Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

A Philosophical Botany

In Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany Matthew Hall’s argument doesn’t strike me as provocative, but for others grounded in anthropocentrism, zoocentrism, Cartesian dualities, and very out-of-date biological understanding, it may.

“Plants and humans share a basic, ontological reality as perceptive, aware, autonomous, self-governed, and intelligent beings,” he writes.

As fellow eukaryotes, plants and animals (and fungi) all share nucleated cells as our foundational organizational structure. Even more fundamentally: there would not be life on earth as we know it without plants expelling oxygen as waste. They are the primary converters of solar energy into life, without which we would not exist. Eating plants, or eating the things that eat plants, we are completely dependent on plants. Yet we certainly do not give plants the respect and care we should. Quite the opposite, in fact. The thingness of plants makes them easy to dismiss, uproot, poison, pave-over, manipulate, and above all, disregard.

Hall discusses the roots of the lordly disregard of plants in Western thought (the Judeo-Christian-Aristotlian nexus); alternatives in other worldly traditions (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist); and older approaches (animist, pagan, Indigenous). Then, detailing recent discoveries of kinds of sentience and mentality in plants, he’s off to the races. A blurb on the back makes the inevitable allusion to Peter Singer’s groundbreaking Animal Liberation. So what about plant liberation?

Hall counsels a restorative approach. A combination of restorative justice and ecological restoration? Profound food for thought.

This blog is not predominantly a plant blog. I just don’t know enough to handle the plants. So may I suggest In Defense of Plants as an excellent corrective?

On Heredity

Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity is an essential read in our present moment. Genetic essentialism and ignorance; fundamentalism and fascism; the revival of eugenic racist thought and strategy by the Republicans; all these combine in the vital necessity of a history and understanding of biological and cultural heredity today.

The perversions of the title are grim indeed. You must know that American anti-immigration, eugenics, “scientific racism,” bogus histories of “feeblemindedness,” and forced sterilization programs, aroused by the robber barons and given impetus by philanthropists and museums like the American Museum of Natural History, were the direct precursors of the Nazi exterminations. The Nazis were frank in their admiration and emulation of these American notions.

Meanwhile, genetic essentialism, the notion that genes are destiny, crowds the minds of the ignorant. Did you know that at least one sperm bank lets you pick the astrological sign of the donor?

Unsurprisingly, too, racists still fall back on bogus genetic determinism for their beliefs. The white supremacist fantasists extolling a kind of white Euro-putinesque nonsense are clueless about the actual history of the waves of migration into what we now call Europe. (Isn’t it sick irony, too, that people of Irish, southern European, and eastern European ancestry, barely considered white a century ago, now Trump-et themselves the saviors of a nonexistent white race?)

“If you go back far enough in the history of a human population, you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people.”

There is so much in this book, it’s impossible to summarize. But in addition to the historical material, I was particularly taken with the discussion of CRISPR, which has both amazing and terrifying potential, and the following.

I’ve been using the term chimera for a while now to refer to both the human/microbiome mixture and the more basic mitochondria-cellular fusion, but there is actually another biological sense as well. First discovered in cows, later humans: fetal twins can share their mother’s and each other’s cells, resulting in all sorts of fascinating mixtures.

We used to think the placenta was an iron wall between mother and fetus, but “about half of mothers still carry fetal cells in their blood decades after carrying their children.” These can include Y chromosomes (females, remember, have XX chromosomes). Meanwhile, an estimated “42% of children end up with cells from their mothers.” Girls can end up with Y chromosomes because their mother had previously given birth to a boy. Writes Zimmer, “We use words like sister and aunt as if they describe rigid laws of biology. But despite our genetic essentialism, these laws are really only rules of thumb. Under the right conditions, they can be readily broken.”

Beware of rules and laws. They were made to be broken.


“What is to be done?” asked Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in the title of his 1863 novel about the situation of Russian. Chernyshevsky wrote, from prison, something of a “handbook of radicalism,” postulating a sort of utopian peasant/commune/industrial socialism. Perhaps, though, the most important thing about the book was the burning titular question, which fired debate and influenced, among many others, Kropotkin, Luxembourg, and Lenin. Tolstoy, too, although of a different tenor: his What is To Be Done? was published 1886. Lenin used the question as the title of his 1902 pamphlet arguing for a vanguard party to lead the workers and peasants towards communism, part of the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into “majority” (Bolshevik) and “minority” (Menshevik) factions.

I think of this question, and its ultimate disaster of an answer in Bolshevik dictatorship, when it comes to climate breakdown. (George Monibot argues that “climate change” is entirely too mild for is going to — excuse me, I mean, what IS happening now.)

Because… What is to be done? “How will the world respond politically” to climate breakdown?

In Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright offer some…guidance? They argue that a globally sovereign “Climate Leviathan” is taking shape, via the existing international order/hierarchy of the capitalist economies of the global North (largely responsible for burning fossil capital in the first place), “to enable the world’s most powerful states to engage in planetary management.” Since we essentially already have this, and the “state of emergency” model that liberal democracies already frighteningly depend on, this definitely looks like the approach the world is taking. But can a green Keynesianism do the trick, allowing adaptation to rising waters, flood/draught pattern shifts, intolerable heat, agricultural transformations, mass migration, political conflict, resource fights, etc? Will liberal capitalism (liberal in the economic sense) get us out of the mess it has created? Or will it just save its elites, and maybe some of their lucky dog-walkers and maids along the way?

Our authors postulate three other responses:

Climate Mao: an authoritarian, anti-capitalist model which justifies state terror in the interest of the collective (the “red thread running from Robespierre to Lenin to Mao”). The current Chinese state-capitalist regime is definitely more Leviathan and Mao now, but Asia, with its billions of climate-breakdown victims to come, is the potential locus of this model, which would also use the emergency model (“we have to do this to save human lives”).

Climate Behemoth: this is the reactionary conservative, “populist,” anti-reason model in vogue now in Central Europe, India, Russia, the Philippines, Brazil, the US…. Here militant minority factions (in the US: older white religious conservatives) rally to demagogues fronting for plutocrats, especially resource-extractors. “Different forms of racial, national and gendered prejudice” organize voters for Trump, Modi, Obran, Putin, etc., but all call for the necessity of otherness, an enemy, as foundational to these new fascisms. You will not be surprised, I think, to discover that the MAGA-bomber was foreclosed not by any of his would-be targets, but by his idol Trump’s rapacious Secretary of the Treasury.

Climate X: the authors choice, X for the unknown, but non-authoritarian, non-capitalist built on equality, inclusion and dignity of all, and “solidarity in composing a world of many worlds.” They leave the details vague. (The point, it seems, is not to philosophize about the world but to change it.)

“Whether we know it or not, all our thinking is environmental, even when it rebels against nature.”

“If good climate data and models were all that were needed to address climate change, we would have seen a political response in the 1980s. Our challenge is closer to a crisis of imagination and ideology; people do not change their conception of the world just because they are presented with new data.”

“The planetary crisis is, among other things, a crisis of the imagination, a crisis of ideology, the result of an inability to conceive any alternative to walls, guns, and finance as tools to address the problems that loom on the horizon.”

Referencing Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene “[…] we do not need to learn to die, but to think, live, and rebel. Moreover, the problem is hardly ‘us’ in the abstract, as if the catastrophe were built into human nature. The problem is largely associated with a specific minority of ‘us’ and the way that minority’s ‘civilization’ have determined the fate of the entire planet. Rather than accept that ‘civilization’ is dead, we need to struggle to create one that is truly civilized.”

The Art of Naming

Last week we muddied the tree of life. This week, the long human attempt to straighten it all out by giving all the pieces names. In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl explores the history and principles of taxonomic naming.

Esoteric? I don’t think so. He dabbles a little in common names, those vernacular names for life-forms, in of themselves voluminous as all get out. For instance, crayfish from the English mispronunciation of the Old French crevise (écrivise in modern French) to the Louisiana crawfish, as these “fish” crawled rather than swam. But what he’s really concerned with is biological nomenclature, also known as scientific names, Latin names (they also include Greek), and binomials (there are also trinomials).

“One could say that the art of taxonomy is the ability to discern between intra- and interspecific variability. One can always find differences between any two animals, but how big do the differences need to be for talk of two species to be justified? Or vice versa, how many differences should be tolerated for two animals to be rightly interpreted as elements of a shared species?”

Homo sapiens: genus and specific epithet. Long time readers know I often pay attention to these things: there’s much to learn in them. (H. sapiens is rather pretentious and presumptuous, for two things.) For birds, I have Choate’s invaluable Dictionary of American Bird Names (there are several editions out there). And some are pretty easy to figure out, even without a resource. Think of the plants and animals with the specific epithet virginiana or virginiensis: pretty clear these were first found in Virginia, which in colonial times theoretically extended to the West Coast, or parts nearby.

I was surprised to learn here you can buy your way into a binomial by giving money, as “charity,” to the taxonomists. Usually when a person’s surname is part of a binomial it’s given as an honor by the namer (who can’t name the species after him/her/their selves). So there are some silly ones, named after favored performers and other uninteresting people. I prefer when there’s some actual data in the name: like that Purple Gallinule who visited Brooklyn last month: Porphyrio martinicus, the purple swamp hen from Martinique.

By the way, Rick Wright is an excellent source for the histories of bird naming.

The Tangled Tree

Add some DNA from viruses, bacteria, chimpanzees, and, for some of us, Neanderthals, and pretty soon— well, ok, after a couple billion years — you have human beings. Let’s stress that plural for a second: we really are beings, our bodies covered inside and out with microbes. Some studies say we’re one-to-one bacterial to human cells, others that we’re three-to-one bacteria-to-human. Maybe thirty-seven trillion bacterial cells in each of us. Bacteria being so small, this turns out to be from 1-3% of our body mass. That’s two to six pounds for a 200 lb adult. We can’t live without these lifeforms; “humanness” very much incorporates these other lifeforms, who are also dependent on us. Of course, in other circumstances, these very things can also kill us.And don’t forget the archaea, the viral particles, the fungal cells, living with, or as, us. All these naturally come up in composite creature (like all us us) David Quammen’s eye-opening new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.

What the book is really about, though, is the discovery over the last fifty years of the chimerical nature of our very cells. Not the microbiome, but the very structure of the cell, which incorporates what were once free-living lifeforms. Mitochondria in animals, chloroplasts in plants: these were originally separate lifeforms. They were absorbed by, or they invaded, cellular life-forms. They didn’t kill their hosts, their hosts didn’t kill them. All together they all became a new thing, mighty things, and they continued generationally.

“This is a profoundly consequential process: the transit of DNA from organelles of bacterial origin into the chromosomes; alien genes becoming incorporated over millions of years into the deepest cellular identity of plants, fungi, and animals.” This is now known as endosymbiotic gene transfer.

Horizontal gene transfer, as opposed to the vertical gene transfer of reproduction, happens all the time between microbes. It’s probably happening in your nose right now. It’s how bacteria thrive; indeed, some suggest that there’s just one superorganism of bacteria in the world, constantly sharing genetic data. (One estimate has total mass of bacteria in the world exceeding the total mass of all plants and animals.) Less theoretically, it’s also how bacteria defeat our antibiotics. Indeed, these antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are now a major threat around the world, especially in hospitals. (The constant low-dosing of domesticated animals with antibiotics to increase their growth sure and hell isn’t helping in the production of super-resistant strains.)

Another related story told by Quammen is the discovery of the Archaea, the third domaine of life, in the 1960s-1970s. Of course these had always been there, but we were confusing them with bacteria, another kind of single-celled lifeform without a nucleus. The nucleus is what distinguishes us, and the plants and the mushrooms (us being the Eukarya) from the archaea and the bacteria. Archaea include some funky little critters, extremophiles who can live at near boiling temperatures and gobble up sulfur like pie, but others are also part of our microbiome. Are they the direct ancestors of the first forms of life on the planet, the start of it all?

“[…] kingdoms of life are hard to define. The lines dividing one kingdom from another are inescapably blurry.” The same goes for species, especially of the microbial kind, but but but also “higher” up, too.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to read the section on mammals, which suggests that we (we here including primates, rodents, bovines, even marsupials, who turn out to have transient placentas), incorporate the immunosuppression abilities of retroviruses to make a better placenta. Think about it: a fetus is an alien invasion, half of its genes from elsewhere (like maybe the mailman?). Why doesn’t this trigger an immune response from the mother? Did these retroviruses join the early mammal team to make the maternal/fetal interchange smoother?So the tree of life concept, which predates Darwin’s famous sketch of 1837 by millennia, is entirely too simple. We are all hybrids. The roots and the branches are all inosculated together, that is, merged (grafted, but without a grafter) via the sharing of genetic material across species, even across kingdoms.

Hell, even a tree isn’t a tree anymore: they’re communal lifeforms living in contact with each other and fungal associations, communicating through the roots and the air…

Bats, Vultures, & Two-Legged Ghouls

Pity uncharismatic wildlife! So much easier to slaughter.

We have here two books on creatures that get the short end of the representational stick most places around the world, meaning the stick is often applied to them. Bats are irrationally feared. They’re also pollinators (of wild bananas, agave, and much else), voracious insect devourers, and seed dispersers. You couldn’t ask for better “ecosystem services.” Personally, I despise the term “ecosystem services,” a product of reductionist thinking that defines every thing, and every non-thing (ideas, emotions), by their economic value.

Bats are also pretty harmless to humans. Bat bites are quite rare, rabies likewise (of course, any mammal bite should be checked with medical professionals). There are no vampire bat species in the U.S. and are only a tiny fraction of bat species are blood-eaters anyway. Yet persecution remains common. Austin, Texas’s famed Congress Avenue Bridge colony of free-tailed bats only dates to the 1980s, and before Tuttle and others calmed the gibbering panic down, there was fear and paranoia galore; now there’s millions in tourist money to be made on the twilight spectacle as more than a million bats fly into the night to consume fifteen tons of insects.

There are some 1300 species of bats in the world. That’s about 20% of all mammal species. They aren’t flying rodents: they’re more akin to flying simians, that is, more related to us than many other mammals. Some are tiny, easily hiding in a corner of a human hand; others, the “flying foxes,” have wingspans as long as six feet!

As he details in The Secret Life of Bats, Merlin Tuttle has been a “bat man” since his teen years. He helped set up Bat Conservation International and more recently his own non-profit to combat the fear, ignorance, and murderous responses of the fearfully ignorant when it comes to bats. The more people know about bats the more they like them.

Tuttle was also a pioneer in bat photography. So I wish there were more and bigger photos in the book. These creatures are amazing to look at. The reputation of his National Geographic spreads got him out of some tight spots around the world. These and other adventures, more than a few life-threatening, are detailed in this valedictorian volume.

At the other end of the age scale, Katie Fallon pitches woo for Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is her case study, but she also ventures further afield. Vultures, for instance, have been decimated in India by a veterinary drug given to cattle; no vultures meant the resulting untended corpses of cattle sparked an explosion in wild dogs and from them a rabies epidemic. Everything connects. In Africa, species are under threat from numerous forces, including poachers who kill them off because a gathering of vultures over illegal kills alerts rangers.

We may not want to think about it, but the corpses of animals, especially the terrible toll of road kills, presents a problem. But vultures can pretty much eat anything, including anthrax, rabies, and botulism. That they puke before take-off, to lighten the load, only makes them more interesting, right?

While discussing the California Condor, still imperiled by lead pollution, Fallon tells an interesting anecdote. A ranger at the Grand Canyon tries to explain to an angry white man (what, again?) that lead ammunition has a distinctive isotopic signature. It’s not lead paint or any other lead delivery system that is poisoning scavengers: it’s fragments of lead from ammunition. The hunter is enraged (cue angry white man again) with science disrupting his ignorance and stomps off, convinced people just want to stop hunting. In fact, Fallow argues that hunters are key to condor survival because the gut piles they leave behind could be excellent sources of food, if only they weren’t poisoned by lead shot. But the hunters, and the industry, and its vicious lobby, refuse to continence changing to copper or steel ammo.


On Wednesday, a white guy tried to shoot up a black church in Kentucky but couldn’t get in. Instead he executed two black grandparents in a parking lot, telling (white) onlookers not to worry, he wouldn’t shoot at white people. On Friday, a militant Trump supporter with a long history of threatening violence and bomb threats was arrested for sending mail bombs to various prominent centrists of the Democratic Party and media. Yesterday, another racist psychopath murdered eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. His motivation: two foundational beliefs and vote-baits of the Right: anti-semitism and nativism. You can find similar paranoid-conspiracy fascist garbage all over right-wing media, corporate social media, and interviews with the likes of loathsome Congressman Steve King of Iowa: Jews like George Soros are “diluting” or “replacing” white America with non-white immigrants. You can see it in Trump’s fantasy of an Islamist-filled caravan of refugees in Mexico, which plays very well with GOP base. Republicans’ and Trumps’ lies about non-whites, women, the media, Democrats, immigrants, et alia aren’t just a WWE-like entertainment spectacle: they have consequences — murderous ones. God-damn these monsters.

The Overstory

“What use are we, to trees?”

Richard Powers’s novel begins with Roots, separate stories, capsule biographies. These are illustrated at chapter start with leaves of the trees prominent in each story. In one case the tree isn’t named, since the character is oblivious to this tree, but the description is more than suggestive and the unique leaves starting the chapter, as in some medieval tome, confirm it. Of course, this tree comes to play another role later.

While this reader was wondering how all these roots would all come together, on or about page 131, things start jumping. The next section “Trunk” is separated by the crosscut ornament illustrated on the title page. (Another dingbat! Shall we call this one a… dendron?) But this is fiction, and I will reveal no more than the question I came away with: what use are we to the trees, or the oceans, or the atmosphere? Some of the beginnings of answers in the book are profoundly thought-provoking.

So, what are we to do? Particularly in light of the latest UN climate report, which warns of dire consequences within two decades. Two decades! This is not climate change, it’s climate breakdown, and it’s already occurring. The IPCC report, remember, is by its very nature conservative, watered-down and consensus-driven: these are not radicals by any means.

I’ll be a septuagenarian if I make it to 2040. Most of the children of friends will only be in their twenties or early thirties. Damn, I’m so old I remember when we had centuries or at least a century, before really bad things were going to happen. When cautious scientists said such and such was of only of the extreme probability. Now some of those things –the end of Arctic ice, the death of coral reefs (among many other devastations to the sea), the undermining of West Antarctica– are virtually yesterday’s news. One of the best advocacy groups fighting against increasing CO2,, started in 2008. They named themselves after the goal of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere under 350 parts per million. It’s now 405 ppm.

Actually, I have to admit to being a worst-case scenario-ist from the get-go. I don’t think this is pessimism on my part.

“What is to be done?” The crises of the present, never mind the coming hellscape of geo-political draught/flooding/mass migration, seem to have already thrown us into the era of “Climate Behemoth.” Neo-fascist, demagogic, the last orgy of plutocracy as it holds democracy down and chokes it.

Bay Co. Florida, where Panama City is, voted 71% for Trump.


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