Monthly Archives: June 2008

A letter that changed the world…

3CEE119B-B963-405D-B8AE-4E243C79524B.jpeg…arrived in Darwin’s post 150 years ago last week. It is remarkable to think about this kind of potent correspondence in this age of instant messaging, isn’t it? Here’s how the story begins:

In early 1858, on Ternate in Malaysia, a young specimen collector was tracking the island’s elusive birds of paradise when he was struck by malaria. ‘Every day, during the cold and succeeding hot fits, I had to lie down during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me,’ he later recalled.

Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth’s age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered?

Then the fever subsided – and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June, 1858 – 150 years ago last week – at Darwin’s estate in Downe, in Kent.

Darwin, in his own words, was ‘smashed’. For two decades he had been working on the same idea and now someone else might get the credit for what was later to be described, by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, as ‘the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science’ or in the words of Richard Dawkins, ‘the most important idea to occur to a human mind.’ In anguish Darwin wrote to his friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. What followed has become the stuff of scientific legend.

[From How Darwin won the evolution race | Science | The Observer]

Go read the rest to kick off the celebrations for the sesquicentennial anniversary of this momentous event in human history. And while online, check out the original essay in the letter from Wallace which set things in motion, available via the Alfred Russel Wallace Page. You can also download a pdf version of the essay as part of a volume of Wallace’s writings courtesy Google. The joint paper from Darwin and Wallace presented to the Royal Society is, of course, available in its entirety, with some added commentary, via Darwin Online.

Summertime Carnivals

Over at Wheat-dogg’s world, John Wheaton has the latest edition of the The Tangled Bank #108 for your web browsing pleasure.

Great Auk – or Greatest Auk has the 77th edtion of I and the Bird.

Meanwhile, Bora has issued call for submissions to a new monthly blog carnival The Giant’s Shoulders focusing on classic papers. The first edition is scheduled for July 16, a day after my own debut as blog carnival host for Oekologie, the current edition of which is still delayed – so if you have anything to contribute there, please send them to me!

On aesthetic deprivation as nature’s beauty is privatized

The rich and powerful have always tried to monopolize access to whatever resources they wanted and could buy, including most natural resources. That is why many National Parks in India, for instance, started out as hunting preserves for local maharajas or their British buddies – that famous world heritage wetland site of Keoladeo in Bharatpur is but one example – and I’m sure the rulers and owners of these preserves did everything they could in those days to keep ordinary riffraff like us out! And perhaps that is partly why national parks face resistance in India these days too – they are perceived as exclusive reserves set aside to keep the poor people out – even when they are, in principle, publicly owned in our democracy. I don’t want to get into that whole debate here, but this essay by Barbara Ehrenreich has certainly got me thinking about who controls access to nature, and the pros and cons thereof. Some excerpts:

Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in effect since sometime in the 1990s: if a place is truly beautiful, you can’t afford to be there. All right, I’m sure there are still exceptions — a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they’re going fast.

Of all the crimes of the rich, the aesthetic deprivation of the rest of us may seem to be the merest misdemeanor. Many of them owe their wealth to the usual tricks: squeezing their employees, overcharging their customers and polluting any land they’re not going to need for their third or fourth homes. Once they’ve made (or inherited) their fortunes, the rich can bid up the price of goods that ordinary people also need — housing, for example. Gentrification is dispersing the urban poor into overcrowded suburban ranch houses, while billionaires’ horse farms displace rural Americans into trailer homes. Similarly, the rich can easily fork over annual tuitions of $50,000 and up, which has helped make college education a privilege of the upper classes.

If Edward O. Wilson is right about “biophilia” — an innate human need to interact with nature — there may even be serious mental health consequences to letting the rich hog all the good scenery. I know that if I don’t get to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons and mountains piercing the sky for at least a week or two of the year, chronic, cumulative claustrophobia sets in. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the need for scenery is hard-wired into us. “People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they can not be seen themselves,” she told Harvard Magazine last year. “That’s a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey.” We also like to be able to see water (for drinking), low-canopy trees (for shade) and animals (whose presence signals that a place is habitable).

[From This Land Is Their Land: How the Rich Confiscate Natural Beauty from the Public | AlterNet]

The whole essay is really well worth the read if you care about environmental equity and justice. And it makes me wonder, even as i write this, about the origin of the National Park system in the US. Some of us often lament (as you may know if you’ve taken my reconciliation ecology class) the way the National Park concept (which is based on defining “nature” and “wilderness” as something apart from human, and is therefore exclusionary by definition), has alienated many local peoples from the forests and wildlands they inhabited, fueling many an intractable conflict. But Ehrenreich, in highlighting how many beautiful natural areas are now lost to the public in private reserves, reminds me that the crucial difference with national parks as they were originally established in the US is that they were protected as public goods! And as such, they have remained places where anyone can afford to enjoy nature, for aesthetic fulfillment if not for resource extraction, even today. I’m not sure that is necessarily the case in all parts of the world, esp. where elite (and often foreigner) eco-tourism puts such aesthetic enjoyment out of reach of many lower-middle-class or poorer people, not to mention those living around the parks.

So how will the poor have any access to the aesthetic pleasures of nature in the current economic climate where the god of privatization rules? And does it matter if nature is carved up into private reserves for the enjoyment of the rich, as long as biodiversity is thereby protected? Shouldn’t we let the free market decide whose biophilia may be satisfied? And shouldn’t conservation biologists be happy as long as the rich can be persuaded to protect as much biodiversity as possible? Even if most biodiversity ends up in the hands of a tiny few in this increasingly income-polarized world? Or is there a real long-term cost to having generations of kids grow up nature-impoverished – whether in the inner city or the rural wasteland – and therefore unable to appreciate or value nature and biodiversity at all?

An atheist from India on campus

Here’s a special event happening on campus this Monday evening:

Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics

Special Event7AF3C675-BB2C-4063-AF2F-A05D497464E7.jpeg

Special Guest Speaker Dr. Goparaju Vijayam to speak at the California State University, Fresno on Monday, June 23rd at 7PM.

Dr Vijayam is the Executive Director of the Atheist Centre in India. Together, the Atheist Centre and Dr. Vijayam work toward social justice throughout India.

The Atheist Centre is a social change institute founded in 1940 in Southern India. It’s mission includes many different activities all directed toward a positive social change through the use of secular social work and the promotion of Positive Atheism as a way of life.

The founders of the Atheist Centre were associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the nationalist movement, so the Centre’s directive of positive social change is a core principle.

Dr. Vijayam will be speaking about the work of the Atheist Centre, including it’s efforts against India’s culture of “Untouchability” and the caste system. The Centre works for casteless marriage, and promoting intercaste dialog and interaction – it has been at the forefront of this area since the Centre was founded.

Other Centre programs will also be addressed by Dr. Vijayam, including the Centre’s work against superstition in India. The Centre combats pseudoscience by promoting rational thinking to the general public. In this way it combats self-described “god-men” and miracle workers who prey on the gullible, and it fights against those who would accuse others of witchcraft or sorcery.

This is a rare opportunity for the Secular people of the Central Valley to meet with such a fascinating person. There will be time to ask questions and perhaps even discuss a little of Dr. Vijayam’s work.

Dr. Vijayam Lecture

Location: California State University, Fresno

Science II Building (google map) (detail map)

Room 109

Date: Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Time: 7PM – 9PM

Before the lecture, CVAAS will treat Dr. Vijayam to dinner at the North India Bar & Grill, located at 80 West Shaw Ave. between Villa and Minnewawa in Clovis. (see google map). We will arrive at 5:00 for dinner. Anyone who would like to attend for friendly conversation is welcome.

If you have questions or comments, you can email Mark at or call the CVAAS telephone at (559) 892-0102

[From CVAAS Special Event | CVAAS]

Just what is India rising towards, exactly?

Two stories (with video) about India to round out your weekend: First, the PBS weekly newsmagazine Now joined the India Rising parade with another story of India’s economic growth, focusing on the growing middle class and what it might mean for the world.

I don’t know if it is just me (it very well might be), but the program struck some rather dissonant chords.

On the one hand, there was the typical economic boosterism which fairly dominated the whole documentary, as exemplified by the main interview subjects: Gurcharan Das and Robyn Meredith. While I haven’t read the books Das and Meredith have written (they seem to be somewhat more sensible than the NYT’s Flatworlder), they are certainly boosters of India Rising (which, incidentally, was a slogan the Indian govt. was using to promote the country several years ago – and perhaps still is).

At the same time, the PBS guys were trying to raise two other concerns that might give the boosters some pause: the global economic impact of the growing Indian consumerist middle-class, especially on energy and commodity prices, and what that means for the US; and, the environmental impact of these same growing consumer demands from a middle class population that is already (by some estimates) larger than the entire US population. But somehow, they didn’t make much headway with these arguments, which were brushed aside by most of the interviewees (including the two mentioned above).

  • Economic fears: oh well, what’s there to fear? The rising tide will surely carry everyone up, and even benefit the US economy for the consumer goods have to come from somewhere, right? Or, you should worry, and better start treating India like the superpower it wants to be! And yes, energy prices are a worry, but… isn’t it great how many Indians can now wander around in huge malls (bigger than the ones in America) and buy all these cool gadgets?
  • Environment: well, that didn’t really get addressed much at all, even though the companion website talks about environmental issues. And when it did come up, Das said something that would make Julian Simon proud – basically something like “oh, don’t worry, we’ll surely find some solutions”.

I can sort of understand why the questioning kept bringing things back to “what does this mean for the US?”, given the show comes from US public broadcasting and it is too much expect PBS to ever get as broad a perspective as the BBC, which has been covering the India Rising story for some years now at much greater length and depth. Nevertheless, the whole documentary left me thinking they had a lot more story that didn’t get told, with all the hints about global warming, the environment, and David Brancaccio’s upcoming trek/pilgrimage to the source of the Ganga! I hope they do give us more, although the promo for next week at the end of this episode suggested they were moving on to another topic. Will the relegate even the Himalayan glaciers melting story to Brancaccio’s blog only? I hope not.

And after all that show of growing wealth, booming economy, and bustling malls, I’m left wondering once again: why can’t we save those tigers (the real stripy ones, not the economic metaphors) and the rest of India’s biodiversity while improving the lives of ordinary Indians? Why must India only aspire to tread in the same old environmentally destructive paths of superpowers like the US, rather than blazing a new enlightened trail where human well-being is reconciled with environmental well-being, so that the whole planet is a better place for everybody? Aren’t there people in India exploring such alternative pathways? Why didn’t Now choose to highlight some of those efforts and people engaged in them, instead of the same old mainstream economic growth bandwagon?

Meanwhile, the previous night, there was another, funnier, rising for India in the US cultural zeitgeist, for Hinduism got the Colbert Bump! Although, if you go by what the nice old Indian lady told him, there is no conversion to Hinduism, so what exactly will bump up? Hmmm… what do you think? In any case, you get a fairly accurate if very very abbreviated gist of Hinduism – enjoy:

Can We Solve It?

A different take on the recent series of TV ads launched by the Al Gore led We Can Solve It campaign to address global warming. While this is funny, is it any less ironic than the ad it is meant to parody?! Are minds changed when confronted with such multiple levels of irony in this post-ironic world? Or is the only way to get through these days is to take direct aim at some sort of cultural cognitive dissonance?

Ken Miller and the missing links between radio and TV

So Miller’s book tour brought him to the Colbert Report last night, following the more substantial Science Friday appearance last week:

I was underwhelmed by the Colbert interview, and that is mostly to do with the format of that particular show, and its the very short duration. Miller was good but seemed to rush through a number of things, so I don’t know how regular viewers kept up. I recommend listening to the radio interview for a much better discussion. I’m not sure what to make of his comparing the ID/creationists to welfare moms – although it did allow Colbert the opportunity to claim victory! But why bring in the whole economic-conservative image of moms (driving cadillacs) living the high life on govt. handouts? Is this a way to “frame” the issue so that it resonates with conservatives? He made a similar comparison on the radio as well, but the argument seemed more fleshed out there (or at least less abrasive to a liberal like me). Likewise, comparing science to a free-market of ideas where ID has failed to compete, and directly appealing to Colbert’s anti-government persona. I wonder if that actually works in convincing anyone on the right… but who better than Ken Miller to “frame” evolution to make it palatable to religious people?

Comparing the two interviews is a good illustration also of how much can go missing when one is forced to condense things for the typical sound-bite demands of TV, especially when faced with a loud talking-head host! And this wasn’t even one of those right-wing blowhards on Fox News! If the medium is challenging even for someone as articulate and media-savvy as Ken Miller (winner of the Peabody), what hope do the rest of us scientists have of getting the word out in the mainstream media?

And one more annoyance last night was that the interview seemed unnecessarily short, for Colbert evidently had another 3 minutes available (following Miller), which he padded with REM performing “Hollow Man”not live, but from their appearance on the show some months ago!! I’m mystified as to why they would do that, when other guests have been on (I think) for longer chats!

Only a Theory: Ken Miller on Science Friday today


Here’s something to look forward to on the radio today: evolutionary biologist (and devout Christian) Ken Miller will be interviewed on Science Friday, where we may also hear about his new book: Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. If you manage to catch the live broadcast on your local NPR affiliate station or on the intertubes, you might even be able to ask him question! In any case, this should be an interesting conversation, which I hope to catch on my drive back from a field trip tomorrow morning:

Only a Theory (broadcast Friday, June 13th, 2008)

Once, there was the battle over whether the concept of evolution should be taught in public schools at all — a fight remembered for the trial of high school teacher John Scopes in 1925. More recently, the terms of the debate shifted to whether the idea of ‘intelligent design’ needed to be taught alongside the scientific theory of evolution in the classroom. Now, the terms are shifting again. This summer, the Texas Board of Education is expected to consider whether biology classes should be required to include a discussion of the “strengths and weaknesses” evolutionary theory — wording that proponents of teaching evolution say is code for creationist ideas. It’s a significant question, as the curriculum and textbook-buying decisions of the state of Texas often end up affecting the books offered by publishers. In this segment, guest host Joe Palca talks with biology professor and textbook author Kenneth Miller about the fight to keep creationism out of public school science class. Teachers, find more information about using Science Friday as a classroom resource in the Kids’ Connection.

And of course, if you miss the live broadcast, you can always catch the podcast (which is how I normally listen to Science Friday) or listen online.