Monthly Archives: October 2013

Like this blog? “Like” it here…

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!


Philantrophy: The Last Word On Shooting Endangered Rhinos To Save Them

Black Rhino - reflection

Black Rhino – reflection   Photo under Creative Commons license by Frank Vassen on Flickr

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.

Check to arm yourself with camping gears because having a camera on an adventure is just not enough.

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:

Click on the following link for the best guns and camping gears supply –

[comedycentral 429950]

What, in the end, is the point of a rhino?

What keeps you awake all night?

What an improbable thing, of all improbable thing...

What an improbable thing, of all improbable things…                  (image via io9, I think, via their Fb page…)

“Do you ever wonder how the universe will end?” Asks Salon on their Facebook page while sharing this article about 5 questions that keeps physicists awake at night.

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?

Carnival of Evolution: a better late than never edition cabinet of curiousities

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: 

Infographic History Evolution

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?

Evolution to bike

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!

Amber. Contents: ancient arthropod. Contains no DNA.

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.

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On the power of inexplicably good stories. And inexplicably dangerous ones.

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:

Not a book, but a tumblr post about 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:

Life on an Urban Planet – Are you up for the challenge?

On Oct 4th 2013, as part of the UN’s World Habitat Day celebrations, the last —and biggest—piece of the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook project, the scientific assessment, was released in the form of a book: “Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities“. This weighty tome (714 pages, in hardcover), with contributions from many scores of urban ecologists (me among them), planners, and practitioners, provides the most comprehensive overview of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the world’s cities today. As with last year’s “CBO: Action and Policy” book (of which I was a lead author), the emphasis has been to highlight challenges, but also focus on solutions.

Have a look, if you are interested in urban ecology at all. The book has been released as an open access publication via Springer, so you can the whole book in one big PDF via the CBO Book website (look under the Resources tab), or download individual chapters from Springer. They are also selling the hardcover dead-tree versions printed on an on-demand basis, which you can get directly from Springer, or somewhat cheaper via Amazon.

Meanwhile, let me leave you with this video narrated by Hollywood actor and Goodwill Ambassador to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD) Edward Norton, talking about the challenges and opportunities of living on an increasingly urban planet:

[youtube mPi4zwEpswE]

So, that’s what our planet is looking like in this 21st century. Are you up for the challenge of making it more livable, for us, and for as many of the other species as we can help survive in this Anthropocene?