Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity.
We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity. An Age of Religious Pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - Anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - Anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
"Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” - Thomas Merton

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Foundations for a Radical Theology, Part 7 - Epistemology: Language, Lacan, and Postmodern Theology

"For many, life, as in language, must be marked by certainty. For myself,
I am learning to grow beyond the more fundamental needs of epistemology
that would limit my existential sense of being."

- R.E. Slater

An Epistemology of Inexpressiveness, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Inherent in language is its incompleteness. For all that language would promise in describing something or someone completely (for instance the idea of God) it too often falls short of its goal. For the postmodernist this is known as a "lack" as used by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan of language's structural impossibility to fully describe anything except partially or vaguely.

The fact that we cannot say everything about anything means that we experience "a lack" simply by existing as a "speaking being" who is trying to re-describe our incomplete expressions (or impressions). Hence, we cannot "say it all" and therefore must admit to our "lack" of infinite expression. This is the incompleteness of language as both a gift and a problem that is spoken between verbal (symbolic) beings searching for structure, definitiveness, completeness between one another.

And yet, circumnavigating the missing piece of language's incompleteness is the epistemological phenomena of "desire." Desire is birthed by language's "lack." It is a "generative" reaction to filling in the void of our human experience unable to describe what we sense and wish to place in the stricter categories of (divine or human) structural knowledge. More simply, our feelings or consciousness of lack is what generates our desire. And desire may then become a positive reaction to an unfillable (or inexpressible) void of communication by whatever medium it is expressed. It is in this "white space" of our human experience which marks us as finite beings propelling us forward towards the need for fundamental expression between one another using concrete verbal structures while at the same time unconsciously admitting to a deeper void within our souls crying out for an expression that cannot be expressed. A "mystical" expression as some would say.

Someone once said "The fantasy modernism (or, "linguistic fundamentalism") subscribes to is that there is a picture for us to see, or a totalizing puzzle for us to complete rather than realizing that we are always engaged in a uniquely creative or, re-generative process, of completing the puzzle to our existential "lack." And hence, we react to this deep need by furnishing our own incomplete experience to an inexpressible existential void we wish to describe.

As a consequence, postmodern theology restructures the theory of knowledge from its fatal (or finalizing) sense of certainty to the re-generative spaces of uncertainty, doubt, and mystery built upon existential experience and desire. Conversely, knowledge absent desire becomes fatal (or finalizing) for any society, creed, or religion no longer willing to explore the mysteries of its existence, being, or beliefs beyond its fundamental appraisals of it. And thus, when coming then to definitive religious or theological statements written in the pen of artificial completeness (sic, era-specific creeds and confessions, doctrinal liturgies, ecclesiastical dogmas) it discourages removal of those staid (non-being) equations of expression by refusing to make room for the divine/human narrative of incompleteness beheld by later generations. As such, postmodern post-structuralism seeks to re-circumscribe our structurally-imposed experiences of life. Experiences which would confidently assert language's delimiters thus leading to its many deaths in the lands of linguistic secularity (or sterility) forming the status quo bonds of modernism.

For postmodern theology this then becomes a kind of existential agnosticism or atheism over against the religious certitudes and fundamental verities we have grown up with limiting the vision of our lives and theologies bound behind the socially acceptable structures of mundane society. For others, the beginning of this existential/hermeneutical (interpretive) void is the beginning of a life teeming with phenomenological expression using uncertainty and doubt (or a kind of religious/interpretive agnosticism or atheism) as the driving motivators beyond the fundamental certainties we carry within our breasts. This kind of postmodern theology is more formally known as a "pyro-theology" which gives assent or permission to burning down the past in order to rebuild another kind of post-structural foundation. Consequently, a generative postmodern theology demands another kind of "hermeneutic" or "interpretive structural vision," into the realms of language and experiences of life. It demands of language to be less taxing, less specific, and more open to the possibilities of discovery - or movement - from the Spirit of God, and the spirit of human nature, cast beyond the boundaries of "what is known" to those realms of "unknowingness." Spiritual qualities which are deeply felt, sung, or dreamed within the human breast bursting with life and deliriously committed to seeking, searching, and communicating this spiritual life with other similarly thriving human beings.

R.E. Slater
September 26, 2015
edited September 28, 2015

Definitions - from Wikipedia

Post-Structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of mid-20th-century French and continental philosophers and critical theorists who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s.[1][2][3] A major theme of post-structuralism is instability in the human sciences, due to the complexity of humans themselves and the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order that we might study them.

Post-structuralism is a response to structuralism. Structuralism is an intellectual movement developed in Europe from the early to mid-20th century. It argued that human culture may be understood by means of a structure—modeled on language (i.e., structural linguistics)—that differs from concrete reality and from abstract ideas—a "third order" that mediates between the two.[4] Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of the structures that structuralism posits and an interrogation of the binary oppositions that constitute those structures.[5] Writers whose work is often characterised as post-structuralist include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva, although many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.[6]

The movement is closely related to postmodernism. As with structuralism, antihumanism is often a central tenet. Existential phenomenology is a significant influence; Colin Davis has argued that post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists".[7] Some commentators have criticized post-structuralism for being radically relativistic ornihilistic. Others have objected to its extremity and linguistic complexity: philosopher John Searle writes "deconstructive prose tends to be systematically evasive."[8] Others see it as a threat to traditional values or professional scholarly standards.

Postmodernism is a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism.[1][2] Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations ofculture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.

The term postmodernism has been applied to a host of movements, mainly in art, music, and literature, that reacted against tendencies in modernism, and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques.[3]

Phenomenology from Greek phainómenon "that which appears" and lógos "study") is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.[1] Phenomenology should not be considered as a unitary movement; rather, different authors share a common family resemblance but also with many significant differences. Accordingly, “A unique and final definition of phenomenology is dangerous and perhaps even paradoxical as it lacks a thematic focus. In fact, it is not a doctrine, nor a philosophical school, but rather a style of thought, a method, an open and ever-renewed experience having different results, and this may disorient anyone wishing to define the meaning of phenomenology”.[2]

Phenomenology, in Husserl's conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This ontology (study of reality) can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another.

Husserl's conception of phenomenology has been criticized and developed not only by himself but also by students, such as Edith Stein, by hermeneutic philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, by existentialists, such as Nicolai Hartmann, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and by other philosophers, such as Max Scheler, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Lévinas, and sociologists Alfred Schütz and Eric Voegelin.

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Jacques Lacan

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (/ləˈkɑːn/;[1] French: [ʒak lakɑ̃]; 13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981), known simply as Jacques Lacan, was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud".[2] Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced many leading French intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially those associated with poststructuralism. His ideas had a significant impact on critical theory, literary theory, linguistics, 20th-century French philosophy, sociology, feminist theory, film theory and clinical psychoanalysis.[3]

Desire [Excerpt]

Lacan's concept of desire is related to Hegel's Begierde, a term that implies a continuous force, and therefore somehow differs from Freud's concept of Wunsch.[55] Lacan's desire refers always to unconscious desire because it is unconscious desire that forms the central concern of psychoanalysis.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to lead the analysand to recognize his/her desire and by doing so to uncover the truth about his/her desire. However this is possible only if desire is articulated in speech:[56] "It is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire appears in the full sense of the term."[57] And again in The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: "...what is important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring desire into existence. The subject should come to recognize and to name his/his desire. But it isn't a question of recognizing something that could be entirely given. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world."[58] The truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, although discourse is never able to articulate the entire truth about desire, whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover or surplus.[59]

Lacan distinguishes desire from need and from demand. Need is a biological instinct where the subject depends on the Other to satisfy its own needs: in order to get the Other's help "need" must be articulated in "demand." But the presence of the Other not only ensures the satisfaction of the "need", it also represents the Other's love. Consequently, "demand" acquires a double function: on the one hand, it articulates "need", and on the other, acts as a "demand for love." Even after the "need" articulated in demand is satisfied, the "demand for love" remains unsatisfied since the Other cannot provide the unconditional love that the subject seeks.

"Desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the
difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second."[60]

Desire is the a surplus, a leftover, produced by the articulation of need in demand:

"desire begins to take shape in the margin in which
demand becomes separated from need."[60]

Unlike need, which can be satisfied, desire can never be satisfied: it is constant in its pressure and eternal. The attainment of desire does not consist in being fulfilled but in its reproduction as such. As Slavoj Žižek puts it,

"desire's raison d'être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction,
but to reproduce itself as desire."[61]

Lacan also distinguishes between desire and the drives: desire is one and drives are many. The drives are the partial manifestations of a single force called desire.[62] Lacan's concept of "objet petit a" is the object of desire, although this object is not that towards which desire tends, but rather the cause of desire. Desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque).

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues that "man's desire is the desire of the Other." This entails the following:
  1. Desire is the desire of the Other's desire, meaning that desire is the object of another's desire and that desire is also desire for recognition. Here Lacan follows Alexandre Kojève who follows Hegel: for Kojève the subject must risk his own life if he wants to achieve the desired prestige."[63] This desire to be the object of another's desire is best exemplified in the Oedipus complex, when the subject desires to be the phallus of the mother.
  2. In "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious".[64] Lacan contends that the subject desires from the point of view of another whereby the object of someone's desire is an object desired by another one: what makes the object desirable is that it is precisely desired by someone else. Again Lacan follows Kojève who follows Hegel. This aspect of desire is present in hysteria for the hysteric is someone who converts another's desire into his/her own (see Sigmund Freud's "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" in SE VII, where Dora desires Frau K because she identifies with Herr K). What matters then in the analysis of a hysteric is not to find out the object of her desire but to discover the subject with whom she identifies.
  3. Désir de l'Autre, which is translated as "desire for the Other" (though could be also "desire of the Other"). The fundamental desire is the incestuous desire for the mother, the primordial Other.[65]
  4. Desire is "the desire for something else" since it is impossible to desire what one already has, The object of desire is continually deferred, which is why desire is a metonymy.[66]
  5. Desire appears in the field of the Other, that is in the unconscious.
Last but not least for Lacan the first person who occupies the place of the Other is the mother and at first the child is at her mercy. Only when the father articulates desire with the law by castrating the mother, the subject is liberated from the mother's desire.[67]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Human Evolution. How Does it Fit with the Recent Discovery of the genus, "Homo Naledi?"

Growing up as a conservative evangelical Christian I had been taught to consider the story of human evolution as spurious to the Word of God. Over the decades since learning this I have reconsidered all the arguments for special creation and against evolutionary creation and now deem my earlier education misdirected. That I may hold to progressive creationism (as opposed to immediate creationism) and consider it "divinely supernatural and special."

That the Creator God of the universe had supernaturally decreed its possibility using the operands of randomness and chaos to be overruled by decreeing the teleological principle of life as "always tilting towards biologic struggle and survival" regardless of the (toxic) eco-environments this struggle would occur in; as example, oxygen was a deadly toxin to evolutionary life at one time. That at all times the equation of "life" would be tilted towards the principles of creative "freedom" within a weak entropic system (ultimate chaos) and not a strong entropic system (ultimate determinism) thus allowing for an evolutionary progression whereby the Sovereign Creator may have fellowship of a kind with His creation.

Once realizing this, I have lately, in recent years, worked towards describing how this progressive evolutionary creation may exist both on a doctrinal level as well as on a scientific one without going beyond the bounds of modern science (excepting, of course, that I write of it from a theologic and not an agnostic, or a/theistic, viewpoint).

And so, in today's posting, I wish to further explore the idea of human evolution through its taxonomical graphs and charts of recent discoveries of the 2.8 million year old homo naledi (star) species. A remarkable discovery found in an ancient graveyard deep underground by a nimble anthropological team of spelunking women who made this phenomenal discovery happen.

Question 1. Why is the chimpanzee closer to the homo genus than the gorilla? And where do orangutans fit in to this zoological chart?

The homo genus has been characterised exclusively as a genus of "bipedal apes" commonly known as "humans" or "homo erectus" unlike the chimpanzee who half walks and uses all four limbs to travel. The larger family of apes from which humans have descended, such as the gorilla, or orangutan, primarily use all four limbs to travel while occassionally utilizing bi-pedal motion much less of the time than the chimpanzee genus.

Though all come from the superfamily of hominoidea - as can be seen from the taxonomical charts above - as the species continues to evolve it continues to separate into separate zoological classifications from tree dwelling apes (gibbons), to partially tree-dwelling apes (orangutans), to ground/tree dwelling apes (gorillas), to ground/tree dwelling semi-bipedal apes (bonobos, chimpanzees), to exclusively ground dwelling bipedal apes (man).

The chart then shows how the chimpanzee genus is further removed from the gorilla genus and more closely linked to the human genus. This is also supported by evolutionary genetic studies. As a result, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo (pygmy or dwarf chimp) of the genus Pan are the closest living evolutionary relatives to humans, sharing a common ancestry with humans about four to seven million years ago."

From a time-scale perspective, this elapsed period of time also evidences the divergence of humans from chimpanzees. More specifically, the final separation of the Homo genus from the Pan genus is approxiamately 2.8 million years old thus telling of the importance of the recent "Homo Naledi" cave discovery in August of 2015 in South Africa's Star Cave system.

What does this mean theologically?

In evolutionary terms it is pretty plain how human creation evolved from anthropological studies. And in theological terms, the passages in Genesis provide an ancient (Hebrew) tribal explanation to creation in non-evolutionary terms. However, many well-meaning Christians attempt to show a 1:1 correlation between Genesis 1 with "theistic evolution" which would be an interpretive error both from a cultural standpoint as well as from a scientific one. At this time ancient man had no knowledge of either science or evolution. Moreover, the implication by theologians of insinuating human guidance by divine authorship supra-intending over a culture's era-specific ignorance is also a conjectural error to textual formation.

The take away? Rather than get hung up on a literal reading of Genesis' creation stories we may be confident that creation derives from a Creator who crafted an unusually complex method by using all the ingredients of evolution to obtain the current results we are biologically familiar with. And that its testimony in Genesis is an literary account by the ancients using mythological description to describe this very same event in their own lay terms and knowledge.

Moreover, we must also come to understand that evolution is always occurring both in the present as well as in the future. That it is a process which never stops. That underneath life itself is the continuing titanic struggle of biologic life to always exist despite the (toxic) eco-environments now present or occurring in the future.

This is the marvel of God's creation and the equation that He has set in place so that at this present moment we, as homo sapiens (human beings), might have fellowship with our Creator-Redeemer. But as humans, we cannot assume that we are in exclusive communication with our Creator alone. Even the Psalmists and Prophets have written of the mountains and valleys, seas and skies, trees and all living things, as having a "form of communication" with its Creator. That it "delights" in this fellowship, "dances," "sings for joy," and "claps its hands" in response to His Almighty voice.

And though I do not encourage any form of "supernatural mystical communication" with the trees and mountains, birds and bees, still we find in the poetry and essays of human journals the deep realization that all things are connected and in communication with itself and its Creator God. As we walk creation's fields and meadows, swim its streams and dive below its waters, we sense God's almighty hand of authorship in its templed majesty and shrouded veils of glory. The godfathers of ecology, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold, each in their own way reveled in this divine communion connecting our existence even to the original American Indians who sensed the same in their Spirit stories of creational connectedness and sacred fellowship.


To read Genesis in an evolutionary context is to read of (i) an ancient composition set in a paleo-creational understanding of a Creator-God named by His creational activity and supernaturally sensed (or guided) by life's many spheres of divine/human interaction. (ii) That into creation's holy charters came freedom's opposite half known as evil which struggle together one with the other each redefining what (iii) communion and fellowship with the Creator God may mean. That into this (iv) struggle came humanity to be pitted against its God, His creation, and itself and then, (v) there find redescribed not "life" but "death" within the hallowed altars of this holy communion. And with death (vi) the promise of God to be not only "Creator" but "Redeemer" - not only to mankind but to His holy creation as well - and that (vii) it would come by grace and mercy. This is the fuller story of Genesis when read apart from its more popular classical/literal understanding rejecting evolution.

And to this marvel of God's complex creation we bow our heads and utter, "Thank you O blessed Redeemer for your promise of life in the midst of death. Praise you for your wisdom and goodness and grace. For the majesty of your name and the councils of your justice when all things will be made new, and good, and holy, once more. Amen."

R.E. Slater
September 13, 2015
edited September 26, 2015

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Not to be confused with Hominoidea, Hominidae, Homininae, or Hominina.

The Hominini is a tribe of the subfamily Homininae; it comprises three subtribes: Hominina, with its one genus Homo; Australopithecina, comprising several extinct genera (see taxobox); and Panina, with its one genus Pan, the chimpanzees (see the evolutionary tree below).[3][4] Members of the human clade, that is, the Hominini, including Homo and those species of theaustralopithecines that arose after the split from the chimpanzees, are called hominins; cf. Hominidae; terms "hominids" and hominins).

The subtribe Hominina is the "human" branch; that is, it contains the genus Homo exclusively. Researchers proposed the taxon Hominini on the basis that the least similar species of atrichotomy should be separated from the other two. The common chimpanzee and the bonobo of the genus Pan are the closest living evolutionary relatives to humans, sharing a common ancestor with humans about four to seven million years ago.[5] Research by Mary-Claire King in 1973 found 99% identical DNA between human beings and chimpanzees;[6] later research modified that finding to about 94% commonality, with some of the difference occurring in noncoding DNA.[7]

Sahelanthropus tchadensis is an extinct hominid species that lived 7 million years ago, very close to the time of the chimpanzee–human divergence. It is unclear whether or not it may be classed as hominin—that is, whether it rose after the split from the chimpanzees, or not.

A source of confusion in determining the exact age of the Pan–Homo split is evidence of a complex speciation process rather than a clean split between the two lineages. Different chromosomes appear to have split at different times, possibly over as much as a 4-million-year period, indicating a long and drawn out speciation process with large-scale hybridization events between the two emerging lineages as late as 6.3 to 5.4 million years ago according to Patterson et al. (2006).[8] The assumption of late hybridization was in particular based on the similarity of the X chromosome in humans and chimpanzees, suggesting a divergence as late as some 4 million years ago. This conclusion was rejected as unwarranted by Wakeley (2008), who suggested alternative explanations, including selection pressure on the X chromosome in the populations ancestral to the chimpanzee–human last common ancestor (CHLCA).[9]

All the extinct genera listed in the taxobox are ancestral to, or offshoots of, Homo. Few fossil specimens on the Pan side of the split have been found—the first discovery of a fossil chimpanzee was published in 2005;[10] it was from Kenya's East African Rift Valley and dated to between 545 thousand years, radiometric, (kyr) and 284 kyr (via argon–argon dating). However, both Orrorin and Sahelanthropus existed around the time of the split, and so may be ancestral to both Pan and Homo.

In the proposal of Mann and Weiss (1996),[11] the tribe Hominini includes Pan as well as Homo, but within separate subtribes. Homo and (by inference) all bipedal apes are referred to the subtribe Hominina, while Pan is assigned to the subtribe Panina. Wood (2010) discusses the different views of this taxonomy.[12]

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Lee R. Berger, a professor of human evolution studies at the University of
the Witwatersrand  in Johannesburg, unveiled a previously unidentified species
of the early human lineage — Homo naledi. By REUTERS on Publish Date

Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave

by John Noble Wildord
September 10, 2015

Acting on a tip from spelunkers two years ago, scientists in South Africadiscovered what the cavers had only dimly glimpsed through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star Cave: lots and lots of old bones.

The remains covered the earthen floor beyond the narrow opening. This was, the scientists concluded, a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi.

The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Dr. Berger said.

The finding, like so many others in science, was the result of pure luck followed by considerable effort.

Two local cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found the narrow entrance to the chamber, measuring no more than seven and a half inches wide. They were skinny enough to squeeze through, and in the light of their headlamps they saw the bones all around them. When they showed the fossil pictures to Pedro Boshoff, a caver who is also a geologist, he alerted Dr. Berger, who organized an investigation.

"Just getting into the chamber and bringing out samples proved to be a huge challenge.

The narrow opening was the only way in." - Lee Burger

Paul Dirks, a geologist at James Cook University in Australia, who was lead author of the journal paper describing the chamber, said the investigators first had a steep climb up a stone block called the Dragon’s Back and then a drop down to the entrance passage — all of this in the total absence of natural light.

For the two extended investigations of the chamber in 2013 and 2014, Dr. Berger rounded up the international team of scientists and then recruited six excavating scientists through notices on social media. One special requirement: They had to be slender enough to crawl through that crack in the wall.

One of the six, who were all women and were called “underground astronauts,” was Marina Elliott of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She said the collection and removal of the fossils involved “some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins.”

Photo by the New York Times

Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by “ritual” they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.

Pieces of a skeleton of Homo naledi, a newly discovered human species.
CreditJohn Hawks/University of Wisconsin-Madison, via European Pressphoto Agency

“It’s very, very fascinating,” said Ian Tattersall, an authority on human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not involved in the research.

“No question there’s at least one new species here,” he added, “but there may be debate over the Homo designation, though the species is quite different from anything else we have seen.”

A colleague of Dr. Tattersall’s at the museum, Eric Delson, who is a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, was also impressed, saying, “Berger does it again!”

Dr. Delson was referring to Dr. Berger’s previous headline discovery, published in 2010, also involving cave deposits near Johannesburg. He found many fewer fossils that time, but enough to conclude that he was looking at a new species, which he named Australopithecus sediba. Geologists said the individuals lived 1.78 million to 1.95 million years ago, when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.

Lee R. Berger, leader of a research team, in the Rising Star Cave near Johannesburg,
where over 1,550 fossil elements were found. CreditNaashon Zalk for The New York Times

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* * * * * * * * * * *

An expert all-women team of anthropologists dared the suffocating passages
of the South African Star Cave system. Kudos!

A Mighty Girl

September 11, 2015

The discovery of a new hominin species is making headlines around the world this week but what many people don't realize is that the excavation team that uncovered this historic find was made up of six daring women scientists! The fossils were found at the bottom of a cave system in South Africa; one of the scientists, Marina Elliott, said that their collection and removal involved "some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins.” Thanks to the dedication of these six women, people everywhere will have the opportunity to gain new insight into the development of our species.

Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger learned about the fossils in Rising Star Cave in October 2013 -- as well as their location, at the bottom of a 36 foot long shaft that gets as narrow as 7 inches across. He put up an ad on Facebook seeking scientists with a background in archaeology or paleontology, but with a catch: “the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus.” He remembers thinking that “maybe there were three or four people in the world who would fit that criteria”, but within days he had 60 qualified applicants from around the world. He narrowed those down to six: Marina Elliott from Canada, Elen Feuerriegel from Australia, and K. Lindsay Eaves, Alia Gurtov, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto from the United States.

Elliott, who was finishing a Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University when she saw the ad, was first on the scene. “I was predisposed to extreme environments,” she says. “Telling me that I’d have to do climbing, that it would be underground, and that it would be strange and potentially dangerous… it appealed.” Even still, she vividly recalls her first sight of the chute: “It’s a long crack, punctuated by shark-teeth protrusions. I remember looking down and thinking: I’m not sure I made the right decision." Given the difficulty and potential danger of the climb, Berger nicknamed the team “underground astronauts.”

During the 21-day excavation of the Rising Star cave, the team had to work carefully: “There was so much material and it was friable and delicate,” Elliott says. “And every day, we realized that we were pulling out another 40 or 60 fragments of this thing that was going to be incredible.” She and her five caving teammates excavated a nearly unheard of collection of hominin fossils: 1,550 fragments from at least 15 skeletons, representing a mix of male and female individuals. In the words of Ed Yong of The Atlantic, “To find one complete skeleton of a new hominin would be hitting the paleoanthropological jackpot. To find 15, and perhaps more, is like nuking the jackpot from orbit.”

Debate about Homo naledi’s age and importance in human prehistory, as well as the intriguing possibility that the bones are in the cave as a form of burial ritual, will be ongoing for years, but no one doubts that it represents an extraordinary find. Elliott has remained on the ground in South Africa where she is now directing the field operation and leading expeditions into other caves, eager to discover what else is out there. As she says, “We’re just scratching the surface."

You can read more about the all-female team of “underground astronauts” and this historic find on The Atlantic at

To learn about more trailblazing women of science from around the world, we highly recommend the new book "Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science -- And The World," for teen and adult readers, ages 13 and up, at

To introduce children to one of the world’s first paleontologists, Mary Anning, we recommend "Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon" for ages 5 to 8 (, “Stone Girl, Bone Girl” for ages 4 to 8 ( and “The Fossil Girl” for ages 5 to 9 (

For a wonderful book about six remarkable women whose curiosity about nature fueled a passion to steadfastly overcome obstacles to careers in traditionally men-only occupations, we recommend "Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists" for ages 10 and up at

If your kids would like to try an excavation of their own, check out the Crystal Mining Kit for ages 5 to 10 (, the Treasures of the Earth Excavation Set for ages 5 to 9 (, and Smithsonian’s Diggin’ Up Dinos: T-Rex Kit for ages 7 to 12 (

For more of our favorite science toys for igniting your children's curiosity about the natural world, visit our "Science Toys" section at

And, if you have a Mighty Girl in your life who won't let any anyone tell her she can't do something because she's a girl, check out the "Though She Be But Little She Is Fierce" t-shirt -- available in a variety of styles and colors for all ages at

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Welcoming Refugees into Your Country

Why Now is The Church's Moment &
It Will Take All of Us Not to Miss It

5 Ways To Stand Up & Be The Church in
The World’s Worst Refugee Crisis Since World War II

September 5, 2015

1. Be Moved

AFP/Getty Images


They are risking everything, — because these families consider themselves dead already..

Right now Syrians consider themselves dead.

Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death.” –> Experience the risk of desperate journey for yourself

–> Tweet a photo of yourself holding a sign saying “Refugees Welcome” and tag your government and or your government representative #refugeecrisis; #refugeeswelcomehere

2. Each One … Do Just One Thing:

Daniel Etter/The New York Times

Mauricio Lima/The New York Times


–> World Relief (donate to provide backpacks for resettled children here)

–> Doctors Without Borders: Has three rescue ships in the Mediterranean, on Tuesday alone they rescued 1,658 people


–> Hand in Hand for Syria: Working within Syrian borders to provide aid. Donations are made via British currency but these are easily converted from US donations during the transaction.


Watch how One Family Is Saving the Lives of Thousands of Migrants — Help them?

(More of their unforgettable story here: American Family Use Assets To Save Refugees Headed For Europe)

–> Lending a Hand in Hungary for refugees (volunteers bring food, clothing, and emotional support to refugees)

–>Refugees Welcome (for UK and Europe)


Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

If you’d like to help Syrian refugees stranded on the Greek Island of Lesvos,
see the list below, and mail to:

Hellenic Postal Office of Mythymna
℅ The Captain’s Table
Molyvos 81108, Lesvos, Greece


  • Sneakers, gym shoes for men, women and children (all sizes) are a HIGH PRIORITY
  • Sweatpants of all sizes.
  • Briefs/underwear for men, women and children (all sizes)
  • Men’s trousers (small, medium and large) and shoes
  • Baby powder milk
  • Any non-perishables like nut butters or other long-lasting foods.
  • Diapers
  • Feminine products
  • Sleeping bags
  • Plastic to cover the floor/for shade
  • Tents/tarpaulin
  • Mats (camping or yoga mats)
  • Hats and caps for sunshade (adults and children/light colours because of the sun)
  • Electric Plug for multiple devices (european voltage)


Vassil Donev/EPA

Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA)

Petition Canadian government to welcome the refugees

Petition to the UK to welcome asylum seekers

Petition for Australia to create asylum seeker policies


picture alliance / dpa

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

–> Americans, Use this US map to find an agency near you and offer to support a newly arrived refugee family. There are 9 Voluntary Agencies in the US that sponsor refugees to come the the United States and build their own local networks to resettle refugees — where is one close to you?

–> Americans, help RefugeeOne meet needs of refugees already settled who may have seasonal needs, etc.