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