Images of Neanderthal Man have changed over the years, but there has been a reluctance to portray them as our near-cousins. Neanderthals have been treated as a separate species within the Homo family, and usually described as slow and clumsy, with a limited capacity for creative thinking. The evolutionary context is typically presented in terms of Modern Man's superiority, so that when Homo sapiens migrated from Africa into Europe, it was the Neanderthal population that died out. However, does the evolutionary approach provide the appropriate framework for understanding these events? Recent discoveries suggest that Neanderthals do not fit the descriptions found in the textbooks and the media, and that the evolutionary agenda is actually a negative influence. The presuppositions and perspectives of the evolutionists are proving to be systematically wrong. This blog draws attention to three research papers that document "surprising" findings - i.e. the conclusions run counter to evolutionary expectations.
A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable. The natural flexibility of ribs helps keep a constant pressure against the hide without tearing it. The bottom half of the figure illustrates how the downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like three of the reported bones. (Image copyright Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l'Aze, larger image can be sourced here)
Specialised bone tools are documented for African humans prior to their migrations into Europe, but these are limited to pointed bone tools. Then, after entering Europe, the human population started using smooth shaped tools made from deer ribs. The new research reports that these smooth shaped tools were used by Neanderthals prior to the migrations of Homo sapiens.
"[The tools ] are similar to a tool type well known from later modern human sites and still in use today by high-end leather workers. This tool, called a lissoir or smoother, is shaped from deer ribs and has a polished tip that, when pushed against a hide, creates softer, burnished and more water resistant leather. The bone tool is still used today by leather workers some 50 thousand years after the Neandertals and the first anatomically modern humans in Europe." (Source here)
No one has doubted that Neanderthals used animal skins for coverings, belts, footwear and for dwelling utilities. The new research implies that the skins were worked with tools and that artefacts were produced using more significant mental and manual skills. Also, the question arises: who learned from who?
"The bones reported here demonstrate that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals were shaping animal ribs to a desired, utilitarian form and, thus, were intentionally producing standardized (or formal) bone tools using techniques specific to working bone. These bones are the earliest evidence of this behavior associated with Neandertals, and they move the debate over whether Neandertals independently invented aspects of modern human culture to before the time of population replacement." (source here)
Of course, technologies can be invented independently, and that may be relevant in this case. But anthropologists do tend to favour cultural traits being passed from the originators to later practitioners. Neanderthals, having a less rich materials culture, have been presumed to be 'less fit' by Darwinists.
"The idea that technologies or traditions passed from Neanderthals to humans has been raised before, says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London. "For example, it is not clear which population first started the tradition of burial of the dead." Joao Zilhao at the University of Barcelona in Spain, meanwhile, has argued that the fashion among early humans for wearing pendants of animal bone and teeth originally came from Neanderthals. He says he has no problem, in principle, with humans learning new tool technologies from our extinct cousins. But in general, most researchers - including Stringer and McPherron - think that the bulk of any cultural exchange passed the other way, from humans to Neanderthals." (Source here)
The second research paper has the title: "Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus". We have been brought up to think of Neanderthals as hunter/gatherers, but with an emphasis on hunting. Did Neanderthals do anything more than pick edible berries? The answer appears to be yes. The new research has found dramatic evidence of Neanderthals cooking and eating plant foods for nutrition and also imbibing plants for medicinal use.
"[We have identified] material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidron. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual. The varied use of plants that we have identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants." (Source here)
An alternative explanation for this dental calculus data has been proposed by Buck and Stringer (2013). They write: "Here we offer an alternative hypothesis for the occurrence of non-food plants in Neanderthal calculus based on the modern human ethnographic literature: the consumption of herbivore stomach contents." Apparently, several human groups regard eating the stomach contents of animals as a desirable practice. Of course, eating chyme (partly digested plant food) is a likely occurrence for carnivores, but there are some questions about how medicinal plants were present in sufficient quantities to leave a signature in dental calculus.
The third research finding is evidence of a tumor in a rib from a Neanderthal skeleton said to be more than 120,000 years old. The tumour is described as a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm. Fibrous dysplasia is a rare type of benign tumor found in the ribs and other bones of modern humans.
"Human paleontologist Fred Smith of Illinois State University [. . .] says that, while he is not surprised by the existence of a Neanderthal tumor of this sort, the finding "underscores in some ways the fact that these Neanderthals basically [had] the same kind of biology that we have and they [were] subject to the same kind of growth and developmental processes, even abnormal." "It is important to know that the very same kind of change associated with this tumor is something that we share with Neanderthals," agrees Monge. "That has a very, very deep history within the human lineage and very much ties us - in terms of disease pathological processes - to Neanderthals."" (Source here)
These three research findings are just part of an on-going journey of discovery that Neanderthals are our human cousins, and they do not belong in a story of the origins of humanity. Rather, they are a chapter in the history of humanity. Interestingly, one of the co-authors of the fibrous dysplasia paper is David Frayer, who has championed the true humanity of Neanderthals for much of his career.
"If David Frayer has his way, the word "Neanderthal" will one day no longer be an insult. For some 25 years, Frayer has fought against the old view that Neanderthals, the human ancestors who populated Europe and some of the Middle East between 35,000 and 200,000 years ago, were a lesser race that lost the evolutionary war. The Kansas University professor of anthropology has argued that Neanderthals were more closely related to today's humans than people realized." (Source here)
In May of this year, Frayer wrote a challenging article for the New York Times, from which the following excerpt is taken:
"But in the last 10 years there has been a major reassessment of the Neanderthals, and it turns out they share a lot of the behavior and capabilities of people in Europe today. This revolution in the way academics think about Neanderthals arises from discoveries in archaeology, re-evaluations of their anatomy and revelations about their genetic makeup.
The most amazing is the extraction of nuclear DNA sequences from Neanderthal remains, which show that Europeans derive up to 4 percent of their genes uniquely from Neanderthals. Some 80 gene sequences come directly from Neanderthals and include regulators of smell, vision, cell division, sperm integrity and smooth muscle contraction.
One gene we share with Neanderthals is FOXP2, part of the gene complex associated with language production. We know variants of this gene in modern people cause language dysfunction and it was long assumed Neanderthals had a non-modern form. This was partly based on the general assumption that Neanderthals were not like us - and some argued that Neanderthals lacked the ability to produce the essential vowels of language - "a," "e" and "u." New anatomical work refutes this, and the evidence from FOXP2 shows that Neanderthals had the exact genetic sequence found in fully vocal moderns." (Source here)
The "long assumed" perspectives and the "general assumption" about Neanderthals derive from evolutionary theory and the desire for a story of human evolution. Neanderthals have long been part of the story that gets presented to children, students, the public and the intelligentsia. But evolutionary theories about Neanderthals have been tested and found wanting. They are not helpful for structuring thought about human history. What is needed now is an atmosphere of academic freedom to propose alternative hypotheses to explain the data associated with the Homoremains. For too long, Darwinism has had an unhealthy influence in anthropology. For the sake of science in general, this hegemony must be broken.
Neandertals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe
Marie Soressi, Shannon P. McPherron, Michel Lenoir, Tamara Dogandzic, Paul Goldberg, Zenobia Jacobs, Yolaine Maigrot, Naomi Martisius, Christopher E. Miller, William Rendu, Michael P. Richards, Matthew M. Skinner, Teresa E. Steele, Sahra Talamo, Jean-Pierre Texier
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 27, 2013, vol. 110 no. 35, 14186-14190 | doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302730110
Abstract: Modern humans replaced Neandertals ~40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool,lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoiris consistent with the use of lissoirin modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans.
Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus
Karen Hardy, Stephen Buckley, Matthew J. Collins, Almudena Estalrrich, Don Brothwell, Les Copeland, Antonio Garcia-Tabernero, Samuel Garcia-Vargas, Marco de la Rasilla, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Rosa Huguet, Markus Bastir, David Santamaria, Marco Madella, Julie Wilson, Angel Fernandez Cortes and Antonio Rosas.
Naturwissenschaften, August 2012, Volume 99, Issue 8, pp 617-626 (pdf here)
Abstract: Neanderthals disappeared sometime between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago. Until recently, Neanderthals were understood to have been predominantly meat-eaters; however, a growing body of evidence suggests their diet also included plants. We present the results of a study, in which sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS) and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS) were combined with morphological analysis of plant microfossils, to identify material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidron. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual. The varied use of plants that we have identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants.
Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia
Janet Monge, Morrie Kricun, Jakov Radovcic, Davorka Radovcic, Alan Mann, David W. Frayer.
PLoS ONE, June 2013, 8(6): e64539 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064539
Abstract: We describe the first definitive case of a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm in a Neandertal rib (120.71) from the site of Krapina in present-day Croatia. The tumor predates other evidence for these kinds of tumor by well over 100,000 years. Tumors of any sort are a rare occurrence in recent archaeological periods or in living primates, but especially in the human fossil record. Several studies have surveyed bone diseases in past human populations and living primates and fibrous dysplasias occur in a low incidence. Within the class of bone tumors of the rib, fibrous dysplasia is present in living humans at a higher frequency than other bone tumors. The bony features leading to our diagnosis are described in detail. In living humans effects of the neoplasm present a broad spectrum of symptoms, from asymptomatic to debilitating. Given the incomplete nature of this rib and the lack of associated skeletal elements, we resist commenting on the health effects the tumor had on the individual. Yet, the occurrence of this neoplasm shows that at least one Neandertal suffered a common bone tumor found in modern humans.
Who're You Calling a Neanderthal?
By David Frayer
New York Times: May 2, 2013
First paragraph: Most Westerners think of Neanderthals as stumbling, bumbling, mumbling fools who aimlessly wandered the landscape eking out a miserable, forlorn existence. Yet Neanderthals lived longer in Europe than modern humans have, by several hundred thousand years, and survived good and bad times.
Eduard Kaeser introduces his theme of "science kitsch" by describing the term as an oxymoron. In science, we have the analytical critical search for knowledge about the natural world. However, the term kitsch is usually associated with works of "art" that fail to display any artistry, creativity or good taste. Kaeser's concern is that some science popularisers, whose zeal for science is marred by overstatement, are using science to give authority to personal agendas - or even worse.
"Kitsch is best known in the arts. [. . .] But science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. This opposition is too simple, though. Where there is art, there is also kitsch. Where there is science, there is also science kitsch. No doubt, science is the pursuit of truth about the factual world, but there have always been elements of spuriousness making claims in the name of science that are not justified by it." (page 559)
Cover of original edition of The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) (source here)
The author presents his analysis of science kitsch as a "reconnaissance", identifying different genres and not considering content too closely. For our purposes, it is not necessary to look at each category that Kaeser names. However, his first genre, Disillusion kitsch, is undoubtedly an important starting point for us. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, focused in his later years on the study of consciousness. In 1994, he published a book with the title: "The Astonishing Hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul". That which is astonishing is summarised in this quotation:
""You", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (Crick, 1994: 3)
Crick's assertion here is actually a statement of reductionism, which is presupposed by him as a principle of science. As subsequent history has revealed, Crick was speaking for mainstream neuroscience in his confidence that love, free agency and consciousness are "no more" than electrical impulses, neuronal firings and chemical reactions. Nevertheless, Kaeser gives Crick the benefit of the doubt when he comments on the quoted words:
"To many readers today this naturalistic grip on the problem of our mind and personal identity seems rather hackneyed, and I stop short of disparaging it as kitsch per se (indeed, I suspect Crick of ironically playing with reductionism). Reductionism may serve as a research programme, as heuristic metaphor, as hypothesis, as catalysing a scientific debate. A large majority of contemporary scientists are reductionists. So most would say that the behaviour of complex wholes is nothing more than the laws governing the behaviours of the parts and their interactions. [. . .] It mutates into disillusion kitsch when you assume the posture of somebody deeply sobered but also awing others by his bleak wisdom; as somebody telling us how the world is "really ticking": Listen people, forget about what you are meant to know, all this turns out to be ignorance, illusion, error! Quite often some heroic and even tragic halo surrounds the attitude of disillusion. A whiff of narcissism is always admixed. Mostly a good dose of boasting, too." (page 560)
This first genre of science kitsch may be identified as confusing science with a presupposed philosophical stance. In Crick's case (and many like him), the philosophy is naturalism that is presented as the essence of science. The problem then is a close-minded dogmatism about the way the world works. It is not possible for naturalistic scientists to follow evidence wherever it leads because their philosophy of naturalism is presupposed as true. This closes off all consideration of any evidence indicating intelligent agency. This is not the authentic spirit of science, and it is rightly described as science kitsch.
Disillusion kitsch is expressed not just by science popularisers, but by numerous leaders within the world of science. Perhaps the most widely cited is by Richard Dawkins:
"Theologians worry away at the 'problem of evil' and a related 'problem of suffering'. [. . .] On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: 'For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know'. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." (Dawkins R., "River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," Phoenix: London, 1996, p.155.)
A second category of science kitsch that is also relevant to our interests here is named Theory kitsch by Kaeser. He introduces it in this way:
"Two components of this style stand out: the metaphorical and the scientific. Its fusion suggests a further kind of kitsch: theory kitsch. Hyperspace, variable diffraction, turbulence, acceleration of events, exponential instability ... Borrow some terms from physics and chaos theory, detach them from their specific meaning and inflate them with new magniloquence. Here kitsch is revealing a less innocuous aspect, drawing on the prestige of science to lend respectability and lustre to uncomprehended and undigested physics or mathematics, pretending to have detected some "deep" laws of history." (page 561)
Modern physics appears to be a happy hunting ground for many science writers wanting to make an impact. Favourite topics are Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics and chaos theory: they are all used to bridge the gap between everyday phenomena and the world of sub-atomic particles. But they do not get further than speculative hypothesis and analogy. The science is in short supply. Kaeser's example is "quantum healing". The problem with quantum theorists is that they are not theorists at all.
"They are theory looters. As Dutton puts it: "Scientific ideas and jargon are used by them as an exercise in intellectual parasitism; the essential function is not to inform us [. . .] but [. . .] to give their theories prestige". Or, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, conceptual kitsch relates to science as theft to honest toil." (page 562)
The topic of transhumanism is introduced as Cockaigne kitsch, pointing out that "advocates of transhumanism regale themselves with the gifts and promises of posthumanity". So enraptured are the advocates of this way of thinking, they look very much like evangelists of a religious sect. So we also meet Techno-religious kitsch. Artificial Intelligence visionaries stand alongside transhumanists in pointing a way of salvation for the human race.
"In fact, transhumanism is Christian redemption in technological guise, not seldom of kitschy taste. In addition to the self-congratulating character we notice here a specific self-deifying momentum. It indicates a deep-rooted religious and secular ambivalence that has always accompanied inventions and innovations. So, the appeal to the kitsch sense is often an appeal to the religious sense, too." (page 564)
Kaeser associates science kitsch with "Pop science": "In pop science you can easily find the "triple-E" characterising popular science: education, edification, entertainment." Pop science sets out to educate and entertain using all the resources of popular culture, which includes television, magazine formats and web-based formats. This is a lucrative market to work in: some scientists have found that it brings in more funding than other options open to them. But there is a down-side, because compromises have to be made.
"The pace of scientific research in many fields is so breathtaking that even interested experts in other disciplines often fall by the wayside. Let alone the general public. There's the right to know and there's the ability to understand. And there is the widening gap in between. Somehow the gap has to be bridged, be it only by creating the illusion of understanding science. Today a whole industry engages in that process of turning science into spectacle." (page 565)
In its desire to make science understandable to ordinary people, and to show that science delivers knowledge, the pop science presenters convey an authority that owes nothing to science. Kaeser perceives the influence of postmodern culture in such characteristics.
"One of the most conspicuous features of science kitsch is its immunity to criticism. You may aim all the ammunition of scientific rationality at the malarkey that is told on behalf of science, but again and again you will notice that the babble goes on. An obvious explanation of this persistence is that kitsch does not need scientific arguments because it simply does not play the game of science [. . .] The popularity of all kinds of "alternative" medicine, science and "ancient" wisdom testifies to a failure of modern rationality to satisfy deep longings for something to counteract the fragmentation, alienation and isolation that many people feel. So they look for the "science" that corresponds best to their needs. Hence, ironically, postmodernism has reinforced the fragmentation by emphasising that each culture has the right to know in its own way. There is no universal arbiter to decide what is right and what is wrong. Science is a "culture" among others, and not an "absolutistic" authority. It has to defy the competition of quacks, cranks, charlatans and woo woos more than ever." (page 566)
Whilst the discussion Kaeser provides is perceptive and hard-hitting, I do want to question his last paragraph. He wants the recognition of science kitsch to lead to laughter, showing that we do not respect the promoters of kitsch.
"So, if I am to draw a general conclusion from this reconnaissance, it is this one: The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science. Still, I recommend an old and successful home remedy against kitsch: laughter - loud, hearty and without respect." (page 567)
However, it seems to me that scientism is in the driving seat here, and advocates of scientism are not just presenters of pop science. Rather, many are leaders within the academic community. They are already seeking to make science the only pathway to knowledge. They require that naturalism be fundamental to the scientific enterprise and are routinely rooting out any signs of wavering. This is not a laughing matter, but highly serious. Instead of science, we are getting naturalism thrust down our throats and dissenters are frustrated because attempts at rational discourse are met with ideological rejection. Science kitsch is widespread, but questioning kitsch does not appear to sell books or television series. If anyone doubts this, just look at origins issues. Look at how the word evolution changes its meaning, so that changes in gene frequency can be invoked to support Darwin's thinking about common descent. Look at the emphasis placed on the peppered moth, the Galapagos finches and antibiotic resistance to justify far more than they demonstrate. Look at the responses to Stephen Meyer's book "Darwin's doubt": whereas Meyer shows the Cambrian Explosion is devastating for Darwinian evolution, pop scientists are queuing up to get their sound bites across (invariably straw man arguments). To question naturalism is to face the fury of academics, journalists and internet trolls. But our task is to champion science in the face of such hostility. Our goal is to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We seek the freedom as academics to question received wisdom and to propose alternative hypotheses that are a better fit with data. Exposing science kitsch for what it is will be a necessary task for all who value our scientific heritage.
Science kitsch and pop science: A reconnaissance
Public Understanding of Science, July 2013, 22: 559-569 | doi:10.1177/0963662513489390
Abstract: Science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. I think, this "shadow" of science deserves a specific scrutiny, not only because it reflects the altered place and role of science in contemporary "knowledge" society but also because it pinpoints the task of relocating science in the "multicultural" context of postmodernism, with its different epistemic claims. The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science.
People who think sharks are "primitive" fish may be commended as being reasonably up-to-date with the evolutionary literature, but they need to take note of a new fossil fish that has thrown all the ideas into the melting-pot. Only a year ago, as an apparently coherent story was beginning to emerge, a specialist in vertebrate biology explained that the common ancestor of all jawed vertebrates on Earth resembled a shark.
"The common ancestors of all jawed vertebrates today organized their heads in a way that resembled sharks. Given what we now know about the interrelatedness of early fishes, these results tell us that while sharks retained these features, bony fishes moved away from such conditions." (Source here)
Fossil plus restoration of Entelognathus (source here)
There are four groups of early fish: the extinct Acanthodians and Placoderms, and the extant Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and ratfish) and Osteichthyes (bony fish). It is the interrelationships of these groups that is much discussed by evolutionary scientists, and work in recent years has tended to see the Acanthodians as either a very early relative of sharks, or close to the common ancestry of all modern jawed vertebrates (for more on this, go here). The placoderm fishes had bony skulls and simple beak-like jaws built out of bone plates. This seemed to position them some way from the other groups, and it was widely thought that placoderm features bore little or no relation to the Osteichthyes.
"[Palaeontologists] thought that the last common ancestor of living jawed vertebrates had no distinct jawbones - that it was similar to a shark, with a skeleton made mostly of cartilage and at most a covering of little bony plates. The theory went that the bony fishes evolved later, independently developing large facial bones and inventing the 'modern' jaw. Such fishes went on to dominate the seas and ultimately gave rise to land vertebrates."
However, a major placoderm find from the Upper Silurian in China has stimulated a remarkably different interpretation. The fish, which has been given the name Entelognathus, appears initially to be a typical placoderm. The surprise comes when looking closely at the jawbones.
"When examined from the side, however, Entelognathus reveals itself as anything but expected. Absent are gnathal plates - simple jawbones characteristic of placoderms. Instead, the mouth is rimmed with bones that integrate with the cheek plates, the lower jaw is composed of an elongated 'box' of bony plates and cartilage, and the throat and gills are clad in a series of articulating plates. Both in the overall pattern and the specific detail of these plates, the fossil showcases traits that were once considered diagnostic of bony fishes, and entirely unknown in placoderms. Entelognathus, it seems, is a placoderm with a bony-fish-like grin." (Source here)
The jawbones are of great importance because they are much more complex than the single bone found in other placoderms. It is a case of abrupt appearance of complexity. Furthermore, this complexity is found in the Osteichthyes, but not in the Acanthodians or Chondrichthyes. There are two alternative evolutionary explanations: the first is that Entelognathus is ancestral only to Osteichthyes, and the second is convergence. It is the remarkable (jaw dropping) nature of the similarity of structure that has convinced most specialists that this find requires a re-writing of the evolutionary tree. This is how John Long puts it in a blog post, which headlines the thought that this new fossil is a missing link:
"But its lower jaw is composed of a complex set of bones, unlike other placoderms whose jaw was made of a single bone. This pattern of bones in Entelognathus precisely matches those in the lower jaw of early fossil bony fish (osteichthyans). Entelognathus also possessed special bones underneath its lower jaws called gulars, which are today only found in bony fishes. This fish shows the first appearance of the dentary bone which is found in all bony fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It is the very same bone in our lower jaw. The new discovery from China gives us powerful new insights about the building of the human body plan, which began seriously with these ancient fossil fishes." (Source here)
Whether there is a line of descent from placoderms to osteichthyans, or whether the jaw structures originated independently, there are important implications for phylogenies. Instead of sharks being "primitive", they should be regarded as "derived". The implication is that a classic scenario in vertebrate evolution is inverted. Friedman and Brazeau write in their commentary:
"[T]wo things are clear from the various possibilities proposed in their evolutionary tree. First, Entelognathus always branches outside the radiation of living jawed vertebrates, meaning that key components of the osteichthyan face are no longer unique innovations of that group. Second, acanthodians - that pivotal assortment of extinct shark-like fishes - are shifted, en masse, to the branch containing the cartilaginous fishes. This triggers a cascade of implications. If all acanthodians are early cartilaginous fishes, then their shark-like features are not generalities of jawed vertebrates, but specializations of the cartilaginous-fish branch. The most recent common ancestor of jawed vertebrates was thus probably clad in bony armour of the sort common to both placoderms and bony fishes."
A particularly interesting aspect of this "piscine mash-up" are comments on "how did we get it so wrong?" The indications are that cultural factors have been very prominent. The culture is that of progressivist thinking linked to the "Great Chain of Being" approach to looking at the world. A previous blog has explored this theme and can be consulted here. This new fossil is not just raising immensely important issues for cladistic analysis, but also is providing a case study of the human face of science - we find the continuing influence of Aristotelianism and other cultural agendas, despite assurances of science being objective and evidence-based. Friedman and Brazeau again:
"The status of sharks as surrogate ancestors seems well established, but this is an illusion of dogmatic repetition combined with spurious portrayals of present-day cartilaginous fishes as unchanged "living fossils". The popular model of a shark-like ancestor is, in the end, more a hangover of the "great chain of being" of ancient philosophy and pre-Darwinian archetypes than a product of modern comparative biology and phylogenetic "tree thinking". Added to this conceptual inertia is a historically compartmentalized approach to studying early vertebrate groups that made it too easy to dismiss shared similarities - the head and shoulder exoskeleton of placoderms and bony fishes, for example - as independent innovations without adequate evidence."
What we are seeing in the Palaeozoic fish fossils is a mosaic of character traits that are proving very difficult to portray in an evolutionary phylogeny. This is a good reason for at least considering the value of design-thinking and the potential for understanding some of this variability using the concept of phenotypic plasticity.
A Silurian placoderm with osteichthyan-like marginal jaw bones
Min Zhu, Xiaobo Yu, Per Erik Ahlberg, Brian Choo, Jing Lu, Tuo Qiao, Qingming Qu, Wenjin Zhao, Liantao Jia, Henning Blom & You'an Zhu
Nature, 502, 188-193 (10 October 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12617
The gnathostome (jawed vertebrate) crown group comprises two extant clades with contrasting character complements. Notably, Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) lack the large dermal bones that characterize Osteichthyes (bony fish and tetrapods). The polarities of these differences, and the morphology of the last common ancestor of crown gnathostomes, are the subject of continuing debate. Here we describe a three-dimensionally preserved 419-million-year-old placoderm fish from the Silurian of China that represents the first stem gnathostome with dermal marginal jaw bones (premaxilla, maxilla and dentary), features previously restricted to Osteichthyes. A phylogenetic analysis places the new form near the top of the gnathostome stem group but does not fully resolve its relationships to other placoderms. The analysis also assigns all acanthodians to the chondrichthyan stem group. These results suggest that the last common ancestor of Chondrichthyes and Osteichthyes had a macromeric dermal skeleton, and provide a new framework for studying crown gnathostome divergence.
A jaw-dropping fossil fish
Matt Friedman & Martin D. Brazeau
Nature, 502, 175-177 (10 October 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12690
The ancestors of modern jawed vertebrates are commonly portrayed as fishes with a shark-like appearance. But a stunning fossil discovery from China puts a new face on the original jawed vertebrate.
The Mystery of the Missing Fossils
Darwin is to be commended for recognising that the fossil record did not endorse his gradualist approach to the origin of species. The abrupt appearance of each different type of animal and plant was known to his peers as a pervasive characteristic. He found a way of reconciling this empirical evidence with his scenario of evolution by natural selection: the extreme impoverishment of the fossil record. Yet even this did not do justice to the observation that a great disparity of hard-bodied animal life is to be found in the "lowest known fossiliferous rocks", below which are apparently barren strata. As a difficulty for his theory, Darwin described it as "very great".
In his introduction to the issues, Meyer recounts the discourse between palaeontologist Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin. Agassiz was not convinced that natural selection acting on small variations could achieve much in the way of transformation, and he considered the abrupt appearance of animals as an argument against Darwinism. Meyer looks closely at the issues highlighted by Agassiz, and reinforces them by discussing the views of two other leading geologists: Murchison and Sedgwick. He establishes that the issues were worthy of discussion by the leading scholars of Darwin's day and that Darwinism did not supply satisfactory answers to legitimate questions.
Agassiz insisted that Darwin's picture of the history of life "contradict[ed] what the animal forms buried in the rocky strata of our earth tell us of their own introduction and succession upon the surface of the globe. Let us therefore hear them; - for, after all, their testimony is that of the eye-witness and the actor in the scene." (cited on pages 12-13)
So, to test Darwin's hypothesis, it was necessary to search for relevant strata and study their organic remains in more detail. The quest for ancestors of the Cambrian animals thus became a major issue for students of earth history. The first big find was in 1910, when fossils of the Burgess Shale greatly expanded knowledge of animals living in the Middle Cambrian Period. Meyer shows that the discovery amplified the tension between Darwinism and the fossil record because the observed diversity of phyla and classes was not at all what theory predicted. Those familiar with Gould's "Wonderful Life" will already be aware of the mismatch between theoretical predictions and empirical evidence. However, as Darwinism was dominant in 1910, an explanation of the discrepancy was needed that would respond to the challenge of Agassiz. It emerged as the "Artifact hypothesis": the ancestral animals were evolving in deep sea waters away from continental land masses, so that these ancestral forms still awaited discovery.
The next spotlight shone on the fossil record illuminates the multicellular organisms prior to the Cambrian Period. These are known as the Ediacaran fauna, but no one is sure what they are. Despite this, Darwinists have tended to regard these organisms as evidence of a fuse leading to the Cambrian Explosion. However, such ideas cannot be regarded as having scientific weight. This is because the Ediacarans do not have the diagnostic features of animals, there are no linkages which support animal ancestry, gradualism is not in evidence and the timescales are inadequate. Meyer provides a powerful quote from two specialists in the field:
"The expected Darwinian pattern of a deep fossil history of the bilaterans, potentially showing their gradual development, stretching hundreds of millions of years into the Precambrian, has singularly failed to materialise." (page 96)
If fossils are not documenting the story of the origin of animals, are there other clues for researchers to follow? Meyer turns his attention to the way genetic information has been used to map the Precambrian-Cambrian tree of life. Researchers regard sequence similarities as a witness to common ancestry, and sequence differences as evidence that can be used to determine the timescales involved. Such studies usually extend the origins of the animal phyla many hundreds of millions of years, and the emerging phylogenetic trees are used to cast doubt on the idea that the Cambrian diversification was explosive. Meyer argues that there is a methodological problem relating to the interpretation of data. Evidence supporting this claim is provided by the conflicting divergence times. At the root of the problem are questionable assumptions: the constant ticking of molecular clocks, and the descent of all animal forms from a common ancestor.
"Thus, the deep-divergence studies do not, in any rigorous sense, establish any Precambrian ancestral forms. Did a single, original metazoan or bilateran ancestor of the Cambrian animals actually exist? The Precambrian-Cambrian fossil record taken on its face certainly doesn't document such an entity. But neither do deep-divergence studies. Instead, these studies assume the existence of such ancestors, and then merely attempt, given that assumption, to determine how long ago such ancestors might have lived." (page 111)
The concept of "common descent" is so entrenched in evolutionary thought that its advocates find themselves unable to distinguish between theory and evidence. For them, there is no argument - the case for common descent is overwhelming. To address this issue in greater depth, Meyer analyses "The animal tree of life" in Chapter 6. He critiques the way the concept is handled and shows that "common descent" is a dogma imposed on the evidence. The published animal trees all show common descent, but this is "because they all presuppose it, not because they demonstrate it." As an example of the mental block exhibited by evolutionists, consider the case of Larry Moran in his blog: "Darwin's Doubt: The Genes Tell the Story?" (Sandwalk, 6 September 2013). Moran writes as follows:
"There is strong evidence from molecular evolution that the major animal phyla share common ancestors and that these common ancestors predate the Cambrian by millions of years. In other words, there's a "long fuse" of evolution leading up to the Cambrian Explosion. Meyer refers to this as the "deep-divergence" assumption.
There are many versions of these trees. The one shown here is from Erwin et al. (2011). It's the one shown in the book The Cambrian Explosion by Douglas Erwin and James Valentine. It isn't necessarily correct in all details but that's not the point.
The point is that molecular phylogenies demonstrate conclusively that the major groups of animals share common ancestors AND that the overall pattern does not conform to a massive radiation around 530 million years ago."
The last sentence is an example of the conceptual problem identified by Meyer: the illustration used by Moran in his blog does not demonstrate anything conclusively! The Precambrian tree structure is entirely derived from the assumptions adopted by the researchers. Incidentally, Erwin et al. (2011) is referenced on page 461 of Darwin's Doubt, and cited on page 104.
The last chapter of Part 1 is devoted to the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, whose architects were Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. Whilst their orientation as palaeontologists allowed them to recognise that stasis is data and that abrupt appearance in the fossil record is ubiquitous, they did not succeed in explaining the Cambrian Explosion (which does not show small-scale diversity preceding large-scale disparity). Nor did they explain the abrupt appearance of complexity - finding themselves appealing to Darwinian mechanisms for building intricate structures. The problem of developing a coherent evolutionary theory that explained the data of the Cambrian Explosion remains.
Meyer summarises Part 1 in this way:
"To this point I've examined one main aspect of the mystery surrounding the Cambrian Explosion: the mystery of the missing Precambrian ancestral forms expected on the basis of Darwin's theory. The next group of chapters will examine a second, and perhaps more profound, aspect of the Cambrian mystery: that of the cause of the Cambrian explosion. By what means or process or mechanism could something as complex as a trilobite have arisen? Could natural selection have accomplished such a feat? To answer this question we will have to look more closely at what it takes to build a new form of animal life. And we'll see that an important part of the answer to that question will have to do with the concept of information." (page 155)
To be continued.
Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
by Stephen C. Meyer
HarperOne (HarperCollins), New York, 2013. 520 pp. ISBN 9780062071477.
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