Archive | January, 2012

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Altruism – Empathy Likely Biologically Universal

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Jerry

There have been countless scientific articles written documenting experiments which show all manner of empathy, altruism, and cooperation between higher mammals and especially those with highly developed prefrontal cortices.  This behavior has been repeatedly identified in human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, bottlenose dolphins, and elephants.  More broadly it has also been seen in the behavior of the more developed mammals.

But what about the lowly, lesser forms of animals, are they indifferent to each other?  Are they nothing but dumb brutes competing with peers for survival with no sensitivity to each other’s plight?  Researchers Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments that indicate that even with rats there is empathy and reaction to each other’s distress.  Their experiments led them to conclude there was strong evidence for “biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior”.

When there was a free rat in an arena with another rat that was confined by a restrainer, the “free rat learned to intentionally and quickly open the restrainer and free the cagemate.”  The free rat performed this release even when social contact between the animals was prevented and when an alternative access to chocolate was offered as a distraction to freeing the confined animal.  In the case of the chocolate within a different restrainer, the free rat “opened both restrainers and typically shared the chocolate.”

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: The Human Odyssey, Chapter 6 – Human Uniqueness, the book quotes and affirms Charles Darwin who said, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties…The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not kind.”  This set of experiments indicates we should expand Darwin’s observation to include the lesser animals as well.

Use the following link to access the study results in Science Magazine:

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Genetically Modified Crops Score: EU 1, US 0

Posted on 28 January 2012 by Jerry

The worldwide war between chemical companies and environmentalists continues.  There was a victory of sorts this month when BASF, the world’s largest chemical company headquartered in Germany, announced it was no longer developing genetically modified plants solely for cultivation in Europe and was moving its plant-science headquarters from Germany to Raleigh, North Carolina.  When questioned, Stefan Marcinowski, a member of the BASF board of executive directors, cited “a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe – from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.”  The company indicated it would increase its focus on selling these products in the Americas and Asia.

The back story of this announcement is that BASF is admitting defeat in its efforts to gain acceptance for its genetically modified crops in Europe.  After many years of lobbying and public debate of the merits of these crops, it has thrown in the towel.  As one would expect in a political process, chemical companies would secure regulatory approval from the European Commission (a political agency) only to encounter widespread and vocal opposition in the market.  This is one of those cases where corporate money and political influence was not enough to roll over market forces and consumer sentiment in individual countries.   BASF follows Monsanto who made a similar decision to not develop crops for the EU market some time ago.

This battle in Europe mirrors the struggle that is taking place worldwide where chemical companies are using money, political influence, and detractors charge, false claims to take genetic control of crops that feed the majority of the world’s population. It is not surprising that the two most technically developed regions in the world are at odds over genetic crop utilization. The United States pioneered genetic crop engineering following the lead of Monsanto, headquartered in Missouri, with its “Round-Up-Ready” crops, while the EU looked at the technology with far less enthusiasm and much greater consideration of the potential negative impacts.  Unfortunately, the chemical companies are making inroads in less developed and less sophisticated counties around the world having gained approvals in Africa, South America and smaller countries in Asia.

Use the following links for more information on genetically engineered crops around the world:

BASF relocation:

GM Crops in Europe:

GM Crops in Asia:

GM Crops in Africa:

GM Crops in South America:

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12 Steps for Climate Change

Posted on 27 January 2012 by Jerry

Yet another year has passed with no tangible international or domestic progress on controlling or reversing climate change.  While we continue to look to our leaders for leadership in the big polluting countries of the United States and China, it is critical we not wait for them. We must take our own steps to embrace a new climate response lifestyle.

While there is considerable industrial carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, climate change is also the product of many small actions taken each day by the more than seven billion humans on our planet.  By our sheer numbers what we do has repercussions.  We each know the bigger things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint like buying a hybrid car, insulating our home, and installing household renewable energy sources like solar panels. The problem is that these steps require a triggering event like making a big purchase, upgrading our insulation or having substantial “extra” money. 

Here are 12 simple things we can do to help manage climate change.  In the future water will be scarce, more trees and plants will be needed to consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, and we must slow our consumption of fossil fuels and contribution to greenhouse gases.  The following are demonstrable steps we can take to show our neighbors we are doing our fair share.

Conserving Water and Reducing Emissions:

  1. If you have to pee, go for three.  We need to reduce our wasting of water.  As the temperature rises, sources of fresh water, like mountain snows that fill the streams coming from the mountains, will diminish.  Drastically reducing the fresh water we flush away each day will train us to be more frugal with our water use.  It has been said that people in the developed nations flush more fresh water each day than all of the daily uses of water by the average person in the developing world
  2. Water should sit not run.  Think about how many times a day you let the water run from a faucet when you could use a much smaller amount for just what you need.  Examples include letting the water run while you brush your teeth.  You should put some water in a glass and use it to cleanse your mouth and rinse your toothbrush.  Think about when you rinse your dishes with an endless stream of water which you follow by running the dish washer.  You could plug your sink and use a fixed amount of hot water to rinse the dishes and, even further, to wash them.
  3. Drip, not spray.  Put in a yard with bushes not grass.  Grass lawns watered with sprinklers consume much more water than individual drip irrigated plants.  If you can when picking plants, pick those which need less water rather than those that need a continuously wet environment.
  4. Go Low Flow.  While it can be argued as obvious and is legally required for new construction in many cities, we can all spend relatively little to replace old shower heads and toilets with the low flow variety.  While a nuisance to those people who like a bigger toilet seat or a more powerful shower and say to hell with everyone else, these replacement appliances can save a significant amount of water.
  5. Bathe Not Bath.  Continuing with the bathroom and bathing theme, both baths and long showers are particularly wasteful of fresh water.  A low flow shower that has an initial hot water wet-down followed by the shower turned off as you lather up saves a lot of water.  Of course the shower is completed with another hot water rinse removing remaining soap suds.  Also a full bath tub of hot water as a treat once a month would still save water and allow you to enjoy a periodic full bath
  6. Give a Tree a Life.  The Xmas ritual of killing a tree which is decorated and kept in your home for a few weeks is not helpful with climate change nor does it celebrate life. It should be replaced with a family ritual where a tree is planted as a symbol of life and rebirth.  A middle ground would be a small potted tree for in-home display followed by a New Year’s permanent planting of the growing tree.  The argument is that tree farmers plant trees for sale so there really is only a small amount of time when land lies fallow before it is replanted and trees begin to grow again.  This argument overlooks that trees take years to grow and bigger trees remove more carbon dioxide than small trees and produce more oxygen.
  7. Communitize Xmas.  Another option for local neighborhoods is to select a sizable tree planted on city or county land that is “adopted” by the people who live nearby as their community tree.  In this way numerous families can cooperate to decorate and light a single larger tree and events could be scheduled for people to gather and enjoy the lighted trees with entertainment and a festive atmosphere.
  8. Plant Not Pave.  Communities should double their number of planted trees.  We need new ideas where homeowners can request the planting of trees in front of their homes, government departments decide to go green by planting trees at their facilities, and cities extend their footprint by creating parks that encircle them.  Also, a significant portion of new trees should bear fruit which could feed the local population.  While there may be negative reactions to this last thought, feeding people with locally grown produce, increasing the number of trees planted, and eliminating the environmental cost of transporting fruit from great distances should outweigh other considerations.  It would produce multiple societal benefits for the same effort. 
  9. Cloth over Paper over Plastic.  Some cities are taking the step of banning plastic bags at supermarkets and convenience stores on the assumption that plastic bags do not biodegrade while paper bags are recyclable.  While this is true, the use of reusable personal cloth bags goes one better and is clearly the best alternative to plastic or paper.  These shoppers should get discounts for eliminating packaging, collecting, and recycling.
  10. Buy Local: A good example is fruit.  Many supermarkets are identifying the source of fruit in the off-season. This fruit usually costs more and is brought in from South American countries that have southern hemisphere growing seasons opposite to ours.  Consider how energy inefficient it is to bring fruit these great distances, boxing and transporting it around the world just so people can have fruits in the off-season.  There should be required labeling that identifies local products, say from within 50-100 miles of the supermarket so you can make energy efficient buying decisions for your groceries.
  11. Blow Blows.  We need to return to methods of yard and grounds maintenance that use muscle power rather than fossil fuels.  Unfortunately in a world that has absolutely no restraints around wasting valuable energy we have created products such as leaf blowers that reduce the energy needed to clean a yard to standing upright and taking a few step in all directions.  This is the type of convenience the world cannot afford.  As people we need to consider each appliance we are thinking about buying in terms of its energy efficiency, identifying just how much personal energy it is displacing and at what cost.
  12. Retire the Fire.  Having an open fire in the fire place is probably the least efficient use of an energy source in your home.  With a sizable percentage of its heat going up the chimney and out of the house, the fireplace is the worst way to heat a space.  While it may be fun to look at and smell, all other options for heat are generally more efficient.

Finally, we need to use the power of peer pressure to reinforce good behavior.  We must communicate negative reactions to people who are clearly not reacting to climate change.  It takes just a few simple words like “nice job” to reinforce use of cloth bags or installation of low flow guest toilets at home or people using a broom or rake to clean up a yard. It also takes but a minute to call out to someone using a blower and say “A rake would be better!”

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