December 12, 2006


The superlions marooned on an island (ZOE BRENNAN, 6/24/06, Daily Mail)

"We discovered this tiny sandy island in the Okavango," says Dereck. "It is extraordinary because it became totally isolated from the mainland 15 years ago when the course of the river changed, and a huge herd of buffalo and lions were trapped on a piece of land measuring 200 square kilometres."

Through this twist of geographical fate, these two ancient species are now engaged in a desperate battle of survival — watched by six bemused refugee wildebeest and a handful of similarly outnumbered warthogs.

Thus, the island has become a unique, ecological experiment. In order to exist without the customary spectrum of weaker African prey like zebra, giraffe and impala, the Duba lions have had to develop distinct strategies in order to trap the single available food source.

They have adapted to this challenge by hunting during the day under the baking African sun, swimming through deep rivers in the hunt for buffalo. This water-based training programme combined with a diet of protein-rich buffalo meat has led to the development of huge muscles, and these super-cats now dwarf other lions.

The island lions also use highly advanced psychology in their quest for food, predicting the course of the buffaloes' daily trek by anticipating their need for water — then lying in wait at the precise spot along the river where the herd will eventually stop for refreshment.

In turn, the buffalo have responded to the threat by merging into a vast mega-herd of 1,200 beasts — five times the size of a normal group. They have also, at times, turned on the lions, killing isolated cubs.

Remarkably, in this deeply competitive, life-or-death arena, the three prides of lion operating on the island have also developed very different hunting techniques, with varying success.

The Pantry pride are described as 'risk-takers', using smash-and-grab tactics to kill mature buffalo. "It's fascinating to watch," says Joubert. "Members of this pride will rush straight into the buffalo, confronting the bigger bulls.

So despite their geographic isolation and the fierce survival pressures they've not evolved at all physically, just adopted new training programs, strategies and psychology and are able to thrive just fine, thank you? No wonder no one believes in Darwinism any more.

Fine-Tuned Deception: Say hello to the new stealth creationism. (Sahotra Sarkar, 12.07.06, American Prospect)

[U].S. creationists have changed tactics. Though none have explicitly abandoned ID in public, the focus of their scientific cover arguments has shifted from organic change to the creation of the universe. They have picked up on the controversial claim that human life could only have evolved because some constants of nature -- the electron's charge or the strong nuclear force in a hydrogen atom, for example -- have very precise or "fine-tuned" values. The fine-tuning claim has been around since the 1930s and is called the "anthropic principle" in physics. Some physicists buy this principle but others (notably including the Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg) are not at all convinced. Some critics have pointed out that the case for fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants in the universe has been grossly overstated. Others have argued that the formation of complex physical objects always requires subtle interplay between various forces and certainly provides no evidence for design.

Initially largely unnoticed by their critics, creationists began to co-opt the fine-tuning argument when, in their book Rare Earth (2000), paleontologist Peter T. Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee emphasized that complex life is very uncommon in the universe. Though their claims were subsequently subjected to scathing criticism by David Darling in Life Everywhere (2001) as well as other astrobiologists, they were picked up by astronomer Guillermo Gonzales (who had been a consultant for Rare Earth) and Jay Richards from the Discovery Institute.

Together, Gonzales and Richards published The Privileged Planet in 2004, which has since become the sacred text of the new stealth creationism. According to Gonzales and Richards, conditions on Earth have been carefully optimized for scientific investigation in such a way that it is "a signal revealing a universe so skillfully created for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extraterrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect to imagine." The evidence for creation, in other words, now comes from physics, not biology. [...]

As the physicist and astronomer Victor Stenger noted in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter last September, The Privileged Planet represents a new wedge in the creationists' arsenal. Equally importantly, the Smithsonian episode shows how this new physics-based version of creationism is being propagated with unusual stealth. Biologists may now feel safe that the problem of combating creationism has moved out of their backyards to infest the haunts of the physicists. Some religious biologists have even endorsed the idea of a conscious creator of the universe, so long as it does not affect biological theory. For instance, the biochemist Ken Miller, who ably defends evolution against creationist charges in Finding Darwin's God, goes on to claim that God created the universe with its laws and evolution is simply a result of these laws.

These moves are dangerous: once the creator enters the science classroom, even through the physicists' backdoor, the room for mischief is enormous.

It's certainly true that the biologists don't grasp the full import of their forced admission that Evolution is a product of God.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Isn't 15 years a rather short period of time for Sir Charles' theories to manifest themselves?

I particularly liked the part where the buffalo encircled themselves horns out to catch a few zzz's and the lions took the hint and caught 40 winks themselves. Kinda like a Middle East cease-fire, but without the hypocrisy.

The rogue lioness, probably a single mom and frustrated pro-choicer, was just trying to perform full-birth abortions for the other gals who were deprived of birth control by the patriarchy of macho rightwing autocats who didn't help out at the lair and spent all their time working on increasing their muscle mass and hunting peace loving herbivores.

Can't wait to see this movie.

Posted by: erp at December 12, 2006 9:51 AM

So bulking up in prison isn't just a human thing?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 12, 2006 10:59 AM

erp found the best part -- these superlions are cultural Europeans:

In 2004, the Tsaro pride had 22 cubs to strengthen the group. Inexplicably, all died. Last year, there were 19 young ones — and again all perished. This year, there been seven, and the pride has lost all but one.

How is it that these super-lions are not able to protect their young?

To their shock, a year into the filming, the Jouberts witnessed a terrible scene. One of the females in the pride was, apparently unknown to her fellow lionesses, killing their cubs.

This was the explanation for the mystery that had perplexed the Duba lion experts. According to Irons, who narrates Relentless Enemies, this lioness posed as babysitter so that she could kill.

"Her attentive rearguard while the mothers were off hunting gave her the opportunity to finish off each and every cub in the past two years," he says.

"Ironically the biggest threat to the lions is not buffalo at all, but the stalking enemy within."

Joubert says: "It was awful to see. One of their own was mauling the little cubs to death, defying everything we know about maternal love."

In survival terms, this was devastating for the Tsaro pride; its strength appeared to be ebbing away....

Why was this lioness committing such an atrocity?...

"This lioness's behaviour could be a twisted form of Charles Darwin's natural selection at work. Nature never ceases to amaze."

Yes, natural selection apparently wants to eradicate lions from this island. And the lions are eager to help.

Posted by: pj at December 12, 2006 11:34 AM

These knew "super lions" would already have been declared a new species if this island were in WA state, where the same fish in a different river are declared so.

Posted by: Patrick H at December 12, 2006 12:32 PM

Erp: Brava--Great job.

That's it, of course. What happened on the newly formed island was not Darwin, but rather Herbert you-know-who. Fitness equals adaptability, which is why freedom produces progress and political attempts at so-called "progress" are death.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 12, 2006 12:34 PM

"They have adapted to this challenge by hunting during the day under the baking African sun, swimming through deep rivers in the hunt for buffalo."

Couldn't they just swim to the mainland?

Posted by: Dave at December 12, 2006 6:10 PM

Swim? There might be piranhas or crocs in the water. No better the lions should wait for congress to earmark a bridge or tunnel.

Posted by: erp at December 12, 2006 9:45 PM