27 March 2009

Invisible slaves

22 billion slaves working round the clock.
-- or such is Colin Campbell's estimate of the work provided by oil to the global economy (A Farm for the Future).

25 March 2009

Photoshop bestiary

-- from 'Survival of the freakiest'

Written in the bones

On a human timescale, there is no sustainable harvest of [giant deep water corals]. We know next to nothing about how they spawn, settle and regenerate, but I have seen very few younger and smaller colonies, so even slow regeneration might not be a very likely option...

Given their slow growth [however], we may be able to use them as high-resolution records of past climate change.
-- Brendan Roark quoted here in reference to this paper.

See also this 2008 note on an earlier study.

On old corals in shallow waters see Marine Methuselahs.

24 March 2009

Inordinate posturing

the more baroque weapons, even though they look more fearsome, seem to cause lesser loss of life. The reason is that the more menacing weapons have often acquired a signaling role. Instead of risking their lives in mortal combat, males can assess each other’s strengths by sizing up a rival’s weapons, and decline combat if they seem outclassed. The ornate weapons also lend themselves to ritualized combat in which males may lock horns and assess each other’s strength without wounding each other.
-- from report on a hypothesis by Douglas J. Emlen and others.

Stockpiles of nuclear weapons large enough to destroy human life several times over may play a similar role...so long as they are not used!

image: Trypoxylus (Allomyrina) dichotomus

Social slime

the discovery is much more than a mere curiosity, because the colony consists of what are known as social amoebas. Only an apparent oxymoron, social amoebas are able to gather in organized groups and behave cooperatively, some even committing suicide to help fellow amoebas reproduce. The discovery of such a huge colony of genetically identical amoebas provides insight into how such cooperation and sociality might have evolved and may help to explain why microbes are being found to show social behaviors more often than was expected.
-- Oozing Through Texas Soil, a Team of Amoebas Billions Strong

23 March 2009

Maps of dreams

Some old-timers, men who had become famous for their powers and skills, had been great dreamers. Hunters and dreamers. They did not hunt as most people now do. They did not seek uncertainly for the trails of animals whose movements we can only guess at. No, they located their prey in dreams, found their trails, and made dream-kills. Then, the next day, or a few days later, whenever it seemed auspicious to do so, they could go out, find the trail, re-encounter the animal, and collect the kill...

...Today it is hard to find men who can dream this way. There are too many problems. Too much drinking. Too little respect. People are not good enough now. Maybe there will again be strong dreamers when these problems are overcome. Then more maps will be made. New maps...

...None of this is easy to understand. But good men, the really good men, could draw dreams of more than animals. Sometimes they saw heaven and its trails. Those trails are hard to see, and few men have had such dreams. Even if they could see dream-trails to heaven, it is hard to explain them. You draw maps of the land, show everyone where to go. You explain the hills, the rivers, the trails from here to Hudson Hope, the roads. Maybe you make maps of where the hunters go and where the fish can be caught. That is not easy. But easier, for sure, than drawing out the trails to heaven. You may laugh at these maps of the trails to heaven, but they were done by the good men who had the heaven-dream, who wanted to tell the truth. They worked hard on their truth.
-- from the words of Dunne-za interlocutors of Northeast British Columbia as reported by Hugh Brody in Maps and Dreams (1981)

20 March 2009

Soft machine

A robotic octopus is imagined (paper, report).

But it looks as if the designers have a long way to go.


The sound was out of place. "Here we were, far from the sea in the middle of the rain forest, and through the great trees came a sound like waves drawing across a massive pebbly beach". It was, Lee White soon saw, a big troop of Mandrills sorting through the leaf litter in search of food. The encounter set him on a path of research and discovery that helped to revolutionize understanding of these colorful monkeys and do more to protect them. [1]

Now, as a representative for the government of Gabon, White tries to negotiate the best deal for his country not to fell the forests where the Mandrill and other amazing species live [2] by getting those forests recognised as carbon stocks within the UNFCCC. [3]

Carbonize your wildlife. Charles Darwin called the adult male mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx, “the most vividly colored specimen in mammaldom.”
Nearly 2.3 million square kilometres of rainforest in the Congo basin countries are estimated to contain carbon equivalent to about 15 years worth of anthropogenic emissions at current rates, and be 'worth' about US$1.25 trillion at current market prices. [4] To a non-market fundamentalist the logic and the numbers may seem surreal.

Gabon is relatively fortunate in being more sparsely populated and better governed than some of its neighbours.  [5] Its rainforests may be quite robust under some climate change scenarios. One of the 'nightmares' would destruction that arises as a consequence of greater climate change elsewhere: if, for example, some decades from now millions or tens of millions of people try to escape a West African dust bowl by migrating this way. [6]

A Fang Ngil mask.

[1] Mandrills live very differently from baboons, whom they superficially resemble, in groups that can be more than 600 strong.

[2] The range of species still hanging on in the Congo basin is vast. In Gabon it includes the Sun-tailed monkey (one of those names that definitely sounds better in French: Singe au queu de soleil), a survivor in what was a forest refugium during the Pleistocene.

[3] (added 22 March): See, for example, 'Crunch year' for world's forests.

[4] The calculation goes roughly as follows. There 227,600,000 hectares of forest averaging 125 tonnes of carbon per hectare. That makes 28,450,000,000 tonnes of carbon, or 104,411, 500,000 tonnes of CO2. The carbon price is given as $12 per tonne.

[5] (added 18 May) The country's relatively intact biodiversity persists in some of its coastal areas too.  The 'world's largest' colony of Leatherback turtles has recently been found there.

[6] There has been substantial human migration in the past. Bantu peoples equipped with iron tools, banana plants and oil palm seeds swept down this way about 2600 years ago. The population crashed more than a 1000 years ago, and huge mahogany forests now grow in places that were extensively settled. But the size of a human migration in the 21st century could be greater might by two or more orders of magnitude.

19 March 2009

The feeling of happening to be

'Consciousness signature' discovered spanning the [human] brain.

A C Grayling recalls of John Locke's argument that a person's identity over time resides in their consciousness, that memory loss interrupts identity, and complete loss of memory is therefore the loss of self.

Owen Flanagan summarises a thesis by Thomas Metzinger:
Our sense of self is a virtual simulation within a larger simulation of an external reality which is larger still..."What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there... The ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality."
If self is (mostly) illusion, a player in a theatre of virtual reality, how are the plays shaped for the future? Will 21st century religious and secular fundamentalisms believe in themselves as Lenin and his colleagues believed in themselves and the 'plays' they were writing in the 20th?:
It is precisely now and only now when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.
(images from here)

18 March 2009

Hypercosmic, dude

So what is it, really, that is veiled? At times d'Espagnat calls it a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God". It is a holistic, non-material realm that lies outside of space and time, but upon which we impose the categories of space and time and localisation via the mysterious Kantian categories of our minds.

"Independent Reality plays, in a way, the role of God – or 'Substance' – of Spinoza," d'Espagnat writes. Einstein believed in Spinoza's God, which he equated with nature itself, but he always held this "God" to be entirely knowable. D'Espagnat's veiled God, on the other hand, is partially – but still fundamentally – unknowable. And for precisely this reason, it would be nonsensical to paint it with the figure of a personal God or attribute to it specific concerns or commandments.
-- from a commentary Amanda Gefter on the award of the Templeton Prize to Bernard d'Espagnat.

For enlightenment see a concise interpretation of Hume on religion by Julian Baggini.

17 March 2009

The Right thing

Last year, probably for the first time since the 1600s, not one North Atlantic right whale died at human hands.
-- from The Fall and Rise of the Right Whale.

16 March 2009


If human compassion develops only under particular rearing conditions, and if an increasing proportion of the species survives to breeding age without developing compassion, it won’t make any difference how useful this trait was among our ancestors. It will become like sight in cave-dwelling fish.

No doubt our descendants thousands of years from now (should our species survive) will still be bipedal, symbol-generating apes. Most likely they will be adept at using sophisticated technologies. But will they still be human in the way we, shaped by a long heritage of cooperative breeding, currently define ourselves?
-- Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

How much compassion would there be on a short road to a world of one billion humans?

(For John Gray, "a high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable.")

Hrdy's "apes on a plane" may be surprisingly tolerant of each other, but with 1.6 billion flights a year they risk destabilising the climate on which they depend.

14 March 2009


If you were an alien biologist who's interested in understanding what a mammal was, and all you had was zebras, it's very unlikely you would focus on their mammary glands, because only half the specimens have them. You'd probably focus on the stripes, which are ubiquitous.
-- Carol Cleland of the University of Colorado, 'Second Genesis'

13 March 2009

The dammed

Mekong river hydroelectric dam threatens livelihoods and endangered species in Laos.

In India A D Agarwal calls off his fast after Ganges dam is stopped.

Birdsong of the Eremezoic

It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be as a result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate.
Thus John Gray (2002) in pessimism of the grand style, which sweeps along so boldly that you may sometimes question if it sweeps away too much. [1]

For Gray, the prospect of conscious human evolution evoked by E O Wilson is a mirage.

Further extensions for Freud's prosthetic (brutal infant) god(s) are likely. Whatever is coming down the track may not be godlike in the sense Gray means, but it may be as arbitrary and unpredictable, as kind and as cruel as the gods in Ovid's Metamorphosis.


[1] So, for example, Man may well be "a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive"; but it may be more than that. Man, and especially women, may also be "naturally" cooperative and compassionate. Pity, like a naked new-born babe, striding the blast...shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, that tears shall drown the wind.

Worst case

The new data on the oceans is particularly striking. It's clear the oceans will take up less carbon dioxide in the future than they have in the past. And it turns out that ocean temperature is rising about 50% more rapidly than predicted. All the messages coming in are telling us that the climate system is operating on the worst-case scenario
-- Katherine Richardson

P.S. 6pm: See also Schellnhuber

11 March 2009

In slime we trust

I spent a little time last week at the final meeting of HERMES, a Europe-wide research project on the deep seas, where participants delight in such wonders as 'holothurian heaven': 'meadows' more than 3,000 metres down near canyons of Martian proportions off the Portuguese coast.

One for the nerds, you might think. But I'll push a connection to global ethics and the future of life.

The columnist Thomas Friedman sometimes approaches Jade Goody in lack of self-awareness, but he also channels sensible if not very original thoughts every now and then. This from a column titled The Inflection is Near?:
We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.
And in today's FT Amartya Sen reminds 'Anglo-Saxon' financiers, and others, that Adam Smith believed that "humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others", and warned against "prodigals and projectors" (on whom see John Stewart):
[Smith] wanted institutional diversity and motivational variety, not monolithic markets and singular dominance of the profit motive. [1]
Smith's Theory, written 100 years before Darwin's Origin was published, is worth attention in re-thinking the global economic system as if people and planet mattered. [2]

Diverse communities may be both a 'good thing' and have survival advantage. As work included within HERMES found, "ecosystem functioning and efficiency on continental margins increases exponentially in deep sea ecosystems characterised by higher biodiversity." [3]  So let's hear it for slime. [4]


[1] Adam Smith’s market never stood alone

[2] Acting as if re-foundation is really possible, and melt-down is avoidable.

[3] Exponential Decline of Deep-Sea Ecosystem Functioning Linked to Benthic Biodiversity Loss R. Danovaro et al.

[4] One could be almost serious: "Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to the human future than any of our hopes or plans" (Gray, 2002)

10 March 2009

Good in itself

In chapter 8 of Cold Water Corals [1], the authors ground their case for conservation on four norms for a philosophy of conservation biology (re)formulated in the 1980s by Michael E. Soulé and others:
In struggling to ascribe present-day or future economic value to cold-water corals we run the risk of making poor valuations based on incomplete knowledge. In his 1985 paper ‘What is conservation biology?’ Soulé set out four so-called normative postulates to encapsulate the values underlying the ethics of conservation biology: (1) diversity of organisms is good, (2) ecological complexity is good, (3) evolution is good and (4) biotic diversity has intrinsic value. If we take Soulé’s advice then the work described in this book clearly shows that cold-water coral habitats deserve to be conservation priorities. We know that cold-water corals provide habitat to many other species. We know they form highly complex, beautiful structures that have captured the public’s attention making them a poster child for deep-sea conservation movements around the world. We know coral skeletons hold a unique archive of past ocean climate. We know that they have been damaged by bottom trawling and are threatened by climate change. Where there remain doubts, society needs to weigh the short-term benefits of our present-day activities, be they fishing, mining or combustion of fossil fuels, against the loss to future generations of habitats we are only beginning to understand.

[1] Cold-Water Corals: The Biology and Geology of Deep-Sea Coral Habitats by J. Murray Roberts, Andrew J. Wheeler, André Freiwald and Stephen Cairns. Cambridge, May 2009.

Image: Bubblegum coral (NZ)

9 March 2009

Beauty and truth

Reviewing Roger Scruton's Beauty, Jonathan Rée writes:
Scruton maintains...that the beauty of unspoilt wilderness—of mountains and plains and open skies—depends on an evident absence of any fixed centre, a lack of prescribed edges. If you go up the hill or round the corner, or simply hang around watching the light change, there will always be new views to admire. The beauty of birds, animals and flowers, on the other hand, is rooted in their existence as self-defining entities with boundaries of their own. And the special beauty of the human body belongs not to a mere assemblage of body parts but to the personality that finds expression in it, especially through the face. Even a stony-hearted cynic is liable to be impressed by the sight of a graceful child or a moonlit sky with scudding clouds, or by coming upon a demure cowslip or spotting the blended plumage of a pheasant. Natural beauty gives you “an enhanced sense of belonging,” as Scruton puts it—a sense that “a world that makes room for such things makes room for you.”
But, Rée notes, the arts are concerned with more than beauty.

7 March 2009

Part human

In an opinion piece on the consequences of "our ongoing inability to see animals outside our own fraught frame of reference", Charles Siebert mentions an image made by Nicolaes Tulp of a chimpanzee landed at the Hague in 1641
The creature — seated atop a boulder with its mostly hairless torso and limbs, tapered elfin hands and feet, and sweetly smiling face — looks like a potbellied forest nymph dreamily sleeping off a good drunk. Not a chimpanzee so much as an ape-human hybrid.
I haven't found a copy of this on the web (only this) but did find the image above by the late 17th century physician Edward Tyson.

Tyson's engraving is included in a set of materials about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. His Philological essay concerning the pygmies of the ancients was republished in 1894 with a preface by Bertram C. A. Windle which suggests that while in Tyson's day it may have been reasonable to suppose that apes were the pygmies of ancient times, human imagination can make create stranger things from less evidence.

P.S 9 March: Siebert's starting point is behaviour in chimps that humans find horrendous but which is occasioned by the way chimps have been treated by humans. An interesting but less dramatic example would be 'planned' stone attacks

Hope not abandoned

Edward Hoagland, now 77, writes[1] that he welcomes his own imminent death for two reasons: it will make him part the natural processes he loves, and it will mean he will not have to see future horrors:
I’ve widened my allegiances beyond socialism toward Creation as a larger whole; salamanders, beech trees, not just autoworkers...

...accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean that I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, of true woods soil, and of course the sea – love the rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll re-enter at the bottom.

…I’d rather be a goldfinch eating dandelion seeds than witness, even on a TV screen, some of the scenes in store. Dacca drowning; people eating processed algae. I won’t be, you won’t be, but rather than observing the gradual meltdown, wouldn’t you prefer incarnation as a blue-tailed skink hunting crickets on a pine-log?

…Because my concept of democracy as the right to live widens beyond Homo Sapiens, and because I knew an orangutan when I was young, the death of his whole life-form will seem such a particularly genocidal tragedy to me – like that of chimps, the great whales, elephants, and other megafauna I’ve been privileged to encounter on occasion – that I want my personal extinction to proceed theirs. It will anyway, but I don’t want to live in a world drained of elephants and sharks and whales, where my grief over how we’ve treated captive apes is dwarfed when the last carcasses are concealed under the loads on log trucks to be cooked as bushmeat in Kinshasa’s slums. Better to be already simmering in the soil myself.
The sentiment is genuine enough, but is Hoagland right to assume things will go so badly? [3] At one point he allows for a small hope. What if this is more on target?
It’s not far fetched to conceive...of a sea change in how we allocate pity and reverence in the years ahead.


1. Curtain calls: The fever of "living" is conquered at last, Harper's Magazine, March 2009. See also Endgame: Meditations on a diminishing world, June 2007.

2. The much younger and still vigorous George Monbiot expresses the same sentiment in a column in 2005:
As a gardener and ecologist, I find [disaggregation] oddly comforting. I like the idea of literal reincarnation: that the molecules of which I am composed will, once I have rotted, be incorporated into other organisms. Bits of me will be pushing through the growing tips of trees, will creep over them as caterpillars, will hunt those caterpillars as birds. When I die, I would like to be buried in a fashion which ensures that no part of me is wasted. Then I can claim to have been of some use after all.
I aspire to a similar state of mind, but wonder if in the event I will be more like Willie Parker, the character played by Terence Stamp in a gangster film called The Hit. Parker boasts equanimity in the face of death but when actually confronted with execution breaks down.

3. Grim as things are, we need to beware catastrophising. (David Hume would agree!)

image: the primary mirror for the Kepler telescope

3 March 2009

What remains

The tracks were confined to two layers of sediment, vertically separated by 15 feet and about 10,000 years. The upper layer contained three footprint trails, two of two prints each and one of seven prints, as well as several isolated prints. The lower layer preserved one trail of two prints and a single isolated print.
Homo Erectus walks and runs across huge continents for a million years. About a dozen footprints survive.

(The quote is from a report on Early Hominin Foot Morphology Based on 1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints from Ileret, Kenya DOI: 10.1126/science.1168132 . The image is Flower Clouds by Odilon Redon.)

2 March 2009

Dodo globe

Seed magazine posts crib sheet on extinction, and doesn't do a bad job given the tiny space.

Bottom left of the sheet is a map of 'predicted extinction hotspots'. It's a fair start (though with plenty of scope for improvement: definitions, timeframe... and why, for example, is the New World Arctic littoral highlighted but not that of the Old World?)

This may be a foolish question but what other more detailed/better versions of a global map of likely species extinctions already exist (e.g. at Google Earth)?

Is there a dynamic 'burning embers'-type graphic for the fate of so many beings?

A river choked with plastic, greater Manila.

Once was blind

This clip is not new, but it is good to be reminded of it.