Saturday, January 12, 2008

That Old Fox Terrier Problem

I was on a train travelling into London recently and overheard a guy talking on the phone. He was obviously some kind of TV creative and was talking about a show he was working on; a documentary about the Lusitania. He was moaning about the quality of his researchers.
“These are graduates ... but all they do is search the internet”, he moaned, “and all they give me is the same old shite from the same old sites. I want them to read books where the authors interviewed survivors. I want to track down any surviving U-boat crew. I want witnesses, first or second-hand accounts. I want ships’ records and captains’ logs. All they ever bring me is printouts from Google.”

This is such a terrible shame. The Internet is the greatest resource we’ve ever had. I, for one, use it almost constantly. However, I balance my Internet research against other forms of research like interviews, libraries, newspapers, TV documentaries. And if I do find something interesting on the Internet, I do my damnedest to verify it. Recently, while researching a book, I came across the story of HMS Friday. It goes like this (thanks to the Snopes website):

‘One hundred years ago, the British government sought to quell once and for all the widespread superstition among seamen that setting sail on Fridays was unlucky. A special ship was commissioned, named HMS Friday. They laid her keel on a Friday, launched her on a Friday, selected her crew on a Friday and hired a man named Jim Friday to be her captain. To top it off, HMS Friday embarked on her maiden voyage on a Friday. It was never seen or heard from again.'

Of course, it's a load of old cobblers. Before accepting this story, I double-checked the facts. Snopes - Barabara Mikkelson's excellent urban myth debunking site - also said it was rubbish. I’ve spoken to the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth and they have no record of any such ship. And I’ve checked the listings on Mike Phillips’ exceptionally completist Ships of the Old Navy website and there’s no ship listed between the Freija and the Friendship.

And yet, I must have now found more than 30 websites that repeat the story of HMS Friday as fact. I bothered to find out the truth, but those website authors just copied the story from elsewhere. They didn’t do the research. The late science writer, Professor Stephen Jay Gould, called this the Fox Terrier Problem.*

Gould was a great campaigner to have evolution taught in American schools. As a Christian and a scientist, he abhorred the idea that knowledge and truth be subjugated by a twisted version of his own beliefs. And while he was researching the subject he discovered subtle but undeniable truth-bending in schoolbooks – even in those schools where evolution was taught. For example, some books stated that giraffes had evolved their long necks so that they could reach the leaves at the tops of trees. This was patent nonsense because it presupposed that there was some kind of deliberate plan to grow longer necks. In other words, intelligent design = God. The truth is that the long neck probably evolved by way of advantageous mutation; the giraffes with the longer necks and legs saw the predator first and got a head start. Therefore, their mutant ‘long neck’ and ‘long leg’ genes survived to be passed on to successive generations. And, of course, the process took many millions of years. The by-product was that giraffes could avail themselves of a food source that others couldn’t reach.

He also found evidence that human evolution was being described to schoolkids as a form of constant improvement; that we were getting more and more advanced as if there was a goal to be reached. Again, the fossil record dispute sthis. We are the way we are because of environment, predator/prey relationships, food supply, natural selection and sexual selection. Evolution is not some predetermined march from primate to divinity. A subtle difference in the way the Earth worked a few million years ago and we’d probably still be up in the trees.

The traditional depiction of the evolution of the horse. Image © Research Machines plc

Another common example he found concerned Hyracotherium (or Eohippus as it was called in older textbooks). This was a primitive ancestor of the horse. Physically, it looked quite like a horse, except that it had toes instead of hooves, and was considerably smaller than any modern horse. About the size of a Fox Terrier in fact. Invariably the books would have an illustration showing the gradual evolution of the horse from Hyracotherium to modern Equus by way of a series of intermediate species. The lie here was in suggesting that the horse passed through those different forms in a linear progression. The truth is that each species would diversify into a range of new species and maybe one or two of those would survive to evolve again. The evolution of the horse looks more like a tree with a lot of dead branches than a single long stick.

A more realistic depiction of the evolution of the horse. Image © Critters 2 Go

Then there’s that reference to Hyracotherium being the size of a Fox Terrier. Gould found it in almost every book he read. But when he actually came to think about it, he realised that he had absolutely no idea what a Fox Terrier looked like, nor how big it was. Nor did anyone he knew, which suggested that the people who’d written these books probably didn’t either ... which meant that all of these books had been put together simply by copying previous books. His investigations showed that the first appearance of the Fox Terrier comparison was made as long ago as 1904 when American Museum boss Henry Fairfield Osborne published a description in his article The evolution of the horse in America in Century Magazine:

‘We may imagine the earliest herds of horses in the lower Eocene as resembling a lot of Fox-Terriers in size …’

And for nearly a hundred years, this description was copied and re-copied by lazy researchers who never actually bothered to find out what size Hyracotherium actually was. Gould concluded that if people want the ‘right’ to publish facts and figures, they should discover them for themselves or, at least, go back to the original source instead of relying on quick and easy data that may be a 10th generation (and often inaccurately cloned) source.

And now the Internet has compounded this problem several billion-fold. My nephews and neices go straight to Google when they have homework to do. None of them bother to check the veracity of the facts. And, as overworked and underpaid as they are, it would be an exceptional teacher who did it for them.

It makes me wonder what life will be like 50 years from now. Will we be a society who takes everything we read online as Gospel? If so, The Enlightenment was all for nothing.


~On May 7th 1915 the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger-carrying ocean liner was sunk by a German submarine, U-20, with the loss of 1198 lives. The sinking shocked America into finally entering World War I on April 17, 1917.

*Stephen Jay Gould (1991). "The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone." Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History W.W. Norton & Co. New York.


Anonymous said...


thanks for the information, it was very helpful.

but I've a question, WHY did the hoofs of a horse evolute? WHY have horses nowadays only one toe? can someone put it on the site or so, that I'm able to read it?


Barb said...

Horses' hooves were a necessary evolution. Why, you ask? So we have something with which to make Jello, of course!!