Theodore Porter on Genetics in the Madhouse

PorterIn the early 1800s, a century before there was any concept of the gene, physicians in insane asylums began to record causes of madness in their admission books. Almost from the beginning, they pointed to heredity as the most important of these causes. As doctors and state officials steadily lost faith in the capacity of asylum care to stem the terrible increase of insanity, they began emphasizing the need to curb the reproduction of the insane. They became obsessed with identifying weak or tainted families and anticipating the outcomes of their marriages. Genetics in the Madhouse is the untold story of how the collection and sorting of hereditary data in mental hospitals, schools for “feebleminded” children, and prisons gave rise to a new science of human heredity. A bold rethinking of asylum work, Genetics in the Madhouse shows how heredity was a human science as well as a medical and biological one.

I can’t help noticing that the title of this book, Genetics in the Madhouse, incorporates a double anachronism.

Well, yes, you’re right about that. Guilty as charged. The book begins in about 1789 which, besides being the year of the French Revolution, coincides pretty closely with a new model of care for the insane. These new institutions were not places of incarceration, but retreats or—the favorite word of the new era—asylums. They were idealized as orderly, restful places in the countryside where patients, laboring quietly, could recover their mental balance. In real life, it was scarcely possible to maintain order and quiet in these hospitals, especially as they grew to hold thousands of patients. The title word “madhouse” evokes the precarious situation of service personnel trying to apply psychological and moral principles to such recalcitrant populations. The most basic point of the book is that routines of record keeping in these disorderly establishments provided an indispensable basis of data for investigation patterns of biological inheritance. Although our word for this study, “genetics,” was first used by the naturalist William Bateson in 1905, biological heredity as a scientific problem had been taking shape for at least a century. Bateson chose to let this new science be defined by Gregor Mendel’s experiments on plant hybridization from the 1860s, which had changed everything, he said. I follow a recent turn of historical research that demonstrates a richer and more diverse tradition of hereditary study. My book emphasizes the key role of data gathering from mental hospitals and related institutions for this science of human heredity.

This is your fourth book with Princeton University Press, all of which have involved history of statistics, calculation, and measurement in the human sciences. Did you write this one to reveal the statistical background to genetics?

In fact, the statistics of heredity was already an important topic of my first book, written in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the context of a very different historiography. Genetics in the Madhouse had its moment of inspiration a decade ago when it occurred to shift my emphasis from ideals of statistical reasoning to the production and deployment of medical and scientific data. Although I at first had no idea of this, data was just emerging as a focus of historical research. The history of data has and obvious connection to history of statistics, but it has, I would suggest, a certain primordial aspect. Statistics presupposes data, whereas there are other strategies besides statistics for reasoning with data. I ended up spending a lot of time in archives trying to figure out the protocol when, as it usually happened, a relative of a prospective patient supplied the medical superintendent of an asylum with information for a line in the hospital admission book. From this point of origin, I could see how unit entries were combined into medical-administrative tables, merged into census statistics, and recombined to get at the relations of different variables. I had supposed until recently that most doctors didn’t care much for statistics, but now I found that many asylum doctors at least took their numbers very seriously. I quickly discovered that what I had thought of as sources of data for statistical analysis were much more than this. The doctors were already deeply engaged in investigating relationship of heredity among the diagnosed insane decades before statisticians like Karl Pearson began asking them for data on heredity.

On this basis, I began the backward phase of my research, trying to establish when and where these tables of inheritance of first arose. One possible source, a very precise one, is the medical inquiries carried out about 1789 by Dr. William Black in response to a furor over the madness of King George III. A better answer would be to link it to the asylum movement and to new standards of record keeping for public institutions.

But do you really think that administrative records could provide the basis for a natural science such as genetics?

Indeed that would be too simple. Quite a lot of the asylum record keeping really was passive and formulaic, but this was never the whole story. Black, who was responding to constitutional crisis, had to track down privately-held data from Bethlem (Bedlam) and assemble new tables giving evidence on the critical question of whether the king was likely to recover. By the 1830s, many asylum doctors understood their role not only in terms of relieving insane persons committed to their institutions, but also of advising the population at large on the preservation of mental health. Their interest in causes of insanity was allied to this public-health mission. Meanwhile, despite all the new asylums, insanity numbers were growing like crazy. It became more and more important to understand causes, especially hereditary ones. By the 1840s, a subset of asylum doctors were taking the study of heredity very seriously. While they depended on administrative records to keep tabs on the presumed causes, they also widened the field of data collection, for example to relative of patients. Insanity, and even its inheritance, became a topic for the national census. The doctors also worked to integrate data from diverse institutions and to track down every insane person in specific parishes in order to unravel the family relationships and reduce them to family trees or pedigrees. So the routine record keeping often went well beyond administrative routines.

Why did they become obsessed with hereditary causation?

In fact, the inheritance of traits and diseases, including of mental illness, was already by 1800 a folk category. If a newly-admitted asylum patient had a sister or uncle who behaved oddly, spoke incoherently, or committed suicide, spouses and children often mentioned this as indicating a hereditary factor. Asylum doctors were in a position to gather up reports like these, and their tables often showed heredity as the most important cause of insanity. To be sure, such numbers depended also on the attitude of the doctor. Still, the numbers provided a basis for stern warnings against marrying into families plagued by hereditary weakness, and these were quite common by the 1840s. The reality of eugenics as a professional medical concern long predated the word.

Didn’t Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton launch the eugenics movement?

Certainly he was a key figure, and ever since 1900, when eugenics became famous, his name has been associated it. But it is unconvincing, and probably even a category mistake, to attribute a professional and popular movement like eugenics to the inspiration of any single individual. As it happens, Galton’s initial obsession with human heredity, and even his early methods for investigating it, owed something to the ideas and practices of asylum doctors. In the 1870s, when he carried out his study of the resemblances of twins, he knew enough to ask asylum directors and the families of patients for pertinent data. And Darwin, an early convert to Galton’s doctrines of inherited ability and weakness, had been worrying for decades about the possibility of hereditary weakness in his own family. He and his son George proposed studies using data from asylums and related institutions to determine if family marriages might bring on inherited weakness.

How long did it take for modern genetics to replace medical and social speculations about inherited weakness once Mendel’s laws at last were noticed in 1900?

The first scientists to take up Mendelian research were botanists. It was quickly incorporated into agricultural research, and there were some real successes by the 1910s, most famously in research on mutations in fruit flies. Quick generation times and the possibility of rigorous experimental control were very important for Mendelian research. Some, such as Bateson, simply assumed that criminality must be controlled by a single gene. The first research on inheritance of insanity and mental weakness was carried out by allies of by Charles B. Davenport, founder of the well-funded Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. He more or less assumed that conditions like these, with no evident bacteriological or environmental causes, must be hereditary, and in a straightforwardly Mendelian way. His data and much of the expertise to deploy it came from professionals at asylums and special schools, and thus was continuous with long-standing traditions of institutional research on heredity. The primary novelty was their strong expectation that Mendel’s characteristic ratios, 3:1 and 1:1, should spring out from breeding results. And that is what they found 

There followed an international wave of Mendelian psychiatry and psychology in Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia as well as North America. At first almost everyone succeeded in getting the results they were looking for, but these were harshly criticized, especially by Pearson and his allies in London. The most serious and expensive Mendelian studies were carried out in Germany, most famously by the Munich psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin in alliance with the doctor and statistician Wilhelm Weinberg. Their results for inheritance of mental illness (dementia praecox) were about six times smaller than they expected. Although they did not give up on Mendelism, they adopted for practical purposes a more empirical approach, measuring how the presence of a trait of interest in the parents affected the characters of the offspring, and ignoring for the time being the presumed genetic factors.

By about 1930, Davenport’s findings on Mendelian inheritance of mental defects had become a scandal. While geneticist continue often to speak loosely of genes for traits like these, and find it impossible to ignore them, there is no prospect of a simple Mendelian explanation of schizophrenia or learning disabilities. Meanwhile, statistical investigations of inheritance of mental and psychological traits go on.

Weren’t eugenic researches on inheritance of mental illness and disabilities discredited by the terrible abuses of the Nazis?

While few these days are willing to own up to eugenic ambitions, eugenics never died. One of the first really terrible crimes of the Nazis was to murder hundreds of thousands of asylum patients. Genetics had some role in the justification and implementation of this policy, though rarely if ever let scientific arguments determine the implementation of policies like these. German research on psychiatric heredity from the Nazi period did not just disappear, but was cited and used for decades by researchers in Britain, Scandinavia, and North America, some of whom despised the medical-eugenic policies of the Nazi state.

Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.

Russell Bonduriansky & Troy Day on Extended Heredity

ExtendedFor much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes—and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations. Extended Heredity reappraises long-held ideas and opens the door to a new understanding of inheritance and evolution.

Why does heredity need to be extended?

We are at an interesting moment in the history of biology. Classical genetics, molecular biology, and genomics have greatly enriched our understanding of how organisms function, why individuals vary, and how biological variation is transmitted from parents to their offspring. But, along the way, biologists have made many discoveries that can’t be shoehorned into the conventional picture. For example, every first-year biology student learns that “acquired traits” can’t be passed on to descendants, but a great deal of evidence now contradicts this conventional wisdom. Taken together, these discoveries strongly suggest that genes are not the whole story, and that heredity needs to be extended to encompass a variety of non-genetic factors that operate alongside genes.

What does extended heredity have to do with evolution?

Heredity is one of the essential ingredients required for evolution to occur. If some individuals have particular features that enable them to produce more surviving offspring, and if those features are heritable, then those features will be represented in a greater proportion of individuals in the next generation. This simple formula is the essence of Darwin’s theory, and it was developed long before the discovery of genes. But, in the 20th century, evolution came to be defined in purely genetic terms because biologists assumed that only genes could be passed on to descendants. So what happens if there’s more to heredity than genes, and if nongenetic hereditary factors operate by very different rules? As we show, extended heredity broadens our understanding of how evolution works and leads to some surprising conclusions.

Weren’t such ideas—so-called “Lamarckian” or “soft” inheritance—refuted long ago?

The history of heredity—in particular, how heredity came to be defined in exclusively genetic terms—is a fascinating story in its own right. A commonly held view is that, after a lengthy scientific debate involving numerous experiments, the evidence ultimately showed that Mendelian genes (which were later recognized as DNA sequences) are the sole bearers of heredity. The actual history is far messier. In fact, the rejection of nongenetic forms of hereditary was never well-justified by evidence or logic, and current efforts to dismiss nongenetic inheritance as irrelevant to evolution don’t fare much better. On the other hand, some of the arguments made by proponents of an “extended evolutionary synthesis” are problematic as well, and so we search for a firm middle-ground.

What would you say to a skeptic?

Many biologists are wary of such unorthodox ideas, and some simply wonder what the fuss is about. After all, evolutionary biology has been wonderfully successful without extended heredity, so why open this can of worms? But science progresses by constantly updating knowledge and reassessing ideas. Not everyone will agree with our concept of extended heredity, but we hope to at least convince skeptics that non-genetic inheritance is real and should no longer be neglected in evolutionary thinking. There is a wealth of intriguing evidence out there that challenges conventional ideas, and we should confront this evidence and see where it leads us.

Is all this just an academic debate or are there practical implications?

Heredity is extremely relevant to health and many other practical concerns. Although our primary focus is on evolution, we also consider some of the practical implications of extended heredity. For example, we are exposed in our daily lives to many substances, such as the BPA found in certain plastic products, that have been shown to affect embryonic development in other animals. Many people are now aware that maternal smoking or obesity can harm a developing foetus, but few know that paternal lifestyle and health can also affect the foetus by reprograming the genes carried in sperm. There’s a disturbing historical dimension to this as well. It’s hard to believe today, but doctors and scientists used to believe so strongly in the exclusive role of genes in heredity that they denied the possibility that toxins ingested by pregnant women—most notably alcohol—could cause congenital abnormalities. We’ve obviously come a long way since then, but the idea that our children’s health and features could be shaped, not only by the genes that we pass to them, but also by our own lifestyle choices is still not widely appreciated.

Russell Bonduriansky is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Troy Day is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Department of Biology at Queen’s University in Canada. His books include Biocalculus and A Biologist’s Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution (Princeton).

Michael J. Ryan: A Taste for the Beautiful

Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process. Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction. Read on to learn more about the evolution of beauty, why the sight of a peacock’s tail made Darwin sick, and why males tend to be the more “beautiful” in the animal kingdom.

What made you interested in the evolution of beauty?

For my Masters degree I was studying how male bullfrog set up and defend territories. They have a pretty imposing call that has been described as ‘jug-a-rum;’ it is used to repel neighboring males and to attract females. In those days it was thought that animal sexual displays functioned only to identify the species of the signaler. For example, in the pond where I worked you could easily tell the difference between bullfrogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, and spring peepers by listening to their calls. Females do the same so they can end up mating with the correct species. Variation among the calls within a species was thought of to be just noise, random variation that had little meaning to the females.

But sitting in this swamp night after night I was able to tell individual bullfrogs apart from one another and got used to seeing the same males with the loudest deepest calls in the same parts of the pond. I began to wonder that if I could hear these differences could the female bullfrogs, and could females decide who to mate with based on the male’s call? And also, if some calls sounded more beautiful to me, did female frogs share with me the same aesthetic?

I never got to answer these questions with the bullfrogs but I decided to pursue this general question when I started at Cornell University to work on my PhD degree.

Why did Darwin say that the sight of the peacock’s tail, an iconic example of sexual beauty, made him sick?

Darwin suffered all kinds of physical maladies, some probably brought on by his contraction of Chagas disease during his voyage on the Beagle. But this malady induced by the peacock’s tail probably resulted from cognitive dissonance. He had formulated a theory, natural selection, in which he was able to explain how animals evolve adaptations for survival. Alfred Russel Wallace developed a very similar theory. All seemed right with the world, at least for a while.

But then Darwin pointed out that many animal traits seem to hinder rather than promote survival. These included bright plumage and complex song in birds, flashing of fireflies, male fishes with swords, and of course the peacock with its magnificently long tail. All of these traits presented challenges to his theory of natural selection and the general idea of survival of the fittest. These sexy traits are ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom but seem to harm rather than promote survival.

Sexual selection is Darwin’s theory that predicts the evolution of sexual beauty. How is this different from Darwin’s theory of natural selection?

The big difference between these two theories is that one focuses on survivorship while the other focuses on mating success. Both are important for promoting evolution, the disproportionate passage of genes from one generation to the next. An animal that survives for a long period of time but never reproduces is in a sense genetically dead. Animals that are extremely attractive but do not live long enough to reproduce also are at a genetic dead-end. It is the proper mix of survivorship and attractiveness that is most favored by selection. But the important point to realize is that natural selection and sexual selection are often opposed to one another; natural selection for example, favoring shorter tails in peacocks and sexual selection favoring longer tails. What the bird ends up with is a compromise between these two opposing selection forces.

In most of evolutionary biology the emphasis is still more on survival than mating success. But sometimes I think that surviving is just nature’s clever trick to keep individuals around long enough so that they can reproduce.

Why is it that in many animals the males are the more beautiful sex?

In most animals there are many differences between males and females. But what is the defining character? What makes a male a male and a female a female? It is not the way they act, the way they look, the way they behave. It is not even defined by the individual’s sex organs, penis versus vagina in many types of animals.

The defining characteristic of the sexes is gamete size. Males have many small gametes and females have fewer large gametes.  The maximum number of offspring that an animal can sire will be limited by the number of gametes. Therefore, males could potentially father many more offspring than a female could mother.

But of course males need females to reproduce. So this sets up competition where the many gametes of the males are competing to hook up with the fewer gametes of the females. Thus in many species males are under selection to mate often, they will never run out of gametes, while females are under selection to mate carefully and make good use of the fewer gametes they have. Thus males are competing for females, either through direct combat or by making themselves attractive to females, and females decide which males get to mate. The latter is the topic of this book.

Why is sexual beauty so dangerous?

The first step in communication is being noticed, standing out against the background. This is true whether animals communicate with sound, vision, or smells. It is especially true for sexual communication. The bind that males face is they need to make themselves conspicuous to females but their communication channel is not private, it is open to exploitation by eavesdroppers. These eavesdroppers can make a quick meal out of a sexually advertising male. One famous example, described in this book, involves the túngara frog and its nemesis, the frog-eating bat. Male túngara frogs add syllables, chucks, to their calls to increase their attractiveness to females. But it also makes them more attractive to bats, so when these males become more attractive they also become more likely to become a meal rather than a mate.

The túngara frog is only one example of the survival cost of attractive traits. When crickets call, for example, they can attract a parasitic fly. The fly lands on the calling male and her larvae crawl off of her onto the calling cricket. The larvae then burrow deep inside the cricket where they will develop. As they develop they eat the male from the inside out, and their first meal is the male’s singing muscle. This mutes the male so he will not attract other flies who would deposit their larvae on the male who would then become competitors.

Another cost of being attractive is tied up with the immune system. Many of the elaborate sexual traits of males develop in response to high levels of testosterone. Testosterone can have a negative effect on the immune system. So as males experience higher testosterone levels that might produce more attractive ornaments, but these males are paying the cost with their ability to resist disease.

How did you come to discover that frog eating bats are attracted to the calls of túngara frogs?

The credit for this initial discovery goes to Merlin Tuttle. Merlin is a well-known bat biologist and he was on BCI the year before I was. He captured a bat with a frog in its mouth. Merlin wondered how common this behavior was and whether the bats could hear the calls of the frogs and use those calls to find the frogs.

When Stan Rand and I discovered that túngara frogs become more attractive when they add chucks to their calls, we wondered why they didn’t produce chucks all the time. We were both convinced that there were some cost of producing chucks and we both thought it was likely the ultimate cost imposed by a predator.

Merlin contacted Stan about collaborating on research with the frog-eating bat and frog calls, and Stan then introduced Merlin to me. The rest is history as this research has blossomed into a major research program for a number of people.

Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

Yes, but it is also in the ears, the noses, the toes and any other sense organ recruited to check out potential mates. All of these sense organs forward information to the brain where judgements about beauty are made. So it is more accurate to say beauty is in the brain of the beholder. It might be true that the brain is our most important sex organ, but the brain has other things on its mind besides sex. It evolves under selection to perform a number of functions, and adaptations in one function can lead to unintended consequences for another function. For example, studies of some fish show that the color sensitivity of the eyes evolves to facilitate the fish’s ability to find its prey. Once this happens though, males evolve courtship colors to which their females’ eyes are particularly sensitive. This is called sensory exploitation.

A corollary of ‘beauty is in the brain of the beholder’ is that choosers, usually females, define what is beautiful. Females are not under selection to find out which males are attractive, by determining which males are attractive. They are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the evolution of beauty.

What is sensory exploitation?

We have probably all envisioned the perfect sexual partner. And in many cases those visions do not exist in reality. In a sense, the same might be true in animals. Females can have preferences for traits that do not exist. Or at least do not yet exist. When males evolve traits that elicit these otherwise hidden preferences this is called sensory exploitation. We can think of the evolution of sexual beauty as evolutionary attempts to probe the ‘preference landscape’ of the female. When a trait matches one of these previously unexpressed preferences, the male trait is immediately favored by sexual selection because it increases his mating success.

A good example of this occurs in a fish called the swordtail. In these fishes males have sword-like appendages protruding from their tails. Female swordtails prefer males with swords to those without swords, and males with longer swords to males with shorter swords. Swordtails are related to platyfish, the sword of swordtails evolved after the platyfish and swordtails split off from one another thousands of years ago. But when researchers attach a plastic sword to a male platyfish he becomes more attractive to female platyfish. These females have never seen a sworded male but they have a preference for that trait nonetheless. Thus it appears that when the first male swordtail evolved a sword the females already had a preference for this trait.

Do the girls really get prettier at closing time, as Mickey Gilly once sang?

They sure do, and so do the boys. A study showed that both men and women in a bar perceive members of the opposite sex as more attractive as closing time approaches. This classic study was repeated in Australia where they measured blood alcohol levels and showed that the ‘closing time’ effect was not only due to drinking but to the closing time of the bar.

The interpretation is of these results is that if an individual wants to go home with a member of the opposite sex but none of the individuals meet her or his expectations of beauty, the individual has two choices. They can lower their standards of beauty or they can deceive themselves and perceive the same individuals as more attractive. They seem to do the latter.

Although we do not know what goes on in an animal’s head, they show a similar pattern of behavior. Guppies and roaches are much more permissive in accepting otherwise unattractive mates as they get closer to the ultimate closing time, the end of their lives. In a similar example, early in the night female túngara frogs will reject certain calls that are usually unattractive, but later in the night when females become desperate to find a mate they become more than willing to be attracted to these same calls.  It is also noteworthy that middle-aged women think about sex more and have sex more often than do younger women.

Deception seems to be widespread in human courtship. What about animals?

Males have a number of tricks to deceive females for the purpose of mating. One example involves moths in which males make clicking sounds to court females. When males string together these clicks in rapid succession it sounds like the ‘feeding buzz’ of a bat, the sound a bat makes as it zeros in on its prey. At least this is what the female moths think. When they hear these clicks they freeze and the male moth is then able to mount the female and mate with her with little resistance as she appears to be scared to death, not of the male moth but of what she thinks is a bat homing in on her for the kill.

Other animals imitate food to drive female’s attention. Male mites beat their legs on the water surface imitating vibrations caused by copepods, the main source of food for the water mites. When females approach the source of these were vibrations they find a potential mate rather than a potential meal.

What about peer pressure? We know this plays a role in human in interactions, and the influence our perceptions of beauty? What about animals, can they be subjected to peer pressure?

Suppose a woman looks at my picture and is told rate my attractiveness on the scale of 1 to 10. Another woman is asked to do the same but in this picture I am standing next to an attractive woman. Almost certainly I will get a higher score the second time; my attractiveness increases although nothing about my looks have changed, only that I was consorting with a good-looking person.  This is referred to as mate choice and it is widespread in the animal kingdom.

Mate choice copying was first experimentally demonstrated in guppies. Female guppies prefer males who have more orange over those who have less orange. In a classic experiment, females were given a choice between a more than a less colorful male. They preferred the more colorful male and then were returned to the center of the tank for another experiment. In this instance they saw the less colorful and less preferred male courting a female. That female was removed and the test female was tested for her preference for the same two males once again. Now the female changes her preference and prefers what previously had been the less preferred male. She too seems to be employing mate choice copying.

Many animals learn by observing others. Mate choice copying seems to be a type of observational learning that is common in many animals in many domains. It might suggest that we be careful with whom we hang out.

What is the link between sexual attraction in animals and pornography in humans?

Animal sexual beauty is often characterized by being extreme: long tails, complex songs, brilliant colors, and outrageous dances. The same is often true of sexual beauty in humans. Female supermodels, for example, tend to be much longer and thinner than most other women in the population, male supermodels are super-buff—hardly normal. Furthermore, in animals we can create sexual traits that are more extreme than what exists in males of the population, and in experiments females often prefer these artificially exaggerated traits, such as: even longer tales, more complex songs, and more brilliant colors than exhibited by their own males. These are called supernormal stimuli. Pornography also creates supernormal stimuli not only in showcasing individuals with extreme traits but also in creating social settings that hardly exist in most societies, this manufactured social setting is sometimes referred to as Pornotopia.

RyanMichael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication. He lives in Austin, Texas.

 

Kyle Harper: How climate change and disease helped the fall of Rome

HarperAt some time or another, every historian of Rome has been asked to say where we are, today, on Rome’s cycle of decline. Historians might squirm at such attempts to use the past but, even if history does not repeat itself, nor come packaged into moral lessons, it can deepen our sense of what it means to be human and how fragile our societies are.

In the middle of the second century, the Romans controlled a huge, geographically diverse part of the globe, from northern Britain to the edges of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The generally prosperous population peaked at 75 million. Eventually, all free inhabitants of the empire came to enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship. Little wonder that the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon judged this age the ‘most happy’ in the history of our species – yet today we are more likely to see the advance of Roman civilisation as unwittingly planting the seeds of its own demise.

Five centuries later, the Roman empire was a small Byzantine rump-state controlled from Constantinople, its near-eastern provinces lost to Islamic invasions, its western lands covered by a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Trade receded, cities shrank, and technological advance halted. Despite the cultural vitality and spiritual legacy of these centuries, this period was marked by a declining population, political fragmentation, and lower levels of material complexity. When the historian Ian Morris at Stanford University created a universal social-development index, the fall of Rome emerged as the greatest setback in the history of human civilisation.

Explanations for a phenomenon of this magnitude abound: in 1984, the German classicist Alexander Demandt catalogued more than 200 hypotheses. Most scholars have looked to the internal political dynamics of the imperial system or the shifting geopolitical context of an empire whose neighbours gradually caught up in the sophistication of their military and political technologies. But new evidence has started to unveil the crucial role played by changes in the natural environment. The paradoxes of social development, and the inherent unpredictability of nature, worked in concert to bring about Rome’s demise.

Climate change did not begin with the exhaust fumes of industrialisation, but has been a permanent feature of human existence. Orbital mechanics (small variations in the tilt, spin and eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit) and solar cycles alter the amount and distribution of energy received from the Sun. And volcanic eruptions spew reflective sulphates into the atmosphere, sometimes with long-reaching effects. Modern, anthropogenic climate change is so perilous because it is happening quickly and in conjunction with so many other irreversible changes in the Earth’s biosphere. But climate change per se is nothing new.

The need to understand the natural context of modern climate change has been an unmitigated boon for historians. Earth scientists have scoured the planet for paleoclimate proxies, natural archives of the past environment. The effort to put climate change in the foreground of Roman history is motivated both by troves of new data and a heightened sensitivity to the importance of the physical environment. It turns out that climate had a major role in the rise and fall of Roman civilisation. The empire-builders benefitted from impeccable timing: the characteristic warm, wet and stable weather was conducive to economic productivity in an agrarian society. The benefits of economic growth supported the political and social bargains by which the Roman empire controlled its vast territory. The favourable climate, in ways subtle and profound, was baked into the empire’s innermost structure.

The end of this lucky climate regime did not immediately, or in any simple deterministic sense, spell the doom of Rome. Rather, a less favourable climate undermined its power just when the empire was imperilled by more dangerous enemies – Germans, Persians – from without. Climate instability peaked in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. Work by dendro-chronologists and ice-core experts points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s CE, unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This phase of climate deterioration had decisive effects in Rome’s unravelling. It was also intimately linked to a catastrophe of even greater moment: the outbreak of the first pandemic of bubonic plague.

Disruptions in the biological environment were even more consequential to Rome’s destiny. For all the empire’s precocious advances, life expectancies ranged in the mid-20s, with infectious diseases the leading cause of death. But the array of diseases that preyed upon Romans was not static and, here too, new sensibilities and technologies are radically changing the way we understand the dynamics of evolutionary history – both for our own species, and for our microbial allies and adversaries.

The highly urbanised, highly interconnected Roman empire was a boon to its microbial inhabitants. Humble gastro-enteric diseases such as Shigellosis and paratyphoid fevers spread via contamination of food and water, and flourished in densely packed cities. Where swamps were drained and highways laid, the potential of malaria was unlocked in its worst form – Plasmodium falciparum – a deadly mosquito-borne protozoon. The Romans also connected societies by land and by sea as never before, with the unintended consequence that germs moved as never before, too. Slow killers such as tuberculosis and leprosy enjoyed a heyday in the web of interconnected cities fostered by Roman development.

However, the decisive factor in Rome’s biological history was the arrival of new germs capable of causing pandemic events. The empire was rocked by three such intercontinental disease events. The Antonine plague coincided with the end of the optimal climate regime, and was probably the global debut of the smallpox virus. The empire recovered, but never regained its previous commanding dominance. Then, in the mid-third century, a mysterious affliction of unknown origin called the Plague of Cyprian sent the empire into a tailspin. Though it rebounded, the empire was profoundly altered – with a new kind of emperor, a new kind of money, a new kind of society, and soon a new religion known as Christianity. Most dramatically, in the sixth century a resurgent empire led by Justinian faced a pandemic of bubonic plague, a prelude to the medieval Black Death. The toll was unfathomable – maybe half the population was felled.

The plague of Justinian is a case study in the extraordinarily complex relationship between human and natural systems. The culprit, the Yersinia pestis bacterium, is not a particularly ancient nemesis; evolving just 4,000 years ago, almost certainly in central Asia, it was an evolutionary newborn when it caused the first plague pandemic. The disease is permanently present in colonies of social, burrowing rodents such as marmots or gerbils. However, the historic plague pandemics were colossal accidents, spillover events involving at least five different species: the bacterium, the reservoir rodent, the amplification host (the black rat, which lives close to humans), the fleas that spread the germ, and the people caught in the crossfire.

Genetic evidence suggests that the strain of Yersinia pestis that generated the plague of Justinian originated somewhere near western China. It first appeared on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and, in all likelihood, was smuggled in along the southern, seaborne trading networks that carried silk and spices to Roman consumers. It was an accident of early globalisation. Once the germ reached the seething colonies of commensal rodents, fattened on the empire’s giant stores of grain, the mortality was unstoppable.

The plague pandemic was an event of astonishing ecological complexity. It required purely chance conjunctions, especially if the initial outbreak beyond the reservoir rodents in central Asia was triggered by those massive volcanic eruptions in the years preceding it. It also involved the unintended consequences of the built human environment – such as the global trade networks that shuttled the germ onto Roman shores, or the proliferation of rats inside the empire. The pandemic baffles our distinctions between structure and chance, pattern and contingency. Therein lies one of the lessons of Rome. Humans shape nature – above all, the ecological conditions within which evolution plays out. But nature remains blind to our intentions, and other organisms and ecosystems do not obey our rules. Climate change and disease evolution have been the wild cards of human history.

Our world now is very different from ancient Rome. We have public health, germ theory and antibiotic pharmaceuticals. We will not be as helpless as the Romans, if we are wise enough to recognise the grave threats looming around us, and to use the tools at our disposal to mitigate them. But the centrality of nature in Rome’s fall gives us reason to reconsider the power of the physical and biological environment to tilt the fortunes of human societies. Perhaps we could come to see the Romans not so much as an ancient civilisation, standing across an impassable divide from our modern age, but rather as the makers of our world today. They built a civilisation where global networks, emerging infectious diseases and ecological instability were decisive forces in the fate of human societies. The Romans, too, thought they had the upper hand over the fickle and furious power of the natural environment. History warns us: they were wrong.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Fate of Rome, recently released, as well as Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

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

Sean Fleming: The Water Year in Review

The top five water-related news stories of 2017—and what to expect for 2018

FlemingThe thing about water is that something’s always happening, and the implications of that fact are growing – fast.  What are the top five water-related news stories of 2017?  Read on to see, along with a little context and some implications for next year and beyond.

Oops!  (The Oroville Dam evacuation)

Possibly the most obvious water story of 2017 happened right after the New Year: nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated beneath Oroville Dam as it threatened to fail under record flooding, which in turn ended a historic drought that had cost the state billions of dollars.  Previously of little note to most living outside the region, Oroville is in fact the tallest dam in the US.  It’s located on the Feather River, a headwater basin to the Sacramento River that drains the western slopes of the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the wet, northern part of California.  Oroville Dam is a key component the California State Water Project, shifting water into the California Aqueduct to help irrigate the Central Valley, which produces about 25% of the food consumed in the US, and to transport water to southern Californian urban centers.  Critics charge that in spite of its size and status as a cornerstone of the civil works in a heavily populated but largely arid state where water is everything, dam maintenance and upgrading lagged far behind, setting the stage for problems.  Record rains in February provided the trigger, and the main spillway failed – which might in turn have undermined the dam as a whole, sending the entirety of massive Lake Oroville downstream all at once in a wave of destruction and death.  Disaster was averted, but the costs were tremendous and the risks were real.  For thoughts on improving America’s river infrastructure, see my recent Scientific American post.

Water goes bang on the India-China border

The most exciting, yet perhaps most under-reported water story of 2017 took place on the India-China border.  A military buildup and tense standoff over disputed ownership of a Himalayan frontier area shared by China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India this summer may have cooled off, but India charges that China followed up by using water as a weapon – withholding key data that India needs to manage lethal monsoon flooding on transboundary rivers.  Violent international conflict solely over water is extremely rare because it usually doesn’t work strategically, though it does happen from time to time.  For instance, in 1965, when Syria was building an upstream diversion of a tributary to the River Jordan that would deeply reduce Israel’s water supply – a catastrophe for a desert nation – Israel responded with air strikes against the facility.  And water has been used as a weapon in wars that were being fought for other reasons: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China opened the dikes on the Yellow River in 1938 in an effort to hold back the invading Imperial Japanese army. The action was only partially successful and had a disastrous humanitarian cost.  The soaring mountain ranges wrapping around the Tibetan Plateau – including the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas, spanning China, India, Pakistan, and  several other countries – host one of the world’s largest remaining icefields and are the source of the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Mekong Rivers among others, and thus help provide water to a full quarter of the global human population.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more important for nations to cooperate over water.

Two inter-state water lawsuits go to the US Supreme Court

The volume was turned up in the country’s water wars, with SCOTUS announcing this fall it will hear both Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water rights, and Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over the Apalachicola.  Rivers and aquifers don’t respect borders.  The geophysics of where water comes from and how and where it flows is complex, fascinating, and full of surprises, such as flash floods, alternating drought and flood sequences, and abrupt and catastrophic changes in river channel location.  And those are just the natural aspects – the engineering and management part can be just as complicated for some basins, and a high ratio of demand to supply, as we have in the increasingly heavily populated deserts of the Southwest for instance, exacerbates these issues.  Originating from snowy headwaters in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows south through increasingly arid country and then turns southeastward, forming the US-Mexico border until emptying in the Gulf of Mexico.  Water projects abound on the Rio Grande, and each influences the other in some way.  For example, the San Juan-Chama project diverts water from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande, municipal groundwater pumping in Albuquerque interacts with Rio Grande flows through subterranean geologic pathways, and a series of dams withdraws water from the river for agriculture, reducing what’s left for downstream users.  Water law is complicated.  Texas says New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water; New Mexico says it isn’t.  The potential for disagreement over water will only continue to grow in the Southwest, though there are success stories as well: after some earlier missteps, Las Vegas has invented one of the most advanced and successful water conservation programs around, reportedly reducing its water consumption by almost a quarter over a ten-year period while its population grew by half a million.

Saying goodbye to the Paris Agreement on climate change

Why is climate change important to rivers?  Lots of natural processes and human activities affect how high rivers run and how much water arrives at your tap, and climate variables like precipitation and temperature rank high among these influences.  While the new administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was obviously a setback for action on climate change, it was also a democratic response to widespread sentiment.  And this fact suggests that explaining climate change may be turning into the greatest science communication failure in history.  As scientists, we clearly need to adjust course – but in what direction?  Consider a recent article by a multi-disciplinary team in the respected research journal, Global Environmental Change.  Applying complex network theory (kind of a mathematical formalization of the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon) to social media feeds about climate change, they demonstrated the dominance of so-called echo chambers, and that constructive progress is made only when groups with opposing views actually talk with each other.  Consider also that populism – which is by nature skeptical around the competence and integrity of designated experts – has been growing over the last decade on both the left and right, as evidenced by the mayoralties of Rob Ford in Toronto and Boris Johnson in London, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Brexit, and Bernie and The Donald.  If there is a silver lining to withdrawal from the Paris accords, it’s that it may teach us valuable lessons around communicating about climate change: reach out to people who don’t believe us yet, treat them with respect, and focus on just explaining our science.

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard.  In late August, the fourth largest city in the US, with over 4 million residents counting Harris County, was at the epicenter of what some are saying will be the costliest natural disaster in US history.  Though no hurricane is to be trifled with, why was the flooding so intense in this case?  To be sure, the rainfall generated by this particular storm was unusually heavy.  But risk is, by definition, what you get when you take the probability that something bad will happen (like record rainfall under a hurricane) and multiply it by the impact it will have if it does happen (like flooding and the associated economic cost and human suffering).  In the case of Harvey’s visit to Houston, it had a lot to do with local-scale choices that affected the second part of that equation.  In fact, parts of the greater Houston metropolitan area have seen a spate of floods over the last few years, and they weren’t all associated with huge storms.  The region has experienced an explosion of population growth and urban sprawl.  Lots of residences were built in low-lying, flood-prone areas, which is the single best of way of increasing flood risk.  And urbanization – the conversion of wild or agricultural land to rooftops, parking lots, and roadways – is another powerful flood risk factor.  Soils and wetlands hold on to rainwater for a while, and then gently release it to natural drainage systems like aquifers and rivers.  If you pave and build over these things, their ability to attenuate flooding is removed.  While these effects are particularly noticeable in Houston, and especially so when the city gets hit by a major hurricane, they’re ubiquitous; increased flooding in the UK over the last decade has been attributed to exactly the same causes.

What will 2018 have in store for us?  If we can be sure about one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.  But the larger trends are clear.  Global water demand will increase 55% in the next few decades, urbanization will spread, tens of millions more will congregate in floodplain-located megacities, the climate will subtly but profoundly shift overhead, and cooperation and conflict over water will vie for supremacy.  We can, in short, expect that water stories will make the news with increasing frequency and force.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Anurag Agrawal: Monarch butterflies—out of sight, but not out of mind!

By Anurag Agrawal

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The annual migratory calendar for monarch butterflies in eastern North America.

As winter approaches, monarch butterflies are not in sight for most Americans. Beginning in the fall, hundreds of millions of butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains oriented south and began their migration. And indeed the story of how they navigate is truly remarkable: the little insect uses a sun compass that is adjustable depending on the time of day to find its way. Details of the migration and much more are in Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. And 2017 was a spectacular fall season for monarch butterflies. As far as most monarch biologists can remember, this was perhaps the biggest summer season on record, with monarchs in epic numbers congregating and flying south.

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Southward migrating monarchs in Ontario during autumn. Although monarchs are usually dispersed in the summer, as the fall migration takes hold, butterflies congregate in larger clusters.

As the holiday season approaches, it is useful to keep in to keep in mind where monarchs are and what they are doing.  Cool and concentrated, they huddle en masse for nearly five months.  Will the numbers of butterflies overwintering in Mexico this year show a rebound from their precipitous decline?  If the migration was successful, yes, we all expect (hope!) the numbers to be up.  But only time will tell, as the official numbers are typically announced each February by World Wildlife Fund Mexico.  The monitoring of these unimaginable aggregations of butterflies has been a critical piece in the conservation puzzle for monarchs.

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The state license plate in Michoacán State, Mexico.

In November around the Day of the Dead and leading to American Thanksgiving, monarchs arrive to their overwintering grounds in the highlands Michoacán, Mexico. And legend has it that the butterflies are the returning souls of loved ones. They form clusters that are so dense, they weigh down the Oyamel Fir trees they inhabit above 10,000 feet of elevation in these exquisite sites. The sites are terribly small, with all of them fitting into area smaller than New York City.

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A congregation of monarchs within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most wings are closed, but look for the orange spots of open butterfly wings.

But before 1975, there was no conservation conversation about monarchs, because scientists simply did not know where monarchs went in the winter (of course native Mexicans of the region have known for centuries).  More importantly, we didn’t know how restricted and sensitive their overwintering sites are. The story of how the monarchs were found is too lengthy to recount here, but it is an astonishing story. In short, Professor Urquhart from the University of Toronto was hot on the trail, and knew that they flew south into Mexico during the fall.  Nora and Fred Urquhart marshaled a citizen science campaign that included a massive effort to engage folks far and wide in the search for the overwintering grounds.  In fact, in 1973, they wrote an article in an English language newspaper in Mexico City requesting help in finding the monarch overwintering sites.

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I obtained this reproduction of the original article outlining monarch butterfly biology and requesting help finding the overwintering grounds from the Library of Congress. It came on microfiche and was a treasure to hold and read.

Still, it was another two years before the overwintering colonies were found and reported to the world. After thirty years of tagging butterflies, enlisting thousands of citizen scientists, and much speculation, shortly after new year’s day in January 1975, the great discovery was made. The Urquharts wrote to their thousands of volunteers: “We now wish to announce to our associates, that, after these many years of intensive study, after having tagged thousands of migrants, we have, finally located the exact area where they overwinter, with the very able assistance of Ken Brugger and Cathy Brugger of Mexico City”. And the rest is history.

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

Agrawal

Eelco J. Rohling on The Oceans: A Deep History

It has often been said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. In fact, we know a great deal more about the oceans than many people realize. Scientists know that our actions today are shaping the oceans and climate of tomorrow—and that if we continue to act recklessly, the consequences will be dire. In this timely and accessible book, Eelco Rohling traces the 4.4 billion-year history of Earth’s oceans while also shedding light on the critical role they play in our planet’s climate system. An invaluable introduction to the cutting-edge science of paleoceanography, The Oceans enables you to make your own informed opinions about the environmental challenges we face as a result of humanity’s unrelenting drive to exploit the world ocean and its vital resources. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Eelco Rohling’s new book.

How/Why did you become a specialist in past ocean and climate change?
When I was a boy, I actually wanted to become a brain surgeon. But I did not pass the lottery to get into medical school when I went to university. So I thought about what else to study for a year before trying again. I ended up doing geology, and never looked back—I pushed on with that instead of trying medical school again. In geology, I developed a fascination with the past environments in which animals and plants lived that we now find as fossils. So after my BSc, I did an MSc with a major in microfossils and palaeo-oceanography/-climatology, supported by minors in sedimentary systems and physical oceanography/climatology. Things started to really come together when I started my PhD project, for which I started to truly integrate these streams in a research context. That’s when my interest in past ocean and climate change became much deeper and more specific.

Why did you choose to write a book about the history of the oceans?
I discussed a few ideas with my editor Eric Henney, and we gradually brought the various ideas together into this book concept. We strongly felt that the vast existing knowledge about the past oceans (and past climate) needed to be better articulated, and placed in context of modern changes in these systems, and in the life that they sustain.

Why do we need to understand the history of the oceans?
The oceans’ past holds many fascinating pieces of information about how the ocean/climate system works, and how it interacts with life and the planet itself. No other field can bring that information to the table. The oceans’ history also holds important clues about how Earth may recover from human impact, and on what timescales such a recovery may be expected. This brings important context to the discussion about modern human impact.

Does the history of the oceans give any relevant information about their future?
Oh, yes. It illustrates the key processes by which carbon-cycle changes have occurred over Earth history, and whet the timescales were for these changes. It also illustrates which processes we might try to accelerate to drive atmospheric carbon-removal on timescales useful to humankind. Moreover, the history of the oceans provides insight into the developments (and extinctions) of life on Earth, which again gives context about the severity and rapidity of current changes on Earth.

Why does a book about the oceans contain so much about climate?
The oceans are an integral part of the climate system. The climate system is a complex beast that spans the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all forms of water), cryosphere (all forms of ice), lithosphere (the rocks), and biosphere (all forms of life, be it living or dead). The oceans are a vital link in all this, and one cannot talk about ocean changes without touching upon climate changes, or the other way around.

The oceans appear to have gone through very large changes in the past. How do the changes cause by humanity compare?
The human-caused changes are large, but not among the largest that have ever happened. But the human-caused changes are unique with respect to the rates of change: modern changes are 10 to 100 times faster than the fastest-ever natural changes any time before humans appeared on the scene. And, also, human-made changes have significant impacts from many different sides: warming, ocean acidification, physical (e.g., plastic) pollution, chemical pollution, eutrophication, overfishing, etc. Natural changes were not that all-encompassing. So modern changes are very scary in relation to the natural changes that have occurred, even when including major extinction events.

Are humans really causing damage to the enormous oceans and the life they contain?
Yes, for sure.Humans have trouble imagining how their (often little) actions can add up over time, and across the massive population numbers. But we’re on this planet with well over 7 billion people, all of whom at least partly rely on the ocean as a key resource for such things as: dumping waste/pollution from plastics to oil and from radioactive materials to chemical waste and fertilizers; transportation (with spillages), food production/fisheries; war-mongering, exploration/mining, energy production, etc. Added up over our massive human population and increasing technical infrastructure, all of these aspects alone have devastating impacts already, but taken together they are heading down a particularly terminal route.

OceansEelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Emmet Gowin: Mariposas Nocturnas

American photographer Emmet Gowin is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. The result is Mariposas Nocturnas. These stunning color portraits present the insects—many of which may never have been photographed as living specimens before, and some of which may not be seen again—arrayed in typologies of twenty-five per sheet. The moths are photographed alive, in natural positions and postures, and set against a variety of backgrounds taken from the natural world and images from art history. Essential reading for audiences both in photography and natural history, this lavishly illustrated volume reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” Read on to learn more about Gowin’s evolution as a photographer, the underlying philosophy that he brought to this project, and his biggest influences.

As a photographer you’ve long been known for intimate photos of your family, and later, aerial landscapes of the American West. Can you explain your evolution from these projects to work on these stunning portraits of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths?

There are two main factors in my evolution from images of family and landscape to this long term study of moths. Even as a child I seemed to have an interest in small things, and if the small thing was alive all the better. If I drew, the drawing was usually small. Later I came to a deep reverence for insects even if I didn’t photograph them yet. In the 1970s I used a child’s small collection of insects, found dead in the windowsill, to enliven a nineteenth century book on rhetoricThat became an important image for me, though it was a singular event at the time. Later, I worked with some neighborhood boy scouts on their insect merit badgethus learning the basics of how a collection was built. So a respect for insects has been a part of my makeup, my curiosity, for as long as I can remember.

More particularly, my experience photographing the Nevada Test Site in 1996-97 left me at a turning point. Later I came to realize that one cannot study industrial scale agriculture, excessive water usage, and the building and testing of the atomic bomb without being changed. Three visits to the Nevada Test Site were all I could endure.

Its an important story but the next step will need to be taken by others. And all this exactly as my wife Edith and I made our first trip to Ecuador. Initially, I could not have told you what I was doing there, only that it was where I wanted to spend more time.

Can you talk a bit about the philosophy that underlies your work on this project? Was it your intention at the outset to raise awareness of the need for biodiversity?

Not so much a philosophy, although one must have one, I suppose, but the desire to turn a corner and begin to educate myself to the concerns of a working tropical biologist.  Even as a beginner this seemed a critical subject and also a key time in Earth’s history. And I was about to publish Changing the Earth, in 2002. For me, a respect for and admiration for insects was already in place, but I was also interested in learning something about field biology and in getting into the field myself. Alfred Wallace’s Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle were already important books for me.

Also, in our time even children understand the importance of loss of habitat and that the destruction of the Amazonian forest, any forest, concerns us all. At the Nevada Test Site I was stunned by just how many tests had been conducted, mostly to little real gain. I understood the history but I still felt a great shock in witnessing this destruction, mostly hidden from our view, and with such grave consequences to Americans downwind. That America had in fact bombed itself breaks one’s heart. I’ll just say that at this point I felt I had learned enough about the human willingness to destroy ourselves. Then, an almost chance visit to Ecuador opened my eyes to how I felt about the tropical forest. At first I imagined that the forest itself would be my subject, but the introduction to a research cabin in Panama in 1999 changed all that. There I recognized that the symbiotic relationship between the insects and the forest would be my way of discovery.

A nice story: After a few years in Panama I had made my first moth portrait grid. We took it to a store for framing. When our poster was collected there was an interest in selling them. “Where did you find these?” “Panama”, we said.  To which the shop owner said, “No, you can’t fool me, I’m from Panama, and none of these live here. I would know.” We didn’t argue, but leaving we conferred, “I guess we are on to something here.”

What photographers have been your biggest influencers in terms of style and aesthetics?

Let me just say that it was a very small photograph that first brought me to a feeling of transcendence. I later learned it was by Ansel Adams. That photograph and that feeling I never forgot. However, the artists I really loved were a mixed lot. Of course, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank were among the practical examples, and of course they were spiritual examples too.  Walker Evans and Harry Callahan were especially dear to me, and Callahan was my graduate advisor in Rhode Island. At the same time I was introduced to the history of art and film. Both felt very important to me, but perhaps painting and drawing felt the most accessible to me then, at least until photography arrived with its particular capacity for transcendence, which was closely followed by the introduction to the miracle of the silver image and its process. I still love the process of photography.

After Callahan, Frederick Sommer was perhaps the clearest example of the possibility of combining all these interests. Sommer would say, “you have to make it to find it or you have to find it to make it,” indicating that photography in a sly way combined everything that was of interest to me. That in our search for discovery and revelation, chance and purpose were intertwined, and both could and should serve the imagination.

How (if at all) has your early interest in drawing impacted your work as a photographer?

Drawing was the first art which opened for me. I drew often as a child and loved projects in which I could add a drawing. Like all dreamy and inattentive children I drew in school when I should have been paying attention. It was an impulse which seemed to come out of nowhere, which felt so real; I knew I could trust it. I saw very little art until art school, but when I was shown the great works I knew this is what I wanted, where I belonged. When photography came along I could see that I would need to serve all the same problems and concerns of painting an drawing; the distribution of weights, configuration of space, tonality and edge, the bounding line.  Within drawing and painting, it felt to me, that everything matters. By the end of my first year in art school I realized and I could serve these concerns with photography too, and it seemed to fit my nature and quickly became my constant joy.

Let me end this thought by calling attention to the kind of materials I began to carry into the tropics; most of them were copies of drawings and paintings—and the long history of graphic arts: Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Redon among the moderns and the old masters like Gruenwald, Bellini, Blake and Segurs. A small pantheon of great love and wisdom.

I’ve read you grew up in Chincoteague Island, surrounded by marshes and nature. Has that experience had a lasting impact on your work and your choice of subject matter?

Actuallyour family moved to Chincoteague when I was 13 and we only lived there two years.  I think I have given the mistaken impression of growing up there as that experience, beguiled as I was by the riches of the natural world, has always felt to me that it was there that I found my self, my identity, and the desire to be either a naturalist or an artist in those two short years.

How do you capture such photographs of moths, which are all, it should be noted, photographed alive? How do you keep them still?

The question of keeping them still is a bit misleading. Rarely do they stay still except for small periods when they settle themselves under a light onto the white collecting sheet. and then only until disturbed by another insect, which is quite often. Any moth I am seeing for the first time I attempt to photograph there on the white sheet to at least have a record of the species. But as my feelings were being educated by the moths I learned which I could touch, which could be nudged, which would fly with the first flash of the strobe. Some were, of course, photographed where I found them. but as I learned my way, I found I could transfer a moth to another surface with some success. Then I might have a minute to get a decent photograph. I was always aware that my chance to make a photograph could end in an instant. In Ecuador we sometimes collected moths in small plastic bags at night for photography the next day. Its a bit risky but on its leaf and with plenty of air inside, most remain calm. Sometimes these could be photographed in our motel room the next day. They could, of course, take flight, but at least we were in the same room.

Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword to this book, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” How does this idea of uncertainty play out in your work?

That “the world is saturated with loveliness” I have never doubted, but I rejoice in her finding just these words. In the late 60s and early 70s, our corner of Virginia felt something like the passage from St. Matthew—let me say it as I remember it—”unless you become as a little child, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is how I felt. At the same time we were visited each evening by images from the Vietnam war, and yet in our daily lives there were just the opposite. There was an intuitive sense that both the war and the “Kingdom or Heaven” saturated the same world, and in many ways it was chance which had placed us there, in Virginia. “Its what you do every day in the most simple way that counts,” my friend Frederick Sommer reminds us. This may sound too simple but if we could only live like this; treat everyone we meet as, just perhaps, the most important person in the world. And if you live that way, some of this feeling will embrace the butterfly, the ant, the moth.

 

GowinEmmet Gowin is emeritus professor of photography at Princeton University. His many books include Emmet Gowin and Changing the Earth. His photographs are in collections around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art. Terry Tempest Williams is an author, conservationist, and activist. Her books include The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Essential Reading in Natural History

Princeton University Press is excited to have a wide variety of excellent titles in natural history. From the Pacific Ocean, to horses, to moths, our books cover a range of topics both large and small. As summer winds down, take advantage of the last weeks of warm weather by bringing one of our handy guides out into the field to see if you can spot a rare butterfly or spider. To find your next read, check out this list of some of our favorite titles in natural history, and be sure to visit our website for further reading.

Britain’s Mammals by Dominic Couzens, Andy Swash, Robert Still, and Jon Dun is a comprehensive and beautifully designed photographic field guide to all the mammals recorded in the wild in Britain and Ireland in recent times.

Mammals

Horses of the World by Élise Rousseau, with illustrations by Yann Le Bris, is a beautifully illustrated and detailed guide to the world’s horses.

Horses

A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of North America, Second Edition, by Jeffrey Glassberg is a thoroughly revised edition of the most comprehensive and authoritative photographic field guide to North American butterflies.

Butterflies

Big Pacific by Rebecca Tansley is the companion book to PBS’s five-part mini series that breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Pacific

Britain’s Spiders by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford, and Helen Smith is a photographic guide to all 37 of the British families.

Spiders

The second edition of Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar is a revised and updated edition of the most comprehensive guide to common insects, mites, and other “bugs” found in the backyards and gardens of the United States and Canada.

Cranshaw

Last but not least, Mariposas Nocturnas is a stunning portrait of the nocturnal moths of Central and South America by famed American photographer Emmet Gowin.

Gowin

John Kricher on The New Neotropical Companion (revised & expanded)

The New Neotropical Companion by John Kricher is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

What originally focused your interest in the Neotropics and why did you want to write about the region? 

JK: When I was early in my career in ecology and ornithology, way back in the 1970s, I longed to experience the tropics, to be in hot, steamy equatorial jungles, the ecosystems of the world that harbor the most species.  There was so much I wanted to see, especially bird species. It was really birds that got me there.  I wanted to see firsthand the various tropical birds, the antbirds, parrots, cotingas, trogons, toucans, etc.  To me, these were pure glamor birds, and so many of them.  Reading about them only intensified my need to go and see them firsthand.  So, I jumped on the first opportunity that came along to get myself passage into “the Torrid Zone.”

And what was that opportunity? 

JK: I met a man who was to become a long-time close friend, Fred Dodd.  Fred had just started a company called International Zoological Expeditions (IZE) and he was organizing trips to Belize for college classes.  I saw such a trip as my ideal way to get a foothold in the tropics.  And it worked!  My first tropical experience was to take a class of about 30 students from Wheaton College to Belize and Guatemala over semester break in January of 1979.  The unexpected and challenging experiences we had as we faced numerous logistical hurdles in this admittedly pioneering effort would, in themselves, make a pretty cool book.  But we did it, I loved it, and wanted more, much more.  When I meet my first Tropical Ecology students at alumnae gatherings they all want to relive memories of “the Belize trip.”  We tell the same stories over and over and never seem to tire of it.  Going to Belize, getting to the American tropics, was a watershed experience for me, transforming my career.

Why did you feel the need to write A Neotropical Companion and how did you choose that title? 

JK: It was hard to systematically organize information to present to students about the American tropics.  In the late 1970s information about the tropics was widely scattered and incomplete.  For example, there was no single book I could recommend to my students to prepare them for what would await them in the field.  At the same time, I read multiple journal articles on everything from tree diversity to army ant behavior and it was such cool stuff.  I loved telling the students my various “stories” gleaned from the ecological literature.  As I made more and more visits to Central and South American countries my own perspective was greatly enhanced so I could bring something to the table, so to speak, directly from personal experience.  My knowledge base grew in leaps and bounds and I kept expecting that any day a book would be published that would bring together what I was experiencing and enjoying.  It never was.  So, I thought I could adapt my course information into an introductory book. That was what spawned A Neotropical Companion.  The illustrations in the first edition, published in 1989, were by one of my tropical ecology students who adapted them from her field notebook kept when she took my tropical course in Belize.  As for the title, when Judith May, editor at Princeton University Press, read my manuscript she liked it and said, with enthusiasm, that she had “the perfect title” for the book.  It was Judith who gave it its name.

Your first edition was nicknamed “The Little Green Book.”  Did its popularity surprise you? 

JK: It did.  It was flattering that many folks told me they carried my little green book on various tropical trips and found it very informative and easy to read.  And it was indeed a little green book that conveniently fit in a pocket or backpack.  I knew I had barely scratched the surface with regard both to breadth and depth of information but I was very pleased and a bit surprised by the warm reception the book received.  And as I began making frequent trips to lowland Amazonia as well as Andean ecosystems I knew it was time to expand and revise the book.  The little green book needed to grow.  It did that with the publication of the second edition in 1997 and obtained what I consider its “full maturity,” a coming of age, in the present edition.  It is no longer green and no longer little but much more comprehensive and far better illustrated than its predecessors. This is the book I had always wanted to write.

What is the biggest thing that has changed with regard to visiting the American tropics since you first wrote your Little Green Book? 

JK: In the nearly 30 years since I published the first edition the American tropics has become much easier and more comfortable to visit.  Good tourist lodges were relatively few when I first visited the tropics and now they abound. Talented local guides skilled in finding wildlife take groups to see all manner of fantastic species such as Harpy Eagle, for example. There are now tours in which you are virtually assured of getting fine views of fully wild jaguars.  I wrote in the first edition about being very careful as to what you eat, where you go, and various health concerns.  I scaled that way back in my new edition because it is no longer necessary to include it.  A determined traveler may make trips virtually anywhere in the Neotropics and do so safely and in relative comfort, though some areas do remain rugged and challenging.  There are now even tours to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “River of Doubt,” once considered a huge challenge to explorers.  This was unheard of when I began my travel to the tropics.

Are you still always being asked about encountering snakes and biting insects in the tropics?

JK: Indeed, I am.  And to be truthful, snakes, including many venomous species, are relatively common if not abundant in some tropical venues, though they are not necessarily easy to find unless one is skilled at searching for them.  It is important to be vigilant when on trails and walking around lodges and field stations, especially at night or after a rainfall.  Snakes may be out and about.  But very few encounters result in venomous snake bites.  I encourage people to experience snakes as interesting and beautiful animals and, as one would a lion on the Serengeti, make sure to maintain a respectful distance.  In Trinidad, my group encountered a huge bushmaster, the largest of the Neotropical venomous snakes.  It was crossing a road late at night and was caught in the headlights of our van.  We all saw it well and from a safe distance, a thrilling sight.  As for insects, I have rarely been very bothered by them, especially mosquitos, but if you travel in rainy season mosquitos may be locally abundant and highly annoying.  Visitors to the tropics must really beware of bees and wasps and even ants, some of which act aggressively if disturbed and may pack a powerful sting.  One ant is called the “bullet ant” because it bites you, holds on, and then stings you. The sting allegedly feels like you were hit with a bullet.

Now that The New Neotropical Companion is complete do you have any plans for further exploration of the Neotropics or are you satisfied that you have done all you set out to do?

JK: I continue to be strongly drawn to the American tropics.  I have very recently visited Honduras and Cuba.  I have plans for trips to numerous other Neotropical venues, from Guyana to Peru and Amazonia.  The wonder of the regional biodiversity has always compelled me to want to see more, go to new areas as well as revisit places I have come to know well, and just keep on learning.  No two visits to the tropics, even to a place where one has been repeatedly, are the same.  The more you go, the more you see.  So, I keep going.

John Kricher is professor of biology at Wheaton College. His many books include Tropical Ecology, The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth, and Galápagos: A Natural History.

Peter Ungar: It’s not that your teeth are too big: your jaw is too small

UngarWe hold in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. We rarely consider just how amazing our teeth are. They break food without themselves being broken, up to millions of times over the course of a lifetime; and they do it built from the very same raw materials as the foods they are breaking. Nature is truly an inspired engineer.

But our teeth are, at the same time, really messed up. Think about it. Do you have impacted wisdom teeth? Are your lower front teeth crooked or out of line? Do your uppers jut out over your lowers? Nearly all of us have to say ‘yes’ to at least one of these questions, unless we’ve had dental work. It’s as if our teeth are too big to fit properly in our jaws, and there isn’t enough room in the back or front for them all. It just doesn’t make sense that such an otherwise well-designed system would be so ill-fitting.

Other animals tend to have perfectly aligned teeth. Our distant hominin ancestors did too; and so do the few remaining peoples today who live a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. I am a dental anthropologist at the University of Arkansas, and I work with the Hadza foragers of Africa’s great rift valley in Tanzania. The first thing you notice when you look into a Hadza mouth is that they’ve got a lot of teeth. Most have 20 back teeth, whereas the rest of us tend to have 16 erupted and working. Hadza also typically have a tip-to-tip bite between the upper and lower front teeth; and the edges of their lowers align to form a perfect, flawless arch. In other words, the sizes of Hadza teeth and jaws match perfectly. The same goes for our fossil forebears and for our nearest living relatives, the monkeys and apes.

So why don’t our teeth fit properly in the jaw? The short answer is not that our teeth are too large, but that our jaws are too small to fit them in. Let me explain. Human teeth are covered with a hard cap of enamel that forms from the inside out. The cells that make the cap move outward toward the eventual surface as the tooth forms, leaving a trail of enamel behind. If you’ve ever wondered why your teeth can’t grow or repair themselves when they break or develop cavities, it’s because the cells that make enamel die and are shed when a tooth erupts. So the sizes and shapes of our teeth are genetically pre-programmed. They cannot change in response to conditions in the mouth.

But the jaw is a different story. Its size depends both on genetics and environment; and it grows longer with heavy use, particularly during childhood, because of the way bone responds to stress. The evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University conducted an elegant study in 2004 on hyraxes fed soft, cooked foods and tough, raw foods. Higher chewing strains resulted in more growth in the bone that anchors the teeth. He showed that the ultimate length of a jaw depends on the stress put on it during chewing.

Selection for jaw length is based on the growth expected, given a hard or tough diet. In this way, diet determines how well jaw length matches tooth size. It is a fine balancing act, and our species has had 200,000 years to get it right. The problem for us is that, for most of that time, our ancestors didn’t feed their children the kind of mush we feed ours today. Our teeth don’t fit because they evolved instead to match the longer jaw that would develop in a more challenging strain environment. Ours are too short because we don’t give them the workout nature expects us to.

There’s plenty of evidence for this. The dental anthropologist Robert Corruccini at Southern Illinois University has seen the effects by comparing urban dwellers and rural peoples in and around the city of Chandigarh in north India – soft breads and mashed lentils on the one hand, coarse millet and tough vegetables on the other. He has also seen it from one generation to the next in the Pima peoples of Arizona, following the opening of a commercial food-processing facility on the reservation. Diet makes a huge difference. I remember asking my wife not to cut our daughters’ meat into such small pieces when they were young. ‘Let them chew,’ I begged. She replied that she’d rather pay for braces than have them choke. I lost that argument.

Crowded, crooked, misaligned and impacted teeth are huge problems that have clear aesthetic consequences, but can also affect chewing and lead to decay. Half us could benefit from orthodontic treatment. Those treatments often involve pulling out or carving down teeth to match tooth row with jaw length. But does this approach really make sense from an evolutionary perspective? Some clinicians think not. And one of my colleagues at Arkansas, the bioarchaeologist Jerry Rose, has joined forces with the local orthodontist Richard Roblee with this very question in mind. Their recommendation? That clinicians should focus more on growing jaws, especially for children. For adults, surgical options for stimulating bone growth are gaining momentum, too, and can lead to shorter treatment times.

As a final thought, tooth crowding isn’t the only problem that comes from a shorter jaw. Sleep apnea is another. A smaller mouth means less space for the tongue, so it can fall back more easily into the throat during sleep, potentially blocking the airway. It should come as no surprise that appliances and even surgery to pull the jaw forward are gaining traction in treating obstructive sleep apnea.

For better and for worse, we hold in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. We might be stuck with an oral environment that our ancestors never had to contend with, but recognising this can help us deal with it in better ways. Think about that the next time you smile and look in a mirror.

Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins by Peter Ungar is out now through Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Mammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and the editor of Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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

Browse Our New Biology 2017-2018 Catalog

In our Biology 2017-2018 catalog you will find a host of new books, from an in depth look at the complex relationship between one of our most beautiful butterflies and a family of poisonous plants to a fascinating exploration of the role of beauty and attraction in sexual selection.

If you will be at ESA in Portland, we will be in booth 703. Join us for a reception with wine and light refreshments to celebrate our new titles and meet our authors at 5pm, Tuesday, August 8th. Or stop by any time to check out our full range of titles in biology and related fields.

In Monarchs and Milkweed, Anurag Agrawal draws on more than a decade of research to bring an unsurpassed account of the coevolution of the monarch butterfly and the milkweed. Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, on which they feed in the early stages of their lives as caterpillars. The milkweed has evolved a battery of defensive characteristics to reduce the depredations of monarch caterpillars; in turn, monarchs have evolved their own means of overcoming these defenses. Learn about this evolutionary arms race, and much more besides in Monarchs and Milkweed.

Monarch

In his theory of sexual selection, Darwin argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that governs their attraction to potential mates. But in what does this taste reside? How does it affect the evolution of physical characteristics in animals? What is beautiful to a frog or a peahen? In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan delves deeply into the question of sexual attraction and argues that beauty is in the brain of the beholder.

A Taste for the Beautiful by Michael Ryan

Few people know Darwin’s life and work as well as his biographer, Janet Browne (Charles Darwin: Voyaging, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place), making her the perfect editor for The Quotable Darwin. Drawing on the full range of Darwin’s writings, including his letters to friends and family, and his private notebooks, The Quotable Darwin is an unforgettable picture of the man and his thought in his own words.

The Quotable Darwin by Janet Browne

Find these books and many more in our Biology 2017-2018 catalog.