Art: Not Just For Humans Anymore

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2014/09/03/ancient-engraving-strengthens-case-for-sophisticated-neandertals/

Popular depiction of Neanderthals typically yields the same results: cultureless, brooding individuals confining themselves to caves. Consider the Geico cavemen, Night at the Museum, The Croods. This interpretation is so universal that calling someone a Neanderthal implies low intellect and lack of class. However, recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals partook in more refined activities than we tend to give them credit for.

In the known Neanderthal site of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, anthropologists have discovered what is considered the first identified piece of Neanderthal art. Shown in this video, the etching may not seem like art when compared to cave paintings created by early Homo sapiens, but anthropologists state that compared to other marks in Neanderthal habitats, these lines represent a deliberate pattern. Although Neanderthal jewelry has been found before, this art is considered especially symbolic and potentially indicates that Neanderthals had some sort of language or writing system.

The article also notes the similarities between this piece of art and the earliest art of modern humans. Both are simple geometric patterns which most likely had symbolic relevance. If early humans and Neanderthals alike had similar artistic abilities, this should serve as evidence against so-called primitive nature of Neanderthals. How, then, does this fit into the theory that humans out-competed Neanderthals for the same environmental niche due to “their superior cognitive abilities?” In a Huffington Post article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/02/neanderthal-cave-art-intelligence_n_5751508.html) University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Harold Dibble argues that one piece of evidence should not serve to undermine previous theories regarding Neanderthal culture. Is the question, then, one of quantity? At what point is there “enough” evidence to support this new theory of Neanderthal symbolism?

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The Hobbit, Ten Year Anniversary

http://news.anu.edu.au/2014/10/28/hobbit-tales-homo-floresiensis-ten-years-on/

The discovery of the fossilized remains of an unknown hominid species in Indonesia sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community in 2004.  While the discovery of a new human species is certainly an exciting event, what made this discovery so extraordinary was the extremely small stature of the specimen.  Standing only three feet tall, the new species, dubbed Homo florensis, had a brain the size of a chimpanzee and could have hunted Komodo Dragon!  Homo florensis coexisted with Homo sapiens only 18,000 years ago, thousands of years after the last Neanderthal: this means it was our last living hominid relative!

However, backlash was immediate, with many pondering if “Homo florensis” fossils are merely deformed Homo sapiens.  There is evidence to support both claims, and the debate raging for ten years is nowhere near conclusive.  Those in favor of classifying the fossils as a distinct, separate species claim that many other animals diminish in size when relocating to an island environment due to a lack of food and calories.  Furthermore, proponents cite that it is very unlikely that so many deformed Homo sapiens would be fossilized together.  Critics, on the other hand, justify their claims by referencing that the body proportions of the fossils fall under the anatomical spectrum of pathogenic Homo sapiens.

I chose this article because I find this the most fascinating scientific discovery of all time!  I remember first being introduced to this discovery in IB Biology, and thinking it was a hoax!  Remember: the controversy with the Homo florensis fossils is not whether or not natural selection could have produced such a small organism, but whether the anatomical traits of the fossils suggest evidence for a new species or a deformed Homo sapien.  If true, it means that we lived with “Hobbits,” and could explain some of the native folklore which describes small, human-like creatures that lived in the wilderness.  From this article, I wanted to stage a discussion on the beauty of the scientific method, recognizing how it is an adaptive and flexible process, not a stagnant and conservative system.  One maxim of science is that it can be proved wrong through experimentation and new evidence.  How does the debate over the status of Homo florensis illuminate this tenant of science?  Why can Creationism not be considered a science under this definition?  Finally, do you support the classification of Homo florensis as its own species?  Which side do you think has the most compelling evidence?  I know previously this summer, there was more evidence to support the Down syndrome hypothesis (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/06/hobbit-human-down-syndrome_n_5651429.html).  Feel free to reference more articles providing further research or clarification about the status of these fossils!

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Teaching Creationism in the Classroom

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/education/creationists-on-texas-panel-for-biology-textbooks.html?pagewanted=all

The article I looked at is from the New Times and examines another way creationism is encroaching into public school classrooms. The New York Times reported that multiple people on the panel to decide the high school biology textbooks in Texas believe in creationism. The article points out that members of the Texas state government are creationists as well including people on the State Board of Education and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas who said “in Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools — because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right,” (the exact quote is from PolitiFact, the NYT only referenced the quote).

Creationism in public high schools is a far more serious problem than many people realize and extends far beyond Texas and even the south. Randy Moore, a professor at the University of Minnesota did at study from 2000-2004 of over 2,000 college freshmen that asked them about their high school biology class. The study found that 5% of students’ biology class discussed creationism without ever discussing evolution and 23% of students said their biology class discussed both evolution and creationism.

http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1662/0002-7685%282008%2970%5B79%3ACITBCW%5D2.0.CO%3B2

Minnesota is not a place where you would think creationism in schools would be a major problem. I think it would be interesting to see studies done nationwide and in southern states especially where numbers would most likely be higher.

For me, creationism in the classroom is something I can relate to. Last year, when I was a senior in high school, a freshmen biology teacher at my public high school showed her class an offensive cartoon from the famous creationist Ken Ham. The cartoon related evolution to satan, euthanasia, homosexuality, pornography, divorce, racism and abortion. I was a news editor on the school newspaper and I reported on the story with another editor:

http://thesoutherneronline.com/frontpage/?p=29658

Many of the students said that the teacher would answer their biology questions by saying that ‘that’s the way god made it’. This instance of creationism in the classroom brings up the issue of when teachers ‘freelance’. Freelancing is when the school, school district and state never tells teachers to teach creationism but they teacher does it anyway.

Examples like the textbooks in Texas give creationists another way to compete with evolution in the classroom in addition to ‘freelance’ teachers. In Randy Moore’s study he said that teachers teach creationism for a number of reasons such as ignorance of the law, religious beliefs and pressure to teach creationism/avoid evolution. Not only is it illegal when teachers include creationism in their biology classes, it is cheating students out of learning evolution. Do you think creationism could be taught in any sort of context (i.e. a religion class) in a public school? What do you think could be done to reduce the number of biology teachers ‘freelancing’?

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God-Loving Christian Nuclear Physicist Introduces Pro-Darwin Legislation to US House

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/us/seeing-darwin-through-christians-eyes.html?_r=0

I’ve chosen to examine this article published in the New York Times in February 2013 because it is a unique example of the progressive scientific community advancing on the matter of evolution in public policy rather than retreating. Oftentimes, this class studies those who accept the theory of evolution as true and their actions to defend the culture surrounding this idea. US Representative Rush Holt (D. NJ) took steps in early 2013 to introduce a resolution to the US House of Representatives that would federally recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12, as Darwin Day. Holt, a nuclear physicist and leader within the Quaker community, wants to formally recognize the scientific communities’ contributions, “the jobs it creates, [and] the lives it saves”.

This article, written by Mark Oppenheimer, juxtaposes Holt’s views and scientific and religious credibility with the reputation and policies of Paul Broun, an evangelical Christian who represents Georgia in the US House. Broun has been quoted as saying that “evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory, all that is lies, straight from the pit of hell” to “keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior”. A Baptist and a member of the Gideons, Broun has clearly allowed his personal religious beliefs to influence his political ideology and thus his support or lack thereof for Holt’s Darwin Day.

Oppenheimer explores the backlash surrounding Darwin and the theory of evolution among secular and religious communities within the US and makes a point to distinguish between the cultural significance of Darwin and the scientific facts on evolution. The resolution, HRES 41, was introduced to the House in 2013 and subsequently referred to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology but unfortunately never made it out of committee. An identitical resolution was resubmitted in January 2014 and suffered the same fate.

If this resolution were to pass in the US House and the Senate, how do you think the American people would react? How do you think the evangelical community would react? How would the communities you are from respond? Do you think this is a good idea or do you believe this resolution violates the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution?

https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-resolution/467

https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-resolution/41

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Now Playing In a Theatre Not So Near You: Creation

http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2009/sep/25/creation-charles-darwin-british-film

Ever heard of the film, Creation? Me neither. Perhaps because this film never got much praise within the United States. Not a single U.S. distributer wanted to pick up this title until more than four months after its initial release in the UK and world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. With so much global attention, this title only played in 5 cinemas in the U.S. Why?

Creation is about the life of none other than Charles Darwin, his extremely religious wife, and the growing tension between them due to the research Darwin conducted for his book, The Origin of Species. For fear that this title may stir up too much controversy and steer away viewers, U.S. distributors avoided purchasing the rights to show the film.

This film was created by BBC Films and the UK Film Council and made releases in various countries worldwide including Canada, Japan, Greece, Australia, and Belgium; however the U.S. was the last country to find a distributor because of our nation’s controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Although most UK foreign films do not make an impression in the American cinema scene, this movie had worldwide attention and recognition as it was the opening film at the Toronto Film Festival. The film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, worked to promote the film and fight for its eventual U.S. release saying, “It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.” (telegraph.com).

While Thomas does not reside in the U.S., he does bring up an important point that our nation is quite divided among the liberal urban dwellers and conservative rural citizens. Compared to other western civilizations, the U.S. a much lower acceptance rate for the theory of evolution. According to sciencemag.org the UK and US have the same level of awareness of Darwin’s theory (71%) but US’s acceptance is 41% compared to 62% for the UK as of 2009 (the year of the movie’s release).

Is it necessarily true that this movie’s controversial theme was the reason for its lack of success? Do you believe that films with controversial themes are less popular among viewers, when films such as Brokeback Mountain or Planet of the Apes dominated the box offices during their releases? Can we attribute this movie’s lack of U.S. success because of it’s theme on evolution?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6173399/Charles-Darwin-film-too-controversial-for-religious-America.html

http://blogs.sciencemag.org/origins/2009/07/evolution-theory-and-religious.html

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What about Islam and Evolution?

So far, a lot of the discussion has focused on the controversy between Christianity and evolution in the United States.  What if we looked at the relationship between evolution and a different religion in a different region of the world—say Islam in the Middle East?   Zapaer Alip, the author of the article below, writes about the McGill Center for Islam and Science and its mission to explore religion and science in Muslim communities.

http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/10/islam-and-evolution/

Though “there is no contradiction between Islam and evolution,” as Professor Dajani from the McGill Center stated, most Muslims continue to refute evolution.  One of the reasons for this issue is the language barrier Arabic-speaking communities are burdened with.  It took a century for any Arabic translation of Darwin’s book to be published.  One hundred years is a long time to not have any translation of a major scientific theory available in a country.  So when being introduced to the theory of evolution, it makes sense that Muslims would join the opinion of refuting Christians—that the idea of evolution should be discarded because it contradicts long-held religious beliefs and scripture.  Evolution was a completely new idea, and Christianity was a familiar concept that held similar foundations to Islam.  Without accurate language translations and modern scientific development, Muslim people stuck to the familiar.

Muslim communities are definitely behind in the scientific community, but Alip discusses the different aspects of science based on culture.  Islamic countries rely on Western society for scientific advances, but one cannot fix this issue by simply transferring Western science into Muslim communities.  Alip believes that cultures, and religions, can have unique effects on science.  Science is the study of the physical/natural world through observation and experiment, so should culture really have an effect on it?  Observations can be tainted by perspectives and biases based on one’s upbringing, so maybe culture does influence the study of science—especially if you look at fanatic religious groups and how they can impact societies.

The following news article from MSNBC reports of tactics from ISIS to limit teaching certain subjects in Iraqi schools—including evolution.

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/isis-targets-evolution-iraqi-schools

The hostile Islamic group banned the teaching of evolution and endorses “religious sciences” instead—even though most Iraqi schools did not teach evolution in the first place (hinting at the already underdeveloped scientific knowledge in Muslim countries).  The MSNBC report strengthens the McGill article’s argument that predominantly Muslim countries are not up to date with modern thought and ideas.  How do zealous religious groups hinder the progress of countries in the scientific world?  Do you think it’s possible that religion can advance or “spark an ambition” for scientific knowledge and discovery in evolution like Alip alludes to?  Does culture play an important role in assessing scientific progress—and specifically, the acceptance of evolution—in different countries? Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have some of the lowers acceptance rates of evolution—25-30% (http://ncse.com/news/2013/05/polling-muslims-evolution-0014838).  Do you think these low rates are caused because of the Islamic religion, the underdevelopment of science, or both?

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Reconciliation Not Met with Open Arms

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1055597/Church-makes–8216-ludicrous-8217-apology-Charles-Darwin–126-years-death.html

This news article was published by Mail Online, a couple of years ago in 2008, as the article also references Sarah Palin as a US Vice Presidential Candidate. The Church of England apologized to Darwin for its years of attacks claiming that they misunderstood his theory of evolution. This comes 126 years after Charles Darwin’s death. The apology is considered to be similar to Pope John Paul II’s apology to Galileo for his Vatican trial. Charles Darwin’s great grandson dismissed the apology as pointless, but did say that the apology would have pleased Darwin as his wife was a committed Christian, and that he never wished to offend anyone.

Many people criticized the apology as being “ludicrous” saying that, “the Church already apologized for slavery and the crusades, when is it all going to stop?” In this article we see a conflict of opinions based on motive and point of this apology. The Church claims that it is trying to relieve itself of the wrongs committed by their predecessors. Critics view this as pointless and see this as making the Church of England look weak.

I think that this article poses a question. What does this apology accomplish? When you dig deeper in this article it references a debate that took place in England between Darwin’s theory and the Church’s theory. Playing off of these earlier tensions in society that occurred all over the world and in the United States, I also think of the Following Question. If Darwin’s theory had been first introduced today, would we be more accepting of his theory, or is it the conflict that has moved us as a society to the point we are now?

Petre, Mail on Sunday Reporter, Jonathan. “Church Makes ‘ludicrous’ Apology to Charles Darwin – 126 Years after His Death.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

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The Theory of Gravity vs. “Intelligent Falling”

http://www.theonion.com/articles/evangelical-scientists-refute-gravity-with-new-int,1778/

This intriguing article, published in 2005, details a lesser-known educational controversy that coincided with the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial: the debate over the theory of gravity vs. “Intelligent Falling”. Proponents of Intelligent Falling, or “IF” argued that there are too many “phenomena that cannot be explained by secular gravity alone”, and insisted that “they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue so they can make an informed decision.” The article explains the holes that IF supporters have found in gravitists’ logic, and offers IF’s alternative explanations.

Now, before anyone bites my head off: yes, I know this is a joke article, and that “The Onion” is a satirical news source. I know that The Onion’s articles are meant to be comical, and often absurd— but that does not mean that they are without value.

In our modern culture, it seems that there are almost as many comedic/satirical news sources as there are “legitimate” news sources. I’m willing to bet that far more of you watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” or “The Colbert Report” than CNN or NBC or FOX News. What is more, the line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” has become more and more blurred in recent years— as American politics have become more polarized, so the news sources have become more biased and extreme, favoring one pole or the other. What is more credible? A source that is full of bias and sensationalism, while maintaining a façade of impartial reporting, or a source that is open in its intentions, with no false pretense of “serious reporting”? Even though satires almost always favor one side or the other, I’ve found the genre as a whole to be more credible. Jon Stewart, for example, knows how to make fun of both liberals and conservatives (though granted, conservatives are bullied far more often), and puts both sides in check when they’ve gotten out of hand. I would venture to say that he is equally biased as many of those news sources regarded as legitimate; the difference is that he doesn’t profess neutrality.

Am I saying that it is better to read The Onion than CNN.com? Or The New York Times? Of course not. But this article is really not that ridiculous. Replace the term “gravity” with “evolution”, and “IF” with “ID”, and you have a perfectly passable article for the Intelligent Design campaign. It uses parallel arguments (e.g. that the theory of evolution/gravity is “founded on great gaps in understanding”, etc.) and parallel language.

Of course, this is just my personal opinion. What do you guys think— is it useful to examine comedic pieces as legitimate cultural commentary? As actual news? If so, what new perspective do you think we can gain from reading this parody? Or any parody/piece of satire, for that matter? Did it make you notice any aspects of the ID argument that you hadn’t before? Do you think I’m wasting your time, having you read a fake article?

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Divorcing Darwin

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/science/10essa.html?pagewanted=all

It’s time to divorce Darwin. At least that’s what Carl Safina thinks. The MacArthur fellow believes that the theory of evolution has evolved beyond Darwin, and our inability to separate the man from the concept is hindering its legitimacy.

Using the terms “Darwinism” and “evolution” interchangeably is dangerous for two reasons. First, it diminishes the gains made by every scientist since Darwin towards the advancement of the theory of evolution. Darwin came up with the foundational theories behind natural selection but had no means of understanding the mechanics. As Safina points out, “Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him”. Not until Gregor Mendel’s heredity experiments and Watson and Crick’s double helix discovery could the theory be truly explained. Myriad biologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists have made significant contributions to the theory of evolution, but Darwin gets all the credit. Essentially this disregards all the progress that has been made since his piece de resistance was published in 1859.

Not only is that ignoring 155 years of development, but it makes the theory of evolution sound less like a scientific consensus and more like a cult theory. Dare I say that naming the theory after the person who first proselytized it implies religious connotations? Calling it Darwinism rather than evolution transforms Charles Darwin from an accomplished scientist into a cult leader, and makes the nearly universally accepted scientific theory seem like the beliefs of one individual. Safina also makes the point that linguistics-wise, using the term “Darwinism” in opposition to the term “creationism” subconsciously puts the two concepts on equal footing and creates a false equivalency.

We also must take into consideration the fact that the Darwin name has unfortunately been tainted. Creationists rarely fail to point out the links between the concept of natural selection and the racist theories that stemmed from it, in particular eugenics and Social Darwinism, which was used as justification for Western imperialism during much of the 19th century.

So is Darwin holding back the theory of evolution?

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Got Milk?

The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History:
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_evolution/2012/10/evolution_of_lactose_tolerance_why_do_humans_keep_drinking_milk.html

It seems to me that human beings have shared a fairly convoluted relationship with milk. The aforementioned article documents a remarkable evolutionary tale that interlaces lactose intolerance with natural selection.

The author of the article, Benjamin Phelan, begins with a satirically biblical allusion to the “first two Homo sapiens”, Adam and Eve. The introduction sets the tone for the rest of the article; the author’s witty perspective on the subject is woven with scientific evaluations backed up by contemporary research. The purpose of the article is fairly straightforward, Phelan attempts to explain how human beings were predominantly not inclined to drinking milk beyond infancy by developing early-onset lactose intolerant; however, a genetic mutation, that consequently spread like wildfire, resulted in humans gaining tolerance towards lactose and, ergo, somehow may have played a role in shaping the future of human civilization.

What’s remarkable about the mutation for lactose tolerance was the degree with which it spread throughout populations across the world. Except for the Americas, the mutation had made its way from Europe to India along with discrepancies in the mutation cropping up in Africa and the Middle East. Another interesting point put forth by the article is how the cultural development of civilization and agriculture having coincided with the widespread consumption of milk.

Phelan explores a number of theories explaining why and how milk became a preferable source of nutrition. He elaborates on his analysis by stating possible theories by MIT geneticist Pardis Sabeti (whom he hilariously introduces as lactose-intolerant). Sabeti opined that milk had Darwinian implications by being able to boost women’s fertility. She also stated that milk might have provided humans with a healthier, more hygienic alternative to water.

The article concludes in a similar fashion to the way it begins, bringing back the biblical metaphor and creating a sense of syntactic symmetry.

Would you agree with Phelan’s association of the proliferation of civilization with the consumption of milk? Do you think it’s possible for something as trivial as milk to leave that kind of evolutionary footprint on the human race? Or is the author, in the hope of a good read, touting what could have been a natural coincidence as a colossal evolutionary correlation?

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