Post revisited – Lest we forget

Post revisited – Lest we forget

It is said that old elephants can remember when they were young and the places their parents led them to find water. This memory is triggered in dry times and they lead a new generation to the permanent springs and pools. Makes sense for a long-lived, mobile animal and, indeed, could be a primary benefit of longevity. Evolutionary biologists would add that this also explains why elephant females are the only other mammal we know of where, like humans, older females go through menopause. It helps them live longer.

There are things that humans remember and there are many more that we do not. Our minds are not wired to have all things recorded and catalogued for instant retrieval. They are selective in both what is archived and especially what is remembered and when.

This is true even when the memory is mission critical. How many blokes can instantly recall the birthday of their better halves? It is not how humans do things.

We remember all kinds of things seemingly at random.

No doubt there are triggers for what is recalled so the process has some determinism but there are very few common things that we are all routinely reminded of beyond what it takes to get through life without being arrested.

Then there are the fearsome, nasty and scary things that we block. These rarely make it back into our conscious thoughts unless we are at the therapist.

If we didn’t quite understand something, any memory of it is often vague. Our maths teacher, Mr Dickinson, is remembered for his unfortunate surname and not his explanation of differential calculus.

So even if you read this post from May 2011, you are unlikely to remember it…

Lest we forget

April 25 each year is a public holiday down under and every Australian knows why. It is ANZAC day, a time to remember the brave and courageous soldiers who lost their lives in war. Many thousands attend dawn services across the country come rain or shine.

Australians also know about the Easter and Christmas holidays when many a shrimp finds its way onto a barbie. A fair number also know the religious significance that prompts these days of leisure.

Earth Hour is not a holiday but it is a similar sort of homage, this time to the environment. It began in Australia and is now a global gesture toward restraint in our appetite for energy. There is not a holiday for the environment though. So World Environment Day (5th June) passes without notice; as do the minor events such as World Tree Day (18th September) or World Soils Day (5th December).

There is strong public opinion that the environment is important. Not long after the 2006 release of the documentary movie, The Inconvenient Truth, that went on to make over US$50 million worldwide, action on climate change was palpable. People in Australia took to the streets, “take action,” they said.

Since that time there has been policy paralysis.

Unable to handle lobby group pressure, fearful of what might happen to a carbon intense economy fueled by minerals revenue and coal-fired energy, and an unwillingness to take the real issues to the public, the politicians have achieved nothing.

Initially there was goodwill. Australia signed up to the Kyoto protocol in Bali and there was bi-partisan talk of a market mechanism to price carbon. But the greens said it was not enough and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was voted down. An odd call that.

The topic was rested.

Then there was failure in Copenhagen, little more in Cancun and deathly quiet over the prospects for Johannesburg. Leverage for the true believers has faded. The vacuum has been filled in part by skeptics, not about the science per se, but about the need to do anything about emissions. And the public seem to have forgotten what all the calls for policy initiatives were about.

We don’t remember that the idea was to become less emission intensive through energy conservation and shifts to alternative energy sources; perhaps even sequester some carbon into the landscape. It has also been convenient to forget that, given the way our economy works, a trading scheme was a handy mechanism to achieve these goals.

We also see to have forgotten that signing up to Kyoto means setting an emission reduction target. As at 2007 emissions were 597 million tCO2e or 77 million tCO2e more than the 5% reduction on 1990 levels. And emissions will, notwithstanding economic slowdowns, rise and grow the actual tonnage of reductions required in the absence of a policy to reverse the trend. Or, of course, Australia could renege on even a modest target.

The noise over a carbon tax is just a smokescreen, a handy way to keep the real policy issues hidden. Perhaps this is because a focused debate, something that talks about what was asked for, would remind us of what we may have forgotten. That a few short years ago most people wanted something done about the challenge of climate change.

Perhaps we should have a climate day, make it a holiday and then we will not forget.

Lest we forget climate day. Well it doesn’t really ring true does it? We can remember and celebrate heroism and sacrifice but not risks to the fabric of our existence.

Alloporus has even slowed on climate related posts and rants. It is not remembered often enough, despite times of deep reflection. Goodness, this year we even forgot to turn the lights out for Earth Hour.

Unfortunately, the earth, its climate and the resources it allows us to consume, is not often in our thoughts. It is slipping away from our culture and we remember less and less of the experiences that it gives us.

In time we will forget about it altogether.

Sex in millipedes

Sex in millipedes

Peer-reviewed publications series #1

Suppose for some reason you want to know who is in control, the male or the female? Now this is a pretty deep psychological question that is at the heart of countless novels, TV dramas, and the routines of feminist comediennes.

It is central to evolutionary biology theory too. Do females choose mates and so have some control over the genes they pass on to their offspring? Eggs are generally more energetically expensive than sperm so females should be picky and males more profligate.

The male problem is making sure that one of your billions is the one. This explains pair bonds and the so-called ‘sneaky rutting’ so prevalent in birds, and in humans too it seems. Being the one also explains why males compete so emphatically with other males. An essential evolutionary strategy is to beat your rivals to it. Genes for ‘hang back and wait your turn’ rarely persist.

Enter a millipede species from southern Africa, Alloporus uncinatus, in the taxonomic Family Spirostreptidae. This animal is essentially a prehensile tube designed to burrow into soil and glean what can be had from dead vegetation. This simple design is truly ancient. Millipedes have ancestors in the Carboniferous — some 300 million years ago when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were higher and nothing else was big enough to eat them — that were over 2m long and 50cm wide. Truly pythonesque.

Yet the simplicity of this body plan, reduced to more modest proportions in modern species like A. uncinatus, hides some heady complexity. It seems that eons of millipede evolution created very specific sexual practices and accoutrements.

We are talking, multiple partners, rape, the occasional homosexual mistake, sperm competition, mate guarding, and elaborate genitalia. Not bad for a bug shaped like a bendy air hose.

So to the research.

When there is competition between males for females, one way for a male to increase his chance of fertilizing eggs is to hold on to the female for as long as possible and stand guard to prevent other males from doing the deed. An eerily familiar notion.

In millipedes, males do not fight amongst themselves to protect females, but they copulate for a long time, an hour and a half on average, coiling tightly around the female making it very difficult for any other males to try it on. Extend copulation for a long time and it would prevent other males gaining access to the female.

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Formally this is called the ‘copulatory-guarding hypothesis’ that predicts that if copulation duration is adaptive then copulations should last longer when the intensity of competition between males is high. Evidence for copulatory guarding has been recorded in some beetles, water striders, and stink bugs.

What we did was test the hypothesis with A. uncinatus by introducing additional males to the close confines of a pair already in the midst of the act.

If the hypothesis was true then copulation duration should increase as more males are added. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to confirm what happened, this graph should do it for you.

In this millipede species at least, males guard females from other males just as theory predicts.

All lives are equal

All lives are equal

All lives are equal

A few years ago Bill Gates persuaded Warren Buffet to contribute to the Gates Foundation and so create the biggest single pile of philanthropic cash in history. This was quite something. Currently, an asset base of over $37 billion is available generating cash to spend on things that Bill, and presumably Melinda and Warren, think are important for the public good.

This is spending greater than the annual GDP of over 100 countries on the UN list. No small matter. And it is a spend that would otherwise not happen because governments or other donors claim they don’t have the cash.

So what did Bill choose? What activities were seen as the highest priority among the many thousands of options?

Even a cursory scan of projects the Gates Foundation supports tells the story. Bill, Melinda and Warren spent money on people. Mostly on activities that improved the lives of poorer people by making them healthier, giving them opportunity and education. All are noble things.

And as a friend of mine once reminded me when I was lamenting the crazy rate of human population growth, you cannot blame the kids for being born. You have to help them.

And so there is a moral imperative to do something for the 4 billion or so people who live on $2 a day or less, have little or no health care, struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children, often with very little hope for anything better.

The philanthropic spend has to be on people.

Governments blinded by GDP growth should take note.

But this is not the point of this post.

Humans have taken over the world. And in it, they have created a highly inequitable and competitive system that by definition generates haves and have-nots. In this place a philanthropic focus on people is understandable. There is always suffering and a powerful need to relieve it.

There is enough suffering to soak up the Gates billions a thousand times over. It is an unpleasant but inevitable consequence of the human condition, a symptom of a much deeper problem.

We are more making creatures.

Our biology drives us harder than we think. Those of us born as ‘haves’ do not notice this very often because with wealth, more making is curtailed somewhat. A couple of kids is usually enough when income is more than $100 a day.

Instead, we channel more making into having more. We gather goods, comforts and money with extraordinary voracity even as we claim moderation and make a charitable donation.

I wrestle with my own complicity in this every day because it is a hard one to shift when there are so many opportunities for things to get better… for me. In a blink and a modest interest-free monthly payment a perfectly functional television and TiVo becomes a 55-inch smart screen and Netflix.

And unbeknownst to us, the more making instinct is soothed. Somehow I feel a little better. Certainly, I feel better enough not to worry about the billions of people the Gates Foundation wants to help because ‘all lives are equal’.

Except it is hard to see equality. Turns out that I will use far more resources than most by good fortune at birth. Most others will use a lot less, again by birth as much as anything. And yet all the people in the world would use more than they do given half a chance.

So despite obvious inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all lives share equal intent. We all want to be more.