April 28, 2011

Our Species Is Getting Taller, Heavier And Living Longer - But Many In Poor Countries Are Not

I hope none of you reading this and the two articles cited below will lapse into the long ago debunked misconception of evolutionary theory known as Social Darwinism and wrongly think:  "Well this news is not surprising, it's only natural.  It's survival of the fittest."  Please read on....

Improvements in food production and public health over the past 300 years have made us taller, heavier and helped us to live longer.  These changes in the human body have happened more rapidly than in the previous thousands of years of our evolutionary history.  From the link article:

"To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.

April 27, 2011

Free Will - Of course we have it! Don't we?

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

Originally published in 2004 in Skeptic magazine, the following article discusses a matter that has been of great importance from ancient times to the present, and resides at the heart of our scientific understanding of Humankind - Free Will:  Zeno's Paradox, and the Problem of Free Will by Phil Molé, reprinted in eSkeptic on April 27, 2011.

Sociobiologists, for example, seeking the biological foundations of human behavior, including thought, argue that there is no such thing as Free Will.  That humans behave within a determined range of behavior because they are material objects made up of elements whose physical and "behavioral" characteristics are known to allow only certain behaviors and not others.  Therefore, they argue, Humans have no Free Will.

There are other behavioral scientists who argue to the contrary that the sociobiologists' limited definition of Free Will does not mean there is no Free Will at all.  They say, in essence, Free Will is is not an all or nothing condition.  To have Free Will does not mean we are free to do anything we want.  It is a condition of existence where we have the ability to choose among behavioral options we can carry out within the physical laws of Nature.  The Human ability to exercise Free Will in terms of "thought" options is unlimited much as is the Human imagination.  Thus our behavior is limited by the laws of the material universe but our thinking is an emergent property with unlimited options.

April 25, 2011

Human Evolution - New Fossil Evidence Further Establishes Our Place In Nature

This image released by the journal Science shows the right hand skeleton of the adult female Australopithecus sediba against a modern human hand. A detailed analysis of 2 million-year-old bones found
Photo By AP/Peter Schmid, courtesy of Lee Berger and the University of Witwatersrand
Closest Human Ancestor May Re-write Steps in Our Evolution, Yahoo News/Live Science, September 9, 2011
Earliest Signs of Advanced Tools Found, The New York Times, Science, August 31, 2011
Human Ancestor Older Than Previously Thought;  Finding Offers New Insights Into Human Evolution, Science Daily, June 20, 2011
New Fossils May Redraw Human Ancestry, The New York Times, Science, September 8, 2011

Recently discovered 2 million year old fossil specimens were presented at the April 18, 2011 meeting of the American Physical Anthropology Association and are still being analyzed.  The conjecture that they represent a transitional form between genus Australopithecus africanus and genus Homo habilis is being questioned by other scientists:  "Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City endorsed A. sediba as a distinct species, probably closely related to A. africanus. 'I wouldn’t classify it as the root of the Homo genus, though,' he commented."

Fresh Evidence Adds Weight to Human Ancestor's Identity
Possible New Human Ancestor Discovered

Australopithecus sediba fossils

April 22, 2011

Myths About Evolution And Secularism - An Outline

by Jim Lassiter

[A talk given at the monthly meeting of the Fayette Freethought Society, Peachtree City, Georgia, April 21, 2011.]

I would like to thank the Fayette Freethought Society (FFS), and in particular Julie Williams, for inviting me to give a talk on secularism and the major myths about evolution.  I would also like to welcome all of you here and thank you for coming.  I am grateful to FFS for providing a forum for the open expression of free thought.

Nature, culture, and science have interested me from an early age and contain themes that dominate my life and work.  These themes are in fact truths in my life and include the following:

  • Nature is powerful and worthy of respect.  We are of it, not above it.
  • Humans behave based on cultural knowledge and reasoning.  I am optimistic.
  • Science is a fitting and useful truth.

My earliest years were spent in Florida, NC, GA, Alaska.  Florida’s panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico, southern Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp, and farm country North Carolina not far from the Great Dismal Swamp provided natural environments that could not be ignored.  Winters and summer fishing trips in Alaska’s wilderness in the late 1950s powerfully informed this eight-year old boy of his place within and subordinate to Nature.

In early adulthood I lived in northern California, Germany, Japan and went to graduate school in Oregon.  I served as a Peace Corps high school science teacher in the Kingdom of Swaziland, southern Africa for 3.5 years.  All these locations were rich environments that increased my appreciation for Nature, culture and science.

In the mid-late 1980s I directed Peace Corps programs in Tanzania and Ghana where the Volunteers taught math and science and introduced tilapia fish farming and other forms of technical assistance, and engaged in cultural exchanges.  Latter I interviewed thousands of African refugees who sought refuge from persecution via the US Refugee Resettlement program – as a result my appreciation for Nature, culture and science deepened.

Now retired from federal government service, I have begun the final phase of my life’s work – promoting a broader and deeper understanding of Nature, culture and science as bases for helping Humankind achieve a global morality and civilization.  I am doing this through my blog and though research on my wife’s ethnic group in eastern Uganda.  I mention this background to show that my passion for Nature, culture and science is subjective and humanistic as well as objective and practical.   Our continued ignorance of or disdain for Nature, other cultures and science is not an option.  The survival of our species and the biosphere depend on teaching the ignorant and confronting the arrogant and disdainful forces pitted against Nature and science.

  • The Top 10 Myths About Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, 2007
  • The Top 10 Myths About of Evolution (And How We Know it Really Happened), The Skeptics Society, 2008
  • How to Debate a Creationist:  25 Answers To Classic Creationist Arguments and 10 Answers to Intelligent Design Creationist Arguments, Second Edition by Michael Shermer, The Skeptics Society, 2004

This evening I would like to present various myths about evolution topically, rather than try and cover them all.  Although they have proliferated and continue to do so unabated since the 1860s, they seem to cluster under about six topics.  These include:

  1. Evolution is just a theory, not proven and therefore no better than religious truth.
  2. “Survival of the fittest” is a natural no-holds-barred life and death struggle among organisms.
  3. Nature is purposeful and progressive.  That evolution happens by random chance makes it unbelievable.
  4. Creationism and ID trump science and evolution.
  5. Evolution is wrong to claim humans came from monkeys because the evidence for human evolution is fraudulent.
  6. Accepting evolution as truth is atheistic and therefore immoral.

April 17, 2011

Africa - Reducing Dependence On And Vulnerability To The Will And Whim Of Others

UPDATE:  The Aid Debate, A Presentation by George Ayittey, 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum, May 11, 2011 (move to 11:40 minute/second)

In the 1990s, while posted at one of the US Embassies in East Africa, Washington asked for our Embassy's mission goals and objectives.  At the Ambassador's open invitation I attended a lunch-hour "brown bag" discussion to informally discuss what our priorities for the coming year might be.  Upon entering the conference room there was an easel with newsprint displaying a list of priorities, in the following order:  Democracy, Good Governance (aka fighting government corruption), Civil Society, Economic Development, and Security.  It was a time in US foreign policy when democracy, governance and civil society issues dominated what the US wanted African countries to focus on.

As the discussion began I heard impressively articulated comments from around the table, particularly from seasoned mostly economics- and political science-educated foreign service offices (FSOs) calling for "leveraging" the host government to do this and that.  Each contributor placed emphasis on Washington's top mantras of the time - particularly, democracy, good governance.  Mind you, it was a time when many Africans who aspired to leadership were trying to figure out how to position themselves favorably in the eyes of the West as "democratic," yet ultimately rigging elections and taking their turn "eating" from international aid in all its forms - thus proving no better, and in some cases much worse, than those they had unseated.

Being an acting agency head yet not having the cuff links, quiche recipes and credentials of those seated next to me, I respectfully offered the following:

"Madame/Mister Ambassador, you may well have put those topics on the newsprint in random order (though I knew they were Main State's preferred order), I respectfully submit that we take a different approach to our "friends" and "partners" in the host country and its government.  Rather than view it as a wrestling match where we, the US, engages the host government in the standard referee's position then "leverages" them about the ring looking for opportunities to out-point, pin, or outright submit them, let's adopt a medical model.  Let's consider our friends and partners as having certain ailments - they are not well in certain ways and might, might, benefit from our help - and ask ouselves what the people, not necessarily the wealthy elite currently in power, want and need to prosper.

April 15, 2011

Language - Its Origins And Evolution

Modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago, according to new research. (Credit: © procy_ab / Fotolia)

UPDATE:  On the Antiquity of Language: The Reinterpretation of Neandertal Linguistic Capacities and Its Consequences by Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, Frontiers in Psychology, July 6, 2013, Volume 4, Article 397, Pages 1-17.  Synopsis:  Neandertals Shared Speech and Language With Modern Humans, Study Says, Science Daily, Science News, July 9, 2013.

On the Antiquity of Language, Abstract:

“It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full 'modern package.' However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus predating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.”

Human language evolved from vocal call and alarm communications systems characteristic of most vertebrates, and virtually all mammals.  For Homo sapiens the emergence of complex symbolic language is increasingly being thought to have occurred about 100,000 years ago.

Selective pressure for language began on our ancestors' at the time of their entrance into a new eco-niche, the grasslands of east and southern Africa.  Selective pressures for complex vocal communication and symbolic thought also brought about changes in the structure and capabilities of the speech organs of our ancestors, namely the pharynx and tongue, and changes in the structure and functioning of parts of the brain that integrated visual images, labelling, remembered experience and mutually agreed upon vocalizations and non-vocal communication.  Exactly when the changes began and were completed is not known.

The Australopithecines, a group ancestral to genus Homo (sp.), may or may not have spoken a proto-language.  Most experts think they did not.  They think the first representatives of genus Homo, which emerged from one line of Australopithecines (A. afarensis?) about 2.5mya, were likely the first human ancestors to use language.  I think human language emerged earlier and gradually over a long period of time, as an elaboration of the vocal and gestural communication system characteristic of other primates, mammals and our proto-human ancestors, rather than a relatively sudden, from nothing to fully-fledged, emergence among Homo sapiens 100,000 years ago. 

April 12, 2011

A "Lousy" Chapter In Evolutionary History - Examining Our Roots

Here's a post that will make you scratch your head in wonder.

Natural historians, paleontologists and paleoanthropolists will leave no rock unturned, no geoligical stratum unexcavated, or hairy or feathered spot uninvestigated in their efforts to get to the root of or gather and corroborate information on the evolution of Life on Earth.

"Hairy or feathered spots?!"  Yes.  The natural history of lice, those pesky creatures that live on birds and mammals, provides important information for understanding the evolutionary history of dinosaurs, birds and mammals, including Homo sapiens.

Photo: New York Times/The Natural History of London

Did you know human head, body and pubic lice are related to lice found on modern chimpanzees and gorillas?  Check out the following link.  Don't be surprised if you begin to itch while you are reading:  As Mammals Supplanted Dinosaurs, Lice Kept Pace by Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, April 6, 2011.

Scratch, scratch!  Don't worry, it's probably just dry skin.  Then again....

April 9, 2011

Our 13.7 Billion Year-Old Universe

Ample Time, Matter And Dynamism For Life To Emerge and Evolve Once, Maybe More Often

UPDATE:  A galaxy formed 13.5 billion years ago has been discovered:  NASA's Telescopes Help Discover a Surprisingly Young Galaxy

The giant cluster of elliptical galaxies in the center of this image contains so much dark matter mass that its gravity bends light. This means that for very distant galaxies in the background, the cluster¹s gravitational field acts as a sort of magnifying glass, bending and concentrating the distant objects' light. These gravitational lenses are one tool astronomers can use to extend the vision of telescopes beyond what they would normally be capable of observing.  This particular lens, called Abell 383, was used to find a galaxy so far away that we see it as it was less than a billion years after the Big Bang. This distant galaxy's light has been warped into two, very faint images that are hard to see in this view.  Image credit: NASA, ESA, CRAL, LAM, STScI

Galaxy NGC 1300, a small part of our Universe:

A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) image of NGC 1300.
Credit: HST/

For more space telescopic images of objects within our galaxy and beyond and further information on what is known about our Universe, see Our Observable Universe and NASA's article on The Age of the Universe

April 6, 2011

Secular Global Morality And Civilization - Getting There, One Intervention At A Time

UPDATE 2:  "The Evolution of Binghamton, One Block at a Time" by Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times, Books, August 31, 2011, a review of the book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time by David Sloan Wilson (2011).  A micro, pluralistic approach to working for the emergence of a new global morality and civilization.  See also Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton? by Jerry A. Coyne, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, September 11, 2011

UPDATE 1:  Reforming the United Nations:  The Future of US Policy, by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, April 7, 2011.  "The (United Nations Human Rights) Council must deal with human rights emergencies wherever they occur...."

Amb. Rice's statement affirms the new approach to UN intervention discussed below.  See the following link for more information on the council she refers to which was created in 2006:  UN Human Rights Council.
Encouraging news regarding efforts to achieve a global morality and civilization!

UN Intervention in Ivory Coast Marks Policy Shift

"Belief, Science, Survival" Revisited - Join The Discussion

UPDATE October 19, 2012
Anti-Science Beliefs Jeorpardize U.S. Democracy, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Scientific American, October 17, 2012 

The following is my reply to a number of constructively critical comments made in response to my September 23, 2010 blog post Belief, Science, Survival by my good friend and published author Craig M. White.  To understand the background behind what follows, you are invited to look at this brief post and the comments that follow by Craig, another friend, Kevin Graham, and me.

I have known Craig for many years, having worked with him in Washington and in Africa in the US Refugee Resettlement Program.  I have the greatest respect for Craig’s scholarship, and his views regarding human affairs and the “bigger questions” of Life.  Rather than reply as a comment to a string of Craig’s posts, I am making a new post so that Craig’s, Kevin’s and my views might be shared more widely and thereby bring more of you into the discussion.  The issues Craig and I are discussing – the nature of “truth” and evidence, responding to the complexities of our Universe and Life, the need or lack of need for a creator God – are not wasteful mental wheel-spinning.  They are questions that are at the core of each of our very being.  We all think about them quite often, fleetingly or in incomplete snatches.  Yet rarely do we have, find or take time to give them serious consideration or sort out exactly what it is we believe in or accept as truth.  Reading the original post, its comments and the following is an opportunity to do so.

There are no right or wrong answers to the questions we raise.  There is, however, one future ahead of Humankind.  The course we take to that future will depend on what we accept as truth and what actions we take as individuals, nations and as a species based on that truth.  It is likely that the world’s powerful and wealthy will lead us.  But we, each of us, now and into the future, can influence where Humankind ends up.  Join us in trying to influence what direction we shall take.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Thank you, Craig, for your kind and incisive comments on my blog post Belief, Science, Survival.  I very much agree with you, comprehending and accepting scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary time and events is not easy.  Within the scientific truth regarding our Universe there are huge gaps in our knowledge, great possibility for error, and significant on-going scientific debate and revision.  One obviously must somehow address these and other shortcomings of science and secularism before committing to such a truth.  Rather than respond to each point in your comments, most of which I have already addressed or referred to in the writings of others elsewhere in my blog,1 let me address the major aspects of scientific knowledge you draw attention to and claim have serious shortcomings.  Shortcomings you believe make science no more convincing than the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity. 

April 4, 2011

Mercury No "Goldilocks" Planet: 800°F Days, -300°F Nights

Another step in the growth of scientific knowlodge....

There may be polar icecaps, frozen water in its craters and signs of the early stages of plate tectonics on Mercury....

                                                                                                NASA Photos 2011

In NASA's Lens, Mercury Comes Into Focus, by Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, March 31, 2011

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