Category: biology

The buzz about neonicotinoids: Hive minding your own business.

ImageI noticed a request to sign a petition on facebook with the heading

BAN THE PESTICIDES THAT ARE KILLING BEES

I was also alerted to the same issue on facebook via a butterfly conservation page that said

Today the March of the Beekeepers, organised by Buglife and others, will advance on Parliament Square, Westminster to support a temporary ban of neonicotinoid pesticides. Could these pesticides affect butterflies and moths as well as bees?

and linked to details of a protest against neonicotinoid insecticides called March of the Beekeepers.

So, the claim is that neonicotinoid insecticides, having proven to be killing bees, may also be the cause of butterfly decline. Facebook messages followed in support of the march.

This seems like a good thing, right? The huge german company Bayer are manufacturing these pesticides, and there’s a ton of evidence to prove the connection between this stuff and the bees dying. Surely.

So, I decided to take a look at some of the evidence on offer, linked from the campaign. Here’s their science (a very short pdf). Now, straight away, I have little problem. They say

…independent studies showed serious sub-lethal impacts on non-target invertebrates.

which suggests to me that nobody is talking about the killing of bees, oh, except for the

BAN THE PESTICIDES THAT ARE KILLING BEES

people.

Secondly, I have a problem with the way they casually broaden out the category to include any environmental impact, including earthworms and mammals, however interesting that is, when the issue at hand is bees. To me this looks like cherry picking, although it’s very hard to be certain because the most relevant sounding studies listed are seemingly unavailable (google-wise).

For a little balance, I came across the Scientific Beekeeping site which appears to present quite a different story.

Yes, bees can be effected by this pesticide when dosed enough. It appears to be general scientific consensus, seen here in the Relatively objective reviews section, however, that it is very unlikely to be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

My concern is that people are allowing their political judgement (perhaps a suspicion of companies like Bayer, and a dislike of “unnatural” pesticides) to cloud their scientific judgment. In my view, this situation could become another mass moral panic, resulting in a blanket ban. My fear is that the campaigners will move on to some other issue and the bees will keep dying.

The science is not simple here, and the slogans of the marchers (who I suspect may not be exclusively beekeepers) do not reflect the scientific complexity, resulting in an emotion-driven movement that is unlikely to be productive.

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taking the me out of the mix

Some time ago I was annoyed.

Not at anything specific, just generally irritated. Maybe by my life circumstances, maybe by my inability to reach any satisfying conclusions when thinking about philosophy, ethics, responsibility and identity, maybe by a general feeling of existential angst, a sense of ennui.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t right.

So I decided to do a little thought experiment.
It went like this:
What if there is no “me”?

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I mean, what if there was no mind, no consciousness (outside the strict medical definition) and no free will?

How would this change who I was?

I’d read about the idea of us having no free will in various neuroscience blogs, and I found it interesting, but I hadn’t previously considered it as an alteration of my world view.
So I considered the way I would interact with others, the way I would arrive at decisions, the way I would view myself.
I thought about each of these in turn.
And I could not find, despite serious consideration, any difference.
None!
Within this thought experiment, life went on just as it did before. Everything remained exactly in place in my brain. I detected no change.
Nothing.

So I thought,
“Hold on a minute! I may be on to something here!” and decided to run with it. The question then arises:

How?

How do I actually go about detached from the idea of free will? Without a “me” to think about? Well, that could be the subject of its own post, but basically, I just did it.

I can’t even call it a decision as such, more a form of realization, because once you accept this world view, decisions are no longer quite what they seem.

But I digress.

It was the new me. Or rather, the new not-me, and everything was just as before.
It appeared that all that vague baggage that I’d assigned to my mind, all those recursive philosophical concepts that I’d attached to my identity, all of that stuff had absolutely no impact on what was happening in my brain! It felt like I’d shut down a whole department of my organization, sent everyone home, locked the doors, and nobody had even noticed.
Strange.
I was half expecting something, a panic attack, a sudden onset of stuttering, bursting into tears at the sight of a broken flower stem, I don’t know, just something!

Nothing.
Everything went on exactly as before.

So that’s it. All was well. End of story.

until…

As time went on, I started to feel an alteration in the way I felt after all. Something had changed.
At first it was barely noticeable, indefinite, really quite vague. Try as I may, I just couldn’t pin it down. I was trying to find the new thing that had come into my thought processes, whatever it was, but I couldn’t get hold of it.
And then it hit me.
There was no new thing.

It was old things.
And they were missing.

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I realized I no longer felt such a weight of expectation, that sense that I’m letting myself down somehow.
I no longer felt such a suspicion that some others had a depth to them that I could never understand.
I no longer felt as much irritation at people’s faults, including my own, because I’d discarded my mental model of perfection.
Without a sense of some abstract, deeper meaning, my brain appears to have taken a slow, deep sigh of relief. I’d managed to deflate a bubble of cognitive dissonance. Like clearing a blockage.

The irony: the thought experiment that I embarked upon with some trepidation, due to a fear of somehow losing my sense of self, led me to a state of increased confidence, greater enthusiasm for life, and, quite often, simple, childish, carefree joy.
Another difference worth noting: those close to me now find me even more maddening than before, but hey, there’s always a downside.

House guidelines that you’re free to ignore

I like arguing. I love a good verbal altercation. I like talking to people who disagree with me, not for the sake of disagreeing, but for the thrill of being challenged, being confronted with an alternative world view, being forced to think differently. The Internet is a wonderful place for such interactions. You can easily search out a favorite topic, knock out a (what you think is) thoughtful opinion, respond to the reactions, get in a little fight, all without having to shout over music in a bar, with no danger of getting a drink thrown in your face when you get a little cheeky, no need for a taxi home at the end of the night. All great stuff.
The problem arises, however, when you find yourself arguing by different rules, resulting in misunderstandings, hurt feelings (not mine, usually, as I am, at times, embarrassingly thick-skinned), and a general lowering of the tone *straightens tie disdainfully*, so, for the delight of my many readers and contributors (hey, you two), I shall now attempt to lay out a few guidelines on how best to engage with me on such hot topics as: “where are ethics from?”, “why are scientists all evil?”, and “what are the chances of teleology being a measurable reality?” (One or more of those may not actually be a very hot topic) –

  • even if the subject matter gets heavy, keep the tone reasonably playful and light. I believe you can make even more pointed criticism of someone’s opinion when it’s done with a smile (of course, this could be perceived as being glib, smug, or patronizing, but it’s a risk worth taking if we can avoid gloomy grumpiness).
  • if your opponent has made a worthwhile and thoughtful point, take the time to acknowledge it, even if you still don’t agree.
  • try and remain open to the possibility that you may be wrong. If you don’t do this, it’s hard to get the other person’s point.
  • are you arguing from a logically consistent position? If you’re unsure, admitting that doubt is no bad thing.
  • focus on what you have in common with your opponent. Establishing common ground should help move things along.
  • ask yourself honestly what your goals are in the debate. Is it true intellectual curiosity or are you just trying to win? If it’s the latter, it may not be the best use of your time.

Okay, that’s it. I fully acknowledge that I don’t manage to stick to any of these for longer than the first few nanoseconds of kerfuffle, but my intentions are good. Anything I’ve missed?

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Lice to meet you!

Saying hello is only monkey business, and it helps to keep that in mind. An attempt to combine zoology and business greetings.

_62548099_chimpanzeehandclaspIn a typical business english class, I’m often tasked with not just teaching the polite small-talk of pre-business meeting introductions, but also of persuading Germans that it’s necessary to use this rather subtle style of social interaction, rather than the relatively brusk german approach.

This is where the wonderful zoologist Desmond Morris comes in. In his book The Naked Ape, written way back in the 70s, but still brimming with anthropological nuggets, he posits that human greetings are an extension of our primate grooming instincts. An ape will approach with an extended begging paw while quickly smacking its lips, symbolising the act of collecting and eating the flakes of skin and parasites from the areas the other ape cannot reach. Many primates other than ourselves have also ritualised this grooming activity, using it as a social bonding exercise, and, perhaps partially due to our lack of fur, we have further transformed it into handshakes, waves, nods, bows, removal of hats and enquiries about states of health.

In Germany the firm handshake takes care of much of the grooming process, allowing Frankfurter financiers and Berliner bureaucrats to get straight down the the meat of the matter. Good for them, I say (I’m a big fan of directness), but how many other cultures hold such heavy stock in the old paw clasp?

The british, for example, have developed an elaborate greeting performance (in common with that other little island nation, Japan, where there is crucial significance in the depth and duration of the bow, resulting in a repeated series of “reply” bows, calling to mind an image of two nodding donkey pumps). In Britain, the overly direct handshake is either softened or often completely replaced by a complex, chattering dance involving asking how someone is, replying in the positive then asking back, also replying positively, then muttering about weather, inquiring about travel conditions, apologising for the paltry selection of snacks, and so on.

This exotically polite word ballet is often mistakenly assumed by the hapless german interloper to begin with a genuine health enquiry, thereby bringing the ritual to an abrupt halt with an honest medical assessment as reply, usually a complaint about a cold that is taking for ever to go, a lack of sleep the night before, backache, a stiff neck, or any other ailment that germans enjoy dwelling upon.

Bearing this in mind, my goal is to help my students understand the value of gauging the social grooming dance correctly. Each culture has cultivated our genetically programmed, furry urge to remove dead skin and ticks from one another into rituals that may vary, but they all serve the same purpose. A shake; a bow; a “How are you?” – “I’m fine, and you?”. Regardless of the culture, if all goes well, the result is metaphorically tick-free fur, and a social bond, with everyone ready to get down to business.