29 April 2008

'Biobigotry' and anthropo-muddleheadedness

We’re all of us prone to a massive over-interpretation of the things that we see...I distinctly remember, when I first went to Amboseli National Park to study vervet monkeys, how quickly I developed strong feelings about the personalities of the monkeys — here were the great and brave ones, there were the lame ones that hid in the bushes and acted pathetic.
-- Marc D. Hauser quoted by Natalie Angier in Noble Eagles, Nasty Pigeons, Biased Humans.
As Robin Dunbar, a strong defender of the idea of animal intentionality, has himself admitted, 'the very language we use [to describe animal behaviour] derives from human experience...There is simply no "neutral" language in which to describe the behaviour of animals that does not prejudice the issue.'

John Maynard Smith once pointed out that such anthropomorphism does little mischief if we are concerned solely with animal behaviour. But if we want to draw lessons about human behaviour, then applying 'to animals words that describe human behaviour' can cause 'quite a lot of harm'.
-- from Humane Beasts and Beastly Humans, Chapter 8 of Man, Beast and Zombie by Kenan Malik.

28 April 2008


In a recent book, Michael L. Morgan argues that 'we' -- by which he means bystanders to genocide -- ought to feel ashamed at living in a world that conducts such actions and continues to allow them to occur: "Guilt will not do, nor fear or anger, but shame will [motivate serious and responsible action aiming at solving these problems]".

But what about when mass killing is not specifically intended to eliminate a people or peoples but is instrumental in a struggle [largely but not exclusively] to control resources, generate profits and enhance lifestyles? In Eastern Congo around five million people are estimated to have been killed in such a case. Aspects of the situation have been well reported by Mike Thomson for the BBC, and others (see also footnote 1).

Perhaps 'we' might feel a special sense of shame in this instance with regard to the United Nations, an institution that is supposed to work for all of 'us', but which has allowed peace-keeping troops to 'arm Congo rebels' (see also here).

Shame, maybe, but how do we deploy our anger usefully, if (as Martin Plout reports Paddy Ashdown as saying [FOOC, 26 Apr]) the UN absorbs criticism like a blancmange, and doesn't change?

Mike Thomson asks [also in FOOC, 26 Apr], what is the point of revisiting the story of a woman raped 19 times and forced to watch 48 people die including her brother and three of her own children when, as a friend confesses to him, all this does is to leave one feeling depressed and powerless because nothing changes?

And how to observe and attempt to manage psychological reactions and emotions (or a lack of them) with regard to significantly larger challenges, such as reducing the risk of climate destabilisation and ecosystem disruption likely to endanger hundreds of millions of people (see footnotes 2, 3)? In a review of James Gustav Speth's The Bridge at the End of the World, Ross Gelbspan writes:
This...is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress. But short of a cataclysmic event -- like the Great Depression or some equally profound social breakdown -- Speth does not suggest how we might achieve the change in values and structural reform necessary for long-term sustainability. "People have conversion experiences and epiphanies," he notes, asking, "Can an entire society have a conversion experience?"
An eighteenth century view, from Adam Smith:
It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

1) [added 2 May] Congo's population is likely to triple by mid century, increasing the probabilities of continuing tensions, according to some analysis. Suggested near term interventions include those outlined here.

2) ...never mind the impact of such changes on 'creation' including the gorilla, a gentle and charismatic non-human organism of Eastern Congo whose existence enriches the lives of those fortunate enough to be able to contemplate it.

3) The case for pessimism is well articulated by Clive Bates in his comment on this post.

25 April 2008


I have been taking notes for a section of the book about pufferfish and, more widely, human appetite. So it's nice, but distracting, to note that the featured article on Wikipedia today is on the pufferfish's tetraodontiform cousin the Mola mola, or Ocean sunfish. Particularly diverting, I think, is this photo of the fry, just two or three millimeters across. The tiny animal is embedded in spines so that it looks like a cross between a starfish and a fish: The article also has a striking picture from 1910 of an adult that weighed 1,600 kg, or 3,500 lb (although bigger individuals, weighing up to 2,300 kg, or 5,100 lb, have been observed): But just in case one is left with only a warm, slightly unfocused feeling of wonder, the Wikipedists (no great prose stylists) remind us that:
The fishery, by-catch and destruction of ocean sunfish are unregulated worldwide. In some areas, the fish are "finned" by fishermen who regard them as worthless bait thieves. This process, in which the fins are cut off, results in the eventual death of the fish, because it can no longer propel itself without its dorsal and anal fins. The species is also threatened by floating trash such as plastic bags which resemble jellyfish, its main diet. Bags can choke and suffocate an individual or fill its stomach to the extent that it starves.

24 April 2008

Bambi und Godzilla mit Schlag

As Disney returns to nature on film, two reflections in recent days on mid 20th century popular movies:
1. David Whitley says that films like Bambi "[still] have the potential for putting us in touch with issues [such as a world where humans and animals can exist harmoniously] in playful forms,” that can allow “audiences to think as well as feel."

2. Hitomi Muto says Godzilla "reminded [the Japanese] of our sense of awe about nature...[made us feel] fear for [its] destruction...[and see] the stupidity of human acts and arrogance of scientism".
Both statements seem conventional, limited. But then how much is there to say about these films? More unsettled is Eroll Morris, who in a conversation with Werner Herzog last year said:
I’m very fond of telling people when they say that they would like regime change, for example, in Washington, that what we really need is species change. That the [human] species itself is so impossible and so deeply degraded that one could well do with something else for a change...

...Despite all of our efforts to control something, the world is much, much more powerful than us, and more deranged even than us.

21 April 2008

'This is it'

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking. We say with motion in space, 'This is what life’s done so far down here, this is all and what and everything it’s managed: this body, these bodies, that body. So what do you think, heaven, what do you fucking think?'
--from Dance in America by Lorrie Moores.
We must always live our lives opaquely, acting with bodies, desires and thoughts that we find ourselves possessing and being possessed by.
-- from The Hand by Raymond Tallis.

20 April 2008

Some future from behind bars

Tigers bred in captivity are reported to have 'a genomic diversity no longer found in the wild.'

And gifting between rulers may have saved Javan elephants from total extinction.

18 April 2008

So Excellent a Fishe

I have been trying to write about leatherback turtles and human imagination (so far with very limited success). The topic leads in various directions including musings on time, space and memory, and the work of (among others) Giordano Bruno, David Hume, Douwe Draaisma and Oliver Sachs. Another authority on memory is Erich Kandel who happens to be speaking at the Royal Society next Tuesday. Kandel's Nobel autobiography is remarkable, not least for his account of the Nazi-toxication of Austria:
In the background the Horst Wessel song, one of the hypnotic Nazi marching songs that even I found captivating [emphasis added], blared forth.
Back to the turtles. Who will contradict Fredric Janzen when he writes:
The long lives of many organisms such as turtles mask their ongoing declines. By the time the catastrophic demise of these species is first noticed by the public, it is often too late to restore them, much less maintain their genetic integrity.

Dark materials

The apparent perfection of animals is more a reflection of the poverty of our imaginations than of reality.
-- from Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions by Michael LePage.

17 April 2008


The vast majority of the Bengal coast’s marine life begins in the nursery of the Sundarbans; fifty-three species of reptiles are harbored here, more than two hundred species of birds, and at least fifty species of mammals, including the endangered Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins, the Smooth Indian otter and the cheetah-spotted fishing cat. A hundred years ago, there were Java rhino, wild buffalo, and swamp deer.
-- from Tigerland by Caroline Alexander.

When combined to the pressure from a growing human population, what will be the consequences for the Sunderbans of a sea level rise of a meter and half or more?

15 April 2008


The impacts of meat production feature in the media again, again (e.g. Dot Earth, Grist, Grist, Monbiot). Where next? Atwood (2003) imagined:
Next they went to NeoAgriculturals...They had to put on biosuits before they entered the facility, and scrub their hands and wear nose-cone filters, because what they were about to see hadn't been bioform-proofed, or not completely. A woman with a laugh like Woody Woodpecker led them through the corridors.

"This is the latest," said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

"What the hell is it?" said Jimmy.

"Those are chickens," said Crake. "Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve on a growth unit."

14 April 2008

Mapping another world

Uroplatus fimbriatus (a giant leaf-tailed gecko) and Adansonia grandidieri are among species featured in news reports like this one on the paper Aligning Conservation Priorities Across Taxa in Madagascar.

3 April 2008

500 million years, and a moment in time

Like the coelacanths, horseshoe crabs, tuatara lizards, sharks and crocodiles, today's nautiluses are all but indistinguishable from their distant fossilised ancestors [of 500 million years ago].

Exactly why some species survive unchanged is not clear, but it seems there is a price to pay. Living fossils have a very low "evolutionary fecundity": they may have lasted many millions of years, but at the same time they produce very few new species.

For decades, nautiluses seemed to fit this bill, but new research into their evolutionary history and behaviour has produced an unexpected turnaround. Rather than being the last holdouts of a static lineage, the nautiluses appear to be in the midst of an evolutionary adventure, diverisifying at a rate that hasn't been seen in their lineage since just after the extinction of the dinosaurs...

...[But] time is not on our side. The great survivors are facing their greatest challenge - humans. Caught for their shells, which are sold as souvenirs or turned into buttons, nautilus numbers are declining. One population in the Philippines has already been wiped out, and fleets of nautilus boats are now moving farther up the South China Sea...
-- from Nautilus: Chambers of secrets by Peter Ward of the University of Washington in Seattle.

[P.S. 2 June: see also Simple-minded nautilus reveals flash of memory]