31 May 2008

Kugu, kipple, humans and onions

[Human] DNA contains approximately 3.2 billion base pairs, about the amount of information that can be stored on a single CD, but only about 5 percent of that information plays a significant role in constructing the human form. Our human CD contains, in effect, the equivalent of one really good, but short, pop song, with the rest of the tracks being staticky hisses, noise, and repetitions of the same short phrase, over and over again
-- from Random Acts of Evolution by P Z Myers. See also Darwin's surprise by Michael Specter.

30 May 2008

Big fish

Halibut, really big halibut, a recent post on Deep Sea News, is a reminder of how big saltwater fish can, or could, get when people don't eat them.

There is probably no better account of how such creatures became rare than The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts. See the gallery on the book's web site for extraordinary historical images.

The elimination of giant fish in the world's fresh waters is probably even further advanced than it is in the seas [1, 2], with few initiatives such as Zeb Hogan's Megafishes Project struggling against the flow to save animals such as the giant catfish of the Mekong.

Hucho taimen, 'the river god's daughter', is the world's largest trout. It thrives, in Mongolia, by not being eaten.
As Roberts and others have documented so well, shifting environmental baselines -- collective amnesia surrounding how things were more than a few decades ago -- are a nearly universal feature of human awareness. Go back hundreds or thousands of years and the abundance and size of fish in Europe seems beyond belief today. Roberts quotes Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD about sturgeon from the river Padus (the Po) as "sometimes reach[ing] almost half a ton (450kg) and [being] dragged from the water only by teams of oxen." [3]

Mesopotamian mythology tells of Oannes, an amphibious being who taught mankind wisdom. Oannes had the form of a fish but the head of a man under his fish’s head and the feet of a man under his fish’s tail. In the daytime he came up to the seashore of the Persian Gulf and instructed mankind in writing, the arts, and the sciences. [4]

Some scholars say one should think again before laughing at people who associated the divine with a river fish. Historically, many carp in the two rivers may well have been man-sized or bigger, and must have been an impressive sight in the murky waters. But the story turns bleak. In 2007 Iraqi mullahs put a fatwa on consumption of Tigris carp because the fish had grown fat on the many human bodies dumped into the rivers since liberation.

Just about the only image of hope and regeneration in Cormac McCarthy's The Road concerns freshwater fish:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and tortional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

1. Can the human being and fish coexist peacefully? Yes, say Tim McClanahan and co-authors (Healing small-scale fisheries by facilitating complex socio-ecological systems). But the study does not focus on extraction of large animals.

2. See also, for example, Sunfish on this blog.

3. Continued heavy fishing and, in the medieval period, the rapid spread of mills diminished fisheries in European rivers so far that people were obliged to turn to the seas on a scale never seen before. The craft they developed surely played an important role in making Europe's age of expansion and conquest possible.

4. According to some accounts, Oannes was the emissary of Ea, god of the freshwater deep and of wisdom. Ea, also known as Ia (two syllables) is declined with the Semitic ending as Iahu and may have developed into the later form Yahweh. See here. In Hindu mythology Matsya, the first avatar of Vishnu, is a fish that dives into the ocean, rips open the stomach of rampaging demon and retrieves the Vedas.

Deep time holds even bigger fish than the deep waters of the Holocene. Consider, for example Dunkleosteus, a late Devonian placoderm, and Xiphactinus, a bony fish of the late Cretaceous which could swallow creatures up to 2m long whole.

28 May 2008

Extinction and metaphor

Whether we need to save other species to save ourselves is not really the point. Each time a species vanishes, the planet becomes a poorer place. It doesn’t matter if we’ve never seen them, if they go extinct without our ever knowing they were here. To live is to participate in the carnival of nature, and the carnival is diminished by the losses.
-- says Olivia Judson in Musings Inspired By a Quagga.

The metaphor of nature [life] as carnival may appeal to quite a few. To others, nature is a university, a cathedral, an abyss, an abattoir, a three and half billion year furnace, an obstacle to rise above and a tool kit.

If there is a truth for humans, it may be that biodiversity sustains life and nourishes culture and spirit; it may be a path to a pearl of great price.

27 May 2008

Que viene el coco

In one corner of the room is a life-sized photograph of Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The other corner houses a 20ft fluffy snake, aqua blue with pink spots and a flashing red tongue. A sign around its head reads: "I am the climate beast and I am hungry."
-- from a profile of Wally Broecker.

One track of the beast could be Vast cracks appear[ing] in Arctic ice: sea ice, thousands of years old, has been cracking apart with the violence of a small earthquake.

[P.S. 4 June: but a different phenomenon is the 'icequake', probably connected to tides rather temperature changes.]

26 May 2008

The living rock

Erwan Roussel and colleagues help extend the known range of life with evidence suggesting that the sub-sea-floor biosphere extends to at least 1600 meters below the sea floor and probably deeper, with an upper temperature limit for prokaryotic life of at least 113°C (see this article, part of a special issue on microbial space in Science).

This would surely have pleased Imre Friedman.

24 May 2008

Busy being born

In the future there will be no more human beings. This is not something we should worry about.
-- writes John Harris (in Who’s afraid of a synthetic human?). And having got your attention he frames an argument for human enhancement with a plausible simile: it's like candlelight as opposed to darkness -- artificial, of course, but an unquestionable benefit (...so long as it regulated and fairly distributed: Harris is after all a European [1] not an American).

For Harris, professor of bioethics at Manchester University, "the end of humanity is not in itself a concern; making sure that those who replace us are better than we are is a huge and timely concern."

I agree with Stephen Pinker's attack on 'theocon bioethics', provocatively titled The Stupidity of Dignity, and I think Olivia Judson writes thoughtfully and informatively about how, for her, wonder replaced unease when she learned more about cybrids. But I think we need to think carefully about two terms Harris deploys: "better" and "humanity."

In the brief scope of his article, Harris describes "creatures better than ourselves" as ones that are "longer-lived, more resistant to disease and injury, healthier and better adapted to a changing environment". This is OK as far as it goes but I think it is not enough for at least two reasons.

One, we are not just talking about pet dogs or heirloom vegetables (to use a comparison made in a post on the blog Practical Ethics). Synthetic biology looks likely to have greater potential than anything so far to turn all beings into an undifferentiated "standing reserve" (Heidegger) for any use to which humans -- or post humans -- choose to put them.

Two, we need an enhanced sense of what it is to be human and a broader and deeper sense of non-human being at least as much as if not more than we need enhanced humans. I have in mind wisdom and compassion -- 'humanity' in the richest sense of that word -- and a better sense of moral and physical limits, given our capacity to inflict pain on others and to damage ecosystems.

In a recent piece titled Faustian Economics, Wendell Berry writes:
Our cultural tradition is in large part the record of our continuing effort to understand ourselves as beings specifically human: to say that, as humans, we must do certain things and we must not do certain things. We must have limits of we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist [altogether]. At times, for example, some of us humans have thought that human beings, properly so called, did not make war against civilian populations, or hold prisoners without fair trial, or use torture for any reason.
[Footnote 1: 'European', perhaps, in the sense of states, institutions and values of the kind that the historian Tony Judt hopes for: "the alternative in the 21st century is not the globalised post state world as versus the old fashioned world of the nation state; it's the protective, welfare state -- democratic and open -- as against the demagogic closed state of fear." (Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, May 2008)].

23 May 2008

Pterosaur care

A Pterosaur Rookery will be the cornerstone of the Creation Science Museum: a world-class pterosaur facility staffed by the top Christian experts in pterosaur care and husbandry (who will be trained at the very same facility, since little is currently known about pterosaur needs).
--the word from Objective Ministries.

P.S. 27 May: if seeking sanity and a reality stranger than fantasy a good place to start is Tetrapod Zoology on Terrestrial stalking azhdarchids [28 May: paper now online at PLoS].


Acid test

The great concern for scientists is the speed at which the changes are happening. "What [this study] does indicate is that [marine species] may not have time to adapt as we might have hoped for".
-- Caroline Turley, commenting on Evidence for Upwelling of Corrosive "Acidified" Water onto the Continental Shelf.

[See also Sea change and Poised for significant reorganisation.]


It is claimed that six 'uniquely' human traits found in animals are: culture, [theory of mind], tool use, morality, emotions and personality.

Still unique to humans, it's said, are art, cooking, religion, humour and sport (which sounds like a fair summary of most of the things that people care about most of the time).

[P.S. 23 Aug: According to Michael Gazzinga, writes Daniel Levitin, "much of what makes us human is not an ability to do more things, but an ability to inhibit automatic responses in favor of reasoned ones; consequently, we may be the only species that engages in delayed gratification and impulse control."]

A life's bugs

Bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome.
-- Science, NYT.

22 May 2008

Sharks short shock

Eleven oceanic shark species on the Red List -- IUCN.

[But not as think as you dumb they are (Smithsonian).]

Seek and hide

Chameleons, it's reported, can fine-tune their colour changes to hide according the visual systems of specific predators. In the presence of a snake, it seems, they don't have to try as hard as they do with birds, which have better vision.

The findings are published not too long after work indicating that chameleons first evolved the capacity to change colours in order to attract the attention of other chameleons.

At least as astonishing are cuttlefish, of whom Les Murray writes:
Spacefarers past living planetfall
on our ever-dive in bloom crystal:
when about our self kin selves appear,
slowing, rubber to pulp, we slack from spear,
flower anemone, re-clasp and hang, welling
while the design of play is jelling,

then enfolding space, jet
every way to posit some essential set
of life-streaks in the placeless,
or we commune parallel, rouge to cerulean
as odd proposals of shape and zip floresce
– till jig-maw apparition
spurts us apart into vague as our colours shrink,
leaving, of our culture, an ectoplasm of ink.

A 'pitiful prospect'

CBD, UNCLOS, RFMOs, CITES, FAO: the bottom line is proposals for marine reserves in international waters face stalling, big time.

20 May 2008


Walruses are a delight for many. (In my case they played an important part in an encounter with a remarkable result.) Natalie Angier joins the fan club with an article detailing some striking walrus virtues, including a kind of music and an ability to 'walk' food along their moustaches.

Her article does not mention that, historically, humans have killed most walruses, especially in the Atlantic. Admiration and extirpation have been bedfellows. Following an encounter in Svalbaard I noted (1):
The charm of this animal was evidently as great to people in the 17th century as it is for us today. In 1611 a young walrus was shown at the English court ‘where the kinge and many honourable personages beheld it with admiration for the strangenesse of the same, the like whereof had never been seene alive in England. As the beast in shape is very strange, so it is of a strange docilitie, and apt to be taught’.

But that was the view for home consumption. In [their] first encounter of 1604 the English soon learnt walruses were not only harmless but rich in oil. In 1605 Muscovy Company ships returned to Spitsbergen, spending the entire summer killing walruses and boiling down the blubber which was used for soap. By the third season, in 1606, they were so experienced in walrus hunting that within six hours of landing they had killed between six and seven hundred beasts out of which they made twenty-two tons of oil and filled three hogsheads (large barrels) with tusks
I weep for you, the humans said, I deeply sympathize.

Currently IUCN lists two of three subspecies as of 'least concern' for extinction. But there is some concern that climate change will reduce their numbers sharply.

[Footnote 1: I think I was quoting from No Man's Land: A History of Spitsbergen by Sir Martin Conway (1906).]

Hell for Leatherbacks

The [U.S.] Center for Biological Diversity is asking people to oppose the resumption of long line fishing in the waters off California and Oregon because of concern about its impact on endangered leatherback turtles. The deadline is 27 May.

19 May 2008


Brittle star 'city' discovered (report, slides [P.S. video]).

Haeckel named [?] one of the strangest ones after Darwin.

Just wondering

The entire history of humankind to date is a mere instant compared with the eons that still lie before us. All the triumphs and tribulations of the millions of people who have walked the Earth since the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia would be like mere birth pangs in the delivery of a kind of life that hasn't yet begun. For surely it would be the height of naïveté to think that with the transformative technologies already in sight--genetics, nano technology, and so on--and with thousands of millennia still ahead of us in which to perfect and apply these technologies and others of which we haven't yet conceived, human nature and the human condition will remain unchanged. Instead, if we survive and prosper, we will presumably develop some kind of posthuman existence.
-- a scenario from Nick Bostrom, the co-organiser of a conference on catastrophic global risks, who (unlike Funes the not so memorious) hopes the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing. The late W G Sebald looked in other directions:
The denial of time, so the tract on Orbius Tertius tells us, is one of the key tenets of the philosophical schools of Tloen. According to this principle, the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past is merely a memory. In a different view, the world and everything now living in it was created only moments ago, together with its complete but illusory pre-history. A third school of thought variously describes our earth as a cul-de-sac in the great city of God, a dark cave crowded with incomprehensible images, or a hazy aura surrounding a better sun. The advocates of a fourth philosophy maintain that time has run its course and that this life is no more than the fading recollection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains. All that is certain is that night lasts far longer than day, if one compares an individual life, life as a whole, or time itself with the system which, in each case, is above it. The night of time, wrote Thomas Browne in his treatise of 1658, The Garden of Cyrus [footnote 1], far surpasseth the day and who knows when was the Aequinox?
This may all be just so much speculation. What looks more sure is that:
working memory enables us to link the past and present, and allows us to conceive of a future. No other species has developed this capacity so completely as humans, and early on it may well have allowed us to steal a march on our most recent ancestors.
-- from How culture made your modern mind.

[Footnote 1: actually it is in Urn Burial]

16 May 2008

'1% every year'

Humans are wiping out about 1% of all other species every year, and one of the 'great extinction episodes' in the Earth's history is under way.
-- Zoological Society of London (quoted at Wildlife populations 'plummeting').

P.S. 19 May:
Nearly 200 governments will say next week they are unlikely to meet a target of slowing the rate of extinctions of living species by 2010, a failure which could threaten future food supplies.

15 May 2008

'Threatened', on track to be 'endangered'

The (Annotated) Polar Bear Decision from Andy Revkin.

When you look at a map of the world and see where these changes are already happening, and how many species and systems are already responding to climate change after only a 0.6C rise, it just heightens our concerns for the future.
-- Cynthia Rosenzweig, lead author of this paper, quoted here.

14 May 2008

Whereof can one not speak

Why should we not talk about an 'extraterrestrial brother'?, asks Jose Gabriel Funes. Why not indeed...if one is there? But let's start by taking a cappuccino with Guy Consolmagno.

Image: a planetary nebula called Abell 39

13 May 2008


I felt cruel when I turned it off. It was the only piece in the show that was alive. It really was an amazing piece.
-- Paola Antonelli, a curator at MoMA, referring to a 'living coat' made of mouse skin in the exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, quoted in Museum kills live exhibit.

11 May 2008

Dark music

An introductory editorial in a series on science and music in the 8 May edition Nature says that musicology, statistics, cognitive and evolutionary biology and acoustics will help 'us' to understand much about western classical and beyond, but will also remind us that "none of these disciplines has yet been able to answer the fundamental question: why does music have such power over us?" And Philip Ball's essay in the same edition is consistent with that: Ball relays fascinating insights (for example, cognitive studies of infants and primates offer some evidence that [without cultural conditioning] the brain recognizes the octave, and possibly the fifth as 'special'), but a section titled 'Why does music move us?' brings to mind the story of the blind men describing an elephant.

This is not decry Ball or Nature. As Ball says, we have to start somewhere. Going on past form, the eight further parts of his essay will be engaging, and other articles connecting science to music in the 8 May edition -- Harnessing the hum, The cellular hullabalo and Music of the stratospheres-- are also fascinating [footnote].

It is an attempt to say something about the nature of the beast under examination. We all start from blindness here, and even if a large number of us can come to a more complete physical description, and beyond that a pretty full behavioural account of the elephant, we may still not 'know' elephants. But that's OK. As Nature puts it, "above all, what matters is that analysis strengthens rather than weakens humankind's sense of wonder."

Music is a material reality, of course, but -- like consciousness itself -- we sometimes experience it in ways that seem different from most material realities; music occurs to us as both a deeply interior phenomenon and an exterior one (see Rilke) .

Looking and listening out, the composer John Luther Adams is on to something with 'The Place Where You Go to Listen', which Alex Ross describes like this:
You sit on a bench before five glass panels, which change color according to the time of day and the season. What you notice first is a dense, organlike sonority, which Adams has named the Day Choir. Its notes follow the contour of the natural harmonic series—the rainbow of overtones that emanate from a vibrating string—and have the brightness of music in a major key. In overcast weather, the harmonies are relatively narrow in range; when the sun comes out, they stretch across four octaves. After the sun goes down, a darker, moodier set of chords, the Night Choir, moves to the forefront. The moon is audible as a narrow sliver of noise. Pulsating patterns in the bass, which Adams calls Earth Drums, are activated by small earthquakes and other seismic events around Alaska. And shimmering sounds in the extreme registers—the Aurora Bells—are tied to the fluctuations in the magnetic field that cause the Northern Lights.
For those of us who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing we like.

Adams tells Ross that another piece, 'In the White Silence', is an elegy for a place that has disappeared: Alaska is now melting and filled with human noise.

The seven tenths of the planet that is water is also changing rapidly. Noise from human activity is an important factor, but far from only one, disturbing its many musics, including the songs of Humpback whales, which can span entire ocean basins.

A human future (see, for example, McKibben) will surely need music that helps keep us cheerful. It may also need more complex intimations such as Adams's 'Dark Waves' (accessible at the time of writing as an audio file at the bottom of this page).

[Footnote: Listen, too, to Prisca Cushman's Dark Matter Music Box.]

10 May 2008

Beyond the self

Even though we know this in hundreds of ways, it continues to be both fascinating and unsettling to find out that something you thought of as a feature of the self turns out to be a product of your brain.
-- Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, quoted in Science (The roots of morality).

9 May 2008

Extraterrestrial bling

Fossilised sea creatures have been found that coated themselves in tiny diamonds created in the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs.
-- from Sea creatures had a thing for bling.

Image: Live planktonic foraminifera Globigerinella aequilateralis.

8 May 2008

Stink or swim

Trouble is brewing in the waters off the Chukotka Peninsula in the far east of Siberia. In the past few years, the aboriginal whalers of the eastern coastline who hunt grey whales for meat have reported that an increasing number of the creatures they catch smell so foul that even dogs won't eat them. The few people who have tried the meat suffered numb mouths, stomach ache and skin rashes...
-- Amitabh Avasthi.

7 May 2008

Supersize me

On Tuesday, [Georgia] aquarium officials announced plans for a $110 million expansion, increasing itself by 1.5 million gallons, most of which will be used for dolphin windows, dolphin shows and something called “dolphin encounters.”...

...The new addition may...eclipse the size of an aquarium, claiming to be the “world’s largest indoor marine mammal pavilion,” that is being built in the mammoth Dubai Mall and due to open in the United Arab Emirates in 2009.
See also Between Dubai and the deep blue sea.

Monotreme extreme

The fact that the animal has five X and five Y chromosomes is "the weirdest thing about a very weird animal," said Ewan Birney, a co-author on the paper..."In theory it means there are 25 possible sexes, though in practice that doesn't happen."

2 May 2008

Sea change

Some coral species can be amazingly resilient even in the wake of massive nuclear explosions. But bad news about coral reefs and, more widely, the state of the seas remains the default state. In this 'official' International Year of the Reef, and unofficial [deep sea] Coral Week, what pointers for hope?

Andrew Baird and Jeffrey A. Maynard have argued that an analysis by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg et al does not present sufficient evidence to conclude that corals will unable to adapt to climate change and ocean acidification. Hoegh-Guldberg and co respond here.

A recently published study by Deborah Iglesias-Rodríguez suggests that an important organism, Emiliania huxleyi, may actually thrive in a high CO2 world. But Iglesias-Rodríguez says the "hopeful news for 'Ehux' does not overturn the gloomy predictions for corals or negate ocean acidification as an impending ecological disruption" (see also V. Fabry pdf). And Thomas Goreau says that the fact that the cultures were grown under high "nutrient-replete conditions” should be a "serious caveat".

Coral restoration efforts - such as these or these - may be the best hope, where also combined with expanded and effective protected areas.

[P.S. See also Expanding Oxygen-Minimum Zones in the Tropical Oceans, blogged on 6 May as Ocean 'deserts' are increasing as planet warms.]