31 August 2012


Helen Silverman, whose graduate work included a study of the social organization and behavior of narwhals, describes as typical the following scene, from her observations in Lancaster Sound. "On one occasion a group of five narwhals consisting of two adult males, one adult female, one [calf] and one juvenile were moving west with the males in the lead. The group stopped and remained on the surface for about 30 [seconds]. One male turned, moved under the [calf], and lifted it out of the water twice. There was no apparent reaction from the mother. The male then touched the side of the female with the tip of its tusk and the group continued westward."
-- from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986). I've had the good fortune to reread parts of this book over the last couple of days.

Moral Malthusianism

Not sure I agree with the framing or the assumptions of this, which is from the preface to Religion in Human Evolution by Robert Bellah, but it is worth considering:
We have proven to be enormously successful at adapting. We are now adapting so fast that we can hardly adapt to our own adaptations. Our technological progress is geometric. It would be hard to argue that our moral progress is even arithmetic. As one who has lived through one horrifying decade after another for eighty years, I confess that I cannot see much in the way of moral advance. There is an irony here, as moral sensitivity has grown steadily in the last hundred years. We are far more sensitive to the needs of whole categories of people that were previously despised or repressed. Yet our growing moral sensitivity seems to have occurred in a world of widespread and undiminished moral horror.

Books from life

Easing back into the online world after a couple of weeks away, here's something I wanted to note when I first read it in mid August:
Scientists have for the first time used DNA to encode the contents of a book. At 53,000 words, and including 11 images and a computer program, it is the largest amount of data yet stored artificially using the genetic material.

The researchers claim that the cost of DNA coding is dropping so quickly that within five to 10 years it could be cheaper to store information using this method than in conventional digital devices. One gram of DNA can store up to 455bn gigabytes: the contents of more than 100bn DVDs, making it the ultimate in compact storage media.
The cost of DNA synthesis and sequencing have been dropping at exponential rates of 5- and 12-fold per year, respectively – much faster than electronic media at 1.6-fold per year.
-- news report, article

14 August 2012

"There are no Grotesques in nature"

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings will be published by Granta on 4 October. Here is advance praise.

This blog will be offline until September.

"There are no Groteques in nature": Thomas Browne.  Image: glass frog.

8 August 2012

Barely Imagined at the Wilderness Festival

I will be talking at the Wilderness Festival this Saturday, 11 August. [1] Here's an outline:
Barely Imagined Beginnings: Nature in the 21st Century
Join Caspar Henderson, author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, for an exploration of some of the world's strangest animals and what we can learn from them about the Anthropocene, extinction, human imagination and what comes next.

7 August 2012

Endless forms

We have moved beyond a world of natural history into an era of what Richard Pell calls “postnatural history.” His new museum, the Center for PostNatural History, opened in Pittsburgh [in July 2012]. With it he endeavours to create a curiosity cabinet from the Anthropocene period - the age of man.

The only criteria for inclusion in Pell’s Wunderkammer are that the organisms have been intentionally altered by humans in a way that would be passed on through generations. Intentionality is the important bit, Pell says; after all, a museum of creatures changed by pollution, nuclear radiation or climate change would be endless.
--  from A museum of creatures re-engineered by humans

(Image: Guatemalan worry dolls constructed from cultured tissue, Oron Catts and Lonat Zurr)

5 August 2012

Sea tales

The giant sea-serpent glides into view time and again, with a particular frequency in the Victorian period, although the beached and rotting "Animal of Stronsa" in the Orkneys was, according to the scientists, a basking shark. Detailed accounts are often from respectable folk such as the Reverend Donald Maclean, minister of Eigg, "quite a man to be believed" according to the Glenelg minister – who saw one himself in the Sound of Sleat.

Hitch-hiking decades ago in the Hebrides, I was picked up by a fishing-boat skipper who at one point confided his own sighting of a long serpent with a bristling, hideous face yards from his stern off the Angus coast. "We've most of us seen them," he said, quietly, "but we don't like to talk about it for fear of being laughed at."
-- from Adam Thorpe's review of The Fabled Coast by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood

1 August 2012

Guardian angel

...It turns out that after 4 billion years DNA can do a pretty good job of repairing itself. There's one gene in particular called the P53 gene, sometimes called the guardian of the genome, which looks for DNA damage wherever it can...
It's like a guardian angel embedded in our genes...and there are a lot of different ways DNA can get messed up...[and] when one of the two strands of DNA gets damaged this P53 gene it whistles over certain handyman proteins which come over cut the strand out... and pop in a new one because you know if you've got A and C on one side you need T and G on the other.
...other times both strands [of DNA] get snapped and that is an emergency for your body. When that happens this little guardian gene will force the cell to commit suicide because that cell will turn cancerous.
-- from Double Blasted at WNYC Radiolab, which tells the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, fathered two children and lived to the age of 95.