Thursday, December 24, 2009

11. Control of Nature and Invasive Species: The Case of the Asian Carp

From the sidelines, the story of the Asian carp has moved to the forefront.[i] On Monday, the Associated Press reported[ii] that state of Michigan has filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against Illinois, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Michigan has asked the Supreme Court to sever a century-old connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system to prevent Asian carp from invading the lakes and endangering their $7 billion fishery and harm the drinking water supply for over 40 million people.

Asian bighead and silver carp have been migrating north in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers since the 1990s. It can transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. In sections of the Illinois River where the carp has taken hold, it makes up nine out of every 10 pounds of living material -- plant or animal.

This month, officials poisoned a section of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent the carp from getting closer to Lake Michigan while an electrical barrier was taken down for maintenance. But scientists say DNA found north of the barrier suggest that at least some of the carp have gotten through and may be within six miles of Lake Michigan. If so, the only other obstacle between them and the lake are shipping locks and gates, which open frequently for cargo vessels.

The lawsuit asks for the locks and waterways to be closed immediately as a stopgap measure, echoing a call last week by 50 members of Congress and environmental groups. But the suit goes further, also requesting a permanent separation between the carp-infested waters and the lakes.

That would mean cutting off the link that was established more than 100 years ago, when the City of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River and built the canals to send sewage-fouled water from Lake Michigan south toward the Mississippi River.

Obama administration officials pledged $13 million last week to prevent carp from migrating between the Des Plaines River and the canal and thus bypassing the electronic barrier.

Environmentalists said that closing the locks would be a temporary solution, but that the only long-term remedy would be restoring the natural separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system, which Michigan is now seeking.

American Waterway Operators, a trade group for barges and tugs that haul cargo on waterways in the Chicago area, said closing the locks even temporarily “would be very devastating for our industry.”

As with most battles against “invasive species”, this situation is caused by human intervention. The carp were imported to the South in the 1970s for aquaculture and waste water treatment facilities. Their “job” was to keep retention ponds clean through their veracious appetite. But they escaped into the Mississippi River during the flooding in the 1990s and have been swimming steadily upstream since.

The story of Asian carp points to two issues of high importance. First, human desire to control (engineer) nature, and how such intervention is subject to the law of unintended consequences often with disastrous effect. Second, our species is the main invasive species on the planet that is causing irreversible destruction of nature that sustain society. Although capitalist mode of production and the profit motive greatly accelerated these tendencies, their roots as far back as 10,000 years ago. I will write more about these themes later.

[i] For a video that treats Asian carp as some sort of alien creature click the following link:

[ii] The New York Time, December 21, 2009.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

10. The Sophisticated Life of Plants

The last post was dedicated to how plants can tell apart their family members and act differentially towards them. Today's post reports on other sophisticated plant behavior. The post is a slightly abridged version of an article by Natalie Angier that appeared in the Science Section of the New York Time yesterday. Ms. Angier reports on a number of interviews with plant scientists about sophisticated plant life.

By Natalie Angier, The New York Time, December 21, 2009

When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.

“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”

Yes, it’s best to nip trouble in the bud.

Dr. Hilker and her colleagues, as well as other research teams, have found that certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. They may sprout carpets of tumorlike neoplasms to knock the eggs off, or secrete ovicides to kill them, or sound the S O S. Reporting in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Hilker and her coworkers determined that when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.

Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”

Plants eavesdrop on one another benignly and malignly. As they described in Science and other journals, Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues have discovered that seedlings of the dodder plant, a parasitic weed related to morning glory, can detect volatile chemicals released by potential host plants like the tomato. The young dodder then grows inexorably toward the host, until it can encircle the victim’s stem and begin sucking the life phloem right out of it. The parasite can even distinguish between the scents of healthier and weaker tomato plants and then head for the hale one.

“Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants,” Dr. De Moraes said, “it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.”

It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

9. Some Plants Recognize Family Members

By Jeremy Hance

People like to say 'blood is thicker than water'. But plants may actually treat ther siblings better than many of us: although lacking in blood, scientists have found that plants not only recognize family, but respect their space.

The first study to discover that plants were able to recognize siblings was conducted in 2007 on the sea rocket, a seashore plant. In the study, conducted by Susan Dudley of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, researchers found that the plants' roots would not compete with their siblings but instead would 'play nice' and share the space. Now, new research published in Communicative & Integrative Biology shows just how plants, lacking vision and smell, recognize which nearby individuals are familial and which are not.

Harsh Bais, assistant professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, painstakingly studied the reactions of wild Arabidopsis thaliana, a common flowering plant that has become a favorite for researchers.

But how do you discover how plants communicate? "Plants have no visible sensory markers, and they can't run away from where they are planted," Bais says. "It then becomes a search for more complex patterns of recognition."

Extracting chemical secretions from the roots (known as exudates) of his study plants, Bais systematically exposed seedlings to the secretions of their siblings, of strangers, and even of themselves.

The study found that when individual plants were exposed to the root secretions of strangers they pushed out with greater lateral root formation, in a sense actively competing with the stranger for room. When Bais inhibited the root secretions, however, this aggressive push outward stopped. The method then by which plants recognize siblings, Bais discovered, is through contact with root secretions. Something in these secretions tells the plant whether it is related or not.

Bais also found that plants growing adjacent to strangers are shorter than if they are grown next to siblings, since strangers place excess energy into their roots. Bais said that he observed sibling plants allowing their leaves to touch and intertwine, while unrelated plants will grow rigidly and avoid physical contact.

People like to say 'blood is thicker than water'. But plants may actually treat ther siblings better than many of us: although lacking in blood, scientists have found that plants not only recognize family, but respect their space.

The first study to discover that plants were able to recognize siblings was conducted in 2007 on the sea rocket, a seashore plant. In the study, conducted by Susan Dudley of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, researchers found that the plants' roots would not compete with their siblings but instead would 'play nice' and share the space. Now, new research published in Communicative & Integrative Biology shows just how plants, lacking vision and smell, recognize which nearby individuals are familial and which are not.

Harsh Bais, assistant professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, painstakingly studied the reactions of wild Arabidopsis thaliana, a common flowering plant that has become a favorite for researchers.

But how do you discover how plants communicate? "Plants have no visible sensory markers, and they can't run away from where they are planted," Bais says. "It then becomes a search for more complex patterns of recognition."

Extracting chemical secretions from the roots (known as exudates) of his study plants, Bais systematically exposed seedlings to the secretions of their siblings, of strangers, and even of themselves.

The study found that when individual plants were exposed to the root secretions of strangers they pushed out with greater lateral root formation, in a sense actively competing with the stranger for room. When Bais inhibited the root secretions, however, this aggressive push outward stopped. The method then by which plants recognize siblings, Bais discovered, is through contact with root secretions. Something in these secretions tells the plant whether it is related or not.

Bais also found that plants growing adjacent to strangers are shorter than if they are grown next to siblings, since strangers place excess energy into their roots. Bais said that he observed sibling plants allowing their leaves to touch and intertwine, while unrelated plants will grow rigidly and avoid physical contact., October 16, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

8. On the Social Life of Animals

Animals are "in." This might well be called the decade of the animal. Research on animal behavior has never been more vibrant and more revealing of the amazing cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a broad range of animals. That is particularly true of research into social behavior—how groups of animals form, how and why individuals live harmoniously together, and the underlying emotional bases for social living. It's becoming clear that animals have both emotional and moral intelligences.

Philosophical and scientific convention, of course, has pulled toward a more conservative account of morality: Morality is a capacity unique to human beings. But the more we study the behavior of animals, the more we find that different groups of animals have their own moral codes. That raises both scientific and philosophic questions.

Researchers like Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society), Elliott Sober, David Sloan Wilson (Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior), and Kenneth M. Weiss and Anne V. Buchanan (The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things) have demonstrated that animals have social lives rich beyond our imagining, and that cooperation and caring have shaped the course of evolution every bit as much as competition and ruthlessness have. Individuals form intricate networks and have a large repertoire of behavior patterns that help them get along with one another and maintain close and generally peaceful relationships. Indeed, Robert W. Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues Paul A. Garber and Jim Cheverud reported in 2005 in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive. Moreover, social animals live in groups structured by rules of engagement—there are "right" and "wrong" ways of behaving, depending on the situation.

While we all recognize rules of right and wrong behavior in our own human societies, we are not accustomed to looking for them among animals. But they're there, as are the "good" prosocial behaviors and emotions that underlie and help maintain those rules. Such behaviors include fairness, empathy, forgiveness, trust, altruism, social tolerance, integrity, and reciprocity—and they are not merely byproducts of conflict but rather extremely important in their own right.

If we associate such behaviors with morality in human beings, why not in animals? Morality, as we define it in our recent book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, is a suite of interrelated, other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. Those patterns have evolved in many animals, perhaps even in birds.

One of the clearest places to see how specific social rules apply is in animal play. Play has been extensively studied in social canids (members of the dog family) like wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs, so it is a good example to use to examine the mechanisms of fair play.

Although play is fun, it's also serious business. When animals play, they are constantly working to understand and follow the rules and to communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules. Four basic aspects of fair play in animals are: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.

Detailed research on social play in infant domestic dogs and their wild relatives, coyotes and gray wolves, shows how just how important the rules are. Pains taking analyses of videos of individuals at play by one of us, Marc, and his students reveal that these youngsters carefully negotiate social play and use specific signals and rules so that play doesn't escalate into fighting.

When dogs—and other animals—play, they use actions like biting, mounting, and body-slamming one another, which are also used in other contexts, like fighting or mating. Because those actions can be easily misinterpreted, it's important for animals to clearly state what they want and what they expect.

In canids an action called a "bow" is used to ask others to play. When performing a bow, an animal crouches on his or her forelimbs. He or she will sometimes bark, wag the tail wildly, and have an eager look. So that the invitation to play isn't confusing, bows are highly stereotyped and show little variation. Marc and his students' detailed study of the form and duration of hundreds of bows showed surprisingly little variability in form (how much an animal crouched scaled to body size) and almost no difference between bows used at the beginning of sequences and during bouts of play. Bows are also swift, lasting only about 0.3 seconds. Over all, a threatening action—bared teeth and growls—preceded by a bow resulted in submission or avoidance by another animal only 17 percent of the time. Young coyotes are more aggressive than young dogs or wolves, and they try even harder to keep play fair. Their bows are more stereotyped than those of their relatives.

Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust. Research shows that animals who violate that trust are often ostracized, suggesting that violation of the rules of play is maladaptive and can disrupt the efficient functioning of the group. For example, among dogs, coyotes, and wolves, individuals who don't play fairly find that their invitations to play are ignored or that they're simply avoided by other group members. Marc's long-term field research on coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park, near Jackson, Wyo., shows that coyotes who don't play fairly often leave their pack because they don't form strong social bonds. Such loners suffer higher mortality than those who remain with others.

Animals engage in two activities that help create an equal and fair playing field: self-handicapping and role-reversing. Self-handicapping (or "play inhibition") occurs when individuals perform behavior patterns that might compromise them outside of play. For example, coyotes will inhibit the intensity of their bites, thus abiding by the rules and helping to maintain the play mood. The fur of young coyotes is very thin, and intense bites are painful and cause high-pitched squeals. In adult wolves, a bite can generate as much as 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch, so there's a good reason to inhibit its force. Role-reversing happens when a dominant animal performs an action during play that wouldn't normally occur during real aggression. For example, a dominant wolf wouldn't roll over on his back during fighting, making himself more vulnerable to attack, but would do so while playing.

Play can sometimes get out of hand for animals, just as it does for human beings. When play gets too rough, canids keep things under control by using bows to apologize. For example, a bow might communicate something like, "Sorry I bit you so hard—I didn't mean it, so let's continue playing." For play to continue, it's important for individuals to forgive the animal who violated the rules. Once again there are species differences among young canids. Highly aggressive young coyotes bow significantly more frequently than dogs or wolves before and after delivering bites that could be misinterpreted.

The social dynamics of play require that players agree to play and not to eat one another or fight or try to mate. When there's a violation of those expectations, others react to the lack of fairness. For example, young coyotes and wolves react negatively to unfair play by ending the encounter or avoiding those who ask them to play and then don't follow the rules. Cheaters have a harder time finding play partners.

It's just a step from play to morality. Researchers who study child's play, like Ernst Fehr, of the University of Zurich, and Anthony D. Pellegrini, of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, have discovered that basic rules of fairness guide play, and that egalitarian instincts emerge very early in childhood. Indeed, while playing, children learn, as do other young animals, that there are right and wrong ways to play, and that transgressions of fairness have social consequences, like being ostracized. The lessons children learn—particularly about fairness—are also the foundation of fairness among adults.

When children agree, often after considerable negotiation, on the rules of a game, they implicitly consent not to arbitrarily change the rules during the heat of the game. During play, children learn the give and take of successful reciprocal exchanges (you go first this time; I get to go first next time), the importance of verbal contracts (no one can cross the white line), and the social consequences of failing to play by the rules (you're a cheater). As adults we are also constantly negotiating with others about matters of give and take, we rely daily on verbal contracts with others, and most of us, most of the time, follow myriad socially constructed rules of fairness during our daily lives.

The parallels between human and animal play, and the shared capacity to understand and behave according to rules of right and wrong conduct, are striking. They lead us to believe that animals are morally intelligent. Morality has evolved in many species, and unique features of human morality, like the use of language to articulate and enforce social norms, are simply modifications of broadly evolved behavioral patterns specific to our species.

Philosophical and scientific tradition, however, holds that although prosocial behaviors in animals may reveal the evolutionary roots of human morality, animals themselves do not and cannot have morality, because they lack the capacities that are essential constituents of moral behavior—especially the capacity for critical self-reflection upon values. Human morality is distinguished from animal "morality" by the greater generality of human moral norms, and by the greater rational self-awareness and choice that it requires. Indeed, the human prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for judgment and rational thought, is larger and more highly developed in human beings than in other animals.

That traditional view of morality is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The fact that human morality is different from animal morality—and perhaps more highly developed in some respects—simply does not support the broader claim that animals lack morality; it merely supports the rather banal claim that human beings are different from other animals. Even if there are bona fide differences between morality in human beings and morality in other animals, there are also significant areas of overlap. Unique human adaptations might be understood as the outer skins of an onion; the inner layers represent a much broader, deeper, and evolutionarily more ancient set of moral capacities shared by many social mammals, and perhaps by other animals and birds as well.

Furthermore, recent research in cognitive neuroscience and moral psychology suggests that human morality may be much more "animalistic" than Western philosophy has generally assumed. The work of Antonio R. Damasio (Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), Michael S. Gazzaniga (The Ethical Brain), and Daniel M. Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will), among others, suggests that the vast majority of human moral behavior takes place "below the radar" of consciousness, and that rational judgment and self-reflection actually play very small roles in social interactions.

The study of animal play thus offers an invitation to move beyond philosophical and scientific dogma and to take seriously the possibility that morality exists in many animal societies. A broad and expanding study of animal morality will allow us to learn more about the social behaviors that make animal societies so successful and so fascinating, and it will also encourage us to re-examine assumptions about human moral behavior. That study is in its infancy, but we hope to see ethologists, neuroscientists, biologists, philosophers, and theologians work together to explore the implications of this new science. Already, research on animal morality is blossoming, and if we can break free of theoretical prejudice, we may come to better understand ourselves and the other animals with whom we share this planet.

Jessica Pierce is a bioethicist and writer, and Marc Bekoff is a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They are authors of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (University of Chicago Press, 2009). This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 25, 2009.

Monday, September 21, 2009

7. Thinking Outside the Box: Potentials and Limits of Human Mind

What we know from the emergence of life on Earth, evolution of species, and the role of biodiversity in sustainability and enrichment of life provide a materialist, scientific basis for the ethical position of Deep Ecology.[i],[ii] Let us recall what they are:

“1. The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.”

The remaining six points of the Eight Points of Deep Ecology are prescriptive and follow from these premises. I will return to them when we turn to the discussion of policy.

But before proceeding further, let us pause to explore the concern by at least some who read these notes who still validly ask: are we humans not somehow special? The short answer is: of course, we are. Indeed, each species is special in some way.

However, humans are not among species that are critical for life on Earth. In fact, it is easy to argue that Homo sapiens have the unfortunate distinction of topping the list of invasive species category—species that are not native to an ecosystem and threaten its balance when they are introduced. But why is that so?

To answer this question let us consider one view of how humans are special relative to other animals.

In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin argues that the difference between human and nonhuman minds is “one of degree and not of kind.” Marc Hauser, a leading neuroscientist at Harvard University, thinks Darwin was wrong. Hauser holds a computational view of the mind. Hauser’s view is close to the computational theory of mind in philosophy developed in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor, and Noam Chomsky’s theory of language that had great impact not just on linguistics but also on cognition theory and on philosophy of mind. Hauser’s research aims to explain how and why a “profound gap” separates human intellect from those of other animals. These studies show that while the building blocks of human cognition exist in other animals, there are four qualities of human mind that are truly unique.[iii] I use Hauser’s argument not because I prefer it to other theories of human mind but because it does tend to be closer to the view that humans are superior to other animals.

In a recent article[iv], Hauser discusses these four uniquely human traits.

1. Generative Computation is “the ability to create virtually limitless variety of ‘expressions,’ be they arrangement of words, sequences of notes, combinations of actions, or strings of mathematical symbols.”[v] Generative computations are two types. Recursion is the repeated use of a rule to create new expressions (e.g., Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.”). The combinatorial operation is mixing of discrete elements to generate new ideas that can be expressed in novel words or musical forms, etc.

2. Promiscuous Combination of ideas makes it possible for humans to routinely connect thoughts from different domains of knowledge. “From this mingling, new laws, social relationships and technologies can result, as when we decide that it is forbidden [moral domain] to push someone [motor action domain] in front of a train [object domain] to save the lives [moral domain] of five others.”[vi]

3. Use of mental symbols enables us to “spontaneously convert any sensory experience—real or imagined—into symbols that we can keep to ourselves or express to others through language, art, music or computer code.”[vii]

4. Ability to use abstract thought is apparently only a human trait. “Unlike animal thoughts, which are largely anchored in sensory and perpetual experiences, many of ours have no clear connection to such events. We alone ponder the likes of unicorns and aliens, nouns and verbs, infinity and God.”[viii]

Hauser dates the historical origin of the newly evolved human mind at approximately 800,000 years ago:

“Although anthropologists disagree about exactly when the modern mind took shape, it is clear from the archaeological record that a major transformation occurred during a relatively brief period of evolutionary history, starting approximately 800,000 years ago in Paleolithic era and crescendoing around 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. It is during this period of Paleolithic, an evolutionary eye-blink, that we see for the first time multipart tools; animal bones punctured to make musical instruments; burials with accoutrements suggesting beliefs about aesthetics and afterlife; richly symbolic cave paintings that capture in exquisite detail events of the past and the perceived future; and control over fire, a technology that combines our folk physics and psychology and allowed our ancestors to prevail over novel environments by creating warmth and cooking foods to make them edible.”[ix]

Hauser is careful to point out that other animals “do exhibit sophisticated behaviors that appear to presage some of our capabilities.”[x] He cited animal “ability to create and modify objects for a particular goal,” “ability to generalize beyond their direct experiences to create novel solutions when exposed to foreign challenges in the laboratory,” “exhibit social behavior in common with humans,” (e.g. teaching their young how to find food), exhibiting “inequity aversion” (e.g., objecting to unfair distribution of food), and ability to change routine daily behavior to meet various needs.

However, Hauser still concludes: “These observations inspire a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature’s R&D solutions. But once we get over this frisson, we must confront the gap between humans and other species…”[xi]

Hauser notes that the “roots of our cognitive abilities remain largely unknown.”[xii] His hope is that neuroscience will help uncover this mystery partly through conducting more animal studies such as study of chimeric animals, in which brain circuits from an individual of one species are transplanted into an individual of another species.

Conducing animal experiments for human scientific curiosity raises important ethical questions and questions about our relation to the rest of nature. What appears to Hauser as the superior quality of human mind has historically translated into a burning desire to understand, control and dominate nature. We cannot enter into the ethics of animal experiments here or devolve on problems associated with the historical tendency to reduce our relation to nature to its scientific understanding and in controlling and dominating it. However, the reader can immediately recognize that these are problems associated with the anthropocentric view of the world. These are also forces at work during the last 10,000 years that have placed Homo sapiens as the primary invasive species causing the present-day environmental and ecological crises that threaten among other things, human life on Earth.

The four qualities of human mind that Hauser notes are mixed blessings. They are partially responsible for the development of class societies and our alienation from ourselves and the rest of nature. We can only hope that they may also help us resolve these historical problems by understanding Our Place in the World and in living in harmony with nature. That consistent with the view that nature and nurture combine to create our minds. While knowledge cannot substitute for wisdom, we can be wiser if we know better. We can perhaps think outside of the box.

Hauser’s message is less hopeful. He concludes by telling us that the human mind, being wired as it is, has trapped us into a mode of thinking that precludes us from “thinking outside of the box.” Thus, human society is essentially the product of our wired brains and there is no escape until and unless evolutionary change will produce a novel mind capable of thinking outside of the present box. Given the burning problems nature an society, few scientists could argue that we have the necessary time for such evolutionary change. Our only hope may be a revolutionary change in the understanding of Our Place in the World and subsequent radical change in our society and the way we relate to the rest of nature.

[i] See, posts 4-6.

[ii] See, post 3, “The Eight Points of Deep Ecology”.

[iii] I am not qualified to express an option on such expert knowledge domain. But the reader should be warned that there are alternative approaches to the study of the mind and some evolutionary biologist can reasonably disagree with Hauser’s computational approach. I use Hauser’s approach because it emphasizes the gap between human and other animals minds and his position somehow resonates with those who argue for human superiority.

[iv] Scientific American, Volume 301, Number 3, September 2009.

[v] Ibid. p. 46.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid. p. 48.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid. p. 51.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

6. Biodiversity

As I noted in the last two posts, evolutionary biology shows us that species evolve in non-deterministic, non-hierarchical way and the Gaia Hypothesis (now accepted as a proven theory for the “weak” statement of it) maintains that they collectively contribute to the maintenance of conditions of Earth's surface within a range conducive to the persistence and perpetuation of life. But how do individual species contribute to the web of life on Earth and weather and how biodiversity matter? Since 1990s, these questions have been tackled by ecologists who have shown that while contribution of species to the maintenance and flourishing of ecosystems vary in degrees, they each contribute to it is a meaningful way and biodiversity is essential for continuation of life on Earth.

To explain this succinctly, let me again turn to professor Shahid Naeem who is one of the early ecologists who worked on reverse engineering of ecosystems.[i]

“Because every species influence Earth’s chemistry—sometimes in barely detectable ways, sometimes in major ways—every species can be said to have a function (though not in the sense of purpose). … [T]he best way to deduce what function a part plays in an ecosystem is to remove it and see what happens. This is standard practice in ecology, with the University of Washington zoologist Robert Paine’s experiment in the 1960s being perhaps the best-known example.

“Paine removed a single species of starfish (Pisaster ochracues) from an intertidal community in Mukkaw Bay, Wash., and found that its absence allowed a prolific species of mussel (Mytilus californianus) to grow and displace most of the other species in the ecosystem. The starfish functioned as a regulator of mussel density, something that could only make sense in the context of the intact ecosystem.”[ii]

Naeem explains that Paine’s method does not result in an explanation of biogeochemistry function of the starfish. To do that one must measure how the distribution of elements in Mukkaw Bay changes in the presence or absence of the starfish. And this is a difficult task; it requires removal of all starfish, and keeping them out for a long time to detect the resulting biogeochemical changes. Alternatively, one can count up all the starfish in the region, determine the respiration rate and estimate how much carbon dioxide they release into the water and atmosphere in a given year. One can also estimate how much carbon they consumed and how much they excreted as waste, and do the same for nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorus, and so on, until all the likely influences of the starfish species on the ecosystem’s geochemistry were determined.

“As this exercise shows, to determine the functional significance, in terms of biogeochemistry, of even a single species is a daunting task. For this reason, there are few species whose biogeochemical impact are experimentally known. In most cases, as we did for starfish, one estimates what their function is based on size, abundance, growth rates and other biological properties.”[iii]

In the 1990s, ecologists began to reverse engineer ecosystems. A pioneering reverse engineering experiment was the study conducted at Imperial College of London’s Centre for Population Biology under Sir John Lawton, by several scientists including Naeem, of a weedy meadow typical of Berkshire County, England.

“…[W]e deliberately engineered our ecosystem to be different from a real ecosystem in one specific detail: All our meadows were identical except for the amount of biodiversity each had. Six of the chambers contained ecosystems with 31 species of plants and animals inside; four contained only 16 of the original 31 species; another four chambers had just 10. Everything else was the same—the same volume of soil, same amount of light, same amount of water added each day, same breeze, same timing of dusk and dawn.

“What we found was quite surprising. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the communities, the amount of biomass they produced, the fertility of the soil and the amount of water retained by the ecosystems differed. Because everything was held constant among the ecosystems except for their biodiversity, the only conclusion we could come to was that our monkeying with the number of species was sufficient to drastically change the way ecosystem functioned. Most important, there was a clear pattern that related how many species were in the ecosystem with how much carbon dioxide it absorbed: More diversity led to greater absorption of carbon dioxide.

“… There was no doubt that ecosystems were critical to the processes such as the cycling of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and biosphere and the cycling of nutrients between soil, water and the atmosphere, and that these processes were an integral part of global environmental process. The Weak Gaia Hypothesis already told us this. There was also no doubt that some species had strong impacts on an ecosystem while others—such as Paine’s starfish in Mukkow Bay—had weak impact. But no one had experimentally tested the idea that simply reducing the number of species would change ecosystem function.

“Since then there have been numerous studies that have been variations on the same theme—hold as many factors constant as possible, vary biodiversity, then see what happens to the functioning of the ecosystem. …

“These experiments found that some species, when left out, had no detectable effect on biogeochemistry, while in others, if left out, had dramatic effects. But, on average, the removal of species caused changes in ecosystem functioning, and the more species one removed, on average, the stronger these changes become.”[iv]

There are many reasons why loss of biodiversity affects ecosystems. Naeem notes two that emerge most often in experimental research.

“First, the more species one removes, the greater the probability that an extraordinary important species will be lost. But there is a second reason that biodiversity loss reduces ecosystem function: complementarity. The more species you have, the more ways they make use of limited resources such as light, water, nutrients and space.”

The United Nations commissioned Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a five-year effort to assess the state of the planet, published in 2005 and 2006, has become the standard reference for the state of the biosphere.

“This Assessment places biodiversity squarely at the center of all the environmental processes that affect human wellbeing. Whether the environmental problem is the spread of emerging diseases, control of invasive species, food security or climate regulation, and whether we are talking about human health, poverty, education or even freedom itself, almost all aspects of human well-being and prosperity traces back to biodiversity for their foundation.”[v]

While there is a bit of instrumentalist view of nature in Naeem’s concluding paragraph, it offers much wisdom backed by scientific research on how each individual species contributes to the functioning and prosperity of the web of life on Earth and that biodiversity much like cultural diversity enriches it. Here is further evidence for the ethical foundations of Deep Ecology as well why any sound theory of radical social change needs to be based on ecocenterism.

[i] Naeem, Shahid, “Lessons from the Reverse Engineering of Nature: The Importance of Biodiversity and the True Significance of the Human Species,” Miller-McCune, pp. 56-71, May-June 2009.

[ii] Ibid. p. 63.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 63-64.

[v] Ibid. 65-66.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

5. The Gaia Hypothesis

Darwin's perspective on the origin of species is useful to us because it is non-deterministic, non-teleological, and ecocenteric. In Darwin's "tree of life" Homo sapiens are not at the top of the pyramid but on the same evolutionary level as other life forms. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective Homo sapiens are yet to prove their fitness the same way sharks or other species with much longer history have.

The Gaia hypothesis (names after the Greek mythology supreme goddess of Earth) proposed by James Lovelock, provides further context for reflection on Our Place in the World. A British scientist, in the 1960s Lovelock served as an independent consultant for NASA in planning for the Viking mission to Mars. NASA was interested to learn about how best to determine if there is life on Mars.

Lovelock realized that one does not need to land on Mars to know if there was life on it. Atmospheric conditions on Mars (carbon dioxide 95%, oxygen 0.13%, nitrogen 2.7%), stable for very long time, precluded existence of life, as we know it on Earth. Lovelock then asked what are the preconditions of life on Earth? Using a chemical model of Earth without any life forms (no photosynthesis or respiration), he found that carbon dioxide would be 98% (currently 0.03%), oxygen barely detectable (currently 21%), and nitrogen less than 2% (currently 79%). Furthermore, such a lifeless Earth would be very hot at 554F/290C with atmospheric pressure 60 times of what exists today.

Lovelock defined Gaia as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil, the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system, which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.

Columbia University ecologist, Shaheed Naeem, explains it in simpler terms:

Lovelock came away with a sense that there was something truly remarkable about Earth, a sort of meta-life or gigantic global biological system in which the sum of the parts--all the plants, animals and microorganisms--made Earth the habitable planet that it was. He speculated that it was an autopoietic system, meaning (roughly) that all its species actively contribute to the functioning of the biosphere in such a way as to ensure their growth and regeneration, which, in turn, is what governs biospheric functioning. This is a complex idea, but essentially he felt that life actively holds the conditions of Earth's surface within a range conducive to the persistence and perpetuation of life, a homeostasis similar to our bodies' regulation of core temperature to a constant of around 37 C (98.6 F).[1]

The Gaia hypothesis was initially ignored or ridiculed by some as some kind of neo-pagan New Age religion. Renowned scientists such as such as Doolittle, Dawkins and Gould criticized it on various grounds (click here).

However, in 1980s the Gaia hypothesis received positive recognition by scientists and a number of scientific conferences have been held to develop and implement it as a research agenda.

Climatologist Stephen Schneider who organized the first Gaia conference in San Diego in 1988 proposed that the Gaia hypothesis includes a range of possible claims. Naeem summarize these as the Weak Gaia Hypothesis that says life is critical to Earth’s environment, and the Strong Gaia Hypothesis that says that the biosphere is autopoietic. He notes:

Though the jury is still out, the bulk of the scientific evidence is against the Strong Gaia Hypothesis. One of its strongest critics is Dawkins, who sees no way that evolutionary or ecological processes can generate an autopoietic biosphere from a seemingly unstructured confederation of species whose fates are determined by their individual fitness or stability of the community, ecosystems or biosphere they reside in. Nevertheless, life is what makes Earth habitable, so the Weak Gaia Hypothesis is undeniable.”[2]

While we wait for the future assessment of the Strong Gaia Hypothesis, the consensus on the Weak Gaia Hypothesis offers materialist and scientific grounds for a view of "web of life" in addition to Darwin's "tree of live". Life on Earth is inherently interdependent. This validates ethical principles of Deep Ecology ’s Eight Point. It also offers a framework for rethinking Marx’s vision of de-alienation of humans from nature.

[1] Naeem, Shahid. “Lessons from the Reverse Engineering of Nature,” Miller-McCune/May-June 2009, p. 60.

[2] Ibid. p. 62. Naeem does not here note Lovelock's response to Dawkins criticism, which is based on complexities in evolutionary process associated with non-linear systems.