Friday, 31 January 2014

Politics – from the Greek: Poly= Many and Ticks= Blood sucking insects

As an inhabitant of ‘leafy’ Warwickshire it will probably be no surprise that I have grave concerns about the upcoming HS2 which will bisect the county. I have read all the mountains of documents associated with the project and still remain skeptical. I have tried to be open minded and actually think some of their assessments make sense but on the whole the project doesn’t stack up.
I could go on for hours about how the economic case is flimsy at best, I could wax lyrical over the destruction of the countryside, I could explain how it makes more sense to upgrade existing lines and I could regale facts regarding population size and land area to explain why a small overpopulated nation needs a high speed rail link less than a huge sparsely populated one but I won’t... well not now anyway, I’m sure I’ll get to it in later blogs. Instead this blog serves to highlight my growing despair of the current political class.

What has tipped me over the edge is the denial by the Transport Secretary to release the 2011 Review by the Major Projects Authority. The document that assesses the viability of any major project was requested to be released under the freedom of information act but yesterday was vetoed by the Government. Patrick McLoughlin stated it wasn’t in the public interest and that its release was likely to make future documents less effective. The last time this veto was used was regarding documents relating to the war in Iraq, so important this issue is believed to be.

Obviously I disagree with this move especially as the current government has extolled the need to be more transparent:

"[to make the UK] the most open and transparent government in the world" David Cameron Open Government Partnership Summit 2013.

And dare I quote:
“I want the coalition to be the ‘greenest’ government ever” David Cameron 2010

But I am further disheartened by the fact that currently there is no choice on this matter. The Liberals as part of the coalition are on board and whilst Labour seem to be wavering they were the party to first introduce the HS2.

I have already pledged to myself not to vote for any party that continues to support HS2, the Badger Cull or seeks to continue the current planning and housing policy. So far that leaves me with a limited pool to work with. It’s a shame because my local MP, currently a Conservative does a good job locally.

Where then lies the problem? I understand that ministers are supposed to be rely on their civil servants for advice but am I alone in wanting a meritocracy where Ministers actually had some experience of the portfolio they cover. Patrick McLoughlin was a farm worker and coal miner before becoming a career politician in the early 1980’s. What specialism in transport does he hold on which to rationalise the advice he is given. Owen Paterson our current Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs has a degree in History and worked as a Sales Director for the British Leather Company before entering politics. What does he know of the countryside?
In fact what scientific training do either of them have to be able to assess the scientific advice they are given? Is it too much to ask  for decisions to be made on the balance of evidence and not for short term political goals or for the ‘public good’.

Saturday, 25 January 2014


Every good student of zoology learns one thing regarding animal behaviour, not to become too anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is the assigning of human emotions and thoughts to animals. That cat looks sad or that Dolphin is happy are good examples. I have spent much of my life trying to not fall into this trap. The reasoning behind this is that animals on the whole do not have emotions; they act on instinct and in response to specific cues determined by the needs of survival. Another way of looking at is that animals are so different to us that our terms for describing emotions, feelings or thoughts are not applicable.

The problem is I had a dog, we have always been a dog family and since ours died I still have contact with my sister’s dog. There is no doubt that when sitting with a dog you know well that there is more going on than just atavistic responses. Do animals ‘feel’ beyond those primitive urges?
Let’s return a moment to the term Anthropomorphism. The word Anthropo- has its roots in classical Greek and refers to Human. Morph references shaped. Anthropomorphic then means Human-like and this is where the thrust of my thought comes in. Where do we place Humans henceforth, Homo sapiens, in the world?

Homo sapiens are a highly adaptive post-simian species. It is dominant in nearly all habitats on the globe and has a highly developed intelligence involving tool use and complicated social interactions. Is Homo sapiens superior to all other species on Earth. It certainly dominates them but is it more adapt at swimming than say fish, fast enough to catch prey on the savannah like the Cheetah, probably not. Species evolve to fill a niche, some like Homo sapiens are able to take advantage of a wide range of niches and are highly generalist, but they are not the only species. Brown Rats are just as widespread.

The question therefore is one of placing is Homo sapiens. Is it above nature, above the biosphere of Earth or part of it? Many people and theologies place Man above all else and that it’s this right of intelligence over all other species that dictates our use of the world and how we perceive it. This is of course factually inaccurate. Homo sapiens is just an ape that has evolved to the point at which it can manipulate the world around it not just at the ecosystem level but at the biome and biosphere level.
Where does anthropomorphism come into this debate? Well if like me you view mankind as Homo sapiens just another species on planet earth then the idea behind anthropomorphism changes. Anthropomorphism is no longer necessary a bad thing but a way of describing motives, actions and feelings across the species.

Obviously our emotions and feelings relate to our cognitive development and our brain size but we are not alone on this planet in the development of a brain and it should be easy to consider that particularly in the mammalian genera that analogous if not similar emotions do not occur. I m not saying that we can say all living animals have emotions or emotional aspects but that in the case of many species the stimuli and drivers within the animals brain would be too radically different to understand. 

There is no doubt that other apes, dolphins elephants, dogs etc express emotions and I think that we shouldn’t even as scientists cut ourselves of from these believing ourselves above them. Instead use them as learning points, use them as markers to look at development and understand that the context of a situation. Make anthropomorphism truly the scientific search to identify where animals are human like and just as importantly where they are not. Let’s try and find the dividing line in Earths tree of life where the use of the brain firstly enables the development of abstract uses of emotions and where species are acting purely on the basis of the external stimuli activating a series of responses.
Lastly I challenge you to watch the clip not as a man or woman on a lap top but as a member of the Homo sapiens species and not see some kind of emotional response.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

So... what is this all about? A simple enough question, but not one I m sure I can answer fully at the moment.

I have had the idea of blogging in the back of my mind for several years. I started running  blog for showcasing some of my wildlife photographs and research back in 2011 but this was very intermittent and I struggled to make it mean anything.

In 2013 I started listening to the BBC's excellent 'Shared Planet' radio programme on Radio 4. Presented by Monty Don, whose dulcet tones calm and soothe all calamities, the programme looks at various environmental and conservation themes. Over the weeks I began to get a sense of some of the issues discussed and had me thinking back to my days studying Environmental Biology and Environmental Impact Assessment at university. Bit by bit I was drawn back into the problems faced by nature conservation today.

At the same time as these thoughts were ruminating I was starting to find difficulties in British politics. I've always had an interest in politics but of late I have begun to despair on the policies the various parties are coming up effecting nature conservation.

These two thoughts seemed to coalesces over Christmas with me wanting to try and document my feelings and thoughts on these matters. I hope in doing so I can perhaps devise some ideas that can be of use or to light the spark in someone else.

This blog then will in the future cover the whole range of conservation theories and news. I will speak mostly on a British level but that's not to say that global affairs won't sneak in from time to time. There will be posts regarding the Badger Cull, HS2, Planning Law, Green Policy, Climate Change and much more... I hope.