To betray our nature.

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

–Alan Jacobs, Anthropocene theology

Ice Age Solastalgia

The mammoth’s extinction may have been our original ecological sin. When humans left Africa 70,000 years ago, the elephant family occupied a range that stretched from that continent’s southern tip to within 600 miles of the North Pole. Now elephants are holed up in a few final hiding places, such as Asia’s dense forests. Even in Africa, our shared ancestral home, their populations are shrinking, as poachers hunt them with helicopters, GPS, and night-vision goggles. If you were an anthropologist specializing in human ecological relationships, you may well conclude that one of our distinguishing features as a species is an inability to coexist peacefully with elephants.

But nature isn’t fixed, least of all human nature. We may yet learn to live alongside elephants, in all their spectacular variety. We may even become a friend to these magnificent animals. Already, we honor them as a symbol of memory, wisdom, and dignity. With luck, we will soon re-extend their range to the Arctic. […]

Nikita and Sergey seemed entirely unbothered by ethical considerations regarding mammoth cloning or geoengineering. They saw no contradiction between their veneration of “the wild” and their willingness to intervene, radically, in nature. At times they sounded like villains from a Michael Crichton novel. Nikita suggested that such concerns reeked of a particularly American piety. “I grew up in an atheist country,” he said. “Playing God doesn’t bother me in the least. We are already doing it. Why not do it better?”

–Ross Andersen, Welcome to Pleistocene Park

Cats are the 38th worst invasive species on the planet

The most obvious impact of feral cats is the predatory impact they exert on native prey populations; this has resulted in the probable local or regional decline or extinction of many species (Dickman 1996). However, unambiguous evidence of cats causing a decline in a prey species is difficult to find as other factors, such as other predator species, may also be involved in the decline (Dickman 1996). One exception to this is a study by Saunders (1991) which showed that cats killed 7% of nestlings of red-tailed cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus magnificus) over 11 breeding seasons in Western Australia. Several reintroduction programmes in Australia have failed, due to the predation pressure exerted by feral cats, often in conjunction with foxes. For example, the success of the reintroductions of the golden bandicoot (Isoodon auratus) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia was hindered primarily by feral cat predation. In general, the predatory impact of cats primarily affects birds and small to medium-sized mammals (Dickman 1996). Endangered species around the world are threatened by the presence of cats, including the black stilt (see Himantopus novaezelandiae in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) (New Zealand), the Okinawa woodpecker (see Sapheopipo noguchii in IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) (Japan) and the Cayman Island ground iguana (see Cyclura lewisi in IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), to list just some of the many species effected.\r\n

Changes in island fauna after the introduction of cats can provide compelling evidence of their predatory impact. Cats have been introduced to 40 islands off the coast of Australia; seven off the coast of New Zealand and several dozen islands elsewhere in the Pacific (Dickman 1992a, Veitch 1985, King 1973 1984, in Dickman 1996). Feral cats have been implicated in the decline of at least six species of island endemic birds in New Zealand, including the Stephens Island wren, the sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) and the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), as well as 70 local populations of insular birds (King 1984, in Dickman 1996). The elimination of cats often leads to an increase in the population size of prey species. For example, following removal of cats from Little Barrier Island, New Zealand, the stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta) increased from less than 500 individuals to 3000 individuals in just a few years (Griffin et al. 1988, in Dickman 1996).

Felis Catus, ranked 38th worst invasive species by the Global Invasive Species Database

Climate change and the politics of knowledge

As might be expected, people’s views about whether there is scientific understanding about climate change tie more closely to their science knowledge and education levels. For example, people who know more about science also tend to perceive strong consensus among climate scientists that human activity is responsible for climate change. However, only Democrats, not Republicans, hold beliefs about scientific consensus which vary with their level of science knowledge. Democrats holding medium or high levels of knowledge are more inclined to perceive strong consensus among climate scientists than are those with low science knowledge levels. A similar pattern occurs in public views about scientific understanding. People’s beliefs about how well climate scientists understand whether climate change is occurring and the causes of climate change are significantly linked with science knowledge among Democrats. But there is no difference among Republicans with high, medium or low levels of science knowledge in their perceptions of climate scientists’ understanding of whether climate change is occurring or scientists’ understanding of the causes of climate change. Similarly, there is a tendency for people with more science knowledge to expect harms to the Earth’s ecosystem to occur because of climate change, but this pattern occurs only among Democrats.

–Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy, The Politics of Climate

Racializing eco-catastrophe

Through it all Zimring convincingly argues that the mainstream American imagination contains two great anxieties: an accelerating knowledge that the systems that give us things like Hondas, iPhones, and burgers are environmentally disastrous; and a frantically repressed sense that this catastrophe falls hardest on people of color.

–Ryan Boyd, “Book Review: Clean and White by Carl A. Zimring”

Environmental imaginations: providential, utilitarian, ecologial

The important category in After Nature is one Purdy borrows from Lawrence Buell: “environmental imagination.” The environmental imagination is the “everyday metaphysics” (7), all the beliefs and essential metaphors with which any people perceive, account for, and in turn, shape their natural environment. Historically, Purdy argues, Americans have moved through three modes of imagining their environment. First was the “providential.” The New World was a chaotic waste which God intended its Old World immigrants to shape into a garden. This way of thinking predominated through the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialism and a growing population presented social and environmental problems of vastly greater scale. An emerging “utilitarian imagination” largely replaced the providential. According to the utilitarian perspective, natural resources could be managed by the procedures of rational science. This was part of Progressives’ re-thinking of the American project, “a technocratic approach to social and economic life that turned political questions into scientific ones” (179).

After World War II, and especially beginning in the 1960s, the “ecological imagination” began to take hold, aided by the rise of the holistic science of ecology, the recognition of an interconnected web of life, and a persistent discontentedness with the failures of modernity, which included the plain facts of environmental deterioration. This third mode proved a watershed. The early seventies saw a brief consensus during which laws were passed to clean up the air and water. Despite some successes, however, bad news about the environment continued to mount. The so-called culture wars that followed can be explained as a conflict between “constituencies of the new ecological laws and those that remained invested in earlier American approaches to the natural world” (213). This is a way to organize thinking about the last forty years of American history that recognizes the importance of an environmental turn. Although Purdy is not so explicit, a reader can readily identify in those “constituencies” still devoted to the providential and utilitarian modes of imagination the Christian fundamentalist and neo-liberal branches of the American right.

–Robert Greene II,  A Case for the Artifice of Politics: Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature

Just a reminder, folks: we live in the future.

Physicists are excited by the discovery because it opens the door for telescopes that can “see” gravity.

At the press conference, Reitze said that the gravitational waves the scientists recorded from the colliding black holes “proves that binary black holes exist in the universe.” And that hasn’t been done before. “It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves,” Reitze said. “We’re going to hear more of these things.”

–Brian Resnick, Scientists just detected gravitational waves. We’ve entered a whole new world for astronomy.

Improve the world, become famous, and/or make money

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

–Francis Collins, Statement on NIH funding of research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos

To me, the biggest likely change in our world from CRISPR-Cas9 and other genomic editing methods won’t be in humans but in the non-humans we use the methods to modify. As it gets cheaper and easier to modify genomes, non-human genomes offer freedom from a lot of regulation, liability, and political controversy, while offering plenty of opportunities to improve the world, become famous, or make money – with combinations of all of the above.

Want to end malaria? Come up with a modified version of Aedes aegypti that can’t transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, or chikungunya viruses to humans and will outcompete and eventually eliminate the wild type. Want to make a really economical biofuel? Take an algae and modify its genome in thousands of ways to optimize it for producing hydrocarbon fuel. Want to bring back the passenger pigeon? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genomes of existing band tail pigeons to match, more or less, the genomes sequenced from specimens on the extinct passenger pigeon. What to corner the market in high-end gifts? Start playing around with horse genomes adding in bits and pieces from other species in an effort to produce actual unicorns. What to make a splash as an artist? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to make a warren of truly glow-in-the-dark rabbits.

In fact, on the same day Science published the moratorium call on-line, it published on-line an article on one very successful “gene drive” system, using CRISPR-Cas9, that could spread a chosen genetic variant very quickly through an entire population. (See the news story in the next day’s magazine here.)

It is these kinds of uses of genomic engineering that could reshape the biosphere. As the ability to make carefully engineered genomic changes becomes more widely accessible, the possibility of insufficiently controlled or considered experiments increases dramatically. And so, of course, does the chance of more controlled interventions. I would like to see much more focus on this issue, of great practical importance, instead of so much attention on the sexier issue of germline genome modification in humans.

-Hank Greely, Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

Context and links via Vox.

On a related note, over the holidays I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) for the first time. I suggest you do the same.