30 November 2009

Chickens in heaven

Manufacturing #17: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005) by Edward Burtynsky.

Days of the locust

The name Dubai derives from Al Daba, a locust which consumed everything in its path, said Johann Hari back in April.

Beings animalculous

I have been searching for some time for this picture:

Monster Soup by William Heath (1795 - 1840)
Heath, satirizing the appalling production of London water companies in the 1820s or 30s (?), uses a line from Milton in jest:
Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s dire.
It's from Book 2 of Paradise Lost. The original context is splendid:
...through many a dark and drearie Vaile
They pass’d, and many a Region dolorous,
O’re many a Frozen, many a Fierie Alpe,
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,
A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Then Fables yet have feign’d, or fear conceiv’d,
Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s dire.

29 November 2009


We are embedded in the mental world of others just as we are embedded in the physical world. What we are currently doing and thinking is molded by whomever we are interacting with. But this is not how we experience ourselves. We experience ourselves as agents with minds of our own. This is the final illusion created by our brains.
-- Chris Frith

image: from a model of water flow on ocean surface

28 November 2009

48-eyed tentacle love

Cubozoa, or box jellyfish, such as these two Copula sivickisi, are the only jellyfish that copulate. They are also unique in having eight camera type eyes, eight slit-shaped eyes and eight lensless pit eyes, all feeding into a simple nervous circuit without a brain. They are active swimmers and engage in eloborate courting rituals.

27 November 2009

Life, a new manual?

Rats who build the labyrinth from which they will escape
is how Raymond Queneau described the practitioners of Oulipo, notes Ben Schott.

Oulipo derives from pataphysics, which has been defined as an approach that considers things in terms of their potentiality: what they can be instead of what they are. A foundational text is Raymond Queneau's sonnet-making 'machine', which creates a hundred thousand billion new poems from just ten originals. [1]

Oulipo imposes constraints on language in order to discover new things, and/or - as in George Perec's La Disparition -- to search for what has been lost.

The Canadian poet Christian Bök says that in writing Eunoia [2] he came to the conclusion that censorship of language is probably impossible:
Language is a very robust life form that's capable, like a weed, of finding a way to survive and thrive even under the most hostile environments.
Life itself is constrained by many things, including "the central dogma of molecular biology" which is, broadly, that DNA > RNA > protein. Scientists are now trying to reprogramme the code through the invention and synthetic evolution of new orthogonal translational components.

From the point of view of synthetic biology some old 'constraints' of life are to be broken.


[1] An online version here. "The work you are holding in your hands represents, itself alone, a quantity of text far greater than everything man has written since the invention of writing," says François Le Lionnais.

[2] Bök makes this Greek word the title of his book. Eunoia is, he says, "the state of mind you have to be in in order to make a friend". In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the term to refer to the goodwill arising from spousal love. In modern English it is also used to mean "beautiful thinking" and as a medical term for sanity.

26 November 2009

Beyond ignorance

In his opening remarks for the first conference in Egypt on the work of Charles Darwin, Ismail Sergaldin, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, cited the words of the 13th-century physician Ibn al-Nafis:
When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because people say it is. [1]
It was an astute choice, perhaps, but al-Nafis's wisdom seems to have escaped this young man:
“I am not against the idea of evolution completely,” said Amr Zeydah, 23, a zoology major at Alexandria University. “I accept the idea partially.”

Despite his major, Mr. Zeydah has never studied Darwin, and before the conference knew little about the theory of evolution. He accepted the Islamic account of creation, that God formed Adam from dirt and infused him with a soul.

But after taking in the discussion, he said he had worked out a way to reconcile the two: that God created life, which then evolved to suit its environment. “God created Adam at 15 meters tall,” he said, quoting what he said was a Hadith, or saying, of the Prophet Muhammad. “So evolution comes in because we are obviously not that height now.”


[1] An early version of nullus in verba, perhaps. Evolutionary theory, properly understood, is extremely beautiful. The ugliness resides in the minds of those who fail to understand.

25 November 2009


The preface to Contours of climate justice (pdf) includes a note written in 1951 by Dag Hammarskjöld which, say the authors, show with particular clarity his deep bonds with the wilderness. What mattered for Hammarskjöld was the:
…extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.
I find that last sentence confusing, but the main drift of the passage is probably on target.

Out-evolving extinction

...where no previous capacity exists, evolving a brand new trait can be a slow and haphazard affair.

If [as experiments with bacteria indicate] most organisms have to wait 31,000 generations to evolve a new trait [that allows them to thrive in radically different circumstances] — they will probably go extinct first. Worse, many natural populations are shrinking fast, further reducing their evolutionary potential. In short, we can expect that — if the environment continues to change as rapidly as it is at the moment — many creatures will fail to meet their evolve-by dates.
This is interesting, but how far can one make an analogy between micro and macro-organisms? It's one thing for bacteria to evolve to consume altogether different nutrients -- say methane rather than sugars. But multi-cellular organisms are, I guess, incapable evolving such a change. Hares and lions will never switch to eating, say, sulphur. Their best chance is if adverse anthropogenic pressures are reduced.

'The goddess must have blood'

In the main event, 250 appointed residents with traditional kukri knives began their task of decapitating more than 10,000 buffalo in a dusty enclosure guarded by high walls and armed police.

Frightened calves galloped around in vain as the men, wearing red bandanas and armbands, pursued them and chopped off their heads.

24 November 2009

A right-handed snail-snake

Snail asymmetry has driven the evolution of a unique asymmetry in snakes [and], as Darwin would have predicted, the snakes also appear to be driving snail evolution.
-- Sean B. Carroll reports on findings by Takahiro Asami, Masaki Hoso and Michio Hori.

23 November 2009

Enypniastes, a sea cucumber

from WHO via BBC. Hat tip: MP.

Koala barely

According to the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, [Sam the Koala] was the subject of widespread comment at the G20 summit in London in April this year, and he issued a personal tribute to this "symbol of hope" when Sam died six months later. "It's tragic that Sam the koala is no longer with us," Rudd said, just restraining himself from decreeing a state funeral.
-- from Koala Wars by Gideon Haigh

20 November 2009

From a Cretaceous bestiary

Kaprosuchus saharicus is one of five 100 million year old fossilized "monstrous and surprisingly diverse" relatives of the crocodile recently found in Niger and Morocco. [1] The 6-meter-long animal had an armoured snout for ramming its prey and three sets of tusks for ripping flesh.

Science magazine comments that "each of the five ancient animals could have answered a casting call for Star Trek". But Kaprosuchus would have resonated with the medieval and ancient imagination too, combining as it does attributes we associate with a dog, a boar, a crocodile and a dragon.

P.S. 23 Nov: the crocs have been given nicknames. The biggest is SuperCroc. PancakeCroc had an impressively flat head. BoarCroc (Kaprosuchus saharicus) had fierce-looking fangs and an armored snout for ramming. DogCroc had a fleshy nose like a dog and was limber enough to gallop. DuckCroc had broad, overhanging snout resembling a duckbill. And RatCroc had a pair of buckteeth in the lower jaw that were used to dig for food.

18 November 2009

Bird poems

Tim Dee and Simon Armitage choose ten.

I like this by Basho:
My eyes following
until the bird was lost at sea
found a small island

Ancient baby

We don't yet have sight of "the coelacanth's mating ritual" that Andrew McNeillie hopes to see but we do have sight of a baby.

17 November 2009

'The music of knapping'

For hundreds of thousands of years we have made stone tools: people sitting together under the trees, chipping and tapping and knapping their flint, their obsidian, their jasper. And their multiple rhythms, together with the sound of cicadas, and birdsong, would have been musical.
-- from Time in Stone by Emily Young.

16 November 2009

'More like rainbows and mirages than raindrops or boulders'

You and I are mirages who perceive themselves, and the sole magical machinery behind the scenes is perception -- the triggering, by huge flows of raw data, of a tiny set of symbols that stand for abstract regularities in the world...

We human beings are macroscopic structures in a universe whose laws reside at a microscopic level. As survival-seeking beings, we are drive to seek efficient explanations that make reference only to entities at our own level. We therefore draw conceptual boundaries around entities that we easily perceive, and in so doing we carve out what seems to us to be reality. The "I" we create for each of us is a quintessential example of such a perceived or invented reality, and it does such a good job of explaining our behavior that it becomes the hub around which the rest of the world seems to rotate. But this "I" notion is just a shorthand for a vast mass of seething and churning of which we are necessarily unaware...

But our own unfathomability is a lucky thing for us! Just as we might shrivel up and die if we could truly grasp how miniscule we are in comparison to the vast universe in which we live, so we might also explode in fear and shock if we were privy to the unimaginably frantic goings-on inside our bodies. We live in a state of blessed ignorance, but it is also a state of marvelous enlightenment, for it involves floating in a universe of mid-level categories of our our creation -- categories that function incredibly well as survival enhancers.
-- Douglas Hofstadter (2007)

15 November 2009

'Intolerable beauty'

Chris Jordan's photographs of the plastic in the stomachs of baby albatrosses on Midway atoll are, he says, an attempt to communicate what is "an incredible tragedy symbolic on many levels":
Before going out there we met with a group of Hawaiian elders and received their teachings from Hawaiian spiritual tradition..one of the women said to me ‘don’t think of the birds as being victims. She said in the Hawaiian tradition they are sentient beings intentionally bringing to themselves the garbage of the world as a way of passing on a message. And whether or not you accept that as being true, I thought it was fascinating this idea that there’s a message that is being transmitted through the death of these birds...

...It was a very bizarre experience to feel the aesthetic beauty of something so horrible and yet [it] can be a portal...If I took ugly photographs of a scary subject no one would want to look at them. So I think by presenting these things in a beautiful way it not only honors the complexity of the issue, it also draws the viewer into...a difficult conversation with himself that he might not otherwise be willing to have.

In a statement on his web site, Jordan says:
...The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.

The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits.

As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. So my hope is that these photographs can serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry. It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.
All of this is convincing and useful. But we also need the phrase 'intolerable ugliness'.

14 November 2009

On beauty (2)

There seem to be certain constants which all cultures have found 'beautiful': among them -- certain flowers, trees, forms of rock, birds, animals, the moon, running water.

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see( and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself -- without the pretensions of a creator -- in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis...And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derive, I believe, from this double affirmation.

Yet we de do not live in the first chapter of Genesis. We live...in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope...

...Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Are sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one.
-- from The White Bird by John Berger (1985)

Related: Nicholas Humphrey On beauty.

13 November 2009

A hundred to one

If we were to expand marine protection from less than 1% to 30%, say, what would that cost? Establishing reserves, policing them and so on, would cost about $40-50bn per year - and the annual benefit would be about $4-5 trillion.
-- says Pavan Sukdev, study leader of TEEB. The study also finds the ongoing loss of forest comes with an annual pricetag of US $2-5 trillion.

12 November 2009

Bye bye bluefin

Catches [of bluefin tuna] in 2008 were at three times the ICCAT limit, which is itself more than what its scientific advisers consider sustainable. "It's like the year before the collapse of the northern cod," says Dan Pauly.
More widely, a 2009 assessment of the state of commercial fisheries around the world found that 80 percent of fish stocks are either fully exploited, overexploited, or have collapsed (via Center for Biological Diversity).

11 November 2009

Through a glass

Perhaps it is objectively true that only poetry can talk of birth and origin. Because true poetry invokes the whole of language (it breathes with everything it has not said), just as the origin invokes the whole of life, the whole of Being.

The mother orangutan has come back, this time with her baby. She is sitting right up against the glass. The children in the audience have come to watch her. Suddenly, I think of a Madonna and Child by Cosimo Tura. I'm not indulging in sentimental confusion. I haven't forgotten I'm talking about apes any more than I've forgotten I'm watching a theatre. The more one emphasizes the millions of years, the more extraordinary the expressive gestures become. Arms, fingers, eyes, always eyes...A certain way of being protective, a certain gentleness -- if one could feel the fingers on one's neck one would say a certain tenderness -- which has endured for five million years.[1]
-- from Ape Theatre by John Berger (1990).


[1] More likely, the last common ancestor of orangutans and humans lived about 13 million years ago.

10 November 2009

Vatican suggests limits to corporate expansion strategy

If other intelligent beings exist, it's not certain that they need redemption.
-- Father Jose Gabriel Funes, the chief papal astronomer.


image from Save our Seas accompanying an interview with Andrea Marshall, who has set up Giantfish, a ray adoption scheme.

Widening gyre

One Rainbow runner...had 84 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
-- from Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash by Lindsey Hoshaw.

At the time of writing the background to the header of this blog is a detail of trash found in the stomach of an albatross. See also photos by Chris Jordan.

8 November 2009

'Grieving animals?'

Dan Sperber asks a question.


In [popular photography of wild animals], animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are objects of our over-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away we are.
-- from Why look at Animals? by John Berger (1977). In a zoo, he says, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.

6 November 2009


Predictions made over the last decade about the impacts of climate change on biodiversity may be exaggerated.
-- report.

Of coelacanths and sea-monsters

On the subject of sea serpents - while many of the specific cases in the literature are inconsistent or unconvincing there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that at least one species of large marine animal quite different in form to the baleen whales still exists and remains to be formally recognised. The evidence from the north-west Atlantic (as described in the book The Great New England Sea Serpent) is I think particularly strong - with well over 200 reports from the 19th and 20th centuries (not all of equal quality of course) and a particular peak of sightings in the period from 1815 into the 1830s, with many sightings involving tens of people and some witnessed by over 100 people. I particularly find interesting the fact that the 19th century observations showed seasonal behaviour, with sightings suggesting that the fish shoals were followed and fed on at certain times of year, and that the drop off in reports correlated with the collapse of the fish stocks due to over fishing.
-- from a comment by Mark Lees on a post by Darren Naish.

5 November 2009


Manakins spend 80% of their daylight hours dancing.
-- Nicky Clayton

(added 11 Nov:) and at least one species makes music with its wings.

4 November 2009

Take, eat; this is my body

Foer relates how, one night, he sneaked onto a California turkey farm with an animal-rights activist he calls C. Most of the buildings were locked, but the two managed to slip into a shed that housed tens of thousands of turkey chicks. At first, the conditions seemed not so bad. Some of the chicks were sleeping. Others were struggling to get closer to the heat lamps that substitute for their mothers. Then Foer started noticing how many of the chicks were dead. They were covered with sores, or matted with blood, or withered like dry leaves. C spotted one chick splayed out on the floor, trembling. Its eyes were crusted over and its head was shaking back and forth. C slit its throat.
-- from Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. Kolbert makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. [1] Does Foer?

The story goes that Franz Kafka visited the Berlin aquarium and, gazing into the illuminated tanks, addressed the fish directly. “Now at last I can look at you in peace,” he told them. “I don’t eat you anymore.”

But should we cut out meat (and fish) altogether? And, as Kolbert points out, what about all other animal products? Can one imagine a world where many fewer animals are kept in excellent conditions and only consumed on special occasions? If not, how about 'Meat 2.0?' (or its dark side 'secret burgers')?

Would a world in which humans eat no animals be palid, etiolated? A more sustainable (more plausible) alternative, perhaps, would be one with a smaller human population which both reveres and eats a limited number of animals, rather as some nomadic peoples still do today. [2], [3]

And then there is Kafka's hunger artist (with whom I have some sympathy).

Image: a lake of blood and excrement near Granjas Caroll, Mexico


[1] An overview from more than a year ago but still useful is Andy Revkin's Can people have meat and a planet too?

[2] A non-dreadful scenario for reduction in the total size of the human population would most likely be an accelerated and peaceful demographic transition: billions of freely made choices by more and more people to have just one or two children. Global population would peak at about 9 billion mid century and start to decline thereafter. Quality of life would continue to improve: 'Malthus' well and truly vanquished.

[3] (added 7 Nov) Or, as John Berger sees it (Why look at animals? 1977), as peasants in agricultural societies have long done:
A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away the pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and and not by a but.

'Escherichia Ophelia'

From Microbial art via Biophemera. The artist is JoWOnder

2 November 2009

A circle of life

In Why Animal Suffering Matters, Andrew Linzey argues that sentient animals, like children, should be accorded a special moral status.

I haven't read this book yet, and don't pretend to be up to speed with the philosophy and wider debates about animal rights, but I am aware that some philosophers and others identify at least one difference between children and animals which they regard as important: children are future adult humans whereas animals are not. Their capabilities and flourishing follow distinct paths. [1]

There is a good case for regarding non-human animals as different in significant ways from humans (but not necessarily of any less worth for that). There may also be a case for seeing children in different ways from how we often do in most 'modern' societies.

According to Hugh Brody's account, the Inuit believe their infants to be reincarnations of recently deceased grandparents. A mother may address her daughter as both 'daughter' and 'mother'. It would be impossible and silly to try and introduce such a belief into the industrial world. But we might have something to learn from the sense of trust, respect and reverence that such a belief brings with it for even the smallest and most vulnerable. Birth, life and death are greater than the individual ego.

Should only be sentient beings be worthy of 'special moral status'?


[1] See, for example Martha Nussbaum. A more radical view, perhaps, is taken by James Rachels.

1 November 2009

Eternal return

The little ones have left us, slipping into the lacy whitewater and under the hem of the ocean, entering the great swim, never pausing to ask ‘what if,’ using everything they know, with all they’ve got.
-- Carl Safina