Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Two New Videos

I have just posted two new videos. On the Darwin channel StanEvolve, I posted another interview with Glen Kuban about dinosaur footprints. On the Darwin and the Bible channel, I posted a video of Darwin, out in a heavy rain, thinking about the environmentalist message contained within the story of Noah and the Ark, a message almost wholly ignored by Bible believers today.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

NCSE has a new blog

The National Center for Science Education has long been the principal organization that opposes creationism. More recently it has expanded its coverage to include climate change denial. They have now started a blog. It is an informative and information-rich blog, in contrast to some other anti-creation blogs which seem to me to be mostly rants. Personally, I plan to check out the NCSE blog frequently. Its focus appears to be on the creationist and climate science controversies rather than on explaining the science itself. Anyway, don't stop visiting my blog, but you can add theirs to your list. It is called Science League of America, an historical reference to a group started back in the 1920s to oppose the growing tide of fundamentalism in America.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Convergence of Readings on Human Evolution

Purely by chance, I happened to read from four different sources last night about human nature and human evolution. They illustrate that we have been confused about human nature for centuries, but that we are making progress in understanding it.

First, I read an article by Ann Gibbons from the August 2 issue of Science: “How a fickle climate made us human.” She reviewed the history of scientific thought about the relationship between climate and human nature. As far back as Raymond Dart, many scientists have noted that hominin evolution began when Africa experienced droughts, starting about five million years ago (at which time the Mediterranean dried up into a salt flat). More recently, this viewpoint is expressed in Steven Stanley’s Children of the Ice Age. Human ancestors had to come down from the trees and start running around on the savanna, perhaps carrying food and babies with them in their hands, rather than having to use their hands as front paws. Even a dog can walk on two legs, but try to get it to carry something in its front paws while doing so. Sounds like a great theory to me. I put the carrying-babies theory into my encyclopedia; I called it the “Let go of my hair! Okay, I’ll carry you” theory. I especially liked it because it gave women an important role in human evolution.

The problem is that the stages of human evolution do not neatly line up with African drought. In 2009, researchers published evidence that Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi”) lived in trees and ate fruits and nuts from forests about four million years ago—they walked upright (sort of; they still grasped branches with their big toes) but did not live in the savanna. Also, just because Earth’s tropical and subtropical climate was becoming drier, in general, does not mean that it was doing so in East Africa. Recently, scientists have begun drilling cores in ancient African lake beds to determine what the climate was like in the past near the actual localities where human fossils were discovered. (They can tell that a lake had water if the sediments contained diatom shells, for example.)

What scientists such as Richard Potts found was that rapid evolution in hominins occurred not during long droughts, or during long wet periods, but during periods in which the climate changed back and forth every thousand years or so. That is, when the climate was, as Gibbons put it, fickle. Biological evolution could not keep up with such rapid changes; cultural evolution was necessary, and this put a premium on the capacity for intelligence.

Second, I continued reading E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. An expert on ant societies and an informed writer about human societies, Wilson wondered what ants and humans had in common that promoted the evolution of advanced societies in each. The answer: very little, other than forming a defensible home site (ant nest, tribal campground). Aside from this, ants and humans became social for different reasons. In the case of humans, the increase in intelligence was made possible by adding meat to a herbivorous diet, and later cooking the meat (an idea recently promoted by Richard Wrangham). For a gracile animal to go hunting, intense social cooperation was necessary. Therefore hunting made us an intensely social species, according to Wilson. He takes it further: this is why we have always been and will always be warlike, a view disputed in a recent book by John Horgan.

Third, I read a Jack London short story, “In a distant country.” In this story, two would-be gold miners during the Yukon gold rush gave up the pursuit halfway, and had to spend the winter in an abandoned cabin with two graves outside of it. During the long winter, they became first uncooperative with and then intensely suspicious of one another. Eventually, they would become two more graves outside of the cabin.

London’s story begins, “When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods…” London was not thinking about human evolution, I suspect, but he could have been talking about the hominins watching their way of life dry up or get flooded in Africa during periods of “fickle” climate. And to London, human nature was based on conflict.

Fourth, I tried reading a little bit of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516. It is slow going. More invented the word utopia, from the Greek topos (place) and a prefix; More deliberately confused the prefixes eu- (good) and ou- (no), implying that this good place can really be found in no place. In this book, More speculates about what a utopia might be like. He criticizes the practice, common in England at the time, in which landowners would drive poor families into desperate poverty, which practically forced them to become thieves, and then the government would arrest the thieves and hang them. European governments were creating their own problems. What should be done instead is for government and economy to work in a way such that everyone helps everyone else—not that all are entirely equal, as communists would think, but everyone can make a decent living and contribute their resources to the good of society. More presented this as a story, told to him by the fictitious Raphael Hythloday, about a utopian society somewhere in the recently-discovered Americas, so that he could if necessary tell King Henry VIII that it was just a story. Actually, Native American societies were closer to this ideal than European societies, and maybe More had heard this. More’s view contrasts greatly with not only other philosophers of his time but also differs greatly from those of Wilson and London that I had just read.

Lastly, I read a little bit of George Carlin, the late cynical humorist. Sometimes I wonder if he understood human nature better than either More or London.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Visit to the “Man-Tracks”

On August 13 I drove down to Glen Rose, Texas, to meet again with Glen Kuban, the expert on the Paluxy River dinosaur trackways. The river level is again very low, revealing 110 million year old dinosaur tracks, and Glen was hard at work on them.

Glen took me to the most famous of the trackway sites, off in a corner of Dinosaur Valley State Park that is seldom visited by tourists: the trackways that creationists have long claimed had human and dinosaur footprints right beside one another. Glen showed me the actual tracks that appear in creationist books and movies. When you get up close and look at them, you can see that they are all dinosaur prints: you can see the three big claws, and the hallux pointed inward. Here is a photo of the dinosaur track with a supposedly human print right beside it, a creationist icon. But you can see the claw marks on the supposedly human print. In the photo, you see the dinosaur track on the bottom, the “man-print” which is actually a dinosaur print (note the three claws) above it, and Glen’s foot for scale (which shows that these “man-prints” were supposedly made by giants).

I learned something very interesting about fossilized tracks that I had never realized. Sometimes mineral water fills the limestone track impressions. Over millions of years, the mineralized infilling (which is harder than the limestone) erodes less than the limestone, leaving a raised footprint, sort of a negative footprint.

I also learned that three tracks can be more than three times as valuable as one track. The reason is that a single track can be distorted; for example, a toe may appear short because it was pressed incompletely into the mud. But if the feature appears over and over in a trackway, you can trust the feature to be reliable, not just an accident of track formation and preservation. This photo shows the famous Taylor trackway, which Footprints in Stone producer Stan Taylor considered to be of humans and dinosaurs walking together.

Creationists have sometimes made desperate claims in an attempt to discredit the dinosaur origin of the “man-tracks.” They have even implied that the dinosaur marks were introduced artificially by evil evolutionists. But when you look at the tracks, as in this photo, you can see that, even when the track is flat (that is, neither impressed nor raised), there is a texture difference between the mineral infilling of the track (which is smooth) and the rough limestone around it.

Glen pointed out something very interesting. These dinosaur tracks—indeed, the very ones we were looking at that very moment—are supposed to be important enough creationist evidence that, by themselves, they could invalidate the entire time frame upon which evolutionary science is based. I recall that J.B.S. Haldane, the famous British evolutionary scientists of the early twentieth century, was asked what would convince him that evolution was wrong. He speculated that a Precambrian rabbit would do the trick. Well, right here in the bed of the Paluxy River is the near equivalent of a Precambrian rabbit: a Cretaceous human, if it can be proven. Why aren’t the creationists devoting their effort to studying these tracks? They hardly ever even visit them. We could not shake the impression that the “man-tracks” are more of a creationist stunt than a scientific creationist challenge to evolution. The “man-tracks” are something to use for publicity, not to do research on.

I always learn interesting things from Glen, and when I do, I will pass them on to you.

I have just posted a video of Glen Kuban explaining the "man-tracks," on my Darwin YouTube channel.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The BSA Evolution Session: We Made the Papers!

On July 30, I reported from the Botany 2013 meeting in New Orleans. I mentioned the symposium, organized by Joe Armstrong and Marsh Sundberg, called “Yes, Bobby, Evolution is Real.” I wish to announce that this symposium generated some notice (or, depending on your viewpoint, notoriety), though not as a result of my presentation. The New Orleans Times-Picayune took notice of the presentations by Barbara Forrest and the activist student Zack Kopplin, and were not entirely pleased; the Huffington Post reported it more positively.

A meeting of botanists does not usually draw very much attention from even the local media, not even negative attention (I can imagine a headline, “Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) Decries Botanists Using Federal Funds to Meet and Talk about Wildflowers at Snowbird Resort” or “Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) Denounces Botanists for Talking about Global Climate Change at Hot Summer Meeting in New Orleans”).  We need to get attention more often. But we won’t unless the rest of us botanists, as Joe and Marsh have done, actually plan something to that end. So, what should we do for the 2014 meetings in Boise, Idaho? Maybe some of us could walk around the city park Sunday afternoon dressed as flowers and bees to publicize the economic importance of crop pollination?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A New YouTube Channel

I have just started a new YouTube channel, On this channel, Charles Darwin goes through the Bible and comments on it. I did not want to clutter up my science-based YouTube channel ( with religion, so I created this new channel. I also limit the religious content of this blog. My other blog is where I usually put the religious content.

The purpose of the new Youtube channel is to explore what we can learn from the Bible not by reading it as a devotional, the way conventional religious people do, or by attacking it, as anti-religious people often do. The Bible is a collection of books in which many people over the course of a millennium have struggled with the big issues (where did we come from, where are we going, what are we doing here, and why do bad things happen). They came up with many different answers (thus contradicting one another). But maybe we can have our own minds challenged by the stories they came up with to express their thoughts.

So if this sounds interesting to you, check it out. If not, just keep coming here and to the StanEvolve channel on YouTube. But I expect that some of the things you will see on the darwinandthebible channel will be ideas, some of them possibly outrageous, that you have probably not heard before. Among the topics already posted:

1. The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of contradictory books written over a millennium. The Bible contains no list of books that are supposed to be in the Bible.
2. Genesis 1 is not a history of the Earth, either correct or incorrect, but a portrait of "creation."
3. You can think of Genesis 1 as a song in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
4. You can even think of Genesis 1 as a description of life colonizing a volcanic island. I realize that this interpretation is wrong, but hey, it works as well as other interpretations, and better than most.

See you there. Or, I'll just keep seeing you here.