Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The BBC Natural History Unit, Predators and the Natural Order of Things (however unpalatable)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC or Auntie Beeb, as Kenny Everett was wont to call it) garners a lot of criticism, especially of late; mostly due to a notion that it is 'dumbing down' its programming and a 'left-leaning' bias in its political commentary. One cannot, perhaps, dispute the preponderance of 'soaps' and 'reality TV' which seem to dominate the schedules and here is not the place to discuss a Public Sector Broadcaster's, funded by tax payers money, 'left-wing' leanings; if it does indeed have them. Perhaps, its role as a PSB gives it a right to be more 'socially aware' than a commercial broadcaster, primarily concerned with audience viewing figures and the concomitant advertising revenue, has the ability to be. No, what we want to look at today is the 'Jewel in the Crown' of 'Auntie Beeb'; the BBC Natural History Unit.

The success, both in terms of the actual content produced and its lack of (bad) journalistic qualities, deserves the highest of praise; the 'Discovery Channel' is a limp facsimile, only after more advertising revenue and, more importantly, profit! I have been watching the BBCNHUs's latest exercise in superlative 'nature documentaries' recently; 'the Hunt'.

Let's be honest here, humans don't, on the whole, appreciate film or photographs (or paintings, MG would say) of non-human predators going about their business of survival. The cheetah's chase is all very well, providing you don't actually show the point at which it throttles the Thompson's and starts to tear its guts out. Predatory birds seem to be ok so long as they are not tearing the innards from mammalian prey. I can understand this 'sentiment'; I don't much like images of hunting leopard seals or orcas tossing penguins high into the air to dislodge the skin (and feathers) before consuming them or sharing them, as orcas do, sometimes, with their 'pod-mates'.

However, there is an essential disconnect between watching a predator pursuing prey and editing out the kill and subsequent feeding. We, even I, subject to predation as I am, admire the predator. Fashioned in exquisite detail by evolution to pursue and capture its preferred prey, it is often the most sublime and beautiful  manifestation of Mother Nature's wonder that it is possible to observe. The way that the Goshawk flies through the narrowest of gaps in the trees, barely wide enough for its body, let alone its wings, and at high speed too; the way that the lion, leopard or tiger stalks its prey, silently and undetected before pouncing mere yards away; the way that chimpanzees, wolves and Harris hawks use the tactics of ambush, driving the prey towards its inevitable doom; the wave-hunting of seals by orcas and the 'spiralling bubble tactics' of both orcas and their dolphin cousins. These are marvels of Mother Nature, and evolution, and should be documented in their entirety; not just what human observers deem to be acceptable.

For, after all, aren't Peregrine Falcons built the way that they are, and admired for their beauty, because they do what they do?  Stooping at enormous speed to take out fast-flying pigeons. Aren't cheetahs the fastest land mammal over less than 400 yards solely in order to catch Thompson's gazelles which are almost as fast in a straight run but much more manoeuvrable? Is not the 'spider-predating' spider a marvel; to 'out-think' another predatory spider? However, humans don't want images of 'natural predation' on their screens despite the fact that they are most merciless predators on the planet. Humans who kill not only for food but for sport and, ultimately, for nothing except their own transient self-gratification;  so that they can have electricity, cars, iPhones, the Internet and a host of other things too numerous to mention.

Should television, photography, the world wide web show images of what actually goes on; down here at the sharp end of the stick.  The way that the petrels tear apart our chicks; the way that urban foxes 'slaughter' pet guinea pigs and rabbits;  the way that the Japanese murder Minke whales; the way that Halal meat is slaughtered? Perhaps we should!

Humans, at least in so-called Western democracies,  constantly hide behind the dictum: if we don't see it, it doesn't happen. Human society; the proverbial ostrich, its head buried in the sand! But it does happen; every day! If you really appreciated Mother Nature for what she is, perhaps you could better accommodate her view; not just your own! Nature, 'red in tooth and claw', to quote Tennyson, is how it is actually is; not your sanitised, dare I say, wishy-washy, sentimental, version of events. Survival is invariably violent in one form or another. As the great Richard Feynman once said of quantum mechanics (I am paraphrasing here): you may not wish that this is how nature behaves, but it does'. Death is an inextricable part of life and your God, whichever variety you choose, cannot extricate you from that fact. Only the lack of 'human predators', you have eradicated them all, (how convenient) allow you to treat the environment, our planet, us and all sentient life on the planet, other than your own species (and sometimes not even then), as you do.

What the BBCNHU does in this series of the Hunt , and I wouldn't be surprised if Sir David Attenborough had something to do with it, (ever since 'Zoo Quest' he, personally, has held the BBC over a barrel, for whatever reason; he is just great, impossible to ignore). someone has been able to craft, with the expertise and dedication of the cameramen, the most sublime manifestations of the wonders of nature as well as the most superlative of commentary; insightful but not overly scientific, (although, I miss the scientific!) and truly mesmerising

The BBCNHU will. perhaps by its skill, persuade others to appreciate the rich gift which nature gives to us all; penguin, human, seal, orca, wolf or beetle and, perhaps, humans most of all, who kill without thought or sense of the existence of a 'natural order', of 'balance', and who then may come to appreciate, and act upon, that which might, I think, ultimately be lost. Many, too, have much to lose, humans not the least; having gained so much, do you really want to lose all of this because you think that you can exist in isolation.

The BBCNHU, who managed to film the tiger, almost soundlessly approaching through the leaf litter, to snare its prey. The Harpy eagle, so rarely filmed, although he or she did not 'pluck' the monkey from a tree trunk; surely what such immense, powerful talons and feet were designed for. The blue whale hoovering up the krill, never before filmed from under the water, which took two years to film. Such things are the BBC designed for; to educate, to illuminate; to transcend quotidian horizons; to go beyond the mundane of what people think is entertainment.

While the BBC is allowed to go beyond, occasionally, the concept of 'pandering for the masses' on its primary channel, BBC1, and therefore can explore comedy, history and nature on its other 'channels', does that diversity not deserve to be preserved. If the BBC should ever be released from its reliance on the statutory licence fee and forced to become a 'commercial' broadcaster, we will all be that much the poorer!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

So-called Disability, Francesca Martinez, Jessica Thom and Tourette's

I don't care what anyone else would say, Terence Donovan's video of Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to love' is still the best music video; ever! If you doubt me then try playing the track and see how women react. They mimic the 'backing band's moves exactly! They can't help it! It is now as much a part of human culture as the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' or 'Le Discours de la méthode' are. I kid you not! MG is quite proud of the fact that he once saw, live, 'Vinegar Joe' with Robert Palmer and Elkie Brookes, in her 'rock chick' phase,  on joint lead vocals. One to savour in the memory, he says.*

I do so love coincidences. I came across two performers the other day; previously unknown to me. One a stand-up (although sitting down) comedian and one who uses comedy in part to enhance her somewhat surreal, and at times frankly weird, take on life. Both are what humans might term disabled, although they did not seem to be disabled to this penguin; merely different in perhaps more ways than I could count. MG had kindly led me to them and provided typewritten transcripts so that I could appreciate the humour and, sometimes, the seriousness, which lay behind the utterances.

In listening to the sound of Francesca Martinez, the stand-up comedian, I finally began to understand how strange MG must have sounded to his friends and colleagues after he suffered the stroke; "I spoke like a spastic," he once wrote.  Francesca has cerebral palsy, which until the 60's or the 70's used to be called spastic (in the same way that Down's syndrome in the same period was termed mongolism, although why Britlanders should think that the greatest empire known to man in any century should be thought derogatory defeats me) and obviously has difficulty in forming the sounds of BBC received English; she also has some difficulties in motor control which causes her to 'tremble', as she so quaintly puts it, sometimes in an exaggerated fashion, such that she sits while doing her stand-up! 

It would be so very easy to lecture those, those who do not have her 'disability', but she does not; she engages in that most difficult aspect of the art of comedy;the self-observational comedy of someone who is, at a superficial level, unlike, and yet profoundly so like, their audience. The fears, which every human has, of inadequacy, of low self-esteem, of social exclusion are made specific to her condition and yet still retain the threads which binds her specific circumstances to the circumstances of every human being and, thus, to the amusement of all; and mighty funny it is too! I know how difficult it was for MG to engage with others, while he was still aphasic; to get up and parade this before a paying audience requires courage of a very profound nature. One can only applaud her 'bottle' for doing it!

And yet, nonetheless, cerebral palsy is known to hide, often, profound intellects in the shrouds of the inarticulate. Perhaps the most startling revelation was watching Daniel Day-Lewis in his performance of Christy Brown; a mind endlessly trapped in an unresponsive body and what it might mean to a mind so imprisoned.

But what of the mind caught in the discontinuities of Tourette's syndrome?

The mind still functions as it should; there seems to be no impairment to function but, as Jess(ica) Thom would point out, the syndrome casts strange and spontaneous outbursts which may often not have any relevance whatsoever. (I should add that only about 10% of people with Tourette's have a fixation on vocal expletives like 'fuck', 'shit' etc.) Jess Thom has 'biscuit', 'cat' and punching her breastbone to fixate upon, although the occasional fuck or cunt is not unknown..

Quite obviously, this a 'malfuntion' of the brain, and cannot be considered 'normal' behaviour but I wonder just how bizarre it actually is. My brain, and MG's too, often lurches sideways into seemingly incomprehensible discontinuities. How do you got from liver dysfunction to isotopic decay in the same 800 words? This seems to me to be not dissimilar to Jess Thom's 'tics', although perhaps more thought out than the random, involuntary 'tics' listed on her web-site, which seem, often, to me, a manifestation of a mind enraptured by the surreal; not a malfunctioning mind. In going through the 'tics', I find a, albeit perverse, logic in many of Jess' 'tics'; her spontaneous utterances.

Whilst many of them are amusing, some are downright hilarious, many seem profound in a Zen-like way. One cannot but wonder whether these are 'contrived' in any way; they seem so apposite to our existence. I believe Jess when she says that these are spontaneous, that she genuinely has no control over what she says, but is something going on in Jess Thom's brain, which is perhaps explicable in philosophical terms but not necessarily neurological?

A long time ago, back in 2008 I believe, I touched, in this blog, upon Daniel Dennett's idea that consciousness was an evolutionary phenomenon. And how, the emergence of consciousness was a subtle 'battle' between emergent ideas; one eventually winning to become conscious thought. What if, in Tourette's, random thoughts, normally suppressed, they were allowed to percolate to the surface? Not just the one that 'won out' in the battle to gain consciousness? Would that explain the somewhat random pairings of Jess' 'tics'; because some of them seem to have significance. At least to Jess' brain, if not, immediately, to ours.

Perhaps a failure of the 'suppresion module', whatever that may be, is to account for this. We are all, at a sub-conscious level, victims of Tourette's but the brain in most cases has evolved to filter out the 'extraneous' thoughts so as to better be able to filter out unwanted or perhaps damaging thoughts which may hinder or hamper our survival at a species level.

Perhaps we should revel in Tourette's as the real example of how our actual brains work without the self-imposed, instinctive  censorship, which our brains now naturally apply?

* Of course, this is subject to change on a daily basis.. However how awesome is the video to 'Come back and stay' by Paul Young? Rubbish video but you do get a glimpse of  a rare sight of the 'Fabulaous Wealthy Tarts'; got to be worth, at least, a 'high-five'!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Orcas, wave hunting and a plea for understanding

Narrow shave while out fishing this past week for Fjörgen's dinner; or at least I think it was a close shave. I ran into a pod of orcas; big buggers they were, at least eight metres long and fat as hell! We call them, minke hunters, after the minke whales that are their primary target. Fortunatey they didn't seem to be particularly interested in me; perhaps they sought a more substantial meal than one dozy emperor who has a habit of not looking where he's swimming. And that got me to thinking as I made my way back to the rookery.

There are rumours, gossip, within the scientific community, at least among those who study cetaceans, that we could be heading down the road of speciation for orcas; at worst they might divide them up into distinct races. You see, there's a funny (odd not amusing) fact about orcas that you might not know. (I, on the other hand do know; I have to keep my ear to the ice when it comes to potential predators.)

You see, orcas seem to have quite individual hunting styles depending on where they normally feed. The pods in a particular range- area of the ocean seem to have particular preferences for food and particular hunting tactics for ultimately catching their usual prey. They also appear to have quite distinct regional dialects in their calls and, possibly by extension, their means of communication with one and another; they do range, as a species, over most of the planet's oceans and the individual pods only number a dozen or so, although many pods may quarter particular tracts of ocean.

On a particular coastline in Eastern Patagonia, the orcas deliberately chase seals almost onto the beach in pursuit, possibly as a deliberate tactic; the seals having made the shore, they then feel safe only to have a seven ton behemoth suddenly grab them from behind. The orcas then flap and squirm in the tide in order that they can get themselves out into water which is deep enough to support their weight. This seemingly takes years to master successfully. (Some dolphins, I don't know what species, have seemingly learnt this trick also.)

Other pods follow the migrating grey and humpback whales and their newborn up the eastern pacific coastline towards Alaska, ambush them and seek to divorce the calf from its mother by a co-ordinated attack and then drown the calf by submerging it.

Pods that frequent the waters of New Zealand, whose prediliction is for stingrays, have learnt the novel trick of turning the fish upside down, which induces an almost hypnotic, semi-comatose state in sharks and rays, which probably also accounts for the success of the orca in the one observed 'battle' between the two apex predators of the oceans; the orca and the great white shark. (The sperm whales could likely destroy both but it hunts deep and so does not compete.) The orca won by simply turning the great white upside down and waiting for it to fall into 'a trance'! (I think that there is a film on YouTube but don't hold me to it.)

There are also pods which hunt in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, which have broadly similar tactics. They are primarily fish eaters, although the specific fish that they eat are not the same. They herd the shoals of fish into denser and denser melées until they cannot become any denser and then the orcas strike the shoals of fish with their tails, which effectively stuns them. The orcas can mop up at their leisure. What is perhaps strange is that the Pacific orcas seem to have a distinct 'rallying call' as they attempt to drive the shoal into maximum density, which is not mirrored in the North Atlantic pods.*

And finally, the one that I know best, because Havelock told me so, 'wave-hunting' around the ice floes where seals are to be found, catching a brief respite from the rigours of hunting fish (and penguins). The orcas swin en masse towards the floe to create a bow wave which cascades over the floe and so washes the seal out into the open water where it is easy prey.

Now, this seems to me to be learnt as behaviour; especially as Havelock tells it. He only escaped because the seal and him were put back on the flow and made to endure the terror again; the juveniles were being shown how to do it..

Now, whichever way that you look at it, to generate such a bow wave, at the very least, requires a co-ordination of effort amongst the pod members; maybe natural selection could have worked the magic to make this and all the other techniques work but is it not more likely that, like humans, the orca have learnt to communicate. Even if is it only 'whistle, whistle, squee, hum', "do as I do until you produce the same result'.

It is this fact which makes me undisposed to assigning different species to the various populations around the globe; the orcas are behaving like humans. They educate and care for their young; even, in some instances, their deformed adults, and they communicate a culture to those young, however basic, rudimentary or primitive it might be. They might have diverged genetically from each other, as human being might one day, if you are given the length of time that orcas have,, around 700,000 years but it appears clear to me that orcas have gained their place as supreme 'not-deep' water predators due to their acquired intelligence; not Mother Nature.

PS Is that perhaps why they couldn't get a pod to accept Keiko, the captive orca; he just didn't speak their language? How would you in Iran be accepted if you didn't speak Iranian