Category: Environment

It’s not all hugs and smiles.

A sobering article about the unacceptable face of dogs!

Jim Goodbrod recently sent me an email that included a copy of a recent article in the Washington Post.

Here’s what Jim wrote:

Hey Paul…..

I read this article in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago: it’s not something we want to hear or admit to, but I thought you’d find it interesting nonetheless.
Regards,  Jim

Jim got it in one when he said that it’s not something we want to admit to.

But it deserves sharing with you.

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The dog is one of the world’s most destructive mammals. Brazil proves it.

Surveillance cameras placed by researchers in Brazil’s Tijuca National Park capture a pair of dogs. (Courtesy of Katyucha Silva)

By Terrence McCoy

August 20

RIO DE JANEIRO — High above this Brazilian city, in a jungle blanketing a mountain, the turtles were out, and the scene was hopeful.

Scientists were reintroducing 15 mud-caked tortoises to this urban forest where they had once been plentiful. Children were running around. People were oohing and aahing. A stern-looking security guard appeared to briefly smile.

But not government biologist Katyucha Silva. She was thinking about dogs.

What would they do to these turtles? What were they doing to Brazil?

It’s a question more researchers are beginning to ask in a country where there are more dogs than children — and where dogs are quickly becoming the most destructive predator. They’re invading nature preserves and national parks. They’re forming packs, some 15 dogs strong, and are hunting wild prey. They’ve muscled out native predators such as foxes and big cats in nature preserves, outnumbering pumas 25 to 1 and ocelots 85 to 1.

Every year, they become still more plentiful, spreading diseases, disrupting natural environments, goosing scientists who set up elaborate camera systems to photograph wild animals, only to come away with pictures of curious canines.

“It’s a difficult thing for people to hear,” said Isadora Lessa, a Rio de Janeiro biologist who wrote her doctoral dissertation on domestic dogs causing environmental mayhem. “They love dogs too much.”

How the dog became one of the world’s most harmful invasive mammalian predators is as much a global story as a Brazilian one. Over the last century, as the human population exploded, so did the dog population, growing to an estimated 1 billion.

That has been great for people — and even better for dogs — but less so for nature, according to a growing body of academic research implicating canines, particularly the free-roaming ones, in environmental destruction.

“The global impacts of domestic dogs on wildlife are grossly underestimated,” researchers concluded in a 2017 study published in the journal Biological Conservation. The researchers, based in Australia, convicted dogs in the extinction of 11 species and declared them the third-most-damaging mammal, behind only cats and rodents.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a list of animals whose numbers dogs are culling. There are 191, and more than half are classified as either endangered or vulnerable. They range from lowly iguanas to the famed Tasmanian devil, from doves to monkeys, a diversity of animals with nothing in common beyond the fact that dogs enjoy killing them. In New Zealand, the organization reported, a single German shepherd once did in as many as 500 kiwis — and that was the conservative estimate.

“Unfortunately, we have a big problem,” said Piero Genovesi, chair of the agency’s invasive species unit. “There is a growing number of dogs.”

People all over the world are — begrudgingly — beginning to take note.

In Chile, stray dogs were the top concern among city dwellers surveyed this year, topping deteriorating sidewalks and theft. In New Zealand, some communities moved last year to restrict the movement of dogs in a gambit to save little blue penguins. In India, farmers are complaining about stray dogs killing their livestock, just as other predators once had.

And in Brazil, atop a mountain outside of Rio de Janeiro, 15 tortoises were nestling into the forest floor, oblivious to the danger of the forest’s leading predator.

‘A complex problem’

And in Brazil, atop a mountain outside of Rio de Janeiro, 15 tortoises were nestling into the forest floor, oblivious to the danger of the forest’s leading predator.

Researchers estimate there are more than 100 dogs in Tijuca National Park outside Rio de Janeiro, where they hunt and kill wild animals in packs. (Courtesy of Katyucha Silva)

Brazil is home to an estimated 52 million dogs, according to the most recent government statistics — more than anywhere in Latin America — but their lives vary widely. In a nation defined by inequality, where the rich fly in helicopters over the poor in the favelas below, the dog has become one more way of understanding the divide.

In wealthy cities, the dog is everywhere, strolling through fancy shopping malls, sitting in the laps of restaurant patrons, even riding paddle boards out on the surf. Some people wheel their dogs around in little strollers.

“The dog brings to Brazilians some things that Brazilians appreciate in themselves,” said Alexandre Rossi, a television personality more commonly known as Dr. Pet. “To be friendly, to want to socialize with everyone . . . and be there and be close to your family. These are perceived as very good Brazilian qualities.”

On the streets of trendy Ipanema one recent afternoon, few people could believe that a dog — or at least their dog — could be much of predator.

“The dog is a friend!” sputtered Philipe Soares, the furball Bobby at his feet. “No, I’ve never thought of him that way.”

“Difficult to imagine,” said Carlos Alberto Vicente, peering down at his own pooch.

“In her case,” said Flavio Vilela, a shirtless man striding through a park with a small mutt named Nicoli, “they’d hunt her.”

The problem, researchers say, isn’t these dogs, who lead the coddled lives of European or American pets.

The problem is the dogs in poorer and more rural communities, where the life of the dog is more frequently the life of hunger. They prowl the streets day and night with neither a collar nor an owner, looking for food wherever it can be found — in trash heaps, alongside roads, and in forests and fields, where they form packs to hunt and kill.

“It’s a very complex problem,” said Silva, the government biologist.

A stunning discovery

Katyucha Silva, a government researcher, has discovered dozens of dogs in Tijuca National Park. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

Ana Maria Paschoal, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, remembers when she first started thinking about the dog differently. She was out in the Atlantic Forest in Southeast Brazil around a decade ago when she noticed there were an awful lot of them.

She wondered: How many dogs are using the protected areas? Are these feral or domestic dogs? Is their presence changing the occurrence of wild species?

So she set up cameras across 2,400 acres of forest to find out. What she discovered, published in 2012 in the scientific journal Mammalia, stunned her.

The dog wasn’t just the most-recorded carnivore; it was the most-recorded animal of the 17 mammals the cameras captured.

“The presence of the domestic dog is a threat,” Paschoal and her co-authors concluded.

The research, subsequently confirmed in a larger survey, laid the groundwork for a growing field of study here. One researcher linked Brazil’s dogs to the spread of diseases. Another accused the dogs in the National Park of Brasilia, where they hunted in massive packs, of scaring off natural predators. It was found that the closer humans lived to a nature preserve, the more likely dogs had penetrated it.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has counted 191 species whose numbers dogs are culling. More than half are endangered or vulnerable. (Courtesy of Katyucha Silva)

But perhaps most striking? The dogs were neither feral nor domestic — but somewhere in between.

“All the dogs we detected had an ‘owner’ or a person that the animal has a bond with,” Paschoal said. “The species population increases following human populations, exacerbating their potential impact on wildlife.”

It was something Fernando Fernandez, an ecology professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, learned the hard way. For the last decade, he has been reintroducing native animals to the Tijuca forest, one of the world’s largest urban woodlands, which spills across Rio de Janeiro’s mountains.

First came the agouti, a squirrel-like rodent. Then followed a problem: “Dogs.”

They started killing the agouti, and not for food. It was just for fun.

Fernandez and Silva wanted to learn more. They set up cameras and discovered dozens of dogs in the forest. They estimated more than 100 dogs were in the park — not residents, it turned out, so much as frequent visitors, tracking in from nearby favelas.

“These are people who are very poor,” said Silva, who has six dogs at home. “They don’t have money to build walls. . . . When the owners leave for work, the dog leaves, too, and only returns when the owner comes back to the house from work.”

The owners often have no idea what their dogs are up to. Even if they were told, Rob Young said, they almost certainly wouldn’t believe it.

Young, chairman of wildlife conservation at the University of Salford in Britain, witnessed the psychology at work after seeing dogs kill flightless birds in the state of Minas Gerais.

“We’d do interviews with the farmers: ‘Have you seen these dogs?’

“And they’d say, ‘Yeah, but my dogs aren’t the problem; it’s my neighbor’s dogs.’

“Every farmer would say the same thing.”

These factors — inability to see aggression in dogs, in­trac­table inequality, the rapid expansion of humanity — left Silva feeling apprehensive as she watched the tortoises being reintroduced into the Tijuca forest.

In the long term, she didn’t know how the problem of dogs laying waste to the world’s environments would realistically improve.

And in the short term: Could dogs kill these tortoises, just as they’d dispatched a few agouti?

“Yes,” she said. “They could.”

Silva worries that tortoises reintroduced in the park could fall prey to dogs. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

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It’s a tough read and there doesn’t appear to be a solution, not in the short-term at least.

As was reported in the article it is as much a global problem with something of the order of a billion dogs roaming the planet.

Does anyone have any ideas for a solution?

A bit of a heads-up

A vacation is coming up!

Now it’s still two weeks away but on the 23rd September we are going away until the 8th October.

We are driving to Utah specifically to see the slot canyons in Capital Reef National Park, and elsewhere.

The story behind this was quite a few months ago I was reading on Ugly Hedgehog about these canyons and said to Jeannie that we really should try and go there before we get too old.

As it happened, Jana could babysit the house and dogs, cats and horses on the dates that I mentioned earlier on.

We are taking just one dog with us. We will take Brandy because he adores being taken for a drive and he has the habit of going for a walkabout when at home and we thought it wasn’t fair on Jana.

So it’s all uncertain as to what I shall do with the blog. Whether I will have time to use old posts, or leave it alone completely, or from time to time go online and leave a brief post.

Things may become clearer nearer the time.

But it seemed like a good idea to give your a heads-up!

Stunning isn’t the half of it!

Now this is what I call survival!

A Vancouver, Washington dog survives a month in the wilderness.

Niko is a Vancouver family’s dog. He is also adventure partner to 16-year-old Caden Alt.

On July 26th, Niko went camping with Caden’s father, David Alt, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Located in South-West Washington it encompasses well over a million acres.

But I’ll let the KGW-TV blogsite tell you the full story.

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Dog Survives 31 Days In Woods After Being Hit By Car

By LINDSAY NADRICH, KGW-TV

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Niko, a Vancouver family’s dog, survived 31 days in the wilderness after getting hit by a car.

Niko is 16-year-old Caden Alt’s adventure partner.

“He’s always fun to have around,” Caden told KGW-TV. “He’s right there at your side walking around and yeah, he’s just awesome.”

On July 26, Niko went camping with Caden’s father, David Alt, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Later that night, Niko wandered over to the road and got hit by a car. David ran from the campsite just in time to see Niko sprint off into the woods.

“A lady jumped out of the car immediately and said, ‘I don’t know how he could’ve survived that,'” he said.

He searched all night, but could not find Niko. He said it was devastating.

For the next 31 days, he and Caden spent as much time as they could going back to look.

“Every weekend we went up there, we searched, that was pretty hard, coming back every day not finding anything,” Caden recalled.

Then last weekend, they got a call from two men who had seen a post about Niko on Facebook and spotted him about 100 yards from where he disappeared.

“That was, just like, my heart dropped for a second, like, is this happening?” Caden asked.

The Good Samaritans canceled their own trip and drove Niko straight to Vancouver.

“So, yeah, my son and I were just crying, it was, it was unbelievable, yeah, and then of course when we’re in the driveway and they bring him up, Caden and I are crying, those two grown men are crying, four guys crying, it was great,” David said.

Niko lost about 15 pounds but is otherwise doing well.

“Skin and bones and one eye shut, he had lost 30% of his body weight, but he immediately was eating and drinking,” David said.

Niko seemed pretty happy to be back by Caden’s side.

“It’s been amazing,” Caden said. “I’m so glad to have him back. He’s not like perfect, energetic back up to himself, but he’s getting there, better every day. He’s just as cute as ever, the house is filled again.”

So what did Niko do for 31 days alone in the woods?

“As far as trying to recap, only Niko knows the story right, too bad he couldn’t tell it,” David said.

During the month Niko was missing, David and Caden said they got a lot of support from people on social media, as well as a lot of tips that helped with the search. They said they are so thankful for everyone who kept them going.

___

Information from: KGW-TV, http://www.kgw.com/

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And it was very easy to close with a photograph of Niko. (And apologies, I didn’t make a note of the journal that published the photo.)

He is a gorgeous dog!

The moon

A poem

The Atlantic was smooth under the night sky,

It made a very welcome difference.

Nights were hard on this solo sailor,

A quick scan of the horizon every twenty or thirty minutes and then back down to my bunk.

 

But what was that!

For the first time in ages there was a strange light off the starboard bow.

Impossible to gauge the distance.

Then I had it!

It was no ship’s light,

It was the edge of the rising moon.

 

My bunk below was forgotten in an instant.

The sight of the rising full moon was everything.

It rose seemingly rapidly and now cast its light over the ocean.

My ketch sailed in its golden light.

We seemed to sail on forever.

 

Now that’s coming on for thirty years ago,

But it is still clear in my mind.

Clear as if it was yesterday,

Reminded of it each full moon.

My ketch still sailing in its golden light.

The following is not Songbird but a much more appropriate photograph.

And the poem came to me just the other day. The memory of that full moon out in the Atlantic en-route to Plymouth from Gibraltar in 1991 will be with me for ever.

A freak accident

This was an item on yesterday’s BBC News.

One knows the saying: “Never say never!”

That saying comes to mind when one reads about an attack on a dog in Queensland, Australia reported on the BBC News.

Here’s that item.

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Australia couple injured in ‘freak’ goanna attack on their dog

Goannas can grow up to two metres (6.5ft) in length

An elderly couple has been attacked in Australia by a goanna (a large lizard), as they tried to stop it from savaging their dog, emergency officials say.

The man, in his 70s, was said to have sustained significant injuries and was airlifted to hospital after the incident in north-eastern Queensland.

The woman, in her 60s, was also taken to hospital with an injury to her foot.

The couple’s dog, a long-haired Jack Russell cross, was seriously injured.

Goannas can grow up to 2m (6.5ft) in length, though most varieties are under 1m, and rarely attack humans.

The rescue service described the attack which took place in Flametree near Airlie Beach, as “a horrific and freak ordeal”.

“The man suffered a very serious laceration and possible fracture of his right forearm as well as severe bleeding from his leg wound. He was in considerable pain,” ABC News quotes an ambulance worker as saying.

“The patients are quite lucky not to have been more seriously injured given that goannas can be quite savage,” another ambulance worker told ABC, adding: “It doesn’t happen every day, that’s for sure.”

The dog was earlier reported to have died, but ABC later reported that it had survived the attack.

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Now I wasn’t sure what a goanna was but thanks to Wikipedia (and not the only source), we find:

Goanna refers to some species of the genus Varanus found in Australia and Southeast Asia.

Around 80 species of Varanus are known, 25 of which are found in Australia. This varied group of carnivorous reptiles ranges greatly in size and fills several ecological niches.[1]

The goanna features prominently in Aboriginal mythology and Australian folklore.

Being predatory lizards, goannas are often quite large, or at least bulky, with sharp teeth and claws. The largest is the perentie (V. giganteus), which can grow over 2.5 m (8.2 ft) in length.

Not all goannas are gargantuan. Pygmy goannas may be smaller than the arm of an adult human. The smallest of these, the short-tailed monitor (Varanus brevicuda) reaches only 20 cm (8 inches) in length. They survive on smaller prey, such as insects and mice.

Goannas combine predatory and scavenging behaviours. A goanna will prey on any animal it can catch and is small enough to eat whole. Goannas have been blamed for the death of sheep by farmers, though most likely erroneously, as goannas are also eaters of carrion and are attracted to rotting meat.

Most goannas are dark-coloured, with greys, browns, blacks and greens featuring prominently; however, white is also common. Many desert-dwelling species also feature yellow-red tones. Camouflageranges from bands and stripes to splotches, speckles, and circles, and can change as the creature matures, with juveniles sometimes being brighter than adults.

Like most lizards, goannas lay eggs. Most lay eggs in a nest or burrow, but some species lay their eggs inside termite mounds. This offers protection and incubation; additionally, the termites may provide a meal for the young as they hatch. Unlike some other species of lizards, goannas do not have the ability to regrow limbs or tails.

So there you are!

Picture Parade Three Hundred

I don’t know; it feels like a milestone!

I am republishing what made up Picture Parade Two Hundred and One.

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 Margaret (MargfromTassie) comes up with wonderful pictures for you.

These will make today’s Post and the next three Picture Parades. And there was me worrying about where I would find more Picture Parades!!

(Note that on the original Powerpoint images some of them had neat sayings as overlays. In the conversion from pps to jpg formats those were not carried across. I have them as introductions to each picture.)

MAN’s BEST FRIEND!

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“A life without a dog is a mistake” – Karl Zuckmayer

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“Women and cats will do what pleases them, dogs and men should relax and get used to the idea” – Robert A. Heinlein

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“The love for animals, enhances the cultural level of the people.”F. Salvochea

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When you leave a dog behind because he “grew old”, your children will learn the lesson. Maybe they will do the same to you when you are an old man. Think about it….

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“The dog has made man their God, if the dog was an atheist, it would be perfect” – Paul Valery

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“Love is when your dog licks your face, even if you leave it alone the whole day” – Anita, 4 years old

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“It doesn’t matter if an animal can reason. It matters only that it is capable of suffering and that is why I consider it my neighbor” – Albert Schweitzer

Another glorious set from ‘Marg’ next week

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These are so great!

It’s very quiet out there!

A deeply fascinating essay from an individual at the University of Oxford.

I have long read the daily output from The Conversation. It’s a very useful way of keeping one’s brain cells functioning in some sort of fashion.

Yesterday morning I read an essay put out by  a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford.

It was fascinating and I am republishing it here.

Now it’s not for everyone. It is also long and it also has a number of videos to watch. And there’s not a dog mentioned!

But if you are interested in where we, as in human beings, are ‘going’, so to speak, then this is for you.

And I’m ready to admit that it may be an age thing; something that is of much interest to me because I shall be 75 in November  and one naturally wonders about the end of life. Both individually and of society!

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The end of the world: a history of how a silent cosmos led humans to fear the worst.

By
PhD Candidate, University of Oxford

August 7th, 2019

It is 1950 and a group of scientists are walking to lunch against the majestic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. They are about to have a conversation that will become scientific legend. The scientists are at the Los Alamos Ranch School, the site for the Manhattan Project, where each of the group has lately played their part in ushering in the atomic age.

They are laughing about a recent cartoon in the New Yorker offering an unlikely explanation for a slew of missing public trash cans across New York City. The cartoon had depicted “little green men” (complete with antenna and guileless smiles) having stolen the bins, assiduously unloading them from their flying saucer.

By the time the party of nuclear scientists sits down to lunch, within the mess hall of a grand log cabin, one of their number turns the conversation to matters more serious. “Where, then, is everybody?”, he asks. They all know that he is talking – sincerely – about extraterrestrials.

The question, which was posed by Enrico Fermi and is now known as Fermi’s Paradox, has chilling implications.

Bin-stealing UFOs notwithstanding, humanity still hasn’t found any evidence of intelligent activity among the stars. Not a single feat of “astro-engineering”, no visible superstructures, not one space-faring empire, not even a radio transmission. It has been argued that the eerie silence from the sky above may well tell us something ominous about the future course of our own civilisation.

Such fears are ramping up. Last year, the astrophysicist Adam Frank implored an audience at Google that we see climate change – and the newly baptised geological age of the Anthropocene – against this cosmological backdrop. The Anthropocene refers to the effects of humanity’s energy-intensive activities upon Earth. Could it be that we do not see evidence of space-faring galactic civilisations because, due to resource exhaustion and subsequent climate collapse, none of them ever get that far? If so, why should we be any different?

A few months after Frank’s talk, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s update on global warming caused a stir. It predicted a sombre future if we do not decarbonise. And in May, amid Extinction Rebellion’s protests, a new climate report upped the ante, warning: “Human life on earth may be on the way to extinction.”

Meanwhile, NASA has been publishing press releases about an asteroid set to hit New York within a month. This is, of course, a dress rehearsal: part of a “stress test” designed to simulate responses to such a catastrophe. NASA is obviously fairly worried by the prospect of such a disaster event – such simulations are costly.

Space tech Elon Musk has also been relaying his fears about artificial intelligence to YouTube audiences of tens of millions. He and others worry that the ability for AI systems to rewrite and self-improve themselves may trigger a sudden runaway process, or “intelligence explosion”, that will leave us far behind – an artificial superintelligence need not even be intentionally malicious in order to accidentally wipe us out.

In 2015, Musk donated to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, headed up by transhumanist Nick Bostrom. Nestled within the university’s medieval spires, Bostrom’s institute scrutinises the long-term fate of humanity and the perils we face at a truly cosmic scale, examining the risks of things such as climate, asteroids and AI. It also looks into less well-publicised issues. Universe destroying physics experiments, gamma-ray bursts, planet-consuming nanotechnology and exploding supernovae have all come under its gaze.

So it would seem that humanity is becoming more and more concerned with portents of human extinction. As a global community, we are increasingly conversant with increasingly severe futures. Something is in the air.

But this tendency is not actually exclusive to the post-atomic age: our growing concern about extinction has a history. We have been becoming more and more worried for our future for quite some time now. My PhD research tells the story of how this began. No one has yet told this story, yet I feel it is an important one for our present moment.

I wanted to find out how current projects, such as the Future of Humanity Institute, emerge as offshoots and continuations of an ongoing project of “enlightenment” that we first set ourselves over two centuries ago. Recalling how we first came to care for our future helps reaffirm why we should continue to care today.

Extinction, 200 years ago

In 1816, something was also in the air. It was a 100-megaton sulfate aerosol layer. Girdling the planet, it was made up of material thrown into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, the previous year. It was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions since civilisation emerged during the Holocene.

Mount Tambora’s crater. Wikimedia Commons/NASA

Almost blotting out the sun, Tambora’s fallout caused a global cascade of harvest collapse, mass famine, cholera outbreak and geopolitical instability. And it also provoked the first popular fictional depictions of human extinction. These came from a troupe of writers including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley.

The group had been holidaying together in Switzerland when titanic thunderstorms, caused by Tambora’s climate perturbations, trapped them inside their villa. Here they discussed humanity’s long-term prospects.

Clearly inspired by these conversations and by 1816’s hellish weather, Byron immediately set to work on a poem entitled “Darkness”. It imagines what would happen if our sun died:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air

Detailing the ensuing sterilisation of our biosphere, it caused a stir. And almost 150 years later, against the backdrop of escalating Cold War tensions, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists again called upon Byron’s poem to illustrate the severity of nuclear winter.

Two years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (perhaps the first book on synthetic biology) refers to the potential for the lab-born monster to outbreed and exterminate Homo sapiens as a competing species. By 1826, Mary went on to publish The Last Man. This was the first full-length novel on human extinction, depicted here at the hands of pandemic pathogen.

Boris Karloff plays Frankenstein’s monster, 1935. Wikimedia Commons

Beyond these speculative fictions, other writers and thinkers had already discussed such threats. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1811, daydreamed in his private notebooks about our planet being “scorched by a close comet and still rolling on – cities men-less, channels riverless, five mile deep”. In 1798, Mary Shelley’s father, the political thinker William Godwin, queried whether our species would “continue forever”?

While just a few years earlier, Immanuel Kant had pessimistically proclaimed that global peace may be achieved “only in the vast graveyard of the human race”. He would, soon after, worry about a descendent offshoot of humanity becoming more intelligent and pushing us aside.

Earlier still, in 1754, philosopher David Hume had declared that “man, equally with every animal and vegetable, will partake” in extinction. Godwin noted that “some of the profoundest enquirers” had lately become concerned with “the extinction of our species”.

In 1816, against the backdrop of Tambora’s glowering skies, a newspaper article drew attention to this growing murmur. It listed numerous extinction threats. From global refrigeration to rising oceans to planetary conflagration, it spotlighted the new scientific concern for human extinction. The “probability of such a disaster is daily increasing”, the article glibly noted. Not without chagrin, it closed by stating: “Here, then, is a very rational end of the world!”

Tambora’s dust-cloud created ominous sunsets, such as this one painted by Turner, c. 1830–5. © Tate, CC BY-NC-ND

Before this, we thought the universe was busy

So if people first started worrying about human extinction in the 18th century, where was the notion beforehand? There is enough apocalypse in scripture to last until judgement day, surely. But extinction has nothing to do with apocalypse. The two ideas are utterly different, even contradictory.

For a start, apocalyptic prophecies are designed to reveal the ultimate moral meaning of things. It’s in the name: apocalypse means revelation. Extinction, by direct contrast, reveals precisely nothing and this is because it instead predicts the end of meaning and morality itself – if there are no humans, there is nothing humanly meaningful left.

And this is precisely why extinction matters. Judgement day allows us to feel comfortable knowing that, in the end, the universe is ultimately in tune with what we call “justice”. Nothing was ever truly at stake. On the other hand, extinction alerts us to the fact that everything we hold dear has always been in jeopardy. In other words, everything is at stake.

Extinction was not much discussed before 1700 due to a background assumption, widespread prior to the Enlightenment, that it is the nature of the cosmos to be as full as moral value and worth as is possible. This, in turn, led people to assume that all other planets are populated with “living and thinking beings” exactly like us.

Although it only became a truly widely accepted fact after Copernicus and Kepler in the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea of plural worlds certainly dates back to antiquity, with intellectuals from Epicurus to Nicholas of Cusa proposing them to be inhabited with lifeforms similar to our own. And, in a cosmos that is infinitely populated with humanoid beings, such beings – and their values – can never fully go extinct.

Star cluster Messier 13 in Hercules, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

In the 1660s, Galileo confidently declared that an entirely uninhabited or unpopulated world is “naturally impossible” on account of it being “morally unjustifiable”. Gottfried Leibniz later pronounced that there simply cannot be anything entirely “fallow, sterile, or dead in the universe”.

Along the same lines, the trailblazing scientist Edmond Halley (after whom the famous comet is named) reasoned in 1753 that the interior of our planet must likewise be “inhabited”. It would be “unjust” for any part of nature to be left “unoccupied” by moral beings, he argued.

Around the same time Halley provided the first theory on a “mass extinction event”. He speculated that comets had previously wiped out entire “worlds” of species. Nonetheless, he also maintained that, after each previous cataclysm “human civilisation had reliably re-emerged”. And it would do so again. Only this, he said could make such an event morally justifiable.

Later, in the 1760s, the philosopher Denis Diderot was attending a dinner party when he was asked whether humans would go extinct. He answered “yes”, but immediately qualified this by saying that after several millions of years the “biped animal who carries the name man” would inevitably re-evolve.

This is what the contemporary planetary scientist Charles Lineweaver identifies as the “Planet of the Apes Hypothesis”. This refers to the misguided presumption that “human-like intelligence” is a recurrent feature of cosmic evolution: that alien biospheres will reliably produce beings like us. This is what is behind the wrong-headed assumption that, should we be wiped out today, something like us will inevitably return tomorrow.

Back in Diderot’s time, this assumption was pretty much the only game in town. It was why one British astronomer wrote, in 1750, that the destruction of our planet would matter as little as “Birth-Days or Mortalities” do down on Earth.

This was typical thinking at the time. Within the prevailing worldview of eternally returning humanoids throughout an infinitely populated universe, there was simply no pressure or need to care for the future. Human extinction simply couldn’t matter. It was trivialised to the point of being unthinkable.

For the same reasons, the idea of the “future” was also missing. People simply didn’t care about it in the way we do now. Without the urgency of a future riddled with risk, there was no motivation to be interested in it, let alone attempt to predict and preempt it.

It was the dismantling of such dogmas, beginning in the 1700s and ramping up in the 1800s, that set the stage for the enunciation of Fermi’s Paradox in the 1900s and leads to our growing appreciation for our cosmic precariousness today.

But then we realised the skies are silent

In order to truly care about our mutable position down here, we first had to notice that the cosmic skies above us are crushingly silent. Slowly at first, though soon after gaining momentum, this realisation began to take hold around the same time that Diderot had his dinner party.

One of the first examples of a different mode of thinking I’ve found is from 1750, when the French polymath Claude-Nicholas Le Cat wrote a history of the earth. Like Halley, he posited the now familiar cycles of “ruin and renovation”. Unlike Halley, he was conspicuously unclear as to whether humans would return after the next cataclysm. A shocked reviewer picked up on this, demanding to know whether “Earth shall be re-peopled with new inhabitants”. In reply, the author facetiously asserted that our fossil remains would “gratify the curiosity of the new inhabitants of the new world, if there be any”. The cycle of eternally returning humanoids was unwinding.

In line with this, the French encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach ridiculed the “conjecture that other planets, like our own, are inhabited by beings resembling ourselves”. He noted that precisely this dogma – and the related belief that the cosmos is inherently full of moral value – had long obstructed appreciation that the human species could permanently “disappear” from existence. By 1830, the German philosopher F W J Schelling declared it utterly naive to go on presuming “that humanoid beings are found everywhere and are the ultimate end”.

Figures illustrating articles on astronomy, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia. Wikimedia Commons

And so, where Galileo had once spurned the idea of a dead world, the German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers proposed in 1802 that the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt in fact constitutes the ruins of a shattered planet. Troubled by this, Godwin noted that this would mean that the creator had allowed part of “his creation” to become irremediably “unoccupied”. But scientists were soon computing the precise explosive force needed to crack a planet – assigning cold numbers where moral intuitions once prevailed. Olbers calculated a precise timeframe within which to expect such an event befalling Earth. Poets began writing of “bursten worlds”.

The cosmic fragility of life was becoming undeniable. If Earth happened to drift away from the sun, one 1780s Parisian diarist imagined that interstellar coldness would “annihilate the human race, and the earth rambling in the void space, would exhibit a barren, depopulated aspect”. Soon after, the Italian pessimist Giacomo Leopardi envisioned the same scenario. He said that, shorn of the sun’s radiance, humanity would “all die in the dark, frozen like pieces of rock crystal”.

Galileo’s inorganic world was now a chilling possibility. Life, finally, had become cosmically delicate. Ironically, this appreciation came not from scouring the skies above but from probing the ground below. Early geologists, during the later 1700s, realised that Earth has its own history and that organic life has not always been part of it. Biology hasn’t even been a permanent fixture down here on Earth – why should it be one elsewhere? Coupled with growing scientific proof that many species had previously become extinct, this slowly transformed our view of the cosmological position of life as the 19th century dawned.

Copper engraving of a pterodactyl fossil discovered by the Italian scientist Cosimo Alessandro Collini in 1784. Wikimedia Commons

Seeing death in the stars

And so, where people like Diderot looked up into the cosmos in the 1750s and saw a teeming petri dish of humanoids, writers such as Thomas de Quincey were, by 1854, gazing upon the Orion nebula and reporting that they saw only a gigantic inorganic “skull” and its lightyear-long rictus grin.

The astronomer William Herschel had, already in 1814, realised that looking out into the galaxy one is looking into a “kind of chronometer”. Fermi would spell it out a century after de Quincey, but people were already intuiting the basic notion: looking out into dead space, we may just be looking into our own future.

Early drawings of Orion’s nebula by R.S. Newall, 1884. © Cambridge University, CC BY

People were becoming aware that the appearance of intelligent activity on Earth should not be taken for granted. They began to see that it is something distinct – something that stands out against the silent depths of space. Only through realising that what we consider valuable is not the cosmological baseline did we come to grasp that such values are not necessarily part of the natural world. Realising this was also realising that they are entirely our own responsibility. And this, in turn, summoned us to the modern projects of prediction, preemption and strategising. It is how we came to care about our future.

As soon as people first started discussing human extinction, possible preventative measures were suggested. Bostrom now refers to this as “macrostrategy”. However, as early as the 1720s, the French diplomat Benoît de Maillet was suggesting gigantic feats of geoengineering that could be leveraged to buffer against climate collapse. The notion of humanity as a geological force has been around ever since we started thinking about the long-term – it is only recently that scientists have accepted this and given it a name: “Anthropocene”.

Will technology save us?

It wasn’t long before authors began conjuring up highly technologically advanced futures aimed at protecting against existential threat. The eccentric Russian futurologist Vladimir Odoevskii, writing in the 1830s and 1840s, imagined humanity engineering the global climate and installing gigantic machines to “repulse” comets and other threats, for example. Yet Odoevskii was also keenly aware that with self-responsibility comes risk: the risk of abortive failure. Accordingly, he was also the very first author to propose the possibility that humanity might destroy itself with its own technology.

Acknowledgement of this plausibility, however, is not necessarily an invitation to despair. And it remains so. It simply demonstrates appreciation of the fact that, ever since we realised that the universe is not teeming with humans, we have come to appreciate that the fate of humanity lies in our hands. We may yet prove unfit for this task, but – then as now – we cannot rest assured believing that humans, or something like us, will inevitably reappear – here or elsewhere.

Beginning in the late 1700s, appreciation of this has snowballed into our ongoing tendency to be swept up by concern for the deep future. Current initiatives, such as Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute, can be seen as emerging from this broad and edifying historical sweep. From ongoing demands for climate justice to dreams of space colonisation, all are continuations and offshoots of a tenacious task that we first began to set for ourselves two centuries ago during the Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.

It may be solemn, but becoming concerned for humanity’s extinction is nothing other than realising one’s obligation to strive for unceasing self-betterment. Indeed, ever since the Enlightenment, we have progressively realised that we must think and act ever better because, should we not, we may never think or act again. And that seems – to me at least – like a very rational end of the world.

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I hope you have read it all. There’s much to engage one. And the message to me is very clear: We have to regard this race, correction: our race, as unique. As is put in the penultimate paragraph:

Enlightenment when we first realised that, in an otherwise silent universe, we are responsible for the entire fate of human value.

Now there’s a thought for an atheist on a Saturday morning!

From Montana!

One of my most favourite blog sites!

There is a blog site, primarily for all those interested in photography. It is called Ugly Hedgehog! Seriously! But UHH, as it is known, also has room for general non-photographic chat so it really does cater for all.

I have been a member since July, 2017, and have been amazed at how quickly the time has gone.

Anyway, the home page of Ugly Hedgehog is here, it’s free, and if you have any interest in photography I strongly recommend it.

This item came in a couple of weeks ago and I’m taking the liberty of sharing it with you.

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Spent a few days in Bozeman Montana visiting my youngest son and daughter in law before heading out to Southern California. A couple of images from my trip to Montana…

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Incredible country!

Oregon wolf pups!

A good news story of recent days!

I will go straight to the story!

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6 wolf pups caught on trail cam in Mount Hood area

Posted Jul 11, 2019

Two wolf pups were observed on the Warm Springs reservation in early August, marking the first time the wolves have successfully bred in Oregon’s northern Cascades since the animals returned to the state.

MOUNT HOOD — Officials say six wolf pups have been born this year to Oregon’s White River wolf pack in the Mount Hood area. Biologists with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs posted footage of the pups from a trail camera that was shared on Facebook by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Oregon.

The White River Pack is located just southeast of Mount Hood and east of Timothy Lake. With five members in 2018, it was one of the few confirmed packs in Western Oregon, along with southwest Oregon’s Rogue Pack.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife carnivore biologist Derek Broman told The Statesman Journal that the current size of the White River pack is 11 animals.

The latest wolf count shows Oregon is home to a minimum of 137 wolves. The majority are clustered in northeast Oregon.
— The Associated Press

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Now it’s a great shame but the video of the young pups, evident if you go to this link, I cannot put into a WordPress blog, namely Learning from Dogs.