Thursday, 16 November 2017

Evolving Creationists!

Old Order Amish, evolving - naturally
Why these Amish live longer and healthier: an internal ‘fountain of youth’ - Northwestern Now

Shocking news for creationists yesterday!

Fundamentalist Christian creationists have been caught evolving and breaking one of the sacred creationist dogmas - that all mutations are harmful and degenerative. This was discovered in a group of appropriately-named Old Order Amish from Indiana, USA.

Due to a mutation, they are living 10% longer compared to those members of the same Amish group without the mutation.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Two 'World Views'

Kingston University study reveals how food poisoning bacteria Campylobacter uses other organisms as Trojan horse to infect new hosts - News - Kingston University London

I heartily dislike the term world view. It's nothing more than an attempt to pretend that an opinion which isn't supported by the evidence is the equal of one that is. And that's a very convenient way to justify demanding the right to be taken seriously on any subject without bothering to learn anything about it.

A 'world view' that either eschews scientific evidence or actively rejects it is not an opinion based on an interpretation of the data; it's an opinion that ignores it.

But let's play this 'different world view' game that creationists play where they pretend they have looked at all the evidence and simply arrived at a different conclusion based on their 'world view' not the scientific 'world view' - which, so they would claim, is no more valid than their own!

A Victory for Human Decency in Australia

Australians celebrate victory over religious bigotry
Australians back gay marriage in non-binding vote - BBC News:

Great news from Australia!

In a non-binding 'advisory' postal vote, Australians have voted 61.6% in favour of legalising same-sex marriages on a 79.5% turnout. Unlike normal Australian voting where voting is compulsory, this referendum was voluntary, which makes this turnout even more remarkable.

On a regional basis, only 17 of the 150 electorates voted against the proposal "Should the marriage law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?" Australia's chief statistician, David Kalisch said, "This [turnout] is outstanding for a voluntary survey and well above other voluntary surveys conducted around the world. It shows how important this issue is to many Australians".

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Be Upstanding For Jesus

Paseka 'Mboro' Motsoeneng of the Incredible Happenings Ministry.
Photo credit: Sandile Ndlovu
Pastor demands footage of him reviving parishioner's erection be shown on TV | Metro News

A South African pastor is proclaiming a miraculous cure for impotence and demanding it be shown on Soweto television.

Pastor Paseka ‘Prophet Mboro’ Motsoeneng, of the Incredible Happenings Ministry in Katlehong, South Africa, will already be familiar to readers of this blog for his amazing powers (and amazing wealth). Only last July, on God's instructions, he went into Hell and killed Satan according to his announcement on his Facebook page (that was mysteriously taken down soon after it appeared - which had nothing to do with a very large number of complaints, obviously).

We can be sure this is true because Prophet Mboro is a Christian and it is forbidden for Christians to bear false witness, i.e., lie!

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Religion Is Not Natural


The Camino de Santiago de Compostela
source: Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Why do we believe in gods? Religious belief not linked to intuition or rational thinking, new research suggests

Are people born with the propensity to be religious, as some studies seem to have shown?

It is even claimed in some religious apologetic circles that somehow being religious is the natural state, either an evolved genetic predisposition, or, in fundamentalist creationist apologetics, that God intelligently designed us to be religious (obviously it couldn't have evolved, that would be heretical!).

Strangely, this god intelligently designed us to be religious but couldn't make us all have the 'one true religion'.

Of course, the bottom line is that somehow, atheism is unnatural, even perverse and definitely not something God intended.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

'Missing Link' in Abiogenesis Found!

Scientists find potential 'missing link' in chemistry that led to life on Earth

You know, sometimes I get carried away and fantasise about creationist frauds like Ham, Comfort and Hovind hearing the tune Aproaching Menace by Neil Richardson as they read yet another scientific paper showing how science is closing in on one of their sacred dogmas - that only God can create life.

But then I come back to reality and remember that they don't do science and evidence, so none of this makes any difference to them. They'll still claim it's impossible, knowing they can rely on their willing dupes not to check just in case.

Only three days ago I reported here on the work of a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA who are homing in on one of the pre-biotic precursors of one of the fundamental cell processes. Just a day later we had this paper published in Nature Chemistry showing how another fundamental process could similarly have arisen pre-biotically. The process is that of phosphorylation, i.e, adding a phosphate group to three key components of cells.

Human Kindness - In Bonobos!

Close primate cousins with whom we share 99 percent of our DNA, bonobos will help strangers even when there is no immediate payback, and without having to be asked first.
Photo credit: Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.
Bonobos Help Strangers Without Being Asked | Duke Today

Bonobos and humans share some 99% of their genes so it's hardly surprising that we share some behavioural traits too.

As this news item from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA explains:

A passer-by drops something and you spring to pick it up. Or maybe you hold the door for someone behind you. Such acts of kindness to strangers were long thought to be unique to humans, but recent research on bonobos suggests our species is not as exceptional in this regard as we like to think.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Oh Creation! Now An Intermediate Short-Necked Giraffe!


Reconstruction of Decennatherium rex sp. nov.
A, skeletal reconstruction; B, life reconstruction of an adult female; C, life reconstruction of the head of an adult female.
Illustration by Oscar Sanisidro.
A new giraffid (Mammalia, Ruminantia, Pecora) from the late Miocene of Spain, and the evolution of the sivathere-samothere lineage

Another gap filled; another 'intermediate form' found!

So, do creationists give up with their disinformation, misrepresentation and downright lies? What do you think?

Of course not! It's just one more thing to misrepresent and lie about. A literal interpretation of the Bible says it shouldn't exist, so it doesn't exist! End of! FACT!

Anyway, back to the real world.

According to this report in the New York Times:

A near-perfect fossil unearthed close to Madrid appears to be an ancient European ancestor of giraffes, representing a new species in the family and one that had two sets of bony bumps on its head rather than the single set of modern giraffes.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Ancient Wisdom And Genetic Diversity

Neanderthal family group
Photo credit: Nikola Solic/Reuters/Newscom
Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers | Science

Two papers published a few days ago in the same edition of Science show that hunter-gatherer people, both modern human and Neanderthal, had evolved cultures which minimised the genetic risks inherent in inbreeding in the small bands of which these groups consisted.

Small groups consisting only of related extended families would have a very high probability of consanguinity and inherited recessive genes unless they had strategies for regularly introducing genetic material from other more distantly related groups.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Gene Duplication Gave Us Spiders

Common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum
The house spider genome reveals an ancient whole-genome duplication during arachnid evolution | BMC Biology | Full Text

For creationists still trying to get away with the absurd claim that mutations are always harmful and that no new information can arise in the genome because of the second law of thermodynamics, this is another of those bad news stories.

No! I'm not joking! They really do claim that! Creationists think nothing of claiming an observable thing can't happen, knowing that their willing dupes won't go and check. They'll no doubt continue to claim it even after this paper showing how the scorpions and arachnids have evidence of whole genome duplication in a common ancestor about 400 million years ago.

The Chemical Origin of Life


Accretion of SSU rRNA as illustrated by helices 7–10/es3 from species of increasing complexity. A four-way junction at the surface of the common core, formed by helices 7–10, has expanded by accretion. Accretion adds to the previous rRNA core, leaving insertion fingerprints. (A and B) Secondary (A) and 3D (B) structures are preserved upon the addition of new rRNA. (C) Superimposition of the 3D structures highlights how new rRNA accretes with preservation of ancestral rRNA. (D) A characteristic insertion fingerprint is shown in red and blue boxes. In all panels, the rRNA that approximates the common core is blue. An expansion observed in both archaea and eukaryotes is green. An expansion that is observed only in eukaryotes is gold. An additional expansion in higher eukaryotes (mammals) is red.*
History of the ribosome and the origin of translation

A team of scientist from Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA believe they are close to solving one of the mysteries of how living systems first arose from chemical precursors. They believe they have identified a small section of the ribosome which is so fundamental that it is common to all living organisms, from the simplest single-celled organisms to the most complex multicellular plants and animals

In short, this looks to be the starting point for life and a structure that was present in LUCA and maybe before it.

Rather than the bottom up approach where scientists have attempted, with limited success so far, to reconstruct the fundamental units from which living systems could have arisen, the team took a top down approach by reverse engineering the cell organelle common to all living cells and therefore almost certainly present from the first moments, maybe even before something that could be called 'living' existed, the ribosome.

Ribosomes are composed of a tangle of RNA and proteins and are fundamental to living cells in that they only perform one task - they translate the code in DNA and construct proteins from amino acids. They differ from one species to another only in the 'ornamentation' present on their surface, and this gave the clue to the method of reverse engineering the team used.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Nasty Design; Nasty Designer?

Mosquito feeding
Credit: Mircea Costina / Alamy Stock Photo
Malaria parasite makes mosquitoes more likely to suck your blood | New Scientist

Continuing with the theme of exposing creationism's putative designer as a malevolent thug, full of evil intent and far from the benevolent, maximally good father figure god they purport to believe in, here is an an example from the mosquito-malaria 'design', published a few days ago in Biorxiv.

Abstract
Whether the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum can manipulate mosquito host choice in ways that enhance parasite transmission toward human is

Friday, 3 November 2017

Cultural Woolly Mammoths

A mammoth tusk on Wrangel Island.
Credit: Patrícia Pečnerová
Male mammoths more often fell into 'natural traps' and died, DNA evidence suggests -- ScienceDaily:

Elephants are well known for the cultural organisation in which a matriarchal group, led by a older female who acts as a repository for group knowledge such as where the water may be found during a drought, etc. This group consists of females with their young but males, when they reach a certain age, generally fend for themselves in smaller groups or as solitary individuals often associated with but not members of a matriarchal group.

This, of course, deprives males of the protection of the group and of the knowledge and wisdom of the matriarch.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

A New Species of Orangutan and More...

Orangutans in Sumatra's Batang Toru forest are now officially a new species:
Pongo tapanuliensis.

Credit: Maxime Aliaga/SOCP-Batang Toru Programme
Newly discovered orangutan species is also the most endangered : Nature News & Comment

Not only is there great news about a new species of orangutan but the article in Nature announcing it quite casually shows how different strands of science all confirm current scientific understanding of evolution.

Firstly, the newly discovered orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

Well, it's not exactly newly discovered so much as newly identified as a new species. It was first reported by western scientists about 50 years ago when they heard rumours of a population of orangutans living in a the Batang Toru forest in a remote part of the island of western Sumatra. However, it was not until anthropologist Erik Meijaard, that discovered the paper in the mid-1990s that scientists actually went looking for the population. They found the remains of a female, evidence of nests and a male killed by local people in 2013. From these, it was possible, using genetic evidence, to show not only that this was a new species, but how it relates to the other orangutans.

Animals Refute Creationism By Rational Thought

Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at UH, says empirical evidence suggests a variety of animal species are able to make rational decisions, despite the lack of a human-like language.
Do Animals Think Rationally? - University of Houston

Do animals other than humans think rationally?

Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, think some at least do and believes he has evidence to support that view. His article is published a few days ago Philosophy and Phenomenological Research sets out his reasoning.

Regrettably, it sits behind an expensive paywall but a News release by Jeannie Kever of Huston University explains his findings:

"These data suggest that not only do some animals have a subjective take on the suitability of the option they are evaluating for their goal, they possess a subjective, internal signal regarding their confidence in this take that can be deployed to select amongst different options," he [Cameron Buckner] wrote.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Chimps More Like Us Than We Thought

Co-operating chimpanzees
Credit: Christopher F Martin
Chimpanzees shown spontaneously ‘taking turns’ to solve number puzzle | University of Oxford

A new study by researchers from Oxford and Kyoto universities and Cincinnati Zoo has revealed a new level of co-operative behaviour not seen before in other than humans. The chimps were shown to be spontaneously taking turns co-cooperatively to complete a task, a form of behaviour believe to be basic to effective communication where timing cues are taken from one another.

As Dr Dora Biro, co-author of the study from Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said:

Coordinating behaviour is an essential component of many social situations and can enable groups of individuals jointly to solve problems. In communication, coordination often takes the form of turn-taking, where one individual takes cues from the other to decide on the timing of their own input. This can allow for the efficient exchange of information.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Zika - The Nasty Designer Plays it Sneaky!

Zika Virus Infects Developing Brain by First Infecting Cells Meant to Defend Against It

First, a little story:

God sat in Heaven gazing down at his creation that he loved and adored beyond measure and he noticed that things were not perfect. He notice all the war, famine, pestilence and hate.

He noticed that humans were finding cures for polio, smallpox, even malaria, and using antibiotics to cure infections that would have killed millions in earlier times. He noticed that very many children were growing up into strong, healthy adults when once they would have died in infancy.

He noticed though that there was still much suffering. He noticed the children born with physical and mental handicaps. He noticed the anguish of the parents of these children as they struggled to cope and make life bearable for these unfortunate children. He noticed too the deprivation suffered by the siblings of these children as their parents were forced to devote less time to them than they needed.

So he pondered on the problem and sat stroking his beard for many days, wondering what he could do about it. Why were things not as he would have wished them to be in his beloved creation? Had he not created it perfectly?

At last, a solution came into his mind.

So he improved antibiotic resistance in his bacteria and then he created the Zika virus. As a touch of brilliance, he created the Zika virus so it attacks and disables the cells that would have grown and developed into the victim's brain defences against pathogens.

"Let's see them cure that!", he thought. "Now, how's Ebola doing?"

Well, that's the creationist view.

Now let's look at the science.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Sticking It To Creationists With An Early Tree

World's oldest and most complex trees - News - Cardiff University

Another scientific paper which quite incidentally and without effort or intent, refutes a key creationist claim, was published yesterday.

It was nothing more sensational from a biology perspective than the discovery that the earliest trees were much more complex in the structure of their trunks and in their growth patterns than modern trees.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Thank You For Being Humankind

Thank you!

You just helped make a difference and improve the lives of Iraqi women victims of sexual abuse by helping them rebuild their lives and earn a living.

You did this by tolerating the adverts on my blog because, once in a while the odd pennies earned from adds tot up to over £60 and trigger a payout. And, as always, I donate this to OxfamGB. This year, the project I supported was Helping women survivors of sexual and gender based violence rebuild their lives and raise their voices.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Yet Another of Those Re-writes of Human Evolution?


Left: upper left canine.
Right: upper right first molar
Credit: Mainz Natural History Museum
Prehistoric teeth fossils dating back 9.7 million years 'could rewrite human history' | The Independent

According to press reports, yet another re-write of human evolutionary history is due because a couple of 9.7 million year-old fossil teeth found in Germany look somewhat like those of "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) from Ethiopia, Africa.

But things are maybe not what the headlines claim. Journalists have a vested interest in sensational headlines, even more so when the page carries adverts which are interspersed in the article itself and grab your attention. Also with a vested interest in sensational headlines, are those who supply the soundbites journalists yearn after.

Caring, Compassionate Neanderthals

The skull of a Neandertal known as Shanidar 1 show signs of a blow to the head received at an early age.
Photo: Erik Trinkaus
External auditory exostoses and hearing loss in the Shanidar 1 Neandertal

Here we have lovely evidence that altruism and compassion are not uniquely modern human characteristics, as creationists would have us believe.

A 50,000 year-old Neanderthal, unearthed in 1957 during excavations at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan and know to science has Shanidar 1, shows evidence of old injuries and medical conditions that would have made independent existence in the Pleistocene impossible.

A new examination of the skeleton by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, shows that the male in his 40s (believed to be elderly for a Neanderthal) must have received considerable support and care following his injuries which would have made hunting and foraging difficult or impossible. He is unlikely to have avoided falling prey to the many predators in the Pleistocene.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Irish Catholicism is Dying

Irish Catholicism is dying | IrishCentral.com

The news for the Irish Catholic Church just got a lot worse.

The 2016 census shows a further dramatic decline in support for the Catholic Church. Most other Christian denominations saw a similar fall but, given its position as by far the largest of them, as the table on the right shows, the fall was especially acute for for Catholicism.

The table needs to be read carefully. For example, the decline of 'only' 3.4% since 2011 for Catholics represents a fall of 132,200 but an increase of 28.9% for Muslims represents an increase just 14,200.

These changes are despite an annual population growth rate averaging 0.84% over the five years to 2016.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Suffer Little Jehovah's Witness Children

Source: The Freethinker
Jehovah’s Witnesses sued in Canada for history of sex abuse cover-up | Reveal

The storm clouds are gathering over another Christian organisation as its dirty little secret of decades of child sexual abuse and systematic official cover-up, involving possibly hundreds of thousands of cases, is beginning to be revealed in all its sordid glory.

According to the Centre For Investigative Reporting (Reveal), the Jehovah's Witness parent organisation, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, is facing a $66 million law suit in Canada, brought by current and former members, claiming that it's policies protect members who sexually abuse children.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Lessons From a Canary Island - Spells and Incantations

Cathedral of Santa Ana, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Sitting at the end of a rather plain but pleasantly peaceful, palm-tree-lined plaza, is the Catholic Cathedral of Santa Ana, the most important religious building in the Canary Islands. It is situated in the old town area, now the southern suburbs of Vagueta in the modern city of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain.

By the standards of most European Catholic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Santa Ana, is plain, even a little austere, although it is blessed with two campaniles.

The original cathedral was built between 1500 and 1570, commencing soon after the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, flushed with their success at the conquest of the entire mainland Spain and the expulsion of the Moors from their last remaining stronghold in Grenada. The Canaries were inhabited by a people known as Guanaches who almost certainly originated in the Atlas Mountain area of Morocco and migrated there in pre-classical times.

Conquest had not been easy, being vigorously resited by the native

Friday, 20 October 2017

Evolving Great Tits - In Our Back Gardens

Great tit (Parus major) on a garden feeder.

Photo credit: Dennis van de Water, dvdwphotography.com
Evolution in your back garden—great tits may be adapting their beaks to birdfeeders.

Great tits are evolving, just up the road from where I live!

Not five minutes drive from where I sit writing this blog-post is probably the most intensely studied piece of woodland in the world, and probably nowhere is studied by people more qualified to study it. Wytham Woods is a mixed woodland owned by Oxford University and widely used for field studies by biologists from the Zoology Department.

It was by comparing the great tits from here and from Oosterhout and Veluwe, in the Netherlands, that an international research team discovered that the UK great tits have been actively evolving over the last few decades and now have longer beaks than their Dutch counterparts.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Lessons From A Canary Island - Rock of Ages

The core of an old volcano, Gran Canaria
The great thing about going to somewhere different is that you see different things - if you look.

We've just got back from a little over a week in the Spanish Canary Island, Gran Canaria, just off the coast of West Africa. Yes, it's where the Canary finch comes from but, apart from a brief glimpse that might have been one and a couple in a cage, we never saw any. In fact, we saw very few birds. A few buzzards, a couple of kestrels, some egrets and herons and quite a lot of gulls, but nothing to get excited about and no new species to cross off my list!

This is mostly because Gran Ganaria is hot and arid and, being volcanic, has very little soil for anything much other than cacti and other succulents to grow in. There are pine woods on the higher places but still not a lot of wild life.

And this means that a great deal of the underlying geology is, well, not really underlying so much as overlying and exposed. It's black volcanic tuffa, pumice, basalt and towering columns of extinct volcanic core with the core eroded to expose the solidified magma as in the photograph on the right.

This, of course, if only they would look at it, is a problem for creationists because there is no way to explain the geology of Gran Canaria in terms of the product of a recent global flood or of volcanic activity in just a few thousand years since one. It is, quite simply, as close as science comes to proof that there never was a recent global flood and the Earth is actually very old. Although, on the accepted scientific understanding of the age of Earth, the Canary Islands are comparatively young - i.e., just a few tens of millions of years old.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Just a Small Problem - For Creationists

Lars Gibbon
The last common ancestor of the hominoids may have been about this size.
Research Sizes Up Last Common Ancestor of Humans and Apes:

You know that intermediate form between the old world monkeys and the primates, including humans, that creationists insist never existed?

It weighed about 12 pounds (5.5 Kg) according to a pair of researchers based at the American Museum of Natural History.

As the American Museum of Natural history press release explained:

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

So What's So Special About Humans?

Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

Another creationist claim has been falsified (not for the first time, obviously) but this time fairly comprehensively.

The claim is that for a list of reasons, humans are a special creation, endowed with special qualities and abilities, that separate us from the other animals, justifying the claim that the purpose of 'creation' was to create mankind, and all the rest is just there for our use.

It's not good enough that were are unique, just like any species is unique, hence being a distinct species. Humans have extra-special characteristics that makes us uniquely, unique, apparently.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Getting To Know Your Inner Neanderthal

The Contribution of Neanderthals to Phenotypic Variation in Modern Humans: The American Journal of Human Genetics.

We've know for some years now that modern non-African humans have some Neanderthal DNA. This must have been acquired by interbreeding during the comparatively brief period between the migration of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) out of Africa about 50-60,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago when Neanderthals went extinct.

We also know that this interbreeding was not entirely successful and probably didn't always produce viable offspring. For example, there are no known examples of either Neanderthal Y chromosomes in modern

Tracing Plant Evolution Back To Its Roots

Common liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha
Liverwort Genes and Land Plant Evolution - DOE Joint Genome Institute.

Today we have a lovely example of how the Theory of Evolution forms the foundation of biology, enabling biologists to make predictions and make sense of what we can see today in the diversity and similarities of organisms; in this case, plants.

Contrary to what creationist frauds would have their willing dupes believe, not only is there no sign that the Theory of Evolution is a 'theory in crisis' but there is every sign that it is never even seriously doubted. No-one tries to validate it these days; it is simply accepted as the very basis of biology as surely as atomic theory is the basis of chemistry.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Old Fossils and the Crocodiles of Old England

The Melksham Monster closely resembled the species shown in this artist's impression (Plesiosuchus manselii), which also belongs to the Geosaurini group.

Credit: Fabio Manucci
Fossil points to early rise of ancient crocodiles | The University of Edinburgh

In a vindication of the way science constantly re-examines and re-assesses itself in the light of new information, some of the most rewarding fossil hunting is now being done in museums.

The museums of the world contain millions of fossils, very often meticulously catalogued with details of when and where they were discovered, but filed away in draws and cupboards and almost as effectively hidden from general view, and often scientific view, as they originally were when buried in rocks awaiting discovery by some intrepid fossil hunter a century or more ago. At the time of their discovery they may well have been mere curiosities. With little information to go on, no-one would have been aware of their significance or where they fitted in the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

The jigsaw puzzle was then far too fragmentary to know where this particular piece fitted.

One such fossil was recently discovered in the archives of the Natural History Museum, London, where it had been since 1875. It had originally been discovered about 150 years ago at Melksham, Wiltshire, England, in a formation known as Oxford Clay. When examined in detail by a team from Edinburgh University, Scotland and the Natural History Museum, London, it was found to be that of the earliest known crocodylomorph of the Geosaurini lineage, putting the evolutionary origins of this group back millions of years before the 152-157 million years previously thought.

Was This The Hominin That Gave Us Genital Herpes?

Paranthropus boisei
The species responsible for human genital herpes?

Source: Wikipedia
Meet the hominin species that gave us genital herpes | University of Cambridge

One of the best pieces of evidence for common descent is the way the genetic relationships between our obligatory parasites and those of their related species, almost exactly maps onto the relationship between our genome and those of our own relatives. I have previously written about how the evolution of our lice can be mapped onto our own evolution and divergence from the other apes.

Another parasite which, if anything, is even more obligatory that lice is the herpes virus, and like our lice there is not a close but not perfect match with our evolution. All primates are host to two versions of the herpes simplex virus, HSV1 which in humans causes cold sores and HSV2 which causes genital herpes in humans. The latter is normally regarded as a sexually transmitted disease.

Whereas we can make a direct link between two of our lice - the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) and the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) - and the body lice of chimpanzees (Pediculus schaeffi), there is no such clear link with the pubic louse and an immediate ancestor. We can see how our body louse became our head louse when we lost our body hair and it had nowhere else to go and how it then diverged into two subspecies when we started wearing clothes to become our body louse as well. However, the closest relative of our pubic louse (Phthirus pubis) is the gorilla body louse (Phthirus gorillae)! Somewhere in our evolution, the gorilla louse jumped the species barrier, otherwise it, or as descendent, would be present on chimpanzees too. The degree of divergence is enough to show that this wasn't a recent event, but somewhere, after we diverged from the chimpanzees, one of our ancestors got close enough to a gorilla to catch pubic lice from it!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Swing A Chicken For Your Sins

Six Israeli activists wounded in protest against Yom Kippur chicken-swinging ritual | Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Ever since the Abrahamic religions invented the idea of sin, they've had to be even more inventive to provide cures for it.

For a Muslim, it's strict adherence to the rules, daily prayers, pilgrimage to Mecca and giving to charity. For a Catholic, it's confession, rituals and magic words as prescribed by the priest. For a Protestant, it's accepting Jesus and giving money to the church.

And for some ultra-conservative Jews, it's swinging a live chicken round your head the day before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The chicken is then killed and the meat given to charity.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Child Porn Priest Rescued by Vatican

Monsignor Carlo Capella
"Downloaded child pornography using a Canadian church online address".
Lawyer says Vatican diplomat wanted for child porn offences should be sent back to Canada - Windsor - CBC News

Just about everyone must now be aware of Pope Frankie's loudly proclaimed determination to reform the Catholic Church and put a stop to the multiple child abuse scandals that were costing it money and members. No longer are these habitual abuses, routine cover-ups and tacit approval of them to be tolerated, so the way the church dealt with the latest child abuse scandal should come as no surprise.

When the Vatican heard that yet another Catholic priest was under investigation by the Canadian Police for child pornography offences, it lost no time in dealing with the matter in the interests of all concerned.

Friday, 29 September 2017

DNA Shows Complex Human Evolution in Africa

Demographic model of African history and estimated divergences. Vertical colored lines represent migration, with down-pointing triangles representing admixture into another group. Southern African hunter-gatherers are shown by red symbols, and Iron Age farmers as green symbols. (For explanation see the original paper)
Modern humans may have been around for nearly twice as long - Uppsala University, Sweden

More evidence today of modern humans emerging gradually from archaic hominins in Africa.

This genetic and archaeological analysis by a team from Uppsala University, Sweden, and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, suggests, contrary to accepted wisdom, that modern humans may have diversified from archaic forms significantly earlier than generally believed and maybe not in a single location from a single founder species.

The suggestion is that anatomically modern humans could have gradually diversified in different African regions, then gene flow between the emerging groups produced the single, genetically diverse, species we now recognise as Homo sapiens.

This new study has been made possible by improved DNA extraction techniques which are revolutionising archaeology and evolutionary biology.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Women! For Pity's Sake Don't Drive!

Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving must remain because they ‘lack the intellect’ of men, says leading cleric | The Independent

Women should not be allowed to drive cars because, at the best of times, they have only half the intellect of men and, when they go shopping, this falls to only a quarter!

This comes on the authority of Saudi Arabian cleric and head of the Saudi government's religious edict authority in the southern province of Assir, Sheikh Saad al-Hajari.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

St Francis' Bread - Such Big Claims; So Little Evidence.

Statue of St Francis in his home town of Assisi

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On the Authenticity of a Relic: An Archaeometric Investigation of the Supposed Bread Sack of Saint Francesco of Assisi | Radiocarbon | Cambridge Core

To read the headlines, you might be tempted to believe a miracle has been prove true by scientists.

What's been proven, if anything, is just how little evidence is needed before the promoters of religious superstitions start to proclaim proof.

The mythical miracle this time is one I confess I had never heard of and about which the details, as with all the best of miracles, is sadly in very short supply. It is the 'miracle' of St Francis of Assisi's bread which, in 1224, so the story goes, a sack-full of which appeared on the doorstep of the Franciscan Friary of Folloni in southern Italy, so saving the brothers within from starvation, the friary being cut off by snow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Doing the 'Impossible': Recycling Old Genes

Humans and fish share about 70% of their protein-coding genes, but only about 0.5% of their regulatory long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs)
Genomic Recycling: Ancestral Genes Take On New Roles

And another sacred creationist dogma crashes and burns.

Imagine! You're a creationist fraud trying to make an even better living by taking yet more money off people who feel so important that they believe they must have a close personal relationship with the creator of the Universe! You're feeding them all sorts of sciencey-sounding stuff because, despite convincing them that science is all wrong, they still have a nagging doubt that it might not be, so, to be on the safe side, you want them to think that even if it is right occasionally, it supports their preconceived ideas and confirms that they know better than all those wacky scientists.

Declining Christianity in USA

America’s Changing Religious Identity:

A major new report published today by PRRI has revealed a continuing decline in religious affiliation with 'nones' now comprising 24% of the population.

There is now a marked generational shift in religious affiliation with 38% of the key 18-29 year-old age group identifying as 'nones' against just 12% for the 65+ age group. White Christians now comprise just 24% of the 18-29 year-olds against 63% of the 65+ age group.

The report also reveals the continuing decline in White Christians who fall below 50% for the first time in a PRRI survey, although other surveys have also reported a similar recent finding. This group, which in 1976 comprised 81% of all American adults, now accounts for just 43%.

Two other significant findings were the increasing ethnic transformation of American Catholicism which, 25 years ago was 87% White, compared to 55% today, and the increasing polarisation of American politics on religious grounds. 73% of Republicans are White Christians compared to just 29% of Democrats. A decade ago, 50% of Democrats were White Christian.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Religious Belief in UK Continues to Plummet!

British Social Attitudes: Record number of Brits with no religion.

The catastrophic (from the point of view of those who earn their living from it) decline in religious belief in the UK continues apace according to the authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey. 'No religion' has rockets by 5% in just one years, from 48% in 2015 to 53% in the latest (2016) survey.

More than half (53%) of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48% in 2015. The proportion of non-believers has increased gradually since the survey began in 1983, when the proportion saying they had no religion stood at 31%.

Church of England decline continues
The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard. Just 15% of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican, half the proportion who said this in 2000.

The proportion of non-believers has risen from just 31% in 1983 when the survey began.

One again the church of England has seen the biggest decline and has now fallen to 15%; half what it was in the year 2000. By contrast, the proportion of self-identified Catholics has remained stable at around 5%. Other religions account for a further 6%.

The fall in religious affiliation has been driven mostly by a decline in the proportion of 18-24 year-olds identifying with a religion, but there was a decline in all age groups between 2015 and 2016. 'No religion' in the 18-24 year-old age group increased to 71% from 63% in 2015; a stunning 8% rise in a year! In this group, Anglicans now comprise just 3%.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Frog Shocker!

Atlantic Coast leopard frog, Rana kauffeldi

Source: Wikipedia
New study contradicts assumption that true frogs diversified as they expanded their range around globe | The University of Kansas

One of the nice things about science is that, properly done, it can throw up some surprises, even overthrowing some preconceptions and axioms.

Science demands we constantly question and reassess our assumptions and preconceptions. It is not for those who prefer simple certainties over difficult truths.

For example, it is generally assumed that when a species colonises new geographic regions with new ecological niches, it will tend to adapt and radiate into several new species; that range extension itself is a major driver of speciation.

But this is not always so, it seems.

Papua New Guinea Missed The Flood?

Locations of people studied from Papua New Guinea. Each language group is represented by a circle; the area indicates the number of genotyped individuals, and the color indicates the top-level language phylum. The study found that people speaking different languages were strongly genetically distinct from each other.

Credit: Science doi: 10.1126/science.aan3842
A Neolithic expansion, but strong genetic structure, in the independent history of New Guinea | Science

It's just another of those pieces of information that creationists have to avoid, of course, but the people of Papua New Guinea have been isolated from the rest of the world for 50,000, and people in some mountain valleys have been isolated from their neighbours for 10-20,000 years!

So, if you subscribe to the Young Earth Creationist superstition, these people are much older than Earth, have been isolated since before Adam and Eve, and appear to have avoided the Biblical flood entirely.

Yes! It is a silly superstition, isn't it, yet some apparently otherwise normal adults believe it!

Anyway, back to reality.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Birds Sing To Avoid Confusion.

Cinnamon Becard (Pachyramphus cinnamomeus).

Credit: Matt Brady/Macaulay Library
Using song playback experiments to measure species recognition between geographically isolated populations: A comparison with acoustic trait analyses | The Auk

An interesting piece of research published yesterday shows how birds use song to recognise members of their own species, so avoiding hybridisation between closely related species, especially when there is little or no difference in appearance.

The researchers believe they have identified 21 new species of bird from Central and South America in the 72 related populations examined where different songs effectively produce isolated breeding populations.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Just Another Child Abuse Scandal.

Smyllum Park, Lanarkshire, as it appears today.
Hundreds of Scottish orphanage children allegedly buried in mass grave | UK news | The Guardian

Normally, when people talk about systematic, institutionalised child abuse, we think of priests and male teachers abusing vulnerable children in their care or over whom they have trusted authority. It speaks of the sheer volume of these cases that yet another exposure barely rate a mention in the news any more. It's as though we have come to expect men of the cloth to abuse their power for their own gratification.

But, despite the documented abuses in Ireland and Spain where it was nuns, sometimes with the connivance of priests, who were doing the abusing, it still comes as something of a shock when we hear of female clerics abusing children. Somehow it seems even sicker when a supposedly maternal female is looking at children as a source of amusement and sexual or sadistic gratification, yet these cases seem to have been no less prevalent in institutions where nuns were in similar positions of power over children as are the abusive priests.

Today, we have another shocking example.

Snake Evolution in Progress

Barred Grass Snake, Natrix helvitica

Photo: Wolfgang Böhme
Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species | Scientific Reports

Arguably the most attractive British snake of the three native species, and certainly the largest, is the grass snake.

Now it seems, according to a paper published in Scientific Reports a few days ago, it is the Western representative of what is an example of speciation in progress. It also illustrates the conflict between genetics and taxonomy.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Six Million Year-Old Cretan Footprint Problem - For Creationism!

Trachilos footprint

Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski (CC BY)

Six Million-Year-Old Human Footprint Discovered in Crete Raises Major Questions About Our Evolution

A neat illustration this week of how the popular media distort and misrepresent science in order to appeal to a wider audience and in doing so, feed and reinforce popular misconceptions.

First, we have MSN news announcing that six million year-old human footprints have been found in Crete. This then, of course, is presented as raising 'major questions' about our evolution. Creationists groups on Facebook and elsewhere are already full of claims that this proves science has got everything about evolution all wrong, either neglecting the six million years of explaining them away as proving science even gets the dating wrong.

The source of this story was the press release from Upsala University, Sweden, which announced the publication of a paper by a team based there. Unlike the MSN headline - "Fossil footprints challenge established theories of human evolution" - the headline on this press release was more muted (and of course more accurate). No mention of human footprints there, although there was an attempt to associate the discovery with current understanding of human evolution.

But what understanding was challenged, exactly?

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Collapsing Churches! It's Those Gays Again!

The dark symbolism of the ceiling collapsing in Malta’s oldest Catholic church.

When the roof fell in in the Ta’ Giezu church in Rabat, Malta, Claire Chretien, a devout Christian who writes for the LifeSite blog, knew exactly what had caused it.

It was same-sex marriage.

She wrote:

MALTA, August 25, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – In what could be considered symbolic of the state of the Catholic Church in Malta, or even most of Europe, the ceiling of the country's oldest Catholic church mysteriously collapsed this week.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Priest Blames God For His Kiddie Porn Collection

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta
Priest, paedophile, pornographer and gambling addict
A priest says he downloaded child porn to ‘get revenge on God’ for his poker losses | Miami Herald

A former Catholic priest has come up with a novel excuse for downloading and distributing child pornography. According to a report in the Scranton Times Tribune, he told a Wayne County court that he did it to get revenge on God because of his gambling addiction!

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta, 55, a resident of Mahwah, New Jersey and a priest at the Holy Spirit Church in Union, New Jersey, was arrested in September 2016 and charged with 20 counts of downloading child pornography and 20 counts of disseminating images of children involved in sexual acts. He plea-bargained this down to one admitted case of disseminating child pornography in return for the other 39 charges being dismissed.
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