Posts Tagged ‘tiktaalik’

SERMON: “Well I’ll Be a Monkey’s Nephew!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

When I was first old enough to be aware of such things, I learned that the theory of “continental drift” had fallen out of favor with geologists.  At that time, anthropologists were also trying their best to fit every hominid bone they’d dug up into a clear, linear sequence, with Neanderthals the last of the ancient brutes to give way to us graceful modern humans.  We didn’t know, then, that dinosaurs hadn’t really completely disappeared (or that they sometimes sported “feathers”).  We also didn’t really know the age of the universe.  We had seen the earth from space, but had not yet traveled to the moon.  AIDS was twenty years in the future, and there was still debate over whether cigarettes had any causal relation to lung cancer (one of the many cancers that still carried a stigma that is difficult to imagine today).

(I imagine that every generation has been astounded by the discoveries made during their time.  11 years after the Wright Brothers flew, my father was born  in a house with no electricity, and didn’t learn to drive a car until long after World War II.)

But the march of new technologies brings with it new discoveries made possible by those technologies.  So we now know how old our universe is, and have proven by measurement both Einstein’s theory of relativity and the reality of plate tectonics (the more refined version of “continental drift”).  We have sequenced both the human and the Neanderthal genome, and now know that Neanderthals were a branch off the family tree that died out (but not before mixing their DNA with some of our modern human ancestors).  And though we’ve been unable to recover any dinosaur DNA, we have seen through current DNA and biology dinosaur’s continuation in modern birds such as the humble chicken (which is now being “reverse engineered” back into its earlier, dinosaurian form — we’ll have to see how that works out!).

But besides the “big” discoveries, what strikes me as equally significant is the slow but steady softening of our hard-edged ideas of how the world works and how living things came into being.  Take the linear approach to human evolution, where one animal form leads inexorably to the next.  We now realize just how broken our fossil record is when it comes to human evolution, and that many of the specimens we have recovered were likely not in our direct ancestral line.  We now think more broadly when it comes to the human family tree — seeing it more like a true tree with many branches splitting off from the trunk at many different points at many different times.  Of course we living modern humans represent a single branch that can trace its beginnings back to the, well, beginning.  But we now realize that not every fossilized hominid bone we find can be confidently called mom or dad.  They are often more our aunty or uncle.

Which is why I found Carol Jahme’s recent article (“Lice, sex, gorillas and genetics”) in The Guardian so bracing.  It turns out that our ability to study DNA has given us a tool with which we can estimate the time in the past when related species split off from their parent stock (when they branched off from their particular family tree).  In the case cited in this article, scientists studying the differences in the DNA of gorilla and human head and pubic lice were led to an interesting conclusion: there was clearly a lot of hanky-panky back and forth between our diverging hominid ancestors as they evolved into different species.

"That's not MY ancestor!" said the woman walking by.

This seems to me to be a bit of dramatic news, in that it calls up a sort of re-imagining of my primate-hominid ancestors somewhat akin to finding out that stolid old great-great-granddad was making a few extra kids on the side with the hired help.  But having just recently absorbed the news that I might have a bit a Neanderthal blood in me, this is just one more step into a more healthy and realistic understanding of how evolution (and, well, sex) works.

I find it all a bit exciting, especially as I realize that science is leading us ever deeper into a much more realistic understanding of life, and taking us further and further away from the mythology that has passed as knowledge for (lets be frank) most of our history as modern humans.  We are learning that certain cancer treatments, say, work at an incredible level in certain groups of patients, but do nothing for others.  In the past, we would have stopped at that fact, and called it a modestly successful treatment.  But medicine is taking the next step, and figuring out ways to determine what makes one group of humans genetically different from another, which could therefore allow doctors to test for the patients for whom the treatment is very likely to be effective, while sparing others a difficult and hopeless treatment.  This is incredible progress.  It is also technology-dependent and complex, even as it holds out promise for pulling medicine ever-more out of its own medieval roots.

All of these twists and turns — as we discover them —  begin to paint a picture of the ebb and flow and endless mixing of life, as genes mutate, re-combine in new offspring and respond to new (and old) environmental pressures.  Each and every one of us is a singular microbial ecosystem, related, yes, but also, in a way, our own unique world.  To my mind, such awareness carries me away from the simplistic, teleological ideas of our past.  The idea that such a system is the result of an intelligent creator who had us in mind from the start becomes so fanciful as to be beyond consideration.

Life is a wondrous mess — a cohesive chaos so improbable as to be considered impossible were it not for the fact of its existence.  Living in a time where we are able to come to a genuine appreciation of our true state is, I think , rather remarkable.  We will never have the experience of those who saw man make his first flight in a airplane, or ran in terror at the noise of the first steam locomotive.  No, we have become used to the advance of machines.  We have not, however, proven ourselves so adaptable to the advance of ideas about our own origins and evolution.  In that regard, we are like the Londoners who resisted more efficient coal stoves that could have cut their waste and pollution by a factor of four: they feared the new, and instead wanted to keep the comfort of the smoky, inefficient open fireplace.

And so I have to regularly remind myself that there are many who regard most of the information I’ve referenced here as false and iniquitous.  They cannot appreciate the latest discoveries about human evolution because they will not accept that humans evolved at all.  As one woman snapped when I referred to (my street painting of) Tiktaalik as one of our “ancestors”: “Well, it’s not one of MY ancestors!”.  I just hope she doesn’t hear about our hominid great-great-grandparents fooling around with their gorilla cousins!  I don’t think she’d take that too well.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, March 20th, 2011

A little fun peeling back the asphalt, and sneaking Tiktaalik in there for good measure!

SERMON: “What We Don’t Know” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I think I’ve become a sort of anti-evangelist as I preach a non-spiritual gospel of naturalism, humanism and Darwinism.  (Wow, that’s a lot of “ism’s”).  An interesting aspect of my “church” work has been the realization that my materialistic brand of atheism is not only irksome to my theist acquaintances, but is also a bit of a bitter pill for my “new age” friends to swallow.

This came to mind this morning as I talked with a friend of mine at the Farmers Market.  We both shared a certain disdain for fundamentalism, but when I said that I didn’t think there was really anything else “out there” besides natural phenomena, she averred that she thought there were things out there that we did not understand, and were yet to be discovered.

This, of course, is true.  I’d be a fool not to allow for that.  And as is natural to my social chimp nature, I took her opinion in and rolled it around a bit, checking it against my own feelings and thoughts (it’s my view that we are such profoundly social creatures that it is almost impossible NOT to be swayed, even if only temporarily, by the opinions of someone we have a social relationship with).

Two humerus...or humeri. t.n.s.r. bob's and a brachiosaur's.

Although I do not think that there is anything “out there” to support the confidence of the preacher who claims to know God and His intentions, I have come to a certain awareness of the state of current human knowledge (informed by the stack of books on science I’ve read these last years) the upshot of which comes in two parts:  The first part is general sense of where the current frontiers of science are (which includes both the things we are pretty damn certain about, and the areas where — in the words of Christopher Hitchens — “We know less and less about more and more”).  The second part is a quietly buzzing awareness in my skull telling me that our base of knowledge — so vast compared to our ancestors living only a short time ago — is still a tiny fraction of a fraction of what there is to be known about life, the universe and everything.

If the last fifty years of scientific discovery have shown us anything, it is that the questions we seek to answer seem to multiply exponentially with each new discovery.  This is not to say that we don’t know much, or that what we do know is suspect.  Not at all.  I speak more to a certain humility in the face of what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “The Creation”.

Perhaps you’ve had the same feeling I have as I sit at this marvel of modern technology, my laptop computer.  The machine I’m using is only a year and half old, but the i-pad has come out and already seems to be branching itself off into new sub-species of personal computing devices.  And so, as much fun as this very useful tool has been to use, I can’t help but feel it aging under my fingers, and cannot shake the sense that it, too, may look as antique as a dashboard 8-track player at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The exciting thing about living in our time is the ever-increasing pace of discovery.  The molecular structure of DNA was discovered only seven years before I was born (though the Nobel prize for it was awarded when I was 3, at about the time we launched a man into space).  The first electronic calculator appeared when I was in Junior High School, the personal computer when I was in my mid-twenties.

When I was young, our view of human evolution was one of a single line from ape to man, with Neanderthal’s being our brutish “cave man” predecessors.  Now (thanks in no small part to DNA technology), our understanding of the actual process of evolution has become much more nuanced (and we now get it that most of those early humans were likely among the many dead-ends that make up most of the branches on evolution’s family tree).

Think about how our view of dinosaurs has changed in the last thirty years!  Those creatures seemed so exotic and other-worldly to me as a boy, but now they are like giant chickens and cows of another time, different only in detail than anything living today.  And the Neanderthals?  They, too, have undergone a rehabilitation, and only last year we got the answer to the perennial question of whether our “Cro Magnon”  human ancestors could possibly have interbred with the brutes (the answer is a resounding “yes”!).

Every week there are announcements of new dinosaur species in the popular press.  In 2006 Neil Shubin used the predictive tools of evolution and geology to locate depositional rocks of the right age to find Tiktaalik, a clearly transitional species between our ocean-dwelling and earth-walking ancestors.

(I am not so well-read on the current research in creating “smart” plants, and the ever increasing processing speed of computers, but I do remember my first “floppy” disk, and how amazed I was when I filled it up to capacity, and had to get another one).

Tomorrow a diligent anthropologist could dig up the bones of an early hominid that could rock our world and re-shuffle timelines and theories.  This is exciting stuff.  And it leads me to be ready to have my ideas changed by new discoveries.

The question that a theist (or spiritually-minded) person might put to me (and that I put to myself) is: “What if they discover that God exists?”  Interesting question, that, and one that puts a certain chill in my colon.  Why?  Well, for one, because I think that would be very bad news for us humans, on a par with finding out that there are aliens from other planets, and that they do, indeed, want to suck our brains out.  (Now that is assuming that whatever God they discovered would turn out to be anything like the ones that most humans have been imagining for the last couple thousand years!)

But once my colon calms down I realize that the probability of such a discovery — that life on earth has, indeed been consciously-designed and is kept in motion by a divine will — is pretty damn small.  That’s why there are agnostics (who take the position that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved).

I think I take a position more like that of a scientist who would continue to call “evolution” a theory though it has, in fact, been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.  And even though the ignorant will take this as meaning that the theory of evolution is on a par with their irrational belief that God formed Eve out of a rib stolen from a sleeping Adam, the scientist understands that he or she is merely stating that every truth of science remains subject to revision, modification or rejection based upon new evidence, remote though the possibility might be.

On the other hand, I’m not a scientist, so I can let myself dance crazily off the edge of belief and swim and splash in my pond of natural causes and god-less humanism.

I once believed in God, sincerely.  But I experienced a dramatic declension from faith when the persistent erosive force of life experience and reality caused that particular castle to crumble into the surf.  Having had that experience I now hold lightly to any belief, knowing full well that the thing that will blow my mind is likely to be something that I can not even imagine right now.  But having already spent so many years of my life imagining God, I don’t think that is where the big surprise will come from.

Having said that, who knows what we will soon understand about how the realm of the “spiritual” is created in our mammal brains.  And since this is a very active area of current brain research, be prepared for some news from that front over the next few years.  Whatever comes from this research, I think we can expect it to be another series of blows to the those still clinging to a bronze-age world view of gods, demons and lives guided by external intelligences.

Oh, we’ll be surprised, to be sure.  But so far, the answer found by science has never been God.  No matter how many humans have believed it for however long, the bones, the DNA and the rocks seem to cry out not for God, but for nature in all it’s mindless complexity.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Happy Darwin Day -- a "family reunion" of sorts in chalk art.

SERMON: “Taking it to the Streets” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I’m writing this on International Darwin Day: Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday.  In honor of the occasion I created some special street art this morning at our downtown Farmers Market, depicting a classic portrait of Darwin being bussed by a living, breathing “missing link”, the famous Tiktaalik of the Devonion (discovered by Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, reviewed on this blog).  It was a bit of “in the moment” inspiration to add the word balloons that had Darwin saying “Mom?”, and Tiktaalik saying “Son!”.  Inspired by Alaskan artist Ray Troll’s droll song “Your Mamma is a Lobe Finned Fish”, I added the phrase “our momma was a lobe-finned fish”.

A great image from Alaska artist Ray Troll.

Needless to say, a lot of people seemed confused (though the creationists that expressed themselves were not what I would call “confused” about the message of my art).  But it was a great opportunity to tell people that it was International Darwin Day, and talk about the discovery of Tiktaalik (a recent discovery, and a beautiful example of a transitional form between our ocean-dwelling and early tetrapod ancestors).  I wasn’t being facetious calling Tiktaalik “mom”, because she represents the fish body plan upon which our modern human bodies are based (after all, evolution and natural selection can only work upon what is available, adapting and mutating, but never creating anything new from whole cloth, as it were).

As the morning progressed, and my street painting took shape, I became aware of an interesting dynamic.  Several people complimented me on my work, adding a tag such as “It’s really great…and brave”.  Brave?  I began to realize there were moments where I felt as if I were drawing a pornographic picture that some people felt they needed to shield their children from.  One woman remarked as she walked past me “You don’t look like the type!” (later she came back by, and I asked “What type is that?”, to which she replied “A Darwinist”).  As I was telling one group of people that Tiktaalik was our ancestor, an older woman (with her military veteran husband — he had the ball cap) turned away as she huffed “that’s not one of MY ancestors!”.

One man asked me what I thought of Darwin (only later did it occur to me that the painting could have been taken as satire as well).  Turned out he was evangelical, and tried out the line of “well, that’s (meaning Darwinism) a religion too”.  I told him it wasn’t, as science is based on evidence, and so scientific “beliefs” change based upon new evidence, unlike religions.

One woman really liked the work, and told me so, but also said “That’s pretty brave to do around here”.  Assuming she was referring to the prominence of Catholicism, I said “But the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution”.  “Yeah, but still…” she said, in a sort of lowered voice.

We humans are idiots.  That’s what I felt like shouting.  Here I am, in 2012, making a statement supported by hundreds of years of science and evidence from geology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology, cosmology, biology and genetics, knowing full well that only about 20 percent of those passing by in this public market are going to be people that truly accept that evidence as the best understanding of where we humans came from.  I felt more like I was living in the intellectual middle ages.

Of course, to be fair, there were many, many people who were thrilled to see such an unequivocal expression of, well, reason.  One young woman snapped lots of pictures to send to her boyfriend who was going to be attending a Darwin Day Dinner in (of all places) Midland, Texas that night.

Lots of people thought I was drawing a fish, or an alligator, or a salamander.  But that’s about par for the course (I’ve become enough of a nerd about this stuff that I often gush about arcane details in that annoying, geeky way).  But Darwin, everybody knew.  Especially those that view him as an anti-Christ (quite literally, the god of a false and competing religion).

“You’ve been getting pretty political lately” a nearby herb vendor (who happened, by the way, to be the spitting image of the gray, fully-bearded Darwin I was drawing!).  I guess that’s true.

I’m always walking that line between entertainment and evangelism,  stumbling over it this way and that.

Not everyone was offended by my Darwin Day street art!

A great many people are really, really uncomfortable with the idea that we humans are descended from earlier life forms.  I understand that discomfort only because I know it to be a reality that I have observed myself.  But I’ve moved so far beyond such a view that I find it increasingly difficult to comprehend.

For myself, I am comforted, fascinated, humbled and intrigued by the facts of evolution.  Today, as I painted (for the first time) my little life-sized Tiktaalik, crawling across the street in my hometown, I truly felt a kinship: as if I was, indeed, making a portrait of my own grandmother.  And why shouldn’t I feel that way?  The very hands I used to create the painting are the same ones that made up Tiktaalik’s front fins/feet (the same bones, the same structure).  My hands are connected to wrist and upper arm bones and a shoulder structure that were present in Tiktaalik.  My internal plumbing bears the marks of that earliest walking fish body.  That chalk fish and I are the same creature, separated only by millions of years of gradual (and sometimes rapid) evolutionary adaptation, mutation and natural selection.

The evangelist in me wishes to share those feelings and insights with my fellow hominids, and so I took my message to the streets.

Now I can’t wait to paint “Lucy” for Mother’s Day weekend.

t.n.s.r. bob