Wednesday 31 August 2016

Devilishly Rapid Evolution!

Rapid evolutionary response to a transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils : Nature Communications : Nature Research

Readers may remember a post from last December about the sad decline of Tasmanian devils due to a highly contagious and almost invariaby fatal facial cancer that was devastating their already low numbers. Now, however there is some slightly better news - the devils are rapidly evolving under this intense selection pressure to become resistant to this cancer.

Evolution Planting Life on Land

A 410-million-year-old soil shows extensive rhizome traces of Drepanophycus, an early vascular plant related to modern club mosses.

Photo credit: Jinzhuang Xue, Peking University
Belowground rhizomes in paleosols: The hidden half of an Early Devonian vascular plant

Evolution and ecology are one and the same really because ecology is all about how species adapt and interrelate to form a complete system of interdependent organisms. Without evolution none of the interdependent organism could fit into their particular niche and compete with other organisms for resources. So, evolution created ecosystems and ecosystems drive evolution.

But in the early days of life on Earth, before life emerged from the oceans where it had first evolved and diversified, there was no ecosystem as such on land, so how did the first emerging life manage to eke out an existence and what reason did it have to go there in the first place?

Now scientists believe they may have found how an early plant, related to the club mosses, may have created its own ecosystem by interaction between its rhizomes and silt-laden floods. Rhizomes are

A Transitional Pterodactyl!

Cranial endocast and comparison of brain anatomy in pterosaurs.
(A, B), Volume-rendered CT-based reconstruction of the braincase of the holotype of Allkaruen koi, in dorsal (A) and left lateral (B) views (the bone is rendered semitransparent to show the cranial endocast and the inner ear). (C–H), schematic drawings of brain anatomy in Rhamphorhynchus (C, F), Allkaruen (D, G), and Anhanguera (E, H) in dorsal (C–E) and lateral (F–H) views. Colors (C–H) indicate equivalent brain regions (blue, cerebrum; green, optic lobe; yellow, cerebellum; red, floccular process of cerebellum; pink, semicircular canals). The horizontal black line shows the relationship between the dorsal expansion of the anterior semicircular canal and the forebrain. Abbreviations: asc, anterior semicircular canal; cer, cerebral hemisphere; de, dorsal expansion; f, frontal; floc, floccular process of cerebellum; lab, labyrinth of inner ear; lsc, lateral semicircular canal; lag, lagena; ob, olfactory bulb; oc, occipital condyle; ol, optic lobe; pbt, basipterygoid process; pit, pituitary body; psc, posterior semicircular canal; sc, sagittal crest. Roman numerals indicate cranial nerves. Brain anatomy of Rhamphorhynchus and Anhanguera modified from Witmer et al. (2003). Scale bars are 10 mm.
A Jurassic pterosaur from Patagonia and the origin of the pterodactyloid neurocranium [PeerJ]

It's always rewarding to watch creationists try to cope with something they claim shouldn't be there when it quite clearly is there and can be seen to be there. One thing they can't do however is admit reality because reality is the one thing that undermines their evidence-free and reality-denying dogma.

There shouldn't be any transitional fossils because transitional fossils show evolution so, so the 'reasoning' seems to go, all those transitional fossils can't be there because evolution doesn't happen. So, this latest discovery of a transitional fossil between two different orders of aerial reptile will need to be explained away somehow.

News of the discovery was published in a press release by the online journal PeerJ:

Scientists today announced the discovery of a new species of pterosaur from the Patagonia region of South America. The cranial remains were in an excellent state of preservation and belonged to a new species of pterosaur from the Early Jurassic. The researchers have named this new species ‘ Allkauren koi’ from the native Tehuelche word ‘all’ for ‘brain’, and ‘karuen’ for ‘ancient’.

Monday 29 August 2016

"Lucy's" Fall Reconstructed

Lucy's fall
Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree | Nature.

About 3 million years ago a creature midway between a chimpanzee-like ape and a human being fell out of a tree and died of her injuries.

This creature was the best known of some 300 specimens of a species now known to science as Australopithecus afarensis, a species which is one of the candidates for being the direct ancestor of the Homo genus. She is known to the worlds as 'Lucy'.

Saturday 27 August 2016

Americans Leaving Religion Because of Science

Why some Americans left religion behind | Pew Research Center

New figures released by the Pew Research Center have revealed something interesting going on in the American religious profile and they make dismal reading for those trying to cling to the belief that religion shows little real sign of a major decline in the USA comparable to that in Europe and elsewhere.

They suggest the traditional American attachment to religion, which has made America such an outlier in the general distribution of religious belief and how it has changed over time, may be waning and even on the point of a major shift. It appears to be heading in the same direction that has seen a massive rejection of religion in the rest of the developed world.

Friday 19 August 2016

Kamikaze Confirmation

Kamikaze (divine wind), Issho Yada
How a typhoon sank Kublai Khan | Science | The Guardian:

Why do so many Americans believe in the Judeo-Christian god compared to most Western European countries?

Although religious affiliation and belief in any god are both falling in the USA according to recent research, America still lags about a generation behind Western Europe in its rejection of religion. Percentage figures of 80% plus for belief in god and in the upper 60s for the importance of religion in their lives are typically returned for US surveys while the equivalent in UK, France, Holland and even formerly staunchly Catholic Ireland and Spain are typically under 50% and 30% respectively.

Thursday 18 August 2016

God Hates Pastor Tony Perkins!

Pastor Tony Perkins. Christian hatemonger.
US pastor, who believes floods are God's punishment, flees flooded home - BBC Newsbeat

Now, I don't believe in all that karma nonsense and I know it's unkind to laugh at a fellow human being's misfortune, but there is a certain delicious poetry about this story.

Pastor Tony Perkins is well known for trying to make gays and women who have had abortions feel uncomfortable with his hate speeches using his religion as an excuse. In 2015 he agreed with extreme Messianic Jewish pastor Jonathan Cahn who told him that Hurricane Joaquin, which devastated Hawaii last year, was a "sign of God's wrath". He is President of the controversial Christian group 'Family Research Council'. Never one to be deterred by mere facts when in need of a good smear, he also preaches that paedophiles are homosexuals (or is it that homesexuals are paedophiles?)

The Pattern-Recognising Ape

Mt Susitna. Looking west across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, Alaska, USA.
Photo: Bob Jones
If humans are good at anything we are good at recognising things.

In fact we are so good at it that we see lots of things that aren't really there. Take a good look at this picture. What do you see, other than a very beautiful vista of a low mountain range seen over water. It is a view of Mt Susitna seen from Anchorage, Alaska, USA but it is supposed to look like a familiar object from which it gets it's popular name.

Can you see it? Don't cheat but have a good go. What do you see when you look at that scene - other than the obvious?

Sunday 14 August 2016

Anti-Atheists Tend To Have Low IQ!

Psychologists find correlation between low IQ and anti-Atheist prejudice.
Answering Unresolved Questions About the Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Prejudice.

Americans who are prejudiced against Atheists tend to have a lower than average IQ, according to research published in the Journal of Social Psychology and Personal Science a couple of weeks ago.

The research was conducted on a representative sample of 5,914 Americans by Mark J. Brandt, Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University, Tilburg, Netherland and Jarret T. Crawford of The College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ, USA. The paper sits behind a paywall but according to a press release by the Society for Personal and Social Psychology:

Blame The Victim - Girl Killed By (Lack Of) Faith!

Woman Dies after Prophet Puts Heavy Speaker on Her Body to Demonstrate a Miracle

In a neat demonstration of a fundamental Christian principle, allegedly taught personally by Jesus to his followers, a South African Christian 'prophet' killed one of his congregation - a young girl - because she didn't have enough faith.

Or that was his excuse anyway - an excuse provided by Jesus no less. The principle being demonstrated was the one Christians often cite, claiming that with enough faith you can move mountains, even though a mountain has never been seen to be moved by faith alone.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Rotten Tomatoes For Creationists

Virus Infection of Plants Alters Pollinator Preference: A Payback for Susceptible Hosts? | PLOS Pathogens

If you're a virus using and inevitably damaging your host in order to get yourself replicated you have a few problems to overcome.

First, there is the problem that damaging your host makes it less likely that it'll breed as successfully as non-infected hosts. Secondly, your host's genome will be at an advantage if it develops genes which make it resistant to you. So, you'll inevitably find yourself in a wasteful evolutionary arms race unless you can find a way round these two problems.

Friday 12 August 2016

The Silly Miracle of Santiago de Compostela

The real miracle of miracles is that anyone ever believes them. By definition a miracle is something which allegedly happened but for which there can be no scientific explanation. The problem with that definition is that it is self-defeating. If there can be no scientific explanation there can be no scientific evidence for it.

An almost identical problem exists for very many Christian saints, all of whom are claimed to have performed miracles either before or after death. Most of them also contrived to die in miraculous ways, often in ways which provided a plentiful supply of body parts with which to consecrate future cathedrals and to channel the prayers of the faith to God, Jesus or Mary via the saint's Heavenly remains.

In many cases however, the miracle of saints is that people believe such unlikely tales in the first place, but this was never a problem for the Medieval Christian church because truth could be determined by fiat and what the church said had the sanction of God so became unquestionable truth. The legend behind Santiago (early Spanish form of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus (James)) and the pilgrim routes to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, simply beggars belief. There is not a single shred of evidence that any of it is true; not a single document, eyewitness testimony, inscription or written reference or even allusion to it in any contemporaneous record. The legend only appears to have emerged in about 800 CE.

Environment, Elms and Evolution

Dead or dying English elm sapling.
Go into the English countryside right now and you could see a major ecological change occurring. I saw this example on a walk earlier today with my grandson. This change started in about 1976 or 1977 and is continuing still.

What you will see in most hedgerows at least in Southern England will be the sad sight of English elm saplings succumbing to Dutch elm disease and quickly turning their leaves brown and dying. Around them you will very likely see what look like perfectly healthy smaller elm sapling.

When Dutch elm disease first struck in the mid 1970 it altered the English landscape as massive elms that had stood for a century or more along the side of our country lanes and whole woods of elms quickly turned brown and died in August. It looked in places like Autumn had come a full two months early. Many feared that the elm was doomed and frantic efforts were made to conserve a few trees by annual 'injections' of fungicide to kill off the culprits (there are three related ascomycete microfungi which cause the disease).

But the English elm didn't die out completely. Instead it became a hedgerow plant as young saplings sprang up from the roots of the old dead trees. Spreading by root suckers rather than seed is a characteristic of the English Elm. But to understand why they didn't also die off it's necessary to understand the way Dutch elm disease is spread. It doesn't spread by wind-blown spores like many other fungi but depends entirely on being spread by the elm bark beetle. This beetle lays its eggs underneath the bark of the elm by depositing them via an ovipositor into the layer immediately beneath the bark, transferring the fungal spores beneath the bark as it does so.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Religion Poisons Even Love!

Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Sex is good. Sex feels good. Sex is fun and makes us feel happy. Sex is a primary instinct and sex is fulfilling and rewarding. Sex is two people enjoying one another in the closest and most intimate way possible. Sex is euphoric! There is nothing wrong with consensual sex between willing adults!

And yet the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach that sex is sinful unless in very precisely detailed and controlled conditions, otherwise it is a source of guilt and shame and feelings of self-loathing and hate.

As I say in my book, Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It:

Piltdown Revisited

Piltdown Man: British archaeology's greatest hoax | Robin McKie | Science | The Guardian

The Piltdown Hoax, contrary to creationist claims, is not an embarrassment for science but a vindication of the scientific method. It shows us how even if human weakness and vanity intrude into science, or even if the evidence is viewed through the distorting lens of cultural assumptions, the scientific method eventually weeds them out.

The process of reexamination - of allowing doubt and uncertainty to drive reassessment - and above all to be prepared to admit it when previous beliefs and accepted wisdom begin to look out of kilter with more recent discoveries, it what makes this weeding-out process an integral par of the scientific method. And of course the original perpetrators of hoaxes and falsification of data eventually die, so future generations have no vested interest in maintaining the deception and everything to gain from exposing it.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Theory In Crisis? What Crisis?

Evolutionary Ecology of Organs: A Missing Link in Cancer Development? | Trends in Cancer.

Creationists frauds continually feed their dupes with the absurd notion that somehow the Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis and is about to be abandoned by science and replaced by the absurd notion that it was all magicked by a magic man in the sky.

What is even more astonishing than their flagrant disregard for the self-evident fact that the TOE remains the fundamental theory underpinning all biological science is that their dupes readily convince themselves that for the first time in history an established scientific theory is going to be abandoned and replaced by a Bronze Age myth with not a single shred of evidence. No other scientific theory has ever been abandoned and replaced by 'Goddidit'.

Crows Intelligently Refute Genesis

Tool bending in New Caledonian crows | Open Science

More evidence today that humans are not the only species with the intelligence and cognitive abilities to make and use tools.

We now know that several other species have the cognitive ability to make tools and at least one, the Caledonian Crow, goes one step further and not only makes simple modifications like stripping leaves from a twig but actually shapes the tool precisely, designing a tool fit for purpose.

We have known since 2002 that captive Caledonian crows such as the famous 'Betty' will bend wire into a hook to retrieve food. Wire is of course not a natural substance yet these crows appear to understand not only the shape and dimensions of the hook they need, but they also understand the tensile and maleability qualities of the wire they use. Because they were captive crows however it was always a possibility that there had been an element of training involved, even inadvertently.

Monday 8 August 2016

Punishment For Abusive Priests - Catholic Style

Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Guam
"On Leave"
Priest Says He Was Told to Say Prayers for Abusing Boys

Life can be so hard for a humble Catholic priest! You wonder sometimes how they manage to put up with it.

Take for example Rev. Louis Brouillard. Brouillard served in Guam from the 1940s through the 1970s, teaching at San Vicente and Father Duenas Memorial schools. He is now 95 and lives quietly on his church pension in Pine City, Minnesota, USA.

While in Guam he molested somewhere between two and twenty boys - he could not remember the exact number. Nor could he remember Leo B. Tudela, now aged 73, who gave an emotional testimony to the Guam Legislature appealing for it to raise the statute of limitations from the current two years for those who have sexally abused minors, so that a case can be brought against the former Archbishop of Guam, Anthony S. Apuron, under whose jurisdiction the abuses took place.

Why Science Works - And Religion Doesn't

The news from CERN that I wrote about yesterday reminded me for some reason about a blog post from a few years ago that neatly illustrates the fundamental difference between the way good science is done and the way 'good' religious apologetics is done.

The news from CERN was, of course, the news that scientists there had called a press conference to announce that what they thought was tentative evidence of a new, unexpected and unexplained fundamental particle was actually nothing of the sort. It was almost certainly a statistical anomaly as shown by the fact that they had been unable to replicate it.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Why Science Works - LHC Blip Vanishes

Blip flop as tantalising bump in Large Hadron Collider data disappears | Science | The Guardian

These little news items about science getting something wrong, or changing it's collective mind, seem to excite creationists inordinately, appealing as creationism does to the ignorant and scientifically illiterate in society.

But of course, this is exactly what science is all about. It is all about honestly assessing and reassessing the evidence; about checking and rechecking and above all being prepared to change its collective mind when the evidence changes.

The Great Flood Happened - In China

Evidence of the exceptional outburst flood in the upper valley of the Yellow River.
(A) Distributions of OFS, DLS, and landslide dam. Light purple and dark green shaded areas indicate purple-brown mudrock and greenschist, respectively. Line AB across the Lajia site shows the location of the reconstructed cross section in fig. S6C.
(B) The vertical distribution of the OFS, landslide dam, DLS, Lajia site and reconstructed lake levels relative to the longitudinal profile of the present Yellow River.
DLS are classified into lacustrine sediments (LS) and fan delta deposits (FD).
Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty - Science

One of the many problems faced by Bible literalists is the singular lack of evidence for any of it, especially the much-cherished early creation myths found in Genesis. This means that those who try to cling at all costs to this primitive superstition have to perform all manner of frankly idiotic mental gymnastics to either explain away the lack of evidence or try to force-fit other geological evidence into their mythology.

One traditional attempt is to claim that many/most/all other cultures have a flood myth in their history. No matter how little these, where there are in fact any, match the biblical flood myth, they will always be waved around as proof of the historical accuracy of the Bible, as though not actually equating to the biblical myth in time, location, scope or detail actually mattered. There is the story of a flood at some point, therefore this is the biblical flood - case closed!

Saturday 6 August 2016

Watching Evolution in Florida!

Study spots evolution in action in Florida bird | Science | AAAS

It's become something of an online ritual; almost a religious rite. Creationists come bursting into a debate group and announce confidently that evolution has never been observed and then they get given several examples of observed instances of evolution. Then they declare that that wasn't evolution and insist evolution is something unrecognisable as the scientific theory of evolution or the observable phenomenon the theory seeks to explain.

It's the equivalent ofsomeone posing as an expert on geometry and claiming there is no such thing as a circle, then, when shown a circle, declaring that a real circle should have a circumference to radius ratio of exactly 3 because the Bible says so.

Intelligently Evolving Elephants

Genetic connectivity across marginal habitats: the elephants of the Namib Desert - Ecology and Evolution.

The importance of intelligent, memetic evolution, as opposed to genetic evolution, is being increasingly recognised especially in sentient species. Groups of sentient animals can appear to be a different species based on lifestyle, habitat, social organisation, etc and yet be genetically almost indistinguishable. Pods of killer whales, for example, may have very different hunting strategies and occupy different parts of the ocean but differ only from other pods by culture.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Catholicism In Ireland In Disarray!

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin - "unhappy about an atmosphere that was growing"
Irish archbishop moves priests after gay culture claims at Catholic seminary - BBC News.

From being the major power in the land in the Republic of Ireland just 25 years ago, Catholicism continues to degenerate into farce and disrepute.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin has now said he will stop sending trainee priests to the Republic's top Seminary, St Patrick's College, Maynooth and will be sending them to Rome's Irish College instead. This is because of what Archbishop Martin called a "poisonous culture of anonymous letters" amid persistent rumours and whistleblower attempts to expose a growing gay culture at the seminary.

Unintelligent Design - Evolving Blindness

Fossil cyclostomes from the Mazon Creek Lagerstätte
(For caption see original paper)
Pigmented anatomy in Carboniferous cyclostomes and the evolution of the vertebrate eye - Proceedings of the Royal Society B

No sooner do we have a paper on the evolution of mammalian eyes that shows any hypothetical 'intelligent (sic) designer' as an incompetent fool with no plan, we have another paper which shows pretty much the same with regards to the evolution of eyes in the early vertebrates.

This time, creationist have to explain why their supposed designer gave hagfish perfectly good eyes then set about making them go blind with just remnants of their former functional eyes. It's revealing that creationist regard this as evidence of intelligence!

Using scanning electron microscopes, the research team led by Professor Sarah Gabbott from the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, UK, examined the 300 million year-old fossils of lampreys (Mayomyzon) and hagfish (Myxinikela) from Carboniferous rocks in Mazon Creek fossil bed, Illinois, USA. What they found has changed our understanding of the pace of the evolution of the vertebrate eye.

Unintelligent Design - Evolution Of Colour-Blindness

Seeing you in black and white.
Recruitment of Rod Photoreceptors from Short-Wavelength-Sensitive Cones during the Evolution of Nocturnal Vision in Mammals - Developmental Cell

Why do dogs (and most mammals) not have colour vision? The answer seems to be that they lost it so they could better compete with predatory dinosaurs!

So how did that work? You would expect colour vision to be advantageous so if early mammals needed to compete with dinosaurs - which probably had colour vision, wouldn't having better colour vision be the way to go? But of course, evolution doesn't think and plan. Maybe if it did and used human intuition that's what it might have tried. However, the dinosaurs would also have been evolving and responding to the challenge of these better-equipped mammals and there is no guarantee that the mammals would have won that particular arms race.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Extinction Of The Mammoths. No Intelligence Seen.

Timing and causes of mid-Holocene mammoth extinction on St. Paul Island, Alaska - PNAS

We probably now know what caused the final extinction of mammoths. It was a simple lack of fresh water in their last island refuge as the climate changed.

What creationists now have to tell us is why their intelligent (sic) designer decided to kill them off and why it chose this method, because it looks for all the world like the sort of thing that might well happen with a mindless, undirected natural process. But of course, a creationist has to believe nothing happens because of chance or unfortunate accident and everything happens for a purpose and according to a plan.
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