Some Evo Books…

A friend of a friend, who was not as I was raised in what I might called the Evolutionary Tradition (but most emphatically in the religious one), wrote something disbelieving of evo orthodoxy. Often such things raise my hackles. But this seemed a golden moment to sway minds rather than be snarky, so I responded carefully. This is a modified version.

I was raised in the Catholic church and with evolution, which church contrary to pop think has never had a problem with it as it treats the bible allegorically. (And I am not speaking about po- mo liberalism– my first evo bio was taught in a Catholic school pre- Vatican 2, ca 1960!) I went on to study populations and evolutionary biology with a side of genetics at U Mass Boston starting in 68. Eventually my literary side took over and after six years of doing both I left but I came within an organic chem course or two of getting my degree so I am not exactly a “layman”.

So: here is a short course of books I have found illuminating or even entertaining but with substance, about the evidence for evolution, the truth of its existence, and the non- existence of any conflict between it and religions not based on literal readings of ancient books. I do not have too much energy to argue these days– health pretty good but typing will never be good again– but perhaps perusal of these will preclude argument?

First the great pain in the arse’s first NON pain in the arse book, though far from his first good one– for that you have to go back to The Selfish Gene and the knottier but probably better Extended Phenotype: Richard Dawkins’The Greatest Show on Earth. Dawkins’ books have infuriated me for years because of his unnecessary attacks on religion, since he is the most lucid “explainer” around. In this book he makes explicit and (almost) un- grudging peace with the religious in order to– why I am recommending it– give the best account of macroevolution for the layman available, explicitly including transition fossils. It is The Best Example of its kind.

Sean B Carroll is a former Catholic school boy (like me he learned his evolution there first) with a much sunnier view of religion than Dawkins, who is both an evo- bio guy and a good writer about some of the mechanisms that drive it and the history of its discoverers. Endless Forms Most Beautiful, on “Evo- Devo”, is one of his best.

Francis Collins is a Christian biologist who has spent a lot of time reconciling science and religion. He is a good friend of the (dying?) atheist firebrand and excellent writer Christopher Hitchens, who has stated in print that he both respects his science and– no Dawkins he– is grateful for his prayers if skeptical of their efficacy. The Language of God is probably the best one to start with.

I can think of many other books but frankly if these don’t demonstrate both a strong case for (macro) evolution and transition fossils AND the compatibility of sane science and sane religion I doubt anything will.

Against some po- mo arguments that science is just another “belief system” akin to or in rivalry with others, let me add: science is the west or Europe’s great step forward because it is more than a POV; because it is FALSIFIABLE; because it can at least approach truth and reality by reasoned thought.

(Two Patrick Hemingway dinner quotes:
“I don’t get these post- modern deconstructionists who say science is a belief system. Do they jump out the window and expect to fall UP?”

And:
“Did the Moslem hijackers use flying carpets or hijacked planes?”)

And re short- time Creationism: the only possible explanation for that would be that God is an ingenious hoaxer who made fossils appear old in order to lure people into Hell, a la Gosse’s 19th century Vestiges of Creation. First, a crude and frightening concept of a gleefully cruel, childish God; second, if true it would be morally necessary to support a rebel angel like Milton’s Satan or even Pullman’s wimpier PC version.

I will add as an afterthought that Theodosius Dobszhansky, one of the co- authors of the so- called “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” ie the one we use, was a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian.

(Suspense novelist Michael Gruber: “I’m a practicing Catholic- practicing and trying to get good at it..”)

Real Zoo Short # 8: Fruit Loops

A woman I shall call SP was what we had as a semi- vet before Dr S. She had her moments. Paul remembers:

“I recall SP always wore white, I think because she wasn’t a vet but liked to correct people when they called her Dr. P. The main thing I recall was her constant use of writing reminder notes on her white sleeves. Always had little squiggly blue lines all over. And I admired her acid tongue. I recall when John, the Environmentalist Zoomobile guy (I think he only lasted one season), suddenly realized that our barrels of mosquito and fly spray that was stored behind the barn (by the parking lot) actually contained POISON. Oh my! When he told SP of this revelation, she looked him dead in the eye, and stated: “Well, ya know, John. You can’t kill mosquitoes with Fruit Loops.” And walked away.”

Real Zoo #7: Kimba

Kim was an African spot- nosed guenon, a really lovely little monkey and unlike many captive primates quite sane, but she was also a domineering little prima donna; she treated people the way Ataika tends to treat dogs, as lesser beings that were good as servants but who occasionally needed a good bite to keep them in line. This seemed funny if you were not on the receiving end as she was so small and elegant (like Taik) that you might think her bites wouldn’t hurt much. You would be wrong. And unlike Taik she was a monkey and could rain down destruction from above.

Other Steve:

“When Kim was little, her keepers (Paul, K, Richard) established dominance and kept it. Those who came along after she was mature fared less well. I was one of the many. We started off well enough and worked together for over a year before she caught me in a moment of weakness. K and I were doing a Zoomobile in a small classroom full of kids crowded around us. I had Kim on leash and was just saying to myself, “This is unwise. She moves like lightning. Somebody could get torn up here.” Just then, Kim leapt at a kid and I yanked the leash hard toward me. I grabbed her with what I knew was a sacrificial hand and she ripped open my finger. K moved very quickly, pinning her and back in the cage she went. Then we calmly did the customary “That’s why monkeys don’t make good pets” lesson, as the blood poured down my raised arm.

“That was one class that really got the message. Dr S [Do you see a recurring pattern in these stories? SB] fixed me up later.

“The only person who handled the adult Kim well was G M. He had heard all the other stories and decided that a confrontation was inevitable, so he planned an offense. One day when they were together and were perfectly calm, he grabbed her hard and bit her. This had never happened to Kim before. After that, G was King of the Guenons.”

Paul’s story in response also reveals the Macchiavellian mind of our supervisor Richard:

“Yeah, I love G’s plan, too. King of the Guenons is not a title to be taken lightly.

“Do ya recall the escaped Kim incident with Richard? He was, without a doubt, her superior and she knew it. But….. one fine day she got away from him (or maybe from someone else, I don’t know) in the Rotunda. We were closed at the time. She had a grand time, running around the circular shelf at the top of the building. Remember?- we had slide projectors up there, running film loop of animals projecting across the building from one side to the other.

“Richard nicely called to Kim to come down. Later he screamed, pleaded, demanded, begged, etc., and there is no way she would come down. He tried all the usual tricks, including ignoring her and eating treats in front of her, and so on. Nothing worked. Then he noticed V R [sweet tall vegetarian woman with a voice and accent rather like a young Julia Child– SB] in the kitchen. And Kim loved to attack V R (or anyone else).

“So, or course, Richard waited til Kim was above the kitchen door, and called so sweetly “Oh V, would come out here for a moment?” Innocent V came waltzing out into the Rotunda, Kim dove for her head, and Richard plucked little Kim right out of the air. It was a beautiful move. And was V PISSED!!! “YOU USED ME YOU USED ME YOU USED ME” But it worked.”

Incidentally I came up with the same strategy as Glen but not in his cool rational manner. I was on the ‘mobile at a school with K and Kim and she ran up to me, grabbed my arm, and bit me HARD. So I grabbed hers and did the same, instantly. She shrieked but did not bite me again.

Always wondered what the sight of a long- haired zookeeper biting a monkey did to those third- graders though…

Turkish friends


I’ve always suspected that we shepherds sometimes have too much time to think, and sometimes the result is often reflected in the activities that we undertake with our herds. Here on the western range, herders race their sheep wagons to claim the best camp sites on common grazing range when it opens in early December. In Wales, herders put LED lights on their sheep, so that Samsung could videotape the patterns the lights made as the herding dogs worked the herd.

In Turkey, it’s a competition that takes place at a major festival straddling a river. The herder must try to call his sheep to follow him as he jumps into the river, getting the herd to jump in behind him and cross with him. Any herd willing to do that is obviously devoted to and trusts its herder. While we were in Turkey last fall, we didn’t get to see the competition, but we did visit the river crossing where it occurs, and later found a video of the event. Winners of the competition included our friends, the Kayis family. Here’s the video.


Brothers Ibrahim and Musa, and their father Hasan, run their family livestock outfit with about 400 sheep outside of Denizli, Turkey.

We walked through the fields with the herders of this family, inspecting their dogs and admiring their sheep. Some of the sheep came to investigate, obviously favored pets of the herders. But since most of Turkey remains unfenced, herders are with the sheep nearly constantly. Rather than pushing the sheep from place to place, as the sheep came close to the edge of the field, the herders called the sheep to turn and move away. Much of the movement of the herd was based on verbal commands – a logical extension of a close relationship between herder and herded.

We learned from our fellow shepherds that their livestock are treasured beasts, and colorful collars are beaded and placed on the necks of sheep to compliment their beauty. Some sheep are also shorn in a striped pattern, with the wool died to provide another striking pattern, again a show of beauty.

The family also raises massive livestock protection dogs. We watched a cell phone video of two of the dogs killing a 450-pound wild boar. Impressive animals.

Although wolves are treated as vermin in Turkey, this family of herders does not shoot at wolves. “If you have good dogs, the dogs will take care of the wolves,” Ibrahim told us. “If you trust your dogs, they can handle them.” They do place spiked anti-wolf iron collars on the dogs to help the dogs that actively battle wolves.

We learned much from our new friends and hope that our paths will cross again in the future.

More Antique Images of “Salukis”…

Or whatever you want to call them. This one is French- Algerian from the 19th century. What interests me is that it is a very heavily feathered dog, like a “mountain” Central Asian dog today (“Khalag tazi”?), but from a place where there are only smooth “sloughis” now. There may be reasons for this, all too typical: colonials suppressing “poaching”, locals no longer being able to afford to keep dogs, Europeans deciding whatever remnant was left was “pure”. But it does show fluid boundaries and types, still again.

Notice how many quote marks I used here? All extremely deliberate…

Special thanks to Jess, who has just lost a good dog– one that looked a bit like this one, actually.

Photoblogging: “Mongoliana”

I have been– I hope forgivably– absent, doing an article, a review, and a long shot (double? triple?) book proposal. As I type too slowly these days, and dictation is still slow for technicalia and odd language, I haven’t had the energy for much blogging; I have done over 12,000 words in the last week or so, only 2000 or so “paid for”, the rest on spec. Hopeful, anyway…

I should be back in the game in a few days. Meanwhile, I have a few images to intrigue you that do not need much commentary. The first is from a 1920’s National Geographic: the Mongol princess Nirgidma,who led a long and adventurous life in places as various as Paris and the Tian Shan, with her eagle in the second. She knew everybody– Google her.

The next two are by me. The first, both beautiful and horrifying, is the Bogd Kahn’s ger, which stands in the utter darkness of a room in his palace and is not on public exhibition (I bribed a guard with a bottle of American vodka– why people in Asia prefer Smirnoff to better I do not know– exoticism?!)– and polished it off with him to get this shot, and I have not seen another example. Somewhere between 200 and 400 snow leopards died to make it (it is completely lined inside as well)– an odd kind of Buddhism…

The Bogd Khan, last “priest king” of Mongolia and, according to some, inferior only to the Dalai and Panchen lamas, survived, obese and blind and debauched, into the communist era. While he may not have been a monster himself, he was associated during the Russian civil war with Baron von Ungern Sternberg, one of the most disturbing minor figures of history– and be glad that he is minor. As it was, he rained medieval death and horror on Urga, now better known as Ulan Bataar, and hoped to conquer the world like Jengiz, possibly with the Bogd Khan as a figurehead. Good bio here; science- fiction with him as a character here.

The Bogd Khan’s restored palace is magnificent, though at least when I was there you could only see the outside. Here is a fine Imperial (five- fingered) guardian dragon at the gate:

(Photo of ger enhanced by Jackson Frishman).

Curlew and company


It’s a thrill for me every spring when I encounter a group of long-billed curlew, which I had the pleasure of finding Saturday alongside the highway north of Daniel, Wyoming.

They are beautiful and graceful birds, but these guys sure had dirty bills and feet from plodding along in the mud, poking for treasures.

A little further north, near Bondurant, the snow is still very deep, but even small animals came out of their burrows to enjoy the sunshine, racing back and forth with glee.

After a pleasant drive to Jackson for groceries and to run errands, Jim and I were pleased to encounter this gorgeous redhead (an American kestrel) very close to home.

Loving these beautiful spring days and the critters we’re able to encounter.