Bird Fact Friday – Southern Lapwing

This shorebird is a common and widespread species along the banks of lakes and rivers as well as open grassland habitats throughout South America. It has benefited from the clearance of forests for cattle ranching and in some areas is very much an urban bird. Indeed, they can even be watched feeding on floodlit football pitches during televised games. I have spent much time watching these charismatic birds on the urban fields of Sāo Paulo in Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile.

Photo credit: David Lindo.

Southern Lapwings is part of the Vanellus genus of waders, to which the Northern Lapwing belongs, and is one of three to be found in South America. The other species are the Pied Plover and Andean Lapwing. Although all three are fairly distinctive, the Southern Lapwing is the only one with a crest. Normally monogamous, in high density areas they may indulge in co-operative breeding. It is the only shorebird in the world where adults of the same sex have been found caring for eggs and young.

 

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

All woman: the utopian feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

by Michael Robertson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

RobertsonCharlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), a widely anthologised short story that mixes Gothic conventions with feminist insights, and a chilling dissection of patriarchy that seems as if it might have been co-authored by Edgar Allan Poe and Gloria Steinem. Fewer people know that Gilman began her career as a speaker and writer on behalf of Nationalism, a short-lived political movement inspired by Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). She ended it as a writer of her own utopian fictions, including Herland (1915), a playful novel about an ideal all-female society.

What does Gilman’s utopian feminism have to say to us now, when the dystopian pessimism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is resurgent?

As a young woman, Gilman was drawn to Bellamy’s utopian socialism because of his stance on women’s economic independence; in the society depicted in Looking Backward, every woman and man earns an ‘equal credit’. Bellamy was certain that, from this economic parity, gender equality would follow. Gilman took a different approach. She believed that the realisation of utopia depended on women’s ‘mother instinct’, and advocated what she called the ‘larger motherhood’. As she wrote in her Bellamyite poem ‘Mother to Child’ (1911):

For the sake of my child I must hasten to save
All the children on earth from the jail and the grave.

Her life’s work centred on the concept of what she called the ‘World’s Mother’ – the selfless, nurturing woman-spirit who loves, protects and teaches the entire human race.

During the first decade of the 20th century, following the collapse of Bellamy’s Nationalist movement, Gilman turned to utopian fiction, producing three novels, a novella, and a flock of short stories. All were variations on the same utopian blueprint: the ideal society could be achieved peacefully in a remarkably short time if only women were freed from conventional housework and childrearing (she envisioned a combination of communal living and professional childcare) in order to spread the self-sacrificing ethics of the larger motherhood.

In 1915, she broke this fictional mould with Herland, a utopian fantasy that combines the plot of Alfed, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) – the discovery of an all-female society – with the conventions of the masculine adventure tale. Three bold young men on a scientific expedition to a remote part of the globe hear tales of a land inhabited only by women, located in an inaccessible mountain range. The men obtain a biplane and pilot it into the mountains, where after landing they soon spy three beautiful young women and give chase. The athletic young women, sensibly attired in utopian bloomers, easily outrun the men, who are captured by a phalanx of unarmed but well-disciplined women who chloroform them and place them under house arrest in a guarded fortress.

At this point, the novel transitions into utopian exposition, with long disquisitions on Herland’s society. Gilman was remarkably indifferent to the typical concerns of utopian fiction: work, politics, government. Instead, she used her fantastical premise to focus on her own interests, such as animal rights. Herlanders have eliminated all domesticated animals because of the cruelty inherent in slaughtering them for food. They are appalled at the idea of separating cows from their calves. Any interference with the natural processes of mothering is abhorrent to them.

Mothering is at the centre of Herland society. The word ‘mother’ or its variants appears more than 150 times in the novel. The women of Herland reproduce parthenogenetically, bearing only daughters, who are raised communally: each child is regarded as the child of all. ‘We each have a million children to love and serve,’ one of the women explains. Gilman evidently felt no need to explain Herland’s economy because it seemed to her so obvious: these ‘natural cooperators’, whose ‘whole mental outlook’ is collective, have no use for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism. Instead, a motherly state meets every citizen’s basic needs.

Herland depends on Gilman’s interpretation of women’s ‘maternal instinct’, an idea she clung to despite her own disastrous experience as a mother. Following the birth of her only child, a daughter, when Gilman was 24, she was plunged into a horrendous depression, an episode that she drew on for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. When her daughter was three, Gilman separated from her husband; six years later, she divorced him and gave up custody of their child. Herland enabled her to reconcile the contradictions between her utopian celebration of the maternal spirit and her difficult personal experience. Although every woman in Herland is capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, only an elite is entrusted with rearing children, in a collectivised and professionalised fashion. Gilman’s interest in the topic blended her conviction that women, like men, owed it to the world to work outside the home with her self-exculpating belief that the raising of children is so vital to the future race that it must be entrusted to professionals. Gilman derided the smallness, the possessiveness of the average woman’s conception of motherhood: my children, my family, my home. Herlanders see every child as theirs, the entire population as one family, the nation as home. 

Herland dropped out of view soon after its publication. Gilman had serialised the novel in The Forerunner, her self-published magazine, which folded soon after, and it never came out in book form. The novel was resurrected in the late 1970s by the American scholar Ann J Lane, who edited a paperback edition. Initially, the novel was hailed as a rediscovered feminist classic. Later scholars were more critical. They singled out its gender essentialism, but also the eugenic regime that underlay Gilman’s utopianism: her obsession with improving the strategically undefined ‘race’. Drawing on Gilman’s other writings, they convincingly argued that white racism is central to her utopian project.

Four decades after its rediscovery, Herland no longer seems the purely playful, light-hearted speculative fiction it once did. Nor does its central theme of collective child-rearing seem that different from the gendered regimes animating The Handmaid’s Tale – which, with an unabashed sexist and racist in the White House, serves as a powerful cautionary tale for progressives. Dystopian fiction, however, lacks the visionary inspiration – what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch in the 1950s called ‘the principle of hope’ – that utopianism provides. 

Despite Herland’s time-bound shortcomings, we need its vision of a society without poverty and war, where every child is precious and inequalities of income, housing, education and justice are nonexistent. For all its faults, Herland remains an eloquent expression of the nonviolent democratic socialist imagination. As fully as any work in the utopian tradition, Herland reminds us of the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. Most recently, he is the author of The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy.

José R. Castelló on Canids of the World

This stunningly illustrated and easy-to-use field guide covers every species of the world’s canids, from the Gray Wolf of North America to the dholes of Asia, from African jackals to the South American Bush Dog. It features more than 150 superb color plates depicting every kind of canid and detailed facing-page species accounts that describe key identification features, morphology, distribution, subspeciation, habitat, and conservation status in the wild. The book also includes distribution maps and tips on where to observe each species, making José R. Castelló’s Canids of the World the most comprehensive and user-friendly guide to these intriguing and spectacular mammal.

What are Canids?

Canids are the family of carnivores that includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, dogs, dingoes, dholes, and other dog-like mammals, with at least 37 extant species, ranging in weight from less than one kilogram to well up to eighty kilograms. Most people would readily recognize the more well-known members of the family Canidae. However, some of its members, as the short-eared dog or the bush-dog, are very elusive and are poorly known, even to enthusiasts. Other species, as the African golden wolf, have just been recently rediscovered. Canids are present in each continent except Antarctica and inhabit every major ecosystem, from arctic regions to deserts and tropical forests. Many canids have distributions that span over a whole continent, and red foxes and grey wolves have the most extensive natural range of any land mammal, with the exception of humans and perhaps some commensal rodents.

What makes Canids so attractive?

Canids are charismatic animals and possess an interest to many readers who are not necessarily biologists or students. The long association of man and dog have guaranteed a greater than usual interest in the knowledge of canids. They are a group with which humans have had the most longstanding and profound associations. They are also one of three modern families of carnivorans notable for including top predators, species capable of hunting down prey several times their own size (the other two are the cat family and the hyena family). Canids are also highly intelligent and develop complex social systems, and adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, as well as different habitats. A canid – the wolf – was the first animal to be domesticated. Domestic dogs have accompanied us for some 15,000 years and have been useful to humans in many ways, such as guarding of livestock, protection, or as pets. Wolves may be the most familiar of large mammalian carnivores and have always held a fascination to humankind; people either love them or hate them, and folklore has portrayed them as vicious and devious killers, but also as symbols of wilderness. Many species of canids are also viewed as pests to humans, and populations of many species have been decimated. Wolves, coyotes, and foxes are persecuted by ranchers, who blame them for losses to livestock. Foxes have been targeted as carriers of rabies and likewise have been the target of hunting, and some foxes are valued for their pelts, which have been used in the fashion industry.

Why is conservation of Canids so important?

Members of this group are widely hunted, persecuted, and used by humans. At least 25% of Canid species are threatened and need urgent protection. Others are rare and even declining or involved in major wildlife management issues, such as disease transmission, predation on livestock, sports hunting, or fur trade. Grey wolves, for instance, have been extirpated from many areas and several of their subspecies have vanished. The Red wolf was declared extinct in the wild by 1980. African Wild Dogs are extinct in most countries that they formerly inhabited, with fewer than 5,000 free-ranging remaining, while Dholes, formerly living throughout Asia, are extinct in half of the countries that they inhabited. Ethiopian wolves, the most threatened canid in the world, number fewer than 500 in the wild. And one species has gone extinct in recent times: the Falkland Island wolf was declared extinct in 1876.

Why did you write this book?

The main reason for writing “Canids of the World” is to showcase people the great, and sometimes unknown, biodiversity of this family of mammals, and also to enable the observer to identify most species of wild Canids from all over the world. Most canids are easy to recognize, but morphological variation within the family is relatively slight, which creates problems of species recognition and classification. Most canids have a similar basic form, as exemplified by the wolf, although the relative length of muzzle, limbs, ears and tail vary considerably between species. Canids also demonstrate a high clinal variability which also may create problems of recognition.

The second reason is to try to clarify the taxonomy of this group. Taxonomy of canids is somewhat controversial and this ever-changing classification can seem confusing to the enthusiast. The family Canidaecurrently includes 37 species and a larger number of subspecies whose status is under constant revision. There are still uncertainties regarding the taxonomic status of some species (eastern wolf, red wolf), while the use of some generic names (Lupulella for some African jackals) is also disputed. Recent phylogenetic studies have found that red foxes in North America are genetically distinct from Eurasian red foxes and merit recognition as a distinct species. In India, two small endangered populations of wolves, the Himalayan and Indian wolves, have also been shown to be genetically distant from other wolves, and some have proposed to treat them as separate species, while dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs are now considered by most authors as feral derivatives of ancient breeds of domestic dogs. It should be pointed that difficulties regarding this taxonomic delimitation among canids can lead to underestimating species and subspecies richness, and these problems can compromise biodiversity conservation.

Last but not least, this book is written to raise awareness for species of canids that has become endangered and to protect wildlife. This book includes information on reproduction, behavior, diet, and conservation of these species. “Canids of the World” is a book for everyone interested in canids, from the expert requiring a reference work, to the layperson fascinated by their beauty, biology and diversity. You certainly can’t protect what you don’t know!

 

José R. Castelló is a medical doctor, naturalist, and wildlife photographer. He is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and the Spanish Society for Conservation and Study of Mammals. He is the author of Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives (Princeton).

Kip Viscusi: Pricing Lives for Policies in 2018

ViscusiAfter major catastrophes, there are often tallies of economic damages. The loss of life is often relegated to being the object of thoughts and prayers, but such losses have substantial economic value as well. Take two examples: the collapse of the bridge in Genoa, Italy on August 14, 2018, that killed 43 people; and the tourist Duck boat sinking on July 19, 2018 in Branson, Missouri that killed 17 people. How should we think about the economic value of preventing these deaths?  Court awards after fatalities are often modest, typically focusing on the earnings loss of the deceased. The approach I advocate to value fatality risks in a wide variety of situations is to use the value of a statistical life (VSL). The VSL corresponds to how much society is willing to pay to prevent a small risk of one expected death. In my book, Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society, I estimate that the VSL in the U.S. is $10 million.

Turning to these two recent catastrophes, let us calculate the economic value of the loss. The Genoa bridge collapse involved a heavily used motorway bridge, the Morandi Bridge. A 657 foot section of the bridge with dense traffic fell 148 feet. How much would it have been worth to spend in advance of the bridge collapse to prevent it from occurring? Based on my estimates of the VSL for Italy, the economic value of this loss was $243 million, in addition to the property damage and injury costs, bolstering the importance of providing a safer infrastructure. The Duck boat incident involved a capsized tour boat during a major storm while the boat was touring Tale Rock Lake. Preventing the Duck boat disaster would have been worth at least $170 million. With at least 20 additional more people killed in Duck boat accidents since 1999, there are clearly substantial economic benefits to greater safety measures than those that have been in place.

The most frequent use of the VSL in valuing lives for government policy is prospective rather than such retrospective calculations. On August 21, 2018,  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a relaxation of air pollution standards that according to EPA estimates would lead to as many as 1,400 health-related deaths per year (NYT, Aug. 21, 2018, “Cost of New E.P.A. Coal Rules: Up to 1,400 More Deaths a Year.”). This startling risk estimate corresponds to an annual economic loss of $14 billion. This mortality cost should loom large in any balancing of benefits and costs of the regulatory relief effort and may well offset the purported economic benefits of deregulation. The EPA news release for the Affordable Clean Energy Rule estimated that this rule, which was targeted at providing relief to limits on coal-fired power plants, would generate $400 million in compliance costs and $400 million in additional emissions reduction benefits. Actual benefits and costs will depend on implementation of the relaxed pollution rules by the states.

While the VSL has been adopted most widely in setting government safety standards, it also provides the appropriate guidepost for setting penalty levels intended to serve a deterrence function, which is the usual province of punitive damages. How much should the courts penalize those responsible for deaths or catastrophic injuries? Jury instructions are not particularly helpful in enabling juries to select a punitive damages award, but the VSL provides precise guidance. The class action suit verdict against Johnson & Johnson in St.Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 2018 awarded damages to 22 women claiming injuries related to asbestos in talcum powder. Each woman received $25 million in compensatory damages, for a total of $550 million, and the group received an additional $4.14 billion in punitive damages. This blockbuster award had no sound rationale. If the desire is to properly deter firms from marketing risky products in the future, then the awards linked to the VSL are sufficient. The result would be a payment of $10 million each plus any additional medical expenses. Appropriate penalties on the order of $220 million plus all medical expenses would total far less than the award of $4.69 billion, but would still suffice in giving Johnson & Johnson the right incentives to avoid future risks.

The settlement amount for unwarranted police shootings likewise could be linked to the VSL. If the objective it to send the appropriate financial signals to the police to stop such behavior, settlements equal to the VSL will suffice. Of the 9 publicized police settlements after victim deaths, the median settlement is only $5 million, and only one settlement has been over $10 million. In this instance, using the VSL as the guidepost would put the settlement amounts on sounder footing. At present, all but one of these settlements has fallen short of a more pertinent safety-enhancing level.

What these examples indicate is that the VSL enables us to assess the value of mortality risks in a wide variety of situations. To date, government agencies throughout the world have adopted the VSL in assessing the likely economic benefits of risk and environmental regulations. Greater use of this approach by corporations, government agencies, and the courts would eliminate the systematic underpricing of life that often occurs.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.

Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  

 

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Bird Fact Friday – Common Starling

This cheeky bird has to be one of the most familiar birds not only in the UK but perhaps the world. It’s natural range includes Ireland and the British Isles, temperate Europe and into western Asia. It has been introduced to a host of countries around the planet including the US, Canada, several South American countries and Australia often to detrimental effect due to competition with native species. Although flourishing throughout most of its introduced range the population here in the UK and in Europe it is famously in decline.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The Starling, as it’s simply known, belongs to the Starling family of 115 species found predominantly in Europe, Africa, Asia, Northern Australia and some Pacific Island. In Asia they are known as Mynas.  There are several subspecies with faroensis being the largest. Aside from its greater body size it also has a bigger beak and feet.

LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

Keith Whittington: The Dream of a Nonpartisan Supreme Court

Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, long the pivotal swing justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, we have been hearing a lot once again about the desire for a replacement justice and for a Court that can stand outside of politics and be nonpartisan. Any nominee was likely to disappoint those holding on to that desire, but the nomination of the conventional conservative jurist Brett Kavanaugh did nothing to mollify critics of either this administration or this Court. The dream of a nonpartisan Supreme Court is as old as the republic itself, but it is nothing but a dream. We should demand that the justices behave differently than mere politicians in robes, but we should not ever expect to see a Court that stands completely outside of partisan politics.

The founding generation was deeply distrustful of political parties, and they designed the Constitution on the assumption that American politics would operate without them. They worried that partisans would always put the party interest above the general interest, and they hoped for a republic in which political leaders would seek to advance the general welfare of the people as a whole not the factional interests of a part of the people. They dreamed not only of a nonpartisan Supreme Court, but of a nonpartisan Congress and presidency as well. They were quickly disappointed.

The ink had barely dried on the Constitution before the founders began to organize themselves into political parties. They and their posterity discovered that parties were unavoidable in a democratic political system. Americans eventually learned, often grudgingly, how to accommodate themselves to the persistence of partisan divisions, and the Constitution itself was amended to take into account the fact that presidents and vice-presidents would stand for election together on a party ticket and that the Electoral College could not simply select the two best Americans to occupy the first and second positions in the national executive.

For some of the same reasons that parties have proven unavoidable in electoral politics and in lawmaking, they have influenced the federal courts as well. Americans have rarely disagreed about whether they should continue to live under the U.S. Constitution, but they have often disagreed about what the Constitution means. For over two hundred years, those disagreements have been exploited and organized by political parties. Voters, activists and politicians have hashed out those disagreements at the ballot box, on the streets, and in the halls of political power. Presidents and legislators have won elections advocating for their distinctive constitutional philosophies, and they have placed judges on the bench that have shared those philosophies.

We should hope and expect that judges do not behave in the same way as politicians. We do not expect judges to cater to the whims of public opinion or appeal to the interests of favored constituencies. We do not expect judges to trim the rights of unpopular minorities in order to win favor with popular majorities. We do not expect judges to engage in horse-trading to win votes. Not only do we expect them to put country over party, but we expect them not to be moved by narrow partisan interests. In short, we expect judges to stay out of the low politics of political campaigns, legislative logrolling, and partisan maneuvering for temporary advantage.

We cannot reasonably expect them to stand aloof from the high politics of constitutional debate, however. The Jeffersonians and the Federalists, the Whigs and the Democrats had different understandings of the proper use of government and the scope of government power, and those differences were enshrined in both party platforms and judicial opinions. The upstart Republicans had different ideas about the constitutionality of the extension of slavery, and they battled for those ideas in the courtroom as well as the ballot box. The New Dealers and the old guard conservatives had different hopes about how the country would emerge from the Great Depression, and those differences had implications for the course of American constitutional law.

The political parties today are divided about constitutional questions just as the political parties of the past were. The two parties represent different constitutional philosophies, with implications for a host of questions not only about legislative policy but also about judicial doctrine. If the partisan divisions are unusually visible on the Court today that is due in part to the fact that the two major parties have been locked in close electoral combat for an unusually long period of time and our constitutional differences have remained unresolved in society as well as in law. That does not mean that the justices march in lockstep or take their marching orders from party leaders on the hill, but disagreements in constitutional philosophy that we see expressed on the airwaves and in the newspapers are also going to be expressed in legal briefs and judicial opinions.

The Supreme Court has always been shaped by political forces, and we would not be happy if it were not. When Lincoln asked whether the “policy of government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people” was to be “irrevocably fixed by the decisions of the Supreme Court” or to be settled by “the people,” he understood that a republic would not tolerate a Court that stood entirely outside of politics and asserted its independence from the people themselves. The justices are not demi-gods; they are just people, who disagree among themselves as other people do. The courts contribute in important ways to the stability, vitality and desirability of our constitutional system, but we need not believe in the illusion of a nonpartisan Court in order to appreciate those contributions.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.

Bird Fact Friday—White Stork

David Lindo – author of How to Be an Urban Birder –continues his take over our Bird Fact Friday series. Check out these posts every week to learn about the different birds he’s encountered in his travels through the Concrete Jungle. In his latest entry, he highlights the White Stork.

The White Stork is the classic bird of Mediterranean Europe that is often to be seen standing nonchalantly on top of enormous nests, usually on the very tips of impressive old buildings. Their stick nests grow with every year of use and are often used for generations. Their range in Europe actually extends beyond the Mediterranean basin north to Finland and into Eastern Europe. Globally, they range as far south as South Africa and east into the Indian subcontinent. Famously a long distant migrant it has been discovered that birds in the Iberian Peninsula are increasingly overwintering to take advantage of the food sources found in refuse dumps as well as at more natural sources.

Photo credit: David Lindo

The White Stork’s black-and-white plumage makes it an instantly recognisable bird in Europe, although care has to be taken when viewing distant birds as confusion may occur between it and its darker cousin, the Black Stork. The White Stork’s history within the UK is a bit of a contentious one as many of the birds discovered there are often suspected of being escapees. What is startling though is the fact that they have not bred naturally on British soil in over 600 years!

 

How to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings

 

 

Katrina van Grouw on Unnatural Selection

van GrouwIs Unnatural Selection all about domestication?

No, only Chapter 12, the final chapter, is about domestication. The rest of the book is about selective breeding, and the book as a whole is about evolution. Domestication is the process by which wild animal species are transformed into self-sustaining populations of tame ones (that’s not the same as simply taming individual animals). Selective breeding is what happens after that, as those domesticated populations are gradually honed into more useful, more productive, more beautiful, or simply different, varieties. As Darwin recognised, the process is uncannily similar to evolution by natural selection.

It’s about time someone made a book about selective breeding, to expose the awful things we do to animals.

Husband and I are animal-breeders ourselves, and many of the examples here are based on first-hand experience, so no—this book is NOT intended as a condemnation of selective breeding. Quite the reverse, in fact.

No-one would deny that there are practices that go against the interests of animal welfare, and I have discussed some of these in Unnatural Selection where I considered them relevant. There are, however, many emotive examples that are more complex and less black and white than public opinion would allow, and in these cases I’ve attempted to present a balanced explanation. Sadly, there’s also a public trend for the condemnation of many harmless and interesting traits in domesticated animals simply because they’re unusual.

This book is about evolution, and one of the central messages here is that these traits can, and do, occur in all animals—wild and domesticated—and might be favoured under certain environmental circumstances, of which domestication is only one. Like Darwin, I find this subject fascinating, and have endeavoured to present it in an objective way as just one more marvellous facet of evolutionary biology.

I’m not really that interested in domesticated animals. They’re just man-made freaks, aren’t they?

If you think about it, there are some pretty ‘freakish’ wild animals too—animals with short limbs, giants, dwarves, animals with an up- or down-curved jaws; there have even been wingless birds.  And all these animals, wild and domesticated, came to exist in exactly the same way: by gradual selection on naturally-occurring mutations. The only difference is that in the case of wild animals these traits flourished in a natural environment, and with domesticated animals they were favoured by their human custodians and evolved considerably faster. The variations themselves are equally likely to occur in either environment. All diversity on the planet is a result of mutation; just heritable copying errors in DNA replication. I like to think of unusual traits in domesticated animals in terms of speculative zoology—as a way of revealing what forms wild animals might have taken if their evolutionary history had taken a slightly different turn.   

What has selective breeding got to do with evolution – it’s hardly survival of the fittest, is it?

It has many things to do with evolution; at many levels. Darwin used selective breeding as an analogy for natural selection in nature, and it follows precisely the same formula: random heritable variation + non-random selection = evolution. In other words, breeders produce more animals than they will use to breed from; every individual is different, so they select the ones they wish to pass on their traits to the next generation, gradually resulting in the chosen trait becoming more extreme, or more plentiful in the population. The only difference between natural and artificial selection is that the choice is a conscious one allowing breeders to use their knowledge of inheritance to plan several generations ahead. What I find particularly fascinating is that artificial selection has precise parallels with some of the more fast-acting facets of evolution in nature, like sexual selection or ‘arms race’ runaway selection. At another level, however, you can argue that even human environments are environments in nature, so the process isn’t only analogous with evolution—it’s evolution in itself.

Incidentally, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a very misleading expression and has nothing to do with physical fitness or strength. Evolutionary fitness means ‘best fitted’ for an environment. And the measure of that is purely in terms of how many viable offspring an animal manages to produce. So in the environment of a middle class family home a toy dog breed with a short muzzle would be considerably ‘better fitted’ than a wolf!

I loved The Unfeathered Bird. I suppose Unnatural Selection will be a collection of anatomical drawings of domesticated animals?

I started Unnatural Selection with that intention. However, it very quickly began to evolve into something much more interesting. Selective breeding can result in many variations from the wild type of animals—not just in skull shape and posture but in fur and feather type and especially in colour (I think the sections about colour are some of the best in the book). I also thought it important to show the external appearance of many of the breeds that I talk about, as these are probably much less familiar and much more changeable over time, than species of wild animal and birds. The result is a visually exciting mixture of drawings of live animals and their anatomy that communicate the message more effectively than could skeletons alone.

Did you always want to be an artist?

Absolutely not! Unfortunately I was so prodigiously good at drawing as a child that my teachers actively discouraged me from developing my real passion—for natural history. Every so often I rebelled and turned back to biology only to find that I was less and less qualified to pursue a course of formal study in science. Most universities wouldn’t accept anyone without the right A Level subjects. I only finally attended art school because there was simply nothing else I could do. And after that I assumed I had to make my living from producing and selling pictures. It’s a long story that really deserves to be told in a book of its own.

To be honest, nowadays I prefer to think of myself as an author rather than an artist. The drawings I do now are illustrations for the books, and are not produced for their own sake. It’s the collective work of science that’s become the work of art.

I don’t really like domesticated animals; do you have any plans to do a book about the anatomy of wild animals?

As it happens I do—eventually. But I have quite a lot to do before I begin that, and distant plans have a way of evolving and changing over time. But Unnatural Selection really is all about animals in general, not just domesticated ones, and anyone interested in wild animals should find it very useful. It’s not just about anatomy, you see—it’s about the way evolution works, and that applies to everything.

Will Unnatural Selection be an art book, like The Unfeathered Bird?

If you mean will it be large format, richly illustrated, and beautiful to look at, then the answer is yes. However, I don’t consider either to be an art book. Both have science—evolution and adaptation—as their central subject and although the science is presented in an accessible way, it’s not dumbed down in the slightest. The illustrations are created for the books; not the other way around. The take-home message is that it’s possible to combine art and science without compromising either.

Which skeletons did you prepare yourselves, and how did you prepare them?

Most of the dogs, all of the cats, the rabbit, and all of the birds were prepared at home by Husband specifically for Unnatural Selection. The birds needed to be mounted in the particular show posture (including historical show postures) for each breed, so these really required a high degree of specialist expertise which Husband has. There’s probably no-one else in the world who could have done these. Fortunately I managed to find all the specimens of large livestock I needed already prepared so we didn’t have to do this at home.

Lots of people assume that articulating skeletons is easy. It isn’t. Ours are set up using a combination of wire and glue. It’s very time consuming and each skeleton takes weeks to do. The hardest part is getting the posture correct, and this requires an intimate knowledge of the animal in life. Then there’s the cleaning, and the de-greasing and bleaching of the bones. You have to be careful to get the ribs and vertebrae in the right order, and not to get the bones of the toes and fingers muddled up. I’ve seen far, far more incorrect skeletons than correct ones. So unless you want to devote a huge amount of time to getting it right, if you want a skeleton of your own my advice would be to pay a professional to do it for you. And if your mind is set on learning to do it yourself, you’ll find plenty of online sources. Different preparators have developed techniques of their own, so finding your own way is a matter of trial and error. As the saying goes: there more than one way to skin a cat!

You worked at the British Natural History Museum. That must have been really useful for drawing all those skeletons.

Actually no. My job had nothing to do with art. I was a curator of the bird skin collections (the equivalent to a collections manager in US museums) and my job involved sourcing and preparing specimens, looking after the collections, overseeing scientific visitors, data entry, answering bird-related enquiries, and the occasional bit of public engagement. I kept my day job and my personal interests entirely separate and never drew a single specimen in the seven years that I worked there. I finally left the museum when a senior manager forbade me to write or illustrate bird-related books in my spare time, as this was never in my contract and I wouldn’t abandon my plans for The Unfeathered Bird.

How did you get to be producing books like Unnatural Selection and The Unfeathered Bird – what course of study would you recommend to someone interested in art and science?

It was a long and convoluted journey and nothing in my employment history or education really made that much of a contribution to what I’ve ended up doing, though, looking back, the collective experiences add up and seem to make sense. The things that really make a difference are passion, determination and integrity. Every individual path is different, and no-one has the right to point anyone else in a specific direction. I would recommend following your passion, and listening to your instincts.

What medium do you use to do the pictures?

The illustrations are all drawn in pencil. Just a normal 2B or B grade, though I find that a harder grade works better for drawing teeth. I then scan the drawings and adjust the levels and colour digitally afterward.

Why do you draw skeletons?

Actually I prefer to think of it as anatomical drawing, and I began doing it – directly from dead specimens that I dissected myself – as a way of understanding the anatomy of birds so that my pictures of living birds would benefit from it. I draw them now purely as illustrations for my books, to communicate a point I want to make. The books are not collections of skeletal art – they’re illustrated science books that I approach in such a way that ticks all the boxes for me intellectually and creatively. I no longer consider myself an artist in terms of picture-making, and if I did, I would almost certainly notbe drawing skeletons.

You’ve hinted in the book that natural selection is a difficult concept to accept. Is this because you believe that Darwinian evolution excludes the existence of God?

It is, and I do, though unlike some evolutionists I don’t wield my atheism like a spear. I’ve spent a great deal of my life thinking very carefully about natural selection and its wider implications, and was devastated when it led me to the conclusion, about 20 years ago, that I could no longer support any personal belief in a deity. However, whether we see natural selection as a meaningless struggle for existence or something miraculous depends on our individual viewpoint. I certainly recognise it as the latter, which for me is as spiritual and profound an experience as any belief in God.     

Do you make a living from doing books?

I prefer to think about my books as my life rather than my living. I work on them all day every day seven days a week, I dream about them at night, and put them before everything else; there’s nothing I wouldn’t do or sacrifice for them. Ironically, if I considered my books a job or a business, I wouldn’t be able to justify giving them so much time. Like all authors I rely on people buying books new, requesting books from libraries, paying to use material instead of downloading it for free, and being willing to pay for my time. No non-fiction author is in it for the money and when producing a book takes 5 or 6 years of full-time work, it’s very difficult indeed to earn a consistent income from it.

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.