Ardipithecus ramidus

What a day to be stuck in airplanes for hours on end; I had to slurp in a bunch of files on my iPhone and then look at them on that itty-bitty screen, just to catch up on the story of Ardipithecus. Fortunately, you can just read Carl Zimmer’s excellent summary to find out what’s cool about it.

For a summary of a summary: it’s another transitional fossil in our lineage. Ardipithecus ramidus is old, 4.4 million years or so — so it’s well before Lucy and the australopithecines. The latest result is a thorough analysis of a large number of collected specimens that shows it is an interesting mosaic of traits: it was bipedal, but not quite so well adapted to terrestrial locomotion as we are, and it had feet with an opposable big toe. And of course it had a small brain, only a little larger than a chimpanzee’s.

Digital representations of the Ar. ramidus cranium and mandible. (A to D) The ARA-VP-6/500 and downscaled ARA-VP-1/500 composite reconstruction in inferior, superior, lateral, and anterior views (in Frankfurt horizontal orientation). (E) Individual pieces of the digital reconstruction in different colors. Note the steep clivus plane intersecting the cranial vault on the frontal squama (as in Sts 5 and not apes). (F and G) Lateral and superior views of the ARA-VP-1/401 mandible (cast). (H and I) Lateral and superior views of the ARA-VP-6/500 left mandibular corpus with dentition.

Ardipithecus is clearly different from (but related!) to us, and it’s also very different from a chimpanzee. One thing I’m finding baffling in all the commentary is the argument that this somehow shows that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees would have been very unchimpanzee-like, and perhaps closer in morphology to us than to modern chimps. I’m not buying it. Has anybody actually ever suggested that chimpanzees have been in a state of relative stasis for 6 million years? Chimps have evolved in parallel with us for all of that time, so that argument is addressing a non-controversy, or at least, an argument that should have been recognized as silly all along.

We’re also going to have to push the fossil record back another couple of million years to get to that last common ancestor, and there’s no reason to presume that Ardi’s ancestors weren’t also rather different from Ardi. We also need to know more about the breadth of the primate family tree at that time; was Ardi a weirdly specialized sub-branch, or actually representative of a wider trend in the ape species that would lead to us? I think this image is a nice way to illustrate Ardipithecus‘s place in the family tree.

Evolution of hominids and African apes since the gorilla/chimp+human (GLCA) and chimp/human (CLCA) last common ancestors. Pedestals on the left show separate lineages leading to the extant apes (gorilla, and chimp and bonobo); text indicates key differences among adaptive plateaus occupied by the three hominid genera.

Don’t get me wrong: Ardipithecus is a magnificent addition to our family album, and the author’s of the multiple papers that have come out have done a very impressive job of analysis and documentation. We can all jump up and down with joy at these new data, and we can rightly point to this species and say, “Transitional form! Boo-ya, creationists!”

Unfortunately, I’m also seeing the press mangling the story already. National Geographic says, Oldest “Human” Skeleton Found—Disproves “Missing Link”, which is annoying. The article itself isn’t bad, but can we just kill the “missing link” nonsense altogether? It’s as if the only way some science journalists can grasp a new discovery is by relating it to a misbegotten misconception.

The prize for the very worst coverage has to go to Metro News and the Torstar News Service (is that from the Toronto Star?). They put up an article titled New theory may answer missing link question, which opens with the bizarre assertion, Man didn’t descend from apes. There is no new theory here. There is new evidence and further data documenting the details of one lineage’s descent. And if you put the phrase “missing link” in your headline any more, we’re going to have to put a silly hat on your editors and make them sit in a corner.

But the very worst part is this misinterpretation of the suggestion that the LCA of humans and chimps would have had characters we consider human-like. I guarantee you that this will be the core of the creationist response to Ardi in the near future.

The four-foot, 110-pound female’s skeleton and physiological characteristics bear a closer resemblance to modern-day humans than to contemporary apes, meaning they evolved from humanlike creatures — not the other way around.

Brace yourself, gang. The creationists are going to be claiming that this shows humans were created first, and all of these other hairy beasts the paleontologists are digging up are just degenerate spawn of the Fall.

It must be hard to be an atheist in Alabama

But there is a group, Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, which they can join, and I’m sure there are others around. Unfortunately, they seem to be limited in how they can advertise. When they tried to do the common campus practice of chalking — putting messages on the sidewalks to let students know what they were up to — they got an unfortunate response.

“While we were chalking somebody dumped water on what we were chalking, somebody spat at us,” Sloan said. “But really, overall, most people were polite.”

At approximately 6 p.m., AAA finished their chalking, Sloan said. By midnight, all the chalking had been erased and scrubbed clean by what appeared to be an organization’s effort.

Note that there were other groups, Christian groups, that were chalking at the same time, and that the atheists were writing inoffensive messages like “You can be good without god” and suggestions to look them up on facebook.

I guess they’ll have to settle for advertising on the internet.

So, all you University of Alabama students, join Alabama Atheists and Agnostics. Heck, all Alabamians should join. It’s accessible to the whole of the internet, so people all around the world can sign up.

Any other atheist groups in Alabama want a plug? Send me a note, and I’ll add them here.

Whoa. There are lots of atheists in Alabama. Try these organizations out:

The Birmingham Athiests Meetup Group
North Alabama Freethought Association
Alabama Freethought Association
West Alabama Freethought Association
Etowah County Rational Alliance
Southeast Alabama Freethought Association
Montgomery Area Freethought Association

I do love to see the trembling of the faithful

The number of godless Americans rises a few percentage points, and O Woe Is Us among the apologists. They are so weak and easily discomfited that it makes me chortle.

This one is pretty funny, too — he urges all the religious people to drop their differences (hah!), “Or risk becoming Europe, where religion is fast becoming an afterthought.” What is it with these guys? Europe is a fine, successful place, the thriving heartland of Western thought, and they do very well with a diminished religious influence. I think we’d do well to steal the best parts of European culture, and use them to replace the creaky embarrassing bits of ours…and that means religion should go.

I get email

Man, those visits to Fargo and Maine sure stirred up a lot of people. I’ve just been getting an unusually large volume of mail lately, and it’s about evenly split: half are saying “Yay, I’m going to read your blog every day!” and the other half are “You’re going to burn in hell!” It seems appropriate, then, to at least acknowledge this flood by posting one of them.

Nate is trying to pull a Ray Comfort on me. There’s a reason why people call Comfort “Raytard”, so he really isn’t the right person to emulate.


Hi Paul,

The ten commandments:

1. No other God’s…. even yourself.
2. No idols… none!
3. Take God’s name in vain…. Never.
4. Keep the Sabbath day… every week!
5. Honor you father/mother…?
6. You shall not murder… Jesus said to hate your brother is to murder…. Ever hate anyone?
7. You shall not commit adultery… Jesus said to lust after a woman is the same… Lust?
8. No stealing… ever stole anything.. even minor?
9. Bear false witness?
10. No coveting… ever!

How did you do? If you are like everyone else you probably failed to keep 8-10 of these. Not a good sign for anyone that believes in God. I guess for now the easier thing to do would be to put him out of our lives. Of course in the end we will have to face the music no matter what we believe… or maybe Jesus faced the music for those who do believe. He can change your life as he has many. God is calling you.

How did you do with the ten commandments?

With love,

Nate Stead

Whoa. Slapped down with the Ten Commandments. No one has ever tried to do that to me before.

  1. Not only do I have no other gods, I have no gods, period. I ace this one and deserve extra credit. Score: 1½.
  2. Idols, are you kidding me? Of course not. No idols, no fetishes, no funny costumes or hats, no rituals, no hymns, no saints. I’m completely free of that nonsense. Score: 2½.
  3. There is no god, so no name to take in vain. And what does that mean, anyway? When I say, “Jesus was a deluded kook whose suffering does not excuse anyone’s sins”, I’m not taking his name in vain at all. Score: 3½.
  4. “Keeping the sabbath” is another nonsensical idea. Sure, I keep it; it’s a day on the calendar, it’s awfully hard to lose. But if you mean I have to be like those crazy fundamentalist Jews who don’t even flip a light switch on Sunday, no. I hope this guy isn’t serious about wanting to establish that kind of principle for everyone. I’m gonna give this one to myself. “Keeping” a day is so vaguely defined and even Christianist kooks differ in what it means. Score: 4½.
  5. Of course I honor Mom and Dad. I love ’em to pieces. Easy. Score: 5½.
  6. I have never murdered anyone. Never even killed anyone. And the commandments specifically say “murder”, not “hate”, so I reject your redefinition. Score: 6½.
  7. Likewise, I’ve never committed adultery. And once again, you don’t get to redefine the commandment to mean, “Think Raquel Welch looked hot in that wetsuit”. Score: 7½.
  8. No, I haven’t stolen anything, either. I make a reasonable wage, have relatively few material requirements, and haven’t needed to steal. I know, this wanker is probably going to redefine stealing to mean “Watched Indiana Jones snatch away a jeweled idol in a movie and thought it was cool” to mean I broke both #2 and #8, but I reject that fatuous word game, too. Score: 8½.
  9. No, I don’t lie, either. It’s so much easier to tell the truth. Oh, there were probably a few negligible childish fibs once upon a time, but I’ve never harmed people with a lie, or tried to use a lie to get away with something. Score: 9½.
  10. Uh-oh, caught me. Yes, I covet stuff all the time. I walk into bookstores and lust after so much stuff; I’ve got a long Amazon wish list, and I like my computer gadgets. So?

So, I score 9½ out of 10, and most Christians, by Nate’s admission, score 0-2. That has to sting; here he’s dreaming of someday watching the heathen burn in torment from a ringside seat in heaven, but I do better at following the commandments than he does!

But wait, I know Ray Comfort’s schtick, so I know what comes next. God has given us these ‘laws’ that are virtually impossible to keep, so everyone breaks them at some time, but it’s OK, because if you accept Jesus in your heart, it gives you license to break all these laws, and still get into heaven. If you’re a Christian, you can lie, steal, commit adultery, and even murder, and still get divine approval. And if you follow every single one of the ten commandments, but don’t love Jesus, you still get sent to hell.

So what good are these commandments? The people who think the source is credible also get carte blanche to break them, and the only people who are expected to stick to them are the ones who reject the Bible…and they are damned anyway!

So, Nate, I suggest you take your ten commandments and stuff them up your nether orifice. Sideways. No lube. And look! There’s no commandment against it!

Faith and Flagella

If you’ve ever read William Dembski, you know he has an infuriating ego and is aggravatingly pompous. If you’ve ever read Dan Brown, you know that he simply can’t write, churning out canned syntax and ridiculous plots. What would you get if someone made an unholy fusion of the two?


I’m pretty sure that this is one of those chimerae the religious right gets so incensed about, and for once, I agree with them. Kill it. Kill it now. Kill it with fire.