31 January 2009


The official message is to stabilise CO2 emissions "at a safe level to avoid not only dangerous climate change but also dangerous ocean acidification".

The likely reality, according to James C. Orr, is that "the chemistry is so fundamental and changes so rapid and severe that impacts on organisms appear unavoidable. The questions are now how bad will it be and how soon will it happen."

I'm still trying to take on board what Orr told me in 2006: "Our children will no longer be able to see the amazingly beautiful things that we can. I tell my son, go to see the corals now because soon it will be too late."

P.S. 2 Feb: a post from Simon Donner on coral reefs, a high CO2 world and deep time

P.P.S 11 Feb: Tom Goreau writes:
tropical surface waters will be the LAST part of the oceans where limestone becomes under-saturated. ...Alarm about acidification effects on coral reefs is based on fundamental misunderstanding of the CO2 cycle in tropical surface waters. This is not to say that it is not an important long-term problem, but only that it is trivial compared to bleaching as a source of coral mortality and growth decline.


Conscious Entities puzzles towards a state of complete confusion:
...[Let us concede for a moment that] yes, OK, all that dust does have mental experience. But surely it only has the most tenuous and ethereal kind. To take another ridiculous example, suppose we were talking about an axe. Normally we require all the parts of an axe to be well co-ordinated in space and time, but we could have a dust-axe which was made up of different parts from different places and centuries. If we make the right selection of parts, we can have a series of axe-slices which even constitute its swinging and cutting wood. But it’s not really a very good axe; its existence relies completely on the support of our imagination, even though it consists entirely of unobjectionable physical items. Its existence is thin and dependent; it’s like the hrönir in the Borges story Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, objects that exist only because someone thought they did. The experiences of the dust mind are almost as insubstantial as the experiences of fictional characters, or it seems as if it ought to be so.

But somehow I find myself reluctant to say even that much...
-- continued at Fear in a handful of dust?

Perhaps Borges's Thermal Beings -- 'entities composed solely of heat, from an earlier stage of the world's creation' -- would be closer to the mark.

30 January 2009

Oldest animal

I didn't know this:
the oldest [known] animal in the oceans is a 4000-year-old cold-water coral.
-- the redoubtable J. Murray Roberts.

Earthworms 'save' planet

earthworm-produced calcite could lock up 564kg of carbon per hectare of soil per year. Put into context, typical soil-based carbon sequestration techniques such as using cover crops, organic composts and manures, and converting degraded soils into forests could sequester 300 to 800 kg of carbon per hectare per year.
-- Mark Hodson on Darwin's humble earthworm and its 'impossible' poo.

29 January 2009

Common descent

Rather than being morally subversive, as his Christian critics claim, Darwin's achievement was morally grounded. Rather than being a dispassionate practice, his science had a humanitarian drive. It made brothers and sisters not only of all human races, but of all life.
-- from Darwin the abolitionist by Adrian Desmond. [1]

(images: Selk'nam U Onas: 1, 2)

P.S. 9.45am: an article has just gone up on the BBC web site


1. David Remnick writes:
[John] Lewis read his Bible and on Sundays tuned in to WRMA, the gospel station out of Montgomery, to hear the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Lewis was a soulful, intelligent, and eccentric child. When religious feeling washed over him, he began visiting the henhouse out back to preach to the Dominiques and the Rhode Island Reds. The chickens composed his ministry: Lewis baptized new chicks; he raised and fed them; he buried the dead under a mound of wildflowers. As Lewis wrote many years later in his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” he was a lonely searcher learning compassion for God’s creatures.

28 January 2009

'Evolution: the next 200 years'

Some fascinating provocations from Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Miller, Frans de Waal and thirteen others. But what thinking ahead is needed now as Man increasingly understands the selective pressures of [his] actions on ecosystems and other species and in some cases takes charge of evolutionary processes?

P.S. 29 Jan: According to Overcoming bias:
Any Future not shaped by a goal system with detailed reliable inheritance from human morals and metamorals, will contain almost nothing of worth.
Elsewhere, contemplating "the adjacent possible of the biosphere", Stuart Kauffman has written:
As organismic diversity increases, and the "features" per organism increase, there are more ways for selection to select for mutualisms that become the conditions of joint existence in the universe. The humming bird, sticking her beak in the flower for nectar, rubs pollen off the flower, flies to a next flower for nectar, and pollen rubs off on the stamen of the next flower, pollinating the flower. But these mutualistic features are the very conditions of one another's existence in the open universe. The biosphere is rife with mutualisms. In biologist Scott Gilbert's fine phrase, these are codependent origination—an ancient Buddhist phrase. In this open universe, beyond entailment by fundamental physics, we have partial lawlessness, ceaseless creativity, and forever co-dependent origination that changes the Actual and the ever new Adjacent Possible we ceaselessly self-consistently co-construct. More, the way this unfolds is neither fully lawful, nor is it random. We need to re-envision ourselves and the universe.
In his novel Raw Youth (note Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor in On Kindness), Dostoyevsky:
describes a morning when people wake to find themselves alone in a godless universe. Acknowledging their human vulnerability, they respond to it positively...When God is dead, kindness is all that people have.

Making lunch

Man may be the only animal that cooks, but some dolphins, it seems, know how to butcher (Bottlenose dolphin shows off her butchering skills).


...is the estimated number of mountain gorillas still living in the wild. Of these, about 302 are thought to be in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and 380 in Virunga National Park (Mountain gorillas in dire straits, DNA reveals).

P.S. 30 Jan: 'ten babies' born in Virunga.

27 January 2009

'Writings about Friendly AI'

Joshua Fox has sought out references on the risks and moral issues associated with recursively self-improving intelligence.

One in the eye

They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.
-- David Attenborough on the hate mail he receives from Christianists.

P.S. 28 Jan: I was puzzled as to which organism Attenborough might be referring, and asked a medical friend. He wrote:
Onchocerciasis or river blindness does fit the bill although it's West African and not East. Plus it’s a systemic disorder as you say [i.e. the worm can travel through almost any part of the body]. Humans are the intended host. There is an East African entity known as Dicofilaria conjunctiva- it’s a parasitic worm of the Filaridae family, which usually lives in dogs intestines and accidentally infects humans.
It looks as if Attenborough is overstating the case when he says the worm "cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs". But his point that much is ugly and horrible in nature stands.

My medical friend (who is not a specialist in tropical parasites so concedes he could have missed something) sent a link to photos of Thelazia, the oriental eye worm.

Smother fish

Fish could vanish from huge stretches of the ocean for tens of thousands of years unless we drastically reduce our carbon emissions.
-- New Scientist reports a study Gary Shaffer of the University of Copenhagen:
Under the worst-case scenario, average ocean oxygen levels will fall by up to 40%, and there will be a 20-fold expansion in the area of "dead zones", like those already discovered in the eastern Pacific and northern Indian Ocean, where there is too little oxygen for fish to survive. Even in the mid-range scenario, dead zones would expand by a factor of 3 or 4. Cold, deep waters will also be affected if warming stifles the currents that deliver oxygen to greater depths.

26 January 2009

Dogs and children

A second post with a dog connection today. I've just been at Desert Blues: readings by Patience Agbabi, Melanie Challenger and David Constantine, and music by the Adriano Adewale Group. Constantine read, among other things[1], from his translation of Brecht's Children's Crusade:
In Poland that January [1940]
A dog was caught, it had
A cardboard round its soggy neck
With writing on it that said

"Please help us, we are lost.
We can’t find the way anymore
We are fifty-five. This dog will lead
You to where we are

And if you can’t come, drive him away
Don’t shoot at him, he is
The only living creature
Who knows the way to us."

The writing was a child’s
Peasants read it aloud.
That was a year a half ago
The dog hungered and died.


1. One of the other poems Constantine read from Nine Fathom Deep was Pity. He introduced it saying "I had the notion that if there were more monsters and hybrids left we might have a better idea of what we were doing". See Montaigne, On a monster-child (Essays, book 2)

Dog days

Alexander Fiske-Harrison wishes The Philosopher and the Wolf had included a section on what it is like to be a wolf. Perhaps Temple Grandin is helpful. Consider, for example, this from an essay on consciousness in animals and people with autism:
Chimpanzees have self awareness. When they look at themselves in a mirror, they do not react to the image as if it was another animal, and if paint is applied to the chimps face, it will try to wipe it off. Because dogs are not able to do this, one should not jump to the conclusion that dogs are not self aware. Dogs may not be visually self aware, but are possibly smell self aware. A dog marking its territory is able to discriminate between its own urine and a strange dog's urine.
I am not a 'dog person' but I think I can understand what it is like to be one from observation, and from Pablo Neruda's A Dog Died (linked on right hand side of this page)

24 January 2009

Hybrids, chimeras, trees and webs

Hybridisation may be a significant force in animal evolution:
The conventional explanation for metamorphosis is that it evolved gradually, with the juvenile form becoming specialised for feeding and the adult for mating, until they barely resembled each other. [Donald Williamson, formerly of the University of Liverpool] thinks otherwise. He points out that marine larvae have five basic forms and can be organised into a family tree based on shared characteristics. Yet this tree bears no relationship to the family tree of adults: near-identical larvae often give rise to adults from different lineages, while some closely related adults have utterly unrelated larvae...

...His star witness is the starfish Luidia sarsi, which starts life as a small larva with a tiny starfish inside. As the larva grows, the starfish migrates to the outside and when the larva settles on the seabed, they separate. This is perfectly normal for starfish, but in Luidia something remarkable then happens. Instead of degenerating, the larva swims off and lives for several months as an independent animal.
-- from Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life [1]


[1] (added 23 Jan): Larry Moran suggests a better headline for the article would be: "More evidence that Charles Darwin didn't know everything there is to be known about evolution when he published his book in 1859." (Added 9 Feb) Carl Zimmer on Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life.

23 January 2009

The extinction of animals, undertaken by the colourist Walton Ford

According to the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, "a tale of conquest and colonization and accumulated injuries against nature...is at the heart of Walton Ford’s allegories". For Bill Bufford, Walton Ford is Bruegel by way of Borges.

Tur (an Aurochs), purchased by the Smithsonian.

Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros

In Man and Beast Calvin Tomkins reports:
At first glance, the long procession of great auks in "Funk Island" winds, lemming-like over a rocky landscape, toward the distant fires and cauldrons that signal their extinction as a species. Clear enough, but what is going on in that huge cloud of smoke from the fires? Close examination reveals dozens of naked men and women in erotic combinations. Ford's research had disclosed that the flightless auks were clubbed to death, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so that their plumage could be used in feather beds and pillows. "This was the global economy in action, right?", he said. "It was like goddam Auschwitz for birds, so the Marquis de Sade and Casanova could do their fucking on feather beds!"...

[A new painting of] mountain lions was nearly done when I visited his studio in mid November. Lately, he explained, there had been numerous sightings of these big cats in the Berkshires, "although not one sighting is documented, and there's no evidence -- no scat, no tree scratchings, not attacks on pets or joggers. Mountain lions have been extinct in New England for decades." Ford's painting is set in a local cemetery, where several pairs of mountain lions are copulating among gravestones. "they're making more ghost cats for people to see", he said. His are life-size, and very lifelike.
I'd like to suggest an animal for inclusion in a future painting: the Northern elephant seal. Perhaps Ford has already done this or considered it only to reject it, and if so the more fool me. Still, in support of my case here's an anecdote which I may have imagined but think I heard at Año Nuevo SNR:
The elephant seal was hunted to the brink of extinction in the nineteenth century. As we now know, a few survived, but by the late nineteenth century it was believed the species was actually extinct.  Then a research party (from the Smithsonian, no less) stumbled on small group of survivors [on Guadalupe Island off Baja?]. They slaughtered them all for study, stuffing and mounting even though for all they knew these might be the last ones in the world. 
That's how I remember the story, but I am happy to be corrected. With or without the anecdote, elephant seals are the tops.

An archive of press articles about Walton Ford is here.

P.S. More striking pictures, this time of Southern elephant seals, here (hat tip Hypnogogic Zoo).

22 January 2009

Thin ice

It's reported that the Wilkins Ice Shelf is on the brink of collapse and a paper in Nature [1] offers clear evidence that Antactica is warming in step with the rest of the world (BBC, NYT) [2].

Wally Broecker's climate "monster" may be stirring [3].

Barry Lopez wrote Arctic Dreams before present rapid changes in the Polar climates were well understood. [4] But Lopez was haunted by unease at the role of industrial man, alluding to the Eskimo terms ilira, fear that accompanies awe, and kappia, fear in the face of unpredictable violence.

As late as the early industrial period (the early nineteenth century), creatures such as the Greenland right or Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) still resonated with something of the monstrous that had fascinated and appalled earlier Europeans.

A month before she entered Lancaster Sound in 1823, the [British whaler] Cumbrian killed a huge Greenland right [whale], a 57 foot female, in Davis Strait. They came upon her while she was asleep in light ice. Awakened by their approach, she swam slowly once around the ship and then put her head calmly to its bow and began to push. She pushed the ship backward for two minutes before the transfixed crew reacted with harpoons. The incident left the men unsettled. They flinched against such occasional eeriness in their work. [5]
But, Lopez shows, when you pay attention to the remarkable nature of this animal it is men's actions towards them that now seem monstrous:
The skin of [the Greenland right whale] is slightly furrowed to the touch, like coarse-laid paper, and is a velvet black color softened by gray. Under the chin and on the belly the skin turns white. Its dark brown eyes, the size of an ox's, are nearly lost in the huge head. Its blowhole rises prominently, with the shape of a volcano, allowing the whale to surface in narrow cracks in the sea ice to breathe. It is so sensitive to touch that at a bird's footfall a whale asleep at the surface will start wildly. The fiery pain of a harpoon strike can hardly be imagined. (In 1856, a harpooner on the Truelove reported a whale that dived so furiously it took out 1200 yards of line in three and a half minutes before crashing into the ocean floor, breaking is neck and burying its head eight feet deep in the blue black mud.) [6]
Today our "monsters" lurk elsewhere. Ilira kappia stabs us not from behind but from within our own shadows.


1. Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 by Eric Steig et al (doi:10.1038/nature07669). In State of Antarctica: red or blue? at Realclimate, two of the authors try to pre-empt misinterpretation.

3. See also Attribution of polar warming to human influence by Nathan P. Gillett et al (doi:10.1038/ngeo338).

4. The discovery in 1985 of the "ozone hole" above Antarctica shocked many people into increased awareness of the potential of human activity to substantially affect whole earth systems on a short time scale. It helped pave the way for greater acceptance of the case for anthropogenic global warming. (See Breaking into politics 1980-88 in The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart). Arctic Dreams was published in 1986. I have recently gone back to if for the first time in many years thanks, in part, to a prompt by JML.

5. From the prologue of Arctic Dreams. In Waiting for Salmon (2006), Lopez writes of the fury of many of his compatriots at the idea that nature is anything but a warehouse to be emptied prior to a rapturous departure:
To speak of large-scale changes in the natural world that might be traced to human activity is anathema to people still furious at Darwin for suggesting that 'nature' included man...[In] America, mainstream politics is uninformed by, event hostile to, biology.
6. Lopez quotes the Canadian historian W. Gillies Ross as 'cautiously' suggesting that as many as 38,000 Greenland right whales may have been killed in the Davis Strait fishery, largely by the British fleet. 'A sound estimate of the size of the population today [1986] is 200.' 90% of the indigenous human population may also have died as a result of European incursion and infectious diseases.

21 January 2009

A glass-walled slaughterhouse

[Temple] Grandin is in favor of almost total openness — she’s among the writers who believe that slaughterhouses should have glass walls. “No animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror,” she writes, and any visitor should be able to observe that they do not.
-- from Dwight Garner's review of Animals make us human.

20 January 2009

'Eating tourism' boom

Spawning of reef fish in [the Coral Trangle] has declined 79 percent over the past 5 to 20 years, depending on location.
-- NYT reports work by Yvonne Sadovy et al.

Our ultimate success in preserving and restoring the oceans depends on a more inclusive ethic for the seas.
-- from Developing an Ocean Ethic by Peter J Auster et al

('Big fish', we have been reminded, 'save reefs')

19 January 2009

Wet dream

Grrlscientist is enthusiastic about the promo for Wild Oceans out of South Africa.

Colour me unreasonably sceptical, but to me this looks too much like an ad man's fantasy and too little like reality.

Heck, maybe the marine reserve is actually well managed. Still, recall the cruelty at the heart of it.

18 January 2009

Drone world

A massive change has...occurred in the airspace above wars. Only a handful of drones were used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with just one supporting all of V Corps, the primary U.S. Army combat force. Today there are more than 5,300 drones in the U.S. military’s total inventory, and not a mission happens without them. One Air Force lieutenant general forecasts that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands.”
-- from Robots at War by P.W. Singer.

The U.S. military may be proud of their new toys. The child corpses in the photograph are from Gaza, where drones have taken out kids playing on rooftops, but they could as well be from Pakistan or Afghanistan where, as William Dalrymple notes, multiple killings of civilians by drones are contributing mightily to radicalization.

P.S. A longer version of P.W. Singer's thesis appears in The New Atlantis.

17 January 2009

Selecting for strikes

Between 1990 and 2007, the number of wildlife strikes has tripled from 0.527 to 1.751 per 10,000 jet flights.
Growing populations of birds and humans in the same areas have put the species on a collision course in the air that's almost always deadly for the birds and severely hazardous, if not fatal, to humans, too. Human developments and bird-restoration programs have created new ecological niches that some bird species have jumped in to fill.

In particular, the Canada goose population is proving particularly problematic. Their numbers have ballooned to more than 3.5 million [in the U.S.], and the birds don't migrate, they stick around our cities. Many of the geese along the eastern seaboard are closer to feral than wild. After their forebears were nearly hunted to extinction, many domesticated birds were released into the wild (pdf), creating a specific population of geese uniquely suited to the "current landscaping techniques" of our urban and suburban landscapes.
-- Birds, Humans Increasingly on Collision Course

16 January 2009

Secret-keeping stones, flowing sky

We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from
-- Robinson Jeffers

Image: Iridigorgia

15 January 2009

Out of mind

Experiences, at the moment anyway, supervene only on bodies that house biofuelled nervous systems. But cognition already roams more widely. In our age of cognizing machines, the reach of cognition, outside small circles of homo- or animal-chauvinists, is known: cognition extends beyond human and animal minds.
-- Owen Flanagan

(video: NASA)

'Collective self interest'

At the heart of "anthropogenics" [a new discipline, one that could go beyond the work of thousands of ecologists, climatologists, economists, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, neuroscientists and the like] would be a synthesis of what we know about our ability to sacrifice private for public good, to take less and give more, and of research into game theory, social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary economics. It will challenge the key western assumption that human behaviour is necessarily selfish.
-- from Niels Röling on Why we need a proper study of mankind

(Image: Banaue Rice Terraces)

14 January 2009


Ashdenizen recalls Anton Chekhov's observation: "it is not the artist's job to solve society's problems, but to state them correctly."

And one could think of a more constructive way to frame some interesting science than with this:
Could sea turtles help us design better helmets and body armor for soldiers?

There it is

The microbial ecologist Jessica Green once pointed out to me that microbiologists typically put two cells in the same species if their ribosomal DNA is 97% identical. Applying the same criterion to primates, she says, and you'd be sharing a species with the ring-tailed lemur.

…Here's some advice for anyone agonizing over creating a perfect, all-encompassing species concept: chill out. Pretty much any biological category you care to think of has fuzzy boundaries. Genomics is making the concept of the gene more problematic. Colonial, clonal and modular organisms, such as slime moulds, aspen, and the vast underground mycelia of some fungi, make the concept of the individual tricky to pin down. The giant mimivirus blurs the line between viruses and cellular life. There's been a long debate over whether viruses themselves should be classed as living things. And it's proved impossible to come up with a list of properties that unambiguously define life.
--John Whitefield

The Betsimisaraka tribal name for the Indri, “babakoto”, means “ancestor of man”.

Choke the crows

[Iranian] environmentalists say the hitherto pollution-resistant population of crows have fled [Tehran] in large numbers in recent days after air quality reached crisis levels...Experts fear the departure of the crow – long decried in Iranian culture as a symbol of bad news and gossip – could be the death knell for wildlife in Tehran, where many plants have already lost their smell and colour as a result of the polluted atmosphere.
-- Robert Tait.

Glass reef

This glass sponge (class Hexactinellida) created dense reefs in ancient seas that were shallow and warm. "The delicate animals were thought to exist only as fossils", says an article about a new illustrated Atlas of the Oceans, "until explorers in the 1990s discovered large reefs of living relics." The Sponge Reef Project says:
Siliceous sponge reefs or mudmounds occur several times in Earth history and they culminate in the Late Jurassic where they formed a discontinuous deep-water reef belt extending more than 7000 km. This reef system was the largest biotic structure ever built on earth. The largest reef of today, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (2000 km), is relatively small compared to the Jurassic sponge reef belt.

13 January 2009

Essai sur la logique de l'imaginaire

I am studying octopuses at the moment, and that means also learning about their cousins, including cuttlefish. This is Pfeffer's Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

I knew before that cephalapods cannot see colours (although they can perceive polarized light), but I did not know that the lenses of their eyes are "pulled around by reshaping the entire eye" in order to change focus.

(This post is headed with the subtitle of the book on the octopus by Roger Caillois)

12 January 2009

Lions of Gaza

Asaf Shariv, the Consul General of Israel in New York, claimed the tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai... were "as big as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels [in New York]," and offered as proof the "fact" that lions and monkeys had been smuggled through them to a zoo in Gaza. In reality, the lions were two small cubs that were drugged, thrown in sacks, and dragged through a tunnel on their way to a private zoo.
--Mark LeVine on Al Jazeera.

minus claws and teeth

9 January 2009

Imagining the unimaginable

I am not sure about this from Marc Hauser:
Thanks to work by neuroscientists such as Evan Balaban, we now know that we can combine the brain parts of different animals to create chimeras. For example, we can take the a part of a quail's brain and pop it into a chicken and when the young chick develops, it head bobs like a quail and crows like a chicken.

Functionally, we have allowed the chicken to invade an empty space of behavior, something unimaginable, to a chicken that is. Now let your imagination run wild. What would a chimpanzee do with the generative machinery that a human has when it is running computations in language, mathematics and music? Could it imagine the previously unimaginable? What if we gave a genius like Einstein the key components that made Bach a different kind of genius? Could Einstein now imagine different dimensions of musicality?

1859 and all that

John Whitefield considers the woodpecker at the start of his Blogging 'The Origin'.

Did Darwin know about the Woodpecker's fellow Piciformes, the Honeyguides?

Science magazine begins a blog on the origin of life.

How did giant flying reptiles take off?

When the pterosaurs’ strong wings were folded they created “knuckles” that the animals rested on in four-legged stance which allowed them to take off in a motion akin to leap-frogging. The back legs kicked off first and then the front legs gave a mighty push to propel them into the air. This procedure would negate the need for launching aids that other paleontologists have suggested, like strong winds, a downslope, or a cliff to jump from.
-- or so says Mike Habib

Image: Mark Witton.

8 January 2009

'A new kind of mind'

...When this emerging [artificial intelligence] arrives it won't even be recognized as intelligence at first. Its very ubiquity will hide it. We'll use its growing smartness for all kinds of humdrum chores, including scientific measurements and modeling, but because the smartness lives on thin bits of code spread across the globe in windowless boring warehouses, and it lacks a unified body, it will be faceless. You can reach this distributed intelligence in a million ways, through any digital screen anywhere on earth, so it will be hard to say where it is. And because this synthetic intelligence is a combination of human intelligence (all past human learning, all current humans online) and the coveted zip of fast alien digital memory, it will be difficult to pinpoint what it is as well. Is it our memory, or a consensual agreement? Are we searching it, or is it searching us?...
-- Kevin Kelly.

Not too far away, Nick Bostrum speculates about 'superintelligence' while John Tooby and Leda Comides believe in 'rapid and sustained progress in understanding natural minds':
Humanity will continue to be blind slaves to the programs that evolution has built into our brains until we drag them into the light. Ordinarily, we only inhabit the versions of reality they spontaneously construct for us — the surfaces of things. Because we are unaware we are in a theater, with our roles and our lines largely written for us by our mental programs, we are credulously swept up in these plays (such as the genocidal drama of us versus them). Endless chain reactions among these programs leave us the victims of history — embedded in war and oppression, enveloped in mass delusions and cultural epidemics, mired in endless negative sum conflict.
Mahzarin Banaji looks, merely, for understanding.

Sperm to worm, womb to tomb, erection to resurrection

In New Scientist, Henry Nicholls suggests Ten extinct beasts that could walk the Earth again. The list includes the mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, glyptodon (pictured) and -- surprisingly -- the gorilla (because "the first species to be brought back from extinction will most likely be one that is alive today").

An accompanying editorial observes:
Neither [geo-engineering nor a technological fix for species extinction] is an adequate substitute for efforts to cut emissions, preserve habitats and conserve endangered species. They are, all the same, welcome reminders of what human ingenuity can achieve, and of the fact that there is only a fine line between schemes that are wild-eyed and those that are far-sighted.
P.S. 2 Feb: Extinct animal cloned for the first time.


The greatest potential danger of do-it-yourself biotechnology, says Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, is that someone might intentionally synthesise or recreate deadly pathogens like the 1918 flu strain, which killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide. "That is on the edge of being within the technical capabilities of someone working outside the laboratory environment."
-- Rise of the garage genome hackers.

7 January 2009

The animals of Dr Pangloss

Long before David Foster Wallace told us to consider the lobster, the Elizabethan writer George Owen observed that this remarkable animal served several 'purposes' at the same time:
it provided men with food, for they could eat its flesh; with exercise, for they had first to crack its legs and claws; and with an object of contemplation, for they could behold its wonderful suit of armour, with its ‘tases, vaunthrces [vamplates], pouldrons, coushes [cuisses] gauntlets and gorgets curiously wrought and forged by the most admirable workman of the world’. [1, 2]
Dr Pangloss decided that les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes; aussi avons-nous des lunettes ('noses are formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles'). And just so, many of his early modern contemporaries thought that every animal was intended to serve some human purpose, if not practical, then moral or aesthetic:
Savage beasts were necessary instruments of God’s wrath, left among us ‘to be our schoolmasters’, thought James Pilkington…they fostered human courage and provided useful training for war. Horse flies, guessed the Virginian gentleman William Byrd in 1728, had been created so ‘ that men should exercise their wits and industry to guard themselves against them’. Apes and parrots had been ordained ‘for man’s mirth’. Singing birds were devised ‘on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.

...As for cattle and sheep, Henry More in 1653 was convinced that they had only been given life in the first place so as to keep their meat fresh ‘til we shall have need to eat them’. As late as the 1830s the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises on ‘God’s goodness as manifested in the Creation’ were still maintaining that all inferior species had been made to serve man's purpose. God created the ox and the horse to labour in our service, said the naturalist William Swainson; the dog to display affectionate attachment, and the chicken to show ‘perfect contentment in a state of partial confinement’. The louse was indispensable, explained the Rev. William Kirby, because it provided a powerful incentive to habits of cleanliness.

1. from Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 by Keith Thomas (1983). (Tasses and cuisses were pieces of armour protecting the thighs; vamplates were handguards; pouldrons covered the shoulders and gorgets the throat.)

2. Jaron Larnier notes that "some of the earliest experimental avatars...were aquatic, including one that allowed a person to inhabit a lobster's body."

3. Keith Thomas

6 January 2009

Islands of the mind

One of the...places now receiving protection, Johnston Atoll, was formerly used to stockpile chemical weapons.
-- US vows 'huge' marine protection.

After almost a thousand miles, we at last saw land -- a tiny, exquisite atoll on the horizon. Johnston Island! I had seen it as a dot on the map and thought, 'What an idyllic place, thousands of miles from anywhere.' As we descended it looked less exquisite: a huge runway bisected the island, and to either side were storage bins, chimneys, and towers: eyeless buildings all enveloped in an orange-red haze...my idyll, my little paradise looked like a realm of hell.

...Migratory fowl stop here by the hundreds of thousands, and in 1926 the island was designated a federal bird reserve. After the Second World War it was acquired by the US Air Force, and 'since then', I read, 'the US military has converted [it] into one of the most toxic places in the Pacific. It was used during the 1950s and '60s for nuclear testing, and is still maintained as a standby test site; one end of the atoll remains radioactive. It was briefly considered as a test site for biological weapons...[and in] 1971 became a depot for thousands of tons of mustard and nerve gas, which are periodically incinerated, releasing dioxin and furan into the air...All personnel on the island are required to have their gas masks ready.
-- from The Island of the Colour-blind by Oliver Sacks (1996)

5 January 2009

Twilight souls

Having proved men and brutes bodies on one type: almost superfluous to consider minds. [1]
Almost but not quite:
He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke. [2]
What, then, to make of the 'new, scientific' study of morality by the likes of Marc Hauser, which may point to something like this:
the science [sic] of morality may bring into doubt some of our most deeply ingrained cultural perceptions about right and wrong. We’ll have new, richer opportunities to examine our actions in the presence of consequences. We probably won’t like what we see. [But] those awkward realizations may be the greatest value of moral science. [3]
How far are we here from:
No man can ever attain to anywhere near a true conception of the subconscious of man who does not know primates under natural conditions. [4]
Carlo Fausto [5] quotes Friedrich Nietzsche:
Our body is, after all, only a society constructed out of many souls.
and Mia Couto:
In Lua-do-Chão, there is no word to say “poor.” One says “orphan.” This is true misery: to have no kin.


1. Charles Darwin, Notebooks on transmutations of species.

2. Darwin, 1838 notebook.

3. Reinventing Morality, a review of Moral Minds (2006).

4. Eugène Marais, in a letter from 1935, republished in an introduction to the The Soul of the Ape by Robert Ardrey. Ardrey was an advocate of the now unfashionable 'killer ape' hypothesis. More popular these days may be the 'kind ape' hypothesis. ('Twilight souls' is a term used by Marais to describe the Chacma baboons of the Waterberg. There is evidence that Australopithecus africanus and, later, Homo erectus lived in the Waterberg.)

5. Feasting on People: Eating Animals and Humans in Amazonia, 2007. DOI: 10.1086/518298

Image: Gaza

4 January 2009

'Restoring the oceans'

Long-term solutions lie in reversing global warming, sea level rise, pollution, and overharvesting, but in the short term we can nurse back devastated ecosystems into economically productive habitats. Proven restoration techniques are not being used because policymakers and funders won't support new methods, preferring massive subsidies to industrial fishing fleets to rape the oceans rather than investing in poor fishing communities. If these perverse subsidies were turned over to subsistence fishermen in coastal communities to restore fisheries habitats, there could be plenty of fish for future generations, but they must change from big game hunters to farmers, bringing the Neolithic revolution to the oceans 10,000 years later. The future of the oceans depends on it.
Thomas Goreau in response to 'Troubled Waters', a special report in The Economist.

2 January 2009

Getting lumpy on the GBR

Porites are seldom regarded as beautiful. They are, however, often among the most robust coral species. So the decline in calcification rates reported from the Great Barrier Reef looks like a real cause for concern. [1]

In December 2008, notes Elizabeth Pennisi, a 4-year assessment of the Status of Coral Reefs of the World said that 45% of the world's reefs were healthy with no significant threats from human activity on the horizon. [2] But looks can be deceptive. Anne Cohen of Woods Hole says "Even though the corals look healthy, some pretty dramatic changes are occurring beneath the surface." [3]

More on this by John Bruno and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at Climateshifts.


1. Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef by Glenn De'ath et al. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165283 (See also Declining coral calcification in massive Porites in two nearshore regions of the northern Great Barrier Reef by Timothy F. Cooper et al. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2007.01520).

2. Noted on this blog at A glass almost half full. For some background and context see Coral Bones.

3. Calcification Rates Drop in Australian Reefs DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5910.27. Pennisi reports that the role of acidification in this decline is "far from settled". Alina Szmant of the University of North Carolina concludes, "It's not clear that carbon dioxide enrichment will have negative effects on calcification rates." [Question: why did the calcification rate increase by 5.4% between 1900 and 1970 (before falling 14.2% between 1990 and 2005)?]

P.S. 4 Jan: a comment on resilience by Tom Goreau here.