Charles Darwin's ecological experiment on Ascension isle

By Howard Falcon-Lang

A lonely island in the middle of the South Atlantic conceals Charles Darwin's best-kept secret.

Two hundred years ago, Ascension Island was a barren volcanic edifice.

Today, its peaks are covered by lush tropical "cloud forest".

What happened in the interim is the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.

By a bizarre twist, this great imperial experiment may hold the key to the future colonization of Mars.

The tiny tropical island of Ascension isn't easy it find. It is marooned in the ocean, 1,600km (1000 miles) from the coast of Africa and 2,250km (1,400 miles) from South America.

Its existence depends entirely on what geologists call the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart.

However, because Ascension occupies a "hot spot" on the ridge, its volcano is especially active. A million years ago, molten magma explosively burst above the waves.

A new island was born.

Back in 1836, the young Charles Darwin was coming to the end of his five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no naturalist had gone before.

Aboard HMS Beagle, he called in at Ascension. En route from another remote volcanic island, St Helena, Darwin wasn't expecting much.

"We know we live on a rock, but the poor people of Ascension live on a cinder," the residents of St Helena had joked before his departure.

But arriving on Ascension put an unexpected spring in Darwin's step.

Professor David Catling of the University of Washington, Seattle, is retracing Darwin's travels for a new book. He told the BBC: "Awaiting Darwin on Ascension was a letter from his Cambridge mentor, John Henslow."

"Darwin's voyage of discovery had already caused a huge sensation in London," he explained.

"Henslow assured him that on his return, he would take his place among the great men of science."

At this fantastic news, Darwin bounded forth in ecstasy, the sound of his geological hammer ringing from hill to hill.

Everywhere, bright red volcanic cones and rugged black lava signalled the violent forces that had wrought the island.

Yet, thinks Professor Catling, amid this wild desolation, Darwin began to hatch a plot.

Out of the ashes of the volcano, he would create a green oasis - a "Little England".

Darwin's great buddy was Joseph Hooker, the intrepid botanist and explorer.

Only a few years after Darwin's return, Hooker was off on his own adventures, an ambitious slingshot around Antarctica aboard HMS Erebus and Terror. Mirroring Darwin's voyage, Hooker called in on Ascension on the way home in 1843.

Ascension was a strategic base for the Royal Navy. Originally set up to keep a watchful eye on the exiled emperor Napoleon on nearby St Helena, it was a thriving waystation at the time of Hooker's visit.

However, the big problem that impeded further expansion of this imperial outpost was the supply of fresh water.

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker's visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens - where Hooker's dad was director - shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, norfolk island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

Back in England, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution were busily uprooting the Garden of Eden.

But on a green hill far away, a new "island Eden" was being created.

Yet could Darwin's secret garden have more far reaching consequences?

Dr Dave Wilkinson is an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who has written extensively about Ascension Island's strange ecosystem.

He first visited Ascension in 2003.

"I remember thinking, this is really weird," he told the BBC.

"There were all kinds of plants that don't belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened," he said.

Wilkinson describes the vegetation of "Green Mountain" - as the highest peak is now known - as a "cloud forest". The trees capture sea mist, creating a damp oasis amid the aridity.

However, this is a forest with a difference. It is totally artificial.

Such ecosystems normally develop over million of years through a slow process of co-evolution. By contrast, the Green Mountain cloud forest was cobbled together by the Royal Navy in a matter of decades.

"This is really exciting!" exclaimed Wilkinson.

"What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error".

In effect, what Darwin, Hooker and the Royal Navy achieved was the world's first experiment in "terra-forming". They created a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem in order to make Ascension Island more habitable.

Wilkinson thinks that the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, rather than trying to improve an environment by force, the best approach might be to work with life to help it "find its own way".

However, to date, scientists have been deaf to the parable of Ascension Island.

"It's a terrible waste that no one is studying it," remarked Wilkinson at the end of the interview.

Ascension Island's secret is safe for years to come, it seems.

Inside a toxic hellhole, Iron Mountain Mine

by Peter Fimrite

A strange chemical smell lingered in the stifling heat as a group of environmental scientists groped in the darkness through one of the most polluted places on Earth.

The Iron Mountain Mine, outside of Redding, is a hellish pit where acid water sloshes against your boots, greenish bacterial slime gurgles out of the walls, and stalactites and stalagmites of acid salt, copper and iron jut out like rusty daggers.

"You don't want to splash this stuff," said Rick Sugarek, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the Iron Mountain Superfund site. "This is the concentrated stuff."

The water - so acidic it could dissolve fabrics and burn skin - lapped against the rubber boots of the scientists, toxic-substance specialists, geologists and EPA officials who slopped in the dark toward the source of the toxic stew that created what experts describe as the "world's worst water."

"It's really kind of creepy," said Jane Vorpagel, a staff environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Game, who was seeing the slime-dripping cavern for the first time.

The recent mine tour was, in part, an attempt to familiarize Jared Blumenfeld, the Environmental Protection Agency's recently appointed regional administrator, with the worst of the 128 Superfund sites in his district.

But it was also a lesson on the extent of the damage humans are capable of inflicting on their environment and the innovative methods of resolving those problems.

The EPA has taken extraordinary measures to neutralize the toxic mixture that polluted the Sacramento River and its tributaries for more than a century.

The flow of pollution, which killed thousands of fish and did untold damage to the river habitat, is largely being held at bay and the damage has been contained. But the journey through the vile dungeon of the mine showed clearly that the danger will always remain.

Iron Mountain, about 9 miles northwest of Redding, was once a majestic peak topped with red iron rust that suggested to miners in the 1860s that a little digging might reveal valuable copper.

A company called Mountain Copper established a 4,400-acre mine in the 1890s and began to supply sulfuric acid to refineries in the Bay Area. It became the largest copper mine in California by the turn of the century, and a small city of laborers lived on the mountain. Twenty cavities the size of office buildings were drilled into the rock.

The mining operation turned to rubble what was originally a 200-foot-thick by 3,000-foot-long underground deposit of pyrite, the metallic mineral known as fool's gold. The destruction of the mountain exposed the pyrite to oxygen, water and bacteria that combined to create poisonous runoff.

The result was the worst concentration of acid in the world, about 500 times more toxic than any other mine.

Today, dirt roads snake over and around the mountain. Treatment plants, holding ponds and dams are scattered about to catch the toxic runoff. The entire area is carved up. Rubble and large areas of bare reddish dirt pock the hills.

The primary source of the acid is inside a shaft on the side of a steep, barren hillside known as the Richmond Mine. The group that trekked into the bowels of this shaft was one of the first to ever go that deep; it included news media and other observers not directly involved in Superfund research.

Inside, the sound of bubbling and burbling is everywhere as water drips onto superheated rocks and turns into vapor. The chemical steam heats up the cavern and emits a strong odor. One visitor is told it might not be good to breathe the air there for extended periods of time.

This is what Sugarek calls "the belly of the beast," a place so hot and lacking in oxygen that it has to be pumped full of air so workers and visitors don't pass out.

The Richmond tunnel is mostly covered with a fiber concrete that protects against collapse, but the acid salts eat away at the material deeper inside, exposing rotting old timber beams. Iridescent green copper stalactites jut down from above, and sparkling black mineral deposits known as Voltaite multiply over the rock walls, much of which is made of pyrite.

The tour group wore rubber boots and gear to protect against ever-present water that is so acidic even a droplet would eat a hole in blue jeans or dissolve the stitching on boots, much like battery acid. Splashing it on bare skin would cause "exfoliation," Sugarek said with a wry grin.

"This certainly seems like the mother lode of contaminated sites," Blumenfeld said. "It is our job to learn from this and make sure it never happens again."

Over the past year, workers dredged much of the 170,000 cubic yards of copper, cadmium, zinc and iron that had flowed out of the mine and accumulated for 50 years at the bottom of the Spring Creek arm of the Keswick Reservoir. The sediments were piped up to a newly built treatment facility that separated out the solids and neutralized the toxic metals, which were then dried out and secured in pits on nearby federal land.

Sugarek, who has been in charge of the Superfund site for 20 years, said the management of toxic material will continue, but, to date, 98 percent of the toxic material has been captured and contained.

"Our main goal at the EPA was to protect the Sacramento River," Sugarek said. "A ton a day of copper and zinc used to hit the river. We have been able to reduce that to 2 percent of what it once was."

The flow from this chemical cauldron into the Sacramento River and its tributaries was devastating, EPA officials said. Before the creeping acid was contained, it was as bad for the environment as 100 oil refineries pouring petroleum into a salmon spawning stream would have been, Sugarek said.

The Bureau of Reclamation built an earthen dam in 1963 to block the steady flow of sludge, but it would often overflow during heavy winter rains and the copper and metals would get into the Sacramento River.

The mine was finally abandoned in 1966 and collapsed in on itself shortly after that, but the problem only got worse. By the time the EPA took over management of the area in the 1980s, a ton of acidic water a day was flowing into the river and the water in the debris dam was blood red from the mixture of iron and copper.

In 1988, a sudden surge of power at a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plant sent 2,000 cubic feet per second of metal-laden water flowing out of the Keswick Reservoir, turning the Sacramento River red all the way to Hamilton City, 100 miles away.

Desperate, the EPA built the Slick Rock Creek Retention Dam in 2004, which captured most of the red sludge. Now the EPA is concentrating on the leftover mess, which is expected to cost the government $200 million to manage over 30 years.

A federal court recently held the owner of the mountain, Ted Arman, and Iron Mountain Mines Inc. liable for nearly $27 million in past cleanup costs and some $30 million in interest accrued over the years. The former owner, Rhône-Poulenc, which later became Aventis CropScience USA Inc., agreed to pay the federal government $154 million over 30 years in future cleanup costs.

Sugarek said the runoff can be captured, cleaned and turned into landfill for up to 100 years if the money is available. The problem is that the toxic broth will continue pouring out of the mine for 3,000 years until the pyrite is used up or someone figures out a way to neutralize the chemical and biological reactions, scientists say.

"There is nothing that we have in the world today that solves this particular dilemma," Sugarek said. "What we can do is collect it and treat it and hope that in the next 30 years we have come up with new technology or techniques to resolve it."

At one point during the mine tour several members began edging into a cavern and were quickly alerted by EPA officials that it was not safe to go any farther. A sudden increase in temperature was immediately apparent at the mouth of this cavity.

The shaft leads into a place deeper inside where researchers recently found six unique strains of bacteria living in a bed of pink slime that are part of a little-understood biochemical cycle that devours iron, produces sulfuric acid, and creates a nightmarish broth of copper, zinc and arsenic.

There, the chemical reactions drive temperatures up to 130 degrees and the puddled water is sulfuric acid, concentrated enough to melt an aluminum ladder. Sugarek said the rocks inside this noxious horror house have been known to catch on fire from time to time.

NASA once sent a robot in - and nobody ever saw the machine again or collected any scientific data from it, Sugarek said.

Scientists at NASA and UC Berkeley have not given up. They are studying the pink slime and what they believe is a primitive form of bacteria inside the mine, a substance so unusual that it can survive in laboratory-grade acid.

It is a measure of success, Blumenfeld said, that this toxic concoction is no longer pouring into the river.

"We've come across to the other side of the mountain," he said. "It is great to see that we can get back to a place where the water again runs clear. If you can clean up the Iron Mountain Mine, you can clean up anything."

Westerners vs. the World: We are the WEIRD ones

by Adam McDowell

The Ultimatum Game works like this: You are given $100 and asked to share it with someone else. You can offer that person any amount and if he accepts the offer, you each get to keep your share. If he rejects your offer, you both walk away empty-handed.

How much would you offer? If it's close to half the loot, you're a typical North American. Studies show educated Americans will make an average offer of $48, whether in the interest of fairness or in the knowledge that too low an offer to their counterpart could be rejected as unfair. If you're on the other side of the table, you're likely to reject offers right up to $40.

It seems most of humanity would play the game differently. Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia took the Ultimatum Game into the Peruvian Amazon as part of his work on understanding human co-operation in the mid-1990s and found that the Machiguenga considered the idea of offering half your money downright weird — and rejecting an insultingly low offer even weirder.

"I was inclined to believe that rejection in the Ultimatum Game would be widespread. With the Machiguenga, they felt rejecting was absurd, which is really what economists think about rejection," Dr. Henrich says. "It's completely irrational to turn down free money. Why would you do that?"

It turns out the Machiguenga — whose number system goes: one, two, three, many — are not alone in their thinking. Most people from non-Western cultures introduced to the Ultimatum Game play differently than Westerners. And that is one clue that the Western mind differs in fundamental ways from the rest of humanity, according to Dr. Henrich. He and two other UBC researchers authored a paper shaking up the fields of psychology, cognitive science and behavioural economics by questioning whether we can know anything about humanity in general if we only study a "truly unusual group of people" — the privileged products of Western industrial societies, who just happen to make up the vast majority of behavioural science test subjects.

The article, titled "The weirdest people in the world?", appears in the current issue of the journal Brain and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Henrich and co-authors Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argue that life-long members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic — people who are WEIRD — see the world in ways that are alien from the rest of the human family. The UBC trio have come to the controversial conclusion that, say, the Machiguenga are not psychological outliers among humanity. We are.

"If you're a Westerner, your intuitions about human psychology are probably wrong or at least there's good reason to believe they're wrong," Dr. Henrich says.

After analyzing reams of data from earlier studies, the UBC team found that WEIRD people reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, anti-social punishment and co-operation, as well as visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity.

Others punish participants perceived as too altruistic in co-operation games, but very few in the English-speaking West would ever dream of penalizing the generous. Westerners tend to group objects based on resemblance (notebooks and magazines go together, for example) while Chinese test subjects prefer function (grouping, say, a notebook with a pencil). Privileged Westerners, uniquely, define themselves by their personal characteristics as opposed to their roles in society.

Moreover, WEIRD people do not simply react to the world differently, according to the paper, they perceive it differently to begin with. Take the well-known Muller-Lyer optical illusion, which uses arrows to trick the viewer into thinking one line is longer than another, even if both are the same length. (See the diagram on this page.)

"No matter how many times you measure those lines, you can't cause yourself to see them as the same length," Dr. Henrich says. At least that's true for a Westerner. For some hunter-gatherers, the Muller-Lyer lines do not cause an illusion. "You do this with foragers in the Kalahari [Desert] and they just see the lines as the same length."

WEIRD people, the UBC researchers argue, have unusual ideas of fairness, are more individualistic and less conformist than other people. In many of these respects, Americans are the most "extreme" Westerners, especially young ones. And educated Americans are even more extremely WEIRD than uneducated ones.

"The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens," the authors conclude. "If the goal of the research program is to shed light on the human condition, then this narrow, unrepresentative sample may lead to an uneven and incomplete understanding."

In other words, we do not know what we thought we knew about the human mind. We only know about the mind of a particular, unusual slice of humanity.

The UBC researchers also found that 96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, which account for just 12% of the world's population. Sixty-eight percent were Americans. The United States is dominant in the field of psychology, accounting for 70% of all journal citations, compared with 37% in chemistry. Undergraduate students are often used to stand in for the entire species.

"This is a serious problem because psychology varies across cultures and chemistry doesn't," says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

The paper argues that either many studies' conclusions have to be retested on non-WEIRD cultural groups — a daunting proposition in terms of resources — or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.

If WEIRD people are indeed weird, it is the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that have made them so. In the example of the Muller-Lyer illusion, the UBC team hypothesizes that growing up in an industrial-era environment with plenty of 90-degree lines and carpentered edges led to WEIRD people's sense of vision being susceptible to the deception.

"We live in this world with police and institutions and pre-packaged food, TV, the Internet, watches and clocks and calendars. Our heads are loaded with all this information for navigating those environments. So we should expect our brains to be distorted," Dr. Henrich says.

North American behavioural scientists were aware of the issues raised by the paper. "It confirms something that many researchers knew all along but didn't want to admit or acknowledge because its implications are so troublesome," says Dr. Haidt of the University of Virginia, who was on a panel of academics who reviewed the article before publication.

Dr. Henrich says the UBC team expected stiff resistance to its ideas. But overall the paper has been well-received, says Dr. Haidt, although, of course, it has been read mostly by WEIRD academics. But how would the other 88% of humanity react? Would they be surprised to learn that rich Westerners are, in a word, weird?

"I don't think so," Dr. Henrich says.

Some psychologists doubt whether privileged Westerners actually are the odd people out. Cultural psychologist Will Bennis of Northwestern University applauds the UBC team's call to widen the spectrum of humanity studied by behavioural scientists, but he doubts whether a more cosmopolitan subject pool will sustain the idea that WEIRD people are "more unique, more distinct, more different from all the other populations that have been targets of research."

"Why do they look like outliers? Is it because they are more weird than other populations? Or is it something methodological that's making it look like they're outliers," Dr. Bennis asks.

He notes a human tendency, throughout history and across cultures, to regard one's own group as unique. "There's a lot of reasons why we might mistakenly assume that our group is special," he says. "The point isn't that our group is not special, it's that each group is special in its own unique way. As WEIRD psychologists ... we happen to know what's special about our own group and we happen to focus on that in our psychological research."

The WEIRD hypothesis does not throw out the whole idea of human behavioural and psychological universals. The UBC team remains confident that displays of pride and some aspects of mating, for example, will turn out to be pan-human characteristics.

The UBC researchers acknowledge the limits of what is known about WEIRD versus non-WEIRD populations. Because data comparing how people from different populations think is relatively hard to come by, the authors write, "we cannot accurately evaluate the full extent of how unusual WEIRD people are."

"This is, however, precisely the point. We hope research teams will be inspired to span the globe and prove our claims of non-representativeness wrong."


Dancing at the Movies

A montage of movie dance scenes set perfectly to "Footloose" - A collection of dance clips from almost 40 movies from dance movies to comedies, from Fred Astaire to Micheal Jackson.

Google's Earth

By William Gibson

“I ACTUALLY think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions,” said the search giant’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, in a recent and controversial interview. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Do we really desire Google to tell us what we should be doing next? I believe that we do, though with some rather complicated qualifiers.

Science fiction never imagined Google, but it certainly imagined computers that would advise us what to do. HAL 9000, in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” will forever come to mind, his advice, we assume, imminently reliable — before his malfunction. But HAL was a discrete entity, a genie in a bottle, something we imagined owning or being assigned. Google is a distributed entity, a two-way membrane, a game-changing tool on the order of the equally handy flint hand ax, with which we chop our way through the very densest thickets of information. Google is all of those things, and a very large and powerful corporation to boot.

We have yet to take Google’s measure. We’ve seen nothing like it before, and we already perceive much of our world through it. We would all very much like to be sagely and reliably advised by our own private genie; we would like the genie to make the world more transparent, more easily navigable. Google does that for us: it makes everything in the world accessible to everyone, and everyone accessible to the world. But we see everyone looking in, and blame Google.

Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products. And still we balk at Mr. Schmidt’s claim that we want Google to tell us what to do next. Is he saying that when we search for dinner recommendations, Google might recommend a movie instead? If our genie recommended the movie, I imagine we’d go, intrigued. If Google did that, I imagine, we’d bridle, then begin our next search.

We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. We also seldom imagined (in spite of ample evidence) that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust, yet they do. In a world characterized by technologically driven change, we necessarily legislate after the fact, perpetually scrambling to catch up, while the core architectures of the future, increasingly, are erected by entities like Google.

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesn’t really suit an entity like Google. Bentham’s all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

Much of the discussion of Mr. Schmidt’s interview centered on another comment: his suggestion that young people who catastrophically expose their private lives via social networking sites might need to be granted a name change and a fresh identity as adults. This, interestingly, is a matter of Google letting societal chips fall where they may, to be tidied by lawmakers and legislation as best they can, while the erection of new world architecture continues apace.

If Google were sufficiently concerned about this, perhaps the company should issue children with free “training wheels” identities at birth, terminating at the age of majority. One could then either opt to connect one’s adult identity to one’s childhood identity, or not. Childhoodlessness, being obviously suspect on a résumé, would give birth to an industry providing faux adolescences, expensively retro-inserted, the creation of which would gainfully employ a great many writers of fiction. So there would be a silver lining of sorts.

To be sure, I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

William Gibson is the author of the forthcoming novel “Zero History.”