Past Messages


Janok P. Bhattacharya, Spring 2008

janok"The Great Flood, Heroes, and an Election Year"

I spent Christmas holidays at my in-law’s home in Abbotsford, British Columbia, surrounded by snowy mountains, which unfortunately were largely invisible owing to the near constant downfall of snow and rain. The house was filled with a team of professional painters, unsuccessfully attempting to get some house renovations done before the holidays. During breakfast one morning, one of the painters commented on the new Walking With Dinosaurs Show in Vancouver. “You want to hear my theory on the dinosaurs?” she mused? I held my breath. “I think they were killed in the great flood!” she elaborated. I was then confronted with one of those dilemmas. Do I confront her with the reality of modern geological thought, that the dinosaurs actually went extinct 65 million years ago as a consequence of a dreadful extraterrestrial bolide impact near the Yucatan Peninsula, or do I just let the comment slide? I could have pointed out that the “Great Flood” hypothesis never evolved into a theory in any scientific sense, and is easily refuted by the complexity of earth’s actual stratigraphic record?

One of the gifts on Christmas day was the complete Season One of the popular NBC show “Heroes”, which I had heard about but not seen. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, its premise is that humans are about to take the next step on the evolutionary ladder of progress via the sudden appearance of genetic mutations that give a select group of humans the ability to predict the future, become invisible, read minds, teleport, fly and display a host of other equally improbable talents. The appearance of these humans is predicted by a fictional
East Indian geneticist, Chandra Suresh, murdered for his discovery but whose work is carried on by his brilliant son Mohinder. During each episode, Mohinder’s voice intones about the choices humans face and about the inevitability of progress in human evolution, in a perfect Hollywood melding of Carl Sagan and Deepak Chopra. Needless to say, several groups emerge who wish to exploit, suppress or destroy the so-called heroes and an epic “Darwinian” struggle for survival ensues.

Now, we all know that in order to enjoy science fiction one of the requirements is that we must suspend our disbelief of the patently impossible, but the question is, as scientists, what disbeliefs must we suspend? Clearly, the ability to fly without wings and to teleport or personally bend the spacetime continuum violates several laws of physics and chemistry, both Newtonian and Einsteinian, but I admit it is entertaining to contemplate what life would be like if I could suspend the laws of physics or, for that matter, if I won the lottery. Neither is likely, especially given that I do not have a lottery ticket!

“Heroes” pseudo-scientific explanation of evolution misses the mark, although the average new-Age American may not appreciate how. Evolution is a chaotic, relatively slow, and complex process. The main driver is not interspecies competition, as many assume. Most major evolutionary spurts follow extreme extinction events, as the late University of Chicago paleontologist Jack Sepkoski clearly illustrated.

For example, we know mammals and dinosaurs simultaneously evolved on our planet about 220 million years ago in the early Triassic, following the great Permian extinction that ended the Paleozoic Era. Although mammals had 155 million years to assert their dominance they did not. For this enormous span of time, mammals were relegated to life as trophic generalists, eating a modest diet of cockroaches, plants and dinosaurian leftovers in the nooks and crannies of a world dominated by the far more successful “terrible-lizards”. Followingthe K/T meteor impact, that ended the great Mesozoic Era, the otherwise “successful” dinosaurs found that they were too specialized to survive in a world suddenly thrown into a protracted nuclear winter. Following the dinosaurian demise, mammals, and ‘roaches, reemerged into a world devoid of their major competition. Mammals, along with a host of survivors, diversified and evolved to redefine life in the Cenozoic world.

This process has repeated itself numerous times in earth history both regionally and globally and emphasizes that extinction, not interspecies competition, is the major driver of evolution. Overspecialized evolutionary traits, such as great strength, size, agility, and perhaps even our own big brains are no guarantee of species success in the face of changing external selective pressures, and especially catastrophic changes. In fact, we should all remember that the very words Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, which we use to designate the great geological subdivisions of time, are based on the changes in life reflected in the unique fossil record within the rocks.

On the last day of 2007 we took some Canadian visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural History, to see Lucy, the world’s most complete early hominid. Lucy is the skeleton, of a 3.18 million year-old, 3.5 foot tall Australopithecus afarensis whose fossils for the first time have been allowed out of Ethiopia. Lucy resolved a key question about human evolution, namely that fully upright gait evolved considerably earlier than big brains. We could stand tall before we could order a tall latte. Alongside the actual fossil remains is a life-like model of Lucy, complete with hair and eyes. Despite the fact that her brain was only 30% as big as our own, this artistic interpretation seemed to show her as smiling, with a distinctly anthropogenic glint in her eye. Once again I wondered if I was being asked to suspend my disbelief. With such a small brain, and given the harshness of the environment, I doubt that such a small primate would have had any ability at language, let alone a sense of humor, surrounded as she was by viscious predatory sabre-toothed cats.

Admittedly, there is much uncertainty in science. Although we know that evolution has occurred, there is still science to be done in determining at what level evolution operates, individual versus population versus species. Despite these uncertainties we do not suspend our theories as we work them out nor do we replace them with fictional pseudo-science. Rather we need to do a better job of explaining to the rest of our countrymen what science is and is not and how we actually do it and make decisions based on that science.

On January 3rd we learned that Mike Huckabee, an avowed creationist, won the first round as Republican nominee in the Iowa primary. I wondered what assumptions and decisions I might make about the future of our planet if I truly believed that all of earth history and all of its oil and gas could originate within just 6000 years? Next time you fill up remember that gasoline literally is the highly transformed organic remains of long dead and largely extinct organisms. The unifying concept of petroleum system requires an extremely long-lived earth. Micro-organisms trap the energy of the sun via metabolic processes building their own tiny bodies but only through millions of years of burial are conditions met, sufficient to convert these bodies to kerogen. How can we even conceive of managing global resources, let alone global climate policy, if we do not understand the length and scale of the processes involved?

This promises to be a very high profile year for GCSSEPM. One of our society activities is to promote Earth Science Week, which will be held October 12-18, immediately following the annual GCAGS/GCSSEPM Meeting, which will be held jointly with GSA this year in Houston. GSA typically attracts over 6000 attendees, so this will be a very high profile event for GCSSEPM. I look forward to working with you this year in helping GSA have a successful meeting that puts geosciences at the forefront of attention in this election year. I believe that we all have a duty to reduce the reliance of our society in establishing policy and decision- making based on fiction and increase the reliance on good science. As a scientific society we can all be heroes in increasing science literacy, whether it is by taking a friend to see Lucy, or explaining what belief s must be suspended to enjoy the otherwise highly entertaining “Heroes.”