Whales reached huge size only recently

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40032372

WhaleImage copyrightSILVERBACK FILMS/BBC
Image captionBeing big means they can maximise the opportunities where they exist

Blue whales are the biggest animals that have ever existed on Earth but they only recently* got that way.

This is the extraordinary finding from a new study that examined the fossil record of baleens – the group of filter feeders to which the blues belong.

These animals were relatively small for most of their evolutionary existence and only became the behemoths we know today in the past three million years.

That is when the climate likely turned the oceans into a “food heaven”.

Favoured prey – such as krill, small crustaceans – suddenly became super-concentrated in places, allowing the baleens with their specialised feeding mechanism to pig-out and evolve colossal forms.

“The blue whales, the fins and bowheads, and the right whales – they are among the most massive vertebrates to have ever lived,” explained Nick Pyenson from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, US.

“Some of the dinosaurs were longer, but these big whales even outweighed the largest dinosaurs. And isn’t that surprising? People kind of think of gigantism as being a fact of the geologic past. But here we are, living in the time of giants on Planet Earth,” he told BBC News.

*Whales have been around for about 50 million years – a blink of the eye in the 4.6-billion-year history of the Earth.

Dr Pyenson is publishing the new research – conducted with Graham Slater from the University of Chicago and Jeremy Goldbogen from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station – in a journal of the Royal Society called Proceedings B.

It is based on a deep analysis of the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of cetacean bones, and in particular of whale skulls which are a good indicator of overall body size.

The team estimated the lengths of 63 extinct species, including some of the very earliest baleens that swam in the oceans more than 30 million years ago. And combined with data on modern whales, this investigation was then able to establish the evolutionary relationships between whales of different sizes.

What emerges from the research is a picture showing not only that gigantism is a recent phenomenon but that this bigness arises independently in the different baleen lineages.

The smaller whale species that had previously persisted start to go extinct within the last three million years, right at the same time as the giants begin to appear.

Lunge feedingImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe baleen plates that hang from the upper-jaw filter prey from a gulp of seawater

It all points to a major shift in the environment and the team suggests the best explanation is the onset of ice ages at the end of the warm Pliocene Epoch, the beginning of the Pleistocene.

The existence of major ice sheets would have restructured the oceans, changing the way water and nutrients were distributed.

“This period sees some dramatic changes, including the closure of the Panamanian isthmus, shutting off connection between the Atlantic and Pacific,” explained Dr Slater.

“Ice sheets in the north develop a lot of cold water that sinks and is then transported around the globe. And what you get are intense upwellings that bring that nutrient-rich cold water back to the surface. That allows algae to go crazy and that allows krill to feed and to form really dense aggregations.”

It is not the abundance of prey per se that favours large baleens, but rather the prey’s patchy, concentrated nature. And with their filter-feeding system of eating, the big whales are able to take maximum advantage.

“They can travel from one feeding zone to the next very efficiently because their big size means their ‘miles per gallon’, their MPG, is very high. And they seem to know precisely the right time to turn up at these feeding grounds,” Dr Slater added.

WhaleImage copyrightSILVERBACK FILMS/BBC
Image captionBlue whales can reach over 30m in length, although this is rarely seen nowadays

Two points are worth noting. First, commercial whaling in the last century decimated baleen populations and very probably removed most, if not all, of the ultra-giants out there. Few blues now exceed the 30m lengths that were often recorded at processing factories.

Thanks to the international moratorium on whaling, the true giants could yet return. But this raises the second issue: the changing climate.

If the experts are right, we are heading back towards the Pliocene. Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could well see global temperatures in the next century that are three or four degrees warmer than they are today. This would almost certainly trigger further ocean changes.

“We’re playing with the dials on ‘Spaceship Earth’,” commented Dr Pyenson.

“We don’t know how things are going turn out, especially for these food resources which may or may not be persistent in space and time. There are some baleens that we think might be more flexible. Gray whales, for example, appear to have a very broad feeding range; blue whales not so much – they really need their krill.”

HumpbackImage copyrightMARIA TERESA LARA
Image captionWhat will happen to the oceans if the global climate returns to the Pliocene?

Richard Sabin is the curator of marine mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.

He called the research “compelling and important” and also highlighted the ecological knife-edge on which some of these animals must live: “There are 90 or so cetacean species. They’re a very diverse group and some of them are very specialised.

“So, you have creatures like the river dolphins that use echo-location to find their prey and the blue whales that are very specialised feeders with their krill. These animals have evolved within systems that they now depend on remaining stable.”

London’s NHM is about to make its blue whale skeleton the star attraction of a remodelled entrance hall.

The near-4.5-tonne specimen has been hung from the ceiling in a lunge-feeding pose, mouth open.

The display is under wraps for the moment, but a big unveiling is promised in the next few weeks.

“The visualisations that we released give you an idea, but they don’t really do it justice. She looks spectacular. You get so many different perspectives from the different angles, and you get a real sense not just of her size but of her dynamism as well.”

London’s Natural History Museum will also stage a new exhibition on whales to coincide with the unveiling.

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Richard Dawkins: ‘When I see cattle lorries, I think of the railway wagons to Auschwitz’

The evolutionary biologist talks about becoming a vegetarian, Brexit, Donald Trump and, inevitably, God

Richard Dawkins’ application of logic applies right down to his socks, which he refuses to waste time matchingCHRIS MCANDREW FOR THE TIMES

Is this what it was like, Richard Dawkins wonders, for ordinary people in Nazi Germany? “There’s a kind of laziness if you live in a society where things are just accepted. People might have been vaguely uneasy about what was going on in Germany but also thought, ‘Oh well, everyone else is doing it’.”

What crime is it that he thinks that we, like Germans in the 1930s, are blind to? It is, perhaps, a surprising one from him: the crime of eating meat. Dawkins, 76, is not known for being a woolly, liberal, tofu-eater. He is better known for his espousal of red-in-tooth-and-claw evolutionary logic and, even more so, for his three million-selling atheist book The God Delusion. Speaking from his Victorian Gothic house…

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 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/when-i-see-cattle-lorries-i-think-of-the-railway-wagons-to-auschwitz-m3t0hntmk

Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost

https://phys.org/news/2017-02-resurrecting-extinct-species-terrible.html

February 27, 2017
Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost
A Lord Howe Island woodhen Gallirallus sylvestris. Credit: Toby Hudson

Bringing back extinct species could lead to biodiversity loss rather than gain, according to work featuring University of Queensland researchers.

UQ scientist Professor Hugh Possingham said the research suggested further stretching already-strained budgets to cover the costs of de-extinction could endanger extant species (species still in existence).

“If the risk of failure and the costs associated with establishing viable populations could also be calculated, estimates of potential net losses or missed opportunities would probably be considerably higher,” Professor Possingham said.

“De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn’t reduce existing conservation resources.

“However, in general it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now.”

“Given the considerable potential for missed opportunity, and risks inherent in assuming a resurrected species would fulfil its role as an ecosystem engineer or flagship species, it is unlikely that de-extinction could be justified on grounds of biodiversity conservation.”

The study was led by Dr Joseph Bennett, formerly of the ARC Centre for Environmental Decisions at UQ and now of Carleton University, Canada.

It analysed the number of species governments in New Zealand and New South Wales could afford to conserve.

“We based cost estimates on recently extinct species and similar extant species,” Dr Bennett said.

The Lord Howe pigeon, eastern bettong, bush moa and Waitomo frog were among the extinct species included in calculations.

The researchers found reintroducing some recently extinct species to their old habitats might improve biodiversity locally, but government-funded conservation for 11 focal in New Zealand would sacrifice conservation for nearly three times as many (31) extant species.

External funding for conservation of the five focal extinct NSW species could instead be used to conserve more than eight times as many (42) extant species.

Although the technology for de-extinction is still some way off, the research found that careful thought would be required about what to reintroduce, and where.

Professor Possingham is Chief Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, and a scientist with UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at UQ, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-02-resurrecting-extinct-species-terrible.html#jCp

Captain Paul Watson’s Sunday Sermon

 By Captain Paul Watson

I have family and friends who are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans and even a few Scientologists and Mormons.

I have family and friends who are Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Socialist, Communists, Anarchists and even a couple of Nihilists and possibly a Fascist or two.

I have family and friends from places flying hundreds of different flags and speaking hundreds of different languages.

I have family and friends who are wealthy, middle class, poor and homeless.

I have family and friends who are vegan, vegetarian and omnivore and possibly a couple of breatharians or so they say.

Some people have faith in anthropocentric fantasies, others have faith in science.

I have no problem with what people believe in or don’t believe in.

My concern is what connects us all and that is water. All of us without exception are citizens of this water planet – the Planet Ocean.

All of us owe our existence to the Ocean and the one great truth in my life is a simple one and that is; If the Ocean dies we all die!

It does not matter what you believe, it does not matter what your politics are. We are all united by the fact that if phytoplankton is diminished, we are all diminished. If forests are diminished we are all diminished and if biodiversity is diminished, we are all diminished.

Ecology has no politics, nationality, nor religion.

Since 1950 we have seen a 40% diminishment in phytoplankton mass in the world’s seas. Phytoplankton produce most of the oxygen that we depend upon for our collective survival.

How many people are aware of this? Sadly very few.

How many people even care? Again sadly very few.

Each of us are on average 65% water. This water passes into and out of our bodies beinging nutrients and removing waste from every single cell.

So if someone is 100 kilos, 65 kilos of what we are is H2O.
Of the remaining 35%, only about half is composed of human body cells. The other half is composed of trillions of cells from up to 10,000 species of bacteria.

In other words there is no such thing as an individual human being. We are all symbionts – a large complex mobile community of species of bacteria and fungi, and these species are interdependent. Bacteria cleans our skin, manufactures vitamins in our body, digests our food and perform numerous functions required to keep us alive.

This interdependence has allowed us to survive on this planet for tens of thousands of years. If an alien life form were to arrive here without a protective suit, it would quickly die because of the bacteria that we have evolved to co-exist with.

Kill off enough microflora in the body and we die. We exist because bacteria exist.

Every living thing from bacteria to the great whales is interdependent. The first law of ecology is diversity, the second is interdependence and the third is the law of finite resources. Lack of resources caused by over population of one species diminishes diversity in other species and thus diminishes biodiversity.

I have often been criticized for saying that worms, bees, trees and plankton are more important than human beings. However the truth is that these species can live without us but we cannot live without them. We need them and they don’t need us. Some species are more important than other depending on how they contribute to the collective life support system. Phytoplankton produces oxygen, trees absorb carbon dioxide, bees pollinate plants and worms keep the soil healthy.

When people ask me what my politics are, my answer is biocentrism and the laws of ecology.

When people ask me what my religious beliefs are, my answer is biocentrism and the laws of ecology.

I am a symbiotic self-aware mobile community of human and bacterial cells living within an Oceanic eco-system on the Planet Ocean.

We tend to view the sea as the Ocean. However the sea is only a part of the Ocean. The Ocean is water and it is in the sea, in the atmosphere, under the soil, deep in the rocks , locked up in ice and it flows through every cell of every plant and animal on the planet. It is water in constant circulation, pumped by the sun, circulated in rain, rivers, streams etc, and cleansed by estuaries, condensation, marshes and wetlands.

Everything connected by the one most important element composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule oxygen connected so tightly and so intimately that all water is essentially one molecule.

We humans are here for the following reason:

1. Because of the sun. The sun is energy. Plants eat sunlight and animals eat plants.
2. Because of water. Water is life.
3. Because of the evolution of bio-diversity. The machinery of life.
4. Because of phytoplankton and trees to provide oxygen.
5. Because of phytoplankton, trees and plants absorbing carbon dioxide.
6. Because life is dictated by the natural laws of ecology.
7. Because 65.2 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into our planet ending the age of dinosaurs and laying the foundation for the evolution of mammals and the evolvement of primates into hominids. Without that asteroid there would still be life on this planet, just not life as we know it.

We are part of the Continuum – the flow of life.

The energy within us is eternal. The water within us is eternal. That which we think and believe we are – our consciousness is ephemeral.

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Humans, the Pinnacle of Evolution?

The following is an excerpt from Richard Leaky’s book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, chapter six, “Homo sapiens, the Pinnacle of Evolution?”

“The answer to the above question appears self-evident. Yes of course we are. In the penultimate chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, ‘As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’ Homo sapiens, since its origin some 150,000 years ago, has come to occupy every continent, with the exception of the hostile wastes of Antarctica, and even there we have a toehold. This surely attests to our corporeal endowment, as we have adapted to these many environments. And there is no question about our mental endowment, which is unmatched in all of nature. We are intellectually analytical, we are artistically creative, and we have invented ethical rules by which society operates. No one can doubt that our species has advanced toward, if not perfection, than a high point–the highest point–among the diversity of life on Earth. We are the pinnacle of evolution. Or are we?

“Anthropologists and biologists have struggled with this issue for a very long time, and the resolution has never been simple. We feel ourselves unique in the world of nature, and of course we are: each species is unique, by definition, so that doesn’t help much. We are but one species among many millions in today’s world. However, we feel ourselves special, among this exuberant diversity of life, because we have an unmatched capacity for spoken language and introspective consciousness, and we can shape our world as no other species can. We judge this to place us on the top of the heap. Before the fact of evolution was demonstrated, beginning with Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century, we considered Homo sapiens to have been placed on the top by Divine Creation. In the Darwinian world, our species was said to have achieved its ascendancy through the natural selection of our special qualities. The intellectual context changed, but the outcome was the same. We judged ourselves to be the pinnacle of the world of nature.

“This assessment brings two assumptions with it–one implicit, the other explicit. The implicit assumption is that the evolution of Homo sapiens was an inevitable outcome of the flow of life, in the unfolding of evolution. The explicit assumption is that the qualities we value in ourselves as a species are indeed superior in some way to the rest of the world of nature. Through evolutionary time, life became ever more complex, producing an arrow of progress. As Darwin stated in the above passage, by means of natural selection life ‘will tend to progress towards perfection.’ We are the tip of the arrow of progress, the expression of perfection. …

“Man’s view of Man in the world of nature has changed over the centuries, reflecting the scholarly context. Only in the relatively recent past have anthropologists begun to discuss human origins as they would the origin of oysters, cats and apes. …”

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Decent Quote from the Descent of Man

This quote from Darwin’s The Descent of Man appears at the beginning of Carl Sagan’s bestselling book, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.

“The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely marked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed in excitement, and their expression was wild, startled and distrustful. They possess hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone out of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descended from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

“Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scales; and the fact of his having thus risen instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Charles Darwin

The Descent of Man

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Have Denialists Reached Their Carrying Capacity?

by Jim Robertson

Denial seems to be the fallback position for those who don’t understand a particular science and/or have a political motive not to believe said science. Lately we’ve been hearing much about the denial of anthropogenic climate change, but willful ignorance can be employed for everything from evolution to overpopulation.

Generally speaking, denialists want to hold humans harmless of something they’re clearly responsible for, whether it’s having a carbon footprint—or a literal footprint. But no one is innocent of the ultimate crime of being born a human. (An aberration. An abnormality. An irregularity. A meat-eating monkey.)

Some still cling to the denial that tobacco (or meat) can cause cancer. Others just don’t care. Many would probably balk at the analogy that humans are a cancer to the Earth.

Historically, it was deniers of the obvious–gravity, astronomy and evolution (literal flat-Earthers)—who we heard the most from. Today’s deniers still include a few who question the “theory” of gravity, evolution and other realities.

But few have gone so far as to call for a de facto book ban as Laurie Mazur did recently in a Los Angeles Times op-ed entitled, “China drops its ‘one-child’ policy, now let’s ban the ‘population bomb’,” featuring the irrational statement, “Let’s be clear: slowing population growth is not a panacea for the challenges of the 21st century.” I’m sure biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book she attacks in her article, would challenge that statement. Let’s be real: slowing our population growth is the only lasting remedy, assuming we care about the rest of life on Earth at all.

Has Ms. Mazur ever heard of the term carrying capacity? In Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1996 book, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, they write in answer to the naïve notion that there is no overpopulation:

“To understand how fallacious this statement is requires recognizing that overpopulation can be reached very quickly by exponentially growing populations in situations of seeming abundance. There is overpopulation when organisms (people in this case) become so numerous that they degrade the ability of the environment to support their kind of animal in the future. The number of people Earth can support in the long term (without degrading the environment)—given existing socioeconomic systems, consumption patterns, and technological abilities—is called the human carrying capacity of the planet at the time. And carrying capacity can be exceeded without causing immediate effects obvious to the untutored observer. ‘Overshoots’ commonly occur in nature with all kinds of organisms. A population has an ‘outbreak,’ grows far beyond its carrying capacity, consumes its resources (for animals, usually food), and crashes to a size far below the previous carrying capacity.”

Homo sapiens has never been a light-touch or low-impact type of creature. Once you realize that, it’s easier to believe they’re overpopulated and have been actually changing the planet’s climate. Whether or not our species has peopled the Earth to the point of saturation, the denialists have undeniably reached their carrying capacity.

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How Hunting is Driving “Evolution in Reverse.”

—Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

—Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

Some of the most iconic photographs of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the first conservationists in American politics, show the president posing companionably with the prizes of his trophy hunts. An elephant felled in Africa in 1909 points its tusks skyward; a Cape buffalo, crowned with horns in the shape of a handlebar mustache, slumps in a Kenyan swamp. In North America, he stalked deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and elk, which he called “lordly game” for their majestic antlers. What’s remarkable about these photographs is not that they depict a hunter who was also naturalist John Muir’s staunchest political ally. It’s that just 100 years after his expeditions, many of the kind of magnificent trophies he routinely captured are becoming rare.

Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers. Africa and Asia still have elephants, but Roosevelt would have regarded most of them as freaks, because they don’t have tusks. Researchers describe what’s happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers.

When hunting is severe enough to outstrip other threats to survival, the unsought, middling individuals make out better than the alpha animals, and the species changes. “Survival of the fittest” is still the rule, but the “fit” begin to look unlike what you might expect. And looks aren’t the only things changing: behavior adapts too, from how hunted animals act to how they reproduce. There’s nothing wrong with a species getting molded over time by new kinds of risk. But some experts believe problems arise when these changes make no evolutionary sense.

More: http://www.newsweek.com/how-hunting-driving-evolution-reverse-78295

A World that Never Was

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Revisionist history may seem like harmless, feel good child’s play, but the threat it poses (to all other animals at least) is that without hearing the real story, people will never learn from the past.

It’s tempting to want to believe that all that has gone wrong with the human race is the result of being led astray by our technology, and if we could just get back to our caveman roots, everything would be happy and harmonious like it surely was back then. But contrary to contemporary popular belief, that’s a world that never was.

Even the earliest human hunters drove countless species to extinction and exhausted their carrying capacities time and again, ever since plant-eating primates first climbed down from the trees and decided to take up big-game hunting.10418292_778659628825562_4081410081902108848_n

The notion of the peaceful savage has long since been disproven, but people want to cling to it rather than accept the truth about human nature. Just look at the dead-animal adornments any warrior or tribal chief wore, and it’s easy to see the roots of trophy hunting.

The thought that any spear-wielding species who took advantage of fire to herd animals toward a cliff or into a box canyon had an innate sense of ecological fairness goes against all that made us human—envy, lust, greed, gluttony, a lack of empathy and an over-blown ego are the kinds of things that ultimately define a hunter, whether the motive for their behavior is sport or subsistence.

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson summed up the chapter, “Paradise Imagined,” of their book, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, thusly, “There is no such thing as paradise, not in the South Seas, not in southern Greece, not anywhere. There never has been. To find a better world we must look not to a romanticized and dishonest dream forever receding into the primitive past, but to a future that rests on a proper understanding of ourselves.”

Humans have achieved an awful lot of success as a species over the years, but judging by our planet-crushing prowess, we may have finally breached our collective britches.

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Pope Still a Bit Confused

My fellow animal lovers, it’s time to quit singing praises for the Pope. It turns out Pope Francis has backed away from his alleged statement that (non-human) animals have souls and that our bygone pets (God rest their souls) will be waiting for us in Heaven (presumably with leash at the ready, for us to take them on a long-overdue poody walk).

Whether Pope Francis said that last week or not, the very idea that pets go to heaven has been vehemently denied by Vatican commentators. How would humankind ever square that with their notions of superiority and sense of entitlement to preferential Heavenly treatment?

But the Pope did recently do right by our biological underlings in proclaiming his belief in Evolution and the Big Bang Theory.  God is no ‘magician with a magic wand,’ he quickly added, being sure to assign ultimate credit to the mystical one created in Man’s image. (As to whether magicians are gods he wouldn’t divulge.)

Collective Evolution reported, “Pope Francis continues to shake-up the Christian world with his latest public revelation, announcing that evolution and the big bang theory are in fact real, Speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, [Wait, what? Pontifical sciences? Isn’t that an oxymoron?] Pope Francis’s words lessened the divide between the Christian faith and science with his shocking assertion about mankind’s evolution.”

The fact that originators of the Big Bang Theory never mentioned Heaven or its approximate location within the boundless Universe doesn’t seem to matter to His Holiness, but evidently there’s limited acreage within its gates since non-humans are not officially allowed in. Apparently they still haven’t evolved a savable soul.

Deathdog