The beauty is profound. The ecological health is unique, better than practically anywhere else on earth. But the greatest treasure is helping us understand evolution.
Snakes? I know, for most people they command little love. We place the few humans who like them in remote categories generously tagged as “weird.” But where I’m going in a few weeks, they’re more precious than pirate treasure!
Next week I travel to the furthest eastern part of Africa, Mauritius. Everything about the island nation is unique, including its biology probably best represented by … a snake.
There is not just one giraffe animal. There are four giraffe animals. Open your mind. Get yourself comfortable. This is incredible news.
Using astoundingly advanced DNA typing, scientists last week announced that the tall, slender-necked animal that all of us blithely call “giraffe” may not be. Or rather, may be several times over. Let me explain.
My #8 most important story in Africa was the wondrous advancement in evolutionary science the continent provided us in 2015!
Paleontology — especially in Africa — is just simply growing in leaps and bounds. Not too many years ago when it was presumed we (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in a linear way from just a few creatures that preceded us and followed the apes, enormous attention was applied to finding the gaps, or “missing links” in that line.
That’s all blown away, now. The last few decades have proved so rich with discoveries showing that there were many, perhaps many many species of “early man.” Even the Neanderthals, who were likely not on our own linear evolutionary line, probably had cousins who died out.
So as the universe of potential discovery grows, so does the depth, range and interest of scientists, and that as you can imagine leads to more and more discoveries.
Here are the high points of 2015:
Most important certainly was the announcement of the initial conclusions about Homo Naledi, a new early man species found in South Africa in 2013.
I don’t agree with all the conclusions, particularly that the cave in which the 15 individuals were found was a burial site, but there are many other equally interesting conclusions that come from this remarkable discovery.
First and foremost, the appendages (hands and feet) of the creature were very close to our own, even though the brain size suggested a very primitive and early creature that would, for example, predate both homo erectus and homo habilis.
The individuals were astoundingly complete, at least in terms of what most 2½ million year old fossils normally look like.
And from my layman point of view, the incredible transparency of the discovery, from almost the moment it was found to the invitation to scientists worldwide to analysis the data, marked a real turning point in the until to now bitter infighting common among paleontologists.
Some other important bones discovered included fingers! Million-year old fingers aren’t easy to come by, and the discovery in Olduvai parallels Naledi’s suggestion that our physical traits existed much earlier in the hominin record than previously thought.
In the category of “keeps getting older” scientists also in South Africa found a homo habilis dated to almost 3 million years old. This predates by nearly a half million years the next oldest habilis find and resurrects suggestions this is our own most immediate ancestor.
This was hotly contested, by the way, with another 2015 discovery in Georgia of another homo erectus. The scientists on this site insist this creature is in line for our most immediate ancestor.
Moving away from old bones, there were scores of new tool finds, deeper analysis of existing data and actual field science regarding the dynamics of evolution itself.
Stone tools were very many years presumed to mean the user was an early man. That’s changed as we documented less than mankind, like chimpkind, also uses them.
In 2015 scientists announced finding what they claimed were the oldest fossil stone tools on record, more than 3 million years old. I disagree with their conclusion that this find by itself pushes back “humanness,” but it remains an argument that still carries weight.
One of the hottest topics this decade is trying to figure out why we prevailed and Neanderthals didn’t. Some really clever research suggests at least one of the reasons is that we had … and enjoyed music! (And that the big guy didn’t.)
Some may fear I’m sinking into the arcane, but there was also some really fascinating research on Africa’s cichlid fishes that qualifies the value of natural selection! Cool stuff.
Some people lay on their back and peer into the heavens, wondering what’s out there. I do sometimes as well, but I much prefer peering into the distant past and wondering what marvels of the universe transformed us into what we are, today!
(For my summary of all the top 10 stories in Africa in 2015, click here.)
In a beautiful twist of evolutionary intuition, a recent study by University of California-Davis scientists shows that selective adaptation might just as easily lead to extinction as species preservation.
Their studies were made in the two African lakes, Malawi and Tanganyika.
The easy way many think of natural selection is that the physical changes in a species caused by random forces (like heat or radiation) prove so advantageous to those changed individuals that they become the genetic kings and soon dominate the species.
Bipedalism in hominins, for example, was so advantageous in the acquisition of food that it became an essential characteristic to all man-like creatures.
But the UC-Davis scientists proved that what at one point may be an advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage, further supporting the idea that evolution is hardly linear, random and sometimes even counter-productive.
Many contemporary studies of the mechanics of evolution use sub-Saharan Africa’s Great Rift Lake fishes. This is because so many rapid changes are occurring to the environment in the area, and the fish there breed so rapidly, that evolutionary change can actually be measured in real time.
Cichlid fishes are the usual subject. These are the “angel fish” and “neon tetras” and other fresh-water “tropical fish” typically sold in pet stores.
In this particular study, the scientists showed how cichlid fishes came to dominate their ecosystem by developing pharyngeal jaws, a second set of jaws located below the mouth’s first set.
It proved a fabulous adaptation, because it gave them much more power to bite. Previous potential prey, both vegetative and other fish, too hard to consume because of protective outer protection like thick scales or strong fibrous outer layers, became useful food to the fish with pharyngeal jaws.
Soon almost all the cichlid fishes had pharyngeal jaws.
But when Nile Perch appeared in the ecosystem of the cichlids, some of the cichlids began to rapidly decline.
Scientists at first thought that the Nile Perch were consuming the cichlids, even though they were often around the same size with the same mouth size, so there was interest as to why the Nile were winning.
Turns out the Nile Perch weren’t directly responsible. The perch does not have pharyngeal jaws, so it’s able to open its mouth twice as much as the cichlids with the super jaws.
The perch simply out ate those cichlids that were accustomed to eating other fish, because they simply controlled a larger area for food gathering.
Alas, what not so long ago proved a successful adaptation of natural selection subsequently became a reason for species decline:
“Researchers had seen the pharyngeal jaws of cichlids as a classic example of evolutionary innovation. That’s still true, but the study also reveals that the evolution wasn’t wholly beneficial.”
Well, of course, that’s not necessarily right: The unsuccessful adaptation of the cichlid super jaws was, in fact, beneficial to the Nile Perch. So in the context of the overall ecosystem, evolution did evince beneficial progressions.
Super jaws, though, bit the dust.
One of the wondrous moments that a mature birder experiences is when suddenly the puzzle which has been scattered in a hundred million pieces starts to come together.
Chimps have long been known to be murderers and cannibals. While dominance within many species is often violent and considered essential for the social organization of many species, it very rarely extends to murder and except for chimps, to cannibalism.
So scientists have been at odds for years trying to explain this behavior in chimpanzees. Research came to a head about five years ago when scientists carefully documented chimp gangs that persistently (sometimes over ten years) plotted against one another then celebrated territorial victories by eating their foe’s babies.
Anthropology Professor Jill Pruetz believed for many years that this chimp behavior was aberrant, that it would not occur naturally in the wild were it not for some unnatural interference. Most of the colleagues who agreed with her believed that “something else” was human interference.
It could be chimps mocking human behavior (many chimp studies occur near very violent parts of Africa) or humans stressing chimp’s habitat, but it seemed just impossible to ascribe murder and cannibalism to natural behavior.
The “study says chimpanzees kill their own as a survival strategy, not due to human contact,” summarizes science journalist Monte Morin in yesterday’s L.A. Times.
And as far as I can tell, virtually everyone agrees.
That’s fine. But what’s not fine and in my opinion absolutely horrible is to use this study as an explanation for human violence.
Arizona State professor Joan Silk wrote an opinion article in that same issue of Nature, which she titled, “The evolutionary roots of lethal conflict,” which says it all.
A closer look at Silk’s opinion may be more nuanced than the title, but her title is what was picked up and replayed time and again in the less refined media. Clearly she committed a grievous scientific error in not adding “in chimpanzees” to her title.
There is absolutely nothing scientific or even rational to presume that behavior in chimps explains behavior in humans.
In what I feel is yellow science Silk invited the comparisons.
“The origins and prevalence of human warfare may be echoed in the search for the answer to chimpanzee adaptation,” wrote one scientific blogger yesterday, and it’s a wholly rational conclusion from Silk’s title, whether she intended it or not.
“Peace-loving anti-war activists call war ‘unnatural,’ but our closest animal relatives show that at least a little bloodshed is perfectly natural,” wrote Rebecca Kaplan in Tech Times, yesterday.
And on and on.
Studies of evolutionary behavior cannot extend back 6-10 million years to the separation of the hominin and ape branches of the hominid evolutionary tree. That’s just too long ago.
Behavior changes infinitely more rapidly than DNA. To claim that today’s chimp’s murder-and-cannibalism as a survival tool means that our earliest common ancestor with chimps had that behavior, too, is ludicrous.
And even if the ECA did, it’s impossible to suggest that our behavior today is still manifest by it.
There is no question that war has been used as a survival tool by humankind. But this is not because it’s ingrained in our genes, which is how the current chimp study is being distorted.
Why human violence evolved is certainly an interesting question, but it’s not biological. And what’s even more troubling is how the uneducated reaction to this study devolves from societies to individuals, suggesting all individuals carry a kill instinct.
I am so upset by this race to justify murder and violence. It slips so easily into the contemporary narratives supporting police using excessive force, violence and abuse against the less powerful like spouses and children, and not least of all, the rush back to war.
These are very troubling times, and scientists need to be very careful today. Joan Silk was not.
Univ. of Florida researcher Matthew Shirley recently announced the fourth new species of crocodile to be found in Africa in the last five years.
As explained to the common man by Scientific America, it was “discovered in plain sight.”
What the magazine means is that the slender snouted Guinean crocodile was not stealthily uncovered in a long forgotten grotto. It had been known for centuries. It was just wrongly classified as the same beast regularly seen as far as a half continent away.
Using the increasing DNA technology that is developing a lot faster than improvements in the Dreamliner, more and more animals thought to be the same thing are being shown as diverged species.
But who cares? Does it really matter?
Very much. It adds each day to the already overwhelming evidence of evolution and some day the threshold must be reached where naysayers are simply laughed at and fade away.
It is been a continual embarrassment to me traveling often abroad to discuss one of my most favorite topics, evolution, because I’m an American. Of the most recent survey of the world’s most developed countries, the U.S. and Turkey were the least to believe in evolution.
Dig deeper and you’ll find in more comprehensive studies that in Muslim countries there is little support for evolution. In other words, our evangelicals and Iran’s jihadists are bedfellows.
The simple-minded and stubborn, clinging to a dying past, embrace a fantasy that their own personal creation was divine. That way, they don’t have to think about it. And unfortunately for America it’s a very stubborn situation.
Why, I’m being newly asked, is American coming round to support same sex marriage but not evolution?
Because evolution doesn’t vote. It has no lobbying group in Congress. Most simply, it’s not alive.
It’s not possible to see and contrast evolution in the moment. So the less educated person is let off the hook. Evidence is not instantly observational. It’s more subtle and in fact, profound.
So thank you Matthew Shirley for continuing to expand the bulging libraries of evidence for evolution.
Not sure that’s good news, but recent reports from such places as the Seychelles on current equatorial seabird populations suggests they are doing much better than seabirds in northern and southern climes.
Seabirds provide good evidence for relatively short-term effects of climate change. This is because they are most closely associated to the most effected natural phenomenon on earth, the sea temperature.
Worldwide as we would expect, therefore, seabird populations are in a steep decline. In fact, of 346 seabird families almost a third (98) are “globally threatened,” an IUCN term suggesting that intervention will be needed soon to stop extinction.
The opposite of these declines — although it’s hardly robust growth — are the seabirds found in the equatorial regions, and in Africa the Seychelles provides an excellent place to study them.
This August count of the white-tailed tropicbird and other seabirds that nest in the Seychelles was encouraging, although the study has yet to be published.
The group performing the study did release an interesting single statistic, though, that 57% of the nesting population survives. This is the most critical period in the life cycle of any bird, because once fledged survivability increases dramatically.
It’s also particularly interesting for the tropicbird, which like many seabirds doesn’t actually build a nest. With feet incapable of balancing the bird (they are designed for swimming and flying), the bird must nest on the ground.
Seabirds choose island nesting sites that are as safe from predation as possible. In Hawaii, for example, the white-tailed tropicbird nests on high cliffs. In the Seychelles, where the islands are mostly predator-free, it nests right on the ground.
This dynamic that’s possibly being clarified by how seabirds are adjusting to rapid climate change, gives us a good insight into the workings of natural selection.
Given enough time, environmental changes allow species to evolve and reposition themselves, and as a general theory, increase. As slow change allows for niche exploration, more specialized species arise.
But when change happens as unnaturally fast as it’s occurring, today, the normal mechanics of natural selection are compromised. Water temperatures are just increasing too fast for the northern hemisphere puffin to adapt or be replaced by other species. So instead, it just dies out with nothing replacing it.
Whereas in the equatorial belt the decline is not as dramatic. Basically, warmer is better than colder for our petri dish of life on earth. But at the fringes of ecological system, the great norths and the great souths where our life forms have specially adapted to colder temperatures, a rapid warmer is dangerous.
In the equatorial regions, it’s almost ho-hum.
At least until some threshold of warmth is reached, of course. But thanks to the Seychelles field workers, we know it isn’t happening, yet.
The manatee and elephant share a common ancestor they evolved from about 100 million years ago. Their evolutionary story is pretty well known, but unlike the South American (Trichechus inunguis) and West Indian (T. manatus) cousins, the West African manatee (T. senegalensis) has only recently attracted conservation efforts. In part this is because so little was known about the animal and some scientists had long ago thought it extinct.
The South American manatee lives in fresh water; the other two in salt water, and it’s the West African manatee’s habitat mostly among coastal mangrove swamps and inland marshes that so threatens it.
All three types are slow moving and big, so easily hunted. They feed on certain vegetation also preferred by a number of other marine species that are widely harvested for food, so are usually considered competitors with local fishermen.
It’s been an uphill battle for Lucy, particularly because much of the manatee’s West African range extends into politically troubled areas.
Lucy and others have discovered, though, that the population might be protected at a critical bottom level by local superstitions.
West African spirit beliefs and myths are still very powerful forces in most rural cultures. In ancient times they provided the basic beliefs to all the early societies along the Niger River, which became the basis of Brazilian voodoo, for instance.
So while war is the most formidable obstacle to researching and protecting a wild animal, Lucy discovered that superstition might be, too, but in a surprisingly positive way.
“Mami Wata” is a complex female spirit in West Africa that remains powerful throughout much of the manatee’s range, and frankly, the manatee looks a lot like what I would imagine Mami Wata to be!
Mostly positive and protective, Mami Wata can nevertheless be angered and raised into terribly destructive engagements with people, cursing them to death. For this reason she is mostly left alone and intentionally ignored.
In many parts of rural West Africa it’s presumed the only people who dare to engage Mami Wata are fugitives, renegades and show-offs who usually meet a dire fate.
For this reason, few in these rural areas of West Africa will help researchers locate much less study a manatee, but at the same time the attitude affords a natural protection for the animal.
It will be a long time before this barrier to greater understanding might be developed into sustainable conservation the way Florida has. Manatee in Florida are most often associated with Disneyland and other family fun vacations where certain attractions advertise swimming among them.
They are gentle if bumptious creatures, sometimes called underwater Teddy Bears. In the numerous places in Florida and the West Indies where they’ve been habituated to human swimmers, they are curious enough to produce exciting encounters, but too slow moving to be considered anything but gentle despite their size.
Declining populations in Florida and the West Indies were turned around by making the animal a tourist attraction rather than a hunted animal. The State of Florida designated the manatee as its state marine animal in 1975 and since then a number of programs have so well protected them that the population is now stable.
But it will be a long time before traditions change enough in West Africa that an estuary owner will agree to bring tourists into his pond to swim with Mami Wata.
But that may also be the reason Mami Wata still exists.
I’m on my way to Africa, to 0 degrees latitude. Right now in Arusha it’s 15C (59F). When Bill Zanetti went swimming yesterday in Prince William Sound, at 60N, the water temperature of the ocean was 68F! (20C)
I flew over the north pole from Anchorage nonstop to Frankfurt, and fortunately for much of the journey there were no clouds. Only at our topmost point on earth was the ice uniform. Everywhere else it was cracked, with huge rivers and passages, and this is only the beginning of summer.
We saw yellow-bellied flycatchers in Fairbanks; they belong much further south. We saw more humpback whales than most week cruises in Prince William Sound see in July when it’s more normal for them to congregate here.
We visited the northern-most oyster hatchery on earth, a single man’s operation in the Sound. Oyster Dave normally gets his oyster “seeds” (young oysters) from places like Vancouver, but he now can see the day when oysters will actually breed this far north. All it takes, he said, was a few weeks of 70F water.
Alaskan waters hit that high temperature once before, in 2007. Unprepared for such warmth, oyster farms in Alaska were hit by the deadly Vibrio virus. Two years later, a “red tide” also attributed to warming temperatures closed down the Alaskan oyster industry.
“This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin of the Alaska Division of Public Health who published the Vibrio study.
Our two-week absolutely fabulous journey through Alaska was characterized by so many wonderful high points it’s hard to summarize, and then I realized that all these “high points” were attributed to unusually beautiful (read: warm and dry) weather.
Alaska at its best is cool and damp; at its normal wet and cold. Of course there are periods of glorious days of warmth and sunshine, but that’s not normal. At least not until now.
Cold and wet in Africa but warm and dry in Alaska. I can hear Senator Inofe shouting how global warming is a “hoax!” But global warming doesn’t mean that every single unusual event is warmer. It means overall it’s warmer, and for sure if you average out Africa temperatures with Alaska, you’ve got global warming.
But more importantly global warming, or for that matter global cooling, coming as ridiculously fast as it is will be noticed primarily in its extremes. Extremes in everything, including coldness. In sum we’re getting warmer, but moving there so fast creates rebounds from weather events that are just as dangerous as the long-term trend.
And hardly a scientific fact, I was really chilled looking at the North Pole. From my admittedly infinitesimal experience over near 90 degrees latitude, there is no big ice cap, anymore.
It was great for us, day by day. Mt. McKinley was out almost constantly, and our flightseeing around the mountain was unobscured by a single whiff of cloud.
Hiking in Denali was a cinch. You didn’t even need the rubber boots that every lodge and camp in the area insists you bring, because the tundra while soft wasn’t damp.
The bouquet of wildflowers on our hikes near the Eaglek Inlet was really profound: Wild rose, skort, wiggelwort, skunk cabbage, sundew, nagoonberry, dwarf fireweed, bog blue, rosemary avens, shooting stars, dozens of mosses, false heleebores, Labrador tea and blooming water lilies.
This is a collection of fragile, extraordinarily beautiful flowers that appear quickly and over the course of the summer, collecting the fragmentary and unique moments of warmth and wet in this stressed ecosystem necessary for them to propagate.
But they’re all here at once! What the hell does this mean?
It’s a stretch on the pun, but it means it’s too warm; at least too warm for the way we used to understand Alaska and Africa.
Birds and plants and fishes and whales will all adapt. Many will disappear and be replaced by others; Alaskan scientists are worried that dandelions will replace many of the beautiful little flowers named above. That doesn’t worry me; that’s nature, the beauty of natural selection.
But while birds and animals and fishes and plants exchange components and reorder themselves for a new, warming world, in order to survive … what are we doing to survive?
It’s only a hoax, says Senator Inofe. There’s no need to do anything.
The various emotions I feel following the Obama/Romney debate are complex, but all so similar to the same emotions provoked by the angry outbursts of creationists over new and exciting Neanderthal discoveries.
Harvard and the Max Planck Institute have been meticulously studying the DNA of Neanderthals for several years, now. Discoveries understandably come out allele by allele, and this week they announced a real breakthrough:
Neanderthals interbred with modern humans a lot more than previously thought, and the two sub-species likely lived peaceably side-by-side for tens of thousands of years. The “disappearance” of the Neanderthal was not a wipe-out by a more warring subspecies – us – but likely assimilation by romance.
As much as 4% of modern man’s DNA is Neanderthal, and that’s incredibly significant. Recent studies also confirm that modern Africans carry less Neanderthal genes than non-Africans, and along with other microbiology and genetics, further confirm relatively stable Neanderthal assimilation into our current species, rather than anything more dramatic.
Regrettably, I now concede one of my most powerful stories given during my lecture at Olduvai, where I wow my clients with the notion that we (homo sapiens sapiens) might have eaten the Neanderthals up!
It was a great story and a plausible notion for years, and the wow came not in some Carl Sagan notion of our intrinsic animus but rather that the Neanderthals, while “smarter” (their brain/body ration might be larger), they lacked something “we” had that allowed us to conquer them. For many years that was presumed to be better language.
The possibility that most of our direct African ancestors were capable of a better manipulation of language than Neanderthals has become more contentious over the years, but it’s not yet fallen from complete grace. So until recently it was a wonderful notion that language trumped IQ.
I concede, but there are enough wow moments in the evolution of man that, other than having to redo my lesson plan, I still have full faith in the energy of the lecture!
But not for creationists. The recent discoveries have just angered them, further.
A couple weeks before the Harvard/Planck study was announced, there was new archaeological evidence that Neanderthals were peaceful, and separately, that Neanderthal decorated himself with bird feathers.
That was not so profound from my point of view, but the creationists went ape about it:
“More breaking news from this week about Neanderthal man, they found feathers in his living arrangement and it was not there by accident rather it was there by intelligent design!”
The quote above is from one of the leading creationists. Take a minute to scan all the recent posts under his rubric of “archaeology” and you’ll collect his enormous animus.
You’ll note reference after reference about science’s notion of Neanderthal as an oaf. When quite to the contrary, for years there’s been nothing in scientific discovery to suggest Neanderthal were less smart than us! In fact, if the brain/body weight argument regains traction, it can be plausibly argued they were smarter!
This creationist isn’t a god-fearing man displaying disdain or arrogance about science’s mistakes about the heavens. It’s an animal filled with anger. And it brings me back to the Romney/Obama debate, because the collection of emotions are similar.
Truth matters. In fact it apparently matters so much that it creates anger in those who deny it. And when that anger is sufficiently mobilized by celebration, the dynamic begins to be powered by less, not more, truth.
So just say something again and again that is a lie, or claim you don’t believe something you do (or once did), and you’re right on the same squad as Darth Nader, denying the truth and somehow remarkably gaining energy from doing so.
And at this point rational debate goes to pot. Evil trumps good.
We ought to take some lessons from our early ancestors. There was less animus and more romance than we ever thought possible.
Is this Obama’s secret? But will it win the House?
This is the last of the great apes to be sequenced and completes a body of data that can significantly increase our understanding of human evolution.
Bonobos live in central Africa, an endangered primate now proved no closer to humans than chimpanzees. This first great discovery contrasts with primatologists’ presumptions based on anatomy and to a lesser extent, behavior, that had held bonobos were the closest of the great apes to man.
Confirmed is that great apes — chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas and man — are remarkably closely related. This was never in doubt, at least not by rational thinkers. So the excitement of the genome is the evidence now being dissected that will more exactly draw the evolutionary timeline of primate divergence, and the possibility that complete genomes can provide evidence for behaviorial evolution.
The initial theories are pretty exciting. They suggest that the divergence between the common ancestor of all existing primates, including man, was as early as 4½ million years ago. This confirms further that quite a few stars of early hominid development, including the earliest Australopithecines, were not our ancestors, but divergent dead-ends from even earlier common ancestors to our common primate extant ancestor.
And much more interesting information is on the way. Such as the importance of rivers as effective separators of hominid evolution. Or whether the most successful hominid behavior is either “Make Love, Not War” or “Make War, Not Love” as the eminent University of Wisconsin scientist, John Hawks, told the Los Angeles Times.
But the sad story in all of this is how warped America has tried to deny the findings. The leading idiocy is from the heavily funded Institute for Creation Research.
Their resident “scholar”, a Ph.D. of no significance, Jeffrey Tomkins, berated the Nature article and all the corresponding good reporting about it as “misrepresented.”
In what even to this humble laymen was just plain dumb, Tomkins focused on the genetic difference that was shown to exist between the existing great apes, then tried unsuccessfully to extrapolate the notion that they are therefore not of the same stock (have no common ancestor).
As has been the case for the last several decades, scientists mostly ignore this stuff. But I did find one scientist, Ricki Lewis, whose personal analysis of the Nature paper specifically debunks Tomkins.
And has also been the case for the last several decades, Tomkins’ scientific-sounding article was picked up by literally hundreds of religious journals, which then propagated even more blatant misrepresentation and poor analysis of the facts. You can’t exactly call it a lie, but it’s very close.
Do a Google search on Tomkins’ article, and you’ll be amazed with the endless number of mouthpieces – all American – for this nonsense. It’s truly depressing.
Facts and science, today, are being cast aside by this quirky segment of America, and it’s one thing simply to call them out and move on. But we’ve tried that. And while fortunately polling is on our side, and scientific facts like global warming and evolution are miserably slowly making their way into the normal fabric of American life, the outlanders are tenacious and vicious.
So while the actual number of creationists may be slowly reducing, those that remain are getting more and more powerful. They are “cleansing” school textbooks of science, for example, and packing it with their nonsense.
Belief in the simply untrue leads people into weird behaviors, not least of which is voting against their own self-interest. So rejoice that the completion of the great ape genome project gives us so much complete science about evolution that it will be even harder to dispute.
But beware the powers amassed to suppress it. And not just because of the denial of evolution, but for the integrity of all science in America.
I just returned from a visit to the Amazon where I saw first hand the destruction of the planet’s jungles, the transformation of its rivers into commercial pathways for man’s insatiable consumables, and the slaughter of its wildlife.
But as sad as this is to see, it’s nothing new. I’ve watched it happen my whole life in Africa.
The human/wildlife conflict is well known and less contentious, really, than simply troubling. When a decision must be made to choose between man or wildlife, or between man’s survival or the destruction of the wilderness, there’s no question in my mind that man must prevail.
Many have argued that conflict doesn’t exist: that man and the wild are never completely at odds with one another, that both can be preserved. But I think that’s either nonsense or simply employing impractical logic. We cannot reverse quickly enough our use of fossil fuels, our need to eradicate poverty, or our endless warring ways, to abate the destruction of the wild in any macro economic way.
More reasoned intellects argue that we are essentially crippling ourselves each time we cripple the wilderness. And there is powerful evidence to support this, not least of which are the many organic drugs discovered in the natural wild. But this becomes an odds game. What are the chances we’ll find another cancer drug in the Amazon before Rio’s favelas either waste away in cholera or typhoid or explode in revolution?
And the finally there’s that ludicrous notion that we can make wild, wild. Pull out that garlic mustard plant, John, and save the wilderness from itself!
What we don’t get is that the wild nature of the wilderness, its own ability to decide what to do with itself, is critical to the very nature of man; after all, we are an organic beast. If we disown the wild by claiming we know better than its intrinsic self how to preserve itself, we disown part of our own essence. Is that necessary?
It’s taking an enormous risk. We’re gambling that we don’t need to know the things of the wild that for the moment remain its mysteries. Pluck that garlic mustard and who knows what else you’re plucking from existence!
I think Africa may be providing a couple compromises. They aren’t holistic solutions, but it may be the best we can do.
Yesterday “Gorilla Doctors” treated a festering wound of a silverback who had been in a fight with another male. They did this by darting the animal with a powerful antibiotic.
Gorilla Doctors is a new phenomena in my life time. I remember in the mid 1980s when scientists argued for months over whether to intervene in two crisis situations in the wildernesses of east and central Africa.
The first involved the mountain gorillas. One of the animals was identified as suffering from measles. The only possible way that could have happened is that a tourist had transmitted it to them. The question was, do we use the simple and available medicines we have available to cure the disease, or do we let the baby gorilla die?
There were two compelling arguments to treat the baby gorilla. The first was that man himself had upset the balance of the wild, since it was man that introduced the disease. The second was that the disease had an epidemic potential. If not treated, the entire population was at a greater risk of extinction.
The decision to intervene is not reversible. It sets the stage for an uncommon relationship between man and the wild he wants to protect. Once the vaccine was used, every baby gorilla that was subsequently born would have to be vaccinated. Just like humans. And that’s exactly what’s happened.
Not too long thereafter, mange raced through the population of cheetah living on the East African plains. This beautiful cat is highly inbred, which means that throughout its wild population any disease can be devastating. Mange is ridiculously easy to cure. Just puff a bit of antibiotic powder pretty randomly over some part of the animal near an orifice and poof, cured.
And that’s what was done.
Since these first two breakthrough interventions in the wild, intervention has developed exponentially. And the justifications for them have become less and less simple. Successful vaccinations of pet and feral dog populations on the periphery of wild dog populations proved successful in increasing wild dog populations. But now, it appears the wild dogs must be vaccinated, too.
Each one of these interventions alters something that was wild into something less so, but ensures the preservation of that alteration with much greater certainty than its original wild form. We call this “same species intervention.”
This stands in marked contrast to plucking garlic mustard from county preserves. Same species intervention attempts to preserve a life form (mountain gorillas, cheetah) without altering the biomass around it. The second presumes to prevent destruction of other life forms by eliminating the first (garlic mustard for who knows what).
I find the first strategy tolerable; the second not. Both strategies tamper with the mysteries of the wild, but the second strategy tampers with too many mysteries, it exceeds the threshold of destroying one thing for another.
But these examples of deciding how to preserve life forms are only a part of the story. In fact, perhaps the smaller part.
Human/wildlife conflict is more pronounced than ever. It comes as no surprise but our preparation for its arrival was negligent. Elephants destroying farms, schools, threatening bicyclists and cars; lions worse than coyotes or wolves for taking down farm stock; Asian carp or zebra mussels screwing up our sewage systems much less redactional fishing!
Africa is fencing all its wilderness. It began years ago with such mammoth projects as the 22,000 sq. mile Etosha National Park in Namibia, or the legendary Kruger National Park in South Africa (where part of the fence has now been removed, by the way).
More recently and at great local expense, Kenya’s huge Aberdare National Park was completely fenced. There are now calls for Kenya’s best park, the Maasai Mara, to be fenced.
“Fence” is a loose term. It could be moats or other types of semi-natural divisions that nevertheless bind the wild in specific containers we can try to preserve from man’s ruthless development.
Putting a boundary on the wild makes it wild no longer. The dynamic system becomes contained. The chaos and mystery of being undefined and unknown ends.
There are many spiritualist’s who believe this is doomsday:
And in the end, we will lose it all
as the weeds grow over our fallen creations
and the wonder of the wilderness returns.”
This final paragraph of Lisa Wields’ poem, “Loss of Wilderness Means Loss of Self,” believes this tact will not prevail.
Unfortunately for the past but inevitably compromised for the only possible future… I believe it will.
Mostly praise for PBS’ brilliant production “Bones of Turkana” with only a few important criticisms.
It was specially good to see Richard Leakey so relaxed and forthcoming. He is a man who has lived much of his life under attack or siege and a significant part of his non-paleontological public life remains clouded and unexplained. And until now, anyway, he has been withdrawn and reticent to assume such a grand public mantel.
In the darker days of Kenya under the dictator Daniel Moi, Leakey held two important government posts. The first was head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the second was head of an anti-corruption unit created in conjunction with the World Bank to rid Kenya of enough back room dealing that aid organizations would feel comfortable working with the country, again.
Both public positions ended in disaster, although there’s little doubt Leakey’s tenure at KWS was enormously good.
I do take issue with the documentary’s claim from Leakey that his pyre of ivory fire almost single-handedly ended the ivory market, thereby saving elephants.
It was much more complicated than that, and certainly Leakey’s strong-man tactics in the KWS, using every power given him by an exceedingly powerful and corrupt dictator, did enormous good to stop the extinction of elephants in Africa.
Before Leakey came to power in the KWS, Kenya had lost 90-95% of its elephants. There was wide speculation that the wife of the first president, Mama Ngina, was involved in the most massive poaching operation.
Leakey definitely stopped this, and the pyre episode was more than emblematic. But Kenya was not the only place in Africa where the problem existed; it was continent-wide. And the largest share of the credit goes to the CITES convention and treaty, initiated by the U.S. and Kenya well before Leakey’s involvement.
And Leakey’s abrupt dismissal (actually, his resignation just prior to dismissal) from the KWS was primarily caused by his stepping on the toes of one very powerful man, Ntimama, who was an ally of the president. And it just shows you, you don’t act like your boss to your boss.
Later Leakey would become the much celebrated head of the “Dream Team” set up to stifle corruption in Kenya. A version of that agency still exists in Kenya and isn’t doing too badly. But his brief tenure there and abrupt departure left many wondering:
(A) Was he just too frustrated without the authority denied him to clean house, or worse (B) was he corrupt, too. Did the head of the snake come round to bite the tail?
That damning accusation remains unanswered and many close to Leakey insist he won’t address it for fear of legitimizing an absurdity. I think that was wrong. Leakey never explained why he left the Dream Team and the accusations remain unanswered.
Leakey was never the affable and sometimes flamboyant star that his father, Lewis, was. From the beginning he was much shyer, assuming I believe the shadow that most white Kenyans lived under during his generation. After all, remember that he lived not just through a global era of emancipation, but in a newly independent country previously ruled by a twelth of the population of which his ancestry played a significant part.
It was actually his mother, Mary, who was the discoverer of Zinj. Yet it was not until after her death in 1980 that scientific publications credited her, rather than her husband, Lewis, with the find.
And to be white, in a newly independent black country, must have been difficult.
And the family was one of the most dysfunctional on earth. There were three feuding sons. One fled to Europe. One became an idiot politician in Kenya on the side of the dictator. And that left Richard as the only publicly sane figure. When Richard needed a kidney to stay alive, the idiot politician balked for months before agreeing to the operation.
I first met him at Jane Goodall’s second wedding in Dar-es-Salaam in 1981. Later I got to know him better when I was working with a Chicago filmmaker, Dugan Rosalini, who tried unsuccessfully to make an early documentary about him. I then lost touch with him until meeting him again at a reception in Chicago honoring the 100th birthday of his father.
Throughout these many years he remained withdrawn, terribly scarred I felt from the two public disasters in Kenya. Yet also during these years his successful scientific battles became legend, and his several books and other publications baseline studies for all paleontologists, today.
So another slight criticism I have with the film is that Leakey’s own explanations of our human origins suggest to the less informed that humans evolved in some linear fashion, from say Australopithecus to habilis to erectus to ourselves.
It brewed a terrible and bitter fight between the two men, finally resolved when Johanson conceded in Time magazine’s millennium edition that he had been wrong, and Leakey right.
About what? That human evolution is not linear.
I don’t really think that Leakey intended to imply linear evolution, but the film failed in this regards to highlight how important his opposite view is and was.
There is no doubt in my mind that Leakey is a great man. And not just as a paleontologist. His love of Kenya and attempts to become a valuable civil servant and later politician there were perhaps ahead of his time. And the actual service he provided was probably necessary and beyond realism to suppose anyone else could have performed, then and there.
But the sum total of his life made him an inward man. And this film may have changed that.
Some good wines improve with age. Particularly when left in the dark for a while.