It is not often that naturists complain to the BBC about people wearing clothes in one of their programmes. However, this has happened in the UK recently, after the broadcasting of scenes featuring early humans in the series "Andrew Marr's History of The World". A spokesperson said: "It is astonishing that the BBC, that once proud bastion of journalistic integrity, should be sacrificing its reputation for commercial reasons." According to the Daily Telegraph's report, "The group said that in the Exodus from Africa, Ancient Egypt, the Minoans, the Caribs, the Australian aborigines, and members of a contemporary South American tribe, the costumes were the product of the BBC censors, not history." Instead of contesting the complainants, a representative from BBC Audience Services, said he was sorry about the "compromises in accuracy". Apparently, the corporation felt "obliged" to make compromises in the production of dramatic reconstructions. "You are of course correct in pointing out that, in reality, natives in various scenes in the early part of the series would have been naked," he said. "But in making a series like this we have to take into account the sensitivities of the widest possible world audience." The throwaway phrase "of course" is worthy of critical scrutiny. We need to ask whether these comments accurately represent the findings of science. How much do we actually know about the sartorial habits of prehistoric man?
Bone tools from Cave Bay Cave, Tasmania. "These early tools raise the question of what needles were used for. The Tasmanians found by the first visitors in the 16th and later centuries went virtually naked and are not known to have had needles. It is possible (but unproven) that 22,000 years ago, at the depth of the ice age, they did have some form of clothing which they discarded when the climate warmed after 12,000 years before the present." (source here)
Scientific evidences are really quite modest. We have evidence that Cro-Magnon Man sewed skins together and protected themselves against the cold. Some figurine artefacts suggest clothing. An analysis of the DNA of clothing lice has been used to estimate a date when it originated from head louse ancestors (although this is an indirect avenue of research). An analysis of energy use by Neanderthals in Northern Europe during the mild Eem interglacial period has concluded that they needed well-fitting clothing and footwear to survive (another indirect approach to addressing the issue). We have a situation where there are few constraints for theoretical models. In such cases, presuppositions tend to take over and "just-so" stories tend to be constructed in the name of science (e.g. "how ape-like ancestors lost their body hairÃ‚Â£ and "how clothing was first invented"). We need to recognise such explanations as expressions of preconceived ideas about human history and refrain from treating them as scientific conclusions.
One characteristic of research into prehistoric man is that the more we uncover evidence of cultural traits, the more we find the hallmarks of modernity. This is contrary to expectations if evolutionary presuppositions are on the right lines. Some recent papers illustrate this point and are briefly reviewed here.
First, the artistic abilities of Palaeolithic Man.
Several Hungarian researchers have examined prehistoric and modern artwork ranging from cave paintings of cows and elephants to statues and paintings of horses, elephants and other quadrupeds in motion. Their goal was to see how well these artistic depictions matched scientific observations of animal motion. They found that the majority of depictions of these animals walking or trotting had their legs incorrectly positioned, but the prehistoric paintings had the lowest error rates of 46.2%, whereas art prior to 1880 depicted animal motion incorrectly 83.5% of the time. This error rate decreased to 57.9% after 1887. (Source here, commentary here) The cavemen artists were keen observers of the natural world and had the technical and aesthetic skills to portay animals accurately in their paintings.
Second, the ability of Neanderthal Man to self-medicate.
Although Neanderthals have generally been portrayed as hunter/gatherers, their diet has been understood to be primarily carnivorous. However, plant eating was practised and this is where new research has come up with surprises. The researchers examined material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the northern Spain. The abstract has this summary: "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) In the discussion, they make it clear that this evidence gives Neanderthals a remarkably modern profile:
"We propose that that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron, whose hypothesized, cannibalized remains were discarded at the site, had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings, and were able to recognize both the nutritional and the medicinal value of certain plants."
Third, Homo heidelbergensis artefacts provide evidence of the use of hafting technology.
It is known that both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens made spears with hafted stone tips. It is said that this technology becomes relatively common after about 300,000 years ago. The skills for making the spear tips from stone and then attaching them to the shaft are by no means trivial. However, new research has presented "multiple lines of evidence implying that stone points from the site of Kathu Pan 1 in South Africa were hafted to form spears around 500,000 years ago. The points' damaged edges and marks at their base are consistent with the idea that these points were hafted spear tips." (Source here).
The significance of these finds is that the authors must predate those groups of humans that are known to have possessed hafting technology:
"it appears that the common ancestor of Neandertals and Homo sapiens, commonly thought to be Homo heidelbergensis, was the first to develop hafting technology. "It now looks like some of the traits that we associate with modern humans and our nearest relatives can be traced further back in our lineage"."
Fourth, evidence of cooking by Homo erectus.
Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists excavated ash of "burnt grass, leaves, brush and bone fragments in sediments 30 metres inside the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape province". The original occupants of the cave have not been clearly identified, but "the team believes it was probably Homo erectus." The ash has been inspected for signs of being washed into the cave, but the fragments appear to be in situ. This find is not unique - as other ash deposits from horizons associated with H. erectus have suggested fire for cooking. However, the Wonderwerk Cave site is the first where lightning strikes can be ruled out. Previously, many archaeologists doubted that H. erectus could ever use fire for cooking.
So, research continues to challenge the past consensus about cultural evolution. One wonders when this will lead to a new paradigm in palaeoanthropology. But for the present, we have many traditional attitudes claiming to find support from science. The naturist complaints about the lack of nakedness in portrayals of prehistoric man is just one example. So let us look a little closer at the examples they provide: "the Exodus from Africa, Ancient Egypt, the Minoans, the Caribs, the Australian aborigines, and members of a contemporary South American tribe". Of these groups, all are fully modern and had clothed ancestors. Evidences of nakedness go hand in hand with evidences for the loss of other "technologies" by people-groups. Since their migrations were in pre-historical times, there is no information about whether they were clothed or naked when they migrated. What about the "the Exodus from Africa"? This is the "out-of-Africa" theory of the origins of modern man. It is of interest that the clothing lice research has relevance to this issue, because the authors find an association between the origin of modern man and the origin of clothing lice. "Our analysis suggests that the use of clothing likely originated with anatomically modern humans in Africa and reinforces a broad trend of modern human developments in Africa during the Middle to Late Pleistocene." Therefore, a case can be made for the clothing lice departing from Africa along with the humans. Thus, even this example does not support the claims of the naturists.
And earlier in time, can anything be said? The authors of the clothes mite paper write: "Whether archaic hominins used clothing cannot be assessed from these lice and may require the collection of lice from archaic human remains, which is unlikely." Such caution is the nature of science. Nevertheless, we can remind ourselves that advances in knowledge about ancient humans show them to be culturally more advanced than has been predicted by the Darwinian evolutionists. We can have some confidence that this trend will continue and evidences of modernity will continue to be found.
Original literature sources
1. Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today. Gabor Horvath, Etelka Farkas, Ildiko Boncz, Miklos Blaho, Gyorgy Kriska. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (12): e49786 | DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049786
2. 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 & Antonio Rosas. Naturwissenschaften, August 2012, Volume 99, Issue 8, pp 617-626 | doi 10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0
3. Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology, Jayne Wilkins, Benjamin J. Schoville, Kyle S. Brown, Michael Chazan, Science, 16 November 2012: Vol. 338, pp. 942-946 | DOI: 10.1126/science.1227608
4. Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, Francesco Berna, Paul Goldberg, Liora Kolska Horwitz, James Brink, Sharon Holt, Marion Bamford, and Michael Chazan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 May 2012, 109(20), E1215-E1220 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1117620109
5. Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa. M. A. Toups, A. Kitchen, J. E. Light, D. L. Reed. Molecular Biology and Evolution, (January 2011) 28(1), 29-32 | doi: 10.1093/molbev/msq234
Professor Barry Commoner was a prominent cell biologist and became an important leader of the environmental movement. He died on 30 September 2012 aged 95. My introduction to him came whilst browsing the pages of Nature in 1968: an article with the provocative title: "Failure of the Watson-Crick Theory as a Chemical Explanation of Inheritance". This was a fascinating read, and it made me aware of the existence of high profile academics who were prepared to engage with the consensus of the day, providing a spirited assault on orthodoxy. He did not waver in his conviction that there was something seriously wrong with what was known as the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology. But he was too radical for most of his academic colleagues. Commoner found the analysis of Thomas Kuhn helpful: talking across paradigms is difficult because theoretical models are multi-factored. During a visit to the UK in 1971, he was interviewed by Martin Sherwood, who subsequently wrote:
"Barry Commoner is almost a molecular biologist's nightmare. [. . .] His attack on the central dogma has led to "backlash" from the orthodox molecular biologists. None of them has yet accepted his challenge for a public discussion. He has had difficulty in getting his material on the subject published. He likens his problems to those of anyone who, in the terms of Kuhn's theory of the structure of scientific revolutions, is attempting to change the current paradigm, or scientific world picture." (page 103, for more on Kuhn, go here)
Time Magazine cover, February 2, 1970 | Vol.95 No.5 (Source here)
The acme of his challenge came in Harper's Magazine in 2002. The article had the title "Unraveling the DNA Myth" and the tagline was: "The spurious foundation of genetic engineering". The argument could not be ignored, and it aroused the ire of the editor of Nature Genetics. The incredulity expressed in the second paragraph is hard to miss.
"In a long essay entitled "Unraveling The DNA Myth", Barry Commoner declares that the fruits of the Human Genome Project, along with other findings of modern genetics, have undermined everything geneticists thought to be true about their subject. Francis Crick's central dogma is dead, and the creaky, DNA-based edifice of genetics and biotechnology is baseless. The central dogma, according to Commoner, assumes that "an organism's genome...should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits." He continues, arguing that "The premise, unhappily, is false. Tested between 1990 and 2001 in one of the largest and most highly publicized scientific undertakings of our time, the Human Genome Project, the theory collapsed under the weight of fact. There are far too few human genes to account for the complexity of our inherited traits." What's more, "the downfall of the central dogma...also destroyed the scientific foundation of genetic engineering."" (source here)
Commoner was an activist within the AAAS for many years, so it might be expected that Science Magazine would provide something to mark his passing. A news item appeared on 5 October: "Early Leader of Environmental Movement Dies". This brief note carried the information that Commoner was "known as an often provocative scholar", but there is little indication about what those provocative views were. Subsequently, on 23 November, Michael Egan wrote a letter on "Barry Commoner's Place in History". This majored on the thought that "Commoner's life in science offers a crucial perspective on the development of science and public life through the 20th century." His role as an champion of environmentalism was applauded.
"Commoner's Four Laws of Ecology (everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch) are perhaps of more social consequence than scientific, but by the 1970s Commoner was - as TIME magazine rightly observed - a scientist "with a classroom of millions". His life and career constitute a model for science activism and social engagement. He should be remembered for his deep-seated belief in the scientist's social responsibility, his duty to the public, and his unwavering faith in an informed citizenry."
It is noticeable that Commoner's critique of the central dogma gets no mention. A careful analysis would show that his environmentalism and his rejection of the central dogma come from the same source: the conviction that life at every level is best understood as a circular system with a network of interactions. There is a unified approach to all his thinking and it is a mistake to think that the environmentalism is independent of challenges to the central dogma. It is, however, very common for people to selectively report so that the hearers get the message the reporter wants them to hear. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: "History is written by the victors"; he knew how easy it is to pass on a coloured account of the past. The same problem is found within science - those advancing consensus ideas communicate their perspective on the issues to subsequent generations. In Commoner's case, it appears that we are supposed to remember him for his environmentalism, but his challenging views on molecular biology are either deemed best forgotten, or people have failed to realize the importance of this aspect of his life. This same air-brushing, for example, is found in his Wikipedia entry and in many obituaries.
Needless to say, the issues have not gone away. The approach of consensus scientists is to diminish the significance of the arguments advanced. The stance is always one of - we have known all this for a long time and we find no incompatibility between these data and the consensus theory. Here is the editorial in Nature Genetics again:
"And even if one takes Commoner's broader view of the central dogma, it is hard to see what the fuss is about. The often obscure path from genotype to phenotype is, of course, dependent on the protein-protein interactions that underlie alternative splicing, post-translational modification, gene silencing and epigenetic regulation, in addition to a whole host of environmental factors."
The problem is, of course, one of communication across paradigms. The consensus in molecular biology is that DNA provides a blueprint for life but, according to Commoner, the blueprint is provided by the cell as a whole. This is directly relevant to applications of knowledge: if Commoner is right, genetic therapies via DNA manipulation will always provide disappointments. Similarly, when seeking to understand inherited variations, the linear model of Watson-Crick puts all the emphasis on DNA sequences. However, Commoner's systems perspective requires us to consider biological information flows in the cell considered as a whole.
"Biologists have confronted successively - like a nest of Chinese boxes - levels of complexity ranging from the ecosystem to the internal chemistry of the cell. The last box has now been opened. According to the Watson-Crick theory, it should have contained the single source of all the inherited specificity of living organisms - DNA. It is my view that we now know that the last box is empty and that the inherited specificity of life is derived from nothing less than life itself." (Source here)
There are important issues here that Commoner held in common with many design-orientated scientists. This is not just the critiques of neodarwinian theory and the central dogma, but also the priorities for research and educational programmes. It is important to realize that these different paradigms do lead to agendas for action that have practical implications. It was Commoner's view that the Watson-Crick theory is leading us in the wrong direction. (For more on the central dogma, go here.)
"Impelled by this belief [of the fundamental importance of the Watson-Crick theory], much of current research on a wide array of biological processes, including virus infection, carcinogenesis, differentiation, memory, and the origins of life, has become a search for evidence that might bring these processes within the scope of the Watson-Crick theory. On similar grounds, the theory has begun to influence profoundly the structure of academic programmes in biology, encouraging emphasis on the supposedly universal biochemical origin of the specificity of biological processes, rather than on the diversity and complexity of the processes themselves. [. . .] If correct, the Watson-Crick theory is indeed of overriding importance to biology; conversely, if incorrect, its negative effects on the science may be equally profound." " (Source here)
Barry Commoner's Place in History
Science, 23 November 2012: 338, 1028 | DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6110.1028-a
The brief announcement on these pages of Dr. Barry Commoner's passing echoed those of mainstream media outlets, which lauded his work in environmental politics ("Early leader of environmental movement dies," News of the Week, 5 October, p. 23). More important, Commoner's life in science offers a crucial perspective on the development of science and public life through the 20th century.
Wag the dogma
Nature Genetics, 30, 343 - 344 (2002) | doi:10.1038/ng0402-343
In a recent News & Views article in Nature Genetics, David Goldstein offered that "The natural world is not famous for making life easy for human geneticists." A fair statement, although most would probably agree that at least the hard-won intellectual foundations of the field are secure. What a surprise, then, to pick up February's issue of Harper's Magazine, and to read that the entire enterprise has been revealed to be a sham.
Failure of the Watson-Crick Theory as a Chemical Explanation of Inheritance
Nature, 220, 334-340 (26 October 1968) | doi:10.1038/220334a0
Abstract: In reply to recent criticism Professor Commoner discusses current evidence in support of his conclusion that the Watson-Crick theory is an inadequate explanation of inheritance.
Commoner, B. Unraveling the DNA Myth, Harper's Magazine, Feb 2002
Sherwood, M., Compassionate Cassandra, New Scientist, 8 April 1971, 102-103.
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