Science! I Can Feel Machinery!

Megafauna Extinction
Just look at those big, happy, fuzzy guys! I bet they’re delicious!

Over the years, of the many chagrin-evoking bits in Science! (as opposed to real science) reporting (as opposed to – well, we still await something opposed to what passes for science reporting – Retraction Watch, maybe?) is how the obvious answer to the question: what happened to American megafauna? has become this PC minefield. Here’s some pertinent info: 1) people show up in the Americas about 15,000 years ago; 2) American megafauna became extinct by around 12,000 years ago; 3) those people were *hunters*; 4) those American megafauna evolved in an environment without human hunters and thus might – might! – have been easier to hunt than, say, African animals who evolved with the people who hunt them; and, finally,  5) there are plenty of megafauna remains found with stone spear points stuck in their spines or slash marks on their bones from where they were butchered.

Thus, one might innocently imagine that the ancient ancestors of American Indians, relatively freshly arrived here, in their search for food and having not found the local 7-11, just might see a large animal and think, not what a splendid creature,  co-equal (at least) with me in dignity and rights, but instead might think: Baby’s gotta eat. I’ve got this spear, here, and know how to use it – wonder how mastodon steaks taste? In other words, our primitive ancestors (mine, anyway – well, some small but non-zero fraction of mine) might behave like any other group of people anywhere in the world, and eat what’s there for the eatin’.

Of course, other factors may very well be involved – they almost always are. But at the very least, the whole ‘Indians killed and ate them’ theory comports well with everything we know about how people – all people – behave in similar situations. One might innocently imagine you’d start there, then add other factors as necessary. Big whoop. No value judgement implied.

BUT! Trumping all this is the heartfelt dogma that American Indians (as played by Italian character actors in the public service announcements) were kind, nature-loving greenies who treaded softly on Gaia, leaving only footprints, while thinking ahead seven generations, until the evil, evil white men (1)  got here and introduced those they didn’t slaughter outright into the concept of killing and eating large animals.

Or something.

All my life, every time I read about the disappearance of the American megafauna, it seems to be required by some law to NOT say: mostly, the Indians ate ’em. Took ’em less than 3,000 years to eat ’em all. Sure, the ice sheets were retreating at that same time, so the populations were surely stressed – but just as surely, they’d weathered that storm as species before, as there had been several interglacial periods prior to the arrival of men, and those didn’t seem to wipe them out. So, basically, they got et.

Instead, we have endless articles like this: Megafauna Extinction Driven By Climate Change. Or Megafauna mystery: What killed off the mastodons, mammoths, and giant sloths? Because, in the case of the first article, Climate change is responsible for everything from hangnails to the Warrior’s losing game 7, and, in the second, inconvenient facts can always be blunted by calling them a mystery. (2)

Of course, that’s not what the paper is reported to have said. (From the CSM article linked above)

“Although an interaction between human activities and climate change is often mentioned as a possible cause of the end-Pleistocene extinction event, this paper is one of the few that actually presents evidence for this claim,” Emily Lindsey, a visiting paleoecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not part of this study, tells the Monitor in an email.

It’s even allowed:

It isn’t a new idea that humans and climate change could have both contributed to the megafaunal extinction. Scientists have often suggested that the two could have been a deadly team.

“It has become commonplace to attribute these extinctions to a combination of people and climate,” Donald Grayson, an archaeologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who was not part of the study, says in an email to the Monitor.

OK, cool. We want to float a theory that climate change – the periodic retreat of the glaciers and globally higher temperatures and locally higher rainfall in some places – made life harder on giant animals. Sure – it would be nice, however, if they at least mentioned that about once every 100,000 years or so over the last 3 or 4 million years, very similar climate change conditions prevailed. The American mastodon first appeared about 4 million years ago – and so would have had to survive several of those cycles at least.  That there is one of those data points your science type people would want to account for. And that’s just one off the top of my head – there were a large variety of American megafauna (3) that lasted over millions of years – so, how come those other interglacials didn’t kill them all off?

Fine theory and all, no theoretical problems with it – but I think Occam would turn a gimlet eye and take his razor to it.

  1. White women having, apparently, nothing to do with it apart from getting oppressed into having the male babies of white men.
  2. Unless it’s Darwin, in which case there are by fiat no mysteries, everything is understood and there is no room for questions. I love Darwin, so it grieves me that his supposed friends do more damage to the actual science than any of his supposed enemies…
  3. Giant marmots!!! Boodog!!!
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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