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Citation: Prüfer, Kay, et al. "The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains." Nature 505.7481 (2014): 43-49.

Citation: Prüfer, Kay, et al. “The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains.” Nature 505.7481 (2014): 43-49.

Quartz has a quizzical piece up, which is useful for fleshing out the incoherency of some tendencies within conservation biology. It turns out that the large coyotes which have been expanding across the eastern United States as the forests have taken over abandoned farmlands (due to the shift of agricultural activity to the Midwest in the 20th century from New England and Mid-Atlantic). To no one’s surprise these coyotes are filling the niche of the timber wolves of yore, predating upon the white-tailed deer whose numbers have increased with the rewilding of the landscape. But there’s a twist in this tale:

…scientists have since discovered these super-sized coyotes are only about two-thirds coyote. About 10% of their genes belong to domestic dogs and a quarter comes from wolves, with which they hybridized as they moved east north of the Great Lakes.

Monzón says hybridization enabled eastern coyotes to adapt quickly to fill the niche left by wolves. In fact, areas with the highest densities of deer had coyotes with the greatest proportion of wolf in their genomes. “There was a very rich resource that was waiting to be exploited,” says Monzón. “They’ve done very well here.”

So what’s the problem? As observed later in the piece our own species is to some extent a compound of diverged lineages. This pattern of reticulated ancestry is as old as evolutionary process itself. The “tree” metaphor was simply a stylized fact which elided detail so we could get to the heart of the matter in attempting to understand in our bones what common descent entailed. But supposedly there are rumblings:

Some scientists and conservationists see the coywolf as a nightmare of the Anthropocene—a poster child of mongrelization as plants and animals reshuffle in response to habitat loss, climate change and invasive species.

I am curious about any scientist that would use the term “mongrelization.” Name the scientists. It strikes me that a ghost-strawman is being set up here. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.

The reality is that many biologists have had issues with the biological species concept as an idealized and Platonic ideal, as opposed to an instrumental concept. Plant biologists have never had much truck with a strict form of the biological species concept, and how exactly does it to apply to asexual organisms? Our public policy has been built on a narrow conception of biological purity which only holds in a small slice of the tree of life, and even there it is violated constantly. Our own species is here as proof of that.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Environmentalism 
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Screenshot from 2015-05-13 07:47:30 In a review for the new installment of Mad Max Dana Stevens in Slate writes:

The way the world ends, for Miller, is not in overpopulated high-tech megacities slicked with film-noir rain, but in something like the polar opposite. Miller’s nightmare of the future posits the planet as a parched desert landscape against which the world’s few remaining humans scratch out a meager, violent existence, equipped only with the salvaged remains of mid-20th-century technology. It’s that future that, 36 years after Mel Gibson first put the pedal to the metal as Max Rockatansy, is looking more like the one we may be leaving to our own survivors….

I understand this is a movie review, and that line was probably thrown in there for artistic effect. But facts matter, and there is no way that you justify the position that the world is more like that of Mad Max today than 40 years ago. Paul Ehrlich has definitely lost his bet, and even the peak oil worry has abated. The data show that a smaller proportion of the world’s population is undernourished and and poor. The total fertility rate is declining and life expectancy is increasing. Yes, the situation of the middle class in much of the developed world has been in relative stagnation by many metrics, but enormous increases in human well being have occurred throughout what was once termed the Third World.

The Right and Left have particular hobbyhorses. Young people today are more secular and tolerant of sexual diversity in lifestyles, but they are also less sexually promiscuous (we were blogging about this at Gene Expression seven years ago by the way). Similarly, despite worries about income inequality in the developed world, billions are rising out of poverty in places like China and India. Yes. Billions. Though environmental threats exist, the world is healthier and wealthier than it was a generation ago.

It’s not very important that Dana Stevens’ editor didn’t remove a rhetorical flourish which was just factually unfounded (though I it’s insulting to the people of places like the Sahel who suffered through privation a generation ago, and no longer do so). But, it does suggest a mental weakness that these sorts of slips get through, to influence the public, and continue to distort the perceptions of the way the world is. To prepare for the exigencies of the future we need to see the present clearly.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Environmentalism 
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Not dead yet

The new book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows, by Zac Unger, has made some waves because it suggests that there has been some alarmism as to the extinction likelihood of this charismatic megafauna within the next 50 years. The public debate on this issue has veered between grave worry, to some guarded optimism. A moderately alarmist book to set against Unger’s would be Richard Ellis’ On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, from 2008. Ellis was very dismissive of those who might suggest that polar bears might be able to adapt to changing conditions. For him the gates of scientific debate had closed.


Of course in the end Unger takes the threats to the polar bear, and the arctic biome, seriously too. But, he emphasizes that he wishes that scientists might focus on the descriptive aspects of science, rather than becoming prescriptive in their pronouncements. When one makes a scientific inference confidence is rarely assured. Rather, there are a range of likely outcomes, of decreasing probability, around an expected value. In some cases it makes rational sense to emphasize the worst case scenario, because of the downside risks are so great. But the problem in the public discourse is that this condition is often elided or ignored, and the worst case scenario becomes the expected scenario. And if that worst case scenario does not pan out (and, if it is a worst case scenario, it is highly like not to come about), then the public may begin to doubt future predictions.

I have warned against confusing the normative with the positive in cultural anthropology. The issues in biology are somewhat less fraught, because there is less of a human rights concern with animals. But the field of conservation genetics and ecology is unfortunately characterized by a tendency to confuse a statistic such as effective population or the shannon index of diversity with a “good” or “bad” value. Even a concept such as mutational meltdown, which is wrapped in a terminology which alarms, is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” aside from the values which we impute toward it. For example, a mutational meltdown of mosquito populations, implausible as it might see, would be “good.” A mutational meltdown of most other organisms might be “bad.” Not because of science, but because of human values.

The point is not that science can not inform policy. It is simply that policy is by nature normative, so when the boundaries between science and policy are blurred, then the boundary between the positive and normative are blurred. This does not redound to the benefit of science, because science’s prestige is accrued from the fact that it presumes to be an objective, cold, and dispassionate observer as to the state of the world. There are surely enough activists in the world that scientists might think it would be wiser to expend their capital more prudently. The grandeur of science is not that it can speak truth to power with the prophetic voice of Elijah, it is that it is inhumanly blind to human concerns.

Finally, in regards to the science it seems likely that the currently lineage of polar bears dates to ~500,000 years before the present, with some admixture with brown bears. This is important, because it means that polar bears survived through the Eemian interglacial ~125,000 years ago. Let me quote:

At the peak of the Eemian, the northern hemisphere winters were generally warmer and wetter than now, though some areas were actually slightly cooler than today. The Hippopotamus was distributed as far north as the rivers Rhine and Thames…Trees grew as far north as southern Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago instead of only as far north as Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, and the prairie-forest boundary in the Great Plains of the United States lay further west — near Lubbock, Texas, instead of near Dallas, Texas, where the boundary now exists. The period closed as temperatures steadily fell to conditions cooler and drier than the present, with 468-year long aridity pulse in central Europe…and by 114,000 years ago, a glacial period had returned.

This does not prove that polar bears today would be resilient toward abiotic environmental changes, but, I think it cautions us not to deny out of hand those who might assert this proposition. But, as you likely know I do not believe that most megafaunal extinction in the past ~100,000 years were due to abiotic factors. Humans reshape the parameters of extinction probability because of our resource utilization ad encroachment upon organisms which are under exogenous stress.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Environment, Environmentalism 
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One of my major gripes with my friends in ecology is that there is a tendency to look at every problem through the lens of ecological models. Garrett Hardin, who popularized the term “tragedy of the commons” is an exemplar of this. People in ecology often get irritated by the public confusion between it, a positive scientific discipline, and environmentalism, a normative set of beliefs (it doesn’t help when some environmentalist groups have names like “ecology movement”). But the fact is there are deep commonalities in terms of prior assumptions by both ecologists and environmentalists. Despite evolutionary ecology, the reality is that ecologists seem to be characterized by a mindset which posits limits to growth and a finite set of responses to the challenges of scarce resources. That is, the Malthusian paradigm.

I bring this up because despite the similarities between ecology and economics it strikes me that ecologists often have a difficult time admitting that the parameters of the model which they think they have a good grasp of may not always be fixed. Incentives and innovation can shift the dynamics radically. Consider George Monbiot’s about face on “peak oil,” We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all:

A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.

Maugeri’s analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is “the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s”. The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel – the current cost of Brent crude is $95. Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars has been spent in the past two years; a record $600bn is lined up for 2012.

Let’s take Monbiot’s assertion as a given, that we are not entering an era of hydrocarbon scarcity. Why? As he outlines increasing demand, flat supply, and higher profits, stimulated exploration and innovation, generating more supply. This isn’t rocket science, critics of peak oil were pointing out this likelihood back in the mid-2000s. What this reminds me of is evolution. A eternal and circuitous race across a fluctuating ‘adaptive landscape,’ with fitness target constantly shifting.

Of course evolutionary process is not such that anything is possible. This is still science, and science has limits. But evolutionary process is often surprising in its ingenuity. Similarly, over the past 250 years or so human ingenuity has been surprising. This doesn’t mean we should bet on this lasting forever, the Malthusian condition has been the norm for almost all of human history. But, we should never forget the power of innovation and incentives when we consider policies at the intersection of the environment and economics. I don’t get irritated when the general public operates with Malthusian assumptions. But I do get irritated when biologists, and especially ecologists, seem to act as if human economic history since 1800 simply hadn’t happened.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Ecology, Environment, Environmentalism 
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Image Credit: Stefan Kuhn

I was at a coffee shop recently and a SWPL couple (woman had dreads to boot!) a number of tables away were reading a newspaper, and the husband expressed worry about the Fukushima disaster. The wife responded that “now other people will understand how dangerous nuclear power is,” with a sage nod. They then launched into twenty minutes of loud righteous gibberish about chemicals (I had a hard time making sense of it, despite the fact that I learned a lot about chemicals in the past due to my biochemistry background). Because they’d irritated me I was curious and I tailed them as they left. Naturally they had driven to get coffee in a S.U.V. of some sort (albeit, a modestly sized one which looked like it was more outfitted for the outdoors’ activities common in the Pacific Northwest; they’d probably done their cost vs. benefit about those chemicals!).

In terms of radiation fears, I suspect that if more people just automatically knew the inverse-square law in relation to the drop off of its effects we’d be in a whole lot less public relations trouble. More obviously there is clearly a salience problem with nuclear disasters; people always notice them. For fossil fuels the negative environmental consequences usually don’t get so in your face as ‘fracking’. Or, they’re only really evident in godforsaken places like the Niger Delta. Of course people in Louisiana are well aware of the ‘Cancer Corridor’, but they seem to take it as the cost of doing business by and large. I have a hard time imagining such an equanimous attitude toward nuclear power. So I thought I’d pass on the 1000th article reiterating the obvious, Fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power:

The explanation lies in the large number of deaths caused by pollution. “It’s the whole life cycle that leads to a trail of injuries, illness and death,” says Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.

In fact, the numbers show that catastrophic events are not the leading cause of deaths associated with nuclear power. More than half of all deaths stem from uranium mining, says the IEA. But even when this is included, the overall toll remains significantly lower than for all other fuel sources.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about,” says James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston.

In other news, Vive la France!

Image Credit: Ichabod Paleogene, Krzysztof Kori

Here’s a scatter plot I generated using NationMaster:

Note, I am not from 1950, and I do not believe that nuclear power will be the “miracle energy of the future.” I am no nuclear power maximalist. Rather, I think that we should enter into a calm and medium-term time scale cost vs. benefit analysis, and not react and respond based on our rough reflex heuristics which to me seem more rooted in pre-scientific intuitions and biases, rather than a rational calculus of the positives and negatives. A nuclear meltdown is the sort of danger we were evolved to detect and react to (the analogy would be to a fire). False positives have a much lower downside than false negatives in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. In contrast, the morbidity inducing consequences of exposure to fossil fuel pollution are “time released” in their impact, with many of them coming to “fruition” after our reproductive peak (I won’t even get into other negative externalities).

A rational weighting of any such global-consequential decision has to be grounded in “doing the sums,” and not allowing our mystical conceptions of contagion to overwhelm our higher faculties. Electricity is electricity, and moves across borders. The ad hoc response of European nations is grounded in local politics of fear, not global assessments of reason. For example, France does export electricity to Germany which is originally nuclear power derived. So in the developed world there is clearly some transparent NIMBY aspect to this, in addition to the psychology of fear.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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Here’s an article from Canada on the debate about whether hybridization should be discouraged. I understand the impulse toward preserving nature as it is, but the drive for presumed purity seems almost fetishistic. Consider this sentence: ” Or could hybrids actually weaken genetically pure populations of disappearing wildlife?” What does “genetically pure” mean in a deep sense here? We know what it means instrumentally for the purposes of conservation genetics, but the way people talk about pristine lineages makes it seem an almost ethical concern.


When it comes to conservation and environmental policy you’re at the intersection of science, norms, and the messy world of human possibility. Perspective matters a lot in how you value or weight the parameters within your value system. To me the preservation of putatively pure lineages immemorial smacks a bit of pre-Darwinian biology, with its focus on systematic analysis of fixed and eternal kinds as well as a descriptive analysis of anatomy and physiology. At the other end is evolutionary biology which is a process, a phenomenon, understood as a flux of gene frequencies and morphs over time. It is by definition a refutation of a static conception of nature. Of course it takes time…but but not that much time. And then there’s the tendency to see humans as apart and beyond nature, exogenous to the system, destabilizing an eternal equilibrium. This is also arguably a false ideal, humans have been part of the ecosystem of every continent excepting Antarctica for at least 10,000 years, Australia for 50,000 years, Eurasia for a million years, and Africa somewhat longer. Modern H. sapiens sapiens has likely reshaped whole ecosystems through predation and fire even before agriculture and dense societies.

Let’s have a more nuanced and subtle conversion here, and put the focus on what our ultimate values are, or at least the ultimate values of the majority. As it is too often it seems to me that we’re not that far from “king’s wood” whereby we view nature as something to be isolated from the common man, who by his presence sullies and contaminates its purity. And now the fixation on distinct kinds and lineages seems to veer in a similar direction, albeit focusing on the purity of species and sub-species rather than nature as a whole.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Environment, Environmentalism, Ethics, Nature 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"