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Dec 28 2011

INJUSTICE

I was playing Cranium with my family, and as luck would have it, my team got an evolutionary question. My dad and grandma turned to me, since, you know, I’m an evolutionary biologist and stuff. This was the question:

“True or False: Dogs are more closely related to cats than they are to bears.”

I knew it was false. I don’t have an evolutionary tree of every species in my head, but I had heard of this comparison before. People intuitively think dogs and cats are more closely related because they’ve both been domesticated – but that has nothing to do with evolution. I also knew this was an example of an evolutionary tree that had been tweaked as we gained more knowledge. Very preliminary, simple genetic studies shows dogs more closely related to cats. But as we expanded the comparison to the whole genome, we found that dogs were more related to bears.

I was very annoyed when I flipped the card to find this answer:

“True – The three species are all distantly related, but genetic evidence has established that bears split off from a common ancestor well before cats and dogs had their big split.”

My family immediately started giggling. “Good job, Miss PhD.” This would not stand. I flipped out the iPhone and searched for a modern phylogenetic tree of carnivores. I immediately found one in Nature Reviews Genetics based on karyotype data, indeed showing that dogs were more closely related to bears than cats.

I pointed at the image on my screen.

“Too bad” my family said, as they continued on with the next question.

It may no longer matter for the game (though my team did win – neener neener), but in case you’re interested… yes, dogs are more closely related to bears than cats. They’re all carnivores. Dogs and bears both belong to the suborder Caniformia, while cats are in suborder Feliformia.

So why was Cranium wrong, if it’s claiming its answer is based on genetic information? The answer lies in the date. I checked the box, and this edition of Cranium was made in 1998. In the rapidly expanding field of evolutionary genetics, that’s ancient. We can now compare whole genomes, while before we were limited to a single gene (at best). Different parts of the genome can evolve at different rates if they’re under selection (or not), so it’s important to look at the big picture instead of a tiny snippet. Our methods and technologies are improving, so our results get more and more accurate.

Hooray for science!

44 comments

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  1. 1
    johnbaldwin

    As George from “Seinfeld” would say… “I’m sorry but th correct answer is the Moops.”

  2. 2
    DrJen

    That’s family for you. My sister and her friend once pounded me in Trivial Pursuit because I answered “Chinese” rather than “The Chinese” as was printed on the card…and you tried to go totally off-card.

  3. 3
    Greg Smith

    So, we need a site for updating Cranium. And Trivial Pursuit. Etc… If the manufacturers don’t want to host these, it could be done as wikipedia pages (and a page ‘list of update pages for board games’).

  4. 4
    Jen

    My Trivial Pursuit game is so old, the answers are USSR and East Germany and such. And my friends won’t count it if you say “Russia” or “Germany.” Boo hiss.

  5. 5
    Erp

    Beware a card with a question on the number of planets.

  6. 6
    adamgordon

    As usual, the best website for these types of debates is tolweb.org.

    I’m also a little biased because I used to work for the ToL project :P

    Carnivora

  7. 7
    adamgordon

    Just look at all those beautiful citations!

  8. 8
    Jeff

    Just look at the face of the bear and the d
    og. Much more similar than a cat.

  9. 9
    Daniel

    Interesting that hyena and dogs are so far apart.

  10. 10
    ericblair

    This reminds me of a time I was playing Trivial Pursuit during lunch break at work (a regular Wednesday thing). The question I got was, “Where would you live if you wooed in Wu?” My answer was, “You would live in or near the city of Shanghai, People’s Republic of China”. All the card had as an answer was “China”. My team won that game, and I got a special commendation for “Most Overboard Answer”.

    We also eliminated the major flaw in the game mechanics of Trivial Pursuit; when we ran the game, players receiving a wedge for a correct answer had to end their turn. Otherwise, one player can run away with the game and keep others sidelined. That’s what happens when you play with a bunch of game design professionals.

  11. 11
    Momo Elektra

    When something like that happens and my family doesn’t believe me (and it happens, every year, most favorably on christmas) it makes me very sad.

    First they put pressure on you to get an education, and then they call you arrogant because you have it.

    *sigh*

  12. 12
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    That’s were I love my family. Everybody went on to have a higher education; we don’t play Trivial Pursuit, Cranium or other games; one of our favourite pastimes is arguing about anything and everything, then resolve the issue by looking it up in reference books (or these days, websites). ;-)

  13. 13
    Otranreg

    Well, if the questions are related to history or politics or culture you friends have a point.

  14. 14
    Rikki

    This is why you should play ‘German’ boardgames: the skill is in mastering the mechanics, which are mathematically derived and balanced, so don’t rely on the luck of a dice roll or remembering reams of facts, which we all know is low on the educational pyramid.

  15. 15
    Kristine

    I know this makes me kind of an asshole… but I would have been furious :)

  16. 16
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Lucky you. My brother has a pathological compulsion to defend anything and everything I criticize. And he’s a law student so he’s reasonably…dextrous about it, anyway.

  17. 17
    Jurjen S.

    1998, bollocks! I’m pretty certain that I learned that dogs and bears were more closely related in biology classes in the early 1980s. If nothing else, it strikes me that it’s fairly evident based on morphology and diet alone: bears and dogs look and eat way more alike than cats do.

  18. 18
    Blondin

    My friend has a dog named “Bear”.

    …I just thought I’d mention that.

  19. 19
    McSkeptic

    Is there a Creationist version of the game?

    “On Noah’s Ark, were the dogs roommates with the cats or the bears?”

    Unfortunately, I’ve got some family members that would prefer such a game. :(

  20. 20
    Yellow Thursday

    I have to confess that if it wasn’t for AronRa’s videos on Feliforms and Caniforms, I wouldn’t have known the answer. I recommend his youtube videos to everyone. (Although I doubt there’s a regular reader of freethoughtblogs that isn’t familiar with AronRa’s videos.)

  21. 21
    Retired Prodigy Bill

    Sometimes wrong answers are a trap for copyright infringement. Stick a couple of wrong answers in 10000 questions, and when some other game includes those two wrong answers you have decent evidence that they questions were taken from your game and not original research.

  22. 22
    badandfierce

    You know, I love genetics, too, but there are other ways of building your evolutionary tree. Anatomy still counts! The Field Museum’s wonderful Carnivoran area in the taxonomy/assorted animal stuff wing has showed bears nicely nestled in on the dog-ish side since I was just a little Bad Rabbit. And that little section is one of my favorite places in the world. Carnivorans are my second-favorite mammalian order. (Chiropterans win, if you’re curious.)

  23. 23
    Didaktylos

    Isn’t one of the extinct carnivora lineages the amphicyonids (“bear-dogs”)?

  24. 24
    Riptide

    Not really. Even at the time, the USSR was considered pretty much synonymous with Russia by just about everyone important–it was a pretty shallow copy of the Russian Empire that had expired in 1917, after all. And East and West Germany, much like North and South Korea, were labels applied by the West (as in the US and its satellites); they both not only lay claim to the entirety of the country, they called themselves by different titles.

    In short: cards wrong. Friends lose.

  25. 25
    Greg Smith

    Hmm, I recall a case where a certain huge software company (rhymes with Dycroloft) was called out copying a whole clip-art library from a small company, and the smoking gun was the incorrect F117 drawing – some details of the plane had been guessed at by the original artist but made public after their clip art library was published. So there was no reason to have the same error other than by copying. So, this does occur, I’m not sure whether it’s necessary to do it deliberately. Any collection of 10,000 (or even 1,000) questions is fairly likely to have at least a few wrong or dubious ones in it by accident.

  26. 26
    Otranreg

    Oh, the irony. Soviet Union (especially when it was created) was anything but Russian Empire and the fact that it was still referred to as ‘Russia’ by people outside it is a matter of convenience, tradition and geographic heritage.

    Do you always say ‘United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland’ instead of the more colloquially appropriate ‘yoo-kay’ or ‘Britain’?

    Same goes for East and West Germany (and their respective official names — kudos to the erudite one) — those were different countries, despite sharing so much in common.

    While it is okay to generalise these things when precision isn’t important, in trivia games I think it is.

    Otherwise it’d be like: ‘what country did coalition led by the US invade in 2003?’ And I’d be able to say ‘Mesopotamia’. Or ‘what was the northernmost province of the Roman Empire?’ And I’d say ‘England’.

  27. 27
    Rikki

    Unfortunately, the US legal system disagreed:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trivial_Pursuit#Fred_Worth_lawsuit

    Trivial Pursuit contains facts, which apparently cannot be copyrighted, so while you can prove someone copied your facts using this technique, those facts are not protected.

  28. 28
    neleabels

    I like that very much! :)

  29. 29
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    Ouch. Being the sparring partner of a lawyer in training looks like a lot of hard work. Here’s hoping your brother will pay you for the exercise ;-)

  30. 30
    TerranRich, Yet Another Atheist

    You’re probably thinking of maps, where cartographers often do (or used to do) this — adding incorrect data, misspelled names, or entirely made-up towns and cities. Then again, I’m sure it’s a common practice pretty much anywhere work is done in order to gather information and display it a particular way.

  31. 31
    Warner

    incorrect definitions, usually as a low level preference are used as copyright tools for dictionaries.

  32. 32
    Riptide

    Oh, the irony. Soviet Union (especially when it was created) was anything but Russian Empire and the fact that it was still referred to as ‘Russia’ by people outside it is a matter of convenience, tradition and geographic heritage.

    Key word on “geographic heritage”–the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did as much as they could to reclaim the ‘lost’ lands shorn from the Russian Empire after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and did all they could to incorporate the lands into a single, federal state. So confident were they that the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic didn’t bother to have its own Communist Party organization, even as the other 14 ‘soviet socialist republics’ had their own, as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was responsible for Party organization within the Russian SFSR. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organization_of_the_Communist_Party_of_the_Soviet_Union#Higher_levels

    Moreover, Russian was the language of state throughout the Soviet Union, to the point that today Russian is *still* an official language of Belarus and two of the ‘stans, and an unofficial language of all of the other former Soviet Socialist Republics. In the Ukraine and the Baltic States, up to half of the population identifies as ethnically Russian, and there are very real fears (especially in the Ukraine) that those Russian populations will seek some kind of ‘re-integration’ with Rodina.

    So yes, a very real case can be made by historians, linguists and political scientists that the concept of ‘Russia’ as a country was subsumed by, and became synonymous with, the Soviet Union. In every practical way, to an American playing a board game in or about the 1980′s, the two countries were one and the same.

    Same goes for East and West Germany (and their respective official names — kudos to the erudite one) — those were different countries, despite sharing so much in common.

    You misunderstand my meaning–both the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany claimed suzerainty over the whole of ‘Germany’, much like the Republic of Ireland still claims (though less and less forcefully) the ‘six counties’ of Ulster we call ‘Northern Ireland’, and just like the Republic of Korea and the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea both claim 100% of the Korean peninsula.

    Neither ‘Germanies’ recognized the legitimacy of the other–regardless of the reality of the partition, both claimed to be ‘Germany’, and to speak for all Germans within the borders laid down after WWII. Thus it is appropriate for someone to call ‘West Germany’ and ‘East Germany’ simply ‘Germany’, if it’s obvious which one you meant. In fact, if you were a citizen of one of the Germanies and you called it anything *other* than Germany without qualification, you could expect some pretty bad attention, especially in the East.

    While it is okay to generalise these things when precision isn’t important, in trivia games I think it is.

    It’s not about ‘precision’–Jen’s family’s insistence that she was wrong when calling the USSR ‘Russia’ was (and is) simply incorrect, especially since that’s how almost all Americans thought of that country up until 1990. The East/West Germany split is a *little* less defensible, as most Americans called the de-facto partitions by those respective names. But insistence on those two points betrays the ignorance of the sticklers, not the imprecision of the responder.

    Otherwise it’d be like: ‘what country did coalition led by the US invade in 2003?’ And I’d be able to say ‘Mesopotamia’. Or ‘what was the northernmost province of the Roman Empire?’ And I’d say ‘England’.

    It’s telling that you have to reach over a thousand years into the past for a relevant geopolitical example.

  33. 33
    Jurjen S.

    You got me. General zoology isn’t my strong suit.

  34. 34
    ChasCPeterson

    I’m afraid that genetics will always trump anatomy if the data are available, and for good reasons. Genetic data–especially genomic data–offers large numbers of potential characters and traits and low probablility of convergence.

  35. 35
    Otranreg

    Do you realise that there wouldn’t be those 14 republics (and a long list of autonomous regions formed on the ethnic basis) at all if it weren’t for the collapse of the Russian Empire and the fact that people who built Soviet Russia (which later turned into the USSR) considered self-determination of nations to be one of its core principles?

    I have no idea why you would bring this up here, but there’s even bigger and more justified fear of far right-wing elements forming their mythology around implicit racism and russophobia and getting more power than they deserve.

    So what if they claimed ownership of something that didn’t belong to them? How should it devalue their being different countries?

    The Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, too, claimed to be the sole successors to the Roman Empire. So what now, we should start thinking these were the same-ish country?

    Sure, it could have been why they hadn’t been satisfied with Jen’s answer. It has nothing to do with my argument, though.

    No, you don’t. Think Yugoslavia and Austo-Hungary, think whole continents of former colonies.

  36. 36
    Otranreg

    So confident were they that the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic didn’t bother to have its own Communist Party organization, even as the other 14 ‘soviet socialist republics’ had their own, as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was responsible for Party organization within the Russian SFSR.

    Do you realise that there wouldn’t be those 14 republics (and a long list of autonomous regions formed on the ethnic basis) at all if it weren’t for the collapse of the Russian Empire and the fact that people who built Soviet Russia (which later turned into the USSR) considered self-determination of nations to be one of its core principles?

    In the Ukraine and the Baltic States, up to half of the population identifies as ethnically Russian, and there are very real fears (especially in the Ukraine) that those Russian populations will seek some kind of ‘re-integration’ with Rodina.

    I have no idea why you would bring this up here, but there’s even bigger and more justified fear of far right-wing elements forming their mythology around implicit racism and russophobia and getting more power than they deserve.

    You misunderstand my meaning–both the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany claimed suzerainty over the whole of ‘Germany’, much like the Republic of Ireland still claims (though less and less forcefully) the ‘six counties’ of Ulster we call ‘Northern Ireland’, and just like the Republic of Korea and the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea both claim 100% of the Korean peninsula.

    So what if they claimed ownership of something that didn’t belong to them? How should it devalue their being different countries?

    The Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, too, claimed to be the sole successors to the Roman Empire. So what now, we should start thinking these were the same-ish country?

    Jen’s family’s insistence that she was wrong when calling the USSR ‘Russia’ was (and is) simply incorrect, especially since that’s how almost all Americans thought of that country up until 1990.

    Sure, it could have been why they hadn’t been satisfied with Jen’s answer. It has nothing to do with my argument, though.

    It’s telling that you have to reach over a thousand years into the past for a relevant geopolitical example.

    No, you don’t. Think Yugoslavia and Austro-Hungary, think whole continents of former colonies.

  37. 37
    Rob Vickerstaff

    Wuuuh…? Now even dictionaries have deliberately wrong content? o_O Surely this will lead to the downfall of civilization given enough time? Jen and fellow readers, we need to start a campaign to set this straight before it’s too late! Starting with board games and the names foreign people call countries they don’t know much about…

  38. 38
    Ben01

    Actually, that is not true categorically. Facts cannot be protected, but the particular expression of facts can be protected. Like all copyright, the expression of an idea is protected but not the idea itself. In the case you cite, Trivial Pursuit used facts from the book, but formulated their own questions and used their own order. Since the book only relayed a selection of facts, the test shifted. It had to be shown that “the Trivial Pursuit game cards derived from his expression “something more than what ‘must unavoidably be produced by anyone who wishes to use and restate’ the facts that form the greater part of the work.”” (Worth v. Selchow & Righter Company, paragraph 23).

    Retired Prodigy Bill (@17) merely claimed that the questions could contain false information so that the questions would not be copied by other games. Whether this is true or not, the law does in fact protect expressions this way so that it is a plausible explanation.

  39. 39
    Nick Gotts

    Actually, the GDR only claimed to represent Germany as a whole until the 1960s; thereafter it sought recognition as a separate state from the FRD. The emperors of the Holy Roman Empire always, AFAIK, recognsed the Byzantine claim to be the East Roman Empire, until the sack of Constantinople in 1204; but recognition in the other direction was less clear – perhaps because the Byzantine emperors really did have a far better claim than those of the HRE to continuity with the classical era Roman Empire.

  40. 40
    Nick Gotts

    I have a copy of David Macdonald (1992) The Velvet Claw: A Natural History of the Carnivores, which shows dogs and bears grouped together mustelids and racoons within “Vulpavines” while cats, along with hyaenas, mongooses and civets are “Viverravines”; the two branches estimated to have separated about 60mya during the Palaeocene, initially continuing their evolution in the old and new worlds respectively. The divergence of dogs and bears is estimated at about 30mya. Macdonald headed carnivore research at Oxford during my two years in the zoology department there; so I think it’s fairly clear the Cranium answer was just wrong when it was written.

  41. 41
    Nick Gotts

    My son has a guinea pig called Sparow, though admittedly with only one “r”.

  42. 42
    KathyO

    I just plugged dogs and cats into my handy TimeTree iPhone app. and came up with 55.7 Mya (million years since divergence). Dogs and bears yielded 45 Mya. A clear win for dogs and bears. Or are you not allowed to access a smart phone while playing?

  43. 43
    Sandiseattle

    Okay I know I’m ‘johnny-come-lately’ here but — really people think cats and dogs are closer than dogs and bears? Now I’ll admit to being a science amateur/armchair scientist but I didn’t think that. Of course I’d also never heard the question before. I want to say it comes under the heading of “when did people start thinking THAT?” (the other question that comes in this category is “when did anybody start believing that birth control prevents STD? we’ve all seen that disclaimer right? when? SMH baffling. )

  44. 44
    tigerhawkvok

    I instantly knew the correct answer on that polygraph, and I’ve been stung with that one before. However, my friends defer to me as they know I have several texts I can whip out, and I’ve been keeping a relatively up-to-date phylogeny page going for a while now (see http://phylogeny.revealedsingularity.net/ ).

    Wheeee.

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