1. PhysOrg: “Evolution May Take Giant Leaps

Evolution is thought to progress slowly, step by step, the accumulation of hundreds of millions of years’ worth of small changes. Or is it?

The standard story of evolution goes something like this: populations of species live and die. Every so often, an individual or individuals in a population change in some way—due to a genetic mutation, for instance—that allows them to survive and reproduce better than other individuals. Hence nature “selects” the more successful individuals while its competitors die out. Over hundreds of millions of years, these small changes accumulate into big changes, with new, more complex species evolving and replacing their less-successful ancestors. The complex species on earth today—most of which appear to be designed (evolutionists would acknowledge)—owe their complexity to millions of years of small changes in their ancestors.

New research from the University of Reading, published in the journal Nature, challenges this stereotypical view. Scientists studied 101 groups of plant and animal species and reconstructions of their evolutionary lineages. They then compared the reconstructions with four hypothesized models of speciation. A slow-and-gradual model fit only eight percent of the trees, while a model ascribing evolution to sudden, rare events fit eighty percent. The PhysOrg report continues:

The work suggests that natural selection may not be the cause of speciation, which [one of the scientists] said “really goes against the grain” for scientists who have a Darwinian view of evolution. The model that provided the best fit for the data is surprisingly incompatible with the idea that speciation is a result of many small events[.]

Granted, these scientists are still working within the evolutionary framework, and their reconstructions of evolutionary trees are obviously affected by this bias. However, their conclusion comports well with the creation framework if the more prominent evolutionary events are considered separate acts of creation. Within the resulting kinds, then, speciation (distinct from molecules-to-man evolution) likely proceeded quite rapidly after the Flood (against the backdrop of major ecological and environmental changes). Even today, speciation can happen quickly—see Rapid Speciation (Video). The research thus fits well with the creationist viewpoint even while challenging standard Darwinian ideas.

2. LiveScience: “Mammoths Were Alive More Recently than Thought

Mammoths didn’t die out that long ago: a creationist conclusion or the latest evolutionary idea?

Until recently, the prevailing old-earth perspective was that woolly mammoths survived until between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. That’s the date given by some radiocarbon tests, and that date is matched with an extinction event perhaps caused by (among other ideas) environmental changes or human predation.

New research challenges the previous date, however. Scientists adopted a novel technique: testing frozen dirt for microscopic fragments that contain plant or animal DNA, indicating what organisms were alive when. (Note that this dating technique rests on the same old-age assumptions that many other dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating, employ.) A team recovered sediment from Alaska and recovered what team member Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong calls “a genetic graveyard, frozen in time.”

Through further radiocarbon and other dating techniques, the scientists concluded that their “graveyard” spanned from about 7,600 to 11,000 years ago. The recovered samples contained DNA from the Arctic hare, bison, moose, horse, and mammoth. The finding shows that previous extinction estimates were overzealous and that smaller “pockets” of mammoths may have survived later than thought.

“Extinctions often seem dramatic and sudden in fossil records,” explained mammoth expert Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History. “But our study provides an idea of what an extinction event might look like in real time, with imperiled species surviving in smaller and smaller numbers until eventually disappearing completely.”

In fact, MacPhee implies an intriguing point that frequently seems lost on old-earth scientists: just because the fossils of an organism don’t exist in a certain part of the fossil record doesn’t mean that organism wasn’t alive when that part of the fossil record was laid down. In other words, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (read more about this concept in The Historical Development of the Old-Earth Geological Time-Scale.) Of course, this point is magnified if one rejects the old-earth tale of how the fossil layers were deposited. Thus (for example), even if we were to accept the team’s dating methods for the frozen sediments (which we don’t), mammoths could have survived even more recently than 7,600 years. By the same logic, dinosaurs could have outlived their “extinction” placed at 65 million years ago (as evolutionists have concluded).

If one looks through the lens of the biblical worldview, however, the focus is quite different. The fossil record and frozen sediments are largely the result of a global Flood about 4,500 years ago and the Ice Age that ensued. As for the last temporal whereabouts of the mammoth, young-earth creationists have done their own research.

3. BBC News: “‘Super-Earths’ Orbit Nearby Stars

Astronomers may soon find more “Earth-like” planets—and with them, alien life?

“The discovery of potentially habitable nearby worlds may be just a few years away,” claimed the University of California–Santa Cruz’s Steven Vogt, part of the team behind the news of two new “super-Earths” discovered outside of our solar system. Vogt, along with Carnegie Institution researcher Paul Butler and others, used observational data from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales in their search for new exoplanets.

The team found two new planetary systems, one orbiting the star 61 Virginis—just 28 light-years from Earth—and the other around a star called HD 1461, 76 light-years away. A highlight of the news is that both stars are considered similar to our own sun in size and age, fueling astronomers’ hopes for finding true Earth equivalents.

As with previously found exoplanets, none of the planets the team detected are quite like Earth. The smallest of the three found to be orbiting 61 Virginis is five times the mass of the Earth, while the one orbiting HD 1461 has more than seven times the mass. More importantly (and, again, as with other known exoplanets), the planets orbit too close to their parent stars to support life—for instance, the smallest planet found orbiting 61 Virginis circles every four days. Liquid water (and evolutionary hopes for life) is therefore out of the question.

Nonetheless, the scientists argue that their discovery paves the way for the detection of planets even more similar to Earth—which is to say, more habitable. “These sorts of planets [if orbiting stars smaller than our sun] actually would be in a liquid water zone,” Butler said. “So we are knocking on the door right now of being able to find habitable planets.” (Meanwhile, another team reports this week the discovery of an exoplanet claimed to “probably” have liquid water.)

Of course, for evolution-believing astronomers and astrobiologists, the existence of other “Earths”—and life on them—is effectively a forgone conclusion. In an article on exoplanetary discoveries soon to be announced, NASA’s William Borucki states:

“The biggest impact has to be to support the idea that we aren’t alone, in the sense that there are other planets out there rather like the Earth. . . . We’re confident that they’re out there, but we don’t have any yet.” [emphasis added]

Faith—evolutionary faith—is thus a cornerstone of the search for Earth-like planets and for extraterrestrial life. Earth “cannot” be unique; life “cannot” be special—no matter what the evidence suggests. It may well be that we discover genuinely Earth-like planets in the heavens, and such discoveries would not challenge the biblical view. Until that point, however, such news as this reminds us of how desperate evolutionists are to be comforted by finding signs of their alleged origins among the stars.

All that said, even while scientists throw the net farther and farther in search of habitable planets, they are also broadening the definition of habitable planets to include icy planets with possible subsurface oceans (with some salt, perhaps?).

4. ScienceDaily: “Portions of Arctic Coastline Eroding, No End in Sight, Says New Study

Should we bid “bye-bye” to Alaska?

According to recent research, part of Alaska’s coastline is eroding by up to 45 feet (14 m) a year. The study was presented at this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The section of coastline lies between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay and consists of 12-foot-high (3.5 m) cliffs. The trouble is, the cliffs consist of frozen silt and peat with up to 80 percent ice. Warm seawater and large waves literally melt away the cliffs at their base during the summer months, with the silt and peat washed out to sea.

“What we are seeing now is a triple whammy effect,” explained University of Colorado–Boulder’s Robert Anderson, a scientist on the study. “Since the summer Arctic sea ice cover continues to decline and Arctic air and sea temperatures continue to rise, we really don’t see any prospect for this process ending.” Anderson’s team used time-lapse photography to drive their point home. The resulting video is available from the university.

While the takeaway for Anderson’s team concerns global warming, we’re more interested in the rate of erosion and what it indicates about the speed of geologic processes. Granted, the icy composition of the Alaskan cliffs enhances their destruction. Still, as Anderson pointed out, “Even something 1 kilometer [0.6 miles] away could be dumped into the sea in a matter of years.” The research reminds us that even in nature today, geologic forces can operate in a matter of just weeks and months—far less than millions of years. How much faster could the world change during the year-long, global catastrophe of Noah’s Flood?

5. BBC News: “Octopus Snatches Coconut and Runs

It’s an amazing animal known for its intelligence and, now, for its tool-use: the chimpanzee? The dolphin? The crow? Not quite.

The humble octopus becomes the latest animal to join the tool-using crowd, as video taken underwater shows the creatures using coconut shell halves as temporary shelters. Scientists documented Amphioctopus marginatus octopuses off the coast of Indonesia for nine years. Four clips of footage show octopuses retrieving halved coconuts (discarded by humans and washed into the sea) from soft mud. They then scampered up to 66 feet (20 m) away with the shells, using them for shelter.

Scientist Mark Norman of Museum Victoria noted, “It is amazing watching them excavate one of these shells. They probe their arms down to loosen the mud, then they rotate them out.” After “cleaning” the shells, the octopuses quickly escaped the soft mud, a getaway that Norman said “comes down to amazing dexterity and co-ordination of eight arms and several hundred suckers.”

Also impressive is how the shells are used. BBC News reports, “If they just have one half, they simply turn it over and hide underneath. But if they are lucky enough to have retrieved two halves, they assemble them back into the original closed coconut form and sneak inside.” The shells are valuable because the seabed offers few other hiding spots. A National Geographic News article (with remarkable video) reports that the octopuses would even walk around while holding the shells underneath them.

University of Exeter ecologist Tom Tregenza, commenting on the news, added, “[Octopuses have] been shown to be able to solve simple puzzles, there is the mimic octopus [sic], which has a range of different species that it can mimic, and now there is this tool use. They do things which, normally, you’d only expect vertebrates to do.” These octopuses’ tool-use reminds us that it isn’t only creatures like chimpanzees and gorillas—supposedly our close evolutionary relatives—that can use tools. God designed each organism with the intelligence and capabilities appropriate for its habitat.

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • Is this fossil sea cow a transitional form? Given the sparseness of the bones (just a partial skull and a few ribs) used to identify the fossil as such, we’re skeptical. But the find is a good example of reading lofty evolutionary conclusions into a few bones.
  • Were gases collected from deep inside the earth originally deposited by comet? Ironically, scientists came to that conclusion after realizing that “isotope ratios in the gas samples . . . did not match the ratios found in the [alleged] primordial cloud that spawned the solar system.” Thus, one evolutionary speculation is replaced with another.
  • Is Darwinian evolution necessary for a full understanding of medicine? Despite frequent claims in the affirmative, a new article claims “evolutionary theory has played a limited role in the field of medicine” until the past twenty years. Furthermore, the claimed insights of a Darwinian perspective on medicine—natural selection and the problems caused by many mutations—are fully understandable within a creation perspective.
  • Did drawing an image of Jesus on the Cross get an eight-year-old boy sent home from school? If so, we wonder if the increasing irreligiosity—and unfamiliarity with religious imagery—could be partially to blame. Note, however, that school officials disagreed with some details of the story, such as whether the picture shown to the media was the one that led to the removal.
  • Earlier this month was the premiere of the Guardian’s “Evolutionary Agony Aunt” weekly column—an otherwise typical advice column that counsels from an overtly evolutionary perspective. As such, we find the column repulsive and its advice distinctly immoral. It also highlights the troubling question of how Christianity and Darwinian evolution can be considered compatible by some.
  • We thank a reader who alerted us to a news item from last month that we missed: the revelation that the happy children shown on a recent atheist advertisement are raised in a Christian household. Whether that weakens the message of the advertisement, you can decide.
  • It may not be earth-shaking, but the first paper based on tests at the supposed “big-bang-producing” Large Hadron Collider has been published. The results are reportedly “consistent with earlier measurements of proton-antiproton interactions.” For more on the collider, see A Miniature Big Bang or More Hot Air?
  • It isn’t news, per se, but we’ve received reports of a program called Dinosaur Train that appears on PBS Kids and is chock full of evolutionary content. Don’t be a passive parent—if you let your child watch Dinosaur Train, be ready to reaffirm the biblical worldview and explain where the program gets derailed. And if you find the content inappropriate, contact your local PBS affiliate and request they tell the show’s producers to alter the program’s content or request that the program be dropped outright by the station.

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