30 September 2009

Why isn't the world full of pogonophora?

We could say that clade selection has occurred when a clade, such as the insects, spreads, diversifies and populates the world more successfully than another clade such as the pogonophora (no, you probably haven't heard of these obscure, worm-like creatures, and there's a reason: they are an unsuccessful clade!)...

Perhaps partly because of its segmentally modular architecture, the arthropod clade is good at evolving, at throwing up variation in multiple directions, at diversifying, at opportunistically filling niches as they become available. Other clades may be similarly successful because their embryologies are constrained to mirror-image development in various planes. The clades that we see peopling the lands and the seas are the clades that are good at evolving. In clade selection, unsuccessful clades go extinct, or fail to diversify to meet varying challenges: they wither and perish. Successful clades blossom and flourish as leaves on the phylogenetic tree.
-- Richard Dawkins speculates on 'the evolution of evolvability'. An extract from The Greatest Show... featured in the 300th edition of Edge.

The disinherited

Our gods had horns on their heads, or moons, or sealy fins, or the beaks of eagles. We called them All-Knowing, we called them Shining One. We knew we were not orphans. We smelled the earth and rolled in it; its juices ran down our chins.
--from Time capsule found on a dead planet by Margaret Atwood.

A Kwakwaka'wakw girl wearing abalone earrings and a cedar bark cloak circa 1914.

Kwakwaka'wakw spirits take many forms.

28 September 2009

Thinking about extinction

Among the comments in a set of articles in Nature on planetary boundaries, Cristián Samper argues that a single variable won't give a useful handle for what is happening to biodiversity:
A boundary that estimates the likelihood of families disappearing over time would better reflect our potential impacts on the future of life on Earth.

27 September 2009


People call me all the time telling me about dead animals. But there are so many around, if I collected them all my house would just be full of them.
-- Adam Morrigan, the 'roadkill artist', who "has sold several pieces for £50,000."

Nar Fin

This summer, [the Icelandic company] Hvalur hf caught 125 fins [whales] - a huge expansion on previous years. The company's owner [Kristjan Loftsson] says he will export as much as 1,500 tonnes to Japan. This would substantially increase the amount of whalemeat in the Japanese market.

....The fin is globally listed as an endangered species.
-- BBC report

26 September 2009

'Finally we built our porcupine mother...'

The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the [infant macaque's] skin practically off its body. What did this baby monkey do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs. We did not achieve any psychopathology.

However, we did not give up. We built another surrogate monster mother that would rock so violently that the baby's head and teeth would rattle. All the baby did was cling tighter and tighter to the surrogate. The third monster we built had an embedded wire frame within its body which would spring forward and eject the infant from its ventral surface [i.e., its front]. The infant would subsequently pick itself off the floor, wait for the frame to return into the cloth body, and then again cling to the surrogate.

Finally we built our porcupine mother. On command, this mother would eject sharp brass spikes over all of the ventral surfaces of its body. Although the infants weredistressed by these pointed rebuffs, they simply waited until the spikes receded and then returned and clung to the mother.
-- from a description of the Surrogate mother experiment conducted by Harry F. Harlow and Stephen J. Suomi at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s.

The account is quoted by James Rachels in Chapter 5 of Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.

25 September 2009

'The mental powers of worms'

[Darwin wrote] "If worms have the power of acquiring some notion, however rude, of the shape of an object and of their burrows, as seems to be the case, they deserve to be called intelligent; for they then act in nearly the same manner as would a man under similar circumstances."

Where we find animal behavior that is closely analogous to what we would expect from humans in similar circumstances, and where there are no experimental grounds for distinguishing between them, the animals must be regarded as intelligent, to at least some degree, if humans are so regarded. Anything else, Darwin thought, is illogical and unfair. The best proof we have of the seriousness he attached to this principle is that he would not depart from it even in the case of worms. Considered in this light, Darwin's discussion of "the mental powers of worms" turns out to be not just the crankish musing of an old man, but a telling choice of example.
-- from Chapter 4 of Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism by James Rachels (1990).

24 September 2009

Led by the nose

Then I have a more outlandish thought. Does the gorse smell me, and know there is a living thing near it? Is it directing its fragrant come-ons my way? This was an outrageously egocentric notion but not out of the question. Natural smells are not just random chemical emissions, they're part of a complex messaging system between plant and plant, animal and plant. Rats emit an airborne chemical signal, a pheromone, when they're afraid which turns on a natural analgesic in other rats in the vicinity to prepare them for pain. When oak leaves are seriously munched by insects they too emit a pheromone which promotes the production of extra tannin in neighbouring trees which makes their leaves more bitter to marauders. Mopane trees in Africa, a favourite food of elephants, do the same and send out messages to other trees when they're being browsed. The elephants are wise to this trick. They eat only a few leaves from each tree and move upwind to new trees. "We can't hear the trees calling to each other," wrote the science writer Colin Tudge, "but the air is abuzz with their consersations nonetheless, conducted in vaporous chemistry."
-- Richard Mabey in The Stinkhorn and the Perfumier, the third of his essays series The Scientist and the Romantic. The reason we know so much about scents we cannot ourselves smell, he explains, is thanks to the electron capture detector invented by James Lovelock in the 1960s:
It's been this instrument which has revealed that fruit flies will respond to as little as one hundred millionth of a gram of a pheromone produced by cassia plants, that lima beans affected by spider mite give off a volatile chemical in minute concentrations that attracts another species of predatory mite that feeds on the original mites. It's helped untangle the extraordinary life cycle of the Large Blue butterfly...
The electron capture detection has also helped us understand the plight of "that gravely threatened creature, the bee":
Honey bees are able to read and interpret chemical cues diffused into the atmosphere over a range forty square kilometres and convey the information back to other bees to their colony. But we now know that the residues of exhaust from cars using lead free petrol react with the odour molecules from flowers, making them indecipherable to bees. This may be one of the causes of the now widespread problem of hive collapse.
Earlier in the essay Mabey discusses scent and memory in his own life, how it unlocks his own "vast structure of recollection" (Proust), not least the associations of various flowers and woodland smells throughout the year. "The puzzle", says Mabey, "is why we're so good at scents despite their having little relevance to our survival and why they're linked to emotion. Scents unlock memories I sometimes didn't know I had":
Smell isn't the oldest sense. The earliest cells must have first acquired an ability to orient themselves in space and respond to warmth, But the identification of food and the necessity of interacting with other organisms entailed the development of this chemical messaging system and we've inherited it. Long before we began to register sense consciously our behaviour was being guided by them. They helped us in finding a mate and bonding with children and tribe, with locating food and avoiding danger, with interpreting the weather and the comings and goings of other creatures. The smell receptors were the foundations of the limbic system, a primitive centre concerned with basic emotions and the recording of sensation, and it was round this that the apparatus of memory began to evolve. Our brains are outgrowth of our noses. No wonder that smells remain the great carriers and triggers of potent memories. They're both processed in the same ancient areas of our brains.
Lewis Thomas had a vision of an entire planet regulated by its smells:
In this immense organism, chemical signs might serve the function of global hormones, keeping balance and symmetry in the operation of various interrelated working parts, informing tissues in the vegatation of the Alps about the state of eels in the Sargasso Sea by long interminable relays on interconnected messages between all kinds of other creatures.

23 September 2009

Poetical essays on the dark gibbon

[In China] gibbons were praised for their quiet, serene nature and spiritual qualities. Elusive and rarely seen, they inhabited remote areas thought to be haunted by supernatural beings. Gibbons were considered magical animals, capable of assuming human form. Their evocative cries were associated with the eerie atmosphere of these mysterious places and inspired melancholy feelings in travellers. A famous image in Chinese poetry was of 'gibbons calling at the gorges', reflecting the fact that these animals were often heard but seldom seen among the high, woody, mist-covered cliff sides they inhabited...

Chinese paintings often associate gibbons with cranes. Gibbons' long arms and cranes' long necks indicate longevity and both creatures are appreciated for the graceful movements. A common notion was that, by linking hands, gibbons formed themselves into chains that allowed them to dangle from branches and dip drinking water from streams. Another popular image from Chinese and Japanese art depicts gibbons, sometimes linked in chains, grasping for the moon's reflection in a pool of water...The image is a parable for greed and striving for things that cannot be attained...
-- from Ape by John Sorenson

Black-crested gibbons

21 September 2009

Synthia's parents

Synthetic biology is changing so rapidly that predictions seem pointless. Even that fact presents people like [Drew] Endy with a new kind of problem. “Wayne Gretzky once said, ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be.’ That’s what you do to become a great hockey player,” Endy told me. “But where do you skate when the puck is accelerating at the speed of a rocket, when the trajectory is impossible to follow? Whom do you hire and what do we ask them to do? Because what preoccupies our finest minds today will be a seventh-grade science project in five years. Or three years.

“We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that?”
-- from A Life of its own: Where will synthetic biology lead us? by Michael Specter

Scape pig

David Steven at Global Dashboard on the consequences of hysteria in Egypt. The symbolism of burying the pigs alive is surely not lost on the country's Christians.

Egypt's total human population is currently growing by nearly 1.4 million per year.

A zabaleen: pictured in a 20 Sep NYT article on this topic.

19 September 2009


Steve Jones once described Finland as 'a dilute solution of land in water'...Many thousands of years ago, when the Finnish landmass was weighed down by glacial ice sheets Saimaa [the largest of its lakes] had opened onto the Baltic Sea, and now it was home to a relict of its marine past that had become trapped as the land rose again after the retreat of the ice. This animal [the Saimaa Ringed Seal] was called norpaa in Finnish, and was extremely rare; when I was a child it was estimated that there may only be 100 norppa left in the huge lake, because although it was one of Finland's most-loved animals, it had been heavily hunted in the past century....

And then, one day out on the lake, fishing with my uncle under a huge blue sky, there it was. I looked up from the red and white cork bobbing beside the boat to see a whiskered snout and inquisitive black eyes peering back at me out of the water, out near the skerries close to the shipping channel and far from shore. Then, maybe only a second later, the shiny wet seal disappeared again into the tea-black waters of Saimaa. I never saw it again.
-- from Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtse River Dolphin by Sam Turvey

18 September 2009

Echizen Kurage

An unsettling animal picture to end the week. Nomura's jellyfish (and friend):

from Ariel Schwartz: Japanese Fight Giant Jellyfish Invasion with Jellyfish-infused Space Candy via Simon Donner.

Schwartz credits Pink Tentacle, which shows something incredibly large.

Mixed emotions

I was in Raja Ampat (where a new species is discovered 'every week') in a lagoon very like this one when I learned by satellite phone that I was to become a father for the first time. That same week I had such trouble equalizing underwater and such pain in my ears that I think I may never dive again.

17 September 2009

Mongolian death worm

and other delights (Hat tip TC).

Stranger things really do live in the sea. 'Barry' here is over a metre long:

The riddle of kindness

In On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor write:
If the religious question is: how can it be that people created by a good God can do cruel things? then the secular question...is: why should the human animal, created by no deity, driven by sex and survival, be kind?
Adherents to various religions will have their own answers. As for the secular question, the answer is not such a mystery: compassion and altruism are 'wired' into the behaviour of highly social animals such as humans (see Hrdy, de Waal etc). [1]

No, the real question is how to manage the kindness 'instinct' with reason and imagination. Adam Smith (a deist, perhaps) argued the limits were clear:
The administration of the great system of the universe ... the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country.
This may have seemed adequate in 1759 but it will not do today. Our comprehension may still be narrow but our responsibilities -- as a species profoundly impacting the biogeochemical cycle, extinguishing vast numbers of life forms and ready at a moment's notice to let slip the dogs of nuclear war -- are much increased. Our biggest challenge, perhaps, is to imagine more fully things we cannot directly see. [2]

Photo: Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst

[1] Marcus Aurelius got straight to the point: "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one!"

[2] This includes longer-term trends underlying short term blips.

A laugh is quite catching, you see...

The infectiousness of laughter even works across species. Below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, I often hear my chimps laugh during rough-and-tumble games, and cannot suppress a chuckle myself. It’s such a happy sound. Tickling and wrestling are the typical laugh triggers for apes, and probably the original ones for humans. The fact that tickling oneself is notoriously ineffective attests to its social significance. And when young apes put on their “play face” (as the laugh expression is known), their friends join in with the same expression as rapidly and easily as humans do with laughter.

...That is where empathy and sympathy start—with the synchronization of bodies—not in the higher regions of imagination, or in the ability to consciously reconstruct how we would feel if we were in someone else’s “shoes.”
-- Frans de Waal

16 September 2009

Pleiotropy makes a dragon

Pharyngula explains.

Snakes evolved limblessness about 150 [?] million years ago, so if this for real then it is quite a throwback.

A more common mutation, it's reported, is a snake with two heads.

Superposition of being

Animals and other living things cannot escape time's arrow because we are founded on processes subject to the second law of thermodynamics.

A double life thanks to quantum weirdness may, it's reported, be achievable for very small living things... if you accept a virus as a living thing. It sounds as if the technique proposed would have the effect not of reversing the arrow but sidestepping it by multiplying the possibilities of existence.

The method proposed could, it's even suggested, be used on more complex life forms such as tardigrades. Well, tardigrades (also known as waterbears) are certainly tough, but this sounds like a stretch, at least for now.

15 September 2009


The goal of this project is to bring awareness to the millions of species that are under threat because of climate change. I created 26 different cards with various endangered species...
-- from one of the entries in a climate change as art contest. One comment was:
The entries are nice but do not strike me as compelling. To me, they do not connect with people who are not already in the choir. An example of what worked well was the campaign that started as "Keep Texas beautiful" in an attempt to decrease littering. This slogan had no effect. The slogan that slowed littering was "Don't mess with Texas."...

Falling for dolphins

Serge Brunier has a nice photo of the Milky Way. [1]

It is reported that in a collection of stories called Bhagavata purana:
all the visible stars and planets moving through space are likened to a dolphin that swims through the water
Well maybe. It's important not to be sentimental about cetaceans. Dan Everett has a nice story though:
It was about 5:45, the most beautiful time of day, when the sun glows orange and the river’s reflective darkness stands out against the rusty color of sky and the luxuriant spinach green of the jungle. As I sat idly watching and sipping my coffee, I was startled by the sight of two small gray porpoises jumping in synch out of the river. I had no idea that there were freshwater porpoises. Almost immediately, from around the bend came two Pirahã canoes, their riders paddling for all they were worth, in pursuit of the porpoises, trying to touch them with their paddles. It was a game of tag, porpoise tag.

Apparently the porpoises enjoyed themselves because they continually came up just out of reach of the men in canoes. This went on for half an hour, until darkness brought an end to the chase. The Pirahã in the canoes and on the banks (for by now a crowd had gathered) were laughing hysterically. As they stopped chasing the porpoises, the porpoises disappeared. (In all my years watching this contest between mammals, no porpoise has ever been 'tagged').
Everett also writes that:
the most striking thing I remember about seeing the Pirahãs for the first time was how happy everyone seemed.
I assume that when Everett says porpoise he is in fact referring to the Amazon River Dolphin, Inia Geoffrensis.


[1] P.S. 22 Sep: A picture of Milky Way centre by Stéphane Guisard.

14 September 2009

Escape from freedom

We will put our feet against the head of the enemy and crush the python spirit by stepping on the enemy's neck.
-- Max Blumenthal on an instructive moment in the rise of 'true believers' in the contemporary Republican Party: an occasion on which Bishop Muthee and another pastor led the Wasilla congregation in casting out witches.

12 September 2009

The human frame

This carefully balanced appreciation of the complexities of social reality -- the idea that "human fraternity is disastrous as a political program but indispensable as a guiding sign" -- already places Kołakowski at a tangent to most of the intellectuals of his generation. In East and West alike, the more common tendency was to oscillate between excessive confidence in the infinite possibilities of human improvement and callow dismissal of the very notion of progress. Kołakowski sat athwart this characteristic twentieth-century chasm. Human fraternity, in his thinking, remained "a regulative, rather than a constitutive idea.
-- from a remembrance of Leszek Kołakowski by Tony Judt.

11 September 2009

The cook, the deep, rare life and it's smothered

On the 'Menú Planetary Discovery':
The roulade of wild boar and açaí is already on the slates, the yuzu-confit crocodile is being laid down and topped with perfect quenelles of bullfrog & wild eucalyptus mousse and tarantula tempura are being carefully scattered across the bed of smoked bamboo shoots. At this precise moment the forest caterpillar and manzanilla jus should appear at your left elbow...
-- Aidan Brooks.

(hat tip: Brian Hayes)

Man's dominion

Mice like to grab onto something and so by just floating in the air it's really different for (the mouse) to adjust to.
-- Yianming Liu on life in the no gravity simulator.

Strange fruit

Andy Revkin posts a photo of a bear in a chair and asks his readers what unorthodox wildlife encounters they have had.

The Guardian used to run a series called Unsettling Animal Photo of the Week. Here's one for that: 'KDog', a military dolphin

10 September 2009


A Japanese study of urban crows found that the birds dropped hard-shelled nuts in the road at traffic intersections for cars to roll over and crack. When the traffic was heavy, the crows waited for the walk signal before grabbing their snacks from the street. How can you not admire that?

The crow's ability to adapt to man-made environments - in contrast to the struggles of more fragile species - has made it one of the planet's most successful bird species. But this achievement is the source of Haupt's ambivalence: it's everyone's loss, she reminds us, if we create an environment that accommodates only tough survivor species like the crow.
-- from a review by of Deborah Blum of Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

Perhaps in the long run crows, rats, cockroaches and other 'tough' species will radiate into endless new forms most beautiful.

Waves and waterfalls in young girls' hair

...Led by amazement as if it were a seal
Walking ahead of him up the Aran shingle
In a clawhammer coat and top hat, dressed to kill
About to enter a public house or kitchen

The way he would himself, like Arion
Arriving in off the waves, off the dolphin's back,
Oblivious-seeming, but taking it all in
And glad of another chance to believe his luck.
-- from Late in the Day by Seamus Heaney (Electric Light, 2001).

The 'he' is David Thomson, author of Nairn in Darkness and Light

8 September 2009

The big sky

Auroras have been seen as omens as battle... In Norway the [northern] lights were once interpreted as the souls of dead maidens. The Inuit reckoned them to be caused by a game of celestial football played with the skull of a walrus. Near Yellowknife in subarctic Canada I met people from the Dene tribe. They told me the aurora was the dancing spirits of very special ancestors, ones that moved on from human life first to become animal spirits, then to dance in the northern lights. To the Finns the aurora is Reventule [?], the Firefox, the sparkles of light caused when the fox touches objects as it runs.
-- from My Northern Lights by Kenny Taylor, BBC Radio 3.

Taylor says he can think of no other spectacle observable with naked eye that is so huge. True enough.

Even stranger things lie just beyond the edge of the 'normally' visible. I was awed to learn a couple of days ago that, were our eyes sensitive enough to pick up all the light it sends our way, the Andromeda galaxy would appear eight times as wide as the moon.

And objects may be larger than they appear in a 'mirror' (telescope). The Carina nebula for example is about 500 trillion kilometres across.

5 September 2009

Life itself

In A New Biology for a New Century (2004), Carl Woese writes:
Nearly 40 years ago the physicist-philosopher David Bohm exposed the fundamental flaw in the mechanistic reductionist perspective: “It does seem odd… that just when physics is… moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If the trend continues… scientists will be regarding living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is too complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism.”

...Society cannot tolerate a biology whose metaphysical base is outmoded and misleading: the society desperately needs to live in harmony with the rest of the living world, not with a biology that is a distorted and incomplete reflection of that world. Because it has been taught to accept the above hierarchy of the sciences, society today perceives biology as here to solve its problems, to change the living world. Society needs to appreciate that the real relationship between biology and the physical sciences is not hierarchical, but reciprocal: physics↔biology. Both physics and biology are primary windows on the world; they see the same gem but different facets thereof (and so inform one another). Knowing this, society will come to see that biology is here to understand the world, not primarily to change it. Biology's primary job is to teach us. In that realization lies our hope of learning to live in harmony with our planet.

SynBio and the music of chance

If our kind of mind had been confronted with the problem of designing a similar replicating molecule [to DNA] from scratch, we'd never have succeeded. We would have made one fatal mistake: our molecule would have been perfect. Given enough time, we would have figured out how to do this, nucleotides, enzymes and all, to make flawless, exact copies, but it would never have occurred to us, thinking as we do, that the thing had to be able to make errors.

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music. Viewed individually, one by one, each of the mutations that have brought us along represents a random, totally spontaneous accident, but it is not an accident at all that mutations occur; the molecule of DNA was ordained from the beginning to make small mistakes.
-- so wrote Lewis Thomas more than thirty years ago in an essay titled The Wonderful Mistake.

Synthetic biologists working today believe they are not playing. Certainly, some of the language adopted in the field communicates a specific intention to rule out chance in the pursuit of value-added. Here's an example (as noted by The Synthetic Biology Project, but with emphasis added by me):
As envisioned by SynBERC, synthetic biology is perhaps best defined by some of its hallmark characteristics: predictable, off-the-shelf parts and devices with standard connections, robust biological chassis (such as yeast and E. coli) that readily accept those parts and devices, standards for assembling components into increasingly sophisticated and functional systems and open-source availability and development of parts, devices, and chassis.
If they succeed, SynBERC and others will not be creating life in the sense that Thomas had in mind. But if they create 'parts and devices' that are not completely 'robust' but, rather, turn out to be subject to mutation or other unforeseen eventualities then what?

In a different context, D. Graham Burnett quotes Nietzsche. I may be wrong to intuit a connection, but want to keep it in view:
We should leave the gods in peace … and rest content with the supposition that our own practical and theoretical skill in interpreting and arranging events has now reached its apogee. But at the same time, we must not conceive too high an opinion of this dexterity of our wisdom, since at times we are positively shocked by the wonderful harmony that emerges from our instruments—a harmony that sounds too good for us to dare claim the credit for ourselves. Indeed, now and then someone plays with us—good old chance.

4 September 2009


[Toby] shared the bathroom with six illegal Thai immigrants, who kept very quiet. It was said that the CorpSeCorps had decided that expelling illegals was too expensive, so they'd resorted to the method used by farmers who found a diseased cow in the herd: shoot, shovel, and shut up.

On the floor below her there was an endangered-species luxury couture operation called Slink. They sold Halloween costumes over the counter to fool the animal-righter extremists and cured the skins in the backrooms...The skinned carcasses were sold on to a chain of gourmet restaurants called Rarity. The public dining rooms served steak and lamb and venison and buffalo, certified disease-free so that it could be cooked rare - that was what "Rarity" pretended to mean. But in the private rooms - key-club entry, bouncer-enforced - you could eat endangered species. The profits were immense; one bottle of tiger wine alone was worth a neckful of diamonds.
-- from The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

P.S. 17 Sep: Bonnie Greer's review here.

P.S. 18 Sep: and in her review Jeanette Winterson writes:
Atwood is very good at showing, without judging, what happens when human beings (usually men) cannot love. In the worst of them, like Blanco the Bloat, brutality and sadism take over. In the better of them, like Crake, a utopian desire for perfectability re­places the lost and lonely self. Crake designs out love and romance because he wants to design out the pain and confusion of emotion.

3 September 2009


In my search for a [new] word, I asked Bernd Brunner what he thought some good options were in German.

(which I took as 'wonder-discovery-loss-pain') is, he says, 'interesting, but as a construction it sounds too heavy.' Wunder is more like miracle than wonder. One option could be:
Entdeckungstrauer ('discovery grief').
Trauer (grief) may, he thinks, work better than Schmerz (pain). Another option could be:
Schauer, he says, is a feeling that can run over your back when you are mildly scared. 'Or is this too feeble to express what you are trying to say?' It is his preferred option at present: a newly made up word, and enigmatic.

He also mentions Verlustangst (the fear of losing something close to you) and Verlustschmerz (the pain of loss). And then there is Weltschmerz, 'a kind of global melancholia or saudade, as the Portuguese say: a deep feeling of grief over a generally felt loss. Could it be extended to Schöpfungs-Weltschmerz, Biologischer Weltschmerz?'

German has distinct words for extinction caused by humans: Ausrottung, and for extinction without human agency: Aussterben. I suppose we do in English too. For the former we say 'extermination.'

The Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 'With none in zoos and almost nothing known about how to maintain them in captivity,' notes an IUCN press release, 'extinction in the wild would mean the Saola's extinction everywhere, with no possibility of recovery and reintroduction.'

2 September 2009

Space cadets

Give us a century or two and we may turn the whole planet into a place from which many people might be happy to depart.
Lawrence Krauss proposes sending astronauts to Mars on a one way ticket. [1] It's good to hear an argument that pushes on some boundaries, but a flaw in this one emerges through a comparison that Krauss makes to the European colonists and pilgrims to North America who "seldom set off for the New World with the expectation of a return trip, usually because the places they were leaving were pretty intolerable anyway."

It's obviously true that many early settlers sought greater economic opportunity, but it's less clear that what they created was better than what they left behind. Quakers were not lynched in England just for being a Quakers, as they were in colonial Massachusetts. Slavery was illegal in England while it remained a keystone in large parts of the colonial and then early U.S. economy. We might also recall, among other things, the attitude of the founding fathers to the people who happened to have been there before the Europeans arrived. [2] And U.S. culture and economic practice today, undergirded by world wide military deployment, is still shot through with hateful magical thinking and debased bronze age mythology.

In sum, we cannot just walk away from the past, and unless we can sort things out on Earth we're unlikely to do any better in a 'New World', whether it be across the seas or interplanetary space.


[1] (added 16 Sep) See also Paul Davies: Fly me to Mars. One way.

[2] As George Washington put it, "the immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more." Quoted by Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee, along with a series of other incitements to genocide issued by presidents and powerful figures through much of U.S. history.


I cannot help thinking that if only I knew more about them, and how they maintain our synchrony, I would have a new way to explain music to myself.
-- Lewis Thomas, writing at the time that the prokaryotic origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts was beginning to be understood (Organelles as organisms in The Lives of a Cell, 1974).

1 September 2009

Dancing in the savannahs

Jonathan Balcombe describes warped perspectives in much of the scientific study of animal lives and behaviour. Barbara Ehrenreich sees a similar bias in the study of human psychology. Here's Balcombe (2006):
Nature is not nearly so grim as she is made out to be. A gazelle, like you or I, will die only once, and that death is usually a fairly fleeting affair compared to the life that goes before. A violent end on the African savannah typically lasts minutes, at most. Tens, hundreds or thousands of days precede it, few of which are punctuated by any serious threat....

Scientists would rather refer to ‘rewarding’ stimuli than to ‘pleasurable’ ones. In birds, kissing has been labeled ‘beak rubbing’, and open mouthed kissing as ‘false feeding’. It’s all rather sterile and businesslike. One might expect that a 1996 volume on partnerships in birds, many of which are lifelong, would disclose some examples of affectionate behaviour, but ‘affection’ doesn’t appear in the subject index, whereas there are more than 30 references to ‘aggression.’
And here's Ehrenreich (2007):
Not only was the science of psychology narrowly culture-bound; its emphasis on pathology largely precluded any careful study of the more pleasurable emotions, including the kind of joy - growing into ecstasy - that was the hallmark of so many ‘native’ rituals and celebrations In the psychological language of needs and drives, people do not freely and affirmatively search for pleasure; rather, they are ‘driven’ by cravings that resemble pain. To this day, and no doubt for good reasons, suffering remains the almost exclusive preoccupation of professional psychology. Journals in the field have published forty-five thousand articles in the last thirty years on depression, but only four hundred on joy.

(Hat tip SH for Ehrenreich)