Saturday, 31 May 2008

UFOs and Evolution: Is There a Connection?



Do you believe in little green men? Image: Wikipedia

Joel Kontinen

Have you seen any flying saucers lately? Many people think they have. Even now, reports of mysterious sightings are circulating in the press and on Internet forums.

The modern UFO boom began in June 1947 when a businessman named Kenneth Arnold reported that while piloting a private plane he had seen nine saucer-shaped objects flying over Mount Rainier in Washington. Later that years there were rumours of a flying saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico. According to a popular but false conspiracy theory, US Air Force obtained the corpse of a saucer pilot but covered up the discovery.

The strained relations between the east and west that became to be known as the cold war had just begun and the political atmosphere was conductive to conspiratorial rumours. The number of UFO observations exceeded 850 by the end of 1947.

Later, for instance the Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and former US president Jimmy Carter have disclosed seeing a UFO.

So what are UFOs? A UFO is an unidentified flying object. Most sightings have a natural explanation, such as a landing airplane, satellite or meteor. Some are hoaxes. But for the ardent UFO fans, some are genuine alien spaceships.

However, UFOs cannot originate from the other planets of our own solar system since scientists have failed to find any evidence of life or little green men on Mars or Venus. The nearest star outside our solar system, Proxima Centauri , is 4.2 light years from us. A space ship travelling at the speed of light would thus take 4.2 years to reach us. Many researchers think that space travel between solar systems is impossible.

Moreover, while a number of Earth-like rocky exoplanets or planets orbiting other stars have been discovered, they are either too large or too hot. It is very improbable that UFOs hail from "super Earths" such as Gliese 581 c , which is hotter than Venus.

It seems that there are some religious ingredients in UFO sightings. For some, belief in UFOs has superseded the belief in biblical Christianity. Little green men are seen as the new age saviours who will prevent earthlings from destroying themselves and their planet.

According to Gary Bates, the author of Alien Intrusion (2004), UFOs often have an evolutionary connection. If life evolved on earth by purely naturalistic means, it should also have evolved on other planets. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project is an attempt to prove that we are not as special as we think.

Carl Sagan believed that the Earth was just a tiny pale blue dot in the vast cosmos. However, as Guillermo Gonzales and Jay W. Richards write in The Privileged Planet, our planet is anything but ordinary. Our planet looks as though it was designed for life. At best, we can only speculate about other worlds.

We might never get proof of the existence of little green men for a rather simple reason: there might not be any.

Source:

Bates, Gary. 2004. Alien Intrusion. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Israeli Newspaper Asks: How Many Animals Were on Noah’s Ark?



Noah's ark was a huge vessel, probably at least 140 metres long.


Joel Kontinen


Noah’s ark has once again made it to news headlines. Saving today’s species has given risen to a comparison with the vessel that spared Noah's family and representatives of all land animals from a watery grave.

According to Israeli Newspaper Haaretz, James Edwards, executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life, said that the Genesis account of Noah “squeezing” all animals on the ark was “of course physically impossible”.

To its credit, Haaretz also allowed creationists to say what they believe. “Believers in the Bible note that the Ark described in the Book of Genesis was a giant ship by ancient standards about 140 meters (460 ft.) long -- far from the tiny vessel depicted in many children's books with giraffes' heads sticking out the top.”

The article pointed out that Noah only had to take land animals and birds on board. Haaretz interviewed Dr. David Menton, an associate professor emeritus of anatomy at Washington University. He said that whereas most of the species biologists still hope to discover are tiny organisms, Noah only had to take about 16 000 animals on the ark. Noah did not have to take “organisms known to survive extensive flooding -- such as insects and worms.”

Dr. Menton explained the difference between the biblical kind and biological species. He used the dog kind (dogs, wolves, coyotes and dingoes) as an example. Noah only had to take a pair of the dog kind to ensure that canines would not die out. Menton added that to save space Noah might have taken juvenile creatures on board since some dinosaurs, such as T. rex and sauropods, could be very big as adults. Some sauropods could grow to become 30 metres (98 feet) long.

Some other scientists that Haaretz interviewed remained skeptical. They either found it hard to believe that there was room for all animals in the 3-deck, 30 000 ton vessel or that the different species could thrive on the ark. This was at least partly due to their lack of knowledge about the pre-flood world. Jesse Ausubel, chairman of the Encylopedia of Life at Rockefeller University in New York City said: "Noah would have to be a very skilled heating and ventilation engineer ... to have polar bears and iguanas on the same boat…."I'm not sure about the volume but ... they wouldn't all want the same conditions in their cabins."

This problem can be easily solved. Noah only took one pair of the bear kind on the ark. Polar bears came into being at the time of the ice age that begun after the flood. Yet this change is not Darwinian evolution, as anyone familiar with the build-in diversity of the dog kind (from wolves to Chihuahuas and Great Danes) would realise.

Incidentally, there is an abundance of geological evidence for a global flood. Read more here.


Source:

Just how many animals actually traveled on Noah's Ark? Haaretz 15 May 2008http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/983715.html

The Haaretz article was based on a Reuters article written by Alister Doyle entitled How did Noah's Ark float? New species cram aboard. (15 May 2008) http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSL08114450

Sunday, 18 May 2008

African Folktales and Darwinian Just-So Stories: Is There a Connection?



The hyena is the focus of a traditional just so story. Image from Wikipedia


Joel Kontinen

The term just so story originated with Nobelist Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 collection Just So Stories for Little Children. The tales were light-hearted explanations of how animals got a certain trait, as the names of the stories indicate, for instance How the Leopard got His Spots or How the Camel got his Hump.

Kipling did not invent the just so idea. Similar thoughts can be seen in African folktales that predate Kipling’s time by many decades if not centuries. The Kikuyus of Kenya, for instance have a fascinating explanation for the hyena’s peculiar gait (its front legs are longer than the back legs) that includes a group of hyenas riding through the skies on an eagle’s wing and falling to the ground and hurting their legs in the process.

Darwinists might have a just so story of why apes came down from trees, but the Luos have an explanation of why monkeys took to the trees: in the olden days the monkey and elephant were good friends but their friendship ended when the elephant suspected that the monkey had cheated him. The monkey had managed to buy a fat healthy-looking cow at the local cattle market while the elephant could only get an ill-fed one. People began to make fun of the poor elephant who became angry and drove the monkey up a tree. According to the story, monkeys have lived in trees ever since.

The mother of all current evolutionary just so stories seems to be Charles Darwin’s idea of a warm little pond where the first living cell supposedly originated. Before Darwin there was Lamarck who invented a story of how the giraffe got such a long neck by straining it to get at the upper branches of an acacia tree during a severe drought when food was scarce. This explanation postulates that since then nature has favored long-necked giraffes.

The problem with this scenario is that giraffes tend to prefer the lower branches, not the upper ones. Similar problems abound in Darwinian just so stories.

In 1997 Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin wrote in The New York Review of Books that scientists often choose to make up “unsubstantiated just-so stories” because they “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism… Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Unfortunately, instead of following the evidence where it leads Neo-Darwinian biologists tend to follow their prior commitment to explanations that exclude all hints of design.

Sources:

Lewontin, Richard. 1997. Billions and billions of demons. The New York Review of Books, p. 31 (9 January 1997).

Mwangi, Rose. 1970. Kikuju Folktales: Their Nature and Value. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Odaga, Bole Asenath. 1980. Thu Tinda! Stories From Kenya. Nairobi: Uzima.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Dinosaur Expert: Anti-Creationists Are the Greatest Enemy of Science Education in the U.S.



Robert Bakker. Image from Wikipedia

Joel Kontinen

Science education has lately been the source of much heated debate, largely due to the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed featuring Ben Stein. Stein’s documentary lamented the monopoly of Darwinian evolution in scientific research and science education. As expected, many prominent neo-Darwinists, for instance Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers, have reacted aggressively to the film. Recently, a renowned paleontologist joined the fray. However, his contribution was a stunning surprise.

Dr. Robert T. Bakker is one of most famous living dinosaur experts, known for his 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies. He is the Curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Director of the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado. Recently Bakker was interviewed on the Laelaps Science Blog by Brian Switek.

During the e-mail interview, Bakker said that he considered “the loud, strident, elitist anti-creationists” to be be greatest enemy of science education in the United States. He explained that he meant “Richard Dawkins and his colleagues”, calling them “uber-Darwinists”. In his view, they “come across as insultingly dismissive of any and all religious traditions.”

Bakker probably had in mind Dawkins’ book The God Delusion that has caused quite a stir. It has also given rise to rebuttals such as David Berlinski’s just released The Devil’s Delusion.

The Bakker interview was made before the April 18 release of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Bakker’s views are interesting since he is neither a creationist, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, nor affiliated with the Intelligence Design movement. He seems to advocate some form of theistic evolution or the view that God used evolution. Yet he comes close to what Ben Stein, a Jew, has to say about science education.

It is no secret that origins issues are extremelemy sentitive. Bakker’s contribution has already caused some discussion in the blogosphere.

Read more about Expelled here.


Source:

Switek, Brian. 2008. Paleontological Profiles: Robert Bakker. Laelaps science blog

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Dino-era Bird Found In China



This poster should be taken down


Joel Kontinen

The fossil of a modern-looking bird that lived during the dinosaur era has been found in China. According to National Geographic News, which recently reported on the find, the bird called Eoconfuciusornis zhengi or “the dawn of the Confucious bird” was discovered by Chinese and British paleontologists in the Hebei province in northern China.

The well-preserved bird was found along a lakeside. Eoconfuciusornis probably met a watery death in the lake and was quickly covered with mud and fossilised. It has fully-developed wings just like modern birds and symmetrically balanced tail feathers. These details were clearly etched into stone. “Ecoconfuciosomis was extraordinarily well preserved for the fossil to have contained such depth of detail,” lead author Zhang Fucheng, a professor at the Beijing Institute, said according to National Geographic News.

Estimated to be 131 million years old on the evolutionary time scale, Eoconfuciusornis zhengi is one of the oldest bird fossils ever found. Like the older “jurassic bird” Archaeopteryx , it was a strong flier and could probably perch on tree branches.

The new discovery, published in the journal Science in China, throws a cloud over the dino-to-bird hypothesis that has been the focus of heated debate in recent years. Many natural history museums still advocate the idea that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs. The New York-based American Museum of Natural History, for instance, has a huge poster that says “Birds are Dinosaurs”.

Some scientists maintain that modern birds appeared ”only” 60 million years ago or about five million years after the demise of the dinosaurs. However, a recent study published in the journal BMC Biology by Joseph Brown and his research team examined mutation rates with the help of the molecular clock and concluded that modern birds must have lived during the dinosaur era.

The discovery of Eoconfuciusornis zhengi supports this view. It seems that natural history museums need to update their Dino-to-Bird posters.

Read more about dinosaurs and birds here.

Source:

Platt, Kevin Holden. 2008. Dino-Era Bird Fossil Found; One of Oldest Known.(6 May) National Geography News .

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Hobbit Wars: Did An 18 000 Year-Old Hobbit See A Dentist?




Joel Kontinen

An Australian paleopathologist has raised a stir by suggesting that a tiny human fossil claimed to be 18 000 years old actually had a tooth filled by a dentist. Called hobbits because of their size (1 meter), the remains of H. floresiensis were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and 2004.

As recently reported by ScienceNow Daily News, Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide photographed the jaws of a H. floresiensis specimen (LB1) in 2005. When he later studied the photos he thought he saw evidence of a whitish cement filling, a technique dentists used in the Flores area in the 1930s instead of metal amalgams.

The hobbit wars have been raging almost continually since their initial discovery, with many researchers claiming that H. floresiensis is just a modern human suffering from microcephaly or some other condition that stunted their growth and should not be classified as a distinct species. Some scientists, however, remain sceptical of such claims.

It seems that the hobbit wars are far from over. Peter Brown of the University of Adelaide, who was part of the research team that initially reported the hobbit find, insists that he investigated the LB1 specimen (in 2004) and did not seen any signs of filling.

As is often the case with fossil finds, researchers tend to guard their specimens jealously and are reluctant to let their colleagues study the skulls. The Indonesians who have the hobbit remains in their possession are analysing them. They have denied Hennenberg’s research team access to them so he is not able to verify his claim.

Dating human ancestors has often been a vey tricky process. Different dating methods and starting assumptions can produce results that differ considerably from each other. For instance, In 1967 Richard Leakey found a skull now known as KNM-ER 1470 (which stands for Kenya National Museum, East Rudolph, museum acquisition number 1470) in the Lake Turkana area of northern Kenya. The skull looked very modern and very human-like but was initially thought to be 2.9 million years old.

Following the discovery, a heated exchange of ideas continued unabated on the pages of the journal Nature for over ten years. During that time, the initially published date fell from 2.61 million years to 1.88 million years in 1981.

Thus, if past struggles are any indication, the hobbit wars might well continue for a long time to come.

Read more abbout hobbits here.


Sources:

Culotta, Elizabeth. 2008. Tempest in a Hobbit Tooth. ScienceNOw Daily News. 24 April http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/424/2

Lubenow, Marvin L. 1992. Bones of Contention. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

If there was no global flood in Noah’s days how do we find billions of fossils in the Grand Canyon?



Nautiloid fossil. Image from Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

New Scientist is a popular science magazine. Published weekly in Great Britain, it has recently focused on educating the public about evolution. A few weeks ago the magazine's website referred to a study conducted two years ago that indicated that in Charles Darwin’s homeland only 48 per cent of all people believed in evolution.

The magazine came up with a solution: more science (i.e. evolution) education. New Scientist has thus enlightened its readers by featuring articles promoting evolution. On April 16 New Scientist run a special section on its website on the myths and misconception people have about evolution. Online editor Michael Le Page claimed for instance that the flood of Noah’s days never happened. However, he failed to provide any proof for his view.

Many enormous fossil graveyards speak volumes for a real watery catastrophe. For instance, scientists have found billions of fossilised nautiloids in the Grand Canyon. They have had to be buried really fast. Read more here.


Read more about New Scientist’s theological arguments for evolution here.

Source:

Le Page, Michael. 2008. Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions. http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/dn13620?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=dn13620

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Dinosaur That Never Went Extinct



Tuatara. Image from Wikipedia


Joel Kontinen

The tuatara (Sphendon punctatus) is a spectacular reptile that only lives in New Zealand. Often called the living dinosaur, the tuatara has resisted both extinction and change. The tuatara is the only survivor of the reptilian order Sphehodontia. Evolutionary biologists believe that it lived together with early dinosaurs in the Upper Triassic some 200 million years ago.

Recently, researchers found an interesting detail about the tuatara. David Lambert and his colleagues at the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution analysed DNA sequences they found in the bones of tuatara estimated to be 8000 years old.

They published their findings in the journal Trends in Genetics. As reported by EurekAlert and LiveScience, their discoveries were astounding: they found that the tuatara is the fastest evolving animal. “What we found was that the tuatara has the highest molecular evolutionary rate anyone has measured,” professor Lambert says according to EurekAlert. Lambert’s study suggests that the tuatara has been evolving faster that animals like the cave bear, lion, ox or horse.

So how can an animal that has shown no signs of change for aeons be changing faster than many others? Professor Lambert says, “the rate of molecular evolution was uncoupled from the rate of morphological evolution.” In other words, inner change or change at the molecular level does not correspond to what we see on the outside.

Yet evolutionary theory predicted that slow change or no change would have corresponded to slow change or no change at the molecular level. Far from supporting the neo-Darwinian theory of molecules-to-man evolution, the “living dinosaur” shows that there are grave problems with the view.

Like other living fossils such as the crocodile, army ant, cockroach, Coelacanth and horseshoe crab, the tuatara is evidence for resistance to the type of change that Darwinian evolution desperately needs.

Some animal species have a history of incredible change. The dog (Canis lupus familiaris), which according to Linnean classification belongs to the same species as the gray wolf (Canis lupus), is capable of an enormous amount of variety, brought about by artificial selection. But this is not the kind of change that evolution in its neo-Darwinian sense requires.

And neither is the variety evident in the DNA of a reptile that has resisted change for a very long time.


I recently wrote about the horseshoe crab, another living fossil. You can read the post here.

Sources:

Fastest Evolving Creature is 'Living Dinosaur'. LiveScience 26 March 2008. http://www.livescience.com/animals/080326-fastest-tuatara.html

Tuatara, the fastest evolving animal. New DNA research has questioned previous notions about the evolution of the tuatara. EurekAlert 20 March 2008. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/cp-ttf032008.php

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Much Ado About Afarensis



Lucy looks like this in the National History Museum in London


Joel Kontinen

I recently wrote three articles about our supposed evolutionary grandmother Australopithecus afarensis, better known as Lucy. You can read them here , here and here . One of the posts, which was about the UNESCO popular science newsletter A World of Science that used the species name Praeanthropus afarensis instead, generated some ado in blog discussions.

Blogger Afarensis took issue with my interpretation of the name change and posted “An Open Letter to Creationist Joel Kontinen” on his site, explaining that the UNESCO article actually used the correct form of Lucy's name.

Evolutionists believe apes and man have a common ancestor and view the entire fossil record from this perspective. They would thus expect to see some shared or similiar features in creatures that fit their paradigm. Since most but not all paleoanthroplogists who study human ancestry are evolutionists, they also get the privilege of naming the skulls they find.

Blogger Afarensis seems to thinks that Lucy and humans have so much shared features that calling her pre-human is justified. He points out that he did not like the study conducted by Yoel Rak and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University that I quoted. He said it “was full of baloney”.

Indeed, Rak’s conclusions suggest that Lucy is not our ancestor. Yet it was not the first study to call in doubt Lucy’s human-like features. Way back in 1983, Stern and Sussman published a paper called The locomotor anatomy of Austrapithecus afarensis in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. They stated that Lucy’s fingers and toes were curved like those of many other apes. “There is no evidence that any extant primate has long, curved heavily muscled hands and feet for any purpose other than to meet the demands of full-time or part time arboreal life.” Translation: Lucy preferred trees to open Savannah. More recently (2001), Tattersall and Schwartz in their book Extinct Humans also paid attention to afarensis’ long arms.

An interesting ingredient in the debate was the finding of the “Lucy child” in 2006. Its hyoid bone suggested that it could not speak. Its fingers were of the curved kind and its shoulderblade resembled that of a gorilla. In other words, it did not look like a pre-human.

Incidentally, I had a pet vervet monkey for two years when I lived in Kenya some time ago. The proportions of a vervet monkey’s arms more or less matched those of Lucy and the two simians are almost of the same size, as well. While the monkey’s hands resembled my hands, only an a priori commitment to evolution could have caused me to regard it as a relative. The differences were all too great.



Sources:

Afarensis. 2008. An Open Letter to Creationist Joel Kontinen.
http://scienceblogs.com/afarensis/2008/04/14/an_open_letter_to_creationist/

Line, Peter. 2005. Fossil Evidence For Alleged Apemen –Part 2: Non-Homo Hominids. TJ (Journal of Creation) 19:1: 33-42.

Wieland, Carl. 2006. The ‘Lucy Child. ’More good news for creationists. You can read it here.

Another Expulsion?



Joel Kontinen

Texas has in effect expelled any critical evaluation of origins issues. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board refused to give accreditation to the ICR Graduate School's Science Education program. This is strange since the very same program was already accredited in California. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) moved its headquarters to Texas last year and had to apply for accreditation in Texas for its MA programme.

Ben Stein’s film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed pointed out the dismal lack of academic freedom in science education. The refusal to grant the ICR’s Graduate School accreditation shows that intelligence is still not allowed.

Read more details here.