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, April 20, 2019


It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of Skeptophilia that I am a dog person, given how often they come up in my posts.

Dogs, in general, like me way better than people do.  Years ago I went over to a friend's house for the first time, and she warned me about her neurotic, high-strung dog who -- direct quote -- "you should just ignore because otherwise she freaks out."  Within fifteen minutes, said high-strung dog was lying next to me on the couch, head in my lap, snoring.

My own dogs, Guinness and Lena, are a bit of an odd pair themselves.  Guinness is a pit bull/husky mix who is sweet and cuddly sometimes, and at other times seventy pounds of spring-loaded bounce. 

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

Lena, on the other hand, is a redbone/bluetick coonhound cross who is beautiful, laid-back, and has the IQ of a PopTart.  We had a good laugh at her yesterday because we called to the dogs out of our second-floor window, Guinness immediately looked up, saw us, and started wagging, whereas Lena spent the next fifteen minutes looking behind trees and bushes, wondering where Mommy and Daddy were hiding.

She never did find us.  Mommy and Daddy are pretty damn intrepid.

"Hi!  I love you!  You look familiar!  Who are you, again?"

So it's no wonder that I'm fascinated with dog behavior, and also the history of the human/dog association.  Which is why I was really excited to read about some research done jointly by Historic Environment Scotland and the National Museum of Scotland to reconstruct an ancestral dog from a 4.500 year old skull found in the Orkney Islands.

This Neolithic pooch was one of 24 dog skulls found at Cuween Hill, a burial site dating from about 2,500 B.C.E.  Archaeologists have surmised that this sort of thing generally means that the animal in question was some sort of totem; other tombs in the Orkneys have had similar deposits, one of the bones of sea eagles, the other of red deer.

"Perhaps the people who lived in the [Cuween Hill] area at the time saw themselves as 'the dog people'," said Alison Sheridan, principal archaeological research curator in the department of Scottish history and archaeology at the National Museum.  Whether or not that's true, these people, she said, clearly had a "special association" with their dogs.

"When you look at a Neolithic dog, it somehow communicates human relationships, and I can relate to that," said Steve Farrar, interpretation manager at Historic Environment Scotland.  "I can empathize with the people whose ingenuity made Orkney such an enormously important place.  When this dog was around, northwest Europe looked to Orkney."

So without further ado, here's a photograph of the reconstruction:

I think we can all agree that this is definitely the face of a Good Boy.  [Image courtesy of Santiago Arribas/Historic Environment Scotland]

So the dog/human relationship has been around for a long, long time.  Doesn't surprise me, really, given how easily they find their way into our hearts.  But I'm going to have to wind this up, because Guinness wants to play ball, and y'know, priorities.


Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

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

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