» THE WINGED SIN-EATERS: Vultures & the Vital Importance of Scavengers

by Brian Awehali

Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…

As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

A truly fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, by Meera Subramian, and with gorgeous photos like the one below, by Ami Vitale, goes into a lot of detail about the vital role of vultures and scavengers, and the alarming decline of their species on the Indian subcontinent.

Vultures scavenging human remains left at the burning ghats on the banks of rivers in India – Ami Vitale / Corbis

As the article explains,

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» CHAOS: OF STRANGE ATTRACTORS & THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

by Brian Awehali

When Edward Lorenz gave a talk in 1972 entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?,” he distilled the main essence of his thoughts on predictability, interdependence and “chaos theory” in one pithy question.

Lorenz was a mathemetician and a meteorologist who, in the early 1960s, discovered that weather simulation models he was developing were exhibiting chaotic, non-predictive behavior, despite a fixed set of variables and no apparent equipment malfunction. Two identical weather simulation machines, side-by-side, given the same variables to process. Wildly different results. How?

Lorenz eventually concluded that it was a “dependence on initial conditions” — in this case, the fact of computers rounding variables to decimal points: 3.12879 expressed as 3.13, etc. Even extending the number of decimal points in the simulators did not produce matching results from the weather machines. Minute variations gave rise to wildly different chains of events.

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» THE BUG IS THE SYSTEM: A Freewheeling Romp Through the Natural and Social Implications of Chaos Theory


by Clare Lacy (from the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt)

Human civilization supposedly thrives on order and predictability; it means that people will obey traffic laws and pay their taxes, show up to work on time, and keep their word. Predictability gives us a sense of order, and order lends itself in varying degrees to unity, to nationalism, to legality, and to community. Whether we like it or not, much of our lives are governed by these ideas of order and predictability, and by our assumptions that these ideals are universal and natural. And indeed, nature does follow its own order with periodic population swells, predictable animal behavior, and food chains, but in attempting to mimic or find equilibrium with natural conditions, humans never seem to be able to get it quite right.

With all variables seemingly accounted for, chaos often predominates over predictive systems, and we are left wondering what clue we are missing in our search for order in natural systems. In every field of inquiry, scientists have come up against certain problems that until the advent of chaos theory were written off as unsolvable.

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» BIRDS ATTACK!: Navigation, Personality & Aggression in the Aviary Kingdom

by Brian Awehali

Dog and Crow Battle, Ocean Beach, San Francisco (c) Brian Awehali

Who’s attacking whom on Ocean Beach, SF? – photo (c) Brian Awehali

Birds, who once were dinosaurs, could take over the world (again) if they wanted to. And not just in the movies, a la Hitchcock’s 1963 terror, The Birds. (If you haven’t seen the movie, check out this well-edited one-and-a-half-minute version of it.) Not long ago, in Kagoshima, a city on the southern island of Kyushu, in Japan, a booming crow population went on the offensive: destroying power lines and fiber optic cable, being markedly more aggressive with people, and outwitting human “crow patrols” by building decoy nests. In recent years, crows have been filmed using tools in sequence and exhibiting complex reasoning as well.

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» HOW THE NOSE KNOWS: Vibrations?

by Brian Awehali

Fifth-Century Greek philosopher Democritus, the putative founder of modern science and atomic theory, who laughed constantly and lived more than one hundred years, once had occasion to ponder our sense of smell. It was, he theorized, the result of our nose reading the shape of airborne particles. Democritus called these particles “atoms,” and he thought sweet atoms were “round and of a good size,” while sour ones were “bulky, jagged, and many angled.”

This “shapist” theory of smell, or olfaction, continues to this day. It boils down to the essential concept of tiny pieces of things being “read” by receptors in our nose. Democritus called these pieces “atoms,” but he had no sense of atomic theory in the modern sense, which asserts that these pieces are, in fact, molecules. But that’s just a theory, and the truth is that no one really knows how our sense of smell works. The shapist theory has many inconsistencies and demonstrated limitations. Molecules with the same shape produce different smells; inversely, two molecules with completely different shapes can produce the same smell (sandalwood).

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, miles away from the site of the Hiroshima bombing, people reported an impossibly bright light and the smell of burning rubber. This posed a problem for the shape theory of smell: If smell was the result of particulate matter – molecules – landing on receptors in the nose, how then to explain the instantaneous travel of molecules from the blast site to noses miles away?

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» HELD HOSTAGE TO HOPE: Derrick Jensen on Civilization & Its Discontents

“It’s not just false hope that’s the problem, it’s hope itself…’Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.’”

A free-ranging interview with the author of A Language Older Than Words, Welcome to the Machine, and The Culture of Make Believe about civilization, violence, activism, pacifism, reasons for optimism, and why hope is a bad thing.

A counterpoint interview about Malthusian economics and cults of catastrophism is also offered, with social historian Iain Boal, “We’re Not Doomed; That’s the Problem.”:

Many people believe, at least a little, that the end of human beings–whether by ecological disaster, the collapse of the oil economy, or nuclear extinction–is inevitable. For some, this projected collapse represents a just termination for a species they consider parasitic and pathologically unable to establish an equilibrium with the natural world and the creatures who  depend upon it. Others laments the tragedy of our fate.

But what role do faith and belief play in all of this? What if the capitalist realities of scarcity and collapse have been mistakenly interpreted as natural inevitabilities?  

>> READ THE FULL ARTICLE (PDF; 8 pages)

[From the online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow - The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt.] 

» HUMANS ARE A VIRUS WITH SHOES

by Brian Awehali

People suck, and that’s my contention.
We’re a virus with shoes.

Bill Hicks

I quite like a lot of people, but there’s much to recommend Hicks’ notion that we are viruses with shoes. It’s a fact that well over 40% of the human DNA chain is viral in origin, as Michael Specter writes in a fascinating New Yorker article, “Darwin’s Surprise”:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone…

Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

One scientist interviewed for the New Yorker article, Thierry Hiedmann, contends that the mapping of the human genome project and recent findings about “endogenous retroviruses” show that genes and viruses are not, in fact, distinct entities, and that the concept of virus and humanity as enemies or combatants, rather than as co-evolutionary forces, is in error. Heidmann and others have even suggested that without viral influence, mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature and led to live birth. “These viruses made those changes possible, [and] It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

So the stuff of us, the meat of our matter, is partially viral in origin. What of our language, and our culture?

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» THE CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

by Brian Awehali

The first time you kiss somebody, you may well be caught up in romance and various libidinal tides, but your brain and olfactory system are hard at work, gathering information to decide whether to take it to the “next level.” At least that’s how the assembled panelists and journalists at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago saw the process.

“You’re not just kissing,” said one scientist suggestively, “you are likely absorbing information about your partner’s immune system, looking for a good match should you two procreate.”

Other scientists in attendance copiously supported their colleague’s assertion by noting findings in related studies. “A similar tendency has also been found,” asserted one postdoctoral researcher in the Berkeley Olfactory Research Program, “in some rather interesting tests where women sniffing male armpit sweat chose those indicating immune systems complementary–not similar–to their own.”

Certainly there exist women for whom the idea of a long session of male armpit huffing evokes an unseemly dark thrill. You might hope that one or more such women were among those who signed up for this study. But when pondering this pit-sweat-sniffing story, one must consider the long tour of ignominies visited upon countless women that led up to this particular moment in scientific history, and the moment in which each woman in the study was bade: Choose the best armpit.

(Alternately, the study may not have involved live male armpits at all, but rather the sniffing of previously collected male armpit sweat. Either way, it’s an odd study. It also provides me a rare opportunity to link to an only slightly related Old Spice commercial about armpits, men, manliness, and frenching):

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