So, were Neanderthals and “modern humans” neighbors in Russia or not?
Two new studies on Russian Neanderthals are challenging anthropological views. Infant skeletons from the Mezmaiskaya Cave were carbon dated with a new improved method. The report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that Neanderthals became extinct in the Caucasus at least 40,000 years ago, too early to share Russia with modern humans. Meanwhile, archaeologists at Byzovaya near the Arctic Circle unearthed 313 Neanderthal tools as well as butchered mammoth bones. Their conclusions, published in Science, assert that Neanderthals not only thrived much farther north than previously thought but did so until as recently as 28,500 years ago. Since the dig sites are widely separated, the results are not actually in conflict, but they do challenge widely held ideas about Neanderthals.
Archaeologist Ludovic Slimak is confident that his Mousterian tools, the type associated with Neanderthals, are really 28,500 years old. He says, “There were different laboratories using different methods, all giving very convergent [the same] dates . . . we are not dealing with a radiometric measuring error, but with a historic and anthropological reality.”1 Common wisdom asserts Neanderthals went extinct 30,000–33,000 years ago.
Because these skeletons at Mezmaiskaya were dated using a technique designed to minimize contamination, the PNAS study contends that their 40,000 year extinction date is reliable. As archaeologist Ron Pinhasi states, “It now seems much clearer that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans did not co-exist in the Caucasus, and it is possible that this scenario is also true for most regions of Europe. Many of the previous dates for late Neanderthal occupation or sites across Europe are problematic.”
Although Mousterian tools are typically thought to be of Neanderthal origin, Pinhasi points out that they may have been produced by modern humans, saying, “We have to directly date Neanderthal and anatomically modern human fossils to resolve this.”
No human remains were found at the Byzovaya site. But if Mousterian tools showing evidence of a thriving habitation near the Arctic Circle are truly Neanderthal in origin, then the popular theory that Neanderthals were not smart enough to cope with the cold should be dismissed. Incidentally, another recent study of dietary residue contained in Belgian and Iraqui Neanderthal tooth calculus has documented that Neanderthals were sophisticated enough to bake or boil a variety of plant foods, another practice which should put to rest the intellectual inferiority notion.
Neanderthal ancestors dispersed from Babel (Genesis 11) along with other humans. Division of the population and environmental challenges later produced people groups with distinctive physical characteristics, including Neanderthals and modern humans. But there is no biblical—or archaeological—reason to presume Neanderthals were intellectually inferior to other humans.
Furthermore, biblical chronology indicates the earth is only 6,000–7,000 years old. Radiometric dating methods are based on uniformitarian assumptions which cannot be confirmed, and methods used to date tools rely on anthropological assumptions which also cannot be confirmed. The Neanderthal population was scattered over a wide area, so their neighbors likely varied. But whenever the last Neanderthal died, we can be confident that it was much more recent than 28,500 years ago.
The venom gland in a poisonous mollusk sheds light on the origin of defense/attack structures.
Predatory marine cone snails paralyze their prey with neurotoxic peptides delivered through a harpoon-like tooth. The venom gland originates late in metamorphosis by “rapidly pinching off”2 a ventral channel from the esophagus. In other mollusks, a similar structure develops into mucous glands or digestive enzyme glands.
This esophageal “out-pocketing has no function in larvae,” but it differentiates into the venom gland while the larva continues to feed through the other esophageal channel. Developmental biologist Louise Page dissected many snail larvae to find the elusive origin of the gland. She notes that this non-disruptive modular development of the adult venom gland addresses “a core issue for evolutionary biology: how can any component of a complex system change during evolution without disrupting the functional integrity of the whole?”2
While the harmlessness of the out-pocketing meets one criterion for a successfully evolving structure, the fact that it offers no survival advantage until the poisonous enzymes develop argues against the evolutionary paradigm. The evolutionary scenario is limited by the irreducible complexity of the system: all parts—harpoon tooth, venom sac, and neurotoxic peptides—must already be present before the feeding system would be selected for preservation.
This development represents not evolution, but speciation, as well as the apparent expression and preservation of a defense/attack structure. Just as thorns and thistles are modifications of other plant parts, so the cone snail’s venom sac is a modification of a larval structure which develops in other snails to become more benign structures.
An organism’s genome typically contains more information that it expresses. The genes producing the venomous destiny for the esophageal out-pocketing may have well been present in the original created genome. Their noxious expression awaited God’s curse on His creation. And by equipping cone snails to, at some point in time, expand their diet to include their neighbors, God enabled them to compete successfully in a hostile world and pass this trait on to their offspring, producing the 500 extant cone snail species we see today.
The gene LAMC-3 is essential to the formation of convolutions in the human brain, but how it “evolved to gain [these] novel functions” remains a mystery.
Three patients lacking normal convolutions in their brains were found to have mutations in the LAMC-3 gene. This gene codes for the gamma chain of laminin. Laminins and collagen comprise the basement membranes beneath the body’s cells. There are many laminins, each consisting of various combinations of three subunits. The gamma-3 subunit is found in large amounts in the human brain late in gestation and in infancy when connections between neurons are rapidly forming.3 Although the LAMC-3 gene is present in “lower organisms with smooth brains,” this heavy concentration in the fetal brain is a human characteristic.
Calling the human cerebral cortex “the crown jewel of creation,” Yale’s Professor Gunel wonders how the LAMC-3 gene evolved to produce the abundant convolutions seen in humans. Only mammals with large brains have significant convolutions, which are most pronounced in humans. Convolutions greatly increase the brain’s surface area, and experts believe this feature makes complex thinking possible.
Further research may someday detect genetic factors which regulate the enhanced use of the gamma-3 chain of laminin in human brain formation. The presence of the same gene in multiple organisms and its enhanced role in humans does not require that humans evolved from inferior ancestors or that the LAMC-3 gene evolved to take on new roles. Rather, God used the same biochemistry in many creatures and created each fully functional with the genes properly regulated and no evolutionary experimentation necessary.
Plants capture a little of the sun’s abundant energy and make it available for us. What if we could help them to do it better?
Better biofuels through beefed up photosynthesis is being explored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). In a recent feasibility study, the NREL-sponsored group compared the energy capturing efficiency of photovoltaic solar cells to that of plants. Plants lost. But could photosynthetic efficiency be improved through genetic engineering? By capturing and storing a larger percentage of the sun’s energy, such super-plants would not only be a more robust food source but also a more practical biofuel.
Solar cells can capture energy across the spectrum, but plants mainly absorb reds and blues, reflecting the greens. Even that much light can be too much. Sometimes more electrons get excited than the chloroplast can handle. Then surplus energy must be dissipated to keep the plant from burning up. This bottleneck is often due to a rate-limiting enzyme involved in processing carbon dioxide. So far, no way has been found to get this enzyme to respond to higher carbon dioxide levels.
The research team is seeking ways to apply photovoltaic principles to reengineer photosynthesis. They suggest that geneticists try to integrate genetic information for pigments that absorb energy from neglected parts of the spectrum such as the infrared region. But without ways to deal with energy overload, the plant would still cook itself. Therefore they must also find a genetic way to improve enzyme efficiency. The NREL team’s calculations indicate that even in the best case, plant efficiency will never equal that of a solar cell, but it could be significantly improved.
Blaming evolution for the inefficiency inherent in plants, the authors write, “The photosynthetic apparatus are limited by the need to operate within a living organism, for which they were tailored by evolution.” They believe that plants inherited biochemical processes from non-photosynthesizing forbears and just got stuck with them. Furthermore, they say, “Photosynthetic organisms in the wild are selected through evolution for reproductive success, not for high biomass production.”4
We might want to borrow their statement but change one word: the photosynthetic apparatus are limited by the need to operate within a living organism, for which they were tailored by God. Plants do devote a great deal of energy to growth and reproduction, and we are thankful they store enough surplus energy to provide food for our end of the food chain. Historically, mankind has applied common sense genetics to the practical problems of food production with great success. Careful manipulation of the genetic material that God created to develop practical renewable fuel sources is the modern extension of that process. Engineering better biofuels is a way to be good stewards of the world God gave us.
“Every generation thinks they have the answers to life’s great questions . . .”
The University of Maryland School of Medicine annually invites specialists to apply modern medical insight to history’s enigmatic sufferers. They recently considered the baffling maladies afflicting Charles Darwin. He suffered intermittent chronic vomiting most of his life, but additional problems struck him after his historic voyage. Gathering clues from photographs and written descriptions, the group believes he had long suffered a non-debilitating chronic ailment but then contracted Chagas’ disease during the voyage of the Beagle. He was bitten by a South American bug now known to carry the parasitic disease. The disease may lie dormant for decades and emerge to cause digestive and cardiac problems. Chagas’ disease was probably the cause of his cardiac disease and death 47 years later.
Of course, given that it is impossible to go back and test these conclusions scientifically, Dr. Philip Mackowiak, director of the conference and author of the book Post Mortem: Solving History's Great Medical Mysteries, acknowledges their limitations. But he hopes “that these historical reassessments hold a lesson for today’s physicians. Every generation thinks they have the answers to life’s great questions, and subsequent generations say, ‘Aren’t they quaint? What were they thinking of?’ In trying to do the best we can, we have to be humble and realize that in the final analysis, it [our best answers] may not be all that good.”
Thank you, Dr. Mackowiak, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Even with patients in front of us, we as physicians sometimes find that with the best that science has to offer, answers can elude us. How much more is that true of our efforts when we try to draw scientific conclusions about the past. We can evaluate scientific evidence left from the past, but we can never go back to test our interpretations to see if we were right. Modern science needs to borrow a page from Dr. Mackowiak’s book of humility.
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