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Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

Something from Nothing, and other Imponderables

Join critically-acclaimed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss as they discuss biology, cosmology, religion, and a host of other topics. The authors will also discuss their new books. Dawkins recently published The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,[1] an exploration of the magic of discovery embodied in the practice of science. Written for all age groups, the book moves forward from historical examples of supernatural explanations of natural phenomena to focus on the actual science behind how the world works. Krauss’s latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, explains the scientific advances that provide insight into how the universe formed. Krauss tackles the age-old assumption that something cannot arise from nothing by arguing that not only can something arise from nothing, but something will always arise from nothing. Founded in 2008, the ASU Origins Project is a university-wide transdisciplinary initiative aimed at facilitating cutting edge research and inquiry about origins questions, enhancing public science literacy, and improving science education. Since its inception, the Origins Project has brought the world’s leading scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, to Tempe to explore origins questions. The Origins Project has hosted workshops and public events that have focused on questions as fundamental as the origin of the universe, how life began, the origins of human uniqueness, and the origins of morality (14 Feb 2012).

 


[1] Cfr. “The Magic of Reality: Dawkins Returns” A Pseudo-Ottoman Blog (07 November 2011). https://sitanbul.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/the-magic-of-reality-dawkins-returns/.

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The Magic of Reality: Dawkins Returns

On the popular website Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow reveals that “Richard Dawkins has a new kids’ book coming out in October 2011 called The Magic of Reality, which explains just how gosh-darned awesome the actual scientifically explained world is, and how wondrous the universe is when considered as a material, non-supernatural phenomenon. And if that wasn’t awesome enough, the book is illustrated by the wonderful Dave McKean”.[1]  Dawkins has been highly critical of the way in which children are being used by religious institutions, and has thus also been most vocal about the injustice of subjecting children to religious indoctrination, or should I say education: “Innocent children are being saddled with demonstrable falsehoods . . . It’s time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation. Isn’t it weird the way we automatically label a tiny child with its parents’ religion?”.[2]  In his quest to counter the religious indoctrination of ‘innocent children’, he has now finally taken the initiative by means of writing a book aimed at a younger audience, arguably in the hope that parents would choose his book to enlighten their offspring. And here is Dawkins selling his book on Thom Hartman’s radio show (6 Oct 2011) .

Ever since his God Delusion hit the bookshops in 2006, the Oxford professor Dawkins has become a public figure all across the world. As a result, many people have now become aware of his apparently controversial work and thinking. For instance, in Turkey his website was banned due to the machinations of the notorious charlatan Adnan Oktar, who employs the pseudonym Harun Yahya to distribute Islamic Creationist propaganda. The organisation behind Oktar has been active for many years, trying to  convince the gullible that Darwin was a buffoon and the theory of evolution just a theory, or rather a theory which does not explain the emergence of complex forms of life. But not just in Turkey, Dawkins has also become very “popular” in the U.S., as a figure personifying all that is wrong with non-religious people. Many have consequently taken it upon themselves to tell the professor just how wrong he is via e-mail. And here is Professor Dawkins reading his hate-mail . . . the internet is a great leveller indeed, now just about anybody, or rather anybody living in the affluent part of the world where computers are readily available and internet access equally easy to come by, can get in touch with the most learned of scholars, as long as he or she deems the ability to have a publicly accessible e-mail address a virtue. In this respect, Professor Dawkins is most virtuous indeed and he clearly revels in reading what less educated (and more gullible) mortals feel like telling him. We live in interesting times indeed . . .

(2008)

 

(2011)

As for the other side of the equation, here is the well-known YouTuber Laci Green reading her favourite, “brutal” Dawkins quote in one of her videos.

 

(22 April 2008)

Miss Green has since moved on to other pastures, here she is talking about the myth of Adam and Eve in graphic detail.

(12 September 2009)

Here she is, a little bit older and a whole lot wiser, telling the world of her own struggles with God, family, and life as she knows it.

(8 July 2010)

 


[1] Cory Doctorow, “Richard Dawkins’s science book for kids, illustrated by Dave McKean” boingboing (18 May 2011). http://boingboing.net/2011/05/18/richard-dawkinss-sci.html.

[2] “Dawkins: Religion equals ‘child abuse’ Scientist compares Moses to Hitler, calls New Testament ‘sado-masochistic doctrine’” WorldNetDaily (08 January 2006). http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=34248.

The Missing Link??? Australopithecus sediba

A skeleton discovered by a nine-year-old boy near Johannesburg in South Africa is being hailed as one of the most important finds in human archaeology. It is argued the skeleton provides the possible missing link between ape men and the human family and is said by experts to be the most complete skeleton of a human being ever discovered. It has not ended the debate however on how the species evolved. Some scientists argue, “Homo erectus” may have evolved before the skeleton from South Africa’ (29 September 2011).

 

In TIME, Michael Lemonick says that “[e]volution skeptics [also known as Creationists] like to trot out the argument that if  Darwin had been right, scientists would have discovered transitional fossils by now — creatures with a mix of features from earlier and later species. Since they haven’t, the deniers say, evolution must not be true. The truth is that paleontologists have found transitional species by the score, from many different time periods. But none have materialized from as crucial a point in our evolutionary past as a pair of skeletons whose discovery was announced [on 10 April 2010] by the journal Science. The fossils, which have been determined to be of a new species, Australopithecus sediba, were found by Matthew Berger, the 9-year-old son of paleontologist Lee Berger, of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. (The elder Berger tried in vain to get the editors of Science to list Matthew as a co-author of the paper.) The bones belong to a preteenage boy and a woman estimated to have been in her late 20s or early 30s; the individuals died at about the same time, and before their remains had fully decomposed, they were entombed in an avalanche of sediment and were nearly perfectly preserved deep in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg”.[1]

In Science, however, we can read that ‘[n]ewly exposed cave sediments at the Malapa site include a flowstone layer capping the sedimentary unit containing the Australopithecus sediba fossils. Uranium-lead dating of the flowstone, combined with paleomagnetic and stratigraphic analysis of the flowstone and underlying sediments, provides a tightly constrained date of  1.977 ± 0.002 million years ago (Ma) for these fossils. This refined dating suggests that Au. sediba from Malapa predates the earliest uncontested evidence for Homo in Africa’.[2]  And just to make sure nobody missed the point of the quote, here is the salient final sentence once again: the Australopithecus sediba remains “predate the earliest uncontested evidence for Homo in Africa”.

A team led by Professor Lee Berger, a renowned palaeoanthropologist, have described and named a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba, almost two million years old, which was discovered in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, 40 kilometres out of Johannesburg, South Africa. This video features introduction by the Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof. Loyiso Nongxa.

 

 

 

 


[1] Michael D. Lemonick, “Found in South Africa: Key Link in Human Evolution?” TIME (08 April 2010). http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1978726,00.html.

[2] Robyn Pickering, Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Zubair Jinnah, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Steven E. Churchill, Andy I. R. Herries, Jon D. Woodhead, John C. Hellstrom, Lee R. Berger, “Australopithecus sediba at 1.977 Ma and Implications for the Origins of the Genus Homo” Science (08 September 2011). http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6048/1421.

New Type of Human found in Siberia

 

The BBC reports that the   Director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Svante Pääbo has discovered a new type of prehistoric human in a Siberian cave in the Altai mountains: ‘Scientists say an entirely separate type of human identified from bones in Siberia co-existed and interbred with our own species. The ancient humans have been dubbed Denisovans after the caves in Siberia where their remains were found. There is also evidence that this group was widespread in Eurasia. A study in Nature journal shows that Denisovans co-existed with Neanderthals and interbred with our species – perhaps around 50,000 years ago. An international group of researchers sequenced a complete genome from one of the ancient hominins (human-like creatures), based on nuclear DNA extracted from a finger bone’, as related by Pallab Ghosh, the BC Science Correspondent.[1]  Ghosh continues that, ‘[a]ccording to the researchers, this provides confirmation there were at least four distinct types of human in existence when anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) first left their African homeland. Along with modern humans, scientists knew about the Neanderthals and a dwarf human species found on the Indonesian island of Flores nicknamed The Hobbit. To this list, experts must now add the Denisovans. The implications of the finding have been described by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London as “nothing short of sensational”. Scientists were able to analyse DNA from a tooth and from a finger bone excavated in the Denisova cave in southern Siberia. The individuals belonged to a genetically distinct group of humans that were distantly related to Neanderthals but even more distantly related to us. The finding adds weight to the theory that a different kind of human could have existed in Eurasia at the same time as our species’.[2]  Yesterday, the BBC World Service programme Science in Action updated the story: ‘Scientists have sequenced the genome of an ancient hominid female from just the finger-bone found in Denisova cave in southern Siberia. She is nicknamed ‘X Woman’ – thought to have been living in Central Asa around 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. Earlier in the year, analysis of the mitochondrial DNA, which is only inherited down the maternal line, revealed that these ‘Denisovans’ shared a common ancestor with modern humans and Neanderthals about one million years ago, but that it was unlikely to have interbred with our direct ancestors and those of our ancient cousins. Now, having decoded the nuclear DNA and have much more information about this possibly new species’.[3] 

 

So, it turns out that four humanoid beings have at one stage dwelled on this planet: Neanderthals, a dwarf human species (nicknamed Hobbits), Denisovans, and modern humans . . .  As such, I had been completely unaware of the dwarf species: ‘Homo floresiensis (“Flores Man”, nicknamed “hobbit”) is a possible species, now extinct, in the genus Homo. The remains were discovered in 2004 on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Partial skeletons of nine individuals have been recovered, including one complete cranium (skull). These remains have been the subject of intense research to determine whether they represent a species distinct from modern humans, and the progress of this scientific controversy has been closely followed by the news media at large. This hominin is remarkable for its small body and brain and for its survival until relatively recent times (possibly as recently as 12,000 years ago). Recovered alongside the skeletal remains were stone tools from archaeological horizons ranging from 94,000 to 13,000 years ago’, as the requisite Wiki entry informs us.[4] 

 

The Observer’s science editor Robin McKie explains that ‘[i]t remains one of the greatest human fossil discoveries of all time. The bones of a race of tiny primitive people, who used stone tools to hunt pony-sized elephants and battle huge Komodo dragons, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004. The team of Australian researchers had been working in a vast limestone cavern, called Liang Bua, in one of the island’s remotest areas, when one scientist ran his trowel against a piece of bone. Carefully the group began scraping away the brown clay in which pieces of a tiny skull, and a little lower jaw, were embedded. This was not any old skull, they quickly realised. Although small, it had special characteristics. In particular, it had adult teeth. “This was no child, but a tiny adult; in fact, one of the smallest adult hominids ever found in the fossil record,” says Mike Morwood, of Australia’s University of Wollongong and a leader of the original Flores expedition team. The pieces of bone were carefully wrapped in newspaper, packed in cardboard boxes and then cradled on the laps of scientists on their journey, by ferry and plane, back to Jakarta. Then the pieces of skull, as well as bones from other skeletons found in Liang Bua, were put together. The end result caused consternation. These remains came from a species that turned out to be only three feet tall and had the brain the size of an orange. Yet it used quite sophisticated stone tools. And that was a real puzzle. How on earth could such individuals have made complex implements and survived for aeons on this remote part of the Malay archipelago? Some simply dismissed the bones as the remains of deformed modern humans with diseases that had caused them to shrink: to them, they were just pathological oddities, it was alleged. Most researchers disagreed, however. The hobbits were the descendants of a race of far larger, ancient humans who had thrived around a million years ago. These people, known as Homo erectus, had become stranded on the island and then had shrunk in an evolutionary response to the island’s limited resources. That is odd enough. However, new evidence suggests the little folk of Flores may be even stranger in origin. According to a growing number of scientists, Homo floresiensis is probably a direct descendant of some of the first apemen to evolve on the African savannah three million years ago. These primitive hominids somehow travelled half a world from their probable birthplace in the Rift Valley to make their homes among the orangutans, giant turtles and rare birds of Indonesia before eventually reaching Flores’.[5] 

 

And now, yet another hominid species has been discovered in the Altai mountains. Dr Richard Green, from the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been investigating the DNA of the newly discovered species. The Daily Mail’s David Derbyshire explains that this ‘new species appears to have been a ‘sister group’ to the Neanderthals and its discovery paints a complicated picture of human evolution and migration out of Africa – the cradle of mankind. Dr Green believes one group of early human ancestors left Africa between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago and quickly split up. One branch evolved into the Neanderthals who spread into Europe, while the other moved east and became Denisovans’.[6] 

 

Derbyshire continues that ‘[a]round 70,000 years there was another wave of migration when modern humans quit Africa. These were our ancestors and they first encountered and interbred with Neanderthals – leaving traces of Neanderthal DNA in the genetic code of all non-Africans alive today. One group of modern humans later came into contact with Denisovans, leaving traces of Denisovan DNA in the humans who settled in Melanesia’.[7]  Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, adds these insights to the debate: “We don’t think the Denisovans went to Papua New Guinea. We think the Denisovan population inhabited most of eastern Eurasia in the same way that Neanderthals inhabited most of western Eurasia. Our idea is that the ancestors of Melanesians met the Denisovans in Southeast Asia and interbred, and the ancestors of Melanesians then moved on to Papua New Guinea”.[8] 

 


[1] Pallab Ghosh, “Ancient humans, dubbed ‘Denisovans’, interbred with us” BBC News (22 December 2010).

[2] Pallab Ghosh, “Ancient humans, dubbed ‘Denisovans’, interbred with us”.

[3] “X Woman genome sequenced” BBC World Service (24 December 2010). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00cjlbm.

[4] “Homo floresiensis” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis.

[5] Robin McKie, “How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race” The Observer (21 February 2010). http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/feb/21/hobbit-rewriting-history-human-race.

[6] David Derbyshire, “There were THREE types of ancient humans: 30,000-year-old fossils prove Neanderthals and modern humans were not the only species on Earth” The Daily Mail (23 December 2010). http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1340830/There-THREE-types-ancient-humans-30-000-year-old-finger-fossil-new-species.html.

[7] David Derbyshire, “There were THREE types of ancient humans”.

[8] Ker Than, “New Type of Ancient Human Found—Descendants Live Today?” National Geographic (22 December 2010). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/101222-new-human-species-dna-nature-science-evolution-fossil-finger/.