Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bones reveal first shoe-wearers, etc

Here are news excerpts (or rather one), with my comments in square brackets:
Bones reveal first shoe-wearers, Olivia Johnson, BBC, 24 August 2005. BBC News Sturdy shoes first came into widespread use between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago, according to a US scientist. Humans' small toes became weaker during this time, says physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, who has studied scores of early human foot bones. He attributes this anatomical change to the invention of rugged shoes, that reduced our need for strong, flexible toes to grip and balance. The research is presented in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The development of footwear appears to have affected the four so-called "lesser" toes - excepting the big toe. … While early humans living in cold northern climates may have begun covering up their feet to insulate them as early as 500,000 years ago, protective footwear comparable to modern-day shoes is thought to be a much later innovation. It has been difficult for archaeologists to determine exactly when humans stopped going barefoot, however, because the plant and animal materials used to make prehistoric shoes is highly perishable. ... But by examining the foot bones of early modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neaderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) dating from 10,000 to 100,000 years ago, Professer Trinkaus says he has determined the period in which footwear became the norm. … He found Neanderthals and early moderns living in Middle Palaeolithic times (100,000 to 40,000 years ago) had thicker, and therefore stronger, lesser toes than those of Upper Palaeolithic people living 26,000 years ago. A shoe-less lifestyle promotes stronger little toes, says Professor Trinkaus, because "when you walk barefoot, you grip the ground with your toes as a natural reflex". Because hard-soled shoes improve both grip and balance, regularly shod people develop weaker little toes … The advent of footwear occurred during a period Professor Trinkaus describes as "a well-documented archaeological explosion" which also produced a number of other notable human advances. Paul Mellars … agrees there were "dramatic changes" in human behaviour at this time. "From 35,000 years ago onward, you see the first art, the first stone tools, and the first personal decorations and jewellery." More advanced shoe-making skills could have been a product of this overall increase in technological ingenuity. "There is a strong hint that people were doing more complicated things with ...skins, with special stone tools for cleaning and awls for piercing. "In view of all these changes, it wouldn't be at all surprising if we saw better shoes," … [See also: Prehistoric Sturdy Shoe Fad Discovered, Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, August 19, 2005 & Early Humans Wore 'Shoes' 30,000 Years Ago, ScienceDaily, August 17, 2005. I was wondering what the Darwinian explanation for this "explosion", beginning "From 35,000 years ago onward … [of] the first art … the first personal decorations and jewellery… [and] overall increase in technological ingenuity", when I remembered that Dawkins had committed the fatal mistake of in his latest book, "The Ancestor's Tale" (2004) of covering from the present backwards, all the major transitions in the history of life, from molecules to man. So here is Dawkins' non-Darwinian explanation of this "Great Leap Forward":
"That is all I want to say about the origins of agriculture. Now, as our time machine leaves the 10,000-year mark and heads for Rendezvous 0, we briefly pause, one more time, around 40,000 years ago. Here human society, entirely consisting of hunter-gatherers, underwent what may have been an even larger revolution than the agricultural one, the `cultural Great Leap Forward'. The tale of the Great Leap Forward will be told by Cro-Magnon Man ... ARCHAEOLOGY SUGGESTS that something very special began to happen to our species around 40,000 years ago. Anatomically, our ancestors who lived before this watershed date were the same as those who came later. … Something happened then - many archaeologists regard it as sudden enough to be called an `event'. I like Jared Diamond's name for it, the Great Leap Forward. Earlier than the Great Leap Forward, man-made artefacts had hardly changed for a million years. The ones that survive for us are almost entirely stone tools and weapons, quite crudely shaped. Doubtless wood (or, in Asia, bamboo) was a more frequently worked material, but wooden relics don't easily survive. As far as we can tell, there were no paintings, no carvings, no figurines, no grave goods, no ornamentation. After the Leap, all these things suddenly appear in the archaeological record, together with musical instruments such as bone flutes, and it wasn't long before stunning creations like the Lascaux Cave murals were created by Cro-Magnon people. A disinterested observer taking the long view from another planet might see our modern culture, with its computers, supersonic planes and space exploration, as an afterthought to the Great Leap Forward. On the very long geological timescale, all our modern achievements, from the Sistine Chapel to Special Relativity, from the Goldberg Variations to the Goldbach Conjecture, could be seen as almost contemporaneous with the Venus of Willendorf and the Lascaux Caves, all part of the same cultural revolution, all part of the blooming cultural upsurge that succeeded the long Lower Palaeolithic stagnation. ... Some authorities are so impressed by the Great Leap Forward that they think it coincided with the origin of language. What else, they ask, could account for such a sudden change? It is not as silly as it sounds to suggest that language arose suddenly. Nobody thinks writing goes back more than a few thousand years, and everyone agrees that brain anatomy didn't change to coincide with anything so recent as the invention of writing. In theory, speech could be another example of the same thing. … Much as I would like to linger around the heady time of the Great Leap Forward, we have a long pilgrimage to accomplish and we must press on backwards." (Dawkins R., "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution," Houghton Mifflin Co: Boston MA, 2004, pp.34-36).
So again, Dawkins has (like Darwin did), effectively abandoned "slow, gradual, cumulative natural selection", which he once claimed was "the very heart of the evolution theory":
"To 'tame' chance means to break down the very improbable into less improbable small components arranged in series. No matter how improbable it is that an X could have arisen from a Y in a single step, it is always possible to conceive of a series of infinitesimally graded intermediates between them. However improbable a large-scale change may be, smaller changes are less improbable. And provided we postulate a sufficiently large series of sufficiently finely graded intermediates, we shall be able to derive anything from anything else, without invoking astronomical improbabilities. We are allowed to do this only if there has been sufficient time to fit all the intermediates in. And also only if there is a mechanism for guiding each step in some particular direction, otherwise the sequence of steps will career off in an endless random walk. It is the contention of the Darwinian world-view that both these provisos are met, and that slow, gradual, cumulative natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence. If there are versions of the evolution theory that deny slow gradualism, and deny the central role of natural selection, they may be true in particular cases. But they cannot be the whole truth, for they deny the very heart of the evolution theory, which gives it the power to dissolve astronomical improbabilities and explain prodigies of apparent miracle." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," [1986], Penguin: London, 1991, reprint, pp.317-318).]
As previously mentioned, my wife and I will be away on our annual Spring wildflower self-drive tour through Western Australia's Midwest region (one of the world's plant biodiversity `hotspots') from this Friday 26 to Sunday 28 August (Perth time - GMT +8:00).

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol)
"Problems of Evolution"

1 comment:

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