Tuesday, 24 May 2011

I am not alone!

As my 10,000th page view close approaches (very exciting...in that I may well be alone!), I thought I would just put up a short prompt to all of the other scientists who also have philosophical or spiritual trends that they may be keeping in the closet!

A recent paper by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Elizabeth Long in the Sociology of Religion (2011) called Scientist and Spirituality interviewed nearly 300 natural and social scientists at 21 top US universities in order to determine details of their religious and spiritual beliefs. Over half were atheists, which is to be expected from a scientific group (if anything being in the US made this a little lower than we might expect over in the U.K.). Yet nearly 1/3 of the participants identified themselves as spiritual atheists.

Common trends included; personal and consistent spirituality, ethics and philosophy of science forming a spiritual base, opposition of organised religion, disconnection with theism in particular, a close connection with nature (especially us natural scientists), connection with Eastern philosophical traditions, and spirituality likely to promote public engagement and positive action.

(Less of this)

Scientists seem to have a much greater chance of seeking out their own philosophical and religious convictions and are rarely carried along with family or local trends when compared to the general population (of course as a good scientist I would also point out that this data has not been corrected for IQ or wealth). We also have a philosophical framework to fall back onto, not many other professions can claim this (although I am now inspired to write philosophical tracts for accountants, bricklayers and insurance salesmen). The philosophy of science has been shown to be associated with certain ethical paradigms such as open mindedness, collaboration and consideration. Here we have one of the interviewed chemists discussing the conflict of science and religion:

‘Interviewer: Some might say that there is a conflict between religion and science, an irreconcilable conflict. How would you respond to that kind of statement?

Chemist: [sigh] [ pause 9 seconds] There is surely not any irreconcilable conflict between spirituality and science. You know, I would adopt the views of Einstein on this, who always
claimed to be an extremely spiritual person, but he had no use for religion. He was always in
awe and wonder at the universe.’

As a group we don’t respond well to organised religion, even the theists were poor church goers and largely found their own connection to God. The idea of a personal deity didn’t receive much love either, even amongst religious scientists. Mathematicians and physicists in particular were more likely to identify with a life force or non personal deity than any other group (used to working with abstract concepts perhaps?).

To my great joy large numbers of the group including theists identified a close connection to nature a source of spiritual beliefs. Natural scientists were particularly strong here with 100% of them using the word nature directly after being asked about sources of spirituality. Intimate knowledge of the natural world was almost universally seen as eminently positive and informative to other aspects of life amongst us natural scientists. Here is a biologists thoughts on the topic:

‘You know that feeling you get standing by the seashore looking out over the endless expanse of water—or standing in the rainforest listening to the insects and the birds and their huge diversity and incomprehensibility. Or the feeling you get considering the age of all things in existence and how long it could go on. Sort of awe at the totality of things. If that’s what spirituality is, then I get it. But I have the feeling I am missing the point when I say things like that because my Christian friends don’t talk that way.’

Buddhism came up on a number of different occasions, as did Eastern and Hindu (Taosim remaining the stalking ninja of the eastern philosophical traditions). While the number of direct adherents to Eastern religions was small, just under ¼ of the group mentioned at least one of these three words. Two different psychologists when interviewed came up with the following:

‘I consider myself in one sense a spiritual person, wondering about the complexity and the majesty of existence as I understand it. And I happen to be very influenced by Buddhism as a system of ethics and thought, but I don’t consider Buddhism a religion. It’s really a philosophy, but it’s a philosophy imbued with a lot of spirituality. So that plays a role in my personal life, but not the belief in God or the angels’

‘My own spirituality might be closer to almost an eastern kind of tradition than a western tradition, even though I was raised a Catholic. I feel a little more comfortable with certain eastern ideas about individuality as an illusion. . . . And so these kinds of ideas give me comfort when I think about mortality, but they’re not really ideas about a god or anything. But they are ideas about before and after and meaning of life as it is being lived now.’

Best of all scientists were more likely to actually do something external about their spiritual belief than the general public (very surprising, but it turns out the general public is more likely to feel shame and resentment over their spiritual beliefs). Spiritual beliefs were strongly identified with positive action, environmental and social activism and leading or teaching future generations.

So it turns out I’m not really alone! Large numbers of scientists have arrived at what the author called spiritual atheism (next stop 100,000 page views). So I end this post with a question asked to an economist:

'Interviewer: How about spirituality? Is that important to you or different than religion
for you?

Economist: I’m going to sound like some flipping New Ager here. . . . I have a very strong commitment toward the outdoors and the environment and I think that can kind of be a spiritual commitment. I’ve made provisions to give a substantial amount of money in my will to the Nature Conservancy, for example.'

If you are a spiritual scientist in hiding out there, its O.K. you won’t be labelled a New Ager, 1/3 of your colleagues most likely think the same way!

(That's more like it!)

Friday, 20 May 2011


"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.”

These are the words spoken by Albert Einstein to describe Gandhi; I think that his prophecy has come to pass. When I first read of the exploits of this small Indian man, an inner temple lawyer turned political activist, who brought an empire to its knees without ever raising more than a walking stick to his side, I literally could not believe that such a man existed. Indeed the idea of a man who had real spiritual beliefs and convictions, rising to the stage of national and even international importance was completely alien to me. This is simply not found in our world today. Political leaders very rarely talk about doing what is right, what is true or what is benevolent; they talk about what is necessary, popular and most of all what is economical. Our leaders are reactionary, not visionary.

Having read much of what he has written and a handful of what has been written about Gandhi, I am still held in shock and awe at the validity and piercing nature of his commentary. Much of what I believe is expressed more clearly, more concisely and more coherently in his short sayings than I could convey in volumes of text. As such, I have chosen to simply bring together some of his best passages and quotations free from analysis. To me, the words really do speak for themselves.

Avoidance of anger

‘I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.’

Awareness of Limitations

‘I am conscious of my own limitations. That consciousness is my only strength. Whatever I might have been able to do in my life has proceeded more than anything else out of the realisation of my own limitations.

If I was what I want to be, the fast would not been necessary. I would not need to argue with anyone. My word would go straight home. Indeed, I would not even need to utter a word. The mere will on my part would suffice to produce the required effect. But I am painfully aware of my limitations.’


‘My mission is not merely brotherhood of Indian Humanity. My mission is not merely freedom of India … I hope to realize and carry on the mission of the brotherhood of man. My patriotism is not an exclusive thing. It is all-embracing and I should reject that patriotism which sought to mount upon the distress or the exploitation of other nationalities.

Not only that, but my religion and my patriotism derived from my religion embrace all life. I want to realise brotherhood and identity not merely with these beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things that crawl upon the earth … because we claim descent from the same God, and that being so, all life in whatever form it appears must essentially be one.’

Co-Mingling of Cultures

‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or slave… Mine is not the religion of the prison house. It has room enough for the least amongst Gods creation. But it is proof against insolence, pride of race, religion or colour.’


‘Real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit one another.
If the mad race of armaments continues, it is bound to result in a slaughter such as never occurred in history. If there is a victor left the very victory will be a living death for the nation that emerges victorious.

If there was no greed, there would be no occasion for armaments. The principle of non-violence necessitates complete abstention form exploitation in any form.

Immediately the spirit of exploitation is gone, armaments will be felt as a positive unbearable burden.’


'Democracy comes naturally to him who is habituated normally to yield, willing obedience to all laws, human or divine. Moreover, a democrat must be utterly selfless. He must think and dream not in terms of self or party but only in terms of democracy.

Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action is jealously guarded.

Claiming the right of free opinion and free action, we must extend the same to all others. The rule of majority when it becomes coercive, is as intolerable as that of a bureaucratic minority.’


‘Forgiveness is the quality of the brave, not of the cowardly.’

Man and machine

‘Men go on saving labour until thousands are without work and thrown to the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind but for all; I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of the few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps the few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all of my might.

The supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man.’


‘The sole aim of journalism should be to service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.

The true function of journalism is to educate the public mind, not to stock the public mind with wanted and unwanted impressions.’

Means and Ends

‘Means and ends are convertible in terms of my philosophy of life.
The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between means and end, as there is between seed and tree.

They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything!’’


‘True morality consists not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it.

No action which is not voluntary can be called moral. So long as we act like machine es, there can be no question of morality. If we want to call an action moral, it should have been done consciously and as a matter of duty.

Moral authority is never retained by any attempt to hold onto it. It comes without seeking and is retained without effort.

We must be guided in our policy by our sense of right, not by the lure of winning cheap popularity.’

There are many more magnificent and pertinent thoughts; these are but a small sample. Gandhi wrote and spoke on issues from politics, sexual equality and economics to the nature of self and spirituality. At some point I would like to return and compile another list, I think I have barely begun to scratch the surface. To finish I will use a quotation from Rabindaranath Tagore who writes a description of Gandhi as he engaged in his epic salt march:

‘He stopped at the threshold of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not only quotations from books. For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name. Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood? When love came to the door of India that door opened wide. At Gandhi’s call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once before, in earlier times, when Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow feeling and compassion among all living creatures.’

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

My top 5 animated films with ecological themes

Animated films aren't just for kids! Indeed they are a fantatsic medium to inspire, innovate and express ideas that maybe dont quite hit home so hard in more conventional media. Master animators can bring nature to life in fantastic ways that simply isnt possible without fancy special effects or years of patient camerawork (hats off to the BBC planet earth team), so here are my top 5 friendly animated movies:

  1. Fern Gulley the last rainforest

Some say this Australian/American animated tale was a direct inspiration for James Cameron’s epic Avatar. The plot follows very similar lines, replacing a futuristic alien setting with an Australian rainforest and blue skinned navii with tiny faerie folk. The story focusses on the romance that develops between one of these said faeries (Crysta) and a young human wood cutter called Zak. He is shrunk by faerie magic and so gradually comes to understand his place in the natural world.

This film is probably the most heavy handed in its ecological message, humanity is seen as an aggressive domineering force and oil driven technology is demonstrated to destroy the natural world (an awaken ancient evil spirits!). The ideas of ecological connectedness and waste recycling are also strongly stressed here. This film takes a more direct approach to many of the others on this list often explaining these ideas in very simple and straightforward terms, yet still doesn’t quite descend into and ecological rant. In addition the harms of deforestation and pollution, there is also a critique of animal experimentation. The bat character, played by Robin Williams, has been the victim of animal testing and is entertainingly crazy as a result of some kind of electroshock treatment.

The film is charming and engaging, raising awareness of key ecological issues, but is far from a masterpiece of animation. I think a great film for children, but the rest of the list is made of sterner stuff.

  1. NausicaƤ valley of the wind

(I so want one of these!)

The first Studio Ghibli film on my list, this 1984 Japanese animated film has lost none of its charm or presence. If anything it pre-empted much of the modern environmental film making, introducing the idea of a world that is both beautiful and deadly to humans, and how we react to natures awesome power with fear and anger.

The film is set in a post apocalyptic world, destroyed by a great war. The soil and air poisoned by man, a toxic jungle grows across the planet inhabited by deadly insects forcing humanity to fight over the ever dwindling resources and tiny patches of land where they can draw fresh water. On top of its overwhelming ecological message of living in peace with nature, it also wraps this up with a commentary on war and violence between people.

The heroine of the film (the self titled NausicaƤ the princess of the Valley of the Wind) deserves particular mention as she is one of the most inspiring female leads I have yet to encounter. She is at once explorer, leader, scientist and warrior. Not only does she achieve remarkable things but does so with complete and utter dedication to compassion. Her ability to make all of the dominant characters in the movie look foolish and weak by comparison shows us all that warriors do not always fight with swords. Indeed she grows and develops to exemplify the practices of non violence (Ashima) and universal love expressed in Eastern religions, yet remains a charming grounded individual fully connected to her people and the planet.

If there is one film that unities the ideas of human compassion and environmental compassion, to show they form one inseparable ideal; that a balanced life in harmony with nature is a peaceful life in harmony with man, then it is NausicaƤ.

  1. Ponyo

(Lovely deep sea fish)

My second Ghilbli film, this recent Japanese hand drawn adventure tells the tale of a young boy and his discovery of the run away juvenile sea spirit Ponyo.

I love this film primarily for it showing the awesome power and beauty of the marine world. Ancient extinct placoderms (armoured fish) lazily swimming along next to trilobites was a real treat for a marine biologist who was also fascinated by extinct animals (dinosaurs obviously included) as a child. The beauty and naturalness of the animation very literally made one of my fantasy’s a reality, to see these extinct animals brought to life.

Yet the main ecological theme is a relatively short section that shows the damage that humanity is causing to the sea. As Ponyo swims into the quaint Japanese harbour we see the effects of bottom trawling, the damage caused by plastic bags and cans thrown into the sea and the oily slick produced by our engines. This makes a bold statement, even from our perspective in what we would consider an idyllic little fishing village, there is dramatic damage being done to an environment we are not familiar with. Ponyo then builds on this theme by building an emotional connection with this environment, so that we come away thinking that it is something worth working for.

  1. WALL·E

(Hopefully not how we all end up!)

The 2008 Pixar masterpiece has received almost universal praise for the quality of its animation, story construction and adorable characterisation, yet for me the stand out elements of this film were the way it carefully criticized modern industrial and information society.

The plot focuses on the comic romance that develops between two robots, WALL·E the hard working junk collector who is stuck down on earth which is transformed into and indurtial wasteland and Eve a high-tech space bot sent down to search for signs of life. When they find a tiny plant, they are both transported back up to the orbiting spaceship containing the remants of humanity.

The key ecological themes in the film are humanities disconnection from the natural world. Indeed WALL·E is the most compassionate, connected and aware being in the entire film. He is shown to have grown to love, care and connect with his environment because of his work cleaning up the earth. The obese, chair bound humans who have no idea where their food comes from and rely on machines to perform even the most simple tasks are at the opposite end of the spectrum. All of their knowledge is second hand, downloaded from a wikipedia like interface and they have no reakl life experience.

The beauty of this film is that it is not anti technology, our hero is after all a piece of technology. Its that it shows how the application of some forms of technology lead to disconnection from ones environment and then afterwards from oneself. It is a philosophy very close to my heart, that man and machine can work together to build a better world; a connected, ecological and sustainable one in which all human beings (and sentient robots of course) can prosper.

  1. The Lion King

(The circle of life just starts playing in my head...)

We had to have at least one Disney film in here I guess, and the lion king is just one for the job. Multi award and heart winning, the lion king has stood the test of time. The tale of a young boy lion Simba who matures to reclaim his damaged kingdom from his power hungry uncle Scar, has both a powerful and compelling story and a whole bundle of charm to boot.

Ecology wise there are two major strengths. Firstly, the sheer scale and spectacle of the African savannah is shown in all its glory. One of our last true wildernesses and the last place on earth where we have both herds of wild grazing mammals and large numbers of mammalian top predators (we unsurprisingly killed off, ate and domesticated the rest of these large mammal populations), the Savannah ecosystem is rightfully worshipped by the animation in the Lion King. The opening circle of life sequence is a powerhouse that never fails to leave an emotional impact on me.

Secondly, we have the notion of ecological connectedness and sustainable use. The wise father figure Mufasa, spends a good deal of time schooling the young Simba on the fact that all parts of the Savannah are connected together. Mufasa intellectually and practically understands his role as a keystone predator, too many lions and the gazelles suffer, then the lions suffer and so does everything else in the system. The lion is king because he has the power to later the whole ecosystem. We see that when Scar runs the show, the entire system collapses and there is starvation, erosion, drought and death. This is a powerful message for us humans, who are after all the most important keystone predator on this earth.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Cool critter of the month

Owing to the overwhelming popularity of the 10 awesome animals you may not know about post, (about 1/3 of my hits at the time of writing). I have decided (or been coerced by popular pressure) into producing a regular spot for cool, weird, special and exciting things from nature. These will be short posts with just a few details about an animal, plant or even bacteria that tickles my fancy in some way. Needless to say nature is awesome so the list is pretty long!

The true field marshal of the Sahara, the one and only fennec or desert fox

Let’s be honest these guys are adorable. The fennec fox is the world’s smallest canid (doglike critter) and has giant ears relative to its size. They live in the raging heat of the Sahara desert and use those giant ears to help them keep cool. In addition to cool ears, they also pant at outrageous speeds. When it wants to (after a spot of sunbathing) a fennec fox can raise its resting breath rate from 23 breaths per minute (bpm) to the epic 690 bpm, a handy trick when its 45 degrees in the shade (and there isn’t any shade).

Fennec foxes are social animals and live in intricate burrows that have multiple entrances and exit points often with at least one concealed to allow a sneaky emergency escape if predators manage to get into the burrow. They may live together but the fox hunts alone. They separate at night and hunt for lizards, birds, and insects but are not above taking fruit and roots. Fennecs are ambush predators and have truly impressive jumping skills; they can leap well over 1m into the air. For something so small that is pretty good going, the equivalent of me being able to manage a 9m vertical jump (some more Kung Fu training required I think).

It would seem the one major weakness of the fennec fox is the fact that is ludicrously cute. They are having a bit of a hard time in the wild, primarily because they are being taken for the exotic pet trade. Their populations do not have a formal assessment at this moment, but recent trends have shown remarkable declines. The Convention on international Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, an international agreement with 175 parties that attempts to control trade in endangered species) lists the fennec fox as threatened and prohibits trade in this animal. Yet sadly this continues, there are entire web communities dedicated to the trade and care of exotic pets. Fennec foxes are beautiful lively animals, yet cannot be fully domesticated, consistently try to escape, injure themselves attempting to dig when away from the soft desert sand and naturally travel large distances every night. They should not be kept as pets, no matter how cute they are.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Ecosystem integrity

The final phase of the big fish review has been temporarily postponed, even I can’t think about fish all of the time (although I do try). There is an important topic which I have yet to properly address in any of my previous posts. Today’s buzzword is ecosystem integrity. This topic is very important as it informs much of what I have to say about conservation and sustainability.

An ecosystem is the sum total of all the living things and all of the non living things in a particular area and (potentially more importantly) all of the interactions that link them together. This is a big definition; it is pretty much all the stuff alive or dead in an area doing all the things that they do, all the time!

Ecosystems are big and complicated things, they have so many components that we have yet to count them all. To give you an example, there are a million insect species described globally, we estimate there may well be anywhere between 6 and 12 million species in total. Even at our best guess we have only discovered 1/6 of the total number of insects in the world. Now we have to do the same for plants, worms, crustaceans, fish and bacteria etc (On top of this insects are actually a pretty well studied group, all those Victorian butterfly collectors did get up to something).

So ecosystems are big, they are also complex. There are many interactions between each species in the system. Let us look at a simple example of a food web:

This food web has only 7 types of organisms in it. We have a root organism that represents a decomposer, (something like an earthworm, but more likely a bacteria species) who is happy to munch on the remains of all of the other animals and plants in our simple system. Then we have a and b, our producers. These are most likely plants and are not eating our root rather they take in material (Nitrogen) from the soil made by our hard working earthworm. D is our herbivore and feeds only on plants (specifically just b), most likely a caterpillar. C, e and f are all predators; as they feed on other animals, c and f also happen to be cannibals, quite happy to eat one of their own if they get the chance. We only have 7 types of creatures here, but already we have 18 different interactions.

This is just a simple food web; we haven’t included the interactions with the non living environment and the interactions both between species and within them that are not related to feeding (all the growth, reproduction, contest and territoriality). Even in our simple 7 species diagram without all of these extras thrown in it is very difficult to predict the change in one species given a change of any other one thing in the ecosystem. Indeed throw some equations in to try and explain these diagrams and even senior maths professors start to develop headaches.

So we have established that ecosystems are big and complex. Indeed they are so big and so complex that we haven’t even come close to describing them in terms of their individual bits (not that it stops us, we are scientists after all). So how do we tell if they have gone wrong? How do we know if they are damaged if we don’t know what is in them and how they work?

The key is that we don’t need to know everything to tell if something isn’t working well, we just need a few critical bits of information. Just like how playing a little bit of sport makes you informed enough to know if a professional player is good, great or should never ever earn that much money, we can look for key signs in ecosystems that show they are either healthy or on the verge of collapse.

Ecosystem integrity deals with this. It turns out there are a few critical signs that show if the overall health of an ecosystem is in dire straits:

1) Build up of waste material; this means that our root organisms from our diagram have been overloaded or wiped out. Healthy ecosystems don’t waste very much; everything is broken down and re used fairly rapidly. Our use of heavy plastics, dumping of industrial waste and release of radioactive material all lead to situations where natural ecosystems can’t handle the strain.

2) Loss of keystone species; if we come back to our diagram we can see that c has 6 links, there are 18 in total so c represents 1/3 of our total links. C is a very well connected guy (for a nasty cannibal), removing C will cause all sorts of damage and disruption to the food web. We have observed that the loss of single species can alter whole systems, the removal of the sea otter from California seas for their pelts led to the explosion of sea urchin numbers (a tasty treat for a hungry otter), these ate the young kelp and prevented the kelp forests from re growing, the kelp was key habitat for just about everything else in the ecosystem and so fish numbers crashed.

3) Large incidences of disease; this means that there are either alien disease species that are entering the ecosystem or that the environment is degraded to the point where many species are having difficulty getting enough food to maintain a healthy immune system. In nature disease is nearly universally present but it is not prevalent. Wild cattle do get diseases, indeed weak or old individuals often die from disease, but it is very rare for healthy natural populations to develop epidemics. If you look at human examples, it is common for a new disease to emerge and harm a few people (e.g. SARS death toll only 630) but only after World War 1 where there were millions of humans living without good food shelter or water did influenza kill 50 million people. It is the condition of the environment that determines the effect of a disease.

4) The migration of whole species into or out of a region; great migrations are common for certain species, but the removal of entire groups occurs only in the cases of natural disaster such as prolonged drought or flooding. Clear felling trees or burning forest are manmade activities that inspire similar results.

5) The reduction of diversity and the establishment of monoculture. When ecosystems begin to fail, there are often one or two hardy opportunistic plants or animals that can exploit the changing environment, they either feed on the dead or happen to be able to cope with new temperatures or conditions. In the early stages of ecosystem degradation these guys often become dominant and form monocultures. We have learnt to replace this process with intensive agriculture; we remove or destroy all other competitors, leaving only one plant growing in an ecosystem. These systems are then very unstable, prone to disease and collapse just as is described above.

I object to many modern waste management, fishing, agricultural, industrial and technological practices not on moral principle (“Industry is wrong man”) but on specific evidence that particular types of these practices lead to the collapse of ecosystem integrity. Dredging the bottom of the sea with a trawler beam is stupid, as it breaks the very system that produces what you catch. You wouldn’t break into your bank with a bulldozer every time you wanted to make a withdrawal, you would be harming your investment, it simply doesn’t make any sense.