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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.

27 October 2010

PETA Scores One For The Dinosaurs

PETA announced a modest victory last week, that will help ensure more humane treatment of dinosaurs everywhere.

Yes, you read that correctly, and it implies exactly what you think it does. Chickens are dinosaurs.

You've probably heard a version of this already. Thanks to Jurassic Park and a few other popular sources, most Americans are nominally aware of the idea that modern birds are "descended from" dinosaurs. But that's not entirely accurate.

Birds aren't simply descended from dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs, literally. Specifically, they are maniraptoran theropods. They were feisty enough to survive the Big Whack 65 million years ago, and keep diversifying right up til the modern day. When Darwin sailed to the Galapogos Islands and studied finches, he was face to face with living dinosaurs. When you go to MCDonalds or KFC, you are buying and eating the flesh of dinosaurs.

I won't get into bird evolution in this post, though I am still working on a series of "meet your meat" articles featuring the paleontology of popular food animals, which will begin with birds and dinosaurs.

I only mention it now because I think this is one area where paleontology can inform and help the animal rights movement, especially in the realm of humane education.

Consider: people love dinosaurs. Kids, especially, seem quite fond of them, if the popularity of Dinosaur Train is any indication. Our love affair with dinosaurs goes back almost 200 years and shows no signs of abating.

Yet, few people relate to dinosaurs as anything more than fossil displays in museums, cartoon characters or movie monsters. The notion that there are living, breathing dinosaurs walking the earth this very minute, and that millions of them being subjected to torture every day, never enters the discussion.

I think animal rights activists should do something to change that. The popularity of and fascination with dinosaurs is exactly the hook that PETA and other groups could use to interest people in the plight of birds.

I envision a "Barnyard Dinosaur" campaign, where kids and adults alike can tour a place like Animal Acres in Action, CA, to meet, and pet, and even adopt/sponsor living, breathing dinosaurs like Tom Foolery, Repecka, and Stormy. While there, they will learn about the horrid conditions into which we force these beautiful, majestic dinos so that we can eat them... and what we can all do to help save them (HINT: stop eating them).

I don't know, I think "Save The Dinosaurs!" has a great ring to it...

25 October 2010

Another Lierre Keith Takedown

Stuart Hindmarsh begins his new blog, Philosophical Review, with an insightful critique of Lierre Keith's naive book, The Vegetarian Myth.

It's full of choice gems (emphasis added):
Another main objection I have to Keith’s book is that many of her arguments commit the genetic fallacy. She cites a theory which suggests that the switch to a diet of meat made it possible for hominids to develop the type of brains characteristic of modern humans, implying that if we don’t eat meat now we will not be fully human. Yet even if humans developed certain traits by eating meat, this does not mean they must now eat meat to maintain those traits. Furthermore, it should be noted that the theory Keith cites is being debated by anthropologists and that there are rival theories that Keith does not mention. A relatively recent overview of research on Paleolithic and Neolithic modes of subsistence is found in this article. She also mentions that the Neolithic Revolution and the beginnings of agriculture first resulted in a decline in health in humans, implying that lifestyles in modern agricultural societies will necessarily also result in worse health than that enjoyed by Paleolithic humans. This conclusion doesn’t follow, for technology and knowledge in agricultural societies today make possible very different diets and lifestyles from those of agriculturalists in the Neolithic.

We should be skeptical about arguments that appeal to human evolution to come up with conclusions about what we are “meant” to do. Vegetarians have often used this kind of argument to conclude that we aren’t meant to eat meat, and it is the type of argument Keith relies on in many cases to arrive at the opposite conclusion. The study of the human body as it exists today is the most useful method for figuring out what kinds of diets are best for humans to eat now. The study of the sketchy record of human evolution in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods is primarily suited to explaining why the human body is this way.
Read the whole thing. You won't regret it.

22 October 2010

The Problem With Paleodiet Gurus Is...

A supportive commenter on my last post about the expensive-tissue hypothesis raises a subject that highlights what I find supremely annoying about the Paleo-diet movement:
About how far back hunting and meat eating might go... Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, hunt - do you think that this provides a clue about how far back in prehistory hunting may have been a part of life for our ancestors?
Indeed, I think it does. So does the paleo-diet crowd. But in their eagerness to claim the mantle of science for their fad diet, the "paleos" draw exactly the wrong point from this fact.

If you will indulge me in a brief bit of jargon, I'll illustrate the point.

In paleontology, we talk a great deal about ancestral traits vs. shared derived traits and/or unique derived traits. An ancestral trait, or plesiomorphy, is one possessed by a most recent common ancestor (MRCA) and all of its descendants; put another way, it's a trait modern organisms inherited from a distant common ancestor, and thus not a trait that defines the modern organism. Plesiomorphies, because they are so common, are not terribly useful for defining relationships between groups of organisms (taxa, sing. taxon).

Shared derived traits, or synapomorphies, are found in two or more taxa who form the tips of a cladogram, a branching "tree" diagram used to illustrate evolutionary relationships. Synapomorphies are the only traits actually used to arrange organisms into monophyletic groups (clades which comprise a single common ancestor and all its descendants).

Unique dervied traits, or autapomorphies, are found in only one species on a cladogram. They are not useful for reconstructing evolutionary relationships between taxa, but can be used to define a taxon.

Now, paleo-dieters talk a great deal about meat "making us human," often waxing poetic and engaging in more than a touch of magical thinking about the benefits of animal flesh. Often, this talk is absurdly focused on big game and ignores the prominent role that bug-eating likely played in early hominid, and even modern human, diets. All told, it's a claim that meat-eating made us what we are; that is, that meat-eating is an autapomorphy for H. sapiens, something that defines us.

Oddly, to justify this position, paleos will often point up the same observation that Therese does: namely, that hunting is found among many primates. This, they say, is further proof that meat-eating is something essential to our humanness.

And it's right there that the paleo-diet shell game gets revealed; for in saying that primate hunting is evidence that human meat-eating is something special, the paleos are actually contradicting themselves. And none of them seem to realize it.

This justification changes hunting and meat-eating from autapomorphic status (i.e., something only Homo sapiens does) to synapomorphic (i.e., it's something all primates do), thus making it less "special" to humans. If paleos truly understood evolution, they'd see the contradiction right away, and realize that the logic of their argument implicitly disproves what it explicitly asserts.

Now, if it were possible to say that no other mammals engaged in hunting or meat-eating, the paleos might have a point, for that would make these traits autapomorphic -- that is, unique -- to primates. But, too bad for the paleos, it is not possible to say anything quite so ridiculous.

Faunivory is ancestral for all mammals, since we spring from an insectivorous common ancestor. All mammals -- even cows and deer -- retain some capacity to eat and digest other animals (or, to be more specific, to efficiently digest calorie-dense nutrient sources). In short, it's nothing special, and pretty much useless when trying to define a species.

If you want to know what makes, say, primates, or ungulates, distinct when compared to other animals, you have to look at their synapomorphies and autapomorphies; that is, at the the traits they developed that take them away from the mammalian ancestral condition. In the case of ungulates, that would be herbivorous specialization (among many other traits); among primates, it would be frugivory.

The problem with paelo-diet gurus is they treat meat consumption as something special about our evolutionary heritage, when in fact, it's quite the opposite.

It's this imprecise and misleading use of scientific concepts -- this all-over-the-map intellectual fuzziness masquerading as erudition -- that makes the paleo-diet pseudo-science. Pointing out that hominids eat meat isn't nearly as profound as the paleos wish it were. What it tells us about human evolution amounts to barely more than nothing, and they want it to be everything.

11 October 2010

Animal Testing: Even In Paleontology?!

I've noted before that one of the reasons paleontology appeals to me is that it allows me to study animals without exploiting or harming them. Like many people, I started out with a notion that the only remains paleontologists deal with are fossilized and long-dead, and to a large extent, this is true.

But, comparative anatomy against modern, still-living species -- especially those related to the extinct ones -- also plays a big role. And this is where paleontology can get a bit dicey for animal-lovers.

Take, for instance, last week's study concluding that dinosaurs were about 10 percent larger than previously thought (for a layman's-eye view, go here). The study used "salvaged remains" from alligators and various bird species to determine the relationship in dinosaurs between the morphologies of their joint bones and their estimated heights, concluding that because traditional estimates did not tend to account for missing cartilage, many dinosaur species may have been significantly larger than once thought.

The methods for determining this, at first glance, seem rather ghoulish and exploitative (emphasis added):
Extant alligators and birds were used to establish an objective basis for inferences about cartilaginous articular structures in such extinct archosaur clades as non-avian dinosaurs. Limb elements of alligators, ostriches, and other birds were dissected, disarticulated, and defleshed. Lengths and condylar shapes of elements with intact epiphyses were measured. Limbs were subsequently completely skeletonized and the measurements repeated.
This is the kind of thing that, when I first started studying paleontology, would set off alarm bells. Had I made a devil's bargain? Could it truly be that even this field of science exploits and tortures animals for experimentation? Was I going to have to become a history major, after all?

Well, maybe not. Many such comparative anatomy papers contain ethical statements about the sources of their animal subjects, providing animal activists and other readers with a rather laudable level of transparency. This paper is no different:
All research was conducted on salvaged animal specimens and no approval from Ohio University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee was necessary.
More detail is given later:
The alligator sample consisted of 15 specimens obtained from the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge (Grand Chenier, LA) ranging in size from about 0.5 m to 2.5 m total length. Ostriches were obtained from a commercial processing center, and all individuals were of roughly equivalent size.
No mention is made of where the researchers obtained their other bird specimens, however.

Salvaged animal specimens are generally obtained from animals who weren't killed specifically for the research in question; i.e., those who died of natural causes in nature preserves or the wild, donated pet cadavers, etc. But some, like the ostriches here, are collected from "commercial processing centers," implying a link to factory farming or slaughter for food.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I'm all in favor of obtaining and studying animal remains from humane sources and donations. On the other, I'm troubled by the possible link to industrial animal exploitation, and saddened that even potentially cruelty-free sciences like paleontology rely on such base meanness to other forms of life (albeit indirectly, in this case).

The argument that "they'd be killed anyway" (likely applicable to the ostriches) has never sat well with me. That's the sort of muddy moral thinking that justifies factory farming, too. But, I think there might be room to draw a distinction between deliberate cruelty and fruits of a tainted tree. I doubt the ostriches in this study were killed specifically for the paleontological team; a more likely scenario is that the lab contacted the ostrich supplier, asking if they had any already-deceased but well-preserved carcasses.

I have no idea what sort of protocols the Witmer Lab has to ensure that their ostriches weren't already dead, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If anything, it's their supplier I'd be suspicious of.

I confess that an unwillingness to confront the thorny moral labyrinth here is one reason I chose to focus my animal activism on factory farming and veganism (the other being, of course, that this is the single largest source of the greatest suffering inflicted on animals). But, as I advance forward in my studies, I will likely have to face this and sort it out, once and for all.

If I'm lucky, I could secure a position with such a lab that involved ensuring ethical transparency from suppliers. But grad school is quite a ways off for me at the moment.

In the meantime, I'll keep vigil, and take comfort in knowing that I'll most likely never have to be part of a study that requires me to work with modern animals.

Another reason to love field work!

03 October 2010

Does Daniel Vitalis Eat Bugs?

There's something inherently both amusing and annoying about hucksters and gurus speaking with authority on subjects they clearly know little about. But, this is the way with paleo-dieters in general, with all their appeals to evolution:

Is Fruit Meant For Man?

Now, it's true that most of the fruits we eat today are hybrids; but so are most of the animals. Does this health motivator and longevity strategist seriously think that even grass-fed cows existed before the invention of agriculture? Or that paleo-humans took herbal supplements, drank colostrum and brewed fungal-extract tea?

I wonder if he eats bugs. There's darn good evidence that our earliest hominid ancestors ate lots of bugs. Termites in particular. If hominids have an "ancestral" diet at all, it's frugivory and insectivory. And while there are a few paleo-gurus who hint at the benefits of bug-eating, most won't come anywhere near it. They are absurdly and tellingly fixated on big game.

I think maybe we should launch a satirical campaign about the benefits of bug-eating. We should encourage poor people to forage their homes and neighborhoods for beetles, roaches, flies, spiders, grasshoppers, etc., on a daily basis. Calorie-for-calorie, they pack a bigger protein and EFA punch than an equivalent amount of even lean beef or venison.

How many fawning sycophants do you think a body could attract with such a  message?