Evolution in the Hymnal

After a lifetime of church-going, I’ve heard countless songs praising God in terms of the created world – the stars, the rolling thunder, “thy power throughout the universe displayed”.HowGreatThouArt

A few weeks ago, our worship leader introduced a new song by Hillsong United. It was beautiful and ethereal as you would expect from Hillsong.

But the lyrics stopped me in my tracks.

Here is the first verse:

With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light

And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
In the vapor of Your breath the planets form

Ok, Hillsong. You have my attention. The universe is old and immense and the planets formed in the wake of stars. That is real science.

And with the next verse, I am undone.

God of Your promise
You don’t speak in vain
No syllable empty or void
For once You have spoken
All nature and science
Follow the sound of Your voice

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said

No mental gymnastics needed to make observed science fit into a literalist theology.

Evolution is fact.

Evolution is the process responsible for the brilliant diversity of life on our planet.

And this is huge: we praise God for it. In a song. In church.

Party Favors

Unfortunately, too many people of faith aren’t buying it. Thirty-four percent of Americans reject biological evolution outright. Evangelicals (my tradition) really aren’t buying it – 57% of American evangelicals believe that life has always and only existed in its present form.

A friend was recently given a box of science-y trading cards, a children’s dinosaur book, and a glossy NatGeo-style magazine by her neighbor at a neighborhood gathering she had organized. The neighbor suggested handing the trading cards out to the kids at the event. The trading cards, the book, and the magazine were attractive and kid-friendly, with lots of photos of giant insects and exotic animals and dinosaur facts. When I found out who published these materials, I gladly took the collection off her hands.

The cards, book, and magazine are all publications by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research. The embedded theology is what you would expected from an organization dedicated to promoting a young earth, literal seven-day version of creation. However, some disturbing themes are also woven throughout the collection:

Scientists are suspect. Scientists are atheists.

Scientists “guess”. Scientists ignore facts.

And not just scientists –

Teachers are suspect, too.

Even old-earth creationists and intelligent design advocates are suspect.

Destination Vacation

 

ICR is currently fundraising and planning for a destination “science” center in Dallas – the ICR Discovery Center for Science and Earth History. It’s big and modern and looks like it will give Ken Ham’s Ark Adventure a run for its money. A video on ICR’s website proudly announces that at the Center you will learn “what they don’t tell you in biology class”.

(Those science teachers… always trying to hide the facts.)

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Robert Jeffress, the popular pastor of First Baptist Dallas and frequent national political commentator, said this:

What you believe about creation determines what you ultimately believe about salvation.

Dr. Jeffress: Is the fabric of the gospel so fragile that it comes unpinned if God moves and creates within natural laws?

humpbackwhales

news.nationalgeographic.com

We are OK with letting the Bible speak in an ancient voice when it comes to the sciences of meteorology, medicine, and astronomy. But we draw the line at biology.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a hundred billion reasons why.

Listen.

So will I (100 Billion X) by Hillsong United

 

ccat reading

*****

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United “So Will I“)

*****

who invited the herbivore

A New Kid on the Block and Deep, Deep Time

Here I am a few weeks ago at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada!

Janet Royal Tyrell

From this beginning point, I worked my way through the “intro” halls, all the while getting pumped for the really good stuff the Royal Tyrrell holds – enormous tyrannosaurs, elaborate (are-these-real??) Disney-like horned and frilled dinosaurs, and herds of T.Rex-sized duck-billed hadrosaurs.
But first, we were routed through a room dedicated to mining because coal and oil are important to this part of Canada. In this room were nods here and there to some good chunks of petrified wood and other unintentional finds discovered during the search for fuels.

And there he was.

Not often do I literally stop in my tracks, but I did. And whoa.

 

new nodosaur

 

Right in the middle of the room was a dinosaur fossil like you’ve never seen before. Not skeletal remains. Not a two-dimensional imprint. Not even dried up and mummified.

But a 110 million-year-old dinosaur almost exactly as he would have appeared in life.

A NatGeo photographer  called it the most impressive fossil he’s seen in his life:

It was like a Game of Thrones dragon. It was so dimensional, like a prop from a movie.

In life, this plant eater was eighteen feet long and weighed 3,000 pounds. He was plated in spikes and also sported two impressive twenty-inch spikes on each shoulder. He was found by an excavator operator six years ago, but did not make his public debut until May 2017.

He is a nodosaur, an armored cousin to the club-wielding ankylosaurs. (Here’s a link to a stunning 3-D virtual tour of the dino by NatGeo).

And – breaking news – it was just announced a few days ago that this nodosaur is a new species, the first of its kind to be discovered. He is the 110 million-year-old new kid on the block.

The Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs

newnodosaur natgeo3D

Researchers believe he was swept down river by a flood, then out to sea where he quickly sank, belly-up. He settled into the impact crater with his back supported and was covered in sediment. Minerals infiltrated his skin and armor. Here’s Mark Mitchell (the museum technician who spent more than 7,000 hours chipping rock from the specimen):

It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens–the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs.

Standing just inches from this dinosaur, face to face, I was overwhelmed by these two thoughts:

This animal is REALLY OLD and living things have changed A LOT.

Just call me Captain Obvious.

Armadillos for Supper and Deep Time

About 180 years ago, a young Charles Darwin had those same two thoughts on his famous round-the-world trip aboard the Beagle. In Argentina, Darwin had been eating a local delicacy – armadillo roasted in its shell. In this part of Argentina were also found fossils of a huge animal, now called a glyptodon.

Glyptodons were extinct. And glyptodons looked just like enormous armadillos.

glyptodonts_dynamic_lead_slide

Glyptodon (American Museum of Natural History)

 

To Darwin, it was no coincidence that the little armadillos he was eating looked very like the giant glyptodon fossils found in the same geographical area.

In Darwin’s day, almost everybody thought that living things were static – what you see is what has always been. In other words, all living things were specially created by God in their present form, about six thousand years ago.

A few scientists in Darwin’s day thought that life on earth may have changed, but Darwin was the first to advance an idea of “how” the change happened.

Although Darwin is most famous for his “tree of life” – all living things are related to each other – he articulated another concept that made the tree make sense: deep time.

In the case of the modern armadillos and the extinct glyptodons, Darwin concluded that one species had replaced another, not geographically, but over an immense amount of time.

In Darwin’s day, this was a radical idea.

Today, even the most ardent young-earth creationist will concede that species have changed – just a bit – in order to meet environmental challenges. Creationists term these adaptive changes “microevolution” (not a term recognized by biologists). But creationists maintain that adaptive changes never result in a new species: finches remain birds, despite changes in beaks.

Creationists (whether young earth or old earth) do not accept “macroevolution” (another unscientific term) in which a species gives rise to other new and different species. Like most of Darwin’s nineteenth century contemporaries, modern literal creationists believe that life on earth is pretty much the same as it has always been.

Evolution Before Your Very Eyes

Here is Henry M. Morris, writing for the popular Institute for Creation Research:

First of all, the lack of a case for evolution is clear from the fact that no one has ever seen it happen.

This argument is a favorite of creationist organizations like ICR and Ken Ham’s Answers in GenesisHowever, the “no one has ever seen it happen” argument fails to account for deep time, and furthermore, it is simply not true:

  • The HIV virus evolves so rapidly (minutes to hours) that multiple species may exist in one individual. (Watch this PBS episode starting at 43:40).
  • In a weekend, soil bacteria repurposed an existing gene to grow flagella after their flagella-growing genes were destroyed. (HudsonAlpha has a user-friendly summary here on page 10).
  • In less than forty years, a mutation arose in pond bacteria which allowed the bacteria to utilize nylon as a food source. (Here is a good summary about nylonase in Miller’s Only a Theory).

This is where Charles Darwin’s game-changing concept of deep time enters the picture.

To tiny, incremental,  imperceptible changes, Darwin added time. Lots of time. LOTS of time. Millions and millions of years. Deep, deep time.

And it then it becomes clear. Species do not change suddenly in big flashy events. A modern bird never hatched from a dinosaur egg.

Species give rise to new species because small changes accumulate over deep time.

The Vast Abyss of Time

Awarding-winning podcaster Krista Tippet (On Being, NPR) interviewed Adam Gopnik (New Yorker magazine) about a common thread in his writing – a kind of ongoing dialog with Charles Darwin. Gopnik speaks beautifully, almost lyrically, about intersections of faith and science and culture.

Deep time is a recurrent theme:

One of the things that gives Darwin’s life and his work its enormous, almost tragic, pathos is that he became acutely aware of (time). Biological evolution only operates and only makes sense if you’re able to open your mind up to geological time. The vast abyss of time.

Over the deep-time history of our earth, more than ninety-nine percent of species that have ever lived have gone extinct. Yet, we are surrounded by a dizzying diversity of life.

Things were very different  in the past.

And that’s really cool.

 

drawing of nodosaur compared to human natgeo

NatGeo

 

ccat reading

*****

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United “So Will I“)

*****

 

 

smbc-dinosave_large_copyfix_grande

Was Adam Real? A Review of “Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science”

Was Adam “real”?

Well, it depends. What is your definition of “real”?

Must Adam be the actual, genetic, biological forefather of every human alive and who ever lived in order to qualify as “real”?

If so, we have a big problem with modern genetics.

If not, we have a big problem with the traditional creationist view of Adam.

A New Testament scholar (Scot McKnight) and an award-winning geneticist (Dennis R. Venema), writing in turn, each tackle the same question in Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science.

Was Adam real?

adam-and-the-genome

Venema Goes First

As a professor at a Christian University, Dr. Venema experienced the thin ice of accepting biological evolution and maintaining employment. But to his surprise, he caught more flak from university administrators for questioning a historical Adam than he did for teaching the common ancestry of humans and apes.

According to Venema, modern genetics is clear: the human population was never a set of two individuals.

Mapping the human genome was a turning point in history. For the first time, we could read the complete genetic blueprint for building a human.

Because we have the map, we know how many “versions” exist of a specific gene. For example, the genes that control hair texture come in many versions, including curly, straight, and the unfortunate “uncombable hair syndrome”. There are multitudes of gene versions throughout the human genome – our species is very diverse.

 

uncombable hair syndrome

“Uncombable hair syndrome”: genes for a specific trait like hair texture occur in different versions (called “alleles”)

 

Mutations in a gene are the source of variation in a trait. We know the rate at which genetic mutations occur. Mathematically, the diversity of present-day humans is so extensive it necessitates a large initial population. Math models have been created using other genetic components as well, and all models arrive at the same point: modern humans are descended from an ancestral population of about 10,000 individuals, not two.

Dr. Venema uses the analogy of language to illustrate the point. Languages with only a few speakers (for example, some of the indigenous languages of North America) – have almost no variations.

On the other hand, languages with many speakers – English, for example – can tolerate a large number of variations. Modern English is a global language and varies a great deal from country to country, even region to region.

The fewer the speakers of a language, the fewer the variations. Many speakers, a multitude of variations. The connection between the size of a population and the variation within that population applies to both languages and genes.

Actually, it is possible for a modern species to have descended from an extremely small ancestral group – this is called a “bottleneck”. Tasmanian devils are one such species.

 

 

At some point in their history, the Tasmanian devil population experienced a severe bottleneck. The population was reduced to a very small group. All Tasmanian devils living today are descended from that tiny bottleneck. As a result, all Tasmanian devils are virtually genetic identical twins. Tissue transferred between one Tasmanian devil to another causes no immune response – the recipient does not recognize the tissue as foreign.

But don’t try that with humans – tissues transplanted between humans invariably produce a strong immune response because humans are highly genetically diverse. If at any time the human population was a bottleneck of only two people it would leave a definitive mark on the genome.

McKnight’s Turn

Scot McKnight drives right to the point: what is a Bible-believer to do with Genesis 1-3 when our best science demonstrates unequivocally that modern humans arose from a population of 10,000 individuals?

McKnight opens with four principles that the best readers of the Bible always bring into play: respect, honesty, sensitivity, and the primacy of scripture.

Respect: Let Genesis be what it is. The creation stories in Genesis are consistent with other creations stories of the ancient near east.

Respect, then, means we learn to listen to Genesis 1-11 in its own world (and not our own).

Honesty: Face the facts; do not fear them. Genesis sounds like other ancient near eastern creation stories for a reason. Honesty requires we admit both similarities and differences.

Sensitivity: Understand the devastating impact on the faith of young adults who are educated in public schools when a literal six-day creation is given as a non-negotiable component of Christianity.

Primacy of scripture: Go to scripture first and respect the Bible for what it is saying. The Bible is not a “question and answer” book or a theology text; the Bible is a developing narrative of God’s revelation to his people.

adam and eve

McKnight then presents twelves theses – twelve pictures of what the Genesis narrative says about God. Adam and Eve are obviously literary characters in the theses. This does not mean they are fictional; likewise, it does not mean they are historical.

The remainder of the book is an in-depth look at how pre-modern Jews, including Paul and Jesus, looked at Adam and Eve. Do we assume that they believed Adam was the actual, physical, biological, and DNA father of us all?  This assumes that pre-modern Jews understood genetic principles that would not be known for another 2000 years.

McKnight’s examination of the variety of Adams and Eves in the Jewish world is fascinating. Using Old Testament writings, New Testament writings, intertestamental sources, and first-century sources, McKnight outlines how each author used the Adam story for his own purposes. No writer gave Adam a “historical” reading until long after Paul.

Some writers treat Adam as a literary character (but not historical). Others, as a genealogical character. Sometimes, allegorical.  But never as a genetic, DNA ancestor.

What are you going to do?

So what is an intellectually honest, Bible-honoring person to do with Genesis?

This book presents a challenge to the reader. Both authors tackle complex topics with the non-scientist and non-theologian in mind.

The genome map provides black-and-white evidence that the human population was never only one man and one woman.

The similarities between Genesis and other creation stories are inescapable.

Read the book; weigh the evidence.

 

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

who invited the herbivore

 

Movie Review: Is Genesis History?

In a twist of Dobzhansky’s famous quote “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”, host Del Tackett concludes his film Is Genesis History with this statement:

Nothing in the world makes sense except in light of Genesis.

grandcanyon-drsteveaustin

Whose Team Are You On?

Is Genesis History? is not constructed as a conflict between science and faith, but as a conflict between two world views.

Immediately from the beginning and throughout it all, the film places those who accept evolution and an ancient earth firmly on the side opposite God and faith.

With the teams drawn up (Team God’s Side and Team Everyone Else), the film launches into interviews with geologists and biologists, an engineer, a couple of philosophers, and an astronomer – thirteen in all. The research frame for each man is the same: start with Genesis and make the science work.

Each man gave the same rationale for looking at Genesis first:

  • I have a biblical worldview
  • the biblical text is not compatible with the standard science view
  • we only have one eyewitness to creation (God)
  • therefore, we must go to the Bible to reconstruct the age of the earth and explain the diversity of life.

And… if evidence points to something other than a young earth and special creation, discount it because (see the bullets above). Circular logic and distressing.

Pretty Movie, Bad Science

The film is beautiful – a lot of time is spent in the Grand Canyon, with emphasis on its origin via a catastrophic world flood. Because their world view requires a literal Genesis, the speakers dismiss out-of-hand, without elaboration, any references to a canyon older than four thousand years. All agreed – the canyon was formed suddenly and catastrophically by raging and then receding flood waters.

One geologist cites his evidence regarding the formation of the canyon: “claims of scripture and my own observation”.

According to the astronomer, light from stars millions of light-years away must have been “fast-forwarded” to earth like a time-lapse movie. The paleontologist said that our ideas about dating dinosaurs are just plain wrong. Each speaker in turn speculated on the fossil record, astronomy, and geology – all starting with the assumption of a young earth. So that’s that.

I was honestly disappointed – I expected more “here’s what science says, and here’s why we think it’s wrong”. Instead, each speaker explained how things “could have happened” in a way fitting a literal Genesis narrative. Any evidence contrary to a young earth and a catastrophic creation of the Grand Canyon was simply dismissed without discussion. Have questions? You’re directed to the literature for the movie.

(However, I recommend this link: A Geological Response to the Movie “Is Genesis History?”)

 

One exception is a segment regarding the discovery of soft tissue in a dinosaur fossil. The conclusion? The presence of soft tissue means that the dinosaur couldn’t possibly be millions of years old … and if this dinosaur is young, then all dinosaurs are young … you see where they went with this. The film fails to mention the follow-up studies done with this sample, what was found, and the dismay of the discoverer (herself a committed Christian) that her research is being touted as evidence for young earth creationism.

My question: in what other areas of science do we start with the Bible and force modern science evidence to conform? Do we study modern meteorology only within the context of literal storehouses for snow and hail (Job 38:22)?

Evolution of the Squirrel-Monkey-Fish

You name the misconception about evolution theory, and it was front and center.

Would a God of love stand by and watch his creatures flopping around on the ground, trying to produce wings? Trying to produce lungs?

This is an actual quote from one of the scientists in the film.

From the usual arguments of design (“you can’t build complexity one step at a time”) to the absurd (“you aren’t going to get a shark to evolve into a bird”), it was painfully apparent that those interviewed had no idea what the theory of evolution actually says, much less the evidence for it.

The Cambrian explosion is cited as an “out of nowhere and all of a sudden” appearance of life in the fossil record.

(“Sudden” only by comparison – the Cambrian lasted 53 million years.)

There are no “missing links”, no transitional forms in the fossil record.

(Well, no, there’s not if you are looking for creatures flopping around trying to grow lungs. There is not “a” transitional … there are actually thousands.)

You can’t trust science because it is always changing.

(A simplistic misunderstanding of what scientists mean by theory. Science theories may be tweaked or fine-tuned, but science theories are so well-established by time and testing that the fundamentals remain the same. We will learn more about evolutionary processes, but the foundations of evolution theory are stable.)

I recently heard Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the Winspear in Dallas. Dr. Tyson made this point: unlike artists who often are not famous until after their deaths, scientists can be famous in their lifetime. If empirical evidence debunking evolution and modern geology exists, the discoverers would be globally and immediately famous.

My observation: it’s easy to tear down a straw man.

A Fragile Faith

One of the more disturbing aspects of this film is its insistence that belief in young earth creationism is essential to Christian faith. Here’s the rationale: If Genesis is not actual history, then Christianity is not actual history. If Genesis is not history, then the entire Bible is useless.

Ironically, tying young earth creationism to Christianity is one of the primary reasons cited by those who abandon Christianity.

The film goes further. Without a historical Adam and Eve, we have no basis for morality. Even theistic evolutionists (belief in God and evolution as his way of creating) are not off the hook because they “take out the Creator”.

The day after I saw this film, I saw Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo on stage. The opposition of young earth creationists to evolution and an ancient earth is alarmingly identical to the early seventeenth century church’s opposition to Galileo’s sun-centered solar system:

If the earth is not at the center, then man is not at the center and apple of God’s eye. We can’t believe anything in the Bible. If the earth is just one rock among many, would God have sent his son to such a place?

galileo-undermain

Bruce DuBose (left), who plays Galileo, and Landon Robinson, who plays Andrea, in “Galileo” at the Undermain Theatre in Dallas.

 

My question: is the gospel story so fragile that it crumbles in the presence of modern science?

is_genesis_history-300x157

Is Genesis History? Encore performance March 7th, in a theater near you.

 

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

string theory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tale of a Lost Whale and Human Evolution

He wasn’t just a little lost – he was really lost. And he was really big – twenty-three feet long.

In 1964, fossil hunters found the skull of a 17 million-year-old whale in Kenya.The fossil was not found on the ocean floor or even near the ocean, but far inland. It was the skull of a beaked whale – one of the deepest divers in the ocean.

smu-whale-fossil

Credit: Southern Methodist University

 

The fossil was not found in marine rock as most whale fossils are. Instead, the Kenyan whale was found embedded in river deposits.

Apparently, the whale made a fatal wrong turn out of his home in the Indian Ocean and headed inland, up an ancient river in east Africa. Unable to change his course, the wrong-way whale kept going.

It is not common, but whales occasionally become stranded in rivers. In 2006, a sixteen feet-long northern bottlenose whale was found about 43 miles inland, stranded in the Thames River in central London.

stranded-thames-whale

The Kenyan whale was found much further inland – 460 miles inland from the present African coast – a long trip for an ill-fated ending. But the length of the trip is not what makes this story so incredible. Although whales occasionally travel long distances up rivers, they won’t swim uphill – maybe three feet above sea level, at most.

The Kenyan whale was found at an elevation of 2, 100 feet!

flying-whale-deviant-art

How He Get There??

The whale was found in the Turkana region of Kenya and was a member of the deep-diving, ocean-dwelling beaked whale family called Ziphiidae. Here’s a photo of a modern beaked whale cousin:

beaked_whale

NOAA Photo Library

 

This area of Kenya lies within the East African Great Rift system: a lake-filled grassland with high plateaus and deep rift valleys. But it wasn’t always so…

About 20 million years ago, Africa looked quite different. The eastern part of Africa was at sea level and was covered in thick, dense, well-watered forests. The (non-bird) dinosaurs had been gone for about 45 million years, and it would be another 14 million years before the earliest ancestors of modern humans made their east African debut.

East Africa sits on top of a hotspot of magma. The magma heats up the earth’s crust, causing it to split down the middle like an apple pie when it bakes. Sometime between twenty million years ago and now, the earth’s crust (like the pie crust) started splitting in northeastern Africa in a geologic process called rifting. The rifting produced a deep hanging valley a half-mile above sea level and mountain ranges on either side up to two miles high.

As the uplift occurred, moist air from the Indian Ocean was blocked from reaching east Africa, and gradually the wet, dense, tree-filled forests gave way to dry grasslands.

But when? When in the time frame of twenty million years until now did the uplift occur that changed east Africa from a sea-level forest to an elevated grassland? Clues were few – until the whale was found. The discovery of a whale so far inland and at such a high elevation means that east Africa was a forested land still near sea level when the whale was stranded. Using the current elevation of the plateau where the whale was found and case studies of the steepest river grades, the elevation of the area at the time of the whale can be calculated.

Amazingly – calculations indicate that our wrong-way whale was stranded at ground zero of east African environmental change. The discovery of the Kenyan whale fossil essentially time-stamps the initial transition from thick forest to grassland at 17 million years ago.

The Whale and Us

About five or six million years ago, our unique history began in east Africa. The east African Rift Valley is literally the cradle of our species. The lost Kenyan whale reveals a marvelous clue – a key piece of the puzzle – in our own story, the story of modern humans.

As the east African landscape was gradually changing from dense forest to flat open grasslands, our earliest ancestors were evolving to be bipedal: upright walkers on two feet.

One of our early ancestors, Ardipithicus ramidus, called “Ardi”, lived 4.4 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Ardi’s upper pelvis was very like ours, the kind of pelvic shape you would expect in an upright walker. But – her lower pelvis was built for climbing. In addition, Ardi had a grasping foot. Ardi could walk on two legs (but not as good as we can) and she was a much better climber.

ardi

Smithsonian NMNH

 

The plant and animal fossils found with Ardi indicate that she lived in a wooded environment. Wherever fossils of Ardipithicus ramidus were found, fossils of woodland creatures were also found: monkeys, parrots, and peacocks. Apparently, our early ancestors began to walk upright while there were still some forested areas in east Africa.

The fossil record indicates that after the time of Ardi, our ancestors became increasingly bipedal, and modern humans are exclusively bipedal. Our bipedalism sets us apart from our closest living primate relatives. Bipedalism was a huge event for our species.

As the environment of east Africa was changing to flat grasslands, our ancestors had to walk longer distances across open land to gather food and bring it back to home base. Bipedalism gave an exceptional evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. Our bipedal ancestors could carry large amounts of food in their hands. Animals that run on all fours can run faster than bipedal humans, but humans have far more endurance. Endurance was also a tremendous evolutionary advantage in a wide open grassland – large animals could be tracked and hunted to provide an abundant source of food.

Bipedalism was a key evolutionary adaptation in an environment that was increasingly dry, flat, and grassy.

“It’s Amazing”

The Kenyan whale was stranded at a point in time when east Africa was at sea level and was deeply covered in forests and jungles. Louis Jacobs is a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, one of the primary researchers in the study of the whale, and was actually responsible for locating the fossil after it had been lost in storage for more than three decades.

Here’s Dr. Jacobs:  

The whale is telling us all kinds of things. It tells us the starting point for all that uplift that changed the climate that led to humans. It’s amazing.

Scientists have known for years that there had been uplift and climate change in east Africa, but the date for the uplift eluded them. All that changed with the rediscovery of the Kenyan whale fossil. The uplift could  now be “time-stamped”.  Henry Wichura of the University of Potsdam in Germany, also a primary study researcher, called the whale’s story “more or less the story about bipedalism”.

In a recent presentation for the Dallas Paleontological Society, Dr. Jacobs made this powerful point: the story of the lost whale demonstrates that climate was a physical driver of the environment, resulting in the evolution of us – the modern humans.

Dr. Jacobs called the story “a whale of tale in human evolution”, and so it is!

**********

New book alert! I have preordered my copy, and I’m looking forward to the read…I’ll let you know what I think!

adam-and-the-genome

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

science-cat-and-the-rock

 

Three-Parent Babies, Deep Time, and the Alien Hitchhikers Inside You

 

three-parent-baby-and-doctor

Dr. John Zhang and the first “three-parent” baby

 

The beaming doctor is New York City fertility specialist Dr. John Zhang. He is holding a newborn – swaddled in the ubiquitous teal-and-raspberry striped labor and delivery blanket. The new little boy with the blurred-out face is world famous. Not since Louise Brown (the world’s first “test tube” baby) was born in 1978 has a newborn made such headlines. In vitro fertilization doesn’t even rate a yawn today, but this little boy (who is actually now five months old) has been simultaneously heralded as hope for parents AND a scene right out of the science fiction movie Gattaca.

He’s the world’s first three-parent baby.

The baby’s mother carries a genetic mutation for Leigh syndrome, a devastating and fatal disorder. The couple lost their first two children to Leigh syndrome and suffered multiple miscarriages. Leigh syndrome is a “mitochondrial disorder”, a large group of disorders that range from asymptomatic to fatal.

Mitochondria, nicknamed “the powerhouses of the cell”, are the structures in our cells that convert the food we eat to energy. When mitochondria are defective, it is not surprising that high-energy needs systems are targeted: the central nervous system, the respiratory system, the heart, the muscles, and the eyes.

Mitochondrial disorders are only passed from mother to child – never from father to child. At this point, we fall down a fascinating science-rabbit hole that involves alien hitchhikers inside you, evolution, deep time, and a happy family with a healthy baby boy.

Mommy’s Little Mitochondria

All of the mitochondria in the cells of your body – every last one of them – came from your mother. Cells have a central control center (the nucleus) that contains your genetic code – the genes you inherited from both your mother and father. Everything else in the cell (including the mitochondria) is floating around in the liquid cytoplasm outside the nucleus.

Both eggs and sperm have nuclei; both eggs and sperm have liquid cytoplasm. BUT – at the point of fertilization, only the nucleus of the sperm enters the egg to fertilize it. What’s the result? A fertilized egg with genetic information from both egg and sperm, but liquid cytoplasm from only the mother. And because mitochondria are found in the cytoplasm, mitochondria are all from the mother.

Mitochondria: Doing it for Themselves

Mitochondria are unlike any of the other tiny structures floating around in the cytoplasm of your cells. Your body grows and repairs itself because cells divide. Mitochondria, however, divide independently of the cell in which they are located. Mitochondria do their own thing, whether or not the cell they are in is dividing. Other cell structures are formed as new cells are formed. But not our little independent mitochondria. All the mitochondria in your body are descendants of the mitochondria originally present in the cytoplasm of your mother’s egg.

And that’s not all that sets mitochondria apart from all the other cell parts. Mitochondria have their very own tiny little genomes – their very own collection of 37 genes not found in the nucleus of the cells. It is this tiny little genome that controls the critical energy-generating functions of the mitochondria. And it is in this tiny little genome where devastating mutations can occur – mutations that lead to fatal mitochondrial disorders like Leigh syndrome.

Alien Hitchhikers in your Body

I’ll get back to the story of the first three-parent baby; but first we need to take a little trek back into deep time.

The first living organisms were very simple single cells. These cells had genetic material (DNA) but very few specialized cell structures. These early organisms included bacteria and the ancestors of modern complex cells.

About two billion years ago, a free-living bacterium (who was particularly efficient at generating energy from food) was engulfed by another free-living cell (probably as a meal). But instead of being digested, the little high-energy bacterial hitchhiker set up housekeeping inside the cell.

The host cell took advantage of the energy generated by the bacterium, and the bacterium benefited from the food consumed by the host cell. In biology, this perfect roommate situation is called endosymbiosis.

Because both the host cell and the high-energy bacterium were distinct individuals, they reproduced independently. When it came time to reproduce, the high-energy bacterium pinched in half – the way all bacteria divide. Those new bacteria also divided, and before long there was a small population of bacteria happily dwelling within a free-living cell. When the host cell divided into two new cells, some of the bacterial offspring went to one new cell, the rest of the bacteria to the other new cell.

For the next two billion years, the descendants of the high-energy bacterium and the original host cell lived on as happy roommates. All multicellular organisms (including humans) and all single-celled organisms with a nucleus evolved from an ancient ancestral cell who lived in harmony with a powerful internal roommate.

The Evidence

In the 1960s, biologist Lynn Margulis noticed that mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell, looked and acted just like free-living bacteria:

Mitochondria have their own double-layer cell membrane – just like bacteria.

Mitochondria have their own separate DNA. But instead of the familiar linear chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA is looped or circular – just like bacteria.

bacterial-dna

evolution.berkeley.edu

Mitochondria reproduce by pinching in half – just like bacteria. If all of the mitochondria are destroyed in a cell, the cell is unable to build new ones from scratch. Mitochondria only come from other mitochondria.

bacterial-and-mitochondrial-reproduction

evolution.berkeley.edu

We now know that endosymbiosis has occurred many times in the history of life, most famously with mitochondria and also with the photosynthesizing chloroplasts in the cells of green plants.

Mommy, Daddy, and Mitochondrial Mom

in-vitro

popsi.com

Just like any routine in-vitro fertilization, the baby boy in this case began his life in a petri dish. But before his mom’s egg was fertilized with his dad’s sperm, there was a preliminary step.

The nucleus was removed from the mother’s egg. Next, the nucleus was removed from a donor egg with healthy mitochondria. The nucleus from the mother was then placed in the donor egg. The egg was then fertilized in-vitro with sperm from the father.

The result? A healthy baby boy with DNA from his mother and father, and a tiny fraction of mitochondrial DNA from a donor egg.

Understanding the evolutionary history of the mitochondria explains why mitochondrial DNA can be defective, even if the parents’ primary genomes are free of genetic disease.

In the United States, the FDA must approve such procedures before they can be legally carried out. Because the FDA has yet to do so, this IVF with a mitochondrial donor was done in Mexico. The United Kingdom approved IVF with mitochondrial donation in 2015, but as of yet, no babies have been born using this procedure.

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2010-11-17-Science Cat Chris Sweet redux

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She Sells Seashells: A Deep-Time Story

Victorians loved their curiosities.

They were particularly fond of taxidermied animals – in fact, many of the displays we see in natural history museums are artifacts of pre-PETA days when animals were stuffed and collected as a hobby.

Amateur taxidermist Walter Potter, however, took the cake. In a peculiar blending of Victorian whimsy and Victorian fascination with death, Potter created tableaus with his handiwork:

Bunnies hard at work writing their school lessons.bunny school

Kittens at a proper tea party.kitten tea party

Card-playing squirrels.card playing squirrel single

And of course, a cat wedding.cat wedding

Victorians also loved to collect objects from nature. They called these prizes “curiosities”. They often displayed their curiosities in a cabinet (the “curio cabinet”) or in a special room in their home.

Lyme Regis, a seaside resort in Dorset county in England was a favorite vacation spot for those with enough money to take a holiday on the coast. In addition to the beauty of limestone and shale cliffs, the area was noted for an abundance of fossils. No one knew exactly how to explain these fossil curiosities, so they made up stories:

  • Fossilized vertebrae were called “verteberries” or “crocodile teeth”
  • Beautiful ammonites (an extinct mollusk) were called “snakestones” or “serpent stones”jurassicAmmoniteShowingSuturesNHM
  • “Devil’s fingers” or “St. Peter’s fingers” were actually extinct mollusks similar to modern squids.

“Angels’ wings”, “Devil’s toenails”, and more – the Victorians didn’t know what they were, but they loved the mystery and they loved to collect them.

The Bone Girl

Richard Anning was a poor cabinet maker in Lyme Regis. In the endless struggle to keep his family fed, he collected fossils to sell. He set up a little table in front of his shop and sold his curiosities to the vacationers – small fossils and sea shells. Fossil hunting and extracting in the cliffs could be dangerous work, but Anning’s two children often accompanied him as he searched. He even made his little daughter Mary a fossil extractor of her very own. When Mary was only eleven, her father died from consumption following a fall from a cliff. The little family edged closer to destitution.

Not long after their father’s death, Mary’s brother noticed a skull with a ring of bony plates around the eye socket – they thought it was a crocodile – but in England??

A year later, twelve-year-old Mary returned to the site and found the rest of the creature’s skeleton on a cliff high above where the head was found. Young Mary lead a group of men to dig out the skeleton – an almost perfectly preserved seventeen-feet-long reptile. It was not a crocodile: it was a 175 – 200 million-year-old marine reptile, an ichthyosaur (“fish-lizard”).ichthyosaurus

Scientists in the fledgling fields of geology and paleontology often came to Lyme Regis, but with the discovery of the pristine ichthyosaur fossil, several stars in the fields specifically sought out the teenaged Mary. And there were many more discoveries by Mary over the years: long-necked plesiosaurs (including the first two specimens ever found), more ichthyosaurs, a squid-like cephalopod, an ancient starfish, ancient fish. She even discovered the first pterosaur (a flying reptile) found in Britain.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_004719_preview dimorphodon

Dimorphodon macronyx, a pterosaur that lived during the Lower Jurassic period. Collected by Mary Anning.

 

During the Jurassic geologic period (about 206 – 144 million years ago), the Lyme Regis area was submerged in a vast shallow sea teaming with life, a banquet for large carnivorous marine reptiles and for the pterosaurs living along the shoreline. Mary, who travelled out of Lyme Regis only once in her life, was a smart woman in the just the right place.

The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew

In class-conscious Victorian England, she was poor. She was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. She had little formal education. Because she sold her finds to museums and collectors, she was considered “in trade”. Mary was religious and deeply faith-filled, but she belonged for most of her life to a “Dissenters” church – not the respectable Church of England. She never married, but she supported her mother and was devoted to her little dog, her fossil-hunting companion. To her sorrow, the little dog was killed in a rock slide which narrowly missed Mary.

And she worked in a field unheard of for women: science.

Although Mary had little formal schooling, she was far from uneducated. She read and educated herself in her field – particularly comparative anatomy. She was respected by the early leaders in the field of paleontology. These geologists and paleontologists and collectors regularly acknowledged her work, but never named the finds for Mary. Late in her life, a Swiss paleontologist named a fossil fish for her, but during her lifetime, no British collector bestowed this honor.

In 1835, the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her a modest lifetime annuity in recognition of her work – remarkable for the time, since women were not expected to be highly educated, much less scientists.

Mary died twelve years later at age 47 from breast cancer.

There is a breathtaking sun-drenched gallery hall with high, large windows in the Natural History Museum in London. Both sides of the hall are filled, floor to ceiling, with fossilized marine reptiles found in England: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and more. On the plaques of some the finest fossils in the gallery, you’ll see the name “Mary Anning”, time and time again. Some days, a museum docent dresses as Mary and interacts with museum visitors.

NHM plesiosaur

I took this photo! July 2, 2016 Natural History Museum (London)

 

Have you heard of Mary Anning? Probably not. But I’m sure you’ve heard this:

She sells sea shells on the sea shore,

The shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure,

For if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,

Then I’m sure she sells sea shore shells

This children’s tongue twister was written about Mary Anning!

Deep Time

Mary stood at a much more profound crossroad of science than she could have fathomed.

Scientists of Mary Anning’s day really could not comprehend deep time. Geology was a new field – naturalists were just beginning to understand the forces that shaped the planet. Paleontology was even newer: when Mary was born, dinosaurs had not yet been found. Dinosaurs were not identified as a group and named Dinosauria until just a few years before Mary’s death.

A few naturalists considered the possibility that life had changed over time, but there was no way to frame such changes given the age the earth was assumed to be.

Here’s more perspective: Mary lived, worked, and died before Charles Darwin burst onto the scene. Although she and Charles Darwin were contemporaries, Darwin did not publish Origin of Species until 10 years after Mary’s death. Mary found her first ichthyosaur twenty years before Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his game-changing round-the-world voyage.

Pretty little seashells on a table in front of a curiosity shop threatened no one. Small fossilized marine animals were curious – but weren’t terribly threatening. Victorians loved them and the mystery: were they medicinal? Were they sinners turned to stone?

But giant fossilized marine reptiles buried deep in the rock were threatening.

These creatures indicated that the earth was much older than anyone had imagined and that life on earth had been very, very different in the past. As Mary found specimen after specimen, the challenges to existing beliefs about creation and the meaning of the Genesis stories grew stronger. It was unavoidable: time was unfathomably deep. Life on earth had changed. Victorians loved the fossil curiosities, but could no longer ignore the implications.

This is the only portrait of Mary we have – Mary on the coast of Lyme Regis, extractor in hand, with her little dog and fossil-hunting companion, Tray.

portrait mary anning

Mary Anning: “The greatest fossilist the world ever knew”

 

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The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

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