Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New One for the Policy Manual

Over on Museum-L this week there was a curious request - did anyone have a Paranormal Investigation Policy? You may chuckle, but some museums that own or run historic properties apparently get inundated with requests from "researchers" who want to study paranormal phenomena. Just in case you haven't seen Ghost Hunters, these are people who festoon your historic house with microphones, cameras, thermometers, etc in search of spooks. The two "stars" of Ghost Hunters apparently learnt their trade by working as plumbers for Roto-Rooter. I kid you not. Anyway, I was tempted to write back to the list and say "yes, we have a policy - it's called a collections security policy and it says that letting totally unqualified whack-jobs wander around our museum in the middle of the night looking for ghosts is not in keeping with our duty of collections care." Jeeze, people! I guess this is why we write policies in the first place - to compensate for an absence of common sense.

If there is a serious side to this (and there probably isn't) then it's the fact that the proliferation of these idiotic paranormal shows is yet more evidence for the atrocious lack of respect afforded to science, scientific research, intellect, and scholarship in the USA. On the one hand, people are prepared to put their kids (and other people's kids) at risk of serious illness because they won'tbelieve a stack of hard scientific evidence on vaccine safety. But on the other hand, they'll sit down and watch a couple of ex-plumbers trying to prove the existence of ghosts, on the basis that "science can't explain everything." Those of us who do science for a living - and I guess I'd reluctantly have to include myself in that category - have spent years training, sitting exams, writing dissertations, applying for grants, running experiments, recording observations, testing hypotheses, and arguing the merits of our conclusions through a brutal peer review process. We didn't just wake up one morning and think "Hey, maybe I'll be a scientist today!" It would behove the great American Public to acknowledge the worth of that occasionally.
[PS - Happy Halloween!]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Absence of Mystery

I was greatly amused by Maev Kennedy's "Insider" column in the latest Museums Journal. In it, Kennedy is critical of the recently-opened Darwin Centre at the NHM for being "as mysterious as a sock drawer." Her argument is that a sense of mystery is a critical factor in the appeal of museums and their collections; remove this, and you remove part of their ability to stimulate the imagination. As the regular reader of this blog will know, I'm all in favor of increasing the accessibility of collections, but she may have a point. One reason why people respond so enthusiastically to collection tours given by my colleagues and I is that we don't do them very often; there is magic in seeing something that most people will never get to see.

Kennedy's critique, of course, is aimed more at the building itself, which apparently lacks the Gormenghastian qualities of darkness, decay, secrecy, and impenetrability that she feels all good museums should possess. I think we can safely jettison this ideal. Having worked in some spectacularly "atmospheric" museum spaces, I have yet to find one in which "atmosphere" wasn't closely associated with ruinous damage to both collections and collections staff. The fact is that modern collections storage is stark, brightly lit, and hopefully clean and free from clutter. The mystery lies in the collections themselves. In twenty years of working with natural history specimens, I have never failed to be surprised - and usually in a good way - by the things you find when you open up a cabinet. If we can convey that to the public, then I think we'll have done a good thing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not That Monkey Again

Once again, Darwinus maxillae (aka 'Ida') is back in the news. This Eocene adapid primate from Messel, Germany, was announced to a spellbound world in May of this year as the most important fossil for 47 million years, the closest thing to our direct ancestor, blah, blah, blah. Of course, as various skeptical paleontologists, science journalists (as opposed to the regular variety, who accepted the story uncritically), and many bloggers noted, it was no such thing. Now judgement day has arrived for Ida, in the form of a paper published by Erik Sieffert and colleagues in today's Nature. Or has it?

Sieffert et al's paper includes a large-scale phylogentic analysis of 117 species of living and fossil primates, utilizing 360 characters. It includes both Darwinius and another newly descriped adpid taxon called Afradapsis. Boiling this study down to its bare bones, Sieffert and his coworkers have shown that while the adapids share some characters with haplorrhines, the group of primates that contains, monkeys, apes, and us, the overall distribution of characters suggests that adapids belong in the other major group of primates, the strepsirrhines. This means that rather than being our cousin, Ida is the cousin of that annoying King Julien character from the Madagascar movies. The characters they share with "us" are more likely to be the result of convergent evolution than evidence of shared ancestry. And to add insult to injury, literally, it seems that the absence of some crucial strepsirrhine characters from Darwinius may actually be the result of the less-than-reported perfection of Ida. They are all present and correct in her close relative Afradapsis.

Ever keen to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, the media are selling this latest paper as a devastating blow to Ida and her discoverer, Jorn Hurum. This is the sort of thing that makes a good story. Which is why I find myself raising a skeptical eyebrow. Isn't this how this whole mess got started in the first place? In describing Ida, Hurum and his colleagues cherry-picked a set of 30 characters that they thought would clarify the position of the fossil in the evolutionary "tree" of primates. Understandably, having found that their characters placed the fossil in the "more interesting" branch of the tree (let's face it - no-one is going to win everlasting fame and fortune by uncovering the origins of the aye-aye) they were disinclined to dig deeper. All that has happened is what happens all the time in systematic biology: another research group has come along with a new fossil, more taxa, and a bigger character set and changed the tree topology. This is what science is all about.

Horum actually said this today, but no-one is listening to him because he is one of the main reasons that this has degenerated from a measured scientific debate into the media equivalent of a WWE slamdown. I'm actually less inclined to blame him than some, because I suspect that the History Channel, who orchestrated the orgy of hype surrounding Darwinius, waved a fair amount of money under his nose, and then pushed him very hard to stretch his conclusions to the limit and to remove as much uncertainty from his statements as possible. This is a media problem, not a science problem - you can argue that Horum should have had the spine to resist the hype, but the media are past masters when it comes to nudging people along by small stepwise stages (rather like evolution, readers!) until they find themselves in a position a long way from where they started off. And wondering how they got there.

So ultimately Darwinius is important because it teaches us a lot about the perils and pitfalls of press coverage. Big media companies piously tell us that they want to help educate the public by bringing science to a wider audience. This is crap. They care about science in the same way they care about major league baseball, NASCAR, or Susan Boyle (remember her?) - as a hook to sell advertising time. Unfortunately, they have plenty of money to spend and most researchers never have enough. So the temptation to climb into bed with them will always be there.

There is, however, an answer. If you are interested in science, and you want to want to understand the real issues behind discoveries like Ida, go find yourself a good blog. No, not this blog - I wouldn't trust anything written by me - but one written by one of the many, many excellent science writers out there. I would say Carl Zimmer, but I'm mad because last night in the pub he accused me of "losing my edge" as a blogger. So no free PR for you Zimmer! (Not that he needs it). You might also want to try Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science. One of the few rays of light in the whole Darwinius mess was the way in which the bloggers rapidly dissected this problem and stripped away the hype. These basic reporting skills seemed to have eluded the mainstream media, even respectible outlets like the BBC. If ever there was proof that the future of news lies with the blogosphere, it was Darwinius.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Big Cat

I called this post “Great Big Cat” to match an earlier post called “Great Big Rat.” One was supposed to follow the other, to humorous effect. But then I got sidetracked by other things, and now Great Big Rat is way behind this post and it doesn’t really make much sense any more. However, since it is a post about a great big cat, I thought “why not leave the title as it is?” So I did.

Anyway, the last edition of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (Vol 29 #3, if you’re interested) attracted a lot of media attention because of a paper by Paul Scofield and Ken Ashwell that showed that the giant New Zealand raptor Hapagornis moorei, which was around recently enough for the Maori to have encountered it, was capable of flying off with a small child. They like that sort of thing, reporters: “giant eagle was maneater, say scientists” etc. It’s the sort of science everyone can enjoy. [Note to cryptozoologists: Hapagornis moorei is EXTINCT. And it lived in NEW ZEALAND. You cannot use it to explain Native American tales of “thunderbirds,” or apocryphal stories of small children in Texas being abducted by giant birds. The only Big Bird in America is the yellow one on Sesame Street. OK? (Sigh)]

Anyway, while you were poring over the giant eagle, you may have missed an equally interesting paper by Per Christiansen and John Harris, which was lurking away like a red-headed stepchild on page 934, just before those little mini-papers where guys discuss an interesting pig tooth they found or ‘fess up to giving some dinosaur a scientific name in an earlier paper that they have now found already belongs to a deep sea worm. Oops. This is a pity, because the Christiansen and Harris paper is really worthy of attention. It’s called “Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage.” But don’t let that put you off, because this paper is a cracking good read.

Let’s take a little trip back to Pleistocene North America, close to what’s now Los Angeles. 20,000 years ago, this whole area was a mix of sagebrush scrub and oak woodland inhabited by a whole bestiary of large mammals, including giant ground sloths, mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. We know quite a lot about these animals, because they used to get stuck in pools of naturally occurring asphalt that were scattered across the region. Once they were stuck, big predators would come in to feed on them and get stuck in turn. The whole mess of bones and bodies then sank into the gunk at the bottom of the pools, where they lay undisturbed until scientific excavations began in 1906 (you can read more about this fascinating fossil site here).

Of the predators, one of the most abundant, and probably the best known, was the sabertooth cat Smilodon fatalis. Most people think of this animal as a bit of a prehistoric badass, and indeed it was an impressive animal, with canine teeth over 10 inches in length. But there was another big cat in the North American ice age, much less common in the tar pits (only 80 specimens are known as opposed to more than 2000 Smilodon specimens) but just as big, if not bigger, than the sabertooth. This was Panthera atrox.

Ever since it was first described by Joseph Leidy, in 1853, P. atrox has been a bit of a taxonomic puzzle. For a long time the consensus was that it was a very big lion; it was even classified as a subspecies of lion, Panthera leo atrox. Today lions are confined to Sub-Saharan Africa and a very small region of India, but they were common in Greece and Israel in classical times and even as recently as the 1940s could be found in Iran. During the Pleistocene they were probably the most widespread large mammal after humans, being found across most of Africa and Asia, together with Western Europe and both North and South America. Or at least, we thought there were lions in North and South America. But now it seems like “we” may have been wrong.

Now, you may have been laboring under the belief that it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between (for example) a lion, a jaguar, and a tiger. But that would be because when you go and look at them in a zoo, one’s spotty, one’s striped, and the other is…. neither spotty nor striped. Reduce them down to a bunch of bones, however, and life becomes a lot more difficult. There are morphological characters but it’s very hard to pick out the variation that separates the different big cat species from the variation that occurs within each species.

Undeterred, Christiansen and Harris attacked this problem from a multitude of angles – morphology of the skull, morphology of the mandible, dentition, allometry (studying the relationship between size and shape), multivariate analyses of 25 cranial variables, and something called a warp analysis of mandibular shape, which sounds like it comes from Star Trek. And the results are….?

Well, P. atrox is not a lion. Its craniomandibular and dental characteristics are more like those of a tiger or jaguar and it’s much larger than any other lion, fossil or extant. It seems to be most similar to the jaguar, and may have evolved from a jaguar-like cat that entered North America around 1 million years ago and subsequently gave rise both to modern jaguars and P. atrox. The South American P. atrox are probably not P. atrox at all, but just more jaguars. So instead of a big North American lion, we now have a giant North American panther with a skull up to 16 inches in length. Cool!

However, before we close the door on American lions, P. atrox is only found South of the American continental ice sheet. North of the ice sheet, in what is now Alaska, there were other Pleistocene big cats and these probably are lions. Unless some of them are tigers. Ugh. That’s enough of big cats.

[Oh dear, I thought I had got to the end of this piece, when I remembered that there was one thing I still had to deal with. CALLING ALL CRYPTOZOOLOGISTS! Panthera atrox is an EXTINCT species of big cat. Its purported survival into modern times, for which there is utterly NO EVIDENCE, does not explain “mysterious big cat sightings” in America. My suggestion is that you leave paleontology alone and start by looking for the guy down the road who’s running an unlicensed “animal sanctuary” and consequently does not report escapes]

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cryptozoology (V)

For some months, I have been threatening a critical overview of the benighted field of "scientific" endeavour that calls itself "Cryptozoology." I have covered it briefly through posts on bald sloths, the appearance of the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth, what Ecological Niche Modelling tells us about Bigfoot (answer - it's a bear), and the so-called Coulport Cougar. But after reflecting on this, I've decided I can't be bothered. As I look out of my window, it's dark and cold, and chilly rain is lashing the reedbeds of the East River marshes. Cryptozoology belongs to the hot, sun-bleached days of late summer, when everyone that matters is on holiday and there's no real news to put in the newspapers (remember them?). So enough of strange beasties for now.

Even my friend Andrew's apparent discovery of a little-known subgenre of cinematic endeavour, Cryptozoological Porn, cannot tempy me (nor should it tempt you, gentle reader, lest shame and prosecution quickly follow). Apparently he "saw an advertisement" (yeah, right) for a movie in which a busty blonde goes trekking into dark forests in search of the giant cryptozoological hominid. She ends up - as you might expect - having a close encounter of exactly the wrong sort.

Apparently the film does have one authentic note. As the monster disappears back into the woods, our heroine realizes that, after all that, she had forgotton to take its picture. Yup, she's definitely a cryptozoologist.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Grrraagghhh!

That's a sort of phonetic growly-snarly prehistoric roar, which just about sums up this latest offering from National Geographic, which is airing on Monday. I was actually involved in the making of this film - you can see some AMNH specimens in this second clip - and a royal pain in the ass it was too, but the end result looks like its going to be entertaining, at least for my seven year old daughter who loves these computer-generated things. And who couldn't love a show that - finally - gives us a computer-generated oreodont?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Preservation of Knowledge

Kudos to Andy Hamilton, new Vice Chancellor of Oxford (and former Guilford resident), for highlighting "the preservation of knowledge," and the role played by museums in this, as one of the three key functions of a university. Plainly my colleagues at Yale did a good job of educating him during his tenure as Provost! You can watch his inaugural address to the University in its entirety here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

PoH is 100!

Much to my surprise, this is the 100th post for Perogative of Harlots. I have no idea how we got here, but thank you all for being so encouraging. Along the way, I'd like to think we saved Primeval (so that I can waste more gigabytes of blogspace trying to critique its "science"); started off a debate on the topic of "what is a museum?" that actually got picked up by a serious blog; and proved that James Hong does not have a pointy head. Hopefully the quality will improve over the next hundred posts, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

An Opinion Piece. Without an Opinion.

It was with surprise and delight that I discovered my former boss, Ellen Futter, had joined the world of blogging with this piece at Huffington Post. I must confess that Huff-Po is not really my cup of tea; the sight (virtual or otherwise) of very wealthy people sitting around earnestly discussing how to make the world a better place always reminds me of "Radical Chic," Tom Wolfe's magnificent skewering of the attempts by New York's social elite to cosy up to the Black Panther Party. Anyway, I was interested to find out what EVF's opinions actually are, since most members of the Museum staff never get to talk to her at all (I, at least, got to spend an uncomfortable 5 minutes with her at a cocktail party a few years ago, where I was horribly aware that instant termination of employment was only a conversational gaffe away).

As it happened, having read and re-read the piece several times, I remain none the wiser. Knowing the Museum as I do, I'm sure that "Ellen's" post was actually written by a committee comprised of the Operations, Government Relations, and Development Departments, in response to an invitation received at least a year ago. It has been carefully honed and crafted, through multiple iterations, to say nothing that might offend the City, the State, the Federal Government, the Trustees, and the Museum's donor base, both corporate and individual. As a result, there's little or nothing of actual substance. The post talks in general terms about the challenges facing humanity, but it doesn't actually define what they are. It says we need to change our ways of working in response to these challenges, but doesn't offer any suggestions as to how we will do this. And it slaps a very thin patina of punctuated equilibrium, dinosaurs, and extinction onto the subject to give it a natural history spin without saying why any of this is relevant.

Ex-employee sour grapes on my part? Maybe - although I'm not the only one. Other people have pointed out on the Museum's Facebook page out that EVF's concerns about climate change might carry more weight if she didn't ride around NYC in a chauffeur-driven car. Or if the Museum's sustainability officer hadn't been an early casualty of the last round of job cuts. For me, I think it's more a sense of frustration that, faced with the opportunity to say something significant, in a forum that actually encourages discussion, the Museum has once again bottled it. Museums are a trusted source of information and this is especially so for big, respected ones that get more than 4 million visitors a year. Museums like AMNH have an enormous potential for shaping public opinion. But to do that, they have to have an opinion themselves and not be afraid to express it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ardipithecus. Finally

For the last 15 years, paleoanthropologists have been bitching and moaning over the reluctance of their colleague, Tim White (UC Berkeley) to give them access to the skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4. million year old hominid that he and his co-workers discovered in Ethiopia in 1992 and briefly described in a paper published in Nature in 1994. Whatever. As a community, the paleoanthroplogists are a fractious and disputive bunch (quite unlike the vertebrate paleontologists, folks!) and if they weren't complaining about this they'd be moaning about some other specimen that they're not being allowed to look at. Anyway, later on today they can put their kvetching aside for just a few minutes and curl up with the latest edition of Science, which contains the first detailed description of the specimen.

For those who want a measured, even-handed account of the significance of Ardipithecus (and yes, it is a much, much more important find than the stupid monkey everyone got excited over in May) and exactly why it took so long to describe it, I refer you to this excellent blog post by Carl Zimmer. For everyone else, here's a list of things that took less time than Tim White's description of Ardipithecus:
  • First circumnavigation of the Earth: 3 years (Magellan et al)
  • Digging the Channel Tunnel: 6 years
  • Defeating Hitler: 6 years
  • Conquering the Known World: 10 years (Alexander the Great)
  • Writing Lord of the Rings: 12 years
Plainly this is science on an Epic scale.
BTW, I'm hereby launching a campaign not to refer to this fossil as "Ardi." Enough with the cutesy names for fossils (Ida, Ardi, etc.). We're grown-ups, OK?