30 October 2008


Overcoming Bias has been featuring a discussion about intelligence, including most recently this, this and this. A perspective from deep ecology/radical environmentalism (call it what you will) might feature, for example, W.S. Merwin:
To the beasts there must often appear to be little essential distinction between the force of human intelligence and other kinds of force.

Do not speak - unless it improves on silence

Sperm whales may take as much pleasure in singing well-timed duets as humans do. New underwater recordings have shown that the whales carefully coordinate their song to match the calls of their singing partner.
Report here. Duets here and here.

On threats to cetaceans in general, Nicolas Entrup wrote back in August that:
We need a classification system and political action that is based on respect towards individual animals and focuses on the protection of marine mammals within their social units and their habitats.
[Further reading includes ten books on whales recommended by Philip Hoare.]

29 October 2008

The 'LPI'

The Living Planet Index, which is an attempt to measure the health of worldwide biodiversity, showed an average decline of about 30% from 1970 to 2005 in 3,309 populations of 1,235 species. An index for the tropics shows an average 51% decline over the same period in 1,333 populations of 585 species.
-- 'eco-crunch' (BBC, Guardian, an earlier post [but a brief search at FT.com comes up with nothing at all].)

28 October 2008

Echidna not

Hugh Warwick celebrates a prickly affair. Apparently there are 600 carers registered with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The number of Jeremy Clarkson-alikes who would squash the animals for fun is not stated.

Pliny wrote, wrongly, that porcupines were a species of hedgehog:
when [a porcupine] stretches the skin, it discharges [its spines like] so many missiles. With these it pierces the mouths of the dogs which are pressing hard upon it, and even sends its darts to some distance further.
Echidnas are not hedgehogs either. The largest known species, Zaglossus hacketti, was about the size of a sheep.

Islands of the Mind

Will Self's foot blog from Shetland has nice touches, such as:
I like islands – and I suspect most novelists do – because they’re discrete and legible, just like stories.
I happened to read this on the same day as stumbling again on Kathleen Jamie's Findings from the Monach Islands:
[The sound recordist] could tell a bird by a mark, a piped note, an attitude in the air. When I marvelled at this, he said identifying a bird was similar to making a poem or a finished piece of work from the kind of notes I stopped to make in my book, crouched down out of the wind.

27 October 2008

Evil air, a frost-making stillness

Roger Cohen reports that things are getting so tight for New York bankers that one advised another he may even have to shoot the horses on his hobby farm upstate. The poor dear.

Puts me in mind of a scene in Michael Clayton, in which the hero finds a moment of respite when he approaches some horses high on a hill. I always wondered if its writer/director, Tony Gilroy, knew this poem by Ted Hughes.

In the fictional film, the horses embody -- perhaps -- something honest and elemental which is forgotten in the 'unreal' world of the city. For Cohen's real banker, by contrast, the horses are now an overhead, a liability to be liquidated.

26 October 2008

An imagined non-being

As Death watches the cellist drink, [José] Saramago writes that she looked at the water “and made an effort to imagine what it must be like to feel thirsty, but failed.”
-- from a review by James Wood of Death with Interruptions.

25 October 2008

The new new nature writing

Gwyneth Lewis questions the distinction nature-good/humans bad which, she says, remains the assumption behind much contemporary nature writing. And she praises a piece by Kathleen Jamie in a recent collection of nature writing in Granta which she finds otherwise mostly to be "old hat".

I agree that Jamie's piece is excellent (see, for example, my comments in Ghosts and shadows), and I agree that a binary good/bad frame, where it exists, is seldom useful [1].

But it's not enough, either, to say "cancer is as natural as a nightingale". Of course cancer is "natural"; but it is also a pathology, which birdsong is not [2].

Lewis also reports that a "seeming idealisation" of Inuit life by Gretel Ehrlich at a workshop she attended drew "savage protests" from other writers present. I wasn't there and don't want to pass judgement; but I think it's important not to be unreasonably sceptical of the remarkable qualities of many indigenous peoples, especially when witnessed by someone of Ehrlich's calibre. Sometimes, "savage protests" by those of us in rich societies are associated with projections of our own unease regarding the impacts of industrial civilisation (such as the ones described here) [3].

Elsewhere, Robert Butler calls for more careful thought on the "tricky relationship" between art and activism, and I second that.

I also like the passage Lewis quotes from Conemarra: Listening to the Wind by Tim Robinson, which she describes as nature writing of a high moral order:
Sometimes, I come back from...a walk [such as crossing Erisberg bog] with my head so empty it seems not a single thought or observation has passed through it all day and I feel I have truly seen things as they are when I'm not there to see them.

[1] But I also think Lewis underrates many of the other articles in the Granta collection.

[2] Or at least often "natural". The dumping of carcinogens and other pollutants of kinds and at scales and rates unknown in the history of all known ecosystems is not a "natural" act (unless we decide to do away altogether with the distinction between human and non-human actions: a jettison that companies dumping toxic waste or pushing cigarettes on minors would be happy with). I do not mean to imply that all cancers are attributable to human activity. But some are, as are plenty of other human activities that disrupt and damage ecosystems that existed a long time before humans came along.

[3] That said, it is important not to sentimentalise: we need to listen when anthropologists and others tell us about the traits of peoples they work with that may seem less "attractive" in our eyes. A small example from the anthropologist Laura Rival. The Huaorani, she says, take a great interest in some animal species (such as some kinds of monkey), study them closely and treat them almost as kin. When they do kill them they talk of '"respectful killing". But there are other species in which they have no interest, treat without respect and kill without thought.

Image at top Tasmanian devil with face cancer.

24 October 2008

The natural history of belief

An earlier post noted that religion appears to be one of six traits unique to humans. Among the contributing factors, suggests Pascal Boyer in a well balanced essay are that:
Humans are unique among animals in maintaining large, stable coalitions of unrelated individuals, strongly bonded by mutual trust.
Unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members.

I guess some primatologists will say Boyer underestimates the ability of some apes to maintain complex webs of relationship, and I'd add work by Scott Atran to his reading list.

P.S. Other comments on Boyer include this, this and this.

23 October 2008

'Packs of robots will hunt down uncooperative humans'

It sounds like science fiction, but it's not:
What we have here are the beginnings of something designed to enable robots to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs. Once the software is perfected we can reasonably anticipate that they will become autonomous and become armed.

We can also expect such systems to be equipped with human detection and tracking devices including sensors which detect human breath and the radio waves associated with a human heart beat. These are technologies already developed.

P.S. In related news, SIAI reports on a meeting on Metrics for Human-Level AI sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Little shop of hors d'oeuvres

by Banksy. More footage here.
By this part of the century few are left who believe
in the animals for they are not there in the carved parts
of them served on plates and the pleas from the slatted trucks
are sounds of shadows that possess no future
there is still game for the pleasure of killing
and there are pets for the children but the lives that followed
courses of their own other than ours and older
have been migrating before us...
-- from Green Fields by W.S. Merwin

22 October 2008

De Rerum Originatione

Recent work has shown that the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment produced twenty-two amino acids, far more than originally thought (reports here, here and here).

Few, if any, other experiments using electricity to explore the origins and nature of life have yielded such striking results, and many have been way off. In 1836, for example (we were reminded by Pietro Corsi in a recent broadcast about vitalism), Andrew Crosse believed he had created living insects by 'electrocrystallization' [1].

The actual origins of life remain obscure, of course (see, for example, Was life forged in a quantum crucible? and Did life begin on a radioactive beach?). But the late Richard Southwood suggested five steps:
1. concentration of biologically important molecules (‘monomers’);

2. joining together of a series of monomers to form biological polymers (such as starch, collagen and cellulose);

3. formation of an outer membrane to provide a microenvironment where the special chemistry of life can occur;

4. development of a mechanism to provide energy; and

5. information transfer to permit cell replication.
Let Lazarus rejoice with Torpedo, who chills the life of the assailant through his staff.


[1] Corsi also said that Hans Berger believed that his electroencephalograph revealed where, via electricity, the soul entered the body - an idea going back in one form or other to at least Benjamin Franklin.

21 October 2008

An end to suffering...

...but probably not as the Buddha meant it. David Pearce of BLTC does a Hedonistic Imperative spiel for H+ magazine which appears to hold that, contra Aristotle, happiness is a mental state and not an activity:
In maybe three or four decades or so, we’ll be choosing such traits as the average hedonic set point of our children. Over time, I think allelic combinations…that leave their bearers predisposed to unpleasant states of consciousness – unpleasant states that were genetically adaptive in our ancestral environment – will be weeded out of the gene pool. For a very different kind of selection pressure is at work when evolution is no longer ‘blind’ and ‘random’, i.e. when rational agents design the genetic makeup of their future offspring in anticipation of its likely effects. In that sense, we’re heading for a post-Darwinian transition – ultimately I believe to some form of paradise-engineering.
Ataraxia or Eudaimonia may not be illusory or wrong as goals, but how intelligent, compassionate and wise would the designers of this imagined world be? What about unpleasant states of consciousness that do not arise because of genetically adaptive responses shaped by ancestral environments? And how plausible is this?:
If we want to, we can use depot contraception, redesign the global ecosystem, and rewrite the vertebrate genome to get rid of suffering in the rest of the natural world too. For non-human animals don't need liberating; they need looking after... Just as we don't feed terrified live rodents to snakes in zoos - we recognize that's barbaric - will we really continue to permit cruelties in our terrestrial wildlife parks because they are "natural"?
So we contemplate a future in which (say) tigers and eagles are dosed with Meat 2.0 and no longer hunt? It's almost enough to send one back to the anecdote retold by Adam Phillips in Darwin's Worms. Asked "don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?", the composer John Cage answered, "No, I think there's just the right amount".

(photo from when eagles go bad...)

P.S. 22 Oct: I just learned via Andrew Sullivan that Brian Appleyard homes in on the same passage from David Pearce as I do and has even less time for the argument.

20 October 2008

You, the living

We have so retreated into molecular biology that we no longer stop to consider what entire cells do. It's almost as if you were putting the notes of a musical score under the microscope without ever hearing the symphony.
-- Brian Ford plays the sound of signals inside cells.

18 October 2008

At war with nature itself

Joe Romm on Sarah Palin's axis of evil.

(Actually, I'm glad she's standing up to those atheist, gay, Muslim, socialist, European Belugas. Sing, baby, sing.)

Otter tracks

The print version of William Dalrymple's review of three books on early medieval art contains a beautiful illumination from the late 12th century showing St Cutbert praying in the sea, 'with his feet subsequently dried by otters'. I haven't found a version of the picture online, but here is the view from Bamburgh beach from where he is thought to have waded in.

Dalrymple notes, incidentally, that the 'Celtic' wheel cross is Coptic in origin.

P.S. The eider duck, known in Northumberland as "Cuddy's" duck, is said to be the first bird in the world to have been given conservation protection, when St Cuthbert offered the eider duck sanctuary on the Farne Islands in the seventh century.

17 October 2008

Croc chow

Koobi Fora crocodiles reached up to 7.5 metres long, bigger than any living crocodile. The australopithecines who lived in the area were smaller than the Olduvai hominids so they would have had less chance against the predators.
-- from Giant crocs preyed on our ancestors.

Would a lucky australopithecine survivor have had any tips for Val Plumwood?

You lookin' at me?

If the mammal face is an instrument for communication, the primate face is a Stradivarius.
-- Karl Zimmer on the study of the face and communication since Darwin.

According to Michael Tomasello, one of the few truly distinctive human features is visible whites to the eyes [1].


[1] but the origin of the famous line is Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw in 1743

16 October 2008


Scientists are exploring the Gamburtsevs -- 'ghost' mountains of undetermined age that have been buried far beneath the Antarctic ice for perhaps 15 million years [1].

55.8 million years ago, at the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), the average annual temperature at both poles was 10 to 20 °C. The Arctic ocean warmed to over 22°C in summer. Antarctica was not only ice-free but warm.

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are probably faster at present than a any time since the PETM. Unlike 56 million years ago, however, Antarctica is separated from other continents, and this (as well as other significant differences) means the consequences of today's rise are unlikely to play out the same way. So how will Antarctica change this time? How many existing life forms will be eliminated? What will replace them? Could life come to the Gamburtsevs, and would it be for the first time since they came into existence?

P.S. From the other end of the planet, dramatic footage of Sermeq Kujalleq, the world's fastest glacier. (And, 17 Oct: Arctic air temperatures hit record highs)


[1] See Paradise Lost, Book II:
Far off from these, a slow and silent stream,
Lethe, the river of oblivion, rolls
Her watery labyrinth, whereof who drinks
Forthwith his former state and being forgets--
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.
Beyond this flood a frozen continent
Lies dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms
Of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land
Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems
Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice

In a grain of sand

Diatoms and more

(Also on view: 'Up close and spineless')

14 October 2008

What is true for E. coli...

In the old joke a person is not "dead", they are just "metabolically different". Here, though, is evidence that organisms from microbe to elephant are metabolically the same (or pretty close):
"The largest organism we studied is the elephant, which has a metabolic rate of 1 Watt per kilogram, and the smallest is a bacterium with a metabolic rate of 4 Watts/kg"... Using the formulae that had previously been used to calculate the metabolic rate within separate classes of animals, you would have expected a multimillion-fold difference.
-- Is there an optimum speed of life?


'Peaceful' bonobos have been observed hunting: they may corner and feast on a still-living duiker, tearing out and eating its guts even as the animal is still screaming. (See Loving bonobos have a carnivorous dark side).

But predation and aggression are distinct behaviours, says Frans de Waal: there are, for example, aggressive herbivores such as bison and sociable carnivores such as lionesses. "For me, this finding does very little to change the idea of bonobos as relatively peaceful primates."

13 October 2008

A problem without a name

'Ocean oxygen deprivation', says Ralph Keeling, is the best phrase he has come up with so far to describe the diminution of dissolved oxygen in large areas of the oceans resulting from large-scale, rapid dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere [1]. The impacts on ocean life, said Keeling (speaking at Malente XVII), are likely to be adverse and significant [2].

Keeling invited ideas for a term that would better communicate the nature of the phenomenon. I asked what he thought of 'ocean suffocation' -- arguably a sensational term, but no more so than 'ocean acidification' (which actually refers to a reduction in oceanic alkalinity) [3]. Keeling said he had thought about this, but thought it might excessively sensational. He wanted to hear from biologists [4].


[1] As a result of anthropogenic emissions, CO2 levels are way outside the normal range for at least the last several hundred thousand years, and increasing at least a hundred times faster than at any time during that period.

[2] He referred to Expanding Oxygen-Minimum Zones in the Tropical Oceans by L. Stramma et al. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153847. A news report here.

[3] P.S. 22 Oct: I created a wiki stub for 'ocean suffocation'. On 23 Oct, following discussion with some distinguished oceanographers, this was changed to ocean deoxygenation. 24 Oct: see also this post from Simon Donner at Maribo.

[4] Keeling also said he thought research into the consequences of deep ocean dumping of CO2, "where it may do less damage", should be on the scientific research agenda (although not necessarily on the political agenda) . He couldn't see why it was not as good or better than most options on the table. [For an overview of ocean sequestration see, for example, the ocean acidification network.] In response, Philip Chris Reid was emphatically doubtful, pointing to the rich benthic life that would be affected. A Dutch participant (whose name I missed) highlighted what he said were enormous uncertainties regarding how thousands of microbial species in the oceans, many of them dormant, would react, and suggested that the changes [already underway] might be comparable those of 55 million years ago (I presume he meant the PETM). Sylvia Earle articulated similar concerns to both Reid and the second respondent ["We need to recognise that millions of years evolution and fine tuning have put us where we are with a functioning environment. We should do no harm and protect natural systems. In particular, we don’t know how to put them back together again"]. [See also Seibel and Fabry, 2003.] Keeling answered that to the extent deep ocean CO2 dumping was acute it would be localized, and to the extent it was widespread it was inevitable as the CO2 was heading for the deep oceans and much of that life was probably doomed anyway. Right now, by contrast, CO2 was being dumped into the "most sensitive" top layers of the oceans, and "we may do much better for fish [in the upper layers] by pumping [the CO2] deep"...“We have a global crisis at hand. All mitigation options need to be on the table to assess their merit. This includes less acceptable options such as CO2 sequestration in the deep sea. It may be a bad one but it may be the least bad one.”

Wrong way

If you wanted to see the demise of resources you would put in place the policies we have.
-- Jacqueline McGlade speaking at Malente XVII on the findings of an Assessment of assessments.


Criminal syndicates are earning more than $10bn a year from a booming environmental crime business in rainforest logging, the trade in endangered animal skins and ivory and smuggling canisters of banned gas refrigerants.
-- says the Environmental Investigation Agency.

10 October 2008

Sorcerer's apprentice syndrome

Poor Mickey Mouse found out that every time he chopped up one of his magic brooms, the problem doubled as each half sprouted new legs and continued its duties.

Palaeontologists everywhere can sympathise with Mickey's plight. When a seemingly large evolutionary gap is plugged with a remarkable new fossil, as happened just the other day with the discovery of a new primitive turtle from the Triassic, it just leaves two smaller gaps on either side. Now, instead of one gap in the fossil record there are two, and Creationists argue that the fossil record is, paradoxically, even worse than it was before the new discovery.
-- from $7.5 trillion for a 'transitional' fossil? by Colin Barras

Small change

The global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis, according to an EU-commissioned study...
"Whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today's rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year." [says Pavan Sukhdev, the study leader]
-- Nature loss 'dwarfs bank crisis'.

Elsewhere, Jacques Attali compares the financial crisis with the climate change crisis

9 October 2008

Bubbling blogs

Carnival of the Blue #17 celebrates ocean-related thoughts from around the blogosphere. Go here for links to posts about polar bears and solar bears, 'killing whales to save them', octopus eyes, the Googly-eyed glass squid and much, much more.

8 October 2008

From the vasty deep

Snailfish caught on video for the first time here. At 7,700 metres the pressure is 770 times atmospheric.

Machina ex machina

There is clearly no thinking presence behind any of the actions of [the 10,000 trillion] cells [in the human body]. It all just happens, smoothly and repeatedly and so reliably that seldom are we even conscious of it; yet somehow all this produces not just order within the cell but a perfect harmony right across the organism. In ways we have barely begun to understand, trillions upon trillions of reflective chemical reactions add up to a mobile, thinking, decision-making you -- or, come to that, a rather less reflective but still incredibly organized dung beetle. Every living thing, never forget, is a wonder of atomic engineering.
-- Bill Bryson.

P.S. 10 Oct Digital zebrafish embryo created:

6 October 2008


Holdridge's Toad


...the number of threatened mammals could be as high as 36 percent.
-- Jan Schipper with IUCN. See Redlist.
While the Red List does make headlines, somehow the irreplaceable loss of species does not stay in the minds of the general public, and it has certainly never prompted major financial investments. This has always puzzled me. As a colleague of mine puts it: "Imagine what would happen to us if rainfall was a thousand times more than normal? What if snowfall were a thousand times more than normal? What if rates of disease transmission for malaria or HIV/AIDS were a thousand times higher than they are now? That is what is happening to plant and animal biodiversity today."
-- Russell Mittermeier

P.S. 10 Oct: Here's the article from Science.

21st century turtles

A small story from early September:
More than 10 live Hawksbill and Green turtles of different sizes were found in the reservoir tank of Pars Petrochemical Zone [continues...]
(image: Turtles can fly)

4 October 2008

Only disconnect

As generations of college students learn more about microbiology and evolution, they seem to be growing less and less familiar with the plants and animals around them.
-- Scott Atran et al (2004), quoted by Laura Rival.

Desk killer.

3 October 2008

It's alive!

It is perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, [that] is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists and does not seem to require so much an active energy as a passive aptitude of soul, in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified. It has no reality but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field, the soul has room enough to expand herself to display all her boundless faculties and all of her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.
These observations of Benjamin Franklin's [1] remain compelling as prose, and may still bear some weight as analysis [2].

It is not right to say today, though, that appreciating truth requires only “passive aptitude of soul”, or that only error is "endlessly diversified." The energy and capacity to better imagine is precisely what may give us "a fighting chance" [3] of reducing the amount of future destruction and instead developing the potential to appreciate and protect an [almost] endlessly diversified reality [4]. As Jorge Luis Borges put it:
Beauty, like happiness, occurs frequently. Not a day goes by in which we do not, for an instant, live in paradise.


[1 ] The passage is from a report of an investigation into Franz Mesmer presented to Louis XIV of France in 1784. It was quoted by Joan Kirby of Macquarie University in a recent discussion titled 'It's alive!' Frankenstein, science and philosophy in the Romantic period.

[2] Although see this.

[3] Bob Watson.

[4] Eliezer Yudkowsky has said, “Alas for those who turn their eyes from zebras and dream of dragons! If we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty indeed.” To which I say, yes, but let us not forget the human tendency to see , and create, "dragons" in the strangest of places.

Beasts at the Igs

Among the 2008 winners:
Archaeology: Astolfo Mello Araujo at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil for measuring how the contents of an archaeological dig can be disrupted by the actions of an armadillo.

Cognitive neuroscience: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, at Hokkaido University in Japan, for discovering that amoeboid organisms can solve puzzles.

1 October 2008


There are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now with these impacts. I'm not going to blame all of man's activities on changes in climate.
-- Sarah Palin.

P.S. 5 Oct: RealClimate.

Bear necessities

The human species is now a mainly urban animal for the first time in history, according to the United Nations, and in at least some regions of the United States, black bears appear to be following suit...
...more (plus at least one thoughtful response here).
"You know, in ancient cultures bears were considered equal with men."
"This ain't no ancient culture here, mister."
"Sometimes it is."

-- Ghost Dog.