31 December 2009

Brave new world

As Kevin Kelly noted in February (Collapistarians), there has been no shortage of gloom this year. But this blog concludes 2009 with an unfashionable observation from Charles Darwin:
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may given him hope for a still higher destiny in future. [1]
Owen Flanagan echoes this after a fashion here:
The twenty-first century will give us naturalists our best chance so far at explaining what it means to be a human animal and how we might go forward guided by wisdom as we explore some of the promising futures among the multifarious psychopoetic spaces open to us. It is a gift, a matter of great cosmic contingency, that we are self-understanding animals, enchanted beings, who can understand and guide our lives to places and ways of being that are more truthful, beautiful, and good. [2]


[1] The Descent of Man (1872), quoted in Science, 2 Oct 2009

[2] from One enchanted being: neuroexistentialism and meaning (2009) by Owen Flanagan

Related post: Bounded in a nutshell

That was the year

The BBC notes wildlife discoveries and cleverest animals of the year.

30 December 2009


The Foraminifera Sculpture Park in Guangzhou Province officially opened this month and is dedicated to large sculptures of these single-cell marine organisms. Marine geologist Bilal Haq of the National Science Foundation got the idea of a sculpture park a decade ago after seeing palm-sized models of foraminifera in the lab of marine biologist Zheng Shouyi at the Institute of Oceanology in Qingdao, China. Zheng persuaded local authorities to pursue the idea. The 114 sculptures were carved out of marble, granite, and sandstone.
-- a random sample in Science.

D'Arcy Thompson wrote of the Foraminifera:
In few other groups, perhaps only among the Radiolaria, do we seem to possess so nearly complete a picture of all the possible transitions between form and form, and of the whole branching system of the evolutionary tree: as though little or nothing of it had ever perished, and whole web of life, past and present, were as complete as ever.

He adds:
in days gone by I used to see the beach of a little Connemara bay bestrewn with millions upon millions of foraminiferal shells, simple Lagenae, less simple Nodosariae, more complex Rotiliae: all drifted by wave and gentle current from their sea-cradle to their sandy grave: all lying bleached and dead: one more delicate than another, but all (or vast multitudes of them) perfect and unbroken.

Image: Micropolitan

29 December 2009

An inordinate fondness for microbes

By one rough estimate there may be 150 million species of microbes.

In years to come scientists hope to have genomes of about 1,500 analyzed for a new encyclopedia.

"It's a dent, but a small dent".
-- from Catologing the vast world of microbes.

28 December 2009

Time has a wallet at his back

All of us are told, usually by someone who is just about to pick our pockets, that self-preservation is the first law of nature.
-- from The origin of death by George Wald.


Not one of the [more than 150?] nations signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity has fulfilled its pledge, according to a too-short report on Today.

The same report has Andrew Bounford championing the hotspot approach to protecting biodiversity and Partha Dasgupta just about having time to say that this approach risks missing the link between the erosion of biodiversity and poverty. Greater concentration at the local level of villages may be more important, says Dasgupta.

P.S. Jan '10, A new paper by Dasgupta: Nature's role in sustaining economic development.

24 December 2009

Helter skelter

When we look at residence times for protected areas, which we define as the amount of time it will take current climate conditions to move across and out of a given protected area, only 8% of our current protected areas have residence times of more than 100 years.
--Healy Hamilton quoted in report on the study Climate change puts ecosystems on the run.

'The cranium is the space traveler's helmet...'

Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space traveler's helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the ego.
-- from Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, quoted in Lit by Mary Karr.

Jaron Lanier suggests an advanced alien life form would see humans differently:
You know, this place is kind of touching, but mostly it’s just sad. You 
know these earthlings—they call themselves people. They are—you’re not 
going to believe this, and you might be grossed out, but here’s what they are 
like. They’re separated from each other in these sacks of skin. There are 
often many feet of air between them when they are communicating. Just atmosphere. Yet they are conscious, they form relationships, they think, they 
long for one another. But they aren’t connected. They can’t do mind melds 
like us. So what do they do—okay, here comes the gross part. Just hold on to 
your stomach and try not to get too grossed out. So there is an orifice and it’s 
an orifice that they eat with and they breathe with it and they can make 
these weird sounds out of this same orifice. Now I told you not to get sick, 
okay? Space exploration is a tough game, and you just have to deal with it, 
okay? If you can’t deal with it, get interested in something else. 

Then they have these other orifices, called ears, where sounds go in, 
and they have this code system and they communicate that way. It’s awkward 
and it’s weird and it’s disgusting, but it’s what they have. I mean, we can only sort of feel for them.

22 December 2009

Towards the pebbled shore

As individuals, we blink on and off in the vortex of time with appalling evanescence, each of us, much like a firefly’s butt on a warm summer night. We come and go like waves on a beach...
-- from A Very Brief History of Eternity by Carlos Eire.
Humans are beings in time who are thrust into a world in which the first universal feature of being in time in the world is that you are an unfolding, not a thing in an unfolding, but an unfolding that is part of a greater unfolding.
-- from Buddhist Persons and EudaimoniaBuddhist by Owen Flanagan.
If some sort of transcendence is achieved beyond today’s understanding of human nature, it will not be through some individual becoming a superman. In Jaron Lanier’s Prevail Scenario, transcendence is social, not solitary. The measure is the extent to which many transform together.
-- from Radical Evolution by Joel Gareau.

21 December 2009

A mangled bank

Pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.
-- from an interesting piece by Ross Douthat on Avatar and film culture. But he misses the point that although human life is often tragic there is not necessarily something tragic in vesting concern in the health of a whole ecosystem.

For example, Greg Carr's attempt to restore Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique (as reported by Philip Gourevitch) may fail but the tragedy would be not to try.

P.S. 13 Jan: Carlo Artieri on the Biology of Avatar, Ben Schott on the Na’vi language and George Monbiot on invisible genocides.

P.P.S 14 Jan: Tetrapod Zoology guide here.

The Gorgon Stare

Just in time for the spring offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Air Force should deliver the marvelously named Gorgon Stare sensor.

The first three Gorgon Stare pods, mounted on Reaper MQ-​​9s, will make to Afghanistan around March or April... Gorgon Stare uses five electro-​​optical and four infrared cameras to take pictures from different angles. Those are put together to build a larger picture. That provides more detail and more flexibility than the current cameras, but perhaps its biggest advantage will be the ability to provide 10 video images to 10 different operators at the same time.
--DoD Buzz via TomDispatch

19 December 2009

Life on fire

At any moment a human body contains only about 10 grams of ATP but we consume and make our own body weight of the molecule each day.
-- from In the Beat of a Heart by John Whitefield (2006)
This fire stolen from heaven, this torch of Prometheus, does not only represent an ingenious and poetic idea. It is a faithful picture of the operations of nature, at least for animals that breath: one may therefore say with the ancients, that the torch of life is lighted at the moment the infant breathes for the first time, and is extinguished only on his death.
-- Antoine Lavoisier (1789)
It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.
-- Heraclitus (circa 535–475 BC)

18 December 2009

A godwit's flight

The bar-tailed godwit flies 6,800 miles each year from Alaska to New Zealand without food, water or rest...and the semipalmated sandpiper, small enough to fit into a teacup, migrates between South America and the Arctic, “through gales and hurricanes, over mountains and ocean.”
-- Theodore Cross's Waterbirds

Bar-tailed godwits cover the distance in eight days, which means a continuous average speed of no less than 30mph, or about 50kmph.

17 December 2009

The eel

...firebrand, whiplash, shot
bolt of the earth's desire,
aimed, by these dried-up gullies and river-beds,
at the dark paradise of her spawning;
she is the green spirit looking for life
in the tight jaw of drought and desolation,
she is the spark which says
that all begins where all appears to end,
here, with this charred, half-buried stick
the quick rainbow
a twin to your own bright eyes:
shining out
among a generation mired in mud -
can you not see
that she is your sister?
-- a passage from Robin Robertson's version from Eugenio Montale's poem. [1]

Apparently there are more than fifty translations of this poem in English. Some analysis and food for thought via The Imaginary Museum.

To make a pedantic and unpoetic point, Montale was wrong to write that eels in Italian waters come from the Baltic (L’anguilla, la sirena/dei mari freddi che lascia il Baltico/per giungere ai nostri mari...). They come from the Sargasso. If the poem was first published as late as 1956 he should have known that.

More importantly, after millennia of abundance the European eel is, as of 2008, critically endangered.


[1] Swithering (2006). Robertson's next book is Leaving St Kilda.

16 December 2009


A cloud in the sky suddenly lighted as if turned on by a switch; its reflection suddenly materialized on the water upstream, flat and floating, so that I couldn’t see the creek bottom, or life in the water under the cloud. Downstream, away from the cloud on the water, water turtles smooth as beans were gliding down with the current in the series of easy, weightless push-offs, as men bound on the moon. I didn’t know whether to trace the progress of one turtle I was sure of, risking sticking my face in one of the bridge’s spider webs made invisible by the gathering dark, or to take a chance on seeing a carp, or scan the mudbank in hope of seeing a muskrat, or follow the last of the swallows who caught at my heart and trailed it after them like streamers as they appeared from directly below, under the log, flying up-stream with their tails forked, so fast.
-- Annie Dillard (1974)

15 December 2009

The living world

Peter Singer and Agata Sagan argue that the possession of emotions or consciousness should be a key concern when thinking about how to handle animals and increasingly sentient robots. [1]

But how far should the circle of concern extend? Should, for example, ecosystems -- the results of interactions between living and non-living systems -- have rights and not just instrumental value? In the epic of Gilgamesh the whole forest is sacred.


[1] But, as noted in many places including here, robots still have a very long way to go.

The image, added on 15 Dec, is from here.


"These eyes have some very peculiar features, and show that once again nature trumps the imaginations of science fiction artists," says P Z Myers.

"These are fantastic creatures with 24 eyes, four parallel brains and 60 arseholes," says Dan Nilsson.

Image from here.

14 December 2009

A dextrous 'pus

Octopus snatches coconut and runs.

P.S. 15 Dec: a roundup of the blogs on this.

A world teeming with giant orangutans

There may have been many different kinds, they used to be in all sorts of places, and some of them were very large: Darren Naish outlines some of what is known, and some of what is not.

Naish includes this from an 1849 account of the slaughter of a large male:
Those who aided in this slaughter acknowledged that they were distressed by the human-like expression of his countenance, the piteous manner in which he applied his hands to his wounds, and the whole bearing of the dying combatant. They confessed that the sight was such as almost to make them question the nature of the act they were committing.

Creature crunch

IUCN finds a new way to spin a story with a 'hit list' species whose plights highlight the way climate change is adversely affecting marine, terrestrial and freshwater habitats. [1] The 'top ten' are:
Arctic fox, Beluga whale, Clownfish, Emperor penguin, Koala bear, Leatherback turtle, Quiver tree, Ringed seal, Salmon and Staghorn coral.
As communication to the general public IUCN's work may be useful and timely. Belugas, for example, are charismatic animals: intelligent and cute. [2] But it's only a start. In the Arctic alone, other threatened species include the Walrus and the Narwhal, which may become as rare in reality as the unicorn. [3], [4] And Dr Seuss got to the real point in 1954:
a person's a person no matter how small!

[1] Species and climate change: more than just the polar bear, pdf

[2] Captive here. Half eaten here

[3] And not just the Arctic, of course. Antarctica, among other places, may also lose many or most species altogether. Fen Montaigne's nice photos of Adélie penguins are likely to be an advance In Memoriam.

[4] What is the term for animals that only continue to exist in captive conditions? Will someone create a zoo that only contains such animals?

12 December 2009

Ice singers

This clip brings to mind a similar experience in Svaalbard in 2003.
Through a hydrophone in the sea comes a series of long whistles that start high and descend, very gradually – ever so slowly – right down the scale. They sound like a cross between The Clangers and fireworks or artillery, but more gentle and sweet. It is bearded seals. This sound is suspended in a deep, vast, echoing underwater world, where crustaceans rustle and click in the far distance.
The sounds made by 'our' seals -- (Arctic) bearded seals rather than (Antarctic) Weddell seals -- were more fluted and song-like.

(Herzog clip via Zooillogix)

Double helix

It's good to be reminded every now and then of the depth and beauty of the revolution in understanding that Watson and Crick facilitated in 1953:
A vital gene that defends us against cancer has been found in one of the simplest of [multicellular] animals – a...placozoan. The discovery shows that p53, sometimes described as the "guardian of the genome", has been around for over 1 billion years...Human p53 is a closer match to the placozoan version than it is to counterparts in more closely related animals such as flies and worms.
-- from DNA's guardian gene found in placazoans

Where should this music be? i' the air or the earth?

Bob MacCallum and Armand Leroi have an interesting experiment at Darwintunes.org

11 December 2009

'...to see what is really there'

Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear. I do not mean fear of the intangible, the suffocation of the introvert, but physical fear, cold sweating fear for one’s life, fear of the unseen menacing beast, imminent, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.
-- J A Baker

10 December 2009

Wildness and wet

As Aldo Leopold once said, when something vanishes, “We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from western Dane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in a botany book.” Yes: if we don’t know something, we don’t care if it goes.
-- Olivia Judson. And, as Scott Atran and Douglas Medin have shown, cognitive impoverishment regarding nature is extreme in western societies:
in the domain of nature, psychology's ‘standard populations' are in fact cognitively impoverished, with next to no starting knowledge, and only the most bland reasoning strategies at their disposal.

Ping-Pong tree sponge

A nasty fish

A fish in Lake Malawi in Africa called Nimbochromis livingstonii may offer a clue to this early stage of flatfish evolution. To catch its prey, it lies on one side on the lake bottom pretending to be dead. White blotches on its flank add to the illusion, because they look like fungi feeding on a dead fish. Unsuspecting fish swim by, whereupon Nimbochromis bursts from the lake bottom to engulf them.
-- Carl Zimmer, citing McKay K R 1981 in an article in Evolution Vol 1, No 4, Oct 2008

9 December 2009

A wasteland

Kirszenstein trades her kingfisher skull for a tinned peach.
-- Simon Armitage in a grim mood

Beings animalculous (2)

My ignorance is infinite and until yesterday I knew nothing about Heliozoa, or Sun Animalcules. This is Actinosphaerium eichhorni:

(Photo Wim van Egmond, Micropolitan Museum)

P.S. 14 Dec: Skeptic Wonder features protist-centred blogging.

8 December 2009

Monkey say

Campbell's monkey has syntax:
“Krak” is a call that warns of leopards in the vicinity. The monkeys gave it in response to real leopards and to model leopards or leopard growls broadcast by the researchers. The monkeys can vary the call by adding the suffix “-oo”: “krak-oo” seems to be a general word for predator, but one given in a special context — when monkeys hear but do not see a predator, or when they hear the alarm calls of another species known as the Diana monkey.

The “boom-boom” call invites other monkeys to come toward the male making the sound. Two booms can be combined with a series of “krak-oos,” with a meaning entirely different to that of either of its components. “Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo” is the monkey’s version of “Timber!” — it warns of falling trees.
-- from NYT report.

Circle of life

Natalie Angier celebrates circles and spheres in art, religion and biology but neglects to mention that spherical beings do exist. For example, the chlorophyte Volvox...

...and some members of the phylum Radiolaria

6 December 2009

Ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

Knoll points out some disturbing parallels between today's crisis and a pulse of mass extinctions that occurred 252 million years ago, wiping out an estimated 96% of species in the oceans and 70% of species on land. A rapid increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led, among other things, to ocean acidification. For animals that depended on calcium carbonate, "you had about a 90% chance of going extinct," says Knoll. "Corals, sponges, brachiopods, they all kicked the can."

Knoll doesn't expect human-driven mass extinctions to be as bad as that ancient one. But they could still be unimaginably huge. "If we lose half the species on the planet, our grandchildren are not going to see them restored," says Knoll. "It will take millions of years."
--Carl Zimmer On The Origin of Tomorrow. See Coral Bones passim.

Compound eye of Antarctic krill

4 December 2009

Little green men

A sustainability solution to the Fermi paradox?

Parasite rex

When you look at normal rats, and expose them to cat urine, cat pheromones, exactly as you would expect, they have a stress response: their stress hormone levels go up, and they activate this classical fear circuitry in the brain. Now you take [Toxoplasmosis]-infected rats, right around the time when they start liking the smell of cat urine, you expose them to cat pheromones, and you don't see the stress hormone release. What you see is that the fear circuit doesn't activate normally, and instead the sexual arousal activates some. In other words, Toxo knows how to hijack the sexual reward pathway. And you get males infected with Toxo and expose them to a lot of the cat pheromones, and their testes get bigger. Somehow, this damn parasite knows how to make cat urine smell sexually arousing to rodents, and they go and check it out. Totally amazing...

...On a certain level, this is a protozoan parasite that knows more about the neurobiology of anxiety and fear than 25,000 neuroscientists standing on each other's shoulders, and this is not a rare pattern.
-- Robert Sapolsky.

Cold comfort

Around 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, about 90 per cent of land species were wiped out as global temperatures soared. A cat-sized distant relative of mammals, Kombuisia antarctica, seems to have survived the extinction by fleeing south to Antarctica.
-- finds a study by Jörg Fröbisch et al. This provides valuable evidence that animals today could survive climate change by migrating, Peter Mayhew tells New Scientist. But today, says David Jablonski, humans have so thoroughly fragmented much of the land surface with cities, suburbs, farmland and highways that many species cannot make the necessary range shifts.

There are other factors too. Most obviously, Antarctica is further south than it was 250 million years ago and no longer joined to other land masses.

In 2007 Stephen Pyne described Antarctica as an analogue for space, so barren of life is its great centre.

Still, if climatic change proves to be very large -- with for example, a rise of more than 4 or 6 C in global average temperature, and rises far greater than that at the poles -- Antarctic ecology will change beyond recognition. The continent's present fauna will be devastated. Some plant and animal species will arrive from the north will-he nill-he, but others could be deliberately transplanted, and a rapidly emerging set of new ecosystems protected and managed, to a limited extent, by people who somehow succeed in keeping the human urge to extract and despoil every last resource under control. The Gamburtsevs could teem with life (an idée fixe on this blog).

Much of the rest of the world may be blasted and wrecked. But fragments of the song of songs would continue in full voice in what had been the deadest place on the planet.

Antarctic Highlands, 3009 AD?
For science rather than wild speculation see SCAR's report on Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment.

3 December 2009

Returning turtle

We were in Japan, walking through a national forest in a snowstorm, when a monkey the height of a bar stool brushed against us. His fur was a dull silver, the color of dishwater, but he had this beet-red face, set in a serious, almost solemn expression. We saw it full on when he turned to look briefly at us. Then he shrugged and ambled over a footbridge.

"Jesus Christ!" I said. Because it was too much: the forest, the snowstorm and now this. Monkeys were an attraction in that part of the country. We expected to see them at some point, but I thought they'd be fenced in. As with the sea turtle [I had seen in Hawaii], part of the thrill was the feeling of being accepted, which is to say, not feared. It allowed you to think that you and this creature had a special relationship, a juvenile thought, but one that brings with it a defined comfort. Well, monkeys like me, I'd find myself thinking during the next few months, whenever I felt lonely or underappreciated. Just as, in the months following our trip to Hawaii, I had thought of the sea turtle. With her, though, my feelings were a it more complicated, and, instead of believing we had bonded, I'd wondered that she could ever have forgiven me.
-- David Sedaris

2 December 2009

A new world

Robotic hand 'breakthrough'

The hercinia

The hercinia is a bird that is born in the Hercynian forest in Germany, from which it takes its name. It serves as a beacon for travellers because its feathers glow so brightly in the dark that they light up the path.
-- 'Bestiaria Latina'

1 December 2009

Dasein and the magic lantern

La Jetée is one of the greatest films ever made. The film critic A O Scott does a good short critical introduction here.

Related post: Day dreams

'Once upon a time, there was a beautiful horse from Lascaux'

How to reconcile [the refined art of the mid to late Paleolithic] with the brutal practices of prehistoric hunters? How to consent to the arrow piercing the flesh of an animal, an imaginary murder committed by the artist? Before the revolution, hunting tribes from Siberia lived in conditions similar to those of the 'reindeer' era. Lot-Falk in Les rites de chasse chez les peuples siberiens writes: 'A hunter treated an animal as a creature at least equal to himself. Noting that an animal must hunt [sic] like himself, in order to live, man thought it had the same level of social organization. Man's superiority was manifest in the field of technology through his use of tools. In the sphere of magic, the animal was attributed with equal powers. Its physical strength, swiftness and perfected senses gave the animal a superiority highly praised by hunters. In the spiritual realm animals were credited with even greater virtues -- a close contact with the divine and with the forces of nature, which they embodied.' So far, we understand. The abyss of paleo-psychology begins with a bond between the killer and his victim: 'The death of the animal depends, to some extent, on the animal itself; it must consent to be killed by entering into a relationship with its murderer. That is why the hunter cares for the animal and tries to establish a close union. If the reindeer does not love its hunter, it will not bow to its death. Thus, our original sin and power are hypocritical. Only insatiable, murderous love explains the charm of the Lascaux bestiary.
-- from Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert (1962) quoted by Graeme Gibson

Related post: A bestiary of 25,000 years