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Crown Clade of Creation

I’ve been writing at Coyote Crossing/Creek Running North for nearly a decade, and in the decade’s worth of archives there are a handful of posts that really seem like they ought to live here. So every month or two I’ll dust one of them off, if it’s not too horribly outdated, and put it here for your delectation or dissection.

This one is a 2006 review of the abysmal “biology” “textbook” Biology: God’s Living Creation, published by the creationists at A Beka Books.

“The sequence of study found in all other current biology texts can implant a subtle evolutionary philosophy in the students’ minds. The Christian teacher will find that the unique A Beka Book approach to biology eliminates the conflict which results when evolutionary philosophy is combined with truth. Students and teachers alike will feel more comfortable when they realize that it is not biology that is in conflict with Scripture, but rather the ungodly philosophy of some biologists.

So reads the prologue of Biology: God’s Living Creation, sent to me as a gift by a friend with a disturbing sense of humor. The controversial textbook — and here I use “textbook” to mean “cruel practical joke played on unsuspecting high school biology students” and “controversial” to mean “filled with lies” — made the news recently when a group of Southern California fundamentalists sued the University of California over UC’s refusal to credit biology classes for which the book served as text. The UC regents were right to so decide: the book is garbage.

Much of the public attention to the book focused on what I will call for lack of a suitable expletive the paleontology section, and for good reason. The second paragraph of that section begins:

“The Bible, the oldest record of man’s past, reveals to us the close working association between created man (Adam) and other living things.”

Anthropology comes under direct attack in the next para, which starts out

“After the days of Noah, when God dispersed mankind throughout the world…”

The text is the usual creationist assortment of misrepresentations (“Supporters of the punctuated equilibrium concept argue that most ‘missing links’ are missing from the fossil record because they never existed,” page 368), non-sequiturs and arguments from authority (page 349 holds a table of prominent historical scientists who were Christian creationists, the most recent being electrical engineer John Ambrose Fleming, who died a very old man in 1945) and flat out lies (“No true ‘missing links’ have ever been found to bridge the gaps between different kinds of organisms,” page 367).

Of that last category, perhaps the most damaging example can be found on page 352:

When a hypothesis has passed the test of many well-designed experiments and has the support of other scientists, it is referred to as a theory.

Despite the colloquial use of the word to mean “wild-assed guess,” a theory in this context is a framework on which the results of tests of hypotheses are related one to the other. A theory is a higher order of truth, above “fact.” It’s provisional, but so, in science, are facts. But leave the quote-mining to the creationists. There’s too much funny stuff in the book, and we’d be here all day.

OK, just one more, question 7 from Section Review 13.1, on page 343:

In a paragraph, explain why the Bible is completely true and accurate when it speaks of scientific matters, although it is not a scientific textbook or treatise. Give examples of truths recorded in the Scriptures many years before they were recognized by scientists.

But to tell the truth, the odious lies in the “paleontology” section weren’t the thing that bothered me the most about the book. They’re so blatant, and easily refuted by any student that has both a questioning mind and Internet access. They’re almost a burlesque of creationist thought, and besides, I’ve become jaded in that respect.

No, the statement that bugs me most in this book is in the section on human physiology.

We are fortunate to live in an age when scientific dogma is overturned at a startling clip. When I first studied geology, Plate Tectonics was an intriguing idea with not a few skeptics. Now it’s consensus. When I was taking high school biology back then in the Pleistocene, living things were no longer divided into three parts like Gaul. In 1894, Ernst Haeckel had added the Kingdom Protista to Linnaeus’ Plantae and Animalia, and you can still find textbooks in used book stores that follow this tripartite division, Protista consisting of single-celled organisms that aren’t clearly plants nor animals. During the late 1930s, increasing knowledge of bacterial anatomy prompted the addition of a fourth kingdom, Monera (or, straightforwardly, “Bacteria.”)

In nineteen-sixty-mumble, my bio teacher taught his classes Robert Whittaker’s five-kingdom version of things, with Fungi given their own kingdom. Not long after, the two-empires system came into use, with the kingdoms divided between the “empires” Prokaryota, simple single-celled organisms, and Eukaryota, which included both singlecelled and multicellular organisms, all of which differed from prokaryotes in that their cells had organelles: nuclei at the very least, with some also having mitochondria, Golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticula, and — if the cells were very lucky — chloroplasts.

The point of all this ancient history? None of these revisions were suggested on a whim, as one might decide to reorganize one’s record collection from alphabetical to chronological. Each revision was proposed to reflect increasing knowledge of the awe-inspiring diversity of single-celled life, and the realization that the truly profound differences among living things had less to do with being green and sedentary or brown with teeth than with microscopic details of construction.

That learning continues. In 1990 Carl Woese, who had spent some years studying differences in ribosomal RNA among a wide variety of prokaryotes, split that empire in two based in part on those differences. One section was given an old name, “Bacteria.” The other Woese dubbed “Archaea.” Together with Eukaryota, Bacteria and Archaea became, in Woese’s view, the newest high-order taxa, which he called “domains.” His view is gaining adherents, though some still stick to the five-kingdoms notion. It’s likely that Woese’s idea won’t be the last refinement. Most biologists agree — after another one a them there paradigmatic shifts in the sciences that’s happened in the last forty years — that Eukaryotes arose from symbiotic partnerships among Bacterial and Archaeal organisms, with Archaean organisms becoming nuclei, blue-green algae becoming chloroplasts, smaller bacteria becoming mitochondria, and so forth.

Either way, the old Animal Kingdom has suffered significant demotion. Not only is it subordinate to the new domain Eukaryota, but an increasing number of taxonomists relegate us Animals to a subcategory of a subcategory. A common and almost certainly temporary view of Eukaryotes breaks that domain down into the groups Stramenopiles (including diatoms, kelp, and the pathogen that causes sudden oak death) Alveolates (dinoflagellates and similar organisms), Rhodophyta (red algae), Green Plants, a grab-bag category of various not-yet-assigned single-celled organisms, and Opisthokonts.

Opisthokonts are distinguished from other eukaryotes by a number of cellular and molecular features, the easiest to explain of which is that when opisthokonts form cells that move by way of the whip-like organelles known as flagella, those flagella grow on the posterior end of the cell, and there’s usually only one flagellum per cell.

About half the readers of this blog are producing one particular type of such cells right now, and a significant proportion of the other half is shouldered with the responsibility of killing them. Animals are a sub-subgroup of opisthokonts, along with fungi and some single-celled organisms.

“Animals,” despite a conflation in the common mind with “mammals” (“we saw plenty of animals, birds, and fish!”) refers to any multicellular animals, from rotifers to right whales. The vast majority of animals, by sheer numbers, are microscopic. Of those that aren’t, the vast majority are arthropods, which comprise three quarters of all known living and fossil species. Head deliberately along the evolutionary branches toward people, and be careful: there are thousands of wrong turns for each correct one. The majority of vertebrates are fish. Five sixths of terrestrial vertebrate species are birds, reptiles or amphibians. Almost half of all mammal species are rodents. Almost half the remainder are bats. Of primate species more than half are monkeys, with almost all of the rest lemurs or lorises.

We are one species among millions, one flimsy twig in a forest. The whole history of the biological sciences has been confirmation and reconfirmation of this fact. Copernicus and Galileo took us from the center of the universe. Thousands of biologists still work to dethrone us from the seat we had long usurped at the head of the table of life. This is a planet of bats and rats, of sparrows, of beetles and ants, but mainly — to a first approximation — this is a planet of bacteria. One could call us an afterthought, if one granted that thought played a role in our stepping onto life’s stage, which I do not. I find this point of view exhilarating, like looking at a starry sky and imagining the impossible distances. To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.

Which is why the first sentence of Chapter Six in Biology: God’s Living Creation angered me so badly:

Man is the most magnificent part of God’s creation — far more complex in structure and design than the earth or any heavenly body.

Ignore the untruth in the subordinate clause for the moment. It is the first part that is so dangerous, seductive even to non-fundamentalists. The devotee of Teilhard’s noösphere, the extropian with his imagined Manifest Evolutionary Destiny, the well-intentioned Marxist with his inevitability of change, all fall to the same teleological demon, shackled to the Great Chain of Being. And once we set ourselves apart from the rest of “creation,” we begin to resent our ties to the earth. Of what importance is a snail, a rotifer, a tiger? We begin to imagine — and to implement — a world in which we are alone.

It is called hubris. It goeth before a fall, already in progress.

The most dangerous part of the Crown of Creation notion, of course, is its ring of truth. We each of us are cooperative projects of a quadrillion or two prokaryotes, and those single cells conspire to create consciousness. It is as if pond scum, piled and shaped a certain way, began to discuss its purpose.

Shakespeare had it backwards, I think. That foul and pestilential congregation of vapors Hamlet loathed is far more sublime than any gaudy overhanging painted firmament. We are the quintessence of dust and yet we are as gods in apprehension, and that’s the whole point, and that’s the whole problem.

[Sep/10: This piece has been edited to reflect corrections offered in comments, below. --CC]

Comments

  1. says

    Give examples of truths recorded in the Scriptures many years before they were recognized by scientists.

    I guess it’d just have been too easy to ask students to give examples of stark falsehoods recorded in the Bible years before science found out what is real.

    Students and teachers alike will feel more comfortable when they realize that it is not biology that is in conflict with Scripture, but rather the ungodly philosophy of some biologists.

    And the philosophy practically everyone in the US adheres to–until some hideous lie like creationism intrudes and demands that evidence no longer be understood in context.

    Glen Davidson

  2. says

    This, right here, is one of the reasons I’m happy to be an atheist. Biology is so much more wonderful and interesting than any book of bronze age myths could ever be.

  3. Stacy says

    That there’s some beautiful writing (and thinking.)

    From the sublime to the ridiculous: I first read the title as “Clown Clade of Creation.” (As in, Creationism’s a clownish clade among memes.)

  4. Rodney Nelson says

    The Bible, the oldest record of man’s past

    The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3200 BCE with the earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BCE. Chinese logographs came later, around 1600 BCE, and Mesoamerican writing was developed around 600 BCE.

    The wikipedia article “Dating the Bible” says in part:

    The oldest surviving Hebrew Bible manuscripts date to about the 2nd century BCE (fragmentary), the oldest record of the complete text survives in a Greek translation called the Septuagint, dating to the 4th century CE (Codex Sinaiticus) and the oldest extant manuscripts of the vocalized Masoretic text upon which modern editions are based date to the 9th century CE.

    The traditional religious view on the origin of the Torah is that it was written by Moses between 1446 BCE and 1406 BCE. While this view is still held by a few conservative Christians and Jews, modern scholars argue that the whole of the Torah was composed in the mid-1st millennium BCE as a “prequel” to the prophetic books (books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). In addition, modern scholars point out that there is no evidence that Hebrews were able to write, nor any evidence of written Hebrew literature of any kind prior to the 10th Century BC.

    So Biology: God’s Living Creation is not only wrong on biology, it’s wrong on the Bible.

  5. bluescreenlife says

    Blech. I grew in a fundamentalist Baptist school, and this ignominious publisher Abeka (It was just Beka back then I believe) provided all of our “biology” textbooks. Nothing but unsubstantiated right-wing propaganda, waxing and waning on how the Clear Air Act in California is bad and how acid rain had negligible impact on the environment, and repeating the same old crap about “quantum evolution” and the “Piltdown” man. Puke puke puke.

  6. says

    It would seem it’s actually “A Beka,” even if you’re referring to more than one of the books. Making the correction. Thanks for the heads up, bluescreenlife.

  7. says

    I guess if I don’t do it, somebody else will.
    Crown of Creation

    And thank you for that.

    Several years ago I spent a lot of time as a member and moderator on a now defunct philosophy/religion forum. It was largely inhabited by regulars of a atheist/materialist or naturalistic perspective with a handfull of pantheist.

    It always surprised and amazed me how these normally thoughtful reasonable and rational people would start frothing at the mouth at the idea that humans are just a mammal developing along a particular branch. Insisting that plainly we stand alone in a class by ourselves, different in kind rather than degree from all other life. In the middle of a reasonable conversation a formally rational individual would start ranting like a creationist on crack about how we are a special category of life not comparable to any other.

    Never understood it, I’m fine with being a clever ape and just hope we are clever enough as a group not to run right off the end of the branch.

  8. kraut says

    “One could call us an afterthought, if one granted that thought played a role in our stepping onto life’s stage, which I do not. I find this point of view exhilarating, like looking at a starry sky and imagining the impossible distances. To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.”

    The only problem that as a minor branch we are capable of completely changing ecosystems in a geological geological microsecond.
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/kolbert-text

    Which imply means we already have taken way beyond our share, pushing our biological cousins into the dustbin. And worse is to come.

  9. David Marjanović says

    When I was taking high school biology back then in the Pleistocene, living things were no longer divided into three parts like Gaul. In 1894, Ernst Haeckel had added the Kingdom Protista to Linnaeus’ Plantae and Animalia, and you can still find textbooks in used book stores that follow this tripartite division, Protista consisting of single-celled organisms that aren’t clearly plants nor animals. During the late 1930s, increasing knowledge of bacterial anatomy prompted the addition of a fourth kingdom, Monera (or, straightforwardly, “Bacteria.”)

    In nineteen-sixty-mumble, my bio teacher taught his classes Robert Whittaker’s five-kingdom version of things, with Fungi given their own kingdom. Not long after, the two-empires system came into use, with the kingdoms divided between the “empires” Prokaryota, simple single-celled organisms, and Eukaryota, which included both singlecelled and multicellular organisms, all of which differed from prokaryotes in that their cells had organelles: nuclei at the very least, with some also having mitochondria, Golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticula, and — if the cells were very lucky — chloroplasts.

    And then, as you say, the domains.

    And then, I got my last highschool biology textbook. On the inside covers it had classifications, on one side the animal kingdom, on the other the plant kingdom. Shuddering yet? The plant kingdom had a subkingdom for the “anucleate plants” – the prokaryotes.

    I graduated in two-fucking-thousand. You know, in the future, when they had flying cars.

    To be fair, this abominable classification wasn’t what we were actually taught. We were actually taught almost nothing about the diversity of life, but we were taught the great distinction of pro- and eukaryotes (in simplified terms, of course, but still). But that fungi aren’t plants seems to have been news to everyone except me.

    BTW, Archaea + Eukary(ot)a is called Neomura. And Bacteria is probably paraphyletic.

  10. briane says

    This is a great post. I’ve often thought the religious claim to being humble, while also claiming to be the pinnacle of creation, and that the universe exists in some way to carry out a plan which involves them to be very not humble.

  11. magistramarla says

    I’m a Latin teacher, not a scientist, but I truly appreciated your extremely cogent explanation of classification in Biology and how it has changed over the years. It makes sense even to my non-scientific mind and brings back memories of my high school biology class in the early ’70s.
    I was lucky – I was educated in a very good public school during the Sputnik era. I’m appalled that so many young people are being lied to today, and as an educator, I want to see the truth get out there to our young people.
    I’m impressed by what you write, Chris. You are a good blogging partner for PZ.

  12. David Marjanović says

    It always surprised and amazed me how these normally thoughtful reasonable and rational people would start frothing at the mouth at the idea that humans are just a mammal developing along a particular branch. Insisting that plainly we stand alone in a class by ourselves, different in kind rather than degree from all other life. In the middle of a reasonable conversation a formally rational individual would start ranting like a creationist on crack about how we are a special category of life not comparable to any other.

    What irony, then, in this letter from Linnaeus Himself to Gmelin (1747):

    Non placet, quod Hominem inter ant[h]ropomorpha collocaverim, sed homo noscit se ipsum. Removeamus vocabula. Mihi perinde erit, quo nomine utamur. Sed quaero a Te et Toto orbe differentiam genericam inter hominem et Simiam, quae ex principiis Historiae naturalis. Ego certissime nullam novi. Utinam aliquis mihi unicam diceret! Si vocassem hominem simiam vel vice versa omnes in me conjecissem theologos. Debuissem forte ex lege artis.

    My translation:

    “It does not please [someone... you?] that I have placed [the genus] Homo (humans) among the anthropomorphs [human-likes; from 1758 or earlier onwards: Primates], but man knows himself. Let’s set the words aside. It will not matter to me which name we use. But I ask you and the whole world for a genus-level difference between Homo (humans) and Simia (monkeys/apes) that [follows?] from the principles of natural history. I most certainly do not know any. If only somebody would tell me a single one! If I had called man a monkey or the other way around, I would have brought up all theologists against me. I really would have had to by the law of the art [ = natural history].”

    Now, Linnaeus was a creationist. Not just by default, but he explicitly rejected Buffon’s theory of evolution. Linnaeus was also a deeply pious man; his publications are littered with Bible quotes and poems like “O JEHOVA / Quam magna sunt Tua opera [...] [ = how great are Your works]“.

    (Further irony: “genus-level” is totally arbitrary. Linnaeus failed to recognize lots of arbitrary things as such. But I digress.)

  13. David Marjanović says

    Oh. Link to the letter.

    (Also, the genera have shrunk a lot since Linnaeus. And the name Simia turned into such a mess over the centuries that the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature pulled the emergency brake a few decades ago and suppressed the name completely. But again I digress. *sigh*)

  14. David Marjanović says

    I’ll just ignore the fact that that reshuffling happened four years before I wrote the book review.

    Oh no, that’s not a reshuffling at all. It’s just that that clade, which had been recognized for years before this, finally got a name.

    That’s something I wanted to mention: some of the changes you explained were due to advances in science, others to advances in nomenclature; that’s not the same thing.

  15. says

    The name Neomura is obviously derived from the typical genus, Neomys — way to go, Eurasian water shrews!

    (But they should rename Soricidae, Soricinae, and Nectogalini to match…)

  16. McC2lhu saw what you did there. says

    ChasCPeterson @4

    Oh, c’mon! Give a person some warning next time. I barely had time to break out the love beads, lava lamp, tie-dye and bong in time to properly enjoy that. My wife barely got the beaded curtain and black light posters up.

    Chris Clark @19

    I’m thinking I should volunteer you to preefrood the Joshua tree book for me.

    You made me LOL. I admit to living in a cave or under a rock so this one is new to me, but something tells me it’s an oldie that I managed to miss somehow.

  17. says

    There’s a significant difference between “basing things on human concerns” and behaving as though humans are the only organisms that matter. Humanism and anthropocentrism are not the same thing.

    You made me LOL. I admit to living in a cave or under a rock so this one is new to me, but something tells me [preefrood] is an oldie that I managed to miss somehow.

    I may or may not have stolen that from Ron Sullivan 20 years ago.

  18. Ichthyic says

    I’m thinking I should volunteer you to preefrood the Joshua tree book for me.

    I regret never having run into you all the times I spent hiking and rock climbing there!

    I spent 20 years doing treks in the park and outside of it; great memories of doing Carey’s Castle with friends and family every other year or so, and always hitting the place in the early spring (usually blackrock area) for wildflowers and reptile photos.

    *sigh*

    alas, it is now not to be. I’m on the other side of the planet.

    picture swap?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ichthyic/sets/280089/

  19. Ichthyic says

    And you caught my good side, too, though it looks like you did so before I’d had coffee.

    so… after you have coffee do you squirt blood out of your eyes?

    can I watch?

    :)

    yup, been hiking around the Eagle mountain area a bit myself.

    I used to collect cactus specimens from there.

    *redfaced*

    seriously though, I had a huge collection from that area I tended for over 15 years; parts of it even went with me to grad school in Berkeley. My buddy I used to collect with and I finally did a big trip 5 years back to replant them in the exact areas I took them from originally before I left for NZ.

    man, was that a lot of work.

  20. says

    A few of them. First Solar’s Desert Sunlight is under construction, and Desert Harvest is proposed for south of it toward Desert Center. Palen is a few miles east: it was originally designed as a big PV facility but BrightSource just bought it, and BrightSource only builds power tower technology, so that one may change.

    Pretty much all of the desert east of JTNP and south of Route 62 into Imperial County is being eyed for solar.

  21. Ichthyic says

    huh.

    color me conflicted. As mentioned, some of those areas were ones I spent time hiking in, but I understand these things have to be built somewhere.

    I hope there were significant environmental impact studies?

    IIRC, there was some debate about tortoise habitat.

  22. says

    There is always debate about tortoise habitat, and the Ivanpah plant (also under construction now) found hundreds more than the initial survey indicated.

    As for the “they’ve gotta go somewhere” issue, that’s a very large other post with what will likely be a contentious comment thread, but as I’ve been working on the issue for some years now, the elevator version:

    1) Central Station solar is a dying technology, and distributed urban solar is cheaper, faster, more efficient and less damaging
    2) even if it isn’t, there’s abundant disturbed land closer to load centers with much less habitat value: think the Westlands (farmed-out selenium-contaminated land in the San Joaquin Valley for you non-Californians)

  23. grumpyoldfart says

    Man is the most magnificent part of God’s creation — far more complex in structure and design than the earth or any heavenly body.

    I spent my whole working life on the factory floor with people who left school at about age fifteen or sixteen. Hardly any of them were creationists, not many were churchgoers, and quite a few were unbelievers, but nearly all of them instinctively regarded Man as the most important creature on the planet.
    `

    I was taught that that was not the case and they must have been taught the same, but they chose to ignore it and persisted in placing mankind on a pedestal. Even those who had heard of evolution would often say things like “Humans are at the top of the evolutionary tree.”
    `

    We’ve got a long way to go…

  24. Ichthyic says

    looking forward to the post, Chris.

    itmt:

    ) Central Station solar is a dying technology, and distributed urban solar is cheaper, faster, more efficient and less damaging

    it’s cheaper if someone is investing in it.

    where did the 70 million CA spent investing in solar tech go?

  25. Ichthyic says

    the Westlands

    indeed. it would make more sense on the surface.

    a lot of area around the Salton sea is pretty useless now too.

  26. sonderval says

    Very nice, but I dont get this statement:
    “The majority of terrestrial vertebrate species are birds, and 96 percent of the remainder are lizards and snakes.”

    We have 5000 mammals, about 6000 “reptiles” (lizards and snakes), 1500 amphibia, AFAIK?

  27. says

    That is what the experts would call a “mistake.” I have no idea why I wrote 96% in the original, because there are a bit more than 9,100 squamatid species (and about 325 other reptiles, mainly turkles) and more than 7,000 amphibian species, compared to about 5200 species of mammal. I’ll amend the post here to reflect the correction. Good catch.

  28. rq says

    I think one of my biggest moments of wonder was the one in which I realized that there is a fairly distinct relationship between fungi and insects and crustaceans due to their common use of chitin. And it felt like such an eye-opening moment, that these several things that on the outside were so very different (mushrooms? beetles? shrimp?) could actually be in some weird way connected… And now I find that we are all opisthokonts together. This is awesome.
    (I’m somewhat out-of-date as well, mostly through not keeping up.)

    Thanks for the great post – thanks for the informative re-cap on classification!

  29. says

    rq, the fungal chitin thing gave me one of those “holy crap” moments when I learned about it too: cell walls like plants, but made out of insect exoskeleton material? Whoa.

  30. sonderval says

    @Chris
    9000 squamata and 7000 amphibia. Wow, my numbers are way off (learned those some time in the 80s…)

  31. corkscrew says

    To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.

    …that’s an interesting conclusion to jump to. :)

    I guess the question is: what is “our share” as a species? Ask that question 50,000 years ago and the answer would exclude Australia. Ask it 150,000 years ago and the answer would be a small chunk of Africa.

    Basically, if we as a species had followed the incentive “not to take more than our share”, 99.99% of us wouldn’t exist. And I am very skeptical that we could have invented science and literature, or even written language, without that population density.

    I should mention: I’m only whining about the philosophy here, not what actions we should be taking vis-a-vis climate change etc. Even if you don’t believe in an ethical imperative to constrain human expansion, there’s still a strong pragmatic argument for not sawing off the branch we’re all sitting on.

    I’ve just never heard a coherent argument supporting the “ethical imperative” idea, and I’m interested to hear Chris’s views.

  32. Ichthyic says

    Basically, if we as a species had followed the incentive “not to take more than our share”, 99.99% of us wouldn’t exist.

    if we add another 10 billion, each one of them would say the same thing you just did, right?

    problem is still the same.

  33. madtom1999 says

    “God dispersed mankind throughout the world…”
    So god truely is hate! I’ve always felt that the human diaspora was forced, not through innovation or some thirll in seeking new lands but to get away from the folks.
    You dont end up spending six months in the dark, or where the air is too thin to breathe for fun – you have to have a parent or sibling to get away from!

  34. says

    I’m probably not going to make friends with this statement, but I strongly object to the following argument:

    We are one species among millions, one flimsy twig in a forest. [...] To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.

    I don’t think the conclusion follows from the beautiful preceeding paragraph. There’s no such thing as “our share” – any species’ share at any one point is whatever it manages to carve out for itself. Our ancestors already took more than their fair share when they left the waters, and I don’t think the arthropods who found they were no longer at the top of the food chain in terrestrial habitats were happy about it either. North American mammals also took more than their share when an accident of tectonics allowed them to invade South America in the Pliocene. Bees are taking more than their share by giving angiosperms an edge over ferns and horsetails above and beyond what they’d otherwise have.

    I am not against environmentalism. In principle, I would say that should we as a civilisation ever get to the point where we can make an informed democratic decision to transform the entirity of the Amazon rainforest into something more accomodating to human needs, after establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the net benefit for our species would outweigh the net cost, setting aside generous funds for restituting those who would otherwise bear the costs, and defining a transparent procedure to allocate those funds efficiently and more broadly to distribute the benefits among as many people as possible, I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with it (I might still be against it for emotional reasons, though I would not feel easy to claim that this opposition is based on science). But the crucial words here are “informed” and “democratic” – we are nowhere near understanding the long-term effects of wholesale changes to the biosphere well enough to predict the effects doing so would have for global weather patterns at a time when the climate is already changing, so any assumed benefit might be easily outweighed by unintended effects. And even if we understood those effects well enough, chances are that the costs would not be properly considered as long as they can be externalised, and whoever gets hit by the side-effect will be stuck with tough luck.

    So, yeah, I’ll fight on your side – but for me this is a political decision that is made necessary by the political situation of the world today more so than something that follows from our role as one species among manies.

  35. bortedwards says

    And we (humans to disambiguate in case there are any dolphins reading this) are not the only species to modify our environment, by a long shot. Just (probably) the only one to have some empathetic/moral reaction to it. Which leads me into mental/logical/moral knots when sitting in philosophical mood on the conveniently clear ground under a nice ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allelopathy) wondering what really is ‘natural.’ As comment above, I whole-heatedly agree that the human impact is blighting and in many cases arrogant, but it’s hard to identify a natural line at which to start or stop. But either way, that makes ‘us’ no more remarkable than any other species with its own unique set of adaptations and responses to the world.

  36. ChasCPeterson says

    I barely had time to break out the love beads, lava lamp, tie-dye and bong in time to properly enjoy that. My wife barely got the beaded curtain and black light posters up.

    what does it mean that I can see five of the items mentioned from where I sit?

  37. slowdjinn says

    “what does it mean that I can see five of the items mentioned from where I sit?”

    That you’re hiding in McC2lhu’s attic?

  38. David Marjanović says

    The name Neomura is obviously derived from the typ[e] genus, Neomys — way to go, Eurasian water shrews!

    :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

    I’ll kill the joke: murus = wall. Intended to mean “those with a new cell wall” as opposed to the bacterial one made from proteoglycans.

    Eurasian water shrews FTW!

    Pretty much all of the desert east of JTNP and south of Route 62 into Imperial County is being eyed for solar.

    It never ceases to amaze me what passes for “desert” in North America. That’s hardly a semidesert! Plants everywhere you look!

    squamatid

    Just “squamate”. There is no Squamatidae or Squamatida, just Squamata.

    more than 7,000 amphibian species

    7,022 as of today (scroll to the bottom; changes every few days).

  39. corkscrew says

    if we add another 10 billion, each one of them would say the same thing you just did, right?

    That’s kinda my point. The idea that humans have a well-defined “share” of the world is an old one… but the share that people think we should have has changed dramatically over time.

    That suggests to me that it’s less a principled stand and more neophobia. As with old people struggling with technology that wasn’t around when they were a lad/lass, people are just instinctively uncomfortable with major increases in the world population over their lifetimes.

    A good way of proving me wrong would be to come up with some sort of empirical measurement of how many humans the world can sensibly support. Then show that we’re in danger of exceeding this.

    If you try this approach, make sure you don’t smuggle the status quo in through your assumptions. For example by specifying a minimum area per human that just happens to be the area people find acceptable now.

  40. David Marjanović says

    Oh, how I long to put you here in August.

    I’m not saying it’s not hot. I’m saying it’s green. :-)

  41. says

    I don’t understand why they need to shave and grade all the PV installations. It seems like there should be a better way to maintain the desert plants – which don’t, btw, provide any substantial shade – and install the units.

    I’d do it with a combination of putting monocrysalltine units away from tree-like objects and multi closer. I don’t get why they can’t just use light equipment and got around natural features. It seems to me like that would be cheaper, over all.

    And yeah, putting forests of PV units atop all the parking lots and buildings in urban areas really seems the best way to start, rather than building in the desert. No big transmission lines and less massive voltage steppers ups and downs.

  42. says

    Corkscrew, you seem to be asking for an engineering analysis of what is essentially an ethical question.

    I mean, there ARE hard facts. Only so much solar energy hitting the earth’s surface, only so much of that can be turned into ecological resources, and if one species harnesses too much of that ecological productivity then the system becomes far too likely to fail catastrophically.

    But it may be that we find some way of running our own private ecology through cheap abundant fusion or asteroid mining or harnessing the energy from Julian Simon’s mouldering corpse, and we are then able to turn Earth into some version of Asimov’s Trantor, with every square mile either paved or encased in metal or managed as a carefully tended park with the few non-human species we’ve decided to keep around, and that 100 billion people can live happy lives eating protein bars synthesized from our own sewage, all of it run by AIs smart enough to anticipate the unanticipated consequences of our system’s functioning.

    The basic philosophical issue, then, isn’t engineering. It’s whether we have any right to push other species over the edge either deliberately or through negligience. And there’s not an obvious answer on a species by species basis. The majority of the world’s people would probably be against driving dogs to extinction. Most would probably be just fine with putting Anopheles mosquitoes out of business.

    My own personal belief is that a utter disregard for the welfare of other species is something structurally akin to sociopathy, but I’m the first to admit I’m out at one end of the public opinion bell curve on that.

    At any rate, you’ve inspired a post that I’ll put up either today or tomorrow. Interesting questions. Thanks.

  43. viajera says

    OP: “The majority of terrestrial vertebrate species are birds, and 96 percent of the remainder are lizards and snakes.”

    Also, too, there are only 10,000 species of birds (10,451 extant species to be precise). Which means birds are the most speciose group of terrestrial vertebrates, but they don’t account for a majority of terrestrial verts (10k birds + 9k squamatids + 7k amphibians + 5k mammals = 31k).

    jmst @ 50:
    In principle, I would say that should we as a civilisation ever get to the point where we can make an informed democratic decision to transform the entirity of the Amazon rainforest into something more accomodating to human needs, after establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the net benefit for our species would outweigh the net cost… I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with it

    Net cost to whom? Humans – and, if so, to modern humans only? Or would you factor in costs to those tribes that still live in more-or-less traditional ways in the forest? What about the cost to all those millions (by the time you count all the as-yet-unidentified beetles and ants and such) of species that live in the forest? I think a total reckoning of all the costs would be essentially impossible.

    jmst @ 50:
    we are nowhere near understanding the long-term effects of wholesale changes to the biosphere well enough to predict the effects doing so would have for global weather patterns at a time when the climate is already changing, so any assumed benefit might be easily outweighed by unintended effects.

    But we do know an awful lot already, and all our empirical data as well as our models tells us the local, regional, and global climatic effects would be Very Bad for all involved. We know from both empirical and modeling studies that deforestation affects local rainfall patterns (see, e.g., Lawton et al. 2001), and that this scales up to affect global climate (see, e.g., “http://lba.cptec.inpe.br/publications/LBA_JGR_Special_Issue_Oct_2002/Local_and_global_effects_Amazon_deforestation_Roni_Avissar_JGR_LBA_Oct2002.pdf”>Wirth and Avissar 2002). Though there is still a debate over whether intact, old-growth tropical forests are important carbon sinks, we do know that deforestation is a huge carbon source (see, e.g., DeFries et al. 2002). So even though are current models are imperfect, we do know enough to say that clearing the entire Amazon would be *disastrous* by any definition of “net cost”.

    bortedwards @51 (and corkscrew @59):
    I whole-heatedly agree that the human impact is blighting and in many cases arrogant, but it’s hard to identify a natural line at which to start or stop. But either way, that makes ‘us’ no more remarkable than any other species with its own unique set of adaptations and responses to the world.

    You’re right, we’re far from the only species that alters its environment. But other than blue-green algae causing the end-Ordovician mass extinction by oxygenating the atmosphere, I can’t think of any other species that has (or has had) anywhere close to the same effects we have. I don’t know where to draw the line either, but I think we’re well past it. We’re already using more resources each year than the planet can generate – I don’t see how that can be considered sustainable by any definition.

    Great discussion!

  44. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Only so much solar energy hitting the earth’s surface? Yes indeed. The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. This compares to about 3,000 EJ/year converted into biomass, and total primary energy use by humans of 487 EJ during 2005 (it would be slightly more for more recent years). That’s not to say there are no environmental problems arising from solar power: but grabbing too great a proportion of the total solar energy isn’t one of them, nor is it obvious we’re currently anywhere near the limit on how much can be turned into ecological resources.

  45. says

    Also, too, there are only 10,000 species of birds (10,451 extant species to be precise). Which means birds are the most speciose group of terrestrial vertebrates, but they don’t account for a majority of terrestrial verts (10k birds + 9k squamatids + 7k amphibians + 5k mammals = 31k).

    For the love of… this will teach me to assume I don’t need to edit my old stuff. Thanks, viajera. Fixing.

  46. says

    total primary energy use by humans of 487 EJ during 2005 (it would be slightly more for more recent years). That’s not to say there are no environmental problems arising from solar power: but grabbing too great a proportion of the total solar energy isn’t one of them,

    I suspect that 487 exajoules doesn’t include eating, or account for the degradation of biological diversity caused by converting ecosystems to food production for human beings.

    nor is it obvious we’re currently anywhere near the limit on how much can be turned into ecological resources.

    We are absolutely past the limit unless we decide to intervene massively in extant ecological processes, at which point we run up against that pesky ethical question.

  47. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Chris Clarke,

    I suspect that 487 exajoules doesn’t include eating, or account for the degradation of biological diversity caused by converting ecosystems to food production for human beings.

    No, I don’t think it does, but as it’s solar power we’re talking about, that seems rather irrelevant. The total absorbed by photosynthesis is estimated at 5000 EJ/year, so even if people were eating all of that (directly or indirectly), it would still be a small fraction of the total solar energy the planet absorbs.

    nor is it obvious we’re currently anywhere near the limit on how much can be turned into ecological resources.

    We are absolutely past the limit unless we decide to intervene massively in extant ecological processes

    Which we’ve already done, and have absolutely no choice about continuing to do. I’m not disagreeing with your main point (I agree that we should consider the needs of non-human organisms, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this blog and elsewhere on FtB arguing that if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change, radical behavioural and institutional change is essential), but I don’t think talking in terms of such crude supposed limits is useful, because it’s rather easily debunked.

  48. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Sorry, as I said before, photosynthesis is estimated to absorb 3000 EJ/year, not 5000 as I said @68.

  49. Ichthyic says

    For example by specifying a minimum area per human that just happens to be the area people find acceptable now.

    and that’s MY point.

    no matter where you draw the line, it will always be relative.

    what constitutes an “acceptable” share of resources?

    who decides?

    it’s way too complicated for a simple answer.