Archive for August 8th, 2007

Evolution Evolution

So, apparently, our family tree has gotten a bit forked up:

The discovery by Meave Leakey, a member of a famous family of paleontologists, shows that two species of early human ancestors lived at the same time in Kenya. That pokes holes in the chief theory of man’s early evolution — that one of those species evolved from the other.

And it further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man.

The old theory is that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became human, Homo sapiens. But Leakey’s find suggests those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years. She and her research colleagues report the discovery in a paper published in Thursday’s journal Nature.

The paper is based on fossilized bones found in 2000. The complete skull of Homo erectus was found within walking distance of an upper jaw of Homo habilis, and both dated from the same general time period. That makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis, researchers said.

It’s the equivalent of finding that your grandmother and great-grandmother were sisters rather than mother-daughter, said study co-author Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London.

But considerably less icky.

There remains some still-undiscovered common ancestor that probably lived 2 million to 3 million years ago, a time that has not left much fossil record, Spoor said.

Overall what it paints for human evolution is a ”chaotic kind of looking evolutionary tree rather than this heroic march that you see with the cartoons of an early ancestor evolving into some intermediate and eventually unto us,” Spoor said in a phone interview from a field office of the Koobi Fora Research Project in northern Kenya.


”The more we know, the more complex the story gets,” [Bill Kimbel, science director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins] said. Scientists used to think Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals, he said. But now we know that both species lived during the same time period and that we did not come from Neanderthals.

Now a similar discovery applies further back in time.

I don’t think this is really all that shocking. Why should we assume that the evolution of homo sapiens was an almost completely straight line, with hardly any extraneous branches? Lots of animals come in all sorts of different varieties, with cousins sprouting off at all kinds of branching points, so why should we be different? Evolution does not have a plan; genetic mutation just throws a whole bunch of stuff at the wall, and natural selection determines what sticks.

Yes, the fact that creating humans was not evolution’s sole purpose does put a dent in our sense of specialness, but it’s the truth. All we are is just another animal, whose brain just happened to reach critical mass. And sometimes I’m not even sure about that.

(Note: Stephen Jay Gould was a big proponent of the “bushy” theory of evolution, in which lots of varieties of creatures evolve, with most of them dying out. I highly recommend his book on the subject, Wonderful Life, which focuses primarily on the incredibly bizarre creatures of the Pre-Cambrian Burgess Shale.)

4 comments August 8th, 2007 at 10:57pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science


I have been terribly remiss in overlooking this NYT story – or, more to the point, its slideshow – for an entire week, as it has two of the Greatest Pictures Ever. Observe:

Elvis Stormtrooper!
Elvis Stormtrooper!

Green Lantern
Perhaps this is a good time to mention that Green Lantern’s one weakness is the color yellow.

Well, unless you’re talking about the Golden Age Green Lantern, whose only weakness is, um, wood. I should probably just stop now.

(Photos by Sandy Huffaker for the NYT)

August 8th, 2007 at 08:56pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Comics,Coolness,Movies

Class, War

Howie Klein catches this juicy little tidmitt, er, tidbit:

As we’ve mentioned before, Mormon Mitt and his flock have all managed to evade serving in the military– and are very touchy and aggressive when anyone wants to know why. They never say that military service is for poor people not for multimillionaire Mormons like themselves, but that’s what they mean.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Wednesday defended his five sons’ decision not to enlist in the military, saying they’re showing their support for the country by “helping me get elected.”

Romney, who did not serve in Vietnam due to his Mormon missionary work and a high draft lottery number, was posed the question by an anti-war activist after a speech in which he called for “a surge of support” for U.S. forces in Iraq.


“My sons are all adults and they’ve made decisions about their careers and they’ve chosen not to serve in the military and active duty and I respect their decision in that regard.”

He added: “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I’d be a great president.”

Aww. Isn’t that sweet. Now, you’d think that equating military service with helping out dear old Dad’s campaign would be a huge turnoff to all those Republican voters who are oh-so-adamant about supporting our troops (often going to the extraordinary lengths of sticking a yellow ribbon logo on their vehicles!) would be appalled. But you’d be wrong.

Republican voters (or at least the diehard Kool-Aid drinkers) have thoroughly internalized the notion that Howie identifies: Powerful, important people start and prolong wars; little people and suckers fight them. Viewed from that perspective, the Romney family’s avoidance of military service is a status symbol, a demonstration of just how powerful and important they are. Why, they have not one, not two, but five sons who support the war but aren’t fighting in it! They must all be born Leaders! And they’re certainly prosperous enough that they would never have to enlist because it was the only way they could get a college degree.

This same thinking is the basis of the typical Young Republican response when asked why they’re not Over There – it’s usually something along the lines of how much more valuable to the war they are here. The unspoken message is, of course, that the dumb grunts in Iraq and Afghanistan have nothing to offer beyond their lives, their limbs, and their mental health. But again, none of this is a problem, because Republicans understand that this is what Leaders do, and it would be the height of foolishness to risk such valuable human assets in a war zone.

This point of view also explains why Republican voters were not at all bothered by Dubya’s dodgy dodging of Vietnam, and why Republican politicians’ actual concern for the troops appears to be roughly on par with their concern for Katrina victims (unless they’re Trent Lott, that poor porchless man). Because Dubya is Important, and soldiers and poor people are… not.

Sure, most Republican voters are not powerful or important, but they admire and identify with those who are. If Dubya has the juice to get out of the Vietnam draft, then more power to him. Yay, team!

(Cross-posted at Greatscat!)

August 8th, 2007 at 06:56pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Iraq,Republicans,Romney,Wankers,War

Happy Resignniversary!

Today is the 33rd anniversary of one of the best and worst moments in American history: The resignation of Richard M. Nixon.

It was one of the best moments because it was a triumph of our constitutional system, as it successfully removed a corrupt and lawless president for power. It was also, dare I say it, a great moment for the congressional Republicans who told Nixon it was time for him to go, for the good of the country, or at least the party. And I even have to give Nixon some credit for ultimately yielding to the obvious.

But it was also one of the worst moments because of all that went before it, the dishonor cast upon our government in general, and the office of the president in particular. How could we have not just elected, but re-elected such an odious criminal? Why did it take so long to get rid of him?

And now, 33 years later, we find ourselves suffering through a presidency that makes Richard Nixon look like Jimmy Carter, and yet there is no impeachment or resignation in sight. A few Republicans are squirming privately, and an even smaller few are squirming more publicly, but the overwhelming majority of Republicans (and media) still act as though Dubya can do no wrong, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats want nothing to do with impeachment.

Where did we go astray? When did it become so hard to distinguish right from wrong? When did our media and elected representatives stop caring about the difference, even if only for the sake of appearances?

What has happened to us?

August 8th, 2007 at 05:45pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Bush,Impeachment,Politics,Republicans

B&W Wall Street Photoblogging

Three photos taken within probably a 20-foot radius of each other…

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I had wanted to recreate a picture I took in high school, where it looks like George Washington is fending off paparazzi. Not quite the same take, but you get the general idea.

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A more contemplative angle.

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Another view of the naked bankers atop the Stock Exchange (I think).

August 8th, 2007 at 11:29am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: NJ/NYC,Photoblogging

Wednesday Why-I-Love-The-Weekly-World-News Blogging

The Weekly World News uncovers the secret origin of the ninja:

JAPANESE historians have always believed that ‘ninjas’ were trained to be spies and political assassins in feudal Japan. However, professor Danno Tanaka recently unearthed ancient scrolls indicating that ninjas served a much higher purpose.

“I found them buried in the ruins of the Imperial palace from the Heian period, which is when the samurai class first developed,” said Tanaka.

“According to these scrolls — penned by Emperor Kammu himself — this period marked the invasion of Japan by extraterrestrials!”

Kammu writes of ‘leaf-hued invaders from the sky who launched arrows of lightning.’

Kammu sent his best warriors out to attack them, but the soldiers were beaten back.

“Skilled as they were, they were unable to repel the aliens, who Kammu claims were often ‘unseen,’ ” said Tanaka.

Because of the space invaders’ advantage, Kammu ordered his warriors to change their tactics. Dressed in black and attacking only at night, they practiced the art of invisibility. This was the birth of the ninja.

“The alien occupation lasted ten years, during which time the Japanese were secretly honing their ninja skills,” said Tanaka.

“When they were finally ready, 1,000 deadly ninjas were unleashed upon the aliens. Having never fought an invisible enemy before, hundreds of them were killed by shurikens, poison darts, and hidden sword thrusts, and within a month they fled Earth, never to return.”

“Ninja activities after that period have been well documented,” said Tanaka. “However, it’s possible there are still clans watching the skies and waiting for another alien attack. For all we know, they’ve been all that stood between our world and invasion for the past thousand years.”

I think we should all reflect upon the enormous debt of gratitude that we owe to these selfless and stealthy individuals.

In other Weekly World News news, the Washington Post has a great story on the origins and history of the Weekly World News (alas, no space aliens), soon to shut down its print edition for good.

August 8th, 2007 at 07:29am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Weekly World News

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