Friday, October 31, 2014

Dinosaur Arms, and Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA

Paleontologists uncovered a huge pair of arms, plus assorted ribs and vertebrae, in the Gobi Desert 49 years back. Discoveries since 2006 supplied the missing pieces of Deinocheirus, the largest known theropod dinosaur.

Other scientists are filling in more of humanity's family history, with 45,000-year-old DNA.
  1. The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers
  2. Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA: Part of Humanity's Story
Maybe you already know why I'm not upset that Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4-9 tell two different creation stories. (February 23, 2014)

If that's the case, feel free to skip straight to The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers, check out the Google Cultural Institute, take a coffee break, or whatever.

I take my faith very seriously. But that doesn't mean I'm afraid of "tampering with things man was not supposed to know."

"The Man Who Evolved"

(From Wonder Stories, via, used w/o permission.)
(Illustrations for Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved." (1931))

"The Man Who Evolved" is science fiction: sort of. Edmond Hamilton may or may not have known that dosing a human with heavy concentrations of cosmic rays would result in a very dead human: but scientists of the time did.

Some folks, exposed to tales like "The Man Who Evolved" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon," might grow up to be scientists: either because of, or despite, the melodrama.

Others — sometimes I think nobody could mistake rip-roaring tales for serious science. But sometimes I'm not so sure: particularly when I'm feeling grim, or enduring a cold.

Another thing — I'm human, so 20% of the oxygen and energy I'm using goes to my brain. That's a whacking great percentage of my body's energy budget.

The little dude with a big head in "The Man Who Evolved" presumably has a huge brain: but it's anyone's guess how it's getting oxygen. At least in "Donovan's Brain," the writers paid attention to a brain's metabolic needs.

I could assume that the human brain is 'too big' right now, and our species is doomed because we're too smart for our own good. Don't laugh: I've run into that attitude.

Or I could assume that God made a horrible mistake, and made our brains too big. That's wrong on several levels. For one thing, God doesn't make junk.

Faith, Reason, and the Ardent Mr. Squibbs

I keep running into the notion that faith and reason, science and religion, get along about as well as mongoose and cobra. I don't doubt that folks who feel that way are sincere. But I'm convinced that they're wrong.

On the 'up' side: assumptions that (evil) scientists are constantly "tampering with things man was not supposed to know" has given us movies like "Son of Frankenstein" and "Splice:" and Mr. Squibbs, the bald chap in that picture.

Getting back to faith, reason, and all that.

As a Catholic, some things aren't options. I have to believe that: God created and is creating a good and ordered universe; we're made in the image of God, rational creatures — and stewards of the physical world. (Genesis 1:27-28, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 16, 341, 373, 1730)

We are creatures made from the stuff of this world and in the image of God: beings of matter of spirit. (Catechism, 362)

The visible world is there for us to study. We're supposed to be curious about where we came from and where we're going. It's designed into us. This curiosity isn't idle. We're "called to a personal relationship with God," and can learn something of God by studying God's creation. (Catechism, 282-289, 299, 301)

Learning more about this universe, and using that knowledge to develop technologies, is part of our job. Ethics apply, of course. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Humility is also a requirement. But humility, Catholic style, isn't pretending to be other than what I am. It's accepting reality: remembering that God's God, and I'm not. (August 10, 2014)
"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)
Sirach 3:17-27 gives pretty good advice about humility, pride, and knowledge. Someone like the ardent Mr. Squibbs might cherry-pick Biblical verses like this, and decide that curiosity is a sin:
"With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding."
(Sirach 3:22)
Curiosity is okay. Pride and stubbornness, not so much.


As a Catholic, I must take Sacred Scripture seriously. I'm "forcefully and specifically" exhorted to "to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures...." (Catechism, 101-133)

But it's not 'just me and the Bible.' We've got the Magisterium and Tradition (capital "T"), too. (October 2, 2008)

The next verses in Sirach talk about opinion, false reasoning, knowledge, and wisdom.
"Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment.

"Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there is no light, and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom."
(Sirach 3:23-24)
Seeking knowledge is fine. Expecting knowledge, technology, or anything else, to take God's place is not. (Catechism, 2113)

Pride: that's a problem. So is that word, in my native language, English. The English word "pride" can mean the arrogance that got Satan kicked out of God's presence: or a reasoned self-respect and awareness of our worth. (Catechism, 391, 1700, 1701-1709, 2094)
"PRIDE: One of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self–esteem or self–love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God (1866)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, P)
Stubbornness, hanging on to our opinions without reason, preferring my own will to God's, is another problem: a big one. (Catechism, 229, 1783)

That doesn't mean that diffidence is next to holiness. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us pursue good and resist temptation. (Catechism, 1808)

Time and Truth

I've discussed why I think Earth isn't flat; and am reasonably sure the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

I'm sure that God could have created a universe that was perfect from the start: where time didn't exist, and nothing changed. That's not how this universe works.

God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: a universe that's changing, in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection. Believing that is 'in the rules.' (Catechism, 282-308)

I must believe that God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable; beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

I'm also obliged to believe that what everything we observe reflects some facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

All natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures acting 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.

As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217; "Providentissimus Deus")

In a "State of Journeying"

Around 150 years back, some folks who didn't want God to exist started saying that faith isn't "scientific." Some still do. The way some frightfully faithful folks act lends a touch of credence to that notion.

Adding to the confusion, enthusiasm over scientific advances and technology from anesthesia to zeppelins sometimes got out of hand.

For example — phrases like "the magazine of prophetic fiction," at the top of that Wonder Stories cover, reflect the somewhat religious awe some folks had for human ingenuity.

Divinizing anything that's not God is idolatry, and a very bad idea. That doesn't make science, technology, or anything else, bad: the problem is mistaking a creature for God. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

I still run into folks who react — strongly — to the thought that orderly change happens.

I'm not surprised.

We've been hearing and reading that because orderly, rational, change happens: an orderly, rational God cannot exist.

I don't agree. Even if I did, I wouldn't try telling God what the Almighty can or cannot do.

I believe that God exists, is creating the universe, and is infinitely smarter than I am. I also believe that God is rational: and creates a rational, ordered, and beautiful, universe. (Catechism, 268-274, 279-314, 337-349)

This universe is changing.

It's supposed to. It's in a "state of journeying" toward perfection. (Catechism, 302)

We're learning more about how the universe, and life, has been changing.

This change is orderly: otherwise cosmologists, stellar physicists, paleontologists, and other scientists wouldn't be scientists. They'd be bookkeepers, collecting trivia about "random" events.

Arguing that orderly change means an orderly God cannot exist makes no sense to me. (January 31, 2014)

Far from being upset at what we've learned about this astounding universe since my youth: I'm continually impressed at this creation's awesome scale, and the unfolding drama that we're privileged to live in.
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: 'It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.'121"
(Catechism, 283) [emphasis mine]
I think some of the fuss about evolution comes from the distressing habit of describing phenomena which are complex or not fully understood as "random." And that's a topic for another day.

1. The "Beast with the Behemoth Arms" — And Feathers

(From Yuong-Nam Lee/Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"Deinocheirus mirificus, the largest known member of a group of bird-like dinosaurs, is shown in this reconstruction image released on October 21, 2014."
(And check out Guardian Tech's "Deinocheirus walking," on YouTube.)
"The beast with the behemoth arms: A dinosaur mystery is solved"
Will Dunham, Reuters (October 22, 2014)

"In July 1965, two gigantic fossilized dinosaur arms replete with menacing claws were unearthed in the remote southern Gobi desert of Mongolia. Measuring 8 feet (2.4 meters), they were the longest arms of any known bipedal creature in Earth's history.

"But nearly everything else was missing, leaving experts baffled about the nature of this beast with the behemoth arms. Half a century later, the mystery has been solved.

"Scientists said on Wednesday two almost complete skeletons of the bizarre 70-million-year-old creature, Deinocheirus mirificus (meaning 'unusual horrible hand'), show it boasted a combination of unorthodox traits, including the famous arms, never before seen in a single dinosaur...."
Although scientists "...accurately recognized [Deinocheirus] as a type of theropod...," as the Reuters article says, they weren't at all sure about what sort of theropod those arms came from. Since it didn't quite fit into groups like Megalosauridae, Coelurosauria, and Carnosauria, Halszka Osmólska and Ewa Roniewicz defined a new classification for the critter: Deinocheiridae

Theropods are a group of dinosaurs that walked on two feet. Some of their bones were air-filled, they had wishbones, brooded their eggs: and at least some had feathers. About 66,000,000 years back, some of them started flying. We call descendants of those theropods birds.

None of that matters in everyday life, unless you're a paleontologist: but I'm fascinated by this sort of thing. Your experience may vary.

Deinocheirus' head looks a bit horse-like, apart from having a beak, and fish were on its menu. That last is a near-certainty, since scientists found fish ribs and scales in a Deinocheirus stomach: or where the stomach had been. (Wikipedia)

Deinocheirus 'My, What Big Arms You Have'

(From Jordi Payà, FunkMonk (Michael B. H.); via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
('My, what big arms you have!' Deinocheirus arms at a museum.)
"...'Deinocheirus has remained one the most mysterious dinosaurs in the world. We found almost (complete) skeletons of Deinocheirus and know now how it looked, how big it was and what it ate,' said paleontologist Yuong-Nam Lee, director of Geological Museum at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources in Daejeon, South Korea.

"University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study in the journal Nature, said no one could have predicted its astonishing array of attributes.

" 'I've literally waited my whole life to see Deinocheirus finally unveiled,' Holtz said...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Another thing about Deinocheirus: it was big, roughly as large as the biggest predator in its part of the world: Tarbosaurus, a slightly scaled-down version of T-rex.

Deinocheirus is the largest-known ornithomimosaur, or "ostrich mimic." The smaller ones look a bit ostrich-like, this big fellow: not so much. For one thing, ostriches don't have that sail-like structure on their back.

Scientists aren't sure why Deinocheirus, Spinosaurus, and Dimetrodon had 'sails' — as I've said before, there's much more to learn. (September 19, 2014; September 12, 2014)

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Iguanadon Thumbs, and All That

On the other hand, we've learned a great deal since the 1850s, when Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins started building the 'Crystal Palace dinosaurs.'

They're none too convincing these days, but at the time they were reasonable reconstructions: based on what had been discovered to date.

The most famous mistake is probably the Iguanadon's thumb, misplaced as a horn on the critter's nose. The Crystal Palace Iguanadon model was based on the 1822 'Mantell' fossil: which was missing quite a few pieces.

Paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, science adviser for the models, said "the horn [is] more than doubtful" in in 1854. (Wikipedia)

My guess is that Hawkins and Owen had to put the spike-like Iguanadon thumb somewhere: and it looked more like a horn than a thumb.

Dinosaur Hands, Collectors, and Poachers

(From FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Another Deinocheirus reconstruction: with more feathers this time.)
"...Some bad luck almost prevented the unveiling. The two new skeletons were found in 2006 and 2009 at Gobi sites in Mongolia. Both suspiciously were missing their heads and other key parts. The scientists realized those had been poached by illegal fossil collectors, with parts sold off to private collectors.

"The missing parts from the 2009 excavation ended up with a collector in Germany but fortuitously were seen by Belgian paleontologist Pascal Godefroit, who recognized what they were and informed Lee and other scientists.

"Lee said the researchers persuaded the collector to donate the fossils because of their importance to science. The fossils were returned to Mongolia in May. But Lee said the 2006 fossils remain missing."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Deinocheirus had "hands" in the sense that its forelimbs ended in a set of digits and claws that wouldn't have been much use for walking. But its hands only had three fingers, no thumbs, and weren't particularly flexible: not enough to grasp something.

Those huge claws wouldn't have been much use for killing prey, but might have made good defensive weapons. Or maybe Deinocheirus pulled branches down for munching, or dug for eggs, or something else. (Wikipedia)

One thing we do know about Deinocheirus is when it was active. The size of its sclerotic rings, compared to the eye socket, says that this animal was diurnal: active during the day, like we are. (Wikipedia)

"Sclerotic rings?" That's what anatomists, biologists, and assorted other scientists call rings of bone in the eyes of animals like birds, dinosaurs, and ichthyosaurs, but not mammals or crocodilians. They apparently help the eye keep its shape: particularly in critters that don't have spherical eyes. (Wikipedia)

More about Deinocheirus:

2. Ust'-Ishim Man's DNA: Part of Humanity's Story

(From Damian Peach, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Universal human: This reconstruction is of a different modern human from Romania 43,000 years ago. But it gives some clues as to what the Siberian man might have looked like. This population was not long out of Africa and genetically midway between Europeans and Asians"
(BBC News))
"DNA yields secrets of human pioneer"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (October 22, 2014)

"DNA analysis of a 45,000-year-old human has helped scientists pinpoint when our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals.

"The genome sequence from a thigh bone found in Siberia shows the first episode of mixing occurred between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

"The male hunter is one of the earliest modern humans discovered in Eurasia.

"The study in Nature journal also supports the finding that our species emerged from Africa some 60,000 years ago, before spreading around the world.

"The analysis raises the possibility that the human line first emerged millions of years earlier than current estimates...."
We'll probably never know what the "universal human" called his homeland; or the names "Ust'-Ishim man" had for land around the Irtysh River, where he died.

The Irtysh watershed has been in the Göktürks' khaganate, Kazakhstan, the Omsk Oblast of Siberia, and Genghis Khan's empire recently. What we'll call it 45,000 years from now — is another topic.

Speaking of names, BBC News calls Estonian-Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo Professor Svante Paabo. I suppose that's understandable, since "ä" isn't a character in the Latin-derived alphabet English uses.

I'm getting off-topic again. It's been 'one of those weeks.'

Heritage: Norwegian, Irish, and Neanderthal

(From Bence Viola, Max Planck Institute; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("Crossroads for humanity: The River Irtysh in Western Siberia where the bone was found. It comes from a time when the human race was about to embark on its journey to the rest of the world"
(BBC News))
"Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia"
Qiaomei Fu, ... Svante Pääbo; Nature (Published online October 22, 2014)

"...This individual derives from a population that lived before—or simultaneously with—the separation of the populations in western and eastern Eurasia and carries a similar amount of Neanderthal ancestry as present-day Eurasians. However, the genomic segments of Neanderthal ancestry are substantially longer than those observed in present-day individuals, indicating that Neanderthal gene flow into the ancestors of this individual occurred 7,000–13,000 years before he lived...."
The 'caveman' in the top picture is František Kupka's 'Neanderthal' reconstruction, from L'Illustration & Illustrated London News (1909). The I. L. N. was the world's first illustrated weekly news magazine: sort of like today's Time or Newsweek.

Illustrations like that have used as 'proof' of — quite a bit.

My best guess is that Kupka's picture is "extrapolation and invention" — mostly Marcellin Boule's notion of what Neanderthals looked like: hairy, gorilla-like, with opposable toes.

In his defense, Boule's Neanderthal skeleton was the first one analyzed - the remains of an old man, crippled with arthritis. We've learned a lot since then. (September 5, 2014)

If I thought intelligence depended on looking "Anglo-Teutonic," I'd be in a pickle. From the side, my head's somewhere between that English analog of das Herrenvolk and the "Irish Iberian."

No surprises there. Before crossing the Atlantic, half my ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland; as far back as we've got records, anyway. The other half are from Norway. That's very close to where Neanderthals lived, so the odds are that some of my ancestors are Neanderthals.

Science, the Importance of Being British, and Orphic Cubism: a Meander

František Kupka co-founded the early phases of the abstract art movement and Orphic cubism, was a talented artist, deserves recognition for much more than an appallingly inaccurate illustration: and I have got to wrench myself back on-topic.

Bigotry disguised as "science," and hoaxes like the Piltdown Man and Archaeoraptor, 'prove' that science is a lie about as much as the televangelist meltdown in the 1980s and 90s 'proves' that religion is a scam.

I think academic journals getting caught publishing more than 120 ersatz research papers shows that the custom of paying professors on a piecework basis needs review. I think it also shows that it's getting increasingly hard to keep major SNAFUs 'decently' quiet. I can't say that I'm unhappy about the latter.

The Human Journey Continues

Getting back to Svante Pääbo's team and 45,000-year-old DNA, I'm reasonably sure that this is honest research.

For one thing, it's hard to imagine nationalist or ethnic jingoism being involved in research conducted by folks with names like Qiaomei Fu, Priya Moorjani, Flora Jay, Sergey M. Slepchenko, Philip L. F. Johnson, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Cesare de Filippo, and all the rest.

For another, although this research fine-tunes the dates for some events in humanity's history: there isn't anything radically new here. What's happened is that we're closer to pinpointing when some of my ancestors left Africa and started "interbreeding" with Neanderthals.

If I was tightly-wound about whatever 'racial purity' is called these days, I might be upset at the idea that I've got Neanderthal genes swimming in my pool.

"Interbreeding:" and Loving It

As it is, one of my foremothers said "he doesn't have family, he's Irish," but the daughter of a respectable family married the Irishman anyway. (July 6, 2014)

A few generations later, my kids are German/Dutch/Norwegian/Irish/Scots-Irish, with a dash of English, and possible Spanish. Some of my Irish forebears lived near the coast where part of the Armada crashed.1

The wry mouth, Caimbeul, that gave our clan its name faded a few generations back. (May 15, 2012)

The point of that family history is that folks don't necessarily have kids with the 'right sort.' I don't see a problem with it: but I became a Catholic, an outfit whose name means "universal."

News about Professor Svante Pääbo's paper discusses "interbreeding" of folks who looked a bit like me and Neanderthals.

I suppose it's not as pejorative as "miscegenation," but — I don't think we've gotten past Boule's Neanderthals yet. Not entirely.

Fine-Tuning Knowledge of Humanity's History

The Natural History Museum in London's Professor Chris Stringer used to think that folks who look like us first left Africa roughly 100,000 years ago.

Now that he's looked at the new research, he's changed his mind, and figures we left 60,000 years back.

Professor Stringer may be right about that: particularly since he's looking at when folks who looked a bit like me — or the fellow in that photo — left Africa.

The "universal human" pictured in this BBC News article seems to be a reconstruction of someone found in Peștera cu Oase, made by RN-DS Partnership for for BBC television's "Incredible Human Journey."

I think it's prudent to remember that we're the most recent folks to leave humanity's homeland. It's sort of like Columbus discovering the Americas: and meeting folks whose ancestors had arrived maybe 20,000 years previously.

One more excerpt, and I'm (nearly) done.
"...Prof Paabo also compared the DNA of the man living 45,000 years ago with those living today. He found that the man was genetically midway between Europeans and Asians - indicating he lived close to the time before our species separated into different racial groups.

"Prof Paabo was also able to estimate the rate at which human DNA has changed or mutated over the millennia. He found that it was slower than the rate suggested by fossil evidence and similar to what has been observed in families....

"...This raises the possibility that the very first species of the human line separated from apes 10 or 11 million years ago - rather than the five or six million years ago that genetic evidence had previously suggested.

"But he stressed in his research paper that much more analysis was needed before re-dating the emergence of the human line...."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
Again: I'm a Catholic, and understand my faith, so I'm not upset that God created humanity from the stuff of this world.

Even if I was, it wouldn't matter: God's God, I'm not.

In recent centuries we've learned a great deal more about the "clay" God used. (December 13, 2013)

Since I'm a Catholic, that's an invitation to "even greater admiration." (Catechism, 283)

More about this chapter in humanity's family history:
More of my take on using the brains God gave us:

1 It was about four and a quarter centuries back, and there's no record of a Spaniard in my family history. That's not surprising, though. At the time, The Irish were under English rule: and not enjoying the experience.

If a shipwrecked Spanish sailor showed up, he probably wouldn't understand the local language: but he'd almost certainly know enough about farm work to make himself useful, and be obviously familiar with routines at Mass.

In my ancestors' position, I'd be none too eager to turn him in to my homeland's overlords: and if he and one of my daughters decided that getting married made sense, and he seemed a decent sort — he's Catholic, she loves him, so what's the problem?

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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.