Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Get ready for Little Foot

Photo courtesy Wits
The University of the Witwatersrand announced today that Ron Clarke's research on Little Foot will be published very soon.  As far as I know (and I'm not an insider), Little Foot will be the next BIG thing in fossil hominins.  We've known about the skeleton for twenty years now.  It's been photographed and described in many different media articles, but the details that interest scientists have not been published.  Apparently, that will change in the near future.

The significance of Little Foot is hard to overestimate.  The discovery was made in a very roundabout way, with a loose ankle bone (hence "Little Foot") first found among rock removed by miners decades before. The discovery inspired Clarke to send his assistants into the Sterkfontein cave to see if they could find what the ankle bone belonged to. What came to light was the only truly complete skeleton of an australopith ever discovered.  In the world of hominin fossils, skeletons are generally discovered in pieces spread out and requiring reconstruction to put them back together.  For example, the famous Lucy skeleton (Australopithecus afarensis) was found in a jumble of pieces.  Finding bones articulated (as in life) is extremely rare, which is what makes the multiple examples of articulated Homo naledi bones such an exceptional discovery.  Little Foot beats even H. naledi, though, and by a wide margin.  Little Foot is a completely articulated skeleton, as if the creature crawled into the cave, died, and was buried without disturbing the arrangement of the bones.  This is an unprecedented level of detail for a single australopith skeleton.

We already have a few details about Little Foot that make the publication quite tantalizing.  Sterkfontein is famous for its fossils of a species called Australopithecus africanus (southern ape of Africa), but Clarke has called Little Foot Australopithecus prometheus, reviving a name used by Raymond Dart for other fragmentary fossils from South Africa.  A. prometheus isn't a name widely used, but I guess Clarke thinks Little Foot vindicates Dart's recognition of two separate Australopithecus species.

Another interesting detail is the opposable big toe, which is like the condition in modern gorillas or chimpanzees (and distinct from modern humans).  There have been several attempts to date the Little Foot skeleton, with the preferred date used by Clarke as 3.67 million years ago.  An analysis published earlier this year suggested that the sediments containing the skeleton were not older than 2.8 million years.  I do not know if Clarke's team will be commenting on that paper.

The older date is certainly more intriguing, since this "period" of hominin fossils is currently pretty sparse for species and this skeleton would fill in that gap nicely (but it's not a "missing link").  Even if it isn't that old, this is still the most complete skeleton we have of a hominin with an opposable big toe.  Having a straight big toe that doesn't move freely from side to side is considered an important adaptation for walking on two legs (bipedalism).  So if you think human evolution is true, Little Foot might help you understand how the different skeletal adaptations for bipedalism came together.

If you don't think human evolution is true, what's the big deal with Little Foot?  I am extremely excited about the upcoming publications.  In my previous baraminology studies (see here), I have repeatedly found a discontinuity surrounding a group of hominin fossils that includes modern humans.  I believe that all the members of that group are actually human, and that includes things like Neandertals and the recently discovered Homo naledi.  When H. naledi was published two years ago, I was emboldened by my research and predicted that the discontinuity around humans was real and would never be bridged.

What?  A discontinuity is basically a gap, a place where there are no creatures. This has long been a key part of creationist thought on biology: There isn't an unbroken chain of creatures from an evolutionary tree.  Instead, we believe that there are individual trees in an orchard or forest, where each individual tree is surrounded by hard gaps, where there are no creatures.

The problem of course is that we're ignorant and don't have enough information about the creatures in the world.  We're constantly discovering new things, like Little Foot, which could show us that what we thought was a gap was not really a gap.  Fossils like Little Foot could very well bridge the gap.  Astute observers of my research have pointed this out to me.  Any study of gaps is vulnerable to future discoveries that bridge what we thought was a gap.

Finding things that bridge gaps doesn't mean that there are no gaps.  It just means that one particular gap wasn't a gap.  It could make the human family a little bigger and put the gap boundary somewhere else.  Or it could include something really not human (like a chimp) in the cluster with humans, which would suggest that something went really wrong with my attempt to study gaps.

After my last foray into hominin fossils, I got an email asking me if I thought the discontinuity was just ignorance, since we don't have that many fossils from 3-4 million "years" ago.  I guess the implication would be that as we find more fossils that tell us about "human evolution," then whatever I'm doing with my little clustering will become irrelevant, since I would have proven to myself that humans are related to nonhumans.  Or something like that.  Regardless of the grandiose implications, it's a perfectly legitimate question, especially after I became so confident with H. naledi that that very scenario would not happen: We will not find a fossil that will bridge the gap separating humans from non-humans.

That was a long winded explanation, and here's the punchline: I'm excited to see what Little Foot does to my clustering, just like I was excited the last time this happened with Homo naledi.  Maybe I'm even more excited about Little Foot since I've known for years about this skeleton.  I'm also eager to expand my research.  Some of you know that my conclusions about hominin fossils have been publicly criticized recently.  I have been hesitant to continue that "discussion" mostly because I didn't have anything more to say.  My critic won't listen to what I've already published, and I remain convinced that more data are needed to help us develop a better creationist understanding of human origins.  I have no doubt that my critics will continue to ignore me, but that's life.  My goal is always a better understanding of creation not refuting my critics.

If I had to guess at this stage, I would guess that A. prometheus (Little Foot) isn't human.  That's a guess, though.  I've been surprised before.  I guess we'll find out.

Here's a few links to news reports of the Little Foot announcement:
And here's Ron Clarke describing the history of the Little Foot fossil:




Now this is going up without any proofreading, so if it doesn't make sense, I appreciate your forbearance.  I have to go to class right now!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

National Geographic's Jesus


National Geographic has a cover story on "The Real Jesus" in the December 2017 issue.  It's written by Kristin Romey, and it accompanies a documentary describing the results of their study of the traditional tomb of Christ.

Honestly, I don't have a whole lot to say about it, but that never stopped a good blogger from giving some thoughts.  I enjoyed reading about the various archaeological discoveries that are well outside my expertise.  The article describes the excavations at Magdala in Galilee (the town from which Mary Magdalene gets her name) and the discovery of a first century boat on the shore of Galilee.  Interesting stuff.

The photography is, of course, fantastic.  I especially appreciated the picture on p. 65.  There the editors chose to depict the heel bone of Yehohanan, the only crucifixion victim known from archaeology.  The heel is still pierced with a Roman nail.  Yehohanan's remains were found in Jerusalem and date to the time of Christ.  I've known about Yehohanan's remains for years, but this photograph was a fitting but grim reminder  of Jesus' own death on the cross.

I also noticed that this is probably the "safest" National Geographic article I've read in a while. Romey seems to walk the line between the skeptics who imagine that we know nothing about the "real Jesus" and the faithful Christians who accept without reservation the water-walking, disease-healing, demon-banishing, Resurrected Christ as depicted in the gospels (Full disclosure: I'm one of the latter).  She doesn't go out of her way to play the skeptic, but she also doesn't fully endorse the Resurrection.

In fact, Romey writes,
Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus, and those who think the real Jesus—the man who inspired the myth—hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis.
You might think that that's pretty obvious, but look again.  She says that scholars who study Jesus divide into these two camps.  It's not fanatics vs. scholars.  It's scholar vs. scholar.  That's a bit more even-keeled than more typical portrayals of Christians as zealots.

So there you go.  You could read worse articles on Jesus.  Check it out if you're interested.

Romey. 2017. The Search for the Real Jesus. National Geographic 232(6):30-69.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Hippolytus of Rome


Sometimes I get agitated when people start talking about the church fathers. Granted, I get agitated a lot, but it's annoying to see the church fathers used as pawns to fight battles they never even thought of. Case in point: I've heard some people claim that the church fathers all interpreted Genesis symbolically.  I've heard others say that the church fathers were all old earth creationists.  Once, when I tried to make the point that the church fathers believed in a recent creation like me, I was told that they only did that because of symbology: They believed that the six days of creation corresponded to six thousand years of earth history, with the seventh day of rest representing the millennial kingdom.

Apparently, people are too busy trying to score points against their debate opponents to bother actually representing the fathers correctly.  A new English translation of two works by Hippolytus of Rome gives us an opportunity to review a very early Christian perspective on the age of creation.  Does Hippolytus believe in the symbolism of "a thousand years is as a day" or does he count up the years of the Genesis genealogies like creationists today?

I preface this discussion by acknowledging that little is known about Hippolytus and not all scholars agree that he wrote both the works included in this new translation.  The two works from T.C. Schmidt's Hippolytus of Rome are the Commentary on Daniel and the Chronicon.  I will proceed here assuming they are by the same person, but I acknowledge that they may not be.  Even if they aren't from the same author, they are definitely contemporary opinions from the early third century (approximately A.D. 220-235).  Hippolytus is believed to have been a bishop in Rome.

The Commentary on Daniel includes a section chastising Christians for trying to predict the end times, and then in a baffling move, Hippolytus describes his own prediction:
But, so that in this we may not leave the matter at hand unexplained for the sake of the man who is inquisitive, we, being compelled to speak what is not possible, speak by force. (4.23.1)
He then assures us that Jesus was born in the 5,500th year from Adam (4.23.3). He continues, "...it is absolutely necessary for six thousand years to be fulfilled, so that the Sabbath rest may come" (4.23.4), and he quotes Ps. 90:4, "For a day of the Lord is as a thousand years."  He then draws a few other really peculiar symbolic parallels. In the first, he quotes Rev. 17:10, "... there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come."  That's usually taken to refer to actual rulers, but Hippolytus concludes that they are ages.  "Five are fallen" refers to the past. "One is" refers to the present, which he believes is perfectly divided into five hundred year portions by the birth of Christ. The one yet to come is the millennial kingdom, the Sabbath rest.

If that isn't odd enough for you, his next symbolic interpretation is really weird.  Hippolytus takes the cubit measurements of the Ark of the Covenant and adds them up.  Why?  "The measure of which added together makes five and a half cubits, so that the five thousand five hundred years may be demonstrated."  Based on all this, Hippolytus concludes that there must be 500 years left between Jesus' first advent and his second, meaning that the end times are still far off (for him).

So score one for those who claim that the church fathers believed the creation was young because of symbolic interpretations.  You can't get much more symbolic than Hippolytus' extremely imaginary reading of Scripture.

The Chronicon presents a similar conclusion based on completely different reasoning. It begins with the genealogies from Genesis 5 and 11, based on the Septuagint ages, and concludes, "Up until this point [the tower of Babel], there were five generations and 525 years and from Adam 15 generations and 2,767 years" (Chronicon 42). After a long portion describing nations and geography, the author returns to his chronology, adding up even more years from the Bible.  He concludes there were 3,383 years between Adam and Abraham (621), 3,884 years between Adam and the death of Joshua (632), and 4,364 years between Adam and David becoming king.  All of these dates were deduced from adding up dates listed in scripture.  Continuing his calculations through the Davidic dynasty in Judah, he concludes that the destruction of Jerusalem took place 4,842 years and nine months after the creation of Adam.  From Adam to the birth of Jesus is 5,502 years.

So score one for those who claim that the church fathers engaged in biblical chronology just like modern creationists, by adding up the ages of the patriarchs listed in the Bible.

That's not to say that Hippolytus is good at what he's doing.  In his introduction to the translation, Schmidt notes several chronological discrepancies in the Chronicon, some of which could be examples rounding but others are unquestionably self-contradictory.

But the quality of Hippolytus' work isn't really relevant to my purpose.  I began this essay noting that the church fathers are used (abused?) to serve modern ideological purposes to which they may be poorly suited.  I have emphasized again and again that the church fathers hold more than one interpretation of the same passage at the same time.  They accept historical and symbolic readings.  Hippolytus (or the authors of these two works) is a great example of that.  In Chronicon, the author treats the Bible as a historical chronicle, from which he can take dates and timespans and infer the date of creation.  In the Commentary on Daniel, the author treats the Bible as a symbolic book that must be deciphered to be understood.  Even if that isn't the same author, this differing treatment of scripture shows us that we can't just quotemine the church fathers to serve whatever agenda we have.  Their views are far more complex than the either/or "symbolic OR historical" approach of modern evangelicals.

So, the next time someone tells you that the church fathers are entirely on their side, be sure to ask, "What do you mean by that?"



Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

relax



Earlier this year, I attended some workshops for nonprofit organizations in Chattanooga.  I got lots of great advice, and there were some things about running nonprofits that finally "clicked."  It was a great time to learn from others in the nonprofit sector, and Core Academy will greatly benefit from my time there.

I was also reminded of one other nagging problem: our mission statement.  Every nonprofit needs some kind of reason to exist.  We need a succinct statement of what it is that we do.  That statement should set us apart from everyone else.  I've had lots of  people tell me about this for the five years that Core Academy has existed.  Our current mission statement is "Helping Christians better understand and appreciate science."  As a friend of mine said, "That's a terrible mission statement."

He's right.  It doesn't really tell you how we're different from everyone else.  It doesn't tell you what issues we try to deal with.  Most importantly, it tells you nothing about what we actually do.  So we need a new mission statement.

I've always said that "what Core Academy does is hard to describe," and that's true.  We have a library and archive, make curricula, supervise interns, and host events like the Creation Retreat.  That's nice and all, but what ties all that together?  What's the point?

I think now, after all this time, I've finally hit on Core Academy's main theme, our raison d'etre.

Relax.

When I look at the creation/evolution debate today, especially as it is experienced by students, I see a lot of anxiety.  There's an immense pressure put on these students.  They end up being pawns in a larger cultural power struggle.  One side insists that you must be a creationist to be a good Christian.  The other insists that being a creationist means you have no integrity and hate science.  Everyone insists that the other guy is lying or deluded.  Meanwhile, our culture demands that we believe only things that are perfectly rational and based on evidence.

That's a lot of pressure, and that pressure can really warp people.  Some people get stuck on weird hangups, like searching for Noah's Ark.  I think they are hoping for one big discovery that will vindicate their beliefs.  Suddenly they won't seem so crazy.  Others fall into a sort of idol worship.  They fixate on one person or organization, and support them without question.  Still others find relief in attacking others.  Maybe they think that their position is only "safe" if all the others have been defeated, or maybe they're just insecure.

And then there are those who are just driven to figure it all out right now.  As if some kid is going to solve all the problems and questions that Christians have been wrestling with for more than a century.  It's completely unrealistic.  With other "big problems," I think there's more of an instinctive understanding that one person can't solve it all.  When it comes to poverty, pollution, or world evangelism, we all get it.  We know that we can only do "our part."  But the creation/evolution debate makes people insist that they can figure everything out, often by themselves.  It's crazy.

What's really sad is that all this pressure squeezes out any room for doubt or questions or simple ignorance.  There's no place to say, "Hey, you know, I'm just not sure."  The uncertain people either decide it's just not worth fighting about and therefore unimportant, or they just leave the faith altogether.

That's a shame, because God's creation is a big deal.  How God created is also a big deal, or people wouldn't be fighting about it.  So these issues are clearly important.  Creation shouldn't be something we just shrug off as unimportant because we don't like the stress or pressure it creates.

So what we really need to do is relax.  We need a renewed appreciation of faith in the face of uncertainty.  Faith isn't having all the answers.  Faith is neither rational nor irrational.  Faith is a certainty born of experience with the risen Lord Jesus.  We don't have to be afraid of not having answers.  That pressure comes from the world and personal pride.  Jesus isn't impressed with our "answers" anyway.  Jesus is looking for faith.  Once that sinks in, once we really understand that, I think we can start to relax.

And that's when the fun begins.

Once I know by faith that there are real answers to all the questions in the creation/evolution debate, then (at least theoretically) we should be able to find them.  Even if I can't figure it all out, maybe I can figure out something.  I'm a biologist.  I'm never going to figure out the "big bang" or radiometric dating, but maybe I can figure out that "created kind" thing.  And even if I can't figure that out to my satisfaction, I can be confident that someone might.  Because the answers are out there.

I can relax.

So for me, that really sets Core Academy apart.  Other organizations want you to buy into their answers so that you can have faith.  We want to inspire faith so that you can relax and start looking for answers and maybe even discover some unknown wonder of God's creation.  If you're interested in science but tired of all the stress it seems to create, maybe Core Academy is just the organization you're looking for.

Now if I can just boil that down to a pithy little mission statement, we'll be all set.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Goodbye, 2017!


What a year!  I was in a movie!  Core Academy got a new home!  There was a solar eclipse just outside my front door!  It was unforgettable.

As I look back with gratitude, I'm also looking forward to what the Lord has in store for 2018.  Core Academy's ministry is growing, and we're looking forward to reaching even more students in the new year.  We're expanding our Creation Retreats (to the Shenandoah Valley), which is our most popular event.  Tickets to the Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat are already half gone!  Next year will be another exciting year of growth for Core Academy!

At this time of year, ministries everywhere are asking for special holiday donations.  At Core Academy, we receive about a third of our annual income between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  This year is a little different since we had a big fundraising push in the summer for our new building.  Donations always drop off sharply after a big fund drive.  Ironically, even though we're having the best year we've ever had according to our checkbook, we're still behind on our regular budget needs.  We're entering the holidays with a need of $12,000 to finish the year in the black.  I'm pleased to say we've already received $1,200 to get us started.

Will you help us continue our ministry with a Christmas gift?  Click on the donation button at the end of this post or visit coresci.org/donate to make a contribution.

Thanks for a great 2017!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.