1. National Geographic News: “Mars Had Liquid Water in Recent Past, Rover Finds

Once again, the news is awash in coverage of a new “water on Mars” claim. Does this one stand up to scrutiny?

NASA’s Spirit rover has been stuck in a rut (almost literally) for months. It’s currently sitting on the edge of a crater, where it became stuck when a wheel sank part-way into soft sand. Since early November, Spirit’s handlers have been spinning the rover’s wheels to try to drive it out of the trap.

Although Spirit is not yet free, the wheel-spinning hasn’t been entirely in vain. At one point, the spinning wheels revealed a layer of “bright, fluffy” soil that was found to be filled with sulfates. Researchers have taken the opportunity to study the soil in more detail.

On earth, sulfates are only known to form in the presence of liquid water, so Spirit’s discovery has excited scientists as further evidence of liquid water on Mars. Scientists believe the sulfates may be evidence of volcanic eruptions on Mars, which may have included sulfur-rich steam. Additionally, a layer of calcium sulfate suggests periodic snowfall on Mars—although the timeline given for such snowfall is on the order of hundreds of millions of years.

Creationists are also very interested in evidence of liquid water on Mars, although that interest comes without the usual evolutionary overtones and timelines. So while the findings of Spirit and its sibling rover Opportunity are of great interest to us, we are more skeptical about research driven by evolutionary hopes. For example, BBC News reports a plan to test a mineral found only in Aberdeenshire that “is formed in the presence of water. [S]o if it does occur on the surface of Mars it could provide proof the planet can sustain life,” the BBC reports. What evolutionary astrobiologists seem to forget is that while life (as we know it) requires liquid water to exist, liquid water does not require life to exist. Evidence of liquid water on Mars is fascinating, but still leaves evolutionists without an explanation for the accidental origin of life.

2. PhysOrg: “DNA Study Sheds New Light on Horse Evolution

Some argue that the horse offers a “textbook example of evolution.” But does new research undo that claim?

Both evolutionists and creationists recognize that multiple modern “species” can arise from the same ancestral group. For evolutionists, this is the idea of evolution from a single common ancestor. For creationists, this is the idea of variation within a single created kind.

The difference is that evolutionists are prone to viewing multiple species as part of an evolutionary lineage from older and less evolved to younger, more evolved. In human evolution, for example, Homo erectus is supposedly a more ancient, less evolved hominid form, while Homo sapiens is younger and more highly evolved.

Creationists, on the other hand, see in-kind differences as just that: morphological, genetic, and behavioral differences explained by adaptation to environments and selective forces. Offspring end up with less genetic information than their ancestors, not more.

The difference in these views is apparent when considering the array of modern and fossil horses. Evolutionists have pieced together fossil horses into a lineage of evolution. Creationists consider most of the various horse fossils to simply have unique characteristics, just as different horses today have unique characteristics. According to creationists, modern horses, zebras, and donkeys are all part of the same original created kind, and their differences reflect selective forces at work since the Flood.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helps confirm the creationist view. Scientists recovered DNA from several fossil specimens that belong in taxonomic family Equidae, which includes both modern and extinct horses, zebras, and donkeys. Previously, most scientists believed these extinct equids were evolutionarily distinct from modern species. Instead, the new study shows that the extinct specimens were merely variations of the creatures that exist today. Examples include:

  • The Cape zebra, a large, extinct species of zebra from South Africa, was simply a larger variant of the modern Plains zebra, which is now thought to be “highly variable in both coat colour and size.”
  • A species of donkey thought to have lived in Russia recently appears to be related to fossils of a donkey species thought to be extinct for more than a million years.
  • A new species of fossil horse from South America was thought to be “part of an ancient lineage from North America,” but genetic testing reveals they are actually in “the modern radiation of equid species.”

Thus, across the three major groups of equids, fossil species thought to be considerably different from modern forms are actually quite similar—variations within the kind rather than less and more highly evolved forms. One of the researchers, Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, explained, “Overall, the new genetic results suggest that we have under-estimated how much a single species can vary over time and space, and mistakenly assumed more diversity among extinct species of megafauna.”

Cooper added, “[A]ncient DNA studies have revealed that the loss of genetic diversity in many surviving species appears to have been extremely severe”—which also confirms the creationist position on kinds losing genetic information over time. He also stated that the research “has important implications for our understanding of human evolution, where a large number of species are currently recognised from a relatively fragmentary fossil record.” Might evolutionists one day change the status of our supposed hominid ancestors from “less evolved” to close kin, as creationists have argued?

3. ScienceNOW: “Feed a Bird, Split a Species

Are British birders behind the origin of a new blackcap species?

By feeding Sylvia atricapilla (central European blackcaps) during the winter, bird-lovers in Britain may be stimulating the “evolution” of a new bird species, ScienceNOW reports on recent research at the University of Freiburg. While most blackcaps fly southwest for the winter, heading from their native Germany and Austria to Spain, increasing numbers are making the winter trek to Britain instead—lured by the alternative food sources provided by bird lovers.

What’s more important from a biological perspective is that the different migratory routes are affecting mating behaviors. Because Britain is closer to central Europe than Spain is, the blackcaps wintering in Britain return home more than a week earlier than the blackcaps that winter in Spain. They begin mating immediately—and since the only other blackcaps around are those that also wintered in Britain, the group has started to be “reproductively isolated” from the blackcaps that winter in Spain.

Evolutionary biologist Martin Schaefer and his colleagues at the University of Freiburg captured blackcaps returning from their winter migrations and compared members of the two groups. The researchers discovered a small but significant genetic difference between the two groups, which they were able to use to correctly identify the migratory route of eighty-five percent of the birds. Furthermore, the scientists found differences in the physical traits of the two groups. The birds that take the shorter route and winter in Britain have rounder wings and narrower beaks, while the birds that take the longer route and winter in Spain have more pointed wings and wider beaks. The more pointed wings would allow faster travel on the longer route, while the wider beaks are better suited for eating olives and other fruits found in Spain.

For now, the two groups are still considered a single species, but the divergence observed by the Freiburg scientists could be the beginning of speciation. In one sense of the word, such speciation would mark “evolution”—change—in the blackcap population, the origin of two species of blackcap out of one. But we must note that neither blackcap population possesses new genetic information that was not present in the original population, and the offspring that might represent the beginnings of new species are still blackcap birds. Rather than illustrating the origin of all species from a single ancestor (as evolutionists might argue), the research better illustrates the speciation of all life-forms from the original created kinds—both after Creation and once the kinds exited the Ark after the Flood.

4. ScienceNOW: “A Flood, Not a Falls, Refilled the Mediterranean

Did a massive ancient Flood fill in the Mediterranean Sea?

Geologists studying the Strait of Gibraltar have proposed a variation on an older hypothesis about how the Mediterranean Sea was filled in: a trickle of water from the Atlantic turned into a “gigantic flood” that filled in most of the sea in as little as a few months.

According to some scientists (whose timescale for the flooding is more than five million years ago), the sea had been emptied by evaporation when the Strait of Gibraltar closed up, blocking the inflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean and creating a land bridge between Europe and Africa. But while previous ideas suggested a sudden collapse of the land bridge (resulting in the hypothesized “Gibraltar Falls”), a Spanish team suggests a fast-flowing river carved out the land bridge instead, eventually flooding the sea in a matter of months.

The researchers believe a trickle of water began to erode the land bridge over thousands of years. But the rate of erosion and the water flow increased exponentially, until the inflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean was perhaps one thousand times that of the Amazon River. The team estimates that ninety percent of the sea was filled in as little as a few months’ time, raising the level of the Mediterranean Sea by more than 33 feet (10 m) per day while the Strait of Gibraltar deepened by more than a foot (0.4 m) per day.

“As soon as the first trickle of Atlantic water found the way through it, the feedback between erosion and water flow led to [that] enormous discharge in a short period,” said geophysicist Daniel Garcia-Castellanos of the Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera in Barcelona.

University of Cambridge geologist Philip Gibbard calls the research “very convincing” and “perfectly reasonable.” We agree (though not with the timeline) in that the research illustrates the power of water. Just as a little water over a long time can have a substantial geological impact, so can much water over a short period of time. During the catastrophic events of the Flood year, a potent combination of tectonic, volcanic, and hydrodynamic forces could have reshaped the earth in a short time frame. Even old-earth researchers implicitly agree with the possibility when they posit alternative catastrophic models to explain earth’s geologic history.

5. ScienceDaily: “Social Scientists Build Case for ‘Survival of the Kindest’

Move over, Charles Darwin: researchers at Oregon State University and the University of California–Berkeley want to supplant “survival of the fittest” with “survival of the kindest.”

Are humans “wired to be selfish,” as evolutionists might say, or are we “evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive”? Some social scientists argue for the latter, calling altruism and compassion traits that evolved to help humans succeed.

One of the scientists is Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. “Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” he said. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate.”

Creationists should not be surprised by the research. After all, evolutionary scientists observe altruistic and compassionate behavior in humans and therefore must explain the source of such behavior—but their Darwinian framework requires that such behavior must be evolutionarily motivated. In other words, non-self-interested behavior must still be reducible to self-interest.

An example is one of the team’s latest studies, which showed that a particular version of the oxytocin gene receptor increases one’s ability both to correctly read another’s emotional state and to avoid getting “stressed out.” To explain the variation, the evolutionary researchers have sought to link such behavior to natural selection by arguing that generous people garner more respect and influence. Thus, selfless behaviors are shown to be ultimately selfish.

In another series of studies, the researchers demonstrated that sympathy “is . . . wired into our brains and bodies, and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” explained Keltner. Similar effects have been observed in animals, allegedly providing more support for the evolution of kindness.

In contrast to the scientists’ efforts to fit kindness into the Darwinian worldview, Christians have no need to “fit” selflessness in. On the contrary, creationists need an explanation for why there is selfish behavior in a world that God deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We have the answer in Genesis 3: because of sin, the perfect world God created—in which selfless behaviors would require no explanation—has been corrupted. Now, true selflessness only comes from above.

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • USA Today covers the results of a troubling new Pew Forum survey. The survey reveals the level of “syncretism” in American Christianity, showing alarmingly little difference between Christian and non-Christian respondents on such beliefs as reincarnation, astrology, and spiritualism. The article quotes Answers in Genesis friend Al Mohler, who says the study is evidence of “rampant confusion” that represents “a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ.”
  • The methane found on Mars could not be from meteorites, so it must have a biological (or geological or chemical) source, reports BBC News on research appearing in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
  • Creationists have no inherent (i.e., biblical) reason to stand for or against the existence of dark matter. But as it is, dark matter is largely a speculation driven by big bang beliefs. With that in mind, we pass on this “warning” to be skeptical of possible upcoming news of the “discovery” of dark matter.
  • An otherwise interesting article about fascinating observational neuroscience research is tarnished by a cheap shot in the last paragraph: “The internet has dramatically increased . . . the possibilities for interactions and the size of the interacting groups . . . [b]ut there are also greater possibilities for false models, in the shape of deception, propaganda, or genuinely held but dangerously wrong-headed ideas—creationism, the denial of global warming, take your pick.”
  • Can monkeys manipulate language, as recent research suggests? While the news reminds us of the creatures’ intelligence, it seems that the scientists’ claims of the monkeys creating new vocabulary is more likely humans simply learning more of the monkeys’ pre-existing “vocabulary.”
  • Bone Digger, a documentary about creationist paleontologist Joe Taylor and the Mt. Blanco Museum, is slated to be released soon. Taylor was a consultant for many paleontology exhibits during the construction of our Creation Museum. You can read more about Taylor in Creationists Need Bones.
  • While we often attack many of the ideas of Charles Darwin, two new papers demonstrate his capability for valuable operational science (in contrast to the worldview-driven historical science found in most of The Origin of Species).
  • The Manhattan Declaration, which reaffirms fundamental truths of “the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, [and] the rights of conscience and religious liberty,” has nearly 300,000 signers. Read the full Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.

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