Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Whales and the Geometry of God

Pakistan has been playing an important role in filling in the gaps of our evolutionary past - especially regarding whales. Fossil remains of Pakicetus - an extinct land ancestor of whales were found, as the name implies, in Pakistan. Then a research paper from just last month announced the evidence that early whales (about 47 million years ago) gave birth on land. How do they know? From the discovery in Pakistan of fossil remains of a pregnant whale (now extinct) along with its fetus (tip from Zakir Thaver). This is quite extraordinary!

The fossil discovery marks the first extinct whale and fetus combination known to date, shedding light on the lifestyle of ancient whales as they made the transition from land to sea during the Eocene Epoch (between 54.8 million and 33.7 million years ago).

Philip Gingerich, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his team discovered the pregnant whale remains in Pakistan in 2000, and then in 2004, Gingerich's co-authors and others found the nearly complete skeleton of an adult male from the same species in those fossil beds. The adult whales are each about 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) long and weighed between 615 and 860 pounds (280 and 390 kg), though the male was slightly longer and heavier than the female.

Check out Live Science story here, a video presentation here, and comments by Greg Laden here. All of this sets up nicely for Uzma Aslam Khan's novel The Geometry of God. It is coming out in the US in September (2009) and I'm looking forward to reading it (I love the cover!). Here is the synopsis:

The paleantologist Zahoor is trying to do his research while General Zia is launching a campaign to Islamize knowledge. Science is being rewritten and called Islamic Science. The teaching of evolution is banned. Nothing is natural or accidental; everything is ‘revealed’ and ‘ordained.’ On a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab, an area that once lay beneath the Tethys Sea, Zahoor’s granddaughter, Amal, finds proof of the ‘dog-whale’. No one knows it yet but she has found Pakicetus, the oldest known primitive whale.

Back at home bad news awaits. Amal’s baby sister Mehwish has become blind and Amal will have to stay home to raise her. Mehwish’s world is both magical and terrifying. Through Amal she learns to read a seeing person’s alphabet. She can also ‘see’ Amal’s drawings of primitive whales. Her grandfather teaches her illegal English love poems.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Noman, neurotic, very funny (and horny), an aspiring mathematician, hopes to one day find a number like a magic bloom. Instead, he’s appointed secretary to his father, a minister in the Party of Creation. His father wants Noman to create a pure science to help put the youth of Pakistan back on the Straight Path. Noman now finds himself attending conferences on scientific miracles all around the world and editing a magazine called Akhlaq, in which he picks out verses from the Quran to ‘prove’ that evolution does not exist. The problem is, he could just as easily find verses that prove it does. Instead of finding the Straight Path, Noman finds Zahoor.

While the culture war between the Islamists and the secularists rages, Noman bats for both sides: working for his father, while turning increasingly to Zahoor, a man who believes that mathematicians are also artists, philosophers scientists, architects poets. The friendship between Noman, Zahoor, Amal and Mehwish grows into a parallelogram, shaped by and shaping each other. And then, on Amal’s wedding, tragedy strikes. The friends must realign yet again. It seems it will take an old man on trial to make youth find itself.
Check out Uzma's blog here and you can find more information about her book here. And while this novel touches on evolution (and on many other topics), here is a New Scientist article about the evolutionary roots of literature:

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society.

Literature "could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way", says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

Gottschall and co-author Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri, St Louis, study how Darwin's theories of evolution apply to literature. Along with John Johnson, an evolutionary psychologist at Pennsylvania State University in DuBois, the researchers asked 500 people to fill in a questionnaire about 200 classic Victorian novels. The respondents were asked to define characters as protagonists or antagonists, and then to describe their personality and motives, such as whether they were conscientious or power-hungry.

The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker's Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.
Boehm and Carroll believe novels have the same effect as the cautionary tales told in older societies. "Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that the bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues," says Boehm. "They have a function that continues to contribute to the quality and structure of group life."

Interesting...though I don't know much about the field to comment on it. Read the full story here.


Awais Aftab said...

I have read the novel. It is awesome!

Robin Lloyd said...

That novel does sound very appealing. Thx also for LS shout-out on Pakicetus.

Don said...

I think I've just been targeted. Do I really have to wait until Sep?

ungtss said...

The article and video point out a number of differences between the animal and whales. Like no fluke, headfirst birth, no flippers, canine teeth, etc. I assume it has no blowhole. Yet it's called a "whale" repeatedly. On what basis do they call this animal a whale?

Uzma Aslam Khan said...

Hello Salman,

I first heard about you through T2F in Karachi -- you gave a talk there on the same day that I was on the Big Island, Hawai'i, awestruck by its beauty while mulling over the conflict between science and religion in the Hawaiian context. So it was a quite a coincidence to return home and read about your own work on Hawai'i, and about your work on Islam and science! Thanks for so prominently highlighting my book on your blog. I'm glad you like the cover! Perhaps I will visit MA in the fall when the book's released, in which case, it would be lovely to meet you.

Take care,
Uzma Aslam Khan

Salman Hameed said...

Hello Uzma,

So fantastic to hear from you. And please let me know whenever you are visiting MA. And of course, I'm looking forward to reading your novel!

Also, the Hawaii issue over telescopes is getting in the news. I will be posting on it soon.

All the best,

ungtss said...

As everyone is mulling over the conflict between science and religion, consider how you'd respond if a creationist posted an article saying "this tree is an ancient baboon," and when you asked "the article lists 6 significant differences and no similarities, why do you think one is descended of the other?" you heard nothing but silence.

If you're like me and the bulk of rational people in the world, you'd think, "these conclusions are not scientific -- they are just useful tools to sell novels to Fellow Believers."

Salman Hameed said...

It is a transitional fossil - so perhaps a "proto-whale" is a better word to use. How do they know that it is a proto-whale? Gingerich, the author of the study, has been piecing together the early history of the whales (i.e.before they became modern whales). The path they took was hinted at from Pakicetus and from the DNA similarities between modern whales and 4-legged animals (all to be expected since whales are mammals - so we also know that they moved to water from land).

Here is Gingerich's paper which gives you the methodology used for identification. Also, check out Carl Zimmer's blog for a commentary.

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