15 November 2010


At every moment, one hundred million million haeomoglobin molecules, which are extremely complex structures, are being destroyed in my body and an equal number created.
-- Julian Barbour

13 August 2010


I have not posted for months because I have been busy (the home strait for the book is imaginable). The following is not exactly reflective but it is fun:
evidence presented here suggests Walruses can be as creative in their use of sounds as Frank Zappa.
(Zappa, it's been noted, lent his name to a number of remarkable beings.)

15 February 2010


"Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out," advises Jaron Lanier. [1] It's a good enough cue for a pause in this blog while I crack on with the book with which it's associated.

[1] You Are Not A Gadget (2010)

13 February 2010

The sixth idea

Paul Nurse discusses five 'big ideas' in biology in a lecture presented recently at the Royal Society (and elsewhere). [1] They are:
the cell;
the gene;
evolution by natural selection;
life as chemistry; and
biology as an organized system.
His passion peeks through most clearly when discussing the complexity of the cell, which in a tiny space manages hundred or thousands of chemical reactions simultaneously: 'wonderful! extraordinary!'

Nurse concedes there may be other big ideas. Ecology for one. It would be good to hear more from him and other scientists on this topic. Ecology is a field of scientific research and, inevitably, an ethical endeavour. [2]

In The Long Childhood (1973), Jacob Bronowski writes:
Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.
Hugh Raffles (2010) notes Roger Caillois:
a form of the marvellous that does not fear knowledge but, on the contrary, thrives on it.


[1] Posted in the video archive here

[2] Nurse's moral concern as well as his wonder are apparent in a remark almost in passing to the effect, that given we are related to all life the question of stewardship for our 'relatives' follows. See, e.g., Cairns on eco-ethics

12 February 2010

Creatures of two worlds

Robert Macfarlane's celebration The Wild Places of Essex includes at least two animals from in-between places:
The Common seal displays incredible colours: russets, coppers, burnished browns. The result of the mud on which they haul out. London clay naturally rich in iron oxide: Rust, basically. Wild creatures stained the colour of iron and industry.

The Knot which in great flocks is "more extraordinary" even than a giant flock of starlings. It has to do, says Macfarlane, with their winter colours: "They're silver and white. The effect of this is that as the light hits them they 'ping' brightly like little flecks of snow or ice. Then they turn as a group and they vanish. It's almost as if they've slipped out of our dimension into another and then they turn again and they're into our world, visible again. It's absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
This otherwordlyness, this feeling of other creatures moving in and out of our dimension and our perception is part of what fascinates me about Essex; these portal moments when you glimpse into another world running beside ours in parallel with it.
Macfarlane continues:
My grandfather was very involved in the development of Radar during the Second World War, and he told me once about what the Radar scientists called 'angels'. By this they meant flocks of birds which came in off the coast or up river estuaries. The radar detected these palping strange shapes and the scientists called them angels.
Jesse Smith has argued that nature films today are "often beautiful, usually interesting, and rarely important":
for the vast majority of viewers, the time spent before the movie or TV screen is time lost from actual encounters with nature, which, when ultimately made, can be fraught with disappointment.
But The Wild Places of Essex, available on iPlayer in the UK until 10 March, is a must see.

P.S. my review of the book on which it's based is here.

10 February 2010

The chameleon, the octopus and the fox-terrier

The scepticism of Michel de Montaigne shares something with the pragmatism of William James. Here's Montaigne:
The chameleon takes on the colour of its surroundings but the octopus assumes whatever colour it likes to suit the occasion, hiding, say from something fearful or lurking for its prey. The chameleon changes passively, the octopus actively. [sic] We change hue as well, from fear, anger shame and other emotions which affect the colour of our faces. That happens to us, as to the chameleon, passively. Jaundice, not our will, has the power to turn us yellow.

Such characteristics in other animals which we realize to surpass our own show they they have, to an outstanding degree, a faculty which we classify as ‘occult’. Similarly, animals probably have many other characteristics and powers which are in no way apparent to us.

...Let an intelligent man imagine human nature created, from the beginning, without sight: let him reflect how much ignorance and confusion such a defect would entail, how much darkness and blindness there would be in our minds. We can see from that how vital it would be for our knowledge of truth if we lacked another sense, or two or three senses. We have fashioned a truth by questioning our five senses working together; but perhaps we need to harmonize the contributions of eight or ten senses if we are ever to know, with certainty, what Truth is in essence. [1]
And here's James:
Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life? The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travellers who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: "For an eye medicine,"—that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

...And now what is the result of all these considerations [and others outlined in the longer article]? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. [2]

[1] Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576). [Montaigne repeats a fallacy still widespread today that chameleons only change colour to camouflage themselves. In fact, some species also change into bright colours for display purposes. But his main point -- that some animals, such as the octopus, possess capacities that humans do not -- still holds.]

[2] On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings (1899)

9 February 2010

A trait and an 'illusion'

Here are two points from Jaron Lanier:
People are one of a great many species on Earth that evolved with a 'switch' inside our beings that can turn us between being individuals and back animals. And when we switch ourselves into a pack identity we really change, and you can feel it yourself sometimes when you're online and you get into a conflict with somebody over something silly that's hard to draw yourself out of, or if you find yourself in a group interaction when you're ridiculing somebody, or completely excluding and not communicating with some opposing group. These are all signs of the pack mentality within people. And what we see online is that we have designs that seem to be particularly good at pressing that pack identity button. Human history is more or less a sequence of tragedies brought about by the switch within us being turned to the group or pack mentality and then bad behaviour following from that. And if we have a technology that's good at turning the switch we should be very mindful of it.

I am a great believer that people are in control if they just have the thought that they could be...I don't think machines can become clever. I think all of the claims made for artificial intelligence are false. It's a game we play with ourselves in which we make ourselves stupid in order to make the machines appear to be clever. There are many examples of this. Perhaps the most dramatic was the bankers who were prepared to cede their own responsibility and think that algorithms could tell them about credit risks, causing a global financial disaster. But there's a boundless capacity for people, who are a very socialised species, to give the computer the benefit of the doubt and pretend the search engine actually does know what you want, and none of this is ever true. We don't understand how the brain works. We can barely write good software at all and we certainly can't write software that does what a brain does...The danger though is that so many technologists who are seduced by the illusion [of AI], who want to nurture a life form within the computer, that they make designs that erase humans to in order to create the illusion that it's happening. So there's a very strong alignment between the software designs that I criticize and the tendency to want machines to appear to be coming alive. [1]
Lanier warns against taking matters discussed in his new manifesto out of context, so one should tread carefully, particularly if -- like me -- you have haven't yet read it! With that in mind, and waiting for a copy to arrive, two points:
1) The binary individual/pack animal may apply to a lot of human behaviour, but there's often more it than that. [2]

2) The ideas that humans can be in control if they choose and AI is an illusion are profoundly humanist and challenge what looks like an emerging orthodoxy. They are to be taken very seriously. Even if Lanier is wrong and AI does emerge in the long run, it seems plausible that many will project its existence before it becomes real. There would be several motives for this including vested political and financial interest, and a human tendency to detect agency where it does not exist. [3]


[1] This is my rough transcript of some of the things Lanier said to Quentin Cooper in an edition of Material World broadcast on 4 Feb 2010.

[2] See, for example, Mary Midgely on Hobbes.

[3] See, for example Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. In The Chess Master and the Computer, Gary Kasparov quotes from Igor Aleksander's How to Build a Mind (2000):
By the mid-1990s the number of people with some experience of using computers was many orders of magnitude greater than in the 1960s. In the Kasparov defeat they recognized that here was a great triumph for programmers, but not one that may compete with the human intelligence that helps us to lead our lives.

7 February 2010

A fish imagined by the Jero tribe

Bol is a large fish and is known to swallow big animals such as pigs. It hides its head in the seabed, in the sand and can be recognized by the Andamanese easily as it rests in the muck, in shallow water near the bay area.
-- from stories of the Andaman islands. [1]

Image: a Spotted eagle ray, which I guess to be an inspiration for the Bol. The largest things this ray eats are shrimps and crabs but with a wingspan of up to three metres, or ten feet, you can see how people might imagine it could eat something much larger.

[1] The death of the last fluent speaker of Andamanese language of Bo was reported this week (Survival International, BBC). Razib Khan at Gene expression is vexed by hype and misleading statements. And he's right that the Andamanese are not the ancestors of other living people and that their language is no older than anyone else's. But he misses a main point: with their passing the world loses ways of being.

6 February 2010

A barely imagined state of being

Generally, we moderns follow Epicurus: "where death is, we are not." It is not possible to imagine what it is like to be dead because in death there is no imagining. [1]

We do, however, have a powerful sense of 'living death', a state of minimal existence in which agency/freedom is utterly absent. For this reason (and perhaps for others [2]), we sympathize with the 'dead' Achilles when Odysseus sees him in Hades:
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive
than rule down here over all the breathless dead. [3]
So what to think about those who retain something like awareness in what had appeared to be a vegetative state?
One of the most difficult questions you might want to ask someone is whether they want to carry on living. But...the scientific, legal and ethical challenges for doctors asking such questions are formidable. "In purely practical terms, yes, it is possible...But it is a bigger step than one might immediately think."

One problem is that while the brain scans do seem to establish consciousness, there is a lot they don't tell us. "Just because they can answer a yes/no question does not mean they have the capacity to make complex decisions"..
. [4]


[1] Some take a different view. For example, David Eagleman:
In the moment of transition between life and death only one thing changes: you lose the momentum of the biochemical cycles that keep the machinery running. In the moment before death you are still composed of the same thousand trillion, trillion atoms as in the moment after death. As you degrade, your atoms become incorporated into new constellations: the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail-shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle's mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan's tail feather. But it turns out your thousand trillion, trillion atoms were not an accidental collection, each was labelled as composing you, and continues to be so wherever it goes. So you're not gone, you're simply taking on different forms.

Instead of your gestures being the raising of an eyebrow or a blown kiss, now a gesture might consist of a rising gnat, a waving wheat stalk and the inhaling lung of a breaching beluga whale. Your manner of expressing joy might become a seaweed sheet playing on a lapping wave, a pendulous funnel dancing from a cumulo-nimbus, a flapping grunion birthing, a glossy river-pebble gliding around in eddy. From your present clumped point of view this afterlife may sound unnervingly distributed, but in fact it is wonderful. You can't imagine the pleasure of stretching your redefined body across vast territories, ruffling your grasses and bending your pine branch and flexing an egret's wing while pushing a crowd towards the surface through coruscating shafts of light...
[2] Few have the equanimity of Epicurus or Lucretius. For Philip Larkin, their poise was specious. Perhaps in the haze of terror attendant on two different conditions both of which we abhor -- actual death and 'living death' -- the distinction between the two is erased in the mind.

[3] Robert Fagles' translation  (The following added on 25 Jan 2011: In a review of All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Susan Neiman remarks:
Achilles’ speech in Hades — the first poetry that Plato wanted to expunge from his ideal republic — is one key that suggests Homer’s heroes, like the rest of us, had a great deal of trouble with suffering and evil, those things that make the meaning of life problematic.
[4] from Giving the 'unconscious' a voice. P.S. 9 am: In report here, Helen Gill says that one person who had been in a locked-in state for eight years expressed not anger but frustration at not having been able to communicate. But this feeling may not be universal. Against the assumptions made in this post, could some in such a state actually be happy? Or could the question be irrelevant? In the same report, Colin Blakemore warns against jumping to the conclusion that people who show a degree of awareness in what had appeared to be VS are conscious in the way we normally think of it.

Image: David Octavius Hill with his daughter Charlotte, probably 1843

P.S. 23 Feb 11: Most locked-in people 'are happy.'

5 February 2010

Galaxy zoo

Most of the spiral galaxies that decorate our universe have emerged from surprisingly violent pasts, it is reported. They grew their delicate spiral arms after being mashed into a pulp by vast collisions.

Our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is probably one of the few exceptions. It has rotated serenely, undisturbed except by the impact of a few small dwarf galaxies, for about eleven billion years.

It's predicted, however, that Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about two and half billion years. The resulting 'hyperkinetic smashup' is likely to result in something that looks like this, the colliding Antenna Galaxies:

4 February 2010

Chroomonas, the quantum algae

While physicists struggle to get quantum computers to function at cryogenic temperatures, other researchers are saying that humble algae and bacteria may have been performing quantum calculations at life-friendly temperatures [of around 21 C] for billions of years.
-- NS report on Coherently wired light-harvesting in photosynthetic marine algae at ambient temperature (doi:10.1038/nature08811)

Two imaginary trans-animals

The mynah birds in Aldous Huxley's Island which are trained to fly around all day calling 'Attention, attention' and 'Here and now!'

Daniel Dennett's parrots, which could be artificially selected to say 'Boo Chomsky!' without instruction.

3 February 2010

Roads less narrow

A profile of W D Hamilton included reminders of some of the ways in which he saw nature as a vast psychedelic drug enterprise:
  • Clouds as creations of micro-organisms for their own propagation [1]
  • His own death as a liberation into startling new forms [2]
Of the latter he wrote:
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.

[1] Spora and Gaia: how microbes fly with their clouds (1998)

[2] My intended burial and why (1991 and 2000)

1 February 2010

Recollection: a companionable form

Now let a man watch his mind while he is composing; or, to take a still more common case, while is trying to recollect a name...Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current and now yielding to it in order to gather further strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking.
-- from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, quoted by Richard Holmes in A Meander through Memory and Forgetting.

The river Duddon

28 January 2010

'Protect Chagos'

The Chagos Archipelago represents a magnificent conservation opportunity that could be of lasting benefit to humanity. There can be few places on this planet that represent better value for leveraging spectacular returns. What is needed is vision and a leadership initiative by Britain to create the Chagos as an iconic, pristine area held in trust for the future of the world community.
-- Callum Roberts for Protect Chagos

Justice for the people of Chagos, driven out for the military, is also important. But it need not inconsistent with the creation of a Marine Protected Area.

27 January 2010

'The death of atoms, unlike ours, is never irrecoverable'

It is possible to demonstrate that this completely arbitrary story [about the progress of a single carbon atom through rock, air, leaf, grape, wine, liver, air, tree, worm, humus] is nevertheless true. I could tell innumerable other stories, and they would all be true...I could recount an endless number of stories about carbon atoms that became colors or perfumes in flowers; of others which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea, in a perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death, in which every devourer is immediately devoured; of others which instead attain a decorous semi-eternity in the yellowed pages of some archival document, or the canvas of a famous painter, or those to which fell the privilege of forming part of a grain of pollen and left their fossil imprint in the rocks for our curiosity; of others still that descended to become part of the mysterious shape-messengers of the human seed, and participated in the subtle process of division, duplication and fusion from which each of us is born. Instead, I will tell just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of he who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail...
-- from The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

As an aside, it's possible that Levi was the first to follow the 'story' of a carbon atom in such a way. Whether or not that's the case, the trope has also been well used by, for example, Tyler Volk in CO2 Rising (2008).

P.S. 15 April 2011: a reminder that carbon is "formed in a star whenever three helium nuclei collide at one spot within less than a million millionth of a second. Every carbon atom in every living creature has been formed by such a wildly improbable collision."

26 January 2010

Pangur Bán in Bordeaux

Apparently, one of the reasons that Montaigne's Essays were put on the Index was his doubt as to whether humans were superior to animals -- the famous sentence “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.”

Or so says Sarah Bakewell.

25 January 2010

'the humblest creatures'

Armand Leroi and his colleagues have made a good film about Aristotle's biological research. Leroi quotes the 'invitation to biology' as follows:
It is not good enough to study the stars no matter how perfect they may be. Rather we must also study the humblest creatures even if they seem repugnant to us. And that is because all animals have something of the good, something of the divine, something of the beautiful.
And he concludes with an observation from the Metaphysics, which in paraphrase goes:
All men desire knowledge, but not all forms of knowledge are equal. The best is pure and disinterested research into the causes of things, and searching for them is the best way to spend a life.

24 January 2010

Attwater's Prairie Chicken

It's a matter of taste, but I think the pathos in Maya Lin's Unchopping a Tree is a little too much. The takes over-linger. The music is too mournful and has already been over-used.

But the video about Prairie Chickens posted here works. It conveys the strangeness and beauty of these delightful animals and their odd noises. And the central message is perfectly clear.

Ice worms of Europa and beyond

Dirk Schulze-Makuch suggests that a top predator in the oceans of Europa could be fearsome creature with mass of 1 gram. And the surface lakes of Titan could be home to hydrocarbon-guzzling microbes the size boulders.

But you'd have to go far beyond our solar system to find something you could actually talk to. What might it look like? Putting reasonable supposition together, says Stephen Battersby
the daring astrobiologist might be prepared to make a very small bet that SETI-type aliens will be social multicellular predators with eyes, sexes, and sticky-out bits of some sort.

P.S. 25 Jan Is there anybody out there?, asks the Royal Society.

23 January 2010

The world of living things

For Daniel Dennett a key realization of the Darwinian revolution is 'competence without comprehension.' [1] Some forms of intelligence do not require consciousness as we normally think of it. [2]

Darwin touches on this matter. "Some animals extremely low in the scale apparently display a certain amount of reason," he wrote after extensive study of earthworms; "a result which has surprised me more than anything else in regard to worms." [3]

The study of cognition and the capacity to process information has come a long way and been substantially rethought since Darwin's time. Still, he would surely be intrigued that intelligence of a kind may be present in even 'simpler' life forms than the earth-worm. [4] As an article in New Scientist this week reminds us, it's been a decade since Toshiyuki Nakagaki reported that the slime mold Physarum polycephalum can negotiate a maze to reach food at the exit. This, Nakagaki wrote, "implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence". [5] He is, however:
unwilling to extend the notion of intelligence to an oil droplet recently observed 'solving' a maze. "It is nonsense for me to consider intelligence in non-living systems," he says.
Should we then draw a definite a line between living beings and the non-living world? NS reports a different tack from the philosopher Andy Clark, who says much of biology boils down to chemistry:
"The mere fact that it's just physical stuff doing what it does can't be a strike against the droplets. Whatever intelligence is, it can't be intelligent all the way down. It's just dumb stuff at the bottom."

...The droplet appears to be moving in an intelligent way because the aqueous environment surrounding the droplet is structured to such a high degree by the pH gradient that it makes the dumb droplet appear smart. "It's a neat demonstration of just how much problem-solving punch you can get from a minimal internal structure in a nicely enabling environment," says Clark
Humans rely on the same trick, says Clark. It forms the basis of the extended mind theory proposed by Clark and David Chalmers in the late 1990s. This holds that the division between mind and environment is less rigid than previously thought; the mind uses information within the environment as an extension of itself.


[1] See, for example Darwin's "strange inversion of reasoning" (2009)

[2] And neither do some forms of memory. For a very short introduction see Memories in Nature by Olivia Judson (2009)

[3] The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881). E. O. Wilson and others have arguably done for ants what Darwin did for earthworms. For example:
Even with a brain one-millionth the size of a human’s, an ant can learn a simple maze half as fast as a laboratory rat, and remember the directions to as many as five different destinations when she forages away from the nest. After exploring a new terrain, a worker can integrate all the seemingly haphazard twists and loops she made and, amazingly, return to the nest in a straight line.
[4] In Created from Animals: The moral implications of Darwinism (1990), James Rachels notes:
"The mental powers of worms"? It sounds like a joke. ...It should be noted, however, that Darwin's brief in behalf of worms was not part of some general campaign to attribute intelligence to all creatures, no matter how lowly. He was far too cautious for that. He regarded the matter as an open question, to be decided experimentally in each case. Darwin observed that other lowly animals do not show the same degree of intelligence as the worm.
[5] Intelligence: Maze-solving by an amoeboid organism (2000). More recently Nakagaki and his colleagues have shown that a slime mold can quickly build a network as complex as the Tokyo metro system. Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design (2010)

Image: (Teaching a stone to talk) Newgrange

22 January 2010

Up close and personal

The Center for Biological Diversity uses humour to make a serious point about human overpopulation and conservation. From an action alert:
Be a part of the Center for Biological Diversity’s brand-new Endangered Species Condom Project, a campaign to nationally distribute free condoms in six different packages featuring endangered species threatened by human overpopulation, with the goal of raising awareness about overpopulation’s serious impacts on our planet. The packages will be released next month, and we need your help to get them out. Sign up below and you can help us educate people across the [United States] about what overpopulation does to species that don’t have the privilege of over-reproducing — or even reproducing enough to survive — from the spotted owl to the Puerto Rico rock frog to the polar bear.

21 January 2010

A strange cat

Zoologer reports on Prionailurus planiceps, the amphibious Asian mystery cat
Planiceps, oh planiceps
There's no one like old planiceps
She's the cat who swims through water
And is not confined to dry land steps.

20 January 2010

The myth of The Myth of Sisyphus

Unless one is willing to take refuge in strong Platonism or Cartesianism and embrace the existence of an autonomous “Ghost in the Machine”, the mind is the body, and the body is the mind. Despite Camus’s anguished claims...there is no absurd gap between our need for transparent certainty and a dense world devoid of meaning. The world is reasonable - not in the sort of transcendent, absolute sense that Camus rightly dismisses as wishful consolation, but in an eminently embodied, anthropocentric sense. The process of evolution ensures that the tight fit between our values and desires and the structure of the natural world in which we have developed.....all of cognitive and cultural innovation is grounded in - and remains constrained by - the structure of our body-minds.
-- from What Science Offers the Humanities by Edward Slingerland (2008). Earlier he has noted:
Camus’ gift as a writer and rhetorician is what in fact invalidates his basic philosophical point, because -- despite his claim that he rejects any ‘scale of values’ -- the very power of his ideal is derived from predetermined and universal human values: being awake is better than begins asleep; being clear is better than being muddled; being strong and courageous is better than being weak and cowardly. Camus’s creativity consists in recruiting these universal normative reactions and mapping them in a quite novel manner: lucidity consists in knowing nothing for certain, and courage consists in rejecting those transcendent truths that were one perceived as requiring strength to defend against unbelief.
Predetermined and universal values are, says Slingerland, an inescapable part of humanity's evolutionary inheritance:
The pervasive, subtle power of innate modules appear to contaminate every attempt to break away from ordinary human thought. Consider the vision presented by Camus of l’homme absurde, who supposedly sees the world as it appears through the lens of Darwinism: mechanistic, unfeeling, and meaningless. Much of this book has been dedicated to arguing that both Darwin and Camus are right about this much: we do live in a mechanistic, meaningless universe. Yet we are mistaken if we think that insight into lower levels of causation can, in any existential sense, completely free us from higher-level structures of meaning in which we are innately entwined. Despite its surface bleakness, Camus’ vision strikes many people - including myself - as powerful and beautiful. Why is this? It is because, despite Camus’ conceit that he has freed himself from false consciousness, a work like The Myth of Sisyphus is inextricably permeated with human level values such as clarity, freedom and strength, and the fundamental motivation of such work is the wonderful feeling of control and understanding that we acquire when we have seen through surface appearances to the very “truth” of things.


New evidence suggests the total population of ancestors of modern humans 1.2 million years ago was just 55,500. [1]

What would be a 'good' size for the future total human population of the Earth? [2]

[1] NYT report on Mobile elements reveal small population size in the ancient ancestors of Homo sapiens, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909000107

[2] Here I quoted six million as the probable number at the end of the Paleolithic (approx. 10,000 years ago) and five hundred thousand if the abundance of humans were linked simply to their size according to a curve of mammal abundance from mouse to whale. I don't recall where the first of these two figures came from.

Photo: Congo gold mine by Marcus Bleasdale

19 January 2010

Cold warriors

The snow flea antifreeze proteins have an entirely different composition from those of antifreezes that have been isolated from other insects, like the fire colored beetle, which has antifreeze proteins that are in turn different from those of the spruce budworm caterpillar. And all of these insect antifreezes are distinct from the kind that keeps Antarctic fish alive. Each animal’s antifreeze is a separate evolutionary invention.
-- Sean B. Carroll

Hat tip: MB

The politics, economics and biology of Avatar

This is another footnote to Mangled Bank.

1. Politics and economics: See Will Shaw and Robert Butler

2. Biology and culture: Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes
To so strongly experience these kinds of wonderfully shocking similarities and dissimilarities among living things is the kind of experience that has largely been the prerogative of biologists — especially those known as taxonomists, who spend their days ordering and naming the living things on Earth. But now, thanks to Mr. Cameron, the entire world is not only experiencing this but also reveling in it...

...Maybe it takes a dreamlike ecstasy to break through to a world so jaded, to reach people who have seen David Attenborough here, there and everywhere, who have clicked — bored — past the Animal Planet channel hundreds of times without ever really seeing the animals. Maybe it takes a lizard that can glow like fire and hover like a helicopter and a staring troop of iridescent blue lemurs to wake us up. Maybe “Avatar” is what we need to bring our inner taxonomist back to life, to get us to really see...

18 January 2010

Not where he eats but where he is eaten

Graeme Gibson writes:
The more I've read, the more I'm persuaded that -- at least with large predators -- the victim of carnivorous attack is often blessedly protected from the horror of the objective experience.
Accounts by David Livingstone (almost eaten by a lion) and Leo Tolstoy (almost eaten by a bear) suggest that once the attack is in progress the victim goes into a state in which he or she feels little pain or terror.

Gibson does not quote from an extraordinary account by the late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood, who nearly fell prey to a crocodile:
...Our final thoughts during near-death experiences can tell us much about our frameworks of subjectivity. A framework capable of sustaining action and purpose must, I think, view the world "from the inside," structured to sustain the concept of a continuing, narrative self; we remake the world in that way as our own, investing it with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution. The lack of fit between this subject-centered version and reality comes into play in extreme moments. In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: This is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time "from the outside," as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror...

17 January 2010

Licorne des Glaces

BBC Earth News features photos of narwhals credited to Marie Auger-Méthé.

The 'unicorn' resonance is of course an old one, [1] but for more recent observers such as Wentworth D'Arcy Thompson the way in which the tusk grows in helix was also fascinating.

But until a few years ago little was known about the function of the tusk. Sexual display and male-male competition seemed likely explanations. [2] Martin Nweeia of Harvard School of Dental Medicine has discovered that the tusk has hydrodynamic sensor capabilities:
Ten million tiny nerve connections tunnel their way from the central nerve of the narwhal tusk to its outer surface. Though seemingly rigid and hard, the tusk is like a membrane with an extremely sensitive surface, capable of detecting changes in water temperature, pressure, and particle gradients. Because these whales can detect particle gradients in water, they are capable of discerning the salinity of the water, which could help them survive in their Arctic ice environment. It also allows the whales to detect water particles characteristic of the fish that constitute their diet. There is no comparison in nature and certainly none more unique in tooth form, expression, and functional adaptation.
Narwhals are thought to be among the marine mammals most sensitive to rapid change in the Arctic environment. IUCN lists them as 'near threatened'.

The unicorn is a fierce beast that can only be captured by a maiden.


1. The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers (reviewed here) is a good place to start. Wild speculations by cryptozoologists suggest a connection to the Elasmotherium, citing this account by Ahmad ibn Fadlan:
There is nearby a wide steppe, and there dwells, it is told, an animal smaller than a camel, but taller than a bull. Its head is the head of a ram, and its tail is a bull’s tail. Its body is that of a mule and its hooves are like those of a bull. In the middle of its head it has a horn, thick and round, and as the horn goes higher, it narrows (to an end), until it is like a spearhead. Some of these horns grow to three or five ells, depending on the size of the animal. It thrives on the leaves of trees, which are excellent greenery. Whenever it sees a rider, it approaches and if the rider has a fast horse, the horse tries to escape by running fast, and if the beast overtakes them, it picks the rider out of the saddle with its horn, and tosses him in the air, and meets him with the point of the horn, and continues doing so until the rider dies. But it will not harm or hurt the horse in any way or manner.
2. Thompson noted the hypothesis that the tusk might facilitate faster motion through the water.

15 January 2010

'Alligator breath'

One of the remarkable features of birds is unidirectional breathing: fresh air enters the lungs both when they breathe in and when they breathe out. This means they get twice as much benefit from each cycle as mammals. It is one of the characteristics that allows many of them to be extremely active with small and light lungs (short explanation here).

C. G. Farmer and Kent Sanders report the same system in Alligators and say the observation suggests that this breathing pattern dates back to the basal archosaurs of the Triassic and their descendants, including both dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

Speaking an outsider/know-next-to-nothing, I think it has long been assumed that pterosaurs would only have been capable of flight if they had a unidirectional breathing system. The new site pterosaur.net has a little information about this (under anatomy).

14 January 2010


The ritual murder and dismemberment of children, and the mutiliation of living ones, is said to be on the rise in [northern?] Uganda. Practitioners believe that in doing so they will please the spirits and gain wealth and power in Uganda's relatively stable and growing economy.

James Nsaba Buturo, Minister of Ethics and Integrity in the government of Uganda, talked to Tim Whewell of the BBC:
Baturo: I believe that [the witch doctors] are directed by spirits, but remember we've got two types of spirits, the good spirits and the evil ones. It is the evil spirits which demand for human blood.

Whewell: Just to be clear then those evil spirits do exist?

Baturo: They do, my God, they do indeed! We accept they do in every society mind you, but we don't have to listen to them.

Whewell: ...shouldn't the government simply be saying there are no evil spirits full stop?

Baturo: If we were to do that, that would be false because they are there anyway. And people see it. They know, they see, and it's as well that we speak the truth about these matters. There is no merit at all you can attach to these spirits, but they are there.
More at Crossing Continents and Newsnight.

Last year Tom Holland recalled:
Tlaloc, [Aztec] god of the rains, the most primordial god of all...whose favour could be won only by the sacrifice of small children who had first been made to cry.

12 January 2010

Creature features

Terrapin Procrastination lists some favourite zoological videos.

'Just beginning'

Neuroscience is very, very young. MRIs started in 1993...and [their] resolution... is about as good as photography in the 1820s.
-- Robert Bosniak


The case of the three species of protozoan (I forget the names) which apparently select differently sized grains of sand, etc., is almost the most wonderful fact I ever heard of. One cannot believe that they have mental power enough to do so, and how any structure or kind of viscidity can lead to this result passes all understanding.
-- Charles Darwin, letter to W.B. Carpenter, 1872, quoted at Bowserlab
Foram shells are formed from a number of different materials; sand grains, calcium, sponge spicules and other foram shells are base essentials. Certain species – Astrammina rara, for example – demonstrate a deliberate (and quite staggering, I think) process of selection. They repeatedly select opaque sediment grains of a consistent shape and size, which they proceed to glue together to form a tight sphere. They complete their elegant structure with the addition of one larger red stone. Why is this? How do they differentiate scale and colour? Is it possible that uni-cellular organisms possess intelligence? A sense of aesthetic?
-- Claire Benyon (2009)

11 January 2010

A difference of opinion

“God is going to trash the planet,” says [an evangelical], beaming.
-- from a review of review of Waiting for Armageddon (2010).
Like all other life forms, homo sapiens cannot continue to expand limitlessly. Nor can we continue to destroy the other beings upon whom we ultimately depend. We must begin to really listen to the rest of life. As just one melody in the living opera we are repetitious and persistent. We may think ourselves creative and original but in those talents we are not alone. Admit it or not, we are only a single theme of the orchestrated life-form. [sic] With its glorious nonhuman past and its uncertain but provocative future, this life, our life, is embedded now, as it always has been, in the rest of Earth’s sentient symphony. Now, as before, life is empowered by the sun. It is a phenomenon not only molecular but astronomic. Life is open to the universe and to itself.
-- from What is Life? by Lynn Margulis & Dorian Sagan (2000), quoted by Clare Benyon.

10 January 2010

Avian holocaust

Some months ago I added a quote from Margaret Atwood's Payback to the side bar on this blog in which she expressed some hope for albatross species. In an essay published in The Guardian yesterday she writes:
In the United States, power lines kill 130 to 174 million birds a year – many of them raptors such as hawks, or waterfowl, whose large wingspans can touch two hot wires at a time, resulting in electrocution, or who smash into the thin power lines without seeing them (think piano wire). Cars and trucks collide with and kill between 60 and 80 million annually in the US, and tall buildings – especially those that leave their lights on all night – are a major hazard for migrating birds, leading to between a hundred million and a billion bird deaths annually. Add in lighted communication towers, which also kill large numbers of bats, and can account for as many as 30,000 bird deaths each on a bad night – thus 40 to 50 million deaths a year, and due to double as more towers are built. Agricultural pesticides directly kill 67 million birds per year, with many more deaths resulting from accumulated toxins that converge at the top of the food chain, and from starvation as the usual food of insectivores disappears. Cats polish off approximately 39 million birds in the state of Wisconsin alone; multiply that by the number of states in America, and then do the calculations for the rest of the world: the numbers are astronomical. Then there are the factory effluents, the oil spills and oil sands, the unknown chemical compounds we're pouring into the mix. Nature is prolific, but at such high kill rates it's not keeping up, and bird species – even formerly common ones – are plummeting all over the world.

8 January 2010

Pictures in old books

P Z Myers celebrates the web publication by the U.S. National Library of Medicine of several early illustrated scientific texts.

One of his favourites is an octopus from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium. I like this one of a hippo and a crocodile:

'Cradles of evolution'

Coral reefs: Wolfgang Kiessling, Carl Simpson, Michael Foote

If we lose the coral reefs we lose the ability for marine ecosystems to generate new species in the future. I suspect that new species evolve every single day, but unfortunately not as fast as they go extinct.
-- Wolfgang Kiessling,

7 January 2010

What is it I am like?

Man will become better when you show him what he is like.
-- Steven Pinker attributes this remark to Anton Chekov. On a cursory search I cannot find the source, and would be glad to hear from anyone who can.

To understand what Man is like requires that one understand, among other things, how (s)he differs from other species. And this is only possible if we understand what they are like. Darwin's notebooks of 1838:
Origin of man now proved - Metaphysic must flourish - He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke...

[It is] hard to say what is instinct in animals & what [is] reason, in precisely the same way [it is] not possible to say what [is] habitual in men and what reasonable...as man has hereditary tendencies, therefore man’s mind is not so different from that of brutes.

In Baboon Metaphysics (2007), Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth write:

It has been hypothesized that humans differ from other apes not only in the sophistication of their theory of mind but also in their motivation to share their intentions, emotions and knowledge. Even very young children with only an implicit understanding other people’s minds are strongly motivated to share their ideas and empathize with others...

Because humans and chimpanzees differ strikingly in their theories of mind and their motivation to communicate what they know, we suggest that the evolutionary pressures favoring individual’s ability to represent other’s knowledge - the rudiments of which we see in modern chimps - created strong selective pressures favoring an ability to express this knowledge to others. In other words, having a theory of mind favored an ability to expand one’s vocabulary and combine words in sentences to combine novel meanings. Thought came first, speech and language appeared later, as its expression.
(Images: top by Bill Viola, bottom a Rhesus macaque)

Feet in more ancient times

Toe-holds in the Emsian.

4 January 2010

Double monsters

Some monsters, though terrible, also have beneficent aspects. For example a Dzoonokwa, a giant of the forest:
eats children, stops people from fishing, and encourages war. In one story a young woman comes across a Dzoonokwa catching salmon; she kills her and her family and uses the mother's skull as a bath for her own daughter's ritual empowerment. They were not all evil though; when a Dzoonokwa came across young men she might give them supernatural gifts - a self-paddling canoe, or the water of life. [1]
But other imaginary monsters can be spectral, elusive and perhaps indifferent:
In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand...Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow of the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark. [2]


[1] from First peoples, first contacts J.C.H. King (1999)

[2] from The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

Image: transformation mask, perhaps the sea monster Komokwa.

2 January 2010

Evolution without DNA or RNA

On the face of it, you have exactly the same process of mutation and adaptive change in prions as you see in viruses. This means that this pattern of Darwinian evolution appears to be universally active. In viruses, mutation is linked to changes in nucleic acid sequence that leads to resistance. Now, this adaptability has moved one level down - to prions and protein folding - and it's clear that you do not need nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) for the process of evolution.
-- Charles Weissman quoted in BBC report on the paper Darwinian Evolution of Prions in Cell Culture