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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Judged for Your Actions?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've been rather busy recently, so I only have a short entry for today. It's more of just a thought.

I've read in many places, from articles to books to blog comment sections, the accusation that atheists are afraid to be judged for their actions. In this particular form, the argument seems silly. According to many of the more fundamentalist sects of Christianity, it is faith alone which saves a person, not their actions (more). But even ignoring that, most mainline Christian sects believe that acceptance of Christ is a requirement for admission to heaven.

So, rather than being judged for our actions, most sects of Christianity teach that there's really only one all important single action for which we'll be judged. It makes no difference if we've lived our entire lives giving selflessly, donating away all of our money, and spending every free moment volunteering to help people. It doesn't matter if we live like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. If we don't believe Jesus is real, then the rest of our actions are irrelevant, and we're damned anyway.

I've written along similar lines before, for anyone interested.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 6

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 6, A Blighted Ancestral Tree.

Anybody who follows the evolution/creationism debate on the Internet is familiar with the term ad hominem. It's an attack on a person's character instead of their actual arguments. This passage is a good example of an ad hominem attack.

The materialistic scientists would tell us they have no fault to find with the critics of Ernst Haeckel, who object to his scientific forgeries and falsifications. That is old stuff, they say. Yet this thing [Osborn's proposed family tree - jrl], published in the name of science as an ancestral tree of the anthropoid apes and man, is a 1921 contribution to man's "knowledge" concerning himself. If it is not the same old stuff, newly dressed, what is it? (McCann 81-82)

Ernst Haeckel had some good ideas and some bad ideas. His recapitulation theory is now widely rejected. He was also involved in some controversy over some of his illustrations. In one case, he used the same woodcut three times, labeling the same illustration as dog, chick, and turtle embryos. He also might have doctored some illustrations to emphasize the similarity between embryos of different species. These controversies seriously damaged his reputation, but it doesn't change the actual fact that embryos of different species really do look similar (here's a longer explanation).

But no matter what Haeckel's reputation, proposed evolutionary family trees do not depend on him. There is no reason to bring up Haeckel except to try to use his tarnished reputation to make evolutionary science in general look bad.

(Note, however, that I'm not completely against ad hominem attacks as a kind of shortcut. There are too many claims in the world to thoroughly evaluate all of them. That's why reputations are so important. If you already evaluated some of a person's claims and concluded that they're a dishonest fraud, you can save your time by not looking into their other claims. Logically speaking, this doesn't actually address the veracity of their other claims, and if you're going to get involved in a debate, you damn well better address actual claims instead of resorting to ad hominem attacks, but in the real world where time is precious, you can save yourself a lot of hassle by ignoring hucksters.)

Here's another example of McCann being betrayed by thinking of evolution as a linear process.

But the fine skulls [Cro-Magnons - jrl], the philosphers' skulls, the skulls that might have belonged to any modern European, must have some kind of attention. The dramatists of evolution are ready. Instead of admitting that the races were contemporaneous, occupying Europe at the same time, they summon the Cro-Magnons (a little later) to kill off the Neanderthals. But what were the Cro-Magnons doing when they were getting ready to do the killing? They must have been in existence. They couldn't have just come up around the corner from nowhere. The absurdity of the thing is of such a nature as to make one gasp when the word "science" is used in describing it, unless used in the serio-comic sense. (McCann 83)

As a matter of fact, the Cro-Magnons kind of did "just come up around the corner", only it was from Africa, not from nowhere. Remember that the actual family trees of all the species on this planet is much more like a bush than a tree. Our family tree is no different. We had many hominid cousins, and in fact, we're living in a rather unique period to only have a single surviving hominid species. Back when Neanderthals were the dominant hominids in Europe, it doesn't mean that hominid evolution had stopped elsewhere. The lineage that led to us continued evolving in Africa, giving rise to modern humans around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Once the last ice age ended, our species expanded out of Africa, eventually colonizing every major landmass except Antarctica, and displacing Neanderthals from Europe. The cause of the extinction of the Neanderthals still isn't settled, but it was probably more a case of being outcompeted by homo sapiens in a changing environment, rather than direct, brutal killing.

One of the most common complaints from people who reject evolution is to say, 'I didn't come from a monkey' (a google search for that phrase returned over a million hits). It's a purely emotional argument, and as old as the concept of evolution, itself.

A late instance of this corruption of science took the form of a full page in the New York Sunday American, August 21, 1921, "explaining why baby can't possibly look like papa or mamma. It is still too close to its monkey cousins." According to the "scientific prospects" we shall soon enjoy "well-trained, gentle-mannered, orderly household servants, monkey servants." They will even work in the fields and on the farm "picking cotton and doing other agricultural labor. All monkeys, from the chimpanzee down, are properly to be regarded as PEOPLE. They are our cousins." Adult apes are quite human and human infants are very much simian. "Therefore when mother speaks of baby as a 'little monkey' let us realize that the term is more descriptively accurate than she knows." (McCann 86)

I'll use this as a chance to discuss one of my pet peeves from people arguing in support of evolution. Often times, when someone brings up the monkey argument against evolution (or the related, 'if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?'), someone will pipe up and say that we didn't evolve from monkeys, but that monkeys and us have a common ancestor. If you've been reading these entries, recall my analogy from Chapter 2 with Germans. While living Germans aren't my ancestors, we share a common ancestry. Since our common ancestors lived in Germany, they would certainly be called Germans. Likewise, we're not descended from any living monkeys, but share a common ancestor. However, if we used a time machine to bring that ancestor into the present, I don't think anyone would hesitate to call that animal a monkey, even if it was a different species from any monkey alive today.

This is one of my favorite mistakes of McCann's. It only takes a trip to a zoo and a simple observation to show how he was wrong.

Perhaps, even after the return of the Andrews expedition, we shall have to continue our waiting [for a missing link - jrl]. But in the meantime let us not forget that early in 1921 the same Ditmars, at the request of Professor William K. Gregory, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, acting for the Galton Society of Washington, D. C,. collected the finger-prints of monkeys for comparison with the finger-prints of men. The results have added to the bewilderment, embarrassment and confusion of the monkey evolutionists. The prints show that the human hand is marked on the tips of the fingers and on the tips of the thumbs, as every one knows, with lines arranged in whorls. The arrangement with respect to the monkey hand, as everyone does not know, is just the reverse.

Monkey finger-tips are marked in parallel lines and the monkey whorls, literally gorgeous in design, when compared with the very much simpler and less conspicuous human whorls, are found not on the tips of the fingers where the ape-man evolutionist would have been delighted to find them, but rather on the palms of the hand where, as far as the evolutionist is concerned, they have no business at all. (McCann 92-93>

If McCann ever had gone to the zoo, here's what he would have seen:

Monkey Hand
photo source

The truth is that all primates have figerprints, and that they're as unique to individuals as are human fingerprints.

What really makes this one of my favorite parts, though, is to look at the fantastic claims he spun off into from that erroneous base.

The curious shifting of the whorls through evolutionary processes from mount to tip and from tip to mount should have been followed by other shifts than those now noted for the first time in the matter of parallel lines and whorls. In evolutionary harmony with these radical shifts why should the monkey's eyes not be found in the back of his head? Why should his tail not protrude like a beard from his chin? Why should his feet not be where his hands are, and vice versa, though not in the fashion of Mr. Barnum's mule, whose tail was where his head should have been-in the feed-bag?

Why the monkey's stomach should have remained at anchor while his whorls were searching about for a change of scene Mr. Wells and the professors who have inspired him will have to make clear. Mr. Barnum didn't, and Mr. Ditmars, who waits with eager expectation, is perplexed beyond expression; all of which brings us to the difference between futile enthusiasm on the one hand and changeless truth on the other. (McCann 94-95)

For anyone actually interested in how our bodies develop in the patterns they do, an understanding of hox genes is essential.

From that very same section, McCann shows that even back then, creationists were conflating evolution with abiogenesis.

The difference between the average layman to whom "Wells and his brilliancy appeal and the scientist who deals not with fancy, but with fact, is the difference between futile enthusiasm and changeless truth. The layman talks about evolution as if it were an established historical fact; the scientist confesses that to science, unaided by philosophy, the origin of life is unknown, and that the origin of the main organic types and their principal divisions are to science similarly unknown. (McCann 95)

The origin of life is as relevant to the study of evolution as the origin of the atmosphere is to the study of meteorology. In each case, of course, the latter requires the former, as you can't study something that doesn't exist, and the specifics of the origin of something will define the character of that something. But really, you can understand quite a bit about how complex systems work without knowing how they formed.

Proceed to Chapter 7

Monday, March 21, 2011

Email Debunking - Government Mandated CFL Bulbs

CFL BulbAnother chain mail found its way into my inbox. It links to a video of Texas Representative Ted Poe, speaking on the House floor about the evils of our intrusive government forcing us to use light bulbs containing toxic mercury. You'll have to watch the video below to hear all of the claims, but rest assured, they're almost entirely false. I know, I know. It's a shock that a Republican Congressman would lie in front of the House, but that seems to be the case here.

Here's the e-mail I received. I didn't completely match the formatting from the e-mail, but I at least tried to give a flavor for the way it looked.


MORE political "LUNACY" of "Selected Officials" knowing better!!
Take a look at this video for some incite into the use of our new "Required" light bulbs.
This short talk is by a Texas representative in congress who is a bit upset with the new regulations regarding said light bulbs. If it doesn't make you laugh you will surely cry.



Here's the text and video from the page that link takes you to.

Once Again, a Government ‘Improvement’ Makes Things Exponentially Worse

Here’s an excellent summation by a Congressman from Texas of all the wonderful things we have to look forward to once we are forced by the Federal government to use only the new environmentally-“friendly” CFL light bulbs by 2014.

[Video moved to after blockquote]

Poe's whole rant was based on a false premise. The legislation passed by the federal government was for efficiency standards, not specific technology:

So, if you don’t want to use a mercury containing CFL bulb, you could use an LED or ESL bulb. Plus, there are new incandescent bulbs coming onto the market that meet the new efficiency standards:

He also misrepresented the EPA by calling those instructions ‘law’ instead of merely recommendations:

There’s also a U.S. company that manufactures CFLs:

I think that covers most of his points. It reminds me of the title of Al Franken’s book (which I haven't read), Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

When I responded to the person who originally sent me the e-mail, he was appalled that a representative would so blatantly say untrue things in front of Congress. We've voted our representatives into positions of trust running our government. They should be capable and honorable. Poe was either so incompetent that he actually didn't understand the law, or he was dishonest and was simply lying to pander to his constituency. I wish I could say that I was appalled by his actions, too, but I guess I've become jaded by politics.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 5

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 5, The Gibraltar Man.

Once again, McCann shows that he doesn't like tentativeness.

In this opinion Osborn derives satisfaction for the reason that it is shared by Boule and Schwalbe. As to just how long it will be so shared he is not so sure, for he says: "It is possible, however, that the skeletons discovered at Predmost may modify this conclusion and demonstrate Hrdlicka's theory that the Neanderthals survived and left descendants along the valley of the Danube. " (McCann 70)

This is one thing I just never understood in creationist literature. Why should there be absolute certainty about all conclusions? In areas where evidence is sketchy, we can draw tentative conclusions, but we should be prepared to change them in the light of new evidence. Anything else would be close minded, and worse, would indicate a kind of vanity by assuming that our current conclusions are better than anything anybody else might come up with.

I think the following series of quotes is the section that irritated me the most from McCann. McCann starts off by quoting Karl Frank on the potential difficulties in reconstructing the history of life from the fossil record.

The generosity of Osborn in assigning hundreds of thousands of years to his age periods is worthy of note for the reason that he fixes the beginning of the age of man at some 500,000 years ago. On this point Karl Frank ("Theory of Evolution," London, 1913, pp, 18-21), throws a strong light revealing obstacles that must arrest the unreckoning and impulsive speed of the too eager driver. He says: "It is only when it is known which stratum or layer is older or younger than another that we can also know which organisms are older or younger than others accordingly. This determination of the age of the earth's strata is, however, a very difficult matter, and the course of evidence which led to the generally recognized arrangement of the four (or five) groups of formations, is not far removed from a vicious circle, especially when we consider the mode of expression used by many authors.... (McCann 71)

This detailed explanation goes on for a few pages until Frank's conclusion.

"If the fauna of 'a,' or a group of the same, should not, generally speaking, reappear, and is no longer seen at the present day, then it is 'extinct.' How and when it became so, we are so far ignorant.

"It is therefore seen how difficult it is to make clear the process of evolution for a definite group. Many geologists entirely despaired of the possibility of so exact a definition of the ages of the formations as was needful to that end. Incomplete, very incomplete indeed, must our knowledge ever be." (McCann 73)

And what's McCann's well thought out refutation of this detailed explanation?

The confusion knows no bounds. (McCann 73)

That's such a condescending dismissal of several pages worth of intelligent discussion. It also reminds me of the basic gist of most Intelligent Design arguments - 'It's too complicated for me to understand, therefore God did it.'

On a lark, I looked up one of the quotes of Darwin in the book, just to see what the actual context was. What I discovered, to little surprise, was that creationists were no better at quoting back in the beginning of the last century than they are at the beginning of this century. Here's how McCann quoted Darwin (in reference to the various estimates of the age of the earth at the time, particularly Thomson's younger estimate).

Charles Darwin never ceased to dread these difficulties, which so upset him that at times he was actually ready to abandon the whole theory of evolution as something which got farther and farther away from proof as its followers got farther and farther into difficulties. Writing to Alfred Russell Wallace, July, 1871, he moaned: "I feel sick of everything, and if I could occupy my time I would never publish another word. I can say nothing more about missing-links than what I have said. I should rely much on pre-silurian times; but then comes Sir W. Thomson like an odious spectre." (McCann 74-75)

Here's what Darwin actually wrote, with a bit more from before where McCann chose to start quoting him (source). Starting with the sentence where McCann actually started his quote, I've italicized everything that McCann omitted (with nary an ellipse).

I feel very doubtful how far I shall succeed in answering Mivart, it is so difficult to answer objections to doubtful points, and make the discussion readable. I shall make only a selection. The worst of it is, that I cannot possibly hunt through all my references for isolated points, it would take me three weeks of intolerably hard work. I wish I had your power of arguing clearly. At present I feel sick of everything, and if I could occupy my time and forget my daily discomforts, or rather miseries, I would never publish another word. But I shall cheer up, I dare say, soon, having only just got over a bad attack. Farewell; God knows why I bother you about myself. I can say nothing more about missing-links than what I have said. I should rely much on pre-silurian times; but then comes Sir W. Thomson like an odious spectre. Farewell.

BTW, Sir W. Thomson is now more commonly known as Lord Kelvin. What Darwin is referring to is Kelvin's estimate of the age of the Earth. Kelvin performed some calculations to see how long it would take the Earth to cool to its current surface temperature based on a molten beginning. His initial estimate, from 1864, was 20 to 400 million years. He refined this over the years, and finally settled on 20-40 million years in 1897. He made a few assumptions that his contemporaries were already arguing, but he also had no idea of radioactivity - a heat source which significantly affects the calculation. Ernest Rutherford pointed out the effect of radioactivity in a lecture in the first decade of the 20th century, and people were already beginning to try to use radioactivity to estimate the age of the Earth in the early 1900s. Considering that McCann's book was published in 1922, there's no excuse for him not to have known about the then decade old science.

I mentioned this already, but I wonder what McCann would think if he were to see Lucy. Also, I wonder if he even read Darwin, considering how many lines of evidence apart from fossil evidence Darwin used to support evolution.

We have seen that there have been no "pre-human forms" and that the scientists who continue their eager search for "pre-human forms" have confessed that as far as their efforts have been rewarded there are no "pre-human forms." That is, indeed, an historical fact. It cannot be repeated too often. (McCann 76)

And as long as I'm repeating the mention of Lucy, I might as well repeat the link to hominid fossils on the TalkOrigins site. "Pre-human forms" have been found in abundance.

After as much of a big deal as McCann made in Chapters 1 and 2 about how Neanderthals were nothing more than modern humans that fit into the normal natural variation, it might seem surprising that he would be so happy with the following bit of information. I guess this is an argument that Chapter 3 McCann likes.

Referring to the chief feature of the Jersey surprise Osborn says ("Men of the Old Stone Age," p. 226): "The roots, instead of tapering to a point below, as in modern man, form a broad stout column, supporting the crown, adapted to a sweeping motion of the jaw. THIS SPECIAL FEATURE ALONE WOULD EXCLUDE THE NEADNERTHALS FROM THE ANCESTRY OF THE HIGHER RACES." Here we have confirmation of one of our own surprises and are accordingly surprised all the more.

Thus it would appear that if we moderns are "the higher races" the Neanderthals were not our ancestors at all, and therefore cannot be regarded as the missing links connecting us with the ape. (McCann 77)

It's as almost as if McCann doesn't care if he's making a consistent argument, so long as what he's saying is critical of evolution.

Proceed to Chapter 6

Monday, March 14, 2011

Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas

Gas PumpThere's an e-mail that I seem to get just about every time gas prices go up. So, with the recent jump in prices, it's found its way to me again. The first time I got it several years ago, Snopes hadn't yet addressed it, so I wrote a quick reply to the person who sent it to me. Snopes has addressed it by now, but I still thought I'd share an updated version of what I wrote originally. It's a little more concise than the Snopes article.

First, for reference, here's the e-mail in question*. Note the claim to authority at the start, and the request to pass it on at the end. What chain mail would be complete without them?


I don't know what you guys are paying for gasoline.... but here in California we are paying up to $3.75 to $4.10 per gallon. My line of work is in petroleum for about 31 years now, so here are some tricks to get more of your money's worth for every gallon:

Here at the Kinder Morgan Pipeline where I work in San Jose, CA we deliver about 4 million gallons in a 24-hour period thru the pipeline. One day is diesel the next day is jet fuel, and gasoline, regular and premium grades. We have 34-storage tanks here with a total capacity of 16,800,000 gallons.

Only buy or fill up your car or truck in the early morning when the ground temperature is still cold. Remember that all service stations have their storage tanks buried below ground. The colder the ground the more dense the gasoline, when it gets warmer gasoline expands, so buying in the afternoon or in the evening....your gallon is not exactly a gallon. In the petroleum business, the specific gravity and the temperature of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, ethanol and other petroleum products plays an important role. A 1-degree rise in temperature is a big deal for this business. But the service stations do not have temperature compensation at the pumps.

When you're filling up do not squeeze the trigger of the nozzle to a fast mode. If you look you will see that the trigger has three (3) stages: low, middle, and high. You should be pumping on low mode, thereby minimizing the vapors that are created while you are pumping. All hoses at the pump have a vapor return. If you are pumping on the fast rate, some of the liquid that goes to your tank becomes vapor. Those vapors are being sucked up and back into the underground storage tank so you're getting less worth for your money.

One of the most important tips is to fill up when your gas tank is HALF FULL. The reason for this is the more gas you have in your tank the less air occupying its empty space. Gasoline evaporates faster than you can imagine. Gasoline storage tanks have an internal floating roof. This roof serves as zero clearance between the gas and the atmosphere, so it minimizes the evaporation. Unlike service stations, here where I work, every truck that we load is temperature compensated so that every gallon is actually the exact amount.

Another reminder, if there is a gasoline truck pumping into the storage tanks when you stop to buy gas, DO NOT fill up; most likely the gasoline is being stirred up as the gas is being delivered, and you might pick up some of the dirt that normally settles on the bottom.

To have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of gas buyers. It's really simple to do.

I'm sending this note to about thirty people. If each of you send it to at least ten more (30 x 10 = 300)...and those 300 send it to at least ten more (300 x 10 = 3,000) and so on, by the time the message reaches the sixth generation of people, we will have reached over THREE MILLION consumers!!!!!!! If those three million get excited and pass this on to ten friends each, then 30 million people will have been contacted!

If it goes one level further, you guessed it..... THREE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE!!!

Again, all you have to do is send this to 10 people. How long would it take?

The first time I read through this e-mail, I thought that it all seemed technically true, just not very significant. And the more I think about it, the more insignificant the effects seem.

The part about a gallon not being a gallon is silly wording, but I realize what the author was trying to get at - that the warmer it is, the less dense the gas is, so the less of it you're getting by mass. However, the fact that the tanks are buried underground means that temperature stays a lot more constant than if they were above ground, and any temperature fluctuation is pretty insignificant. In fact, I found this animated graph showing soil temperature by depth, and how it varies from hour to hour. One meter deep, and you can't see the graph moving at all**.

The part about gas evaporating if your tank's almost empty seems pretty silly, too. First of all, unless your tank was completely empty (like newly installed, never had a drop of gas in it - not likely if you actually drove your car to the station), your tank's already full of gasoline vapor. It's probably already at its max partial pressure. More gasoline won't evaporate unless you get rid of that vapor. But, even assuming that your tank was completely open to the atmosphere, gasoline doesn't evaporate that fast. I can think of plenty of projects where I've poured gas into a coffee can for cleaning a part or something, and I don't see the gas evaporating in front of my eyes. It usually doesn't take me more than a few minutes to fill up my tank, so I can't imagine that a significant amount of gas would evaporate in that time.

I wonder about the part on pumping gas faster making it evaporate more, too, for the same problem as above. Your gasoline may be slightly warmer because there's more work being done to it to get it to pump faster, but you've still got the problem that you're pumping it into a mostly closed container that's already going to be full of gasoline vapor. Plus, it's not like gas stations have terribly fast pumps - the pump at the airport I used to work at would put out a gallon every couple seconds or so (it was many years ago that I worked there, so I don't remember exactly).

The part about the tanker stirring up sediment seems like the best advice from the e-mail. However, according to that Snopes article, there are already filters in place at the gas station to minimize particulates making it into your tank.

Probably the best way to get the most mileage for your money is to adjust your driving habits, and not accelerate hard. I'd bet that would make your gas go a lot farther than only filling up on the slow setting on cold days.

* Some versions of the e-mail I've received were combined with another chain e-mail that had erroneous information about U.S. oil imports from the Middle East, and which companies were supposedly importing the most. Snopes has covered that one, as well.

** Also, with the thermal inertia of the fuel and tank, and the insulating properties of the tank, the fuel temperature will lag the ground temperature, meaning it's not at its coolest early in the morning. Assume that for a week, you have several days of the exact same weather. The ground temperature will oscillate from its high to low. The fuel will respond by being heated or cooled by the ground, but won't track it exactly. It will lag due to any insulating properties of the tanks. As long as the ground is warmer than the fuel, the fuel temperature will increase. When the ground temperature starts dropping, it's still a little warmer than the fuel, so the fuel temperature will continue increasing until the ground temperature finally drops below the fuel temperature. Now, the fuel will begin cooling, but lagging the ground temperature. When the ground temperature gets to its low point and starts increasing again, it will still be cooler than the fuel, so the fuel will continue to cool until the ground has warmed up some more. Still, with as little that the ground temperature varys, this is all academic, anyway.

Edited 2011-03-22 Moved the sentences about the start and end of the e-mail to before the blockquote, to improve flow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 3 & 4

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 3, The Neanderthal Man, and Chapter 4, The Last Link.

Chapter 3

Let's start off with this quote.

Thus came into existence a whole race of creatures now referred to as Homo neanderthalensis with an age of hundreds of thousands of years! or of but thirty thousand years! as you choose. (McCann 35)

This would only be a problem for strict gradualism, not evolution as we now understand it, or indeed, as some proposed it worked even in McCann's time.

Darwin proposed that all life changes very gradually over time. Many took this too far and assumed that the rate of change was constant, but Darwin himself didn't go that far. In Origin of Species, he actually wrote, "the periods during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured in years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retain the same form." Today, our understanding of this mode of evolution has been formalized into something known as punctuated equilibrium, and it appears that at least in some cases, that is the way history has played out. Even in McCann's time, there were some scientists arguing for saltationism, which was counter to gradualism (though saltationism isn't exactly the same thing as punctuated equilibrium). McCann even discussed 'saltatory theory' on page 384 of this book, so he must have known about it.

Obviously, punctuated equilibrium is not strictly an all or nothing process. Modern humans as we would recognize them have been around for about 100,000 to 200,000 years. We haven't formed into a new species in all that time. That's the stasis part. But there has still been a lot of gradual evolution on a smaller scale. Just look at the differences between different populations alive today, from the tall dark skinned Massai, to the short light skinned inhabitants of the island of Flores.

So, to say that some Neanderthal fossils are hundreds of thousands of years old and other Neanderthal fossils are thirty thousand years old simply implies that Neanderthals as a species existed for that time span. As a matter of fact, the best estimates now are that Neanderthals existed from 130,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago.

Trying to define when Neanderthals existed also illustrates the grey area in classifying species that's to be expected from evolution. As an example, let's imagine a population of short necked animals that gets split into two populations. Let's assume that one population lives in an environment that doesn't change, so the population itself doesn't change and stays the same species. But let's assume that for the second population, the environment changes in such a way that food becomes more scarce, so animals that can reach leaves in trees have an advantage, and natural selection thus favors longer necks. Each individual animal that's born still looks very much like it's parents, and is still very obviously a member of the same species as its parents. But assume that out of all the children born in each generation, those that survive to have children of their own have a neck that's 1 mm longer, on average, than their parents. After 1000 generations, the population would have necks a full meter longer than their great^1000 grandparents. If you compared them to the population that hadn't changed, you'd probably call them a new species. But when, during the course of that thousand generations, could you draw a clear dividing line, separating the old species from the new, saying that one generation of children are the new species, but their parents the old?

I've already explained the error in McCann's line of thinking here the in a previous installment of this review. I'm only including these entries because I thought the emphatic repetition was amusing.

Comparisons soon led to the definite claim that the cranium and bones represented no pathological or accidental monstrosity but a peculiar and thereto unknown type of ancient humanity who was a very close relative to modern man, but "equally close to some pre-existing ape now extinct." In other words he was equally close to something of which nothing existed ! (McCann 35)
Just why the thickness of the bones should be compared with the white man rather than with the African Negro or Australian Bushman is not clear, though the student is forced to admit that it is quite as clear as a comparison with something of which nothing exists! (McCann 35-36)
Professor Osborn himself says, p. 4, American Museum of Natural History guide leaflet series No. 52, May, 1921: "Man is not descended from any known form of ape either living or fossil." But he is descended from something of which nothing exists! (McCann 49)

Moving on...

Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn's 1921 contribution from the pen of the president of the American Museum of Natural History is boldly advertised as "The most important and complete (sic) work on human evolution since 'Darwin's Descent of Man.' It is the first full (sic) and authoritative (sic) presentation of what has been actually discovered (sic) up to the present time in regard to human pre-history. All the known pre-human and human stages of development for the last five hundred thousand years (sic) are described as fully (sic) and fairly (sic) as the material allows." Fully! Complete! Authoritative! Fairly! And this is "science." (McCann 42-43)

In the words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is just one example of what I was referring to in the introductory entry of this series, where I said that McCann was inordinately fond of using '(sic)'.

It's also worth keeping in mind McCann's disdain for tentativeness, whenever scientists describe things as possible, likely, probable, or anything less than absolutely certain. Here, when someone expresses more confidence, McCann criticizes them for not practicing good science.

Chapter 4

I already discussed Neanderthal's relation to humans in the previous installment of this review. I'm including this as an example of how similar McCann's writing is to the histrionics of modern day Internet trolls. Were I to see this posted in a comment section somewhere, I'd tell him not to shout.

Yet in "Men of the Old Stone Age," pp. 233-234, he rushes to the support of Professor Boule by quoting the latter as follows: "All these modern so-called Neanderthaloids are nothing but varieties of individuals of Homo sapiens (modern man), remarkable for the accidental exaggeration of certain anatomical traits which are normally developed in all specimens of the Neanderthal man.


Also, don't forget that in Chapters 1 and 2, McCann was arguing that Neanderthals were humans. So, it's a bit odd for him to now be arguing so emphatically that they weren't our ancestors.

Stay tuned for Chapter 5, The Gibraltar Man.

Proceed to Chapter 5

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review - Why Evolution Is True

I've just finished reading Jerry Coyne's book, Why Evolution Is True. This is one of my new favorites for introducing evolution to people who don't currently understand or accept it. It contains a great balance of theory and evidence, or in other words, explaining how evolution works, as well as showing the evidence of how we know that.

The book covered a wide range of topics, and did it well while keeping the book to a manageable length. It started with an explanation of what evolution actually is. This was a pretty important chapter, given how much many people misunderstand evolution. He then moved on to fossil evidence for evolution, followed by discussion of vestigial organs, embryological evidence, evidence from poor 'design', and biogeographical evidence. Following all that was a discussion of natural selection and sexual selection, and then a discussion of speciation. The penultimate chapter focused on recent human evolution (recent as in after the chimp & bonobo lineage diverged from ours). Finally was a chapter to wrap it all up, which also discussed what some people believe to be implications of evolution (i.e. if it says we're just animals, why not act like animals). Of course, by covering such a broad range of topics, Coyne couldn't delve too deeply into any single one, but I think it was very good for an introductory book.

Why Evolution Is True was written not just to explain evolution, but also as a counter to creationism. In many places, he pointed out why evolution was a more reasonable explanation to certain pieces of evidence than creationism. When I read Richard Dawkins' book, The Greatest Show on Earth, I'd mentioned that he hammered too hard on creationists, and that it was a bit of a distraction. In contrast, Coyne seemed to spend just enough time discussing creationism without it becoming too distracting from the far more interesting story of evolution itself.

Coyne was also very balanced in his discussions of controversial areas, or areas where the evidence isn't conclusive. For example, in the discussion of sexual selection, he mentioned both the good genes hypothesis and the perceptual bias hypothesis, as well as studies that provided evidence for both.

In short, this book is a great introduction to people who don't understand evolution. Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters may have a more detailed discussion of the fossil evidence, and Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank may have a more detailed discussion of the mechanisms, but Coyne's book has just the right balance of theory and evidence, especially evidence from a broad range of disciplines.

For a great review from Amazon, go here.

Updated 2011-11-02 Fixed link to Zimmer's The Tangled Bank.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fastnacht Day

Fastnacht Day is once again upon us. I'll be busy making fastnachts tomorrow morning in celebration. Since I don't have anything new to say from last year, or the year before, I'll just quote that entry one more time.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia CommonsDepending on where you are in the world, you may call tomorrow something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, it's called Fastnacht Day. Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. So, in celebration of Fastnachts, here's a recipe on my main site on how to make fastnachts, and a link to the (not so thorough) Wikipedia article.

You're supposed to wake up early to make the fastnachts on Tuesday morning (they're freshest that way), but I usually make them the night before. They keep pretty well in a brown paper lunch bag. I also like to put a little bit of powdered sugar into a ziploc bag, and a mix of granulated sugar and cinnamon into another one, to coat the fastnachts just before eating them.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Added 2011-03-08 - I brought my fastnachts in to share at work today. The people who were here last year remember them from then, but almost all of the new people hadn't heard of them. Anyway, to see just how popular they are back up in Pennsylvania, go read this article. Look at those pictures, and just how many fastnachts they're making. And according to this article, bakers in Hagerstown started baking on Sunday night to meet today's demand.

A guy from Chicago mentioned a similar tradition up there - paczkis, from the Polish immigrants. But instead of a hole in the middle like my family's fastnachts (not all fastnachts have the hole), they have a filling, usually jelly or creme. I guess lots of groups have invented traditions to allow indulgence before a 40 day fast.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Standards of Evidence for Religion

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've often written that I could be convinced of a religion given enough evidence. I suppose it would be fair to discuss just what that evidence would be.

Basically, anything that could truly be defined as miraculous would count as evidence toward a god. The Ebon Musings website has a page titled The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists, which contains lists of evidence that that author would find convincing. Overall, I agree with the types of evidence listed. These include fulfilled prophecies, miraculous occurrences, direct manifestation of the divine, a scripture that contained knowledge that couldn't have been known at the time it was written, or a scripture that was entirely consistent and flawless.

However, there are many caveats. First, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing (as Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.") For example, consider the case of Prahlad Jani (here's another source). He's an Indian yogi who claims that he's gone 70 years without eating or drinking. A doctor has even performed some tests supposedly confirming his claims. Unfortunately, the tests didn't use the best methodology, and the doctor wouldn't let another investigator who had experience exposing frauds be involved in the study. From the best information that outsiders have been able to gather, it appears that he's just a normal person, who was eating normally up until his time in the hospital, and then began suffering from the effects of dehydration and starvation while he was there.

As another example, consider Ram Bahadur Bamjan (here's another source on this one), who some claim is the reincarnation of the Buddha, and who others claim (since according to Buddhism, the Buddha has already achieved nirvana) is a Bodhisattva. Bamjan has supposedly sat under a tree meditating for months on end, with no food or water. However, there's no good evidence to back the claims up. There was even a screen put in front of him every night. When the Discovery Channel sent a film crew to make a documentary, they couldn't detect his heat with an infrared camera the first night they tried (makes you wonder if he'd been leaving every night all along). On a second attempt, they did observe him to go without food for 96 hours. Four days of fasting is a feat, but hardly miraculous.

So, like I said, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing. It can't be merely hearsay.

As another caveat, the miracle really should be something that's unexplainable by natural processes. This rules out those events that fall into the realm of unlikely, but not impossible. As I've said before, my chances of winning the lottery may be a million to one, but somebody still manages to win every week. In other words, given enough opportunities, unlikely events will inevitably happen to someone. I think one of my favorite examples of such an unlikely event is a truck that nearly went over a cliff, but ended up landing on a small ledge. You can see the pictures and read about it on Snopes. Unfortunately, vehicles fall off cliffs all the time. So, as lucky as it may have been for the driver of that pickup to land where he did, it was just the odds playing out. If, say, vehicles with Jews never went over cliffs, while vehicles with non-Jews went over regularly, then there might something to God protecting his chosen people. But in reality, religious affiliation has no effect on your chances of death by precipitous plunge.

Other, stranger seeming 'miracles', can also be explained naturally. Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, appears very strange - speakers making vocalizations that they're convinced are other languages. However, as it's been studied, it's been learned that the speakers are using sounds that they're already familiar with from their own language (i.e. a native English speaker won't make the guttural vocalizations of German or French). Further, to quote that Wikipedia article, "where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech." This certainly makes it appear that it's a learned behavior. I doubt that the speakers are intentionally lying, but I also doubt that they're doing anything more than making interesting noises.

Faith healing is an example that requires both above caveats. First, I'd need to see some strong evidence that a person was actually healed (and that the supposed event wasn't a fraud). But, there are many examples of people who think they've been healed. Many of these can be chalked up to self hypnosis or the placebo effect. A person gets caught up in the moment, and subjective symptoms are reduced. There are also a few cases where a person does get better after visiting the healer, but most of those are likely be coincidence. There's no guarantee that the cure came from the healer, as opposed to just occurring spontaneously (which does happen). Really, what would be needed is some type of study involving a control group, to see just how effective faith healing really is (though I doubt many researchers would be willing to deny patients real treatment for such a study).

Another consideration is that many claims for the divine cross religious borders. If a Christian and a Hindu have both claimed to have felt a god's presence, or to have received a divine message, which one of them should we trust more? Should the Christian or Hindu evidence be counted equally? Doesn't it seem more likely that it's really all in their heads? If supposed miracles occur just as often for diverse people regardless of their religion, then it doesn't argue strongly for their particular religions. This does leave open the possibility of a non-denominational god, but it seems more likely that there are more earthly causes that are being misinterpreted.

Prophecy requires special mention. Of course, these require the same standard of evidence as other miracles. Pointing to a prophecy in an old book, and then pointing to another section of the same book that says the prophecy was fulfilled, isn't very convincing without independent sources confirming the claims. But for prophecies to be convincing, they must also be specific. Nostradamus's writings are an example of how bad this can be. When every generation can interpret a prophecy to be applicable to events happening in their own time, then the prophecy probably isn't specific enough. Prophets must also have a decent accuracy. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If someone throws out enough prophecies, some are bound to come true. Prophecies must also be unlikely, or something that would be very difficult to predict otherwise. It's not very profound to prophesize that the next round of presidential candidates will lie during their campaigning.

Ideally, miracles should be witnessed by more than one person. Personal revelations fall into this category, especially considering, like I wrote above, that people from diverse religions are all convinced that they've personally felt their god's presence. Another example is the case of Adele Brise. She claims to have seen and spoke to an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The thing is, there were two other women with her, neither of whom could see Adele's vision. Despite the unverifiable nature of the event, the Catholic Church has officially decreed that "these apparitions as worthy of belief". There are many reasons a person could claim to see apparitions or hear voices. The simplest, though I like to hope the least common because I like to think the best of people, is that they're simply lying - looking for attention, a way to make a buck, or even just playing a joke. But there are also people who really do have mental problems, who have hallucinations or hear voices in their heads. Just because some of them claim the voices are coming from on high doesn't mean that we shouldn't give them the appropriate treatments they need.

Assuming that a miracle did meet the appropriate standards, I can say that I still wouldn't be convinced by a single example. There are too many other possible mechanisms. For example, let's just say that a prophet came along who truly could predict the future. It's possible their insights were divine, but it's also possible that seeing into the future was an ability of humans, and that most people simply aren't very good at. I would want to see research done into where the prophet's ability came from. I wouldn't immediately jump to accepting their religion.

There are other possibilities that may seem outlandish, but no more so than Thor being a real deity. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's a big universe out there, and it's possible we're not alone. SciFi shows like Star Trek make us want to think that advanced civilizations would be noble and peaceful, but we don't know that they would. Maybe a civilization wanted to conquer our planet, but their space ship didn't have the resources to do it outright. A few magic tricks to impress the natives would go a long way. Or maybe aliens would be practical jokers, having a bit of fun at the primitive apes' expense.

An important consideration here is the timing of miracles. As far as I've seen, there haven't been any well documented miracles. But even the claims of miracles show a decrease in grandeur over time. The Bible describes Moses parting the Red Sea, while a more modern miracle I described above was a woman seeing a vision her companions couldn't. It really seems as if many supposed ancient miracles are myths, and many more are due to people not understanding how the universe really works. As we learn more and more about the universe around us, and as documentation of events becomes better and better, miracles become more and more minor. But if there truly were a god, it wouldn't have to be that way. A god could continue performing major miracles throughout the ages. Considering the dearth of miracles in the past, the source of any new 'miracles' would have to be carefully considered.

My discussion of miracles above wasn't exhaustive. There are other classes of miracles that I didn't discuss. But I think that this gives a sense for the standards I'm looking for. Miracles must be well documented, not explainable by natural means, and more than simply unlikely events. And even if a supposed miracle was well documented, we must consider other possibilities before accepting it as evidence for any particular religion.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for February 2011

Top 10 ListOnce again, it's time to look through the server logs. As far as total traffic, it's still increasing. I didn't have as many total hits in February as in January, but considering that February only has 28 days compared to January's 31, the average visits was a little higher.

As far as the most popular pages, one page made the list that hadn't before, and it wasn't even a new entry - Excel 2010 - Fixing a Slow Solver, XP 64. To tell the truth, I like seeing these types of entries becoming popular, knowing that I'm helping people out. The entry on Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles? is becoming increasingly popular. It's had that third place spot quite a few times now, and appears to be closing the gap on the entry on MBT Shoes. I wouldn't be surprised to see it become the second most popular page on this site (though it still has a ways to go to catch up to my autogyro essay).

As an aside, since there's no better place to put it, and since it's not worth an entry of its own, I'm still trying to write at least one substantive entry per week. These top 10 lists, not being very substantive, don't count. And I want to do more than the Friday posts for my new series, Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, because I don't want this blog to become so narrowly focused. I did manage to write something new this week, but didn't publish it until today (it will appear shortly after this post). I'll try not to do that in the future. My new goal is a substantive post early in the week, and the God or Gorilla post on Friday, to keep things spaced out a little more evenly. I'm not making any promises, though. If I have a particularly busy week at work and have to cut my lunch breaks short, then you'll just have to settle for an entry from the series.

I'll also note that, after 5 years of doing this, I've finally set up scheduled posting. The previous post was the first to be posted that way, and this post and the next are the second and third (because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Hopefully it ends up being a useful feature.

Anyway, here are the top 10 pages from February:

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  5. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  6. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  7. Blog - Excel 2010 - Fixing a Slow Solver, XP 64
  8. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  9. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  10. Blog - Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 2

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicToday's entry will cover Chapter 2, The Trinil Ape-man.

McCann seems to be one of the people that would ask, "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?" He doesn't seem to understand phylogeny.

Out of all this "proof," dignified as the palæontological evidence of man's descent, Professor Osborn draws so many shreds of secret doubt that he must protect himself against the difficulties in his path by admitting ("Guide Leaflet," series No. 52, p. 4) "Man is not descended from any known form of ape, either living or fossil." This confession is not original with Osborn nor is it new with any of the monkey evolutionists. You will find it back in 1871 on Darwin's lips: "But we must not fall into the error of supposing that the early progenitors of man were identical with or even closely resembled any existing ape or monkey." (See 'Descent of Man,' 1871, vol. I, p. 158.) (McCann, 22)

Neither Darwin nor Osborn were making any type of 'confession'. They were explaining a point about the history of life that's too often misunderstood. The easiest way to see the error in McCann's line of thinking is through analogy. I'll use myself as an example. My great great grandfather and grandmother on one side were German - not just of German acenstry, but born in Germany and immigrants to the U.S. So, I can quite literally say that I am descended from Germans. But it's also quite obvious that I'm not descended from any living Germans. A certain group of Germans and I share a common ancestry through my great great great grandparents. The descendants of my great great great grandparents split into two lineages - one that continued in the U.S., and one that continued in Germany. That lineage in Germany is composed of my cousins, not my ancestors. It is a very similar case with us and chimpanzees and bonobos. Around 6 million years ago, there was a population of apes that was neither human, chimpanzee, nor bonobo. Over the generations, this population split into multiple lineages, each of which evolved independently. Most of those lineages have gone extinct, but there are still three of us left. We are cousins. We can go back further in time and find the ancestor that we share with gorillas, and further to find the ancestor we share with orangutans, and on and on all the way back till life began. (Obviously, we haven't actually found fossils of all species that have ever existed. But, in the same way that you know you must have a great great great great great great grandmother, even if you don't have any record of her, we also know that we must have common ancestors with Earth's other organisms, even if we haven't yet found their fossils.)

Where the quote from Darwin is a bit misleading is that word 'closely'. We should expect the common acestor of us, chimps, and bonobos to resemble the three of us. We share many features with our cousins, and the most likely reason is because those features were present in our common ancestor (See here for a look at just how similar we are to bonobos).

To be honest, the main reason I included the following quote is because I thought "ape-manologist" was pretty funny.

Hence Virchow's word of caution to the all-too-eager ape-manologists, urging them in their elaboration of missing links to wait until they can get hold of a real skeleton, a complete skeleton, to take the place of their few fragments of broken bones. (McCann, 25)

This is one of the areas where I do have a bit of smypathy for McCann. In his time, we just hadn't discovered as many fossils as we have now. In the present, though, we certainly do have hominid fossils. Two classic examples are Lucy and Ardi, but they certainly aren't the only hominid fossils we have. (See here for an interesting discussion on how modern day creationists try to deal with those fossils.)

Just a little later on the same page, McCann showed that he didn't realize common descent applied to all life on this planet.

He [Osborn] might have said, speaking of resemblances, "In the hand of man the same bones are to be seen as in the tortoise. The elements in the foot of a lizard are the same even in the highly modified human foot." He would have found the words quoted on page 371, "Human Embryology and Morphology" by Arthur Keith, M.D., F.R.C.S., 1910, Royal College of Surgeons, University of Aberdeen, University of Cambridge, London Hospital Medical College, etc., etc.

From all this are we to have a "Tortoise Theory" or a "Lizard Theory" or are we to go right on, shattering "resemblances" only when they fail to come to our aid in support of something "pre-human"? (McCann, 25)

We fully expect from universal common descent for there to be broad similiarities among life, and for there to be more similarities between more closely related species. For example, consider Tiktaalik Rosaea, which lived around 375 million years ago. Now, this animal probably wasn't our direct ancestor, but rather a close cousin to our ancestors (remember that fossils are rare, and that most species end up going extinct, so we're pretty unlikely to find direct ancestors of any particular organisms). Still, in Tiktaalik we can see many features that all tetrapods share. In its forelimbs, it had a humerus, radius, ulna, and many of the bones that we have in our wrists and hands. It's close cousin, our director ancestor, shared those same bones. Our ancestor passed those traits on to its descendants, which passed them on to their descendants, and on through the generations down to all of the tetrapods alive today. That is why we have the same bones in our hands as tortoises and chimps, because we're all descended from that cousin to Tiktaalik. Since chimps and us share a more recent common ancestor, our bones are more similar to each other than to tortoises.

Picture of Tiktaalik from Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters
Image of Tiktaalik from Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Obviously, new features do sometimes appear, or else we'd all still be single celled organisms. But it's much easier for evolution to modify existing features than to create new ones. That's why most tetrapods alive today are variations on a plan, and none have sprouted extra sets of limbs. (When I say 'easier', I mean 'much more likely to happen' or 'tends to happen more often'. Natural selection is not a conscious process, so there is no easy or hard in that sense. Strictly speaking, anthropomorphisms like the one I just used aren't accurate, but they do make for more concise writing as long as people recognize that they are euphemisms.)

McCann, like many creationists still, seems to be stuck thinking in terms of the Great Chain of Being, and that evolution predicts a steady progression towards perfection.

One of the stumbling blocks created by Professor Osborn himself, but nowhere referred to by himself, is found in the fact that these old palæolithic skulls, described as Neanderthal, although said to be 50,000 years old, had an average capacity of 1626-1635 c.c. Some of them measure up to 1700 c.c. These figures knock the bottom out of the evolutionary procession which, for the sake of plausibility, must ever move from a low figure to a higher figure, and certainly where brains are to be considered must never move backward like Hamlet's crab. (McCann, 32)

Why should evolution cause a steady increase in brain size from generation to generation? Evolution has no goal. It only optimizes populations for their environment, and the environment changes over time. Plus, there are tradeoffs for just about every feature of an organism. If individuals with larger brains produce more offspring in a certain environment than individuals with smaller brains, then larger brained individuals will become more common in the population. But larger brains don't come for free. In modern humans, for example, our brains are about 2% of our body weight, but they consume 20% of our energy. 1 lb out of every 5 that we eat goes straight to our brain. That's a lot. If selection pressure for intelligence were reduced, it's not hard to see that there would be an advantage for smaller brains, because those individuals either wouldn't need as much food, or could 'spend' those resources on larger muscles, better immune systems, or some other trait.

This type of adaptation to changing environmental conditions has been clearly documented by Peter and Rosemary Grant in their studies of Galapagos finches. One of the populations they've studied are the medium ground finches that live on an island named Daphne Major. The plants on the island provide them with a choice of big hard spiked seeds or small soft seeds. Back in 1977, there was a drought that killed 85% of the birds. The drought resulted in their diet being limited mainly to the hard seeds. When the population had recovered to pre-drought levels, it had shifted to larger beaked individuals that could eat those hard seeds. In the 80s, heavy rains on the island caused a proliferation of the small soft seeds, and the population shifted the other way, to smaller beaks. Also in the 80s, a new species arrived on the island, large ground finches. These birds had large beaks well suited to the hard seeds. They created a new aspect to the environment on Daphne Major. When another drought hit in 2004, the large ground finches outcompeted the medium ground finches for the limited amount of hard seeds, so the medium ground finches with smaller beaks did better this time, and the population shifted towards smaller beaks.

There is no eternally perfect form that evolution strives for, no progression towards an ideal goal. There are traits better or lesser suited for given environmental conditions, and as those conditions change, it changes which traits are most favored.

While we're on the subject of Neanderthals, let me back-track a little bit, and pull a quote from Chapter 1. McCann was making the argument, still being used by creationists, that Neanderthals fell within the variation of modern humans, so there's no reason to think they were a separate species. He devoted quite a bit more space to this than just the two quotes I'm using. This first one gives the gist of his argument.

At this point one would think the materialistic evolutionists would pause in their persistent efforts to bolster their pet theory enough to make it comfortable. Even though complete skeletons, instead of fragments fancifully reconstructed, could be found, they would mean absolutely nothing unless the absurd conclusions that all men are cast in the same uniform mould, and that, therefore, the measurements of any one of them apply with equal accuracy to all the others, are to be gratuitously accepted. (McCann 14-15)

The following quote shows McCann explicitly stating that Neanderthals were humans.

The receptive school teachers who visit this famous Hall will not be flattered by the realization of the fact that their brain capacity corresponds almost exactly with the brain capacity of the Neanderthal restorations. Either Professor Osborn has all but made monkeys of the school teachers, or as far as skulls are concerned the Neanderthals were just as human as any other human being is supposed to be or can be. That is precisely what they were! (McCann 31-32)

This still a common argument from creationists, but there's nothing surprising about different closely related species overlapping in characteristics. Look at horses and zebras. With the variation among horses, from miniature horses and ponies, on up to Clydesdales and Shire Horses, zebras obviously fall within the natural variation of horses. But that doesn't make them horses.

Remember that evolution is gradual. Big changes take a while to happen. A good example of this, relevant to the discussion of Neanderthals, is this comparison of hominid skulls on the TalkOrigins website. When you compare the Australopithecus africanus from the top left to the modern human on the lower right, it's easy to see that we're separate species. But if you only move over one picture at a time, the differences become less pronounced. It's like the old conundrum - if you start off with one grain of sand, and add only one grain at a time, at what point does it cease to be a few grains of sand and become a pile? We don't expect there to be clearly defined demarcations for gradual processes.

As one last note on Neanderthals (for the time being), we now know that Neanderthals were mostly a dead end. They went extinct, and at most only a few Neanderthal/human marriages contributed any genetic material to the human lineage in Europe. So, their brain size was irrelevant to our own evolution, anyway. In McCann's defense, though, the place of Neanderthals in our family tree had been contested for a long time, and it's really only with modern genetics that the picture is finally being sorted out.

Proceed to Chapters 3 & 4

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