Dear Mr. Darwin

Let’s pretend, for just a moment, we can send a letter to the past.  And yes, I know this is being posted the day after his birthday, but the Seattle Skeptics et al are celebrating it today.  Shall have pictures up from that happy event in the not-too-distant future, but what is future or past for those of us who can send letters to Victorian England, eh?

Dear Mr. Darwin;

Greetings from the year 2011!  I hope this letter finds you well, perhaps enjoying a lovely day on the Sandwalk, and that the sudden appearance of my missive hasn’t startled you too badly.  I know this is highly irregular.  However, I felt it important you know that your many long years of work have not gone unappreciated.

Other, more capable, people will be writing you to show you what your theory of evolution has become.  Needless to say, it’s grown and flowered, and is now the major unifying concept of biology.  It’s allowed us to make enormous strides in our understanding.  It’s been used to save lives, unlock the mysteries of our origins, and has proven to be one of the most powerful theories in any scientific discipline.  You, sir, would be astounded to see what came of your ideas.  And I hope you would be pleased.

I wish I could report that you’re universally appreciated, but alas, the forces of ignorance have not yet raised the white flag of surrender, although they’ve suffered an embarrassing number of decisive defeats.  I have to thank them, though.  Without them, I may never have become interested in evolutionary biology, or read your beautiful book.  I’m ashamed to admit that I knew little more of you than your name.  I knew some basics of evolution, and I knew that you had put the basics in place.  I knew you had discovered natural selection.  But I didn’t much care.  Biology, you see, was full of squidgy organic bits, and I didn’t much like squidgy organic stuff.

But then, while suffering from one of the worse cases of influenza I’ve ever experienced and looking for things to distract me from the misery, I stumbled across some information on the people fighting to keep evolutionary biology out of schools.  I discovered people who disparage your name and intend to drive all trace of your theory from the classroom, in favor of creationism, which some people have tried to dress up by calling “intelligent design.”  I can assure you there’s nothing intelligent about it.  It is, in fact, creationism’s Trojan Horse, and the arguments marshaled against your elegant theory of evolution are tiresome to the extreme.  They like to pretend, but they really haven’t advanced their arguments past William Paley, whereas scientists have built skyscrapers on the foundations you provided.

Well, I’m a writer, and I’ve always loved a good conflict.  So I abandoned my original purpose, which had been to fill some holes in my own appalling ignorance, and gleefully jumped into the fray.  I read everything I could find.  By the end of it, I’d learned more of evolutionary biology than I’d ever suspected I would, and I’d discovered you.

No one in my education had ever told me about your life.  I didn’t know your origins, the fact that you’d started out destined for the clergy, or the circumstances behind that famous voyage on the Beagle.*  Some bare facts had been given, but all the romance, the thrill of discovery, had been drained from them.  I learned of your adventures, your doubts, and the dawning of your understanding, and I became enthralled.  I’d never known you were such an interesting man.  I’d never known how hard it was for you to gather the evidence needed to verify your theory.  And I’d never realized you were such a talented writer.

At last, I picked up your On the Origin of Species, and read it cover to cover.  True, evolutionary biology has advanced far beyond what’s contained in those pages.  We now know the answers to many of the things that perplexed you.  But to appreciate how very far we’ve come, it’s good to understand where the journey started.  Besides, the Origin is a pure delight, a tour de force, a beautifully reasoned tale of discovery.  Your arguments are elegant, your evidence copious, and everything laid out in a clear manner.  No wonder T.H. Huxley exclaimed “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” upon hearing of natural selection.  It takes an act of willful blindness not to see the truth in those pages.

Alas, all too many people seem to delight in stabbing their eyes out.  But for every one of them, there are thousands who, because of you, can see this world in all of its infinite complexity with new eyes.  As one of them, I can tell you that you’ve made it possible for me to view even the humblest of creatures with wonder and delight.  What a story they all have to tell!  How far we’ve all come from that warm little pond (although we’re not altogether clear on whether it was a pond, exactly – it might have been a hydrothermal vent, or something else we’ve not yet imagined.  We’re still on a voyage of discovery, and someday, one or more of your intellectual descendants will find their own Galapagos, I’m sure).

And to think geology had something to do with it!  Geology is one of my especial delights.  Imagine, then, how thrilled I was to learn that Mr. Lyell’s Principles of Geology accompanied you on your voyage, and assisted you in your discoveries.  I hadn’t imagined, back when I was still toiling along in near-ignorance, that things so seemingly different as geology and biology are so intimately connected – and in more ways than just sharing two giants who revolutionized our understanding of those fields.  I have only to think of limestone, for instance.  But just as our understanding of evolution has advanced since your time, so has geology advanced since Lyell’s, and you would, I’m sure, be fascinated by the theory of plate tectonics and how the movements of continents have affected evolution.

Without you, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Lyell, none of that would be known to us.  I grant you, someone else probably would have made these discoveries in time, but how long would we have had to wait?  Long enough, I fear, that the scientific vista I enjoy now would have been much smaller.

Mr. Darwin, I feel it’s important for you to know just what a profound impact you’ve had.  It’s not a stretch to name you as the father of modern biology.  (And yes, I know you will say Mr. Wallace deserves no small share of the credit, and indeed he does, but today is your birthday, and so we are celebrating you.)  You are a remarkable scientist.

There is, indeed, grandeur in your view of life.  I thank you, sir, for giving us the eyes to see it.

A happy birthday to you, and many happy returns!

I remain, ever your admirer,
Dana Hunter

 There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

*Special thanks to The Beagle Project Blog for this link.

Unchaining Ourselves

The Great Chain of Being needs breaking.  Brian Switek took bolt cutters to it in a SciAm guest post last week, and my, how the creationists howled.  Got so bad that Bora called in the cavalry.  Did my duty, registered so I could comment, and laughed my arse off because these silly little nitwits howling their protests got me to thinking a lot more seriously on the subject.  What follows is an expanded version of the comment I left.

First, an explanatory image, taken from a wonderful lecture by evolutionary biologist Lindell Bromham:

On this depiction of the great chain of being you can see that plants are higher than inorganic things, animals are higher than plants, humans are better than animals, angels are above humans and so on. You might say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe in that any more.’ Yet, if you pick up any evolution textbook or even a popular science evolution book, you will often find something that looks very similar to this.

And creationists apparently can’t stand it when somebody like Brian comes along and says this:

At the beginning of the 20th century, American fundamentalism was gaining momentum and the public circus that was the Scopes trial turned the teaching of evolution into a controversial public issue. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, anti-scientific opposition to evolution remains a prominent cultural force. Be it straight-up young-Earth creationism or its insidious sibling intelligent design, fundamentalism-fueled views of science and nature abound. Groups such as the National Center for Science Education are continually tracking the spread of anti-evolution agendas which would further erode the quality of scientific understanding. Perhaps this is why we keep returning to the March of Progress. When the fossils and stratigraphy are laid out so plainly, how can any reasonable person deny that evolution is a reality? Yet, by preferring this antiquated mode of imagery, we may have hamstrung ourselves. Given all that we have gleaned about evolution from the fossil record—especially the major pattern of contingent radiations cut back by extinction before bursting into numerous splendid forms all over again—why not bring this wonderful “tangled bank” imagery to the public?

Yes!  Having come out of a march-of-progress, great-chain education, I can give you plenty of reasons why it’s well past time to break the chain and go to the bank.  And don’t tell me it’s too complicated for kiddies and laypeople to understand, and that a nice, neat line is the best way to introduce folks to evolution.  It’s not.  Far from it.

Ultimately, that linear way of explaining evolution set me back several years.  Yeah, it may be simple, but it’s too simple.  It doesn’t leave room for all the side trips, dead ends, and scenic routes, and it doesn’t give a person room to think outside of a destination.  That confused the hell out of me, because there are plenty of things that didn’t reach the supposed destination, but were there for a good part of the journey.  It’s like supposing several cars worth of people can only travel between Phoenix and Flagstaff: you can’t explain then why some of them buggered off sideways to Prescott instead.,+AZ&daddr=Phoenix,+AZ+to:Prescott,+AZ&geocode=FUghGQIdL4VY-SkxJi7a944thzEAs9vOoTwfjg%3BFblh_gEdy-JR-SnLeaFQ7RIrhzGsG0o1-MdpjA%3BFfgJDwId6t1L-SnrfHEA1CgthzHd_u5S5z2kCQ&hl=en&mra=ls&sll=34.325645,-111.87465&sspn=2.086741,3.532104&ie=UTF8&ll=34.325292,-111.890259&spn=1.75492,0.87072&t=h&output=embed
View Larger Map

Handy map illustrating the concept for those who aren’t from the area.

Then I started reading books on evolution.  And there was this tree:

Darwin’s Sketch

Once I saw the tree, started thinking not in chains but in trees and bushes, it started to make sense.  Not every branch goes “up.”  The top of the tree isn’t the only place to be.  It’s still a simple model, but it’s one that leaves plenty of room for all the bits that don’t fit when you chain yourself to the Great Chain.

That’s true in a lot of things about life.  It’s time to let go of the black/white either/or thinking and embrace the world as it is: fuzzy, chaotic, contingent, and far more interesting than mere lines from A to B.

So grab your bolt cutters, my darlings, and join Brian Switek in cutting those chains.

Why Talking to Idiots Gets You Nowhere

Finally finished this paper that’s been in my tabs for days: “Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design: A Look into the Conceptual Toolbox of a Pseudoscience.”  Stumbled across it playing on The Panda’s Thumb, and while it took me forever to read because I’ve had the attention span of a spastic on caffeine pills lately, I got quite a lot out of it.  Namely: if one goes about disproving IDiotic blathering about how evolutionary theory can’t explain X, they’d better not be doing it in order to convert the cretins.  May as well spend your time trying to convince me that curling is an exciting and dramatic sport to watch – you’d have better luck making a conversion.  Mind you – I find nearly every sport in the universe dead boring.

No, the only time the IDiots become useful IDiots is when they inspire evolutionary biologists to figure things out and demolish IDiotic arguments from the foundations up – not because any amount of evidence will make these dumbshits realize they’re wrong (none will), but because of the ricochets.  Knocking down an IDiot’s argument is a fantastic way to teach ordinary folk like me about biology.  It makes it more interesting, what with the controversy and the smart people vs. the Dumbskis sorta thing.  It’s also a good idea to have a refutation ready so that innocent bystanders don’t get snookered. 

Besides, it’s fun.  Especially when the poor howling IDiots snivel and have to rush out to move their goalposts.

Anyway.  There’s my thoughts.  It’s an entertaining paper, too, so you lot may enjoy reading it yourselves.  Which you should go do now, because I’m off to watch another Harry Potter film.

Side Trip Off the Fossil Freeway

Well, my darlings, I can’t take you Crusin’ the Fossil Freeway myself, since they don’t allow cameras, but the Burke Museum did have a few things outdoors my intrepid companion and I were able to photograph, so you’ll have a little benefit from my day’s adventure.  And, at long last, I ditched the hairtie, and my intrepid companion snapped a photo of me with my hair down!

The boulder I’m standing next to was hauled off from the North Cascades by a glacier and dragged all the way to Issaquah.  For those who aren’t from the area, that’s a helluva long way.  And so we have this enormous rock that’s all shiny and smooth with grooves in:

The thing’s bright and shiny as a meteor.  It’s pretty awesome.

For more awesome, follow me after the jump.

One of the most entertaining rocks outside the Museum is a bit of gabbro with a pegmatite dike in:

Looks a little like Saturn, don’t it just?

There’s a mini-forest of petrified logs standing there:

Some petrified wood is very stony indeed, but this felt quite a bit like very-hard wood, which is fun to touch. 

Here’s a very Northwestern tableau for ye: Fossil Palm Leaf with Totem Pole:

And a detail from another bit of fossilized palm frond that does a lovely job showing off its base:

And look!  More palm fronds!  It’s a veritable ancient tropical island out here!

Alas, that was about it for fossils, but hey – more interesting rocks!

Click to embiggen and note the lovely patterning on the left, there. 

My intrepid companion’s camera very nearly managed to catch the lovely green color of this one:

And to prepare you for our trip inside, a pile of pahoehoe that looks like dino doings:

So, now that we’ve warmed our engine, let’s go Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, shall we?  This exhibit combined the bold, wacky art of Ray Troll with the paleontological finds of Kirk Johnson.  It’s an unapologetic, in-your-face exhibit of the evidence for evolution.  In fact, they’ve got a bunch of crates against one wall stamped Evolution Evidence, containing displays of various fossils and stuffed creatures showing that yep, evolution happens, and sometimes has surprises in store.  One particularly memorable bit showed off four birds – a hawk, a kestrel, a jay, and some red bugger whose species I can’t remember just now.  The hawk and the kestrel looked nearly identical, but surprise!  DNA shows the hawk’s more closely related to the jay and the red dude.  Convergent evolution at your service, ladies and gentlemen.

Most stuff was under glass, but they had a few nice touchables out for the kiddies, which worked well for me.  I like to feel my way through things.  And one of the most fun things to heft was a mammoth tooth.  You don’t know how huge these things are until you’ve held one in hand.  Of course, this came right after I saw a program on the Ice Ages with a paleontologist hefting one in his hand.  He was waving a tooth around his head that was actually bigger than his head.  You could use ’em as a doorstop.  That’s some impressive dentition, that is:

Compare this to the mastodon tooth, as the exhibit did:

And, to round out the tour of teeth, they had a smilodon tooth:

Animals in the Pleistocene, my darlings, had ginormous fucking teeth.

Now, you know why the saber-tooth cat had, well, saber-teeth, but here’s why mastodons and mammoths have such different teeth, even though the beasts themselves looked rather similar: mastodons chomped leaves, while mammoths grazed, and the difference between munching non-silica rich foliage and tougher grasses is bigger than you might think.  Additionally, mammoths and mastodons aren’t as close relatives as you might think, as this handy diagram shows:

That’s them, all lonely, having diverged millions and millions of years before the mammoths branched off from the elephants.  Isn’t it neat what we can find out from ancient DNA?

And that was far from all!  The exhibit had a very nice display of modern and fossil leaves, modern and fossil fishes, and so on, showing how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same – always with a bit o’ snark.  I wish I’d written some of the snark down, because I can’t quote it now.  I just remember laughing, which is rarely the result of intentional humor on the part of museum exhibits.  The creators of this exhibit knew you could have your serious science and a good belly-laugh, too.  One of the particularly funny bits was a set of fossil ammonites (I believe) in a case, and off to the side, a “fossil” cheeseburger, labeled just as seriously as the rest of the specimens.  Ray Troll, it seems, has a slight obsession with cheeseburgers, which explains why I left the exhibit with the “Cheeseburger!” line from that Capitol One commercial running through my head.

The fossil ammonites were wonderful – there were some there the size of a wagon wheel, and nice displays showing how some species’ shells started uncoiling in their last several million years on Earth. 

Photos can’t really capture how extreme that uncoiling got.  You just have to see for yourself.  It’s striking, no doubt.

There were many, many bits of interest, awe, and inspiration, but my absolute favorite specimen was a square of gray shale with trilobites all over it, collected by Charles Walcott himself from Mount Stevens.  Any of you who are familiar with the Burgess Shale will know why I squee’d just a little bit.

So yes, lots and lots of lovely fossils, together with art and humor.  You can explore Ray Troll’s wonderful map of Washington here (don’t forget to look for Bill Rose the Paleo Lumberjack – larger version here).  The exhibit runs through May 31st, if you’re in the area.  If not, stop by the Burke Museum next time you’re around anyway – you can crawl inside a replica of the Blue Lake Rhino cast, measure yourself against a sauropod thighbone, and see a huge number of gorgeous fossils, rocks, and artifacts.  In the gift shop, you can pick up big quartz crystals for a dollar, and magnetic hematite for 50 cents a pop – and if you haven’t played with magnetic hematite, you haven’t had a chance to truly amuse yourself for cheap.  Sure, it’s not real hematite, but who cares?  It’s magnetized!  And if a relative’s been pestering you for magical healing magnetic hematite jewelry that’s hideously expensive, and you haven’t been able to talk them out of woo for their birthday, at least you can get them their woo while supporting science, right?

Not a bad way to spend the afternoon, all in all. 

Coyne Pwns Palin With Pun

Only a biologist, my darlings, can pwn Palin with a pun like this:

Here’s her argument in all its glory:
“I believed in the evidence for microevolution—that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time, (…) But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings—thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees; I believed we came about not through a random process, but were created by God.”
Leaving aside the tiresome misinterpretation that natural selection is “random” (where has any evolutionist said this?), this needs some robust rebuttal, which was provided by Jerry Coyne, in an e-mail published over at The Daily Beast:
“University of Chicago ecology and evolution professor at Jerry Coyne calls the passage in Palin’s book a “typical creationist ploy” easily refuted by fossil evidence suggesting transitions between animals as fish and amphibians or land animals and whales. “Her stand is basically a biblically oriented stand…that has no basis in fact,” Coyne told The Daily Beast in an e-mail. “It is a ridiculous ploy of the ‘duck kind,’ i.e. a canard.”
‘Nuff said.


Look Who Made the London Times

Yes, my darlings, that’s right: Brian Switek his own self. He’s been doing some incredible work on Ida, putting her in proper perspective and exploring her true significance, and it’s awesome to see him get a prestigious venue from which to dial back the hype and teach folks a little something about how evolution really works:

There is some irony in calling Ida the missing link. She was named Darwinius in honour of Charles Darwin, but the phrase “missing link” harkens back to a pre-evolutionary idea of nature. Called the Great Chain of Being, this interpreted all life as forming an immutable hierarchy, ordained by God, from “lower” to “higher”. Scholars believed that God favoured a full creation and each rank connected to the next, but “missing links” presented a problem. The link between humans and lower animals was the most elusive of all.

Our understanding of evolution could scarcely be more different. There is no evolutionary end point or fore-ordained hierarchy of beasts. Life is better understood from Darwin’s perspective – as a wildly branching bush constantly being pruned and sending out new shoots through evolution. Calling Ida a missing link may grab attention, but it is incongruous with what Darwin proposed.

It’s a great article, and it’s wonderful to see him get the recognition he deserves. Pop on over and give Brian some love, then stay tuned for his upcoming Ida Carnival (contributions welcome).

Congratulations, Brian!

(Tip o’ the shot glass to John Pieret, who knew Brian when.)

Evolution in Action

So I’m watching Mythbusters, and they’re doing a myth about a skydiver falling on a seesaw. While gathering data for the experiment, they calculate the terminal velocity of a skydiver wearing a camera suit.

For those who have no fucking clue what the difference is between a regular skydiving suit and a camera suit, welcome to the club. I’d not known there was a difference either.

Normal suits, like those on the right, ain’t got wings. Camera suits, on the other hand, do. Well, flaps, anyway. And those itsy-bitsy wings have a measurable effect. The terminal velocity of a skydiver is roughly 124 mph. But the Mythbusters measured the terminal velocity of a skydiver in a camera suit as 114 mph. What good is a 10 mph difference? Well, it opens up some additional options:

If you plan on spending a great deal of time in the air, you should consider a skydiving suit called a camera suit. This kind of suit has an added feature: wings that give you more control to slow down your descent when desired. This is especially desirable if you decide to strap a camera on your helmet for videotaping the experience, since you can slow down and pan when you want to.

That makes skydiving in a camera suit a rather dramatic demonstration of the principles of evolution in action. Think of flying. The most usual objection raised is, “What good is half a wing?” Camera suits don’t even include half a wing. It’s a pathetic little flap that looks totally useless. Yet it conveys greater control over airspeed. And when you’re falling out of a plane trying to film other people falling out of planes, that’s a critical advantage. Extrapolate that to falling out of trees, and you can get a better understanding of the incremental change that can lead from skin flap to full wing and powered flight.

Richard Dawkins puts it this way in Climbing Mount Improbable:

The way to think of the gradual evolution of a flying squirrel is this. To begin with, an ancestor like an ordinary squirrel, living up trees but without any special gliding membrane, leaps across short gaps. However far it can leap without the aid of any special flaps of skin, it could leap a few inches further – and hence save its life when it encounters a gap of critical distance – if it had a very slight flap of skin, or a very slightly increased bushiness of the tail. So natural selection favours individuals with slightly pouchy skin around the arm or leg joints, and this becomes the norm. The normal leaping distance of an average member of the population has thereby been increased by a few inches. Now, any individuals with an even larger skin web can leap a few inches further. So in later generations this extension of skin becomes the norm. For any given size of membrane, there exists a critical gap such that a marginal increase in the membrane makes all the difference between life and death.

And what the fuck do flying squirrels have to do with birds, you ask? Excellent question. Meet Microraptor:

Some scientists believe that bird flight evolved when ground-dwelling dinosaurs began to take to the skies. In contrast to this ‘ground-up’ theory, the ‘trees-down’ camp believes that tree-dwelling dinosaurs evolved flight to glide from tree to tree.

And this is exactly what Microraptor did. It lacked the muscles for a ground take-off and couldn’t get a running start for fear of damaging its leg feathers. But a computer simulation showed that Microraptor could successfully fly between treetops, covering over forty metres in an undulating glide.

It is unclear if Microraptor could truly fly or was just an exceptional glider. Certainly, its body plan shows many features that would make its avian descendants such great aeronauts. It had a large sternum for attaching powerful flight muscles and strengthened ribs to withstand the heavy pressures of a flight stroke.

Its long, feathered tail acted a stabiliser and rudder and its tibia (shin bone) was covered in smaller, backwards-facing feathers. Modern birds of prey carry similar feather ‘trousers’ and Chatterjee believes that they helped to reduce drag by breaking up turbulent airflow behind the animal’s leg.

It could be that Microraptor’s biplane design was just a failed evolutionary experiment. But Chatterjee thinks otherwise. He believes that the biplane model was a stepping stone to the two-wing flight of modern birds. As the front pair of wings grew larger and produced more lift, they eventually took over the responsibilities formerly shared with the hind pair.

You can easily imagine the gradual progression. Dinosaur feathers evolved to keep the little buggers warm. Some of the little buggers hung about in trees. The little buggers who hung about in trees and developed feathered skin flaps were better gliders, meaning better hunters and escape artists. And so it goes, generation by generation, until you end up with something like this guy:

Pretty awesome, innit?

So we’ve gone from camera suits to squirrels to dinosaurs to falcons. Bet you never thought skydiving could demonstrate the principles of evolution so well (aside from in the strict Darwin Award sense, o’ course). Were I a science teacher, I’d be taking definite advantage of that. Talk about your sense of wonder!

Tip o’ the shot glass to the Discovery Channel for airing both The Dinosaur Feather Mystery and Mythbusters. They haven’t got clips of Grant and Tory’s adventures with camera suits up yet, but they’ve been kind enough not to have YouTube pull down the vids from their documentary on dinosaur feathers. Catch Microraptor on the wing at the 5 minute mark:

¡Viva los Fósiles!

Ron Britton called, and many have answered. Including uno en español at La Columna de Cristal. Muchas gracias, Gen! And here’s hoping you’ll forgive my atrocious Spanish grammar.

Friend of the cantina and official Thinking Brain Dog Cujo359 did his duty.

The Gaytheist Agenda not only has the fossils, but the links.

Cognitive Dissident has more Dawkins!

Parrotlover77 links to the Tiktaalik Song.

Creationist Idiocy presents Neil Shubin on Tiktaalik.

Verbal Razors joins the revolution.

The Atheist Librarian is the one who came up with that gorgeous smack-down: “This is Tiktaalik. He is an example of a true Transitional Fossil. He has both fishy and lizardy parts. I really don’t know what more fundies want.”

Brilliant. ¡Viva los Fósiles! ¡Viva la Revolución!

But eight really isn’t enough. If you joined the revolution, let me know in comments. If you didn’t, join the revolution and let me know in comments. No excuses.

And Ron? Flattery gets you free drinks for life at the cantina. Once we figure out how to pour alcohol through the intertoobz, anyway….