SSA 2012 Conference Wrap-Up, Day 2

Read Part 1 here.


On Saturday, the SSA conference was in full swing, with three simultaneous tracks of talks going on throughout the OSU student union. As Murphy's Law predicts, the ones I wanted to see the most were inevitably scheduled at the same time as each other. But I still got to see some outstanding speakers, with topics running the gamut from the nuts and bolts of campus organizing to high-level political strategizing to important lessons on community and social justice. Here are some of the standouts that I saw:

Sharon Moss of the SSA discusses how campus groups can connect with and take advantage of alumni in the area.

A friend of mine, Kenny Flagg from the Freethinkers of the University of North Dakota, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make earlier this year. And he's making his mark in the secular movement: He himself came as a speaker, giving a talk on the best uses of social media. Since he apparently won the SSA 14,000 (!) Facebook fans in a single weekend through the power of Reddit, he would know.

The extremely hardworking SSA staff were omnipresent throughout the conference, doing an outstanding job of making everything move along on schedule. Here, Lyz Liddell, director of campus organizing, has apparently perished from overwork and was lying in state for the remainder of the conference. (Not really.)

At lunchtime, there was something brilliant that I've never seen before. The SSA provided a catered lunch, and each table in the dining room had a card announcing its designated topic of discussion - diversity, community building, interfaith work, and so on, plus a few wildcards - the better to spark interesting conversations. I joined the table on "Overcoming Stigma" with some attendees from UNLV and Purdue.

After lunch, Jen McCreight gave a still-necessary talk on the importance of diversity. As she said, atheism has too often been represented by a bunch of white men looming out of the darkness.

Amanda Knief of American Atheists educated us on the legal rights and obligations of employers when it comes to religion in the workplace. Sarah Moglia took care of her adorable dog, Sagan, while she did so.

A.J. Johnson, also of American Atheists, presented on "Why the Christians Keep Winning and How to Stop Them," a superb talk that taught me a lot. Her thesis had two parts: Religious groups take advantage of ridiculously expansive legal loopholes and special privileges, supplemented on some occasions by outright cheating made possible by skimpy oversight. She urged us to lobby for requiring religious groups to file the same disclosure forms that are required of other non-profits, and not to cede basic elements of humanity, like community building, to the churches.

Jerry DeWitt was a Pentecostal preacher for 25 years (!), but now he's an out-and-proud atheist, one of the first public graduates of the Clergy Project, and the director of the nonprofit Recovering from Religion. Despite losing his job and facing exile in his small community, he's undaunted. He delivered a powerful message for reason, delivered in the booming cadences of a genuine fire-and-brimstone sermon. His motto: "Heal the sick and shoot the zombies" - meaning, help those who can be helped, but don't waste time on those who've abandoned their conscience to hateful dogma.

Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and host of The Atheist Experience on public-access television, discusses the importance and the danger of making assumptions.

Next, the Saturday night keynotes! Hemant Mehta led off the evening with a talk about a Christian school exercise in which elementary students were told to draw pictures of Christians and atheists. As you can see, the Christian is holding a cross and a banana (that latter being the bane of atheists everywhere), while the nonbeliever has tattoos, drink, drugs, and a unibrow for some reason. Where are religious children picking up these prejudices?

David Fitzgerald of San Francisco Atheists set out a ten-point evil plan for how atheists can conquer the world, complete with evil cackling, mad-scientist outfit and goggles. He got an enthusiastic standing ovation from the 300-strong crowd in the main auditorium, which made him a tough act to follow for the last keynote speaker of the night... which, as it happens, was me.

As I said to people afterward, I thought of this as my debutante ball. This was the first talk I've ever given to a major atheist convention, and it was by far the largest audience I've ever had, by at least a factor of three or four. I was fully conscious of what a signal honor it was, not only to be invited to speak at the SSA's leadership conference, but to do so as a keynote speaker not up against any other talk. So I won't deny that I took the stage with more than a few butterflies in my stomach.

My talk was titled "How to Move Mountains," about how secular activists can overcome resistance from a hostile religious majority to bring about progressive change. I cited the abolitionist movement and the women's suffrage movement as examples of two social movements that did exactly that, illustrating how the opposition to both of them was couched in religion, and discussed what lessons we can learn from their success. How did it go over with the crowd? Modesty forbids; but video was taken and should be made available soon, so you'll be able to judge for yourself. However, I do have to quote my favorite of all the tweets that were posted about it:

Still not awake. Dreaming about Adam Lee's @DaylightAtheism raging river, which is currently carving a canyon of secular awesome. #SSA2012

— UC Secular Alliance (@UChicagoSecular) July 8, 2012

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.