A possible reason for decline

Following on from the previous post here is a video of the famous kakapo male, Sirocco partaking in a bit of the old interspecies, homosexual proverbial in-out-in-out. Maybe this is why their numbers are so low. They can't tell head from tail (excuse the terrible turn of phrase, had nothing better).

Science journalism?

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Clements et al. 2011) and subsequent press releases in New Zealand has resulted in a some public backlash. The paper proposes a new index for assessing the extinction risk of a species called SAFE (species ability to forestall extinction). In the paper the authors tested the strength of the SAFE index at predicting the most commonly used species threat measure, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and found it to perform better than other currently used measures.

The SAFE index is really quite simple. It takes into account two things, the total number of individuals in a species across it's entire known range and, the minimum viable population (MVP) of a species. The minimum viable population is the lowest number of individuals a population needs to sustain itself. A few years ago a cross species review of MVP and found that on average MVPs are around 4169 individuals (Traill et al 2007). The importance of this with regard to extinctions is obvious. If a species population size drops below this minimum, the chances of extinction are greatly increased. See I told you it was simple.
Photo credit: Shane McInnes, winner of The Worlds Rarest Birds photo competition
However, the backlash in New Zealand about this work was largely from ill informed people who have a chip on their shoulder. What chip you ask? Well it so happens that the authors of the SAFE paper are based at Australian institutions. So what? Well the crux of the story stems from the misrepresentation of the work and how it can be applied in a real world situation. Professor Cory Bradshaw was one of the authors who worked on the paper and talked about the work on radio here in NZ. There were also some news articles, one entitled 'Let the wonderfully wierd kakapo die--scientist' specifically got me riled up. The kakapo (pictured above) is a very unique bird in that is a flightless, nocturnal parrot, the only one of its kind in the world, but like so many NZ birds, it is endangered. And according to the SAFE index, with only 131 individuals of the species left, it has little chance of being saved. Luckily there are a huge number of dedicated people, both paid and volunteers, who are trying to get this bird back on it's feet. What Corey Bradshaw had to say was what people hated. He said that the massive expenditure on saving a single species that fell short on the SAFE index is unjustified because, where financial resources are limited, this happens to the detriment of countless other species. The other species may not be endangered but could be on the verge and thus excluded from the conservation effort. Therefore, by the time we realize that these species are becoming rare it may be too late, one because we spent too much money on a single species and don't have much left, and two because they may already be below the MVP threshold. 

You could go and read some of the comments on the news article but I have picked out some of my favourites:

This one is priceless for a couple of reasons. Firstly they cite positive as people who are slandering Corey Bradshaw, and secondly he talks about Darwineans. I think what he means is darwinians, but I have no idea what he means by it, particularly when he talks about saving money etc.

Glad to see so many positive (save the Po) comments, but am surprised at the number who agree with the Aussie! NZ has saved a bird before, and hopefully we will do it again. To those of you "Darwineans" who are against "wasting money" saving it....think of all the money we waste trying to save other humans?? Is that a waste too? Should the NZ government let nature take its course next time you have a treatable illness or injury?
 Another classic. I love how she  calls him a "so-called 'scientist'". And then goes on to attack him because he is Australian. If she had not just read the crap title of the article and bothered to find out about the source material she would ave realised two things. One, that Corey Bradshaw is a "real" scientist who is highly published and respected in his field, and two, that he is in fact Canadian who now lives in Australia. Additionally, he did his PhD in New Zealand.
Please everyone, don't give this so-called 'scientist' another minute of our time. BUT, I guess if we don't, he will think "yeah, no one is commenting about my statement" so he'll think we really don't care about saving our lovely little kakapo. wrong !!!! Keep your Aussie BS to yourself....
 Comments about being Australian were really common. Here's a couple more. These ones are the most ridiculous. Real geniuses!

As many others have said, how about the Australians keep to their own country?! Australia has their own problems to watch out for!

Typical comment from an Australian i mean they have a history with there Native people as well.
The worst part about this is obvious slant the media took and by having a title like it did, peoples minds were made up for them before they actually had any understanding of the topic.


Clements, G. R., Bradshaw, C. J. A., Brook, B. W., & Laurance, W. F. The SAFE index: using a threshold population target to measure relative species threat. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, preprint.
Traill, L. W., Bradshaw, C. J. A., & Brook, B. W. (2007). Minimum viable population size: A meta-analysis of 30 years of published estimates. Biological Conservation, 139(1-2), 159-166.

The spectrum of sexuality

I just read a post on Homologous Legs on bisexuality that reminded of a film I watched some months ago about Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey was an entomologist worked with gall wasps (Cynipidae) but, it was his work in human sexuality that he is best known for. In the 1930s, Kinsey became interested in human sexuality and began to pursue research in order to classify human sexual practices. The thing that I, and I am sure many others would find interesting is, "What is normal?"
The Kinsey scale of sexual preference: Image from Wikipedia
The ideas around what is normal is something that I have thought about quite a bit. People think they know what is normal and anything that deviates from their normality is just that, deviant or perverted. Kinsey and his colleagues addressed this by anonymously interviewing subjects about their sexual activity and preferences. The results were quite surprising with 'non-normal' activities proving quite 'normal'. Of particular interest was the apparent prevalence of bisexuality in men. This led to the development of the Kinsey Scale where sexual preference is viewed not as binary (i.e. gay or straight) or possibly three dimensionally, but more spectrally. In other words, zero on the scale is exclusively straight, and six is exclusively gay. What Kinsey and his colleagues found was that the majority of subjects fell outside of the exclusive zero or six, and had at least some bisexual tendency. That is not to say everyone acts on these feelings, but they are at least present.

Bird watching "Hall of famer"

Ernst Mayr is one of biology's greatest sons (can I say that he is a son of biology?). He made many contributions to evolutionary biology, in particular, the biological species concept. The obvious outcome of this was that it allowed biologists to draw a line in the sand and say that this is this species and this is another species, although some argue that it is arbitrary and is more problematic than useful. For example, it is possible for two defined biological species to interbreed (hybridize) and have viable, fertile offspring. Commonly, people will cite lions and tigers hybridizing (the infamous Napoleon Dynamite Liger) in zoos or other man made facilities. However, this is highly improbable in a contemporary world since everybody knows (?) that tigers live in Asia and lions in Africa. None the less, it does speak to the potential power of the process. But, if we are in search of viable hybrids, we need to think less like a human. By this I mean we need to steer away from charismatic organisms and look at other life forms. Plants are a great place to start. There are countless example of naturally occur plant hybrids, and excitingly it occurs at relatively high taxonomic levels (i.e. inter-genus and even inter-familial hybridization). There are also examples of interfamilial bird hybrids such, particularly in the unfortunately named game birds.

I seem to have digressed from my initial topic but species concepts and modes of speciation are currently a particular interest of mine. Anyways all i really wanted to say was that Ernst started out as a bird watcher as a young man. He discusses it in the video below. I really love how, even though he is his 90s, he tells the story of observing a rare bird with such excitement, as though it was yesterday. The video comes from Web of Stories which is a website with videos of a wide range of interesting and influential people, including Ernst Mayr. The videos are broken down into small digestible sections only a few minutes long and are definitely worth a look.

Here is a piece Mayr wrote for Science in 2004 when he was 100 about the Modern Synthesis. He died the following year. Even after 100 years, 81 of which were spent as a student of biology his hunger for discovery, evolutionary biology in particular, is beautifully revealed by his last sentence "I only regret that I won't be present to enjoy these future developments".

Morality and it's origins?

I once read a book by the well known christian author C.S. Lewis called 'Mere christianity'. The book centres largely around the concept of a supposed innate sense of morality governed by our conscience. Lewis argues that everybody knows the difference between right and wrong and our conscience is the proverbial 'angel' sitting on our shoulder that lets us know when we are being immoral. On the surface this concept seems quite simple and rather true when applied to a typical western, developed country. However, when you attempt to apply it to countries of various cultures it falls apart rather rapidly. For example, an extreme case can be found in Papua New Guinea where cannibalism is still probably practised to some degree, or at least was until very recent times. The people who practised cannibalism undoubtedly viewed human flesh as a substantial source of protein and probably felt little remorse (conscience wise) in the same sense that westerners feel when they eat cow, pig, chicken or sheep. Obviously being a christian author, Lewis believes that your governing conscience is a 'gift' from god. The PNG cannibals definitely didn't have the same monotheistic abrahamic god as Lewis does, but certainly had a polytheistic naturalistic gods that centred around the sun, moon and stars -- since for them these are their life givers.

Where I am going with this relates to a commonly held belief among religious people regarding morality. Many argue that without a god guiding us there is no basis for human morality. This is absurd. A relatively simple counter to that argument is that morality is guided rather by a desire to do good for the better of the humanity as a whole. This of course is not necessarily always a true reflection of what the world is like, but people are likely to be morally "good" to those that they like, and even more so to those they are related to. Moreover, religion can even be argued to be immoral if one were to read certain passages in the bible. The common notion of an all loving god is a wonderful thought, and is perpetuated in many modern churches. However, in addition to the love preached by Jesus is the new testament, the bible is full of horrific acts and rules. Below is a list of some of them. I have summarised them with a link to them too.

Numbers 31: 17 - Murder of men and woman as well as keeping virgins for yourself
Hosea 13: 16 - Murder of children and pregnant women
Leviticus 20:10 - Kill adulterers
Isaiah 13: 15 - Murder, including children "dashed to pieces", and "ravishing" wives. This is a strange one since Leviticus 20:10 says that adulterers should be put to death, but here god is saying that wives will be ravished.
Luke 19: 27 - More slaying, but this time from the mouth of Jesus.
Leviticus 20: 13 - Murder of homosexual men
1st Corinthians 14: 34  - Oppression of women
Exodus 31: 15 - People who work on the sabbath should be killed. Bear in mind this comes from the same book as the 10 commandments, one of which is about not killing.
Titus 2: 9 - How slaves should behave. Slavery come up quite a bit in the bible with not condemnation of it that I am aware of, although I am no biblical scholar so I can't be sure.

So my question is, how can the above selection be part of something that is supposed to be a moral guide? I acknowledge that the bible does have parts about love etc., but which parts are supposed to be followed, and which not?  Murder is morally wrong, but what about adulterers or homosexuals?

Sam Harris has a new book out called 'The moral landscape: how can science determine human values?'. The title is pretty self explanatory. I have as yet not read it but will get a copy of it asap and do my best to decipher it and maybe even review it here.

Singing it how it is

Who hasn't been in the position where like Mr. Minchin (see video below) before and held their tongue for wont of not offending? It happens often and I always think to myself, why is it okay for them to offend me but not for me to offend them? I suppose they don't realise that I am offended.

It's award season

Two in institutes that promote evidence as foundations of decision making have recently given some awards to a bunch of people that promote beliefs supported by little to no evidence. The first award is the first is the National Centre for Science Education's annual UpChucky award for creationist of the year and, the second are a set of awards from the James Randi Educational Foundation called the Pigasus Awards.

UpChucky award taken from the NCSE

I have mentioned Ken Ham is two previous posts here and, here. Ken received the UpChucky award from the NCSE and has finally be recognised for all his hard work at being an ignorant fool and spreading garbage or, as my friend Paul elegantly put it, "aurally raping" people. Nice one Hamo, you deserve it. Give yourself a pat on the back for being recognised for your genius. I actually just had a watch of a couple of videos over at the AiG website with Ken spurting something about how natural selection is not evolution. He reckons that evolution cannot occur in the way that evilutionsists "claim" it does because it requires new information to originate in the genetic material of plants and animals. It always blows me away to hear people making claims without any evidence (although Ken does have stories from a book that at its newest parts are about 2000 years old and not corroborated by any other source) that are completely contrary to what we can, and have observed. Gene duplication for example is a well documented occurrence that absolutely adds new information to the genome on which selection (or neutral processes) can act.

The second set of awards from James Randi include a few different categories:

  • The Scientist Pigasus Award goes to NASA Engineer Richard B. Hoover, who recently announced for the third time in 14 years that he had found evidence of microscopic life in meteorites. Along with the crackpot Journal of Cosmology—a now-defunct publication founded in 2009 to publish articles advancing the scientifically unsupported idea that life began before the first stars formed and was spread throughout the early universe on meteors—Hoover pitched his warmed-over ideas to Fox News, an outlet not known for their attention to facts. Predictably, Fox News ran with the story, convincing many people that NASA had discovered extraterrestrial life.
  • The Funder Pigasus Award goes to CVS/pharmacy, for their work to support the manufacturers of scam “homeopathic” medications who sell up to $870 million a year in quack remedies to U.S. consumers. Homeopathic remedies contain none of the active ingredient they claim, and homeopathy has been shown to be useless in randomized clinical trials. CVS/pharmacy sells these quack products in thousands of stores across the U.S., right alongside real medicine, with no warning to consumers. Instead of giving their customers the facts about homeopathy, CVS/pharmacy executives are cashing in themselves by offering their own store-brand of the popular homeopathic product oscillococcinum. Oscillococcinum is made by grinding up the liver of a duck, putting none of it onto tiny sugar pills—that’s right, none of it—and then advertising the plain sugar pills as an effective treatment for flu symptoms.
  • The Media Pigasus Award goes to Dr. Mehmet Oz, who has done such a disservice to his TV viewers by promoting quack medical practices that he is now the first person to win a Pigasus two years in a row. Dr. Oz is a Harvard-educated cardiac physician who, through his syndicated TV show, has promoted faith healing, "energy medicine," and other quack theories that have no scientific basis. Oz has appeared on ABC News to give legitimacy to the claims of Brazilian faith healer “John of God,” who uses old carnival tricks to take money from the seriously ill. He's hosted Ayurvedic guru Yogi Cameron on his show to promote nonsense "tongue examination" as a way of diagnosing health problems. This year, he really went off the deep end. In March 2011, Dr. Oz endorsed "psychic" huckster and past Pigasus winner John Edward, who pretends to talk to dead people. Oz even suggested that bereaved families should visit psychic mediums to receive (faked) messages from their dead relatives as a form of grief counseling.
  • The Refusal to Face Reality Award goes to Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who launched the modern anti-vaccine panic with unfounded statements linking the MMR vaccine with autism that were not borne out by any research, even his own. In 2010, The Lancet retracted his paper on the MMR vaccine, and this year the British medical journal BMJ called Wakefield’s paper an outright fraud, finding “clear evidence of falsification of data” and that “he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain,” taking more than $674,000 from lawyers who intended to sue vaccine manufacturers. Yet Wakefield continues to ask the public to believe he is the victim. In a recent article in NaturalNews, Wakefield called the American Academy of Pediatrics and The Lancet “instruments of a state that I don't really want to be associated with.”
But probably the best award of them all must be the "comback award" for Peter Popoff.

The Performer Pigasus Award—this year for “Best Comeback”—goes to televangelist Peter Popoff. Popoff made millions in the 1980s by pretending to heal the sick and receive information about audience members directly from god. He went bankrupt in 1987 after JREF founder James Randi exposed him for using a secret earpiece to receive information about audience members from his wife. Now he’s back to prey on victims of the economic recession. In paid infomercials on BET, Popoff offers “supernatural debt relief” in exchange for offerings of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This business is so lucrative that according to recent IRS documents, Popoff took in $23.5 million and paid himself and his immediate family more than $1 million in one year alone.
How ridiculous. Are people buying his shit after he was publicly debunked.