From other-where

On referring to the books for information as to the history of the mimulus as a British wild flower, I found that in some it was not mentioned, and in others mentioned only to be dismissed with the remark that it is an “introduced plant.” But when was it introduced, and what is its range? And whom are we to ask?

And what, we should like to ask of our masters, is a British wild flower? Does not the same rule apply to plants as to animals namely, that when a species, whether “introduced” or imported by chance or by human agency, has thoroughly established itself on our soil, and proved itself able to maintain its existence in a state of nature, it becomes, and is a British species?

And, going farther back in time, it may be said that every species has at some time been brought, or has brought itself from other-where—every animal from the red deer and the white cattle, to the smallest, most elusive microbe not yet discovered; and every plant from the microscopical fungus to the British oak and the yew.

W.H. Hudson, in Hampshire Days, asking what it merans for a plant to be introduced. As he points out, mimulus (he’s probably referring to Mimulus guttatus,  or monkey flower) is widely distributed in the UK. The two wild flower books that I just checked still list it as introduced, though one also mentions that it is naturalized.

There is probably more going on here than just a question of whether a flower was native or introduced. Hudson’s parent were English and Irish, settled in the United States and eventually moved to Argentina. Hudson grew up in Argentina, established a name for himself there (and in England) as a talented naturalist, and settled in England when he was 33. As Jason Wilson points out in WH Hudson: the Colonial’s Revenge, Hudson resented the fact that he was never truly accepted into English society. (Having lived as a foreigner in two countries, I can empathize with that frustration.)

Hudson’s question about what is native and what is introduced is still valid, though. And his underlying motivations make it all the more interesting. The talk about introduced plants and animals, in particular “invasive species” is often closely related with the way immigrants (especially illegal immigrants) are spoken of. This is especially true when it comes to eradicating a species, such as grey squirrels or buddleia.

In many cases, the fears about “invasive species” prove to be unfounded, such as the concerns about kudzu taking over the southern United States.  These can often have benefits, such as extending the time certain pollinators have access to nectar.

Certainly, introduced species can have an impact on an ecosystem. This is cause for concern and should be paid attention to, but the discussion of so-called “invasive species” can often lose sight of what is happening ecologically, and other social anxieties seem to hijack the discussion. Hudson was complaining about the term “introduced” but I think that “invasive species” is even more problematic. It’s a term that is going to play on those social anxieties whether we want it to or not. Nobody wants to be invaded, and raising the spectre of an “invasion” isn’t helpful when trying to understand something as complex as the ecological impacts of different plants and animals.

Uncertainty is celebrated

Uncertainty is a very bad thing. It’s evolutionarily a bad thing. If you’re not sure that’s a predator, it’s too late…

The question “why?” is one of the most dangerous things you can do because it takes you into uncertainty. And yet, the irony is that the only way we can ever do anything new is to step into that space. So how can we ever do anything new.?

Fortunately, evolution has given us answer, and it enables to address even the most difficult of questions.

The best questions are the ones that create uncertainty. They’re the ones that questions the things that we think to be true already. It’s easy to ask questions about how did life begin or what is the extent of the known universe, but to question what we think to be true already is really stepping into that space.

So, what is evolution’s answer to the problem of uncertainty? It’s play. Now play is not simply a process. Experts in play will tell you that actually it’s a way of being. Play is one of the only human endeavors where uncertainty is celebrated. Uncertainty is what makes play fun.

Beau Lotto explaining why play helps us answer the most difficult questions. He goes on to claim that the characteristics of play are exactly the characteristics that make a good scientist.

From there, he wondered if children would make great scientists. It turns out they do. The student of Blackawton Primary School in Devon came up with, designed and implemented a scientific experiment. The results of which made a valuable contribution to science and were eventually published in a scientific journal.

Amy O’Toole, one of the students involved in the project, is an impressive speaker. Her part of the talk alone makes this a TED talk worth watching.

Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.

Another random book meme

So, after posting the last book meme, Mike went and published another book meme. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  2. Open the book to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.

In my case, the closest book was Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll. And here’s your three sentences:

For example, even though the seven stripes of some tool kit patterns appear very similar and evenly spaced, each stripe is drawn by a different switch that integrates different combinations of longitudinal inputs. This seemed at first like an awful lot of machinery for making just one pattern. But this stripe-by-stripe construction of striped patterns in the fly embryo was the first clue to the general rule that the whole expression pattern of any tool kit gene is actually the sum of many parts, with individual parts controlled by individual switches.

And there you have it: a turning point in Evo Devo. The book is actually quite a good summary of recent developments in biology. The last chapter is probably one of the best defenses of science and evolution that I’ve read recently.