Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fear and the devil in natural history

  Reportage of natural history is sometimes fraught with miscommunication.  Maybe the writer doesn't understand the subject or doesn't express themselves properly.  At other times, the devil is in the headline and the detail contains the light.

For all their effort to produce items of interest in natural history, The Guardian [Weekly] has something of a tract record for purveying conceptual misunderstandings.  I remember a recent example where the writer perpetuated a common mis-phrasing of natural selection to suggest the organism (a tree) intentionally evolved in a particular direction, rather than being the surviving mutation of those subjected to the environmental pressures.  A subtle but important distinction.

In the GW of 18th March 2016, an article by Sarah Kaplan was headed Why nature needs a landscape of fear, with a subtitle: Dread of a predator can often have a beneficial impact on the environment.  Hold it right there.  Some natural environments may change radically with the sudden introduction of an apex predator.  Other environments, with the removal of a key predator, may be thrown out of balance.  But the ipso facto presence of a significant predator is not a necessity for balance in a natural environment.

The New Zealand environment, for example, was the product of millions of years of absence of significant predators.  Under such conditions, avian flight proved an evolutionary burden, and in the absence of predator pressure, a significant number of bird lineage gradually lost the capacity of flight.

The Guardian article is based on a study by Justin Suraci (University of Victoria, in Canada) into the changing behaviour of fauna with the introduction of predatorial noises to environments which once had predators - before the heavy hand of humans intervened.

We have reformed the planet in our image, moulded it for human needs.  We only suffer domesticated flora and fauna, and reduce Earth's original environment to islands - prisons - of wilderness.

A notable example given of the reversal of this process was the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park - one of those island prisons.  The effects - not just from direct predation - cascaded down the food chain, restoring past balances both faunal and floral.

But nature does not need a landscape of fear.

The article was sourced from the Washington Post.  I tracked down that original: it's headed Dread is vanishing from the animal world.  Here's why it's a bad thing.  A far more accurate account of the contents of the article.

And so the answer is that the devil has been guiding the hand of the Guardian Weekly's subeditor.  While not the exclusive domain of the devil, this is one in which he often lurks close by.