Lazing Around

I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.

Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons

Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.

Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.


Not Quite Dead

Duria_Antiquior

Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.


Dinosaurs, Old and New

T._rex_old_posture

Tyrannosaurus rex, aside from being a photogenic movie star, was one of the top predators of its day. Ironically, in the Jurassic Park original trilogy (which would have been, more appropriately Triassic Park) tyrannosaurus rex becomes the ultimate protagonist, while unfeelingly killing to meet its own instincts. Since saying “tyrannosaurus rex” wears you out, we’ve become accustomed to calling the great carnivore t-rex. Everyone knows t-rex when they see it. Its a sign of danger, aggression, and unthinking acquisition. In one of nature’s great ironies, however, t-rex had tiny arms, nearly vestigial. What it wanted it had to get with its mouth. To live like that you have to grow pretty big, so big that nobody else can really challenge you. Punching is out of the question.

I’m often struck as how appropriate dinosaur evolution is to the human situation. Dinos (because “dinosaurs” is also too long) grew to be the top life-forms of their day. (We like to think of being the top. The perspective from down here in mammal land, in those days, was pretty different.) If you’re big enough, who’s going to stop you from taking what you want? Endless rows of teeth and a constant hunger can do wonders for evolutionary development. But then, extinction. Recent analyses have shown that it wasn’t as simple as an asteroid strike. It seems that many features of nature conspired against the dinosaurs, including the tyrant lizard king. T-rex had evolved into the monster featured in many pre-teen nightmares, only to be replaced by birds and mammals. Maybe it grew too big to be supported by the planet that allowed it to crawl out of the slime eons before.

In a recent photo of a Trump rally, one of the signs of a supporter had flopped over leaving just the word “rump” visible. I had to ponder this. T-rump. “Dinosaur” is a word used today to mean something that has outlived its time. Ideas, as well as such practices as, say, claiming that one race is superior to others, have rightfully gone extinct. There are those who say that t-rex was less a fierce carnivore than a scavenger. A vulture rather than an eagle. They claim that such a large snout and such small arms better suit one who picks at that which is already dead instead of working hard to bring down the more challenging beasts, often with horns. I’ve always thought dinosaurs were very appropriate metaphors for the human situation. Even Jurassic Park was superseded by Jurassic World, after all.


The Philosophical Neanderthal

HumansExtinctExtinction. It’s a depression concept, but one that nevertheless constitutes a reality in evolution’s world. When applied to members of our own species we term it genocide and declare it an evil. Our perspective—not to dispute the value judgment—is hopelessly foreshortened. Our brains have evolved to promote individual survival, not to see the longue durée. How often do we worry about the extinction of Homo erectus? Or the australopithecines? Without them we wouldn’t be here, and yet, they’re gone. The case of the Neanderthals is perhaps closer to home. We now know that Homo sapiens overlapped with Neanderthals. Some of the questions raised by Neanderthal extinction are given serious consideration by Clive Finlayson in his study, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died out and We Survived. To get a sense of how this works out, and how it applies with our current contribution to global warming, we must be prepared to view the extreme longue durée. Duration beyond comprehension.

One thing that becomes clear from the very beginning here is that climate has driven evolution perhaps more than we often think. Species, which tend not to live through the relatively long reach of climate change timescales, adapt to the circumstances of their environment. They either do, or they go extinct. Climate, however, is a balancing act teetering toward equilibrium. Hot and cold, evening each other out. Over an even longer duration, our sun will run out of metaphorical steam and things will get quite a bit chillier out there. For the meantime, however, shifts between ice ages and periods of warming will continue to seesaw across time and our race, among many, will need to adjust to survive. Perhaps acknowledging our own role in the current global warming might be a way to start. Our species tends to be short-sighted.

There is an irony here. History and prehistory have shown that, as Finlayson points out, that those best equipped to survive radical changes are the poor. Extinctions—some of them quite dramatic—have occurred before. They will surely come again. When times get tough, it seems, the comfortable get going. Going extinct, that is. Those who climb the corporate ladder the highest have the longest distance to fall when things go bad. The poor, who have to struggle every day to survive, are the ones who know how to get along in circumstances that turn sour. I have called this an irony for what might seem obvious reasons. There is another as well; here we have science pointing again in the direction of the Bible. There it was noted long ago that the meek would inherit the earth. And that’s a bit, it seems, that should be taken literally.


Crab Walking

445 million years may seem like a long time. For the horseshoe crab, however, the eons have been spans of years with little change from a rather simple existence that involves lurking under the water and crawling out this time of year to breed. For many of us, Hurricane Sandy is already a somewhat distant memory of days (weeks for some) of no electricity, sitting in the dark, wondering when life would get back to normal. Some parts of the Jersey shore are still suffering from the after-effects, but many of us have had to “just get on with it,” and forget about the damage caused. For the horseshoe crab, however, it is not so easy. For creatures that have survived virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, Sandy dealt a cruel blow. The largest concentration of hermit crabs in the world breeds in Delaware Bay, just down where New Jersey and Delaware nearly come together. Numbers had been declining in recent years as horseshoe crabs were used for bait by fishers, landing them on the “near threatened” scale of the countdown to extinction. Hurricane Sandy eroded the beaches where the crabs breed, and human detritus, left years earlier to protect expensive homes, now provided unsurpassable barriers for most of the crabs. Biologists are at work trying to rebuild the habitat in time.

Not only the time-honored horseshoe crab, but the American subspecies of the Red Knot, a migrating shorebird, has come under threat. The Red Knot, which stops in New Jersey to snack on horseshoe crab eggs on its way to the northern breeding grounds, has been declining in numbers. No crabs, no birds. While the troubles of two species may not seem like cause for concern, the fact that one of those species has been successful since millions of years before the first dinosaur even appeared should give us pause. Dinosaurs showed up some 200 million years after the horseshoe crab had been solidly established on the beaches of the pre-Triassic world. Nature would not be set to wipe out the crabs after a single hurricane, but human obstacles may do what nature would not—endanger a perfectly adapted species so that “valuable” real estate can be protected.

It is tragic when people lose what they’ve worked to attain. It is, however, shortsighted to think that we are the only important species on the planet. We have evolved in a system that includes all the other organisms on our world—our family tree goes beyond that cousin that always embarrasses us to the very crabs that crawl in the silty, brackish water of the Delaware Bay. We’ve all had an impact on each other. Even if you’ve never seen a horseshoe crab, just by reading this post they have come into your life in some way. When we start constructing our grand dreams for a fine life, it seems that we should take into account those who have been here long, long before us. Their requirements are modest, but their place in the cladistic tree of life is just as important as ours. Extinction is forever.

From Wikipedia, by Asturnut

From Wikipedia, by Asturnut