Category Archives: Science

Books Science

Allomothers and human evolution

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding begins with an unforgetable image – of a planeload of chimpanzees in the place of human passengers. “Any one of us would be luck to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmained. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.” It’s a dramatic way illustrate the truly amazing sociability of the human race, the desire of strangers to at least get along and often empathise with each other. The aim of her book, she says, is to “explain the early origins of the mutual understanding, giving impules, mind reading, and other hypersocial tendencies that make this possible”. (p. 4)

At the core of her theory is a belief that at some time in human evolution, possibly as long as 2 million years ago, going back to Homo habilis or erectus, with what distinguished us from other similar species was that the young started to be too expensive for an individual mother to care for, so she had to rely on others – usually female relatives (“allomothers”), to provide extensive care and provisioning for the child, and the child had a better chance of survival if it was good at encouraging that care by its behaviour. This can also be used to explain human menopause.

I don’t by any means agree with all of it – there’s a few parts of rather crude socio-biology type analysis about modern societies – but an interesting read.

Books Environmental politics History Science

A fascinating (pre)history of manure – no, really. And possibly some lessons for today…

A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics

The “new books” section at the London Library throw up many weird, wonderful and exciting possibilities. Not many readers might have picked up Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives, but since it combines my interest in soils and history, how could I resist?

And I found parts of this collection of academic essays by different authors absolutely fascinating – and even a reader without my special interest would, I think, also do so. (Although I’ll admit that “Organic geochemical signatures of ancient manure use” is probably only of specialist concern – although I did learn from it that elephants, hyraxes and manatees are the only major vertebrates that don’t produce bile acids. Now there’s a pub quiz killer answer…)

Even the introduction, with its brief skip through the 20th-century organics movement, told me things I didn’t know, particularly the debt that this Western knowledge owes to the East. It identified a key text, published in 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries, by Franklin King, who had made a research trip to China, Japan and Korea. “Critically, King was able to demonstrate that organic manures in the East enabled more to be grown per hectar.. than contemporary methods used in the West which were becoming ever more reliant on artificials [fertilisers]”. (p. 3) And India also contributed through the work of Sir Albert Howard, who eventually established the Institute of Plant Industry in Indore, where he established a manuring method, the Indore Process, that involves mixing vegetable and animal waste with chalk, limestone, wood ash, earth or claked lime, to neutralise the acidity produced by fermentation. His An Agricultural Testament (1940) informed Soil Association work.

But mostly, we’re going an awful lot further back in history – or more correctly prehistory. “Middening and manuring in Neolithic Europe” sets out much of the ground – the fact that stall manure is rarely spread more than 500 metres from its source, even with animal transport available, greatly raising the value of land in immediate proximity of human/animal housing. And that manuring is a slow investment – only 5-25% of the nutrients being usually available in the year after its spreading – which immediately raises questions of land tenure and inheritance. There’s a tension if new households are added – if they are to be in close proximity to existing ones, then this land will be encroached. This may explain areas such as central and northern Europe where dispersed settlements tend to be the norm.
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Books Environmental politics Science

Understand the birds – I do now, at least a little more…

A shorter version of this post was originally published on Blogcritics

Today I was watching a buzzard soar above the Morvan National Park in Burgundy. Tonight, I’m listening to one owl – maybe more – hooting gently in the valley below me that the raptor was dominating earlier, as the scene is very gently lit by a waxing, but still small, moon. They seem mysterious, unknowable – hard to track their lives and imagine what they would be like, but I’ve got a bit more of an idea after reading Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense: What It Is Like to Be a Bird.

I know that the raptor has a preponderance of cone cells in its retina (“like low-speed colour film – high-definition and performing best in bright light”), and the owl a majority of rod cells (which “can be thought of as working like old-fashioned high-speed black and white film – capable of detecting low levels of light”). While humans have only one fovea – a spot in the back of the eye where images are sharpest, some birds, including raptors, shrikes, hummingbirds, kingfishers and swallows, have two. So that buzzard’s visual acuity, ability to see fine detail, is roughly twice my own, while I probably didn’t need the science to tell me the owl can see a lot better in the dark than I. (I do sometimes go walking in the forest at night without a torch, but it’s a case of walking by feel rather than sight.)

That might sound quite technical, but really this is a highly readable book, that puts sometimes quite complicated science into terms entirely accessible to any interested lay person. The task of a mallard duck seeking food at the bottom of a muddy pond is likened to a human being given a morning bowl of muesli and milk to which has been added a handful of fine gravel.

“To understand how this is possible, first catch a duck. Then turn it over and open its beak so that you can examine its palate. The most striking feature is a series of grooves radiating around the curved tip, but you need to look beyond these at the outer edge of the bill. What you should be able to see now is a series of tiny holes or pores – some 30 of them. If you look on the lower jaw, you will find even more – about 180. Examining these pores with a magnifying glass, you will see that from each one protrudes the top of a cone-shaped structure called a ‘papilla’, inside which is a cluster of around 20 to 30 microscopic sensory nerve eningds – these are the touch receptors – that connect to the brain.” (p. 78)

Migration is of course one of the great mysteries of bird life, and what stands out from Birkhead’s very clear explanation of the current state of knowledge is just how sketchy and uncertain it is. He begins the chapter with an account of his own work with guillemots on Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast, getting from new geolocating technology finally, in 2009, after decades of working with them, a detailed understanding of where they go when not nesting on the island. (In short south at the end of July for a few weeks in the Bay of Biscay, before flying 1,500km north to spend most of the winter off northwest Scotland.)
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Books Environmental politics History Science

A wise look at “weeds” and their place in our world

A shorter version of this review was originally published on Blogcritics.

Arriving in France to a spring garden in which the nettles stand chest-high with the grass-seed heads waving alongside, it seemed the ideal time to pick up Richard Mabey’s Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants. It also turned out to be a book that crossed across many of the environmental news stories of today – as well as being simply a cracking good read. Mabey as a writer really knows how to let an anecdote rip across the page, and his sources and interests are wide and broad though never overwhelming, but he’s also a thinker, and the overview of human interaction with nature – our sheer blazing ignorance and careless destructiveness – come strongly through as a theme of Weeds.

One topical story is that of ragwort – a “weed” that last year got a UK government minister hellbent on its destruction as a “vile” plant into a lot of (entirely deserved) hot water. He quotes the country poet John Clare’s early 19th-century view of it as displaying “beautys manifold” in a “sunburnt & bare” spot on a degraded meadow, contrasting it with 20th-century hysteria about the poisoning of grazing animals, particularly horses. Mabey notes: “Neither wild nor domestic animals will usually eat growing ragwort if other forage is available. The vast majority of poisoning cases are from dried plants which have been cut with hay and, ironically, from wilted and shrunk specimens which have been sprayed with herbicide (the plant is just as toxic when dead, and less easily recognised by animals.)… Clare accepts ragwort as one of the adornments of the summer landscape, even by the side of the ‘waggonways’ used by horses. \the absence from the poem of any reference to local hostility (often mentioned in connection with other species) suggests there was some kind of rapprochement with the plant. It was a weed to be respected, not demonised.)” (p. 123)

Another strong theme now in the news is the overall massive loss of diversity over past centuries, but particularly last decades – highlighted today by news of how “the wholesale ripping up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ploughing over of meadows” has led to the loss of 50% of Europe’s farmland birds, and about the farming time-machine needed to try to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee into Britain.

Mabey travels with a young Finn, Pehr Kalm, who in 1748 visited the farm of the celebrated British improver William Ellis. It was March, before plants had flowered, so the young visitor sorted through dried hay to establish what mix of species grew in the rich pastures. (The same method, Mabey notes, is still used by ecologists today.) There were 29 species, only nine of them grasses, “including several that would be regarded as grassland weeds today – hoary plantain, daisy, yarrow, knapweed, hawkweed” and, predominately what we now see as a lawn weed, bird’s-foot trefoil… which Ellis “praised beyond compare and set before all other grass species in his Modern Husbandman … to be in the highest perfection the most proper hay for feeding saddle-horses, deer, sheep and rabbits, as well as cattle”. (p.129) Mabey notes we now know that many of these despised “weeds” have higher nutritional value than the grasses they are killed with herbicide to make space for.

He also notes how many of the plants we now seek to destroy with noxious chemicals were put to good use – gorse, as a fuel plant, especially for bread ovens, and bracken, used to fuel brick and bread baking, and also as a litter for animals in the farmyard that then became an excellent manure for wheat, pea and corn crops. Mabey explains how on a common near his home, a radical local landowner in 1866 led a campaign of direct action against the enclosure of the common the Finn was describing. “On the day the fences were torn down, the local people flocked up to Berkhamsted Common and picked token sprigs of gorse to celebrate that the place was theirs again. Until the commons were finally sold off in the 1920s, the locals adhered to courteous and frugal codes to ensure the survival of their weed resource. There was a close-season for the gorse and bracken, between 1 June and 1 September. On 31 August the commoners would listen for the chimes of the parish church at midnight, and go up to stake out their claims, like gold prospectors.” (p. 130)

Then there’s the “hot” question of how much we can continue to engage in large-scale monoculture, maybe with genetically modified crops to deal with the multiple problems, an issue that’s being played out in Britain today in a dispute over GM wheat. There’s good cause to be worried about the risks of this controversial trial, but even more cause to be concerned about an attempt to use a simplistic solution to allow the continuation of our destructive broad-scale farming systems. Nature’s a lot smarter and faster than we are, as Mabey illustrates with the example of the rice bred for South-East Asian conditions too “out-smart” weed grasses. “In the rice paddies… there are weed grasses so similar to cultivated rice that farmers are unable to distinguish them before the wild grasses bloom. Plant breeders thought they might be able to trick the weed into showing itself by developing a variety of rice with a purple tinge. Within a matter of years the weed grass had turned purple too. The slight pigment that had enable plant breeders to develop the coloured rice also occurs occasionally in the weed. With each successive harvets it was this strain that … passed into next year’s seed store.” (p. 45)
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Books Environmental politics Science

The latest on the state of world agriculture, and how far we have to go to fix it

A shorter version was published on Blogcritics.

Back in 2006, it was in part concern about world food supplies – and particularly the condition of the soils and water that produce them – that led me to join the Green Party. I did an agricultural science degree, a long time ago, and I never “practiced” as a scientist, but an interest in soils, and comprehension that their complexity is something that is terribly important and terribly poorly understood, has stayed with me. And being an Australian, particularly one who spent some time in the bush, an awareness of water scarcity is part of my DNA.

Since then, I’ve had to ration my reading on the subject. It’s too depressing to confront it too often. But it seemed when I came across The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It by Julian Cribb, from the University of Technology Sydney (ah, I remember its wool science lab well!), published last year, it was time to update with the words of a specialist.

We’re already in a bad place. As Cribb notes, in the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-5, world food prices rose by 78%, while between 2005 and 2008, they rose on average by 80%. (p.3) But in the intervening period, it is very clear, global governments and NGOs took their eye off the ball. They thought food was fixed, sorted, and would keep on getting cheaper. And it is set to get a lot worse:

The challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food – suing far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought.” (p. 13)

On soil loss, Cribb is bigger than others I’ve read on the spread of cities, noting that adding all of the world’s urban areas together they are estimated to occupy 4.75 million square kilometres, about half the size of the US or China (p. 58), and making the, good, point, that not only do they consume land for housing, but also for leisure facilities around them – golf courses, playing fields etc, plus off course in the West anyway commuter belts. Because cities are usually located on the best agricultural land, they’re also pushing farming into more marginal territory, where soil degradation, saliniation etc are likely to be more of a problem.

Cribb follows one of my favourite issues in stressing how much cities once did and could again supply a significant proportion of their own food, but current planning policies actively work to prevent this. (This madness being just a small example.) And he’s big on the need for cities to preserve nutrients (yes, I’m a big fan of composting toilets for this reason) – “humanity is thought to produce around 3 billion tonnes of phosporus in its sewage, so, in theory at least, the world’s cities concentrate around 1.5 billion tonnes- an immense resource that is largely wasted by flushing it into the oceans”. (p. 80) Particularly telling since peak phosphorus (produced from rock) was around 1989 – and “there’ are no substitutes for phosphorus. It is fundamental to the chemistry that supports all forms of life”. (p. 76)

And supplies depend on a narrow range of sources: “The lion’s share of phospate production… comes from China (37%), Morocco and the Western Sahara (32%), South Africa (8%) and the US (7%). Potash [one of the other key nutrients] is obtained by mining potassium salts and comes chiefly from four countries – Canada (53%), Russia (22%), Belarus (9%) and Germany (9%).” (p. 72) Nitrogen, the other key element, is mostly made from synthetic ammonia made using natural gas and is made in more than 60 countries. (Still sounds like a powerful argument for the coplete fertiliser of compost to me!
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Books Environmental politics Science

Trees: into mysticism and beyond to science

Article first published on Blogcritics.

I would describe myself as “not the mystical sort”. That means that Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us is not an obvious book for me. But beyond its mystical side, it also contains a lot of science, and that’s what drew me to it. Particularly, it’s the sort of big picture science that helps you to see the world in new ways.

The author is described in the blurb as “a world expert on how trees connect the effect our environment” and the detailed knowledge and expertise behind the writing is obvious. Yet she puts this into something accessible and highly readable, the inspiration she says in the introduction, the traditional Irish storyteller. So The Global Forest is structured as 40 short essays, which range across key aspects of our global ecosystems, and historical and recent human interactions with them.

The basics are here. This the fact that in the 1950s 30% of global land was covered with forests, and in 2005 that figure was down to something like 5%. This the fact that the demand for paper, almost entirely reliant on trees, has led to exploding demand for pulp of 200 million tonnes a year for the Western world. And the fact that, despite the global garden offering a cornucopia of 80,000 potential food species, we now rely almost exclusively on eight food species. As the author says: “the traditional knowledge of the other 79,992 is rapidly being lost to future generations”.

And so are practical suggestions. One of the chief concerns of the book is the promotion of what she calls to two-tier agriculture, the combination of tree and ground crops in a “Savannah design”. The chief knowledge base is clearly grounded in North America, and she is fascinating on the subject of the nut crops and the nut milk Native Americans made from them. And also the future potential. “All of the hickory family produces particularly dense wood together with a colossal nut crop…. The hickory can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere like no other tree can. They have done this in the past enemy stretches of virgin forest and they can do it again.”

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