Science needs voices. All of them. Thank you @ehmee.

I can’t tell you how glad I am, as a father of daughters growing up in today’s world, that we have Emily Graslie’s voice, inspiring them every day in ways that I cannot, building their confidence so they too can add their voices to the conversation, as the discoverers and adventurers and explorers they are, without worrying about what anyone thinks of them.

Thank you, Emily, for this in particular today:

For more inspiration from this remarkable voice, this Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum of Natural History, find her on tumblr, twitter, and of course the brainscoop channel.

The Conscience of an Asteroid

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my original, extended version of the essay, before it was pared down for broadcast. You can imagine me reading it in your head, or listen to the broadcast version recorded in my voice.

Artist's impression of asteroid slamming into tropical seas near Yucatan.

Painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. More info:

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Nearly 70% of all species alive on that day disappeared forever.

This was the last known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. It was the fifth time that such a mass extinction has occurred on our planet. As far as we know.

The history of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient and incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with the story of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here since long before us.

The tools of paleontology help us decipher these stories written in stone. We can read of the long age of bacteria and other single-celled organisms; of the time when the air held no oxygen because no one had figured out how to make food from sunlight; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species who couldn’t breathe the air that sustains us now.

A later chapter tells of the age of carbon, when dense forests covered the land, before getting buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil. Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again, dangerously.

The first stirrings of plants and animals on to land make for thrilling reading. We particularly love the tale of the plucky fish caught in tidal pools which began breathing the air and crawling around on land! How they eventually gave rise to the land mammals we call our own kin.

We discover pieces of our own story everyday, from humble origins as apes that stood up in Africa and spread out of that continent probably to escape a changing climate, and eventually occupied the entire planet.

Five times during the past billion years, this riveting story is interrupted by unspeakable horrors as some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start to evolve on a mostly empty planet.

The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one yet, driving more than 90% of species extinct, including many among the otherwise hardy insects. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals. We don’t quite know what caused the Permian mass extinction, but massive, perhaps sudden climate change may have a played a big role.

The asteroid that took out the big dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was a mere lump of rock drifting in orbit around the sun until it fell to Earth and wiped life’s slate almost clean for the fifth time. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Nor any notion that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs to become another force of mass extinction.

Now we find ourselves on yet another brink, where our own industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. Within the past century, we have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level last seen only in the wake of that asteroid. We have come so far, in building our diverse cultures and technologies, achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, which will doom us just as surely.

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that allows us to understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid?


What do we do with the aliens among us?

Over at the excellent The Nature of Cities blog, editor David Maddox is hosting the site’s 8th Global Roundtable, this time focusing on the challenge of invasive and exotic species in cities. David recently invited me (as one of the regular contributors to the blog) to take part in this roundtable with a brief essay stating my perspective. My essay was posted to the roundtable earlier this week, along with about a dozen other perspectives from urban ecology practitioners around the world. Please visit the forum site to read all the different views, and share your own by commenting in the discussion – I really hope you will do so. All of the authors are reading comments and participating in the discussion actively over the next few weeks. So I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, as promised, here is a somewhat expanded (or more rambling) version of my essay:


Aliens! Invasives! Species that don’t belong here and are taking over the ecological roles of native species. Those weeds choking the understory of native forests. The Starlings and House Sparrows pulled out of Shakespeare’s England that now so tragically dispossess native birds of their nest holes!

How can we tolerate these aliens among us? How fast can we get rid of them? Exterminate the aliens!

Pretty exotic flowers that make our suburban gardens so lovely. Grasses from halfway around the world that knit the dense mats of our lush lawns. Lovely succulent plants and delicately spined cactuses that dot our newly water-wise xeric landscapes and window ledges. Plants that flower and fruit out of their time and place, maybe year round.

Where can we get more of them so our gardens in Arizona look just like the ones in England or Singapore or Australia? So the corporate landscapes in Bangalore make the techs returning home from Silicon Valley feel like they never left California? Like the peacocks whose plaintive calls and stunning displays might make California feel more like Gujarat!

A Peacock in California

We humans sure do have a passionately ambivalent relationship with nature. Never more so than when it comes to the plants and animals we move around among our global habitats. The very words we use to describe them are so heavily laden with value judgment: invasive, alien, exotic. We move them around with us so we can evoke the landscapes of our childhoods halfway around the world, or recreate imagined ones from somewhere else entirely. We wage war on them when they refuse to stay in the gardens and pens where we put them, and start exploring new worlds on their own.

Humans are the most invasive species on Earth. Our cities, ecosystems we build and replicate around the world, are also focal points from which other species have invaded native habitats. Just as wanderlust defines our species, so does the biophilia which makes us take living elements of our habitats with us wherever we go. Carrying a suite of species as sources of food, comfort, companionship, and beauty, has always been part of our cultural and evolutionary baggage. Invasiveness is something evolution tends to reward, and our own evolutionary success springs from a certain restless invasiveness.

Ever since our ancestors realized they could control the lives of other plants and animals, so they could rely on them to feed the body and nurture the mind during lean times, humans have been moving species around the world. In scattering across the planet, we deliberately carried many such species to help fill our bellies, beautify our homes, and stave off homesickness in strange new lands. Meanwhile, other species latched on to our coattails, hitching rides around the world with this walking ape, this most efficient global form of transport and dispersal they had ever encountered! Wittingly and unwittingly, we set off evolutionary changes in species we want, species we tolerate, and species we hate, as they all became part of a human-ecosystem-complex we have set about replicating across the world. These places we call cities often serve as outposts from which many other species launch their invasions into surrounding native habitats. And so we end up with the dilemma of wanting to move some species with us to our new homes, but struggling to keep some of them from spreading out of our gardens and farms and taking over entire native ecosystems.

It is in the very nature of life to try to take control of its immediate environment, to transform resources to nurture itself, and to expand outwards to occupy and transform new places. Invasiveness, the ability to “invade” new habitats, is always favored by evolution. Natural selection rewards traits that allow species to grow rapidly, to outcompete other species vying for the same resources, or simply eat them as food. Moving to a completely new habitat, while quite risky, can also bring the benefits of escaping the co-evolved competitors and predators and parasites that might hold a species back in their native range.

So most species are always sending out their seeds and young ones into new habitats by whatever means available. Most often, these dispersals end in tragedy, but every once in a while, they open up vast unimagined new territory for the species, and new evolutionary opportunities to express and expand the range of their genetic potential. Humans, increasingly, provide some of the most perilous, exciting, and potentially high-risk/high-reward challenges to other species: if you can attach yourself to a human, and figure out how to survive in the strange new urban world, you stand a good chance of surviving in this Anthropocene, sometimes in places far from your evolutionary home.

We have spent millennia figuring out how to make some species grow where and when we want them. Meanwhile, other species have latched on to our coattails making the most of this new mode of hyper-efficient long-range dispersal: the hairless ape that travels the world, with baggage. Only recently have we realized the often devastating consequences of bringing exotic species into native habitats. Invasive species fuel some of the most intense debates among conservationists, often laden with hysterical rhetoric about alien, exotic, invaders who must be exterminated.

Invasiveness is in the nature of the most successful species. To know the truth of this, one need but look in the mirror. We are, after all, the most successful invasive species now occupying the planet! But our success has been the downfall of many other species, and we are only just now grappling with the consequences of our invasiveness. Yet the most passionate debates about what to do with invasive species, heavy with the metaphor of war and genocide and extermination, tends to somehow tiptoe around this elephant in the room: the fact that we humans are the ultimate invasive species on Earth, and are responsible for most other invasions that are destabilizing native ecosystems worldwide. Indeed, displaced species often form a big part of our own preferred global habitats.

Cities are where most humans now live, where we often first introduce new species, and whence some of these species launch invasions into new habitats. Indeed, cities themselves seem like invasive habitats proliferating in and destabilizing ecosystems around the world. Cities must therefore be central to our efforts to address the challenge of invasive species. Cities embody the contradiction between our desire to control nature, shaping entire ecosystems to suit our purposes, and our growing desire to conserve nature and biodiversity.

Urban gardens

How do we reconcile our innate desire to build habitats for our own biological and cultural needs with a growing awareness that perhaps we should leave nature alone? It must start with owning our central role in this ecological conundrum. It is time we accepted our responsibility, as the ultimate invasive species that has moved entire ecosystems around and built new ones. It requires us to transform our role beyond the dichotomy of active perpetrator / passive bystander in the drama of invasive species. We must embrace the role of more deliberate stewards of the lands we now dominate.

As more people recognize the problems of invasive species, many now seek ways to build native species friendly urban landscapes. Ecologists are good at understanding the effects of non-native species in native habitats, and in raising the alarm about invasive species. We haven’t done enough to actually transform the practices that contribute to the invasive species problem. Urban ecologists have been lax in engaging with one group who arguably wield the greatest influence on this challenge: gardeners, nurseries, and landscapers. The growing desire to make urban gardens native-friendly is constrained by lack of available species options in local nurseries, and of expertise in nurturing native species. Ecologists must fill this knowledge gap by developing better ways to support native species in urban habitats in partnership with the people who actively transform the landscape.

Forget “leave nature alone”; in cities we must become better ecosystem engineers, designing habitats more consciously to enhance native biodiversity while limiting opportunities for non-native species. We must also recognize that some non-native species have become naturalized to play important roles in their adoptive ecosystems, so simply eradicating them is not the ideal solution. People move and grow plants and animals to fulfill complex social, cultural, aesthetic, and emotional needs. We must develop a broader vision of biodiversity that includes both the ecological roles of species and their cultural resonance for people. Balancing these will be key to managing invasive species in and around urban landscapes.

Humans will continue to move species around, despite conservationists’ (and agriculturalists’) best efforts to limit the movement of exotic species into regions outside their native range. Some of these species can and do become invasive in their new habitats. As good gardeners in the city, we will therefore also have to keep a close eye on all the species in urban ecosystems to make sure they don’t escape and start threatening native habitats nearby. At the same time, it is also worth remembering the plight of the House Sparrow, that ultimate city slicker introduced around the world as part and parcel of the global urban template. Alarmingly, it has recently disappeared quite mysteriously from many of its native cities in Europe and Asia. If the species were to somehow go extinct in its native range, at least its emigre populations, like the House Sparrow diaspora in the Americas, may remain the only living populations of a threatened species! We therefore have to be careful even in our efforts to eradicate non-native species lest we destabilize ecosystems, or drive species to extinction in unexpected ways.

Leaving nature alone is not really a viable option in the social-ecological systems we call cities. Instead, our respect for nature, and our growing enthusiasm for enhancing native species diversity, must be tempered by Constant Vigilance (if I may borrow the wise Mad-Eye Moody’s words) when it comes to the interlopers from elsewhere.

Do exotic, invasive, aliens keep you up at night? Are they in your neighborhood?

Most of us live in cities now, which must seem like rather exotic, alien habitats to other denizens of our planet, full of strange creatures they’ve never encountered before. By which I mean not just us hairless apes, but many other species too, from distant corners of the Earth. For we also tend to fill our cities with plants and animals we like, even though they don’t come from the immediate neighborhood of the city.

Does this worry you, this proliferation of exotic species in urban landscapes? It should, especially when they become invasive. So what can we do about them? Over at The Nature of Cities (a wonderful blog to which I contribute from time to time) editor David Maddox is hosting a roundtable discussion on the topic of exotics in the city. I’m one of a dozen or so contributors to this particular roundtable, the 8th of a monthly series on the blog. We were all asked to submit short pieces (600 words) to address this month’s topic:

How much should we worry about exotic species in urban zones? How do we reduce damage from exotic invasives when management resources are limited?  Are there conflicts between management or eradication efforts and building general support for urban biodiversity?

So head on over there to read our brief essays, and then join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments. All of the authors will be participating actively in the roundtable discussion over the next few weeks, addressing each other’s posts and responding to readers’ comments. So I hope to see you there!

In drafting my own essay response, my thoughts on invasive species wandered farther afield (there’s invasiveness for you!) than David’s questions, and I had to rein them in to stick to the roundtable’s format and word limit. So now I’ve got this whole other rambling post on invasive species, which I might as well share here. So watch out for that to land here too, shortly…

On the curse of cursive handwriting in homework

Is it really such a terrible curse if people stop writing in cursive? Or is this just one more attempt to hold on to a declining element of a rapidly chaining culture, mere nostalgia for a fading way of life?

I’m inclined to think it is the latter, and am generally impatient with nostalgia, but I know Kaberi completely disagrees with me. Our daughters are split too in the middle of this cursed cursive war (which has been known to raise decibels, yes!) right in our home! The older one writes in cursive beautifully and loves it. It was the bane of the younger one’s existence throughout a painful 3rd grade last year.

Of course she also had a largely undiagnosed stomach pain that had her doubled over in agony on many a school day and night, forcing us to even withdraw her from school on medical grounds for a couple of months this past spring. She was eventually diagnosed with lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption, which only added to her misery as she has to learn to cut out her two most favorite sweet food groups from her diet: fruits and milk products! It is not easy for a 9yo to maintain dietary discipline, especially in a culture steeped in cheese and high-fructose corn syrup! 

Of course cursive didn’t give her her stomach ache – but it sure didn’t help to have 4 pages of cursive writing as part of her homework every week. And that was just a small part of a weekly homework packet that had us all stressing out at home. I’m not a fan of homework to begin with, especially in the younger grades. Having to force one’s child to do pages and pages of rote work she hated was agonizing for me. How could I add to her stress by insisting on cursive and timed arithmetic (the other bane of homework, but I’ll save that rant for another day) when it undoubtedly played a part in her stomach pain? And when she would rather be learning about dinosaurs or singing or learning to play an instrument, or play, or do anything but write cursive?

It didn’t help that her teacher took a more hardline approach to her homework, getting stressed out herself at our child’s inability to complete parts of her homework. It didn’t help when I told her that I didn’t particularly care about grades (this was 3rd grade, after all!) as I was more focused on her health. How could it help to add layers of guilt over incomplete arithmetic homework or poor motivation to learn cursive, of all things, when anyone could see the child was in agony (and not faking it as was initially implied by her teacher and others in her school – until we got a doctor’s letter indicating otherwise). It also didn’t help Kaberi who herself has been stressed out caught between the stern teacher and our daughter’s pain – especially because she herself believes in the power of cursive! And it definitely does not help that the child in question has a stubborn streak of defiance that matches the fire in her mother’s belly – and I’m called in to act as a buffer and have to coax her to do as much of that blessed homework as possible.

Kaberi writes in cursive quite well and believes it is a crucial part of education. I wouldn’t be surprised if she agrees wholeheartedly with the argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education article which set off this blog post. She learned to write in cursive in school, even though English was a foreign language to her, with the mother tongue Bangla being the main medium of instruction all the way into college. So maybe learning cursive was part of the package of learning a foreign language for her, and maybe she was naturally inclined to master the dexterity of pen everyone insists is such a massive benefit of cursive writing.

I, on the other hand, never learned to write cursive, even though I went to an English-medium school and have ended up with this foreign tongue as my main language practically since kindergarten. Somehow, I don’t remember cursive writing being such a big part of the curriculum there – although I may be mis-remembering. Perhaps I was allowed to get away with not learning cursive because I was such a high-scoring student in everything else. I can read cursive fine, and never felt that my inability to write in cursive has held me back in any way (but maybe that’s why I’m here and not in some more prestigious university?). I’m ready to go to bat for the younger child given how much the cursive homework adds to her already physically painful level of stress. Kaberi is convinced of the developmental benefits of cursive.

Back to the CHE article, I am baffled by the author picking on one student who doesn’t “do cursive” as an example of the failings of an entire generation and an indictment of a shift in the larger education system. I have not read much of the rationale used to drop cursive from the new Common Core, but am curious now to find out if it was driven by someone’s technocratic bias in favor of computer keyboard skills, or is grounded in some other cognitive/educational arguments. In any case, lamenting the decline of cursive because it makes it harder for some students to read historical documents does not strike me as a wrong argument for making cursive mandatory for all students. Historical research requires a variety of specialized skills which students of history must master – but not everybody is setting out to become a historian. After all people made similar arguments in favor of teaching Latin and Sanskrit, but society has not collapsed since we stopped making those mandatory in schools. Students of history continue to learn ancient foreign languages to decipher old manuscripts and letters, and will continue to do so with or without cursive writing being a mandatory part of the grade school curriculum, I dare say. 

I also have to call bullshit on the alleged neurological benefits of cursive inferred in this article. I don’t doubt that cursive writing strengthens certain neural circuits in the brain, possibly involving both fine motor skills and cognition. Any repetitive task is bound to induce some hard-wiring in the brain, some of which is no doubt useful for survival in a given civilization. But sweeping statements like this raise all kinds of red flags for me:

Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization.

Really? Sorry, but if you claim that something is crucial to such a wide range of things, I’d like to see a bit more evidence than this bold inference:

Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.

Writing was invented as a means of communication, and has been key to our success, no doubt, and no doubt learning to do it well has cognitive and social benefits. But don’t tell me that entire disciplines will disappear or civilization will collapse because some people cannot write in cursive. As for academic success, tell me: which profession has the reputation for the worst handwriting? And towards which profession do we encourage our most academically successful students? And in which profession could legible handwriting be considered literally a matter of life or death? The answer to all three: medicine! Doctors are allowed to have the worst handwriting on their prescriptions, ostensibly because having to learn so much doesn’t leave them time to hone their writing skills as well. So tell me again how lack of facility with cursive has held back the medical profession in this declining civilization?

I think our brains are far more flexible than many of us recognize, and it can develop and maintain wiring appropriate to a variety of tasks that are relevant to one’s life. Studies touting the cognitive benefits of handwriting being superior to keyboard use will, I suspect, be replaced by future studies that find similar benefits to other, perhaps not yet invented ways of inputting text. As I’m sure nostalgists of previous generations would have claimed similar scientific support for teaching their favorite neuromotor skills had neurologists been available to conduct similar studies in the past.

Isn’t there also often a not-so-faint whiff of cultural and linguistic elitism in this argument for cursive? At a time when more first-generation and low-income students than ever are being encouraged to get into higher education, is cursive writing the skill we want to emphasize so much? Isn’t cursive elitism just a bit reminiscent of the elitism of other cultural skills to which are ascribed all kinds of unfounded cognitive and neurological benefits, like classical music and that Baby Mozart effect? Besides, as a friend just pointed out on Facebook, cursive writing (especially as lamented by the author of the CHE article) is rather tied to English and related languages sharing this alphabet, is it not? Of course, other languages too have their own traditions of elegant handwriting and calligraphy – but they are often treated as special skills for the artistically inclined; not required skills without which someone’s entire cognitive and social development would be stalled! 

All that said, I say more power to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Illinois for starting a “Camp Cursive”, and may they help preserve this precious skill. And good on them for encouraging children to come up with creative Shakespearean curses to write in cursive! But pardon me if I do a quiet dance if the cursive requirement disappears from my daughter’s homework in the coming year under the new Common Core curriculum. Then again, maybe I am the one who is already cognitively impaired from never having learned cursive and therefore fail to see something apparently obvious to others on this issue.

The contours of her sari

Dusk, Pacific OceanThis essay by Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker, on being unmothered, has brought me to my brink this morning, It is Mother’s Day in America. That ultimate of Hallmark Holidays, something I scoffed at more than celebrated in my cynicism—shouldn’t every day be Mother’s Day, I’d ask—until recent years when my own daughters co-opted my help in doing something for their mother.

My own mother seldom got a phone call from me on this day. Aai had brought up me and my sisters in an India before the modern age when the American Hallmark Holidays had spread throughout the world. Then she had lost me to America two decades ago, save for increasingly infrequent visits. Until that dreaded phone call over two years ago. I barely made it to her hospital bedside as Agni took her. She had merely been trying to do her two favorite things, have a cup of tea and watch cricket. I wrote those words, shared those two posts, in the immediate grief, and a few other things in private. Her passing brought me closer still to my older sister Vaijoo, who had become almost like a mother to Aai in her final days.

Last year, Vaijoo had a serious encounter with the emperor of all maladies, when she had metastatic breast cancer. I happened to be in India, fortunately(?), and was able to be with her children while she underwent weeks of intense barrage from chemicals and radiation, which seems to have knocked the cancer out of her system, fingers crossed. I imagine her son and daughter are celebrating this Mother’s Day with a greater sense of relief this year, and my own cynicism towards this holiday has softened.

My wife Kaberi lost her mother almost four years ago. Another dread phone call in the anguished night of our diasporic lives. An unmothering that came before my own mother passed. These are the years when intimations of mortality, of the fragility of life (and our aging bodies), seem to be everywhere, sharpening the joys of celebrating life more than ever.

Ruth Margalit’s essay, the first thing I read this morning, reminded me of my own mother, especially with these words at the end:

Like a last rain, my mother left behind an earthy scent that lingered long after she was gone. Like a last rain, for a fleeting moment, everything she touched seemed to glow.

Here’s a poem I wrote when the grief was still raw, but haven’t shared with too many people yet. As one of the many unmothered, allow me to share it on this Mother’s Day. Peace.


The contours of her sari
(7 February 2012, in Mumbai)

The contours of her sari
were burned in her flesh
leaving behind but a small
patch of bare skin,
smooth, pale, familiar.
She must have nestled me
against that smooth bare skin
after birthing me into this world,
out of that very same belly.
That first touch of skin,
I don’t quite remember.

I do remember later, often,
rushing into her arms, seeking
comfort, commiseration, joy
after some injury or victory,
wrapping my little arms
around her open waist
burying my face into,
inhaling the scent of,
falling asleep against,
that familiar home-stretch
of smooth bare skin
left uncovered, on purpose
by the contours of her sari.

Naked primates we are born
seeking contact with bare skin.
Yet as “civilized” humans
we cover up, routinely,
our largest sense organ,
out of modesty, or seduction,
making that touch of skin
even rarer, more precious.
It was the one part of her
skin, other than on her
face and arms, that was
always available to me,
that smooth-skinned midriff,
left bare on purpose
by even the most demure
of Indian women, un/wrapped
by the contours of her sari.

Later still, in my adolescence
that bare midriff skin drifted away
to more-than-arm’s-length,
for we weren’t a touchy-feely
hugging kind of family.
I would steal glances, drawn in
by the allure of bare smooth belly
and the promises hidden
behind the folds of the saris
of the mysterious women
all around me, out of reach.
Once familiar source of comfort
now turned object of fantasy.
Keeping me forever in orbit
around that smooth patch of skin
left uncovered, on purpose,
by the contours of the sari.

Most of her skin has burned
and peeled off, they said,
as I flew back from
a more distant orbit,
remembering, yet trying not
to think of that smooth skin.
My bleary eyes wide open
unable to bear the sight
of the rest of her body,
kept zeroing in, drawn
magnetically, to a square
foot of skin on her belly
left untouched, still smooth,
still uncovered, just as I
remembered. The fire
having raged all around it,
even scorching face, arms,
fingers, had left that belly
untouched, as if on purpose.

Now that is all I want
to remember, that bare
smooth, pale, familiar
patch of skin I first touched
ages ago, but they haunt me:
the contours of her sari
burned into her flesh.

80 years on a troubled planet of the apes, and still full of hope… Happy Birthday Jane Goodall!

That was Jane Goodall two evenings ago, introducing herself to an audience of c.2600 people in Bakersfield, California. Just one of the hundreds of stops she makes as she travels around the world, almost 300 days a year, speaking on behalf of her beloved Chimpanzees and the rest of Nature, and spreading her message of hope to new generations of young people, the roots and shoots that might help humanity grow out of its Anthropocene predicament.

Today, Jane Goodall turned 80. A long life made longer by the tremendous impact she has had on so many of us fortunate enough to be alive on this astonishing planet with her. An impact that will surely outlast her, and most of us, as she continues to inspire children all over the world to take care of this planet because we adults have really made quite a mess of things, and left it all for them to clean up.

My daughters have grown up referring to Goodall as Jane-didu, Grandma Jane, practically all their lives. Ever since our eldest automatically referred to her as didu upon first seeing a film about her, a film that continues to mesmerize them years later. They finally got to see her in person this week, along with several friends from Fresno. And to sing her happy birthday in a stadium full of several thousand people in the middle of the oil-town of Bakersfield.

I missed out on this trip, alas, but have been reflecting on the impact this one person, a most remarkable person, has had on so many of our lives, becoming almost a part of our family without ever meeting us or ever knowing anything about us. Such is the inspirational power of Jane Goodall, who shows more energy and enthusiasm at 80, than most of us lose by the time we are even 40.

At the recent ScienceOnline 2014 unconference, I was part of an emotional session (#sciohope, storified here) on how ecologists and environmental activists (and science communicators more broadly) can avoid burnout in the face of so much bad news we get every day, about climate change, extinctions, and a whole litany of environmental ills. I daresay the average age of the anguished participants in that conversation was less than half of Jane Goodall’s age today. She has likely seen far worse things than many young activists today, experience deeper grief from losses of chimpanzees she knew personally, and of their habitats. Yet here she is, 80 years young, no sign of burnout, in fact burning brighter than ever as a beacon of hope for all of us. Today, I can think of one good answer to the question asked in the #sciohope session: Where do we find hope and optimism and the energy to avoid burnout and keep going? Simple: follow Jane Goodall.

Here she is, in a fascinating, inspirational conversation with Sylvia Earle:

Happy birthday, Jane Goodall!

Are you a welfare queen or an entitlement corp? A #GlobalPOV video

I just discovered The #GlobapPOV Project from Berkeley’s Blum Center through this video which raises (and answers) the above question (via Ikoe Hiroe on Facebook). It presents a brilliantly visualized analysis, by Ananya Roy, of global poverty, welfare, and entitlement schemes, starting with the US and broadening the POV to countries in the Global South which are also grappling with these issues and coming up with new solutions.


And watch again. And think. And share…

Misplaced compassion and animal welfare – a guest post on the enormous free-ranging dog problem in India

The following is a guest post by Abi Tamim Vanak, Ph.D. Fellow, National Environmental Sciences Program, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, and Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. Dr. Vanak’s research focus is on the conservation of mammalian carnivores. His work addresses the huge population of free-ranging dogs in India and the challenge they pose to wildlife conservation. Here he challenges misplaced notions of compassion championed by animal lovers that can perpetuate and amplify the problem.

A pack of free-ranging dogs in Kashmir, where their numbers have doubled since culling stopped in 2008. Photo by Abid Bhat, via

Young Maitreyi Sundar, a class VIII student living in Chennai, wrote a heartfelt letter, published in the Pet Pals section of The Hindu (26 Nov 2013), about the demise of her beloved dog Bambi that was unfortunately run over by a “monstrous large car”. This was clearly not an isolated incident. Everyday, hundreds of such dogs, some beloved, some less fortunate, meet a similar fate or are left painfully and permanently disabled. Who is to blame for this? Surely it cannot be the cars whose right it is to use these roads. Remember, roads after all are made for vehicles of transport and every automobile owner pays a road tax. Indeed, the flip side of this coin, are the hundreds of accidents, sometimes even fatal, that motorists and two-wheeler riders suffer while trying to avoid dogs.

Thus the onus to keep street dogs out of harm’s way lies squarely with the people who befriend them. Millions of dog lovers across India are highly responsible and nurturing of their pets. They treat their dogs as family members and provide them with regular healthcare, take them for regular walks, but do so on a leash, because they are mindful of the dangers that roads pose. However, millions more still, would rather take the easy way out and enjoy the supposed guarding benefits of street dogs, without owning up to any responsibility of maintaining and housing them. Instead, they pretend to be compassionate, and gain “punya” by feeding street dogs, rather than the actual responsibility of keeping a pet. This, combined with various other factors such as poor sanitation and garbage management, is why India has a free-ranging dog population of more than 58 million (Source: M. E. Gompper 2013, Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation, OUP).

Is this then the lot of Man’s best friend? To forever beg for the odd scraps of food from well-meaning but irresponsible residents, suffer from easily preventable diseases, become the targets of anger and stones of those who are less tolerant, while dodging the inevitable brush with death on the roads?  On the other hand, dogs are not a benign neutral presence.

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A man feeding dogs in the street. Click on image for original photo.

India still has the highest incidence of rabies in the world, and an estimated 20 million people are bitten by dogs annually. Going by recent surveys in rural areas, this is still a massive underestimate.

The public outcry following a dog attack on a child (often from a lower economic stratum) is quickly lost in the even louder outcry against catching dogs (usually from those who are economically well off). Thus it seems that a silent vast majority continues to suffer the detrimental affects, because of a highly vocal minority who champion the cause of street dogs.

Indeed, these negative effects are not limited to humans alone. More and more evidence is gathering that free-ranging dogs can be very detrimental to wildlife and endangered species, not just as predators, but also as reservoirs of disease causing pathogens.

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Free-ranging dogs chasing a Wild Ass in its sanctuary. Click on image for original photo.

Animal lovers and animal welfare activists often quote Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line about the greatness of a nation judged on how it treats its animals. Perhaps it’s time to turn his comment around. By keeping and perpetuating dogs on streets, are we showing true compassion, or instead, are we simply assuaging our own sense of guilt by throwing a few scraps of leftover food? What does it say about people who insist that their beloved friends are left to fend for themselves on the streets?

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A dog ranging freely in the wilds of Rajasthan. Click on image for original photo.

Few people know that in fact Gandhiji was strongly in favour of ridding streets of dogs. Writing in his weekly, “Young India”, he said  “…it should be a sin to feed stray dogs and we should save numerous dogs if we had legislation making every stray dog liable to be shot. Even if those who feed stray dogs consented to pay a penalty for their misdirected compassion we should be free from the curse of stray dogs.

He then went on to say “I am therefore strongly of the opinion that if we practice the religion of humanity we should have a law making it obligatory on those who would have dogs to keep them under guard and not allow them to stray and making all stray dogs to be liable to be destroyed after a certain date.”

It seems quite ironic then, that animal welfare organisations, many founded in western countries and funded generously by international donor organisations, continue to propagate massive falsehoods about free-ranging dog control. Countries such as England and Japan, have almost no street-dogs. This was achieved through massive and sustained culling campaigns in the early and mid 20th century. However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.

Recent studies have shown that to achieve a 70% reduction in population size over a 13-18 year period, it is necessary to sterilize 90% of the dog population. Less than 40% sterilization coverage will only maintain populations at current levels. In India, there is very little systematic and robust research to even determine the levels of sterilization coverage. Rough estimates based on reports suggest between <5% to 40% coverage, with only one properly documented case of up to 86.5% in Jodhpur.

If we want our streets to be free of dogs (which not everyone agrees with), then clearly what is required is a multi-pronged approach. This should start with (as Gandhiji suggested) a strict regulation on dog ownership, a penalty on allowing owned dogs to range freely, capture and confinement of free-ranging dogs, strict penalties for feeding dogs in public spaces, and finally, a concerted and sustained campaign that includes education, responsible pet ownership, trap and neuter and humane euthanasia where necessary, especially in critical wildlife habitats. Our best friends don’t just need our compassion, they also need a good home.

The street is no place for a dog.

“It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works!” – Neil deGrasse Tyson brings Science to CNN and Colbert Nation

I don’t want to turn this blog into a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan site, but its hard not to share when he is so damned articulate about issues that concern me deeply, about the unnecessary yet ever-present culture war in America that is depriving generations of the beauty and wisdom that a scientific perspective can bring. Nobody explains this more clearly than Tyson, and in ways that should be understandable even to reasonable religious folks. I’m with him when he says that he doesn’t care what you believe—I keep telling my students the same thing—because you have the freedom to believe whatever you want in this country. But you must recognize also that your belief is not going to affect the reality that science allows us to perceive and understand. That reality, and the science of understanding it, “it’s true whether or not you believe in it!” Indeed.

So here are a few more clips from Tyson’s appearance on the telly this week, in the wake of his new fame as the host of the rebooted Cosmos. First, an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources where he challenged the journalistic notion of “balance” which can be quite false and unbalanced when it comes to presenting science in the mainstream media.

And then he made his 10th appearance on The Colbert Report (presumably walking right over from his CNN gig because he’s wearing the same outfit!):–1–2