Think before morphing

Oh, good. I saw this WaPo article with a morphing animation of a lemur into SJ Gould, and I was mildly appalled—it’s a very badly done gimmick that doesn’t say anything about how evolution works, and actually grossly misleads the viewer on the morphological transformations that had to have occurred. Fortunately, I don’t have to deepen my reputation as a cranky internet curmudgeon by complaining about it— Carl Zimmer has done it for me.

Transforming grid coordinates is an interesting tool in describing the transformations between forms—D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson did it well—but you need to start with forms you know are linearly related and you’ve got to define and align anatomical features very carefully. Picking random photos of various primates and blending them ain’t it.


  1. #1 mark
    July 24, 2006

    For most readers, it’s just “Oooh, monkey-to-man.”

  2. #2 rrusick
    July 24, 2006

    More than a decade ago, I mailed Stephen Jay Gould a clipping from a computer publication which gave a favorable review to some piece of educational software. To illustrate the product’s multimedia “wow” factor, the review printed a few frames from a QuickTime morph purporting to show how a land animal, such as a wolf, might have evolved into a whale. The result was as silly as you might guess; with feet shrinking uniformly to become fins while at the same time the wolf’s tail slowly became a whale’s fluke.

    Recognizing from his writings that Dr. Gould had a deep interest in evolution, I figured he might be both amused and appalled by this misrepresentation in a piece of “educational” software.

    I did a brief letter in return (actually, a post-it note); he was appalled, and felt that illustration misrepresented the truth of how evolution works so badly, that it might as well have been a lie.

    He also sent a clipping of his recent (at the time) article in Nature, concerning a recent discovery of the fossil of a whale ancestor, as an example of the real science being done.

    I have the clipping and the post-it note still, of course. I take pride in having been a correspondent (however brief) with Stephen Jay Gould.

  3. #3 Anne Nonymous
    July 24, 2006

    The lemur is totally adorable, though.

  4. #4 Scott Hatfield
    July 24, 2006

    That’s a very interesting story posted by rrusick, because just a few years later the PBS ‘Evolution’ series had essentially the same concept: in one continuous animation, portray a series of functional intermediates from Sinonyx (a wolf-like creature from about 55 mya), the well-known Pakicetus, and modern whales. The episode was “Great Transformations”, and I regularly show most of it because it’s so good.

    As a high school biology teacher, I am at great pains to point out that individuals never evolve, populations do, and so I cringe when (in the interests of time) the good folks at WGBH employed the animation I described. I typically stop the video at that point and remind students that a wolf-like creature never became a whale, and that the animation is a metaphor for changes in populations.

    Anyway, Gould appears more than once in the same series and it would be interesting to know what he thought about it. One gets the impression that his views were marginalized; there’s nothing in there, for example, about ‘punk eek’, spandrels or the contingent nature of evolution. Just as well, I suppose.



  5. #5 luca
    July 25, 2006

    come on guys don’t be so picky now… the caption says: A lighthearted rendering of evolution imagines the transformation of a small lemur into a human in the person of legendary evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould.

    I’m sure they didn’t mean to suggest that a single lemur morphed into stephen jay gould… although I don’t know the audience of the WP.

    and I don’t find the gimmick so badly done, I have to say. at least they’ve included some intermediate forms. -albeit they’re modern existing primates.

  6. #6 John Latter
    July 25, 2006

    If anyone is interested, the PLoS Biology paper the Washington Post refers to can be found here:

    A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome

    John Latter / Jorolat

    Evolution Research

  7. #7 Ed Darrell
    July 25, 2006

    An animation that shows a wolf’s tail becoming a whale’s fluke would differ considerably from an animation that shows the ancient ancestors (not wolves) of the whale morphing, with the entire hindquarters, including the legs with their more powerful muscles, becoming the fluke –would it not?

    In old movies there were several conventions used to illustrate the passage of time, especially the passage of time with romance going on out of camera shot — the blowing curtain sort of thing. Perhaps we could develop a similar lexicon for animations, to show that no single animal morphs, but body forms of populations do morph over time. Such animations are popular and will remain so. Is there some way to make them accurate, too?

  8. #8 Joe Shelby
    July 25, 2006

    the same type of morphing is done throughout Walking with Monsters, morphing the earliest vertebrates up to the dinosaur in short segments over the 3 half-hour shows.

    and actually (in skeleton-graphics style, possibly hand-animated) was done in the two or three times in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos whenever he talked about evolution.

    it is a good technique for showing change, as long as you say there are anywhere from 1 to 1000 generations per 24th of a second (a frame of film).

  9. #9 rrusick
    July 26, 2006

    An animation that shows a wolf’s tail becoming a whale’s fluke would differ considerably from an animation that shows the ancient ancestors (not wolves) of the whale morphing, with the entire hindquarters, including the legs with their more powerful muscles, becoming the fluke –would it not?

    Exactly. I wouldn’t find an animation which used morphs between known (or speculated) intermediate forms, so objectionable.

    It might be helpful to indicate, perhaps with a counter showing the number of generations elapsing, that what is shown is not one individual, but a representative of the population.

    It is a subtle point to try to illustrate in an animation, but Scott Hatfield is wise to call attention to it for his students; to counter the comic-book/movie view of mutation as a more-or-less instantaneous whole body transformation of an individual.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.