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The Unfeathered Bird: An Illustrated History of Avian Anatomy

Evolutionary eccentricities, ornithological oddities, and the engineering mysteries of flight.

Birds are an incessant source of scientific fascination, from why they sing to how their wings work. The Unfeathered Bird (public library; UK) by Katrina van Grouw isn’t about the anatomy of birds — it’s about “how their appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.” Though originally intended as a tool for artists, the book is also rigorously scientific but without the burdensome language and clunky terminology of anatomical writing. What emerges is an illuminating and meticulously illustrated look at the brilliance of birds at the intersection of art, science and history, covering such intricate mysteries as how the ostrich lost two of its four toes and why the vulture diverged into radically different Old World and New World varieties. The 385 or so intricate drawings include a number of species never illustrated before and explore everything from the mechanics of flight to the aerodynamics of avian skulls.

Van Grouw — who is herself a remarkable cross-pollinator of disciplines and perspectives as a taxidermist, RCA-trained fine artist, and former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum — writes of the mechanical miracle of flight:

Flight makes rather specific demands on the physical engineering of an animal. The skeleton needs to be of a lightweight structure, with large flattened surfaces for the attachment of muscles, and to have tremendous rigidity and the strength to support the entire weight of the animal while airborne. The components are highly specialized and once a satisfactory blueprint has been achieved there is very little room for modification. The paradox, then, is that although the birds represent the largest class of all the vertebrates — approaching ten thousand species — they are fundamentally rather uniform; though with some very surprising variations!

The adaptation for flight is the most important factor behind the structure of birds and can provide an explanation for virtually all of their anatomical characteristics — even those that seem to have nothing to do with flying. For example, with wings instead of front legs, birds need two strong hind limbs and a modified posture to balance on them. And with a body rigid enough to cope with the demands of flapping flight, it’s vital to have a long and flexible neck to compensate for the loss of movement. But it’s important to remember that birds didn’t learn to fly first and develop these perfections afterward. Many of these qualities had long been present in the birds’ theropod ancestors — the upright dinosaurs that walked on two legs — and only through a constant process of adaptation and counteradaptation spanning millions of years did it become possible for the feathered dinosaurs to survive and take wing.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the divergence of vulture species between the New and Old World:

The universal truths about vultures are, as every schoolchild knows, as follows: they have a bare head, a hooked beak, and long, broad wings, and they eat things they find dead. Few definitions could be more cut and dried. All over the Americas, Europe, and Asia this very uniform group of birds can be instantly recognized and, on a group level at least, poses no problems of identification.

So when, in the 1980s, the newly developed techniques for hybridizing strands of DNA revealed that the New World vultures may not be vultures at all but close relatives of the storks, it created something of a sensation. Indeed, to the average birdwatcher the concept seemed to symbolize the chaos that test-tube technology would drag their world into without the steadying hand of empirical common sense. What many birdwatchers didn’t realize was that this concept wasn’t new. In fact, by the time the DNA experiments were taking place, it had already been around for over a hundred years, based on a range of complex anatomical features: the musculature of the wings, formation of the intestines, and so forth. More recent DNA research has once again made the position of the New World vultures uncertain. They are probably not, after all, stork relatives, and for the time being some authorities have tentatively returned them to the company of other hook-billed birds.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is not that New and Old World vultures may not be related but that two possibly unrelated groups of birds have come to look so alike. They differ externally only in the longer and functional hind toe of the Old World vultures and the open nostrils (you can see right through from one side to the other) of the New World vultures.

This similarity is the result of a process called convergent evolution. It’s the selective pressures of the lifestyle that shape an animal, not the shape of an animal that dictates the lifestyle — given sufficient time, that is. So when different animal groups share the same ecological niche independently of one another there is a tendency for them to reinvent the wheel, finding the same solutions to the same challenges and ultimately coming to look very much alike.

Meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated, and absorbingly narrated, The Unfeathered Bird lives at the heart of that timeless temple where art and science meet to enrich one another with “systematic wonder.”

Images courtesy Princeton University Press


Susan Sontag’s Radical Vision for Remixing Education

A new order of knowledge for cultivating lifelong learning.

“Our whole theory of education,” Henry Miller famously lamented, “is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water.” With its factory schooling model, its biologically unsound schedules, and its failure to account for different types of intelligence, the modern education system leaves much to be desired in terms of encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and hands-on learning.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library; UK) — one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, which gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love and art — comes a somewhat radical but in many ways brilliantly sensible vision for education. Writing 40 years ago, in a diary entry from January of 1973, Sontag inverts the traditional sequence of schooling, envisioning for education what Stefan Sagmeister has done for work with his model of time-shifted retirement via distributed sabbaticals, and above all seconding Miller’s insistence on learning by doing.

Sontag writes:

Why not eliminate schooling between age 12-16? It’s biologically + psychologically too turbulent a time to be cooped up inside, made to sit all the time. During these years, kids would live communally — doing some work, anyway being physically active, in the countryside; learning about sex — free of their parents. Those four ‘missing’ years of school could be added on, at a much later age. At, say, age 50-54 everyone would have to go back to school. (One could get a deferment for a few years, in special cases, if one was in a special work or creative project that couldn’t be broken off.) In this 50-54 schooling, have strong pressure to learn a new job or profession — plus liberal arts stuff, general science (ecology, biology), and language skills.

This simple change in the age specificity of schooling would a) reduce adolescent discontent, anomie, boredom, neurosis; b) radically modify the almost inevitable process by which people at 50 are psychologically and intellectually ossified — have become increasingly conservative, politically — and retrograde in their tastes (Neil Simon plays, etc.)

There would no longer be one huge generation gap (war), between the young and the not young — but 5 or 6 generation gaps, each much less severe.

After all, since most people from now on are going to live to be 70, 75, 80, why should all their schooling be bunched together in the first 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives — so that it’s downhill all the way  

Early schooling — age 6-12 — would be intensive language skills, basic science, civics, the arts.  

Back to school at 16: liberal arts for two years
Age 18-21: job training through apprenticeship, not schooling

Complement with Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for students and teachers and Bertrand Russell’s 10 commandments of education.


The Science of Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg, Animated

What the ancient proto-chicken has to do with how wolves became dogs.

Since the dawn of recorded history, philosophers have pondered which came first, the chicken or the egg, as a causality dilemma exploring grander existential inquiries into the origin of life and the universe. But, it turns out, science has an answer that bypasses the metaphysical and dives right into the nitty-gritty of the tangible and concrete. In yet another illuminating animation, AsapSCIENCE enlist evolutionary biology in answering the age-old question, comparing the process to how dogs became dogs and ultimately demonstrating that — like much of science — the solution may have more to do with semantics and nomenclature than with actual scientific evidence.

No one mutation can ever really constitute a new species.

AsapSCIENCE have previously covered the science of why money can’t buy happiness, the science of productivity, what alcohol does to your brain, why we blush, the science of lucid dreaming, how music enchants the brain, the neurobiology of orgasms, and why we are all female.


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