Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From "Drill, Baby, Drill" to "Burn, Baby, Burn"

Looking at the coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, I'm puzzled by something. Several of the commenters I've looked at have expressed horror at the idea of burning the oil at sea. Two things: first, we were planning on burning most of that oil any way; second, while bad, burning it at sea is orders of magnitude less horrible than letting it hit the beaches. The wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has already pumped out about half as much oil as the Exxon Valdez lost in 1989. It will keep leaking for days, if not weeks, more. The oil from the Exxon Valdez spill traveled 460 miles and covered 1300 miles of shoreline with varying amounts of oil. In the Gulf, that would be equal to covering the beaches from the mouth of the Mississippi, across eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and another 200 miles or so of the Florida panhandle. It would coat the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, penetrate into the lagoons behind the barrier islands, and foul Mobile Bay. It would cost billions to clean up, as far as that is even possible. The environmental damage would linger for decades. The economic damage would possible surpass Hurricane Katrina. With this alternative, I say "burn, baby, burn."

I suppose that title dates me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yeti or Weasel

Last month, two women in the Sichuan province of China captured an ugly, dog-sized animal that they found raiding their chicken coop. Because it was like nothing they had seen before, they kept it captive. The next morning, as word of the strange beast got out, neighbors began flocking to Ke Suying's farm to gawk. Eventually, the local Forestry Department heard about the capture and took the animal in to do tests and find out what kind of animal they had. A Ms. Chen in the same county had been feeding an unfamiliar animal on her farm. When she heard about Ke's mystery animal, she called the Forestry Department to come take her animal and see if they were the same species. Ke's animal was described as:
...around 60 centimeters in length--bottom-heavy--and its tail adds another 30 centimeters. There is a wound on its stomach. Almost all of its fur is gone apart from a few sparse, brown-colored hairs on its back. Its head looks mostly like that of a dog, but its nostrils are that of a cow, and it has a few short whiskers hanging from its cheeks. It has round ears and folds on the skin on its neck. Its hindlegs are far longer and heavier than its forelegs, and each of its four wide feet has five toes, almost like that of a lion or tiger.

Foreign tabloids named Ke's animal the Oriental Yeti--which is both redundant and silly--and the Chinese Chupacabra. One of the foresters who looked at it said it looked like a common badger. My best guess was that it was a binturong. Several other bloggers opined that it was a palm civet. Chen said she thought her animal was a beech marten.

The Daying County Forestry Department has finally announced their results. They're calling it a Himalayan weasel with mange. It is the first time one has been reported in Daying County. The suggest that recent reforestation efforts might have drawn it in. Despite the fact that Himalayan weasel's are known chicken thieves, the foresters treated it for its mange and released it back into the forest. The foresters decided Chen's visitor was a masked palm civet and also set it free. Just to keep things confusing, an English language story from Xinhua translated the name for Ke's mystery animal given out by the Daying County Forestry Department as "albino civet cat."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Zombies of the Mammoth Steppes

The problem with the internet, we are told, is that it has no standards and no controls. Anything that is written will be recycled endlessly, regardless of whether it is true or not. There is no way to correct bad information on the internet. This is why the internet is inferior to traditional media. At least that's what we're told.

In the three hundred years since Europeans first received reports of a mysterious creature in Siberia called the mammoth, nothing has engendered more public fascination about them than the occasional discovery of nearly intact, frozen mammoth carcasses with flesh still attached. At some point in the nineteenth century, frozen mammoths became a staple of catastrophist theories. As one of the usual suspects, frozen mammoths have regularly been trotted out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth's axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, or that Noah's global flood was real. Sometimes they prove all of the above.

Three particular mammoths show up more often that all of the others combined. The Adams mammoth, named for the person who excavated it, was discovered in 1799 near the mouth of the Lena River. In 1807, Michael Adams journeyed to the spot and recovered most of the skeleton and several hundred pounds of skin and hair. This was the first nearly complete mammoth recovered and scientifically described. It was the basis for all nineteenth century ideas about what a mammoth looked like in life. The Berezovka mammoth, named after the place where it was found in 1901, was also nearly complete. Since scientists were able to get to it soon after its discovery, they were able to examine the tissues and remains of some of the internal organs. In between the Adams and the Berezovka was the Benkendorf mammoth. In 1846 a surveying party, led by a Lt. Benkendorf, discovered a complete mammoth exposed by a flood of the Indigirka river. Before the mammoth was carried away, the party was able to make some measurements and examine the contents of the mammoth's stomach. The main difference between these three famous mammoths is that the Adams and Berezovka mammoths are real, while the Benkendorf mammoth is a complete fiction. The story of Benkendorf's discovery originally appeared in a fairly obscure 1859 German book of science for young people, Kosmos für die Jugend by an author named Philipp Körber.

The fictitious nature of the story hasn't hurt its popularity. In In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood Dr. Walt Brown cites the Benkendorf mammoth in to prove his version of the Noachian flood. John Cogan, in The New Order of Man's History, cites the same mammoth to prove his theory of Atlantis being sunk by a giant asteroid strike. Robert W. Felix cites the Benkendorf mammoth in Not by Fire but by Ice to prove his theory that magnetic pole reversals cause sudden and regular ice ages. In Darwin's Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-Existed, Hans J. Zillmer calls on the same mammoth to disprove both evolution and modern geology.

It's easy to point and laugh at the creationists and catastrophists for being suckered into believing that a fictional mammoth would support their theories. Recycling anecdotes is a well established tradition among conspiracy theorists and other purveyors of forbidden knowledge. Unfortunately, the Benkendorf mammoth has just as long a history of being cited in textbooks, popular science writing, and even academic papers. Samuel Sharp's 1876 textbook Rudiments of Geology uses the Benkendorf mammoth as a source of information about the appearance and diet of mammoths as do the authors of the 1902 edition of The Cambridge Natural History, H. H. Lamb's 1977 book Climate: Present, Past and Future,and a 1983 Time-Life book, Ice Ages. As recently as 2002, Donald R. Prothero and Robert M. Schoch gave two pages to Benkendorf in their Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: the Evolution of Hoofed Mammals.

Why has the Körber story managed to survive so long? More than anything else, I believe three elements have come together to turn Benkendorf's mammoth into a nearly unstoppable zombie. First, the original story was well told, filled with many plausible details, and included the solutions to some outstanding mysteries about mammoths. Probably because of the verisimilitude and answers, the story was adopted and retold in considerable detail by some very influential scientists. Their credibility led to many retellings in both the popular and scientific press. Finally, debunkings of the story have been weak, made by not credible writers, or located in hard to find places.

The story of the discovery is told in the form of a letter to a German friend written by Lt. Benkendorf, an engineer in command of a steam ship surveying the Siberian coast and deltas of the Lena and Indigirka rivers. As the story opens, Benkendorf is taking the ship up the Indigirka to a place where he is to meet a troop of Yakuti horsemen.
In 1846 there was unusually warm weather in the north of Siberia. Already in May unusual rains poured over the moors and bogs, storms shook the earth, and the streams carried not only ice to the sea, but also large tracts of land thawed by the masses of warm water fed by the southern rains.... We steamed on the first favourable day up the Indigirka; but there were no thoughts of land, we saw around us only a sea of dirty brown water, and knew the river only by the rushing and roaring of the stream. The river rolled against us trees, moss, and large masses of peat, so that it was only with great trouble and danger that we could proceed.


Suddenly our jager, ever on the outlook, called loudly, and pointed to a singular and unshapely object, which rose and sank through the disturbed waters.

I had already remarked it, but not given it any attention, considering it only driftwood. Now we all hastened to the spot on the shore, had the boat drawn near, and waited until the mysterious thing should again show itself. Our patience was tried, but at last a black, horrible, giant-like mass was thrust out of the water, and we beheld a colossal elephant's head, armed with mighty tusks, with its long trunk moving in the water in an unearthly manner, as though seeking for something lost therein. Breathless with astonishment, I beheld the monster hardly twelve feet from me, with his half-open eyes yet showing the whites. It was still in good preservation.

Benkendorf's crew secure the mammoth with ropes and chains and try to pull it to the shore, but its rear feet are frozen to the ground and they can't budge it. Refusing to give up, Benkendorf has them tie the ropes to stakes driven into the riverbank and waits for the river to excavate the mammoth for him. The next day, the Yakuti horsemen arrive and Benkendorf puts them to work reeling in his catch.
Picture to yourself an elephant with the body covered with thick fur, about thirteen feet in height and fifteen in length, with tusks eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends, a stout trunk of six feet in length, colossal limbs of one and a half feet in thickness, and a tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair. The animal was fat and well grown; death had overtaken him in the fulness of his powers. His parchment-like, large, naked ears lay fearfully turned up over the head; about the shoulders and the back he had stiff hair about a foot in length, like a mane. The long outer hair was deep brown, and coarsely rooted. The top of the head looked so wild, and so penetrated with pitch, that it resembled the rind of an old oak tree. On the sides it was cleaner, and under the outer hair there appeared everywhere a wool, very soft, warm, and thick, and of a fallow-brown colour. The giant was well protected against the cold. The whole appearance of the animal was fearfully strange and wild. It had not the shape of our present elephants. As compared with our Indian elephants, its head was rough, the brain-case low and narrow, but the trunk and mouth were much larger. The teeth were very powerful. Our elephant is an awkward animal, but compared with this Mammoth, it is as an Arabian steed to a coarse, ugly, dray-horse. I could not divest myself of a feeling of fear as I approached the head; the broken, widely-opened eyes gave the animal an appearance of life, as though it might move in a moment and destroy us with a roar....

The bad smell of the body warned us that it was time to save of it what we could, and the swelling flood, too, bid us hasten. First of all we cut off the tusks, and sent them to the cutter. Then the people tried to hew off the head, but notwithstanding their good will, this work was slow. As the belly of the animal was cut open the intestines rolled out, and then the smell was so dreadful that I could not overcome my nauseousness, and was obliged to turn away. But I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....

So intent are they in examining the mammoth that no one notices the river slowly undermining the riverbank. Suddenly, the mammoth is snatched from Benkendof's hands as the bank collapses taking the mammoth and five of the horsemen with it. Sailors from the ship manage to rescue the horsemen, but the mammoth is irretrievably lost.

Besides being a ripping good yarn, Körber's story had a lot going for it. At the time, only one fairly intact mammoth had been recovered and described in scientific literature. This was the Adams mammoth. Adams was able to recover an almost complete skeleton, a large part of the skin, and several bags of hair. However, most of the soft tissue had been eaten by scavengers, the tusks had been cut off and sold, and the hair had shed from the skin. This left the angle of the tusks and the distribution of the hair open to speculation. With no internal organs present, Adams could provide no information about what the mammoth ate. This was an area of great interest since knowing its diet would be a major clue about the past climate of the Arctic coast. Adams' account of recovering the mammoth was published in several languages. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius reassembled the skeleton and published an exact description of it along with large detailed illustrations. Both Adams' and Tilesius' papers were broadly circulated and well known even in the popular press. Körber's description of Benkendorf's mammoth stuck closely to Adams' and Tilesius' descriptions, even where they made incorrect guesses.

Körber describes the tusks as "eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends." This follows Tilesius' attempt at reconstructing the placement of the tusks on the Adams' mammoth. The original tusks had been cut off and sold before Adams reached the mammoth (in fact, it was the ivory merchant who reported the find). Adams bought a pair of tusks on his way back from the coast and claimed they were the originals. Whether he was conned by the ivory merchants or let his own wishful thinking blind him is not clear. These tusks were from a younger, smaller mammoth than the one Adams excavated. Tilesius could only guess at their placement and put them on the wrong sides of the skull with the points curving out and back over the mammoth's shoulders. In part, because of Tilesius' incorrect guess and Körber's confirmation of it, the correct placement of the tusks would still be a topic of debate into the first decade of the twentieth century.

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius' reconstruction of the Adams' mammoth skeleton. Tilesius' work on the body was very accurate. However, since he didn't have the original tusks to work with he was reduced to guesswork on that detail and put the two that he tried to use on the wrong sides. While Tilesius had the tusks curve out and back, a real mammoth's tusks curve down and out, then up and back inward, with the tips actually crossing on an old male. Nineteenth century naturalists expected the tusks to be better weapons than they really were. Tilesius' mistake wouldn't be corrected until 1899 and not generally accepted for another decade.

The idea that the hair on the mammoth should be in the form of a mane, rather than equally distributed about the body, comes from Adams. Adams described the mammoth, when he first viewed it, as having "a long mane on the neck." By the time Adams reached St. Petersburg, all of the hair had fallen off of the skin. Since Adams says most of the hair had fallen off by the time he reached the mammoth, it might be that the only hair he saw still attached was around the neck and shoulders. In any case, this was another incorrect assumption that gained support from Körber's tale.

Körber provided two other details about the mammoth's appearance that were bad guesses. The "tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair" is a nice detail that goes along with the lion-like mane. On Adams' mammoth, the tail had been carried off by scavengers; its appearance was anybody's guess. The "parchment-like, large, naked ears" are a convincing detail that make his mammoth more elephant-like. When Adams began excavating his mammoth, most of the flesh and the skin of the head had been eaten by scavengers. However, one side of the head was still buried and had preserved its skin and ear. Adams mentioned only that ear was "furnished with a tuft of fur." By the time the skin reached St. Petersburg, the ear had dried out and was too damaged for Tilesius to draw any conclusions about its original appearance.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' famous illustration, published in 1859, makes the same assumptions as Körber about the placement of the mammoth's tusks, big ears, mane, and lions tuft at the end its tail. At the time, these details were being challenged by naturalists to no avail.

While all of these external details were corrected by the early years of the twentieth century, Körber's imaginative description of the contents of the mammoth's stomach is a important bit of misinformation that persists to this day.
I had the stomach separated, and brought on one side. It was well filled, and the contents instructive and well preserved. The principal were young shoots of the fir and pine; a quantity of young fir-cones, also in a chewed state, were mixed with the mass....

We can be fairly certain that Körber didn't set out to fool the scientific community. His book was intended for young people with an interest in science. Unfortunately, this one detail, taken as a scientific observation, had consequences in several fields. At the time, discovering what the mammoth ate was considered the most important evidence as to the environment in which it lived. Naturalists were divided between those who thought elephants in the Arctic meant Siberia had had a warm climate in the recent past, and those who thought mammoths were adapted to the cold, meaning Siberia's cold climate had never changed.* The answer to the question had great implications for understanding the nature of the mammoth, the nature of the ice ages, and whether or not geological and climatological conditions changed gradually or catastrophically.

As with the physical appearance of the mammoth, Körber's speculation about the diet of the mammoth was based on solid science. In one of the earliest attempts at debunking the Benkendorf story, Johann Friedrich von Brandt pointed out that the description of the mammoth's diet accorded very closely with his own research into woolly rhinoceroses. He went on ,rather testily, to accuse Körber with stealing his ideas on how mammoths and rhinoceroses came to be frozen in Siberia. When Körber's book went to press in 1859, the only account of Brandt's research into woolly rhinoceroses was a letter published in the journal of the Royal Prussian Academy in 1846. The key passage it this:
I have been so fortunate as to extract from cavities in the molar teeth of the Wiljui rhinoceros a small quantity of its half-chewed food, among which fragments of pine leaves, one-half of the seed of a polygonaceous plant, and very minute portions of wood with porous cells (or small fragments of coniferous wood), were still recognizable.

It's certainly possible that Körber was familiar with Brandt's letter. The original was published in his native language, German. It was also published in one of the most influential geology books of the century, Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, from the 1853 edition forward.

Brandt may have been right in suspecting that his letter was the source of Körber's supposition, but Körber had another source available to him. In 1805, a mastodon skeleton was discovered in Virginia by workmen digging a well. Word of the discovery made it to Bishop James Madison. In a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, Madison described the most important part of the discovery:
It is now no longer a question, whether the [mastodon] was a herbivorous or carnivorous animal.** Human industry has revealed a secret, which the bosom of the earth had, in vain, attempted to conceal. In digging a well, near a Salt-Lick, in Wythe-county, Virginia, after penetrating about five feet and a half from the surface, the labourers struck upon the stomach of a mammoth. The contents were in a state of perfect preservation, consisting of half masticated reeds, twigs, and grass, or leaves. There could be no deception; the substances were designated by obvious characters, which could not be mistaken, and of which every one could judge; besides, the bones of the animal lay around, and added a silent, but sure, confirmation.

Barton was an influential scientist in his own right and the publisher of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal. Barton not only published Bishop Madison's letter, he forwared it to Baron Georges Cuvier who quoted it in his Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes. Like Lyell's Geology, Recherches was an enormously influential book that went through numerous editions. Even before the first edition of Recherches was published, American readers knew that the story was wrong. In 1809, Madison wrote to several of the American journals that had published his letter to say that his sources had exaggerated. It was true that the vegetable matter was found inside the skeleton of the mastodon, but it was no different from the vegetable matter in the soil surrounding the skeleton. Unfortunately, no one thought to tell Cuvier and the misinformation was repeated in every edition of Recherches.

The story of the Benkendorf mammoth made it into academic and popular science literature in the early 1860s, just a few years after the publication of Körber's book. By the end of the century, some of the details were so well established that they had could stand up against newer, and more correct, data. A mammoth well enough preserved that it still had its stomach matter intact wasn't discovered until 1901 when the Berezovka mammoth was found. Otto Herz recovered thirty-five pounds of plant matter from the mammoth's stomach and mouth, which turned out to be meadow grasses and not conifers. However, when the final analysis of this material was published in 1914, the author, V. N. Sukachev, almost apologetically wrote that his conclusions gave "no particular reasons for distrusting Benkendorf's testimony." The two diets have continued side by side to this day creating confusion about the nature of the mammoth's habitat.

How is it that the educated guesses in a children's science book gained such credibility? For that, the responsibility lies with two prestigious scientists who reprinted Körber's tale and by the weakness of the efforts to debunk it.

On 26 November 1842, twenty-seven year old Alexander von Middendorff left St. Petersburg for Siberia. Middendorff had been hired by the Academy of Sciences to investigate the phenomena of permafrost and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna of the Taymyr Peninsula. His tiny expedition included three other scientists, four Cossacks, and a Nenets interpreter. The expedition was brutal--Middendorff suffered freezing, starving, and severe depression--but ultimately was successful. Before returning to St. Petersburg, Middendorff mounted a second expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk and ascended the Amur River.Leaving one of his companions behind to continue gathering data in Yakutsk, he returned to the capital in 1845 as something of a scientific celebrity. Middendorff's letters from the field were published in the journal of the Academy and a short report was written based on the letters. The Emperor found the report quite interesting and gave all of the scientists medals and pensions. There is no word whether the Cossacks or the interpreter received any reward for their parts. Middendorff then settled down to write the formal analysis of the data they had gathered. It took him thirty years. I'm sure any graduate student will empathize.

Middendorff found the remains of a mammoth while he was on the Taymyr Peninsula. Immediately upon returning to St. Petersburg, he began to collect information about other discoveries of mammoth carcasses. Lyell included some information from Middendorff in the 1847 edition of his Geology. Middendorff wrote a long article on mammoths in 1860 as a warm up to his official report on his own find. This appeared in 1867. Along with the details of his own find, Middendorff included an historical survey of previous finds with the entire Benkendorf letter. This is the ultimate source of the transition of Körber's tale from the realm of fiction into the realm of fact.

It appears to me that Körber's tale came to Middendoff's attention because of Johann Brandt's debunking of it. Middendorff and Brandt were colleagues and friends. At the same time Middendorff was writing the volume of his researches that included his mammoth, Brandt published, in a popular Russian magazine, an article on mammoths that concluded with his debunking of Körber. Brandt was upset because he believed Körber had stolen his theories on the mammoth's diet and how mammoth carcasess came to be preserved. Brandt was quite emphatic in his rejection of the Benkendorf story: "[T]he whole story of Benkendorf is pure lie and invention. The expedition to the Indigirka never took place and could not take place because of the impenetrable masses of ice of the Arctic Ocean; Benckendorf is a work of imagination."

If Middendorff learned of Körber's tale from Brandt, he should also have known of Brandt's objections. For Middendorff, the most telling evidence of the story's fictitious nature should have been the sheer magnitude of Benkendorf's expedition. Middendorff's expedition to the Taymyr was made up of a mere four scientists, four Cossacks, and an interpreter. The idea that a fully crewed steam cutter and fifty Yakuti horsemen could have been dispatched to the same region a mere three years later must have sounded to Middendorff like fiction, and bad fiction at that. When Middendorff copied the Benkendorf letter into his report, he added a warning to his readers that they shouldn't put too much faith in the account:
Since we know the birthday of the enterprising countryman of mine to whom we owe this extraordinary discovery, because we have before us his life's story and the story of his expedition down to the minor details, there would seem to be no doubt about this wonderful discovery. The real and invented are so cheekily woven together here that it is worthy of a place along side la Martiniere's fanatsy of Novaya Zemlya [a famous seventeenth century hoax] that persisted for so long. But I do not deprive my readers of the pleasure of reading this.

This is far from Brandt's uncompromising rejection of the story. Middendorff went further in qualifying his rejection. Following the account, he wrote:
We can only hope that at some time in the future the author will publish this episode himself and describe many other adventures and occurrences experiences seen by him during his travels in Siberia. We are happy that at least a small grain from his rich store of information has come down to us.

Middendorff seems to have thought that the Benkendorf letter, as published, was a generously embellished account of a real discovery. Regardless of what he may have thought, such nuance and his various caveats were completely missed by later authors. Although Middendorff started out as an unknown teacher on a small research expedition, the quality of the monographs based on his research made him a well respected authority within a very short time after his return. Scientists all over Europe and the Americas eagerly awaited new papers and carefully studied each one, though, in this case, not as carefully as they should have.

Alexander Theodor von Middendorff: Was it all his fault?

Middendorff's reports were published in German and have never been translated into English except in fragments used by English speaking scientists in their own works. William Boyd Dawkins was one of those scientists and the person most responsible for introducing Benkendorf to the English speaking world and for lending credibility to the story. Dawkins was an influential British geologist who became involved in debates over the antiquity of man, labor rights, and the channel tunnel. It was the first of those that got him interested in mammoths.

In 1868, within a few months of Middendorff's monograph being published, Dawkins referred to it in an article entitled "On the Range of the Mammoth" published in Popular Science Review. Dawkins included almost the entire text of the Benkendorf letter (in his own translation). He introduced the letter with "The fourth and by far the most important discovery of a body is described by an eye-witness of its resurrection; so valuable in its bearings that we translate it at some length." Dawkins went on to emphasize the importance of the apocryphal stomach contents:
This most graphic account affords a key for the solution of several problems hitherto unknown. It is clear that the animal must have been buried where it died, and that it was not transported from any place further up stream, to the south, where the climate is comparatively temperate. The presence of fir in the stomach proves that it fed on the vegetation which is now found at the northern part of the woods as they join the low, desolate, treeless, moss-covered tundra, in which the body lay buried—a fact that would necessarily involve the conclusion that the climate of Siberia, in those ancient days, differed but slightly from that of the present time. Before this discovery the food of the Mammoth had not been known by direct evidence.

For the English speaking world, this was the moment that the genie escaped the bottle. Dawkins either didn't notice Middendorff's qualifications or didn't understand their significance. Because Dawkins was a scientist of some prominence, other scientists and writers felt safe in following his lead. During the last part of the nineteenth century, dozens of writers made reference to the Benkendorf mammoth on Dawkins' authority.

Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins: Was it all his fault?

After 1868, the story of the Benkendorf mammoth took off with a roar while attempts to debunk it, or even to make qualifications, as Middendorff did, gained no traction whatsoever. Brandt's debunking was published in a Russian language popular magazine and went almost entirely unnoticed. It was mentioned in 1867 in the Bulletin de la Société impériale des naturalistes de Moscou by Alexander Brandt, who wanted to assure his readers that there was no feud between Middendorff and Johann Brandt, and again in 1958 by B. A. Tikhomirov. I know of no other reference to Brandt's debunking during the intervening ninety-one years. Neither Middendorf nor Brandt made any effort to correct the misinformation being spread.

There was nothing extraordinary about the paper on mammoth extinction that Henry H. Howorth read at the 1869 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Howarth reviewed the unanswered questions about the mammoth and its environment, and proposed a catastrophic flood to account for both their extinction and the ice age (it was a common belief, at the time, that the mammoths went extinct before the ice age, not after). Howarth's flood theory was well within the mainstream of geologic thought at the time. Over the next decade he established himself as a solid figure in politics and as an historian. In the early 1880s, however, he began to develop his flood ideas in a series of articles published in Geological Magazine. In these, he took a more strident tone and denounced the uniformist orthodoxy of the geological community and what he called "the extreme Glacial views of [Louis] Agassiz." In 1887 he organized his ideas into a book, The Mammoth and the Flood. Two other books on his catastrophic ideas followed.

Howorth did not believe the Benkendorf story. In the first of his articles of the 1880s, Howorth revealed that he was familiar with several pieces that referenced Benkendorf, but he ignored the story. In fact, he went so far as to say, "I am not aware that the contents of the stomach of any Siberian Mammoth have been hitherto examined." In an article in 1882, Howorth directly took on Benkendorf:
This notice has always seemed to me to be most suspicious. ... I confess my suspicions were not allayed when I found [Middendorff] had obtained it ... from a boy's book. ... It is very strange that if genuine no accounts of this discovery should have reached the ears of Baer or Brandt, Schmidt or Schrenck, who none of them mention it, and that it should be first heard of in a popular book for boys in [1859].

Howorth repeated his suspicions in The Mammoth and the Flood. Since 1869, the scientific community had moved away from catastrophism, and Howarth's theories were dismissed as an eccentric hobby horse of an otherwise reputable politician. It would be easy to say that because of that, no one noticed his appraisal of the Benkendorf story. However, despite the rejection of his geological theories, Howarth's book continued to be read for his encyclopedic history of mammoth discoveries. His suspicions about Benkendorf are smack in the middle of this history, and yet generations of researchers have managed to miss them.

Perhaps the most frustrating semi-debunking of Körber's story came in 1929. I. A. Tolmachoff's "Carcasses of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros in Siberia" is a classic of mammoth paleontology. In it, Tolmachoff described all of the finds of mammoths with flesh still attached. His count of thirty-nine is still sometimes repeated, as is his map of their locations In fact, the count is now up to around one hundred and his thirty-nine carcasses included four rhinoceroses. Tolmachoff was firm in his rejection of the story, saying "Howorth quite correctly considers it a fiction. ... Such an expedition never took place to this part of Siberia. The first steamer arrived to the Lena River only... in 1881."

It's possible that Tolmachoff's debunking wasn't entirely missed. The name Benekndorf has slowly faded out of scientific literature. Prothero and Schoch's lengthy quote is more of an exception than a rule. Körber's misinformation about mammoth diet has been harder to stamp out, because it gained a life of its own attached to Middendorff's authority but separated from its Benkendorf origin.

The Russian scientist B.A. Tikhomirov tried to deal with both the diet misinformation and the Benkendorf story in an article that was published in Russian in 1958 and in English in 1961. The title "The Expedition That Never Was -- Benkendorf's Expedition to the River Indigirka" should be all that most people need to see to get the point. Unfortunately, most people didn't see it. In the same year that the English version of Tikhomirov's article was printed, William Farrand published his article, "Frozen Mammoths and Modern Geology," which made reference to Benkendorf. Using Google Scholar, Google Book, and plain old Google, I can find well over two hundred references to Farrand's article and zero to Tikhomirov. I made no attempt to eliminate the duplicates in Farrand's results, but the imbalance is clear. Although Farrand's article is excellent and deserves the attention it has received, it is a perfect example of how difficult it has been to stamp out the myth of Benkendorf's mammoth.

Gratuitous mammoth, just because I thought we needed another illustration. This one is an early work by the Czech illustrator, Zdenek Burian.

That catastrophists and others have kept the Benkendorf story alive isn't surprising. Catastrophists, conspiracy buffs, and other forbidden knowledge writers not only endlessly recycle each other's material, when mainstream scientific literature does penetrate their sphere, it is usually decades out of date. Maybe someday they'll hear of Tikhomirov, until then, I'm the best thing the internet has to offer as a mammoth myth debunker. I fully expect every blogger I know to link to this post and raise it up in the Google ranks, Not because I'm begging for traffic, mind, you, but as a public service. You owe it to the kids. It's always the kids who suffer the most.

The internet has made the dissemination of bad information faster and easier than ever before, it did not invent the problem. Print media did just fine in spreading nonsense for the five thousand years and will continue to play its party for the foreseeable future. Long after mankind has eliminated itself from the globe and the world has been left to cockroaches and crabgrass, those cockroaches will talk about the Benkendorf mammoth.

Final word: The Benkendorf story might have left one good deed as part of its legacy. While hunting for examples of Benkendorf still in circulation, I found five separate sites offering the same term paper on the ice age with -- you guessed it -- prominent space given to the Benkendorf mammoth. For you teachers out there, the sites are:, Essaymania, Midtermpapers, Digital Essays, and Example The last site is my favorite because they also offer a really bad essay on the "Siberian" Scientist Nicola Tesla.

* At the time, there was a separate, related, dispute over whether or not mammoths had really lived in Siberia. Many naturalists thought that mammoths, as elephants, must have lived in a warmer climate. At the same time they felt Siberia must have always been as cold as it is today. Therefore, they concluded, the mammoth bones and cadavers found in Siberia must have come from somewhere else, probably far to the south, and that their remains were carried to Siberia by rivers or ocean currents. Someday I’ll write post on the controversy.

** Yes. At the time, they thought the mastodon might have been carnivorous. I wrote about the killer mastodon here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Hate Supervolcanoes

Supervolcano is not a meaningful geological term, it is a media term. What most of us think of as a "normal" volcanic eruption is caused by ash and lava being vented from a magma chamber, a miles wide bubble of molten rock that has risen through the crust to a point just a few miles below the surface. Because it is hot, the magma wants to expand. As it gets close to the surface, the magma is able to create cracks above it that allow some of the molten material to escape. The surface manifestation of these pressure valves are volcanos.

For the last decade or so the term Supervolcano has been popular for describing caldera collapses. These happen when the the entire surface above the magma chamber gives way at once. If a normal eruption is a pressure cooker letting off a little steam through a safety valve, a caldera collapse is a pressure cooker without a safety valve blowing its lid. These produce enormous amounts of ash and gas. They produce sudden cooling events around the world; if other conditions are right they can tip the Earth into an ice age. And, of course, they bury and kill lots of things downwind from the eruption, preserving lots of high quality fossils. Think "giant Pompeii". The key points here are that these are singular eruptions lasting only a few days and producing mostly ash.

Lately, supervolcano has been being used in the press to describe flood basalts. These come from a different type of event that is not a familiar type eruption and does not form a volcanic cone. Flood basalts form when molten rock comes to the surface through long cracks and flows across the land covering hundreds--even thousands--of square miles of land. The flows can last for years and new flows can appear in the same area repeatedly over millions of years, burying the land under thousands of feet of rock. The Columbia Plateau of Eastern Washington and Oregon is the result of over two hundred seperate flows that occured over about a seven million year period of time (the dating of the flows is extremely contentious). These do not produce very many fossils because lava flows slowly enough for most animals to simply walk away and most plants get burned up. Even so, there are some fossils produced under special conditions. The key points here are that these are very slow events that produce mostly rock.

I'm complaining about this distinction because of news articles like this:
Scientists Explore Origins of 'Supervolcanoes' on the Sea Floor: Ancient Goliaths Blamed for Multiple Mass Extinctions

"Supervolcanoes" have been blamed for multiple mass extinctions in Earth's history, but the cause of their massive eruptions is unknown.

Despite their global impact, the eruptions' origin and triggering mechanisms have remained unexplained. New data obtained during a recent Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) expedition in the Pacific Ocean may provide clues to unlocking this mystery.

The article does not make clear that they are talking about flood basalts and not caldera collapses until paragraph twelve.

It appears that "supervolcanoes" is being used by journalists, and scientists who talk to jouranlists, to mean "big ass volcanoish happenings." They have managed to take vague term and make it completely useless.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Problem with Multiple Authors

From the Wikipedia entry on the island of Rhodes:
On 19 July 1944 the Gestapo rounded up the island’s nearly 2000 Jewish inhabitants, to send them to extermination camps. About 160 of the island's more than 600 Greek Jews survived.

It's not technically wrong, since we can all agree that 2000 is bigger than 600. Really people, when you add a sentence to an Wiki article read the article first. If that's too much work at least read the sentence next to the one you're adding.

Speaking of Mange

(BBC) A man who survived last year's deadly bush fires in Australia is recovering in hospital after falling victim to a rare attack by a wombat. Bruce Kringle, 60, was pulled to the ground by the animal and bitten on the legs and arms after apparently stepping on it by mistake. He escaped after killing the wombat with an axe. Animal experts said it appeared the wombat had been suffering from mange, which had made it irritable.

While this is a sad story for both man and wombat, you have to admit, the "attack of the mangy wombat" has either folk song or low budget horror movie written all over it.

Non-mangy wombat

Monday, April 5, 2010

Mystery animal baffles scientists!!

Not really. The Daily Telegraph says,"A creature dubbed the 'oriental yeti' is being examined by scientists after emerging from ancient woodlands in remote central China." This sort of mystery animal pops up all the time and all over the world. They are always some familiar (or at least known) animal in an unfamiliar condition. Sometimes they are found washed up on a beach after having been the water long enough to lose their hair and get bloated but, for some reason, not yeat eaten by scavengers. Other times, they are suffereing from mange or some other skin disease, like this miserable looking fellow. I'm calling dibs on it being a Binturong. Any other bets?

Mystery animal. A Binturong with mange?

Binturong without mange.