Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

AronRa – Our monthly meeting on March 24, 2015

The Unholy Trinity Tour features Seth Andrews (from The Thinking Atheist podcast), Matt Dillahunty (from The Atheist Experience TV show) and AronRa (YouTube resource on evolution and science education). We had seen Matt’s talk on faith last month and seen Seth give a presentation way back in July. This month it was Aron’s turn.

Aron and his wife have been fierce advocates for good education in Texas, a real battleground over teaching creationism and distorting history (ex. removing Thomas Jefferson from history textbooks because of his state/church separation blasphemy). Since Texas is such a large state, book publishers frequently use the requirements for Texas as the standard for their books across the country. If Texas was a place supporting decent education, this would be fine. Unfortunately, Texas is a true backwater. On a regular basis, fundamentalists and right-wing nuts try to alter the book standards to insert creationist nonsense and history that ain’t real history. Aron regularly testifies in front of the Board of Education to prevent this stuff. Here is a presentation in which he demonstrates his fierce and informed stance.

AronRa is now a frequent presenter and debate participant. His intimidating looks are for real (he rides a big Harley) and he won’t back down when it comes to teaching our children properly. He and the rest of the gang are currently on a tour in Australia. I will be watching for videos of their talks once the tour is over.

Giant Locomotive Arthropod: Arthropleura

I decided to take a break from modern animals for a while and give something of a crash course on prehistoric creatures, other than the ones we all know about, dinosaurs and mammoths and whatnot.  So I think to myself, “What’s the best way to launch a series on prehistoric beasts?” and the answer comes to me, we start off with a ten-foot long millipede.

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Here it is, bursting from the primordial ooze like any eldritch beast worth its weight in horror.

I suppose the first question is “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHY?”  The easy answer to that is that there is no god.  A more scientific answer is that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere during the Carboniferous period when these monsters lived was dramatically higher than what it is today, 35% as opposed to the 21% of our atmosphere that is made up of oxygen nowadays.  The growth of arthropods is directly linked to how much oxygen they can get into their bodies (arthropods not being able to simply breathe in and out like we can, this process is more complex) and it was only the massive amounts of oxygen in the Carboniferous that allowed these things, the largest land-dwelling invertebrates ever, to exist at all, alongside giant spiders and eagle-sized dragonflies.

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Here it is again with Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan. Hello, Alan!

I suppose I should stop taunting you with implications of flesh-rending horror, arthropleura ate detritus, all the rotting and decomposing bits of plants and animals that get pounded into the topsoil.  Though it was certainly large enough so that an adult arthropleura would have no natural predators, these things were borderline harmless (presumably) as they munched away on rotten mulch in their forest homes.  An extra fun fact is that the forests of the Carboniferous weren’t made up of trees, they hadn’t evolved yet, but instead were made up of giant ferns.

Arthropods would never again reach their Carboniferous heyday after the Permian period started, the atmosphere simply wasn’t as saturated with oxygen, which may just be a good thing.  Apart from the fact that “dropped dead from fear of seeing Labrador-sized pill bug” would be a fairly common diagnosis in the mortuary, this oxygen-heavy atmosphere was highly explosive.  Fire needs oxygen, and it had all the O2 it could ever want in the Carboniferous period.

P.S.–about the odd title, it was inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, where all the so-called “boss” enemies have some sort of title before their name.

 

 

Evolution of Weird–Pangolin

We all know that hybrid animals exist; there are mules, ligers (yeah, they’re real), and pretty much every dog breed on the planet.  So what would happen if you crossbred an anteater with a pine cone?

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I’d hug it if it wasn’t so damn scaly…oh, who am I kidding, I’d hug it anyway.

This is a pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, because sometimes science just isn’t creative.  Coming from the Malay word “pengguling” which means “that which rolls up,” the pangolin’s most distinctive feature is a thick set of keratin armor.  These overlapping scales continuously grow, and are filed down during the pangolin’s day as it burrows into termite mounds for its favorite snack, which it laps up with a tongue so long that it exceeds the length of its own body.

The claws that the pangolin uses to get into these mounds are long and sharp, giving the creature an extra means of defense.  These claws are so long in fact, that they must either walk on their back feet or else on their knuckles.  Their main method of defense, however, is their ability to roll into a ball, creating an almost impenetrable barrier to protect it–a little like a “Zelda” boss.

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Good luck with that.

Unfortunately, these scales are also proving to be the pangolin’s downfall.  Popular in traditional Asian medicine, where they are believed to stimulate lactation, as well as cure asthma and cancer because “why not,” they are contributing to the overharvesting of these peaceful critters.  The pangolin is also a popular form of bush meat, which is something you should never eat, since it provides a direct route for various tropical diseases that can kill you horribly if cooked wrong.  This has led the pangolin to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, despite international trade bans, and the pangolin to be listed as “threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Animals, and it has been going on for ages.

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This set of scale-mail, crafted of pangolin scales, was presented to George III in 1820.

So, how do we save the pangolin?  Education, people need to know that there are no special qualities to pangolin scales that couldn’t be gained be chewing on your own fingernails.  People also need to stop the asinine practice of eating bush meat as a delicacy, as it adds to the threatened status of animals that should be left alone.

 

 

Evolution of Weird–Colugo

So if you’re anything like me (thank your lucky stars that you’re not) you’ve probably wondered once or twice “Yeah, I know we’re related to primates, but what’s our closest non-primate relative?”  Good question, but you could’ve just asked me in person, without making me do this bizarre hypothetical.  You also really shouldn’t have asked.

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Which is worse, the glowing eyes of hellfire or the fact that he’s flashing us?

No, that is not a monkey cartoonishly trying to stop its fall with a trench coat, that is a colugo, also known as the flying lemur.  They are not true lemurs, however, but a species that branched away from “ordinary” primates like monkeys and apes and us.  Colugos live in Southeast Asia–which doesn’t include Madagascar, where the true lemurs live–where they glide from tree to tree.  They are the largest and most capable of gliding mammals, using wedding that stretches, not just between their limbs and tail, but also between their fingers and toes, to maximize the surface area of their patagium (gliding membrane).

Likely because of this webbing, colugos are clumsy climbers, and are forced to shimmy their way up trees.  Making up for this is their gliding ability.  You see, they don’t simply drift from tree to tree, but they can easily change direction while gliding and even change their altitude while they’re doing so.  These membranes also serve in child rearing, as female colugos will use their webbing to form a poor-man’s pouch for their children to nestle in, safe and sound.

These nocturnal animals are endangered due to destruction of their natural habitats, which is a crying shame.  Not only are these animals an essential clue in how bats evolved to fly, but they are the only animals in the Primatomorpha mirorder apart from our own primate cousins.  To put it simply, outside monkeys and apes, these guys are our closest relatives.

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Evolution of Weird–Mouse Deer

The blog has been a bit slow, so I decided to do a couple more “Evolution of Weird” posts (see what happens when you let me get bored, you have only yourselves to blame).  I’ve got at least two more, but let’s not look too far ahead, and instead play a little game.

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The game is called: “What the Hell is This Thing?”

Kind of a brainteaser, eh?  At first blush, it looks like any other tropical, rabbit-sized rodent, but take a close look at those legs.  This here’s called a chevrotain–also known as a mouse deer–and they are the smallest hooved animals on the planet.  How small?  Most species are 1.5-15 pounds, while the largest, the African variety, comes in between 15-30 pounds…in other words, they’re somewhere between house cat and Labrador in size.

“Chevrotain” means “little goat” in French, and it fits the itty-bitty twerps pretty well, apart from the obvious lack of horns.  However, they’re not goats, or even deer.  These highly primitive wee-beasties are more closely related to pigs.  They lack any kind of horn or antler, are not particularly spry (which is a shame, as that’s usually all little animals got going for them) and the water chevrotain has been known to supplement its primarily vegetative diet with insects, crustaceans, and scavenged meat.

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“Ah, what a cute little–OH CHRIST!”

Both males and females also have elongated canine teeth, like the tusks of pigs, but they’re most prominent in the males.  The males use these teeth in battles with each other, both for simple hierarchal fights as well as battles over females.  These puny ungulates also have an adorable love of water, which is actually what led to the theory that whales evolved from water loving herd animals.

The chevrotain, or mouse deer, or cobra-fanged-deer-pig-thing if you prefer, is a fascinating look at the early days of hooved animals.  Their somewhat underdeveloped chambered stomachs help show how the famous cow digestive system evolved.  They also clue us into the origins of pig tusks and the general deer body shape; so much to learn from weird-ass little animal.

 

 

 

Evolution of Weird–Bush Brown Caterpillars

Every now and again, nature runs out of ideas and has to reuse old themes.  This is the reason why long-eared jerboas look and act so much like kangaroos, despite being from entirely different continents.

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Why they look so much like Pokémon is really beyond the realm of this post.

Generally this is the result of “convergent evolution,” unrelated animals evolving the same method to deal with the same problems.  Sometimes, however, nature just seems to do it for giggles; case in point, the Chinese Bush Brown caterpillar.

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Too squishy to be adorable, too cute to step on.

I suppose this is the part where I’m supposed to fill you in on the life cycle and behavior of this thing, but it’s a caterpillar, just a caterpillar.  It doesn’t even live up to that cat face and eat meat like it’s Hawai’ian relatives I covered a few post ago.  It gets placed on a leaf as an egg, hatches into a bizarre-looking kittypillar (tell me you didn’t see that pun coming), eats and morphs into a butterfly.

Sadly the butterfly is nothing special, it’s colored to look like a dead leaf and has eyespots on its wings, and it didn’t even have the decency to make those spots look like cat-eyes.  No, apart from the weird preference all the young, schoolgirl butterflies have for the older guys–which probably has something to do with good genes that lead to long lives–all the fame goes to the larva form of this particular bug.

Found all over Asia, it should come as no surprise that these Pokémon lookalikes are famous in Japan, where they were once worshipped as minor deities.

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Count on Japan to make caterpillars adorable.

 

 

 

 

Fascinating

Idaho.  It’s a fantastic state, the land of potatoes and…um, well there’s, no that’s, that’s not…but there’s, uh.

Well, that’s unimportant.  You see, a bit of hilarity has come creeping from the land of spuds, an odd little factoid about the state legislature.  Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri supports a bill that would prevent doctors from prescribing abortion medication through telemedicine.  Ostensibly, this is to protect women who may have negative side-effects from the medications, though lawmakers are in no way shy about admitting that this is just another step in making abortions harder to come by in Idaho.

In 2013, the then-Representative Ron Mendive asked if the American Civil Liberties Union if their pro-abortion stance also meant they supported prostitution.  That snippet was to show you what living in a state where, apparently, no one gives any fucks whatsoever about the concept of correlation.

While hearing testimony from a doctor who opposed the bill, and who had just made an anecdotal statement about how colonoscopies may utilize cameras to better give doctors an idea of what’s going on, Rep. Vito Barbieri asked the question–and I shall directly quote here–“Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”

The doctor, presumably trying to hide her astonishment at the rampant idiocy of this man, replied that swallowed objects do not find their way into the vagina.

“Fascinating. That makes sense.”

Rep. Barbieri later tried to pass off this comment as rhetorical, but I don’t believe this spud-muncher for a second.  Not only is the comment asinine in context (the context supposedly being that he wanted to show the lack of correlation between a colonoscopy and an abortion) but it fits with the complete lack of knowledge of female anatomy Republicans so eagerly trot out.  I’m not saying this is on the level of Todd Akin’s belief that vaginas have shields against dishonest sperm (which may just be the nicest way of summarizing his legitimate rape claims) but it completely fits the prevailing theme with Republicans that, when it comes to how the female body operates, they have no fucking clue what they’re talking about.

Evolution of weird–Arapaima

What are the defining characteristics of fresh-water fish?  Go ahead, think about it, I’ll wait right here…Done?  Have a good head-scratcher about this?  So, what did you come up with?  Probably things like “relatively small,” “muted colors,” “easier to bread and fry.”  Stuff like that.

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So that’s why they call that show “River Monsters”

 

This here’s an arapaima, also called pirarucu, and it is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, capable of growing to about 15 feet long.  Shaped like a torpedo, the arapaima has an infamous habit of leaping out of the water when in danger–as if being larger than the local crocodilians wasn’t already a safe guard–which can present a real hazard to people who accidentally hook these things while fishing.  Their scales are highly mineralized, with a corrugated surface and underlying layers of collagen fibers arranged at right angles to each other.  Translation: these things are both f**king flexible and f**king tough.

But even having partially metallic scales isn’t enough to get you on one of my evolution posts (scorpions transmit minerals they absorb from the insects they eat into their stingers to give them more punch), you gotta have something few others creatures in your corner have…like the fact that arapaimas breathe air.

We’ve all heard of lungfish (if you haven’t, you can always sign up at the college) which are fish capable of obtaining oxygen from the air, as well as the water.  It isn’t even that unusual, electric eels (which are actually more closely related to catfish) and mudskippers do it all the time, the rub being that they must respire through the water regularly.  The arapaima’s swim bladder is modified to act as a lung, and is so effective that arapaima must return to the surface every 5 to 15 minutes, these fish can, and do, drown.

Let’s say that again, the arapaima is a fish that can drown, which, as you may well be aware, is something fish are not supposed to do!

Where is the logic or intelligence in that design?  It serves a blatant evolutionary purpose, the Amazon River (where the arapaima lives) can become poorly oxygenated regularly as a result of the wet season when it overflows with silt, becoming highly stagnant.  As a result, creatures like the arapaima needed to adapt and find new ways of surviving, but the key difference here is that other air-breathing fish can hypothetically survive without returning to the surface, whereas the arapaima would drown.