Friday, November 19, 2004

 

And what a great ape it is

With luck, high school science students in Alabama, Kansas, etc., may someday even get to hear about this.
Fossils Found in Spain Seen as Last Link to Great Apes

By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

Scientists in Spain have discovered fossils of an ape species from about 13 million years ago that they think may have been the last common ancestor of all living great apes, including humans.

The new ape species and its possible place in prehuman evolution are described in today's issue of the journal Science by a research team led by Dr. Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona. The fossil remains were found near Barcelona and named Pierolapithecus catalaunicus.

In the report, the researchers concluded that the well-preserved skull, teeth and skeletal bones promised "to contribute substantially to our understanding of the origin of extant great apes and humans."

Dr. David R. Begun, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto who is familiar with the research but not a member of the team, called the fossils "a great discovery," adding, "I am convinced it is a great ape."

About 25 million years ago, Old World monkeys diverged from the primate line that led eventually to apes and humans. About 11 million to 16 million years ago, another branching occurred, when primates known as the great apes - which now include orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and humans - split from the lesser apes, represented by today's gibbons and siamangs.

Although the great ape group includes humans, Dr. Brooks Hanson, deputy editor for physical sciences at Science, said, "it's important to remember that we've had millions of years of evolution since then."

The lineage leading to humans branched off from the chimpanzee line an estimated seven million years ago.

The scarcity of fossils from those periods has handicapped scientists searching for evidence of the common ancestors of great apes that emerged after the split between them and the lesser apes. Some candidates for that role have included Kenyapithecus and Afropithecus, but Dr. Moyà-Solà said their fossils appeared to be too primitive to be the common ancestor.

Dr. Moyà-Solà's team said the overall pattern of their fossil skeleton suggested that the species was either the last common ancestor of great apes and humans, or close to it.

Dr. Begun said some aspects of the specimen's face, palate and teeth made him think that the species was perhaps a little farther down the evolutionary line of great apes than the common ancestor, but was a significant find, nonetheless.

The newly discovered individual, probably a male, weighed about 75 pounds and had a stiff lower spine and flexible wrists that would have made it a tree-climbing specialist. The researchers said its arboreal abilities were more similar to those of later great apes than to the more primitive monkeys.

The Pierolapithecus rib cage, or thorax, is wider and flatter than a monkey rib cage and similar to that of modern great apes, Dr. Moyà-Solà said.

"The thorax is the most important anatomical part of this fossil, because it's the first time that the modern great-apelike thorax has been found in the fossil record," Dr. Moyà-Solà said in a statement by the journal.

In a conference call from Barcelona on Wednesday, another member of the research team, Dr. Meike Köhler of the Barcelona institute, said the Pierolapithecus probably ate fruit, judging by its teeth, and had a flat face and wide nose somewhat like a chimpanzee's.

The age of the fossil species, between 12.5 million and 13 million years, "coincides quite well with ages for the common ancestor proposed by geneticists," Dr. Köhler said.

In their report, the researchers noted that the skeleton showed that those early great apes "retained primitive monkeylike characters" and thus did not seem to support "the theoretical model that predicts that all characters shared by extant great apes were present in their last common ancestor."

Finding the ancestral ape in Spain, and not Africa, posed no problem for scientists. The Mediterranean Sea expanded and contracted frequently in the past, permitting the dispersal of life between Africa and Europe. The Pierolapithecus, paleontologists said, probably lived on both continents.
I am a religious Jew, but not a hidebound one. I do not read the Torah as a science textbook. When it says that G-d made us in His image, I take that to be a description of our moral status, as G-d has no physical form! And I take our messianic longing for Moshiach to be a description of our moral evolution toward the more perfect form G-d wants us to attain through our own efforts.

Therefore, I do not feel my religious faith to be in the least bit threatened by the understanding that we are also, as a species, and indeed as all species, evolving physically from earlier forms, no longer extant, to the current proliferation of species of all kinds all over the Earth.

For one thing, anyone with an open mind must admit that evolution happened. Those who dismiss evolution as "merely a theory" expose their own ignorance; obviously, in scientific parlance "theory" is a technical term meaning a detailed explanation accounting for all the observed facts. It is not simply a guess, as in "You got your theory and I got mine."

When science contradicts Scripture, the latter must give way, either now or eventually. It always has. Those who seek to compel the science to conform to their reading of Scripture traduce both. The late Steven Jay Gould's awkward concept, "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), is simply a way of saying that science and faith are not necessarily in conflict.

I must admit, I genuinely do not understand the mindset of someone for whom the Biblical account in Genesis must be the literal truth. (That includes ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well.) The current controversy over the National Park Service selling a Creationist tract in the Grand Canyon gift shop frustrates me, as it is not merely a question of someone's right to their belief. Yes, yes, they can believe nonsense if they want. But A) they can't impose their nonsense on everyone else (and yes, no one is forced to buy or read that tract).

Alsi (and more importantly), B) actions have consequences. Anyone who rejects evolution is also, whether they realize it or not, rejecting genetics (how do they think evolution works)? They are rejecting geology and cosmology and ecology and pretty much the entire foundation of science and technology. High school students from states that insist on teaching Creationism or "Intelligent Design" or any other such crap alongside real science are being done a major disservice. How can any college or university they apply to judge their high school science class grades with any confidence? How can they themselves prepare for AP science classes, how can they prepare for college science coursework, how can they expect to go to med school if their entire preparation is based on a lie?

Faith does not tell us what happened to the physical history of our universe and our planet. It can't. It's not supposed to. I'm not a theologian; I'm a historian and a scientist. I'm also a human being humbled by the fact that we are an indivisible part of the history of Earth, not some creation imposed on it and therefore not inextricably bound to its fate. The Biblical tale of Creation is to me an allegory for G-d's concern that we live up to His commandments because He created us and therefore, in a sense, owns us. That faith is in no way lessened by my realization that the actual creation did not happen as it is presented in Genesis. I can hold both concepts in my mind and not be bothered that they don't tell the same tale.

I read the bimonthly Free Inquiry (sort of a Readers Digest for atheists) and fully subscribe to their critique of anti-rational religions. However, I do not feel that religion must be anti-rational, and I certainly do not think that Judaism, properly understood and practiced, is in any way antithetical to a scientific worldview. A lot of scientists and doctors are Jews, of course, and not all of them are fully secular Jews. Judaism reveres study and truth, Judaism believes that humanity is G-d's partner in creation, and that exploring and understanding the natural world is part of that partnership. That some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe, as do too many conservative Christians, that the universe is less than 7000 years old, is unfortunate. At least, when it comes to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, it is also irrelevant, since such Jews withdraw from most contact with the surround culture rather than seeking to impose their beliefs on it. Would that the anti-rational Christians would do the same thing.

The final consequence of rejecting science is that it leads to cultural and economic stagnation. At least some of the turmoil in the Islamic world, especially the Arab region, can be traced to the utter bankruptcy of science and education in those areas. Without people trained to be open-minded, to follow where scientific inquiry leads them rather than ordain the answers in advance and reject anything not prescribed by orthodoxy, they have languished in ignorance and poverty. For all that the Christian Right in America thinks that its moralizing will lead G-d to bless us for our piety and fealty, in reality they would, if permitted to force us down their chosen path, condemn us to the kind of squalor and misery that Islam has suffered since the collapse of their own medieval golden age.

America has been great because it has been truly free. That was G-d's blessing to us. In a sense, America has been great because it has been good to its Jews. Not in any direct sense, of course, but the openness that permitted the Jews to thrive and flourish here like almost nowhere else in human history (interesting, isn't it, that the Islamic world thrived when it, too, was at least relatively good to its Jewish subjects - and began to shrivel when it turned insular and narrow-minded) also was conducive to science and technology and free inquiry and entrepreneurship. Stifle all of that, even in the name of some supposedly superior morals, and you'll get Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I'm sure that's not what the Christian Right wants, whatever it thinks it wants - but that's the danger they're running. For them and, alas, for the rest of us.
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