Friday, March 30, 2012

731. A Woven Brain

By Greg Miller, Science Now, March 30, 2011
Credit: M. D. Van Wedeen, Martinos Center and Dept. of Radiology/Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard U. Medical School

To the unaided eye, the most striking feature of the human brain is its squiggly pattern of bumps and grooves. But within those curves is a latticework of nerve fibers that cross each other at roughly right angles (above), according to a study published in tomorrow's issue of Science. The researchers used a recently-developed method called diffusion spectrum imaging to infer the position of nerve fibers in the living human brain from the way water flows through and around them. These scans revealed an orderly weave of fibers—a much simpler organization than many scientists would have suspected. Scans in four monkey species found a similar pattern. The researchers suggest that this grid-like organization may be advantageous during brain development, providing the equivalent of highway lane markers to help growing nerve fibers find their way to the appropriate destination.

730. Farm Land Distribution Process in Cuba Facing Delays, Limitations

Perdo Olivera,
head of the National Land Control Center
By Latin American Herald Tribune, March 30, 2012

HAVANA – Cuba’s process of distributing farm land to individuals and cooperatives, begun in 2008 with an eye toward rejuvenating the island’s food production, is suffering from delays and limitations for both bureaucratic and practical reasons, an official said Thursday.

The head of the National Land Control Center, Pedro Olivera, said at a press conference in Havana that the process has been “hindered and limited” by problems such as delays in the approval of requests for land.

He also said that there are state-run entities that are not declaring the full amount of excess and idle land under their administration.

Another difficulty is the “slowness and delay” in the exploitation of the distributed lands due to a lack of “control and follow-up,” the scarcity of consumables with which to work the land and the lack of experience and training among the new farmers, many of whom have little or no experience in agriculture.

When the government of President Raul Castro decreed the land distributions to jumpstart agriculture in 2008, about 51 percent of the island’s total arable land was idle or being inefficiently worked.

Olivera said that current calculations are that Cuba has more than 2 million hectares (nearly 5 million acres) “associated” with this process and more than 1.4 million hectares have already been handed out.

To date, authorities have received more than 194,000 requests for land, of which about 92 percent have been approved and the rest are under review.

There are estimated to be about 14,000 cases where the right to work land has been later withdrawn.

Just over 26 percent of the new Cuban farmers are people under 25 with little work experience and more than 70 percent of the total have no experience in agriculture, Olivera said.

He added that the authorities are working to implement new laws that allow an increase the amount of land the regime can distribute and the amount of time for which it can assign a plot of land to a farmer. Currently, plots are limited to 13 hectares and can be worked for 10 years by individuals.

Another aspect of the situation that is being considered is giving authorization so that land recipients can build houses on the plots so that “continuity and sustainability” can be provided for the measure.

In Cuba, the rejuvenation of agriculture to increase food production is considered to be a matter of “national security.”

The country spends more than $1.5 billion per year importing 80 percent of the food its citizens consume. EFE.

729. Fossil Foot Indicates New Prehuman Species

The Burtele partial foot after cleaning
and preparation.

By John Noble Wilford, The New York Times, March 28, 2012

Now it seems that Lucy shared eastern Africa with another prehuman species, one that may have spent more time in trees than on the ground.

A 3.4-million-year-old fossil foot found in Ethiopia appears to settle the long-disputed question of whether there was only a single line of hominins — species more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees — between four million and three million years ago. The fossil record for that period had been virtually limited to the species Australopithecus afarensis, made famous by the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy skeleton.
Of perhaps more importance, scientists report in the journal Nature, published online Wednesday, the newfound foot not only belonged to a different species but also had evolved a distinctive mode of locomotion, which scientists described as “equivocal.” It clung to the trees and never adapted to terrestrial mobility outright.
The Lucy species had long before evolved almost humanlike upright walking, bipedality, as attested by the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania from as early as 3.7 million years ago. This other species was still built for climbing trees and grasping limbs. It was capable of walking, though less efficiently and probably at an awkward gait
At a pivotal period in prehuman evolution, the discoverers concluded, two lines of hominins practiced contrasting locomotion behavior. Their feet, mostly, told the tale: the divergent, opposable big toe, long digits and other bones of the newfound species did not match the feet of afarensis. Lucy’s foot had a strong arch and the big toe was lined up with the other four digits, much like the feet of modern humans and all critical for effective bipedality, while retaining some agility for climbing trees.
Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a paleoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio, and his colleagues said the species the foot belonged to remains undetermined, for lack of any cranial or dental remains associated with the specimen. But they said the foot was strikingly similar to the earlier hominin Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed Ardi, which lived 4.4 million years ago, also in what is now Ethiopia.
Ardi’s foot also had a divergent big toe, similar to those of apes and gorillas, for tree climbing, though Ardi was an occasional upright walker.
Daniel E. Lieberman, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard who was not involved in the research, wrote in a commentary for the journal that the hominin foot “is a valuable addition to the fossil record as it extends the existence of Ardipithecus-like feet by a million years.”
This and other recent discoveries, Dr. Lieberman said, indicate “that there was more diversity in hominin locomotion than we had previously thought, and not all of it took place on the ground.”
Donald C. Johanson, the discoverer of the original afarensis specimen Lucy, admired this new member of the rarefied fossil kingdom. “It’s a lovely little foot to have,” he said, agreeing that its similarity to the Ardipithecus mode of locomotion suggested the existence of “two parallel lineages in this long time period.”
Dr. Johanson, who is the founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, discovered the Lucy skeleton in 1974, only 30 miles from the site of this latest find. In February 2009, at a place in the central Afar region known as Burtele, a member of Dr. Haile-Selassie’s team, Stephanie Melillo, spotted the first bone fragment eroding out of sandstone.
Eventually, eight bones of a hominin foot’s usual 27 were recovered and analyzed. It was a right foot, and, there being no duplication of parts, it was thought to be from a single individual. Finding any hominin foot bones that old is rare, Dr. Haile-Selassie said. They are small and delicate, especially vulnerable to scavenging and decay.
Beverly Z. Saylor of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a team member and an author of the report, said that at the time this hominin lived, the region had many lakes and streams with wooded shores, thus ample opportunities for arboreal habits. The dating of sediments where the bones were embedded was conducted by the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California.

Another author, Bruce M. Latimer of Case Western Reserve, said the findings clearly showed that the adaptation to bipedality, though considered one of the decisive transitions in early human evolution, was not a single, isolated event. One group, the Lucy species, relinquished the arboreal habitat and became functionally committed, long-distance walkers. For reasons unknown, another group, represented by the Burtele foot, maintained a climbing foot and stayed at least part time in the trees.

In hindsight, Dr. Latimer said, “it is apparent which group succeeded.” Homo erectus appears to have been the first to walk on a fully modern foot.
The discoverers themselves, as well as other paleoanthropologists, cited the need for more fossils to determine to bodies that went with such a foot and their possible relationship with the much earlier Ardipithecus.
“The implications of this limb diversity for human evolution,” Dr. Lieberman wrote, “will require researchers to continue getting their feet dirty in the field and the lab.”
Dr. Johanson said the Burtele site was a relatively new area of exploration and so the prospects were good for “finding the critical teeth and jaws needed as the next step.”
Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, who said he thought the Burtele foot “really interesting” and confirmation of hints of diversity in hominin mobility at this period, still cautioned against “jumping to too many conclusions as yet.”
New fossil discoveries are not always blessed with immediate consensus. When the 3.5-million-year-old Kenyanthropus platyops was found in Kenya a decade ago, the discoverers reported that it indicated the presence of another species alongside Australopithecus, but that interpretation remains in some doubt. Likewise, a few scientists remain skeptical of the status of Ardipithecus as a hominin; they argue that it was actually an ape that evolved limited bipedalism.
Dr. Lieberman seemed to be touched also by an unscientific atavistic influence.
“Human evolution is often portrayed as a triumph of bipedalism, but who among us has not occasionally regretted our species’ comparative clumsiness in trees?” he wrote. “I, for one, am pleased to know that some hominins retained feet well adapted for arboreality millions of years after we started to walk on two feet.”

728. Two Studies Point to Common Pesticide as a Culprit in Declining Bee Colonies

By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times, March 29, 2012

Scientists have been alarmed and puzzled by declines in bee populations in the United States and other parts of the world. They have suspected that pesticides are playing a part, but to date their experiments have yielded conflicting, ambiguous results.

In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.
The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids.
“I personally would like to see them not being used until more research has been done,” said David Goulson, an author of the bumblebee paper who teaches at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. “If it confirms what we’ve found, then they certainly shouldn’t be used when they’re going to be fed on by bees.”
But pesticides are only one of several likely factors that scientists have linked to declining bee populations. There are simply fewer flowers, for example, thanks to land development. Bees are increasingly succumbing to mites, viruses, fungi and other pathogens.
Outside experts were divided about the importance of the two new studies. Some favored the honeybee study over the bumblebee study, while others felt the opposite was true. Environmentalists say that both studies support their view that the insecticides should be banned. And a scientist for Bayer CropScience, the leading maker of neonicotinoids, cast doubt on both studies, for what other scientists said were legitimate reasons.
David Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer CropScience, said the new experiments had design flaws and conflicting results. In the French study, he said, the honeybees got far too much neonicotinoid. “I think they selected an improper dose level,” Dr. Fischer said.
Dr. Goulson’s study on bumblebees might warrant a “closer look,” Dr. Fischer said, but he argued that the weight of evidence still points to mites and viruses as the most likely candidates for bee declines.
The research does not solve the mystery of the vanishing bees. Although bumblebees have been on the decline in the United States and elsewhere, they have not succumbed to a specific phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which affects only honeybees.
Yet the research is coming out at a time when opposition to neonicotinoids is gaining momentum. The insecticides, introduced in the early 1990s, have exploded in popularity; virtually all corn grown in the United States is treated with them. Neonicotinoids are taken up by plants and moved to all their tissues — including the nectar on which bees feed. The concentration of neonicotinoids in nectar is not lethal, but some scientists have wondered if it might still affect bees.
In the honeybee experiment, researchers at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France fed the bees a dose of neonicotinoid-laced sugar water and then moved them more than half a mile from their hive. The bees carried miniature radio tags that allowed the scientists to keep track of how many returned to the hive.
In familiar territory, the scientists found, the bees exposed to the pesticide were 10 percent less likely than healthy bees to make it home. In unfamiliar places, that figure rose to 31 percent.
The French scientists used a computer model to estimate how the hive would be affected by the loss of these bees. Under different conditions, they concluded that the hive’s population might drop by two-thirds or more, depending on how many worker bees were exposed.
“I thought it was very well designed,” said May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
But James Cresswell, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter in England, was less impressed, because the scientists had to rely on a computer model to determine changes in the hive. “I don’t think the paper is a trump card,” he said.
In the British study, Dr. Goulson and his colleagues fed sugar water laced with a neonicotinoid pesticide to 50 bumblebee colonies. The researchers then moved the bee colonies to a farm, alongside 25 colonies that had been fed ordinary sugar water.
At the end of each year, all the bumblebees in a hive die except for a few new queens, which will go on to found new hives. Dr. Goulson and his colleagues found that colonies exposed to neonicotinoids produced 85 percent fewer queens. This reduction would translate into 85 percent fewer hives.
Jeffery Pettis, a bee expert at the United States Department of Agriculture, called Dr. Goulson’s study “alarming.” He said he suspected that other types of wild bees would be shown to suffer similar effects.
Dr. Pettis is also convinced that neonicotinoids in low doses make bees more vulnerable to disease. He and other researchers have recently published experiments showing that neonicotinoids make honeybees more vulnerable to infections from parasitic fungi.
“Three or four years ago, I was much more cautious about how much pesticides were contributing to the problem,” Dr. Pettis said. “Now more and more evidence points to pesticides being a consistent part of the problem.”

Thursday, March 29, 2012

727. Climate Change: Rapidly Changing Weather and Melting Sea Ice

Daffodils in London by March 1?

By Justin Gillis and Joanna M. Foster, The New York Times, March 29, 2012

Some people call what has been happening the last few years “weather weirding,” and March is turning out to be a fine example.

As a surreal heat wave was peaking across much of the nation last week, pools and beaches drew crowds, some farmers planted their crops six weeks early, and trees burst into bloom. “The trees said: ‘Aha! Let’s get going!’ ” said Peter Purinton, a maple syrup producer in Vermont. “ ‘Spring is here!’ ”
Now, of course, a cold snap in Northern states has brought some of the lowest temperatures of the season, with damage to tree crops alone likely to be in the millions of dollars.

Lurching from one weather extreme to another seems to have become routine across the Northern Hemisphere. Parts of the United States may be shivering now, but Scotland is setting heat records. Across Europe, people died by the hundreds during a severe cold wave in the first half of February, but a week later revelers in Paris were strolling down the Champs-Élysées in their shirt-sleeves.

Does science have a clue what is going on?

The short answer appears to be: not quite.

The longer answer is that researchers are developing theories that, should they withstand critical scrutiny, may tie at least some of the erratic weather to global warming. Specifically, suspicion is focused these days on the drastic decline of sea ice in the Arctic, which is believed to be a direct consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases.

“The question really is not whether the loss of the sea ice can be affecting the atmospheric circulation on a large scale,” said Jennifer A. Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher. “The question is, how can it not be, and what are the mechanisms?”

Some aspects of the climate situation are clear from earlier research.
As the planet warms, many scientists say, more energy and water vapor are entering the atmosphere and driving weather systems. “The reason you have a clothes dryer that heats the air is that warm air can evaporate water more easily,” said Thomas C. Peterson, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A report released on Wednesday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that issues periodic updates on climate science, confirmed that a strong body of evidence links global warming to an increase in heat waves, a rise in episodes of heavy rainfall and other precipitation, and more frequent coastal flooding.

“A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events,” the report found.

Some of the documented imbalances in the climate have certainly become remarkable.

United States government scientists recently reported, for instance, that February was the 324th consecutive month in which global temperatures exceeded their long-term average for a given month; the last month with below-average temperatures was February 1985. In the United States, many more record highs are being set at weather stations than record lows, a bellwether indicator of a warming climate.

So far this year, the United States has set 17 new daily highs for every new daily low, according to an analysis performed for The New York Times by Climate Central, a research group in New Jersey. Last year, despite a chilly winter, the country set nearly three new highs for every low, the analysis found.

But, while the link between heat waves and global warming may be clear, the evidence is much thinner regarding some types of weather extremes.

Scientists studying tornadoes are plagued by poor statistics that could be hiding significant trends, but so far, they are not seeing any long-term increase in the most damaging twisters. And researchers studying specific events, like the Russian heat wave of 2010, have often come to conflicting conclusions about whether to blame climate change.

Scientists who dispute the importance of global warming have long ridiculed any attempt to link greenhouse gases to weather extremes. John R. Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, told Congress last year that “the weather is very dynamic, especially at local scales, so that extreme events of one type or another will occur somewhere on the planet every year.”

Yet mainstream scientists are determined to figure out which climate extremes are being influenced by human activity, and their attention is increasingly drawn to the Arctic sea ice.

Because greenhouse gases are causing the Arctic to warm more rapidly than the rest of the planet, the sea ice cap has shrunk about 40 percent since the early 1980s. That means an area of the Arctic Ocean the size of Europe has become dark, open water in the summer instead of reflective ice, absorbing extra heat and then releasing it to the atmosphere in the fall and early winter.

Dr. Francis, of Rutgers, has presented evidence that this is affecting the jet stream, the huge river of air that circles the Northern Hemisphere in a loopy, meandering fashion. Her research suggests that the declining temperature contrast between the Arctic and the middle latitudes is causing kinks in the jet stream to move from west to east more slowly than before, and that those kinks have everything to do with the weather in a particular spot.

 “This means that whatever weather you have today — be it wet, hot, dry or snowy — is more likely to last longer than it used to,” said Dr. Francis, who published a major paper on her theory a few weeks ago.

“If conditions hang around long enough, the chances increase for an extreme heat wave, drought or cold spell to occur,” she said, but the weather can change rapidly once the kink in the jet stream moves along.

Not all of her colleagues buy that explanation.

Martin P. Hoerling, a NOAA researcher who analyzes climate events, agrees with other scientists that global warming is a problem to be taken seriously. But he contends that some researchers are in too much of a rush to attribute specific weather events to human causes. Dr. Hoerling said he had run computer analyses that failed to confirm a widespread effect outside the Arctic from declining sea ice. “What’s happening in the Arctic is mostly staying in the Arctic,” he said.

Dr. Hoerling suspects that future analyses will find the magnitude of this month’s heat wave to have resulted mostly from natural causes, but he conceded, “It’s been a stunning March.”

That was certainly what farmers thought. Mr. Purinton, the syrup producer in Huntington, Vt., has been tapping maple trees for 46 years, since he was a boy.
This year he tapped the trees two weeks earlier than normal, a consequence of the warm winter. But when the heat wave hit, the trees budded early, and this tends to ruin the taste of maple syrup. That forced him to stop four weeks earlier than normal and cut his production in half compared with a typical year.

“Is it climate change? I really don’t know,” he said. “This was just one year out of my 46, but I have never seen anything like it.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

726. Neutrinos Travel at the Speed of Light, Not Faster as Claimed Earlier

By Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, March 26, 2012

The British astrophysicist Arthur S. Eddington once wrote, “No experiment should be believed until it has been confirmed by theory.

So when a group of physicists going by the acronym Opera announced in September that a batch of the strange subatomic particles known as neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light in a 457-mile trip through the earth, the first response among many physicists was to wonder what had gone wrong with the experiment.
After all, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proclaimed the speed of light as the cosmic speed limit, is the foundation of modern science and has been shown to work to exquisite precision zillions of times. Knock it down and you potentially open the door to all kinds of things, like the ability to go back in time and kill your grandfather.
That, of course, did not stop the rest of us in the physics bleachers from dragging the old guru of space-time by his frizzy coronal hair into the media version of the public square and crowing that, perhaps this time at last, Einstein was finally going to be proved wrong. Neutrino jokes proliferated on the Internet, as well as this rousing song by the Corrigan Brothers and Pete Creighton:
Tooraloo, tooraloo, tooraloo, tooralino,
Is light now slower than a neutrino?
Now it seems that Einstein’s six-month nightmare may be over.
Last week another team of physicists whose apparatus lives right next door to the Opera group — under Gran Sasso mountain in Italy — reported that they had clocked neutrinos, produced in an accelerator at CERN, outside Geneva, racing over the same path to Gran Sasso at the speed of light and not a whit faster. Which is exactly how fast scientists had always thought the enigmatic particles, with barely zilch for mass, should go.
The second group, which goes by the acronym Icarus, was led by Carlo Rubbia, a former director of CERN and a Nobel-winning physicist, who called the results “very convincing.”
Physicists swung into line with great sighs of relief.
“The evidence is beginning to point toward the Opera result being an artifact of the measurement,” said CERN’s research director, Sergio Bertolucci.
Cue the famous picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue. As it happened, the Icarus result was announced on March 16, two days after his 133rd birthday — almost in time for the cake.
Adding to the sense of finality was the simple fact — as Eddington might have pointed out — that faster-than-light neutrinos had never been confirmed by theory. Or as John G. Learned, a neutrino physicist at the University of Hawaii, put it in an e-mail, “An interesting result of all this fracas is that no new model I have seen (or heard of from my friends) really is credible to explain the faster-than-light neutrinos.”
During a panel discussion recently at the American Museum of Natural History, Sheldon L. Glashow, a physics professor and Nobel laureate from Boston University, said the best theory he had heard was that the neutrinos had behaved lawfully in Switzerland and speeded up when they crossed the border into Italy.
Eddington’s dictum is not as radical as it might sound. He made it after early measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe made it appear that our planet was older than the cosmos in which it resides — an untenable notion. “It means that science is not just a book of facts, it is understanding as well,” explained Michael S. Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, who says the Eddington saying is one of his favorites. If a “fact” cannot be understood, fitted into a conceptual framework that we have reason to believe in, or confirmed independently some other way, it risks becoming what journalists like to call a “permanent exclusive” — wrong.
Not that scientists don’t like a surprise. At the museum discussion, Dr. Glashow said that at first he was very excited when he heard about the faster-than-light neutrinos, thinking they could be a window into new physics.
But if neutrinos are going faster than light, he quickly realized, they would be accompanied by a whole host of other effects, like a shower of particles called Cherenkov radiation, which were not being seen. His paper to this effect, with Andrew G. Cohen, was one of the first to let the air out of the neutrino balloon.
Luckily, the charms of neutrinos go far beyond their possibly being able to outrace light. They can also waltz through walls and planets like moonlight through a screen door, which is why they can go underground from CERN to Gran Sasso so easily.
Earlier this month, a group of Fermilab-based physicists operating under the acronym Minerva used a beam of neutrinos to send a message over a distance of about a kilometer, spelling out the word “neutrino” with the ASCII code used for computer keyboards.
Moreover, neutrinos come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel. One variation of this shape-shifting was measured for the first time by an international team working in Daya Bay, China, in March. The Opera experiment was designed to record another mode.
Dethroning Einstein was never on the Opera team’s agenda, and to be fair, scientists in the group never claimed that they overturned relativity — only that they had a very puzzling anomaly. They diligently continued to troubleshoot their experiment, and in February they found a couple of flaws. One of them was a loose wire that had the effect of making the neutrinos appear to move faster, the other an improperly set clock that made them look slower.
“That means they have no result,” Dr. Glashow muttered. “We’re back to square one.”
Whether these effects are enough to explain the anomalous neutrino speeds would not be known until the experiment was repeated sometime this spring, the Opera group said.
At the museum discussion, Laura Patrizii, an Opera member from the University of Bologna, said it was not unlikely that her group’s work would wind up in agreement with the Icarus team’s result.
Whether this is a happy ending depends on you. Some physicists were unhappy that the Opera group had managed to commandeer CERN’s auditorium, the biggest stage in physics, to air their dirty laundry, turning the neutrino work into a circus. Opera is not even part of CERN; the group only buys its neutrinos there. Gran Sasso, rather, is part of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics, based in Rome.
Displaying a quaint faith in the ability of the Twitterverse to keep secrets, the critics have suggested that it would have been more responsible for the Opera group to have shut up and kept checking the results.
Dr. Patrizii disagreed, saying the neutrino affair had produced a wonderful discussion and a great lesson in how science is done. The whole world was watching; the editors of great newspapers were waking up thinking about subatomic particles.
Anyway, she added, scientists — even Einstein — proceed by trial and error.
“We are allowed to be wrong,” she said.

725. Two Third of Americans Want an End to the War in Afghanistan, New Poll Shows

American soldiers urinate on the
bodies of the dead in Afghanistan

By The New York Times, March 27, 2012
In Tuesday’s New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller and Allison Kopicki write about findings from the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which found two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan.
They report:  
The increased disillusionment was even more pronounced when respondents were asked their impressions of how the war was going. The poll found that 68 percent thought the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly,” compared with 42 percent who had those impressions in November.

The results of the New York Times/CBS News poll align with several others done recently on the same question, including a Pew Research Center poll and a Gallup/USA Today poll. And the negative view of the war also appears to be growing increasingly bipartisan. According to Ms. Bumiller and Ms. Kopicki, 60 percent of Republican respondents said the war was going somewhat or very badly, up 20 percent since the poll in November. And among Democrats, 68 percent said the war was going somewhat or very badly, compared with 38 percent in November.
The poll comes in the midst a flurry of bad news from the battlefield, including accusations that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of the Army killed 17 Afghan civilians in the Panjwai district, in southern Kandahar Province, in early March, and violence set off by the burning last month of Korans by American troops. Most recently, there have been several attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan and a suspected plot to blow up commuter buses near the Afghan Defense Ministry.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

724. E. O. Wilson: Why Care About the Crisis of Nature

The following is a slightly abridged "Why Care" (Chapter 4) of E. O. Wilson's The Creation. It presents a biologist view of why humanity should care about the current present-day crisis of nature.  Other views have been presented earlier and will be presented later.  K.N.

*     *     * 

Consider, then, the following truth, which because of its importance deserves to be called the First Principle of Human Ecology: Homo sapiens is a species confined to an extremely small niche. True, our minds soar out to the edge of the universe. And contract inward to subatomic particles, the two extremes encompassing thirty powers of ten in space. In this respect our intellects are godlike. But let’s face it, our bodies stay trapped inside a proportionately microscopic bubble of physical constraints. We have learned how to occupy some of Earth’s most hostile environments—but only when enclosed within airtight containers whose environment is precisely controlled. Polar ice caps, the deep sea, and the moon are ours to visit, but even slight malfunctions of the life-support capsule in which we travel can be terminal to frail little Homo sapiens. Prolonged residence there, even when physically possible, is psychologically unbearable.

Here is my point: Earth provides a self-regulating bubble that sustains us indefinitely without any thought or contrivance on our own.  This protective shield is the biosphere, the totality of life, creator of all air, cleanser of all water, manager of all soil, but itself a fragile membrane that barely clings to the surface of the plant.  Humanity, as Darwin observed at the close of The Ascent of Man, bears the indelible stamp of our lowly origin from preexisting life forms…

The First Principle of Human Ecology can be put another way: Alien planets are not inn out genes. If organisms exist on Mars, Europa, or Titanis, then these planets are in their genes, and those will surely differ radically from ours.

It follows that human self-interest is best served by not overly harming the other life forms on earth that still survive. Environmental damage can be defined contrary to humanity’s inborn physical and emotional needs. We are not evolving autonomously into something new.  Nor are we likely in the foreseeable future to change our basic nature by genetic engineering, as some giddily futuristic writers have envisioned. Scientific knowledge may continue to grow without limit, or it may not.  But either way, human biology and emotions will stay the same far into the future, because our immensely complicated cerebral cortex can tolerate little tinkering, because human beings cannot mutate like bacteria to fit every environment we spoil, and because, ultimately, finally and quite simply, we may choose to remain true to human nature, the heritage bequeathed us by millions of years of residence in the biosphere.

Here, then, is another argument for existential conservatism.  Beyond the curing of obvious hereditary diseases such as multiple sclerosis and sickle-cell anemia, by gene substitution, the human genome will be modified only at risk.  It is far better to work with human nature as it is, by changing our social institutions and moral precepts to get a more nearly optimal fit to our genes, than it would be to tinker with something that took eons of trail and error to create.

The problem of modern civilization rises from the disjunction between our ancient and glacially slow-evolving genetic heritage at one level of evolution and our ultra-fast cultural evolution at the other level.  There are still thinkers around the world, some in commanding political and religious positions, who wish to base moral law on the sacred scripture of Iran Age desert kingdoms while using high technology to conduct tribal wars—of course with the presumed blessing of their respective tribal gods. The increasing contrast of such retrograde thinking should make us more circumspect than ever, and not just about starting wars.  It should also make us more careful with the environment, upon which our lives ultimately depend.  It will be prudent to curtail the final and permanent obliteration of Nature until we understand more precisely what we are and what we are doing.

The destructive power of Homo sapiens has no limit, even though our biomass is almost invisibly small. It is mathematically possible to log-stack all the people on Earth into a single block of one cubic mile and lower them out of sight in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.  Yet humanity is already the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.  We have, all by our bipedal, wobbly-headed selves, altered Earth’s atmosphere and climate away from the norm. We have spread thousands of toxic chemicals worldwide, appropriated 40 percent of the solar energy available for photosynthesis, converted almost all of the easily arable land, dammed most of the rivers, raised the planet sea level, and now, in a manner likely to get everyone’s attention like nothing else before, we are close to running out of fresh water.  A collateral effect of all this frantic activity is the continuing extinction of world ecosystems, along with the species that compose them. This also happens to be the only human impact that is irreversible.

With all the troubles that humanity faces, why should we care about the condition of living Nature? What difference will it make if a few or even half of all the species on earth are exterminated? Many reasons exist fundamental to human weal. Unimaginably vast sources of scientific information and biological wealth will be destroyed. Opportunity costs, which will be better understood by our descendants than by ourselves, will be staggering. Gone forever will be undisclosed medicines, crops, timbers, fibers, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities.

Critics of environmentalism (whatever that overused term means—aren’t we all environmentalists?) usually wave aside the small and unfamiliar, which they tend to classify into two categories, bugs and weeds. It is easy for them to overlook the fact that these creatures make up most of the organisms and species on Earth. They forget, if they ever knew, how the voracious caterpillars of an obscure moth from the American tropics saved Australia’s pastureland from the outgrowth of cactus; how Madagascar “weed,” the rosy periwinkle, provided the alkaloids that cure most cases of Hodgkin’s disease and acute childhood leukemia; how another substance from an obscure Norwegian fungus made possible the organ transplant industry; how a chemical from the saliva of leeches yielded a solvent that prevent blood clots during and after surgery; and so on through the pharmacopoeia that has stretched from the herbal medicines pf Stone Age shamans to the magic-bullet cures of present-day biomedical science.

Because wild natural ecosystems are in plain sight, it is also easy to take for granted the environmental services they provide humanity. Wild species enrich the soil, cleanse the water, and pollinate most the flowering plants.  They create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the reminder of human history would be nasty and brief.  The sustaining matrix of our existence is the green plants, along with legions of microorganisms and tiny invertebrates.  These organisms support the world because they are so genetically diverse, allowing them to divide roles in the ecosystem in a fine degree of resolution, and so abundant that at least a few occupy virtually every square meter of Earth’s surface.  Their functions in the ecosystem are redundant; if one species is eliminated, there is often another able to expand and at least partially take its place.  All together the other species, mostly bugs and weeds, run the world exactly as we should want it run, because during prehistory humanity evolved to depend upon their combined actions and the insurance that biodiversity provides world stability.

Living nature is nothing more than the commonality of organisms in the wild state and the physical and chemical equilibrium their species generate through interaction with one another.  But it is also nothing less than that commonality and equilibrium. The power of living Nature lies in sustainability through complexity. Destabilize it by degrading it to a simpler state, as we seem bent on doing, and the result could be catastrophic. The organisms most affected are likely to be the largest and most complex, including human beings.

More respect is due the little things that run the world. Being and entomologist, I will now use insects to plead the class-action case on behalf of the Earth’s entire afflicted fauna and flora.  The diversity of insects is the greatest documented among all organisms: the total number of species classified in 2006 is about 900,000.  The true number, combining those both known and remaining to be discovered, may exceed 10 million. The biomass of insects is immense: about a million trillion are alive at any moment.  Ants alone, of which there may be 10 thousand trillion, weigh roughly as much as all 6.5 billion human beings.  While these estimates are still shaky (to put the matter generously), there is no doubt that insects rank near the top among animals in physical bulk.  They are rivaled there in biomass by copepods (minute sea crustaceans), mites (tiny spider like arthropods), and, at the very apex, the amazing nematode worms, whose vast population swarms, probably representing millions of species, make up four-fifth of all animals on Earth. Can anyone believe that these little creatures are just there to fill space?

People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us. If all humankind were to disappear tomorrow, it is unlikely that a single insect species would go extinct, except three forms of human body and head lice.   Even then there would remain gorilla lice, closely related to the human parasites and available to carry on at least something close to the ancient line. In two or three centuries, with humans gone, the ecosystems of the world regenerate back to the rich state of near equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago or so, minus of course the many species that we have pushed into extinction. 

But if insects were to vanish, the terrestrial environment would soon collapse into chaos.  Picture the steps of the cataclysm, as it would likely unfold across the first several decades:

·               A majority of the flowering plants, upon being deprived of their pollinators, cease to reproduce.
·               Most herbaceous plant species among them spiral down to extinction. Insect-pollinated shrubs and trees hang on for a few more years, in rare cases up to centuries.
·               The great majority of birds and other land vertebrates, now denied the specialized foliage, fruits, and insects prey on which they feed, follow the plants into oblivion.
·               The soil remains largely unturned, accelerating plant decline, because insects, not earthworms as generally supposed, are the principal turner and renewer of the soil.
·               Populations of fungi and bacteria explode and remain at a peak over a few years while metabolizing the dead plant and animal material that pile up.
·               Wind-pollinated grasses and a handful of fern and conifer species spread over much of the deforested terrain, then decline to some extent as the soil deteriorates.
·               The human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains and marine fishing. But amid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human population plunges to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history.
·               Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age, the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.

 The bottom line of my scenario is this: be careful with pesticides. Do not give thought to diminishing the insect world. It would be a serious mistake to let even one species out of the millions on Earth go extinct. That is, let me add quickly, with an extremely few exceptions.  I’d vote for the eradication of the aforementioned lice (the gravamen against them: limited to humans, serious skin pests, threats to quality of life, carriers of disease).  Also, I’d not mourn the passing of mosquitoes of the Anopheles gambiae complex of Africa, species that are specialized to feed on human blood, during which they transmit malignant malaria.  Keep their DNA for future research and let them go.  Let us not be conservation absolutists when it comes to creatures specialized to feed on human beings.

In the real world there is a need to control only the tiny fraction of inset species, perhaps as few as one out of ten thousand, that are consistently harmful to humans.  In most cases control means to reduce and if possible to eradicate populations of such species in countries where they are aliens, usually having been transported there by humans as unintended hitchhikers.  Take, for example, the red imported fire ant that has vexed the southern United States since the 1940s and has recently spread from there to California, the Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand, and China. It inflicts hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses each year. Its stings are painful and occasionally fatal, usually as a result of anaphylactic shock triggered by the venom.  It has displaced some native insects and reduced wildlife populations. Obviously it would be wise to erase invading populations of the red fire ant—if only entomologists could find a way.  But the same is not true for southern Brazil and northern Argentina, where the ant is not imported but a native species, ecologically adjusted by millions of years of co-evolution with other native species.  In their South American home they are in balance with predators, and competitors.  Otherwise they would have become extinct ages ago.  In the United States their enemies are fewer in number and weaker.  Removal of the alien fire ant populations would be healthy for both people and the environment of the countries they have colonized.  Removal from South America, in contrast, might cause damage to the ecosystems in which they are co-adapted with other species and live harmoniously.

One of the daunting challenges of the modern discipline of ecology is to sort out such pluses and minuses of living Nature in order better to define the inner structure of the biosphere. There is hope that in time researchers will learn how ecosystems are assembled, how they are sustained, and more precisely how they come to be destabilized. Earth is a laboratory wherein Nature…has laid before us the results of countless experiments. She speaks to us; now let us listen.