31 March 2008

Running in the family

The Khoisan people...were well known for being able to run down swift prey, including steenboks, gemsboks and wildebeests and zebras, provided they could hunt in the heat of the day. The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico chase down deer till the animals are exhausted, then throttle them to death by hand. The Paiutes and Navajos were reported to do the same with pronghorn antelopes. Australian Aborignes chased down kangaroos, but only by forcing them to reach lethal body temperatures.
-- from Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run (2001), an account consistent with the thesis that "endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form" (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004).

If these guys are right, endurance running has been one of the things fundamental to human nature. And its origins may stretch back into the roughly four million years between what is likely to have been powerful walking but not much running by Orrorin tugenensis and what may have been a running ability in Homo Ergaster/Erectus similar to, or even surpassing, that of modern humans.

This is probably consistent with the hypothesis (blogged here) that upright walking began in the trees and human ancestors conserved this gait. And if this is right then rise from knuckle-walking in our ancestry implicitly schematised in the alignment of existing cousins shown Huxley's 1863 graph may not be something in which our ancestors took part:

OK, none of this news. So why mention it? This project is concerned with living species and their ends, but everything lives in the shadows of forgotten ancestors, and I am awed at the long existence of our robust, fast-running cousin Erectus.

Across Africa and Asia, Erectus survived for some 1.8 million years (and may have hung on at the periphery for another 200,000 years or so ). That's many times as long as anatomically modern humans have existed and hundreds of times as long as the period since agriculture began. Through all this immense space, they probably hunted and ran, building on upright walking skills older than their lineage.

Image from Khoisan. Is that a rebar in the back of his pack?

27 March 2008


When you’re surrounded by death and carnage and violence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it absorbs you. You walk down the street and you see a dead body on the road, whereas a couple months ago, you would have been like, ‘Oh, my God, a dead body,’ today you’re like, ‘Damn, he got messed up, let’s go get something to eat.’
--Sergeant Javal Davis, of the U.S. Army 372nd Military Police Company, quoted in Exposure: The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris.

26 March 2008

The proof by elephants

Aristotle argued for a spherical earth for these reasons:
* The gradual disappearance of ships over the horizon, the tops of the sails disappearing last;

* The shape of the curved shadow of the earth on the moon during eclipses;

* The variation of the sun's elevation with latitude (this was the basis of Eratosthenes' measurement);

* The variation of a star's elevation with latitude. The fact that one sees new stars as one moves north or south on the earth's surface;

* Matter tends to form into drops or globs, and the earth, in forming from chaotic matter, did the same;

* Proof by elephants. When one travels west from Greece, one finds elephants (African). When one travels east one finds elephants (Asian).

25 March 2008

'Bats Perish, and No One Knows Why'

It was broad daylight in the middle of winter, and bats flew out of the mine about one a minute. Some had fallen to the ground where they flailed around on the snow like tiny wind-broken umbrellas, using the thumbs at the top joint of their wings to gain their balance. All would be dead by nightfall.
-- NYT report. Update 4 Nov: A fungus may be to blame

Robot love

Humanity is an act: it is something we do. When our robots become pets, carers, even companions, we will, quite naturally, feel the urge to treat them well. When it comes to being human, we will give them the benefit of the doubt, the way we give the benefit of the doubt to our pets, our children, and each other.
-- from Learning to love robots by Simon Ings.
The evolution of robots will be similar to that of animals. They will be designed according to whatever is best for their own ecological circumstances. These robots will be bought and sold and will therefore have to compete in the marketplace [sic] against other robots and against humans willing to carry out the same tasks. This ecological competition will lead to the evolution of certain attributes, among them robustness, speed of reaction, self-sufficiency, and autonomy.
-- from Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs by David McFarland

24 March 2008

Wonderful structure

Living things were not made for man. Many have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man's intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, the vigorous life and early death would seem to be intimately related only their own well being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well being and perpetuation of numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.
-- from Chapter XXX of The Malay Archipelago (1869) by Alfred Russel Wallace.

21 March 2008


What form does this επιστήμη (episteme - knowledge) take, and how far, in the various areas of human life and study, can our need for it be satisfied? What will the most satisfactory answers to our "why" questions be like? How are our various answers related? How far should we press the demand for understanding?

(The quote is from Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle's De Motu Animalium. The image is the rainbow serpent from aboriginal mythology.)

20 March 2008

'An inside job'

A senior wildlife park official in Democratic Republic of Congo has been arrested amid claims that he organised the killing of rare mountain gorillas.
-- BBC report. A photo from July 2007 here.

17 March 2008


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
-- Czeslaw Milosz, 1936

16 March 2008

Between Dubai and the deep blue sea

In a ramshackle fishing village on the outskirts of Honiara [in the Solomon Islands], Robert Satu holds up a necklace made of dolphin teeth. Up to 20 dolphins were killed to make it, he estimates, draping the heavy ceremonial jewellery around his neck.

'We cut them like this,' he says, drawing his hand across his throat, indicating how the animals are decapitated and the teeth prised out. During the slaughter, he says, the sea turns crimson.
-- from an article by Barbara McMahon titled South Seas dolphins face slaughter for their teeth - or life in captivity. But, as her accompanying audio report indicates, some people think that is, or should be, a false choice.

11 March 2008

Deep time

If geologists were to show the full scale of human history vertically on a scale as long as the depth of the deepest sea, all human history, about ten thousand years, would fit nicely into the upper inch – about the depth of the depression made by a seagull riding on the surface.
- from A Reef in Time by J. E. N. Veron.

Insubstantial organisms

Since Trieste's historic descent, a robot called Kaiko has explored more of the hadal zone, discovering a fragile, floating world of jelly life, insubstantial organisms that are able to exist only because the water is so still that currents don't tear them apart. On the very bottom Kaiko has glimpsed sea cucumbers, worms, and giant single-celled organisms up to twenty-five centimeters across, which feed on the slow rain of organic matter that sinks from the sunlit zone eleven kilometers overhead. Because deep trenches are often close to land, wood washed out to sea by typhoons and other severe storms contributes to this supply of falling food, so that at the very bottom of our world live worms and crustaceans that dine upon hearts of palms and other rainforest delicacies.
-- Tim Flannery

(Image: Rigid diving suit, Carmagnole brothers, 1882)