Saturday, 14 January 2017

Declining Church Weddings in Spain

Church weddings hit historic low in Spain - Olive Press News Spain

Spain has to be one of my favourite countries and not just for the sun, sand and sangria.

But one thing that used to put me off was the overt religiosity. If you don't like public displays of piety don't go there in Holy Week (Semana Santa) - the week leading up to Easter. Whole town centres will be closed and antiquities made inaccessible because one church or another is having one of those bizarre processions where dozens of men in costumes carry immensely heavy tableaux depicting Jesus and Mary. In front of them will be a band playing a funereal dirge with more enthusiasm than skill and following it will be lines of people, children and adults, dressed in colourful costumes, some looking for all the world like colourful KKK gowns including pointy hoods with eye-holes.

But if you DO want to see these displays of Medieval Catholicism, go soon because the way things are going for the Catholic Church in Spain these things will soon be a thing of the past. Once mighty Catholicism is being deserted in droves in increasingly secular Spain. To most young Spaniards, religion is an irrelevance, as can be seen from the tumbling religious marriage figures.

As published three days ago in Olive Press:

Only 22.2% of 68,560 couples tied the knot at the country’s Catholic altars in the first half of 2016.

That is a huge fall from the same period in the year 2000, when 75% had a Catholic ceremony.

Barcelona province had the lowest number of Christian ceremonies in mainland Spain, at only 10.5%.

Semana Santa procession
The reasons for this steep decline are the same as are being seen throughout increasingly secular Europe, both in the West and the new EU countries in the East. As sociologist Alfonso Pérez-Agote explains, there are three main reasons:
  1. The economic crisis, which has left 34.4% of under 30s unemployed.
  2. A change in cultural views, which means marriage is not seen as important.
  3. Growing secularisation.

Of course 2 and 3 above are two aspects of the same thing and the fact that lack of money is playing a part is also indicative of the low importance now being given to marriage in general and religious marriage in particular. Spain has been a grindingly poor country at least throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries and yet religious marriage was almost universal. Now it's below 1 in 4.

'via Blog this'

Friday, 13 January 2017

Was Human Intelligence Made Possible By A Virus?

Viruses in the genome important for our brain | Lund University.

Well no, perhaps human intelligence was not caused by a virus as such but according to new research, its evolution may well have been made possible by an ancient retrovirus which infected an early vertebrate ancestor.

In a blog just a couple of days ago, I explained the origin of the endogenous retroviruses (EVRs) which now form 5%-10% of the human genome, much of it believed to be junk. I also explained that some of it might well have been exapted for other purposes, just as you might expect of a lot of 'spare' DNA hanging around for tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of years.

That blog concerned the origin of EVRs and how recent research has shown that they very probably arose very early in the evolution of vertebrates in a marine environment. ERVs themselves might well be the result of faulty replication of retrotransposons as part of the original genome of the host or a related species, which became pathological and maybe exogenous before being reincorporated as ERVs possibly in another species.

This blog deals with recent research which raises the possibility that an exapted ERVs might have been essential for human intelligence to have evolved and now play a part on the genetic control of neural networks. It concerns a protein, TRIM28, which binds to ERVs, so regulating transcription and expression of adjacent genes. The research by a team from Lund University, Sweden, was published yesterday, open access, in the journal Cell Reports:

Highlights
  • Stage- and region-specific expression of ERVs during human brain development
  • TRIM28 binds to ERVs and induces hetereochromatin in human neural progenitor cells
  • Knockdown of TRIM28 in hNPCs results in the upregulation of ERV expression
  • Protein-coding genes located near upregulated ERVs are upregulated

Summary
Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), which make up 8% of the human genome, have been proposed to participate in the control of gene regulatory networks. In this study, we find a region- and developmental stage-specific expression pattern of ERVs in the developing human brain, which is linked to a transcriptional network based on ERVs. We demonstrate that almost 10,000, primarily primate-specific, ERVs act as docking platforms for the co-repressor protein TRIM28 in human neural progenitor cells, which results in the establishment of local heterochromatin. Thereby, TRIM28 represses ERVs and consequently regulates the expression of neighboring genes. These results uncover a gene regulatory network based on ERVs that participates in control of gene expression of protein-coding transcripts important for brain development.

Per Ludvik Brattås, Marie E. Jönsson, Liana Fasching, Jenny Nelander Wahlestedt, Mansoureh Shahsavani, Ronny Falk, Anna Falk, Patric Jern, Malin Parmar, Johan Jakobsson
TRIM28 Controls a Gene Regulatory Network Based on Endogenous Retroviruses in Human Neural Progenitor Cells
Cell Reports
, Volume 18 , Issue 1 , 1 - 11 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2016.12.010

© 2016 The Authors. Published open access.
Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

As the press release from Lund University explains:

[The researchers] have determined that several thousands of the retroviruses that have established themselves in our genome may serve as “docking platforms” for a protein called TRIM28. This protein has the ability to “switch off” not only viruses but also the standard genes adjacent to them in the DNA helix, allowing the presence of ERV to affect gene expression.

This switching-off mechanism may behave differently in different people, since retroviruses are a type of genetic material that may end up in different places in the genome. This makes it a possible tool for evolution, and even a possible underlying cause of neurological diseases. In fact, there are studies that indicate a deviating regulation of ERV in several neurological diseases such as ALS, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Two years ago, Johan Jakobsson’s team showed that ERV had a regulatory role in neurons specifically. However, this study was conducted on mice, whereas the new study – published in the journal Cell Reports – was made using human cells.

The differences between mice and humans are particularly important in this context. Many of the retroviruses that have been built into the human DNA do not exist in species other than humans and our closest relatives – gorillas and chimpanzees. They seem to have incorporated themselves into the genome some 35–45 million years ago, when the evolutionary lineage of primates was divided between the Old and New World. [My emphasis]

“Much of what we know about the overall development of the brain comes from the fruit fly, zebrafish and mouse. However, if endogenous retroviruses affect brain function, and we have our own set of these ERV, the mechanisms they affect may have contributed to the development of the human brain”, says Johan Jakobsson.

Although this is still under investigation and still remains to be established beyond reasonable doubt, it's beginning to look like our intelligent brain only evolved due to infection of a remote common ancestor some 35-45 million years ago.

Now, I can readily see a creationists trying to point to this as evidence of some sort of long-term plan (ignoring of course the fact that 35-45 million years ago was much earlier than 6000 years and that any long-term plan of this sort would have been predicated on a future divergence of hominids and the other apes) but what I would like to see is some sort of explanation of why this potential for high intelligence was installed in chimpanzees and gorillas and then not used.

By contrast, I can't see any problem with this discovery for the Theory of Evolution. Perhaps a creationist could explain why it doesn't explain the known facts, other than that they don't want it to, or for some rehearsed dogmatic slogan such as 'evolution is impossible'.

'via Blog this'

Catholic Influence Waning in The Philippines

Manilla Slum
Duterte orders full implementation of modern family planning by 2018 - CNN Philippines

Good news last Wednesday from the normally devoutly Catholic Philippines, where, as in the rest of the civilised world, secularisation and rejection of papal authority seems to be gaining ground.

According to CNN, President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order providing funds and support for modern family planning, in a bid to make it fully available to the poor by 2018. This comes at the end of a titanic 16 year battle with the Catholic Church which had seemed to have ended in victory for secularists and those campaigning for an end to poverty in 2012.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Something Good From Religion!

Just occasionally, something good can come from religion!

Take for example, something that you'll see everywhere in Lisbon, Portugal, in in most other Portuguese-speaking countries - the wonderful pastel de nata or custard tart!

You see them everywhere in Portugal, in specialist shops and cafés and street vendor's vans. They are consumed in vast quantities and not just by tourists experimenting with local cuisine but by the Portuguese themselves as snacks and treats and just because they are sublimely delicious, glorious in the mouth and very, very moresome. Eaten warm, they are a delight of crisp pastry case and lush, soft egg custard, often flavoured with a light sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. One is never enough!

Something Fishy About Retroviruses

Un-rooted phylogenies, estimated from a reverse transcriptase protein alignment.
Marine origin of retroviruses in the early Palaeozoic Era | Nature Communications.

Retroviruses are enough to induce extreme denialism in creationists because they can't be explained in terms of intelligent (sic) design, or design of any sort, but they can easily be explained by standard genetic evolutionary theory. In fact, they can only be explained by evolution.

Retroviruses are a class of related RNA viruses which, on gaining entry to a host cell, insert the DNA counterpart of their RNA into the genome, making themselves practically invisible to the normal antibody defences of the host. They can lay dormant for many years before being activated and, if they infect the germ-line cells, can be passed on to the next generation.

Bacterial Evolution Recorded in Byzantium

The skeleton of a woman who died 800 years ago on the outskirts of the ancient city of Troy in modern Turkey
Photo: Gebhard Bieg
Byzantine skeleton yields 800-year-old genomes from a fatal infection | University of Wisconsin-Madison News.

A 30 year-old woman who died 800 years ago in what was Troy has unwittingly left us a snapshot of evolving bacteria and a serious infection in humans as it was 800 years ago.

The bacteria were recovered from calcified nodules found just below the ribs of a skeleton of the woman who died during pregnancy and who showed skeletal evidence of a hard, agrarian existence which may have made her vulnerable to infection. The recovered genome of two species of bacteria are of such high quality that they can be used to compare changes in one of the bacteria, Staphylococcus saprophyticus, in the intervening 800 years. The other bacteria, Gardnerella vaginalis, showed little change.

Abstract
Pregnancy complications are poorly represented in the archeological record, despite their importance in contemporary and ancient societies. While excavating a Byzantine cemetery in Troy, we discovered calcified abscesses among a woman’s remains. Scanning electron microscopy of the tissue revealed ‘ghost cells’, resulting from dystrophic calcification, which preserved ancient maternal, fetal and bacterial DNA of a severe infection, likely chorioamnionitis. Gardnerella vaginalis and Staphylococcus saprophyticus dominated the abscesses.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Early Neanderthals Had Religion Before Modern Humans?

Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France | Nature Letters.

This paper passed beneath my radar last August but it illustrates something rather nice about science - the way it continually challenges our assumptions and, if we are honest, causes us to change our minds and revise our understanding. It also shows that Neanderthals may have had religion before modern humans had left Africa.

The paper deals with the discovery in a French cave of artefacts which could only have been made by Neanderthals and a very long time ago.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Ask And It Shall Be Given

Arkansas State Rep. Micah Neal, Republican.
Asked for and was given $38,000 in bribes.
Evangelical Christian Arkansas Republican pleads guilty in $600K Bible college bribery scheme

A couple of Good Christian principles seem to have motivated evangelical Arkansas Republican State representative, Micah Neal. He appears to subscribe fully to the idea that:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Malevolent Design or Evolution?

Carla Cerami, M.D., PhD., is the lead scientist on the study and said its results reveal the relationship between anemia, iron supplementation and malaria risk.
Anemia Offers Stronger Protection Than Sickle Cell Trait Against the Erythrocytic Stage of Falciparum Malaria and This Protection Is Reversed by Iron Supplementation - EBioMedicine

I've yet to find an intelligent (sic) design advocate who doesn't believe their putative designer is anything other than the god they purport to believe in, whether they call it God, Allah, Dios, Gott, Yahweh or any other of the names for the god of the Bible and Qur'an.

It's fair to assume therefore that this putative intelligent designer, in the minds of its advocates, has all the characteristics they assign to their particular version of this god. This includes having made humans as it's special creation with everything else there merely to serve the needs of these special human creations. So this open-access paper presents intelligent (sic) design advocates with a special problem. If it was intelligently designed, there is no way these findings can be presented as anything more than a work of extreme malevolence and mendacious sadism.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Signals From Space - Keep Calm and Carry On!

Source of mysterious deep space radio wave discovered for the first time | Science | The Guardian

Scientists have identified the source of a pulse of radio signals first detected in 2016 of a type only known about since 2007.

The so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs) most probably came from a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion light years from Earth, so the pulse only began its journey when Earth was just a few million years old, maybe when life was just getting going.

But it's nothing for alien conspiracists to get excited over; nor is it anything for creationists to start to panic over. It almost certainly isn't a signal from some other intelligence in a distant galaxy. However, exactly what it is is still a bit of a mystery.

Christian Crime Wave

Pastor John Thomas Lindsey, armed robber
Church Pastor Arrested For Nine Armed Robberies in Charlotte | WSOCTV.com

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked him to forgive me." - Emo Philips

It seems that John Thomas Lindsey, 47, a pastor at True Love Church of Refuge, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA also understood that basic Christian principle and the great benefit to be had from having a faith that means a few magic words can conveniently re-set your sin counter to zero without needing to make reparation to those you have wronged. He has been arrested and charged with nine counts of armed robbery!

After enquiries from a local tv station, Chanel 9, the True Love Church of Refuge issued the following statement:

We, the leadership and membership of True Love Church of Refuge, are deeply saddened and disappointed that our leader and brother, John Thomas Lindsey, is facing charges associated with criminal activity. Though we denounce any involvement he may have had, we love him and will continue to pray for him. The ministry will continue to stand strong despite the latest allegations and will continue to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Religious Persecution - Spain and Portugal Making Amends

Expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal following the Alhambra Decree, 1492.

Brexit vote sparks rush of British Jews seeking Portuguese passports | World news | The Guardian

News that large numbers of British Sephardic Jews are applying for Portuguese and Spanish citizenship in order to retain their citizenship of the European Union when Britain leaves has prompted me to look a little deeper into the historic background to this story.

Study of Spanish history is well worthwhile if you want to see how religion brutalises people and poisons communal relations. It's not the only example, of course, as examples can be found in the history of just about every European country but, outside the Balkans, Islam was not normally involved; inter-communal strife and bloodshed normally being confined to anti-Semitic Christians or different warring Christian sects. Spain managed all the blood-letting, persecution and hate perfectly well without Protestantism to provide an excuse.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Rwanda Football Moves to Outlaw Witchcraft - Seriously!

Witchcraft!
FERWAFA sets tough measures to curb ‘witchcraft in sports’ - The New Times | Rwanda

The Rwandan Football Federation (FERWAFA) has acted decisively to clean up the game following a serious spell-casting incidents in a league match which rocked the Rwanda football world a week ago.

An emergency meeting between the executive committee of the Association and all First Division football club presidents was call following the match in Huye stadium between Mukura Victory Sports and Rayon Sport. The game saw clashes on the pitch with Mukura players accusing a Rayon player, striker Moussa Camara, of gaining an unfair advantage and scoring a goal using witchcraft. The meeting decided unanimously that henceforth:

Brits Would Now Vote 'Remain' If Given The Chance

Source: WiN/Gallop International - End Of Year Survey 2016 (Page 32)
Every country surveyed would now vote Remain in an EU referendum... Including Britain | indy100

More evidence, if more were needed, that the 'Leave' vote in the EU referendum was a mistake. A clear majority of Brits (54%), according to an EU-wide WiN/Gallop International poll published a couple of days ago, would now vote 'Remain' if the referendum was repeated. Not a single country would have voted to leave.

It is clear now that a very large number of people who voted 'Leave' either did so believing their vote would not affect the result because all the polls were telling us that the vote would be to stay in, or they realise now they were lied to and, in the cold light of dawn, realise that leaving the EU will not bring the benefits they were led to believe.

Friday, 30 December 2016

What Does Terrorism Tell Us About Religion?

YouGov | What the world thinks.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter, martyr, liberator or defender. It's just a matter of perspective; of the perception of right and wrong.

This was illustrated by the results of the above YouGov poll published recently. The question asked of the 4812 respondents, weighted to make them representative of the GB population, was, "Do you think terrorist acts that are carried out by Muslims do or do not tell us anything about the nature of Islam?"


The result by political view was (terrorist acts carried out by Muslims):

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Pope Francis Aware Of Child-Abusing Argentinian Priest


Priests the Rev. Nicola Corradi (wheelchair) and the Rev. Horacio Corbacho, left.

Photo credit: AP/Emmanuel Rodriguez Villegas
Pope Francis 'told about alleged child rapist' two years before his arrest | The Independent:

You might expect the Argentinian Catholic cleric, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be especially interested in what happens to Argentinian school children, especially when, as Pope Francis, he has expressed determination to put an end to the scandals of child-abuse by Catholic priests that have engulfed just about every Catholic diocese throughout the world.

But not so, it seems.

In 2014, Pope Francis was allegedly made aware that the Catholic priest, the Rev Nicola Corradi, had been transferred from Italy to Argentina after being accused of abusing children at the Verona school of the Antonio Provolo Institute for hearing-impaired children. He has now been arrested and charged with raping children at the Institute's school in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza Province, Argentina, 620 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. According to the the Independent:

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

It's Time To Disestablish the Church of England

The Lords Spiritual
With the news of yet another fall in the number of believers in the UK, the Church of England's claim to be the official church in England and Wales (and by extension though not in law, in Scotland and Northern Ireland) is now surely untenable.

Even taking all religions and different churches into account, those who actively believe there is no god or 'higher power' have a ten percent lead over those who still believe in a god or a higher power of some sort. Within that small and dwindling minority, Anglicans are but one group amongst many that includes Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, Shintoists, etc., etc., etc.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Fall in Religious Belief in UK Accelerates

Those saying that they do not believe in any god or higher spiritual power has gone up from 33 to 38 per cent; those saying they believe in a god or a higher power has declined from 32 to 28 per cent.
Getty Images
Belief in God slumps after turbulent year | News | The Times & The Sunday Times

One of the few bits of good news to come at the end of 2016, and maybe because 2016 has been such an awful year, is that decline in religious belief in the UK, according to a poll commissioned from YouGov by Times Newspapers, has accelerated, falling by a full four percentage points in a single year.

This is one of the biggest falls ever recorded and comes at the end of a year which saw the Brexit debacle, the election of Donald Trump, supported by a lot of very un-Christian Christians, an asylum-seeker crisis in Europe caused by warring religious factions in the Middle East, some appalling religiously-inspired terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere and the deaths of several poplar celebrities.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Toothless Old Dinosaur Bites Creationists!

Limusaurus inextricabilis (Artist's impression)
Extreme Ontogenetic Changes in a Ceratosaurian Theropod: Current Biology

Creationists are probably getting sick and tired of having to deny all the evidence that birds are evolved dinosaurs that has been flooding into the scientific literature over the last few years, but here's some more.

Not only is this pretty convincing evidence, if any more were needed, but it's an example of that other thing that creationists must be sick and tired of having to deny - a transitional species! Creationists like to pretend transitional species and evidence that birds evolved out of therapod dinosaurs is as rare as hen's teeth. It's doubly ironic therefore that this find helps explain just why hen's teeth are so rare - unlike the evidence for the evolution of birds from dinosaurs!

It was discovered by a team from George Washington University visiting the Gobi Desert in Central Asia.

By examining a series of nineteen fossils of the species Limusaurus inextricabilis, a therapod dinosaur from

How Science Works - Big Changes Evolved Small Cells

Photomicrograph showing a blood smear with the large red blood cells of the African clawed frog and the small red blood cells of a rodent side-by-side.

Photo credit: Photomicrograph by Adam Huttenlocker
Wood mouse by Anne Burges
African clawed frog by Tim Vickers
Bone Microvasculature Tracks Red Blood Cell Size Diminution in Triassic Mammal and Dinosaur Forerunners: Current Biology.

One of the requirements for a highly active species, especially one capable of scurrying around, is to be able to get oxygen around the body quickly to keep the tissues supplied with enough to maintain the high metabolic activity.

This in turn means getting the oxygen-carrying blood cells into the tissues as close to the point of need as possible and this means having a rich supply of small capillaries through which small red blood cells can pass.

Why small red blood cells? Quite simply because small is more efficient. It is quicker to get oxygen out of a small cell than a large one because the surface area

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