On not learning: some quotes

The Spring/Summer 2004 issue of Wild Earth has several thought-provoking pieces. Here are a few excerpts.

“Pressed flowers. Bird nests, butterflies behind glass, shells. Hand lenses and tattered field guides. A child reaching for a feather in the grass. Natural history.

“It’s going extinct, and nowhere more quickly than where we need it the most – in our colleges and universities. These days, you don’t need an understanding of – or even an interest in – natural history to get into a graduate program in ecology or any other branch of biology. Financial support for basic natural history research is all but gone. The close, scrupulous observation of nature has a long and illustrious history, but it is now sliding into oblivion . . .

“It’s as if biology has split into two kinds: for-profit and not-for-profit. The for-profit kind: that’s molecular biology, the ‘New Biology’ much in vogue these days – understandably so. Discoveries at the molecular level have revealed layer upon layer, wonder after wonder, in a world of complexity none of us could have guessed at a half century ago when the revelation of the double helix set the genomic era in motion. Yet this has led to the reductionist point of view that everything in biology is explicable by molecular processes, that explaining biological events at the molecular level is the ultimate goal of biology . . .

“And the not-for-profit biology? That’s natural history. Knowledge for its own sake. A field for the passionate amateur and the inspired schoolteacher – and until lately, the professional biologist. Biology departments are phasing out traditional courses in natural history. It’s incipient at some universities and well underway at many others.”

Thomas Eisner and Mary M. Woodsen, “The Science of Wonder: Natural History in the Balance”


“No one knows how many synthetic chemicals act as endocrine disrupters. A partial list includes a variety of pesticides, products associated with plastics (including plastic drinking bottles), breakdown products of household detergents, cosmetics, and a number of common industrial chemicals. Little is known about endocrine disrupters because previous tests for health effects focused on cancer. Endocrine disruption, like the earlier discovery of synthetic carcinogens, is a novel surprise.

“Can we think our way out of this problem? Endocrine disruption is impossible to predict based on a molecule’s structure, and effects may be difficult to evaluate experimentally because they include behavioral changes that are often less obvious than physical abnormalities. Moreover, endocrine disruption may occur during very brief windows of embryological exposure (as short as a few days), and may involve interactions between different chemicals. How many interactions are possible among the 58 endocrine disrupters that the Environmental Working Group found in the blood and urine of its nine study subjects? Are we smart enough to understand and manage the cascade of possible effects?”
* * * *
“A rat on a treadmill learns that if it runs when it hears a beep it can avoid an electric shock. The rat can also learn to turn to avoid a shock. But rats cannot learn to rear up on their hind legs to avoid being shocked. The explanation for a rat’s learning pattern is simple: shocks are unpleasant, and running and turning are innate avoidance responses. In contrast, rearing occurs to satisfy curiosity and is an innately exploratory behavior. The rat’s bran cannot learn to avoid danger using a naturally exploratory behavior. So even when rats frequently happen to avoid a shock by rearing, they never make the connection and learn to avoid the shock by rearing when the beep sounds. In fact, over a number of trials, a rat will rear less and less when rearing is the only way to avoid the shock. In an environment alien to its intelligence, the rat exhibits less, not more, of the behavior that could help it to avoid an unpleasant outcome.”

Matthew Orr, “Intelligence Lost: Pitfalls of a Tamed Planet”


“Rain drummed on the hatches and splashed off the decks, but still we could make out the sound of a wolf howling from the cliffs over the cove where we dropped anchor. There was only one wolf, although we listened carefully to make sure. The howl started low, leapt up, slid across the water, and sank away. Nothing answered the wolf’s call. Frank and I listened, as the wolf must have listened, the question probing the clouds and damping out in the forest, in the draperies of lichens and drooping hemlock boughs. . . .

“When my colleague, a concert pianist, explained the augmented fourth, she brought both hands in front of her body, palms skyward, fingers spread, and lifted the air. For her, words are not enough to explain this interval. This is a sound that floods the soul, she said, and she strained forward from the waist. The augmented fourth is a heartbreaking interval, dissonance that comes close to consonance, pulls itself so close, but never reaches the perfect fifth that is almost within its grasp.

“She leaned over the keyboard and played two notes: C, F-sharp. Then she flooded the room with music made of the unfinished intervals, harmonies that lead to resolution but never reach a place of peace. Tony, reaching for Maria. A Greek chorus pleading with the gods to have mercy on Orestes’ soul, this man who has murdered his mother. Tristan, reaching for the white sail that will bring his beloved Isolde on a following wind. And Robert Schumann, poor lovesick Schumann, yearning for Clara. Yearning: this ancient word, diving straight through history from the beginnings of language itself, a word as old as home and earth. No one in Christian medieval Europe sang the augmented fourth, my colleague said. It was the diabolus in musica, the devil’s chord – so powerful it could grab a parishioner, drag him to his knees and pull him, scraping on the paving stones, straight to hell. And there I was in that tide-dragged island wilderness, also on my knees, trying to understand the pull of these same two notes.”

Kathleen Dean Moore, “The Augmented Fourth”

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