Big Apes and Bad Biology

OK, imagine winding back the clock three-score and ten. Picture a return to that singular time in human history when knowledge of the continents and oceans was sophisticated and extensive, but not yet complete. By going back only a generation, before aircraft and spacecraft pixelated the Earth, you arrive at an era when nature still held a few surprise cards; when major discoveries could still be made.

Now imagine that you and a few dozen low-lifes are passengers on a tottery rustbucket, slicing through dark waters towards a patch of land forgotten by time and cartographers - rinsed by the South Pacific and hunkered down in fog as thick as Mississippi biscuit gravy. Here, on malevolently monikered Skull Island, you discover the climax species of the Jurassic--dinosaurs--alive and well. These hulking, snaggletoothed sauropods are sharing real estate and food supplies with a clutch of modern primates. The latter consist of a few hundred perpetually scared, menacing and malformed natives, and one XXL-size simian, King Kong.

Skull Island's a happening place. Sauropods stampede to a booming death, insect carnivores the size of phone booths writhe out of the swamps, and Kong - stricken by the sight of blonde hair - develops an inappropriate interest in the one woman who's aboard ship. Eventually, the entrepreneurs who have initiated this less-than-idyllic odyssey capture Kong and take him back to Manhattan as an E-coupon sideshow attraction.

Let me give that a bit of emphasis: these guys find an island filled with living, prehistoric dinosaurs. And they bring back the mammal.

Now some will see this classic cinema tale as a touching love story between two primates who share their affections but only 98% of their genes. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggested that this film was motivated by Soviet experiments in the 1920s designed to produce a human-chimpanzee hybrid (in an attempt to discredit religion, while simultaneously offending chimp family values). Then there's the now-forgotten prewar habit of bringing back wild beasts and natives from distant lands to exhibit as living exotica. As recently as 1931, you could observe caged humans (Africans and Inuit were favorites) on display in Europe.

But whatever its ontology, "King Kong" falls under a specific narrative genre - science fiction meets morality play. Writer John Baxter has summed up one moral of such stories with the phrase "there are some things man was not meant to know." Too much curiosity can be injurious to your health. Well, fortunately, when it comes to cataloging life on our planet, we feel free--even exhilarated--by the thought that we were meant to know all things.

Indeed, looking for unknown life is a well-burnished activity. Charles Darwin chronicled the flora and fauna at each port of call as the Beagle bobbed its way around the globe. Captain Cook's famous botanist, Joseph Banks, did the same, and Lewis and Clark assiduously described new species every day as they paddled and stomped their way across the American continent.

Perhaps to your surprise, this sort of exploration not only continues, but does so with vigor. In 2004, Japanese researchers succeeded in photographing a giant squid swimming a half-mile beneath the Pacific (a specimen of an even bigger sucker, a colossal squid, was hauled out of the waters off the coast of Antarctica in 2003). Last year, primatologists reported discovering two new species of lemur on Madagascar. Even more recently, scientists found a kinder, gentler analog of Kong's home habitat in the Foja Mountains of New Guinea. In this isolated, tropical forest, they've already uncovered dozens of new plant and animal species.

Now it's important to note that Skull Island's commendably diverse population isn't very realistic. In such isolated habitats, competition among species is limited. The consequence is that, with time, predator species tend to get smaller while prey species grow larger. The optimum size (at least for mammals) seems to be roughly that of a rabbit. Kong is bigger than many rabbits. Scaling up a gorilla to 50 feet high at the shoulder produces a seriously underpowered simian, barely capable of standing (let alone clambering his way up skyscrapers). That's because when you crank up an animal's size, weight increases far faster than strength. King Kong would be one meek megamammal. Then there's the notable absence of any Queen Kong, which doesn't speak well for the future of King's lineage. His ancestors, like those of the Loch Ness monster, have ignored the necessity of a minimum breeding stock.

Frankly, Skull Island, for many reasons, is a considerably less credible fantasy now than it was a generation ago. It violates both geography and biology. You can bet that the still-to-be-discovered creatures of Earth won't be either relic sauropods or supersized simians (which is too bad: our population of great apes is very likely careening to extinction). But whatever they are, these unknown species undoubtedly exist in great numbers. A recent article by the BBC notes that it will be thousands of years before we've compiled a complete catalog of life on Earth. Thousands of years.

And of course, that is merely life on this planet.

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Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."