There are two competing paradigms about Neanderthal capabilities and culture. The first considers Neanderthals to be cognitively inflexible, with a limited use of technologies that was unresponsive to environmental change. The second recognises a much wider range of behaviours and technologies, with adaptation to specific local conditions. The paper considered in this blog belongs to the second of these perspectives: the reported work considers artefacts from a cave that was occupied by Neanderthals and dated about 90,000 years ago.
"Here, we present evidence for behavioral variability and complexity among Neanderthals at the beginning of Marine Isotope Stage 4 (MIS 4) at the Abri du Maras located above the Ardeche River in southern France. Using residue analysis of stone tools with supporting evidence from zooarchaeology, we show that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras had a detailed knowledge of their surrounding environment, captured fast and agile prey (rabbits, fish and birds), exploited a range of plant species, and used composite technology such as hafted stone points and the manufacture of string and cordage. Overall, we present evidence which demonstrates that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras were far from inefficient foragers." (p.24)
Not just a pretty face (Image: Nikola Solic/Reuters, source here))
Many flake stone tools have been recovered. Microscopic examination of their surfaces has revealed a remarkable variety of traces providing clues about Neanderthal capabilities and lifestyle. The most noteworthy relates to tiny fragments of twisted plant fibres. This is considered to be evidence for human activity: gathering plant material, retting or shredding to extract fibres, twisting to create threads or string, and cutting a length with the stone tools.
"These fibers are not twisted in their natural state which suggests that they were twisted by the inhabitants of the Abri du Maras and may therefore provide evidence of the manufacture of string or cordage. In previous woodworking experiments involving incising, planning, whittling, scraping, and boring, no twisted fibers were observed. Unpublished experiments conducted by BH involving the scraping, cutting, and slicing of a variety of nonwoody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.) also produced no twisted fibers such as those observed here. While not definitive, the lack of twisted fibers in these experiments lends some credence to the hypothesis that these derive from cordage. Future experiments involving cordage and plant processing will help clarify the potential sources of twisted fiber." (p.27,29)
Circumstantial evidence is provided by observations of micro-wear of flake tools that show indications of being hafted to produce stone-tipped javelins. Other uses for string can be inferred because there is evidence at this site that Neanderthals went fishing and at other sites that they crossed open water in boats.
"Since macroscopic remains have not been found prior to 19 ka, it is important to examine other less direct forms of evidence where fiber or string production may leave traces on a microscopic level which may be visible through use-wear and residue analyses. For most of the Paleolithic, the best potential source of evidence for cordage is stone tools. Hurcombe (1998) describes several different points in the chaine operatoire of fiber production where stone tools are likely to be used, including plant harvesting, processing of fibers, and cutting loose ends from cordage.
The production of string along with simple knowledge of knotting, weaving, and looping, make possible a wide range of products including "nets, containers, packaging, baskets, carrying devices, ties, straps, harness, clothes, shoes, beds, bedding, mats, flooring, roofing and walling". In addition, string facilitates the construction of complex, multi-component technologies such as hafts or snares. Finally, string would have been essential for seafaring, maritime technologies used for the colonization of islands, and for many types of fishing." (p.34)
We cannot consider all the evidences discussed by the authors. However, they make an interesting comment on how expectations (influenced by presuppositions) affect research programmes.
"Paleolithic archaeologists have a tendency to focus heavily on reconstructing subsistence activities. Within subsistence, the focus is primarily on animals with even more narrow focus on large animals, partly because their remains preserve better. This focus is justified to some extent as archeologists can only work with the evidence they find. However, this means we are missing a huge component of everyday life. The preservation bias of the archaeological record limits the avenues being investigated. The fiber evidence presented here is a reminder that if we don?t look for it, we won?t find it." (p.35)
We shall pass over much interesting discussion of evidences and reach their conclusion. The authors have used their detective skills to reconstruct a community of Neanderthals that appears to be indistinguishable from modern humans.
"The Abri du Maras overlooks the Ardeche River in south-eastern France. The combination of analyses presented here (mainly residue analysis) has provided a more detailed view into Neanderthal lives than is generally possible. Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras caught and consumed a wide variety of foods, from large herbivores to rabbits, fish, plants, and possibly birds. The occupants of the Abri du Maras may have also been engaged in a variety of other activities: gathering mushrooms, gathering raw materials and manufacturing string, woodworking, constructing composite technologies such as complex projectiles and possibly nets or traps. Given the wide variety of resources exploited at the Abri du Maras, we should heed Hockett's recent caution that we may have "under-appreciated the amount of non-mammal foods eaten by Neanderthals". We would add that the high diversity of resources used by Neanderthals has been generally under-appreciated for decades." (p.38)
This fascinating insight into community life is worthy of our attention because the group members were Neanderthals. For too long, they have been portrayed as pre-human and have been used to buttress evolutionary stories about the origins of mankind. However, archaeological evidence discussed here (and here) suggests that these stories are embellished with evolutionary spin. The evidence shows that Neanderthals are human cousins and deserve quite a different place in history. Unfortunately, this truth about Neanderthals has been missed in the past because the presumption of evolutionary transformation has constrained the minds of researchers. They illustrate the maxim: "if we don't look for it, we won't find it."
Another recent finding that is related to this theme is that a Neanderthal community in Italy organised their cave in a way that is recognisably human. The punchline is the same: here are "close cousins" that do not deserve to be called pre-human.
"Scientists have found that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that would be familiar to modern humans, a discovery that once again shows similarities between these two close cousins. The findings, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, indicate that Neanderthals butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their shelters. "There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space." [snip] "This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well." (source here).
Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France)
Bruce L. Hardy, Marie-Helene Moncel, Camille Daujeard, Paul Fernandes, Philippe Bearez, Emmanuel Desclaux, Maria Gema Chacon Navarro, Simon Puaud, Rosalia Gallotti
Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 82, 15 December 2013, Pages 23?40
Abstract: Neanderthal behavior is often described in one of two contradictory ways: 1) Neanderthals were behaviorally inflexible and specialized in large game hunting or 2) Neanderthals exhibited a wide range of behaviors and exploited a wide range of resources including plants and small, fast game. Using stone tool residue analysis with supporting information from zooarchaeology, we provide evidence that at the Abri du Maras, Ardeche, France, Neanderthals were behaviorally flexible at the beginning of MIS 4. Here, Neanderthals exploited a wide range of resources including large mammals, fish, ducks, raptors, rabbits, mushrooms, plants, and wood. Twisted fibers on stone tools provide evidence of making string or cordage. Using a variety of lines of evidence, we show the presence of stone projectile tips, possibly used in complex projectile technology. This evidence shows a level of behavioral variability that is often denied to Neanderthals. Furthermore, it sheds light on perishable materials and resources that are not often recovered which should be considered more fully in reconstructions of Neanderthal behavior.
A Spatial Analysis of the Late Mousterian Levels of Riparo Bombrini (Balzi Rossi, Italy)
Julien Riel-Salvatore, Ingrid C. Ludeke, Fabio Negrino, and Brigitte M. Holt
Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 37(1), 70-92 (2013)
Abstract: We present a preliminary analysis of the spatial distribution of various artifact classes in the Late Mousterian levels of Riparo Bombrini (northwest Italy). This work shows the presence of a consistent gap in artifacts across all levels, which is interpreted as reflecting the position of the dripline prior to the shelter's collapse. Hearths are identified in levels M1-3, M4 and M5, and their position at the back of the shelter is similar to that of "sleeping hearths" identified at other Mousterian sites. Lastly, the distribution of artifacts is shown to co-vary with the nature of the prevalent mobility strategies in use at different times over the site's occupational history. Notably, use of the site as a logistical base camp is correlated with the presence of hearths and the accumulation of noisome debris beyond the dripline and outside of the shelter. Other uses of the site seem to have favored the discard of some classes of artifacts within the shelter itself. This shows that Neanderthals were indeed able to organize their use of space in patterned and somewhat predictable manners, and that the length and nature of their occupation of the rockshelter need to be taken into account in such analyses.
Earlier this year, in March, Nature reported that soft-bodied worms from the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada, given the name Spartobranchus tenuis, have been identified as ancient examples of acorn worms. They were hailed as a "missing link" in the vertebrate family tree: "a crucial evolutionary link between two distinct living groups of animals: enteropneusts and pterobranchs." The evidence supporting this was said to be the tubes constructed by Spartobranchus tenuis. Living enteropneusts (acorn worms) do not have tubes, whereas living pterobranchs (minute colonial organisms) do. Professor Simon Conway Morris affirmed the significance of the newly discovered fossil tubes with these words: "By finding enteropneusts in tubes we begin to bridge this evolutionary gap." At the time, these issues were discussed in a blog here, and questions were raised about the evolutionary narrative. More now needs to be said, as a recent paper in Nature Communications has documented modern tube-forming acorn worms found in Antarctic benthic communities.
Figure 1b: Large purple morphotype in secreted tube with proboscis expanded. (Source here)
Recent work surveying life in ocean basins has identified a new family of deep-sea enteropneusts, the Torquaratoridae. During oceanographic cruises in the Antarctic, between 2008 and 2013, two new enteropneusts were discovered at depths ranging from 531 to 1,111m. These species secrete translucent tubes in which they live, although they have also been observed abandoning their tubes. The authors recognize that their discovery is directly relevant to the interpretation of the Burgess Shale worm tubes. This is their discussion:
"Foremost, our discovery provides context for the recently re-described Middle Cambrian fossils, S. tenuis from the Burgess Shale Formation. These acorn worm fossils look remarkably like present-day enteropneusts, except many are observed to be within a 'fiberous' tube. The persistence of tubes in Antarctic worms suggests that the tubes contain proteinaceous components functioning as binding agents. Some tubes were lightly covered with sediment giving them a 'ribbed' appearance, similar to those reported for S. tenuis. [. . .] Our observations of Antarctic tubicolous worms and faecal casings imply that the worms often turn and zigzag during movement or may even double back on themselves as reported elsewhere. If buried quickly in a single obtrusion event, as suspected for each of the mudstone beds of the Greater Phyllopod Bed (that is, Walcott's quarry), such tubes could appear helical or even circular as reported for S. tenuis [. . .]. The fossil tubes were interpreted as 'fiberous' based on apparent tearing of the tubes, but a similar phenomenon occurs with the present-day tubes. Given the similarity in tube design between S. tenuis and the Antarctic torquaratorids, similar behavioural repertoires (for example, tube building, vacating tubes and meandering epibenthic movements) appear to have been conserved ~500 million years."
So, the discovery of modern tube-forming acorn worms has assisted the interpretation of the fossil tubes: the fibrous texture is an artifact of preservation and not part of the constructed tube, and the doughnut shapes are likely to be formed by a rapid depositional process and is not representative of the original structure in life. The evidence we have is of stasis in behavioral repertoires as well as in morphology.
This leads to a rather different conclusion about the implications for evolutionary theory. The idea that S. tenuis is a link between the enteropneusts and the pterobranchs lacks credibility. The argument is explained very clearly in the research paper:
"Fossil evidence reveals that graptolites, and even rhabopleurids and cephalodiscids (modern pterobranch lineages), were present in the Middle Cambrian, making S. tenuis contemporary with established pterobranch (including graptolite) lineages. As the split between enteropneust and pterobranch lineages would have been before the Middle Cambrian, the tube of S. tenuis was not a precursor to the pterobranch coenecium. Lack of synapticulae and hepatic sacs were also argued to ally S. tenuis with harrimaniid enteropneusts. However, torquaratorid enteropneusts, like harrimaniids, lack synapticles, and assessing the presence of hepatic sacs often requires microscopy in modern species, much less in fossilized ones. Given the position of torquaratorids and pterobranchs in hemichordate phylogeny, the last common hemichordate ancestor may have been able to build tubes, raising the question whether this ability was present in the last common deuterostome ancestor."
The implication is that the last common hemichordate ancestor lived before the Middle Cambrian and should be located before the Cambrian Explosion. The problem for this hypothesis is that there is a paucity of fossil data: we do not have anything other than speculation for hypothetical ancestors of the animal phyla. Instead of evolutionary theory having anchors in fossil evidence about the past, the Precambrian is effectively a blank sheet where inferences are drawn from selected phylogenetic data and produce conflicting evolutionary trees.
There is a pattern in the way fossil discoveries are reported. If they are deemed to fill in the gaps in a branch of the evolutionary tree, they generally get massive exposure and are hailed as milestones in developing an understanding of life on Earth. However, when new data comes to light that shows the original thinking to be wrong, the exposure is far less and the media show little interest. With acorn worms, we have a case to reflect on worthy of our time. The message we should be taking away is that the fossil record brings us evidence of stasis, not evolutionary transformation. We need a radical rethink of the presuppositions we bring to the story of life on Earth, because the present hegemony of Darwinism has no adequate explanation for the origin of biological information.
Modern Antarctic acorn worms form tubes
Kenneth M. Halanych, Johanna T. Cannon, Andrew R. Mahon, Billie J. Swalla and Craig R. Smith
Nature Communications, 4, No. 2738, 07 November 2013 | doi: 10.1038/ncomms3738
Abstract: Acorn worms, or enteropneusts, are vermiform hemichordates that occupy an important position in deuterostome phylogeny. Allied to pterobranch hemichordates, small colonial tube dwellers, modern enteropneusts were thought to be tubeless. However, understanding of hemichordate diversity is poor, as evidenced by absence of reports from some oceanic regions and recent descriptions of large epibenthic deep-water enteropneusts, Torquaratoridae. Here we show, based on expeditions to Antarctica, that some acorn worms produce conspicuous tubes that persist for days. Interestingly, recent fossil descriptions show a Middle Cambrian acorn worm lived in tubes, leading to speculation that these fossils may have been pterobranch forbearers. Our discovery provides the alternative interpretation that these fossils are similar to modern-day torquaratorids and that some behaviours have been conserved for over 500 million years. Moreover, the frequency of Antarctic enteropneusts observed attests to our limited knowledge of Antarctic marine ecosystems, and strengthens hypotheses relating more northern deep-sea fauna to Antarctic shelf fauna.
Birchfield, C. Auburn University researchers make deep sea creature discovery and set sail for Antarctica, Auburn University News, 20 November 2013.
Whether you are a diver, a geologist, or simply someone with an interest in natural history, you are likely to have a misconception about the structure of coral reefs. The error is ubiquitous in textbooks and is reinforced by media treatments of the topic. Everyone 'knows' that coral reefs have a central zone of organically bound material (the reef core), a leeward zone of flat lying sediments (the back-reef lagoonal area) and a seaward zone of steeply-dipping rubble (the reef talus). The misconception relates to the reef talus. The source of the erroneous view can be traced to Charles Darwin, who sought to follow his mentor (Charles Lyell) in explaining the past by reference to present-day processes.
"Darwin and his many followers regarded contemporary reefs as having shelf-like forms, with steep slopes facing deep water. This morphology differentiates the familiar zones of backreef, reef-crest and fore-reef. Most accounts emphasize the importance of the reef-crest, comprising the growth framework responsible for generating the reef structure. Material eroded from both the reef-crest and the upper reef-slope has been assumed to accumulate on the fore-reef, and it was argued that this provided the foundations that enabled construction to take place in waters that were otherwise too deep. This pervasive idea can be traced to Darwin (1842) and Dana (1853), although it typically only applies to windward, moderately high hydrodynamic energy, regimes. However, numerous conceptual models illustrate reefs in which the fore-reef is shown as a steep debris slope, on which depositional increments are correlated with contemporary intervals of reef growth." (from the Introduction).
An example of an educational graphic showing the fore-reef talus. (Source here)
This understanding of the fore-reef debris slope as talus is described as a "misconception", an "error", a "misleading description" - yet it has achieved widespread acceptance and is regarded as the "traditional" view and a "cherished model". This should be regarded as another example of 'consensus' thinking that owes more to the naive acceptance of Lyellian uniformitarianism than to science. We have Colin Braithwaite to thank for showing that the research findings over the past 30+ years demonstrate clearly that the textbook interpretations of "reef talus" need to be revised. After reviewing numerous papers, he writes:
"What conclusions, vis a vis Darwin's model and "talus slopes", can be drawn from these observations? Early descriptions of reefs by Darwin and others paved the way for an interpretation linking the morphology of 'the reef' to erosion and the formation of coarse debris, 'reef talus', commonly regarded as integral to conceptual models of ancient reefs. However, research over the past decades has shown that present-day processes, that include storm events at the high end of the energy spectrum, are important contributors to reef debris but do not generate large volumes of coarse debris on fore-reef slopes. Although reef erosion is a reality, transport directions generally preclude its involvement in large-scale talus formation. Neither off-reef flow nor large-scale slope failure generates debris on the reef front in the size ranges typically described as "talus"." (From the Conclusions)
Evidence amassed by Braithwaite explains that "reef talus" is a misnomer. In the main, it is not rubble from the reef core that has moved down the steeply-dipping fore-reef slope. The evidence shows that most of the reef debris caused by hurricanes and storms is moved in the other direction - into the back-reef lagoon. The mechanism is understood in this way:
"Why does such transport occur? It reflects wave set-up and the flow generated by breaking waves. However, in contrast to waves breaking on sand or gravel beaches, other than during relatively fair-weather conditions, backwash is effectively eliminated. Flow is able to continue landwards in waves of translation that decay gradually and, on a wide platform, are ultimately dissipated by surface friction. Thus, their ability to transport material is systematically reduced and is only expressed in a broadly decreasing grain-size of deposits landward of the reef margin." (From Section 3 - fore-reefs and transport)
Braithwaite argues that coral reefs in today's oceans are growing on limestone platforms that predate reef growth. The margins of those platforms are subject to a variety of forces that produce the talus slopes.
"Contemporary reefs are shedding sediment into deeper waters, but there is also evidence of larger-scale margin collapse and gravity-driven slope failure of the platforms beneath them. Blocks of kilometre dimensions have been described on the west Florida margin, the Bahamas, and bounding the Nicaraguan Rise." (From Section 5 - slope deposits and platform shedding)
For those with an interest in the geological issues, Braithwaite's discussion is informative and thought-provoking, but this will not be considered further here. Suffice to say that it incorporates plenty of examples from fossil 'reefs' that confirm the proposed model.
"The premise that "reef talus" is an expression of the erosional history of the underlying platform rather than an integral product of a living reef can be illustrated by examples from rocks of a variety of ages." (From Section 6 - Ancient analogues)
Braithwaite=s paper is suggestive of a distinction that can be made between uniformitarianism and actualism. Darwin illustrates the former - although he claimed to be saying that the present is the key to the past, he invoked only gradualist processes that he thought were operative in the present and failed to test his hypotheses rigorously. Those who have followed him appear to have lacked the will to formulate and test hypotheses and to consider the viability of alternative models. Although there is an appeal to contemporary processes, uniformitarians tend to favour those characterised by small incremental effects. By contrast, Braithwaite illustrates actualism, with an evaluation of a much wider range of processes. He considers hurricane-driven tidal flows, tsunamis, and even waves generated by a meteorite impact capable of lifting blocks weighing 100 tons onto cliffs 33m above present sea level. He cites a case of sediment accumulation over about 500 years but all of it being transported and dispersed by a hurricane-induced current in about 5 hours. He shows how alternative models can be tested and how evidence can be used to falsify hypotheses. This approach to science is much more healthy, for there is a willingness to challenge cherished models and an openness to the operation of different mechanisms.
Why is this worthy of our attention? The principles in evidence here are relevant to a large number of topics that relate to the past. Unfortunately, these origins issues often are characterised by excessive appeals to consensus and cherished models, and not enough attention is given to the weight of evidence. Lyell's and Darwin's uniformitarianism still have an undue influence on our educational system and the media. Attempts to increase the level of critical scrutiny are met with emotive responses rather than reasoned arguments. To help us think through our methodology for dealing with these tensions, Braithwaite's approach to the "reef talus" model may provide a useful case study.
Reef Talus: A popular misconception
Colin J.R. Braithwaite
Earth-Science Reviews, online 14 November 2013
Abstract: Reef fronts have traditionally been regarded as comprising debris derived by contemporaneous erosion of 'the reef'. However, evidence from wave transport indicates that on present-day reefs the bulk of the debris generated in this way accumulates in the back-reef area, with only finer-grained sediment carried off-reef by retreating flows or by overwash. Nevertheless, in contrast to this observation, 'fore-reef' debris slopes are commonly considered "characteristic" of Phanerozoic reefs. This apparent error reflects the conflation of processes defining contemporary growth and accretion of the reef, and the corresponding long-term accretion of the carbonate platform on which it rests. Present-day reefs are commonly (although not exclusively) additions to long-lived carbonate platforms. Growth of the latter is intermittent and has been moderated by changes in sea-level that, for recent reefs, have been on time scales of less than 100 ka. During low sea-level stands, growth ceases or is translated downslope and earlier deposits are subject to lithification and subaerial erosion. Similar changes are applied on a larger scale to the aggrading growth of carbonate platforms, but the bulk accretion of these includes quite different processes and reflects far longer timescales. During low sea-level stands, the margins of platforms commonly become unstable, with instability reflected in slope failure and in the shedding of blocks, ranging from metres to kilometres in diameter, associated with the generation of debris flows and turbidites. It is argued that these are the materials that are commonly described as 'reef talus' in ancient structures, although their formation is largely independent of any contemporary reef growth. Difficulties arise where 'the reef' and 'the platform' are treated as a single functional entity. It is important to recognize the conceptual distinction between them, 'reef talus' is a misleading description of the debris predominantly generated by platform erosion and slope failure.
Tyler, D. The unscientific hegemony of uniformitarianism, ARN Literature Blog (16 May 2011)
Palaeontologists have been developing some highly sophisticated tools for analysing fossil specimens. Of particular interest are techniques that probe the details of soft tissue preservation. In the research considered here, the 30 mm specimen was found at the Chengjiang lagerstatte locality in southwest China. It had large, claw-like appendages on its head and many jointed legs. It is assigned to the arthropods and thought to be a probable extinct chelicerate. It is referred to as one of the megacherian (meaning "great hand") species with the genus name Alalcomenaeus. To analyse the soft tissues, a 3-D model of the specimen was produced using a CT-scanner and, at the same time, an X-ray microscope documented the distribution of selected chemical elements. In particular, iron has been found to map out the nervous system of the animal. The findings are spectacular.
This close-up of the head region of the Alalcomenaeus fossil specimen includes superimposed colors of a microscopy technique that reveal the distribution of chemical elements in the fossil. Copper shows up as blue, iron as magenta and the CT scans as green. The coincidence of iron and CT denote nervous system. The creature boasted two pairs of eyes (ball-shaped structures at the top). (Image: N. Strausfeld/University of Arizona, source here)
Living arthropods are classified into two major groups: the chelicerata (which include spiders, scorpions, mites and horseshoe crabs), and the mandibulata (which includes insects, crustaceans and millipedes). The new research locates the "great appendage arthropods" unambiguously in the chelicerata.
"We now know that the megacheirans had central nervous systems very similar to today's horseshoe crabs and scorpions," senior author Nicholas Strausfeld, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. (source here)
"The animal's brain consists of three fused ganglia, and blends into more ganglia that extend down the length of the animal's body. It has four eyes, each of which is served by just one optic lobe. That's a chelicerate layout - in mandibulates, the body ganglia would be more distinct and separated by long nerves, and there would be two to four optic lobes per eye." (Ed Yong, source here)
Evolutionary biologists are very fond of the terms "stem" and "crown" to describe where fossils fit into the tree of life. A "stem" fossil is supposed to have more transitional characters and the "crown" specimens are essentially modern. These great appendage arthropods were previously interpreted as "stem group chelicerates" or "stem-group arthropods". However, the neural architecture is essentially modern.
"Professor Strausfeld said: 'Greg plugged these characteristics into a computer-based cladistic analysis to ask, "where does this fossil appear in a relational tree?" 'Our fossil of Alalcomenaeus came out with the modern chelicerates." (source here)
This research is actually the second study of its type. The first was concerned with the neural structure of a mandibulate organism, published last year.
"Xiaoya Ma and Nicholas Strausfeld described the brain of a 520-million-year old animal called Fuxianhuia protensa. It consisted of three clusters of nerves (ganglia) that had fused together. (Source here)
"Nerves from the second ganglion reached into the creature's antennae, while nerves from the third one led into a pair of claws. Each of the animal's eyes was served by three further nerve bundles, known as optic lobes. "In other words, the specimen had a brain like that of a modern crustacean," says Strausfeld. Fuxianhuia was clearly an early relative of modern crabs, lobsters and shrimp - a relationship that was unclear from its body alone. [. . .] Fuxianhuia exemplified the mandibulate pattern." (Source here)
"No one expected such an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of multicellular animals," said Strausfeld, a Regents Professor in the UA department of neuroscience. [. . .] "In principle, Fuxianhuia's is a very modern brain in an ancient animal." (Source here)
So we have the interesting situation that both groups of arthropods have neural patterns that are essentially modern. Whereas morphology is used to argue the case for "stem" and "crown" organisms, complex specified information is more readily discerned in soft tissues: genetic systems, developmental gene regulatory networks and neural patterns. Research over the past decade has indicated that numerous core genes are common to a large number of phyla with the implication being that they preceded the Cambrian Explosion of animal phyla (here and here). The same applies to developmental pathways. The research considered in this blog shows that the neural pathways for arthropods must be dated at least to the Early Cambrian. This provides an additional dimension to the Cambrian Explosion phenomenon - in that an extraordinary accumulation of biological information is already in place by the Middle Cambrian.
A final point to note relates to the way iron mineralisation has preserved neural patterns, for reasons that are not altogether clear. It appears that nerve cells are more resistant to decay than other soft tissues:
"Strausfeld says that the nerves of invertebrates are dense and rich in fats, which makes them water-repellent. This, combined with their hard external skeleton, might have slowed the process of decay long enough for them to fossilise. Indeed, in an earlier study, Strausfeld's team buried marine worms in mud and put them under high pressure to simulate the start of fossilisation - and their nerves lasted while their muscles decayed." (source here)
Whilst there is a rationale for nerve tissue surviving longer than other tissues, it remains to be discovered why nerve tissue should take up iron mineralisation. Is there something about the nerve cells that attracts iron? All are agreed that soft tissue preservation requires rapid fossilisation, but we may find that nerve cells have to react with iron in solution very soon after burial if we are to preserve the neural ground pattern. Whatever the answers to such questions, soft tissue preservation is a clear pointer to fossilisation in a geological instant. Geologists (and others) are recognising that the principle of uniformitarianism promoted by Charles Lyell is a poor tool for interpreting the rock record, for many geological processes are abrupt and not gradual. Nevertheless, Lyell's legacy lives on in Darwinian evolution, where gradualism reigns supreme. Most Darwinians continue to stumble over the Cambrian Explosion and continue to predict that an extensive Precambrian fossil record will emerge with continued research. However, the fossil record that we do have, especially probed in detail as outlined in this blog, means that scenarios of "climbing Mount Improbable" savours more of a vivid imagination unconstrained by evidence. To understand why uniformitarianism is inappropriate for grappling with the Cambrian Explosion, go here. For a paradigm-shifting treatment of this whole issue, go here.
Chelicerate neural ground pattern in a Cambrian great appendage arthropod
Gengo Tanaka, Xianguang Hou, Xiaoya Ma, Gregory D. Edgecombe & Nicholas J. Strausfeld
Nature, 502, 364-367 (17 October 2013) | doi:10.1038/nature12520 (pdf here)
Preservation of neural tissue in early Cambrian arthropods has recently been demonstrated, to a degree that segmental structures of the head can be associated with individual brain neuromeres. This association provides novel data for addressing long-standing controversies about the segmental identities of specialized head appendages in fossil taxa. Here we document neuroanatomy in the head and trunk of a "great appendage" arthropod, Alalcomenaeus sp., from the Chengjiang biota, southwest China, providing the most complete neuroanatomical profile known from a Cambrian animal. Micro-computed tomography reveals a configuration of one optic neuropil separate from a protocerebrum contiguous with four head ganglia, succeeded by eight contiguous ganglia in an eleven-segment trunk. Arrangements of optic neuropils, the brain and ganglia correspond most closely to the nervous system of Chelicerata of all extant arthropods, supporting the assignment of "great appendage" arthropods to the chelicerate total group. The position of the deutocerebral neuromere aligns with the insertion of the great appendage, indicating its deutocerebral innervation and corroborating a homology between the "great appendage" and chelicera indicated by morphological similarities. Alalcomenaeus and Fuxianhuia protensa demonstrate that the two main configurations of the brain observed in modern arthropods, those of Chelicerata and Mandibulata, respectively, had evolved by the early Cambrian.
Chow, D. Ancient "Mega-Clawed" Creature Had Brain Like a Spider's, Scientific American (21 October 2013)
The steady flow of publications considering the way scientists interacted with the administration of the Nazi regime in Germany reveals some interesting cross-currents. It is well known that scientists who were out of step with the regime, particularly Jewish scientists, either emigrated (like Einstein) or ended up collaborating. Very few found it possible to operate independently of their political masters. Medical scientists have been previously considered in this blog (2008 - here), anatomists (2010 - here) and physicists have been the subject of a book-length study (2012 - here). For those tracing the ideological roots of the Nazi movement, one essential ingredient appears to be Social Darwinism: the application of Darwinian mechanisms to human society to understand change and to inform policy. However, there are some historians who demur, and say that Hitler was not a Darwinian. Chief among these is Robert Richards, whose new book is about to be published: "Was Hitler a Darwinian?" by University of Chicago Press. This divergence of thinking is actually significant in itself and worthy of our attention, especially as we approach the 70th anniversary of the ending of WWII. It is important to know what motivated the Nazis and it is important to reflect on the way the Nazis used science and politicized education - for they were world leaders in both.
Hitler's evolutionary ethic underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy (source here)
The paper that addresses these issues directly is by Richard Weikart. He identifies six points of discussion and develops a multi-faceted argument that we cannot understand Nazi policy without recognizing the backdrop of Social Darwinism.
"While examining these lines of evidence, I will highlight the ways that Nazi racial thought was shaped by Darwinism (defined as biological evolution through the process of natural selection). [snip] These six points - derived from the view that humans and human races evolved and are still evolving through the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection - profoundly impacted Nazi policy. They formed the backdrop for eugenics, killing the disabled, the quest for "living space," and racial extermination." (p.538)
We cannot follow all issues covered in the paper, but will select some key topics that inform the conclusions. It is important to recognise that the Nazis saw themselves as mainstream thinkers - in their own eyes they were not a lunatic fringe! This needs to be understood when their thinking about the superiority of their own race is considered.
"[E]ven today some scholars are still loathe to entertain the idea that key elements of Nazi ideology could have been in harmony with the thinking of leading German scientists. Indeed the Nazi embrace of Darwinism in their racial ideology demonstrates the influence of science on Nazi ideology. Nazi racial ideology was largely consistent with the scholarship on race taught at German universities. This makes even clearer why so many German anthropologists and biologists supported Nazi racism - they were already committed to it before the Nazis came to power." (p.539)
It is also important not to think that this is a single issue discussion, and other factors are not relevant. The Nazi worldview has numerous elements, and we must not make the mistake of setting up a polarised straw-man analysis.
"I need to stress from the outset, however, that Nazi racial ideology was not derived exclusively from Darwinism or evolutionary biology. Gobineau - who wrote before Darwin published Origin of Species - contributed the idea that the Aryan race was superior to all other races. He also claimed that racial mixing produced deleterious effects, leading many racial thinkers, including the Nazis, to oppose miscegenation. Hatred of the Jews had a long history predating Darwin and has nothing to do with Darwinism. Also, Mendelian genetics played a role in debates over racial ideology - especially about policy relating to miscegenation - within the Nazi regime. However, in the decades preceding Hitler?s rise to power, many German racial theorists had synthesized Gobineau, Mendel, and antisemitism with social Darwinism. Nazi racial theory generally embraced this synthesis." (p.540)
In Hitler's writings, he makes it clear that racial mixing is not a good idea, because it violates evolutionary principles. His arguments invoke the concepts of selection, fitness, the struggle for survival which are all drawn from Darwinism.
"In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb, while the struggle of the males for the female grants the right or opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. And struggle is always a means for improving a species' health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher evolution." (p.541)
The Nazi regime sought to influence young people via educational programmes and youth movements. The curriculum made connections between what was taught and its social and political implications. Darwinism was explicit, and the textbooks followed suit.
"In 1938 the Ministry of Education published an official curriculum handbook for the schools. This handbook mandated teaching evolution, including the evolution of human races, which evolved through "selection and elimination." It stipulated, "The student must accept as something self-evident this most essential and most important natural law of elimination [of unfit] together with evolution and reproduction." In the fifth class, teachers were instructed to teach about the "emergence of the primitive human races (in connection with the evolution of animals)." In the eighth class, students were to be taught evolution even more extensively, including lessons on "Lamarckism and Darwinism and their worldview and political implications," as well as the "origin and evolution of humanity and its races," which included segments on "prehistoric humanity and its races" and "contemporary human races in view of evolutionary history." (p.542)
Weikart continues by looking at the Nazi leaders in academia and in political life, and in the racial propaganda literature they produced. One of the training pamphlets he quotes gives a clear overview of the message people were expected to absorb and which was reinforced by all the leading German scientists of the day..
"The opening pages explained that the central concepts underlying racial ideology are hard heredity and racial inequality. Then it claimed that racial inequality has come about because evolution proceeds by struggle. Different races simply do not evolve at the same pace, so they are at different levels. The authors then asserted that the three main human races - European, Mongolian, and Negro - were subspecies that branched off from a common ancestor about 100,000 years ago. They argued that races evolved through selection and elimination, and the Nordic race became superior because it had to struggle in especially harsh conditions. Throughout this pamphlet the terms "higher evolution," "struggle for existence," and selection are core concepts that occur repeatedly." (p.550)
The conclusions appear to be compelling. Those who are seeking to draw a line between Darwinism and the Nazi worldview have a hopeless task. This is how Weikart summarises his findings:
"Nazi racial ideology - and the many policies based on it - were profoundly shaped by a Darwinian understanding of humanity. Certainly many non-Darwinian elements were synthesized with Darwinism: Aryan supremacy, antimiscegenation, antisemitism, and many more. Nonetheless, Nazi racial ideology integrated all these factors into a worldview that stressed the transmutation of species, the evolutionary formation of the human races, the need for advancing human evolution, the inevitability of the human struggle for existence, and the need to gain Lebensraum to succeed in the evolutionary struggle." (p.552)
This is not an issue without relevance for societies today. Germany in the 1930s was no cultural backwater. They were confident they were building a worldview on rigorous science, affirmed by scholars across the world as well as in their own country. However, this worldview shaped the values held by the people: on ethics, on the worth of human life, and on their aspirations. There are people today who are seeking to build a worldview on evolutionary concepts. They are seeking to influence the educational processes in their own countries, and are creating a culture where dissent is treated as a betrayal of science. Their counsel is wide open to disasters similar to those faced by the Third Reich. We all need to review our personal worldview and to have answers for questions like: What is truth? What is ethical? Who is my brother? What is the worth of human life? What is worth struggling for?
The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought
German Studies Review, 36(3), (October 2013): 537-556 (pdf here)
Abstract: Historians disagree about whether Nazis embraced Darwinian evolution. By examining Hitler's ideology, the official biology curriculum, the writings of Nazi anthropologists, and Nazi periodicals, we find that Nazi racial theorists did indeed embrace human and racial evolution. They not only taught that humans had evolved from primates, but they believed the Aryan or Nordic race had evolved to a higher level than other races because of the harsh climatic conditions that influenced natural selection. They also claimed that Darwinism underpinned specific elements of Nazi racial ideology, including racial inequality, the necessity of the racial struggle for existence, and collectivism.
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.
It may come as a surprise to learn that evolutionists have a great deal of work to do to put their house in order. Although the title of Kevin Padian's article refers to common misrepresentation of evolution in textbooks and the media, the abstract makes it clear that many of the problems are "confusingly discussed in the scientific literature" (meaning that professional evolutionists are also at fault). Nevertheless, textbooks are Padian's main target, and we agree with his thesis that changes are long overdue. Nevertheless, the details of the proposed changes need to be considered critically. We cannot discuss in this blog all the issues raised by Padian, but we shall look at some in each of the three sections in his article.
The Cobb County textbook sticker was deemed unconstitutional, but the need for critical appraisal of evolutionary concepts has not gone away. (Source here)
The ideas and language of evolution
What does the word "evolution" mean? There are several meanings, says Padian, and he is correct to argue for greater precision of terms. What he does not say is that demonstrating validity for one meaning of evolution should not be used to validate or reinforce other meanings of the word. As an example, consider this sentence: "science understands that life has evolved through time, and there is no reasonable doubt about this anywhere in the scientific community." When textbooks develop this argument, they use the peppered moth or the Galapagos finches as case studies of evolution. There are changes over time and no one can deny this evidence. There is no controversy here and no one contests the observed variations. Where the problems start is when textbooks treat this evidence as validating Darwin's thesis of common descent by natural selection acting on varying traits. Padian does not even acknowledge that this problem exists.
Take another example: evolution is "a change in gene frequency in a population". This definition also is uncontroversial and is not contested. Yet how many times is it used to stand as evidence for the evolution of all life's diversity from the first living cell? Padian overlooks this abuse of the word "evolution" and contents himself with the words: "This simple (or simplistic) definition gets to one level of the processes of evolution (yet it misses many processes from speciation to what causes changes in gene frequencies in populations)." Yes, it is simplistic - but that is not the real problem.
Padian reflects approvingly on Darwin's definition of evolution as "descent with modification". He claims: "It is as useful on a short timescale as on a long one; it suggests minor evolutionary modifications as well as major ones." But this claim IS controversial! Of course, Darwin thought that evidence for minor evolutionary modifications over short timescales (which are observed) is also evidence for major evolutionary transformations over long timescales (which are not observed nor are they documented in the fossil record). This is the issue that is urgently in need of clarification - but which Padian covers over. He refers to pre-Darwinian concepts and to a century of debate about what controls morphology and asserts (wrongly) that Darwin's approach settled this debate:
"Darwin brushed away this conflict in a single paragraph by showing that common descent could explain the common body plans of related organisms, and that natural selection could explain their adaptive differences as they were modified to fit the conditions of existence." (page 2)
Historical and philosophical aspects of evolution
Padian points out that the architects of the Modern Synthesis (Neo-Darwinism) made much of "slow and insensibly small changes". However, Darwin's use of the word "gradual" was closer to the root meaning of "step" (from the Latin gradus or step). Padian goes on to suggest that Darwin would have seen "little difference between the evolutionary tempos of classic Mayrian 'gradualism' and 'punctuated equilibria'." It is surprising to see these arguments being presented again - they were (apparently) fully explored before Gould's untimely death. The issues go much deeper than a consideration of the question: how large can a step be? In particular, the evidence for stasis needs to be considered. Darwin's branching model of descent with modification did not anticipate stasis, nor does the fossil record provide a good fit with any form of Darwinian gradualism. Padian's approach appears to rob students of some interesting discussions.
Padian advises educators to use care in characterising the religious beliefs of historical figures. These people may have championed ideas that are out of favour today, but they do not fit into the predetermined profiles devised by popularisers of science. In the main, historians of science have recognised that these scholars deserve a more rigorous analysis and Padian draws attention to some relevant literature. What would have been helpful would be to give the same advice about the religious beliefs of contemporary influential thinkers who question evolutionary theory. Popularisers have a highly polarised view of dissenting scientists. What appears to matter to them is whether they can be labelled as mainstream evolutionists or creationists (of any kind). This means they rarely engage with rational arguments and they end up contending with strawman adversaries.
The article promotes the NOMA principle advocated by Gould. This requires a strict separation of "science" and "religion". It leads to statements such as the following:
"All science is non-theistic, by which is meant that it does not entail or require any concept of a god or other supernatural being or force. In fact, science is completely independent of any ideas about gods or other supernatural beliefs. But science is not anti-theistic: it does not deny such beings or forces, any more than it accepts them (or leprechauns or unicorns), because these things are not within the purview of science."
There are numerous problems with this approach: historical, philosophical and theological. The NOMA principle turns a blind eye to the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, when all the leaders of science were theists whose science was an expression of their Christian calling. The autonomy of science came with the 18th Century Enlightenment - which is when Padian seeks to ground the roots of science. By contrast, many Christians today do not regard the Enlightenment as a positive intellectual movement. In stressing the autonomy of reason, Enlightenment scholars drove a wedge between Christianity and science. This led to the mechanical view of man, and ultimately spawned a plethora of non-rational ideologies that were driven by the search for meaning and purpose in a mechanistic universe. These issues are with us today. Students should be exposed to the alternative view that all science is theistic. The axioms of theism that are relevant to science, and which were important for triggering the scientific revolution, are: nature is real; nature is good; nature is created; creation is rational; creation exhibits "laws"; creation is designed. These axioms have their roots in the Bible, but cannot be derived using reason alone. The Enlightenment scholars took the axioms they liked and built on them. However, reason alone does not provide these foundations.
Natural selection and related concepts
There have always been concerns that natural selection is perceived as a force that moulds organisms, as in the phrase: "Natural selection would favor the acquisition of such-and-such a feature". It has often been pointed out by both evolutionists and dissenters, that this leads directly to Darwinian story-telling rather than science. Padian has helpful things to say here:
"This phraseology suggests a naive faith in the optimality of evolutionary processes, and some omniscience on the part of the author, in continuing to personify natural selection as if it were a conscious being. Of course, scientists do not really think these things (do we?); we just write as if we do. Natural selection is a description of a process, not an actor; we recognize it as a post hoc outcome of the struggle for existence."
"Remembering the previous point, it is more accurate to say that in the struggle for existence, some individuals are weeded out before they can reproduce. This process is not creative, any more than a lawnmower is creative with your backyard grass." (page 9)
This interaction with Padian's article has had to be selective, and there are many other issues worthy of discussion. Padian's desire to see evolutionary theory taught well is commendable, and he puts his finger on a number of relevant topics. However, in many cases, Padian does not succeed in counteracting the misrepresentation because he replaces one form of misrepresentation with another.
Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media
Evolution: Education and Outreach, 25 June 2013, 6:11 | doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-11
Abstract: Topics related to evolution tend to generate a disproportionate amount of misunderstanding in traditional textbooks, other educational materials, and the media. This is not necessarily the fault of textbook and popular writers: many of these concepts are confusingly discussed in the scientific literature. However, faults can be corrected, and doing so makes it easier to explain related concepts. Three general areas are treated here: ideas and language about evolution, historical and philosophical aspects of evolution, and natural selection and related concepts. The aim of this paper is to produce a template for a more logical, historically and scientifically correct treatment of evolutionary terms and concepts.
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Evolution has become a favorite topic of the news media recently, but for some reason, they never seem to get the story straight. The staff at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture started this Blog to set the record straight and make sure you knew "the rest of the story".
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We are a group of individuals, coming from diverse backgrounds and not speaking for any organization, who have found common ground around teleological concepts, including intelligent design. We think these concepts have real potential to generate insights about our reality that are being drowned out by political advocacy from both sides. We hope this blog will provide a small voice that helps rectify this situation.
Website dedicated to comparing scenes from the "Inherit the Wind" movie with factual information from actual Scopes Trial. View 37 clips from the movie and decide for yourself if this movie is more fact or fiction.
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Most guys going through midlife crisis buy a convertible. Austrialian Stephen E. Jones went back to college to get a biology degree and is now a proponent of ID and common ancestry.
Complete zipped downloadable pdf copy of David Stove's devastating, and yet hard-to-find, critique of neo-Darwinism entitled "Darwinian Fairytales"
Intelligent Design The Future is a multiple contributor weblog whose participants include the nation's leading design scientists and theorists: biochemist Michael Behe, mathematician William Dembski, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, philosophers of science Stephen Meyer, and Jay Richards, philosopher of biology Paul Nelson, molecular biologist Jonathan Wells, and science writer Jonathan Witt. Posts will focus primarily on the intellectual issues at stake in the debate over intelligent design, rather than its implications for education or public policy.
A Philosopher's Journey: Political and cultural reflections of John Mark N. Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds is Director of the Torrey Honors Institute at