1. BBC News: “Rooks Reveal Remarkable Tool Use”

In yet another study, scientists have revealed the intelligence and sophisticated tool-use abilities of crows.

We have previously reported on incredible crow intelligence in several editions of News to Note: November 4, 2006, item #3; August 25, 2007, item #5; April 5, 2008, item #4; September 27, 2008, item #4; and April 11, 2009, “And Don’t Miss” item #3.

In this case, scientists studied four captive rooks named Cook, Fry, Connelly, and Monroe. Although rooks are a type of crow, they have not been observed using tools in the wild, as have known tool-using New Caledonian crows. Nonetheless, the four-rook team used the tools as well as even wild chimpanzees.

For one experiment, the rooks were shown a vertical tube that extended to a trap door holding a worm—just out of reach. There were also several different-sized stones nearby. The rooks were smart enough to drop the largest stone onto the trap door, thus allowing them to get to the worm. They also were able to determine which shape of stone would fit through the tube.

In another experiment, the rooks were able to rival the sophistication of other captive crows and succeed at “meta-tool” use: employing one tool to enable the use of another tool. Presented with two vertical tubes of differing sizes, the rooks figured out how to use a large stone in the large tube to obtain access to a small stone, which they could then use to open the trap door in the small tube and obtain the worm. Besides the rooks, only New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees have demonstrated meta-tool capability.

The most complicated of the experiments presented the rooks with a piece of straight wire and a vertical well. At the bottom of the well (out of reach) was a bucket of food. Motivated by the reward, the rooks bent the straight wire into a hook shape, dangling the hook down to retrieve the bucket. What’s more, three out of the four rooks knew to create the hook on their very first try. This demonstrates that rooks can not only use tools cleverly, but also fashion them for specific purposes.

“The study shows the creativity and insight that rooks have when they solve problems,” explained the University of London’s Nathan Emery, one of the researchers. Another, Christopher Bird of Cambridge University, added, “We have found that they can select the appropriate tools out of a choice of tools and they show flexibility in the types of tools they use.”

One of the questions now is whether crows have broad general intelligence, or whether they have a more specific intellectual capability when it comes to tool use. And while the researchers chalk these “bird brains’” abilities up to evolution, we can see it as a mark of design. Not only that, but these birds’ mental abilities remind us that it’s not only chimps that have incredible animal intelligence.

For more information:

2. BBC News: “Space Rock Yields Carbon Bounty”

A meteorite that landed in Canada supposedly holds a clue to the origin of life: record levels of formic acid, a substance rich in carbon.

The meteorite reportedly crashed into Canada’s Tagish Lake in 2000. Researchers believe the lake’s cold temperatures “prevented the volatile chemical from dissipating quickly.” The volatile chemical mentioned is formic acid, a compound rich in carbon that was found on the meteorite and is believed to have extraterrestrial origins. What’s intriguing is that this meteorite had four times more formic acid on it than other previous meteorites have had.

Geochemist Mark Sephton of Imperial College London noted, “The interesting thing is that we do see this variability between meteorites, seeming to have increased enrichments of one particular compound over another.”

Although formic acid is common in nature in insect stings, Sephton believes the compound could have been important to the origin of life on earth. Formic acid can act as a reducing agent, helping convert the conversion of some amino acids into others—or even, allegedly, helping convert RNA into DNA. According to Sephton, formic acid could produce reactions that convert “some simple molecules and increase the chemical diversity of the pool of pre-biotic molecules.”

Once again, though, scientists are constructing hypothetical, “maybe” scenarios based on chemical processes that we don’t observe outside of labs today. This may sustain evolutionists’ faith in abiogenesis, but the accidental origin of simple life billions of years ago is not a testable scientific idea. And even if scientists were able to prove that life could have evolved (under some extremely chancy scenario), would that mean it actually had? Accepting such a scenario would take no less faith than accepting that an omnipotent god created the world, as recorded in Genesis.

3. The Times: “Jorn Hurum: I Paid $750,000 for Ida the Fossil and Have No Regrets”

The paleontologist who brought Ida to the media spotlight dropped a cool $750,000 (£465,000) to get his hands on it.

Even for those who only pay casual attention to the news, it was hard to miss the unveiling (literally) of “Ida” last week, the well-preserved fossil hailed as a “missing link” in human evolution by the small group of researchers who presented it. (We answered the claims in a full article, Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Missing Link at Last?)

But, as the Times reports, those researchers were summarily “subjected to professional condemnation” over discrepancies between the peer-reviewed scientific analysis and the sensationalized media presentation (we covered the condemnation as well, in Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Real Story of this “Scientific Breakthrough”).

The lead scientist on Ida has now revealed he paid a whopping three-quarters of a million dollars to obtain the fossil. Jørn Hurum purchased the fossil from an amateur collector whose original asking price was $1 million (as had previously been reported). The fossil itself was discovered in 1983.

The revelation fueled further debate over the media circus surrounding Ida, which many scientists have argued was not in line with scientific professionalism (again, see Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Real Story of this “Scientific Breakthrough”). Hurum defended himself by telling the Times:

It’s the only near-complete fossil primate ever found. There is absolutely nothing like it. She could easily have been bought by a private collector and disappeared for another 20 years.

Other scientists argue that Hurum fueled an inappropriate “black market” in fossils. “Nobody should stimulate the idea that these things are of monetary value,” said Duke University paleontologist Elwyn Simons.

Chris Beard, Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator and already an outspoken critic of the handling of Ida, added, “The big problem is that we have to go to the Third World and convince our colleagues there that these fossils have only scientific worth and not commercial value.” According to the Times, Beard believes that “further examination of the fossil will eventually lead to it being placed on the lemur line.”

But Hurum likens the big-ticket purchase of Ida to the way art museums obtain masterpieces. Hurum also told the Times that neither he nor the museum will receive significant income from the media hubbub surrounding Ida, quieting suggestions that Hurum’s risky purchase demanded a large return—and consequently the sensationalism.

Our primary interest in the fossil is not how it was financially handled by the researchers and the media—or, at least, not directly—but rather the exaggerated claims made by the Ida researchers. Nonetheless, it seems at every turn that the disagreement over Ida is growing.

4. LiveScience: “Giant Blob Found Deep Beneath Nevada”

It sounds like the plot line of a cheesy science fiction film: a giant blob lurking deep beneath Nevada and neighboring states. What could it tell creationists?

To be more specific, the “blob” is a section of rocky material that is essentially dripping, slowly, through the earth’s crust—like honey dripping off a spoon. Arizona State University scientists discovered the cylindrical blob during research in coordination with seismic tomography of the earth’s lithosphere (the crust and upper mantle). The blob is between 30 and 60 miles (50–100 km) in diameter and runs between 47 and 310 miles (75–500 km) into the earth.

According to the scientists, heat from the earth’s interior is slowly warming the area, causing the blob of heavier rock to slowly “drip” through the surrounding rock, which is lighter and less dense. According to Arizona State University scientist Allen McNamara, the popularly presented division of earth’s interior into crust, mantle, and core is somewhat inaccurate; instead, there are blobs of highly compressed, flowing rock, such as the one below Nevada.

While the scientists believe the so-called “drip” began 15 to 20 million years ago, creation scientists have proposed a model of catastrophic plate tectonics to account for some major geological changes during the disastrous Flood year. Central to this model (and any plate tectonics model) is, among other factors, the fluidity of rock in response to heat and other stresses. The “blob” beneath Nevada reminds us that the earth is much more dynamic than most of us usually think when walking across seemingly solid ground.

5. Fox News: “Gay Curriculum Proposal Riles Elementary School Parents”

Should children as young as five be exposed to curricula that normalize homosexuality? That’s the central question of a new debate in a California school district.

Parents in Alameda, California, are upset at a new “acceptance” curriculum instituted by the local school district that includes “compulsory lessons about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community that will be taught to children as young as 5 years old,” Fox News reports.

While the official purpose of the lessons is to promote respect and reduce bullying, the question is whether the lessons are appropriate material for young children to receive at school. Among the materials is the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, which tells the story of gay penguins “struggling to create a family.”

According to the report, part of the motivation for the new curriculum are teachers’ complaints that even kindergarten students are using such slurs as “fag.” Ryan Schwartz of GroundSpark, one of the curriculum providers, stated: “Instead of having to police the schoolyard for bullying, this curriculum is designed to prevent it from the beginning.”

Preventing bullying is certainly an admirable goal, but Karen England of California family values watchdog Capitol Resource Institute tells a different story:

“Under law, there are five categories of protected classes when it comes to discrimination. The curriculum focuses on only one subgroup protected under anti-discrimination laws: sexual orientation [and not others, such as religion]. This indicates an agenda is being pushed, as opposed to an altruistic attempt to teach tolerance.”

More importantly, the fact that parents would not be able to exempt their children from the lessons has many unhappy. “These children are far too young to be learning about what these issues mean. These are adult issues and they are being thrust upon the children,” explained parent Alaina Stewart.

We’ll admit that there is a dilemma at the heart of this debate: can a public school teach anti-bullying and pro-respect lessons when it comes to sexual orientation without effectively taking a stance in the debate over gay rights, or without appearing to endorse homosexuality? However, it seems disingenuous for school board officials to presume that presenting elementary schoolchildren with materials like And Tango Makes Three and That’s a Family! wouldn’t be controversial. More importantly, denying parents the ability to exempt their children from such seeming indoctrination reinforces the allegation that the motivation for this new curriculum is a political agenda.

In any case, the debate serves as a reminder of why parents can’t expect public schools (or even many private schools) to be “neutral” when it comes to worldviews and religious issues. Only by taking a proactive stance can parents dutifully train up their children the way they should go.

And Don’t Miss . . .

  • They’re small, they’re cute, their skin glows under ultraviolet light, and they may help scientists study human diseases: marmosets genetically modified by Japanese researchers.
  • Dutch astronomers have devised a method to observe changes in the phases of an extrasolar planet as it orbits its host star. The breakthrough will be used to infer how reflective various planets are and, consequently, will help scientists speculate as to those planets’ atmospheres.
  • Perhaps sauropod dinosaurs held their heads higher than was believed, BBC News reports. The potential repositioning is a reminder of how much fossils don’t tell us, and—consequently—how so much of what we think we know is actually rooted in speculation and supposition.
  • Astronomers have discovered an example of fast stellar evolution—nine years of observations that show the formation of a pulsar about 4,000 light-years from earth.
  • How does Darwinian evolution explain apparent quirks in human behavior—like blushing, for instance—that seem to have no selective advantage? It’s interesting to see evolutionists try to hypothesize a plausible Darwinian explanation.
  • Skeletal proof now shows that leprosy has been with humans 1500 years longer than was previously confirmed. It’s one more discovery that connects what we read in Scripture to real history.
  • Could an alien spacecraft have saved earth from a meteorite collision in 1908? That’s the far-fetched hypothesis one Russian scientist has proposed to explain markings found at the location of the famous Tunguska explosion.

For more information: Get Answers


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