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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.

29 April 2011

The Permavegan Retorts

Permavegan has posted his first response to my critique of his hypothesis. Damn good evidence marshaled, and damn good questions asked.

It's refreshing to debate a knowledgeable opponent. Keeps you sharp. I should have a response prepared in about a week or so.

23 April 2011

Listening To Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs keep pecking at my brain. For months now, they've been haunting me, and it's felt like they were trying to raise a question other than, "who're you calling a dinosaur, bub?" I've been itching to say something on this blog about these fascinating animals, but I couldn't quite put my distal phalange on just what it ought to be.
Credit: Mark Witton, U. of Portsmouth

But Mrs. T has changed all that. Or maybe she's just clarified it for me.

It's her egg that did it. The poor girl died while pregnant, and as she decomposed, her egg was expelled from her body, then fossilized in its own right. And it turns out the egg isn't what we'd expected at all.

For years, researchers thought the reproductive cycle of pterosaurs was like that of modern birds: i.e., they laid eggs with shells that hardened on contact with air; they sat on nests and took care of hatchlings. But we now have solid evidence that that wasn't the case at all.

Mrs. T's egg was small and soft-shelled, like that of modern lizards and snakes. These animals generally bury their eggs after laying them, and the eggs receive moisture and nutrients from the surrounding soil. And what's more, the young reptile hatchlings are far more developed and self-sufficient than baby birds. The similarity between modern reptile eggs and pterosaurian eggs (or, at least, Darwinopterus eggs) indicates that pterosaur reproduction was more reptilian than avian.

In short, pterosaurs weren't dinosaurs, which means they weren't birds, either. And that, in turn, means that modern comparative anatomy tests on pterosaur flight that have tended to exploit and vivisect modern birds were headed in the wrong direction, a fact noted by a rising star of pterosaur paleontology last March:
Avian biomechanical parameters have often been applied to pterosaurs in such research but, due to considerable differences in avian and pterosaur anatomy, have lead to systematic errors interpreting pterosaur flight mechanics. Such assumptions have lead to assertions that giant pterosaurs were extremely lightweight to facilitate flight or, if more realistic masses are assumed, were flightless. Reappraisal of the proportions, scaling and morphology of giant pterosaur fossils suggests that bird and pterosaur wing structure, gross anatomy and launch kinematics are too different to be considered mechanically interchangeable. Conclusions assuming such interchangeability—including those indicating that giant pterosaurs were flightless—are found to be based on inaccurate and poorly supported assumptions of structural scaling and launch kinematics.
The take home point here -- the question the pterosaurs haunting my dreams have been trying to raise -- is, how efficacious is animal testing in paleontology anyway?

I've blogged before about the moral quandary I'm slowly approaching in my studies. I must confess to having set out upon this path with more than a little naivete. Paleontology appealed to me because it allowed me to study animals and evolution without having to hurt any living beings. When I found out this wasn't true, I began cultivating an interest in paelobotany that might still claim my future. For all my paleo-nerdiness and love of science, I am unwilling to harm nonhuman animals, even indirectly, in my pursuit of knowledge.

Still, reliance on modern animals is far less common in paleontology than it is in other life sciences, and I think that with some due diligence and activist pressure from within, the paleo community can and will do a better job of monitoring their sample sources. If I'm lucky, I may get to play a role in that one day.

The incompatibility of pterosaur and bird anatomies can help highlight the ethical point. Pterosaur researchers had become so enamored with birds (not that I blame them!) that they failed to see pterosaurs for who they really were. And this meant, not incidentally, that many modern birds went under the knife in those researchers' quest to crack the "mystery" of giant pterosaur flight.

We now know that those poor birds' sacrifice was in vain. Analogies with birds were taken too far, both scientifically and ethically. Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, and that means they weren't bird-like, either. We can now add bird experimentation in pterosaur research to the long list of animal testing that was pointless, and arguably more cruel because of it.

I don't want to make too much hay out of it, though. As I've already written, many paleo labs use salvaged animal remains from ethically-clean sources, and absent any evidence to the contrary, I'm assuming this has been generally true of pterosaur research, as well. I'm still heart-broken, however, at the prospect that at least some birds used in that research over the years were the victims of commercial suppliers to whom the birds were mere commodities, not beautiful living things with something important to teach us. Again, if there is cruelty and blame to be assigned here, I'm inclined to place it on the suppliers, not the researchers.

The pterosaurs are calming down now. I think they're happy that I finally figured out what they were trying to say: "we are proof that animal testing is often pointless."

I love them now more than ever.

22 April 2011

Creationism: Not Just For Christians!

It's probably not a surprise to anyone that there are creationists in all three of the major monotheistic religions, though Jewish ones are hard to come by. Muslim creationists, not so much, especially in Turkey. But I, for one, was surprised recently to discover that the evil meme's tentacles have a reach much farther than I thought.

In a recent Facebook dispute/discussion, I was informed that someone named Michael Tsarion, a possessor of "ultimate truth," is (allegedly) a vegan. This, we were told, was a boon to the animal rights & vegan community, because he is a wise man. But after spending a few hours enthralled by Tsarion's woo, I had to conclude, "with friends like these..."

Tsarion appears to be a booming franchise (though it's hard for me to independently verify, as a Google search on him turns up mostly sympathetic or critical sites, not analytical ones), and sells the standard New Age mumbo-jumbo boiler plate. His videos are all over the web, and he talks a lot about the "truth" about Atlantis and the hidden meaning of ancient religious texts, 2012, etc. You know the drill. He works in aliens and genetic manipulation, too. That's where it gets interesting, because the guy, despite rejecting Christianity, is a full-fledged creationist, and apparently of the Young Earth variety.

Tsarion's book Atlantis, Alien Visitation and Genetic Manipulation, contains a bizarre narrative in which our solar system was colonized 50,000 years ago by two warring alien races. The first race, retreating from the second, used a fictional, (mostly) water-world called Tiamat between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter as a decoy, and then secretly settled on Earth. When their enemies arrived, they destroyed this water-world and its
vast saline waters entered into the Earth’s atmosphere causing the first of two massive prehistoric deluges and tribulations that mankind would experience. It is thought that the alien invaders took full advantage of this predicament and moved in to bring about colonization. They met no resistance from the disoriented and weakened inhabitants of the Earth who believed their visitors were powerful gods.
Take that, Judeo-Christian-Muslims! Tsarion sees your Great Flood, and raises you another one!

This, Tsarion seems to think, is the origin of Earth's oceans, or at least most of them. Too bad for him, the marine sedimentary record stretches back 3.8 billion years. And what's more, there's no geological evidence of a worldwide, catastrophic flood, let alone two of them.

He also thinks the remnants of this fictional planet between Mars and Jupiter became the asteroid belt. Bad news, Mike: the asteroids were never a planet to begin with. In fact, there's not even enough mass there to build a body the size of our moon.

Appendix B of his book is full of references from geology and evolution deniers, quote-mined references from legit scientists, and a bit of absolute bunk... just like his evil Christian opponents' works!

If this guy is a vegan, I sincerely hope he never opens his mouth about it, or tries to become a prominent figure in the AR-vegan community. We've got a hard enough time as it is gaining cultural legitimacy. Tsarion could, all by himself, destroy what little progress we've made with his ridiculous babble.

If you're in the mood for some high comedy reading and have a couple of hours to kill, though, check him out. Don't forget the popcorn.

19 April 2011

Looking Ahead

OK, I admit it. One of the reasons I deleted this blog was that I had frustrated myself with poor time management. Because of this, the blog kept getting de-prioritized, and my time between posts got progressively longer as the posts themselves became shorter. Those with any length at all were, to my eye, haphazard and poorly-sourced.

Well, enough of that. I've set myself a schedule. From now on, Friday will be blog day, barring important exceptions like final exams, field work, etc. So, once a week, I will post something new and (hopefully) substantial. During the rest of the week, I may log in to put up interesting links or pics from other sites, with brief commentary, but won't pressure myself into trying to say something profound about them.

Also, I had previously announced two main research projects, and begun one of them: The History Of Your Teeth; and the tentatively-titled Paleontology (Not) On Your Plate. The first, already begun (and soon to have its own page here), is pretty self-explanatory. The second was to examine the evolution and fossil record of common food animals, beginning with the beautiful chickens, turkeys, ducks and other exploited dinosaurs who don't get their due.

Thing is, though, I can't do both of them at the same time, given my academic obligations and time constraints. So, I leave it to you, dear readers: which series would you like to see completed first:

1) History Of Your Teeth; or
2) Paleontology (Not) On Your Plate?

If voting for number 2, I'm also open to a new and better title. The one I have just doesn't roll off the tongue.

A Rescued Theropod Named...

...Rocco. I sponsor him at Animal Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary, and plan on going to meet him in person very soon.

You'll recall I adopted him around the holidays last year. You should sponsor an animal (or two!) at AA, as well. The good folks there could use all the help they can get. Follow the link on the side of this page.

Neighborhood Geology

One of the benefits of living in Earthquake Country is that, every now and then, when you least expect it, you stumble across some amazing geology. I was out running in my new neighborhood today, and rounded a corner to discover this spectacular outcrop of recumbent folding:
It's hard to tell what kind of rock it is from a distance, but I'm determined to get closer, with hand-lens and rock-hammers in tow.There's a lot of history to be seen here!

16 April 2011

TRUE Humane Hunting

“Fossil hunting is by far the most fascinating of all sports. It has some danger, enough to give it zest and probably about as much as in the average modern engineered big-game hunt, and the danger is wholly to the hunter. It has uncertainty and excitement and all the thrills of gambling with none of its vicious features. The hunter never knows what his bag may be, perhaps nothing, perhaps a creature never before seen by human eyes. It requires knowledge, skill and some degree of hardihood. And its results are so much more important, more worthwhile, and more enduring than those of any other sport! The fossil hunter does not kill, he resurrects. And the result of this sport is to add to the sum of human pleasure and to the treasure of human knowledge.”  
 – George Gaylord Simpson, Attending Marvels, 1931

Fallback Food Fight, As Promised...

Let it not be said that I fail to honor my word. Perhaps I took a bit longer than planned to respond to Jonathan Maxson's challenge, but I always intended to follow through. And now, I have.

You'll recall that Mr. Permavegan wrote to me seeking a "worthy opponent" to help him refine or dismiss his hypothesis that meat was a "fallback food of last resort" for our prehistoric ancestors. I boldly accepted the challenge...

...and then pulled a D.B. Cooper.

So, first, I offer my apologies to Jonathan, and to the rest of you, for this mean rock-tease. Though my disappearance was not intentional (in the sense that it was pre-meditated), its effect was the same regardless. I have no real defense, but a brief explanation may be in order: in short, I encountered serious time-management issues this semester, coupled with the grieving process over my Dad's death, both of which were stressful enough independently, but together were converging to be an emotional K-T Event for me. I decided, sometime in mid-January, that writing a regular blog was just too much on top of all this other stuff, and cynically deleted it, thinking it had done no good anyway.

But, I'm over that pity party now, rested, healthy again, and ready to maintain this blog in a more measured way than before (but that's for another post).

So, without further ado....

My critique of Maxson's hypothesis rests on three main points:
  • He seems to misunderstand, and thus misapplies, the concept of a fallback food; in doing so, he concedes the argument to his oppoents (though apparently none of them were smart enough to notice!);
  • He lacks precision when discussing our ancestry in the context of his argument (just like, it should be noted, most of his opponents); and,
  • He engages in the naturalistic fallacy (again, just like his opponents).
I elaborate on those points, thusly:

What Is A Fallback Food?
Maxson argues that humans (by which I presume he means H. sapiens)
are not adapted to a structural dependence on meat.  The evidence is much more compelling that we inherited an immunological resistance to meat-related pathogenecity that allowed us to survive on meat as a fallback food during times when superior plant-foods were not available.
But, based on current understanding of human evolution, this formula is backwards. Meat would be what's called a "preferred food," and various plants would be "fallback food."

In anthropology, fallback foods are resources upon which primates depend for survival during times when preferred foods are scarce. Preferred foods are "high-quality" (that is, nutrient-dense) resources for which primates will temporarily abandon their fallback strategy when the opportunity presents itself, and for which they will take risks.

It might seem that preferred foods are more evolutionarily significant, given their caloric pay-off, but they're not. Because fallback foods are what a given primate population eats most of the time, they influence that population's evolutionary development far more than preferred foods do. As Marshall, et. al., (2009) summarized it:
Fallback foods are becoming increasingly invoked as key selective forces that determine masticatory and digestive anatomy, influence grouping and ranging behavior, and underlie fundamental evolutionary processes such as speciation, extinction, and adaptation.
Maxson is basically right that humans (H. sapiens?) have inherited a suite of characters developed over 70 million years of primate evolution, and that the primate adaptation to frugivory is the foundation of our anatomy and biology. But this doesn't mean that fruits, tubers and seeds were our preferred foods; quite the opposite, in fact. They were what "we" depended on most of the time for our daily survival, and thus they became the selective factors with the greatest influence on our dental and digestive anatomy.

By arguing that meat was a "fallback food of last resort" for our ancestors, Maxson is essentially saying that meat-eating made us human by shaping our anatomy in a unique way... precisely what his "livestock propagandist" opponents appear to be saying, too! I doubt this was his intention, however; he wants to argue that meat-eating wasn't terribly important to our evolution, and he'd be on much better footing if he reversed his categories and called meat a risky, preferred food... which is what most anthropologists think it was, anyway.

(It hasn't been lost on me -- nor should it be on you -- that none of Maxson's opponents appear to have called him to the mat on this point! More evidence that "paleo-dieters"/"livestock propagandists" know much less about evolution than they think they do!)

Who Is This "We"?
In a significant portion of his essay, Maxson refers to human ancestors and modern humans alike under the umbrella pronoun "we." While from an animal-rights perspective I applaud his inclusiveness, I'm afraid it's not precise enough for the purposes to which he wants to put it. When talking about what "we" are or are not adapted for, or what "our ancestors" evolved to do, one cannot simply speak so vaguely.

Which human species are Maxson referring to? The australopithecines? The paranthropus? H. heidelbergensis, believed to be the common ancestor of both our species and H. neanderthalensis?

It matters, because hominin species have developed in a wide range of habitats and climatic conditions across a large slice of geologic time, and have exploited a varied range of fallback food and preferred food strategies. If we aim to figure out precisely how important meat-eating was to the evolution of modern human anatomy, we have to speak with more precision. Specificity brings clarity, especially in scientific discussions.

There is a broad tendency for people to talk about all of these human species as though they are all equally relevant to the evolution of H. sapiens. Vegans and carnists alike are equally guilty on this score, each camp cherry-picking the traits or species that seem most suitable to their respective bias, often with little regard for the actual patterns and context of the fossil record.

Vegans, for instance, will highlight the apparent dependence of (some) australopithecines on roots and tubers that grew on Pleistocene savannahs, ignoring everything that happened in the following 2 million years.

Likewise, carnists will invoke, say, the heavy meat-dependence of H. neanderthalensis, with no regard to the fact that Neanderthals are not our ancestors. Or, they will point to chimpanzees hunting and killing small game, without explaining how such behavior has shaped chimp (let alone human) evolution.

This is insufficient in both cases, at least if our goal is to inform the debate with actual science.

Who Cares What Species X Ate?
Finally, Maxson seeks to argue that "a plant-based diet is most definitely the natural diet of Homo sapiens." I'm glad he didn't write, "veganism is most definitely the natural diet of Homo sapiens," because while the first statement might approach plausibility, the second one is flatly absurd.

Yes, you read that right. A vegan just wrote that veganism is not the natural human diet. And he'll now write that the "paleo-diet" isn't, either.

As a scientist(-in-training), I am skeptical that there is any such thing as a "natural human diet." True, our species possesses a suite of characters inherited from (largely) frugivorous primate ancestors. It's true, also, that our species has for its entire history hunted and killed other animals for food. Neither of these facts, however, (nor any of the many others that each "side" in this debate can muster) implies something about what's "natural" for us to eat.

I realize that Maxson hasn't forthrightly stated that veganism is our natural diet, but his whole argument seems to rest on that implication. As does, it should be noted again, the bulk of his opponents' arguments with regard to their particular diet ideology (i.e., "paleo"-dieters argue we should eat animals because our ancestors did).

The problem is that both lines of argument rest on the naturalistic fallacy. From the ethical perspective of modern humans in modern situations, what our prehistoric ancestors did is irrelevant. So what if australopithecines were mostly herbivorous? So what if Cro-Magnons hunted and ate bison? We are not living in their world or facing their challenges.

From a biological perspective, it's certainly true that humans have a fundamental need for specific nutrients. But that by itself doesn't mean we have a need for (let alone an obligation, either biological or ethical, to eat) specific nutrient sources. Neither meat nor vegetables possess magic powers, and we have come far enough technologically to make the question moot, anyway. There are supplements for everything.

Further, it's a mistake to assume (as both camps here often do) that because we have such a biological need, that need was somehow being met in our ancestors' daily diets. It's entirely likely that our ancestor species, like most others, passed on their genes by living just long enough to ensure their offspring survived to sexual maturity. That's good enough, as far as evolution is concerned. Natural selection doesn't care if you've met all your daily nutritional requirements; it just needs you to make sure your kids live long enough to fuck.

I'm dubious about all arguments from an appeal to nature, whether from vegans or carnists. Among vegans, it often seems to signal a reluctance to face the facts about our species. It's as though they think accepting H. sapiens' meat-eating and hunting past somehow weakens the moral argument for animal rights. I don't think it does, any more than the long history of human slavery weakens the moral argument against servitude. One does not need to deny the historical reality of slavery to argue that slavery is wrong. Same thing applies to animal-eating.

Veganism is an entirely modern philosophy, and there is nothing to wrong with that. Attempts to reverse-engineer it into our history and our evolution are doomed to failure, and only weaken our case in the long run when properly-skeptical listeners check our factual claims and find them wanting.

Vegans should, in my opinion, always engage non-vegans on moral and ethical grounds first, only resorting to "health" arguments when they're actually on our side.

Of course, the natural sciences can inform our ethics, but we should all have learned by now that biology is not destiny. Vegans argue that humans descend from a long, herbivorous ancestry, and that many of the traits of that ancestry are reflected in our anatomy. Carnists retort that cavemen met many of their nutritional needs by eating meat, and that meat-eating might have shaped some aspects of our physical evolution.

You know what? They're both right. Personally, I think neither side will ever win the debate over H. sapiens' "natural" diet, because no such thing exists. We might as well, someone once said, debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

And from an animal-rights perspective (the basis of my personal commitment to veganism), it's a pointless argument, anyway. The primary goal of the vegan movement is -- or ought to be -- saving nonhuman animals from exploitation. I don't see how trying to prove veganism is "natural" helps that goal.

12 April 2011

What Everyone Should Know About Paleontology

I often forget that the basics of geology and paleontology are not common knowledge; thus, blanks in discussion don't get filled in where they should, and people have trouble connecting the dots.

Thankfully, the question "What Should Everyone Know About Paleontology" recently came up on the Dinosaur Mailing List, and Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., supplied a very comprehensive answer. Crurotarsi: The Forgotten Archosaurs has the full article.

It's henceforth required reading for this blog.

Son Of PaleoVeganology

Quite rashly, I deleted this blog a few weeks ago, because I was feeling swamped and something had to give. But, I have reconsidered my actions, and decided I made a mistake.

Apologies to my readers. I will try to pick things back up in a few days. If you're still reading this, please spread the word.