Category Archives: Science

Swimming Apes Drown Stories of Swimming Bigfoots

The Bigfoot Evidence blog recently posted an entry entitled “Yes, Bigfoot Can Swim: Scientists Prove That Apes Can Swim and Dive.” The entry highlights a recent Science Daily article about a chimpanzee and an orangutan with the ability to swim and dive underwater, the first such behavior described for apes. I’m amazed that this is being offered up as evidence that Bigfoot can swim. This is wrong for at least three reasons. First, there is no way to verify reports of swimming Bigfoots. Other than unreliable eyewitness accounts–often passed on in the form of hearsay by those who did not see the creature–there is no video or photographic evidence of any kind to support the stories. Some people may believe they are telling the truth, but errors, such as misidentifying a known animal (e.g. bears), cannot be ruled out (nor can hoaxing). [1] The folklorist Kathrine Briggs makes a distinction between fairy tales, which are believed to be fictional, and folk tales, which are believed to be true. [2] And since the latter contains uncorroborated elements, reports of swimming Bigfoots are no more credible than legends of giants, fairies, ghosts, and witches that were once commonly circulated–essentially making them modern folklore. They would never be accepted as evidence in a court of law, nor could they pass for scientific evidence.

Second, the swimming of the aforementioned apes is human-induced behavior. The original study, “Brief communication: Swimming and diving behavior in apes (Pan troglodytes and Pongo pygmaeus): First documented report,” mentions how the chimp Cooper and the orangutan Suryia were both raised by humans in a home and in a private zoo, respectively. Both were exposed to water from a young age: first through baths and later during supervised playtime in the shallow end of pools. Although this study invalidates the long held idea that apes can’t swim due to their dense anatomy, there is clearly an environmental factor at play that keeps these creatures from swimming in the wild (see below). Cooper and Suryia would not have developed these skills without the encouragement of their human parents/keepers. Therefore, it should be stressed that their abilities are unique among apes the world over. This means the study is nothing more than a scientific anecdote. As the primatologist William C. McGrew points out: “All that an anecdote can do is alert us to a possibility, so that we will look for it again.” [3] In addition, he warns that “citing specific events as evidence for something broader [can lead] to overgeneralization.” [4] This leads me to my last point.

A video of Suryia the Orangutan swimming.

Third and most importantly, wild and captive apes typically shun large bodies of water. The aforementioned study mentions that the scientific literature “indicate[s] that apes’ behavior towards water bodies in the wild might be adaptive—they avoid deep water bodies and are extremely cautious when entering even shallow water.” The authors suggest this hydrophobia is a survival strategy since apes probably lost the instinctual swimming ability that most terrestrial mammals have because they spend most of their lives in or near trees. This explains why apes have never been observed drowning in the wild. Captive apes, on the other hand, often drown in the moats that zoos use to keep them confined to their outdoor habitats. This is because they have more exposure to bodies of water than they do in the wild. Dr. Roger Fouts somberly describes a captive drowning in his wonderful book Next of Kin: My Conversation With Chimpanzees (1997):

One morning I couldn’t find Candy and I became worried that she had attempted to jump the moat and had drowned. My students and I waded into the water up to our chests and began dredging the muddy bottom with poles. After an hour or so, I felt her small body under my feet, and went down to retrieve it. As I emerged from the moat, cradling Candy’s lifeless body in my arms, the other chimps kept their distance…I had never seen, much less held, a dead chimpanzee before. It was heartbreaking. Chimpanzees, like human children, are so animated in every expression, so vibrant in every leap, that their spirit seems like the very essence of life itself. Drained of Candy’s spirit, the stiff body I held was just an empty vessel. [5]

So, in the end, this attempt to support modern folklore with an unrelated scientific anecdote further relegates Bigfootology to the realm of pseudoscience. Proponents of cryptozoology are often accused of not being objective enough, [6] and this serves as a prime example of this. They focus on all the evidence that they feel supports their views–even going so far as to twist data to fit like above–while ignoring all that invalidates them.

Notes

[1] See the section on “Misidentification Errors” in Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 56-59. A 2009 study found Bigfoot and Black Bears (Ursus americanus) (un)coincidentally share the same territory. See ibid, 57.
[2] Katharine M. Briggs,  A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language: Part B : Folk Legends : Vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1971), vii-viii.
[3] William Clement McGrew, The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 79.
[4] Ibid, 175-176.
[5] Roger Fouts, Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees (New York: Bard Books Inc, 1997), 179.
[6] See for example Loxton and Prothero, 65-66.

Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine M. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language: Part B : Folk Legends : Vol. 1. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1971.

Fouts, Roger. Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees. New York: Bard Books Inc, 1997.

Loxton, Daniel, and Donald R. Prothero. Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

McGrew, William Clement. The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Advertisements

The Legless Snake: A Tale of Creationist Cherry-Picking

The Oxford Dictionary defines pseudoscience as “a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.” I would add that pseudoscience can also be the purposeful misrepresentation of science to support an unscientific concept. A good example of this comes from a brief entry (and radio sound bite) on the website Creation Moments entitled “Legs Knocked Out from Under Snake Evolution”:

It’s rather interesting that evolutionists believe that snakes once had legs and lost them. This sounds very much like the Genesis account of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Obviously, evolutionists don’t accept the story of the first temptation. As far as they are concerned, the snake evolved from some reptile which originally had legs. But evolutionists have always tried to find some evolutionary advantage to losing legs and, thus, justify their theory. In 1973 an unpublished study suggested that garter snakes use 30 percent less energy for locomotion than they would if they had legs. That study was preliminary and never published. But that didn’t stop evolutionists from saying that they had found the reason that snakes don’t have legs.

Now, a much more exhaustive study done at the University of California at Irvine, has shown that this evolutionary explanation is false. Outfitting black racer snakes with oxygen masks and using modern precision equipment, including a snake-sized treadmill, researchers have shown that snakes use as much energy as a creature of the same weight to get around. The supposed evolutionary advantage to not having legs has disappeared under the bright light of scientific investigation.

And so yet another so-called scientific claim that the Bible has been proven wrong fails in the light of careful science.

This entry was recently brought to my attention as proof that the Bible is right and evolution is wrong. I have a policy of not trusting the claims of random websites (creationist or otherwise), especially when they don’t cite any sources. But I figured I would try to find these studies to see if they even existed, and, most importantly, whether or not the website was misrepresenting the information.

I dug around and found both the abstract of the unpublished 1973 study and the more recent paper that refuted its results. The abstract, entitled “Energetic Cost of Limbless Locomotion in Snakes,” was referenced in five papers and two books. [1] I can understand why it was cited for three reasons. First, the abstract appeared in a respected publication, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal. [2] This means it is a trusted source. Second, it was co-authored by Charles Richard Taylor (1939-1995), a noted experimental vertebrate physiologist from Harvard University. Third, the abstract provides data for the experiment.

A scan of the 1973 abstract.

The follow up paper was much easier to find than the abstract. I just used the bare bones details mentioned above to find a PDF of it online. Keep in mind that the Creation Moments entry was posted on June 14, 2013. [3] The paper was actually published on…wait for it…August 3, 1990, almost exactly 23 years ago to this day. Entitled “The Energetic Cost of Limbless Locomotion” (not to be confused with the similarly named abstract), the paper measured the amount of energy exerted by Black Racer Snakes (Coluber constrictor) based on the amount of oxygen they consumed at rest and during two kinds of locomotion (side to side slithering and caterpillar-like inching) at different speeds. [4] The energetic cost of slithering was found to be the same as locomotion for birds, mammals, and arthropods (insects, arachnids, and crustaceans) with the same mass. Caterpillar-like inching, on the other hand, used seven times the energy as these creatures. [5] The authors believe the 1973 study may have run the Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), a species smaller than the Black Racer, at speeds too high for them to comfortably maintain, which hindered their ability to breath. This would explain the lower energy cost result from the original experiment. Most importantly, the authors believe the results of their own study suggest amphibians and lizards with long, slender bodies and small arms retained their limbs because it costs less energy than caterpillar-like inching while traversing underground tunnels. [6] That’s it; The paper mentions nothing about the study invalidating evolution.

The worst part is that I don’t think the creationists even read the paper. I believe they lifted the information from a news article appearing in the Los Angeles Times the same day the original paper came out. Entitled
SCIENCE / LOCOMOTION : Legs Knocked Out From Under Theory on Why Snakes Evolved,” the piece only briefly mentions the 1973 experiment before describing the results of the 1990 study. The first half of the article does not mention the names of the respective papers or the names of the respective authors. This is why the Creation Moments entry is so vague. The piece is also where they got their title from. [7] They didn’t mention anything from the second half of the article because it shows science, even back then, had more than one explanation for snake evolution:

Although snakes apparently conserve no energy by slinking along the ground on their bellies, other reasons may have influenced the loss of their limbs during the course of evolution.

“Without legs, snakes–because of their cylindrical shape–can squeeze through very small openings. With legs that might be impossible,” Jayne said.

C. Richard Taylor, a comparative physiologist at Harvard University who conducted the earlier snake studies, said the new research indicates that “snakes don’t optimize for low energy costs, but instead for the flexibility required to move across different terrains.”

This is just one of many examples of creationists cherry-picking and distorting the bits of science that they choose to accept. In this case, they think a single study from 23 years ago–which they did not read–trumps the science of today, as well as the over 150 years of concordant research by disciplines ranging from geology to genetics. It’s important to note that this sterilized (i.e. science lite) information on snake evolution has appeared in creationist literature since 1990. [8] This shows that they want their adherents to remain ignorant of the actual research fueling evolutionary theory. This ensures their religious beliefs will remain firmly entrenched in the bronze age, while the limit of human knowledge continues to expand into the future. And the fact that the author of the original study was willing to accept the new findings shows that science is self-correcting. This is how progress is made.

While squamates (lizards and snakes) are not my area of expertise, I think it’s safe to assume that science has made advances in the study of snake evolution in the last 23 years. Several species of fossil snakes with hind limbs from the late Cretaceous period (145-66 million years ago) have been discovered since the late 1970s. [9] Their exact position on the evolutionary tree (ancestral vs. derived) is still debated. At least one researcher believes these hind-limbed species are evidence that snakes have lost and re-evolved legs multiple times. [10] Creationists have happily promoted this disagreement, even going so far as to suggest that the centralized geographic range of these “leggy snakes” recalls the supposed archeopteryx hoax (a claim long discounted by science). However, the fact remains that there are physical fossils of snakes with hind legs in existence. In addition, creationists have to contend with the 2012 study that used an extensive dataset to show most snakes are derived from Scolecophidians, an infraorder of small, blind snakes that live underground. [11] It is generally assumed that snakes lost their legs to benefit early burrowing or swimming species because dragging limbs through these environments would have increased the energetic cost of locomotion. [12] This study seems to resolve the issue of terrestrial vs. aquatic ancestry. Furthermore, creationists have to contend with the existence of lizards with reduced or no limbs–i.e. legless lizards. For example, Lerista, a diverse genus of Australian Skinks, has body forms ranging from four limbs to none. Interestingly, Edward’s slider (Lerista edwardsae) has the same two leg configuration as the fossil snakes mentioned earlier. A 2008 study found that limb loss in Lerista has happened numerous times and as recently as 3.6 million years ago, a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. [13] Individuals with reduced limbs are better at burrowing than those with prominent limbs;  therefore, just like snakes, the loss of limbs benefited these burrowing lizards. [14]

The Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis), a species of legless lizard.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that I have no problem with religious people who want to reconcile their faith with science. This is their burden to bear. Catholics, for example, are proponents of theistic evolution, gradual change over time directed by God. However, I do have a problem with the way creationists distort science in order to fit their religious worldview. They start with a conclusion (the Bible), and then they hunt for evidence to support it. This is the direct opposite of the scientific method. Worst still, educated creationists present distorted and/or vague descriptions of scientific research to the uninformed masses–who often don’t read the referenced material–in order to keep them ignorant of the actual state of evolutionary theory.

Contrary to the above claims, science still does not support the Genesis story of the serpent losing its legs permanently as a curse. The exact passage states: “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Gen. 3:14). The scientific evidence points to early snakes losing their limbs to maximize their ability to burrow underground. Some snakes may have lost and re-evolved legs multiple times. This fact alone disproves the aforementioned curse. Most importantly, creationists will be hard-pressed to show that this serpent was capable of speaking and understanding human language.

Notes

[1] Michael Walton et. al, “The Energetic Cost of Limbless Locomotion”, Science 249 (3 August 1990): 524, accessed July 29, 2013, http://compphys.bio.uci.edu/bennett/pubs/97.pdf.
[2] Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Federation Proceedings (Vol. 32). [Bethesda, Md., etc.]: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 1973, 422Abs, #1128.
[3] The entry does not have a date. However, this webpage and this YouTube video both date it to 6-14-13.
[4] Walton et. al. (1990): 524.
[5] Ibid, 525-526.
[6] Ibid, 526.
[7] “Legs Knocked Out From Under Theory on Why Snakes Evolved” vs. “Legs Knocked Out from Under Snake Evolution.”
[8] An entry from the 12-8-1990 edition of Awake!, a Jehovah’s Witness publication, alludes to this study: “Evolutionists assume that snakes evolved from lizards, but they are hard put to explain why lizards lost their legs. In 1973 an influential Harvard University study asserted that snakes evolved from lizards to conserve energy by slithering instead of walking. Recently, however, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, put that theory to the test. They outfitted some black racer snakes with tiny oxygen masks, put them on treadmills, and measured how much energy they actually do expend in slithering. The results: The snakes either used the same amount of energy as, or up to seven times more than, legged lizards walking the same distance.”
[9] The three most famous are Pachyrhachis, Eupodophis, and Haasiophis. For Pachyrhachis, see G. Haas, “On a New Snakelike Reptile from the Lower Cenomanian of Ein Jabrud, Near Jerusalem”, Bulletin du Museum D’Histoire Naturelle, Paris 4, no. 1 (1979): 51-64. For Eupodophis, see J.C. Rage and F. Escuillié “Un Nouveau Serpent Bipede Du Cenomanien (cretace). Implications Phyletiques.”, Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences, Sciences de la Terre et des Planetes 330 (15 April 2000): 513-20. For Haasiophis, see Olivier Rieppel et al., “The Anatomy and Relationships of Haasiophis Terrasanctus, a Fossil Snake with Well-Developed Hind Limbs from the Mid-Cretaceous of the Middle East”, Journal of Paleontology 77, no. 3 (May 2003): 536-58.
[10] Olivier Rieppel et al.
[11] John J. Wiens et al., “Resolving the Phylogeny of Lizards and Snakes (squamata) with Extensive Sampling of Genes and Species”, Biology Letters 8 (19 September 2012): 1043-46.
[12] Alexandra Houssaye et al., “Three-Dimensional Pelvis and Limb Anatomy of the Cenomanian Hind-Limbed Snake Eupodophis Descouensi (squamata, Ophidia) Revealed by Synchrotron-Radiation Computed Laminography”, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31, no. 1 (January 2011): 5.
[13] Adam Skinner, Michael S.Y. Lee, and Mark N. Hutchinson, “Rapid and Repeated Limb Loss in a Clade of Scincid Lizards”, BMC Evolutionary Biology 8, no. 301 (11 November 2008): 6
[14] Annette R. Benesch and Philip C. Withers, “Burrowing Performance and the Role of Limb Reduction in Lerista (scincidae, Lacertilia)”, Senckenbergiana lethaea 82, no. 1 (2002-06-01): 107-14.

Bibliography

Benesch, Annette R., and Philip C. Withers. “Burrowing Performance and the Role of Limb Reduction in Lerista (scincidae, Lacertilia).” Senckenbergiana lethaea 82, no. 1 (2002-06-01): 107-14.

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Federation Proceedings (Vol. 32). [Bethesda, Md., etc.]: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 1973.

Haas, G. “On a New Snakelike Reptile from the Lower Cenomanian of Ein Jabrud, Near Jerusalem.” Bulletin du Museum D’Histoire Naturelle, Paris 4, no. 1 (1979): 51-64.

Houssaye, Alexandra, Xu FENG, Lukas Helfen, Vivian De Buffrenil, Tilo Baumbach, and Paul Tafforeau. “Three-Dimensional Pelvis and Limb Anatomy of the Cenomanian Hind-Limbed Snake Eupodophis Descouensi (squamata, Ophidia) Revealed by Synchrotron-Radiation Computed Laminography.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31, no. 1 (January 2011): 2-7.

Michael, Walton, Jayne Bruce C., and Bennett Albert F. “The Energetic Cost of Limbless Locomotion.” Science 249 (3 August 1990): 524-27. Accessed July 29, 2013. http://compphys.bio.uci.edu/bennett/pubs/97.pdf.

Rage, J.C., and F. Escuillié “Un Nouveau Serpent Bipede Du Cenomanien (cretace). Implications Phyletiques.” Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences, Sciences de la Terre et des Planetes 330 (15 April 2000): 513-20.

Rieppel, Olivier, Hussam Zaher, Eitan Tchernov, and Michael J. Polcyn. “The Anatomy and Relationships of Haasiophis Terrasanctus, a Fossil Snake with Well-Developed Hind Limbs from the Mid-Cretaceous of the Middle East.” Journal of Paleontology 77, no. 3 (May 2003): 536-58.

Skinner, Adam, Michael S.Y. Lee, and Mark N. Hutchinson. “Rapid and Repeated Limb Loss in a Clade of Scincid Lizards.” BMC Evolutionary Biology 8, no. 301 (11 November 2008): 1-9.

Wiens, John J., Carl R. Hutter, Daniel G. Mulcahy, Brice P. Noonan, Ted M. Townsend, Jack W. Sites, Jr., and Tod W. Reeder. “Resolving the Phylogeny of Lizards and Snakes (squamata) with Extensive Sampling of Genes and Species.” Biology Letters 8 (19 September 2012): 1043-46.


Evolution in Man of Steel

(Last Update: 6-24-13)

Note: This article contains Man of Steel spoilers…

The new Superman film Man of Steel (2013) depicts Kryptonians as an ancient technologically advanced race that mastered space travel and began to colonize the stars thousands of years ago (even visiting Earth at one point). Growing children in chambers replaced live birth because population control in these far-flung outposts and on the overcrowded home world was important. These outposts were eventually forsaken when the Kryptonian council elders forbid space travel and turned inward. The council’s choice to mine the planet’s core for energy eventually leads to the destruction of Krypton. Fearing for the future of his race, Jor-El, the father of Kal-El (Superman) and the planet’s top scientist, risks his life to retrieve an ancient primate-like skull covered in runes from an underwater chamber. This skull, known as the “Codex” (fig. 1), is a piece of biotechnology that contains the entire Kryptonian genome. Jor-El imprints the information from the skull into the cells of his son before sending him to earth, thus ensuring the future resurrection of the Kryptonian race.

In most sci-fi films, you always see how technologically advanced an ancient alien race is, never the steps that it took to get to that point. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to see the Codex skull appear in the storyline. It implies that Kryptonians, like us, evolved from some type of primate-like creature. It seems like a natural conclusion considering their overwhelming anatomical similarities with humans. The skull only appears on the screen for a short time, but I noticed it had a small brain pan and a very prognathic face. It is very similar to the Australopithecus africanus specimen STS 71, which lived around 2.5 million years ago (fig. 2).

Fig. 1 – (Left) A replica of the Codex skull. Fig. 2 – (Right) A cast of the STS 71 Australopithecus africanus skull.

 

I really like the concept of a fossil skull being the bases for, or repurposed as, biotechnology used to house the genome of an entire species. The Codex skull essentially contains the evolutionary history of the Kryptonian race. Likewise, all of the fossils that science has accumulated over the last 200 years serve to illustrate the evolutionary history of the human race. Most of these fossils are far too old to draw any genetic material from, but the entire Neanderthal genome was extracted and mapped in 2010 thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In addition, the chimpanzee (2005), rhesus macaque (2006), orangutan (2011), bonobo (2012), and gorilla (2012) genomes have all been successfully mapped. This compiled genetic data serves as our own “Codex” because it helps unlock the mysteries of the human genome that was mapped in 2001. If cloning technology is ever perfected in the future, this information could, in theory, be used to reestablish the human race after a great catastrophe.

I really want to know what creationists think about evolution being mentioned in the film. I’ve looked around, and I have yet to find anyone commenting on the skull. I have, however, found a brief article on the Discovery Institute website by David Klinghoffer entitled “In Man of Steel, Superman Is Pursued by Darwinian Bad Guys.” He takes note of one scene where the main villain Generl Zod, the former protector of Krypton, asks Jor-El to help him destroy the “degenerative bloodlines that led us to this state.” The “degenerative bloodlines” refer to the Kryptonian elders and “this state” refers to the imminent destruction of the planet. Jor-El retrieves the Codex in an attempt to keep Zod from deleting the genetic lineages of these elders from the skull after his planned assassination of them. Klinghoffer comments that this film has an “eerily Darwinian philosophy,” so he thinks the idea of exterminating inferior people somehow meshes with Darwin’s work. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Theory of Natural Selection. The theory is merely an explanation for the mechanics behind the fact of evolution. It states that animals who adapt to changes in their environment will survive longer than those who are not well adapted for said changes. This is often called “survival of the fittest.” Fitness in this context does not mean something is physically larger or stronger, only that their adaptation has allowed them to survive long enough to produce more children. For example, a smaller, weaker animal with more offspring would be considered “fitter” than a larger, stronger animal with less offspring. I think Klinghoffer is confusing Zod’s statement with Social Darwinism. This ideology posits that only physically strong and mentally brilliant people should survive, while mentally and physically handicapped people should not be able to propagate. The Nazis were proponents of Social Darwinism, killing some 70,000 psychiatric patients and forcefully sterilizing hundreds of thousands more during the 1930s and 40s. Darwin has no direct connection to Social Darwinism, so equating evolution with eugenics is nothing more than a straw man.

A more obvious allusion to evolution is mentioned towards the end of the film when Superman battles Zod’s female lieutenant Faora. After noticing that he is willing to put himself in harm’s way to save humans, she tells him: “The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.” Klinghoffer comments:

The only problem with her analysis is that evolution, in the presumed Darwinian sense here, “always wins” by discarding things that don’t give an “evolutionary advantage.” That would seem to include the exquisitely tuned conscience with which human beings are gifted — what advantage does that confer? — the existence of which, as we know well, poses one of many enigmas that a Darwinian view is helpless in explaining.

I actually agree with him that removing one’s conscience or sense of morality would provide no evolutionary advantage. The Kryptonian soldiers would have no allegiances and would randomly attack anyone, even members of their own unit. I, however, do not agree with the second half of his last sentence. Klinghoffer has either not read the corpus of literature on the subject, or he is purposely misrepresenting it. The evolutionary origins of morality have been explored by many scientists. In his recent book The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013), Primatologist Frans de Waal presents evidence that morality is not “top-down” (God-given), but “bottom-up,” meaning it issues forth from the naturally arising hierarchy in primate society. Chimps, for example, have a very complex social society that is determined through competition for rank. All individuals within a community from the largest male down to the smallest child all have their place in that society. There are rules for interactions between all members—i.e. greeting, eating, mating, playing, grooming, etc. De Waal states that chimps and other primates exhibit first- and second-order fairness, the ability to recognize inequality and share resources, respectively. See this video for an example:

The monkey’s ability to recognize the unfairness of the exchange is the bases for understanding the difference between right and wrong. That is why transgression of the aforementioned rules is punished by members of the community, thus enforcing conformity. Like humans, chimps have the capacity for reconciliation. Confrontations between in-group members are immediately followed by hugging, kissing, and/or grooming; and those refusing to make up are made to reconcile through a mediator, usually a female. In addition, brain anatomy and chemistry help reinforce positive group relations. For instance, research has shown that social animals like primates (including humans), cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and elephants have large areas of “spindle cells.” This type of brain neuron is associated with empathy (dysfunctions in the brain can lead to lowered empathy). This, coupled with “mirror neurons,” explains why these animals are able to adopt the emotions and behavior of fellow group members. This ensures cooperation and a more harmonious existence.

Those wishing to argue in favor of universal morality have to grapple with the fact that cultures all across the world have different ideas on what constitutes morality. For example, superstitious hunter-gatherer tribes of South Africa believe it a service to the community to kill twin babies because they are considered bad omens. This may be reprehensible to you and me, but we are simply judging this practice though the lens of our own culture. Any agreement between modern systems of morality—many of which are linked with different religious and judicial philosophies, I might add—stems from our common human origins. Most importantly, human morality is not static and unchanging. For instance, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that rebellious children must be stoned to death by the community. But when was the last time a child in the western world was executed just because they talked back to their parents? Countries around the world would certainly have far less children if this was a universal law. Thankfully it and other such laws from the bible are no longer considered acceptable. Morals evolve along with society, plain and simple.
__________________________________________________

Update 6-19-13: Klinghoffer’s article has also been covered over at “The Sensuous Curmudgeon” blog.
__________________________________________________

Update 6-20-13:

Anyone who has seen Man of Steel knows that Superman is an allegory for Christ. His father was a man named El (God in Hebrew) who sent him to earth, he was raised by commoners, he appears at the age of 33 working miracles, and he helps save humanity through a great deal of suffering. Visuals like Kal-El standing in front of a sunlit stain glass window featuring Jesus while discussing faith and the fate of the world really drive this point home. These Judeo-Christian elements were no surprise to me since I read the comics as a child and knew Superman’s creators were Jewish. However, I was surprised when I found out today (via this video) that the filmmakers specifically targeted Christian groups. This article explains:

“Warner Bros., the studio, employed Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm focused on the Christian market, to arrange screenings for pastors, supply churches with free film clips and even draft sermons that draw on themes in the film that can be given a Christian interpretation.”

So the film was written with Christians in mind. This means the filmmaker’s intentionally associated evolution, the bane of creationists, with the amoral and murderous bad guys, while highlighting Superman as the Christian hero and messianic savor of mankind. By doing this, the filmmakers are perpetuating a twisted image of evolution, one that prevents the general public from accepting it and keeps law makers questioning its scientific merit.
__________________________________________________

Update 6-24-13:

Grundy over at the “Deity Shmeity” blog has written an article that shows how Faora’s comment about not having a sense of morality conflicts with displays of Kryptonian morality from the film, and the absurd idea that an amoral society is the pinnacle of evolution.