All scientists are atheists, duh…

According to new research, the battle between science and religion isn’t only socially created. It’s a battle that’s going on in each of our brains.

Basically, one side of the brain is more emphatic while the other side is analytical. When using one of these networks, the other is lessened.

The study suggests a positive correlation with religion and empathy and well as with science and critical thinking. That is, religious people tend to think with empathy, which suppresses the ability to be analytical. Alternately, scientific minds think more critically, which suppresses the ability to empathize.

Statistically, scientists attend religious services almost as much as the general population. Most are some denomination of Christianity.

How can this possibly be? Doesn’t that study show that you can’t be empathetic AND analytical?

Actually, it just means that when you are practicing religion, you’re emphatic and not critically thinking. And it means when you are doing science, your brain shuts off that emotional side and allows you to focus on the data. The way our brains work actually helps us be religious and be scientists!

Interestingly enough, the more religious- or scientific-minded one is, the less they perceive a conflict between science and religion.

Anthropology is by its origins a secular discipline. It’s always striven to become the best it can be scientifically. This is necessary of all science. It should be separated from bias associated with religion, absolutely.

But being a scientist shouldn’t disqualify you from continuing or entering into a relationship with God, the Universe, Creator, etc., and being religious shouldn’t make you fear knowledge. This study shows us that these seemingly conflicting positions can actually coexist in harmony.

Personally, I don’t think believing in evolution means there is no God. I’ve never understood this argument. But then again, I’ve never irrationally believed the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Even if you are a Christian and you believe God created man, could evolution not be the vehicle through which He created us?

The disciplines of science and religion have many similar basic rules. There is a certain degree of faith when it comes to science. Both religion and science cannot be 100% proven – they are both full of theories – and both religious and scientific people have to take these theories on faith. The more evidence there is, the stronger the belief in that theory. Sometimes a theory will need to be reformulated based on the most current evidence.

When I first started seeing the world through scientific eyes, I questioned my spirituality. I so feared a life that meant nothing and a death that meant the end. I struggled to see how I could believe in science and believe in an afterlife or a Creator.

But when I look and see all the discoveries we make every day and think about the multitudes of information we have yet to unlock, the mystery of this perfect universe becomes clear.

There is so much we do not yet know, and both science and religion can work together to further human progress.


Seeing evolution in action

Vestigial structures are features on the body that don’t have a purpose in the current form of an organism in a species.

The features start out as important players in the functioning of an organism. As natural selection occurs over time and the population of a species changes, the importance of those features phases out. Eventually, they become useless to the species.

Often, these features will be completely eradicated from a lineage. However, many of these structures stick around the gene pool, appearing within populations without serving any function. These are vestigial.

How do vestigial structures show proof of evolution?

Many of the structures are homologous, or appear the same, in other organisms.

This shows common descent between organisms. Common descent is a theory that says all organisms descend from a common ancestor. Besides analysis of DNA, homologous and vestigial structures give the non-scientific community direct, visible evidence of the evolutionary process.

This recent video from Vox shows modern human vestigiality that you can observe right now on your own body!


From adaptation to colorism

The shades of man are many. While Von Luschan’s chromatic scale is no longer used much in the way of science, it’s a good way to see the different pigmentation of humankind.

There are 36 skin shades shown in the scale:

Each pigment is part of a group and are ranked in terms of probability to burn or tan.

Fitzpatrick Type Also called Sunburning Tanning behavior Von Luschan’s chromatic scale
I Light, pale white Often Occasionally 1–5
II White, fair Usually Sometimes 6–10
III Medium, white to light brown Rarely Usually 11–15
IV Olive, moderate brown Rarely Often 16–21
V Brown, dark brown Very rarely Sometimes darkens 22–28
VI Very dark brown to black Extremely rarely Naturally black-brown skin 29–36

I’m sure you’ve wondered at some point in your life how these skin colors evolved, and I’m equally sure you have the basic idea if you have any common sense.

Early hominins had light skin and dark hair. As they became less hairy for other evolutionary reasons, the skin darkened to provide the protection from the sun that was now missing. As populations moved from the heart of Africa to other regions, skin colors adapted to the different environments and varying sunshine.

Geographically, we can see the darker pigments are found closer to the equator and it gradually lightens until we reach the poles.

In modern times, the ease of travel has brought with it significant change in the confinement of skin pigment to geographic location, but this still gives a good general idea.

Studies show melanin levels in the skin are correlated with its color. Melanin content is substantially ethnically different down to even the composition of the melanin, with darker skin containing more of the pigment than lighter skin. (Melanin also helps synthesize vitamin D, which is essential to bone health.)

Sunlight also affects skin color. Two clines evolved in the human population – dark skin with most UV exposure and light skin with the least. Humans also undergo a process where sunlight stimulates our melanocytes, which produce more melanin: tanning. Tanning is an adaptation to protect us from damaging our skin cells.

So, that’s how we came to be black and white. (Or more accurately, multitudes of tan.)

We’re coming to the end of Black History Month. One of the most influential black leaders in the history of America is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

What the doc is speaking about in this quote isn’t in fact racism, but colorism. Racism depends on factors besides skin color. To be colorist is to classify status based on solely the color of one’s skin. In America, colorism is prominently against African Americans, but it occurs in every group.

We all know the roots of colorism. European supremacy to justify slavery, the division inside the black community in order to rise in status, the one drop rule that stated one single drop of African blood legally defined a person as black…it’s just a mess.

And while all those things are in the past, our society still struggles with echoes of these beliefs. If you’re white, you’re still more likely to be hired and to receive quality education and less likely to be incarcerated. In 2016, we still have to emphasize that #blacklivesmatter – because they don’t to so many (I’ll try to be nice) uninformed people.

But I guess we shouldn’t expect things to be hunky dory, considering this:slaveryIt takes time to change beliefs that have been so ingrained over time. It seems more white than black people think we are well on our way to ending the plight of African-Americans. This is more likely due to modern forms of racism than actual advancement. Rather than being outright racist, we have a society that likes to pretend it isn’t.

While many are focusing on solving these issues and more using emotional arguments and sociological perspectives, I think science should have a voice in this (and most issues) as well.

Colorism is stupid. It’s actually that simple. The spectrum of tan that spans the globe is a product of evolution and all colors have the exact same value, which is the value of survival and adaptation. Not civilized versus savage.


Metastasizing numbers in the modern world

Most people describe cancer as a modern disease. This isn’t entirely true. While cases of cancer are certainly more common now than ever, cancer has existed since humans have.

Bioarchaeologists haven’t discovered too much physical evidence of cancer, but this is because the technology hasn’t been around long enough. Paleopathology, or the study of disease in ancient human remains, has made bounds since the development of medical technologies like multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) and x-rays. These along with a standardized technique for visual analysis will help scientists make discoveries about cancer from already known remains.


Even with the major changes in technology, there haven’t been too many discovered cases to date. It’s between 200-300 cases. This is where the argument for cancer as a man-made disease comes in.

Some scientists argue that cancer is a modern disease because of several factors, including but not limited to:

  1. the low number of ancient finds
  2. the Industrial Revolution
  3. the obesity epidemic
  4. tobacco use
  5. increased exposure to carcinogens

These factors have one thing in common – civilization. However, what they fail to consider is the expanded lifespan of the modern individual compared with an ancient human and the advancement of medical diagnoses.

cancer mummy

The Siberian Ukok princess died from cancer about 2,500 years ago.

In ancient times, many people went through life without being diagnosed or treated, and they didn’t live long enough for it to have such intense effects. After all, cancer is more likely to develop the older you get. Another flaw with that argument is ancient people were exposed to plenty of carcinogens.

Some radical views suggest cancer is entirely man-made, asserting “there is nothing in the natural world that can cause cancer.” Obviously, this is simply scientifically false. You can be born with cancer. The sun causes cancer, genetics cause cancer and so do chemicals.

You might be thinking, chemicals you say? Aren’t those man-made? Some are, but 99% of the chemicals that get into our systems are naturally occurring.

Understanding this and studying how cancer evolved is essential to modern America. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, the most common forms being breast and lung cancer. One death out of every four is due to this disease. By looking at its evolution, we can try to understand genetically what makes those genes expressed. Studying cancer from this perspective can help develop new treatments, creating a better future.

Medicine and treatments aren’t the only part of surviving cancer. It’s also about the patient’s mental state. Many cancer victims blame themselves. They wonder what they did to deserve it. I hope this information can put that critical voice to rest.

Further Reading:

Read about the Ptolemaic period Egyptian mummy with prostate cancer.

Check out this slideshow of cancer in an Egyptian skeleton.

More about the evolution of cancer.


Homosexuality isn’t ‘unnatural’; neither is your ignorance

During a conversation recently, someone turned to me and said, “There weren’t gays back then.” When I tried to correct this person’s ignorance by telling them there have been homosexuals since the beginning of human time, they simply said, “prove it.”

Well, I don’t need to prove it because others have already done that for me.

Homosexuality was commonplace in Rome. They didn’t identify as hetero- or homosexual. Instead, they identified as dominant and submissive. Engaging in homosexual behavior didn’t automatically strip away a man’s masculinity.

In Egypt homosexuality wasn’t very prevalent. However, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s tomb is considered by some to be the earliest evidence of a homosexual couple. The pair was found buried together surrounded by sensual scenes of the two canoodling. In life, they were manicurists of the king (2380 to 2320 B.C.).

A man of the late Stone Age was found buried facing east surrounded by domestic wares. This burial screams female, but the sex of the skeletal remains was male. Here we see a discrepancy between funerary ritual and biological sex. In this culture, males were usually buried with weapons and other “manly” goods. It was also posited that these remains could be of an unknown “third gender.”

‘Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transvestite. What we see here does not add up to traditional Corded Ware cultural norms,’ said researcher Kamila Remisova Vesinova in an article.

Besides these cases, homosexuality is now being studied as a naturally occurring behavior that has evolved genetically.

This is so important to understand because while marriage equality is a reality in the United States, the treatment of homosexual individuals is still lacking.


Fact: Employers in 22 states can still fire you for no reason other than your (homo)sexuality.

Fact: A survey found that 81.9% of students who identify as LGBTQ were bullied based on their sexual orientation.

Fact: About 40% of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage.

Facts (which we’ve already explored): Homosexuality is found in genetics, is natural and has always existed.

So, why is it still a debate among rational modern humans? Why can employers in the U.S. still fire people based on something inherited? Why are children still taught heterosexual superiority?


The Homo way to mourn?

Last fall, a team of mostly women scientists led by Lee Berger announced its discovery of a new hominin species in a South African cave: Homo naledi.

More than 1500 bones were found in the cave, representing at least 15 individuals. There were fossils ranging from infants to elders. The average H. naledi stood at five feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds. They had a skull less than half the size of ours, suggesting a brain the size of an orange, which sat atop a proportionally larger, slender body, showing signs of both australopith and early Homo traits.

All of the bones were found in the same chamber, and seemed to have been deposited there on purpose, over time.

What does this mean for us?

Ritualized burial of the dead may not have been limited to modern humans. This feature, which was previously thought to be strictly a practice of Homo sapiens, may in fact be something that has developed starting much earlier in our evolution. If indeed H. naledi were relocating the dead as a way of mourning, it is evidence that this species is, according to Berger, “an animal that appears to have had the cognitive ability to recognize its separation from nature.”

Some experts in the field think it is more likely that modern humans killed H. naledi and stashed them in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave themselves. But, as Dr. Rosemary Joyce points out, Chimpanzees show grief for the dead – why is it so hard to imagine a species in our own genus to take that instinct a step further?

So far, the species’ DNA has not been tested nor have the bones been dated. These are important steps in understanding H. naledi’s relation to us biologically and through time.

Another important take-away from this discovery is us modern humans don’t actually know very much at all about our world. This huge find was an accident, and its implications show how limited our understanding is.

There’s so much more to discover out there – accidents like H. naledi that could unlock mysteries of human evolution. All we have to do is look.

Further reading/viewing:

Watch the 2-hour PBS special, “Dawn of Humanity.”

“Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” (2015)

“Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” (2015)