If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Science

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

In early spring much of the land remains bare, with soil left exposed after the harvest of quinoa that feeds an insatiable appetite for the high-protein grain in Europe and the U.S.

The timing is unfortunate. Before the year’s crops are planted, the winds off the Atacama Desert in Chile scour the empty fields, carrying twice as many tons of sediment into the lake as they did before native grasses and shrubs were cleared for quinoa production.

“Drying Lakes,” Kenneth Weiss

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National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

The United Nations warned a decade ago that indigenous people would be among the first to be ravaged by climate change because so many rely on nature’s bounty as subsistence hunters and fishermen. An estimated 23.5 million people fled their homes in 2016 because of storms, floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and other weather-related disasters, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. That exceeded the 6.9 million newly displaced by conflict and violence that year.

In sheer numbers those fleeing “natural” calamities have outnumbered those fleeing war and conflict for decades. Still, these figures do not include people forced to abandon their homelands because of drought or gradual environmental degradation; almost two and a half billion people live in areas where human demand for water exceeds the supply. Globally the likelihood of being uprooted from one’s home has increased 60 percent compared with 40 years ago because of the combination of rapid climate change and growing populations moving into more vulnerable areas.

“Drying Lakes,” Kenneth Weiss

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

You can call them “failed experiments” in evolution if you want, but they succeeded and flourished, within their preferred but challenging environments, for more than 30 million years. We humans should be so steadfast and lucky.

“When Life Got Complicated,” David Quammen, of Ediacarans

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

The family tree of each of us is graced by all those great inventors: the beings who first tried out self-replication, the manufacture of protein machine tools, the cell, cooperation, predation, symbiosis, photosynthesis, breathing oxygen, sex, hormones, brains, and all the rest–inventions we use, some of them, minute-by-minute without ever wondering who devised them and how much we owe to these unknown benefactors, in a chain 100 billion links long.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

…There we can also find friendship, altruism, love, fidelity, courage, intelligence, invention, curiosity, forethought, and a host of other characteristics that we humans should be glad to have in greater measure. Those who deny or decry our “animal” natures underestimate what those natures are.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. … The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Learning by doing is–in science and technology, as in many other human activities–much more effective than learning by rote. Knowing … that a problem exists and can be solved with the tools at hand is most of the battle.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

If we have not much peered into the hearts and minds of other species and have not even studied them carefully, we may impute to them virtues and strengths as well as vices and deficiencies that in fact they lack. Consider this bit of verse by the poet Walt Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so
      placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
      of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
      thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

On the basis of the evidence presented in this book, we doubt if any of Whitman’s six purported differences between other animals and humans is true–at least given a little poetic license; that is, in the spirit if not the letter of the poem.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

When chimpanzees born in the wild were confronted with a full-length mirror, at first–like other animals–they thought the reflection was someone else. But within a few days they had it figured out. Then, they’d use the mirror to preen, and to examine inaccessible parts of themselves, looking over their shoulders to view their backs, for example. … Watching themselves in the mirror wearing hats is also a wildly popular and apparently gripping experience.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

A deity responsible on a case-by-case basis for precision injection of souls into this immense host of tiny creatures over the full range of geological time would be a very fussy as well as a very inefficient creator. Why not design it right from the beginning, and let life run by itself? Would the god responsible for the subtle, elegant, and universally applicable laws of physics do such slapdash, error-ridden, journeyman work in biology–requiring hands-on attention to every pathetic little microbe when they already know perfectly well how to reproduce themselves and vast stores of information?