Thursday, June 26, 2008

Immigrating to America

A couple of days ago I finished reading The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America And Its Peoples by Tim Flannery, the Australian mammal expert and ecologist. I really enjoyed the book. It is written on an epic scale covering the natural history of the continent over last 65 millions years. The earth went through a rapid period of reorganization of its terrestrial and marine ecosystems following a mass extinction and Flannery chooses that event to begin his exploration. Covering 65 million years in 300 odd pages means that the book moves along at a fairly brisk pace but I thought Flannery has done an exceptionally skillful job of identifying the higher level geological and climatic controls on the transformation of North America over this period. This gives the book a well defined framework within which to think through the ecologic, bio geographic and evolutionary patterns exhibited by the continents fauna and flora. Cultural patterns too as Flannery devotes the last segment to the arrival of humans and their considerable impact on the terrestrial and marine biosphere.

North America at various times over the past 65 million years has been attached to Asia and Europe through land "bridges". That has enabled it to be the land of immigrants as mammalian groups of Asian and European stock made their way into the continent and evolved a unique north American characteristic over time. This has mostly been a one way traffic, of all the modern placental mammals, only camels, horses and dogs are north American exports of ancient pedegree. Apparently, no one wants to leave once inside the continent and Flannery sees a continuity in the immigration patterns of another mammal - Homo sapiens. Since I am not a vertebrate paleontologist or a mammal expert, I liked the part of the book that dealt with human arrival and impact more than some of the early pre-human history. The modern north American ecosystems have been rendered depauperate of mammalian megafauna and other animal and plant groups and Flannery gives ample evidence in the form of timings of extinctions and some ingenious research on mammoth tusks that it has been mostly human influence and not climatic changes that is to blame. The book deals with big themes, extinction, migration and evolutionary adaptation of groups of organisms over large periods of time, but I found enough small details and asides that weave through the narrative and makes reading a pleasure in the first place. Details that you can ruminate over, those that suddenly crystallize some nebulous ideas and thoughts you have. You also now possess some fodder to impress friends over coffee. Why is cactus common in the Sonaran desert of Arizona and not in the Australian desert? Answer: Even if scant, the plant does needs predictable rainfall and nutritious soil. The Australian desert is bereft of either. Why did the field of vertebrate paleontology develop to the extent it did in the U.S and not in Canada? Answer: The ice age glaciers covering large expanses of Canada but not the U.S. ground up literally to dust the sediment cover and entombed fossils. The Canadians had little to work with. And this gem: The key to the bison's role in the prairie ecosystem lay in the fact that the great grassland were piss-driven. Buffalo urine fertilized the grasslands!

Flannery is pretty severe on the human propensity and ability to devastate the environment and treat fellow human beings with astonishing intolerance. He has a lot to say about the relationship of native Indians and the Europeans. The conflicts and wars were known to me, but I learnt something new in his explanation on the different approaches taken by the Spanish, French and English settlers. The Spanish came as a state and having defeated the incumbent Indian state, simply took over possession of state property. They never worked the land themselves, but collected taxes and used labor just as the native Indian chiefs had done. This though limited their influence over only the captured property and not much beyond. The French came as fur traders and developed a sort of a business relationship with the Indians. This meant they had to maintain good relations with the Indians. Grabbing land was self-defeating as they had to rely on the Indians for sources of fur and other goods. The English though came either as Puritan rebels with a belief that this was the chosen land, or as commerical expansionists, who saw Indians are competitors for the rich soil and resources they craved for. Winning land became an all consuming goal and the eventual victory handed them the biggest share of the continent.

Flannery identifies three phases of human occupation in North America. A pioneer phase, a period of ecologic release and finally adaptation. According to him much of North America is still stuck in the second phase, one in which people are living as if on the frontier, appropriating resources with scant regard to the consequences. Adaptation, where one learns to live within the constraints imposed by the environment is slow in coming. It's hard to disagree with the general tone of this argument, but humans do have an ability to reinvent themselves, none more so than North Americans and change is slowly coming. Two recent news items caught my eye that gives me some hope. Plans are afoot to restore part of the great plains prairie, the vast sea of grasslands that was home to the great buffalo herds of the past. And yesterday came the news that Florida is planning to acquire several thousand hectares of land from sugar companies and revert in back into a marshland, connecting Lake Okeechobee to the southern everglades national park. This won't transform the landscape to a pre-human form, for the prairie and the everglades have themselves been forged by early human activity. There is a radical remedy proposed in the book to correct that too, namely the re-introduction of fauna which disappeared from North America 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. Let lions, camels and peccaries roam again on reserve lands. This may make ecologic sense, but just take notice of the vociferous objections by ranchers to the re-introduction of one carnivore species, the wolf, in Yellowstone and I have doubts about anything more ambitious being put into action in the foreeable future. As managers of the biosphere we need to find a compromise between development and bringing reserve areas back to an acceptable state of "pristineness", and these two experiments on the prairie and the everglades look promising.

This is a cracking good book. Go get it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bundelkhand Water Refugees and More To Come?

I often have conversations with friends about global warming and how it will affect India. One popular scare scenario is the rise in sea-level of a metre or more. That, many experts say may be enough to inundate large areas of the low-lying deltaic regions of Bangladesh, resulting in an exodus of hundreds of thousands to millions of "water refugees" into India. Now this scenario is just one on the more extreme end of the spectrum of sea-level rise projections, not likely to unfold until end 21st century if at all, but its a scary story regardless. Reading some recent news of the water crisis in Bundelkhand region of U.P and M.P what struck me is that the internal displacement of people in India due to water problems has already started. We already have water refugees poring into our cities from affected regions like Bundelkhand. In the case of Bundelkhand, people are not fleeing a sea-level rise and a water excess but an acute water shortage. It has not rained enough for more than 5 years in this region, ground water levels have dropped and agriculture has taken a huge beating. The water shortage has reached such desperate levels due to a total neglect of water conservation measures and government policies skewed in favor of solving the problem by encouraging more drilling and extraction of groundwater.

Unlike a sea-level rise and coastal inundation, which is a more nebulous scenario that might take place century end, this movement of people, the abandonment of homes, fields and an agricultural heritage due to water shortages is unfolding here and now. It is a serious problem today, and during the next drought or next year in some other region, something that will demand immediate action in not just providing relief to any particular individual incident but in drawing up more effective mitigation strategies for future water shortages that are likely to become more common due to global warming. Some time back the planning commission issued a report on the national ground water situation with recommendations for improving ground water deficits, but it admits that there are political road blocks for implementing changes in ground water law. Besides this report did not take into account the changes in rainfall patterns expected to occur due to warming induced monsoon variability nor an overall drop in summer availability of water due to a decline in Himalayan glaciers.

Climate models suggest that an overall warming trend in this century will intensify the Indian monsoons, but rainfall will not increase uniformly across India. Parts of western Indian and northern India will receive less rainfall. Thus the contrast between wet and dry areas will increase. How will the long term warming trend overlay on the natural variability of rainfall in across India? Will global warming increase rainfall in a particular region or will it make prolonged droughts like the one Bundelkhand is experiencing more common? Just last month, the U.S government released a summary of federal and independent research pointing out region specific impacts of human induced global warming. This was followed by another report on extreme weather and how that may impact different regions in the U.S. We too badly need a thorough region-specific scientific assessment of how global warming will affect different regions in India. Only with such a geography sensitive study can we start making long term plans on how to combat the effects of changing climate on availability of water and its impact on agriculture. That may mean giving a big impetus for reviving traditional water harvesting methods in some areas and clamping down on excessive drilling for ground water, to changing the crop type planted in a particular region with considerations for climate suitability and water availability. These decisions will require a lot of political courage and I am not so confident that our politicians will take the required steps for a radical overhaul on how we use and manage our water resources. A national action plan on climate change is due to be released soon and I hope that besides the obvious focus on reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency and concerns on rising sea-levels, it spares some thought to warming induced rainfall variability across part of the country and the impact of large scale displacement of our own citizens within.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

What does it mean to be human was one of the panel discussions at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City. had a post some time back reviewing that discussion. The panel pundits were a collection of eminent psychologists, geneticists, anthropologists and neuroscientists among many other fields. Each expert gave an opinion of what makes humans unique, in the sense of possessing a unique biological property. Most of the answers focused on various aspects of our cognitive abilities and for good reason since we seem to differ qualitatively in our ways of thinking and communication from other animals. Almost all the answers were rejected by the blog author, who gave examples of similar traits being present in various species of apes and birds. The post is worth reading. I was left thinking, so okay just what is it that makes us different? Maybe the difficulty arises because of the insistence of the term unique. That carries the burden of showing that we posses something that absolutely does not exist anywhere in the animal kingdom. This approach will likely fail, since our characters are ultimately derived from an ancestral condition and echoes of human-like properties are bound to exist in related groups. Besides evolution can be strongly convergent. Evolution comes up with similar solutions to deal with similar problems. Even in groups such as birds which are only distantly related to us, cognitive properties similar to our own, such as anticipation and deception have been shown to exist, a result not due to shared ancestry but due to convergence.

I am trying to think of what evolutionary trigger could have lead to the considerable differences in cognition that have accumulated between humans and our closest relatives. If I was to thrown my opinion in the ring I would go for neoteny , which is the retention of juvenile features in adults due to a slowing down or delay in development. The main consequence in humans of developmental delay has been a prolongation of helplessness in infants and an extended childhood. Some say we, especially the men, never really grow up, but there is a deeper evolutionary reason for it! Having helpless infants and inquisitive children in early human groups would have had radical consequences on group dynamics and given rise to different selection pressures on different sex and age groups. Sexual selection for intelligence in harsh habitats is one of the favoured explanations for the rapid rise of our cognitive abilities but that is consistent with a children centric scenario. Women may have selected men more capable of acquiring food and with more tolerant temperaments , ones likely to stick around and help out with the kids, giving rise to the now familiar system of pair-bonding. Another consequence would be an increase in group size, these social changes setting up evolutionary pressures for more complex forms of communications and signalling. As tool use became an intergral part of human life, children too would have come under selective pressures for skills and abilities to use tools and communicate what they have learned. As we grapple with the problems of economic growth, "knowledge economy" has become something of a buzzword. But humans have always been experimenters and innovators and evolution of a distinct life-history characterized by a long period of learning most likely played a big role in fuelling selection for and reinforcing these cognitive traits. In this sense we have always been knowledge based societies with a high premium placed on innovation, communication and information sharing. Neoteny is again not unique to humans. Within primates, apes in general are the most neotenous. Within mammals, primates in general are the most neotenous, and mammals tend to be more neotenous among terrestrial animals. This is not a rejection of neoteny being a special feature in our evolution, merely an acknowledgment that evolution works by remolding, re sculpting, exaggerating and recombining pre-existing traits. Evolution is descent with modification and not descent with "poof, where did that come from?".

In trying to make a list of what make us unique, I felt too much attention of the panel was on the what is now unique/very very different and not on how we got there. I accept the panel's agenda might have been restricted to the here and now but maybe it does make sense to take a longer view. What I mean is that all humans share an evolutionary history and uniqueness lies in the particulars of the evolutionary pathway taken by the human species, a trajectory followed only once in the 4 billion years or so of life on earth. Whatever our differences, genetic and cultural, what we do share is a history, one that is not shared with any other species, and that it is this history that we can use to differenciate ourselves from other species. And that applies equally to all other creatures as well. And so just what could be the particular shared history, the longer view that I referred to? Competition and adaptation take place in an ecological context and I like Jonathan Kingdon's explanation of what makes humans so different. He calls us "niche thieves", who through superior use of technology have gradually expanded out of habitats that we were originally biologically adapted to. Throughout our evolutionary history human populations have progressively encroached upon the habitats of competing species, driving many including other hominid species to extinction. Our biological evolution since the advent of complex tool use more than 2 million years ago has been keeping pace with and sometimes falling behind new cultural practices and our tool driven expansion into evolutionarily unfamiliar habitats. I like this definition because it is a constant reminder that we are an invasive species, one that has appropriated resources with total impunity. But it is also a reminder that with command and control comes the responsibility of managing these resources in a sustainable way. Our abilities to displace other species and take over resources has deep evolutionary roots. But evolution has also given us the mental make up to override these impulses and fix past wrongs. Maybe that's what makes us unique.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Survey Of Indian Scientists

I came across a survey of Indian scientists last week (link through Nonoscience). Arunn at Nonoscience has a post detailing the survey done by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, Trinity College, Connecticut, USA in Cooperation with the Center for Inquiry India. A wide range of questions related to science and worldviews were asked. I won't go into all the survey questions as Arunn has already done that. I have a few observations to add. Looking at the scientists surveyed I found that only those working in universities and research institutes were polled. I would have liked scientists working in industry to have been included also. It is possible that scientists who join industry are temperamentally different from those who choose academia and it would have been useful to sample that potential range. Work experience, work culture, goals and priorities at industry R & D labs differ from academia and this might systematically influence the way some of the questions were answered. I also would have preferred the answers to be broken down by profession. In the survey, scientists of different professions are lumped into just one category, the "Indian scientist". This means that we don't get a feel for specialized opinions at all. Arunn mentions this problem in his post. For example 29% of those surveyed refused to work on human cloning, but how many of these are life scientists? The answer matters because while the opinions of an engineer towards cloning may be interesting it is the opinions and beliefs of life scientists toward this issue that will have consequences on the direction and growth of this field.

I write about evolution a lot in my blog so the question on belief in evolution caught my eye. The majority of Indian scientists believe that evolution is a fact, but a small number tend to think that humans may be an exception. The numbers in any case are refreshingly higher than in the U.S and Canada. But as is often the case with surveys, how the question is framed has a lot to do with the answers. For example I would have liked a followup question on whether you think evolution is guided by an intelligent agent or is a completely naturalistic process devoid of any intelligent guiding force. I suspect a significant number of Indian scientists would have split on this issue. The survey shows that a majority of Indian scientists believe in God, either a personal deity or a "higher power" and when questioned directly about God intervening in the evolutionary process, I feel the answer for many would be in the affirmative.

A couple of topics currently on the top of the list for policy makers, those of global warming and genetically modified crops were given a miss in the survey. Again these are the types of issues where surveying only academia and research institutions may bias the answers towards one position. Are geologists and engineers working in the petroleum industry more dismissive of evidence of human induced global warming than their university colleagues? How do life and environmental scientists and ecologists working in universities view the usefulness of GM crops compared to an industry researcher? These are topics of enormous relevance to the economic development of our country and it would have been nice to have a more detailed and wider range of views of people who will be recommending policy.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Astrology and Earthquake Prediction By Mumbai Engineer

Sometimes I am left shaking my head with disbelief at the rubbish that people try to pass off as science. DNA has a story of Mr. Amit Dave a BMC engineer who has put forth a new earthquake prediction method using the alignment of planets in the solar system as a guide. Yes, astrology now enters the field of earthquake prediction. According to him plate tectonics has nothing to do with earthquakes, it is all in the planetary positions. And its not just earthquakes, but hurricanes and floods too pay obeisance to the remote planets. Mr. Dave, and I found this hilarious, was recently transferred from the Mumbai disaster management cell (hey wait, this man needs to be made chief of the disaster management cell if he can really predict disasters), says that he has not yet predicted the next occurrence (surprise surprise) and needs time to work out this theory (he's been working at it since 1993). But Dave claims that several big earthquakes in the past occurred when the moon and Jupiter and Saturn were in "potent" positions. By the way this is not the first time someone has claimed a relation between the planetary positions and earthquakes, so Mr. Dave does not have a claim to priority here. But I think it is important to point out that claims that have appeared in literature on planetary influence on seismicity have been carried out on small data sets and seem to show an apparent relation with very shallow, small seismic events in continental volcanic regions (Mammoth Lake California) or along mid ocean ridges but these correlations break down for larger data sets and for larger earthquakes. Here is Mr. Dave's "theory" as reported by DNA:

The earth consists of a thin upper crust and molten lava, magma. The inner crust is semi-solid and hot. Like tidal waves, this molten lava is also influenced by tidal currents. The moment the high tide pull is more, it breaks open the crust and earthquakes occur. If the crust breaks completely, it results in a volcanic eruption. Dave says the most potent quakes occur when the sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon are in mutual potent positions like 0º, 90º, 180º, and 360º. The two planets change their direction of motion from direct to retrograde from time to time. The gravitational pull exerted on the earth by this movement induces a change in momentum, mass and velocity of the molten lava, creating disturbances.

There is just so much wrong here that is is difficult to know where to start. Let's start with the forces involved. In typical pseudo-science fashion, Mr. Dave has done a lot of arm waving regarding planetary positions but there is no mention of actual forces involved and whether they might cause damage to the earth. Turns out they cannot. The gravitational force of the moon that an object on earth experiences is only a tiny tiny fraction of the earth's gravitational pull on that object. That means that the miniscule additional force of the moon is simply not enough by itself to create large enough stresses within the earth to break and rupture rocks in the interior of the earth. Bad Astronomy has a detailed calculation of the forces exerted by the moon, sun and other planets in the solar system. "The force of the Moon on you is only about 0.000003 times the Earth's. For me, that means I weigh an extra 0.0009 pounds more when the Moon is under my feet versus when it's on the horizon (and therefore not contributing to the downward pull of the Earth)." Other planets contribute even less and the effect of tidal forces is even tinier than gravity. The entire article is worth reading. I doubt if Mr. Dave read it. Practitioners of psuedo-science never go into the trivial details of actually understanding forces and mechanisms. They only use jargon to impress. Now, the moon does deform the earth slightly in 12 hour semi-diurnal cycles called solid earth tides. But long term monitoring of these cycles and earthquakes has shown no significant correlation between solid earth tides and large earthquakes. Dave makes much of the influence of Saturn and Jupiter but calculations show that the combined influence of all the planets in the solar system is about 1 billionth the influence of the moon. So, no "potent" alignment of planets will make any discernible difference. Which brings me to my second point and the link between earthquakes and magma that Mr. Dave makes. Mr. Dave's theory requires that there be magma in the region where earthquakes occur, since his mechanism of earthquakes is that molten material in the earth's interior is pulled by the moon and other planet's gravity and that causes the magma to break the crust. Just to clarify, the earth's crust does not contain a uniform layer of molten material. Magma occurs in discrete magma chambers localized mostly along plate boundaries and zones of anamolous mantle heat flow within plates, such as beneath the Hawaian islands. I just made a list of big earthquakes in Asia that have occurred in recent memory. Koyna 1967, Kinnaur H.P. 1975, Uttarkashi 1991, Killari 1993, Bhuj 2001, Kashmir 2005, Sichuan 2008. All of these measured more than 6 on the Richter scale. None of them are associated with recent volcanism nor is there magma underneath these locations. We know that by studying the pattern of seismic wave propagation through the earth's crust. These studies indicate only solid crust. Only crustal stresses set up by the larger plate tectonic configuration in the region can explain these earthquakes. Mr. Dave badly needs a lesson in basic geology and plate tectonics. He seems completely ignorant of how the earth works geologically.

By a coincidence or call it the favorable alignment of planets, along with Mr. Dave's public announcement came the news that geologists have drilled and recovered core material from the San Andreas fault zone, one of the most earthquake prone region in the world. And guess what? No magma there either. But as predicted by plate tectonic theory, evidence of rocks crushed and sliding past each other due to the relative movements of the Pacific and North American plates.

I think one of the reasons why people readily believe such claims is that it can be shown that some past big earthquakes did occur when planets were aligned in preferred positions. I don't doubt that. If you go through a list of several thousand earthquakes a few are bound to coincide with whatever planetary alignment that you deem to be potent. The mistake is to ignore one of the most basic rules of statistical analysis which is correlation need not mean causality. Just because two events are coincident there does not have to be a cause and effect relationship between the two. Planets may have been aligned in a certain way when the Sichuan earthquake took place but that does not mean they caused it. Mr. Dave's "theory" lacks a workable mechanism. Only plate tectonics and internally produced stresses can provide it. Reading articles like these really make me mad. But I am mad more at the media than at Mr. Dave. I mean kooky theories are proposed by people all the time. But doesn't the media, in this case DNA have some responsibility in being more selective in the manner by which they publish such claims? Our media is too hooked on to sensationalism and does not take it's role of reporting science seriously at all. It's reporters have not training in science and are too ill prepared, uncritical and gullible, unable to distinguish between quackery and valid science, which is a real shame since most people in India get their science news from such newspaper articles.

Update: Mr. Dave left some questions for me in the comments section. I have answered those in a separate post: Geology Lessons To An Astrologer

Disclaimer Sept. 17: Contrary to some comments left on this post I did not predict the Sept. 17 earthquake which occurred in the Satara district of Maharashtra. Nor did anyone else. Don't let people fool you otherwise. You have to give accurate location information (latitude and longitude) along with a hypothesis in terms of geological forces and stresses acting at that location why an earthquake is likely or imminent. Simply saying that an earthquake will occur on this day and time does not qualify as a prediction. The reason is that there are plenty of earthquakes occurring everyday on earth. On average about 10-11 earthquakes of 6-7 magnitude occur every month, 3 earthquakes of 5+ magnitude occur everyday and more than 20 earthquakes of 4+ magnitude occur everyday somewhere on earth. Without a location and a justification "predicting" an earthquake is easy!! :-)

I'll be writing a larger post on this later maybe in a couple of weeks. Do visit again.

Update: Was September 08 Earthquake Month?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Afforestation Hoax in Madhya Pradesh

India Together has an article by Himanshu Upadhyaya on afforestation measures by the Madhya Pradesh government and how they fall significantly short of their intended targets. The article summarizes an audit by the Comptoller and Auditor and General (CAG) on the diversion of forest land for non forest purposes and the mandatory compensatory afforestation measures taken thereafter and comes up with a depressing but not entirely unexpected finding:

Since the coming into force of the Forest (Conservation) Act, Madhya Pradesh has diverted 51,018 hectares of forest land for non-forest purposes for some 734 projects. While as per the provisions of the Act, the state needed to carry out compensatory afforestation on 73,213 hectares of land as mitigation measures, audit scrutiny of the records in nodal office revealed that as on June 2006, compensatory afforestation has not been carried out at all in the case of 289 projects (39 per cent shortfall at projects level) and on 13,441 hectares of stipulated land (18 per cent shortfall at land covered) after having been unable to utilize Rs.82.60 crores (75 per cent shortfall on utilisation of funds) recovered from user agencies towards the same.

The article points out the many irregularities involved in the compensatory afforestation program. A while ago I wrote a series of posts on deforestation in India's many forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. Using the biannual forest survey by the Forest Survey of India and some readily available satellite images I had pointed out that prime wildlife habitats in many tiger sanctuaries have lost forest areas and that afforestation is being carried out without an ecological and bio geographical context. That was based on the 2003 survey. The latest survey made available depicting the situation in 2005 also shows that out of the many forest categories dense forests suffered the most losses. This is almost inevitable considering that riverine basins where big dams come up tend to contain particularly rich dense forests and timber leases are also given in forests with high density of large trees. Additional loses are due to encroachment and clearing of forest for agriculture, mining and freak events like fires. Incidently check out this article on how compensation for ecological losses due to forest submergence is being decided and how developers come up with innovative ways to minimize their responsibility. Currently the total forest cover in India stands at around 20% of the geographic area. The government wants to increase it by around 5% during the 11th 5 year plan. While this is a laudable goal, the implementation resembles more a blind pursuit of statistic, turning our afforestation programs into a book keeping exercise, losses of prime bio diverse forests being compensated with monocultures in many cases far away from areas that need forest cover and forest corridors and webs essential for maintaining viable animal populations.

This audit shows that even those ill thought out afforestation programs are failing miserably. Go take a look at the article and the CAG report. The shoddy ineffectual half hearted approach of the Madhya Pradesh government simply highlights how badly we understand the term "development".