I’ll be in Chicago for a couple of days this week, to speak in the seminar series at the Field Museum there. I’ve promised to talk about “Biodiversity in the concrete jungles of the Anthropocene: global patterns & local processes in urban ecology” – and have been preparing my presentation based on the work I’ve been doing on urban biodiversity here in California, and on a global scale. Since we do seem to be in the Anthropocene (for good or ill), it is high time we come to grips with our ecological anxieties vis a vis the human element in nature, and get more proactive in managing the earth’s environment for our own benefit and for other species. So, this weekend, I’ve been reading up a bit about the Anthropocene, and about resilience, and other related topics, and will try to write more about these things over the coming winter break. For now, I want share this video of a presentation by Prof. Will Steffen recently at the Stockholm Resilience Center where he provides a brief introduction to the Anthropocene:
My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.
It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.
For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.
That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.
That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.
That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.
It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.
Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.
This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.
It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.
It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?
It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.
It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.
I’ve gone and done it. Created a Facebook Page for this blog! Not sure why it took so long, seeing as how much of my meager traffic comes from that social network already., and given how much I tend to mindcast on my own wall there on a daily basis.
Anyway, if you are of the Facebook persuasion, and would like to keep an eye on my writings here without having to wade through everything else that clutters my wall feed, you might like this. An easier way to track my writing, so if you like, go thither and… you know… “like” the page!
I can’t imagine that I would ever look at a magnificent beast like the one above, reflecting in a Namibian watering hole, and wish I had it in the sights of a rifle. Don’t think I could ever bring myself to want that huge head mounted on my living room or office wall. Nor would I ever want to cut off that impressive horn and crumble it into my tea or potion to boost my virility or cure some other kind of ailment.
I might want to have my camera along, instead, with a telephoto lens, so I could take a picture like the one above. Take the photo from a distance so I don’t disturb the beast. And sit and watch it for a while, for it is one of the rarest among the many rare mammals on our planet (no small thanks to us): the highly endangered Black Rhino. I’d like to bring home a souvenir, of course, but in the form of an image and a memory, while leaving the real thing free to roam the grasslands as long as it can. For that to me is the point of a Rhino.
Others, however, clearly disagree on the point of a Black Rhino.
Many think its extremely condensed hair-clump of a horn is imbued with all kinds of magical medical properties, and have therefore driven the species to the brink of extinction. The rarer it gets, the higher its price, in the free market of wild animal body parts, and the higher the incentive for poachers to go hunt another one, and another, until they are all gone. Hard to blame the locals who engage in this poaching as a livelihood in an otherwise harsh thrid-world economy, when there is such a lucrative market for rhino horns.
Others would rather have the whole head, horn still attached, but separated from its torso, stuffed and mounted on a shield to hang from the walls of their dens or man-caves back in Texas. And unlike the poachers—or their local helpers—who may be trying to eke out a living, these trophy hunters are willing to pay top dollar for a chance to go shoot one of these rare behemoths in Africa. And the rarer they get, the higher the price these hunters are willing to pay in the free market of wild animal body parts.
So there is money to be made in killing a Black Rhino – either by the poachers who must do it on the sly, risking their own lives for a high payoff, or by the governments (of Namibia among other habitat countries) who control the rhino’s habitat and thereby claim ownership of the animals too, to be disposed off as the managers see fit. The money from this second group of gun-toting rhino consumers, i.e., the legally-permitted hunters, will be used (among other things?) to fight the gun-toting rhino consumers from the first group, the illegal poachers!
One group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body at the altar of male virility as dictated by an antiquated medical belief system. The other group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body for private display in a temple of male virility as apparently also dictated by an antiquated system of men showing off their prowess. One difference: the latter carry out their killings in the name of saving the species from the former’s depredations. And often enough, conservationists tell us, they are actually successful and can help save the endangered species.
Meanwhile, those of us from a third group, who merely want the Rhino to live out its natural life, obviously don’t bring enough money to the table to have much of a say in how this game of Save-The-Endangered-Rhino is played. For money, after all, is now the ultimate arbiter of all of our lives, to be used to measure everything from the value of an “old post-breeding male” rhino to the life of a poacher’s family, to the “services” provided by an entire ecosystem in Namibia. In this calculus of goods and services measured in dollars, and numbers entered into balance sheets, where is the room for any inherent right to life that that rhino might claim?
And so the Dallas Safari Club, from the great American state of Texas (famous for its advocacy of the right to (even unwanted) life in our species), is openly auctioning off the right for someone to go shoot one of these “old, post-breeding” granddaddy Black Rhinos in Namibia. And many pragmatic conservationists, managers, and scientists support this auction because it may fetch as much as three-quarters of a million dollars, or more, which can go to support on the ground conservation programs which are desperate for dollars.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a vegan animal rights fanatic nor a Jain monk who would never hurt an animal. I understand hunting animals for food, when regulated by local communities to ensure sustainable populations of the animals, or when there are too many animals for degraded habitat patches with limited carrying capacities. Hunting, culling, have a legitimate role in wildlife management, I’ll grant you, even though it would kill something in my own soul to pull the trigger on some wild creature wandering in its own habitat. Hunters have collectively, when legitimized, also contributed much to conserving many habitats and species in the US and elsewhere. But the slope between hunter and poacher is a short and slippery one, and as long as the market remains strong for the products sold by the latter, it will be difficult to let the same market forces tap the former group to help save the endangered trophy beast.
There is no market it seems for saving the Black Rhino for its own sake. All there is, in this bean-counting world of conservation in the free-market, is Philantrophy, an apt neologism coined by the geniuses at The Colbert Report. So we might as well get a dark belly laugh in, while the life of some poor old Rhino is auctioned off in Dallas:
What, in the end, is the point of a rhino?
Wanna know what keeps (or ought to) biologists awake all night?
How much of life currently on this planet will end. Not wondering, but knowing that we, humans, who can wonder about the beginning and the end of the entire universe, are causing another mass extinction of life. Right here. Right now.
On this very pale blue dot where the most improbable of things in the universe (question 3 keeping those physicists awake all night; really, guys?!) happened: life evolved. To the point where it could begin to wonder about the universe. To keep itself awake all night wondering about the universe.
Then kill itself?
What keeps you up at night?
Welcome, at last, to the inexcusably late October 2013 or 64th edition of the Carnival of Evolution. Rather than your host belaboring you with the woes that kept him from opening up this carnival’s tent at the beginning of the month, let’s just get on with the show, shall we?
Bjørn Østman, our most gracious and capable grand master of the CoE, has kept it going despite a decline in submissions and interest, which may be part of a general decline in carnivals in the blogosphere. I don’t know the causes of this decline, or indeed if there is an actual decline rather than just me being too busy to have noticed them. In any case, we do have a number of submissions for this edition, made by a handful of people who continue to contribute to the CoE. To honor them for their efforts, I offer you the stories and links they submitted under their own banners, so to speak, by organizing this carnival into sections bearing the contributor’s name on the banner. It may also be a lazy way for me to get this out way past the last minute, but here you have it: a carnival tent with sections carved out by a handful of curators browsing the internets to find interesting evolutionary stories, a cabinet of curiosities with different shelves sponsored by treasure hunters who keep bringing the stuff in.
If you step over here first, in this corner we have Joachim’s cabinet:
The above is an almost unreadable shrunk version of a rather neat Infographic history of evolutionary thought, created by Tania Jenkins, Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec for the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, and posted at Theory, Evolution, and Games Group, where Artem Kaznatcheev picks up on an interesting tidbit, a small box quoting a scholarly Islamic text from the 9th century which appears to anticipate (and ante-date) Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection. While the translation is dubious and unsubstantiated, it is nevertheless quite intriguing to think about how the Islamic world of that era, which gave us such a foundation for mathematics and astronomy (among other things) might have viewed the ultimate question about the origin of life. It shows something of a contrast from the present day in that part of the world, and the story reminds me of the excellent historiographical book (and one of my favorite books) “In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghosh, which is also about a frustrated chase after 800-year-old documents from the Middle East, and compares the free flow of people and ideas in that age to the walled off boundaries and mutual suspicion that have fragmented that region after it had long abandoned that early scholarship.
Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci defends PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne (imagine that!) from rather contradictory charges by evopsych researcher Robert Kurzban: that Myers (who will host the next edition of this carnival, btw) is somehow a “creationist of the mind” for apparently dismissing the supposed evopsych assumption of a more straightforward causal mapping of gene-to-behavior than is likely in the case of humans. Coyne, OTOH, apparently underwent a conversion to accepting evopsych, even though he remains critical of the more sloppy methodology in the field. Pigliucci’s typically careful dissection of Kurzban’s “rather strawmanly view” is well worth the while for anyone interested in understanding how the study of human psychology from an evolutionary perspective is itself… umm… evolving!
From a misinterpretation of history about the discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection, through modern debates over the nature of evolutionary psychology, Joachim’s collection bring us around to The Modern Social Life of Genes or a new social science of genetics, in an essay posted at Pacific Standard
Next, we have Charles Goodnight (and Bjørn Østman) beckoning us to peruse a post on Epistasis and the Evolution of Corn at the University of Vermont’s Evolution in Structured Populations, a blog featuring some good technical writing to help us through the quantitative mechanics of evolutionary genetics. This particular post is a fascinating look at how the interaction between multiple genes (or loci) may have played a role in the evolution of corn from its ancestral teosinte. The author concludes that the process of domestication seems to have “released this variation that was locked up in epistatic combinations” in teosinte, with a change in genetic background allowing the appearance of traits that we now associate with corn! (and what’s a carnival without corn, right?)
Which brings us to the largest cabinet in the middle of the carnival tent, where Bjørn Østman has gathered a range of articles, some of them offering multiple perspectives on the same new discovery:
For instance, two of the (male) science writers in National Geogrraphic’s Phenomena blogs were fascinated by a long lost bone(r) and wrote about it with typical flair: A Most Interesting Bone – Phenomena by Carl Zimmer; and, author Brian Switek’s. A Long-Lost Bone.
Bjørn then takes us back to Evolution in Structured Populations, for a post clarifying the meaning of several statistical/mathematical terms used in evolutionary genetics including about Average Effects, Average Excesses and Additive Variance. Understanding the meaning of these is critical to understanding the nature of genetic variation which underlies biological evolution.
Over at her Guardian roost, GrrlScientist writes about a new study based on genomic bird DNA suggesting that the hepatitis B virus originally infected early birds during the age of the dinosaurs! She notes how such discoveries may have implications for human health, as these newer genomic techniques unlock more secrets of paleoviruses from eras past, and how they have evolved, especially those that infect humans.
If you’re fascinated by dinosaurs, and ever went through a “dinosaur phase’ in your childhood (or maybe you never left that stage, which is cool!), you must already know that Brian Switek is your guy for dinosaur tales from the frontiers of paleontology. Writing in Nautilus, Brian wonders how the fame and fortune of dinosaur megastars depends on our understanding of many of their more unsung dino brethren. Studies of its smaller relatives, for example, have left with no alternative but to accept a feathered look, because: T. Rex Might be the Thing with Feathers. Dr. Matt Bonnan, meanwhile, writes on his blog, The Evolving Paleontologist., about how Dinosaur hand and forelimb posture might have been more diverse than previously hypothesized.
Continuing on the theme of limb evolution, you might want to read Jeremy Yoder’s piece (at Nothing in biology makes sense!) about a new paper which employed comparative phylogenetic analysis to show that the sprint speed of gazelles, zebras, giraffes (… and ostriches?) is shaped more by the kinds of predators hunting them, than by other factors which make them move.
If you want a peek into the work of evolutionary researchers, you must regularly stop by the BEACON Researchers at Work blog, where recently MSU postdoc Noah Ribeck posted about his own research on frequency dependent selection in a long term evolution experiment, and Survival of the Rarest.
Tired of reading? Take a break with a fun video about How Did the Seahorse Get its Shape? guest-posted at PsiVid on the Scientific American blog network, by Stephani Yin. You’ll also find many other fun science videos at PsiVid so enjoy the break from text – but do come back to read some more! The early evolution of vertebrates is always a fascinating subject. How did the jawed vertebrates evolve from jawless fish ancestors, for example? Go read Fishface at The End Of The Pier Show for an overview.
Is everything, every trait of every organism, ultimately adaptive, if you dig deep enough? Many often think / imply this is the best explanation for variation in any trait – with natural selection winnowing that variation down to what we observe. It is refreshing therefore to read a strong argument for the role of physiological (and developmental) constraints in shaping traits. Moreover such non-adaptive explanations should at least be treated as null hypotheses in Evolutionary Ecology, argues Njal Rollinson.
Our next haul of curios comes from the cabinet of Bradly Alicea:
Before Darwin and Wallace dropped their Natural Selecrion bomb, what did biologists/paleontologsts do to explain the similarities they could observe between related species? It is easy for us to now claim, with clear hindsight, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. But, people in the 1900s were nevertheless trying to make sense of apparent relationships between organisms using phylogenetic networks during at least1900-1990.
Over at Evolving Economics, Jason Collins provides an interesting overview and critique of evolutionary economics as a hybrid field attempting to understand and explain, first, how humans deviate from the “rational agent” ideal of classical economic models due to our evolutionary baggage, and second, how a Darwinian framework might help us understand the dynamics of real agents from the world of human economics. He ends by proposing a new term “Darwinian Economics” for a broader approach that integrates economics with evolutionary biology. Elsewhere, David Sloan Wilson has taken to the blogosphere at Forbes, to apply his own iconoclastic view of evolution to ask whether Nice People Succeed In Business? on concluding that It depends.
Recently, Sir David Attenborough, the eminent naturalist who has turned many a child onto the wonders of nature and a path towards becoming an evolutionary biologist, made a rather significant public gaffe when he asserted that humans had apparently put a half to natural selection. This widely reported assertion, naturally, brought a number of strong responses, which are all worth reading because of the insight they provide into recent and ongoing human evolution. For example: “We are not the boss of natural selection. It is unpwnable” argues Holly Dunsworth atThe Mermaid’s Tale. At the Guardian, Ian Rickard asserted that Sir David Attenborough is wrong – humans are still evolving. Even I was pulled into the fray, and wrote a response on The Conversaton UK website, again asserting that humans are still evolving. Why wouldn’t we?
We also have a book review in this edition, of a new biography: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. Agassiz was a polarizing figure because he was opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, even though he was a great naturalist, and played a big role in building up many museum collections and other aspects of American science. Sounds like a fascinating book!
Following the tradition of saving the tastiest treats for the last, allow me to share a fascinating (to me, at any rate) post at Synthetic Daisies on how different animal species differ in Perceptual Time, i.e., perceiving the flow of time within their sensory constraints, and how that has affected the evolution of Informational Investment. Really thought provoking stuff (at least for me), this is a story I expect I shall return to again soon.
And finally, who doesn’t like bashing John Hammond, the iconic eccentric billionaire creator of Jurassic Park (played by Sir David Attenborough’s brother Richard!)? Especially for how much biology he got wrong? Remember how he explained that they obtained the DNA of dinosaurs from the bellies of Jurassic era mosquitos trapped in amber? That was something we all wondered about, and hoped even that it might come true! Well, Sorry John Hammond, they found no dino DNA in the ambered bugs examined in a recent study!
What a bad month for the Attenbororough brothers, eh? Well, let us hope they both (the real life naturalist, and the fictional character played by his brother) learn some lessons about real-world evolution, and the limits of human hubris!
That concludes this edition. The next round of this carnival will be gathering rather quickly, in just a week (pardon my tardiness!) under one of the biggest and most venerated evolutionary tents in the blogosphere: Pharyngula! Please send your entries, or ones you’ve read are particularly good, for the next edition using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.
Another guest post from Sanzari, my young bookworm and connoisseur of stories. (Read her earlier contribution here.) This one she posted on her tumblr blog earlier today, and then asked me to post it here. But the design she has chosen for her tumblr is so lovely, and so apt for her musings about books today, that I couldn’t just copy and paste her words here. Instead, here’s an image, a book cover, with her thoughts on the power of inexplicably good books:
You might (like I did) remember books that did this to you, that took hold of you so deeply. If you’re interested in reading the particular books she mentions, here’s where you can get them: