Saturday, December 09, 2006


In a recent talk, Steven Hawking expressed the need for humanity to colonize other worlds in order to avoid extinction. He spoke specifically about the eminent threats to human survival, like asteroid collisions and nuclear war, as well as the development of near light travel. He also spoke of his own determination to go into space.

It struck me while reading about this talk, that colonizing other worlds would involve a lot more than just the technology to get there. We would need to survive there. And even a planet that already supports life of some kind isn't likely to have everything on hand that human beings would need to survive. It's most likely that we would need to engineer environments on new worlds to make homes for ourselves. A biosphere transplant.

The leading Paleontologist Richard Leakey, in a speech at Cameron University in 2001, stressed the need to preserve genetic diversity of species "in order to ensure our tenure on this planet." I think he's right, and I would also take that a step further. We need to preserve genetic diversity of species in order to ensure our tenure in the universe. The worlds we may find to call home outside this solar system will almost certainly run the full spectrum of environments that can support life. To create viable biospheres on such worlds, we may need creatures as diverse as carrier pigeons and woolly mammoths. All the more reason for us to be careful with our environment.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Family Ecology Lessons

When my daughter sees a spider, she runs to me or her mother and urgently whispers, “There’s a spider over there, but don’t kill it!” Without trying very hard, I’d impressed a simple ecological lesson on her. When a spider appeared in our house, I used to scoop it up and take it outside. “Spiders,” I explained to her, “eat mosquitoes, so they’re very helpful bugs.”

Like most little girls, my daughter thinks spiders are “yucky,” but she likes mosquito bites even less. So she’s learned to value something for which she has a very natural revulsion. She also knows not to touch the spiders herself, a lesson that didn’t need much reinforcement. So she has a balanced attitude toward spiders. She’s developing some good ecological attitudes.

More recently, I’ve learned that your average house-spider is actually not well adapted to the outdoors at all. They also eat a lot more than just mosquitoes. Fleas, bed bugs and other pesky little blood-sucking bugs are on the menu too. As it turns out, I needed to learn a few things about spiders myself. My own ecological views needed some work. But as a well-meaning person whose information was a little off, I’m hardly alone.

I once worked for a conservation district. The district’s managers had planted a small grove of trees specifically for harvest. The idea is, you plant a grove of trees in recovered farmland. The trees provide a habitat for the years they are in place, and help with the ecological recovery of the farmland. Eventually, you harvest some or all of these trees and plant more. This cycle is closer to what would happen in nature than clear-cutting, the trees provide some revenue to keep the conservation district going, and helps protect old growth forests from logging by providing a ready source of timber.

But many of their volunteers saw the conservation district as participating in the evils of the logging industry. To them, it was flat out wrong. They couldn’t see the environment as a dynamic thing, and they couldn’t imagine human beings as being able to play a mutually beneficial role in the environment. It was like the “leave only footprints” idea run-amok.

But nature won’t wait for us to get it. Nature won’t wait for us to adapt to it. It’s adapting to us all the time. Just have a look at the parking lot of your local grocery store. I bet you’ll find sea gulls. Even in Oklahoma. They are finding their niche in the human ecology. Right along side domesticated dogs and sewer rats, other animals are adapting to us. Its interesting that, even while some people are slow to catch on to the idea that human beings are shaping their environment, the rest of the natural world is wasting no time in adapting to us at all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I just read an article about some exciting new research into Panspermia; alien bacteria, and red rain, and the origins of life. The researchers claim that this phenomenon points to the possibility of life here on Earth having extraterrestrial origins. Well, I'm sorry to say it, but I'm here to rain on that parade...

This idea, like a number of others, smacks of a kind of neo-creationism. These ideas are gaining currency with some otherwise well-meaning folks who simply don't have a good foundation in the sciences. I'm guessing that they are more enamored by science that religion, but are still looking for that awe-inspiring revelation about the meaning of life. But even this idea is a bit far-fetched.

Take the whole pyramids-built-by-aliens-theory. They say that cultures all over the world were building pyramids at roughly the same time, so they must have been connected, or inspired by the same culture. Ever make a pile of
stones? High as you could make it? Was it cone or pyramid shaped? The similarity is just based on having to obey the same laws of physics with similar levels of technology.

Similarly, while it's theoretically possible that life evolved elswhere in the universe and somehow survived in space to germinate life here, it strikes me as VERY unlikely. Space is a highly volatile environment. Life is much more probable in a homeo-rythmic environment, like the ones found on planets or moons with relatively stable orbits. Read me carefully here, Those conditions may be extreme compared to what humans need, hot, cold or what-have-you, but they are almost always within a stable set of cyclic conditions. The odds are much greater that life on Earth evolved right here, in just such an environment.

More to the point, even if it were true, it doesn't change anything. The search for the origin of life, on Earth or in the Universe, will still be important for all the same reasons. Finding life on the moons of Jupiter or some other forbidding place in the galaxy will teach us about our own origins, and the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, whether we are related or not. Four billion years ago, when life first appeared on Earth, this planet was no more hospitable than Venus, Mars or any of a handful of Jovian moons. The same laws of physics apply. So anywhere we find life surviving, or thriving, teaches us about the parameters of life. So much of our planet's condition today is regulated by the presence of life, it's difficult to imagine it as just another planet.

In any event, the actual answers to the origin of life here will probably also remain equally elusive. We may find many clues, but never have a solid answer. So why does matter? That's easier to answer. In a world where science education is suffering the set-backs of budget-cuts and attacks by the proponents of Intelligent Design, I think it's important to have some focus. Popular science is a fantastic tool for educating and rallying support for research, but I think it works best when not watered down.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Philosophy of Natural Humanism

During my first years of college, I began to study things like ecology and evolution as a matter of personal curiosity. I found the interwoven layers of natural systems enchanting. I was pulled in by the exchange of breathable air between plant and animal; the evolutionary balance of population between predator and prey; migrations in tune with seasonal weather changes. I came under the spell of complex systems of energy exchange. Ecosystems became the cathedrals of my mind.

What I couldn’t understand was the reaction of most other people to those same things. They were either unimpressed by it, or they insisted on it being the creation of some otherworldly being. They needed something outside this already fantastical universe to be the focus of their sense of spiritual awe. The reasons for that are really complex themselves, but at the time, I just quipped to myself, “Maybe if mother nature could build her own rockets to go out into space, people would be impressed…” And that’s when I realized, she has.

Human beings are after all, a product of the same natural and evolutionary forces that shaped every other living thing on this planet. And just as a termite mound in Africa are thereby a product of evolution, so is the space shuttle. I’ll grant you that the orbital module is a bit more complex than a termite mound, but then, a termite mound is arguably more efficient and better organized than the average human dwelling, so let’s not get too high on our horse here. The point is, they are all products of nature.

So in spite of the imaginary lines we might draw between ourselves and the rest of nature, outside our domesticated sphere, human culture is a natural thing. Our hunting trails have become paved roads, our nests have become houses with windows and doors, and cooperative hunting and gathering have become a complex system of agriculture and divided labor. Human culture has evolved, but still, we are a product of nature.

So here we are, the hairless cousins of apes and we can build roads and rockets. So what? What does that mean? Scientific inquiry has provided us with a new cosmology, but unlike the religious traditions of our culture, it prescribes no direction. It offers no destiny. It gives us no meaning to it all. And that’s really the scary part. The truth will not set you free: There isn’t a meaning. We have to decide that for ourselves.

That’s no easy task, and one as likely to produce as much disagreement as religion. But if we are to decide the course of human culture based on this new cosmology, we should do so from within that perspective. We should learn what termite mounds and tudor cottages have in common. We should also look at the flight of birds, and the flight of rockets. If we live immersed in an understanding of our culture as a part of the natural world, we will be better equipped to give our culture a meaning that we can all share.

In the opinion of people who’s opinions count in such matters, natural philosophy begins with an Ionian Greek philosopher named Thales. In reference to this shcool of thought, a much younger naturalist, E. O. Wilson, coined the phrase, “Ionian Enchantment” to describe an enchantment with nature such I’ve shared above. And with that, I offer this:

The Ionian Garden

I’ve put Jehova to bed with all the other gods of childhood, like Old Saint Nick, and the monster in my closet. They are good for nostalgic stories, or maybe even a moral lesson or two. Mother Earth is the only one left to me now.

She is nothing like they say. She is Kali without a mind; all arms and legs, giving birth and devouring without reason. She is us and everything that lives. She loves without malice, and kills without lust. She is beautiful. She is you.

I could not paint her likeness or shape her form in clay. But we could plant a garden to echo her movement. A garden of Ionian Enchantment. We could make our home there. But we have a lot of planting to do.