Monday, September 27, 2010

Fragility of the Ecphora

It seems a minor miracle to find, amid the shell debris marking the shoreline, an even partial fossil shell from an Ecphora, an extinct sea snail or gastropod.  Paleontologists have used the Ecphora as an index fossil; the presence of specific Ecphora species can be used to date rock and other fossils.  For collectors, of whatever stripe, the Ecphora shells cast a spell by their sheer beauty which is heightened, for me, by the seemingly near impossibility of their survival as intact fossils during that final passage from burial in rock and sand to exposure.  The beaches where I hunt fossils along the Calvert Cliffs formation on the western shore of the Chesapeake are littered with little reddish brown shards of Ecphora shells, a stark reminder of the hazardous life of a fossil.  The fatality rate of these fossils after exposure to the elements must be staggering.

Ecphora are distinguished by the ribs or costae that run like exposed, elevated rails around the exterior of the shell.  The number and shape of those ribs are largely determinative of the specific species of Ecphora that one may have in hand.  The complexity and perceived delicacy of these ribs explains part of their attraction.  Often these shells have an appealing russet color, unusual in a fossilized mollusc, an attribute that also seduces the collector.

Last week, on a hunt in record breaking heat along a Chesapeake Bay beach, I came upon the specimen pictured below.  It sat exposed, wet, upright, and vulnerable amid chunks of clayey material that had fallen from the cliffs.  For seasoned collectors of Ecphora, this isn’t much, a seriously damaged specimen.  For me, it is special, as close as I’ve come to finding a complete specimen of whatever species of Ecphora.

The specimen shown above (1 3/4 inches long, 1 1/8 inches high, and 1 3/8 inches wide) I’ve identified as Ecphora tricostata Martin, an early to mid-Miocene fossil (some 15 to 17 million years ago).  The three prominent costae narrowed the field appreciably as did the location of the find – Calvert Formation.  For confirmation, I relied primarily on Ward and Gilinksy’s article entitled Ecphora (Gastropoda:  Muricidae) from the Chesapeake Group of Maryland and Virginia.  It appeared in the March 15, 1988, edition of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia’s journal Notulae Naturae.  It fits in terms of location and its original description:  “body whorl large, with three very prominent elevated revolving ribs with a fourth rudimentary one below it on the largest specimens” (p. 3)  I detected the rudimentary rib on the specimen I found (I think it can be made out in the picture of bottom of the shell).  The other possible Ecphora with three ribs that may be found in the Calvert Formation is E. pamlico Wilson – the location fits but, among other distinguishing attributes, E. pamlico lacks the rudimentary fourth rib and has ribs that are not as prominent as those on my specimen.  (At least, that’s how I'm reading and applying the literature - the two species are clearly closely related.)

The fragility of, and fatality rate among, the Ecphora are not limited to their physical survival but also to their experience of the vicissitudes of the taxonomic process (clearly, not something unique to the Ecphora).  The naming and renaming of Ecphora species is a delightful and ongoing story

The 1980s witnessed a modest taxonomic blossoming of Ecphora species.  In particular, Druid Wilson of the Smithsonian nurtured the process in an article entitled Species of Ecphora, Including the Subgenus Stenomphalus, in the Pungo River Formation (appearing in Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, II, 1987 – full text appears on the Smithsonian website).  In this article, Wilson offered up three new species of Ecphora.

[An aside:  Because it’s germane to a tiny part of my story, the taxonomic name of each individual species given in this posting includes the name of the individual who was the original author of each species’ name.  Following proper nomenclature, if that genus and species combination were modified after initial publication, then the original author’s name is enclosed in parentheses.]

Most important for those collecting Ecphora in Maryland, Wilson stripped the state of the Ecphora quadricostata (Say).  He asserted that “[i]t is now well known that most if not all of the fossils described by [Thomas] Say in 1824 came from Virginia rather than Maryland . . . .” (p. 22)  As a result, he wrote, the “common Ecphora of the St. Marys Miocene of Maryland masquerad[ed] under the name ‘Ecphora quadricostata,’ which properly belongs to the Yorktown species of Virginia.”  (p. 23)  The specific species of Ecphora with four ribs coming from the St. Marys Formation along the Chesapeake that had been misidentified all these years, he renamed as Ecphora gardnerae.  The species name gardnerae is in honor of Julia A. Gardner (1882-1960), a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a specialist in molluscs.

The following year, Ward and Gilinsky went Wilson one better, concluding that there were actually several subspecies of E. gardnerae, so the one Wilson identified was given a subspecies name and is now known as E. gardnerae gardnerae Wilson.  (p. 7)

Adding a fillip to this tale is the fact that, in 1984, the Governor of Maryland had signed legislation naming Ecphora quadricostata (Say) as the official fossil shell for the state.  Now, science had pulled out the rug from under the state.  When legislation correcting the error was enacted in 1994, the state had as its official fossil shell the “Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae (Wilson)” – well, they got it almost right.  Technically Wilson’s name shouldn’t be in parentheses.

The 1999 edition of Miocene Fossils of Maryland, by Harold E. Vokes, et al., published by the Maryland Geological Survey, identifies three Ecphora species as being found in Maryland (missing from this publication is E. pamlico Wilson).  In the illustration below, taken from Miocene Fossils of Maryland, they are #2 – E. gardnerae gardnerae Wilson, #3 – E. meganae Ward and Gilinsky, and #4 –  E. tricostata Martin.  The first shell image (#1) is a reproduction of what is purportedly among the first scientific illustrations of a U.S. fossil, published in the 1770 edition of Martin Lister's Historiae Conchyliorum.  It’s clearly an Ecphora, but which one?  The Maryland Geological Survey suggests that it's E. gardnerae gardnerae.  To others, that's certainly unclear.  Remnant of the masquerade?  (Numbers 5 and 6 are of a species of different genus of gastropod – Siphonalia devexa (Conrad).)  (The Ecphora portion of Miocene Fossils of Maryland is available on the MGS website.)

Maryland in this instance was caught by the crosscurrents coming from a vigorous scientific exploration and reexamination of the Ecphora genus.  Not sure what the excuse is for Maryland choosing, in 2004, something called the "Patuxent River Stone" as its state gem.  This has stirred controversy from the beginning.  Indeed, in 2002, legislation to do this was reported unfavorably from committee.  So, what is this stone really?  A recognized gem or not?  Agate, as its proponents label it, or, perhaps, something much more mundane like iron-stained quartz?  Ah, give me the scientific currents swirling around the beautiful Ecphora any day.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

William C. Darrah ~ A Curious Life

Darrah was never one to drop anything that held his interest.
~ Morey and Lyons, William Culp Darrah (1909-1989):  A Portrait, p. 14 (full citation given in text below)
Anyone with an interest in stereographs is likely to turn to the works of William Culp Darrah, references widely recognized as key for researching or collecting stereographs, those cards with two nearly similar images side by side that, when viewed through a stereoscope, yield a 3D picture.  A previous posting highlighted my interest in them.  They are also known by many other names – stereo cards, stereo views, stereoscopic views, stereographic pictures, or stereograms.

At one time extremely popular in the U.S., stereographs were commercially produced in great numbers from the middle of the 19th century until about 1935.  According to Darrah, “The stereograph, although but one type of photograph, was the first visual mass medium.”  (The World of Stereographs, 1977, p. 2).  He estimated that, in the U.S., upwards of 6 million different views may have been reproduced on the many millions of cards that were printed.  Their subjects ran the gamut from domestic still-lives to train wrecks, from slapstick comedy to teary melodrama, from the bawdy to the religious.  As with any medium aimed at mass entertainment, much dreck was produced and eagerly purchased.  But, there were jewels, including many of the views of natural history subjects.

[The stereograph above is of the crater of the volcano La Soufrière on St. Vincent, one of the Windward Islands.  Manufactured by the Keystone View Company and copyrighted 1903, the pictures show the volcano shortly after it erupted in 1902.]

A man of many interests, Darrah encountered stereographs while researching his biography of geologist and Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell (Powell of the Colorado, 1951).  For some three decades, Darrah avidly collected stereographs; at one juncture, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 cards arrived monthly at his home.

The Paleontological Connection

Yes, there is a paleontological connection here, other than simply the possibility of fossils being subjects of these three dimensional images, a topic I considered previously.  The link is Darrah himself.  For all his work on stereographs, it was just an avocational activity.  Professionally, Darrah was a widely published paleobotanist, whose career included teaching and researching at Harvard, and ended with a full professorship of biology at Gettysburg College.

Two aspects of his life in the academic world of paleontology intrigue me – the role of the doctorate, and accusations early in his career of plagiarism.  For this posting on Darrah, I have relied on William Culp Darrah (1909-1989):  A Portrait, an extensive essay on Darrah’s life written by his daughter Elsie Darrah Morey of the Morey Paleobotanical Laboratory and Paul C. Lyons of the U.S. Geological Survey.  It appears in Historical Perspective of Early Twentieth Century Carboniferous Paleobotany in North America:  In Memory of William Culp Darrah, Geological Society of America, 1995).  I cite the essay below as Darrah Portrait.

Career in the 1930s

Darrah graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1931, earning a B.S. in geology and minoring in botany.  He did graduate work as a University of Pittsburgh Fellow at the Carnegie Museum, working on its collection of plant fossils.  His own collecting efforts focused on delineating the relationship of the flora of the local Allegheny Formation with the flora from Missouri and Illinois.  In 1934, he joined Harvard’s Botanical Museum, working with the museum’s director botany professor Oakes Ames, an expert on orchids.  Darrah curated Harvard’s botanical fossils, expanding the scope of the collection significantly.  He had teaching responsibilities at Harvard, initially teaching elementary biology and then teaching paleobotany at the graduate level.  Darrah was a young man on a rapid rise within the scientific ranks, starting to publish and be recognized nationally and internationally as an expert in his field of study.

Harvard ~ Dilemma of the Doctorate

Like many embarked on an academic career, Darrah faced the questions of whether and how to deal with the dissertation and oral exam that blocked his path to a doctorate.  He turned to Ames for counsel.  It was an interesting choice, since Ames, who earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from Harvard, had no doctorate.  He wrote to Darrah:

I wish I could give you sound advice pertaining to the embellishment of a Ph.D. degree.  I fear I cannot do so because I am prejudiced.  Many good men and true have ascended the [ladder] of distinction without a degree, having had hawk’s eyes for opportunity. . . . Is not the Ph.D. degree, in nine cases out of ten, the open sesame won by mediocrity from reluctant committees of scholars? . . .

I say in all frankness:  If you have a creditable thesis, and feel that you can bluff your way through an oral examination, get the Ph.D. degree by all means.  If you possess character, inborn ability and a love of your task, you can live it down.  It will not curtail your prospects of success . . . .
~ letter by Ames, as quoted in Darrah Portrait, p. 7

Have to admire the job Ames did on the quality and value of the doctorate.  Ph.D. as embellishmentMediocrity 90% of the time.  Bluff your way through an oral exam.  Unnecessary.  The message was clear.  No Ph.D. for young Mr. Darrah.  And there wasn’t.

Would this advice be proffered by an academic mentor today?  I doubt it.  I wonder, though, given his research bent and his prolific writing, why Darrah didn’t just get it over and done with.  He is quoted as saying, years later, as he looked back at the decision not to complete his doctorate, that “My strongest ambition was to do what I wanted to do . . . .”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 6)

Unfortunately, I think this decision came back, pretty quickly, to bite him.  I detect a tone in several of the comments made about Darrah, in a blowup over plagiarism that engulfed him (more on that below), suggesting that some in the academic community may have been irritated by his rapid rise, perhaps, in part, because he didn’t have that culminating degree.

Boy Wonder Stumbles at Harvard

My friends at Harvard are rallying to the defense of the boy wonder . . . . Darrah should be definitely squelched or punished . . . .
~ letter by paleobotanist and geologist Ralph Works Chaney, as quoted in Darrah Portrait, p. 8

Others went so far as to suggest he should be “spanked” for the sins he had allegedly committed.

Ralph W. Wetmore, biology professor at Harvard, precipitated the crisis when he approached Darrah with the proposition that he fill a void in the academic literature by writing a textbook on paleobotany.  Conveniently, Wetmore was associate editor of botany at the publishing firm of D. Appleton-Century Company, and, in 1936, Darrah and Appleton-Century agreed to proceed with the textbook.  The book was published in 1939, entitled appropriately enough, Textbook of Paleobotany.

I have no tolerance for even the hint of plagiarism, deliberate or not, so I found this part of Darrah’s story painful.

During preparation of the textbook, Darrah wrote to various authors to secure permission to quote from their published works.  Morey and Lyons include one he wrote to Chaney, the scientist who would later conclude that Darrah should be “squelched or punished.”  In it, Darrah asks permission to use and shorten a passage from one of Chaney’s books, and to use a taxonomic listing, also somewhat shortened.  He concluded with a postscript, “Naturally credit and citation will be given.”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 9)

Initially, the textbook was fairly warmly received, but soon the whole enterprise started to unravel.  Chaney was one of the first to pull at a loose string.  After receiving a complimentary copy of the textbook, he wrote to Darrah expressing surprise at how he had used material from one of his articles verbatim without quotation marks.  He lectured Darrah about giving proper credit, and warned that he would be looking more closely at the book.

Chaney seemed to warm to the task, uncovering not only instances of Darrah’s apparent plagiarism involving his own writing, but that of other scientists.  He began a campaign to have the book withdrawn from publication, writing to various authors and publishers concerning his discoveries.  In one letter to the Princeton University Press concerning the use of a book it had published, he mused, “What I am wondering is whether he [Darrah] has copied his whole book from other people.”  (letter from Chaney, Darrah Portrait, p. 9)

I suppose I should not be surprised that it all became very mean spirited.  At one point, Chaney observed in a letter to Winifred Goldring (state paleontologist of New York),

I shall be glad when I have something more important to do than throw mud at this poor innocent child.  On the other hand I have a sufficiently mean disposition to greatly enjoy the tone of your letter in which you tell him [presumably Darrah] what you think of him.
(letter from R.W. Chaney, Darrah Portrait, p. 10)

How did Darrah respond?  Rather poorly.  The excuses and justifications he offered 70 years ago seem to be the same sort of ones offered up today.  At one juncture, he seemed to try to shift the blame to a typist who was hired to type up his lecture notes as content for the textbook.  It is unclear how the typist was to know that passages in Darrah’s lectures came from other works.  At another point, he lamented how Wetmore, who had overseen the project, hadn’t been stronger in his defense of the young author.  Further, he contended that anyone writing on some of these subjects would be turning to the same small array of original source material.  Hard to see that this would excuse using someone else’s work without proper credit, though he appeared to try to do so by suggesting his role was to synthesize the work of others to make it broadly accessible.  Also, Darrah impugned the motives of at least one of his critics, suggesting that publication of his textbook would require the critic to have to rewrite a volume that was in the works.  Admittedly, in the academic world, an accusation of self-interest is likely to have some grounding in truth.

The crisis passed finally when Darrah and those affected agreed that an errata sheet was to be inserted in all copies of the textbook published in the future.  The errata sheet stated that it was a “regrettable error” that material appearing at different places in the book had appeared in others’ works.  Apparently, each such instance was listed.  The sheet flagged Chapters VI (“considerable portion”), XVII (selected pages), and XIX (“much of the material”).

Tempest in a teapot?  Academics striking dramatic and nasty poses because so little is actually at stake?  Wish I could be more sympathetic toward the young Darrah, but the misappropriating was inexcusable and he tried to excuse himself.  But, frankly, I wouldn’t have been prompted to write this posting if the episode hadn’t been given such prominence in the Darrah Portrait, coauthored by his daughter.  Of the 18 pages of text in the essay, fully 4 are devoted to it.  This was not an effort to vindicate Darrah.  Very curious and clearly a momentous event for some involved.  Lesson learned?  Later in life, Darrah commented on this episode, saying, “This experience led me to bend over backwards in every way to give all credit due.”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 12)

War and Post-War Career

Hard to tell what the consequences were for Darrah’s career, given the tumultuous jolt World War II gave to most people’s lives.  During the war, Darrah took leave from his position at Harvard and joined the Raytheon Manufacturing Company, doing engineering and research and development, capitalizing on his mineralogical and geological background.  Though he resigned from the Harvard position in 1946, Darrah continued to research and publish in paleobotany.

1951 was a momentous year.  His biography of Powell came out, he resigned from Raytheon, and, having resolved to strike out on his own, he relocated to a farm outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  He soon found himself active in the academic community of Gettysburg College, ultimately joining the biology department as an associate professor, still without that doctorate.  He later became a full professor, retiring from the college in 1974.  Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1977.

Final Thought on Stereographs – Piracy

To return to the venue in which I first encountered Darrah – stereographs – and where I find him without blemish, I am struck by how similar the history of stereographs is with that being traced today by the media of digital music and video.  In both cases, technological development fueled the rapid spread of mass entertainment.  Large, international concerns produced and marketed the technology.  Okay, the idea that enterprises should be organized to rent stereoscopes and stereographs didn’t take off, but, think Netflix, anyway.

And, in still yet another way, the parallel between stereographs and today’s digital media is very arresting (pun intended) – piracy.

Consider this from Darrah,

Almost from the outset, stereography was a publishing business, selling photographic images.  This cannot be over-emphasized.  Negatives were bought, resold, multiplied, copied legitimately and pirated illegitimately.  Many of the most famous photographers purchased negatives and advertised them as their own.  The indispensable work of assistants was seldom properly credited.
(The World of Stereographs, p. 6)

After discussing the process for making a backup copy of the original negative, Darrah noted,

It was a slight step from the copy negative as a safeguard against damage or loss during production to copying a print without permission.  Although dishonest, it was not necessarily illegal.  Many views had never been copyrighted, and for many others copyrights had expired.  The flood of cheap copy issues in the late 1870’s and 1880’s included every type of appropriation of other peoples’ work.
(The World of Stereographs, p. 8)

Fascinating glimpse of technology and business at work more than a century ago.

Knowing his history, these words from Darrah have an added weight.  And a final note of irony.  In middle age, according to the preface to the 1997 reprint edition of The World of Stereographs, Darrah lost most of the sight in one eye, largely depriving him of binocular vision.  As a result, he couldn’t see the full visual beauty of the stereograph.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Scientific Firewalls: Vrtpaleo, CERN, Koch Hall of Human Origins

A trio of stories prompted thoughts about the influence of politics and corporate interests on science and scientists.  Science separated from politics, or science separated from financial interests – interesting concepts, but I’ve always assumed that any firewalls surrounding science are very suspect, very porous.  I forget that sometimes.


Scientists are political animals who are able, like the rest of us, to act poorly when debating their beliefs, be those beliefs political, religious, social, scientific . . . .  Consider the recent kerfuffle on Vrtpaleo, the listserv intended to serve the vertebrate paleontology community.  Among the enlightening exchanges were the following:

Comment:  I'm sick of checking my email and seeing your stream of perverted right-wing slander. . . .

Rejoinder:  I am neither a racist nor a bigot. Such terms are used by leftist idiots (or as Lenin used to call them, 'useful idiots') to slander and smear people whose views they find objectionable . . . .

The language was coarse, dripping with vitriol, and so over the top it was almost funny.  Almost.

Should it be surprising that some scientists and science hangers-on (who’s commenting isn’t always evident on the listserv) have obnoxious political, social, racial, or economic opinions?  We’re talking about human beings, a species whose members are well known for embracing the rational and irrational in the same thought.

I wasn’t the only one put off by the Vrtpaleo display.  This latest flare up of political crossfire was the last straw for several members.  The best announcement of an intention to drop out of the listserv came from Chris, a museum curator, on his fine blog Prerogative of Harlots.  (Thankfully, he didn’t do what many on the listserv do, send an unsubscribing message to the whole list.)  On point, he observed,

I think it's great that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression - I just wish it carried a rider that citizens think before they exercise that right.

The whole thing reminds me of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England.  Nicolas Slonimsky, who conducted the world premiere of the piece, described the relevant portion perfectly.

In the second movement there is a scene which represents the meeting of two marching bands in the village, and they play the same marching rhythm but at different tempi because they are coming from different directions.  (Charles Ives Remembered:  An Oral History by Vivian Perlis, 2002, p. 148.)

The result, for me at least, is a discordant mess.

European Economic Crisis and Science

The current financial crisis has directly affected science and science education worldwide.  These funding decisions are not in the hands of scientists, they are decisions being made by politicians, among others.  The closing of university science museums in this country is but one case in point.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post (In Europe, Science Collides With the Bottom Line, September 7, 2010), the severely constrained budgets of European nations are now forcing governments there to take whacks at some of the most exciting pure science going.  Reporter Anthony Faiola, describes several European scientific agencies and efforts that are being cut back, put on hold, or coming under the threat of such action.

I found it particularly dismaying that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is shutting down all of its particle accelerators beginning in 2012.  Okay, the Large Hadron Collider, that $10 billion accelerator near Geneva, was already slated for a year-long hiatus for upgrades.  But, now, none of the CERN’s nine particle accelerators will be functioning.  Faiola writes:

The move will mean a critical period of lost opportunities for visiting research fellows and a year without fresh data for projects, including one on the cusp of trapping an atom of antimatter to better understand the early formation of the universe.


The Smithsonian’s Koch Hall of Human Origins

For the August 30, 2010, issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote a fascinating piece (entitled Covert Operations) on the Koch brothers, David and Charles, libertarian billionaires with a profound dislike of government in general, and the current administration in particular.

The industries that make up the Koch brothers’ corporate holdings are, reportedly, serious environmental polluters.  So, it may not be surprising that Mayer describes the Kochs as advocates of “much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation.”  Climate change denial is apparently one of their causes.

At the same time, David Koch, in particular, has been providing substantial funds to various medical and scientific institutions.  The signs of that generosity abound.  The American Museum of Natural History’s wing housing dinosaurs is now known as the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.  The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History recently opened the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

Private philanthropy in support of science – good thing . . . if the financial largesse doesn’t come with pressure to influence the science supported and displayed by the recipients.  And that’s what some have alleged about the Koch Hall of Human Origins.  Mayer outlines the arguments in her piece.  Among those she quotes is Dr. Joseph Romm, physicist and climate expert.  Romm, blogging on ClimateProgress, had this to say:

Two things are clear if you visit America’s leading 'science museum' — the National Museum of Natural History.  First, the Smithsonian downplays or ignores the risks posed by human-caused climate change in a number of exhibits.  Second, the worst of the exhibits is the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

Yes, the Smithsonian took $15 million from a billionaire polluter — who is an even bigger funder of disinformation on climate science than Exxon Mobil — to fund a misleading exhibit on evolution and climate change.

That appears to be the crux of the indictment of the Hall of Human Origins.  According to its critics, while positing that climate is a key agent in the human evolutionary history, winnowing the various human species down to one, the exhibits (1) fail to attribute current climate changes, including the record high (and rising) levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to human action and fossil fuels, and, by making those changes appear to be part of a natural cycle, (2) posit human adaptation as the only rational response.

Mayer says that the messages from the Koch Hall of Human Origins “uncannily echo the Koch message” on climate change.  She quotes from a Koch Industries in-house publication which argues, “Since we can’t control Mother Nature, let’s figure out how to get along with her changes.”  That quote is from a column entitled Blowing Smoke in Discovery, a Koch Industries newsletter (January 1, 2010).  The Discovery piece is an amazing read.  Particularly, in its consideration of what was learned from the pilfered e-mail correspondence of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit.

But what the recent 'Climategate' scandal at the University of East Anglia may have illustrated is just how suspect many of those scientific assumptions [behind man-made greenhouse gas emissions] may be.

Correspondence indicates that when the data didn’t support their hypothesis, leading climate change advocates in England decided to change, hide, or, if necessary, destroy conflicting data.

The author goes on to write:

The scientific process of discovery is completely undermined if important information gets modified, manipulated, distorted or dropped if it contradicts a preferred outcome.

Amen, brother.  Hard to disagree with that last sentence, though I don’t think that is what’s revealed by the stolen e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.  (But, that’s another story.)

Is that, though, what happened with the Hall of Human Origins and its treatment of climate change?  Should it have explored the causes of global warming and proffered possible solutions to same?  I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to think not.  Still, when I read Mayer’s treatment of the Kochs, I was struck by how oblivious I was the couple times I toured the Hall to even the possibility that what was on display might have been skewed to serve special interests.  Pretty stupid of me, because, as I stated at the outset, I don’t believe there’s an effective firewall separating science from the influence of other interests.

Yet, it’s ironic that, if, indeed, the Hall of Human Origins has this nefarious intention – acceptance of global warming as just part of the nature of things and something we should adapt to – it failed to deliver the message, at least to me.  Maybe I was just asleep at the switch.  The message I felt it was sending, as I described it in a previous posting, was that

climate change has made a huge difference in the high stakes hominid species-survival lottery. . . . Climate change takes on the role of an evolution machine.  In the human family tree, Homo sapiens is the sole survivor, in part because our great capacity to adapt to variable climate.  Yet there was nothing certain about that survival.

Can a visitor take the displays to be saying that extreme climate shifts, including the one ongoing, are part of natural cycles?  Sure.  But, they don’t, in my mind, promote complacency in the face of those climatic changes.  Even a slightly attentive visitor (the category I guess I fell in) should came away with an understanding that there’s nothing certain about our future survival in the face of severe climate change.  I don’t see the displays purposefully advocating any response, including one that concludes we’ll just have to adapt.

Anyway, it’s good to be reminded that science and scientists function in the “real” world.
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