Old Truths, New Aspects

The biggest critters with backbones are living today: baleen whales.

Finding the largest of them started getting harder about a century back.

We didn’t quite drive the blue and fin whales to extinction, happily.

We’re learning when they got so big, and maybe why.

We’re also learning more about the origins of dinosaurs and the domestic cat. One happened 200,000,000 years ago, give or take a bit; long before we showed up. Cats date back to around the time we started storing grain.

Same Universe, Different Attitudes

We all live in the same universe.

Some folks, noticing the natural beauty and wonders surrounding us, think about it and then write this sort of thing:

“Behold the rainbow! Then bless its Maker, for majestic indeed is its splendor;
“It spans the heavens with its glory, this bow bent by the mighty hand of God.”
(Sirach 42:1112)

Others apparently have an attitude like the fictional Mr. Squibbs, steadfastly declaring the folly of “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.”

Seeing science as a threat strikes me as making about as much sense as the old ‘inevitability of progress’ notion. But without the cheerful optimism I remember from old ‘world of tomorrow’ predictions.

I don’t think it’s an improvement.

Natural Philosophy and Nuclear Transmutation

Some folks thought Albert of Lauingen, a Dominican friar and bishop, spent too much time studying natural philosophy. I can see why.

By the time he died in 1280, he’d written about theology. He’d also been actively interested in logic, botany, astronomy, mineralogy, zoology, law, friendship, and other fields. Including astrology and alchemy. I’ll get back to that.

A collection of his writings, made in 1899, ran to 38 volumes.

If he’d lived in my day, I have no idea what he’d have majored in.

Serious researchers realized that astrology’s rational predictive usefulness was pretty much nil somewhere around the 1700s.

I’m a Catholic, so I see it as a form of divination. Also a bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21152117)

Serious researchers saw astronomy, astrology, alchemy, meteorology, and medicine as related fields in Albert’s day.

We’d probably still be calling chemists “alchemists,” if con artists hadn’t hijacked that discipline a few centuries back. (October 16, 2016)

Anyway, Albert kept up his research and monastic work, taught a young Italian named Tommaso d’Aquino, and died in 1280. These days they’re known as St. Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas in my language.

Stories about Albertus Magnus grew after his death.

One about the philosopher’s stone is definitely bogus. In “De Mineral,” Albertus wrote that turning lead into gold was impossible. As he put it: “Art alone cannot produce a substantial form.” That’s a translation, of course.

Interestingly, it’s easier to turn gold into lead. In 1901 Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford noticed that radioactive thorium turns into radium.

Rutherford’s colleagues, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, caused the first fully artificial nuclear transmutation in 1932. Since then we’ve learned how to turn lead into gold. It’s not practical, though. The process would cost a great deal more than the gold is worth.1

Living in ‘The Future’

The future isn’t what it used to be.

On the whole, I think it’s better than quite a few folks expected in my youth: including the optimistic ones.

Life in ‘the future’ isn’t perfect. I didn’t expect that.

But we finally eradicated smallpox. That, I think, is a good thing.

The Internet gives me access to more information, faster, than I could have gotten with an unlimited research budget during my college days.

Finding nuggets of data takes digging through mountains of gibberish. So did research in the days of index cards and pencils. I still use skills I developed then. What’s changed is how fast I can sift through information, and how effectively I can search for particular words and phrases.

Domestic robots, like Roomba and Furby, don’t look like the servants in that 1911 illustration. And artificial intelligence is still far more artificial than intelligent.

We’ve got full-spectrum lamps, motorized chairs, and multimedia entertainment, sort of like that illustration.

But today’s tech is generally a lot more compact than that Metropolitan Sunlight Co. fixture. Except for visual displays for media. They’re bigger, for the most part.

Details were different in each prediction. But up until maybe a half-century back, many folks apparently assumed that the future would be nifty.

Some prognosticators even said that science and technology would solve all our problems, education would eradicate unhappiness: and, of course, psychiatric disorders like religion.

I didn’t agree with them about that last bit, but could sympathize.

Then as now, Bible-thumpers were enthusiastically — and unintentionally — supporting the notion that religious people don’t get along well with reality. (March 31, 2017)

What’s changed, from my viewpoint, is that predictions of a technological utopia are out of fashion. What’s ‘in’ these days are secular analogs to the Bible-thumpers’ perennial End Times Bible Prophecies.

Folks don’t seem to remember that doomsayers keep getting it wrong. I suspect the lasting popularity of horror movies is a related phenomenon, and that’s another topic.

“Science Has Become a God”

I don’t rant against the sinful snares of Satanic science.

That’s partly because I don’t think smallpox was “a judgment of God on the sins of people,” as a doctor put it in 1720. (August 21, 2016)

My guess is that some folks sincerely believe science really is Satanic, an idolatrous snare for the unwary.

I think their antics unintentionally reinforce the notion other folks have, that religion is some sort of superstition. Or a psychiatric disorder.

I don’t see science as a threat, which doesn’t mean that I “believe in” science. Making anything or anyone other than God my top priority would be idolatry: and a bad idea. (Catechism, 21122114)

I don’t “believe in” Progress, either; for the same reason.

My guess is that some of today’s doom and gloom comes from folks who took the “myth of progress” seriously.

That belief was unraveling in the 1930s:

“…The myth of progress states that … Progress is inevitable. The myth in its origin coincides with the gradual decline in the christian belief in heaven and hell. … The great strides recently made in scientific discovery and invention have encouraged man in the belief that the millennium is not far distant. Science has become god. Philosophers, men of science and politicians have accepted the idea of the inevitability of progress. But the hopes built on science are proving as illusory as those built on religion and other myths. Indeed, recent events would seem to indicate that science is making man more unhappy and even threatening his destruction….”
(“The Myth of Progress,” David Eder, The British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. XII, p. 1 (1932) [Emphasis mine])

I’ll cut David Eder some slack on the topic of “religion and other myths” and illusory hopes. He lived in an era when much of what passed for Christianity in the English-speaking world had little resemblance to my beliefs.

Big Critters

Whales are the biggest vertebrates we know of, but they’re not the largest critters on Earth.

Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspen, apparently has a single root system.

Pando is on about 43 hectares, 106 acres, of land in Utah. It weighs around 6,000,000 kilograms, 6,600 short tons, making it the heaviest known organism.

It’s around 80,000 years old: and, sadly, not in good health. We don’t know why, exactly, but figure it’s probably a combination of drought, insects, and disease. The Western Aspen Alliance and U.S. Forest Service are trying to find ways to save it.

A honey fungus in Oregon covers about 8.9 square kilometers, 2,200 acres. It’s most likely the biggest organism on Earth, in terms of acreage.

Some dinosaurs were the size of chickens, some were bigger than today’s elephant, and we’re still learning how they got started.

1. How Dinosaurs Began: New Research

(From various, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Dinosaur skeletons. Microraptor gui, upper left, was a winged theropod: or a bird, depending on who’s talking. I figure they’re all dinosaurs, and birds are theropods.)

Volcanoes ‘triggered dawn of dinosaurs’
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (June 19, 2017)

A million-year-long period of extreme volcanic activity most likely paved the way for the dawn of the dinosaurs, a study suggests.

“Scientists have analysed ancient rocks and have found traces of emissions from huge volcanic eruptions that happened about 200 million years ago.

“This would have led to one of the largest mass extinctions on record, enabling dinosaurs to become dominant….”

This research is new, and should help us understand one of Earth’s major extinction events. It may even settle some debates about what killed off critters like Rhynchosaurs.

It’s not the first time scientists said volcanic eruptions were involved.

We’d known about huge basalt deposits in Morocco and Eastern North America for some time. Starting in 1988, scientists realized that basalt under Brazil’s Amazon River basin was part of the same formation.

It’s called the Central Atlantic magmatic province, or CAMP, these days. It didn’t form all at once, not quite.

Scientists are pretty sure we’re looking at the result of many volcanic eruptions happening in four pulses over a span of about 600,000 years. The Triassic-Jurassic extinction event was even more abrupt: taking something like 10,000 years.

We knew that the CAMP eruptions happened about 201,000,000 years back: right around the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event.

If it isn’t cause and effect, that’s a whacking great coincidence.2

CAMP and Cthulhu

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, used w/o permission)
(Earth, about 200,000,000 years ago.)

The “Central Atlantic” part of CAMP’s name is a little misleading.

The Atlantic Ocean didn’t exist yet. It’s what we call the rift that broke Pangea apart.

It’s a bit hard to imagine how several hundred thousand years of massive volcanic eruptions, happening along a rift system several thousand miles long, wouldn’t play hob with Earth’s climate.

My guess is that it may have been the final straw, but critters were in peril earlier.

Something had been making Earth’s ocean more acidic. That can happen when the air’s carbon dioxide content goes up.

Oceanic acidity was high before the Great Dying, too. That’s the worst mass extinction we know of. We’re not sure quite what caused it, either.

I’m quite sure that the cause wasn’t Dinogorgons getting smarter, building factories, driving cars, and perishing in the acid rain of their folly. It might make a good story, though: something along the lines of Cthulhu in the Silent Spring.

About environmental awareness, climate change, and all that: I’m as concerned about my planet as I was in the ’60s. That’s not even close to taking Captain Planet and the crisis du jour seriously. (May 26, 2017 ; February 10, 2017; August 12, 2016)

2. Cats: Briefly

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The tabby is prized for its beauty”
(BBC News))

How cats conquered the ancient world
Helen Briggs, BBC News (June 19, 2017)

The domestic cat is descended from wild cats that were tamed twice – in the Near East and then Egypt, according to the largest study of its kind.

“Farmers in the Near East were probably the first people to successfully tame wild cats about 9,000 years ago.

“Then, a few thousand years later, cats spread out of ancient Egypt along maritime trade routes….”

Tabby cats, the article says, probably started in or near Turkey, about a millennium back. Give or take a few centuries.

We didn’t do much deliberate modification of the critters until around the 19th century. That’s when folks in the Western world thought it’d be fun to have strange-looking cats. Some, like the Sphynx and Munchkin, are stranger than others.

I don’t see a problem with that, as long as we don’t make a breed that’s not comfortable in its skin. We should also take reasonable steps to care for the breeds that can’t survive without human help.

Using animals — for work, food, or fun — is part of being human. So is remembering that we’re made in God’s image: with the responsibilities that go with our nature. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 17011707, 24152418)

3. Whales: Evolution in the Vast Lane

(From Silverback Films/BBC, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Being big means they can maximise the opportunities where they exist”
(BBC News)

Whales reached huge size only recently
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (May 24, 2017)

Blue whales are the biggest animals that have ever existed on Earth but they only recently* got that way.

“his is the extraordinary finding from a new study that examined the fossil record of baleens – the group of filter feeders to which the blues belong.

“These animals were relatively small for most of their evolutionary existence and only became the behemoths we know today in the past three million years….

“…*Whales have been around for about 50 million years – a blink of the eye in the 4.6-billion-year history of the Earth.…”

Cetacians — whales, dolphins, and porpoises — began as critters with hooves.

They were about the size of today’s raccoons or domestic cats, living in or near India. They looked a bit like today’s chevrotains: mouse-deer.

They got bigger, more suited to life in water, and less to moving on land.

Ambulocetidae, “walking whales,” were an early version that looked a little like crocodiles. They still had large hind legs, but almost certainly were entirely aquatic. If so, they were the first of may fully-aquatic whales.

A Wikipedia page said Remingtonocetidae, another early cetacean, “looked like mammalian crocodiles.”

I can see that, but to me they seem more like otters with overly-long heads. They weren’t tiny, about 3.4 meters, somewhat over 10 feet, long. But they weren’t huge, either.

Or maybe the Basilosaurids were the first fully-aquatic cetaceans. Some scientists figure they were, others apparently disagree. Settling that debate will most likely take evidence we haven’t found yet, and more research.

Depending on what species you’re looking at, basilosaurids were 4 to 16 meters, 13 to 52 feet, long. They remind me of Mosasaurus, a 56-foot-long critter that went extinct when the dinosaurs did.

Basilosaurids and other Big Critters

That picture shows what Dorudon, a Basilosaurid, probably looked like.

We’re pretty sure about the shape. The color and speckles, not so much.

They lived from around 40,400,000 to 33,900,000 years ago. At about 5 meters, 16 feet, they were a sort of midsize Basilosaurid. There’s nothing ‘saurian,’ or lizard-like, about the Basilosaurids, by the way.

The basilosaurid name goes back to the 19th century, when fossils of what looked like an big lizard-like critter were named Basilosaurus. Another scientist noticed that the teeth were from a mammal, and suggested that the critter be renamed Zeuglodon.

Taxonomic rules say that the first name sticks, so we’re stuck with Basilosaurus.

At 52 feet, the biggest Basilosaurid was big: but not quite half the length of a large blue whale, largest of the baleen whales. They’re the largest critters with backbones that ever lived: the biggest we’ve found, at least.

Keratin and Modular Life

Baleen is made of keratin, stuff that helps make our fingernails, hair, and tongue durable. It’s what baleen whales use instead of teeth.

Ancestors of today’s baleen whales had baleen and teeth. What we’re learning about genetics is helping scientists studying whale evolution.

Whatever the evolutionary process was, baleen whales have the gene for growing teeth, like we do. Somewhere along the line, probably 28,000,000 years back, their ‘enamel’ genes got deactivated. As I’ve said before, life is very modular at the subcellular level. (September 23, 2016; August 5, 2016)

The oldest fossilized baleen is about 15,000,000 years old, but scientists are pretty sure it showed up 30,000,000 years ago. Baleen doesn’t fossilize well: but whale skulls that old have a loose lower jaw and reinforced upper jaw, like today’s models.

These scientists say that mysticeti, baleen whales, got really big; starting about 3,000,000 years ago. And they think they know why that happened.

Life on Earth has gotten big quite a few times over the last 250,000,000 years. Some big critters lived in water, like mosasaurs and elasmosaurs.

Others, like barosaurs and ankylosaurs, were analogs to elephants and rhinos. Predators like spinosaurs and giganotosaurs don’t get quite as big as the largest sauropods for some reason, and that’s yet another topic.

Ice Age Connection?

(From Graham J. Slater, Jeremy A. Goldbogen, Nicholas D. Pyenson; used w/o permission.)
(Mysticeti, baleen whales, and Earth’s climate: the most recent 40,000,000 years.)

The scientists who published their work last month say the rate at which baleen whales were getting bigger changed when the current ice age started.

I don’t think this is the complete and final answer to what’s behind whale evolution. But I’m pretty sure it’s a step in the right direction.

Earth’s ocean, and climate, had been changing back then. As usual.

When the Drake Passage opened, about 41,000,000 million years back, an ice cap started forming on Antarctica.

Cold seawater from near the poles eventually sank, forcing nutrient-rich deep waters to the surface.

Earth’s weather was getting more interesting, too, so these upwellings were helped along by wind-driven currents.

Microcritters flourished where upwellings reached the surface, krill fed on the microcritters, and filter feeders fed on the krill.

For baleen whales, and fish like the whale and basking sharks, good ‘mile per krill’ is vital. So is being able to ‘refuel’ on a massive scale once they reach a good patch. The ocean is vast, their feeding grounds are seasonal and patchy.

The bigger critters like that get, the more efficient they are at covering long distances.

That, according to these scientists, is why the biggest baleen whales got so huge.

Earth’s current ice age gave them a food source that wasn’t much good unless the could cover vast distances efficiently, and feed on a massive scale once they arrived.3

Other researchers, looking at the data in other ways, have said that changes in coastal and shallow-water habitats were involved.

Or maybe whales reached their present size because big critters don’t have predator problems the way small critters do.

My guess is that it’s ‘all of the above,’ plus factors we haven’t found yet.

Meanwhile, I think using what we’ve learned makes sense.

Learning: Slowly

Basking sharks are big, slow-moving, and not particularly aggressive.

They’re also on the extensive list of critters humans consider edible.

Their hide makes good leather. We get oil from the large liver. Traditional Asian medicine uses other parts.

There aren’t nearly as many of the critters now as there were a few centuries back.

Basking sharks aren’t endangered, globally, partly because enough folks realized there was a problem in time.

They were so ubiquitous along the Canadian Pacific coast that folks considered them a nuisance. We’re currently finding out whether a 1945 to 1970 government-sponsored eradication program was successful: and whether we can undo the damage.

We’re learning. Slowly, sometimes, but we are learning.

Dominion: Doing Our Job

From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

Blue and fin whales are not extinct. But they are endangered.

Humpback whales aren’t endangered, partly because we founded the International Whaling Commission in 1946.

By then we’d killed about 90% of the world’s humpbacks. The 19th and early 20th centuries were not, I think, among humanity’s shining hours.

Humpbacks are recovering nicely these days. They’re even flourishing around Hawaii: partly because that’s where North Pacific right whales used to live. Right whales aren’t extinct, quite, but we very nearly didn’t stop hunting them in time.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong, ethically, with hunting whales.

But we’ve long since gone past the point where we can pretend that Earth’s resources are infinite. (February 17, 2017; February 10, 2017; January 20, 2017)

We have dominion over this world. That does not mean that it’s ours to pillage. We have the same job we started with: taking care of the place, for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Genesis 1:2631, 2:15; Catechism, 22932295, 24152418, 2456)

It’s God’s world. We don’t own it. We’re more like stewards or site managers.

Changes and the Copernican Principle

We started realizing that extinction happens during the 1700s. (April 14, 2017)

Georges Cuvier’s research showed that mammoths were a distinct species, and were extinct.

He also thought that extinctions happened in bursts, with a lot of species dying off around the same time.

Apparently he figured evolution wasn’t involved. His idea was that Earth had gone through a bunch of cyclical creations and destructions. That didn’t sit well with folks who backed uniformitarianism or gradualism.

The name sounds like a Protestant denomination’s name, but it’s scientific. It also makes sense, to an extent.

We’re pretty sure that the universe acts the same way, no matter where or when we are. The Copernican principle is one name for this assumption.

It’s a valid assumption, for the most part. On the other hand, we’re finding exceptions.

Over the last century, for example, we’ve been learning that this universe is statistically homogeneous at scales larger than about 250 light years.

Except for a few things that aren’t.

Like I keep saying, there’s a great deal left to learn.

Extinction Events

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Lyell thought that species became extinct at a more-or-less constant rate. We’ve been discovering that he’s right, sort of.

Extinctions are, on a geologic time scale, happening pretty much constantly.

He’s also wrong. Sometimes the rate of extinctions spikes. We’ve started calling those spikes “extinction events.”

There’s debate about how many extinction events have happened, and how many were big enough to be “major.” But I don’t think there’s much doubt that they happen.

Not among scientists.

The extinction event that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs is probably the most famous. It wasn’t the biggest, by far, or the most recent. The Middle Miocene disruption, roughly 14,000,000 years ago, probably happened when Earth cooled off.

Another happened, maybe, when radiation from one or more supernovae changed Earth’s ozone layer about 2,000,000 years back.

What’s more certain is that the Solar System is currently traveling through a dense spot where shock fronts from the Loop I Bubble and Local Bubble met.4


If you’ve been here before, you know why I don’t think Earth is flat, and do think that the universe is vast and ancient on a literally cosmic scale.

I see scientific discoveries as opportunities for greater admiration of God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

We knew this creation was big and old.

We’re learning that it’s bigger and older than we thought.

3 Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed.”
(Isaiah 51:6)

4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:2225)

I’m okay with that. Even if I wasn’t, complaining about the Almighty’s work seems silly.

God gave us brains and curiosity. Using them is part of being human. (Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 1704, 17301731)

As Pope Leo XIII said, truth cannot contradict truth. (Catechism, 159)

I’m obliged to see faith as a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

Like I said, I’m okay with that.

Particularly since I enjoy trying to keep up with what we’re learning:

A scientist’s view of faith and science:

1 More:

2 CAMP and dinosaurs:

3 Big filter feeders, background:

4 Extinctions, assumptions, and exploding stars:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Old Truths, New Aspects

  1. Pingback: Old Truths, New Aspects ~ Catholic Canada

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing article: “We’re also learning more about origins of dinosaurs”

    An oddly placed comma: “or fun, is part of being human.”

    Not sure what’s going on here: “mysticeti, baleen whales got really big,”

    Missing ‘and’: “Jean-Baptiste Lamarck Charles Lyell thought that species”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!