Monday Reading Notes

23 07 2007

I was able to polish off a good amount of reading this weekend. On Friday I finished The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer, and it provided for an interesting insight into a man so enamored with the perceived significance of his own finds that he could not be dissuaded. After that I picked up Volume III of Cuvier’s The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization (focusing on arthropods), but the book is really more of a reference than something read from cover-to-cover. Instead I reached for H.F. Osborn’s The origin and evolution of life, Osborn’s attempt to merge physics and chemistry with biology. It’s a noble cause, but it never really comes off especially well, although Osborn does show that there’s no “vital force” or entelechy behind evolution. Much like Colbert’s works, organisms are typically considered in the context of the time they’re found, how they came to be as they are usually not discussed (except here and there in the section on mammals). Osborn did not have as much data at his disposal then as we do now though, and although Osborn’s view of the prehistoric world was vastly different (the earth being less than 500 million years old, continents that did not shift, dinosaurs dying out only a few million years before the present) it was an interest read overall.

After Osborn’s book I picked up the collection of AAAS papers A Cold Look at Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs and read the first paper by Ostrom. A few months ago I had read Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies, and while I did enjoy that book, I didn’t agree with all of Bakker’s assertions about dinosaur physiology and behavior. The AAAS symposium papers, on the other hand, seem to (so far) give a more balanced view of the topic, and I think it would be useful to anyone concerned with physiology, predator-prey interactions, etc.

My wife read the book Survival of the Sickest in its entirety, and when she told me that the last chapter focuses on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, I decided to pick it up. It’s a short book, only about 200 pages (relatively wide spacing and large font, too) so I’m sure I’ll rip right through it, but I hope the last chapter is not indicative of the rest of the book. The authors seem to have merely contacted Elaine Morgan and asked her what to say about the AAH, presenting a false dichotomy of the chauvinistic “savanna hypothesis” and the more female-friendly aquatic ape hypothesis. This controversial topic is only given a few pages overall, the authors mistaken possible correlation with causation in favor of the AAH, engaging in hyperbole and rhetoric to try and convince the reader that Morgan is right about human origins. My wife said that the book seems to go from more conclusive to less-conclusive evidence as it moves along (with a dash of Neo-Lamarckism thrown in somewhere), but I’m fairly sure this one is going to give me a headache.



4 responses

23 07 2007
Zach Miller

I’m unfamiliar with the “aquatic ape” hypothesis. A brief summary, perhaps? I read Bakker’s Heresies a long time ago, and while I found it entertaining, I didn’t especially like the science behind it. However, I’ve got to give it to the man–he single-handedly (well, along with Ostrom’s Deinonychus) kick-started the Dinosaur Renaissance. Now we’re finding more that, actually, while dinosaurs may have looked a lot like birds, their behaviors may have been more akin to crocodilians and squamates, which is fascinating by itself.

23 07 2007

Zach; I’m actually working on a big post on human evolution, and I’ll discuss the aquatic ape hypothesis in it. The hypothesis basically states that just about every facet of our anatomy/physiology can be traced back to a more-or-less aquatic stage in our evolution, Morgan trying to draw parallels between hairlessness in cetaceans and our own relative hairlessness compared to chimpanzees, for example. There are “strong” and “weak” upholders of this view, but the conclusions derived from it require a lineage of apes that led to humans spending an inordinate amount of time in the water, thus becoming amphibiously adapted before coming back out of the pool. I plan on actually reading some of Morgan’s books eventually, but I imagine that the experience will be painful.

The overall back-and-forth change about dinosaurs has always been interesting to me as well. They were a diverse group of animals, so I always become skeptical when someone says they must have acted this way or that way. As many of the authors in the AAAS symposium suggest, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, the best candidates for homeothermy and endothermy being maniraptoran dinosaurs (or even theropods as a whole). Bakker has done a lot to make dinosaurs visible though, and as much as I might disagree with him on certain points I’m glad he’s rocking the boat, so to speak.

24 07 2007

You may or may not be familiar with my web site critiquing the “aquatic ape” idea (Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?). I’ve tried to both summarise and critique the various forms of the AAT/H. The proponents don’t seem to like it, but a lot of other people do, which has led to it being used as a resource for several college courses as well as my writing an entry on the subject for the Sage Encyclopedia of Anthropology.

If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask me (or just check the site, of course).

26 07 2007
Thursday Book Notes « Laelaps

[…] best when discussing genetics and medicine, forays into geology (and as I wrote about earlier, human evolution) are typically marked by misunderstandings or misrepresentation. I don’t have a problem with […]

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