Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Feet Are Made for Walking

It's worth contemplating. Dr. Vincent Macaulay, a geneticist from the University of Glasgow, thinks it is conceivable that a single froup of hunter-gatherers, possibly no more than 200 people, could be the ancestors of all the humans outside of Africa. This might have occurred some fifty to sixty thousand years ago. Our planet is four billion years old, so the journey beginning somewhere in southern Africa and heading north, in geologic time, happened only yesterday. Talk about serendipity: Did some disgruntled individual sitting around a campfire say, "Is this as good as it gets?" So what else have we got to do?

The 6.5 billion humans currently overwhelming the planet and sowing destruction likely owe so much to so few, and in a relatively short period of time. With the increasing sophistication of DNA analysis and additional archeological discoveries, it's possible to speculate that we all spring from an extremely small group of humans.

In fact, time seems to compress with every new discovery. The common ancestor of all humans and chimps might have lived in Africa 5-7 million years ago; protohumans could have existed in southern Africa some 2 million years ago. "Modern" humans appeared approximately 150,000 years ago. But what ultimately went wrong?

Any objective observer would have to agree that our beginning was promising and our rise rapid. Within 30 or 40 thousand years we developed language, recognized our own mortality, and constructed a vast assortment of creation stories. Species come and go and ours had more than a little luck at the start, but after a shaky commencement it appeared we were on our way. Finally, in the last 10,000 years, we constructed human civilization, one which we proudly extol as proof of our "superiority" and special place on planet Earth.

While it wasn't until the start of the nineteenth century that we managed to accumulate one billion people, it took us only another one hundred years to get our second billion. We are now the most abundant group of mammals on the planet. Shouldn't we be exceedingly pleased with ourselves?

Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist and a leading spokes-person for evolutionary theory, believed that the human brain had not changed in 100,000 years. In other words, the same mind that started the migration out of Africa, created the extraordinary cave paintings, and developed language ... are the same humans that built cities, skyscrapers, discovered a polio vaccine, and sent men to the moon. But didn't something different happen--at least in our most recent past?

Evolutionary biologists in their oftentimes arcane world will argue and debate over how natural evolution supposedly works: Are there periodic and sudden bursts of evolutionary changes? Is it "adaptive" progress? Are changes gradual and cumulative? But regardless of the esoteric debates, overall evolutionary change is slow, at least in terms we humans can understand.

But in the last several thousand years remarkable transformations have occurred. If it's not due to natural evolution, what's caused it? Gould, among others, attributes it to cultural change. Fifteen or sixteen thousand years ago we did not have urban settlements or large, well maintained agricultural plots. But a few thousand years later cities developed, a division of labor was established, language was written down, and laws were promulgated.

Unlike Darwinian evolution, cultural knowledge can be passed on from one generation to the next. One tribe may learn of a new weapon from another group. They make improvements, then someone else ventures onto a new pathway, and so forth and so forth. The invention of the wheel, for example, is clearly a milestone in cultural development. It allowed more people to travel greater distances, exchange ideas, improve the dispersal of goods and services, and revolutionize warfare. As one adaptation built on another, these changes occurred more and more frequently. Which finally brings us to the present.

Is that marvelous human brain just not able to keep up anymore, make new connections or modify the last 100,000 years? Is the species called homo sapien sapien coming to some sort of evolutionary dead end?

Cultural change is fast and deliberate, while natural evolution plods along at its own pace. Of course, it's possible a new species is forming at this very moment and will replace us someday. Among a handful of humans right now, it is conceivable that a "different" brain is slowly taking shape, the kind that can more readily discern other shades and let go of worn out beliefs. It's possible someone will stand up and start walking again. But will there be enough time?

Saturday, May 14, 2005


I had never heard of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Once thought extinct, this bird has become a national celebrity in the United States since it was announced at the end of April that it still exists. Gale Norton, the interior secretary, recently declared that $10 million dollars will be made available to expand the bird's habitat. She said "that second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare." Yes, Gale Norton is the same person who once referred to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge as a "great white nothingness." She is also part of an administration that is arguably the worst environmental predator in at least a generation.

I am not a bird authority or even an amateur bird watcher, but I've gotten caught up in this Lazarus-like reappearance of a bird who, before last year, had not been seen in more than 60 years. Of course, we Americans love those mythic accounts of second chances, as well as the "rags to riches" stories. And, yes, this bird has some serious "grit."

For anyone that wants to learn more about this remarkable creature, you might begin by going to the Nature Conservancy link. As well, I'd also recommend a beautifully written article in the NY Times on May 3, 2005 by Jonathan Rosen entitled "The Woodpecker in All of Us." ( )

Literally and metaphorically, it seems to me, the ivory-billed woodpecker is about hope. I'd also toss in a little redemption as well. After all, it's we humans that destroyed the bird's habitat in the first place. The possibility of preserving and protecting this animal is likely up to us. In the process, we might end up helping other species ... including our own.

The title of this article comes from the ivory-bills vocalization that ornithologists transcribe as kent, kent, kent. Will it again become a common sound in the hardwood forests it once called home? We certainly can hope so

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What's Earth Day?

The comedian's timing was impeccable and his presentation very slick. He told the audience that only deadbeat dads who didn't pay child support lived in Alaska. I laughed along with the audience and the host of the show. Of course we have to drill in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge, the comic continued. We are not going to start driving rickshaws. More laughter. This guy was on a roll: Big deal, so the temperature has gone up one degree in the past one hundred years. It means our grandchildren will be living in a climate like Phoenix, that's all. More chuckles as the comedian strolled off stage. Millions just learned the sky wasn't falling. Not to worry. I opened another beer and started clicking through the cable channels. Could a world renown climate expert ever be half as persuasive ... or reassuring?

The environmental movement worldwide has been incredibly successful over the past thirty plus years. Awareness has increased, large numbers of people realize that clean air and clean water can not be taken for granted. Many of us now know we can't simply leave a healthy environment up to the "good" intentions of industry. Large numbers of humans apparently believe we ought not to slaughter other species simply because we can. Yes, many Americans, as well as people throughout the world, claim that a healthy environment is important....

A day or two before Earth Day celebrations on 22 April, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an energy bill that gives some $12 billion of assorted tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. It rejected a proposal to require higher fuel efficiency standards for cars. Once again it called for oil drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.

A lot of bright people are thinking about alternatives to petroleum use. So-called bridge technologies, such as gasification plants, are being studied. Simply put, this process stores carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, deep underground. This process also produces hydrogen, which could be used as a transportation fuel. Another possibility is a growth in biomass. Biomass refers to any organic matter such as cornstalks and certain grasses that could be used in developing biofuels--ethanol.

An Oak Ridge National Laboratory study suggests that by around 2020 it might be possible to have biomass "displace" petroleum consumption for transportation by approximately 30 percent. These are merely two examples of alternative technologies. What of course is needed is a genuine commitment and financial support from national governments for serious research and testing.

The Government Accountability Office in the U.S. reported on 22 April that the Bush administration has failed to include--specified by law--the necessary assessment reports regarding their energy change study due to be made public in 2007. The areas include biological diversity, energy, water resources, and agriculture. A Commerce Department official responded to the GAO finding by saying, "We may commission additional reports, if needed."

The climatologist from NASA called it a "smoking gun." New data from satellites and robotic measuring devises floating on the world's oceans have found that our planet is soaking up much more heat than it's "giving of." The atmosphere, in other words, is warming up. This energy imbalance is likely to grow, even if all the greenhouse gases were shut off tomorrow morning. Melting Antarctic ice sheets is probably not a good thing in the long run. Rapid temperature increases ( some "darker" scenarios show a 10 degree Fahrenheit rise this century ) will probably bring us an extremely unpleasant world to live in. Of course our little comedian may be right; it might just be a matter of getting accustomed to the warmer Phoenix climate. Not to worry.

What in fact do we really believe? I'm not speaking about our publicly stated beliefs, our civic utterances. No, I'm talking about the "deep" thoughts we have, the ones that take shape--and slip out--when the curtains are pulled down and the lights are off.

I don't think this planet's going to make it. The reason is we humans are, collectively, too stupid and too self-absorbed. This is not a civic utterance; this thought gathers in the dark. It takes shape more often now. Can I make it go away?