Well worth your 55 minutes to listen to this wide ranging interview from last week about "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment", the overrated "meme", cultural evolution, redesigning cities around people rather than cars, and, of course, aiming for a world with fewer people!
Monday, June 30, 2008
Thursday, June 26, 2008
...arrived in Darwin's post 150 years ago last week. It is remarkable to think about this kind of potent correspondence in this age of instant messaging, isn't it? Here's how the story begins:
In early 1858, on Ternate in Malaysia, a young specimen collector was tracking the island's elusive birds of paradise when he was struck by malaria. 'Every day, during the cold and succeeding hot fits, I had to lie down during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting me,' he later recalled.
Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth's age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered?
Then the fever subsided - and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June, 1858 - 150 years ago last week - at Darwin's estate in Downe, in Kent.
Darwin, in his own words, was 'smashed'. For two decades he had been working on the same idea and now someone else might get the credit for what was later to be described, by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, as 'the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science' or in the words of Richard Dawkins, 'the most important idea to occur to a human mind.' In anguish Darwin wrote to his friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. What followed has become the stuff of scientific legend.[From How Darwin won the evolution race | Science | The Observer]
Go read the rest to kick off the celebrations for the sesquicentennial anniversary of this momentous event in human history. And while online, check out the original essay in the letter from Wallace which set things in motion, available via the Alfred Russel Wallace Page. You can also download a pdf version of the essay as part of a volume of Wallace's writings courtesy Google. The joint paper from Darwin and Wallace presented to the Royal Society is, of course, available in its entirety, with some added commentary, via Darwin Online.
Meanwhile, Bora has issued call for submissions to a new monthly blog carnival The Giant's Shoulders focusing on classic papers. The first edition is scheduled for July 16, a day after my own debut as blog carnival host for Oekologie, the current edition of which is still delayed - so if you have anything to contribute there, please send them to me!
Monday, June 23, 2008
The rich and powerful have always tried to monopolize access to whatever resources they wanted and could buy, including most natural resources. That is why many National Parks in India, for instance, started out as hunting preserves for local maharajas or their British buddies - that famous world heritage wetland site of Keoladeo in Bharatpur is but one example - and I'm sure the rulers and owners of these preserves did everything they could in those days to keep ordinary riffraff like us out! And perhaps that is partly why national parks face resistance in India these days too - they are perceived as exclusive reserves set aside to keep the poor people out - even when they are, in principle, publicly owned in our democracy. I don't want to get into that whole debate here, but this essay by Barbara Ehrenreich has certainly got me thinking about who controls access to nature, and the pros and cons thereof. Some excerpts:
Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in effect since sometime in the 1990s: if a place is truly beautiful, you can't afford to be there. All right, I'm sure there are still exceptions -- a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they're going fast.
Of all the crimes of the rich, the aesthetic deprivation of the rest of us may seem to be the merest misdemeanor. Many of them owe their wealth to the usual tricks: squeezing their employees, overcharging their customers and polluting any land they're not going to need for their third or fourth homes. Once they've made (or inherited) their fortunes, the rich can bid up the price of goods that ordinary people also need -- housing, for example. Gentrification is dispersing the urban poor into overcrowded suburban ranch houses, while billionaires' horse farms displace rural Americans into trailer homes. Similarly, the rich can easily fork over annual tuitions of $50,000 and up, which has helped make college education a privilege of the upper classes.
If Edward O. Wilson is right about "biophilia" -- an innate human need to interact with nature -- there may even be serious mental health consequences to letting the rich hog all the good scenery. I know that if I don't get to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons and mountains piercing the sky for at least a week or two of the year, chronic, cumulative claustrophobia sets in. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the need for scenery is hard-wired into us. "People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they can not be seen themselves," she told Harvard Magazine last year. "That's a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey." We also like to be able to see water (for drinking), low-canopy trees (for shade) and animals (whose presence signals that a place is habitable).
The whole essay is really well worth the read if you care about environmental equity and justice. And it makes me wonder, even as i write this, about the origin of the National Park system in the US. Some of us often lament (as you may know if you've taken my reconciliation ecology class) the way the National Park concept (which is based on defining "nature" and "wilderness" as something apart from human, and is therefore exclusionary by definition), has alienated many local peoples from the forests and wildlands they inhabited, fueling many an intractable conflict. But Ehrenreich, in highlighting how many beautiful natural areas are now lost to the public in private reserves, reminds me that the crucial difference with national parks as they were originally established in the US is that they were protected as public goods! And as such, they have remained places where anyone can afford to enjoy nature, for aesthetic fulfillment if not for resource extraction, even today. I'm not sure that is necessarily the case in all parts of the world, esp. where elite (and often foreigner) eco-tourism puts such aesthetic enjoyment out of reach of many lower-middle-class or poorer people, not to mention those living around the parks.
So how will the poor have any access to the aesthetic pleasures of nature in the current economic climate where the god of privatization rules? And does it matter if nature is carved up into private reserves for the enjoyment of the rich, as long as biodiversity is thereby protected? Shouldn't we let the free market decide whose biophilia may be satisfied? And shouldn't conservation biologists be happy as long as the rich can be persuaded to protect as much biodiversity as possible? Even if most biodiversity ends up in the hands of a tiny few in this increasingly income-polarized world? Or is there a real long-term cost to having generations of kids grow up nature-impoverished - whether in the inner city or the rural wasteland - and therefore unable to appreciate or value nature and biodiversity at all?
Sunday, June 22, 2008
71 years he lived, most of them making us laugh, laugh at ourselves, always puncturing our self-important egos, bringing us down to earth... and now he's passed on into the big electron! Well, I dunno about the planet, but some of us assholes will surely miss ya, George!
Here's a special event happening on campus this Monday evening:
Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics
Special Guest Speaker Dr. Goparaju Vijayam to speak at the California State University, Fresno on Monday, June 23rd at 7PM.
The Atheist Centre is a social change institute founded in 1940 in Southern India. It's mission includes many different activities all directed toward a positive social change through the use of secular social work and the promotion of Positive Atheism as a way of life.
The founders of the Atheist Centre were associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the nationalist movement, so the Centre's directive of positive social change is a core principle.
Dr. Vijayam will be speaking about the work of the Atheist Centre, including it's efforts against India's culture of "Untouchability" and the caste system. The Centre works for casteless marriage, and promoting intercaste dialog and interaction - it has been at the forefront of this area since the Centre was founded.
Other Centre programs will also be addressed by Dr. Vijayam, including the Centre's work against superstition in India. The Centre combats pseudoscience by promoting rational thinking to the general public. In this way it combats self-described "god-men" and miracle workers who prey on the gullible, and it fights against those who would accuse others of witchcraft or sorcery.
This is a rare opportunity for the Secular people of the Central Valley to meet with such a fascinating person. There will be time to ask questions and perhaps even discuss a little of Dr. Vijayam's work.
Dr. Vijayam Lecture
Date: Monday, June 23rd, 2008
Time: 7PM - 9PM
Before the lecture, CVAAS will treat Dr. Vijayam to dinner at the North India Bar & Grill, located at 80 West Shaw Ave. between Villa and Minnewawa in Clovis. (see google map). We will arrive at 5:00 for dinner. Anyone who would like to attend for friendly conversation is welcome.
If you have questions or comments, you can email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the CVAAS telephone at (559) 892-0102
www.cvaas.org[From CVAAS Special Event | CVAAS]
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Two stories (with video) about India to round out your weekend: First, the PBS weekly newsmagazine Now joined the India Rising parade with another story of India's economic growth, focusing on the growing middle class and what it might mean for the world.
I don't know if it is just me (it very well might be), but the program struck some rather dissonant chords.
On the one hand, there was the typical economic boosterism which fairly dominated the whole documentary, as exemplified by the main interview subjects: Gurcharan Das and Robyn Meredith. While I haven't read the books Das and Meredith have written (they seem to be somewhat more sensible than the NYT's Flatworlder), they are certainly boosters of India Rising (which, incidentally, was a slogan the Indian govt. was using to promote the country several years ago - and perhaps still is).
At the same time, the PBS guys were trying to raise two other concerns that might give the boosters some pause: the global economic impact of the growing Indian consumerist middle-class, especially on energy and commodity prices, and what that means for the US; and, the environmental impact of these same growing consumer demands from a middle class population that is already (by some estimates) larger than the entire US population. But somehow, they didn't make much headway with these arguments, which were brushed aside by most of the interviewees (including the two mentioned above).
- Economic fears: oh well, what's there to fear? The rising tide will surely carry everyone up, and even benefit the US economy for the consumer goods have to come from somewhere, right? Or, you should worry, and better start treating India like the superpower it wants to be! And yes, energy prices are a worry, but... isn't it great how many Indians can now wander around in huge malls (bigger than the ones in America) and buy all these cool gadgets?
- Environment: well, that didn't really get addressed much at all, even though the companion website talks about environmental issues. And when it did come up, Das said something that would make Julian Simon proud - basically something like "oh, don't worry, we'll surely find some solutions".
I can sort of understand why the questioning kept bringing things back to "what does this mean for the US?", given the show comes from US public broadcasting and it is too much expect PBS to ever get as broad a perspective as the BBC, which has been covering the India Rising story for some years now at much greater length and depth. Nevertheless, the whole documentary left me thinking they had a lot more story that didn't get told, with all the hints about global warming, the environment, and David Brancaccio's upcoming trek/pilgrimage to the source of the Ganga! I hope they do give us more, although the promo for next week at the end of this episode suggested they were moving on to another topic. Will the relegate even the Himalayan glaciers melting story to Brancaccio's blog only? I hope not.
And after all that show of growing wealth, booming economy, and bustling malls, I'm left wondering once again: why can't we save those tigers (the real stripy ones, not the economic metaphors) and the rest of India's biodiversity while improving the lives of ordinary Indians? Why must India only aspire to tread in the same old environmentally destructive paths of superpowers like the US, rather than blazing a new enlightened trail where human well-being is reconciled with environmental well-being, so that the whole planet is a better place for everybody? Aren't there people in India exploring such alternative pathways? Why didn't Now choose to highlight some of those efforts and people engaged in them, instead of the same old mainstream economic growth bandwagon?
Meanwhile, the previous night, there was another, funnier, rising for India in the US cultural zeitgeist, for Hinduism got the Colbert Bump! Although, if you go by what the nice old Indian lady told him, there is no conversion to Hinduism, so what exactly will bump up? Hmmm... what do you think? In any case, you get a fairly accurate if very very abbreviated gist of Hinduism - enjoy:
Friday, June 20, 2008
A different take on the recent series of TV ads launched by the Al Gore led We Can Solve It campaign to address global warming. While this is funny, is it any less ironic than the ad it is meant to parody?! Are minds changed when confronted with such multiple levels of irony in this post-ironic world? Or is the only way to get through these days is to take direct aim at some sort of cultural cognitive dissonance?
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I was underwhelmed by the Colbert interview, and that is mostly to do with the format of that particular show, and its the very short duration. Miller was good but seemed to rush through a number of things, so I don't know how regular viewers kept up. I recommend listening to the radio interview for a much better discussion. I'm not sure what to make of his comparing the ID/creationists to welfare moms - although it did allow Colbert the opportunity to claim victory! But why bring in the whole economic-conservative image of moms (driving cadillacs) living the high life on govt. handouts? Is this a way to "frame" the issue so that it resonates with conservatives? He made a similar comparison on the radio as well, but the argument seemed more fleshed out there (or at least less abrasive to a liberal like me). Likewise, comparing science to a free-market of ideas where ID has failed to compete, and directly appealing to Colbert's anti-government persona. I wonder if that actually works in convincing anyone on the right... but who better than Ken Miller to "frame" evolution to make it palatable to religious people?
Comparing the two interviews is a good illustration also of how much can go missing when one is forced to condense things for the typical sound-bite demands of TV, especially when faced with a loud talking-head host! And this wasn't even one of those right-wing blowhards on Fox News! If the medium is challenging even for someone as articulate and media-savvy as Ken Miller (winner of the Peabody), what hope do the rest of us scientists have of getting the word out in the mainstream media?
And one more annoyance last night was that the interview seemed unnecessarily short, for Colbert evidently had another 3 minutes available (following Miller), which he padded with REM performing "Hollow Man" - not live, but from their appearance on the show some months ago!! I'm mystified as to why they would do that, when other guests have been on (I think) for longer chats!
Friday, June 13, 2008
Here's something to look forward to on the radio today: evolutionary biologist (and devout Christian) Ken Miller will be interviewed on Science Friday, where we may also hear about his new book: Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. If you manage to catch the live broadcast on your local NPR affiliate station or on the intertubes, you might even be able to ask him question! In any case, this should be an interesting conversation, which I hope to catch on my drive back from a field trip tomorrow morning:
Only a Theory (broadcast Friday, June 13th, 2008)
Once, there was the battle over whether the concept of evolution should be taught in public schools at all -- a fight remembered for the trial of high school teacher John Scopes in 1925. More recently, the terms of the debate shifted to whether the idea of 'intelligent design' needed to be taught alongside the scientific theory of evolution in the classroom. Now, the terms are shifting again. This summer, the Texas Board of Education is expected to consider whether biology classes should be required to include a discussion of the "strengths and weaknesses" evolutionary theory -- wording that proponents of teaching evolution say is code for creationist ideas. It's a significant question, as the curriculum and textbook-buying decisions of the state of Texas often end up affecting the books offered by publishers. In this segment, guest host Joe Palca talks with biology professor and textbook author Kenneth Miller about the fight to keep creationism out of public school science class. Teachers, find more information about using Science Friday as a classroom resource in the Kids' Connection.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Perhaps this is a day to continue procrastinating and thinking haphazardly about the human mind! Right after I had whiled away the past several hours reading some brilliant essays from the two procrastination experts on the NPR show today — John Perry and Tim Pychyl — I happened across the following fascinating interview on Onegoodmove (thanks Norm):
Needless to say, Gary Marcus' book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind is on my wish list now. I guess I should get it when I have something more pressing to deal with... like, say, preparing for the upcoming faculty senate discussions on peer evaluation that are going to scintillate my Monday afternoons this fall!
That's what I am! Its a relief to know - and may be my students will sympathize with me now if their grades are late again. But can I get a doctor's note on that?
My wife alerted me to this discussion of How to Be a Productive Procrastinator on NPR right now. I'm listening to it as I type this, and I would write more about it, but... you know what? why don't I wait a while? there's no real rush is there? besides, you can go listen to it yourself... when you get around to it! After all, even live radio stays on the intertubes for a while now, so you can postpone listening, especially to a show about procrastination.
WASHINGTON (AFP) — The World Bank launched Monday a joint project with conservation groups and Hollywood to help reverse the dramatic decline of wild tigers in Asia, in what is seen as the single most important act to save the Big Cat.
The Tiger Conservation Initiative will begin by consulting with countries that have tiger populations to assess financing needs for conservation, identify funding sources and mobilize resources to protect the animals, officials said.
"Just as with many of the other challenges of sustainability -- such as climate change, pandemic disease or poverty -- the crisis facing tigers overwhelms local capabilities and transcends national boundaries," World Bank President Robert Zoellick said at the launching at the National Zoo in Washington.
"This is a problem that cannot be handled by individual nations alone. It requires an alliance of strong local commitment backed by deep international support," he said at the event held in sweltering heat alongside the zoo's enclosure of Sumatran tigers.
And here's what "Indy" Harrison Ford had to say:
Actor Harrison Ford, vice chair of the board of directors of the nonprofit Conservation International—one of the groups that will participate in the new plan—emphasized that local people should have a say.
"I recognize that these projects work more efficiently and more sustainably when local communities are involved," Ford told National Geographic News. "That's the general reality of the situation."
"I've seen how conservation outcomes are scaled up when a variety of people … pool together to apply their influence," he said.
Laudable sentiments these, and they've been generally well received in the US media. However, many of the tiger conservationists in India, the country with most tigers still in the wild, are not buying it! In fact, several prominent experts have sent a letter asking the World Bank to tread carefully! Ullas Karanth, as expected, doesn't mince his words on this:
The old Exxon ditty,“Put a tiger in your tank”, has been adopted by the World Bank. Reportedly prodded by its president, Robert Zoellick, the Bank will announce a new global initiative to save tigers. The ‘signature tiger event’ in Washington DC on June 9, will be co-hosted by several international conservation groups. Because such interest in wildlife conservation has been rare at the very top hitherto, there is much excitement within and outside the Bank.
Many conservation NGOs see the Bank’s tiger initiative as an opportunity to insert a preventive filter on destructive impact of the Bank’s developmental projects—dams, highways, mines—on wildlife habitats. Some hope that the Bank (and its ally, the Global Environmental Facility, GEF) can leverage China to curb its rapacious trade in tiger body parts. Others see more money in the pipeline to save tigers in the wild.
Sceptics, on the other hand, see the tiger initiative as a public relations ploy. They suspect that Bank simply wants to lend more profitably to high-growth economies of India and China, simultaneously green-washing its warty environmental visage.
Well put, sir! "warty environmental visage", indeed! The whole article is well worth reading. In addition to questioning the WB's motives and their track record (of mostly failure) with the earlier India EcoDevelopment Project (An WB-GEF venture), Ullas lists a litany of poor outcomes from that project, mostly from his experiences in Nagarhole. Having observed (closely at the start and more distantly in recent years) the IEDP project in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR, which Ullas also refers to), I can only concur with his concerns. Whatever the purported beneficial outcomes from the project to villagers around KMTR, I'm not sure it did very much at all to improve the status of wildlife or habitats in the reserve. Right from the outset, it was apparent that the emphasis was going to be on the "development" part of the equation: most of the recommendations made by me and several colleagues for establishing and maintainng a robust wildlife and habitat monitoring program to properly assess the impact of this "pilot" project were effectively ignored! As a result, the WB (and its minions from the Indian forest bureaucracy) can claim that this project was successful without a shred of actual credible ecological evidence to support the conclusion. And based on what I saw of the participatory microlending schemes implemented through local village committees, and their adverse effects on Kani tribals living within the forest, I'm not too sure that the project's socioeconomic methodology was all that robust either (but that's not my domain of expertise). To then claim success, how can they possibly connect the dots between whatever socioeconomic activities succeeded and any change in the status of wildlife, when they did not have a proper monitoring program in place to begin with?
In addition to these problems with past projects, Ullas raises a very pertinent point: does India, which is supposed to be in an economic boom this decade, really need to borrow money from the Bank to save tigers? Or even to improve the livelihoods of its villagers, one might add? Not really, given that the Indian government itself has recently committed a large sum of money to tiger conservation. Rather, in this instance, it seems the shoe might actually be on the other foot, with the World Bank needing India more than India needs its money:
Although this is a global tiger initiative, the Bank desperately needs Indian involvement to maintain credibility. For all its problems, India harbours some 1,500 wild tigers. China has only a handful left, with 5,000 more captives waiting to be butchered, although domestic trade is still banned.
Consequently, there is a covert campaign to compel India to seek the Bank’s assistance to save tigers. Officials are dangling before the Indian government the World Bank’s “convening power”, “expertise in tiger conservation”, and “innovative business models” as baits.
Given this unusual leverage, I hope, fervently, that for once, the Indian government actually uses it to kick the WB to the kerb, slap its warty environmental visage, and force it to own up to its true responsibility and its past. I'm not holding my breath, however...
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
As an elitist and a conservationist, I was excited to learn that Stephen Colbert, in keeping with his record of interviewing some of the most interesting guests on late night talk TV had Alan Rabinowitz on last night. Rabinowitz, also known as the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection, is a hero to many conservationists (myself included) for his lifetime of fieldwork on conserving big cats, most notably in Burma - the basis of his new book: "Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed" which brought him to the Colbert Report. The interview hit a great high note with Colbert, most unusually, being almost completely disarmed and brought to tears by Alan's early life story (and I do know and have worked a bit with him, hence the first name...). Pretty rare to see Colbert's face get so emotional... but then, within minutes, Colbert found his composure and asked another question eliciting a different kind of elitist answer which makes me cry!
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Did you guess what part of that makes me cry? Read on...
Why is it that dictatorships hold so much appeal to conservationists? Rabinowitz is by no means alone in expressing this preference for working with dictators to achieve conservation goals rather than messy democracies where "everybody's got an opinion"! And notice how earnest he was in expressing this, and apparently even missing Colbert's irony on this. To be fair to him, though, one mustn't make too much of a soundbite from a 5-min interview on a comedy show, so let me first offer another interview by Time:
Seems more nuanced, right? So I'll wait to read the book before saying anything further about Alan's views on this. And I definitely don't intend to belittle his considerable achievements in tiger conservation while working with the military junta in Burma.
That said, I do wonder about the larger question: must wildlife conservation be anti-democratic to be effective? Why do so many wildlife conservationists believe this is the case? As someone who deeply believes in both democracy and nature conservation, I find this very disturbing, if not downright dissonant to my cognition. And its a debate I often find myself getting sucked into (on both sides), especially whenever I'm back in India where the issues are somehow far more pressing and the passions stronger on the people-vs.-wildlife issues (check out the archives of Nathistory-India for a mild taste of this raging debate).
On the one hand, as someone driven by concern for endangered species, I can certainly see the appeal to having on my side someone who can strong-arm everybody else into enforcing some strong conservation measures (not just ones I think are best, but ones informed by a scientific consensus). I am not, however, prepared to go so far as to say I'll "do anything to save the animals" when there are clear human costs involved! Even Ullas Karanth, Alan's brother-in-arms for tiger conservation (in more ways than one) surprised me in his NYT interview about tiger conservation a couple of months ago where he placed considerably more emphasis on the quality of life of forest-dwelling people than I've heard him do in the past And in that Time interview above, Alan himself talked about the necessary shift in mindset from conservation in "hard boundary protected areas to large human landscapes". Yet, astonishingly, the appeal of a dictatorship remains strong as the best means to bring that vision, and that shift in mindset, about! Why? Can't we get past fantasies of benign dictatorships who heed our advice and do what's best for conservation, and engage with the real messy world with humans as part of nature along with all that biodiversity we want to save?
And why does this disturb me? Apart from the obvious human rights reasons, let me offer some thoughts on why I think relying on dictatorships is short-sighted:
- Most dictatorships are themselves short-lived; their policies even more so, being subject to the whims of individuals. How many auto-/pluto-cracies (however benign) have ever outlived ecological time-frames, let alone get into evolutionary ones?
- Dictatorships are far more efficient at destroying habitats and wildlife than democracies. John Terborgh, another stalwart among conservationists, in lamenting the state of nature, made an analogous point (if memory serves me right): he argued in favor of public-lands conservation rather than private-lands approaches at least in part because govt./public bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient in implementing anything; therefore it is easier to stall them if they set about trying to destroy habitats - not so if the land is owned privately! Cynical, perhaps, but I hope you see my point.
- Democracies have done better wildlife conservation than dictatorships even in the face of growing populations in the past century! In last night's interview, I was astonished to hear Alan claim that conservation is more effective in countries run by communists and dictators. He can't really be serious about that, can he? I haven't scoured the literature on this specific question, but I would be very surprised if this were borne out by data. The Soviet Union and China are hardly models for conservation, are they? Not to mention any of the many autocratic dictatorships people have had to endure elsewhere in the world.
- Further, while it is great that the Burmese junta were persuaded by Alan's arguments and tenacity to create a huge tiger reserve, which country still harbors most of the remaining tigers of the world? That's right - the messy democracy that is India! I know Ullas credits Indira Gandhi at the peak of her autocracy with creating tiger reserves and giving momentum to Project Tiger, and I'm not denying the enormous role such an individual can play. But haven't tigers outlasted her short-lived autocracy by several decades? Even in the wake of the recent political fragmentations of Indian democracy?
- And let me connect that last point back to the first thought above by suggesting that long-term conservation is only possible if an entire society agrees to it, and democracy with all its flaws is the best thing we've come up with thus far for collective governance of our societies!
If you haven't read it already you must read another elitist perspective on science, a wonderful op-ed piece by Brian Greene which appeared in the NYT to mark the recent World Science Festival he cofounded. Apart from giving me more heartburn for living in this valley so far away from places where such events take place, Greene really gets to the heart of why science ought to be a part of everyones cultural upbringing, not merely some specialized toolkit to prepare us for life in the 21st century or whatever. Read on for an excerpt or two that really resonate with me, followed by a video of a Greene interview, and another one arguing why the impractical beauty of science might appeal to your plumber!
Greene had me from his very first paragraph:
A COUPLE of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we’ve all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.
But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier’s letter emphasized something I’ve increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.
Several friends of mine have served periods of their military service birdwatching in middle east war zones. One is an Israeli ecologist who served part of his formative years in that country's compulsory military service in Beirut in the 1980s! He was featured in a newspaper photograph at the time (unfortunately not available online as far as I can determine) as an alert soldier keeping an eagle eye on Beirut with his binoculars while standing atop an armored tank. Only, the paper didn't realize that this soldier was actually using his binoculars to indulge his true passion: birdwatching!! More recently, another friend volunteered to the US army after the September 11th attacks (only to be disillusioned by what his govt. did with his patriotism) and lasted through an initial tour of duty in the Korean DMZ, and two tours in Iraq. While worrying about his health, especially in the latter phase, we were also amazed by his (rare) email reports about some of the wildlife he had encountered in the DMZ, and on trying to watch birds in Iraq, rather like another soldier did. Finally out of the army now, this friend is looking to resume a career doing conservation / ecology research.
Granted, birdwatching ain't exactly a science nor as "profound" as Green's book, but I hope you see the parallel in how caring about the reality of nature can help one get through some grim human realities. Greene goes on to make a more profound observation:
But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.
It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.
If science isn’t your strong suit — and for many it’s not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I’ve spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.
Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.
What a wonderful counter to the all-too common utilitarian attitude towards science and science education!
And for those of you who prefer to watch rather than read (if your eyes have managed to scroll past all those words above), here's Brian Greene on the telly talking about the World Science Festival:
Meanwhile, while traveling to Germany recently, I missed a lecture by PZ Myers also talking about the beauty of science - at another event not in this valley, but at least in our vicinity, in Berkeley. Fortunately, Scott Hatfield captured the lecture on video and shared this lovely excerpt:
Something to keep in mind the next time you face that awkward pause while talking to your non-scientist friends, no?
... so I must be part of the elitist menace among us! Yes, I admit it: I too agree with the elitist agenda uncovered here... oh no... BANG!!
And while on the subject, I might as well mention (although it is way to early) that Reconciliation Ecology is now on the list of future hosts for the Tangled Bank - we'll be kicking off the new year 2009 here!
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
I go away for a conference and stay off the blog for a couple of weeks, and so much happens! I'll be catching up with some of the events over the next few posts, and also posting a number of last-minute submissions from students during the dying days of the semester, so I hope the students are still visiting this blog even though the class is over!
But let me start by noting a rather unpleasant incident that occurred on campus on the last day of the finals week: Ryan Earley, my faculty colleague who regaled us with tales of Machiavellian fish a couple of days ago, had his tires punctured for having one of those Darwin Fish stickers on the back of his car. With a crude note stuck to his windshield telling him “Fuck you Darwinist. Take your car to heaven.” Subtle response that, to a mere bumper sticker, don't you think? Not a model of behavior I should emulate or I'll be really busy with all the other stickers that abound in this town...
I'd learnt of this incident just a couple of days before I left for Germany, and so didn't get around to sharing it here. I did happen to mention it to Diwata Fonte of the Valley Notebook blog, who followed up with a blog post of her own, generating quite a few heated comments. The story got bigger (well... within the blogosphere) when PZ Myers picked up on it, and another longer discussion ensued there (as is wont to happen with the Pharyngula crowd).
Let me say that this is the first such incident I've come to know personally, although I have read of such things happening elsewhere. I have a Darwin fish on the back of my car as well, but it hasn't attracted any such ire so far. I'd also like to clear the air on one point that has come up in some of the comments on the other blogs: the absurd suggestion that Ryan may have done this to his own car to attract attention to himself or some Darwinist cause!! This is really absurd, if for no other reason than the fact that Ryan did absolutely nothing to seek attention to this incident. He simply took his car to the dealer to get fixed under warranty, told a few of us here, and shrugged it off. That the story even got into the blogosphere is actually my fault!
That said, I am still puzzled that someone would feel so aggrieved by a mere bumper sticker as to act in this way. Was it just the stress of finals week getting to some student? Or the heat wave we had seeping through here that week? Or maybe it was a valediction for Dr. Earley since he is leaving this great Central Valley of California for a faculty position in the University of Alabama this fall!
In the end, what does it say of the valley, and of our campus, if we lose promising dynamic young biologists like Ryan - to Alabama??!!
Monday, June 2, 2008
We bring the first "season" of the Central Valley Café Scientifique to a close tonight with what promises to be an exciting presentation by my friend and colleague Ryan Earley on Finding your inner fish: what can aquatic worlds tell us about sex, aggression, and social behavior? We meet at Lucy's Lair once again, at 6:30PM.
The café will be on hiatus for the next couple of months, but we will be back in September, hopefully at the same location, but perhaps elsewhere (let me know if you know of better potential locations).Thank you to all of you who've made the little cafe such a success - and I hope we can continue to sustain the science conversation in this valley.
I hope to see you there tonight, and look forward to the next season!