Tag Archives: Paleontology

Claudia Brown and Pedigree Collapse

A recent comment post on this blog got me thinking about the series Primeval’s Claudia Brown.

Fans of the show will know that Claudia Brown was a character who was becoming romantically involved with Nick Cutter. The main series villain is Nick Cutter’s wife, Helen, long missing, thought dead, but actually just traveling through time.

Very soon after Claudia and Cutter expressed their feelings for each other – which Helen was aware of – Cutter travels with Helen back to the Permian period (299 – 251 MYA – at the end of the Paleozoic era) to recover a future predator and stop it from destroying history. When they return, not realizing that they’ve left baby predators alive in the past, Claudia Brown no longer exists, and no one knows who she is, except for the returning Nick and Helen Cutter. Helen then craps all over Cutter, revealing that, before she disappeared, she was having an affair with his best friend Stephen. Clearly she does this to hurt Cutter, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that a vindictive Helen, with her time-traveling knowledge, may have engineered the disappearance of Cutter’s new love interest.

But is that what happened?

I don’t think so, but then, Primeval can be so ill-conceived at times you never can tell if some intentional is so poorly executed that you can’t discern it from background noise.

Consider: Helen and Cutter enter the anomaly to the Permian, Claudia Brown exists. Helen and Cutter return, thinking they have succeeded, but not realizing they’ve left future predators behind. Claudia Brown now no longer exists. If Helen, 251+ million years in the past, was able to hatch a plot that, by leaving random agents (the predators) behind, exhibited so much fine-grain control that it could pluck one single person out of existence… well, if she could do that she was incredibly good. She might as well be trying to fire a bullet around the planet with a rifle and hitting Claudia on the 251,000,000 circuit around the planet. (Actually, it’s even more improbable than that.)

No, I think she was unaware that Claudia was gone.

Further, you might argue that Claudia may have been there when Cutter and Helen returned and she just wasn’t mentioned and wasn’t in camera shot and that it wasn’t until after she jumped back into the anomaly that Claudia disappeared. If that were the case, Cutter would have forgotten her as well as everyone else had, so that seems unlikely, too.

Let’s, for a moment, consider the likelihood of Cutter and Helen’s mistake of leaving the baby predators altering the timeline enough to erase Claudia.

With 251 million years to compound changes in the timeline, it seems that if significant changes were wrought, that the world would be a completely unrecognizable place, likely having no similarity to the world we inhabit today.

It’s all hypothetical,of course, but here’s one way to look at it. The answer may lie in a concept called Pedigree Collapse.

People have a lot of misconceptions about… well, for the want of a better term, I shall call the Mathematics of History. Most people, for example, view their history as a binary tree. I have two parents, they each have two parents, therefore I have four grandparents. Each of them had two parents, therefore I have 8 great-grandparents. The progression goes like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128…

Simple, you say? Obvious? Yes, and completely wrong… or at least wrong inasmuch as people tend to assume these are all distinct people. You don’t have to go back many generations to realize that your number of ancestors will rapidly approach a number greater than the total number of humans who have ever existed on this planet. How can this be? Answer: Kissing Cousins (wink wink nudge nudge say no more!) There’s a lot more of that going on than people think.

The further you go back in you ancestors the more inevitable it is that multiple people occupy multiple places on your ancestral chart.

If a single human – or, more specifically a single human being who had offspring – far enough back in time were wiped out, huge swaths would have been cut in our ancestry and it seems unlikely that any of us would be here. (And I mean here biologically. As beings made up of the same genetic material, not the ridiculous “gosh, Jenny Lewis is the same person as Claudia Brown with a different history.) Presumably a missing person on the chart would result in others filling in the holes, leading to an ever expanding web of genetic changes.

If the future predators impacted the course of life on the planet, the changes would have been massive. And, of course, this web would have been unravelling since long before humans, mammals or even dinosaurs existed. That’s an inconceivably long period of time.

It is not at all inconceivable that a disturbance back 251+ million years would completely end the world as we know it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to go too far back in time to have any effect.

We have to consider the misconception of continuity of life on this planet. Virtually every creature that has ever existed on this planet has already died. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are extinct. That’s a whole lot of dead.

Since 251+ million years ago, there have been at least two major planetary extinction events and lots of smaller ones. Ice ages, deserts, droughts, asteroids, mountains, seas, oceans and continents have come and gone.

Over such an immense time scale, it’s very likely that the doomed future predators’ changes would be wiped clean long before they reached the Mesozoic era, let alone the Cenozoic.

Aside: There’s 3 (if I recall correctly) baby future predators, without mother, in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. They’re mammals, therefore dependent on mom for milk (assuming they haven’t been weened.) There are no other mammals in the Permian, therefore it’s doubtful they could be raised, Romulus and Remus fashion, but some other beneficent creature. It’s likely that some or all of them will be killed before adulthood. Even if all three survived, their genetic pool is too shallow to have a long-lasting colony. There’s nothing even close for them to cross-breed with. They’re doomed in short order.

The baby predators conceivably wipe out an entire species or even more than one, but if those species were already going to die out, the effect could be negligible.

No. What Nick and Helen Cutter did back in the Permian could not have lead to Claudia Brown becoming Jenny Lewis.
So what could have? Still working the premise that Helen did this on purpose, let’s see what she could have done. For starters though, let’s consider this bit of biology: A human being is produced by the combination of a single egg and a single sperm. Mom produces one unique egg per month for her adult lifespan, dad produces millions in a single toss (so to speak.) For Claudia and Jenny to be the “same person in a different reality” as the show intimates, Jenny had to be the product of the exact same sexual act as Claudia. Considering the number of sperm working towards their goal, they’re couldn’t have been even a seconds’ difference in the act. It couldn’t have been on the kitchen table instead of the bed or the nearby park bench or the back of a car because that would have changed the result of the sperm race.
Therefore we have to conclude that not only are Jenny’s parents the same, but that her conception and the events that lead up to it were identical. That means whatever changed Claudia into Jenny happened after she was conceived.
Here’s what I consider a likely scenario: Mr. and Mrs. Brown conceive a baby. Very shortly after this moment, Mr Brown is removed from the picture, by some means, and before what would have been baby Claudia is born, Mr, Lewis marries the ex-Mrs. Brown and they raise the baby entirely as their own child. Jenny would almost have to be completely ignorant of Mr. Brown’s role in her formation, as she’d likely put 2 and 2 together when told the name of Claudia Brown. (“Hey, my mother’s first husband was named Brown, too! What a coincidence!”)
We also make some assumptions about the “normal flow of time.” We naturally assume something that didn’t happen in our timeline did happen in Jenny’s. But is that our natural tendency to see normality as a still stream that gets disturbed by a pebble. What if it is the reverse?
We don’t actually know that much about Claudia, and her history was erased, so perhaps the opposite happened in her universe. Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Lewis were biologically the parents and Mr. Brown came along to do the paternal duties. She may very well have known, but never mentioned this aspect of her family background because it was largely a trivial matter to her. There’s no way to compare it to Jenny Lewis until after the timeline change, and then the only people who would know what happened, Claudia is gone, and anyone who knew her family has forgotten her.
In this later scenario, it’s even possible that Claudia Brown was orphaned and adopted. Any of a number of things that might have led Jenny to becoming Claudia in our own timeline could have happened and we can never know – unless, of course, Helen knows, and if she did she probably took that with her to her grave.
And now, the entire program, Primeval, has taken that to its grave, too.
None of that explains the creation of the ARC, although it’s possible that, with no Claudia as government liaison, the alternate reality government team behaved differently and helped create the ARC. Perhaps the evil Leek (Claudia’s replacement) somehow pushed this entirely for his own machinations.
So what have we got? If Helen engineered Claudia’s disappearance, she did something after Claudia was already conceived, which seems a completely stupid approach. The alternative is, as I suspect, that Helen was not involved and that the writers just didn’t bother to think things through, insulting the audience once more in the process.

Primeval – Cut Down – Series 3, Episode 3 – Review (Spoilers)

I didn’t see that coming.

Synopsis

The story opens with Helen drilling her Clone Troopers and demonstrating that they are mindless zombies by having one kill himself.

A reporter who has been unsuccessfully on the trail of the anomaly story stakes out the ARC in the hopes of getting the biggest story of all time.

An anomaly opens in a London hospital, Cutter, Conner, Abby and Becker go to investigate. The reporter follows them.

Inside the hospital, a small anomaly has opened and a hatching of baby Diictodons have come through and are chewing through the hospital’s wiring. Posing as a doctor, the reporter nearly captures one of the creatures after he locks Cutter and Abby into an operating room with a pregnant mother and the anomaly.

Back at the ARC, Helen reveals her secret weapon. She has cloned Cutter and uses him to infiltrate the ARC and shut down its defenses. The Clone Troopers move in, plant explosives and capture the remaining members of the team.

After Abby births the baby, Becker frees Cutter and the anomaly closes, leaving two diictodons that were captured by Abby and Conner. The return to the ARC, where they are all quickly captured by Helen and her boys.

Helen reveals to Cutter her motives. The future has been destroyed and it was the ARC that bred the super predators that destroyed the world. She has decided to destroy the ARC and stop Cutter’s work to save the world. However, she thinks Cutter knows the secret of the artifact both she and Lester’s boss, Caroline Steel, were trying to retrieve from the future. Cutter feigns knowledge of the artifact to stall for time.

Back in their cell, Becker helps everyone escape and then he and Conner try to the PA system to play a faked recording of Helen’s voice. They’ve determined that she has voice control over the soldiers and plan to broadcast new orders to them.

The plan works and the soldiers stand down, Helen commands Cutter’s clone to destroy the building. The clones are not mentally the same as the original and Helen considers them to be “living machines”. While Helen escapes, Cutter tries desperately to convince his clone that he is a real person and should not give up his life. Although he cannot convince him to abandon his programming, the clone gives Cutter a chance to escape.

Everyone gets out except Helen and Cutter goes back into the burning building to save her. He finds her unconscious and hides the artifact before he wakes her up to save her. What he doesn’t expect is that Helen is as determined as ever to stop the destruction of the world and she fatally shoots Cutter and then escapes.

Conner re-enters the building to save Cutter but finds him dying. Cutter shows him the artifact and tells him he has to carry on without him. Cutter dies in Conner’s arms.

Analysis

Things are obviously changing in the series. It’s no more mystery now about the cop from the last episode – he is undoubtedly going to come join the team in Cutter’s absence. Will the ARC be rebuilt? Should it? With all the workers walking around the place, none of them seem to do anything. Will Lester’s new boss and her hidden agenda prevent them from rebuilding. Will our team become rebel good guys, hiding from the law, just like the A-Team?

I do like one thing the writer has done in the episode. Helen has been increasingly appearing to be the over-the-top diabolical crazy villain that appears to want to take over the world. If we can take things at face value, now it would appear that her agenda is to save the world. She simply differs with Cutter over our place in the grand scheme of things. Can we be agents of change in the future for good or must we face the future and accept it meekly?

Amusingly, Cutter is on the wrong side of that argument, but one wonders why Helen cares? Being that she’s seen the depth of time for herself, she must also understand that nothing can last forever – including herself, and while she might be able to change the future, she can never live long enough to guarantee that it continues to lead to a future she desires.

Still, it’s nice to see Helen slightly less one-dimensional. It’s a pity she’s obviously not read any time travel fiction, or watched Doctor Who or she’d realize that history isn’t always right. The predators won’t have been created by the ARC (although the might escape from there) they’ll be released somehow by the very artifact that she took to ARC, meaning, ultimately that she will be culpable in the downfall of man through her own actions to save it. History is probably wrong because of some ill-informed journalism by the reporter who is dogging the team now.

I’ve had my misgivings about the make-up of the team for some time, and Cutter’s death doesn’t bode well for the future. Consider the first series team, A Paleontologist (Cutter), a second Paleontologist with big game hunting experience (Stephen), a third paleontology student with some computer skills (Conner), a zoologist (Abby) and two mandarins (Lester and Claudia.) Not exactly a crack squad of experts, but at least they were there because they were Johnny-on-the-spot.

Series 2 gets difficult. Conner certainly seems to have changed his specialty, now seemingly an electronics whiz, but apart from the Claudia/Jenny fiasco, the team remains much the same. Basically unqualified to investigate temporal phenomena, despite the vast resources of the ARC, the team has added no experts in physics, for example, or any other field that might help.

Now, we’ve added Dr. Page, who, as professor of mythology is… sorry… worthless, and we’ve lost Cutter, the brains of the outfit. They’re going to bring back that cop, who, while perhaps handy in a firefight, will be worthless at figuring out anything about the anomalies.

It doesn’t bode well.

Every home needs a triceratops

If anybody would like to get me a present… might I suggest this?


PARIS (Reuters) – The skeleton of a Triceratops dinosaur that roamed the earth some 65 million years ago goes under the hammer in Paris on Wednesday as part of a collection of prehistoric bones and fossils, auctioneers Christie’s said.
[From Triceratops skeleton to be auctioned in Paris | Science & Health | Reuters]

Of course, I’ll also need an add-on room for my house to go along with it…

Of Dinosaurs and Birds

The week before last was Michelle’s spring break, so I took a day off to take her down to the Mesa Southwest Museum (AKA Arizona Museum of Natural History) to see the traveling “Feathered Dinosaurs” exhibit.

There is a province in Northeastern China called Liaoning, where, 120-odd million years ago a lake and a volcano combined to preserve an abundance of unique and exquisitely preserved fossils. Probably the most important finds coming out of the Liaoning fossil beds are… well, let’s call them “feathered dinosaurs”, since that’s what the exhibit is called.

Ever since the discovery of Archaeopteryx in the 19th century, it’s been clear that birds evolved from reptiles. Specimens have been few and far between, but in the later part of the 20th century, dromeosaurs were discovered.

No, that’s not a good place to start, let’s try again. A long time ago there were Archosaurs, the ancient reptiles that came before dinosaurs. Archosaurs led to dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles and crocodilians amongst others.

Dinosaurs broke into two major groups – bird hipped and lizard-hipped. Bird-hipped dinosaurs are somewhat unfortunately named as they have no connection to birds and have no further part in our story, but are represented by familiar dinosaurs such as Iguanodon, stegosaurus and triceratops.

The lizard-hipped dinosaurs further branched into theropods and sauropods. The sauropods being the gigantic diplodocus and other long-necked forms. The theropods are the great two-legged meat eaters – the Tyrannosaurs and such.

Then they discovered Dromeosaurs. Which are classified as theropods, although they are generally smaller and have some unique characteristics, such as long arms, and often a wicked retractable killer claw on the hind feet. Think Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, and you’ve conjured up the image of a dromeosaur.

Perhaps you noticed between Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, the ‘raptors suddenly gained feathers.

For most of the 20th century, Archaeopteryx was thought to be a parallel line of development, alongside the dinosaurs – just as marine reptiles and flying reptiles were. The problem was, not enough evidence to say where they branched from.

When dromeosaurs were discovered in the 1960’s, it became obvious that significant physiological similarities existed between them and birds. The branching point where birds began to separate from reptiles was found. Or was it?

The case for the dromeosaur/bird relationship has been strengthening steadily over the years, and increasing number of dromeosaurs have now been identified (or extrapolated) as having feathers.

Now, the researchers who put together the “Feathered Dinosaur” exhibit, based on the amazing finds in Lioaning have arrived at a new conclusion and turned things on their head: Dromeosaurs aren’t theropod dinosaurs on the way to becoming birds at all. They’re not dinosaurs at all. They’re flightless birds, like ostriches. These are creatures whose ancestors developed true feather and wing flight, but who, through some form of evolutionary selection pressure, became land-dwelling creatures, similar in appearance to theropods, but not related any closer than the Archosaurs.

I’ve read the (rather sparse) material associated with the exhibit and it makes a logical case. No evidence is presented to counter the hypothesis, and I don’t know what the reaction has been in the paleontological community has been.

What I do know is that, if this were such an obvious slam dunk of an hypothesis, I would imagine I would have to have heard more about it than I have. Has consensus been achieved this quickly? Or is this hotly contested? I can only imagine the latter. That’s the way science works, in fact, that’s probably how science works best. If there’s any lesson to be learned in science for the general public, it is that science is a self-correcting system that arrives at conclusions via evidence, multiple independent verifications and a lot of academic debate.

So, why am I bothered?

I’m bothered because the museum was rather full of kids on field trips and they were stocked up on docents, and they were telling everyone about this theory as if it were completely proven. The materials accompanying the exhibits were not much less certain, but the book that can be purchased separately does at least pay some lip service to the notion of academic debate on these findings. I don’t blame the authors, exactly, for they are putting forward their case, and doing a convincing job – at least to this layman, but at the same time, as far as I can tell, dromeosaurs are still considered theropod dinosaurs – for now.

Anyway, despite that, it is an amazing exhibit! These are some of the most exquisite fossils ever found. The preservation is such that you can see intricate details on the wings of bugs. It’s astounding.

How sad that these fossil beds are stuck in China. The local farmers can make a comparative fortune finding and smuggling out fossils. The fields aren’t well guarded and, well, let’s be brutally honest: Chinese officials are corrupt to the core. A payoff here and there and who knows how many incredible finds are in the hands of some private collector?

No pictures are allowed in the exhibit (and armed guards will stop you if you try*) and no pictures are available for purchase, although the companion book, Feathered Dinosaurs by Stephen A Czerkas and Sylvia J. Czerkas has photos of all the exhibits and the text of the placards, along with some additional material.

I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in paleontology to see this exhibit if you get the chance. For most people, it’s probably a once in a lifetime exhibit.


*Or is the purpose of the armed guards to stop political activists from unfurling “Free Tibet” banners?

Book Selection: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… as I was approaching college age as the 80’s were dawning on us, I had three areas of interest that I explored for my future life’s work. Each would set the course of my adult life in three very different ways and each would have been a different University.

I was interested in forestry, which would have taken me to Northern Arizona University, paleontology, which would have started at my home town university, the University of Arizona, or computer science at Arizona State University.
Forestry was the long shot and got eliminated early, and plays no further part in this story.
My deep and abiding interest was paleontology – I wanted to be a fossil hunter, but my aptitude was more computer science.
Computers won because as I learned more about the coursework required for paleontology, I realized that there were large parts (like biology and zoology) of it that would really be painfully dull for me.
Looking back, I didn’t make the wrong choice. Paleontology has developed significantly since the days of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Parallel developments in other fields, such as genetics and evolutionary biology have dovetailed with the old bone diggers and brought us to a quantum leap in our understanding of past life. (Yuck, I apologize for that sentence. Must be too much sugar in my iced tea.)
That’s my long way of saying, I love a good book on the evolution of life, especially when there’s a paleontological adventure involved.
Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish (and Shubin himself, for that matter) first came to my attention when he plugged the book on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in his role as a conservative fundamentalist host, always throws his guests a few curve balls (or googlies, if you prefer a cricket analogy over baseball) and I was really impressed at how well Shubin comported himself on the show.
That alone made me want to give him money by reading his book, but Shubin has another important claim to fame: He was an instrumental part of the team of paleontologists who discovered Tiktaalik, the important fish to amphibian transitional fossil.
The book’s subtitle is “A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body” and, as such, isn’t strictly about Tiktaalik, or even fossil-hunting. It is an excellent, and easily accessible book that gives a good primer into how genetics and fossils tell us why life is the way it is.
As such, I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in understanding “how it all comes together.”
Your Inner FishA Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin
Pantheon BooksISBN 978-0-375-42447-2

The Anomalies come to America!

When we were in Taiwan last time, do you know what I saw on TV?

Primeval.

That’s right, Taiwan gets Primeval! The United States doesn’t. Now, the second series of Primeval has been an enormous letdown for me, but it’s still better than most of the crap on US TV (and that’s before the writer’s strike!, and that’s why I’m pleased as punch to report that BBC America has finally snatched up the first two series of Primeval for airing later this year.

BBC Worldwide America president Garth Ancier said in a release Friday: “Primeval is a perfect addition to our successful Saturday night menu of sci-fi and adventure. Torchwood and Robin Hoodhave done a tremendous job at the core of our schedule, building ratings and attracting younger viewers to BBC America. We think our audience will be excited by the addition of this prehistoric thriller — one of the latest big hits from the U.K.”

Link: Multichannel.com

Looks like it will start airing in August. Hopefully it will follow on DVD and I can add it to my collection without having to pick up the Region 2s.