Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

27Jul/09Off

Beach-Combing Emerald Isle and Topsail Island, NC

(Note: As always, click image for better versions - these are heavily compressed)

Emerald Isle, NC

Last weekend we had a short but nice going away get-away with some friends (psychology graduate students, a parole officer, and a lawyer/rockstar) in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

My dorky goal was to find more fossilized shark teeth (see previous awesome finds here), in addition to the obvious general goal of having a salty time.

Unfortunately, a storm kept most of the cool ocean debris from washing ashore until Sunday morning. Nevertheless, I found quite a few interesting things.

First off: fossil shark teeth!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Fossil Shark Teeth

The Haul:

The Haul 1

The Haul 1

The Haul 2

The Haul 2

The Haul 3

The Haul 3

Skate Egg Case:

Skate Egg Case

Skate Egg Case

Unknown wicked fish jaw:

wicked fish jaw

wicked fish jaw

Shell Fossils in matrix:

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

A cool fossil of what I think is a bryozoan.

Fossil Bryozoan

Fossil Bryozoan

I found a nice piece of fossilized bone. Of what? Who knows? Probably whale or dolphin. Or perhaps mermaid.

Fossil Bone

Fossil Bone

I also found several chunks of what I believe is either anthracite coal, or the next metamorphic step - graphite (I'm no geologist - thoughts?). It's very light weight, very hard, and very faceted - which doesn't come across very well in still shots:

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

One of the coolest things I found is a relation to organisms I will soon be working with in my new lab: starfish!!
I found two of these, both beautifully colored and still alive. They were washed ashore by the storm, so I tossed em back. I have no idea the likelihood of their survival, but I can say they didn't wash back ashore over the next two days. (I'm awaiting the expertise of Christopher Mah of the Echinoblog for species identification).
Update
: it's a Royal Sea Star, Astropecten articulatus. Quoth the EchinoMaster: "Basically..they are your stereotypical "sand star" predatory on infaunal bivalves and pretty common on sandy-muddy bottoms of the Northeast US.  Attractively colored animals to be sure!" Thanks Chris!

Starfish

Starfish

Starfish

Check out those details!

Starfish

Tube Feet Alive!!

We also got to hit the NC Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. It's a pretty rad place, so I was way more interested in pointing my eyes at all the ocean wonders, rather than pointing a camera. But I did get this cool shot of a gator.

Gator

Gator

Ooh - and apparently someone else took a shot of us there - me and John playing with the rays (the ray touch tank was by far the coolest part!).

Petting the stingrays

Petting the stingrays

Topsail Island, NC

A month ago, we also had the opportunity to hit Topsail Island, NC.

Fun was had. Things were seen.

Shark Teeth (Yes - I showed these before).

Fossil Shark Teeth

Great colors!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Ocean smoothed - but still pretty wicked

Mole Crabs (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

And that's it - images are all I have for you at the moment. Enjoy.

I swear, I will have slightly more posts once I get moved to Pittsburgh and settled.

And just because I never show her (she's camera shy), I'm sneaking in this shot of my wife:

A Psychologist

Three Psychologists

2Jul/09Off

Grandpa’s Pet Therapod

nope - not a fake at all...

nope - not a fake at all...

I hang out online sometimes with a bunch of like-minded fossil-enthusiasts (The Fossil Forum).

Tonight somebody posted this:

Just watched the new this evening and they were talking about a dig going on right now outside of Glen Rose, on the McFall ranch. The news showed the footprints of the therapod and the human prints together. It was interesting. For report go to cbs11tv.com

So I mosied over to the Dallas, TX CBS news site and found the article "Local City Known As Dinosaur Capital Of Texas, by Arezow Doost."

Sounds innocuous enough for a title, right?  Then I read the first three sentences:

"Did you ever think that there were dinosaurs in North Texas?

As it turns out, this is one of the most prolific areas for dinosaur tracks in the state. One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Read that last sentence again:

"One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Cause, you know, all those other groups found tracks that weren't millions of years old...
(for those of you who missed out on elementary school, dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous sixty-five million years ago.)

Absolutely hilarious...and mind-numbingly maddening.

After reading a bit more, then you learn what it is really about:

"Scientists believe that one of the most unique findings is human prints dating back to the same period as the dinosaur prints. "We are looking for the truth," said Baugh. "We don't want anything else but the truth.""

I rolled my eyes. Obviously, I had a feeling what I would find out with a little search, but I decided to check out the scientist quoted in the piece, because I thought it was a bit odd that he said "We are looking for the truth. We don't want anything else but the truth."

You see, that is a very non-scientist thing to say in a media piece, and it instantly threw up a red flag to me. I say this because when one is actually in the practice of being a good scientist, a statement like that is like a commercial fisherman saying "no really, we're just out here to catch fish." What else would a fisherman be fishing in the ocean for? If you're a scientist, a statement like that is less than unnecessary.

Yeah this guy, Carl Baugh, is a young earth creationist discredited in the scientific community and with a questionable education. He is obviously seeking to prove his own wrong beliefs - not actually do what good scientists do, which is let the data speak for themselves. Check this out for some rather hilarious reading on Baugh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Baugh

Sigh...it is Texas after all (I was born and raised in east Texas, FYI)

As an added moronic bonus, if you look at the url of the story you'll see that it's filed under "pets."
(http://cbs11tv.com/pets/Texas.Dinosaur.Capital.2.1069336.html).

What kind of of idiots are running that station?

One thing about the fossil record - it's insanely consistent across both time and continental space, if fragmentary. And it has consistently shown us that human and therapod existence is quite a few tens of millions of years apart.

Hell, mammals were barely existent back then, compared to today. But primates? LOL - no.

***

Side note: I'm going fossil hunting in Aurora, NC tomorrow and at Greens Mill Run in Greenville, NC on Saturday!!  Shark teeth here I come. Please just let me find a megalodon.

18Apr/09Off

Nature Walk #4.3 – Reptiles, Amphibians, & Mammals

Spring is Here!

This Nature Walk edition continues from #4.2 - Birds.

I've broken this post up into four parts due to the large number of images:

The images are highly compressed for bandwidth's sake, but you can click on the images for larger versions (and a few are much deserving of an extra click).

As always feel free to give me any species identifications where I have failed to do so or done so incorrectly.

Reptiles

One creature that exists by the thousands at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science is the turtle. If my identification skills serve me right, these are Florida Cooters (Pseudemys floridana) - though they could be one of a few different slider turtles. I really love the fact that there are turtles called cooters!

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Cooters perched on a beaver lodge

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Dead cooter. As Steve Irwin would say (in that awesome Aussie accent), "It's nature's way."

Amphibians

I just happened to look in a ditch at the spot where I eat my lunch. What did I see but hundreds of tadpoles.

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

Back in the swamp behind my house, which is currently flooded and filled with millions of chirping frogs, I came across quite a few Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans), though it was nigh impossible to get a shot of them.

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans)

Mammals

I happened to glance down a swath of land cleared for a high-power transmission line and saw a familiar lone figure staring back at me. It was a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Of course, these are a dime a dozen at my workplace as I've shown you before. Yesterday I managed to get a good shot of a deer's backside as he looked back at me.  You can even see the nubs of his little antlers poking through.

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

"Take a Picture - It Will Last Longer"

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

"Get one of my guns too!"

Also in the flooded marsh behind my property, almost every single surface was covered with the shape of deer hooves.

Deer Tracks

Deer Tracks

If I don't see at least fifty Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in a day...I probably haven't gotten out of bed.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Ain't he cute?

As a rare treat, I managed to spot the elusive Carolina Forest Cow (Bos notrealicus).

Cow

Carolina Forest Cow (Bos notrealicus)

And finally, in the wee hours of a beautiful Spring morn, I awoke to the bloodcurdling hungry cries (and annoying paws to my sleeping face) of three not-so-big Carolina wildcats:

The Rare White Ocelot (Felix spoiledieai)

Cat

Rare White Ocelot (Felix spoiledieai)

The Marbled Manx (Felix epililepticus)

Cat

Marbled Manx (Felix epililepticus)

The Pygmy Jaguar (Felix obnoxious)

Cat

Pygmy Jaguar (Felix obnoxious)

Apparently all three of these magnificent beasts are part of some scientific study. You can tell by the radiotelemetric tracking tags affixed to their necks.

See the rest of this Nature Walk:

12Apr/09Off

Waking the Baby Mammoth – a Tale of Science Bringing the Past to Life

Waking the Baby Mammoth

Waking the Baby Mammoth (Yuri to the far right)

"Only a handful have ever been found before. But none like her. Her name is Lyuba. A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously. Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007. She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered. And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe. Everyone wants to know... how did she die? What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate? Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?" - NGC

Waking the Baby Mammoth, a new program by the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, April 26th at 9PM, tells the tale of a single accidental discovery of a frozen baby mammoth in the Siberian tundra and how this discovery has enriched our understanding of these extinct magnificent beasts. (My quick review: 5 stars. watch it! it's beautiful and fascinating.)

However, this is not a standard paleontological nature show about mammoths in general or what life was like during the Pleistocene. Nor is this program purely about the science behind this bountiful discovery, though the arduous nature and reality of the scientific process is certainly one of the show's stars. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of this program is its focus on the one man and his strange culture (from an American perspective) that led to the discovery of one of the most important findings in mammoth biology. Waking the Baby Mammoth is as much an education on the hardy nature, harsh lifestyle, and animist beliefs of the reindeer herding Nemets nomads of Siberia as it is a show about the mammoth.

Without spilling too many details, the show begins with the incredibly fortuitous discovery of Lyuba, a 40,000 year old mammoth calf, by the nomadic Yuri Khudi (and his sons), a man whose animism dictates that disturbing the remains of the dead will lead to a curse. Too often with such paleontological findings as this, the preserved creature would be dug up and put on the market, leading to irreversible decomposition and the loss of a treasure trove of valuable information. However, Yuri had enough understanding and foresight to contact authorities in Russia, which began the intensive examination and retrieval of Lyuba (including a short drama during which Lyuba disappeared due to thievery). It is implied though not fully explained that Yuri had some inkling of what he had found - in fact he believed that the corpse had been put in his path for a reason, though he dared not disturb it himself.

The program subsequently follows a very well-done modern scientific storyline, detailing the scientific process and hurdles in understanding from whence Lyuba came, how she died, and what she can tell us about her Pleistocene life. That being said, apart from specific experiments involving high tech C-T scans, internal tissue extraction via some remarkable endoscopy, and dental examinations, the program does not delve overly deep into the intricate data. It's impossible to watch the work on Lyuba without feeling the anxiety the researchers must have felt in getting everything done right the first time on so precious a specimen.

From my own scientist perspective, I think the program goes as deep as it needed to portray the scientific importance of Lyuba's discovery. More importantly, the show succeeded best at precisely what it is intended to do: to bring drama and a deep emotional human connection to a quite amazing story. Throughout the program, we are presented with many truly stunning 3D animations of Lyuba and her mother. In cinematic form fitting with the story's message, Lyuba has been brought to life as an active furry baby mammoth tromping along next to researchers as they contemplate the frozen carcass' secrets. The visuals are beautiful, as the light shines off the baby's fur at just the right angles and her shadows dance in just the right way to really make her come alive - like a corporeal ghost watching her own ancient body bring her back to life in our own minds. Some of the more touching scenes involve Yuri himself near the end.  A full year after his initial discovery, he was finally given the chance to suit up in aseptic surgical gear and join the researchers in the lab to witness first hand what his discovery meant to the rest of the world so foreign to him. It's hard to imagine what must have been going through this relatively "simple" man's mind, but his own expressions make it clear that he had come to understand the importance of his discovery and its impact as a blessing - not a curse - on our understanding of life's history. In his final farewell we see him and the animated Lyuba together in a quite touching cinematic juxtaposition of this nomadic reindeer herder and his now eternal connection to baby Lyuba.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is a tale that depicts the contrasting of cultures, worldviews, and personal beliefs of humanity amidst the backdrop of a seminal scientific discovery. Where this program succeeds remarkably well is in making the viewer understand the integral importance of these disparate cultures and the fortuitous convergence of good fortunes that allowed Lyuba to give us a new view of a lifeform long lost to us.

It is in this sense that NatGeo has truly woken the baby mammoth and placed her firmly within our modern human minds and hearts.

Be sure to check it out on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, April 26th at 9PM. Lyuba will also grace the cover of the May edition of National Geographic Magazine on newstands April 28th.

Christie over at Observations of a Nerd also has a glowing review up now.

Once again I'd like to thank Minjae Ormes (Digital PR Consultant for NatGeo) for 1) the opportunity to review the NGC programs and 2) for being so cool in our communications.

If your interested, also check out my recent review of NatGeo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale.

The National Geographic Press Release

A MAMMOTH SURPRISE.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL'S WAKING THE BABY MAMMOTH FOLLOWS A GLOBAL FORENSIC INVESTIGATION INTO THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE BEST-PRESERVED BABY MAMMOTH EVER DISCOVERED

Scientists Embark on a Paleo-Detective Expedition to Reveal the Secrets of this 40,000-Year-Old Phenomenon, as Centuries-Old Indigenous Culture Meets Modern-Day Science

"This baby looks like you could snap your fingers and she would wake up and walk."

Narrated by Award-Winning Actor Victor Garber,
Waking the Baby Mammoth
Premieres Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - APRIL 1, 2009) Only a handful have ever been found before.  But none like her.  Her name is Lyuba.  A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously.  Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007.  She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered.  And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe.  Everyone wants to know ... how did she die?  What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate?  Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?

Now, from behind the headlines, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Waking the Baby Mammoth sets out around the world on a cutting-edge forensic investigation into Lyuba's life and death, 10,000 years after most populations of her species became extinct.  Narrated by award-winning actor Victor Garber, the two-hour special premiering Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT tells Lyuba's incredible story with insight from her indigenous Siberian rescuers and the scientific community so captivated by her, as a centuries-old nomadic tribe meets modern-day science in this fascinating cultural exchange.  The discovery of this baby mammoth gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species that vanished at the end of the last ice age.  Through her DNA, Lyuba could finally explain why the prehistoric giants were driven to extinction, share clues about their migrations, and perhaps shed light on climate change.  Could she even some day help to resurrect mammoths?  With research funded in part by the National Geographic Society, Lyuba's journey will also be the May cover story of National Geographic magazine.

Filmed on three continents, Waking the Baby Mammoth presents a 21st century paleo-detective expedition that takes viewers from the tundra of remote Siberia to cities in Japan, Europe and North America as we join a nomad and leading scientists to "awaken" this startlingly lifelike baby.  We travel back to the ice age with Lyuba via CGI animation and then fast-forward to the present to reveal the latest innovations in woolly mammoth research, including advanced computed tomography (CT) scanning and DNA analysis, searching for clues to her species' life, extinction and scientific future.

Waking the Baby Mammoth first follows paleontologist Dan Fisher and mammoth "hunter" Bernard Buigues back to the spot where Lyuba was discovered in May 2007.  She was found on a snowy riverbank by Yuri Khudi, a nomadic reindeer herder in Russia's remote arctic Yamal-Nenets region.  Named after Yuri's wife, Lyuba was turned over to the scientists at the Salekhard Museum in Siberia, which is where the next chapter in her journey began.

The film next accompanies Lyuba to Japan's Jikei University School of Medicine, where her body undergoes three-dimensional computer mapping that produces detailed images of her internal organs and structure, providing scientists with insight into the possible cause of her death.  With all but her tail and woolly coat of fur, the CT scans showed that the 200-pound baby was in excellent health when she died, with healthy fat tissue and no damage to her skeleton.  The scientists conclude that Lyuba met her end by drowning or falling into deep mud, as there are large amounts of sediment packed into her trunk, mouth and trachea.  They believe that her final muddy resting place became part of the region's permafrost, preventing decay and keeping her remarkably intact, down to her perfect trunk and largely unblemished skin.

Researchers have long debated whether woolly mammoths' extinction was due to climate change or overhunting by humans.  Now they hope to compare her DNA with that of other mammoths from the ice age to trace the migrations of mammoth populations over time and help solve the mystery of her species' disappearance.

Finally we travel with Lyuba to the Zoological Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to follow the scientists as they conduct an autopsy and analyze her tissue, bone and teeth to reveal insight into the structure of mammoth organs and muscles.  Their study is able to confirm Lyuba's age, her diet, the season of her death and environmental conditions for her mammoth herd in Siberia during her short life.  In fact, they are even able to extract pollen that remained in her lungs, which can be used to reconstruct prehistoric plants that grew on the site where Lyuba died.  The bone and tissue samples that are collected will also be used for future DNA analysis and shared among mammoth research teams worldwide, so experts across the globe can learn from her.

For mammoth scientists, discoveries like this truly come once in a lifetime.  As Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Science says, "Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale.  When you look at her, it's hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for 40,000 years ... This is the most amazing discovery since we've been studying mammoths."

For more information on the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered, visit natgeotv.com/mammoth beginning in early April 2009.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is produced by Woollyworks, Inc.  Producer is Adrienne Ciuffo and director is Pierre Stine. Special thanks to The International Mammoth Committee.  For National Geographic Channel, executive producer is Chris Valentini; senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

National Geographic Channel

Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television.  The network celebrated its fifth anniversary January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition.  NGC has carriage with all of the nation's major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 70 million homes.  For more information, please visit www.natgeotv.com.

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Russell Howard, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6652, RHoward@natgeochannel.com

Chris Albert, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6526, CAlbert@natgeochannel.com

National Broadcast: Dara Klatt, 202-912-6720, Dara.Klatt@natgeochannel.com

National & Local Radio: Johanna Ramos Boyer, 703-646-5137, Johanna@jrbcomm.com

National Print: Christie Parell, The Fratelli Group, 202-822-9491, CParell@fratelli.com

Local Print: Licet Ariza, The Fratelli Group, 202-496-2126, LAriza@fratelli.com

Digital: Minjae Ormes, Independent Digital Consultant, 917-539-7646, Minjae.ormes@gmail.com

Photos: Christine Elasigue, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6708, celasigu@ngs.org

10Mar/09Off

Medical Research on Animal Models – Where Do You Stand?

Our self-aware cousins

Our self-aware cousins

This weekend I heard an incredibly interesting story on NPR's This American Life titled "Almost Human Resources" (Act 3). The story was all about the issues surrounding chimpanzees in the human world surpassing their usefulness and how we should care for them. Apparently this now includes retirement homes with TVs.

This story, along with a recent tangential debate over at Southern Fried Science and PETA's "sea kittens" campaign, sent my mind down a familiar path - one that anyone working in biology inevitably travels from time to time: the ethics of animal research for science.

There have been myriad writings, books, movies, discussions, and laws surrounding the practice of using animals for research. I'm sure most of us in the science world have come to very similar conclusions on the subject, though we may vary widely in the details.

Nonetheless, I'm very interested to hear where YOU, my readers and my fellow scientist peers, currently stand on the subject. I would like this post to be interactive.

First, I'd like to give my own thoughts.

In general, I view all living things as uber-complex organic robots (humans included). All life is amazing, precious, and beautiful - from bacteria to humans - but I still see us all as robots, running our nearly unfathomable genetic programs, developmental processes, and higher-level emergent programs of conscious and sub-conscious thought.

Mirror Test

Mirror Test

At the same time, I feel - for no rational reason really - that consciousness and self-awareness inherently grant those that harbor them the right to live relatively free from human induced suffering. This is a feeling. We all feel it, at least for humans. We feel the immorality of conducting experiments on other human beings (though this was not always the case). Why? Because it's...just...wrong.

It's for this reason that I'm completely opposed to any medical research on chimpanzees or any great apes. There is no doubt that our great ape cousins share many if not most of our own emotional and sensory perceptions, as well as similar intellectual abilities (similar in type - not necessarily degree). For all intents and purposes, I see them as people. Not human people. Not anthropomorphized animals. But sentient to semi-sentient beings.

It's hard to measure degrees of self-awareness and know whether another creature has it. But the classic mirror test is one simple way to find when the answer is a clear yes. As of right now, great apes, dolphins, elephants, and at least one bird species, the magpie, have passed the test and shown that they have some understanding of "self."

If a creature can have any understanding of what is being done to "them," I am completely against it. Recently Orac at Respectful Insolence posted on the discontinuation of using dogs for teaching surgery techniques. He caught some flak from a few commenters for showing an emotional relief that dog use was being halted - at least partially because he loves dogs. As if any decisions on the use of other beings for our own benefit could be arrived at using only reason!

No - we as humans place some inherent value on consciousness, on self-awareness. Dogs may or may not be "self-aware" as defined by behavioral scientists. They can't pass the mirror test, but anyone who has had a dog knows that they clearly experience something akin to guilt, and a whole host of emotions similar to those of our own (I'm being careful here not to anthropomorphize). They know when they have done something wrong.

As any behavioral biologist, psychologist, or cognitive neuroscientist knows, there is no clear dividing line between conscious being and automaton. What about rhesus monkeys and the other more "primitive" primates? I personally feel that much monkey research - particularly those studies on the cutting edge of such diseases as A.I.D.S. - are critical right now. However, I also know that I could never be one to perform such studies. There is a mental hypocrisy here in my own mind. I would feel wrong performing primate research. But I support it to a limited extent.

But for some animals, it seems clear when they are well beyond that gray fuzzy line. Xenopus frogs, as far as any observation or measurement can tell, are much too dumb to have any sort of self-awareness. The same can be said of mice or rats. They simply do not have the cognitive capacity - the hardware - to generate emergent properties like self-awareness as we know it. It seems more than clear to science, I believe, that these creatures are fuzzy automatons. I have performed studies (using incredibly regulated and humane methods) using these creatures, and I have no qualms about it, so long as the use of animal models are absolutely critical to the study at hand. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved or vastly improved by such studies. Few people alive today (in America at least) can imagine what the state of human health would be without mice and rat studies.

And just to go one level further "down" the evolutionary ladder, consider fish.

Fish are NOT "sea kittens." We understand at least at a basic level what overall types of brain structures and neural pathways are required for higher cognition. Fish do not have these structures. They are insanely complex, from a genetic standpoint. They are beautiful. They are unimaginably important to the ecosystems of the earth. But they are still slimy scaly robotic automatons incapable of "suffering" in any human sense.

And invertebrates? Well, they're clearly organic machines. Would any of you really argue otherwise?

However, with all of the above being said, I often think about how barbaric people were only a generation ago (or sometimes less), and I wonder which of my beliefs will be considered equally barbaric by the next generation. As Richard Dawkins mused in "The God Delusion," perhaps animal rights is the issue upon which our generation will be judged to have sinned. Perhaps our ancestors will cringe at our actions (while praising the 500 year lifespans our research has given them - kidding).

What do you think? Take these polls and leave your comments below.

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