Monday, 29 June 2015

Unlike Fundamentalists, Chimps Can Tell Right From Wrong.

Chimpanzees’ Bystander Reactions to Infanticide | Human Nature

Unlike fundamentalist Christians, who proudly boast that they have to use their holy book to understand what's right and what's wrong, and so bizarrely claim to be more moral than people who don't need a handbook, it seems even chimpanzees understand the difference, either instinctively or through culturally-inherited memes. Ironically, this indicates that this ability may even have been present in the last common ancestor shared by chimpanzees and humans.

This was the conclusion of a team from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who allowed chimpanzees to watch various videos, some showing acts of chimpanzee violence including the hunting and killing of a colobus monkey, some peaceful activities and one showing chimpanzees killing an infant chimp.

One manifestation of the human capacity to tell right from wrong is the way we stare at the unusual - the Bystander Reaction - the reason so many people watch gruesome or distressing videos on YouTube, Facebook, or slow down to get a good look as they pass the car-crash on the other carriageway. It seems that chimpanzees do the same.

Abstract
Social norms—generalized expectations about how others should behave in a given context—implicitly guide human social life. However, their existence becomes explicit when they are violated because norm violations provoke negative reactions, even from personally uninvolved bystanders. To explore the evolutionary origin of human social norms, we presented chimpanzees with videos depicting a putative norm violation: unfamiliar conspecifics engaging in infanticidal attacks on an infant chimpanzee. The chimpanzees looked far longer at infanticide scenes than at control videos showing nut cracking, hunting a colobus monkey, or displays and aggression among adult males. Furthermore, several alternative explanations for this looking pattern could be ruled out. However, infanticide scenes did not generally elicit higher arousal. We propose that chimpanzees as uninvolved bystanders may detect norm violations but may restrict emotional reactions to such situations to in-group contexts. We discuss the implications for the evolution of human morality.


Having ruled out factors such as any tendency to be attracted by the screams of the infant, because they were also present in other videos, the only thing left was that the chimpanzees recognised something that was outside the accepted social norms - the very basis of social ethics.

To be fair to fundamentalists, the belief that morality could only have come from a god, is a central religious apologetic 'proof' of the existence of one or other gods. It was one of C. S. Lewis's favourite 'proofs' he used in the much quoted Christian apologetic, Mere Christianity. It is still routinely trotted out for money to audiences of believers by people like William Lane Craig.

It'll be amusing now to see how these people, and especially creationists, cope with the problem of simultaneously claiming that their morals were given them by a magic friend so they are the only ones who can tell right from wrong, with this evidence that it is an evolved ability which might well have been present even in the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees, and the evidence that chimpanzees can tell right from wrong without either a magic invisible friend or a book it allegedly wrote for the purpose.

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Catholic Church Just Doesn't Get It!

Anthony Colin Fisher, Archbishop of Sydney. Inconceibale tht he would not have approved the letter.
Catholic church writes to companies that support same-sex marriage | World news | The Guardian

The Catholic Church really doesn't get it.

It's not just the paedophile priests and nuns, abuse of vulnerable adults, financial corruption, support for autocratic, right-wing dictatorships, the sale of 'confiscated' children, the systematic, sometimes brutal, cover-ups, the habitual avoidance of responsibilities for their crimes and casual hypocrisy of the church and it's clerics, bad though they are, that is causing people to vote with their feet and stay away from church.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Cardinal Brady Admits Official Abuse Coverup

Cardinal Seán Brady. Intimidated victims to keep abuses secret.
Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry: Cardinal Seán Brady admits 'shroud of secrecy' over Church sex abuse inquiry - BBC News

Cardinal Seán Brady, former head of the Catholic Church in all Ireland, has admitted the official church enquiry into the sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, was conducted under a cloak of secrecy designed not to reveal the truth and protect and compensate the victims, but to protect the abuser and the church against scandal.

For his part in this coverup, Cardinal Brady, who has never been officially sanctioned by even so much as being stripped of his title, was allowed to retire on a full pension at the normal retiring age for a priest, after spending a year on fully-paid gardening leave whilst an underling did his work for him.

Brady made this admission to the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and admitted that the questioning of a 14 year-old victim was intimidatory, intrusive and

Another Transitional Fossil Turtle!

Grandfather turtle, Pappochelys
Photo credit: Rainer Schoch. Source: Smithsonian.com
A Middle Triassic stem-turtle and the evolution of the turtle body plan : Nature : Nature Publishing Group

These examples of what creationists tell us don't exist - transitional fossils - are getting so frequent that I'm wondering whether it's worth writing yet another blog about yet another one being found, or whether it would be simpler to just publish a weekly list of the latest.

But, having almost certainly just shed any creationists who might have had the courage to read the blog at all with that shocking title, I'll carry on, as those interested in truth might find it interesting.

This example, published in Nature yesterday, is of a 240 million year-old fossil from Germany which is

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Now Something Else For Creationists To Ignore!

One gene may drive leap from single cell to multicellular life - life - 22 June 2015 - New Scientist

Creationists need to isolate themselves as far as possible from the reality around them - which why they're oblivious to that fact that, to normal people, they resemble a comical King Canute, ordering the tide to retreat, except that they also have their eyes shut and are pretending to not even notice the tsunami of scientific evidence engulfing them.

Actually, to be fair to the much maligned Canute, whose tale was told by the eventual winners, he was almost certainly trying to demonstrate to his army that even a king's powers are limited, so he shouldn't really be compared to a creationist.

Monday, 22 June 2015

More Sex With Neanderthals But No Original Sin

Smile!
Photo credit: AFP/Getty
An early modern human from Romania with a recent Neanderthal ancestor | Nature

This isn't so much new information as adding detail to what we already know.

We've known for several years now that all non-African populations have some Neanderthal DNA, showing without a doubt that humans came up against and interbred with, to a limited degree, the Neanderthal population that had evolved from members of an earlier migration out of Africa.

Does God Hate Vultures Too?

Lappet-Faced Vulture, Torgos tracheliotus
Another Continental Vulture Crisis: Africa's Vultures Collapsing toward Extinction | Conservation Letters - Wiley Online Library.

With so many species in serious decline and under threat of imminent extinction, creationists and Intelligent Design hoaxers have some explaining to do. They at least owe it to their followers to explain why their creator god either intended this to happen or is powerless to prevent it. Admittedly, they will need to face up to some unpleasant realities to do so, but at least they'll know they aren't living a lie.

What they need to grasp is that their notion, it it were any good, would be applicable across the entire range of biological science, not just the cherry-picked pieces that make their dupes feel important or to provide easy, default answers to the parts that are hard to understand without learning basic science, putting aside

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Watching Evolution As It Happens

Evolution and coexistence in response to a key innovation in a long-term evolution experiment with Escherichia coli | bioRxiv

The world's longest running evolutionary experiment has just produced another embarrassing result; embarrassing for creationists that is. The result is, of course, exactly what the Theory of Evolution predicts.

This experiment, Richard Lenski's Long-term Experimental Evolution Project, has been running since 1988 when Lenski set up 12 cultures of a single strain of E. coli. Every day since then a sample of each culture has been taken and used to seed a new

Friday, 19 June 2015

Pope Is Part Of The Climate Change Problem

Generally, Popes talk what can only politely be called cobblers, and so far the current pope has been no exception. Normally it quite easy to read something a pope has said and to write an article pointing out the bigotry, superstition, scientific illiteracy or clerical self-interest which underpins it. A religious commentator might even regard popes as a godsend for the frequency with which they open their mouth just wide enough to get a red-booted foot in it.

But now we see a pope actually talking sense about climate change and man's responsibility for it and for once the Catholic Church isn't supporting the right-wing and the forces of reaction. From a quick skim through an English translation of his encyclical, Laudato Si', it appears to be well informed and even well-argued. No doubt Pope Francis is not personally the author of it and has depended a great deal on his science advisers to do the actual science but that doesn't detract from his responsibility for the contents, and he deserves praise for it.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Toothed Whales Laughing At Creationists

Laughing at creationists
Mx1 and Mx2 key antiviral proteins are surprisingly lost in toothed whales - PNAS

More evidence today that the supposed 'intelligent designer' is neither intelligent nor a designer. It's not clear yet whether the ID industry will become honest as a result of all this evidence against their daft notion and give up exploiting gullible people, or whether they will ignore it all as usual and rely on their victims' aversion to reading any science literature which might shake their 'unshakeable' faith.

Researchers have shown that the toothed whales all have broken versions of two genes (Mx1 and Mx2)

Rapid Human Evolution - Update

Fore victim of kuru
Eating human brains helped Papua New Guinea tribe resist disease, research shows | Science | The Guardian

Researchers have discovered that the gene which arose in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in response to the prion disease, kuru, also gives protection against other prion diseases.

Some time ago I reported on an unarguable case of rapid Darwinian evolution in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Briefly, the local religious custom of ritually eating the brain of dead relatives had produced a high risk of contracting the transmissible prion disease, kuru, an invariably fatal dementia very similar to BSE (mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep and CJD in humans. This placed the population under intense selection pressure where any resistance to this disease had high survival value.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Popes, Predators, Paedophiles And Priests

Józef Wesołowski
Photo credit: Manuel Diaz / AP
Vatican Sets Trial for Ex-Ambassador Accused of Sexual Abuse - The New York Times.

Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis resigns after charges of sex abuse coverup - The Washington Post

For my 1000th blog, it's a pleasure to be presented with not one but two cases of senior Catholic clergy being involved in child abuse and coverup amounting to facilitation of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. These cases involve an ambassador for the Vatican, an archbishop and an auxiliary bishop.

On the day that the Vatican announced it is putting on trial it's former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, for molesting young boys and posessing child pornograpy, came news that the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with his assistant, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché had resigned. The Vatican denies any link between the two cases.

The case of Archbishop Wesołowski is revealing and tells us much of the Vatican's basic instinct - to protect its own and keep them out of the reach of the law-enforcement agencies in the countries where they

Monday, 15 June 2015

Magna Carta - And Why The Pope Tried To Kill It

On this the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it's worth spending a few minutes remembering how fortunate we are that the Pope Innocent III didn't succeed in his determination to annul it and put an end to this dangerous idea of equality before the law.

Although it was probably never intended as such, Magna Carta has become one of the most important documents in history, being regarded as the origins of several basic principles now taken for granted:

  • The idea of equality before the law. This establishes the right to a fair trial and the rule of precedent in law. What applied in one case to one person should apply in all cases to all people.
  • The idea of trial by a jury of one's peers. This puts the people in charge of issues like what are the actions of a reasonable person, etc.
  • Legal constraints on the power of the head of state. This establishes the independence of the judiciary and the right of habeas corpus. It also established the principle that the monarch can't raise arbitrary taxes without the consent of Parliament.

Before then, there was nothing to stop the monarch having anyone arbitrarily executed on any pretext, or locking them away to rot in some castle dungeon somewhere, and many did just that. But what really exercised the barons under King John was that there was nothing to stop the monarch taxing them and using the money as he saw fit. In fact, Magna Carta was intended to be more a peace treaty between John and his revolting barons and included, amongst other things, the agreement that the barons would hand London back to to John - something that was immediately reneged on by the barons. John only ever saw it as something he signed under duress and never intended to do anything other than buy him time.

So where does Pope Innocent III fit into all this?

Innocent III had previously excommunicated John, partly to curry favour with the King Phillip Augustus of France, and partly as a reprisal for his taxing the churches. In order to bring the church back on side, John agreed to compensate the Pope and the Church with lots of money, and to submit to him as his feudal liege-lord, making Innocent III de jure titular ruler of England and the English possessions in France. The Pope in return declared Magna Carta null and void.

Lotario dei Conti di Segni, Pope Innocent III
Innocent III was probably one of the most unpleasant characters to hold the title 'Pope'. He is notorious largely on accounts of actions which, if they were repeated today, would be rightly regarded as crimes against humanity:
  • He ordered the suppression and massacre of the Cathars of the Languedoc region of southern France, to help his protector, King Phillip Augustus control his southern barons, and because they had declined to pay tithes.
  • He ordered a crusade against Moorish Spain, which was then most of the Iberian Peninsula other than a couple of Christian kingdoms in the far north, and the subsequent massacre of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.
  • He ordered the Fourth Crusade against Egypt in which, when the Christian army reached Constantinople where it mistook the Orthodox Christian population for Muslims, it promptly sacked the city and massacred the inhabitants. Innocent III then declared this to have been the will of God in order to re-unite the Eastern and Western Churches, under Pope Innocent III, naturally.

It's maybe worth mentioning that a 'crusade' consisted of giving a rag-tag bunch of mercenary soldiers, under the nominal control of a handful of princes, kings and dukes, free licence to loot, pillage, rape and massacre their way across Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor and into the Holy Lands with no regard to the religion of those they slaughtered and robbed. They were not paid or supplied but were expected to take what they wanted from the citizenry of any towns or villages they came across on their journey - something they did with enthusiasm, routinely massacring the entire population to the applause of the Pope who declared every death a triumph for Jesus.

Innocent III's crusades probably accounted for far more Christian deaths than Muslim deaths, despite the entire population of cities and town in the 'Holy Lands' being slaughtered with loud boastings about the depth of the blood in the streets. Jews, of course, were almost routinely slaughtered wherever they were found.

Innocent III was an unashamed despot, murderous psychopath and dedicated autocrat who saw the slightest hint of independent thought or disobedience as high treason, blasphemy and heresy. Innocent III ruled Earth on behalf of God because God had chosen him. He did this by controlling his cardinals, bishops, clergy and monks and 'consenting' to allow the local autocrat or king to run his estate under the watchful eye of the local clergy. It was a neat arrangement with Innocent III at the top of the pinnacle, accountable to no-one but God, who somehow always agreed with Innocent III, and the hoi polloi arranged in ranks below, each having a divinely assigned role and everyone neatly in their place.

And then along came some upstart barons demanding their own say in matters and insisting that the king be accountable to a court of law and not the Pope!

So, in return for a lot of money, in the best tradition of selling indulgences, John's sins were forgiven, his excommunication reversed, and Magna Carta was ruled null and void.

Of course, Innocent III could call on good, solid biblical authority for this autocracy:

Political power in the Bible is only ever autocratic and absolute, the sole right of kings and emperors and those able to exert power through force of arms. If this is ever mentioned it is only ever to endorse it. The frankest outright endorsement of autocratic government, often quoted to support the 'divine right' of kings, was in Paul's epistle to the Romans where he leaves no doubt about his sect's fawning attitude to authority.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God [my emphasis]. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.

Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1-7

English Angevin posessions in France
Nowhere in the Bible does any prophet or apostle ever advocate government of the people, by the people and for the people nor do any of them ever decry its absence. There is not a single word calling for equality before the law or legal constraints on government powers.

But, John was not long for this world. The barons had invited the French to invade to depose John, who promptly scuppered their plans by dying of dysentery on 19th October 1216, just 16 months after signing Magna Carta. Suddenly John's successor, Henry III, or rather, as a nine year-old king, the leading barons who ran the country for him, realised his throne was in danger, not just in England but his possessions in France, and he quickly needed a united kingdom.

The barons had been at war not with the monarchy but with John personally and had decided it was better French and rid of John than English and ruled by him. Suddenly, the equation changed and they now had a potentially malleable child king all of their very own - but the French were keen to at least take back the English possessions in France and put Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Aquitaine, back in his rightful place as a fief (and ward) of the French crown.

What better than this wonderful charter of rights to grant his barons if they joined forces with him? And so Henry III became champion of the agreement his father John had been forced to sign under duress.

Now of course, the only state in the world still run on those biblical, pre-Charter, Christian principles is the Vatican City. All the civilised nations abandoned them long ago and look to Magna Carta, not the Bible, as their founding document. Not surprisingly, when a handful of would-be despots, helped and supported by the Catholic Church, established fascist regimes in a number of European and South American countries in the early 20th-century, amongst their first actions was to abolish democracy, independent judiciaries, trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus, and established rule by decree, Just as Pope Innocent III would have wished.


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Saturday, 13 June 2015

No Comfort For Ray As God Hits Bananas

Americas may be hit by catastrophic banana disease -- ScienceDaily

In a long-expected response to Ray Comfort's cruel attempt to make American Christian fundamentalists look even more stupid with his banana 'proof' of creationism and Intelligent Design, God is sending a disease, Fusarium wilt, to decimate the American Cavendish banana crop.

Comfort, readers may remember, hilariously exposed the credulity of his creationist followers and simultaneously showed his contempt for them by

Friday, 12 June 2015

Grand Canyon Catastrophe For Creationism

Geomorphic constraints on the age of the western Grand Canyon

It can't be easy being a creationist.

The problem is the need to be increasingly inventive to cope with the troublesome cognitive dissonance that comes from trying to stick to a belief while the evidence against it just keeps on piling up. This makes them prey to pseudoscience charlatans who will try to sell them spurious confirmation of their bias with lies, misinformation and misrepresentations of the data.

It also means they have to avoid reading proper science like a claustrophobe avoids lifts.

Guess Who!

Guess who this is a description of:

...described as a “man spiralling downwards”. He had no job but many debts... Seeking “power and influence”...

Pretending to be an important cleric... Sordid crimes... was rejected as too “weird”. “His constant goal in life appears to have been achieving significance.”

Diagnosed with a number of mental health problems, he was a relentless attention seeker with delusions of grandeur and a con man, who elevated his personal grievances with the heavenly glow [of a religious campaign]... *

The Bigots Are Whinging Again

In what is becoming something of a tradition in Christian circles, Christians are whinging again because they've lost another court case in which they sought to defend what they see as their God-given right to persecute people of their choice. The need for martyrdom seems as strong as ever in fundamentalist circles.

In this case, the Court of Appeal refused leave for a fundamentalist Christian charity, Core Issues Trust, to appeal the ban on putting offensive, homophobic advertising banners on London buses, in a spiteful response to the Stonewall advertisement pictures below.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Spider Venom Toxic To Creationism

Tegenaria agrestis
Weaponization of a Hormone: Convergent Recruitment of Hyperglycemic Hormone into the Venom of Arthropod Predators: Structure

These examples of unintelligent design just keep piling up in the science literature. No wonder trying to get a creationist to read a proper, peer-reviewed science paper is like trying to get an acute arachnophobe to pick up a spider.

This paper, for example, if the Intelligent Design hoax was taken seriously by proper biologists who actually work in the field of biology and value their academic reputation, could only be seen as an example of this designer designing something to do the same job, even starting from the same point but doing it differently with one result not as good as the other.

Ice Age Camels Give Creationists The Hump

North American Western Camel (artist's impression)
Ice age camel DNA discovered in Canada change theories on species | World news | The Guardian

Here we have a good example of how our understanding of DNA and the fact that evolution occurs at the genetic level, is informing biological research. It perfuses this paper concerning camel evolution and how the extinct North American Western Camel was related to the Asiatic camels, the Bactrian camel and the dromedary, and to the South American llamas, guanacos, alpacas, and vicuñas.

Based on morphology of fossil bones, it had been thought that the Western Camel was a giant llama. That view has now been disproved; it was a sister species of the Asiatic camels.

Mutant Europeans

Yamnaya skull from the Samara region colored with red ochre.
Photo Credit: Natalia Shishlina
Nomadic herders left a strong genetic mark on Europeans and Asians | Science/AAAS | News

More news yesterday on the subject of the origins of Euro-Asian people and in particular, lactase persistence in Europeans, which should, if they understood it, be causing creationists to rethink their superstitions.

So, if you've fallen for the 'Intelligent Design' hoax and want to stay duped, or if you need to believe you have a close personal relationship with the creator of the Universe so you feel important enough, stop reading now because there will be some hard questions at the end designed to make you think.

The news comes from two rival teams of geneticists who analysed the DNA from a total of 170 individuals from archaeological sites in Europe and Asia. These people lived between 3000 and 5000 years ago so covering the period when the Bronze Age spread from the Middle East out into Europe and Asia. The debate has always been about whether this was a spread of ideas as neighbours learned the

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