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Friday
Aug022013

Bill Hamilton

 Though he died, in 2000, one of the most decorated evolutionary biologists in the world, thanks to inclusive fitness and his later work on sex ratios and the evolution of sexual reproduction, Hamilton was “a classic case of misunderstood genius,” his biographer writes. Of course if Hamilton were misunderstood, it was probably to his advantage -- especially in his last years, when his youthful enthusiasm for eugenics resurfaced as a bullheaded conviction that the human genome was deteriorating rapidly as a result of modern medical interventions. And he had just the program for fixing it: selective breeding of the kindest, brightest, and healthiest, matched with active infanticide for the “defective.” 

Tuesday
Apr232013

The Colombian Darién

 In March I had the welcome opportunity to travel to the Colombian department of Chocó, which runs the border with Panama, to write on the storied Darién Gap, or Tapón del Darién, for The New Yorker. The gap (and much of Chocó) is functionally roadless – there are cowpaths that you can get a motorcycle down, but that’s about it, and the complex topography and hydrology of the region make transport very fickle. Probably in some measure because of this, the Gap has become home to guerillas and paramilitaries, as well as adventurous and often ideologically-driven settlers bent on achieving the Colombian equivalent of going off the grid. The article, which appeared in the April 22 "Journeys" issue of TNY, sits behind a paywall and I don't know how to upload the PDF of it that I have. I traveled with Sergio Tamayo, a Colombian trekking guide intent on introducing others to this mysterious region, whose rainforest ecology is poorly known as a result of its miserable reputation. 

 

 

Wednesday
Feb062013

Causes of Rarity

The issue of rarity in nature is an interesting one, as there are many reasons species are rare, some of them obscure. You can be rare because you are a big cat and require a vast territory of small animals to hunt, all to yourself. You can be rare because you're stuck on an island alone, genetically isolated from your cousins on the mainland; you're rare because you're overhunted; you can be rare for no obvious reason. In the Wall Street Journal last week I looked at a new book by Eric Dinerstein, the chief scientist for the World Wildlife Federation, who's spent many years thinking about rarity and identifying the rarest and -- the hard part -- attempting to predict which rare species will become ultra-rare, like this maned wolf of Brazil, whose savannahs are being quickly converted to soy fields. I am wondering whether the photo used with the review, below, depicts a live animal or some particularly well maintained taxidermic specimen posed in a museum diorama. If it's the latter I doubt it was intentional, but I like the irony of it. 

image

Thursday
Dec062012

Hidden treasures of Stockholm

I was invited to Stockholm at the end of November by the IK foundation, which was celebrating, with a day-long seminar, the launch of the digital editions of the important Linnaeus Apostles series. This means that the 5,000-odd pages of the Apostles' journals, which I wrote about in February 2012, are finally serachable and accessible to researchers and the public for free. It was a nice event held in the Swedish Parliament; Sweden is such a sensible nation that you barely have to pass through any security to get into the Parliament; it's just expected that you'll behave yourself.

I gave a half-hour talk about my own experience with the Linnaeus Apostles --- the rest of the talks were in Swedish, and though many sounded great I could only nod dumbly. Swedes speak excellent English, so some guests generously filled me in during the lunch break as to what was actually being said. 


The day before the talk, I visited the Swedish Museum of Natural History. If it were in the center of town, it would probably be a highly profitable tourist enterprise with gift shops on every floor like so many natural history museums on good real estate. Instead it's on the outskirts, part of the university campus, which perhaps gives it less pressure to get with the times.  

And it's filled, as you might expect, with some interesting exhibits, which the highly decorated botanist Bertil Nordenstam (look for "B.Nord" on plant species to find him -- he is immortal) 

 

was kind enough to show me. Glass cabinets, egg collections, awkward 18th century taxidermy are in abundance, and thankfully. More recent collections were contributed by a professional elephant hunter later killed by an elephant.

One of the most interesting collections of all is not on display -- it's Sweden's share (not the lion's share) of the Linnaean herbaria, most of which ended up in London after being sold by Linnaus' widow, and around which the Linnean society was formed. But Sweden still has at least one fire safe's worth of Linnaean specimens, just kind of sitting there in the hallway of the botany building. Now, having seen the Joseph Banks herbaria at London's Natural History Museum, portions of which are unveiled coquettishly to the public on two tours daily, this presentation seemed jarringly modest. Nordenstam had to fiddle with the key a bit. 

 

and there it was.


 

The individual plant specimens in the collection -- some of them types -- have all been electronically imaged and catalogued now, but it's thrilling to see them on their papers, at times preserved dry and at times with a mysterious glue that Linnaeus processed from fish. It has held up well over the centuries; you can see it as traces of white surrounding the leaves.  

 

Dr. Nordenstam is able to distinguish the handwriting on each specimen, some of which have been heavily marked and annotated, starting with Linnaeus, or his son Carl, any number of their students. 

This specimen was part of a wealthy collector's private herbarium that Linnaeus was helping curate, I think with the aim to have each illustrated and turned into a book -- at any rate the collector preferred his specimens in little decorative pots.

And this is why 18th century natural history is so much more fun than 21st century natural history.  

Monday
Dec032012

Explore this. 

I hadn't written a bad book review in a while, nor was I in any particular mood to, when I was sent a copy of "Walking the Amazon" by Ed Stafford, who earned himself a Guinness world record by doing just that. The Wall Street Journal put the piece behind its paywall, so I'm reproducing below. Thanks to Michael Robinson and his wonderful and wonderfully-named blog on the history of exploration, Time to Eat The Dogs, for a needed dose of context. 

NAVEL EXPLORATION

 

Ed Stafford was a 31-year-old British army veteran and trekking guide living in Belize when he resolved to walk the full length of the Amazon. "F—ing hell, mate—this is going to be mental," Mr. Stafford told his friend and fellow outdoorsman Luke Collyer after the two had just agreed to walk the entire 4,345 miles from the river's source in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. The feat, if achieved, would land both men in the Guinness Book of World Records, for no one had yet proved mental enough to attempt it.

Mr. Stafford quickly hashed out the expedition's ground rules: They would walk 100% of the journey and never use a motor, sail or even the flow of the river to propel them. If they were forced to cross a body of water in any sort of craft, they would have to walk back to a point on the far bank perpendicular to where they had set out and continue.

In late March 2008, after 15 months of planning, Messrs. Stafford and Collyer flew to Peru, with celebratory hangovers and a pile of satellite equipment and other electronic gear that they would use to video-blog the whole journey. Their mission, since they felt obliged to declare one, was "raising awareness of the need to conserve the rain forest," although, Mr. Stafford acknowledges that "the adventure, the challenge, and therecognition" were more the point. 

It is very difficult to raise awareness of anything when one is only dimly aware of it oneself. "Walking the Amazon," Mr. Stafford's account of his successful 2½-year journey, is a study in contrasts between a noble physical and navigational achievement and a defiantly vacuous intellectual one. Mr. Stafford's extensive trip preparations, which included securing a publicist, sponsorship, NASA satellite photos, and an insurance package that included ferrying a team of English medics to any coordinates he supplied, didn't apparently involve reading up on the countries that the Amazon touches or their inhabitants.

Ethnography isn't Mr. Stafford's thing. "The people were still very indigenous-looking," he writes of one Peruvian settlement. "Despite all of them speaking Spanish, there had been little direct interbreeding with pure Spanish stock here and so tolerance to alcohol was correspondingly low." Neither is natural history. If Mr. Stafford describes an unusual animal, it is most often because it is poised to attack or because he is forced to eat it. The author explains that exhaustion prevented him from treating the Amazon as anything but an obstacle course. "Retaining interest in what we were seeing daily was harder than you might think," he writes. "The wonders of nature might as well have been whitewashed walls."

But Mr. Stafford did reserve sufficient energy to chronicle his wavering psychological health and his battles against "negativity," all the while taking measure of his own toughness, especially when there was some unfortunate soul around for him to measure it against. His accounts of visits by journalists, old friends, or well-meaning sponsors tend to end with them physically shattered and swollen from insect bites, with Mr. Stafford's morale boosted accordingly. "[T]he sense of rejuvenation was empowering," he writes after one hobbles off.

Even Mr. Collyer, a competitive climber and kayaker, is depicted as a slowpoke who is always calling his girlfriend, eating in fancy restaurants or buying donkeys to transport his heavy gear. When Mr. Collyer quits the expedition, oddly enough after a row over an iPod, Mr. Stafford feels "an exhilarating surge of freedom," as he is finally able to "throw off the past weeks of negativity" and get on with it. He is lucky to find a new travel companion in Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez Rivera, a Peruvian evangelical Christian whom Mr. Stafford is quick to inform that all religion is crap. Yet the meditative, Bible-toting Mr. Sanchez Rivera passes the toughest test of all: For thousands of miles, over varyingly hostile terrain, he manages to get along with Mr. Stafford.

In video blogs from his journey, when he is earnestly answering questions sent by schoolchildren from Pennsylvania, Mr. Stafford comes off as charming and even self-deprecating; in his book he is all hero, a Frank Buck steeped in self-help dogma. Surrounded by angry Ashaninkas in face paint pointing arrows at him, Mr. Stafford isn't afraid but rather adrenalized, time slowing and his senses sharpening until he is able to "ignore all that is not relevant to immediate survival." Crossing a dangerously isolated stretch of terrain, nearly starving, with no food in his pack and none in sight, "represented everything that, deep down, I wanted from the expedition."

Toward the end of the author's account, as he and Mr. Sanchez Rivera are in Brazil and soon to run giddily into the crashing Atlantic surf, Mr. Stafford mentions Henry Walter Bates, the 19th-century Englishman whose own Amazon explorations lasted 11 years and whose travails were no less formidable. This reference invites an unflattering comparison, for in his own travelogue Bates played down his struggles, the better to highlight the wonders he encountered, leaving a narrative as engrossing today as it no doubt was in 1863.

Mr. Stafford emerged from his Amazon adventure a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, of which Bates himself was once secretary. But the very idea of exploration has changed since Bates's day. Mr. Stafford is only the latest of many modern explorers to make his personal crucible his overriding focus. As the historian of exploration Michael Robinson has noted in books and on his blog, it is in part because they have little choice. There are few if any truly unexplored places left in the world, and national pride and economic gain are no longer fashionable motives for exploring. Celebrated most nowadays are firsts of identity and method: the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world; the first woman to circumnavigate Australia in a kayak. Mr. Stafford deserves credit for being not only the first to walk the Amazon but the first to explore his navel while doing so.