Laelaps, now on ScienceBlogs!

1 04 2012

   Laelaps is now officially up-and-running on ScienceBlogs!

I’m still here, really.

2 10 2007

This is what happens when I get sucked in by new science stories… I started to write up something about sabercat bite forces and now it’s a copiously illustrated mega post. That, and I’ve still got my end-Cretaceous NJ post going, so while I did lots of work today I didn’t get anything finished. I’ll definitely have something tomorrow, however (which will it be?), but my day was a bit overbooked and I didn’t get to write as much as I would have liked. If I just focused on what was new this wouldn’t happen, but then again I wouldn’t be the blogger I am if I just did things the easy way.

The great disconnect

11 09 2007

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the most horrifying terrorist attack in American history, one that, unlike many of my countrymen, I am a bit disconnected from. In the past I have generally avoided writing about the subject, feeling like an outsider trying to offer solace to those who cannot find comfort in the empty spaces of what came to be called “Ground Zero,” but if for no other reason than posterity I will record my own experience here, lest memory ebb it away in time.

As September 2001 began I was just starting my freshman year at Rutgers University, Cook College, my primary concerns being making sure I got to class on time and finding out a way to solidify a relationship with a young woman that I had been introduced to during one of the orientation days. On the morning of September 11th, I woke up as per my usual custom; with just enough time to shower, throw on some clothes, and head out the door (with no breakfast) in order to make it to class on time. On my way out I stopped in the den to say goodbye to my parents, and I could overhear the news reports that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. All that was shown on the screen was a pillar of smoke coming from the one of the towers, and while tragic, I thought that perhaps a small Cessna or other such plane had hit the building. Anything larger than that just wouldn’t make sense; how could a large plane hit a skyscraper?

The drive between my former home and the Rutgers campus took about a half hour, and being that I was not in the habit of listening to the radio, I didn’t get any new input about what was happening. Arriving a few minutes early I found a seat and didn’t notice anything particularly odd going on. Someone behind me said that two planes had hit the WTC, but that couldn’t be true. Two planes? He probably misheard the news reports as he was getting up, still hung over from last night’s binge drinking. Despite the events of that morning, Anthropology 101 began as usual, at least until 15 minutes into the class when a woman ran into the lecture hall, crying hysterically. “The twin towers are gone!” she said, mentioning something about classes being canceled shortly before running to the next room to inform the rest of the students.

Activity on campus proceeded in a strange fashion that almost seemed to bend time as students either crept or ran out of the lecture halls. Some students seemed to be in a sort of daze, moving in slow motion, not sure where to go or what to do. Others ran towards their dorms or (if they were members of the ROTC) places to get instructions as to what to do. Some upperclassmen, in the tradition of Hudson from the film Aliens (“Game over, man!”) proceeded to speak to themselves about how they were going to be drafted, somehow under the impression that Dick Cheney was going to personally show up and press every one of the senior into military service.

No matter what the students were doing, however, everyone was was on their cells phones… only to find that they didn’t work. My mother had loaned me her phone for the first few days of school, a clunky grey phone with a little flip-cover that gave it the technical title of being a flip-phone without actually being any more convenient, and even in the best of times its signal was only so-so. Rather than fight for reception, I went over to a pay phone to try and call my mother, but that line didn’t work either. Becoming a little more frantic, I dialed my home phone over and over again, finally reaching my mother who told me that everything was fine and that my father was on his way to pick me up (even though I had a car of my own, he insisted on driving me to the book store in downtown New Brunswick, and was going to meet me anyway).

Things continued to be strange after I met up with my father. While I expressed my worries that the large oil distribution centers in Linden near our home might be targets, my father told me that there was nothing more to worry about and that there probably wouldn’t be any more attacks. I didn’t quite believe him, but I didn’t force the issue. Still a little jittery, he accompanied me to the book store where I picked up my Anthro 101 packet and he took me back to where my car was parked, telling me that he’d meet me back at home.

As if things weren’t strange enough, the girl whom I had been after for the last few days (and, in classic style, told me she couldn’t date me even though she had affections for me, too) had left a note on my car saying that she would date me after all. What possessed her to leave the note on this day, I don’t know, just as I don’t know why in the world I walked over to her dorm to make amends and ask her to be my girlfriend. She dumped me three weeks later for reasons that I will not disclose here (some dirty laundry is better burned than aired), but throughout the entire, albeit short, duration I always thought it strange that our relationship began on September 11th, 2001.

Once I arrived home I sat down to have lunch with my family in front of the TV, munching on a Wendy’s burger & fries while seeing images of explosions, twisted wreckage, and inconsolable people flit across the screen. The whole day had been so bizarre up to this point that I was simply numb to it all at this point, and tragedy not having much of an impact on me. I had no friends that worked in New York, no relatives, no friends with family in the city; I felt utterly disconnected from the anguish being poured out just a few miles away. Even in the following days, I turned on my headlights like thousands of others, but I can’t say I had anyone in mind as I rode around town at 3 P.M. with my lights on. The smoke and dust from the site of the attack were visible in the distance as I rode past the elementary school during the following week as I headed to the Garden State Parkway, but that and the seemingly looped video of the attack did not stir the same feelings of sadness and solidarity felt by others around me.

Certain events in the coming weeks and months would trigger nervous responses from me, like the report of a plane crash in New York later that fall semester, but my own little world continued to keep moving on like it had before, as if nothing had happened at all. The next year I watched some of the ceremony at Ground Zero on television, the year where the response to the tragedy was more fervent. Each year the emotion tied to the event seemed to diminish, to the point where I nearly forgot the significance of this day as I made my way to work this morning.

So I am left with little left to say, reflecting on an event that occurred nearly within sight of my home but did not have the impact on my life as it did on others. I don’t feel guilty or bad about this, or wish that I could share in the pain of others; I just feel helpless and divorced from what happened six years ago today, the events of September 11th, 2001 in my own life were rather discordant with what the rest of the world experienced.

Sunday afternoon roundup

10 06 2007

Apparently someone in the house I reside in decided to steal some cable, so I was offline for most of the weekend and had a minor case of blog withdrawl (I HAVE to write, otherwise I feel useless). Thankfully everything is now fixed and hopefully the same set of events won’t repeat itself, but since I don’t have any one thing that’s post-worthy at the moment, here are some ramblings about my weekend;

1) Took in a cat to foster; she’s sweet, except with other cats. See my previous post if you’re looking for a friendly feline and don’t have any of your own.

2) Saw Knocked Up on Friday night; it was one of the funniest movies I’ve seen lately, although it did remind me of the PBS Frontline documentary “The New Merchants of Cool.” While the women career and appearance-minded, their main drawback their propensity to be hormonal and nag, the men are essentially bums who love to get high and go out on the town for wild nights. Hell, the male lead essentially lives in a stoner enclave, and while it works in term of the story (taking a man and woman who couldn’t be more different trying to get through a pregnancy and getting to know each other), I don’t know anyone who actually lives that way. The concept of the “mook” (i.e. Tom Green, the guys from Jackass) is media-generated, and such a person is rare if he exists at all (and he probably wouldn’t your friend, to boot). Don’t get me wrong, the film was funny, but the main characters just seemed to be media-generated charicatures rather than anyone real.

3) Saw The Music Man in an outdoor theater; every summer Washington Crossing State Park hosts various productions, and the first one this summer was The Music Man. I’m not a big fan of musical theater (I usually try and take an MST3K-like view of it, poking fun at the bad singing, acting, and overall silliness of it all), but it is fun to get out and see a performance. Usually the first production of the year is Shakespeare, but this year it all looks like “classic” musicals like The King and I.

4) I’ve been reading Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters and it’s great fun; it’s a little light on science, but Corson writes in an engaging, almost novel-like fashion, tying together the activities of scientists, lobstermen, government officials, etc. in order to tell the story. It’s far more engaging and interesting than most other non-fiction I’ve read lately (where the emphasis is on simply telling the reader the facts and little else), and it definitely interesting to see the conflict between government conservation agencies (who basically stayed behing their desks) and the people actually working with the lobsters.

5) Lately I’ve been thinking about how creationists not only bastardize science, but they ignore history as well. What was the world like 6,000 years ago? What were people doing? I haven’t devoted my full attention to the subject yet, but I feel the archaeological answers to these questions are often ignored. Further, I had to wonder about catastrophies like the destruction of Pompeii. Creationists claim that fossilization/permineralization can happen very rapidly, but do the bones from those buried for over a century and a half in the Pompeii ruins show any signs of mineral replacement? I’m sure this won’t stop those already committed to a fundamental view of Genesis, but I think it could be an interesting (albeit somewaht macabre) introduction into the way fossils are “made,” espcially given that some of our best fossils have been preserved by ashfalls and other volcanic activity.

I know this has been a rather sloppy post, but it’s better than nothing. Hopefully I’ll have some new (and better) material by the end of tonight or tomorrow.

I’ve been cut off!

9 06 2007

Apparently someone sliced open the cable line running on the side of my house, and I am duly suffering from blogging withdrawl. It’s amazing how addicted to this thing I’ve become. Anyway, don’t expect anything new today, but hopefully I’ll be back online tomorrow.

The many adventures of Charles Sternberg

1 06 2007

Last night I was able to get through more than half of Charles H. Sternberg’s 1909 autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter, and I have to say it is perhaps the most enjoyable book that I’ve read as of late. In fact, it is a good follow-up to W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book in that Sternberg seems to be a combination of cowboy and scientist, tying together intellectual fulfillment as well as high adventure no longer available to us in the 21st century. (I’m sure there are many barren locales in other countries, especially Africa and the Middle East, where experiences similar to Sternberg’s can be had today, but after the American West was “won” it was soon lost)

Even if Sternberg’s story were not enough in and of itself, we also get a more personal look at E.D. Cope, a man often relegated to a paragraph or two referring to the great “Bone Wars” in most books about dinosaurs. Sternberg’s travels with the “Professor” (as he’s usually referred to) are just as interesting as the fossils they uncover, and this book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the early days of paleontology in the American west. I’m apologize if all I’ve said so far is a bit general; I will get more specific when I finish the book tonight.

What is interesting to note, however, is that Sternberg was the son of a minister and he often refers to “Providence,” “the Architect,” and “the Creator” in the book. Indeed, at one point Sternberg’s memoirs echo Phillip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, asking the reader to join him on the shores of a Kansas ocean during the Cretaceous to watch mosasaurs fight and devour each other. Here is an early, more peaceful, excerpt on that theme;

Go back with me, dear reader, and see the treeless plains of to-day covered with forests. Here rises the stately column of a redwood; there a magnolia opens its fragrant blossoms; and yonder stands a fig tree. There is no human hand to gather its luscious fruit, but we can imagine that the Creator walked among the trees in the cool of the evening, inhaling the incense wafted to Him as a thank offering for being. All His works magnify Him.

While Sternberg often refers to God and “the Age of Reptiles,” there doesn’t seem to be any conflict in his mind. So far evolution has not been mentioned, nor has the actual creation of the earth or its creatures, so perhaps any conflict between the Bible and science simply fell under the category of “I do not think about things I do not think about” for Sternberg.


21 05 2007

Sometimes in life, expectations are not always met. Growing up I used to pore over dozens of books depicting old photographs from the American Museum of Natural History, making a mental inventory of all the fossil marvels I had to see. Outside of the dinosaurs (some of which still look very much like they did when Henry Fairfield Osborn was at the museum), I absolutely had to see the enormous reconstructed maw of Carcharodon megalodon and the massive skull of the crocodile Deinosuchus. Perhaps I did see them, but unfortunately all I recall from my early visits were the trip to the fossil halls in a cramped elevator, a museum logo featuring a human skeleton next to the skeleton of a horse, and the immensity of the “Brontosaurus” skeleton in the dim light of the dinosaur halls. Returning many years later, I made sure to take my time through the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, leaving no cladistic nook left unexplored, but alas, the massive C. megalodon jaws had been properly downsized and Deinosuchus was nowhere to be found.

All is not lost, however, as the AMNH has kindly allowed the public access to old museum documents by the likes of Barnum Brown, G.G. Simpson, Edwin Colbert, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and many others, and one 1954 publication allows me a look at the giant crocodilian I never had a chance to meet in person. Entitled “A Gigantic Crocodile from the Upper Cretaceous Beds of Texas” (by Edwin Colbert and Roland Bird from the November 12, 1954 edition of American Museum Novitiates), the paper describes a “new species” dubbed Phobosuchus riograndensis. We now know that the genus Phobosuchus riograndensis = Deinosuchus riograndensis (the type species for the genus is Deinosuchus hatcheri), and so the paper serves our interests here just fine.

The restored skull of Deinosuchus from the Colbert/Bird paper. Note the darker areas, which are the actual fossil material used in the reconstruction.

While the reconstructed skull is impressive in and of itself, it becomes even moreso when we can see its size relative to some AMNH scientists;

Deinosuchus and scientists
The restored skull of Deinosuchus, featuring (left to right) B. Brown, R. T. Bird and E. M. Schlaikjer [ref: “How the ‘terror crocodile’ grew so big” by Erickson and Brochu, Nature 398, 205-206 (18 March 1999)]

Given that a complete (or reasonably complete) skeleton of Deinosuchus has yet to be found, we can only estimate how large it was from the material at hand, likely 10-12 meters long when fully grown. But how did they get so big? It’s not easy to attain such large sizes, and it’s important to know whether huge crocodilians followed a growth curve similar to that of their living relatives or were instead fast-growing like some dinosaurs. According to this 1999 Nature correspondance by Erickson and Brochu [“How the ‘terror crocodile’ grew so big” Nature 398, 205-206 (18 March 1999)], it appears that Deinosuchus followed the standard grow-throughout-life pattern exhibited in its modern relatives, perhaps taking upwards of 35 years to fully attain the monstrous sizes we’re familiar with. Given that many extant crocodilians do not live long enough to reach maximum size, perhaps the largest individuals would be more rare than smaller ones, although I am not familiar enough with what has been recovered from these animals to prove or disprove such an idea. While I’m on the subject, of course, Darren Naish has a great post (just posted yesterday, as a matter of fact) involving giant crocodylians, so be sure check his writing out as well.

As for the fossil material discussed in the Colbert/Bird paper, here is what was recovered;

TYPE: A.M.N.H. No. 3073. Almost complete premaxillae and part of a right maxilla, portions of left articular, angular, and surangular, right and left dentaries and right and left splenials; one dorsal vertebra, probably the twelfth vertebra of the presacral series; right scapula, possible portion of a right ilium; scutes and other fragments.

For an animal Colbert and Bird estimated to be up to 50 feet long (6 feet of which being skull), not very much was left over. The reconstructed skull itself belies this, the very front of the jaws and the very back of the lower jaw making up most of the skull material, the skull as a whole being based upon the notoriously bad-tempered Cuban crocodile ( Colbert and Bird did argue, however, that their fragmentary crocodilian could be even longer than 50 feet in length because they the cuban crocodile had a more blunt snout, and if they had based the reconstruction on the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) (which have comparatively longer snouts), the size estimate for their specimen would increase further.

It would be wonderful if I could now go on to describe Deinosuchus as we now know it, but (outside of a decrease in size) it doesn’t seem to be very different from the way it is depicted in the Colbert/Bird paper; as the Cretaceous equivalent of the modern-day alligator. Perhaps someday some more skeletal material will help us further flesh out this animal, but the lack of material hasn’t stopped it from becoming a “fan favorite” of paleontology; it often shows up along dinosaurs in model sets, books, and television shows. A more complete crocodilian is the famous Sarcosuchus imperator (and if you haven’t already seen it, check out National Geographic’s documentary SuperCroc),but hopefully more fossils from other giant crocodilians will be discovered so that some comparisons can be made among the giants.

While today New Jersey is usually free of alligators and crocodiles (I say usually because every now and then a release “pet” shows up), this was not always the case. Just in the past year, one of the most well-preserved Thoracosaurus neocesariensis skeletons was extracted from the green marl (stuff gets everywhere, let me tell you) of the Inversand pit in Gloucster County, New Jersey, by Drexel University students and Dr. William Gallagher of the State Museum in Trenton. You can have a look at the recovered material via Drexel’s website here, read a Philadelphia Enquirer article about the discovery here, see an early artistic depiction by Cope at the HMNH, or see a more recent depiction by Dan Varner at Oceans of Kansas.

When I was at the pit last fall, I found a croc scute, but there are several species of crocodilian known from the pit and I could not discern to which it belonged to. I also checked out the location from which Dr. Gallagher found the Drexel Thoracosaurus, but there didn’t seem to be any lingering fossils either, so I focused on trying to extract some bone from a spot that was bearing well in the Main Fossiliferous Layer. The bone was beige on top, dark brown in the middle, but came out only in fragments and I could not tell what I had found. Hopefully when I return on Wednesday I’ll be in luck, and you can expect a post all about what I find on Wednesday.

Countering Creationism, Pt. II; “Zinj”

15 05 2007

There are some fossils that, despite the best efforts of scientists, seem to defy descriptive boundaries. The Cambrian terror Anomalocaris, with it’s serrated camera-shutter mouth, has had its seemingly odd assemblage of body parts confused for a fair number of other marine invetebrates throughout its infuriating history. As Stephen J. Gould notes in his famous work Wonderful Life;

Now who ever dreamed about a connection between the rear end of a shrimp, the feeding appendage of Sidneyia, a squashed sea cucumber, and a jellyfish with a hole in the center? Of course, no one did. The amalgamation of these four objects into Anomalocaris came as an entirely unanticipated shock.

Anomalocaris was a vexing beast, to be sure, and although many other fossils don’t have the distinction of once belonging to several different phyla, there are those that have gone through so many name changes and reassignments that it is difficult to keep track of what exactly they should be called. Such is the case with “Zinj“, or the Hominid Formally Known as Zinjanthopus boisei. Paul Humber, loathe to let evolutionary scientists off the hook, asserts the follow in his long list of problems with evolution;

Reason #17: Nutcracker Man (Zinjanthropus boisei), found by Louis Leakey in 1959, was once used to promote the so-called missing-link concept; however, even evolutionists now admit that this extinct creature should not be viewed as ancestral to man.

Humber immediately puts himself on thin ice with this rather weak criticism; I’ve already admitted in thie very essay how sometimes scientists can be greatly mistaken, only to later correct past misconceptions. The difference between Anomalocaris being some variety of arthropod and being a jellyfish is far greater than “Zinj” being moved from being ancestral to man to being part of another evolutionary offshoot. But can Humber be trusted with the details of his assertions? As we discovered yesterday in my post about the much-maligned Hesperopithecus (or “Nebraska Man”), Humber omitted a vast amount of critical information about the fossil and its perceived importance, and it appears that he has once again failed to the the requisite research into just what happened to the “Nutcracker Man.”

On July 17, 1959, Mary Leakey uncovered the first known remains of a new fossil hominid in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Her son, Richard Leakey, describes the discovery of the fossil that was to become known as “Zinj” in his book The Origin of Humankind (1994) as follows;

After almost three decades of searching the sediments of Olduvai Gorge, [Mary] was rewarded with the sight of millstone molars, like those of the robust australopithecene species in South Africa. The Olduvai individual was, however, even more robust than its South African cousin. Louis Leakey, who, with Mary, had taken part in the long search, named it Zinjanthropus boisei: the generic name means “East Africa man” and boisei referred to Charles Boise, who supported my father and mother in their work at Olduvai Gorge and elsewhere. In the first application of modern geological dating to anthropology, Zinj, as the individual became known, was determined to have lived 1.75 million years ago. Zinj’s name was eventually changed to Australopithecus boiseri, on the assumption that it was an East African version, or geographical variant, of Australopithecus robustus.

Perhaps for the sake of brevity, Richard leaves out the fact that Lous was ill at camp when Mary discovered the fossil, but he was excited enough about the find to dub the new specimen Titanohomo mirabilis (more affectionately known among the Leakys as “Dear Boy”). In September of that same year, however, the “Dear Boy” had undergone a name change. Rather than being introduced as Titanohomo mirabilis, his name was changed to Zinjanthropus boisei, placed within the Family Australopithecinae. Louis’ views about the fossils relationship to extant humans, however, did not escape criticism. While Louis believed that Zinj was perhaps a direct human ancestor based upon morphology and tools found at the site, others suggested that Zinj truly belonged to the genus Paranthropus (where it now resides), but this view did not appeal to Louis as it would put the “Dear Boy” out of the running to have a direct role in human evolution.

Yet, as was suggested by Richard’s excerpt above, the fossil has been shifted between taxonomic groups more than once. In the beautifully illustrated (but apparently now outdated) book From Lucy to Language (1996) by Donald Johanson and Blake Edgar, the authors consider Zinj to be a seperate robust species within the genus Australopithecus (boisei remained the species name). Regarding the taxonomic situation of Zinj at the time the book was written, the authors relate the following;

Louis Leakey’s suggestion that Zinj was a distinctive sort of early human ancestor is now universally accepted, even though the genus name, Zinjanthropus, has been dropped in favor of Australopithecus. Detailed examination of other finds, especially from Koobi Fora, substantiate the unique facial skeleton of A. boisei. In a notable study of comparative and functional anatomy, The Australopithecene Face, Yoel Rak defined a host of morphological features found in the face that make boisei a unique species. The palate is strongly retracted; the zygomatic (cheek) bones have migrated forward, extending into a visor-like support for the masseter muscles; and the supraorbital tori slope away from the midline, giving the face a “sad” expression.

[For the sake of completeness, Zinj is also listed in the genus Australopithecus in the NOVA companion book Ancestors: In Search of Human Origins by Donald & Lenora Johanson and Blake Edgar (1994)]

And so it became apparent that while Zinj was a hominid of related ancestry to the line that would give rise to extant humans; he was not a direct ancestor as originally surmised. Ironically enough, however (and as noted before), Zinj now resides not in the genus Australopithecus but Paranthropus, the very one proposed by some of Leakey’s critics when the fossils were first brought to light. Ian Tattersall and Jeffery Schwartz, in their 2000 book Extinct Humans, describe the seeming confusion this way;

Although Louis dubbed the new hominid Zinjanthropus boisei in his 1959 announcment in Nature, “Zinj” (catalouged as OH 5 to denote its status as the fifth hominid specimen from Olduvai) would remain its nickname. Because the tendency at the time was to follow Ernst Mayr in reducing the number of hominid genera, many paleoanthropologists thought that naming Zinjanthropus was too much, although it would do as a species of Paranthropus. But by the time that Phillip Tobiar, Dart’s successor at Wits and a collaborator of the Leakeys, published the descriptive volume on Zinj in 1967, the taxonomic tide had turned completely toward Mayr’s opinion that the morphological differences among all australopiths were relevant only at the level of species. So Paranthropus robustus became Australopithecus robustus, and thus Zinj became Australopithecus boisei. Subsequently the tide turned again, and nowadays not only are Australopothecus and Paranthropus up and running as distinct genera, but there are questions emerging about whether the species placed within each genus are particularly closely related to each other and even whether, collectively, australopiths constitute an evolutionary group.

Indeed, it seemed that the desire to lump specimens together and find THE lineage that led to humans superceded the apparent differences in the fossils, and the human “fossil trail” (to borrow from the title of another excellent Tattersall book on human evolution) seems to be more convoluted than originally thought. Shortly after the passage cited above, Tattersall and Schwartz note that the move away from “wastebasket” genera was a big step for paleoanthropology;

Eventually, Richard Leakey and colleague’s discovery in the 1980s of a skull somewhat similar to, but not exactly alike, the robust and hyper-robust australopiths would lead to the revival of the species aethiopicus. At some point the dam would have to break. For, how much longer could paleoanthroplogists follow Mayr’s dictum of unilinear human evolution and keep putting skulls and jaws into the same wastebasket of a species before someone was bound to say, “Hey, these don’t look like the same thing”? And fortunately, thanks to the work of Richard Leakey and his collaborators, the specimens that continued to be discovered kept adding to the improbability that Mayr had been correct about hominids. To the contrary, it seemed, the human fossil record-at least the older and less threatening part of it-was a record of diversity. The question was, and continues to be, how one goes about sorting it out.

It seems clear from Paul Humber’s assertion involving Zinj that he wished to sow doubt among those unfamiliar with paleoanthropology (or the science as a process in general); how can these scientists claim to know so much if they keep moving things around? If I were Paul I would be careful about telling people to hold grudges because of academic mistakes; he misconstrued the story of Hesperopithecus as discussed yesterday, as well as getting Zinj’s current taxonomic status (and actual discoverer, Mary Leakey) wrong.

Some of you may even be wondering why I spent so much time on such a weak argument; why would I head out to the library, return with an armful of books, and spend two hours reading and typing away to combat such a simple assertion? The answer would be that I am no expert in human evolution and I honestly wanted to know the answer (as well as finding such paleontological tales to be interesting). Even beyond my personal interest, I want to be able to present the truth (inasmuch as I am qualified to do so) to you, the reader. It’s easy to make a blind assertion without backing it up, wishing to win an argument rather than to increase knowledge, but (at least in this case) I prefer doing things the hard way. In essence, the changing status of Zinj does not pull the rug out from under evolutionary theory or debase the notion that humans evolved from primate ancestors; the status of Zinj as a direct human ancestor seemed awfully tenuous to begin with, and just as with “Nebraska Man” wa found out to be a peccary though study and accumulation of data, new evidence allows scientists to further refine Zinj’s place in evolutionary history (though at the moment there’s still plenty of debate). Indeed, I fully expect that Zinj’s taxonomic affinities may change again in the future, but this does not somehow disprove evolution or our relationship with other primates; if Paul Humber had done more than parrot standard creationist dogma he would have recognized this and perhaps would have been able to construct a more substantial argument. Science does not live or die by the hypotheses of Louis Leakey, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Charles Darwin, or any other scientist you care to name; it is a process of coming to understand nature that always has the hope of correcting itself and accounting for past errors, and such vital flexibility is inherently lacking in creationist dogma.

What will the future hold?

25 04 2007

I was reading Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression (guess what it’s about) the other day and I found his opening to the concluding chapter to be quite interesting. When big ideas in science (i.e. heliocentrism, evolution, continental drift) come about, how well are they accepted and how far ahead of the times are such ideas? If you’re popular during your own lifetime, how likely is it you’ve made a big impact (and what does this say about the willingness of scientists to objectively ponder new ideas)? Here’s what Lorenz writes;

I do not mind admitting that, unlike Faust, I think I have something to teach mankind that may help it to change for the better. This conviction is not as presumptuous as it might seem; it is certainly less so than the opposite stand, which is usually based not so much on a man’s distrust of his capacity to teach us as on the haughty assumption that humanity is not ready to understand the profound truths of his new doctrine. This is true only in those very rare instances when an intellectual giant is centuries ahead of his time. He is misunderstood and runs the risk either of becoming a martyr or being brushed aside as a crank. If his contemporaries pay attention to a teacher or even read his books, it can safely be assumed that he is not an intellectual giant. At best he can flatter himself that he has something to say that is “due” to be said at that moment. His teachings will be most efficacious if his ideas are only a short head in front of his hearers. A new truth has really convinced when the hearer exclaims, “How silly of me not to have thought of that,” as Thomas Huxley is reported to have said on reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species

Sometimes I wonder what the future will hold in the evolution debate; will anyone, 25, 50, or 100 years down the line recognize the names Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Bob Bakker, or even Ken Ham, Duane Gish, or Kent Hovind? I really don’t know, although I’d say the safe money is on the former set. While I differ a bit from Lorenz in that things are not so easily clear-cut and I think we’ve reached a point where grand, universal truths are harder to come by (science is less ruled by alchemy, natural theology, and superstition than I has in centuries past), I do wonder what impact today’s scientific headliners will have, or even the impact I may (or more likely, may not) have. I actually have quite a different problem that the one Lorenz describes (although there are many “obvious” questions that have gone unresearched); everything I come up with seems to have already been discovered, contemplated, or dismissed by real intellectual giants before me. I’ll never forget how proud I was when I came up with an idea for how evolution could occur quickly in the wake of mass extinctions, only to have my wife (then my girlfriend) tell me that it’s called punctuated equilibrium and adaptive radiation; I had been scooped before I even fully formulated my idea. Such is the same with a recent post about the tiny arms of tyrannosaurs; Henry Fairfield Osborn had the idea they were used to assist in mating over 100 years ago, so my idea was far from original.

In reading many books that discuss the history of science and ideas, I’ve found there are always more names and more to the story than I could have ever expected. Sure, some may get the credit for coming up with an idea or discovering something unknown as if it came out of nowhere, but we all stand on the shoulders of giants. How many of these people, however, are lost to history, or (like E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh in dinosaur books) get an obligatory reference in every book written on a subject, but no more than a paragraph is spent on the topic. Everyone has heard of the name Charles Darwin, yet I would be a fool to say everyone that knows the name has read his books or could even attribute a quote to him. All is not lost, however; there are always those few who recognize that in order to understand evolution, you must also understand the evolution of the idea.

We’re back!

25 04 2007

We’re back on the air here; apparently my cable connection came loos from the side of the house and I could have fixed it myself (d’oh!). Anyway, expect plenty of new material up here between now and the weekend; I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.