Friday, September 5, 2014

Neanderthal Art, DNA MREs, and Sliding Rocks

About 39,000 years back, maybe more, Neanderthals made a mark that looks like a hashtag. Maybe it was a 'you are here' sign, the first tic-tac-toe game, or something completely different.

I think humanity's back-story, implications of DNA's high phosphate levels, and why rocks (occasionally) move in Death Valley, are fascinating. Your experience may vary.
  1. Neanderthals, Art, and Assumptions
  2. DNA: Archean MREs?
  3. Death Valley's Moving Rocks: Ice and Wind

"His gaze spans all the ages...."

If you're waiting for a rant in this blog against the evils of science, you'll have a long wait.

Folks have known that God's creation is vast and ancient for thousands of years: and seemed confident that God wasn't overextended.
"When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place -"

"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?"

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:4-6)

"How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!

"Were I to count, they would outnumber the sands; to finish, I would need eternity."
(Psalms 139:17-18)

"The works of God are all of them good; in its own time every need is supplied."

"He has but to command and his will is done; nothing can limit his achievement."

"The works of all mankind are present to him; not a thing escapes his eye."

"His gaze spans all the ages; to him there is nothing unexpected."
(Sirach 39:16, 18-20)
Turns out, the universe is a whole lot bigger and older than we thought. I don't have a problem with that.

I figure that part of my job is appreciating God's creation: not telling the Almighty how it should have been designed.

Besides, faith and reason, religion and science, get along fine.  God made a universe that is "very good." Honest study of this creation cannot interfere with faith: because the things of faith and the things of this world were both created by God. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 50, 159)

Not Perfect: Yet

We're created by God: made from the stuff of this world and "in the image of God," matter and spirit, designed with a thirst for truth and for God. Using our senses and reason, we can observe the world's order and beauty: learning something of God in the process. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361)

God could have created a universe that was static: but that's not how it works. Change happens. The universe is in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302)

We're changing, too: which is just as well, since I'm convinced that humanity is not perfect. Learning about the universe, including how we've changed — I don't have a problem with that, either.

All natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar: so nothing we learn about this universe can threaten an informed faith. (July 15, 2014)

Fearing knowledge is irrational. As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217, 301-308; "Providentissimus Deus")

1. Neanderthals, Art, and Assumptions

(From Steward Finlayson, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("Our cave," "turn right," or something else.)
"Neanderthal 'artwork' found in Gibraltar cave"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (September 1, 2014)

"An engraving found at a cave in Gibraltar may be the most compelling evidence yet for Neanderthal art.

"The pattern, which bears a passing resemblance to the grid for a game of noughts and crosses, was inscribed on a rock at the back of Gorham's Cave.

"Mounting evidence suggests Neanderthals were not the brutes they were characterised as decades ago.

"But art, a high expression of abstract thought, was long considered to be the exclusive preserve of our own species.

"The scattered candidates for artistic expression by Neanderthals have not met with universal acceptance.

"However, the geometric pattern identified in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Europe, was uncovered beneath undisturbed sediments that have also yielded Neanderthal tools...."
The good news is that scientists seem to have gotten over the idea that looking like today's Europeans is essential for intelligence.

Maybe Neanderthals didn't create "art."

The feathers, pigments, and what might be a flute, we've found with Neanderthal tools and skeletons could be colossal coincidence. I think Occam's razor suggests otherwise.

My guess is that Neanderthals weren't nearly as different from folks who look like me as Marcellin Boule and others thought. Not in what makes us "people," anyway.

Deliberately Made: But Why?

(From Stewart & Clive Finlayson, Gilbrater Museum; via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The geometric pattern was discovered during excavation work by an international team in July 2012"
(BBC News))
"...Previous candidates for Neanderthal cave art exist, including motifs from caves in northern and southern Spain. Possible jewellery has been found at a site in central France, and there are even claims Neanderthals were responsible for an early musical instrument - a bone 'flute' found at Divje Babe in Slovenia.

"These proposed flickerings of abstract thought among our ancient relatives have all proven controversial. But the authors of the PNAS study went to great lengths to demonstrate the intentional nature of the Gorham's Cave design.

"In order to understand how the markings were made, experimental grooves were made using different tools and cutting actions on blocks of dolomite rock similar to the one at Gorham's cave.

"The method that best matched the engraving was one in which a pointed tool or cutting edge was carefully and repeatedly inserted into an existing groove and passed along in the same direction. This, the authors argue, would appear to rule out an accidental origin for the design, such as cutting meat or fur on top of the rock...."
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)
Dolomite is a very hard rock: so making that 'hashtag' symbol would take "200-300 strokes with a stone cutting tool, taking at least an hour to create." (Paul Rincon, BBC News)

At least, that's how long it would take one of us. From a Neanderthal point of view, we're pointy-chinned, pencil-necked wimps. However, I think the archeologists made a good point: making that mark was almost certainly a deliberate act.

Why someone put it there is anyone's guess at this point. The BBC News article mentions a few possibilities. It might have been a mark of ownership, or the Neanderthal equivalent of those "you are here" maps you see in malls.

Or it might have been something completely different.

Maybe we're looking at an early version of tic-tac-toe/noughts and crosses. Maybe the archeologists should be looking for traces of chalk or limestone where we'd put x or o marks.

"Flickerings of Abstract Thought" — and More Assumptions

I'm not quite as inclined to see Neanderthal mental processes as as "flickerings of abstract thought:" partly because many of my recent ancestors were considered 'primitive' by folks who don't look quite like me.

I'm about half Irish, and although I have the Hovde forehead of my Norwegian forebears — from the nose down, I look a bit like the 'inferior' "Irish Iberian" in this Harpers Weekly illustration.

It's possible that Neanderthals didn't think exactly the way we do. There's a lot more room at the back of their heads, where we have our visual cortex, and not as much space devoted to the frontal lobe, where we handle planning, reasoning, impulse control, and memory: among other things.

But quite a few Neanderthals had brains that were bigger than today's average. The odds are that they were doing something with all that neural circuitry.

They were much stronger than we are, and don't look British: but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were stupid. Then there's Homo floresiensis, who had remarkably small brains: but used fire for cooking, and that's another topic.

The Neanderthal who made that 'hashtag' mark might have copied something done by our version of humanity: except that folks like us probably hadn't gotten to where these Neanderthals lived:
"...Another possibility is that Neanderthals were imitating the behaviour of modern humans they'd come into contact with. While Homo sapiens was in Europe by around 45,000 years ago, Prof Finlayson says the moderns reached southern Iberia later than some other regions, casting doubt on the copycat idea...."
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)
I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually discover that we learned about art from Neanderthals. If they had an oversize visual cortex, they may have been a lot 'smarter' than most of us where visual imagery is involved.

We had plenty of time to learn from each other. Neanderthals and folks who looked like today's model shared Europe for about 5,000 years.

Since about 20% of the Neanderthal genome shows up in today's model, particularly Europeans and East Asians, it's obvious that our paths crossed, at least occasionally.

One more thing, before getting to what may have been DNA's original function: I think it's important to remember that Neanderthals prevailed for a quarter-million years of Earth's current glacial epoch. That's doing pretty well. (December 20, 2013)


2. DNA, Archean MREs?

"DNA May Have Had Humble Beginnings As Nutrient Carrier"
Adam Hadhazy, Astrobiology Magazine (September 1, 2014)

"New research intriguingly suggests that DNA, the genetic information carrier for humans and other complex life, might have had a rather humbler origin. In some microbes, a study shows, DNA pulls double duty as a storage site for phosphate. This all-important biomolecule contains phosphorus, a sometimes hard-to-get nutrient.

"Maintaining an in-house source of phosphate is a newfound tactic for enabling microorganisms to eke out a living in harsh environments, according to a new study published in the open-access, peer reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE. The finding bodes well for life finding a way, as it were, in extreme conditions on worlds less hospitable than Earth.

"The results also support a second insight: DNA might have come onto the biological scene merely as a means of keeping phosphate handy. Only later on in evolutionary history did the mighty molecule perhaps take on the more advanced role of genetic carrier....
Cells use Phosphate for building ATP, a chemical energy carrier. It's in molecular structures like fatty membrane molecules, too. The problem is that nutrient-poor, salty habitats like the Dead Sea don't have much phosphate.

Adam Hadhazy's article mentions Haloferax volcanii, a microbe of the Archaea variety: very old-school single-cell critters with no nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles. As an article in Frontiers in Microbiology points out, this microbe 'eats' DNA it find floating around it.

Thinking that microbes could have started carrying DNA as an internal supply of MREs isn't a particularly big leap. Demonstrating that Earth's early organisms worked that way will take a lot more effort.

Figuring out how life worked in Earth's Archean eon, some 2,500,000,000 to 4,000,000,000 years back, is important for folks looking for life on other planets: which is what the Astrobiology Magazine article focuses on. It's also important for paleobiologists trying to learn how life began here, some 3,500,000,000 years ago.

If DNA started out as a phosphate carrier, we're still left with the puzzle of why it's now used to store genetic information for Earth's complex life. RNA carries genetic information, too: and doesn't need as many enzymes to work as DNA.

The Purple Hills of Earth?

(From Peter Sawyer / Smithsonian Institution, via Astrobiology Magazine; used w/o permission.)
("Early Earth, in an artist's impression, where somehow complex, self-replicating chemistry (in other words, life) emerged."
(Astrobiology Magazine))
"...Scientists continue to investigate the development of self-replicating, intricate sets of chemistry — in other words, life — from the chemical compounds thought available on early Earth. Out of this mixture of prebiotic chemicals, two nucleic acids — RNA and DNA — emerged as champions.

"Today, these two types of biomolecules serve as the genetic information carriers for all Earthly biota. RNA on its own suffices for the business of life for simpler creatures, such as some viruses. Complex life, like humans, however, relies on DNA as its genetic carrier.

"Astrobiologists want to understand the origin of DNA and its genetic cousin, RNA, because figuring out how life got started here on Earth is key for gauging if it might ever develop on alien planets.

"Many researchers think RNA must have preceded DNA as the genetic molecule of choice. RNA is more versatile, acting as both genetic code and a catalyst for chemical reactions. Explicating the rise of DNA as a genetic material directly from RNA, however, is tricky. Compared to RNA, DNA needs significantly more supporting players for it to work well in a biological setting.

" 'The switch from RNA to DNA is not easy because many additional enzymes are required for DNA genomes,' said Soppa...."
(Adam Hadhazy, Astrobiology Magazine)
Nearly everything organic on Earth is promptly eaten, absorbed, and recycled by critters — with rare exceptions. (December 6, 2013)

That means that scientists generally try reverse-engineering today's critters to find out how things worked when life was new here.

The vibrant colors in that illustration are speculative: but not as crazy as it might seem.

I'm not convinced that microbes were ever the vivid fuchsia we see in that artist's impression, not in general anyway. But there's pretty good reason to think that Earth's first photosynthetic critters worked like today's purple bacteria.

Proteins in our mitochondria are a bit like those in purple bacteria, so those subcellular structures may be what's left of symbiotic bacteria: and that's yet another topic.

The photosynthetic organisms we're used to seeing these days are, for the most part, green. It's the chlorophyll that does it: a porphyrin related to heme, which are words you probably don't hear every day.

Anyway, chlorophyll is what makes green plants green, and works very well in Earth's atmosphere, now that it's saturated with that highly toxic element, oxygen — and that's still more topics. (August 30, 2013; October 18, 2013)


Getting a Grip About Hammers, Architects, and All That

As I said earlier in this post, I don't have a problem with studying this creation: or "...the development of self-replicating, intricate sets of chemistry — in other words, life...."

I acknowledge that secondary causes exist, so learning what process brought life to Earth couldn't interfere with my faith in God: any knowing about hammers would interfere with believing that there's an architect. (September 7, 2010)

My faith doesn't depend on knowing how this wonder-filled universe works: but it doesn't depend on ignorance, either. Thinking is not a sin, and that's yet again another topic. (July 4, 2014)

Science and technology, learning about this universe and developing new tools, are part of being human. It's what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 2293)

3. Death Valley's Moving Rocks: Ice and Wind

(From Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego; via Reuters; used w/o permission.)
("A trail left by a rock implanted with a motion-activated Global Positioning System (GPS) unit is seen in the so-called Racetrack Playa of California's Death Valley...."
"Scientists solve mystery of moving Death Valley rocks"
Alex Dobuzinskis, Reuters (August 28, 2014)

"A solution to the longstanding mystery of why rocks move erratically across an isolated patch of California's Death Valley finally emerged on Thursday, when researchers published a study showing the driving force was sheets of wind-driven ice.

"Trails from the movement of the rocks, which show them changing direction suddenly in their movement across the so-called Racetrack Playa, have long befuddled scientists and the general public. People wondered: How were the rocks moved?

"Paleobiologist Richard Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who led the study, saw the rare phenomenon first-hand last December while standing with his cousin, engineer James Norris, at the spot...."
Turns out, even a thin layer of ice can — under ideal conditions — catch a light wind, break apart, and push rocks at up to a few yards per minute.

A large, but thin, sheet of ice lying on a bit of water can push rocks weighing up to 700 pounds/318 Kg:
"...the process of rock movement that we have observed occurs when the thin, 3 to 6 mm, 'windowpane' ice sheet covering the playa pool begins to melt in late morning sun and breaks up under light winds of ~4–5 m/s...."
("Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park: First Observation of Rocks in Motion," Richard D. Norris, et al.)
The Reuters article says that folks have come up with explanations involving giant subterranean magnets, or earth acting like a ball-in-a-maze puzzle. I'm a bit surprised that space aliens didn't make the list, but Alex Dobuzinskis probably had the good sense to focus on what scientists had suggested.

I'm inclined to think that R. D. Norris' team got it right: particularly since they observed the rocks moving — recorded with cameras and rocks carrying motion-activated GPS units.

In case you still haven't had enough of my take on life, science, and humanity's story — here's more:

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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.