Micro-wasps that live on other parasitoid wasps that live inside caterpillars and others

Reading Seirian Sumner’s Endless Forms: The secret world of wasps, 25 May 2022

“It is almost impossible to walk into a bookshop these days and not bump into a beautiful book about bees,” Seirian Sumner grumbles. The London-based behavioural ecologist has, like the rest of us, reached “peak bee”. What are bees, anyway, but merely wasps that have forgotten how to hunt? The ‘original bee’ was a solitary wasp who turned vegetarian, just as the ‘first ant’ was a wasp that lost its wings.

Wasps are where the scientific action is: why, there are probably more distinct species of wasp than there are beetles! Did you know that there are swarming wasps in South America that build colonies “that look like air balloons, exotic fruits, gourds, cowpats, lumps of mud, Roman vases and even chamberpots?” That the study of wasp venom is helping us understand the more severe symptoms presented by COVID-19? That the familiar yellowjacket Vespula which terrorises our picnics can discriminate between similar-looking human faces?



Seirian Sumner dares us to pause in wonderment. Behold the hyperparasitoids: micro-wasps that live on other parasitoid wasps, that live inside caterpillars, eating them from the inside out!
Savour the chemical cocktail of toxins, enzymes and amines with which the solitary hunting wasp simultaneously paralyses, cleanses and preserves prey fifteen times its body weight, “a helpless but healthy sack of living nutrients”! Admire her gleaming weaponised ovipositor!

The odd thing about wasps is not that we steer clear of them; it’s that we’ve learned so recently to ignore them. Much of the foundational learning offered up in this dense, anecdotal, intermittently stomach-churning labour of love is drawn from researchers active at the end of the nineteenth century. These people were even tougher-minded than Sumner. (“What lessons can we not learn from her transcendental chemistry?” exclaimed Leon Dufour, contemplating a wasp’s suspiciously fresh-looking weeks-old beetle victims. “How immensely superior to our own pickling-processes is that of the wasp!”)

With a level of glee last evinced by the kid at camp who urged you to put your hand in that hollow tree trunk, Sumner guides us through the evolution of hymenopteran sociality. Wasp societies represent the first stages in the evolution of altruism. Most small-colonied wasps follow a simple rule of succession: the older you are, the closer you come to being crowned queen. In more complex wasp societies, aggression is the norm, as rival nestmates bite and sting each other to death. This correlation between social complexity and violence is not reassuring. I now find myself looking askance at those highly social bees.

Endless Forms is an exuberant, garrulous, generous survey of its field. I can’t wait to read selected passages to my children.

“Material of negative value”

Watching Lars Edman and William Johansson’s documentary Arica for New Scientist, 11 May 2022

Forty years ago the Swiss company Boliden sold nearly 200,000 tonnes of smelter sludge — rich in mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals — to the Chilean reprocessing company Promel.

Promel dumped almost the entire consignment beside a row of residential houses in the port town of Arica (current population, over 200,000), and a generation of children grew up playing in the stuff.

The residential quarter, meanwhile — a government housing project for low-income families — grew and grew, until it surrounded the site of contamination.

In 1999 the Chilean government struck an uneasy peace with the victims of this wholly avoidable environmental catastrophe. Promel no longer exists (though its former manager is more than happy to issue not-so-veiled threats of violence to the filmmakers here). Families closest to the site have been evacuated; their properties are now dens for drug dealers.

What’s Boliden’s responsibility in all this? Chilean-born Swiss filmmaker Lars Edman returns to his birthplace and the site of his 2006 documentary The Toxic Playground to follow the legal case assembled by an international legal team against Boliden, a company whose due diligence regarding toxic materials turned out to be not nearly diligent enough. The chief protagonist of The Toxic Playground was Rolf Svedberg, former environmental director of Boliden’s Rönnskär smelting plant in Skelleftea, Sweden. It was his site visit and report that green-lit the sale and transport of what Boliden’s legal team call “material of negative value”. Brought face to face with the consequences of that report, and hosted by a community riddled with cancer, bone deformities and birth defects, Svedberg distress was visible.

Eleven years on, though, Svedberg has the legal case to think of, not to mention his current role: he’s a judge at Sweden’s Supreme Court for the Environment. Svedberg’s displays of fear and dismal self-justifications in Arica are all the more powerful for filmmaker Lars Edman’s obvious sympathy for his old acquaintance.

Boliden’s legal consultants bring in experts who assemble arcane explanations and a particularly ludicrous wind-tunnel experiment to show that living next to tailings containing 17 per cent arsenic could not possibly have affected anyone’s health.

Opposing Boliden are 800 plaintiffs (out of a population of 18000) armed with a single series of urine tests from 2011 and evidence that would be overwhelming were it not so maddeningly anecdotal. An interviewee, Elia, points out houses from her front gate:
“The lady who lived in the house with the bars sold the house and died of cancer. Next door is Dani Ticona. She had aggressive cancer in her head and died too. And her son’s wife had a baby who died. But he doesn’t want to talk to anyone about it. Marisa Pena has got stomach cancer. The lady who bought her house has facial cancer. And on the other side, that gentleman also has cancer. And over there…” On and on like this.

Boliden’s legal team performs a familiar trick, sowing doubt by suggesting that laboratory science and field science are the same thing, and standards of proof are the same for both. In the end, though, the case comes down to public accountability. If Boliden had to deal with ordinary consumers, it would have saved money and reputation long since by owning the problem.

Boliden, however, deals with corporations and governments, and its reputation rests on problem-free operations. It pays Boliden to stay silent.

Law is a rhetorical art, as its finest exponents, from Cicero to John Mortimer, ably demonstrate. We may like to think that justice can be scientifically determined, but in doing so we misunderstand the nature both of science and the law. Tragedy, poverty, blame and shame cannot be reduced to what one legal wag here calls “numbers, preferably with a lot of decimals”.

Protest, eloquence and argument are as essential for justice as they were in the making of this daunting, elegaic documentary.

The worst day ever

Reading Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs for New Scientist, 20 April 2022

Welcome to Hell Creek, in what is now Montana. Readers had best not get too attached to the inhabitants dreamt into being in the first chapter of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: the Tyrannosaurus rex, “her reddish brown hide now draped in orange and gold from the low-angled light of the evening sun”; the low-slung herbivore Ankylosaurus, defending herself with a tail club the size of a car tyre; the new-born Alamosaurus sanjuanensis chick, that will never get to grow into one of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.

Tomorrow, a seven-mile-wide meteor will plough into the ancient Yucatán, triggering the extinction of around three quarters of all species on Earth. Along with all non-avian dinosaurs, great batwinged pterosaurs will perish; later, invertebrates like ammonites will stutter and stop in seas made corrosive by acid rain. Most early mammals — those that didn’t go up in flames, or get blasted off into outer space — will eventually starve; and with them, most lizards, snakes, and birds.

Subsequent chapters offer glimpses of the aftermath, each separated by an exponentially longer interval. An hour after impact and in Hell Creek, over 4,500 kilometres away from the impact, a puzzled Ankylosaurus fights for its footing at the edge of a trembling lake. Safe in her burrow, a squirrel-like Mesodma sleeps through a day of pulsing, planetary conflagration. A month in, and little two-toed Acheroraptors are poking about amongst the decaying debris, unaware of the cold and hunger to come.

Time accelerates. A year, a hundred years, a thousand years go by. We venture far from Hell Creek, many times, and learn much about dinosaurs and their long history, about the mechanisms of evolution and climate, and about the deep history of our planet. We learn to abandon old notions of a planet healing itself, or of life returning to some ideal degree of diversity. Mass extinctions are not “opportunities”, and when living designs are lost, in the great game of adaptation and extinction, they stay lost. Life got through by the skin of its teeth.

Hell Creek remains central throughout, as is only reasonable, since its geology appears to record in such extraordinary detail the events immediately following the giant Chicxulub asteroid’s impact. We glimpse it as an Eden, gardened by towering herbivores. We see it go up in flames. We say goodbye to the place as new plants smother and entangle it, creating the jungle environments from which complex behaviours and communities — both primate and avian — will be born. Throughout, the author’s shifting cast of characters remains vivid and charming.

Indeed, it’s as if Black — a palaeontologist and prolific writer, and no doubt familiar to many readers for her Laelaps blog — had set up camp in the very heart of the valley. This is palaeontology written with the immediacy of natural history.

In a long appendix, Black explains what’s real in this book, and what she’s made up. No need to be disconcerted. Without a leavening of intelligent speculation, palaeontologists have never been able to say anything useful. it’s a point Black makes splendidly, with reference to an illustrated study from 1863, The World Before the Deluge.

This book was published just a couple of years after the discovery of the first decent fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx — a previously missing link between reptiles and birds. The only problem was the head was missing. “Did Archaeopteryx have a beak? Teeth? Both? Neither? There was no way to answer the question,” Black explains. “And so The World Before the Deluge portrayed Archaeopteryx flying high above Jurassic conifers totally headless.”

Black’s approach is much more sensible, adding to The Last Days of the Dinosaurs whatever she needs — a head here, a behaviour there — to give us living, more-or-less reliable glimpses into the days after the worst day ever suffered by life on Earth.


Look! The Astrodome! Glen Campbell! Hippies!

Watching Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10-1/2 for New Scientist, 13 April 2022

“What we really seek in space is not knowledge, but wonder, beauty, romance, novelty – and above all, adventure.” So said science fiction writer Arthur Clarke, speaking at the American Aeronautical Society in 1967, and with the gloss already beginning to flake off the Apollo project.

By the time Apollo 11 launched on 16 July 1969, NASA’s bid to land astronauts the moon — the costliest non-military undertaking in history — could not help but be overshadowed by the even more enormous cost of the Vietnam War.

Only a very little of this realpolitik trickles into the consciousness of ten-year-old Stanley (newcomer Milo Coy) as he propels himself on his Schwinn bike around Houston — north America’s own Space City. His father is one of NASA’s smaller cogs — one of the 400,000 people who contributed to the programme — but this is enough to inspire a whole other reality in Stanley’s head: one in which he’s hired for a secret test flight of Apollo equipment before the grown-ups, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, blast off to glory.

Jack Black (whose mother, incidentally, was a NASA engineer; she worked on Apollo 13’s life-saving abort-guidance system) plays Stanley in the present: a narrator whose perspectives have widened to take in the politics of the time, but not in a way that undercuts the story. Apollo 10½ is, in the best sense, an innocent film: a film about wonder, and beauty, and adventure. Though full of Boomer catnip (Look! The Astrodome! Glen Campbell! Hippies!) — it is not so much a nostalgic movie as a movie about childhood, about its possibilities and its fantasies.

To that end the film, an animation, harnesses the “interpolated rotoscoping” technique first developed by art director Bob Sabiston for Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life. Sabiston’s “Rotoshop“ software essentially allowed an artist to draw over the top of QuickTime files, much as inventor Max Fleischer drew over movie stills to create the first Rotoscoped animations in the 1910s.

The software worked a treat for the surreal philosophical meanderings of Linklater’s 2006 Waking Life (a documentary of sorts about consciousness) but keeled over somewhat when a frantic studio expected it to actually speed up the production of A Scanner Darkly.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

An adaptation of Philip Dick’s paranoid classic (in which an undercover policeman is assigned to follow himself), this unfairly rushed film wobbles uncertainly between visionary triumph (type “scramble suit” into Youtube) and the sort of rather flat, literal animation that looks as if a computer could have done it unaided (though it couldn’t, and it didn’t).

Sixteen years on, Apollo 10½ realises Sabiston’s original 2½-D conception with perfect consistency. But that’s only partly down to improved technology. In fact traditional rotoscoping techniques were used in preference to the computer-aided “interpolated” rotoscoping of Scanner and Waking Life. The two-year industry hiatus triggered by COVID-19 gave Linklater and his animators the time they needed to hand-craft their film.

Time is rarely on the side of the filmmaker, but Linklater has chiselled out a unique relationship with the stuff. Boyhood (2014), about one boy’s childhood and adolescence, was filmed in episodes from 2002 to 2013 with the same cast. Merrily We Roll Along, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical spanning 20 years, will take 20 years to complete. Apollo 10½, which the director had been noodling around for 18 years, has taken longer than the whole space race.

These are approaches to production that any traditional film studio would struggle to accommodate. So it’s no surprise to find an odd duck like Apollo 10½ streaming as a Netflix original. The streaming company’s 222 million subscribers are already sat at their screens, waiting to be entertained. Relieved of the need to recoup single investments in single cinema-going weekends, Netflix can afford to work in a more constructive fashion with its artists. That, anyway, was Linklater’s view when interviewed by IndieWire in March 2022, and he’s by no means the first auteur to sing the company’s praises.

Streaming will kill the feature film? On the evidence of Apollo 10½ alone — a charming, moving, and intelligent movie — I think we should bury that particular worry.

“One cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance”

Reading David Flusfeder’s Luck for New Scientist, 6 April 2022 

The Russian novelist Fyodor Doystoyevsky was a gambling addict. He believed, if he could only maintain his composure, the various strategies and “systems” he dreamt up to beat the roulette wheel would one day pay off. But no strategy can game pure chance.

David Flusfeder’s book is not about randomness, or statistics, or the behaviour of numbers. It is, quite specifically, about luck, defined as “the operations of chance taken personally.” Flusfeder is a semi-professional poker player, and knows whereof he speaks.

His eccentric, insightful meditations focus on Fortune’s favourites and its gulls — from the Marquis de Dangeau, 18th-century Versailles’ wiliest card shark, to Thomas Bastard, Oxford University’s most comprehensively shunned epigrammatist. Weaving backwards and forwards through western history, Flusfeder encounters more familiar figures too, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Niels Bohr to four-times lottery winner Joan Ginther, “the luckiest woman on Earth”.

In an effort to stop his project sprawling, Flusfeder has given its structure over to chance. The 14 essays here are largely self-contained, and they have to be, since they’re presented in an order determined by an on-line randomiser.

Doystoyevsky’s experience predominates. Even after he managed to cure himself of his addiction, the novelist retained the conviction “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.”

Flusfeder reckons poor Fyodor was born in the wrong place; he should have been playing poker with French settlers in New Orleans, for the card game they invented in 1829 really does reward composure, and nerve, as well as luck.

Not that poker is an altogether rational pursuit. If it were, then Flusfeder would not be wearing green underpants to every important game. Superstition abounds on the poker circuit, as it does wherever people wield little or no control over their lives. Professional tennis, where “there is so much time to think, and doubt, and lose the learned rhythms of technique, and to be afraid”, is awash with fetishes, tics, and absurd pre-match “routines”.

Superstition, according to Flusfeder, is not some primitive psychic excrescence that can be discarded. It’s merely the florid expression of heuristic thinking, without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all. We don’t constantly re-evaluate the world. We make reasonable assumptions about how it works, and we rely on those assumptions. We develop habits. We conjure up a deterministic world in which what happened yesterday reliably guides our actions tomorrow.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood.

This attitude, caught so superbly by the poet Alexander Pope, works well enough for day-to-day life, but trouble attends our efforts to institutionalise such thinking. Swathes of economic practice, and not a little theory, are predicated on this nonsense — the idea that past results are a guide to future performance.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter, who studies the public perception of risk, is blunt about this: probability does not exist outside the mind, he says: “It is not an objective aspect of the world. It’s a way to operationalise a belief.” At best it’s the map for a territory that, being unbounded, is immeasurable and unknowable.

Vulnerable to the vagaries of chance, how should we conduct ourselves?

Rather than cower timidly, avoiding all randomness, we might develop prudence, seizing opportunities while sidestepping unnecessary risks. Still, against the vicissitudes of fortune, prudence is a thin shield indeed.

Virtue may be our better armour. A life lived with honesty and integrity will at least feel consistent, whether we are suffering adversity or enjoying good fortune.

Or as the early renaissance poet Petrarch put it, “Many times whom fortune has made bond, virtue has made free.”

A normal process

Reading What Is Regeneration by Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord for New Scientist, 30 March 2022

Some animals are able to regrow lost or damaged parts. Crabs and lobsters regenerate whole tentacles and claws. Many more animals have lifecycles that involve the wholesale shedding and regrowth of certain tissues. (Unlike hydras and some worms, we humans cannot regrow our heads; but we can regrow our fingernails.)

Regeneration is such a peculiar property, it is surprisingly often ignored or discounted. The 18th-century French naturalist René-Antoine Réaumur spoke to people who made their living by fishing and was surprised when they dismissed stories of limb regeneration as mere “fables”. (His own somewhat bloodthirsty experiments on the local crayfish showed otherwise.)

So is regeneration a mere oddity? Is there any underlying logic to it? And what does it have to do with the grander mysteries of birth, death and development?

Jane Maienschein directs the History and Philosophy of Science Project at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Kate MacCord administers the centre’s effort to study how regeneration works across the scales of complex living systems. This book is their collaborative effort to understand why regeneration occurs when it does, and whether the regeneration of communities (the gut flora in your intestines after a course of antibiotics, say, or the regeneration of woodland after a forest fire) bears anything more than a semantic relationship with the kind of regeneration those crayfish enjoyed in the weeks following their unlucky encounter with M. Réaumur.

Regeneration turns out to be one of those simple, discrete, observable phenomena that, the closer we look at them, seem to vanish into thin air. For instance, when we think about regeneration, are we thinking about regeneration of structure, or regeneration of function, or both? How we think about regeneration impacts whether and where we think it occurs.

The authors’ history of regeneration begins with Aristotle and ends with Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s current work on cellular signalling. Their account pivots on Thomas Hunt Morgan (better known as a pioneer of chromosomal genetics) and in particular on his book Regeneration of 1901. Morgan, more than anyone before or since, attempted to establish clear boundaries around the phenomenon of regeneration. The terminology he invented remains useful. Restorative regeneration occurs in response to injury. Physiological regeneration describes replacement, as when a bird moults its feathers or an elk its antlers and a new structures grow in their place. Morphallaxis refers to cases of reshaping, as when a hydra, cut to pieces, reorganises itself into a new hydra without going through the normal processes of cell division.

Morgan’s observations and analysis established that the mechanisms of regeneration are not (as our authors put it) “a special response to changing environmental conditions but, rather, an internal normal process of growth and development. Nor is regeneration an evolutionary adaptation to external conditions, even though the process may be useful.”

So here’s the problem: if the mechanisms of regeneration cannot be distinguished from the mechanisms of growth and development, what’s to stop everything regenerating all the time? What dictates lawful regrowth, and why does it happen only in some tissues, only in some species, and only some of the time?

Far from being an interesting curio, regeneration turns out to be a window through which we glimpse the tightly imbricated (if not impossibly entangled) feedback loops from which the living world, at every scale, is composed. The words of geneticist François Jacob, writing in 1974 and quoted here, barely conveys the scale of the challenge the authors reveal: “every object that biology studies is a system of systems.”

No wonder that regeneration remains largely a mystery; that hopeful regenerative therapies using stem cells usually fail (and usually for unfathomable reasons); and that even the simplest ecosystems elude our control.

Maienschein and MacCord take fewer than 150 pages to anatomise the complexities and ambiguities that their simple question throws up. It is to their further credit that they do not make the biology any more complex or ambiguous than it has to be.

Strife, crime, depravity and recycled urine

Watching Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space for New Scientist, 16 March 2022

Documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog uses the likelihood (or otherwise) of humans colonising other worlds to structure this peculiar dash through the besetting space concerns of our day; for instance, how will we copulate in space? How much antimatter do we need for a journey to Proxima Centauri B? And how much extra skin do each of us need before it’s worth us bio-engineering human photosynthesis?

Closer to home — and here’s where Last Exit: Space begins — how will the first Martian colonists survive their cosmic ray-doused journey to the Red Planet? How will they stand a planetary surface ten times more radioactive than the surface of the Earth? And how will they survive each other’s company, hunkered down in sub-surface bunkers, “enjoying drinks of recycled urine”?

A traditional documentary might look for answers through the press offices of ESA or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father Werner, narrated and executive-produced this film. In signature Herzog style, Rudolph side-steps the pundits, and goes instead after people whose real lives are already shaped by the conundrums of space travel.

In the Negev desert, the Austrian Space Forum puts a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars EVA suit through its paces. In Denmark, volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals build their first full-size rocket to propel one of their number past the Karman line and into the record books as the world’s first amateur astronaut.

Among the naysayers, space anthropologist Taylor Genovese compares the likely living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, while Judith Lapierre, sole female crewmember of the Moscow Isolation Experiment in the late 1990s, explains how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harrassment against a Russian crewmember — which in turn seems to have led to her ostracism from the space community. If we can’t get along with each other on Earth, what chance do we have in space? Short of any number of technological miracles, a visit to another star will require a starship capable of supporting entire generations of human beings, such are the distances and journey times involved: Lapierre’s testimony suggests to the Herzogs that our spacefaring future will be one of “strife, crime and depravity”.

In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric of the mystical Dawn Valley community in Planaltina, Brazil. The followers of former truck driver Tia Neiva believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from Capella. These same extraterrestrials advise against bodily journeys between the stars. As the cleric explains, since we evolved on this planet, we are hardly likely to thrive elsewhere.

Last Exit: Space pays a high price for its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; the lack of analysis on show here is frustrating. On the one hand we are regaled, yet again, with tales of “the human pioneering spirit” — as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. There’s really no anthropological evidence for this. Many is the culture that has stayed put and literally tended its own garden.

Set in false opposition to this straw man are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies. Space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!

More likely, space corporations wielding mining robots will want as few people in space as possible. (While one isn’t obliged to mention robots in a movie of this sort, I’d contend that without them, it’s very hard indeed to say anything sensible about the economics of outer space.)

Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating voices of calm. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, not an escape route lest the endeavour go wrong — say, by laying waste to the planet.

I’m as much of a space nut as anyone I know. But, to answer the question Werner Herzog poses at the beginning of his son’s charming, if somewhat unfocused documentary — “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?” — I do hope not.

Not quite a coincidence

Reading Antone Martinho-Truswell’s The Parrot in the Mirror for New Scientist, 9 March 2022

Organisms adapt over evolutionary time to their changing surroundings. This creates, over time, a living world of quite jaw-dropping diversity. It also generates some astonishing coincidences — if “coincidence” is quite the right word to describe how two quite unlike species, adapting to identical environments, end up looking and behaving the same. For instance, the pangolins of Africa and the armadilloes of South America look like close cousins; in fact they’re more closely related to humans than they are to each other.

Convergent evolution doesn’t have to be so visually obvious. Take humans and birds: few readers will take on trust Sydney-based zoologist Martinho-Truswell’s assertion that we “look like a strangely featherless bird”.

By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that image both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even our use of language. These, the author argues, are all extraordinary examples of convergent evolution at work.

Crudely, Martinho-Truswell’s argument goes like this:

Once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. And since they were unlikely to be eaten in any given year, it made sense for birds to go on living, producing more eggs and offspring. Increased longevity followed. With longevity came increased intelligence. Long-living animals need to be smart because they get to be the parents of young who develop over a longer period. And because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young, that require enormous amounts of care. This care is provided by pair bonded parents, sometimes supplemented by a larger community, hence the evolution of complex social behaviour and language (or song, at any rate).

The human story is a twisted mirror-image of the avian one. Communal behaviour among primates promoted the evolution of intelligence, and this reduced the likelihood of predation. Longevity followed, boosting intelligence further, to the point where big-brained human young have to be born immature and helpless so as not to kill their mothers in childbirth.

For different reasons, then, humans and birds evolved measurable intelligence. But how do we compare our abilities? Can we even talk about bird smarts and human smarts in the same sentence?

Martinho-Truswell’s handling of this subject is very well done. A balance has to be stuck between precision and imagination. On the one hand, a duckling’s ability to imprint upon its mother shortly after the moment of its birth puts it well ahead of chimpanzees, parrots, pigeons, crows and even human children, but this one hardwired ability doesn’t necessarily make the duckling more intelligent. On the other hand, it would be a dull observer indeed that did not see in Irene Pepperberg’s thirty-year study of language use in Alex, an African Grey parrot, quite staggering evidence of advanced cognition. (Alex not only asked questions; it asked them, and got annoyed if people offered dumb responses.)

Containing the niceties of convergent evolution in a straightforward narrative is not easy. Evolutionary causes and effects do not follow each other in neat, storybook fashion, and there’s always the temptation, reading this book, to take Martinho-Truswell’s acts of narrative shorthand at face value and suppose that humans, 50 million years behind parrots in the evolution of intelligence, somehow became more human by actually mimicking their distant avian cousins. (Distant cousins indeed, by the way: the last common ancestor of birds and mammals died out 320 million years ago.)

But it is surely better to be very slightly misled by a gripping story than to be bludgeoned by a dull one. Martinho-Truswell has written a superb introduction to a surprisingly complex and fraught field of study. Having read it, you will not look at yourself in the mirror in quite the same way.


Free the sea

Reading Chris Armstrong’s A Blue New Deal for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Chris Armstrong, a political theorist at the University of Southampton, believes that the institutions and laws that govern our oceans are too fragmented, too weak and too amenable to vested interests to address the inequalities that exist between developed and developing nations.

Nor, he says, do they protect the marine environment from destruction, and this at a time when there’s been a 30 per cent increase in ocean acidity (since 1900), when the global fishing effort has grown ninefold (between 1970 and 2008), and the globe’s pursuit of oil, gas and minerals is increasingly being directed off-shore.

Ocean governance has been shaped by two contrary impulses: the idea of the freedom of the high seas, given shape in Hugo Grotius’s The Free Sea of 1609; and the idea — rather more familiar to landlubbers — of enclosure, by which a coastal state is entitled to exclusive control and enjoyment of its immediate marine environment.

Grotius’s vision of oceanic free-for-all allows anyone with the wherewithal to exploit an ocean resource as much and as often as they desire. Armstrong allows that this was not entirely unreasonable, given the limited technology available at the time to even the wealthiest nations. Clearly, though, it needs reform for the 21st century, given only a handful of rich nations have access to the expensive technologies involved in sea-bed mining and mineral extraction.

Enclosure is perhaps the more recalcitrant tradition. The idea behind “territorial waters” is ancient, but Armstrong sensibly explains it by reference to the 1968 article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, in which he claimed that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

The trouble is, this isn’t true. The historical record is full of examples of resources held in common, and governed equitably for hundreds of years. The much vaunted “tragedy of the commons” is a piece of rhetoric, not a proven truth. And as Armstrong rightly points out, “the real tragedy for individual ‘commoners’ was enclosure itself, which saw them being evicted from the land by wealthy landowners.”

In 1994, a new Convention on the Law of the Sea established Exclusive Economic Zones extending for 200 nautical miles from nearly every shore. Within these zones, resources are subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal state. By this myopic reasoning, landlocked countries were excluded from a share of the spoils of the sea. (This matters, as access to the sea is essential for economic health. Armstrong points out that 9 of the world’s 12 poorest countries are landlocked). It did nothing to prevent richer nations from licensing, on predatory terms, rights over the EEZs of countries too poor to exploit their own territory. And it gave every state-owned atoll, rock, and island an exclusive patch of sea to exploit, extending 200 miles in every direction. And which states own these rocks? Former colonial powers, of course. Thanks to the 1994 convention, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Australia now command the resources of more than 45 million square kilometres of ocean.

What can be done?

In 1959 a treaty established Antarctica as a place of peace and international cooperation — a commons in other words. Eight years later, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 did the same for the worlds beyond our own. So it is not beyond our legal capacities, Armstrong argues, to govern our oceans along principles of common management, benefit sharing, and even technology transfer between rich and poor nations.

Where Armstrong comes unstuck is in his ideas for enforcement. It’s all very well to dream up a “World Ocean Authority” whose deliberations no state would have the power to veto or depart from. But what omnipotent and omniscient power will drive all this selfless sharing, I wonder? Not, I would bet, the destitute seamen of the Gulf of Thailand; nor the blue whales and other non-human stakeholders of our increasingly stressed oceans.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.