Posted on December 15, 2014 * Comments

A fossil!

This past week on Fossil Friday, I gave you a pile of dino teeth! But which dino? It was a Spinosaurus, of course. Good for Sean Wells, who called it first. According to National Geographic:

Posted on December 15, 2014 * Comments

Last week, we discussed some of the ways paleontologists order events in Earth’s history—using the principles of original horizontality, superposition, and faunal succession—but we did not talk about actual dates. Let’s do that now.

Who’s up for some chemistry?

Posted on December 12, 2014 * Comments


This week’s fossil comes from our Fossil Fan Dan Phelps! This is the description from Dan:

Posted on December 11, 2014 * Comments

Theodore Roosevelt, via Wikimedia CommonsTheodore Roosevelt

I recently received a copy of Theodore Graebner’s Essays on Evolution (1925). A Lutheran theologian who spent the bulk of his career at the Lutheran Synod of Missouri’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, Graebner (1876–1950) was a prolific author on a number of topics. On the topic of evolution he produced no fewer than three books. In addition to Essays on Evolution he also wrote Evolution: An Investigation and a Criticism (1921)—which, as Ronald Numbers comments in The Creationists (1992), he “erroneously regarded as ‘the first scientific work printed in America against the evolution theory’”—and God and the Cosmos: A Critical Analysis of Atheism (1932). I obtained a copy of Essays on Evolution for the purpose of identifying the source of a misquotation of a letter of Darwin’s, which I’ll discuss in a later post. For now, I want to talk about a fascinating tidbit that I discovered in a footnote of Graebner’s book. (So often the juiciest morsels are hidden in the footnotes!)

Posted on December 11, 2014 * Comments

Climate change deniers often fancy themselves “skeptics.” For those of us active in movement skepticism, it’s flattering to see others try to ride our coat tails, but it’s also frustrating. Skeptics are known for debunking bogus claims (from ghosts to psychics to the Loch Ness Monster), for operating at the intersection of science and consumer protection, for standing up for the role of evidence and the rational in public discourse. Skepticism means something specific, and deniers just do not do the things that a skeptic does.

That’s what makes it so gratifying that dozens of the leaders of the skeptical movement joined together to state clearly: “Deniers are not skeptics.” Deniers are not Skeptics

Posted on December 10, 2014 * Comments

I don’t know how to say this word, so I’m just going to pretend that I know how to say it.

Posted on December 09, 2014 * Comments

John T. ScopesJohn T. Scopes

Prompted by a lacuna in Iain Ellis’s column “Mr. Mencken Went to Dayton and the Culture Wars Began,” posted at PopMatters (September 18, 2014), I was discussing what happened after the close of the Scopes trial in 1925. All along, the defense expected to lose the case, to appeal the verdict, and to win a victory at the appellate level. Accordingly, Scopes’s lawyers entered objections—“exceptions,” as they were called—to those of Judge Raulston’s decisions during the trial that a higher court might be convinced to reverse. As I explained in part 1, because Darrow was in bad odor with the ACLU after his devastating examination of Bryan, especially since Bryan died shortly after the trial, the erratic Tennessee lawyer John Randolph Neal Jr. was entrusted with the appeal instead. True to form, Neal (as Edward J. Larson writes in his Summer for the Gods [1997]) “missed the deadline for filing the bill of exceptions with the state supreme court,” thus precluding “the defense from appealing any issues relating to the conduct of the trial—including the ruling on expert testimony.”

Posted on December 08, 2014 * Comments

After my three-parter on fossils, I was sure you'd be sick of them, but there was a request (seconded by a few people) to talk about one particular aspect of paleontology that I didn’t cover yet: How do you know how old a fossil is? It turns out to be a pretty interesting question.

Misconception: Paleontologists directly date fossils.

Correction: Most of the time, fossils are not directly datable.

Posted on December 08, 2014 * Comments

Last week on Fossil Friday, I presented a fossilized animal that you had seen before—and recently! What was it? Why it was from the antilocapridae family, hailing from the Hemphillian North American Stage (about 5-10 million years ago) found in what is now Nevada.

From the University of Texas:

Posted on December 05, 2014 * Comments

H. L. Mencken, via Wikimedia CommonsH. L. Mencken

Over at PopMatters (September 18, 2014), Iain Ellis, who teaches English at the University of Kansas, devoted a column to the Scopes trial, emphasizing the role of the journalist and critic H. L. Mencken—indeed, the column is entitled, “Mr. Mencken Went to Dayton and the Culture Wars Began.” Ellis is generally reliable, although he may be paying too much heed to Mencken’s own, sometimes self-aggrandizing, tales of his involvement in the case. For example, Ellis credits Mencken with recruiting Darrow for the defense, probably on Mencken’s authority. But as Terry Teachout notes in his The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2003), Mencken offered no such claim in the definitive account of the Scopes trial that he included in his posthumously published Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work, instead crediting Joseph Hergesheimer. Darrow, for his part, wrote in The Story of My Life (1932) that he volunteered for the defense when he heard that Bryan would join the prosecution—although there’s no reason to suppose that Darrow was immune from the temptation to overstate his alacrity to involve himself in the case, for all that.