Thursday, 22 March 2018

Good News From the Catholics

Europe's Young Adults and Religion | St Mary's University Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.

A recent poll conducted jointly by St Mary's University Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, UK and the Institute Catholique de Paris, France makes miserable reading for it's target readership - 2018 Synod of Bishops, due to be held in Rome in October 2018. In brief, it shows the massive haemorrhage of church members is continuing apace especially amongst the young. The survey was concerned with the religious views and practices of the key sixteen to twenty-nine year-old.

The key findings are:

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Triple Alliance

Brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus)
Credit: Tauchgurke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the fascinating aspects of evolutionary ecology is how two or more species can become inextricably bound together in an evolutionary alliance of mutual dependency.

One such alliance, actually an alliance between three completely unrelated species, can be found in the Amazon jungle, centred on one of the strangest and more specialised mammals, the three-toed sloth. The three-toed sloth (in fact there are four closely related species, all in the South and Central American jungles) is one of the most slowly moving mammals on Earth, spending almost all its time hanging beneath tree branches high in the canopy, eating leaves or sleeping. However, they descend from the trees to the forest floor once a week to defecate, which they do in a large pile.

Its slow speed, although conserving energy, makes it especially vulnerable to depredation by harpy eagles, jaguars and other predators, so its descent to the forest floor to defecate is all the more puzzling, placing it at additional risk when it could simply defecate in the trees where its faeces could simply drop to the forest floor.

But all this begins to come together and make sense as an alliance with other species.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Chimpanzee Gestures Confound Creationists

Bonobo and chimpanzee gestures overlap extensively in meaning

The thing about evolutionary biology is that researchers can't help providing evidence for it. It's not intentional; it's not as though there is any doubt, it's just that the reality is that species evolved from common ancestors. So, inevitably, reality shows the evidence.

Take, for example, this piece of research published yesterday on the subject of bonobo (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzee (P. troglodytes) and their use of non-verbal communications or gestures which both use extensively to communicate with others of their species. It turns out that there is an approximate 90% overlap between the two species. This is far more than chance alone could account for. The research was conducted by scientists based at the Department of Psychology, University of York, York, United Kingdom and the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, United Kingdom.

Since there is almost zero probability that the two species could interact and learn from one another, there has to be another explanation.

Cross-species comparison of great ape gesturing has so far been limited to the physical form of gestures in the repertoire, without questioning whether gestures share the same meanings. Researchers have recently catalogued the meanings of chimpanzee gestures, but little is known about the gesture meanings of our other closest living relative, the bonobo. The bonobo gestural repertoire overlaps by approximately 90% with that of the chimpanzee, but such overlap might not extend to meanings. Here, we first determine the meanings of bonobo gestures by analysing the outcomes of gesturing that apparently satisfy the signaller. Around half of bonobo gestures have a single meaning, while half are more ambiguous. Moreover, all but 1 gesture type have distinct meanings, achieving a different distribution of intended meanings to the average distribution for all gesture types. We then employ a randomisation procedure in a novel way to test the likelihood that the observed between-species overlap in the assignment of meanings to gestures would arise by chance under a set of different constraints. We compare a matrix of the meanings of bonobo gestures with a matrix for those of chimpanzees against 10,000 randomised iterations of matrices constrained to the original data at 4 different levels. We find that the similarity between the 2 species is much greater than would be expected by chance. Bonobos and chimpanzees share not only the physical form of the gestures but also many gesture meanings.

Author summary
Bonobos and chimpanzees are closely related members of the great ape family, and both species use gestures to communicate. We are able to deduce the meaning of great ape gestures by looking at the ‘Apparently Satisfactory Outcome’ (ASO), which reflects how the recipient of the gesture reacts and whether their reaction satisfies the signaller; satisfaction is shown by the signaller ceasing to produce more gestures. Here, we use ASOs to define the meaning of bonobo gestures, most of which are used to start or stop social interactions such as grooming, travelling, or sex. We then compare the meanings of bonobo gestures with those of chimpanzees and find that many of the gestures share the same meanings. Bonobos and chimpanzees could, in principle, understand one another’s gestures; however, more research is necessary to determine how such gestures and gesture meanings are acquired.

There was so much commonality between them that it seems likely the two species could communicate fairy effectively with one another.

The overlap in gesture meanings between bonobos and chimpanzees is quite substantial and may indicate that the gestures are biologically inherited.

Dr Kirsty Graham, Lead author
Research Associate, Department of Psychology University of York
The explanation is, of course to be found in the evolution of the two closely-related species which diverged between one and two million years ago, shortly after their common ancestor diverged from the hominin line. In fact, it shows that these gestures were present in that common ancestor.

The fact that humans too use gestures, especially when communicating at a distance and that these gestures in humans, unlike verbal communication, is universal, suggests that gesturing was also present in the common ancestor we share with bonobos and chimpanzees.

The simple use of gestures and their commonality, like shared anatomy, physiology, genetics, etc, simply reinforce the clear message that evolution happens. We don't need to go looking for it; it shouts out to us wherever we look.

'via Blog this'

Monday, 19 February 2018

All-female Fish Makes Creationism Look Stupid

Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa)
Photo credit: Manfred Schartl
Universität Würzburg: No sex for all-female fish species

No wonder American creationists all seem to be uncritical fawns of Donald Trump, hoping he'll build a wall to shut Mexico out. Right on the Mexican border with Texas, that centre of Christian fundamentalism and creationism, is a little fish that could cause the whole thing to come down - creationism that is, not the wall which hasn't even been started yet, the truculent Mexicans not agreeing to pay for a Trump foible.

The little fish, the Amazon molly, Poecilia formosa, like the newly emerged new species of crayfish I wrote about earlier, is all-female and reproduces asexually. The daughters are all clones of their mother.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

An Intermediate Spider-Scorpion!

Chimerarachne yingi, preserved in amber in exquisite detail.

Photo: Bo Wang
Part spider, part scorpion creature captured in amber | Science | AAAS

Continuing with what has turned out to be another dreadful week for creationism, we now have two papers about a 100 million year-old species, beautifully preserved in exquisite detail in amber, which has characteristics of both spiders and scorpions.

Spiders, a group of arachnids are characterised by modified body appendages called spinnerets which extrude silk, and, in males, a pair of pedipalps which are used to insert sperm into females. All but the most primitive spiders also have smooth, non-segmented abdomens. Scorpions, on the other hand have segmented abdomens and lack spinneretes and pedipalps. They also have the characteristic tail.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Yet Another Newly Evolved Species

Marbled crayfish, Procambarus virginalis
By Chucholl C. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
An aquarium accident may have given this crayfish the DNA to take over the world | Science | AAAS

Like most weeks, it's been a pretty dreadful one for creationists so far as scientific research is concerned. Another week and still not one iota of support for creationism or its lab-coated mock-science version, intelligent (sic) design. Instead we have the usual plethora of papers which quite incidentally, and with no effort or intent on the part of the authors, refutes creationism and confirms evolution.

I've already written about two - bacteria evolving to digest plastic and the extraordinary evolutionary history of the house dust mite. Now we have this observed evolution of a new species of crayfish which fills all the criteria for what creationists call 'macro-evolution', which they claim is impossible. Later, I'll be writing about a beautiful example of a fossil of an intermediate ancestor of both spiders and scorpions - again, something creationists tell their dupes don't exist. That one 'impossible' thing and one 'nonexistent' thing in the same week!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Mites Evolving All Around Us

A scanning electron microscope image of an American house dust mite, Dermatophagoides farinae.
Image credit: Ellen Foot Perkowski
House dust mites evolved a new way to protect their genome | University of Michigan News

Unless you have a microscope or exceptionally good eyesight you are never likely to see one but you are living now with millions of them in your carpets, furniture and beds. They are of course the ubiquitous house dust mites, and they have an interesting and unusual evolutionary history.

This history in turn is probably responsible for a unique solution to a common problem faced by all organisms - how to cope with those pieces of non-coding DNA called transposons, part of the junk DNA, that can randomly relocate themselves within a genome, causing mutations and diseases. Transposons behave a little like independent strands of DNA with evolutionary pressures to survive despite evolutionary pressure on their 'hosts' to control them.

Bacteria Evolved to Eat Plastic

Feeding on plastic | Science

One of the more subtle aspects of evolution, and one that creationists are either unable or unwilling to understand, is the difference between genetic information and the meaning of that information. A paper published in March 2016 by a Japanese team, illustrates that principle very well. It is about the discovery of a strain of bacteria that has evolved the ability to digest the man-made plastic, poly(ethylene teraphthalate) (PET).

Currently, the world-wide production of PET is over 50 million tons and none of it was biodegradable - until now!

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Evolutionary Transition To Modern Humans

Brain shape evolution in Homo sapiens: brain shape of one of the earliest known members of our species, the 300,000 year-old cranium Jebel Irhoud 1 (left). Brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved gradually. Brain morphology has reached the globularity typical for present day humans suprisingly recently (right).

Copyright © 2018 MPI EVA/ S. Neubauer, Ph. Gunz
License: CC-BY-SA 4.0
Modern human brain organization emerged only recently | Max Planck Society

The fossil record shows a distinct gradual transition to the modern human brain and cranial capacity from more ape-like origins, even within the species we recognise as Homo sapiens.

This is the finding of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, according to an open access paper published a few days ago in Science Advances. The finding also illustrates nicely how science incorporates new information, even information that at first glance doesn't seem to fit what we thought we knew, and how that new information can lead to a revised understanding and an improved explanation.

Monday, 29 January 2018

New Poll - Creationism Declining in USA

In U.S., Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low

Slightly encouraging news a couple of days ago from a Gallop poll in the USA. I say slightly encouraging because the change is small on a small data set (just 1011 adults aged 18 or over) and the same poll is also disappointing in other ways.

The poll shows that belief in creationism as the best explanation for humans fell to 38%, the lowest since polling began in 1981 and below 40% for the first time.

However, a two percentage point fall is within the margin of statistical error on that size data set. None-the-less, it is encouraging - for the USA.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Modern Humans May Have Left Africa 200,000 Years Ago

This ancient jawbone suggests our species left Africa 40,000 years earlier than expected | Science | AAAS

The story of when and where modern humans first left Africa is continuing to develop and looks like becoming more complicated than first thought when the evidence seemed to point to a single migration by a small group around 50,000 years ago.

A large international team led by Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University have concluded that the jaw bone found in a Misliya Cave on the western slope of Mount Carmel in Israel is that of a Homo sapiens, but that it is between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. This is some 40,000 years earlier than modern humans were believed to have left Africa to begin their world-wide dispersal. The previous earliest H. sapiens remains were those found nearby in the Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and Qafzeh Cave in Israel, dated to between 80,000 to 120,000 years old.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

How Creationists Lie To Us - Creation Ministries

When you show the world you need to lie for your faith
You show the world you know your faith is a lie
This meme recently popped up in a Facebook group I help administer.

It is of course a lie.

The lie originated in one of the usual creationist disinformation sites,, the online front for Creation Ministries, the Australia-based creationist organisation from which Ken Ham split when he realised America was a more lucrative place for scamming fundamentalist Christians, in an article penned by Jonathan O'Brien, a Creation Ministries staffer.

O'Brien is notorious for, amongst other things, his claim that the primitive carving of a rhinoceros in front of some leaves at Angkor in Cambodia is really a carving of a stegosaurus, a creature with which it has very little real resemblance, and the claim that because a volcanic cone in Mexico grew in a year, this is evidence that mountains did not take millions of years to form, so could all have formed in the last few thousand years (ignoring the fact that most mountain ranges are not volcanic in origin but are due to plate tectonics).

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Pope Attacks Sex Abuse Victims.

Bishop Juan Barros
Pope accuses sex abuse victims of slander

In an astonishing end to his less than triumphal visit to Chile, Pope Francis shocked his hosts by, not to put too fine a point on it, calling those accusing a Catholic Bishop of assisting a cover-up of child abuse, liars.

His visit had been met with demonstrations and much smaller crowds than previous visits because the Catholic Church in Chile is currently embroiled in the now traditional clerical sex abuse of minors scandal. Police had to use tear gas and water cannons to break up one demonstration outside the Pope's open-air address in the centre of Santiago.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Neanderthals Had Sex With Anyone

Upper view of the Montmaurin-LN mandible.
The Montmaurin-La Niche mandible reveals the complexity of the Neanderthals’ origin | CENIEH - Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana

We now know that modern humans interbred with at least two, probably three and possibly more different hominin species when they left Africa. What this new analysis shows is that Neanderthals also interbred with archaic hominins and may not even have formed as single lineage in Eurasia.

Instead, this analysis by a team of scientists from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (National Research Centre for Human Evolution - CENIEH) in Spain, led by José María Bermúdez de Castro, together with the French researcher Amélie Vialet, from the Musée d'histoire naturelle (Natural History Museum) in Paris, suggests that Neanderthals may have diversified, evolved as isolated populations, then interbred with one another so that later Neanderthals were a mosaic of earlier and divergent populations.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Birds of a Feather - New Species Evolve

Large cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris)
Study of Darwin's finches reveals that new species can develop in as little as two generations

Birds of a feather: U of T researchers discover Amazon bird to be rare hybrid species

This week we have a couple of examples of new species arising - that thing that creationists insist can't happen. The evolutionary process that created them was hybridisation which occurs very much faster than the more usual (at least in vertebrates - speciation by hybridisation is common in plants) divergence by a combination of genetic drift and natural selection. And in these cases, the species are birds.

The first is from those devil figures for creationists - Darwin's finches or Galapagos finches. This was originally reported and commented extensively upon last November and revealed an observed incidence of apparent speciation when a vagrant male appeared on the island of Daphne Major. This was much larger and had a larger, more robust beak than any of the other three species present on the island. It also sang with a different song.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Two More Catholic Clerics - Two More Sex Abuse Scandals

Archbishop Anthony Apuron stands in front of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Hagatna, Guam, Nov. 2014.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Grace Garces Bordallo
Guam archbishop faces new sexual assault allegation | CRUX

The US Pacific territory of Guam, which is almost wholly Catholic, has been rocked by a series of allegations that vehemently homophobic Anthony Apuron, Archbishop of Agana, sexually abuses altar boys in the 1970s. He has vigorously denied all the allegations and has not been criminally charged, but now another accuser has come forward.

The latest accuser, a relative of Archbishop Apuron, has claimed in the local media that he was abused by Apuron in 1990. This latest allegation has been reported to the Vatican. According to Archbishop Michael Byrnes, an earlier Vatican tribunal investigation into the earlier allegations has reportedly concluded and reached a verdict late last year but, for reasons unknown, has not yet made its findings public. Archbishop Byrnes has been given administrative responsibility for the diocese while Apuron is on administrative leave.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Changing Our Mind When the Evidence Changes

European brown bear (Ursus arctos)
Photo credit: Ivan PC
The Iberian brown bears do not descend from those fled from the north during the Ice Age / News / SINC - Servicio de Información y Noticias Científicas

To a creationist, with their simplistic black vs white, right vs wrong mentality, the fact that science can make mistakes or that the understanding is provisional - and all scientific understanding is provisional, even the best-supported - tells them that science, unlike their firmly held and unchangeable dogmas, is unreliable and therefore wrong. Little better than a guess, in fact.

To a scientist, and to anyone interested in truth rather than simple certainty, however, discovering that you have been wrong is actually welcome news and news that was well worth doing the research to discover because it means that what you now think you know is closer to the truth than it was before. Science works because scientists can and do change their minds when the evidence changes, unlike fundamentalist religions, where not changing your mind and not even questioning the dogmas is a prerequisite.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Massive Evolutionary Reduction in Genome Size

A Chilean cicada, which hosts particularly unusual symbiotic bacteria.

Photo credit: Piotr Lukasik
UM Publishes Research on Unusual Gene Evolution in Bacteria - UM News - University Of Montana:

Hopefully getting back to blogging again after spending time on another book, it's a pleasure coming back with details of two papers published by the same team a few days ago that shatter so many creationist dogmas, it's hard to keep count.

Creationists will tell you, for example, that evolution involves an increase in complexity and therefore an increase in information in the genome, and that this is impossible because of some mysterious application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which ignore the fact that an organism, Earth, and even the solar system are not closed systems. Never-the-less, they'll confidently assure you that in this way science has proved evolution can't happen, it's just that millions of working biologists never got the memo and have been mistaking the observed instances of not evolution for examples of... well... evolution.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Climate Change is Shrinking Moose

The researchers measured the length, width and height of moose skulls to study the impact of climate change on the iconic Northwoods species. The team measured 662 moose skulls and observed a 16 percent decrease in size over 40 years.

Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Tech
The Shrinking Moose of Isle Royale | Michigan Tech News:

Moose on Isle Royale, Michigan, USA are evolving rapidly in response to environmental change, especially climate change.

Unlike nearby populations of moose which have halved in the past 12 years, the Isle Royale moose population has increased by more than twenty percent per year for the last six years - but they are getting smaller. Measurements of skulls collected over a forty year period show they have shrunk by about sixteen percent. Life-span is also reducing.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Suffer Little Children - At the Hands of Priests and Nuns

Smyllum Park Catholic Children Abuse Centre, Lanarkshire, Scotlanda
Nun broke girl's arm after discovering she was being sexually abused by a priest | Metro News

When a nun caring for children at the Catholic-run Smyllum Park children's home in Lanarkshire, Scotland walked into the chapel and found a priest sexually abusing an eight year-old girl, she sprang immediately into action.

She grabbed the girl by one arm and flung her against the wall, breaking her arm, called her a 'whore' and shouted “get the f*** out of here” at her.
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