Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What if non-avian dinosaurs survived?

There seems to be a growing consensus that the number of dinosaur species was already in decline before the great asteroid impact that ended the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. As Science News reports, as of about 50 million years before the mass extinction the number of new dinosaur species was being eclipsed by the number going extinct and dinosaur diversity was decreasing. Duck-billed and Triceratops-type dinosaurs were doing well until the end of dinosaur days as was a group of small toothed raptors. But ultimately, only avian dinosaurs – the birds – survived.

Why did the number of dinosaur species decline over time and why did only avian dinosaurs survive? The dinosaur decline might have been due to climate change perhaps brought on by continental drift and the resulting land-form, rainfall and ocean current alterations from the late Jurassic onward. Perhaps only birds survived the long “nuclear-type” winter after the impact because they could eat carrion and seeds, of which there might have been much. Some small non-avian dinosaurs also could have been able to do the same but they might not have been able to travel long distances. Perhaps only a small number of birds – even just a few species – made it through on remote islands and as the earth recovered, they could spread. The land-bound non-avian dinosaur survivors – if any – might not have been able to reach places where their numbers could then rebound.

But what if there was no impact or somewhere creatures like the small raptors made it through? Carnivorous tyrannosaur- and velociraptor-type dinosaurs (theropods) were doing well at the end of the Cretaceous. Indeed, it may be that the hundred million year-plus competition between carnivores and herbivores had led to the evolution of a lesser number of species but ones ever more evenly matched. Some of the largest herbivores and carnivores ever were alive at the end. And it may have been that the carnivores were getting smarter, perhaps even hunting in packs. (The herbivores apparently had long been herd animals.) Seems the smaller theropods – like Troodon – were the (relatively) smarter ones. It is interesting to speculate how earth's evolutionary processes might have played out differently if at least some of these non-avian theropods had survived the great impact. With another 66 million years of evolutionary competition, might they have gotten even bigger brains, as primitive primates eventually did. Or perhaps I was just too impressed at an early age with the Gorn captain forced into combat with Captain Kirk.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Repeal the 2nd Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There are more guns than people in the United States today. Every time there is a mass killing, some will argue for gun control and others – led by the NRA – will push back by using the opportunity to loosen guns laws even further. Mass killings get the news but many more people are killed by guns in suicides and criminal homicides.

The victims of gun death from homicide tend to be young black men. Gun crime follows the social and economic inequality of America's inner cities where our police must protect their communities while facing the possibility of being out-gunned themselves. The police are in the front lines of a society still plagued by this race-based inequality and the fact that there are too many guns too easily had.

The advocates of unrestrained “gun rights” base their case on the 2nd amendment to the US constitution. That amendment might be read to suggest that given that a state has the right of self-defense, people must be allowed to have guns so that when they come together in that state's army (militia) they know how to use them. Or it could be read to mean that people have a right to have guns in order for them to be able to protect themselves from the state. This second reading is the implicit – if not always explicit – argument of the NRA-led gun lobby. They may also seize upon the word “militia” to suggest the right to come together in bands to resist government encroachment.

The pro-gun readings of the 2nd amendment highlight the fact that the amendment itself is outdated. In 21st Century America, the notion of a citizen uprising to defend us from a central government dictatorship is simply the realm of fantasy. Indeed it has been repeatedly enacted as such in movies about citizen uprisings against foreign or alien invaders. In reality, we have a government of and by the people. When it over-reaches, there are checks and balances. (Someday, a Supreme Court may correct the notion that money is speech.) It is difficult to credit the founding fathers with the belief that they were providing the right to bear arms in order to empower the citizens of the United States to overthrow the government they themselves had established. The language of the 2nd amendment seems to make clear that the right of self-protection belonged to the state and not to individuals.

But even the first reading of the amendment – indeed any reading – must confront the clear language that for whatever the reason, the right to have guns shall not be infringed. It does appear absolute. So that should lead to the obvious conclusion that the 2nd amendment is obsolescent and injurious to the nation's health. We all – people in their homes and on the streets, police and young black men – would be safer in a country where there were no guns beyond those modest ones used by hunters and sportsmen under reasonable regulation. The 2nd amendment should be repealed.