Island of snakes and spiders

When I was a kid lo these many years ago, there was a comforting notion about the balance of nature. I didn’t know at the time, but an eclectic mix of computer hobbyists and assorted math and physics geeks were in the process of demolishing it with a new branch of study called Chaos Theory. That’s also comforting when learning of ecological shifts, especially ones involving armies of snakes and spiders: [Read more…]

Hey Kentuckians, are those students a’lern’n evolushun?

I was born in Lexington, but moved to Austin decades ago as a kid with the first wave of IBM immigrants traveling from blue grass to lone stars. Austin’s great, but Kentucky to Texas is not exactly a political improvement for a budding rational atheist. Because sadly, in many ways they’re the same, including creationism: [Read more…]

What pray tell is life?

On a hypothetical simmering ocean world, under an oversized blue-white star, the tendrils of one of sci-fi writer Steven Baxter’s “Qax” reach out to the limb of another in the distance.

It’s fair to think we know life when we see it. But is that really true? Scientists have worked on defining life for decades, and in most cases they’ve ended up with a pragmatic suite a characteristics that’s both useful and clearly incomplete. With the recent focus on Mars, the effort is rejoined. Here’s one stab at it: [Read more…]

Homo rudolfensis muscles into a better place at the big, noisy hominid family table

Reconstruction of Homo habilis at the Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne, courtesy of the Wikipedia.

At one time the proposed hominid line taught to new anthropology students was pretty simple. It went something like Australopithicus to Homo habilis, habilis to H. erectus, erectus to us. This was debated, but it was a basic view the fossil evidence supported.

It’s more complicated now, that tree is bushy, but the good news is some details have been filled in. One of the details is or was Homo rudolfensis, henceforth called Rudy here, a proposed subspecies that lived about 2 MYA. But Rudy was only represented by a handful of teeth, bone scraps, and one beautifully preserved, fairly complete skull dubbed KNM-ER 1470 found by none other than Richard and Meave Leakey at Koobo Fora, Kenya, in 1972. That may have changed this week: [Read more…]

Your fluffy house kitty may be a Killer Kat when you’re not around

As has been noted, domestic cats descend from predators well honed by evolution to be killers. Not since the days of raptors have such well-engineered killing machines silently stalked and taken down prey. House cats have been bred by humans for traits we find appealing for a lot less time than dogs (Sorry, cat vs dog lovers), so they’re a bit, more, well, raw might be the word in terms of evolutionary modifications. Now we can prove it! [Read more…]

The great anatomically modern human leap

There is a debate in paleoanthropology, well, there are lots of them. But this one has to do with behavior that doesn’t fossilize well, and which suggest the presence or lack of modern cognition. The ancestors of the San, pictured above, are a great source of data for that question. A new find pushes back the date when San Bushmen behaved like any other modern people right down to symbology and sophisticated subsistence strategies: [Read more…]

Pastor Rick Warren tries to blame shooting on evolution?

I suppose, in a roundabout way, pretty much any human behavior could be due to evolution for one reason or another. Can’t fire guns without hands and fingers for example. But when Tom DeLay tried to blame the Columbine shooting on teaching evolution he was roundly ridiculed. It’s not clear what was going through Pastor Rick Warren’s mind when he posted a similar sounding tweet, but the coverup that followed suggests he might have something to hide: [Read more…]

Australopithicus sebida found in old lab rock

A site first discovered by the nine year-old son of a fossil hunter in 2008 just keeps on giving. The Malapa has produced some of the most complete human ancestor fossils ever discovered, and some of the final missing pieces were just found in a boulder sitting quietly in a lab for the last three years. Until a researcher noticed what looked like a hominid tooth protruding from the rock: [Read more…]