The Casual Blog

Tag: damselflies

Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

Dragonflies, playful mice, fearful crayfish, and an argument for personhood for animals

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On Saturday I was thinking of heading to Raulston Arboretum to look at the latest blossoms and bugs, but Sally suggested I check out the doings at boardwalk over the pond off of Crabtree Boulevard. She’d found a shortcut to get there, and coached me through it. As she foretold there were some pretty dragonflies and damselflies. 14 06 14_0008_edited-1

This week I’m doing a round-up of animal news, some cheery, and some disturbing. Here are notes on playful mice, fearful crayfish, Your Inner Shark, and the struggle for legal rights of persons for animals.

Have you ever wondered whether mice like to run on exercise wheels? Scientists at the University of Leiden did. As reported in the NY Times, they put a couple of wheels in the wild and monitored with video cameras for several years. The results were unequivocal: the mice like to get on the wheel and run. They came “like human beings to a health club.”

The researchers seemed to be addressing the issue of whether forcing mice to run in laboratory environments was cruel, but the work also speaks to another issue: why run when you don’t have to? One scientist suggested it was no great mystery: “All you have to do is watch a bunch of little kids in a playground or a park. They run and run and run.” In other words, mice play.
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In another apartment of the animal kingdom, researchers tested crayfish to see if they experienced anxiety. At the University of Bordeaux, crayfish who got a mild electric shock were timid and withdrawn compared to unshocked crayfish, who were more adventurous. But the shocked ones improved when they got anti-anxiety medication. Is this amazing? Not exactly, but it made me think for the first time about crayfish as creatures with emotional lives.
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This week I finished reading Your Inner Fish, a Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin. Shubin is a palentologist and professor of biology and anatomy at University of Chicago. The book is about paleontology, genetics, and anatomy applied to the human body. It makes the case that the mechanisms of the human body all have predecessors in much more ancient creatures.

Shubin recounts his early experiences hunting for fossils and failing miserably. But eventually, his mind learned to distinguish tiny fossils from tiny ordinary minerals. He communicates the joy of scientific discovery in studying comparative anatomy and seeing the amazing similarities in body structure that run through all the creatures at the zoo – including us.

This is true not just at the level of large-scale architecture (creatures with heads, limbs, fronts and backs), but also with regard to the workings of subsystems like eyes, ears, and smelling organs, and sub-sub systems like tissue cells, and the systems for connecting tissue cells. Shubin approaches the body from multiple angles, extending all the way back to the first single-celled microbes of 3.5 billion years ago, and focuses on various levels, like the features we share with all vertebrates, those we share with all fish, and those we share with all worms.

I found some of the science, and particularly the genetics, tough sledding, but learned a lot. Our bodies are certainly amazing, but this is true of all animal bodies. Shubin made me see more of the connections between all living creatures, and the connections of all those creatures with the earth over the eons.

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Finally, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, by Stephen Wise. Wise is a lawyer who recently brought a habeas corpus action on behalf of a chimpanzee, and I was curious about his theory. His book is a useful compendium of the literature of non-human primate intelligence. He argues that the evidence of language, math, and other accomplishments of chimpanzees and other primates entitles them to be treated as persons with certain rights under the law. He includes quite a few stories of horrendous treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories.

Wise’s larger point is that the sharp dividing line in the law between humans and other animals is a relic of ancient times that is unsustainable in the light of science. His account of the ancient roots of jurisprudence classifying animals as chattel (mere things) is interesting. He does a good job challenging the traditional categories, though he doesn’t address all the difficult questions of breaking down those categories. He seems to understand that no matter how wrong legal ideas are, changing them is a long-term project.