August 09, 2012
By SETH BORENSTEIN Associated Press
Our family tree may have sprouted some long-lost branches going back nearly 2 million years. A famous paleontology family has found fossils that they think confirm their theory that there are two additional pre-human species besides the one that eventually led to modern humans.
A team led by Meave Leakey, daughter-in-law of famed scientist Louis Leakey, found facial bones from one creature and jawbones from two others in Kenya. That led the researchers to conclude that man's early ancestor had plenty of human-like company from other species.
These wouldn’t be Homo erectus, believed to be our direct ancestor. They would be more like very distant cousins, who when you go back even longer in time, shared an ancient common ancestor, one scientist said.
But other experts in human evolution aren’t convinced by what they say is a leap to large conclusions based on limited evidence. It’s the continuation of a long-running squabble in anthropology about the earliest members of our own genus, or class, called Homo — an increasingly messy family history. And much of it stems from a controversial discovery that the Leakeys made 40 years ago.
In their new findings, the Leakey team says that none of their newest fossil discoveries match erectus, so they had to be from another flat-faced relatively large species with big teeth.
The new specimens have “a really distinct profile” and thus they are “something very different,” said Meave Leakey, describing the study published online August 8 in Nature.
What these new bones did match was an old fossil that Meave and her husband Richard helped find in 1972 that was baffling. That skull, called 1470, just didn't fit with Homo erectus, the Leakeys contended. They said it was too flat-faced with a non-jutting jaw. They initially said it was well more than 2.5 million years old in a dating mistake that was later seized upon by creationists as evidence against evolution because it indicated how scientists can make dating mistakes. It turned out to be 2 million years old.
For the past 40 years, the scientific question has been whether 1470 was a freak mutation of erectus or something new. For many years, the Leakeys have maintained that the male skull known as 1470 showed that there were more than one species of ancient hominids, but other scientists said it wasn’t enough proof.
The Leakeys’ new discoveries are more evidence that this earlier “enigmatic face” was a separate species, said study co-author Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The new bones were found between 2007 and 2009 about six miles away from the old site near the fossil-rich Lake Turkana region, Leakey said.
So that would make two species — erectus and the one represented by 1470.
But it’s not that simple. The Leakey scientific team contends that other fossils of old hominids — not those cited in their new study — don't seem to match either erectus or 1470. They argue that the other fossils seem to have smaller heads and not just because they are female. For that reason, the Leakeys believe there were three living Homo species between 1.8 million and 2 million years ago. They would be Homo erectus, the 1470 species, and a third branch.
“Anyway you cut it there are three species,” study co-author Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University. “One of them is named erectus and that ultimately in our opinion is going to lead to us.”
Both of the species that Meave Leakey said existed back then went extinct more than a million years ago in evolutionary dead-ends.
“Human evolution is clearly not the straight line that it once was,” Spoor said.
The three different species could have been living at the same time at the same place, but probably didn't interact much, he said. Still, he said, East Africa nearly 2 million years ago “was quite a crowded place.”
And making matters somewhat more confusing, the Leakeys and Spoor refused to give names to the two non-erectus species or attach them to some of the other Homo species names that are in scientific literature but still disputed. That’s because of confusion about what species belongs where, Anton said.
Two likely possibilities are Homo rudolfensis —which is where 1470 and its kin seem to belong — and Homo habilis, where the other non-erectus belong, Anton said. The team said the new fossils mean scientists can reclassify those categorized as non-erectus species and confirm the earlier but disputed Leakey claim.
But Tim White, a prominent evolutionary biologist at the University of California Berkeley, just isn’t buying this new species idea, nor is Milford Wolpoff, a longtime professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. They said the Leakeys are making too big a jump from too little evidence.
White said it’s similar to someone looking at the jaw of a female gymnast in the Olympics, the jaw of a male shot-putter, ignoring the faces in the crowd and deciding the shot-putter and gymnast have to be a different species.
Eric Delson, a paleoanthropology professor at Lehman College in New York, said he buys the Leakeys’ study, but added: “There’s no question that it's not definite.” He said it won’t convince doubters until fossils of both sexes of both non- erectus species are found.
“It’s a messy time period,” Delson said.
August 09, 2012
By DAVID CRARY
When it comes to gays and the Boy Scouts, President Barack Obama and the youth organization he serves as honorary president have agreed to disagree.
The White House said Obama opposes the youth organization's recently reaffirmed policy of excluding gays as members and adult leaders. He has no plans to resign as honorary president, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said.
The Scouts said in a statement that they respect Obama’s opinion and believe that “good people” can disagree on the subject and still work together to “accomplish the common good.”
American presidents have been honorary presidents of the Boy Scouts for a century. Obama became the Scouts' honorary president in March 2009, shortly after taking office.
Last month, after a confidential two-year review, the Scouts reaffirmed their longstanding policy, which has been the target of numerous protest campaigns.
For three weeks, the White House didn’t comment on the Scouts’ decision. On Wednesday the press office issued an email to The Associated Press on the subject.
“The president believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century,” the White House statement said. “He also opposes discrimination in all forms, and as such opposes this policy that discriminates on basis of sexual orientation.”
The Boy Scouts responded with a brief statement from their national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
“The Boy Scouts of America respects the opinions of President Obama and appreciates his recognition that Scouting is a valuable organization,” it said. “We believe that good people can personally disagree on this topic and still work together to accomplish the common good.”
Obama is a staunch supporter of gay-rights, even coming out in support of same-sex marriage earlier this year. Various liberal organizations have called on him to distance the White House from the Boy Scouts because of its exclusionary membership policy.
Two years ago, the Boy Scouts invited Obama to appear at its 100th anniversary jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia. The president sent a videotaped message, but the White House said he was unable to attend because of out-of-town commitments to tape a TV appearance and attend Democratic fundraisers.
Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has not spoken publicly about the Boy Scouts’ policy in recent days. A campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, told the AP that he still stands by his support of the Scouts as he noted in a 1994 political debate in Massachusetts.
“I support the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue,” Romney said then. “I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.”
August 09, 2012
By ABDI GULED and JASON STRAZIUSO | Associated Press
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Isaq Abdi works 15-hour days as the right-hand boy of a Somali woman who sells the narcotic leaf khat. Abdi tends the kiosk and delivers the mild stimulant to customers.
At day's end, the homeless boy receives his reward: A handful of chewed sticks that his customers throw away. He rebundles the best and sells them to Mogadishu's poor, earning less than a $1 to help care for his younger sister and their mother.
Children in Somalia have long suffered from poverty and war. Very few are lucky enough to go to school.
Last week Somali leaders voted in a new provisional constitution that greatly expands the rights afforded to children. It bars child labor and protects children from neglect and abuse. It outlaws the use of child soldiers and bans child marriage. It says every child has the right to care from their parents, and that every person in Somalia has the right to free education until secondary school.
Despite leaders' good intentions in the expansion of protections for children, most of the new rights will remain distant dreams for children like Abdi, who is only 10 years old. The impoverished, fledgling government controls only Mogadishu and its surroundings, and is unable to provide basic services.
"Survival is my priority. Any extra shillings will go to my family," Abdi said, sprinkling water on cotton khat sacks to prepare the kiosk before the khat is brought by his employer.
"But there is no guarantee of earnings every day. Sometimes I survive by one piece of bread for the entire day," he said.
Though violence is decreasing in Mogadishu's capital, the number of street children has grown over the last year. Tens of thousands of families who fled famine in the countryside last year now live in the capital as refugees. Many of the families are poor, and because their kids aren't going to school and have no money, the children often wind up on the streets.
Because widespread violence has lasted more than 20 years in Somalia, the country now has nearly an entire generation of people who received little or no education. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says Somalia has one of the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world.
"Although no specific statistics are available on the numbers of working children and children living in the street, the figures have been increasing across Somalia and particularly in Mogadishu," said Ban K. Al-Dhayi, a spokesman for UNICEF.
If Somalia's government were stronger, more organized and better funded, children like Ali Abdinasir would be sitting in classrooms, in accordance with the constitution. All the new rights the document affords children like Ali may go over most of their heads. The 11-year-old held out a child's hope of how the constitution might benefit him: "Cleaner playgrounds," he said.
One of the more than 600 Somali elders who voted to pass the new constitution last week acknowledged that writing the words on paper is easier than enforcing the promised rights in the real world. Dahir Abdulqadir Muse, though, said he hopes the constitution helps lower the number of child soldiers in Somalia.
"Our children have suffered a lot because of a lack of legislation," said Muse, a member of Somalia's parliament.
Efforts to protect children don't extend into areas still controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which is known for recruiting young teens who are often forced to fight on the front lines of battle. Al-Shabab no longer controls any part of Mogadishu but has wide influence across south-central Somalia.
For kids like Abdi, the khat seller, warfare is not a problem anymore. It's hunger.
"Life would be better if we could go to school or get a better job," he said.
August 02, 2012
By LARRY MARGASAK Associated Press
Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., improperly compelled her congressional staff to do campaign work and should be reprimanded and fined for violating standards of conduct, the House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday August 1.
The committee said she admitted to all seven counts of violations and agreed to the proposed punishment, which awaits House action.
The committee unanimously adopted the report of its investigative panel, in which investigators detailed the third-term lawmaker’s coercion, attempts to alter evidence and efforts to influence the testimony of staff members who would be witnesses.
Adoption of the report by the House would constitute a reprimand. The House also was asked by the committee to impose a $10,000 fine to be paid by Dec. 1.
The committee said it discouraged Richardson from permitting any staff members to work in her campaign. She's in a tough re-election race against fellow Democratic Rep. Janice Hahn. Although Hahn beat Richardson by a 60-39 margin in the primary, the state allows the top two finishers to run against each other in the general election regardless of party affiliation.
The ethics charges have been a drag on Richardson’s fundraising as her campaign was greatly outspent in the primary.
The investigative report said the coercion of the staff began in early 2010 and continued in the current campaign even though Richardson knew she was under investigation.
Investigators said Richardson infuriated the committee by appearing to contradict her own admission that she violated House rules, as well as federal law governing proper use of federal appropriations.
She contended that she had never taken or intended action against any aide who failed to volunteer for campaign work and accused the committee of intimidating and frightening her employees. She also claimed she was unable to fairly present her side of the case.
The committee said she had acted “with utter disdain” for the process and by agreeing to a deal, “rendered her own arguments moot.”
Among the findings by the investigative subcommittee in connection with Richardson’s 2010 campaign were:
—Richardson’s chief of staff, in early 2010, told district staff members that they would be expected to work on the campaign. When one asked what would happen if he declined, he was told he probably wouldn’t have a job.
—Employees were expected to close the congresswoman’s Long Beach office at 6 p.m. every workday and then go to the campaign office to answer the phone and perform “precinct walks.” Staff members were not permitted to take a break for dinner or perform any personal tasks before starting the daily campaign work. Staff members also were expected to attend campaign events on weekends.
—During the fall of 2010, Richardson directed a staff member to volunteer for her opponent’s campaign under a fake name to gather information.
—Richardson repeatedly called staff members who failed to attend campaign events, in order to secure their future appearances. This was an attempt to pressure and intimidate the employees.
—In an October 2010 meeting in the Long Beach office, with the Washington staff watching by teleconference, Richardson explained she was under investigation by the House committee. She “attempted to influence the testimony of members of her staff by suggesting that they tell the committee that their work on her campaign had been voluntary, even though some of it had not,” the report said.