1. National Geographic News: “Oldest Human Species Found: May Have Been Cannibal?

Add to the list of ancient humans Homo gautengensis, a chimp-like creature that may have had a dark past.

The “new” human species is based on a variety of bone fragments discovered in South Africa and dated to between 800,000 and 2 million years old. Overall, the fragments are believed to have come from six different H. gautengensis individuals. Until now, the bones have been classified as Homo habilis, but they are now classified as H. gautengensis by University of New South Wales anthropologist Darren Curnoe in a study set to appear in the journal HOMO.

As for what H. gautengensis was like (supposedly): 3.5 feet (1 m) tall with long arms and a chimp’s face. According to Curnoe, H. gautengensis was probably a tool-user and fire-maker despite its smaller brain. Oh, and one more thing: H. gautengensis may have been a cannibal.

Unfortunately for evolutionists, H. gautengensis causes problems for the timeline of human evolution. It overlaps with the time period of Homo erectus, considered the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens; for that reason, Curnoe isn’t sure if H. gautengensis was a direct ancestor of humans or not.

Curnoe claims H. gautengensis may have swung through the trees, though his evidence—hints in the fossils of “inner-ear organs of balance” suggesting such behavior—are questionable. As for the cannibalism, the most complete H. gautengensis skull shows cut marks, suggesting it was “de-fleshed, either for ritual burial or cannibalistic consumption,” Curnoe said.

But Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology paleontologist Fred Spoor, who was not involved in the study, notes that “there is not enough bone preserved to make an uncontroversial reconstruction,” of this “most complete” skull. Such insufficient bone material from which conclusions are drawn—which involves loads of assumptions in the interpretation process—seems to be the rule, not the exception, in studies of human fossils and the question of origins.

Curnoe and Spoor are also puzzled over the relationship between H. gautengensis and Australopithecus sediba, the recently discovered “could-be” human ancestor we reported on in April. Each creature seems to be more (or less) primitive than the other in certain ways, and the sparse remains in both cases don’t help matters.

"There were many different species living at the same time, and alongside our own species and ancestors, until really very recently," Curnoe explained. This seems to fit with the biblical view that humankind, despite its in-kind superficial variations, is fundamentally the same—not a progression from ape to higher man, but all descended from our original human ancestors, Adam and Eve. Of course, creationists must be cautious; some supposed “human ancestors” described in the past are quite clearly apes of some kind and not human at all. But by starting from Scripture rather than from incomplete bones, we can be confident we have the correct perspective for framing the human ancestors debate.

2. LiveScience: “Synthetic Life May Reveal Origins of Natural Life

Last week’s major announcement about the creation of a “synthetic” organism spurred evolution talk then—and continues to do so this week.

The J. Craig Venter Institute’s genetic reworking of an organism made for big news last week, and at the time, we quoted Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu, who linked the breakthrough to evolution. This week, a LiveScience examination of the news connects the research to evolution more vigorously. Specifically, the research may help evolutionists overcome a key problem, as explained in a revealing comment by New York University biologist David Fitch:

“People are really pretty much stuck about what actually happened on our planet to make new life forms. There have been lots of experiments that propose different ways new living systems could have arisen, and maybe some of these issues could be addressed by synthesizing new genomes with very simple kinds of pathway structures.”

Venter’s synthetic organisms could come as part of a technical solution, according to Fitch, by custom-designing bacteria to study specific evolutionary transitions, among other things. The LiveScience article also quotes University of Chicago molecular biologist Martin Kreitman, who suggested recreating “evolutionary intermediates” based on genetic reconstructions from modern organisms. “You’re essentially bringing a fossil back to life,” he said.

Apparently Craig Venter, the scientist who spearheaded the effort to create the synthetic cell, is in agreement on the issue: “I think it’ll be interesting as the people working on origins of life, people trying to understand these minimal early possible precursors to life as those programs proceed in one direction, and we proceed from the other . . . we might be able to meet somewhere in the middle and have some exciting new tools.”

But as we stressed last week, the creation of synthetic life did not bypass the need for intelligent design—in this case, by scientists from Venter’s team—who inserted and managed the information in the new cell (using a pre-existing yeast cell!). And any use of synthetic organisms to study evolution will still have to face up to the fact that Darwinian evolution cannot explain the origin of genetic information for the first living reproducing cell or the massive increases in genetic information required to explain life’s complexity and diversity from that first cell.

3. PhysOrg: “Water, Water Everywhere, but Not All Drops Have Life

Searching the heavens for water as a proxy for life has been astrobiologists’ pastime for years now. But what if—evolutionary beliefs aside—water is even less likely to support life than was believed?

Because liquid water—and the temperatures that permit it—are crucial for life as we know it, the search for extraterrestrial life focuses on places where liquid water may exist (or may have once existed). From Mars to extrasolar planets, evidence of water is almost always interpreted with enthusiasm by those who believe that a little water, the right organic compounds, and an awful lot of time are together sufficient for life to appear.

A new study appearing in the journal Astrobiology reminds scientists that the presence of water, even if it’s in liquid form, isn’t enough for life to survive. That’s the point made by the Australian National University’s Eriita Jones and Charles Lineweaver by closely studying our own planet.

The team’s survey of life on earth revealed that life exists in only twelve percent of the volume of this planet where water exists. The scientists considered not only the effect of temperature on whether liquid water exists in an environment, but also the influence pressure and salt have—both of which can alter the boiling and freezing points of water. As an example of their findings, the team argues that the absence of life in the upper atmosphere indicates that there is a low-pressure limit for life, despite the presence of water in the upper atmosphere. “Life and water are not equivalent,” explained Jones. “There may be a lot of liquid water that is hostile to life.”

In related news, astronomers using computer models have determined that some exoplanets thought to be habitable may not be so—at least, not all the time. “[A planet’s] habitable zone is very complicated,” said one of the scientists. Both of these studies remind us that earth is truly in a privileged position in our solar system and in the Milky Way. That privilege is one of the many evidences that shout “design.”

4. National Geographic News: “Pictures: Nine Fish With ‘Hands’ Found to Be New Species

Does this fish really have hands? And if so, isn’t it a startling confirmation of Darwin’s theory?

Perhaps the most famous transitional form of all—or if not, second to only the ape-man—is the fish that supposedly first walked on land, considered the evolutionary predecessor to everything from T. rex to humans. So photographs of members of the handfish family seem, at first glance, to have a clear evolution connection.

A new review of the handfish family identified new species, such as the pink handfish. There are 14 species of handfish, all of which are only known to live in shallow waters off the coast of southeast Australia.

While handfish use their “hands” to “walk,” the ambulation is slow and doesn’t require the fish to support their weight on their hands—a fundamental difference between these fish and land-dwelling tetrapods. And random mutation and natural selection can’t explain how such a fish could have acquired the sophisticated muscular and bone changes required for fins to become weight-bearing appendages (or for gills to be changed into lungs)—not to mention all the other changes that would have to occur (e.g., changes in breathing) for fish to have walked on land.

5. USA Today: “Atheists, it’s Time to Play Well with Others

Is Answers in Genesis a cult? Apparently so, according to Eastern Nazarene College professor Karl Giberson, a prominent theistic evolutionist.

We’ve mentioned Giberson before: in November 2008 we discussed Giberson’s Harvard Club defense of theism (against the backdrop of belief in evolution), and last August we responded to a Giberson-coauthored opinion piece in USA Today defending theistic evolution. In that article, Giberson and his coauthor took aim at our own Creation Museum, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Answers in Genesis and our museum are a target in yet another Giberson-authored item in USA Today, America’s national newspaper. This one appeared earlier this week.

The primary target of Giberson’s piece this week, however, is the so-called “new” atheists—such as Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, all of whom Giberson mentions. But before that, he writes about recently in-the-news theologian Bruce Waltke, whose evolution-related resignation we reported on last month. Giberson says

[Waltke] was driven by theological gatekeepers to resign from his seminary. But Waltke was immediately snapped up by a similar seminary, indicating that partial thawing has begun even on the frozen waters of fundamentalism. This is incredibly encouraging. [Waltke] warned that Christians who deny scientific facts are in danger of becoming a “cult.” This might suggest that Ken Ham and his Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., are becoming less relevant, as they speak for—and to—an increasingly smaller band of hyperconservative biblical literalists. Ham’s followers, ironically, are exactly what Waltke warned us about—a cult, with their own separate science.

As the above paragraph reveals, the reason Giberson focuses on dogmatic atheists who “[oppose] . . . any thawing of the chilly relations between science and religion” is because he apparently considers young-earth creationists a dying breed. Is this attitude—and his accusation that we are a cult—justified?

First, let’s dismiss a few blatant errors Giberson commits (which, we’re confident, he’s had corrected before). For one thing, we are not “biblical literalists” in the sense of taking everything the Bible says literally. Instead, we apply the same basic rules of interpretation to Scripture (viz., a textually based, historical-grammatical approach) that most readers use for any document. This leads us to interpret some passages literally and others figuratively, based on the appropriate textual cues. So we take Jesus’ statement “I am the door” in a figurative sense, but we take the accounts of His virgin birth, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection as literal history. For another thing, the term “hyperconservative” strikes us as uninformative name-calling. We hold to the predominant view of the Christian church throughout its history with respect to creation, the Flood, and the age of the creation, and our guess is that most of Giberson’s religious views (e.g., on the Resurrection) are no less conservative/fundamentalist than our own.

Second, there is the question of what constitutes a “cult.” Dictionary definitions generally emphasize the small size of cults (with some exceptions) and the existence of charismatic (often psychotic) leaders or objects of veneration. But polls have shown that large numbers of Americans (generally between a third and a half) believe in a recent supernatural creation—a fraction that usually is similar to those believing in some form of evolution, including theistic evolution (like Giberson). Prime evidence is offered by Gallup poll data, which illustrates that young-earth creation is actually a very popular view (as is illustrated in part by the more than one million visitors the Creation Museum has had in three years). And while Darwinian evolution has a stronger grip among scientists, there remain hundreds of scientists who have spoken out against Darwinian dogma and many more (including a growing number outside the English-speaking world) who accept a recent creation and global Flood as Genesis teaches.

Finally, when Giberson writes of young-earth creationists’ “separate science,” he misrepresents creationist views of science. Young-earth creationists respect and use the scientific method for research, but we emphasize its requirements (e.g., falsification of theories via testable hypotheses), many of which break down when applied to unrepeatable historical events. The inclusion of untestable ideas about the past under the umbrella of “science”—and the confinement of “science” to theories that exclude God—are perversions of science. Further, doesn’t Giberson believe in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and virgin birth?  (If he doesn’t, then he is outside the bounds of orthodox Christian belief.) Yet we all “know” that science has “proven” humans cannot rise from death and that virgins don’t have babies. So what does Giberson have to say for his “cultish” views and “separate science” on those subjects?

By the way, USA Today on Friday printed our letter to the editor in response to Dr. Giberson.

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • “[T]he tools used to align genomes from different species [for genetic comparisons, often used in evolution research] have serious quality-control issues,” a University of Washington news release explains. The release, discussing new research appearing in Nature Biotechnology, adds that biologists should be “very cautious” when using such technology.
  • Northern Ireland culture minister Nelson McCausland caused a stir in the UK this week by his suggestion that museums pay more attention to how “alternative views on the origin of the universe,” as BBC News puts it, could be recognized and accommodated. Unsurprisingly, several groups quickly attacked the minister’s comments.
  • The emergence of life from inanimate matter is a “chicken and egg question,” reports one scientist, because “[y]ou need enzymes to make ATP and you need ATP to make enzymes.” On top of that, you need energy, he adds, according to new research that tries to shed light on one source for such primordial energy.
  • Thanks to the University of Havana’s Federico Falcon, evolutionists have yet another potential “solution” to the chirality problem, one obstacle that unguided natural processes would have to overcome to produce the first living, reproducing cell. Whether this “solution” actually solves the problem (in evolutionists’ eyes, at least) remains to be seen.
  • For a time, there was hope that the Mars lander, Phoenix, might still be “alive,” as we reported in January. But such hopes have now been put to rest, with reports that the lander is “buried by hundreds of kilograms of frozen carbon dioxide.”
  • There is even more doubt among evolutionists about the fossil skeleton Ardi as the common ancestor of humans and chimps, reports Friday’s New York Times. (Note: You may be asked to register with the paper to gain access to the article.)

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