Sunday, March 28, 2010

clerical collar crimes

ex-cardinal R, believed to have signed with the red devils during the recent transfer window

The Catholic church is in the news again, seeking to defend, by blustering attacks on investigative reportage, its more than simply shaky self-image as an institution above the corruptions of the flesh. By the way, if you’re ever in the mood for a juicy read, and plenty of material to heighten your sense of self-righteous superiority, I suggest you google ‘catholic church denies allegations’, and you’ll be guaranteed to garner enough salacious stuff to keep you going for a month of Sundays.

It’s ironic to find the hierarchy of an organization so long tied to oppression, persecution, intimidation and worse crying foul over these carefully investigated and worded allegations, and making noises about witch-hunts. At the same time it’s probably true that liberal papers such as the NYT and the Guardian scent the blood of a wounded beast and are happy to go in for the kill – though I suspect the Catholic church will stagger on for a long time to come.

Of course, if a Pope were to be brought down, that would really be something, and currently it’s the man himself who’s in the crosshairs of the liberal media. The most recent claim from the NYT suggests damning evidence, but the wording is confusing.


The claim concerns the church’s treatment of Father Peter Hullermann, described as a known paedophile, in the seventies and eighties [and perhaps beyond]. According to the NYT:

the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was copied in on a memo from his deputy in which the priest was transferred to parish duties in Bavaria that brought him into contact with children. As a result of that decision by the then vicar-general, Father Gerhard Gruber, the priest was able to continue abusing boys, for which he was later tried and convicted.

It’s unclear what ‘copied in’ means here. Was the memo addressed to Ratzinger? Did he sign it? Does the memo still exist? Investigators are apparently still probing the records, and the church is still being evasive. The  former vicar-general, who’s more directly implicated in the scandal, is refusing to answer questions about the matter, all of which raises the question of Catholic immunity.

Immunity has been a major issue, and a cause of much outrage, in Ireland, where three separate inquiries have been conducted into priestly abuse in recent times.  In one of them, the Commission to Inquire into the Dublin Archdiocese, it was found that ‘hundreds  of crimes against children from the 1960s to the 1990s were not reported while police treated clergy as though they were above the law’. Four archbishops at least were involved in the cover-up, and it would be na├»ve in the extreme to imagine that Dublin was an isolated archdiocese in this respect.

The immunity issue was never spelt out, it seems, but it was taken for granted, from the sixties [before which child abuse hardly seems to have been recognized as an issue at all] through to the eighties, that the Catholic Church, which of course had a position of great power and prestige in Ireland, was beyond the remit of police and legal investigators. Now, with the church being forced to abandon its secrecy and its policy of harm-minimisation [to the reputation of the church that is] at all costs, it’s a matter of playing catch-up, and the revelations will continue to come thick and fast. But immunity is still something that the Catholic Church is determined to cling to, it seems. This sense of immunity, which hangs on an outmoded and destructive tradition, needs to be shredded.

Returning to Ratzinger, the Hullermann scandal comes hard on the heels of another, involving a Father Lawrence Murphy, serial abuser of some 200 deaf children in Wisconsin. Ratzinger was informed, or at least written to, but did nothing. He claims not to have known about the case. It’s true enough, I’m sure that hundreds and thousands of memos and notes and letters would have crossed the desk of the busy and ambitious cardinal in those days – but how many of them would have been about serious, criminal abuse of defenceless children? These should never have been ignored, though it’s possible that in this case the letter was intercepted by some underling [which might exonerate Ratzinger, but it would inculpate the Catholic hierarchy all the more].

An op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday, written by Maureen Dowd, whimsically argued for a Nope instead of a Pope next time round – or perhaps immediately, after Ratzinger’s impeachment or whatever. By a Nope, she means a nun-pope. Given everything we know about the Catholic Church and the papacy, it’s a laughable suggestion, even though, given all that we know about good governance, sanity, openness and trust, it’s the soundest option available.

The appalling attitude of the Catholic hierarchy to women is one of the major reasons why it’s been on the nose for centuries. Its appalling attitude to other religions and to ‘heretics’ is another reason of course, but you can always put that down to in-group prejudice and the need to patrol the margins, to clamp down on heterodoxy all the more when the orthodoxy is essentially arbitrary. But without doubt the church’s hostile attitude to women wielding power, together with the church’s own powerful position from the fourth or fifth century CE until quite recently, has had a disastrous impact on the position of women in the west. Sarah, an avid reader of ‘historicals’, as she calls them, recently read a book called Godiva [apparently pronounced Godeeva],  about the eleventh century lady of Coventry, which featured this interesting postscript:

… the historical Godiva lived at a moment in time when the history of women was about to take a turn for the worse. Up until the age of the Norman Conquest women throughout Britain, whether in England, Wales or Ireland, could inherit and bequeath substantial property, including land. Women could also instigate divorce [where there were grounds that were legally acceptable], and retain access to their children and to their share of the marital property. Widows and divorced women could also remarry. During marriage, women were protected by law against violence and neglect and were not, in general, prohibited from practising specific crafts or skills, or from riding, bearing arms or travelling. The basic social model for the pre-Conquest adult woman was that of a partner in a marital relationship: sometimes a lesser partner, often equal and occasionally superior.
Over the centuries following the Norman Conquest, under the influence of Church lawyers, all these advantages that women in Britain had hitherto possessed withered away and passed into history, leaving women of all social ranks subject to vastly increased male authority in the family, dispossessed of property in everything but name, and in general degraded to a state of inferiority – disarmed in an age of ‘chivalry’, unemployed in an age of guilds, and uneducated in an age of growing literacy. Men and women were set on routes of social change that split the age-old customs of partnership and introduced the enmity of the genders. The overwhelming responsibility for this unhappy change is borne by the Catholic Church, which obtained jurisdiction in all matters to do with the family and pushed forward an agenda for the dispossession of women – especially powerful, landowning women – which found keen support in ruling military circles in Norman England [from the postscript to Godiva, Nerys Jones].

I suspect there’s much truth in these lines. The Catholic Church, throughout its long history, has been socially and politically disastrous for women, and it would continue to be so, if given the power. It has changed but little, and that little with great reluctance and against its own eternally self-serving judgment.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

she's still a mystery girl

Homo floresiensis, so recently discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores, near Timor, has proved another conundrum for everyone intrigued by the tree of human evolution.
A few months ago an issue of the Journal of Human Evolution was devoted to H Floresiensis, and though nothing is ever settled in these matters, it seems that there's growing consensus that 'the little lady of Flores' really does represent a new species. That's to say, the earlier claim of some kind of pathology [microcephaly, usually] seems to have been ruled out.
A summary of a summary of the latest findings and thinking. No evidence of close phylogenetic relations to H sapiens, or, more surprisingly, to H erectus. Big questions remain as to the ancestry of these people [bones have been identified from 12 separate individuals - the 'hobbit' generally referred to is technically called LB1, named for the Liang Bua site]. They seem to have branched off from an earlier version of Homo, betweem 1.5 and 1.9 mya. The brain shape appears similar to those of early Homo skulls, particularly H georgicus, as found at the Dmanisi site [see photo in previous post]. They're a lot stockier than modern humans, and the ratio of arm and leg bones is quite similar to that of the famous 'Lucy' skeleton - that's to say, Australopithecus afarensis, dating back some 3 millions years.
All of this seems to muck up the usual out of Africa stories, which tell of much more recent migrations from the 'mother continent'.
Apparently the Liang Bua site has recently been re-opened, after a number of years. It's certainly an exciting, puzzling time for archaeology.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

a complex picture emerges?

Homo georgicus? I think I should start collecting skulls. 

Now let's move out of Northern Spain and the Iberian peninsula to a Lower Paleolithic open air site in Thuringia in eastern Germany. The site is called Bilzingsleben and the finds there date from 320 to 412 kya.

The place appears to have been a camp site. More than 200,000 'silex artefacts' [basically flaked stone] have been found there, as well as pebble and bone tools, the bones of hunted animals, and some engravings on bone. Human remains have been generally labelled as late H erectus, or H heidelbergensis.

The engravings, which provide evidence of art from a remarkably early period, have naturally caused quite a stir in palaeontological circles. Mind you, in this diverse field, all sorts of claims are made. Here, for example, we find talk, loose or otherwise, of art during the Oldowan era, which goes back 2.6 million years. By the way, I must get these 'eras' straighter in my mind and in my blog. Later.

On to other sites. At this stage I'm looking at European sites, but I want to summarize the most important Asian and African sites too. My mini-researches on the net have revealed often vicious disputes about the territory inhabited by H neanderthelensis, H erectus, H ergaster and other putative versions of Homo, about when they flourished and how 'advanced' they were. So many people have their pet theories. I don't know what my pet theory is – hopefully I don't have one. However, not having one does lead to a certain confusion at times, when faced with contradictory claims. It's a matter of having your bullshit antenna well primed, but also of having to take much on trust, more or less of necessity. Hopefully, a picture of the 'true' state of affairs, ever shifting and reforming, will begin to emerge.

Chilhac, a karst cave in the Massif Central region of France, is a controversial site, once considered to have produced evidence of human habitation – probably H erectus, and dating back more than a million years. However, there now seems to be evidence that what were once thought to be artefacts found at the site are in fact naturally occurring phenomena. They're probably pseudo-artefacts [cf the paper 'Tephrofacts and the first human occupation of the French Massif Central' by Raynal et al].

Dmanisi in Georgia is a Lower Paleolithic site featuring four hominid fossils. It's situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian, between Europe and Asia you might say, and was discovered quite recently, in 1983. The first human fossil, discovered in 1991, was dated at 1.7 million years. The find no doubt confounded the out of Africa theories of the time. This site says the fossil was found 'together with stone tools', but as far as I know, stone tools only go back 800,000 years or so.

Oops, completely wrong about that. The august Archaeological Institute of America [well it sounds august] declares here that the oldest stone tools thus far found, in the Afar region of Ethiopia in the early nineties, are between 2.5 and 2.6 million years old. I think the other date was for the first stone tools found in Europe. The Dmanisi site would be better categorised as Asian than European.

These tools, known as the Gona artifacts because they were found on the dry bed of Ethiopia's Gona River, have not been directly associated with proto-human fossils. They predate the Homo genus by half a million years and are taken as evidence that the Australopithecines were also toolmakers.

Getting back to Dmanisi, I don't know if this provides evidence of the first hominid out of Africa. The human fossils found there are generally identified as Homo erectus or Homo ergaster [these may be the same species, identified with Asia and Africa respectively]. More recently, the human fossils of Dmanisi were given a new [tentative as ever] species name, H georgicus, These remains have been posited as descended from H habilis and ancestral to Asian H erectus. Confusing, isn't it?

I of course hardly know what I'm talking about but this site provides as good a starting place as any for the kind of story I'm failing to tell. It suggests well the fluidity of the classifications being used, the paucity of information upon which tentative species determinations are made and so on. It also makes clear – assuming it's true of course – that the out of Africa scenario argued for, the one that prompted all this writing from me, is a scenario relating only to our sole surviving species or subspecies. Yes, our genetic ancestors seem to have come out of Africa about 70 kya, but there were plenty of hominids already in the worlds to which we spread – particularly H erectus in Asia and H neanderthalensis in Europe. In fact, the out of Africa model is sometimes called the 'complete replacement model'.

These earlier hominids may also have escaped from Africa earlier, by means of the Sahara pump as it has been called, that's to say periods of wetness and greenness in the Sahara which have been like a pump or a pipeline to the north and the east. And there's still an alternative hypothesis, not quite dead yet, called the multiregional model, which would look to a kind of world-wide, more or less uniform evolution with local variants that aren't sufficiently great to amount to speciation. However, the genetic evidence, which I can't judge, tends to confirm the out of Africa model.

digging more dirt on our ancestors

the unique Sima de los Huesos, or Pit of Bones

Widening the picture considerably, my mini-research has uncovered a site in the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain, with evidence of human, or at least Homo, tool-making, dating back some 800,000 years. Compare this to the 'little lady of Flores', which seems to represent another Homo species from a mere 18 kya, and you begin to realize how complicated and ever-changing [at least in terms of our knowledge] the human, or Homo, story has become.
I've found here a list of important sites for hominid remains, and I'll look at each site in turn and report from them, and we'll see what conclusions we can draw and what questions we can raise.

The Atapuerca caves are in an ancient karst topography in Spain, and in one of those caves the remains of a hominid, either Homo erectus or perhaps Homo antecessor, has been found. They've been dated at around 886 kya, according to one authority, though others put them at about 780 kya 'based on paleomagnetic measurements'. In any case, the claim is that these are the oldest hominid remains ever found in Europe, though this, unsurprisingly, is contested. The Gran Dolina trench [dug out for a railway line in the 1890s], where this specimen was found, has eleven levels of human, or Homo, occupation. The oldest remains have been difficult to identify in terms of species, and the Homo antecessor designation isn't certain.

The current thinking on Homo antecessor is that they were probably cannibalistic, that they flourished between 1.2 million years ago and 800 kya [the lower Pleistocene], and that they were the direct predecessors of Homo heidelbergensis [if not the same species]. H heidelbergensis flourished in the Pleistocene, 600 to 250 kya. They're also almost identical to the African species, Homo ergaster. The finding of these specimens, in Gran Dolina and elsewhere, have, in the last couple of decades, transformed our thinking about hominids in Europe, pushing them back almost half a million years.

The Pleistocene actually extends from 1.8 million years ago to about 10 kya, after which it's the Holocene. So now I know.

Level 6 of the Dolina trench has proved most productive of hominid and other fossil remains. This is where the 800 kya fossils were found. Level 11, by the way, is the topmost layer, and level one at the bottom, which is counter-intuitive to me. Some stone tools and animal remains have been found as low as level 4, dating back a million years, but no hominid remains as yet. There have also been other sites nearby [Galeria and Elefante] that have yielded important finds.

The cave of Sima de los Huesos, in this region, has yielded the most fascinating material – a huge number of hominid bones dating to 400 kya, and tentatively identified as H heidelbergensis. Dating of these cave remains has proved very tricky, and I might just post on the various dating techniques and their limitations later on in this autodidactic odyssey.

The excavation work at Sima de los Huesos is ongoing, and has already yielded remains of thirty individuals. It's an unprecedented collection of closely related hominids. There's also the mystery of how they all came to be there at the one time – there are no signs that they actually lived there. Did they shelter there, were they imprisoned there, or was the place used as a convenient burial, or body disposal, site? The earliest certain evidence of planned burial is associated with H neanderthalensis, less than 100 kya.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

on other sub-species, other species, holotypes, the Holocene, and so much more

time for another skull - the reconstructed skull of H sapiens idaltu

Well I've just discovered something quite new, courtesy of Wikipedia. My childhood love of encyclopaedias is being well sustained.

My discovery relates to Homo sapiens sapiens. The third Latinism indicates a sub-species – and another subspecies, Homo sapiens idaltu [completely new to me], now extinct, is 'known' to have existed. Presumably there were others too? I suspect though, what with the possible interbreeding of humans and Neanderthals, that the picture is more complicated still.

Homo sapiens idaltu was first presented to the world only recently, in 2003. The classification is based essentially on the discovery of three crania in Ethiopia, dated to between 160,000 and 154,000 years ago. I'm not sure how controversial this classification is, given the usually paltry fossil evidence relating to early humans, and the relatively large variation in human skulls, but it seems to be generally accepted. Here's what the discoverers of this sub-species have to say about their specimens:

"On the limited available evidence, a subspecies of Homo sapiens distinguished from Holocene anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) by greater craniofacial robusticity, greater anterior–posterior cranial length, and large glenoid-to-occlusal plane distance. Homo sapiens idaltu is distinguished from the holotype of Homo rhodesiensis (Woodward, 1921) by a larger cranial capacity, a more vertical frontal with smaller face, and more marked midfacial topography (for example, canine fossa). We consider the holotypes of H. helmei and H. njarasensis too fragmentary for appropriate comparisons."

For my own sake, let me tease out this paragraph. There's a greater cranio-facial 'robusticity'. I'm not sure if this is a technical term. Does it mean hardness, bone density, bone thickness, or does it have something to do with the shape of the face? Prominent ridges in the eyebrow region, like the Neanderthals [Homo neanderthalensis], though not so marked? I really have no idea.

Greater anterior-posterior cranial length, now that's a bit clearer, that's measurable. Presumably they've provided some detail on that, I'll just take their word for it. Though I do wonder how a greater front-to-back skull length would indicate an earlier species. But I shouldn't of course think of earlier species as less developed. They just died out for some reason. They developed in the wrong way, or just found themselves confronted with the wrong conditions at the wrong time.

The Wikipedia article [I should look into this more] states that the most well-preserved cranium, that of an adult male, had a brain capacity of 1450 cubic centimetres. This article on the evolution of the human brain emphasises the variety to be found in brain capacity of all primates, including humans. The variation among humans is described as between 1100 and 1700 cubic centimetres. It has been averaged out at 1350 cubic centimetres. You would think, maybe, that 'anterior-posterior cranial length' would vary to a similar degree. Just wondering.

Before I go on to the 'glenoid to occlusal plane distance', whatever that means, I need to explore the phrase 'Holocene anatomically modern humans'. Apparently we're talking ultra-modern here, at least in geological terms. The Holocene period covers the period from 12kya to the present [just practising my terminology here].

I could go into much greater detail about the Holocene, its subdivisions, its relation to the Mesolithic age and so forth, but for our purposes its simply the modern era, or the era of human 'civilisation' as generally understood.

So now we turn to the 'large glenoid to occlusal plane distance' of the Homo sapiens idaltu crania. Well, the 'glenoid cavity', which they're presumably referring to, has nothing to do with the cranium. It's part of the scapula which articulates with the humerus. The occlusal plane is 'a plane passing through the occlusal or biting surfaces of the teeth'. Really, I would have to read the detailed finding re this sub-species to get my head around this.

Still, I'll go on. On 'the holotype of Homo rhodesiensis', a holotype is, essentially, the best physical example of a species [or lower taxon], from which the type [the species or other taxon] is taken. Sometimes, as with rare fossils, there may be only one specimen, which may or may not be representative of the type. It's simply all we have. Homo rhodesiensis is a typical example of this, described essentially from one skull found in what is now Zambia [formerly Northern Rhodesia] in 1921. Its dating ranges from 125 to 300 kya. It may well be a specimen of Homo heidelbergensis.

Interestingly, the discoverers of this sub-species make no comparison with Homo heidelbergensis [well they probably do, but not in the cited passage], which presumably, too, has a smaller cranial capacity.

I understand what they mean by a more vertical cranial frontage, though the idea of a more marked midfacial topography isn't entirely clear to me. Well, I suppose it means a bigger nose – though they give the example of canine fossa [fossa is Latin for ditch or trench, so presumably they mean something to do with more entrenched canine teeth, or deep trenches for the canines].

So I'll take their word for it – these remains represent another sub-species, Homo sapiens idaltu, of which we know little except that it existed some 160 kya.

I'm presuming, as I've found no information to the contrary, that the Skhul remains are of Homo sapiens sapiens, though not directly ancestral to us. I'm not sure how that works, actually. So for how long did Homo sapiens idaltu survive, and did it interbreed with Homo sapiens sapiens? All is in thrilling confusion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

more on ancestors in and out of africa

they went thataway

I've been researching the above thesis, if you can call a bit of web browsing research, and I'm less sceptical. The key seems to be the work done on mitochondrial DNA, mentioned in the program, but in a way that was perhaps unclear. From the research it appears that our most recent common female ancestor lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Actually, I'm feeling sceptical again. If the remains found in Israel and dating to say 100,000 BP represent 'out of Africa' specimens of Homo sapiens [sapiens?] which didn't survive, how can we be so sure that there weren't other crossings of the northern African desert barrier?

But we'll leave that very good question hanging for now and return to mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA [mtDNA] is inherited from the mother in most multi-cellular organisms. The reason or mechanism for this isn't entirely clear but it obviously has to do with the fact that the female ovum contains a thousand times or more mtDNA than the male sperm cell. MtDNA is thought to have a different origin from nuclear DNA, possibly originating from bacteria engulfed by the ancestors of our eukaryotic cells.

When we talk of our 'mitochondrial Eve' [that's the most recent common female ancestor, of 200,000 BP], we're talking of the one for Homo sapiens [sapiens?]. Theoretically we should be able to trace a much older mitochondrial Eve [but then she wouldn't be called Eve, perhaps], being the most recent common female ancestor for the whole Homo genus, and then further back to the Pan genus and so on. We can trace things back in this way because of DNA markers called haplotypes. It would take me quite some study to get my head around haplotypes – I'm encountering them for the first time. They're the key to tracing both matrilineal and patrilineal descent through DNA.

I'm not sure if tracing matrilineal descent is easier than tracing patrilineal descent, but clearly it's a different process. There's no mitochondrial Adam, instead there's a Y chromosomal Adam, a most recent common male ancestor, much more recent than Eve. The most recent literature apparently claims Adam to have lived 60,000 to 90,000 years ago, in Africa – but they confuse things by then saying that this makes Adam some 60,000 to 80,000 years more recent than Eve. As far as I can work out he should be more than 100,000 years more recent. But hey, what's a few tens of thousand of years, in this line of research.

Now if our Adam lived in Africa 60,000 years ago, and our descendants came out of Africa 70,000 years ago... isn't there something wrong there? Okay, we can play with the dating to get our ancestors coming out of Africa after Adam's time, but does that mean that any escapees from Africa before Adam weren't our direct ancestors? Well it must mean that, but could they not be Homo sapiens? Were the people found in the Es Skhul cave not Homo sapiens?

Or maybe they were Homo sapiens without being Homo sapiens sapiens?

my carer career goes bung, and we get out of africa

Skhul skull - from Es Skhul cave in Israel

For the time being, foster care is over. The boy who's been in my care since late October last year, John, has effectively removed himself from that care by repeatedly stealing from me and absconding. In the business, it's called 'sabotaging the placement'.

His last act – unless he has another in the offing – has been to steal my laptop. Being careless as usual, I haven't backed up the creative work I kept on the laptop, including all the essays, complete and incomplete, making up my 'book in progress', The Faith Hope. So I now feel a bit deflated, understandably enough. Yet at the same time I feel energised now that I have those foster caring responsibilities lifted from me. Maybe I can renew my focus.

I'm tempted to write of the dramatic events of the past few days, though I'm aware of confidentiality issues with children 'under the guardianship of the minister', as they term it. It's funny that just last Friday I fronted up for some training at the Anglicare Offices. The lecture/workshop was about kids who'd suffered trauma. Whether John is in this category is unknown. Foster carers don't always get told a lot about the kids put into their care. The lecturer said that these were the most difficult kids, that they were often hard to like. I'll drink to that.

Instead, though, I want to write about what I'm reading, viewing, learning and flimsily speculating upon. One of the themes has been human origins. Recently there have been programs on the Neanderthals and their place in the human story, there have been articles on the origins of writing, on the near extinction of our species during the last ice age, and on the place of Ardipithecus ramidus in the tale of our ancestors. Lots to explore.

In tonight's program, part one of Human Journey, I learned of the uncovering of human remains in Israel from about 160,000 years ago, I think. There were signs that the bodies were carefully buried, and hints of a belief in the afterlife. The program suggested though, that these humans, having managed to make their way out of Africa with the help of a period of climatic cooling, and a greening of the North African and Arabian-Levantine deserts, subsequently died out when the climate heated up again. Though I'm no expert, I'm guessing that the program is simplifying matters a little.

The thesis is that, though there may have been the odd attempt, as above, of people who thrived for a while and then failed, our ancestors are in fact derived from a small group who managed the crossing of the Red Sea about 70,000 years ago, when the climate was propitious and the waters had receded to such a degree that the distance to the Arabian peninsula was reduced to a mere 11 kilometres.

I'm sceptical about this. It seems to be based on a lack of evidence [for other, successful crossings] rather than anything positive. It's just too early to be sure. Or is it?

Here's another interesting account of the early human journey.