Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

28 Sep 2012

Human Nature

Previous BIOPHILIA posts have addressed the destruction and degradation of natural process as a result of our drive for expansion, extraction and an overpowering sense of a need for progress. Discussions on the role of conservation organisations, international governance and centralised strategy have often pointed to failure as a result of the human condition. Is it that our very nature has led us along the path of destruction, or can we escape the downward spiral by coming to terms with what it means to be Homo sapiens? Philosophers and poets are often addressed when searching for The Answer, but I prefer to ask the evolutionary biologists. This may seem dismissive and self-congratulating, but given my training, I increasingly see life and mind anchored to a physical basis, with humanity originating as a biological species in a biological world.We have evolved our intelligence, both through selfish genes as promoted by Dawkins and selfless altruism as elucidated by Hamilton.

Rather than being born with the mind as a blank slate, man is born rather with a pinball machine. We have evolved channels, predisposed to certain adaptations which have served our ancestors well, but the direction our ball takes is changed according to the environment around them. A stronger push at the start will lead to a change in trajectory. As Wilson discusses in "On Human Nature", we are predisposed to cultural acquisition, whether that be language, behaviour or religion, but it is our environment which determines their influence. Culture may be an environmental construct, but its adoption is already rooted in our genes.

Like the inside of this guy's turban, our newborn mind is a multichanneled pinball machine

To hand over the responsibility of our being from angels to alleles is not easy, as illustrated by the tragedy of George Price. Early on in life, his elevated intellect gained him a position on the Manhattan Project, the scientific drive for creation of the atomic bomb. He soon became disillusioned with the development of tools which strove to destroy, and instead dedicated himself to understanding the genetic basis of altruism, our innate drive to support others. By elaborating the importance of inclusive fitness, and the protection of the genes shared by our closest, it also revealed the darker side of gene based cooperation: spite against non-relatives. The discovery of this selfish reasoning for kindness disturbed Price deeply, so much so that he dedicated the rest of his life to acts of goodwill to complete strangers, providing a home to the homeless, increasingly sapping his own reserves in the process. Acts of theft combined with his own extremism led to him to destitution, depression and alienation, eventually pushing him to suicide on January 6th, 1975.

A young George Price
The saddest part of the story is that Price's revelations in the field of evolution, when combined with more recent developments, should be a cause for celebration. By demonstrating that nature is hardwired to cooperate amongst its own shows that whilst humanity has developed a social structure based on personal reproductive success, it is also founded on the benefits of group membership. We have evolved the ability to memorise, construct scenarios, and plan strategies in relation to others in our clan. Off-shoots of this mental buildup include morality, conformity, and imagination. It is also human to value achievement, but to level ill-merit, inequality within social-systems is eventually addressed because it is immediately obvious to other members of the group. In essence this is a biological founding for justice, honour and human rights.

And so to the future. What strategies will our society adopt to face ever changing situations? We can be sure at least, that those most adapted to the new conditions will survive, but also that these strategies will favour not just closest kin, but also our globalised community. We will strive to survive based on the essential components of human nature: aspiration, compassion and creativity.

This post was inspired by the unstoppable force of E. O. Wilson, the bloody handball to my Tom Hanks Castaway. For more on the genetic basis for human nature and social cohesion, read his books "On Human Nature" and "The Social Conquest of Earth".

13 Sep 2012

Oiling the cogs of the Conservation Machine

Our society runs on oil, and despite leaps and bounds made in alternative fuels, it is still the most energy efficient source we have in terms of reliability. Until that changes, it will remain a growing market. Fears of "Peak Oil" have been brushed aside following discoveries of fresh wells to tap, but also technological advances which allow access to extreme oil; fracking every last drop out of the Dakota tar sands. Geopolitical threats from Iran have spurned this prospecting, and the squeals of the environmental sector are drowned by the monetary muscle of the petro-lobbyists.

Whilst the oil companies rake it in, environmental NGOs are feeling the pinch, and not just in their pockets. Human induced climate change is exacerbated by our addiction to oil, increasing the degradation of natural systems. With previous pots of government funding running dry, the NGO community is turning to big business to pay its way. Indeed, the current message of the conservation clique is clear “capitalism is the key to our ecological future and ecological sustainability will help end our current financial crisis”. Rather than renounce the system which has promoted the exploitation of resources across the globe, these BINGOs (Big NGOs) have leapt to make alliances with money spinning corporations. Whilst it is naive to believe that a globally operating environmental NGO can function on voluntary donations at a ground level, it does not detract from the issue of the green washing effect this has on our view of corporations, nor change the influence they exert in turn. As they hold the power to switch off the tap of cash at any moment, BINGOs are forced to follow company line and the capitalist tenet of returns on investment and demonstration of growth.

One such BINGO who is trying to bridge the gap between the seemingly polar opposite worlds of conservation and corporations is the Earthwatch Institute. Since 1971, they have worked with field scientists and institutions to develop citizen-science-based research and environmental monitoring programmes. Last year, they supported close to 80 different projects in more than 30 countries, contributing to scientific journals, but also changes in management strategy for at risk environments. What distinguishes Earthwatch from others is their attempts to engage with their corporate partners rather than take their money and run with it. Most impressive is the 5-year partnership between HSBC, focusing on the impacts of climate change on tree growth. Regional Climate Centres were set up in China, India, Latin America, North America and Europe, where scientists, supported by local community members and HSBC employees, carried out field research to establish the health of the forests. More than 10,000 employees across the globe took part in field research before returning to their offices and implementing 700 initiatives to ingrain sustainability into their business. Whilst big banks mean big bucks, they too are implicit in every major transaction, and thus their actions have a global reach. But by partnering with Shell, have Earthwatch bitten off more than they can chew?

Over 500 Shell employees have now been on projects, who return to their business well aware of the threats of climate change as a direct result of oil extraction. This has spurned internal funding to support projects through their Biodiversity and Ecosystem services initiative, and employees are partnering with UNESCO world heritage sites to transfer their business skills. I truly believe that this goes beyond greenwashing and that within the company, certain individuals are realising the future impacts of unsustainable business. Unfortunately, this represents a drop in the ocean, and with Shell numbering close to 100,000 employees, it seems that the partnership still has a long way to go.
Kader Attia. Oil and Sugar #2, 2007
Are Shell to blame for the oil glut? They, after all, only represent 5% of the total oil market, and yet receive probably the loudest condemnation. Governments are those who are directly responsible for the fate of their country, but how can we expect a government to reject a 5 billion jumpstart to their economy, and an oil lobby who force it down their throats. The shambles of Shell's operations in Nigeria both on an environmental and human rights scale demonstrate the corrosive power of oil, and should make anyone wary of operating with them. This week, Shell have done the unthinkable but unavoidable, and have begun to prospect for oil at the fringes of the receding Arctic icesheets. The shameful irony of a positive feedback loop; more oil consumption has made more of it available.

8 Sep 2012

Smoke and Daggers in the Ant Mound

My week at Copenhagen University only serves to strengthen my fascination for the Formicines. The course on ant ecology i was attending opened my eyes to the ecology of Denmark's ant fauna, with one subfamily in particular capturing my imagination. The Mirmicenes are small and inconspicuous to the naked eye, hidden away in clumps of grass and subterranean citadels of soil. But under a microscope, their heavy armour and formidable dorsal spines mark them out as a foe not to be messed with. Colonies regularly wage war with their neighbours, even claiming slaves to take home and rear their brood. It takes a being honed by the hand of evolution to match and surpass these ants defences.

Enter the delicate blue butterfly of the Maculinea genus. These lay their eggs on the flowers of a plant species found in an area near to the otherwise discrete ant nests. These eggs then hatch and the butterfly larvae are released onto the ground. Rather than fend for themselves like other caterpillars, these individuals have evolved to mask themselves with a hydrocarbon coat which mimics that of a developing Mirmica ant queen. Within minutes, the butterfly larvae are taken back to the nest by foraging ants, who then fatten up the parasite until it undergoes metamorphosis, escapes and returns to the sky as a fledged butterfly.

Nature is as nature does, and even under the watchful eye of the blinded ants, the parasite is parasitised itself by a parasitic wasp! The wasp has a different approach to the nest, sniffing out the caterpillar and entering guns blazing. Otherwise outgunned by the thousands of Myrmica soldier jaws, the wasp employs chemical warfare. The wasp secretes a chemical which initially attracts the defending ants, seemingly jeopardising it's life. But then, once the initial ant arrives and grabs it's invader, it is contaminated by a secondary secretion, even more infuriating to its colony mates. Like a Charlie Chaplin-esque bar brawl, the ants attack and contaminate each other further, whilst the wasp slips away. The docile fattening caterpillar is thus left defenceless as the wasp swoops in and injects its own developing larvae, who will internally suck it dry as it attempts to pupate.

Such a complex community is only just being understood, the timing of which is important given the Endangered status of the butterflies. When people question my interest in ants, and what benefits I can draw from their studies, not only can I point to these fascinating examples, but also the crucial role of an increase in knowledge to prevent the extinctions of otherwise unknown species.   

An alternative guide to Copenhagen's Gastronomy

Tucked away in an understated storehouse on the tip of Christianshavn island, Copenhagen's Noma serves up the worlds best food (Restaurant Magazine's annual S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants). With prices starting at a cool 850 Krone/£100, and bookings required months in advance, the restaurant showcases the elite of Scandinavian style, class and ingenuity. Seasonal, local ingredients are smoked, pickled and salted, before being combined to culminate with immaculate results.

Although I didn't make it through the door, I did try some of their food. Well, sort of. Because I came to Denmark to track down Lasius fuligonosus, one of the key ingredients to the plethora of dishes crafted in the hallowed kitchens at Noma. A dollop of yogurt is added to a small water biscuit before being topped with... an ant!
I imagine that similar to myself, the supplier of the larders (apparently an amateur naturalist too) arms himself with some waterproofs and collection vials, before heading north of the city to the temperate forests, heathlands and bogs of Zealand to find colonies to harvest. Naturally, since this is Noma, the ant in question is the most elegant I have ever seen. Shiny and jet black, with a delicate narrow petiole (waist) separating its spherical abdomen and thorax, L. fuligonosus can also be characterised by a fresh lemongrass taste.
If that wets your taste buds, then it is best to find these delectable invertebrates in established woodlands, given that they nest in old tree stumps, creating labyrinth like tubes and caverns from chewed wood and saliva pulp. We found one at Bøllemose, a stunning bogland known amongst myrmecologists for its ant diversity, with further treats of edible clover, fungi, cranberries and bilberries hidden amongst the sphagnum moss and carnivorous sundew plants. A few more treats to accompany our arthropod amuse-bouche. A quick lick releases the initial blush of lemony defensive chemicals, whilst a swift crunch spreads the flavour to the roof of your mouth and around the palate.
With rises in food prices, predictions are being made that insects will be adopted more and more to supplement proteins in our diet. Across the harbour in a houseboat, the Nordic Food Lab, also established by Rene Redzepi of Noma, examines our potential as insectivores, with ecologists, anthropologists and gastronomists all working to create the main course.