Tetrapod Zoology

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Welcome to the last article in my little series on Inside Nature’s Giants (see part I, part II and part III first). The final, fourth episode looked at giraffes (or, specifically, Rothschild’s giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, or G. rothschildi if you prefer). For me this was the most impressive episode; partly because they covered just about everything you could think of, and partly because I haven’t seen inside a giraffe before. Graham Mitchell was on-hand as their giraffe expert (is this the same Graham Mitchell who also publishes on crocodile farming?). They showed us the enormous, yellow nuchal ligament [see adjacent CG image, and dissection shown below. Images © Channel 4], the neck musculature, the lungs (again, very bizarre), the anatomy and role of the tongue, the enormous, phenomenally thick-walled heart, the tightly adhering leg skin, the dense lower limb bones, the vasculature associated with the skin blotches, the capillary network at the base of the brain (this prevents high-pressure blood from the heart rushing in and damaging the brain), and more. That’s a lot of detail.

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If you know anything about giraffes and hypotheses about their evolution, you’ll know that experts have argued over which pressure was more important in directing the evolution of the incredible neck. The ‘traditional’ hypothesis – if there is such a thing – is that the long neck evolved in response to competition avoidance. This was challenged by Simmons & Scheepers (1996) who argued that the role of the neck in sexual selection might have been more important in shaping its evolution. This is the ‘necks for sex’ hypothesis. Their arguments were contested by Cameron & du Toit (2007) who showed that competition avoidance and access to elevated foliage is of major importance to giraffes (Cameron actually starred in this episode). I was mightily impressed to see all of this featured!

Perhaps the most memorable scene involved the dissection of the recurrent laryngeal nerve: the branch of the vagus nerve that travels from the brain to the larynx. Rather than going directly for all of 50 mm or so, it needlessly travels all the way down to the heart, loops round the aorta, and then comes all the way back up to the larynx. This is more pronounced in a giraffe than any other living animal, of course. This is illogical ‘bad design’ and apparently the result of historical legacy: in the earliest vertebrates, the nerve was taking the most direct route, but once necks evolved the nerve found itself in the middle of a complex vascular junction, and had to remain tangled with the aorta even when the aorta and the brain became widely separated. ‘Bad design’, whatever it means and whatever significance you want to give it, is great fun, and does demonstrate the contingent nature of evolution. Featuring the recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe was, I feel, an excellent move.

Mistakes, Dawkins and… will there be more?

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Inevitably, a few little mistakes, or points of contention, made it into the series. Elephant tusks are not canines, as stated, but actually deciduous incisors (Tassy 1987), and baleen whales were said to use the low-frequency noises they create to detect distant fish shoals via echolocation. It has indeed been suggested on occasion that baleen whales might employ crude echolocation, but last I heard this was only a speculation and required confirmation. Let me know if you know otherwise!

It was great to see so many ‘relevant’ people featuring in the respective episodes but, personally, I didn’t see much point to the Richard Dawkins bits: his role in the series was essentially superfluous, as we already had anatomists and other specialists telling us all about the anatomy. His main role seemed to note repeatedly that – even while organisms ‘look designed’ – it is blind evolution alone that has done the designing, and that there is no designer in the true sense. This served, I suppose, as a smackdown to creationist bullshit, but was it really needed? I’m not a fan of religion, but I’m not really a fan of Dawkins either: as some people have already noted in the comments, the fact that he’s generally taken to be synonymous with hardline godlessness will put off many of the people who would likely benefit from exposure to the evidence for evolution.

Anyway, there we have it. Tons of information: essential revision and/or practical demonstration for those with some anatomical knowledge, and a fascinating and compelling introduction for a whole new audience. Bold, fantastically done, and surprisingly comprehensive, I think that Inside Nature’s Giants really was outstandingly good, and well done and congrats to everyone involved. The big question is: will there be more? Of course, I don’t know, but I note that the series is referred to as ‘series 1′ on the Channel 4 website. Fingers crossed. There are more giant animals that could be dissected for TV – I’m thinking big sharks, ostriches and leatherback turtles – but there’s also the exciting possibility that small and medium-sized animals could be discussed too, perhaps with CG being used to make them look big and exciting. The anatomy of small critters is often just as incredible and bizarre as that of giant animals, if not more so, but of course we forget this because we’re fascinated by size. If you liked Inside Nature’s Giants as much as I did, you should perhaps consider registering your thoughts at Channel 4. I often feel that television is, increasingly, vacuous crap and that owning a TV set is a complete waste of time. Events like Inside Nature’s Giants make me feel that things aren’t so bad after all.

For more on giraffes see…

Refs – -

Cameron, E. Z. & du Toit, J. T. 2007. Winning by a neck: tall giraffes avoid competing with shorter browsers. The American Naturalist 169, 130-135.

Simmons, R. E. & Scheepers, L. 1996. Winning by a neck: sexual selection in the evolution of giraffe. The American Naturalist 148, 771-786.

Tassy, P. 1987. A hypothesis on the homology of proboscidean tusks based on paleontological data. American Museum Novitates 2895, 1-18.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark Lees
    July 31, 2009

    Yes another wonderful episode.

    As I have already noted, I felt the same about Richard Dawkins’ role.

    Indeed he overdid his part to the point of scoring own goals. I noted this particularly with his reference to the recurrent laryngeal nerve. Having had the point made effectively, he went on to say that no human engineer would do anything like this because they would go back to the drawing board and come up with an efficient design that didn’t have legacy baggage. My thoughts on hearing that was ‘what planet is he on?’ – the immediate example I had in mind was of right-hand drive vehicles for the UK market that are based on continental left-hand drive vehicles. I have owned several, and had they gone ‘back to the drawing board’? – like hell they had … the wiring and under the bonnet controls on one Renault I owned made the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe look direct and simple in comparison. That car example having come to mind I came up with a fairly long list of other examples of designs that include aspects that show their heritage (i.e. contain legacy features) very quickly.

    The point is, an example was put forward of design that certainly appears less than ideal, rather than leave it for the audience to draw their own conclusions, he added this ridiculous comment that engineers would never design like that, when the simple fact is that numerous examples can be found in every day man made objects of exactly what he said would never happen – which rather undermined the point he was trying to make.

    Still we can’t let him detract from an otherwise wonderful series. I would like to see them do a hammerhead shark, a giant squid (getting a specimen could be a real challenge), a large teleost (maybe a wels catfish), a komodo dragon and a brown bear; and the list of smaller animals is too long.

  2. #2 Michael P. Taylor
    July 31, 2009

    Indeed, it would be hard to overstate just what a fantastic programme Inside Nature’s Giants has been — the absolute antithesis of all the dumbed-down, repetitive nonsense that usually passes for “science” programmes. The irony that this was from Channel 4, and not the BBC, is not lost on me. I will certainly be writing to Channel 4 to thank and congratulate them, and I urge all of you to do the same.

    I’ll be first in line to buy a DVD when one is available. Sadly, searching on amazon.co.uk doesn’t show anything — not even a Will Be Available In December 2009 or similar. But here is something encouraging: enough people are searching for it that it pops up as one of the ten search suggestions as soon as you’ve got as far as typing “insi” on the front page.

    Until the official DVD comes along, of course, there is always http://isohunt.com/torrents/inside+nature's+giants?ihs1=13&iho1=d&iht=3 — but I’d rather have the real thing, and I hope Channel 4 get on with it, ideally with some extras.

    As for series 2: I really, really want to see them take an ostrich apart; shark, squid and komodo dragon are also excellent suggestions, getting away from the mammals that, understandably, dominated the first series. But then we still have plenty of mammal territory to cover, too: hippos, rhinos, big cats …

  3. #3 Tim Morris
    July 31, 2009

    I’m going to persist posting my questions until at least SOMEONE answers them, preferrably you, Darren.

    I like your blog, I like your integrity, I like that you dont throw your arms up at the first sign of cryptozoology. I’m bound to this blog by the fact that I truly trust your scientific integrity.

    I know you’re busy, god help us, all scientists are. Plus, having a family, and an outdoor/tramping hobby which must eat up alot in travel time.

    But I’m not asking for an abstract here, I’m asking for perhaps one sentace each. Megalainia’s size, and plesiosaur torsos, unless it’s hard to generalise. You’re one of the few scientists who I have full confidence in, save for the folks at the museum here in Adelaide.

  4. #4 Michael P. Taylor
    July 31, 2009

    Oh, a much better source for Inside Nature’s Giants torrents, until an official DVD comes out:
    http://thepiratebay.org/tv/51026/S01/

    I like that “/S01/” at the end!

  5. #5 Bent Lindow
    July 31, 2009

    On the subject of echolocating baleen whales.

    Stimpert et al. (2007) recently published on acoustic click trains during night-time foraging of humpback whales. However, amplitude and frequency was substantially lower than those involved in odontocete echolocation, making it unlikely that this is echolocation. Perhaps noise to frighten the fish shoals they are preying on?

    Laryngeal musculature of baleen whales is (if I recall correctly) also more similar to terrestrial mammals than that of toothed whales. So they might be producing the sounds using their throat musculature instead of the ‘monkey lips’ and melon of odontocetes.

    Incidentally, I did have a very recent conversation with Outi Tervo on this very subject at the University of Copenhagen’s Arctic Research Station in Qeqertarsuaq, West Greenland.

    Outi is doing some really fantastic work recording Bowhead whale ‘singing’ in the Disko Bay off West Greenland.

    She stated that there is some (circumstantial) evidence at hand that they do in fact use a simple form of sonar. However, it is not the focussed, high-frequency prey detection sonar of the odontocetes. It can better be compared to a very wide sonar sweep, which can be used describe the general physical characteristics of the waters surrounding them. Just like when we go into a pitch-black room, yet can use the reflected sounds from our own voice to detect whether we are currently in a small room or a large sports hall. Outi did not think that it was possible for the baleen whales to use their echolocating abilities to pinpoint fish or copepod shoals, however.

    References:

    Stimpert, A.K., Wiley, D., Au, W.W.L., Johnson, M.P. & Arsenaul, R. (2007): Megapclicks acoustic click trains and buzzes produced during night-time foraging of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Biology Letters 3, pp 467-470. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0281

  6. #6 Rachel S
    July 31, 2009

    This looked like a fantastic program all around. Kudos to programmers for being willing to show this sort of thing and here’s hoping we can get a similar (or the same!) program in the US in the near future. Or at least some Region 1 DVDs.

    Having participated in an elephant necropsy and two giraffe necropsies myself, I can fully appreciate the effort and the organization it takes to go through each system by system. Doing this and imparting information and being (from the sound of it) consistently interesting? Fantastic.

    Anyone who saw the program – they didn’t happen to discuss the internal structure of the skull, did they? I can’t find any good references online (most people seem to prefer keeping their skulls intact) but it’s really very impressive in there and I never did get any answers why.

  7. #7 John Hutchinson
    July 31, 2009

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a second series, given the rave reviews the show has had (even from some normally curmudgeonly TV critics). It seems on a track to win some awards and did reasonably well in ratings, despite Andy Murray playing Wimbledon during the elephant show, the bastard! ;-) But I know little more than that, so far…

    Ditto with DVDs; I don’t understand why they wouldn’t go for DVD sales except that there was uncertainty how well the show would do ratings-wise etc.

    Write Channel 4 and demand these things if you liked the show; TV folks do notice that.

  8. #8 John Hutchinson
    July 31, 2009

    Also on necks for sex see this article:

    Sexual selection is not the origin of long necks in giraffes
    G. Mitchell, S. J. van Sittert & J. D. Skinner
    Journal of Zoology, Volume 278 Issue 4, Pages 281 – 286 (2009)
    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122328715/abstract

  9. #9 Michael Ogden Eickson
    July 31, 2009

    Tim Morris: Why not just email Darren with your questions?

  10. #10 foolfodder
    July 31, 2009

    I suspect that main point of Dawkins being there was to encourage people to watch the show. As far as I remember the trailers had him in and the “next week on…” stuff had him in.

  11. #11 Dave Godfrey
    July 31, 2009

    I loved the program, and was amused by the review Charlie Brooker (a notoriously curmudgeonly tv critic) gave on his show. His guests criticised it from a point of total ignorance and his response was to tell them they were all “Scientific Philistines”.

    I came away from the program having felt I learned a lot, and even the bits I knew about were presented in a new and interesting way- its one thing to be told about the recurrent pharygneal nerve, or seeing a diagram in a textbook, but actually seeing it dissected out in front of you was a great moment, in a series full of them.

  12. #12 Nima
    July 31, 2009

    I’m not a fan of Dawkins either. He’s no longer a “scientist”. He’s left the realm of science behind and now he’s just a religion-basher who occasionally shows a genuine love of science… but MOSTLY he’s anti-religion rather than pro-science. He has almost no practical grasp or biology or paleontology – he only says things like ‘WOW that’s amazing but there’s NO WAY it could have been designed’!

    People like him make science look LESS credible to the public. Evolution is already well-known. It’s not necessary to attack religion in order to endorse good science. He’s grinding a personal axe, and a very hostile one that leaves no room for differing opinions.

    Another thing I noticed is that whenever he debates in favor of “fundamentalist atheism”, he ONLY debates against rather soft-spoken (and in my opinion weak) “modernist” religious figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury – they don’t really proclaim their views as absolute truth, the don’t even object to evolution! So he can easily attack them and tear them apart. But he NEVER has the guts to debate with hot-headed evangelist American bible-thumpers who are evolution’s REAL critics. Instead he hijacks an anatomy show to push his own personal agenda with no challenge in sight.

    It’s like having a debate between Hitler and some shy vegan pacifist – OF COURSE Hitler will look like he won, because he shouts louder and more fanatically and allows for no possibility of the other person being right on ANYTHING!

  13. #14 Dr Vector
    July 31, 2009

    Godwin’s Law demonstrated in a mere 11 comments–not bad for a normally tame zoology blog!

    Keep ‘em coming! (The awesome posts, that is, not the ridiculously overdone analogies.)

  14. #15 Owlmirror
    July 31, 2009

    Another thing I noticed is that whenever he debates in favor of “fundamentalist atheism”, he ONLY debates against rather soft-spoken (and in my opinion weak) “modernist” religious figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury – they don’t really proclaim their views as absolute truth, the don’t even object to evolution! So he can easily attack them and tear them apart.

    I have recently listened to Richard Dawkins debating John Lennox, who, while he does not object to evolution, is not a weak or soft-spoken or modernist believer. He does indeed proclaim his views — that God personally created the universe and incarnated on Earth as Jesus Christ — as absolute truth.

    Instead he hijacks an anatomy show to push his own personal agenda with no challenge in sight.

    As far as I know, Dawkins’ “personal agenda” is to promote science. What challenge do you think should have been made?

  15. #16 Anonymous
    July 31, 2009

    Do okapis observe the same head-bashing behavior as giraffes? Because its interesting to wonder whether or not the long necks of giraffes evolved originally for feeding, and were then used as war maces, or the length of the neck gave giraffes an advantage in the same way a longer spear or sword does in combat, and the adaptations towards browsing kicked in later when it was more feaseable to eat leaves rather than bend down to graze/eat shrubs. Or who knows, it could have been both.

  16. #17 Owlmirror
    July 31, 2009

    His main role seemed to note repeatedly that – even while organisms ‘look designed’ – it is blind evolution alone that has done the designing, and that there is no designer in the true sense. This served, I suppose, as a smackdown to creationist bullshit, but was it really needed?

    Was it needed? Well, I see that “[t]he National Recognition Information Centre (Naric) in Cheltenham, which advises universities and employers on the rigour of lesser-known qualifications, has ruled that the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) is comparable to courses such as international A-levels”.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jul/31/creationist-exams-comparable-to-a-levels

    One of the textbooks tells pupils: “Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

    Hmmm. When creationist bullshit is being declared equivalent to actual science, is smacking down creationist bullshit needed? Hm, hm, hm.

  17. #18 Raymond Minton
    July 31, 2009

    I knew a little something about giraffes and their remarkable anatomy (such as their 24 inch long, 25 pound hearts and 3-inch thick arterial walls) but this provided more detail,such as the inefficient route taken by the laryngeal nerve. The fact that this feature functions in a way that is not easiest or best is yet another nail in the “intelligent design” coffin.

  18. #19 amphiox
    July 31, 2009

    It’s not the existence of “errors” that is such powerful evidence for evolution, it is the specific nature of these errors and the ability of evolutionary theory to explain exactly why these specific errors exist, and how they came about.

    The long course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is certainly imperfect design, but there are many ways it could have been imperfect – it could have looped around the first rib, or under the vena cava, or criss-crossed the midline. But it does none of these, it specifically loops under the aorta. Evolution explains specifically why this is so.

    The difference in human design, and the real meaning of the “back to the drawing board” analogy, is that human designers are not constrained by the need to move entirely in incremental small steps, and nothing else. The wiring of your converted Renault (or say the jury-rigged electrical system of an old building that has been upgraded and repatched multiple times) might indeed be a mess, with legacy features of an older state, BUT the key here is that the transition from old to new state, mediated by the designer, involves multiple steps that are big “back to the drawing board” jumps. Wires are disconnected from one place, in whole, and reconnected into another place. Whole new wiring is added, or removed, in one fell swoop. Wires do not lengthen gradually, all the while remaining connected to the original connections, as the steering wheel is moved, by tiny increments, from right to not-quite-so-right to close-to-center-but-still-kind-of-on-the-right to straddling-the-middle to just-a-little-bit-left-of-the-middle to more-left-than-before to finally the left side where you see it now. (And with each individual step along the way a functioning car capable of being driven from place to place)

    You look at that rewired Renault, and you can see, obviously, that it was intentionally designed, not because it must be perfect, but because the nature of its imperfections are the kinds of imperfections that require a deliberate designer to create. You look at a giraffe’s recurrent laryngeal nerve and you see the kind of imperfection that would result if a designer were NOT involved in its design, the kinds of imperfect you would expect to accumulate if it was altered gradually by purely natural forces.

    Dawkins’ arguments using the “back to the drawing board” analogy are accurate.

  19. #20 BobK
    July 31, 2009

    Wait – did Nima compare Dawkins to Hitler? Case closed, I suppose. I enjoyed his bits, but I am biased as a fan of his. The entire series was phenomenal.

  20. #21 Tim Morris
    July 31, 2009

    Michael Ogdnen Eickson:

    Mainly because I have emailed him at least one blindly pseudoscientific speculation question, regarding giants, yae or nae. Of course, there’s always meganthropus.

    And because I asked him about Carl Buell’s fantastic, but outdated Metridiochoerus reconstruction. Neither were replied to, somewhat understandably.

    These are 2 questions that are perhaps a little TOO speculative for Darren. Seeing as I easily found out the truth some days later, after emailing Carl himself (Chimaera, what else?). As for meganthropus, oh my kingdom for a skeleton!

    I personally think Darren may be tactfully avoiding my most recent questions, due to the fact that megalania is over hyped, as he so despizes. As for the plesiosaur one, brits have been arguing with Australians over that, straight ribs versus backswept, artefact of preservation or not? Plus, it’s mostly pelvic/thoracic musculature also, which is a real doozy anyhow.

    I know it’s etiquette to email, but when I have been adventurous about it, he didnt give me so much as a “get your head read you twit”. Of course, it’s most probably his busy schedule.

  21. #22 Allen Hazen
    August 1, 2009

    Tim Morris–
    One of the links on the left side of the page (it’s the last one in the “The ones I participate in” section of the links column) is to a site called “Ask a biologist.” Your questions are in their ballpark: post them therre. No guarantee that you’ll get an answer (and even if you do it might be from one of Darren’s colleagues rather than from the man himself), but in my experience it’s well worth a try.

  22. #23 Tim Morris
    August 1, 2009

    Dear Allen:

    As much as I would like to get an opinion from ask-a-biologist, my giants question is simply far too smacking of indoctrination, so a “dont believe the creationists” lecture would be forthcoming. Contemporary human physiology does not even remotely point to 13 foot tall humanoids or apes existing in the past, let alone the present day as alot of wackos suggest.

    My hypothesis, albeit one grossly lacking parsimony, would rely on all wars ceasing (thus opening up the puzzling monuments present in the middleast), the vatican and smithsonian warehouses being at least partially described, shall I go on? Human archeology is too rife with religious bias to even come close to resolving, what I think, is a quest more suitable for indiana jones.

    Of course, humanoid giants are possible, perhaps in some hard sci-fi future. But frankly, a humanoid the size of HG Well’s “Children” or Larry Niven’s Pak Protector would look nothing like a modern human, more like a bastard son of a mammoth and a gorilla, yeech.

    As for plesiosaurs, I trust our curators here frankly, as at least I’ve clapped eyes on the fossils in question. I even managed to clap my eyes on, and touch, a marvelous new specimen of cf-minmi, shhh.

    And finally, I have at least seen casts of Megalainia material and some real specimens, and frankly I think Tim Flannery was on the ball when he compared it to an allosaur, albeit an A.atrox or Australovenator, not a saurophagnax ;)

  23. #24 David Marjanović
    August 1, 2009

    Tim, I strongly suspect that answering your simple question about “Megalania” just can’t be done in less than an entire blog post. The same might be true for plesiosaur rib orientation and its implications.

    The point is, an example was put forward of design that certainly appears less than ideal, rather than leave it for the audience to draw their own conclusions, he added this ridiculous comment that engineers would never design like that, when the simple fact is that numerous examples can be found in every day man made objects of exactly what he said would never happen – which rather undermined the point he was trying to make.

    All you’re really saying is that Dawkins should have said “intelligent designer” instead of “human designer”. So he got one word wrong. Big deal… :-|

    You’re one of the few scientists who I have full confidence in, save for the folks at the museum here in Adelaide.

    If you have confidence in a scientist, you’re doing it wrong. Confidence is something you should have in the scientific method and in the data. :-)

    I’m not a fan of Dawkins either. He’s no longer a “scientist”. He’s left the realm of science behind and now he’s just a religion-basher who occasionally shows a genuine love of science… but MOSTLY he’s anti-religion rather than pro-science. He has almost no practical grasp or biology or paleontology – he only says things like ‘WOW that’s amazing but there’s NO WAY it could have been designed’!

    Come on. Read his book “Unweaving the Rainbow. Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

    Evolution is already well-known.

    Not in most of the USA. And even elsewhere, few people can actually explain it. Can you?

    He’s grinding a personal axe, and a very hostile one that leaves no room for differing opinions.

    Surely you aren’t saying he manages to censor other people. Because that would be… stupid.

    The answer to free speech isn’t less free speech, it’s more free speech. Nobody has the right to not be criticized.

    he ONLY debates against rather soft-spoken (and in my opinion weak) “modernist” religious figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury

    Have a look at his website. There’s a forum on it. Guess who posts there.

    Hint: it’s not the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    he hijacks an anatomy show

    What makes you think he wasn’t invited by the producers? What makes you think he invited himself?!?

  24. #25 Mark Lees
    August 1, 2009

    “All you’re really saying is that Dawkins should have said “intelligent designer” instead of “human designer”. ”

    Not really. My observation (criticism then) was that two different issues were being confused.

    Any evidence (such as the recurrent laryngeal nerve seems to be) of ‘design’ that is not the best it could be is I guess a major argument against a creationist that believes in an omnipotent creator who made everything the absolute best it could be. But to suggest that the fact it wasn’t the best possible design showed it wasn’t designed is not of itself a convincing argument and indeed makes no sense, as many things designed by humans are far from perfect/ideal.

    Also the idea that designers ‘go back to the drawingboard’ and are not constrained by legacy features of previous versions etc is manifest nonsense. There are numerous reasons why legacy features exist in products: it could be for economies of production, to utilise common parts; because of conforming to some agreed standard, aesthetics, lack of imagination or an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it attitude, even simply laziness. The fact of the matter is that many human designed objects contain features that seem to be less than ideal design, and that are the way they are because the design has been modified from that of some other object in which it made sense to do it that way.

    Amphiox makes an interesting point (and I have seen it used elsewhere) but the same kind of special justification could be said for some of the human less than perfect designs I refer to. I think the point you make is interesting, but really a distinction that makes no really significant diffence.

    As I see it less than perfect design is good argument against someone who believes that the design should be (or by their belief system, must be) perfect. But to say that if an apparent design is less than perfect means it isn’t designed is seriously flawed logic.

  25. #26 Sven DiMilo
    August 1, 2009

    There are numerous reasons why legacy features exist in products: it could be for economies of production, to utilise common parts; because of conforming to some agreed standard, aesthetics, lack of imagination or an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it attitude, even simply laziness.

    Which of those reasons are you attributing to the omnipotent Creator?

  26. #27 amphiox
    August 1, 2009

    Mark Lees, #25:

    My point is that the “back to the drawing board” analogy doesn’t just apply to the whole design. It applies to each and every single individual component. If a single connector is detached and reattached at a different place, if a single component is replaced in whole with another model, if at any point in the process of the redesign it can be demonstrated that the machine had to be turned off, to cease to function even temporarily, in order for the change to be effected, that is a “back to the drawing board” moment, for that individual component, and irrevocable proof that intentional design has taken place.

    Evolution cannot do any of the above. Finding anything like this in any organism falsifies the theory of evolution.

    It isn’t just the finding of the imperfection that is the evidence for evolution, it is the specific nature of the imperfection – namely an imperfection that results because evolution is constrained to only modify the pre-existing, and every stepwise modification must work, and be an improvement on the previous – there can be no “turning off” for refit.

    A designer may replace part A with part B, and the replacement might be imperfect: part C might be clearly superior, but the designer didn’t know about it, or did not have the resources to get it or make it, or was too lazy to use it, or was constrained by the existence of legacy part D making it more difficult to properly install part C, and the fact that part B was chosen might make it obvious to anyone looking at it in the future that part A used to be there, so you could infer ancestry of the old design relative to the new design, but that is not the point of the argument.

    The point is that the replacement of part A, with anything, whether it is part B, C, or Z – that step in the process of change, constitutes a “back to the drawing board moment” and evolution cannot do that – only a designer can (as far as we currently know).

    There can be NO back to the drawing board features in any naturally evolved organism. The existence of a single one is proof that the feature in question did NOT evolve.

  27. #28 amphiox
    August 1, 2009

    I should also point out that the absence of these “back to the drawing board” features is not proof of evolution, merely evidence in support of evolution. Like all proper scientific ideas, evolution cannot be proven, only disproven.

    A designer is free to choose, out of deliberate choice, not to use any “back to the drawing board” features when making a change to an older design. If he/she does it well enough, he/she may well produce something indistinguishable from a naturally evolved feature, something on which the signature of the deliberate act of design is wholly undetectable.

    In this situation, however, the question of the designer is not answerable by the scientific method, and is not open to scientific inquiry.

  28. #29 DDeden
    August 1, 2009

    The giraffe’s nuchal ligament seems to extend to the base of the tail, incredibly long (and sensible). What is so bizarre about the lungs? Giraffes can vocalize, and must be able to expel lots of dead air through a narrow trachea while asleep, (unless they have sleep apnea like seals) so they surely have strong thoracic muscles.

    Baleen whale echolocation? Broad band glottal transmission works better for finding large slow schools of small prey, while buzz-clicking is better for fast large individual prey, like bats on moths. I guess bronchi < -> air sac < -> bronchi air cycling allows long glottal whalesong without carbonic acid damage to alveolar lining of lungs. The sperm whale switched to clicking for large individual deep prey and dropped its pelagic whalesong repertoire and laryngeal air sac. The sub aquatic benthic frog switched to clicking and lost its surface croaking and throat sac, I don’t know if it is capable of echolocating. Dive-foraging human ancestors gained sub-aqua communication oral clicking and lost the inflatable hominoid laryngeal air sacs but retained glottal song, eventually combined into tonal click-consonant speech, (KhoiSan, Lardil) later reducing tone and click with group concentration (PIE, English).

    Would be interesting to see in-depth comparisons between mammoth, manatee, tree hyrax and elephant shrew, and the elephant.

  29. #30 DDeden
    August 1, 2009

    Sorry, in sentence 6, the arrows didn’t show up, I meant: air flow between bronchi and air sac vibrating vocal chords in both directions. At least that’s how I understand it, as in apes and frogs)

  30. #31 Raffen
    August 2, 2009

    I must say I found this whole series great, allthough I felt rather perculiar sitting with a pint and eating dinner whilst watching intestines walloping about on the TV screen. Guess I am a biologist….

    One slight dissapointment though, was that 3 of 4 animals were mammals, whose insides I find a bit too similar to each other. Comparative anatomy is much more interesting when comparing species of different craniat groups than species within one group.

    Some allready mentioned some wishes for future series, and I agree with lots of them. Personally I would like to see: A shark/ray (although I know there was an online live dissection of a Great White in New Zealand some months back), an ostrich or emu (since things have to be big), as someone wrote a giant squid would be cool as well, also a large Actinopterygii would be nice for comparison with the Chondrychties. There are other creatures that would be interesting as well, like a large turtle/tortoise, but the aforementioned would be my favourites.

  31. #32 David Marjanović
    August 2, 2009

    As I see it less than perfect design is good argument against someone who believes that the design should be (or by their belief system, must be) perfect. But to say that if an apparent design is less than perfect means it isn’t designed is seriously flawed logic.

    1) The recurrent laryngeal nerve isn’t merely less than ideal. It’s the result of either stark raving madness or evolution by mutation, selection, and drift; as far as I can see, an intelligent designer is not an option.
    2) Most creationists are of course Christians or Muslims and therefore do posit an omnipotent, omniscient, and even omnibenevolent designer.
    3) As amphiox noted, all of Stupid Design is exactly predicted by the theory of evolution by mutation, selection, and drift. Ockham sez “we have a winner”.

  32. #33 David Marjanović, OM
    August 2, 2009

    4) I once discussed with a cdesign proponentsist who thought he had found an escape strategy: to claim that we can’t know if there’s a higher reason for Stupid Design. (As in: we don’t know what the Designer was thinking; perhaps we Puny Humans™ are too stupid to understand it anyway. In other words, the Designer is ineffable.) I asked if he felt comfortable outside of science. He never replied. A sudden end to a Pharyngula thread with hundreds of comments…

  33. #34 amphiox
    August 2, 2009

    Actually, if you think about it, it is only through imperfections that we can even determine if something with unknown providence has been designed.

    For any given set of circumstances, there can be only one perfect design. So whether it was designed deliberately or evolved naturally, a perfect object will be the same regardless, and there will be no way of telling, by looking at it, which it is.

    But the imperfect object betrays its ancestry in the specific details of its imperfections. If it is designed, then the imperfections will reveal the intentions, capabilities, limitations, etc, of the designer (and this is what the science of forensics basically boils down to). If it evolved naturally, then the imperfections will reveal the historical contigencies that constrained the evolutionary process.

  34. #35 Dartian
    August 3, 2009

    Darren:

    I didn’t see much point to the Richard Dawkins bits: his role in the series was essentially superfluous, as we already had anatomists and other specialists telling us all about the anatomy. His main role seemed to note repeatedly that – even while organisms ‘look designed’ – it is blind evolution alone that has done the designing, and that there is no designer in the true sense. This served, I suppose, as a smackdown to creationist bullshit, but was it really needed?

    A few years ago, Dingwall & Aldridge (2006) investigated if wildlife documentaries really are good at communicating current scientific understanding of the darwinian theory of evolution to non-specialist viewers. They found that UK-produced wildlife documentaries often use language that could easily be (mis)interpreted by a layperson as supportive of a creationist worldview. In particular, words like ‘design’ or ‘designed’ appear frequently in their narration. (Even in documentaries narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who himself is not religious.) Dingwall & Aldridge are, of course, not suggesting that the makers of these wildlife documentaries have some hidden creationist agenda; just that the “story-telling” conventions of television programmes – including documentaries – may result in such cases of ambiguous use of language.

    So yes, one could certainly argue that there is a need to emphasise, and emphasise again, that organisms and their structures have evolved. This is where Dawkins* – an enemy of sloppy reasoning if there ever was one – might be particularly effective, and maybe this is the reason why Channel 4 asked him to participate.

    * Incidentally, count me out of the anti-Dawkins crowd. I usually enjoy, and almost always admire, his no-nonsense approach.

    the fact that he’s generally taken to be synonymous with hardline godlessness will put off many of the people who would likely benefit from exposure to the evidence for evolution.

    But does this really happen to any significant extent? Could it not be that his presence is actually net beneficial, in terms of viewer interest? In other words, perhaps those people who won’t watch the programme because they can’t stand Richard Dawkins are outnumbered by those people who like him, those who don’t mind him, and those who dislike him so much that they just have to watch anything he’s in.

    Reference:

    Dingwall, R. & Aldridge, M. 2006. Television wildlife programming as a source of popular scientific information: a case study of evolution. Public Understanding of Science 15, 131-152.

  35. #36 Julie L
    August 5, 2009

    New reader here – what an amazing blog! Thanks so much.

    re: the laryngeal nerve – it rather reminds me of Windows Vista. As I understand it, much of the problem with Windows is that it needs to be able to run a *lot* of legacy software – which results in its bloated, inefficient nature. A perfect example of *un*intelligent design!

  36. #37 Kevin Schreck
    August 5, 2009

    This really was a marvelous show. A fresh approach to the natural history documentary genre, without dumbing down or sensationalizing the subject matter. I really hope this comes to the States.

  37. #38 Joy reidenberg
    August 6, 2009

    In response to comment #6: “Anyone who saw the program – they didn’t happen to discuss the internal structure of the skull, did they? I can’t find any good references online (most people seem to prefer keeping their skulls intact) but it’s really very impressive in there and I never did get any answers why.”

    Yes, we did bisect the giraffe head and viewed the skull from the midline. Small brain, but very, very large and interesting frontal sinus underneath the horn area!! (Could this air sinus be used like a helmet to cushion the brain during battle impact?) Large nasal cavity (humidify inspired air). We also discussed how they only occlude teeth on one side of the jaw at a time, and then slide jaw over to occlude on the other side while chewing (typical of most herbivores). We also looked at the very interesting papillae covering the inside of the cheeks. We looked at the larynx, which did have vocal folds (albeit very small ones with no sharp edges). We also speculated about how giraffes manage the dead air space of that long trachea. We even tried to pressurize it to see if the trachea changed its diameter. We also speculated whether an alternate shunt for airflow across the larynx (from the pharyngeal region?) would allow them to use the long trachea as a resonant space for low frequency sounds – perhaps in the same way that you can create a loud sound when you blow air across the opening of a bottle! Then we looked at the lungs in much more detail – even taking tissues for histology. We spent some time dissecting the 4 chambered stomach and discussed the challenge in regurgitating up and back down the long esophagus during feeding versus rumination. We even dissected the genitalia (it was a male). Yes, we did a whole lot more than you saw in the program.
    Likewise, we did so much more than what ended up in the final edited versions for all the other episodes. Each animal was done over two full days, starting in the morning and ended well into the evening – except for the whale, where we were constrained by sunset and low tide being too close together in the late afternoon (not to mention the nasty weather).

    Regarding the whale echolocation, the animation depicting high frequency sound should probably have shown an odontocete (toothed whale) – although the narration text is correct. Toothed whale generate these sounds in a different way, using structures in the nose. Maybe we’ll get a chance to see this if there is a series 2. I’m putting my vote in for an orca! The sequence showing the low frequency sound does stray a little into speculation, although as already noted in previous posts #5 and #29/#30 (great explanations too – thanks Bent Lindow and DDeden), there is some preliminary evidence that mysticetes (baleen whales) may use laryngeally generated sounds as a coarse sonar for navigation but probably do not find food this way.

    Oh, and for all you fellow (North) Americans (USA, but also maybe Canada & Mexico too?) – there’s hope! This series WILL be edited (for an American audience) and shown on the Atlantic’s “left” coast soon. I am not sure if I am allowed to divulge any more details than that!

    Glad you all enjoyed the program! I’m thrilled with this blog too – thanks Darren!
    Joy Reidenberg

  38. #39 Dartian
    August 7, 2009

    Joy:

    Small brain

    Not that brain size necessarily proves anything, but don’t giraffes have a bit of a reputation of not being particularly bright (even by ruminant standards)?

    Speaking of giraffes; there was recently an incident in a zoo in Florida where a giraffe choked to death on its own vomit.

  39. #40 Arilena
    November 29, 2009

    Hi,

    I found your blog this summer looking for information about this documental serie (wich was very interesting by the way) and I just want to say that I really enjoy reeding all the post (even thought I don’t undestand everything)
    Thank you for your work here

    pd.Sorry for my english.

  40. #41 WW
    October 9, 2010

    As a matter of design is the course of the nerve determined simply by where it is suppose to end or by what it does or by both ? The recurrent laryngeal nerve also supplies the heart, the oesophagus and the trachea.

    To what extent does the course of the nerve reflex embryological development ?

    Should not being able to live forever be considered a design flaw ?

  41. #42 Darren Naish
    October 9, 2010

    I note that creationists have tried hard to show that the route of the RLN is not ‘bad design’, but that it somehow makes good sense. The nerve does not ‘supply’ the heart, trachea etc… while it gives off tiny branches to these organs, its primary role is undoubtedly innervation of the larynx, and if you really think that travelling all the way from the brain down to the heart before going back up to the throat really makes good design sense; well, your idea of good design is different from mine (and the comparison that some creationists have made with complex plumbing in man-made machines – like long exhaust pipes in vehicles – is stupid, because there are always good reasons for these convoluted systems).

    To what extent does the RLN route reflect embryological development? Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it. It remains in the same ancestral position during development, with structures that appeared later in evolution (like the neck) being the reason for its redundant position.

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