I love the Carnivora, could you tell?

27 01 2007

Last weekend my wife and I took a day trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, and despite the biting cold I got some pictures of animals I normally don’t see there. It’s more preferable to go in the spring or summer when things are warmer and more animals are outside, but at the same time such weather attracts crowds of loud children that some more solitary creatures (like the Fishing Cat) don’t want to have anything to do with. I also figured that I should start posting more pictures on here, perhaps picking one photo every week (Fridays?) and doing a little profile on that animal. It’d be something to get some regular attendance anyhow, last week receiving over 50 visits in a day from linking to a post here in a comment on Pharyngula and then crashing to nearly single digits. It’s fun doing this for myself and sort of “thinking out loud” on here, but it would be good to get something of a readership going. Anyway, on to the pictures!

Me and an Amur Leopard

This is me and an Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) at the zoo; the poor guy has nearly half of his tail cut off! There are only about 30 Amur leopards left in the wild, making it critically endangered and groups like WCS are trying to bring the population back up (if I remember right a new one will soon be kept at the Central Park Zoo). Amur leopards are the northernmost subspecies of leopards, having a thicker coat and larger rosettes compared to their African and Indian counterparts, such beautiful fur leading to their downfall as they were primarily hunted for this asset.

Leopard Stare

While we were watching the leopard started lapping at a little pool in its enclosure, and I managed to snap this shot in-between drinks. I absolutely the intense looks cats are capable of.


This one is a little soft on the focus (it’s hard shooting through the angled glass for the leopard’s enclosure; I’ve had many shots come out like this), but I still like it since the cat makes its own background, making it seem bigger than it actually is.

Eyelash Viper

This was one of the Eyelash Vipers (Bothriechis schlegelii) in the reptile house. I usually don’t give snakes much more than a passing glance (they’re cool, but not very exciting in captivity), but I love the colors and “eyelash” scales of this species. Luckily they’re behind glass so they don’t jump out and bite, which would cause (other than the severe pain), potential necrosis of whatever they bit.


This is one of the Red Kangaroos (Macropus rufus)outside that day, which later on was, erm, receiving the affections of a male (don’t worry, I didn’t post any marsupial porn today). Notice the use of their tail and how muscular it is. It reminds me of a prehistoric reptile (its name escapes me at the moment) that had shorter arms than legs and a long tail, so perhaps it moved in a similar way being that it doesn’t seem like it was bipedal.

Red Panda

The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) was actually awake for a while during my last visit, walking around the enclosure after it washed itself. It’s always interesting to see how individual red pandas differ from each other, this particular one looking a bit fatter and having a shorter face than the one I took pictures of at the Bronx Zoo not long ago (the very one that’s looking at you on my border). This probably has quite a bit to do with age and getting fatter with more time in captivity, but if you do look carefully enough you can see that there is indeed variation between individuals.

Wild Dog

I didn’t think I was going to catch a glimpse of the African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) being that I visited on such a cold day, but as I was walking by I saw a few pairs of big ears flutter behind a rock and I was soon treated to a display of several dogs romping about. It’s always interesting to watch them, trying to pick out who is submissive to whom and what the hierarchy is. The Bronx Zoo has a better habitat and larger group of the dogs (3 just isn’t enough for a pack animal), but it’s always a pleasure to see them.

Fishing Cat

During my last two visits I missed the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus or Felis viverrina), but this time I was lucky enough to get a few pictures while it ran around its enclosure. It certainly was a fat cat, not helped by the fact of its relatively small ears and thin tail, but you could definitely tail it had more than enough to eat as it pawed its way back and forth through its enclosure.


Just like last time the three Cougars (Puma concolor) were out and about during my visit, at least two nearly posing for the camera right in front of the glass. They also managed to get up into the tree towards the front of their enclosure but the glass off the glass was so terrible it essentially ruined the photos.


All I’m going to say is that I absolutely love this picture.


No day would be complete without a visit to the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) trio, and although two were content to stay warm one came down to have a look at things, calling intermittently and acting as if he was looking for something. I was surprised that they would even be on display with the temperature so low (it was about 26 degrees F if I remember right), but I suppose their species plasticity has allowed them to get used to the cold after so many winters at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Who knows?

26 01 2007

I was reading over Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene this morning when I happened upon a quote that sums up a lot of arguments about evolution. According to pg. 18, Jacques Monod once said

Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it!

Reading over some of my own writing, I realize that I fall into this category just like anyone else. Here I am, an aggravated undergraduate, pointing out how giants like Mayr and Dawkins are wrong and thinking that I’ve got it figured out better than they do. Even Dawkins and Gould found it hard to see eye to eye, and when you add creationists and id-advocates like Johnson, Dembski, Ham, and Wells to the mix, everyone thinks they know better than everyone else and they really know the inner workings of how life evolves. I even can find contention with Monod’s statement, as I can’t stand hearing the phrase “theory of evolution.” As far as I am concerned, evolution is what life does; it is what we observe. There are many theories to explain how this happens, but the fact is that life evolves, and continuing to say phrases like “Darwin’s theory of evolution” does not do justice to how important and encompassing such an idea is as far as the natural world is concerned. It’s akin to saying “the theory of gravity” every time you did a physics equation, and as such I think we should abandon the terms “Darwinism” and “theory of evolution” as they do not accurately reflect to current state of evolutionary thought.

I also realize that I tend to come off more angry on my blog than I actually am, being that I usually write when I am frustrated/aghast/horrified/angry at one subject or another. Much of this fact comes from the reality that right now I’m typing out words on the internet, not actually talking to anybody, so what’s going on here is little more than what exists in my own head. If I was engaged in dialog or giving a presentation, what I say and how I say it would probably change, and I should try to keep in mind that people who may disagree with me may read this and I would do will not to alienate them by being too harsh in my language or rhetoric.

Some monsters are real

26 01 2007

Last night my wife and I got to have a little Mystery Science Theater 3000-type viewing of the recently released stinkbomb, Primeval, as we were the only two people in the theater (the only other people in the theater left about 1/3 of the way through). I grew up watching bad movies, films like Alligator (written by John Sayles, no less) being among my favorites (see Orca, Tentacles, Piranha, Prophecy, THEM!, Frogs, Grizzly, etc. for more examples) and almost always on TV every other month or so via TNT/Sci-Fi/TBS/FOX. Come to think of it, I spent a good deal of my childhood watching monster movies (begging my parents to stay up late), playing with my Legos and trying not to think about the weird noises in the night that became all-too-abundant after the film ended. I never really grew out of the phase, seeking out real life monsters rather than giving them up, and I still love anything that has to do with dinosaurs, sharks, crocodiles, or man-eating monsters born via radioactive sludge in films, expecting nothing much and having a good time ripping on the bad production values. If it gives you any indication of the quality of the movie, Primeval gave my wife and I plenty of material to riff on.

Before I go any further, I do want to say thank you to my wife for coming along with me to the film, indulging my boyish tendency to go out and watch monster movies even though I know they’re going to be utterly appalling. As she commented after we left the theater, she was surprised Primveal got a theatrical release, the special effects just a step above horrid Sci-Fi Channel original movies like Mammoth (the worst movie I have EVER seen, EVER!) and Attack of the Sabertooth. Indeed, during the first nighttime appearance of the films killer crocodile, it looked like it was a CGI-version of the old stop-motion animation style of Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, exaggerated and fast movements of the featured creature in order to make it seem more “lifelike.” Even when we got to see the croc in full daylight, the CGI paled in comparison to what could have been achieved with puppets, and giving it an endless supply of stamina as it awkwardly galloped after Orlando Jones was incredibly silly. Granted, crocodiles look silly when they “gallop” anyway, but whoever did the biomechanics research for this movie obviously has never seen a fast-moving crocodilian. I really don’t understand why move companies put so much into crappy CGI-rendered monsters when puppets look better and add to the realism of the film; the sharks in the film Deep Blue Sea looked great as puppets but horrid as CGI-rendered monsters. There’s plenty of gore in the film as well, but usually it’s so dark it’s hard to make out what exactly is being ripped apart (except at the end when the crocodile pops the main human antagonists head like a grape), and in classic movie-monster style it knows how to take out underwater supports of a pier in order to get at the humans, it literally sniffs out the bad guy at the end, it eats a soldier about to rape a woman, it has an endless amount of energy & cunning, so really nothing like a real crocodile at all. What is more frightening to me are the real animals, the ones that are so swift, deadly, and quiet that you often attacks are little more than someone bathing never to you and then they’re suddenly gone in a swirl of water. Such is an account in the car-wreck of a coffee table book The Eyelids of Morning, in which a young man was standing on a rock in a body of water and then he suddenly wasn’t there, appearing a short way downriver in the jaws of a Nile Crocodile, which later was caught and the young man’s legs were extracted from the crocs stomach (framed in a blood-spattered cardboard box in the book). Such events are enough to keep me out of Africa’s rivers, lakes, and streams.

Primeval would have been bad enough if it was simply concocted by a group of executives who decided that Lake Placid was a great work of cinema, but it’s actually loosely inspired by a real killer crocodile named Gustave (named by Burundians for a ruthless president during civil war). Studied almost exclusively by Patrice Faye, a French self-proclaimed naturalist, Gustave lives in the waterways of Burundi, especially Lake Tanganyika and Rusizi River, reportedly reaching a length of 20 feet and weighing a ton (suggesting he has long surpassed the average 45-year longevity of most Nile Crocodiles). Such a large crocodile is enough to make people afraid by merit of its size alone, but Gustave has been charged with over 200 human deaths (as well as one adult hippo), the body count going ever-higher.


The above picture is one of the few I’ve seen of Gustave, the few pictures floating around on the internet not having much for scale in the pictures and most of the pictures Faye has taken have not made it to public viewing, apparently. While on assignment to track down the killer croc, the National Geographic team dispatched never found Gustave, and there has been little to no news about the whereabouts of the creature since 2005. The National Geographic article about the expedition has an editor’s note update, suggesting that Gustave has not been seen since at least November of 2006 (the rainy season making it difficult to track him), although 10 more deaths have been added to the list of fatalities. There is little doubt that Gustave has killed many people, but many remain skeptical of his legendary appetite for human flesh, seeming more like a catch-all explanation whenever anyone goes missing or gets taken by any crocodile. Indeed, how can you tell the size (or identity) of a crocodile when they are underwater? The one characteristic that seems to confirm the genuine attacks from other incidents is the fact that Gustave bears a dark scar on his head, something that is independently confirmed by those who get a good look at him during attacks. We know crocodiles kill and eat many people in various parts of the world every year (there’s no such thing as a “man-eating crocodile” because at least for saltwater and Nile crocodiles, they all have the propensity to do it if the opportunity arises), and it’s easy to believe that a crocodile of such gargantuan size would have an appetite to match, but there seems to be little actual evidence to back this up. Indeed, I haven’t seen any official reports made, books published, or other scientific discussions of case studies for those supposedly killed by Gustave (as is done with shark attacks via the Global Shark Attack File) and Faye doesn’t seem in much of a hurry to get empirical data out to the scientific community at large. Sure, everyone knows of Gustave and would like to catch him for study, but he has become more of a living legend to be captured/exploited than an actual animal to be studied. If Gustave is anything like the mythology makes him out to be, such a case study would be very illuminating from the perspective of ethology and human/ecological interactions, but it seems that the few scientists who have gone there have been so enthralled with trying to catch Leviathan for the cameras that all other empirical study doesn’t mean very much. I don’t mean this as a put-down to people like Brady Barr (the scientist who went with National Geographic), but what if we took the focus off trying to catch the animal and instead tried to figure out what the role of such a huge animal is in an ecosystem and what he is eating.

I don’t know if the mystery of Gustave will ever be fully solved, and it is likely that his story will fade away into obscurity over time. In places that are impoverished and torn by war, who has time to think about monsters in their own backyard? Once such places become developed, then all that was once wild is either tamed or exterminated, so either way Gustave seems more like a remnant of the mystery and danger Africa used to represent when it was still (dubiously) known as the “Dark Continent,” and because such mystery and the Jungian need to still have monsters in today’s world, I don’t think we’re ever going to know as much as we should about such a magnificent animal.

Highway to Hell

25 01 2007

I never knew listening to Queen put me within reach of hellfire and damnation. As Orac alerts us, someone was thoughtful (and homophobic) enough to post a list of bands that will turn your child gay if they tune in. Such idiocy reminds me of a stand-up I once saw where Lewis Black suggests that homosexuals are going around, door-to-door in grey trench coats, trying to turn each household gay. Scary, I know. Anyway, the list is here (ironically on a page that entitled Love God’s Way), and let’s have a look at what bands I listen to/have in my collection that could possibly contribute to my backsliding;

Queen, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Interpol, The Doors, John Mayer (?!), Elton John, The Killers, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Nickleback, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

There’s plenty more on the list (Elton John is listed twice, by the way, apparently because he’s “(really gay)”), but the inclusion of Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra perplex me, so I’m guessing someone saw how terrible this idea was and submitted Frankie as a joke. At least, I hope so.

The list of “Safe Music” is short by comparison, ironically counting Underoath (a metalcore band who are all Christians) alongside Jars of Clay. Weird. While looking over all this, I saw a link on the left entitled C.H.O.P.S., standing for (hold on to your hats) Changing Homosexuals into Ordinary People (no mention is made as to what the S stands for). I’m not even going to go into the fallacious ideal that people choose to be gay or that they are not acceptable to God unless they become heterosexuals (it’s too early to rant that much), but I am so saddened and disheartened with the state of Christianity right now that I sometimes wonder if we’ve become nothing more than the Pharisees of the New Testament. If God is love, why all the hate?

How to make 100% sure your child fails Biology

25 01 2007

Every now and again I hop over to the Answers in Genesiss website to see what kooky claims they’ve rolled out recently, and today a link under the “Store” heading caught my eye. The link read Biology 101 – DVD Curriculum, and such a title would seem innocuous until you actually had a look at some of the sample pages (warning: PDF file). I may not know much about botany, but I know enough about basic biology to understand how this “textbook” is absolutely insane and I really hope children who use this book do not get credit for using it in their homeschooling. While the $70(!) set does not seem to be sold as actual accredited homeschooling material, the AiG profile for the product claims “A 12-page “Course Accreditation Program” is included for homeschool families and others who want a year-long biology course,” but I have no idea how to check accredited works for homeschoolers and I’m not about to shell out $70 to find out. In any event, the sample PDF pages are nothing more than bulleted lists with some free Microsoft clipart spread about, starting off (of course) with how all plants were created on the 3rd day of a literal Creation week. This isn’t anything new, and I could certainly spend lots of time going over all the stupid mistakes in the work, but what stuck out at me the most was the absolutely idiotic inclusion of Fungi within Nonvascular Plants! I guess it doesn’t matter to the authors that Fungi belong to an entirely different Kingdom than the Kingdom Plantae, the writers explaining this issue by claiming that since Fungi were made on Day 3 (where this is in the Bible, I have no idea) and lack the nephesh sort of life found in higher animals, then it’s acceptable to group them with nonvascular plants, and that only “some scientists removed them from the plant kingdom.”

While I have no idea how many people are going to buy this book or ones like it, the things that students are able to get credit for in a homeschool environment is, at times, incredibly dumbfounding. There have been varying estimates about homeschooling in the United States, but according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, two 2003 surveys found that 33% (U.S. Census) to 72% (Department of Education) cited “religious or moral instruction” as a primary reason for homeschooling their children, the last estimate from the US Dept. of Education in 2003 citing 1.1 million children in the US being homeschooled. The disturbing documentary Jesus Camp gives us a peek into what can pas for a science curriculum in such settings, children watching creationism videos and affirming that global warming is merely an invention of the media.

I do not wish to paint all who were homeschooled with a wide brush; I would be off my rocker if I did. My wife was homeschooled in a Christian setting and she is the smartest person I know, and a family of Christians teaching their kids at home does not automatically mean they are creationists, AIDS-deniers, or anything else of that sort. Hell, given the sorry state of public education if I had kids right now I would homeschool them, especially since teachers started becoming so concerned with standardized test scores that they forgot how to actually enlighten their students. I actually went as far as getting an associate’s degree in 4-12 education and was utterly disgusted with the school systems in my area, and I hated every minute of it when I had to go through the system myself as a child. My point, however, is this. In the currently socio-political environment we live in, issues of scientific fact (like evolution, global warming, and whether Fungi are plants or not, apparently) often get blown up into social and political issues, making it easy for parents who have certain political views to indoctrinate their children into false ideologies, essentially cheating them of the truth. A child should learn math, grammar, spelling, etc. no matter where they get their education, but when a student is coming from a homeschool background into the public system (especially college), I think they should be rigorously tested on science, the one area that seems to piss people off in one way or another in history. I’m not saying if someone is a creationist they should be failed or not admitted to a university, but how we understand science has a lot to do with how we see the world and how we act in it; if you were raised not to believe in global warming because it’s a liberal conspiracy, are you going to care very much about the environment? Even beyond the social responsibility, what if a highschooler is fed this junk and then goes to college and has to take Biology 101. Are they going to pass the test on vascular vs non-vascular plants if they were taught fungi are plants that were made on Day 3 of creation? Such an embarrassing outcome is a result of the parents trying to shelter their children from what they feel is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” but only end up shortchanging their kids and making it harder to succeed in basic science courses.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t consider all creationists to be stupid or ignorant, but often they are misguided and afraid; I feel sorry for them more than I am angry, mostly because I know they are people just like me and have strong convictions. Even so, there is no excuse for trying to protect a child from everything that seems vaguely threatening to an ideology, trying to change the history of nature itself so that they’ll never question Scriptural Authority.

Another sad creature, dredged up from the depths

24 01 2007

It’s always interesting to see what fishermen drag up from the deep sea from time to time, but often I am saddened by the video/photos of the rare animals. Adapted to life in the dark, deep sea, they do not survive long in shallow water (especially if brought up too fast), often on death’s doorstep while cameras roll. While it appears that fishermen did not hook the shark discovered in the shallows off Japan today, the elasmobranch proved to be one of the most bizarre and “ancient” of the sharks, the Frilled Shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus), videotaped and photographed at the Awashima Marine Park. It was was brought to a shallow pool at the park after the staff were alerted by fisherman to the presence of the shark in the shallows nearby.

Here’s the video of the expiring creature.

This shark seems to show a more “primitive” condition than the more famous Great White, Tiger, and Bull sharks, having 6 gill slits (more derived sharks have 5) and an eel-like body with needle-like cusps on its teeth. Interestingly enough, it does give birth to live young, which is a more derived characteristic among sharks (some lay leathery eggs, the Mermaid’s Purses of beach scavenger hunts). What is perhaps most interesting is that until relatively recently it was thought this shark was extinct, being discovered off Japan around 1884. Currently it’s listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN, but shark population statistics are highly suspect, especially since we know so little about this animal to begin with and its appearances are relatively rare.

The video reminds me of the footage taken of a giant squid (Architeuthis dux) not long ago, the poor creature stuck to a lure and dying soon after the video was taken.

The video was hailed as the first of a “live” giant squid, but during a National Geographic special entitled Search for the Giant Squid (featuring teuthologist Clive Roper), there was footage of a live “giant” squid being hauled onto the deck of a fishing trawler, arms flailing about. There are squid other than Architeuthis that grow to large size and there’s no way for me to say what the species was, but regardless of this I was a bit saddened when I saw the video, especially when it was touted on internet news pages as the first video of a live giant squid. I was hoping for a streamlined animal, pulsing red and white and swimming freely in the depths, but what I got was a “catch of the day,” looking absolutely pitiful.

Would you like fries with that?

24 01 2007

For one reason or another, Yahoo!News amuses me on a near-daily basis. Todays #1 time-wasting news report comes in the form of some cranky folks over at the National Restaurant Association claiming that a new commercial featuring Kevin Federline is disrespectful to all those who flip our burgers and ask if we would like trans-fats with them. I haven’t seen the commercial myself, but apparently it shows “K-Fed” dreaming of rap-star fame, only to wake up and realize he’s a short order cook, and the commercial (put out by Nationwide Insurance) is entitled “Life Comes At You Fast.” Why are people wasting time trying to get such a superbowl commercial dumped? The NRA’s (no, not this one, the other one) Chief Exectutive Steven Anderson has this to say

An ad such as this would be a strong and a direct insult to the 12.8 million Americans who work in the restaurant industry


Developing creative concepts that accomplish the marketing strategies for a product should not require denigrating another industry.

As someone who has worked as part of the “restaurant industry” for several franchises, let me just say that those were the jobs I hated the most. Sure, tips were ok, but I hated being told to push margarita specials on pregnant women during “Margarite Madness” (I didn’t, although my boss didn’t care for my moral standpoint), deal with cranky customers who’s steamed-carrot wrap was “too spicy for them,” or serve endless plates of fries to 13-year olds over the course of 5 hours without receiving a tip. From just about every standpoint, it sucked, and I don’t know many people who become short-order cooks, waiters, or busboys and think “I’ve hit the pinnacle of my career.” This isn’t to say that anyone who works in such a job is stupid or has no marketable skill (do you know how many college students work in restaurants, or researchers that can’t get grant money together?) but I can’t think of anyone I’ve met who particularly enjoy being a “food slave” of one description or another, making minumum wage (or less) while being shouted at and covered in grease for 8 hours a day.

Selection or elimination?

23 01 2007

After finishing George Page’s Inside the Animal Mind I started on Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is (an assertive title if there ever was one). So far it’s just so-so, Mayr glossing over or ignoring lots of illustrations or important points, as well as assuming the reader is going to know what a coelomate or polyplacophoran is off the top of their heads. Surprisingly, he also included Haeckel’s embryos during the discussion of development despite the edition of the book I have being published in 2001 (I have not seen the 2002 edition so I don’t know if this is changed). I would also dispute his assertion that Archaeopteryx is derived from thecodonts rather than dinosaurs, but such discussions will most likely come later when I finish the book this week.

All these issues could be jumping-off points for discussion, but one point Mayr attempts to make sticks out in my mind. I’ll have to go back and get the exact page/reference when I’m back at my desk (I don’t have the book handy at the moment), but Mayr suggests that Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” accurately explains natural selection. Darwin liked the phrase as well, later including it in later editions of On the Origin of Species…, but I find it quite detestable (and not just for its connection to eugenics and “social Darwinism”). Natural selection is often described as a force than selects the “most fit” individuals (or individuals that are best adapted to their environment) and these individuals reproduce more frequently in a population and therefore their characteristics get carried on. In essence, natural selection is shown to almost have will, picking and choosing the best and brightest among all life, those that pass the test get the reward of living and reproducing, and it would follow that what is “most fit” is what survives better than other members of that population or species. This sounds fine, but it doesn’t work with what we know about the world and chance; the “fittest” don’t always survive.

Take the dinosaurs as an example. They were greatly abundant for a long period of time, coming in a plethora of shapes, sizes, and (inductively) habits, of course subject to natural selection. It could be argued that they were fit to survive, proliferating in the wake of the massive Triassic extinction to fill various niches, but by 65 million years ago (right at the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary) all the dinosaurs are extinct (I’m not counting birds as dinosaurs here, although they are derived from dinosaurs). It’s rare that extinctions occur with such severity to wipe out an entire Superorder of animals, but that is what occurred, a chance catastrophe paying no heed to what was “more fit” or “less fit.” How can an animal possibly be adapted to successful survival of an extraterrestrial impact unless such catastrophes are a near-constant occurrence? In the wake of the Cretaceous extinctions, mammals won out (although taking losses of their own) and proliferated, carrying on the legacy of the cynodonts before them.

Indeed, oftentimes freak events that do no occur often enough to have species be adapted to such catastrophies, the only way of surviving being the chance of having adaptations or characteristics that prove to be of some advantage in such an event. On the individual level, many predators are “fit” to survive but may make a mistake or slip and fall, breaking a leg; something that could happen to any of them. How can less-breakable legs be selected for in any case? Further, a healthy and fit population in one area may suffer from a drought and die out, while those rains start to fall on an area inhabited by a “less fit” or less-well adapted population, allowing them to survive and even flourish. Even among “normal” populations there is variation in size, behavior, and characteristics in a species, for instance some males may put all their energy into becoming big so they can fight others for harems while there are more “gracile” males in the population that breed more efficiently by sequestering females when the big male isn’t looking (bighorn sheep show this behavior). Which is “more fit”, the alpha male or the sneaky male? They both enjoy reproductive success and the types exist in the population together, so which is “better”?

All these examples lead to this conclusion; natural selection is primarily an eliminative force. Whether by freak accident, injury, or maladaptive mutation/behavior certain members of a population are eliminated and those that remain carry on to greater or lesser reproductive success. What survives is not necessarily always the “most fit”, and as we know a creature can be supremely adapted to a niche but when something changes they may not be able to cope (thus why 99.9% of all species to ever exist are extinct). It is comforting to think of natural selection as a process that is constantly weeding out the undesirables so that the population will continue on, but the qualification of what is desirable and what isn’t seems to be ascribed by scientists and not nature itself, thus undermining the entire idea. Thus, natural selection is best understood as the elimination of certain individuals because of certain circumstances, those individuals (regardless of how well-adapted they may be) reproducing and contributing their genetic material to the population to allow for further variation and change. In this way, elimination can only be a create force if the survivors mate (otherwise the individual is a dead-end) and natural selection acts upon the fruits of their union (or not, in the case of parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction, but that’s another story), the “creative” aspect of the process only occurring through the mutations, recombinations, or other changes that occur which the offspring inherits and natural selection then acts upon.

Post script; This reminds me of another idea I had, in that natural selection is ever-present. It does not start when the animal is born, but rather the developing embryo must overcome various hurdles in development and outside factors even to be born. Sandtiger sharks are notorious for eating each other in the womb, and various mammals have reproductive hierarchies where a dominant female will induce a submissive female to abort her baby if the submissive female becomes pregnant. Many of the examples of natural selection seem to revolve around adult animals, but we’d be mistaken to forget the various trials and pressures exerted on any form of life from the time of fertilization onward.

Gasoline to the arson

22 01 2007

Over at UD, Gil has treated us to another cut-and-paste piece of vacuity. The O’Leary quote he chooses is as follows

Bear with a simple lay hack here a moment: Why must we know a designer’s intentions in order to detect design?

If the fire marshall’s office suspects arson, do the investigators worry much about WHY?

Surely they investigate, confirm their finding, and turn the information over to other authorities and interested parties, without having the least idea why someone torched the joint.

ALL they need to be sure of is that the joint did not torch itself, via natural causes.

Intelligent Design’s inability to infer the intent of their “unknown” designer has always troubled me, but I’m willing to let go of the issue for the moment. There’s a lot of ground ID has to cover first, and O’Leary’s quote ignores some very rudimentary facts. If a fire marshal suspects arson, when it happened, how it happened, who did it, etc. are very important, and the intent of the arsonist will be examined if they can be identified; i.e. they did it for the insurance money, made it look like an electrical thing… yeah, that’s the ticket. I guess O’Leary has not done much detective work, as if we were to really equate the current state of ID to investigating an arson, the fire marshal’s office would simply say “This building burned down because of arson, we don’t know any details, so the case is closed.” Such practices would be outrageous, but ID advocates think they somehow have defeated evolution when all they have is a gut feeling that a designer was involved. Evolutionary scientists are constantly researching when life changed, how it may have done so, what pressures are involved, etc., filling in as many details as is possible to describe how life has changed and continues to do so, but somehow ID thinks of itself as exempt from such proofs.

What are we doing?

22 01 2007

After toting it around with me all week, I finally finished Inside the Animal Mind by George Page, the companion to the PBS documentary of the same name. Overall it wasn’t too bad, describing many interesting ethology studies but coming up always cutting off the story after more than a paragraph. Behaviorists or reductionalists will probably spurn the book as week, being that Page seems to go out of his way to chide those who ally closer with B.F. Skinner than Jane Goodall on the subject of animal intelligence. Although I was indeed critical of Dr. Goodall’s research methods in the last post, she has contributed much to our understanding of chimpanzees and been a vocal defender of the rights of such animals, and I think (if nothing else) she has shown us that Pan troglodytes is a more complex, intelligent, and emotional animal than anyone previously thought.

In any event, towards the somewhat abrupt closing of the book, Page discusses the issue of pain in animals and the odd allowances that are made to use animals for terrible research experiments, finding that it is often legal to deny animals about to undergo painful surgery or experimentation analgesics, anesthesia, or other pain killers if such allowances would somehow undermine the results of the study. The conditions under which many animals are kept are horrific as well, and although one could say that a rat in a lab cage is no worse off than a pet rat in a cage, there is absolutely no excuse for the abominable treatment of primates in medical facilities. I visited the Philadelphia Zoo again yesterday and felt bad enough for the lemurs, monkeys, and gorillas cooped up inside artificial enclosures (concrete walls painted to resemble forest with branches and various hand-holds strewn about), and their care is much better than that any animal about to undergo experimentation ever gets. As the author points out, if we are experimenting on these animals to further our understanding of humans (be it psychological, physiological, etc) does it not follow that there is at least the possibility that they think, feel, and suffer in at least some capacity? The hubris exhibited by defenders of vivisections and injecting primates with viruses like AIDS goes beyond belief, relating back to the mythology that man is somehow separate or above all animals, going all the way back to the opening of the Bible. If, philosophically speaking, I can’t prove that anyone else is actually alive or conscious or that the world isn’t being carried around in a paper bag, how can I prove that animals think and feel, but I am not concerned with such unsolvable philosophical debate; as the book mentions it’s akin to studying poetry under the microscope.

So if I afford the capacity for pain and emotion to animals, what about people? The conclusion of the book definitely made me think about the constant debate on abortion in this country, and my personal standpoint differs a bit from either of the more vocal sides in the argument. I have heard the argument forwarded that up until a certain point, abortion should cause no moral conflict as a developing human has to overcome various hurdles in order to eventually be born (hence miscarriages), so nothing is being done other than the peremptory execution of what may possibly occur. This doesn’t sit very well with me, however, as at what point do you draw the line? The whole process that can lead to a human being being born starts with fertilization, and I do not feel comfortable saying that after an arbitrary number of days or developmental changes the living thing inside its mother is human. To put it shortly, I think that once fertilization occurs, there is life and such life should be allowed to develop and have the chance of reaching its full potential as a human being.

Making abortions illegal, however, would have some horrible consequences. Regardless of what the law might say, abortions would continue in unsafe conditions, putting the mother more at risk and so if this practice is to be done, I would rather it be done by a professional in a safe environment that could refer the mother to some counseling if she needs it. I also don’t contest cases or rape, incest, and pregnancies that put the mothers life in danger. Even so, it would be wonderful is no one felt the need to have an abortion or if its occurrence became more rare. Oftentimes the debate rages around the unborn child, the plight of the mother forgotten. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be 13,14,15 (or any age) and have an unplanned pregnancy, possibly without the support of the family or father. I hate the phrase “I had to have an abortion”, but for young men and women who find themselves in such a situation what are they to do? Try and raise this child when they don’t have any higher degrees and probably can’t even support themselves on their own? Such would be making things worse for all involved. It also bothers me that men are often left out of the debate, the developing infant viewed as part of the mother exclusively with the potential father having no say in the matter. True, he does not have to carry the child and I don’t know the statistics of how many would-be fathers would want to keep the babies, but it’s odd that pregnancy requires two people but if that pregnancy is unplanned the feelings of one can be discounted or ignored.

I’m not a sociologist, but I have a feeling the way sex is viewed by many has contributed to the issue of abortions. Today, the purpose of sex for many is primarily pleasurable, the potential of it resulting in pregnancy often ignored. It’s not viewed as a social contract between two people, saying that “Yes, we both realize that this could result in a baby”, but rather it’s just one of the things that everyone does sooner or later with greater or lesser frequency and is all about pleasure. This is why abstinence-only education is foolish; when you’re young and impulsive you can’t always beat your hormones. Sure, abstinence should be mentioned and discussed in sex-ed class as the only way to be 100% sure not to get pregnant or a disease, but ending it there is incredibly dumb, teaching adolescents the reality of what sex is and how to protect themselves and be responsible about it (when they eventually do) being more important.

Back to the abortion topic; there are many pro-life groups that decry the practice and have harsh words for mothers who have had abortions. One such rally occurred at my university last semester, one protester holding up a banner reading “God is angry with the wicked every day.” Such fire and brimstone preaching doesn’t help things at all, and if groups like this care so much they should organize in a different way. I’m sure there are mothers-to-be who would want to keep their child if they could, but there is no way they can raise the child and giving their child away to adoption would be too traumatic for them, so why don’t pro-life groups raise money to support these mothers? Could they not provide bottles, food, formula, partnerships with child-care centers so the babies could be looked after, etc? That would be a miraculous thing, but it seems that people want to argue more than actually do anything to help the mothers and fathers in the middle of this issue. Such was the atmosphere during the Rutgers rally, a pro-choice group carrying signs like “Abort Everything”, “Darwin was right”, and “Fetuses taste like chicken” and chanting “1,2,3,4,5… fetuses are not alive” making supreme asses of themselves. During the confrontation I took photographs, wondering how it would all end up, but if its indicative of the greater debate at all people on both sides can be equally dogmatic and stupid, and those who need love, understanding, and help (not just prayer or lip-service) are forgotten.


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