Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: everything you wanted to know about mass extinction but were afraid to ask

Editor: Paul D Taylor: Extinctions in the History of Life. Cambridge University Press, 2004 / 2009. 175 pages, copious figures, extensive academic bibliographies for each chapter, excellent and concise glossary.
Abbreviations used in this article:

By: billion (1,000 million) years
Bya: billion years ago
CC: climate change
ME: mass extinction(s)
My: million years
Mya: million years ago

                                     inostrancevia, skull - Permian age

           The six chapters of Extinctions, each authored by a major researcher on mass extinctions (ME), are the fruit of a symposium convened by the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life. The aim of both the symposium and the text "has been to make accessible - at undergraduate level - key findings and current  debates concerning extinctions in the history of life". Hence: everything you wanted to know about ME but were afraid to ask..

            Extinctions is a wonderful book, rather well written (or edited) and intellectually stimulating to no end - for dinosaur geeks and budding paleontologists.. 
However, it could be a valuable text for some other classes of readers:

- Anti-Climate Change (CC) activists who want to assure themselves of a really scientific base for their argumentation. In the mind of many earth scientists, CC is the major driver of biological evolution on earth.

- Green Energy advocates wishing to present the risks posed by CC as arguments in favor of non-carbon based energy sources: solar, wind, tidal, geothermal..

- Anyone interested in "environmental issues" such as species conservation and habitat preservation. Knowing more about extinction mechanisms contributes to the development of better programs for preserving biodiversity.

- General - but informed - readers of ecology and earth science. Readers should be minimally "informed" as Extinctions targets an undergraduate (college / university) audience. You might find the text a tad difficult if you think that "Paleozoic" refers to the antics of Sarah Palin.

          As a kid, I was a dinosaur geek and could rattle off a bunch of species names and their descriptions. But I was puzzled by their disappearance. What would cause these great beasts to go extinct? Not obvious, that one..

                          inostrancevia (Permian age) - what, exactly, would it take
                              to kill these boogers off..

          As a kid, I was a dinosaur geek (still am) and could rattle off a bunch of species names and their descriptions. But I was puzzled by their disappearance. What would cause these great beasts to go extinct? Not obvious, that one..

          No one, back then - the 1960s - had a clue it seemed. One theory even claimed that the herbivores dies of constipation - from changes in vegetation - and the carnivores followed them into oblivion, a domino effect.. Dinos died of constipation, OK..

          I also learned about other mass extinctions, equally puzzling. In the Great Dying of the Late Permian, 250 Mya, most of the species capable of leaving fossils, on land and sea, went extinct. Why? No one knew..

          Today, extinction researchers can piece together the Big Picture of Evolution and ME patterns from the accumulated wealth of several centuries of classification of fossils. New scientific and statistical methodologies permit deeper understanding of the dynamics of extinction and recovery. Thanks to stable isotope partition measures, a deeper understanding of ancient climatic conditions and extinction / recovery mechanisms is emerging. And the Big Pic is truly fascinating!

           Earth scientist are more like detectives than physicists.  Like forensic investigators they work backward from evidence - sometimes disturbed - left at a "crime scene" (ME as depicted in the fossil record) to establish the events, the actors and their interactions. Who did what to whom, when and how.. Unlike the physicist, earth scientists cannot simply translate a hypothesis into an experiment and test it in the lab. Evolution's time scale is in My and its scope, the entire earth!

            Earth scientists - paleontologists, geologists, paleoclimatologists, paleo-ecologists,.. - work mostly with the clues Mother Nature has left behind. Like the forensic investigator, the earth scientist relies more on inference than experimentation (as physicists or chemists would do). Each branch of science eventually ends up developing its own particular style or blend of scientific methodology.

             Mass extinction (ME): a geologically"short" period of time during which the earth's biota is severely depleted. Species numbers - biodiversity - drop as extinction rates rise above normal or "background extinction rates".

             ME are, most realistically, a constructive factor in evolution, "removing incumbents and allowing other groups.. to prosper and diversify". In the long run this led to diversification and evolutionary "progress" (? bigger brains?). Although the anthropocentrism is obvious, we humans have "benefited" from increasing brain to body weight ratio among the "higher" vertebrates. This "cephalisation" appears to have been stimulated by past ME. We literally owe our human consciousness and intelligence to ME. If we believe that our consciousness and intelligence are gifts then we have ME to thank in large part.

            Contrary to popular opinion, ME are not responsible for the majority of species extinctions. ME occur at intervals of tens of missions of years. Probably more than 95% of species extinctions are simple background extinction events. The average life expectancy for mammalian species is about 1 million year - much, much, shorter than the average lapse of time between ME.

           ME are complex, multicausal events (the detective at the crime scene again! Who did what to whom, when and how..) Plants and animals tend to respond differently to ME. Genetic lines - clades - of plants generally include a broad range of morphologies: weeds, creepers, vines, little and big shrubs; little, medium sized and big trees... Thus, if ME selectively eliminates trees and shrubs, the clade will survive as weeds. Overtime, some of the weeds will re-evolve into new shrub and tree species. Thus plant clades tend to be more resilient than animal clades, although extinction levels at the lowest -species - level of classification may, in fact, be comparable between plants and animals.

             One hypothesis I initially rejected but now lean toward: ME are not really "abnormal" events at all, rather they represent the random coming together of severa; factors (no one of which would be lethal) into a Perfect Storm - or sucker punch. Thus the accepted view that the dinos were killed off by an asteroid strike (Alvarez 1980). is today seen as an oversimplification. True, the strike was a big one and, chemically speaking, occurred in a bad type of rock (carbonates, sulfur). But evidence increasingly suggests that the earth has experienced numerous large bolide strikes without ME. One ME researcher, Tony Hallam, has labelled the asteroid strike as the "coup-de-grĂ¢ce" which finished off an ailing Gaian ecosystem already fragilized by CC.

             Among the potential causes of ME:

- volcanism (ejection of CC-producing gases like sulfur oxides, carbon dioxide and methane)

 - bolide impacts. Only one ME, the K/T extinction that killed the dinos, has been rigorously linked to massive impactors.

- sea level rise or fall

- ocean anoxia ("dead zones" lacking oxygen)

- CC: global warming or cooling

- changing continental configuration which modifies important atmospheric and oceanic currents which, in turn, regulate climate. In addition, large continental masses experience greater climatic extremes in central regions than smaller continental masses.

         Thanks to technical advances, all of these may now be detected and, to some degree, be quantified in the fossil record.

          One of the "constants" that has consistently emerged over the last few decades is the important role that CC plays in ME. Some form of CC is found in most ME even if, as stated earlier, it is "only" part of a Perfect Storm that kills massively.

           We need to pay heed! Today humankind is massively injecting gases into the atmosphere that, when massively injected into the atmosphere in the past (volcanism), are highly correlated with ME. Are we playing Russian Roulette with the air we breathe and the seas which feed us? The fossil evidence appears affirmative.

           And so, what to do? (addressed to the reader..)

           To repeat myself, this is a really great book for dino geeks and those with strong interests in the earth sciences, intellectual or practical. It summarizes, for an undergrad university readership, what is known today about ME and their impact on biological evolution.

            Extinctions raises interesting philosophical questions for those so inclined. There is, for example, the question of the significance of human "control over" nature as we (potentially) enter a new geo-biological age, the Anthropocene (footnote 1). In contemplating the fossil record of ME, I conclude that any possible viable human regulation of natural processes would be founded, not on domination or "power over" nature, but on balance and equilibrium, on justice and wisdom - a rather tall order, given the state of the world today! 

            In reality, human have "benefited" from past changes, both "normal background" extinctions and the dramatic large scale transformations we call ME. Without these changes we would simply not exist! Today, however, we find ourselves in the curious position of provoking changes which  - if past records (fossils) are reliable - will inevitably led either to the extinction of our species or, at the least, to the destruction of our "advanced" technical civilization. Ultimately one is led to a reflection on the very nature of human nature itself: given what we are doing to our planet, are we collectively MAD?


1- Anthropocene: to the traditional 5 bio-geological "eras" - the Archean, Proterozoic, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic - some contemporary thinkers have suggested that we are living the transition to a sixth era, one in which (human) consciousness becomes a major factor in biological evolution. James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Hypothesis (the earth as a living "macro-organism"), refers to this new epoch as the Awakening of Gaia in which Nature becomes fully conscious in wo/man. One could cite the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin as an intuitive precursor, who saw a "planetary consciousness" emerging as the unfolding of God's Plan. More recently the French philosopher / sociologist, Edgar Morin, has written of consciousness now becoming an active player in the evolutionary process. For Morin, this has become possible because of the recent rapid evolution of science and technology and the power they confer to manipulate genes, mind, matter and energy on increasingly larger and more integrated scales.

The bio-geological eras of earth

Archean, 4.5 Bya to 2.5 Bya: appearance of life, early primitive microbes

Proterozoic, 2.5 Bya to 550 Mya: appearance of stable continental masses, more advanced microbes (eurkaryotes)

Paleozoic, 550 Mya to 250 Mya: appearance of "modern" - multicellular, oxygen breathing - animals and plants

Mesozoic, 250 Mya to 65 Mya: age of dinosaurs, first appearance of mammals and birds

Cenozoic, 65 Mya to 18th century CE: age of mammals and birds, appearance of humans

Anthropocene, 18th century to ??

Thursday, February 12, 2015

When is a Non-Profit organisation not?

           The message from the Harper government has been quite clear. They promised transparent government but what we got are information flows that accord with the Conservatives' probusiness bias. Thus if climate scientists produce results which do not accord with the desire of the petrochemical industry to maximize profits, they find themselves defunded or forced to go through a humiliating censorship before being allowed to speak to the press. 

             Scientists working in the environmental sciences have been particularly hurt. The Experimental Lakes project in Ontario was a federally funded program that studied the long term effects of atmospheric pollution (which Harper's friends, the Oil Patch, produce in large quantities). Harper cut funding to the world renowned long term study of freshwater ecosystems. Private interests had to bail out the project and provide it with long term funding. But why, for a totally petty saving, axe a world class long term study? Their work was recognized of great value around the world. Finding a sponsor probably was not all that hard: it's the principle - and the pettiness of the Harper crew - that galls and irks.. 

The following link gives links to previous related blog articles.

The following link is a comment by two earth scientists on the resolution of the Experimental Lakes project funding cut:

               The saga continues. Recently Dying with Dignity a group advocating for the right to die with medical assistance (euthanasia, if you wish..) lost its charitable status, presumably because it advocates for causes that Harper's political base doesn't like. Fundamentalist Christians in particular probably don't take to kindly to this one. 

               The up front, publically presented, rationale as usual is budget cutting to reduce taxes and government bureaucracy. (The do so want to help the harried taxpayer, don't they?) The Harper government has the right to revue the tax exempt status of nonprofit organisations in the light of a law which it passed. The (stated) goal is prevent "excessive" policy advocacy on the part of pressure groups, using nonprofit organisations as "fronts". On paper it sounds nice. In practice, that's one cool potential tool for imposing censorship, if there ever was one! (Especially if you are willing to bend or ignore your own rules to control the information flow..)

                  As always, the devil lies in the details. A nagging question. Why are not organisations which support causes favorable to the Harper (neo)Conservative government not as stringently audited as organisations who support causes not so favored by the Harperites?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: The dogs are eating them now - Canada at war

Graeme Smith: The dogs are eating them now. Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2013; 283 pages, index, photos, maps. Weak points: no references, chapter notes or bibliography.

          An admirable piece of reporting which stimulated a lot of mixed feeling: always a good sign! - shows the author is challenging old paradigms of thinking.. Anyone interested in West / Muslim geopolitics, Canadian foreign policy or Third World "development" ought to put it on their reading list.

         Dogs is good reading and NOT. Smith writes rather well for a journalist (who, after all, are time pressed people). His message, though, is disconcerting for those who still believe in "traditional Western values", particularly those political values originating in the Enlightenment: reason, rights and representative government.

         Dogs tells the story of Canada at war in Afghanistan following the World Trade Center, New York city, attack of September 11, 2001. Smith was sent to cover the war for the  Toronto Globe and Mail. Apparently, he fell in love with the country and its people for he has left journalism to work for the NGO, International Crisis Group in Kabul.

         Dogs is a rather disturbing book for several reasons. The author's style is transparent, he is rather bright and very curious (a real news ferret - especially dirty news ferret). He appears to be a straight-up dude who tells it like he sees it. The fact that he has chosen to work for the reconstruction of  Afghanistan - despite the personal risks - indicates he is writing from the right place: he cares for Afghanistan's people. (One may disagree with his analyses but at least he is writing from the right place.. which is the essential condition for truth.)

        The central "theme" I take away from Dogs is the incredible - unconscious and unconscionable - hubris of the West. I use this term in both senses: 1- narcissistic arrogance and 2- "transgressive" (knowing no bounds or limits). Stunningly, these attitudes underlie so much of what we did in Afghanistan - so much of what the West does everywhere in the world! - even when we imagined ourselves to be acting selflessly and doing good for Afghans.

        The war started off so good and then began to rapidly unravel after initial victories against the Taliban. What happened? Analyses - post mortems - are difficult: human societies are complex with many "variables" interacting simultaneously. Post mortems will always finger "the" reasons a mission failed but perhaps a better question to ask is "how do we learn to avoid disaster in the first place or, at least, learn to read the signs of impending disaster so we can change our course of action before it is too late?"

        I'm not sure if I did discover much of an answer to that question in Dogs (except, perhaps, in the reconfirmation that Western hubris has once again blinded us to signs which, if we were wiser or humbler, could have warned of future difficulties). But I knew that anyway, I knew we are hubristic; Afghanistan's just worse than I imagined..

        By June 2006, the Afghan Taliban, who had sheltered the terrorist movement Al Queda, appeared to be on the run. Al Queda was held responsible for the 9-11 atrocities against the US and now Al Queda had been successfully expelled from Afghanistan. Likewise, it's Taliban host had been ousted and dispersed into the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A suitably pro-Occident government had been set up in Kabul. Foreign "reconstruction" money poured in. Roads were paved or built. Girls, whose education was forbidden by the fundamentalist Taliban, now went to new schools which were being built at an incredible pace. Or so it seemed, following the self-laudatory Western press. The schools for girls were especially touted in Canada since Canadian contractors built many of them. Only later did we learn that corruption and unpredicted funding cutoffs ruined many worthwhile projects (schools, hydraulic works..) Some were simply shoddily built. Failed development projects, falling apart, unused or abandoned, dot the landscape. In some cases, compensations were woefully, insultingly, inadequate. One farmer Smith interviewed had his multigenerational family farm confiscated to build a road needed for economic development in the region. The farmer accepted the need for the road but not what he was payed: a lump sum settlement of $350 for a farm which produced $2500 annually and had been in the family for many generations! The following link provides access to four articles on failed Canadian aid projects in Afghanistan which appeared in the Globe and Mail, July 14 to 25, 2012. 

         Less than two years later, by March of 2008, things were going amazingly badly. The "insurgents" - the Taliban and "sympathizers" - were recapturing lost territory. Corruption seemed worse than ever. Suicide bombers were sowing havoc with a new wave of attacks, often against supposedly secure or "hardened" targets. One can cite multiple brazen jailbreaks at the Kandahar city prison, liberating many suspected Taliban along with common criminals. Some degree of inside assistance to the insurgents - even within the civilian population of the neighborhood of the jail - must be assumed. "Foreigners" were so unpopular that, prior to one jailbreak, Taliban fighters actually went brazenly door to door warning people in the prison's neighborhood to be out of town when the shooting started. And none of those people bothered informing the authorities of the impending jailbreak! Meanwhile, the drug trade in opium and heroin boomed as never before, fed by lots of loose foreign money and a nascent local consumer culture (electronics, SUVs, gated communities.. for the emergent Western-style bourgeoisie).

          In conclusion, Smith lists four general errors or misconceptions committed by NATO forces:

1- Afghanistan is a tribal society. The war against terrorism, on Afghan soil, tended to degenerate and dissipate into tribal feuding, actually exacerbating traditional cleavages and feuds. "Those connected to the rich foreigners showered patronage on their own clans, while the excluded groups jealously fought for their share." (page 202)

2- Airstrikes feeds insurgency. "Technology" is the magic bullet, we think. The Vietnam Conflict had a 50 : 1 kill ratio due to the technological superiority of Western forces. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the kill ratio was over 100 : 1. Such lethal asymmetry makes war palatable for Western publics. Just enough allied dead to strike patriotic chords but not enough to impel bloodthirsty mobs to set up guillotines on the White House lawn for a regime change. But, as we have learned elsewhere, "there is no free lunch, kid!" There are hidden costs (externalities) of high tech war. Most obvious is "collateral damage", civilians killed in error, either in targeted drone hits or in more conventional bombing and strafing runs. Worse, Afghanistan is an "honor culture": familial honor is sacred, dishonor requires revenge. "Afghans saw the international forces as cowardly when they called fire power from the sky. When civilians died, whole families felt a need for revenge" (page 204)

3- Opium is a cottage industry. Dissatisfied with his access to sources, Smith tried an experiment. He sent a trusted confidant to interview Taliban and insurgent sympathizers, always asking the same set of 20 questions. 80% of the interviewees admitted to growing opium (for the cash, since they were poor and the war wasn't helping..) 50% claimed to be be victims of opium eradication programs. Interestingly, the insurgents claimed that, if they could make money other than by growing poppy, they would prefer to do so. They recognized the social and moral issues involved in opium cultivation: criminality, addiction, production of a crop which injures others.. The first question which comes to my mind here: why, 70 years after World War II, are countries like Afghanistan still "economically depressed and technologically backward"? Have we spent our money badly, on arms rather than on small scale, participatory, sustainable development? On investment in large scale cash crop monocultures to the exclusion - even detriment - of social infrastructure like schools, hospitals, old age pensions, family planning / birth control / abortion, female education, child support (for education)..? It's obvious we've done something wrong! "As a man sows, so shall he reap" - Jesus (but also the Buddha and other world Teachers)

Here is the link to Taliban interviews conducted for the Globe and Mail by Graeme Smith and colleagues: 

4- Perhaps most surprisingly, the Taliban are nationalistic - or patriotic - reactionaries who want to expel the morally, spiritually corrupting influence of the West. They do not appear to be "international terrorists", they just want foreigners out of their country. (Other groups, of course, can and do, promote international jihadism which raises the question: are we fighting the right war in Afghanistan? It was supposed to be about fighting international terrorism..) 

         Will we learn from our past mistakes? In Iraq and Afghanistan many of the errors of Vietnam appear to be repeated. Can democracy be imposed by war on a society with little or no democratic tradition? So far, one must admit, the results aren't too promising..