Saturday, 21 October 2017

Lessons From a Canary Island - Spells and Incantations

Cathedral of Santa Ana, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Sitting at the end of a rather plain but pleasantly peaceful, palm-tree-lined plaza, is the Catholic Cathedral of Santa Ana, the most important religious building in the Canary Islands. It is situated in the old town area, now the southern suburbs of Vagueta in the modern city of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain.

By the standards of most European Catholic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Santa Ana, is plain, even a little austere, although it is blessed with two campaniles.

The original cathedral was built between 1500 and 1570, commencing soon after the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, flushed with their success at the conquest of the entire mainland Spain and the expulsion of the Moors from their last remaining stronghold in Grenada. The Canaries were inhabited by a people known as Guanaches who almost certainly originated in the Atlas Mountain area of Morocco and migrated there in pre-classical times.

Conquest had not been easy, being vigorously resited by the native

Friday, 20 October 2017

Evolving Great Tits - In Our Back Gardens

Great tit (Parus major) on a garden feeder.

Photo credit: Dennis van de Water, dvdwphotography.com
Evolution in your back garden—great tits may be adapting their beaks to birdfeeders.

Great tits are evolving, just up the road from where I live!

Not five minutes drive from where I sit writing this blog-post is probably the most intensely studied piece of woodland in the world, and probably nowhere is studied by people more qualified to study it. Wytham Woods is a mixed woodland owned by Oxford University and widely used for field studies by biologists from the Zoology Department.

It was by comparing the great tits from here and from Oosterhout and Veluwe, in the Netherlands, that an international research team discovered that the UK great tits have been actively evolving over the last few decades and now have longer beaks than their Dutch counterparts.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Lessons From A Canary Island - Rock of Ages

The core of an old volcano, Gran Canaria
The great thing about going to somewhere different is that you see different things - if you look.

We've just got back from a little over a week in the Spanish Canary Island, Gran Canaria, just off the coast of West Africa. Yes, it's where the Canary finch comes from but, apart from a brief glimpse that might have been one and a couple in a cage, we never saw any. In fact, we saw very few birds. A few buzzards, a couple of kestrels, some egrets and herons and quite a lot of gulls, but nothing to get excited about and no new species to cross off my list!

This is mostly because Gran Ganaria is hot and arid and, being volcanic, has very little soil for anything much other than cacti and other succulents to grow in. There are pine woods on the higher places but still not a lot of wild life.

And this means that a great deal of the underlying geology is, well, not really underlying so much as overlying and exposed. It's black volcanic tuffa, pumice, basalt and towering columns of extinct volcanic core with the core eroded to expose the solidified magma as in the photograph on the right.

This, of course, if only they would look at it, is a problem for creationists because there is no way to explain the geology of Gran Canaria in terms of the product of a recent global flood or of volcanic activity in just a few thousand years since one. It is, quite simply, as close as science comes to proof that there never was a recent global flood and the Earth is actually very old. Although, on the accepted scientific understanding of the age of Earth, the Canary Islands are comparatively young - i.e., just a few tens of millions of years old.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Just a Small Problem - For Creationists

Lars Gibbon
The last common ancestor of the hominoids may have been about this size.
Research Sizes Up Last Common Ancestor of Humans and Apes:

You know that intermediate form between the old world monkeys and the primates, including humans, that creationists insist never existed?

It weighed about 12 pounds (5.5 Kg) according to a pair of researchers based at the American Museum of Natural History.

As the American Museum of Natural history press release explained:

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

So What's So Special About Humans?

Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

Another creationist claim has been falsified (not for the first time, obviously) but this time fairly comprehensively.

The claim is that for a list of reasons, humans are a special creation, endowed with special qualities and abilities, that separate us from the other animals, justifying the claim that the purpose of 'creation' was to create mankind, and all the rest is just there for our use.

It's not good enough that were are unique, just like any species is unique, hence being a distinct species. Humans have extra-special characteristics that makes us uniquely, unique, apparently.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Getting To Know Your Inner Neanderthal

The Contribution of Neanderthals to Phenotypic Variation in Modern Humans: The American Journal of Human Genetics.

We've know for some years now that modern non-African humans have some Neanderthal DNA. This must have been acquired by interbreeding during the comparatively brief period between the migration of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) out of Africa about 50-60,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago when Neanderthals went extinct.

We also know that this interbreeding was not entirely successful and probably didn't always produce viable offspring. For example, there are no known examples of either Neanderthal Y chromosomes in modern humans, nor are there examples of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This suggests that male Neanderthal - female AMH mating did not produce viable male offspring. It also suggests that either female Neanderthal - male AMH did not produce viable females or that females remained 'Neanderthal' and became extinct with them or did not contribute further to the AMH gene-pool carrying their mtDNA with them.

We also know that many of the Neanderthal genes proved to be deleterious and were quickly eliminated because the Neanderthal DNA we now have is heavily clustered and absent from many of our chromosomes altogether. Clustering tends to be around those chromosomes and those genes associated with our immune system, and skin and hair colour and type. In other words, we kept the genes that helped us adapt to a northern climate and possible new pathogens and got rid of a lot that may have been harmful - although not all of them since our 'improved' immunity might have been at the expense of inheriting a disposition to auto-immune diseases.

But one of the problems in identifying exactly what DNA we have retained as a population and particularly how this affects our genome has been the relatively small cohort of AMH DNA available for analysis and how representative this is of the population as a whole. A previous study of the DNA from 28,000 people in the eMERGE Network appeared to show an association between obesity and Neanderthal DNA which was not found in this study. The authors suggest that this could be due to the fact that the eMERGE DNA was from people already undergoing medical treatment.

This new study used a cohort of 112,338 individuals from the UK Biobank database.

After humans and Neandertals met many thousands of years ago, the two species began interbreeding. Although Neandertals aren't around anymore, about two percent of the DNA in non-African people living today comes from them. Recent studies have shown that some of those Neandertal genes have contributed to human immunity and modern diseases. Now researchers reporting in the American Journal of Human Genetics on October 5th have found that our Neandertal inheritance has contributed to other characteristics, too, including skin tone, hair color, sleep patterns, mood, and even a person's smoking status.


The researchers found that Neanderthal alleles were associated with both lighter and darker skin tones as well as the ability to tan in sunlight. This suggests that Neanderthals too varied in their skin tone and ability to tan just like non-African AMHs. We appear to have got this ability to adapt to variable amounts of sunlight from Neanderthals that might have taken 200,000 years to evolve it. Contrary to popular myth however, the team found no evidence of the genes for red hair in the Neanderthal genes.

Neanderthal alleles were also associated with mood changes, circadian rhythms. Change in skin tone, mood changes, circadian rhythms and sleep patterns are all linked to sunlight exposure so it seem probable that these genes were acquired from Neanderthals and have been retained by non-African AMHs because they conveyed and adaptive advantage in a northern climate.

'via Blog this'

Tracing Plant Evolution Back To Its Roots

Common liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha
Liverwort Genes and Land Plant Evolution - DOE Joint Genome Institute.

Today we have a lovely example of how the Theory of Evolution forms the foundation of biology, enabling biologists to make predictions and make sense of what we can see today in the diversity and similarities of organisms; in this case, plants.

Contrary to what creationist frauds would have their willing dupes believe, not only is there no sign that the Theory of Evolution is a 'theory in crisis' but there is every sign that it is never even seriously doubted. No-one tries to validate it these days; it is simply accepted as the very basis of biology as surely as atomic theory is the basis of chemistry.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Old Fossils and the Crocodiles of Old England

The Melksham Monster closely resembled the species shown in this artist's impression (Plesiosuchus manselii), which also belongs to the Geosaurini group.

Credit: Fabio Manucci
Fossil points to early rise of ancient crocodiles | The University of Edinburgh

In a vindication of the way science constantly re-examines and re-assesses itself in the light of new information, some of the most rewarding fossil hunting is now being done in museums.

The museums of the world contain millions of fossils, very often meticulously catalogued with details of when and where they were discovered, but filed away in draws and cupboards and almost as effectively hidden from general view, and often scientific view, as they originally were when buried in rocks awaiting discovery by some intrepid fossil hunter a century or more ago. At the time of their discovery they may well have been mere curiosities. With little information to go on, no-one would have been aware of their significance or where they fitted in the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

The jigsaw puzzle was then far too fragmentary to know where this particular piece fitted.

One such fossil was recently discovered in the archives of the Natural History Museum, London, where it had been since 1875. It had originally been discovered about 150 years ago at Melksham, Wiltshire, England, in a formation known as Oxford Clay. When examined in detail by a team from Edinburgh University, Scotland and the Natural History Museum, London, it was found to be that of the earliest known crocodylomorph of the Geosaurini lineage, putting the evolutionary origins of this group back millions of years before the 152-157 million years previously thought.

Was This The Hominin That Gave Us Genital Herpes?

Paranthropus boisei
The species responsible for human genital herpes?

Source: Wikipedia
Meet the hominin species that gave us genital herpes | University of Cambridge

One of the best pieces of evidence for common descent is the way the genetic relationships between our obligatory parasites and those of their related species, almost exactly maps onto the relationship between our genome and those of our own relatives. I have previously written about how the evolution of our lice can be mapped onto our own evolution and divergence from the other apes.

Another parasite which, if anything, is even more obligatory that lice is the herpes virus, and like our lice there is not a close but not perfect match with our evolution. All primates are host to two versions of the herpes simplex virus, HSV1 which in humans causes cold sores and HSV2 which causes genital herpes in humans. The latter is normally regarded as a sexually transmitted disease.

Whereas we can make a direct link between two of our lice - the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) and the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) - and the body lice of chimpanzees (Pediculus schaeffi), there is no such clear link with the pubic louse and an immediate ancestor. We can see how our body louse became our head louse when we lost our body hair and it had nowhere else to go and how it then diverged into two subspecies when we started wearing clothes to become our body louse as well. However, the closest relative of our pubic louse (Phthirus pubis) is the gorilla body louse (Phthirus gorillae)! Somewhere in our evolution, the gorilla louse jumped the species barrier, otherwise it, or as descendent, would be present on chimpanzees too. The degree of divergence is enough to show that this wasn't a recent event, but somewhere, after we diverged from the chimpanzees, one of our ancestors got close enough to a gorilla to catch pubic lice from it!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Swing A Chicken For Your Sins

Six Israeli activists wounded in protest against Yom Kippur chicken-swinging ritual | Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Ever since the Abrahamic religions invented the idea of sin, they've had to be even more inventive to provide cures for it.

For a Muslim, it's strict adherence to the rules, daily prayers, pilgrimage to Mecca and giving to charity. For a Catholic, it's confession, rituals and magic words as prescribed by the priest. For a Protestant, it's accepting Jesus and giving money to the church.

And for some ultra-conservative Jews, it's swinging a live chicken round your head the day before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The chicken is then killed and the meat given to charity.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Child Porn Priest Rescued by Vatican

Monsignor Carlo Capella
"Downloaded child pornography using a Canadian church online address".
Lawyer says Vatican diplomat wanted for child porn offences should be sent back to Canada - Windsor - CBC News

Just about everyone must now be aware of Pope Frankie's loudly proclaimed determination to reform the Catholic Church and put a stop to the multiple child abuse scandals that were costing it money and members. No longer are these habitual abuses, routine cover-ups and tacit approval of them to be tolerated, so the way the church dealt with the latest child abuse scandal should come as no surprise.

When the Vatican heard that yet another Catholic priest was under investigation by the Canadian Police for child pornography offences, it lost no time in dealing with the matter in the interests of all concerned.

Friday, 29 September 2017

DNA Shows Complex Human Evolution in Africa

Demographic model of African history and estimated divergences. Vertical colored lines represent migration, with down-pointing triangles representing admixture into another group. Southern African hunter-gatherers are shown by red symbols, and Iron Age farmers as green symbols. (For explanation see the original paper)
Modern humans may have been around for nearly twice as long - Uppsala University, Sweden

More evidence today of modern humans emerging gradually from archaic hominins in Africa.

This genetic and archaeological analysis by a team from Uppsala University, Sweden, and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, suggests, contrary to accepted wisdom, that modern humans may have diversified from archaic forms significantly earlier than generally believed and maybe not in a single location from a single founder species.

The suggestion is that anatomically modern humans could have gradually diversified in different African regions, then gene flow between the emerging groups produced the single, genetically diverse, species we now recognise as Homo sapiens.

This new study has been made possible by improved DNA extraction techniques which are revolutionising archaeology and evolutionary biology.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Women! For Pity's Sake Don't Drive!

Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving must remain because they ‘lack the intellect’ of men, says leading cleric | The Independent

Women should not be allowed to drive cars because, at the best of times, they have only half the intellect of men and, when they go shopping, this falls to only a quarter!

This comes on the authority of Saudi Arabian cleric and head of the Saudi government's religious edict authority in the southern province of Assir, Sheikh Saad al-Hajari.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

St Francis' Bread - Such Big Claims; So Little Evidence.

Statue of St Francis in his home town of Assisi

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On the Authenticity of a Relic: An Archaeometric Investigation of the Supposed Bread Sack of Saint Francesco of Assisi | Radiocarbon | Cambridge Core

To read the headlines, you might be tempted to believe a miracle has been prove true by scientists.

What's been proven, if anything, is just how little evidence is needed before the promoters of religious superstitions start to proclaim proof.

The mythical miracle this time is one I confess I had never heard of and about which the details, as with all the best of miracles, is sadly in very short supply. It is the 'miracle' of St Francis of Assisi's bread which, in 1224, so the story goes, a sack-full of which appeared on the doorstep of the Franciscan Friary of Folloni in southern Italy, so saving the brothers within from starvation, the friary being cut off by snow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Doing the 'Impossible': Recycling Old Genes

Humans and fish share about 70% of their protein-coding genes, but only about 0.5% of their regulatory long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs)
Genomic Recycling: Ancestral Genes Take On New Roles

And another sacred creationist dogma crashes and burns.

Imagine! You're a creationist fraud trying to make an even better living by taking yet more money off people who feel so important that they believe they must have a close personal relationship with the creator of the Universe! You're feeding them all sorts of sciencey-sounding stuff because, despite convincing them that science is all wrong, they still have a nagging doubt that it might not be, so, to be on the safe side, you want them to think that even if it is right occasionally, it supports their preconceived ideas and confirms that they know better than all those wacky scientists.

Declining Christianity in USA

America’s Changing Religious Identity:

A major new report published today by PRRI has revealed a continuing decline in religious affiliation with 'nones' now comprising 24% of the population.

There is now a marked generational shift in religious affiliation with 38% of the key 18-29 year-old age group identifying as 'nones' against just 12% for the 65+ age group. White Christians now comprise just 24% of the 18-29 year-olds against 63% of the 65+ age group.

The report also reveals the continuing decline in White Christians who fall below 50% for the first time in a PRRI survey, although other surveys have also reported a similar recent finding. This group, which in 1976 comprised 81% of all American adults, now accounts for just 43%.

Two other significant findings were the increasing ethnic transformation of American Catholicism which, 25 years ago was 87% White, compared to 55% today, and the increasing polarisation of American politics on religious grounds. 73% of Republicans are White Christians compared to just 29% of Democrats. A decade ago, 50% of Democrats were White Christian.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Religious Belief in UK Continues to Plummet!

British Social Attitudes: Record number of Brits with no religion.

The catastrophic (from the point of view of those who earn their living from it) decline in religious belief in the UK continues apace according to the authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey. 'No religion' has rockets by 5% in just one years, from 48% in 2015 to 53% in the latest (2016) survey.

More than half (53%) of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48% in 2015. The proportion of non-believers has increased gradually since the survey began in 1983, when the proportion saying they had no religion stood at 31%.

Church of England decline continues
The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard. Just 15% of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican, half the proportion who said this in 2000.

The proportion of non-believers has risen from just 31% in 1983 when the survey began.

One again the church of England has seen the biggest decline and has now fallen to 15%; half what it was in the year 2000. By contrast, the proportion of self-identified Catholics has remained stable at around 5%. Other religions account for a further 6%.

The fall in religious affiliation has been driven mostly by a decline in the proportion of 18-24 year-olds identifying with a religion, but there was a decline in all age groups between 2015 and 2016. 'No religion' in the 18-24 year-old age group increased to 71% from 63% in 2015; a stunning 8% rise in a year! In this group, Anglicans now comprise just 3%.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Frog Shocker!

Atlantic Coast leopard frog, Rana kauffeldi

Source: Wikipedia
New study contradicts assumption that true frogs diversified as they expanded their range around globe | The University of Kansas

One of the nice things about science is that, properly done, it can throw up some surprises, even overthrowing some preconceptions and axioms.

Science demands we constantly question and reassess our assumptions and preconceptions. It is not for those who prefer simple certainties over difficult truths.

For example, it is generally assumed that when a species colonises new geographic regions with new ecological niches, it will tend to adapt and radiate into several new species; that range extension itself is a major driver of speciation.

But this is not always so, it seems.

Papua New Guinea Missed The Flood?

Locations of people studied from Papua New Guinea. Each language group is represented by a circle; the area indicates the number of genotyped individuals, and the color indicates the top-level language phylum. The study found that people speaking different languages were strongly genetically distinct from each other.

Credit: Science doi: 10.1126/science.aan3842
A Neolithic expansion, but strong genetic structure, in the independent history of New Guinea | Science

It's just another of those pieces of information that creationists have to avoid, of course, but the people of Papua New Guinea have been isolated from the rest of the world for 50,000, and people in some mountain valleys have been isolated from their neighbours for 10-20,000 years!

So, if you subscribe to the Young Earth Creationist superstition, these people are much older than Earth, have been isolated since before Adam and Eve, and appear to have avoided the Biblical flood entirely.

Yes! It is a silly superstition, isn't it, yet some apparently otherwise normal adults believe it!

Anyway, back to reality.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Birds Sing To Avoid Confusion.

Cinnamon Becard (Pachyramphus cinnamomeus).

Credit: Matt Brady/Macaulay Library
Using song playback experiments to measure species recognition between geographically isolated populations: A comparison with acoustic trait analyses | The Auk

An interesting piece of research published yesterday shows how birds use song to recognise members of their own species, so avoiding hybridisation between closely related species, especially when there is little or no difference in appearance.

The researchers believe they have identified 21 new species of bird from Central and South America in the 72 related populations examined where different songs effectively produce isolated breeding populations.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Just Another Child Abuse Scandal.

Smyllum Park, Lanarkshire, as it appears today.
Hundreds of Scottish orphanage children allegedly buried in mass grave | UK news | The Guardian

Normally, when people talk about systematic, institutionalised child abuse, we think of priests and male teachers abusing vulnerable children in their care or over whom they have trusted authority. It speaks of the sheer volume of these cases that yet another exposure barely rate a mention in the news any more. It's as though we have come to expect men of the cloth to abuse their power for their own gratification.

But, despite the documented abuses in Ireland and Spain where it was nuns, sometimes with the connivance of priests, who were doing the abusing, it still comes as something of a shock when we hear of female clerics abusing children. Somehow it seems even sicker when a supposedly maternal female is looking at children as a source of amusement and sexual or sadistic gratification, yet these cases seem to have been no less prevalent in institutions where nuns were in similar positions of power over children as are the abusive priests.

Today, we have another shocking example.

Snake Evolution in Progress

Barred Grass Snake, Natrix helvitica

Photo: Wolfgang Böhme
Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species | Scientific Reports

Arguably the most attractive British snake of the three native species, and certainly the largest, is the grass snake.

Now it seems, according to a paper published in Scientific Reports a few days ago, it is the Western representative of what is an example of speciation in progress. It also illustrates the conflict between genetics and taxonomy.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Six Million Year-Old Cretan Footprint Problem - For Creationism!

Trachilos footprint

Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski (CC BY)

Six Million-Year-Old Human Footprint Discovered in Crete Raises Major Questions About Our Evolution

A neat illustration this week of how the popular media distort and misrepresent science in order to appeal to a wider audience and in doing so, feed and reinforce popular misconceptions.

First, we have MSN news announcing that six million year-old human footprints have been found in Crete. This then, of course, is presented as raising 'major questions' about our evolution. Creationists groups on Facebook and elsewhere are already full of claims that this proves science has got everything about evolution all wrong, either neglecting the six million years of explaining them away as proving science even gets the dating wrong.

The source of this story was the press release from Upsala University, Sweden, which announced the publication of a paper by a team based there. Unlike the MSN headline - "Fossil footprints challenge established theories of human evolution" - the headline on this press release was more muted (and of course more accurate). No mention of human footprints there, although there was an attempt to associate the discovery with current understanding of human evolution.

But what understanding was challenged, exactly?

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Collapsing Churches! It's Those Gays Again!

The dark symbolism of the ceiling collapsing in Malta’s oldest Catholic church.

When the roof fell in in the Ta’ Giezu church in Rabat, Malta, Claire Chretien, a devout Christian who writes for the LifeSite blog, knew exactly what had caused it.

It was same-sex marriage.

She wrote:

MALTA, August 25, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – In what could be considered symbolic of the state of the Catholic Church in Malta, or even most of Europe, the ceiling of the country's oldest Catholic church mysteriously collapsed this week.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Priest Blames God For His Kiddie Porn Collection

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta
Priest, paedophile, pornographer and gambling addict
A priest says he downloaded child porn to ‘get revenge on God’ for his poker losses | Miami Herald

A former Catholic priest has come up with a novel excuse for downloading and distributing child pornography. According to a report in the Scranton Times Tribune, he told a Wayne County court that he did it to get revenge on God because of his gambling addiction!

The Rev. Kevin A. Gugliotta, 55, a resident of Mahwah, New Jersey and a priest at the Holy Spirit Church in Union, New Jersey, was arrested in September 2016 and charged with 20 counts of downloading child pornography and 20 counts of disseminating images of children involved in sexual acts. He plea-bargained this down to one admitted case of disseminating child pornography in return for the other 39 charges being dismissed.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Filling The Gaps - How Viruses Might Have Evolved


Virus particles

Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/SPL/Getty
Antarctic mystery microbe could tell us where viruses came from | New Scientist

A recent discovery in Antarctica could shed some light on the origin of viruses.

Ricardo Cavicchioli of the University of New South Wales in Australia and his colleagues found a microorganism, an archaean, Halorubrum lacusprofundi R1S1, in lakes on the Rauer Islands, Antarctica. That's not unusual in itself; new organisms are discovered daily. What was slightly unusual with this particular one is that it contains an independent plasmid that the team have names "pR1SE". Plasmids are small fragments of DNA, often circular, that are self-replicating and often carry a gene that is beneficial to the organism. Bacterial antibiotic resistance is often carried on a plasmid and, as such, can be transferred to other bacteria.

More Malevolence From the Nasty Designer?

Leprosy turns the immune system against itself, study finds | University of Cambridge

It must be difficult being a dedicated creationist. You need to believe so many diametrically opposed views simultaneously.

This paper presents an almost perfect example because a dedicated creationist must hold at least two such views simultaneously. They need to hold to the view that this bacterium was intelligently designed to circumvent the human immune system (that the same designer had designed to protect us and then had apparently regarded that as a problem to be solved!) and to the view that something capable of this degree of mendacious malevolence is an omni-benevolent, maximally good god.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Tiger Snakes Won the Venom Wars

Australian Eastern tiger snake

Source: Wikipedia
Why tiger snakes are on a winner - UQ News - The University of Queensland, Australia.

Venomous snakes make interesting subjects for study in that they represent an example of a complex evolutionary arms race which can be traced in their venom. This is often a complex mixture of related but subtly different chemicals, often coded for by genes which are themselves subtly different versions of one another.

The arms race is due to snakes usually preying on a range of prey species, each of which has selection pressure to evolve resistance to the snakes venom. But, if the snake merely responded to one prey's resistance by changing it's venom, this might be less effective against another of its prey species, so there is evolutionary pressure on the snake to retain it's 'older' venom but supplement it with a newer version as well. This occurs by gene duplication, then mutation of the 'spare' copy.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Seriously Christians? Really?!

Joshua 'stopping the sun'.
There are actually adults who believe the sun can stand still and performs strange manoeuvres in the sky!

Not just that but they believe these could be visible only in a small village or town, and non-one else on Earth would see them!

Seriously! There are actual grown ups who believe the following:

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel. And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, unto the camp to Gilgal. But these five kings fled, and hid themselves in a cave at Makkedah.

Joshua 10:12-17

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Retracing the First Americans' Footsteps

Postglacial viability and colonization in North America’s ice-free corridor | Nature

One of the enduring mysteries of the story of the human migration into North America is the exact route taken and the timing of the migration(s). There is now no real doubt that North America was populated first with a subsequent rapid spread into Central and South America, and that the people came from Siberia via the Beringia; the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, the remnants of which are the Aleutian Islands.

Looking south through what was once the “ice-free corridor” in present-day Canada. A new study suggests that humans couldn’t have traversed through the corridor until about 12,600 years ago - too late to have been the route taken by the first inhabitants of North America.

Credit: Mikkel Winther Pedersen

Now the relatively new techniques for recovering and analysing environmental DNA (eDNA) is helping to fill in these gaps.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Dinosaur Extinction? It Was Them Gays Who Caused It!


Anthony Othman, paleontologist,
Curator at the Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky
‘Homosexuality Led to Extinction of Dinosaurs’, Claims Top Scientist – World News Daily Report

[Update] This turned out to be a satirical item.

The fundamentalist Christian unhealthy obsession with homosexuality took a slightly unusual turn a few days ago.

Instead of blaming the latest earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, terrorist attack, influenza outbreak or forest fire on homosexuality, the curator of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, palaeontologist, Anthony Othman has a new theory; dinosaur extinction was caused by homosexuals!

No! Really! Read on.

Just Another (Not) Missing Link!

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, from the Late Jurassic period.

Artist's impression. Photograph: Gabriel L O/AFP/Getty Images
Chilesaurus and Ornithischia | Biology Letters

One of the mysteries of dinosaur evolution has been explained. It's another of those 'missing' links! It's a transitional species between two major groups of dinosaur - the herbivorous species like stegosaurus and the carnivores like T. rex.

Publishing in Biology Letter Matthew G. Baron of the Department of Earth Science, Cambridge University, UK and Paul M. Barrett of the Natural History Museum, have shown that a dinosaur from the Late Jurassic, found in Chile, formerly believed to be a theropod dinosaur turned vegetarian, is actually the stem species that was the progenitor of two quite different groups - the saurischians and the ornithischians.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Creationism In Crisis. A Notion With No Practical Use

Scientists Map Sex Chromosome Evolution in Fungi | Duke Today

Chemical profile of ants adapts quickly to selection pressure

I won't call creationism a theory in crisis because that would be giving it a scientific standing far about what it deserves. It's a notion; a guess with no supporting evidence; an idea with no practical application other than making a few deeply ignorant people feel important enough.

A point I've made several time recently, but which I'll repeat again for those who may have missed it, science, especially biological, geological, archaeological and cosmological science, daily and routinely refutes creationism without the slightest effort or intent simply by reporting the facts.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Just Another of Those Mythical 'Missing Links'

Alesi, the skull of the new extinct ape species Nyanzapithecus alesi (KNM-NP 59050).

Photo © Fred Spoor
The Leakey Foundation | New 13 million-year-old infant skull sheds light on ape ancestry

It's another bad week for creationism. Is there ever a good week?

Close on the report of the earliest known primate fossil we now have the remarkably complete skull of an infant who lived 13 million years ago in what is now Kenya, and which is close to the common ancestor of the hominids and the other African apes. It gives us a fairly good idea of what the last common ancestor would have looked like.

The skull was found by fossil hunter John Ekusi in 13 million year-old rock layers in the Napudet area, west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya; a formation that is easy to date reliably because of the activity of a nearby volcano. The skull, along with forest trees, was buried by volcanic ash, showing that they were buried during the same catastrophic event.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Evolution! Now a Theory With Teeth!

Chupkaornis keraorum.
Credit: Masato Hattori
Amateur collectors in Japan discover country's first and oldest fossil diving bird -- ScienceDaily

As a keen fossil hunter in my early days, I dreamed of finding something more than the usual marine shells - the muscles, oysters, bivalves and marine snails that are common in North Oxfordshire limestone deposits - so I can imagine how two Japanese fossil-hunting brothers, Masatoshi and Yasuji Kera, on the island of Hokkaido must have felt when they found nine skeletal elements of what turned out to be the oldest early Asian diving bird.

Fossils of these birds are relatively common in the Northern Hemisphere, but this is the first to be found in Asia and the first from the easterm margin of the Eurasian continent.

Another Intermediate Gap-Filling Fossil!

3-D images of Archicebus achilles.

Image credit: ESRF/P. Tafforeau. Source: ESRF News.
The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution : Nature : Nature Research

I'm thinking of starting another blog called Filling The Gaps. There are just too many examples of these 'missing' fossils to include in this one without it coming to resemble a blog devoted to nothing else.

These examples of things creationists insist are missing being found and described by science are almost a daily occurrence from the field of biology alone. If science was bothered about creationism and scientists felt they still needed to prove evolution and disprove creationism there would probably be several scientific journals called something like the Journal of Creation Falsification or Journal of Evolution, but of course it isn't needed because science has no such need.

There is a reason creationism is absolutely obsessed with falsifying and misrepresenting science and presenting science as some sort of vast conspiracy theory or based on false assumptions and therefore invalid - unless it can be made to appears to support creationism, then it's conclusive and irrefutable, of course.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Winning The Mammoth War.

On the Menu: Mammoth and Plenty of Raw Vegetables - Early modern humans consumed more plants than Neanderthals but ate very little fish

How fast science progresses!

Not long ago we weren't even sure how and where Neanderthals fitted in the human family tree. Were they ancestors of modern Europeans? Were they just a regional variant; a subspecies; a different species entirely? Did they or could they interbreed with modern humans?

Now most of those questions have been answered with some degree of confidence, and not a few surprises, thanks to DNA analysis, and we're just left with questions about how, why and exactly when anatomically modern humans replaced Neanderthals across western Eurasia.

Was it our superior technology? Hardly. We both used stone tools and hunted with spears. Was it our higher intelligence? Our brains are actually smaller but maybe organised differently, so maybe we could learn and adapt more quickly? Was it a better social organisation? Neanderthals seem to have lived in small, relatively isolated family groups in which incestuous breeding was common if not normal. Did this lead to genetic weaknesses accumulating? Did it mean hunting large game was more difficult with fewer numbers?

Saturday, 5 August 2017

100 Million Year-Old Flower

The ancestral flower was bisexual with multiple whorls (concentric cycles) of petal-like organs, in sets of threes.

Copyright: Hervé Sauquet/Jürg Schönenberger.
What flowers looked like 100 million years ago.

Flowering plants are by far the most diverse group of plants comprising so 300,000 different species. They were, however, late on the scene in evolutionary terms, only evolving some 140 million years ago.

This puts their evolution towards the end of the age of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous, when the ancestors of mammals were still mammaliform synapsids. The evolution of the first flowering plants is one of those enduring mysteries for evolution to explains, Darwin himself referring to it as "an abominable mystery".

Now an new study coordinated by Juerg Schoenenberger from the University of Vienna and Hervé Sauquet of the Université Paris-Sud has shed more than a little light on what the first flowers looked like. The same study has also reconstructed what flowers at the key divergence point looked like.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Just Another Example of the 'Impossible' Happening

An illustration shows nanocrystals assembling into an ordered ‘superlattice’ – a process that a SLAC/Stanford team was able to observe in real time with X-rays from the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL).

Illustration: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Scientists Watch ‘Artificial Atoms’ Assemble into Perfect Lattices with Many Uses.

One of the major problems that creationism suffers from is that so many of its claims are demonstrably untrue and can be seen to be untrue.

The leading frauds are acutely aware of that problem so have a work-around for it. They tell their followers that if the evidence tells them their beliefs are wrong, the evidence must be wrong because their beliefs can't be. Then they witter on about 'evidence' and try to mislead people about it as though it does matter after all. They must be the only people who call themselves scientists but argue you should ignore evidence unless you can persuade yourself it agrees with you.

Here, for example, is an example of scientists watching something happen that creationists insist doesn't happen. They watched order (and a high degree of order) emerge out of chaos.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Unintelligent Design - Silly Goose!

I took this photo today, in a park in Oxford. It shows why intelligent design is a stupid idea.

The white goose is almost certainly a hybrid between an Egyptian goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca, and a feral domestic goose. Domestic white gees in Britain are mostly a variety of greylag goose, Anser anser domesticus, so this strange looking goose is a probably a hybrid between the Egyptian and the greylag goose. The give-away is the strange-looking eyes that look spectacled from a distance, the pale brown wing feathers - not obvious in this photo (this one wasn't completely white) - and the long, pink legs.

It is highly unlikely that this was simply a leucistic Egyptian goose. It was also on it's own, not with the typical small group that Egyptian geese are normally seen in. Egyptian geese are believed to be related to the shelduck and so come somewhere between the ducks and geese. They were introduced as an ornamental bird into the UK and have become established in Norfolk, the only place I have seen them before. They have since spread to the Thames Valley (my son has seen them on the Thames).

Incidentally, the other geese in this photograph are Canada geese, an introduced species that has become widespread and which also interbreeds with 'local' geese.

But why does this show how intelligent design is a stupid idea?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Tardigrades Give Up Their Secrets

Comparative genomics of the tardigrades Hypsibius dujardini and Ramazzottius varieornatus | PLOS Biology

There is something appealing about a tardigrade! There is a certain air of mystery about them - like, for instance, what on Earth are they?

They are justly famous for their ability to withstand just about any extreme environmental conditions other than extreme heat. They are just a few millimetres long and can withstand years of dehydration, being blown about in dust; they can withstand years of freezing. They can even go into space and withstand ionising radiation. They will live in your guttering through a long, hot dry summer, apparently lifeless, and within a few minutes of it raining, will be crawling about happily as though nothing has happened.

Until this study we weren't even sure where they fitted in with the rest of the animal kingdom. Were they primitive or degenerate arthropods; were they nematode worms with legs or some other distinct multicellular organism on a branch of their own? Well, actually, they are related to both nematodes and arthropods, distantly. The question was which are they closest to? The study doesn't settle the matter but it sheds a lot more light on the subject.

Friday, 28 July 2017

DNA Study Shows Bible is Fiction

Researchers sequenced whole genomes from five Canaanites skeletons found in Sidon, Lebanon.
Photo Credit: Ali Hashisho/Reuters/Newscom
Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites | Science | AAAS

We've known for a long time that the supposed 'history' in the Old Testament is mostly, if not completely, fiction, and I'm not just talking about the frankly ludicrous creation myths in the opening chapters.

As Silberman and Finkelstein showed in The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, not only did the events described in Exodus never happen but nor did the destruction of the cities and the Canaanite genocide. Indeed, the Bible contains evidence of its own inaccuracy, being clearly written by people who did not know the history of the times in which they set their tales. Briefly, and by no means exhaustively:

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Good Old Biblical Slavery - In The USA Today!

The Word of Faith Fellowship church in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil.
(AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
They kept us as slaves: AP reveals claims against church

The North Caroline megachurch, Word of Faith Fellowship, can't be accused of not being a traditional Christian fundamentalist church.

The sect, founded by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband Sam, uses slaves taken from Brazil to work for the church and in the businesses owned by it's senior ministers. These slaves are trafficked from Brazil, as a Associated Press investigation has revealed. They are attracted to the USA by a branch of the World of Faith cult in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil and enter the USA on tourists and student visas.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Research Spits On Creationism!


In saliva, scientists have found hints that a “ghost” species of archaic human may have contributed genetic material to ancestors of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa today.

Image credit: Bob Wilder/University at Buffalo.
Archaic hominin introgression in Africa contributes to functional salivary MUC7 genetic variation | Molecular Biology and Evolution | Oxford Academic.

As an example of how divorced religion is from reality, these examples of archaic hominids interbreeding with other hominid species take some beating.

The Abrahamic superstitions require people to believe in a single founder couple from whom everyone alive is directly descended and from whom we have inherited some notional 'original sin' for which we need to constantly atone and beg for forgiveness.

The reality of course is that not only was there never such a single founder human couple but there was not even a single founder human species. The reality is that we are hybrids of three or more species who occasionally interchanged genes and that for a large part of our recent evolutionary history we behaved like an incompletely speciated 'ring species' as an example of evolution in progress.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

'Loving' Christians Trade Insults Over Reforms

General Synod of the CofE, York.
Photo credit: Reuters

Leading evangelical condemns CofE General Synod: 'God's word was mocked openly' | Christian News on Christian Today.

A failing group will normally turn inwards, degenerating further into mutually recriminating factions. This is no less true of the 'loving' Anglicans currently showing brotherly and sisterly love by trading insults over the latest attempt to reform their cult to try to halt the haemorrhage of members.

The vitriol also illustrates the problems faced by a dogma-driven cult as it tries to reform to attract back the former members to whom it has become increasingly irrelevant and who have left in disgust at its abuse of minorities. The decreasing number of moderates comes up against an increasingly large proportion of vocal extremists trying to retain their traditional dogmas.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Persecution and Martyrdom Special!




Is Christianity in crisis? Our survey reveals 9 out of 10 ordinary Christians feel marginalised

As Christianity continues to dwindle into a minority cult in the UK, and as more and more of its privileges are lost, so the whining about persecution, coupled with that old craving for martyrdom gets louder.

This collective whine was revealed in the results of a survey by Premier published last Sunday. The full survey is freely available as a pdf file here but be warned, you'll need to give your name and email address before you can access it.

The reality is of course that Christians in the UK enjoy precisely the same legal rights as anyone else regardless of their faith or lack of it. Rights and privileges are not granted on the basis of membership of a particular church or faith group in the UK anymore; they are granted on the basis of a shared humanity. There are not Christian rights, Atheist rights, Jewish rights or Muslim rights; there are only human rights.

But this survey shows that isn't enough for Christians. Christians feel persecuted if they're not granted the privileges to which they feel entitled. They are not granted the right to state mythology and prejudice as facts and not have them challenged. They're not granted the right to publicly condemn, abuse and persecute others for not sharing their chosen life-style. They're not granted the privilege to 'share' their superstition in the workplace and be quietly and respectfully listened to as they spout their bigotry and tell others that they're morally inferior and will be condemned to Hell.

Religions in the workplace do nothing but spread division, disharmony and isolation. The law requires employers to provide a healthy and safe working environment in which the Human Rights of all employees and visitors are safeguarded. No faith group is entitled to a special dispensation to pretend to occupy some notional moral high-ground with sanctimonious posturing and condemning others as morally inferior. Using what is in effect a captive audience to preach to is an abuse.

Typical of the judgemental sanctimony of the Christian church was the reaction of the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford:

[B]elievers should not be surprised or downhearted when the sheer beauty of the Gospel is a shock and an affront to a fallen world. The world has never been in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we've always had the challenge that we need to live it and share it.

I have a book and it entitles me to tell other, lesser, mortals how to live! Ironically, this is exactly the sort of hypocritical judgmentalism that drives people away from a church that spouts this while covering up and facilitating clerical abuse of children, while wining about being treated the way it would like to treat others.

Christians are still vastly over-represented in positions of power in the UK in comparison to their dwindling numbers. No other religion has its titular head as head of state; no other religion has its leading clerics entitles to a seat in the upper chamber of our legislature and no other religion has its senior clerics appointed by the head of government on behalf of the head of state. Culturally we are still expected to defer to the moral authority of someone because he or she has an imaginary friend and dresses in robes and a silly hat.

If Christians feel marginalised then they only have themselves to blame. It's by and large their holier-than-thou judgemental sanctimony and hypocrisy that has driven so many people away from the church. The struggle to emancipate women into the priesthood and their continuing difficulty with accepting members of the LGBT community as entitled to the full range of Human Rights has rightly marginalised the Christian church in UK society. They have done this, not anyone else. The attitude of Christian bigots towards minorities has itself made them a minority now whining wrongly that they are being treated the way tho openly treated minorities themselves.
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