Stephen Blackmore on How Plants Work

All the plants around us today are descended from simple algae that emerged more than 500 million years ago. While new plant species are still being discovered, it is thought that there are around 400,000 species in existence. From towering redwood trees and diminutive mosses to plants that have stinging hairs and poisons, the diverse range of plant life is extraordinary. Stephen Blackmore’s How Plants Work is a fascinating inquiry into, and celebration of, the complex plant kingdom.

Why is the book called How Plants Work?

Too many people overlook the fact that plants are at work all around us. The title helps convey the idea of plants as active players, not just a green background. Our species and other animals could never have evolved if photosynthesis, first in blue green algae,  later in plants, had not made the atmosphere and oceans rich in oxygen. Plants are now known to make up 80% of the living biomass of our planet, and having created the conditions for animal life they are essential for our continued survival as the base of our food chain and as providers of essential ecosystem services.

What attracted you to becoming a botanist?

As a child, I was fascinated by nature and curious about all living things. As such, I wanted to know their names and understand how they lived. At first I was most interested in animals, especially, butterflies, birds and reptiles. As I began to learn more about them I understood that each lived in a specific kind of vegetation, fed on different fruits or seeds, or laid eggs on a particular species of food plant. It dawned on me that plants were at the heart of nature and I wanted to know more about them. I have been fortunate to travel widely as a botanist, collecting plants in several continents.

My own journey led me from studying pollen grains and spores to plant conservation. Pollen fascinated me because each cell-sized grain is an entire male gametophyte plant. I wanted to understand how their enormous diversity of form, surprising since they all perform the same task of delivering the male gametes, originated during their development in the anther. I came to plant conservation through seeing some of the finest forests and grasslands disappearing before our eyes. Botanists are now in a desperate race to save plant diversity to keep the biosphere working.

But, aren’t plants all more or less the same?

Plants are deceptively simple in that they are constructed from so few, very familiar, organs: roots, stems, leaves, and flowers or cones. But within each of these organs there is great diversity of form, a consequence of plants solving such problems as how to live in widely differing environments, from a desert to rain forest. Because they are literally rooted to the spot plants have found ingenious ways to colonize new places, dispersing seeds, pollen, and spores on the wind or harnessing animals to carry them from place to place. A major theme of the book is to explore the diversity of each major organ of the plant and to understand their life cycles and reproduction as products of this diversity.

How were the authors selected?

In bringing together a team to write the book it was important to select world leading botanists, people with the experience as research leaders, and teachers to be able to share their specialist understanding of the workings of different parts of the plant. Just as medical practitioners specialize in different parts of the human body, so botanists focus on investigating specific organs or processes in plants. By engaging such talented botanists, the most authentic information emerges, in a new telling, hopefully resulting in a freshness rarely found in standard textbooks.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

The authors, in sharing their passion for plants, hope to attract people to look more closely at plants and to understand more deeply how diverse they are and how important for our future. Plants, as the source of our food, the foundation of the natural and agricultural landscapes we cherish, are a vital for the future of our species. It matters profoundly to the quality of life in the future that as many people as possible understand the value and importance of plants, as much as their great beauty and endless fascination.

 

Stephen Blackmore is a botanist and conservationist. His books include Green Universe and Plant Conservation Science and Practice. He was the 15th Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and was appointed Her Majesty’s Botanist in Scotland in 2010. He is chairman of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Darwin Expert Committee.

Mohamed Noor: Con vs. Con

Mohamed Noor, taking a break from academic conferences with a trip to DragonCon.

My public presentations span two universes, both figuratively and sometimes semi-literally. I speak at scientific conferences almost every year about my work as a professor, studying the evolutionary genetic changes that cause new species to form. As a Star Trek fan and someone who enjoys teaching scientific principles through the use of science fiction, I also speak at sci-fi conventions most years. As one might imagine, these two speaking venues share some attributes but also differ. Below, I describe the similarities and differences using the venues at which I speak the most often for each area: the annual Evolution conference (location and timing vary though usually in the United States and often late June) and DragonCon (annually on Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, USA).

For context, the Evolution conference typically hosts 1500-2500 evolutionary biologists, and probably between one-third and half of those attending give some sort of presentation, whether that be an oral slideshow on their research or standing beside a poster and discussing the science presented on it. Meanwhile, DragonCon is a broad popular-culture convention allowing roughly 80,000 people to attend various “tracks”, with presentations in each track by actors, artists, gamers, scientists, authors, and many more.

For each of these outlets, the mechanics are similar. Attendee registration starts months in advance, and fees often increase as the date approaches. Each outlet invites “headliner” speakers who have some or all of their expenses paid for attending. Attendees are very eager to see the final schedules, and always whine on social media about how close to the event the schedules are released. Some events are anticipated to be more popular than others and receive larger rooms, and sometimes the organizers anticipate incorrectly, resulting in a cavernous empty room for one event and people packed into chairs and across the floor in another. Both feature vendor areas for purchasing items related to the outlet’s topic (e.g., books and software vs. artwork and memorabilia). And generally speaking, in both venues, the most rewarding and memorable features are rarely the presentations, but instead fun or fruitful interactions with other attendees. Few attendees in either venue go talk-to-talk for the entire duration, but much time is spent in hallways or off-site for eager discussions or other interactions.

Noor’s book, Live Long and Evolve, is an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

However, the similarity in mechanics belies the difference in purpose which becomes more apparent when one looks at the presentations. For the Evolution conference, oral presentations are given because the scientist presenting wants to disseminate a very specific research result to the broader group of scientists in the audience. At DragonCon, oral presentations are delivered to entertain an audience or to educate them in a fairly general area. The former is primarily directed by the presenter’s intention, though audience members attend particular sessions when they feel that they may learn something interesting and/or relevant to their own research. The latter is aimed at giving the audience what they want. For example, when the cast of CW’s Arrow comes on stage at a session in DragonCon, they have no particular message that they seek to convey. Even in DragonCon’s science track, the intended message of any panel is quite general, such as “a better understanding of genetics”, and presenters are eager to answer questions, even those only marginally related to the stated topic. As a result, virtually every oral session at the Evolution conference comes as a single-person PowerPoint presentation that fills most of the allotted period, while at DragonCon, presentations are typically multi-presenter open question-and-answer sessions on a topic following a very brief introduction.

Lest one think that science fiction conventions are therefore more pure in intention than scientific conferences, I stress the financial model is very different. The top media guests at science fiction conventions receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for their time, in addition to having all of their expenses covered. Since attendees are subsidizing these media guests’ travel and income as well as potentially providing a profit for the convention organizers, it makes sense to tailor things for the attendees. In contrast, the president of the non-profit Society for the Study of Evolution, who delivers a plenary address at the Evolution conference, only gets part of their travel expenses paid (no meals or per diem, partial housing) and reaps no honorarium, stipend, or other compensation from the society or conference. Most speakers at the Evolution conference get no financial compensation. Interestingly, science guests at science fiction conventions also get rather small compensation. For a recent other science fiction convention I attended, most of my travel expenses were paid, but for DragonCon each year, I only receive a waiver of the registration fee and that of a guest. Realistically, most of the 80,000 people who come to DragonCon don’t come to see me or the other scientists, but we’re happy to catch their attention and teach them some science when they’re not ogling Stephen Amell.

What do I love about each? I’m a researcher in evolutionary genetics, and I love telling my fellow scientists about our recent results as well as learning what they have discovered recently. It’s extremely intellectually stimulating and rejuvenating to go to scientific conferences. But I’m also a teacher, and I love getting people excited about geeky biology concepts and facts when perhaps they have not had much training in biology. My last talk at DragonCon earlier this month was on why there are so many humanoids in Star Trek, but sneakily, it was also a primer on many evolutionary biology concepts and recent results. Someone walking out of the room at the end commented to their friend, “I learned A LOT.” I could wish for no greater outcome than that.

 

Mohamed A. F. Noor, besides being a Trekkie, is a professor in the Biology Department at Duke University. He is the editor in chief of the journal Evolution and author of You’re Hired! Now What?: A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

William R. Newman: Newton the Scientist or Newton the Alchemist?

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. How do we reconcile these two statements? After all, to most modern people, alchemy was at best a delusion and at worst an outright fraud. But Newton’s involvement in chrysopoeia, the alchemical attempt to transmute metals, is undeniable. Thanks to a famous 1936 auction of Newton’s papers, it is now an indisputable fact that the famous physicist wrote extensively on alchemy. Careful estimates indicate that he left about a million words on the subject, or possibly somewhat more.  Nor can one assert that this material stemmed from Newton’s old age, when he had ceased to be a productive scientist. To the contrary, his involvement in alchemy occupied the most productive period of his life, beginning in the 1660’s, when Newton’s innovations in mathematics and physics were still in their formative stages, and continuing up to the early eighteenth century when he published his famous Opticks.

What then are we to make of Newton’s alchemical quest, which extended over more than three decades? In the last third of the twentieth century, when the academic field of the history of science still held alchemy in low esteem, scholars were perplexed at his devotion to the aurific art. Two complementary theories emerged that attempted to explain Newton’s involvement in alchemy. The first built on the modern idea that alchemy was a type of magic, and that Renaissance magic focused on the hidden sympathies and antipathies between material things. The reason why a lodestone attracted iron at a distance was because of a hidden sympathy between the two.   Couldn’t this sort of explanation have stimulated Newton to think of gravity in terms of an immaterial attraction? And wasn’t alchemy based on the idea that some materials react with others because of a similar principle of affinity? Thus the idea that Newton’s involvement with alchemy was part of a quest to understand gravitational attraction was born. But closer inspection shows that this historical explanation has little or no justification. When Newton actually does speak about gravity and alchemy in the same breath, as in his manuscript Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation, he explicitly proposes a mechanical explanation of gravity that does not involve immaterial attraction. There is no evidence that his concept of action at a distance emerged from his alchemical studies.

The second major attempt to explain Newton’s alchemy in the last generation stemmed from a consideration of two fields: religion and analytical psychology. The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung had been arguing since the early twentieth century that alchemy was really a matter of “psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language.” Moreover, Jung argued that the language of alchemy was remarkably similar to that of Gnosticism, a heterodox religious movement of the early Christian centuries that stressed the need for personal revelation (gnosis) and communication with God. The 1936 auction that revealed Newton’s alchemy to the world had also released millions of words in his hand that dealt with prophecy, biblical chronology, and the iniquity of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Newton was now understood to be a passionate Antitrinitarian and a deeply religious thinker.

Wasn’t it possible, then, that his alchemy was merely an outgrowth of his religion, and that he saw the philosophers’ stone in its role of perfecting metals as a material surrogate for Jesus, the savior of souls? After all, alchemists had long justified their art as a divine pursuit, which God would only allow to fall into the hands of the worthy. Like the argument about alchemy and gravitational attraction, however, the claim that Newton’s interest in alchemy sprang from his religiosity falls on hard times when one examines the evidence. In reality, Newton never develops the religiously tinted themes that his alchemical sources sometimes convey. When they speak of the Holy Trinity, for example, Newton ignores the obvious religious sense and immediately tries to decode the reference into the form of an alchemical recipe. And if one turns to the roughly four million words that he wrote on religious topics, the references to alchemy are vanishingly small. For Newton, alchemy and religion were independent domains, each to be treated separately.  

Why then did Newton believe in the aurific art, and what was the empirical basis of his generation-long alchemical quest? By examining the evidence upon which early modern alchemists based their beliefs, one can better appreciate Newton’s goals. In their world, minerals and metals came into being and then died beneath the surface of the earth, forming gigantic trees whose branches presented themselves as veins and stringers of ore. This idea seems less naïve when one considers mineral entities such as wire silver, which really does seem to mimic organic life.

In this world, nature seemed to delight in transmutations, as Newton himself would say in the final editions of his famous Opticks. A famous example lay in the blue mineral vitriol found in mines, which could rapidly “transmute” iron into copper by plating it. The continual sinking down and rising up of living, fertile, mineral fumes led Newton to his own early theory of subterranean generation and corruption. Basing himself on the old alchemical principle that art should mimic nature, Newton spent decades attempting to arrive at ever more volatile metal compounds, which he hoped would act as destructive agencies that could break metals into their primitive components and thereby release their hidden life. In my ongoing attempt to understand Newton’s goals and methods, I have replicated a number of his experiments in the Indiana University Chemistry Department. The results, even if they have not revealed the secret of the philosophers’ stone, can certainly help us to understand why Newton persisted in his quest for the philosophers’ stone over the greater part of his scientific career.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Dora Malech on her new collection, Stet

In Stet, poet Dora Malech takes constraint as her catalyst and subject, exploring what it means to make or break a vow, to create art out of a life in flux, to reckon with the body’s bounds, and to arrive at a place where one might bear and care for another life. Tapping the inventive possibilities of constrained forms, particularly the revealing limitations of the anagram, Stet is a work of serious play that brings home the connections and intimacies of language.

Why anagrams?

I asked myself this question over and over as individual lines became individual poems became project became book. Most of the poems in Stet take shape through anagrammatic methods, and almost all of them operate through some kind of “constrained form,” foregrounding alphabetic transposition or redaction. The immersive nature of these processes drew me to them; I’d find myself lost for hours dismantling and reassembling these building blocks of written language. Of course, many cultures, including Jewish mysticism, have a spiritual relationship with the letters of the written word, but I couldn’t bring myself to make that leap. Rather, it was wanting to make that leap into belief, and being unable, that led me from constraint-as-process to constraint-as-theme. I found myself asking what it means to attempt to remake one’s life from the same old materials, what it means to want to believe in transformation.

Is this use of constrained form a departure from your previous work?

It seems so, but it isn’t exactly. Gertrude Stein referred to her repetitions as “insistence”; this book feels like an insistent exploration of tendencies that have always captivated me. I’ve always been deeply invested in sound, and pattern, and linguistic play in my poetry. I’m also drawn to the full spectrum of enactment and subversion of “traditional” prosody. Rhyme and meter and verse form is “constrained form” too, of course, though I use the term to refer to practices viewed as peripheral to canonical verse, embraced by the writers of Oulipo in the middle of the last century. I wrote this book from a place of intense change and questioning, and its forms reflect that intensity, but I have always been obsessed with thinking about what language is made of both on and off the page – sound, sense, word, letter.

Are there particular writers who inspired this project, or contemporary writers engaged in similar work?

As my teachers used to remind me to do in math class, Stet “shows its work.” It foregrounds both its formal process of making, and those who inspired and informed that process. For example, Andrew Joron’s sense of “language as a speculative substance” continues to be an energizing force for me. Unica Zürn and Sylvia Plath (both mothers who took their own lives) echo through the book. Influence isn’t always linear; as I went deeper into the project, I sought out those who could in some way explain or justify my own practices to me. For example, I read from the work that has become Stet in Amsterdam several years ago, where some of the students urged me to read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. This work on the culturally fundamental nature of play became a touchstone for me, articulating some of my own previously inchoate thoughts.

For a reader accustomed to reading verse that employs a more straightforward narrative or lyric mode, or for a reader hesitant to approach contemporary poetry altogether, what could you say to convince them to take a chance on Stet?

The lived stakes of Stet are fragmented and submerged, but they are present nonetheless – relationships, closures, and apertures enacted in language. I hope that the pleasure I take in the materiality of language translates to pleasure for the reader, and I hope that the emotional intensity I channeled into the process of making and remaking translates as well. As Stet is a book that foregrounds process, it’s also a book that invites the reader to participate in that process and in the act of meaning-making. That engagement can bring its own kind of pleasure, and for someone asking “why poetry?” This collection foregrounds that very question.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Martin Rees on On The Future

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various prospects for the future—good and bad—are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity’s future depends on our taking a very different approach to thinking about and planning for tomorrow. Rich with fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology, this book will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Are you an optimist?

I am writing this book as a citizen, and as an anxious member of the human species. One of its unifying themes is that humanity’s flourishing depends on how wisely science and technology are deployed. Our lives, our health, and our environment can benefit still more from further advances in biotech, cybertech, robotics, and AI. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable and secure world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the ‘west’ do today (albeit using less energy and eating less meat). To that extent, I am a techno-optimist. But what actually happens depends on politics and ethical choices.

Our ever more interconnected world is exposed to new vulnerabilities. Even within the next decade or two, robotics will disrupt working patterns, national economies, and international relations. A growing and more demanding population puts the natural environment under strain; peoples’ actions could trigger dangerous climate change and mass extinctions if ‘tipping points’ are crossed—outcomes that would bequeath a depleted and impoverished world to future generations. But to reduce these risks, we need to enhance our understanding of nature and deploy appropriate technology (zero-carbon energy, for instance) more urgently. Risks and ethical dilemmas can be minimized by a culture of ‘responsible innovation’, especially in fields like biotech, advanced AI and geoengineering; and we’ll need to confront new ethical issues—‘designer babies’, blurring of the line between life and death, and so forth—guided by priorities and values that science itself can’t provide.

Is there a moral imperative as well?

There has plainly been a welcome improvement in most people’s lives and life-chances—in education, health, and lifespan. This is owed to technology. However, it’s surely a depressing indictment of current morality that the gulf between the way the world is and the way it could be is wider than it ever was. The lives of medieval people may have been miserable compared to ours, but there was little that could have been done to improve them. In contrast, the plight of the ‘bottom billion’ in today’s world could be transformed by redistributing the wealth of the thousand richest people on the planet. Failure to respond to this humanitarian imperative, which nations have the power to remedy—surely casts doubt on any claims of institutional moral progress. That’s why I can’t go along with the ‘new optimists’ who promote a rosy view of the future, enthusing about improvements in our moral sensitivities as well as in our material progress. I don’t share their hope in markets and enlightenment.

A benign society should, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal for two reasons: firstly, those we routinely have to deal with are increasingly remote and depersonalised; and secondly, modern life is more vulnerable to disruption—‘hackers’ or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life—security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth—but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire internet more secure. But their current applications—allowing an economy based on cryptocurrencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions—seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

But what about politics? 

In an era where we are all becoming interconnected, where the disadvantaged are aware of their predicament, and where migration is easy, it’s hard to be optimistic about a peaceful world if a chasm persists, as deep as it is today’s geopolitics, between the welfare levels and life-chances in different regions. It’s specially disquieting if advances in genetics and medicine that can enhance human lives are available to a privileged few, and portend more fundamental forms of inequality. Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair—with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Will super intelligent AI out-think humans?

We are of course already being aided by computational power. In the ‘virtual world’ inside a computer astronomers can mimic galaxy formation; meteorologists can simulate the atmosphere. As computer power grows, these ‘virtual’ experiments become more realistic and useful. And AI will make discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains. For example, there is a continuing quest to find the ‘recipe’ for a superconductor that works at ordinary room temperatures. This quest involves a lot of ‘trial and error’, because nobody fully understands what makes the electrical resistance disappear more readily in some materials than in others. But it’s becoming possible to calculate the properties of materials, so fast that millions of alternatives can be computed, far more quickly than actual experiments could be done. Suppose that a machine came up with a novel and successful recipe. It would have achieved something that would get a scientist a Nobel prize. It would have behaved as though it had insight and imagination within its rather specialized universe—just as Deep Mind’s Alpha Go flummoxed and impressed human champions with some of its moves. Likewise, searches for the optimal chemical composition for new drugs will increasingly be done by computers rather than by real experiments.

Equally important is the capability to ‘crunch’ huge data-sets. As an example from genetics, qualities like intelligence and height are determined by combinations of genes. To identify these combinations would require a machine fast enough to scan huge samples of genomes to identify small correlations. Similar procedures are used by financial traders in seeking out market trends, and responding rapidly to them, so that their investors can top-slice funds from the rest of us.

Should humans spread beyond Earth?

The practical case for sending people into space gets weaker as robots improve. So the only manned ventures (except for those motivated by national prestige) will be high-risk, cut price, and privately sponsored—undertaken by thrill-seekers prepared even to accept one-way tickets. They’re the people who will venture to Mars. But there won’t be mass emigration: Mars is far less comfortable than the South Pole or the ocean bed. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people.

But I think (and hope) that there will be bases on Mars by 2100. Moreover we (and our progeny here on Earth) should cheer on the brave adventurers who go there. The space environment is inherently hostile for humans, so, precisely because they will be ill-adapted to their new habitat, the pioneer explorers will have a more compelling incentive than those of us on Earth to redesign themselves. They’ll harness the super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in coming decades. These techniques will, one hopes, be heavily regulated on Earth; but ‘settlers’ on Mars will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species. So it’s these spacefaring adventurers, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era. If they become cyborgs, they won’t need an atmosphere, and may prefer zero-g—perhaps even spreading among the stars.

Is there ‘intelligence’ out there already?

Perhaps we’ll one day find evidence of alien intelligence. On the other hand, our Earth may be unique and the searches may fail. This would disappoint the searchers. But it would have an upside for humanity’s long-term resonance. Our solar system is barely middle aged and if humans avoid self-destruction within the next century, the post-human era beckons. Intelligence from Earth could spread through the entire Galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet—this pale blue dot floating in space—could be the most important place in the entire cosmos.

What about God?

I don’t believe in any religious dogmas, but I share a sense of mystery and wonder with many who do. And I deplore the so called ‘new atheists’—small-time Bertrand Russell’s recycling his arguments—who attack religion. Hard-line atheists must surely be aware of ‘religious’ people who are manifestly neither unintelligent nor naïve, though they make minimal attempts to understand them by attacking mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it; they weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism. They also weaken science. If a young Muslim or evangelical Christian is told at school that they can’t have their God and accept evolution, they will opt for their God and be lost to science. When so much divides us, and change is disturbingly fast, religion offers bonding within a community. And its heritage, linking its adherents with past generations, should strengthen our motivation not to leave a degraded world for generations yet to come.

Do scientists have special obligations?

It’s a main theme of my book that our entire future depends on making wise choices about how to apply science. These choices shouldn’t be made just by scientists: they matter to us all and should be the outcome of wide public debate. But for that to happen, we all need enough ‘feel’ for the key ideas of science, and enough numeracy to assess hazards, probabilities and risks—so as not to be bamboozled by experts, or credulous of populist sloganising. Moreover, quite apart from their practical use, these ideas should be part of our common culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global. It should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too.

I think all scientists should divert some of their efforts towards public policy—and engage with government, business, and campaigning bodies. And of course the challenges are global. Coping with potential shortage of resources—and transitioning to low carbon energy—can’t be solved by each nation separately.

The trouble is that even the best politicians focus mainly on the urgent and parochial—and getting reelected. This is an endemic frustration for those who’ve been official scientific advisors in governments. To attract politicians’ attention you must get headlined in the press, and fill their inboxes. So scientists can have more leverage indirectly—by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice. Rachel Carson and Carl Sagan, for instance, were preeminent exemplars of the concerned scientist—with immense influence through their writings, lectures and campaigns, even before the age of social media and tweets

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments on straddling political divides.

Does being an astronomer influence your attitude toward the future?

Yes, I think it makes me specially mindful of the longterm future. Let me explain this. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (maybe not in Kentucky, or in parts of the Muslim world). But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer—indeed, we could still be nearer the beginning than the end. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It then flares up, engulfing the inner planets. And the expanding universe will continue—perhaps forever. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human—they could be as different from us as we are from slime mold. Posthuman evolution—here on Earth and far beyond—could be as prolonged as the evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful. And of course this evolution will be faster than Darwinian: it happens on a technological timescale, driven by advances in genetics and AI.

But (a final thought) even in the context of a timeline that extends billions of years into the future, as well as into the past. this century is special. It’s the first where one species—ours—has our planet’s future in its hands. Our creative intelligence could inaugurate billions of years of posthuman evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. On the other hand, humans could trigger bio, cyber, or environmental catastrophes that foreclose all such potentialities. Our Earth, this ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos, is a special place. It may be a unique place. And we’re its stewards at a specially crucial era—the anthropocene. That’s a key message for us all, whether or not we’re astronomers, and a motivation for my book.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic HabitatJust Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Bird Fact Friday – Finding Birds as an Urban Birder

Adapted from pages 205-206; 220 of How to Be an Urban Birder:

Birds are everywhere, but in order to see them you will need to know where to look and how to search for them. This is certainly the situation in urban areas and is perhaps why so many people shun the idea of there being any birds to be found in our towns and cities. Newbie birders are often overawed when they are out with birders more experienced than themselves, some even doubting their ability to have found any birds had they been on their own. Never worry about things like that, as there will soon come the day when you realize that you know more than you thought you did and have seen far more than you’ve given yourself credit for. Learn at your own pace. No one knows everything, and at one point everybody knew nothing.

Carrion Crows. Photo credit: Gideon Knight

Those birders who seem to see everything and get all the luck have actually had to earn it. They would have invariably spent hours in the field watching over their patches and studying every bird that they happened across. Therein lies the secret of how to become a better birder: getting enough experience in the field. However, this does not mean that you have to be out birding several days a week, as your skills can still be honed as you go about your daily life. The golden rule is always to look closely at every bird you come across, wherever that might be, and to listen to calls and songs to work out what they mean – is it a contact call, song or alarm note? By doing this you will be practicing hand-toeye coordination with your binoculars, learning more about identification and behaviour, picking up on sounds, and generally noticing birds that you may not have done previously. 

Don’t be put off looking at birds for fear of not being able to recognize them. There is not one birder on the planet who can confidently put a name to everything that perches up in front of them. If they say they can, then they are fibbers. I have hung out with some of the best observers in the world and they are all fallible. There is nothing wrong with drawing a blank, as some birds just defy identification. Simply enjoy the experience and try to make as many notes as possible. 

An interesting aspect of this learning curve that is not often talked about is the use of peripheral vision. When you look at a bird, also look around it at the same time, and train yourself to be alert to movement at the edges of your visual range. In this way you may notice the Sparrowhawk buzzing the extreme end of the Starling flock you were focused on, or spot the Snipe feeding unobtrusively in the wet meadow near the Moorhen that you were admiring. When you watch a bird such as a Buzzard passing overhead use your peripheral vision to locate any other birds soaring with it. Soon you will be noticing movement from the corner of your eye far more regularly.

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

 

Poet Austin Smith on Flyover Country

Flyover Country is a powerful collection of poems about violence: the violence we do to the land, to animals, to refugees, to the people of distant countries, and to one another. Drawing on memories of his childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois, Austin Smith explores the beauty and cruelty of rural life, challenging the idea that the American Midwest is mere “flyover country,” a place that deserves passing over. At the same time, the collection suggests that America itself has become a flyover country, carrying out drone strikes and surveillance abroad, locked in a state of perpetual war that Americans seem helpless to stop.

Why did you title your collection Flyover Country?

Because I despise the term. I’ve always found it to be extraordinarily condescending. I had heard the phrase for years, and it always grated on me, but since the election of 2016 it has become even more common. As with most things that hurt us, I think my impulse was to take it in and use it. This is a risk, because, as poets, the titles of our collections announce to the world what we’re about. The title is a the purest distillation of the themes a reader can expect to find in the book. I’ve already had one reader ask me whether I’m nervous that using the term might not offend the very people I’m writing about. But my intention is to say to readers: “Here is book about the Midwest, so-called ‘flyover country,’ and now I’m going to show (if the poems are successful) all the ways in which that definition of this region is offensive and inadequate.” I try to set up an expectation, and then challenge it. And after deciding to call the book Flyover Country, I realized that the title also resonated with some of the war poems in the book, particularly the poems that involve American foreign policy, preemptive war, drone strikes. While I refute the idea that the Midwest is flyover country, I would argue that the nation itself has become a flyover country in our utilization of drone strikes and other acts of war that protect us from seeing the damage we are doing.

Your first collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014. What are some of the differences between Almanac and Flyover Country?

The manuscript for Almanac was a decade in the making. In some ways it began when I took a poetry class with the inimitable Michael Theune as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. Within a year or so of graduating I was submitting a manuscript to prizes. Every year the book changed, from the title to the selection of poems to individual poems themselves, all through two graduate programs in poetry. I had many different titles, including Salvation Army, Ducks’ Misery and Autumn’s Velocity. It was Theune who suggested I call it Almanac. Eventually the book began to stabilize. Certain poems just stuck, and versions of poems became indelible, so that I felt I couldn’t change them. If Paul hadn’t taken the book, it surely would have kept changing. I feel a bit disconnected from Almanac, because I have no idea how the book came together. It grew parallel to me. It was different with Flyover Country. The publication of Almanac wiped the slate clean. I knew that every poem I wrote from then on would be vying for its place in the next collection. Also, the fall that Almanac was published I had just started the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in fiction, and so was focusing more on prose. All this to say that I wrote many fewer poems, and therefore Flyover Country came together more deliberately. Once I started recognizing some of the themes I was working with, I started writing towards those themes. I’ve never been able to understand when poets say they’re working on a book: I tend to just write poems and let them fall together as they will. But my process for Flyover Country was definitely more linear and rational, whereas Almanac was much more subconscious.

Many of your poems involve political subject. I’m thinking in particular of “Augury,” which suggests Trump’s inauguration, and the poem “That Particular Village,” written in the voice of Donald Rumsfeld. Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I’ve thought long and hard about the role of the poet in relation to politics. I’ve had intense but jovial arguments with many friends on the subject. To require that poets’ poems be political (perhaps in the hopes that their art might agitate for change) seems dangerous to me. People say that these times are crazy, and that poets should be putting their shoulders to the wheel and writing about the world as it is now, but we know that all times have been crazy. If poets have to be political today, they ought to have always been political. I got in a pleasant argument while at Stanford with the incredible novelist and teacher Richard Powers. To paraphrase his argument, he suggested that any fiction writer who isn’t writing about climate change is shirking their moral responsibility. He didn’t mean, of course, that every novel be explicitly about climate change. But he seemed to believe that, in being alive at this moment, it was only appropriate that our work respond to this moment. This argument makes me extremely uncomfortable. I worry that one day books will require a kind of imprimatur, vouching that they have been deemed sufficiently politically-engaged in order to be published. I make this argument in recognition of the fact that Flyover Country is at times explicitly political, especially in the poems you mention in your question. These explicitly political poems are my least favorite poems in the collection. The poems I have the most affection for are those poems that suggest the political, but work at a deeper, more symbolic level. For instance, when I wrote the poem “Cat Moving Kittens,” I wasn’t thinking about the Trump administration’s immoral policy of family separation at the southern border because I wrote the poem before Trump was even elected, but I can’t help but read the poem in that context now. This is only possible, I would argue, because the poem operates by suggestion and metaphor. I want to write poems that have a chance of becoming relevant in the future, not poems that becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

Your father was a dairy farmer for many years, and is also a poet. What impact has his work as a poet had upon yours?

I came to poetry through my parents’ love of poetry and of literature generally. The farmhouse I grew up in was chock-full of books. For whatever reason I was instinctually drawn towards the poetry collections. Before I could even really understand the poems I was reading, I just liked the way the poems looked on the page, visually. I still find myself randomly pulling a book of poems down from the shelf, just to consider a poem’s shape. My first book of poems was the New Directions edition of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. I loved the book itself, the simplicity of the cover, the feel of the pages, the font. But when I really wanted to be a poet was after seeing my Dad read poems at the art museum in town. He was writing about the farm, about places and events I was utterly familiar with, but in what seemed to me a completely different language. Actually, it wasn’t a different language but the same language heightened. The poems had more in common with prayer and song than with ordinary speech. I distinctly remember the first time I found that heightened language myself. It was my first poem, called “Christmas,” rhymed couplets, beginning: “The fire is burning hot. / I can hear the hunter’s shot.” Something clicked for me there. And then there were the poets who would come out to the farm for dinner, having been brought to Freeport by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson to read at Highland Community College. I met Gary Snyder, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, and many others. I saw how poets inhabited the world, how they talked and laughed and walked and ate and drank. It struck me early on I think that to become a poet was not merely to become a person who writes poems, but to live a life oriented towards what poetry suggests: careful (by which I mean “full of care”) and compassionate language and living. So, yes, it was my Dad, his books, his poems, his friendships, who sent me on my way. I was very nearly derailed by the embarrassment of turning in a collection of haiku titled Silver Moon for the Young Author’s competition in third grade, but after recovering from that pitfall it has been more or less smooth sailing.

Who are the poets who mean the most to you?

My reading habits are so eclectic that I’d rather give a broader answer, composed mostly but not entirely of poets. To be honest, I don’t read many poems these days. I have many friends, poets all, who sit down and read new collections straight through. It’s rare that I’ll do that. It’s rare that I’ll like a poem, including my own. And usually, I become enamored with a poet, not with a particular collection or even a particular poem, and everything that poet has written will seem like gold to me. An example is the great French poet Jean Follain. I love reading Follain’s short, unpunctuated, imagistic poems, considering how he makes the moves he does, and comparing different translations. It seems to me that his poems are reflective of some deeper quality he must have had, and that cannot have helped but come through in his poems. Another poet like this is Keats, not so much in his poems, but in his letters: I feel I know him, his humor, his compassion. And then there are the Wordsworths, especially Dorothy, and Coleridge. I read Dorothy’s journals in a kind of continuous loop. I also love the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, especially The Poetics of Space. All of these people, Follain, Keats, Dorothy Wordsworth, Bachelard, are like saints to me. So I could say that the poet Larry Levis has been very important to me, or that the poet W.S. Merwin has been very important to me (and the namesake of a long-lost cat of mine), but a more accurate answer would be that I live in an atmosphere of blended enthusiasms, which transcend genre.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Simon Levis Sullam on The Italian Executioners

Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book coverMost historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But Simon Levis Sullam’s gripping new history The Italian Executioners shows how ordinary Italians actually played a central role in the deportation and genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War. Levis Sullam recounts in vivid detail the shocking events of this period, dismantling the seductive popular myth of italiani brava gente—the “good Italians” who sheltered their Jewish compatriots from harm. Here, Levis Sullam answers several questions about the Holocaust in Italy, the book, and the misconceptions it corrects.

How does your book supersede previous historiography on the fate of the Jews of Italy during the Holocaust?

Historians have long represented Italy during the Holocaust as a safe place for Jews, due to the many rescues of Jews by Italians, in particular by members of the Catholic clergy.  Some of the founders of Holocaust historiography, such as Léon Poliakov or Raul Hilberg, viewed the Italians’ benevolent national character as antithetical to violence and genocide. But following a new stream of research starting with the work of Michele Sarfatti and Liliana Picciotto, The Italian Executioners claims that Italians—including ordinary Italians—were accomplices in the genocide of the Jews. Over 8,000 Jews, about 20% of the Italian Jewish population, were arrested and deported from Italy. Nearly half of these arrests were carried out by Italians.

Why do you prefer the category of genocide to those of Holocaust or Shoah? How do you apply it?

In the book, I use “genocide” as it was coined by the Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin during the Second World War, to indicate the attempt to eradicate a group, in whole or in part, based on ethnicity or race. I underline how genocide does not take place only in foreign or distant lands, but can happen during circumstances of distress in any society, when next-door neighbours are persecuted as internal enemies. On the footsteps especially of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I stress the role of the fragmentation of tasks and the bureaucratization of functions in the machinery of destruction, which required the large-scale involvement of ordinary citizens.

What was the role of antisemitism among Italian executioners?

Italy had a centuries-old tradition of particularly Catholic anti-Judaism and, since the nineteenth century, had also developed a racially based anti-Jewish hostility of the type that had already spread throughout Europe. In the twentieth century, antisemitism was not a founding principle of Italian Fascist ideology, although certain streams of the Fascist movement used anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the 1930s. The racial question rose within Fascism first with the proclamation of an Italian empire in Ethiopia in 1936 and later, starting in the fall of 1938, with Mussolini’s enforcement of antisemitic laws.

But were ordinary Italians who participated in the Holocaust motivated by antisemitism?

Some of those who participated in the arrest of Jews were ideologically motivated. The Fascist Party, which was reborn during the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, declared Jews to be “foreigners” and “enemies.” Ideologically committed members of the Fascist Party and the Fascist press adopted this line. However, the arrest of Jews was mostly conducted by policemen and by military police (“carabinieri”) who obeyed higher orders from the government and from the prefects and chiefs of police who represented the State locally. Many Italians, however, participated in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of their property while performing bureaucratic functions, such as drafting lists of people to be arrested or registering confiscated property. Other Italians were motivated by greed.

Speaking of greed, can you tell us what happened to Jewish property?

Greed, revenge, and sometimes envy were important motivating factors in ordinary Italian citizens’ involvement in anti-Jewish activities during the Holocaust. Very often, arrests were the result of Italians informing about the whereabouts of Jewish next-door neighbors or former business partners. Informants aimed to take hold of Jewish property or move into vacated houses or apartments after the arrests. Fees were also promised for those who reported Jews.

After the war, what happened to those Italians who were responsible of the deportation of Jews?

There was never an Italian Nuremberg trial. Only a few postwar trials considered anti-Jewish persecution among the defendants’ responsibilities, and anti-Jewish action was never treated as a specific crime. In 1946, a general amnesty for Fascist crimes was enforced. Major war criminals served short sentences of only a few years. Most, if not all, of the police personnel who had been active during Fascism and the war remained in place. And there were paradoxical episodes such as that of a police officer who had been in charge of the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and who after the war was put in charge of the return of Jewish property. The role of Italians in the Holocaust was basically never examined by Italian justice.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was concerned about the relatively benevolent representation of Fascism by international historiography, which often still considers it a lesser evil compared to Nazism. The criminality and violence of Fascism began, at the latest, in the mid-1920s, when the movement started persecuting and even killing political opponents. In this case, I wanted to look at one of its most criminal phases: Fascism’s active participation in the Nazi project of extermination. On a more personal level, I was motivated also by my family’s history. Part of my family was rescued during the war, and that is how my parents survived and I could come to life. Another part of my family, including elders and months-old children, were arrested by Italians and killed by Germans in Auschwitz. I wanted to tell this story, the story of the Italian executioners in the Holocaust, which has been too often overlooked both by historians and in the public memory.

Simon Levis Sullam is associate professor of modern history at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His previous books include Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism.

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.