Research Tracks

A publication of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Baylor University

December 3, 2015
by Baylor OVPR
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Baylor philosopher explores legal issues surrounding religion in new book

beckwithIn a pluralistic society, there is a constant balancing act between the rights of individuals and the need for social order.  These balances are perhaps never quite as tenuous as when they involve a conflict between an individual’s religious faith and a law that would seem to prevent the believer from acting in accordance with the requirements of his or her faith.

Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, a professor of philosophy and church-state studies in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, explores these conflicts in his new book, “Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith,” published this year by Cambridge University Press. In the book, Beckwith examines cultural issues over which religious and nonreligious people may disagree including the rationality of religious belief, religiously motivated legislation, human dignity in bioethics, abortion and embryonic stem cell research, reproductive rights, evolution and marriage.

The problems often stem from a misunderstanding regarding the true nature of religious practices.  The misunderstanding, Beckwith says, often spring from a failure of non-religious individuals to understand the perspective of the believer.

“I believe religion involves obedience, not just belief,” he says. “Observers who aren’t familiar with the tenets of a religion may argue that religious belief is irrational and therefore adherents are not deserving of special protection for their practices. To those who believe, however, religious practices aren’t something they choose to do but something they are obligated to do.”

“Taking Rites Seriously” is available on Amazon.

February 20, 2014
by Baylor OVPR
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Baylor geologists discover evidence of early ape environments

Eighteen million years ago on the flanks of the Kisingiri Volcano (modern day Rusinga Island, Kenya) the early ape Proconsul (center) and the primate Dendropithecus (upper right) inhabited a warm and relatively wet, closed canopy tropical seasonal forest.

Eighteen million years ago on the flanks of the Kisingiri Volcano (modern day Rusinga Island, Kenya) the early ape Proconsul (center) and the primate Dendropithecus (upper right) inhabited a warm and relatively wet, closed canopy tropical seasonal forest (Illustration credit: Jason Brougham).

Geologists at Baylor, working with an international collaborative team of scientists, have uncovered for the first time direct evidence on Rusinga Island, Kenya, that ties Proconsul, an early ape, to a closed-canopy forest environment. While scientists had previously speculated, based on its skeletal anatomy, that Proconsul would be well suited to living in dense forests, the Baylor team’s discovery provides the first definitive confirmation of the environment in which the ape lived.  Results of their research were published this month in Nature Communications.

Lauren Michel, a doctoral student in geology and the study’s lead author, along with a team of collaborators found fossil remains of an individual of Proconsul in a fossil forest system that included tree stump casts, calcified roots and fossil leaves. Based on the tree stump casts found near the remains, Michel and her collaborators were able to conclude that the ape inhabited a dense, closed canopy forest.

Proconsul is the earliest ape we’ve been able to definitively place in a specific environment,” she says. “This is significant because it helps us get a clearer picture of these animals and their place in the ape/monkey/human family tree.”

Other Baylor co-authors on the paper include Dr. Daniel Peppe, assistant professor of geology, Dr. Steven Driese, professor of geology, and William Horner, a 2012 graduate of Baylor’s geology department. Horner, now in graduate school at Colorado State University, traveled to Kenya as an undergraduate to assist with the Proconsul research, which formed the basis of his senior thesis project.

Read more about the Baylor team’s discovery:

Remnants of an ancient forest provide ecological context for Early Miocene fossil apes
Nature Communications

Discovery by Baylor University Researchers Sheds New Light on the Habitat of Early Apes
Baylor Media Communications release

February 12, 2014
by Baylor OVPR
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Turning over an old leaf: Baylor geologist finds climate clues in fossilized plants

Thanks to modern record-keeping, finding out what the weather was like at any time in the recent past is a fairly simple proposition. Gathering data on the earth’s climate from millions of years ago, however, is another matter. Since there is no way to directly measure ancient climatic conditions, researchers make inferences about ancient environments based on currently available evidence, such as fossils.

Dr. Daniel Peppe collects fossil samples in the field.

Dr. Daniel Peppe collects fossil samples in the field.

Research by Dr. Daniel Peppe, an assistant professor of geology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, has revealed a new set of tools for reconstructing ancient ecosystems using fossilized fern leaves. The study, published this month in the American Journal of Botany, suggests that fern fossils can reveal environmental data from earlier periods compared to existing methods, which rely on plant groups with a shorter fossil record.

“We know that we can use the size and shape of leaves to reconstruct climate and ecology,” Peppe says, “but that analysis is mostly focused on angiosperms — flowering plants like modern trees. The fossil record for angiosperms goes back about 150 million years, but there is a much longer fossil record for other types of plants, particularly ferns.”

To tap into that longer fossil record, Peppe and an international team of collaborators studied 179 modern fern species, seeking a connection between the plants’ features and the environments in which they grow. Their analysis revealed a relationship between ferns’ biomechanical features — the ratio of stem thickness to leaf mass — and the life span of the plant’s leaves.

A fossil of the fern species Onoclea sensibilis collected from the Fort Union Formation in the Williston Basin in North Dakota. The fossil is Paleocene in age and around 65 million years old (photos courtesy of Dr. Peppe).

A fossil of the fern species Onoclea sensibilis collected from the Fort Union Formation in the Williston Basin in North Dakota. The fossil is Paleocene in age and around 65 million years old (photos courtesy of Dr. Peppe).

Peppe says that understanding the growth pattern of a plant and the life span of its leaves reveals information about the type of environment the plant lived in.

“A slow-growing plant would indicate an environment where the plants are not often disturbed, so they are able to put more resources into growing larger leaves that live longer,” he says. “Faster-growing leaves with shorter life spans would suggest the plant is in an area where it would be frequently disturbed by flooding or other disturbances.”

The researchers also found that ferns differ from flowering plants in the relationship between stem width and leaf mass, which Peppe says may be related to differing evolutionary histories or differences in the way the plants use their stems for support and to carry water and nutrients to and from the leaves.

Peppe’s work was supported in part by a grant from the Young Investigator Development Program in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.  Click here to read the full paper in the American Journal of Botany.

January 21, 2014
by Baylor OVPR
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Baylor professor wins award for book on spirituality and nature

The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail CoverDr. Susan Bratton’s book, The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail: Community, Environment, and Belief on a Long-Distance Hiking Path (University of Tennessee Press, 2012) recently was recognized as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 by Choice, an academic periodical of the Association of College & Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. Only about ten percent of reviewed publications are selected for recognition.

The book relates Bratton’s experiences hiking the 2,180-mile-long trail, but primarily presents the results of her systematic study of the spiritual, religious or quasi-religious experiences hikers often claim to undergo while on the trail. Over 200 hikers participated in the study.

“Some hikers have very intense religious experiences on the Trail,” Bratton says. “About a third of the hikers reported experiencing God in nature, or the trail as a spiritual environment. “

Bratton is a professor of environmental science at Baylor University. She holds PhD degrees from the University of Texas at Dallas and Cornell University, a master of arts from Fuller Seminary, and graduate certification in environmental ethics from the University of Georgia.