Gemmules and Blended Inheritance

GEMMULES

One of the biggest problems Darwin had with his theory was how the various changes occurred and how they were inherited. With no knowledge of genes, mutations, and all of what we call genetics, he had great trouble in explaining things.

He could not explain how new variations arose or how they were inherited. He seems to have tended to believe in a form of Lamarckian evolution: that continued use or disuse of parts would in some manner affect how they were inherited. Since he believed in “blended inheritance” he could not see how the origin of favorable variation in a single organism could spread throughout the species without becoming so diluted with the original form as to lose its identity.

What is really amazing about Darwin, is how with all the theoretical reasons against natural selection, he still believed it to be the correct reason for evolution. He believed it because of what he had observed in the real world. He seems to have been capable of remembering much of what he observed and identifying patterns. Practical experience overruled theoretical objections. He didn’t know how inheritance worked, only that it did.

When Darwin returned to England after his around-the-world voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle he set out to research some of the ideas he had developed on the voyage. One of the things he did was to talk to animal breeders, zoo keepers, game wardens, and anyone who had experience with animals and plants. He himself took up pigeon breeding. He soon learned from personal experience that animals varied in any number of traits. Each individual was not exactly like all the other individuals of the same species. Many of the differences were “normal” variation—different size or body conformations that were within a range of expected variability. However some variations were outside the normal range. They were new, or at least, never seen before. Darwin (and others) thought that these “new” traits might be “reversions” to a primitive, ancestral form. Darwin could not explain where these traits came from, how they occurred. He knew from personal observation that they did appear. He also knew that, at least some of them, were inherited. The appearance of a new character in a single individual could be transmitted to its offspring not as some diluted “blended” form, but in its entirety. Theory predicted that a new trait would combine with the original form of the trait to produce an intermediate form, which over the generations would become so diluted to effectively disappear. His (and others) practical experience showed that somehow reality didn’t follow theoretical predictions. A single individual with a particular trait could be crossed with an individual without the trait, those offspring crossed, the trait “fixed” and an entire breed that consistently bred true for the new trait developed.

Without knowing how genetics worked, without an understanding of genetics, Darwin was able to see how it functioned in the real world and extrapolate the greater consequences of it.

Darwin thought that the theory of pangenesis might be correct. The theory was that each cell in an organism produced “gemmules.” These contained information about that particular cell. Gemmules drifted about the body, collecting in the reproductive cells (eggs or sperm depending on the sex of the organism). During reproduction the gemmules passed to the newly fertilized egg and influenced the development of the embryo, somehow “telling” the appropriate cells just what to do. The mature offspring in turn produced their own gemmules to influence their own offspring. Darwin, if I remember correctly, referred to them as some sort of “information atom.”

Interesting idea, wrong of course, but interesting especially if you “reversed it.” Imagine if the fertilized cell contained “gemmules” that, as the embryo developed entered every cell and “told” each one how to develop and some of the gemmules gathered in the future sex cells to be passed on to the next generation, to influence the development of that generation. Sounds a lot like genes and DNA to me.

BLENDING INHERITANCE

Fleeming Jenkins attacked Darwin”s theory because any new trait would blended with the old trait during reproduction and would quickly disappear. Suppose that you were growing a garden of plants that had white flowers and among these flowers there appeared one identical in all aspects except that it had red flowers. Darwin didn’t know where this new characteristic came from. He talked of “reversion to a primitive type,” or maybe subtle differences in temperature, soil, etc. as a cause. He only new for sure that organisms were capable of producing new characteristics. According to the concept of blending inheritance, crossing that red-flowered plant with a white-flowered plant would produce a pink-flowered plant. Crossing that pink-flowered plant with another white-flowered plant would produce a pale pink-flowered plant. This would continue for generations producing even paler pink flowers until they were virtually white. The new character would be blended with the original character and since the original character existed in such large numbers relative to the new character, the new character would become so attenuated over the succeeding generations to virtually disappear. Even if you crossed a pink-flowered plant with another pink-flowered plant all that you would get is a pink flower and only slow down the inevitable.

This works with animals far better than with plants since plants can self-fertilize (in most cases) so the red-flowered plant could cross with itself to produce more re-flowered plants. Animals are obligated to “cross” with another individual. Theoretically with plants that can self-fertilize a single plant with a new characteristic could cross with itself and its decedents cross with themselves (or their siblings) thus forming a new variety without “blending” with any other individual with the original characteristic. However given the large number of plants with the original characteristic, the chances are that the red-flowered plant and its offspring would cross with others that were white-flowered far more often than with a red-flowered, or more likely a pink-flowered plant. It would just take a few generations more before the blending eliminated the new character. This was part of the problems Darwin had with understanding how a species could evolve. He didn’t know how a new character could arise and with the concept of blending inheritance he could not see hoe a new character arising in one organism, especially an animal, could possibly spread throughout the population without being diluted beyond effect. He only knew that new characters could appear and that they could be inherited with undiminished effect to the decedents of the organism. He had seen it happen.

It was not random chance that picked red and white flowers of a plant as an example. I picked it deliberately. Gregor Mendel did the first experiments in genetics and he used the common garden pea. He focused his attention on seven traits, one of which was flower color—red or white. The traits he chose may have been chosen because they gave clear results. We now know that all seven traits1 are examples of pairs of dominant and recessive alleles. In peas, red is dominant over white. Had Mendel chosen flower color in snapdragons he would have gotten a different result.

Had he crossed a red-flowered snapdragon with a white-flowered snapdragon he would have gotten a pink-flowered snapdragon (as the blending theory predicted). Beyond this he would have gotten (as those who have done this experiment have) different results than blending theory predicts. Red × red always yields red, white × white always yields white, and red × white yields pink. So far, so good. Red × pink yielded half red and half pink. White × pink yields half white and half pink, and pink × pink yields, and pink × pink yields ¼ red, ¼white, and ½ pink. The pinks were not darker or paler than the original pink. There was a blending of the two colors but whatever carried the flower color did not blend, it remained separate to be passed on to the next generation unchanged (which is also one of Mendel’s conclusions). Only their effect blended. In snapdragons, the alleles for flower color are co-dominant.

1 Round vs wrinkled seeds, yellow vs green seeds, green vs yellow pods, inflated vs constricted pods, long vs short stems, axial vs terminal flowers, and red vs white flowers.

SCIENTIFIC MODELS AND JUST-SO STORIES

SCIENTIFIC MODELS AND JUST-SO STORIES

“Catastrophic results” may follow when “those

who use formal models…forget that models are not theorems.”

—Eugene J. Neckar

Rudyard Kipling wrote a series of children’s stories that he called Just-so Stories. The stories often explained why something was a particular and everything turned out nicely in the end (“just so”) more because the author wrote it that way than because if might have really naturally happened so. Since the stories are fiction this is valid and since the author is making up the story anyhow it will happen any way he/she wants it to. History tends not to happen the way anyone plans or wants it to. “Reality,” the “Laws of Nature,” or physics limit the way things can and do happen.

Fiction, or the art of creating a story based on real facts or possibilities is one of Man’s great achievements, and has a valuable role in human culture. This creative ability is also important in the fields of science when it is used to assemble several facts, or a multitude of facts into an hypothesis or model to try to explain them.

Construction of “stories:” hypotheses, models, scenarios, is important to the progress of science. They serve a valid function. A scientific hypothesis is a model that explains how/why certain observed facts are related. Based on this model, predictions are made which are tested. If the predictions are found to be correct the model is considered to represent reality. If the predictions are not correct, the model may be discarded or modified to reflect the new facts.

A scientific model is meant to represent nature, reality. As such they are only an approximation of nature and not absolutely identical with it. Generally I suspect that the model is much simpler, they do simplify very complicated relationships and processes. Models are always an approximation, similar to but not identical with the reality that they are a description of. They do not explain the phenomena but rather describe possible relationships, and provide a way to think about a phenomena, to help visualize what is happening and can help illuminate the problem(s), and suggest ways of solving or explaining it. Models are a way to economically organize data and observations in an conceptual way it replaces the data and observation is a way that is easier to remember. Models also help to communicate ideas to others by providing and drawing upon analogies1 and metaphors. A model is not a theory although it could be converted to one. A model is the interface between theory and data.

The heliocentric solar system of Copernicus is model of the Universe with the Sun at the center and the planets revolving in circular orbits about it. (It is possible to built or buy a physical model of the solar system). Kepler demonstrated that the motion of the planets did not fit with the prediction of circular orbits. Slightly elliptical orbits produced predictions of the planets’ locations that matched those actually observed. Copernicus’ model was modified, circular planetary orbits were changed to slightly elliptical orbits. Since then further changes have been made to the basic model, moving the Sun from the center of the Universe to the edge of a galaxy somewhere in the Universe. The basic planets-revolving-around-the-Sun has remained unchanged. This model is believed to represent reality, in words.

Thinking about this led to the prediction that Venus and Mercury would show phases like the Moon because their orbits were between the Sun and Earth. Telescopic observation of those phases helped win support for the model.

Any hypothesis about how the Universe began and evolved into what it now is, has to explain why planets revolve around stars. The story of the evolution of the Universe has to have planets in elliptical orbits around stars.

A “scenario” can be defined as: a model in narrative form, an outline of a hypothesized chain of events. As such a scenario is a model linking various facts and events together in sequence, often proposing a cause-and-effect relationship between the facts/events. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. The Archduke is the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austro-Hungary decides to punish Serbia, with whom they have been having problems with for years and see a chance to solve the problems once-and-for-all. The Russian Empire is not likely to accept Austro-Hungary’s attack on Serbia. So Austro-Hungary asks their ally, the German Empire, if they will honor the treaty to help Austro-Hungary if it is attacked by Russia, even if the attack is in response to an offensive move by Austro-Hungary against a third party. The German Empire looks at its plan for a war against Russia which has a defensive treaty with France. If Russia is attacked by Germany, France will attack Germany. If France is attacked by Germany, Russia will attack Germany. The Germans had planned, to avoid a two-front war with France and Russia, to attack France, before Russia can mobilize, and quickly knock her out of the war before turning on Russia. To defeat France quickly the plans called for the German Armies to march through Belgium (with or without their permission). Therefore, if Austro-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia led to Russia’s declaration of war against Austro-Hungary and Germany honored its treaty to assist Austro-Hungary, Germany would attack France. Complicating this was the British Empire’s guarantee of Belgium’s borders. This was a fatal chain of events for at least ten million people as this is the scenario for the “cause” of World War I. (I wrote “cause” because this is the immediate, proximal, cause. The ultimate causes of World War I lie much further back in time.) It has been supported in much detail by historical documents, etc. It was plausible when first proposed and has been thoroughly tested. Prior to the assassination had this result been proposed for such an event it probably would have been considered a far-fetched chain of events. Yet when it happened, it seemed to be inevitable.

Models and scenarios can also be proposed as a “possible” answer that is not thought to be the real answer but is plausible enough to deal with “misgivings” and will suffice until more evidence is found and a model based on the evidence is proposed. A plausible answer has to have a logical consistency and to rationally explain or account for all the relevant known facts.

When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection many opposed the entire idea because, for instance, how could a fish evolve into a land animal or how could a four-legged animal evolve wings and fly? Scenarios were proposed without any solid fossil evidence. The models were not proposed as the way it did happen but as a plausible way it might have or could have to show that “evolution” could change fish to reptiles of reptiles to birds. This allowed scientists and non-scientists to accept the concept of evolution before all the evidence had been found to explain all the details. All this “airy theorizing” formed a basis for future work. There was no harm, and a lot of value, in these models/scenarios as long as everyone remembered that they were just vague ideas unsupported by evidence, just-so stories. Problems have arisen when these scenarios have become accepted as tested models. They become entrenched in textbooks and people’s minds as if they were true and influence the interpretation of newer data and the construction of other scenarios, forming a house of cards.

In paleoanthropology models are more often in the form of a story2, a narrative, perhaps all models are a story—a word description. Critics often complain that they are just-so stories. This is a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-so Stories,” deliberately fanciful stories meant for children about how some animal got the trait that is characteristic of it (e.g. the elephant’s trunk, or the spots on the leopard). Just-so stories stand or fall on their plausibility or the author’s ability to tell it. These ideas are just tossed out to explain facts, no attempt is made by the author to evaluate or test them. True just-so stories are not testable, defended by ad hoc excuses, they are analogies and/or anecdotal. Calling some model a just-so story is an implicit criticism, implying that the model is fictional, unverifiable and unfalsifiable.

Narrative stories are justified if they function to rebut claims that something could not have happened. A plausible story3 (whether true or not, but could be, cf How the Giraffe Got Its Neck) rebuts the claim of implausibility.

Every model, hypothesis, and ad hoc hypothesis should be plausible—consistent with known facts, etc. “But plausibility does not render the interpretation true or accurate (italics in original, Binford 1983:75). This “plausibility” can lead to trouble when people begin to think that the plausible is true or some how supported by facts and then use the hypothesis as a basis for other hypotheses or models. There have been several occasions when some scientist put some very hypothetical idea down in print, sort of thinking out loud (in print actually) about what the facts might, just might, mean or in answering some critic’s objection that there was no way such a thing could occur. Then a few years later discovering that the idea has become “set in stone,” and assumed to be a well supported theory.

It is always important to distinguish between facts on the one hand and models and hypotheses on the other. Facts will probably not change but models and hypotheses will. Any additional model of hypothesis based on a plausible hypothesis has a foundation built on sand.

Just-so stories can serve as a hypothesis, as a model that can be tested by further, if it is constructed properly. A proper model has to be a plausible account based upon the evidence. Some models are more plausible than others, and as new facts, observations, and ideas are gathered, some models will cease to be plausible, and new ones will become plausible. Science progresses by testing hypotheses. Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists have been accused of creating such models to explain what they have found. Just-so stories that sound great but are actually without tested evidence to support them. Actually the criticism isn’t that the scientists make up “stories,” but rather that the stories are accepted without supporting evidence and then used as true and verified models to explain other facts.

Creationist stories (“theories” in the colloquial sense) are almost nothing but just-so stories, based on no facts with numerous ad hoc claims and miracles. The supporters never test the stories.

While we’re at it, I might as well discuss “ad hoc,” because another this is another criticism often used. Ad hoc means for the specific purpose and when it is used as a criticism it is often meant to imply that the reason was made up specifically for the particular situation, on the spot, and that it is untested.

The real problem with ad hoc hypotheses is not that they might have been made up “on the spot,” or that they were made up to answer a specific problem, and only that problem. Some great scientific discoveries were made up on the spot to deal with a specific problem. Inspired genius is one way to describe it. No, the problem is not even that it is, at the moment, untested. It can be tested later, if it remains untested then that does become a problem. The real problem with ad hoc claims is why it applies in that one case and not in other identical or similar cases.

As an example: airplanes have been landing all day at an airport as they have been doing for years without incident. Today, two identical aircraft are in the landing pattern, one behind the other by the FAA required 60 second interval. The first plane lands without incident, the second landing in what seems to be the same identical conditions is just short of the runway and about touch down when it drops suddenly and violently to the ground.

Everybody in the vicinity begins to think “what happened?” Why did the previous plane land safely and the second crash? Some will come up with a hypothesis, a reason why. Since the reasons were made up on the spot for the specific incident and are untested, the reasons are ad hoc. One of them may be right. The NTSB will investigate the crash to determine the cause. Whatever caused he second plane to crash was in some sense unique to that plane at that time. The cause needs to explain why the second plane crashed, why the cause was operative then, and why none of the other planes did not crash, why the cause was not operative at those times. Wind shear was discovered under such conditions.

The ad hoc hypotheses that scientists do not like are the ones that for no rational, natural reasons only occur at “convenient” times. Science is a search for regularity in the world around us. Even an irregular event should have an explanation that is regular, unique in its occurrence. Not only should the explanation explain why the second plane crashed it should also explain why the first did not, why it was not operative then but was a moment later.

CRITICAL THINKING

Trust is a great thing. I like to believe most humans are inclined to believe that most people are trustworthy and I am willing to extend some trust to people I have just met. However, I have learned that in too many cases the trust has to be conditional, limited until I have more knowledge about that person. Complete trust is earned, Salespeople, advertisers, politicians, and scam artists want everybody to be trusting, to trust what they say without question. They do not want you to think about what they say, what they claim. People who think critically about their statements may begin to question and doubt them. They don’t like that. It makes it hard to convince you, to get you to buy something, vote for them, or believe what they want you to.

I find it helps a lot to find out what the person in question is trying to “sell me.” Every statement made in support of fact presented needs to be thought about and not uncritically accepted. Statements and facts about their opposition is also suspect. What they don’t mention can be more important than what they do.

We have actors endorsing various products, or politicians, and athletes also doing endorsements. We are supposed to think that a famous person has “something” that makes their endorsement more valuable. Well they do, they have their fame, this brings recognition and more attention to that which is being endorsed. But an actor endorsing a product or campaigning for a politician leaves me cold, totally unimpressed. Now Lance Armstrong endorsing a bicycle tire, or biking shoes (or something that he actually uses bicycling) might lead me to consider it. If he uses the product, it might be better than the others. He’s an expert in bike racing so he should know, but for politicians, insurance plans he’s endorsement is no better than mine. There is currently an ad on TV for a particular golf putter. At the end of the ad a well-known professional golfer (I think he is but I haven’t heard of him, not that golf interests me) endorses the putter. The ad also touts the number of tournaments he has won (that is why I assume he is a well-known golfer). I am supposed to think that this club is really great because he says it is and look at all the tournaments he has won (he also shot a record low score during one of them. He says it will improve your golf game. It is quite possible the club was not available when he was competing so he couldn’t have used it. But I cannot help thinking that he doesn’t use the club now when he plays, either in tournaments or for fun, so what does he really know about it. I know he got paid to stand in front of a camera and say it is great but it is not like he actually used it to win golf games, the ones he played for money. He says it will improve your golf game. He never a says it improved his.

There are few if us who have such a broad base of knowledge to be expert in every field. It is possible that when reading a book the author may cover a range of disciplines that include one or more areas that we are not knowledgeable about. I have adopted the principle that if an author has a poor understanding of the areas I have a good knowledge of, then I do not quite trust his arguments in the areas I don’t have a good grasp of.

I first read Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision when I was in college. I found the idea of near collisions with a comet as a basis for many of the stories in the Bible interesting, if a bit far-fetched. The idea sounded as if it might be plausible. I re-read the book a few years later, paying more attention to some of the “evidence.” The astronomy I had some basic understanding of and very little knowledge of the literary sources (Biblical, Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Chaldean, Chinese, Aztecan, Incan, Hindu, etc.). However I had better knowledge when it came to the part about the frozen mammoths.

Over the years a few frozen carcasses of mammoths have been found in Siberia. Velikovsky explained these as the result of the Earth’s poles being shifted by the near miss of a large comet (which became Venus or Mars). The shift of the poles moved Siberia north about 20° where it instantly became colder and the mammoths were frozen and buried in snow and ice. (They had died by asphyxiation when the comet had burned all the oxygen out of the atmosphere.)4 This also marks the end of the last ice age. He dates all this to Biblical times, several hundreds or thousands of years BC, rather than 15 or 20 thousand years ago according the radiocarbon dating and other evidence. According to him the mammoths lived in a temperate environment and died suddenly. We know this because their stomachs were full of grass and various flowering herbs that they were eating at the time of their deaths. The problem here is he seems to believe that the flowers grow in warm climates and Velikovsky seems to think that mammoths are elephants (which they are a type of) and elephants live in Africa and India where it is hot, so when mammoths lived in Siberia it must have been warm there. The fact that they were eating flowers when they died is further evidence of the warm climate. I read this and thought he has got this part all wrong. The particular flowers grow in Siberia, in the tundra regions in the spring today, and that mammoths are very well adapted to cold climates. The mammoths froze because they fell in to crevasses while crossing ice fields or were overwhelmed by a mud flow which then froze (permafrost), not because of a sudden sharp drop in temperature caused a glacier or monster blizzard to bury them. At this point my doubts about the validity of the rest of his evidence increased sharply.

Years later I read Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain and came across the following incident (page 101):

…I can remember vividly discussing World’s in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semantics at a leading university. He said something “The Assyriology, Egyptology, Biblical scholarship and all that Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul is, of course, nonsense; but I was impressed by the astronomy.” I [Carl Sagan] had rather the opposite view.

It only reinforces my own opinions.

1 An analogy is a method of illustrating a situation by comparing it with another which has some features in common with the first. The second situation may be chosen because it is easier to understand, perhaps because it is more familiar. When I use an analogy it will be used more in the line of illustration (to clarify or help to clarify a point) and not argumentative (to compare dissimilar things to exemplify or prove a point).

2 “Only by telling a story can you tell if an idea is valid.”—Mishia Landau?

3 Plausibility simply demonstrated that given a line of research is a rational endeavor. Research stemming from such arguments of plausibility ought to result, one hopes, in the production of reli­able methods for inference. — L. R. Binford 1983:75

4 I have just realized that this “cause” has a number of implications, such as: why did not all the other animals suffocate?, when oxygen burns it releases a lot of energy as heat, why did not the Earth heat up? and, how long does it take the oxygen levels in the atmosphere to return to breathable levels?

The Descent of Woman: A Critique of Elaine Morgan

The Descent of Woman: A Critique

(The Descent of Woman, Elaine Morgan 1972, Stein and Day, New York)

There is an unfortunate tendency among humans to reject ideas out-of-hand that come from people who are not part of whatever group we have created. This is unfortunate because we become parochial in our views and knowledge and can make very good use of ideas and information from other disciplines.

One of the reasons why Morgan’s AAH was not well received by the scientific community was because she was an “outsider.”  It is true, Elaine Morgan (1920-2013) was an outsider to the scientific community.  She was well educated with a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature and had a successful career as a BAFTA-winning writer for television. Well versed in English literature and a competent writer she had no knowledge of science, how to think as a scientist and how a scientist presents his/her arguments to support their hypothesis, citing their sources, etc.

Morgan has made a valuable contribution to paleoanthropology by forcing us (most of whom are men) to consider the part women played in hominid evolution, and by making us rethink our theories. However, her hypothesis should not be accepted solely because it is “non-sexist” or feminist but on its ability to explain and or predict evidence and its logical consistency. Here she fails and in a large part because she is an “outsider.” She lacks an in-depth knowledge of the literature of the various disciplines she draws from neither does she have a broad background in any of them. Furthermore the way she structures her argument, the facts she uses, and the way she uses them shows her lack of understanding.

Morgan came up with the theory first then went looking for the facts to support it. Unfortunately this is how most of us do it. It is like the paranoid person, if you accept the first premise (they are being persecuted), everything else it readily explainable, or else just ignored. Supposedly the way to do it, is to collect facts and see what they show. Realistically we do start with a theory and then gather the evidence. This can work if you consider all the evidence and correct your theory to fit the new evidence. You do not adjust your evidence to fit your theory. Morgan points out, quite correctly, that proponents of the savanna hypothesis are sometimes vague about how or why hominids became bipedal or began using tools, that their theories are “just-so-stories.” However she then creates a just-so-story of her own. Some of her arguments are circular, some of her examples are irrelevant,and the sequence of when adaptations happened is confused. She picks and chooses what supports her theory and ignores the rest. She points out facts the contradict the savanna hypothesis but never the ones that might support it.

According to her, the “torrid” Pliocene set in so rapidly there was not enough time to adapt to the new conditions and survive on the savanna (all the other savanna mammals were able to adapt). Only retreating to the sea provided a buffer to give time to evolve, but we adapted to the sea instead. We became bipedal, naked, and very human in shape. There was enough time for that but no enough for more than partial webbing of the digits (for a few humans) and then the beginnings of glands to remove excess salt (tear ducts). Ten million years and “she” had hardly begun to adapt. Whales went from four-legged terrestrial mammals to a totally marine mammal in the same amount of time. Also, hominids lost their fur because it was uncomfortable when wet, tails were dispensed with because they were in the way, buttocks became enlarged because sitting on sand and rocks was uncomfortable. Things evolve because the hominids want them. This is not how evolution works. Morgan is a Lamarckian. Her theory is “simpler” than others, and that is why it is true. Her explanations are just as simplistic as the others and for the same reason. She glosses over, doing the same thing she, rightly, complains others do.

She does not understand evolution, she does not understand how to construct a logical argument. She contradicts herself and is circular. What happens early hasn’t happened yet later, her sequence of events isn’t clear and consistent. Many things occur because of a helpless, slow-growing, naked infant (apparently she assumes this to be a fact because contemporary infants are), although in the beginning the infant was similar to any other primate infant. The helpless, slow-growing part only comes with the big brain, with a bipedal female giving birth to a large-brained infant. Morgan herself says these hominids had small brains. They were ancestors to the australopithecines who had chimpanzee-sized brains and infants that grew at the same rate as chimpanzees.

Morgan explains the evolution of the human nose as an adaptation to keeping water out of our sinuses when swimming and diving. If we had noses like gorillas we could not keep water out, so we grew noses that extended out from our face and had nostrils pointed downward. This supposedly keeps water out. Seals and most (all?) other aquatic mammals use muscles to close their noses. You would think that after ten million years we would have come up with something better than a nose with slightly downward opening nostrils. I get water up my nose frequently when in the water so my nose doesn’t work real well keeping water out. Morgan points to the proboscis monkeys as an example that this is a natural way for primates to adapt to an aquatic habitat. Actually she does not claim that they are aquatic. Proboscis monkeys live in lowland rain forests and mangrove swamps and they have been seen swimming and diving in the water. They even have partially webbed feet. The noses of adults are well developed, extending beyond the lips becoming pendulous in males. The nostrils of the adults open downward, in infants the nose still turns upward. The fact that the nose does not fully develop its characteristics until adulthood and is much larger in males than in the females (sexual dimorphism) has led primatologists to assume that it is a secondary sexual characteristic (like human beards, female breasts, etc.) and is the result of sexual selection. The primary “use” of the nose is to attract the opposite sex. Why hominids with ten million years of aquatic life developed a nose no where near as large or downward pointing as the proboscis monkey, or a little bit of “webbing” between the thumb and index finger (so little I bet you never even thought of it as a web) and a small percentage of people have a little bit of webbing between their fingers, while the proboscis monkey which is not aquatic has partial webbing between all the fingers and the toes, I don’t understand. They are much more adapted to the aquatic life Morgan hypothesizes for our ancestors than we are. Maybe our nose is more of an adaptation to humidifying and removing the dust from the air of the arid and dusty savanna. The lengthen nasal passage provides more space for more hairs to trap the dust and more membranes to moisturize the dry air before it reaches the sinuses, this keeps the sinus membranes from getting excessively dry and they are more efficient at moisturizing the air before it gets to the lungs. The angle of the nostrils is just a result of what happens when a primate nose begins to protrude from the face. As for the “webbing” (that piece of skin) between the digits of our hands and feet, maybe it is just a “convenient” way to arrange the skin between fleshy digits. Morgan would say it is a holdover from our aquatic days, maybe she is right—our aquatic amphibian days.

Morgan brings up elephants and rhinos in the chapter on the hominids’ return to land (which she very casually and cursorily passes over). She uses them as possible examples of mammals which probably were aquatic and have returned to land (her own idea). Anyway she explains the baggy skin of rhinos, and also elephants, as being caused by their having lost a lot of weight. She says that if you were to “inflate them” (her words)until the skin was tight, they would resemble dugongs or seals, so they must have been aquatic and when they returned to land they lost a lot of weight and the skin hung in loose folds the same way that an obese human’s skin does when he or she loses a lot of weight rapidly. Humans are not born fat or with baggy skin. Those of us who have gained excessive weight do not have tight skin. As we get bigger (fatter) the skin grows and if we lose a lot of fat quickly, the skin does not shrink as fast and it does become loose and baggy. Apparently Morgan thinks that this becomes a gene that is past down (okay, maybe not in humans but in rhinos at least, told you she was a Lamarckian) and continues to be past down millions of years later, even though it is maladaptive. This particular point is one of the more ridiculous and senseless ones she makes. However most of the others are only a little less senseless, a little less illogical.

She also uses the pig as an example of an aquatic animal that returned to the land. The “evidence for this is the animal’s hairless-ness and fondness for wallowing when it gets hot. She is talking about the modern breeds of pigs, the ones bred by humans over the past thousand years or so, not their wild ancestor the European wild boar which is hairy. Oh wait, she did sort of mention them. Wild pigs are hairy—a coarse, sparse, scruffy fur because they “forgot” how to grow a decent fur coat while they were aquatic and now that they are terrestrial again they can’t remember how. If wallowing is a sign of an aquatic past then buffalo and elk, as only two examples of animals that wallow, must have been aquatic at one time using her logic. She picks certain examples to support her theory and ignores others that counter her examples. She ignores the implications of her own logic.

Morgan states early in her book that the savanna hypothesis for the beginnings of tool use (throwing rocks for defense) would not work because a rock would only be picked up if it happens to be there, in the field-of-view, when needed. Furthermore, it takes practice to throw accurately enough to hit your target of predator. The first time an ape throws a rock, he (her choice of gender) will miss and think that there is no point in doing that again (negative feedback/reinforcement). Without immediate success the behavior would not be repeated, the ape would never experiment and practice enough to discover the benefits, the potential of using tools (experimenting is a lot of failures, negative feedback). The savanna hypothesis does not explain the evolution of tool using behavior.

Towards the end of the book, Morgan describes how she (her choice of gender) invented containers, clay pots to be exact. (I believe that there is a very high likelihood that it was a female that invented the container, a skin bag, I have no problem with her choice of gender.) It seems Ms. Naked Ape got tired of carrying seeds, nuts, tubers, etc. back to camp a few small handfuls at a time. Then one day down at the waterhole she noticed hoof prints in the dried mud and how they held water. In a flash of inspiration, she realized that they could hold seeds and if she could dig the dried print up, she could carry it about, holding the seeds, etc. After several failed attempts because the dried mud broke (negative feedback) she gave up on that. She decided instead to make her own “footprint” that wasn’t part of the ground. She experimented with mud of various consistencies and dried in the sun (probably for varying lengths of time) to make containers. Eventually she succeeded, in spite of all the negative feedback (and the fragility of sun-dried mud). Every reason she gives for why the savanna hypothesis’s explanation for the start of tool use is not valid, applies at least as strongly in this case. She contradicts herself.

When I saw the documentary on Morgan’s AAH, I thought that the producers had probably summarized some of the major points of the theory, simplified it all to fit into the hour length of the show. The vagueness of details and the lack of good supporting data, I thought was the product of fitting the book into the medium of a TV show, and the book would be much more detailed, with more supporting facts. I was both right and wrong. The documentary was a very sympathetic presentation of the AAH. Too sympathetic in a way, the producers left out the more senseless parts, like the invention of pottery or language, and added a new fact or two, like the Danakil Depression originally having been underwater, implying that this is where the aquatic ape lived. However, the vagueness of details and lack of supporting data was not solely a result of condensing the book to a one hour TV documentary for the general public. The examples used in the show are the same ones, the only ones, presented in the book. The book itself is a bit vague, simple, and lacking in good supporting data. The book was rather clear about when we were supposedly aquatic. It was in the 10 million year long Pliocene, after the end of the Miocene and before the Pleistocene and the australopithecines. And we were marine animals not riverine, lacustrine, or esturine.

The show was wise to skim over the details of when, we have new dates on the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene, and on the australopithecines. The Miocene ended about 5mya and Pleistocene began by 2mya, if not 2.5mya. The Pliocene was no more than 3 million years long and we have australopithecine fossil as old as 4.2my and a probable ancestor 5my old or more. Oh yeah, the older fossils have been found even further from any ocean, deeper in the sub-Saharan savanna. Morgan cannot be held at fault for these changes in dates and the finding of more fossils. As a good scientist she would take these new facts into consideration and correct her theory as needed. She just ignores these, this is not science.

One last comment: the ocean was not a safe refuge from a predators. It may true that
leopards will not go into the water, but they (and lions, hyenas, and jackals) will patrol the shore for whatever they can eat. Sharks will come into shallow water at least occasionally for prey. But there is a far more dangerous and common predator that nobody has mentioned: Crocodylus niloticus. The Nile crocodile lives (or did live) in all of Africa’s rivers south of the Sahara and can live along the coasts. They still kill hundreds of humans every year, hundreds of terrestrial humans.

The Ramapithecus Story: or the dangers of a biased fossil record

As a general rule in paleontology any fossil found is considered (until shown otherwise) to being generally representative of the population it was part of.  That is, it is not an oversize individual, or an unusually small example, or a malformed individual.  And when you have a number fossils from the same species, you will have generally representative sample of both sexes, adults and juveniles.  That is the general expectation but most paleontologists keep in the back of their minds that this may not always be true.  It just might be biased.

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The Ramapithecus Story: or the dangers of a biased fossil record

As an undergrad in the early 70’s, I was introduces to a fossil ape by the name of Ramapithecus punjabicus (Rama’s ape from Punjab).  It was dated in the region of 15mya.  Some paleontologists (i.e. David Pilbeam and Elwyn Simons) had proposed that that Ramapithecus was a human ancestor. This was based on several factors:  it had small canines, a parabolic mandible, lack of canine diastema, and the dryopithcine Y-5 pattern.. First off, some of you may recognize that these features are all “dental.”  This is because all the fossils attributed to Ramapithecus were in fact all parts of the mandible (lower jaw).

Small canines are a feature of hominines (humans and our ancestors). All of the other apes (and monkeys) have large canines. Well, that is, males have large canines and females have ones smaller than males.  Both have smaller lower canines than upper.  This is a sexually dimorphic trait of primates.  A sexually dimorphic trait is one that differs between the sexes of a species.  They may also be called secondary sexual characteristics, especially the traits that develop with sexual maturation.  These traits are why men and women’s bodies have obviously different shapes.

Lower jaw and upper jaws of apes are said to have a U-shape.  That is, the incisors form a nearly straight line, the canines are set back a little and the premolars and molars form nearly straight rows that are parallel to each other, left and right.  In humans the tooth row curves from the center-line (between the central incisors and curving through the molars forming a parabolic-like curve.  All the mandibles of Ramapithecus were incomplete, either left of right, broken at the chin.  So determining the shape of the tooth row was a matter of speculation, and the use of a mirror.

All mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians are bilaterally symmetrical.  the left side looks pretty much like the right side.  Among the fossils fragments that were found of the austrolopithecine known as Lucy, were her left femur and the ilium (the hip bone).  Because the right side is a mirror image of the left, we know what the right side looks like.  By placing the half mandible next to a  mirror, the reflected image creates an image of the other mandible and the shape of the intact jaw. That is, if the mandible fragment is oriented at the true angle in real life.  Which is a matter of interpretation since the actual suture where the two halves meet is missing.  The “reconstructed  jaw” seemed to be that of a parabolic arcade, a hominine jaw shape.  Again, this is only accurate if the angle is correct.

A canine diastema is a space in the lower jaw that allows the long upper canine to pass by the first premolar and  the jaws to close.  If you feel the tooth right behind your lower canine (or look at it in a mirror), you will feel or see that it has two cusps with a low spot between them.  The tooth is called the first premolar or more commonly a bicuspid because of the two cusps.  In humans, the upper canine fits in the valley between the two cusps.  In the other primates with long canines (fangs) the first cusp is not there.  When the male animal closes it mouth the upper canine slides behind the lower canine and against the premolar.  It is believed that this forms a” honing complex” and sharpens the upper canine. Females have smaller upper canines and a tiny diastema.  Also the lower canine slides in front the upper canine and there is a gap between the upper canine and the lateral incisor. Humans with neither a long upper canine or lower have no diastemata.

The dryopithecine Y-5 pattern refers to the fact the living great apes (this includes humans) have 5 cusps on the surface of their lower molars.  There is a valley down the middle of the tooth with two pairs cusps on inside edge of the tooth and three cusps on the outside edge. The valley between the two inside cusps bifurcates as it passes on either side of the middle cusp looking like a “Y.”  This pattern was first noticed in fossils of Dryopithecus, first found in the late 1800’s  in Miocene deposits in Europe.  This pattern also occurs in humans and indicates a relationship between dryopithecines and humans.  Its presence in ramapithecine molars indicated that Ramapithecus was related to Dryopithecus and possibly a human ancestor. But not necessarily, since other apes, not our ancestors have the Y-5 pattern.  All the Y-5 pattern indicates for sure is descent from Dryopithecus.  Since we have the Y-5 pattern any ancestor of us has to also have it.

Not everyone accepted, based on these traits, that the hypothesis that Ramapithecus was an ancestor was correct.  There was a a lot of discussion (or heated argument) about it.  Added to the morphological argument, several molecular chemists said (based on their immunological work) that Ramapithecus was 10 million or more years to old to be a hominine.

Anyway, that is the background to the story of Ramapithecus. and why it is it was and is an important fossil.  Ramapithecus was among a number of fossils found in the Siwalik Hills of India in the early 1900’s.  Fossils of several ape genera and species were also found, e.g. Sivapithecus, Bramapithecus, and Sugrivapithecus (Shiva’s ape, Brahma’s ape, and Sugriva’s ape).  These all tended to be rather fragmentary mandibles, maxilla, and teeth.  Further study revealed an odd fact, Ramapithecus was known only from fragments of mandibles (the lower jaw) and Bramapithecus was known only from fragments of maxillae (the upper jaw).  Both had small canines and teeth that looked very similar.  Eventually it was realized that they were upper and lower jaw fragments of the same species.  Since Ramapithecus was the first named, the senior name, Bramapithecus was “sunk,” as taxonomists say:  included as a junior synonym of  Ramapithecus.

Sivapithecus was recognized as an ancestral orangutan.  The fragments of the maxilla included enough of the face to include the “nasal gutter” (depressed area on each side of the nasal opening) that is distinctively unique to the living orangutan species.  The teeth were also very similar to the teeth of living orangutans. Males of which have large canines as most primates species do.

This was the way things stood for years. Sivapithecus was an ancestral orangutan, and Ramapithecus/Bramapithecus may be or may not be ancestral to humans.  But probably  not, since the immunological clock, joined to the DNA evidence (molecular clock) gained widespread acceptance that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans existed about 7 million years ago and therefore Ramapithecus was about 8 million years to old.

Then a new Ramapithecus was found, a fragment of maxilla that extended far enough to the nasal cavity to show a nasal gutter.  Ramapithecines were actually an array of species of Sivapithecus.  To add to this, I recently read that all the ramapithecine fossils were all from females.  So they would all have had small canines in the first place.

The point of all this, is that almost all fossils are fragments.  Very rarely is a major intact part of a skeleton found, let alone a complete one.  Things like age, gender, and just how representative of the entire population it is, is a big question.  The beginning assumption is that all fossils are “ordinary.” It is not a particularly large individual or particularly small (if it is an adult).   Lucy is a small individual (and that rarity a nearly complete skeleton) so there were and still are still questions about how representative she is of  the Australopithecus afarensis female size range.  The Hobbit from Flores raised all kind of questions about whether she small and her small brain were pathological or not.  If the fossil is of a juvenile, is it developing at about normal speed.  The Turkana Boy (AKA Nariokotome Boy or WT-15000), an rare nearly complete skeleton, is a tall (61 inches) 11-12 year old Homo ergaster (an African Homo erectus) would have been 73 inches tall at adulthood.  Because the fossil is of an immature individual it is hard to be sure of the actual age and even sex.  He may have been as young as 7 (still very tall) and may even have been a she.  If the fossil is of a sexually reproducing species there is a 50-50 chance as to which sex you have.  So if you have several fragments of different individuals of the same specie, there is a statistical likelihood that you have a sample of each sex.  But the story of  Ramapithecus is good example of how wrong the basic assumption can be:  all the Ramapithecus mandibles were from female and all the maxillae, formerly known as Bramapithecus, were also female.

There is also the problem of identifying pathologies of a skeleton and not including them in the species definition.  The classic example is Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction of the male Neandertal skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. His reconstruction provided the archetypal caveman image, the bent knee, stooped shouldered apish beast.  When Boule examined the skeleton of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints he recognized that he was seriously crippled by arthritis and injuries from a long hard life.  While the reconstruction may have been accurate for that specific individual at his time of death, it was not at all accurate for how a Neandertal normally looked.  Cave and Strauss reexamined Neandertals in the the 1950s and demonstrated that they walked upright like modern humans and were not so apish as Boule has interpreted the skeleton.

The fossil record is full of potential traps and must be interpreted with caution.

BEASTS OF EDEN

BEASTS OF EDEN

Creationists seem to think that some scientists have looked at say horses and zebras, jaguars and leopards, man and ape, a couple of scraps of fossil bone and said: “Oh, they look similar therefore one evolved from the other,” and created this “theory” about evolution out of thin air. There is far more to it than a few fossils. It is a massive corpus of facts, all woven together into a solid reality that exists all around us, for those who would look.

A while ago I was reading a book (David Rains Wallace, 2004, Beasts of Eden). I do do that, read books, sometimes it seems that that is all I do, is read. But I digress. The book was about mammalian paleontology, both the history of finding mammalian fossils and the evolution of mammals. It included an illustration with four skulls of titanotheres and their specific names arranged (bottom to top) in chronological order. Looking at the skulls (which had been restored to what they probably looked like in life) one could see how the skulls enlarged over time, the jaw/nose lengthening out of proportion to the rest of the skull, the horn moved from about halfway between the nostrils and the eyes, in stages, to the nose, and became larger and in the final skull the horn had a bifurcated tip (looked like a “Y”). The progress was steady by minor changes from species to species. How could anyone deny the evidence? Clearly the first species had evolved into the last. You would have to be willfully blind to refuse to accept the evidence. Or maybe not.

There were only four skulls presented, each from a different species, over several million years. There are similar illustrations for horses, with a few more species over tens of millions of years. After some reflection I realized that based on just what was shown in any of these illustrations, you could deny that they demonstrated the evolution of one species into another, and another, for millions of years until the descendant showed little obvious relation to the original ancestor. I might think you were being overly hard-headed, critical, and a knot-head, by refusing to accept the evidence but then I both accept evolution and know more about what’s behind the illustrations.

If you don’t accept evolution and don’t know (or refuse to know) what the illustrations are based on, how much more evidence exists than is shown, you can convince yourself that they don’t show any evidence for evolution. That is you could if there were only these four titanothere skulls or several horse fossils. For the sake of clarity a few of the species have a fossil chosen to represent the entire species. Sometimes a reconstruction, which may be a composite of several individual fossils, is used for the illustration. I know that the illustrated fossil is representative of a population of fossilized individuals. There is almost always more than one fossil from a species and they are not absolutely identical. Over period of 5-6 years I had the opportunity to spent up to two weeks prospecting for fossils. We spent most of the time searching the same area over again each year. The area is eroding so new material is being continually exposed. Anyway, the most common fossils found were Hyopsodus sp. mandibles (lower jaw bone). The portion (most of the tooth row) ranged from 1.5-2cm in length. I found from four to twelve each field season. The others I was with found more. I don’t know how many we found (there were other geology/paleontology crews in the immediate region also collecting fossils for other institutions) but the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH, where the fossils are curated) has to have hundreds to thousands of jaws from these animals. I have been to the AMNH (and the Kenya National Museum) and seen some of their fossil collection. The fossils on public display in the world’s museums are only a tiny, very tiny, part of their entire collection. They have drawers and shelves full. There may be only fossil remains of 12 different Tyrannosaurus rex in the world (it may be 15) and only a few hundred (not counting fragments) from the hominine species, but where there are thousands to tens of thousands of fossils from some invertebrate species there is no way that any illustration or figure can begin to show the variation present in a species. Neither can they show how the variation grades into another species over time.

It is true that there are some fossil species represented by a single specimen, a single fossil bone even. Australopithecus africanus was just a skull. It was years before more fossils were found that could be attributed to the species. T. rex is known from 12 (or maybe 15) individual specimens. I do not know how many fragments/fossil bones, etc. have been found but they are from 12 separate individuals (since I read that I have heard of the finding of several more individuals). Montana has the record number of finds, something like four including the first (and type) specimen. Some fossil species are rare and/or poorly known. Many extinct species are unknown and will never be known. The fossil record is and always will be incomplete. Having said that, the fossil record does contain much information, just remember that there are limits.

With a single fossil it can be very hard, if not impossible, to decide the sex, age, or size of the individual specimen it represents.  You cannot know how close to being an “average” individual it is.  The fossil Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) is tiny and some of the arguments surrounding her are: is she just an unusually small individual or is she of average size for that species?  Real species are populations of living organisms,. of all ages,  size, and sex.  Until you have a collections of numerous fossil representing the same species from a reasonably small period of time, just what is average or normal is difficult to determine.   You have to tread very carefully.

RAFTING

RAFTING

The term “monkey” is used for some of the primates that live in both the Old World and the New World. “Monkey” does not include the prosimians (lemurs, sifakas, etc. of Madagascar) nor the apes. Inspector Clouseau was wrong when he said, in one of the Pink Panther movies, it was a “chimpanzee-type monkey.” Primates are divided, firstly into prosimians (basically lemurs, etc.) and simians (monkeys and apes). The simians themselves were divided into platyrrhine monkeys (New World) and catarrhines (Old World monkeys and the apes).  The Old and New World monkeys look almost identical and for many years it was believed that the primates evolved from a prosimian and very quickly divided into the platyrrhines and catarrhines, with the platyrrhines becoming geographically separated and surviving only in the New World. However more research, some fossils and a few dates indicated that they were very distantly related and that the ancestor was probably a prosimian rather than the first monkey.  There was also a lack of fossils from the Old World that shared traits common to both the platyrrhines and catarrhines and could be their last common ancestor. This raised the probability that the monkeys had different prosimian ancestors: one in the New World for the platyrrhines and another prosimian in the Old World for the catarrhines (and the apes). In some ways the platyrrhine monkeys may be considered to be “advanced” prosimians or not quite as evolved as catarrhine monkeys.  Currently they both are often referred to be “monkey grade:”  approximately equal levels of development just maybe not as closely related as they would be if they shared a common ancestor.

In general the public does not know that the prosimians first appeared in North America.  The fossil Purgatorius was found in eastern Montana around Purgatory Hill east of the Fort Peck Reservoir.  It is dated to 66 million years ago, one to one and half million years before the end of the dinosaurs.  It is either the earliest known prosimian or a proto-prosimian that gave rise to prosimians. Many more fossils that are definitely prosimian a have been found in the American southwest and in Wyoming (I, myself, have participated in searching for, and finding, prosimian fossils in the Bridger Formation south of Fort Bridger, Wyoming).

Prosimians no longer exist in North America or Europe.  The first fossil prosimian fossil (Notharctus) was found in France. There are some living prosimians (Lorises, Pottos, Galagos also known as Bush Babies, and Tarsiers) in Africa and Asia, but the greatest numbers and diversity exist in Madagascar.

It seems that the prosimians first evolved in North America, diversified and spread to Europe, Asia, Africa and Madagascar.  The world 60 million years ago did not look like the world of today. it was much warmer for starters. For instance,Wyoming was covered by lush forests with large rivers and active volcanoes.  The North Atlantic was narrower particularly across Greenland to Europe.  Notharctus has been found in both France and Wyoming. The South Atlantic, also was much narrower than it is now.  The Isthmus of Panama was open ocean, the Pacific and Atlantic were connected.  North and South America were separate land  masses and were until about 3 million years ago.

Since there is no evidence, currently, of fossil prosimians in South America, and platyrrhine monkeys and catarrhine monkeys are:   1) either related to a common prosimian ancestor or two different prosimian ancestors, both living in Africa where only the catarrhines survived with only the platyrrhines spreading to South America, or   2) the platyrrhines evolved from an America prosimian before they became extinct  and the catarrhines from a European or African prosimian.  In either case the problem is how did the platyrrhine monkeys get to South America.  If they evolved on 2 separate continents (North America and Africa) then the platyrrhines (or their prosimian ancestor) island-hopped across the future Caribbean to South America.  Since there are monkey on some of the islands, it was most likely not a prosimian ancestor. Or if it was, it went extinct and the recently evolved platyrrhine monkeys spread back across the islands.

The most intriguing possibility, which may be the currently preferred option, is that they both evolved in Africa and the a platyrrhine ancestor rafted across the South Atlantic, survived the crossing and flourished in the New World while their African relatives went extinct. Probably due to competition with the catarrhines.

How this could have occurred has intrigued me for years.  I had to understand how it might be possible for me to accept that such a possibility might possibly be possible. I have come up with what I believe is a possible scenario, possible enough to have happened.  You may have noticed the multiple use of “possible” and “probable.”  I want you to understand that this only a scenario of what is possible to have a chance of happening.  The entire question of how organisms have come to inhabit oceanic islands is a fascinating topic in itself.  The Galapagos Islands are 1000 kilometers from Ecuador, have never been connected to any continental  land mass and one of the creatures that live on the islands is a marine iguana.  Every other known iguana is terrestrial, they live on land, feed on terrestrial vegetation, insects and animals, and although capable of swimming across rivers and from island to island, do not dive underwater and feed on seaweeds.

Anyhow here, for your consideration (as Rod Serling said at the beginning of The Twilight Zone) is a story of one way monkeys might have made the oceanic crossing (it might even be true):  The rain had fallen for days. Storm after storm sweeping in off the ocean. The river was a turbulent, muddy brown torrent with leaves, limbs, and trees floating on its foaming surface. Today though, it hadn’t yet rained but as evening approached the great dark clouds unleashed the storm they had been promising all day. Amidst the bolts of lightning and crashing thunder, the rain fell in drenching sheets.

The small troop of primates cowered under the canopy of leaves, close to the trunk of the tree they had been feeding in when the storm broke. The tree was near the center of their home range, where they felt the most secure. They had been here or nearby during the storms, feeling safer here than elsewhere.

However it was a false security for the tree grew on the bank of the river, which now surged around its roots, digging away at the earth the supported it. The troop first felt the impending disaster as an increasing vibration of the tree, then a lurch as the ground began to rapidly give way. The lurch only made them cling tighter to big limbs near the trunk where they had taken shelter, and when the tree crashed into the river only two of them were swept away.

The swollen river carried the tree and the band the few miles downstream to the coast. Even though the storm surf was crashing onshore, the river had enough strength to push the tree beyond the mouth and offshore, where the oceanic current began to move it northward along the coast.

The tree and its living cargo was still in the current’s embrace a day later when the current began its westward turn to become an equatorial current and cross the ocean. The ocean was not as wide then as it is now. The current sweeping up the west African coast could carry a floating object to the northeastern coast of South America in 10-14 days time. Dehydration was the biggest threat to the primate troop afloat on the ocean. The tree’s leaves and fruit would provide some water to meet their needs, as well as food to stave off their hunger. The leaves also provided shelter from the tropical sun. Clinging to the branches of the tree as it floated, the primates had little to do. There was nowhere to go, no predators to flee, and what food there was was in easy reach. Their activity levels were greatly reduces, even the juveniles and infants were subdued by the strangeness of their situation. This reduced activity reduced their water and food requirements further.

Still, the survivors were desperate when the tree finally grounded in the shallow water off a strange coast several weeks later. The oldest members of the band had died first, lacking the resources and strength to survive long. Neither did the younger juvenile members, they lacked the body mass to store fat and water to survive lean times. Nursing infants survived better until their mother, who had a greater need for water and food to produce milk for them, either died or failed to produce milk. Then they died. It was the young adults and the mature adults that had the stamina and bodily resources that had the best chance of surviving the trip. Still, they were desperate when the tree grounded. Desperate enough to leap into the gentle surf and get ashore. Get ashore to an unknown territory with unknown dangers. It wasn’t that they knew it was a new world, just that it wasn’t their own territory and who knew what other band of primates they might have to fight with or where there were safe places to take refuge from any predators.

There were predators here, ones they had never encountered before, but their predator avoidance/escape behavior worked here as well as in Africa.

However they never did discover other primate troops, neither of their own kind nor of any other kind. They were the only primates on the entire continent, in the entire hemisphere.

The surviving members of the troop floundered ashore, found water, safe haven, and food. As they recovered from their ordeal they would begin to explore their new home, finding sources for water, new foods, and new dangers. After a few years of learning the new territory their numbers would have begun to increase. The troop would have grown slowly in numbers, then grow too large to be a single troop and divide into two troops. Then their numbers would have started to increase faster, spreading into far territory, exploring newer habitats and life ways.

Their only serious competition would have been themselves. They were the founding members of all New World monkeys. Their descendants spread through tropical America, radiating into numerous different niches and species from the lemur-like marmosets and tamarins, to the monkey-like squirrel monkey and capuchins, to the world’s only nocturnal higher primate—the owl monkey, and to the more ape-like spider monkeys

They retained the third premolar of the prosimians and the “platyrrhine” nose (the nostrils face to the side of the nose, among other traits. Some of their descendants evolved the prehensile tail. Soon after the forced separation, before they themselves radiated and became monkeys and apes, their relatives in Africa lost the third premolar and evolved nostrils that opened forward (the “catarrhine” nose).

HELP! I’M HAVING AN ALIEN’S BABY! ALIEN LIFE: PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE FICTION, OR THE UNLIKELIHOOD OF THE EXISTENCE OF A MR. SPOCK

HELP!  I’M HAVING AN ALIEN’S BABY!

ALIEN LIFE: PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE FICTION,

OR THE UNLIKELIHOOD OF THE EXISTENCE OF A MR. SPOCK

I always liked Mr. Spock. I don’t know how much of it, if any, had to do with his physical resemblance to Barnaby, a host of a local children’s show of my youth, who also had pointy ears. Spock’s pointy ears are probably the most remembered of his alien traits. Trekkies will also remember his greenish hue due to his copper-based blood, his seven hearts, his extra human-strength and preference for heat.
None of these character traits is implausible.  Basically all of them can be found among creatures currently alive on earth.  Many mollusks and arthropods have hemocyanin which uses copper to transport oxygen (and turns blue when oxygenated).  Earthworms have five hearts. Grasshoppers have six “hearts,” and many insects have a large general heart and a series of smaller accessory hearts at the bases of their wings and legs. Hemoglobin (our iron-based oxygen-transporting pigment) is capable of being dissolved in cells (rather than just plasma like hemocyanin) and therefore more oxygen can be carried and capacity increased, which is a decided advantage for large animals.
The only thing improbable about Mr. Spock is not his pointed ears, green blood, or seven hearts, is his very existence, not as a Vulcan but as a Vulcan/Earth cross. I’m not arguing that “Vulcans” (representing extraterrestrial life) do not or cannot exist but rather that any extraterrestrial life form could breed (produce viable life let alone one that could survive to maturity) with any earth life form is extremely unlikely, unlikely to the point of impossibility. Given their separate origin and individual evolutionary history, even forms so “similar” as Vulcans and earthlings, it is so unlikely that they are physically compatible. The similarities are not even skin deep.
Issac Asimov wrote, in something I read, that no matter where the extraterrestrial being came from in science fiction stories it was always after the shapely blond, as if Euro-America’s standards of beauty are universal, really universe-wide. Even in the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the creature was attracted to the female co-star. However there is much more involved with reproduction than mutual attraction.
Life on Earth is based on carbon and uses DNA to direct cellular activity and to transmit information to the next generation. Carbon-based life is not the only way for life. Theoretically there could be other “life systems” based on different atoms (silicon for instance, as in one Star Trek episode). Carbon is a very versatile chemical, capable of forming many compounds. Water is a nearly universal solvent, with some important properties of its own that make it essential for life. Carbon-based chemistry, organic chemistry, has many properties (energy released by reactions, temperatures at which they occur, etc.) that make it more efficient, more practicable than a chemistry based on some other atom. Carbon is also reasonably abundant in the universe. Although non-carbon-based life is possible I feel that the advantages of carbon (mixed, as in our case, with water) are so great that the vast majority of life forms in the Universe are carbon-based, require water and, maybe, use DNA. Proteins are complex molecules that take complex forms, some can exist in two forms, mirror images of each other. They can be differentiated by the direction that they rotate polarized light,1 either to left or right. If you mix up a batch of one of the proteins that can exist in mirror image forms in a test tube, you get a mixture that is one half levorotary and one half dextrorotary. On Earth all optically active chemicals made by organic processes are levorotary. It is a 50/50 chance probability that an alien life form might use only dextrorotary proteins. The two different forms of the same molecule are not compatible, they cannot be interchanged one for the other.
However, even if alien life forms use DNA (with the same sugar/phosphate backbone with the same four nitrogenous bases (cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine) that doesn’t mean they can successfully reproduce with any other life form. Information in DNA is organized in genes, the genes are collected in “strings” called chromosomes. The chromosomes exist in pairs, each cell contains a certain number of the pairs. The “certain number” depends on the species, and varies from species to species. Humans have 22 pairs plus a mismatched “pair:” the X and Y chromosomes that determine sex  XX for female and XY for male), a “diploid number” of 46. The great apes have 48 (24 pairs), baboons, mangabeys, and macaques have 42, others (talapoin, guenon, and patas) have between 48 and 72 (36 pairs). The variation in number is even greater among the rest of life here on Earth.
Sexual reproduction begins with the formation of sex cells (gametes, eggs and sperm). By the process of meiosis, the chromosomes in a cell are divided between the daughter cells so that each has one half of each pair (in humans 23 of 46 chromosomes). During fertilization, two gametes combine and each chromosome “lines up” with its coresponding one from the other gamete forming one chromosome and then they replicate to produce a pair. The new cell again has two of each pair of chromosomes. Development then proceeds according to the “instructions” contained in the DNA. If the half pairs are not a reasonable match they fail to replicate and the fertilization also fails to continue.
We’ll just ignore the question of whether it is even physically possible for two alien species to actually mate. Their genitalia may be so different as to be incompatible. External physical similarity does not ensure that the genitalia are similar (there are species of insects that look identical to other species but their genitalia are different enough, like keys to locks, to prevent cross-breeding).  Similarity certainly does not ensure that gestation is similar or that the chromosome number is the same, the genes are organized in the same manner, or even “spelled” the same.
There are so many places where incompatible differences can occur that it is not surprising that animals so similar, sharing a long common ancestry like horses and donkeys, after a relatively short separation, cannot produce fertile offspring. What is the possibility that two species with no common ancestry, with totally separate evolutionary histories (billions of years long), are cross-fertile? Not very likely, but I still enjoy Star Trek.
The first time I saw the movie Alien I had shiver of recognition. Aficionados of the movie (and its sequels) may know and etymologists should have recognized the same thing I saw. The alien’s reproductive cycle was not invented by the writer(s). It was borrowed from natural history here on Earth.
There is a group of species known as tarantula hawks or digger wasps, among other names. Tarantula hawks are actually a species of wasps, the females of which hunt and capture tarantulas to provide a source of food for their larvae. When a female is about to lay a fertilized egg, she digs a burrow and then goes looking for a spider. When she finds an appropriate spider, she attacks it, stinging it in a particular spot so it is paralyzed and not killed. Still alive, but immobile and capable of living for a long while, the wasp drags the spider into the burrow. Here she lays the egg in or on the paralyzed spider, then she covers the burrow and leaves. The larva is on its own.
After a few days, the egg hatches, the larva emerges and begins to feed, on the spider. The larva eats the spider in such a way that the spider remains alive (the freshness of the food apparently being very important) until the larva is nearly finished eating and growing. The vital organs are the last to be eaten and once the spider is consumed the larva pupates and transforms itself into an adult wasp and emerges from the burrow.
In the movie Alien, some giant life form from outer space attacks some humans at a remote outpost. They are, in someway, immobilized and implanted with one of the alien’s offspring. The humans are alive until the alien child bursts out of their chest cavity, a scene graphically and repeatedly shown in the movies.
This may make a great plot for a sci-fi movie, however there are some things that make it an unlikely event in the real world. My objections fall into two categories either of which would make the success of the event so unlikely as to be practically impossible. First, the behavior of the wasps (and presumably the “alien”) is instinctive and not readily adaptable to a different host species, and secondly, a vertebrate like a human is unlikely to survive a sufficient length of time while being eaten to provide a suitable nursery. Vertebrate bodies are different in fundamental ways from invertebrates and less tolerant to being “abused.”
Digger wasp and tarantula hawk behavior is instinctive. They do not learn which spider or caterpillar to use or where to sting it to paralyze it. The larva is not taught how to eat the insect so that it doesn’t die until the last moment. The larva “knows” because it is in its genes. Instinctive behavior is not flexible. A tarantula hawk will not substitute a caterpillar if it finds one first rather than a tarantula. Each species of wasp preys on a particular insect. It has to find the right prey to “release” the behavior. The larva is programmed to eat its living food in a particular way, eat the food insect the wrong way and it may die too soon. If it dies too soon the larva may not complete its development and fail to survive to adulthood.
Evolution/natural selection is capable of some amazing things. It is within the realm of possibility that an organism could evolve the ability to successfully attack and subdue unknown alien species. That the larva would know what and how to do what they need to with an alien body is even more unlikely, but theoretically possible. The real problem (to me) is that humans would make a poor choice as a host in the first place.
I was taught “three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.” In a disaster situation remembering this would help me prioritized needs, etc. Breathable air in sufficient volume was more important than water to drink. You had several days to find drinkable water. The same way for a medical emergency, setting a broken arm of a victim who wasn’t breathing was useless. You had to get them breathing first before anything else.
Human anatomy and physiology are very different from spiders. We are “hot-blooded” and need a lot of energy from food to stay alive, without it we die relatively quickly. Shrews will starve to death in hours. We need a lot of oxygen to help burn the fuel so our heart and lungs operate to transfer oxygen from the air to our blood and then throughout the body. Our circulation system also removes “waste products,” carrying them to our kidneys for removal. Water keeps the blood liquid, helps metabolize protein, fills our cells, etc.
Spiders are “cold-blooded,” they use very little energy when not active, their requirements for food, oxygen, and water are greatly reduced. Oxygen is passively transported by trachea (hollow tubes) and not actually pumped. With the hard exoskeleton, and not respirating, water loss is greatly reduced.
A human, bound and immobile, will die in days. You start destroying parts of the body and death will come sooner. The heart, lungs, brain, and kidneys are critical, maybe the liver too. It is true that you can do a lot of damage to the human body without killing the person, if you know what you’re doing. You have to prevent excessive blood loss and collapse of the system, “shock.” Perhaps, in a fashion, the human body is much more “integrated” than the spider’s. Damage to a part of the body can impair the functioning of other parts (including vital organs). Otherwise minor injury can lead to shock and death. Blood loss, reduction in volume leading to inadequate pressure, is a major factor in shock. I don’t see how a larva could eat a human in such a way that would not cause continuous bleeding and concomitant loss of blood pressure that,no matter how slow the bleeding would cause death within days. Long before the larva is big enough to fill our chest cavity (having eaten our heart,lungs, kidneys, etc.). Puncture an artery and death will quickly follow.
While it is in the realm of possibility, a very remote possibility, that some alien life form could use us in a way similar to the way tarantula hawks use tarantulas, I’m not going to worry about it. It is far more likely an alien life form would use for dinner. They might, like spiders, inject a “poison” that would kill us and dissolve our insides so they can suck the juice out. That is what I would worry about.
Even here on Earth you cannot just substitute one species for another and have things continue on as before.
I was in Africa for the first time years ago, just when AIDS was really becoming a big concern for the majority of the population. I was traveling with my parents. My father, who was a doctor, was asked by one of the other people on the tour, if it was possible to get AIDS, actually HIV, from mosquitos. The fear was that since mosquitos transmit malaria, a blood-born disease, couldn’t they also transmit HIV, another blood-born disease. My father said no, it was extremely unlikely. I had a “gut-feeling” that he was right, it was years later while I was reviewing malaria and its life cycle (or “their” life cycles, since there are four species of malaria plasmodia) that I figured out why he was right to not be concerned that HIV would be transmittable by mosquito.
Malaria is caused by a protozoa, not by a virus. There are mosquito transmitted viruses (e.g. yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile, equine encephalitises, etc.) so it is possible for a virus to be transmitted by mosquitos (“vector”). However it is a complex system that requires several parts to be properly coordinated. IT is not as simple as substituting HIV for malaria, or yellow fever. While we do not for certain how HIV spreads in nature, we do know that it spreads directly human-to-human by direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, etc. do not naturally spread human-to-human. We can do it artificially with blood transfusions. Malaria must pass through a mosquito before it can infect a human. It is not like a mosquito bites an infected human, sucks up some blood, then goes bites another human and the contaminated proboscis? (“needle”) infects the new human, or even that some of the blood from the first human is injected. In is more complex than that.
When a female Anopheles mosquito bites (only female mosquitos bite) an infected human, the blood with the Plasmodium sporozoite (the asexual spore of the malaria protozoa) is stored in the mosquito’s stomach. The blood is digested to provide enough protein to produce eggs. The conditions of being in the mosquito’s stomach cause the malaria to undergo sexual reproduction. The zygote exits the stomach, produce new spores which migrate to the mosquito’s salivary glands. Here they wait. This all takes some time, during which the mosquito, assuming she survives, lays the eggs and then goes looking for another blood meal to produce another cluster of eggs. When she bites, a small amount of saliva is injected. It prevents blood clotting and later causes the itching, an allergic reaction to the foreign protein. Along with the saliva is the malaria spore. If the organism bitten by a malaria-infected mosquito is a human or maybe another primate, the malaria spore will begin reproducing, asexually, and be ready to infect another mosquito. If an infected mosquito bites anything other than a primate, the transmission is broken.
Mosquito-born diseases are not spread because some blood is removed from one infected human and injected into another. No blood is transferred, the disease agent has to “infect” the mosquito and get into the salivary glands before it can reenter a human’s blood stream to cause another infection. Just because a disease is carried in blood does not automatically mean it can be transmitted by mosquito bites. It’s simply not that simple.
1The proper terms are: levorotary—rotation of the plane of polarized light to the left, that is counter-clockwise, and dextrorotary—rotation of the plane of polarized light to the right, that is clockwise.

KINDS OF CREATIONISTS

KINDS OF CREATIONISTS

…As always, the battle is not simply one of fact and truth. It is rather a struggle for the hearts and souls of people, with deep implications for the ways in which we live our lives and regulate our conduct. It is a religious or metaphysical battle, not simply a dispute about scientific theory.

Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, 2005:261

For the past few years I was becoming more and more convinced that discussing, arguing with Creationists about evolution wasn’t going to accomplish anything. The argument was not about facts, Creationists and Darwinians were talking about different things. Darwinians were talking about the reality of evolution, the scientific evidence for it. Creationists were talking about God and the Bible as a guide to a way of life. Both sides were talking past each other, neither able to convince the other side.

Recently I read the above quotation. Ruse summed up the situation succinctly: it is not about science but about how we live and how we justify it. I also realized that I was not the only one who saw this. Having said that I will deal with Creationism as if it were a science, knowing that it is probably futile. You can believe in Creationism if that is what you want, just don’t tell me it is supported by scientific facts, etc.

Some scientists will tell you that it is a waste of time, time they do not have, to rebut Creationists and pseudoscientists.1 A large factor in this reasoning is that no matter how completely you destroy their arguments, expose their false facts, bad logic, misquotes, and outright lies, they will come right back the next day with the same stupid arguments. In fact if you look back at the arguments the Catastrophists used 175, 200 years, or more ago and compare them with some of the Creationist’s arguments of today, they haven’t changed. They were wrong then and, with the greater knowledge we have today, even more wrong now.

In that respect those scientists are right, it is a waste of time. I have no real expectation of putting an end to any pseudoscience. I do have some hope that a few of the people who think that there might be “something” to the claims of one or more of the pseudosciences (esp. Creationism) will see them for what they are. What I do hope to accomplish is to use Creationism as an example of what are not science and to show how they differ from science. At the risk of being accused of a “straw man argument,” there are a number of variations on creationism (and some do not exactly make their claims explicit) that somebody is sure to claim I used an unfair model, I will try to compare and contrast pseudoscience and science. Creationism as a science is simply bad science.2 Some Creationists (the Young-Earth Creationists3) seem to avoid science all together, ignore it and simply argue on the basis of the Bible being literally true. In a way I have no argument with them, for there is no common basis. It is theology and not science. They make no claim to be scientific or even to explain scientific facts. My concern here is with those who accept the facts, try to explain them within the framework of the Bible, and claim to be scientific.

For a long time I gave the Creationists the benefit of doubt. I was willing to believe that people are basically honest and trustworthy, that they simply did not understand evolutionary theory, did not know many of the facts, or did not fully comprehend the breath and depth of the evidence. I was a junior in college when I came across a small book from the Jehovah’s Witness about evolution. At the time I had a rather limited knowledge of evolutionary theory. Even with that limited and superficial understanding, as I read through the book I could see that the author(s) had no understanding at all. That the author, or authors, were deliberately confusing the issues, falsifying ideas, and failing to understand the theory did not cross my mind. I can no longer believe that, at least not of the leaders. Maybe their followers had accepted what they have been told by the proponents of Creationism, believing that their leaders are honest (after all they are Christians). They do not have the necessary background knowledge to evaluate the claims of Creationism or to understand how they have been mislead and given a very biased, unbalanced, and distorted version. I can no longer accept that their leaders are simply and honestly mistaken. I have come to the opinion that their leaders deliberately distort the real facts, cover them up, and ignore them. They are aware of what they are doing and continue to violate the trust of their followers and take advantage of their trust and lack of knowledge. They deliberately deceive and manipulate their followers.

It is hard for me to write this post, to write it without anger and rage, because what Creationists do is, to me, one of the worst things a scientist can do. Supposedly these are the same people who believe that lying is a sin.

The debate between evolution and creation is not a scientific debate. True, there are criticisms of evolution (more properly-natural selection). Some of them are scientifically valid and discussion of them should be part of a scientific curriculum.

However, the debate between evolution and creation is a between science and religion, and therefore belongs in a theology or philosophy class. I would prefer to not talk about creationism but I cannot. I will use it to illustrate other points of view, styles of thinking, and how science differs.

In a way there is not much to argue scientifically about with creationism. There is little science in it. One critic complained that their arguments “often involved logic, a stubborn denial of the evidence, a shallow understanding, or reckless disregard for truth.”4 Another criticized the “Creation-scientists appallingly unprofessional research methods.”5 Scientists usually maintain a certain decorum in public so comments like these, and these aren’t the only ones, are indicative of a much greater depth of feeling.

Creation science denies a lot of the established scientific facts, their hypotheses are untestable (not just there aren’t testable hypotheses, see below, they just avoid them), and they try to prove that they are right rather than try to find out whether they are true. (As I read it pointed out: “As Christian, we know …”, rather than the more scientific approach of “As Christians, we hypothesize …”). Perhaps their biggest failure as scientists, is that they rarely admit to errors and never change their basic hypotheses. Scientists have to be willing to accept that everything they believe could be wrong and to change their ideas. Evolution, continental drift, quantum mechanics are all examples where scientists accepted new ideas (“paradigms”) that overthrew their earlier beliefs and ideas. Creationists may claim that they accept the possibility that their hypotheses may be wrong and would change. But they are only paying lip service. To them the Bible (at least their interpretation of it) is True, absolute truth with a capital “T.” Everything must be made to fit a biblical interpretation, no matter how tortured the logic or how much evidence has to be denied. Their arguments are little more than modernized versions of what the Catastrophists argued 200 years ago.

I came across an argument by the Creationists that implied evolution could not be true because the evolutionists disagreed among themselves. Many of these disagreements are over the details of evolution, not evolution itself, although some of the disagreements are of major importance. I recall coming across the figure of 27,000 as the number of different Christian sects, not churches but sects. Twenty-seven thousand different ideas about Christianity, different enough to form a separate group. Talk about not being able to agree.

The Creationists, themselves do not agree about all the details, and even major aspects of creation. They do seem to downplay their differences. Rather than there being a sharp division between evolution and creationism, there is a continuum between the two, as is there a continuum within creationism. At the extreme end of creationism area those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Some believe in a stricter interpretation than others, the strictest are the Flat Earthers. Yes there are still people in the United States that believe that the Earth is flat, a flat disk. The Bible says so and that supersedes anything science says or personal observation implies.

Not quite as strict in interpretation are those who still believe in a geocentric solar system. The Earth is a sphere around which the moon, planets, a stars rotates. Their view and that of the Flat Earthers are similar to the ancient Hebrews and others before Copernicus. Of course they both believe that God created the Universe, plants, animals, and man in six days about 6000 years ago.

When people speak of Creationists they, primarily are talking about either Young Earth Creationism (YEC) or Old Earth Creationism (OEC). In both cases God created everything, nothing evolved. They both believe in a heliocentric universe. The difference between two being how much time elapsed. The YEC’s believe that the Earth is 6000-10,000 years old, maybe 15,000 at most. OEC’s believe that the Earth may be billions of years old but man is a recent creation about 6000 years ago.6

However even the OECs are divided about how God created the world, everything in it, and how long it took. There are Gap Creationists who believe there is a temporal gap between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 when God destroyed the world and then much later re-created it. There are Day-Age Creationists who believe that the Biblical day is some unspecified age of thousands or millions of years. Then there are Progressive Creationists who accept more of modern science and believe that God created progressively more advanced kinds of animals and plants over along time.

Intelligent Design Creationists  (ID) can fall into one of several of the previous categories. They can believe in a Young Earth or an Old Earth. They seem to be basically willing to allow evolution but an evolution closely directed by God, even to the point that He created the appropriate mutations, etc. to create the “impossibly” impossible collections of necessary mutations for the intelligent designs.

There are also Evolutionary Creationists (EC) who seem to believe that there was evolution but God directed it to bring about the world as He planned it. And there seem to be two kinds of EC’s: the ECs who believe that God was continuously and actively involved in every detail and the Theistic Evolutionists (TE) who believe that God just started it all and it unfolds according to the laws of nature without His intervention. He may or may not have designed the laws to yield the results He wanted. TE is the view of mainline Protestants and also the Catholic Church. Evolution happened, man did evolve from apes, but God at some point, perhaps 6000-10,000 years ago, infused man with an immortal soul.

If Creationists are going to imply that not being able to agree is a mark of being wrong, that evolution cannot be right because evolutionists disagree among themselves, they should look to themselves. They are at least as bad.

Addendum, If you are interested in knowing more about the history of Creationism, I recommend you read Ronald Numbers: The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (1992  Ronald L. Numbers, Harvard University Press). It is a very good book, but be warned it is over 600 pages long.

1 Since the main topic of this blog is evolution, and Creationists claim they are the opposite of evolution, I will concentrate on Creationism. Creation Science claims to be a science and since they violate science’s norms, calling them pseudoscientists is appropriate.

2 … In speaking of bad science, I am rather referring to ideas and theories which, driven by underlying metaphysical commitments, simply violated or ignored all standard methods of good science.—Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, 2005:34

3 Of course, the denial of the scientific data by the Young-Earth Creationists means the extreme of obscurantism, but their position, however absurd, is fully consistent and hence logically unassailable. p 181

4 Tim M. Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1990:125-126.

5 Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, 2000:219.

6 The dates range from John Lightfoot’s, a 17th century Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, 9:00am on September 17, 3928bc to the Archbishop Ussher’s (circa 1650) 9:00am (or 12:00pm), Sunday October 23, 4004bc (or March 23, 4004bc). The Bishop Ussher, whose chronology is commonly used, dated Creation at 3/23/4004bc or 10/23/4004bc. Martin Luther dated it at 3960bc. The Jewish traditional date is 3761bc. Noah’s Flood has a range of dates of 2348 to 2105bc. The Mosaic chronology also calculates Noah’s Flood as beginning November 18, 2319bc.

C14 AND SCIENTIFIC ILLITERACY

I was watching a movie and at the beginning of there is group of people and they find a piece of gold jewelry of some very ancient design. (It was relevant to the plot that it looked to be very old but it actually wasn’t.) I have forgotten which movie it was so I cannot remember what the story was about. About all I can really recall about it was the gold was dated by radiocarbon (C14). One of the characters came in and told the rest that the C14 date was some rather recent date, like 1862 or something that recent and that precise.

This is about all I can remember of the movie-the remarkably precise C14 date and that it was on a piece of gold jewelry.

Over the years of studying human fossils I have dealt with dates on these fossils, studied dating methods, and, as an archaeologist, sent samples in for dating (C14). I have theoretical and practical experience with dating methods and this part of that movie just leapt out at me. The writers and/or director either didn’t know, didn’t care, or didn’t believe that the viewers would know or care, they just needed some way for the characters to know that the gold piece was recently made so that the plot could advance. They had heard that “C14” was used by scientists to determine the ages of old things, so they decided to use it. They didn’t research what “C14” was or if they did, didn’t care. You cannot use radiocarbon to date gold. Gold is made of gold, radiocarbon requires carbon and not just any carbon, but carbon isotopes (radiocarbon and carbon) that had been once in a living organism. And there is always a margin of error with the calculated date that is part of the date.Note:  When I first became aware of carbon dating it was written as C14.   In the years since then, for reasons I do not know, it was decided that it should written 14C. I know that as written above it is not scientifically correct. I’ll just use the old style here out of nostalgia.

HALF-LIVES AND PENNIES

HALF-LIVES AND PENNIES

I have had trouble with the concept of radioactive half-life. It seemed to me that the more of the radioactive isotope you had the faster it decayed. If I had a kilogram of some radioactive element with a half-life of one hour, half a kilogram would decay in that hour. If I had five kilograms, 2½ kilograms would decay in that same hour. How did the radioactive isotope “know” there was more and more “needed” to decay?

If I had five 1 kilogram piles, widely separated, a half kilogram of each would decay in the first hour which would be a total of 2½ kilograms for the overall total. Of course that is only the first hour, for the second hour a quarter kilogram would decay. Intellectually I could understand the concept and deal with it. However I had trouble getting a “feel” for it, to visualize it. Until yesterday anyway.

Half-life of a radioisotope means that there is a 50-50 chance that any one atom will decay at some point within that period of time. It either decays or it doesn’t. If it decays it is “removed.” If it doesn’t decay then there is a 50-50 chance at some point within the next interval of time.

Suppose you have 1000 pennies and you flip each one of them once. There is a 50-50 chance of a heads. So you will probably have 500 heads and 500 tails. If you say that each penny represents one radioisotopic atom, heads equals “decay,” tails “not decayed,” and you define a “half-life” as one day. That is once each day you toss the coins to see if it “decays,” comes up heads or not. If the coin is heads you remove it (spend it or whatever) and keep only the coins that were tails for the next day when you repeat the trial over again, you will have an analogy to the radioactive decay process.

Starting with 1000 pennies, at the end of the first day, the first half-life, you would have 500 pennies. After the second day you will have 250, all the ones that came up tails both tosses. The coins do not “remember” what happened on any previous toss. The results of each toss is independent of the earlier ones and independent of the results of the other coins.

You remove the heads and only toss the ones that have again come up tails. The odds never change, but each “half-life” fewer coins (“radioisotopes”) come up heads (“decay”). Eventually you will wind up with one coin that hasn’t yet come up heads (if you start with 1024 coins, to make it work out in whole numbers, it will be the 10th half-life, ten consecutive times that coin has come up tails, 210=1:1024). Start with 1,060,176 and 20 half-lives you will have one left (2>20=1:1,060,176). That’s the odds that a particular coin picked at the beginning will be the one left. The coin you pick will most likely not be the last one left, but one will and it will still be a 50-50 chance that it will come up tails.