Sunday, December 23, 2007

Whaling: credit to Rudd?

The glib summary of recent events in whaling goes as follows: the Australian government protested and planned to closely monitor Japan's intended humpback whale slaughter. Japan backed down, and announced that in the light of international protest - particularly Australia's - it would not go through with plans to kill 50 humpbacks this season.

There's actually several odd meanderings through this saga; the headline information does not give the full story.

First, kudos does have to go to the new government for taking the stand. It's more than the previous Liberal government did - and in fact the hopelessly fractured opposition remnants seem to be yet divided. On the one hand, Liberal leader Brendon Nelson had warned that the government plans endangered Australia's relationship with Japan; on the other hand, Liberal environment spokesman Greg Hunt had been calling for PM Rudd to do more. Nelson's comments were rendered particularly ironic when Japan's backdown announcement cited the desire to avoid harming relationships with Australia.

However, this may be a pyrrhic victory, for two reasons.

First, on BBC radio I heard from a Japanese activist/journalist. She said that Japan didn't currently have the capacity to kill and process 50 humpback whales, so the announced backdown may have been a way to make political mileage out of this situation. On the other hand, they may have been using the initially mooted humpback slaughter as an ambit, always intending to back away so as to lessen the heat on their other activities - the kill of 950 minke and 50 fin whales.

Second is that planned slaughter of fin whales, an endangered species that may number as low as 5000 in the Southern Ocean.

Nobody can seriously believe Japan's whale kill has any scientific merit. Other BBC reports mentioned a) the profusion of whalemeat in Japanese supermarkets; b) the fact that Japanese scientists weren't publishing any peer-reviewed literature (over the past 20 years of "scientific research" slaughter), and c) a Japanese government spokesman who admitted that the "scientific" kill quota's sole intention was to count the number of whales out there. In this latter report, the BBC announcer was incredulous that they had to kill to find out the numbers (that there were); the spokesman made some bizarre claims about needing to kill them to get their ears, but couldn't put forward a coherent reason for needing the ears.

Outcomes count. Good to see we now have a government prepared to do something.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Human evolution is accelerating?

I take the opportunity to make brief mention here of a study from the International HapMap Project (their website here).

I've read rather different takes on their claim that human evolution is speeding up. I have in front of me one article from the New Scientist, and another from the Sydney Morning Herald (sourced from the Guardian).

They quote different authors of the same study, published in the Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences, whose gist is this acceleration.

The New Scientist version (which I would trust more) quotes 1800 genes (7% of the human genome) as having changed through natural selection in the past 50,000 years. Examples of changes given (variously by the reports) include resistance to colder climates and to some diseases, and lactose tolerance into adulthood - for some.

The Herald/Guardian report at least quotes some dissenting views, which tend to revolve around the notion that our manipulation of environment (including built environment and technology) have now sheltered us from the effects of natural selection.

I'm not an expert in genetics, but I remain skeptical, largely for the reason above, but also because it sounds to me (at this stage in my readings) so damn counterintuitive.

One of the authors, paleoanthropologist John Hawks, has at least one blog - possibly several - and he writes here on this study. Sounds like that's preliminary, with more to come.

I'm happy to be proven wrong. There is undoubtedly some philosophical/epistemological debate around this.

11-Aug-09 Update: I would note that recent readings suggest humans are not likely to be up for much further evolution - simply because we mould our own environment, and we are so numerous. Unless there is some global environmental disaster to cause a genetic 'bottleneck', any mutations will get lost in the mix, and will not in any case experience selection specifically for survival.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nippers at Coogee Beach

A letter in today's Herald:

What a wonderful delight to be down on Coogee beach this morning for nippers with my six-year-old daughter.
The excitement of 120 children in that age group screaming with delight as the most comical Santa waited for the right wave to surf on to the beach in his inflatable rescue boat had to be seen to be believed - although it was probably heard as far away as the North Pole. It is difficult to imagine a more quintessential Australian scene.
The whole nippers experience is fantastic for kids - from iconic activities such as flag races, to learning more about water safety as the children get older.
It is so much more productive and fun than sitting on the couch watching cartoons because mum and dad want a sleep in. Not surprisingly there is barely an overweight child involved - and they all had a ball.
James Rosenberg Randwick

My six-year-old daughter was in that same crowd. However, at the time I was looking after my five-year-old (pictured above) in his group; they sure went wild when they saw Santa arrive from the sea, standing up on a rubber dinghy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Evolution: Arthropods

In reading Wonderful Life, Gould's book on the Cambrian explosion (some of the earliest multicellular life forms), I find Gould spending much of his time dwelling on arthropods. It's worth spending time on them, as that phylum (one step below Kingdom - Animal) constitutes most animals in the world: insects spiders and crustaceans in particular.

At first they look quite alien close up, but after a while, patterns emerge. And believe me, there are more alien-looking lifeforms around (eg the Cambrian creatures Opabinia or Hallucigenia). You can get used to arthropods...

The prototypic body is constructed of a number of repeated segments. However, from that basic design, differentiation evolves. Typically, over time, the segments may become fused; further, different segments evolve different functionality - the head in particular, as well as the tail. Each segment begins with a pair of jointed appendages, one on each side of the segment. The appendages are jointed - arthropod means "jointed foot". Each appendage of the prototype is biramous - meaning each has two branches! - typically a leg for walking and a gill. However, this pattern can modify over evolutionary time, leaving at least some of the legs uniramous.
Arthropods have exoskeletons - that is, the skeleton is on the outside - although not what you'd consider bone.
The key to understanding them is how the segments fuse differently, how the appendages specialise, and how the exoskeleton can modify.
Often the segments are fused into three: for example, the head, thorax and abdomen of insects. Typically, the head is composed of several fused segments, and the attached appendages specialise, for example, as antennae or for feeding. With spiders, for example, the actual legs are on the head; in the posterior the walking legs have disappeared, and the gills have modified into oxygen-breathers.
Frequently, there are two pairs of appendages before the mouth and three after. Sometimes (eg in crabs) a carapace has formed over the body; sometimes that carapace is divided - bivalve.
The five major kinds are:
1. Trilobites: extinct marine creatures with three lobes across, and numerous segments
2. Chelicerates: spiders, mites and scorpions
3. Myriapods: centipedes and millipedes
4. Hexapods: mainly insects, typically six legs. By far the most numerous arthropods, with millions of species. Wikipedia aligns them with crustaceans, although Gould united Myriapods and Hexapods as 'Uniramia'
5. Crustaceas: mainly marine, mainly biramous; includes lobsters, crabs, barnacles, and many more.
Although this may seem an odd group, there are enough similarities to unites them; enough to posit a common ancestor.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1989): Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Penguin, London.
Wikipedia: Arthropod (extracted 12-Dec-2007)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Evolution: On Stephen Jay Gould

For over 25 years from 1974, Stephen Jay Gould produced an essay for every edition of the magazine Natural History. A number of these were subsequently re-edited and produced in book form. In his tenth and last book of collected essays, I Have Landed, Stephen Jay Gould explicitly classified (as is his wont) his particular approach to essay writing.

From the beginning, he specifically chose to write for the general (non-technical) reader while avoiding conceptual simplification. This is significant, something few academics do. It exposes an important amount of detail of his subject, evolution, in a way that is approachable for all, yet permits analytical depth.

He further characterises his own writing as intellectual puzzle-solving, although I would say that much of the time he simply elaborates on a specific issue in evolution, worrying the finer detail. He also attempts to posit his treatises within a humanistic context - which is to say he often places the particular point in a wider human context of how scientific discoveries are wrought, and how social context interacts with those discoveries.

Yet most important is his treatment of finer concepts of natural history in non-jargon terms, such that any intelligent reader can see meaning without (indepth) training in the specific science.

I came to his writing by chance, one in a pile of library books once I was already delving into the subject. And his approach supercharged my enthusiasm.

Although he writes for the lay reader, if there is to be active pursuit there is no escaping the necessity to engage in background reading. Biology is the first place to start; included is genetics, paleontology, geology, and some anthropology, amongst other subjects.

It is also helpful to read in parallel. I am currently in the middle of his book Wonderful Life, a history and exposition of scientific discovery of the Cambrian era, close to the beginning of the emergence of modern animal forms. It is certainly a book of wonder, making an engaging narrative of a particularly dry subject like the classification of arthropods ( easily the largest grouping of animals, which includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, trilobites and others). The name arthropod, by the way, refers to jointed legs; the unifying feature is multiple body sections (some fused together in later evolution) with pairs of legs for each section.

However, where Gould sets forth four general groups of arthropods, the consensus-driven Wikipedia lists five - dividing uniramia into hexapods (insects) and myriapods (millipedes and centipedes), and placing the latter group closer to crustacean arthropods.

Part of the problem here is often that evolutionary biology is, well, an evolving subject, as much today as it ever has been, especially with the advent of genetic analysis.

Wonderful Life was written in 1989. A few scant years later, revision had already overtaken the work. A good example is the species Hallucigenia. In one of his essay subsequent to that book, Gould noted that that species had always been portrayed upside down - even as recently as his encompassing book on the matter.

So read a variety of works and authors on the subject - particularly the very recent. Yet having said that, I would be happy to own the full set of his collected works. The concepts are an intellectual challenge and a learning experience, and the books make a very enjoyable read.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Australia's new female Prime Minister

Australia's first female Prime Minister is Julia Gillard.

She's acting PM for a couple of days while Kevin Rudd is at the Bali climate change conference.

Good on her. Hope she gets the job full time.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rudd's no-win horns of dilemma

I can't see him getting out of this with honour substantially intact.

Kevin Rudd's been Prime Minister for a week, and he's faced with two no-win situations.

First, climate change - which I mentioned a couple of days ago. He has indicated his commitment to making headway on emission control, but in the short to medium term, this means substantial pain, since significant industrial restructure is needed.

The way through is tricky and calls for much intelligent planning, and some hard work. That is, formulating a set of strategies (including various incentives and disincentives) that aren't too disruptive in the short term - ie don't savage the government in the next electoral cycle - but lay the groundwork for a substantially changed economy.

There are signs that he remains strongly concerned with tackling climate change. A few days ago he warned that climate change posed a significant threat to agricultural production. This on the back of an ABARE* report that highlighted the decreases in agricultural output that climate change would bring.

However, this also runs up against Rudd's other dilemma: balancing his stated number one objective - keeping inflation under control - against his regrettable election promise of substantial tax cuts.

There will surely be the temptation to slow down on rolling back the Liberals' hated Industrial Relations legislation. This issue now represents a lever of economic control, which Rudd can choose how to operate. Unfortunately. For those on the receiving end.

Ideally, by 2010 we would see an economy in transition, the tax cuts directed (somehow) to productive use for other purposes, and relatively favourable working conditions for those with weaker industrial bargaining power.

One can only hope.

*ABARE: The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics

Friday, December 07, 2007

Autism: Fever effect

Autism is a spectrum disorder. That is, there are autistic people who barely function; then there are those who are "high functioning" - and can manage an independent life. (At least) some high functioning autistics demonstrate superior calculating or memory skills. In previous posts on the subject, I've illustrated how the brain can just... well... be wired differently.

NPR reports on the fever effect: some (not all) autistic children that may be uncontrollable, prone to tantrums and self-harm most of the time, can demonstrate relative lucidity when they have a fever.

Interesting, when you consider that "feverish" people are traditionally seen to demonstrate less lucidity. Again, there are a number of possible suggestions about how autism affects the brain, how fever affects the brain, and how the two interact. This demonstrates how much we have yet to learn about brain functioning.

The full article in the link above gives useful detail on this fever effect.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Climate Change conference: Rudd's hard call

The current Climate Change conference in Bali would test anyone's mettle.

This year's IPCC reports demonstrate the problem is more urgent than previously acknowledged, and carbon emission targets need to be more stringent.

The developed world has four big issues that sound simple, yet are nigh on intractable politically.

First, agreement on targets for developed countries. The European Union recognises the need for greater urgency, and is aiming for 25% to 40% emission reductions by 2020. New Zealand is in line, but the US, Canada, and Japan are likely holdouts. Australia's delegation signalled that it supported that goal. However, PM Kevin Rudd subsequently hedged, saying he will "take advice on whether the targets are workable".

Second, the industrial world has a clear responsibility to support the developing world in meeting targets. The current problem is almost entirely due to the rich nations, both in their industrialisation, and in their decimation of their own wilderness. And from a letter in today's Herald:
"Appealing to self-interest alone will fail as the countries with the best capacity to bring about change face proportionately fewer effects from climate change and have greater capacity to adapt than the countries that are the smallest polluters." - Simon Biddle

So, the challenge lies specifically with the rich countries: in industrial restructuring, and in supporting others with technology and money. I am quite confident political will is going to be thin on the ground. Except with the EU and New Zealand.

Third, China. China has to agree to real emission goals, and this is going to be hard. To make any sense at all, they need to cut emissions, however they can cogently argue that they are not properly industrialised yet, and so should not cut, or should be treated as a developing country. The pragmatic solution lies in treating them as a special case, with a bit of both in the mix.

Fourth, the US. Bush will absolutely remain a holdout, and will only agree to tokenism. That is, aspirational but not real goals. Two of Bush's delegates to the conference (mentioned here) are James Connaughton, one-time energy-sector lobbyist, and current stooge in the Council on Environmental Quality, and Paula Dobriansky, neo-conservative Under Secretary of State and staunch defender of the US's refusal to ratify Kyoto.

What chance do we have? What will Australia do, now that we are no longer as firmly glued to US policy as we were under John Howard?

Rudd is caught in a bind. His election campaign presented two principles that are apparently diametrically opposed: commitment to climate change, and economic [fiscal] conservatism. Quite a big test so soon after taking the reins.

There is one clear answer to that, as demonstrated by the Stern Review: the cost of action is far less than the cost of inaction.

I'm quite pessimistic about seeing an appropriate outcome. It is clear that Stern will be treated as a Cassandra - correct but unheeded. But... there remains hope. We still have the leadership of the EU to look to: I believe they are capable of forging ahead, and waiting for the world to catch up.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Two different meanings for "evolution"

The popular understanding of the term 'evolution' may be correct, but it is not the same as the biological term.

Stephen Jay Gould would have it that we hold in our minds two different sets of concepts when we use the term evolution.

The original use, and the prevailing one in general use, is as a synonym for predictable progress to an inevitable end. Gould illustrates this with quotes from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, discussing star formation. In describing the process, the term evolution is used as if the process, once it kicks into gear, is entirely deterministic - that is, given one set of input factors, the outcome is pretty much pre-ordained. And this is correct; and such determinism underpinned my years of physics training - notwithstanding different rules applying at the extremes, such as quantum levels.

According to Gould, Darwin largely shied away from use of the term, because of this determinism. There are two problems here: biological evolution lacks specific direction and predictability. Yes, it is non-deterministic.

Direction: fit to environment is the key. We can be misled into thinking that we are the pinnacle of evolution, and so all evolution is towards increasing complexity. Gould discusses a type of parasite called dicyemids, that live in the renal organs of squids and octopi. There had been much debate over whether these creatures had always been primitive, or whether they had shed functionality to adapt to their environment, simplifying in the process to little more than feeding and reproduction functions. In 1999, Kobayashi, Furuya amd Holland presented genetic evidence in Nature magazine to demonstrate dicyemids had in fact descended from more complex creatures, in the process becoming incredibly simplified. Evolution is not necessarily about increasing complexity. Progress can be in any direction appropriate to the needs of the environment.

Predictability: Darwin's "descent with modification" occurred, as Gregor Mendel demonstrated in the 19th century, via random genetic mutation. In a static environment, a species' genetic outliers are disfavoured; in a changing environment, those random outliers can be better equipped to handle the changes. Gould's example here is an elephant in Siberia: when the climate turns cold, those elephants in successive generations that are hairier are more favoured to survive.

However, this randomness is such that, were history to be replayed, there is no guarantee that the changes wouldn't play out in a different way. There is no promise of predictability, since results are entirely dependent on what mutations eventuate - and whether the bearers of the altered genes survive whatever mishaps and chance comes their way.

All this is not to deny that increasing complexity has at times been a definite trend in the planet's history. Increased complexity be a survival advantage. Further, evolution has to a significant extent been an "arms race" between predator and prey, between competitors for resources. Arsenal improvements, including lung capacity, musculature, size (in both directions) and functionality have always aided genetic longevity.

It's barely worth trying to eliminate concepts of determinism and direction from popular understanding of the word 'evolution'. But it suffices to understand the different uses in the different contexts.

Summarised from:
Gould, Stephen Jay (2002): What Does The Dreaded "E" Word Mean Anyway? in I Have Landed, Jonathan Cape, London.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Australia is now honest on Kyoto

Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Australia's Prime Minister today.

He'll now be off to the Bali Climate Change conference with new Climate Change minister Penny Wong. The stakes are higher than ever, the urgency greater.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

New Sydney Town Plaza - new City

This in the Herald today: I'd heard the council was buying up the Woolworths Building - or already owned it. They should be close to owning that whole block, for which there had been talk for a while of clearing it. Costly use of a whole city block. Especially if it becomes as lifeless as Martin Place twilights and weekends. But if they can ensure that it is well-used, there's wonderful potential. As a bonus (not a negative) it would throttle traffic on George St. Discourage cars from the city. And that can bring adjacent precincts - eg alongside Queen Victoria Building - to life.

Can work well - if done right. Needs good trams though. (Suggest closing Market around State Theatre for coup de grace.)