To answer Darek Isaacs…

Darek-IsaacsThis guy here is Darek Isaacs, a “creation scientist” (I hate that term; it’s not science) with a history of saying stupid things. They include the claim that dragons were real. He pops up on my radar every now and then and always makes me roll my eyes, but this time I just had to say something.

His latest anti-evolution rhetoric is to imply that if evolution is true, then rape must be acceptable. The logic goes like this: if evolution is all about lots and lots of breeding, how could it be wrong to force a woman to breed with a man? In his exact words, “If evolution is true … is rape wrong”?

I’m sure an evolutionary biologist or other scientist could refute this with ease, but even I can immediately come up with a couple of very good reasons to give Isaacs a resounding yes. Rape is always wrong, and so are you.

Firstly, evolution has never been all about males, and it has never been all about males breeding with whichever female they want or doing so forcefully. Many animals operate under a “female choice” system, where males put on a display of some sort and the females choose the male they find most suitable. All evolution relies on (in sexually reproducing organisms) is the mutation and recombination of DNA, and both genders contribute equally to the DNA of the offspring. If rape were the way to transmit your DNA, a male would only be transmitting it to individuals incapable of fending him off (for a variety of reasons, including physical weakness or lack of familial protection), thus potentially creating offspring – both male and female – with inherited vulnerabilities. Hardly a long-term strategy.

Secondly, cultural evolution is just as real as biological evolution. Regardless of what biological imperatives we operate under as animals, humans (and indeed many other animals) have developed various ways of navigating the intricacies involved in being sociable. Moral codes are one way in which social animals ensure they can function cohesively, morality enables us to be a society rather than a collection of squabbling individuals. Morality, in modern western societies, forbids rape.

Darek Isaacs is one of a great many creationists who attempt to deny evolution whilst knowing absolutely nothing about it. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort, not even a degree, to obtain a basic understanding. Even a simple Google search could easily fill in the vast gaps in his understanding of what evolution is, what it does, and how it does it. I’m not even asking him to stop being a creationist, only to have some knowledge of what it is he attempts to refute so that he can argue effectively. Instead, he creates a strawman – he presents arguments against points that don’t exist, he denies things that no evolutionary scientist actually believes. How is that a discussion? It’s childish.

Humans changing the planet

Modern humans tend to consider their own destructiveness as being minimal up until around the time of the industrial revolution. And indeed, there is no doubt that our impact on the Earth increased. But that was far from the start of our planet-changing activities.

Archaic humans (Homo sapiens idaltu) were migrating from Africa around 70,000 years ago. (From here, I will use the abbreviation ‘kya’ for ‘thousand years ago’, so that would be 70 kya.) 100 kya, the world was dominated by at least three distinct great ape species, including our direct ancestors. By 30 kya, our ancestors were more or less alone; we’d overrun our cousins.

Migration from Africa seems to have been driven largely by population pressures and the need for food. We followed the big game west, out across Europe and Asia, over land and water and ice.

Around 65 kya we arrived in Australia. By 50 kya, many large mammal species here were extinct, hunted and eaten by our forebears. The same pattern can be seen in the Americas; extinctions followed the arrival of humans.

It wasn’t just animals we did as we wished with. It’s estimated that about 10% of the Amazon is in its current form due to the intervention of early humans. We encouraged the plants that were more beneficial to us: the plants we could eat from, or those which would suit the animals we wanted to eat. We discouraged or killed off plants that didn’t suit us. Burning the undergrowth left more space for large game herds.

For about 10,000 years we’ve been domesticating food plants, cultivating what we want to eat and clearing out the plants we can’t use. This in turn lead to an expansion of population, as our deliberately chosen and cultivated crops could support more people than foraging for naturally occurring plants.

So basically what I’m trying to say is that humans and our ancestors have been transforming Earth for our own benefit for a very very very long time, and that’s on top of natural events and constant climate fluctuations. There’s some food for thought when you consider trying to reverse it all. Good luck trying to figure out what’s ‘normal’, ‘natural’, or ‘pristine’; is it a hundred years ago, or a hundred thousand? I’m not saying don’t try. Just be aware of what you’re trying to save the planet from.


The skull of ‘Lucy’

Quite some time ago, possibly over a year ago, we took Elspeth to the Melbourne Zoo. On display near the elephants is an elephant skull. Upon seeing it, she was first slightly nervous, and then overcame that to become quite interested. Ever since then, she’s had something of an obsession with skulls.

She asks to look at pictures of skulls – she will specify an animal – and she will point out to people, ‘You have a skull in your head!’

Recently, as part of my university studies (Human Evolution & Diversity), I was looking at some pictures of skulls of various ancient hominid species including the famous ‘Lucy’. Elspeth was on my lap. I scrolled past the pictures to read the text at the bottom of the page, and she began protesting:

‘Go back so I can see the skulls! They’re beautiful pictures. I like skulls.’

I think I’ve created a future paleoanthropologist!

I’m thrilled with the things she takes an interest in. I can see how skulls might seem a bit morbid, but they’re fascinating really. The amount you can tell about an animal just from its skull is almost unbelievable.

For instance, from the position of the spot where the spine joins the head, you can tell whether an animal is bipedal or quadrupedal. From patterns of wear on the teeth you can tell what it ate and what else it used its teeth for; for instance, Eskimos and Neandertals both use(d) their teeth to soften hides so they could be worked into boots.

I hope Elspeth keeps her curiosity and fascination with all sorts of interesting and bizarre things. There is so much to know about so many things!

Including skulls.

Awesome husband is awesome

Last week was exam week for the Fall of the Roman Republic. With Open Universities, a non-invigilated exam will be open, the questions available, for several days or a week, and you submit your answers in a Word document by the due date.

Last week was also the week that Aidan returned to work after a five week break.

Despite needing to work, being sick, and wanting to do his own study (Aidan’s just starting with Open Uni too), he was willing and able to take the kids out a few times and give me plenty of time to get my exam done, distraction-free. I am so grateful; I would never have gotten the thing done if I’d had the kids underfoot the whole time. Aidan’s help and support is, as always, invaluable.

So it’s all done, submitted, and now I move on to my next subject: Human Evolution and Diversity.