Center for Inquiry (Kinda) Dials Down Park51 Rhetoric

The secularist Center for Inquiry issued a press release on Friday headlined: "The Center for Inquiry Urges That Ground Zero Be Kept Religion-Free." The press release outraged many CFI supporters, including me. In the original release, CFI opposed the construction of an Islamic cultural center, or any other house of worship, in the "immediate vicinity" of Ground Zero.

The old press release ignored basic facts. The proposed community center, Park51, is neither a house of worship, nor in the immediate vicinity of the former World Trade Center. The center will be two blocks away from the Vesey Street side of the WTC footprint, and even further away from the Ground Zero main drag on Church Street. Park51 is about seven blocks away from the planned 9-11 Tribute Center on Liberty Street, just off Church. A quick glance at a map of Lower Manhattan should convince anyone that this whole "controversy" was ginned up. You can't even see Park Place from the former WTC site.

The other factual problem with the initial press release's exhortation to "keep" "Ground Zero" "religion-free" is that the area around the Twin Towers has never been, and will never be, religion-free (or strip club-free, or discount shoe emporium-free). This is downtown New York City, folks. The major Ground Zero tourist strip is Church Street, which backs onto the old St. Paul's churchyard. There's already an honest-to-goodness mosque about as close to Ground Zero as Park51 would be. I find it ironic that an ostensibly secular organization would buy into the idea that there's a magic zone around the former World Trade Center where city life has to be suspended forever out of reverence for the dead.

CFI has issued a new press release with the intent of clarifying its stance on the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, the new press release isn't much of an improvement over its predecessor.

In the new release, CFI reaffirms its commitment to religious freedom and asserts that there should be no legal barrier to Park51 from being built. That's nice. It's also little behind the times. The last potential legal impediment to building Park51 dissolved three weeks ago when the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously rejected a bad-faith bid to preserve the old Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Place as an architectural treasure for the ages. Mayor Bloomberg came out strongly in favor of Park51 three weeks ago.

In the new press release, CFI repeats its request that the debate over Park51 not be "politicized." I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. At this point, not even the most retrograde mosque-basher believes that any branch of the city, state, or federal government has the slightest power to stop this development. Yet the facts haven't put the slightest dent in the demagoguery. Politicians still have a First Amendment right to rabble-rouse around Park51. When they do, are they "politicizing" the issue, if they aren't proposing a specific law or policy to ban the development? This is a political issue, regardless. It's a question of what kind of society we want to live in. Do we free-thinking humanists want to fight for a free, open, tolerant society or do we want to join the Christianist pile-on whenever a more vulnerable world religion is on the ropes?

I'm glad the new press release explicitly rejects the insinuation that all Muslims are terrorists. Baby steps, baby steps.

[Photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons.]

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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.