Space Elephants (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I continued my thematic look at the apparent motivations that seem to blind journalists from the truth in a story, causing them to grab onto the merest hint of a news peg in their incessant search for the holy grail of modern news, sensationalism.
sensationalism |sɛnˈseɪʃ(ə)n(ə)lɪz(ə)m|
1 (esp. in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement : media sensationalism.
2 Philosophy another term for phenomenalism .
Ironically, the second Definition 2 there, of the uncommon use of the word and one not in daily parlance, unless you’re one of those people who constantly question your own existence (as might, Jordan, Jeremy Kyle and Jedward, et alii), refers to a form of philosophy handed down all the way from the Ancient Greeks.
In Darwin in Scotland I trace the empirical methodology used by Charles Darwin to form his ideas, via David Hume and the other giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, to Pyrrho (ca. 360 BC – ca. 270 BC), the founder of a school of Greek skepticism, and likely the first ever skeptical philosopher. Phenomenalism very much builds upon that empiricism, stating that, “human knowledge is confined to or founded on the realities or appearances presented to the senses”. Id est, anything that we cannot measure directly is purely supposition, (e.g., gods and monsters).
Nowadays, perhaps more than any previous time, the former Definition 1 predominates so that sensationalist stories are those that either expose amoral behaviour, scandals such as the MP expenses case, or those pandering to the more puerile facets of our society, a childlike embarrassment and discomfiture with sex, gossip, sex, fucking and sex.
Oh, … and fucking.
For the science media correspondent the opportunities to shoehorn scandal or sex, or both, into a story are arguably less forthcoming than for a colleague on the gossip columns. So, as soon as a sex-related story does crop up (e.g.Sterile Mosquitoes Use Sex to Kill in Dengue Trial), especially one that can be linked, however loosely, to human sexual behaviour (e.g., Neanderthals really were sex-obsessed thugs and Early humans ‘more promiscuous’), then it gets covered quicker and more comprehensively than a geisha at a Bukkake party.
The only subject that can currently match sex in science is Climate Change. Yes, the media are hot for it, only cooling off for a while over the University of East Anglia email hacking case, as if waiting for someone to reassure them of public opinion. At all other times, the need for sensationalism (Definition 1) is so rife that the smallest whiff of Climate Change seems sufficient to get their imaginations warmed up.
Even when there seems to be a daily supply of authentic stories, as there was in September 2008, journalists will go to great lengths to shoehorn Climate Change into any story with a smattering of relevance. I draw the following example from my personal experience of dealing with press teams and journalists, so two clarifiers before proceeding: 1) it’s not all the journalist’s fault – the problem is system-wide and starts with the press teams disseminating science stories from within universities. 2) By “Climate Change”, I mean contemporary, anthropogenic Climate Change.

In June 2008, I published a paper co-authored with Andy Dougill, an earth scientist at Leeds, on Water availability, piospheres and evolution in African ruminants. It was a good paper and one that I am very proud of, mainly because it contributed an additional mechanism to the ones already identified for reproductive isolation in wild populations. That is, what keeps populations of animals from breeding and mixing their genes.
If two populations of the same animal become separated over sufficient time, and we’re talking on an evolutionary timescale here, then mutations and genetic drift can produce enough differences within each so that if they were ever to regroup, then they would be sexually incompatible. This is a biological definition of a separate species, based upon their reproductive biology.
The sort of barriers that can lead to this speciation, that Darwin and others had considered, included mountain ranges, gorges, rivers and islands. So, a water body could be a barrier to an animal’s movement, but our paper asked the question, what about body water?
In dry regions, where water is in limited supply, what water is available collects in waterholes or flows in some seasons as rivers. Under such conditions, the need to drink, to maintain physiological body water, limits the distance animals can travel from a drinking supply. Under these very dry conditions, the distance between water supplies can exceed that which the animals can travel without drinking. In this way, they become isolated by the location of their drinking supplies and unable to mix freely with other populations, also confined by their own drinking supplies. This is particularly so for water-dependent large mammalian grazers (grass eaters): the ancestors of modern day wildebeest, buffalo, even impala, and so on.
But, is there evidence that this could ever have happened?
The answer is a very firm “YES”. There were extended periods of climate change in Africa’s history when a drying climate would have increased the distances between persistent water supplies by removal (drying up) of the less permanent (i.e., seasonal) water supplies occurring at intermediate distances. As rivers and waterholes disappeared and were not replenished for extended periods of time, animals must have experienced equivalent periods of isolation. What’s more, this scenario is supported by the high density of fossils distributed near certain historic waterholes.
In summary, the evidence would seem to support a case for isolation of populations of large African herbivores over evolutionary timescales because of the requirement for drinking water. And, as far as science is concerned, is the end of the story. And news enough for anyone interested in the past, and Africa, and animals, and evolution, and … oh yes, … the truth.
Alas, it is not newsworthy enough for the media, and the press teams who write the press releases as part of the university public relations offices know that, all too well. So, to maximise exposure of the university in the media, the press teams need to sexclimate-up the press releases, to make them more attractive. Hence, this article in early September, 2008…

The article went on to claim that,
An isolated population of buffalo, unable to interbreed with others, might evolve to the size of small elephants in the future, in order to accommodate a larger stomach. Alternatively it might develop huge, long legs to carry them further distances to water and better food sources.
and that,
modern-day climate change may lead to an increase in the number of species in Africa, just as it did millions of years ago.

Whoa there Jim Bob! That’s nowhere near what the paper concluded. There was never any mention of contemporary Climate Change, and certainly no prediction of speciation as a result of it, let alone a multitudinous host of Daliesque stilt-spile Space Elephants. You, you … nnnngggghhhhh!
*deep breaths*
The periods of climate change we were talking about happened between 3- and 1-million years ago, with an especially drying and cooling climate around 1.75 million years ago, when there was “limited perennial river flow for 10,000 years”. That is the period of time that the evidence pointed to, and that is the temporal context for our understanding.
Okay, “So what?” you say. Well, a lot: this the difference between supposition and science; the difference between Definition 1 and Definition 2, and I don’t feel the need to further justify not conflating the two. But this aspect is somewhat academic whereas, sadly, there is another, much more damaging injustice done in the name of science.
Articles about science in newspapers and other media are the way that the vast majority of the public get to hear about scientific research. Misrepresenting science in this way taints the public outlook on science as a whole. The repercussions can be felt throughout, from basic acceptance of findings to the opportunities for future funding. Just look at the backlash from the comments posted for this one, insignificant article:
from fundamental misunderstandings,
  • Nothing new is there? Thought that this had been proved ages ago, that species evolve
to mocking,
  • Fairy stories used to begin with “Once upon a time”, now we are forecast for the future.
and doubt,
  • How much did this plagiaristic Edinburgh theory cost?
  • How much public money did this lot get to come up with this load of tosh? Species adapt to climate, that’s pretty obvious. The climate of the African plains has been stable for millenia. The idiots that came up with this are suggesting there’s something called ‘modern day climate change’! WTF is that pray tell? More junk science by people who have mortgages to pay on the backs of climate change money no doubt.
  • Yo think that universities were once seats of learning. Dr Julian Derry should get fired for bring his university into disrepote with this sub-literate flannel clearly aimed squarely at getting him media coverage rather than developing science. 5,000 years BC the world was several degrees warmer than now & what is now the Sahara was verdant & home to lions, gazslles, Hippos etc etc. When the desert dried up hippos did not evolve into desert creatures like camels. The idea that such evolution will take place within a century if temperature goes back to that level (even if there were any reason to believe it would) is not one that an intelligent O level student would put forward let alone an alleged real scientist.
And to be fair, while some of the comments are ignorant, you have to forgive them to some degree, given the awful inaccuracies of the article. Even so, I felt obliged to reply, as politely as I could, even taking into account that the article presented the work as looking into the future, I tried to answer fairly their concerns, just as soon as I had established a proviso for future communication:
I will happily answer any further questions after the critics of this piece of work have actually read the paper in question. Details about the following responses can be found therein, meanwhile, and for the record:
1. Resolutions: “Nothing new is there?” & tomi: “Fairy stories” & Boy Wonder ‘evol;ution[sic] stopped at “now”‘
Well yes, there is something new here, and it is not mythical. As Jim A points out, evolution has not stopped, nor will it ever, and is, by definition, constantly changing species, depending upon their environments. Thanks to our ever-growing understanding about the associated processes, and what has occurred in the past, we can ask questions about what may happen in the future, under differing scenarios to our present.
2. carrottop: “eaten by Africas humans”
Interestingly, but coincidently, hunting does have a role to play in this evolutionary story.
3. SouthernSkye: “plagiaristic Edinburgh theory”
There is no plagiarism here; Darwin himself identified water as a barrier to breading between individuals isolated by, say, rivers and oceans. What has always been omitted from our understanding, until now, is the reliance on water location which constrains animal movement to within the vicinity of their drinking supply. Understand, it is the lack of water between animals, rather than an excess of it. There is good evidence that historically African water supplies were reduced to be sufficiently spread out in their spatial distribution to isolate populations of animals long enough for evolution to act. Global heating suggests that those conditions could return.
4. SouthernSkye: “how much” & Unimpressed one: “public money”
Exactly none. I was not employed by the University of Edinburgh during the period of research and writing of this journal paper. My formal status is Visiting Scientist which continues to be unpaid.
5. Neil “disrepote[sic] with this sub-literate flannel”
With due respect, the journal paper is well founded in research, which I can guess is more than can be said for your comment. Why not actually read the journal paper first rather than make uninformed comment?
6. d_devlin
I agree that climate change science is not reported in as much detail as it could be, however, there are very many scientific publications where you can get the information you seek. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a newspaper with a general readership to report in any great detail about anything. Unfortunately, some understanding can be compromised in place of detail, and I fear that is what has happened here, amongst other motivations.
Thank you for all your input, but I would invite you to read the paper before further comment:
Direct –
Reprint – on request.
JF Derry.
“breading between individuals”, does sounds intriguing, but should actually read, “breeding between individuals”
Well, there have been no follow-up comments, but I doubt it is as a result of people being satisfied by my responses, nor that everyone is too busy reading the original paper. Once the damage has been done and all that …
Moreover, because of the rapid propagation of press releases through the online news distribution networks, it took a only a day before there were over 600 results returned from searching for this article title alone. That’s a shitload of misrepresentation, and unfortunately there’s nothing that can be done to correct it at that scale.
All this during a month when the world was awash with Climate Change stories, and it was far from necessary to have to resort to making them up.
If you would like read further about waterholes, Africa and evolution please get yourself a copy of PIOSPHERES: water and the consequences of spatially constrained plant-herbivore interactions.

About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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10 Responses to Space Elephants (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Space Elephants (Part 1) | OSQUALITUDE

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  3. martynmurray says:

    Great that one scientist listens and takes the trouble to respond. It may be impossible to rein in the wider media, but surely the university press teams have a duty to clear their releases with authors?

  4. JFDerry says:

    Thanks Mart, you flatter me, but unfortunately, unless the motivation for publicity (in universities and elsewhere) can be steered towards an honorable respect, rather than superiority or attraction of wealth, I’m afraid we’re stuck with the current attitude. It’s the age of celebrity writ large.

  5. thai seo says:

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  6. good molly OSQUALITUDE , i review your blog , be a nice blog and perfect. Best for me. useful General Science and DARWIN content. i will plan to read and review your site.

  7. Staedtler says:

    Quite a bitch trying to get the real story from the news if you do happen to be interested. You can’t trust the hysteria, so you have to do your own source checking to find out what the story was before the media got hold of it. I’m not a scientist, I just take an interest, but the media think it can’t be interesting unless they turn it into a catastrophe. They’re meant to be bringing the news, and they’re not doing it right.

  8. JFDerry says:

    I feel we are of like mind. Well put.

  9. Hi Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

  10. stardiaKhar says:

    Very funny post…

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