• save boissiere house
  • Top Posts

  • The World is Talking, Are You Listening?
  • a

  • Festival of the Trees
  • Scoutle

    Connect with me at Scoutle.com

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.

How to write an intelligent design book

Yeah, I’m still working on my review of Darwin’s Dilemma…which is how I end up on these tangents.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk at OU last week, I commented on his fruitful use of the model that Michael Behe had used in Darwin’s Black Box.  Abbie disagreed with me, pointing out that

Meyers choice of ‘origin of life’ was a bold choice. Meyer is not a biologist. I mean, hes got some earth science degree, but ‘Origins’ research is dominated by virologists, astrophysicists, biochemists– waaaaaaay beyond Meyers knowledge base. Waaaaaaaaay off. Behe could bullshit biochem, cause hes a ‘biochemist’, but for a geologist/philosopher to try to bullshit astrophysics… thats bold!!

[Resisting the urge to add apostrophes…]

While what she says is true, it assumes that IDists are out to bullshit scientists.  I don’t believe that’s true.  The goal of ID is apologetics – science and scientists are just props, convenient or inconvenient foils.

The first work attributed to the “intelligent design” movement is Davis and Kenyon’s 1989 “textbook” Of Pandas and People, but as Barbara Forrest and Nick Matzke demonstrated in the Kitzmiller trial, Pandas was written as a “creation science” text, and only slightly modified in the wake of Edwards v. Agillard.

Over the next 13 years the ID movement produced four important books – Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991), Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996), William Dembski’s The Design Inference (1998), and Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution (2002).  Both Johnson’s and Wells’ books are primarily anti-evolution books, and they draw upon the creationist tradition of using “problems” with evolution to attempt to discredit the entire endeavour.  They follow the lead of Michael Denton’s 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis – their arguments are, for the most part, specious, and are only effective if you don’t understand (or disbelieve) the self-correcting nature of the scientific endeavour.

Behe’s and Dembski’s books, on the other hand, blaze new ground.  Together they give intelligent design it’s core argument – “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”  Rather than attacking evolution, Behe chose to advance the idea that evolution was “insufficient”, that there were thinsg that couldn’t be explained by natural processes, and hence must be “designed”.  Dembski, on the other hand, tried to come up with a means of detecting design.

While both works have been effectively debunked, they were successful in reaching their target audience.  They were works of apologetics, works designed to reassure believers in an age of science.  Behe’s book had the added benefit of being something that the average reader could understand.  But the very design of the book was its greatest weakness.  In making his case that crucial areas of research were non-existent (and, he implied, impossible), Behe ignored many active fields of research.  The “irreducible complexity” of the bacterial flagellum is considerably more reducible today.  Behe’s arguments only held togetherby studiously ignoring a growing scientific literature – a literature he was forced to confront in a very real sense when it was piled in front of him in the witness box during the Kitzmiller trial.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk, I noticed similarities with DBB, but it was only while writing a review of Darwin’s Dilemma that I discerned what it took to write an intelligent design book.

One of the key distinctions between an intelligent design book and a general anti-evolution book is that ID books need to lappear to be pro-science.  And it seems like the most popular literary device to convey his message is to start off with a sympathetic angle on Darwin.  Style over substance, of course.  Your next task is to pick a topic that’s “best explained by an intelligent cause”.  Bonus points if you can pick a topic that Darwin pondered.*  Meyer picked the origin of life.  The writers of DD picked the Cambrian explosion.  While you might be afraid that the field is played out, never fear.  There are lots of topics still out there, especially if you’re a brave soul who’s willing to venture beyond On the Origin of Species. The origin of angiosperms would be a great topic.**  It’s just as “sudden” as the Cambrian explosion.  And it’s got as name every bit as impressive as “Darwin’s dilemma”…Darwin’s abominable mystery.***

The next element in writing an ID book is to find some irrational exuberance to smack down.  The 1950s are a good time to find things like this (though there are probably  other equally good periods).  In the wake of the discovery of the double helix, it seemed like reductionism would solve every question.  Then contrast this with a more dismal outlook.  The early 1980s are a good time for pessimism.  Stagflation and the American defeat in Vietnam robbed American society of its sense of invulnerability, and the DNA revolution was still flew under the radar.  Faced with the realisation that reductionism couldn’t answer every question, problems loomed large.

Use that sense of despair to characterise your problem.  Feel free to ignore more recent science – most people can’t tell the difference between 1980s or 90s science and modern science.  Even biologists are often unaware of what’s happening in fields just outside their own.  And remember – ignore the last decade to three of progress.

Then run with your idea. Don’t think of it as “formulaic and lacking in originality”.  Think of it as something more akin to…fanfic.

– – – – – – – –
*Because, of course, science isn’t a progressive enterprise; we simply sit around and ponder the wisdom of the ancients.
**Although, of course, you’d have to write about plants.  But look on the bright side – the field of people who know enough about plants to show you up would be miniscule.
***OK, some people would think you’re talking about the Yeti.  But look on the bright side – you could build links between two groups that feel shut out by academic science – the creationists and the cryptozoologists.  Synergies!

Making sense of the DI

Writing about last week’s evens at OU, intelligent design proponent and Discovery Institute fellow Jonathan Wells wrote (with reference to Abbie)

Despite her earlier threats to expose publicly how “stupid” Steve is, Smith left abruptly after the lecture and did not stay for the Q&A

What? Let’s see…Abbie blogged the Q&A.  Wells linked to her blog, but someone missed the fact that everything after 8:01 refers to the Q&A.  After the Q&A ended, we stood at the back at talked to some of the IDEA Club people.  Rich and Vic where there for a good while; Abbie, David and I were there until they kicked everyone out of the auditorium.  I even spoke a few words to Stephen Meyer after his talk, enough that he recognised me (“you’re the botanist”) the following night at the museum.  And Abbie hung around as long as I did.  The only reason I bothered to come to Meyer’s talk was that she passed and picked me up.

I could take Wells seriously.  After all, I might have imagined that she and David were over on the other side of the entrance to the auditorium, speaking to ‘Rhology’ and several others…after all, I was across the aisle talking to 2 or 3 other people.  I might have imagined walking out of the Union with her and David.  I might have been so inspired by Meyer’s talk that I might have mistaken my 1.5 mile walk home for a ride in a car.  I might have.  Or maybe Wells is just making things up.  Invoking the rule of parsimony, I’m inclined to go with the latter hypothesis.  Since this is not the first time I’ve read Wells’ stuff, I’m inclined to go with the latter hypothesis.

It is, in fact, a perfect encapsulation of intelligent design.  A DI fellow tells you something that sounds plausible, but if you bother to check the facts behind their statements it’s readily apparent that what they’re saying is simply untrue.

Berry Go Round #20

August marks the peak of the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere, while September brings the beginning of autumn and a return to school.  But as the days grow shorter in the northern hemisphere, they lengthen south of the equator with a promise of spring.  And in the tropics…well, it’s the wet season, or the dry season, or something in between.  Sadly, I lack the kind of hackneyed phrasing that’s available for the temperate zone.  My having dropped the ball badly on the August issue means the opportunity for a double September issue of Berry Go Round.

Late September marks a return to blogging by Laurent Penet, the founder of Berry Go Round.  A fascinating post of nectar production in the Purple Toothwort (Lathraea clandestina) illustrates not only the general ideas behind nectar production, but also the specific mechanism the flower uses to prevent nectar-robbing.  And if nectar production isn’t your thing, you’ll still be happy with the pictures – how often do you get to see an achlorophyllous, parasitic plant in full bloom?  Another sign of life from a sorely missed blog showed up last week when Senna hayesiana burst into bloom over at Neotropical Savanna.

Keeping the focus on flowers, still over to Dave Ingram’s post on the White Cocklebur, an Old World species that’s invasive in British Columbia.  Dave’s great photography almost makes you forget the fact that it’s an unwanted invader in BC.  And do make sure you poke around the rest of Dave’s blog – his photography is stunning.

Copyright Sally at Foothills Fancy.  Shamelessly stolen and used without permission

Copyright Sally, of Foothills Fancy. Shamelessly used without permission

Remaining on the theme of exotic species, check out Foothills Fancies as she sets out “with murder in [her] heart”, out to try and control invasive Pepperweed in a nearby parkland.

In helping put together this blog carnival, Mary introduced me to a group blog that’s new to me, but with a name you gotta love: Get Your Botany On! With a list of 15 contributors it’s a veritable flood of plant blogging posts; included this month are four posts on Gentians: it begins with Gentiana rubicaulis, continues with a post on Gentiana linearis, a third on the fringed gentians of the northeastern US, and concludes with four gentians from Lake County, Indiana.  And lots and lots of great pictures.

Another new plant blog (new to me, at least) is Tim Entwhistle’s blog, Talking Plants.  Keeping on the theme of species articles, he has a nice article on Banksia aquilionia, the northernmost (i.e., the most equatorial) of the coastal banksias.  If you’ve had enough of angiosperms, you can read about the eight-metre fronds of Angiopteris evecta, which are the largest fern fronds in the world.  But if you really want to wrap your mind around something new, you should really read his post The Green Planet, in which he ponders the question”would Martian plants be green?”  (Recall that plants are green because they don’t use, and thus reflect, the green parts of the spectrum.)

Remaining in the southern hemisphere, check out Christopher Taylor’s post on at Catalogue of Organisms about Sellocharis paradoxa, a little-known leguminous shrub that’s native to southern Brazil.  First described in 1889, a century passed before the plant was re-discovered.  Over at Gravity’s Rainbow you can learn about another lost plant, Fitchia mangarevensis.  Sadly, this story lacks a happy ending – it’s presumed extinct.

If you’re more into field botany, you might enjoy some recent postings at Beetles in the Bush.  Ted MacRae has a great post on Krameria lanceolata, and a stunningly gorgeous picture of its flowers.  Other recent botanical posts include his article Sabatia angularis, and a very botanically-minded post on “North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle“.  (Seriously, it’s a botany post, not matter how much he planned it to be entomological!)  Ted will be hosting the next edition of Berry Go Round at the end of this month.  Send him your botanical posts!

For anyone who’s done field sampling of plants, I must recommend The Vasculum.  The author really captures the essence of fieldwork.  Only two of his posts fall within our window, but do check out Vitaceae Seedlings; A Mystery No More, and Lactuca….hirsuta?


Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA, from Wikimedia Commons

Remaining on the theme of plants in nature, Vicky at TGAW has a post on Pawpaw hunting at Dismal Swamp State Park.  Video included!  And remaining on the topic of plants you can actually eat, a visit to the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog is a must.  While there are too many excellent posts to count, Jeremy’s post on the pluot (plum x apricot) and Luigi’s visit to the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa are worthy additions to your reading list.  Jeremy’s posts on perennial kale in Ecuador and progress in perennial wheat are also fascinating.

To round things off, check out a truly different, check out the story of a botany midterm exam over at Botanizing.  As an added bonus, he included 10 multiple choice questions for you to try out (with an answer key, of course).

Now, to paraphrase the tagline of my father-in-law’s website, let me wish you ‘good reading!’

The next edition of Berry Go Round will by hosted by Ted MacRae at Beetles in the BushSend him your posts before the end of October.