This Is Not a Good Week to Be A Science Denier

This Is Not a Good Week to Be A Science Denier June 25, 2015

I was reading science news and all of a sudden realized that this is really not a good week to be a science denier. Check out these new developments, and as you read it all, be thinking about the contortions someone would have to make if they need to make this stuff all fit into a Creationist worldview.

His Neanderthal Great-Great-Grampa.

A human jawbone from a man who lived 40,000 years ago has turned out to have a Neanderthal ancestor in his own very, very recent past–as in maybe like a great-great-grandfather. We’ve had the fossil for 13 years, but only just recently were we able to use the new techniques that we’ve developed in that short a time to analyze these bones’ DNA. Imagine! Thirteen years, just that brief eyeblink of time, and we can now tell exactly how big the chunks of Neanderthal DNA are in a 40,000-year-old bone’s cells. (I don’t know about y’all, but about 13 years ago I was starting to learn to drive a stick shift.)

With our gadgets and technology–developed because we knew that evolution is a thing that happens, and at a rate we can generally predict and confirm through objective testing–we now can tell just which chunks in someone’s DNA are from what ancestor. When the chunks are really big, that ancestor is closer to the cell’s lifetime.

Now, we knew that most of the world’s modern humans–as in, all of the ones outside of Africa–have Neanderthal DNA in their cells, but we hadn’t ever found someone with such a close Neanderthal relative before. It’s exciting to think that we found a modern-human fossil that is that closely related to a Neanderthal. This find also confirms some stuff we’ve been figuring out about just how ancient humans came to live in the places they ended up in.

Bear in mind that Young-Earth Creationism posits an Earth that is roughly 6,000 years old. Even Old-Earth Creationists probably get really wobbly around the idea of different species of humans, and there’s enough of a weird racist element in that end of Christianity that very few of them probably like the idea of those species interbreeding.

That same news article talks about how modern-day dogs evolved from wolves, using DNA from a wolf that lived 35,000 years ago. I’m sure it was a huge shock to the newly-created Adam and Eve that dogs were already there in the Garden of Eden when they woke up. And those dogs were probably already demanding walkies and treats and going ecstatic when informed they were good boys. (“WHO’S A GOOD BOY? WHO IS? YOU ARE! YOU’RE A GOOD BOY! YOU! THAT’S RIGHT!”)

They are all good boys.

Here Is Your New Tattoo.

Creationists do love to talk up the Cambrian explosion, but real scientists know that the Cambrian was a time when shit got weird. Animal life went wild in shape, variety, and form before settling down into the various types we know today.

One of the wackiest forms that flourished during that period was Hallucigenia, a weird, spiky little critter that lived about 500 million years ago. Look, I love Call of Cthulhu and I’ve done my fair share of fooling around with Spore Creature Creator, and I’m still hard-pressed to describe it. It was a tiny little guy, super-thin like a worm but its back was adorned with super-huge spikes, while its many spindly clawed legs grew along its underside. It was a bit like a spiky millipede. And we had no idea in the world what its head even looked like.

Now we know what its head looked like–though the weirdness hardly ends there; it’s an odd comma-like affair with two sets of teeth (one lining its throat, one ringing its mouth).

Hallucigenia reconsturction. "Reconstruction of H. sparsa" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Hallucigenia">Fair use via Wikipedia.
Hallucigenia. (Credit: “Reconstruction of H. sparsa” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.)

They’re wondering now if this little guy was an ancestor of what’s known as velvet worms, since they both have the same kind of legs and claws.

This critter lived 500 million years ago.

Oh, I’m sure Creationists and other science-deniers can get around that somehow; when one’s paycheck depends, spiritually or literally, on believing that trickster gods planted everything to look old and magicked up all kinds of ways to justify the consistent, testable, verifiable measurements of time that we can take across many different measuring systems, but I don’t have to explain away all the errors in such a dubious claim.

I just have to figure out if he’s going on my shoulder or my ankle.

Check Out This Weird Thing We Found in Dinosaur Bones.

It’s downright surreal and astonishing what we’re discovering in fossils nowadays. And even more astonishing, some of these discoveries are being made about bones we’ve had a hell of a lot longer than 13 years! Pardon my clickbait, but maybe it doesn’t count if you’re already here anyway, right?

We found what look like fossilized red blood cells in dinosaur fossils that are 75 million years old.

Now, here’s the cool part.

It’s not like we didn’t know that we could find those cells in fossils, but it sounds like we really only looked for them in really well-preserved bones where we thought we’d find them–bones that are so well-preserved that, in the words of one of the researchers involved, they were “one-offs, really, that require special pleading to explain how they got preserved.”

This time, though, researchers went looking for these cells in skeezy, janky bones–as in really awful, badly-preserved bones that were so broken-up and messed up that nobody could even really say what kind of animal they’d belonged to, only how old they were. Instead of being well-preserved, this time the bones were just kinda thrown in a drawer at the London Natural History Museum and had been there for a hundred years.

And they found the same cells and structures in these janky old bones that they’d found earlier in the super-well-preserved bones.

Again, this is stuff we’re able to do now that we weren’t able to do before. We haven’t found actual DNA in these dinosaur bones, but gang, I can guarantee that 13 years ago we weren’t thinking that we’d ever find blood cell shapes preserved in pretty much everything. Another researcher, in applauding this news and its discoverers’ caution, said:

“All in all, I think that papers like these which present data from multiple lines of investigation, and which are cautious in interpretation do much to advance the field, show that fossils are more than ‘just rocks’, and open the door to the possibility that materials persist in ancient fossils that were not thought possible only a few years ago.”

Meet the Magic Mike of the Crab Kingdom.

This one doesn’t seem on the face of it to be an evolution thing, but hang in there with me.

Deep, deep in our oceans there are these things called hydrothermal vents, which are fissures in the ocean floor that lay mostly along the edges of tectonic plates. The heat from the Earth’s core flows up along these fissures and bubbles out like steam in a covered pot boiling away on a stovetop. Now, normally the ocean floor is cold, as in COLD-CO-CO-CO-COLD, as in about 35ºF (2ºC). Not much can live in that kind of cold. But around the vents, it can go from 140ºF (60ºC) to 867ºF (464ºC) depending on distance from the actual rip in the Earth’s crust. Seriously.

And as Dr. Ian Malcolm said in a movie relevant to today’s interests, “life, uh, finds a way”.

One can find a truly astonishing amount of marine life hanging out in those vents. From anaerobic to aerobic life, from bacteria to fish to snails to mollusks to octopi, these vents are simply teeming with creatures moving, eating, living, breeding, dying, and starting it all over again. This is all done without sunlight. Instead of photosynthesis, which is the base of our own life up here on the surface of the planet, they use chemosynthesis, living off the chemicals and minerals coming up out of the vents that’s dissolved in the water. Some of those chemicals would actually be hugely toxic to life up here–like hydrogen sulfide.

Check out that link about biological communities if you ever want to find yourself totally lost in biology for a while; the sheer diversity of life, and the adaptations it’s had to make to survive in that environment, will likely stun you–especially if you grew up thinking that the “creation” of life was this simple, linear affair with divinely-ordered grace and facility (“fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers beaks, and wings,” as one Creationist line of textbooks repeatedly worded it). Oh, it is anything but simple or divine-looking. And some biologists think these vents may well have had something to do with the beginnings of life on Earth, though that’s not what we’re here for today.

One of the weirder life-forms found in these vents is a particularly hairy crab. It’s not a huge crab–in fact it’s quite small, like a few centimeters tops– but whoa nelly it does like to hang out all tightly-packed in clumps with its buddies around vents. Each one of those crabs’ undersides is covered in fine hairs that thick coats of bacteria cling to and live on. The crab host climbs up and down the vents to get its little passengers warmer or cooler as they need, and then when it’s hungry, it uses its claws to scrape off the bacteria from the hairs to eat them. (Talk about fast food!)

(Credit: "Dense mass of anomuran crab Kiwa around deep-sea hydrothermal vent" by A. D. Rogers et al. - A. D. Rogers et al. in PLoS Biology. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)
(Credit: “Dense mass of anomuran crab Kiwa around deep-sea hydrothermal vent” by A. D. Rogers et al. – A. D. Rogers et al. in PLoS Biology. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)

And that crab was nicknamed “the Hoff,” in honor of American actor David Hasselhoff, who famously shows off his hairy chest in his movies and TV shows. Had the scientists been younger, they probably would have called it “Magic Mike” after the character in the 2012 movie about male strippers. (Its official name is Kiwa tyleri after a famous deep-ocean biologist, Paul Tyler.)

The crazy part? There are actually a few of these types of crabs around the world. They’re called “yeti crabs.” Scientists think that 10 or 20 million years ago, the crabs began to migrate through South America’s Drake Passage. The Hoff was found 2,000 meters underwater in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. ANTARCTICA, PEOPLE.

I wasn’t ever a serious Creationist–back when I was a fundamentalist, I knew science deniers but it wasn’t a requirement (oh, how that’s changed over the decades since I left–a “strange sort of evolution” indeed!)–but I had this vague idea that a god had put things in motion at least and had kept an eye on it.

Critters like the Hoff crab would have been a big issue for me. I can’t even imagine how a gung-ho Creationist could do it. I saw a really word-salad mumblety-peg dance-around of the topic of vents on some Creationist site, but it left me unsure as to how Creationists deal with the weirdness of life around these deep-sea fissures. All I know is that they have to find some way for these crabs to get situated around vents, become nesting sites for bacteria and learn to eat them, migrate from vent to vent to vent, and end up in their current locations all in 6000 years.

I don’t. I’m not limited by such a freakishly short amount of time. I’ve got millions of years for those migrations and adaptations to happen, and the Theory of Evolution handles all that just fine.

Science is awesome.

In the end, these stories all came about because we know that evolution is a thing that happens. We’re not fighting against this knowledge or finding new and innovative ways to contort ourselves into stuff that simply isn’t true. The theories we make as a result of knowing about evolution being a thing that happens are theories that are testable, falsifiable, and predictive–which are all features completely lacking in Creationist bibble-babble.

The sheer diversity of life on our planet, the ways in which it survives and thrives, the sheer enormous scope of time involved in it all, it boggles our little monkey brains in so many ways. But because we don’t stop at “oh, well, a god did this,” we can keep asking the questions, refining what we observe and learn, and finding new techniques that will get us the answers we seek–real answers that lead us to ever-more-astonishing discoveries to propel us ever forward, not mythological ones designed to shut us up and sit us down–which is exactly what Creationism does. I’ve talked to enough kids raised that way who, in adulthood, struggled to re-find that curiosity. It should be a crime to stifle a child like that.

All I want is for more Creationists to find that sense of wonder that’s been tamped down in them by toxic indoctrination. I want to see them uncork their spirits, feel their curiosity unfurl like the wings of some vast ancient bird, and fly again in the wind. And more and more often as the days go by, that is what is happening.

Because life, uh, finds a way.



* 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.

* Remember the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debates and the infamous 22 questions? Here are 22 more answers–I thought these were funnier than the others I’d seen.

If I got something wrong, feel free to let me know. Also, don’t forget to sign up for email alerts if you’d like to know when I post stuff– it’s the little fill-in blank to the upper right of the page.

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