Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Life: then and now, here and there

Here's an odd pair of articles about life in today's WSJ: one about evolution (which is its own complete kettle of stew) and cooking (B8, Informed Reader scooping January Scientific American), the other about possible extinction and plans to compensate (subscription required; A10, by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.).

First, apes and fire. The big question: "Could primates have evolved into humans without knowing how to cook?" Sure! Look at today's vegetarians! (For my evolutionist readers: Save the arguments about ID and so forth for another time. For my creationist readers: Keep up the research. In the end there'll be a big shootout; may the truth win!)

For 10 years, Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham has gathered data that he says show that the discovery of cooking allowed humans to evolve. The only snag: He has yet to prove that humans' ancestors could control fire, a missing link that some scientists say casts doubt on the cooking hypothesis.

Yep, that's a rather large snag, I would say. Here's why he's using that hypothesis:

Chimpanzees' diets of raw, bitter fruits couldn't provide enough energy to support humans' relatively large brains, says Dr. Wrangham. Cooking would have allowed early humans to digest hard, fibrous food more easily and free up energy for brain tissue. He has found that Homo erectus, a human ancestor that appeared between 1.6 million and 1.9 million years ago, had larger brains, smaller teeth and smaller guts than its evolutionary predecessor.

Now, to be fair, is the other side (if you know me, it's still not quite fair...the age part, to say the least--but I'll save that for another time):

But skeptics say Prof. Wrangham hasn't proven that Homo erectus consistently worked with fire, although one archaeological site has been found that shows signs of a fire 1.6 million years ago. Signs of consistent cooking only emerge within the past 500,000 years, around the time Neanderthals were coping with an ice age. In addition, some scientists believe humans could have developed their larger brains and smaller stomachs by eating raw, energy-dense animal products such as soft bone marrow or brains.

Mmm, tastes like chicken! (Now we know why Campbell's soups sell so well!) Back to the Doc:

Prof. Wrangham hopes DNA evidence will eventually prove him right, by revealing whether Homo erectus developed the genetic responses found in modern humans to counter some chemical effects of cooking.

Quibble: Normally the word "prove" is only used in math; in the *softer* sciences, I would prefer the word "demonstrate." Once we find the same evidence in every specimen of humans of this type, then it will technically be "proven." Now for the next article.

Jenkins starts with a bang:

Unless you can avoid a newspaper in 2008, expect to be reading a lot about human extinction. In June arrives the hundredth anniversary of the Tunguska impact, which leveled 800 square miles of Siberia. By happenstance, a rock of similar size may smash into Mars on Jan. 30, affording scientists a close-up view of a planetary disaster...[for example,] NASA last week was announcing discovery of a supermassive black hole spraying deadly radiation into a neighboring galaxy, ending life on an unknown number of planets in its path.

Yes, I have issues with that whole extraterrestrial-life thing. But bear with me. He continues:

More discouragement is found in the so-called Fermi Paradox, or the failure of the universe to yield evidence of intelligent alien civilizations. Is that because intelligent species end up killing themselves off with their own technology?

Hmmm...could it possibly be that there's (gasp) no life on other planets? A shocking notion to some, to be sure. The answer to humans' *imminent* extinction? Cheapening the process of getting *evolved primates* like us into orbit. There ends the biologically interesting part, and there begins the economically interesting part. So I'll stop. Just watch for cheaper shuttles.


Coram Deo said...

I guess it must be pretty difficult for the good professor to simply accept that God created man (and everything else) ex nihlo for His own purposes.

Of course my guess is based on the assumption that once one has rejected God logical consistency demands a rejection of His truth. And since He created, defines, and embodies truth then that rejection inevitably leads to vain imaginings about foolishness like homo erectus and his inability to cook.


Hannah J said...

Exactly. Poor professor, indeed...

MK said...

Anything to deny his existence ey. oh well..