Friday, June 20, 2014

Lukewarm Dinosaurs, the Earliest Known Fish, and Durable Faces

Instead of writing about the World Cup, I decided to take a look at lukewarm dinosaurs; the earliest fish that we've found so far; and a pretty good explanation for why men's faces don't, on average, look like women's.
  1. Dinosaurs: Warm-Blooded, But Not Very?
  2. Metaspriggina: Oldest Known Fish (For Now)
  3. Faces, Fists, and Survivability

God, Clay, and Me

Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," a best-seller in 1859, brought evolution to the attention of a great many folks, and still upsets some.

I can understand why dedicated secularists use tightly-wound Christians who insist that much of what we've learned over the last few centuries is a lie as proof that religion is 'unscientific.'

What's less understandable is why some Christians insist that science threatens faith.

I'm not shocked and horrified at the idea that humanity comes from something that's not human. As a Christian, I pretty much have to believe that God made us from the stuff of this world. All that's changed is how much we know about the "clay" God used. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 302, 303)

I also must believe that God created everything. Since I don't think God is a liar, studying what God made is okay. As I've said before, truth cannot contradict truth.

Using Our Brains

I don't expect to find true happiness in the latest technology, or in scientific discoveries. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1723)

On the other hand, learning about this world and developing new tools are part of being human. We've got brains, and are expected to use them: wisely. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

My faith doesn't depend on learning more about this wonder-filled universe, but it's not threatened by knowledge.

"In the Image of God:" Great Power; Frightening Responsibility

The universe might have been no more than a few thousand years old, and several thousand miles across: but during the last few centuries we've learned that we live in a creation that's almost unimaginably vast and ancient. I'm okay with that. Even if I wasn't, it wouldn't matter. God's God, I'm not, and my preferences won't change reality. (June 6, 2014; April 2, 2013)

I remember the trailing edge of an era when quite a few folks had an exaggerated sense of humanity's abilities, and a silly optimism about the inevitability of Progress with a capital "P." That's given way to an equally-silly sense of doom and foreboding, and I've been over that recently. (June 15, 2014)

I'm cautiously optimistic, since more folks seem to be waking up to the reality that we are 'like gods:' with the frightening responsibility that comes with that sort of power. (June 30, 2013; March 17, 2013)

The problem isn't what we are, something intrinsic in our nature. We're made "in the image of God." We're supposed to have dominion over the physical world. Genesis 1:27-31) Trouble came when we tried being 'like gods:' on Satan's terms. (August 8, 2013)

Folks have had a pretty good idea of our potential — and limitations — for a long time.
"God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them."
(Genesis 1:27)

"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor. "
(Psalms 8:5-6)

"3 I declare: 'Gods though you be, offspring of the Most High all of you,

"Yet like any mortal you shall die; like any prince you shall fall.' "
(Psalms 82:6-7)

1. Dinosaurs: Warm-Blooded, But Not Very?

"Warm blooded or cold? Dinosaurs were somewhere in between"
Will Dunham, Reuters (June 12, 2014)

A 41-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex named 'Sue,' at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. (May 17, 2000) From Sue Ogrockidf, via Reuters, used w/o permission."The hot question of whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded like birds and mammals or cold blooded like reptiles, fish and amphibians finally has a good answer.

"Dinosaurs, for eons Earth's dominant land animals until being wiped out by an asteroid 65 million years ago, were in fact somewhere in between.

"Scientists said on Thursday they evaluated the metabolism of numerous dinosaurs using a formula based on their body mass as revealed by the bulk of their thigh bones and their growth rates as shown by growth rings in fossil bones akin to those in trees...."
If this study had been a multiple-choice test, the researchers would have decided on "none of the above."

The University of Arizona's Brian Enquist said that the dinosaurs "...had physiologies that are not common in today's world."

In 20-20 hindsight, it's not surprising: dinosaurs aren't quite like anything that's around today. The University of New Mexico's John Grady pointed out that critters like great white sharks, leatherback sea turtles and tuna aren't quite warm–blooded or cold-blooded.

Besides, as John Grady put it, "It is doubtful that a lion the size of T. rex could eat enough to survive." Warm-blooded animals run through a lot of energy, maintaining an even, high, internal temperature: so we need to eat much more than a cold-blooded animal of the same size.

2. Metaspriggina: Oldest Known Fish (For Now)

(From M. Collins, via Nature/AP and Reuters; used w/o permission.)
(Metaspriggina: Earth's earliest known fish.)
"Fossils reveal details of jawless ancient fish"
John Long, The New Zealand Herald (June 12, 2014)

"It looked more like the worm on an angler's hook than any living fish we might recognise today but it still takes the record for the oldest known fish to date.

"The first fossil fishes are known from scant and often ambiguous fossil remains, and research published this week in Nature gives us the first clear picture of exactly what these earliest fishes were really like.

"The 518 million-year-old fish Metaspriggina walcotti was about 6cm long, bore a pair of large protruding eyes and small paired nasal capsules (see image, above).

"It breathed through seven pairs of external gills. It had a stout rod supporting its spine (notochord) enabling strong W-shaped muscle bands to develop along its entire body...."
Today, nearly all fish, and all land vertebrates, have jaws. The only jawless fish left are lampreys, that have backbones; and hagfish, that don't.

We use a variation on the old English system of measurement here in America, so I'm more familiar with inches and yards, than centimeters and furlongs. No, wait. a furlong is how long a furrow is, a town in Pennsylvania, and another topic.

Anyway, Metaspriggina walcotti was about six centimeters long, or roughly two and a third inches: about the size and shape of a finger, one of my fingers, at least. That's not particularly large these days.

A Basic Vertebrate: No Frills

(From Nature Group, via The New Zealand Herald; used w/o permission.)
(Side view of Metaspriggina, showing key features.)
"...Its ability to swim fast was no doubt a key factor in its success while living in precarious seas inhabited by huge predators such as Anomalocaris.

"Metaspriggina was first discovered and named in 1993 as it was thought then to be related to Spriggina from the Ediacaran fauna of Australia, dated at 560 million years old...."
(John Long, The New Zealand Herald)
Anomalocaris model, National Dinosaur Museum, Canberra, Australia; via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.What constitutes a "huge predator" has changed a bit in the last 560,000,000 years. Lions and orcas are big today; allosaurs were large predators 100,000,000 years back; but 518,000,000 years ago, when Metaspriggina lived, the two-meter/six-foot Anomalocaris were huge. Not all Anomalocaris were that big, but even so: in their day they were enormous.

That's a model of Anomalocaris on the right, displayed in an Australian museum.

Getting back to Metaspriggina, this fish was almost certainly a "true vertebrate;"with a distinct head, and nasal sacs. Nasal sacs are pockets related to the lining our our nose, where our sense of smell is: and that's yet another topic.

Preserved in Mudstone

(From Jean-Bernard Caron, via The New Zealand Herald; used w/o permission.)
("The fossils came from the famous Burgess Shale sites in British Columbia, Canada, and were described by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University and Jean-Bernard Caron of The Royal Ontario Musuem based on more than 100 new examples.")
(The New Zealand Herald)
"...The new fossils display rare soft tissue features such as stained impressions of the heart, liver, gut and circulatory vessels.

"The fossils came from the famous Burgess Shale sites in British Columbia, Canada, and were described by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University and Jean-Bernard Caron of The Royal Ontario Musuem based on more than 100 new examples....

"Other fish-like creatures such as Myllokungmingia of the same age found in southern China have doubts cast upon their vertebrate nature.

"But the new finds dispel doubt because they clearly show features found only in true vertebrates. This creature is therefore highly significant in being the first step on the long line of vertebrate evolution ultimately leading to us humans...."
(John Long, The New Zealand Herald)
I've mentioned the Burgess Shale critters a few times, often in another blog. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (July 5, 2013))

The Burgess Shale site has been a bit deal for paleontologists since 1909, when Charles Walcott discovered what had been mud at the base of a submerged cliff, a half-billion years back. The mud has long since changed to a sort of shale we call mudstone, a fine-grained rock that occasionally lets the soft parts of animals and plants fossilize.

My guess is that Myllokunmingia is still in the running for the "oldest" title, along with and Haikouichthys. Those critters are part of the Chengjiang fauna, a batch of fossils from the Maotianshan Shales in Yunnan Province, China. It's possible that we'll discover better-preserved specimens of those species: or maybe we won't.

Like the Burgess Shales, the Chengjiang fauna lived during the Cambrian explosion, and that's yet again another topic.

"First Step"

John Long's observation that Metaspriggina is a step on "the long line of vertebrate evolution ultimately leading to us humans" might upset folks who sincerely want evolution to be some kind of a plot.

That attitude probably comes in large part from the notion, popularized during the Victorian era, that since the universe runs along rational lines, with knowable physical laws, a rational Creator cannot exist. It's sort of like saying 'two plus two equals four: therefore God cannot exist.' (February 5, 2014)

As a Catholic, I have to see that there is solidarity among all creatures, because we all have the same Creator. Human beings are animals, but we're not just animals. Made "in the image of God," we are rational creatures, able to decide how we act. (Catechism, 344, 19511700-1706, 1730, 1951)

I'm also encouraged to see the beauty and order of this universe, admiring the Creator's work. (Catechism, 341)

3. Faces, Fists, and Survivability

(From Cicero Moraes, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("The strong brow ridges, cheek bones and jaw of early hominins like 'nutcracker man' (Paranthropus boisei) may have evolved as a defence against the fists of other males, instead of for other reasons such as diet")
(BBC News)
"Male faces 'buttressed against punches' by evolution"
Jonathan Webb, BBC News, (June 9, 2014)

"A new theory suggests that our male ancestors evolved beefy facial features as a defence against fist fights.

"The bones most commonly broken in human punch-ups also gained the most strength in early 'hominin' evolution.

"They are also the bones that show most divergence between males and females.

"The paper, in the journal Biological Reviews, argues that the reinforcements evolved amid fighting over females and resources, suggesting that violence drove key evolutionary changes...."
Paranthropus boisei and hominin are words you're not likely to run into every day. Making matters more interesting, Paranthropus boisei has been called Australopithecus boisei and Zinjanthropus boisei.

None of this will help you predict who will win the World Cup; or lose weight fast: but I've got a nerdish fascination with this sort of family history. Feel free to skip to something more interesting, like "World Cup 2014: the ultimate World Cup trivia quiz," or "History of origami."

Still here? Thank you, and here's a quick look at 2,300,000 years of humanity's history.

Australopithecus, Hominins, and All That

Paranthropus boisei, the largest species of Paranthropus, was the industrial-strength version of Australopithecus. Some scientists think the big guys evolved from Gracile australopithecine, who weren't nearly as husky.

Australopithecus is an older model of hominid: which in this context is the genus, or group of related species, that we're in.

The various australopith species were bipedal critters who would have had a terrible time trying to blend into a crowd these days. For starters, they were only about four feet tall, give or take a few inches.

I'm inclined to call the australopithecines "who" instead of "what," since they may have been the first hominins with a gene that boosted the length and ability of neurons in our brains.

Even so, their brains were small: taking up roughly 500 cubic centimeters; compared to 1300 cubic centimeters, give or take, for an average brain in this year's model. (More at "Australopithecus afarensis" and "Homo sapiens," Smithsonian)

One more thing. "hominins" is another name for the family of species that started between 5,400,000 and 6,300,000 years back, and is now down to one species: us.

New Data, New Hypothesis, and the Debate Begins

"...For many years, this extra strength was seen as an adaptation to a tough diet including nuts, seeds and grasses. But more recent findings, examining the wear pattern and carbon isotopes in australopith teeth, have cast some doubt on this 'feeding hypothesis'.

" 'In fact, [the australopith] boisei, the "nutcracker man", was probably eating fruit,' said Prof David Carrier, the new theory's lead author and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah.

"Masculine armour

"Instead of diet, [evolutionary biologist at University of Utah and the study's lead author] Prof Carrier and his co-author, physician Dr Michael Morgan, propose that violent competition demanded the development of these facial fortifications: what they call the 'protective buttressing hypothesis'.

"In support of their proposal, Carrier and Morgan offer data from modern humans fighting. Several studies from hospital emergency wards, including one from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, show that faces are particularly vulnerable to violent injuries...."
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
These days, a broken jaw is painful and expensive to get fixed. Two million years back, someone with a broken jaw couldn't chew: which could mean death by starvation.

From University of Utah, via BBC News, used w/o permission."Stronger facial bones appear in the australopiths (second and third rows) at about the same time as shifting hand proportions enabled our ancestors to clench their fists, then decline in parallel with upper body strength"
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
Maybe it's pure coincidence that arms got weaker in descendents of the australopiths, facial bones got lighter. Maybe it's because we needed less protection: or maybe there's another explanation.

I'm pretty sure that scientists will be debating this for quite a while.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.