Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.



Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Natural History and Conservation by Reed F. Noss. Island Press 2013

Walden Warming by Richard Primack. University of Chicago Press 2014

Reading Noss’s work, I recall Faulkner’s words, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.” Forgotten, neglected, tragically diminished, but not gone. Noss describes his travels to visit what was once a vast archipelago of grass-dominated ecological communities, ranging from endless longleaf pine savannas (see my post on Looking for Longleaf) to tiny rock outcrop barrens. This island landscape stretched across the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia. In fact, though Noss does not discuss them, these communities are found up into the mid-Atlantic and New England. Today, the remaining islands, in a sea of agriculture, industrial forestry and urbanization  only hint at what has vanished beneath the waves of “progress.” But remarkably, there is enough to form the core of a restored landscape, something that will be a major challenge for 21st century ecologists.

Many types of habitats fit under the term “grassland.” Woodlands have trees, but their crowns cover less than three-fourths of the ground, allowing herbaceous plants, especially grasses, to thrive. Savannas have scattered trees, with less than about fifty percent cover. Meadows, glades, barrens and balds have only isolated patches of trees. Noss also describes plant and animal species endemic to the southeastern grasslands. An endemic is a kind of organism found in a particular type of community or a local area, and nowhere else. Many of these are critically imperiled, occurring today at only one or two places. The book is illustrated with his photos of the communities and the rare plants.

Noss has really interesting things to say about the factors that have maintained open, grass-dominated habitats over ecological and evolutionary time. The main ecological question is: what is preventing tall woody plants from taking over? The climate is warm enough, and rainfall is adequate for trees. It could be lack of a deep, firm soil that roots can penetrate to support tall stems. It could be that the soil stays wet or dry too much of the year. It could be constant disturbance by flood, wind, fire or herbivores. It could be lack of sufficient nutrients to support trees and shrubs. At any particular site, it’s most likely a combination of two or more of these factors.

The evolutionary question is: how have the species that comprise these ecological communities arisen and survived in a dynamic landscape? The answers are tentative and complicated, especially those related to changing climate. The distinctiveness and diversity of the endemic species, especially their adaptations to fire, imply a long evolutionary history. Some of the endemic plant species, such as those in certain rock outcrop barrens, may have evolved recently, while others, like the ones in the longleaf pine savannas, have been around for a very long time. This field of research is called phylogeography because it looks both at phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations among different populations and species and at the geographic patterns of climate (and so, the species’ habitats) now and in the past.

Many authors have stated the grasslands originated only as a result of disturbance by humans, who do not seem to have reached America before 30,000 years ago at the very earliest. If the grasslands originated before the Pleistocene ice ages, how did they survive the periods of peak glaciation and cold? Noss cites pollen data to show that most of the southeast had a cool temperate climate during the ice ages, but evidence from geomorphology suggests that there were periods of boreal conditions with deep seasonal frost or even permafrost. Aeolian landforms, created by strong winds coming off the glaciers, include dune fields, sand sheets and the famous Carolina bays. These indicate that there were periods where there was little vegetation to stabilize the surface. One possibility is that the pollen record is incomplete, because the intervals without vegetation produce essentially no pollen. Another is that, if the Gulf Stream stopped during the coldest intervals, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a tremendous heat reservoir, keeping the coastal areas warm, while inland sites were cold. On maps of the ice age drop in sea level, the additional dry land, just on the west side of peninsular Florida, looks nearly as large as North Carolina. Thus, a lot of grassland species might have retreated there.

Noss’s book and a recent article (Noss, R. F., Platt, W. J., Sorrie, B. A., Weakley, A. S., Means, D. B., Costanza, J. and Peet, R. K. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21: 236–244), which includes the coastal plain up to Cape Cod, call the region a biodiversity hotspot. This is based on the great numbers of plant, vertebrate and insect species in the region and the number of those species that are endemic to it.

The article calls for the North American Coastal Plain to be listed as a global biodiversity hotspot. A colleague who studies southern grasshoppers told me that the group behind the effort to achieve listing had several more papers in the pipeline that they expected would be needed to convince the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to add the NACP as hotspot number 36 They succeeded on the first try, just after the article was published ( Hooray!

Now the hard work begins: convincing people, especially government officials and private conservation groups, to take action. Here in New Jersey, most conservationists still see the coastal plain as a forest region. Natural enough, since fire suppression for the last eighty years has effectively converted what were once woodlands and savannas into dense forests of pine and oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. “Forest,” has such cultural significance in American environmentalism that it is very difficult to convince anyone that this is not what Nature intends. Add modifiers like “old growth,” “pristine,” “climax,” and you have idols that it is very hard to get environmentalists to stop worshipping.

Most people I know in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to blame “development” for loss of natural habitats. To an extent, this is true for the grasslands of the South, especially the loss in recent times of the smaller glades and barrens, but other factors are historically more important. Noss mentioned drainage and conversion to farmland, but this applies mainly to the wetter, richer grasslands. Dense tree plantations have replaced pine savannas. Another factor is loss of large herbivores, beginning with the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna – mammoths, ground sloths, etc. – around 15,000 years ago. To some degree, cattle, hogs and sheep may have supplied their place in the early post-1492 times of open ranges and even today, but livestock can do more harm than good to natural habitats, and they will never be allowed to recreate the vast network of “buffalo traces,” leading to salt licks and waterholes. These trails provided habitat and dispersal routes for grassland plants, as roadsides do today, if we don’t mow them in the growing season or allow exotic invasives to take over.

By far the clearest factor reducing grasslands is fire suppression. Since the advent of motorized firefighting in the mid-twentieth century, the number of fires has changed little, but the area burned annually has greatly decreased ( This means that fire return intervals have generally become too long to prevent establishment of closed forest canopies. This is fine if you want to grow trees for wood or fiber but terrible for the plants and animals of woodlands, savannas and grasslands.

I have tried for years to convince my friends in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that the greatly increased plant canopy cover since fire suppression began to be effective has caused much of the reported drying out of the landscape. They prefer to blame the loss of wetlands and headwater streams on wells drilled by farmers, developers and casinos sucking water out of the ground. Trees and shrubs are taking just as much water through their roots and evaporating it through leaves, 300-500 pounds of water for every pound of sugar they make in photosynthesis. Some of my conservationist friends and colleagues oppose even moderate thinning of trees in the Pine Barrens. They talk about endangered species’ need for undisturbed habitat, not recognizing that on the coastal plain, far more species are threatened by the loss of open land with herbaceous vegetation – grasslands, woodlands, savannas and meadows. A very experienced botanist I know, however, has become convinced, after seeing species like pine barrens gentian and turkey beard springing up in the wake of forest thinning and reintroduction of fire on managed lands. Too bad the New Jersey Forest Service officials still thinks Smoky the Bear has the last word. They are courting disaster as fuel loads continue to build up in the pines, but they won’t believe that a fire could occur that they could not control. This is incredibly short sighted.

I also wish our environmental community would back off its opposition to natural gas pipelines, which actually create open habitats, and devote more of their resources to stopping the motorized mayhem that’s destroying the last of our native savannas and sand ridge communities all across southern New Jersey. In the Pinelands National Reserve, motorized recreation is not a permitted land use, but pressure from the motorheads has prevented meaningful regulation or enforcement.

Besides these immediate threats, I wonder whether the coastal plain biodiversity hotspot can survive climate change. As shown by Richard Primack in his excellent book, Walden Warming (Chicago 2014) there are already substantial changes in the flora and fauna of New England since Thoreau kept a naturalist’s journal in the 1850’s. Surely, though we lack clear evidence, such changes are occurring in the North American Coastal Plain. For plant populations to persist, they must either acclimate (adjust their flowering and fruiting physiology) adapt locally (through natural selection of individuals that best match the warmer climate) or disperse their seeds northwards. Primack points out that the barriers created by towns, farms and highways make it difficult for native plants to disperse to suitable new habitat.

A look at the map of the coastal plain shows another problem: the northward narrowing of the geologic region, until it peters out at Cape Cod and in the sandy outwash plans of southern New England. Even if species can shift northwards, they will find themselves funneled into increasingly tight confines, reduced even more by sea level rise. Europe’s flora is impoverished compared to its temperate counterparts in North America and Asia, because southward dispersal during the height of the last ice ages ran into the barrier of the Alps. The coastal plain’s denizens may be similarly crushed against the rock ribs of New England.

Noss’s points out that many people feel that preserving nature for its own sake is as important as preserving it for its benefits to us. He recasts Jack Kennedy’s famous dictum as, “ask not just what nature can do for us, but also what we can do for nature.” He estimates that temperate grasslands have the lowest ratio of lands preserved to lands destroyed of any major ecological system on earth. In the North American Coastal Plain this ratio may be even lower, although perhaps with more prospect for restoration than in some areas, because so much has been lost to fire suppression, which is fixable.

Noss is a strong proponent of saving all that we can in whatever ways are effective. He is against any form of ” triage,” writing off of species and communities that we decide in advance can’t be saved. He also criticizes the Nature Conservancy for overemphasizing what they call “working landscapes,” and neglecting the smaller, uneconomical bits, those tiny glades, barrens and rock outcrops that house such amazing numbers of endemic taxa. Noss argues we need to practice preservation on many scales, beginning with a ban on development of any new natural lands. We should be redeveloping abandoned or underutilized sites, close to existing development. I agree, but we need to find some way to effectively transfer development rights, or landowners will block any such policy. He also argues that we need to change the policies and practices of our state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to better manage lands already protected. Too many of the best areas are either over-utilized or neglected.

Both these books are excellent reads, especially the authors’ descriptions of work in the field with their colleagues and collaborators. One gets a sense that there are a lot of very dedicated ecologists working to preserve biodiversity in our changing landscape and changing climate. One of the encouraging developments I have noticed is the great increase in contributions from what are now called, “citizen scientists.” People, who might once have pursued their love of plants, birds or butterflies in isolation, now contribute to both current data collection and preservation of valuable old data (Thoreau’s Journals are a prime example) through projects like iDigBio. More could be done, especially if there were a way to report and then evaluate outliers: unusual sightings, anomalous individuals and things in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where economic interests are involved, we do usually follow up, as with introduced pests, but otherwise many valuable observations in our rapidly changing environment may be written off as misidentifications or just lost. I would like to see more naturalist’s, especially our large crop of butterfly watchers learn when and how to collect proper specimens to verify their unexpected sightings. Scientific collecting is almost never a threat to populations of insects, and a specimen allows positive identification and preservation of a record in a way photographs can’t.

I would strongly recommend these two books to anyone concerned about the future of biodiversity along our Atlantic coast.

Birding on horseback

Florence Augusta Merriam. 1896. A-Birding on a Bronco. Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA .

This is a delightful book by a great late nineteenth to early twentieth century naturalist. Merriam was an ornithologist, author of Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. She was an organizer of several chapters of the Audubon Society.

This book, which I listened to on Librivox, is a set of notes from two visits to a ranch in Southern California in 1889 and 1894. Many of her observations are of the birds at their nests, an aspect of birding which seems to have fallen out of fashion. Today, there is much more emphasis on counting species and individuals seen and much less on the close observation of behavior. She does tend to use strongly anthropomorphic descriptions and to attribute a greater degree of self awareness to her subjects than would ever be acceptable today. Nevertheless, she is a fine observer and writer. Her descriptions of southern California as it was over a century ago, when life revolved around farming, ranching and orchards are a reminder of how much our landscapes have changed.

Reading her accounts of the numerous attempts at nesting by a wide variety of birds in the oak woodlands and chaparral, it came home to me very strongly how frequently they failed. I would guess that well under half of the nests she saw started produced fledglings. Most were destroyed by unknown agents or simply abandoned. Snakes, other birds and cats were likely culprits. Given the utter vulnerability of the eggs and hatchlings, it is almost surprising that any are successfully reared, though I know it’s been done for a hundred million years or more. A small bird’s life must be exhausting and frustrating, with no time to rest between the challenges of nest building, foraging, territorial defense and, for many, migration. Even during brooding, there must be constant vigilance. Their lives must be a near continual state of nervous excitement, ending in exhaustion.

The bronco in the title, was not, by the way, some half wild creature suitable for a rodeo but actually a couple of docile ranch ponies, well suited for a lady naturalist to wander the country. One in particular was so patient as to stand for hours while Merriam watched nests. The only danger was that they shied at snakes, if they sensed their presence. On occasion, bronco and rider went right past rattlers in the dense brush, but mostly they stayed away from likely snake habitat.

Horseback sounds like a wonderful way to watch birds; I will someday have to compare this book to Birding From a Tractor Seat by Charles T Flugum.

John Wesley Powell

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell. Revised edition, published by the Smithsonian Institution. 1895. I listened to the Librivox version, by a very able group of readers.

I remember seeing the six-cent John Wesley Powell expedition commemorative stamp, when it was issued in 1969, but I never gave it much thought, except to notice that the steersman has only part of his right arm. I had learned somewhere, sometime, that he was the leader of the first United States expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. When I came across this account in the Librivox catalog, I thought I ought to listen to it, and I’m glad I did. This is the story of an epic journey told by an extraordinary individual.

Checking Powell’s biography on Wikipedia, I learned that by the time he was 25, he had rowed the entire Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, and Des Moines Rivers and been elected to the Illinois Natural History Society. After his service in the Civil War (he lost the forearm at Shiloh) Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. Along with his students and his wife, he made an expedition to Colorado to collect geological specimens.

His expedition, ten men in four boats, left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, and reached the mouth of the Virgin River, at the lower end of the Grand Canyon on August 30, with two or three boats and six men. Three men had left to climb out of the canyon shortly before the end, because the expedition was dangerously short on food and still faced unknown risks on the river. As it happened, they were the unlucky ones: Powell later was told they were killed by Shivwits Indians, who believed they were part of a party that had  murdered some other Indians shortly before Powell’s men passed through.

Powell’s book reads like a journal and is based on the records he kept, but some later editing occurred, apparently. Whatever the case, it is a harrowing tale. One boat was wrecked early, and the rest were frequently capsized. Food was lost or spoiled by wetting, so by the end, they were in danger of running out. Many stretches had to be portaged round or the boats lowered and hauled through on ropes. That and the rowing made every day exhausting. At one point their fire spread into some driftwood and nearly incinerated them in a narrow alcove where they had camped. Powell and some of the others also made regular ascents of the canyon walls to take instrument readings, examine the landscape and scout ahead where possible. These involved rough and dangerous ascents of thousands of feet and tortuous scrambles through narrow slot canyons. This by a man with only one hand!

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the voyage was the uncertainty of what they faced ahead. Around the bends of the river, they were sometimes confronted by large falls or dangerous rapids, with little time to decide whether to go ahead and try to run them or make desperately for some safe stopping point. It seemed possible that they might meet an impassable obstacle at a point where they could not escape from the canyon. They could face a choice between starvation and near-certain drowning. Today, hundreds raft down the Grand Canyon, aided by years of experience, modern equipment and a flow now controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam. Powell’s trip was a plunge into the unkn0wn, Samuel Walter Foss’ opening lines for The Coming American “Bring me men to match my mountains,” could be applied to Powell and his crew, perhaps modified to “…men to match my canyons.”

Powell and Tau-gu, a Paiute, 1871-72

His descriptions of the geology, the river, the landscape and vegetation are vivid and sometimes enthralling. The latter part of the book describes the trip he made in 1870 and 1871 back over some of the same ground, but visiting many of the Native Americans resident in the lands north of the canyon and eastwards to the Pueblos of New Mexico. These are also fascinating. He worked for the rest of his life as a geographer, ethnologist and administrator at the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution and was a strong advocate that development in the arid western states, should be carefully limited.


Moth Lady

Moths of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Doubleday, Page and Co. 1921. I listened to the Librivox version, beautifully read by J M Smallheer.

I would not have thought that listening to a book about insects, least of all large moths, without being able to see the illustrations, could be utterly absorbing, but Gene Stratton Porter’s descriptions of the finding and rearing of some dozen species certainly is. All of them came from from around her home near the great Limberlost Swamp of northeast Indiana, found by herself, her husband and numerous friends and neighbors, some of whom went miles out of their way to bring her specimens. Besides her accounts of the finding of the adults or caterpillars and her meticulous descriptions of each species behavior and development, there are her minute descriptions of the patterns and colors of all stages, carefully based on the freshest individuals. As a photographer and painter of birds and insects in the days of black and white glass plates, she had to be a very close observer and recorder of colors, if she wanted to get good illustrations based on her photos. A look at the illustrations from the book shows that she did extremely well.Moths_of_the_Limber crop

Her life history observations, such as how hawk moth larvae pupate, burying themselves in the ground and then wriggling back to the surface, posterior end first, while still in the pupal case, so they can spread and dry their wings upon emergence, are fascinating. I like her attitude towards the published literature on moths. She mentions many famous lepidopterists (see my post from on Butterfly People from last February) has read their work, but is willing to point out the shortcomings of their accounts of the actual lives of the insects they describe and illustrate.

Her anecdotes of catching and keeping moths are delightful. Her home must have seemed like more of an insectarium at times, with moth eggs carefully marked and protected on the floors and carpets, because a gravid female escaped and could find no host plant to lay them on. The effort put into successful rearings and the failures that invariably accompany attempts with unfamiliar species must have been very demanding, and the moths were not even her chief occupation. Her novels, the most famous being A Girl of the Limberlost, 1909 and bird photography and illustration took even more time.

Even as she studied them, species like the Cecropia moth and the Polyphemus were losing out to expanding agriculture, lumbering and drainage of swamps like the Limberlost. Later would come DDT and street lights to put still more stress on their populations. Parasites introduced to control gypsy moths have added to the widespread decline, especially in the Northeast. Today, aerial images of the Limberlost show mostly agricultural fields and only a few remnant woodlands, including one small restoration site on Loblolly Creek. We can be grateful that Gene Stratton Porter left us such a beautiful record of what was there before.

Looking for the Logos of Life V: Some most unusual paradoxes

Wagner, Andreas. 2009. Paradoxical Life: meaning, matter and the power of human choice. Yale University Press.

[Note: This is a lengthy post. If you did not like the earlier Looking for the Logos of Life, I recommend skipping it]

This book is described as an account for the general reader of a large and complex question of the paradoxical tensions in biology and the way human life has created our world.

At the start, Wagner describes what goes on in a developing embryo as involving communication, which he says implies meaning. So molecules, he says convey meaning. T of human awareness, logos and what goes on in the developing embryo. He is quite bold in proclaiming that all matter conveys meaning and all meaning is material, yet the two are distinct. This seems to be very similar to Spinoza’s different modes of a single substance. Is he aware that he is answering by fiat a question that has been with us since Heraclitus? Is he just tossing out paradoxes for the sake of getting attention?

Another paradox is self versus other, especially in associations, from the cells making up a body to rival nations on the same planet. In the same paragraph, he refers to cells as, “unthinking lumps of protoplasm.” How does that fit with his matter and meaning paradox? Meaning must not imply thought, then.

He is going to maintain, he says, that self and other are inseparable. He also maintains various other paradoxes, which, he says give humans power. Is this an echo of New Organon? He says self vs other has no place in mathematics. Is that true?

He ends the introduction by quoting Lao Tzu. Where is this going?

“The elementary particles of communication are signs, which convey meaning.” Signs may be icons or symbols.

He makes cell surface molecules the exemplar of all he is talking about, but then he overreaches immediately, by saying the receptor molecule “recognizes” the signal molecule. Recognize from cogito, I think, yet he said earlier such communication doesn’t involve thought. He even says the molecules “recognize” the meaning in some molecules but not others.

In his perspective, as he calls it, my TV remote and my TV are conversing.

Does the probabilistic character of human conversation (we don’t invariably understand the other person) really find a useful model in the probablistic character of cell surface protein interactions with molecules in the cellular environment?

He claims that the alternative to his conversation idea is the doctrine of cause and effect, and he says if you can’t see it his way, it is because you are too indoctrinated to the cause and effect perspective. He invokes quantum mechanics to justify his claim that we can no longer assume that cause and effect is the correct perspective, but all his examples are from systems too big to involve quantum effects (note that they are called quantum effects, not quantum messages or quantum meanings). He actually calls his view “logocentric” Why then, I wonder, has he said nothing about mathematics? That would be the bridge between cause and effect and his idea of communication.

His conversational idea makes very little sense to me, if I think of something like weather. Does the sun send messages to earth? Do the oceans and atmosphere get each other’s meanings? The signaling metaphor makes some sense when talking about cells that interact with each other in an organism, or the nerve cells that interact with the environment. In both cases, we can talk about signal transduction, etc. At the actual level of what’s changing, though, we can describe these processes in the language of chemistry, which is that of cause and effect.

The other puzzle is how it helps to understand developmental processes or ecological interactions, which we have a pretty good handle on the basic principles, using a phenomenon like language, and the memory, etc. language relies on. We have no good grasp of basic principles in that case, and only study the higher level appearances. To me he’s trying to use levels of understanding in reverse. I see meaning as an emergent property of complex systems in social animals with highly developed memory and learning, as in Greenspan and Shanker’s The First Idea. I think he’s pushing it down onto levels where it doesn’t belong.

His treatment of altruism in the chapter on self and other illustrates the folly of using value laden words like selfish and altruistic to talk about genetic alleles. It’s another example of trying to apply a concept appropriate to explanation at one level to a much more basic level of phenomena. To his credit, he points out that since genes change over time, even as they retain the same basic function, it is not exactly right to talk about them as isolated entities perpetuating themselves through generations.

The discussion of parasitism in the same chapter concludes that all organisms are parasites. This conflates parasitism with competition, failing to see that one relation is +/- while the other is -/-. He also seems to misunderstand the prisoners’ dilemma.

There is a chapter on parts and wholes, which does not discuss emergent properties. This is strange, because emergent properties like meaning and communication, etc. are used all the time as metaphors for what goes on at lower levels – cells communicating, etc. is this just a consequence of avoiding explanations that are “too technical?” Wagner seems to prefer explanations that work at every level, so for example, his parts and wholes chapter covers everything from subatomic particles to societies. The forest or the trees? According to him it just depends what question you ask or how you choose to look at it. I suspect a strong touch of postmodernism in his outlook: His everything is a conversation” sounds suspiciously like, “everything is a text.”

In the chapter on risk, after an interesting discussion of diminished DNA repair in aging bacterial colonies, he says, “a cell most likely does not benefit from shutting down DNA repair. Most likely it will die. In contrast, the entire colony benefits immensely when one (my italics) cell survives and becomes the seed of new life.” Wait: it seems he doesn’t understand risk. True, the cells are unlikely to survive even if they stop DNA repair, but that slim chance has to be compared to the chance of surviving in a colony that does not stop DNA repair, and hence has fewer mutations. Also, one mutant cell that starts a new colony, certainly does benefit in a Darwinian sense. The rest of the colony may or may not benefit, depending whether cells without the beneficial mutation can 1. mate with the mutants, 2. exchange genes directly with them or 3. use the enzymes produced by the mutants or the enzymatic breakdown products to increase their own chances of survival. There is no noble self-sacrifice necessary. The whole business only works out if the mathematics of probability end up in its favor. How to model a colony that ends up being a group of competing clones? He has a note (24) later, that tries to explain the benefits being shared by the colony, but I don’t find it helpful, unlike the notes on varying mutation rates. Actually, a lot of what he talks about are not what you usually think of as mutations. The enzymes involved seem also to remove blocks to expression of existing genes, thus allowing use of different food sources.

Later on in talking about long term patterns in evolution, he uses words like “learned” and “acquired” with respect to adaptation. He also has cattle egrets originating in the New World, which I think is incorrect.

His chapter on creation/destruction, including apoptosis, is quite interesting. I wonder if apoptosis is a case of parental manipulation of offspring, more than of altruism. In this respect, an organism is much more of a population process than a social insect colony, where often only one can actually make copies. It’s also different from mere herds or aggregated populations. Would it be in any way possible to have an organism if cells competed with each other in proliferating? Obviously not.

Is natural selection “impossible without death?” It would simply require that populations be free to grow exponentially. Wagner doesn’t seem to see differential reproduction of phenotype as the key to natural selection. He also says, “natural selection alone does not create the world of living things.” Pross might object to that notion (see earlier posts Looking for the Logos of Life II-IV).

When he discusses organisms’ ecological niches, which he calls “lifestyles,” he says they amount to a tangible expression of a hypothesis about the world. This is another example of applying emergent properties to a lower level. What useful insight does it provide?

In the chapter on choice, chance, and necessity there’s a discussion of deterministic chaos, in which he asserts that unpredictability and indeterminism are the same thing. This is because he sees no practical difference between them, since sufficiently accurate knowledge of the input values is not possible in a physical system. He denies the reality of infinitesimals, as in calculus, calling it a mental construct. He says that no finite mind can overcome those limits. I guess that’s right, but isn’t nature (or god, which is the same thing) an infinite mind, and don’t I mean by in principle what is possible by nature? Am I just taking Einstein’s(?) position that “God does not play dice with the universe?”

I don’t like Wagner’s way of describing life as making predictions. Organisms don’t predict the future, and except in very few cases, they don’t deliberate about possible courses of action. In his effort to bring mind and meaning down to the molecular level, he’s doing violence to the language of explanation. It may be true that the same mechanisms exist in complex, multicellular organisms with elaborate nervous systems as in a bacterium, but that does not mean that all we are doing is what a bacterium does in response to varying concentrations of food in its environment. For instance, multicellular organisms with complex nervous systems have memory, something he does not talk about a lot. The automatic unfolding of the life cycle of a mosquito depends on certain other things happening around it – rain, food for the larva, vertebrate animals, etc. – but that is not in my view a prediction, except in a very figurative sense. And certainly not in the way that an astronomer, using mathematics, predicts the motion of the stars. One way of seeing that is to think how much we do rely on gut reaction, common sense, instinct, whatever in dealing with everyday life. As Socrates says, most people just act at random, much like the bacterium. So much more important, therefore, to distinguish the few times when action is based on memory, reason or principle. He trivializes this by saying only the individual can decide whether bacteria choose, because it’s just a matter of point of view, not of truth. By calling the set of characteristics that define the ecological niche of a tick, “convictions, assumptions or beliefs about the world,” he is trivializing in a vain and pernicious way the difficult human choices those words refer to. Is he suggesting we can live our lives the way ticks and bacteria do? Of course organisms’ bodies have features that can be explained by natural law. That’s what Darwin says he means by “natural selection.” Wagner is saying nothing more than Darwin said; he just has more experimentally verified examples to back it up. But I do not think Darwin would say that this means organisms themselves are making “predictions.” What do I understand more clearly by saying different genotypes make different “predictions?” He goes further and seems to claim that philosophical disputes are somehow equivalent to these “predictions.” He seems to want his paradoxes to stand, not to be resolved by shifting point of view to another level or way of looking at the problem, but instead to serve as evidence of the world’s fundamental unintelligibility.

He talks about life’s endless creativity in terms of the diversity of species, molecules and functions. The result is a vast array of interactions. Wagner says this creativity is based on the same principles as human creativity. But then he goes off on function, claiming that we can’t talk about the function of the features of organisms. He cites the bee’s barbed stinger as having no function, when there is a perfectly obvious explanation, given that workers are expendable: the potential attacker cannot stop the sting by brushing off the bee. He claims that dead bees and also cancers are the price we pay for not being locked into a world of intelligent design. The price, according to Wagner of being free of predestination is to give up knowledge of the future ( but cf long-term cosmological certainties, even if surrounded by longer term cosmological doubts). In my view all we know for sure about life is that self-replication has led to all the complexity we see. No other purpose seems necessary, but without that, what sense does any of it make? None of it seems to provide an answer to the basic philosophical question, “what is good for…?”

I think he confuses the shortcuts we use to describe our scientific findings with the science itself. Chicks that cower from shadows do not interpret the shadow as a hawk. Parasitic plants do not think that the chemical impinging on their root tips come from a tree. That’s applying concepts appropriate to one level of organization to a level where they make no sense, even if they occasionally allow succinct expression of our beliefs about what is going on. These organisms and the others he cites, except possibly in a few highly debatable cases, do not form explanations, predictions, interpretations. It seems to me his claim is in opposition to his notion that thought such as we have is embodied in material configurations, because in the case of these so-called explanations, where is the embodied form? I think if he tries to say it is in the molecules involved in the events – the retina of the chick, or its muscles, the flagellar “motor” of the bacterium or its cell surface proteins, he’s going to quickly run into a contradiction. My actions are not their own explanation, prediction, interpretation, etc. Those reside in an entirely different place from the physical embodiment of the action itself. Somehow I think he’s making the explanation into the thing explained, the conversation into its own subject, the prediction into the thing predicted or vice versa. That’s certainly a way to create paradoxes, but they don’t seem to be of the enlightening sort.

I also don’t see how describing conceptual advances in science as making choices is really adding anything. His examples actually show that after those breakthroughs, apparent contradictions could be resolved. It’s not like heliocentricity, gravitation, electromagnetism, or relativity are still one among possible choices. The discoveries did not expand choices; they eliminated many alternatives. The only example I can think of is Euclidean vs Lobachevskian geometry. In a way, you can choose either, but that’s how mathematics is. That’s not natural science. If there are choices in natural science it is either because there are different applications where one is more convenient than the other or because one or both are wrong in at least some respects. Things can be useful without being entirely correct. Carnot had his heat engine backwards, but he still developed useful ideas. You can still use Ptolemy to make fairly decent astronomical predictions.

When you see a correct mathematical proof, if you are open to truth, you don’t feel like you are making a choice to see it. You just see it. I imagine that’s how scientists feel about their work. You don’t choose a truth, you discover it, or at least you think you have.

He even invokes Heraclitus at the end, which annoys me even more because he only talks about change and strife and not about logos. He goes on about Godel’s proof and Turing’s halting problem, as if somehow this proved that his so-called paradoxes in biology are unresolvable. Again, he’s taking truths about much different things and willy-nilly applying them to other areas. It is not obvious that questions about life run up against the limits of quantum theory or mathematical decidability. There are limits, set by things like deterministic chaos, maybe, but that is not the same. And do those limit our understanding, or just our ability to forecast?

He paraphrases one article on philosophy of science that claims to refute the notion that scientific theories get closer to truth over time. I expect that there may be a valid point there, but it also seems absurd to deny that we have a better understanding of the origin of species than we did before 1859, so what is it getting at? Of course the more light we shed, the more we can see the darkness around us, but that’s not the same as his lost in the hall of mirrors analogy (p.178).

The Godel’s incompleteness theorem does show that we can’t know everything, which he points out, but I don’t see how it follows that truth is not important anymore. Mathematicians are still concerned with true and false as are scientists. Same with Turing and the computability or halting problem, but they still wanted to know what those Enigma messages really said. The logos is probably beyond our ultimate comprehension, but we don’t know enough yet to take the position that Wagner does. This is just post-modernist conceit.

In trying to argue that material and meaning are just different sides of the same coin, bringing meaning down to the molecular level, I think he confuses the logos with our everyday notions of meaning. He does finally bring in the logos, in a suggestion that we try a “logocentric” perspective as a basis for a worldview (is this an echo of Husserl?) But the notion he suggests as a basis is “meaning.” I don’t recall that as one of the possible definitions of logos, although it makes some sense. Still I doubt that “meaning” in Wagner’s book aligns well with “logos.” His thinker, taking a certain point of view, seems to be saying, “listen to me,” not “listen to the logos.” He’s got the paradoxical part partly right, and he’s right about strife, but I think he has the logos wrong. Only a little bit: he is clear that you can’t simply choose to ignore gravity. That’s apparent in his concluding sections, The solitude of true choice and The choice to choose.

His whole approach seems to lean to much towards making man the measure of things or possibly to blur the distinction between man and the things around him. I think he’s trying to have it too many ways at once.

Contact, Conflict and Cooperation

Soderland, Jean R. 2015. Lenape Country. Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Phila. U. Penn. Press. Early American Studies Series. 249 pp.

An interesting, if somewhat repetitive, account of the period from 1630s to mid-1700’s, when Lenape and Susquehanna Indians, Swedes and Finns, Dutch and English contended for the trade in beaver skins, etc. coming down from Canada. Soderland’s point is that most of this struggle was peaceful or at least not open warfare and the Lenape managed to remain masters of the territory surrounding the Delaware (Lenapewihittuck or South) River, until William Penn’s sons and other land swindlers got the last large tract on the west side from them in the 1700s. For much of that time, Swedes, Finns and Lenapes formed an alliance against the Dutch and English, resisting their attempts to acquire and govern large areas of territory. The Europeans were largely confined to small outposts along both sides of the river up to the time that the Quakers began to acquire large tracts for settlers.

Part of her contention is that Penn’s treaty was not anything really new. The Lenape had been fairly skillful negotiators all along and willing to employ threats and force to keep the other groups from extablishing large settlements and plantations, as Europeans had in Virginia and New England. They also had to deal with threats from Maryland settlers, but here they were aided by the other Europeans. She repeatedly points out that the only sizable massacre in the lower Delaware region was near the site of Lewes, Delaware, in 1631, an early show of willingness by the Lenape to use violence to stop large scale settlement.

The Europeans learned not to assume that their concepts of ownership and transfer of rights were understood by the Lenape, and they preferred to keep negotiating peace for the sake of continued trade rather than revenging past wrongs or trying for outright conquest. This may have simply been due to lack of means. Their “companies,” back in Sweden, the Netherlands and England had limited resources and aims and often could not supply trade goods or support for the settlers. Still, she implies that some of the local directors and governors were simply more inclined to diplomacy than war and that the Lenape were more than willing to go along, despite the mockery of other tribes, especially those to the north, who were often agitating for war. She claims that at one point, around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion and King Phillips’s War in the 1670s, if the Lenape had joined the rest of the native Americans in an all out assault, they might have driven out the Europeans. Seems unlikely, but they certainly could have dealt a massive setback in the whole mid-Atlantic region, with unimaginable future consequences, for example for the French position in North America, etc.

The background to all this, of course, is the gradual decline of the native population due to epidemic disease. Does this stark fact lend credence to Jared Diamond’s guns, germs and steel theory? I’d like to not think so. Part of what’s missing in that view is the central role played by trade in keeping both sides in contact with each other throughout the period. The other point is that both sides suffered a lot from diseases, although Europeans may have been somewhat more resistant. There is no suggestion that the epidemics were an actual weapon. In fact, they instigated revenge killings (she calls it “mourning war”) and so were a source of friction between Europeans and Americans.

The other point is that the Lenape and the Europeans rather quickly began to intermingle in many ways – tools, agriculture, marriage. The Lenape didn’t like the Europeans’ domestic animals, which were often a cause of conflict, and they showed little inclination to become Christians, which led a lot of preachers to accuse them of devil worship. But particularly with the Swedes and Finns, there seems to have been a fair amount of cooperation. There are several cases described in the book of both sides handling criminal complaints about the other side in a way that worked fairly well.

One aspect that surpised me was the very low estimate of the number of European heads of household in West Jersey as late as the count in 1671: seven men and no women. Was some segment of the population simply being missed? Do other records indicate that there were Europeans living in some places where they were missed in the count? One of the recent books she criticizes is Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years. (Knopf 2012), may be worth a look.