More idiocy than you can shake a stick at

31 01 2007

Apparently I haven’t been paying close enough attention to cryptozoology in the past few years, the internet fueling the amount of nutty claims put out exponentially. For instance, I had never heard of Colonel John-Blashford Snell, but apparently Answers in Genesis thinks he’s pretty spiffy and he’s the Honarary Life President of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. It’s nice that cryptozoologists are able to get together and have friends, and Colonel Blashford-Snell has made some contributions to exploration, but by and large the proof is not in the pudding, as you might say.

Despite the eye-rolling I usually engage in when confronted with cryptozoology, I was at first intruiged upon viewing the photos of the “new” kind of elephant. The forehead of these specimens seem more pronounced and more akin to extinct relatives, but I decided to do a google image search for “male indian elephant” just to check out how these photos compare. As soon as the results came back the credibility of the photos evaporated. Have a look at the head-on skull structure of the proposed mystery elephant and then take a gander as a similar angle of this guy, and this one too while you’re at it. AiG’s elephants seem to have a slight difference, but it falls snugly within the realm of variation. Perhaps these animals are geographically isolated and the “steeper” forehead is a trait that would best differentiate them as a possible subspecies, but it’s not the mind-blowing proof they make it out to be. I guess AiG couldn’t be bothered to compare the photos with actual Indian Elephant photos either, knowing their credibility would disappear if they actually gave an honest comparison of known elephants and this “unknown” species.

Once I had found out about CFZ, some of their recent activies involving expeditions to find a mythical creature named “Ninki Nanka” started popping up all over the search results, even garnering articles in The Guardian and BBC Online. Much like reports of other “dinosaurian” creatures or lake monsters, descriptions of the animal seem to vary and although everyone knows someone who’s seen it, no one seems to have seen it themselves. Generally, however, the creature is described as a Nessie-type creature, with a long neck and horns on its head. According to this article locals even tried to dupe the team by handing them “rotting film”, attempting to pass them off as scales of the creature. I’m sure none of them would admit to it, but I have to wonder how much of a hoot local people get out of “great white hunters” showing up trying to prove the existence of dragons and other such things. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of species out there we haven’t even seen yet (the oceans being home to many of them), but there seems to be this pervasive need to find living dinosaurs or giant reptiles, some people being so enamored with them that they would rather they still be stalking the land.

As for images of the creature(s), no one has yet been able to snap a photo and reports are highly varied. This website depicts various mystery creatures sought after in the 2006 Gambia expedition, the official logo of the expedition and rending of the carcass being pliosaur-like and referring to a creature known as “Gambo”, the following image being essentially a giant monitor lizard (depicting one incarnation of Ninki Nanka), and I’m not even going to comment on the photo of the team which follows other than it doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence in their research methods. Upon looking a little further, Gambia seems to be crawling with unknown creatures, listed in this webpage from the Fortean Times. In contrast, according to the BBC article

…according to the expedition’s blog, after being shown pictures of various reptiles and mythical animals, the ranger said the creature’s [Ninki Nanka’s] face most resembled that of a Chinese dragon.

Growing tired of the Gambia nonsense, I followed another lead already analyzed by Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology, dealing with what are known as “Phantom Cats”/”Alien Big Cats”(ABCs). The proliferation of exotic cats as pets (and their subsequent release into the wild) accounts for some of these sightings, others probably caused by that feeling of being watched/stalked you get at night in the woods, perhaps being an incarnation of “Pleistocene Memories.” Even so, there is strong evidence suggesting that cats that escape/are set loose from captivity end up in areas that they are not native to, varying in size from housecat/wildcat hybrids to pumas. Darren does a good runthrough of the material on his blog so I’m not going to copy it, but on the subject of the “neatness” of the kills I think the clenliness of the kill site is overemphisized. Cougars, for instance, are somewhat wasteful eaters, and even though they incisions made by teeth and claws may be “clean” there is going to be quite a bit of extra viscera left (unless the cat is starving, which could be true in a non-native habitat). The wikipedia entry mentions clean punctures or slit throats, but to the best of my understanding big cats have not mastered the jugular-slice ability with their claws, death by suffocation/severing of the spinal cord by big canines being the primary mode to kill prey once it has been caught. In essence, the presence of ABCs shouldn’t be grouped in as fringe-science or cryptozoology because it is dealing with the real dispersals of exotic (and potentially invasive) species in various locales, and I would think such study would be of interest to ecologists. It seems like these cats, especially the big ones belonging to the genus Panthera and Puma, can’t establish a breeding population because there is only one or two members in any area at a given time, and that is no guarantee they’ll be of opposite sex, mate, or even be able to start a population without intense inbreeding. Thus it is appropriate to drop the term ABC’s or “Phantom Cats”, such titles smacking of pseudoscience, and identifying such phenomena for what they are; exotic species finding their way into various environments. Such events aren’t limited to cats, the Everglades in Florida suffering from pet snakes and other animals being released when they’re too large or troublesome for owners to keep. I even remember seeing a Disney animal-handler catch a snake in a pool and he couldn’t tell me what kind it was, saying that the staff were puzzled by this variety that seemed to be a hybrid between endemic and foreign species. If there is any truth to this, I don’t know, but the reality of exotics making their way into endemic populations is reality and the ecological ramifications of such events should not be ignored.

I know I come down hard on cryptozoology at times, and to tell the absolute truth, I do find it interesting. I don’t find much of it credible, no, but I think it is important to pay attention or at least catalouge such claims as perhaps one day a new species will be discovered that will explain odd sightings in a particular area, and perhaps if any respectable scientists journey to the regions said to be inhabited by legendary animals they will come back with data on new species of insects, mammals, reptiles, etc. that have gone unnoticed during all the expeditions looking for dinosaurs and giant vampire bats. Some things get blown way out of proportion or perhaps are even hoaxed for one reason or another, but as I learned with the “phantom cat” idea, sometimes mainstram scientists do ignore relevant data about things that may seem hard to explain at first. To make a (perhaps bad) analogy, when Plate Tectonics was first proposed it was a joke, but now we know it was right and it’s a central part of earth sciences. This doesn’t mean that just because scientists don’t accept an idea, it’s really credible and they just have to come around to it, but rather that sometimes things are pushed aside or overlooked, and a record of seemingly extraneous claims should at least be maintained so that someday we may hope to explain them when they are perhaps finally illuminated.

Ha, so they admit it!

31 01 2007

If I wasn’t nice, I could very easily quote mine something in this AiG article from 2005, stating:

…Ham said that God’s people suffer from a “lack of knowledge.”

The full text, of course, is this:

Quoting the prophet Hosea, Ham said that God’s people suffer from a “lack of knowledge.” And knowledge, imparted by some of the best-known creation apologists in the world, is what the conference is slated to provide.

Lucky for them I don’t use their sort of tactics to make my point. 😛

Kill your very own wolf for $26.50

31 01 2007

To say the least, wolves receive a lot of bad publicity. Sure, lots of people think they’re pretty interesting but there aren’t many who exactly want them running around in their backyards, livestock ranchers of Western states being the most vocal opposition to reintroduction attempts. The initial problems were overcome by compensating ranchers for lost livestock (such seems to be the management strategy wherever predators and humans share space, regardless of geographic location), but now that the population goals for wolves have been met, some have been desiring to re-open hunting on the animals that were once wiped out in North America. Such is the scene in Wyoming and Idaho, some officials wishing to remove wolves from the Endangered Species list and open hunting after a year-long review process. Although I don’t like the idea, I was not surprised by the proposal, the interaction between predators and people often causing for heated discussion (here in New Jersey it’s all about black bears), but what did disturb me were some of the numbers associated with the proposal.

According to this Helena Independant Record article, state officials would oversee the hunting of the roughly 1,200 strong wolf populations in the area, just so long as there were 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs in the state, minimum. How much would it cost to bag your own wolf? Idaho, itchy trigger fingers already starting to flinch, has set the price at $26.50 (purportedly ~$260 for out-of-state hunters, although I have yet to confirm this via news reports), which is less than the documentary Living With Wolves/Wolves at Our Door costs on The e-mail that I intially received on this topic went for the sentimentality approach, saying “I couldn’t put a pricetag on a mother wolf with pup in tow, but the Idaho Fish and Game Commission just did,” showing a picture of a cute wolf pup in the classic “pull at their heartstrings” technique. While the “You shouldn’t shoot cute things” argument doesn’t hold a lot of sway with me (ugly things need help too!), it is important to realize that by shooting an adult wolf you are disrupting pack life and throwing the animals social lives into turmoil, potentially killing pups by depriving them of their mother (although other members of the pack help care for them after the pups are a few weeks old). So, how are Wyoming and Idaho going to determine which wolves can or can’t be killed? Somehow I have the feeling that the responsible management & monitoring is going to take a backseat to “population management,” disrupting various packs. Plus, a drop from 1,200 animals to 100 is drastic, and if a large number of these animals are killed in the first season then there won’t be many more wolves left to hunt the next year while hunters will still be clamoring to go out and hunt wolves once again. I hope the folks in the state like rodents too and coyotes, wolves being a keystone species helping to regulate the populations of prey and competing predators. All in all, it seems like a piss-poor management plan that is only being enacted because livestock farmers are getting upset due to losses which (to the best of my understanding) they’re being compensated for.

It’s also interesting that the method by which wolves can be hunted is not mentioned, but I seriously hope it’s not like the aerial hunts allowed in Alaska. In such hunts wolf packs are chased by heliocopter and when the poor animals are too exhausted to carry on, they’re shot. I had no idea such cruelty to animals was permissable under the law, verifying that we have a long way to go when it comes to ethics regarding animals. Apparently we still consider animals to be unfeeling, unthinking underlings put on earth for our benefit only.

To put it bluntly, the claim that wolves are a major threat the ranchers livlihoods is bull. Wolves largely ignore livestock as long as they can find enough food and the wolves that have come to specialize in livestock hunting can be removed, or in severe cases, eliminated, although there are many ways to deter the wolves from making off with a sheep in the first place. Large guard dogs are one effective method, similar efforts being undertaken by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Africa where guard dogs will deter the predators without loss of life to either animal. Granted, wolves and cheetahs are different but there are methods to safeguard livestock available and it is not the wolves’ fault if farmers do not want to enact such precautions. I simply will not live in a world where all the large carnivores were hunted to extinction because of unfounded paranoia, but there are many people who would prefer to kill off magnificent animals like wolves so their pocketbooks would be just a little fuller. I guess they don’t quite understand that when you screw around with nature, the house always wins, and eliminating keystone predators ups the chance for rodent explosions and disease among said “vermin.”

If accurate, the Defenders of Wildlife page on wolf predation also puts forth some disturbing data. According to the webpage, coyotes, vultures, and even domestic dogs kill many times more cattle than wolves (disease and other non-fauna problems causing the majority of deaths), a graph showing the causes of death for cattle in 2005 residing here. As can plainly be seen, wolves are the least of ranchers concerns, just above bears in their consumption of livestock. I don’t see ranchers or government officials getting pissed off that those damned bacteria are taking so many cattle, or even for the larger take of cattle by coyotes. Indeed, it seems that wolves have something of a celebrity status and that comes back to hurt them as they are seen as most visible, and I’m sure that there are plenty of cattle kills by dogs and coyotes (and stolen cattle that never return) that get blamed on wolf predation.

Wolves, at least at their present numbers, do not present any considerable threat to livestock in the United States and while it may be appropriate to remove the animals from the endangered species list in some states, open hunting season should not be allowed, especially not to reduce the animals to the level of 100 from an existing population of 1,200. This is just another case of people who know nothing about ecology (politicians, I’m looking at you) pandering to whatever interests are the most vocal and have the most economic sway. There is a peition oppossing the proposals in Idaho and Wyoming which can be found at this website, and I urge you to sign it to ensure that we do not once again lose an animal that was so long absent from North America.

Mark your calendars folks!

31 01 2007

All last semester I was anxiously awaiting the re-opening of the human origins hall at the American Museum of Natural History, but despite the website putting the opening in Fall 2006, it never happened. I was quite happy, however, when the February issue of Natural History arrived and I discovered that the new Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins will be opening on February 10th (just 16 days short of my 24th birthday; you know where I’ll be going to celebrate the day). From what I can see from the website and the article, the reconstructions of hominids in the exhibit should be absolutely amazing. Sure, they all need to be taken with a grain of salt given that they are reconstructions, but I’m sure creationists will have a hell of a time explaining how such beings were merely aberrant human forms dispersed through the world post-Flood. In any event, I’m glad the exhibition is back and I look forward to getting a better look at some of my forebears.

Evolutionary Fitness

31 01 2007

To tell the truth, I’ve never liked the term “fitness” as it pertains to evolutionary science. When I was in elementary school, evolution was “survival of the fittest” (and indeed, Darwin himself was enamored with the phrase for a time), but ever since I started reading the literature and thinking about it I started to realize that “fitness” is little more than an abstraction. John Wilkins has already done a good job of contemplating the concept over at Evolving Thoughts, perhaps the most important aspect he mentions being the need to understand the ecological setting in which evolution is occurring.

I feel there needs to be a new synthesis between ecological studies and evolution as how can we possibly hope to understand how one works if we don’t understand the other? The other night I started in on the dated, but informative book Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem and one of the early chapters deals specifically with the evolutionary/ecological relationship between the ungulates of the area and the plant life. Although grasses and plant cover aren’t exactly the most interesting topics in the world to me, what I came away with is the obvious, but important finding that in areas that are not grazed by animals like Wildebeest (the primary grazing “army” of the Serengeti) there is a higher proportion of plants that grow from the stem (top) of the plant, whereas in areas that are heavily grazed there are more grasses that grow from the roots. On this same theme, grasses that are moderately grazed actually grow faster after being munched a bit than if they were left alone, the activity of the wildebeest (followed by gazelle shortly after) directly influencing the growth and competition between plant life. Such is a relationship that may not seem very special at the moment, but if studied in detail over the long term it could help scientists understand more about evolution through the interplay of organisms in an environment.

Another point that Wilkins makes note of is that not all environments are the same; lions in the Kalahari desert are not all living on equally productive real-estate. Oftentimes, animals are said to live in a particular environment, but seldom do what stop to think about what happens with animals that live on fringes or that migrate over long distances, the dynamics of the locations varying. There are more subtle factors at work than may be possible to study, and beyond basic ecological changes, animal behavior also plays an important role. Last night I was reading some more of the fantastic book Cry of the Kalahari where two male lions in a coalition (Muffin and Moffett) fought a very large and powerful rival male named Satan. If either Muffin or Moffett had faced Satan alone, they certainly would have been pummeled if not killed, but being that they formed a coalition they were successful in immobilizing their foe, who soon died. Given the intricacies of animal intelligence and behavior, I wouldn’t think that all male lions are equally open to forming coalitions to hold territory and females, the likelihood of such groupings forming being exceedingly complex to start with. You could have an exceedingly fit male who would form a coalition but is never given the appropriate opportunity (i.e. no male siblings) like Satan, but you could have two less-fit lions like Muffin and Moffett pool their strength to overcome the aggressor who is more “fit” on a 1:1 basis.

Speaking of African cats, cheetahs also come to mind in this discussion. Some time between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, cheetah populations plummeted to the point where inbreeding became the rule, thus making extant cheetahs exceedingly vulnerable to disease. Perhaps more nomadic animals or animals whose populations did not fall as drastically (as in East Africa) would fare better, but even so the amount of inbreeding has gone so far as to cause minor asymmetries in skull structure, one of the tell-tale signs (beyond near-instant epidemics, that is). According to ideas about fitness, these cheetahs should be getting more fit over time in their populations but the opposite seems to be, needing human intervention and studbooks to ensure their survival. Even our current efforts are not enough, cheetahs being so neurotic that reintroduction to the wild is difficult, thus current depleted populations may continue to inbreed. What will occur in natural populations in the future is anyone’s guess, but hopefully if I get the chance I would like to monitor who is mating with who, survival rate of the offspring, incidence of nomads, etc. so that we can see what happens to a population that becomes almost hopelessly inbred; will there be some new reservoir of variation or will the downward trend continue until extinction? What will happen if a population of cheetahs becomes more isolated from a larger population, will they die out faster from an even higher incidence of inbreeding? The point of these questions is that “fitness” doesn’t always necessarily go up in a population, detrimental attributes not always quickly snuffing out groups.

Ecological change/succession, time, and weather patterns are also subject I find sometimes lacking in evolutionary discourse. You can be exceedingly well-adapted to your environment but if there’s a harsh drought one year when there was none, you’re out of luck. How can a creature adapt to pressures that were not previously there? Dinosaurs didn’t adapt to survive extraterrestrial impacts as the pressure to fuel such changes was not there; the impact 65 million years ago was a one-time crap shoot for the entire group and they lost big time, but I would be hard-pressed to say that they were not well adapted. Indeed, I get frustrated when evolutionary scientists think of animals evolving almost in a vaccuum, or at least a sealed environment where every square foot of grass has equal productive value and whoever are the fittest will become apparent. It’s a crappy slogan, but if anything it seems to be “survival of the luckiest”, adaptive attributes needing the ability to increase in frequency and maladaptive ones not always signaling the immediate end of a population or species. Thus, I generally consider fitness to be an arbitrary, abstract term that doesn’t hold much value scientifically, especially since so many biotic and abiotic factors play into what survives and what does not.

I’m trying not to dislike Lee Strobel, but it’s so HARD

30 01 2007

Due to the reccomendation of a friend, I ordered Lee Strobel’s contribution to the creationism movement, The Case for a Creator, even though what I really wanted was The Counter Creationism Handbook. Oh well, next time. In any event, this past summer I took part in a Bible study focusing on the horribly researched and overblown book/movie The DaVinci Code in which Lee Strobel was the host, and although it wasn’t the most enlightening work I’ve ever seen, I didn’t really come out with a good or bad impression of the guy. Previous to the study many fellow Christians had extolled his work in his other books, touting his credentials as an investigative journalist, but from what I saw in the study he mostly used his credentials to make himself a voice of authority.

My opinion of Strobel drastically changed for the worse this past summer when I learned that he would be taking part (along with a woman who can only be described as an insufferable harpie, Ann Coulter) in a documentary entitled Darwin’s Deadly Legacy, blaming the naturalist for the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. This claim has long been used by creationists but has no basis in reality, and is akin to saying that because someone murdered someone else with an axe then the inventor of the axe always intended the tool to be used as a murder weapon rather than for forestry-related work. Hitler presented himself as a Christian many times and claimed to be doing the Lord’s work, so if the sword cuts both ways (hint: it always does) then therefore Christianity was a major force in the deaths caused by the Holocaust, built on the anti-Semitic beliefs of another famous German (and founder at the religions people like Ken Ham and other conservatives belong to) Martin Luther. I haven’t as yet seen the documentary, but I doubt I would be surprised if I did guessing from the list of “experts” assembled for the presentation. Oh, lookee here… some snippets are up on YouTube and the quotes are just as unfounded and heavy-handed as one would expect. See for yourself here. What is particularly spurious is Weikert’s discussion of the word “selection” as it pertains to Nazis, playing up the sinister aspect of the word in that context, almost daring the Hitler Zombie to come and take him out. I also found the Columbine school shooting association to be unfounded, primarily for the reason that Hitler obviously did not understand a word of what Jesus taught because his actions show this clearly, and by the same token just because one of the Columbine shooters gives a wrong-headed interpretation of natural selection doesn’t mean he understands what evolution is or is part of “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy.”

Moving on, I had a look at Lee Strobel’s website to see if there were any updates or clips pertaining to The Case for Creation, and on the front page there’s a link to an interview with ex-atheist (now deist) Antony Flew. I had honestly never heard of the man before someone mentioned his name to me a few months ago, and I have to say I was not impressed by the interview segment I saw. In explaining why he changed his mind, Flew isn’t very articulate and just cites “the integrated (irreducible) complexity argument,” Strobel essentially fleshing out Flew’s argument for him. It’s important to note through all this that Flew is not a scientist and merely seems dazzled by the big words and faulty evidence ID advocates throw around. Flew also makes the mistake of saying that Einstein somehow was an intelligent design advocate (perhaps subtly invoking the old argument that Einstein believed in a personal God) and that (paraphrasing) if it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me. I’ll let Albert speak for himself on this issue, as he certainly made sure to clarify the misunderstandings on his standpoint:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. – Albert Einstein, 1954, from “Albert Einstein: The Human Side”

as well as

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man.

For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.

But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. – The World as I See It, pg 28-29

The confusion herein lies: Einstein believed in what he called “Spinoza’s God”, which means that to him, God is the Universe/Nature and religious-like feelings can arise by studying the grandeur of life, but the belief in an entity that is concerned with morality and mankind is lacking. I really wish the Einstein argument would simply be put to rest (there are more important things to argue about), and if Einstein believed in a personal God, so what? That is merely implying that because Einstein believes it, it must have increased credibility and therefore wouldn’t do much either way to make people believe or not believe.

The book should arrive in a few days and I’ll try to consider what is said in its pages, but somehow I feel it’s going to be a mish-mash of Darwin’s Black Box, Icons of Evolution, No Free Lunch, and lots of negative arguments about the fossil record from people who have never even studied it. Hell, I’m an undergraduate and I have a better understanding of the fossil record than people like Wells who has two doctorates, once again proving that just because you can put Dr. in front of your name doesn’t mean you can intellectually back it up.

You want me to what?

30 01 2007

Apparently in Pequannock, New Jersey, you can’t go to school without worrying about having to give a random urine test. According the the article, the school superintendent says that the program, which is purported to detect 1-2 drinks of alcohol up to 80 hours after consumption, will make those who may be pressured into drinking by peers think twice. Oh, and the program is being paid for by federal grants. *smacks forehead* Now, it’s been about 6 years since I graduated high school, but it was no secret who the kids who got drunk and stoned out of their minds every weekend (and the school week, come to think of it) were, local police and the schools generally ignoring what was going on. I was one of the most unpopular and out-of-the-loop kids in the school and I heard all the stories and knew which kids were making ecstasy in their basements during their down time; you didn’t need drug tests to know what was going on. Hell, some of the parents would even host the parties and get drunk with the kids, so it wasn’t even as if there was some secret.

Even beyond the stupidity of the new plan, it also is unethical, making it compulsory for students to give urine tests to be analyzed by a public institution. If it was the workplace or something else, that’s one matter (I had to be tested before working for Target), but to force “random” students to take alcohol tests and attend compulsory counseling steps beyond the responsibilities of the public education system, acting more like nosy parents than an institution that should be focused on preparing teenagers for college (which they didn’t do well anyway, at least in my experience). The ACLU has already rightfully spoken out against the testing, and there will probably some sort of lawsuit over the issue, and hopefully the school system will be wise enough to drop the program rather than waste more money that should be going to prepare America’s students, students that seem to have lagged behind the rest of the world intellectually for as long as I can remember.