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A footnote to the British Empire

In his 2002 review of The Mystic MasseurRoger Ebert wrote

The West Indies were a footnote to the British Empire, and the Indian community of Trinidad was a footnote to the footnote.

Even intelligent, educated people tend to make the mistake of assuming that, to some extent, things have always been the way they are today. What’s left of the British West Indies is, indeed, collected leftovers of Empire, too small to stand on their own, and the English-speaking Caribbean is little more than a footnote in geopolitics. But that wasn’t always the case…(more)


Farewell, Prof Kenny

I began my UWI experience knowing a little more about the place than the average undergrad. My sister, two years into her time there, saw to it that I knew the general layout of the place, such that I was able to easily win the Orientation Week treasure hunt (and the $50 prize, which was more than a little money back in 1989).

In addition to campus geography, I was also aware fo the basics layout of the chemistry, plant science and zoology departments. And more than anyone else, I had heard of Professor Kenny, the professor of zoology who would lock the door to the lecture room at 8 o’clock, so if you were late you were out of luck. So it was with a great deal of interest that I attended my first zoology lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t recall an awful lot about first year zoology. Prof Kenny taught the first few months of the class before Mary Alkins-Koo took over (in January, I think) with Graham White rounding out the year with vertebrates. Kenny, having decided to mellow in his ‘old age’ took to leaving the doors to the lecture hall unlocked, but his comments to late-comers were enough to ensure that I was in class by 8 am (or, failing that, skip class). If I made it, his lectures were an experience worth getting out of bed for. His long, lanky frame would move across the front of the lecture hall, sitting on the front table like a large bird of prey, now standing with one foot up on the front table. He had an energy in the classroom, full of movement, full of a slightly jerk energy.

Having done A Level zoology, I didn’t feel too great a need to make it to lecture. Until Graham White’s bit at the end of the year, there was very little that was entirely new to me. The lab, on the other hand, was a very different experience, and one that I would not consider missing. Labs allowed for direct interaction with faculty, a chance to talk, to get to know people. Even after his section was done, Kenny had a habit of dropping in on the first year labs and talking to students. While his entry usually attracted a large group of admirers, there were still opportunities to talk to him, tap into his wealth of knowledge.

Kenny always struck me as an unlikely environmentalist. His contribution to th environmental movement in Trinidad and Tobago is huge, and he inspired many people to work for conservation. As I understand it, he was a major inspiration for the foundation of the UWI Biological Society around 1987, a movement that not only launched many a career among environmental professionals in Trinidad and Tobago, but which also helped transform conservation from a ‘French creole’ hobby into a serious national concern. It’s an unusual legacy for someone who was not only born to the ‘local white’ elite, but also someone who seemed profoundly skeptical about whether there was any point whatsoever in trying to conserve anything at all. Still, he taught people to value nature, to love it. And even if he had little faith in their ability to stem the tide of destruction, the love of nature he instilled in his students made them care enough to try.

While I only took first year Zoology from him, so I don’t really know if I count among “Prof’s” students (after all, I never called him “Prof”), he certainly had a major impact on me. At the end of first year, he said to me “sure, you topped the class, but you should have done better” (I only got a B+). And that backhanded compliment was really one of the most important things anyone ever said to me.

Evolution 2011

The 2011 Evolution meetings are in Norman. And I am maybe kinda blogging about it (trying to start blogging again, consolidate my disparate efforts at my own domain).

Doubt is our product

One of the remarkable things about the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster is their denial of the existence of underwater plumes of oil. It seems odd, inexplicable really, for BP to deny what’s been confirmed by independent scientists. It ceases to be odd though, when you try to put it in context.

I am reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent book Merchants of Doubt. In it, they trace the history of the marketing doubt and undercutting science, from tobacco, to SDI, acid rain, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, global warming and finally to the recent revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson. From that context, BP’s outright denial of the science seems terribly familiar. It’s not important whether your position is defensible or not. You simply have to repeat it, over and over, and depend on the pro-business media, politicians and “experts” to take up your case. So far, no one but Rand Paul is defending BP. But give it some time. You’ll soon hear about the “junk science of oil plumes”.


T. Ryan Gregory (of Genomicron and Evolver Zone) has set up a new website of tips and tricks to help academics manage their lives.  He calls it Hackademe, and it’s well worth checking out.


OK, so I haven’t finished my posts about Darwin’s Dilemma.  Can’t promise that I will.  But it really doesn’t do any good to not blog because I feel like I shouldn’t until I finish what’s pending.  After all, the best way to ensure that the posts never get finished is to not blog at all.

That said, it isn’t like I have a whole lot to blog about right now.  Berry Go Round #24 is up at Phylophactor.  Another thing I’ve neglected.  It’s interesting to look at the blogs that have contributed those posts.  Most of them are new to me.  Two years ago, when BGR began, I knew most of the blogs – and got to know many of the bloggers – whose work graced that blog carnival.  Now, I don’t.  Makes you think about the half-life of a blog.  People contribute for a while, and then fall out of the habit.  Some people keep going – Luigi and Jeremy of the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog keep at it.  And we are very fortunate that they do…

A Nobel Peace prize?

I scanned my RSS reader quickly this morning.  Short on sleep, with at least an hour of work to do to prepare for my morning class, it was meant to be nothing more than a cursory glance.  The story – covered on some blog or other – stood there at the top of the list.  Nobel Peace Prize?  Obama? It didn’t look like a joke posting, but it just looked too unbelievable to be true.  So I scrolled down, saw the story on one, then another.  Then I saw it on Talking Points Memo.  Only then did I accept it as true.  Josh Marshall doesn’t joke around, nor does he print stories based on rumours.  Wow.

My first reaction, once I accepted it as true, was simply ‘wow’.  On one hand, it’s nice to see  a positive take from someone with perspective that isn’t tied up in the internecine struggles of American politics.  Even as you reject the “birthers” and the “deathers”, their brand of outrageous nonsense still colours the discourse.  And, like many liberals, I’m less than thrilled with the way the White House is handling the health care debate, the why the DOJ has handled some civil liberties cases.  So positive news is a breath of fresh air.  On the other hand, it seemed premature.  He’s seriously considering escalating in Afghanistan, while the Palestine seems on smoulder, on the edge of a new flare-up.  But the language of the Nobel Committee’s language spoke of change in the “international climate”.  And as the climate of international relations changes, it creates space for peacemaking.

Later on, I started to think about what people had said, had to say.  And it occurred to me that maybe Obama wasn’t such a bad choice.  Several people said that Obama received the prize “for not being Bush”.  Phrased that way, it seems trite, but that’s actually a pretty good argument for awarding him the Prize.

It’s easy to forget how much things have changed in the last year or so.  It wasn’t that long ago that people were discussing, with straight faces, the question of whether the US should use nuclear weapons against Iran.  Cheney and the neocons were ready to go to war with Iran.  There was also talk about war with North Korea.  Right or wrong, it seemed like the only thing holding them back from getting involved in another war was the fact that the military was strained to the breaking point.  In addition to that, the US wasn’t only using torture, people in the government were defending tactics like waterboarding.  So it’s more than “not being Bush” – it’s a conscious decision to abandon much of the former regime’s rhetoric and a good bit of their actions.  The Obama administration has still fallen short on civil liberties, it still hasn’t ended the wars, it still hasn’t closed Guantanamo…but that doesn’t change the fact that what they have done is huge.

But all of this is still simply a matter of “not being Bush”, right?  Not really.  Obama didn’t defeat Bush in the election last year.  He defeated John McCain.  And John McCain rhetoric was far more belligerent than Bush’s.  Not only was he singing “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran”, he also seemed ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia last summer.  And, of course, a McCain victory would have put Sarah Palin “a heartbeat away from the Presidency”.

Still, it’s easy to say “well OK, but any Democrat would have done this”.  But would they have?  During the Democratic primary Obama was ridiculed by his fellow Dems for his willingness to engage in diplomacy, even with Iran.  More importantly, he showed himself to have a spine when dealing with the right-wing claims that he (or any Dem) was “soft on terrorism” (or international affairs, or…)  Look what happened in the authorisation of the Iraq war.  Dems were cowed into voting for the war.  That’s important, because (as we have seen) the criticism from the far right is unrelenting.  And Congressional Dems have shown that they will cave if the far right gets loud enough.  This was important in the decision to stop the plan for (unproven) anti-missile systems in eastern Europe.  While touted as being defenses against Iran, they were most likely to provoke escalation with Russia.  Again, it takes enough spine to stand up to the far right and do what makes most sense.  Obama also has a proven track record on nuclear disarmament, of course.

Equally important is Obama’s attempts to improve relationships with the Muslim world.  Again, given all the claims that he was a “secret Muslim”, I can see strategists telling Obama “stay away from the Muslim world”, since it will inflame the far right.  It took courage to reach out.  And reaching out matters.  Not only does it create the opportunity to improve relations (and thus improve the global climate), it also may help average Americans begin to get over their Islamophobia.  You talk to Americans, even liberals, and they see Islam as monolithic, and scary.  Muslims were never popular in the US, but over the last few years they were dehumanised to the extent that deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as insignificant or even (horror of horrors) a good thing, in some cases.

Obama’s personal popularity and likability also contribute to the way he – and by extension, the US – is perceived in the world.  Again, this is more than being “not Bush”.  This is being Obama.  National leaders need to work together, regardless of what they think of one-another and regardless of what their people think of the other leaders.  It’s far more popular to negotiate with, to cooperate with a Barack Obama than with a George Bush.  Similarly, if you’re a demagogue trying to work people up against America, it’s easier when the American leader is hated, and much more difficult when the American leader is loved.

It’s more than just “showing up”.  Obama has changed the international political climate, and he’s done so in a way that makes peace more possible.  That doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s also in charge of two wars and is considering escalating in Afghanistan.  That doesn’t change the fact that he must do more for world peace.  It’s one thing to ask whether Obama is the most deserving candidate.  (I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.)  It’s quite another to suggest that he isn’t qualified for the award.  It’s only been a few months, but he has made a real and significant impact on peace.