Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

A bone to pick

Dear Skeptophiles,

This is just to let you know that I'll be going on a wee hiatus to attend the annual Writers' Retreat held by my publisher, Oghma Creative Media, in the lovely Ozark Mountains.  So I'll be away for two weeks, and will be back in the saddle on Monday, August 12.  Please keep sending me ideas and links, making comments on posts, and so on -- I always love hearing from my readers.

Until then, hoist high the banner of skepticism!

cheers,

Gordon

***********************************

The lovely thing about science is that you never have a reason to stop learning.

I just retired after teaching biology for 32 years, and the area of biology I studied the most (and enjoyed teaching the most) was evolution and phylogeny.  I'm not a researcher, and nowhere near a specialist (I've been called a "dabbler" and a "dilettante," and I don't think they were meant as compliments), but I think that about those topics I'm at least Better Than the Average Bear.

So I was a little surprised yesterday to run into a group of ancient mammals I had honestly never heard of.  They're called docodonts, and technically I misspeak by calling them "mammals;" they're mammaliforms, which sounds like a species of alien on Doctor Who but isn't.  The docodonts and other mammaliforms are cousins of modern mammals, seem to have left no living descendants, and are more like mammals than they are like any other extant group.  Take, for example, this docodont, Castorocauda (the name means "beaver-tail"):

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), Castorocauda BW, CC BY 3.0]

Of course, like the proto-bird-with-teeth we met earlier this week, the reconstruction is done to accentuate mammal-like characteristics; there's no guarantee that the sleek-pelted otterish look is accurate.

The reason this comes up is the discovery of a mid-Jurassic docodont whose skeleton shows some remarkably mammal-like features.  This little guy, called Microdocodon (evidently named by someone who believes in keeping things simple and obvious) was around 165 million years ago, which (for reference) is a good hundred million years before the non-avian dinosaurs became history.

Well, prehistory.

What's interesting about Microdocodon is that it had a mammalian hyoid bone -- unique in our skeleton as the only bone that does not articulate with another bone.  It's a horseshoe-shaped bone that connects to the tongue, epiglottis, larynx, and muscles that support the neck, and gives us our ability to chew, swallow, keep an open airway while we're asleep -- and talk.

In non-human mammals, it's all about the first three, and it's thought that the evolution of the hyoid bone was instrumental in improving the range of food mammals could eat, since the ability to chew meant they weren't confined to swallowing big chunks of food at once.

"It is a pristine, beautiful fossil. I was amazed by the exquisite preservation of this tiny fossil at the first sight," said Zhe-Xi Luo, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, which appeared in Science last week.  "We got a sense that it was unusual, but we were puzzled about what was unusual about it  After taking detailed photographs and examining the fossil under a microscope, it dawned on us that this Jurassic animal has tiny hyoid bones much like those of modern mammals...  Now we are able for the first time to address how the crucial function for swallowing evolved among early mammals from the fossil record.  The tiny hyoids of Microdocodon are a big milestone for interpreting the evolution of mammalian feeding function."

The most amazing thing about all this is that Microdocodon catches evolutionary remodeling of a pre-existing skeleton right in midstream.  "Hyoids and ear bones are all derivatives of the primordial vertebrate mouth and gill skeleton, with which our earliest fishlike ancestors fed and respired," said Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, postdoctoral scholar at Yale University and co-author of the paper.  "The jointed, mobile hyoid of Microdocodon coexists with an archaic middle ear -- still attached to the lower jaw.  Therefore, the building of the modern mammal entailed serial repurposing of a truly ancient system."

So that's our lens into the past for today, and a look at a group of mammal relatives that until I read this paper, I didn't even know existed.  All of this making me question how anyone can think science is boring.  If after studying and/or teaching science over the past forty years I can still find something new and astonishing, you have to appreciate science's capacity for inducing awe -- and wonder what new discoveries lie ahead.

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic -- Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Friday, July 26, 2019

Return to Boleskine

There are few figures in the history of magical thinking more famous, or more polarizing, than Aleister Crowley.

He was a member -- eventually a leader -- of esoteric societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis, and eventually founded one of his own.  After all, once you're a member of an esoteric society, you generally find it's not so esoteric after all, and either have to find one even more esoteric or else make one up.

Some time around 1900 Crowley took the latter option, and named his society Thelema, the Greek word for "will" -- as the whole idea of the thing was "do what you will," especially in matters of sex, which fit beautifully with Crowley's apparent obsession with fucking anyone of either gender who would hold still long enough.

Thelema as an abbey (located in Cefalú, on the island of Sicily) was abandoned in 1923 after Mussolini decided that Crowley wasn't exactly the sort of person he wanted in Italy, and had him and his followers deported en masse.  Today it's more or less a ruin, but still a mecca for practitioners of magick and such stuff.  Crowley had a way of leaving behind these kind of sites, and in fact one of them is the reason this whole topic comes up today -- because one of Crowley's centers of operation, Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness, Scotland, recently sold after years of standing empty and decrepit for the tidy sum of £500,000 to "three unnamed investors."  The owners, who call themselves the "Boleskine Foundation," are now apparently in negotiation with the Ordo Templi Orientis (yes, it still exists) to bring back Crowley's practices to Boleskine and turn it into a "sex magick retreat."

Boleskine in 1912, right before Crowley sold it [Image is in the Public Domain]

Apparently the house has a bit of a reputation even outside of Crowley's antics.  All the way back in the seventeenth century, there supposedly was a "devious local wizard" who kept reanimating corpses, and the minister of the church that stood on Boleskine's grounds spent most of his time trying to rebury them and get them to stay there.  The church itself burned to the ground, allegedly along with the entire congregation, in the early eighteenth century, and the first bit of Boleskine House itself was built in the middle of that century -- right over top of the graves that the minister had such a tough time keeping intact.  (You can see why someone as conscious of ambience as Crowley was would be attracted to the place.)

So Crowley bought Boleskine, and true to his self-styled title of the "Wickedest Man in the World," engaged in all sorts of depravity and hijinks with his friends for nearly fifteen years.  When Crowley sold the place in 1913, it went through a number of different owners, none of whom stayed there for long.  One supposedly killed himself by blowing his own head off with a shotgun.  It was owned for a time by Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin, although Page apparently wasn't there all that often.  His caretaker Malcolm Dent, however, said the place was haunted.  "One evening," he said, "a small porcelain figure of the Devil rose off the mantelpiece to the ceiling, then smashed into smithereens in the fireplace."  He also said he'd been awakened more than once by the sound of "a huge beast, snorting, snuffling and banging.  Whatever was there, I have no doubt it was pure evil."

To be fair, though, the owners who bought it from Page, the MacGillivray family, scoffed at the whole thing and said their time in Boleskine House was wonderful, and free from any paranormal fooling about.  So maybe the ghosts only appear to people who already believe in them.

Pretty convenient, that.

In any case, the current owners are planning on renovating and reopening the place, and dedicating it to its previous use as a site for practicing the magickal arts.  Their public statement says that they will "promote events and activities that facilitate health and wellness such as meditation and yoga as well as education on Thelema, the spiritual legacy forwarded by previous Boleskine House owner, Aleister Crowley."

No word yet on any kinky sex stuff, although one would have to expect that's to be a part of it if they're striving for historical accuracy.  I'll keep you posted.

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic -- Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Thursday, July 25, 2019

Hyena-pigs and fish with lungs

Today we're going to look at two new bits of research from the field of paleontology that highlight how evolution can produce some really bizarre critters.

First, we have a discovery in Oregon of a fossil mesonychid.  The mesonychids were some of the first big mammalian predators, originating in the Paleocene Epoch (right after the K-T Extinction), reaching a peak in the Eocene, and finally going extinct in the early Oligocene, giving them a not-inconsequential run of 33 million years.  These things were seriously scary-looking.  Consider, for example, Mesonyx, which is the "type-species" that gives the entire group its name:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

I haven't told you the weirdest thing about the mesonychids, though -- which is that their nearest living relatives appear to be whales.  Perhaps not so strange, though, when you see a reconstruction of Ambulocetus, one of the ancestors of today's cetaceans:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), Ambulocetus BW, CC BY 3.0]

Then again, the closest extant relatives of whales are the artiodactyla -- including pigs, deer, and hippos -- so it's not surprising that species can show some unexpected affinities.

Anyhow, this comes up because of a discovery in the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon of a mesonychid that had never been found in the northwestern United States before.  Called Harpagolestes uintensis, it was the size of a bear, but had proto-hooves, not to mention big, nasty, pointy teeth.  "It kind of looked a little piggy,” said Nick Famoso, chief of paleontology and museum curator at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  "It has a pig-like skull and jaw, it had hooves.  But it was definitely out there eating meat and bone...  Imagine a hyena, crossed with a pig.  And that’s kind of what this animal would have looked like."

So thanks for an image that will haunt my nightmares.

Then there's the discovery that is the subject of a paper in last month's Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, by Maureen O'Leary et al., that describes some new discoveries in sedimentary deposits in Mali.  Back in the Cretaceous Period, Mali was mostly underwater -- there was a (relatively) shallow seaway connecting what is now the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, right across north Africa.  The fossil beds from these strata have proven to be extremely rich and diverse, but getting to them (and then back home safely) is no mean feat given the unrest, terrorism, and general lawlessness prevalent in that part of the world.

But O'Leary and her team have brought back a picture of a world where what is now the Sahara Desert was a salt-water channel bordered by lush mangrove swamps, and probably looked more like Central America than Libya.  The last expedition to Mali -- and the subject of the paper -- describes the discovery of enormous catfish and a species of sea snake that got to be twelve meters long.

But the weirdest thing they discovered there was an extremely creepy species of lungfish, reconstructed as follows:

Is it just me, or is this thing just a little too close to the Jagrafess from the Doctor Who episode "The Long Game?"


Speaking of nightmare fuel.

So there are our cool discoveries from the world of paleontology for today.  I know prehistoric life is fascinating, but myself, I'm just as happy to know I can go outside and not be torn apart by a hyena-pig, bitten by a twelve-meter-long snake, or chomped on by something that looks like a giant worm with human teeth.  Call me risk-averse, but there you are.

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic -- Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Meaning in music

As someone fascinated by neuroscience, language, and music, you can imagine how excited I was to find some new research that combined all three.

A link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia describes a study that is the subject of a paper in Nature Neuroscience last week with the rather intimidating title "Divergence in the Functional Organization of Human and Macaque Auditory Cortex Revealed by fMRI Responses to Harmonic Tones."  Written by Sam V. Norman-Haignere (Columbia University), Nancy Kanwisher (MIT), Josh H. McDermott (MIT), and Bevil R. Conway (National Institute of Health), the paper shows evidence that even our close primate relatives don't have the capacity for discriminating harmonic tones that humans have -- that our perception of music may well be a uniquely human capacity.

"We found that a certain region of our brains has a stronger preference for sounds with pitch than macaque monkey brains," said Bevil Conway, senior author of the study.  "The results raise the possibility that these sounds, which are embedded in speech and music, may have shaped the basic organization of the human brain."

Monkeys, apparently, respond equally to atonal/aharmonic sounds, while humans have a specific neural module that lights up on an fMRI scan when the sounds they hear are tonal in nature.  "These results suggest the macaque monkey may experience music and other sounds differently," Conway said.  "In contrast, the macaque's experience of the visual world is probably very similar to our own.  It makes one wonder what kind of sounds our evolutionary ancestors experienced."

[Image is in the Public Domain]

It immediately put me in mind of tonal languages (such as Thai and Chinese) where the same syllable spoken with a rising, falling, or steady tone completely changes its denotative meaning.  Even non-tonal languages (like English) express connotation with tone, such as the rising tone at the end of a question.  And subtleties like stress patterns can substantially change the meaning.  For example, consider the sentence "She told me to give you the money today?"  Now, read it aloud while stressing the words as follows:
  • SHE told me to give you the money today?
  • She TOLD me to give you the money today?
  • She told ME to give you the money today?
  • She told me to GIVE you the money today?
  • She told me to give YOU the money today?
  • She told me to give you the MONEY today?
  • She told me to give you the money TODAY?
No two of these connote the same idea, do they?

I'm reminded of how the brilliant neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the concept of the umwelt of an organism:
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt.  He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals.  In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields.  For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves.  The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt... 
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there."  Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?
So tone, apparently, is part of the human umwelt, but not that of macaques (and probably other primate species).  Perhaps other animals include tone in their umwelt, but that point is uncertain.  I'd guess that these would include many bird species, which communicate using (often very complex) songs.  Echolocating cetaceans and bats, maybe.  Other than that, probably not many.

"This finding suggests that speech and music may have fundamentally changed the way our brain processes pitch," Conway said.  "It may also help explain why it has been so hard for scientists to train monkeys to perform auditory tasks that humans find relatively effortless."

I wonder what music sounds like to my dogs?  I get a curious head-tilt when I play the piano or flute, and I once owned a dog who would curl up at my feet while I practiced.  Both my dogs, however, immediately remember other pressing engagements and leave the premises as soon as I take out my bagpipes.

Although most humans do the same thing, so maybe that part's not about tonal perception per se.

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic -- Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Cracking the code

Being a linguistics geek, I've written before on some of the greatest "mystery languages" -- including Linear B (a Cretan script finally deciphered by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris), the still-undeciphered Linear A, and even some recent inventions like the scripts in the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus (neither of which at present has been shown to represent an actual language -- they may just be strings of random symbols).

The obvious difficulty in translating a script when you do not know what language it represents starts (but doesn't come close to ending) with the problem that there are three rough categories into which written languages fall -- phonetic (where each symbol represents a sound, as in English), syllabic (where each symbol represents a syllable, as in the Japanese hiragana), and pictographic (where each symbol represents an idea, as in Chinese).  Even once you know that, deciphering the language is a daunting task.  Some languages (such as English) are usually SVO (subject-verb-object); others (such as Japanese) are SOV (subject-object-verb): a few (such as Gaelic) are VSO (verb-subject-object).  Imagine starting from zero -- knowing nothing about sound-to-character correspondence, nothing about what language is represented, nothing about the preferred word order.

Oh, and then there's the question of whether the language is inflected (words change form depending on how they're used in a sentence, such as Latin, Greek, and Finnish), agglutinative (new words are created by stringing together morphemes, such as Turkish, Tagalog, and Bantu), or isolating (words are largely invariant, and how they're used in the sentence is shown by untranslatable "markers," such as Chinese and Yoruba).

Suffice it to say the whole task is about as close to impossible as you'd like to get, making Kober and Ventris's success that much more astonishing.

A sample of the Linear B script [Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Sharon Mollerus, NAMA Linear B tablet of Pylos, CC BY 2.0]

So that's why I was so fascinated by a link sent to me by my buddy Andrew Butters (fellow author and blogger at Potato Chip Math), which describes a new AI software developed at MIT which is tackling -- and solving -- some of these linguistic conundrums.

There's just one hitch; you have to know, or at least guess at, a related language, the theory being that symbols and spellings change more slowly than pronunciation and meaning (which is one reason why English has such bizarre spelling -- consider the sounds made by the "gh" letter combination in ghost, rough, lough, hiccough, and through).  So the AI wouldn't work so well on synthetic languages like the ones in Voynich and the Codex Seraphinianus.

But otherwise, it's impressive.  Developed by Jiaming Luo and Regina Barzilay from MIT and Yuan Cao from Google's AI lab, the software was trained on sound-letter correspondences in known languages, and then allowed to tackle Linear B.  It looked for patterns such as the ones Kober and Ventris found by brute force -- the commonness of various symbols, their positions in words, their likelihood of occurring adjacent to other symbols -- and then compared that to ancient Greek.

The AI got the right answer 67% of the time.  Which is amazing for a first pass.

A press release from MIT describes the software's technique in more detail:
[T]he process begins by mapping out these relations for a specific language. This requires huge databases of text. A machine then searches this text to see how often each word appears next to every other word. This pattern of appearances is a unique signature that defines the word in a multidimensional parameter space. Indeed, the word can be thought of as a vector within this space. And this vector acts as a powerful constraint on how the word can appear in any translation the machine comes up with. 
These vectors obey some simple mathematical rules. For example: king – man + woman = queen. And a sentence can be thought of as a set of vectors that follow one after the other to form a kind of trajectory through this space. 
The key insight enabling machine translation is that words in different languages occupy the same points in their respective parameter spaces. That makes it possible to map an entire language onto another language with a one-to-one correspondence.
Which is pretty damn cool.  What they're planning on tackling next, I don't know.  After all, there are a great many undeciphered (or poorly understood) scripts out there, so I suspect there are a lot to choose from.  In any case, it's an exciting step toward solving some long standing linguistic mysteries -- and being able to hear the voices of people who have been silent for centuries.

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic -- Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Monday, July 22, 2019

Lucky dogs

Have you heard of Williams-Beuren syndrome?

It's a curious disorder.  Caused by the deletion of about 27 genes on the long arm of one of the two copies of chromosome 7, it causes some physical symptoms (widely-spaced teeth, a flattened nasal bridge, heart abnormalities) and a number of neurological ones (including the ubiquitous lowering of IQ found in deletion disorders).

What is most curious about patients with WBS, though, is the social results.  People with WBS are hypersocial, affable, friendly, empathetic, and far more verbal than you'd expect with someone experiencing the other developmental delays that come along with the disorder.  Even more curiously, they show no trace of the racial bias found in developmentally-normal toddlers (a time when most children exhibit a strong preference for children who look like themselves).  During social interactions, they cue in on faces much more than unaffected individuals, and in fact are said to "hyperfocus" on the eyes of the person they're speaking with.  They tend to trust implicitly and are driven by the desire to make friends.  They're highly sensitive to rejection.

On the other hand, kids with WBS can be impulsive, hyperactive, and disobedient (especially when such behavior garners attention).

Interesting that a rare genetic disorder gives us a window into human behavior (and sheds at least a little light on the persistent nature-nurture question).  But even more fascinating is the discovery, which was the subject of a paper in Science Advances, that the genes in dogs homologous to the affected sequence in WBS (which happen to be on dogs' chromosome 6) have been under positive selection by humans for thousands of years -- and may be the basis of a lot of characteristically doggy behavior.

In "Structural Variants in Genes Associated With Human Williams-Beuren Syndrome Underlie Stereotypical Hypersociability in Domestic Dogs," the research team, headed by Bridgett M. vonHoldt of Princeton University, write:
Although considerable progress has been made in understanding the genetic basis of morphologic traits (for example, body size and coat color) in dogs and wolves, the genetic basis of their behavioral divergence is poorly understood.  An integrative approach using both behavioral and genetic data is required to understand the molecular underpinnings of the various behavioral characteristics associated with domestication.  We analyze a 5-Mb genomic region on chromosome 6 previously found to be under positive selection in domestic dog breeds.  Deletion of this region in humans is linked to Williams-Beuren syndrome (WBS), a multisystem congenital disorder characterized by hypersocial behavior.  We associate quantitative data on behavioral phenotypes symptomatic of WBS in humans with structural changes in the WBS locus in dogs.  We find that hypersociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves.  We provide evidence that structural variants in GTF2I and GTF2IRD1, genes previously implicated in the behavioral phenotype of patients with WBS and contained within the WBS locus, contribute to extreme sociability in dogs.  This finding suggests that there are commonalities in the genetic architecture of WBS and canine tameness and that directional selection may have targeted a unique set of linked behavioral genes of large phenotypic effect, allowing for rapid behavioral divergence of dogs and wolves, facilitating coexistence with humans.
Which is pretty fascinating.  When I go back and read the description of the behavioral characteristics of a kid with WBS, I have to admit that it sounds like the results of a personality assessment for my dog Guinness:


He's so stuck on my wife and I that we have nicknamed him Limpet Dog.  He wants to be next to us pretty much all the time, if not actually in our laps, even though we have discussed with him more than once that a seventy-pound pit bull mix is not really a lap dog.  While you're petting him, he'll stare lovingly into your eyes, as if he's never met anyone he admires more.  He not only shares the endearing characteristics with WBS kids, but their more trying behavior -- he can be absolutely insistent about being played with, gets very grumpy when reprimanded, and if he's bored or feels neglected he'll find something naughty to do because it gets him attention.

Like a couple of nights ago.  My wife was away, so I was watching television while sitting on the sofa eating dinner.  Guinness finally got ticked off that (1) I was eating a t-bone steak and he wasn't getting any, and (2) I was clearly paying more attention to the television than I was to him, so he sauntered up to the coffee table, picked up the TV remote in his mouth, and walked off with it.

Knowing that he's got jaws like a bear trap, I quickly set aside my dinner and jumped up to pry it out of his mouth before he crushed it into tiny useless shards of plastic.  I got it back before he damaged it, but in the process spent five minutes interacting with him, which is exactly what he wanted.

Guinness 1, Gordon 0.

The hyperactivity also rings a bell.  If we don't tire Guinness out by throwing the tennis ball for him 8,583,192 times, or taking him for a ten-mile run, he gets a bad case of The Zoomies.

Cf. my previous comment about his weighing seventy pounds.  Having seventy pounds of dog hurtling around the living room at Mach 2 usually results in damage to the furniture.  So needless to say, we play a lot of fetch in this household.

Interesting that the overlap in genes between humans and dogs -- estimated at about 84% of our total genome -- suggests a great deal more homology between not only physical features, but behavioral ones.  It seems fitting to end with a quote from the Austrian behavioral scientist Konrad Lorenz: "The fidelity of a dog is a precious gift demanding no less binding moral responsibilities than the friendship of a human being."

************************************

The subject of Monday's blog post gave me the idea that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation should be a classic: Konrad Lorenz's Man Meets Dog.  This book, written back in 1949, is an analysis of the history and biology of the human/canine relationship, and is a must-read for anyone who owns, or has ever owned, a doggy companion.

Given that it's seventy years old, some of the factual information in Man Meets Dog has been superseded by new research -- especially about the genetic relationships between various dog breeds, and between domestic dogs and other canid species in the wild.  But his behavioral analysis is impeccable, and is written in his typical lucid, humorous style, with plenty of anecdotes that other dog lovers will no doubt relate to.  It's a delightful read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]






Saturday, July 20, 2019

A time capsule in amber

Today we're going to turn away from the generally atrocious stories in the news and focus on some science that's just plain cool.

You probably all know by now that bird are dinosaurs.  Not that they're related to, or descended from, dinosaurs; they are dinosaurs, belonging to the clade Dinosauria of the Phylum Chordata, specifically a group called the saurischians ("lizard-hipped" dinosaurs).  As such, they're cousins to such behemoths as Tyrannosaurus rex, and also velociraptors, made famous by Jurassic Park.  (Nota bene: although pack hunters, they probably weren't smart enough to get out of a locked freezer.)

So think of that next time you see a sparrow flitting about.  That, my friends, is a flying dinosaur.

This comes up because of the recent discovery of a bird leg preserved in amber.  These sorts of fossils are pretty uncommon, so this one has really stirred the paleontologists up.  It dates to about 98 million years ago, putting it dead center in the Cretaceous Period, which ended with a (literal) bang, the double whammy of a huge meteorite collision (Chicxulub) and a stunningly huge volcanic eruption (the Deccan Traps).

This bird, however, was comfortably positioned 42 million years before any of that nasty stuff happened, although that probably wasn't much consolation when he got mired in tree sap and probably either starved or was picked off by a predator, leaving his leg encased for us to find.  Here's the fossil itself:


And a reconstruction by artists, courtesy of the journal Current Biology:


I do have to wonder a little about the reconstruction, given that this species -- christened Elektrornis chenguangi ("elektron" is Greek for "amber") -- belongs to a group called enantiornithines.  Speaking of interesting derivations; enantiornithine is Greek for "mirror-image bird," because the group had a reversed orientation of the shoulder articulation.  Anyhow, the reconstruction seems to ignore one of the most prominent features of this group to our 21st-century picture of what a bird should look like:

They had teeth.

Not great big nasty pointy ones, no, but teeth nonetheless.  Here's a skull of a different enantiornithine, Bohalornis:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Fanboyphilosopher (Neil Pezzoni), Bohaiornis skull reconstruction, CC BY 4.0]

So a little more ferocious-looking than the artist's reconstruction might indicate.

The weirdest thing about Elektrornis specifically is that it had a greatly elongated middle toe (which you can see not only in the reconstruction but in the photograph of the fossil itself).  What it was used for is unknown, although the team that did the research -- Lida Xing, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Luis M. Chiappe, Ryan C. McKellar, Nathan Carroll, Han Hu, Ming Bai, and Fuming Lei, of the China University of Geosciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the University of Regina, and the University of New England (Australia) -- speculate that it probably was an adaptation for feeding or for grasping.

Not, probably, for flipping off other dinosaurs, which was my first thought.  But then, I'm a non-specialist.

So a pretty cool discovery in China, elucidating the origins of modern birds and their ties to extinct, more conventionally dinosaur-like species.  Makes me kind of sorry the big toothy birds are gone.  That would add a whole new level of excitement to birdwatching, wouldn't it?

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In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.





Friday, July 19, 2019

A lens on bias

It's astonishing and humbling how hard it is to see bias when you're inside it.

This comes up in matters of privilege.  As a middle-class American white male, I have had conferred upon me privilege so deep that it's a struggle for me even to know it exists.  I have instant, unquestioned entrée to places and situations that would be difficult, if not blocked entirely, if I were a different ethnicity, gender, or nationality.

It's even more unpleasant when you realize how bias colors science.  Because science is supposed to be above that kind of stuff, isn't it?  Objective, rational, logical, and even-handed.  But I ran into an interview in Science a couple of days ago, conducted and written by Kai Kupferschmidt, of German psychologist Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which referenced a paper Haun and others wrote nine years ago about the bias in psychological studies introduced by the fact that the majority of the test subjects were WEIRD -- Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.  (The last word is -- hopefully obviously -- being used in its broader sense of "from a country with democratically-elected leaders," not in the sense of belonging to the American Democratic Party.)

This bias colors everything psychological studies have turned up about human behavior, because it takes as a given what's normal, common, and acceptable as "what is normal, common, and acceptable in WEIRD societies."  Haun starts out with an example having to do with ownership -- something most of us pretty much take for granted as obvious to everyone.

"In the #Akhoe Hai//om community in Namibia," Haun says, "who were hunter-gatherers until three generations ago, everything that is shareable in principle belongs as much to you as it belongs to me. I could tell you to give me 'my' shoes, and the fact that you're currently wearing them does not matter.  The natural consequence is that everybody has about similar amounts of everything."

Namibian child [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mosmas at http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/namibia2008/index.html, Namibia Child 2, CC BY-SA 3.0]

These "givens," of course, turn out to be not so given when you look at other societies. 

He follows up with another example from the #Akhoe Hai//om (whom Haun has studied extensively).  "We assume that concepts true in our own cultural context are true generally," he said.  "For example, Marie Schaefer, a former member of my group, led a study on fairness norms. Let's say a friend and I go to the beach and look for shells.  I spend a lot of time searching and find a lot.  He spends his time laying on the beach.  If we divide up the shells, I get a lot more than he will, and that's fair, right?  That's what German children mostly do.  But #Akhoe Hai//om children distribute the goods equally most of the time, no matter who contributed how much.  Everybody has this emotional gut response to being treated 'unfairly.'  But depending on where you grew up, the gut feeling you develop might be completely different."

I recall being in a cultural anthropology class in college and running into this idea the first time.  The professor recounted the interactions between northeastern Native American tribes and Europeans in the early colonial period.  When the Europeans staked out land and said, "This is my land," the Native Americans couldn't even make sense of what they were trying to say.  The concept of land ownership simply didn't exist for them.  The idea you could draw an arbitrary line around a piece of something that had been there long before you arrived and would still be there long after you were dead, and call that piece "mine" in the same sense that you said "this shirt is mine," was so ludicrous as to be laughable.

It wasn't long, of course, before they found out what the implications of the concept of land ownership were -- to their own undoing.

Haun is well aware that studies like his might have the opposite effect of what he intends -- not that cultures (including our own) must be studied on their own terms, but that some cultures are literally better than others.  (And guess whose would probably come out on top?)  Haun says this specter of cultural superiority should not be ignored.  "[It must be dealt with] by confronting it head on," Haun said.  "Scientists can be careful in interpreting their data and engage in the debate.  I don't think racism goes away if we avoid the fact that there is variation as well as similarity across humans.  And the drivers of variation might give us some answers about fundamental questions of who we are and how we work."

I've always thought that the best way to eradicate prejudice is to have people interact with others of different ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and nationalities -- that it's hard to remain prejudiced against someone who is smiling and chatting with you over a cup of coffee.  Our country's current determination to pull the cloak of insularity around us will have the opposite effect, further demonizing what the phenomenal science fiction writer Nisi Shawl calls "the other" and making us even blinder to our own biases.  Instead of holing up in our little towns, where everyone thinks and looks like ourselves, we should be going to other countries, seeing our common humanity despite our very real differences.

It puts me in mind of a quote from Mark Twain that seems like as good a place as any to conclude.  "Travel is fatal -- it is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

****************************

In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.





Thursday, July 18, 2019

Rising from the waters

Keeping with an archaeological bent after yesterday's post on Stonehenge, today we're going to take a look at a newly-discovered site in Iraq that was only uncovered -- literally -- because of a terrible drought that made the level of a reservoir drop.  The result was the reappearance of a 3,400-year-old Bronze Age city that was part of a little-known culture that (in fact) I had never heard of -- the Mittani Empire.

The Mittani ruled over a large part of northern Mesopotamia and what is now Lebanon, Syria, and the eastern parts of Turkey, for about two hundred years (1,500 to 1,300 B.C.E.).  They were overthrown by attacks from the much-better-known Hittite and Assyrian Empires, and were broken up into small disjoint settlements that were subsumed into the conquering people.

For a linguistics geek like myself, the coolest thing is that the language they spoke -- Hurrian -- is a linguistic isolate, unrelated to all the surrounding languages as far as we can tell.  In that way, it's rather like Basque -- surrounded by widely-spoken Indo-European languages to which they have no affinity whatsoever.  (There has been speculation that Hurrian is related to the Caucasian languages such as Armenian, but that is controversial and, honestly, has little support amongst the linguists who have studied the languages.)

The Mittani did leave a scattering of place names of Hurrian origin, a bit like the Picts did in Scotland, virtually all of which were eventually superseded by Assyrian, Persian, Hittite, and Arabic names, and their original names mostly forgotten.  Even the capital city -- Washukanni -- was more or less erased from history, and in fact its location is still uncertain.

But now archaeologists have some new information to work with.  Due to a drought, the water behind the Mosul Dam in Iraq has fallen drastically, and much to everyone's amazement the receding waters revealed a city that was part of the mysterious Mittani Empire.  The site is called Kemune, and preliminary work has dated it to about 1,600 B.C.E., although this is tentative at best.


What's most stunning about this discovery is the degree of preservation, considering that not only did it have to deal with the ordinary ravages of time, it's been under water for forty years.  The archaeologists studying the site have found (relatively) intact wall paintings on plaster, not to mention ten clay tablets using a cuneiform script but in the extinct Hurrian language.


In a press release from the University of Tübingen, which led the research, we read:
The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters.  Two phases of usage are clearly visible, [team leader Dr. Ivana] Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them.  In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs.  Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg).  One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC).  This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years.  Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.
What the whole thing highlights for me is how little we honestly know about our own ancestors, how much has been erased by conquest and suppression -- or simply forgotten over the centuries.  That we could find something about a culture from 3,400 years ago, whose language is extinct and whose ethnic affiliations are completely unknown, is nothing short of spectacular.  You have to wonder how many more sites are out there, drowned or buried, and are waiting for archaeologists to discover, and what they might tell us about the people who lived so long ago.

****************************

In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.