Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Ant and the Elderly – a parable for an aging society?

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What a lovely story of an evolved society finding ways to integrate its elderly members into productive roles to keep the larger social unit functioning. Division of labor stratified by age/mandible sharpness – surely even we can learn something from that!

Remembering S. A. Hussain (a guest post by Geetha Nayak)

It was exactly a year ago that I heard about the passing of S. A. Hussain, and wrote a hasty tribute recollecting the all-too-brief time I was able to spend in his company learning how to handle birds, skills he taught this random youth who wasn’t even formally his student. Several months ago, I met (virtually, on Facebook) Geetha Nayak, another student whom he also inspired (almost a decade after inspiring me) to pursue an academic career in ornithology. As this year comes to a close, to mark the anniversary of his passing, Geetha offers this appreciation:

Appreciation of my mentor SA Hussain

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind – Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese American artist, poet, and writer.

It was sometime in May 1998, I had completed making a list of 100 species of birds and was eagerly awaiting the reward for being able to identify all the birds I had seen. The promised reward came in the form a pair of binoculars and a book – “The Book of Indian Birds” by Salim Ali. I was overjoyed to see through the binoculars and to receive a copy of a book on birds.  The book was signed  as- ‘To: Geetha Nayak, Best wishes and a bright future, Keep your eyes, ears and mind open you will learn a lot by observing’ – S. A. Hussain, 23-06-1998. At that moment all that I could think about was to flaunt these gifts among my classmates and friends than to grasp the meaning of the words he had written.  

Ever since my childhood, I have been curious about the life around me. I sat for hours watching parakeets feeding on Caesalpinia pulcherrima pods in my garden, pigeons nesting in the school buildings, crows and kites nesting on a large banyan tree close to my home, digging the ants’ nests and catching butterflies.  I was very intrigued by their activities and wondered if they led a life like humans. I had no idea that studying life around me could very well be a profession.

It was during my pre-university days that I met SA Hussain after his talk on nature and birds. I was so fascinated by the photo slides he had shown. Like all the other students, I had too lined up to get his autograph. When I managed to get his signature and a pat on my back, I couldn’t contain my happiness and joy and immediately recounted the story to my father. It was a complete surprise when my father told me SA Hussain was his childhood friend and they were at school together. Initially it was hard to believe that my father and SA Hussain could have been childhood friends, but very soon a photo of my father, SA Hussain and Sanat (a businessman and a resident of Karkala) proved that it was indeed true.

After a week or so, I was thrilled to meet SA Hussain at my home in Karkala; my first meeting still remains vivid in my memory. I was a late riser, even on the day when S A Hussain came to visit my family, and the first thing he told me was that if the birds were to sleep so late in the morning, they would miss food for the entire day and that he would ask my mother not to feed me. Although I was embarrassed, the innate rebel in me reacted saying: ‘As a child even you would have been a late riser, but did your mother do that to you?’ and to this, his reaction was a loud laugh without either a hint of anger or frown and I was thoroughly pleased to see he wasn’t like any of the elders in my family or teachers in the school. SA Hussain loved children and believed that it was not a cudgel or a rebuke that would bring discipline to children but kindly words and pure affection. And for me, who always disliked following any rules or orders from elders or teachers, his kindness and friendly nature enabled me to bond instantly with him and he became my mentor, philosopher and a great friend for years from that day onwards. His wise words of advice (among many other) “Keep your eyes, ears and mind open you will learn a lot by observing” continues to guide me in all walks of my life, both professional and personal.

It was during this meeting that he encouraged me to watch birds and promised to reward me if I came up with a list of 100 species of birds. I was delighted by this offer and started spending a lot of my time on the banks of a lake close to my home, called Anekere. He told me to keep a note of all the birds I saw, with an illustration marking the colors. I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and was intrigued by the variety of birds wading through the water in the lake. Every now and then I reported back to SA Hussain on what I had seen, and during one of the meetings he lent me a bird book (older version of “The book of Indian Birds” by Salim Ali) and asked me to identify myself all that I had seen. The first few species were easy to identify: Little Cormorant, Bronze winged Jacana, and Egrets. He appreciated me for my keen interest, and my patience for coming up with both the list and my (fairly) neat illustrations. As I went further, I came across a black-and-white bird in my notebook. I found to my dismay that there were several similar black-and-white species. I had no idea which one I had seen and had made a note of. I asked him to identify it for me, but instead of identifying it for me, he encouraged me to go back and find the bird again. Later, I found that the bird I had seen was a Magpie Robin but that there was another species which looked very like it (at least for a novice in the field). This one had a white eyebrow and was a Large Pied Wagtail. I was so fascinated by these variations; from then on, a parakeet was not just a parakeet, but a Rose-ringed Parakeet or a Blossom-headed Parakeet. I was completely hooked on birding. That spark of interest in birds made me think about a profession in ecology. When I look back, I feel those words of encouragement, appreciation and guidance are what helped me excel in my studies during my undergraduate years and to choose a profession in ecology. I owe him a great deal.

It was through SA Hussain, I met two other great teachers who gave direction to my professional career: Dr. KP Achar (my professor in undergraduate college), and Dr. Priya Davidar, (my PhD supervisor at Pondicherry University). 

As a young girl, I used to be very outspoken and headstrong and that got me into trouble with family, peers and teachers every now and then. I always went to SA Hussain, who very patiently listened to me and helped me see through situations. He never judged me or anyone else, but always told me, “It’s all a passing cloud and things will always be clear with time”. There are many memories, and his advice I will treasure all my days. I feel very fortunate to be his protégé. 

SA Hussain was also one of my most treasured friends, he was very critical (which helped me to see through my mistakes), he was saddened when things did not go well in my personal relationship, he was always concerned about my financial stability and he took utmost pride in seeing me complete my PhD. He always endured my tantrums and bad temper with good humor and he provided a strong emotional support when my father passed away. He was a great friend and always stood by me whatever the circumstances. He taught me to accept things and people as they were and he encouraged me to believe that there is always light at the end of tunnel. The lesson I have learnt from his life is to be patient through the pain and difficulties in life. I still feel his presence very strongly. 

I finish with a particularly appropriate quote from Kathryn Patricia Cross, a scholar of educational research: “The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners:  it is in making winners out of ordinary people”. Thank you SA Hussain, Sir.
-K. Geetha Nayak


With my mentor SA Hussain in Bhagavati Nature Camp, Kudrekmukh National Park (in 1998).

With SA Hussain at Kaliveli- a wetland in Tamil Nadu, where we went birding when he visited me during my final year of PhD at Pondicherry University in 2008


Is it possible for the world’s economies to keep “growing” their way out of trouble?


Even as onion prices have hit the fan in India at the year’s closing (a crisis that would never have touched my grandmother’s economy because she never touched an onion in her life, while cooking some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten!), The Economist tells us (cautiously, but still sounding the drumbeat for growth) that the American stockmarket enters 2011 in a jolly mood. Not so jolly is Prof. Jayati Ghosh, described as one of the world’s leading Female Economists (therein lies another tale of lack of growth in economics) who warns us that the next financial crisis is not far off! In the midst of her cogent analysis of the world’s far-from-over economic ills (she is better, I daresay, than Krugman in laying bare the workings of the global economy in a few short paragraphs), this catches my ecologist’s eye:

The gloves are not yet off, but they could be soon, because no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.

“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” Think about that for a minute as you contemplate the world’s dwindling resources and ever-flourishing ecological crises.

“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” Yet, everyone seems sure that “growth” must come, that “growth” is the only way out of this crisis. Without getting into the fundamental absurdity of expecting continued economic growth on a finite planet, let me ask this: have we forgotten that much of this ongoing crisis was created by people in pursuit of very rapid, and therefore unsustainable, growth in profits? Why then would anyone think that we can rapidly grow our way out of this crisis? Are we thinking that we have dug ourselves into such a deep hole, that if we keep digging faster, we will emerge into daylight on the other side of the planet?!

“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” A good place to start looking for an answer to that conundrum can be found in Prof. Ghosh’s own column from almost exactly a year ago when she wrote, in the aftermath of the breakdown of global warming negotiations at Copenhagen:

But describing this as a fight between countries misses the essential point: that the issue is really linked to an economic system – capitalism – that is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this “growth” does not deliver better lives for the people. So there is no questioning of the supposition that rich countries with declining populations must keep on growing in terms of GDP, rather than finding different ways of creating and distributing output to generate better quality of life. There is no debating of the pattern of growth in “successful” developing countries, which has in many cases come at the cost of increased inequality, greater material insecurity for a significant section of the population and massive damage to the environment.

Since such questions were not even at the table at the Copenhagen summit – even a “successful” outcome with some sort of common statement would hardly have been a sign of the kind of change that is required. But this does not mean that the problem has gone away; in fact, it is more pressing than ever.

Optimists believe that the problem can be solved in a win-win outcome that is based on “green” growth and new technologies that provide “dematerialised” output, so that growth has decreasing impact on the environment. But such a hope is also limited by the Jevons paradox (after the 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons), which states that the expansion of output typically overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy.

This is forcefully elucidated in an important new book by John Bellamy Foster. [Note: that link is broken, so I’m not sure, but I think Ghosh is alluding to his latest book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth.] Foster argues that a rational reorganisation of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. “The immense danger now facing the human species … is not due principally to the constraints of the natural environment, but arises from a deranged social system wheeling out of control, and more specifically US imperialism.” (p 105)

How does imperialism enter into this? “Capital … is running up against ecological barriers at a biospheric level that cannot be overcome, as was the case previously, through the ‘spatial fix’ of geographical expansion and exploitation. Ecological imperialism – the growth of the centre of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thorough-going ecological degradation of the periphery – is now generating a planetary-scale set of ecological contradictions, imperilling the entire biosphere.” (p 249)

This does not mean that the interests of people in the centre are inevitably opposed to those of people in the periphery, since both are now adversely affected by the results of such ecological imbalances. Instead, it means that it is now in all of our interests to shift from an obsession on growth that is primarily directed to increasing capitalist profits, to a more rational organisation of society and of the relation between humanity and nature.

So there is indeed a win-win solution, but one that cannot be based on the existing economic paradigm. The good news is that more humane and democratic alternatives are also likely to be more environmentally sustainable.

How about changing that economic paradigm then? If being in the throes of such a festering economic crisis is not a great time to change paradigms, when is? Or shall we just keep on digging, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel, even though we suspect that the increasing glow is most likely from (no, not an onrushing train, but) the magma we are about to hit?

Happy New Year!


Vampire Squid can turn “inside out” but is that enough to save it from us?

Although I cringe at this fantastic Vampire Squid being described as a “living fossil”—another oxymoron that won’t go away from the popular lexicon of misrepresentations when it comes to evolution—even by the estimable Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, this is an amazing video, and I like the rest of the narration. How little we know about the wonders lurking underneath the oceans! How much of it will we never discover because of what we are doing to the oceans?

RIP: Denis Dutton, “creator of complicated fictions”

As another year approaches its sad end, Professor Dennis Dutton, who created “complicated fiction” (as seen doing so in front of a live audience in the clip below) by combining art and literature with science and skepticism, and curated digital streams of works from across these creative realms for our perusal at the Arts & Letters Daily from the earliest days of the WWW, has died. Read this tribute, watch his funny appearance with that living work of art Stephen Colbert below, and pick up his book (at a bargain price) about how art may be a tool for propagating our species. Whether you agree with the evolutionary psychology aspects of that argument or not, the man gave us plenty to think about. RIP.

Pants!! Cover your behind in designer fabric labeled Bonobos – to save the Bonobo?


This is just pants! A company that sells pants. Rather expensive ones too. (Designed to fit really well, I’m told.) Is named after the one ape, our cousin, whose social life would be utterly destroyed by pants!! Huh?!


Well… at least this company is contributing some of its profits to save said cousins:

via [UPDATE (23 Oct 2012): This link is now broken, so I’m not sure if the program to save the Bonobos exists any more from this pants company.]

Now I don’t know whether this company’s sponsorship of the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary started with the founders wanting to compensate the apes for borrowing their name, or is a result of successful campaigning by the sanctuary to get the company to clothe its conscience cheaply while clothing our behinds at much expense. Either way, I’d rather not spend a 100 bucks on a pair of pants just to have $5 go towards the real Bonobos. Or just $1 from even more expensive pants. Even if I had that kind of money for pants, I’d rather buy a much cheaper pair (or several), however ill-fitting, and spend correspondingly more directly on conservation. Wouldn’t you?

Now imagine this scene, from the very same Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary – but with pants: