Category Archives: Reorganization

Why the emu’s survived the human occupation

In the July 8 edition of Science an interesting study is presented by Miller et al. (2005) and commented by Johnson (2005) on the impact of human activities. Around 45,000 years ago, the human started to occupy Australia, and like similar puzzles in the Americas, the questions is the impact of human activities on the extinction of many large herbivores. Miller et al. (2005) provide “the best evidence to date that human arrival, rather than climate, played the leading role in the extinctions of many large herbivores in Australia. They look especially to the diets of the emu and of the largest flightless but now extinct bird Genyornis.

Genyornis & Emu
Figure compares Genyornis & Emu.

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TechnoGarden : Finland?

The MA Scenario TechnoGarden is based on the emergence and spread of ecological property rights and technology. Pieces of this potential world are described in a Washington Post article about how the growth of green business in Finland is being stimulated EU policies.

Finnish entrepreneurs are investing in eco-friendly businesses. Their most important salesmen may not be Finnish businesspeople (for whom, many here acknowledge, salesmanship is not a natural talent), but the European Union’s regulation writers in Brussels who set the community’s ecological standards.

Proventia, for example, hopes to make millions from the new E.U. regulation requiring the original manufacturer to recapture and recycle at least 75 percent of the contents of every piece of electronics and electrical equipment sold in Europe. The new standard comes into force in August, and adapting to it will cost companies (including some U.S. corporations) huge amounts of money, according to Noponen. He hopes Proventia companies will earn a lot of that money.

Proventia Automation, another member of the group, already produces machines that can cut up television sets and computer monitors, separating leaded from unleaded glass with a laser and recycling all the glass and other valuable, reusable components. Noponen hopes the E.U.’s new standard will produce numerous new customers for this technology.

More broadly, his firm can provide information technology and management advice to help manufacturers figure out how to meet the new rules most efficiently. Manufacturers of electronic equipment can actually make money by recycling their own creations when their useful lives are over, Noponen said.

via WorldChanging

Biological Invasions Riskier than Thought

A new paper Invasion success of vertebrates in Europe and North America by Jonathan Jeschke and David Strayer from IES was published online in PNAS April 222.

Their paper examined patterns in to the introduction, establishment and spread of freshwater fish, mammals, and birds between Europe or North America.

Their paper produces a number of interesting results. First it suggests that risks from invasive species are much higher than previously thought. The 10:10 rule of thumb proposes that in the steps of establishment, spread only 1:100 introduced species should spread. This paper suggests it is 25X greater at 1/4.

This result is supported by their examination of other patterns shown below.

Graph from Paper

Figure 2. Proportions of introduced animals that establish themselves (establishment success) and of established animals that spread or are pests (spread success). The tens rule predicts a 10% success for either step (vertical dotted line). Planarians, alien terrestrial planarians established in the U.K.; insects, biocontrol insects, symbols denote different diets and propagule pressures; island mammals, mammals introduced to Ireland and Newfoundland ; Australian mammals; island birds, symbols denote different islands; continental birds, birds introduced to continental USA and Australia; world parrots, worldwide parrot introductions; E, NA vertebrates, European North American vertebrates according to Table 1 (this study); British animals, symbols denote different taxa; Austrian animals, symbols denote different taxa; German animals, symbols denote different native continents.

They also show that species movement between Canada and the USA and Europe is roughly equal, rather than it being mostly a Europe->N. America pattern.

Evolution of Cooperation

The New Scientist has an good review of recent research on the evolution of cooperation – Charity begins at Homo sapiens. This research goes beyond ideas about kin selection. Experimental research has shown that people will punish unfairness even when there is nothing to gain. This work suggests that rule enforcement strongly supports the maintenance of cooperation.

Further support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start. The individuals, whether initially cooperators or cheats, were also programmed to copy successful behaviour. In simulations with groups ranging from 4 to 256 individuals, the team found that altruism could evolve. The benefits that cooperation conferred on a group outweighed its costs to individuals – but only in groups of less than about 10. Ancestral human hunter-gatherer bands are thought to have numbered 30 or more individuals, so how could cooperative behaviour have evolved and spread in these groups?

The answer lies in the fact that strong reciprocity is not simply a matter of cooperation; it also requires punishment of those who fail to toe the line. When the team added punishment to their models, they found it made a huge difference. In a second round of simulations, they included a new kind of individual: the “punishers”. These punishers were not only willing to cooperate with others but also to punish cheats. By making cheats pay for their antisocial actions, they tipped the balance towards cooperation. This time, competition between groups led to the emergence of cooperation in groups of up to 50 individuals (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 100, p 3531).

altruism graph

Could competition between small groups of our ancestors somehow have turned them into strong reciprocators? Gintis, Boyd and their colleagues believe so. What’s more, subsequent research by Fehr, working with economist Urs Fischbacher of the University of Zurich, suggests that as humans came to live in larger groups, their attitudes towards reciprocity may have become even more hard-line. Using a similar model to Gintis and the others (Nature, vol 425, p 785pdf), they found that cooperation can become the default behaviour in large groups provided punishers are willing to punish not only those who cheat, but also those who fail to punish cheats. “In this case,” Fehr says, “even groups of several hundred individuals can establish cooperation rates of between 70 and 80 per cent.”

This work is important, because understanding how cooperation emerges and persists is vital in understanding and designing human institutions, and in understanding the emergence of complex systems in general.

Stewart Brand on Long Term Thinking and Cities

From an article in the Portland Tribune:

Brand, whose current lecture is titled “The Future of Cities as if the Past Mattered,” makes a distinction between long-term planning and long-term thinking, favoring the latter because we can’t know the future.

“Institutions max out at 40 to 50 years; some universities have lasted a thousand years. Religions — some poop out pretty quickly — while cities vary enormously, such as capitals of dynasties. Jerusalem has been an important town for 2,000 years.”
He compares aerial photos of earthquake-devastated Turkey from the 1990s with those of recently tsunami-ravaged Asia.
“All the buildings went down except the mosques,” he says. “This is because some parts of civilization move faster than others.” Islam is ancient, but modern businesses bought off the government to get around building codes, he says.

After the Tsunami

UNEP has just released a report After the Tsunami: Rapid Environmental Assessment

It can also be downloaded as a 9mB pdf file.

UNEP recommends:

[Rebuilding should be done] in a manner that preserves natural resources for the benefit of the local communities who were hardest hit by the disaster, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says. Vulnerability mapping is urgently needed to pin point coastal sites where homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted. …. This makes sense not only in respect to tsunamis but also with respect to storms surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

The New Scientist has a short article about the report. They write:

Fresh water supplies including groundwater, irrigation channels and even wells, were severely contaminated in all seven of the tsunami-hit countries studied by UNEP – Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Yemen and Somalia. All the freshwater sources on many islands – including all of Sri Lanka’s wells – are thought to be polluted.

Water sources have been poisoned by sea water, sewage, human and animal decomposition and oil leaks, the report found. Toxic materials from damaged buildings have also been a problem, including asbestos, radioactive products and heavy metals. On beaches in Somalia, for example, the tsunami stirred up nuclear and hazardous waste deposits that had been dumped during the country’s long civil war.

Eric Falt, a UNEP spokesperson, told New Scientist that lessons could be learnt from the disaster, and much of the environmental damage need not be repeated. “It’s an opportunity for planners to do things differently; to not build so close to the sea and for shrimp farmers not to repeat the destruction of mangroves,” he said.”

Wildlife appears to have fared better than other environmental aspects. But many of Sri Lanka’s important turtle nesting sites were destroyed and there are reports that these severely endangered creatures are being eaten by desperately hungry local people.

However, there has also been some good news – turtles on Tanjung Bungah beach in Malaysia have taken advantage of the lack of tourists to begin breeding. More than 30 baby Olive Ridley sea turtles emerged onto the usually packed beach on 16 February, prompting a local campaign for a protected nest area.