Monday, September 20, 2010

Jeff Lockwood checks in: of Passenger pigeons and Cicadas

Jeff Lockwood, entomologist and first- rate writer from Wyoming, checked in re passenger pigeons with a link to an amazing essay and some thoughtful commentary:

"Great to hear from you! I loved your piece on the Passenger Pigeon (and thanks for the plug/quote!), having recently discussed 1491 with a colleague. Your essay elegantly captures the complexity of the human-nature (and human nature) phenomenon. I've been working on some fiction and it is clear that realistic (and interesting) characters are messy--neither all good nor all bad. All too often, environmental history reads like very bad fiction. Humans are bad (except pre-colonial humans who were good). But the real world is not so simple. Essentialism is almost always a caricature of existence, and this certainly applies to people. Maybe it's a bit like I tell the students in my Natural Resource Ethics class: "Ethics is not really about choosing between good and bad. If you're given a choice between good and evil and can't figure out to do the good thing, then you're probably a sociopath and this course won't help you. Ethics is about choosing between good and good (or bad and bad), it's about the real, messy stuff of deciding how to live when no choice is purely good or simply evil." And as a side note, I have a few papers on catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality, so your allusion to complexity theory was also spot on! Finally, I've argued that maybe we do have a few, last experiences of overwhelming biological fecundity. Here's my Op Ed piece in the NY Times on cicadas from a few years ago".

RTWT of course, but a few quotes are irresistible-- I didn't realize some cicadas were also "biological storms":

"In fact, if we do want to try to quantify cicadas, we have to deal with some incomprehensibly big numbers. When the periodical cicadas are in their full glory, there will be an average of about 100,000 insects per acre spread across an area four times the size of Pennsylvania. That works out to about 10 trillion cicadas, 1,500 for each human on earth. Fortunately, my back-of-the-envelope estimate is immune from empirical refutation. Even if the entire population of Philadelphia counted cicadas at the rate of one per second, for eight hours a day, five days a week, they wouldn't arrive at a total for a full year.

"The cicadas will outweigh the population of the United States (even with our obesity problems) by a factor of nearly two. And consider the excrement that these insects are going to rain down in backyards and parks — enough liquid waste to fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day. A few weeks after their arrival, the cicadas will die, leaving piles of depleted corpses and more than 500 trillion eggs. In a single square mile of forest with the densest populations, there will be as many eggs as there are stars in the Milky Way."


"Patterns are the rule in in physics; we can predict moon phases and solar eclipses with impressive accuracy. But we don't expect such regularity in complex, living systems, and especially not in creatures with brains the size of pinheads. Our mathematical egos are a bit bruised by a humble insect that can count higher than a fair number of preschoolers. For that matter, could engineers equip us with several million (never mind a few trillion) alarm clocks that would reliably ring 6,209 days from now?"

Two of Jeff's fine books I particularly recommend are Locust, about still another extinct North American "biological storm" species (is there something to Tim Flannery's idea that our ecosystems are unusually unstable here?) and Six Legged Soldiers, a chilling history of the use of insects in war.

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