Mockumentaries, Part 2: “Alien Planet” and “The Future is Wild”

Alien Planet

So who's your favourite? Dumbfuck Turtle...

The Future is Wild
...or Dick-faced Fish?


Here’s the second part of the Mockumentaries series, and man, fuck these two. Fuck them to the hellish depths of the abyss. Their concept is dumb and their execution is worse. I don’t know if Alien Planet (2005) had some pretense of being taken seriously and having a scientific foundation (I think it had, given all the retarded interviews with people like Michio Kaku, the living parody of a scientist, and Stephen Hawking, who is clearly a biologist); what I know is that if you want to make up a fictional planet and all the organisms living on it, what comes out can’t be realistic in any way. Biological evolution always defies our imagination, it doesn’t matter how plausible or fantastic your fictional creatures look and behave, we have the capacity to foresee certain patterns of adapatation to certain environments, but said capacity is, as for now, quite limited. The entire show is even more sterile since not only they’re making up the organisms, they’re making up their whole fucking world. It’s not more science-based than Avatar, it’s just much less good-looking and exciting. In fact, the little “it’s a real documentary!” gimmick gets boring pretty fast, and the CGI looks like shit. It looked like shit in 2005, it looks like shit today. Oh, and since you are going to make up a bunch of aliens, one would think you would put some effort into making them look interesting, but nooooo, their design is absolute crap too. So, in the end, we’ve got zero science education and zero entertainment. Congratulation, Alien Planet, you’re a real winner.

The Future is Wild (2002), on the other hand, is a series about the possible future evolution of animal life on Earth after the hypothtical extinction of Homo sapiens, and it is inspired by the works of that weirdo that is Dougal Dixon. To their credit, at least they have a little more solid premises than Alien Planet: we can predict some of the future geological and climate changes, and we know modern terrestrial animals from which the creatures of this series would “evolve”. This, however, doesn’t make The Future is Wild (or the works of Dougal Dixon, for that matter) any more educative or exciting. Trying to predict the evolution of large animals, even very loosely, can’t be taken too seriously, and these people don’t even seem to apply themselves to the task: their idea of evolution is quite childish. They basically take an ecological niche, and a taxon that nowadays doesn’t fill that niche, and mix them toghether. “Wouldn’t it be cool if fish could fly in the forests and giant squids could walk the earth?”- it seems something that a kid would say, and instead it was said by a grown man, maybe even one of the scientists who helped in creating this silliness. Chances are that most taxa (at least the invertebrates) will retain more or less the same niches, although with new forms, and the taxa that will conquer new niches will do it in such a surprising way that it’s impossible to guess it. In addition, as it has always happened, entire biological groups will disappear, while new groups will appear; the series, instead, mainly focus on new “super” future versions of modern animals, disregarding the inevitable appearence of new taxa and reinforcing the wrong idea that evolution is kind of a “chain”, in which a species slowly morphs into a single other species which in turn slowly morphs into a single other species etc… Evolution is not a chain, it’s a tree, a cladogram, in which different biological groups share common ancestors. This could have been one of the few real things this silly series could have explained to the general public, but they decided to reinforce the common misconception of the”great chain of evolution” instead. Bravo. At least not all of the creatures are as ugly and silly looking as the ones from Alien Planet: the bizarre and even morbidly creepy look of some of the animals is basically the only thing that makes Dixon’s books vaguely interesting, after all. The beasts in the series, however, are not all as inspired as the beasts from the book, and many of them are just horribly designed. The effects are not as crappy as in Alien Planet, but they’re still pretty crappy too.

So, in conclusion, these two pieces of fuck are basically just a horrendous waste of time which pretend to be science-based while they’re simply science-fiction, and they’re not even as fun as most science-fiction movies are. Peace out.

Random incoherent rants vol. 4: I discovered that I’ve stopped reading Pharyngula

PZ rides again (photo taken from Pharyngula)

Once upon a time PZ Myers loved to ride dinosaurs. Now he mainly jumps sharks.

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

I haven’t spent much time on this blog in the past few weeks, but now I’ve passed the Physics exam (brilliantly, as usual for a superior mind like me), and I’m back with a vengeance.

What I’ve realized just recently is that it’s been a few weeks since I last visited Pharyngula, which is kind of a big deal since everyone that has an interest in skepticism, atheism and especially debunking creationism probably knows, or at least has heard of, biologist PZ Myers and his blog, which is probably the most important blog about those subjects. I discovered Pharyngula only in 2009, but I immediately liked Myers’ rationality and his unapologetic and highly critical views on religion and superstition; I liked the science articles, and I liked his sense of humor in dealing with creationists. So what made me lose my interest in the blog lately?

Starting with the infamous ElevatorGate (short version: a man clumsily approached a girl on an elevator, was rejected and accepted it; the whole internet skeptic community – including PZ – asploded accusing the man of sexism, and there was even a proposal of boycotting Richard Dawkins himself because he had the audacity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the whole situation was kind of irrelevant and ultimately innocuous, and thus it was better to focus on real examples of sexism around the world – I know, what a fucking monster) Myers’ posts about science, atheism, evolution and religion gradually started to decrease in number in favor of an increasing amount of posts about pointless and, quite frankly, pretty boring internet drama. Examples of new content include: the evilness of the word “cunt” (WTF?) and other so called “feminist issues” that are even less substantial than ElevatorGate (which I cannot fucking believe people are still discussing 9 MONTHS after it happened), criticism of what some stupid students NOBODY HAS EVER HEARD OF OR PAID ATTENTION TO wrote on their blog or said on YouTube about OccupyWallStreet or abortion, dissertations on why it’s imperative not to accept a public apology of some dumb christian who wrote “atheist not welcome here” on a piece of paper in front of his gelato shop (yes, that was stupid and the guy deserved criticism, but there was no reason not to accept the apology), and also an absolutely hilarious series of discussions in which, for once, PZ was seen as the bad guy and viciously attacked by the most insane readers of his blog, since he had the balls to post a cute anti-religious comic strip in which the rational character was a bunny dressed as a boy and the religious character was a bunny dressed as a girl and this, somehow, makes the strip incredibly offensive towards women (even though the sex of the character wasn’t important, or even mentioned, in the comic). Whatever. Criticizing stupidity when you see it is good (and fun), but it’s useful only when you attack the stupidity of people or groups who have some sort of relevance in the world around them, and thus are likely to damage it. And let’s not forget that many of PZ’s recent attacks are against people who didn’t even do anything particularly wrong or stupid. In fact, in most cases, they didn’t do ANYTHING, except maybe writing some bad words on the internet, and in his ludicrous rage against them PZ looks frightfully similar to the religious zealots he often valiantly fights. Or “fought”, since now that he has to write about uneducated teenagers and middle-aged men on the internet he hasn’t time for that anymore. Hell, lately he’s so absorbed in finding and debating poor unknown fuckers that dared not to agree with him on everything, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he found this article (written by an italian undergraduate student on a six-months old blog which counts, at the moment I’m writing, a grand total of 613 views all-time) and created a long, rambling post dissecting and debunking it.

And what about those “Why I am an atheist” articles submitted by readers that he drops daily (or almost daily, I don’t know)? I like the idea, but an article every day or so is too fucking much: the excessive quantity makes each one of them less special. It looks like a spammy way to constantly update the blog. Okay, okay, my “Friday’s Featured Organism” articles are a spammy way to constantly update the blog too, but 1) I write them myself and 2) They happen once a week.

Another relatively minor annoying thing is that after a while PZ left ScienceBlogs and relocated Pharyngula on FreeThought Blogs (or FTB), a completely new site that was allegedly created with the intention of gather the most promising skeptical bloggers around the net under one roof, without the fear of censorship. Sounds promising, right? Well, first of all is kind of hard not to agree, or at least not to see, the point made by some of PZ’s detractors, who claim that the “We create this new site because elsewhere we are censored” story is bullshit, and that PZ did it only to get more money from the ads (which isn’t anything to be ashamed of, so why not being sincere about it?). Actually, PZ has always been fierce against religion and other kinds of popular silliness on ScienceBlogs, so I don’t think he had any censorship problems there. And the ads at Freethought Blogs – yeah, they’re pretty big and obnoxious. Even more annoying is the fact that it’s an automated ad service that works with keywords, and this means that ironically most of the ads are things like “Become a priest today” and shit like that. And what about the other skeptic bloggers of FTB? They’re kind of redundant, actually. Whenever someone of them writes about something, all of the others write about the exact same thing – which would be perfectly natural and even interesting were they to cover some relevant event or idea; but alas, it’s almost always some irrelevant internet drama that gets dissected repeatedly by PZ and friends, like a fucking echo through all of FTB – only it’s made of boredom instead of soundwaves (bare with me, I just passed a Physics exam).

What does all of this means? Is PZ getting too old, and Pharyngula doomed? Is it just a phase of transition in the initial year of exisence of FTB? I hope it’s the latter. Personally, I’ll probably stay away for Pharyngula for a while and eventually come back to see if something has changed for the better. Fans of PZ, don’t be too angered by this incoeherent rant of mine: I used to be a fan too, and I hope I can be a fan again soon.

Happy Birthday, Charles!

Darwin Day

The cake is a lie, but evolution is not. Happy birthday Charles!

Fuck, I managed to miss Darwin Day: yesterday, 12 february 2012, was the 203rd anniversary of the birth of the man who unlocked the secret of life itself and thus basically invented modern biology and discovered our real place in the universe: Charles Robert Darwin. Zoologist, botanist, geologist, he wrote many milestones of natural history, the most important of course being On the Origin of Species by  Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859 after more than 20 years since Darwin had developed the idea of natural selection and gradual biological changes for the first time, during his fateful journey around the world on the Beagle. 20 years of rewritings, experiments and fear Рfear of the power of his own idea, of how it could affect the scientific and religious views. Thank you, Charles.

As a special gift, enjoy this completely accurate and quite awesome video about Darwin’s life.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Amanita phalloides

Amanita phalloides

Shroom... of DOOM!

For the first fungus-based post here at The Cladogram we’ve goth the poisonous Amanita phalloides, the deadliest european mushroom, also known as Death Cap. My ongoing war with Jerry Coyne forces me to point out that the young fruity body (the mushroom) of this species is shaped like a phallus, hence the name “phalloides”.

Fungi are amazing and ecologically important organisms, and they’re weirdly misunderstood by non-biologists: usually, people think of them as plants. Hell, usually even in Biology Faculties they’re included into basic botany courses, even though the professors themselves of course explain that they’re more closely related to animals (the same way ALL of the diverse group of Protozoa are usually introduced in basic zoology courses – I think it’s time to create a separate course for “minor” Eukarya clades that are neither animals or plants). Just like animals, fungi are heterotrophs (many of them are fundamental in the process of decomposition of dead organic matter, and many are parasites of living beings), they have glycogen as an energy storage molecule, their cells contain chitin (in fungi it forms cell walls, while plant cell walls are of course made of cellulose), and they can’t do photosynthesis. Fungi, Animalia and Amoebozoa are all part of the clade Unikonta, while plants and other groups like green algae are part of the clade Plantae. So yeah, support the fungal secession from the plant tiranny!

Popcorn Biology: Avatar (2009)


The Smurfs get an upgrade.

Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, adorated by legions of fanboys and hated by some intellectuals, especially directors who aren’t as rich as James Cameron. My verdict? In the middle: the story and characters are of course pretty bland and forgettable (and also a rip-off of Pochaontas, as everybody noticed) and the movie was probably too long, but the special effects are of course the most spectacular ever seen, and the action scenes are great. If you want a couple of hours of mindless, stupid, brightly coloured fun then Avatar is for you. Many also praise the supposedly very creative design of the creatures of this fantasy world; while some beasts are indeed cool to watch (especially the flying ones), to me many others seem just a lazy effort to make normal animals look weird only by adding a couple extra limbs and some featherish..things. Also, the color pattern of some animals seems to have been chosen pretty poorly (they look like they have taken part in some wild paintball battle). On the other hand, many people complained that the Na’vi were too human-like, but this didn’t bother me; yes, a weird and improbable example of extreme evolutionary convergence, but I can understand the decision to make the aliens look like us, since they’re the focus of the whole film and we have to empathize with them.And it’s not like the rest of Pandora is much more reality-based anyway.

Speaking of which, I digress. This is Popcorn Biology, I should criticize the biological aspects of this movie: a difficult task, as they are many, and many fanboys of the film have probably analyzed them in detail for years. I’ll do my best.

The first thing, the one that bothers me the most, is that for some reason humans can’t breath Pandora’s atmosphere. Which is incredibly odd since Pandora is largely covered in forests, made of trees with an uncanny resemblance to Earth’s trees (another extreme case of convergent evolution?). They’re green, ergo they have chlorophyll, ergo they do photosynthesis, ergo they produce oxygen. A lot of trees means a lot of oxygen, at least during the day.

Though, to be fair, it’s revealed that, in spite of their appearence, the trees of Pandora are quite different from ours, as they communicate with each other through electric and chemical signals, which means they have an equivalent of neurons, I guess. The trees and the animals of the planet are linked in a gigantic neural net, which of course is a concept inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia “hypothesis”, which is less of an hypothesis and more of a vague metaphor made to capture the imagination of common people. I think that this SMBC cartoon explains my point perfectly.

Of course people tend to think of plants as a background, and focus on animals. What about the animals of Pandora? Well, as I’ve already said, they’re weirdly colored, as if the evolution on that planet didn’t give a fuck about camouflage, on the contrary of what happens here on Earth (no convergent evolution in this case?). Pandoran animals shown in the movie anyway are pretty big: maybe they don’t care about camouflage,, and on the other hand have evolved a system of communication based on colours and vision. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that most of them are also bioluminescent. On a side note, most Pandoran plants are bioluminescent too: do they need it to attract pollinators, or to lure the animals for some other reason? Who knows.

I’ve noticed that many animals on Pandora seem to have a respiratory system based on multiple tracheas that open directly on their chest. Maybe this is an adaptation to make possible their big size: enormous animal, especially erbivores, need to eat constantly enormous quantities of food; if they had to breath through the mouth (they’re not really technical tetrapods, so we’ll just assume that it’s possible that they can’t breath through the nose – do they even have a nose?) they would be forced to regularly interrupt their feeding not to die suffucated. This way, they can eat continuously without interruption, thus being a lot more efficient. It’s interesting to note that snakes have a similar adaptation to solve a different problem: they have to swallow the whole prey, so their mouth is occupied by food for relatively long periods of time; not to suffucate, their trachea is extended in their mouth, under the food, and it’s rigid so it stays open and able to breath even when the mouth is full.

The fact that most vertebrate animals of Pandora (although technically they’re not vertebrates, nor animals: they don’t share any common ancestor with animals, since they’re alien organisms) have six legs puzzles me. As I’ve said before, the creators of the movies designed them to be very similar to real animals (in this case tetrapods, especially mammals) in their shape and movement; so, since they move exactly like four legged animals, what’s the advantage of an additional pair of legs? The answer is: none. On the contrary, there are disadvantages: let’s put aside the fact that it would be more difficult ot coordinate them, every additional limb has a cost in term of energy and resources used to create and feed it: if it’s not useful (and in this case it’s not, since we’ve already estabilished that these six-legged aliens move in the exact same way of their four-legged counterparts on Earth), natural selection will make it “disappear”.

Speaking of legs, one of the nerdy criticisms about the human-like appearence of the Na’vi was that they only have two arms and two legs, while the rest of the fauna have 6 legs. I’ll defend Avatar on this one: first of all, this criticism sounds like “Most mammals have a tail, so humans should have a tail too to be considered mammals” (ironically, Na’vi do have a tail). Most important, the creators of the movie actually show a possible “evolutionary sequence” for the loss of limbs: a group of what are called “Prolemurs”, monkey-like creatures, still have sik legs, but the first two pairs are fused from the shoulder to the elbow. So in the Na’vi, other primate-like creatures, the fusion of the 4 arms to form 2 was complete. Maybe they evolved this way for the reason I explained in the previous paragraph, but it’s kind of strange, considering that they’re probably the only “vertebrates” on Pandora that could actually be advantaged by an extra pair of limbs, seeing how they have hands to grab and manipulate things. Oh, well.

Wow. That was long. Consider it a gift for the end of the year. I’m going to Rome for the holidays, so my blogging for the next seven days may be discontinuous to nonexistent (again). Happy new year folks, see ya in 2012.

December 31st’s Featured Organism: Branchiostoma lanceolatum

Branchiostoma lanceolatum

The origin of all vertebrates, you included, wasn't probably very different from this guy.

Yeah, yeah, late again; this is the last featured organism… of this year. So I wanted to commemorate our origin as vertebrates: it’s true, the lancelet (Branchiostoma lanceolatum) is not exactly the direct ancestor of all vertebrates, as once was thought; it’s part of the Cephalochordata, the sister group of vertebrates (well, unless Urochordata are the sister group of vertebrates, and Cephalochordata are the sister group of both, which lately seems to be a more likely hypothesis – the debate rages on). Still, it’s one of the closest living relatives, if not THE closest living relative, of vertebrates, and its body structure is probably very similar to the real ancestor of vertebrates. This little marine animal that burrows in the sand, filters food particles from the water and is barely able to swim clumsily ondulating its body, reinforced by a notochord, is probably not very different from the species that many millions of years ago started the radiation that would eventually originate sea squirts, hagfishes, great white sharks, goldfishes, giant japanese salamanders, snapping turtles, velociraptors, iguanas, ostriches, porcupines and humans, among the other things with a spine (or just a notochord).