Thursday, 29 April 2010

Grenadines 2010

St. Vincent and the Grenadines for 6 months while doing an internship with a CIDA backed environmental NGO: Sustainable Grenadines.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Winter 2009-2010 Unemployed

Ecology Department Lund

Some shots of Ontario in the Winter, plus Copenhagen at the Climate Summit 2009

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

California 2009

California trips, from Yellowstone, Albany Bulb, Great Basin, Tomales Point, and Berkeley!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Prince Leopold Island 2009

A second field season on Prince Leopold Island, 2009, a remote seabird colony in Nunavut.

Evolution of our Preoccupation with Race

Having grown up in a fairly homogeneous “white” area, just hours away from the extraordinarily multicultural Toronto, the idea of race has been on my mind for a long time. More recently, I am once again a “minority race”, living now in the Grenadines, and I find myself thinking of it more.

And not just me, humans are absolutely obsessed with race and racism. But why? The magnitude and cruelty of our preoccupation with race is not at all proportional to the actual genetic differences between people, as Richard Dawkins writes in the Ancestor’s Tale “there is less difference between any two humans living anywhere in the world than there is between two African Chimpanzees.” Homo sapiens went through a population bottleneck perhaps 70 000 years ago, with perhaps only 15 000 individuals founding the entire species. Far from having different subspecies, this means we are remarkably homogeneous, leaving little ground for arguments about differences in aptitudes and attitudes in the genome.

Furthermore, the genetic differences which do exist, sometimes don’t actually fall along our “common sense” ideas of race. For example, comparing 650 000 genetic markers in nearly 20 000 individuals, researchers at Standford, led by Marcus Feldman, shows that the oldest and deepest divides are actually among Africans, with the rest of H. Sapiens rather mixed. According to this lineage, if someone were to make a case based on ancestry for different “classes” of humans, there would be several African “races”, and the rest of us an afterthought.

These and other studies are hammering away at the “common sense” notions of race. A more fruitful endeavour for the natural sciences, instead of looking to bolster racist ideologies, is to shed light on why we are so preoccupied with minor differences among humans. A recent study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany, used children afflicted with a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome to test a hypothesis that racial stereotyping has a genetic component, linked to social fear. The Williams syndrome children, vs. a control group of non-Williams syndrome children, were given tests of racial attitudes, such as being shown pictures of two boys, one dark-skinned and one lighter, then asked which one they thought had might be the naughty culprit who drew crayon pictures all over this walls. The control group gave negative qualities to dark-skinned individuals 83% of the time, while the Williams children did so only 64% of the time. The study suggests that racial stereotyping and a genetically-linked fear of strangers have a causal relationship.

This puts racism in the broader domain of anthropology and evolution. Consider the evolutionary benefit of an innate fear of strangers--not the friendly law-abiding strangers on Young Street, but the capital S variety of Strangers, among Pleistocene hunter/gatherer groups. According to anthropologists, such as Jared Diamond’s study on Papua New Guinea tribes, and similarly Wade Davis’s study of pre-Contact peoples in the Amazon (see One River), hunter/gatherer people live in a state of constant fear and war with Strangers: a neverending cycle of preemptory raids and retaliatory raids. Our closest living relatives, the Chimpazees, behave similarly: stealthily seeking out lone males from neighbouring troops, and bludgeoning them to death.
There is a macabre Evolutionary Stable Strategy to such paranoia. A simple mental experiment shows how: imagine a world of non-paranoid hunter-gatherers who resolve territorial disputes peacefully. The system is vulnerable to a single behavioural mutation, of “cheaters” who always kill their naïve conspecifics. Soon, the peaceful alleles decline in frequency, and the paranoid allele becomes the norm. The reverse is not true: a behavioural mutation in the opposite direction is quickly snuffed out in a world of social fear. Social fear, and hence a propensity to racism, is selected naturally.

But what if so-called Strangers in neighbouring tribes are our relatives? Perhaps the caveat to the perpetual state of fear among hunter/gatherers is the ability to discriminate among a vast spectrum of relatedness in the facial features of Others, opposed to fear of just anyone. It is my conjecture, that the benefits of a Pleistocene “relatedness-radar” led to our ability to recognize and discern nuances in thousands of different faces. And that this ability is overwhelmed when taken out of the context of Pleistocene tribes and we are presented with someone from different continents: perhaps the ur-Stranger.

In another blog, I’ll think of some testable hypotheses for this idea. In the meantime, I hope that an evolutionary perspective, coupled with genetics, will help to challenge “common sense” ideas about evils such as racism.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Oregon Cascades - Spring 09

Avian Point Counts in an experimental forest in the Western Cascades, Oregon.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Eaarth day and the speedy Anthropocene

Today is the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day! I’ll be celebrating two ways: 1) A coastal clean-up on a small Grenadine Island in the Lesser Antilles, where I live for the moment, and 2) launching Colugos – this blog, about news from an evolutionary perspective.

To start it off, I’m inspired by a new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. No, its not a typo: This new Earth he calls “Eaarth” because our old familiar planet is gone. The power of naming is important. It focuses attention on the sort of organismal whole of the entire planetary system: it’s the same physical planet, 3rd from the Sun, but all the interactions of soil, atmosphere and oceans are rearranged into something new, and something that cannot “return to normal” or “heal itself” back to what we’ve enjoyed for 2.5 million years. Rather, it achieves its own nightmarish stability, one that may, for example, favour its own ecosystems such as sulfur-belching bacteria rather than a well-oxygenated ocean (See Dr. Peter Ward’s Under A Green Sky for a Scientist’s perspective).
This is all a big “may”, of course (But the uncertainty is no grounds for inaction).

But what are we really saying goodbye too? Taking a longer term perspective, the earth we know and, indeed, love, is actually quite young. Our troublesome civilization sprang into existence only during the last interglacial of 10,000 years. Our species has only been around for 150 – 200 thousand years, all of which has been during the last 2.6 million years of glaciations that started during the Pleistocene. Before that, you might be surprised to learn that a variety of Planetary Systems / Geological Epochs have existed. Only 15 million to 20 million years ago, back in the balmier Miocene, did grasslands and all their associated herbivores, such as the magnificent Buffalo, Wildebeests, Caribou and Antelopes, come into prominence as one of the planet’s great biomes. How to even imagine such a planet without grasslands?

Despite Bill McKibben’s popular writing, the idea of a wholly new “manmade” earth is not new, and the idea was even given a name in 2000, the Anthropocene, by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen., in a newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme No. 41. The idea is that just like our modern scientists who can unearth obvious discontinuities in rock chemistry, ice-cores, tree-rings, fossil records, and ocean levels, that indicate geological regime changes (e.g., Pliocene to Pleistocene), so too will future geologists (homo sp. or otherwise) see a sharp boundary at the beginning of the industrial revolution: goodbye >50% of all species; hello jellyfish, crows, mercury, ash, etc.

The Anthropocene is just getting started. Every generation of living humans has been passing off a radically different Earth to succeeding generations. It is the “shifting baseline” phenomena: I come to think of the highly degraded ecosystem as natural, normal, and beautiful. I wonder what my great-great-great-grandfather would have thought to look up onto our skies, only to find it empty of the sun-darkening, horizon-to-horizon, multi-day flock of billions of passenger pigeons? Writing in the geological records, human “civilization” will look as dramatic as an asteroid impact, so says Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, interviewed recently on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

Listen to the full interview of Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks
See Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
See Under a Green Sky by Dr. Peter Ward