Friday, 19 February 2016

MEMO TO HUMANITY: FFS please stop touching the dolphins

On Twitter, Ricky Gervais called those involved in the calamity ‘stupid c***ts’ and it’s hard, as an animal-lover, to disagree. This was, after all, a video of a dolphin that had been pulled from the water in Argentina and carried around the beach for people to ogle and take photos of, before it apparently died of dehydration.

Was the dolphin injured before it was pulled out of the water? Probably. No-one is yet sure. Was it abandoned by its pod? We may never know. Nature writes scripts we can’t always read or predict, particularly when it comes to marine mammals.  But I find the human response to this dolphin very interesting. I’d argue that it was very predictable that we would surround it when it washed up. For we have a thing for fondling marine megafauna. We really can’t help ourselves, it seems. We love to touch whales and dolphins.
Need evidence? You only have to look to the crowd that formed around each and every one of the dead sperm whales that washed up in Norfolk and Lincolnshire over the last three weeks. Many humans wanted to be near them when they washed up. Then there are the nature documentaries. You see divers on nature documentaries, desperately reaching out at passing whales and dolphins like movie journalists beside a red-carpet. They love it. You see those machismo moments where we tug on the dorsal fins of passing dolphins and are pulled along, grinning at the splendour of momentarily wrangling such a splendid beast. The dolphins probably think we’re total dickheads when we do that. Total dickheads. You see us getting all spiritual about dolphins, stroking and patting them and being healed by them. It’s all about us. Our pain. Our machismo. Our need to touch. There can be no doubt about it: when it comes to marine megafauna we are a touchie-feelie species. But I wish desperately we weren’t quite so…. handsy.
There are reasons for this. For starters, there are concerns that whales and dolphins might get stressed by human interference, particularly with boats straying too close to mothers and calves, for instance. They might find us, and our handsiness, a bit disorientating. Plus there are diseases and pollutants that might be a risk too. (We are dirty animals, don’t forget). But there are other reasons we should probably keep our distance. I feel there’s a kind-of cultural respect we should probably afford one another, as cognitively advanced species of planet Earth. Dolphins and some whales live in a world governed by noises, not touch. They probe novel objects with sounds, where we probe them with our fingers and our eyes. There’s a chance that many whales and dolphins may not like being touched, let alone picked up out of the water and carted around by a crowd of people like a prize-winning jockey after a race. We come from different worlds, them and us. We’d do well to remember that.
But were all of the people on that beach really equally stupid for ogling the dolphin, as Ricky Gervais suggests? Are they all equally “c***s”? I’d argue, partly, not. I’m sure that some of the people on that Argentinian beach, at least, thought this air-breathing mammal needed help and that, somehow, being out of the water was a good place for it to be. Some of them cared, I think.
You’ll see a range of human emotions on the faces that surround the poor dolphin. Sure, there are smiles, a hint of ridicule in a couple of faces, but there is also awe and wonder. There is a hint of sadness and worry in a couple of the onlookers. There was, I’m sure, some people that got close and then chose not to take a photo of the dolphin. They probably wondered what they were going to do with an image of a suffering animal on their phone. (Is it worth posting on Facebook? Probably not, they realised). They thought about it. Gervais is right, but not totally. The humans in that picture aren’t equally stupid.
Animals bring out the best in us and the worst. Humans are capable of great things, when we think. But we have to think. On images like this you can see some people doing that. Thinking. We just need to do it more. All at the same time. And, ideally, sooner, before we risk losing splendid creatures like these forever.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Which childhood ingredients create environmental heroes? (Or: Things that made me think while reading Mary Colwell’s book ‘John Muir: The Scotsman who saved America’s wild places’).

We talk often in nature conservation about young people and their apparent dissociation from the natural world. It’s yet another gloomy facet of the conservation paradigm. We are told of the “dangers of screen-time” and endless surveys* come out suggesting that young people can’t identify common trees and birds like their rosy-cheeked ancestors. Well-intentioned conservationists, and whole conservation partnerships, honourably put forward arguments to solve the problem, seeking always to “encourage a new generation of naturalists.” And good for them too one might say...
I support them (and so should you!) of course but… I have a bit of a confession. Sometimes, I guess, I worry whether their intentions over-simplify the complexity at play in the lives of young people and adults. Would free nature reserves, more pocket parks and a bird-box in every garden dramatically change a generation for the better? It would help, sure (and there is a little bit of evidence for this). One assumes it would have some lasting value. But how much value? And how long-lasting? And is this even achievable in a world where the way in which we communicate (and learn and play and eat and think) is changing? Can we really go back 50 years? There’s an additional paradox in the mix here too. We spend a lot of time encouraging young people to relive the freedom in nature that we felt as children. But many of the children of that GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND fifty years ago stood to one side while this mess was made. Not enough of those in previous generations (including/especially mine) stood up for nature loud enough to protect it. Why should we assume things will be different if we instil nature into the lives of young people now? The point I’m trying to make is simple: young people, like all humans, are complicated.
What creates a naturalist?
What creates a love of nature then? What generates interest, awe and fascination with the natural world? What is behind those people that love nature, that value it and want to see it protected for future generations? AND HOW DO WE RECREATE IT? Where do passionate naturalists and active conservationists come from? And how to we make more? Looking at the childhood histories of conservation heroes may offer us some clues...
John Muir (popularly called the “founding father of the America’s National Parks”) is one-such, and he is really the point of this blog-post. I confess to knowing far too little about John Muir but I have spent a couple of weeks devouring his biography courtesy of Mary Colwell’s brilliant book (OUT THIS WEEK!) John Muir: The Scotsman who saved America’s wild places.
First off, I have to say this: read it. Read this book. It’s fantastic. If you’re seeking a greater understanding of the roots of the conservation movement, read it. If you know very little about John Muir (as I did), read it. If you’re a young conservationist after inspiration and seeking to understand the powerful actions that one person’s passion can realise, then read it. Read it. Read it. Read it. It’s an absorbing, rolling gripping account of the life, loves and travels of an extremely complex, deeply moral and connected human being - a man seeking his own path in a world of industrial change not wholly unlike our own. Genuinely, I cannot think of a more gripping introduction to the complexities at play in creating a world-changing naturalist than the story that plays out on the pages of Mary’s superb book. John Muir: a man that went from child to farmhand to inventor to entrepreneur to explorer to writer before becoming a chiseller of one of the most important pillars of the modern day nature conservation movement.
So, what does it take to make a John Muir?  
Reading the early stages of the book, Muir’s childhood was surprisingly not at all what I expected. I had expected Muir to have been brought up by liberal bourgeois parents, with eyes-wide open and a bloody good, wholly tra-la-la, education. His young life wasn’t like that though. It was nothing like that. John Muir’s upbringing was incredibly strict. His father regularly whipped him for making mistakes during Bible quotations or for everyday misdemeanors. (This was a boy who could recite three quarters of the Old Testament by heart by the time he was 11). In fact, Muir’s father chose to emigrate from Scotland to America partly in frustration at his local church being insufficiently strict in its teachings. (John’s ties to his grandparents were lost during this move to America - a warm relationship under which he took solace, and in which childhood interests in nature may have been seeded).
In America, without any kind of formal education, John was forced into working on his father’s land. This is not a quaint image of childhood church fetes and playing on haybales. It was hard labour. Slave labour, almost. At 19 years old, incredibly, John was forced by his father to dig an 80ft well through sandstone with a hammer and chisel. It almost killed him. One would assume that such a life could lead only to lifelong resentment or anger or suffering; at worst, mental illness. Yet, throughout Mary’s book, one sees John Muir grow as a person - his interests fruiting, his lighthearted playfulness, his ability to take criticism, to learn and develop his knowledge of birds and plants; his ethics and morality growing alongside his appreciate and love of nature. (“Our flesh and bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and the trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun - a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.” - just one of many wonderful quotes picked out by Mary Colwell in her book).
So back to Natural Childhood then. What makes a young person become an adult environmental action hero like John Muir? Before reading Muir’s biography I could have listed a whole host of character traits I’d assume would be typical of such young people: playfulness, curiosity, fun, innate wonder, but probably none of Muir’s keywords would come up. Toughness of character? Grit? Resilience? Determination? Bravery? Drive? These aren’t the first words I’d be drawn to when thinking about “creating a new generation of naturalists,” yet they are undoubtedly part of John Muir’s story. (I certainly wouldn’t want to wish John Muir’s childhood on anyone, mind). Yet single-mindedness, grit, compassion (mixed with lots else, including a sense of justice, ethics and morality) helped produce arguably the most impressive and active naturalist and conservationist the world has ever seen, accounted expertly through Mary Colwell’s page-turner.
I’ve found myself reflecting often on the subject of John Muir rather a lot lately. Childhood (and all of life) is such a complex mish-mash, but I’d love to know more about those personality-defining moments in childhood that have little to do with nature directly, that can still lead to active conservationists and encourage future green leaders. Perhaps those environmental ethics and morality that all of us so desperately wish on young people come courtesy of a explosive intersections of thought, of character and experience that we’d do well to consider more as we go about our business at home, in our classrooms, at the dinner table, in our relationships, on TV or in the books we read. Perhaps nature may have much more to do with nurture than we give credit? Perhaps.
‘John Muir: The Scotsman who saved America’s wild places’ by Mary Colwell is out this month. Mary is on Twitter at @curlewcalls
* I was a small part of one of them so I’m none to talk.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Teachers: Looking for inspiring female scientists studying fossils and evolution?

This is a quick post for teachers looking for inspirational female scientists when teaching fossils (yr3/4) and evolution in primary schools (yr5/6) from 2014.

Upon recently visiting a East London school with whom I’ve worked for a number of years I was surprised to be asked repeatedly by the pupils: “Do you know Dr Lorna Steel?” (“SIR! DO YOU KNOW DR LORNA STEEL, SIR!). I confessed that I didn’t, though I did sort of recognise the name. Everyone knew her name in this school. Everyone. They were obsessed with her. (It was a little bit like the religion surrounding John Frum and the associated cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu). There was a buzz about Lorna Steel everywhere at this school. It was fascinating.
So who is Lorna Steel? Dr Lorna Steel is the curator of fossils amphibians, fossil reptiles and fossil birds at The Natural History Museum. According to the NHM website she has a special interest in crocs and pterosaurs and her profile picture has her with a head torch on sinking into a threatening-looking cave. She’s awesome.

And why was this school studying the work of Lorna Steel? “Children in our school made the assumption that only men can follow this type of career path,” the science leader at the school told me. “We decided to study Lorna Steel as it was a matter of choosing a strong female role model in this field.”

Depressing? Certainly. But it was really encouraging to see these stereotypes being challenged head-on, by teachers selecting female scientists that were alive and not bloody Mary Anning. (I love the story of Mary Anning. It’s an important story for a host of reasons but… sometimes I feel she hogs quite a lot of the WOMEN AND FOSSILS dialogue?). Women have been a key part of palaeontology, geology and evolutionary study since such areas of science emerged.*

If you’re a teacher and you’re looking for resources, and potential female scientists on whom you want to base your studies PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE visit The Trowelblazers website, which hosts information on a growing number of female scientists working in archaeology, geology and paleontology. Crucially the site includes reams of biogs on female scientists who are ALIVE and DOING NORMAL SCIENCE like men.

The site includes stories like the “underground astronauts” currently exploring the Rising Star Cave (in which 1,000 early human bones have been found). To be part of the research team, applicants needed to be qualified academics and experienced cavers willing to squeeze themselves through a 7-inch gap ('choke point') in the passage leading to the cave. Fifty-seven researchers applied to be part of the project; six got through, all of them women (all in the early stages of their careers in science). These are exciting times and these are exciting inspiring people.

A host of important evolutionary scientists are found on the website, including Dr Anjali Goswami who studies the early evolution of placental mammals (humans, cats, squirrels, whales) and marsupials (such as the kangaroos and koalas). Dr Goswami also has her own lab at UCL. Other great evolutionists include Professor Elisabeth Vrba (“I’m interested in pushing out the frontiers of science, not sailing my boat through tranquil seas.”) or Dr Beth Shapiro (a palaeogeneticist - she works with ancient DNA) whose work on dodos, cave bears and moas earned her a MacArthur Fellowship (a “genius grant”) at just 33. (Oh, and she’s also a recognised National Geographic Explorer so, yeah).

Trowelblazers is absolutely full of information. In my experience, so many pupils find sabre-cat (Smilodon fatalis) enthralling and fascinating. Much of what we know about these ancient creatures comes from the scientific work of Professor Blaire Van Valkenburgh and her explorations of the tarpits of Rancho La Brea.

Other scientists like Dr Tori Herridge (who is a co-creator of Trowelblazers) are unlocking ancient truths about mammoths through recent discoveries of mammoth corpses in ice. (In fact, Tori is on Channel 4 this weekend talking about just this!). Another amazing scientist is Dr Becky Wragg Sykes (who helped me with this blog-post - thanks Becky!). Becky is a Palaeolithic archaeologist studying Neandertals; particularly trying to understand their stone tools and getting to grips with their social networks. The other inspirational women behind Trowelblazers are Dr Brenna Hassett, an anthropologist who studies past people by analysing teeth (especially those of children!) and Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch, who works on stable isotopes, different 'flavours' of chemical elements found in teeth and bones that offer a host of information on ancient diets of people and animals, and their movements and migrations.

TEACHERS! You have no excuses! Time to challenge those stereotypes!

  • @juleslhoward

* Some key names (of many many many) are Mary Buckland (1797-1857, palaeontologist and scientific illustrator), Helena Walcott, Helen Walcott & Mary Vaux Walcott (who worked on the Burgess Shale in the early 20th century), Dorothea Minola Alice Bate (1878-1951), an early discoverer of fossil mammals (and fan of dynamite!); Marie Stopes (1880-1958) who, as well as undertaking pioneering work in birth control and women’s rights, was also one of the world's leading palaeobotanists (ancient plant experts); and Caroline Birley, who (with no formal qualifications) was able to amass an huge and important fossil shell collection with specimens collected from Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Malta, France, Canada, Algeria, South Africa and Germany. (She had two crabs named after her too). Oh my God, and you must read about Barbara Hastings ("the jolly fast fossil hunter").

Friday, 7 November 2014

DEAR DISCOVERY... some key questions about your new show Eaten Alive, in which a man in a suit gets swallowed by a snake...

Hi Discovery Execs! 

A host of news publications yesterday announced your new show, Eaten Alive. According to the preview, naturalist Paul Rosolie will wear a “custom-built snake-proof suit” and will “enter the belly” of an anaconda by allowing himself to get eaten by it. 

I’m confused though. Here are some key questions it’d be lovely to see answered before the show airs in December. Can you get back to me? Thanks!


  1. Is this a hoax?
  2. It sounds like a hoax. It’s so bad. You sure?
  3. You know, a hoax!! Yeah, like that Mermaids documentary?
  4. You SURE this isn’t a hoax? You know, like that faux Megalodon documentary which effectively duped a whole generation into believing that an extinct shark still lives, just so you could sell advertising space at a slightly higher price and make a buck.
  5. Oh, it’s not a hoax? This guy is a real naturalist, you say? A REAL ONE? Wow. Ok, fair enough. If so then…
  6. Is this about money? It must be, unless there’s something scientific you hope to understand? Whoa….WAIT! Is there something SCIENTIFIC you hope to ascertain??? Is this show about the digestive system? Is it about internal anatomy?
  7. Ok, fair enough, that’s probably a bit heavy for your audience. I can appreciate that, a bit. ...Is there another reason for making a show like this then? Perhaps you want to inform us of how to survive a snake attack? Of course! Fair enough...
  8. ...But wait, anacondas don’t eat people? There’s no good evidence of them being a man-eater. At all. They’re quite placid creatures for the most part. In fact, many people (including me) suspect that feeding a man in a ridiculous suit to a (temporarily?) captured snake might actually damage the snake’s jaw musculature or its stomach. Did you follow ethical guidelines on this one? Hopefully the snake didn’t die because...
  9. ...snakes often regurgitate unsuitable prey items. I’m assuming (if this is real) the naturalist got regurgitated? (Otherwise we’d know about it, right? Because he’d be dead?). Or did you actually have to kill the snake to get the naturalist out? Either way, this is all a bit strange, wouldn’t you agree? This can’t be how your film-makers imagined their careers would end up: making snakes in rainforests regurgitate men in comedy foam suits. Bit ridiculous, don’t you think?
  10. Oh wait, your TV naturalist made a statement! Oh, so this is about raising awareness of conservation issues relating to apex predators! OF COURSE! I understand totally. But wait, anacondas aren't threatened with extinction? They're found over much of South America. It can't be that then, surely?
  11. UNLESS this is about money…! .... [exhales deeply] SO THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT ABOUT ADVERTISING SPACE THEN? [side-eyes] ...You SURE about that?

I’d love to hear your responses to these questions. 

Thanks - hope to hear from you!


For those interested, there is a petition here - please do spread the word if this presses your buttons.

  • @juleslhoward

Friday, 31 October 2014

Why bats are bats and not cheap plastic Halloween accessories (OR: Did Bear Grylls stamp on a bat because of Halloween?).

I can remember where I was when I first heard about Bear Grylls stamping on a bat. I was stood in a Sainsbury’s in 2011 in the run-up to Halloween. At first I thought it was a joke. I mean, who in their right mind would stamp on a bat? And what TV production company would think it was a good idea to air footage of a global celebrity like Bear Grylls stamping on a bat? But there you go, it really did happen. It was a real thing. If you’re really interested you can watch it here. He smoked some out of a cave, swatted them with some sticks and then stamped on them. It went out in 2010 on the Discovery Channel, and in response there was a petition and a fair amount of disgust, particularly from nature conservation NGOs. In Britain the show was called Bear Grylls: Born Survivor. In the US, it went under the name: Man vs Wild which, let’s be honest, is a much better name for what is was.

Stamping on bats? How did that idea ever come to fruition? I like to imagine the TV execs sitting around the whiteboard throwing ideas around. (STAMPING ON MAMMALS: Bush-baby. Chimpanzee. Anteater. Seal pup. Bat. Bear cub. Pangolin. Elephant shrew. Tapir. Meerkat. Koala. ). It took a while, but thankfully the awful episode has been removed from the Discovery Channel website and that’s pretty much been the end of it...

Except for me, it’s not. It’s not the end of it. You see, every year I find myself looking at all of the Halloween garbage in shops (and it is TOTAL garbage; cheap plastic awful shiny sparkly garbage) and I find myself looking at the desperate monetisation of it all. Plastic spiders, glow-in-the-dark rubber bats, zombie masks, sexy witch outfits. I can’t help but wonder whether Bear Grylls and the show’s producers momentarily forget that a bat was actually, well, a bat. Not a plastic gimmick or a plot device with which to garner spookiness, but actually a mammal, a breast-endowed echo-locating midge muncher with a brain; with emotions and mental states that are wholly not compatible with the action of being stamped upon. (Interestingly, some bats practice fellatio, but… ok, another time).

With every year that passes Halloween gets more and more desperate. My local Sainsbury’s now has an aisle devoted to it. An aisle! Witches costumes, big plastic cauldrons filled with plastic frogs, trick-or-treat baskets, rubber spiders, bats with glowing eyes. Novelty sweets. Novelty skeletons to put in windows. A novelty broom. Total tat. A throw-away use-only-once bollock-fest.

And so, at this time of year, I find myself inevitably joining up the dots. Valueless garbage, bats and Bear Grylls.  I imagine Halloween being a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan; causing a kind of chaos that emerges in surprising and unpredictable ways, like when, for instance, people stamp on bats. Who knows? I appreciate that this isn’t the big pressing global issue, but please do allow me to continue on. For bats didn’t always have this curse upon them. They’ve been flying around for millions of years longer than we’ve been around. And they certainly don’t deserve the ridiculous stigma and mythology we pin upon them. They don’t get in your hair and seeing one fly around your house doesn’t mean that someone is going to die. There is no reason for their association with witches. And if there is a hell, I can only imagine bats fly out of it because they don’t really like the fire.

A small part of me wishes we could enjoy Halloween by celebrating a more real and more present danger to humanity than spiders and bats, both of which aren’t particularly nasty. I hate trick-or-treaters, but perhaps I could learn to love them if they knocked on my door dressed as greedy oil executives, as chemical weapon designers or as human rights abusers who run sweatshops in which children make novelty Halloween costumes to sell to developed countries. You know, something really horrifying. Sticking a rubber bat onto your lapel just doesn’t quite cut it compared to these true terrors upon the lives of modern children. But ssshhhh everyone, shut up, because there’s money to be made…

Thursday, 23 October 2014

*cough* SEX ON EARTH *cough*

It’s not every day that you have a book out, so here’s a quick break from the usual traditions of this blog for a little plug. If you don’t like this sort of thing then please look away now... 

Sex on Earth comes out today in the UK. You can buy the book from all good bookstores... and Amazon. It’s released (I think) on Audible today (narrated by a lovely chap who sounds a bit like Bob Hoskins) and comes out in the US on the 11th of November 2014. It’s being translated into Japanese and Spanish at some point too, hopefully next year. If you do happen to buy it and you do happen to LIKE it, please do tell your friends or give it a review online! Thanks so much for all of your help, suggestions, laughs and tweets during its production - it’s nice to be giving birth finally! 

By way of thanks, I offer you this. Two naughty pandas refusing to take their medicines like the nice human wants.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

A fictional account of when Liz Truss met the BTO...

As you'll probably know, yesterday Liz Truss (Secretary of State for the Environment) paid a visit to The BTO's headquarters in Thetford. Of course, I wasn't really there but, for fantasy's sake, I like to imagine it went a little something like this...

Truss: So you measure birds here? Sounds fascinating…"

BTO: "Yes, we monitor them."

Truss: "Oh… um... monitor them?"

BTO: "You know. We watch their numbers go up and down…"

Truss: "Up and down..? You mean… you watch them in the sky?"

BTO: "No, sorry. Not that. On paper."

Truss: "Oh! You do illustrations of birds here!"

BTO: "No! We..."

Truss: "Robins on holly? That sort of thing?"

BTO: "No, wait… you misundersta….”

Truss: "Oh you should make Christmas cards. You could make some money. Contribute a bit more.” 

BTO: "Wait, stop. Please. This isn't about money. It's about science."

Truss: "Science? Yes, of course. Right…"

BTO: "We are world experts on bird monitoring and we use
long-term monitoring data on the status of UK birds to help understand the effects of
... Secretary of State?.....Ms Truss?... do you mind putting your phone down please."

Truss: "Yes, I was just tweeting about what you said about being so important. I want people to know. I want people to know you’re important. And that I’m here listening to you. Carry on, please…”

BTO: “Ok, erm. Right. Ok. First item on the agenda: ‘Using volunteer gathered evidence to inform decision-making’…


Truss: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I really love birds. [sits up]. Now, we MUST talk…[suddenly looks serious]… I want you to know I take our meeting very seriously. I am determined to press ahead restoring habitats and improving our environment at every turn. I want you to know that the atmosphere is vitally important to me. And, as you know, the atmosphere is where birds live..”

BTO: “Well, it’s a bit more complicated than…”

Truss: “Of course… [Picks up agenda. Looks over agenda. Puts down agenda and rests hands gently on top of them]. “I suppose I’m most interested in the … important birds. How are the important birds doing?”

BTO: “Urm, well…. they’re all important, they’re all indicators of environmental change and environmental stress and we can use this information to guide pol…”

Truss: [pauses]…. “Yes, course. Of course. Yes, definitely. They’re all important. But what about the most precious ones? ...Robins! How are the robins?”

BTO: “Well, I think it’s important that we move away from…”

Truss: “God, I love robins. And house martins. I mentioned goldfinches and linnets in my party conference speech, did you hear?”

BTO: “Yes we did – now, about that...”

[DEFRA aide walks in and nods at Secretary of State]

Truss: “It’s been an honour to meet you all.” [stands up]

BTO: “But, we didn’t really get a chance to…”

Truss: “Thank you so much. And good luck with those Christmas cards.”

- @juleslhoward