Clausen, Keck, Hiesey

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To continue a bit of theme, I mentioned that there were some different ways to approach biology, and that old-school systematists with their breadth of knowledge about the diversity of life are getting harder and harder to find. This is something I also bring up in my introductory biology course, where we discuss how biologists do their work, and I mention that one distinction you can find (which is really a continuum and frequently breached) is that there are bench scientists and field scientists, and they differ in multiple ways. Bench scientists tend to be strongly reductionist, tend to focus on one or very few species, and may study just one specific, highly inbred lab strain of a species, and try to minimize environmental variables. Variation is noise that interferes with getting at basic mechanisms. Field scientists, on the other hand, argue that the simplicity of the lab is unrealistic, that the proper study of organisms has to be done in the messy complexity of the real world, and think that variation, rather than being uninteresting noise, is fascinating stuff, the meat and potatoes of evolution. Both points of view have their place, and speaking for all biologists, I think we appreciate the power and necessity of both approaches. The money seems to mostly go to the bench guys, though, which does unfortunately skew the field as a whole.

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I think I despise anti-environmentalists as much as I do anti-evolutionists

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Ah, the libertarian extremists have found my site and are making comments. It’s a peculiar pathology that thinks environmentalism is an evil plot, that planning is communism/socialism, and that Jesus was a good capitalist. It is particularly irksome to try and deal with people who are so far gone that they deny science warning them of environmental dangers and impending problems.

How irksome? Imagine that a scientist and one of these deranged libertarian right-wing anti-environmentalist science deniers go out for a drive one day…

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The Seed Crystal Ball

Our Seed Overlords have submitted yet another question to their blogulous oracle, i.e., us: Will the “human” race be around in 100 years?

I don’t think it’s a particularly good question, I’m afraid. The answer is simply “yes”. If the question were about prairie chickens, cheetahs, or chimpanzees, it would be a more challenging question, but with a population of 6.5 billion of us, I don’t think there’s much doubt. We’ll be here. The only question is what state we and the world will be in. I’ll speculate a bit on possible outcomes.

  1. We keep going as we have been. The population is double what it is now or more, and resources are scarcer. We continue to tear at the planet, squabbling over what’s left, and we’re wallowing in poverty and war and desperation. That can’t last, of course: sometime beyond that century mark, or before, we hit scenario 2.
  2. There is a major resource crash. The oceans are exhausted, climate change wrecks agriculture, plagues rip through a bloated population, and there is a massive die-off of humanity. Populations drop precipitously, leaving only scattered enclaves. Civilization as we know it ends. Humanity continues, but in a barbarous state.
  3. The optimistic scenario: some cultures practice restraint, using technology to control population growth and develop sustainable food and energy resources. They work to bring about scientific and technological advances that improve their chances for survival and progress. Unfortunately, the whole world won’t do that: the gap between the haves and have nots widens. On one side, population reductions by choice and with little disruption; on the other, population reductions by starvation and suppression and war.

I don’t think there will be any significant biological changes in us. Four or five generations for a population as large as ours just isn’t enough time for major transformations. Changes populations of bacteria and viruses is another matter—humanity is one giant culture dish as far as they are concerned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hugely traumatic disease does arise in our near future. I’d be surprised if it didn’t. Expect populations of other large and fragile organisms to continue to experience our existence as a disaster. The only real question of import is how much biodiversity will be lost before we come to our senses (unlikely) or are taken down by a few orders of magnitude by nature (much more likely).

Hey, nobody said these questions have to prompt happy stories.

Suicide is not the highest form of self-interest

We have a little war going on in this thread. Some people are arguing that we shouldn’t assume human beings are the most important creatures bar none around, while other people are angry that Eric Pianka would have such high regard for other organisms on Earth and would urge us to make room and restrict our population.

I’m personally more sympathetic to the egalitarian view that denies humanity a privileged position, except in our own personal esteem, but OK, let’s play the game. Let’s assume that human beings are the most important, most precious, most essential species on the entire planet—heck, the entire Universe. We must do everything in our power to guarantee their safety and prosperity. I will simply and unilaterally defer to the other side’s opinion.

Now what?

What should we do to maximize the health and happiness of the human race? What are the selfish, self-centered actions that we ought to carry out to make the largest number of people maximally happy for the longest period of time?

I’m afraid that even with my immense concession, your best answer is to listen to the “enviro-wackos”. They’re the ones thinking in the long term about sustainability and diversity. They’re the ones trained to understand all the interactions going on on a healthy planet, who not only appreciate the totality of life here, but are even aware of the rich species diversity here. They’re the ones who realize you can’t pave the planet and use the oceans for a sewer, and expect humanity to survive.

Do you even understand the argument? I’m not saying that we need to preserve the snail darter because it is a valuable organism in and of itself, but because we are screwing over ourselves when we smash and poison our environment to such a degree that as innocuous a creature as a small fish is unable to survive. I’m being greedy, not altruistic. It’s a position both sides ought to understand.

People are trying to argue that we are not currently overpopulated, which is ludicrous. We’re seeing rapid habitat destruction and a wave of extinctions all around the globe; we’re seeing environmental catastrophes that are killing people. If we were in a sustainable balance with our fellow species, we would not be seeing these ongoing and irreversible losses. If your priority is humanity über alles, are you working to conserve energy and slow global warming? Why not? Do you realize that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and overfishing the oceans and deforesting the tropics is going to reduce the number of people who can live here in peace and prosperity?

It’s exasperating to see so many people pretending that holding humanity in the highest esteem means you’ve got the right to trash your home…your only home.

Swamps are lovely

Darksyde’s latest Science Friday is an interview with Michael Grunwald on the subject of the Florida Everglades. It’s a mostly bad news with threads of forlorn hope scattered throughout, like most environmental news.

The bad news is that the ecosystem is in a state of near-collapse. Lake Okeechobee is going to hell; it’s the color of espresso. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries are just gross. And CERP is already way over budget, behind schedule, and off track; Congress is losing interest in funding it. The good news is that there are signs that Floridians are beginning to recognize that their way of life is not sustainable. Posh towns like Fort Myers, Sanibel, Stuart and Jupiter are in revolt over the decline of the estuaries; retirees are having trouble breathing at the beach. Governor Bush shocked enviros by taking their side in a battle over sprawl in Miami-Dade County. A plan to build a massive biotech campus at the edge of the Everglades–maybe the biggest project in Florida since Disney–was blocked by an environmental lawsuit; now it looks like it’s going to move to a more sensible location. And remember: several million acres of the Everglades ecosystem is already in public ownership. So there’s hope.

Another black mark for the Bush administration

We shouldn’t be surprised when the Bush administration jiggers the scientific books:

In short, Oregon State University scientists reported in Science magazine that some logging practices may contribute to forest fires, rather than curbing them as conventional wisdom leads us to believe. The report ran contrary to current federal policy under the Bush administration, and the funding for the research group was suspended.

When reality conflicts with your ideology, it must be reality that’s in error.

Hey, so George and Al are indistinguishable!

Bush/Gore, Bore/Gush, they were both the same, remember? It didn’t matter whether you voted Democrat or Republican, you were just getting the same ol’ thing.

Look how true that is: Bush sounds just like Al Gore. Of course, there were a few minor differences, like that Gore was 14 years ahead of Bush, really meant it (rather than having his lackeys issue retractions the day after), and I suspect, had the competence to actually follow through.

Tyrone Hayes at UMM

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Last week, the opening convocation for Black History Month was given by Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley. I was impressed: he’s exceptionally personable, and despite the poor organization of his visit (UMM’s fault, entirely) and having to drive for hours through a small blizzard to get here from the airport, he was gracious and fun to talk with. He gave a phenomenally well-organized, lucid talk which managed to describe all the basics of his research in terms a lay audience, most of whom were not science majors of any kind, could comprehend. And as I learned, most of his work is done by undergraduates—he has an enviable research program fueled by entry level students working towards a bachelor’s degree. I am humbled.

I have to say that if you get an opportunity to hear Hayes speak, jump at it. It’s a model of good educational rhetoric. And hey, if you’re on a seminar committee somewhere, look into inviting him out…it will be worth your while.

The subject of his talk was atrazine. Atrazine is a heavily used pesticide in the United States—we hose our cornfields with the stuff around here, using it to control weeds and boost the productivity of our acreage by 1.2%. That may not sound like much, but over the entire midwest, that adds up to really big money, money that flows into the coffers of its manufacturer, Syngenta. Syngenta is a Swiss company, and interestingly, atrazine is banned in Europe. In the US, we’re allowed to have up to 3 parts per billion in our drinking water, and Syngenta initially commissioned Hayes to research possible deleterious effects of atrazine.

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