21 December 2008

19 December 2008


Swallows streaking in and out through the row of broken
panes over the front door went on with their conversation
of afterthoughts whatever they had been settling
about early summer and nests and the late daylight
and the vacant dwellings of swallows in the beams
let their dust filter down as I brought in my bed
while the door stood open onto the stone sill smoothed to water
by the fret of inhabitants never known to me
and when I turned to look back I did not recognise a thing
the sound of flying whirred past me a voice called far away
the swallows grew still and bats came out as light as breath
around the stranger by himself in the echoes
what did I have to do with anything I could remember
all I did not know went on beginning around me
I had thought it would come later but it had been waiting
W S Merwin

18 December 2008

Wonders and monsters

P Z Myers reflects on teratology, and its lessons for human dignity.

Armand Marie Leroi quotes Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620):
We should, [Bacon] says, study deviant instances. "For once a nature has been observed in it variations, and the reason for it has been made clear, it will be an easy matter to bring that nature by art to the point it reached by chance." Centuries ahead of his time Bacon recognised that the pursuit of the causes of error is not an end in itself, but rather just a means. The monstrous, the strange, the deviant, or merely the different, he is saying, reveal the laws of nature. And once we know those laws, we can reconstruct the world as we wish. [1]


1. Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body (2003)

All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, despair, law, chance hath slain

This is rather odd but worth a look.

17 December 2008

Invasion of the body snatchers!

Parasites that control the minds of their hosts -- whether those hosts be fish, 'zombie' caterpillars, 'brainwashed' grasshoppers or even humans -- make for great headlines, resonanting all kinds of uncomfortable thoughts on the edge of consciousness. [1] In general, 'parasite' is a term of abuse in our culture, and scientists, notes Carl Zimmer [2], took a long time to get beyond this. Konrad Lorenz, for example, saw their only virtue as a warning to humans. "A retrogression of specific human characeristics and capacities conjures up the terrifying specter of the less than human, even of the inhuman". [3] But, argues Zimmer,
parasites are complex, highly adaptive creatures at the heart of the story of life. If there hadn't been such high walls dividing scientists who study life --the zoologists, the immunologists, the mathematical biologists, the ecologists -- parasites might have been recognised sooner as not disgusting, or at least as not merely disgusting.
Parasites find themselves a vast number of ecological niches, he notes; they even find out a way to parcel out the human eye: one species of worm in the retina, one in the chamber, one in the white of the eye, one in the orbit. Zimmer also suggests that an assertion made back in 1845 by Johann Steenstrup, a pioneer in the study of flukes, is still relevant:
I believe that I have given only the first rough outline of a province of a great terra incognita which lies unexplored before us and the exploration of which promises a return such as we can at present scarcely appreciate.[4]

1. Humans fear parasitic infestations, of course, and often with good reason. At least as disturbingly, we apply the term to other people and groups of people, sometimes with horrendous political consequences. And there is sometimes for some people a lurking sense that we ourselves as a species are parasitic (the borderland between parasite and predator not being well defined).

2. Parasite Rex (2000). The book is sensationally subtitled Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures.

3. According to Kenan Malik's account (Man, Beast and Zombie. 2000), Lorenz saw civilisation as a degradation of the natural state of Man, the great hunter of the Upper Paleolithic. Lorenz was, notes Malik, highly sympathetic to Nazi ideology.

4. Just one example of a recent step to better understand and manage a remarkable protozoan is the work by Hugo D. Luján et al reported here. Unlike most of its fellow eukaryotes, giardia has no mitochondria. Even stranger, each giardia cell has two nuclei.

Image: hookworm

16 December 2008

A brief history of flight

All of the world's flights in 72 seconds:

From the shallows

Zooillogix is finally living up to the 'x' in our namesake. We have discovered a microscopic animal that engages in lesbian sex with its dead female friends in order to obtain DNA and thus survive to reproduce.
Zx. has humourously repackaged for Xmas a paper by Gladyshev et al. that actually dates from May 08, and was reported at the time. Calling what is involved 'sex' is a real stretch. Anyway, the findings do seem to shed light on the apparent conundrum that bdelloid rotifers have survived more than 80 million years without sex.

15 December 2008

Exterminate the brutes

The inspector general of the [U.S.] Interior Department has found that agency officials often interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species at risk of becoming extinct.
-- NYT.

[See also Olivia Judson, 2 Dec.]

Green blood, turquoise bones

Chiromantis samkosensis, a tree frog found in Cambodia, is one of over a thousand species previously unknown to science discovered in the Greater Mekong in the last decade (press release, pictures).

14 December 2008


The still explosions on the rocks
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
Elizabeth Bishop

13 December 2008


Two species of tropical bats thought to issue feeble calls -- a bug-eater called the long-legged bat and the Jamaican fruit bat -- send out echolocations that peak at an ear-splitting 110 decibels. That's about as loud as a rock concert from the front row and intense enough to cause permanent ear damage.
-- New Scientist

11 December 2008

A right to become

Jessica Loudis considers Ecuador's passage of a Rights of Nature Act [1] in the light of the thinking of Hannah Arendt, "one of the founders of modern human rights theory", but with this caveat:
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt noted that one of the greatest perils to human rights was that it could lapse into the rhetoric of animal rights...thus losing sight of the fundamental dignity of man. In light of this concern, while Arendt is a helpful tool for evaluating the RoN, I'm certain that she would have loathed the application of her thinking in this context.
Perhaps not. I wonder whether Arendt, were she alive today, would agree with Martha Nussbaum [2] on the case for recognizing rights (among them a right to flourish) for entities outside traditional categories, including non-human animals, and would not see these as incompatible with human dignity or in any way demeaning of it.

Loudis also suggests that Arendt's concept of natality, or "the capacity for beginning," is helpful when thinking about how to treat the Ecuadorian Act:
For Arendt, natality signifies not just birth, but also the possibility of radical newness, of remaking the world over and over again through "the entry of a novel creature... as something entirely new." Natality, in other words, is the thing that both enables politics and also saves it from itself through offering the possibility of renewal, and as such, the possibility of difference.
I'd like to suggest a broader conception of natality than Arendt had in mind may be helpful. We should think not only about the individual or the species, important as those are, but also about what species and assemblages of species in ecosystems have the potential to evolve into. As Tom Bailey writes:
What is worth considering is how it could be possible to conserve what biologically might exist – to adopt Gould’s coinage, the “morphospace” of an organism, its theoretical ‘adaptive landscape’ of what might evolve from it in a certain timescale. To push the boat even further: How should we go about conserving hypothetical organisms, of which we have no certain idea that they will ever exist in the future? Do we have an obligation to do so?
Pimelodus cyclopum, known today as Astroblepus cyclopus or Preñadilla, 'the little pregnant one'. "Volcanoes vomiting fish is such a common phenomenon, and so well-known among all the local inhabitants, that there can not be the slightest doubt of its authenticity" -- Alexander von Humboldt.


1. See Rights and persons.

2. Frontiers of Justice (2006) . See also Human being and Twisting the sinews.

Eclipse of the crocodile

Crocodiles have been on the Earth for some 200m years but now, in this corner of [Southern] Africa, because of pollution and global warming caused by humans, even their ancient existence may be threatened.
-- Hamilton Wende. It sounds from the report as if deliberate extirpation of the crocs by a rapidly growing human population may also be playing a role.

News flash

Evolutionary biologists have studied synchronous flashing [of fireflies] for 200 years...and it remains a mystery. But it is a spectacle that may be disappearing.
-- from Ban Lomtuan Journal by Seth Mydans.

10 December 2008

A glass almost half full

Encouragingly, 45 percent of the world’s [coral] reefs are currently healthy.
-- from an IUCN press release


Rob Spence, a 36-year-old Canadian filmmaker, is not content with having one blind eye. He wants a wireless video camera inside his prosthetic, giving him the ability to make movies wherever he is, all the time, just by looking around. "If you lose your eye and have a hole in your head, then why not stick a camera in there?" he asks.
-- Wired

Image: scallop

9 December 2008


Here, for no particular reason, are three images of crabs:

Hermit crab with anemone (via Reinhold Leinfelder).

Coconut crab (via Daily Kos Marine Life Series).

Feather star crab on its host (from the feature A world of crabs on one tiny island, via Zooillogix ).

8 December 2008

Human being

I'm no historian of game theory, but I'm fairly sure that this, from an essay in Nature's series Being Human, has been well understood for a few decades:
Most of our interactions occur in a population of players, and pay-off accumulates over encounters with many different people. Because overall success is proportional to the sum of that pay-off, the other person in any one encounter is more a partner than an opponent. [1]
A more pressing matter, arguably, is how broadly and deeply networks of partnership extend. Historically, it's often argued, the boundaries have been quite narrow and shallow. For example, during the late Pleistocene, writes Samuel Bowles in another essay in the series [2], competition between small hunter-gatherer groups, each of them internally altruistic, was rife. Over seven millennia in the Channel Islands off southern California, for example, "conflict [between groups] accounted for a much larger fraction of deaths than occurred during Europe's just concluded century of total war" [3].

Over time, however, networks have become larger and deeper. Half a millennium of rapid technological advance and intense conflict reforged Europe from some 500 city states, bishoprics, principalities and other sovereign bodies into about 27 states, now acting in union (more or less!). The parochial form of altruism, in which we only co-operate narrowly and are in a state of near permanent war with most other groups, is (Bowles concludes) "part of the human legacy but it need not be our fate." [4]

Right now, however, there are at least three kinds of breakdown and/or incipient conflict that need attention: those internal to particular nations and/or economic groups; those between nations and groups; and those concerning beings, such as future generations, unable to speak for themselves [5].

An example of the first is the breakdown in trust occasioned in part by the privatisation of gains but socialisation losses by financial and corporate elites in rich countries [6]. An example of the second is failure of outside countries to exercise their responsibility to protect large numbers of people at high risk in places like Congo and Zimbabwe [7]. An example of the third is the failure, so far, of world governments to act effectively on climate change [8].


1. Generosity: a winner's advice by Martin Nowak. Nature 456, 579 (4 December 2008). Nowak wants to "add cooperation to mutation and selection as a fundamental force of evolution." Lynn Margulis and many others would probably say they already made the case decades ago. But it's not a view shared by, for example, Steve Jones in Coral.

2. Conflict: Altruism's midwife by Samuel Bowles, Nature 456, 326-327 (20 November 2008).

3. An poignant instance of inter-group conflict and intra-group co-operation seems to come from evidence of the earliest DNA so far discovered of a whole family, buried together about 4,200 years ago near the Saale River in Germany. See report. This example long post-dates the beginnings of agriculture, of course.

4. For optimism see also, for example, Robert Wright. For pessimism see, say, this. And here Gideon Rachman considers the possibility of global government.

5. Something like the three problems identified by Martha Nussbaum in Frontiers of Justice.

6. See, for example Paying the Piper - Frances Cairncross, BBC Radio 4. [ 8 Dec addition: a striking recent small illustration is the case of Marc S. Dreier. 12 Dec: or Bernard Madoff. 13 Dec: comment from Frank Rich. See also Control Fraud.]

7. The 'responsibility to protect', a far-reaching principle that holds that states have a responsibility to protect the lives, liberty, and basic human rights of their citizens and that if they fail or unable to carry this out, the international community has a responsibility to step in. In Terror and Consent, Phillip Bobbit notes that Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter have proposed a corollary that would change international law to recognize a 'duty to prevent' -- that is, to create a legal obligation for outside intervention when a state commits crimes against humanity, develops weapons of mass destruction or shelters terrorists. Bobbit, who was an adviser to John McCain in the recent presidential campaign, argues for something like this, concluding that when 'we' finally get serious in the 'Wars against Terror', "we will face a threat to mankind that is unprecedented and is potentially measureless in its tragedy."

8. Roman Krznaric argues that this can in part be overcome by reducing an empathy deficit, citing Barack Obama as a source of hope. [For the record, I think that while 'denial' is a significant problem hindering effective policies on climate change, it is not the only one. At least as significant, I think, is a simple failure to understand the non-intuitive nature of stock and flow -- or, in simpler terms, that if you stop increasing your credit card debt it doesn't mean that the debt goes away.]

6 December 2008

'The Evolution of Poisonous Birds'

Batrachotoxins are extremely potent cardio- and neurotoxic steroidal alkaloids found in South American poison dart frogs and Melyridae beetles -- and remarkably, in the skin and feathers of five of the six pitohui species of New Guinea. Astonishingly, another avian species, Ifrita kowaldi, was later discovered to have batrachotoxins in its plumage, too.
-- Grrlscientist

A world that containts giant spherical bunnies and poisonous birds is worth living in, says Coturnix.


from Creative grooming

Elephant polo


5 December 2008


Our experiments reveal that healthy volunteers can indeed experience other people's bodies, as well as artificial bodies, as being their own. This effect is so robust that, while experiencing being in another person's body, a participant can face his or her biological body and shake hands with it without breaking the illusion. The existence of this illusion (and the identification of the factors triggering it) represents a major advance because it informs us about the processes that make us feel that we own our body in its entirety.
The findings in If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping by Valeria I. Petkova, H. Henrik Ehrsson are remarkable and, not surprisingly, have been widely reported.

Consider them, perhaps, in relation to a more general phenomena: on the down side, a human capacity to mistake our place in life as a whole; on the upside, a capacity for sympathy.

P.S. Only an object that looks like a human body can be 'owned', write Petkova and Ehrsson, but their control was a rectangular object, a green box the same size as a mannequin. What if they used the forms of other animals?

P.S. 9 Dec. Related - Primal, Acute and Easily Duped: Our Sense of Touch

Image: Vishvarupa

Twisting the sinews

Martha Nussbaum thinks about animals in conversation with Alan Saunders (transcript).

Weighted balls that simulate struggling prey for tigers in zoos, contraception for elephants: yes, these (and much else in the discussion and her book) are worth serious thought -- not least that humans are hereby taking control of, or at least playing a key role in, not only the survival (or otherwise) of existing species but also their future evolution.

Natural selection -- including, for example, the evolution of faster and more subtle prey -- framed the tiger's fearful stealth and strength. What will a ball on a string, or a robot, do?

Plenty of what humans do has inadvertent selectionary pressures, of course. Propeller and artificial noise in the oceans, for example, has shrunk the auditory world of whales from hundreds or even thousands of miles into a 'tiny bubble' (says Christopher Clark as reported by Stephen Palumbi): in that case, we are 'selecting' for the diminishment or even the end of one of the world's greatest musical wonders.

As Stephen Palumbi has said, "it is time we started taking responsibility for our evolutionary actions. "

4 December 2008


Helping to plan an arts and environment event for next June, I came across this anecdote in a report about a climate/theatre event organised by Lawrence Weschler in New York earlier this year. It's not new, of course, but may be an interesting reminder of what can be possible:
The discovery [in 1967 by Roger Payne and Scott McVay that humpback whales produced a repeated pattern of sounds that could be described as a song] was both lucky and deliberate. [Payne] had studied the auditory faculties of bats and owls, but decided to focus his work on an animal that might draw attention to what he saw, even then, as an environmental crisis. He had never seen a whale, he said, but decided that if he found “some groovy thing” about whales that it would grab the public’s interest.

Having found something about whales that was far groovier than he could have imagined, Dr. Payne set out to find composers, writers and musicians who could propel the finding into popular culture.
[Hat tip Ashdenizen for Weschler ref]

P.S. 5 Dec: Three theatrico-cetaceacal links from Ashdenizen:Rothenberg, whales onstage and narwhal story.

3 December 2008

Bounded in a nutshell

A previous post on this blog, Kin, noted five characteristics or behaviours that are still regarded as uniquely human, and I've suggested (as have others) another: the capacity to do science itself. Here is David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality:
Many other physical systems, such as animals' brains, computer or other machines, can assimilate facts and act upon them. But at present we know nothing that is capable of understanding an explanation -- or of wanting one in the first place -- other than the human mind.
And in What is our place in the cosmos? Deutsch takes this all the way:
one physical system, the [human] brain, contains an accurate working model of the other, the quasar; not just a superficial image of it – though it contains that as well – but an explanatory model, embodying the same mathematical relationships and same causal structure – that is knowledge. And if that wasn't amazing enough the faifthfulness with which the one structure resembles the other is increasing with time. That is the growth of knowledge. So the laws of physics have this special property: the physical structures as unlike each other as they can possibly be can embody the same mathematical and causal structure and do it more and more so over time. ..We are a 'chemical scum' [1] that is different. This chemical scum contains with ever increasing precision the structure of everything. [2]


1. Stephen Hawking’s (jokey) description of humanity: "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies."

2. In The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch argues that "we are not heading away from a state in which one person could understand everything that is understood, but towards it".

Images: A Five Quasar Gravitational Lens, Heart and soul nebulae

2 December 2008

Cooking up trouble

One of the fastest-growing technologies is DNA synthesis, which offers new capabilities to alter the genes of existing pathogens or synthesize them artificially. While governments, trade groups and professional organizations are experimenting with various voluntary controls over such new capabilities, the United States should lead a global effort to strengthen oversight and clamp down on the unregulated export of deadly microbes...
-- Report Sounds Alarm Over Bioterror

Image: Ebola virus

160 billion steps away

Chet Raymo on 'that animal eye'.

Vestige of a beginning?

The stage was set for life probably 4.4 billion years ago, but I don’t know if the actors were present.
-- Stephen J. Mojzsis, quoted in an article reporting suggestions that life may have originated in the Hadean period, considerably earlier the 3.83 billion years old trace of life claimed hitherto.

1 December 2008

When we dead awaken

Broecker's beast stirs?

Cold stars

Starfish, South Orkney -- from a gallery of photographs illustrating the first comprehensive "inventory" of sea and land animals around a group of Antarctic islands.

Between the ice and a hard place

500 trapped narwhals culled in Canada, noted the blogs last week. But it's not just the ice that gets them; they are also hunted legally in Nunavut. The photographer Paul Nicklen says, "the replacement of traditional weapons by rifles means that many more narwhal are killed or wounded than are retrieved. Figures vary, but it is estimated that from 30 to 70 percent of those shot are lost".