Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A call to a more balanced viewpoint...

This is a very brief blog prompted by something that was said in the 21st Century Lecture today, and has actually been repeated throughout the course on several occasions.

I guess I want to debunk the idea that somehow when Darwin's Origin of Species was published the Church rose up in arms and could not accept it. The excerpt from the article below highlights how the theory of evolution has been used to meet many peoples own personal gains or to prop up different world views. When the Origin of Species was published it was accepted widely amonst the Church. The conflict arose particularly when one man William Bryan campagined heavily against the theory. This creationist movement lost traction in the 1920s but was reinvigorated in the USA in the 1960s.

I feel that often what has been said in lectures regarding this in particular is a consequence of shifting baselines, oversimplification and mis-information. Just because the debate now appears that Christianity and science seem to be at logger-heads does not mean that this has always been this way (as highlighted below in the article). Also, the actual debate itself between christianity and science is much more complex and intertwined than has been presented. I know many professing christians myself who can reconcile their faith with science as a whole and evolution in particular. These arguments are not based on similarily bizarre theories such as 'intelligent design' but on well-founded and well argued viewpoints. If we are to be good conservation practioners who desire to interact with religions (as we have been prompted throughout this course) I propose that we should have a greater understanding of the history and processes that have lead to todays debate, and instead of instantly switching off when we hear the word 'religion' in lectures (due to our own preconceptions or previous experiences), we should approach this subject with an open mind. The importance of looking at the long-term trends in conservation have been highlighted to us during this course, and I suggest we should take a similar stance when considering the origins of the science that we champion and it's interaction with culture, religion and society.

This link (http://www.bethinking.org/science-christianity/) provides many articles on the subject of how science interacts with christianity, and I would recommend you take a look if you want a more balanced view of the debate between science and religion and the history behind it than is given in lectures.

I apologise if this blog is a little fragmented, I've been trying to write it whilst listening to Shonil's lecture!! (sorry Shonil, but I felt I needed to say this!)




If the twentieth century was the century of physics then it seems likely that the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. One of the main reasons for thinking this is the increasing power of molecular genetics to analyse living organisms at the molecular level. The Human Genome Project has obtained a complete sequence of human DNA and the genome sequences of other organisms are now becoming available at an increasing pace. It is already possible to compare the DNA sequence of every human gene with the equivalent gene found in many other species.

Whereas physics has been going through a rather non-mechanistic phase, particularly following the advent of quantum theory, biology is in the midst of the reverse process, in which the focus is on the interactions between molecules, and the way in which these define the properties of the whole organism (‘how genotype determines phenotype in a given environment’). Through the insights of biochemistry and molecular biology, living matter is now amenable to investigation and manipulation in ways which would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. Advances in biology are certainly likely to raise some hot issues for the twenty-first century.

Creation and Evolution[i]

One topic that has more of a nineteenth than a twenty-first century ring to it is that of creation and evolution. Given that nineteenth century Christian thinkers felt that they had given this topic a good airing, and that they had reached some quite satisfactory conclusions which did justice to both science and the Bible, it is rather surprising to note how the debate was revived during the course of the twentieth century and still remains active today. There are some particular historical reasons for this which are of interest.

One reason appears to be Christian reaction in the USA to the horrors of the First World War. The Kaiser’s philosophy of ‘might is right’ in Germany drew heavily on the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a concept which had been introduced into Darwinian theory by Herbert Spencer. Much to Darwin’s disgust, Spencer had popularised evolution during the late nineteenth century as if it represented a grand philosophy for the whole of life, history and human progress, rather than in its straightforward Darwinian form of a biological theory to explain the origins of biological diversity. The fact that Darwinian theory had been utilised to support Germany’s military ambitions was publicised in the USA by several books which had a great influence on William Bryan, a three-time defeated Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, a Presbyterian layman and one of America’s greatest populist reformers of that era[ii]. Bryan tapped into a public concern that militaristic ideas would spread from Europe to America, and that evolution would ‘sap the morality of the nation’s youth’. Armed with such an understanding of the scope of evolution, Bryan proceeded to campaign vigorously against evolution in the name of creationism.

The creationist movement that Bryan supported during the 1920s eventually fizzled out, but was revived again in the USA with great vigour during the 1960s, and once again was linked to a concern that evolution was in some sense immoral. Numerous court cases were fought in an attempt to prevent the teaching of evolution in American schools. Henry Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research, suggested that the acceptance of the theory of evolution was responsible, amongst other things, for promiscuity, pornography and perversion[iii]. In this brand of creationism it was maintained that the Earth was made some 10,000 years ago over a period of six days of 24 hours each, and that each species was created by God separately, so denying the claim fundamental to evolutionary theory that there is a unity between all living organisms.

In contrast to the creationists, other Christians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Frank Tipler have tried to use evolution to support grand religious schemes pointing to the evolution of life toward an eventual perfected ‘omega point’: we have already discussed the shortcomings of such schemes in chapter 2. On the other side of the religious fence, atheists such as Richard Dawkins have tried to use the theory of evolution to prop up their view that our existence on planet earth has no ultimate meaning. Because atheistic writers such as Dawkins try to use evolution to support a materialistic philosophy, in response Christian apologists such as Philip Johnson[iv] have proposed that Christians should attack evolution because they believe it is intrinsically atheistic.

Besides being used in both religious and anti-religious arguments, at various times evolution has also been used to support capitalism, communism and racism, not to speak of numerous other ‘isms’!

From such observations it will immediately be apparent that a key confusion that frequently occurs when ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’ are being discussed is that the people in conversation often have quite different definitions in mind as to what these words actually mean. The participants can then spend a lot of time talking at cross-purposes and generating heat rather than light. There is an important difference between the biological theory of evolution and the various philosophies that people have tried to derive from it ever since the time of Darwin. The fact that many of these philosophies are mutually exclusive should alert us to the possibility that none of them is logically based on the biological theory of evolution, but rather are parasitic upon it. Study of the history of science illustrates many examples of the ways in which scientific theories, particularly the ‘grand theories’ of science, have been used for ideological purposes. The common strategy is to insinuate, using dubious arguments, or repeated repetition, that a particular ideology is closely associated with a particular scientific theory. All kinds of ideas can then hitch a ride along with the grand theories of science, until they become weighed down by the accretion of associated ideologies. The theory of evolution has often suffered such a fate. To have a sensible discussion about creation and evolution, we must therefore first spend some time unwrapping the meanings of these terms."

Excerpt taken from online article at http://www.bethinking.org/science-christianity/creation-and-evolution.htm

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Little by little the bird builds its nest... Local solutions to a global issue

It is time for me to share something that has been wandering in my mind for the last couple of weeks... After reading hundreds and hundreds of papers (OK i am exaggerating but i am a future conservationist after all!!) I came to a personal conclusion: If we want to save the world's biodiversity we have to take a case by case approach... During this year i found that the most interesting papers (and easy to read) were those dealing with case studies where I actually learn something I might use later on... enough of this nonsense debates where we want to find a global solution... "land sharing vs land sparing", "rewilding: pros vs cons" etc... there is no absolute truth, no global antidote... the cultural gaps as well as the different conditions between countries and regions are so important that we can't overcome them with global strategies... What might work somewhere won't somewhere else. It is time for conservationist to use their sense of creativity, to learn from previous experiences in order to find the proper conservation approach for a specific case. Let the academician debate all they want, the reality is that there is one truth: the local conditions on the field. Worldwide conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and even the Kyoto protocol often lead to disillusions and lets face it, complete failures... Establishing standard governance and management methods in different countries is nonsense... In Lebanon for example, corruption is (unfortunately) part of our culture and even of our charm some would say... That is of course not taken in consideration by the different committees established by the various international conventions (Ex:Designated National Authorities (DNA) for the Kyoto protocol) that have to follow standard procedures...
I guess that what I want to say is that we don't have to solve global issues with global strategies... we should not waste our time thinking of the new conservation trend that will solve all our problems... sometimes a bit of effort here and bit of effort there will lead to much more efficient and rapid results... Little by little the bird builds its nest...
And again I might be wrong, I am after all just a 24 year old student...


Monday, 22 February 2010

Debate on Rewilding

The debate on re-wilding goes on here -> http://bcmdebates.wordpress.com/rewilding/

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Giving tiny toads a home

Zoos are a controversial subject. Even if we leave aside the question over the cruelty or not of keeping animals in captivity, there is a whole other debate as to their role in conservation. Pioneers such as Gerald Durrell say zoos as a vital component of conservation effort, acting as a stationary ark to preserve the most endangered species until their wild habitats can be repopulated. For Durrell, conservation was the primary objective of zoos and any other benefit was subsidiary. How then, does this ideal stand up in the cold light of day?

Examples such as the Arabian oryx (extinct in the wild in 1972, now has a wild population of over 1000) and black-footed ferret (last wild population removed to captivity in 1985, wild population thought to be in excess of 750) show that ex situ conservation can not only work but give a huge publicity boost to conservation. In a world of increasingly doom-laden prophecies, it’s nice to hear that the ferrets are OK.

However, several studies have argued that whilst there are success stories, there perhaps aren’t as many as we would like. Clubb et al. (2008) showed that elephants in captivity actually have a lower life expectancy than in the wild, whilst Balmford et al. (1995) demonstrated that keeping black rhinos in captivity costs over twice as much per year as managing a national park with rhinos in. Moreover, Conway (1986) made the point that even with the best will in the world, zoos will be unlikely to house viable populations of more than around 500 species of vertebrate. The IUCN red list currently contains over 1000 mammal species alone – clearly ex situ conservation will not be a panacea to biodiversity conservation.

There are many other issues with ex situ conservation as well, involving the risk of novel diseases, loss of adaptation to the wild, limited reintroduction success and so on, but I want to concentrate on this idea of capacity and choosing which animals you put in zoos. And I want to talk about tiny toads without a home.

In 1998, an adorable new species of toad was found in Tanzania. This week, the NY Times reported that there were no longer any in the wild (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/earth/02toads.html?ref=global-home). In a similar story, the truly hilarious Panamanian golden frog was recently evacuated from its last known wild home (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7219803.stm) and, whilst less yellow, the equally charismatic and brilliantly named mountain chicken frog was airlifted to safety (http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/newsid_8010000/newsid_8011600/8011646.stm - all the best news is from cbbc).

So why am I talking quite so much about amphibians? My point is that these species are as endangered as lions or elephants but you can actually keep them in captivity. If you load up a zoo with frogs, toads and even invertebrates then you can vastly increase the number of species you can save. The six species of Patulla snail at Bristol zoo are allegedly managed by a single part-time keeper; whilst the cost of keeping the (admittedly horrific-sounding) wartbiter cricket in captivity is something around 1% the cost of a gorilla. If zoos want to actually conserve species, rather than act solely as a glorified amusement park then they could get so much more done by concentrating on species they can actually keep alive. Unfortunately, this is almost exactly the opposite of what they are actually doing. The number of breeding programmes for mammals actually increases with body size (Balmford et al. 1996) when all sense and reason says the opposite should happen.

Obviously there are issues of drawing people to zoos using charismatic megafauna and so on but wouldn’t it be better to get people interested in the smaller, less spectacular species as well? Who are we to say that a rhino or a gorilla has any more right to a home than a tiny toad?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Bringing back extinct species – a mammoth undertaking

Thylacines roaming free in the forests of Tasmania, herds of aurochs and tarpans running in the lowlands of northern Europe, and a Barbary lion pouncing on a herd of red deer in the Atlas Mountains. A typical wildlife scenery on Earth before the humans ruled it.

The extinction of a species represents the saddest moment in the conservation-minded human. Nowadays, all conservation projects implemented in every corner of the world have the same overarching vision: to reduce the rate of extinction and secure the survival of as many species as possible. Extinct species stay in the backyard of history to remind us of our past mistakes and to stop us doing similar ones in the future.

Yet, the chance is there for us to reverse the wheel of history and make up for those mistakes. The above scenario might not be that far from happening in the present day, after all.

The issue of “reviving species” has received growing attention in the past decades. Many scientists around the world have been involved in projects aiming to bring extinct animals back to life. This “Jurassic park”-approach has evolved in two main directions, namely reviving through selective breeding and reviving through cloning.
It was the 1920s when the two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck initiated selective breeding programmes for bringing back two of the most charismatic herbivores that had once roamed Europe: the aurochs (Bos primigenius), last seen in Poland’s forests in 1627, and the tarpan (Equus ferus) the last individual of which died out in 1909 (www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/aurochs.htm). These are the wild ancestors of the present cattle and horse. The latter have lost their “wild traits” through millennia of domestication and selective breeding by humans for specific purposes and needs. The approach used by the Heck brothers is in theory, the reverse process of domestication, the so called “breeding back”, where domestic individuals that carry wild traits and features are bred together to enhance the species’ wild features. The resulting animals seen today in some natural reserves and zoos throughout Europe are strikingly similar to the extinct wild species.

Similar and more recent attempts of breeding back animals that are phenotypically similar to extinct relatives involve the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), the last of which was shot in Morocco in 1922 and the Quagga (Equus quagga quagga), a subspecies of the Plains zebra that lived in southern Africa up to the 1870s. Some Barbary lions survived in captivity as property of the Sultan of Morocco, however this was largely unknown to the world up to the 1970 and the subspecies was assumed as extinct. The remaining lions in Morocco had similar features with the descriptions of extinct Barbary lions. Nowadays there are less than 100 lions in captivity dispersed in zoological gardens in Europe, North America and Morocco and a project undertaken by Preservation Station Inc. (www.barbarylion.com) promotes the selective breeding of remaining individuals for preserving the genetic distinctiveness of the Barbary lion.
Attempts to breed back the quagga have initiated in the late 1980 by using individuals of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchelli). Quaggas, unlike other subspecies of the Plain’s zebra, lack the presence of stripes at the rump. In the reconstruction programme animals that display this trait are selectively bred to reconstruct the phenotype of the extinct subspecies (www.quaggaproject.org).

Many extinct animals do not survive in domesticated form nor have close relatives from which they can be reconstructed. However, for some of them we have left genetic material that could be used to revive animals through cloning. The issue of cloning brings together many controversies and has been in the centre of hot debates between scientists for many years now. In spite of this, there are current projects that aim to revive extinct species such as the Thylacine and the Pyrenean ibex through cloning.

The Tylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was last seen in 1936 and since 1999 a cloning project has been undertaken by the Australian Museum in Sydney (http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/tasmaniantiger.htm) however its success has been limited due to lack of technological advancements and the complexities arising from using another species as a host.
Similar cloning attempts have been implemented to resurrect the recently extinct Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) in Spain by using domestic goats as surrogates. The first cloned ibex and the first extinct animal resurrected through cloning was born in January 2009 (http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/pyreneanibex.htm), however the newborn died after 7 minutes due to respiratory problems possibly directly related to the cloning process.

Besides the hope and enthusiasm that might arise from the above cases there are still many controversies around the revival of extinct animals. There are many questions in need of answers in this delicate process before we can proceed with a clear vision for the future. Which are the animals that we can bring back? Are they going to fit in nowadays landscapes? Is it worth trying to bring back species when we still can’t secure the survival of the existing ones?
These uncertainties have been the cause hot debates between scientists around this issue. However, the process of reviving species represents the potential of humans for positive change. If we can show that we can reverse extinction then we can change the human mindset towards positive change and evoke greater hope for the future of our planet.

Aleksander Trajce

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Who said nature was beautiful?

The 'beautiful' creature represented in this image is a blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus)... not really charismatic, not really happy... in a world where you have to be cute as a panda to get caring attention the blobfish can't be blamed for being worried. Apparently the Australian deep sea, which it is endemic to, is not a safe neighborhood. Australian fishing nets are inadvertently catching my ‘gelatinous human face-looking’ friend pushing it to the verge of extinction. Yes, the blobfish is my friend and I am determine to work (preferably paid) for its survival and not just because it fascinates me but because it probably has a good reason to exist… and I need a job… ;)