Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

This morning, I decided to subject myself to some creationist programming on one of the religious channels that every American gets with a basic TV package. I don’t know why I do this, but I consider learning what creationists do– and do both deceptively and wrongly–a great exercise in understanding my own epistemology.

The most important thing to understand about creationism, whether it is the Kent Hovind, 6,000-year-old earth type or the more sophisticated intelligent design type, is the fundamental exercise is not understanding scientific findings. Instead, it is about protecting the authority of scripture from scientific findings. The Hovind types are about denying science, wile the ID types are more into a sort syncretism between the findings of science and the need to have faith. This same sort of syncretism exists with religious people who accept evolution, too, but the intelligent design types often are a bit more into making sense of scripture and science than the theistic evolutionists.

So whenever you are subjected to creationist or intelligent design pontifications, you need to understand they are much more concerned with defending scripture against scientific findings than creating any kind of parallel scientific hypothesis that could ever compete with those of peer-reviewed science.

This particular creationist segment was concerned about speciation, and it was definitely from the school of thought that a Kent Hovind would appreciate. Because biologists do not have a hard and fast definition of species– a strength of the discipline, if you ask me–creationists are able to play games with what a species is. The piece talked about how they accepted that all the breeds of dog derived from a wolf ancestor, but then it started getting dishonest.

It showed how biologists think of lions and tigers as distinct species, but they can sometimes interbreed. However, unlike mixed breed dogs, the ligers are often sterile. The narrator of the piece didn’t seem to get that this sterility is how we know that lions and tigers are different species, because no scientist alive believes that two animals that produce offspring in which fertility is limited to this degree belong to the same species.

Instead, the narrator skipped over this glaring problem and began to explain that breeds of dog and tigers and lions were obviously derived from the same kind, and the reason why ligers are often sterile is because of a sort of hyped up “evolution” that happened after Noah’s flood.

It is certainly true that dog breeds are far more morphologically variable than lions and tigers are from each other, but dogs have a good reason for this morphological variation. They have some odd characteristics to their genomes that allow them to respond to selection pressures in rather dramatic ways. Thus, dogs vary a lot in terms of their morphology, but they don’t vary as much genetically as lions and tigers do from each other. Molecular evidence points to all extant dogs radiating within the past 15,000 years, and although some experts would put that date a bit further back, it is nowhere near the 4 million years estimated for the most recent common ancestor lions and tigers.

I don’t know how creationists square this problem, except to say that mutation rates are so much higher in some of these “species” than in others. But the mutation rate you’d have to have to match the millions of years of divergence between tiger and lion lineages would not be biologically possible. I image that the genetic load from deleterious mutations would be too much to sustain either lineage.

But that’s not what the creationists in this piece discussed. Instead, they came up with an entire theory called “polyphyletic decent.” The “kinds” of animal that came off the ark diverged into the things resembling species in phylogenetic trees that look a lot like the ones real scientists use to describe evolutionary relationships. However, unlike those phylogenetic trees there is no implication of connection between “kinds.” They are trees growing out of a single stem that diversified.

Evolution is based upon monophyletic decent. That’s why the argument that creationists often make where they posit the absurdity of an organism giving birth to another species is quite ridiculous. All living things evolve out of a particular lineage. Nothing evolves out of it. Humans will always be great apes, which will always be Old World primates, which will always be simiiformes, which will always be haplorhines, which will always be euarchontoglires, which will always be boreoeutherians, which will always be placentalian, which will always be therian mammals.

This is why so many taxonomists work hard to ensure that organisms are classified according to their descent. This descent can be traced through the morphology of the organism as well as its molecular biology.

If the creationists were right about this “polyphyletic descent” hypothesis, then you would be able to find organisms for which one can find no DNA sequences in common with any other. And one has not been found yet.

So creationists have a new thing to play around with. It will never gain acceptance among scientists.

But that is not the point. The point of creationism is to defend scripture’s inerrancy against scientific findings. It is an exercise in defending faith, not in trying to understand that which the rigors of the scientific method has revealed.

And once you understand this difference, it makes total sense why scientists don’t debate creationists. The two disciplines are trying to do entirely different things, which are not equivalent to each other. One is trying to understand the material world using measures and data that verified, while the other is trying to defend supernatural beliefs that can never be verified.

I guess I go by the Bible and say by its fruits, it will be known. The scientific method has produced all the technological advancements that have made modern life what it is. It has increased our knowledge about our place in the world and in the cosmos. Defending scripture against what science has revealed has produced little but adhering the truly faithful to the religion a bit more strongly and made a few charlatans infinitely rich. But it has not advanced us one iota, and in this current epoch, it is holding us back from confronting global problems like climate change and mass extinctions. If you can deny evolution, which is quite obvious, then you have the intellectual skill-set to deny what climate scientists are saying.

We live in an era of tribal realities. What one accepts as true depends upon which tribe one belongs. If you’re a conservative Christian in the United States, you have a different understanding of how the world is than virtually anyone else in the Western World. Part of the reason for this disconnect is that white conservative Christianity is losing the demographics battle in the United States. And in this loss in demographics is this tendency to turn to those ideas and individuals who might restore their former advantage. Belief in fundamentalist Christianity might somehow bring down the divine, which could restore it all with a miracle, and belief in Donald Trump might work out, too, because he will be nasty to all those people who are taking away this demographic advantage.

Time will eventually remove this madness from our society, but while it is there, it will do some damage. And for the climate, we don’t have that much time.

All I can do, then, is use my voice to make some sense to a few more people, and hope, the dismal tide turns sooner rather than later.

Advertisements

Community dog

Source.

He was the kind of dog you get not because you’re looking for him. He was the kind you get when some neighbor up the road had a litter and soon found himself in a tizzy trying to find homes for them. He was the kind brought home on muddy April afternoon to wait leaping and screaming for the farm kids to come home from school, where they would behold their new prize.

Yes, Jocko was that kind of dog. The above paragraph was his childhood autobiography, and like most farm collie-type dogs in the foothills of West Virginia’s Alleghenies, he wandered the land most of the day. He learned not to chase chickens or worry sheep, but he knew how to jump a rabbit or grouse for the shotgun. He knew how to tree a squirrel or a corn-raiding raccoon, and he could put the cows out of the big vegetable patch or the apple orchard.

Every farmer in the little hamlet knew Jocko and new him well. He was the dog you called on when you gut-shot a deer and needed the expertise of a fine tracker to follow its death course through the briers and brush. He was the dog that lined your hound bitches, and though you coursed the crossing, you half-hoped the collie-ish genes would add a bit of sagacity to the mongrel pups.

He would roll in cow-pies with reckless abandon, but he savored the road apples of horses, savoring their sweet stink as he downed them through his collie maw.

When the coyotes howled at night, he gave back his domestic cursing barks. “Dare not tread here, you wild fiends!” the surliness in his voice seemed to say.

When he spied their scat on forest trails, he’d lift high his left hind-leg, piss out a few drops of urine, and then kick up the leaves in territorial disgust.

Every weekday afternoon, he’d mosey to the bus house where the farm children were dropped off. He’d wag and lick their hands softly, and then follow them back to their homes. He knew that his domain ended where the black-top began, a bit he learned through only his collie intuition and nothing else. So though he came to take the children home, he never once wandered into highway where the cats and opossums perished by the score.

For twelve years, this creature served man in his own way. He lived the life of a domestic servant but was still wild and unknown. He was the way dogs were not so long ago, before we turned them into caricatures of what they really are.

In the winter of that twelfth year, his ears and eyes were failing him, and now he felt the weakness that comes from cancer of the spleen.

And they euthanized him beneath the sweeping veil of the old ash tree, itself dying hard from the work of those invasive borers. In a year, a summer storm would make it fall to the ground, but for now, its shadow would the lawn where the old dog was put to rest.

A few old farmers came by to pay their respects. They’d tell his owners about the groundhogs the old boy had killed or how they’d loved the way the dog had walked their little girl home from school. They tell these stories and choke back a few gruff tears.

But so few came to mourn the old dog. The children of the farms had moved on to what they thought were better things. They worked in factories, sailed ships, tried cases, and treated wounds in hospitals. They didn’t work the cattle or feed the chickens as their mothers and father had.

And with their removal to the newer world, the community of farms began to die. Progress can be a cancer in the spleen of a collie, but it can be the uplift to a higher plain of human conscience, one that sees us as united with all the rest of humanity and all the rest of life in a common purpose of survival.

And so we do not keep dogs like Jocko this way anymore. We have leash laws and dog wardens. We keep them in fenced yards.

A few of those transplanted farm people keep a collie or even an English shepherd in the suburbs and dream that this dog would somehow become Jocko. But try as the dog might, it will never be Jocko. It will be a mere facsimile of what was once and will never be again.

Better in some ways. Worse in others. But not ever the same.

We think of caribou as being an arctic species. We know all about the vast herds of Alaska and the barren lands of Canada, but the truth of their range once came much deeper to the south.

South of those famous barren ground caribou are those caribou that inhabit the boreal forest, the great taiga that runs across the northern tier of Eurasia and North America. There are many herds of caribou in the North American stretch of this forest, and these caribou are often called “woodland caribou” to differentiate them from the arctic herds.

But woodland caribou were not always restrained to the boreal forest. They came into what are called the “mixed woodlands” that lie in transition between the boreal forests and the widespread temperate forests of mid-latitude North America. Caribou ranged through virtually all of Canada and also into the northern tier of states. They were found in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and northeastern New York State. They also ranged through northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin. the UP of Michigan, and the northern tip of the LP of Michigan.

Those herds of northern New England, New York and the Great Lakes states have disappeared long ago. The last of these southern herds ranged down into Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington State.

These herds, too, dwindled away until only a single herd existed in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Eastern Washington, and British Columbia. For most of my life, the last herd of woodland caribou to wander down into the Lower 48 were of this South Selkirk herd.

Over the past few years, the caribou in this herd have dwindled down. , These caribou live in an inland rainforest, where they specialize in eating tree lichens grow only in this old growth forest. Logging and road-building have destroyed much of the good lichen-growing habitat, and snow mobiles disturb the caribou from their grounds. Wolves, which have recolonized the area, have also been blamed for reduced the caribou herds.

This spring, the entire herd had been reduced to just three individuals, all cows. And now, just one exists. This single cow was just recently captured, and British Columbia has placed her in a breeding facility in hopes of getting her genes into captive caribou that could potentially be reintroduced to the wild.

Attempts have been made to bring woodland caribou to the Selkirks to add genetic diversity, but caribou from other areas are not as well-adapted to the Selkirk forests.

Caribou are much like sheep raised in traditional ways in England and Scotland. The sheep of Scotland and Northern England have been running their ranges for centuries. They know the best grazing at the right time of the year, and they do not typically leave the ranges to which they have been so adapted. Such sheep are called “hefted” to the land, and if environmental or agricultural policy in the UK were to close down traditional sheep grazing, the sheep would ultimately lose their knowledge about living on the land. Enclosing sheep make them lose much of their historical sheep know-how.

The end of this South Selkirk herd ends much of the caribou know-how to these inland temperate rainforests. The remaining cow has been placed with a similarly “hefted” herd of caribou from another mountain range in British Columbia, called the Purcell. These caribou are very similar to those of the Selkirk Mountains, and if this cow mixes well with these caribou, then there may be hope of someday restoring them to these mountains.

But as it stands right now, we have no more caribou in the Lower 48. Gone from Maine, Michigan, and now Idaho, their grunts will not be heard in our northern tier for a long time.

Maybe never.

As someone who does support wolf recovery as much as possible, I was always open to some limited wolf controls in the region where these caribou ranged. Wolves would not have made much a difference had the rainforests of the Selkirks remained largely intact, but the downfall of the original old growth forests made wolf predation an adversity the caribou couldn’t handle.

So the wolves will do fine as avatars of wilderness. But the caribou have slipped off into the misty fogs of history, perhaps never to return again.

Clive enjoyed his snowy walk this morning.

Big snow

We got a big snow last night. The dogs enjoyed frolicking in the aftermath.


Photo by Alexander Badyaev

It’s no secret that I have a bit of infatuation the canids in the genus Urocyon. Not only are they considered the most basal form of extant canid, it is very likely that there are multiple cryptic species in the genus that need more molecular and morphological investigations to ascertain.

These canids are unique among North American dogs in that they are great tree climbers. Indeed, they are the most arboreal of all dogs. While the raccoon dogs of the Old World certainly do climb with their long hooked claws, the gray foxes take to the trees as readily as cats do.

A few years ago, I came across these images of some Southwestern gray foxes climbing in trees that were adorned with skeletons. I initially thought they had been placed in these trees to attract the foxes to the trail camera, and I pretty much ignored them.

But today, I was snooping around the web in search of the latest stories on gray foxes, and I came across the full story of these images. It turns out that the gray foxes of the Sonoran Desert often cache prey and scavenged food items in trees to keep them safe from coyotes. They use these “skeleton trees” as places where the whole family group gets together to groom and bond and rearrange their caches.

The most unusual photo from the series shows a gray fox standing on a branch where it has placed a dead collared peccary (javelina) “piglet.” The adults of this species are so much larger and so much more aggressive than any gray fox, and I cannot help but wonder how the gray fox managed to catch such a trophy. It had to have taken some guts if the fox caught it on the run, but the researcher who got these photos claims that the foxes do trail peccaries in hopes of snatching a little one.

Lots of research goes into wolves and coyotes. They are the charismatic canids of North America, and both North American and Old World red foxes have also been extensively studied.

But gray foxes don’t get that same billing, and that is pretty sad. They are not like the short-eared dog of South America, where they intentionally live as far from human settlements as possible and are quite difficult to study. Gray foxes are pretty common in North America, if you live south of Canada and outside of the Northern Rockies and the Northern Great Plains of the United States.

I think the name has something to do with it. The name “gray fox” has a connotation with something drab and bland, while “red fox” has a spicier feel.

One implication of the recent finding of the potential existence of two species of gray fox on the North America mainland is that the proposed Western species might derive from an Irvingintonian Urocyon that is not ancestral to the proposed Eastern species.

This analysis was derived from a limited mitochondrial DNA analysis and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it seems likely that at least two species really do exist on this continent. More work from the full genome needs to be performed, and my guess is this research is currently being performed. The article might be out in peer-review right now, and one day, we’ll know for sure.

But there is something mysterious about these little canids. They are move like little cat-dogs, and in the Southwest, at least, they are little dog-leopards, caching their prey in trees where the coyotes can’t go.

The more we know about these lesser dogs, the more they intrigue me. Indeed, the whole lesser parts of Carnivora have me a bit enthralled. The tiger is largely known, as is the wolf, but the mysteries lie with the Eastern spotted skunk in the High Alleghenies of West Virginia, with the long-tailed weasels of canyon lands of New Mexico, and with the bat-eared foxes of the Kalahari.

So now, we must consider the meek and the mild and drab. We must now come to know them, to let their mysteries be revealed in all their glory. We will be shocked, I’m sure

Coursing in Ireland

I will be doing this soon enough, but with a whippet that will be sent after a plastic bag.

The hares being coursed and then cared for in this video are Irish hares, which are a unique subspecies of mountain or blue hare that is endemic to Ireland.

We do not have a hare for coursing in most of the Eastern US, so we’re bag chasers. There are some European brown hares that were introduced to New York State, and those would be the nearest coursing hares to me.

Snowshoe hares live deep in the coverts of mountain laurel and are usually taken with the use of beagles and basset hounds.

%d bloggers like this: