and other space debris left over from the formation of the solar system, it's hard to account for it any other way.

So, things are looking bleak for creationism these days.

Not only has the DNA evidence of our interbreeding with Neanderthals knocked on the head any idea of us being a special creation and all descendants from a first couple a few thousand years ago, but it also refutes any notion of original sin - one of the main selling points for religions which diagnose the 'problem' and sell the cure like an 'alternative medicine' fraudster. The DNA evidence is entirely consistent with the scientific explanation of human origins in which no magic and no gods are required.

The confirmation of the mechanism of the first few billionths of a second in the Big Bang, together with the virtual certainty that universes are continually popping into existence so that all possible universes will exist. This refutes so many traditional creationist 'arguments' that it's hard to know where to begin. It destroys the Cosmological Argument which depends on the assumption that there must have been something to cause the Big Bang. Not only does there not need to be anything because quantum events don't require a cause but the probable existence of 'inflatons', which give rise to masses of space, means universes are very probably commonplace.

Of course the 'God did it!' conclusion was always circular anyway. "Look! God must exist because I can arbitrarily designate it as the cause of something I don't understand (and I've no intention of doing so because I already know the answer)"! At least creationists who would like to be honest if only they could be, don't need to use that dishonest tactic any more.

That brings us to the 'fine-tuning' argument or, in the form in which it's sold to children, the 'Goldilocks' argument. This argues that the probability of the Universe being exactly right for life is so infinitessimally small that it must have been designed. And this is entirely consistent with insisting that life only exists on this single planet out of the trillions in the entire fine-tuned-for-life Universe. Now we know that all possible universes pop into existence, of which this one is just one. Of course, if life couldn't have evolved here we couldn't be discussing it, so a Universe in which intelligent beings are discussing anything must be one in which intelligent life can evolve. And now we know there must be very many of them with the same conditions as this Universe.

In fact, this refutation of the 'Goldilocks' creationist fairy tale must come as something of a relief to any intelligent theists who will surely have realised that arguing that their god can only create life which needs a very tightly controlled set of conditions, is arguing that it not only isn't omnipotent, because an omnipotent god could create life anywhere it wanted, but that it is itself constrained and needs a fine-tuned environment in which to work. Who fine-tuned the creator's world and set the constraints under which it has to work? And yet another creationist argument disappears up its own infinite regress.

And of course, should their nightmare ever come true and we find evidence of life on another planet, this will remove any vestige of logic from their fond notion that their god created Earth especially for them, its special creation, to live in and that the chances of life arising even in the 'perfect' conditions their god created are so small that it couldn't have happened spontaneously.

If it turns out that life also arose on the only other planet we definitely know about where the conditions could once have been similar to those on an early Earth, that argues strongly that it happens spontaneously and quite readily. The 'Goldilocks zone' will need to be expanded and the definition adjusted accordingly using creationist circular reasoning - life can only exist in a 'Goldilocks zone' so a 'Goldilocks zone' must be wherever life exists!

Creationist frauds must consider themselves very fortunate that their target marks are almost guaranteed not to read any science and if they stumble accidentally on any will simply wave it aside anyway. In any case, when did having an argument refuted mean a creationist fraud wouldn't try to get away with it on someone else?

I wonder what the chances of proudly ignorant science denialism arising spontaneously in an otherwise intelligent ape are? Surely it must have been created by design. It certainly seems to require very careful maintenance.

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Saturday, 29 March 2014

If Only Noah Had Known About Evolution!

Noah's ark on the Mount Ararat, Simone de Myle 1570
Tree of bird life could solve Noah's Ark problem - life - 27 March 2014 - New Scientist

One of the many absurdities in the Noah's Ark myth, several more of which can be found in No Way Noah!, is the sheer impossibility of providing an ocean-going sea-worthy wooden boat large enough to house something like 19 million animals of all shapes and sizes, many of which require highly specialised environments, together with enough food, to last something over a year.

Creationist pseudo-scientists who make their living trying to explain away these absurdities have no option but to fall back on an almost equally absurd version of warp-speed evolution so they can reduce the numbers to mere few thousand from which all the species have evolved in the last few thousand years, apparently with no one noticing all the new species popping into existence every generation. We're expected not to notice that they also tell their credulous followers that evolution is impossible but holding two diametrically opposite views simultaneously has never been a problem for creationists.

Now scientists have suggested a way we could, should the need ever arise in the future to take the world's species into protective custody to prevent the extinction of life on Earth, whilst not needing to take a pair of every single species. What we would need to safeguard is the DNA of all different species, not in test-tubes but in living members of those species which are the most evolutionarily distinct. From these, we could, theoretically reconstruct other related species.

You could increase the amount of evolutionary diversity that is currently protected by 25 per cent by expanding the reserve system by 5 per cent.

Laura Pollock, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
For example, we would not need to save a pair of every wild cat but nor would it work to save, say, lions, or tigers because these have close relatives, so most of their DNA would survive their extinction. What we need to do is to preserve the main limbs and major branches of the evolutionary tree of life rather than the terminal twigs. Losing a species which is closely related to several others, such as the lion, would merely remove a twig from the tree. Conserving an evolutionary distinct species with few living relatives however will conserve more of the DNA from further down the branch for the same effort.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has been running the Edge of Existence Project since 2007. This seeks to identify key endangered and evolutionary unique species and to rank them into an order of priority for conservation. At the moment, effort tends to be concentrated on a few high-profile species, often at the expense of a higher priority species according to this ranking.

Now, Walter Jetz of Yale University has ranked the world's birds in terms of evolutionary distinctness using genetic data from 6500 of the 10,000 species combined with data on threats and population size to produce a list of just 100 priority species. He has also shown that concentrating on just 113 sites could conserve 60 percent of the most endangered evolutionary unique species.

Jetz has used the ranking to point to species that should be protected. For example, the highly distinct shore plover (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) lives only on the tiny Chatham Islands, near New Zealand. Just 250 are left. Focusing on plover habitat would preserve 14.46 million years of evolution for each 10,000 square kilometres conserved. In contrast, the ostrich is the 10th most distinct species, but as it has a large range only 0.05 million years would be preserved per unit area.

Andy Coghlan, Tree of bird life could solve Noah's Ark problem, New Scientist, 27 March 2014.

It's a beautiful irony that, had the Bible's authors had the least inkling of evolution or DNA and how it allows species to be arranged in a tree of life, they could have made their absurd tale just a little more plausible by explaining that Noah had reduced the number of species to conserve by doing just what conservationists are now doing. They would have had to explain how Noah had then reconstructed all the other species by careful bioengineering of course but at least their daft notion would have been just slightly less implausible.

Unfortunately, they had to try to force-fit the story into what little they knew and understood, and the prevailing superstition of the orthodoxy they were selling, and so ended up with a story so implausible that only children and scientifically illiterate, gullible adults could believe it.

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Ringing the Changes - Sex in Siberia

Oldest Homo sapiens Genome Pinpoints Neandertal Input

Just another little piece in the jigsaw puzzle of human evolution emerged this week when researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, announced the results of their sequencing of the entire genome from DNA recovered from the 45,000 year-old Homo sapiens male thigh bone, found in 2008 in an exposed banks of the Irtysh River at Ust-Ishim in western Siberia. It had been found by an ivory carver looking for mammoth tusks.

And, as with so often with science, a little piece of information has raised more questions and suggests that some of our earlier assumptions might just have been wrong.

Svante Pääbo's team have a lot more work to do but already a couple of things have been found:

  • The DNA contained unmistakeable traces of Neanderthal DNA showing that the man was descended from people who had interbred with H. neanderthalensis.
  • Interbreeding had been quite recent judging by the fact that the sequences of Neanderthal DNA occurred in longer chunks than normally found in modern humans. As time progresses the chance of any chunk of DNA being chopped in half by crossover during the first stage of meiosis increases. A bit like whole fruit in a smoothy maker.

Genetically we now have a modern human that just barely postdates the Neandertal introgression into modern humans.

Bence Viola. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Now, and this might be a small crumb of comfort for those creationists who haven't simply ignored all this evidence of the hybrid origins of modern humans and must be feeling pretty depressed by all the evidence piling up against them, this has produced one of those small areas of disagreement amongst paleoanthropologists. Creationists normally enjoy these small disagreements and wave them around as evidence that, whilst science claims to be the only way to determine truth, it normally involves disagreement and changes of mind.

It's like having a time machine, to go back 45,000 years to see how the genomes of modern humans differed both from our own and also from Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Sarah Tishkoff, University of Pennsylvania, USA
It had been assumed that H. neanderthalensis had evolved in Europe or Asia, probably from H. heidelbergensis or maybe H. habilis or even H. ergaster or H. antecessor and had adapted to the colder northern climate. Later, when H. sapiens came out of Africa they did not move up into the colder north initially but skirted the southern margins into southern Europe and across Asia. The most likely place for the interbreeding with H. neanderthalensis in this scenario would have been the Middle East somewhere around northern Arabia, Asian Minor, Iraq or Iran. And this more or less tied in with the estimated dates of our expansion out of Africa and the period of cohabitation with Neanderthals.

However, this find suggests that modern humans adapted quite quickly to colder climates and were interbreeding with Neanderthals much further north. But, there is still much to be done to determine if this rapid adaptation was actually the result of the DNA we got from Neanderthals, or even to survival techniques and cold climate technologies we got from them.

One other intriguing possibility here is that, given the close proximity between Ust-Ishim and the Denisovan cave where a finger bone which yielded the DNA of a third species of humans was found, there may have been three different human species all capable of interbreeding and living in a relatively small area. All extra-African modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA and several groups of Southeast Asian and Austronesian people also have some Denisovan DNA, so it could be that this area was the point where all three came into contact and behaved very much like a ring species - just as we should expect gradually diverging species spread across a large geographical range to behave.

Researchers still think the Middle East is a likely place for the encounters. Other fossils in Israel, such as a 49,000-year-old Neandertal at Tabun Cave, might belong to people who were alive at the time of the unions or just after, says archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, who was not a member of the team.

Ann Gibbons, Oldest Homo sapiens Genome Pinpoints Neandertal Input,
Science 28 March 2014: Vol. 343 no. 6178 p. 1417 DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6178.1417

Creationists who may be tempted to latch on to this little disagreement should bear in mind that there is no disagreement about human evolution here, or even the now established fact the modern humans coexisted with, and interbred with, related species of humans. The disagreement is simply over where the interbreeding took place.

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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Evolution Has More to Crow About

Carrion crow, Corvus corone corone
A few days ago I mentioned at the end of a blog about the evolution of crows in the presence of the great spotted cuckoo, the fact that carrion crows and hooded crows are now regarded as different species. This illustrates neatly the problem of defining a species, especially where two closely related species are at a stage in their evolution where they have not fully diverged and retain the capability of interbreeding. I'll discuss this more later, but first, the case of the Eurasian crows.

As you drive north from England across southern Scotland and up towards the Highlands, you might, if you're interested in the birds, notice that the ubiquitous glossy black crows you will have seen almost everywhere from town parks to country fields and woodlands have quite suddenly been replaced by an equally common crow with a black head, tail and wings and a grey back and underparts. If you drive eastwards from Western Europe through Germany towards Poland or down into Austria or the Balkans you'll see a similar change. In both cases the plain black carrion crow, Corvus corone, has been replaced by the black and grey hooded crow, C. cornix. A similar change occurs as you drive from France into Italy south of the Alps.

Hooded crow, Berlin, Germany, Corvus cornix cornix
What you may not have noticed as you drove north in Britain however was a narrow band where the crows were both black and grey and black, and a whole range of intermediates between the two. In this narrow band, which has apparently moved over time, the two species of crow behave like a single species and interbreed freely, producing all the different intermediates.

There are similar zones of interbreeding between France and Italy. Everywhere else in Europe, they behave like two perfectly respectable species, just like, say, the song thrush, Turdus philomelos, and the blackbird, T. merula, or the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, and the tree sparrow, P. montanus.

Hybrid between carrion and hooded crow, Corvus corone x cornix
If you continue driving eastwards from Europe across the Yenisei river into central Asia, you'll find another sudden change - the hooded crows will disappear, to be replaced by what looks like slightly larger carrion crows. In fact, most authorities think that's exactly what the eastern crow is, and call it C. c. orientalis, the carrion crow being called C. c. corone to show that they are merely subspecies and not distinct species in their own right. Others disagree and think that, because the two subspecies are geographically separated, and have been for a long time, they do not interbreed and so form a single species with a single gene-pool, they should be regarded as two distinct species, C. corone and C. orientalis. However, there is a zone of interbreeding between C. cornix and C. C. orientalis just as there are zones of interbreeding between C. cornix and C. c. corone.

And it gets worse! Go from the north down through Iraq towards the Arabian Gulf and, as you come to ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the grey parts of the hooded crows become much paler so they look almost black and white. There they are known as the Iraqi pied crow. Taxonomists regard these as a subspecies, C. c. capellanus. All in all, there are four subspecies of hooded crow; the other two being one which lives in a band running from western Siberia down between the Black and the Caspian seas through the Caucasus Mountains and into Iran (C. c. sharpii), and one found in Turkey and Egypt (C. c. pallescens).

Eastern carrion crow, Corvus corone orientalis
The current hypothesis is that several populations of the stem species for all these crows got separated during the Ice Age and for tens of thousands of years evolved in isolation as effectively different gene-pools. As the ice retreated one of the populations which had evolved into the hooded form expanded northwards forming a block between the western and eastern forms which had retained their all-black plumage.

These eastern and western forms have since continued on their different evolutionary trajectories, the eastern form becoming a little larger and their tail feathers becoming more tapered. Meanwhile, the hooded form, which happens to occupy a more diverse habitat has formed local subspecies. All the crows are sedentary species, never straying far from the area they were born in. This helps to minimise any gene flow from adjacent subspecies.

So why is this? Why does the science of taxonomy find it difficult to tell if closely related species are the same species, subspecies or full species in their own right? Why is there now agreement that hooded crows and carrion crows, which do interbreed in a few small areas, are distinct species, yet disagreement about the status of the eastern crow, even though they never normally meet carrion crows in the wild and so do not normally interbreed? And, if the hooded and carrion crows were merely subspecies, what would be the status of the four subspecies of hooded crow?

The reason for this apparent confusion and imprecision, is that 'species' is a human concept; a tool used by science to classify all the different living things. Nature doesn't read our rulebook and doesn't have any obligation to produce neat divisions between living things. Nature is quite happy about the distinction being blurred so any device we come up with to try to divide living things up into our neat compartments is bound to lack precision because nature itself lacks precision. The reason that C. corone and C. corvix are now regarded as species rather than subspecies, incidentally, is because studies have shown that the hybrids lack breeding vigour, indicating that divergence of the species had progress towards the point where interbreeding would either be impossible or the offspring would be sterile. This is in fact a departure from the commonly accepted definition because, although they may lack vigour, they may well be fertile, and one definition of 'species' is a distinct population capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Even though it is not disputed that species is a taxonomic rank, this does not prevent disagreements when particular species are discussed. Consider the case of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) and Bullock's Oriole (I. bullockii), two similar species of birds that have sometimes in the past been considered to be one single species, the Northern Oriole (I. galbula). Currently, biologists agree that these are actually two separate species, but in the past this was not the case.

Disagreements and confusion happen over just what the best criteria are for identifying new species. In 1942, Ernst Mayr wrote that, because biologists have different ways of identifying species, they actually have different species concepts. Mayr listed five different species concepts, and since then many more have been added. The question of which species concept is best has occupied many printed pages and many hours of discussion.

The debates are philosophical in nature. One common disagreement is over whether a species should be defined by the characteristics that biologists use to identify the species, or whether a species is an evolving entity in nature. Every named species has been formally described as a type of organism with particular defining characteristics. These defining traits are used to identify which species an organism belongs to. For many species, all of the individuals that fit the defining criteria also make up a single evolving unit, but it might not be known whether that is the case. These two different ways of thinking about species, as a category or as an evolving population, may be quite different from each other.


... I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species. (p. 48)
It was Charles Darwin himself who pointed out that if it hadn't been for evolution, which has caused living things to diverge and differentiate and which has emphasised and worked on differences, converting minor differences over time into major ones, that we have all the different taxa from kingdoms to subspecies and varieties in the first place. Evolution has carved out the current taxa from what would otherwise be a confusing mass of undifferentiated life forms. In fact, it would not have been possible for living things to evolve any of their solutions to problems like where to get basic resources from even to make copies of themselves. Life could not have progressed beyond simple autocatalytic replicators without natural selection to work on the slight differences produced by imperfect replication.

What we have in the crow example above is an example of evolution in progress, just like a ring species. These different populations of crows are seen at the current stage in their evolution and diversification. They are obviously not the same species but their progress to separate species status has not yet progressed to completion. In some ways they act like one species; in other ways they act like subspecies and in still other ways they behave like different species altogether. There is no requirement on nature or the process of evolution to complete this process suddenly or even within a given time frame, or in front of an eye-witness. If it takes 10 million years, or ten thousand years then that's what it takes. If you expect to see it happen, you have a loooooong wait.

In the case of our own divergence from the common ancestor we share with the chimpanzees, recent evidence has suggested that we may have interbred with chimpanzees for over a million years before finally diverging. The process of speciation started some 6.3 million years ago and took 1.2 million years to complete! Later on in the evolution of Homo sapiens, we were still able to interbreed with H. neanderthalensis and maybe with H. antecessor, H. habilis, and H. erectus and other species yet to be discovered (or should they be subspecies?).

This exposes the lie behind the idiotic mantra which creationists chant when you show them some examples of recent evolution or indisputable evidence that evolution occurred in the very recent past, "That's microevolution. Macroevolution is impossible! No one has ever seen a new species arise!" No-one who knows anything about evolution would expect to see a species arise (except in the rare examples of new species arising by hybridization - which have been seen) because it takes tens or hundreds of thousand or even millions of years. Evolution is a process, not an event.

By what sane logic have creationist pseud-scientists concluded that evolution can proceed within a species and can happily account for the evolution of subspecies and yet conclude that progressing a little further to the status of species is impossible? The terms are purely human constructs and do not mandate or constrain the process of evolution in any way. Are we really expected to believe that when humans classify two crows as C. c. corone and C. c. cornix evolution is perfectly adequate to explain how they differentiated from one another, yet when the same humans decide to re-classify them as C. corone and C. cornix, all that magically changes and the differentiation we previously accepted somehow becomes retrospectively impossible? Only someone who sincerely wants to be fooled could fall for that 'reasoning'.

The creationist frauds who have sold that lie to the gullible fools who eagerly buy their cures for cognitive dissonance really should be taken to task for releasing their unfortunate victims onto the Internet to make such fools of themselves with that simplistic nonsense.

And the crow example can only be understood as an evolutionary process. There can be no intelligent reason for creating different overlapping populations with different forms and behaviours and then allowing them to interbreed, simply to produce offspring with reduced vigour which soon die out when they interbreed with one another, in a zone which needs to be constantly replenished with new hybrids from the two parent species. Any creator which intended that outcome would be an idiot. Any creator which did it accidentally would be incompetent. The same frauds are selling this 'Intelligent Design' nonsense to the same gullible fools too.


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