Amazing discovery by scientists in a south african cave: a new species of human, perhaps one of our most primitive ancestors! Scientists are still unsure about the age of the fossils, but they are predicting somewhere between 2.5 million and 2.8 million years old! The bones had been discovered nearly two years ago, but the work is out this week in the open access (yay) journal eLife.
A reconstruction of the skull and hand of Homo naledi, a human ancestor discovered in South Africa. Credit Naashon Zalk for The New York Times
The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.
In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.
“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Dr. Berger said.
In the ongoing conflict between science and creationism, evolution is usually a main point of contention. The idea that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor is a major problem for creationists. As a geologist, though, I think that the rocks beneath our feet offer even better arguments against creationism. For the creationist model doesn’t square with what you can see for yourself. And this has been known since before Darwin wrote a word about evolution.
What the rocks say
I don’t have to travel very far to make this case. There’s a slab of polished rock on the wall outside my department office that refutes so-called Flood Geology: the view that a global, world-shattering flood explains geologic history after the initial creation of Earth by God. This eight-foot-long slab is a conglomerate – a rock made from water-worked fragments of older rocks.
It’s what you’d get if you buried a riverbed composed of many different types of rock deep enough below ground for temperature and pressure to forge it into a new rock. Preserved in it, you can see the original particles of sand, gravel and cobbles made of various kinds of rock. And if you look closely you can see some of the cobbles are themselves conglomerates — rocks within rocks.
Why does this disprove the creationist view of geology? Because a conglomerate made of fragments of an older conglomerate not only requires a first round of erosion, deposition, and burial deep enough to turn the original sediments into rock. It requires another pass through the whole cycle to turn the second pile of sedimentary rock fragments into another conglomerate.
In other words, this one rock shows that there is more to the geologic record than creationists describe in their scripturally-interpreted version of earth history. A single grand flood cannot explain it all. Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves. This, of course, is no surprise to geologists who have established that the world is billions of years old, far older than the thousands of years that creationists infer from adding up the generations enumerated in the Bible.
Early Christians read nature as well as the Bible
In researching my book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, I looked into the history of thought about the biblical flood. What I found surprised me on two levels. First, most of the early workers who pioneered what we now call geology were clergy dedicated to reading God’s other book — nature. Second, in pitting science against Christianity, today’s young Earth creationists essentially ignore centuries of Christian theology.
For the first thousand years of Christianity, the church considered literal interpretations of the stories in Genesis to be overly simplistic interpretations that missed deeper meaning. Influential thinkers like Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas held that what we could learn from studying the book of nature could not conflict with the Bible because they shared the same author. Yes, it seems that one of the oldest traditions in Christian thought holds that when reason contradicts favored interpretations of scripture about the natural world then those interpretations should be reconsidered.
In keeping with this view, mainstream Christians reinterpreted the biblical stories of the creation and flood after geological discoveries revealed that Earth had a longer and more complicated history than would be inferred from a literal reading of Genesis. Perhaps, they concluded, the days in the week of creation corresponded to geological ages. Maybe Noah’s flood was not global but a devastating Mesopotamian flood.
Young Earth creationists break from history
For over a century, such views dominated mainstream Christian theology until the twentieth century rise of young Earth creationism. This is the version of creationism to which Ken Ham subscribes – you might remember his debate with Bill Nye from 2014. Young Earth creationists imagine that people lived with dinosaurs and that Noah’s flood shaped the world’s topography. In fact, this brand of creationism, embodied by Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, is actually one of the youngest branches of Christianity’s family tree.
Interestingly, one can challenge Flood Geology on biblical grounds. What did Noah do in the biblical story? He saved two of every living thing. So consider the case of fossils, which creationists attribute to the flood. What you find in the rocks is that more than 99% of all species entombed in the rock record are extinct. This simple fact offers a stark contrast to what you would expect to find based on a literal reading of the biblical story.
After looking into the long history of engagement and cross-pollination between geology and Christianity, I find it curious that the conversation constantly gravitates to arguments for and against evolution. Overlooked is how the young Earth creationist’s literal interpretation of biblical stories runs afoul of basic geological observations — like that slab of rock on the wall near my office.
A key point that gets lost in debates over the modern perception of conflict between science and religion is the degree to which this is actually a conflict within religion over how to view science.
The above poll results are from Public Policy Polling between Feb 20-22, 2015. The poll only includes 316 Republican primary voters, so it is quite a small sample. BUT, this type of polling could explain why most Republican candidates come across as anti-science, or at least seem to waffle or be strongly against supporting evolution and/or global warming. I wonder if results would vary at all if the poll had used ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’… which it definitely should have.
I’m going to punt on that one as well. That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other. So I’m going to leave that up to you.
I’m here to talk about trade and not pontificate on other issues. I love the evolution of trade in Wisconsin and I’d like to see an even bigger evolution as well.
While I agree that a politician shouldn’t be involved in answering the question of evolution, I disagree that politicians shouldn’t say what their beliefs are, how else will people make educated decisions when voting for their representation. Walker later released a response statement that indicates he is further walking the line on evolution:
Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand.
“We obsess about whether our dog is a pug-Jack Russell terrier mix with corgi overtones and an oaky finish. ‘An approachable little dog,’ whatever. They’re all dogs, okay? And so the idea of a purebred is just a human construct. There’s no such thing – in a sense there’s no such thing as a purebred dog.”
Bill Nye Talks Dogs and Explores the Lessons of Canine Evolution
Bill Nye the Science Guy returns to Big Think to discuss evolution, this time from a canine point of view. Nye explains how dogs evolved out of an early human-wolf interaction which today benefits both species. He also draws a comparison between dog breeds and the social construct of race, claiming that both are man-made myths not steeped in science. Bill’s latest book is “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation.”
In case you missed it, we have a new Defender of Science (and evolution) in an unexpected place!
Background here: Curt Shilling and Keith Law, both ESPN baseball analysts, engaged in a twitter debate about evolution and science. Curt Shilling posted a number of tweets questioning evolution, which Keith Law rebutted with SCIENCE! ESPN then suspended Law for defending evolution, but then later reinstated him. Obviously all of this caused a huge commotion in the twitter-verse. More on the story here and here. Keith Law not only wins for defending science, but also for his tweet response after being reinstated by ESPN…. shout out to science heretic history~!
Our brains are each made of billions of cells, called neurons, that link together to form living circuit boards that control everything from our thoughts to our behaviors to the rhythm of our breathing. We aren’t the only creatures with brains, but our brains are unique in terms of their size relative to our bodies, and in terms of their complexity. Just how did incremental changes to ancient animal brains, over millions of years, eventually result in this most sophisticated of living, computing machines?
Check out the in depth and thoughtful analysis of how we have come to be the way we/our brains are!
When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything — but that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.
God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.
Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature. But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator.