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.