Week in Review: May 8

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Animal research reconsidered in Europe, the death of a glacier, some leaders decide to save green instead of going green, and new evidence for hobbits as bona fide species rather than a genetic mistake.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

The Great Ape Debate, Reconsidered

Between the activities of the Swiss and Spanish governments — and their respective moves to extend human rights to apes and to defend “organismal dignity” last year — it was beginning to seem that Europe was on the fast track to scientific irrelevance. This was compounded by draft revisions to the European Union’s legislation controlling animal research, published last November, which called for a near total ban on primate research. The outlook brightened a bit Tuesday when the European Parliament announced the passage of animal research rules that permit research done on non-human primates, although, in the case of the great apes, only if the research is intended to aid in the conservation of those species in the wild or if there is some dire need during a pandemic. One of the more interesting provisions calls on researchers to share data as well as the organs and tissues of sacrificed animals in an effort to avoid duplicating work — and killing animals — unnecessarily. (The debate over the ownership of data, and how best to share it among researchers, has interested Seed for some time.)

Swine flu might get all the sexed-up disaster coverage, but another attention-grabbing medical news story this week suggests that the arguments and counterarguments over the morality of animal research deserve far more attention than they have gotten. Connie Culp, the woman who revealed May 5 that she had received a face transplant, could not have undergone her life-altering — life-saving, even — surgery without earlier experiments on animals. Anyone opposed to animal research — or to facial transplants, for that matter — should try universalizing their moral unease and ask themselves, after reading Culp’s clinical details, whether they could still bring themselves to oppose the research while breathing through a tube or having a child call them a monster. We ought not to wantonly destroy life, but if the question to be resolved is between a life of human suffering or the humanely handled destruction of an animal, I cannot see how we cannot choose the latter.

A Snowball’s Chance in Hell (part I)

Apparently even three miles up a mountain, there isn’t a lot of room anymore for a big piece of ice to make a home. Just 70 years ago, the Chacaltaya glacier of Bolivia covered 22 hectares with 5 million cubic meters of ice. A decade ago it covered 6 hectares with just 400,000 cubic meters of ice. Today it has completely disappeared, reports the Miami Herald, and even faster than had been expected. In Seed’s recent feature “The Last Experiment,” David Zax wrote that “while it may seem silly or even perverse to play a violin for the projected melting on the ski slopes of Vail. . .[if ] Americans are to respond, it is best to hit them where it will hurt.” Chacaltaya itself was known as the ”world’s highest ski run, so perhaps the images of the disappearing Chacaltaya will be able to spur at least those with fond memories of it to action, assuming they are not moving against climate change already. But, as we’ll see, even melting ski areas may not be enough.

A Snowball’s Chance in Hell (part II)

Last autumn, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — whom this magazine previously has called a visionary scientist turned politician — made an abrupt about-face on climate change and declared that the economy must take precedence over reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. She made this announcement despite a trip to New York in 2007 during which she told the UN that fighting climate change was an economically reasonable thing to do. Oh, well. A cynical interpretation might be that it’s all well and good to take positions on climate change that are meaningless as long as China and the United States don’t do likewise, but that only a foolish politician would make them once her bluff might actually be called.

At any rate, the trend is spreading, as the government of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delays his country’s carbon reduction scheme for one year thanks to the ongoing recession. Merkel, coming from a right-wing party, might have been expected to make this sort of decision, but it will no doubt be more disconcerting that a follower of the Clintonian “third way” of politics has decided to do the same thing.

Whether politicians as a species are really capable of providing the vision and leadership to lead the fight against climate change remains a mystery. As the invaluable Roger Pielke, Jr. has pointed out on his blog Prometheus, disavowal of science is as likely to be motivated by narrowly defined, and entirely parochial, self-interest as it is by ideology, such that Midwestern Democrats are pushing back over climate regulation because it endangers their beloved corn lobby. Arguments such as these make one yearn for term limits: If representatives could only serve for six or eight years, they might not be so worried about angering groups that could interfere with their reelection for another two. As for Rudd and Merkel, one must wonder why they would pursue a leadership post if only to abandon the ability to lead when the times require it.

The On-Going Excavations at Bag End

William Jungers, a physical anthropologist at Stony Brook University, along with archaeologist Michael Morwood from the University of Wollongong, who led the team that discovered Homo floresiensis, the hobbit, and others published a paper in Nature yesterday detailing the weird anatomy of its foot. Well, it’s weird, anyways, if you insist that the hobbit represents pathological specimens of modern humans, rather than a new species. The foot is a pastiche of characteristics, built for walking as we do but with many characteristics of hominins that existed long before Homo sapiens evolved. Jungers and his colleagues argue that this is evidence that Homo habilis might be the ancestor of the hobbit; Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman suggests in a commentary in Nature that an early form of Homo erectus (sometimes called Homo ergaster) might have been the hobbit’s progenitor. The Jungers-Morwood hypothesis, which Morwood outlined in some detail in his 2007 book, A New Human, is the more radical one, suggesting that the evolution of the hominin line was more complicated and more spatially diverse than the standard picture — featuring two migrations from Africa, an earlier one by Homo erectus and a later one by Homo sapiens — allows.

Another related paper in this week’s Nature, by Eleanor M. Weston and Adrian M. Lister of the Natural History Museum in London, takes aim at the argument that the brains of the hobbit are too small for them to be the result of an evolutionary dwarfing process. Some who were opposed to naming the hobbit a new species argued that its brain ought to be bigger relative to its body size, and that its unexpectedly small size was indicative of pathology, not evolution. By using dwarf hippos from Madagascar as a model, Weston and Lister show in their paper that island dwarfing could be sufficient to explain the small brain size of the Flores hominids.

Since 2004, the argument that Homo floresiensis represents nothing more than the sick man of human paleontology — that its characteristics are indicative of disease or developmental abnormality, not selection and speciation — grows weaker with each published paper. Human paleontology may suffer from a surfeit of named species, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that these Flores specimens do not deserve their own place on our extended family tree.

Originally published May 8, 2009

Tags environment medicine policy politics research

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