A Slime Mold’s View Of Time

24 05 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I’ve recently been reading John Tyler Bonner’s very intriguing, albeit imperfectly written (his writing style can, on occasion, be needlessly vague), book entitled “Why Size Matters: From Bacteria To Blue Whales” which, as the name suggests, analyzes the role of an organism’s size in it’s evolution, ecological niche, population density, and anatomy/physiology.  Dr. Bonner is perhaps best known for his expertise in the field of Slime Mold research, a fact which resulted in the following essay that first appeared in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle following a request from the magazine’s editorial staff just before the dawn of the 21st century. Although some of the prose contains a degree of anthropomorphism (which, given the non-scientific context, is excusable), I think that, overall, it nicely articulates just how ‘relative’ time often is in the scientific sense:

“Time From The Point Of View Of A Slime Mold”

Time and life are intertwined in so many different ways, something all biologists are acutely aware of. Consider a few extremes: a single cell bacterium may have its entire life cycle in half an hour, but a generation for an elephant takes 12 years and a giant sequoia 60 years. One reason I work with slime molds, which are soil amoebae that start off as single cells, and then come together to form a multicellular organism, is that their generations are short, so that if I start an experiment on Monday, I will know the result by Wednesday or Thursday. This kind of biological time–life cycle time–is at the middle of the time scale of living phenomena.

At the faster end of that scale is physiological time: how many beats does a heart have in a minute, or how long does it take to swerve the car in order to avoid a squirrel on the road. As with life cycles, these rapid living activities are greatly affected by size, so a huge elephant will have about 25 heartbeats per minute, while a tiny shrew’s heart goes at the amazing rate of over 600 beats every minute. The elephant will step to one side with slow deliberation compared with a small sparrow on the willow ledge with its lightning movements. We can combine the concept of the time required for a life cycle and the time required for rapid physiological processes in an interesting way. A shrew will live only a year or two, but an elephant will average 40 to 50 years; yet they have one thing in common: the total number of heartbeats they have in their whole lifetime will be approximately the same. So life for the small beast goes faster because its engine is racing along compared to the larger beast, and the total budgets for their actions are the same.

Evolutionary time is another time scale in the realm of life. Now we are no longer dealing with one generation, but with a great series of generations going way back in time to the beginning of life on earth. We are no longer dealing with minutes or a few scores of years, but with millions, and even billions of years. We find in the fossil record an era when all life consisted of cells, which later were followed by simple multicellular organisms, leading ultimately to all the great variety of animals and plants that we see on the earth today. This has been an exceedingly slow and exceedingly grand evolution that has taken up a vast quantity of time–so much so that it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of geologic time. And we know that even these time spans are modest compared with those of the astronomer, who thinks in terms of light-years*.

So what does a biologist think of this second millennium? It is too short a time for major changes in evolution, but time enough for many generations. Every 1000 years will allow some 50 human generations, but the shrew will have a new generation each year, which means [some] 1000 each millennium. So for slime molds and shrews, the second millenium has meant waiting impatiently for a huge number of generations, while for elephants and ourselves–the wait barely tries our patience.

* [(I fully realize that a light-year is a unit of distance, and not time. However, the enormous amount of time required to travel between them preserves Bonner’s point.)]

The sheer magnitude of time with which paleontologists work on a daily basis is every bit as humbling and awe-inspiring as the vastness of space so eloquently celebrated by a host of passionate astronomers and astro-physicists throughout the ages from Issac Newton to Carl Sagan. 

But alas, I’ve said too much already! To those among my readers who study the field of long-vanished life, either professionally or as amateurs such as myself, I’d like to ask how this knowledge of deep time affects you outside the realm of scientific pursuits and during the course of day-to-day life.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!


My 2010 Booklist Part 1 of 3: January-April

27 04 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I apologize for my relative inactivity of late: the waning days of my final semester here at MCC are taking an enormous toll upon my free time which, consequently, has severely handicapped my ability to make routine posts.

To prevent TTT from going completely barren during this time, I’ve elected to showcase the following update on one of the resolutions I made just prior to the advent of the present year: namely, to increase my personal voluntary reading rate. As the title of the article suggests, this entry chronicles all of the books I’ve consumed thus far… each of which is accompanied by a short review composed by yours truly.

So, without further ado, I hereby present the first third of my 2010 booklist in chronological order.

“Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas” By David Rains Wallace

My Thoughts: The cover, excerpts of critical acclaim, and internal blurb all insinuate that ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is a highly accessible and evocative narration which equally blends scientific data, historical discourses, and personal observations concerning the history and conservation of marine life in North America’s west coast. However, in reality, the latter two features unambiguously dominate the text, leaving the former grossly under-represented. Though I find the history of science and the musings of eloquent naturalists to be fascinating and enjoyable topics, I don’t particularly care for being ambushed by either of them in search of ‘hard science’. With the exception of Wallace’s coverage of pinnipeds (which, in my opinion absorbs a disproportionately large amount of the book’s content), none of the strictly scientific information is technical enough to appeal to committed paleontology and zoology enthusiasts nor is it sufficiently readable and well-illustrated enough for laymen to find it comprehensible. The greatest strength of ‘Neptune’s Ark’ is unquestionably the author’s obvious passion for his subject, yet this ardor alone simply isn’t enough to save a book which attempts to please everyone and in so doing fails to please anyone.

”Beauty And The Beasts: Woman, Ape, And Evolution” By Carole Jahme

My Thoughts: As I’ve doubtlessly said elsewhere, my favorite popular science books are those which pay their philosophical dues and in so doing, provide the audience with more than a simple run-down of the featured discipline’s facts, theories, and controversies by forcing them to ponder the subject’s deeper implications for day-to-day life. To this end, I have yet to come across a scientific volume which exceeds the brilliant ‘Beauty & The Beasts’; a masterpiece of modern science writing. Jahme effortlessly brings us to sympathize with the plights and triumphs of female primatologists  while never failing to address such evocative and controversial questions as ‘Why do primates tend to be almost infinitely more trusting of women than men?’, ‘Should apes be given the same rights as human citizens?’, ‘How much does the human psyche have in common with those of our nearest relatives?’, and, on a broader scale, ‘Does scientific objectivity truly exist?’. Furthermore, although most feminists will relish the book, Jahme nonetheless refuses to promote “utero-centric propaganda” by thoroughly and equally scrutinizing the observational and scientific biases of both genders in primatology. In short, ‘Beauty & The Beasts’ doesn’t contain a single sentence which would lead me to remotely considering giving it anything less than my highest recommendation. Bravo!

”The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson And The Olympians Book One)” By Rick Riordan

My Thoughts: (WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Upon hearing a friend’s appraisal, I was encouraged to lend my eyes to a copy of this bestseller. Having completed the novel, I must admit that my feelings concerning it are mixed but mostly positive. Riordan’s overall concept of depicting the Greek Gods in the setting of the modern U.S. is absolutely superb and, as a lifelong mythology enthusiast, I relished the re-discovery of such legendary characters as Medusa, Procrustes, Charon, and Ares in their twenty-first century attire and occupations.  Similarly, the story as a whole is deliciously action-packed and relatively unpredictable. Unfortunately, “‘The Lightning Thief” has obviously stolen several key plot elements from the ever-popular ‘Harry Potter’ series. Furthermore, although Riordan has certainly provided his readers with a huge amount of suspense, he also falls prey to a few long-standing clichés as well as having the occasional supposedly ‘shocking’ plot twist anticipated by the reader far in advance. Still, ‘The Lightning Thief’ offers quite a bit of entertainment for those looking for a bit of light reading.

”Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures” By Carl Zimmer

My Thoughts: As Zimmer would have likely predicted, I’ve never really given parasites very much consideration, despite my unrestrained adoration for a ‘host’ of  biological sciences. “Parasite Rex” conclusively reveals why this ignorance is scientifically unacceptable. Not only do these amazing organisms wield some of evolution’s most brilliant inventions, but an increasingly large amount of evidence suggests that they play an indispensably vital role in ecology and in environmental stability (in fact, it’s entirely possible that the majority of predator-prey relations are directly driven by them). Furthermore, Zimmer discusses how parasites may have directly led to such monumental evolutionary developments as sexual reproduction. For those intrigued by these ideas, I’d also suggest Susan Perkins’ excellent blog, ‘Parasite of the Day‘.

“When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives Of Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy

My Thoughts: This is one of those concepts which would have made for an excellent article, but ultimately collapses under the weight of a moderately-sized book. Masson and McCarthy do make some powerful arguments regarding anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism, and certain biases of the scientific and pop-culture communities at large, many of which I myself have been supporting for years. However, their most interesting points are almost entirely restricted to the introductory and concluding chapters, a fact that essentially reduces the remaining pages to a diverse but woefully repetitive collection of anecdotes, many of which can be more accurately described as mere ‘rumors’. Furthermore, although the authors clearly intended to utilize ‘When Elephants Weep’ for the purposes of convincing the scientific community to take the idea that animals have human-like emotions seriously, they’ve provided little more than a sliver of ‘hard’ scientific evidence, opting to focus almost exclusively on philosophy in its place (I fully realize that I’ve often shed a great deal of acclaim upon popular science books which ‘pay their philosophical dues’. However, this particular book does so to the exclusion of virtually any actual science). In summary, ‘When Elephants Weep’ seems incapable of winning over its intended audience, even though it will likely appeal to those who already support its central thesis.

“Survival Of The Sickest: The Surprising Link Between Disease And Longevity” By Sharon Moalem (With Johnathan Prince)

My Thoughts: Moalem’s brilliantly clear introduction to the subject of evolutionary medicine is well worth the attention of anyone seeking to broaden their knowledge of biology in general. Additionally, “Survival Of The Sickest” provides some of the finest preliminary outlines of epigenetics, ‘jumping genes’, and hypermutation I’ve ever read (all of which will ensure that you’ll never view Lamarckian evolution with the traditional dosage of contempt again). My only serious complaint hails from Moalem’s discussion of the infamous aquatic ape hypothesis in which he fully supports the notion without giving mention to any of its strongest criticisms. Still, this is but a minor point: on the whole, “Survival Of The Sickest” is an absolute must-read!

“Utilitarianism” By John Stuart Mill

My Thoughts: A quick perusal of TTT’s “About Me” page will reveal that I consider myself to be a bit of a John Stuart Mill fan. Yet most of my knowledge concerning the man’s philosophical and political ideology hails from various quotations and essays I’ve accumulated over the years. At least, such was the case prior to this past spring when I finally managed to obtain a used copy of Mill’s most famous volume. As with most classic philosophy texts, it’s wise to research the content of ‘Utilitarianism’ prior to actually reading it to better ensure comprehension whilst devouring its 1861 prose. Nonetheless, Mill brilliantly articulates the underlying principles and logic of Utilitarian philosophy through a satisfying parade of evocative and powerful arguments which force the reader to strongly reconsider his or her viewpoint on the very nature of morality itself.

“Death By Black Hole And Other Cosmic Quandaries” By Neil deGrasse Tyson

My Thoughts: I’ve frequently made much ado about the fact that I regard Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be one of the finest science communicators of our era as evidenced by his passionate prose, general avoidance of excessive jargon, excellent stage presence, and unique sense of humor. So, upon making the decision to widen my meager knowledge of astronomy by exploring popular science books on the subject, “Death By Black Hole” became my natural first choice. This collection of several dozen essays certainly doesn’t disappoint, serving instead as an entertaining and ceaselessly intriguing model of clarity. Tyson lends his exquisite explanatory capabilities to a host of various topics, my favorites being the emergence of light from the sun, how elements are formed and distributed by the collapse of stars, and the role of consistency in the universe. Additionally, his discussion regarding why intelligent design simply cannot be cited as ‘science’ and is demonstrably antithetical to all forms of scientific inquiry should be required reading for all students of science, philosophy, and theology. My only criticism is in light of the fact that the volume contains no illustrations or diagrams of any kind. While Tyson’s bang-up descriptive powers prevent this situation from becoming remotely problematic, the inclusion of visual references would have been greatly appreciated. However, this slight imperfection should not be misinterprited as a notable criticism, as I staunchly reccomend “Death By Black Hole” to essentially everyone.

“Supercapitalism: The Transformation Of Business, Democracy, And Everyday Life” By Robert Reich

My Thoughts: In my opinion, the most pressing issues facing our society and very democracy today homogeneously owe their existence to the deplorable effects of excessive “fundamentalist capitalism” or, as former secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls it in this important and very readable diagnosis of our current socio-economic situation, “Supercapitalism”. Reich does an almost impeccable job of explaining how the celebrated free-market American economy has spun wildly out of control during the course of the past 40 years and taken hold of the industrialized world as a whole (and particularly the U.S.) by highlighting a disturbing series of facts concerning the gross inequality of wealth distribution and the ease with which major corporations may now purchase political favors. Particular appraisal is deserved when one observes the fact that “Supercapitalism” manages to break the political taboo against criticizing the middle class when such debasements are due by highlighting the role of the typical consumer in this most regrettable and dire situation.

Be sure to check back in late August for part 2!

NOTE: The next “Spotlight” post will, by special request, feature the Eocene “bear-dog” Daphoenus sp.

When Will People Learn That ‘Natural’ & ‘Ethical’ Aren’t Synonyms?!

25 03 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

(WARNING: Graphic Content!)

If anyone with a strong stomach hasn’t checked out the latest post on Darren Naish’s “Tetrapod Zoology”, I’d strongly suggest remedying the situation as it contains this most unusual image:

For those of you who may be wondering what exactly is going on in the featured photo, allow me to explain:

It depicts three male mallard ducks in the process of gang-raping a female.

According to one of Darren’s previous articles, “[A]s you’ll know if you’ve spent any time watching ducks, ‘forced extra-pair copulations’ are very common… The Mallard Anas platyrhynchos is the best (or should that be worst?) example of the lot: females are handled so roughly by males (sometimes by groups of as many as 12) that it’s quite common for people to speak of witnessing ‘duck rape’, and forced copulation is a common strategy used by males of this species.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: you simply cannot apply human moral ideals to nature and attempting to do so embodies the definition of foolishness. A few weeks ago, I discussed the implications of  “Nonmoral Nature”, which is arguably the late, great biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s most evocative essay. Though I had displayed the following quote in my analysis of the piece, I hope that my readership will forgive me for doing so once again, as the sentiment it contains is just as relevant for the purposes of this discussion as it’s ever been.

“[N]ature simply is as we find it. Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

Having made this point abundantly clear on several occasions, I feel the time has come to examine the infuriating disregard for it sported by an array of laymen, scientists, and world leaders alike.

Consider this: last June, when Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa was asked if the famed big American banks had a right to protest the potential approach of any new regulations on the grounds of monetary loss, he provided the following response:

“Greed is human nature. We shouldn’t blame greed any more than you’d blame gravity when a plane has an accident and goes down.”

It turns out that Grassley was partially right. Examples of greed occurring in nature are almost innumerable, with the dictatorial pecking order utilized by lions and the will to monopolize all available females in several primate species immediately coming to mind ‘ere the arrival of countless similar cases. In fact, the subject serves as the backbone of Richard Dawkins’ celebrated book entitled “The Selfish Gene”, which convincingly argues that egocentrism is, ultimately, the driving force behind evolution itself. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to contradict the assertion that this most odious of emotions lies near the foundation of our own collective human psyche.

However, it’s fairly safe to assume that neither Mr. Grassley nor virtually anyone with whom he finds himself in agreement in this case have ever heard of what’s known in academic circles as “the appeal to nature”. This concept is a logical fallacy which falls prey to the assumption that something may be cited as good and/or excusable simply because it’s natural. Therefore, according to this school of thought, greed is perfectly acceptable because, at the end of the day, it’s a demonstrably natural phenomenon.

But so is rape.

So too, in fact, are the practices of infanticide, murder, bestiality, and even genocide. However, I strongly suspect that one would be hard-pressed to locate a sane individual who maintains that these actions are to be considered remotely tolerable.

Yet this is precisely the sort of logic which is routinely espoused by political activists on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. Although I fully and vocally support gay rights (as any of my friends and associates can testify), I nevertheless can’t avoid cringing whenever a fellow activist proclaims that ‘homosexuality is perfectly natural’ while, in so doing, assuming that he or she is effectively declaring ‘homosexuality is perfectly ethical‘.

Regardless of one’s personal ideology, such an assertion does not pass for an argument. If you believe that greed is a good thing or that homosexuality is in no way immoral, it’s your duty to explain these opinions to your intellectual adversaries without invoking the appeal to nature.

Ours is a world which, in its untouched state, regularly permits truly atrocious things to occur. The inherent constitution of our universe and that of all it contains is a thing to be respected, examined, and appreciated for the very miracle of its existence and intricacy. But we must never forget this simple, true statement: the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”

15 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by the content of Connie Barlow’s YouTube channel “ghostsofevolution” to which I have subscribed for a few months now (having learned of its existence from Mrs. Barlow after briefly reviewing her book of the same name last December).

Earlier today, she posted the following video in which she visits the official monument to the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park and utilizes the occasion to orate the legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ceremonial (and incredibly evocative) essay entitled “On A Monument To A Pigeon”, which originally appeared amongst several others in his 1949 compendium, “A Sand County Almanac” (which, having seen Mrs. Barlow’s video, I simply must read!).

For those interested, I’ve included a transcript of the entire essay below:

 “We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

 Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.  

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.  

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise. 

Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark. 

These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.  

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. 

This monument, perched like a duckhawk on this cliff, will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing wood ducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake golden pollen from the river willows, Egrets will pose on these sloughs in August; plovers will whistle from September skies. Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts will not take wing.  

We are told by economic moralists that to mourn the pigeon is mere nostalgia; that if the pigeoners had not done away with him, the farmers would ultimately have been obliged, in self-defense, to do so.  

This is one of those peculiar truths that are valid, but not for the reasons alleged. The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.   

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.” 

Why I’m (Mostly) A Cenozoic Guy

10 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fairly safe to assume that anyone who’s given so much as a passing glance to this humble corner of the ‘net is well-aware of my overall preference of prehistoric mammals to their reptilian counterparts, as evidenced by my heading, my ‘comments section’ avatar, and the appreciable majority of my posts.

However, you may be suprised to learn that I haven’t always been like this. In the fairly recent past, I, like the most paleontology enthusiasts, was completely smitten by dinosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, crocodylians, and their scaly brethren (in point of fact, for a time, I rather resented mammals due to the general public’s unfair tendency to invariably treat them with more respect and admiration than it would ever consider granting to any organism which doesn’t utilize milk). While I still adore these fascinating creatures, I’ve since shifted my focus primarily towards the hairy side of vertebrate paleontology.

To assist me in partially explaining this academic epiphany, I’ll utilize an excerpt from a recent interview with pterosaur expert Mark Witton who, in addition to being a spellbindingly-talented illustrator and writer, also seems to express quite a bit of enthusiasm about my beloved fossil mammals for, when asked to state his favorite era in Earth’s history outside the Mesozoic, he replied:

“The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic – ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself (although I’ll concede that while the abundance of fossilized mammal teeth certainly makes things more scientifically convenient, it also forces the lion’s share of virtually any paleo-mammology volume to degenerate into a ‘dentistry 101’ textbook).

Furthermore, while one would likely come to the conclusion that the ‘greater insight’ into Cenozoic life to which Witton refers would indicate that the amazing organisms the era contains are recieved with an enormous amount of esteem by the paleontological community, this isn’t the case, at least not to the degree anyone unfamiliar with our science is bound to assume. Indeed, a quick perusal of my blogroll alone will provide sufficient data to uphold the assertion that the majority of amature and professional paleontologists alike adhere to the study of extinct reptiles. Dinosaurs, I hardly need mention, boast an especially large following, but this fact is destined to recieve its own rant post.

I fully realize that this love of all things reptilian is perfectly understandable: after-all, the fact that we cannot consider ourselves to be members of the reptilia class by any definition alone is sufficient enough to secure the appeal of these creatures to the well-known region of our imagination which lends itself to be captured by anything it deems ‘alien’. However, in this regard, our psyche tends to pursue ‘foreign discovery’ to the expense of that which lies within our own metaphorical back yard. Although we may have more in common with cetaceans than sauropods, the former behemoths are just as fascinating, yet we overlook them for their comparative familiarity.

The paleontological community has thus reached the bizarre state of expressing our collective interest in a group of unfamiliar animals for being strange and intriguing, yet many of its members withold their enthusiasm for a relatively closely acquainted group in spite of their own strangeness and intrigue. This relative neglect is one of the most powerful forces which ultimately draws me towards the study of paleo-mammology, as I’m sure it does for a great many of us interested in the field.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

Richard Dawkins On Science & Moral Philosophy

26 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

In the tradition of a recent post in which I highlighted Stephen Jay Gould’s views on (among other things) the relationship between ethics and science, I’ve decided to share the following video in which the famed Richard Dawkins offers his thoughts on the subject. While I’ve made my disdain for Dawkins’ incessant injection of Atheism into ‘popular science’ quite clear elsewhere, I must concede that he’s (mostly) spot on in this case.

Nonmoral Nature & “Biological Popularity Contests”

21 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

[NOTE: I realize that the introductory segment of this particular post is likely going to be an excersize in ‘preaching to the choir’ to my regular readers. Nonetheless, I feel the need to vent given the rampant acts of zoological favoritism I’ve seen my non-scientific associates display of late.]

In light of the fact that, at the dawn of 2010, I resolved to increase my personal rate of literary consumption, I’ve taken to reading the essays of the late, great Stephen Jay Gould (many of which can be found here) during my spare time in addition to absolutely devouring Carl Zimmer’s evocative “Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures”. The latter narrative shares a common theme with what is arguably Gould’s most famous essay, “Nonmoral Nature“: anthropomorphism isn’t going away anytime soon, and  it’s always depicted parasites as “nature’s most dastardly villains”. I’d advise anyone skeptical of this contention to consider the following passage which was originally written by the great French entomologist J.H. Fabre while describing the fate of a paralyzed cricket:

“One may see the cricket, bitten to the quick, vainly move its antennae and abdominal styles, open and close its empty jaws, and even move a foot, but the larva is safe and searches its vitals with impunity. What an awful nightmare for the paralyzed cricket!”

Evidently the idea that the larva which had infested the cricket merely did so because its anatomical makeup wouldn’t permit it to survive under any other circumstances failed to cross the mind of one of the subject’s most learned scholars: instead, when faced with a conflict of interests between two organisms which were operating under forces beyond their control, rather than taking the scientific position by remaining neutral, Fabre elected to unambiguously lend his sympathy to the more superficially ‘human’ creature of the two.

However, it’s no secret that parasites are far from the only victims of this destructive philosophy. herpetology enthusiasts like myself are acutely aware of the public’s conviction that snakes are sinister, satanic creatures while primatologists are doubtlessly conscious of the average layman’s belief that chimpanzees are harmless, fun-loving charmers. Yet, the fact that, unlike primates, snakes are incapable of committing genocide, willful torture, and well-choreographed acts of political debasement never seems to effectively challenge the fervor of their preconceptions.


Well, apparently, the general consensus among non-scientists appears to fall somewhere along the lines of “if it can’t be made to look human, it’s not worthy of our attention”. How’s that for xenophobia?!

The truth is that we have absolutely no reason to believe that any organism is inherently more or less honorable than any other organism. As Gould has so eloquently asserted,

“[N]ature simply is as we find it. Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

How can we ensure that this fact is spread at a sufficiently large scale? I strongly suspect that whoever can answer that question is more than capable of obliterating all the prevailing difficulties associated with communicating science to the public.

Right then, enough ranting for now, at least on my part.

Last month, Zach Miller of ‘When Pigs Fly Returns’ asked his readers to list their “favorite (or most obscure) examples of prehistoric animals that are NOT dinosaurs, but are mistaken for them”. I’d like to take a page from his book by asking my readers to list their “favorite” ironic examples of popular culture’s mindless biological favoritism. Is it the cute-but-infanticidal bottlenosed dolphin? The majestic-but-thieving bald eagle? Or the  “cuddly”-but-deadly hippopotamus? Feel free to include the organisms which find themselves on the “ignoble” side of this fallacy as well.