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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Alley Oop, if you lie to me one more time ...

Columnist and radio host Frank Pastore has some fun with recent discoveries that considerably complicate our view of human evolution:
First, as reported here on August 9, two alleged ancestors of man, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis, were found to be living together about 1.5 million years ago (MYA). This is a big deal because Erectus was supposed to have evolved from Habilis before later evolving into Sapiens (us). Think of it as finding out dad and grandpa were actually brothers, not father and son.

Omigolly! B.C., help me outside! I need air ...

The second discovery, reported here, pushed the hypothetical human-ape split back another 10 million years, to now around 20 MYA. How so? The traditional theory is that man evolved from chimps about 6 MYA, chimps evolved from gorillas about 8 MYA, and gorillas evolved from orangutans about 14 MYA. But, with the discovery of a 10.5 million year old gorilla in Africa, this pushes the human-ape split back to at least 20 MYA.

But between 15-20 MYA, there were dozens of primate species in Africa, and the hominid trail goes completely cold after 7 MYA. It looks like a dead end-or to the true believer, at least a serious detour over uncharted territory.

Bottom line, not only do we find that dad and grandpa were brothers, but now we find out that we were adopted-or created.

Alley Oop, come on. Admit it. You've been LYING to me ...

The real fun, actually, is the combox (1164 comments), many of them seemingly aggrieved that anyone would construe from these discoveries that scientists know little of human origins. I myself can think of no other reasonable conclusion.


Human evolution: It all began in Pasta City, see ...

Human evolution is an interesting puzzle, one that fuels a lot of speculation. In this article by Ewen Callaway in Nature News (doi:10.1038/news070903-21), we learn "that spit might have helped human evolution by enabling our ancestors to harvest more energy from starch than their primate cousins." (September 9, 2007)

It seems that our human genome has many more copies of the gene that makes an enzyme (salivary amylase) that turns starch into digestible sugars. According to a recent study, in societies where people eat lots of starchy food, they have more copies of the gene. Apparently, chimpanzees have only two copies of the gene, but humans have, for example, an average of 5.4 (low starch eaters) to 6.7 (high starch eaters). This shows that we adapt to our food environment, whether its Pasta City or Sproutsville, but then we hear,
Dominy speculates that perhaps the change propelled our ancestors to new heights by fuelling the evolution of large brains more than two million years ago. Alternatively, the new copies may have coincided with the rise of agriculture 150,000 years ago, he says.

Now if we are not sure whether the change happened two million years ago or 150,000 years ago, we might want to be a bit more cautious about its significance for the human brain. In any event, one biologist commented that, starches aside, humans eat a lot more meat than primate apes do, and that one may just as well say eating meat spurred human evolution.

Actually, that would make a lot more sense too. Outwitting a deer (or even a fish) is a bit more trouble than outwitting a beetroot.

(Note: You'd have to pay to read the whole article at Nature.)


Bash them with a crowbar ... or only a baseball bat?

Further to discussion of American media interest in presidential candidates' views on evolution*: In the Tampa Bay Post, John West of the Discovery Institute argues that
Increasingly, self-proclaimed defenders of science have tried to turn "science" into an ideological weapon to attack any questioning by religious believers of the "consensus view" of scientific elites on embryonic stem-cell research, global warming, Darwinian evolution, and similar issues.

A lot of this seems fuelled by anti-religious fervour, contrary to the stereotype that the scientists in question are objective:
The anti-religious fervor of leading scientists was on clear display last year at a conference on science and religion at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. According to one participant quoted by the New York Times, "with a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints at the conference have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

West, author of Darwin Day in America (ISI Books, 2007), also notes that there is no reason to believe that public policy directed by atheists with science degrees would be any better than the current state of affairs. Citing the eugenics disaster of the twentieth century, he notes that "Traditionalist Catholics and evangelicals were among the handful of voices challenging the validity of the eugenics crusade at a time when scientific dissenters were scant."


Today at the Mindful Hack

Research that tells you something you already knew. Givers are happier Do people give because they are happy or are they happy because they give? Actually, it is more likely a feedback loop - it is mutually reinforcing if you keep it up.

Does religion really poison everything? "Mark Musick of the University of Texas thought, when he started his research on volunteerism worldwide, that education would best predict who volunteers, but he found that attending religious services was the strongest predictor, stronger than either education or income."

Mario Beauregard is a neuroscientist who has been studying the brain for years. His findings are surprising: he believes he has found a neurological reason to believe in the existence of the

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