Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

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.

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brush wolf

It cannot be overstated how much the discovery that coyotes are not as distantly related to wolves as we believed ultimately questions our entire understanding of the evolution of the Canis species.

The traditional understanding Canis species evolved from some form of Eucyon dog some six million years ago. Wang and Tedford, who wrote the most important book on the paleontology of the dog family, believe this was Eucyon davisi, which was the first of its genus to enter Eurasia. The genus Eucyon is where the common ancestor of the Canis dogs (including Lycaon and Cuon) and the South American wild dogs would be located. Eucyon dogs were small. Imagine them as being something like a black-backed jackal or a Hoary fox rather than a coyote.

Then, 5 million years later in the Southwestern US and northern Mexico, a coyote-like Canis evolved, which was called Canis lepophagus. This animal is sometimes considered the common ancestor of wolves and coyotes. It may be, but considering how close we now know wolves and coyotes are now, it’s not the most recent common ancestor. Canis lepophagus did migrate into Eurasia, where it either founded or is identical to Canis arnensis.

In Eurasia, several smaller jackal-to-coyote forms evolved. One of these was Canis estruscus,  which then evolved into Canis mosbachensis (which is called Canis variabilis in China).

Ron Nowak believed the red wolf was an offshoot of this wolf that wound up colonizing North America and then becoming isolated from the rest of Canis mobachensis when the ice sheets expanded. There was also a competing view that the red wolf was actually a remnant version of Canis edwardii or Canis priscolatrans (which were probably the same animal). This animal was roughly the size of a red wolf, but Nowak rejected it as a red wolf ancestor because it lived too early for what he thought were red wolf fossils.

The Eurasian wolf species evolved mosbachensis-variabilis, but the two forms of wolf shared habitat and likely exchanged genes, making it very difficult

The coyote’s evolution was never clear. It was thought to have evolved out of Canis lepophagus. It was thought that lepophagus evolved into edwardii, and then it began to become more gracile and smaller, eventually becoming the now coyote.  It’s now pretty clear that it evolved out of the Eurasian Canis lupus and not these endemic North American “wolves.”

It either evolved from the modern wolf, which evolved into roughly its current form 800,000 years ago, or it came from a late surviving mosbachensis-type wolves that were regularly crossing with modern wolves before they came into this continent. Maybe the remains that Nowak had been considering “red wolves,” were actually these ancestral wolves that were evolving into the modern coyote.

Maybe when this wave of wolves came back across from Eurasia, perhaps 50,000-100,000 years ago, it came into a world already dominated by a dire wolves, which already occupied the niche for large, pack hunting canids and this wave of Canis lupus evolved as the American jackal.  After all, the bobcat is just a diminutive Eurasian lynx that found itself in a very similar position when it came into this continent, and it evolved to be a smaller animal that generally hunts smaller quarry than its larger ancestor. Of course, the modern bobcat didn’t reach its current form until about 20,000 years ago, but it still was forced to adapt to a slightly different niche than its Eurasian ancestor.

In literature on the paleontology of Canis, there is a heated debate as to how these animals all fit. The conventional view is that the wolf evolved from Canis mosbachensis/variabilis through Canis etruscus, which may be the same thing as Canis edwardii/ Canis priscolatrans. Wang and Tedford contend that the coyote and wolf split from Eucyon.  The modern wolf evolved from Canis chihliensis, which was a large wolf-like canid. It spread into North America to found Canis armbrusteri, which then evolved into the dire wolf (Canis dirus) in North America and Canis gezi and Canis nehringi in South America.  In the Old World, another offshoot of chihliensis gave rise to Canis falconeri, which the supposedly gave rise to the Xencyon, which is supposed ancestor of the dhole and African wild dog. Another view holds that the Armbruster’s wolf (C armbrusteri) is descended from edwardii/priscolatrans (which may be the same as etruscus). This lineage then gave rise to the dire wolf and the two sister species in South America, thus descending solely from North America wolves.

All of these ideas come from paleontology, and they pretty much are done without looking very deeply into the studies that are examining the DNA of these species. It is pretty obvious from that literature that the notion that coyotes and wolves split at the time of the Eucyon ancestor is quite wrong. For that hypothesis to work, African of  wild dogs and dholes would have to be genetically closer to wolves than coyotes and golden jackals are. They aren’t.

But if the genome-wide analysis shows that coyotes are so much more closely related to wolves is true, then all these fossil and subfossil canids that are said to be the most recent common ancestor of wolves and coyotes simply aren’t.  Instead, all of these species that are classified in Canis are likely a mix of evolutionary dead ends, like the dire and Armbruster’s wolf, or could be hidden ancestors of extant canids that aren’t wolves or coyotes.

For example, black-backed and side-striped jackals diverged from the rest of Canis and its allies at about the same time that Eucyon was diverging from Canis. It is possible that there are many relatives of these particular dogs that are hidden in this vast sea of Canis fossils.

The new discovery about the coyote’s split from the wolf also means that any remains of North American canid that are listed as coyote that date to 1 million years before present are not coyotes. What they actually were is a very good question.

We’ve spent a lot of time assuming that coyotes and wolves were quite divergent. We know now that they really aren’t, but when we look into the past at all the “wolves” and “coyotes” that came before, we see how this genus became so successful. It can easily evolve into big game-hunting forms, but the real success is in its ability to assume the size and shape of the generalist predator. Phenotypic plasticity is a wonderful thing for a lineage to possess.

But the real message of the new discovery about wolves and coyotes should be is a cautionary tale about paleontology. Paleontology is a wonderful science, and it makes amazing discoveries every day, but when its faced with a lineage of animals where phenotypic plasticity and tendencies toward parallel and convergent evolution are commonplace, it is bound to make errors. Paleontologists aren’t examining flesh and blood that can have its molecules tested for relationships. They are measuring anatomical characters and determining phylogenetic relationships based upon the similarities of these characters.

Which works well.

Until you get something like wolves and coyotes, where there are many ancient fossil and subfossil remains that look like they could be ancestors of either.

But the DNA says they aren’t.

And paleontology would have problem catching the inverse. There are many species that we’ve discovered only through DNA testing. African butterfly fish in the Congo and Niger basins look identical to each other, but they have been isolated from each other for 57 million years. I have yet to see this species split into two, but if they were mammals, you could bet they would be placed in distinct species in heartbeat.

Paleontology is missing some really important things we’ve since found out through molecular analyses.

And paleontologists know this.

They are working with the data they have, and by definition, it’s going to be more incomplete than genetic studies.

Science is provisional. Different disciplines and methodologies are going to come up with different answers. It’s pretty amazing that one genome-wide assay study can wipe out so much literature in paleontology.

These debates have been raging for years.

And it turns out that everyone was actually wrong.

Update 21 August 2016:  It turns out that I missed a paper that actually did some limited DNA analysis and found that Canis nehringi was pretty much a South American dire wolf, as in it was likely the same species as the North American dire wolf. Canis gezi, however, was  more closely related to the modern maned wolf and had been incorrectly identified as a wolf. So let this stand as a correction to the error above.


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Canis cedazoensis

Canis cedazoensis was an early species of the wolf-coyote-jackal tribe. It lived what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico until 300,000 years ago. It probably scavenged kills of bigger predators and lifted off the fawns of the various species of pronghorn.

Conventionally, we believed that the lineage from which this jackal-like canid gave rise to the wolf, the coyote, and the golden jackal. We based these assessments on comparative morphology from fossil and subfossil remains, and it all made sense.

These jackal-like forms entered Eurasia and Africa. They gave rise to the Xenocyon, the first wolf-like canid to evolve of this lineage.  The Xenocyon gave rise to the dhole and the African wild dog. Then the actual wolves evolved in Eurasia, and they walked back into North America to found the Armbruster’s wolf and the Dire wolf. They spread to South America, and endemic North American wolves, Canis edwardii and the putative red wolf evolved out of an unrelated jackal-like line.

The coyote descended from some sort of jackal-like canid in North America and a least a million years of evolution separates the coyote from the modern gray wolf.

The most recent study that examined full genomes of various wolves, dogs, and coyotes revealed that the separation between coyotes and gray wolves happened only 50,000 years ago. This finding pretty much destroys all this thinking.

We’ve conventionally thought of the lineage starting out with jackal-like forms that evolve into wolf-like forms, but the truth is we have a lineage that started out with jackal-like forms. Wolf-like forms evolved at least twice from this lineage, and jackal-like forms have evolved from wolf-like forms as well.

What we’ve missed that just as the Xenocyon and the dhole and African wild dog have evolved into wolf-like forms in parallel to actual wolves, the real story of Canis is that there has been a constant tension between selection for wolf-like traits and jackal-like traits. The coyote is a wolf that has re-adapted itself to the jackal-like form. To become a jackal is to become a generalist again. To evolve towards the wolf is become an apex predator and be forced to hunt for large game to survive.

What we know from the fossil record is the story of wolves and dogs and coyotes and their kin is that it began with “jackals.”  Paleontology says that North America is where this story got started, but the oldest species in this lineage of dogs lives in Africa.

I would love to know the full story.

Canis cedazoensis is a creature lost to time. If we could see one, maybe we know some answers. Maybe we would see something very much like a black-backed jackal. Maybe it would answer some questions.

And it would probably raise more.

Yet more of the mystery to which we should humble ourselves.

It began with jackals, and in the Anthropocene, it may end with them as well. The coyote and Eurasian jackal have continued to spread their range. The coyote is from from Alaska and Newfoundland to Panama– on its way to Colombia. The Eurasian jackal (the “golden jackal,” as it is normally called) spreads north and west through Europe. Both are generalists of the jackal type.

Phenotypic plasticity and convergent evolution have played quite a game with this part of the dog family.

Science is always provisional, and often takes just one profound discovery to turn over the apple cart.

And oh, has it been turned!












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velvet claw

If you probably couldn’t tell from reading this blog, carnivoran evolution and natural history is one of my passions.

Where did all of this get started? I’d say sometime in the mid-90s. I used to watch A&E’s old Wildlife Mysteries series on Thursday nights. These were mostly very high quality wildlife documentaries and a lot of them were BBC productions.

Some of these films were shown in a series called “Carnivores.” It was about the evolution of the order Carnivora, minus the pinnipeds. And I loved it.

The series was based upon the work of David MacDonald, a carnivoran specialist and conservation biologist at Oxford.

In the UK, it was shown as “The Velvet Claw,” which is one reason I’ve had a few problems finding even clips of it online.

And for a long time, all that we could see are short clips, but now, well, it’s been uploaded in full.  Here is the entire series on Youtube.

I don’t know how long it’s going to be up, so you’d better watch it soon.

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sumatran rhino

A few days ago, I had a discussion on Facebook with someone about Sumatran rhinoceroses and why they were still hairy. I had posted one of Frans de Waal’s photos of a Sumatra rhino calf, and as calves go, it was very shaggy.

The discussion got to a really interesting question, which I think points out to a misunderstanding of the mechanisms by which evolution happens. The discussion went something like this:

“Sumatran rhinos are hairy. Therefore, there must be some reason they are hairy. Otherwise, there would be selection against having lots of hair in jungles of Southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sumatra.”

The answer I had was that the Sumatran rhino is the closest living relative to the extinct woolly rhino. Woolly rhinos were quite well-furred out, and it’s possible even now for animals to retain primitive traits. You hear people talking all the time about living fossils, but there is usually no understanding that a 20 million-year-old shark that looks very similar to living species most likely is incapable of reproducing with that living species (if the two were made to live contemporaneously with each other.)

The error is in assuming that a trait an animal possesses is always a benefit to it. This is a corollary of thinking the evolutions happens through natural selection alone, when it is actually only one way that it happens. (And it’s actually not the main way).

The truth is the Sumatran rhino is nothing more– or less– than the last survivor a lineage of rhinos that retained their furry bodies of their tapir-like ancestors. (And Sumatran rhinos aren’t even that hairy!).

And it should be noted that there are plenty of mammals in the Sumatran rhino’s range that have much furrier bodies.

Evolution isn’t planned out. It can only work with what genetic material is available in the population. Assuming that Sumatran rhinos retain their excessive fur only because it has some advantage to them is putting the cart before the horse.

Now, there is a possibility that there is some advantage for these rhinos to retain the very furred up bodies. I’ve not seen any literature that explores this possibility, but the fact that this animal is so closely related to the woolly rhino kind of provides the best explanation. This animal retains a primitive trait solely because that’s what its ancestors were. It just can’t magically evolve a relatively hairless body.

So always be careful in assuming that a trait exists solely because there is some advantage to it. That’s a real problem in our popular understanding of evolution.

Be very careful of putting the cart before the horse. Sometimes a trait is advantageous. It’s often just neutral.

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Not dinosaurs and not lizards either.


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Does Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) believe in evolution?


Senator Johnson has not yet issued an official response.

I bet he doesn’t because we learned from a “great Republican scientist” named Rafael Cruz that evolution was nothing more than a communist scheme.  Rafael’s son is the Canadian-born Senator from Texas who is the poster boy for everything that is wrong with right wing America.

Update: When I started writing this at 6:20 AM, there was no answer. At 6:30, there was. He does believe in evolution! There is hope after all!





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A spotted hyena pseudo-penis. Source for image.

A spotted hyena pseudo-penis. Source for image.

I woke up this morning to check the comments on the blog. I normally do not close comments for older posts, and I often forget about the posts I wrote several years ago.

Some of them have never generated particularly good comments, and this particular one, which is not particularly profound or well-writen, is simply entitled Hyenas are not dogs. They are actually more closely related to cats.

The comments on there are pretty picayune and banal. The post was pretty picayune and banal, so what else would I expect?

Well, when I woke up this morning, I came across this gem, which I have to say is the worst creationist argument I’ve ever seen!

Here it is in all its glory:

Sorry, Hyenas are dogs. I do not care what you say. Evolution is a theory and has never been proven. Hyenas are not cats, and are not related to ferrets, weasels, civets, are any other animal. They are dogs plain and simple. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck its a duck. Weasels, ferrets, civets, mongoose etc., do not look like dogs. Rest my case. Hyenas are dogs.

I hope this person is just acting a Poe.

It’s hard to tell with these creationists though. It really is.

I am having a hard time reading it without having blood vessels pop out.

First of all a ferret or a weasel is a Caniform Carnivoran. Caniforms are all closely related to dogs, though they are much closer in resemblance to primitive Caniformia than Canids (“the dog family”) are. The fact that they look like mongooses is really quite irrelevant.

Secondly, spotted hyenas look nothing like dogs, and only a really superficial examination of striped and brown hyenas would lead one to believe that they are anything like a dog. I know that the German and Afrikaans-speaking settlers to southern Africa called the brown hyena a “strandwolf.” The term means “beach wolf,” which is in reference to the ubiquity of brown hyenas along the Skeleton Coast, where they scavenge flotsam and jetsam and sometimes hunt fur seal pups. They were called wolves for the same reason that the same people called a giant antelope a moose. The eland antelope species of Africa are actually named after the Dutch/Afrikaans word for moose, which is eland. And it wasn’t just the eland antelope. Gemsbok, a type of oryx, share the same name with the chamois of Europe. Steenbok is the Dutch name for the Alpine Ibex. Rhebok are named for the Dutch/Afrikaans name for the European roe deer.  All of these animals antelope, but none of their European namesakes are.

They also called the spotted hyena the “tiger wolf.”

But people giving animals inappropriate common names is pretty common in just about every language. What we call a moose, the Europeans call an elk. What I call a robin is more closely relate to a European blackbird than to the European robin.

So ignore the names.

Let’s talk phylogeny.

Dogs and hyenas really don’t look that much like each other. All living species of hyenas, except the aardwolf (another misnamed “wolf”), have evolved a bone crushing capability in their jaws that no living dog has. However, in North America, there were once dogs that had this bone crushing capability. These dogs, called the Borophaginae (“bone crushers” or “bone eaters”) live between 36—2.5 million years ago in North America. Some of them were giants, and many were quite well-adapted eating the bones of megafauna.

No living dog is a true bone-eater. They will eat bones, but they will never crush them with efficiency of any species of hyena or one of those Borophagine dogs. (If you want to find out more about the evolution of bone crushing in Borophaginae and hyenas, check out this lecture at the Royal Tyrell Museum. It’s very fascinating.)

Then there is the DNA. We’ve been able to construct phylogenetic trees based upon genetic material. Every study that has examine Carnivoran DNA has placed hyenas with the Feliformia. They are most closely related to the true civets, which is the family Viverridae. They did evolve into something like a dog, and if you watch that lecture at the Royal Tyrell Museum, you’ll see that more primitive forms of hyena actually looked a lot more like dogs than modern ones do.

When phylogenetic trees are drawn from DNA samples, dogs fit with bears and seals (and the walrus and “eared seals”).

Hyenas and dogs are out of two entirely different lineages that split about 42 million years ago.

The fact that they superficially look alike is not evidence of a common designer at all.

The big difference between dogs and spotted hyenas in particular is their social structure. All dog societies, save domestic dogs and some red foxes, are base upon a mated pair in which there are no great size or phenotypical differences between males and females. In spotted hyena societies, the females are larger and have dominance over the males. Status is inherited from mother to daughter, which does not happen in any species of dog.

And one way the females maintain their dominance is through a fluke in their anatomy. Female spotted hyenas have genitalia that strongly resembles a male’s penis, but it’s actually the clitoris. And it’s through this tube that female spotted hyenas urinate, copulate, and give birth through this pseudo-penis. Female hyenas have absolute control over mating because they can move this “device” to prevent copulation. All a female dog can do is sit down with her tail between her legs and growl.

No dog species has this feature.

The only other mammal that has anything like this is the fossa of Madagascar. It is sort of a mongoose that became a cat. The females of this species are born with a pseudo-penis that becomes a “normal” clitoris as the animal mature.

Fossas were once thought to be civets, but like all Malagasy carnivorans, they are now believed to be more closely related to mongooses.

But it really doesn’t matter. Both mongooses and civets are Feliformia, as is the hyena.

And it does point to common ancestry, even if the rest of their relatives do not have this feature.

A spotted hyena is not a dog with a pseudo-penis.

This same argument if taken even further would lead one to believe that a thylacine was nothing more than a wolf with a pouch on it.

Thylacines looked a lot like wolves. (See this page at the Thylacine Museum to see how similar they were). Even trained anatomists have mistaken thylacine remains for those of wolves.

They actually looked much more like dogs than hyenas do.

And they are absolutely not related to dogs at all!

They are most closely related to either the quolls, which look like miniature arboreal thylacines, or to the numbat, which looks like a thylacine that evolved into an anteater. (It eats nothing but termites, but it has the anteater’s long tongue!)

These animals are all marsupials. They share no close ancestors with dogs or anteaters or cat or any placental mamals at all.

The split between placental and marsupial mammals is even more distant– at least 125 million years ago.

Why do they look the same?

Because natural selection required that these animals evolve similar bodies to fill somewhat similar niches. (Though it should be noted that thylacines actually did behave more like big cats than wolves.)

Believe it or not, this dog-like form has evolved several times in the past. Not only do we have the aforementioned dog-like hyenas and the thylacine, but there was once a crocodilian that looked very much like a hairless coyote.

By this creationists’ logic, all these animals would be called dogs.

And they aren’t at all!

Yes, I do know I used scientific terms for female genitalia, which I know creationists like are icky.

But seriously, how dumb can you be!




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save the twinkie

I just happened across this cartoon early this morning, and it got me thinking.

When I start thinking, you know I have to write down what I’ve been able to distill, so I have produced this post, It starts out with twinkies  and it ends with the eco-Apocalypse.

So with no further adieu.

The twinkie is a product that some consider a food source.

In some ways, I guess it is.

It’s certainly better for you to consume than, say, antifreeze.

But it’s not that much better.

It’s a food that has been produced since 1930 as a finger sponge cake, and it has the following (healthy) ingredients (according to Wikipedia):

“Enriched wheat flour, sugar, corn syrup, niacin, water, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable and/or animal shortening – containing one or more of partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and canola oil…”

Highly nutritious!

This cake has been mass produced for decades using sophisticated food processing machines, and the crops used to produce its ingredients are raised in massive monocultures all over the country.

None of these things would have been possible had humans not been able to develop our too making prowess to such a high level.

We are the tool-making animal. If anything is fundamentally a human essence, it is our ability to make tools at such high levels of sophistication. It’s what has made our species so successful, even though we have the most ungainly mode of locomotion of all mammals and we’re not exactly the most physically imposing of species.

This tool building knowledge is transmitted through language, and it is through language that techniques for too manufacture are not lost through the generations. Knowledge is passed on through the tutelage of craftsmen, and then through the written word.

Tool making prowess and our ability to convey knowledge through language have allowed us to do amazing things. We’ve built civilizations, irrigated fields, and tamed the wild beasts.

We’ve also developed medicines that have made it possible for our species to double its average lifespan, and we’ve been able to leave this little planet and explore its only moon.

No other species has done what we’ve been able to do.

But at the same time, we’ve been able to develop weapons that allow us to kill virtually any animal that comes into plain sight. We’ve also developed weapons that be launched thousands of miles away or by sophisticated flying robots. We also developed weapons that could wipe out most of the life on earth in very short order.

Man likes to think that he’s come so far through his technological advances, but at some level, he’s really not much more than technologically advanced male chimp with anger and control issues.

Which brings us to the twinkie.

The twinke is a product of Hostess, a company that makes a several products of snack cakes.

The reason why the twinkie became a cause celebre  for some is because our wonderful right wing media played up that the company was being destroyed by the unions.

In reality, it was actually being destroyed because it was the victim of private equity pirates.

But the story of the twinkie falling going down in flames created such a public outrage that I’m somewhat aghast at what it’s come to.

The love of twinkie is a very primal reaction. Our brains have evolved to love sweetness, because in the jungles in which primates evolved ripe fruit indicated its ripeness and nutritional value through detecting sweetness. It is because of this evolutionary heritage that we like sweet things.

But over time, man has figured out how to refine sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and now we can consume as much sweetness as we like.

The toolmaker is now in the process of producing foods that will make him fat and diabetic and will probably result in shortening his life by a few decades.

Technology has increase the lifespan of man, but technology can also decrease it.

The fundamental paradox of our species is that we can bend and contrive so much that it ultimately winds up hurting us.

And we’ve not come up with ways of mitigating these issues.

Indeed, if anything our species could be known for doing well, it’s making other species extinct.

We’re so good at it that we don’t even have to try.

All we have to do is continue burning high carbon fossil fuels and fundamentally change the carbon-oxygen cycle, and we can see all sorts of extinctions that we never even thought were possible.

Is this what we want the legacy of species to be?

Do we want to known as the species that had the technology to do many great things but then squander it because we couldn’t figure out how to control our more primal impulses?

We are the only species that can actually think about having a legacy.

Maybe we ought to think more carefully about what that should be.

Are we going to be worked up over the extinction of a very unhealthy snack cake or over the extinction of entities of a real biological consequence?

Maybe its time we started using our tool-making prowess to mitigate some the problems we’ve been causing.


If we really are capable of thinking about our place in this world, then we need to consider the moral consequences of knowing that we can think about them.

Otherwise, the best you can say about us is that we are fundamentally immoral species, half crazed by epicurean ideals and blind rage.

And I know that is not us.





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