a good old debunking – flatulent dinosaurs & aquatic apes

I took a little time over lunch to catch up with the work of various science communicators, most notably that of Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps is carried by the Wired website & who also writes Dinosaur Tracking on Smithsonian.com. I’m now regretting my long absence, for not only is Brian an excellent communicator of science, he’s also jolly good at debunking pseudoscience. And I thought I’d share a couple of examples.

The first is his take on a story that caught my eye when it first came out, but I didn’t have the time to something on it myself. That story was was the target of some rather sensationalist reporting that included (courtesy of the Daily Mail, no less) the claim that  that researchers had found that the sheer number & volume of dinosaur farts were sufficient to change the global environment and drive the mega-farters to collective extinction. 

Brian points out that this isn’t what the original paper actually said: rather, (in Brian’s words)

[t]he researchers conclude that so much dinosaur flatulence – in addition to greenhouse gases from fires and other sources – might have created and sustained the relatively warm world of the dinosaurs.

And really nice to see a good, skeptical take on the media fuss from TV3’s website 🙂

Brian’s other piece caught my eye as I’m currently getting ready for my talks on human evolution at the Waikato Experience of Biology days we run for year 13 bio students & their teachers. Why? – because his debunking of an item about mermaids on Animal Planet mentions the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’, something that is sometimes mentioned by WEB-day attendees (in much the same way that the ‘Neandertal predation "theory"‘ came up at a session I did in Auckland a couple of years back). 

The program’s called "Mermaids: the body found", & the on-line press release, while it sounds all gushingly science-y, is actually describing a fictional story. (As Brian points out, it even tells you so – in a couple of lines of type at the top of the page, whose sense is then overwhelmed & lost in what follows.)

And what follows includes reference to the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’ (I refuse to call it a theory) popularised by Elaine Morgan & still doing the rounds (there’s a good backgrounder/overview here). It has surprising longevity for something that has no real evidence to support it: no fossils, for example; and its suggestion that our lack of body hair can be ascribed to an aquatic phase in our history, in the same way that whales are hairless, doesn’t really stack up (otters, seals, & polar bears  – all with aquatic lifestyles – are all remarkably hirsute). And as palaeoanthropologist John Hawks says

[i]t makes sense that hominids would develop new anatomies to adapt to such an alien environment. But once those hominids returned to land, forsaking their aquatic homeland, the same features that were adaptive in the water would now be maladaptive on land. What would prevent those hominids from reverting to the features of their land-based ancestors, as well as nearly every other medium-sized land mammal? More than simply phylogenetic inertia is required to explain this, since the very reasons that the aquatic ape theory rejects the savanna [sic] model would apply to the descendants of the aquatic apes when they moved to the savanna.

In the conclusion to his article, Brian comments that 

[s]peculative biology can be a lot of fun – to wonder how different forms of life might have evolved. And, with the right context and presentation, Mermaids could have been a unique way to highlight evolutionary and biological ideas.

A pity that this seems to be an opportunity that missed its mark.

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