Featured Spotlight: Elomeryx

10 10 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes and once again, I must apologize for my lengthy, school-induced posting drought!

As a result of my earlier posts on Coryphodon, Pezosiren, and Estemmenosuchus, it’s fair to say TTT has acquired a history of discussing semi-aquatic and superficially hippo-like animals (though Brian’s blog certainly has mine bested in this field). To shake things up just a wee bit for this particular ‘spotlight’, I’d like to shed some coverage upon Elomeryx sp., an animal which, shockingly, may actually be related to modern hippos! However, as we shall see, this particular creature is arguably much better known for its theoretical kinship with another group of contemporary mammals: the Cetacea (which is hardly surprising, for, as I’ve argued earlier, cetaceans are rapidly becoming the “nonavian theropods” of paleo-mammology).

A reconstruction originally compiled by Philip Gingerich wherein Elomeryx stands in as a model of the earliest artiodactylian ancestors of archaic whales.

Elomeryx is the oldest known constituent of the Anthracotheriidae, a family which, as defined by the genus’ arrival, first evolved in the Mid-Eocene of Eurasia. The group subsequently spread throughout both of the region’s continents along with Africa and, to a lesser extent, North America before its youngest known member, Merycopotomas, went extinct during the late Pliocene. Presumably, the group’s decline in the old world is the result of the spread of primitive hippos whilst their limited tenure in the western hemisphere has often been attributed to a lack of diversity and widespread alterations in habitat.

Elomeryx reconstruction

The Anthracotheriidae is divided into three subfamilies, the Anthracotheriinae, the Microbunodontinae, and the Bothriodontinae, with Elomeryx itself hailing from the latter assemblage. According to Donald G. Kron and Earl Manning, this group is defined on the basis of the following characteristics: “[C]anine tusklike; upper molar mesostyles fully invaded by transverse valley; mesostyle not forming a fully developed cusp in consequence; and ectoloph completely W-shaped.”  

E. crispus skull hailing from Southwestern France.

(Do check out this paper for more details on the above image)

Discovered by Othneil Charles Marsh during the famed “bone wars” of the late nineteenth century (on a side note, I’d most heartily recommend Mark Jaffe’s excellent book on the subject to those interested in this fascinating period of U.S. paleontology), Elomeryx is noteworthy for, among other things, its sexual dimorphism (though its hardly the only Anthracothere to exhibit such diversity in this regard): male specimens sport serrated posterior edges on their upper canines. Alongside this feature, the genus may be recognized by its short rostrum, five-cusped molars, looplike mesostyle, a diestemata-free premolar row, and the presence of accessory cusps on premolars in derived species. Intriguingly, some authors maintain that Elomeryx is paraphyletic, an assertion whose verification will require a more intensive study of North American specimens. The genus is generally considered to have been a consumer of freshwater vegetation on the basis 0f its dental morphology, though it should be noted that its relative lack of specializations render any effort to precisely reconstruct its lifestyle elusive at best.

Earlier, I treaded lightly whilst discussing the phylogenetic affiliations of the Anthracotheriidae. This discretion stems from the fact that these relations have become the focal point of considerable controversy in recent years. While essentially everyone is in agreement over the well-evidenced notion that hippos are the closest living relatives of cetaceans, the precise nature of this linkage is hardly “crystal clear”. The fact that the first Archaeocetes predate Elomeryx in the fossil record all but rules out the possibility that Anthracotheres could have given rise to these earliest of whales, depending, of course, on whether or not future fossil evidence will contradict this assertion. The situation is complicated further by a recent paper which argues that the Anthracotheriidae is akin to the Entelodontoidea and the enigmatic Andrewsarchus which, together, form the proposed Cetacodontamorpha lineage which, according to Michelle Spaulding, Maureen O’Leary, and John Gatesy, is defined as the “Cetancodonta plus all extinct taxa more closely related to extant members of Cetancodonta than to any other living species”.


A Glittering Ichthyosaur

24 09 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fair to say that TTT has been a bit of a “ghost blog” for a few weeks now: a result of my crazed academic schedule to which I’ve yet to fully grow accustomed. As if this weren’t enough, two of my brand new courses are conducting their mid-term examinations early next week, a fact which has forced the hostile takeover of virtually every ounce of free time I’ve managed to scrounge up lately by excessive studying.

Ah, but misery loves company. The fact that mid-terms are a thorn homogeneously spread throughout the sides of undergraduates across the nation affords me the opportunity to occasionally relieve myself from my own scholarly preparations in order to assist my friends in executing theirs. One of my room-mates is an English major whose particular topical line-up for this examination period involves developing an acute knowledge of Joseph Conrad’s melancholy and profoundly disturbing “Heart Of Darkness”, which I, myself had read a few years ago (the horror!). Whilst quizzing him on the book’s finer points via “cliffsnotes”, I noticed that one of the words defined in the volume’s glossary was “Ichthyosaurus“. My curiosity piqued, I scourged the novel for the reference to this most famous of fossilized marine reptiles, leading me to stumble upon the following passage:

“A deadened burst of mighty splashes had reached us from afar, as though an ichthyosaurus [sic] had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river.”

A large ichthyosaur meanders about the famed Crystal Palace Park in London. According to palaeos.com, the first-known ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs "had a strong effect on the 19th century Victorian imagination".


Prehistoric reptiles are hardly unknown for their ability to tus make literary cameos, as evidenced by Mark Twain’s occasional dinosaur references to say nothing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s groundbreaking masterpiece, “The Lost World”. 

Right, then: back to my bloody mathematical formulas!!!

Pelagornis Update

16 09 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(NOTE: I’m currently unable to upload photographs to this particular enrty, but rest assured: I’ll lavish the post with fascinating images as soon as I’m able!)

I sincerely apologize for the incessant delay of new posts onto this, my humble corner of the ‘net: my aforementioned academic schedule rennovations have alotted me little time to do anything else but catch up on enough reading material to rival the complete works of Leo Tolstoy in volume.

At any rate, I wanted to call everyone’s attention to an exciting piece of news. Last February, I dedicated a post to the well-known but poorly represented (in the fossiliferous sense) Pelagornis sp, a French member of the pelagornithidae family. For those too lazy to check out either of the links I’ve just provided, these were massive, albatross-like birds with notoriously long and slender wings and which had evolved tooth-like spikes on their beaks to ease the process of (theoretically) capturing slippery fish and cephalopods. While relatively complete remains of other pelagornithids such as Osteodontornis certainly aren’t unheard of, the family’s namesake genus was first described in 1857 on the basis of an isolated humerus, dubbed P. miocaenus by its discoverer Edoulard Lartet, which remained the solitary piece of evidence attesting to the existence of this magnificent fowl for over a century and a half.

However, a new paper just released by the Journal Of Vertebrate Paleontology (which seems to have long-since forgotten my existence as a paying member as I haven’t received anything from them for six months, despite the financial vigilance I’ve shown its legislative body) reports the unearthing of a “new” Pelagornis species from Chile*. The animal has (unsurprisingly) been named P. chilensis and sported a reconstructed wingspan of 5.2 meters (17 feet). While this fails to match the 7-meter estimate put forth by several paleo-ornithologists or the comparable measurements obtained by the teratornithid Argentavis, it still makes for one hell of an impressive bird (by comparison, the modern albatross achieves a maximum wingspan of 3.5 meters)!

For more images and information concerning this intriguing pelagornithid update, do go here.  

P.S.: Hat-tip to Mike Walley of www.everythingdinosaur.com for bringing this to my attention!

*See the ‘comments’ section for more relatively recent Pelagornis discoveries.

Weekly Spotlight (Mini Version): Pezosiren

4 09 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes! 

(NOTE: Due to my rough academic schedule, I’ve been forced to rely upon quotations and links far more heavily in this week’s spotlight than usual.) 

Although Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, and their cetacean brethren may get all the media attention when it comes to exemplifying the evolution of aquatic amniotes, the sirenian fossil record has produced an equally fascinating parallel transition equipped with a number of amazing beasts of its own. Perhaps none, however, can exemplify the key components of this incredible journey from land to sea more effectively than Pezosiren portelli from the early Eocene of Jamaica. 

Pezosiren skeletal reconstruction

Pezosiren skull closeup.

Pezosiren is, to date, represented by a nearly complete skeleton (see above) unearthed during the nineties approximately 15 km south of Montego Bay alongside a number of fish, crocodylian, and rhinocerotoid specimens. The animal’s overall body shape has been informally compared to that of the famed Moeritherium. According to paenungulate experts Emmanuel Gheerbrant, Daryl P. Domning, and Pascal Tassy, 

“The basal sirenian morphotype, displayed by Pezosiren, comprises a long trunk (20 thoracic and 4 lumbar vertebrae) supported on relatively short legs… Four sacral vertebrae are present, with a firm sacroiliac articulation capable in most cases of supporting the body’s weight on dry land. However, in Pezosiren, these sacrals are no longer anklyosed in most cases, pointing to an incipient increase of flexibility of the sacral region for swimming by spinal undulation– a convergence with early whales that were comparable in their stage of evolution to Rodhocetus.  The tail was long and strong compared to that of most terrestrial ungulates, but the caudal vertebrae still lacked the enlarged transverse processes for the attachment of powerful tail muscles seen later in sirenians and cetaceans.”  

A) Partial right mandible, medial view, showing location of small mandibular foramen (white arrow). B) Dorsal view of sacrum. C.) Right innominate, ventromedial view. D.) Right and left innominates, ventral view. E.) Subadult left femur, anterior view. F.) Left tibia, anterior view. G.) Left tibia, lateral view. H.) Intermediate phalanx, dorsal view. Scale Bar = 5 cm. Courtesy of nature.com

The authors maintain that Pezosiren‘s tail was likely utilized to maximize the effects of spinal dorsoventral undulation. Theoretically, this locomotory style would have resulted in a strong propulsive force being delivered to the tail and hindlimbs. Additionally, it’s of vital importance to note that Pezosiren, like modern hippos, had osteosclerotic (“very dense”) appendicular limb elements, enabling the sirenian to almost effortlessly remain submerged for extended periods of time. The significance of this fact has been described at length by fellow paleo-blogger Brian Switek (whose upcoming book I simply cannot wait to get my greedy little paws on!) and ultimately boils down to the observation that Pezosiren would have been capable of a much wider range of motion underwater than upon any other form of terrestrial realm. 


Ferret Legging 101

31 08 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’ve just completed my first day of class here at Stony Brook and am already overstuffed with homework assignments! Fortunately, while the content of an approximate half of my classes appear to be rather difficult, the other half looks like it’ll more than make up for it (and having an awesome pair of room-mates doesn’t hurt either). Anywho, to prevent TTT from becoming totally silent whilst I congregate my personal fecal material, I’ve decided to post a video clip explaining and demonstrating what has got to be the most epic sporting event in history: FERRET LEGGING!

Although I was originally planning to catch the occasional NHL or NFL game (whenever my beloved Broncos manage to return to town) whilst being able to enter NYC cheaply under student rates, I fear that I’ll now have to quench my thirst for spectating by heading down to Virginia and checking this out!

Weekly Spotlight: Steropodon

24 08 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Throughout its limited history, I’ve attempted to utilize “The Theatrical Tanystropheus” for the purposes of lending coverage towards bizarre prehistoric creatures who, for a variety of inexplicable reasons, have received relatively little coverage from the scientific community and the media at large. Given this favoritism towards long-extinct oddities, I figured that an ancient relative of one of the modern world’s most beloved biological eccentrics would be most fitting. With that, I give you Steropodon galmani, a Mesozoic precursor of the modern duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

As most paleo-enthusiasts are well aware, Mesozoic mammal remains are often be maddeningly difficult to come by, as evidenced by the fact that Steropodon‘s 1985 discovery marked the first occasion in which a member of the class had ever been discovered in an Australian bed of the era’s sediment. This initial excavation was made in the mid-Albanian Girman Creek formation near the town of Lightning Ridge in New South Wales and consisted of a solitary lower jaw fragment containing three lower molars. In a taphonomic sense, the fossil is noteworthy due to the fact that the material had been long-since opalised, as seen in the following image.

Steropodon sported a compound lower jaw: a trait possessed by many ancestral mammals from this point in time including Teinolophos trusleri, another Cretaceous monotreme known from the region. The fact that the two little mammals also share the derived feature of having a notably deep dentary along with double-rooted molars (as opposed to their multi-rooted counterparts in subsequent monotremes) has led many authors to suggest that the two should be placed into their own family, the Steropodontidae which, in addition to the Ornithorhynchidae, Tachyglossidae, and extinct Kollikodontidae, makes up the Monotremata order, though some researchers have asserted that Steropodon could be more accurately viewed as an ornithorhynchid. Steropodon‘s molars are also noteworthy for their tribosphenic arrangement comparable to that found in modern insectivores and, more importantly from a cladistic standpoint, young platypuses and Obdurodon, their toothed Miocene forebear. However, this particular dental arrangement is considerably more advanced in Steropodon than in its extant duck-billed kin; a fact which has given rise to a considerable amount of debate concerning the phylogenetic affiliations of monotremes as a whole. Intriguingly, the advanced nature of these teeth in Steropodon implies to many Mesozoic paleo-mammologists that the Monotremata split from the Therian subclass of mammals (whose members give birth to live young in lieu of a shelled egg) far more recently than had been previously assumed.

With regards to the animal’s lifestyle, the dietary and ecological habits of Steropodon were likely quite analogous to those of modern amphibious platypuses, although it’s been said that despite their theoretically identical overall size, the deeply rooted teeth of this Cretaceous monotreme may have enabled it to tackle larger forms of fish and other aquatic denizens than those pursued by their present-day descendants.

My 2010 Booklist Part 2 of 3: May-August

21 08 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable summer! Having finally returned from my long but entertaining pilgrimage to an internet-bereft region of the Adirondack mountains,  I’ve managed to at long last acquire an adequate chunk of time with which to update my oft-neglected blog! Given the aforementioned lack of my primary source of electronic entertainment, I was able to engage in an obscene amount of reading during this segment of this year’s literary trimester. And so, without further ado, I hereby present the second installment of my 2010 booklist. Enjoy!

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria To Blue Whales By John Tyler Bonner

My Thoughts: At a mere 7.5 inches in height and 176 pages in length, “Why Size Matters” is, amusingly (and somewhat ‘appropriately’), one of the smallest volumes to grace my bookshelves. Bonner has done an admirable job of explaining how an organism’s size affects everything from its physiology to its ecological role to its evolutionary pathways. Of particular interest are his sections concerning how size influences one’s voice, intelligence, and longevity. While his writing style is somewhat needlessly vague on occasion, it contains a delightful exuberance along with a reverence for philosophy and literary fantasy. On the whole, “Why Size Matters” is perfect for any scientifically curious bookworm in search of a light, but informative, read.

Swimming In Stone: The Amazing Gogo Fossils Of The Kimberley By John Long

My Thoughts: It’s damnably difficult to track down good popular science books about the Devonian! So I was naturally quite excited to have found this excellent diagnosis of one of the most vital and intriguing fossil localities on the planet: the Gogo site of the Western Australian Kimberley formation, home to some of the most amazing ichthyological organisms known to science. Long is one of the paleontological community’s leading fish experts, and his passion for these creatures shines through every word of his prose. Of particular interest is one of the book’s concluding chapters in which the author defends the idea that the vast majority of significant evolutionary breakthroughs which ultimately produced the tetrapod design with which we’re intimately well-acquainted occurred millions of years before the first land-dwelling vertebrates. Additionally, while a number of non-technical science books are erroneously cited as possessing a great sense of humor, “Swimming In Stone” actually delivers in this regard, sporting several genuinely funny passages which chronicle the author’s frequently bizarre experiences throughout his career, all of which congregate to paint a wonderful image of the sacrifices and rewards familiar to those who strive to dedicate their professional lives to paleontology and it is these individuals who I believe will enjoy this exquisite volume the most.

“Frozen Earth: The Once And Future Story Of Ice Ages” By Doug Macdougall

My Thoughts: “Frozen Earth” is a book which can perhaps best be termed “uneven”. It does an absolutely impeccable job of explaining the history of ice age climatology and the field’s pioneers, yet it doesn’t always satisfactorily explain the science’s underlying concepts and evidence to a lay reader such as myself. If paleoclimatology isn’t your forte, be prepared to re-read several important passages in order to ensure comprehension. However, during those occasions wherein Macdougall succueeds in his goal of disambiguating this complex information, he does so with the grace and intrigue of a truly masterful science communicator. Additionally, “Frozen Earth” contains the finest descriptions of the Permo-Carboniferous ice age and the Snowball Earth theory/controversy that I’ve ever come across in a popular science book and its discussion regarding the adverse effects of global warming upon our environment is not to be missed by anyone who cares about the planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves. Nevertheless, in overall retrospect, I simply wish that Macdougall had dispersed his descriptive powers more uniformly.

“How To Build A Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have To Be Forever” By Jack Horner & James Gorman

My Thoughts: “How To Build A Dinosaur” is a book which has been turning heads throughout the paleo-blogosphere since its initial publication last year, and for good reason. Though many reviewers, including yours truly, initially feared that Horner and Gorman’s latest literary escapade would prove itself to be little more than a compendium of pseudoscientific twaddle, it’s turned out to be no such thing. Instead, “How To Build A Dinosaur” is a concise, comprehensive, and quite readable introduction to “evo-devo” and the fledgling science of molecular paleontology. The piece de resistance, however, is the book’s excitingly plausible central thesis. This idea maintains that given the ancestry of modern birds from small, nonavian theropods, one could theoretically  isolate the developmental routes which emerge during embryonic growth and separate the former group’s gross anatomy from the latter’s. Just like their Mesozoic forebears, all present-day birds such as chickens begin to develop long tails early in their ontogeny. However, the accumulation of subsequent mutations during the course of their evolution has resulted in the acquisition of molecules which “switch off” the maturation of this tail, reducing it to the mere stub with which poultry farmers have long-since grown familiar.  Were the precise location of these deactivation molecules unearthed, their functionality could be neutralized, resulting in a chicken with an extensive tail. Similar measures could be taken to create chickens with clawed hands, toothed mouths, and scaly bodies. Ultimately, through this ingenious technique, a little creature nearly indistinguishable from a nonavian theropod could be brought into the world. Needless to say, I’ve elected to grant this volume my fullest endorsement, such as it is. A definite must-read!

“Snakehead: A Fish Out Of Water” by Eric Jay Dolin

My Thoughts: Those turning to “Snakehead”, a book dedicated to the public frenzy surrounding the 2002 discovery of a population of namesake Chinese fish scientifically known as Channa argus lurking about a secluded Maryland pond, in search of a quick biological read are bound to be amused but ultimately disappointed, for it’s most informative commentary is instead reserved for the mainstream media and its regrettable habit of instilling undue panic throughout the populace. While this is most assuredly an issue worthy of further discussion, Dolin tends to dwell upon journalistic irresponsibility at the expense of addressing the worldwide pandemic of invasive species: although his book has an irritating tendency to reprint articles, satirical sketches, political cartoons, and panel discussions about the 2002 C. argus infestation in their entirety without regard for redundancy, its prose dedicates a mere handful of pages in the introductory and concluding chapters to examining the larger issue at hand. Still, for those in search of a light-yet-evocative summer read, “Snakehead” is a good place to start.

“Zeno And The Tortoise: How To Think Like A Philosopher” by Nicholas Fearn

My Thoughts: “Zeno And The Tortoise” purports to be an introduction to philosophy equipped with a pronounced emphasis on developing an appreciation for the thought experiments and formulas created by the discipline’s greatest minds from ancient Greece to the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, however, Fearn has here succumbed to the widespread literary pathology of poorly executing an exquisite idea. This regrettable situation is chiefly the result of his vague and often impregnable prose which manages to inhibit clarity at nearly every turn: a style whose marriage to an explanatory book concerning a subject as complex and all-encompassing as philosophy spells disaster for the novice reader. Additionally, “Zeno And The Tortoise” gives virtually no mention of any sort to eastern philosophers and thus does a great dis-service for those attempting to widen their knowledge of this magnificent field on the global level. Nevertheless, Fearn’s individual chapters often serve as an impeccable review of philosophical concepts to those who had previously encountered their individual concepts: I, for example, was able to absorb his declarations concerning relativism, rationalism, utilitarianism, falsifiability, and the limitations of reasonable doubt with comparative ease, given my prior exposure to all five notions elsewhere. The book’s greatest asset to the completely clueless reader (or partially clueless reader such as myself), however, is unquestionably its “Further Reading” section which prescribes a handful of external sources through which one might obtain additional information about each chapter’s content at length. This segment notwithstanding, “Zeno And The Tortoise” should be viewed as a study guide for dedicated students of philosophy rather than a venue through which beginners may gain exposure to its various teachings.

“Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads In The Web Of Life” by Scott D. Sampson 

My Thoughts: Despite this blog’s well-documented bias towards Cenozoic mammals, my initial fascination with the field of paleontology was, as with many of its other enthusiasts,  initially sparked by an impassioned love of dinosaurs which persists unhindered to this day. “Dinosaur Odyssey” is a book which captures the essence of this infatuation by expressing a reverence for the romanticism of these incredible beasts throughout an easygoing venture into the remarkable and frequently humbling discoveries of their study. The explanatory power of each chapter’s analysis into a plethora of such  intricate paleontological, ecological, and evolutionary topics concerning this most remarkable group as their emergence, predator/prey relationships, metabolic rates, sexual displays, and near-extinction  is rivaled only by its exuberance and ardor. Furthermore, Sampson’s concluding segment about why paleontological science matters should be considered an absolute must-read for anyone who professes to care about the discipline and its future. “Dinosaur Odyssey” is that rarest of books which I can honestly recommend to everyone ranging from those in possession of so much as a hint of interest in dinosaurian paleontology to the discipline’s seasoned veterans and practitioners.

“A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here And There” by Aldo Leopold

My Thoughts: Last February, I reprinted Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”: a humbling and awe-inspiring essay concerning the philosophical implications of the passenger pigeon’s (Ectopistes migratorius) infamous extinction at our hands during the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth centuries. The exquisite nature of its prose and arguments inspired me to seek out “A Sand County Almanac”: a congregation of several dozen such ecological and environmental essays which homogeneously maintain an underlying philosophy of reverence and appreciation for the natural world and our fellow inhabitants therein. Of particular intrigue are “January Thaw”, “Thinking Like A Mountain”, and “The Land Ethic” for their magnificent exemplification of this worldview. My only true criticism of “A Sand County Almanac” stems from no fault of Leopold’s but rather its posthumous publication. Due to the fact that these essays were compiled merely a year after the death of their author, they’ve been subjected to little if any editorial supervision, which enables the book’s content to grow redundant when read from cover to cover. However, this is but a microscopic blemish upon the face of a truly epic volume whose effects upon the American conservationist movement rival those of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in proportion and durability.

“The Second Bill Of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution And Why We Need It Now More Than Ever” by Cass R. Sunstein

My Thoughts: In the words of Lester Ward, “Those who denounce state intervention are the ones who most frequently and successfully invoke it. The cry of lassiez faire mainly goes up from the ones who, if really ‘let alone’, would instantly lose their wealth-absorbing power”. This most divisive of contentions is  magnificently defended by Sunstein, an eminent constitutional scholar and historian. “The Second Bill Of Rights” was the informal name bestowed upon a series of, in Sunstein’s words, “constitutive commitments” (that is, ideals protected by the day’s prevailing interpretation of the nation’s constitution rather than the document itself) designed to domestically heed FDR’s famous observation that “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want”. In other words, if America were to avoid descending into a pitifully uneven state that could easily fall prey to the likes of totalitarian forces such as those which had previously swept Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia,  Roosevelt maintained that every citizen must be guaranteed an additional set of “unalienable rights”, such as the right to adequate medical care, a decent home, and a good education among others. Sunstein also examines the international effects of this second bill and reveals beyond any doubt that those countries which incorporate its essence into their political landscape are currently far better off than its nation of origin. 

“The Making Of The Fittest: DNA And The Ultimate Forensic Record Of Evolution” By Sean B. Carroll

My Thoughts: Much ado has been made about Sean Caroll’s highly readable writing style and for good reason: in “The Making Of The Fittest”, he effortlessly guides the reader through such notoriously complex evolutionary topics as endosymbiosis, evo- devo, and gene fossilization. Furthermore, while most authors of such introductory popular science texts tend to shy away from examining their field’s most unusual constituents in the fear that their added complexity would thwart the progress of the reader’s emerging comprehension, Caroll highlights a plethora of bizarre and thoroughly engaging biological nonconformists to the delight and awe of the enthusiast and layman alike. Furthermore, in a scathing and unapologetic chapter towards the book’s conclusion that can only be described as a work of sheer brilliance, the licentious and decietful tactics of “Intelligent Design” proponents are brutally unmasked. Whether you’re an evolutionary devotee or a  curious non-expert, “The Making Of The Fittest” is sure to both enlighten and entertain.

“Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, And Praying To Going To War And Becoming A Bilionaire–Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do” by Alan S. Miller & Satoshi Kanazawa

My Thoughts: Since it’s earliest exposure to the general public via Darwin’s “The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex”, the field of evolutionary psychology (aka: “E.P.”) has maintained the dubious honor of arguably being the most controversial subdiscipline of any scientific domain for nearly a century and a half, having managed to simultaneously divide the general public and scientific community throughout this time.  In “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters” Miller and Kanazawa do an impeccable job of forcing the reader to understand that E.P.’s routine political incorrectness is merely an examination of the way things are and not necessarily the way they ought to be. However, the authors are far more careless with regards to the headings given to various segments of discussion: for instance, their twin declarations that “human nature… stopped evolving 10,000 years ago” and “our brains are stuck in the stone age”, while not entirely devoid of truth, are misleading and frankly somewhat reckless. Fortunately, what Miller and Kanazawa lack in diplomacy is made up for in fairness: these men certainly aren’t shy about the limitations of evolutionary psychology despite their shared passion for the subject, and this willingness to acknowledge the young demesne’s imperfections alongside its achievements and contributions is most admirable.  

“A Confederacy Of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

My Thoughts: Although I don’t read fiction with the frequency of the average bibliophile, my comparatively limited exposure to the art form has nonetheless instilled within me a conviction that its most interesting characters are invariably those which the audience “loves to hate”. In this sense, I’ve yet to encounter a literary figure more captivating than “A Confederacy Of Dunces”s protagonist: one Ignatius J. Reily. While the routinely deplorable escapades of this verbose, malodorous, lackadaisical, delusional, pompous, gluttonous, discourteous, self-righteous, anachronistic, hideously clad, and morbidly obese medievalist should ideally repulse the reader,  the extravagant outlandishness with which he executes such mundane activities as job-hunting and moviegoing is positively endearing. While Reily is unquestionably the novel’s star attraction, Toole’s supporting cast is miraculously devoid of virtually any character which could be truthfully cited as “stereotypical”, and these eccentrics bounce flawlessly bounce off each other to create a beautifully unorthodox plot beneath this satirical masterpiece.

“Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick” by Brand Blanshard

My Thoughts: In this delightfully original and (for the most part) brilliantly executed narrative, the reader is presented with a quartet of miniature biographies about four men whom he believes to have been “great for the same reason, the government of their lives by a quiet, habitual reasonableness.” In Blanshard’s view, reasonableness is defined as the possession of such admirable (and, as Renan often noted in a secular sense, “Christlike”) qualities as discipline, restraint, fairness, tact, open-mindedness, and respect for one’s opponents. While “Four Reasonable Men” does an impeccable job of explaining why all of its subjects deserve to be cited as possessors of these most honorable traits,  it does harbor a tendency to make relatively bold declarations concerning each man’s character and values without adequately reinforcing these contentions. Fortunately, however, the offending passages are relatively rare and fail to detract from Blanshard’s ingenious approach to enriching life and addressing the ethical concerns of the human condition itself.

“A Sea Without Fish: Life In The Ordovician Sea Of The Cincinnati Region” by David L. Meyer & Richard Arnold Davis

My Thoughts: Despite my lifelong captivation with vertebrate paleontology, I must admit that the sister science of invertebrate paleontology isn’t nearly as engaging in my view. This fact largely stems from the latter discipline’s comparative disregard for functional morphology in favor of stratigraphy: while both are highly relevant fields to each study, I simply find the former to be immeasurably more interesting. Consequently, I had essentially assumed that “A Sea Without Fish” would conform to the general trend of emphasizing the geological aspects of its spineless subjects over their physiological and ecological makeup. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised, for Meyer and Davis have balanced both topics seamlessly to provide a thorough and captivating analysis of the Cincinnati region’s world-famous Ordovician denizens in what is perhaps the finest example of a regional paleontology book I’ve ever come across. Of particular interest are the book’s chapters concerning mollusks, echinoderms, and arthropods.

Rest assured, loyal readers: more scientific posts are on their way!

See You In August!

23 06 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’m writing this to inform my readers that “The Theatrical Tanystropheus” will be silent for a while… just under two months to be precise.

My semi-regular summer job as a camp counselor in the Adirondack mountains will commence this Friday. Given the relative remoteness of this location, I’ll be unable to access the internet regularly, if at all, and will consequently be unable to attend to the needs of this my humble corner of the internet.

In the mean time, however,  I can confidently proclaim that my next post will be written and displayed on the 20th of August.

Until then, I hope that everyone has an awesome summer and would like to extend my most heartfelt thanks to all of my regular readers: you’re the best!

See you soon!