October 2013 Archives

A Very Darwinian Halloween


It’s Halloween, so it’s time for a roundup of the SCARIEST October stories in the evolution versus creationism wars!


A new paper was recently published, and widely reported in the media, about a hominid skull discovered at the Dmanisi site in Georgia in 2005 (Lordkipanidze et al, 2013, Gibbons 2013). The fossil, D4500, is believed to belong to the same individual as a lower jaw fossil, D2600, previously found at the site. The combined skull, designated by the authors as “Skull 5” (the 5th skull from Dmanisi) is almost completely and perfectly preserved, making it one of the most spectacular finds in the entire hominid fossil record. And Dmanisi is rapidly becoming one of the most important sites ever found in the study of human evolution.

Skull 5’s brain volume of 546 cm3 is very small. The other Dmanisi skulls are between 600 cm3 and 730 cm3. (Earlier papers gave the size of the largest one as 780 cm3, but that estimate appears to have been reduced. By comparison, the average modern human brain size is 1350 cm3.) However the fossil also has a large and robust jaw bone, and a large and projecting face. This combination of a very small brain and a large face differs from all other known Homo fossils. The fossil is of a mature adult, and because of the robustness of the skull it is thought to belong to a male.

Scientists are naturally delighted at the discovery of such a superb fossil, but the real impact of Skull 5 comes from the conclusions that the authors have drawn from it.

The Dmanisi fossils are different enough from each other that had they been found at different locations, they might have been classified into different species. Similar differences have been used to create species such as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis in the past. The authors believe that the Dmanisi fossils all belong to one species, both because they all come from the same time and place, and because the pattern and amount of variability found between the skulls is similar to that found in populations of modern humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

Following that line of reasoning, they conclude that since a similar pattern of variation exists for all early Homo fossils in Africa, and in the absence of any evidence that the supposed different species of Homo were adapted to different ecological niches, the default and most parsimonious assumption should be that all of these fossils belong to a single highly variable lineage (though they recognize that this claim remains to be tested, and alternative scenarios exist). This would mean that Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and some other more obscure names did not really exist as separate species. The name of that single species would, for reasons of priority, be Homo erectus. Specimens allocated to H. ergaster would then be called Homo erectus ergaster, as a time-limited subspecies. The Dmanisi scientists had previously named a new species, Homo georgicus, for the Dmanisi fossils, but now retract that name and suggest that because the Dmanisi fossils arose from an ergaster population, they should be called Homo erectus ergaster georgicus.

Genomics is expanding at ASU

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We are looking to expand our genomics faculty by hiring a comparative genomicist. I’ve been at ASU for a couple years and everything about it has impressed me. The facilities and faculty are world class. The administration is very supportive. The faculty are very collaborative. The teaching loads are reasonable. Finding amazing undergraduates is trivial. Etc. Anyway, if you are on the job market in genomics/bioinformatics/evolutionary medicine you should apply.


Copy of Job Ad: http://cartwrig.ht/asu-sols-genomics-2013.pdf

Assistant Professor (JOB# 10593)
Arizona State University
School of Life Sciences

The School of Life Sciences and The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University invite applications for a tenure-track faculty position at the level of Assistant Professor whose research focuses on comparison of biological systems at the genome scale. Anticipated start date is August 16, 2014. Preferred research methods may include but are not limited to theoretical, computational, populational, and empirical approaches to comparative and functional genomics. The successful candidate will be expected to develop an innovative, extramurally-funded, research program, teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and have a commitment to outreach and service. The successful candidate will be expected to mentor undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows. A competitive start-up package and teaching load compatible with high research productivity will be provided.

Arizona State University has made a commitment to accelerating the translation of basic discoveries into practical benefits for society through the construction of state-of-the-art research facilities and the recruitment of world-class faculty members. The successful candidate will participate in university-wide health and/or sustainability initiatives supported by core facilities for functional genomics and next generation sequencing, functional proteomics, high throughput cellular screening, bioinformatics, high performance computing, and imaging. More information on genomic research opportunities at the Biodesign Institute and the School of Life Sciences at ASU can be found at http://genomics.asu.edu/.

Candidates must have a Ph.D. (or equivalent) in an appropriate field. Demonstrated teaching and research excellence is preferred.

To apply, send cover letter, your curriculum vitae, three representative publications, separate statements of future research plans and teaching philosophy and interests, and contact information for three references to be sent to Kenro Kusumi, Chair, Comparative Genomics Faculty Search Committee, School of Life Sciences, PO Box 874501, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501. Electronic applications sent as PDF files to [Enable javascript to see this email address.] are preferred. The initial closing date for receipt of applications is November 25, 2013; applications will be reviewed every two weeks thereafter until the search is closed. A background check is required for employment. Arizona State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to excellence through diversity. Women and minorities are encouraged to apply. For additional information on this position and the School of Life Sciences, please visit http://sols.asu.edu/jobs.

Odocoileus virginianus


Photograph by Louis Shackleton.


Odocoileus virginianusleucistic piebald white-tailed deer, Kiptopeke State Park, Cape Charles, Va., 11 October, 2013. Mr. Shackleton adds, “I was up there for four days for fall bird migration, but constant rain meant that this was the only shot of note for the entire trip.”

So, Stephen Meyer is allegedly going to “respond” to critics of Darwin’s Doubt this afternoon on the Medved show (Medved is a DI fellow, this particular show is being broadcast from inside the Discovery Institute). They are even inviting critics to call in – it’s your very own chance to rebut Meyer’s dozens of overlapping errors and admissions with a single question or statement, and with the Discovery Institute controlling the microphone! What a deal!

Over here in real science, we mostly try to address complex scientific topics through writing and analysis. And the critics have done quite a bit of that, although you’d never know it from reading the Discovery Institute blog, where David “spin til it hurts” Klinghoffer has pushed the rhetoric-to-truth ratio to heights not seen since the Kitzmiller days.

Klinghoffer’s constant refrain is that the critics aren’t addressing Meyer’s arguments. Well, let’s make a little list, shall we? It will be convenient as a checklist for anyone who listens to the Medved show today.

Artocarpus altilis


Artocarpus altilis – breadfruit, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, 2010. An article in last week’s Science details an attempt to use breadfruit to improve “shaky food security.”

The Creation “Museum” in Kentucky recently acquired an Allosaurus fossil, according to an AP release by Dylan Lovan yesterday. The proprietor of the Creation “Museum,” Ken Ham, seems to think that the mere acquisition of a dinosaur fossil gives his “museum” credibility and makes it a real museum. The fossil was donated by the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation of Maryland, about which I have so far managed to learn virtually nothing.

The article quotes geologist Dan Phelps, a perpetual thorn in the side of the Creation “Museum”:

What makes a mammal?


I saw a tweet wondering about what makes an animal a mammal:

@realscientists If a tiger shark’s eggs hatch inside it and are born live (I saw a pic recently) is it a mammal or a fish? :-)
– Fiona Howie (@MummyFiFi) September 29, 2013

So, I thought I’d go through a few of the common ideas about shared physical features of mammals.

What makes a mammal? 
Is it giving live birth? Or having hair/fur? What about feeding their babies milk?

Well, kind of (I’ll tell you at the end what really does). First, let’s go through these three:

A recent Gallup poll concluded that Americans consistently rate math the most valuable subject they took in school, ahead of English, science, and history. Specifically, 34 % of those polled in both 2002 and 2013 rated math the most important subject. English, meaning English, reading, and literature, came in second, with 21 % in 2013 rating English the most important. Between 2002 and 2013, incidentally, science jumped from 4 % to 12 %. Figure 1 shows Gallup’s results for 2002 and 2013 in graphical form.


Figure 1. Percentage of responses to Gallup polls taken in 2002 and 2013. Mathematics held firm at 34 %, whereas science increased from 4 to 12 % at the expense of English, reading, and literature.

Xanthorrhoea australis


Photograph by Paul Blake.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Xanthorrhoea australis – grass tree, Mount Michel (looking toward Mount Cordeaux), Great Dividing Range, southwest of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

by Carl Drews

What will happen to the Earth’s oceans as the level of dissolved CO 2 in the oceans increases? This post explores the likely consequences of this increase for plants and animals living in the oceans. We will not cover questions about the reality of climate change itself, nor the suggested causes of global warming (human-caused or natural).

The complexity of the earth system is such that nobody can be an expert on all aspects of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Climate change involves many interrelated scientific disciplines. One of the great things about Panda’s Thumb is that it covers a wide range of scientific topics, and anyone can contribute their own expertise when their particular field comes up. I am sure that PT readers will correct me if I get something wrong here (and even if I don’t!).

Ardea herodias


Photograph by Tom Gillespie.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Ardea herodias – great blue heron, December 2012, near Nashville, Tennessee.

By Brianne Fagan.

This column by Brianne Fagan, a senior majoring in chemical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, is a response to a recent New York Times column on women in science. It was prepared as part of a class on Explorations in Science, Technology, and Society. The class is co-taught by physics professor Lincoln Carr and Toni Lefton of the Liberal Arts and International Studies department. The course is offered through the McBride Honors Program.

During a class presentation about Kate Kirby, one of my peers brought up some statistics about girls in math and science while sharing her own motivations for pursing environmental engineering. During a related discussion, the two female Physics students both discussed their mostly positive experiences as women in the Physics Department at the Colorado School of Mines. The question always seems to remain, though: Why do so few girls pursue degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields?

Well, I was perusing the articles on my New York Times app this morning, and what did I find?

Ark Park disinvites Daniel Phelps


Several weeks ago we reported that Daniel Phelps had received a “Dear Danny” letter from Ken Ham and the Ark Park. You may have noticed that on the third page of the letter, “Danny” was specifically invited to “join Ken Ham and other leaders of the Ark Encounter project … for one of two special events on either October 4 or 5, 2013.” Alas, poor Danny received a very terse letter, which says in its entirety

[Update, October 4, 2014. Earlier today I received a press release, which I summarize in the 17th comment below, dated today at 3:15 pm.]

Co-blogger Richard Hoppe noted a few weeks ago that a group of creationists in Kansas have sued the state’s Board of Education for teaching evolution in public schools on the theory that such teaching “endorses” a “worldview” which is tantamount to a religion, as prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As our NCSE friends observe, courts have consistently rejected the argument that science is a “religious worldview” which the government is prohibited from endorsing. But there’s another…shall we say, innovative…aspect to the complaint. It alleges that teaching evolution violates the right of school children not to be indoctrinated. For instance, on p. 27, the complaint alleges that teaching evolution violates the rights of students because it “imbues them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with the beliefs their parents have sought to instill in them,” and “imbu[es] them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with their [the students’] existing religious beliefs.”

Scientists meet up periodically to share their findings, usually at one or more annual meetings. We share results usually in oral presentations or in the form of a poster that we put up and stand near, in case anyone wants to engage in discussion.

I went to the annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) this past summer. While at SMBE 2013 I saw several oral presentations, and perused through the posters, when I wasn’t presenting my own. I had a conversation with a PI who said something to the effect of, “I won’t attend a conference unless I am giving a talk.”

Okay, well, I suppose once one has obtained the level of status where talk invitations are constantly rolling in the door, I can understand being choosy about the presentation style for a conference. But, presumably, this PI will still have students and postdocs who will want to attend the conference, share their science, and get feedback on current projects. And most of those people will likely not have the prestige of giving a talk. So, how else to scientists share their results?


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