Non-Fiction Friday: Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant

If you watched the Discovery Channel special about raising the mammoth back in 2000 then you know a little about the contents of this book. The story is a blend of science, adventure, history and politics. The mammoth is a creature that haunts the modern imagination. Sure, dinosaurs get all the press and their resurrection is the stuff of major motion pictures but what you see on the screen is still wildly speculative. The mammoth lived along side our ancestors. It feared us. It helped shape the environment we came of age in. And, unlike dinosaurs, if we want to see a mammoth again we don’t have to painstakingly reverse engineer the DNA of living descendants to get a peek. We still have flesh and bone mammoths on ice. This book is the story of one such creature.

I watched the television with a certain amount of pride and awe as helicopters air lifted the 23 ton block of mammoth and permafrost from the grave where it had lain undisturbed for 11,000 years. At the time the prospect of cloning such a beast seemed to me the stuff of science fiction. Just as Jack Horner discussed in How to Build a Dinosaur, there are ethical issues that mustn’t be glossed over. This book touches on a few of those. It is a prospect beyond the simple realm of possibility. It may even be inevitable. If you aren’t familiar with the mammoth or the Pleistocene world we shared with them then this book is an excellent introduction.


Non-Fiction Friday: The Earth Dwellers

Most who walk out their front door in the morning can be oblivious. Those who have the luxury of a well manicured yard can look out over that sea of green and let that evolved sense of serenity, however faint, wash over them before they get in the car and drive to work. Though my lawn is rarely so well-tended, even when it is I have no such sense of peace. I know better. I know that within paces of where I stand countless thousands of battles and atrocities play themselves out continually. Tales of horror and valor the likes of which no Greek drama can match are the order of the day, every day. Empires rise and fall. Creatures are born, live, fuck, suffer and die in ways unimaginable to the average person. It is a world that exists below our radar, outside our scale of experience but one as fascinating as anything we Homo sapiens have wrought in our short time here on this earth.

The first time I read The Earth Dwellers I was transported back to high school, sitting in study hall, reading chapter twelve of Walden. An epic battle between two armies strewn about Thoreau’s wood yard at Walden pond was witnessed and appreciated by an outsider, an alien observer. It was a clash of empires every bit as brutal and intense as any battle fought by the Romans or the Spartans or the Mongols of ages past. There was no mercy. There was no retreat, no surrender. Thoreau was enthralled. Sure he was no detached observer. He related what he saw to his experiences as a human with the knowledge of human history.

 In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar–for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red–he drew near with rapid pace till be stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right foreleg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame.

In The Earth Dwellers, Erich Hoyt takes us down to that level. He brings us up close to the tiny Darwinian machines, the semi autonomous extensions of the colony, the super organism. It is from their perspective that we watch life and death unfold. We follow the leaf cutters through their world, watching as they practice an agriculture predating our own by millions and millions of years. We get the same sense of dread that so many species in the jungle feel at the sound of a colony of army ants, a force of nature in its own right, scouring the jungle floor, cleansing it of any and all animal life too slow to get out of the way.

Hoyt also brings us just a little bit closer to some of the scientists who study this world. We get to commune for a time with E.O. Wilson as we make our pilgrimage in lockstep with him through the rainforest, the cathedral in which the biologist can stand in awe:

to worship and gape in wonder at the full flowering of evolution, the place where life is more diverse than anywhere else on earth.

It is Wilson who brings us back to the uncomfortable reality that we face. As we venture into the world to satisfy our need to understand we become more keenly aware of our impact on these hidden and fascinating worlds. In Wilson’s estimation we are losing roughly 70 species to extinction every single day. In many cases biologists are capable of doing little more than collecting enough for a species’ obituary.

If you read this book you may just find yourself staring at a strange reflection. In it you will meet creatures who raise livestock, grow crops, build empires, make war, commit genocide, make slaves of their neighbors, protect their families against all odds and sometimes sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the colony. They can be gentle and caring and cruel and violent much like we can. Don’t think for a moment that I regret knowing what lies beyond the sidewalk. I have spent hours watching pastoral ants tend to their domesticated aphids on a pine tree in my front yard. I have watched battles and rescues and hunts and births and deaths in the span of a few square feet. When you learn to see the small things you realize the world isn’t just a big place. It’s huge. It is worlds within worlds and at the same time it is just a pale blue speck in the vastness of a whole lot of empty. In other words, it’s amazing and beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Non-Fiction Friday: How to Build a Dinosaur

It’s hard to have even a passing interest in paleontology and not know the name Jack Horner. He and some of his colleagues have shaken the world of dinosaur paleontology more than a few times over the years. In the book How to Build a Dinosaur he and James Gorman tell a compelling set of narratives about the state of modern dinosaur paleontology. The increasing importance of biochemistry in the study of fossils and some of the unexpected discoveries that molecular methods have brought to light in recent years are highlighted as Mr. Horner leads us gently toward the implications of his most recent major project, the resurrection of non-avian dinosaurs from their DNA, hidden within the genomes of the world’s extant bird species.

If you are well versed in the field this book is not likely to cover any new ground. But if you aren’t an expert and you would love to know how we can tell that a sixty-eight million year old T. rex fossil was a girl or you find fascinating that within her mineralized bones were found fossilized red blood cells then you will enjoy this book.

After exploring the advancements of modern paleontology we learn how advancements in biology can help us dig for dinosaurs from the bedrock of bird DNA. We find that experiments have already begun to turn back on ancient genes that have gone dormant. We learn how the emerging sciences of developmental biology are cracking open windows into the deep past that we could only dream about a few generations ago. It isn’t just a matter of mere possibility that one day we could hatch a living dinosaur. That we might be capable some day is highly probable. Whether we should do so is a question that the authors leave open. Maybe it shouldn’t be left to the scientists to decide whether we should resurrect extinct animals. Then again maybe it should. Either way I hope raptors prove easy to house train.

Some Perspective

Twelve years after the Voyager 1 spacecraft left earth, 6 billion kilometers away at the very edge of our solar system, the craft turned around and snapped this photo. There, a tiny speck hidden in a faint beam of light, is the earth. I leave you with the words of Carl Sagan. They make me tear up every time I read them. Have a good weekend everyone.



We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Jarreg’s Journal: Cladonia cristatella

Spring is finally here.

Every year, for as long as I can remember, spring means flora, blooming, sprouting, pollinating, stalking for miles in the woods without deadlines, mimicking the steps I took as a child. In the last several years I have failed to act on this imperative, this instinct that guided so many of my younger years. Life happens. Responsibilities, work, children, schedules, all these things conspire to keep me inside or in transit from point A to points B-Z. I’ve tried to keep souvenirs of my former self. I keep camping gear at the ready. I started an insect collection with my kids. On those occasions that I can get the kids out in the wild I teach them everything I can. My five-year old daughter can identify half a dozen edible plants and wastes no time when she finds them. Nibbling on wild plants is the only way to get my son to voluntarily eat vegetables most of the time. Part of me would love for my children to have the kind of education I had. I have to live in the real world instead. I will give them as much as I can.

I hope to use this journal as motivation to get back out there, to get them out there. It won’t be highly organized. It won’t be scheduled or pre-planned. That isn’t how this kind of discovery works. Some of the things I include will be new to me. Some will be as familiar as my own back yard. I’ll start with a pretty little lichen.

For those of you that don’t know, lichens are composite organisms, each one made up of a fungus and a photosynthetic organism such as a green algae. The way the two symbiotes interact is fascinating and I recommend to anyone interested, by all means research the subject further. You won’t be disappointed. The lichen I’d like to show you is known as Cladonia cristatella. This is the name of the fungus portion of the lichen as well. Usually lichen take their names from the fungus but not always. The alga part of this duo is known as Trebouxia erici. Commonly referred to as British Soldier lichen, owing to their bright red, hat-like apothecia, C. cristatella is a vibrant and welcome sight when hiking. Look for it in moist places, especially on or near decomposing wood.

I’ve seen this species dozens of times over the years. It always makes me stop and admire.


If you aren’t one to pay close attention though, you’ll miss it, even with its tufts of scarlet.

Now that I’ve shown you a common species in my neck of the woods, let me show you something else. While common in many areas, the next lichen I will show you is not so often seen where I live. I am fortunate enough to live on the Cumberland plateau. There are a number of species here that might seem out-of-place on a typical range map if you pay attention. There are no red flags on this one to draw your attention. You have to be alert.



That one is Cladonia cervicornis ssp. verticillata in case you’re curious, aka the ladder or saucer lichen, a beautiful and sometimes ghostly little creature and like all lichens a truly marvelous jewel of evolution.

For parents of kids who love science

Our kids love science. Who could blame them? From the time they could walk I have tried to take them outside to explore their world. More importantly I try to teach them how to ask good questions and how to extract the answers from nature itself. My oldest kid collects everything; feathers, rocks, fossils, bones, plants, insects. A few years ago I began to develop a simple system to note and catalog collections and observations we make in the field. I think it’s a great way to teach kids how to collect and record data and how to use that data later on. Anyway I just thought I would share how we do it. Click to view or download PDF files.

Collections page 1

Collections page 2

Observations page 1

Observations page 2

Example page

Originally I made up forms and kept them in a binder and filled them out in the field. I have updated my methods somewhat and have now created fillable PDF documents so that the data can be entered on the netbook while photos, videos and audio recordings can be loaded, attached, cross referenced, etc. at the collection/observation site. The system is a simple one that can be improved upon, especially if you have older children or those interested in more serious or specialized research. My system is pretty inclusive but is tailored to the types of things we enjoy doing. You can use this website to customize your own fillable PDF documents.

If you do decide to take kids into the wilderness for some sciency fun I recommend a netbook, IPad, tablet or some other device that is highly portable and durable and some means of protecting it from the elements. We load our PDF forms onto the device and designate a folder for everything to be stored. Download a PDF printer program on the device such as this one. A digital camera with an easily accessible SD card, a digital audio recorder that saves audio in mp3 format and possibly a digital video system are all great to have as well. We also carry a GPS, thermometer, and a digital compass that gives humidity and altitude readings. We plug everything into the document on site just in case the information becomes important later.

At the site, enter your data in the selected fields including any environmental data you can. Weather conditions, time of day, temperature, all sorts of seemingly meaningless information can be useful later on. You will never regret having too much data. You always regret having too little. Now don’t finish completing the forms until all photos and audio/video recordings associated with the observation or items being collected have been tagged. We use the same notation to identify everything so that building a database later on will be easier. Finish the forms by logging all other tagged items that are related and then simply print the document to the folder using the PDF printer mentioned above. Once you get used to doing it all the time it really doesn’t detract from much at all from the experience.

Obviously there are better and more technically savvy methods as well as simpler methods for taking field notes. This method works well for us. It is a good middle ground between a pen and notebook and more sophisticated methods of data collection. I do keep a binder handy with the some of the printed forms just in case technology fails, which it is apt to do. This is what we use to keep track of insect collecting, nature photography, bird watching, rock collecting, fossil collecting, plaster casts of animal tracks, feather collecting, plant specimens, you name it. When we place an object in a collection it is labeled with the notation we use on the forms so that all the collections have the same data format. So, for example, if I am showing a beetle we collected to someone and they want to know more about when and where we found it I can simply enter the ID number on its label into my computer and it will pull up everything we recorded at the time of collection.

So that’s it. It may not be very interesting to most of you, possibly not to any of you. Data collection and manipulation may seem like the last thing you want to expose kids to when trying entertain them with science. I assure you though, let one of them notice a trend in that data and follow it to a conclusion and you will see a change. It doesn’t matter if it something undiscovered or something known to scientists for hundreds of years. If they realize that they made a discovery all by themselves, that they pulled scientific knowledge from the universe itself instead of a book that someone else wrote, they will be hooked for life.

Dr. Jobe Martin. Part 1

 Last week I saw a set of DVDs sitting on the desk of a coworker. I stopped to take a peek. Hmmmm, “Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution…” I quickly set the disks back on his desk, exactly the way I found them, and moved on as if nothing had happened. I don’t like to get involved in certain types of conversations at work. Eventually I asked him, casually, about them as if I didn’t know what they were. To my relief he said he had come across them, didn’t know what they were and didn’t care and told me I could have them if I wanted. Offer accepted. Now I could watch them without feeling guilty about contributing any money whatsoever toward the spread of idiocy. To top off the mixed feelings, I found the book the videos were based on, The Evolution of a Creationist, available online for free. I also got hold of a transcript of a television interview Dr. Martin did for a Christian program where he talked about his work. I had a day off work (for other reasons-I wouldn’t call out of work to watch creationist propaganda if that’s what you’re thinking) and had a barrel of laughs with WilloNyx as we watched the first video, almost an hour of GawdDidIt on the big screen.

Incredible Creatures That Defy Evolution with Dr. Jobe Martin

Based on what I read ahead of time about these videos I was sure to be in for a treat. One website informed me that this set of videos “presents powerful evidence that proves that animal designs can only be attributed to a creator. They cannot possibly be explained by evolution. This program will inspire you to look more closely at the world around you.” Oh yeah. I was pumped.

As the video began we were introduced to an actor dressed like an Animal Planet star walking around what looked like a zoo. His first job was to fluff “Dr.” Jobe for us. Tell us sir, what is it that makes Dr. Martin uniquely qualified to overturn centuries of scientific research? I’m glad you asked gentle viewer. Well you see, half a century ago Dr. Martin was a dentist on Air Force One. Be still my heart (wiping a tear). You had me at dentist… You had me at dentist…  There I was, thoroughly impressed by the man and I hadn’t even heard the good doctor speak yet. It was a good thing I was committed to writing this piece because, all sarcasm aside, once he opened his mouth I regretted bringing the DVDs home.

I have to confess to you, while I managed to watch the entirety of part one, I could not bring myself to watch the other two. I can’t get that time back, no matter what I do. The video offered not one single piece of evidence to support the assertions of irreducible complexity it made over and over again. It didn’t bother to examine any of the evolutionary explanations it purported to disprove. It simply mentioned and described, usually inaccurately, some biological system or organ and stated that it couldn’t have evolved. It even went so far as to pretend like these creatures were kept secret and out of the scientific literature because they baffled “evolutionists.”

In fact, I was already familiar with every single species this video highlighted because they were all classic case studies in evolution. The chemical arsenal of the bombardier beetle; the cardiopulmonary system of giraffes; the tongues of certain species of woodpecker, etc. As if this wasn’t dishonest enough, many of Dr. Martin’s descriptions of the biological systems were horribly inaccurate to the point of absurdity.

None of this was surprising after listening to Dr. Martin summarize his education in evolutionary biology. I’ll paraphrase. It began with a big bang which released a bunch of hydrogen gas which turned to dust. The dust became the earth which was dry until volcanoes made water. Somewhere some stuff gets zapped with lightning or X-rays or something and BAM! Life.

See, it makes perfect sense now. Doesn’t it? If that wasn’t painfully stupid enough, he constantly throws bible verses around in place of evidence. Somewhere in the video he mentions that there is more information in his book The Evolution of a Creationist. If you had any doubts before about a possible masochistic streak in me, doubt no more. I decided to read the book. I’ll save that discussion for my next installment.

Some Jive About Truth

So I am about to watch a series of videos called Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution. It is a set of videos created by Dr. Jobe Martin, a dentist and former “Darwinist” turned creationist. I plan on writing up a detailed review of all three videos soon. My son, who loves anything having to do with animals, saw the DVDs laying on the table and thought they looked really interesting. I told him to read the back cover on the one he was holding in his hand and I watched as a look of utter confusion began to wash across his face. A little background: My son understands evolution. He knows what mutations are. He understands that selection is not a random process. His confusion was rooted in two simple questions: How could people honestly believe this and why on earth was I going to watch it? I told him I was still working on the answer to the first question. The second question was easy.

Continue reading “Some Jive About Truth” »

A Rant and a Resolution

For centuries people have resisted the tyranny of the superstitious and irrational. Early on we began to forge the tools to overcome these influences within ourselves. For most of our history those tools were dull and largely ineffectual in the face of a biological need to conform. Then, in different places and in different times, logic and the sciences were born. These tools didn’t behave like faith did. They weren’t the product of eons of evolution. These tools were different. They grew sharper with use. Our brains were ready for them but they took work and some skill to use. They were often counter-intuitive. And they produced results that were consistent. Some powers were quick to recognize the dangers that science posed to tradition and quickly suppressed its development. Other powers were less vigilant and allowed these tools to be used. These too would have been eradicated had it not been for their utility. So long as science could be controlled, it was assumed, it could make the powerful stronger. So began the slow compromise of traditional superstition to reason.

Continue reading “A Rant and a Resolution” »