Tag Archive: Evolution


Homecoming coverThis is a place where my science fiction departs from general scientific agreement. I have assumed that the modern human species – almost – evolved in Africa. But I have also assumed a R’il’nian, Jarn (who will be my “J”) was stranded in Africa some 125,000 years ago, and that for some reason which is still not well understood, he turned out to be slightly fertile with these primitive humans. They were already more artistic than the R’il’nai (mostly expressed in adorning themselves) and using language, but his genetic addition, slight though it was, kindled something additional within them. In my universe we are all remote descendants of Jarn.

Jarn was a starship designer, and with the aid of the information on the computer from the escape module, he was able, over several millennia, to get his descendants to develop a starship to carry him home. But they didn’t stop there. The global population was not large, and they split between those, mostly more technically oriented, who followed Jarn back to the stars and eventually became the ancestors of the Humans in my science fiction, and those who stayed on Earth, rapidly lost their force-grown technical civilization (they were mostly the ones who disliked technology anyway) and became our ancestors.

The early crossbreds and others who showed a high percentage of R’il’nian genes were wiped out in an epidemic lethal to them but not to Humans roughly ten thousand years ago, as were many of the R’il’nai. The Jarnian Confederation in its present state developed in the period following the epidemic.

I’m doing my A to Z blogs from my books, both characters and background information. For characters I’ll introduce them quickly, say what point of time they’re talking from since their situations change drastically through the books, and let them talk. Background information will vary according to what I’m talking about. All of these blogs will be scheduled to go live just after midnight Alaska time.Banner AZ logo

Year 4 Day 64

date palm, MorguefileI think last year the gather was longer than usual, because of Storm Cloud’s illness and possibly because of my presence. This year I can see more clearly why they have these meetings, and that not all the scattered bands come. Two are here for the first time in several years, one sent word they were not coming, and three simply did not show up.

Mostly, the business of the gather is arranging matings, formalizing them, and recognizing and welcoming children born since the last gather. Beyond that, it seems a time for meeting old friends, exchanging information, and just plain partying.

Did I mention that they have discovered that certain half-rotted fruits affect them rather strongly? They don’t seem to affect me, and I don’t even care for the taste. Some of the young men, in particular, can get downright wild and irresponsible when indulging. I was pleased to observe that Giraffe was not among them.

I am getting quite spoiled by the cooked food they bring me, and I am doing my best to make returns by presenting them with things they have difficulty in procuring for themselves. Salt and obsidian, I have found, are always welcome, as are foodstuffs from the jungle to the north. I have found a kind of tree in desert oases that produces a fruit even sweeter than figs, and these fruits, dried, last for months. The children love them. The men are adding water and trying to ferment them.

Songbird is quite definitely expecting. Strange — I almost feel like a grandfather-to-be. I hope the birth is not difficult for her, as some seem to be for these people. I suspect their heads have enlarged faster than their hips have broadened. The women of my people broaden far more in the hips when they are fertile, but only then. Songbird would have a hard time keeping up with her band if he hips had broadened enough to have a child easily.

This is part of the Journal of Jarn, a fictional human-like alien stranded in Africa 125,000 years ago, when the climate was much like today’s. As I complete each week’s episode, I add it to my author site. I apologize for the trimmed fronds on the date palm in the photograph. The ones Jarn found would obviously have been much shaggier, and the wild dates were probably smaller.

DVD cover, Waking the Baby MammothIn the spring of 2007 Yuri Khudi, a reindeer herder in northwestern Siberia, found a baby mammoth carcass, still frozen and remarkably complete, lying on the snowy tundra. Scientists named her Lyuba (little love) after Yuri’s wife – who did not appreciate the honor! Lyuba’s discovery and the scientific investigation that followed became the subject of a National Geographic program, first aired roughly two years after her discovery, and later made available as a DVD.

From a scientific point of view, the DVD is excellent. Certainly some of the scenes of the finding, disappearance and re-finding of Lyuba must have been re-enacted, but not obtrusively so. The long-distance travel, tomographic investigation and subsequent tissue sampling of Lyuba appear to have been photographed in real time, and give a much better idea of how a frozen mummy can be investigated than is generally available. Some of the discoveries included the definite identification of heat-producing brown fat in Lyuba’s hump, her age at death (only about a month) and that she died, probably by drowning, in excellent health.

The reindeer herder Yuri was able to be present at part of the autopsy, and a highlight of the DVD is Nenets culture as the scientists investigating Lyuba stayed with Yuri’s family as they examined where she had been found. The problem of how her body reached the surface of the tundra without thawing or decay is still unsolved.

As usual in National Geographic DVDs, the computer graphic imaging of mammoths in their Pleistocene setting consists of a relatively few clips repeated several times. To some extent this is offset by a series of charming vignettes of Lyuba against modern backgrounds – wandering the museum, appearing to scientists relaxing in modern settings, and interacting with Yuri’s reindeer.

Lyuba is featured a current exhibition touring the USA and the world from the Field Museum. She is just finishing a visit in Hong Kong.

If you like Pleistocene mammals, this is definitely a program to see. Of course I’m prejudiced, since I used mammoths, among other Pleistocene mammals, in Tourist Trap.

DVD CoverThis disc, although it has a copyright date of 2008, is a collection of TV programs originally aired between 2003 and 2008. Thus none are really up to date.

“The Mystery Dinosaur,” from 2006, deals with the discovery of  “Jane.” This fossil has been variously identified as a Nanotyrannus and a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex. The program is primarily about the argument, which could date it, but as far as I can tell, the argument has never been resolved. Thus the program is still fairly current, though it is more science than entertainment.

“Dinosaurs: Return to Life” deals with the observations that the differences between dinosaurs and birds appear to be due to a relatively small number of mutations. Could birds be “reverse bioengineered” to produce something like dinosaurs? Would we really want to?

The four-program series “Dinosaur Planet” first aired in 2003, and unlike the rest of the programs in this set, it is definitely intended to be entertainment. Each of the four episodes focuses on one or two individual dinosaurs and follows them through a period of their lives. Each episode also covers something that is important or intriguing in the fossil record, and links back to that record. Thus “White Tip’s Journey,” featuring a Velociraptor,  suggests one explanation for the famed (real) fossil of a Velociraptor locked in a death struggle with a Protoceratops.

“Alpha’s Egg,” featuring the large sauropod Saltasaurus and the medium-sized predator Aucasaurus,  is based on the discovery of  a Saltasaurus nesting ground,  fossilized in Patagonia.

Pod of “Pod’s Travels” is based on a Pyroraptor,  a European raptor genus. The episode includes the natural hazards (earthquake, tsunami) that made occasional travel between the islands that made up Europe 80 million years ago possible. The focus of the program is on the dwarfing effect that islands tend to have on species. Pod is a Gulliver among Lilliputians when a tidal wave sweeps him to a much smaller island.

“Little Das’ Hunt” follows a juvenile Daspletosaurus  (an earlier close relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex) learning to hunt, and a herd of Maiasaura. The episode is based on a group of Daspletosaurus and Maiasaura found fossilized together in Montana, but the evidence for the kind of pack behavior shown in the episode is scanty and controversial.

Obviously there is a good deal of imagination going into the behavior, color, feathers or lack of them, musculature and behavior of all of these dinosaurs. Here I want to mention three, because they struck me so strongly.

The first is the underline of the creatures portrayed.  Theropod dinosaurs did indeed have a bone jutting back from the pelvis. However, the velociraptors are shown as having this bone stick out of the body, covered by a narrow wedge of tissue. It seems to me that this arrangement would be very susceptible to breakage, and that evolution would have reduced the length of the bone fairly fast. It makes much more sense that the tail and the posterior part of the belly were much deeper, with the projection buried in muscle. In fact a mummified hadrosaur had exactly this conformation, with a tail much deeper than anyone expected. Why not Velociraptor?

Second is the behavior of prey dinosaurs. Granted they didn’t have much brain, but instinct is also guided by evolution. Threatening a predator with teeth adapted to munching relatively soft leaves, and exposing the vulnerable neck in the process, does not make sense. Kicking (recent work has shown sauropods had vicious kicks) or tail swipes are far more reasonable for the big plant-eaters. This bothered me as far back as the Disney dinosaurs in Fantasia, when the stegosaurus turns to try to threaten T. Rex with its tiny mouth, instead of lashing out with its spiked tail. Now Disney may be forgiven – after all, Fantasia came out in 1940. Between making his dinosaurs animatable by artists drawing each cel by hand and the paleontological knowledge of the day, he did a respectable job even if his sauropods did have necks like snakes and his characters never actually lived at the same time. But that stegosaurus is pure theater, and Discovery Channel should have known better.

The third is grass. There is now some controversy over whether dinosaurs and grass coexisted, but the amount of grass shown is almost certainly incorrect.

Overall evaluation? Watch, but don’t believe everything you see. This DVD has a lot of creative interpretation, some of it almost certainly wrong.

Ever invented a disease?

I did, for my science fiction.

It’s called Kharfun Syndrome, and it plays a large role in the history of the Confederation. It first arose among Humans, for whom it was a flu-like but usually survivable disease. Many children got it, developed immunity, and went on to lead normal lives. But it became endemic in the Human population.

The early symptoms are mild – aches and pains, some muscle twitches – and that was as far as it got with a good functioning immune system. For those whose immune systems could not handle it, the virus gradually attacked the peripheral motor nerves, leading to violent muscle cramps which was followed by paralysis, and eventual death from respiratory paralysis. The peripheral sensory nerves were also involved during the active phase, with pain spreading inward from the fingers and toes.

The Human immune system, which is basically chemical in nature, could handle the virus. I’m not going to go into the full immune system here, and in fact there’s a lot we don’t know about it. But there are times when it goes wrong and attacks something it shouldn’t. Like the Islets of Langerhans in my pancreas (which is why I have type 1 diabetes) or the myelin sheaths of my sister’s nerves (Multiple Sclerosis.) Perhaps because of this the R’il’nai, who have a suite of esper abilities and could actually perceive bacteria and viruses and remove them without even being consciously aware of the process, developed an immune system based on esper, and the old-chemical-based system, while still present, became very inefficient.

The problem with Kharfun was that the virus causing it had evolved an ability to hide from esper perception.

As a result, Kharfun was originally 100% lethal to those whose immune systems relied on esper – all pure R’il’nai, and most of the hybrids with a large fraction of active R’il’nian genes. A method of reactivating the old, chemical-based immune system was developed after the disease spread from Humans to R’il’nai, but by that time a large fraction of the R’il’nai had died.

The disease had another effect on the R’il’nai – it reduced their already low fertility. They didn’t have a high birth rate to start with – R’il’nian females were fertile for a few hours a century. (They were usually receptive, but not fertile.) And the immunization had the same effect as the disease on fertility.

So 10,000 years after the initial epidemic, the R’il’nai are nearly extinct. This was the premise behind Homecoming (where Kharfun Syndrome plays a major role) and the society that led to Tourist Trap and the trilogy I’m working on.

My science fiction is based on two species, the R’il’nai and Humans, and their crossbreds, the Ril’noids, living together. One of the major differences between the two parent species is in life span. The Humans have what we would consider a normal life span. The R’il’nai, while not immortal, do not age beyond maturity. A number of my characters have been alive for millennia. Crossbreds can show either pattern.

This leads to all kinds of interesting situations in the society. How do the two species interact, for instance? How many Humans would want to marry someone who would never grow old? How does a R’il’nian act toward someone he or she knows will grow old and die while the R’il’nian is still young? This is in the background of all of my plots.

Here, however, I am addressing a different problem.

Most of the cells in our bodies are constantly turning over. I can imagine a creature that looks and acts human with a near-infinite life span, except for one thing. Teeth.

Tooth enamel wears, and unlike skin, it is not constantly replaced from within. Modern dentistry can do a lot to repair wear, but I’m having to have enamel repairs already. Young mammals are born with two sets of tooth buds, one that grows into teeth suited for the small jaw of a juvenile; the second set adult sized, and that’s it. People who lived thousands of years would wear out their teeth. How to handle the problem?

The R’il’nai would have to have an essentially infinite number of replacement teeth. When a tooth was worn out, it would be shed much as a child sheds its milk teeth, and replaced by a new tooth. How? They must have some tooth stem cells in their jaws, just as we have blood stem cells in our bone marrow. Assuming that a tooth would last for 50 or 60 years, this would mean that the R’il’nai and non-aging R’il’noids are teething roughly every two or three years. I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned that, but if a R’il’noid seems to be in a particularly bad humor, he or she may be teething.

Allosaurus: DVD Review

This is a Walking With Dinosaurs program, and like most of that group the animation is excellent, even though the narration tends to present guesswork as fact. Case in point: the red color above the eyes, mentioned as a sign of sexual maturity. To the best of my knowledge (and it was certainly true in 2000, the copyright date) both color and possible significance are pure speculation.

The story follows the life of an Allosaurus, “Big Al,” as reconstructed by forensic analysis of the bones of one of the most complete Allosaurus fossil skeletons ever discovered. I found the second half of the video, which deals with the actual forensic analysis, even more interesting than the fictionalized video of Al himself.

Al was certainly a “live fast and die young” dinosaur. His bones are remarkable not only for being found relatively complete, but for the number of healed injuries they show. How did he get those injuries? The main program gives possible reasons, though of course things may not have happened exactly as shown. But we know he survived broken bones that had time to heal completely and a toe infection that must have lasted for months before his death.

I would like to make two points about dinosaur DVDs in general. First, our knowledge of dinosaurs is changing so fast that is essential to know the dates at which the videos were made! Dates on the cover of DVDs made up from programs originally broadcast on television can vary widely from dates of the original broadcasts. This one’s from 2000; I’ll go back as I find the actual copyright dates on the individual programs and add them to earlier reviews.

Second, for some reason animators feel compelled to have their dinosaurs roaring (or making other sounds) at every opportunity. Now animals do make sounds, and we certainly expect dinosaurs did. But predators, in particular, make sounds at particular times for particular reasons. They may communicate with sounds. They may warn off rivals, or try to intimidate them. They may call to attract mates. They may make sounds to deliberately panic prey. They try very hard not to make a sound when they are trying to stalk prey! Certainly they do not hiss, growl, or roar while setting up an ambush!

All in all, this DVD is worth watching if you want to watch dinosaurs in action, or see what the state of dinosaur science was in the 20th century. Just keep in mind when it was made.

Jean Auel began her “Children of Earth” series over 30 years ago, with Clan of the Cave Bear. The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone followed. Her latest addition, The Land of Painted Caves, continues to follow Ayla and Jondalar, still having difficulty communicating, and this time includes a tour of the cave paintings of France.

All are long books – The Land of Painted Caves is 828 pages in paperback and the others are about the same length. All are well researched. I discovered the series 30 years ago, primarily because of my interest in the Pleistocene and human evolution, and most of this review will be from that perspective.

From a writer’s point of view, the most recent book is full of information dumps, and rather weak on plot. That hasn’t stopped it from being a best seller, but there were times when I had to force myself to pick it up. I did manage to find a number of usable Twitter quotes, which are being posted and their contexts will be explained on February 29.

A good part of the book is description of the cave art of France. Auel does include a map keyed both to what the Zelandonii of her book called the caves and what archeologists call them, but I wanted to see some pictures of the cave art, not just descriptions. I actually searched the web for images from the caves, but found very few even when I knew the name of the cave. Good general references are http://myrencounter.blogspot.com/2011/07/land-of-painted-caves.html and http://www.donsmaps.com/indexauelfans.html, but they have more photos of the locations of the caves than of the actual paintings. White Hollow, identified as Lascaux, does have some images of the art at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/12/inside-lascaux-the-versai_n_712645.html.

One possible source, at least for drawings of the cave art, is The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by Dale Guthrie. Dale is an artist himself, and while he suggests that a good deal of the “art” in the caves was equivalent to graffiti found in mens rooms, his first interest in cave art was as guides to reconstructing extinct animals. This is a huge book, with hundreds if not thousands of drawings of Pleistocene art from all over Eurasia, but putting the drawings in this book together with what Ayla saw would be a major project.

Leaving the art, there has long been a controversy in archaeology as to whether modern humans and Neanderthals (what Ayla calls the Clan) ever interbred, or whether such interbreeding was even possible. The argument went back and forth during the time period over which Auel’s books were being written. DNA for a time was used to claim such interbreeding never occurred. Then, less than a year ago, DNA evidence made it quite clear that such interbreeding had in fact happened. The basis of Auel’s books was if anything ahead of the archaeology of the time.

In one point, however, she was clearly wrong, though there was no way she could have known it at the time she started the series..  Jondalar and Ayla are described as being blonde and having blue and gray eyes respectively. Recent gene sequencing has strongly suggested that all blue and gray-eyed people are descended from a single common ancestor who lived between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, well after the setting of Auel’s books. There is at least some argument that blonde hair may have evolved after the ice ages. Still, I cannot help but wonder if it could be derived from that Neanderthal admixture. If fair coloring is an adaptation to getting vitamin D in a region with little sunlight, such as Europe, the Neanderthals lived in Europe long before the Cro-Magnons arrived.

All dinosaurs are bizarre, by mammalian standards. Some, however, are bizarre even to paleontologists, and the title program of this DVD is devoted to them. There is, however, a secondary program, not even mentioned on the cover, which to me was of considerably more interest.

Most of these animals are considered bizarre because they have appendages, preserved in the fossil record, that leave paleontologists wondering just why these animals have that appendage. Take the 33 foot-long Anargasaurus, for instance. Why on earth did this plant-eater have a double row of bony spines down its back? Reconstructions tend to show it with skin forming a double crest supported by those spines, but why? The only answer anyone had come up with is some kind of display crest, like the peacock’s tail.

Display organs are common, especially in today’s birds (which after all are modern dinosaurs) so I suppose it’s as good an explanation as any for such things as the plates of a Stegosaurus (which would have been potato chips to a large carnivore) or for the fanciful neck frills, often richly supplied with blood, of the Ceratopsids. Were horns used to fend off predators, of for fighting off rivals within the species? Or just for display?

In some cases the peculiarities might be associated with feeding. Take the Epidendrosaurus, for instance, a sparrow-sized dinosaur with an incredibly long third finger. Did it use its long finger as the aye-aye in Madagascar today does, to find insects in the bark of trees? Then there’s Nigersaurus, with a broad, flat head with a very wide muzzle resembling a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Did it stand in one place and hoover up the vegetation?

This DVD is less interesting than most of the National Geographic programs scientifically, but it does show some interesting dinosaurs. If you want information on some of the animals shown, National Geographic has both an interactive site and a magazine article by John Updike.

The secondary program, which was a total surprise, should have been part of the Prehistoric Predators DVD I reviewed earlier. It was concerned with a much more recent animal, one I’d met before in Prehistoric Park—a predatory, flightless bird that could almost hold its own with sabertoothed cats and dire wolves. Certainly it seems to have taken down the same kind of prey.

These terror birds were not what you want to attract to your backyard bird feeder! Imagine an oversized ostrich with the hooked beak of a raptor, that beak (and head) enlarged to the size of a rather large war axe. With ostrich speed and taller than a man, they evolved to be the top predators on the South American continent, for many millions of years an island continent. Then a few million years ago, the isthmus of Panama joined it to North America, ending the isolation in which the terror birds had evolved. Animals crossed the new isthmus both ways. Opossums, armadillos, and porcupines moved north, but a far greater number of placental mammals moved south.

Surprisingly, a few terror birds did move north, as their fossils have been found in Florida. Did they meet with the earliest humans to colonize North America? Or were they simply unable to compete with the mega-predators already here? They did seem to survive for a long time in North America, but the jury is still out on just how long they lasted.

Tomorrow’s the day to look at quotes from Lewis Carroll, but I’ll also have a guest appearance on another blog, Christine’s Words. Stop by!

Jarn’s Journal is the fictional journal of an alien stranded in Africa 125,000 years ago. He is being hailed as a god by the human ancestors he has discovered. His story is the remote background of the Jarnian Confederacy, the setting of my science fiction novels. The Journal to date is on my author website.

Day 672

The equinox is close, if not here. The grass is shriveling, though not yet as brown as when I arrived – that must have been a drier than normal year. Plant food is harder to find, and some of the animals are leaving. Already the shaman has asked me if I will go with them to the Gather. I wasn’t trying to read her mind, but I couldn’t help picking up what a coup it would be for her group to be accompanied by a god.

I am not a god! Why can’t I get that across?

Besides, I don’t think I can keep up with them.

They will be walking. The longest distance I’ve walked, since that first disastrous day, is from here to the camp. It takes the shaman a little over an hour. I takes me two, and I’m pretty well worn out when I get there. In fact I’ve done it only once, the time I took Songbird home. No doubt they’d carry me, but I don’t want to slow them down.

And to be very honest ….

I’m not sure I can stand the stench. They do the best they can, but water is carried from the stream, sanitation is non-existent, butchering is done in the camp … well, let us just say that any group of people that large, carrying out their life without benefit of the amenities I have in my shelter, stinks.

It wasn’t bad at first, when they had only been at the camp site a day or so. But odorous materials pile up with time.

Admit it, I’m spoiled. I like my shelter, which now has running water, modern sanitation, a comfortable bed, and smells faintly of whatever flowers or grasses I’ve brought in. I don’t want to leave it.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell the shaman no, politely. Perhaps this journal, which requires the computer in my shelter, could serve as an excuse? But I will miss having someone intelligent to talk with.

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