Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 3, 2012

Evolution, not ecology

Filed under: Ecology,Environment,Environmentalism — Razib Khan @ 9:59 pm

One of my major gripes with my friends in ecology is that there is a tendency to look at every problem through the lens of ecological models. Garrett Hardin, who popularized the term “tragedy of the commons” is an exemplar of this. People in ecology often get irritated by the public confusion between it, a positive scientific discipline, and environmentalism, a normative set of beliefs (it doesn’t help when some environmentalist groups have names like “ecology movement”). But the fact is there are deep commonalities in terms of prior assumptions by both ecologists and environmentalists. Despite evolutionary ecology, the reality is that ecologists seem to be characterized by a mindset which posits limits to growth and a finite set of responses to the challenges of scarce resources. That is, the Malthusian paradigm.

I bring this up because despite the similarities between ecology and economics it strikes me that ecologists often have a difficult time admitting that the parameters of the model which they think they have a good grasp of may not always be fixed. Incentives and innovation can shift the dynamics radically. Consider George Monbiot’s about ...

March 24, 2011

Nuclear power as the “shark attacks” of energy

Filed under: Energy,Environment,Environmentalism,Futurism,Nuclear Power — Razib Khan @ 10:03 am



Image Credit: Stefan Kuhn

I was at a coffee shop recently and a SWPL couple (woman had dreads to boot!) a number of tables away were reading a newspaper, and the husband expressed worry about the Fukushima disaster. The wife responded that “now other people will understand how dangerous nuclear power is,” with a sage nod. They then launched into twenty minutes of loud righteous gibberish about chemicals (I had a hard time making sense of it, despite the fact that I learned a lot about chemicals in the past due to my biochemistry background). Because they’d irritated me I was curious and I tailed them as they left. Naturally they had driven to get coffee in a S.U.V. of some sort (albeit, a modestly sized one which looked like it was more outfitted for the outdoors’ activities common in the Pacific Northwest; they’d probably done their cost vs. benefit about those chemicals!).

In terms of radiation fears, I suspect that if more people just automatically knew the inverse-square law in relation to the drop off of its effects we’d be in a whole lot less ...

June 21, 2010

Animal Apartheid

Filed under: Environment,Environmentalism,Ethics,Nature — Razib Khan @ 6:46 am

Here’s an article from Canada on the debate about whether hybridization should be discouraged. I understand the impulse toward preserving nature as it is, but the drive for presumed purity seems almost fetishistic. Consider this sentence: ” Or could hybrids actually weaken genetically pure populations of disappearing wildlife?” What does “genetically pure” mean in a deep sense here? We know what it means instrumentally for the purposes of conservation genetics, but the way people talk about pristine lineages makes it seem an almost ethical concern.


When it comes to conservation and environmental policy you’re at the intersection of science, norms, and the messy world of human possibility. Perspective matters a lot in how you value or weight the parameters within your value system. To me the preservation of putatively pure lineages immemorial smacks a bit of pre-Darwinian biology, with its focus on systematic analysis of fixed and eternal kinds as well as a descriptive analysis of anatomy and physiology. At the other end is evolutionary biology which is a process, a phenomenon, understood as a flux of gene frequencies and morphs over time. It is by definition a refutation of a static conception of nature. Of course it takes time…but but not that much time. And then there’s the tendency to see humans as apart and beyond nature, exogenous to the system, destabilizing an eternal equilibrium. This is also arguably a false ideal, humans have been part of the ecosystem of every continent excepting Antarctica for at least 10,000 years, Australia for 50,000 years, Eurasia for a million years, and Africa somewhat longer. Modern H. sapiens sapiens has likely reshaped whole ecosystems through predation and fire even before agriculture and dense societies.

Let’s have a more nuanced and subtle conversion here, and put the focus on what our ultimate values are, or at least the ultimate values of the majority. As it is too often it seems to me that we’re not that far from “king’s wood” whereby we view nature as something to be isolated from the common man, who by his presence sullies and contaminates its purity. And now the fixation on distinct kinds and lineages seems to veer in a similar direction, albeit focusing on the purity of species and sub-species rather than nature as a whole.

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