April/May 2018

Darwin: Great Benefactor to the Scientific World

Time was, people believed that a perfect earth was created and would never change. In their old-world view, no change was needed nor would occur since perfection could not be bettered.

But Darwin, that heretic, changed the scope and breadth of science by making the conceptual leap to grasp that things could change. He saw that change had occurred in the past and would continue to change from now into the future. Moreover, Darwin was courageous enough to say the heresy out loud; even if it put him in danger.

Once he was able to transcend the idea of a static earth, which included life unchanging on that earth, Darwin gifted the world with an understanding of how the enormous variation in all life came to exist. Thus arrived Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Science reigns in Darwin’s world, not supernatural, immutable perfection, and for this we, humanists, honor him.

For our 11th annual celebration of Darwin, the Humanists of Utah met at the Utah Department of Natural Resources auditorium. We listened to Dr. Randall B. Irmis, Chief Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, which is currently hosting a new exhibit, “Nature’s Ultimate Machines.”

Dr. Irmis is also an Associate Professor at the University of Utah in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. He has done field work all around the world studying early dinosaurs and has published major articles in prominent journals such as Nature and Science.

In keeping with Darwin’s monumental idea of evolution, Dr. Irmis spoke on “The Rise of the Dinosaurs: Evolutionary Success Through Competition or Luck?” His writings are based on his hands-on study of the fossil record.

An extinction event about 252 million years ago, thought to be a massive release of greenhouse gases and lots of big rocks hitting the earth, defines the boundary between the end of the Permian Age and the beginning of the Triassic Age. In the late Triassic, the first dinosaurs are found in the fossil record. On first appearance, dinosaurs are not important parts of their ecosystems.

But the end-Permian event which had wiped out many species left ecosystem holes into which dinosaurs could radiate and even thrive.

During the course of the next 140 million years the dinosaurs began to increase in numbers of species and individuals and became the dominant species on our earth. The family tree of dinosaurs split into two, the Ornithischians and the Sauropodomorphs. Later, the Sauropods gave rise to the Theropods which have evolved in modern times to be the birds in our back yards and on our tables.

In the environment of the early Triassic, tiny meat eaters were more successful than the plant eaters. Floral growth was more varied and inconsistent, offering vegetarians variable famine that would have overtaken and dispensed with many plant eaters, especially the large ones.

Associated with low numbers of plants, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere was low. Low oxygen tension was less of a challenge to the dinosaurs if a bird-like lung is theorized for them. Current birds’ lungs are more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air than the lungs of other animals, giving the Theropods a physical advantage in the Triassic Age.

Cold blooded reptiles, fish and amphibians would also have had mobility and functional challenges. Posited to be warm-blooded, dinosaurs would have had superior ability to move and function. The fossil record also indicates another reason for more efficient mobility in dinosaurs compared to reptiles. A complete hole in the leg socket of the pelvic bone where the femur articulates is thought to make them more mobile with better locomotion. More efficient mobility is assumed to be an advantageous evolutionary strategy allowing the Theropods to more successfully radiate and fill empty ecological niches.

Even though the luck of surviving one or more extinction events is shared by more than dinosaurs, it is dinosaurs who better adapted to the environment and who thrived while reptile numbers shrank.

In the fossil record, about 1000 species of dinosaurs have been found.

Dr. Irmis thinks Darwin thought both a superior ability to compete as well as luck were involved as he devised his laws of Natural Selection. Thus, from the Divergence of Character and the Extinction of Less Improved Forms “evolve the current species.”

Thank you, Dr. Irmis and Mr. Darwin.

Thank you also, to Dr. James Kirkland and Dr. Evan Cowgill for tours of the Utah Geological Survey paleontology preparation lab where we saw pneumaticity in the bones of Theropods in the forms of grooves and air cells. Removal of bone makes the bones lighter, thereby more like the birds we know and love today.

Pneumaticity In Theropod Fossil

 

 

 

 

 

 

—Lauren Florence, MD


Pictures from Darwin Day taken by Dr. Florence:

Discussion of raptor “kill claw”

Discussion of raptor “kill claw”

Therapod born with “kill claw”. It gets larger as the animal grows.

Unearthed specimen of Therapod spinal column with attached ribs being cleaned and processed

Discussion of raptor “kill claw“

Discussion of raptor “kill claw“

Utahraptors

Another photo of the grooved, and thus less weighty, pelvic bone next to the paper by Dr. James Kirkland, one of our local experts.

Utahraptors

Acrocanthosaurus

Tenontosaurus

Two pictures of Charles Darwin The man we are celebrating

 

 

 

 


Stardust

Inspire passion for science and wonder with this children’s STEM book exploring the Big Bang, the Solar System, and our place in space!

My name is Douglas Harris and me and my daughter Bailey (age 12) released a book called My Name is Stardust in 2017. The book has done very well with secular families and was supported by prominent activists such as Michael Shermer and Dale McGowan.

We are launching a Kickstarter campaign for the next book in the Stardust Series, Stardust Explores the Solar System.

You can contribute to the campaign here: https://goo.gl/SWSYD6

—Douglas Harris


President’s Message

I hope you are enjoying the spring weather as much as I am. It is my favorite time of the year as I think I have mentioned every spring that I have been writing these messages. All my life I have enjoyed growing things to eat. And nothing is fresher than what is growing right outside your back door.

Speaking of back doors, some of you may know I am moving into my deceased mother’s house. It is a bit strange, as this is where I grew up. But my mother didn’t grow much food, so I’m having to eek out some spots among the bushes. But I love putting seeds in the ground early. Planting things like carrots, peas, lettuce, spinach, onions, dill, etc. I’m also going to grow some herbs in quantities to be able to give some away to friends and neighbors. There is already lavender, sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano and I plan to plant more. But enough of my gardening zeal.

By now I hope you know that we are going to a bimonthly schedule and to also move the venue around to a variety of places on different times and days of the week. With that in mind, I hope you will give some thought to places you think would be a good place as a venue for a meeting or event. This February’s Darwin Day Celebration at the Utah Division of Natural Resources facility was an excellent venue. And if they are willing, I think we should have Darwin Day there often. I would also ask you to think about what you want us to schedule. With only six dates to plan for, do we want more socials, more speakers, an advocacy project? The Board of Directors would love to hear from you.

Speaking of Darwin Day, it was a great success this year with the work of Craig Wilkinson, MD, Utah Friends of Paleontology, Atheists of Utah, and all the other participating groups making it happen. There were exhibits to check out, a tour given by UFoP members. There was an excellent presentation with birthday cake after.

It is never too soon to start planning next year’s event, so I want to suggest that we think about the theme and subject. Though we have had Climate Change as the subject recently, the threat it presents seems even more pressing with Trump as President. Unfortunately, with this man in the Oval Office, much that has been accomplished environmentally in the past is being attacked and undone. It will make a good theme again as well as an opportunity to advocate for the environment.

With that said I think I’m going to close and go do the environment a little good by getting some seeds planted.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU