Friday, 15 October 2010

The Caring Neanderthal

Good morning and I hope people are going to have a pleasant weekend.

It gives me great pleasure to post about a new article and book on the evolution of compassion which has been co-written by one of my close friends. The Prehistory of Compassion, by Penny Spikins, Holly Rutherford and Andy Needham is a book concerning empathy and the role it plays in our evolution.

The proposal focuses on the concept that altruism and compassion derive from a successful evolutionary tactic according to Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” concept. Spikins, Rutherford and Needham use this idea to evaluate whether or not compassion is a successful tactic and one that may have assisted us in our evolutionary success.

Penny Spikins, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of York and first author, has been interested in the evolutionary role of emotions for a few years. The ideas present in her book and the evidence she provides with her co-authors are matters that she’s discussed in seminars. This article shows the culmination of these debates and touches on a lot of evidence that was used in the seminars. As a result, the book shows a wide-range of ideas in how compassion evolved, the use of it in evolutionary terms as well as possible limitations. 

As a former student of Penny’s and a former devil’s advocate to Andy’s ideas, I find it hard to find many criticisms in their paper. The concept is valid and has plenty of evidence in the form of burials, primatology and palaeopathology. However, is it the major factor in all of these cases? Are there other emotions that have played just as important parts in our evolution that haven’t been considered? Has the evidence been misinterpreted in some cases? These are possibly some of the questions that the researchers might give answers on soon. 

In conclusion though, the main aspect to remember is this. We are social animals. Empathy and compassion are needed in these situations as strategies to cope with group living. The examples given from primates demonstrate that these social animals display similar qualities. As a result, Spikins, Rutherford and Needham argue strongly for emotions, especially empathy and compassion to be given consideration when establishing the factors for human evolution. 

Relevant Links

Burial Outrage

In other news, the Ministry of Justice have imposed restrictions on human remains from archaeological excavations. The Ministry has decided to impose the 1857 Burial Act upon archaeologists which has caused outrage as it requires the remains to be reburied within 2 years.

Now I am confused on why they have done this. I can understand some people’s reluctance for human remains to be kept in the hands of archaeologists and this is why most burials that are attributed to particular religions are given to those religious authorities, therefore Christian remains are overseen by the Church and Jewish remains by the Jewish authorities, etc, etc. This I feel is a fair system, allowing a bond of respect to exist between the archaeologist and the religious. 

Furthermore, two years is not particularly a long time to study remains. For my dissertation I looked at 17 skeletons from a collection of 63 which had been excavated in 2002. I started looking at these in 2007, five years after! In addition, the analysis done by the archaeologist on site was considered shoddy by many of the experts I consulted, misidentifying pathologies and in some cases not noticing them. 

Another question that must be asked is what happens to those remains that have been in teaching collections? Does this mean the University of Bradford has to rebury its extensive collection of archaeological remains and therefore lose its reputation as the University to study Osteology? Photographs are only so helpful when analysing remains and often archaeologists encounter diseases, such as Leprosy, TB and syphilis which had greater effect on us before antibiotics. This could be a severe blow to the archaeological as well as the medical community.

With all these flaws in the argument as well as the aspects outlined in the Guardian I feel that this is going to cause a lot of outrage in the archaeological world and I do wonder how many collections will mysteriously become less than two years old.

Other News

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Druidry is now a religion

Recently I read on the BBC News site that Druidry or Druidism has been recognised as a religion by the Charity Commission. The story here, outlines the acceptance of this belief.

Now the problem I have with Druids is not their core beliefs which worship the natural world, but the appropriation of prehistoric monuments and remains by their faith. The current model comes from 17th-19th Century Romantic views on Iron Age practises and are in conflict with current archaeological thought. Druids avoid sacrificing animals and people in the modern era because it goes against modern ideas. They have essentially made up this Romanticised ideal of how Druids used to be, if they actually existed. For example, I recommend noting the Druid, King Arthur Pendragon's name, which sounds to me, linked to Thomas Mallory than any actual "Celtic" Arthur or druid.

Druids also come into conflict with archaeologists over prehistoric human remains which they claim repatriation rights. This article from the BBC here, shows how they fought for the remains of a Neolithic child from Avebury, an era of prehistory far removed from their "Druids" by about 2 000 years.

My main concern is that this will give a form of legitimacy to the druids, letting them argue more eloquently for monuments and remains which are not related to them. This would be bad for archaeology as it could mean that prehistoric monuments are treated by druids as their Churches, creating additional conflict between them and archaeologists.

In other news, here is an article outlining the faulty reporting made by journalists on the ADHD story. Whilst I appreciated the scientific coverage and rebuttal by experts in the news, I feel that some, such as one Professor on the BBC, may have been a little too harsh on the journalists trying to interview him on his opinions on the case.

And unfortunately a new ID centre has opened in the UK. Claiming to focus on science rather than religion, hopefully it shall go the same way as Christian Voice, unheard and ignored.

Finally, the Guardian has some good articles on the problems the coalition will cause by cutting funding to science research, an area which frequently produces a good profit.

Science Funding in the UK

Friday, 24 September 2010

The definition of kinds

Recently, as I’ve been working with animal remains, I’ve become increasingly aware of the difficulties creationist thinkers have with defining the word “kind”. They use it a lot to try and get round the problem of speciation. Most creationists try and use it to suggest that animals can speciate within their own kind, but no further, so fish cannot evolve into an amphibian and no matter how many pennies you get, you can’t make a pound. Now the many problem with this is that they never define what a “kind” is. In one topic, I discussed with a creationist, he came up with three definitions, a genus, a biological family and types of enzymes. This short essay attempts to show why the current terminology for taxonomy is adequate for its task and that the concept of “kinds” used by creationist thinkers is fundamentally flawed and has no bearing on taxonomy.

Firstly, let us deal with the idea that a kind is a species. Unfortunately for creationists this is disproven by numerous account of speciation. For example here are a few papers which document these events in both the lab and the wild:

A Molecular Reexamination Of Diploid Hybrid Speciation Of Solanum raphanifolium by David M. Spooner, Kenneth. J. Sytsma and James F. Smith, Evolution, 45(3): 757-764 - DOCUMENTATION OF AN OBSERVED SPECIATION EVENT

Chromosome Evolution, Phylogeny, And Speciation Of Rock Wallabies by G. B. Sharman, R. L. Close and G. M. Maynes, Australian Journal of Zoology, 37(2-4): 351-363 (1991) - DOCUMENTATION OF OBSERVED SPECIATION IN NATURE

Evidence For Rapid Speciation Following A Founder Event In The Laboratory by James R. Weinberg Victoria R. Starczak and Danielle Jörg, Evolution 46: 1214-1220 (15th January 1992) - EXPERIMENTAL GENERATION OF A SPECIATION EVENT IN THE LABORATORY

Evolutionary Theory And Process Of Active Speciation And Adaptive Radiation In Subterranean Mole Rats, Spalax ehrenbergi Superspecies, In Israel by E. Nevo, Evolutionary Biology, 25: 1-125 - DOCUMENTATION OF OBSERVED SPECIATION IN NATURE

Experimentally Created Incipient Species Of Drosophila by Theodosius Dobzhansky & Olga Pavlovsky, Nature 230: 289 - 292 (2nd April 1971) - EXPERIMENTAL GENERATION OF A SPECIATION EVENT IN THE LABORATORY

Founder-Flush Speciation On Drosophila pseudoobscura: A Large Scale Experiment by Agustí Galiana, Andrés Moya and Francisco J. Alaya, Evolution 47: 432-444 (1993) EXPERIMENTAL GENERATION OF A SPECIATION EVENT IN THE LABORATORY

Pollen-Mediated Introgression And Hybrid Speciation In Louisiana Irises by Michael L. Arnold, Cindy M. Buckner and Jonathan J. Robinson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 88(4): 1398-1402 (February 1991) - OBSERVATION OF A SPECIATION EVENT IN NATURE

Attempting to claim speciation does not occur is therefore foolish and displays an ignorance of biology. The fact that creationists working in the field of Baraminology have not settle on this definition shows that they to find this problematic.

Another proposal is that a “kind” is a genus. Now, to me, working with animal remains and having to look up their names, the problem is already apparent. Let us look at the Pig Family or Suidae. Now the domesticate pig and Wild Boar are in the same genus (Sus), however, the Warthog genus (Phacochoerus) isn’t. Therefore, even creationists cannot accept this proposal as acceptable as according to them, they are “pigs”. The same also applies to the Cheetah, (Acinonyx jubatus) which is not part of the Panthera genus of lions, leopards, tigers and jaguars yet is clearly a big cat and related to them. Therefore this concept of “kinds” being the equivalent of the genus is wrong.

Concerning the biological families, this backfires on creationists spectacularly again. If we consider the Homindae family, this contains us, chimps, gorillas, etc. If we ask any creationists, I’m sure they will deny that we have a common ancestor with chimps nor that we belong in the same kind as them! This renders their concept of “kinds” as being unable to apply to their own standards.

Furthermore, with the two above definitions, scientists have come up with them for specific purposes. In taxonomy terms, genus and family have specific meanings and this alternative idea, “kinds” serves no purpose. Genus and Family are used to describe how closely related species are according to traits, both physical and genetic. This leads to a system which accurate describes how closely related modern species are to one another. Whilst it is very good at this, it is not so good when referring to past specimens such as Australopithecus, Ardipithecus and this has led to researchers in this field to describe the system as imperfect (taken from a seminar with Terry O’Connor). As a system it is not good at showing how one genus may evolve out of another (for example, Homo from Australopithecines), nor is it completely reliable when we examine extinct species such as Homo habilis (which may or may not be a species). However, this may be due to Linnaeus purposefully designing a static system as he was unaware of Evolution (Holmes, 2009, Pg 48). 

Another suggestion from creationists is that a kind could be:
“Taxonomically, a kind is a group of organisms that share a basic set of exclusive synapomorphies. Members of the same kind, usually, should be able to interbreed although the resulting offspring may prove to be infertile.”
Taken from here

Now let us look at the Big Cats again, especially from the genus Panthera. In this case, Lions and Tigers definitely can interbreed and so can Lions with Leopards and Jaguars, in fact all of them can with one crucial exception. Leopards and Tigers have all be noted to have never produced any living hybrids. Furthermore, Leopards can produce hybrids with Pumas, a Pumapard. So is the Puma included into this “kind” despite the fact it can’t mate with anything else in the Panthera genus? What about the Wholphin? It is clear that by using the word “kind” in this context would seriously confuse taxonomical issues and would be impossible to use. Furthermore, this is not delving into the term Synamorphy which confirms Evolutionary theory concerning common ancestry.

The problem encountered with the Big Cats also arises with the Larus Gull. This genus is known as a Ring Species. Does that mean that these species are all the same kind?

In general the concept of “kinds” is wrong on various grounds mainly:
1. There is already established words for taxonomy.
2. No creationists can define the term in a rigorous fashion that is of benefit for taxonomy.
3. Animals interbreed in such a variety of ways and produce various hybrids that defining a category for “kind” is near impossible.
4. It admits the possibility that humans could have evolved from an earlier version (which no creationist will admit to) defeating their argument.

With this in mind, we are then directed back towards the normal methods of taxonomy, using definitions of species, genus, etc. Whilst there is some debate occasional about what constitutes as a species, (see the species problem) the system allows the definitions to be rigorous and furthermore provides more precision than “kinds”. Furthermore, it can be adapted from its original static state to show the evolutionary past of a species at the present moment in time. The subclass Elasmobranchii, which includes Skates, rays and sharks, indicates that these fish are more closely related to each other than a shark would be to a rabbit fish. These members of the class Chondrichthyes would be more closely related to each other than another member from the Infraphylum Gnathostomata (vertebrates with jaws) such as a crocodile.

Therefore, whilst the current system of taxonomy can obscure the fluidity of Evolution at the same time it can provide a great aid in deducing the relationships and connections between current species, genera, etc. The current system provides a service for biology that Baraminology, the creationist study of what constitutes a “kind”, cannot provide.

Holmes, R., (2009) The Age of Wonder,  Harper Press UK

Interesting articles

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Its a kind of magic

A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic according to Arthur C. Clarke. This statement sums up the current situation with science. As a populace we consider science as magic, carried out by a select few who can understand the arcane secrets of this discipline.

Terry Pratchett along with Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart have also noticed this trend and satirises it in a series of science novels called “The Science of the Discworld”. Set on Pratchett’s Discworld, the novels feature the adventures of the wizards as they try and understand the Roundworld (our world) which they created in a magical accident along with some science lessons provided by Cohen and Stewart. The novels deliberately draw parallels with scientists and wizards as well as the university structure that many research scientists work within.

When considering this idea, it does not seem so far-fetched. A lot of scientific disciplines derive from studies that could be considered a form of magic in origins. For example, Astrology, with its magical abilities to predict the future produced the modern science of Astronomy. Alchemy paved the way for Chemistry and it was a theologically trained Natural Scientist (Charles Darwin) who overthrew the Church’s teachings of Creationism and wrote Origin of Species, producing the science of Evolution. It does seem apparent then that science and magic have common origins. Both try and influence our perceived reality.

However, as most students of science will probably be thinking now, science relies on something that separates it from magic. Science relies on observable reality and the concept of repeatability. A psychic radio presenter may have been able to entice a cat to her home (probably due to luck more than any powers she might have), however, it is unlikely that she would be able to perform this feat again, unless her neighbours regularly lose their cats. Magic, or anything that invokes a supernatural (i.e. unobservable) force is not subjected to the same rigour in any shape or form. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the rigour, or if they are, they assume that their particular brand of mysticism is subject to the same scrutiny as a scientific paper, running the gauntlet of peer review. This has led to a popular following amongst the Pseudo-sciences, creationism, homeopathy, psychics, etc, who refer to half-baked “scientific tests” that they have been subjected to and found to have “worked”. As there is a lack of criticism sometimes for these people, their followers can use their mystique to ape science, effectively blurring the line for the general populace between what is science and what is magic. 

The lack of knowledge in how science works has led to pseudosciences being considered on par with actual science. People are unable to distinguish our advanced technology from the magic of detox baths and ear candles which are touted as scientific. In essence, science has become too “hard” for the layman. All the explanations we learn at school are inadequate and seem unrelated to real life. This is why scientific theory and the scientific method are the most important aspects of science as it is a useful framework which produces far more benefits that memorising ligand colour changes as they react (an activity I was required to do for my A2 chemistry and has thankfully been dropped). Science is indeed a kinda of magic to people, especially with the effects you can get from some special experiments like Old Nassau (a fairly impressive colour change experiment). However, it is not magic, it is how the world works.

Interesting articles

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Restarting (again)

Hello and I am back again from another vacation from the blog. Currently I am working as an intern for a museum and I hope to share some of the experiences with you at a later date. Firstly though, I wish to start off discussing stereotypes.

Here are a few letters I have noticed from the Metro newspaper that I’ve been reading on my way to work.

Andrew McRae claimed atheism is not based on faith. However, it is equally impossible to scientifically disprove the existence of God as to prove it; belief is required to get to either conclusion, so therefore atheism is as much a faith as any other. Except, of course, that it does far less good for society as a whole. Has anyone ever heard of Atheist Aid or Atheists Against Poverty? No, I didn’t think so.

by Jeremy Clack

All the swans on my lake are white. There has never been a swan on the lake that was not white; therefore all swans are white. To an Australian, the arrogance and illogicality of this assertion would be breathtaking and yet it is the standard of argument advanced by atheist correspondents. If your neighbour were to win the lottery several weeks in a row, you would suspect something was amiss, yet the atheist assertion that life arose by random chance is many more times less likely than this. To deny that this requires faith is questionable at best. 

by Jonathan Youdan

Now to me I’ve noted several untrue stereotypes and strawmen in these arguments:
  1. Atheists are arrogant.
  2. Atheists don’t give to charity.
  3. Atheism is illogical.
  4. Atheism states that life is random chance.
  5. Atheism says there is no God, for certain.
  6. Australians find atheists arrogant (which of course calls into question the existence of Tim Minchin).

Now as someone who has some understanding of what atheism and science is, I find the letters puzzling. They make several assumptions that are ignorant. Let’s go through why this is the case.

1. Atheists are arrogant
Again I disagree. In fact, someone like myself, who only postulates that as there is no evidence for any deity then there is no point in worshipping one, I find this bewildering. I’m not saying I am definitely correct, I am simply applying a logical argument. It is arrogant to state for certain any way and the atheists that do this could be considered arrogant in their beliefs. If we consider the case of Darwin, who turned away from the traditional Christian God due his life experiences, would anyone consider him arrogant?

2. Atheists don’t give to charity (or be involved with them).
Again, I used to regularly give money to the NSPCC and I have walked dogs for two charities. Furthermore during the Haiti earthquake, the British Humanist Association (a registered atheist charity) set up an organisation to allow people to donate to secular charities that were assisting the aid for Haiti. This initiative actually came under criticism from atheists as they felt that this was un-necessary and that they were just giving to any reputable charity. I honestly cannot see how being religious in this case makes someone a better person.

3. Atheism is illogical
Atheism is the simple lack of belief in any deity as there is no evidence. As someone pointed out in the Metro, not believing in unicorns is considered logical.

4. Atheism states that life is random chance.
This one is partially true, if we ignore the fact that atheism is not science. It is chance that life exists on Earth in its present form, but as we understand Evolution is not completely random since there is some form of selection, natural selection. As we are unaware of the exact circumstances surrounding the start of life, it is a bold claim. Until we can produce a living cell from elements without artificial intervention and tinkering like Craig Venter did, we cannot say for certain how random a chance life is. It could be that with the huge amount of space and time in the universe, life is certain.

5. Atheism says there is no God for certain
Again a fictitious claim. Especially as the BHA bus slogan was “There probably is no God”.

6. Australians find atheists arrogant
A very bold claim considering there are Australian atheists such as Tim Minchin who would have a field day with this bloke.

In all, this article shows that the people here are writing from ignorance. They have picked upon a general stereotype generated by people about atheists. Now this stereotype is very unpopular which is a pity as it prejudices people against those without any religious convictions and helps create inequality. Now I could ruin this point completely and act in a manner which confirms some of these beliefs in atheists right here. I could slate religion completely and as such completely invalidate myself. But I will not simply to prove otherwise. I consider Quakers as a very open-minded sect and I enjoyed the time I spent at Bootham School as the values mirrored my own and I suspect the values of many atheists. Now as Quakers are very individualised, this means that I cannot stereotype them, however, the values that they preach at places like Bootham School and the Quaker societies in York, mean that I can label some of the Quaker groups that show the thoughtfulness of some religious people.

Stereotyping in essence is something we’ve produced from our instincts. Spotting patterns is an intrinsic part of being human and this predictive “software” can be faulty. Instead, careful thought is required in order to avoid this.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Historical Science

Recently I've come across a rather peculiar argument from the creationists which is the subject of my last post.

From Answers in Genesis:

Operational (Observational) Science: a systematic approach to understanding that uses observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable experimentation to understand how nature commonly behaves.
Operational science is the type of science that allows us to understand how DNA codes for proteins in cells. It is the type of science that has allowed us to cure and treat diseases, put a man on the moon, build satellites and telescopes, and make products that are useful to humans. Biblical creationists believe that God has created a universe that uses a set of natural laws that operate consistently in the universe. Understanding how those laws operate is the basis for scientific thinking.
Some events defy natural laws. Christians refer to these things as miracles, but naturalistic science must find a way to explain these occurrences naturally. This approach rejects miracles in the Bible because they cannot be explained using natural laws. Such scientists occasionally try to explain the miracles in the Bible as natural phenomena, but this ultimately undermines the authority of God and His Word.
Historical (Origins) Science: interpreting evidence from past events based on a presupposed philosophical point of view.
The past is not directly observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable; so interpretations of past events present greater challenges than interpretations involving operational science. Neither creation nor evolution is directly observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable. Each is based on certain philosophical assumptions about how the earth began. Naturalistic evolution assumes that there was no God, and biblical creation assumes that there was a God who created everything in the universe. Starting from two opposite presuppositions and looking at the same evidence, the explanations of the history of the universe are very different. The argument is not over the evidence—the evidence is the same—it is over the way the evidence should be interpreted.
Evolutionists often claim that people misuse the word “theory” when discussing science and don’t make a distinction between a scientific theory and the common use of the word “theory.” You may say, “I have a theory about why Mr. Jones’ hair looks funny” but that theory has never been compared to a broad set of observations. This is not the sense of a theory in science.
I included the first part for comprehension and whilst its wrong, as creationist literature is, it is the second part that puzzles me.  The past is not directly observable, testable, repeatable or falsifiable according to AIG. From this they extrapolate that the science used to study the Big Bang and Evolution is flawed, subject to interpretation. Which of course, is bullshit and twisting historical studies.

I cannot deny that our perception of the past is often interpretation. Stand two archaeologists in front of an excavation and more often and not they will produce different interpretations of what is going on. And so far, creationists look to have understood this part. However, what they have failed to grasp is that this is due to variables that require direct observation. In a court case, this argument would be pretty weak if the defendant's fingerprints were on a gun used to shoot and kill someone which was found in his possession after he was seen running away from the scene. It is very unlikely that someone else killed them (despite the stories in Luther and Life on Mars). Even then, you could more or less guarantee that the murder weapon was a gun. People are often unpredictable elements requiring observation to guarantee their actions. Other things aren't always as whimsical. If I looked at a skeleton and saw an arm like this:

I can guarantee that the individual suffered from an infection around his ankles. This is undeniable and the message behind my previous post. Evolution relies on the same type of evidence, using the same techniques which have been tested throughly on modern samples and then adjusted for possible rates of decay/error. It also uses more than just physical objects but molecules as it looks at DNA and the current evolution of species. Answers in Genesis have ignored this in their pretty little hypothesis and it has led them to formulate a deception.

Hopefully next week I shall also look at why people practice these deceptions....

Scientists find sell by date

Journal of Imaginary Sciences, 2010, Vol 34

Scientists find sell-by dates on bones

A new discovery made by scientists has shown that scientific evidence has a sell-by date as a controlled collection of skeletons has disappeared from the Manchester Museum. 

The scientists set up the experiment to falsify a claim made by the Creationist group, Answers in Genesis, that historical scientific theories are interpretations rather than objective concepts of scientific evidence. In order to do this, they demonstrated that this meant the scientific evidence such as human remains would have a sell-by date. They attempted to demonstrate this by seeing if any evidence would change under observation. 

"As we came in one morning the bones were found to be missing. We would normally suspect somebody stealing these remains, due to their value, however, since they were part of this test, we suspect that the people in Answers in Genesis were right and that the open window is a concidence."

Answers in Genesis spokesperson commented:

"This highlights the problems with historical theories such as Evolution and shows how we should treat Creationism on par with Evolution."