Decline in wildlife numbers

Global wildlife populations are set to fall by more than two-thirds since 1970 by the end of the decade, warns the Living Planet report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
The assessment of more than 14,000 populations of 3706 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles from around the world reveals a 58 per cent fall between 1970 and 2012 – with no sign that the average yearly 2 per cent drop in numbers will slow.
The figures have prompted experts to warn that nature is facing a global “mass extinction” for the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs.

Species are being affected by unsustainable agriculture, fishing, mining and other human activities that threaten habitats, as well as climate change and pollution. “Human behaviour continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats,” said Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL. But he stressed that, so far, these are declines rather than extinctions. “This should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations,” he said.

We share the planet with a host of other creatures. That host is being reduced by human activity. We should be conserving them. To suggest that the cause is not global climate change simply illustrates the ignorance of part of the public and their determination to ignore and denigrate scientists at every opportunity. Talk about cutting off one’s nose to spite ones face!

Where have all the American boom towns gone?

“America’s boom towns have disappeared. Throughout its history, the country’s cities have transformed themselves into hotbeds of growth and prosperity. San Francisco became a boom town due to the 1850s gold rush; Detroit tripled in size between 1910 and 1930 thanks to the rise of the car industry; Los Angeles exploded in the 1920s as film sets, oil wells and aircraft plants drew in migrants seeking their fortunes. As for Chicago, in 1850 it was a muddy frontier town of 30,000 souls; by 1910 it was “hog butcher for the world” and the nerve centre of the US rail network, with more than two million residents.

“But America no longer creates boom towns. The areas experiencing high growth today, such as the Sun Belt, are attracting people with cheap housing, not high wages, while the places that should be drawing in ambitious migrants – Brooklyn, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston’s suburbs, Washington – are barely growing. Tight restrictions on development and the resulting sky-high property prices have seen to that. When migration stalls in the very places with the most opportunities, it can only worsen income inequality and stifle a nation’s productivity”. (Emily Badger, New York Times)

My personal take on this is that in former times big industry relied more on brawn than on brain. Now so much depends on education snd technical expertise. The tech industry thrives on savvy immigrants, specially from India, where some of the smartest engineers and well-educated computer experts now come from. As a foreigner (but a US citizen) I feel I can look at the American scene as, partially, an outsider. What I see is a disappointing educational situation (I am being polite!). The level of education in general is poor, which is why the country desperately needs immigration. O.K, the right kind of immigration. One reads comments on the web and in newspapers and it is clear that too many people cannot even speak or write their own language. If you can’t do that, you resort to a limited vocabulary of crudeness and vulgarity. If Americans just want to get a job and don’t value “education” then scrap many of the universities, create technical training institutions where you learn something that is useful to companies, and admit that the old ideal of education is beyond us.

We are in the midst of a huge social and political crisis that there is no political will to correct (the lock-hold of the NRA on politicians being a prime example). We have given up democracy and are now experiencing an oligarchy. There are enlightened exceptions of course, but in general oligarchs are happy with the status quo, which is one of extremes of wealth and poverty and a reluctance to invest in the health and welfare of the country. How can you possibly feel pleasure or enjoy ataraxia in such a situation? And yet there are apparently millenials who willingly support this!

Seneca on procrastination

But even “more idiotic” (to use Seneca’s unambiguous language) than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind – that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca on achievment and ambition

Seneca was particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition, which cause us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging.

It is inevitable that life will be not only very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for someone else, toiling away toward goals laid out by another.

When you are young it is natural to be ambitious and to try to achieve great things. But if you remain that way at 70 or 80 you have learned little from life and are probably difficult to live with. For most of us this striving seems rather pointless.

Seneca on wasting time

“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while the very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. How late it is to begin to really live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”

Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living.

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s great minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?”

Guns and the Florida school massacre

At least the Florida legislature has bucked the NRA and introduced some safety improvements for guns. But have they banned AR-15 military-style, rapid fire assault guns? No!

According to local police, the perpetrator, Cruz, was armed with such an AR-15 rifle. These weapons fire bullets that can penetrate a steel helmet from a distance of five hundred yards. When fired from close range at civilians who aren’t wearing body armor, the bullets from an AR-15 don’t merely penetrate the human body—they tear it apart. It “looks like a grenade went off in there,” Peter Rhee, a trauma surgeon at the University of Arizona, told Wired. (part of an article by John Cassidy in the NewYorker magazine, February 15).

I was watching CNN immediately after the gun atrocity at the school in Florida. A member of the panel seriously suggested that all schools should have armed guards with loaded guns outside the premises. What have we come to? Shoot-out at O.K Corrall? There are sensible things Congress could do about guns that don’t involve confiscating everyone’s “sacred” firearms. Not selling automatic weapons designed for soldiers in wartime to disturbed 19 year olds is a start. But the panel member didn’t even begin to address what the majority of the US population want. The NRA and its shills simply don’t care, nor, apparently, do the Federal congressmen who take its sordid campaign money.

From my personal (and terrifying) experience, when a shooter starts shooting, the average trained armed guard, shocked and nervous, is unlikely to hit anything, except by accident. The people who seriously expect fire to be returned and the instigator instantly shot dead have been watching too many Wild West movies (which, by the way, have had a dire effect on generations of, mainly, men – the Sherriff unerringly gets the bad man, immediately and calmly. Real life is seldom like that!).

Is there any point in old men? (Don’t all shout at once!)

“In “How Men Age” biological anthropologist Richard Bribiescas covers some interesting uncharted territory. This is not a mere description of getting older. Instead, by considering male ageing in the light of natural selection, it aims to answer why men’s lifespans are shorter than women’s, why baldness, prostate disease and erectile dysfunction are so prevalent, and how humans as a species have benefited from men’s tendency to get fat.

“From an evolutionary perspective, nothing matters more than sex. And as far as men are concerned, nothing influences sexual power more than testosterone. It increases libido, promotes muscle growth and encourages risk-taking behaviour – all of which help attract a mate. But testosterone peaks in early adulthood, so that men are past their physical prime by the age of 30. It’s tempting to see it as all downhill from there. But Bribiescas shows convincingly that’s not the case. He points out that testosterone has a dark side – it can increase a man’s metabolic rate and suppress the immune system. In other words, there’s a trade-off. High levels of the hormone early in life help explain why men don’t live as long as women and why they are prone to prostate cancer later on. So waning testosterone can be seen as a positive development. It may make older men less physically competitive against younger ones, but men can produce offspring throughout their lives and, argues Bribiescas, as they age they develop new reproductive strategies to achieve this.

For a start, although they may lack raw strength, their experience often makes them better providers than their younger counterparts. Bribiescas has done fieldwork with the Ache people of Paraguay, and points to research showing that men’s hunting success peaks in their 40s, long after their testosterone levels peak. What’s more, older men tend to become more nurturing. As testosterone decreases, a man’s girth increases, and the metabolic changes associated with growing adiposity* promote care of offspring. Bribiescas calls this the “pudgy dad hypothesis”, and argues that it has implications for the evolution of our species as a whole.

Humans live far longer than other primates. For longevity to evolve, natural selection must favour long-lived individuals. Older women cannot reproduce, so they are out of the running. But if, throughout human history, older men have been fathering children, then they will have passed on genes associated with longevity to both daughters and sons. Old men, therefore, could be the reason we all live so long. It would appear there is some point to them after all. (review by Kate Douglas, New Scientist, of “How Men Age: What evolution reveals about male health and mortality”, by Richard Bribiescas, Princeton University Press.
(* denoting body tissue used for the storage of fat)

I have also been wondering what the point of old men is. I concluded that the only reason for them is to bring the credit card with them to the restaurant to pay for the meal, and then to leave the tip. However, after serious thought I think they have other functions: to tell stories, make people laugh and to tell the truth about life. And, Oh, the freedom you feel when you can’t be fired and you no longer care so much about what people think of you! Epicurus clearly had old men in mind when he developed his philosophy, there in his garden.

A different perspective

The following letter was written in October 2016, but, aware that the opposition to Brexit on this blog can be passionate, to say the least, I think that Epicurean moderation and respect for the opinions of others require me to publicise an interesting pro-Brexit point of view from Angus Dalgleish, a professor of oncology research at St George’s, University of London, an expert in his field:

“Brexit will be a boon for scientists?
“There has been a “chorus of doom” about the negative impact Brexit will have on scientific research. Well, I’ve no concerns about leaving the EU – in fact, it will be a blessed relief for people in my field. Britain used to be one of the best places in the world to do clinical trials. But the EU Clinical Trials Directive of 2004 more or less killed off the trials industry, with onerous, overcautious new regulations which have stifled innovation.

“Thus researchers are now barred from looking for exciting new uses for old drugs – I, for example, conducted trials with a TB vaccine in cancer patients – practices that used to yield breakthroughs. As for the allocation of grant money, this – as my experience on an EU cancer commission taught me – is mainly “determined by lobbying, not by peer-reviewed decisions”. Leaving the EU will allow us to escape this “constipated culture” and return to “a freer, researcher-led and much more creative approach to regulating medical studies and saving lives”. (The Daily Telegraph and The Week).

Good news? However, I must say I am surprised to learn that the UK is free of the problem found everywhere else, namely that grant money is not “determined by lobbying, not by peer-reviewed decisions”. Amazing!

Good news (for men)

In a world first, the National Health Service in Britain plans to cut prostate cancer diagnosis times from six weeks to a matter of days. Currently a test for men with prostate cancer requires an MRI scan and a biopsy where a dozen samples are taken, requiring multiple hospital visits. But a new “one-stop” service will be trialled in three west London hospitals which will complete all the necessary tests in one day. The new MRI scan, known as an mpMRI, provides higher quality imagery and provides up to 40% of patients with a same day diagnosis. For people who need a biopsy, ultrasound images with 3D MRI scans are used to target areas for taking tissue samples. The NHS claims the technique virtually eliminates the threat of sepsis.

About5,000 men will be tested over the next two years in three London hospitals, allowing many men to avoid invasive biopsies as well as allowing precision biopsy in those men requiring it. High risk tumours are expected to be found much earlier, and cost-effectively.

As is fairly typical, not everyone thinks the new system is wonderful. Consultant radiologist Dr Anthony Chambers is concerned that men will be pushed through the process far too quickly when all they have a common infection called prostatitis, not cancer. He also fears that the system will divert resources from more urgent conditions. (BBC News, March 3rd)

Why am I raising this medical issue? For a personsl reason – generations of my family on the male side have had prostate cancer, myself included. Most of them died of it. I have two sons. I hope those who follow Epicurus will understand the point. In addition, the poor old NHS gets a bad rap on a daily basis (and is maligned in the US). Nice to report good news!