TED Talks: Douglas Adams on parrots, the universe and everything

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet is made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other. This is not strictly a TED Talk, but is included on their website.

Here is the late, great Douglas Adams, talking about his expeditions to observe endangered species – the Aye-aye in Madagascar is the first – that became a BBC radio documentary, called Last Chance to See, and then a book of the same name. He speaks exactly as you would expect of the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A delight to listen to, and a reminder of the unique mind the world lost when he died in 2001.

Blasphemy for the Day: Depraved penguins – won’t someone please think of the children?

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Shocking news from the Natural History Museum – a scientist with the 1910-1913 Scott Antarctic Expedition noted such “astonishing depravity” among the Adelie penguins that he felt compelled to record his findings in Greek to spare the blushes of anyone except educated gentlemen like himself. From the Guardian article:

Levick spent the Antarctic summer of 1911-12 observing the colony of Adélies at Cape Adare, making him the only scientist to this day to have studied an entire breeding cycle there. During that time, he witnessed males having sex with other males and also with dead females, including several that had died the previous year. He also saw them sexually coerce females and chicks and occasionally kill them.

Since then we’ve learned much more, not just about penguins, but about other species who flaunt their immorality in the face of innocent scientists. Kees Moeliker, for example, curator of the Rotterdam Natural History Museum. A male mallard slammed into the glass side of the building and dropped stone dead to the ground. Moeliker went to investigate and saw another male mallard having sex with the corpse for 75 minutes, only reluctantly backing off when Moeliker had completed his observations. From this auspicious beginning, he went on to win the coveted Ig Nobel Prize for research into homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks. Here he explains the findings in his own inimitable way.

Moving right along to the 2005 film, March of the Penguins, a French nature documentary chronicling a year in the arduous life cycle of Adelie penguins. With an English narrative intoned by Morgan Freeman (the Voice of God?), it has from the trailer a distinctly anthropomorphic take on penguin family life.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Christians have taken to heart the Adelie penguin as a moral exemplar, ignoring what was already known – that they do not mate for life, only for the year. In other words, they’re into serial marriage. This New York Times article surveys the ideological battle ground and disposition of the moral crusaders. I was curious to find out what the most anally retentive of the Christian movie sites – the CAP Movie Ministry – had to say. You can see my post on their methodology here. The site gave March of the Penguins an outstanding 97/100 points, with a few tiny caveats and this (for them) extremely liberal comment:

March of the Penguins also includes an instance of animal copulation. There is absolutely nothing lewd about it and no animal privates are seen, but it is still a sexual act that can create thinking in your adolescents.

Don’t want our adolescents to think, do we? There’s a long tradition in Christianity of animals representing moral values, so it’s interesting to see penguins – probably unknown in medieval times when bestiaries were a teaching tool – enrolled in the fight against sin.

Which begs the question. Now that penguins are unmasked as murderers, rapists (hetero and homo), and child abusers, what’s to become of them? Will the research be denied, or will Christians say the sinners represent only a small sample of the population? It’s hard to square with God having created them, but without free will, because that makes Him either evil or a bad Designer. And the penguins can’t speak for themselves, issuing tearful apologies to God and their congregations, in the approved manner of disgraced evangelists.

Interesting times, and bad news for the Happy Feet franchise.

The Aquatic Ape

What would you think if, coming in sight of the beach at a seaside resort, you saw that all the deckchairs were turned toward the land?  This is the punchline of a short story by science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss, in which his character slips into an alternative universe, one that looks superficially similar but is fundamentally alien – human beings are no longer drawn towards the sea.

That was in the 1960s.  Not long after reading the story, I came across an extraordinary hypothesis by Welsh television writer and feminist, Elaine Morgan.  Reacting to what she saw as the sexist nature of the savannah hypothesis in human evolution (chaps off hunting, women sitting around at home watching day time TV), she found a reference in Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape to a period in human evolution when apes might have been forced to live in water.  Here’s his argument.

Morgan’s book, The Descent of Woman (1972), popularized the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.  You can see why, as a feminist, she found it attractive.  There is no division of labour in an aquatic environment – males and females are equal partners in the struggle for survival.

Beyond that, it has some supporting evidence, presented by Morris in the video.  This theory supports, among other things, the evolution of bipedalism (as a means of literally keeping your head above water), frontal sex, lack of body hair, and conscious control of breathing (necessary in an aquatic environment).

Needless to say, her work was not well received in scientific circles.  I will leave you to apportion the reasons between her non-scientific background and being a woman.

Morgan followed this with The Aquatic Ape (1982), in which she made the science more rigorous, and continued to develop her theory in subsequent books.  The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997), subtitled The Most Credible Theory of Human Evolution, takes the prize for sheer chutzpah.

Criticism of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has not diminished in the ensuing years, but it has gained a place among the family of respectable evolutionary theories.  Somewhere in the back row of the family photo, among the maiden aunts.  Morgan is still passionately defending her hypothesis.  Here she is at TED in 2009.

I like AAH as much for its scientific credentials, as for my affinity for water.  It resonates on an intuitive level, and I was appalled by Aldiss’ glimpse of a world where human beings are no longer drawn to the sea.  I’m not even sure I’d give it the bum’s rush if there was a preponderance of evidence against it.

The ancestral memory of wading through the mangrove swamps is just too strong and comforting.

The Bear Family & Me: Update

The Bear Family & Me was filmed in 2010.  These are my reviews for Spring, Summer, and Autumn.  The documentary finished as Lily and Hope, her cub, were preparing to go into winter hibernation.

Spring, 2011, brought the best possible news.  Both Lily and Hope are alive and well, and Hope has a new sister, Faith.  I am chuffed pink.  You can keep up to date with all the bears in the documentary at the Wildlife Research Institute, run by Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield.  Lily has a Facebook page, of course.

And here are a couple of recent videos of Lily, Hope, and Faith.

The Bear Family & Me: Autumn

I watched the last segment of this documentary with some apprehension.  The first two – Spring and Summer – created an emotional charge that got me deeply involved in the lives of the bears, particularly Lily and Hope, her cub.

At the end of Summer, Hope was fending for herself (with some help from the besotted Gordon) after being abandoned by Lily.  But she was still in great danger from predators.  Autumn found her, against all the odds, reunited with Lily whose maternal instincts were once again in full flow.  Gordon’s relief and joy are palpable, particularly because her condition is so much better: “Hope, you look like a proper bear!”  Still not enough body fat for hibernation, but getting there, confirmed by a visit to Lily’s Aunt Juliette and her 3 cubs for comparison.

In between walking with his bear family, Gordon is looking at the wider context of their existence in the Minnesota woods.  He talks to Charlie, who lives in the remote community of Eagle’s Nest.  Like some of his neighbours, Charlie feeds the bears that come to his property.  For him, bears are not a problem, but the inevitable consequence of living in the woods.

Then there’s a visit to a gun shop – “guns for everyone” – and the culture shock, sharpened by Gordon’s love for the bears, is evident.  But he does try to understand the other point of view.  He visits Dave, a local hunter, whose walls are crowded with hunting trophies, and eats a bear-burger (enjoys it too).  Dave is “one of the good guys” who don’t shoot bears with radio collars.  He even goes with Gordon to meet Lily and Hope.  Gordon is definitely in the business of changing hearts and minds, as he persuades Dave to feed the bears from his hand.  It’s a lovely moment.

But his main mission is to protect the bears, because it’s now the hunting season: “This time, I’m no longer just a cameraman – I’m a bodyguard.”  Down to the bullet-proof vest.  It’s illegal to shoot radio collared bears when a researcher is with them, so Gordon, Lynn and Sue try to walk with the research bears during daylight.  The bears also wear bright pink and yellow ribbons on their collars.

Another concern is that Hope will not get fattened up in time for hibernation.  Lily must soon start building a den for the winter, taking them out of harm’s way.  But the hunters are in Lily’s territory, and she’s unable to move into other bears’ territory without challenging the occupier.  This has already happened – another bear, Sarah, has challenged Lily twice and been driven away.

The tension cranks up as the programme progresses.  I found myself looking at the elapsed time counter, thinking, “well, not long to go, and nothing terrible has happened yet.”

But it does.  Sarah, the bear who challenged Lily, is shot – despite wearing a collar and a brightly coloured ribbon.  Her collar is shoved, anonymously, through the the letter box of the Dept. of Natural Resources.  Coming as it does after we’ve come to know these bears as characters, it feels like an utterly despicable act.  Sue, one of researchers, says it best: “I feel like crap.  It’s so hard to understand the way they think.”

Then it’s time for Gordon to return to Scotland, but not before seeing Lily make a start on a den.  He has changed from the wary cameraman, who only filmed wild animals from a relatively safe distance, to someone who has lost his fear and bonded with these animals.  My guess in the opening segment, Spring, is borne out in this one when he says, “I’ve fallen in love with these bears.”

And so have I.  I can usually take or leave nature programmes, but this one went straight to the heart.  For the most part due to Gordon’s empathic connection with the bears and the humane research carried out by the Wildlife Research Institute.

This is inspired television, presented with wit, courage and passion.

The Bear Family & Me is available on DVD at the BBC Shop.

The Bear Family & Me: Summer

The Bear Family & Me: Spring ended on a high note.  Hope, after being abandoned by Lily, is found, rescued, and returned, complete with scenes of ecstatic reunion.  Nature imitating art, with a little help from the researchers.

Gordon returns to Minnesota in the summer, to find that after a brief period together, Lily has once more abandoned her cub.  In between searching for her, Gordon is introduced to Juliette and her 3 cubs.  This family is a sort of control group for the researchers and acts as a rationale for continuing the search for Hope.  Juliette’s cubs are protected, secure, and can learn from their mother and through play.  Hope, on the other hand, is an orphan who will have to fend for herself with limited socialization and in deadly earnest.  Can she do it, they ask, and how will that affect her behaviour as an adult.  But it is just that – a rationale for doing what they really want to do.

The cub is, amazingly, still alive and incredibly tenacious, having learned by herself to catch crayfish from the lakes.  But she is in terrible danger from predators.  Gordon starts to feed her milk and other supplementary food until she’s old enough to digest everything a bear eats.

This is most emphatically not what other bear researchers do.  Observation and objectivity, not involvement and caring for individual bears.  Lynn’s take on it is that, “sometimes you got to do new things to learn new things.”

And when you see Gordon, with Hope practically in his lap and eating out of his hand, you begin to understand the attraction of wild animals in all their terrible innocence.  In Gordon’s words:

You know, I just think this little animal is one of the most incredible little characters I’ve ever known…There are times in your life when you know you’re doing things you’ll remember for a very long long long time.  And this is one of them.

As she disappears into the forest, he says, as much to himself as to Hope, “Everything’s going to be all right.”  It’s a powerful scene.  You really do hope that everything is going to be all right, while being fully aware of the dangers, because how could you not fall in love with her?

Here’s that magic moment on video:

But Gordon has a family of his own.  His wife and two bairns visit the Minnesota cabin from Scotland, and are taken to see Lily (from a distance) as Gordon goes up to say hello.  Hope also shows herself to the family.  This is what makes this documentary such a fascinating mixture of human and animal social dynamics.  It blurs the distinctions between them.

We end with Hope finally allowing a radio collar to be fitted, and Gordon returning to Scotland.  The future is now much more problematical, not only because of the danger from predators, but because autumn is hunting season in Minnesota.  And they don’t like black bears.

Next up is The Bear Family & Me: Autumn.

The Bear Family & Me: Spring

It’s a foregone conclusion that I was going to love The Bear Family & Me, given that I use a black bear for my profile photo and avatar.  Gordon Buchanan, a wildlife cameraman, sets out to spend spring, summer and autumn with the black bears in the forests of northern Minnesota.  His guide and mentor is Lynn Rogers, a leading bear researcher, who has been mysteriously deserted by all his assistants except one doughty woman, Sue Mansfield.  You will be glad to know that he sounds somewhat like a character in Fargo.

Despite having filmed dangerous wild animals in other parts of the world, Buchanan is engagingly nervous at the prospect of actually standing next to a bear.  As Lynn strolls up to the animal as if it were a dog, Gordon is clearly having a brown trouser moment.

First find your bear.  Easy-peasy with the radio collar it’s wearing, just as long you call out to the beast that you’re coming.  Then he has Gordon feed it grapes, while Lynn changes the collar for a better model and checks the animal’s heart rate, as you do.  This is to demonstrate that the bear, Lily, is perfectly calm, unlike animals who are tranquilized before collars are put on them.

The documentary has established by this time that Lynn is either bat-shit crazy or a superhero.  As Gordon puts it, “But then, who’s to say that he’s not just a complete crackpot and he’s just been lucky for 40 years.”

As Gordon establishes a rapport with Lily and Hope, her cub, he falls head over heels in love with the Bear Family.  To a dangerous extent it seems.  One day, while he’s sitting there blissed out and attempting to attract the still skittish Hope, Mama Bear gently takes his thigh in her jaws. Without drawing blood, but definitely a warning.

Like any good soap, there are complications.  Lily succumbs to the scents of the mating season and deserts Hope for several days.  Bears who are weaning cubs usually don’t do this.  They have to get the starving Hope down from a tree and take her back to Lily, while questioning the ethics of interfering in the lives of wild animals.

This is a compelling documentary, and Gordon is an engaging and honest subject/presenter.  I couldn’t help but get involved in the intertwined stories of his quest and the lives of the bears.  Quest might seem an odd word to use in this context, but he’s clearly interested in far more than filming the interaction.

The last programme in the series, Autumn has already been broadcast, so I’m watching them on BBC iPlayer.  I hope complete episodes show up on YouTube, although there are a few short clips.  Here’s one:

See The Bear Family & Me: Summer here.