Monday, 28 December 2015

2015 - Another Miserable Year for Creationism

This is the third year I've written up a brief summary of some of the most interesting papers on evolution and related science for the past year, and, like the previous two, it's been another miserable year for creationism.

To look at their sites like Ken Ham's AiG, though, it's almost as though they haven't noticed any science this year. There is still no dent in their dogmatic insistence that science has never provided any evidence for evolution.

Image: Kaye Reed
Source: New Scientist
First off, in March, we had the discovery of a hominin jaw fragment in Ethiopia, dated to about 2.8 million years ago, which looked exactly what you would expect a 'transitional' species between the Australopithecines and the Hominids to look like. Now you and I, and probably most of the educated world, knows that if the Homo genus evolved from the Australopithecus genus, as seems almost beyond doubt now, there would be a point where it it would be almost impossible to assign an individual to one genus or the other. This specimen looks like it could be from that point.

The problem for creationists is that this violates two of their most sacred dogmas: 'macro' evolution (i.e., the evolution of a new species from an earlier one) is impossible, and there are no transitional fossils. Both these require an idiotic, non-scientific definition of 'evolution', of course, but never-the-less, this Ethiopian fossils makes it difficult for those claims to be honestly maintained.

Then in April we learned that the evolution of domestic dogs out of wolves probably entered its final stage after 'wolves' which were already living alongside humans latched onto the human oxytocin response which we get when we gaze into a child's eyes. This was primarily a lactation-inducing response in pre-human ancestors but has been adapted to make us feel love for our children. It has now been found that domestic dogs, unlike wolves, also have this oxytocin response when they look into their pups' eyes, so it was simply a matter of humans and dogs bonding when we look into one another's eyes.

There is no difficulty understanding this as adaptive evolution and vicarious opportunism, but for a creationist, accepting it would mean they have to abandon notions of love being a uniquely human emotion which science can't explain and which has something to do with our 'soul', and other animals not being sentient, emotional creatures, and the notion that dogs were specially created an 'an helpmeet' for man, but evolved naturally out of wolves by a process of rational adaptive evolution.

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii clumps
Image: Jacob Boswell
Source: New Scientist
In June it was shown that, like an earlier experiment with yeast, a single-celled algae called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in a culture will evolve into multicellular clumps when a Paramoecium predator is present. The predator is able to ingest single cells but not larger clumps, so selection pressure favours those tending to form multicellular clumps. When a similar experiment was done with yeast in 2011, it was found that a single gene was responsible for this change.

So, far from being the 'unexplained mystery' that creationists claim, the evolution of multicellular organism could have been the result of natural selection acting on relative small genetic change involving as few as a single mutation. In other words, the result of bog-standard Darwinian evolution.

Tetrapodophis amplectus
Image: Dave Martill, University of Portsmouth
Source: New Scientist
Devastation for creationism in July when scientists announced the discovery in Brazil of a 120 million-year old fossil of what can only be described as a transition between a lizard and a snake in the form of a long, thin, multi-vertebrate skeleton with four small but perfectly-formed limbs, thus filling another of creationism's favourite gaps and providing yet another of their famous 'missing' transitional forms - and not for the last time this year either.

One would think it would be becoming increasingly difficult for creationist frauds to continue to fool their dupes that these gaps are really there because the 'missing' links have never been found when they turn up so frequently but a cult that prides itself on it's ability to ignore evidence, seemingly has no difficulty with these inconvenient facts at all.

Eocene Penguin from Peru
As though that wasn't bad enough for creationism, in August, the world learned of the discovery of a 35 million-year old fossil early penguin from Peru showing transitional features between aerial and aquatic flight. No creationist managed to offer a reason why an intelligent designer would include features clearly intended for flight in an aquatic bird which, according to creationist dogma, has never flown. Of course, we had the usual mantras about 'kinds' and it still being a penguin, etc, but no-one wanted to explain the intelligence behind making it look for all the world that penguins shared a common ancestor with flying birds. These are the sort of considerations that no creationist would ever risk addressing let alone explaining.

Homo naledi
National Geographic Society
September saw what must have been the most devastating of all news this year for creationists frauds; so devastating in fact that Ken Ham tried to prepare his dupes for it by reminding them that, as Christians, they had to believe that no physical evidence, no matter how compelling, can ever trump the Bible. There is nothing like the fear of an invisible 'friend' to induce denialism in a creationist.

The find was, of course, the discovery in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa of several skeletons of a new hominid, Homo naledi, which shows unmistakable characteristics of both the Homo and Australopithecus genuses, making it, along with the discovery a few years ago of Australopithecus sediba one of the best examples of the transition between Australopithecus and Homo. The fossils display such a mosaic of the two genuses that there is disagreement about which genus the species should be placed in by taxonomist.

This difficulty illustrates another problem for creationism and they way they misrepresent the theory of evolution. Science has no problem recognising that the evolution of one species into another is a gradual process taking place over many generations and involving an accumulation of many small changes, which means of course that any attempt to draw demarcation lines between one species and another is essentially arbitrary. The creationist parody of evolution requires one species to suddenly mutate into another, with maybe a single 'transition' depending on the precise parody being attacked.

In early October, creationism was presented with another challenge which so far has gone unanswered. Scientists looking at something called the Peto's Paradox found something which makes any supposed designer look not only unintelligent but positively malevolent. Peto's Paradox is, if mistakes in DNA replication lead to cancer, we should expect animals with more cells to have more cancers, yet there is no relationship between body mass and the incidence of cancer. The reason for this is that we have an only partially successful mechanism which tries to repair broken DNA backed up by a not always successful gene, p53, which kills the cell if repair fails. P53 is an ancient gene found in all multicellular animals.

What these scientists found was that elephants, which have a low incidence of cancer, have 20 copies of this gene due to repeated gene duplication. In effect, elephants simply kill off cells with damaged DNA rather than bothering to try to repair the damage. The problem for creationists is that they have to explain both why an intelligent designer would have to design a work-around for cancer-causing faulty DNA replication in the first place - but not a very good one, and then came up with a better one for elephants but never thought to use that for the other species who have to make do with an inferior design.

Pliobates cataloniae
In late October, scientists found what may be the oldest hominoid - the earliest ancestor of the ape branch of the evolutionary tree.

This Spanish fossil, named Pliobates cataloniae, found in 11.8 million-year old Miocene deposits in the Vallès-Penedès Basin, Spain, was smaller than the previous oldest known species, Proconsul, and suggests we and the other apes evolved from a more gibbon-like ancestor than the more chimpanzee-like Proconsul.

While science debates the significance of this find and revises its understanding of our evolution, creationism tries its best to ignore it in order to avoid revising its Bronze-Age view of human origins.

Lastly, just a few days ago, a team of archaeologists announced the find of what could be a new species of human living just 14,000 years ago in south-west China, contemporaneously with early agriculturalists. It is thought this may have been the descendants of Homo erectus which migrated out of Africa into Eurasia millions of years before H. sapiens. It is now known that H. sapiens lived alongside and interbreed with H. neanderthalensis and the 'Denisovans' in Eurasia, and that several species of Homo probably coexisted in Africa, maybe alongside Australopithecus species, but this is the first suggestion that we may have lived contemporaneously with H. erectus or its Asian descendant and possibly interbred with them.

The idea of multiple human origins through hybridization between related species. and of early humans acting very much like an incompletely speciated ring species is of course entirely counter to creationist notions of an ancestral pair. It also makes it impossible to fit 'original sin' into the true version of human origins, so entirely abolishing the entire rationale of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

So, 2015, like all the years before them, has been another dreadful year for creationism, yet it still manages to cling on in the more backward and superstitious parts of the world and in cults in which the denial of science is seen as a test of membership, where ignorance, either wilful or feigned, is admired and intellectual dishonesty is seen as an act of self-sacrifice which an assumed invisible god will appreciate and reward.


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