Dracula’s Dinosaur

It must be October when a dinosaur with a parrot’s head, porcupine quills, and fangs is announced. Yesterday’s issue of Time online featured a drawing of the creature and a nifty animation of reconstructing the aptly named Heterodontosaurus. Well, that’s actually the genus name. The species goes by the delightful name Pegomastax africanus. Last I checked, however, space on the ark was filling up. Dinosaurs create a unique embarrassment to Creationists. One suspects that if they didn’t have kids they’d dismiss dinosaurs all together, but the troublesome fossils just won’t go away. What’s more, although they’ve been extinct for 65 million years, they keep producing new species for us to recover, describe, and name. When I was growing up (and I have it on good authority that the argument is still used) Creationists told us that no transitional forms had ever been found. Therefore evolution simply could not have occurred. This was generally followed up by a reference to Genesis. Excuse me, a fanged porcupine-parrot? If that doesn’t count as a transition, what does?

Religion loses nothing by admitting to an ancient earth. Nothing but literalness. One of the joys of reading is the exploration of metaphors, similes, and hyperboles—writing delights us with its constant surprises. Even those who claim to read a text literally are engaging in a form of interpretation even earlier than the first wedge mark pushed into clay. Written texts give us something to ponder, to think about, and occasionally, to obey. Just when it looks like the cover has slammed shut on the black book we find a new set of dinosaur tracks running across our clay tablet. The literal-minded might not see these as being a message from God, but surely the endless variety of creatures that have walked this planet more than make up for it.

We used to have a pet parrot. His name was Archie, named after Archaeopteryx, the feathered dinosaur. Although Archie was cut off by disease in the prime of life, he was a curious bird and when I reached into his cage to try to get him on my finger he would dole out what he meant as a painful bite. I always took it as a sign of affection. Had our little friend had the fangs of Pegomastax africanus, I would’ve thought long and hard before risking the finger-perching trick. I like to think it would have reaffirmed my fascination with the amazing adaptability of nature. Evolution, unlike God, has no purpose. An endless tinkerer, it gives us thousands of differing dinosaurs that had been gone many, many millennia before Moses ever even thought of Noah. Pegomastax is safely extinct now, and the only ones who have to worry about this perfect Halloween dinosaur are those who think that one particular view of one particular book is the only way to find truth.

We still miss you, Archie.

Assaulting Pepper

“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper,” so goes a jingle that is still in my head decades after I last heard it. Early in my marriage I learned that Dr. Pepper was my wife’s favorite, and we sometimes purchased it by the case when we felt daring. I seldom drink soft drinks anymore, having converted to a more juice-oriented penchant with the increase of years and poundage. I always found it to be a pleasant flavor, however, and it was a frequent choice in those halcyon days when I could eat or drink without much regard for potential tonnage. My wife resurrected my interest in the cola with a link to Time’s NewsFeed announcing that some Creationists are boycotting the soda because of an ad that looks like evolution. The ad campaign shows the evolutionary progress chart we’ve all seen with the tipping back of a Dr. Pepper making the ape human. Creationists aren’t known for their sense of humor, but boycotting a drink because of implied heresy implies a fascinating study.

Boycotting companies that offend moral sensibilities is not an unreasonable response to ethical dilemmas. I haven’t shopped for some products for years because I don’t like what the company does. My choice, I’m sure, has little impact but it makes me feel better about myself. Sometimes the choice is religiously motivated—if I don’t want to support a particular group I won’t buy a product they offer. Secular companies, however, seldom offend theological sensitivities. I, for one, would seldom know the guilty party: the founder of the company? The current CEO? Someone in upper management? An advertising director? Do all employees have to agree with my religious outlook? Ahh, but then there is the political angle.

This is a presidential election year and the first one since 1980 without a Republican candidate who is a darling of the Religious Right. Not to suggest that Reagan or Bush the First were really as religiously orthodox as they were presented, but the perception of their friendliness to conservative Christian causes went unquestioned. With a “liberal” in the White House and the only viable alternative a mysterious Mormon, frustration must be building. On top of it all, Dr. Pepper is showing a funny image that might be interpreted as suggesting a simian forebear to those who drink the stuff! I think I understand the anxiety, and it might help if they just had a drink to calm down. After all, “wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?”

Dare to evolve

The Bells

No matter how naïve I find myself, reading student papers always rings bells. They may be alarm bells of my own obsolescence or the tintinnabulation of a new era dawning. Either way, they scare me. Having spent many, many days concentrating on reading papers to the detriment of daily life, I have been submerged into a world that is foreign to me. Yes, I am used to students texting in class, and I know when their laptops are open for “taking notes” that university wi-fi networks are freely available for surfing the net. I know they are only paying half-attention. I may be old, but I’m not completely stupid. Well, not all students do this, but the practice is ubiquitous enough to be considered normative. Their world is a realm of electronic information. The old ways are passing.

I recently learned that footnoting is dead. Already-in-the-tomb-four-days dead. An art that my mediocre high school drilled into every student in English class is no longer even remembered. I even had good students report to me that the campus writing center housed no one who even ever used the Chicago Manual of Style, although some of them had heard of it. In mythology class, any book is referred to as a “novel” or “story” with no regard paid to its actual genre. For those weaned on electronic reading, the old distinctions no longer apply. The Internet is full of information, and many young people can’t discern the wheat from the chaff. Raise your hand if you know what “chaff” is. I didn’t think so.

Seeing all of this in the context of a mythology course is fascinating. Many students refer to the days when gods and monsters actually existed. It is as if the Creationists have won without a struggle. The concept of religion, as reflected in the fiction of mythology, no longer fits the paradigm. Reality is electronic, and paper is fiction. Bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells! At least as I get shelved with dusty books, I will be in a familiar environment with gods, monsters, and dinosaurs. This is the world I was born into and which will not long survive the passing of my generation.

SpongeBob’s Evolution

My daughter has, unfortunately, outgrown SpongeBob SquarePants. She was my putative excuse for watching the (literally) brainless eponymous lead character going about his inane adventures. The creator of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburg, is a marine biologist and much of the fun for adults watching the cartoon derived from the biologically correct remarks made by the characters about their physiological conditions. Watching the laughing yellow sponge with his inimitable voice was a pleasant escape from the constraint of my own biological existence.

Today the New Jersey Star-Ledger announced that two researchers from Princeton University may have discovered the oldest animal fossils ever recorded. It seems that for a while, some 635 million years ago, the earth was undergoing its Cryogenian Period when the planet surface was all but completely frozen. The earliest discovered animal fossils were discovered from after that period. Princeton geoscientist Adam Maloof has recovered what appear to be animal fossils from 650 million years ago, 15 million years before the big freeze. This find had been anticipated by genetic scientists who had suggested that such early animal forms likely existed prior to the appearance of the earliest sponges 520 million years ago.

For now the new finding shifts the fossil record back by about 90 million years. There will be massive gaps to be filled in by scarce traces left in inaccessible rock. Creationists will no doubt gloat that the fossil record is now even more full of holes than ever. This is frequently the quality of ambiguity that they suggest will topple the evolutionary lie. The truth, however, faces the opposite direction. The oldest creatures found are ancestors to the common sponge, pushing SpongeBob’s ancestors back many millennia before those of the Adam who discovered them. It seems to be the silly yellow sponge who will have the last laugh.

Gee, did I really cause all this?

The Truth is in Here?

Constantly trawling for the shattered detritus of truth that rests scattered around our lonely little planet, I have often supposed they were here. I have never seen them, but in the Drake Equation there is a high probability that they exist. And now the newspaper says they may have been here all along. And closer than we thought.

Aliens. These latter-day angels and explorers of the cosmos are often pictured like E-T or the little gray aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The latest findings suggest they could even be quite a bit smaller than that. Paul Davies, a physicist from Arizona State, believes that life may have developed multiple times on earth, and perhaps some of the googol of microbes on our planet may have their origins in space. These potentially extraterrestrial microbes, he stated could be “right under our noses – or even in our noses.” Yikes! Time to put up the intergalactic “No Trespassing” sign!

Stop the alien menace!

In all seriousness, however, this concept of multiple origins of life, I fear, will be latched onto and misread by our Creationist fellow-life forms. I can see the fingers stiff from grasping at straws claiming that now there is scientific proof that different species do have different origins, thank you Mr. Darwin. The price to pay, if they apply logic, however, is not one evolutionary track, but many.

The movie Creation, focusing on Darwin, opened this past weekend in the United States. Delayed because of concerns that Americans can’t handle the truth, this film about Darwin’s sad voyage to the inevitable truth of natural selection will surely raise evangelical ire. Nevertheless, we did not design this world we evolved into, we simply inherited it. And the closer we peer at it, the more complex it becomes. These multiple evolutionary tracks may also explain the origin of Creationists – could they come from different stock than scientifically minded folk? In any case, the news today provides yet another reason to keep our noses clean and our eyes on the skies.

Missing Links

Dinosaurs hold a fascination like few other creatures. Perhaps it is because of their exotic and tragic rise to dominance and their meteoric plummet to obscurity. Maybe it is because of their impossibly creative adaptations to their environment leading to frills, fans, and pointy bits in unexpected places. It might even be that they reveal our own future to us. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs still rule.

In the news yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing a dinosaur. Not a Jurassic Park living model, but a fossil excavated from private land in Montana. A few years back I took my family on a dinosaur-based trip to the west. Trundling across the endlessly flat eastern half of Wyoming, I insisted that we turn down a rutted and washed out dirt road to an obscure site where dinosaur footprints had recently been discovered. Rolling into Red Gulch (seriously!), we were, surprisingly, not the only people there. Staring down at my feet next to the fossilized prints of some ancient carnivore was like feeling the very pulse of evolution. There was no fear of divine retribution here, just a sense of tangible continuity with a long and very distant relative on the tree of life. Creationists insist that dinosaurs and other creatures were each separately created, fearing, I suppose, an interspecies miscegenation, in keeping with their overall fear of sexuality. I was envisioning myself shaking claws with cousin dilophosaurus.

There be monsters here

Over the years we’ve made many dinosaur trips, stopping at dinosaur museums in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. Once, at Makoshika State Park in Montana, where you can walk along and see dinosaur fossils in situ, we heard a couple exclaim to the flustered park ranger, “but how can that be when the world is only 6000 years old?” Dinosaurs are symbols. They represent the ultimate in stature and environmental dominance, while at the same time hosting brains that struggled to rival a humble grapefruit. As I read the other, more serious, headlines I realize how much we are like our very distant cousins.

Compassion Divine

A very generous relative graced this holiday season with the gift of the first season of Star Trek, the original television series. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “trekkie.” I did, however, enjoy the show as a child and have come to appreciate it even more as an adult. I can’t cite episode and scene like a trekkie can, and a surprise FBI raid would not turn up any pointy Spock ears or a model phaser (although my wife’s cell-phone looks like a sophisticated communicator). As a child the show appealed to my love of science fiction, and as an adult the morality play aspect of the original series fascinates me. Yesterday we watched an early episode where a crew member has his mind boosted by a trip beyond the edge of the galaxy (a la Forbidden Planet). As this character becomes more and more omniscient and powerful, he refers to himself as a god. Captain Kirk, in his attempt to stop his old friend calls out that gods are marked by compassion rather than strength.

I have been rereading Homer’s Iliad in preparation for a course on mythology. Quite apart from the fact that Star Trek borrowed heavily from classical mythological themes, one of the features I have especially picked up on in this reading has been the appeals to the compassion of the gods. As Diomedes, Odysseus, and Ajax (and finally Achilles) battle Hector and Paris both sides call out for the kindness of Zeus, appealing to his compassion (as well as to his baser instincts). Reflecting the ancient perception of the world, Zeus’ responses are fickle.

Biologists have been probing the origins of human sympathies ever since Darwin. Creationists used to argue that compassion, altogether lacking in the animal world, could not have evolved naturally. Many recent studies, however, have demonstrated a naturalistic base for our altruism and compassion. These traits are certainly displayed in a number of animal species, particularly mammals. The ancient Egyptians believed animals to be superior to humans in many respects, lacking our weaknesses and being more adept at survival. It seems that they were right and some of the nobler human traits evolved from our animal milieu. If so, what is divinity beyond the gospel according to Star Trek — compassion to those in need by those who find themselves in positions of power?