Friday, July 5, 2013

Lowbrow to Highbrow in Four Centuries, Paleolithic Pitchers, and a Fantastic Elastic Echinoderm

A new look at paleolithic people, dramatic changes in English and American heads, and a long-extinct echinoderm caught my eye this week:
  1. Pitching a New Idea
  2. Face It: Change Happens
  3. Foreheads and Brains
  4. Fantastic Elastic Echinoderm

Living with Reality

God's God, I'm not. Since I can't create another reality, accepting this creation, the universe, 'as is' seems prudent.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace announced their ideas about a rational, orderly explanation for how species change in 1858. The next year Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection."

Then born-again secularists grabbed Darwin's ideas and claimed that because the world is ordered and rational, an orderly and rational God doesn't exist. I think that's crazy.

If Darwin had been an astronomer, we might have folks insisting that God doesn't exist because the Moon has no air: and that's almost another topic. (March 20, 2009)

I don't think that finding a rational explanation for observed changes in creatures proves that a rational Creator doesn't exist: but I'm Catholic.

I must believe that God:
  • Is all-powerful
  • Acts with
    • Intellect
    • Wisdom
    • Justice
  • Created
    • An ordered world
    • Humanity in His image, with
      • Reason
      • Free will
  • Doesn't mind when we study His creation
  • (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 36, 50, 159, 270-271, 396, 1730)

Evolution, Other Worlds, God, and the Church

The Church won't let us say that because evolution exists God doesn't.

However, scientific study of "...the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter..." is okay. ("Humani Generis," Piux XII (August 12, 1950))

Catholics also aren't allowed to say that other worlds can't exist. That's been a rule since 1277, and that's another topic. (January 29, 2012)

Bottom line, we aren't allowed to pretend that our preferences outrank God's. I can live with that.

More:

Pietro Angelo Secchi: The Sun is a Star

Word is getting around about Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking work in genetics. There's a deep, and under reported, connection between the Catholic Church and science: Real science, not 'Earth orbits a star so God doesn't exist' stuff.

Astronomer David Rittenhouse made a diffraction grating in 1785. Joseph von Fraunhover, an optician, often gets credit for starting stellar spectroscopy because he invented a spectroscope in 1814. The same year he compared stellar spectra from the sun, Sirius and other first-magnitude stars.

Chemist Robert Bunsen and physicist Gustav Kirchhoff invented another spectroscope in 1859.

Learning that Jesuits, including Pietro Angelo Secchi, were expelled from Rome in 1848 is easy. Encyclopedia Britannica also says: "...Because of his [Secchi's] reputation as an astronomer, he was allowed to return to Rome in 1849, where he became professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at the Roman College...."

That's not the whole story. The Italian state, not the Vatican, kicked Jesuits out of Rome. Jesuits are a Catholic religious order who follow and support radical ideas like 'love God, love your neighbor.' Over the centuries, that's made them very unpopular with national governments. That's a huge oversimplification.

More about Jesuits not playing well with national governments, or vice versa:
Wikipedia is a bit more frank about this Jesuit's Vatican connection:
Angelo Secchi

"Father Pietro Angelo Secchi ... was Director of the Observatory at the Pontifical Gregorian University (then called the Roman College) for 28 years. He was a pioneer in astronomical spectroscopy, and was one of the first scientists to state authoritatively that the Sun is a star...."
I've gotten a bit off-topic.

Back to evolution, paleolithic people, and all that.

1. Pitching a New Idea

"Was the First Curveball Thrown Two Million Years Ago?"
Malcolm Ritter, Sci-Tech Today (June 28, 2013)

"Changes in human torsos, shoulders and arms about two million years ago made us excellent throwers and gave us an evolutionary edge, new research suggests. The human throwing ability is unique. Not even a chimp, our closest living relative and a creature noted for strength, can throw nearly as fast as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer. ...

"...some scientists say they've figured out when our human ancestors first started throwing with accuracy and fire power, as only people can: Nearly 2 million years ago.

"That's what researchers conclude in a study released Wednesday by the journal Nature. There's plenty of skepticism about their conclusion. But the new paper contends that this throwing ability probably helped our ancient ancestor Homo erectus hunt, allowing him to toss weapons -- probably rocks and sharpened wooden spears...."
Folks, scientists included, often greet new ideas with "plenty of skepticism." That can be a reasonable response: provided that existing ideas make sense, and the skepticism is balanced with healthy curiosity.

Scientific method involves collecting and analyzing data, making reasoned conclusions based on the analysis: and having these conclusions debated and tested.

George Washington University's Neil Roach's new idea is that someone started using thrown weapons, like spears, much more than 500,000 years ago.

The homo erectus version of us was around from about 1,890,000,00 to 143,000 years back. Those folks invented handaxes, but conventional wisdom in paleoanthropology is that they didn't invent throwing weapons.

Throwing Like a Human



Not many folks are professional darts players, but most of us can throw a baseball, toss a basketball through a hoop, or play whatever the local culture's throwing games are.

Humans are very good at throwing things: much better than, say, chimps. Some primates, like the free-ranging rhesus monkeys, can't throw at all. They don't have the arms for it, and literally lack the brains.

As it turns out, throwing requires a particular sort of neural wiring:
Predictably, scientists studying the throwing habits of chimps sparked sarcastic op-ed pieces.

I suspect that when someone invented the spear, 'sensible' folks complained about that crazy fellow who 'wasted time playing with sticks:' while they gnawed bark off trees, or whatever sensible grownups did at the time.

Legs Like Rubber Bands: Maybe Arms, too

From the neck up, homo erectus didn't look like today's people. We've got tiny chins and bulging foreheads, for example. But from the neck down, those folks looked a lot like us.

Physically, they could have thrown stuff almost well as we can. Whether or not they did is another question.

When we want to throw something fast, we lean back before whipping the rock, ball, or whatever, toward the target. We're storing "elastic energy." Pulling a rubber band back before launching a spitball uses the same principle.

Neil Roach and others analyzed how 20 collegiate baseball players move when they throw a ball. Sometimes the players threw the way they usually do. Sometimes they wore braces to mimic how earlier models of humanity could have moved.

The researchers looked at the data, and decided that we store energy by stretching tendons, ligaments, and muscles that cross the shoulder.

I'm no athlete, but that fits what I felt when throwing something with speed in mind.

Three Changes Needed

Neil Roach and the others say that we're better than chimps at throwing stuff because we've got a longer waist and arms, and wider shoulders.

Homo erectus was the first sort of early human to have all three 'stretch' features. This means, according to the new study, that they could have thrown stuff about as effectively as we can.

Not everyone agrees. Maybe throwing ability came later. I think we need more study of how homo erectus could move before we can be sure.

Arms, Legs, and Kangaroos

"...Susan Larson, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York who didn't participate in the study, said the paper is the first to claim that elastic energy storage occurs in arms, rather than just in legs. The bouncing gait of a kangaroo is due to that phenomenon, she said, and the human Achilles tendon stores energy to help people walk.

"The new analysis offers good evidence that the shoulder is storing elastic energy, even though the shoulder doesn't have the long tendons that do that job in legs, she said. So maybe other tissues can do it too, she said.

"But Larson, an expert on evolution of the human shoulder, said she does not think Homo erectus could throw like a modern human. She said she believes its shoulders were too narrow and that the orientation of the shoulder joint on the body would make overhand throwing 'more or less impossible.'..."
(Malcolm Ritter, Sci-Tech Today)
Maybe someone who lived 1,000,000 years ago couldn't pitch as well as a professional ballplayer.

Brandon Claussen, pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, delivers the ball to home plate
(Rick Dikeman, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission)

Then again, most of us can't pitch like the pros.

"Not At All Convinced"

"...Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution, said he is 'not at all convinced' by the paper's argument about when and why throwing appeared.

"The authors did not present any data to counter Larson's published work that indicates the erectus shoulder was ill-suited for throwing, he said.

"And it is 'a stretch' to say that throwing would give erectus an advantage in hunting, Potts said. Large animals have to be pierced in specific spots for a kill, which would seem to require more accuracy than one could expect erectus to achieve from a distance, he said.

"Potts noted that the earliest known spears, which date from about 400,000 years ago, were used for thrusting rather than throwing."
(Malcolm Ritter, Sci-Tech Today)
Potts may not count the pointy stone tools found at Kathu Pan as spear parts. They're about 500,000 years old. They could be the business ends of spears: or something else.

I won't be surprised if someone shows that the Kathu Pan objects are spear tips. I think it's likely that spears were invented long before someone started using stone spearheads.

Learning that people invented throwing weapons earlier than we thought would follow a well-established trend. For the last several centuries, we've been learning that events happened deeper in the past, or farther away, than we suspected.

Spear Speculation

Someone could have invented the spear 1,000,000 years or more ago. Even if folks then didn't have the speed and power of today's Olympic javelin throwers, hunting would be easier with a spear.

Armed with spears, men with longer waists and wider shoulders could have been better at getting food for their families. That could be why we're taller and wider than our great-to-the-nth-power grandfathers.

More:

2. Face It: Change Happens


(Jamestown Rediscovery, via FoxNews.com)
"Oldest cold case: face of man killed in 1624 recreated" (Slide #9)
Science Slide Show, FoxNews.com (June 2013)

"...Sharon Long's completed facial approximation of the Jamestown settler. He had wide-spaced eyes, high cheekbones, and a long, fairly prominent nose. Note the fairly low, sloping forehead, and the way the lower portion of his face juts out slightly. Dr. Owsley of the Smithsonian believes these characteristics were far more typical of people 400 years ago than they are today."

(Jamestown Rediscovery, via FoxNews.com)

It's not just Dr. Owsley who thinks our noses shrank in the last few dozen generations. Bodies from a shipwreck and a mass grave tell the same tale.

3. Foreheads and Brains

"Time changes modern human's face"
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (January 25, 2006)

"Researchers have found that the shape of the human skull has changed significantly over the past 650 years.

"Modern people possess less prominent features but higher foreheads than our medieval ancestors.

"Writing in the British Dental Journal, the team took careful measurements of groups of skulls spanning across 30 generations.

"The scientists said the differences between past and present skull shapes were 'striking'.

"Dr Peter Rock, lead author of the study and director of orthodontistry at Birmingham University, told the BBC News website: 'The astonishing finding is the increased cranial vault heights.

" 'The increase is very considerable. For example, the vault height of the plague skulls were 80mm, and the modern ones were 95mm - that's in the order of 20% bigger, which is really rather a lot.'

"He suggests that the increase in size may be due to an increase in mental capacity over the ages...."
Birmingham University's director of orthodontistry, Dr. Rock, had a team measure 84 skulls: 30 from a mid-14th century London plague pit; 54 from a 1545 shipwreck. They compared those skulls to 31 recent orthodontic records from a Birmingham dentistry school.

Assuming that victims of the plague and shipwreck were 'normal' for their era is reasonable. If Dr. Rock's team took their contemporary samples from near the 50th percentile, Dr. Rock and company found a dramatic change in what English Europeans look like: one that took no more than a few dozen generations.

Facts, Foreheads, and Shakespeare

I'm assuming that Dr. Rock's observations about shrinking noses and growing foreheads are facts.

Speculation that it's connected to "an increase in mental capacity" is just that: speculation.

On the other hand, one of the low-forehead era's highbrows was, literally, a highbrow.

Shakespeare was born about a decade after that shipwreck.

Photography wouldn't be invented for another few centuries, but we've got pictures of Shakespeare: including the famous engraving in the 1623 First Folio.

Even allowing for artistic exaggeration, the Bard of Avon seems to have had a high forehead.

Maybe he could write those plays and poems because he had a freakishly big brain, compared to his fellow-Englishmen. Or maybe he was a good playwright and poet because his brain was wired that way, and he decided to develop his talents.

Intelligence Isn't Simple

The last I checked, critters with big brains tend to be smarter than those with tiny brains: but intelligence isn't that simple. How brains are wired, their structure, matters; and so does an individual critter's experience.

I'm dubious about humanity getting much smarter in just a few generations.

Leonardo DaVinci, Galileo, Copernicus, Michelangelo, and the rest of the Renaissance crowd lived in the 'lowbrow' era: and they weren't particularly stupid.

Neither were Archimedes, Aristotle, Plato, and others from the Greek 'golden age,' two dozen centuries back.

Caffeinated Brains and the Industrial Revolution

Before 1600, Europeans started the day with a mug of beer or ale. In preindustrial Europe, safe beverages had a spot of alcohol in them. The 1854 cholera epidemic encouraged development of today's water treatment tech: another reason I don't miss 'the good old days.'

When Europeans started exploring the rest of the world, travelers returned with tales of exotic lands: and disturbingly envigorating drinks.

Pope Clement VIII said coffee was okay in 1600, tea came to Europe in 1610, and a few jittery centuries later we're building robot spaceships.

Along the way, steam engines and telegraphs replaced horses and couriers as the industrial revolution rolled across the world.

I'm sure that there's more to what happened than just switching from beer to coffee. On the other hand, I think that not being mildly sozzled most of the time might make a difference.

Better Health, Different Faces?

Getting back to receding chins and bulging foreheads, I think environment could be a factor in changing faces.

The old big-nosed English face doesn't look like today's fetal alcohol syndrome. However, I suspect that Europe's and America's comparative sobriety over the last few centuries, changes in diet, and (eventually) better health care might have made a difference.

Background:

4. Fantastic Elastic Echinoderm

"Bizarre 500-Million-Year-Old Creature Unearthed"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (June 25, 2013)

"A new fossilized, cigar-shaped creature that lived about 520 million years ago has been unearthed in Morocco.

"The newfound species, Helicocystis moroccoensis, has 'characteristics that place it as the most primitive echinoderm that has fivefold symmetry,' said study co-author Andrew Smith, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, referring to the group of animals that includes starfish and sea urchins. Modern echinoderms typically have five-point symmetry, such as the five arms of the starfish or the sand dollar's distinctive pattern.

"The primitive sea creature, described today (June 25) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could even change its body shape from slender to stumpy. Researchers say it is a transitional animal that could help explain how early echinoderms evolved their unique body plans, Smith said...."
Helicocystis moroccoensis wasn't big. Stretched out, it was 1.6 inches, 4 centimeters, long. It's an animal, acts like a hungry plant, has 'roots' at one end and a mouth at the other.

H. moroccoensis was one of a crazy mix of echinoderms living a half-billion years ago. Some weren't symmetrical at all; some were bilaterally symmetrical, like most of the critters we call animals. Some of those variations worked out, many didn't.

Metaphysical Musing and Animated Pincushions

Maybe there's some metaphysical meaning behind most echinoderms having a five-way radial symmetry. Maybe these amazing creatures are mostly there to show us that change happens. I don't know.

One thing is clear: 500,000,000 years bring a lot of change.

Some of today's echinoderms are those animated pincushions we call sea urchins, some are starfish, and some became sea lilies.


(C. G. Messing/Bioluminescence Team 2009, via NOAA, used w/o permission)
"A garden of sea lilies (Neocrinus decorus) on a ridge in 420 m (1,312 ft) of water. The sea lilies bend away from the current, which moves from lower front right to upper rear left, but flex their feathery arms back into it...."

Related posts:

2 comments:

JohnL said...

Enjoyed your thoughtful post.

Brian Gill said...

Thank you, JohnL.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.