A Stationary Ark on Isle of Jersey – Editorial The Providence Journal – March 25, 2011

A Stationary Ark on Isle of Jersey

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Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. — © 2011

NoahsArk_as_by_TheProvidenceJournalIf the biblical story about the Ark were true, Noah’s attempt to save animals from the Flood would have driven them into inbreeding depression.

Sentenced to incest, the descendants from the surviving sexual pairs — which themselves were allegedly confined to uncertainty in a drifting vessel — would have accumulated lethal combinations of genes and followed an inescapable vortex toward extinction.

Indeed, critically small populations of organisms store much less genetic wealth than the progenitors from whom they usually originate. Deprived from a healthy shuffling of paternal and maternal traits — a phenomenon known as recombination and that enriches the genome of creatures that mate — the offspring of repetitive kin procreations soon become unfit, fail to reproduce and gradually vanish.

The cosmos appears indifferent to this pain and suffering. Yet the laws of nature have steered the emergence of empathy and consciousness in the universe via Darwinian selection. Self-aware apes, such as humans, understand tragedy or joy when afflicted or delighted by them; empathic people can also infer when other animals experience distress or appeasement. But this assertion is incomplete, since the cognitive Homo sapiens is surrounded by a diverse mosaic of mental power in his close and distant phylogenetic relatives.

Planet_Earth_NASAIntelligence has evolved gradually and in a continuum. And just like the fossil record, the pattern of human’s “brained companions” is scattered after historical and always ongoing natural extinctions. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, capuchin monkeys and feathered creatures such as ravens, jays and parrots possess and seek empathy. They are proof that the mind is another byproduct — not a goal — of favorable conditions for the assemblage of organic matter in a Goldilocks-zone planet, hospitable like ours [click on image to be redirected to NASA: Earth], which has incubated life and later harvested intellect.

Empathy for each one of us and for other animals sometimes requires inspiration from the Ark’s metaphor, but not from Noah’s clumsy urgency to save provisions and secure self-subsistence in a landscape prone to fast inundation, but rather a well conceived and elegantly designed — under the scope of science — strategy for captive breeding and repatriation of endangered species.

I have a copy of “The Stationary Ark” (1976), with a handwritten note, “For Guillermo, with best wishes, Gerald Durrell.” But the first of Durrell’s books, in which he referred to the concept of the Ark in the context of preservation and propagation of threatened animal populations, was “The Overloaded Ark” (1953), which was followed by “My Family and Other Animals” (1956). Both gave this Anglo-Irish animal fanatic, born in India in 1925, fame and the income to fund the Jersey Zoological Park (1958) and house his personal collection of exotic animals.


The Jersey Zoo became a world exemplar of how cutting-edge research, conducted at a tiny 30-acre patch of land in the English Channel Islands, off the French coast of Normandy, could lead to an international effort and successful captive breeding and reintroduction of the Mauritius kestrel and the Mongolian Przewalski’s horse — evidence that zoos can reverse the course of some human assaults on nature.

The_DodoDurrell adopted the flightless Dodo — a 3-foot-tall and 40-pound archaic pigeon endemic to Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, which became extinct in the 17th Century — as symbol of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, JWPT (nowadays Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, DWCT), founded in 1963. The trust sponsors conservation of rare and endangered mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The Wildlife Preservation Trust International (WPTI) was later established in the United States, in 1971, as counterpart benefactor of JWPT, and evolved into EcoHealth Alliance.

Today, the Stationary Ark not only oversees conservation research of 200 species of animals in peril, but inspires empathy for wildlife among “educated Noahs” at a mini-university established at Les Noyers, and adjacent to the zoo. It was there where, in 1987, Durrell autographed the book I have, while I was student at the International Training Centre for captive breeding of endangered species; 2,700 graduates from 128 countries have been educated at the center since 1978, when it opened. — Durrell died at age 70.


Zoo keepers and trainees at Gerald Durrell’s home in Jersey (1987). Gerald Durrell, Lee Durrell and Jeremy Mallinson (Zoo Director at that time) appear in the back row, right.  Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. is in the front row, second from the right. 

Perhaps the ark metaphor can still be used, or resuscitated, as by Gerald Durrell, to inspire curiosity for investigating the frontiers of nature and to propose scientific solutions to the genetic erosion of increasingly small animal populations worldwide. Then there’s the “full-scale” depiction of Noah’s Ark at a 160-acre Genesis theme park to open in Kentucky in 2014, a $150 million investment that will intoxicate the minds of visitors with the idea that incest mating between two of a kind — just like Adam and Eve — can populate the Earth. — © 2011 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved



All History is Black History – Editorial The Standard Times – March 2, 2011

All History is Black History

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Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. — © 2011

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 


Illustration by JH Matternes, click on image to access more of artist’s fantastic work

An African American blogger just settled an online dispute over human origins by asserting, with magnificent wisdom, that “all history is Black History.”

His co-bloggers had rejected the evolutionary significance of a recent fossil discovery in Hadar, Ethiopia, of a 3.2 million year old foot bone belonging to Australopithecus afarensis –the famous Lucy’s lineage– which has unveiled hints about the locomotion habits of early hominids. The clever blogger brought reason into a trivial exchange of brain gas among sponsors of one wrong over another belief about human ancestry. “Deal with it” –that is with our common African heritage– were his last gentle, yet shut-up devastating words.

The left fourth metatarsal bone described in Science magazine by professors Carol Ward, William Kimbel and Donald Johanson, the latter discoverer of the very Lucy, also in Hadar, in 1974, tells a compelling story: Lucy’s relatives walked upright, a conclusion awaiting unequivocal evidence for almost four decades, and the tiny bone just provided it in its complex anatomy. The now famous AL-333-160 three-inch bone (in paleontology identification numbers are precious) resembles the bipedal human ‘arched’ metatarsals –shock absorbers for “walker apes”– and differs from the quadrupedal chimpanzee’s, bonobo’s and gorilla’s, which are more elongated.

AL-333-160 left fourth metatarsal A afarensisAL-333-160 left fourth metatarsal in dorsal, lateral, medial, plantar, and proximal views (Ward et al. Science 2011;331:750-753). Click on image to explore the Science magazine article and to download the power point slide for teaching. 

Lucy, herself 3.2 million years old, still is the most famous, although not most significant, hominid fossil ever described. Ardi, a 4.4-million year old almost complete skeleton discovered in Aramis, Ethiopia, by Tim White in 2009, and Toumai, a 7-million year old hominid skull found in Chad by Michel Brunet in 2001, are Lucy’s fair competitors.

Lucy was brought to celebrity status by her always calculating manager, Johanson, who named her after The Beatles song Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” thus launching her popularity into textbooks, anatomical reconstructions, cartoons of a stocky yet friendly smiling “ape cousin,” and full-body hairy depictions of her 3-feet tall “reconstructed flesh” at museums and exhibits of human origins.

Lovely Lucy Australopithecus afarensisLovely Lucy Australopithecus afarensis, for image credit and additional images click on her rostrum

For bloggers and alike who question the African origin of humans, of which Lucy’s tale is only part of the story since she was also born to common ancestors between her family and ours, the enigma has long been solved. But the journey to acknowledge that “we are all Africans” has been tortuous.


“…the journey to acknowledge that ‘we are all Africans’ has been tortuous…”

In The Descent of Man, 1871, Charles Darwin reasoned: “In each great region of the world the living [animals] are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”

Darwin’s inference was brilliant, but it took more than a century to be definitely embraced by scholars. This “Out of Africa” hypothesis has been corroborated by DNA evidence, physical anthropology, and specimens.

Out of Africa Hypothesis

The out-of-Africa journey and dispersal of modern humans. Click on Human Migration image from National Geographic to access high-definition map

Indeed ancient forms of Homo sapiens evolved to anatomically modern humans entirely in the Ethiopian realm, about 200,000 years ago. And they walked out of Africa to populate the planet, which can be demonstrated with fossils and genetic pedigrees of indigenous peoples worldwide. Even human languages follow a pattern of geographical distribution consistent with a common origin in Northeastern Africa and nearby Mesopotamia.

More recently, the “Multi Regional” hypothesis of human origins, which counters the out-of-Africa postulate by conceiving an overall hybridization and integration of all world Homo species, including archaic forms, such as the Asian Peking Man, Homo erectus, and modern variants, such as the Northeast African and Southern European Homo sapiens, into a unified single Homo sapiens sapiens, has regained closer attention –after losing power during the 1990s– due to the discovery of shared genetic features between us and Neanderthals, a fairly modern human variety which became extinct 40,000 years ago.

The single origin or Out of Africa idea is nowadays well accepted among scientists. And even if the multi-regional hypothesis regains strength, all ancestral forms of hominids seem to coalesce to Africa. Disagreements among scientists do not invalidate science as believed by misinformed illiterate bloggers, who insist that there are not enough fossils to account for evolution or that the questions about human origins are far from being answered.

As much as our African American blogger so intuitively stated that all history is, ultimately, Black History, Darwin’s own writings from 1871 continue to alert us about the essence of belief-based debates: “It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved.” — © 2011 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved

African American Colorful Fishes

Two African Americans celebrating color and creativity, photo courtesy Rashida Charles