Nature Blog Network Future Earth: February 2009

Friday, 20 February 2009

Travis - ty

"Police said they had no idea why Travis attacked the woman as she got out of her car to visit Ms Herold".

Didn't they? Didn't they? A beating heart, a big brain and 15 years of frustration is why. All boiling up within a body battered by the years of munchies and medications administered by his American owner. It says something for his tolerance that he waited so long. As Franz de Waal, author of "Chimpanzee Politics" explains, this is normal behaviour expressed in an abnormal situation. Chimps, even overweight ones, also have twice the muscle density of humans - which means they are not bouyant enough to swim, but will always beat a human in unarmed combat, even muscle-bound wrestlers.

Fortunately, out of this sad, sad tale might come some sense. Legislators are marshalling their arguments to prevent people keeping "dangerous exotic pets" in U.S. States. All aimed at protecting humans - will it also protect voice-less sentient beings like the Great Apes from stupid, dangerous humans too?

R.I.P Travis.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Haiku for Darwin

a wrinkled forehead
crystal clear criteria
unentangled thought

Friday, 13 February 2009

To compete or to cooperate? That is the question.

The "Environment on the Edge" lecture on February 12th 2009 was packed to the gunnels. Professor Lord Robert May started slowly, taking the audience at New Hall College (now renamed Murray Edwards - today as ever, philanthropy underpins research and education) back into the relaxed lifestyle of the Victorian gentleman scientist. Digressing delightfully and digging around into the personal stories under the banner of "Darwin in his Day and in ours" Lord May gradually brought us round to our modern dilemmas as a human race. In a nutshell, now that we have so successfully dislocated ourselves from natural, resource-driven selection, what is to our selective advantage in the face of the dramatic challenges looming on this planet?

The answer, that resonated around the assembled company in interrogative questioning, was cooperation. Cooperation at a scale that we have not yet demonstrated, even in multi-lateral negotiations and certainly not in the United Nations. Social science, psychology, societal choice in training our youngsters for cooperative traits rather than increasing competitiveness, use of game theory to find the right mechanisms, use of modern communications to rustle up support... and so on. Can we do it? Cooperation requires accepting a compromise, something is traded. Two contexts allow cooperation to occur readily - apparent equity, and not very high stakes. Sadly (and fatally?), neither of these apply to climate mitigation negotiations. Sorry Darwin, not much to smile about on your birthday.

But we humans remain innovative and full of fun. During the lecture and subsequent dinner Cambridge was blanketed with a surprise snowfall (snow is always a surprise in Britain, especially to motorists) and I returned home to find my biologist son had constructed his own monument to the great man...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Darwin inspired - Henslow and the Cambridge Botanic Garden

In the peaceful surroundings of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, a small coniferous sapling (Pinus nigra) luxuriates in the hopeful winter sunlight after days of frost and snow. Visitors strolling along under the majestic branching canopy created by its older relatives bend down to peer at the plaque and realise that this young plant commemorates the achingly early death of Kate Stokes, a young natural scientist and explorer who worked with Fauna & Flora International and the Conservation Leadership Programme.

They might then turn their eyes to the spreading limbs of the older Pinus varieties around them. They might take note of the garden's "Discover Darwin" exhibits commemorating that earlier natural scientist and explorer whose birth 200 years ago we are celebrating today. Combining the two, they could learn that these very trees could claim to have inspired the thinking that led to Darwin's life's work. How so?

Well, firstly, as you can learn from the Botanic Gardens web site ... "
the range of variants of Pinus nigra from across its range in Europe was planted along the main avenue by Professor J S Henslow, Darwin's mentor, in 1846 to demonstrate variation within a single species. It was this revolutionary theory that Darwin explored in depth by Darwin in Origin of the Species, published in 1859."

Secondly, it is possible that, but for John Henslow's recommendation, Darwin might never have set foot on the Beagle at all. Henslow wrote to Darwin in 1831...

"I have been asked by recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the southern extremity of America. I have stated that I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing & noting anything worthy to be noted in Natural History."

So, to all those other "unfinished" naturalists in the blogosphere or electronically connecting with your communities of interest..... get along to your local Botanic gardens, park, woodland, entangled bank or otherwise to observe, think, draw, comment, experiment ... and enjoy. Happy birthday Charles.

Darwin Made Easy - Edward Bibbins Aveling

My case, dear reader, is that the work of Edward Bibbins Aveling was the 19th Century equivalent of this 2009 blogswarm. The man was a natural scientist, prolific writer and journalist, whose outpourings were presciently titled like crammer's guides of the 21st Century ...."The Student's Darwin", "Science and Religion", "Science and Secularism", "Charles Darwin and Karl Marx - a comparison", intruigingly "The Woman Question" and the one being tenderly cradled here by a modern-day beagle.... "Darwin Made Easy" (Published in London by the Progressive Publishing Company in 1889).

Having spent some time with Aveling's descendents (in whom the natural science genes still persist), I had heard that Edward Bibbins was a cad and a bounder, who had bigamously married Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor then entered into a suicide pact with her, without keeping his part of the bargain. Marx archive and English Heritage references tell of their "common law" marriage and of some suspicion surrounding Dr.Aveling about the circumstances of Eleanor's death.

Be that as it may, Edward Bibbins Aveling certainly helped a multitude of students and others gain access to Charles Darwin's great work. The first of three sections in "Darwin Made Easy" is devoted to "The Darwinian Theory", with Chapters on "Its Meaning", "Its Difficulties" and "Its Evidence". On the 200th Anniversary of Darwin's birth, I close with mention of his death, and Aveling's closing words on Darwin's legacy:

"...and as I end, have but to remind my readers that in every country but England the Darwinian hypothesis has passed into the region of accepted truths; that by the scientific men of England it is regarded as in that fortunate position; that nations sorrowed at his death as at that of their own citizens; that Du Bois Raymond could call him when dead "the Copernicus of the organic world"; that Huxley wrote of him "He found a great truth trodden under foot, reviled by bigots, and ridiculed by all the world; he lived long enough to see it, chiefly by his own efforts, irrefragably established in science, inseparably incorporated with the common thoughts of men, and only hated and feared by those who would revile, but dare not". What a gap is made in the world by the death of this man! Every nation has lost a citizen - a citizen that has done true work and has deserved well of the Republic.

He leaves behind him a vast and ever-increasing army of scientific children. All the young thought of the day is with him. The duty, the joy of these, and of us who are of them, will be to work out yet further the noble ideas received by us from him, and in some measure to endeavour by our numbers, our devotiion to truth, our enthusiasm, to atone for the irreparable loss the world has sustained in his death."

Purple prose indeed - but Edward Bibbins might be intrigued to know that the young thought of this day, 12th February 2009, in celebration of Darwin 200 years after his birth, is doing exactly that - even through the medium of his own great, great nephews.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Darwin and Dave

Would Charles Darwin have been surprised by the interest and activities marking his 200th birthday? Surely so - an introspective and thoughtful man might hope that his theories would persist but assume that the theorist would fade into the background.

Knowing the impact of his work on creationist adherents, he might not be surprised that his conclusions would continue to attract criticism from that same corner, a century and a half after publication of the Origin of Species. He might have expected the creationist arguments themselves to have evolved, but they have only changed dispersal mechanisms and turned up the volume. So it was a genuine pleasure in Attenborough's "Darwin and the Tree of Life" on the BBC to see Sir Dave tackle this head on, pick apart the arguments and present the separate pieces of evidence so clearly.

So in the countdown to Darwin's 200 on February 12th (watch out for the blog swarm for Darwin 12-15 Feb), I'm celebrating our favourite octogenarian as well.