30 September 2008

Rights and persons

DotEarth notes that the new Ecuadorian constitution grants rights to nature -- making it a legal person, one presumes. Nature has "the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

It's worth recalling, too, a precedent set in 1993 in the Philippine Supreme Court with regard to illegal logging (Minors Oposa v. Department of Environment and Natural Resources): Antonio Oposa established a right to sue on behalf of future generations.

Amazonian Manatee

P.S. 3 Oct: on a lighter note, the Ignobel Prize for Peace this year goes to the Swiss federal ethics committee on non-human biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland for acknowedging the dignity of plant life.

" 'Empty oceans' are here"

hat tip DotEarth

[See also Ocean "dead zones" spread]

25 September 2008

'Rich Bitch'

Pet-lovers have engineered a quiet revolution in the law to allow nonhumans to, in effect, inherit and spend money. It is becoming routine for dogs to receive cash and real estate in the form of trusts, and there is already at least one major foundation devoted to helping dogs…
--Jeffrey Toobin reports.

Schopenhauer wrote, "Since compassion for animals is so intimately associated with goodness of character, it may be confidently asserted that whoever is cruel to animals cannot be a good man." Toobin quotes Elizabeth Harman, who teaches philosophy at Princeton:
What would make the [late Leona Helmsley's] dog happy is for a loving family to take it in. The dog doesn’t want the money. The money will just make everyone who deals with the dog strange.

Re-tuning the sphere

[Peter Brewer and colleagues] calculated how much [the drop in ocean pH by 0.12 during the 20th century] would affect the absorption of sound waves at 0.44 kHz – the note "A" used to tune an orchestra. They found that by the early 1990s, sound was being absorbed 15% less than in the late 19th century.

Some studies predict ocean pH could drop by an average of 0.3 before the end of this century...The team calculates that this would cause a 40% decrease in the absorption of sounds below 1 kHz.

Self-made Man

Not sure about this:
The most intriguing form of relaxed selection...occurs when an animal actively creates a shield against natural selection. This so-called Baldwinian evolution has played a particularly important role in the evolution of our own species. For example, the technological innovations of producing stone tools and cooking meant that our ancestors no longer had to chew tough vegetation and meat. This reshaped the way we look...[notably] a radical reduction in large flat molars, thick enamel, robust face and jaw structure and powerful jaw muscles...Then came agriculture, which made foods even more palatable, relaxing the selection pressures on our digestive system. As digestion became easier, more energy was available for other purposes, especially for building and running a larger brain. Our ancestors would have used this increased cognitive capacity, in turn, to devise more technological and cultural innovations to further shield them from the pressures of natural selection.
-- from Freedom from selection lets genes get creative by Christine Kenneally New Scientist, 28 Sep.

24 September 2008

This is water

The problem is how to integrate the conscious mind [and subjective experience] with the physical brain—how to reveal a unity beneath this apparent diversity. That problem is very hard, and I do not believe anyone has any good ideas about how to solve it.
-- that's Colin McGinn, quoted by Steven Weinberg in a recent essay Without God.

But understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness seems to be increasing fast. (Listen, for example, to this overview by Barry C. Smith.) Scientists have recently recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory. All this may have some surprising consequences.

Writers and artists sometimes "illuminate the maze even if they cannot show the way out" (to use a phrase of A.O. Scott's in an appreciation of the late David Foster Wallace [1]).

Wallace would have disagreed with Weinberg's recommendation that "we should get out of the habit of worshipping anything". He wrote:
the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see [a given situation]. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship. Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.[2]
Wallace may have been wrong about his capital T Truth. Some research indicates that free will may be an illusion at least some of the time (although we almost all seem to agree that it still makes sense to act as if we had free will, and so take responsibility for our actions). But Wallace's second truth -- "there is no such thing as not worshipping" -- looks like a good bet.

If humans cannot escape worship in one form or other, and if we may have at least some limited free will in some circumstances, then the urgent task is to work on enhancing awareness and understanding of natural laws and phenomena [3]. It's not a question of encouraging worship at some temple labeled 'Science'. It's about trying to help create circumstances for greater reverence for life itself, not the supernatural [4].

In Weinberg's account, scholars like al Ghazali objected to the idea of laws of nature because they would put God's hands in chains [5]. al Ghazali's inheritors today include holy warriors of many stripes, not least Christianists asserting their place in global politics [6] (in partnership with worshippers of war [7]). These people are a real danger, and it's too bad that David Foster Wallace, a most imaginative being, is no longer around to join the struggle against the darkness they want to bring [8].


[1] See also this longer piece by A.O. Scott from 2000, and Danny Postel on the Death of a Tennis Intellectual.

[2] From a commencement speech given to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio.

[3] The grandeur of existence as apprehended by many scientists from, e.g., Charles Darwin to (say) Martin Rees.

[4] This does not necessarily exclude all religion. See for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [P.S. 24 Sep: and throw in Reinhold Niebuhr of whom Barack Obama has said, "I take away [from Niebuhr's thought] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."]

[5] Since the burning of scientific and medical texts by the Ulama of Cordoba in 1194, says Weinberg, there has been little significant contribution to global science from the Muslim world. Weinberg notes that in 2002 the periodical Nature found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellence in science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding. (Bob Lockner takes issue with Weinberg's description of Al-Ghazali's thought, and Weinberg replies in an exchange of letters here.)

[6] See, for example, Sarah Palin's holy war on nature by Chip Ward.

[7] See, for example, Worshiping the Indispensable Nation by Andrew Bacevich.

[8] On writing and mental illness, see also Shirley Dent. On suicide see, among other things, the entry in the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

22 September 2008


The birds of the world are in serious trouble, and common species are in now decline all over the globe, a comprehensive new review suggests today.

From the turtle doves of Europe to the vultures of India, from the bobwhite quails of the US to the yellow cardinals of Argentina, from the eagles of Africa to the albatrosses of the Southern Ocean, the numbers of once-familiar birds are tumbling everywhere...
-- see State of the World's Birds 2008 Report.

21 September 2008

Stand still, yet make him run

On the equinox, two days after its unveiling, Barely Imagined Beings catches up with the grasshoper chronophage at my old college.

As another graduate of the college put it:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.
[The grasshopper (locust?) on the clock is depicted as hybrid with, what (from the eyes), a dragon?]

P.S. Mapping the Marvellous contemplates similarities between automatons and insects, especially the mantis, and reflects on some work of Jean-Henri Fabre, Henri Bergson and Roger Callois.

P.P.S. See too 'La Machine' - giant spider in Liverpool

P.S. 12 Dec: a working model of the Antikythera mechanism.

20 September 2008


Crows seem to be able to use causal reasoning to solve a problem, a feat previously undocumented in any other non-human animal, including chimps. They also rival primates in ability to deceive.

The storytellers would not be surprised:
[Raven] came to a place where many people were encamped fishing.... He entered a house and asked what they used for bait. They said, "Fat." Then he said, "Let me see you put enough on your hooks for bait," and he noticed carefully how they baited and handled their hooks. The next time they went out, he walked off behind a point and went underwater to get this bait. Now they got bites and pulled up quickly, but there was nothing on their hooks.
-- fragment of a Tlingit story as told by Lewis Hyde.

19 September 2008

Ownership and collapse

Fisheries in which individuals (or groups of) fishermen have a right to a share can provide incentives for sustainable harvest that is less prone to collapse, says research based on a study of 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003 [1]. But, warn the authors:
Despite the dramatic impact catch shares have had on fishery collapse, these results should not be taken as a carte blanche endorsement. First, we have restricted attention to one class of catch shares (ITQs). Second, only by appropriately matching institutional reform with ecological, economic, and social characteristics can maximal benefits be achieved.
On land, there may be almost no level of killing of some animals (such as great apes and other primates taken as bush meat in Africa) which allows a viable population to survive. Nevertheless, argues a report, the best way to reduce the slaughter is for hunting by local people to be legalised and regulated [2]. Also, it's suggested, new ways should be found of making endangered animals more valuable alive than dead, perhaps through government schemes to reward local villages financially if they preserve or increase populations. But, warns one conservationist, "People living in poverty are in for dire times, and both they and many species are heading for a train wreck."


[1] Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse? by Christopher Costello, Steven D. Gaines and John Lynham. DOI: 10.1126/science.1159478. [Peter Kareiva, Amy Chang and Michelle Marvier argue "the key to success in conservation is the development of market mechanisms and new sources of finance for conservation." (DOI: 10.1126/science.1162756) ]

[2] CBD Report 33 by Robert Nasi et al from CIFOR , discussed in Should we legalise hunting of endangered species? by Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 18 Sep. "In central Africa, 1 million tonnes of bushmeat are harvested each year, supplying 80 per cent of the protein and fat that people in the region consume." (More photos of bush meat, some of them disturbing, can be found here.)

18 September 2008


Pohls sea urchins found off Lizard Island (see New species revealed on Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs). "The researchers spotted about 300 soft coral species, up to half of which they think are new to science, as well as dozens of small crustacean species, likewise thought to be unknown."

16 September 2008

Pimping the shark

Damien Hirst sells The Kingdom for £9.6m. Peter Conrad thinks this is cool. Eat your art out, Piero Manzoni.

(Meanwhile, a call for a clampdown on finning. See too Sharks short shock.)

P.S. 18 Sep: Clive Crook gets it.

P.S. 20 Oct: this.

Shark fins, probably heading for East Asian stomachs. About 100 million sharks are slaughtered every year. About thirty million of those are finned for soups etc. Photo: Oceana.

15 September 2008

Hopeful hybrids

"If Lévi-Strauss is right," wrote Lewis Thomas,"myths are constructed by a universal logic that, like language itself, is as characteristic for human beings as nest-building is for birds." [1]

"Our powerful story [today]," Thomas continued, "equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution. Never mind that it is true whereas myths are not; it is filled with symbolism, and this is the way it has influenced the mind of society."

Medieval bestiaries, he observed, do not contain, as a rule, totally novel creatures of the imagination made up of parts we have never seen before. "On the contrary, they are made up of parts that are entirely familiar. What is novel, and startling, is that they are mixtures of species." [2]

Thomas went on to suggest a bestiary for our time would have to be a microbestiary, featuring the likes of Myxotricha paradoxa, Blepharisma and plant-animal combinations that mostly exist in the sea. Their "meaning", he suggested, would be "basically the same as the meaning of a medieval bestiary. There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along, wherever possible."

Evolution may be today's "powerful story" [3], at least for those who manage to limit their magical thinking to where it does little harm (or even, possibly, some good [4]). But it is not the only one. Twisted, dark stories seem to fascinate millions.

Hope may come in part from a broader "story" of science -- the systematic achievement of greater knowledge and understanding -- with global projects like the LHC reinforcing the point that the cosmos is more majestical golden fire than foul congregation of vapours.


[1] from Some Biomythology published in The Lives of a Cell (1974). But there are several reasons for thinking that Lévi-Strauss explained less than he imagined. To take one example, he cited Sigmund Freud to bolster his case, and Freud was out to lunch on evolution (see, for example, Freud's Evolutionary Fantasy by Stephen Jay Gould) and much else. Still, Thomas's observation about bestiaries seems worth keeping in mind.

[2] Contemporary games with bestiary-type elements, notably Spore, are also limited in striking ways. See here.

[3] We'd probably say "narrative" instead these days.

[4] (added 17 Sep) Some say a different kind of magical thinking from the one embedded in abstracted monotheisms is precisely what's needed. From David Abrams on The ecology of magic:
When the animate presences with whom we have evolved over several million years are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth that gave birth to us is defined as a soulless or determinate object devoid of sensitivity and sentience, then that wild otherness with which human life had always been entwined must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself--the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.

Images: Topsell's History of Four-footed Beasts (1607), the Manticore, simulation of Higgs Boson experiment.

13 September 2008

High octane

Pharyngula, a fount of delight and instruction on the brains of octopuses and much else, has long featured a Friday cephalpod (like this).

Once you start to pay attention there is no end to wonders. Here are some more September cephs, gratuitous pictures of Ocythoe tuberculata also known as the football octopus (above and below this text)...

...and Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus

Octopuses have three hearts and copper instead of iron to carry oxygen in their blood.

12 September 2008

Bears in space

My other blog has long and proudly carried a link to Tardigrades in Space. Now, the refereed paper is in (Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit; see also news report).

One small step for a waterbear. A giant leap for waterbearkind!

(Space emissary from another bear here.)

P.S. The Other 95% has this covered:
Vacuum ? bah,
Freezing ? Ho-hum
Dessication? So what!
Uh, oh cosmic radiation?!
Nope got that covered too.
Cosmic radiation plus direct solar radiation?
Ok, that one hurts.
But still enough of us will survive and quickly start up again!!
P.S. 5 Dec: another kind of bear in space

11 September 2008

Forest music

From Congo, a BBC report of "the first official sighting" of an okapi [in the wild] in fifty years.

It's striking from this old photo how large the animal is, even taking into account that the man, who was perhaps Mbuti or Twa, may have been less than five feet tall.

In a recently rebroadcast radio show about the origin of music, Jerome Lewis suggests that one of the purposes of the music of the forest peoples -- in which 3, [8?], 9 and 12 beat songs merge in polyphony -- may be to connect with the "music" of the forest itself: a "technology of enchantment" such that you lose your sense of self and become aware of greater reality.

Lewis Thomas, whose intuitions seem so often to have proven right, wrote (some time before 1974, in The Music of This Sphere):
The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
(P.S. 12 Sep: Greg Laden.)

(P.S. 15 Sep: A reminder of the music of the seas in jeopardy. )

9 September 2008

"Not all bad"

In some cases, the migration or introduction of exotic species increases diversity and promotes speciation, say some ecologists.

London Parakeets
[P.S. 11 Sep: see also Honey, climate change is shrinking the species.]

Mad, bad, sad

but like many criminals, identifying a real enough failing among a minority of his intended victims:
[Abdulla Ahmed Ali] accused British people of showing more concern for animals than Muslims by organising anti-fox hunting demonstrations.
(The Guardian)

8 September 2008

Ghosts and shadows

Granta 102: The New Nature Writing contains much that is very fine. Pathologies by Kathleen Jamie, for example, is close to as good they come [1]. Robert Macfarlane's Ghost Species is also outstanding [2], but cracks for a moment here:
Historically, the idea of ghosts has been confined to non-human kingdoms. But sitting in Eric's kitchen that day, it seemed clear that there were also human ghosts: types of place-faithful people who had been out-evolved by their environments - and whose future disappearance was almost assured.
'Out-evolved' is a shard of social darwinism, probably accidental and certainly unfitting of an author who surely knows that the processes that have driven smallholders out of the fens has nothing to do with natural selection, and everything to do with economics, politics and history [3]. The displacement (and in many other cases slaughter) of large number of humans by other humans (who may or may not have altered the environment on a large scale) is not natural selection.

If, however, humans were completely displaced, slaughtered wholesale or radically subjugated by another life form (or post 'life' form) then we might be talking (or rather, not talking).

The prospect of such destruction by a superior intelligence or more resourceful predator looks like science fiction to some (see, for example the dreams reviewed here) but not all (including, perhaps some who were here). Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence argues scientists need to work pretty hard to develop Gandhian, 'friendly AI'. [4]

How many humans would a really smart (compassionate) being want around? About six million, as there (probably) were at the end of the Paleolithic? About five hundred thousand, if the abundance of humans were linked to their size and fitted on the curve from mouse to whale? [5] How would these humans be kept in control?


1. Pathologies is not available online, and this is too bad. Quoting a snippet out of context doesn't work well: thought and feeling mobilise and develop through the full arc of the essay. Find and read the whole thing if you can! Among the essays that are available online and are worth reading (besides Macfarlane's) is Second Nature by Jonathan Raban, although he skates over what may prove to be the most significant and lasting Euro-American legacy in the Pacific Northwest: the radioactive waste of the Hanford complex [P.S. 11 Sep: on which see No More Bomb-Making, but Work Aplenty].

2. See this review of The Wild Places. For an earlier example of the use of the phrase "ghost species" in non-technical writing see, e.g., this by Scott Wiedensaul.

3. If history (the first time in tragedies such as "racial hygiene") repeats as farce then Steve Jones may nail it with "evolution is to social sciences as statues are to birds: a convenient platform on which to deposit badly digested ideas"(Darwin's Ghost). That said, Jones may not be completely immune from the virus of social darwinism himself. See his comments on the "iron rule of greed" which I criticise in a review of his book Coral. (For a really good book on coral reefs see Veron. )

4. See also, e.g., Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?

5. Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones, page 313.


Top: Bagged thylacine, 1869.

Middle: Truganini and the other last Tasmanian aborigines, 1860s.

Bottom: Petroglyph of a thylacine from Murujuga, Western Australia. The animal has been extinct on the Austrlian mainland for several thousand years.

5 September 2008


A review of Spore calls it a toy rather than a game. I may be quite wrong, but it sounds (at least from the review) as if Will Wright & co have not really thought about living things as part of larger dynamic systems, except as combatants in zero sum conflicts. Does he need to talk to an ecologist?

P.S. 11 Sep:
Despite some overenthusiastic prognostications in reviews—"Spore could be the greatest gaming tool ever created to disseminate Darwinistic ideas," says one critic—the game makes no room for random mutation, the real source of differentiation. And natural selection plays only a minor role.
--says Luke O'Brien.


Mapping the marvellous repays a some scrutiny (hat tip Bernd Brunner).

Signs and wonders

4 September 2008


There are few personal notes in this sketchbook, but here's one. I am looking forward to The Magic Hour, an OCM event. We will even take our little daughter, Lara, whose perceptions may still be open in ways we don't quite understand.

I am interested by what the musicians and artists are doing with ambient sound in projects like Botanic Bats and Bamboo DNA . And it will be good to see Max Eastley, who found amazing noises in the Arctic when we travelled there in 2003.

I was struck by the following extract from Gretel Ehrlich's The Future of Ice (see part three of this), included in Cape Farewell's Strategic Plan 2008 - 2011 that arrived on the same day:
Cycles and circles enclose us. They are all fixed paths, closed circuits, and we have to live with what we've created within them. Beauty and pollution ride the same trails. The aurora is beaded with lead and cadmium. Snowbanks drift hard with heavy metals, rain is toxic, drift ice is radioactive, roaring rivers are pollution highways, the oceans are mercury sinks, the midnight-sun-filled days are cluttered with smoke and dust motes, and earth and its atmosphere are becoming a hot cauldron where disease and contamination are stirred.
On first reading this I had doubts as to its cognitive precision. Do, for example, heavy metals like lead and cadmium released as a result of human activity really make it up into the ionosphere, more than 85km above the earth's surface? Well yes they do, if I understand this, this and this correctly.

Art that pays attention to science and nature and "struggles for exactitude" [1] probably has a future. How far would this be from exploding fertility symbols and marionettes? [2]


1. The phrase is appears in Jason Cowley's introduction to Granta 102.

2. See also A bestiary of 25,000 years.

3 September 2008

Turning of the bones

...elaborate displays of apparent maternal grief [by a gorilla] may reveal less about our [human and gorilla] shared awareness of death than our shared impulse to act as though it didn’t exist...
-- writes Nathalie Angier in a well-balanced article about the reactions of various animals (including apes, elephants, lions and social insects) to death.

Many have argued that believing that (or acting as if) death is not what it seems is a key driver of religious behaviour in humans. The Malagasy practice of famadihana, the Turning of the Bones, may be only one of the more striking examples - an "an evocation of being together again, a transformation of sorts so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life [and] most importantly...an act of love", in the words of Maurice Bloch.

It's also a commonplace that one of the hardest things to look at directly is your own death. The 'true story of your death' may appear somewhere in a book in the Library of Babel. Or, it may hit you before you know what's happening like a Bullet in the Brain.

2 September 2008

The eye

From this:
The origin of a light sensitive nerve was almost certainly an early step in the evolution of animal eyes, and this was thought to have happened only once, some 600 million years ago...[1]
To this:
...The eyes of a peregrine weigh approximately one ounce each; they are larger and heavier than human eyes. If our eyes were in the same proportion to our bodies as the peregrine's are to his, a twelve stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighing four pounds. The whole retina of a hawks eye records a resolution of distant objects that is twice as acute as that of the human retina. Where the lateral and binocular visions focus, there are deep pitted foveal areas; their numerous cells record a resolution eight times as great as ours. This means that a hawk, endlessly scanning the landscape with small movements of his head, will pick up any point of movement; by focussing upon it he can immediately make it flare up into larger, clearer view...

...Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye. The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries. But what does he understand?...[2]

Also, there are humans:
Another thing I have been practicing is wearing the wrong glasses. Now that I have three (or is it five?) different pairs, one for each and every focal distance, I almost always find that I am wearing the wrong glasses for whatever I think I am doing at any given time. This gives me countless opportunities to enjoy a psychedelic blur of the kind we used to seek in the 60s by chemical means, while walking into walls or stepping on my cat Hodge. [3]

1. From Evolutionary origins of a light sensitive nerve

2. From The Peregrine by J A Baker (1967) -- see also Robert Macfarlane's essay. [Another sensibility at the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project ]

3. From RALPH.

1 September 2008

The tree

A crude sketch......with interesting antecedents inspires a tatoo, a sculpted vault, and maybe even (via a universal phylogenetic tree) this:
origin of the Mimivirus

Virus world

[The] diversity in the virosphere is also coming as a surprise. There are now thought to be around 100 million types of virus. They boast a more varied biochemistry than cellular life, storing their genetic information as both single and double-stranded DNA and RNA. Recent virus-hunting expeditions have uncovered one with a unique hybrid genome structure, part single-stranded and part double-stranded DNA, plus a menagerie of novel forms - bottle-shaped viruses, viruses with tails at both ends, viruses shaped like droplets and viruses that resemble stalk-like filaments. Most astonishing of all is the giant mimivirus, which is bigger than some bacteria. And we have only scratched the surface. "In terms of diversity, I don't think we even have an inkling yet what's out there," says [one] microbiologist.

...All in all, biologists are confronting what may be the biggest advance in evolutionary thinking since the discovery of the gene. Our emerging knowledge of viruses challenges many tenets of evolution, not least that it is driven by competition between selfish genes. Viruses provide a strong argument for the idea that evolution is also driven by fitness boosts gained through give and take.
-- from Viruses: The unsung heroes of evolution by Garry Hamilton. See also:
Viruses have an important role in global biogeochemical cycles, in deep-sea metabolism and the overall functioning of the largest ecosystem of our biosphere.
-- from Major viral impact on the functioning of benthic deep-sea ecosystems (doi:10.1038/nature07268).