The Problem with Pandas – Part 1

by Paul Braterman

“Two giant pandas are due to arrive in Edinburgh on Sunday, officials have announced.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang will make the journey from China in perspex cages on board a special chartered flight…
If they settle in well, it is hoped they may be ready to try to breed early next year.” – BBC

There are two species of panda. Let me correct that. There are two species, both of which are described as pandas, although one (the giant panda) is actually a member of the extended bear family, while the other (the red panda) is more closely related to raccoons. Despite appearances, not really sister species, more like second cousins. The red panda has similar diet to the giant panda, and a very similar “thumb”, but different size (much smaller), different colouring (brown and cream, instead of black and white, and with a ringed tail), and different range (further south and higher up). In both cases the famous “thumb” is, of course, nothing of the sort (both the giant panda and the red panda use all five digits in walking) but a modified wrist bone, and lacks a nail. (As it happens, the same is true of some species of mole.) All of this led the pseudo-textbook Of Pandas and People, at the centre of the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board case, to give the panda a starring role, not only in the title but on its visually appealing front cover, and to devote 5 out of its mere 148 pages of main text to the problem that pandas had historically posed for classification. This although the problem had been disposed of back in 1964, in a classical study of detailed morphology that the book itself cites*. It will come as no surprise that molecular phylogeny now confirms the essentials of the 1964 study, with only one minor modification, placing the giant panda as before in its own genus within the bear family but the red panda in a sub-family of its own, not actually part of the raccoon family proper, but still a close relative.

There is a serious philosophical or psychological point here, not just another example of creationists being silly (although that too, of course). Absolutist thinkers really do consider it a weakness that the scientific account changes over time, and fail to understand how this openness to self-criticism is essential to its robustness. This could explain why creationism is so appealing to lawyers, who rely on cases being finally settled, and conservative theologians, who regard their dogmas as established and attempts at revision as sinful.

Bear in mind that in the US, in stark contrast to the UK, it is unlawful and indeed unconstitutional to teach religion as true in any publicly funded school. The significance of Kitzmiller is that it established that Intelligent Design, like creationism and creation science before it, was really a religious rather than a scientific doctrine. The trial itself was memorable for many reasons, including a crushing refutation of “irreducible complexity”; a bizarre defence of Intelligent Design by the sociology professor Stephen Fuller, which left the judge wondering which side he thought he was giving evidence for, and the sudden withdrawal from the case of prominent members of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, when it became clear that they would be questioned about the Institute’s links with creationism. During the trial, Of Pandas and People turned out to have its own evolutionary history. It was originally written in terms of “creation science” and “creationism”, and transformed by horizontal meme transfer to “Intelligent Design”, and the Missing Link, “cIntelligent Designism”, among the subpoenaed drafts.

Of course the Discovery Institute, like its glove-puppet the Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), continues to deny the link between ID and creationism, although the President of C4ID preaches the literal historical truth of Genesis, the Vice President (a surgeon) tells in his sermons that he argues against evolution with his anaesthetist, and the Director shows a clear sympathy with Young Earth doctrine in his writing.

It was the giant panda that graced the front cover of Pandas, that appears in the logo of the World Wildlife Fund (patron HRH the Duke of Edinburgh), and that pulls in visitors to zoos. Panda diplomacy also played a role in the restoration of normal relations between China and the West, one of the major achievements of the much-maligned Nixon administration. The cuddly looking creature, with the big black patches round its eyes, has great emotional (and, as a result, commercial) appeal. Unfortunately, its very survival in the wild is threatened, and attempts to maintain numbers in captivity have run into great difficulties.

Pandas (specifically giant pandas) live almost entirely on bamboo. Unfortunately, bamboo is of very low nutritional value to the pandas, who have the digestive systems of carnivores rather than ruminants, so they need to eat up to 40 kg a day, and in the wild just doing this can take them up to 14 hours. They need very powerful jaw muscles because of the chewing involved, and these and their attachments are what gives the pandas their appealing round faces. Their habitat is under pressure, and numbers in the wild are down to about 1500. Thus the number in captivity (now over 300) is a considerable fraction of the total population. Pandas face very serious restrictions. They can only survive in areas where more than one species of bamboo is flourishing, since if they relied on a single species they would starve when that species flowers and dies back. They are such inefficient digesters that they have little energy to spare, and find it a problem to make their way up steep slopes. This may not have mattered too much in their original habitat in the Chinese lowlands, but now that people have taken up all the land suitable for agriculture, they find themselves living in the mountains.

It has turned out to be enormously difficult to breed pandas in captivity, a feat not accomplished at all until 1963. Where’s the problem? Why not just put a male and a female panda together and let them get on with it?

(To be continued)

Paul Braterman is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University and is on the committee of the British Centre for Science Education. His next book, “From Stars to Stalagmites”, will be published next May by World Scientific

*Zoology memoirs, Chicago natural History museum, 1964, available at

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