Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Two New Dinosaur Studies: Each is For the Birds

Source: ScienceDaily.com
The online journal ScienceDaily.com recently published links to two new fascinating studies concerning dinosaur evolution and the evolution of birds. The studies provide fundamental insights into the rise of birds and how adaptations of both feathers and bird flight staved off the extinction for at least some dinosaur species in the late Cretaceous, between 150 million to about 65 million years ago.

The first article, Dinosaur family tree gives fresh insight into rapid rise of birds, provides a overall review of how the diversity of dinosaur species allowed for rapid morphological adaptations and also discusses the relatively quick evolution of flight. They authors focus on related changes in bone shape and structure and other traits seen in modern birds which first appeared in their dinosaur forbearers.

The study mentions that the familiar anatomical features of birds – such as feathers, wings, hollowed long bones and wishbones – “all first evolving piecemeal” in their dinosaur ancestors over tens of millions of years. The article postulates that once a fully functioning bird body shape evolved, “an evolutionary explosion began”, causing a rapid increase in the rate at which birds adapted around the globe.

This, according to the authors, led eventually to the multitude of avian species that we know today. The authors of the article also note:

“Based on (their) findings from fossil records, researchers say the emergence of birds some 150 million years ago was a gradual process, as some dinosaurs became more bird-like over time. This makes it very difficult to draw a dividing line on the family tree between dinosaurs and birds.” 

 The second of the two articles, How dinosaur arms turned into bird wings, describes in excellent detail how adaptations of wrist bones would allow select ancient species of dinosaur to adapt to flight. The morphological changes appear in dinosaurs, had become recessive and then at some point reappear in birds, leading to flight. Here is the explanation given by the scientists who authored the article:

“…new data obtained by the Vargas lab has revealed the first developmental evidence that the bird semilunate was formed by the fusion of the two dinosaur bones. They go on to show that another bone -- the pisiform -- was lost in bird-like dinosaurs, but then re-acquired in the early evolution of birds, probably as an adaptation for flight, where it allows transmission of force on the downstroke while restricting flexibility on the upstroke. Combined, the fossil and developmental data provide a compelling scenario for a rare case of evolutionary reversal.”

I have always had a great respect for our feathered friends. Even watching common pigeons will stop me in my tracks as I begin watch their behavior and think about their ancient lineage. I do tend to daydream back 65 million years before mammals would radiate and speciate around the globe and onto every continent.

Bird diversity and their strong adaptability, like that of dinosaurs, is truly symbiotic and matched by their geography and living conditions. Even flightless birds like penguins and ostriches are incredibly successful from an evolutionary perspective. We also have to remember that it was Charles Darwin’s finches that helped him focus his grand theory of Natural Selection. As such Darwin’s ideas remain central to biology and a host of other disciplines.

In each case these two articles should be respected for offering evidenced-based details which creationists will have a harder and more difficult time refuting. Evolution, whether it is dinosaur-bird; or fish; or plant; or viruses and bacterial; or mammalian and primate, is real and true.

As the evidence continues to expand and mount on all fronts, be it fossil or genetic in nature, after almost 160 years sine the publication of the Origin of Species, science has more than enough data to prove Darwin’s theory…no…make that Law of Evolution is correct.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The New Religious Math: Theology + Modernity = Open Hostility

"To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn) There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn) And a time to every purpose, under Heaven"

Earlier this week there was a news article about a possible break between the Republican Party (the GOP) and one of its philosophical leaders and former presidential candidates. Mike Huckabee, the Evangelical Minister who was previously also the Governor of Arkansas. Huckabee held a press conference and declared that if the GOP should change its platform on either gay marriage or a woman's right to choose (they're against both) that he'd leave the party for good and find more ideologically concurrent groups to partner with in the future.

Threats like this remind me of a child who plans to hold their breath until they turn blue in the face to get what they want. But this threat really isn't child's play. It is another very strong sign that American politics is infused with religious doctrine and ideology which brings with it many billions in campaign contributions.

While saber rattling isn't new in politics or religion for that matter, the three-week Synod held by the Roman Catholic Church under the auspices of the new Pontiff, is also unsettling the more conservative Catholic faithful. The push by both Huckabee to batten down the hatches and the Church to attempt a course change of its spiritual and theological ship each comes at a time when both secularism and democratic humanism are on the rise.

In one sense there is a strong repudiation of secular ideas by evangelicals in all faith traditions. On the other hand, and at least in terms of the RC Church, there is a public relations attempt to adapt the secular ideas which parishioners hold and to fit them into doctrine.  The Synod meeting's apparent goal is to ultimately change the absolutist segments of the doctrine and those who espouse it in the hierarchy so that the Church will again become more relevant to believers. These issues are painful for insiders to discuss and from the outside are made to look like there is actually liberalization and change coming.

In essence the Synod is really just a marketing ploy than a real change.  Unless and until the Church recognizes gay marriage and abortion rights, something it cannot do theologically, it will just try to dial down the negative rhetoric while not really changing the institutional mandates set theologically by the faith and its leaders. Case in point it has been decades since Vatican II and there are still active and influential priests who continue to accept that the Jews conspired to kill Christ. These leaders work subtly and in ways not apparent to many in their effort to settle old doctrinal scores.

One of the major problems facing organized religion is the decline of believers who choose to dispense with attending regular communal worship services. Even those at the pulpit acknowledge that for the faithful, houses of worship have become less popular, ineffective and not important for spiritual communion with one's deity of choice.

Of course there are many reasons for the steep decline of worship attendance. Demographic changes; technology advances; numerous financial scandals; rampant child emotional and sexual abuse, purposeful cover-ups and the relocation of abusers. These are just some of the issues which make people think twice about the leadership and authority of those in charge of numerous religious organizations.

When you add to the mix the rise of secular humanism and freethought along with the impact of daily science discoveries concerning our place in nature as well as the wider universe we find that both modernity and each new discovery leaves fewer and fewer places where magical thinking and religious belief can thrive.

And it's not just that science and humanism offers a more honest, more coherent and truer answers than any faith alternative, it is also the rate at which global non-belief and secularism have risen which both threatens and diminishes the need for the acceptance of god, faith community or religious spirituality.

So to somewhat quote Ecclesiastes, for every thing there is a season and place under THE SKY not heaven. I conclude that such movement away from faith and closer to secular humanism and non-belief is the next great global political and social trend which will inform and transform our individual and collective lives.

In the next fifty years the number of non-believers will continue to grow substantially around the globe. And perhaps then, with the ongoing expansion taking place, the sun will finally begin to set on the season of religious faith. A season which has haunted, burdened, bifurcated  and damaged our humanity for generations.

And yes, from my own and what I gather from the Humanist perspective this is a nice bit of poetry.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dying to Follow Magical Beliefs

There is an accepted evolutionary axiom that is played out by most species when weaning their young in times of stability and especially in times of danger. Most animals will attempt to preserve and protect their offspring as best they can and at all costs.

Somewhat sadly in the wild things can and do go horribly wrong.  The young may get separated or lost, or are picked off in predatory attacks, or get hurt or become ill.  From an evolutionary biology perspective this isn’t always a bad thing because successful gene transfer of favored traits is key to any species adaptation and survival.

But really anything can happen in the wild and we have to recognize from human-made to natural disasters that nature even when it is at its most calm can be brutal and unforgiving. For this reason the growth of human civilization has meant we can, as a primate species that needs a long post-birth incubation and an expanded enculturation process, help the young survive so they can pass on their genes to future generations.

A pediatrician friend recently shared an insight. She told me that all babies - even those who reach full term - are all essentially premature. She meant that even after a healthy birth the infant cannot successfully care for itself for at least a decade. Human babies are not just small sized adults, like say sharks who swim instantly or deer that walk in a few hours after birth, but like all primates our young are totally dependent on others for their well-being.

So from an evolutionary perspective it is somewhat perplexing when parents refuse to give their children life-saving medicine or vaccinations. Without being too morose and since there aren’t any current violations of the axiom playing through the news cycle, we tend to forget that there are groups both on the right and left who opt out of giving their children medicine when they become ill.

On the right, there are parents who choose prayer and faith healing rather than medicine when a child falls ill. In many societies the religious freedom to pray rather than administer antibiotics or other medicines is, for lack of a better definition, a form of child abuse.

But in other places where laws trump child protection in favor of religious preference, the leaders within these communities should be equally culpable as the parents who refuse to provide medical treatment for their sick children. If one knowingly prays and avoids cures or other medical treatment for children who then become progressively ill or die then that parent or caretaker has committed an act of infanticide.

However, it isn’t just the religious right that has a problem with modern medicine to help children either avoid illness or get well should they become ill. Indeed, if it were just the usual suspects of Pentecostal and evangelical parents who deny their offspring medicine we freethinkers could easily thumb our noses and retort that "here again" faith is a central problem in our modern lives.

But the sad an perhaps growing trend of liberal, educated and otherwise rational parents who avoid vaccinating their children also places their kids and all our children at risk for communicable diseases. We’ve seen B-movie actors proclaim that vaccinations causes autism, a rise in parents choosing home and folk remedies for diseases that can be cured through medical support, and we’ve heard of parents who accept as “fact” the idea that drug companies, in economic conspiracy, push the medical community into prescribing vaccination just for profit.

In each case, whether it is religious delusion of the theological right or the equally painful paranoia of the liberal left, the outcome is the same.  Not providing sufficient medical care to children is an impossibly poor, unethical, dangerous and even an illegal decision. If parents choose non-action over prevention or direct care then they have essentially abdicated a major evolutionary and social responsibility to their children and to society.

And such non-action has even greater implications. One can attempt to claim that not vaccinating or providing medicine to their child is a private family decision. But that child or those children usually don’t live in a bubble. Not taking proper medical care places other children and families at risk. And without informed consent what could start out as individual abuse can quickly spread to epidemic proportions with the fast spread of communicable diseases. Even the common cold is fatal as 200,000 people are hospitalized and more than 36,000 people die from influenza each year (in the U.S. - the statistic is not international).

This is not only a human rights issue for the protection of children who cannot adequately defend themselves against their community or primary caregivers. It is also a public health issue because those physically closest to the unvaccinated or an otherwise sick child can become ill or infected through numerous venues of contact. And it's not just other children who are at risk. Adults too can become victims if they contract illness from an unvaccinated or communicable  child.

If we are going to be a species of merit then it is my conclusion that both from an evolutionary, ethical and socially responsible perspective, we have to put aside our delusions and paranoia for the sake to child welfare.  We cannot have a just and humanistic society when caregivers refuse to take care of those who are the most vulnerable and least able to care for themselves.  That is a recipe for disaster and clearly serves as an immediate request to nature to hasten our extinction.

Here is a great book on the topic by Shawn Francis Peters entitled When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law. It's a good read and I recommend it to my friends and viewers of this site.