31 July 2008

Life tuned differently

"You have no idea what life would be like in a universe with different constants," [says Fred Adams]...[He] reckons his results, which will be published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, suggest that the "specialness" of our universe could well be an illusion. And this is only the very beginning of what can be probed to undermine the idea that our universe is fine-tuned for life. There are plenty more constants and processes that can be tinkered with, he says.
-- from In the multiverse, stars burn black, a report on work that indicates that very different life forms to the ones we know might be better suited to some other universes in which the range of possible values for three constants involved in the formation of stars are different.

We are alone

A couple of reminders this week that belief in the presence of alien beings on earth [1] is widespread and/or goes deep in parts of the culture:
a) the Brit who lost his appeal against extradition had hacked into U.S. military and space systems because he wanted to find out whether aliens really existed; and

b) 'Area 51' is the most popular conspiracy theory in the U.K.
The beliefs are peculiar to the times. As Hilary Mantel puts it, "until the idea of space flight became credible, there were no aliens; instead there were green men who hid in the woods" [2].

Imaginitively inhabiting the present extinction event in our own biosphere (if that is what it is) looks like a tougher call [3].

Der Erlkönig

1. The existence, or otherwise, of life in parts of our universe at present remote from us, or in other universes, may be a different matter.

2. In the same piece Mantel writes:
On the lonely road by moonlight, the parts of ourselves oppressed by our intelligence come out to play. We meet ancestral selves, neither gods nor demons but short semi-humans with hairy ears and senses differently attuned – the eyesight of an eagle, the nose of a hound. The phenomena are internal, generated by the psychological mechanisms that connect us to each other and to our evolutionary past.
She has noted elsewhere that we are full of ghosts, but largely human ones.

3. [Added 1 Aug]: An example: CI e mails its supporters:
Can you imagine a world without [our closest relatives]? Visit Conservation.org every day next week to discover the state of the world’s primates and what you can do to save them.

Love, loyalty and goose liver pâté

...To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I’ve ever met...
-- from A farm boy reflects on animal rights by Nicholas Kristof

29 July 2008

Barely sober beings

Jungle shrews take a tipple, but eschew (ha ha) intoxication (It’s Always Happy Hour for Several Species in Malaysian Rain Forest):
The findings...suggest there must be benefits to having chronic low levels of alcohol in the bloodstream — otherwise the behavior would not have evolved.

Those benefits may be psychological...perhaps enabling the animals to cope with stress of some sort.
According to popular TV, a minority of macaques just like to get smashed.

Manta magnifica

Deep Sea News praises manta ray research in Mozambique that "takes a holistic, nearly ideal approach to science and community-based conservation", and links to stunning images from the project.

28 July 2008

On balance

Few beings are more bizarre when you come to them for the first time than the Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS). What could be stranger than an animal with multi-axis symmetry that digests living 'rock' (coral) by extruding its stomach? [1]

Monster Mash
Their role in a so-called 'balance of nature' ['dynamic system'?] has been debated (see, for example What is natural? by Jan Sapp). A recently published paper by Hugh Sweatman suggests that a 'healthy' coral reef, with plenty of small inverbrates to eat the juvenile starfish, copes better with COTS (press report). Good news, perhaps, until something bigger comes along.


1. There's a useful Q&A on COTS by Peter Moran of AIMS

25 July 2008


'Yeti hair' to get DNA analysis - a resolution for Kevin Kelly's bet? Maybe. Maybe not.

De dugong gone

Overall, seagrasses are in a vulnerable state. Seagrass habitats are already declining due to increasing water temperatures, algae growth and light reduction, which are all effects of global change. [1]

Seagrass provides shelter for many animals, including fish and shellfish, and can also be a direct food source for dugongs, turtles, sea urchins and seabirds. [2]

One of the things I'd like to know more about is the cognitive and emotional lives of the still existing Sirenia (the dugongs and manatees). Do they approach anywhere near the complexity of their cousins the elephants? Are they a lot 'dimmer?', like their even closer cousins the hyraxes, or just different? [3] For Steller's Sea Cow we have only a few fragments in the historical record:
I could not observe indications of admirable intellect...but they have indeed an extraordinary love for one another, which extends so far that when one of them was cut into, all the others were intent on rescuing it and keeping it from being pulled ashore by the close circle around it. Others tried to overturn the yawl. Some placed themselves on the rope or tried to draw the harpoon out of its body, in which indeed they were successful several times. We also observed that a male two days in a row came to its dead female on the shore and enquired about its condition. Nevertheless they remained constantly in one spot, no matter how many of them were wounded or killed. [4]


1. Mats Björk, a co-author of the IUCN report Managing Seagrasses for Resilience to Climate Change (released 25 July 2008). The report "analyses the threats faced by these marine flowering plants and provides survival strategies". "Managing for resilience" is a key theme for IUCN - for example, with regard to mangroves and coral reefs.

2. Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of IUCN’s Global Marine Programme.

3. And how much if anything can we reasonably deduce about attitudes to these animals in ancient cultures? What, for example, does a 5,000 year old wall painting of a dugong, found in Tambun Cave in Malaysia, indicate? [And how strange is this?].

4. from Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-42 by Georg Wilhelm Steller, quoted by Callum Roberts in The Unnatural History of the Sea.

24 July 2008

Les chiens, les pensées

Quietly [Gilbert] adds that the soldiers also murdered 37 members of his family.

"My little cousins," he says, "I still can't forget the little cousins you see, I used to play with them and they were so..."

But then his voice trails away and I can see him pushing the memory back under.

Instead he tells me his story of survival, how for two nail-biting hours his mother, sisters and the two sheep dogs hid silently in a stream under a bridge while unsuspecting German officers yelled orders above them.

"Why didn't they discover us?" Gilbert asks. "Why didn't the sheep dogs who always barked at loud noises, give us away?"
-- from The forgotten French village massacre.

From so simple a beginning

Graeme Lloyd...and his team studied all of the existing dinosaur taxonomic literature to produce a 'supertree' of dinosaur species. The new supertree, which includes 440 of the 600 known dinosaur species, shows that the dinosaurs evolved rapidly during their first 50 million years. By the Middle to Late Jurassic, a period famous for its giant dinosaurs including Diplodocus and Allosaurus, dinosaur evolution had slowed to a crawl.
-- from Dinosaur evolutionary tree unveiled. Go here for larger image.

23 July 2008


Deep Sea News notes that the practice of "dynamite" or "bomb" fishing has spread recently to Central America. Seven hawksbill turtles are said to have been blasted to death in the Biosphere Reserve of the Bahia de Jiquilisco, El Salvador

Reflection, isolation

Our gregarious great ape cousins — chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas — along with dolphins and Asian elephants, have passed the famed mirror self-recognition test, which means they will, when given a mirror, scrutinize marks that had been applied to their faces or bodies. The animals also will check up on personal hygiene, inspecting their mouths, nostrils and genitals.

Yet not all members of a certifiably self-reflective species will pass the mirror test. Tellingly,...“animals raised in isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.”
-- from an article on mirrors and psychology.

22 July 2008

'Assisted colonization'

We must contemplate the possibility that some regions of the Earth will experience high levels of warming (>4°C) within the next 100 years, as well as altered precipitation and ocean acidity. Under these circumstances, the future for many species and ecosystems is so bleak that assisted colonization might be their best chance.
-- say Ove Hoegh-Guldberg et al in Assisted Colonization and Rapid Climate Change.

21 July 2008

Going ape

In 2003 Kevin Kelly bet Stewart Brand that:
by 2025 the scientific evidence of a hither-to-unknown large bi-pedal great ape will be sufficient to convince at least 50% of primatologists that a yeti/bigfoot-like creature exists.
I wonder if by 2025 the only living orangutans will be those associated with artificial breeding programmes.

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:
On the 12th of May [1855] I found another, which behaved in a very similar manner, howling and hooting with rage, and throwing down branches. I shot at it five times, and it remained dead on the top of the tree, supported in a fork in such a manner that it would evidently not fall. I therefore returned home, and luckily found some Dyaks, who came back with me, and climbed up the tree for the animal. This was the first full-grown specimen I had obtained; but it was a female, and not nearly so large or remarkable as the full-grown males [I had previously shot]. It was, however, 3 ft. 6 in. high, and its arms stretched out to a width of 6 ft. 6 in. I preserved the skin of this specimen in a cask of arrack, and prepared a perfect skeleton, which was afterwards purchased for the Derby Museum.

Only four days [later] some Dyaks saw another [one] near the same place, and came to tell me. We found it to be a rather large one, very high up on a tall tree. At the second shot it fell rolling over, but almost immediately got up again and began to climb. At a third shot it fell dead. This was... a full-grown female, and while preparing to carry it home, we found a young one face downwards in the bog. This little creature was only about a foot long, and had evidently been hanging to its mother when she first fell. Luckily it did not appear to have been wounded, and after we had cleaned the mud out of its mouth it began to cry out, and seemed quite strong and active. While carrying it home it got its hands in my beard, and grasped so tightly that I had great difficulty in getting free...
Wallace and his servants looked after the orphaned infant for some time, but it contracted a fever and
lost all appetite for its food, and, after lingering for a week a most pitiable object, died, after being in my possession nearly three months. I much regretted the loss of my little pet, which I had at one time looked forward to bringing up to years of maturity, and taking home to England. For several months it had afforded me daily amusement by its curious ways and the inimitably ludicrous expression of its little countenance...

Exactly a week after I had caught this interesting little animal, I succeeded in shooting a[nother] full-grown male Orangutan...

20 July 2008


...And he went back to meet the fox.

"Goodbye," he said.

"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

"What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

"It is the time I have wasted for my rose — " said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
-- from The Little Prince (XXI).

image: Wadi Al Rayan

18 July 2008

Humans, chimeras, humility

Many bioconservatives are addicted to a notion of humanness that is very specific to Judeo-Christianity. [But] when you look at India and Thailand, Japan, Korea and China, and you ask should parents be able to use biotechnology to make their children more virtuous or more intelligent?, the vast majority in those countries say yes. But in Europe and North America people are very pessimistic. And that’s largely because of the Judeo-Christian hangover that there's a certain humanness was created by God at the beginning of time, and by playing around with this you’re playing God. There are natural boundaries beyond which it’s hubris to go. And those are western problems, for the most part. In eastern cultures you don’t have that problem. You have chimeric gods in Hinduism which are half-human, half-animal. In Buddhism you have the implicitly notion that humans can become more than the gods, achieve greater states of mind and physical abilities than the gods.
--James Hughes in conversation [1] on existential threats at Buddhist Geeks.

Yes, but hubris (ὕβρις) predates Judeo-Christianity. The word comes from a culture that had no problem imagining chimeric beings and gods that could take animal forms but still thought Man could over reach with terrible consequences. [2]
Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans.
-- from the Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.


1. this is a rough transcript, not verbatim.

2. In Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams argues that the basic ethical ideas possessed by the ancient Greeks were "in better condition" than modern ones

17 July 2008

Pleasured to death

This is a story for the likes of Shifting Baselines:
Irrational preferences for caviar from rarer species are likely to drive the few remaining caviar sturgeon in the Caspian sea to extinction...

Tasters were presented with samples said to be from "rare" and a "common" species - although both actually came from farmed sturgeon. Even before tasting, 57 per cent of people at...luxury receptions expressed a preference for the "rare" caviar, while none preferred the "common" alternative. After tasting the two identical samples, 70 per cent of the experienced consumers said they preferred the "rare" caviar. It was the same story [with tasters] in supermarkets.
-- from A taste for the rare may drive sturgeon to extinction.

Vegetable love

Brian Aldiss's 1962 novel Hothouse (shortly to appear in a new edition) portrays a world of fantastic, semi-sentient carnivorous plants, where human and animal life have been driven to the edge of extinction.

In the real world, meanwhile, poison ivy is "proliferating like mad as rising levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide heat up the atmosphere" (It Eats CO2 for Breakfast), and Americans are re-examining their attitude to the well-behaved lawn (Turf War).

16 July 2008

It could be worse

'tis but a scratch.

I'm going to a conference on global catastrophic risks which runs from 17 to 20 July in Oxford. This may seem is an odd way to pass time, but the case for looking seriously at a range of catastrophic scenarios, up to and including human extinction, has been well made a few times. In this lecture, for example, Martin Rees does a pretty good job of outlining some cosmic challenges for humanity.

By way of background, a new book edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic is helpful (its introduction is available via the conference reading list). Also useful (although not directly connected to the conference) are posts by James Cascio on An Eschatological Taxonomy and The Big Picture: Collapse, Transcendence or Muddling Through.

I am less convinced of the transhumanism agenda [1], apparent in Bostrom and Cirkovic's inclusion of ageing in the category of catastrophic risks. I hope to keep an open mind (and better understand a range of arguments including those advanced by Russell Blackford of the IEET), but my initial skepticism is informed by the following points (which are unlikely to be original and have probably been better stated, and answered, elsewhere):
* acceptance of human fragility is a starting point for compassion and 'humanity' as we know it. Renewal, including the complete innocence of the new born, is part of the glory. The great chain of love over generations is part of us.[2]

* what's good for the individual may not not necessarily be what's good for the species. The very old but indefinitely strong, fit and active would accumulate all the power, rather as Swift's Struldbrugs: "[these] immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation, and engross the civil power, which, for want of abilities to manage, must end in the ruin of the public." [3]

* even if they pan out, the efforts of Aubrey de Grey et al may be aimed at the wrong target. The idea of a singularity should be treated with critical distance [4], but if you accept that, as Rees says, there is more time ahead in the cosmos for complexity and intelligence to develop than there is time behind then he's probably right that future life will be as different from humans as we are from bacteria.
Of course, continuing to be able to have these debates depends in part on whether humanity gets through the existential risks [5] of the next few decades or so intact. For this we have our current abilities as humans and the institutions and networks we are capable of developing over those decades. But at heart our success or failure will probably depend, as Rees says, on whether we show at least as much moral courage as the likes of Joseph Rotblat and those who shared his view, perhaps sentimental, of humanity:
We appeal, as human beings to human beings. Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open for a new paradise; if you cannot there lies before you the risk of universal death.[6]


1. In John Gray's view (Black Mass, p. 56), there is a straight line from Leon Trotsky's revolutionary violence to transhumanism. I'm not convinced this is right either -- particularly not in reference to those who think about transhumanism/singluarlity in a sophisticated way.

2. I realise this starts to sound almost 'religious', but it's an interesting exercise to try to articulate what one thinks are his cherished beliefs. Of course I am in favour of as long, healthy and rich a life as possible for as many as possible. But remember the warning against megalomania whispered to Roman generals at a triumph: 'Remember you are mortal'.

3. Quite independently of this discussion, someone put it to me that the existence of people like Sheldon Adelson (profiled here) was the best argument against indefinite life extension. [On similar grounds, this person said, 'personhood' in law for corporations was extremely dangerous. It's familiar argument, but interesting that it should come from someone who works at the most senior levels of American business.] One counterargument, I suppose, would be that in the right circumstances those who lived a very long time would become wise and/or know that they would live to see the long term consequences of their actions.

4. A good very short intro to thinking about the idea is provided, again, by James Cascio in Singularities enough and time.

5. Including climate change. See, for example, James Lovelock here.

6. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

Flower power

[By] increasing the numbers of male [wasps], [the orchid] could even make [them] a bit more desperate and less discriminating — another potential advantage for an orchid trying to fool a male into giving the not-quite-right-looking fake female sitting immobile inside its petals a try.
-- from Tongue Orchids’ Sexual Guile: Utterly Convincing. A slave to love, indeed.

15 July 2008

14 July 2008

Beyond cuddles

Here in Indonesia, iconic images show the noble fight against poverty...Wild animals are largely irrelevant. Local community members on one of our orangutan conservation projects were puzzled as to why we didn't help them first -- for we are the orang utan ('forest people').
-- Erik Meijaard of The Nature Conservancy and Douglas Sheil of Cifor in Cuddly animals don't persuade poor people to back conservation, a response to a Nature editorial (21 May) which argues that "saving a handful of photogenic species — or iconic rainforests — is no substitute for a comprehensive plan that deals with climate, economics and the environment together." Meijaard and Sheil continue:
People in developing countries are seldom against conservation itself, although they may resent the conservation imposed on them. The hard slog of putting conservation into practice -- economic planning, land use allocation, calculation of environmental services, policies, sustainable financing and law enforcement -- must be translated into stories and symbols that translate across cultures...

13 July 2008

Full of noises

As a musician, I, like most of my colleagues, learned to listen only partially. The more complex acoustic structures - especially those in the natural world - are far more intricate than the music of most western composers. Even those who create music they think has been inspired by "nature" have missed the point. They've limited their compositions to single signature species like whales, wolves and a few birds that just happen to fit the musical paradigms of the moment. What this hubris conveys philosophically is the composer's disconnection to the natural world.

Those groups who still live bonded to the natural world use the biophony as a natural karaoke orchestra with which they perform. They make no distinction between themselves and "nature" like we do. They don't need to separate themselves as "artists" or "musicians" within their groups. Those who never came in contact with western academia or the missionaries don't have a word in their lexicon for "nature", "music" or "artist".
-- Bernie Krause

P.S. 15 July: reminded of a quote, found at Hungry Hyena, from Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram:
We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

11 July 2008

Being difficult

Probing into one of the darker corners of the 20th century, John Gray writes that in the mid 1920s Joseph Stalin charged Ilya Ivanov with crossbreeding apes with humans in order to create a 'new invincible human being', highly resistant to pain, that needed little food or sleep [1].

The evidence that attempts to crossbreed took place is said to be sound. But it is reported that Russian scientists now (i.e. more than 80 years later) deny that these were part of any overarching plan for the creation of a new 'super' race [2].

Whatever its intentions, Ivanov's work looks misguided, lunatic or evil today, and contemporary hopes are often informed by more careful thought about what values and protection to extend to new beings as and when they emerge. For example :
At the very least, given that it is certain types of capacities (minimally, capacities related to suffering) to which we attribute higher notions of respect, and given that these capacities are not necessarily unique to humans, nor shared by all humans, it makes more sense to speak of ‘capacity dignity’ rather than ‘human dignity’. This approach allows [one] to discuss moral worth as a matter of varying degree, rather than an all or nothing state.[3]
For Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, a life of dignity for humans requires a threshold level of provision to allow for the realization of certain basic capabilities:
Life, Bodily Health, Bodily Integrity, Senses, Imagination, Thought, Emotions, Practical Reason, Affiliation, Other Species, Play, [and] Control Over One’s Environment.
And recognition of at least some of these capabilities ('substantial freedoms') should go to both what we broadly termed disabled humans and (where appropriate and to varying extents) some non-human beings [4].

The [Sen/]Nussbaum list of human capabilities has been criticised as 'assum[ing] a very traditional intuitive theory of human nature, which may not universally satisfy' [5]:
An evolutionary psychologist, for example, might argue that human males need an outlet for their capabilities for aggression and competitiveness, capabilities which do not appear on Nussbaum’s list.
Nussbaum may respond to this critique and others in what at the time of writing is reported to be a book on the moral psychology of the capabilities approach which will 'bring together her work on the emotions with the analysis of social justice'[6].

Debate and experiment will surely continue over what in human emotion, behaviour and values can and cannot be molded in the near, medium and long term [7]. Some of those debates and experiments might even be informed by the spirit of modesty and proportion found in Lewis Thomas [8]:
With luck, our own situation might be similar [to that of symbiotic organisms that take up algae], on a larger scale. This might turn out to be a special phase in the morphogenesis of the earth when it is necessary to have something like us, for a time anyway, to fetch and carry energy, look for new symbiotic arrangements, store up information for some future season, do a certain amount of ornamenting, maybe even carry seeds around the solar system. That kind of thing. Handyman for the earth.

I would much prefer this useful role, if I had any say, to the essentially unearthly creature we seem otherwise on the way to becoming. It would mean some quite fundamental changes in our attitudes toward each other, if we were really to think of ourselves as indispensable elements of nature. We would discover in ourselves the sources of wonderment and delight that we have discerned in all other manifestations of nature. Who knows, we might even acknowledge the fragility and vulnerability that always accompany high specialization in biology, and movements might start up for the protection of ourselves as a valuable, endangered species. We couldn't lose.
Well, I wouldn't count on it [9].


[1] Black Mass (2007), p.58, citing Kirill Rossiianov, 'Beyond Species: Ilya Ivanov and his Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes', Science in Context, Cambridge, 2002

[2] Ivanov had, it seems, been toying with the idea since at least 1910. Chat on the web continues (see, for example, here, here).

[3] An Ravelingien, On the moral status of humanized chimeras and the concept of human dignity, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, August 2006. Note that chimeras are not hybrids; topics, methods and applications of research in the biological sciences today are for the most part very different from and vastly more sophisticated than in the 1920s.

[4] Broadly, 'flourishing' in a richer sense than the mere absence of pain and presence of pleasure. In a short paper titled Facing Animal Complexity (pdf, April 2007) Nussbaum identifies, for example, free movement, social interaction, and the ability to grieve or love. She recommends a new approach to human-animals relations combining 'the Kantian idea' that each individual creature be respected as an end in itself with 'the Aristotelian idea' that each creature has a set of capabilities, or capacities of functioning, distinctive of that species. P.S. 14 July: See also When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans (New York Times, 13 July) and listen to Matthew Kramer interview on Philosophy Bites (13 July).

[5] The quote is from a review by Jean Chambers of Frontiers of Justice which appeared in Philosophy Now, Issue 60, 2007. It is hard to imagine John Gray 'buying' Nussbaum's list. He writes, 'Liberal thinkers view human rights as embodying a kind of universal moral minimum that should be secured before any other goals are pursued. A worthy notion, but it passes over the fact that the components of the minimum are often at odds with one another...Above all, human beings have needs that cannot be satisfied by any ration means' -- Black Mass, pp. 280 & 283.

[6] Wikipedia entry on Martha Nussbaum section on the capability approach, accessed 11 July 2008.

[7] See, for example Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt and Frans de Waal.

[8] Lives of a Cell, 1974

[9] John Gray may be right when he writes (Op Cit, p. 296):
If the scientific consensus is accurate, the Earth may soon be a different place from the way it has been for millions of years, certainly since the appearance of humans. In one sense this is a genuinely apocalyptic prospect: while humans are ulikely to become extinct, the world in which they evolved is vanishing. In another sense the prospect is not apocalyptic at all. In wrecking the planetary environment humans are only doing what they have done innumerable times before on a local level. The global heating that is under way is one of several fevers the Earth has suffered, and survived during its history. Though humans have triggered this episode, they lack the power to stop it. It may mean disaster for them, and other species, but in planetary terms it is normal. This is likely to be too much reality for most people to bear, and as climate change runs its course we can expect a rash of cults in which it is interpreted as a human narrative of catastrophe and redemption. Apocalypse is, after all, an anthropocentric myth.
(The images are from Action T4 and Apollo 8)

10 July 2008

Coral 'extinction'

For some context on One-Third of Reef-Building Corals Face Elevated Extinction Risk see this review of A Reef in Time.

Silent summer

In Six Degrees (reviewed here), Mark Lynas imagines (with a nod to Rachel Carson) the silent summers of the future, when it's too hot for wildlife and no birds sing. An example like the long range severe drought in Australia would seem to point that way.

But on Wenlock Edge in a small corner of England Paul Evans describes a different kind of silence -- one that is brought by too much water not too little (much of England is experiencing torrential rains for the second summer in a row, a phenomenon that may be consistent with regional climate change):
Up where the green woodpecker goes, the wildflowers in rabbit-grazed turf are wonderful this year: drifts of sweetly scented lady's bedstraw, tufty patches of white eyebright, pink scatterings of common centaury, bright gold yellow-wort, dazzling pink pyramidal orchids, tatty rugs of wild thyme and resplendent purple thistles. These plants are thriving, but there's an odd silence where all the insects should be.

9 July 2008

Hybrids and 'Nature 2.0'

Einstein's 'God' may not play dice, but Man certainly does:
Genetic mixing between eastern wolves and coyotes [in Canada] began more than a century ago after settlers cut down forests to plant crops. Coyotes, which like open spaces, arrived in traditional wolf territory just as wolf populations were plummeting thanks to gun-toting settlers and deforestation. With so few of their own kind left to mate with, eastern wolves turned to the next best thing - coyotes.

More recent human-induced change is sure to create new hybrids too, as species change their habits in attempts to adapt. Some wildlife experts, for example, suggest that warmer temperatures in northern Canada could be prompting grizzlies to spend less time hibernating and more time roaming outside their traditional range, so coming into contact with polar bears more often. In April 2006, an American sports hunter shot the first documented cross of a polar bear and a grizzly in the Northwest Territories. Though bear hybrids are not nearly as common as wolf/coyote crosses, the discovery of this "grizzlar" has prompted discussion among members of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, who have to come up with a recommendation for dealing with hybrids...Marco Festa-Bianchet, a biologist at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, who heads the group, describes the task as "godawfully complicated". [Richard] Hobbs [a restoration ecologist in Western Australia] agrees, but adds: "To say you shouldn't think about it is like putting your head in the sand."
-- from Nature 2.0: Redefining Conservation by Sharon Oosthoek. It's a good article but can only go so far in the space available. What, for example, about the jack pines of the boreal forest, which are reported to lack the natural defences of the lodgepole pine?

The tropical forests, including Amazonia (see, for example Royal Society B: Climate change and the fate of the Amazon), probably present at least as large and complex a set of challenges as the boreal forests (and drylands) mentioned by Oosthoek.

In 1984, before ideas like 'Nature 2.0' or 'adaptive conservation' developed, things looked probably different. But it's unlikely that what E.O. Wilson wrote then is altogether irrelevant now:
The forest [in Suriname into which I had wandered] was a tangled bank tumbling down to the grassland's border. Inside it was like a living sea through which I moved like a diver groping across a littered floor. But I knew that all around me bit and pieces, the individual organisms and their populations, were working with extreme precision. A few of the species were locked together in forms of symbiosis so intricate that to pull out one would bring others spiraling to extinction. Such is the consequence of adaptation by coevolution, the reciprocal genetic change of species that interact with each other through many life cycles. Eliminate just one kind of tree out of hundreds in such a forest, and some of its pollinators, leaf eaters, and wood-borers will disappear with it, then various parasites and key predators, and perhaps a species of bat or bird that depends on its fruit -- and when will the reverberation end? Perhaps not until a large part of the diversity of the forest collapses like an arch crumbling as the keystone is pulled away. More likely the effect will remain local, ending with a minor shift in the overall pattern of abundance among the numerous living species. In either case the effects are beyond the power of present day ecologists to predict. It is enough to work on the assumption that all of the details matter in the end, in some unknown by vital way.

'Drowning' elephants rescued

See here.

The Thing

Sea monster week at Tetrapod Zoology starts with the Hook Island hoax that some once supposed might be a giant synbranchid, or swamp eel.

8 July 2008

Toad dreams

Nathalie Angier (Learning From a Muddy Muscle Master) celebrates the rapidity with which the male toadfish can contract and relax the muscles of its swimbladder (200 Hertz, or 200 times a second, compared to about 5 Hertz for the quadriceps of the fastest human sprinters), sacrificing strength for speed in order to sing most delightfully [1], [2].

Other writers have marveled at this animal's terrestrial 'cousin' [3], and imaginary hybrids derived from it. Orwell writes:
[In early spring], after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.
Borges writes:
The Strong Toad [of Chile] is an imaginary animal different from other toads in that its back is covered with a shell like that of a turtle. This Toad glows in the dark like a firefly and is so tough that the only way to kill it is to reduce it to ashes. It owes its name to the great power of its stare, which it uses to attract or repel whatever is in its range. [4]

[1] (Added 18 July) See also Grunting fish tell of the origins of human speech: At the base of our brain, where the back of our neck meets our head, may lurk the voice of a 400 million-year-old fish".

[2] (Added 9 July) It's not just toads: Superfast Vocal Muscles Control Song Production in Songbirds.

[3] Of course Toadfishes and toads are not cousins in any meaningful sense, except the most general one of both being vertebrates. They just happen to look similar to our eyes.

[4] Could the Helmeted water toad be a real world analogue?

Incidentally, the word toad, from Old English tadige, tadie, is said to be 'of unknown origin and with no known cognates outside English'. Is that right? The German is Kröte, the Dutch is pad and the French (joyously) crapaud; but the Danish, tudse, looks as if it comes from the same root as the English word. A Toadstone was thought to be a 'stone or stone-like object, supposedly magical (with healing or protective power) and found in the heads of certain toads.' It amuses me that in Spanish sapo (toad) rhymes with guapo (cute).

All most blue

A post from this blog in included in the amazing diversity and depth of the June Carnival of the Blue. Go there for an education!

7 July 2008


One might hazard that Buddhism teaches that life is a compulsive cycle of suffering and rebirth (as animal, human, ghost), a sleep of ignorance from which is possible to awake through awareness and compassion. In defining it so summarily one might be neither right nor wrong.

By all outward appearances, humans seldom lose their fascination with creaturely life. The caves at Dunhuang, for example, amply record this amongst the wealth of images and other artefacts, now threatened by too much breath and too many feet [1].

The silk paintings at Dunhuang were viewed ambivalently by Buddhist monks because their manufacture required the death of the silk worm, writes Colin Thubron [2]. But silk with rich designs and images continued to prove irresistible (as it had for several millennia beforehand), enchanting peoples in the furthest reaches of the world:
By the time their silk banners unfurled before the dazed Roman legionaries at Carrhae, the Parthians had been trading formally with China for half a century. Their decorative inheritance was an ancient Mesopotamian one, rich with the hunt and beasts of Assyria and Babylon, and in time Persian silks woven with Chinese yarn, came to beguile the West. As early as the fourth century AD, a Christian bishop was rebuking his flock for wearing imported silks that portrayed lions, bears and panthers instead of the disciples; and a silk cope enclosing the corpse of St Mexme survives at Chinon on the Loire, blazoned with cheetahs chained to a Zoroastrian fire-altar. [3]

1. See Buddha’s Caves by Holland Cotter.

The Diamond Sutra says, "Thus should one view all of the fleeting world - a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom, and a dream". Its colophon is human (and generous): like a precursor of Creative Commons or PLoS, the manufacturer, a 'self' named Wang Jie, says that the Sutra is made for 'universal free distribution', and honours his parents, locating all to a specific time and place. Thubron (see note 2 below) writes that some religious manuscripts were 'stiffened by used paper that often turned out to be more informative than they did, [including]...even a funeral address for a dead donkey.'

2. Shadows of the Silk Road, page 94 (The book got mixed reviews; see, for example, the Guardian/Observer here and New York Times here)

3. Ibid. page 283.

6 July 2008

Meat 2.0?

Frankly, if the end product is to be the white meat of a month-old broiler chicken or the minced meat of a hamburger, prepared without care and eaten absent-mindedly, why make the detour through a sentient vertebrate which needs kilos of grain just to keep upright and has a brain that may feel fear and frustration?
-- Anna Olsson.

5 July 2008

Golden rays

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg shares the wow factor at Sandra Critelli's photos of the mass of migration of golden sting rays off the northern tip of Yucatan.

Reminds me of Escher (e.g. Sky and Water 1 [1938], Metamorphosis 2 [1940] or Liberation [1955]), only it's much more fascinating.

Faster extinctions

Things are worse than we thought. By accounting for random differences between individuals, extinction rates for endangered species can be orders of magnitude higher than conservation biologists have believed.
-- Brett Melbourne quoted in a blog here on 3 July, which draws on Species Extinction Threat Underestimated Due To Math Glitch and the original paper.

Leopard shark.

4 July 2008

Yes, the shells and reefs dissolve and the 'weeds' take over

Ocean 'acidification' causes concern but understanding of how it may affect marine ecosystems and organisms is 'limited' because almost all studies have been in vitro, short-term, rapid perturbation experiments on isolated elements of the ecosystem [1]. A newish paper [2] about localised acidification caused by undersea volcanic vents seems to confirm best guesses to date:
coralline algal biomass was significantly reduced and gastropod shells were dissolving... The species populating the vent sites...indicate that ocean acidification may benefit highly invasive non-native algal species.
Elsewhere [3], it's noted that avoiding environmental damage from ocean acidification requires reductions in carbon dioxide emissions regardless of climate change:
Projected changes in ocean carbonate chemistry should serve as a guideline for policy protocols that identify CO2 emission targets to reduce the effects of human-made ocean acidification. For example, to avoid a surface ocean pH decline by more than 0.2 units, total emission targets would have to range from ~700 Pg C over 200 years to ~1200 Pg C over 1000 years. Such scenarios would be difficult to achieve, however, because they require immediate reductions in global emissions.
Image: a 'rainbow of death' - explanation here.

1. But field studies from the Southern Ocean have already turned up evidence. See this episode of ABC's Catalyst.

2. 'Volcanic carbon dioxide vents show ecosystem effects of ocean acidification' DOI:10.1038/nature07051

3. Carbon Emissions and Acidification DOI: 10.1126/science.1159124, with news report here.

3 July 2008

The animal that speaks

Tom Wolfe may relay a partial truth [1] when, in conversation with Michael Gazzinga [2], he says:
Speech is an artifact. It's not a natural progression of intelligence, in my opinion — we have to look only at the Pirahã for that. It's a code. You're inventing a code for all the objects in the world and then establishing relationships between those objects. And speech has fundamentally transformed human beings.
Gazzinga counters that speech is an adaptation [advantageous, as Steven Pinker among others observes, for negotiating social relationships]. That's likely true, but speech may do several things apart from provide survival benefits, and Robert Pogue Harrison may get a little closer to identifying at least one of them with this:
We don't house ourselves because we speak, nor do we speak because we house ourselves; we house ourselves for the same reason that we speak -- because we are a fold, a crypt, a wrinkle of insideness in the fabric of nature's externality.
Goethe has different view:
[Nature] has neither language nor discourse, but she creates tongues and hearts by which she feels and speaks.
Is poetry more like an urn or a doorway? Two poems from Basho:
On a white poppy,
a butterfly's torn wing
is a keepsake.

A trapped octopus --
one night of dreaming
with the summer moon.


1. For Lewis Lapham, the whole of our environment is, "in one way or another and to greater or lesser extents, a virtual reality, fabricated by the hand and mind of man":
If it is in the nature of beavers to build dams, and of glaciers to cast off ice bergs, so it is in the nature of man to compose operas, design cows and set in motion the beating of Vice President Dick Cheney's cybernetic heart.
2. Gazzinga says we're only 2 microns down a very long road to understanding the human brain. Does this paper, reported here as if it is a significant advance, add another micron or two?

2 July 2008

Discretion is the better part

Labord's chameleon develops inside an egg for up to nine months, but after hatching lives only a few months longer, during which it rapidly matures, mates and dies (report).

1 July 2008

A cosmic Cheshire cat

In the story, Alexander asks one of the wise men, "which animal is the most cunning?". The Brahmin answers, "the one Man does not yet know."

So it goes for the Higgs Boson, which physicists hope to add to the elementary particle menagerie.

[Higgs himself is famously not happy with the name. I would vote for 'Boojum' had it not already been used to describe something else. But the term is now fixed.]

In the 'Cerncast' accompanying the Guardian package of articles about the LHC, Jim al-Khalili suggests that sometimes it's what you don't find what you're expecting that life gets most interesting. So, for example, the failure by Michelson and Morley to measure movement of the Earth against a luminiferous aether help prepare the way for the theory of relativity. It would be equally momentous, said al-Khalili, if the LHC finds no Higgs Boson [see also article here].

If it turns out not to be there (and at present this is considered unlikely), then perhaps this non-existent particle could be called, or not be called, the 'Grin' -- standing for 'gradually receding into nothing' -- of a cosmic Cheshire cat.

The executioner's argument was, that you couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn't going to begin at his time of life. -- Alice