Monday, July 6, 2009

whales and unintelligent evolution: inside nature's giants

Fin whales, from a Faroese stampIn the late 60's in Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland, a minor sensation accompanied a showman as he travelled round showing off an embalmed whale. Perhaps slightly misreading his Bible, he had christened the beast "Jonah the Whale"; we kids dutifully ooh'd and aah'd because the thing had been so hyped-up by the Mums at nursery school, but we were expecting a leviathan from our storybooks, and this creature was about the length of two cows standing nose-to-tail. And, as I recall, it was peeling a bit.

On the other hand, the whale featured in tonight's Inside Nature's Giants on Channel 4 was truly colossal. A fin whale - second in size only to the blue whale - the cause of death, after collision with a ship had been ruled out, was reckoned to have been grounding herself on the sandbank on Courtmacsherry Bay in Cork where she was found, then suffocating as her huge lungs were unable to inflate under the weight of a body unsupported by water.

Mark Evans: click to read about his unusual career on his homepageAgain we had the same intelligent graphics with a voiceover by veterinary surgeon and presenter Mark Evans that last week were put to work teasing out the evolutionary pathway of the elephant. The first "whale", he reckoned, was Pakicetus, a primarily land-living mammal which for some reason headed for the sea and whose progeny saw no reason to leave.

First of all, the whale had to be "deflated" by making small cuts along the blubber. As a cautionary example, a clip was shown of a dead whale being cut open in Denmark and the gases which had gathered post-mortem literally exploding out. That having beclick to go to the homepage of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Groupen done, comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg of Mt Sinai School of Medicine - described by Evans as "the queen of whale anatomy" - masterfully dissected the animal as far as she could with the help of the Irish Whale and Dolphin group. I say "as far as she could" because the skeleton had been promised to the nearby community of Kilbrittain to display. So she couldn't saw through the ribs to get the heart, which was anchored in place by structures to high up for her to reach.

But those parts she did get were a revelation. The larynx looked about the size of a German shepherd's kennel, and in the search for the hyoid bone - which, she explained, helps the whale both produce sound for echolocation and swim - she had to snap off the point where the clavicles (collar-bones) fuse: it looked like the wishbone from a Brobdingnag chicken.

Dr Joy Reidenberg
Dr Reidenberg seemed a little more willing than the members of the Royal Veterinary society who autopsied the elephant in last week's programme to get into the "intelligent design" debate, saying of the multi-chambered stomach more suited to chewing a cow's cud , and the "vestigial back leg" about the size of an adult human femur, that "if evolution were intelligent we wouldn't have these handicaps - it's a mishmash".

Having never predicated intelligence of evolution, I was rather nonplussed. It's like saying that the processes of slow-cooking or printing a paper are intelligent. I believe that the ingredients of the feast or the thesis were intelligently put together, and that evolution is the inevitable working-out of the right ingredients being together at the right time and put under the right pressures on a planet in just the right place...everything is tuned to within a hair's-width. The only alternative to this scenario which physicists have forwarded is an infinity of alternative universes, each different by a hair's-width (the only half-convincing proof of this is that you never do find those lost socks).

The position I embrace is hardly falsifiable, but I have a strange bedfellow in this, in that Richard Dawkins casts aspersions on Karl Popper's doctrine that a hypothesis is only scientific if it can potentially be proved to be false in The Blind Watchmaker. He believes that explanations will be found for that which cannot yet be explained; I too believe that all things will be known eventually.

Dawkins made six short appearances in the documentary, wearing a bright orange windcheater that didn't seem to shelter him from the studio lights where he was filmed. Something that surprised me was that he never mentioned the phrase "the delusion of design" which we were promised in the teaser after last week's documentary. He restricted himself to making observations that, for example, whales were even-toed ungulates (belonging to the family of mammals with cloven hooves), and arched their backs when swimming as mammals do when they gallop. As yet, the series hasn't - quite - conformed to the nightmare of the Telegraph's Ajesh Patalay, of A gory attempt to disprove 'intelligent design' theories.

Dawkins has, however, been in the very recent news, albeit in an indirect way. A British exam board has been criticised for asking GCSE students to place creationism beside evolution in explaining how we got to where we are, and critique them. The BBC remarked at the end of its article on this that "Last year, this issue led to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss as director of education at the Royal Society."
Professor michael Reiss - click to go to his homepage at the University of London
Professor Reiss resigned from the Royal Society in the same way that a man who is shot decides to stop breathing. When he merely posited dealing with creationism in science classes when the subject arises, and in milder terms than the exam question, Royal Society member Sir Richard Roberts wrote to Lord Rees, the Society's President:
We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education...?
now for something not completely different: read Martin Beckford's report that two in three teachers believe in teaching creationismThis is where Dawkins comes in: he immediately put out a statement saying "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch." In characteristic fashion, when the job was done he had a letter published by New Scientist, saying "Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch."

One thing I noticed was that, in considering whether the whale might be pregnant, Evans referred to the putative foetus as "a calf"; I hope people who heard the reference to the cetaceous nature of a putative unborn whale will reflect upon the humanity of an unborn child.

picturesque Kilbrittain village: click to go to the Kilbrittain websiteThe old girl's skeleton will be a great focal point for the Kilbrittain community, as well as a memento mori. I'll look out for updates.

The next episode of Inside Nature's Giants deals with an autopsy on an alligator, the "ultimate predator".

You can watch Inside Nature's Giants: the Whale on Channel 4's website

Related post:Elephants, arthritis and euthanasia - inside nature's giants

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