Friday, June 29, 2007

Romney versus PETA

The story of Romney's dog has gotten some attention over night. I'm glad. This is the kind of thing that should be well publicized. Conservatives and pundits love to go on about the character issue. Here it is; go for it.

This morning the Associated Press ran a story which has had good distribution. A columnist at the Boston Globe, the paper that ran the story that was the source of the whole brouhaha, commented on the matter. Another columnist, working for the Globe's competitor, The Boston Herald, also took a shot at the story. British papers have started working on the story. Considering how vocal British animal rights groups are, I expect this story to generate an equal amount of opinion on both sides of the Atlantic.

Animal stories really get to people. Any reporter will tell you, that if they run a story on a house fire that orphaned three kids, they will get dozens of offers of money and clothes for the kids. But if they run a story on a house fire that orphaned three kittens, they will get thousands of calls from people who want to adopt the kittens.

Editors also love animal stories because it allows them to be clever with the headlines. So far, I've seen "Romney in the Doghouse" and "Animal Cruelty Charges Dog Romney Campaign." I haven't yet seen anyone refer to this weekend as Romney's dog days, but I'm sure that one is just a matter of time. Feel free to use the comments to share the best headlines or lame TV anchor banter that you run into.

Both the Romney campaign and The Herald are framing the story as one of Romney versus the extremist animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This is a formula that should play well with some conservatives, but the outrage at mistreating animals has so far not been limited to the left, so Romney has to do more than just cry persecution by the usual suspects if he wants to make this go away.

It's important to notice that the criticism did not originate with PETA. It originated at Time magazine where Anna Marie Cox noticed how oddly this story was portrayed in the Thursday installment of The Globe's profile. She blogged about it twice and then wrote a more finished article for the online version of the magazine. She called PETA for comment in her second blog post and then repeated their comment in her article. This was the PETA passage.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was less circumspect. PETA does not have a position on Romney's candidacy per se, but Newkirk called the incident "a lesson in cruelty that was ... wrong for [his children] to witness...Thinking of the wind, the weather, the speed, the vulnerability, the isolation on the roof, it is commonsense that any dog who's under extreme stress might show that stress by losing control of his bowels: that alone should have been sufficient indication that the dog was, basically, being tortured."

Bloggers were already piling on Romney after Cox's first post and before the PETA angle was ever mentioned. I guess we bloggers still have a ways to go as boogie men (and women) if the right would rather go after PETA than us even though we were there first. Our feelings may be hurt, but I'm sure we'll come out stronger for the experience.

The Herald got an appropriately snide comment from the Romney campaign:
When asked to comment on the rabid outrage, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said via e-mail: “It looks like PETA has found something new to complain about other than boiled lobster. This is silliness from the liberal fringe.”

When MSNBC managed to get hold of Romney on the road, he rather unsubtly played the persecution card:
"You know, PETA has not been my fan over the years," Romney said. "PETA has been after me for having a rodeo at the Olympics and were very, very upset about that. PETA was after me when I went quail hunting in Georgia. And PETA is not happy that my dog likes fresh air."

It's a good thing the dog didn't like fresh water; Romney might have drowned him.

He also tried a variation of the bully's standard, "but we was just having fun."
Romney dismissed any outcry about the 24-year-old incident, saying the dog enjoyed his rooftop perch.

"He scrambled up there every time we went on trips," Romney said at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh Thursday. "He got it all by himself and enjoyed it."

In trying to shift the story away from him and his dog and over to PETA and him, Romney is is using some pretty old tactics. It is, of course, misdirection and changing the subject. What's interesting is the particular subject he chose to change it to. He could have gone after Cox and Time and focused his whine on that old favorite the liberal press, but that still would have left the issue open. The party line on the press is that they are unfair to conservatives. By using that line he would have left himself open to people talking more about the story to decide if the criticism is unfair. The party line on PETA is that they are just crazy and therefore anything they say is crazy. No discussion is necessary. He's counting on a tribal reaction from conservatives, that they will have a knee-jerk response and unthinkingly oppose anything PETA says.

This plan might work with the most ideological members of the far right. It might also work on the type of rural rednecks who see the Confederate flag and dog fighting as a part of their culture that is under assault by liberal elites. Romney's support among these groups has been weak. They see him as a northern, urban moderate. However, it probably will not work with the suburban moderates, the much desired soccer moms. The people he is most set to lose over this issue are the ones who have so far been his best support.

All in all, I think Romney is set to lose big over this issue. His best hope is to make it go away and hope that most of his suburban supporters have already checked their minds out for the Fourth of July weekend. If the story dies over the next few days, he might recover. If the story is still alive in a week, his campaign might be finished. I wonder where we could find a bunch of media savvy obsessives to keep the story alive?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The genius of capitalism

These should be flying off the shelf about now.

Show your puppy love. Put your pooch in his own cool doggie t-shirt from American Apparel. He’ll be the envy of all the pups in the park. Let him wear a doggie-cool design so he can express what he’d like to bark out loud. Do it up in doggie style!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Romney's dog

Anna Marie Cox found this lovely anecdote hidden in a multi part profile of Mitt Romney running in the Boston Globe this week.
Before beginning the [12 hour] drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family's hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon's roof rack. He'd built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.


As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. "Dad!" he yelled. "Gross!" A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.

As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Romney coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station. There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management.

Cox had the same reaction I did, and that I suspect many of you had:
Unless by "emotion-free" you mean, "the kind of cold fish who could feel no emotion about strapping his dog to the roof of his car." As for a preview to his "crisis management." Well, wow: Hosing down the dog and the car! Friggin' genius! ... No wonder he saved the Olympics!

In all seriousness, because it bears repeating, the truly out-of-the-box solution he hit upon here is strapping his dog to the roof of his car. Who else thought this little story would end with the dog not crapping itself but, you know, dead?

First of all, there is something wrong with the globe reporters, Neil Swidey and Stephanie Ebbert, that they heard this story and thought it was an amusing and homey example of manly problem solving. To Romney and to them, the problem was that the dog crapped on the car, not that the dog was terrified into incontinence. Once the dog's bowels were empty and the windows were clean, the problem was solved. The family hit the road with the dog still terrified and now also wet and shivering. To Romney, Swidey, and Ebbert, that was a satisfactory solution.

I think most people will have no problem seeing the indifference to life and suffering that this anecdote reveals. Others will make a connection to Bill Frist's cat killing and Dick Cheney's canned hunts.

Is this sort of callous attitude a Republican or Conservative trait? I'll argue yes. I think it comes as part and parcel with the conservative style of gender construction. In their world view, sentimentality is seen a feminine trait and masculinity is as much defined as a lack of feminine traits as it is defined by any positive traits. Regular displays of nonsentimentality and active brutality are necessary for leaders to reassure conservative followers that they are masculine enough to deserve to lead.

This attitude is perfectly clear among the right wing bloggers who applaud torture and call for murderous and indiscriminate retaliation whenever something goes badly in the war. This attitude is inevitably framed by them as "being tough enough to do what needs to be done."

Romney's defenders will, of course, claim he wasn't wantonly cruel ("why, they loved that dawg") and that it was just a case of bad judgment--which defeats the purpose of telling the story in the first place. Unfortunately, it isn't the only example of brutality that we have on Romney's part. Last year, forty years after the only time he went hunting, Romney suddenly felt the need to join the NRA and go on a canned hunt for quail with major donors. Hunting played no part in his life, but he had no problem shooting trapped birds if that would impress a voting constituency. Killing was just a campaign prop, no different that putting on a funny hat and eating fried ethic foods on a stick at the county fair.

Just to be clear, hunting isn't the issue with me. I'm a Westerner who has lived my entire life among hunters and eaten plenty of game meat. I do have an issue with canned hunts, which I think are nothing more than killing for fun. No actual hunting is involved. What Romney did is a level creepier than that. When urban people choose to hunt or do not hunt, they are making a moral decision about killing animals. As far as I can tell, Romney didn't see that there was a decision to make. The only question he appears to have asked himself was: Can I get a few donations and votes if I kill something?

Which brings us back to the dog. Romney's supporters are probably correct in saying he wasn't (and isn't) wantonly cruel. He is indifferent to pain and suffering. To the rabid blogging right and Fox News watchers, this indifference is a desired trait in leaders. He has none of that icky feminine sentimentality, empathy, or mercy. He's tough enough to do what needs to be done. To me, this is worse and far more dangerous than wanton cruelty.

Update: Coturnix just reminded me of two more datapoints in the Conservative equals cruel formula: Bush as a child blowing up frogs and Bush as governor mocking a woman whose death warrant he had signed. I think both of these support my position. The hierarchical mindset of conservatives puts ultimate power in the hands of their leaders. Power comes not from human institutions, but rather from heaven. It can be withdrawn at any time. Therefore, leaders must demonstrate their power from time to time to show that they still bear the mantle of heaven. In reality, it is a very primitive and superstitious mindset.

One other point I should have mentioned: Anna Marie Cox checked with animal rights people in Mass. and what Romney did is almost certainly against the law, but the statute of limitations has long since run out.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mammoth art

Martin at Dumluks pointed this cutie out to me.

The German magazine Der Spiegel describes it:
Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen have recovered the first entirely intact woolly mammoth figurine from the Swabian Jura, a plateau in the state of Baden-Württemberg, thought to have been made by the first modern humans some 35,000 years ago. It is believed to be the oldest ivory carving ever found....

In total, five mammoth-ivory figurines from the Ice Age were newly discovered at the site of the Vogelherd Cave in southwestern Germany, a site known to contain primitive artefacts since it was excavated in 1931 by the Tübingen archaeologist Gustav Reik.


The figure of the woolly mammoth is tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings. It is unique in its slim form, pointed tail, powerful legs and dynamically arched trunk. It is decorated with six short incisions, and the soles of the pachyderm's feet show a crosshatch pattern.

Some of the oldest movable art found in Europe and Northern Asia is in the form carvings of mammoth ivory. The fist artists lived ivory for the same reasons modern carvers do; it's easy to work, attractive, and has a wonderful finish that is both shiny and warm.

Just asking

Has a guest on Hardball ever thought to ask Chris Matthews:
Chris, you're a complete misogynist and you hate Hillary Clinton with a flaming passion so bright the sun itself pales into insignificance next to it; what's that all about?

It might clear up a lot.


The other day Coturnix tagged me for a meme: the eight random facts meme. I haven't done a meme in a while, so I thought I'd give this one a shot. This one is a pretty basic blog meme, tell us eight things about yourself and tag eight more people to carry the meme forward.

This is me:
  1. I have never been east of Montana.
  2. My first job out of college was as a bouncer in an Alaskan bar during the construction of the pipeline.
  3. Although I have worked as a professional writer for most of the last ten years, I still type with two fingers.
  4. I strongly dislike hot weather.
  5. Clever wife and I knew each other for nineteen years before we got married.
  6. I have no measurable talent at music or languages.
  7. I try, as much as possible, not to wear shoes.
  8. I'm still looking for a regular job.

I'm going to skip the tagging eight more people part, though if you want to participate, take this as your invitation. These things have to stop somewhere. Going up by powers of eight, this one would tag every man, woman, and child on the planet and be working its way into another species in ten iterations. Who would we pick? Cats? Moose? Ha! Have you ever tried to make a cat or a moose do anything?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Give me that old time religion

It's solstice. We here at archy believe in celebrating religious holidays in a traditional manner that respects and keeps alive the values that the holiday was founded to maintain. That's why we will be eating roasted meat, dancing naked around a bonfire, drinking all of last fall's harvest wine, and stealing the neighbors' cattle. But first we have to go picket Wal-Mart because the clerks don't say "have a lusty Alban Heruin."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Paul Hill Days update

As you might have noticed over the last two days, this creepy event has gotten under my skin. I suppose we can thank Rev. Donald Spitz official apologist for the Army of God for making it personal. I'm going to follow this until the stunt is complete. Here are my thoughts today.

On my personal front, yesterday was the best trafficked day on archy so far this year. I suppose I owe Rev. Spitz a special thanks for that. Unfortunately, I don't know how to spell a Bronx cheer.

When PZ linked to me yesterday, Google had eight hits for "Paul Hill Days." I was one, my source, Fredrick Clarkson on Talk to Action was one, the terrorist apologists themselves were one (no link), and PZ was another. There were no hits on Google News. Today, there are 255 hits on Google, but still none on Google News. If you want to do something and don't have a blog, write to your paper, donate to your local Planned Parenthood or other women's clinic, or go to Milwaukee for the inevitable counter protests. When I know who's organizing them, I'll post the relevant contact information. I'm unemployed and almost two thousand miles away so I can't be there, but I hope others closer or richer will attend and pass on their observations. I'll post them.

At this point, the lack of media coverage is inexcusable; these terrorist apologists need to be held up to scorn. By the same token, church condemnations are especially valuable and need to be publicized. For thirty years, the most vile theocrats have claimed to speak for all Christianity in America. Whenever secularists or liberals have accepted their claim and condemned "Christians" for legal crimes like doctor killing or cultural crimes like forcing creationism back into our schools, the vast majority of moderate Christians have rallied to the side of the extremists. All because they have successfully played everyone to the left of Tomas de Torquemada in their semantic game. This is a perfect opportunity for secularists, liberals, and mainstream Christians to rally together, but only if the mainstream Christians will be brave enough to point out than not everyone who claims the mantle of Christ is entitled to it. Assassins are not defenders of Christ--not Christ the philosopher, not Christ the prophet, not Christ the son of God--they are corrupters and pretenders. For the last few years, we have endlessly heard cries that Democrats and liberals must embrace the language of faith. Now is the moment when the faithful must embrace moderation and American values and show that the alliance is an honest one.

So, write to your paper, nag your pastor (this Sunday is their only chance), and go to Milwaukee if you can. Don't make me start singing sixties protest songs at you. I know all the lyrics and I'm not afraid to use them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The killer of James Barrett

The violent extremists at the radical fringe of the anti-abortion movement want to portray Paul Hill as a hero who stopped Dr. John Britton from killing babies. When they assassinate doctors, they want to say that they are defending babies or perhaps executing killers. By putting it this way, they hope to get a sympathetic hearing for their message even in places where they might not get a sympathetic hearing for their actions. By putting it this way, they also hope to confuse some people into seeing their assaults as something that doesn't quite rise to the level of terrorism. If only doctors are terrorized, those who are not doctors might not identify with the terror.

While this image of comic book avengers might raise doubts in some people's minds, it is not an image that Paul Hill can claim. He did not just go after Dr. Britton and he did not only kill the baby killers. Hill took a shotgun into a crowded place and shot at anyone who was between him and Dr. Britton. Paul Hill killed James H. Barrett and wounded June Barrett on his way to assassinate Dr. Britton. They were in the way.

The Barretts were a married couple who volunteered to escort pregnant women into the Pensacola Ladies Center past the waiting protesters. June Barrett was a retired U.S. Public Health Service nurse and James Barrett was a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who had managed to survive service WWII, Korea, and Vietnam before becoming a math and biology teacher. James Barrett was buried will full honors in Arlington National Cemetery a few days before his seventy-fifth birthday.

Paul Hill was fine with shooting the Barretts. He was a typical religiously motivated terrorist. In his mind, the glory of the cause completely absolved him of guilt for any crimes he committed. The day before he was executed, he said "I expect a great reward in heaven. I am looking forward to glory." How is this different from any Iraqi or Palestinian suicide bomber or from the men who flew airplanes full of people into buildings full of people on 9-11?

I get letters from terrorist supporters

Apparently someone didn't like my criticizing "Paul Hill Days." Rev. Donald Spitz, the head of Pro-Life Virginia (one of the sponsors of "Paul Hill Days") and the keeper of the Army of God website (not a link to them), sent me the following:
Most, if not all problems on the planet earth are from people like you who reject Jesus Christ. Our prisons are filled with people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. Most if not all rapes, murders, robberies and thefts are committed by people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. AIDS is mainly spread by people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ and have sex outside of marriage or else like children with AIDS get it from people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. I hope you will turn from your sins and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and escape the fires of eternal hell. Turning from your sins and giving your life to Jesus Christ is the only way you can escape the fires of hell and receive everlasting life. If you persist in your sins and continue to turn your back on Jesus Christ, you will be lost forever.

He also included a prayer that I guess works as a "Get Out of Hell Free" card for the sins of which he has baselessly accused me.

Eric Rudolph, the terrorist who detonated bombs at abortion clinics, gay bars, and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA, called himself a soldier in the Army of God. Clayton Waagner, who sent over 550 anthrax threat letters to clinics in 2001, signed many of his threat letters as a soldier in the Army of God. James Kopp, AKA Atomic Dog, who was convicted for the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 and suspected in several other non-fatal shootings of abortion providers also called himself a soldier in the Army of God. AOG is also responsible for a kidnapping, a spate of bombings, and a threat on the life of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Rev. Spitz is the main apologist for these terrorists. Though he makes no direct threats to me or my family, his attention makes me decidedly uncomfortable. But then, I suppose that was the whole point of his letter.

Violent thugs and terrorists thrive in darkness. If you care about a woman's right to own her body, if you care about the right of all people to live free from intimidation, or you just think "Paul Hill Days" are tacky in the extreme, please post on this and send these creatures scurrying back to their holes.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jesus wept

Just when we think the vileness that people will commit in the name of God can't get any worse, we get this:
George L. Wilson of Children Need Heroes and Drew Heiss of Street Preach are planning to honor Paul Hill in a series of events called "Paul Hill Days" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 26th - 29th -- "to honor him as God's man and our hero."

On July 29, 1994 Paul Hill, who sought to set a good example for Christian theocratic revolutionaries, assassinated abortion provider Dr. John Britton and James Barrett one of his escorts, and seriously wounding another, June Barrett, outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida.

It should be noted that George L. Wilson, the proprietor of Children Needs Heroes, recognizes two other heroes he believes America's children should learn about: Shelly Shannon, who was convicted of the attempted assassination of Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, among other serious crimes, including a series of arsons; and of course, James Kopp, who was convicted in the sniper assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Amherst, New York. Kopp is also the chief suspect in several other shootings.

All three are recognized as Heroes of the Faith by the Army of God, members of which are likely to be on hand for the festivities.

On September 3, 2003, Paul Hill was executed by the state of Florida for two counts of murder. Murder was not really the correct charge. Although Hill planned to stop Dr. Britton from performing abortions by killing him, Hill had much larger goal in mind. Like all anti-abortion assassins, Hill hoped to intimidate other abortion providers through an act of unpredictable violence. This is the very definition of terrorism.

By the same token, the "Paul Hill Days" stunt has a larger purpose than just to "honor" Hill or educate children about a "hero." The event also sends a message to abortion providers everywhere that there are still those who believe in terror lurking in the crowds and they could be next. The highlight of the "Paul Hill Days" stunt is a reenactment of the assassination. It is the exact parallel to sending a noose to a black civil rights leader or a bullet and picture of his child to an Iraqi Sunni living in a Shi'ite town. If this stunt is a success, think of some of the other celebrations we might be subjected to: Southern Nationalists holding John Wilkes Booth Days complete with reenactments of his most famous moment in a theater, Timothy McVeigh Days with a reenactment of the last moments of the Murrah daycare center, and, of course, Mohamed Atta Days with what horrors I'll leave you to imagine.

At times like this, I hope the fundamentalists are right about hell so people like this can spend eternity there. There are no words strong enough to express my disgust.

Update 1: In my original rush to post this, I misspelled Timothy McVeigh's name. That has been corrected.

Update 2: Steve Reynolds of The All Spin Zone asks the important question"
Which Republican Presidential Candidate Will Condemn “Paul Hill Days?” Someone should ask every one of those candidates. They’ve all come out against abortion, even Rudy Giuliani, though sometimes it is hard to understand his stance.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

'Bout time you noticed

Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS)

For the last fifteen years, talk radio has been at the beck and call of the Republican Party, happily distributing their talking points, rallying the troops, getting out the vote, and whipping up a lynch mob to bash traitorous liberals at a moment's notice. More than any other single force, talk radio has been responsible for keeping the Republicans in power for the last fifteen years. Now that they have taken a stand independent of the Party on one issue, immigration, they have become a problem that must be dealt with. Not only is Lott ungrateful, arrogant, and hypocritical, he's stunningly short sighted. If he breaks the power of talk radio over this one issue, where will he get a lynch mob next time he needs one?

In other words, he has my whole-hearted support to move forward on this.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

How many is normal for this time of year?

General Petraeus on things getting better in Baghdad:
If you drive around Baghdad, you'll find astonishing signs of normalcy in perhaps half to two-thirds of the city.... In fact, the car bomb numbers have come down fairly steadily as well until just a couple of days ago, and we'll see if we can get those coming down again.

What Petraeus fails to take into account is that the numbers of car bombings always go down around this time of year as they begin to run out of cars, but the numbers will be back up next fall, after the new models come out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Deadly coffee shops

Chuck Colson, the former Watergate criminal who found God, spoke to a group of Southern Baptists the other day and exposed the three greatest threats to Christianity in the modern world. They are:
  • Islam. It's "evil incarnate." No surprise here.
  • Atheism. It's on the march and they actually write books.
  • Coffee shops.

Um, what was that again?
Colson also dismissed a burgeoning movement known as "the emergent church"--popular among younger Baptists and other evangelicals--as "abandoning the search for truth" in favor of "conversations in coffee shops." He instead pointed to the success of booming Third World Churches, which Colson said adhere to "pure orthodox truth."

The emergent church is apparently a new movement of younger evangelicals who actually go out and talk to people outside their church and evangelize them. They are more doctrinally flexible, less culturally conservative, and less tied to the hierarchy of the mainstream fundamental churches. Moderate, disobedient kids leaving the ghetto; you can see how that would annoy rightwing culture warriors like Colson.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

More mammoth news

We have another new study that weighs in on the mystery of mammoth extinction this week. I wish this story had come out about four days earlier so I could have included it in my last big mammoth post. Just in case you were laying awake at nights wondering if the entire world was organized for John's convenience, this is a vote in the "NO" column. Sigh.
Some ancient-DNA evidence has offered new clues to a very cold case: the disappearance of the last woolly mammoths, one of the most iconic of all Ice Age giants, according to a recent article.

Get it: "cold case, Ice Age?" These folks are clearly crowding in on my act.
DNA lifted from the bones, teeth, and tusks of the extinct mammoths revealed a "genetic signature" of a range expansion after the last interglacial period. After the mammoths' migration, the population apparently leveled off, and one of two lineages died out.

"In combination with the results on other species, a picture is emerging of extinction not as a sudden event at the end of the last ice age, but as a piecemeal process over tens of thousands of years involving progressive loss of genetic diversity," said Dr. Ian Barnes, of Royal Holloway, University of London. "For the mammoth, this seems much more likely to have been driven by environmental rather than human causes, even if humans might have been responsible for killing off the small, terminal populations that were left."

Besides its intrinsic interest, the end ice age extinctions are important to paleontologists for the simple reason that we have more information about this extinction event than any other. Both because it was so recent and because we are still in the Pleistocene Ice Epoch, many of the extinct animal remains that we have to examine are not yey fossilized. We have actual soft tissue of hair, skin, bone marrow, internal organs, and, most importantly, we have DNA. We know more about mammoths than any extinct animal outside those that we are currently in the process of driving extinct.

This sort of genetic diversity study is an example of the kind of work that we can do on the end ice age extinction event that we can't do on, for example, the much more popular K-T event which killed the dinosaurs. Because we can study this kind of detail about this event, it has a special importance as a test case for any broad generalization that anyone makes about extinction.

This study has an impressive list of co-authors, including Adrian Lister of the University College London and the Natural History Museum in London, a major authority on things mammothy, and R. Dale Guthrie University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the primary spokesman for the climate model of end ice age extinctions.
In the name of full disclosure (or bragging), my number one sister works for the University of Alaska system and has participated on an important dig with Prof. Guthrie.

A limitation to this study is that it primarily focussed on Siberian mammoths (the region from whence we get most of our best mammoth remains). Any conclusions they draw must be qualified by that limitation. However, like the Kennett study and the Last study, this sort of work piecing together the regional details of the transition from the last ice age into the current interglacial is relevant today in understanding major climate change and especially exciting to me, just because.

Kitchen question

We live in an old house--over 100 years old. As is usually the case with houses of this age, the configuration of storage space leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the kitchen. I came home after buying groceries this afternoon and cleaned out the refrigerator to make room for fresh leftovers. When I was done, I had an empty vegetable crisper in the 'fridge and a pile of fruits and vegetables on the counter. I know that many fruits and vegetables do not need to be refrigerated, but in the situation in which I find myself--more refrigerator space than pantry space--which fruits and vegetables should I absolutely not refrigerate? Bananas. Any others?

A meeting

Yesterday, I finally got to meet one of my closest blogging friends face to face. Mustang Bobby was in town for a nephew's high school graduation. Seattle put on a display of it's glorious Northwest best; it was pouring. So, we did what all good Seattlites do, we went to a bookstore and drank coffee (it was to early in the day for a microbrewery). We talked about books, jobs, what's wrong with Bush, middle-age worries, what's wrong with the Republicans, jet lag, what's wrong with modern conservatives, our families, and what's wrong with people who don't think there's something wrong with Bush, the Republicans, or modern conservatives. A good time was had by all and I hope we get to do it again soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A new narrative of mammoth extinction?

A new theory of mammoth extinction was proposed by James Kennett, of the University of California in Santa Barbara, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union two weeks ago in Acapulco. Predictably, it involves comets.

Why predictably? Scientific theories have a special rhythm of their own. As intellectual constructs they are not completely neutral, objective formulations. Theories are as dependent on the intellectual climate that produces them as any type of creative work is. The ideal of scientists gathering all of the facts and developing theories based on what the facts tell them is just that: an ideal. It's not real. This doesn't mean scientific theories are as shallow and prone to silly fads as, say, teenage clothing fashions. Let's say that they are much deeper and prone to trends, not fads. At the very least, the intellectual atmosphere of the day decides what the questions are that scientists are trying to answer when they set out to gather "all of the facts."

For example, the question of what caused the mammoths to go extinct would not have occurred to thinkers at the beginning of the Enlightenment. At that time, no one believed extinction was even possible. It went against all common sense, they thought. Look at the difficulty of the task. How could every single member of a species be killed? Even the most virulent plague leaves a few survivors. The greatest hunter can only kill a limited number of prey each day. As he kills, the other prey are warned and flee before his approach. Besides, the world is an enormous place. Even if we were to kill all of a species over here, there will always be survivors somewhere else. Look at the wolf. Europeans had been trying to kill off the wolf since the beginnings of history, but there always more wolves lurking around the edges of civilization.

No, the wise men of the day said, shaking their wise heads, it’s just not possible. Being wise people, they didn’t depend on mere common sense to back up their position--after all, common sense is so, well, common. They had the authority of ancient thinkers and God himself to back up their position.

For those of a philosophical bent, Aristotle's doctrine of plenitude, as interpreted through the lens of seventeen centuries of Christianity, provided the key argument against extinction. The doctrine of plenitude, or the fullness of the natural world, argued that any life form conceived by God must have come into existence as part of his perfect world. Each part of creation is necessary for creation's divine perfection as a manifestation of God's perfect mind. No life form created by God could ever cease to exist, because that would leave an unbridgeable void in the Great Chain of Being. For those more inclined to eschew philosophy and take comfort in a good Biblical verse, there was Ecclesiastes 3:14 -15: "I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it.... That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past." In either case, extinction just couldn't be.

When Enlightenment thinkers accepted fossils as the remains of once living things and not just interesting rocks that happened to look like bones or shells, they first tried to make all fossils the remains of known animals. When some fossils were proven to be unfamiliar species--most importantly, Georges Cuvier proving that mammoths were not the same as modern elephants--they argued that these animals must now live in still unexplored regions of the earth. Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson, two of the best-informed leaders of the day, both believed that mammoths and mastodons existed on the distant frontiers of their respective countries. But others found the idea that such large land animals could stay hidden highly unlikely. Through the early years of the nineteenth century, the idea of extinction gradually gained acceptance.

The idea of extinction wasn't pushed through by sheer force of the evidence. Other successful ideas helped make it more acceptable. From the earliest days of the Renaissance, European thinkers had had to deal with the fact that the world was a lot bigger and more complex than they had ever imagined. This raised many difficult questions about the literal truth of the first chapters of Genesis. The questions themselves were only very cautiously voiced. The one implication of this questioning that remained unvoiced the longest was the idea that the earth must be much older than mentioned in Genesis in order to account for the size and complexity of the new universe.

Medieval thinkers had never lost sight of the fact the fact that the ancients had believed the earth to be either eternal or subject to eternal cycles of creation and destruction. For a millennium, it was possible to mock such ideas as a sign of unenlightened ignorance. However, after Magellan and Copernicus expanded the known universe, it made sense that more time went hand in hand with more space and more complexity.

More time meant more room for vast changes in nature to develop, either gradually or in forgotten upheavals. This made extinction easier to accept as a part of the greater whole. Additionally, at the same time extinction was gaining acceptance, the idea of ice ages was suggested by Louis Agassiz and quickly gained acceptance. Two years after Cuvier announced his conclusion that the mammoth was an unknown and extinct type of elephant, the first frozen mammoth, that would be recovered and brought back to Europe, was found in Siberia. This showed that the mysterious elephants of Europe and Asia were great hairy beasts more suited to extreme cold than to temperate climates. Again, each idea helped gain acceptance for the other. The idea that the mammoth was a creature adapted to the frozen wastes, who perished when the earth warmed, formed a perfectly suitable narrative for the emerging ideas of the history of the earth.*

This was the first coherent, scientific theory of extinction for the mammoth.** It was a perfect narrative for the nineteenth century. It emphasized the treacherous and dangerous side of nature. Despite forays into sentimental romanticizing of nature, nineteenth century Western culture basically saw nature as something to be fought and tamed. Mankind's ability to change and adapt was seen as progress, a virtue. Our technology gave us the ability to change nature to fit our needs, rather than changing ourselves as nature demanded. The poor mammoth was at the mercy of nature's capricious changes and died out. This extinction narrative would remain unchallenged for over a century.

By the late 1940s, faith in the positive character of technology, the inevitability of progress, and mankind's ability to survive had all taken a blow. The holocaust and the atomic bomb brought on a crisis of self-doubt. Artists and mainstream intellectuals seriously considered the possibility that mankind's innovation might be the source of our own imminent extinction. In 1961, Robert Ardrey published African Genesis, a new narrative of human evolution that emphasized man the hunter, not in its previous heroic mold, but as a vicious carnivore with an instinct to kill and destroy. The next year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that documented the unexpected negative consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use and which became one of the seminal documents of the environmental movement. Both books were controversial bestsellers and widely discussed for the rest of the decade. The next scientific theory of mammoth extinction reflected these new, pessimistic assumptions of the post war world.

Paul Martin, in a series of papers published in the mid-sixties, argued that mankind and our technology were the cause of the extinction of the mammoths and other large mammals at the end of the ice age. The theory was not entirely new, Cuvier's contemporary Lamarck had believed it, but, it had never had strong evidence to support it. Though there was evidence that people had lived with and hunted mammoths in the Old World, the first evidence that humans and mammoths had lived together in the New World wasn't known until 1929 and the excavations at Clovis, CO. The first iron-clad proof of a mammoth kill in the New World wasn't discovered until 1953 when a mammoth with spear tips between the bones was found at Naco, AZ.

Martin's 1967 paper pulled together a wide array of radiocarbon dates to show that the mammoths and other large ice age mammals all went extinct within about one thousand years of the earliest evidence of humans in the New World (the Clovis site). To add to his argument that humans caused extinctions, he demonstrated the same pattern of human arrival and large animal extinction in Australia, Madagascar, and the Pacific Islands. Martin has a flair for language; he called his theory the Overkill Hypothesis, referred to a blitzkrieg of hunters advancing through the New World, and said, "large mammals disappeared not because they lost their food supply, but because they became one." His presentation was very appealing in a melodramatic decade and soon had many followers.

For the next thirty years the climate and overkill theories battled it out until a third theory appeared suddenly in 1997. In the age of AIDS, it was perhaps inevitable that the someone would suggest a plague as the killer of the mammoths. Ross MacPhee, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, suggested the possibility of a plague carried by humans or their dogs into the New World killing most of the big game before they could hunt it and forcing the hunters to settle down and become farmers or to change over to smaller game. MacPhee has yet to find any direct evidence to support his theory but gathers samples from each new frozen mammoth discovered to see if it contains any unknown pathogens.

Now we have comets. Like disease and a suspicion of technology, comets have been in the air lately.*** Comets or meteors were an early suspect for the extinction of the dinosaurs, but not a favored one. The preferred idea was that dinosaurs were done in by a combination of climate change and swift mammals.

The leading interpretation of meteors was that most of the big ones were used up in the early days of the universe and that the odds of a dangerous one hitting the earth were, well, astronomical. The unfortunate affair of Velikovsky's cosmic billiards theory of ancient history had further soured most scientists on crediting meteors or comets with causing anything. This changed in 1980 when Luis Alvarez, his father and two chemists published clear evidence of a large cosmic event of some sort happening right at the K-T boundary, the border between the last rocks containing dinosaur fossils and the first without.

The Alvarez theory was hotly debated all through the eighties. Because of the popularity of dinosaurs with children, the debate was more widely known by the public than most scientific disputes. Many scientists specializing in other periods of mass extinction reviewed their evidence to see if other meteors were possible. Some even thought they saw a periodic pattern of meteors and extinctions every twenty six million years. By 1991, David Raup, possibly the leading expert on all extinctions, could wonder in print, "could all extinctions be caused by meteorite impact?" The Alvarez theory is still disputed, though the number of disputants was reduced dramatically at the end of the eighties when a 300 kilometer wide crater of the right age was revealed to lie beneath the Yucatan peninsula.

Other events in the eighties and nineties kept the possibility of cosmic impact on the public mind. Halley's Comet returned in 1986. The spectacular impact of the fragments of Comet Schumacher-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1993 was the first time a large planetary impact was directly observed and studied by human scientists. This was followed by a couple of big budget summer movies featuring giant impacts.

That an idea is fashionable or rooted on contemporary social concerns and attitudes does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. Though it does mean that Kennett's theory will almost certainly face extra scrutiny. That's probably a good thing. Fortunately, Kennett has evidence:
Evidence for the impact comes from a thin layer of sediment found throughout North America, said James Kennett, a geologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

"There are materials with particular chemistries in that layer that collectively provide very strong evidence that the layer was produced by this extraterrestrial impact," he said in a telephone interview.

Kennett said the layer contains tiny spheres of carbon and metals, bits of diamonds, and extraterrestrial concentrations of helium 3 and the element iridium.

The layer dates to 12,900 years ago, he added.

At about the same time, according to the researchers, Earth's climate cooled; mammals like mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats went extinct; and one of the first American cultures disappeared.

Kennett has a very specific series of events in mind and this leaves many point that can be tested by experts in a variety of fields.

First, he pictures his impact appearing somewhere near the Great Lakes. Naturally, geoleogists will search for more debris from the impact in that area to see if his distribution is correct. Was there really an event centered in that area? If so is there a crater. There doesn't have to be a crater. It could be that the impactor exploded in the atmosphere or that it hit the glacial ice shield, which at that time was just north of there draining into the lakes.

Kennett says the impact would have released a great amount of cold meltwater into the Atlantic, possibly changing the global climate for decades. This theory is already widely accepted. At the time he mentions, the end ice age warming was suddenly reversed in an event called the Younger Dryas. The cold water flood is the most often named cause for the Younger Dryas. Even if Kennett's comet is proven, it must match the date of the Younger Dryas for his scenario to work.

Third, he has thrown himself right into the middle of the climate versus hunting controversy over mammoth extinction. While the impact itself might have been a cause of regional extinction for the mammoths through forest fires and direct devastation of their habitat, it is abrupt climate change of the Younger Dryas that has to do in mammoths and other large mammals in places like South America (where three genera of mastodon-like gomphotheres went extinct).

The fourth and last element of his theory is the newest and perhaps the most interesting. Kennett and his son Douglas Kennett, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, claim that the comet was a major cause of the end of the Clovis culture. The extinction of main big game prey has been the main theory given for the abrupt end of the Clovis culture. This theory works whether they caused the extinction through over hunting, by bringing a plague, or just had the bad luck to arrive as the climate killed all the big game. Losing their prey would have forced a change of lifestyle on the Clovis.

The Kennetts suggest two related but different causes for the end of Clovis culture in different regions. In the West and in what's now Latin America, the Clovis culture died out after losing their prey. But in the East, especially around the Great Lakes, the Kennetts point to an apparent gap between the end of Clovis culture and the beginning of post Clovis culture. They suggest that the impact really did wipe out most life in the area. In their narrative, forest fires, devastated habitat, and fallout killed or drove away all of the people in the East. It was only after the Western Clovis has diversified into new cultures and the Eastern forests grew back that humans recolonized the region.

I'm eager to see what happens when others go over the Kennetts' evidence. The story of the extinction of the mammoths and other large mammals at the end of the last ice age, the arrival of humans in the New World, and the transformation of the environment of the Americas is one of the great mysteries of the historical and earth sciences. So too is finding the right place for cosmic impacts in the history of the earth and its life. Whether the Kennetts' theory survives or not, the discussion should be fun.

* At the same time a counter idea grew up that the mammoth was a creature of a slightly colder time before the ice age who perished when it got too cold. This idea has never had large scale support but has never quite gone away either.

** The religious ideas that extinct species are the remains of prior creations--God using the earth for other projects before man--or that they perished in the flood have always been problematic because they are not mentioned in the Bible. The previous creations idea depends on the possibility of an unmentioned gap of time between God creating the heavens and the earth and the first day of Genesis. The idea that species were killed in the flood directly contradicts God ordering Noah to gather two of every animal and Noah fulfilling God's will.

*** Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Evenki loanwords

When the Russians began to penetrate Siberia four centuries ago they found a situation similar to the one that the Spanish, French, and English were finding in the Americas at the same time. They had at their mercy a vast land, rich in resources, thinly populated by a confusing array of peoples, each with their own culture, history, and language. Just as in the new world, these people were treated more as an obstacle to progress than as a asset in their own right. By the nineteenth century, the native Siberian peoples had been reduced to a tiny minority by disease, massacre, economic dislocation, administrative hostility, and massive immigration from European Russia.

One of those people were the Evenki. Prior to the 1930's, the Russians called them the Tungus and this obsolete name still appears in Western works that aren't specifically about anthropology. Their language is part of one branch of the family that includes Turkic, Mongol, and Manchu (or not, linguists are a pretty argumentative bunch when it comes to figuring out the higher relationships between languages). Today there are fewer than 100,000 of them, about equally split between Siberia and China. One group has their own administrative unit in central Siberia, but they make up only about one seventh of that unit, and the unit itself is home to only about one tenth of the Siberian Evenki. It was, however enough to get them their own flag.

All of you know two words in the Evenki language. One of them is the name they gave to the men and women who interceded for them with the spirit world and healed their sick. Westerners called these people witch doctors or medicine men, but the Evenki called them shamans. The other was the name they gave to a giant mole like monster that caused earthquakes and died on exposure to surface air (or maybe sunlight). They occasionally found the dead bodies of these monsters eroding from river banks and sold their fierce teeth to merchants from China or Central Asia. They called the monster mammoth.

Now, whenever you find yourself using these words, you know who to thank. I just thought you needed to know that.

I don't make a very good guy

Of course, I've known that since the last time I was a bachelor.

Clever Wife is away for the weekend leaving the house all to me. Having the house all to myself means two important decision need to be made: what will I eat and what will I watch? Having the house all to myself means not sharing. It means I get to eat things that we normally wouldn't eat together and it means I get to watch movie genres she doesn't like.

The movie question is a little harder than you might think. Clever Wife likes science fiction, buddy movies, and shoot 'em ups, and I don't like goofy summer comedies. That eliminates most guy genres. Fortunately, she doesn't like historical or war movies and I do. Tonight, I watch The Great Escape for the umteenth time. Tomorrow, I'll either go for Buster Keaton's The General or something new.

The real agonizing decision is over food. Do I do the traditional guy thing and pig out on starchy, cheesy convenience and take out foods? As the cook in the family, do I take advantage of having only myself to offend by experimenting on some new cuisines? Do I decide the question is too hard to answer and just eat Frosted Blueberry Poptarts all weekend? I did buy a box of Poptarts just to be on the safe side.

Last night I decided to start with a traditional bachelor night and have beer and frozen pizza. I could save munching on experimental dishes for tonight, while watching the world's coolest guy, Steve McQueen, ride around on a stolen German motorcycle. And yet, I couldn't quite do it; I ended up scratch making the pizza. My excuse was that I forgot to review Badtux's taste testing of frozen pizzas and couldn't properly make a decision without all of the pertinent scientific data. But deep in my heart I knew that real guys pick frozen pizza according to the price and not according to research. I am so lame.


Today seems like a good day for a baby animal picture.

Indah, seen here, is... an eight-week-old binturong on display at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. The fledgling—the first binturong bred in captivity at Taronga since the species went on display there in the 1950s—was introduced to her new enclosure on Wednesday, May 30.

Though they are often called bearcats because of their appearance, binturongs are actually tree-dwelling, nocturnal mammals more closely related to civets. Native to Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, binturongs are becoming increasingly rare as their forest habitat is cleared for timber and cropland.

Here's a few more facts gleaned from Wikipedia: Like pandas, binturongs are members of the order carnivora who have adapted to a mostly vegetarian diet in the forest, in their case fruit. They are a little bigger than a housecat and have a fully prehensile tail. The scent of binturong musk has been compared to warm popcorn or cornbread. That sounds like they would be ideal candidates for exotic pets, but closeup pictures show that they have some very serious canine teeth and, as tree dwellers, they would probably destroy your curtains and bookshelves heading for high ground. It's probably best to appreciate them from afar.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Cross cultural onomatopoea

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas has a post up on the difference between the Yiddish "oy" and the American "argh." Are they the same? Are there better equivalents? In the comments, others have brought up the Japanese and Australian "oi" and the piratical "arrr." This is becoming a truly international discussion. If have strong feelings about onomatopoea (and who doesn't?), you'll want to rush over and add your yadda yadda.