First Let’s Kill All the Tigers..

Professor McMahan, the guy who wants to eliminate all predators, is back with what he thinks is a refutation of his critics. This time he begins with a thought experiment: since Amur (“Siberian”) tigers are supposedly insignificant ecological actors these days, why not let them go extinct?

“Many of the commentators said, in effect: “Leave nature alone; the course of events in the natural world will go better without human intervention.” Since efforts to repopulate their original habitat with large numbers of Siberian tigers might require a massive intervention in nature, this anti-interventionist view may itself imply that we ought to allow the Siberian tiger to become extinct. But suppose Siberian tigers would eventually restore their former numbers on their own if human beings would simply leave them alone. Most people, I assume, would find that desirable. But is that because our human prejudices blind us to the significance of animal suffering?

“Siberian tigers are in fact not particularly aggressive toward human beings, but suppose for the sake of argument that they were. And suppose that there were large numbers of poor people living in primitive and vulnerable conditions in the areas in which Siberian tigers might become resurgent, so that many of these people would be threatened with mutilation and death if the tigers were not to become extinct, or not banished to captivity. Would you still say: “Leave nature alone; let the tigers repopulate their former habitats.”? What if you were one of the people in the region, so that your children or grandchildren might be among the victims? And what would your reaction be if someone argued for the proliferation of tigers by pointing out that without tigers to keep the human population in check, you and others would breed incontinently and overcultivate the land, so that eventually your numbers would have to be controlled by famine or epidemic? Better, they might say, to let nature do the work of culling the human herd in your region via the Siberian tiger. Would you agree?”

I’ll let my intelligent readers answer this– have at it. And for God’s sake, Daniela– not before breakfast!

Update for Lane: “What but fear winged the birds?/ And jewelled with such eyes/ The great goshawk’s head?”– Robinson Jeffers, “The Bloody Sire”.

Vance Bourjaily RIP

Just got the news from Chad at Mallard of Discontent that novelist Vance Bourjaily is dead at 87.

Bourjaily was considered one of the best of the postwar novelists and then just faded from popularity– I don’t know why, as I considered his best as good as any and better than most. He was unapologetically interested in bird hunting but was also an academic and teacher; perhaps his interests and characters were from too broad a range of classes, professions, and non- coastal places to appeal to mega- publishing conglomerates. He continued to teach, but the publishers stopped buying.

Chad quoted the Post obit and added some pungent observations of his own:

“Now that’s a scene I would have loved to see: Vance Bourjaily with Kurt Vonnegut (one of my all-time favorite authors but a man who despised firearms) smoking his ever-present Pall Malls while sitting in a duck blind or roaming the Iowa fields in search of pheasants. I’d love to hear those conversations…

“It’s not surprising that Bourjaily – whose son Phil is the shotguns editors at Field & Stream and a damn good writer himself – is best known for his novels. He was a fairly major literary figure back in the day when that meant something more than a bunch of semi-clever assholes tweeting their way to pop-schlock book deals.

“But he was also a wonderful writer on hunting – bird hunting, mostly – and I think it’s a shame the obit didn’t mention his book on the subject, The Unnatural Enemy: Essays On Hunting. It was first published in 1963 (I think) and re-published in 1984 with a new forward by Edward Abbey. Yep, that Edward Abbey”.

I will repeat what I said in the comments as a sort of very minimal primer:

“The greatest uncelebrated novelist left. For sports people: the Unnatural Enemy absolutely. Plus the opening scene of Brill Among the Ruins where the protagonist shoots a duck with a 28 gauge Model 21 and nearly drowns.

“And for everyone the bawdy innovative sprawl of Now Playing at Canterbury, about staging an opera in Iowa, with many voices and a horror story about cats and a Purdey hidden in an insurance scam…

“Then all the others. All on Amazon cheap, still. I’m lifting a drink to him tonight.

“I believe Philip wrote recently about him in the early 60’s, flying with a Beretta in a case under his seat, wearing a tie, showing the “stewardess” his gun, not getting arrested…”

My condolences to Philip, who blogs with Dave Petzal at Gun Nut Blog.

Update: Matt reminds me that the introductory chapter has a funny falconry scene, and that the same chapter (I think) features shooting barn pigeons with a Darne shotgun–!

Chinese Tazis Continued

When I wrote about old tazis in Asia recently one commenter sneered and asked if I thought Chinese “sheepheads” were ancient too, meaning the roman- nosed tazis of northwestern China (colloquially, “thin dogs”). I replied with this image from Prince Xanghui’s 8th Century tomb.

Here is a recent photo of a similar hound, a male “xigou”.

The nose is unusual, and not universal even there- perhaps what geneticists call a “founder effect” where its original presence in a small population dominates. More Chinese dogs here.

And see this 2007 post for more wonderful images going back to 450 AD. Tazis are Asian.

Jeff Lockwood on Speciation

A few thoughts from Jeff on the nature of species my prompted by my “Big Black Nemesis” post. I like “constrained perspectivism”. And notice he is a fellow Asia- phile (;-)

Book reviews and some photos coming…

“The photos at “Lauren” are great—I love the eagle booties and the landscape images (I’d swear that Mongolia is Wyoming’s ecological doppelganger, which is why I loved the Asian steppe so much when I was there).

“As for species and the nature of Gyrfalcons and Saker falcons, it just so happens that I’m involved with a reading group that is engaging the philosophical foundations of what species actually are. It’s a lovely mess! I’ve attached a few of the papers that we’ve been working on (some being more readable than others, but all being intriguing at least in terms of the intellectual battles of philosophers for the meaning of species).

“My inclination is to see species as the imposition of discrete categories on a fundamentally continuous process, such that it is not surprising that we sometimes (often?) “catch” life in the process of speciation. I suppose that I’m a kind of pragmatist—not in the pejorative sense but in terms of the great intellectual tradition of American Pragmatism. In fact, a colleague and I have a book out recently from Cambridge University Press: Philosophical Foundations for the Practices of Ecology (I’ll send you a copy if you’ll give me your address, which I’m sure I have somewhere already but won’t find easily). The basic idea is one that we call “constrained perspectivism”—that there is a real world out there, but our access to it is invariably partial and derived from our interests. This gives rise to a kind of pluralism that is neither the absolutism of certainty nor the relativism of hopelessness. So as for species, I’m something of a realist-pluralist. That is, I think that there are multiple ways of carving up the world with regard to species such that some of these approaches fail and others accord with our interests in ways that tell us that these formulations of species are representative of a way that the world actually is.

“All of this is to say that your view that the birds, “imperfectly separated at the end of the Ice Age, may still interbreed, and even more controversially may segregate into distinct types that are named and valued differently by Arab falconers when caught on migration” seems to touch on at least two approaches to species that could be empirically valid depending on whether one’s interests are evolutionary or eco-geo-cultural. In the former case, there is one species for the purposes of scientific explanation (assuming that reproductive isolation is the standard that one selects) and in the latter case, there are two species for the purposes of biogeographic/social purposes (assuming that this formulation “works” for these people in terms of engaging nature in a way that satisfies their interests)”.

More Thoughts on Prof. McMahan’s Essay

Reading yesterday’s NYT (online) essay, The Meat Eaters, by Rutgers University professor of philosophy Jeff McMahan (forwarded by reader Daniela and shared below by Steve), I’m almost more puzzled by my own need to comment on the piece than I am amazed by it.

It’s tempting to lump this man’s essay in with the tiresome mass of animal rights propaganda, but I think it’s only superficially similar. This goes deeper, is arguably crazier, and may belong to another tradition entirely.

Professor McMahan’s work is principally atheist, by my reading, secondarily misanthropic, and only for the sake of example concerned with the welfare of animals.

His ignorance of animals and “nature” is obvious (Does he know some deer eat baby birds? Does he know ducks rape and kill each other?) and his ignorance of the human animal (his own animal self!) can be inferred. But I think the misanthropic bent of his argument hints that maybe he knows just enough about himself to be scared and disgusted by what he sees.

This is a very old theme, indeed. Man’s fear and loathing of himself long predates any “animal rights” movement (though it certainly seems to inform it.)

I can’t help but, as a parent of two children, recognize in this line of thinking a child’s deep-seated (and profoundly self-centered) sense of injustice.

Faced with the world’s certain measures of pain, bewilderment and abandonment, reasonable children seek comfort—and if denied that comfort, predictably lash out in self defense. They give hell to their parents, to their siblings, teachers, and tragically often to themselves.

To such a child, it is better to be alone than in the company of fellow sufferers. It is better, some will conclude, even to be dead.

For all the professor’s elaborate argument and educated language, he writes essentially from the perspective of a hurt child, ironically selfish in his lashing out against the “cruelty” of others.

This argument has been taken farther than the professor has yet come. Every religion and entire civilizations (spawning literatures and philosophies he must certainly know) have been created in the attempt to see past the problem of pain.

Although we still argue (obviously) and wonder about this problem, there is at least a shared understanding that the problem is sewn into the system and somehow essential to it.

Whether you chose to see this as life in a Fallen world or simply acknowledge, in the secular sense, that we’re all fucked, every adult must advance from that basic understanding to whatever conclusions can be drawn.

Only a child will chose to sit in a corner, hungry and hurt, while everyone sits at the table and eats what’s given.

Update: Chas’s thoughts here.

Worst NYT piece EVER?

Unfortunately the Times is not up to Jeff Lockwood’s standard today, at least outside of their science pages. Last night Daniela sent me this essay by a philosophy professor at Rutgers who is also a visiting one at Princeton (which at least balances him and Peter Singer with Freeman Dyson, who outweighs them both together intellectually), suggesting that we must totally eliminate all carnivores in order to stop suffering on the planet. That anyone this immune to reason, or innocent of any knowledge of anything outside his abstract field, gets paid handsomely for using his brain at any college is a damning comment on our society, education, and of academia as a whole today. This should only have been printed in The Onion. I won’t dignify it by quoting further, but am considering a letter to the paper– think about writing one too (they have already closed comments).

And the other depressing fact is that, if you wade through those comments, the most common reaction after the sensible variants on “what a fool!” and “what was the Times THINKING?” is the one that humans should be eliminated, voluntarily or involuntarily. This hatred of humanity among our elite classes is almost as scary as Professor McMahan’s hatred of reality and incomprehension of what life is. Both are utterly fascist, even beyond Naziism in their implications.

Matt exclaims: “What a troubling, sad piece—this man teaches!”

Lighter reaction– Daniela accompanied the link with the following note: “Well, I’m just about to see whether I have any reasonable carne to indulge my heathen self in!”

And one last point– what must excellent science writers like the Times’ Nicholas Wade think about sharing space and money with such invincibly ignorant idiots?

Update: Daniela comments in an email: “I like Jeff Lockwood’s take on ethics! That would make Prof. McMahan a philosophiopath, for being too ignorant to know how to pose a philosophical question. In the Hebrew Hagada the one who doesn’t know what to ask is called “Tam” – “an innocent”…The text suggests you help him”.

I am not sure I know how…

Jeff Lockwood checks in: of Passenger pigeons and Cicadas

Jeff Lockwood, entomologist and first- rate writer from Wyoming, checked in re passenger pigeons with a link to an amazing essay and some thoughtful commentary:

“Great to hear from you! I loved your piece on the Passenger Pigeon (and thanks for the plug/quote!), having recently discussed 1491 with a colleague. Your essay elegantly captures the complexity of the human-nature (and human nature) phenomenon. I’ve been working on some fiction and it is clear that realistic (and interesting) characters are messy–neither all good nor all bad. All too often, environmental history reads like very bad fiction. Humans are bad (except pre-colonial humans who were good). But the real world is not so simple. Essentialism is almost always a caricature of existence, and this certainly applies to people. Maybe it’s a bit like I tell the students in my Natural Resource Ethics class: “Ethics is not really about choosing between good and bad. If you’re given a choice between good and evil and can’t figure out to do the good thing, then you’re probably a sociopath and this course won’t help you. Ethics is about choosing between good and good (or bad and bad), it’s about the real, messy stuff of deciding how to live when no choice is purely good or simply evil.” And as a side note, I have a few papers on catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality, so your allusion to complexity theory was also spot on! Finally, I’ve argued that maybe we do have a few, last experiences of overwhelming biological fecundity. Here’s my Op Ed piece in the NY Times on cicadas from a few years ago”.

RTWT of course, but a few quotes are irresistible– I didn’t realize some cicadas were also “biological storms”:

“In fact, if we do want to try to quantify cicadas, we have to deal with some incomprehensibly big numbers. When the periodical cicadas are in their full glory, there will be an average of about 100,000 insects per acre spread across an area four times the size of Pennsylvania. That works out to about 10 trillion cicadas, 1,500 for each human on earth. Fortunately, my back-of-the-envelope estimate is immune from empirical refutation. Even if the entire population of Philadelphia counted cicadas at the rate of one per second, for eight hours a day, five days a week, they wouldn’t arrive at a total for a full year.

“The cicadas will outweigh the population of the United States (even with our obesity problems) by a factor of nearly two. And consider the excrement that these insects are going to rain down in backyards and parks — enough liquid waste to fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day. A few weeks after their arrival, the cicadas will die, leaving piles of depleted corpses and more than 500 trillion eggs. In a single square mile of forest with the densest populations, there will be as many eggs as there are stars in the Milky Way.”


“Patterns are the rule in in physics; we can predict moon phases and solar eclipses with impressive accuracy. But we don’t expect such regularity in complex, living systems, and especially not in creatures with brains the size of pinheads. Our mathematical egos are a bit bruised by a humble insect that can count higher than a fair number of preschoolers. For that matter, could engineers equip us with several million (never mind a few trillion) alarm clocks that would reliably ring 6,209 days from now?”

Two of Jeff’s fine books I particularly recommend are Locust, about still another extinct North American “biological storm” species (is there something to Tim Flannery’s idea that our ecosystems are unusually unstable here?) and Six Legged Soldiers, a chilling history of the use of insects in war.


Our friend and sometimes neighbor Joel Becktell– we say “sometimes” only because he is a full time freelance cellist and though he has lived here for years travels every month of the year, somehow managing to maintain a garden and cook good meals for his friends, and staying up with me all too late to drink wine and vodka and endlessly discuss the joys and mysteries of life– appeared briefly in “Dinner with the Russians” a few posts back.

Joel has been a luthier and co- owner of a violin factory in China, but though thoroughly cosmopolitan he is firmly rooted in his native New Mexico. And though he has been a businessman, can discuss literature, cooks, gardens, and has even bred birds, he is a musician first and foremost. He is co- founder with Carla MacElhaney of the innovative “chamber band” The Revels, and she interviews him about musical matters and other things on her blog here.

Joell’s thoughts that one must WORK to be creative resonate with mine. I always tried to pound that into my students’ heads when I taught at Wildbranch (and when students were picking their instructors warned them that in my class they would write in class and at night, which at least weeded out slackers!) No matter how bad I feel i try to commit something to paper or electrons at least five days a week. Early in his career, novelist Tom McGuane said he owed to himself to work as had at writing as, I believe, a good mechanic would on cars. I never quoted this to Joel, but I bet he agrees! He has devoted an entire essay to the principle here— a definite “Read The Whole Thing” but one I can’t resist quoting a bit:

“…I think of a conversation, years ago, with a friend of mine who is a luthier, on the topic of how to cut a bridge for a cello. I’d done some work in this area myself, and my underdeveloped technique had caused me to settle on some inefficient and not terribly effective methods. “The way I cut a bridge” he told me “is very quick and effective. I can cut a bridge much more quickly with my technique than you can with yours. But…” he added, “it took me years and years to become this quick and accurate.”


“So many of us abandon our passions early on when we compare ourselves unflatteringly to what we believe we know about “real” artists. We smile at what we believe is mere modesty when we read quotes of great novelists telling how hard they work to be good at what they do. Surely they’re not telling the truth when they say they work hours each day, that they revise endlessly, that they struggle mightily to hone their communicative skills. So when we sit down with our great idea for a novel and several hours pass without the appearance of a perfectly formed chapter, we figure it’s because we’re just not cut out to be writers, and give it up. Any such example will do to illustrate this idea: creative work is exactly that: work!”

Obviously Joel can write, too.I hope we can sometimes even get him to write here…

Update: in response to a good comment by Mary Ann linking to a John Gresham op- ed I added the following, which may be relevant (see comments for link): “I actually preferred physical labor to most desk jobs when I was putting myself through school and at other times when I needed supplementary income- body busy, mind free; not horrible things like crawling under houses but surveying, construction, especially firewood cutting, which I did until fairly recently, both for money and for myself.

“It’s harder for me to do today but I can still split and stack– going to buy a new splitting maul. I don’t know if Gresham would agree but I think writers NEED to do physical things– sitting writing all day can kill you, and, worse, stunt your ideas.”

Eagle Accessories

Lauren brought back a lot of eagle equipment from Asia (as we all do) but as she had spent more time and been more places. Most useful were a couple of pairs of eagle — boots?– gloves? At any rate, foot warmers for the birds’ naked feet (golden eagle legs are thickly feathered). The boots cover only the tops of the feet, and attach via loops around the talons, as you can see on the underside. Olgii in winter may not be Antarctica, but it is the coldest place I have ever been, with temps going to -50 F at night. Lauren in spite of good clothing lost some toenails to frostbite. I imagine the eagles are grateful.

The other interesting piece of equipment was a sort of prosthetic claw for an eagle who has lost one to a fox– not a rare occurrence when the bird is learning, before she figures out that she must immobilize the dangerous end (the head) immediately. Apparently it works!