Category Archives: Environment

The big idea: should other species have their own money?

ONLY about 120,000 orangutans remain in the wild, and despite the whopping $1bn that has been spent on protecting them since 2000, their numbers continue to decline. The orangutan is the most endangered great ape, but the picture is only marginally less grim for the others – except us, of course – and the trend is the same across the living world: we’re witnessing a sixth mass extinction. Given that current conservation efforts aren’t working fast enough, many feel it is time for some out-of-the-box thinking. It doesn’t come much further out than giving other species their own money, but that proposal is now on the table. The first to benefit might be our intelligent, red-haired cousins…

This article first appeared in The Guardian on Saturday 12 March. To continue reading, click here.

 

Deciphering Dumba

A HERD of around 40 elephants processes across open grassland in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Led by a matriarch named Valente, they are headed towards a newly felled tree, a potential food source. The tree is out of sight: perhaps the elephants detected vibrations from the impact through their feet. That’s cool, and the procession is impressive – but elephant scientist Joyce Poole isn’t sure why this particular video went viral. Since May, she and her husband Petter Granli have been posting clips of elephants daily on social media, and others are far cuter or odder…

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 6 November 2021. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

Epigenetics, the misunderstood science

A little over a decade ago, a clutch of scientific studies was published that seemed to show that survivors of atrocities or disasters such as the Holocaust and the Dutch famine of 1944-45 had passed on the biological scars of those traumatic experiences to their children.

The studies caused a sensation, earning their own BBC Horizon documentary and the cover of Time (I also wrote about them, for New Scientist) – and no wonder. The mind-blowing implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance, and that traits acquired by a person in their lifetime could be heritable. Since we receive our full complement of genes at conception and it remains essentially unchanged until our death, this information was thought to be transmitted via chemical tags on genes called “epigenetic marks” that dial those genes’ output up or down. The phenomenon, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, caught the public imagination, in part because it seemed to release us from the tyranny of DNA. Genetic determinism was dead…

This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Why the world doesn’t need more babies

FERTILITY rates are falling across the globe – even in places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where they remain high. This is good for women, families, societies and the environment. So why do we keep hearing that the world needs babies, with angst in the media about maternity wards closing in Italy and ghost cities in China…?

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 8 July 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Shaping future cities

YOU have probably seen the annual rankings of the world’s cities by “liveability” or “quality of life”. It is intriguing to discover which come out top – and which bottom. After all, most of us have skin in this game: more than half of people around the world live in urban environments, and that number is growing. But you may also have wondered what “quality of life” really means. Which qualities? Whose life…?

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 9 June 2021. To continue reading, click here (paywall).