Hope and Prey

This is the twenty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIX: Voyage of the Beagle

The August issue of National Geographic Magazine has an article about the use of pesticides to poison wildlife in Africa. It is bleak. It seems that some people are poisoning lions and hyenas in retaliation for and prevention of livestock depredation. Poachers and dirt farmers poison elephants and rhinoceroses. And various animals are poisoned to be sold as “bush meat” for human consumption. (Eating poisoned meat doesn’t sound especially safe, but I suppose that if you don’t tell the buyer how the kill was made…) And, predictably, there are tremendous wildlife causalities in the form of collateral damage. Vultures, in particular, are likely to die from eating poisoned carrion.

Driving this disturbing practice is a conflict as old as humanity: competition. A growing human population competes with predators and agricultural pests for resources. It is easy on this side of the Atlantic and this side of a desk job to condemn the killing of lions; but what must life be like for a shepherd whose livelihood is threatened by predators? How many of his sheep must he be willing to lose before he attempts to stop the loses once and for all? And what weapon can he use that is more effective and less dangerous to himself than pesticide? Obviously, using pesticides to poison endangered species is a disgusting and irresponsible practice, but it seems like a natural step in man’s perpetual conflict with the natural world.

When Europeans first came to the Americas, indiscriminate destruction of wildlife was part of the norm as well. Charles Darwin described how early 19th-century South American ranchers hunted pumas (also also commonly known as cougars, mountain lions, panthers, or catamounts): “In an open country, it is first entangled with the bolas, then lazoed, and dragged along the ground till rendered insensible. At Tandeel (south of the Plata), I was told that within three months one hundred were thus destroyed. In Chile they are generally driven up bushes or trees, and are then either shot, or baited to death by dogs.”

By the beginning of the last century, pumas were all but eliminated everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. The only puma population left in the eastern US was the critically endangered Florida panther. With such a depleted population, the genetic problems associated with inbreeding have become pronounced in the Florida panthers.

Conservation efforts are underway in both Kenya and Florida. Certain pesticides have been taken off of the market in Kenya, and locals have been hired as rangers and conservationists. In Florida, authorities have released female pumas from Texas to expand the gene pool and put in nighttime speed reduction zones, special roadsides, headlight reflectors, and rumble strips to reduce vehicular collisions with pumas. But the fates of the African lion and the Florida panther are anything but certain. And they will remain uncertain until humans become more mindful of the wide-reaching effects of their actions. As a conservationist quoted in the National Geographic article put it, “wildlife management is people management.”

By the way, tomorrow is the first day of puma (cougar) hunting in Alberta, Canada. The debate about whether sport hunting (together with the licensing fees and game lands management) contribute to healthier and more sustainable animal populations rages on. But Alberta’s got enough of the big cats to get along even if the hunting quota is filled. Assuming those setting the quotas know their business.

Beer of the week: Moosehead Lager – Is there any hunting trophy more iconic than a mounted head? And man, do moose have big heads! From Canada’s oldest independent brewery comes this standard macro lager. It is golden, clear, and fizzy. Neither the taste nor the aroma are anything special, but the little extra hint of malt at the finish makes Moosehead more than just serviceable; it’s actually pretty good. Oh, and this can was among the last to feature the old logo; the company changed it’s packaging this spring.

Reading of the week: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin – This excerpt from Chapter XII describes the puma and some of the birds of South America. It is a good example of Darwin’s writing as a naturalist rather than theorist.

Question for the week: Is it possible that the only way to save the African lion and other endangered species is to adopt neo-Malthusian methods? That is, can we only save these animals by taking affirmative steps to reduce the human population?

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Health Food

A concept that is very hard for some people to grasp is the idea that the value of money is governed by the same laws of supply and demand as everything else. One might assume that the demand for money is unlimited, and therefore pushes supply/demand analysis to its breaking point. But this is not so. If the demand were truly unlimited, no one would part with a dollar for any amount of goods or services. The reason that one is willing to spend money at all is that the purchaser’s demand for money is lower (at that time, and in that quantity) than his demand for the particular good or service bought. The “price” of a dollar is it’s purchasing power. And like the price of everything else, it is determined by supply and demand. Where money is scarce, each dollar is more dear. Where the supply of money is inflated, each dollar buys less.

Like money, it seems that intangible concepts such as health, time, and happiness are not subject to unlimited demand. If demand for health were truly unlimited, the demand for candy, cigarettes, and automobiles would plummet. Every potentially hazardous occupation or pastime would find absolutely no willing participants. But people “purchase” health with hours in the gym, the consumption of salubrious foods, abstention from tobacco, alcohol, sugar, gluten, red meat, carbohydrates, sunshine, and whatever else is both pleasant and currently perceived as deleterious. But most people are unwilling to spend all of their time and effort on attempts to improve or preserve their health. And with good reason. As with money, the effort to acquire the absolute maximum levels of health is a hefty amount to pay. Every hour at the gym is an hour not spent elsewhere. Every salad eaten is a pie eschewed. Every kale smoothie is a beer left behind.

To be sure, time at the gym can be enjoyable. Salads can be delicious. Smoothies are often tasty. But as Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock observed, “as long as you have the price of a hack and can hire other people to play baseball for you and run races and do gymnastics when you sit in the shade and smoke and watch them — great heavens, what more do you want?”

Beer of the week: Labatt Blue – This straw colored Canadian Pilsner is fairly bland. It pours with big, fluffy bubbles that fade very quickly. The smell is faint and what aroma is there is of cereal grains. The mouthfeel is quite light, as is the flavor. For a mass produced lager, Labatt Blue is very average.

Reading for the week: How to Live to be 200 by Stephen Leacock – A Canadian author for a Canadian beer. At one point, Leacock was one of the most popular English-language humorists in the world, but his training was in political science and economy. He studied at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen.

Question for the week: It makes evolutionary sense that things that are healthful are also enjoyable, so is there anything that is truly salubrious that is also throughly unpleasant?


Le Début et la Fin du Monde

As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:

A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.

Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.

To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.

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Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.

Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.

Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?