When Ocean Temperatures Dropped 30 Million Years Ago, Some Species Migrated to Warmer Waters; Others Developed New Traits

(p. D2) The Southern Ocean around Antarctica was once warmer. Then about 30 million years ago, the temperature dropped. Few fish could survive temperatures that were just above seawater’s freezing point, and they either migrated to warmer waters or went extinct.

One bottom-dweller held on. Through the power of natural selection, its descendants developed traits that let them survive these unlikely conditions. Today, the Antarctic blackfin icefish, or Chaenocephalus aceratus, thrives in these frigid waters with no scales, blood as clear as water and bones so thin, you can see its brain through its skull.

For the full story see:

JoAnna Klein. “Skullduggery: It’s Not Hard to See How His Brain Works.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 5, 2019 [sic]): D2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2019 [sic], and has the title “How the Icefish Got Its Transparent Blood and See-Through Skull.”)

The article quoted above references the following academic article:

Kim, Bo-Mi, Angel Amores, Seunghyun Kang, Do-Hwan Ahn, Jin-Hyoung Kim, Il-Chan Kim, Jun Hyuck Lee, Sung Gu Lee, Hyoungseok Lee, Jungeun Lee, Han-Woo Kim, Thomas Desvignes, Peter Batzel, Jason Sydes, Tom Titus, Catherine A. Wilson, Julian M. Catchen, Wesley C. Warren, Manfred Schartl, H. William Detrich, John H. Postlethwait, and Hyun Park. “Antarctic Blackfin Icefish Genome Reveals Adaptations to Extreme Environments.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, no. 3 (March 2019): 469-78.

“Terminal Lucidity” Is “the Light Before the End of the Tunnel”

(p. D6) . . . “terminal lucidity,” [is] a term coined by the biologist Michael Nahm in 2009 to describe the brief state of clarity and energy that sometimes precedes death. Alexander Batthyány, another contemporary expert on dying, calls it “the light before the end of the tunnel.”

A 5-year-old boy in a coma for three weeks suddenly regains consciousness. He thanks his family for letting him go and tells them he’ll be dying soon. The next day, he does.

A 26-year-old woman with severe mental disabilities hasn’t spoken a word for years. Suddenly, she sings, “Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!” The year is 1922. She sings for half an hour and then she passes away. The episode is witnessed by two prominent physicians and later recounted by them separately, at least five times, with identical descriptions.

Early reports of terminal lucidity date back to Hippocrates, Plutarch and Galen. Dr. Nahm collected 83 accounts of terminal lucidity written over 250 years, most of which were witnessed by medical professionals. Nearly 90 percent of cases happened within a week of death and almost half occurred on the final day of life.

Terminal lucidity occurred irrespective of ailment, in patients with tumors, strokes, dementia and psychiatric disorders. Dr. Nahm suggested the mechanism of terminal lucidity may differ from one disease to another. For example, severe weight loss in patients with brain tumors could cause the brain to shrink, yielding fleeting relief of pressure on the brain that might allow for clearer thinking. Yet this theory doesn’t explain terminal lucidity in people dying from dementia, kidney failure or other diseases. Like death itself, terminal lucidity retains a screen of mystery.

My grandfather talked to us for 10 minutes the day before he died. He hadn’t spoken coherently in days. His hands had become baby-like, grasping our fingers or the bed railing reflexively. The weight of his eyelids had become too heavy to lift.

Suddenly, he was back. “What’s the good word?” he asked, as if that day was the same as all the days before. He marched down the line of grandchildren at his bedside, asking for the latest news in our lives. He asked if they ever finished building the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem. He made a joke, one I can’t remember except for the way he smiled out of the right side of his mouth, tilted his head from side to side, and held up his hands in jest.

And then, again, he was gone.

For the full commentary see:

Sara Manning Peskin, M.D. “The Gentler Symptoms of Dying.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 18, 2017 [sic]): D6.

(Note: ellipsis and bracketed word added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 11, 2017 [sic], and the same title as the print version.)

Burning One’s Own Book Is Protected by the Right of Free Expression

(p. C6) There are few sights as alarming as a book set alight. Igniting the printed word in order to destroy the ideas contained therein runs counter to our notions of enlightenment, deliberation and reason. It can also carry a message of contempt for those who consider the burned book sacred. But while there’s no need to condone book burning and plenty of reasons to condemn it, it shouldn’t be punished by law.

That principle is now in jeopardy in Denmark, which has witnessed more than 170 anti-Muslim demonstrations in recent years, including a number of public Quran burnings. In response, lawmakers have introduced a bill to criminalize “improper treatment of objects of significant religious importance.” Offenders would face up to two years in prison. In announcing the proposed law, the Danish government cited the problem of being “seen in large parts of the world as a country that facilitates insulting and denigrating actions against other countries and religions.”

The move marks a reversal from the Danes’ approach in 2005, when the publication of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper sparked worldwide violence. Then the Danish government stood firm in its defense of free expression, rejecting calls to censor—or even censure—the paper.

. . .

The Danish government insists that its proposal is merely a “targeted intervention,” claiming it will “not change the fact that we must maintain very broad freedom of expression in Denmark.”

. . .

Yet by treating religious sensitivities as inviolate, the measure risks legitimizing the notion that vengeance may be warranted against those perceived to have denigrated the sacred.

. . .

The impulse to outlaw expression that creates unease, offense and uproar is not unique to Denmark. Censors around the world designate speech as dangerous and subversive in order to silence it. Denmark needs to reassure Muslims that it is committed to keeping them safe, protected and respected. It should do that by upholding rather than betraying the country’s core commitment to free expression and human rights.

For the full commentary, see:

Suzanne Nossel. “Book-Burning Bans Are the Wrong Way to Fight Religious Hatred.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 21, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Nossel’s essay, quoted above, is related to her book:

Nossel, Suzanne. Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. New York: Dey Street Books, 2020.

“Terminal Rage” May Be “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

The quotation below from Dylan Thomas is his first line and title for one of my favorite, albeit sad, poems. It is the first line, but my favorite line is: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

(p. D4) Terminal Agitation

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas)

My grandfather screamed two days before he died. “Open that door and let me out! Right now! It’s a travesty! Open that door!”

It was the scream of a lost child. My grandfather’s eyebrows, which had been lost over the years from the outside inward so that only a centimeter of long gray hairs near the middle remained, tilted toward each other.

Until then, we were preparing for missing and absence. Not for an agitated delirium. Not for rage.

. . .

Instead of peacefully floating off, the dying person may cry out and try to get out of bed. Their muscles might twitch or spasm. The body can appear tormented.

. . .

People who witness terminal agitation often believe it is the dying person’s existential response to death’s approach. Intense agitation may be the most visceral way that the human body can react to the shattering of inertia. We squirm and cry out coming into the world, and sometimes we do the same leaving it.

For the full commentary see:

Sara Manning Peskin, M.D. “The Symptoms of Dying.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 20, 2017 [sic]): D4.

(Note: ellipses added. In the original, the line of Dylan Thomas’s poem, and his name, appear in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date and title as the print version.)

Giant Bee “Feared Extinct” Is Found Alive

(p. D2) It’s been 38 years since scientists last spotted the insect known as Wallace’s Giant Bee, a rare species found only in a group of Indonesian islands called the North Moluccas. With a wingspan of 2.5 inches and a body the size of a human thumb, it’s considered the world’s largest bee, and was feared extinct.

Those fears can now be somewhat laid to rest. In January [2019], an international team of conservationists found a Megachile pluto, as the species is called, in the wild.

For the full story see:

Douglas Quenqua. “Still Bite-Size: A Bee Absurdly Big, And Surprisingly Alive.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 5, 2019 [sic]): D2.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 21, 2019 [sic], and has the title “The World’s Largest Bee Is Not Extinct.”)

Observations of Non-Credentialed Citizens Add to “Scientific” Knowledge

(p. D5) In 1811, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Anning discovered a fossil on the beach near her home in southwestern England — the first scientifically identified specimen of an ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like, ocean-dwelling reptile from the time of the dinosaurs. Two centuries later, less than 50 miles away, an 11-year-old girl named Ruby Reynolds found a fossil from another ichthyosaur. It appears to be the largest marine reptile known to science.

Ms. Reynolds, now 15, and her father, Justin Reynolds, have been fossil hunting for 12 years near their home in Braunton, England. On a family outing in May 2020 to the village of Blue Anchor along the estuary of the River Severn, they came across a piece of fossilized bone set on a rock.

“We were both excited as we had never found a piece of fossilized bone as big as this before,” Mr. Reynolds said. His daughter kept searching the beach, he added, “and it wasn’t long before she found another much larger piece of bone.”

They took home the fragments of bone, the largest of which was about eight inches long, and began their research. A 2018 paper provided a hint at what they’d found: In nearby Lilstock, fossil hunters had discovered similar bone fragments, hypothesized to be part of the jaw bone of a massive ichthyosaur that lived roughly 202 million years ago. However, the scientists who’d worked on the Lilstock fossil had deemed that specimen too incomplete to designate a new species.

Mr. Reynolds contacted those researchers: Dean Lomax, at the University of Bristol, and Paul de la Salle, an amateur fossil collector. They joined the Reynolds family on collecting trips in Blue Anchor, digging in the mud with shovels. Ultimately, they found roughly half of a bone that they estimate would have been more than seven feet long when complete.

. . .

Dr. Lomax said that this discovery also highlighted the importance of amateur fossil collectors. “If you have a keen eye, if you have a passion for something like that, you can make discoveries like this,” he said.

Ruby Reynolds said: “I didn’t realize when I first found the piece of ichthyosaur bone how important it was and what it would lead to. I think the role that young people can play in science is to enjoy the journey of exploring as you never know where a discovery may take you.”

For the full story see:

Kate Golembiewski. “Huge Ocean Reptile From Dinosaur Days.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 30, 2024): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2024, and has the title “An 11-Year-Old Girl’s Fossil Find Is the Largest Known Ocean Reptile.” Where there is a difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Lomax co-authored an article with Justin Reynolds and Ruby Reynolds that described and named the huge ocean reptile:

Lomax, Dean R., Paul de la Salle, Marcello Perillo, Justin Reynolds, Ruby Reynolds, and James F. Waldron. “The Last Giants: New Evidence for Giant Late Triassic (Rhaetian) Ichthyosaurs from the UK.” PLOS ONE 19, no. 4 (2024): e0300289.

Mao’s Red Guard “Just Wanted to Beat Us to Death”

(p. C7) The Cultural Revolution is the monster that lurks behind the Communist Party’s claims of harmonious, orderly leadership in China. Under Mao’s direction, fanatical youth turned on their teachers, their parents, all figures of authority. This was an era of torture and violence, committed in many cases by mere children. Nobody was safe—perpetrators became victims, and victims took revenge. As many as two million died, and tens of millions had their lives destroyed.

. . .

In “Red Memory” the author explores how people in 21st-century China continue to process a collective trauma that the government would prefer to erase, even as the Party itself cannot put Mao behind it. The book unfolds as a series of portraits of people and settings tied to the events from half a century ago.

. . .

A music composer who was savagely tortured tells Ms. Branigan that he used to think there was some catharsis at work behind the violence, a correction of some kind to help bind people together. But there was not. “I wasn’t helping them at all,” he said of his tormentors. “They just wanted to beat us to death.”

. . .

The reporting in this book was gathered between 2008 and 2015, when Ms. Branigan was a Guardian correspondent in China. Poignantly, she observes that she could not have conducted such interviews today. In the past several years, even greater pressure has come down on those who wish to remember a past the Party wants to forget. People who spoke freely with her 10 years ago might not risk doing so today. The internet sites of commemoration have been shut down.

For the full review, see:

Stephen R. Platt. “The Chairman’s Children.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 13, 2023): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 12, 2023, and has the title “‘Red Memory’ Review: China’s Cultural Revolution Still Echoes.”)

The book under review is:

Branigan, Tania. Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

Economical Parrots Decline an Immediate Smaller Treat to Be Able to Trade a Token for a Bigger Treat

(p. D3) Chalk up another achievement for parrots, . . . .

Anastasia Krasheninnikova and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany tested four species of parrots in an experiment that required trading tokens for food and recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

. . .

A metal hoop could be traded for a piece of dry corn, the lowest value food, a metal bracket for a medium value sunflower seed and a plastic ring for the highest value food, a piece of shelled walnut.

The birds were then offered various choices, like a piece of corn or the ring. They all reliably chose to forgo the corn and take the ring. Then they were able to trade the ring for a piece of walnut.

They also did well choosing a bracket instead of the corn, and in other situations where the token was of higher value than the food.

For the full story see:

James Gorman. “Parrots Think They’re Pretty Smart.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 [sic]): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Parrots Think They’re So Smart. Now They’re Bartering Tokens for Food.” Where there is a small difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The paper published in Scientific Reports and mentioned above is:

Krasheninnikova, Anastasia, Friederike Höner, Laurie O’Neill, Elisabetta Penna, and Auguste M. P. von Bayern. “Economic Decision-Making in Parrots.” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (2018): 12537.

To Save One Species of Brown Owl, the Feds Want to Shoot Hundreds of Thousands of a More Adaptable Similar-Looking Species of Brown Owl

Isn’t it interesting that many in the Pacific Northwest and in the federal government want to take guns away from self-defending citizens at the same time that they want to use large-bore shotguns to shoot hundreds of thousands of barred owls whose only sin is that, unlike the spotted owls who they resemble, they are not picky eaters?

(p. D1) In the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl, a rare and fragile subspecies of spotted owl, is being muscled out of its limited habitat by the barred owl, its larger and more ornery northeastern cousin. The opportunistic barred owl has been moving in on spotted owl turf for more than half a century, competing with the locals for food and space, outnumbering, out-reproducing and inevitably chasing them out of their nesting spots. Barred owls have also emerged as a threat to the California spotted owl, a closely related subspecies in the Sierra Nevada and the mountains of coastal and Southern California.

. . .

(p. D5) In a last-ditch effort to rescue the northern spotted owl from oblivion and protect the California spotted owl population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed culling a staggering number of barred owls across a swath of 11 to 14 million acres in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, where barred owls — which the agency regards as invasive — are encroaching. The lethal management plan calls for eradicating up to half a million barred owls over the next 30 years, or 30 percent of the population over that time frame. The owls would be dispatched using the cheapest and most efficient methods, from large-bore shotguns with night scopes to capture and euthanasia.

. . .

The agency’s plan, outlined last fall in a draft report assessing its environmental impact that is due for final review this summer, has pitted conservationists, who say it will benefit both species, against animal supporters, who consider the proposed scale, scope and timeline unsustainable.

Last month, a coalition of 75 wildlife protection and animal welfare organizations sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland urging her to scrap what they called a “colossally reckless action” that would necessitate a perpetual killing program to keep the number of barred owls in check. Wayne Pacelle, the president of Animal Wellness Action and an author of the statement, said it was dangerous for the government to start managing competition and social interaction among North American species, including ones that have expanded their range as a partial effect of “human perturbations” of the environment. “I cannot see how this succeeds politically, because of its price tag and its sweeping ambitions,” he said in an email.

Mr. Pacelle questions whether barred owls, which are indigenous to North America, truly meet the criteria for an invasive species. “This ‘invasive’ language rings familiar to me in our current political debates,” he said. “Demonize the migrants, and the harsh policy options become much easier from a moral perspective.”

The signatories argued that the current predicament warranted nonlethal control, and that the agency’s approach would lead to the wrong owls being shot and to the death of thousands of eagles, hawks and other creatures from lead poisoning. “Implementing a decades-long plan to unleash untold numbers of ‘hunters’ in sensitive forest ecosystems is a case of single-species myopia regarding wildlife control,” the letter said.

. . .

At first sight, it’s easy to mistake a spotted for a barred: Both have tuftless rounded heads, teddy bear eyes and bodies mottled brown and white. They can interbreed to produce chicks called sparred owls. But they differ in their habitat requirements. Up to four pairs of barred owls can occupy the three-to-12 square miles that one spotted couple needs, and barred owls aggressively defend their terrain. “The closer spotted owls live to barred owls, the less likely the spotted owls are to have offspring,” Dr. Wiens said. Barred owls also produce four times as many young.

Spotted owls are extremely picky eaters: In California, they eat only flying squirrels and wood rats. “Barred owls devour anything and everything,” Ms. Bloem said, . . .

For the full story see:

Franz Lidz. “The Lethal Cost of a Rescue.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 30, 2024): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 29, 2024, and has the title “They Shoot Owls in California, Don’t They?” Where there is a difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Repeated Interbreeding of Brown Bears and Polar Bears Illustrates Fuzziness of Defining a Species

(p. D1) Naturalists have been trying for centuries to catalog all of the species on Earth, and the effort remains one of the great unfinished jobs in science. So far, researchers have named about 2.3 million species, but there are millions — perhaps even billions — left to be discovered.

As if this quest isn’t hard enough, biologists cannot agree on what a species is. A 2021 survey found that practicing biologists used 16 different approaches to categorizing species. Any two of the scientists picked at random were overwhelmingly likely to use different ones.

“Everyone uses the term, but no one knows what it is,” said Michal Grabowski, a biologist at the University of Lodz in Poland.

The debate over species is more than an academic pastime. In the current extinction crisis, scientists urgently need to take stock of the world’s biological diversity.

. . .

(p. D4) As scientists gather more genetic data, fresh questions are emerging about what seem, on the surface, to be obviously separate species.

You don’t have to be a mammalogist to understand that polar bears and brown bears are different. Just one look at their white and brown coats will do.

The difference in their colors is the result of their ecological adaptations. White polar bears blend into their Arctic habitats, where they hunt for seals and other prey. Brown bears adapted for life on land further south. The differences are so distinct that paleontologists can distinguish fossils of the two species going back hundreds of thousands of years.

And yet the DNA inside those ancient bones is revealing an astonishing history of interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears. After the two lineages split about half a million years ago, they exchanged DNA for thousands of years. They then became more distinct, but about 120,000 years ago they underwent another extraordinary exchange of genes.

Between 25,000 and 10,000 years ago, the bears interbred in several parts of their range. The exchanges have left a significant imprint on bears today: About 10 percent of the DNA in brown bears comes from polar bears.

Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the interbreeding most likely occurred when swings in the climate forced polar bears down from the Arctic and into brown bear territory.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “Defining A Species Is Open To Debate.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 20, 2024): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 19, 2024, and has the title “What Is a Species, Anyway?”)

The 2021 survey mentioned above was more fully detailed in:

Stankowski, Sean, and Mark Ravinet. “Quantifying the Use of Species Concepts.” Current Biology 31, no. 9 (May 10, 2021): R428-R429.

Nobelist Phelps Opposes a Universal Basic Income, Since Recipients Might Miss the Fulfilment That Comes from Meaningful Work

UBI below stands for Universal Basic Income.

(p. C9) And yet Mr. Phelps, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in economics and emeritus professor of political economy at Columbia University, is among the most lucid, passionate and original defenders of capitalism. (He is also the founding director of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society.) He disparages European-style corporatist economies as being unsuited to dynamism or innovation. Progressives who’d claim him as their own would do well to remember that he takes a hostile view of the idea of a universal basic income.

In “My Journeys in Economic Theory,” Mr. Phelps declares that it is “disappointing that UBI”—embraced by such modish politicians as Andrew Yang and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—“has not received widespread opposition.” The idea, if implemented, “would entice people and their children away from meaningful work and thus from a sense of involvement in the economy—society’s central project.”

It is this last, humane observation that distinguishes Mr. Phelps from the economists’ tribe, reflecting his belief that the nobility of capitalism lies in the chance it offers for prosperity and self-discovery on a national scale. He calls this phenomenon “mass flourishing,” words that make up the title of his late-in-life magnum opus, published in 2013 when he was 80.

. . .

It is apparent in his memoirs that Mr. Phelps wishes to be remembered most for his theories of the past two decades, which focus on the workplace and creativity. He believes that economists are mistaken in their supposition that the reward for work is pay alone. As he writes in “Dynamism” (2020), in America “it is very clear that work is central to a meaningful life.” People at all rungs of the economy “possess imagination and creativity,” and the modern economy is “a vast imaginarium” in which growth comes from “creativity within the workforce.”

Mr. Phelps underscores a connection between economic growth and job satisfaction. He urges economists “not to stop at the standard theory” but to explore an “uncharted realm” of human desires and fulfillments. There’s more to life than capital, mere employment and national income. And certainly more to economics.

For the full review, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “On the Way to the Nobel, and After.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 13, 2023): C9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 12, 2023, and has the title “‘My Journeys in Economic Theory’ Review: A Creative Nobelist.”)

The book under review is:

Phelps, Edmund S. My Journeys in Economic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023.

Phelps’s magnum opus, mentioned above, is:

Phelps, Edmund S. Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013.