Category Archives: culture

On the rise and fall of human diversity

Over the past week or so, in the Human Ecology class, we’ve been doing a rapid survey of human societies in terms of their cultural/ecological core, discussing the key elements of the main types of society and its governance of natural resources: hunter-gatherer, horticulturist, pastoralist, agrarian, and industrial. As a supplement to my lecture and the class discussions we’ve had (and because my throat didn’t feel up to speaking for 75 min today), I also found three videos of TED Talks that take us through another sort of rapid tour through the trajectory of human diversity from when our first ancestors gazed upon the African savannah to the societal collapse that may soon be upon us if we don’t get our own collective together and rethink ow we govern our natural resources.

First, we have Spencer Wells taking us through the population genetics of human origins. Next, National Geographic’s Wade Davis takes us on a global tour of human cultural diversity at its peak, and laments the rapid loss of languages and cultures we’ve seen in the recent past. And to round things off, Jared Diamond speaks of the complete collapse of some earlier complex societies, and what lessons they hold for us as we rush headlong towards the cliff ourselves. Look below the fold for these videos.

Watershed 2009: Environmental Poetry Festival (also this saturday)

For my friends in the Bay area, and those from the valley who might head that way this weekend: you may want to look in on this event I learnt about via River of Words:

Watershed 2009 Environmental Poetry Festival


Berkeley–Saturday, Sept. 26–12-4pm Free

Join Robert Hass, Mas Masumoto, and other poets, writers and performers for a day of poetry, music, dance, art activities, literary and environmental exhibitors and more.

River of Words youth poets will read at 1pm.

Please visit the River of Words booth to see our wonderful art, books, and say hi.

Civic Center Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way between Allston & Center. The Farmers’ Market will be open, too!

View Announcement on Facebook

And visit for more information.

Ken Burns to show America’s National Parks on PBS this fall!

Now here’s something to really look forward to in the fall television schedule: Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary historian of many important aspect of American life and socio-cultural-political history has finally turned his famous camera lens onto this country’s natural heritage, specifically the parts that people have chosen to protect for posterity in The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. The US is, in some ways, a birthplace of modern National Parks set up by democratic governments, and this model has influenced conservation strategies worldwide, for better or for worse. Given Burns’ background, it is hardly surprising that this documentary will focus not just on the natural beauty and wildlife of the Parks, but more on the people involved in creating and sustaining them:

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy. It is a story full of struggle and conflict, high ideals and crass opportunism, stirring adventure and enduring inspiration – set against the most breathtaking backdrops imaginable.

[via The National Parks: America’s Best Idea | PBS]

The website for the show has a number of interesting video clips – here’s one from an affiliated station:

And here’s another clip with a short interview with Burns:

And according to the Sierra Club, which is an outreach partner for the documentary series, many local PBS stations are airing a special “making-of” show this Sunday, on May 24th! KVPT, the Fresno affiliate at channel 18, has it listed at 9:30 PM.

Alan Rodgers and the “Essence of Indian Fatalism”

Ever since I learnt of the passing of Alan Rodgers, my teacher and friend guiding me as I took the first steps on the road to becoming a professional ecologist, I’ve been thinking of writing something to commemorate his life, especially since I am unable to join other friends and family in any collective mourning/memorializing. But its been difficult to articulate much – in no small part because there are too many strong memories, from a time when my brain was probably really laying down a lot of wires and connections (unlike now), too much to put into one essay or blog post. How can one distill such a remarkable person, esp. someone who had such a strong influence on the course of my life, into a few hundred words?

Yet, here’s a strong pleasant memory triggered by something I just read (quite unrelated) – a lesson from Alan about the rules of the road, quite literally, and well before I ever got behind the wheel myself! One of the great pleasures some of us shared during the early years of the MSc program at WII was to drive around much of northern India with Alan, often in the FAO Toyota Land Cruiser he drove alongside the Land Rover that was our class’ official vehicle. And he was, by far, the best driver we had, whether cruising @5km/hr through national parks counting mammals on vehicle transects or spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife, dashing along the insane highways around Delhi, or navigating through the other high-density “wildlife” (cows, rickshaws, pedestrians, bicycles by the million) of urban jungles like Meerut! Some of the staff drivers of WII, who came from the hills around Dehradun, became really excellent at wilderness driving and spotting wildlife, while one or two even learnt to navigate the urban jungle – but none came close to being as assured and in control as Alan driving in all of those habitats! And I, perhaps unfairly more often than some fellow students, was privileged to ride “shotgun” on many an occasion.

I’m remembering one such occasion, when I had caught a ride back from Delhi to Dehradun in Alan’s cruiser along with Shekhar Singh. For some reason the conservation (which, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows either gentleman, was just nonstop) – actually turned to driving itself! While crawling through the human/bicycle/cattle traffic in one of the teeming towns along the way, someone (probably me) asked Alan about his experience driving in so many places in the world, and how India compared. He made a very astute observation about the key distinction between driving in India vs. in a western/developed country: “In the west,” he said, “driving is simple because all you have to do is drive your own vehicle, while in India (and Africa too, by implication) you are not only driving your own vehicle, you are also driving every other thing moving on the road” – every car/truck/auto/rickshaw/bicycle/pedestrian/cow! It took me a while to fully understand, because I hadn’t learnt to drive yet, that he was talking about how in the west, everyone for the most part follows traffic rules, so you just have to make sure you do the same and you are fine focusing on driving your car only. In India, on the other hand, you have to mentally compute and anticipate the semi-random movement of everyone and everything else sharing the road with your car! If you are reading this, but haven’t ever driven in India, the video below should give you an idea of what its like! And so, having learnt to drive in southern California, and having lived much of the past two decades in the US, I am yet to take the wheel in any populated place in India! And am in no hurry to change that either – especially after reading this.

As was often the case with those two, that conversation turned funny and philosophical when Alan swerved to avoid a pedestrian casually sauntering into the middle of the road, and Shekhar observed: “That is the Essence of Indian Fatalism: Step on to the road, and hope for the best“! I’m sure they would both have shared a good laugh over this video too:

[youtube RjrEQaG5jPM]

The Rap Guide to Evolution – this weekend in Fresno!

My friend Scott Hatfield just pointed out a brilliant act premiering at the Rogue Festival in Fresno this weekend: The Rap Guide to Evolution! Its Richard Dawkins meets Eminem, to paraphrase the review in Science (yes, that AAAS journal, renowned for its rap reviews!):


Canadian rap artist, performance poet, and actor Baba Brinkman follows up his hilarious award-winning one-man show “The Rap Canterbury Tales” with a journey to the center of history’s greatest controversy: the Origin of Species. Brinkman’s powerful storytelling has been hailed the world over as an ingenious hybrid of rap and theatre. Fresh from a tour celebrating the 2009 Darwin Bicentennial in England, this will be the North American premier of “The Rap Guide to Evolution”.

It’s a 50-minute show, rated PG-13 (‘sexual references, mature subject matter, but NO SWEARING, he says”).

Lead single “Natural Selection” featuring Richard Dawkins. Click here to Download.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” explores the history and current understanding of Darwin’s theory, combining remixes of popular rap songs with storytelling rap/poems that cover Natural Selection, Artificial Selection, Sexual Selection, Group Selection, Unity of Common Descent, and Evolutionary Psychology. Dr. Pallen has vetted the entire script for scientific and historical accuracy, making it a powerful teaching tool as well as a laugh-out-loud entertainment experience. The show also engages directly with challenging questions about cultural evolution, asking the audience to imagine themselves as the environment and the performer as an organism undergoing a form of live adaptation.

The Rap Guide to Evolution” was developed with the support of the British Council, and will be touring the UK in the summer of 2009, including the Edinburgh Fringe. Look out for recordings and videos coming soon to this site!

Here’s a preview clip, via YouTube:

How can you resist the whole act after that? Perhaps I’ll see you there this weekend!

On Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life

Struggling to fall asleep last night with this nasty cold-flu thing that has me in its grips for the past several days, I happened upon the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. I’m not a regular viewer of this show, what with Rose’s penchant for giving so much air time to that airhead pundit Thomas Friedman (64 appearances!!! really need that much hot air, Charlie?!). But Rose does get some excellent guests from time to time, and provides space for a deeper conversation than the typical tv talk-show – one has to give him that! And last night was just such an occasion, for Charlie had on the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, discussing his latest work: “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life”, which sounds absolutely fascinating. I was pleased to discover just now that the Charlie Rose show offers entire programs online, allowing me to embed this interview below. The first half is what really gripped me, with Gopnik talking about Darwin and Lincoln — men born in a cosmic coincidence on February 12, 1809 — as embodying the twin pillars of the modern world: science and liberal democracy. So true! This is really well worth listening to when both these figures loom so large in our consciousness in this month of their bicentennial. The second half is about a more recent interesting figure, the late writer John Updike. Here, watch the whole thing:

Now I’ve got one more “short” book to add to my reading pile – terrific!

Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

Today’s NYT features this excellent defense of science by Dennis Overbye. My favorite part:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.

So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad.

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.”

Odd as it may seem coming from a proud participant of this “utopian anarchy“, I couldn’t agree more! The entire essay is well worth reading.

read more | digg story

A graphic novel in time for the bicentennial!

Hmm… this might be something to get the kids really excited about:

Doesn’t he look dashing, that young field biologist? Says Simon Gurr, the illustrator:

Less than a week now until the printers deliver Darwin: A Graphic Biography, the latest 100-page comic book from Eugene Byrne and me. I’ve seen the proofs and can’t wait to hold the book itself in my hands. The big launch is on 30th Jan, stay tuned for more details and to find out how to get hold of a copy.

And now I can’t wait for this week to end…

{Hat-tip: Joe@ForbiddenPlanet]

A short course on Darwin, his science, and his legacy

Andy Shriver pointed out this University of California Museum of Paleontology short course:

Darwin: the man, his science, and his legacydarwin2009.gif

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His birthday is an opportunity to celebrate his contribution to science and its influence in such diverse academic fields as biology, anthropology, and medicine. To kick off the multiple celebrations that will be taking place in the Bay Area, UCMP offers you the opportunity to join historians and evolutionary biologists as they discuss the extraordinary life of Charles Darwin, his contributions, his legacy, and our current understandings of evolutionary theory. Speakers will include Keith Thomson, Kipling Will, Kevin Padian, and Eugenie Scott.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

2050 Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley

9:00 am to 4:00 pm (registration opens at 8:15 am)

As an added bonus, a teacher workshop on evolution presented by UCMP, California Academy of Sciences, Human Evolution Research Center, KQED QUEST, SETI, and the National Center for Science Education will be held the following day on Sunday, February 8, 9:30 am to 3:00 pm (registration opens at 9:00 am). The workshop, held in 2063 VLSB, will include behind-the-scenes tours of the Human Evolution Research Center and lunch. More information is available here.