Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Curse of the Nativist Naturalists

The knee-jerk reaction against "foreign" species is disturbing. Many naturalists seem to suffer the same xenophobic delusions caused by misplaced patriotism. There's no doubt that the introduction of some species into a biome may cause a sudden and catastrophic change, and that the biome may never return to its previous state.

There's no doubt that the caulerpa taxifolia introduced into the Mediterranean has resulted in a gray (or rather green) goo tragedy. But to think all invasive species that disrupt the native fauna and flora are bad is simply shallow romanticism. Not all things native are good simply for the fact of being "native". Many species, including ourselves, are "invasive" by nature. We spread out over ever larger areas and alter the biomes we "invade".

Yes, sustainability is key. This is true for all species! Mormon crickets don't devour everything in their way. In partially decimated fields they turn on each other, sustaining their need for a protein rich-diet through cannibalism. But if they were to devour everything and each other, well, as a species they would be no more.

Our green monk parrots (Myiopsitta monachus) here in Brooklyn are a great example of a foreign species I welcome with open arms. They are not the green goo that taxophelia is to the Mediterranean. Monk parrots are smart social birds that deserve our respect even if they may displace other "native" species. I guess I should disclose that I myself (along with 99% of my fellow Brooklynites) am an invasive organism as far as Long Island goes.

Some, especially Argentinian farmers, could accuse me of romanticising the monk parrot. I think there is nothing romantic about respecting creatures that demonstrate human-like intelligence. It's the positive side of tribalism. Misplaced patriotism is patriotism which focuses on surface rather than substance. Monk parrots are complex survivalists that enrich the environments where they establish themselves. I'd rather have biome that, though less rich in color and surface variety, is much richer in culture.

Biomes are not static dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. They are constantly changing as some species arrive, some go extinct and some new physiological and behavioural variations arise. Perhaps the fear is often that life itself cannot survive the tempestuous changes that human globalization is causing. I think this is both overestimating our impact and underestimating life's ability to adapt.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to counteract some effects (such as global warming) that we cause to biomes. Our ability to recognize that something is wrong and devise countermeasures is part of our ability to adapt and survive. But a simplistic nativist mind-set is not a healthy frame for deciding how we should treat foreign elements.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dirty Space Probes

Few things are more important than space exploration. And not just exciting but ultimately humdrum and sterile old robotic escapades. We have to send dirty old beings into the wide unknown and let them shed their organic detritus wherever they may go.

It's all about spreading life. We're at the brink of an evolutionary leap beyond the confines of our planet. And we should be exhilarated to be the force behind this evolution. One of the most jaw dropping words I heard as a kid was terraform. Wow! The power of such a concept was mind boggling back in the 70's.

So when I hear about the efforts to sterilize planetary probes, I'm deeply disappointed. Yeah, I understand. We're looking for certain confirmation that we're "not alone", that life is not a fluke but a universal principle. A dirty probe could taint our experiments. We could be jeopardizing the "planetary integrity of Mars".

The universe is not a curiosity for scientist to ponder from a far. Given the signs of life that we have so far observed on Mars, I'm not too concerned about maintaing the delicate balance of their ecological niche. With high likelyhood, there is no "they" to begin with. And if there is a they, they are probably no more complex than a Terran protozoa.

I'm as curious as the other guy whether life has independently evolved in other parts of our solar system. But I'm far more curious about the possibilities of establishing terran life on Mars. And the potential economic, social and evolutionary rewards should outstrip any white-coat impulse we have in this matter.

A first experiment could be in how we grow microbes and plants on other planets without our presence. The cost of sending primitive life forms to distant places like Mars would be minute compaired to sending human beings. It would probably only be slightly more expensive than current robotic missions since there would be little concern for the well-being of our microbial emissaires.