Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wolves travel the seven seas (on iceberg)

Darwin suggested that wolves arrived on Falklands (islands) on icebergs. There is now fascinating evidence of snakes swimming 120 miles across the ocean...


In June 2000, Alan de Queiroz became curious about an enormous, ragged-looking garter snake that lived on the tip of Baja California. Like many other biologists of his generation, de Quieroz had been taught that species traveled the Earth to new habitats on slowly drifting continents. This snake had relatives on the other side of the Sea of Cortéz on Mexico’s mainland, and de Queiroz assumed that this population ended up on Baja 4 to 8 million years ago, when the peninsula split from the mainland.

But using a new method based on genetic sequencing to estimate when the two populations split, he found that it had occurred in the past few hundred thousand years. In other words, one or more pioneering garter snakes had probably floated across 120 miles of open ocean.

As de Queiroz prepared to write up the surprising results of his snake study, he discovered that the reptile was not an outlier. Biologists were finding that even after continents drifted apart, plants and animals somehow hopped between them. “Obviously, the continents had moved — nobody was claiming that the theory of plate tectonics was wrong — and obviously, they had carried species with them,” he writes, “but somehow, these facts did not explain nearly as much about the modern living world as we had thought.” Chance ocean crossings did.

In his engaging new book, “The Monkey’s Voyage,” de Queiroz makes the case that the vibrant and distinctive biological communities we see today were created by organisms rafting across oceans and soaring through the atmosphere. “The large number of these colonizations tells us that, in the long history of this living world, the miraculous has become the expected,” he writes.

To understand how contentious this notion is, de Queiroz takes us back to the 1950s and ’60s, when a wealth of new information emerged about continental drift. Geologists had long recognized that the coasts of South America and Africa fit together like puzzle pieces and had theorized that they were once a single landmass. 

But now measurements from the ocean floor revealed several ridges, including one in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where the sea floor was spreading before the scientists’ eyes. These discoveries provided a clear mechanism for how the continents creep along. Geologists determined that, approximately 180 million years ago, there was an ancient uber-continent called Gondwana, which sat on the equator and was composed of what are now South America, Africa, Antarctica, India and Australia. 

Gondwana was also a revelation for evolutionary biologists. Its break-up, they surmised, was probably etched in the history of life. For instance, ostriches, emus and rheas, closely related birds found in Africa, Australia and South America, became a textbook example of this continental drift theory. Another famous example were southern beech trees, which are found in South America, Australia and other smaller pieces of Gondwana.

This theory was attractive because it was elegant and sensible, but, as de Queiroz colorfully describes, its proponents became a little too dogmatic about it. Léon Croizat, a self-trained botanist of French heritage who lived in Venezuela, coined the phrase “Earth and life evolve together” and believed that continental drift explained everything about plant and animal distributions. To him, the idea that plants or animals crossed oceans on their own was outrageous and unscientific. He characterized Darwin as “congenitally not a thinker,” in part because of Darwin’s suggestion that wolves may have reached the Falkland Islands on icebergs. Croizat came in for criticism himself. An eminent American paleontologist called him “a member of the lunatic fringe.”

Indeed, there had always been evidence that, over the long history of life on Earth, plants and animals made remarkable journeys. Consider, for example, that young spiders are carried on the wind by their silky threads and land on the decks of ships far from the coastline. Freshwater snails cling to the feet of migrating birds. And fishermen on the Caribbean island of Anguilla once watched a natural raft of logs get washed onto shore with 15 green iguanas on it, a species that had not previously existed there.

Proof of how important these journeys are in evolutionary history finally arrived in the late 1990s with genetic-dating studies, such as the one de Quieroz conducted on his garter snakes. We now know that the evolutionary history of ostriches, emus and rheas does not match the break-up of the continents. Some scientists believe that their common ancestor could fly and that they became flightless only after settling on their respective continents. Among the other creatures de Queiroz considers are New World monkeys and two other groups of mammals, which apparently rafted to South America on a clump of earth. Today, these three groups represent 73 percent of the land mammals living there.

De Queiroz, whose tone is self-effacing and reflective, admits that some may find this view of life unsettling. Unlike the laws of physics or the seeming order of the periodic table, the distribution of life on Earth has come about through a chaotic chain reaction, like the output of a Rube Goldberg machine. Of course, there’s another, more romantic way to look at it, which is that life charts its own course.





Friday, September 19, 2014

We salute our (Punjabi) overlords

After prolonged deliberation the choice for Viceroy has been finally declared. Richard Rahul Verma is a close associate of the next-in-line-to-the-throne Madam President. A master-stroke by Obama no doubt. Now we have an Indian-American under secretary for South Asia (Neha Biswal), an I-A ambassador and all that remains is for Hilary Clinton to declare Dr Ami Bera from California as her choice for V-P.

We are not sure whether to be proud (first time an xx-American has been appointed to an xx country) or parochial (why not a Bong or Mallu ambassador, why do Punjus always get to go first?). Then again we are given to understand that when appointed to important government posts (also university faculty positions) in the USA you have to declare that you have not been knowingly associated with communists. One cannot be too careful these days you know.

Richard Verma remembers the time when he was a little kid, seeing his mom in her sari waiting for a bus to go to work in sub-zero centigrade temperatures in blowing and drifting snow. His father had emigrated from Punjab, arriving in New York City in 1963 with $24 in his pocket, and his mother and siblings had followed a few years later. ...

Honor restored

....Biswas's lawyer Ravi Batra said in a statement to PTI that the "honour" of Biswas, Indian diplomats and India has been has been "vindicated" with the court order. The settlement acknowledged that Biswas was an "honor student" at the time of her "false arrest".... 
As a stereotype this is at least half true, Indian students in the USA (and elsewhere) will be focused on grades and are expected to do well in studies, while Americans will look at high-school and college as more of a life experience.

Indians are likely to be unfamiliar with US harassment laws and zero-tolerance principles and the fact that the criminal justice system will not hesitate to take action against elites (unlike in India where things can be hushed up).

As a daughter of a diplomat Krittika Biswas is not a typical case.  She benefited from strong support from the Indian diplomatic establishment and (we presume) did not lack in financial backing. This will not be true for middle class Indian kids in search of "US degree" who may be wholly destroyed by their own thoughtless actions or malicious behavior forthcoming from fellow (american) students.

We understand the need for emotional closure (and lawyer-ly hyperbole) but we are uncomfortable about all the drum beating about violated honor being restored of Ms Biswas, Indian Foreign Service and India (it is a bit like how Dr Aafia Siddiqui is described by patriots as a daughter of Pakistan....also unfairly targeted by the Americans). It was a false case against a civilian who was not representing India officially, and the "crime" was probably upgraded due to zero-tolerance principles adopted by US schools. 

Still the question remains, why was the student who actually committed the crime not charged? Without any other exculpatory information it does lend credence to the charge that the indictment (and arrest) was driven by "ethnicity" and/or a "tragic rush to accuse."

Naw (55) beats Aye (45)

The British have always loved partition...for other people. In each case the justification was that the sub-nations are unable to co-exist side by side. This is when the British played not an insubstantial role in stoking the communal fires - the (in)famous divide and rule policy.

The two nation theory which is best summarized as "our heroes are their villains" has no doubt been hugely compounding misery of all the communities involved.. The wrongs of the past should have been dealt with a truth and reconciliation commission (just like in South Africa).  

The irony is that separation did not reduce the rancor one iota: Pakistan-India and Israel-Palestine have fought four (official) bitter wars, things are not too much better in Northern Ireland.

But when it comes to Britain herself, the answer was made clear today. Partition is never a solution to the problems, it also makes all of us poor as people. The cultural lines are never clearly drawn and purity is over-rated. Speaking of India specifically, the answer to a prosperous future is to encourage more secularism (and mixed marriages aka love jihad) not to create more ghettos and breed intolerance.

The bad blood that has been created over this partition fight will not (easily) go back into the bottle. The polls are clear on this point: the English now resent the Scots just as much as the Scots look down upon the English. The dividing lines will be sharper once a vote is announced for a Brexit from the European Union. Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage are smart ambitious politicians, they are unlikely to take no for an answer.

All that said we are happy for the Brits. Yes, it is certainly better together.
Scottish voters have rejected independence, deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom after a historic referendum that shook the country to its core.The decision prevented a rupture of a 307-year union with England, bringing a huge sigh of relief to the British political establishment. Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent against independence in a vote that saw an unprecedented turnout.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Appeal for Alan

Even if we are a bit too cynical and feel that (a) the appeal for Alan Henning by British Imams and muslim organizations is an exercise in public relations (not in my name etc.) and that (b) the Caliphate folks are unlikely to listen to anyone (heck, even Al Qaeda has requested them to let the hostages go free), the important point still remains that a man is (maybe) alive now, he will certainly be dead later. If it really helped we would recommend sorcery and magic (not really).

It is a terrible time for his family as they live in zero hope from day to day. Our sympathies would be meaningless, so the best we can do is watch and wait in silence.
Henning, a taxi driver, was kidnapped within 30 minutes of crossing from Turkey into Syria. He had volunteered to drive an ambulance full of medical aid as part of a community-funded charity trip organised by volunteers from Bolton, England, and the UK Arab Society.