Déjà vous all over again

“Years of sadness followed — long years in which the study of general natural history not only languished; it all but expired. Our instructors in their enthusiasm over the all-important revelations of the microscope seemed to overlook the fact that this instrument is not the only road to knowledge — forgetting that it takes no account of the higher forms of life and fails utterly to explain the interrelations of life and environment.”

Insert “DNA” in the place of “microscope” and this might be a contemporaneous complaint by a natural historian. It is, however, part of Dr. C. Hart Merriam’s 1932 acceptance speech when awarded the Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in Natural History.

The problem is not DNA or microscopes, we need them both as well as technologies not yet conceived. The problem is that there is a tool for every job and not every job can be done with any single tool. Yet a disproportionate amount of funding is repeatedly diverted to the latest technology, swept along in a current of excitement, peer adulation, and conformity. This was true in the 1930s for the microscope, in the 1960s for the scanning electron microscope, in the 1970s for electrophoresis, and today for DNA sequencing. When you have a handsomely funded hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

As in life generally, most things are good… in moderation. As we face the great environmental challenges before us we absolutely need “all the above” in our arsenal. There is room for every valid scientific approach from DNA to ecosystem modeling to phylogenetics and everything between. Because current fashion has the spotlight on one approach and the lion’s share of money follows is not to suggest that other, radically different, approaches are not of equal value.

No thing about life on Earth is more improbable than the complexity produced by natural selection: the web of an orb-weaving spider, the balloons offered by dance flies to their mates, and the stripes of the zebra are all the products of coded DNA but none were foreordained. Natural history in all its branches, from anatomy to taxonomy and autecology, is a science of shock and awe, a tour of the unexpected and unlikely. It is a celebration of the diversity of life and the only way to reveal the amazing stories that spell out the detailed functions of the biosphere and the grandeur of evolutionary history. And it rekindles our innate biophilia that is the strongest and most important relic of our own evolutionary emergence.

Some questions can only be addressed through a carefully conceived reductionist approach. Other questions focus on emergent properties of living things that are the result of complexity and only observable at the level of organism, or above. You could never fully comprehend the detailed functions of an ecosystem by studying each species in isolation, just as you could never grasp the most interesting parts of the story of evolution by ignoring anatomy, behavior, or development. We need to respect, fund, encourage, and celebrate scientific natural history in all its branches at the same time that we rejoice in the power of the latest technologies.

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ESF and Diversity

We are all stakeholders in the future of the environment. We all benefit with successes in responsible natural resource stewardship, implementing sustainable practices, and protecting the integrity of ecosystems. Conversely, we all suffer with failure. No one can escape the ugly impacts of depleted resources, degraded ecosystems, or decimation of biodiversity. Fortunately it is not too late to avoid the most widespread and devastating implications of the environmental challenges facing us today, but we must act quickly and make the right choices.

 Achieving a bright, sustainable future involves a good deal more than confronting scientific, management, and engineering challenges. There must be a fundamental shift in how our society sees its relationship to the wild world and a deepened appreciation for our moral and ethical obligations to one another, the planet we inhabit, and future generations. A reexamination of our values will require leadership from scholars of diverse expertise including philosophers, ethicists, historians, and social scientists.

 Rapidly changing demographics in our society add another challenge. Achieving a national consensus on the importance of sustainable solutions and protection of environments requires that as many Americans as possible, of every description and background, have transformative interactions with wilderness and biodiversity, be science literature, be informed of the choices facing us and their consequences, and be incorporated into the science and engineering workforce.

 This fall, ESF will welcome one of the most diverse classes of entering freshmen in its history, but this is not enough. ESF will not be content to gradually nudge its numbers up through the typical competition with sister institutions but instead will take bold steps to address the problem, not just its in-house statistics. This means developing the supply end of the pipeline; engaging with the public in Syracuse, New York city, and the nation to awaken scientific curiosity and inspire action among America’s youth so that fifteen years from now we are not having the same discussion about the need for greater societal representation in science and engineering fields.

 Beyond exerting leadership in the diversification of the science workforce and the science literacy of future voting publics, ESF will seize on its fantastic ranking as the third best college in the U.S. for women majoring in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, and math. One result of our forestry heritage is a continuing under-representation of women on our faculty in spite of this deserved high national ranking. As we address that legacy — and for years ESF has done so in faculty searches — we will use the authority that comes with this position to spark a national discussion of the broad issue of women in science and engineering seeking both short and long term strategies.

In order to succeed in sustaining biological diversity, we must cultivate, too, diverse voices in the search for answers to environmental problems. Expecting a public that neither understands science nor feels a personal attachment to the wild world to make the hard decisions necessary for success is naïve. And expecting the public at large to adequately support a science and engineering enterprise in which they do not see opportunities for themselves or their children is similarly unrealistic. This all means that ESF must blaze a decidedly untraditional trail that transcends long established boundaries between disciplines and that blurs the distinction between ivory tower discovery and main street engagement.

The concept of strength and adaptability through diversity is a fundamental truth in evolutionary biology and ecology. We must now extend that basic understanding to include the science workforce and a welcomed and involved public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moonlighting

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When I hosted the first “Moonlighting” event at Moon Library, I had very high hopes (www.esf.edu/moonlighting/).  I had invited Professors Cathryn Newton and Samuel Gorovitz from Syracuse University to join ESF Professor William Powell and I for a discussion of issues surrounding the idea of bringing extinct species back to life.  The event met and exceeded every one of my hopes.  For me, this was a demonstration of the best of academia.  A far-ranging discussion of the implications of resurrected species from ethics to ecosystems.  It was intellectually stimulating, surprising at every turn, and a beautiful example of a respectful exchange of ideas among very bright people with wildly different experiences and backgrounds.  With expertise ranging from paleontology and mass extinctions to philosophy and biotechnology there were authoritative responses to the many and extraordinarily diverse questions from the audience who were the other stars of the show.  I am looking forward to future Moonlighting events and the challenging of living up to the high bar set by this first one.

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Symbol of Hope

File:Onondaga lake skyline.jpg

I had the honor of saying a few words of welcome to those gathered for the recent meeting of the Upstate Freshwater Institute on the ESF campus and to contemplate the symbolic value in Onondaga Lake.

 The public is crisis weary. Having endured a seemingly endless stream of environmental catastrophe predictions through the latter half of the 20th century, from biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 warning about the coming population bomb to current concerns about the biodiversity crisis and climate change, the public may be partially forgiven for its skepticism and selective tuning out of more bad news. Yet public engagement is essential for effectively confronting environmental challenges.

 Perhaps some good news is in order that restores a sense of optimism. It struck me that Onondaga Lake, with the dubious distinction of once having been identified as North America’s most polluted lake, is becoming such a symbol of hope. The progress made over the past couple of decades is nothing short of remarkable. While there remains a long way to go, it is nonetheless an example of measurable progress.

 It would be a good thing to intentionally hold up Onondaga Lake as a success story in the making, to issue periodic report cards heralding the step-by-step progress in the cleanup. The lake is a metaphor for the relationship between humankind and nature, a yardstick by which we can measure the degree to which we have learned our lesson. Overexploitation, callous polluting and ignoring the “laws” of ecology that dictate the breaking point of stressed systems led us to literally toxic consequences, while attention to those same principles and application of environmental knowledge have reversed course for the lake.

 As steady progress in the recovery of Onondaga Lake is measured and reported, so, too, is our progress on the path toward being responsible stewards of natural resources. If the lake can be returned to health, there is hope for less-damaged systems. If we can acknowledge that we are part of nature, not apart from it, then perhaps we will grant the natural world its due respect. What was emblematic of human carelessness and hubris is becoming a powerful symbol of hope, a signal that we, too, can do better and, in fact, have already made progress. Learning from past mistakes and scientific advances, we, like Onondaga Lake, have a second chance.

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Alternative Energy Upstart

I am pleased to announce that ESF has signed an agreement with an innovative Syracuse alternative energy company that will become our flagship UpstartNY enterprise partnership. The new company, Pampered Planet, is the brainchild of ESF alumnus Fullerton O. Vitt ’06, better known to his fellow stumpies as “Fullo”, who claims to have a strategy to simultaneously address transportation energy needs and the challenge of overburdened landfills. The primary PP product is a micro-incinerator that can be adapted to retrofit any internal combustion engine to burn disposable diapers and generate sufficient energy to maintain typical in-city speeds. A current ESF engineering student, N. Ifkin, and long-time friend of Mr. Vitt said that as soon as he read about the invention he knew that it had to be Fullo Vitt. “After years of trying to stem population growth, I figured don’t fight it, use it. Every dirty diaper into the landfill is a wasted opportunity.” Mr. Vitt said of his plan to positively correlate energy supply with burgeoning numbers of people. He said that complaints about odor are overstated and “a bunch of crap,” just like this April fools blog.

 

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Knowledge Lost

Frank H. T. Rhodes, long-time president of Cornell University, in his book The Creation of the Future, said the following:

“If I were allowed only one word to describe the distinctive method by which the university pursues its multiple tasks of learning, discovery, and service, it would be the word ‘community.’… Without community, personal discovery is limited, not because the individual inquirer is any less creative or original than the group, but because his or her conclusions remain unchallenged and untested; private knowledge is knowledge lost.”

The current trend in academia, retreating from the reductionism of the past and embracing a more holistic and trans-disciplinary approach, is appropriately lauded for its creative potential.  Stated simply, examining a complex problem from the perspective of multiple disciplinary traditions is more likely to lead to a comprehensive solution than any narrow view alone.  Rhodes reminds us of another benefit:  challenging our conclusions.  It is not enough to solve technical and theoretical scientific problems.  Such solutions must be challenged through open discourse with experts from sometimes seemingly unrelated fields that span the humanities and social and natural sciences.  This is the ultimate power of a campus, to nurture a community of researchers and scholars, teachers and learners, discoverers and idea entrepreneurs who engage critical discourse.

As Rhodes expounds in his book, one of the great challenges to contemporary universities is to restore community after a century of building silos around increasingly isolated fields of inquiry.  This is where ESF has an ace up the sleeve.  Our shared passion for, and commitment to, environmental issues and sustainability create community and a shared vision of a better world.  The grand challenges in these areas, by nature of their complexity and far-reaching implications, invite such discourse in an effort to see them in the broad context of Nature and human civilization.   ESF is at the forefront, ready to educate leaders, inspire society to shoulder the responsibilities of good stewardship, and make the discoveries required to realize this vision — tested and refined through community discourse, and seen in the full context of human affairs and the natural world.

The more I learn about the diverse interests, expertise, and passions in our community, the more optimistic I become for the future of ESF and the world.  While many universities are occupied by the enormous task of restoring community where it has been lost, we can engage ours to create the knowledge, options, and insights required for a sustainable planet.

By the way, I will be hosting a series of informal events I call “Moonlighting” in Moon Library on the ESF campus that will celebrate our intellectually diverse community and encourage civil, respectful discussions across disciplinary boundaries.  The first Moolighting will be on April 2nd.  More details are at:  http://www.esf.edu/moonlighting/

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Hubris of Mammoth Proportions

As much as I would love to be in the presence of a living Mammoth in all of its woolly Pleistocene glory, “The Mammoth Cometh” (NYT, Feb. 27:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/magazine/the-mammoth-cometh.html?_r=0) had more to say about human hubris than logical priorities for science.  Just because we can manipulate genomes to resurrect species does not mean that it should be done, at least not until we have a plan to address the larger issue of extinction.

We are in the midst of a well-documented biodiversity crisis.  According to one recent projection, at the current rate of species extinction we will enter official “mass extinction” territory within 300 years.  What does that mean?  The extinction of 75% or more of all species, something never witnessed in human history.  In fact, the last time such a genetic bottleneck took place was 65 million years ago when other members of the charismatic mega-fauna disappeared, the dinosaurs.  Putting millions of dollars into the resurrection of a handful of species while we ignore the plight of millions of others is the height of folly.

If we are so guilt ridden by the loss of the passenger pigeon that we are willing to go to heroic lengths to resurrect it, how are we going to feel when we wake up a few decades from now and realize that the biosphere has been decimated?  Size matters.  I get it.  Big, showy animals like mammoths and tree sloths will always attract support but their salvation is a mere parlor trick done as much for our amusement as anything.  As David Attenborough once said, humans (or, if I may add, mammoths) could disappear tomorrow and the world would go on taking little notice.  But if insects were all suddenly removed, nearly every terrestrial and freshwater ecosystem would collapse overnight.  We are tearing at the fabric of life on which we depend for our very survival, yet ignore the first logical step in an informed conservation strategy:  learning what species exist on earth to begin with.

Taxonomy, the science of species exploration, has been nearly completely replaced in our universities by molecular phylogenetics, that is, by labs who use DNA to confirm or modify our understanding of evolutionary relationships among the small fraction of species that we already know.  In the meanwhile, species are literally going extinct faster than they are being discovered.  While the rate of extinction has risen by hundreds of times, the rate of species description has remained steady since the 1940s at about 18,000 species per year.

An increasing number of voices call for replacing what they see as an old-fashioned and inefficient, largely morphology based, taxonomy with high-tech and high-speed molecular alternatives.  They call for DNA barcodes in the place of testable theories of species and surveys of DNA diversity in the environment to avoid individuating species.  These are faster and cheaper alternatives to traditional “descriptive” taxonomy, but are they acceptable equivalents?  Absolutely not.  The most interesting and informative details of evolution are written in improbable complexity that is mostly irretrievable from DNA sequences alone.

There are three reasons we should make an inventory and classification of all species an immediate and top priority.  Put simply, unless we know what species exist to begin with, how are we to detect or measure their loss?  As species go extinct, we lose much more than their contributions to intricate ecosystems.  Each species reveals the results of millions of years of trial-and-error experiments carried out by natural selection.  Each can tell us something unique about effective and sustainable strategies for survival.  For me, however, discovering and describing all species and preserving at least a few specimens and observations about each in our botanical garden herbaria and natural history museums has a much deeper and personal significance.

Every single thing that makes us human was modified from earlier mammal ancestors.  In turn, every trait that makes a mammal unique was modified from a previous condition in some ancient quadruped and on and on clear back to the first single-celled organism.  As long as humans exist, they will seek to understand what it means to be human.  This same innate curiosity drives us to understand both the origin of the Universe and of each and every branch on the tree of life.  Every species that goes extinct unknown and unnamed thus diminishes our humanity in a special and irreplaceable way.

An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of genetic engineering when it comes to extinction.  And avoiding a mass extinction event is vastly more important than populating our zoos with a menagerie of the frisky dead.  It would be naïve to think that resurrecting species will not happen; indeed it is underway and inevitable.  I will buy my admission ticket along with all the other morbidly curious when the time comes, so I am not suggesting that we never do it.  I am, however, asking that we not revive one species at the price of a million others.  I am asking that we divert at least a fraction of the science funding lavished on molecular labs to document the species diversity we are in the process of destroying.  The return on investment will be huge.  We will have an archive of evolutionary creativity to mine in search of sustainable solutions for our own survival.  We will enable ecologists and conservationists to have a much finer grained understanding of ecosystems and empower them to do their work better.  And we will assure that for as long as humans exist that we can continue the pursuit of understanding who we are and how we got here.

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