Posts Tagged ‘life’

Ours is not to look back. Ours is to continue the crack.

14 May 2010

Our traditionalist is now beginning to worry, but he will grant this one last point pour mieux sauter.  OK, the very first Cambrian fauna included a plethora of alternative possibilities, all equally sensible and none leading to us.  But, surely, once the modern fauna arose in the next phase of the Cambrian, called Atdabanian after another Russian locality, then the boundaries and channels were finally set.  The arrival of trilobites, those familiar symbols of the Cambrian, must mark the end of craziness and the inception of predictability.  Let the good times roll.

This book is quite long enough already, and you do not want a “second verse, same as the first.” I merely point out that the Burgess Shale represents the early and maximal extent of the Atdabanian radiation.  The story of the Burgess Shale is the tale of life itself, not a unique and peculiar episode of possibilities gone wild.SJ Gould Wonderful Life (1989)

Had it in my head, tindered by a typically turgid comment I left over at Jerry Coyne’s blog, to write something about the phantasmic Fezouata fauna. About contingency and determinism and prehistoriography.

The first god had, in his garden, one of these I'm sure. Ordovician marrellomorph from the cover of this week's Nature / Van Roy et al. 2010. A strong contender for my next paleo-ink.

About Wonderful Life and Crucible of Creation. About broken molds and Technicolor films. About checking the guy’s rock record and replaying life’s wobbly mistracked tape.

this is what the late eighties was like

[I biked over the library after Schluter’s talk and grabbed some books.  “That’s a small book,” the librarian remarked about the paperback version of WL, recut into hardback form, “but I’m sure it’s filled with big ideas”]

And about GOBE and rocks from space. About evolutionary anachronism and steampunk anomalocaridids and Schinderhannes. About Chengjiang and Emu Bay and Orsten.

[I Googled.]

About Caratacus and the Ordovices and predictable outcomes. About the Cincinnati arch and Creation Museum atop it. About how those that ignore history are doomed to not worry about it too much, along the way.

[I read.]

And yes about the other big and massively under-celebrated early Paleozoic news this week: Cambrian Bryozoans (!) and Gondwanan echinoderms.

[I typed.]

And ultimately about how, really, all of this maybe shows not so much about the fickle nature of history or the inevitability of intelligence or even about foolish it is to draw deep philosophical lessons from a crappy fossil record.  But that, well, the Earth was a really weird place 550, 450, 250, 50, 5 million years ago and that we have a lot more surprises in store and a lot more to learn.  But we will, in fits and starts, and what we do discover will change our picture of our place in the universe.  Or maybe it won’t.

[I hit delete.]

Because it’s Friday afternoon, and that all sounds pretty damn pretentious and sappy and inconclusive.  Why not throw together a link-heavy meta-post [I thought], then sit back and watch the links decay over the years until all that’s left is an ambiguous smear that’s difficult to make any sense of.

Then I remembered that it’s post a Fall song on your blog day.

Dood Have U Seen Avatar Yet?

31 December 2009

An excerpt from T. C. Chamberlin‘s outgoing presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science published one century ago today. Enjoy 2010.

T. C. Chamberlin “A Geologic Forecast of the Future Opportunities of Our Race” Science 31 December 1909: 937-949.


4 October 2009


Last Sunday I woke up in Bristol, England and went to bed in California.  What happened in between is not that interesting — basically I woke up late, missed my bus, had a panic attack, wound up taking a cab from Bristol to Heathrow (which was I’m afraid, not cheap), called my wife and woke her up to get my flight info, got laffed at by the driver ‘forgot about the time difference did you?,’ heard about his more notable fares (François Fillon and some British celebrities I’d never heard of), charmed my way through the ticket counter (they wanted to bump me to another flight), barely made my plane, watched some of this Morgan Spurlock show (decent, kind of boring), listened to “Well You Needn’t” about a million times, ate some kit-kats, I dunno I guess that was about it.

POINTLESS SEMIOTIC DIATRIBE FROM THE BACK OF THE CAB: The sign on the back of this British lorry which we are rapidly overtaking inquires: “Well driven?”  Effing brilliant.  Really breaks down the metonymic (synechdochic?) chain summoned by the American version: “How’s my driving?”  Lets you damn the driver without directly insulting the truck.  Blah blah blah dyadic v. triadic sign relation schemes blah blah blah différance recursion representamen, whatever.


Photo0066_001Would have loved to catch Maximum Joy, but I guess I was about three decades too late.  Pity.  Also, I didn’t catch nearly the volume of Banksy I was hoping to–in fact only ever saw this one: though from various angles and lights and states of relative insobriety.

Banksy 1 Banksy 2

Bristol, as Jeffrey Martz observes, has a decidedly Escherian feel, each time I tried to take a short-cut I wound up in interesting places far from my intended destination.  I very nearly missed the Attenborough lecture this way.  This is also how we spotted the fox in a back alley, ’round midnight.  It looked like this,

foxbut with a fox.


, considering the source–a University of Chicago grad student (name withheld for fear that he might be expelled or worse).  We were admiring at these artiodactyl accouterments

Photo0063“Animals are not equations,” says he.  “Can I quote you on that?” says I.


Here is a photo of @cromercrox I took with my phone:

HenryAnd here is a photo of @microecos (and assorted internet celebrities including the folks behind Dinosaur Hunting by Boat in Alberta, the Ethical Paleontologist, the Open Source Paleontologist, the SV-POW boys) taken with his:


And of course, there is an interesting story attached to this,


but it involved diacritical maneuvres far beyond my skill set which makes this as good a place as any to stop.

Thanks, and apologies, to all.

Top 5 Amazing Animal Stories

30 September 2009


Amidst neglecting this blog I managed to put together a post on the some of the crazier zoological news of the summer. Go check it out over at !

Dude. Seriously?

1 September 2009

Phoebis sennae metamorphosis video produced by timelapse videographer extraordinaire JCMegabyte.

In a dream last night, I sprinkled water on a dried out, old mantis ootheca which I had given up as spent or dead.  Miraculously, nymphs began rapelling miniature but almost fully-formed from the papery husk.

Nabokov's annotated first page of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

The butterfly expert V. Nabokov surmised that the monstrous unclean animal of Kafka’s imagination was most probably a very large beetle, and certainly not a cockroach as commonly assumed.  I am inclined to agree with him not only on the morphological grounds from which he argues but also for the fact that that cockroaches like mantids (which are essentially toned, insecticidal roaches) and bugs and grasshoppers and sucking lice are hemimetabolous.  They do not metamorphose.  Or as the convential parlance has it their metamorphosis is “incomplete.”

Though form does change from instar to instar to imago in the hemimetabolous orders, these changes are more or less subtle – an increase in body size a subtle change in shape or color the growth of wings.  Dragonflies are hemimetabolous desipite their dramatic transformation from killer submarine to muderous biplane – the shadow of the naiad can be seen in imago with some imagination.

True (“complete”) metamorphosis is a trick reserved for the endopterygotes – butterflies and bees and beetles, flies and fleas and ants and ant lions &c.  Each of these groups begins life as a wormy larva hardens into a mummylike pupa in which the body tissues literally digest themselves and build an entirely new, wonderful thing not at all like the melted maggot or caterpillar from which it precipitated.

It is much, much easier to imagine the maggoty Gregor metamorphosing into a beetle than a cockroach.

All of which is a wholly unnecessary preamble to THE MOST, most bizarre scientific papers I have read all year: weirder than hermit eurypterid hand puppets, stranger than penguin poop from space, more fantastic than plastic barnacle penes, and more incredible, even, than psychic protists.

I’m speaking of course of Donald Williamson’s mind-bending new paper in PNAS: ” Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis. ” (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908357106).

Without, it seems, a single piece of empirical data to support his claim, Williamson posits that the larval stages of holometabolous insects (and other animals which undergo dramatic post-larval transformations) evolved via “Larval Transfer” when insects mated with velvet worms! Butterflies (and beetles, and flies &c.) are, in this view sort of sequential transphyletic chimera. This is something like, well a human mating with a cockroach which then gives birth to a human that then eventually metamorphoses into a cockroach.  Or something.

While this is an, ahem, iconoclastic proposition to say the least, and it is fairly astonishing that it appears in one of the most prestigious general science journals, Williamson at least proposes a “research program” to test his hypothesis.  Here is one experiment he proposes:

As an initial trial, it should be possible to attach an onychophoran spermatophore to the genital pore of a female cockroach and see if fertilized eggs are laid (page 4 from Williamson 2009)

This is like some awesome Dr. Moreau style shite.  The entire paper is sort of like a Lynch film: wonderful and horrifying and you’re not sure if it’s some kind of put on or there is some kind of insane genius at work.

The back story; and some choice quotes expressing the astonishment with which this paper has been received by the uh, “mainstream” scientific community is covered in this Scientific American article.

But. Dude.  Seriously?


30 August 2009


Normal fautling. Dolomite rising. Some plants get old. Plenty old, but not so old really. Large ooids. Treeline ebbs and grows. Jays about. Dust blows up. A helicopter, a dusty Oregon van. Mount Darwin on the horizon.

Kestrels.  Man with camera clinking across the outcrop.

Deer season pends. Dudes on the ridge, scout. “He looks Indian, maybe he is just communing with nature.” September comes.


21 August 2009


IMG_3368Chicago huh?  Check out my new blog: F U Durophage.