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2e9fba9c_242259The NBC news tonight reported that the population of giraffes has dropped by 40% in just 10 years, to about 80,000. When I took this photo of giraffes out on the great Masai Mara plain of Kenya about  10 years ago, and wrote about our safari it in an essay titled “The Masai Mara Hood Ornament,” I reported that wildlife in East Africa was then down about 60% since the 70s. Why? Climate change, human development, poaching, legal hunting. If the global human population had dropped as much over the past 10 years, we would have seen almost 3 billion people die. While the loss of so many of these magnificent animals is shocking in itself, perhaps their devastation makes them canaries in a coal mine:for mankind.

Everyone is taking about the new film, Intersteller, about a dying earth and the search for another planet for our species. A recent episode of The Newsroom dramatized the announcement, over a year ago, that carbon levels in the atmosphere and their consequences for mankind may be irreversible. And meanwhile we spend more and more on war and see renewal of primitive tribalism all around the globe, despite the internet and global communication.

I’d like to think there will still be giraffes, and people around to watch such wonderful animals, in the next century. What might we do to increase the probability of that?.  .

What is a gun? A means of killing game. A way to threaten, stop, and/or kill an antagonist.

A gun is a remote killing machine. It is a mechanical extension of the fist, or a club, or an arrow.

Point a gun in the direction of a living target, pull a trigger, and if everything works correctly, both mechanically and on the part of the operator, the target is engaged and terminated.

Yes, that’s right, a gun is the predecessor of the drones of today — it is a remote killing machine that dates to medieval times, and one that is still being perfected. Our fascination and horror of the flying drones of the 21st century is no greater than that felt about the rise of guns hundreds of years ago.

The wonder at the power of remote killing, with concomitant reduced risk to the killer, is a magnet for the predatory instincts of humankind.

As the world evolves its social institutions, bringing us closer and closer together through our common bonds as human beings, our predatory instincts and our arsenal of precision predatory tools remains, and even grows. It is one of the great dichotomies of the human condition.

Whether we are considering gun legislation or drawing the rules of military engagement, we must consider these critical, divergent, conflicting dimensions of our fundamental character.

 

Last night governor Perry reiterated his belief that the “science is unsettled” on whether man’s carbon emissions is the primary cause of climate change, and whether we should change our economies on that basis. He raised the example of how Galileo was considered crazy in believing the world is round by the preponderance of scientists in his time.

In our time, today, the preponderance of science is on the side that mankind has accelerated potentially devastating climate change through our increase in modern carbon emissions related to burning fossil fuel. Yet there os also a historical perspective that suggests that monumental natural climate change has taken place several times before, but that the consequence to mankind is now greater because of the size and dispersal of our human population.

For example, after hurricane Katrina, some said that the answer was not to rebuild New Orleans in its aftermath, as has been done, but to rebuild a “new” New Orleans at another location that is not in the natural path of catastrophic storms.

I’d like to propose, not as a scientist, but from the perspective of a thinking person, that mankind should be taking a hedged approach to climate change: assume that to some extent that it is inevitable, but also assume that mankind should reduce carbon emissions that can only make climate change worse. For example, perhaps we should begin moving populations inland and to higher ground, at the same time we strive to reduce use of fossil fuels and develop alternative energy sources. Perhaps what we need to do is BOTH evolve our cultural footprint on this world and change our intensity of use and sources of natural energy.

Here’s a segment of my 2007 essay, “The Masai Mara Hood Ornament,” which can be found at http://www.chilit.org, that reports one scientist’s expert opinion on this issue:

“The guest speaker was Richard Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropoligist, former director of the National Museum of Kenya and of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Yes, he is the 64-year-old inheritor of the legacy of famed fossil hunters Louis and Mary Leakey. Richard has devoted his life, as did his parents, to helping conserve the habitats of wild species in Africa and elsewhere.

“He shared an increasingly familiar concern when he said, “I think the most threatening crisis facing us and our descendants is climate change. No single thing is going to do more damage or wreak more havoc than the climate change cycle we are now entering on.”

“He observed that many byproducts of human activities, such as carbon spewing into the atmosphere, have a negative impact. But he went on to share his view that the human race, our very species, might not be what and where we are today but for naturally caused climate change, in earlier prehistoric times.

“The first of such changes was 2.6 million years ago, when the response to fairly rapid desiccation or drought was the development of the earliest record of technology – the first time primates started to use sharp edges to access a meat diet.
The second sweep of climate change took place in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, when early humans first left Africa, and we began to find their fossils in parts of Europe and later in Asia.

“Some of you may have participated in the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, a landmark DNA study of the human journey out of Africa to populate the world. Vicki and I sent our DNA samples in, and found the portions of Africa from whence our earliest descendants moved on into Europe.

“The last major pre-historic climate change, and one that still affects us, occurred just 8 or 9 thousand years ago, when humans around the world underwent pressures from desiccation that led to the domestication of plants and animals.
Leakey concludes, “Had there not been such climate change in three separate episodes, we probably would not be where we are today, as a species.”

“The difference is that in previous times there were relatively few people to be effected by climate change, but today it can affect an enormous population – some 6 to 8 billion people across the continents. He believes that today there are far too many people on the planet to absorb such change, particularly if we go through a period of years when rainfall patterns change dramatically, mean temperatures rise, and most significantly, ocean levels also begin to rise.”

“It’s the birthday of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, born in Ealing, Middlesex, England, in 1825. Mostly self-educated, he was one of the great thinkers of the 19th century, and he wrote on a wide array of topics including science, religion, ethics, and politics. A lifelong critic of organized religion, he coined the term “agnostic” to describe his own religious views.”

“At 15, Huxley began a medical apprenticeship. At 21, he joined the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a navy frigate, as their assistant surgeon, and while they charted the sea around Australia, he collected samples of marine invertebrates. His extensive research earned him a place in the scientific establishment, where he met Darwin and managed to make a modest living writing science articles. Huxley followed Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) with his own Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), and in it he specifically addressed the possibility of evolution in humans, something Darwin had gone out of his way to avoid. He grew to become a very vocal supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, even participating in debates on Darwin’s behalf, and when one opponent asked if he descended from apes on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s, he reportedly retorted, “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.”

“Huxley had eight children — five daughters and three sons — and based on letters that remain, he was a fond and demonstrative dad. His grandchildren include notable scientists Julian and Andrew Huxley, as well as author Aldous Huxley.”

From today’s Writer’s almanac

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