Saving the Pollinators: What Ontario could face if it takes on the Pesticide Companies

In his most recent annual report, Gord Miller, the environmental commissioner of Ontario recommended that, “the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment undertake monitoring to determine the prevalence and effects of neonicotinoids in soil, waterways and wild plants.”

Sumack, Blue SkyWith 25% of the global pesticide market, neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world. Developed as an alternative to aerial spraying, they are mostly applied as a seed treatment where they diffuse throughout the plant including its sap, pollen and nectar. They are suspected of playing a role in the decline of pollinators such as honey bees along with other stressors such as parasites, habitat degradation, decreased resource diversity, climate change and invasive species.

The European Union banned “neonics” as they are popularly known, some time ago in some but not all agricultural applications. These rulings have been challenged repeatedly, but various courts have upheld the bans, falling back on the precautionary principle in the face of often confusing data and the lack of consistent protocols in determining the impacts, sub-lethal and chronic impacts for example, on pollinators.

“New research on neonicotinoids is being published at an astounding rate, demonstrating an overwhelming level of concern within the scientific community. While much of this research initially focused on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, serious issues are being raised surrounding the broader ecological implications of neonicotinoid use,” writes the Commissioner.

An issue that pits manufacturers of a pesticide with a huge reach and the agri-business (87% of the world’s major crops are dependent upon pollinators) against scientific and lay communities with deeply held concerns about its effects on food and the environment represents a very high level of intellectual warfare.

There’s a pattern to this kind of warfare: manufacturers insisting upon the harmlessness of their products buttressed by their own research and litigious and public relation campaigns; highly competitive food producers; funding-strapped, over-worked, over-stretched, publicly-supported scientists; government agencies and their tangled bureaucracies adjudicating these warring parties based on evidence that doesn’t line up or they can’t understand; journalists who rely on press releases; a tax-weary skeptical public; and governments that won’t or can’t or think they shouldn’t be protecting environmental interests in the face of galloping expertise that always exceeds their grasp.

FungiGiven these hazards, Ontario can expect to run into some heavy weather if it attempts to seriously challenge the role of neonics. In 2013, The European Environment Agency published a thoroughly documented account of its exhaustive struggles concerning the neonicotinoid Gaucho® as part of a series called Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation. All the players including Bayer the pesticide manufacturer, publicly supported scientists, the beekeeping community, and various EU food-related agencies participated.

Honeybees have been aptly described as bio-warning systems, but they’re actually environments in microcosm, super-organisms, with many moving, highly engineered parts that together amount to a complex community. And all this complexity had to be captured in the EU research.

Difficulties arose at the outset. Researchers could not agree on what dosage was harmful to bees and there were many categories of harm, the fall-down-dead type and sub-lethal and chronic effects that impacted the bees’ physiology and immune system, effects that might become lethal over time or make the colony more prone to diseases.

As it turned out, extraordinarily minute quantities of neonics were causing problems for bees including memory loss and learning, interference with foraging, reduced reproduction and queen production, impaired immune function and increased susceptibility to pathogens. And depending upon the role the bees played and their age their exposure differed. Nectar and pollen stored and then fed to the young enlarged its effects. And effects differed among colonies that bore surprisingly varied genetic signatures.

Bayer had conducted pre-approval studies of the effect of Gaucho® on aphids, which it claimed were ten times more sensitive than honeybees. Other researchers were astonished by this “extrapolative assumption.” Aphids only showed effects in the short term while bees were repeatedly ingesting Gaucho® over the long term.

For Bayer, the gold standard was field and semi-field tests, even though the variables were seemingly infinite and uncontrollable. For this reason the publicly funded scientists preferred laboratory tests, where all the various factors could be held constant.

The publicly funded scientists felt their scientific integrity challenged by Bayer. One stated, “I personally received a letter from Bayer threatening me with a lawsuit for defamation. The letter, written by Bayer’s lawyers, warned of both judicial action and financial reparations.” As well, this researcher’s supervisor was pressed to use his influence with the researcher to modify his conversations with the press, pressure that was resisted.

The challenges continued. After years of work, a scientist suddenly found himself removed from the file. A researcher had his funded project on imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Gaucho® cancelled after much work had been done on it. Bee experts found themselves outnumbered by non-experts on decision-making committees. At one point, the Commission of Toxic Products came out with a decision in favour of Bayer without consulting its own Honeybee Working Group. To make its decision seem more palatable, the agency reframed the purpose of the study as determining whether Gaucho® was responsible for all honeybee deaths in all of France, a ludicrous assumption.

Beekeepers felt the heat as well. Bayer took three of their representatives to court accusing them of discrediting Gaucho®. Fortunately, the courts found against the company, with one judge reprimanding the plaintiff for attempting to intimidate the defendants.

WeedsBy Bayer’s own admission Gaucho® persisted in the soil (188 plus or minus 25 days) longer than the European Union allowable threshold of three months. It cropped in untreated plants. Bees infected with both a particular pathogen and Gaucho® showed higher mortality rates than bees affect by either one.

Long term, seed dressing may prove to be less efficacious than a topical application. Because it exerts a constant pressure on natural selection, it increases the likelihood of the plant becoming resistant. It’s a preventative measure applied whether needed or not, much like the misuse of antibiotics with possibly equally negative results.

What happens on farmers’ fields of course doesn’t stay on farmers’ fields.“Troubling questions are being raised about the broader environmental effects of these pesticides. Only a small portion of the active substance is taken up in seed-treated crops, and the rest enters the environment. This is of concern because neonicotinoids are not only persistent in soil and water, but are also water soluble and highly mobile within ecosystems, ” writes the Commissioner.

Among the lessons learned from the EU experience is, obviously that you can’t rely on insecticide companies or industry to get at the truth, but neither can you reply on environmental groups that are great at setting off bio-alarms, but may pick their agendas to further their survival as organizations. The really wobbly link is public scientists whose existence might be as precarious as the honeybees. These are the people we should be worried about.

Join me in conversation on Twitter @PennyPepperell

Managing New Challenges: Annual Report 2013/2014, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation, “Chapter 16 seed-dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees,”, European Environment Agency

Macro Ubiquitous Microbeads: Plastics in the Great Lakes

My mother got by with a little hand cream and a stub of lipstick. My under-the-sink-cupboard on the other hand is filled with bygone elixirs, some of which —body washes and exfoliates, toothpastes, deodorants and hand cleaners—are responsible for washing tiny microplastics, less than 5mm in diameter, down the drain and right through our waste management systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified 2,000 products containing tiny polyethylene and polypropylene pellets with soft abrasive properties, little scrubbers that make our skin glow and whiten our teeth, but cause internal blockages, dehydration and death in the fish and birds that eat them.

Microplastics can also alter the heat retention and light reflection properties of our beaches. Worst of all, pollutants such as DDT, PAHs and PCBs glom on to them, building to super high concentrations as they work their way up the food chain.


New York’s Attorney General estimates that his state flushes 19 tons of microbeads down the drain every year. California shreds 38 tons. Researchers have found on average eight pieces per small fish in Lake Erie, 20 pieces per medium fish and 44 per cormorant.

 (Something else to worry about: sunscreens contain nanoparticles, in particular titanium dioxide, (TiO2), that filter out ultraviolet rays but usually come coated with silica or alumina. When these substances hit the water, the coating dissolves allowing sunlight and oxygen to transform TiO2 into hydrogen peroxide or H2O2. H2O2 can inhibit the growth of phytoplankton—it’s an antiseptic after all. This is the finding first published in Environmental Science & Technology, and recently picked up by Scientific American. David Sánchez-Quiles of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies lead the study.)

According to a recent scientific paper, the first to take a serious look at microbeads in the Great Lakes, by Dr. Sherri Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, the lakes are awash in this stuff. Concentrations range from an insignificant 450 beads per square kilometer to over 466,000 near urban areas such as Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo. Lake Erie accounts for 90% of all the plastic debris found in the Great Lakes, with two samples of the 21 taken accounting for 85% of the total.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative has put its full weight behind this issue, doing a clever end run round the cumbersome regulatory process by convincing some cosmetic manufacturers to phase out microplastics. To date, here’s list of who’s on board: Beiersdorf (no set date); Colgate-Palmolive (by the end of 2014); Johnson & Johnson (by the end of 2015); L’Oreal (no set date); Proctor & Gamble (by the end of 2017); Unilever (by the end of 2015).  Aveda and Lush have ceased using microplastics altogether.

As well as addressing the industry directly, the Cities Initiative is asking some pointed questions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: what if anything is it doing about it; what research is it conducting into the impact on human and ecosystem health, and what steps is it doing to clean it the mess.

Personal care lobbyist strike a win

Sultan's SlipperThe beauty industry is fighting back. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, dedicated to a planet free of plastic pollution and sponsors of the Great Lakes study, Illinois passed an almost useless microbead bill thanks to the efforts of beauty industry lobbyists. They ensured that “biodegradable” plastics escaped regulation. But these so-called biodegradable plastics  aren’t in fact biodegradable except under very particular conditions such as industrial composts, certainly not in water bodies. Using similarly twisted language, the law is meant to apply to solid plastics that “retain their defined shape,” again, a misrepresentation of how plastic actually behaves. It gets smaller in the wild, becoming more digestible and dangerous while still retaining its molecular structure.

In the final indignity, the law exempts “over the counter drugs” from censure, “drugs” such as whitening toothpastes, aromatherapy, acne scrubs, wrinkle-reducing products, dandruff shampoo and moisturizing cleansers. And the bill concludes by leaving most of the levers in the hands of the industry.

More bad news: California just saw its proposed microbead bill go down to defeat by one vote. But New York, Michigan, and Ohio are moving ahead with legislation and Wisconsin is studying the issue. Let’s see what happens.

Canada isn’t on board yet
Canada hasn’t got a file on this. Leona Aglukkaq, Environment Canada minister identified the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as the appropriate vehicle for regulating this substance. But she added that “this is a plastic waste management/disposal issue” and therefore the purview of the provinces. This is a cop- out. Still on the federal front, NDP member Brian Masse, is working on a private member’s bill to address this subject.

Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change is studying plastics in the Great Lakes despite the federal government being responsible for their regulation. Results are expected this winter according to Peter Helm, a senior research scientist with the Ontario government.

If only there was a way to stop wild and crazy ideas like polishing our skin with microbeads from taking hold. Instead we reduced to mopping up the consequences, redrafting international treaties, relying on near hopeless private members’ bills, and pleading with cosmetic companies to change their ingredients. We’re struggling to reclaim ground we shouldn’t have lost in the first place.

The personal care business is not at risk here. Despite the fact that their products are completely unnecessary, we’re not likely to get over our quasi-addiction to them. And given the infinitely inventive capacities of this sector, I expect they could keep their lotions and potions within some well-thought-out environmentally friendly parameters and still make plenty of money. In the meantime, they could also choose not to follow in the footsteps of the tobacco industry.

Join me, PennyPepperell on Twitter for a conversation

Dr. Sherri A Mason: Bio and paper on microbeads

Sunscreen Floods Oceans as Warmer Waters Boost Tourism
Climate Wire, September 2, 2014, Scientific American

Ottawa Citizen, Marie-Danielle Smith, August 17. 2014
Environmentalists draw a bead on microplastics

Great Lakes & St. Lawrence River Cities Initiative
Microplastics in the great Lakes and St. Lawrence River

5 Gyres publishes first scientific paper on Plastic Pollution in the Great Lakes
Masses of Plastic Particles found in Great Lakes, October 28, 2014 blog post by Stiv Wilson

“Low Water Blues”: Not So Low, Not So Blue But So Overblown

Water LilyA Review of Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River

Executive summaries can pretty up (and smarten up) findings that have wandered away from where sponsors of a given report would like them to go. They can put a gloss over inconvenient distracting tidbits that might lead readers to think that the subject of a given report is not as troubling as it was first assumed to be. They can close the gap between what the wonks writing the paper think is judicious and what an agency supporting the study thinks will help their cause.

Keep this in mind when reading Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. This is the long awaited report by the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) and Ontario’s Mowat Centre. It tallies the costs attributable to low water levels for five economic sectors, (shipping, tourism, waterfront properties and water users) and provides descriptions but no fast numbers for low water impacts on ecological services and First Nations. The numbers are “sobering” says the executive summary: 9.61B from now until 2030 and $18.82B from now through to 2050, not including the costs of indirect impacts.

These worst-case scenario numbers are predicated on water levels hovering around the bottom of the historic 1918 to 2014 range for the next 35 years, a prediction based on a 2005 forecast. But here’s where the facts may have wandered away from where the sponsors wanted the report’s findings to go. More recent projections estimate water levels will be significantly higher than those predicted in the 2005 study. *

Not too long ago, most of us expected climate change would drive Great Lakes water levels through the historic floor. Now, based on several creditable scenarios (noted in the CGLR report, Page 17, Figure 10) we can expect water levels to stay not only within the historic norms but possibly on the middle to high end.

So why didn’t the report base its economic analysis of impacts on the most recent projections?

“Relying primarily on available economic impact data has carried over limitations inherent in the available data. Specifically…we cannot draw upon the most current GLSL [Great Lakes St. Lawrence] future water levels projections, and were forced instead to draw upon earlier projections that may have exaggerated future water level declines.”

Garden Channel 1This is a significant limitation but the important point is that water levels are expected to stay within the historic range, meaning those sectors most directly affected by them will have had some experience dealing with their ups and downs, even if these experiences are deeply buried in their organizational history.

Three decades of high water levels followed by 14 years of low water have meant that the long high looked like the norm when it wasn’t. 

“’Most of the key interests have demonstrated their capacity to adapt to changes in water level conditions that have been within historical upper or lower ranges.” Page 13. “In a region with a history of adaptation and adjustment to changing weather conditions, it is quite likely that there will be ongoing adaptation that affects multi-decadal economic impacts.’” Page 22.

Or not. Several U.S. ports have been starved of funds for necessary repairs. Indeed, in some States dedicated funds for this purpose have been siphoned off into general revenues, depriving ports of the means to upgrade. How fortunate then for the ports, if this regular maintenance bill can be tossed in with the costs associated with the water level “crisis”.

Low water levels are either something the big Great Lakes players have dealt with in the past and they should simply keep truckin’ or low water is the result of climate change, in which case pick a number and start working on your elevator pitch. Either way are Great Lakes industries entitled to special treatment? Should the government bailout marina operators in Georgian Bay and not ski resort operators? Are ports more worthy of exceptional funding than flood damaged roads?

Climate change is everywhere. If there is going to be any justice in how the huge costs associated with it are going to be distributed, then we should make an effort to understand the real environmental drivers.

Sunset 1Is climate change responsible for neglected infrastructure or the explosive growth of algae in Lake Erie? Is climate change destroying our wetlands or have pollutants and ever-encroaching human settlements more to do with it?

Don’t get hysterical about climate change. Just deal with it. This was the point made by an excellent report by the OECD about adaptive management: take the necessary steps to fix the climate change impacts instead of trying to make nature adapt to what we think it ought to be doing for us.

The CGLR report seems to be heading in the opposite direction. It is the brainchild of Georgian Bay Forever whose objective is to “address this crisis once and for all” by building a case for an all-encompassing multi-lake regulation project. This moniker has recently been replaced with “dynamic control structures” and “climate resilient structures.” They/it won’t work and they would cost a lot; so say the International Great Lakes Study Board and the International Joint Commission, both of which have backed adaptive management instead.

The authors of the CGLR report seemed to struggling to tell a bigger story than what the sponsors had in mind. Besides the lack of economic data to match the most recent water level projections already mentioned, the authors admit to not being able to “reliably quantify offsetting positive impacts of low water levels, since the available economic impact data focuses on negative impacts.” Page 22.

The authors wanted to balance the low water levels story with reports about the downsides of high water levels, which they did to some extent, but obviously these are inconvenient scenarios that get in the way of painting a very dark picture of the impact of low water levels.

Sadly missing is the story of the great economic opportunities represented by fixing things. These are jobs that can’t be exported to China. The progressive types these days are making the case that climate change is anything but a “job-killer” but not the CGLR report.

Waiting for a once-and-for-all hydrological structural solution means the day of reckoning with climate change gets postponed. It’s a distraction from our having to take responsibility for the state of our infrastructure and protecting what natural environment we have left.

*Water levels may go up, but we can still expect extreme weather systems and back-to-back climate surges. In January 2013, Michigan-Huron hit its all-time low, which was quickly followed by the winter of 2014 when ice cover in the Great Lakes hit 92%, up from 12.9% the previous year with a resulting dramatic rebound in water levels this summer.

To comment, join me on Twitter @PennyPepperell

Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) and the Mowat Centre Ontario’s Voice on Public Policy, June 2014

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters:

“Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO”, my blog,


How Climate Change Became Un-American

American FlagSuddenly, we seem to have entered a new phase in climate change. Tipping points, which a short time ago lay ahead of us, if not comfortably ahead, are now either staring us in the face or passed us by. The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting away, one among many, setting in motion irrevocable changes in sea levels. An El Niño event, building across the west coast of South America now threatens to spread warmer than normal temperatures across the equatorial East Pacific region, bringing devastating droughts to Australia and floods to the southern U.S. And still, Republican politicians feel the need to pledge allegiance to the non-existence of climate change.

Sociologists, pollsters and psychologists have been bearing down on the phenomenon in the hope of discovering why the U.S, the lead country for climate science, is also where skepticism is most prevalent, and why concern for the effects of climate change has been sliding downwards as knowledge about it has increased.

The role of the U.S. is crucial. Not only because it spews out 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, but because of its economic and cultural hegemony. Canada can attest to that. The Harper government insists Canada won’t/can’t/shouldn’t work harder than the U.S. to lower fossil fuel emissions. It also happens to provide a convenient cover for not facing the implications of our home grown, petro-economy.

Living in DenialIn Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, author Kari Marie Norgaard breaks down climate change denial into three forms: outright skepticism; interpretative denial (sort of accepting it but reinterpreting its consequences); and the mushier, more pervasive denial, which is worked in with passivity, guilt, and helplessness.

The U.S. ranks around the bottom globally for acceptance of climate change. The well documented, richly funded efforts by the fossil fuel industry, in league with conservative think tanks, to deeply massage the American psyche have been hugely successful because climate change grates on Americans in all the wrong ways .

“What to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed,” writes Norgaard. “Whether something is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern. Our social environment provides us with what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore.”

Climate change is too pervasive, too needing of collective action to jive with Americans’ heightened sense of individualism and their distrust of government and institutions—the flip side of their can-do attitude. Climate change is un-American. It runs counter to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, so ignored it.

Something that is likely to make you feel powerless should be avoided. The more climate change info out there, the less personal responsibility is felt, hence concern drops.

Norgaard argues that Americans, (she is one by the way) while disengaged politically compared to other advanced nationalities and ignorant of the mechanics of government, do perceive climate change as a function of weak government action. They just can’t see a way around it. American exceptionalism essentially blocks discussion of alternatives.

Inaction around climate change also flows from the poor standing of science in American political decision-making. Despite the high regard in which American science is held around the world, the American public has proved receptive to the idea that science is just another institution to be skeptical about. (They haven’t bought into evolution either.)

tree against skyThe misinformation-climate-change denial-campaign, just like the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer campaign aimes to stay clear of evidence-based everything. Winning arguments isn’t the objective, just sowing doubt. There is always another side, goes the thinking and so the American media find a debunker for “balance” what reporters in other countries might view as a case of straight reporting. Human survival gets reduced to a political issue; this, when there is more scientific evidence in support of climate change than any other contemporary scientific discovery argues Norgaard.

Of course there are great and compelling reasons why climate change gets a yawn. We’ve normalized it. We’ve allowed environmental disasters into our worldview. There are limits to how long we can maintain a level of anxiety appropriate to the level of threat we face, especially one that isn’t knocking us down right now.

The problem created by fossil fuels at least in its outline, is easy to understand, but the solutions aren’t. What exactly would the consequences of reducing carbon emissions by 60% over the next 50 years look like?

But now the fight has left the phantom boxing ring where the scientists and the deniers who have been squaring off since the 1980s. Because floods, droughts and wildfires are no longer far-off problems, governors of some affected U.S. states (Maryland, New York and Washington) are bearing down on climate change damage and pointing accurately to its causes. Nine northeastern states and California have adopted cap-and-trade policies. Eight states have passed legislation calling for a reduction in carbon emissions, according to the New York Times.

The paper quotes California Governor Jerry Brown as saying that his state “is at the epicenter of the impact of climate change. We have to adapt because the climate is changing. There’s no doubt that the evidence has been strong for quite a while, and it is getting stronger. We have to get other states and other nations on a similar path forward and that is enormously difficult because it requires different political values, to unite around this one challenge of making a sustainable future.”

The insurance industry, not noted for getting lost in esoteric, ivory tower discussions is seeing the damage, estimating its costs and pointing fingers—and their lawyers—at those responsible for insuring that homes and infrastructure are built for the future.

“Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. is suing Chicago for failing to prevent flooding related to climate change in what experts say could be a landmark case that accelerates local efforts to grapple with the impacts of climbing temperatures, ” reports E&E News.

Now that climate change has arrived on U.S. shores, the nomenclature has gotta change. The shrill skeptics have already muted their language somewhat if not their message. But it doesn’t really matter. Events have passed them by.

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard, The MIT Press

E & E News: Insurance Company Sues Ill. Cities for Climate Damage

New York Times: In California, Climate Issues Moved to Fore By Governor, Tuesday, May 20th,

The Science of Shakespeare: A Many Splendored Thing

Science of Shakespear_Canadian-cover_2A review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe

Think of London in 1600, a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s canon, as a mash up of Canada circa 1967 (Expo, Trudeau, a blasting economy, and lots of kids with hardly anything to worry about) and contemporary Palo Alto, the app startup incubator of the world. Throbbing with British bravado, the sinking of the Armada, religious freedom, explorations of the New World, 1600 was a time when princes, ruffians and pickpockets equally enjoyed bear baiting (an appallingly sadistic sport) and flowery poetry.

This was when the distinctions between religion, astronomy, astrology and magic were fluid; when “science” wasn’t science yet; when adventurous thinkers were pulling away from ancient ideas and increasingly relying on mathematics and observation.

In November 1572, when Shakespeare was eight, a supernova, a massive dying star shone in the sky for months, shaking up the idea of immutable heavenly spheres. It signaled the slow death of magical thinking and the birth of paradigm-shaking revelations: the distinction between electricity and magnetism; the law of inertia; the magnetic pull of Earth; the theory of lenses; Galileo’s telescopic discoveries (born the same year as WS); the laws of planetary motion; the law of hydrostatic pressure; and the law behind the swinging of a pendulum.

How curious then that scholars came so late to considering if and how this scientific exuberance might have found its way into Shakespeare’s plays. This is the subject of an excellent book, by Dan Falk. It’s a scholarly guide to some of the best thinking —and a refutation of some of the more loony ideas— about Shakespeare’s canon and the “science” of his times.

The science-bard link was first made by Peter Usher, an astronomer, in a paper he presented at a conference in Toronto in 1997, which he followed up with a book, Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, in 2010. He claimed that “Hamlet” was actually a gigantic face-off between the Ptolemaic and heliocentric/Copernican concepts of the Earth’s place in the universe, whether it be at the centre where the Ancients had put it, or farther out, a mere planet rotating around the sun.

Tree with hole“Perhaps the biggest riddle of the time was whether the universe was small, comfortable and human-centered—or whether, as a handful of bold thinkers had suggested, it was enormous, with mankind a mere speck and our planet, on a cosmic scale, little more than a dot,” writes Falk. “No wonder Hamlet sees ‘this goodly frame the earth’ as nothing more than a ‘congregation of vapours’, ‘a sterile promontory.’”

The scholarly community was prepared to buyin to this notion at least a little, but as for the more radical picture, that Hamlet was actually a secret allegorical code that Shakespeare had created with the idea of dodging the (non-existent) religious police,  well as one Harvard prof put it, Shakespeare doesn’t do allegories.

At the opposite end of the argument, it now seems absurd to suppose that Shakespeare, living within a few cramped dank city blocks of the world’s greatest pre-telescope astronomers, socializing as he did up and down and sideways across society as only celebrity entertainers could do, wouldn’t work in some scientific fervor into his plays. And this view seems to have won out, according to Falk.

The Science of Shakespeare is your time machine to a deeper appreciation of the plays and the history of science, especially regarding Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the book that moved Earth away from the centre of the God-created galaxy. Fortunately, the book stays away from the aggressive fact-twisting that imbues the attempts by the lunatic fringe to prove Shakespeare misogynistic or anti-Semitic or a literary fraud or something else that suits the temper of our times. Falk’s book is definitely a cut above all that.

But back to “Hamlet”, Falk does draw lines between specific references in the play to contemporary people and events. “Yond same star that’s westward from the pole” in the opening scene probably referred to the supernova of WS’s childhood. Hamlet’s pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were names plucked from a list on a 1590 engraving of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the greatest of the pre-telescopic astronomers. (Tycho is thought to have been the model for Prospero in the “Tempest.”)

More telling is Hamlet describing himself as the king of infinite space. “Infinite” applied to “space” was new. It’s his fussing over his role in the psychic and cosmic abyss that has kept “Hamlet” at the forefront of Shakespeare’s plays.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut just as “Hamlet” looks forward, “Macbeth” looks back to an older world of magic and witches. Falk describes them, these vectors of bad magic/science, as something of a national obsession. Witches could be male or female but they were usually described as old women, elderly, helpless, crippled, wrinkled, hairy-lipped, squinty-eyed, squeaky-voiced and with a scolding tongue. Their most intense persecution coincided with the scientific revolution, as people joined their need for vengeance with scraps of emerging science.

“Magnetism seems almost tailor-made for mystical interpretations…The very idea of magnetic forces ‘seemed to open the possibility of telepathy, magical healing and action at a distance.’ For example, if someone was injured by the use of a weapon, it made sense to apply the healing ointment not only to the wound, but also to the weapon; after all, if magnetic forces could affect planetary orbits, might not vital spirits readily traverse the short distance between weapon and wound?”

The same arguments for why you should read this book hold for why you should read Shakespeare. Because you need a rest from thinking bad thoughts about the ultimate legacy that human beings will leave the planet. Because understanding how the Copernican worldview picked us up and put us down in a different place throws some useful light on how we have “received” evolution, the last time we were reminded that our specialness is only relative.

I remember someone from my university days exclaiming that it was remarkable what WS could write, considering he didn’t have the benefit of modern psychology.  She got it backwards of course. We can’t know what Shakespeare thought, but we think we know what kings among others think, because Shakespeare convinced us of it.

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, by Dan Falk, published by Goose Lane in Canada and Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press in the U.S.

Author photo by Sara Desjardins Photography




Wanted: An Adult Conversation about the Spring Bear Hunt.

IMG_2699After a 15-year hiatus, the spring bear hunt is back for a two-year trial, subject to the approval of select municipalities in northern Ontario. Only residents of the province need apply, leaving out the Europeans, Americans and Russians who used to pack out the hunting lodges: so no bump in tourism dollars. (First Nations and Métis have always hunted year round.)

Public safety issues associated with nuisance bears were cited as the reason for reversing the ban. The Animal Alliance of Canada and Zoocheck Canada challenged that argument in court, arguing that the hunt would do nothing to solve the problem and would result in killing mothers and orphaning cubs but the court found against the groups.

“Politics” comes in for a lot of blame here. Some southern, nuisance-bear-suffering municipalities attribute their ineligibility to the province’s wanting the reinstatement to escape the attention of the “animal-rights-types”, presumably residents of the south. The proprietors of the just-scraping-by hunting lodges would have liked to see hunters from outside the province participate. And of course, the people who fought the long hard battle to institute the ban suspect the spring hunt is a vote-getting tactic in ridings where the Liberal government is weak.

Loading canoesHow bad is it? Carole White of McGregor Bay writes, “In the first break-in, the bear used its paws to rip open the dryer vent while we were in residence. Another time, again while we were there, the bear pried open a window and ran off with a large plastic bin of dog food without spilling a kernel. Two additional break-ins occurred when the cottage was unoccupied.  A large plate glass picture window was pushed in until it broke. The fridge was raided and food spilled about: cooking oil, flour and sugar all over the floor. The only thing untouched was a box of coffee filters.”

A few years back, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was painstakingly trapping bears, hauling them into trucks, driving 100 kilometres north, releasing them and then finding them back home again a week later.

MNR has been running a very popular Bear Wise Program. “Problems with bears are usually created by people. By following these tips every spring, summer and fall, you can avoid attracting bears to your property,” it instructed. But now the program seems starved for funds and the MNR has simply stopped looking after bears.

“MNR has a mandate to manage all wildlife and it doesn’t have the right to pick and choose what animals it is going to manage,” fumed one municipal official who wanted to remain anonymous.

Since the cancellation of the bear hunt in 1999, the bear population has exploded say observers, but data is difficult to come by. Meanwhile, some municipal officials complain that residents are exhibiting garbage-sorting and handling fatigue. Bags of garbage are being dumped willy-nilly after hours at transfer stations, leading to increased clean-up costs and the threat that the Ministry of the Environment will close the affected sites.

As country living gets increasingly urbanized, residents age, and entitlements seem to become increasingly entrenched, it’s reasonable to suppose that people are finding certain aspects of rural living increasingly unacceptable, such as being crazy-vigilant about looking after garbage, cleaning their barbecues after each use, eschewing veggie gardens, composters and bird feeders: all bear deterrents. And then there are the outliers who deliberately feed bears.

3 people paddlingThe Bear Wise Program is all about holding people responsible for keeping their food and garbage out of the reach of bears. But now attention has shifted to the bears themselves. They used to be a “nuisance”, now they’re described as a public safety problem.

The public safety aspect is a bit of a stretch. Black bears very rarely attack people. You are probably much more likely to be attacked by a dog. But bear break-ins are terrifying. Residents can legally kill a bear that threatens their home or person at any time, nothing new about that. But actually shooting a bear that has just ripped the door off your fridge with bear cubs standing by is not something ordinary people can or will do, even assuming they have the appropriate weapon.

But does it follow that the spring bear hunt will deal effectively with the nuisance bear problem? Although the word isn’t used, the spring bear hunt is actually a passion-enflaming cull: reduce the bear population and you are bound to include some nuisance bears. But the logical extension of that theory is if the nuisance bear problem persists, the solution is more culls: if you want to be really safe from bears, you have to eliminate all of them.

This slippery slope could be avoided if we just accepted the fact that hunters want to hunt, and where the harvest is sustainable and regulations can be respected, perhaps a hunt should be considered on own merits instead of trying to make a case that hunting is going to deal effectively with nuisance animals. Because if after a cull, the same triggers exist to habituate bears to feasting on human garbage and food, then good bears are going to become bad bears.

A more honest discussion would also ponder the fact that spring is the preferred hunting season when the pelts are glossier and the meat leaner than in the fall. Pre-hibernation bear fat I’ve been told is horrible to eat. On the issue of cubs being orphaned in the spring —they’re born over the winter—hunters claim the absence of foliage in the spring allows them to determine whether a bear is a sow with cubs.  Thus they can more accurately and legally kill only the males.

A Sans Souci hunter, just back from a 6-day moose hunt says his party found no moose at all but 29 bears. He speculates that the bears are emerging from their dens with no prospect of anything to eat except moose cubs and fawns, and that this is driving the moose and deer farther afield. He is definitely convinced that the bear population has exploded.

Intelligence gained in the bush year after year is invaluable, we should listen to it but as the biologists tell us, dramatic and devastating changes can happen to a species’ population over a very short time, and there is sometimes only the thinnest of lines between a small population and virtual extinction. But to have this sort of conversation, we would have to stop pussy-footing around the real agendas.

CBC News: Court Dismisses Animal Welfare Case Against Spring Bear Hunt

MNR Bear Wise Program

Ontario Press Release re Spring Bear Hunt

CBC News: Evidence to Support Spring Bear Hunt Lacking, Biologist Says

Animal Alliance of Canada



Saving the Experimental Lakes Area: the Real Ups and Downs

2 MallardsOn April 1st, the deal to save the Experimental Lakes Area, Canada’s world-renowned, whole-lake laboratory was finally signed after two years of nail-biting negotiations. The parties included the federal government, which wanted to divest itself of the complex; the Ontario government, which agreed to come up with the necessary two million dollars a year; Manitoba, which promised a lesser amount; and the non-profit, International Institute for Sustainable Development, which will operate the facility.

The Experimental Lakes Area, its 58 lakes and watersheds in northwestern Ontario, is hugely important to freshwater research in Canada and the world. This was ably demonstrated by the huge public and international scientific effort to “Save ELA” that was mounted over the fed’s obstinate refusal to continue providing the meager two million dollars a year needed to keep this one-of-a-kind research centre open. Harper’s government announced its emphatic decision to close the facility in 2012, and only grudgingly in 2013 did it bend a little to consider handing over its management to a new operator. But the deadline of March 30, 2014 was firm and negotiations went right down to the wire.

ELA Lake isotopesHow has the ELA fared over the two years it has had a gun to its head? What has been lost and won, and what is its future?

Thankfully, the ELA lives to fight another day and presumably produce important research to rank with its past achievements, groundbreaking work on the effects of acid rain, phosphorus loading, algae, and mercury pollution.

The institute is hoping to expand the scope of the research that will be conducted at the ELA, now that the facility is no longer restricted to conform to the mandate of Oceans and Fisheries Canada (DFO). It plans to take up new causes such as terrestrial manipulations and clean water technology. Also on the drawing board or to be continued are studies on micro-pollutants, the impact of climate change on hydrologic cycles, endocrine disruptors, microbial silver nano-particles, and mercury levels following the closures of coal-fired energy stations.

map ELAThe ELA has lost its dedicated staff, international stars in the world of freshwater research. This was the team painstakingly recruited by founder David Schindler from all over the world. By 2012, only 18 of the possible 28 positions at the facility were filled, but those who remained should have been given a lifeline to stay on, given that negotiations between the feds and the IISD were underway.

To date, the institute has recruited only about a third of the scientists it had at its peak, and no new whole-lake experiments have been initiated since 2012. On-going projects suffered and access was limited as DFO maintained very strict control over the facility, and cancelled fully funded operating projects for no apparent reason.

The ELA is undergoing a metamorphosis as it moves away from being a public science program under the auspices of the Government of Canada, meaning the scientists who will eventually be hired won’t be public servants. In the same vein, the ELA is not eligible for grants from either Oceans and Fisheries Canada or the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

The long tortuous process of negotiations also reflected this metamorphosis, as the institute was concerned to lay a path for an open data research policy and to ensure that the highly complex issues around liability, past and future were squared away.

“The combination of applied research capability and a policy think tank creates exciting opportunities to traverse the science-policy divide,” said Scott Vaughan, president and CEO of the IISD. “Together, IISD and ELA will be positioned to offer ground-truthed, policy-relevant advice on numerous emerging questions such as the impact of mercury from coal-fired electricity generating plants, the impact of micro-pollutants and the impact of climate change on hydrologic cycles.”

Of particular importance to the institute, the ELA had to be spared the necessity of applying for and getting permits to conduct each and every one of its research projects. That necessitated Oceans and Fisheries Canada having a mechanism to provide something of a blanket approval for research that involves the release of contaminants into lakes under controlled conditions.

Unfortunately the mechanism that the government came up with could be applied equally to industry, allowing the Minister to issue blanket approvals to polluters. This great gaping breach in the Fisheries Act severely undermines evidence-based analyses on a case-by-case basis. And because it is a regulation, it is being introduced without any discussion in parliament, the groundwork having been laid in the fed’s 2012 omnibus budget bill. This change is supposed to be reflected in the Canada Gazette this week, which suggests that ELA is providing the cover for a change that might be very controversial if it was a stand-alone measure.

We’ve seen this movie before. DFO’s powers have been watered down or assigned to the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Board, both via Memorandums of Understanding. I’ve covered these issues in previous blogs: February 19th and March 12th.

“What real-world research can tell us about the human impact on the natural environment is indispensible to putting the human relationship with this planet on a sustainable footing,” said Vaughan. “IISD looks forward to preparing a new science research program for the ELA later in 2014, with inputs from scientists as well as partnerships with local communities, and a commitment to an open and transparent program.”

The ELA is of incalculable importance to the health of Canadians and its scientific community. The battle for its survival was when most of us woke up to Harper’s antipathy to science.

CBC News: Experimental Lakes Area Research Stations Officially Saved

Save ELA

Reeves Report: Rebuilding Science Team at ELA a Tough Task

Putting climate change in its cosmic context

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth KolbertLook Both

The sixth extinction referred to in the title  is of course the extinction Homo sapiens are bringing about through the agency of climate change. Situating our extinction in a cosmic context sets an entirely different tone from say, the panic engendered by the recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is grown-up time. Take in the very big picture.

Setting the sixth extinction in its cosmic context tells you that the temperature change predicted for the next 100 years is similar to the range experienced during the last Ice Age, which left much of Canada buried under miles of ice. But as Kobert points out, while our “anthropocene epoch” is spewing carbon that took millions to years to bury, the temperature is changing ten times faster than it did at the end of the glaciation period.

Working through the devastation wrought by other cataclysmic events provides the perfect backdrop for understanding the implications of acidifying our oceans. Here’s a possibly incomplete list of what will be affected: metabolism of all kinds; enzyme activity; protein function; the availability of key nutrients like iron and nitrogen; how light passes through water; the passage of sound waves, making the oceans noisier; increased growth of toxic algae; photosynthesis; the reduction of carbonate ions, which hampers calcification; how compounds are formed by dissolving metals in ways that could be poisonous; and turning water corrosive. This is basic chemistry.

tout est possibleThe anthropocene epoch probably won’t be as bad as the day the asteroid hit earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period but we’re reaching into the bottom of all possible bad days to make the comparison.

“On an ordinary day sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid six miles wide collided with the earth, releasing 100 megatons of TNT, or more than a million times of the most powerful H-bombs ever tested. Debris, including iridium from the pulverized asteroid, spread around the globe. Day turned into night and temperatures plunged. A mass extinction ensued.”

Kolbert is not simply shoveling our environmental failings into a great pile (as I have done here.) She is making long strings of connecting dots. As the planet warms the critters of the world will attempt to move north or up the slope. Any species that can’t cope with temperature variation is doomed: that would include most of what now live in the tropics. The huge diversity of tropical species that co-exist in complex interdependencies typically live within very short thermal and spatial ranges and they ultimately depend upon constancy. Well they’ll be gone.

The ones that do manage to move up the hill in search of cooler temperatures, they’ll be  invasives and not welcome anywhere, and if they do get to the top they’ll have lots of company because there is less space at the top than at the bottom.

Elizabeth Kolbert, 6th ExtinctionMost species can’t move of course because our settlements are in the way, and the reserves we carved out at great cost to protect our charismatic species will be useless in the face of all pervasive climate change.

Where species aren’t killed outright, fragmented communities will survive and that means just a slower way of dying. Small environmental communities mean small populations of individual species, and small populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Changes in land use affect air circulation so it is possible that if the Amazonian rain forests dry up or are cut down or die of some pestilence on a large enough scale, there may actually be no more rain.

For all the terrible evidence, this book doesn’t lash out at the pernicious obstinacy of our governments, or at our prestigious capacity to deny the facts staring us in the face or lament that the poor are bearing the brunt of our profligate use of fossil fuels. Instead Kolbert paints a picture of climate change as the (almost) inevitable result of our resourcefulness and our throwing arm. Other primates can’t play baseball or tennis or throw spears.*

Evidence is mounting that H. sapiens, emerging from east Africa 20,000 years evolved into “overkillers”, hunting down species, especially mega fauna at a rate that exceeded the prey’s ability to reproduce, so no evolutionary advantage possible. Getting big is a wonderful escape from predators (except from the likes of us) but it comes with the baggage of months or years in gestation.

The disappearance of the giant herbivores changed the landscape. They weren’t there to chew up the forests, which caused a build up of fuel, which caused fires, which favoured fire-tolerant plants—these would be grasslands that favoured upright runners with projectiles.

We did the same thing to Neanderthals and Denisovans except we had sex with them first. Neanderthals had good-sized brains, but they never got the hang of throwing things. That left them in dangerous proximity to the animals they were trying to bring down.

Kolbert makes the point that given all this killing, on so many continents and the number of species we’ve managed to finish off, you could argue that the anthropocene epoch began in the middle of the last Ice Age.

Kolbert concludes by describing our often-pathetic attempts to save the critters, lovingly tending to their needs, applying a lot of science to understanding their inner functioning. It is what makes us human, just as much as drilling oil wells.

Climate change will leave its own geologic traces, as will river diversions, monoculture farming, ocean acidification and the great spike in methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“One hundred million years from now, all the great works of man will be compressed within a layer of sediment.”

The writing is so wonderfully wry, you want to squeal with pleasure at times, which seems entirely inappropriate given its message. But there it is. Human beings can hold two opposing ideas in their minds simultaneously and live to fight another day. It would be nice if we could call God into action to fix this place but it is really up to us.

* Scientific American ran an intriguing article on how well our anatomy is adapted to hunting in its April, 2014 issue. A flexible, taller waist allowed our ancestors to release a great store of torque power as they threw a spear. A less twisted upper arm bone and sideways-facing shoulder enabled humans to hurl with great accuracy and speed but compromised their ability to climb trees.  A long thumb and strong wrist provided a powerful grip. We also excelled at understanding social cues and could hunt in concert.

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Correction: A correction has been made in the preceding blog concerning the Fair Elections Act. This is regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers from Elections Canada to the office of the Director of Prosecutions. See the third to last paragraph. My apologies.

Why the Fair Elections Act is Bad for the Environment

Hockey SticksHarry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer for B.C. and author of a recent report on voting, testified before a parliamentary committee that 520,000 people might lose their right to vote under the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23. The impact this will have on those who have been disenfranchised has been lost so far in the loud condemnation of the bill as has the effect this will have on the environment.

Increasingly nature is dependent upon our protection. A tree is not simply a tree. Its health depends on the quality of the soil, the air, the water and the room we provide it in which to grow. It’s home to thousands of species from the bugs in the ground to nesting birds and the predators who steal the eggs from the nests, all of which have to be safeguarded within a policy framework.

This is a deceptively simple idea. To see the world this way you have to be truly engaged with your political and natural environment. Nature used to be considered an imposing backdrop that could absorb the abuses that people threw at it. We had dominion over it back then, although we rarely took any actual responsibility for our actions.

Sumack, Blue SkyFinding a fix for climate change and habitat destruction will require buy-in from a lot of people—assuming we ever get around to actually doing anything about them—because protecting the environment is going to cost us.

Disenfranchisement encourages political disengagement and passivity, reducing the disenfranchised to mere taxpayers and consumers. A person who has been deprived of the right to vote doesn’t have any responsibility for what the government does. Even if this government or any government, were to attempt to do something serious about climate change, without buy-in it would fail.

Critics of the Fair Elections Act have identified students and First Nations as two groups who are particularly vulnerable to being disenfranchised by this bill. Young people don’t need any encouragement not to vote. They’re engaged in their preferred social media silos, busily establishing their online communities, worried sick about jobs and as a result are less attached to places and the politics of those places. The doorbell doesn’t work, home phones are archaic, and who reads mail? But if they don’t engage politically, they’re unlikely to feel a degree of ownership or engagement for problems facing the environment. They’ll stay stuck in the ether complaining about the mess, instead of grappling with what to do about it.

Two lumpsAnd disenfranchising First Nations is a seriously bad idea. It might look tempting to a government bent on removing all possible impediments to ramming through development proposals in the North. Just sayin’. But it could have grave consequences.

Unlike many young people, First Nation communities have a deep attachment to the places where they live but at the same time they feel estranged from Canadian institutions. This is not a good basis for cooperation on issues to do with managing the environment, and disenfranchisement will only weaken the threads on which negotiations depend, on such things as the Arctic and pipeline routes.

Of course not getting the signals straight on the environment is a layer on top of the moral reasons why disenfranchising First Nations by erecting cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles to their voting is appalling. They only got that right as recently as 1960, when Prime Minister Diefenbaker saw to it that they could vote without losing their treaty rights.

It looks like almost 60% of Afghanistan citizens voted in recent elections, risking violence, possible death at the hands of the Taliban who threatened to blow up their polling stations. Oh the heart-rending irony of it, if Canadians are going to sink back into their comfortable chairs and view the world through a flat screen until this particular kerfuffle passes.

The Harper government proposes treating Election Canada in much the same way as it has the Department of Oceans and Fisheries: reducing its authority by breaking up its responsibilities. (DFO is having its powers to protect fish signed over to the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Commission. I’ve covered these issues in previous blogs: “Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again,” March 3rd, 2014; and “Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda,” February 2nd, 2014.)

The Fair Elections Act would have Elections Canada’s investigative powers assigned to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which answers to the cabinet.  Both Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and Yves Cote, commissioner of elections agree that this move would impede investigations and compromise the commissioner’s independence. In testimony to a parliamentary committee, the commissioner said this would slow down investigations, create communication problems and goes against the principles established by regulatory bodies such as the Canada Revenue Agency, the Competition Bureau and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Harper government is also putting an end to the use of the voter identification card as a legitimate means of establishing one’s address, a necessary condition for voting; 400,000 people used it as part of a pilot program in 2011. When you put this up against some of the bill’s 39 so-called legitimate means of establishing one’s identity such as a letter from someone who works in a soup kitchen, this is crazy. Harper wants to invalidate a communication piece from Elections Canada to voters in favour of a long list of other identification forms that have nothing to do with elections or voting.

The Fair Elections Act is a very daring reworking of Canadian democracy. It is of a piece with the Harper government’s prorogation of parliament, its omnibus bills, limiting debate in parliamentary committees, invoking closure and the sort of behaviour that got it found in contempt of parliament, the only government in the Commonwealth ever to be so humiliated.

Everything You Need to Know about the Fair Elections Act, Globe and Mail

Don’t Undermine Elections Canada, National Post, “We the undersigned…”

Andrew Coyne: The Tories were Right to be Nervous. Marc Mayrand shredded their Fair Elections Act almost line by line, Andrew Coyne, March 11, 2014,

“We Believe this Act will Prove to be Deeply Damaging to Electoral Integrity within Canada” We the undersigned… March 19,2014

Current Voter Identification

CBC News: Do you have the Right ID to Cast a Ballot in a Federal Election? Laura Payton, March 29, 2014,

Huff Post Politics, April 7, 2014, Fair Elections Act: Public Prosecutor Not Consulted on Planned New Role

CTV News, Elections Commissioner Wants Power to Compel Testimony from Witnesses, April 2, 2014,

Correction: A correction has been made regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers in the third to last paragraph. My regrets.

The Intelligence of Chickens and the Great Chain of Being

Rushing waterThe February issue of Scientific American includes a delightful article by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski on the intelligence of a creature we usually encounter at the supermarket: featherless, cut in pieces, lying prostrate on a Styrofoam tray and covered with a slick sheet of cellophane. By now, we’re used to the idea that the critters out there are way more intelligent and social than we used to give them credit for, but chickens?

If we’re going to credit chickens with social awareness, cunning, a language and complicated dating behaviour, then this is the definite proof that the Great Chain of Being rather than stretching up to heaven is lying dangled on the ground in a great heap.

But to return to chickens: it has been known for some time that the natural chicken world is rather harem-like with an alpha rooster maintaining order over his “girls” by showing off what a good provider he is. His courtship strategy involves swinging his wattles from side to side and bobbing up and down over a food source while saying “doc doc”. Should his rivals seem inclined to move in on his intended, he will peck them.

From there, things can get complicated as was discovered by Carolynn L. Smith, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia. The male who has been sidelined by the alpha rooster can still get the girl if he can perform the bobbing dance convincingly while omitting the accompanying “doc doc” sound—that would attract the attention of Mr. Big and his pecks.

Sinkhole(We know of other avian strategies to undermine the dominance of the alpha male. A young red-winged blackbird will take advantage of his feminine-like absence of colouring to move in on an older male’s territory. This ploy is not unknown to humans of course. Literature is full of tales of men disguising themselves, sometimes as women, to get past the gate.)

Nicholas and Elsie Collias of the University of California correlated 24 different chicken calls to distinct events/crises/opportunities in a chicken’s life, events such as a new food source, flying predators, ground predators, rivals, love interests, threats to offspring and so on.

Scientifically establishing the connection between these momentous events and their corresponding millisecond chicken sounds proved more difficult until the advent of audio and 3-D video recorders and high-resolution television sets. Using these tools, Chris Evans and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia created a virtual reality for these birds including virtual companions and virtual predators, and then recorded the chickens’ responses. Think of this as a Truman Show for birds.

Carolyn L. Smith clinched it when she came up with a contraption made up of the hooks and cups she cut off from bras (black only) that she used to fashion backpacks for her chickens. Called Chicken Big Boy 2.0, she used them to record all the fleeting sounds her chickens made and link them to events. That’s how she stumbled upon a purpose for the rooster’s wattle that had baffled other researchers. It exaggerates his head shaking, female alluring, come-and-get-my-food behaviour.

The research team concluded that these chicken sounds did in fact constitute a language of sorts that was understood and acted upon by other chickens. Even more surprisingly, they tailored their communications to particular audiences. A rooster might raise an alarm if his sweetie was in danger, but remain silent if the danger, an eagle say, might threaten his rival. Lying by omission is definitely a higher order of malfeasance than pecking some guy’s backside, while screaming, “Die, you feathered dick head!”

Similarly, mom chickens exercised discretion about sounding an alarm depending upon whether or not they had chicks about, saving their vocal chords for when it matters.

However, Joanne Edgar at the University of Bristol in England discovered something like the opposite when she discovered that a mother hen becomes distressed at seeing her chicks exhibiting signs of distress, even in cases when there wasn’t actually any cause for it. This is an example of empathy, as well as getting all worked up about nothing.

Further research conducted by Giorgio Vallortigara at the University of Trento in Italy has indicated that young chicks can distinguish numbers and grasp elementary geometry. Given a triangle with two sides, the chicks could mentally supply the missing side. What evolutionary value this might have, is not explained, but perhaps the evolutionary value of triangles to us humans still remains to be explained.

If these researchers had presented their findings at a European university in the Middle Ages, they would have been burned at the stake, not simply because their ideas would have seemed outlandish, but because they would have been regarded as deeply heretical, guilty of spreading egregious falsehoods about the Great Chain of Being.

StepsThe Great Chain of Being has its origins in the works of Plato and Socrates around 400 BC before Christianity grabbed on to it. It assigned a place in a hierarchical order to every being in the universe beginning at the bottom with stones and metals before proceeding upwards through plants, animals, humans, and angels, all the way to the highest perch occupied by God. The higher up the chain, the more noble and intelligent, more “spirit” and less “matter” one had. And every one of these divisions would have its own sub-orders, and sub-orders within them: lots of stuff for monks to quibble about.

The highest order of birds were birds of prey, hawks and owls, followed by vultures and crows, then worm-eating birds such as robins and ending with seed-eating birds such as our poor fried, roasted, poached, breaded and Saran-wrapped chickens.

Challenging these rankings, such as ascribing a form of intelligence to chickens, or actually even thinking about this, was received as telling lies about God. It led to disorder that reverberated along the chain. Shakespeare’s King Lear was mad, which reflected a disorder in the state, which was a function of a child ruling a father and subjects ruling a king, which also found expression in disturbances in the heavens, meteoric disturbances. We understand these references to be metaphors now but in the Middle Ages, they were taken much more literally.

The Great Chain of Being is so deeply ground into our brains that it didn’t have to be cited directly to justify the subjugation of one order by a higher order. The domestication, captivity of, and cruelty to animals just seemed like the natural order of things. The same rationale was applied to slavery and the subjugation of women and on it went. This explains why the theory of evolution was so threatening. It suggested that beings weren’t fixed on the rung of a ladder, and that they had once been something else before being what they are now.

The chain is long-ago stuff we no longer “believe” in, but it’s still stuck inside us and can be yanked back into consciousness whenever it suits our designs. Until science comes to the rescue and pushes it back down again.

Wikipedia, The Truman Show, 1998

Virtual Chicken Experiments Solve Mystery of Why Roosters have Wattle

Scientific American: Brainy Bird, by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski, February, 2014

Wikipedia: Great Chain of Being