Sediba fossils shuffle the deck of diversity but fail to connect the evolutionary dots.
Australopithecus sediba, which was discovered in 2008 in South Africa’s Malapa Cave, resembles other australopithecine apes, especially Australopithecus africanus, according to a set of six new articles just published in a special issue of Science magazine. The fossils do, however, have enough differences to be considered a separate species. (Some critics have suggested that sediba and africanus were the same species.) The new analyses cover the mandible, teeth, thorax, vertebrae, and upper and lower limbs. In September 2011, as we reported in “Sediba with a little sleight of hand,” articles covering the skull, hand, pelvis, foot and ankle as well a report about the fossils’ age created a stir among evolutionary paleontologists.
Sediba’s discoverer Lee Berger and colleagues maintain now, as then, that Au. sediba is a mosaic that includes enough subtle human-like features to secure sediba’s place in human ancestry. And though they aren’t sure where, they are certain that place pre-dates other candidates for the oldest human ancestor.
Though the new analyses do a fine job of showing how truly “ape” sediba was, Berger and colleagues go to great lengths to show that sediba had begun the evolutionary trip toward human-ness. Much of this effort involved justification for their claim that sediba was bipedal. After all, the cardinal characteristic modern evolutionists demand in human ancestors is the ability to walk around on two legs, facing the world with head held high and somehow morphing themselves a human brain as a consequence.
The problem is that the bipedality claim was made on shaky ground, such as imaginative reconstruction of the missing parts of the pelvis, as we discussed previously. These anatomic analyses—which hail sediba’s supposed mosaicism but really just show sediba was a variety of ape—also demonstrate that sediba could not have truly walked upright. Other evolutionary researchers have suggested that Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis)—a competitor in this race to the root of the human evolutionary tree—did not have a human sort of bipedalism, but a different “australopithecine bipedalism” altogether. (In other words, the tree-swinging arboreal ape wasn’t really bipedal. See A Look at Lucy’s Legacy and Lucy, the Knuckle-walking “abomination”? to learn more.) But sediba would not have even been able to manage the sort of gait proposed for Lucy.
The gait that Berger and colleagues proposed in order to reconcile the anatomical features that failed to fit the bipedal profile with their claim of bipedality is called a “hyperpronating” gait. Unknown among any known animal—living or extinct—and certainly unknown among any normal human being, the gait is so awkward it would have strained the knee, lower back, and muscles crossing the knees and hip joints.1 It is so unstable it would have been akin to trying to walk on ice skates. In fact, it is so bizarre that one paleontologist suggested an animal might walk that way after a chronic injury, and so absurdly humorous that paleontologists are calling it “provocative.”2
On the other hand, the special issue of Science devoted to sediba shows that it was well-designed for climbing and swinging. It was an ape. No amount of wishful thinking can make it the “transitional form” the researchers claim that it is. Nevertheless, coauthor Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M exults, “Everywhere we look in these skeletons, from the jaws on down to the feet, we see evidence of the transition from australopith to Homo. Everywhere we see evidence of evolution. Au. sediba looks more like Homo than any other australopith known and for this reason represents an excellent candidate ancestor for the genus Homo.” Well, not even the evolutionary paleontologists are in agreement about these claims, for several reasons. Additionally, we would add that there is no evidence that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors in the first place. Evolutionary researchers—whether involved with sediba or Lucy or some other candidate for hominin status—begin with the assumption that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. Then they interpret any mixture of traits, however subtle or even imaginative, as evidence of evolutionary transitions-in-progress. Alternatively, however, by rejecting the presupposition that humans could only exist by evolving, it becomes clear that variations among apes—including extinct ones like the australopithecines—demonstrate ape diversity. But those variations do not demonstrate that evolution happened. Read more about the new “Sediba special report” next Wednesday in our own Answers in Depth article, “Sashaying to the throne.”
Japanese study affirms hobbits’ humanity and offers clues to their origin.
Ever since the discovery of tiny human skeletons in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores a decade ago, anthropologists have debated their origins. Found with advanced cutting tools and the charred remnants of dwarf elephant bones, the Homo floresiensis—nicknamed “hobbits”—were clearly human. But their remarkably small brain size—estimated at around 400 cubic centimeters (cc), in the same neighborhood as a chimpanzee’s—has baffled scientists. And where did such small people come from?
Theories have abounded but all seemed unsatisfactory. Some have suggested the ancient hobbits of Flores suffered from microcephaly (cretinism) due to severe thyroid disease, but such microcephaly is associated with severe mental retardation. Such a condition would have precluded the manufacture of advanced cutting tools and their ability to hunt successfully as demonstrated by the artifacts in the hobbits’ cave. Some anthropologists have suggested Homo floresiensis descended from Homo erectus or Homo habilis. Some have even suggested hobbits had a close relationship to small-brained australopithecine apes.3
Homo habilis is thought to have had a small brain size, around 600 cc, but no evidence of H. habilis has ever been found in Asia. Incidentally, such estimates for H. habilis are highly suspect, as the fossil record for H. habilis consists of a fragmentary collection that likely contains portions of some ape material mixed with fossils of extinct humans. Thus its small cranial capacity lends spurious support to evolutionary claims about gradual human evolution from small-brained ancestors.
Homo erectus fossils, which have been found in Asia, average nearly 1,000 cc cranial capacity. This is substantially smaller than the 1,300 cc typical of modern humans. But a brain size reduction in descendants from 1,000 cc to 400 cc, according to many evolutionary anthropologists, is a greater drop than their models suggest is possible.
Paleoanthropologist Yousuke Kaifu of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science has re-examined the one intact skull found among the hobbit remains and discovered that Homo erectus ancestry is actually a possibility. After cleaning space-occupying debris from inside the skull and carefully reconstructing its missing details, Kaifu’s team used a high resolution micro-CT scan to precisely measure its cranial capacity. Kaifu found the size was a bit larger than previous estimates—426 cc.
It is no surprise that 3 ¼ foot tall, 55 pound people had brains much smaller than the 1,300 cc average for typical modern humans. But could Homo erectus, an extinct variety of human—considered by evolutionists to be the earliest undisputed form of humans—be ancestral to Homo floresiensis? (Of course, knowing from biblical history that all human beings descended from Adam and Eve, we have no doubt about it! These people descended from Adam and Eve just as we did. But the evolutionary community has been skeptical, even allowing a million or so years for the process!)
Kaifu’s team correlated brain and body sizes from twenty populations worldwide. Their models demonstrated that brain and body size are closely correlated and that dramatic down-scaling of brain and body size is possible. And though the jump from 1,000 to 426 cc is still a bit beyond the possibilities suggested by their model, one variety of Homo erectus from nearby Java had a significantly smaller cranial capacity—about 860 cc. That ancestral brain size works in Kaifu’s model.
“This study does not prove who was the actual ancestral species for Homo floresiensis, but it has removed the most important concern for the model,” Kaifu explains, namely the idea that the difference in brain size was too extreme. Because the hobbits’ legs were “short relative to their arms and feet,” Kaifu says, some scientists still think the hobbits came from more primitive ancestors than Homo erectus.4 For instance, Chris Springer of London’s Natural History Museum says, “Personally I don't think it solves the problem. There are primitive features in the skeleton of floresiensis which for me suggests that it comes from quite a primitive form of human: one that may have been around two million years ago rather than one million years ago. It is a fascinating find because it shows that human evolution took a number of twists and turns. It isn't just about the evolution of us modern humans, but actually there are lots of other species around. Floresiensis was a failed experiment that lasted to within the last 50,000 years or so, and we are the last survivors of all these other experiments in evolving humans.”5
Regardless of whether Homo erectus was the hobbit ancestor or not, there is no need to invoke any sort of million-year experiment in human evolution to understand that a small isolated population of humans could develop some unusual traits through the ordinary mechanisms of genetic variation, possibly influenced by other factors such as disease or environmentally induced deficiencies. They could have developed abnormalities as a result of chronic nutritional deprivation or pathological process, or simply through mutation and reproduction within a limited gene pool. But in no case does some sort of unique evolutionary path up the fictional human evolutionary tree need to be resorted to for explanations.
From biblical history we understand that all people are descended from Noah’s family, their descendants having dispersed from the Tower of Babel in the centuries after the global Flood. And regardless of the various names evolutionary anthropologists insist upon assigning to various groups of humans—Homo floresiensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, and so forth—they are all just as human as we Homo sapiens are.
But how did these people come to be so very small? Kaifu suggests insular dwarfism may be the explanation. Lead author Daisuko Kubo says their model shows that, “contrary to expectations by some researchers, it is possible that large-bodied Homo erectus migrated to a solitary island and evolved into Homo floresiensis by marked island dwarfism.”6 According to Kaifu, “a popular theory is that big mammals tend to reduce and small mammals tend to increase their body sizes on an isolated island because of energetic demands.”7 There is also a correlation between changing brain and body size for some mammals. For instance an extinct Malagasy hippopotamus and an extinct caprine (a goat-like animal) native to the Mediterranean island of Majorca appear in dwarf insular forms with proportionately dwarfed brains, 30 and 50% smaller (respectively) than the full-size versions.3
Kaifu’s team thinks the same sort of scenario may have occurred in an isolated human population with limited island resources. The dwarf Stegodon elephant drumsticks and other barbecue leftovers, found with the hobbits, and larger-than-usual storks and lizards that were contemporaneous with them suggest that, for whatever reason, changes in the average size of various animals was occurring on Flores, and there is no reason to doubt that some sort of selection pressures may have also favored small size in the people as in the elephants, leading to smaller individuals.
Yet for all this change, elephants were still elephants, and humans were still humans. There is no evidence that the elephants and people of ancient Flores had evolved from non-elephants or non-human ancestors. The tiny ancient people of Flores, whoever their more immediate ancestors were, were still humans descended from Adam and Eve, whom God created in His image about 6,000 years ago. People and animals do vary within their created kinds, and the fossil record indicates that several varieties of humans descended from Noah’s family, with all but the more modern human variation eventually becoming extinct by the end of the Ice Age.
Without power, the show’s over before it starts.
How could life randomly emerge from non-living elements? That would, after all, be the necessary first step in a molecules-to-man evolutionary scenario. In their endless quest for the keys of such abiogenesis, scientists often look for self-replicating molecules that could potentially carry simple coded information. (We’ve discussed many of these proposed stand-ins for DNA and pointed out a number of problems, as detailed in the articles linked below.) But another show-stopper for abiogenesis—a process never observed in biology, by the way—would be a lack of power. Without a usable source of energy, a biological battery of sorts, living cells could never do the things living cells do.
Real living cells contain several energy-transferring molecules that allow them to store and efficiently transfer energy to power all of life’s metabolic processes. ATP is the high-energy molecule most people have heard of. Using a complex array of enzymes, cells harness the energy obtained from catabolizing (breaking down) their fuel source (like glucose sugar). They then store that energy in the high-energy phosphate bonds on ATP. The process is akin to charging a battery, though far more complex. When that stored “bond energy” is needed, the bond is broken and the energy used. The molecule is then recharged. ATP is the ultimate rechargeable battery.
But as University of Leeds chemist Dr. Terry Kee points out, complex enzymes to charge up ATP, or even ATP itself for that matter, would not have been around on the sort of early earth evolutionary scientists imagine existed before the supposed evolution of life. Evolutionists, like Kee, often accept the notion that meteorites delivered the chemicals needed to build cells but puzzle about the source of life’s energetic spark. Kee believes he’s taken a step toward solving that problem by looking for simpler molecules that could stand in for ATP’s vital role until random processes got around to building ATP.
“The mystery of how living organisms sprung out of lifeless rock has long puzzled scientists, but we think that the unusual phosphorus chemicals we found could be a precursor to the batteries that now power all life on Earth,” says Kee. “But the fact that it developed simply, in conditions similar to the early Earth, suggests this could be the missing link between geology and biology.”
Meteorites were the key, Kee thinks, not only to supplying the chemical seeds of life but also the chemical spark. The important element to look for—since it works so well in ATP—is phosphorous. (That’s the “P” in ATP, which stands for adenosine triphosphate, because it has 3 (“tri”) phosphorus-containing “phosphate” complexes attached by high-energy bonds to each molecule.)
Imagining a volcanically active early earth, Kee’s team simulated the results of meteorites containing the iron-nickel-phosphorus mineral schreibersite landing in hot acidic geothermal pools. They did this by plunking pieces of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite that hit Siberia in 1947 into acidic water from Iceland’s Hveradalur geothermal region. They anticipated that the phosphorus in the meteoritic mineral would corrode in the acid to produce the sort of phosphorus normally present in ATP cellular chemistry.8
They left the mineral incubating in the geothermal pool’s heat for four days and then let it cool for a month at room temperature. The resulting solution contained pyrophosphite, a phosphorus-containing molecule similar to the pyrophosphate that participates in ATP energy-transferring reactions. Kee and colleagues believe this could have been the key to “chemical life.”
Hveradalur geothermal area in Iceland’s Kerlingarfjöll mountains was the site of recent experiments to see whether bits of a phosphorus-containing meteoritic mineral would chemically react in the hot geothermal waters to produce the sort of phosphorus-containing molecule commonly found in living cells. Image: Click on map center thumbnail for a photograph by plgrenon of this beautiful area, selected for Google Earth, through www.panoramio.com/photo/76710501.
“Chemical life would have been the intermediary step between inorganic rock and the very first living biological cell,” Kee says. “You could think of chemical life as a machine—a robot, for example, is capable of moving and reacting to surroundings, but it is not alive. With the aid of these primitive batteries, chemicals became organised in such a way as to be capable of more complex behaviour and would have eventually developed into the living biological structures we see today.”
And since the Mars rover Curiosity has found phosphorus on Mars, Kee adds, “If Curiosity has found phosphorus in one of the forms we produced in Iceland, this may indicate that conditions on Mars were at one point suitable for the development of life in much the same way we now believe it developed on Earth.” Meanwhile, Kee’s team will travel to Greenland’s Disko Island to repeat the experiment with the earth’s only natural source of schreibersite mineral and will also explore scenarios by which their “geological fuel cell” could have been integrated into primordial biology.
Of course, figuring out how spontaneous chemical reactions that generate energy-containing molecules could be harnessed by other non-living molecules in a random, chaotic mixture to organize themselves into increasingly complex, information-carrying, functional, purposeful units is a far cry from dropping pieces of a meteorite into a geothermal pool. (Hats off to Kee’s team though; they chose an incredibly scenic location for their experiment. If you’re going to investigate how an impossible thing could happen, you might as well do it someplace pretty. After a look at the beautiful photo embedded in the illustration from Google Earth, you may plan a trip yourself!)
Operational, experimental science has never demonstrated life randomly evolving from non-living elements. In fact, such an occurrence would violate the most fundamental observable law of biology: life comes from life, not from non-life.
The Bible records God’s eyewitness account that He created all things, including the world and all the living things in it. He did so over the course of six literal days, and He spoke the components of the original creation into existence. He did not require a care package of meteoritic minerals or hot volcanic pools, nor did He choose to wait for one living thing to evolve into another. In fact, the world He describes in the first chapter of Genesis was not a molten volcanic version of the Star Wars planet Mustafar9 but a place prepared to receive the life He was about to create. And beginning on the fifth day of earth’s existence, He created living things to reproduce after their kinds.
Nothing ever observed by scientists violates any of God’s report concerning our origins. The biblical account of our origins and the subsequent problems after sin’s curse affected the world are also consistent with the way we see the world work in science. Kee’s work is an elegant bit of chemistry, but it provides no information to explain how life could have come into existence without a Creator.
Re-dated Shroud of Turin gets its own app.
This spring saw a revival of interest in the Shroud of Turin, a 14 by 4 foot linen cloth supposed by many to have been used to cradle the body of Jesus when He was taken down from the Cross or to have wrapped His body for burial. Kept in the Cathedral of Turin for the past four centuries, the linen sheet is noted for red stains thought by many to have been made by Christ’s blood marking the nail imprints on His wrists and feet, the crown of thorns, and the stripes from His scourging.
Though visited by thousands each year in Italy, worldwide public exposure came to the Shroud of Turin in 1898 when it was first photographed. In the 20th century the Shroud became the subject of television documentaries, conspiracy theories, and controversy. Skepticism increased after carbon dating in 1988 reported the Shroud consisted of fabric dating from 1260 to 1390. Publication of data from a recent re-dating of fibers from the Shroud, however, has sparked renewed interest. The new pope, Francis I, recorded a message delivered along with the Shroud’s reappearance on television. Relic-viewing has truly moved into the 21st century as the Roman Catholic Church authorized an app, Shroud 2.0, to facilitate viewing worldwide.
Shroud 2.0 provides a close-up tour of the linen sheet. It illustrates the tour with some applicable verses from the Gospels describing the events of surrounding Christ’s death. The app notes, “Of course, the main problem is the authenticity of the Shroud as (the) burial cloth of Jesus.”
Giulio Fanti, a professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at the University of Padua, reports in his new book Il Mistero della Sindone (The Mystery of the Shroud) that over the past fifteen years he has had material from the fibers extracted in 1988 re-dated by three different laboratories and analyzed the fibers using nondestructive vibrational spectroscopy and several other tests.10 Fanti reports the original radiocarbon dates evidently were performed on contaminants or on fibers used to repair damage from a medieval fire. The revised dates report the Shroud’s fabrics date between 300 B.C. and 400 A.D. Fanti also says his tests confirm the presence of pollen and dust consistent with a Middle Eastern origin.
Believers in the Shroud’s authenticity have never adequately explained how the blood on the sheet has remained red for millennia or how the purported stigmata-on-fabric came to leave their marks. Fanti suggests some sort of “exceptional radiation” rendered the marks indelible and red.
Though the Catholic Church does not take an official position on the question of the Shroud’s authenticity, Pope Benedict XVI said the Shroud of Turin “reminds us always” of Christ’s suffering. Many people feel very strongly about the Shroud’s authenticity and stake their faith on it in the same way some rest their faith on a Noahic flood on reports of Ark sightings. Answers in Genesis certainly receives questions about the Shroud of Turin, and our skepticism about its authenticity (see According to the Bible, It’s not Shrouded in Mystery at All!) has excited strong emotional responses by some (as in Feedback: Testing the Shroud of Turin).
So why do we remain skeptical about the Shroud’s authenticity? Simply this: the Word of God does not back up the story. Scripture nowhere records that any sort of sheet was used to bury Jesus. But Scripture does record in multiple places that strips of linen were used to wrap Jesus’s body for burial (John 19:40 and 20:5–7). Furthermore, Jesus’s head was wrapped with a separate piece of fabric (John 20:7). And as to the assertion that the cloth was only the cloth used to carry Jesus’s body from the cross, we need to note that Mosaic scruples, as laid out in Numbers 19:11–13 concerning the need to purify oneself from the uncleanness of handling the dead, would have prohibited keeping a bloody sheet as a memento of the horror Christ endured.
Therefore, not only is there no known mechanism by which any sort of red stains could have come to be permanently imprinted on a 14 foot long sheet, but there is also clear Scriptural record that other sorts of materials were used to cover Christ’s wounded head and body. Thus, it does not matter whether the Shroud of Turin dates from the time of Christ or the 13th century: there is no reason to associate it with Christ, no matter how old it is.
Moreover, we believe there is no need for physical relics to sustain our faith. We have the Word of God. The Word of God points out “many infallible proofs” of not only Christ’s genuine death but also His genuine Resurrection. There is no need to venerate physical relics to build our faith. Our faith rests in the truth conveyed to us in the Bible.
As publishers plan to implement NGSS science standards, textbook market will likely take the reins of education.
The New Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a project commissioned by about the half the states to re-write K-12 educational standards for science and mathematics in America, is now complete. It’s now up to the individual states to adopt or reject them. But since major textbook manufacturers are already gearing up to conform their curricula to the “latest and greatest” in science education, the decisions made by state and even local authorities may ultimately make little difference.
Ostensibly intended to improve the quality of science education in the United States, the standards were based on the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and developed over the past year with several opportunities for public input. Many of us who participated in the surveys found very little opportunity to make meaningful comments on the content. The surveys tended to focus more on the ease of understanding the teaching points rather than their validity.
The standards were supposed to build an understanding of the nature of science, teaching students to use evidence to deduce scientific explanations of the natural world—surely a laudable goal. Unfortunately, as was evident during the development period, the standards—like most mainstream scientists today, as well as popular figures like Bill Nye—failed to distinguish between observational (experimental, operational) science and historical (origins) science. Thus, for instance, molecules-to-man evolution (a never-observed phenomenon) was presented alongside observable phenomena like natural selection and speciation without distinction. And the standards asserted that evolutionary history could be documented through anatomical similarities and the fossil record.
Now that the standards are completed, not only are evolution proponents who wish to neutralize the opportunity for students to reach alternative conclusions pleased, but so are believers in man-made climate change, such as the Alliance for Climate Education.11 The standards and the textbooks to be modeled on them are to be designed to show the teacher how to ask the “right” questions to enable students to look at the “right” evidence to reach the desired conclusions designated in the standards.
The conclusions elementary students will need to reach in order to meet the NGSS education standards—whether adopted by their states or just infused into their curricula by textbook companies—include, for instance, that belief that “Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).” And students who meet NGSS standards will need to accept evolution as “the central organizing idea in the biological sciences.”11
Though each state will decide whether to adopt the standards, major textbook companies that implement the NGSS guidelines into their curricula may become “the tail that wags the dog.” This process is already underway. For instance, Pearson science editor Kelly McGrath says, “With the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards, we will need to revise our coverage of climate change and many other science core ideas, to reflect the depth of coverage in the new standards and the shift to focus on scientific practices.” And Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association, welcomes the opportunity to marginalize and minimize the possibility of the controversial aspects of topics like evolution and climate change being discussed. Pleased with the new standards, Hull told FoxNews, “The influence of political and religious views on evaluators and adopters in state education departments should be minimized by these new standards. Students who are educated in accordance with them will have a far better chance for success in college courses and in competition on the employment market than those steeped in creationism design, new earth theory, and other alternative accounts.”
Thus, states may inadvertently invite the standards by default. States and teachers may fall into the trap of believing that students must accept evolutionary ideas and abandon their ability to think independently about controversial subjects in order to succeed in life academically and economically. Citizens in each state still have an opportunity to influence the decisions of their legislators. It is vital that those states that have already codified academic freedom to protect their teachers and encourage the development of discernment and critical thinking skills among students take care not to lose the gains they have already made.
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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