30 October 2009


This blog consists of notes made in passing for a much larger project that I've been working on for a couple of years. In course of both the blog and the larger project all kinds of things get dragged up on deck: sometimes rubbish, sometimes a puzzle and occasionally something truly astonishing.

29 October 2009


There are terms [in Inuktitut] to mean arctic char, arctic char that are running upstream, arctic char that are moving down to the sea and arctic char that remain all year in the lake, as well as words for lake trout, salmon and so on. There is no word that means “fish”. Similarly, there are Inuktitut words for ringed seal, one-year-old ringed seal, adult male ringed seal, harp seal, bearded seal and so on. There is not word that means “seal”. Speakers of Inuktitut have to have precise information about the seals to which they refer. These are ways, perhaps, in which hunter-gatherer languages express, celebrate and enforce the importance of detailed knowledge of the natural world.
-- Hugh Brody (2000)

28 October 2009

Cool star

We have discovered a quite novel thermoregulation strategy in the animal kingdom
-- Sylvain Pincebourde, as quoted in BBC report


Billy Collins says poetry should displace silence, so that before the poem there is silence, and afterward, silence again. A sea turtle, suddenly appearing at the surface for a sip of air, displaces water. And afterward, water still. This is the turtle's poetry, a wordless eloquence stated in silence and, in a moment, gone.
-- Carl Safina

27 October 2009

Robot good robot bad

Glancing at the robot, Mary lifted a magazine from the top of the pile and guided it into a rack on top of the shelf. As soon as the magazine was in place, the robot emitted a beep. During the next few minutes, Mary moved each magazine, one by one, to the rack. Gradually, she increased her pace, and the beeps from the robot came faster. Mary began to laugh.
She turned and looked squarely at the robot. With a sly smile, she moved her weak arm toward the remaining magazines on the desk and mimed putting one into the rack. She then stuck her tongue out at the machine.
Matarić said, “She is cheating. She is totally thrilled, because she thinks she cheated the robot.” The robot, though, was on to the game. A reflective white band that Mary wore on her leg allowed the robot to follow her movements. A thin motion sensor attached to her sleeve transmitted Mary’s gestures to the robot, so that it knew almost instantly whether she was raising her arm and in what motion. A sensor in the rack signalled the robot when a magazine was properly placed, and the robot communicated with Mary only when she performed the task correctly.
Although the task lasted about an hour, the novelty of the interaction did not seem to wane. In a debriefing after the study, Mary said, “When I’m at home, my husband is useless. He just says, ‘Do it.’ I much prefer the robot to my husband.”
-- from Robots that Care by Jerome Groopman.
"Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on...an endless war" [says Mary Dudziak]...

...there is no longer any doubt that targeted killing with drones has become official U.S. policy. "The thing we were complaining about from Israel a few years ago we now embrace", [Gary Solis] says. Now, he notes, nobody in government calls it assassination...

...It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes , and fourteen months, before the C.I.A succeeded in killing Baitullah Mehsud. During this hunt, between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty one additional people were killed.
-- from The Predator War by Jane Mayer.


The researchers believe their discovery is the first clear evidence of bacterial pathogens crossing over from humans to animals and then spreading, since animals were first domesticated 10,000 years ago.
-- report


For the human condition, writes Yadin Dudai:
forgetting is at least as important as remembering - sometimes more so. Without it, we are all bound to lead the miserable life of A. R. Luria's patient Solomon Shereshevsky, who was crippled by his boundless, indelible memory, or his fictional counterpart, Jorge Luis Borges's Funes. No forgetting implies no generalisation, no real present time, no amelioration of trauma, and no weaving of meaningful life narratives.
This is right enough, but as Dudai acknowledges, societies as a whole -- and on occasions individuals within them -- may benefit from the ability to recall everything about some things. The question, then, is who controls access to supra-individual memory and how?

26 October 2009

Seeing the light

Last year, scientists discovered that [Mantis shrimps] can...see circularly polarised light, which travels in the shape of a helix. To date, they are still the only animal that can see these spiralling beams of light.

The secret lies at a microscopic level. Each eye is packed with light-sensitive cells called rhabdoms that are arranged in groups of eight. Seven sit in a cylinder and each has a tiny slit that polarised light can pass through if it's vibrating in the right plane. The eighth cell sits on top and its slit is angled at 45 degrees to the seven below it. It's this cell that converts circularly polarised light into its linear version.

In technical terms, the eighth cell is a "quarter-wave plate", because it rotates the plane in which light vibrates. Similar devices are also found in camera filters, CD players and DVD players but these man-made versions are far inferior to the mantis shrimp's biological tech.
-- Ed Yong reports on a paper by N.W. Roberts et al.

By contrast some of the simplest known eyes consist of only two cells.

23 October 2009

A dead whale

Cutting up a whale is surprisingly easy. The animal has a thick layer of fat - the blubber - which is easily sliced. Removing the bones is less simple, as you need to know where the joints are, like when carving a roast. The flipper is composed of the same bones as our arms - humerus, radius, ulna and a ball-and-socket joint. Nick feels for this with his knife and soon we are able to free it. Removed from the whale, the flipper is enormous, the ball joint itself the size of a football. It slides down the side of the whale, landing with a huge splash in a pool of blood. We whoop with delight.
-- Adrian Glover

22 October 2009

Round earth's imagin'd corners

Some quick comments on Josie Appleton's The Challenge of Climate Change: Towards human species consciousness. [1] Appleton writes:
we know that at some point in the far-distant future, our sun will die. This will be at least a billion years, which is "forever" for practical purposes, but we cannot escape the fact that the universe is a temporal creation and so are we. At this point if not before, humans would become extinct. If we are the only conscious life in the universe then that would be that: mind would be gone. So it may be that at some point in the far-distant future, we will have to act as a species to create or recreate a star. Whether or not this actually happens, it’s good to imagine it.
Humans are likely to be long gone before it becomes possible to 'reboot' a star. All the same, Appleton may be right that the thought experiment is worthwhile. David Deutsch anticipated this in The Fabric of Reality (1997):
The colour of the sun ten billion years hence depends...on what people do: what decisions they make, what problems they solve, and on how they behave towards their children.
One could make a case, though, for acceptance. Is an end to all consciousness in the remote future really a bad thing?

For the nearer term, Appleton picks up on Vladimir Vernadsky:
Vernadsky’s humanist utopia would mean a far more vibrant and varied nature than we have at present. The "wider creative possibilities" of reorganising nature around human desires could in fact mean a munificence of animals, plants and ecosystems. Crucially, man is a producer and not just a consumer of nature; part of his productive activity is to make nature, by planting trees, breeding animals, setting up wildlife reserves.
Certainly, given the grim possibilities arising from careless human action, it's good to have a positive vision of the shared ecological future. Almost certainly, humans will increasingly shape nature, including by developing new life forms and, perhaps, intelligences. But caution will be needed in "reorganising nature around human desires." To avoid catastrophe (consequent upon 'darker' aspects of human nature) it may be necessary to reorganise human desires themselves (assuming this can be done at all and, if it can, be done without degrading humans).

Finally, Appleton concludes:
Imaginative possibilities could lay a path for technological and political possibilities, and the slow evolution of a human species consciousness.
I suspect, though, that it is scientific and technological possibilities that lay the path and that, by and large, human imagination and politics follow.

Earth and Moon from Mars orbiter


[1] See also Rethink: a new improbable form of life by Emma Ridgway

Animal house

[Franz Kafka's] In the Penal Colony opens with an unforgettable portrait of the condemned man in chains, held by a lead by his guard as if to anticipate the grinning Lynndie England and the cringing detainee, leashed and naked, known to the night shift as ‘Gus’:

In any case, the condemned man looked so much like a submissive dog that one might have thought he could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.

The...descendants of Kafka’s warders [are visible through] the interrogation log of Detainee 063, aka Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called twentieth hijacker, at Guatanamo:

11 Dec 2002

Detainee was reminded that no one loved, cared or remembered him. He was reminded that he was less than human and that animals had more freedom and love than he does. He was taken outside to see a family of banana rats. The banana rats were moving around freely, playing, eating, showing concern for one another. Detainee was compared to the family of banana rats and reinforced that they had more love, freedom, and concern that he had. Detainee began to cry during this comparison

20 Dec 2002

Detainee offered water - refused. Corpsman changed ankle bandages to prevent chafing. Interrogator began by reminding the detainee about the lessons in respect and how the detainee had disrespected the interrogators. Told detainee that a dog is held in higher esteem because dogs know right from wrong to protect innocent people from bad people. Began teaching the detainee lessons such as stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to that of a dog. Detainee became very agitated.
-- from On Art and War and Terror by Alex Danchev.

21 October 2009

The question concerning technology

The two views, that technology is a thing directing our lives, and simultaneously a thing blessedly serving our lives, are simultaneously valid. But together they cause unease, an ongoing tension that plays out in our attitude to technology and in the politics that surround it. This tension does not just come from technology causing us to exploit nature and from it determining much of our lives. It arises because for all of our human existence we have been at home in nature -- we trust nature, not technology. And yet we look to technology to take care of the future -- we hope in technology. So we hope in something we do not quite trust.

Technology...is the programming of nature, the orchestration & use of nature's phenomena. So in its deepest sense it is natural, profoundly natural. But it does not feel natural.
-- from The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur. He concludes:
Our unconscious makes a distinction between technology as enslaving of [human] nature versus technology as extending our [human] nature. This is a correct distinction.

20 October 2009

Let's rock

The picture painted by Russell and Martin is striking indeed. The last common ancestor of all life was not a free-living cell at all, but a porous rock riddled with bubbly iron-sulphur membranes that catalysed primordial biochemical reactions. Powered by hydrogen and proton gradients, this natural flow reactor filled up with organic chemicals, giving rise to proto-life that eventually broke out as the first living cells - not once but twice, giving rise to the bacteria and the archaea.

Many details have yet to be filled in, and it may never be possible to prove beyond any doubt that life evolved by this mechanism. The evidence, however, is growing. This scenario matches the known properties of all life on Earth, is energetically plausible - and returns [Peter] Mitchell's great theory to its rightful place at the very centre of biology.
-- from Was our oldest ancestor a proton-powered rock? by Nick Lane

Bright fish

A series of studies has recently revealed that [coral] reef fish are surprisingly adaptable. Freshly caught wild fish quickly learn new tasks and can learn to discriminate among colors, patterns and shapes, including those they have never encountered. These studies suggest that learning and interpreting new stimuli play important roles in the lives of reef fish.
-- Sean B Carroll reports

Reef as metaphor:
Technology is “alive” in the sense that a coral reef is alive. The reef is an ecological system with many species, and technology in the broadest sense is an elaborate and constantly changing structure made up of thousands of discrete technologies, themselves composed of separate technologies.

19 October 2009

From a quarter century ago

Anyone who inquires into the effects of a nuclear holocaust is bound to be assailed by powerful and conflicting emotions. Preeminent among these, almost certainly, will be an overwhelming revulsion at the tremendous scene of devastation, suffering and death which is opened to view. And accompany the revulsion there may be a sense of helplessness and defeat, brought about by an awareness of the incapacity of the human soul to take in so much horror. A nuclear holocaust, widely regarded as "unthinkable" but never as undoable, appears to confront us with an action that we can perform by cannot quite conceive. Following upon these first responses, there may come a recoil, and a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, not to think any longer about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. (Since a holocaust is a wholly prospective rather than a present calamity, the act of thinking about it is voluntary, and the choice of not thinking about it is always available.) When one tries to face the nuclear predicament, one feels sick, whereas when one pushes it out of mind, as apparently one must do most of the time in order to carry on with life, one feels well again But this feeling of well-being is based on a denial of the most important reality of our time, and therefore is itself a kind of sickness. A society that systematically shuts its eyes to an urgent peril to its physical survival and fails to take any steps to save itself cannot be called psychologically well. In effect, whether we think about nuclear weapons or avoid thinking about them, their presence among us makes us sick, and there seems to be little of purely mental or emotional nature that we can do about it.
-- from The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, 1982

A white whale: Fat Man on a transport carriage, Tinian, 1945

18 October 2009

An unusual weapon

Tom Engelhardt writes that in the early 1980s the CIA "didn't hesitate to organize car-bomb and even camel-bomb terror attacks on the Russian military" in Afghanistan (emphasis added).

The source for this claim, apparently, is Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, a highly rated book which I have not read.

16 October 2009

The panther's breath

According to the old books, the breath of the panther is delight:
From its mouth comes a sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. Other animals, hearing its voice, follow wherever it goes because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth.
Under a lead sky in an old library I turned a page and saw what cannot be captured in print or on screen. The panther's breath shimmers in ribbed waves across the gold.

15 October 2009

Time being

In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov identifies the precise moment that he became aware of himself as a sentient being. Aged four, he learnt his parents' age in relation to his own:
The beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time... I felt myself plunged abruptly into a radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time. Once shared it -- just as excited bathers share shining seawater -- with creatures that were not oneself but that were joined to one by time's common flow, an environment quite different from the spatial world, which not only man but apes and butterflies can perceive. [1]
Nabokov, a conjuror, may be telling the truth as he remembers it. But are command of language and number really necessary for a sense of time? In the 1940s and 1950s when he was writing comparatively little was known about animal cognition. We now know that some great apes, cetaceans and corvids are self-aware. With this awareness may come some sense of time. But it seems sensible to suppose that only humans have the "unique ability to envision large vistas of past or future." [2]


[1] Quoted from the Penguin Classics edition. The syntax is the last sentence is confusing. Is there a verb missing?

[2] A phrase from a review of Eva Hoffman's Time

'Trilobite in the Wenlock Shales'

Under the hazels I entered again into boyhood
Over a hurrying water.
The church clock dropped the quarters nearby
And from a little school
Children hallooed like enchanted animals
But I was watching a water that shipped the wild apples
With all the time in the world
Patient as a fisher bird
In the hazel light to learn to be a finder
Of life, its mark, on a black stone
Opened like a butterfly, a soul that water,
Swaling and swaling, had let be seen.
-- David Constantine (via AG)

14 October 2009


In A Long, Melancholy Roar, Olivia Judson reflects on the role of predation by other animals on Man has had on the human psyche, observes that Man is the greatest predator on Man, and that no animal besides Man commits suicide. Here is my comment:
I think I've read that some data indicates suicide rates fall during war time. If true, this is interesting, and may be significant.

There's a remarkable account by the late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood of being attacked and almost killed by a crocodile.

Another 'wild' animal that still kills humans is the elephant. The authorities in the Indian state of Orissa report 180 deaths by trampling in the last 5 years (humans had encroached on elephant territory with mining and other operations).

One commonly reads that fewer than a dozen people are killed each year by sharks. Humans, by contrast, slaughter tens of millions of sharks each year.
I'd add that some (e.g. Richard Barry) claim that dolphins have deliberately committed suicide because they are being held captive by humans in conditions that they find unbearable. (Dolphin 'suicides' such as these may be a distinct, perhaps involuntary, phenomenon.)

In The Ecocidal Moment, Rowan Williams notes that Alastair McIntosh speaks of:
"ecocidal" patterns of consumption as addictive and self-destructive. Living like this is living at a less than properly human level – McIntosh suggests we may need therapy, what he describes as a "cultural psychotherapy" to liberate us. That liberation may or may not be enough to avert disaster. But what we do know – or should know – is that we are living inhumanly.
Inhumanely, perhaps; but all too humanly.

Death on the eighth continent

Roasted lemurs and criminal gangs exporting precious hardwood: this is the sad state of affairs for Madagascar's legendary biodiversity. Since a military coup forced the president to resign in March, conservationists and biologists have watched as loggers have stripped the country's forests and killed its animals for bushmeat.

Much of the foreign aid to Madagascar has been withdrawn and, without a stable government to enforce rules and laws, criminal organisations have been quick to exploit the unique animal and plant life of the country.

"It has been a gold rush for logging gangs and bushmeat hunters to do as much as they can before the government gets organised and puts a stop to it," says Edward Louis, a conservation biologist at the Omaha Zoo, who has been working in Madagascar for a decade.

In August, Conservation International reported that 15 bushmeat traders, contracted by a restaurant, were arrested carrying hundreds of endangered lemurs, which had been killed and roasted. "This happened in one of the country's best managed parks," says [ the conservation biologist Edward Louis]. "If it's happening there, I can't begin to imagine what is happening elsewhere.
-- Madagascar biodiversity under threat as gangs run wild.

Related item: Conservation targets too low to save at-risk species.

12 October 2009

Opera bufo

The burrowing abilities [of toads] are pretty impressive: winter burrows used by hibernating European toads can sometimes extend as much as three metres below ground.
-- via Darren Naish, who has much more.

11 October 2009

Seeing things

Today we use less and we use more of our mental capacity than [did preliterate peoples]: and it is not exactly the same kind of mental capacity as it was either. For example we use considerably less of our sensory perceptions. When I was writing the first version of Mythologiques, I was confronted with a problem that which to me was extremely mysterious. It seems that there was a particular tribe which was able to see the planet Venus in full daylight, something which to me would be utterly impossible and incredible. I put the question to professional astronomers: they told me, of course, that we don't but, neverthelesss, when we know the amount of light emitted by the planet Venus in full daylight, it was not absolutely inconceivable that some people could. Later on I looked into old treatises on navigation belonging to our own civilization and it seems that sailors of old were perfectly able to see the planet in full daylight. Probably we could still see it if we had a trained eye.
-- from Myth and Meaning by Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Related post: The big sky.

10 October 2009

Rising from the deep

...It took both my hands to turn the wheel
Light cut the door; I put my weight to it
and took a small step down into the world
that was identical and wholly other.

When they ask me what I saw, they all expect
Some blissed-out excuse for my not saying,
but I know what I saw: I saw in everything
the germ and genius of its own ascent,

The fire of its increase; I saw the earth
put forth the trees, like a woman her dark hair;
I saw the sun's sun and the river's river,
I saw the whole abundant overflow;

I saw my own mind surge into the world
and close it all inside one human tear;
I saw how every man-made thing will turn
its lonely face up to us like a child's;

I saw that time is love, and time requires
of everything its full expenditure
that love might be conserved; and the I saw
that love is not what we mean by the word.

For some idea of it, choose a point
in the middle of a waterfall, and stare
for as long as you can stand. Now look around
see how every rock and tree flows upwards?

So the whole world blooms continually
within its true and hidden element,
a sea, a beautiful and lucid sea
through which it pilots, rising without end.
-- from Bathysphere by Don Paterson

9 October 2009

Life is strange

Aquatic larva of Atherix ibis (a fly), magnified 25 times. Photo by Fabrice Parais

A mediæval beauty cure

Crocodile dung can be used to enhance a person's beauty: the excrement (or the contents of the intestines) is smeared on the face and left there until sweat washes it off.
-- The Medieval Bestiary

8 October 2009

Elephants' revenge

Elephants have killed more than 180 people in the past five years, say officials in the forest department in the state of Orissa.

...[Fatal attacks] are increasing because industrial activities, mining for instance, are destroying elephant habitat, said Biswajit Mohanty, environmental activist and secretary of Wildlife Society of Orissa. An alumina refinery at Lanjigarh has obstructed the animal’s migratory route from Kandhamal to Karlapat forests in Kalahandi via Niyamgiri.
-- report


The Umbrella mouth gulper uses a whip-like tail for movement. The end of the tail bears a complex organ with numerous tentacles, which glows pink and gives off occasional bright red flashes. This is presumably a lure to attract prey, although its presence at the far end of the body from the mouth suggests that the eel may have to adopt an unusual posture to use it effectively...

It grows to about 1 metre (3.3 ft) in length and is found in all tropical and subtropical seas at depths ranging from 900 to 8,000 meters (3,000 to 26,200 feet).
(from Wikipedia)

7 October 2009


'From the Eye of the Albatrosses: A Bird-Borne Camera Shows an Association between Albatrosses and a Killer Whale in the Southern Ocean':

The images from our albatross-borne camera show at least four albatrosses (including the camera-mounted bird) actively following a killer whale while it was breaking the sea surface. Only a few previous studies have documented the association between albatrosses and killer whales, and these were mostly in shallow waters...

Although it is still difficult to quantify how often black-browed albatrosses associate with killer whales in the open ocean, our results, together with ship-based observations..., suggest that these associations may occur more frequently than previously anticipated and may be a part of foraging repertoire of albatrosses.

6 October 2009

'A man should rejoice in his own works'

The fate of the sons of man and the fate of beasts is the same: as one dies, so the other. They all have the same breath and man has no advantage over the beast for all his vanity. All go to one place; all are from dust, and turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes downward to the Earth?
-- Ecclesiastes (3.19-21) quoted in an essay on animal rights in Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z by Richard Milner.

Photo from Curse of the Black Gold by Ed Kashi

4 October 2009

'There is so much beyond all that has ever yet been imagined'

How extraordinary, strange, and incomprehensible are the creatures captured out of the depths of the sea! The distorted fishes; the ghastly cuttles; the hideous eel-like shapes; the crawling shell-encrusted things; the centipede-like beings; monstrous forms, to see which gives a shock to the brain. They shock the mind because they exhibit an absence of design. There is no idea in them.

....They are not inimical of intent towards man, not even the shark; but there the shark is, and that is enough. These miserably hideous things of the sea are not anti-human in the sense of persecution, they are outside, they are ultra and beyond. It is like looking into chaos, and it is vivid because these creatures, interred alive a hundred fathoms deep, are seldom seen; so that the mind sees them as if only that moment they had come into existence.
-- Richard Jefferies in The Story of My Heart (1883). Jefferies did not understand Darwin. The ‘design’, the ‘idea’ in all creatures, including those in the deep, is (it seems obvious to us) survival, and in this they obviously succeed.

But there’s insight here all the same. The shock Jefferies experiences and that we still feel today is real enough and probably comes from a joining together of things alike and unlike. Deeply programmed to respond to faces, we are fascinated and alienated by strange ‘masks’ never (before recent human meddling) seen in sunlight. We are drawn to them and yet they are not for our eyes.

The tension may relate to a larger one between, on the one hand, the transcendent rapture that Jefferies expresses so vividly in the book and, on the other, the non-human reality he also sees:
a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human. The term inhuman does not express my meaning, anti-human is better; outre-human, in the sense of beyond, outside, almost grotesque in its attitude towards, would nearly convey it.
or as he writes a little earlier:
Those who have been in an open boat at sea without water have proved the mercies of the sun, and of the deity who did not give them one drop of rain, dying in misery under the same rays that smile so beautifully on the flowers.

3 October 2009

After the ice

The Bowhead has survived a lot. [1] Could it survive a 15 C rise in the Arctic? [2]


[1] On the Bowhead, or Greenland Right Whale see also Thin Ice and Hunters and hunted.

[2] See Richard Betts here. The signs are already bad for Walruses. See: Walruses Suffer Substantial Losses as Sea Ice Erodes

P.S. (added Oct 5): Could Gray whales be one of the species to move into Arctic waters in place of the Bowheads (assuming there to be sufficient food available for them in the newly warming waters)? In Watching whales watching us, Charles Siebert reports the biologist Steven Swartz saying, "they’re expanding their feeding grounds all along their migration route and in the north, and some are even staying in Arctic water over the winter..."

P.P.S (added Oct 6): 'Arctic seas turn to acid, putting vital food chain at risk.'

2 October 2009

Beyond the long tail of the Anthropocene

...For the first few million years after an extinction the speciation rate actually falls. "That suggests to us a sort of wounded biosphere. Extinction events don't just remove organisms from an ecosystem, leaving lots of opportunity for new species to diversify. Instead, what we think happens is that the niches themselves collapse, so you won't have new organisms emerging to occupy them. The niches themselves don't exist any more," says [James] Kirchner.

Eventually, though, evolution wins the day, and after a few tens of millions of years biodiversity rebounds. Sometimes, as after the Ordovician mass extinction 440 million years ago, the new regime looks a lot like the old one. But more often a new world emerges. "You're not re-establishing the old chessboard, you're designing a whole new game," says [Doug] Erwin.

-- from Post-human Earth

1 October 2009

'Nice guys with little teeth'

A good write-up on Ardipithecus from Carl Zimmer

On beauty

Many things in nature were not made for us or anyone else to look at so what’s going on? I think the answer lies in remarkable convergence between features of art that we value because they provide evidence of human skill and the features of natural things that have evolved and persisted because these features have given them staying power and survivability. That’s to say there’s a convergence between our sense of aesthetically good form and nature’s selection of evolutionarily stable form.

In the case of animals and plants part of the reason for this is the ordinary working of natural selection. That the whole body grows in an ordered and harmonious way just is the best way of building a complete machine. So even without the added stimulation of sexual selection good form would prove to be evolutionarily adaptive.
-- from Beauty's Child: Sexual Selection, Nature Worship and the Love of God. Nicholas Humphrey on (Edge 300)

Humphrey summarises:
Why is being in the presence of beautiful things adaptive?

A. The things as such as are valuable to us

1. Beauty is a sign of something good (for us) about the object
2. Beauty is the thing that’s good for us about the object

B. The things as such have no value, but in approaching them we approach something else that has value

1. Safe environment
2. Good people.