A brief moment in the magnificent history of mankind


Isn’t that beautiful? It’s an ancient footprint in some lumpy rocks in Kenya…but it is 1½ million years old. It comes from the Koobi Fora formation, familiar to anyone who follows human evolution, and is probably from Homo ergaster. There aren’t a lot of them; one series of three hominin trails containing 2-7 prints, and a stratigraphically separate section with one trail of 2 prints and an isolated single print. But there they are, a preserved record of a trivial event — a few of our remote relatives taking a walk across a mudflat by a river — rendered awesome by their rarity and the magnitude of the time separating us.

Here’s one of the trails:

(Click for larger image)

Tessellated swath of optical laser scans of the main footprint trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E. Color is rendered with 5-mm isopleths.

It’s an interesting bridge across time. There they were, a couple of pre-humans out for a stroll, perhaps on their way to find something for lunch, or strolling off to urinate, probably nothing dramatic, and these few footprints were left in drying mud to be found over a million years later, when they would be scanned with a laser, digitized, and analyzed with sophisticated software, and then uploaded to a digital network where everyone in the world can take a look at them. Something so ephemeral can be translated across incomprehensible ages…I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering about the possible future fate of the debris of my life that has ended up in landfills, or the other small smudges across the landscape that I’ve left behind me.

And what have we learned? The analysis has looked at the shape of the foot, the angle of the big toe, the distribution of weight as the hominins walked across the substrate, all the anatomical and physiological details that can be possibly extracted from a few footprints.

(Click for larger image)

Optical laser scan images color-rendered with 5-mm isopleths for footprints at both FwJj14E and GaJi10. (A) Isolated left foot (FUI1) on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E. (B) Photograph of FUI8 on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing good definition of the toe pads; the second toe is partially obscured by the third toe. (C) Second trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing two left feet. (D) Third trail on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E, showing a right and a left foot. (E) Print R3 from GaJi10 (22), re-excavated and scanned as part of this investigation. (F) Partial print (FUT1-2) on the upper footprint surface at FwJj14E; the heel area has been removed by a later bovid print. (G) Print FLI1 on the lower footprint surface at FwJj14E, rendered with 5-mm alternating black and white isopleths. (H) Inverted image of the toe area of print FUT1-1 with alternating 5-mm black and white isopleths. Note the locations of the pads of the small toes and the presence of a well-defined ball beneath the hallucial metatarsophalangeal joint. The first, third, and fifth toes are marked D1, D3, and D5, respectively.

The answer is that these beings walked just like us. The tracks are noticeably different from the even older footprints of australopithecines found at Laetoli, from 3.5 million years ago. The foot shape and the stride of Homo ergaster was statistically indistinguishable from those of modern humans, even though we know from the bones associated with these species that they were cranially distinct from us. This is not a surprise; it’s been known for a long time that we evolved these bipedal forms long ago, and that the cerebral innovations we regard as so characteristic of humanity are a relative late-comer in our history.

Remember, though, these are 1½ million years old, 250 times older than the age of the earth, according to creationists. That’s a lot of wonder and history and evidence to throw away, but they do it anyway.

Bennet MR, Harris JWK, Richmond BG, Braun DR, Mbua E, Kiura P, Olago D, Kibunjia M, Omuombo C, Behrensmeyer AK, Huddart D, Gonzalez S (2009) Early Hominin Foot Morphology Based on 1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints from Ileret, Kenya. Science 323(5918):1197-1201.

Good thing Mohammed never said anything censorious about oil

Now this is just getting silly. An Islamic theologian has declared that using ethanol as a fuel is sinful.

As if the debate around using ethanol to fuel cars weren’t already complicated enough, now an Islamic scholar has suggested that driving or even riding in a vehicle fueled by ethanol could be considered a sin for observant Muslims.

The opinion comes from Sheikh Mohamed al-Najimi, of the Islamic Jurisprudence Academy in Saudi Arabia. It is based on the part of Islamic law derived from a statement by the prophet in which dealing with alcohol in any form–including purchase, sale, transport, consumption, and manufacture–is strictly prohibited.

But…but…there are basic biochemical processes going on in every Muslim’s body that produce alcohols! If you’re going to get this ridiculous about restricting anything that has to do with alcohol, they’re going to have to get rid of those sinful dehydrogenases.

But really…don’t you suspect that this has more to do with Saudi Arabia’s status as an oil producing state than in any kind of genuine piety?

Talk fast, we might be criminalized

The UN has passed an absurd resolution that tries to make defamation of religion illegal. No more blasphemy for us!

At least a Canadian spokesman has the right idea.

“Canada rejects the basic premise that religions have rights; human rights belong to human beings,” said Catherine Loubier, spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

“The focus (here) should not be on protecting religions, but rather on protecting the rights of the adherents of religions, including of people belonging to religious minorities, or people who may choose to change their religion, or not to practice religion at all.”

Christopher Hitchens also makes strong points (you’ll have to listen to the odious Lou Dobbs to hear him, unfortunately).

Exposing the intimate details of the sex lives of placoderms


The media is getting another science story wrong. I keep seeing this discovery of an array of fossil placoderms as revealing the origins of sex, and that’s not right. Sex is much, much older, and arose in single-celled organisms. Come on, plants reproduce sexually. A fish is so far removed from the time of origin of sexual reproduction that it can’t tell us much about its origins.

Let’s get it right. These fossils tells us about the origin of fu…uh, errm, mating in vertebrates.

What we have are a set of placoderm fossils from the Devonian (380 million years ago) of Western Australia (The Aussies are going to be insufferable, now that they can claim to be living in the birthplace of shagging) that show two interesting features: some contain small bits of placoderm armor that show no signs of digestion, and so are not likely to be relics of ancient cannibal feasts, but are the remains of viviparous broods — they were preggers. The other suggestive observation is that the pelvic girdle has structures resembling the claspers of modern sharks, an intromittent organ or penis used for internal fertilization.

[Read more…]

Here I thought he was just giving me copies with red, blue, and green covers

I was wondering why Harun Yahya kept sending me new copies of his remarkably tedious tome, the Atlas of Creation. It turns out he’s been busy expunging it of embarrassing errors, like the infamous caddis fly fishing lure presented as an example of a modern insect. Several of these revisions have been documented now — the Atlas evolves! I think in this case we can safely say that no intelligent design was involved.

In addition to the Holocaust, we’re responsible for this, too?

Anytime something wrong happens, there is a Christian who will blame it on atheism and evolution. The latest is the case of the foolish woman who kept an adult chimpanzee as a pet, and got badly mauled for her trouble. This, of course, is Charles Darwin’s fault.

How is it that we live in a culture where people think it’s safe to have a chimpanzee as a pet? Where do people get the idea that we ought to take a wild animal and treat it like a human being? The chimp owner treated the animal like a son who ate at her table, slept in her house, and even drove her car.

Last week the world celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday. Universities placed tributes to Darwinism on their home page (examples include Oxford and Cambridge) and major networks such as BBC ran extensive programs devoted to Darwin’s great contribution to the world.

Yet, ironically, this week we witness a brutal act that seems to logically follow from Darwin’s ideas. You may be wondering how I can possibly link Darwin to this atrocious event. But think about it, if humans are deeply related to chimps then why not expect them to act that way?

“…seems to logically follow…” — I don’t think that Mr McDowell understands that word “logic” very well. I don’t think Darwin ever endorsed the idea that one should keep large, powerful, temperamental animals with the strength to rip your arms off as pets; I’m quite confident that neither did he regard the differences between animals as trivial. I’m also even more closely related to Charles Manson than I am to any chimp, something with which even a brainwashed parrot for jebus like McDowell would agree, yet this imposes on me no desire or obligation to go on a psychopathic killing spree.

It’s funny that McDowell complains that the owner treated the chimp like a son. After all, if we obeyed the rules of his religion, this is how we should treat a son.

Police said a 58-year-old man stabbed his teenage son after he refused to take off his hat at church earlier in the day. The father and his 19-year-old son got into an argument on Sunday afternoon. That’s when police said the father went to a car, got a knife and stabbed his son in the left buttock and fled.

Quick, shut down the churches! Christianity leads to filial buttock mutilation!