January 5, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Separating Old Bones from Living Storytellers

What happens when discrete bones are forced into a continuous narrative where they don’t fit? Answer: storytelling.

Homo naledi fight: John Hawks just got on Michael Shermer’s case for storytelling. Hawks is a paleoanthropologist who has worked the past two years on the puzzling Homo naledi bones found in a South African cave (see 9/19/15). Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society who routinely bashes creationists and believers in intelligent design,  and extols science as the sole pathway to knowledge, apparently violated his own scientific beliefs. He wrote a piece for Scientific American alleging that the bones found deep in the cave were victims of violence, murder and cannibalism—a theory that fits with his favorite story about human origins.

In his blog, Hawks accuses Shermer of going way beyond good scientific practice, force-fitting these bones into his prior narrative. Is it a case of “murdering the facts about Homo naledi” as his headline suggests? Shermer committed the same fallacy that Hawks found when asking 10-year-old schoolkids for ideas about how the bones got there. Each kid had an imaginary story, but none of them looked for actual evidence until Hawks told them there were no marks of violence on the bones.

The schoolkids understood right away that the idea of murder and sacrifice don’t match the evidence that we have so far. Shermer preferred to speculate without evidence and publish an essay without fact-checking.

It doesn’t seem like the work of a skeptic.

Hawks continues by explaining the logic of science; it must respect evidence and be willing to reject a favorite narrative. Should Shermer step down as an exemplar of a “skeptic”?

Shermer should think like a skeptic. Irrelevant details do not strengthen a story or make it more credible. Logic tells us that a story must be less probable than the least probable of its parts….

I’m very sorry that he has misled so many Scientific American readers about the nature of evidence about Homo naledi and how we approach the science of human origins.

Fitting dinosaur blood into 100 million years: Rachel Brazil has a colorful piece in Chemistry World about the struggle to fit soft tissue in dinosaur bones into long ages. Mary Schweitzer had shown in 2007 that the protein sequence from a T. rex closely matched that of a chicken. It stunned the secular scientific world; evolutionists claim all dinosaurs disappeared from the earth 65 million years ago.

The evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs was not unexpected, but the results were still met with deep scepticism – could proteins really survive this long?

Although not the first report of ancient protein sequences, Schweitzer’s protein was 100 times older than anything else reported at that time.

Brazil’s article is a tale of head-scratching by various scientists trying to explain (or explain away) Schweitzer’s evidence. It’s not like Schweitzer was ready to accept it herself.

Schweitzer says she was stunned at what she saw. ‘I found what looked like blood cells inside the dinosaur bone, it was still very much bone. We discovered that if we demineralised the bone, we had material remaining which also flies in the face of how we thought fossils formed.’ The received wisdom is that organic matter degrades quickly with minerals completely filling the void over time.

Remarkably, none of the scientists in the article are questioning the age of the dinosaur bones. That narrative is set in stone. All interpretations are focused on keeping the proteins and DNA old. When Schweitzer found proteins in a hadrosaur thought to be 80 million years ago, nobody acquiesced on the age.

But that work did not silence her critics. ‘I think a large part of the scientific community is still undecided,’ explains Buckley. He accepts that the likely survival limit for proteins is older than his 3.5-million-year-old high arctic camel. ‘I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it was twice as long, but from a few million years to pushing on 80 million years is a huge jump.’ Collins agrees that this is what current publications suggest, but tantalisingly claims his lab is working on some exciting new ideas as to how proteins may survive longer than this, which he thinks could be game-changing.

Another scientist was convinced he was looking at dinosaur collagen in Schweitzer’s sample—and red blood cells, too—but he still didn’t waver on the age. Brazil then ups the ante by mentioning that dinosaur DNA may still exist. “Meanwhile, Schweitzer is waiting for more excavated samples to test and it remains to be seen if further evidence or new theories on protein preservation can sway her sceptics.” In her thinking, they only need to be swayed on the issue of whether it’s real dinosaur material. Nobody, not even Schweitzer, is questioning the age. From there, Brazil ends with irrelevant remarks about whether old dinosaur bones can tell us about climate change.

Turkey farmers: Researchers from Stockholm University are claiming that Europeans descended from farmers in Anatolia, modern Turkey. It’s interesting that DNA from the samples is heavily degraded after just 8,000 years, the alleged date. These scientists are showing restraint, knowing that more data would be needed to interpret the origin of farming. “Our results stress the importance Anatolia has had on Europe’s prehistory. But to fully understand how the agricultural development proceeded we need to dive deeper down into material from the Levant.”

Bigfoot evolution: This giant ape is no myth. Gigantopithecus (giant ape) is well-known from fossil representatives. But can the bones support PhysOrg‘s headline, “Giant ape Gigantopithecus went extinct 100,000 years ago due to its inability to adapt”? The story is that their food source ran out, but nobody watched what they ate, or how flexible they were at changing diet if needed. All we know is that they don’t live in China or Thailand today. That didn’t stop researchers from telling us all about what happened, even though living apes contradict the story:

Bocherens and his colleagues work on the assumption that Gigantopithecus’s size, in connection with its restriction to one habitat type, doomed the giant apes. “Relatives of the giant ape, such as the recent orangutan, have been able to survive despite their specialization on a certain habitat. However, orangutans have a slow metabolism and are able to survive on limited food. Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food. When during the Pleistocene era more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape,” concludes the scientist from Tübingen.

Volcano wok: One of the most ridiculous stories in recent science reporting is that volcanoes made humans intelligent. Live Science says that right in the headline: “Volcanoes Sparked an Explosion in Human Intelligence, Researcher Argues.” Tia Ghose, always hip to celebrate an evolutionary story, gives it good press:

BM-DarwinBaloney-smVast lava flows may have provided humans with access to heat and fire for cooking their food millions of years ago, one researcher has proposed.

That, in turn, would have enabled the evolution of human intelligence, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University, said at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month.

At one point, Ghose says Medler tests the idea, but then says the idea is difficult to test. If volcanoes create intelligence, why didn’t all the other animals in the area learn to cook and grow their brains? Medler qualified his story a little, admitting that “other environmental factors” likely played a big role, too. Maybe it was climate change.

Push the mammal age back: Evolutionists don’t mind surprises as long as they can hold onto their narrative. Another evolutionary activist reporter on Live Science, Charles Q. Choi, folds a surprise into the narrative of mammal evolution. The headline “Ancient Mouse-Size Creature Uproots Mammal Family Tree” seems to falsify Darwinism, but not really. It actually “clears up a long-standing mystery,” he comforts his listeners. It just means “that mammals originated more than 30 million years more recently than previously suggested,” he suggests, so the suggestion of millions of years can stay put in the Darwin Suggestion Box.

Evolve with me: The origin of flight has to be among the largest challenges to slow-and-gradual evolution there is. In Current Biology, though, Zhong Zhou and crew have turned up another fossil bird in China’s Jehol fossil beds. It has characteristic tail feathers indicating it was a strong flyer. The problem is, unrelated birds also have good tails.

The hypothesis that rectricial bulbs and a plough-shaped pygostyle are co-evolved receives further support via the recent discovery of a rectricial fan in the basal pygostylian Sapeornis. Although proportionately larger, the sapeornithiform pygostyle is morphologically very similar to that of ornithuromorphs….

This supports an alternative scenario in which rectricial bulbs and pygostyle reduction evolved independently in sapeornithiforms, pengornithids, and ornithuromorphs….

Notably, such a high degree of homoplasy [convergent evolution] is not uncharacteristic of early avian evolution.

So instead of similarities falsifying the evolutionary tree of birds, it confirms it. The story lives on!

When is a hypothesis not a hypothesis? When it’s just a story. Don’t you get frustrated at the storytelling of the Darwinians? Evidence doesn’t matter. John Hawks rightly rebuked Michael Shermer on his unskeptical adherence to his favorite narrative, but Hawks remains an evolutionist himself. That’s one narrative that is non-negotiable among those with D-Merit badges in Big Science Establishment New Year’s Parties. They dare not lose their badges and get kicked out into the cold.

 

 

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