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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

26 June 2010

Whatever Happened To Omnivora?

Once upon a time, the word "omnivore" was Important. It carried the force of Science behind it. It Meant Something. And then one day, with hardly anyone noticing, it fell from grace, and found itself a mere colloquial description, with no real scientific meaning.

Lucky for it, though, only scientists seemed to have noticed. But who cares what they think?

Vegans run up against this legacy all the time. We're constantly told that humans are natural omnivores, that we're designed to eat meat, that our ethical/lifestyle choice is therefore unnatural. In some of its more sophisticated or elaborate forms, this argument makes appeals to evolution, drawing smart-sounding comparisons between the teeth of, say, lions and cows, or the guts of, say, apes and wolves. The goal is always to demonstrate that humans have more (or less) in common with one or the other of the "herbivore" or carnivore species, and to draw conclusions about our destiny from our alleged "design."

Vegans often fall into this trap, as well, arguing the reverse position from the same set of data, and basing their logic on the same tacit assumption. But no one ever questions the tacit assumption: namely, that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between "herbivores," "omnivores," and carnivores.

Paleontology and evolutionary biology have something to teach us here, something potentially profound. But while they've been going through a revolution, most of the outside world has been stuck on old debates informed by outdated terminology and rickity framing. The result is a tired fight that doesn't just sound worn out, but actually is.

This blog hopes to change that, in the service of both paleontology and veganism.

You may have noticed that I didn't put the word carnivore in quotation marks in any of the above paragraphs. That wasn't a typo. There is still some precision and meaning in that word, enough that it's given its own Order-level taxon in the Linnaean system: the Carnivora.

(Though, to be fair, I should have used quotation marks, because not all "carnivores" are Carnivorans, nor are all Carnivorans "carnivores.")

"Omnivore," as noted earlier, once had this honor, as well: sub-Order Omnivora. But no longer. Its title has been stripped away, the poor word consigned to the trash heap of colloquiallism, and all its species doled out to new taxons.

The story of why and how this happened is merely a footnote in the tale of a Renaissance that swept the life sciences a few decades ago, and is still sparking heated arguments among the fields' leading thinkers. It's a tale that makes paleontology one of the most exciting, cutting-edge and relevant geo-/bio-sciences of our time.

So here, without further ceremony, is the answer to the question: whatever happened to Omnivora?

The sub-Order Omnivora was formalized in Victorian times by the great anatomist, paleontologist, and opponent of Darwin, Sir Richard Owen, in Volume III of his seminal work, On The Anatomy Of Vertebrates (1868). The suborder, which he filed under Artiodactyla, included hippotomuses, pigs, hogs and several fossil mammal species.

It stuck around for almost a century, and during that time was expanded by some researchers to include bears and passerine birds. Interestingly, though, it never included humans or any other primate species.

It was eventually eliminated altogether from the classification scheme, and a quick glance at its members can tell you why: hippos, pigs, bears and birds. What the heck do those species have to do with each other?

That's a form of the question that got asked by Willi Hennig, the man who inadvertently started the current revolution in paleontology and evo-bio with the 1966 English-language publication of his book, Phylogenetic Systematics. The point of Hennig's question(s) was simple: the old system of Linnaean classification was too arbitrary. It gave taxonomists too much room for applying their feelings (for lack of a better word) to their work. We shouldn't be classifying species with each other based on how we feel about their behavior. So what if pigs, bears, hippos and birds are all "omnivorous"?; similarities in behavior are not a sufficient basis for meaningful classification scheme, according to Hennig. It produces too much confusion.

The question we ought to be asking, Hennig proposed, was, "how closely related are species to one another?" It's one of those questions in science that's profound in its simplicity. Hennig proposed a new taxonomic scheme that would have more logical and precise naming rules based on data organized according to genetic and evolutionary relationships, not behaviors or inference.

This simple set of proposals cascaded into a revolution that swept graduate schools in the 1970s and 1980s, then picked up steam in labs and field work in the 1990s thanks to the Internet and better computer modeling. It's thanks to this cladistic revolution that we now know that birds are actually dinosaurs, that whales are more closely related to cows than to any other mammal group, and that you are a bony fish.

It's also the reason the Carnivora got to keep their taxon, and the poor Omnivora got scattered to the winds. Turns out, the Carnivora all share a common ancestor, and the "Omnivora" don't.

So, what's this mean, bottom-line-wise, to the whole vegan-vs.-omni argument? There are two basic approaches we could take, but both end up at the same place.

One is to point out that almost all mammals are in some sense "omnivorous." The other is to point out that "omnivore" isn't a scientific term any more, and therefore isn't terribly useful. Both approaches stem from the fact that there's really no clear-cut dividing line between an "herbivore" and an "omnivore." In a real sense, the whole argument we've been having is irrelevant.

We humans, as mammals, can thrive on a wide variety of foods. The science backs that up. Humans can be healthy and vibrant as vegans, carnivores, or anything in between, provided they apply a little vigilance and common sense to their lives.

And ultimately, this means what I said in my very first post here: meat-eating is a choice. Nothing in human biology or evolution requires it. Therefore, it is fair game for ethical examination and, yes, judgment.

There's a lot more to say, but in the interest of brevity, I'll end it here. Future posts will talk about the development of anti-veg*ns' two favorite tropes -- human teeth and guts -- within the context of this new understanding of evolution. I've already stated the basic principles, though: human teeth are simply a variation of the standard mammalian dentition, and human digestive morphology is merely a twist on the standard primate gut. Neither is an adaptation to H. sapiens specifically, let alone to our dietary behaviors past or present.

24 June 2010

Teeth and guts and...

Carnies and omnis are always blabbing about human teeth and guts, claiming they are unique or specific adaptations to meat-eating. Of course, this is a misunderstanding of evolution, since not all traits are adaptations to their current use.

Our teeth are simply variations on the basic mammalian tooth plan, and our guts are variations of the basic primate gut morphology. In other words, they're just hand-me-downs; the fact that cavemen had them doesn't mean cavemen got them specifically for the uses they put them to.

More succinctly: cavemen may have found new uses for old things, but that doesn't mean the old things were "meant" for the new uses.

I'm working on a longer post right now that goes into detail about classification and taxonomy as it relates to vegan issues, including a fable about the checkered history of the word "omnivore." Many anti-vegans throw this word around in a most pseudo-scientific way. Hopefully, this will set some of them straight.

20 June 2010

Paleofantasies and The Vegetarian Myth

Lierre Keith has a mission. She wants to dismantle civilization as we know it, beginning with industrial agriculture and factory farming. And her opening salvo is a shot across the bow of the good ship Vegan.

If you don't quite see the connection there, you're not alone. After all, if I wanted to rally the masses against factory farming, I'd focus my consciousness-raising efforts on the group of people in the best position to have an enormous impact -- meat-eaters. Even if I thought veganism was nuts, I wouldn't see much point in "debunking" it; vegans are a minority in the culture, and don't wield nearly the economic clout of average omnivores. Strategically, vegans wouldn't even be on my radar; it would make much more sense for me to recruit meat-eaters than to piss off vegans. Yet, the latter is exactly the approach Keith decided to take in her book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability.

Color me confused by this approach.

While she is an undeniably brilliant writer (truly!), Keith seems to be missing the point. Vegans are not the architects of the civilization she opposes, nor are we rushing to the ramparts to defend industrial agriculture. If she succeeded in starting a revolution against factory farming by recruiting meat-eaters committed to sustainable agriculture, it's a safe bet that 99 percent of the vegan community would rally to her cause. There is nothing to be gained by alienating us.

I'll admit up front, I haven't read all of her book yet -- just the first 93 pages provided as a preview on Google Books. So, I will not presume to offer a comprehensive review or rebuttal here, at least for the time being. Other vegan bloggers have done so, and rather than duplicate their efforts, I'll let their work speak for itself . (See here, here, and here, for good starting points). Plus, the book is almost a year old now, and pretty much old news in my world.

So, this article will mostly address a question raised in my mind by reading Keith's book: namely, what next? What is her vision of a sustainable future, especially given a world in which the human population is projected to reach 12 billion people within 40 years? From what I've read of her book, and gleaned from the reviews (both positive and negative) I've read of it, she implies that a return to some kind of hunter-gatherer existence would be ideal, but never actually says so. And I question how sustainable any such existence would be.

Like many critics of civilization before her, Keith romanticizes prehistoric hunter-gatherers, apparently seeing them as a collection of enlightened wanderers living in harmony with nature. It's a theme that runs strongly through the part of the book I read:
Humans have lived on savannahs and grasslands for millions of years without devastating them, and without needing technical fixes. We shared them with other species and kept our own numbers at carrying capacity. We didn't destroy the world, our home. [p. 46]
This appeal to a pristine prehistoric past -- a new iteration of the "noble savage" idea -- is also common among many Paleo-diet gurus and afficionados, some of whom also see vegans and vegetarians as a kind of lurking menace. They will often spout the idea that we are "perfectly adapted" to the alleged existence of our Pleistocene ancestors (see, for instance, John Durant on The Colbert Report), and/or that "Paleolithic" humans instinctively led some kind of balanced existence with the rest of the natural world, by filling in some "natural" predator niche.

This is, however, nothing but elaborate paleofantasy. For one thing, organisms are almost never "perfectly adapted" to their environment; that is a cartoon view of evolution. Whatever gets a species by is good enough; faulty "designs" and out-grown genes get replicated all the time, provided they don't threaten the survival of a species.

For another, the Paleolithic was a huge span of time that witnessed about 20 separate human species and a wide range of climates, so making generalizations on scant evidence is ill-advised.

For a third thing -- and more relevant to the implication in Keith's book -- the lifestyle of Pleistocene hunters was far from sustainable. In fact, it is the leading culprit in the one of the largest paleontological mysteries of the recent past.

The Late Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction

Starting about 50,000 ago, and lasting until about 10,000 years ago, the world lost 85 percent of all mammal species larger than 44 kg (100 lbs.), including a member of the human family, Homo neanderthalensis. The extinction event wiped out whole genera (plural of "genus," a group of related species) on every continent, and transformed North America in particular from a habitat much like modern Africa to the veritable bio-wasteland inherited by the ancestors of the Native Americans.

There are several things about this mass extinction that distinguish it from previous ones. First, it was asynchronous: it didn't happen all at once, all in the same place.

Second, it was discriminant: previous mass extinctions impacted all levels of life, from micro-organisms to plants to megafauna. This one only wiped out large mammals.

Third, and most tellingly, the wave of extinctions follows a pattern: emerging from Africa about 50,000 years ago and spreading across southern Eurasia, down through Southeast Asia to Australia by 30,000 years ago, then across the Bering Strait into the Americas by 13,000 years ago... which is about when it also kicked into high gear in Europe.

This wave of death deprived the world forever of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, giant kangaroos and hundreds of other species. It was most devastating in Australia and the Americas, but in Europe it wiped out our cousins, the Neanderthals.

What's more, because many of the species lost were keystones in the local ecologies, this global extinction event triggered many smaller, regional extinctions of  small mammals, birds, gastropods, insects and other seed-distributing organisms. This, in turn, altered seed dispersal patterns worldwide, promoting the spread of grasses and, in some place, desertification.

The timeline of the Pleistocene mass extinction correlates almost exactly with the radiation of modern H. sapiens out of Africa and across the rest of the world. This was a species far more adept at hunting and tool-making than any previous hominid. This was us.

And this is probably who Keith and other paleo-romantics imagine when they talk about our more enlightened paleo-ancestors.

To be fair, the case against H. sapiens isn't closed. Paleontologists still debate the role of climate in all of this, and whether the impact of humans was a sustained "blitzkreig" of over-hunting across the face of the world, or a "sitzkreig" of the gradual interplay of hunting, disease, and climate. But one thing is absolutely clear: anywhere that Pleistocene human kill-sites are found, the evidence is that they were anything but sustainable hunters.

Correlating the end of this extinction wave with the beginnings of agriculture is interesting. I'm not much one for meta-narratives, but it's difficult to resist the temptation of ascribing agriculture's invention to a survival strategy developed in response to these extinctions. Humans at the Paleolithic-Neolithic transition were in the midst of a global bio-diversity crisis, much of it unknowingly wrought by their own hands.

Whatever the evils of modern industrial agriculture -- or even of Neolithic farming -- it's hard to see how anyone with a realistic understanding of Pleistocene paleontology can consider the record of H. sapiens from this time as the inspiration for a sustainable future.

The Final Problem

I see one last flaw in Keith's book: its practical, real-world impact is likely to be reactionary, despite all her best intentions. The average skeptic of veganism who reads The Vegetarian Myth and finds herself convinced isn't, in my view, likely to adapt a sustainable long-term paleo-approach to their life. The more realistic impact, I think, will be that this person's inherently human confirmation bias will take over, and they will continue eating factory-farmed animal products, perhaps salving their conscience by looking for "leaner" cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and so on.

I freely admit, that's just my opinion. But it's one born from experience. Most people I know who saw Food, Inc., for instance, tried to eat "free-range" for a while, but soon fell back into their normal consumption patterns. That's not because of any character flaw; it's because they're only human.

And we humans are stubborn beasts, as the poor mammoth learned all too well.

18 June 2010

A Sad Story, 76 MIllion Years In The Making

When I was a kid, I used to cry for the dinosaurs. I missed them so much, like long lost pets, and once even prayed for their return. I guess a lot of kids were like that. Difference with me is, I never really outgrew it. Sure, I moved on to other paleontological interests -- the Permian synapsids, hominids, trilobites, the Burgess Shale fauna, and most recently, plant evolution -- but the dinosaurs and their kin never really let go of my heart. I've always felt for them.

So, the recent news out of Alberta about the fate of a mass herd of centrosaurs wasn't quite cause for celebration:
With no high ground to escape to, most of the members of the herd drowned in the rising coastal waters. Carcasses were deposited in clumps across kilometres of ancient landscape as floodwaters receded.
"It's unlikely that these animals could tread water for very long, so the scale of the carnage must have been breathtaking," said Eberth. "The evidence suggests that after the flood, dinosaur scavengers trampled and smashed bones in their attempt to feast on the rotting remains."
 I mean, don't get me wrong. This is an amazing find -- though it's not quite as "new" as the media are making it out to be (it was discovered in the late 90s) -- and it will undoubtedly expand our knowledge of paleogeography, paleoclimate and dinosaur biology by significant margins. It's fascinating, and I plan to keep my eye on it.

But still, the picure with that story tugs at my heart. It makes me feel like a kid again.

World's Cutest Fossil?

Tiktaalik rosae, the "missing link" between fish and amphibians.

Several of my female classmates cooed and swooned over this handsome devil. They may have a point.

17 June 2010

A Paleo-Fish Story?

There was some hullabaloo a couple weeks back about another one of those "breakthroughs' in evolution that the media likes to dredge up now and then. This time it concerned the recent discovery of frog, turtle, fish and crocodile bones at a 1.95 Ma-old hominin site near Turkana, Kenya. These remains, we are told, may have been the fuel that allowed evolution to make our brains bigger, and thus kick-start the appearance of Homo.

We've heard this sales pitch before, of course. The Paleo-Diet Movement has been making it for almost 10 years. Gurus old and new espouse the benefits of the alleged caveman lifestyle, often with more than a little bio-determinism and Lamarckism creeping in. But how much is there to this argument?

No one who studies the fossil record disputes that early hominids ate animals from time to time. That's settled, undeniable science. The debate is over how much they ate, how often they ate it, and just how important it was to human evolution. Proponents of both veganism and paleo-dieting (and many other philosophies besides) often argue as though debate on that second point is over. It's not, and isn't likely ever to be, barring the invention of time travel.

This is science, folks. There's no room for canon here, and parsimony should prevail in all cases. So, it bears asking, especially since the paper itself was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, just how important is the new Turkana find?

Paleoanthropologist John Hawkes thinks, not very (emphasis added):
I think that the relevance of the aquatic animals has been exaggerated. According to the MNI (minimum number of individuals) table in the paper, the turtle and crocodile bones may represent one single turtle and one crocodile. The number of fish bones is also very small -- only 15 total, and the authors do not provide an MNI for fish. Compare these small numbers to a minimum of 11 hippopotamus individuals represented by in situ bone elements, and 17 bovids. One turtle. Seventeen bovids.

MNI is not the best indicator of dietary importance -- for mammals, it is heavily influenced by mandibles and teeth. Humans may drag mandibles back to a central place as part of the head, even if they eat the rest of the animal elsewhere. Being highly diagnostic, we can work out easily when there were lots of individuals from a mandible -- not so for broken turtle carapace pieces. But it's not very meaningful to count every crocodile bone, either. The site really does not provide any evidence that reptiles and fish simply made up a large fraction of the meat consumed there.
...
Finding such repeated evidence of aquatic resource use, extending back near the dawn of stone tool manufacture, ought to prove one thing: The fatty acids in aquatic meat were not the cause of the expansion of brain size in Homo erectus.
Oh, I know, the news stories all said exactly the opposite, claiming that the fatty acids were essential to brain growth, and that this shows that stone tools were important to getting this essential nutrient. Hey, Braun and colleagues started it -- they wrote it right in the last sentences of the paper...
...
But "fueled" is a metaphor, not a valid evolutionary concept.
I accept that reptile and fish meat may be nutritionally desirable. The question is whether they caused the increase in brain size associated with Homo. One way to read that hypothesis is as Lamarckism, which is simply wrong ... I don't think that any paleoanthropologists are seriously Lamarckist, but some need to be more careful how they describe the relationship of fitness and diet.
 The whole thing is worth reading, as is the paper itself.

16 June 2010

Pinnipeds Of The Caribbean?

BP has been getting justly reamed for almost two months now, and we all know why. The apathy, cluelessness, and incompetence of all the major oil companies was put on full display this week, when Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) excoriated oil big wigs for their cut-n-paste Gulf of Mexico recovery "plans," that included strategies for saving the walruses who live there.
As I'm sure you know, there aren't any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico and there have not been for three million years. How can Exxon Mobil have walruses in their response plan for the Gulf of Mexico?
Tragicomic as it is, the Caribbean Walrus Affair raises just the kind of stuff I like to babble about on this blog. Before this incident, I hadn't asked too many questions about walrus paleontology, or pinniped evolution in general. Now, I'm actually curious.

Were there ever any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico, or is even Markey getting it wrong?

Three million years ago, his claim for when walruses were last in the Caribbean, would put us about half-way through the Pliocene Epoch, a time of cyclic climate change in a general cooling trend, and of great waves of faunal migration.

In fact, Markey's alleged time of Caribbean Walruses almost exactly corresponds to the peak of the Great American Faunal Interchange,* a back-and-forth migration of South and North American animals sparked by the formation of the Isthmus of Panama. At first glance, this might seem like the perfect time to find walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. But unfortunately, pinnipeds are not among the fauna known to have made the transition.

(*I try to avoid using Wikipedia. But in this case, it offered the most succint summary I could find online. One day, the Citizendium -- my preferred reference site whenever possible -- will be just as thorough.)

The fossil record of pinnipeds (the suborder of Carnivora that includes seals and walruses) was, until recently, one of the most mysterious of the Cenozoic mammals. Unlike cetaceans, there was no clear fossil record with which we could reliably trace their evolution from a land-dwelling bear- or weasel-like common ancestor to the semi-aquatic forms we see today. The (then-)oldest-known fossil pinniped specimen -- Enaliarctos mealsi -- already displayed fully-formed seal-like flippers. That changed for us in 2007 with Natalia Rybczynski's discovery of Puijila darwini, the "walking seal." Both fossils date from the Miocene, E. mealsi from about 23 Ma ago, and P. darwini from about 21 Ma.

It's widely-accepted that pinnipeds first appeared in the northern Pacific coastal areas of Canada and Alaska, and radiated from there around the American continents to their present locales, possibly using the seaways between North and South America to reach their current niches. Eventually they became extinct in the north Pacific (and no, you can't pin that particular extinction on us pesky Homo sapiens), but continued to thrive in the Atlantic.

But there are lots of pinnipeds, and they are not all walruses. The oldest-radiocarbon-dated walrus fossils come from Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island (dated at 70 Ka old), and from San Francisco Harbor (dated at 27.2 +/-0.95 Ka). In the Atlantic -- which is where BP's mythical Caribbean Walrus would reside -- their fossil record is rather more robust... but doesn't stretch any farther south than Nova Scotia [Source].

So as far as modern paleontology can tell, there have never been walruses in the Caribbean. I'm not sure where Rep. Markey is getting his paleo-data, but considering the difference between his mistake and BP's, I think I can let him slide on this one.

But while there may not have been any walruses in the Caribbean or the Gulf, there used to seals. The Caribbean monk seal -- last seen in 1952 -- was driven to extinction by human hunting, the first seal species to suffer this fate. Sadly, if current trends continue, they won't be the last. The IUCN lists five seal species on their infamous Red List, and the creatures have long deservedly been iconic symbols in both the animal rights and environmentalist movements.

Chuckles and learning aside, we have a lot of work to do to save these precious creatures.

Biggest Loser trainer goes vegan

Bob Harper: “I enjoy living a plant-based diet because it makes me feel clear headed and strong, not to mention my genetically high cholesterol dropped more than 100 points. That was all the motivation I needed."

I must admit, I've never watched the show and had no idea Mr. Harper was vegetarian. But kudos to him!

What The Heck That All Meant

My last post was full of nice flowery language, but I think its main point got lost.

What I'm talking about is creating a new framing narrative for the presentation of life sciences in education, and then expanding that narrative into other areas of study, as well. Especially literature, law and ethics -- three areas that, along with science, have a huge impact on shaping our culture and thus, our future.

Right now, the framing narrative is one of rising progression to dominance, of the inevitability of humanity. We have been taught, through old medieval and Victorian paradigms, to see ourselves as the masters of nature, rather than just one more species. This paradigm, which predates the discovery of evolution, has nonetheless been used to interpret evolution in a kind of backwards fashion, presenting it as a ladder with ourselves at the top.

But, as any paleontologist or evolutionary biologist would tell you, the tree of life is not a ladder, it's a fractal. And a darned deep one, too. Homo sapiens are just one bifurcation of that grand quasi-self-similar pattern.

In science, the first principle is "let the data speak for itself." It is always our goal to set aside our own biases and let the evidence shape our interpretations, not the other way around. We are not always successful at this, which is why we have peer review.... but that's another story.

My main point here is that the data of the fossil record and the genetic clock both tell us that nature is a community, not a zoo; a fractal, not a ladder. Yet, we have not let the implications of this insight begin to inform the rest of our civilization's institutions. We still see and treat ourselves as the intended goal of evolution.

We get this view from our educations, and have it reinforced by our institutions. I am saying that if we are to have any hope of turning things around for ourselves and the rest of the earth community, we need to change our stories, and pronto.

Hooking kids -- and even adults -- is absolutely vital to this mission. And using paleontology as the hook -- or, I'd argue, as the foundation -- of a new educational paradigm, is what I was on about down below.

"Humane education informed by evolution" will be one of the consistent themes of this blog. I hope you will all stayed tuned and spread the word.

12 June 2010

Why Paleontology Matters

Look out your window. Can you see the tree growing there, or the squirrel hopping amongst its branches? Perhaps you see a small flowering bush, with a humble bumblebee buzzing about its blooms. Maybe it's night-time where you are, and you can't see very much. But open up your window and listen; can you hear the crickets chirping, or maybe the raccoon rummaging through your refuse?

How do you think of these creatures? Are they a part of your community? Neighbors? Friends?

Or are they things? Resources? Pests?

If your honest answer is the first set of sentences rather than the second, you are a member of a rather small minority of the human race. Most of us -- and not just in "the West" -- see the natural world as a mere collection of resources. Of objects, not subjects. Perhaps it's been this way since the beginning of our species. But that doesn't mean it has to keep being that way. And in this critical historical turning point, it just may have to stop being that way.

Some people take a cyncial view of global warming, species extinction, health epidemics, and the myriad other threats facing not only our species, but most others, as well. The challenges seem so overwhelming that it's easy to feel powerless and write the world off in a display of negative thinking. Cynicism is ultimately borne of despair.

But, one thing we understand from studying evolution is that change is not only possible, but inevitable. And contrary to what many people think they know about evolution, the change doesn't always have to be gradual. Sometimes, when survival pressures converge in just the right way, a species changes by leaps and bounds, emerging from the struggle reborn and remade.

This is why paleontology matters. For it gives us not merely a collection of dry facts about fossils, but a sense of time to enlighten our sense of place. It tells us where our present ecology came from, not just what it is. The world goes from being a collection of parts, to a series of subplots in the great epic of existence. And it shows us that even lowly animals like ourselves can change the whole world. We know this, because "lesser" species than us have done so.

The appearance of photosynthetic cyanobacteria 2.4 billion years ago released so much free oxygen into the atmosphere that it very nearly caused the total extinction of anaerobic life, which today subsists only in deep-ocean hot spots, "black smokers," and other places we consider downright hellish. Oxygen was given another kick-start 434 million years ago when plants evolved and began their conquest of the land; thanks to them, open fire is possible in our atmosphere.

And without fire...

The human race has thus not grappled with the full implications of evolution. We acknowledge it as a series of facts, but draw little meaning from it. And thus, it becomes, for many, a dry recitation of species names and trivia questions.

But stand back, and take in the big picture. We know from fossil morphology and genetic study alike that the lines between our species and any other -- even that tree outside your window -- is not nearly so great as we once flattered ourselves in thinking it was. We are, each of us, part of one grand community stretching back through deep time, to the earliest depths of the Archaean nearly 4.0 billion years ago, when the first life emerged on our planet.

Paleontology constructs and illuminates a narrative about our kinship across deep time with all other life forms. It empirically demonstrates our interdependence. Once we understand how little separates us from the chimps and other primates, or even from that tree outside our window, or from the trillions of bacteria who've made a colony of our bodies (far outnumbering our own cells), we are made to confront our treatment of them. To see them as potential neighbors, friends, fellow-travelers deserving of respect and compassion. How can we cage chimps for our amusement once we have this understanding? How can we enslave and fatten cows for food, depriving them of their nature by force? Would we do this to our cousin, or our neighbor, even if we didn't like them? Especially when there was no need for us to do so?

Evolution shows us that change is not only possible, but unstoppable. And that is good news for us, because it means it's not too late. We can make evolution and paleontology the core of a new curriculum, a multi-disciplinary organizing principle that cuts across not merely the physical sciences, but the fields of literature, ethics, and philosophy, as well. That inculcates new myths born from 21st Century knowledge; new narratives of history rooted in what we actually know, and not in what we wish were true; stories to teach us that we are citizens of nature, not its masters.

Starting this project now, while we still can, may seem hard. Many are the eco-education programs out there, looking for a "hook" on which to hang their approach, a hook that can engage the most important learners in the world -- children. For they are the future, not just tomorrow, but right now. We adults may be too set in our ways to make a profound change in consciousness. But not kids. They still have fairly open minds, and a hunger for continuous learning.

And... they love dinosaurs.

That, fundamentally, is why paleontology matters. It's the bedrock for getting kids to listen to the story of life's amazing panorama across billions of years, of our place in it, and of our responsibility for it. Paleontology is learning to read the autobiography of life, in its native language, and listening with humility to its lessons, forged from 4 billion years of struggle and renewal.

If we are to forge a new, sustainable destiny for our species and all the others, we must begin to make change happen now. And not just on the outside, with new technologies and new policies, though those things are absolutely indispensable to us; but on the inside, too, where our sense of place and self and time fundamentally informs the way we see and treat other species and the earth.

When we study paleontology, we are forced to stand humble before life, and recognize our kinship across deep time with even the "lowliest" of bacteria. That can be the foundation of a new paradigm that could very possibly save the world, if not in our lifetimes, then within those of our children.

What better reason, then, to dig dinosaurs? And synapsids and mammals and plants and...

10 June 2010

Consider The Panda

You know pandas, and probably love them. Cute and cuddly, the objects of affections world-wide, used here in the States to sell us over-priced crappy "Chinese" food.

You probably also know that pandas are famous for eating bamboo. It's their staple diet, in fact, making up 99 percent of their daily caloric intake. You probably think they're herbivores.

And you're wrong. Sort of.

Pandas are Carnivorans. Yes, you read that correctly. Pandas are Carnivorans.

Specifically, they're classed as part of the order Carnivora, along with the rest of their relatives, the bears. All of their adaptations -- skull structure, teeth, digestive anatomy, gestation period -- mark them distinctly as members of this highly-specialized group of mammals. If an alien race randomly collected animal samples from across the Earth without paying any attention to the animals' actual behavior, they'd conclude from all these factors that pandas were a meat-eating, possibly predatory species.

And yet, they eat bamboo.

Now, dear readers, you are smart people. You can probably see where I'm going with this. As vegans, we often hear arguments from friends and family (or belligerent strangers) that humans are "meant" to eat meat because we are "omnivores." Essentially, what's being argued by them is that humans don't simply have the option of eating meat and dairy, but that we have an obligation to eat them. That somehow, we are betraying our nature, if not endangering our health, by refusing to exploit other animals.

Often these arguments appeal to evolution. But they're on shaky ground. Aside from the fact that there is no taxonomic classification for either "Herbivora" or "Omnivora" (a subject about which I will be posting in the near future), such arguments are flawed because they fail to distinguish between biology and behavior.

Pandas, biologically, are Carnivorans. Health-wise, they'd probably thrive on a diet of raw animal flesh. But behaviorally, they are "herbivores." The reasons for this are complex, and might involve a survival strategy developed in response to a negative mutation, but that's all for another time.

The take-home point is that even among Carnivora, there is a distinction between biology and behavior. There is always a choice.

So, what are humans "designed" to eat? I don't much like the question, as I'm skeptical of the notion of "design" in nature. But, there are some things we can say about human evolution and diet that are fairly uncontroversial.

We are members of the order Primates, generalist mammals capable of exploiting a wide variety of resources and ecologies, including food. Our genetic and morphological heritage is arboreal, and while many of our plesiomorphic traits are those of a frugivorous common ancestor, primates can nonetheless eat a wide variety of foods to supplement their basal adaptation to fruits. Hominids, in particular, along with chimpanzees, are known in the fossil record and the modern world alike to hunt and kill other animals for food, in varying degrees.

So given all this, what are the implications for what humans must eat? Not many. Because we are so versatile, we can reliably eat just about anything that's not poisonous.

In other words, we have a choice. Veganism is a moral choice, and so is meat-eating. They are both equally "natural." Neither is dictated to us by evolution.

So, the next time a friend or family member or stranger confronts you with the argument from "evolution," ask them to consider the panda.

09 June 2010

Some Liked It Hot

New evidence indicating that hominids adapted to hot, dry environments, that may shed light -- if not heat -- on the origin of bipedalism.

Doesn't have much to do with veganism, but remember: that's only half the name!

08 June 2010

Strike A Blow For Monster Plants!

Fellow horror fans rejoice: a monster plant ranked number one on this year's list of Top Ten newly-discovered species:
Among the largest of the pitcher plants, its pitchers can be up to 30 cm high and 16 cm across. 
Yikes! That's big enough to eat small mammals, though it's not likely they actually do.

06 June 2010

Other Paleo Blogs

One of the reasons I started PaleoVeganology is that whenever I googled the words "paleo" and "blog," I kept ending up with a list of Paleo-diet sites, many of them featuring surprisingly fanatical anti-vegan and anti-vegetarian screeds based on ill-informed appeals to "science" and "evolution."

The first time it happened, I spent hours slumming through the message boards of this strange diet subculture, fascinated and repulsed and amused all at once. I'd seen their ilk before, of course, among believers of other pseudo-science claims; but the fact that there was one out there converging on two things so close to my heart -- paleo and veganism...

...well, that just felt like a calling to me. Hallelujah! One day, I'm gonna be at the top o'that list. Praise Raptor Jesus!

The Earth Burps!

Say "paleontology," and most people think "Dinosaurs!"

I agree, dinos are pretty cool (though I'm more partial to pterosaurs myself), but paleontology is about a lot more than that. Here's a recent and excellent example of how it's used to inform us about current scientific concerns:
Working on a marine sediment core recovered from the Southern Ocean floor between Antarctica and South Africa, the international team led by Dr Luke Skinner of the University of Cambridge radiocarbon dated shells left behind by tiny marine creatures called foraminifera (forams for short).
By measuring how much carbon-14 (14C) was in the bottom-dwelling forams' shells, and comparing this with the amount of 14C in the atmosphere at the time, they were able to work out how long the CO2 had been locked in the ocean.
By linking their marine core to the Antarctic ice-cores using the temperature signal recorded in both archives, the team were also able compare their results directly with the ice-core record of past atmospheric CO2 variability.
 My own current area of interest -- paleobotany -- is similarly useful.

One of the strongest lines of evidence supporting the AGW model of climate change comes from the fossil record, mainly micropaleontology and paleobotany. We ignore it at our peril.

04 June 2010

Man The Hunter... or Man The Chef?

About 1.8 million years ago, evolution experienced a game-changer. Something happened to kick-start hominid adaptation and thrust it out of its arboreal, australopithicene heritage and headlong into the robust new genus Homo (that's "us," for those of you at home). It's one of the most abrupt shifts in body plan ever seen in the fossil record: away from a chimp-like "ape-man" to something with far bigger brains, radically smaller guts and mouths, longer legs, flatter feet and the ability to make tools.

The precise nature of that game-changer is among the most elusive prizes in all of paleontology and anthropology. So, it's surprising that for the last 50 years or so, there's really only been one hypothesis to explain it. 

Most researchers agree that the key adaptive change was the pairing of larger brains with smaller guts and mouths, an idea known as the expensive tissue hypothesis. Because big brains have such high glucose demands, the body has to find a way to fuel its smarts without sacrificing too much from other vital systems. The digestive system, pathway for the brain's energy, would thus need to be more efficient the bigger the brain. The smaller mouths, teeth and guts of genus Homo compared to earlier hominids indicates that we adapted the ability to efficiently digest energy-dense foods in short amounts of time, freeing up more metabolic energy for brain development and maintenance.

For 50 years, anthropological and paleontological consensus has held that the gateway to this dramatic shift was an increase in meat-eating by our common ancestor, popularized as the Man-The-Hunter model. This model placed the mastery of fire at between 400 to 100 Ka, and assumed that before this time, our Homo ancestors ate all their food -- both animal and plant -- raw.

Problem was, that assumption carried with it a troubling conundrum. If genus Homo ate more meat than other hominids and ate most of its meat raw for most of its evolutionary history, how was it that our teeth, jaws and guts were so inefficient at chewing and digesting the raw meat of wild game (or, for that matter, the tough fibers of plant cellulose cells)? The question was usually settled with the assumption that we relied on soft meats -- organs, brains, viscera, and so on -- and only made a regular practice of focusing on muscle after the taming of fire.

This meme stuck with us for almost 50 years, most recently becoming the basis of "paleo-dieters" claims that humans are specifically adapted to meat-eating, that it's in our genes, so to speak. So powerful was this idea that no one seriously challenged it until now.

Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Havard University, wants to change that. He first began to publicly question the Man-The-Hunter hypothesis about 10 years ago with a compelling counter-argument: that the game-changer in human evolution wasn't increased meat-eating but the invention of cooking; that the energy-dense food to which we adapted wasn't raw organ meat, but cooked foods of various kinds -- and mostly, at the beginning, cooked tubers, roots, corms and other underground storage organs of plants.

Wrangham has developed his hypothesis into a recent book -- Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human -- that I finally got around to reading last night, during a rare break from studying. And I must say, it's a damned impressive and elegant argument.

Wrangham's hypothesis flies in the face of almost a half-century's worth of paleontological and anthropological doctrine, as it places the invention of cooking about 1 million years earlier than even the most generous previous hypotheses. As noted, most of the literature and research assumes the consumption of raw food prior to about 400 to 100 Ka. So, Wrangham's new hypothesis is daring, to say the least.

But challenging established consensus doesn't make a hypothesis wrong. Wrangham marshals some compelling logic to defend his case, and provides some persuasive physical evidence to back it up. He highlights the flaws of the Man-The-Hunter hypothesis, showing that many of its established findings were in fact merely untested assumptions.

Like any good scientist, Wrangham admits the evidence for his case, while persuasive, is not yet conclusive enough to warrant overturning the consensus. But it's provocative enough in both its predictive and explanatory power to warrant serious investigation, not least because it has the potential to settle a long-standing dispute about the exact role of meat-eating in human evolution.

And it's a solution that some raw vegans and raw "paleo-dieters" alike won't take much of a shine to.

Both of those camps assume that humans evolved to eat raw foods. They take this assumption (though often misunderstood and misapplied) directly from the scientific literature, so I don't hold it against them. But it has helped muddy the debate about "optimal" human diets and their associated ethics.

It turns out the answer to the question, "what is the most natural diet for humans?", may not be exclusively either meat or plants eaten raw, but whichever we prefer, so long as its cooked!

Which means, the decision for veganism over carnivory (or vice versa) remains what it's always been: an ethical choice, not a biological obligation.

03 June 2010

Paleo what?

I've always thought there was something inherently self-indulgent about blogging. But then, I'm pretty self-centered, so it's a natural fit.

Anyway, considering the name and theme I've chosen for this blog, we should get a few things straight:

1) This is not a blog about the study of ancient vegans.

2) This is not a blog about dieting. Dieting is transitory. I'm not on a diet, and I'm not particularly interested in sharing my recipes, though I will often post yummy ones when I find them. Veganism is a lifestyle, not a diet; what's more, it's an ethical philosophy and practice. While I eat as healthily as possible, my veganism is for me fundamentally a moral stance. I believe it is wrong to exploit animals when there's no longer any need to do so.

3) More specifically, this is not a blog about the "Paleo-Diet" that seems to be experiencing a recent surge of popularity, though I will have some things to say about that trend from time to time, especially if it keeps getting popular. You can probably guess what I think about it.

4) This blog will focus on issues related to both veganism and paleontology, my two biggest passions; I live by one and am working towards a master's degree in the other. It may seem a strange combination, but hopefully you'll come to see otherwise by reading this humble blog. In my mind, both subjects converge in their connection to issues of climate change, evolution, human health, and H. sapiens' impact and place in the web of life. I think you'll find that using those two concepts -- veganism and paleontology -- as lenses can be the key to a wide range of interesting and vitally important subjects; hence, the title of this blog.

By the way, I'm also a huge fan of horror movies and literature. I just couldn't figure out how to fit it into the title of this blog.

"PaleoVeganGoreHoundology" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.