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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

NATURAL SELECTIONS

'REPTILES AND NERDS'

Let science empower you


The setting: The 350-year-old Royal Society in London, whose magnificent neo-Classical base overlooks the Mall, which has Buckingham Palace at one end of the boulevard and Trafalgar Square at the other. The speaker: Lord Rees of Oxford, the Astronomer Royal. Martin Rees is the current president of the Royal Society, Britain's academy of science. It's a post that Issac Newton and Charles Darwin have held before him.

tuna
The world's largest consumer of tuna has no limit on the safe levels of mercury in seafood. AP PHOTO

So far we have set a scene that could be from a Philip Pullman novel.

The impression vanishes when Rees speaks. "There are two species in this room," he says, "reptiles and nerds."

The audience laughs. Next to me a man mutters, "Oh, I'm a nerd; definitely a nerd." That made me a reptile, according to Rees.

The occasion was an annual gathering of scientists and journalists, the "science meets the media" party, organized by The Daily Telegraph.

Reptiles, in Rees's characterization, are journalists, and the proud nerds are the scientists. But of course, many of us reptiles are also nerds.

By that I mean that we are journalists who care about science. And as Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin put it recently in the New York Review of Books, our number is growing.

When Lewontin was a boy in the 1940s and '50s, there was only one science reporter at the New York Times. Now there is an entire science desk. The reason why is obvious: science touches almost every part of our lives.

Scanning the Japanese newspapers as I write this, I see stories about insecticide in gyoza (Chinese dumplings) imported from China, bird-flu deaths in other parts of Asia, mercury in sashimi. It's the whaling season in Japan, and as ever there are arguments over the scientific value of whaling (there doesn't seem to be any value, as it happens).

Our understanding of much of what else that makes the news is informed by how science is explained. How will stem cells help cure disease? How will genetics pioneer Craig Venter create an artificial life form? Is there bacterial life on Mars? (Many scientists think there was, at one time, perhaps millions of years ago. Imagine what it will mean if evidence of past life is found there.)

The annual gathering of scientists and journalists at the Royal Society is designed to reflect that, and to promote better communication. An improved understanding of science can only empower people.

For example, look at the Japanese health ministry's assessment of what is a safe amount of mercury in seafood.

News photo
Crows such as this lone lunar-gazer may have awareness beyond that of most bird-brained birds. AP PHOTO

There are strict limits on what is legally acceptable. But not for tuna. In Europe and the United States, tuna is not allowed to contain mercury at more than 1 part per million. In Japan there is no limit. This is despite Japan being the country that, in the 1950s and '60s, was rocked by a scandal in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in western Kyushu, where mercury poisoning led to a dreadful spate of birth defects.

Does this absence of a limit have something to do with the fact that Japan is by far the world's largest consumer of tuna — some 450,000 tons per year?

Or look at climate change, an issue which has been turned into a controversial topic by deliberate misinformation from oil companies. Arguing that it is not yet safe to conclude that climate change has been caused by human activities is like denying that smoking causes cancer, or that life on Earth evolved over billions of years. (Of course, many people with vested interests did deny the former, until cancer-ridden smokers started suing tobacco companies; and some people still deny the latter).

Champagne flowed

Science is a rebellious activity. Scientists constantly question authority. Understanding science empowers you to make your own decisions. It makes for lively conversation.

At the Royal Society, the champagne flowed and passions glowed. I learned why it is wrong to call someone "bird-brained" if you think they are stupid. Birds — at least those in the crow family — have large brains relative to their body size. And they have a cortex. That is, they have a forebrain, like we primates do. In primates the cortex is large compared to that of other mammals, and in great apes (humans, chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans) it is particularly huge. Crows have a cortex that is similarly oversized. This is why they are so smart at making tools, and at learning.

The biologist telling me this, Nathan Emery from Cambridge University, told me off for writing too much about chimps. What about birds? he said. I said I loved writing about chimps because of the amazing things they do. The exciting thing about chimps and the other apes, and a few other animals such as whales, is that they are almost certainly consciously aware. They look at you and they know they are looking at another being with its own priorities and (maybe) feelings.

Crows are like this too, Emery said. Have you ever been in the street and walked past a crow perched on, say, a garbage pile? Have you looked that bird in the eye as you walked by? Crows in Tokyo can be formidable birds, but look one in the eye next time you get the chance. There's something behind the eyes, an intelligence, a self.

Crows, said Emery, behave differently when they know they are being watched. His work suggests that they are aware of what other birds know, and act accordingly.

I went home pleased to have talked with so many nerds, and happy to be a reptile.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life)."


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