Doom and Gloom

In a recent talk at Cornell University, Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, argued that environmentalists need to move away from the traditional “doom and gloom” message. “I don’t want to manage the decline of the planet,” he said. Instead, Kareiva would like environmentalists to promote hopeful messages, reorient conservation projects, and reconnect with the public.

Some of the doomiest and gloomiest messages have to do with the perils of sea level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will rise 7 inches to 2 feet between 1990 and 2100. The rise in sea levels is linked to three processes: thermal expansion (when water heats up, it expands), melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, and ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica.



A particularly gloomy infographic of a father and child underwater

Researchers from the World Bank and elsewhere suggest that the effects of sea level rise will disproportionately affect developing countries and the poor. Such predictions have led environmentalists to advocate for the interests of “conservation refugees”: people who will have to leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming. A recent Nature Climate Change article contends that the impacts of sea level rise “are potentially severe, implying a conceivable risk of forced displacement of up to 187 million people within this century.”

But why focus on possible future catastrophes? Poverty, displacement, and natural disasters are problems today. As phenomenon they are not contingent on sea level rise.

Even if we could accurately predict future climate states, could we predict future modes of governance? Is it inevitable that dynamic shorelines will lead to political instability? 


This Google maps image, north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, shows the shape of the Mississippi River in 2013. 




This 1944 map from Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River shows the location of the Mississippi for the past 1,000 years. Each color represents an old channel. 



Darwin’s monsters

Re-reading Darwin on this rainy day, I’m struck by all the monsters. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote:

 Nor shall I here discuss the various definitions which have been given of the term species. No one definition has as yet satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species…We have also what are called monstrosities; but they graduate into varieties. By a monstrosity I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure, generally injurious to or not useful to the species.

Darwin’s concept of natural selection depended on a comparison to artificial selection. [A topic I’ve written about at Sci Am.] In the first chapter of Origin, Darwin discusses examples from plant and animal breeding. Darwin saw two types of variation in the bred world: abrupt changes or “monstrosities,” and small changes. Darwin thought that small, gradual changes were most important to natural selection, and therefore to evolution. Natura non facit saltus – nature does not make jumps.


Darwin’s focus on the utility of certain biological variations echoes the philosophies of some of those who influenced him, like Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. In an ordered world, it made little sense to have a sixth finger: “we see peculiarities arising and becoming attached to the male sex in our domestic animals (as the wattle in male carriers, horn-like protuberances in the cocks of certain fowls, &c.), which we cannot believe to be either useful to the males in battle, or attractive to the females.” If not useful (and so selected for naturally) or attractive (and so selected for sexually), a trait was, to Darwin, a monstrosity unlikely to be inherited.

Lesser known than Darwin’s theory of natural selection — the struggle for life, the Law of Mutual Struggle — is Russian biologist Karl Kessler’s 1879 Law of Mutual Aid. Presenting to the Society of Naturalists of St. Petersburg, Kessler outlined a theory of cooperation. According to Kessler, the struggle for existence as formulated by Darwin put too much emphasis on competition, ignoring cooperation among individuals. Some species worked together for protection from enemies, he argued, or to secure winter provisions. Peter Kropotkin promoted Kessler’s theory, writing in 1902 that it was under-population, not over-population, that characterized the Russian tundra, and that, contrary to the Darwinian’s worldview, species on the tundra did not experience “fearful competition for food and life.”

Daniel Todes argues that Russian scholars like Kessler and Kropotkin viewed Darwinism (or, rather, Malthusianism) as a “purely English doctrine” in that it was preoccupied with practicality and competition.

Biological variation within species continues to be a main topic in ecology and evolution. It remains difficult to imagine inefficiency in the biological world, to see form without function. Are fiddler crabs bluffing, or are some traits just not practical? Have we forgotten to consider Darwin’s monsters?


blog launch

ecology, biodiversity, conservation, plants (autotrophic or otherwise), animals, history, monsters, environment, words, clouds, evolution, exploration, occasional rhyme. this hermit crab in a film canister.


To read Laura Jane Martin’s writing on Scientific American’s guest blog and elsewhere, visit her website.