Over the past few weeks, Channel 4 here in the UK screened the four-part series Inside Nature's Giants. If you're at all interested in the world of zoology you'll already - I assume - have heard quite a lot about it. I watched it religiously, and let me tell that you that it was excellent, well deserving of the Tet Zoo stamp of approval. More importantly, it was - as billed - pretty much the first time that this sort of thing had been done for television. The public face of natural history is, let's face it, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, ecology, conservation, conservation, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, behaviour, with some more behaviour thrown in for good measure. Anatomy (including functional morphology) just doesn't get attention, mostly because the decision makers assume that it's boring, or too difficult to depict on TV, or too disgusting. It might be disgusting at times, but there's no doubt that it's fascinating: Inside Nature's Giants has been highly acclaimed and, like similar projects (I can only think of Gunther von Hagens' 2006 series Anatomy for Beginners), it won a lot of highly deserved attention [whale guts shown here; image Â© Channel 4]. If you're in the UK you still have access to the whole series at 4oD.
Filmed in co-operation with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and its staff, and involving a team of experts and a studio audience, the series was presented by Mark Evans (TV veterinary scientist Mark Evans, not the plesiosaur expert or any of the other ten Mark Evans you might know). Richard Dawkins also featured in each episode (more on this later), and biologist Simon Watt helped put the animals in their behavioural and ecological context. Anatomist Joy Reidenberg, best known for her work on cetacean cranial morphology and on the anatomy of the hyoids and larynx in neanderthals and other mammals, was a regular face throughout the series. Other noted anatomists made guest appearances [in adjacent image, Reidenberg reveals the recurrent laryngeal nerve of a giraffe, while Dawkins looks on. More on this scene later. Image Â© Channel 4].
One of the main plus points about the series it that it wasn't just about cutting up dead bodies; it was also big on putting the animals in their phylogenetic context, and there was much talk of evolutionary history, of compromise, and of the consequences of history. Cladograms and reconstructions of fossil species were used. This all sounds too good to be true, and it was. There was no catch. Jaded and cynical as I am, I expected to be disappointed or frustrated, as I usually am even with the most popular of natural history shows on TV (don't get me started on Life in Cold Blood...). But no - I do only have good things to say. In this and the following few articles I want to discuss the contents of the series in a bit more detail. I wholeheartedly support this sort of thing, so this is mostly my attempt to bring the series to wider attention.
The four episodes were The Elephant, The Whale, The Crocodile, and The Giraffe. We begin at the beginning...
Episode 1 was devoted to the elephant or, more specifically, to the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. They started by looking at the gigantic guts [see below; image Â© Channel 4], then dissected the head, and the trunk. How the trunk works still seems pretty mysterious: we know how elephants move the trunk, but how do they support it, hold it rigid, and raise it above the head when it has no skeleton of any sort? A few suggestions have been made but the answer still seems elusive so far as I can tell. Elephant lungs are bizarre in being directly attached to the inside of the ribcage and diaphragm via elastic tissue, and in lacking a pleural cavity (this configuration is apparently present in some tapirs as well). The most popular explanation for this is that it better allows elephants to create powerful suction and hence to suck water in via the trunk (Short 1962), but an alternative idea, mentioned in the programme, is that the negative pressure involved assisted early elephants in using the trunk as a snorkel while swimming. Aquatic habits are only likely to have been the case in the very earliest proboscideans (moeritheres and so on), so this system must initially have evolved in short-trunked forms... if this hypothesis is true [Image Â© Channel 4].
The problems of dumping heat, and the role of the ears, were looked at too, and they finished by focusing on John Hutchinson's research on locomotion and limb function (see Hutchinson et al. 2003, 2006, Weissengruber et al. 2006, Ren et al. 2008, Ren & Hutchinson 2008). They obviously liked John's suggestion that elephant hindlimbs work something like pogo-sticks when loaded, and we got to see how a foot deforms and recoils when squashed in a hydraulic press.
One final thing: given Reidenberg's area of specialty, and given that she was shown dissecting the head, I was a bit surprised that they didn't discuss the pharyngeal pouch. That's right, elephants have a pouch inside their throat cavity. They can use it to carry one gallon (3.8 kg) of water. However, you can't cover everything.
Next: whale! Oh yes, I have a lot to say about the series.
For more on elephant anatomy and other anatomy-themed stuff see...
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 5: of elephants and gorillas
- RIP Yeheskel Shoshani
- Bipedal orangs, gait of a dinosaur, and new-look Ichthyostega: exciting times in functional anatomy part I
- Of dragons, marsupial lions and the sixth digits of elephants: functional anatomy part II
- When I grow up, I want to be a functional anatomist: functional anatomy part III
Refs - -
Hutchinson, J. R., Famini, D., Lair, R. & Kram, R. 2003. Are fast-moving elephants really running? Nature 422, 493-494.
- ., Schwerda, D., Famini, D., Dale, R. H. I., Fischer, M. & Kram, R. 2006. The locomotor kinematics of African and Asian elephants: changes with speed and size. Journal of Experimental Biology 209, 3812-3827.
Ren, L., Butler, M., Miller, C., Schwerda, D., Fischer, M. & Hutchinson, J. R. 2008. The movements of limb segments and joints during locomotion in African and Asian elephants. Journal of Experimental Biology 211, 2735-2751.
- . & Hutchinson, J. R. 2008. The three-dimensional locomotor dynamics of African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants reveal a smooth gait transition at moderate speed. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 5, 195-211.
Short, R. V. 1962. The peculiar lungs of the elephant. New Scientist 316, 570-572.
Weissengruber, G. E., Egger, G. F., Hutchinson, J. R., Gorenewald, H. B., Famini, D. & Forstenpointner, G. 2006. The structure of the cushions in the feet of African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Journal of Anatomy 209, 781-792.
I watched that, i learned quiet a few new fact's, i was surprised to here about the valves in the girafe, i had alway's wounderd how the blood steam to the head didnt blow the poor creatures brain out when ever it bent it's head down.
This sounds really highly interesting. Antatomy is really highly fascinating, but even in museums, you will mainly find complete stuffed animals in life-like-positions, but only comparably little "true" anatomy. Okay, most probably many people just donÂ´t recognice it,or find skeletons and similar things even disgusting. I still remember that, when I was very young, I was panicked by a human skeleton which was exhibited next to a gorilla skeleton in the Rosenstein Museum Stuttgart. I had no problem with all the animal skeletons, but the human skeleton scared me so much that I had to close my eyes when I passed this special showcase. I have no idea anymore how old I was at this time, but I suppose around 6 years or so. Sadly I had never the opportunity to dissect any animals except some fish I prepared for the kitchen, but during one semester I had an anatomy course where I had to dissect a human. It was interesting (and sometimes very unpleasant) but I think it is really different to dissect an animal like a pig or a human. To show brain-parts a a lengthwise bisected human head is not really what I wish me to do before dinner.
Anatomy is interesting, but the only parts I like to watch directly are those of human female. ;)
BTW - Apparently circus keepers found that when elephant steps slowly on human foot, elastic pads of tissue function so well that it is bearable for a human. One of keepers described "like having a bag of sand on my foot". This would also explain how elephants can walk noiselessly in rainforest or bush. One perfect attention-getter which I never seen repeated.
In Berhanrd GrizmekÂ´s famous 7800 pages volume "Grizmeks Tierleben" it was also said that it hurts very much when a horse steeps on a humanÂ´s foot, but not when elephants do this. The feeling of the situation was compared to a bag of potatoes lying on the foot.
Fascinating. I really hope they show this in Singapore soon!
Sounds like an interesting (and unique) show. I'll have to catch it sometime.
Ooh, please go into your critique of Life in Cold Blood.
It's a great show, although fairly light, It'd be great if they had a book to accompany the series.
I agree, there needs to be more stuff on animal anatomy for the lay person, the only way I've found so far is to borrow text books from the library.
One of my favourite bits at the NHM is the bird anatomy display which shows beaks and feet and wings and how they are all adapted for different uses.
I've seen a old photo that shows either three or five more cabinets in the same style, hopefully they are in storage and not dismantled.
I was able to watch "The Whale" on the internet here: http://www.viddler.com/explore/Hominid/videos/2/
I don't know if the others are posted there as well or not. Sadly, being an American and knowing what passes for science entertainment here (don't get me started on Ghost Hunters...) this type of show will probably not make it across the pond. Also because it features prominent atheist Richard Dawkins. As an aside, I am always amazed at the sizes of large intestines in mammals. The elephant is no exception!
Ooh, please go into your critique of Life in Cold Blood.
It's a great show, although fairly light, It'd be great if they had a book to accompany the series.
Some nice person at the BBC was supposed to be sending me piles of DVDs for review (they were inspired by my article on The Cultured Ape), but that hasn't yet happened - when it does, I'll be more than happy to review Life in Cold Blood. As expected, the series included lots of amazing photography, never-before-filmed scenes and so on... the problem is that it really skimped on detail, went time and again for familiar species (rather than the obscure ones we've never seen on film before), and seemed to focus on Sir David as the point of fascination rather than the creatures. And the title's annoying; I can't help but dislike it when 'cold-bloodedness' is emphasised as a special point of interest (it makes laypeople think that 'cold-bloodedness' is unusual, or special, or that it makes amphibians and reptiles somehow different from the furry and feathery animals).
Then again, like I said, maybe I'm just jaded and cynical. And joyless. And, could I do things better, or come up with a better title? No. It's easy to be critical.
This sounds so cool! Of course, in my mind, there is a catch - Richard Dawkins is on there. But I am in America, so I doubt I'll get to see it anyway.
Hmm, should somebody start Radio Free America to broadcast films containing evolution in USA? ;)
ah I meant a book for the Anatomy Programme. *fingers crossed*
yeah, I understand your criticisms Darren, I suppose as I've read less about Herps (working on that though!) there is more new to me.
The Crocodile programme was deeply fascinating - I had always known that Crocodiles were capable of overwhelming eruptions of speed and strength, but this was the first time I understood why they were able to do so - their entire bodies are composed almost entirely of muscles.
Similarly, to see the size difference between the muscles used to open a Crocodile's mouth, and those used to close it, amply demonstrated why they bite with bone shattering force, but can be muzzled with a sturdy rubber band....
I'm an American as well, and just because it has Richard Dawkins in it doesn't mean it wouldn't be shown--but of course I do live in the "enlightened" California. I think these shows look perfect for various "nature" channels, PBS, or maybe even BBC America.
McGowen, one can only hope that it would be shown over here but I'm not holding my breath. Most likely though it would only be shown on cable (maybe PBS) giving it much less impact than if it were shown on regular network television. I assume most major networks are unwilling to show prime-time programming on evolution (with atheist...gasp!) because of the uproar it would cause among the more conservative portions of the populace. Just the audience that needs to be reached!
Great review! I can't get enough of this stuff.
I watched every minute of this, and found it gripping telly. Now if only they would do a second series, focusing on smaller animals (I guess corpses of smaller tetrapods must be easier to procure).
"I'm an American as well, and just because it has Richard Dawkins in it doesn't mean it wouldn't be shown"
You misunderstood, I think. I made two different points there - the first being that I dislike Dawkins on a grand scale and so that would be a downside to the show for me, the second point being that they're probably not going to show it in America at all.
Going to have to agree, Michael... I've never been a huge fan of militant atheism. It reminds me of Christian fundamentalism but with their facts right.
Michael - McGowen was probably replying to Chris Noto. As long as Dawkins is talking about biology or something else he is qualified to talk about he's ok, I suppose. As long as he isn't yammering on about how religion causes all the world's violence and other ills. He's on US television/radio every now and again. I wouldn't be surprised to see this on some cable channel someday; I caught a bit of "Walking with Monsters" on Discovery, I think it was.
"As long as Dawkins is talking about biology or something else he is qualified to talk about he's ok, I suppose. As long as he isn't yammering on about how religion causes all the world's violence and other ills."
Yes, I agree.
Coincidentally, I've read about two large mammal death fiascos over the last few days:
Cruise ship strikes and kills a fin whale. Whale is wedged into the bow and the crew claims they had no idea they struck the whale until they ended up in Vancouver last Saturday: here.
The sad tail of the destruction of an elephant carcass that died in 2002 at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma: here.
Hi, the pharyngeal pouch was not found IIRC but it was quite rushed during the dissection due to filming constraints. They also ran out of time to show the "sixth fingers" of elephants, drat (but see my SVP talk!).
Americans and others, take comfort in the knowledge that the show (in modified form) will be broadcast on a major international cable network in 2009; not sure if I'm allowed to say where just yet.
As long as he isn't yammering on about how religion causes all the world's violence and other ills.
He doesn't. You should read more...
What he says (though less often than Christopher Hitchens) is that injecting religion tends to make everything worse or at least not better. I find that hard to argue with. He has never said that everyone deconverting would lead to world peace... There are enough things to fight over. Religion is just one more.
This series is absolutely amazing. It is a long time since I have learned so much from a TV series on zoology. Hard to pick a favourite, they were all truly wonderful - though one bit that really stood out to me was the explanation of how the crocodiles secondary aorta was related to controling stomach acidity, and hence enables it to digest as it does was incredible.
My one criticism - what the hell was Dawkins for? Ok I'll come clean, I detest the man. In the Stephen Jay Gould vs Richard Dawkins controversy I was with Gould all the way. I find Dawkins to be arrogant and superficial (and most of his books are awful, unlike Gould's). It seemed to me that Dawkins had been stuck in as a counterpoint to the possibility that watchers could have got any kind of design message from the anatomical marvels we were being shown. I don't think this was necessary - the other presenters were doing a perfectly good job without his smug face spoiling a series that was otherwise awesome.
Mark - you've just pre-empted my comments, to appear in parts III and IV of this series of articles (they're written and ready to go, and are scheduled to appear while I'm away).
I find Dawkins to be arrogant and superficial (and most of his books are awful, unlike Gould's).
Your opinions on the man are your opinions, but his books? "Most" of them are "awful"?
The elephant episode:
It's in 5 parts; follow the "This is a video response to" trail to see the entire episode...
"'As long as he isn't yammering on about how religion causes all the world's violence and other ills.'
He doesn't. You should read more..."
I exaggerated a bit, I admit. Ok, I read two paragraphs of "Is Science a Religion?"(Dawkins, 'the Humanist', 1997) "I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." What else should I read?
ech #29: "What else should I read?"
Try "The God Delusion" for starters. Nothing dispels the false notion of Dawkins as some frothing-at-the-mouth atheist fanatic more than the completely reasonable tone of that book, throughout, surprisingly enough.
I have also read "The Blind Watchmaker" and "The Ancestor's Tale", and I do not recall a single, not even one, disparaging mention of religion in either of them, except where a religious explanation for some biological feature is demonstrated, correctly, to be wrong, in the context of being a erroneous of failed hypothesis.
@amphiox(30) - Yeah, I think that sums up my original statement. Sometimes Dawkins rambles on about how religion is "one of the world's great evils," but when he's not and talking about biology or something he knows about instead, he's fine.
In the Stephen Jay Gould vs Richard Dawkins controversy I was with Gould all the way.
Except for one thing: Gould famously asked why no new phyla have evolved since the Cambrian. Dawkins mocked this by saying that that's like looking at an old oak and marvelling at the fact that it hasn't grown any really thick limbs in 100 years, only small twigs.
Not only was Dawkins right, he was right to mock this embarrassing reification of ranks, the biggest mistake Gould ever made, and one that is way below Gould's dignity. Gould should have been really ashamed.
"I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." What else should I read?
The explanation for why he thinks so. :-| Dawkins has a habit of making claims that seem totally outrageous, but then backing them up with so much evidence that it turns out they aren't actually that far off.
What you really should read is "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). It's a book about science... about science theory even, to some degree. And it's wonderful. It will tell you the real reason for why Dawkins appears to be constantly smiling. :-)
Gould should have been really ashamed.
Maybe he was.
I met Stephen Jay Gould in 1999, when he visited my university. I was one of a few students who were invited to a more informal meeting with him. At one point, one of the other students asked Gould to sign his copy of Wonderful Life; when he saw the book, Gould said that 'it is the worst book I ever wrote' (that was his sentiment, if not his exact words). To this day, what I most regret from that fascinating meeting was that I didn't ask him to elaborate on his remark. Was it an admission that Dawkins & al. had a point with their criticisms? Or did he mean something else? I don't know.
Since I'm in name-dropping mode... I was once attending the same conference as Joy Reidenberg. Alas, I couldn't help noticing that she fell asleep during my talk. So much for me captivating the audience...
I'm so sorry. Maybe I was jet-lagged?
No worries; that could happen to anyone of us. The occasion, incidentally, was the Evolution of Aquatic Tetrapods-conference in Akron, Ohio, in 2005. (2005?! Yikes, how time flies...)
Good work with Inside Nature's Giants, BTW!
What was the topic of your talk? I'm awake and listening now!!
(you can even e-mail me a Powerpoint if you want!)
Joy dot Reidenberg at mssm dot edu
David MarjanoviÄ: "The explanation for why he thinks so." - I find that Dawkins insists on confusing "can be used for evil" with "must be" or "always is used for evil." Additionally, he falters when confronted with how his philosophy obviously does not stand up to empirical analysis - the truly great slaughterings of the 20th century were carried about by athiests (or at least for reasons other than religious dogma), he says "any belief system in which the questioning of faith is pernicious. Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany demanded an unquestioning faith in a vicious non-supernatural system. They shared all the worst characteristics of religionâdeference and obedience. Instead of the Bible you had Marx and Mein Kampf, with devastatingly awful effects." Ah - so it wasn't religion all along, it was something else. He redefines his words here to avoid the obvious gaping hole in his philosophy, and confirms that the real danger isn't religion, it is manipulation by tyrannical dictators/etc. *SOME* religious movements can take on this characteristic, of course, and many don't. *SOME* political movements also, many don't. He knows the real problem but chooses to use a misleading label for it for some reason unknown to me.
Ah - so it wasn't religion all along, it was something else.
Like Dawkins, I fail to see where the difference is between communism (especially Stalinism) and a more traditional religion -- except in one point: in communism, only Kim Jong-il gets an afterlife. All the rest is there without exception: divine leaders, prophets, unquestionable scriptures, martyrs (including suicide bombers in the Kurdish Workers' Party [PKK]), miracles (Stakhanov allegedly surpassing the work norm by 1,300 % and so on; most pronounced in Maoism, where the Little Red Book brings rain [I kid thee not] and Mao has now been incorporated into what's called "Chinese folk religion"), a strict moral code that messes with people's private lives, schisms, death to unbelievers and heretics, historical inevitabilities... and, as the last historical inevitability, salvation: heaven on Earth.
There's a very impressing painting somewhere out there that shows Lenin, Stalin, and rays of light that fall on both from a window between red curtains. You look at it, and you notice... it's the Father (Lenin), the Son (Stalin), and the Holy Spirit (the light). It's almost a parody, but it was offical Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union sometime before 1953.
National Socialism had all of the same, except it was more blatant (officially proclaiming Hitler as the Savior of the German People and stuff) and not atheistic. (OK, I'm not sure if there were suicide bombers... but Japanese imperialism had those in spades. There were Nazi martyrs; look up Horst Wessel.)
Not that it matters, but it's not at all clear whether Stalin himself was an atheist. First of all, he didn't leave the seminary of his own free will, he was kicked out when he was found reading communist literature; and when the Western Allies finally promised to land in Normandy, he wished the blessings of God unto them, according to Churchill.
Most of the great massacres of the last two millennia have been committed in the name of ideologies that did not tolerate any competition and that had lots of other things in common (see list above).
Hey, Dawkins didn't say "theism". He explicitly said "religion".
Where Dawkins really is wrong is in this sentence:
Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany demanded an unquestioning faith in a vicious non-supernatural system.
Neither of them was non-supernatural. The Nazis officially believed in lots of stuff like providence, destiny (complete with an overarching theme of history), a detailed scala naturae and so on; communism in general starts from Marx's writings, which pretend to be rationalistic, scientific even ("Scientific Socialism"!), but are full of German Idealism taken from Hegel -- most blatantly the historical inevitabilities such as the completely phoney stages of the development of human societies (slaveholder society --> feudalism --> capitalism --> socialism --> communism/heaven on Earth). If that's not supernatural, I don't know what is.
Eh, and, besides, look what Luther wanted to do to the Jews (yes, all of them), and what was done to all that could got a hold of 400 years later.
the truly great slaughterings of the 20th century were carried about by athiests (or at least for reasons other than religious dogma)
Thus far, the truly great slaughters of the 21st century seem to have been carried out and/or started by devoutly religious people.
I fail to see where the difference is between communism (especially Stalinism) and a more traditional religion
Well, to over-simplify a bit a lot, one strives for earthly paradise, while the other strives for heavenly paradise.
But it's certainly true that there are strong similarities. Here's an actual quote from someone who ought to have known; Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor as the head-of-state of the USSR:
The building of Communism was something almost sacred to me. If I may use the language of religious believers, I'd say that every participant in the Communist movement was to me an apostle, ready to sacrifice himself in the name of our common cause.
(Source: Khrushchev Remembers, AndrÃ© Deutsch Limited, London, 1971.)
The Nazis officially believed in lots of stuff
And in even more stuff privately. Nazism was never a particularly coherent movement ideologically. AFAIK, there never was a "party line" regarding the theory of evolution, for example.
Well, to over-simplify a bit a lot, one strives for earthly paradise, while the other strives for heavenly paradise.
Many religious fundamentalists -- almost all that are far enough gone -- have striven for an ideal state/society on Earth as a prerequisite for heaven. Communism just combines the two and places them in the mythical near-but-always-receding future; National Socialism placed earthly paradise "after the Final Victory™" (nach dem Endsieg), which is basically the same.
And in even more stuff privately.
Oh yes. There's hardly a crankery that some prominent party member didn't believe, often contradicting the crankeries others believed.
Nazism was never a particularly coherent movement ideologically.
Wer Jude ist, bestimme ich.
"I'm the one who gets to decide who is a Jew."
-- Hermann GÃ¶ring
Why did the programme makers consider it necessary to have an expert to explain schoolroom principles of evolution? Why Professor Dawkins? He is better known as a militant atheist.
referring to last statement on the pharyngeal pouch by Darren, and Post #23 by John Hutchinson...
Thanks for that input John! I dissected the throat region in detail to look for the pharyngeal pouch. There was no such pouch to be found - at least nothing capable of holding a gallon or more of water. I looked back at the original Shoshani article and found that the space referred to as the "pharyngeal pouch" is really nothing more than the valleculae (the space between the back of the tongue and the epiglottis, which is used for forming a bolus of food). It was only roughly large enough for me to put in one of my fists (and I have small hands!). Maybe it's bigger in African elephants?
Hi Joy - thanks again for your comments (to those who missed it: be sure to see the comment Joy left on the giraffe episode). Your observations on the lack of the pharyngeal pouch, and the comments on giraffe anatomy, raise a logical question: any plans to publish any of this stuff?
> I'm not sure if there were suicide bombers...
There were, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonidas_Squadron
and, of course, the Swastika-toting Syrian National Socialist Party might not have been the first organization in the middle east to use suicide bombers, but it was the first to recruit attractive - by Strasserite standards, which aren't mine ;-) - individuals as "martyrs" and to build a pop-star like cult around them.
> and when the Western Allies finally promised to land in
> Normandy, he wished the blessings of God unto them,
Stalin also ordered to put a famous icon, our Lady of Kazan, into a fighter plane that flew in circles around Moscow as a sort of supernatural defence. As the head of a communist party, Stalin was nominally the leader of an Atheist organisation, but as a dictator of Russia, he was also the heir of more than 1500 years of caesaropapist Byzantine tradition that stressed cooperation, and sometimes even identity, between church and state.
There were, see here:
Stalin also ordered to put a famous icon [...]
Wow. I had no idea.
@ 42 - Headlines eerily familiar? http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20090811/wl_time/08599191551800