God and the Unicorn

It’s rather terrifying to see how many people believe in Creationism, an unscientific Christian idea of how the Universe evolved. A Polling Report survey  has found that 18% of the American public believe in evolution, compared with 39% that believe in Creationism! Nearly 50% believe that human beings were created in their present form in the last 10,000 years or so. I wonder what a similar poll would find in my country.  Over 50% of Indians are unlikely to have heard of either theory, I’m sure.

The Creationists actually have a museum  on Creationism. And they’re quite clear that reason has no place in their exhibits, which place dinosaurs and Man side by side in the same era. The sole “visitor’s review” on the site states:

The Creation Museum goes far beyond mere science. It doesn’t elevate man’s intellect by using science to “prove” Scripture. Instead, God’s Word is placed first and human reason is last.

This review, written by teen apologist David MacMillan III  goes on to give a nod to reason, but with less than satisfactory results:

Secular scientists claim that the geological strata show less complex organisms at the bottom and more complex ones as you go up, attributing this to the evolutionary process over millions and millions of years. But if we consider the order of burial during the cataclysmic activity of the Flood, it makes perfect sense that sea creatures would be buried first, followed by invertebrates and finally by mammals and other vertebrates.

Others have been less impressed. Some excerpts from the LA Times review here:

Before the first visitor risks succumbing to the museum’s animatronic balderdash… we’d like to clear up a few things: “The Flintstones” is a cartoon, not a documentary. Fred and Wilma? Those woolly mammoth vacuum cleaners? All make-believe.

Last year, a presidential appointee in the agency’s press office chastised a contractor for mentioning the Big Bang without including the word “theory.” The press liaison reportedly wrote in an e-mail: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA.”

With the opening of the Creation Museum, young people will be getting another side of the story. Too bad it starts with “Yabba-dabba-doo!”

This Week in Science (TWIS)  has also apparently followed the (unfalsifiable) theory that ridicule is the best form of defence and created a parody of the Creation Museum, the Unicorn Museum, based, they say, on the fact that unicorns are mentioned nine times in the Bible. The introduction to this wholly mythical musuem says:

This website has been published as an act of protest by the Brotherhood of Fantasy Creatures in response to the injurious actions of the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum is a new $27 Million facility designed to teach the ‘truth’ of Creationism and the Christian Bible. We of the BFC feel that this group represents a threat to continued belief in other fantasy creatures/BFC signatory members and have constructed this website as a protest against their monopolistic and anti-competitive practices.

In particular it pains us to witness the conduct of our brethren the Angels and Demons. For over 2000 years, these members have acted in defiance of the BFC’s Code of Conduct through ongoing fraternization with the human special interest group Christianity. BFC members agree to conduct themselves at all times in the best interests of every BFC members, yet these scabs have consistently acted in their own self-interest, creating an enduring belief system that not only inflates their own importance in the realm of human affairs, but systematically oppresses belief in other fantasy creatures including Elves, Gnomes, Naiads, and our Brothers Hippogriffs.

If the Inklings were alive today, I’d give much to overhear Tolkein and Lewis debate this point.

The significance of the Yangtse dolphin extinction

Various species are going extinct all the time. What’s so special about the Yangtse river dolphin?

There are lots of species of dolphins – why does the loss of this one matter?

Ecosystems are potentially like houses of cards. The Yangtze has lost its top predator. That shows clearly that the ecosystem is in a state of collapse. It has implications not only for the welfare of other river creatures but also for human welfare and survival. One tenth of the world’s population live in the Yangtze basin and it is human activity – shipping and fishing – that appears to have destroyed the baiji.

As extinctions go, how important is the loss of the baiji?

Very. It is the first large animal to go extinct for 50 years since the disappearance of the Caribbean monk seal, which lived in remote areas of the Caribbean and was last seen in 1952. They had been hunted since the time of Columbus for food and oil. Like many other species, they were destroyed by us.

Is that all?

No. The baiji separated from all other species so many millions of years ago, and had become so distinct, that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right. It is only the fourth entire mammal family to disappear since the time of Columbus, when Europeans began their colonisa-tion of the world. Dr Turvey described it as the “disappearance of a complete branch of the tree of life”.

What were the other major extinctions of the past 500 years?

The three previous mammal families gone from the face of the Earth are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, eliminated in the 17th century, the island shrews of the West Indies, probably wiped out by rats that accompanied Colombus, and the Tasmanian tiger, the last known specimen of which died in captivity in 1936. (The most famous creature to have become extinct in the past 500 years, the dodo, was a bird.)

So there you go. If there was ever an event highlighting the dangers of procrastination, this is it.  

Did technology start with women?

A report in The Guardian says:

The discovery of a chimpanzee making and using a spear in Senegal is not only a surprising revelation about our nearest evolutionary relative, say Mairi MacLeod and Ian Sample – it could also provide invaluable insights into how man developed technology.

But if you read the article,  you realise that the chimps using spears are female, not male. Should the blurb read: “…it could also provide invaluable insights into how woman developed technology”?

The article says:

One of the most intriguing things about the Fongoli spear use is that it is females who do the hunting. Monkey hunts by chimps are well documented, but they are dominated by the big males. Although females occasionally take part in hunts, it’s normally a back-seat role. Charging through the trees is dangerous, especially with a small infant, and even if a female catches the quarry, there’s a good chance she will have to surrender it to a larger male.

Pruetz says females and youngsters are forced to innovate to get protein for their diets; her point is that it is females who are driving the adoption of new technology. “The females and maybe the young males too are basically having to solve problems in a creative way because of competition with adult males,” she says. “That may be by technology, and not by brute strength or force.”

“Basically, you can spot that tree hole and you can creep up and take a good look,” says McGrew. “You can do that even if you’re encumbered with an infant, and because it’s a solitary activity, you don’t have to coordinate with others.”

The researchers say spear use in Fongoli is performed almost exclusively by females and youngsters. In spite of the fact that the researchers were concentrating on male behaviour during their study, they saw only one attempt at spear-making by an adult male out of a total of 22 episodes.

“[This] strengthens the case that in all likelihood the origins of technology [in humans] were with females,” says McGrew.

It does seem to make sense. Brute strength generally does not go hand in hand with subtlety and creativity. It is tempting to see the females and the beta males as the creative types, the ones that drove scientific developments, which were quickly preempted by the alpha males. After all, doesn’t one see similar phenomena everywhere in the world?

“Goddess of the Yangtze” declared extinct

Life has its ups and downs – that’s Life with a Capital L. As new species are discovered, others fade away into the sunset. The Yangtze river dolphin, earlier venerated as Baiji, the Goddess of the Yangtze, has become extinct, a victim of extensive human use of water resources for fishing, transport, and electricity generation. This is the first offically declared extinction of a large vertebrate animal in 50 years  http://www.baiji.org/expeditions/1/overview.html
Ironically, Baiji was discovered to be extinct during a project aiming to revive the species. River dolphins are threatened in other places, too – there were only 2,000 Ganges river dolphins left, at last count. Rivers are fragile ecosystems, being so prone to human overuse.  
Somehow the extinction of a dolphin species seems more tragic, because dolphins are such intelligent creatures, almost human in their curiosity, their playfulness and their need for attention.  http://www.littletownmart.com/dolphins/ 
There are currently six species of dolphins and porpoises on the World Conservation Union’s 2006 Red List, but another 22 species are listed as data deficient. It doesn’t take a stretch to believe that they are endangered too. http://wildlifepreservation.suite101.com/article.cfm/6_endangered_dolphins_and_porpoise
The 2006 Red List put the number of threatened species in the world at 16,119, which, of course, includes all flora and fauna, not just vertebrates. http://www.iucnredlist.org/search/search-basic.
Baiji is not the first species to go extinct because of human resource use, and she won’t be the last.

Overbite: The European-Asian tooth connection

Sorry for the sensationalist title to the blog, but I couldn’t resist, honestly. Apparently, a study by  Spain’s National Centre for Research on Human Evolution http://www.cenieh.es/en_index.php has proposed that modern Europeans are descended more from Asians than Africans. The study, as covered by AFP newswire, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070807/sc_afp/usscienceorigins was probably conducted by the Centre’s Group of Dental Anthropology http://www.cenieh.es/en_investigacion/g1inicio.php. The group studied the characteristics of the teeth of more than 5,000 teeth from humans from Africa, Asia and Europe dating back millions of years, and saw greater similarities between European and Asian teeth than between European and African teeth.
So does this negate the Out of Africa theory? Unlikely, in my opinion. The Out of Africa theory is so well supported by the common mitochondrial DNA (about 150,000 years ago) and Y chromosome marker (about 60,000 years ago) that all humans carry, that it will take more than the shape of teeth to overturn it. What the study does, in my opinion, is underline the complexity of human evolution; there may have been more movements between European and Asian populations than earlier believed. 
So what’s the debate all about?  About 100,000 years ago, Earth had several species of hominids: Homo sapiens in Africa and the Middle East; Homo erectus in Southeast Asia and China; and Neanderthals in Europe. But by about 25,000 years ago, only Homo sapiens remained. What happened to the earlier hominids? Were they replaced by modern humans, or did they interbreed with them? The Out of Africa theory supports the former hypothesis, and the Multiregional Evolution theory the latter. The main proponent of the Out of Africa Theory is British paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer. The theory got a major boost in the 1990s from mitochondrial DNA studies by Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann which suggested that all humans ultimately descended from one female: the Mitochondrial Eve. The main proponent of the Multiregional Evolution theory is University of Michigan professor Milford H. Wolpoff. http://www.mnh.si.edu/anthro/humanorigins/faq/Encarta/diversity.htm#ooa 
The debate has been going on for a very long time now, and it’s likely to go on for some more time. I personally feel the Out of Africa theory is stronger, but I’m no scientist. 

Darwin on the Web

All of Darwin’s writings, from his seminal Origin of Species and Descent of Man to the jottings in the notebook he carried around with him on The Beagle, have been published on the World Wide Web. http://darwin-online.org.uk/
It’s an extremely functional site, where you can select your favourite mode of reading, with or without images. Slight minuses are that the site has a slightly dated look, and it doesn’t offer easier-to-read .pdf or .lit versions of the books for download. But these are minor in comparison with the wealth of information available on the site, and the 15 million hits the website has received since it came into being prove it. 

Page per species?

The Encyclopedia of Life project is creating a website that will chronicle every single species in the world, creating a web page for every species. Imagine that – a website with 1.8 million pages! The mind boggles, as Jeeves would say. Of course, 1.8 million pages is a drop in the ocean of the Internet, which, at last count had nearly 100 million domains.
The demonstration pages are rather fetching, with minimalist design and two templates, one for experts and the other for general users. 
The EOL will open its doors in 2008 with some basic info, but the entire encyclopedia will take 10 years to complete. Shades of Asimov’s Foundation, anyone?
The Tree of Life has already begun a similar project. Their estimates of the total number of species on the planet range from 5 million to 100 million, so how many pages it will finally have is anyone’s guess.