Archive for January, 2010

Science & Soul: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

What should we have for dinner?

That simple question has driven author Michael Pollan to seek out the origins of that most basic of human needs: food.  He follows several types of meals that the average person eats today, including industrial (fast food), organic, and hunted/gathered food.


The Omnivore's Dilemma

Pollan begins his journey by investigating the industrial food system, from which most Americans obtain their food.  He makes the realization that nearly every product he tracks, the most basic of elements is corn (more on that here: https://scienceguy288.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/a-strange-system-food-too-corny/).  Pollan gives political, scientific, and cultural reasons why this plant has come to dominate our agricultural system.  He also delves into issues like the use of oil in fertilizing and transporting food (more here: https://scienceguy288.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/a-strange-system-food-hard-travelin-blues/).

To study organic farming, Pollan details the history of the organic food in America.  He points out that while it may be better than industrial food for our health and the environment, it has become a business and lost sight of its original goals, making it a popular choice for the rich and well-off, but an impossible option for most people.  Second, Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s small scale organic farm.  Salatin uses nearly no external imputs, including chemical fertilizer, or pesticides.  Instead, he uses the complex interactions between individual agents on a farm to create a sustainable farming system.  This allows all “waste” to be reused.  Farmers like these produced locally almost exclusively.

Finally, Pollan goes on a journey to create his own meal from scratch, using only animals and plants he himself has hunted and gathered.  He gives a wonderful narrative of his hunt for wild pigs, search for edible wild mushrooms, and gathering greens.  Pollan concludes that although this meal is not altogether practical, it certainly does better connect us to our land base and should be tried occasionally.  He leaves other conclusions up to the reader, so as to allow them to make their own eating choices based on the evidence he has gathered.

Pollan’s book is a wonderful blend of investigative journalism, science, and philosophy.   If nothing else, he gives deeper meanings to the questions, “What should we have for dinner,” and “If we are what are we eat, what are we?”  My only criticism is that his writing is, in my mind, a bit drawn out.  I would also have preferred to have some more scientific evidence interspersed with his writing.  But, I may just be a bit tired of reading on the topic as I have also read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Grade: A-

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Science & Soul: Book Review: Ishmael

I have read a number of books over winter break and would like to take some time to review them and hopefully give my readers some more reading!

Humans are actively destroying the natural world because we are captives of a cultural system that compels us to do so.

  • Takers as people often referred to as “civilized.” Particularly, the culture born in an Agricultural Revolution that began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East; the culture of Ishmael’s pupil.
  • Leavers as people of all other cultures; sometimes referred to as “primitive.”
  • story as an interrelation between the gods, man, and the Earth, with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • To enact is to strive to make a story come true.
  • culture as a people who are enacting a story.

Our creation stories, be they Creationism or the Big Bang theory, all make the claim that man is the end product of creation; man is the creature for whom everything came to be.  However, we are not the culmination of evolution!  The universe went on as before.  Our ultimate evolution did not change much of anything.  The premise of this story, however, is that the world was made for man.  And we do whatever we please to this world because of this assumption: man was made to rule the savage world.  To do this, he had to conquer the world.  Under human rule, the world should have become a paradise, but we wound up slowly destroying it.

We say that it is our nature to do so, but I believe differently.  There are still people who live in peace with the natural world and they are no different than us.  There is nothing fundamentally wrong with humans.  Instead, given a story to enact that puts them in struggle against the world and they will do so.  We were fed a story in which the Earth was a foe to be conquered (we are conquering the oceans, we are conquering mountains, etc) and now, we have very nearly conquered it, but at what cost?

How does one achieve flight?  One must understand, or at least abide by, the laws of aerodynamics; it could be through trial and error, but you must abide by the law.  The people of our culture are learning to live by trial and error and we are not knowledgeable about the laws of life.  Imagine an early flier: one with a crankshaft atop his craft.  He takes off from a cliff and for a moment, he stays in the air.  He sees the ground approaching and says, “I just need to pedal a bit harder and will make it.”  He sees dozens of crafts just like his scattered, broken on the ground.  “What fools.  They simply did not pedal hard enough.”  Unfortunately he crashes because his craft did not abide by the laws of aerodynamics.  Ten thousand years ago, we too began on a path to flight.  We have tried and failed many times with civilization before (ie the Mayans, Aztecs, Romans, etc), but fell each time.  We believe ourselves to be flying, but we are only falling because we are not living in accordance to one of the great laws of life…

Takers destroy their competitors to make room for their own.  In nature, the rule is take what you need, and leave the rest alone.  Takers will deny their competitors access to food; to life.  In nature, you may deny competitors what you eat, but not food in general.  Takers think everything on this planet belongs to them.  In nature, you are a part of this planet, not its owner.  All of this points to a law: “You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war.” All species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct. The Takers believe themselves to be exempt from this Law.  Any species that exempts itself from the rules of competition will destroy the community to expand itself.  Since we do not believe in this law, we believe that we can grow without bound.  Some new scientific breakthrough will save us in the future; we will enter the Star Trek age.  Unfortunately, like those early pilots learned, we are not exempt.

Now, let me say, civilization as we know it, in and of itself is not against the laws of competition outlined above, but it is subject to the laws.  In fact, one need not return to hunter gather society to make right the wrongs we have perpetrated on the environment.  We just need to throw away the veil our culture: one of mastery, oppression, and exploitation to see how to fix the system we have.  We must relinquish the idea that we know best about everything and that we have the knowledge, power, and right to bend everything to our wills.


"With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?"

Above I have outlined the main premises of the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  Ishmael is a gorilla. And Ishmael is a teacher who communicates with humans telepathically.  I know it sounds insane, but instead of a goofy SciFi novel, you take a philosophical journey as a pupil who looks at humanity from a different perspective.  I loved every minute of this book and it is definitely an interesting, thought-provoking read.

Grade: A

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Science & Soul: Analyzing Biodiversity Loss

Science News in Brief

Tombs discovered near Egypt’s great pyramids suggest that the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre were not built by slaves, but rather by free workers.  Scientists located the tombs  right next to said pyramids, indicating that they were not slaves.

How Do They Do It:  Computer calculations indicate 590,712 stone blocks were used in the great pyramid’s construction.  Each block weighed 2-70 tons.

The UN has launched the International Year of Biodiversity, warning that the continually high loss of species around the world is affecting human well-being.  Eight years ago, governments from countries around the world vowed to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.  Sadly, this never came to fruition and we are continuing at a rate of approximately 1% (as opposed to .001% from natural background extinction).

How Do They Do It: Expansion of human cities, farming and infrastructure is the main reason for biodiversity loss.

Scientists have discovered evidence that indicates Neanderthals wore body paint nearly 50,000 years ago.  Shells containing pigment residues were found in Neanderthal-made containers in southern Spain.

Even a Caveman Can Do It:  Neanderthals were not Cro-Magnon’s dumb cousin.  In fact, they were bigger, stronger, more resilient, and evidence suggests of equal intelligence.

Cool Creature

Leafy Sea Dragon

Sea Dragons, or Phycodurus eques, are the spectacular cousins of sea horses.  Unlike sea horses, they have large bodies adorned with kelp leaf-like appendages which enable them to hide in kelp forests in which they live.  Sea dragons feed on larval fish and small shrimp-like crustaceans.  Similarly to sea horses, sea dragon males care for the pair’s eggs on the brood patch on their bellies.  A fully grown sea dragon can reach almost 50 cenimeters (20 in.).

Feature Story: Analyzing Habitat Loss


When will we cross the Rubicon, at which point there is no going back?

As I have already mentioned, ecological networks can be very complex and intricate systems.  Around the world, endangered animal habitats are being slowly destroyed by human action.  Current estimates claim that 43% of terrestrial ecosystems are being heavily depleted by human activities (please note that this study was done around 1980, so the numbers are probably even higher now).  Scientists now are studying habitat loss to predict its effects on the survival of rare species.  They do this through complex systems analysis on two-dimensional models.  Once again, we will look at a two-dimensional grid.  Each grid space can have three states: destroyed, occupied, or empty.  Destroyed sites cannot be occupied by animals.  Occupied sites have a certain probability of survival and a certain probability of extinction.  Finally, empty sites have a probability of being colonized by local species.  Starting at a number of initial conditions and rates of habitat loss, we see the same general trend.  The number of species (occupied sites) wavers at first, but at a critical point, the populations of animals decreases sharply and stays low.  Normally, scientists thought that species would decrease linearly (for x amount of habitat loss, x amount of species will go extinct).  Now, thanks to the emergent behavior of simulations, we find that species decrease non-linearly, that is at a much faster rate than expected after a lag period.  After about 40% habitat loss, the ecosystem completely collapses leaving only a handful of species.

Cosmic Perspective

Ecosystems are very robust networks.  They can handle small perturbations in stride.  However, it is much like the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Once you reach a certain threshold, the system will collapse.  This, of course, has been exhibited throughout history.  The fertile crescent was where agriculture began, and yet, due to excessive irrigation raising the water table and leaving salts in the soil, the area quickly became arid and not suitable for growing crops.  Now, the equatorial rainforests are in a similar position.  Experts estimate that the resources the rainforests of the world offer will be consumed in as little as 40 years.    And, as the models above project, biodiversity in these rainforests will crash even faster, due to the nonlinear interactions between species.  This loss of biodiversity is a huge problem for humans.  Not to mention, these species have a right to survive simply because they exist as well.  Economic value does not trump intrinsic value; it shouldn’t at any rate.  If you insist on putting an economic price tag on this loss, consider this: 25% of Western medicinal drugs are derived from rainforest plants and their chemical compounds and we have only explored less than 1% of the plants tropical rainforests contain!   Think twice about that mohogany table.  Don’t purchase goods that contain lauryl or lauryth sulfates.  Help fight deforestation in this amazing  ecosystem in any and every way you can.

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Science & Soul: Academia Here We Come


Academia Here We Come

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Science & Soul: The Story of Stuff

I don’t know how many people saw this, but it is excellent…

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