Pages

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mermaids

I don't watch TV, so it is understandable that I would miss such things. However, in the past few months, two people have mentioned a mockumentary to me called Mermaid: The Body Found, in which multiple "scientists" claim to have discovered a myriad of evidence for the existence of mermaids. First of all, one of the two people mentioning it could actually not distinguish it from a real documentary. This brings all sorts of things to my mind (how do we educate children to think critically? What are the ethical issues around producing television shows/movies that are fictional but might be mistaken for truth by uneducated viewers?). Second of all, the show makes all sorts of references to science and scientific theories that are bogus. Lots of movies like to use fictional "scientific" mumbo jumbo to sound more legitimate to the average audience member, and I do not spend much time poking holes in or debunking those. However, since I personally know at least one person who was actually convinced that mermaids are fucking real by this show, it might be worth my time (and judging by the youtube comments, on the video, other people were fooled as well). It will at least be entertaining for me.

How do we know it is fake?
I am not going to spend much time here unless I am specifically asked.
Some scientific inaccuracies in the film
  •   The film claims that the hypothetical mermaids are responsible for a sound of unknown origin dubbed "The Bloop" recorded by underwater hydrophones in 1997. This noise was transmitted through over 3,000 miles of ocean, at a frequency of 10-40 Hz. To create a deep noise this loud, an organism would need to be multiple times larger than the largest blue whale. Yet at the same time, the film claims that some of the recordings contained audio signatures at such a high frequency that they were "outside the range of human hearing" and had to be slowed down. So which is it? Are these mermaids giant sea monsters dwarfing whales and dinosaurs? Or tiny water mammals capable of producing bat-like high frequency sounds (that, by the way, would not be able to travel any significant distance under water)
  • Snap zooming of the lens of what purports to be a cell phone video camera in 2004. (Two boys who stumble upon a mermaid body washed ashore)
  • Mumbo Jumbo by a linguistics guy about identification of signifiers (words) in a recording of the mermaids. Somehow, based on a recording, with no observation of the behavior of the organism, he could "crack the code" and identify hundreds of words. 
  • "Dr. Visser" says things no biologist with any understanding of the evolution of the great apes would say. "A new species of Hominid... these are humans, and our closest relatives". Yet they claim to have diverged with our ancestors 6 million years ago. So what about all of these species which would be closer relatives? These mermaids would certainly not be a member of the genus homo (the first appearing ~2 million years ago), and therefore would certainly not be classified has humans.
  • "Blubber had a unique fatty acid that could remain liquid and insulate well in cold water" <- scientifically meaningless. Hundreds of fatty acids fit this description. If you have "never seen anything like that before," you are not a scientist.
  • You found a blood protein called myoglobin in the mermaid remains? Too bad every single other vertebrate has the same protein, including us. Completely irrelevant, but sounds sciency.
  • The mermaid remains had a "network of blood vessels that supply heat to critical organ systems." Isn't that what all networks of blood vessels do?
  • "Like other marine mammals, we have an insulating layer of fat", yeah, and like other NON-marine mammals too.
The potential for mermaids to have evolved
  • The film displays a misunderstanding of the "aquatic ape" hypothesis (A hypothesis for which there is no scientific evidence, stating that the ancestors of humans spent a few million years adapting for an aquatic environment, resulting in things like hairlessness). The film twists this theory to one that states that it was not our ancestors that adapted to an aquatic environment, but our cousins (having diverged from our line before adapting the aquatic environment). See images below.
The aquatic ape hypothesis

What the film claims

  • The film uses polar bears as an example of an animal that has evolved aquatic adaptations in support of the possibility that human ancestors could do the same. However modern polar bears diverged from modern brown bears 4-5 million years ago, not 125,000 years ago. And 4 million years is so little time evolutionarily that polar bears and brown bears can still mate and produce fertile offspring. Yet they claim the mermaids diverged from humans only 5-6 million years ago?
  • All whales, dolphins, and porpoises share a single common ancestor among land animals. The film claims that this ancestor was related to the wolf (based on teeth similarities), but genetic evidence over the past couple decades shows that they are much more closely related to hippopotamuses .
  • It took some 50 million years for whales to evolve from land mammals to their current state. See this article for more information. The evolution of an ape to a mermaid is probably equally drastic.
  • The flipper of the mermaid is shown evolving by a fusing of the legs. This strikes me as an unlikely way for a flipper to evolve. The flippers of whales evolved from a tail. Early whales had legs AND a flipper, and in fact, many modern whales still have vestigial leg bones.
That's about all I have time for tonight. I won't say it would be impossible for such creatures to evolve from apes, I think that would be a very drastic change over a relatively short time. I think it deserves about as much thought as a hypothesis saying "What if one of the ancestors of horses diverged and grew a horn!! It would be like a unicorn!" or "What if one of the ancestors of humans diverged and got really small and developed an Irish accent, and became leprechauns!" without any evidence whatsoever supporting their claim.

Although it was an interesting film, I highly dislike it due to its potential to mislead people and confuse them about real science. 

5 comments:

  1. Good job debunking this. It is interesting that some people believed this and it shows the difficulty many people have in interpreting what they see or hear in the movies, in the news, from politicians, and in advertising- as well as any direct scientific literature or pronouncements.
    Your questions on the ethics of producing such a work are also interesting. Imagine a work that is clearly (to all) science fiction but that posits the existence of some non-existent creature, like a mermaid. Then imagine a future time when most of the rest of the science "fiction" becomes real and the work is no longer clearly fiction and leads some people to believe the mermaid-like-creature exists. Was the work harmless fun at first and then became something less harmless? Is the author blameless at first and blame-worthy later?
    Finally, does it matter if some people are fooled by such a faux-documentary? People are fooled everyday by false things, fake things, mistaken things, fictions, truth mixed with error, and truth taken out of context. I suppose this indicates that the ability to understand information in its context, to have a background of knowledge with which to approach the world, and the wisdom and humility to not be certain in one's judgments about some things are as important as they have ever been. And with the internet, we have many more opportunities to exercise these skills!

    ReplyDelete
  2. "And 4 million years is so little time evolutionarily that polar bears and brown bears can still mate and produce fertile offspring. Yet they claim the mermaids diverged from humans only 5-6 million years ago?"

    Given evolution, whales would have had to have gone from a terrestrial cow-like animal to fully aquatic in this same timeframe. Also nearly everything in the cambrian explosion in not much more time than this.

    "What if one of the ancestors of humans diverged and got really small and developed an Irish accent, and became leprechauns!"

    Homo florensis? :P

    ReplyDelete
  3. DAMMIT! Homo florensis always ruins my arguments.

    As for the whales...

    From here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_cetaceans

    You can see that it took 10x that long (50 MY instead of 5 MY) since modern whales divereged from other creatures like Indohyus which

    " shared some of the traits of whales, most notably the involucrum, a bone growth pattern which is the diagnostic characteristic of any cetacean, and is not found in any other species[1]. It also showed signs of adaptations to aquatic life, including a thick and heavy outer coating and dense limb bones which is similar to modern creatures such as the hippopotamus,[2][5] and reduces buoyancy so that they can stay underwater. This suggests a similar survival strategy to the African mousedeer or water chevrotain which, when threatened by a bird of prey, dives into water and hides beneath the surface for up to four minutes"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wiki puts Indohyus at 48m years. This find from 2011 describes a "fully aquatic" whale jawbone found at 49m years.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete