The hobbit of Indonesia is back in the news again, and this time, the spotlight is again on scientists who think the hobbit was fully human.
The tale of the hobbit begins with a strange hominid skull found in 2004 in a cave on the island of Flores, part of Indonesia. Although otherwise appearing human, the skull, like other bones found nearby, was diminutive—hence the appellation “hobbit” to the finds. But since then, scientists have been divided: was this hobbit (and its kin) fully human, on the whole—or do the bones represent a separate species (dubbed Homo floresiensis)?
Now, scientists Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State University and Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide have released a new defense of the idea that the hobbit skull was actually from an abnormal Homo sapiens. The work appears in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Eckhardt and Henneberg’s contribution to the debate focuses on the asymmetry of the hobbit’s skull. Although most humans’ skulls are slightly asymmetric in some ways, the asymmetry is normally about one percent or less (based on measurements of various parts of the skull). In contrast, all major measurements for symmetry of the hobbit skull show six percent or more asymmetry—indicative of “disordered development,” and of “not a new species, but a malformed human ancestor.”
Some of the scientists backing the claim that the hobbit was a separate species have responded, arguing that this asymmetry may be due to posterior deformational plagiocephaly (PDP), which occurs when excessive pressure is applied to one part of a developing infant’s head.
In their paper, Eckhardt and Henneberg offer a rebuttal, pointing out that PDP occurs, in part, because of the way humans give birth—to relatively helpless newborns with soft skull bones. The twist is that evolutionists consider this form of birth to have developed later than the time when H. floresiensis supposedly diverged from the hominid line that allegedly developed into modern humans. Therefore if the hobbit really were a unique species, PDP cannot explain the skull asymmetry—thus undercutting the original response to Eckhardt and Henneberg’s research.
“No one outside of our research group seems to have recognized this contradiction,” Eckhardt lamented. “With a chimp-sized brain, there is no basis for invoking [PDP] to explain the asymmetry seen in [the hobbit skull].” Interestingly, Eckhardt also referred to the current debate over the hobbit as “unscientific,” with other researchers ignoring facts about the find in order to support their conclusion of a separate species.
The Biological Bulletin carries the new theory, presented by George Mason University’s Harold Morowitz and Vijayasarathy Srinivasan and the Santa Fe Institute’s Eric Smith. The team’s goal was to answer the question of how basic biochemicals could have formed in the absence of the biological catalysts that produce them inside (already existing) life-forms. Their conclusion? According to the scientists, elements such as iron and copper, along with small organic molecules called ligands, could have produced the building blocks of life.
Morowitz is candid about what he calls a “big problem” in evolutionary models of the origin of life. “You need large protein molecules to be catalysts to make monomers, but you need monomers to make the catalysts,” he explained.
In the team’s model, the atom of a transition metal (a group of elements including iron, copper, nickel, and other metals) serves as the core for a group of ligands. In hydrothermal ocean vents, these clusters serve as catalysts in reactions that produce simple biomolecules; the clusters then catalyze the simple biomolecules into more complex ones.
But as with nearly all naturalistic origin of life models, this one leans on a vague, faith-based idea of how these biomolecules actually positioned themselves into the far more complex forms of the “simplest” life. For example, the research’s press release states generically, “Gradually, the basic molecular ingredients of metabolism accumulated and were able to self-organize into networks of chemical reactions that laid the foundation for life.”
While the team hopes to attempt experiments to show aspects of their model in action—roughly akin to the aspirations of the Miller–Urey experiment—our guess is that such results will be mixed, producing slightly more complex compounds (which will be touted as evidence of the model) but still leaving a chasm between the products and anything resembling a functioning life-form. The evolutionist’s spin will be that such experiments show how natural processes could lead to life, but the reality is a great deal of human effort and intelligence showing how little scientists have come up with about how life originated “accidentally.”
There may not be life on Mars, but there’s plenty of life left in life-on-Mars speculation.
Although there has never been anything close to conclusive evidence of the existence of life on Mars, it seems to be a favorite topic for many researchers. Nearly every month, it seems, some group of scientists finds evidence that “could” indicate life on Mars, either from long ago or still living today. Nonetheless, such reports are long on speculation and short on evidence.
Now, researchers are taking another look at data from the Phoenix Mars lander, concluding that compounds in the soil do, in fact, indicate conditions favorable to life—a reversal from the initial interpretation. (Read our coverage of that story in August 2008.)
The new appraisal is based on a different view of the chemical perchlorate, a powerful oxidant whose presence in Martian soil was thought to indicate an inhospitable environment. But a team led by Rafael Navarro-González of Mexico’s National Autonomous University is challenging that conclusion.
The scientists traveled to Chile’s Atacama Desert, with conditions thought to resemble those on Mars. They mixed perchlorate with soil samples and heated it, and discovered that the gases produced—mostly carbon dioxide, along with small amounts of chloromethane and dichloromethane—were the same discovered in tests conducted by the Viking Mars landers of the 1970s. More importantly, the reactions destroyed all organic compounds in the soil samples.
But how could that be interpreted favorably to speculation of life on Mars? Because the emissions from heating the soil samples match what the Viking landers’ tests produced, Navarro-González notes, “Our results suggest that not only organics, but also perchlorate, may have been present in the soil at both Viking landing sites.” In other words, perhaps the evidence of organic molecules in the soil were destroyed (“corrupted” into chloromethane and dichloromethane) in the tests.
Of course, even if organic molecules are present on Mars (contamination from landers confounding that question), such molecules are not life itself and could have formed naturally. Thus, the news changes nothing in the debate over whether Mars ever had life; it is merely another layer of speculation (one partially fueling the upcoming Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover).
Our Creation Museum, which has been open to the public for more than three years, is still receiving a fair amount of publicity—this time through a nationally syndicated article.
Thankfully, the news is more positive than reports a few weeks back that the museum causes “discomfort” for some visitors. Those allegations were based on research from a sociologist who visited the museum with homosexual students and others.
By contrast, Religion News Service spoke with Ken Ham and Mark Looy, two of the three Answers in Genesis / Creation Museum cofounders, in their profile of the museum. Looy noted that the museum has “consistently surpassed our own forecasts for attendance,” with about 1.2 million visitors since it opened in May 2007. More than half of those visitors journeyed more than 250 miles (400 kilometers).
Ham told the reporter that “the recession has not in any way affected us,” with all signs pointing to continued growth. Also, the museum has contributed an estimated $65 million to the local economy while supporting some 2,000 jobs.
We appreciate the efforts of reporters who are committed to covering the museum fairly, letting the museum’s founders and figures speak for themselves. Aside from minor mistakes—placing the museum in a “remote corner of Kentucky,” when in fact it is in fast-growing Northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati; also, the museum attendance for the first year was closer to 400,000 than 500,000—the article gives readers a fair chance to learn about the museum without skeptical spin. Especially when malicious bloggers entries and openly biased news coverage are factored in, such objectivity seems disappointingly rare.
Last week we highlighted WORLD magazine’s cover story on a young-earth creationist raft trip. The issue also featured a review of young-earth creationist materials, including several from Answers in Genesis.
The book Coming to Grips with Genesis, coauthored by Answers in Genesis researcher Dr. Terry Mortenson, earned first mention and was described as “mak[ing] a strong case for reading chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis as they usually were read before evangelicals began worrying about respectability among secularists.”
Also mentioned are Grand Canyon: A Different View (compiled by Answers in Genesis friend Tom Vail), The Young Earth (by Answers in Genesis friend Dr. John Morris of ICR), Taking Back Astronomy (by Answers in Genesis researcher Jason Lisle), and the three-part New Answers Book series (edited by Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham). Our pocket guide series and DVDs were also discussed.
The review mentions a handful of other resources, including (to be fair) those from a compromising perspective. One, Daniel Harrell’s Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, asks, “What kind of loving and intelligent designer would program his work to need constant repair?” Reviewer Marvin Olasky quips, “Supernatural action = ineptitude. Clever.” Of course, Harrell seems to have ignored the effects of the Fall of Genesis 3 in ruining God’s perfect creation.
The online Answers Bookstore obviously doesn’t offer resources from old-earth creationist or theistic evolutionist perspectives (with the exception of certain debate videos, such as The Great Debate and A Question of Age: Conference on Creation, the Bible and Science). However, when it comes to biblical resources, both on the topics of young-earth creation and the topics of biblical authority and Christian living, the Answers Bookstore is a great place to find the materials you need.
Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!
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