Friday, January 30, 2015

Precision-Grip Thumbs and a 'New' Archosaur

Humans have hands. So do apes, monkeys, lemurs, and koalas. For that matter, a chameleon's feet look and act a lot like hands. But they don't have precision-grip thumbs that can line up with any finger.

We do: and apparently have had a firm grip on tools for over two million years.

Scientists had a pretty good idea about how the common ancestor of dinosaurs, crocodiles and alligators, and birds, developed. A quarter-billion-year-old fossil shows that the situation is more complicated than scientists thought.
  1. Using Our Hands
  2. Nundasuchus Songeaensis: An Unexpected Archosaur

There's More to Learn

I've said this before: We've known that God's creation is vast and ancient for a very long time. (Psalms102:26-28; Wisdom 11:22-25)

More recently, we've started learning how big and old it really is: which fascinates me, and upsets some folks no end.

I still run into assertions that science is Satanic: or horribly bad, at any rate.

Folks taking this view sometimes say scientists are wrong because they claim to know everything — or because they don't know everything. I have yet to meet someone who makes both claims.

These tightly-wound individuals, in my experience, often have deeply-held religious beliefs. So do I: but I'm a Catholic, and willing to think that we didn't know everything there is to know about God's creation in Shulgi's day.

It's my considered opinion that the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. (November 21, 2014; July 15, 2014)

Our emerging knowledge of the size and age of this universe, and how it is changing, does not threaten an informed faith.

Scientific discoveries are invitations " even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

Hands, Koalas, and Genesis

The human hand is unique — so is the koala hand, for that matter. Koalas have two thumbs and three fingers on each hand: which, together with their claws and remarkably human-like fingerprints, give them a firm grip on branches.

Humans only have one thumb on each hand: but we can grip branches, too. That's hardly surprising, since we're primates: one of the few that don't live in trees.

It would be odd if koala and human hands weren't a bit alike, and I've talked about convergent evolution before. (June 6, 2014)

Evolution, particularly human evolution, is a particularly disquieting topic in some circles.

That's understandable, since if evolution happened: we're made from the stuff of this world. That — by some standards — is distastefully 'unspiritual.'

I've read Genesis 2:7, don't think God makes junk — or mistakes — and that's another topic. (November 27, 2011; November 27, 2011)

God is Not a Magician

A child might ask "who made God?"

Being Catholic, I believe that God is infinite, perfect; present in all times and places, and where space and time don't apply. Nobody created God, because the Almighty is. We 'create' by working with matter and energy: God starts with nothing, and creates something. (Catechism, 1, 296, 300)

As God said when Moses asked for a name, ... 'I am who am.' ... 'This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.' "(Exodus 3:14)

God made a good and orderly universe: so we can learn something of God by studying this creation. Using the brains God gave us, we can learn how the universe is changing — and how we appeared. This is okay. (Catechism, 282-289, 299)

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 my faith. (July 15, 2014)

I have, however, had to re-learn some of what I'd read about the universe. We've been learning a lot lately.

Pope Francis talked about secondary causes last October:
"...When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality...."
("Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XVI," Pope Francis (October 27, 2014))
We're secondary causes, too: in a way. It's our nature to study and maintain this world. We've also got free will, so we can decide to work with God: or not. Our track record in that regard is far from perfect. (Catechism, 306-308, 388, 397-401)

Informed Faith and Norse Mythology

If I thought my faith relied on thinking God is a magician, or a primeval cow like Auðumbla, forming Buri from a block of ice — I wouldn't understand my faith.

As a Catholic, I see the Bible as the Word of God. (Catechism, 101-133)

But I realize that Sacred Scriptures weren't written by Americans: and don't try to understand them from a hardwired-literal Western viewpoint.

Happily, we also have Tradition and the Magisterium, and that's yet again another set of topics. (Catechism, 74-95)

Now, a mini-rant about what "random" does and does not mean.

Despite what I read occasionally in mainstream news, evolution is not random: not literally. I think what happens is that quite a few folks say or write "random" when they mean "complex," or "not fully understood."

Something that's "random" has no specific pattern, purpose, or objective. In math, "random" is something described by a probability distribution.

Randomness happens: unless we load the dice, and that's yet another topic. Topics.

If evolution was random in the dictionary sense, it wouldn't be a science. Folks studying evolution would be scorekeepers: recording trivia about "random" events. (October 31, 2014)


Since God made the universe: faith and reason, science and religion should get along. (Catechism, 154-159)

Calling evolution the "religion of the antichrist" is, in my opinion, silly at best. So is the notion that God either doesn't exist — or follows Ussher's timetable: and that's still another topic. (July 25, 2014; July 15, 2014; January 2, 2014)

Using our brains is part of being human. We're supposed to study the universe and develop new tools. Despite the impression some give, knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit. (Catechism, 1730, 1831, 2292-2295)

However; giving science, wealth, pinochle — anything other than God — top priority is idolatry: and strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 1831, 2112-2114)

Expecting science to explain everything is, I think, a sort of idolatry. The problem isn't science. It's how we use it.
"...Indeed, we could say that the work of predicting, controlling and governing nature, which science today renders more practicable than in the past, is itself a part of the Creator's plan.

"Science, however, while giving generously, gives only what it is meant to give. Man cannot place in science and technology so radical and unconditional a trust as to believe that scientific and technological progress can explain everything and completely fulfil all his existential and spiritual needs."
("Address to the members of Pontifical Academy of Sciences," Benedict XVI (November 6, 2006))

1. Using Our Hands

(© Eric Isselée/Fotolia, via ScienceDaily, used w/o permission.)
("Human and ape joining hands (stock image). Researchers examined the trabeculae of hand bones of humans and chimpanzees. They found clear differences between humans, who have a unique ability for forceful precision gripping between thumb and fingers, and chimpanzees, who cannot adopt human-like postures."
"Early human ancestors used their hands like modern humans"
University of Kent, ScienceDaily (January 22, 2015)

"New research suggests pre-Homo human ancestral species, such as Australopithecus africanus, used human-like hand postures much earlier than was previously thought.

"Anthropologists from the University of Kent, working with researchers from University College London, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) and the Vienna University of Technology (Austria), have produced the first research findings to support archaeological evidence for stone tool use among fossil australopiths 3-2 million years ago.

"The distinctly human ability for forceful precision (e.g. when turning a key) and power 'squeeze' gripping (e.g. when using a hammer) is linked to two key evolutionary transitions in hand use: a reduction in arboreal climbing and the manufacture and use of stone tools. However, it is unclear when these locomotory and manipulative transitions occurred...."
This research ran existing data through a new sort of analysis: looking at trabecular bone in a new way. That's spongy bone that changes quickly: sometimes responding to what the individual does.

If Australopithecus had keys, or locks to use keys with, we haven't found any.

They did, however, have choppers and other stone tools: the sort of choppers that actually chop, not helicopters or customized motorcycles. That'd be the Flintstones version of stone technology, and an entirely different topic.

These choppers are cleavers or hatchets, but without a handle. They'd be good for — well, for chopping — food, wood, or other softish materials. An equivalent kitchen item is today's mezzaluna. Obviously, the design has changed a bit over the last few million years.

The University of Kent's Dr. Matthew Skinner and other scientists discovered that Australopithecus used their hands — particularly their thumbs — the way we do.

Hands, Brains, and Tech

The oldest evidence of stone tools we know about is 3,400,000 years old. Folks who looked a bit like that chap were making Oldowan tools 2,600,000 years back. They weren't as sophisticated and effective as today's Narex bench chisels, or even Acheulean tools: but they were a start.

Even with a haircut and new clothes, an Australopithecus couldn't blend into a crowd today. It wasn't just their height: they were mostly around four feet tall. Their brains were a little over a third the size of ours: so their heads had a lot more face and a lot less forehead than we're used to seeing.

But these folks had pretty much the same trabecular bone pattern in the bones of their thumbs and palms that we do: showing that they were using their hands like we do.

This is a big deal, since Australopithecus lived 2,000,000 to 3,00,000 years back. Apparently using our hands the way we do now started a whole lot earlier than scientists had previously thought.

We'd known that Australopithecus' hands were shaped like ours. This research shows that they used their hands the way we do, too.

Although we're getting past thinking that someone must look "Anglo-Teutonic" to be smart, applying Occam's razor to the size of their brains suggests that they weren't, on average, as smart as folks are today.

They made and used stone tools, though, so I'm willing to think of them as people.

I don't buy the currently-fashionable notion that we're "too" intelligent. We're on a steep learning curve just now: learning how to use steam power, electricity, and new genetics tech. But we've been through this sort of thing before. (December 5, 2014)

One of my kids suggested that we get smarter because the sharpest of us invent new tech: which puts pressure on the rest of us. She may have a point.


2. Nundasuchus Songeaensis: An Unexpected Archosaur

(From Sterling Nesbitt, via, used w/o permission.)
("Skeleton of Nundasuchus songeaensis, illustrating the elements found. Scale bar – 50 cm."
"Nundasuchus songeaensis: New Triassic Reptile Discovered in Tanzania" (January 21, 2015)

"A team of paleontologists headed by Dr Sterling Nesbitt of Virginia Tech has described a new genus and species of archosaur that lived in what is today southern Tanzania during the early Middle Triassic, approximately 247 million years ago.

"The new archosaur, named Nundasuchus songeaensis, is a 2.7-m-long predatory reptile with steak knife-like teeth and bony plates on the back.

"The name Nundasuchus songeaensis is Swahili mixed with Greek. 'The basic meaning of Nundasuchus is predator crocodile (Nunda meaning predator in Swahili and suchus a reference to a crocodile in Greek),' explained Dr Nesbitt, who is the first author of a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

" 'The songeaensis comes from the town, Songea, near where we found the bones,' he said.

"Nundasuchus songeaensis is not a dinosaur, but one of the large reptiles that lived before dinosaurs took over the world...."
I keep thinking "nonesuch" when I see "Nundasuchus," which doesn't have much to do with this long-extinct critter.

Nundasuchus songeaensis's legs were under its body, like a dinosaur's: but the bony plates on its back were like a crocodile's. Scientists don't have many archosaur fossils from Nundasuchus's time — or should that be Nundasuchus' ? Never mind — and none with this critter's combination of traits.

Archosaurs are still with us, in a way. Animals like Nundasuchus are the ancestors of birds, crocodilia, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs.

Birds, crocodiles, and alligators survived whatever happened about 66,000,000 years ago: and so did mammals. Mammals and the ancestors of archosaurs parted ways maybe 300,000,000 years ago, and I'm drifting off-topic. (September 12, 2014; December 13, 2013)

Or maybe not so much. Scientists don't have a clear picture of archosaur origins: and Nundasuchus songeaensis doesn't fit into what they'd expected.

As I've said before, when new data backs up an existing theory or hypothesis: that's nice. When it doesn't, it's exciting: because it shows that there's more to learn. And that's — another topic.

More, mostly about humanity's backstory:


Unknown said...

Great read because you know the subject matter.

Brian H. Gill said...

Thank you, Robert Jacquart.

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