Friday, 18 March 2011

Animal farm: agricultural revolutions happening in your own garden

Various forms of symbiosis - the mutual interactions between species - have long been recognised, not least the hundreds of microorganisms that co-exist within and upon us Homo sapiens. But going beyond mere symbiosis, there appear to be examples of interactions between species that are nothing less than astonishing. Following a recent spate of television documentaries on the Neolithic period, the time when humans started to farm first animals and then crops, it seemed a good excuse to look at examples of other animals that also farm. Although mostly restricted to arable farmers (technically speaking, fungi culturists) there is also one fascinating case of pastoralism.

The best-known examples are probably insects, with many species of leaf-cutter ant and termites known to farm strains of fungi as a food source. It has been assumed (although I’m not sure on what basis, since farming activity would presumably be invisible to the fossil record) that these insects developed their sophisticated social structures, including caste systems, prior to the adoption of farming. This is the direct reverse of the earliest human farmers, wherein the earliest cities of the Near East, for example, arose after livestock domestication. It’s difficult to see how insects started the process and raises the interesting question of whether it offers the farming species any superiority over non-farmers of similar genera. After all, in human cultures it appears that early farmers had to work far harder for their daily bread than the gatherer-hunters who preceded them, the latter being a way of life that continues in isolated pockets even to this day. So it may not be an improvement on non-farming lifestyles - just different. Another nail in the coffin for any followers of the Victorian notion of progress…

Staying with insects, a diverse group of over three thousand beetles cultivate the ambrosia fungus for food, in a relationship thought to stretch back tens of millions of years. Unlike ants and termites, these beetle species do not all live in large, strictly-organised colonies. Heading for wetter environments, marsh snails have also been found to cultivate fungus that is ‘sown’ from spores embedded in their own excrement! Then in the water itself, some species of damselfish farm algae on the remnants of coral they have themselves killed, a process that bares a striking resemblance to Amazonian deforestation for cattle ranching. Unfortunately, the fishing by humans of damselfish predators has had the effect of aiding the population of fishy farmers and thus only increased the rate of coral loss.

Finally, the pastoralist in the pack, our everyday common or garden ant. In a bizarre simulcrum of dairy farming, some ant species control, supervise and ‘milk’ aphids. Had the species involved been more cuddly (i.e. one of us mammals) then it might have seemed all the more astonishing – a real-life antidote to Beatrix Potter-esque anthropomorphism. As it is these genuine animal farmers, with individual brains weighing a few thousandths of a gram, will drug aphids, protect them from predators and bad weather, and even use biochemicals to affect their growth patterns. And all in return for the honeydew they extract from the aphids.

You may have noticed the use of very human activities in these descriptions: domestication; caste systems; protection, etc. We are only just beginning to understand the behavioural diversity to found amongst other species, only to find we are continuously removing yet more barriers that differentiate ourselves from the rest of the biosphere. It is tempting to suggest this last example of animal farmers includes a form of slavery, with drug-controlled drones and just a whif of Brave New World. If these examples of non-human farmers were found on another planet, would we possibly consider it to be a sign, incredibly alien to be sure, of intelligence? Clearly, the brain size of the individuals involved doesn’t count for much, but a colony of 40,000 ants has the collective number of brain cells of one human. If the ants were able to store information in chemical signatures, something akin to a library, then wouldn’t this be a form of hive mind? Speculative nonsense of course, but does anyone remember the 1970’s film Phase IV?

It’s difficult to be anything other than dumbfounded as we learn more about animal behaviour, especially at what seems to be a programmed/non-conscious level. If the permutations are like this on Earth, the possibilities on other worlds are seemingly limitless. Again, this questions whether we could even recognise whether another species is intelligent or not. Perhaps Douglas Adams put it best: "Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason."

Enough said!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Let us think for you; or how I learnt to stop worrying and just believe the hype

I was recently watching my cousin's sister-in-law (please keep up) on a BBC TV documentary, in which various Victorian super-cures were shown to be little more than purgatives thanks to ingredients such as rhubarb, liquorice, soap and syrup. Whilst we frequently scorn such olden days quackery, the popularity of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and (Patrick) HolfordWatch show that times haven't really changed all that much. Bombarded as we are from the egg with immense amounts of consumerist 'information', it is maddening if unsurprising that we buy the dream with critical faculties switched firmly off.

As Goldacre points out, George Orwell noted that the true genius in advertising is to sell you both the solution and the problem. Since the above sites both detail some of the rather more bizarre pharmaceuticals on the market, I'll recommend you visit them for further information. The material dealing with a council allowing a trial of fish oil pills to boost school exam results is priceless.

Yet this area is just one of several related to the solution/problem model, namely that there is consumer product for every issue: "Want a smart child? Just buy a Mozart CD!" The Mozart Effect may finally be heading for the debunked heap, but it's small fry compared to the notion that pill-popping is often the most effective yet rapid remedy. The amount of health supplements now available (carefully niche-marketed, of course) is astonishing, as is the appeal for us to treat ourselves like professional athletes, thanks to the increasing obsession with hydration and hypertonic drinks and 'wellness' in general.

The past two decades have seen a sad litany of scandals involving food and pharmacology, from the salmonella in eggs to the MMR vaccine and autism. With the UK press only to willing to whip up a scandal without prior thorough investigation of the evidence (for the most part, presumably for the sake of sales rather than any anti-scientific leanings per se), the public has been cried wolf to so many times it's enough to make you turn your back on anything that looks vaguely scientific. I don't know enough about the avian flu and swine flu hyperbole to comment in detail, but there too the media reporting of Government planning has implied elements verging on the farcical.

So what have we learnt so far? Firstly, it's far easier to push a one-size-fits-all cure than to individually assess people's physical and mental health problems as if they were, well, individuals. Most of us rely on the media for our explanations of health and food science issues, and these reports tend to appeal to the emotions and intuition rather more than we might find in the primary reports, AKA the 'sterilised pages of scientific literature', as palaeontologist Richard Fortey refers to it.

Not that most of us would have the time to plough through and decode the latter anyway, which brings me to a second issue: there is now so much freedom of choice, and an emphasis on rapid pacing to match our speed of communications that 'noise' (not just aural) is increasingly blocking critical thinking. Twenty years ago, people could define their day as having a work part and a leisure part, but now the two are blurred if not superseded thanks to a wide variety of recent technological innovations. Obviously we can work longer hours (i.e. from home or in transit) via mobile computing and Wi-Fi, but there’s also online networking, blogging, email and webcam, online shopping, even printing our own photos and ploughing through endless television channels 'live' or on-demand. It's a nice thought that when electronic personal assistants can be tailored to our personality profiles (like an uber-Amazon personalised homepage), then we will no longer be slaves to the labour-saving devices we clutter our lives with. But even then, will consumerist culture trivia remain a primary component of our lives?

If all this sounds a bit Luddite, or just plain anti-Capitalist, then why not ask yourself do you feel technically savvy and cool, thanks to owning a range of up-to-the-minute high-tech consumer items? Do you even have a nutritionist or a lifestyle coach? Consider is it possible that you could be losing common sense, handing over large chunks of analytical thought to others so as to gain a little bit of quality time in a hectic world? It’s up to us to reclaim our critical thought processes before we evolve into H.G. Well's passive, leisure-obsessed Eloi. Otherwise the future's bright, the future's hyper-realistic 3D with added gubbins! Now where's my isotonic rehydration fluid?