an autodidact meets a dilettante…

a dialogue/monologue promoting humanism, science, skepticism, globalism and femocracy, and demoting ignorance, patriarchy, thuggery and zero-sum game nationalism

On Maoris, heavy culture and political correctness

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a Maori meeting-gate, entrance to a Pa (fortified village). the figure on the left is female, with chin tattoo

Canto: So we spent time at the Ibis Hotel, Hamilton, NZ, which is owned and run by a Maori organisation. Many but not all the staff were Maoris – of course I can’t always tell who is Maori and who isn’t, and I’m ignorant of what precisely constitutes being a Maori (or an Australian Aborigine, or a native American, or a Jew, or an Arab, or a Kurd, or a Romany etc etc etc) – and they were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Many of the guests, too, or at least people milling around at the reception and bar/dining area, appeared to be Maori, including the occasional bloke with facial tattoos associated with Maori culture.

Jacinta: Presumably you didn’t have any doubt that they were Maoris. So I know you’re not a big fan of the tattoo fashion that’s everywhere these days.

Canto: No, this has been a trend for way over twenty years now and I thought it would pass but it seems to have intensified. But as with all things designed or pictorial, there’s the crass and the clever, the subtle and the silly, the banal and the truly tragic…

Jacinta: Okay, but the Maori tattoos that we’ve seen here, in the Ibis and elsewhere, these apparently deeply culturally significant tattoos of Maori identification, what do you think of them? Do you dare to voice an opinion?

Canto: Well I’ll give voice to an observation. I’ve never seen a woman with those kinds of tattoos.

Jacinta: Would you be happier if you saw women with them?

Canto: Not happier. As you’ve said, I’ve never been and never will be a big fan of tattoos – a fact of no major significance of course. Nobody needs to pay the slightest attention to me on these matters. But I like the raw, unadorned human body, the product of many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It would be sacrilege to tattoo a leopard, or a lion, or an antelope – their bodies are magnificent evolutionary products…

Jacinta: But you miss the point. Those animals don’t tattoo themselves. We tattoo ourselves. Because we can. That’s our magnificent evolutionary product, a brain that can transform our bodies, not to mention our planet.

Canto: Okay, I grant that, but I still object to tattoos on aesthetic grounds. I just think they’re mostly fugly. And as you know I hate trendiness and groupthink.

Jacinta: Okay, let’s get back to Maori tattoos and women. As you know, women in general are getting tattoos at a greater rate than men, and, yes, Maori women are getting tattoos in increasing numbers. Sacred chin tattoos – so, different from the blokes.

Canto: Hmmm, well as you know, I’ve always been more comfortable with the profane than the sacred…

Jacinta: Well, ‘sacred’ sounds a bit heavy; they seem to be ‘belongingness’ tattoos, but that sounds a bit wishy-washy. In any case there’s a whole history behind Maori ‘skin art’ or Kiri Tuhi…

Canto: Which sounds to be strictly regulated on gender lines – those aggressive ‘warrior’ facial tats for men and the more restrained ones for subordinate women.

Jacinta: Maybe. You’re worried about ‘heavy culture’ aren’t you?

Canto: Heavy and patriarchal culture, which I’ve always been pretty down on. I prefer nature over culture, to be simplistic about it. Or rather, I prefer a culture which questions itself, so deeply as to undermine itself, usually through understanding the nature of culture. It’s binding and blinding nature.

Jacinta: Very good. So maybe we should look at Maori culture in particular, and the way it binds and blinds.

Canto: So what about chin tattoos? Are they for women only?

Jacinta: Well the traditional Maori tattoos are called Ta Moko, and they’re carved into the skin with chisels rather than drawn with skin-puncturing needles. Every tattoo is individualised, and they represent family and tribal history, status and the like.

Canto: You can’t get more heavily cultural than that, to have your cultural pedigree, such as it is, inscribed on your face. I myself haven’t the slightest awareness of my cultural pedigree and I want to keep it that way. Does that make me a pariah?

Jacinta: It makes you just another feature of life’s rich tapestry. Women were traditionally tattooed only on the chin, around the mouth and sometimes the nostrils. All this tattooing faded for a while in the nineteenth century, with increasing assimilation pressures, many of them internalised, but it’s come back with a vengeance with renewed emphasis on native pride and such.

Canto: Hmmmm. I presume Maori culture was very patriarchal? Once were warriors and all that?

Jacinta: Yes, a warrior culture but strongly influenced and supported by women, in maintaining the stories of an oral culture, and in the upbringing of children. The Maori argue that, at the time of the ‘white invasion’, Maori women generally had more status in their society than white women had in theirs. They retained their own names after marriage, they dressed similarly to men, and their children didn’t consider their maternal kinship group as less important than the paternal. I presume the chiefs were male, but overall, Maori culture was no more patriarchal, historically, than our own.

Canto: Yes, I have to say they all look pretty scarily macho, male and female, but they turn out to be so nice and friendly.

Jacinta: It’s good for business. Yes I haven’t seen too many gracile Maoris, they all seem to belong to the robusta domain. Maybe it’s the diet.

Canto: The genes, more likely. Influenced by diet. Kumera’s a pretty robust vegetable.

Jacinta: You are what you eat? But to get back to culture and its binding and blinding, it’s perhaps a good thing that a culture can bind people in a shared history and a collective memory, even if memory often plays false, but one of the problems is that it blinkers them to other connections, other perspectives on the world…

Canto: And it’s often backward-facing…

Jacinta: And it has a reifying effect, making these connections to a shared history – which is often mythical – more real than real, so that a ‘Maori perspective’ becomes entrenched and valorised above a collective, largely progressive, open-ended, human perspective.

Canto: The problem of identity politics. It’s actually a difficult one for those cultures that feel themselves under the gun – oppressed, minority… I’ve said that I don’t really care about my Scottish-Australian cultural pedigree – or is it mongrel-ness – but I suppose it’s because I belong to the dominant culture; white, anglo-saxon and increasingly atheist. That culture is so broad and deep that, although you can easily lose your way in it, you’re rarely ever challenged for being a part of it.

Jacinta: And as part of this dominant culture we get to look at these minority cultures – which of course add to that all-embracing diversity we’re so proud of – with fascination, with condescension, with alarm, with disgust, with starry eyes, with guilt, with humour, with exasperation, with a mixture of some or all of these feelings or impulses, without being called out for it in any serious way.

Canto: But aren’t we being called out for having the wrong attitudes? Isn’t that what political correctness is all about?

Jacinta: Well, political correctness is a fascinating thing, and not such a bad thing. It’s a kind of unspoken, largely unconscious vigilante force to avoid hurt – to old people, fat people, gay people, disabled people, people who look, dress or act differently (in a more or less harmless way) from the norm. So we internalise our criticisms and anxieties, we restrict them to our internal monologues, or to conversations with like-minded others, and we never quite know whether this is civilised or cowardly behaviour.

Canto: It certainly helps us to get along.

Jacinta: Well, more than that, I mean it doesn’t just help us to avoid unnecessary battles, it helps us to reflect on first impressions, to question them, to challenge them, to deepen them. There’s more to political correctness than meets the eye.

Canto: You mean we shouldn’t judge political correctness by first impressions…

Jacinta: Which takes us back to Maori culture. We’ve not just seen the Maoris running our hotel in a professional and friendly way, we’ve been to a traditional Maori ceremony, somewhat ‘westernised’ for us tourists, and we’ve watched their men and women perform for us, in mock-warrior and lyrical mode, with dignity humour and a lot of tolerance for the goggle-eyed, muttering global trade of people shuffling through and holding up their mobile phones and clicking distractingly, while obscuring the view of we polite, politically correct watchers, pathetically torn between appreciating the Maori scenes on the stage, and being irritated at those around us who weren’t being as politically correct as ourselves…

Jacinta: That’s modern life, in the ‘first world’….

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2018 at 5:24 pm

How bad is the American political system? Outsider talk

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fantasies notwithstanding…

Jacinta: As we await hopefully the downfall of Trump, we keep experiencing shocks as we listen to all the commentary and events…

Canto: I wouldn’t call it shocks, because I for one have followed US politics, albeit vaguely, for decades, but as some of the implications of their system have been brought into clearer focus, and their complacent and often jingoistic attitude to it, yes, it tends to make the jaw drop a little.

Jacinta: Presidential pardons and vetoes, actually serious discussions as to whether or not their head of state is above the law or indictable, and then much rabbiting on about how they’re the greatest democracy on earth, and how they have checks and balances like nowhere else, which is such arrant bullshit….

Canto: Well I agree that if your head of state is granted the right to pardon criminals, that’s a large stride towards dictatorship right there. And here’s an example of complacency: one commentator talked proudly of his country’s political system being largely a response to tyranny. He was explicitly referring to the monarchy of George III. Yet the power of Presidential pardon is taken directly from the British monarchy! And of course British monarchs virtually never use it – there would be a massive uproar if they did in that very politically literate nation.

Jacinta: Alan Turing was the last person to receive a royal pardon, in 2013, some fifty years after the poor bloke committed suicide. That would’ve been a very popular decision, and the Queen would surely not have been the one to make it, she just signed off on it. I’m sure it’s been a long long time since any British monarch made a personal decision to pardon a convicted individual.

Canto: So compare the latest US Presidential pardon, only days ago. Scooter Libby (such an American name) was convicted of lying to the FBI during the Bush administration, and I don’t know the details of all that, but no matter, more than one US pundit has argued, credibly enough, that for Trump, Scooter Libby is no more than a silly name. Now here’s what Wikipedia has to say about US Presidential pardons:

Almost all federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. In rare cases, the President will, of his own accord, issue a Pardon. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice.[27] The percentage of pardons and reprieves granted varies from administration to administration; however, fewer pardons have been granted since World War II.

The pardon power has been controversial from the enactment of the United States Constitution.

Controversial indeed. And I’m willing to bet that this recent pardon was one of those ‘rare cases’, no doubt suggested to Trump by one of his Mar-a-lago mates. Under Trump, such pardon cases will become a lot less rare, if he can get away with it. It seems reasonably clear, as many pundits avow, that Trump is signalling to such mates as Flynn and Cohen that he can and will pardon them when the time comes.

Jacinta: And this is surely corruption writ large. But what astonishes me is the Americans never seem to be capable of considering changes to their beloved but obviously flawed constitution. Their second amendment pertaining to bearing arms is a piece of shite of course, and I’m not sure about their fifth, which seems to obstruct justice in a lot of cases, and this pardon power is expressed in the body of their constitution, in Article 2. To me it’s screamingly obvious that this pardon power should be thrown out. When will they ever effing learn?

we shall see

Canto: It seems they need outsiders to point out to them the massive flaws in their system. It’s way too ‘presidential’. You could also possibly argue that it’s too democratic. The fact is, although all westerners tend to extol democracy, there’s no purely democratic system, and that’s a good thing. If our understanding of the world, the universe – our science in other words – was decided by democracy, we’d still believe the earth was flat and we would never have invented a single tool.

Jacinta: Yes, and imagine if our judges and our laws were voted on by pure democracy – given current and past levels of education. It hardly bears thinking about.

Canto: And in the USA the President is directly voted on by the people in a two-horse race, unlike in the Westminster system where we vote on parties, or on local reps, and the winning party chooses its captain based on her proven abilities, be they populist or strategic or otherwise, and that party gets to dump its leader if she proves ineffective.

Jacinta: So such a system never places anyone above the law, and where there are pardon powers, they’re hedged about very heavily, though certainly the leader does have powers above others in choosing her cabinet and such.

Canto: A cabinet of members previously elected by constituents, not plucked possibly from obscurity by the whim of the Prez. But can you think of any advantages of this Presidential system over the Westminster system?

Jacinta: Well the Presidential system might be more streamlined, which can be positive or negative depending on the competence of the leader. Quick decision-making can be life-saving or totally disastrous. Personally, I wouldn’t take the risk. But certainly a system can have too many checks and balances.

Canto: But as you’ve said, the Americans seem incapable of considering reforms to their system, even in the light of the Trump disaster. And there are barriers to effecting constitutional change.

Jacinta: You need a two-third majority in both houses of congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and that might be possible after November, but unlikely. And it seems, from the current case involving Michael Cohen and his ties to Trump, that the laws regulating the President’s powers in all sorts of areas are a bit thin.

Canto: I suppose that would be Trump’s greatest legacy, exposing the dangers of an insufficiently regulated head of state.

Jacinta: Yeah but they’re unlikely to face up to those dangers, I suspect they’ll have to be hit on the head by more than one Trump-like figure before they do anything about it.

Canto: They’re very good at feverishly talking about all their woes…

Jacinta: We’re all good at that. But you’ll notice that they often mention a ‘constitutional crisis’. That’s a situation arising where’s little clear guidance from their constitution as to resolution. For example, the indictment of a sitting President. As you know, I’m not keen on the impeachment process, which doesn’t exist in Australia or within the Westminster system. I would want Trump to be dealt with by the law, for which he has such contempt. That would be poetic of course, but it would also be the right course, IMHO.

Canto: But there’s a problem with indictment of a sitting President. Of course in Australia we rarely use the term ‘indict’, we just use the term ‘charge’, as verb and noun. The problem with charging the Prez is that he will then have to go through a court process, which will significantly  affect his ability to discharge the duties of office. Of course, this isn’t such a problem under Westminster, the PM will simply step down, either permanently or temporarily until the case is completed. Under Westminster, change of leadership isn’t such a big deal, and it often happens within electoral cycles. Under the Presidential system, it may happen that a Prez is indicted but hearings are delayed until he leaves office…

Jacinta: But if the charges relate to his becoming President, or to his current handling of the role – e.g. collusion with a foreign power, or obstruction of justice, what then?

Canto: From what I’ve read, you can indict a sitting President, and publish the charges. If the charges relate to the President’s fitness for office – but who decides this? – then action should be taken to remove him – but what action? Other than impeachment, it’s not clear.

Jacinta: And impeachment isn’t in itself removal from office. And Trump won’t go quietly. It’s all a bit fuzzy. And as we get closer to the pointy end, it gets fuzzier, paradoxically speaking….

Canto: How to sack a President, that is the question. It appears he’s virtually unsackable, and that’s an offence.

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2018 at 7:34 am

a deeper dive into the shallow waters of Emu Bay

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Jacinta: So Emu Bay, shale, Cambrian, trilobites, early complex life, Kangaroo Island, why Kangaroo Island, where do we begin?

Canto: Well, let’s just begin. Apparently the first fossil finds, the first signs that there was something significant, date from the fifties, but it wasn’t until the seventies that real excitement grew.

Jacinta: And these finds were from the Cambrian. Can you give us some background on the so-called Cambrian explosion, and the geological epochs as they pertain to life forms?

Canto: The Cambrian explosion dates to around 530 million years ago. The most celebrated evidence of this comes from the Burgess shale in British Columbia, Canada, though the finds there date to about 510 million years ago – the middle Cambrian. Emu Bay’s fossils have been dated further back in time, though as always there’s some uncertainty as to precise dating. Another famous deposit, the oldest, is in southern China, the Chengjiang fauna.

Now, briefly, the planet’s life-span has been divided into six eons, which you can take as seriously as you like: first, the Hadean, from Earth’s formation 4.6 billion years ago to the end of the late heavy bombardment around 4 billion years ago; second, the Archaean, when life began and then photosynthesis evolved; third, the Proterozoic, from 2.5 billion years ago to 540 million years ago; fourth, the Paleozoic, to 250 million years ago, then the Mesozoic, to 65 million years ago, and finally the sixth, Cenozoic eon, up to the present day. Though the last three are sometimes called ‘eras’ under the title of the Phanerozoic eon.

Jacinta: So how does the Cambrian and other epochs or whatever, map onto this – the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and so forth?

Canto: Well, these are called periods, but let’s not get too caught up in all that, and let’s start with the Cambrian period, as we’re concerned with more or less recognisably modern complex life. It’s generally agreed to date from 540 million years ago, following on from the Ediacaran period, and has been divided into Early, Middle and Late, at least by some, and was followed by the Ordovician some 485 million years ago…

Jacinta: Okay, enough, let’s get back to Emu Bay and the Cambrian explosion.

Canto: Just look online and you’ll find a ton of info on this and the other Cambrian deposits, so I’ll provide links to those sites that have helped me.

Jacinta: And a glossary, maybe.

Canto: Arthropods – from which modern spiders, insects and crabs evolved – and molluscs came into being in the Cambrian, and they’re well represented in the Emu Bay shale, dating from around 520 million years ago. Trilobites (three-lobed critters), a type of arthropod, are particularly well represented. They’re the earliest known creatures to have developed ‘full’ eyesight, I think, which would make them pretty devastating predators at the time.

Jacinta: Eyesight’s an interesting one, and it seems complex sight requires brains as well as good lenses….

Canto: Yes it is complex, and sight is obviously going to be one development among many in the fight for advantage, and developed and used differently in different environments. Anyway, one of the most interesting and important things about Emu Bay is the preservation of soft tissue – crab muscle, trilobite antennae for example. The types of antennae are very revealing apparently. And they’ve even found the turds of these creatures…

Jacinta: So how is it possible for muscle tissue etc to be preserved for over half a billion years?

Canto: That’s a very good question. It’s obviously a rarity – unless there’s an explosion of such finds in the future. A Catalyst program on Emu Bay from 10 years ago puts it this way:

Why this rare occurrence happens is not entirely clear. But it appears that, 520 million years ago, the bottom layer of the sea was depleted of oxygen; no scavengers could disturb the dead and no bacteria could survive to decay the soft tissue.

Jacinta: But one of the big differences between this site and the Burgess shale is that these were shallow water creatures, and the Burgess shale preserved deep water creatures, is that right? So these might have been more exposed to air?

Canto: Well the issue we’re looking at here comes under the heading of ‘taphonomy’ – the branch of palaeontology that deals with the processes of fossilisation. And taphonomy seems very much a work in progress – progressed further by analysis of this site. But it does get very technical. Let me give you an example, from a paper published in the Journal of the Geological Society in 2016:

The EBS [Emu Bay Shale] seems to have been rapidly deposited in a relatively nearshore setting adjacent to an active tectonic margin that generated continual syndepositional faulting and slumping. The Konservat-Lagerstätte interval appears to form part of a localized, deeper-water micro-basin succession on the inner shelf that was subject to fluctuating oxygen levels, at least in the bottom waters (Gehling et al. 2011). This depositional setting is in stark contrast to the majority of other Cambrian Konservat-Lagerstätten, specifically Burgess Shale-type deposits that formed in outer shelf environments, either near or immediately adjacent to the seaward margins of expansive carbonate platforms (e.g. Burgess Shale), or offshore of broad clastic shelves (e.g. Chengjiang) (Gaines 2014).

Jacinta: Hmmm, I think I get the continental drift.

Canto: As to the oxygen question, that’s still being worked on. And as to the deposit being ‘adjacent to an active tectonic margin’, I don’t get that. The whole of Australia sits on a large tectonic plate, the Australian plate, which stretches way south of Kangaroo Island. Perhaps plates can be sub-divided into micro-plates, I don’t know.

Jacinta: Perhaps an active tectonic margin just means a fault-line. But enough of the geology, tell us about the creatures themselves – some of the first predators – and their well-developed eyes.

Canto: More than 50 separate species have been found there, though in terms of specimens, the trilobite Estaingia bilobata dominates. Trilobites are incredibly common in the fossil record, with some 17,000 species known. The earliest ones found seem already highly diversified but their origin in the pre-Cambrian is very much a mystery.

a heap of Estraingia bilobata trilobites found at Emu Bay. I’m guessing from the rule on the right that each one is 2-3 cms long

Jacinta: And do these trilobites have amazing eyes?

Canto: They’re among the first animals we know of to have complex eyes and their lenses were made of calcite, which fossilises well. It’s also hypothesised that the early success of trilobites with their weaponised, prey-catching eyes helped to trigger or speed up the Cambrian explosion of diversity. But the big story about eyes fossilised at Emu Bay isn’t trilobite eyes. An abstract from Nature describes a creature with eyes more complex, and better preserved than any others for the following 85 million years:

The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

Jacinta: I seem to remember reading about this a few years back.

Canto: Yes, Ed Yong of not exactly rocket science did a great post about it. The animal is called Anomalocaris, meaning strange shrimp, and it has been discovered, or uncovered, bit by bit over more than a century, in the Burgess shale and elsewhere. Its 3cm-wide eyes, stuck out on stalks, were about 30 times more powerful than those of trilobites, with at least 17,000 lenses in each eye – all of which was discovered from a single specimen at Emu Bay, the only place where soft tissue was preserved, though specimens of Anomalocaris have been discovered around the world. Including many specimens found at Emu Bay itself.

Jacinta: So, this discovery, of the eyes, really put Emu Bay and Kangaroo Island on the map for a time.

Canto: Well, sort of, among the cognoscenti. But yes, it was exciting to think of such a marvellous find so nearby. And there may well be a lot more to discover.

fossilised eyes of Anomalocaris


Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2018 at 9:42 pm

is this the best use of journalism?: attn Katie McBride and Outline magazine

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Rat Park, in colour

Jacinta: Now we’re going to do something slightly unpleasant but wholly necessary: take someone to task, as teachers must occasionally do.

Canto: Yes, it relates to a previous post, a recent one, about Rat Farm and the war on drugs.

Jacinta: In writing that post we happened upon an article entitled  ‘This 38-year-old study is still spreading bad ideas about addiction” – which kind of shocked me with its provocative title. It was written by Katie MacBride and published by Outline, an online magazine. I only skimmed the article at the time, bemused to find the Rat Park experiment still creating such negative vibes after all these years, but some obvious problems in the article stood out, even on the most cursory reading, so I’ve decided to revisit it with a more careful analysis, with Canto’s help.

Canto: Well the first red flag with the article comes with the first words, before even the title. Pop science. In other words, this article, or rather its subject, should be filed in the category of ‘pop science’, as opposed to real science. This is designed to instil prejudice in the reader from the outset, and is clearly a cheap trick.

Jacinta: Yes, and for an immediate antidote to this kind of cheapsterism, I’d advise anyone to read the Wikipedia article on the rat park experiment, which is calmly and reasonably presented, as is usual. And let me here heap praise on Wikipedia for its general reliability, its objectivity and its pro-science approach. It’s one of the greatest gifts the internet has provided to our world, IMHO.

Canto: The next red flag comes with the title – ’38 years old and still spreading bad ideas’…. As if the date of the study is relevant. There are a number of landmark psychology studies even older than Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park, and also ‘flawed’ – of which more later, – which continue to resonate today for obvious reasons…

Jacinta: Yes, for example Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, over fifty years ago now, and the Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. These, and Alexander’s Rat Park experiment, deserve to be regarded as landmark pieces of work because they make you think. And they often overturn previous thinking. They shake our complacency.

Canto: And what about the latter part of the title, that Alexander’s work is still spreading bad ideas?

Jacinta: It’s interesting that she claims this, considering that the main reason Alexander embarked on this study was to combat bad ideas – particularly the war on drugs itself, and the prevailing view, promoted by the likes of Harry Anslinger and his zero tolerance approach to drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, that use of these drugs led inevitably to a kind of madness that was extremely harmful to self and others. Remember the rat adverts of the time, which showed rats dropping dead after regularly imbibing morphene-laced water, with the message ‘this could happen to you’.

Canto: Yes, and the rats may well have been choosing the drug over plain water because, like many lab rats of the time – hopefully things have changed – the conditions they were kept in made their life something of a living hell. What Alexander’s experiment showed was that, given a far more enriched environment, rats made far less simplistic and self-destroying choices. That’s all. So how could this be a ‘bad idea?’

Jacinta: MacBride doesn’t say. But to be fair, Alexander’s thesis may have been that opiates aren’t addictive at all, which is not what his results showed – they showed that environment matters hugely in respect to the willingness to get hooked on drugs. And that’s a really really important finding, not a ‘bad idea’.

Canto: And we’re still on the title of MacBride’s essay, which is followed by a tiny summary remark, ‘The Rat Park study was flawed and its findings have been oversimplified, but it keeps getting cited.’ Any comments?

Jacinta: Yes – as a regular listener to the podcasts of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) over the years, as well as a reader of Ben Goldacre and other science-based critics of medical/psychological studies and experiments, I can safely say that every piece of research or experimentation, since the dawn of time, is flawed. Or imperfect. Or limited. Some more than others. of course. So to say the study is flawed is to say nothing at all. Every episode of SGU, and I’ve listened to hundreds, features one piece of published research or other, which Steve Novella picks to pieces to determine whether it’s very or mildly interesting, or a piece of rubbish, but even with the best study, the mantra is generally ‘needs more research’. So a critic needs to show how an experiment is flawed, and how those flaws affect the results. And MacBride’s effort to do this is pretty abysmal.

Canto: Okay, before we examine that effort, I’d like to quote something from early on in MacBride’s article:

The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor.

What do you make of that? Do you think it a fair description of the study?

Jacinta: It’s an odd description, or mis-description, of the study. The first sentence you quoted isn’t problematic. The study did undermine the idea that it was all about chemistry. Or rather it would have, had anyone paid attention to it. It should have, as MacBride implies, but instead of then regretting that the study didn’t have any impact, she presents it as deserving of oblivion. It doesn’t make much sense.

Canto: The quote claims that it’s a misconception that environment is the most important factor in drug addiction. Do you agree?

Jacinta: I don’t know if it’s the most important factor, but it’s obviously an important factor, and the Rat Park experiment provided strong evidence for this. It seems MacBride is confusing Alexander’s possible claims or commentary on the study with the study itself. The study doesn’t prove that environment is the most important factor, but it certainly makes you think about addiction in a very different way from the horrific but dumb rat ads  that prompted it. It makes you think, as all good studies do, and that’s something MacBride seems extremely reluctant to admit. And I wonder why.

Canto: But MacBride does provide cogent criticisms of the study, doesn’t she?

Jacinta: Well, she quotes one particular critique of the study, by a Dr Sam Snodgrass, who found that the Rat Park environment, in which rats were no longer isolated and therefore mated, as rats are wont to do, would have rendered the findings questionable. According to Snodgrass, “You can’t have one group of subjects mating and with pups and compare it to a group that doesn’t engage in these behaviors and say that the difference between the two groups is caused by environmental differences.” But I beg to differ. An environment in which you’re isolated and unable to have sex is obviously very different from an environment in which you breed as normal – especially for rats. As to the rat pups ruining the experiment, I think if you looked closely at any rat study in which rats get to live together and breed, the actual experiment would be more messy than the published results indicate, but I doubt the problems would be so great as to invalidate those results.

Canto: And what about attempts to replicate the experiment?

Jacinta: Well there seem not to have been enough of them, and that’s not Alexander’s fault. Above all, similar experiments should have been conducted with different drugs and different concentrations etc. And of course rats aren’t humans, and it’s hard to bridge that gap, especially these days, as lab testing of other non-human animals (and rats too) is increasingly frowned upon, for good reason. I note that MacBride briefly mentions that others did replicate Alexander’s results, but she chooses to focus almost wholly on those who found differences. She’s also quite brief in describing the obvious parallel, presented in much greater detail in Johann Hari’s Chasing the scream, of American soldiers taking heavily to heroin in the alienating environment of Vietnam and giving them up on their return to what was for them an obviously more enriched environment. The facts were startling – 20 time the heroin addiction in Vietnam, as MacBride admits – but not much is made of them, as she is more concerned to pour cold water on Rat Park, so to speak.

Canto: Yes it’s strange – MacBride admits that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, but her obsession with criticising Rat Park prevents her from carrying through on that with, for example, the alternatives to this American approach in Europe. She mentions the again startling fact, reported by the Brookings Institute, that the combined hardcore user rate for hard drugs was approximately 4 times higher in the US than in Europe, after decades of the US war on drugs, but fails to note that the Rat Park experiment was one of the main inspirations in implementing more humane and vastly more successful policies, not only in Europe but, more recently, in some US states.

Jacinta: Yes MacBride is clearly concerned to get everyone’s facts straight on the opioid epidemic that’s currently gripping the US, and about which I honestly know little, but I think she has gone overboard in seeking to vilify the Rat Park study, which surely has little to do with that epidemic. The Rat Park experiment hardly promotes drug-taking; what it does strongly suggest, as does Johann Hari’s book, is that environment is one of the most important factors in determining a person’s willingness to escape into drugs. My own personal experience tallies with that, having been brought up in a depressed and disadvantaged region, hard-hit in the seventies by economic recession, and watching the illicit drug trade take off around me, as houses and gardens became more and more derelict.

Canto: Yes, it’s hard to understand why she’s focusing so negatively on Rat Park, when the problem is really one of interpretation, insofar as there is a problem. And I don’t know how it relates negatively to the opioid crisis. Maybe we should find out more about this crisis, and do a follow-up?

Jacinta: Maybe, but it’s so hard trying to fix the world’s problems… but of course that’s what we’re here for…


Written by stewart henderson

April 13, 2018 at 11:53 am

Kangaroo Island – return to Emu Bay

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Canto: I wanted to find out more about Emu Bay’s famous fossils so I decided to return and take the trek round the bay to the eastern extremity, photographing any rocky scenario I could find. The good thing was that, again, the weather was perfect for a long walk, and my thoroughly salubrious saunter helped me to break the record for most daily steps recorded on my iphone since I bought one eighteen months ago. The bad thing was that I really had no idea what I was looking for – Emu Bay shale, Burgess shale, WTF is shale? Is it a kind of rock? What colour and texture does it have and how is it formed? I should have researched the matter before proceeding, perhaps.

No matter, I took plenty of photos and now it’s a matter of mapping what I’ve found onto the descriptions in the literature.

shale – typically exhibits varying degrees of fissility, breaking into thin layers, often splintery and usually parallel to the otherwise indistinguishable bedding plane because of the parallel orientation of clay mineral flakes.[1] Non-fissile rocks of similar composition but made of particles smaller than 0.06 mm are described as mudstones (1/3 to 2/3 silt particles) or claystones (less than 1/3 silt). Rocks with similar particle sizes but with less clay (greater than 2/3 silt) and therefore grittier are siltstones.[1] Shale is the most common sedimentary rock. (Wikipedia)

This description doesn’t really help me. Fissility means the tendency of rocks to splinter along lines of weakness, which doesn’t help me either. I tried google images, but the variety of shale presented, and the near-complete lack of any connecting factors, didn’t help me either.

However, when I tried images for Emu Bay shale in particular, I felt some definite progress. Some of the shale was copper-brown, some was slate-grey, some dull yellow, some penicillin green. But I recognised some of the colours and textures in the rocks I photographed.

A trilobite in Emu Bay shale. Trilobites are the most long-lived class of complex creatures – in this case arthropods – of all time, I think, having inhabited the planet for about 270 million years: more than a thousand times longer than Homo sapiens (so far). Some 50 species of trilobite have been found at Emu Bay

Like many, of my generation at least, I learned at school that there were three kinds of rock – igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. As Wikipedia informs us, shale is sedimentary, and that makes sense as it’s in sediment that fossils are found. Volcanic rock is extruded igneous rock, and there appears to be quite a bit of it at Emu Bay.

volcanic (extruded igneous) rock – I think – at Emu Bay. Lots of it about. Spongy and low density

A lot of this rock sits in gigantic chunks on the sand, but elsewhere they form craggy, small cliff-like structures.

One small area had what I suppose were sedimentary rocks with a coloration completely different from the rest – and of course the more you pay attention to rocks (and everything else) the more variety you find. They were a sulphurous yellow…

an anomalous bunch of yellowish rocks at the eastern end of Emu Bay

Other rocks looked like granite – intrusive igneous rocks – but another prevalent type I saw, forming ridges high above me, was a rock type I can’t easily identify, though no doubt it’s common enough.

Slate-like rock forming small cliffs, visible along much of the eastern side of Emu Bay

But it’s only through reading that I’ve found the type of rocks I’m after, and the more precise location of the fossil-rich shale. The colour is a dark coffee brown, as shown in the photo of the trilobite above, and these rocks only crop up (or crop out, to write technically) at the easternmost tip of the bay. In fact the onshore location of the fossil-rich shale is further still, a few hundred metres east of the bay proper, with a further site a few hundred metres inland. I would’ve had to clamber over the rocks photographed below, and get a bit wet, to find myself on-site.

the end of the road for me – but these are precisely the kind of rocks I was looking for, without knowing it. They’re only at the easternmost tip of the bay, and beyond

No matter. Hopefully the sites themselves are well-protected. I’m mindful of the concern about looters and trophy hunters, and the preciousness of such places as minefields of info about the extraordinary variety of the first highly successful complex life forms after the initial experiments of the Ediacaran biota a few million years before.

More about that in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

April 5, 2018 at 12:53 pm

Kangaroo Island – Emu Bay’s Burgess Shale-type fossils

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Emu Bay, a lovely beach with hidden secrets. The 500 million-year-old fossils were found on the far, eastern side of the bay

Canto: We have a slightly disappointing tale to tell about Emu Bay, famous site for fossils from the so-called Cambrian explosion of some 500 million years ago.

Jacinta: Yes we went there in the naive expectation of ‘seeing something’ – not so much Cambrian-era fossils sticking out of the rocks, but a housed display, perhaps of a touristy nature, of at least photos of the many species of trilobite as well as an endemic species to Emu Bay, Anomalocaris briggsi.

Anomalocaris briggsi, named for famed Burgess shale paleontologist, Derek Briggs. Note the length, indicated by the scale

Canto: ‘Anomalocaris’ means ‘abnormal shrimp’. I recall using the term shrimp to indicate and abuse a small person, so when is a shrimp not a shrimp? I presume abnormal means rather large, as shrimps grow.

Jacinta: Well before we go into all that, let’s say that our trip was a disappointment because there was nothing on site to indicate, or celebrate, the place as one of the most important shale fossil deposits on the planet. Still, it was a nice beach. And I must say the weather here has been more than kind, so far.

Canto: Yes, after driving around for a bit in the tiny township of Emu Bay, we gave up and returned to Kingscote. On visiting the museum there, I asked the caretaker if he knew anything about Emu Bay’s fossils. Were any to be found on the island? He very much doubted it, and said that the exact location of the fossil deposits is not let out to the public – as fossil-fossickers were liable to desecrate the site, so to speak. In fact they’d already done so, it was said. Adelaide would be the most likely destination of the precious fossils, he said, or other parts unknown.

Jacinta: So, yes, in some respects a waste of time, but it was exciting to be so near the site of so many, and such old, fossil finds.

Canto: I’ve decided to return. Just to get a little closer, and fossick about.

Jacinta: Fossick – is that related to fossil?

Canto: Haha, good question – actually fossicking is probably related to fussing, but etymology, as I’ve learned from John Simpson – is often a fruitless endeavour. At least if you want to find definitive answers. But the word fossil has a much clearer etymology, ultimately from Latin fossilis, ‘something which has been dug up’.

Jacinta: But arguably the most important finding with respect to Anomalocaris was made in 2011, in Emu Bay. Six fossil finds of compound eyes belonging to Anomalocaris, which proved that it was an arthropod (as are shrimps), and that these eyes, which were 30 times more  powerful than those of trilobites, had developed very early in the evolutionary process. They dated back 515 million years! Trilobites were previously though to have the best eyes of the period!

Canto: I can see you’re impressed. In fact the Anomalocaris eye contained 16,000 lenses, which makes for pretty impressive resolution. But then, the modern  dragonfly has 28,000.

Jacinta: Hmmm, highly evolved eyes don’t seem to go with highly evolved brains. I’m sure there’s a lesson there…

artist’s impression of the sharp-eyed predator Anomalocaris, found fossilised at Emu Bay

Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2018 at 8:05 pm

Kangaroo Island – prehistory, wildlife, travel

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Little corellas, viewed from hotel window, Kingscote. © Sarah Courtney


Canto: So we’re here in the not-so-thriving metropolis of Kingscote, largest town of Kangaroo Island, third largest island off the Australian mainland, behind Tasmania and Melville Island (just north of Darwin). After a harrowing sea voyage and a long overland trek from Penneshaw, we’re relaxing briefly at the salubrious Seaview Wonderland Hotel-Motel-Boatel (or something) before setting out to explore the isle.

Jacinta: And our initial explorations, our prexplorations perhaps, have been online. It hasn’t been an island for long, geologically speaking – perhaps 10,000 years, having been separated from the mainland as a result of the Last Ice Age, which ended the Pleistocene Epoch. There’s much evidence of early Aboriginal presence, but they appear to have left the island some 2000 years ago. Rather surprising since the distance to the island is hardly forbidding.

Canto: As to the most interesting things to see or visit here – a lot of interesting and almost unique bird life. We’ve already seen a flock of pelicans and lots of black swans here on Nepean Bay, and this morning, a noisy flock of little corellas (I think) wheeled around the town, resting briefly on some pine trees and electric wires outside our window.

Jacinta: Yes, and within that noisy flock, each adult corella has a mate – they mate for life – which it clearly recognises though they all look perfectly alike to us.

Canto: yes, like the ‘savages’ all looked alike to Captain Cook and his merry men.

Jacinta: At first. Other things the island is known for are shipwrecks, fossils, seals, lighthouses, spectacular shorelines, ligurian bees and their honey, lavender, walking tracks, and more recently, a range of home-grown wines.

Canto: And fresh fish – which I remember very fondly from a childhood trip here. Probably my first taste of freshly-caught fish, the biggest turn-on of my pre-pubescent years.

Jacinta: Yes, well we’ve had our first dining experience, at the Ozone Hotel here in Kingscote, but neither of us chose fish, it was lamb shanks and lamb cutlets, and a delicious experience for nous deux. Together with a bottle of lubbly Dudley Bubbly, from Dudley Peninsula at the eastern end of the island.

Canto: I am looking forward to some fish though – our charming servitor recommended the baked whiting on the lunch-time menu, when we’ll get to take advantage of the speccy seafront view from our window seats, which we were deprived of last night, our first daylight-saving dark night of the year.

Jacinta: And friends have recommended ye olde fish-and-chips on the beach, wherever we can get it.

Canto: One of the minor problems here, though, is the large distances we have to travel to get anywhere, with many unsealed roads for reaching important but off-the-beaten-track sites, which I don’t like to risk in a hire car.

Jacinta: Yes the road from Penneshaw to Kingscote was long, if straight enough. And many other trips will be longer. And we do want to get to everything worth getting to.

Canto: I find my accelerator foot starts to ache. Bring on the self-driving electric vehicle.

Jacinta: Okay, our next report will be about Emu Bay. Trilobites! Among other things.

Australian pelicans, Kingscote © Sarah Coutney


Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2018 at 10:33 am