Friday, September 18, 2015

New Species, Old Burial Site

Scientists from University of the Witwatersrand found skeletal remains in South Africa's Rising Star Cave.

This is a big deal, since it's the largest collection of hominin bones found in a single spot: and these folks may have been burying their dead 2,500,000 years ago.
  1. Homo Naledi
  2. And Now for Something Completely Different

Ancestry and "Flickerings"

(From H. Strickland Constable/Harper's Weekly, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

A substantial portion of my ancestors are "of low type" — according to an 1899 Harper's Weekly illustration:
"The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races."
(Harper's Weekly, 1899, via Wikimedia Commons)
As one of my ancestors said of another, "he doesn't have family: he's Irish." I most sincerely do not miss the 'good old days.' (September 11, 2015)

Americans have, for the most part, come to accept the Irish — these days it's Middle Eastern folks that evoke fear and loathing among some 'real' Americans. Me? I'll start being concerned if folks stop trying to break into our country, and that's another topic.

Between knowing my family history, growing up in the '60s, and reading about efforts to protect the "Aryan race," I'm a bit dubious when scientists make assumptions about folks who don't look British.

The last I checked, scientists are still debating whether flower petals and pigments found at Neanderthal burial sites were placed there intentionally, or 'just happened' to get buried with the bodies.

Some arguments for the 'Neanderthals didn't do this' position are, I think, reasonable. Others remind me of that Harper's Weekly illustration, and Boule's imaginative reconstruction. (October 31, 2014)

Neanderthal burials weren't the oldest evidence of folks acting like humans. Leiden University biologist Josephine Joordens recently took a very close look at a seashell collected in the 1800s: and found a half-million-year-old set of zigzag marks. (December 12, 2014)

I strongly suspect that "flickerings of abstract thought" have been going on for a very long time. (September 5, 2014)

I'll be talking about research published last week, which may show that we've been burying our dead for upwards of 2,500,000 years.

"Even Greater Admiration"

I'm Catholic, so I take Sacred Scripture seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

That isn't even close to believing that the Bible was written from a poetically-challenged American viewpoint.

I could be a Christian and believe that the universe began on the nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC.

But I don't have to ignore what we're learning about God's creation.

Faith and science get along just fine, or should. Scientific discoveries are invitations to "even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator." (Catechism, 283)
"The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."
(Catechism, 341)
Like I keep saying, studying this universe and developing new technology is part of being human. It's what we do. (Catechism, 2293-2295)

Believing that we are created in the image of God, male and female, means that each of us is a person: not something, but someone. We are made from the stuff of this world, and filled with God's 'breath:' matter and spirit, body and soul. (Genesis 1:27, 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368)

I read Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-25 as poetic explanation of God's role in our existence: among other things.

What's been changing in the last few centuries is how much we know about the "clay" God used. (July 24, 2015; December 5, 2014)

The Last 555,000,000 Years: Briefly

Nothing quite like Dickinsonia costata is around today. Scientists think it was an animal, a fungus, or something else — a member of an "extinct kingdom."

Scientists currently categorize life into three domains: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota.

We're eukaryotes: critters with cells containing a nucleus and other organelles enclosed in membranes.

Animals, plants, and fungi are eukaryotes: and so are critters that are 'none of the above,' like slime molds and excavata.

Don't bother trying to remember those names, there will not be a test on this.

The point is that life has changed in the 555,000,000-odd years since Dickinsonia costata and other Ediacara biota flourished.

Something dreadful happened about 66,000,000 years back, one of Earth's glacial epochs started some 63,000,000 years later, and we started learning that Aristotle wasn't always right a few centuries ago. (July 31, 2015; February 20, 2015; May 8, 2015)

A Calvinist named Ussher published "Annalium pars posterior" in 1654, which said that Creation happened at nightfall on 22 October 4004 BC. Ussher based his numbers on painstaking study of the Bible.

If steadfast faith in Ussher was what held Christianity up, my faith would have started crumbling shortly after 1778, when when Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published "Les époques de la nature."

I've talked about Earth, exoplanets, Aristotle, and getting a grip, before. (July 31, 2015)


Turns out, this universe is about 13,798,000,000 years old, and Earth formed right around 4,540,000,000 years back.

The cosmic scale of this universe doesn't bother me. We've known it was big and old for a long time:
"3 Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains."
(Psalms 76:5)

"He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in."
(Isaiah 40:22)

"3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed."
(Isaiah 51:6)

"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? "
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
I might not have imagined a creation on this scale, but I'm not God: putting it mildly.

Now, about "clay."

One of the Genesis creation stories has God making us out of clay. (Genesis 2:7)

I could insist that God magically transformed "materials having a particle size of less than 2 micrometers ... [or] the family of minerals that has similar chemical compositions and common crystal structural characteristics"1 into a human being.

I think acknowledging what we're learning about this astounding creation makes more sense.

I've talked about truth and secondary causes before, too. (September 11, 2015)

About human origins: it's become increasingly obvious that the "clay" we're made from is the other living organisms here on Earth. Acknowledging this reality and God's role in creation make sense: to me, anyway.2

Now, finally, a newly-discovered "human-like species."

1. Homo Naledi

(From John Hawks, via Thinkstock/BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(BBC News)
"New human-like species discovered in S Africa"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (September 10, 2015)

"Scientists have discovered a new human-like species in a burial chamber deep in a cave system in South Africa.

"The discovery of 15 partial skeletons is the largest single discovery of its type in Africa.

"The researchers claim that the discovery will change ideas about our human ancestors.

"The studies which have been published in the journal Elife also indicate that these individuals were capable of ritual behaviour...."
Scientists found partial skeletal remains of 15 individuals near the bottom of a 12-meter vertical shaft, deep within a cave. They were male and female, from infants to elderly: and they didn't look quite like us.

The only other fossils in the chamber were "micro-mammals:" critters a whole lot smaller than we are.

The least-unlikely explanation for how the bones got there is that someone dropped them down the shaft.

The bones didn't have claw or tooth marks, no known predator selectively buries human or human-like bones, and there's no sign of flooding that would deposit remains there.

(From Paul H. G. M. Dirks et al; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Cross-section sketch of Dinaledi chamber.)

"An Extraordinary Experience"

(From John Hawks, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Homo naledi has a mixture of primitive and more modern features"
(BBC News))
"...The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong.

"The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived - but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.

"Like all those working in the field, he is at pains to avoid the term 'missing link'. Prof Berger says naledi could be thought of as a 'bridge' between more primitive bipedal primates and humans.

" 'We'd gone in with the idea of recovering one fossil. That turned into multiple fossils. That turned into the discovery of multiple skeletons and multiple individuals.

" 'And so by the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
The odds are pretty good that these Homo naledi lived "up to three million years ago."

As of September 10, the bones haven't been tested for age. These scientists base their age estimate on similarities to fossils found from that era.

What's exciting about this find is that we're probably looking at one community's interments — and the largest single collection of genus Homo fossils found so far. We'll almost certainly learn a great deal by studying them.

Hands, Feet, and Humanity's Story

(From Peter Schmid, via Thinkstock/BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"...'What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us,' he [Professor Lee Berger] told BBC News....

" 'We are going to know when its children were weaned, when they were born, how they developed, the speed at which they developed, the difference between males and females at every developmental stage from infancy, to childhood to teens to how they aged and how they died.'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
The phrase "nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans" is an example of anthropomorphism: "Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena." (

Professor Berger may believe that nature consciously experiments — but I suspect it's more likely that he intended 'nature experimenting' as a metaphor.

He may agree with scientists who still see human evolution as a "march of progress," from a primitive non-human primate straight through to today's model.

That made more sense back in 1965, when Time-Life published "Early Man."

The last I heard, folks living today have DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and another group whose bodies we haven't found yet.

Scientists still say that Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Red Deer Cave people, whose DNA we haven't found yet, are different "species."

I think human history is a whole lot more complicated than we imagined: and that many or most of the different "species" in our genus are more like today's ethnic groups. As I said last week, there isn't as much regional variation these days. (September 11, 2015; July 11, 2014)

"Wonderful Things"

(From National Geographic, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Homo naledi may have looked something like this"
(BBC News))
"...Among them was Marina Elliott. She showed me the narrow entrance to the cave and then described how she felt when she first saw the chamber.

" 'The first time I went to the excavation site I likened it to the feeling that Howard Carter must have had when he opened Tutankhamen's tomb - that you are in a very confined space and then it opens up and all of a sudden all you can see are all these wonderful things - it was incredible,' she said.

"Ms Elliott and her colleagues believe that they have found a burial chamber. The Homo naledi people appear to have carried individuals deep into the cave system and deposited them in the chamber - possibly over generations.

"If that is correct, it suggests naledi was capable of ritual behaviour and possibly symbolic thought - something that until now had only been associated with much later humans within the last 200,000 years.

"Prof Berger said: 'We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans?

"'Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?'

"Prof Berger believes that the discovery of a creature that has such a mix of modern and primitive features should make scientists rethink the definition of what it is to be human - so much so that he himself is reluctant to describe naledi as human.

"Other researchers working in the field, such as Prof Stringer, believe that naledi should be described as a primitive human. But he agrees that current theories need to be re-evaluated and that we have only just scratched the surface of the rich and complex story of human evolution."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
There's a lot going on here.

I liked the reference to Howard Carter. That echoes my perception of this universe: filled with "wonderful things," for those who take time to notice. (January 2, 2015; October 5, 2014)

I think that Professors Berger and Stringer are right — that we need to reconsider what we mean by "human."

Unlike Berger, however, I see Homo neledi as 'human' — most likely.

Those folks weren't as big as the average person today, around five feet tall; and their brains were around 500 cubic centimeters, compared to 1,200 cubic centimeters for today's model.

Our fingers are straighter, and we're probably smarter than Homo neledi. But it looks like they interred their dead, a very 'human' action. I don't think I'm 'more human' than someone with a lower IQ — and my family history strongly disinclines me to reject folks based on appearance.

About the artist's representation of Homo neledi, I think the nose may be a best-estimate. That piece of the skull apparently hasn't been found yet.

  • Wikipedia
  • "Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa"
    Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Lee R Berger, Eric M Roberts, Jan D Kramers, John Hawks, Patrick S Randolph-Quinney, Marina Elliott, Charles M Musiba, Steven E Churchill, Darryl J de Ruiter, Peter Schmid, Lucinda R Backwell, Georgy A Belyanin, Pedro Boshoff, K Lindsay Hunter, Elen M Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, James du G Harrison, Rick Hunter, Ashley Kruger, Hannah Morris, Tebogo V Makhubela, Becca Peixotto, Steven Tucker; eLIFE (September 10, 2015)
  • "Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa"
    Lee R Berger, John Hawks, Darryl J de Ruiter, Steven E Churchill, Peter Schmid, Lucas K Delezene, Tracy L Kivell, Heather M Garvin, Scott A Williams, Jeremy M DeSilva, Matthew M Skinner, Charles M Musiba, Noel Cameron, Trenton W Holliday, William Harcourt-Smith, Rebecca R Ackermann, Markus Bastir, Barry Bogin, Debra Bolter, Juliet Brophy, Zachary D Cofran, Kimberly A Congdon, Andrew S Deane, Mana Dembo, Michelle Drapeau, Marina C Elliott, Elen M Feuerriegel, Daniel Garcia-Martinez, David J Green, Alia Gurtov, Joel D Irish, Ashley Kruger, Myra F Laird, Damiano Marchi, Marc R Meyer, Shahed Nalla, Enquye W Negash, Caley M Orr, Davorka Radovcic, Lauren Schroeder, Jill E Scott, Zachary Throckmorton, Matthew W Tocheri, Caroline VanSickle, Christopher S Walker, Pianpian Wei, Bernhard Zipfel; eLIFE (September 10, 2015)

2. And Now for Something Completely Different

(From Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("Fossils of a newly discovered ancient species, named 'Homo naledi', are pictured during their unveiling outside Johannesburg September 10, 2015."
"Fossil first: ancient human relative may have buried its dead"
Ed Stoddard, Reuters (September 10, 2015)

"Humanity's claim to uniqueness just suffered another setback: scientists reported on Thursday that a newly discovered ancient species related to humans also appeared to bury its dead.

"Fossils of the creature were unearthed in a deep cave near the famed sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, treasure troves 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg that have yielded pieces of the puzzle of human evolution for decades.

" 'It was right under our nose in the most explored valley of the continent of Africa,' said Lee Berger of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

"The new species - described in the scientific journal eLife ( and National Geographic magazine - has been named 'Homo naledi', in honor of the 'Rising Star' cave where it was found. Naledi means 'star' in South Africa's Sesotho language. ..."
To Ed Stoddard's credit, this Reuters article gets around to some details of this discovery. Maybe an editor insisted on that silly lead paragraph. Or maybe the folks at Reuters felt it wouldn't be polite to contradict a Deputy President:
"...'Today, we unearth our past. We are not exceptional. We are not the only ones who are able to bury our dead,' South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said at news conference where the announcement was made a few kms (miles) from the site...."
(Ed Stoddard, Reuters)
The Homo naledi site may be the oldest instance we've found of folks interring their dead, and Homo neledi is almost certainly a new "species."

I'll grant that some scientists still aren't convinced that Neanderthals buried their dead.

It's true that Neanderthal burial sites are less elaborate than those of folks who look more like us, but I think it's time to say goodbye to Boule's Neanderthal 'ape-man.' And that's yet another topic. (September 11, 2015; October 31, 2014)


Remembering Jane Goodall

That's a Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters photo of Professor Lee Berger with a replica of a Homo naledi skull.

The 'humans aren't unique' theme included a look back to when non-human tool use was a new idea:
"...This is not the first time that the study of our relatives, extinct or living, has yielded evidence that humans do not have the monopoly on certain kinds of behavior.

"Jane Goodall in 1960 famously observed chimpanzees, our closest living relative, using grass stems for termite 'fishing', the first recorded use of a crude tool by non-humans...."
(Ed Stoddard, Reuters)
Since then, scientists started noticing that quite a few critters — insects, fish, cephalopods, reptiles, birds, and mammals — use tools:
We're still working out definitions as to exactly what "tool use" is. Interestingly, some other primates "make" tools — sharpening a stick or removing leaves and twigs from a branch.

Getting a Grip

Judging from this Reuters article's tone, sound and fury over evolution hasn't abated since the mid-19th century.

Some loudly-religious folks feel that science in general, and evolution in particular, is bad: like the person who warned me about the "religion of the Antichrist," evolution.

That attitude may help account for other folks assuming that all religious belief requires ignorance, irrationality, or both. (July 17, 2015; April 14, 2010)

I'm Catholic, so accepting reality is an important part of my faith: whether or not I like a particular facet of the real world.

Like I keep saying, 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.

And — despite what you may have heard — Dante did not drop Ulysses into the eighth circle of Hell for being curious. Which is yet again another topic. (July 24, 2015; March 29, 2015; August 1, 2014)

The Victorian-era brouhaha over evolution wasn't the first time folks grabbed a piece of truth and dashed off the edge of reason.

You've probably read this before — some European scholars said that we may not be standing on the only world back in the last half of the 13th century. Others said this couldn't be true, because Aristotle said there was only one world.

The Church stepped in, forbidding Catholics from claiming that Earth is the only world. Proposition 27/219 of 1277 was later annulled: but not the principle that God's God, Aristotle's not. (July 31, 2015; February 23, 2014)

We didn't have all the answers some 2,600 years back, when quite a few folks thought we lived on a flat plate.

We didn't have all the answers when Anaximander, Empedocles, and Darwin said critters — including us — change over time. And we don't have all the answers today. (May 29, 2015)

But as long as we keep acting like human beings, we'll keep learning more. I don't have a problem with that, since I believe that God is large and in charge:
"...God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures - and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. ... Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth...."
("Providentissimus Deus,"1 Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])
Still more of my take on human origins:

1 "Environmental Characteristics of Clays and Clay Mineral Deposits," USGS

2 Life on Earth is very modular. Humans are unique, but we share the vast majority of our genes with every other living thing.

I could be shocked and horrified by this, and reject science as 'Satanic,' or tell God that I don't approve. Neither alternative seems reasonable. As a Catholic, I don't have to choose between reality and faith.

Here's part of what the Church says about genetics, evolution, and getting a grip:
"...Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

"64. Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that 'new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge' ('Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution' 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father's message acknowledges that there are 'several theories of evolution' that are 'materialist, reductionist and spiritualist' and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe. Mainly concerned with evolution as it 'involves the question of man,' however, Pope John Paul's message is specifically critical of materialistic theories of human origins and insists on the relevance of philosophy and theology for an adequate understanding of the 'ontological leap' to the human which cannot be explained in purely scientific terms. The Church's interest in evolution thus focuses particularly on 'the conception of man' who, as created in the image of God, 'cannot be subordinated as a pure means or instrument either to the species or to society.' As a person created in the image of God, he is capable of forming relationships of communion with other persons and with the triune God, as well as of exercising sovereignty and stewardship in the created universe. The implication of these remarks is that theories of evolution and of the origin of the universe possess particular theological interest when they touch on the doctrines of the creation ex nihilo and the creation of man in the image of God...."
("Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," International Theological Commission (July 23, 2004))


Brigid said...

Missing space: "were "micro-mammals:"critters a whole"

Extra space: "anthropomorphism: " Attribution of human motivation, characteristics,"

Missing word: "for those take time to notice."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...

Brigid: found, fixed, and thanks! (Correct number of spaces, incorrect placement - interesting.)

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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