The 150 Most Consequential Years

Amanda Northrop/Vox; Getty Images

Our thanks to Vox for this conversation with one of the great economic historians of our time:

Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago

Why the years from 1870 to 2010 were humanity’s most important.

“The 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.”

So argues Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, the new magnum opus from UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong. It’s a bold claim. Homo sapiens has been around for at least 300,000 years; the “long twentieth century” represents 0.05 percent of that history.

But to DeLong, who beyond his academic work is known for his widely read blog on economics, something incredible happened in that sliver of time that eluded our species for the other 99.95 percent of our history. Continue reading

Turtles & Tortoises & Negative Senescence

A giant Galápagos tortoise, only as old as it feels. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

When I learn a new word–even if it is a word I cannot picture using in conversation but it represents a concept that is interesting and surprising, I consider that a good day. Jack Tamisiea, thanks for the science reporting here, and especially for the word senescence:

Tortoises and turtles don’t just live for a long time — they barely age while they live.

The black marsh turtles displayed negative rates of senescence, meaning their mortality risk decreased as they aged. iStock/Getty Images

For mammals like humans, aging is inevitable. No matter how many vitamins we take, skin sags, bones soften and joints stiffen over time. However, turtles and tortoises age more gracefully. Despite their wrinkled skin and toothless gums, species like Galápagos giant tortoises seem unscathed by the ravages of aging. Some show few signs of slowing down as they plod into their 100s.

To determine what drives these ageless wonders, two groups of researchers examined turtles, tortoises and their ectothermic, or coldblooded, brethren in a pair of studies published Thursday in the journal Science. Continue reading

Ed Yong Explains Umwelt

Sally Deng

Ed Yong’s new book was already on our reading list, but just got notched up in the priority list:

Spectacle floods into my eyes whenever I watch a wildlife documentary. A vortex of small fish is gradually picked off by waves of oceanic predators. Snakes chase after marine iguanas. Giraffes clash at sunset. Continue reading

Two Wheels Good, The People’s Nag

The historian Jill Lepore has only been linked to twice before in our posts. Not more, because her topical variety is constantly beyond the scope of topics we focus on.

But her most recent essay is on topic for us. Bicycles might have been the invention that kept us part way out of the climate crisis, but then came the car.

She uses the publication of the book to the right as a launch pad for an excellent history of the bicycle, combined with personal history:

Bicycles Have Evolved. Have We?

From the velocipede to the ten-speed, biking innovations brought riders freedom. But in a world built for cars, life behind handlebars is both charmed and dangerous.

My first bicycle was not, in fact, a bicycle. I rode it in 1968, when I was two years old and as tubby as a bear cub. It had four wheels, not two, and no pedals: strictly speaking, it was a scooter. But Playskool called it a Tyke Bike, so I say it qualifies, and aside from the matte-black, aluminum-alloy number that I’ve got now, which is called (by the manufacturer dead seriously, and by me aspirationally) the Bad Boy, the Tyke Bike may be the swankiest bicycle I’ve ever ridden. Continue reading

Sensory Loading, Overloading & Unloading

Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell
In early August, 2007 we arrived in a leafy suburb on the north side of Atlanta. We had spent the previous year living on this island, where doors did not have locks and during the daytime the only man-made sounds tended to be those of fishing boats coming and going. At night on that island there were no noises other than nature’s, including small waves hitting the shores and in summertime the crickets. On the first night in Atlanta I opened the window to let in the night air, and the sound of the superhighway, a mile or so away, was distracting enough that I had to close the window to sleep. It’s not that I had not appreciated the quiet of the island, but I was surprised by how much I had adapted to it. The opening of this book review, for these reasons, resonates with my own experience:

Sounds Wild and Broken review – a moving paean to Earth’s fraying soundtrack

David George Haskell’s often wonderful book explores some of the lost frequencies of nature – heard clearly again during Covid’s initial human hush

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. Continue reading

Clues Trapped In Resin

Researchers describe this as the most complete fossilized crab ever discovered. Credit: Lida Xing/China University of Geosciences, Beijing

Crabs started as marine creatures, and eventually evolved into land creatures as well. How it happened is an essential question and resin may be the best clue:

Bad for 100-million-year-old crab, but good for scientists

Crustacean trapped in fossilized tree resin offers clues into evolution of creatures, when they spread

Artistic reconstruction of the new fossil dubbed Cretapsara athanata, “the immortal Cretaceous spirit of the clouds and waters.”
Artwork by Franz Anthony, courtesy of Javier Luque/Harvard University

Javier Luque’s first thought while looking at the 100-million-year-old piece of amber wasn’t whether the crustacean trapped inside could help fill a crucial gap in crab evolution. He just kind of wondered how the heck it got stuck in the now-fossilized tree resin? Continue reading

Richard Prum In Conversation With Tyler Cowen

We linked to one of Richard Prum’s books more than four years ago, then he was mentioned in a couple posts, each with small quotes based on his expertise. Here he is in conversation with someone who clearly appreciates his work and who knows how to ask good questions:

Richard Prum really cares about birds. Growing up in rural Vermont, he didn’t know anyone else interested in birding his own age. The experience taught him to rely on his own sense of curiosity and importance when deciding what questions and interests are worth studying. As a result, he has pursued many different paths of research in avian biology — such as behavioral evolution, where feathers come from, sexual selection and mate choice — many of which have led to deep implications in the field. In 2017, Tyler agreed with several prominent outlets that Prum’s book The Evolution of Beauty was one of the best books of the year, writing that it “offers an excellent and clearly written treatment of the particulars of avian evolution, signaling theory, and aesthetics, bringing together some disparate areas very effectively.” Continue reading

How To Define Species

During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies. Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Protecting species from extinction has been a running theme in our pages over the years. Underlying these many stories was an assumption, at least on our part, that defining boundaries between species is settled science. We will no longer take that for granted:

Where Do Species Come From?

By studying crows, a German biologist has helped to solve a centuries-old mystery.

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs. Continue reading

To Build A Good Home, Sometimes You Need Pluck

We were aware that birds will build nests out of just about anything they can find, and sometimes in the strangest places. But how they get the material is less familiar, and in the article below is a video of a bird plucking fur from a fox, about as fun to watch as anything we have seen recently, so click through to the full story:

Sneaky Thieves Steal Hair From Foxes, Raccoons, Dogs, Even You

It’s simple: Mammals have hair or fur. Birds want it.

As anyone who has ever tried to eat french fries on a beach will attest, stealing is not an uncommon behavior among birds. In fact, many birds are quite skilled at bold and brazen theft. Continue reading

Ants, Food Raids & Evolution

Image #1 Army Ants reproduced with permission from “Army Ants: Nature’s Ultimate Social Hunters” by Daniel J.C. Kronauer; Image #5 painted clonal raider ants photograph by Daniel Kronauer. Credit: #1: Daniel J.C. Kronauer, #5: Daniel Kronauer

It is rainy season, therefore the season for starting the growth cycle of some plants, in Costa Rica. It is always ant season here. Some of the trees we planted last year, mostly citrus varieties but also pomegranate, have become feasting locations for ants who devour their leaves and haul them off.

My assumption, seeing this constantly during the 25 years since we moved to Costa Rica, has always been that ants are primarily vegetarians So, today a bit of ant-wonk from a team of scientists at Harvard University, summarized on Phys.org’s website, to correct my assumption (the video alone is worth visiting the source article):

How army ants’ iconic mass raids evolved

Army ants form some of the largest insect societies on the planet. They are quite famous in popular culture, most notably from a terrifying scene in Indiana Jones. But they are also ecologically important. They live in very large colonies and consume large amounts of arthropods. And because they eat so much of the other animals around them, they are nomadic and must keep moving in order to not run out of food. Due to their nomadic nature and mass consumption of food, they have a huge impact on arthropod populations throughout tropical rainforests floors. Continue reading

Human Intervention, Hold The Judgement

A burrowing bettong, also known as the boodie, in the Australian Outback. COURTESY OF AWC

I have not acquired the book yet, but I have heard her discuss it and read an interview with her about it; the author has moved from reporting on extinction and climate phenomena to reporting on human intervention schemes that respond to those phenomena. The stories as told in the article below adhere to a claim Kolbert makes in her discussion with Ezra Klein, that as a journalist she is not in the judgement business:

Assisting Evolution: How Far Should We Go to Help Species Adapt?

An Australian project to help threatened marsupial species adapt to avoid predatory cats is among a host of ‘assisted evolution’ efforts based on the premise that it is no longer enough to protect species from change: Humans are going to have intervene to help them change.

Ancestral Plants Worth Saving

These sunflowers in San Diego National Wildlife Refuge are wild relatives of sunflowers that farmers around the world grow to produce oil. Lisa Cox/USFWS

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this summary of a recent scientific study:

Distant Cousins Of Food Crops Deserve Respect And Protection

Hundreds of native North American plants, often dismissed as weeds, deserve a lot more respect, according to a new study. These plants, distant cousins of foods like cranberries and pumpkins, actually represent a botanical treasure now facing increased threat from climate change, habitat loss and invasive species.

The crops that the human race now depends on, including grains like wheat and tree fruit like peaches, originally were selected or bred from plants that grew wild hundreds or thousands of years ago. And those ancestral plants, like the small wild sunflowers that can be found across the United States, still exist. “If you see them growing along roadsides, those are the ancestors,” says Colin Khoury, a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Continue reading

Adaptive Re-Use, Puffin Style

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Tufted Puffin. Photo: Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Thanks to Audubon Magazine we start 2020 with a short story about an adaptation that is not just pretty, but practical in more than one way:

Those Big Orange Bills Also Help Puffins Stay Cool After a Workout

Good for more than just attracting a mate, the clownish feature appears to keep the subpar fliers from overheating.

The puffin’s iconic orange bill might be its most recognizable feature, but it’s also quite functional, serving the charismatic seabird in all avenues of life. The bill’s large volume makes it a hefty food carrier, and its ultraviolet glow amps up puffins’ sex appeal. Now, scientists have identified yet another use of this dramatically curved bill: staying cool. Continue reading

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of What We All Need To See In Our Lifetime

book-christakis-blueprint.jpgThe blurb from his own university’s news service is enough to catch your attention:

Drawing on advances in social science, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and network science, “Blueprint” attempts to show how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path — and how we are united by our common humanity.

For too long, the author contends, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.

There are not many reviews available yet, but here is one:

KIRKUS REVIEW

A social scientist looks at the good and bad sides of human character, arguing that we are evolutionarily inclined “to make a particular kind of society—a good one full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning.”…

…A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.

If, like me, you had previously only known of him due to this incident, the blurb and the review are catchy enough to warrant further attention. So I found an interview he recently gave (on a podcast I would not normally have sought out, but it was all I could find) and listening to him talk about it has made me want to find this book and have a read.

Warrior Gems

In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills. Credit Christian Irian

Hummingbirds are some of the most gemlike and visually striking birds in the “new world”, but those who have spent any time watching them know that striking can also be used as an apt verb to describe their behavior. Fiercely territorial, it’s not surprising that scientists are making more and more discoveries related to the evolution behind their development. (Click on image above to view the video)

The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak

Winsomely captured in poems and song, the birds are yielding new secrets about their astounding beaks and penchant for violence.

If you want to know what makes hummingbirds tick, it’s best to avoid most poetry about them.

Bird-beam of the summer day,

— Whither on your sunny way?

Whither? Probably off to have a bloodcurdling fight, that’s whither.

John Vance Cheney wrote that verse, but let’s not point fingers. He has plenty of poetic company, all seduced by the color, beauty and teeny tininess of the hummingbird but failed to notice the ferocity burning in its rapidly beating heart.

The Aztecs weren’t fooled. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was a hummingbird. The Aztecs loved war, and they loved the beauty of the birds as well. It seems they didn’t find any contradiction in the marriage of beauty and bloodthirsty aggression.

Scientists understood that aggression was a deep and pervasive part of hummingbird life. But they, too, have had their blind spots. The seemingly perfect match of nectar-bearing flowers to slender nectar-sipping beaks clearly showed that hummingbirds were shaped by co-evolution.

It seemed clear that, evolutionarily, plants were in charge. Their need for reliable pollinators produced flowers with a shape that demanded a long slender bill. Hummingbird evolution obliged.

But hummingbirds also heard the call of battle, which demanded a different evolutionary course. Some of those slender, delicate beaks have been reshaped into strong, sharp and dangerous weapons.

In a recent paper organizing and summing up 10 years of research, Alejandro Rico-Guevara and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, shared evidence gathered by high-speed video about how the deadly beaks are deployed in male-to-male conflict.

Like the horns of bighorn sheep or the giant mandibles of stag beetles, hummingbird beaks are used to fight off rivals for mates. This is sexual selection, a narrow part of natural selection, in which the improvement of mating chances is the dominant force. Continue reading

Unexpected Affection

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An octopus on its way to an underwater EDM festival. Credit Ken Lucas, via Getty Images

Thanks to JoAnna Klein a regular contributor for The New York Times Trilobites feature, for this:

On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug

By dosing the tentacled creatures with MDMA, researchers found they share parts of an ancient messaging system involved in social behaviors with humans.

Octopuses are smart. They open jars, steal fish and high-five each other.

Though interactive, they’re generally asocial, and temperamental, with unique behavior patterns, like those shown by Otto, who caused blackouts at a German aquarium and Inky, who famously escaped a tank in New Zealand.They learn through experience and observation, forming lasting memories with brain-like bundles of hundreds of millions of neurons in each arm and a centralized bundle in the middle.

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brain power led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy. Yes ecstasy — molly, E, MDMA, the party drug, which in humans reduces fear and inhibition, induces feelings of empathy, distorts time and helps people dance to electronic music all night. Continue reading

Better Science Writing, Better Societal Decision-Making?

Zimmer Longform

9781509818532she has her mother-s laugh_11_jpg_262_400.jpgScience writing has been one of our favorite themes since we started this platform. The quality with which science is explained in clear language is good for the planet, we think. Carl Zimmer is probably the most cited science writer during these eight years, for good reason. The interview above from late 2016, if you are convinced about the importance of science writing, is about as good as it gets for hearing a master explain his craft in very personal terms. It was recorded just weeks after the most fateful (with regard to science) presidential election in recent USA history. Zimmer takes a “just the facts” approach to the interview, and neither punches, nor pulls punches, with regard to the environmental and other science policy mess-making that had just begun. He just shares his craft.

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Carl Zimmer: ‘Heredity is central to our existence… but it’s not what we think it is.’ Photograph: Mistina Hanscom/Lotta Studio

He has a new book out, which we have not read, but we are glad that it has brought him out on book tour. In the interview below, from just a couple weeks ago, we get a quick read on what he is saying now:

Carl Zimmer is a rarity among professional science writers in being influential among the scientists on whose work he writes and comments – to the extent that he has been appointed as professor adjunct in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Zimmer has just published his 13th book, She Has Her Mother’s Laughsurvey of “the power, perversions and potential of heredity”. Continue reading

I’d Like To Spend Some Time In Mozambique

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Wild dogs, apex predators missing from Gorongosa National Park for decades, have been reintroduced and are slowly making a comeback, part of an ongoing experiment in reviving the park ecosystem after years of devastating war. Credit Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa Media, via Associated Press

Thanks to one of our favorite science writers, the ever-optimistic Natalie Angier, for this note of hope:

In Mozambique, a Living Laboratory for Nature’s Renewal

At Gorongosa National Park, scarred by civil war, scientists are answering fundamental questions about ecology and evolution, and how wildlife recovers from devastation.

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Baboons and sharptooth catfish in the Mussicadzi River in the park during the dry season. The baboons in Gorongosa are brazen and plentiful, as there aren’t many leopards to keep them in check. Credit Piotr Naskrecki & Jen Guyton/NPL/Minden Pictures

GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK, MOZAMBIQUE — The 14 African wild dogs were ravenous, dashing back and forth along the fence of their open-air enclosure, or boma, bouncing madly on their pogo-stick legs, tweet-yipping their distinctive wild-dog calls, and wagging their bushy, white-tipped tails like contestants on a game show desperate to be seen.

Since arriving at the park three months earlier, as they acclimated to their new setting and forged the sort of immiscible bonds that make Lycaon pictus one of the most social mammals in the world, the dogs had grown accustomed to a daily delivery of a freshly killed antelope to feast on. Continue reading

Elephants Can Smell

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Elephants have a keen nose. They have more smell receptors than any mammal – including dogs – and can sniff out food that is several miles away. A new study tests their ability to distinguish between similar smelling plants. Image by akrp, via Getty Images

It is true that elephants can smell. As in, be smelly. But they can also smell well, better than I knew. Yesterday’s elephant mention was the first in a long time, reminding us how frequently we posted about them from India. When we were in the land of elephants, and other charismatic megafauna, we ran stories frequently about their mega-wondrousness. Now, a welcome reminder about how amazing these big creatures are in smaller ways too. Click above to go to the video accompanying this story below by James Gorman:

The Elephant’s Superb Nose

In the world of noses, the elephant’s trunk clearly stands out for its size, flexibility, strength and slightly creepy gripping ability.

Go ahead, try to pluck a leaf with your nostrils and see how you fare. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the elephant’s sense of smell is also outstanding. Continue reading