The invisible Lagoa da Turfeira, an environmental disaster foretold…

Originally written by Luciano Moreira Lima, published in Portuguese at Caapora.

One of the last major wetlands in the southern region of Rio de Janeiro state is in serious risk of disappearing

Of the thousands who cross daily the 299 km milestone of Presidente Dutra Highway (BR-116), very few would realize that, outlined on the west by a sharp bend in the river Paraíba do Sul is one of the last great natural wetlands of southern Rio de Janeiro, the Trufeira lagoon (sometimes known as Kodak lagoon). This situation, however, causes little surprise, since the large pond appears to be invisible not only for the drivers concentrating on the road. It’s no use looking for its approximately 700 thousand square meters on the detailed hydrographic map of the city of Resende (produced in partnership with the municipal authorities, available here). You will not see an indication of even a single drop of water on the site. Which is at least odd, since other bodies of water up to 10 times smaller are correctly displayed on the map and that Lagoa da Trufeira can easily be spotted more than 10 kilometers above the surface, through Google Earth.

Panoramic view of Lagoa da Trufeira, where it is possible to see Paraíba do Sul river on the right. Resende, RJ. Source: GoogleEarth

If an area equivalent to more than 70 football fields can go unnoticed, one can only wonder about those who inhabit it, like the tiny Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri) with its unruly crest and a measly 9 and a half centimeters. As if its size wasn’t enough, this beautiful bird lives only among dense thickets of a southern cattail (Typha domingensis), one of the most typical plants of Brazilian flooded areas. Ornithologists and bird watchers know that, in order to observe it, willingness is not enough; one needs to be absorbed into the taboas, often sinking in water up to the thighs while keeping ones ears sharp to its discreet singing – listen to it here -.

The tiny and handsome Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri). Picture: Bruno Rennó.

Over 11 years of regular visits to the Turfeira Lagoon and its immediate surroundings in partnership with my friend and fellow ornithologist Bruno Rennó resulted in the record not only of the discrete tricolino but of at least 169 other species of wild birds on site. Representing about 20% of the birds of the State of Rio de Janeiro, some of them are noted as endangered species statewide. There are also various migratory birds to which the lagoon is an important refuge.

The results of this study – partially presented at the XVI Brazilian Congress of Ornithology – made clear the importance of the Trufeira Lagoon for the conservation of biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro and helped raise awareness of the municipal government for actions to be taken about its preservation. Thus, in 2010 the Environment Agency of the city of Resende formulated the document “Preliminary Technical Study for Establishment of Protected Kodak Wetland Area” [in Portuguese], and among the main findings were:

“The creation and implementation of conservation unit Banhado da Kodak is in line with Brazil’s international commitments to protect the environment, according to targets set by the UN, in accordance with the International Year of Biodiversity.

“A criação e implantação de unidade de conservação no Banhado da Kodak alinha-se aos compromissos internacionais do Brasil de proteger o ambiente, conforme metas estabelecidas pela ONU, em se tratando do Ano Internacional da Biodiversidade.

The creation and establishment of the unit will cause an increase in the GST of the municipality, as required by Law.

It follows, therefore, that the unit will have great benefits to the city [...]”

Two years went by since the completion of this document and the lagoon was gradually being forgotten again by the governmental agencies, until last week. On the 19th of April, alerted by friends, I found out that the City of Resende had proudly posted an image of the invisible Lagoon on its Facebook page accompanied by a few news paragraphs. However, instead of the title mentioning any action aimed at the conservation of the area, there it was: “the Nissan building site”. In a haze of confusion and not wanting to believe what I had just read I realized that not only nothing was going to be done to save the lagoon but also they were proudly announcing what could become one of the greatest environmental tragedies of recent southern Rio de Janeiro history. I waited for the weekend, then went home in Resende to see with my own eyes the situation of the area.

Lagoa da Turfeira on the Resende Municipality Facebook page.

It was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the 21st. From Dutra Highway was already possible to see a huge area of exposed land through mists of dust raised by the movement of a literal fleet of bulldozers, diggers and trucks. I follow the dirt road parallel to the lagoon and under the apprehensive stare of the workers, I made my way through the machines. The constant noise of the engines plus the dust were contributing to make that scene of destruction even more desolate and I soon realized that I was not the only one lost there; a Great Egret (Ardea alba) and two Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) flew aimlessly between two already muddy puddles, being repeatedly scared off by the machines.

I searched in vain for the area at which, in 2001, I had made the first documented record of Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in the State of Rio de Janeiro and where we often watched the threatened Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris). Too late, the colony had simply turned into bare earth. A little further ahead, in an area that still had some vegetation, there was an impressive concentration of birds, where the colorful Yellow-rumped Marshbird (Pseudoleistes guirahuro) and the White-browed Blackbird (Leistes superciliaris) stood out, resembling refugees crowding by the hundreds and fleeing a massacre.

Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris), snapped at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Ciro Albano.

White-browed Blackbird (Sturnella superciliaris), captured at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luiz Ribenboim

I drove further up the road to the top of a hill and from there I could better assess the damage. The extension of the groudned area was impressive and even though at that moment the main water body had been spared, several flooded areas around it had been completely grounded. From there I could also see once again something that always felt like a special omen; an old channel located in the northeast corner connecting the water with the Paraiba do Sul river, that, although partially silted today, has worked as a spillway for the water and could again be used to drain it. On my way back, I drove on a road that had just been opened and that strangely lead to the pool and that made me even more worried, asking myself the purpose of that passage.

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Because of my Masters degree I have to live in São Paulo and I gradually get used to traffic jams, pollution and urban violence. So, I have nothing against the car manufacturer, nor against the said progress that says that the population of Resende will increase about 50,000 people over the next five years. But, it is worth remembering that lagoons are characterized as areas of permanent preservation, so they are untouchable.

Moreover, surely an environmental impact study must have been produced for a project of this magnitude, which certainly should have identified that any activity that affects the lagoon could result in an irreversible tragedy for the region’s biodiversity. Therefore, I would have liked the opportunity to participate in a public hearing where the fate of Lagoa da Turfeira could be seriously debated.

Although its surroundings have already been greatly impacted, there is still time to save what remained of the last great natural wetland area of the southern valley of the Paraíba do Sul river. The implementation of a conservation unit – be it by the municipality or by the state, would be not just a way to ensure long-term existence of the Lagoon and its rich biodiversity, but also an opportunity to create a space where, through interpretative hiking trails and a visitor center, the population of Resende would find a new leisure option that fits perfectly with the environmental vocation of the city. There is also the great potential for the practice of one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country, bird watching. Not coincidentally, the Lagoa da Turfeira takes three pages of the book “Birdwatching guide to South-East Brazil”, which provides detailed information about some of the best places for birdwatching in the Brazillian Southeast. Not to mention the numerous photos taken there and available on WikiAves – see here – that show that the environments of the lagoon are often sought after by birders.

Around 4:30pm the cloudy sky evolves into a light rain that helped to hide watery eyes. Indeed, ignorance is the best way to happiness. My greatest sorrow was not for being an eyewitness to such aggression against nature, but mainly for realizing the importance of that place to life and knowing first and last names all those doomed to seek in vain for a new home. I went back home heartbroken but willing to do everything I possibly could to show that the colors and sounds of the thousands of lives that depend on the Lagoa da Trufeira make it anything but invisible. Aware that the tragedy has been announced, it is up to us to let it, or not, happen.

Abortions and Cesareans

Originally written by Karl, published in Portuguese at Ecce Medicus.

Cesareans delivery

- You popped?! How nice! Was it natural?

- Natural, yeah…. For the doctor, right?

Dialogue between a postpartum woman and the author of this article.

It made last week’s headlines the information from the Health Department showing that for the first time, Brazil reported more cesareans than vaginal births in a year: 52% overall. According to an article in Folha de S. Paulo, rate of cesareans in the private sector has been stable since 2004 and is around 80%. In the Public Health System (SUS in Portuguese), that number is increasing and went from 24% to 37% in the last decade.

The term cesarean section does not seem to have anything to do with Julius Caesar, supposedly born of this procedure, as I was taught in college. As Professor Joffre [in Portuguese] emphasizes; “the word cesarean and the expressions cesarean section and cesarean delivery are linked to the Latin verb caedo, caesum, caedere, which is equivalent to the Greek témno, to cut.
From it, derive caesus/a/um, “that which has been cut”; caeso/onis, to slipt or separate; caesura, a cut or cuts; and caesar/aris, the same as decaeso/onis, i.e., one that is taken from the mother’s womb, or “qui caeso matris utero nascitur”.

It is a known fact that Brazil is the world champion in caesareans, and it has been roundly criticized for it (a small collection of links: unnecesarean, guttmacher with a Brazilian reference, another reference in PDF, another Lancet study [subscribers-only], among many others). But as the post title suggests, I would like to make a parallel between abortions and cesarean sections.

Let me first disclaim my conflict of interests; I do not believe in abortion as a contraceptive method in public health because it does not work well as one. But, regardless of what sectors of the Church, the Brazilian Theocratic State, sociologists, doctors, etc want, it is a woman’s prerogative. Abortions should be “accessible, safe and extremely rare,” as it has been said. It is one of the symbols of the gap between Brazilian social classes the way its practice permeates the various segments of the female population of the country: from knitting needles, outlawed abortive pills and pray-for-the-best, to highly-equipped clinics with all the comfort and care of large hospitals. (I won’t even discuss the issues of malformed fetuses and the mother’s risk of death, because it would be too much for this post. See my views on the subject [in Portuguese] here, here and here).

Back to cesareans and the bewilderment caused by it. The cesarean delivery follows the same reasoning as with abortions: it is a woman’s prerogative if she wants to have her baby vaginally or surgically. The problem is that this decision is never fully explained and here enters the role of the physician. I did five natural deliveries during my medical training. In some, I spent the whole night with girls writhing in pain without any relief. If there was no alternative, fine, the gift of motherhood will always compensate for anything, at least that’s what they say. But if there is a different approach in which the risk/benefit ratio is acceptable, why not try it out? Who decides? The MD and the mother, and no one else.

The doctor, however, should play the same as when is presented with someone wanting to have removed an unwanted fetus. Expose, with the highest possible moral exemption, the risks of the procedures and take a position. These are not decisions that are up to patient alone. Saying that one does not do nor prescribe abortive procedures is completely legitimate. The patient should know that this is against Brazilian law and that the doctor who does it is in risk of being sued. With C-sections, the situation is more bland, but similar. There is no law against it, but there are clinical indications more or less needed. If a pregnant woman wants a cesarean section, the physician should explain the risks and take a stand. The problem is that there is a doctor’s bias favoring the procedure. Now we’re putting the fox in the hen house. And with that, I can not agree.

Let’s put some data in this discussion. Obstetricians and the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 15% of deliveries should be cesarean due to complications related to them. If private hospitals in São Paulo City, the rate is around 80%, according to the Folha, there is an excess of 65% in favor of cesarean sections that needs explaining. There is a group called Caesarean Delivery on Maternal Request (CDMR). There are strong indications, according to the Lancet study cited above, that this “movement” has begun in Brazil and spread to other nations. It is estimated that this type of “indication” may account for up to 20% of cases of surgical deliveries. Zhang’s study (below) checked 1.1 millions of non-twin births over 13 years in southeastern China and showed a significant increase in the number of caesarean sections in large part due to CDMR. In some places, the indications at the request of mothers reached 50% of C-sections. In Brazil, Osis and colleagues (below) set out to try to understand why so many cesareans. They studied 656 women in São Paulo and Pernambuco, users of public health services, and divided them into two groups. The first consisted of women who had previously experienced vaginal delivery and then had a cesarean. The other, consisting of women that had gone through only cesarean deliveries. 90.4% of women who had at least one vaginal delivery considered it best, against 75.9% among those who had only cesarean sections (the number of those who had only vaginal deliveries in the study was too small which constitutes an important bias). If those who had cesareans entered into labor, the result would have been similar (45.5% and 42.8%). 47.1% of those who had vaginal delivery said it had no downsides, compared to 30.3% of those who did not. On the other hand, 56.7% of women who only had cesareans reported that having no contractions was the main advantage of the method against 41.7% of the others. The conclusion of the article is that the pain is important, but women classify it as secondary. First comes the child’s health and the recovery from the operation. In addition, in Brazil is very important to be able to perform a tubal ligation (“tying the tubes”) for sterilization and this weighed in choosing the route for delivery. This constitutes a serious flaw of public health policies of those two states with regard to birth control, according to another article. We can not replace one mistake for another.

To conclude this long blog post, I’d say:

1. It is legitimate for a mother to want a cesarean (CDMR), as much as it is legitimate for a mother to not want to carry out an unwanted pregnancy – her prerogatives, exclusively – since she is fully informed of the consequences that such procedures actually involve. (Some people argue about what is “fully informed” saying it is impossible for a layperson to be clarified about procedures with such complex consequences, which creates implications for the informed consent, the instrument without which NO clinical research is done, just so we get a glimpse of the size of the problem we are dealing with).

2. Physicians have a key role in the choice of the delivery route and must rid themselves of their individual preferences to advise the pregnant woman. Given the enormous difficulty in doing this (since a physician trusts their skills for both procedures) is not totally unreasonable to seek a second opinion on the subject. This reduces, without a doubt, any bias. But increases insecurity, another difficult choice.

3. The excess cesareans is an example of the medicalization of Medicine. Like baldness, shyness and restless children [in Portuguese], it shows us how to turn arbitrary “deviations” of normality into technically manageable pathologies.

Photo taken from the blog Parir é Nascer.

ResearchBlogging.orgZhang, J., Liu, Y., Meikle, S., Zheng, J., Sun, W., & Li, Z. (2008). Cesarean Delivery on Maternal Request in Southeast China Obstetrics & Gynecology, 111 (5), 1077-1082 DOI: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e31816e349e

ResearchBlogging.orgOsis MJ, Pádua KS, Duarte GA, Souza TR, & Faúndes A (2001). The opinion of Brazilian women regarding vaginal labor and cesarean section. International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics: the official organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 75 Suppl 1 PMID: 11742644

For a world without mass destruction

Originally written by Maria Guimarães, published in portuguese at ciência e ideias.
Thumbnail image for 0912180220.JPGBecause of its importance, I decided to publish in this blog a subject quite different from the usual: an official side of the search for nuclear disarmament.
Below is the speech made by the Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Filipe de Macedo Soares at the United Nations Disarmament Comission, a couple of weeks ago. The diplomat heads the Brazilian mission in that Commission, housed in Geneva, Switzerland, and he calls attention to the urgency of taking measures to eliminate the capacity that some countries have of destroying the planet.
According to the Ambassador, little of concrete is said in the meetings of this multilateral negotiation organ – probably because of the fear imposed by powerful States on the unarmed ones.
His intention is to plant the seed of a real discussion, both in politics and in society. I clearly remember, from when I was a kid, the slogans “Hiroshima never more” and “Nuclear power? No thanks” (this latter came in buttons with a red Sun on it). The subject has since disappeared from the headlines, while countries are are daily bombarded.
I found, thus, interesting and timely to bring a bit of the formal voice in this discussion.
(The photo above is one of the murals, painted by the Catalan José Maria Sert, which decorate the Councils Room, where the meetings of the Disarmament Comission are held; below, a session presided by the Brazilian Ambassador and photographed by Marie-Christine Macedo Soares)


Madam President,
The very first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on its seventeenth plenary meeting, on 24 January 1946, dealt with disarmament. We all know that, for it is often mentioned in order to highlight the importance of the matter and the sense of priority recognized by member States since the beginning of the Organization. The title of Resolution 1(I) is the following: “Establishment of a Commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy” (end of quotation). The Commission was mandated to make specific proposals, among other purposes and I quote: “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.
The Commission’s title, apparently a result of careful negotiations, showed the difficulty to situate in time and fact the origin of the “problems” it was supposed to deal with. The “discovery of atomic energy” was more neutral as a historical landmark than the making, the testing or the actual use of the bomb.
At that point in time, only one country[1] possessed atomic bombs. That fact explains the reluctance to identify a precise point of departure for the “problems” while not tying them to a single specific country.
Soon proliferation would start and continue in the following six decades. It is anyway meaningful that the existence of “problems” and the need for “elimination” of atomic weapons was acknowledged from the beginning of the United Nations.
Since that moment a number of additional countries acquired nuclear weapons, each of them for different reasons, but with the underlying common factor of enhancing security and ascertaining power for every one of them[2].
Given that early conscience of the unacceptability of nuclear weapons it is always useful to remind that the first possessor and the subsequent four proliferators are not more legitimate than others that later followed the same path. There are no legitimate nuclear weapons. Legitimate indeed are the international community’s expectations that those States which possess nuclear weapons do live up to their commitments on nuclear disarmament, an objective they have agreed to pursue either on the basis of the NPT[3] or by means of political declarations and UN Resolutions, the most important of which is the final document of the First Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD-I)[4]. In addition, the International Court of Justice has made abundantly clear there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects[5].
After two thirds of a century, the international community has not reached the goal set by the first UNGA Resolution. What we can do here, as I am doing now, is to work to avoid the sad commemoration, not so far away in time, of the first centennial in the company of nuclear weapons. The achievement of that aim would not happen in my lifetime but I would like to spare my children and grand-children from witnessing that sad commemoration.
We cannot ignore efforts made in the course of these past decades. The two main possessors have established treaties on the reduction of their arsenals. Important as these may be, they correspond nonetheless to exercises of bilateral mutual calibration of destructive power[6]. Unilateral reductions have also been carried out and are always good news. It is however not very comfortable to celebrate measures, positive as they may be, but that preserve to a few nations the power to destroy the planet.
In a multilateral global format the main achievement remains the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although its article on nuclear disarmament, besides lacking a minimum of precision in terms of time and other aspects, has not been implemented[7]. In order to improve the perspectives of nuclear disarmament a strategy of suffocation has been devised with a view to avoid the recurrence of growth in the arsenals, even to enhance possible reductions.
The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, not yet in force[8], is the main example of that strategy. The next step in that same direction would be a treaty concerning fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Indeed, there is a widespread understanding that the conclusion of such a treaty is possible since the major nuclear weapon powers seem well disposed to start its negotiation. This does not mean that the question of fissile material is necessarily the most urgent matter in the disarmament agenda. For Brazil and many other States, legally binding assurances against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon States would be a more immediately significant step in the direction of dismantling strategies based on nuclear weapons. I should add the constant claim of the Group of 21[9] in favour of a treaty banning nuclear weapons as it was done in relation to other weapons of mass destruction.
The main obstacle in the path of the negotiation of a treaty on fissile material lies in the determination of its scope. Should it be limited to the prohibition of production of new fissile material or should it include clauses on material already in existence prior to the entry into force? The first option would simply freeze the current situation. It would lack any dynamism in the direction of real disarmament. It would not add any obligation to non-nuclear-weapon States like Brazil, already bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty[10]. For nuclear-weapon States, such treaty confined to the ban on production would certainly impose limitations concerning growth of their stockpiles but would not necessarily entail any measure of control, not to say of reduction, still less their elimination.
A really significant treaty would have to deal not only with production but also include fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices already in existence before its entry into force.
It is usually argued that the mandate contained in document CD/1299[11], of 1995, known as the Shannon mandate, does not preclude a comprehensive scope for the negotiations. Document CD/1864, of 29 May 2009, containing a program of work that received unanimous support at that moment, limited itself, as far the issue of fissile material is concerned, to the reference to the Shannon mandate.
Since that program of work could not be implemented[12], two further attempts were made: the proposals by Belarus in document CD/WP.599 and by Brazil in document CD/1889. This last one tried to bring more clarity to the consideration of fissile material already in existence at the moment of entry into force.
It has been said that the Shannon mandate does not necessarily exclude the question of stocks. It cannot be denied, however, that the fierce resistance by some member States to even a broad mention of pre-existing fissile material could be assumed as announcing a denial to treat that question in the negotiations.
A mandate cannot be a blueprint for a treaty but it should provide an idea of the playing field and, in that respect, a picture of the intended scope as clear as possible would seem necessary for some States to embark in the negotiation. There is no doubt that the treaty would have to contain definitions, establish a verification system and other matters. But since the same certitude is not found as regards scope, some indication should be contained in the mandate.
A different matter is to block any decision on the opening of negotiations on the basis of perceptions of security, especially when there is an overwhelming support for negotiations on the part of non-nuclear-weapon States, moreover if the objection comes from State possessing nuclear weapons. This is tantamount to opposing any negotiation on any disarmament issue. A member State that freely joined the Conference on Disarmament, the purpose of which is to negotiate legal instruments on disarmament and arms control, cannot invoke its security situation in order to prevent a negotiation that is deemed appropriate by a great majority of member States if not by all.
I would like to insist on this point. Every State has the duty to provide security for its citizens. However, this security cannot be based on arms of mass destruction.
It is high time to understand that concerns on national security are not of exclusive interest of nuclear-weapon States. This would imply that nuclear weapons are a necessary feature for the security of a State. In fact there are States, besides those possessing nuclear weapons that objectively accept that position placing themselves under the protection of the nuclear arsenals of other States[13].
To sum up: the negotiation of a treaty on fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices should start promptly on the basis of a mandate with a minimum of clarity concerning the scope of the envisaged instrument.
Madam President,
The work to be undertaken by the Conference on Disarmament for a treaty on fissile material is first and foremost of a political nature. It obviously will require a great amount of technical expertise. But let’s not presume that problems will be solved in technical meetings. In this sense, the negotiation on fissile material is similar to many processes in other areas where the technical component is essential to support political decisions. This is not an unusual situation for diplomats.
Questions concerning definitions and verification, among others, are essentially complex and admit diverse solutions. Allow me to remind that a political diplomatic negotiation is not a scientific experiment and our assertions, though preferably technically sound and based on solid logic, derive first and foremost from the interests and aims of the States we represent.
In order to show that a mandate for a negotiation can be both encompassing and flexible, Brazil proposed last year document CD/1888, containing an outline structure for the drafting of a treaty on fissile material. This initiative is an evidence of Brazil’s commitment and openness to this Endeavour.
If we succeed in starting the negotiation of a really comprehensive instrument on fissile material we will be truly making an important and concrete progress in the direction of disarmament. It will not be a mere a confidence building measure or a political initiative. The essential condition for that requires that the negotiation encompasses the matter in its entirety. It is also indispensable that all nuclear weapons possessors are included in the negotiation. However we may admit that the result should not be a non plus ultra, completely closed to future evolution.
The proper venue is this Conference on Disarmament on which a negotiating mandate is vested. A parallel expeditious process cannot ensure the participation of all States necessary for an instrument on nuclear disarmament. For us it is not sufficient a political gesture showing good will by like-minded countries. It cannot be an exercise of what has been called aristocratic multilateralism.
A long, complex negotiation will require an institutional structure, the assistance of a technical and necessarily impartial secretariat and dedicated delegations among other needs. This cannot be assured by a group of well-intended like-minded people meeting on the margin of the General Assembly or other organ unless the real intention be a make-believe devoid of substantive contents[14].
Madam President,
As I mentioned before, you are assuming the direction of this forum in a especially relevant moment.
By the end of July, the UN General Assembly will hold a meeting on the Conference on Disarmament. There will be a debate and one cannot exclude, I suppose, the adoption of one or more resolutions.
Since the High Level meeting held in New York last September, we have been hearing many interventions dealing with the state of the CD and its future. It is not easy to extract from these manifestations a clear trend of opinion. There is some oscillation between a clear support for continuing to make efforts in this forum and to seek a different institutional path. On that side of the spectrum, the convening of a fourth Special Session of the General Assembly has been defended by many[15]. Others seem to prefer ad hoc spontaneous and nebulous solutions.
It is not my intention to enter now in this debate. However, it is important to be clear that our goal must remain true disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons. This cannot fall from heaven. This will be reached by means of comprehensive treaties negotiated in a truly multilateral fashion and solid institutional ground.
Just a few days after the UNGA meeting, there is scheduled to happen a meeting of the five nuclear-weapon States that are envisaged in the NPT[16]. It is to be hoped that the General Assembly will send a strong message to those five States in order to help that meeting to reach meaningful results including on the compliance by them with the NPT.
Before those upcoming events, during the Colombian presidency[17], it is important that the Conference on Disarmament discuss their possible and desirable outcomes. These discussions and the pending adoption of a Program of Work should occupy our attention during the forthcoming weeks under your able guidance.
Madam President,
We do not need to increase the disillusion of world public opinion and the disengagement of young people of which a clear indication is the present low interest of civil society in nuclear disarmament as compared to the ample movements in previous decades or to current manifestations concerning, for example, climate change or international financial regulations. We cannot afford to damage the political structure created to channel the political process of disarmament. If we are discontent with its performance, we should remind ourselves that it is incumbent upon us to strive to reach results.
To build is always more difficult than to destroy.
Thank you.

[1] The United States of America.
[2] The Soviet Union, in 1949, the United Kingdom, in 1952, France, in 1960, China, in 1964, Israel (unknown data), India and Pakistan, in 1998 and the DPRK, in 2006. South Africa developed a nuclear program later dismantled.
[3] The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1967 and entered into force in 1970. All member States of the United Nations are Parties to the NPT with the exception of the DPRK, India, Israel and Pakistan.
[4] Held in 1978, it adopted a Final Document which, among other measures, created the Conference on Disarmament, of limited membership (currently 64 States) with a negotiating mandate, and the United Nations Disarmament Commission – UNDC, with all member States of the UN and a deliberative mandate.
[5] Advisory Opinion issued in 1996.
[6] The latest agreement is the known as START II entered into force in 2010.
[7] Article VI of the Treaty is the undertaking of the five nuclear powers at the moment of the negotiation of the Treaty (USA, USSR, UK, France and China – which are also the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council) to pursue their nuclear disarmament.
[8] Signed in 1996, it is not yet in force because it has not been ratified by a number of States on a list contained in the Treaty, among them, the USA.
[9] Traditionally, the Conference on Disarmament recognizes 3 regional groups: the Western European and Others group, the Eastern European group and the Group of 21, that has more than 21 members. China stands apart.
[10] And by the Treaty on the Denuclearization of Latin America and the Caribbean, of 1967, to which all States of the region are parties.
[11] Documents of the CD can be accessed on the site of the Conference
[12] Pakistan withdrew its support – the CD needs consensus to take decisions.
[13] The so-called “nuclear umbrella”; agreements between the US and remaining members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other countries, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, that guarantee their defense, with nuclear weapons, from attacks using nuclear weapons. These agreements come from the Cold War era but remain in place today.
[14] A number of States are currently advocating to conduct negotiations outside the CD.
[15] Most States consider that to review the decisions of the First Special Session of 1978, it would be necessary to convene a new one. Some States, like the USA are opposed to it.
[16] The five permanent members of the Security Council are scheduled to meet in Paris, on 30 July.
[17] The presidency of the CD rotates among its members on a monthly basis. After Colombia, it will be the turn of the DPRK and Cuba, the last two of the 2011 Session.

There´s scientific life outside the academia, but what about in Brazil?

embo 2010 logo.JPG
Translation by Gabriel Cunha from the original.

I´ve been to the Expanding career options lunch held in the EMBO Meeting (one of the reasons this blog seems forgotten). The event was OK but it could be better. The time was short, it´s hard to eat and drink and all the noise from the tables really makes the conversation difficult. Nevertheless the problem could be summed to the format of the event. All attendants seemed interested and interesting, I´ve participated in three 35 minute discussion tables each with a former grad student that left the academic life.
Their areas, names and some comments follow: 
• Scientific politics
 He basically connects research groups to the government in social interest themes. For example, he is now inserting neuroscience concepts in education to improve the education system. The Centre´s role is to gather data from its associates in an easy understanding report to non-scientist legislators apart from keeping in touch with great names in both scientific and political areas. 
• Scientific communication 
She´s like a PR for a research group but although the job really resembles the one of a PR professional some scientific knowledge is important to translate the institution production into press-releases and media contact. The main role of such a professional is the visibility increase in the area of interest using the media, hosting events, fairs and other initiatives. In Rosina´s case the institution is local, inside Cataluña, so the targets are media and the local population. Despite the obvious director position in terms of creativity liberties a professional dedicated to scientific institution media relationships starts and stays writing press-releases and organizing events for a long time. 
• Industrial R & D 
 Yeap, you can do research in the industry (those damn children-eating capitalists). And according to Cronet you might even have more freedom than in the academic field due to less pressure to publish results or meet funding deadlines. Sure the deadlines are shorter but all objectives are well calculated and split among different teams, which can bring more results and a greater satisfaction achieving them rapidly when compared to 3-4 years of a PhD. There´s no individual project and eventually your boss might say “the competition is already doing it, cancel the project” but hey, it doesn´t mean you´ll be fired – just switch project. 
Careers in politics of communication are really exciting but I realize the huge difficulties to follow such path in Brazil due to the same problem: the lack of a scientific culture that leads to a poor structure. 
Where´s Brazil “Royal Society” to sponsor a scientific politics office? Does the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) or the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) fulfill this role? Who should have such responsibility? 
I remember a professor that was invited to the House of Representatives to give a presentation on stem cells during the voting of the corresponding legislation in Brazil. The only one that attended the event was the congressman that made the invitation and I wonder if that was the only attempt to explain the stem cell concepts to our legislators. 
The same thing occurs with scientific communications, it’s unusual to have a PR professional even in the major companies and even less common in research institutes. There are a few initiatives but none structurally robust and lasting. The journalism seems to be evolving with news agencies in universities and in grant foundations but scientific communication goes beyond journalism, and it´s in this exact question that I sense a lack of examples. 
Concerning the industry I was astonished by the amount of European doctorate and post-doctorate students that had no one familiar working in the field. I´m a mere creature from a developing nation but I know about a dozen colleagues working in research or related areas in different companies. This might be a problem in my sample group because this colleagues graduated in the most reputable universities in Brazil, what makes them disputed by a small but expanding market while the European market might be saturated. 
Bonus: I strongly recommend the reading of this report by the Royal Society and surfing their great website.

The Brazilian blog network: learning to fly

Bora wrote an insightful post about the advantages and disadvantages of blog networks and how he sees they would work in a post-Diaspora blog ecosystem. I thought it would be interesting to compare his views and experiences with blog networks with ScienceBlogs (SB) with my vision of the history of the much smaller network, ScienceBlogs Brazil.
ScienceBlogs Brazil ( was not born this way. Back in 2008 – an eternity in Internet time – Atila Iamarino and I decided that a science blog network could make the number of Brazilian blogs about science grow faster. At the time, blogs were starting their exponential expansion in Brazil and there were less than a dozen active science blogs older than a year (and there was us). In August 2008, we managed to launch the blog network Lablogatórios, heavily inspired by SB, with 18 blogs. Two days after our launch, to our great surprise, we were contacted by SB: the network we aspired to be was inviting us to join then. In March 2009, was launched and we now have around 30 blogs.
Atila and I like to read about Science but there were not enough blogs written in Portuguese to ease our hunger. Moreover, science education in Brazil is deficient and there is a great need for science communication projects. We believed that we could not wait to have a lot of science blogs to make a network, instead we decided to build a network to make a lot of science blogs. The plan was straight forward: we would make a network to attract readers to the few Brazilian science blogs and this would make more people interested about blogging about science. I think this is when a network is beneficial to its bloggers: it is a way to streghten small niches.
When we started inviting blogs to our network, we used three criteria: it should be accurate, it should be well written and it should be frequent. The first bloggers that were invited were the older bloggers but just a few of them accepted, then we invited a few promising bloggers and started some blogs from scratch. When we launched, we had just 4 blogs that were older than a year, 3 brand new blogs and 11 young blogs. Bora mentioned that SB attracted about 10% of the science blogging community. I estimate that we attracted around three-quarters of the active blogs at the time. If the use of popularity as selection parameter biased SB blogger diversity, scarcity biased ours.
The most noticeable bias was our initial female:male ratio (1:8), which was unacceptable (even for Brazilian standards). Also, half of our bloggers were from the state of São Paulo – the richest in Brazil. Finally, we had a massive number of blogs about biology. We have been fighting to increase our gender, regional and subject diversity. Now, our female:male ratio is 1:3, which is the same of the Brazilian bloggers ratio, and bloggers from many other states were incorporated.
One curious aspect of our history was how our strategy to incoporate new blogs evolved with time. In the begining, Atila and I were decided to bring in every blog that was considered good enough. This helped our increase our numbers very fast, specially after we became However, a large influx of new bloggers started damaging the sense of community inside the network. We now open two new positions every semester – with occasional special invitations in-between. The new bloggers are not chosen by the “overlords” anymore: they are voted by their future peers. We also have a “test blog” for new authors, a place for people who never blogged to have a go before getting their own blog.
In the technical aspect, Lablogatórios was built in WordPress MU, which was very easy to manage. Our traffic was light enough to let us have a virtual dedicated server. This meant that the site was not costly and the few rupees we manage to gather with adsense and the only ad banner we sold were just enough to pay the bills. In this aspect we benefited hugely becoming SB. We were aware that many successful sites had financial problems due to server costs and other maintenance cost due to heavy traffic. was so smaller than SB that even MT4 behaved well enough.
What is working
I think the main strength of is the cohere community forged in the backchannel. We are small enough to have a manageable email lists, where we can bicker friendly away from the public eye. About a third of our bloggers are not engaged in this list but they still maintain some contact with the other bloggers. Moreover, I think I can brag that the fact that Atila and I are also bloggers in the network helped our job as community managers. The fact that we are also the founders of the network also give us enough authority to stop arguments that get… uncivil. We also frequently discuss the future plans for the network with the rest of the community, which reduces the burden of planning our future ahead.
The decision of stop bringing so many new bloggers into the network also helped strengthening the community of science blogs outside It is really important to us not to be seen as the best Brazilian science blogs or to give the idea that the only good blogs are the ones in the network. This would certainly hurt our goal to make the number and the quality of Brazilian science blogs increase, as it has been happening even before Lablogatórios.
When we entered the SB we were surprised with the differences in the community dynamics between SB and Communication among bloggers in SB always seemed too aggressive and communication between them and the SB overlords was almost null. These two characteristic – that emerged as consequences of SB history – only helped to fuel the Diaspora that was triggered by PepsiGate.
What is not working
Every time a group is formed, the concept of “us” and “them” automatically arises. It is very tempting to defend our Labrothers when they are attacked, grouping on the attacker. It also easier to link each other than blogs outside the network. The fact that we talk a lot in the backchannels also helps to develop a hive behaviour, the same Borg concept used to describe SB, as ideas emerge to the public as a consensus after being widely discussed in private. This affects the way we relate with other bloggers and to our readers. For example, people frequently judge the whole network by the behaviour of a few bloggers. If one of us mistreat a reader (deservingly or not), the blame usually falls on the network.
The feeling that we have the “best science blogs” is also a problem as it takes attention from excellent blogs that are found outside the network. This “best blogs” syndrome also makes easy to interpret any personality traits we have (such as short temper, introversion, extroversion, etc) as a sign of arrogance. The network help us share relevance and credibility but it also makes us share our vices.
In the technical aspect, joining SB solved a lot of our problems but it also created some others. The freedom we had to customize the platform and the homepages greatly reduced. There is some evidence that search engines likes this plaform less than our previous one and MT4 is too complex for new bloggers.
Learning to fly
The history of blogging in Brazil has a delay of two or three years when compared to the blogs written in English. Thus, when we see what is happening “out there”, we are a seeing our potential future. Blogs about science have been growing in numbers for some time, most of science journalists have their own blogs and other media are starting to notice us as well. It is also possible to see people trying other media such as podcasts and videocasts. Sophistication is only happening now for us but the question of how to aggregate everything is already on our minds. is becoming less and less dominant in the Brazilian science blogging ecosystem, and this is good because it keep us from going stale. Bora had this interesting image of SB being big, dangerous dinosaurs roaming around the blogging ecosystem. And PepsGate definitely seemed like the triggering event that will drive these dinosaurs extinct. In this sense, the SB Diaspora worries me a lot, is this also the future of the Brazilian dinosaurs?
We might, but now that we have the foresight, we will do everything to become birds.
Image from Wikipedia

Broken heart syndrome and the flagellated heart

This is another one of those unlikely situations that insist on existing. Could a very strong emotion cause a cardiac alteration so severe capable of causing someone’s death?
I’m not talking about arrhythmia. Electric alterations in the heart could make it lose its regular rhythm and, possibly, create a situation where there is, in fact, a cardiac arrest. Arrhythmias may be caused by a number of factors, including electrolytic disorders, traumas, drugs, as well as emotions.
What I am talking about are anatomical alterations, detectable by examination, like echocardiogram or ventriculography done during catheterization. Is it possible for a strong emotion to cause a heart failure?
Yes, it is possible. And this clinical situation is called cardiomyopathy of takotsubo, also known as transient apical ballooning syndrome, apical ballooning cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, broken-hearted syndrome or simply stress cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is a cage for catching octopus in Japan. Due to its balloon-like shape, it was compared to the shape of the heart of someone who suffered a very strong emotion and got seriously compromised (see pictures below).

Left. Ventriculography showing large anterior dilation of the heart. Right. Takotsubo jar.

Cardiomyopathy means, literally, “heart muscle disease”. In this case, always a kind of weakness. Because with this disease the weakening follows a strong emotional reaction -loss of children or spouse, for example- it was named “broken heart syndrome”. It is a known cause of lethal arrhythmias and even ventricular rupture, such is the thinning of its wall. The good news is that, after the acute, more dangerous phase, the recovery is complete (ad integrum) without sequellae.
Recently, an article drew attention to the fact that these patients may present themselves in a state of cardiogenic shock that prevent organs from functioning properly because of inadequate blood flow and arterial pressure, such is the heart failure, requiring intensive care resources. In the article, the authors show clinical, laboratorial and echocardiographic differences in patients.
Reading the article I had a brilliant idea!
I could not help remembering my pathology classes where I saw several hearts infected with Chagas disease, a true Brazilian plague.

Many of those hearts present what pathologists call “aneurisma de ponta” (tip aneurysm) (see image on the left, from the excellent article by Eduardo Nogueira from UNICAMP).
This aneurysm of the left ventricular apex is very similar to that produced by the dilation of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
According to the late professor Köberle, from USP – Ribeirão Preto, the explanation for the tip aneurysm in Chagas disease is an imbalance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. Parasympathetic nerve endings disappear from myocardial tissue and there is a sympathetic hyperactivity, “sufficient enough to cause myocardial lesions”. Köberle managed to reproduce the same kind of injury in mice by injecting adrenaline, the hormone of the sympathetic system.
My brilliant idea was to imagine that the explanation for the takotsubo cardiomyopathy was the same! Strong emotions cause an overload of sympathetic stimulation on the heart and could -why not?- cause an anatomic alteration similar to the tip aneurysm of Chagas cardiomyopathy.
I was feeling pretty smart and thought of sending an article to an international cientific journal.
But, as with almost all of my brilliant ideas, someone else got there first.
And, to keep my readers from posting that reference before I do, here it is (also down there at the bottom).
Medal I shall not receive for deserve I do not.
Was gonna write a paper, wrote a blog post instead. Meno male.
Ventriculography: Nature Medicine; Takotsubo jar: Canadian Journal General Internal Medicine.
Wittstein IS, Thiemann DR, Lima JA, Baughman KL, Schulman SP, Gerstenblith G, Wu KC, Rade JJ, Bivalacqua TJ, & Champion HC (2005). Neurohumoral features of myocardial stunning due to sudden emotional stress. The New England journal of medicine, 352 (6), 539-48 PMID: 15703419
Originally written by Karl, published in portuguese at Ecce Medicus

Darwin, the abolitionist – An interview with James Moore

darwin_sacred_cause.jpgDarwin’s theory of natural selection, first published 150 years ago, has been called a dangerous idea. A new aspect of the theory now joins the Darwinian bibliography: behind it was a “sacred cause”, Darwin’s commitment to the abolition of slavery. The claim is made by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, and unleashed this year in the book Darwin’s Sacred Cause.
In a conversation during a visit to São Paulo, Moore told me a bit more about their thesis. Their interpretation, as authors of a hefty biography on the founder of modern evolution-theory, is that an abhorrence of slavery was part of Darwin’s character since childhood. And it pushed him to develop his theory of evolution by common descent.
He also applied his understanding of nature to people to the point of suggesting that men turned the seduction game around relative to other animals – this is the follow up I promised here.
When your Darwin biography was published, it left the impression that we now had the definitive account of Darwin’s life. Did the book open new doors for you, or raised further questions to pursue?
Writing that book nearly killed us. Adrian and I weren’t planning to write anything more together, but then we saw 2009 coming and thought it would be a good time to publish something completely original. I came up with the subject; I had been interested for quite a while on what happened to humans in Darwin’s theorizing, because The Origin of Species supposedly wasn’t about human beings, only The Descent of Man was. So we decided about 10 years ago to work on that difference or discrepancy, and in 2004 we published a Penguin Classics edition of Descent with a long introduction. In that introduction we broached some of the arguments of Darwin’s Sacred Cause, but didn’t offer documentation. We promised in a note to publish more.
Can you in a nutshell explain its thesis?
This is our “Star Wars 2″. “Star Wars 1″ was the Darwin biography, “Star Wars 2″ is the “prequel”; it asks the question that went unanswered in “Star Wars 1″: “Why did he do it?” The Darwin biography is about an ambitious young man with a terrifying secret, which he keeps quiet for 20 years before being forced to publish. But we never figured out why he tackled evolution in the first place — it was professional suicide. Darwin had everything to lose, even while working in private. Anybody who knows anything about the period knows that going public with evolution for Darwin would have been like Richard Dawkins standing up in Teheran today and declaring that God doesn’t exist! Life for him would suddenly become very difficult. Darwin knew what was at stake, so why did he take the risks? That’s where his moral commitment comes in. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause we trace it in his family background and education, before he ever got to evolution, and then run the story all the way up to The Descent of Man.
So why did he do it? How did his moral views bear on his theorizing?
Darwin is very clear, he is angry. In his private notebooks, he remembers from the Beagle voyage how black people were treated as animals, that slaves were bought and sold and abused like horses or dogs. And for Darwin that was abhorrent because he had been brought up to hate slavery and to believe that black people were of one humanity with himself.
Was it in Brazil that he first saw this?
In the flesh, yes, but at home he’d read about slavery and had been friendly with a black man. At Edinburgh University in his teens he had paid for lessons in bird stuffing from a freed Guyanese black slave named John, and this had reinforced his family’s anti-slavery conviction that black and white people – all the races – had a common humanity. What was theoretical to him until he got to Brazil was the horrors of slavery, which he had only read about. And immediately in Salvador he saw black slaves working along the docks and they seemed to be happy. But when Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle claimed that the slaves of Bahia were happy because he had heard them saying so to one of their masters, Darwin demanded to know what a slave’s word was worth under those circumstances. Obviously slavery was a talking point between them. And then very rapidly Darwin found evidence of the evils he had been taught about since childhood. The realities of slavery were no longer theoretical for him when he had witnessed it among real people in real life. The climax came in 1836 at Itamambuca when he heard the cries, the shrieks of a tortured slave and was powerless to intervene. On that note his voyage ended and the horror of those sounds stayed with him for life.
Does he refer to it in print?
In the revised 1845 edition of his Beagle journal, there’s a blistering attack on slavery — two long paragraphs, more than a page. Here for the first time Darwin opened a window to let the world see what he had witnessed in Brazil. He’d also seen slavery in New Zealand, where people of the same race were made slaves through war and women became sexual slaves. He tells of finding escaped or freed slaves on Mauritius and Saint Helena. Of course all the slaves of England’s Cape colony had been liberated in 1834; Darwin arrived there a year later and hired a Hottentot, or Khoikhoi, groom to be his guide, a diminutive young gentleman whom he found speaking perfect English. In our biography, Darwin’s anti-slavery is a sort of golden thread running through the narrative, which becomes visible from time to time. Weaving all the threads together — what Darwin’s Sacred Cause does — they make a strong rope, strong enough to support a big conclusion. And our big conclusion is that Darwin’s burning hatred of slavery fired his quest not only to show that the races were of one blood, but also to explain how all living things had descended from “one common ancestor” in the family tree of life.
And Darwin’s tree of life is a way to prove that you can’t set races apart and treat them differently.
No, there’s no proof here, the tree is only a starting point. We all grow up taking certain things for granted. Darwin never questioned God’s existence, at least not in print; he never questioned his wife’s love or his family’s love. It was the same with anti-slavery, or anti-cruelty in the broadest sense, a sympathy for living things. Darwin grew up with it. He did go shooting in his teens, and I think some of the birds he massacred weren’t just for food. But by the end of the Beagle voyage he had left off shooting, or he would have his servant do it for scientific purposes. Eventually Darwin gave up the slaughter because he couldn’t stand the suffering it caused. I have heard it argued, rather cynically, that the reason why he talked about slavery the way he did in his private notes and in the Beagle journal is because he imagined that an anti-slavery tone would help sell his theory. “Look, the whole nation has mobilized against slavery. It’s a huge constituency waiting to be recruited for evolution!”
So an anti-slavery moral conscience was widespread in Darwin’s society?
Right. Very few people had a vote in those days, but one way you could register your opinion was by signing a petition to Parliament. These petitions were brought on piles of paper or great long rolls and laid on a table in the House of Commons or the House of Lords in London. Almost all of the petitions were destroyed when the Houses of Parliament burned in October 1834, but a few of them survived with tens of thousands of names. I looked up the parliamentary records and found out where all the petitions came from — such-and-such Baptist chapel, such-and-such anti-slavery association, such-and-such a public meeting. Darwin’s home town of Shrewsbury sent petitions. It was a massive movement, the first protracted experiment in democracy before democracy was extended among the middle classes.
And were there lots of anti-slavery petitions?
Thousands, all very politely worded, begging Parliament to take what measures were necessary to bring about the emancipation of the colonial slaves. I’m sure that we’d find Darwin’s aunts’ and uncles’, his sisters’ and cousins’ signatures in the original petitions if they had survived, but it’s almost enough to know that petitions came from the very villages and towns where the family lived. The anti-slavery movement was the greatest moral movement in British history, at least since the peasant’s rebellion of the 13th century. I’m amazed that historians have taken so long to place Darwin’s life and work in its context.
That was exactly my next question: why hasn’t anyone discussed this?
Because they didn’t ask the right questions. The documents I read in the Wedgwood family papers have been open to historians and biographers for generations. And scholars have gone through the letters, thousands of them, written since the end of the 18th century, looking for evidence of the family’s literary interests, for evidence of early photography, early chemistry, early industrial history. Scholars have toothcombed the documents, but why didn’t they find slavery? They weren’t interested, they were blind to it. And I have to say that digging out the gold was hard work. I spent three weeks in the English Potteries one torrid summer, as hot as it is now in Salvador, perched in a grim university library reading the Wedgwood papers for nine hours a day.
The big work on humans by Darwin is The Descent of Man, but that book is not very much talked about and maybe not much read. Why?
Because it is huge – that’s one reason! Two-third of the text, about 500 pages, is a vast catalogue of evidence for “sexual selection”, ultimately Darwin’s mechanism for explaining the divergence of the human races. Today you have to be interested in the differences between male and female beetles to be gripped by this part of the book. In the 1850s, Darwin was writing a huge work in several volumes to crush the creationist opposition, including followers of the latest theory that made the human races separately created species. He was determined to anticipate every possible objection to his theory of “natural selection” — the title of his big book — and answer them, or at least give evidence for answering them, so that no one would catch him out later. But finally he was forced to publish something quickly, so he cut the big book down, left out the part on sexual selection and the human races, and called the rest On the Origin of Species.
Maybe he also wanted to work more on sexual selection and “man”?
He didn’t want to spoil his case for natural selection and what he had to say about human origins by going forward prematurely. Better to bide his time than come out with something that could be easily refuted. That’s also one of the reasons why Darwin told nobody about the importance of sexual selection, not even his scientific best friend. He hinted at its scope in the Origin of Species, but he hadn’t worked it out far enough to be confident of its power; he didn’t let on until much later that sexual selection was his prize solution to the racial origins problem. Darwin was incapable to do anything by halves. It wasn’t just one barnacle that he had to describe, he had to describe every barnacle species in the world. And not just the living ones, but the extinct ones too! He was obsessive, and in discussing the human races, about which he felt so passionately, he needed even more evidence, if that were possible, to undermine the view that each race had originated as a separate species. The Descent of Man is intimidating because it is so big, but it got that way because sexual selection was so important. Darwin’s catalog of apparently obscure sexual information is his knock-down case for race-making by mate-choosing throughout the animal kingdom.
So he starts with male and female beetles and that’s a step to figuring out how the human races are related?
He had to explain why males and females don’t look alike, not just internally but externally. Why do males tend to be big, violent and armed – I mean “armed” in the sense that they have, say, big biceps or powerful claws for pinching -, as well as gaudy and showy. And why do females tend to be smaller, less aggressive and less showy, not just among birds, which was the crucial case for Darwin, but across the whole animal kingdom, with crustaceans, and spiders, and beetles, and fishes, and birds, and mammals, and primates, the lot (with some exceptions). And humans were no different. Darwin attributed the external differences between the sexes (their “sexual dimorphic characters”) to sexual selection, that is, the competition for mates. It’s there in the bars of São Paulo every weekend: women stand around watching, teasing, coaxing, while the guys beat the hell out of each other as love rivals. Darwin sees this happening in most animals, or at least mammals. As a result of the competition, the bigger, more aggressive males are more successful lovers and pass on their macho characteristics to their sons. The choosier females, who “get lucky” with the best males, also have more offspring, and their daughters inherit the choosiness. Amplify this through the generations and the males pull away from the females, in mind as well as body. Males are both mentally and physically superior to females; males have genius, females normally don’t. Darwin was quite explicit about this. He didn’t think that women should have the vote and he didn’t educate his daughters to university level, because to him biology set limits to female attainment, sexual selection set limits. But sexual selection for Darwin isn’t just about sheer physical and mental power; it’s also about attractiveness — beauty. Unlike the characteristics developed in the prize-fight, those acquired through the sexually selective beauty contest don’t have advantages in the struggle for existence. What beauty marks do is make you sexier, so you’re more successful in leaving copies of yourself: thus male animals got more beautiful or showy than females from their success in enticing them, but in humans — that is, in Darwin’s own culture, which he saw as sovereign — there has been a reversal: males, being more powerful than females, had turned the tables and become the choosers. As a result, women were now more gorgeous than men, displaying characteristics that proved attractive to them. It seemed so obvious to Darwin: why do women adorn themselves with make-up and jewelry? Because they are trying to attract mates, pure and simple. They want to be sexually selected!
And that sets humans apart from the rest?
Males seizing the power of choice through superior strength and wit, yes. Though Darwin knew that females were still drawn to male beauty. He grew a beard in the 1860s, not to attract women of course; but there was a fashion for hairiness as a sign of virility. Victorian gentlemen grew beards like their descendants did in the 1960s. And about the same time women developed a craze for wearing bird feathers on their hats and in their hair, whole stuffed birds even! The world’s avian populations were decimated.
To make hats?
Hats, hairpins, brooches, and other fashion accessories. There is a historical literature about this. A burgeoning female fashion industry is one main reason why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded. In Britain, young women are still often called birds. You go out at night and try to “pull” a “bird” and “get off’ with”, i.e. mate, with her. It is derogatory to think of women as birds, but Darwin took such behaviour seriously, naturalizing it. He didn’t see sexual selection in humans as a cultural creation, or one among many more or less valid social options; instead he thought that men and woman look and behave as they do because sexual selection made them the way they are. And, ironically, this was the same sexual selection that made whole groups of people look and behave differently, males and females alike, with different physiques and different notions of beauty – the human races. For Darwin, the races had emerged and diverged, body and mind, from a primordial population, with a common ancestry, by the same mating game that made hairy gents and buxom girls in his own day.
So Darwin is still being a naturalist, with his moral views firing his curiosity about nature to understand how humans evolved.
He looked at society and tried to find a natural explanation for it. Darwin was a sociobiologist before there was sociobiology. If the world is governed by natural law, and therefore our evolution is governed by natural law, why shouldn’t everything in society be seen as the product of evolution? Why shouldn’t evolution explain all the ways that men and women live together, not just the shapes of their bodies? Darwin had no problem with that, though most of us today do.
Darwin didn’t make a distinction between a race and a species, he thought each was an artificial construct.
It was a continuum. Species to Darwin were just well defined races. We’re not sexually attracted to other species – normally. Something like this happens if animals are isolated in groups, as on islands: the groups each become modified to subsist on their own patch, they acquire distinguishing “specific” differences, and eventually the groups become sexually repugnant and unavailable to one another.
How does this apply to the discussion today on whether there are human races or not?
Darwin supposed that black people and white people – for his purposes, Africans and Europeans – were on the way to becoming separate species. They weren’t there yet, not by a long shot, but given enough time, and isolation, black and white would diverge permanently. He saw black men tending to have sex with black women, because they find them more attractive; the male sense of black beauty was bred into them as a result of a long history of mating choices. And to Darwin, an English woman was preferentially attractive to him in the same way. That’s the point of repugnance, and Darwin also identified repugnance with body odor. Black people to him smelled different to white. At some point the smell might become so strong and so distasteful, that white and black wouldn’t copulate, and then the races would continue on separate paths to become separate species. So Darwin had no problem with human racial speciation, but he would have added that we can’t begin to conceive of when that might take place. It seemed more likely to him that in coming centuries, long before the races could become separate species, white Europeans would actually have exterminated black Africans.
Darwin thought that the white Europeans had a superior civilization because they had more superior brains, honed by competition, just as men have better brains than women. What Darwin gives with one hand, he takes away with the other, often. He gives you emancipated slaves, but he doesn’t give you emancipated women; he gives you blacks and whites as equal humans, but he also gives you blacks extinguished by white guns and white diseases and superior white civilization. And Darwin says, in effect, “that’s nature for you”. Progress costs lives. Tragic it might be, but he thinks it’s ultimately for the good.
So even though he hates cruelty and abhors slavery, he still believes that all humans are not equal before nature.
He doesn’t use his moral framework to judge how nature behaves because he holds that this moral framework has been erected by nature – by a beneficent evolution. In the near future, Darwin says in the Descent of Man, humans will have become so improved and so many races will have become extinct — races of people as well as races of primates — that the gap in the ascent of life will not exist as at present between a Hottentot or an aboriginal Australian and a chimpanzee, but between, say, a primate as low as a baboon and some race far higher than contemporary Englishmen. Every species, every race in between, from baboons to Hottentots up to Englishmen will have been extinguished in the progress of life on Earth. We grieve the loss of biodiversity; Darwin seemed to think it was a good thing, even the loss of human racial diversity.
It’s all part of nature.
Yes, but that only makes Darwin a man of his time. Poor old Darwin, he couldn’t see much beyond the nineteenth century, just as we must struggle to see beyond our own.
In 2009, we have heard a lot about Darwin because of the anniversaries, but you’re talking about a different Darwin, aren’t you?
Not entirely. I’m just emphasizing parts of his story that haven’t been told fully or adequately. Adrian and I would have to modify the biography a great deal to work all of it in. At one point in the book we ask whether, far from having everything to lose, there was something important to be gained by theorizing about transmutation. We suggest that Darwin had seen “savages” in the raw in Tierra del Fuego, and there his problem became: how could humans like that and humans like himself — rich, cultured, a Cambridge Master of Arts — come from the hand of the same Creator? Perhaps explaining human diversity was that “something” to be gained, but we didn’t then conceive that Darwin’s experience of slavery in South America might have pointed in the same direction. Now we know: if he cared for one thing more passionately than anything else in life, save his family, it was the emancipation of black slaves. There’s no other candidate for Darwin’s supreme moral concern, his “sacred cause”, which we believe radically shaped his science.
And that’s the new Darwin that you’re showing.
This text was originally published by Maria Guimarães in her blog Ciência e ideias/

The Universe in a Christmas Tree

Joy to the world! The solstice has come, bringing the ancient traditions that celebrate the season. Among those traditions, the ones that involve the Christmas tree are particularly beautiful. The Christmas tree represents a renovated eternal life, with hopes for the future. It also represents the knowledge the ancients had of the very meaning of the solstice: that it may be the longest night of the year, but it’s also the day from which the days will get longer and bring abundance to the world.
The solstice is one of the earliest and most important astronomical discoveries. Since then, we discovered a bit more about the world and the whole Universe.
How about looking at the Christmas tree through the light of this knowledge? Here is some food for thought:

  • We know more planets beyond the solar system than there are Christmas balls on your tree. The current count is at 358 exoplanets, and growing;
  • If the planet was shrinked to the size of a Christmas ball, it would be the smoothest ball of the tree. The Mount Everest (8 km) or the Marianas Trenchr (11km) are small imperfections relative to the planet’s 12,000 km diameter. It’s an imperfection of less than 0,01%;
  • “Earth is not spherical, it’s an oblate spheroid”, some Grinch may say. Indeed, our planet wider in the equator, but even this deviation from a perfect sphere is of less than 0,04%;
  • If an 8 centimeters Christmas ball represented Earth and the nearest ball represented the nearest known exoplanet – Epsilon Eridani b, 10.5 light-years away – then the distance between them should be around 630,000 km. Almost twice the actual distance from Earth to the Moon. Epsilon Eridani b is quite far from here
  • Now, if the star at the top of the tree represented our Sun, 1,392,000 km in diameter, and the star at the top of your neighbor’s tree – say, 50 meters away – represented the nerest star system, Alpha Centauri at 4 light-years of distance; then the size of our Sun-star to be on the same scale it would have to be 0,74 micrometers large. From 1,4 million kilometers to more than 100 times smaller than the width of a hair, that’s how small the star should be for it to be in the same scale as the distance between it and the neighbor’s Christmas star.

It’s a very big Universe. It’s also a very old one:

  • Let’s say your Christmas tree took ten years to grow. If the moment in which it was sprout was the Big Bang – 13,7 billion years ago – and the rest of its history was compressed to present day, then the Christmas tree would have known the first primates only in the last few hours, and all our recorded history would have ocurred in the last minute. Ten years growing from a seed, and all our human adventures would have been instants played in a tiny little part of this huge tree full of balls and stars. The ten year-old Christmas tree can be seen as a version of Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar.

“Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience”, noted Carl Sagan. “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”
It also should do no harm to the romance of the Christmas tree to know that it’s a conifer, that conifers date from the late Carboniferous, about 300 million years ago, which means that we don’t have to use too much of our imagination to picture a Christmas tree watching the whole of human follies in an instant. In a way they literally did.
Feel dizzy? Perhaps some Christmas Chaos will help you see the infinite that can lie in a Christmas tree.
Science can lead to awe inspiring thoughts, based on the real and awe inspiring observations of the world in which we live. It’s the greatest gift we have, and our greatest hope for the future.
Happy holidays!
by Kentaro Mori, original text at 100nexos
[top image from dyet]

When swine flu gets serious

In 2009 the swine flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, was recognized as this century’s first pandemy. In Brazil at least 19,000 people suffered the fever and aches caused by the flu, and over 1,300 were killed.
As it is now the northern hemisphere’s turn to fight the flu, it may be useful to draw from what was learned by researchers from southern countries. Some of it is summarized by Ricardo Zorzetto in the article published in the December issue of Pesquisa Fapesp, a Brazilian science news magazine: in some cases, the immune response against the virus is so strong that it destroys the lungs.
A companion article in the same issue discusses the benefits of vaccination against swine flu in the northern hemisphere. Bellow is a translated version of both stories.
by Maria Guimaraes
Exaggerated reaction
Influenza A, H1N1 virus, the cause of swine flu, induces inflammation that destroys lung cells
by Ricardo Zorzetto
In mid-spring, the 2009 flu season came to an end in Brazil. This year, the chief villain was the influenza A, H1N1 virus, the cause of swine flu and of this century’s first pandemic. In the second week of October, the Health Ministry recorded only 78 severe cases of swine flu in Brazil, a dramatic drop (97%) in relation to the mid-August peak. In six months, the H1N1 virus caused at least 19 thousand Brazilians to get a high temperature, along with severe muscular pain and a painful shortness of breath, and killed 1,368 – almost one third of the 4,735 deaths by flu recorded worldwide during this period, when 399 thousand cases were confirmed. As Brazil and other countries started to prepare for the second wave of swine flu that is already spreading in the Northern Hemisphere, as winter approaches, researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) concluded the first analyses of H1N1 damage to the body. The São Paulo group found that, in the most severe cases, the body produces such a strong immunological reaction that it kills the virus, while also damaging the lungs so heavily that they stop working.
The most obvious sign of such damage is labored breathing (dyspnea), very frequent among those who developed the most serious and sometimes lethal form of swine flu. “All doctors should be alerted to this symptom, which indicates that the infection may be severe,” states pathologist Thais Mauad, from USP, the main author of the study published online on October 29 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the first to describe systematically the fatal lesions induced by H1N1.
Thais and another 14 researchers from the USP Medical School, who worked under the coordination of pathologists Paulo Hilário Saldiva and Marisa Dolhnikoff, came to this conclusion upon examining samples of different organs of 21 swine flu victims who died in São Paulo. “These cases are representative of the Southeast and South, which accounted for the majority of cases in the country,” states epidemiologist Denise Schout, from the USP team.
Heavy damage – In almost all cases – 20 out of the 21, to be precise – the lungs suffered mass destruction of their alveoli, microscopic cavities within which gas exchanges occur. Though with lower incidence (29% of the people), there was also severe inflammation and cell death in the bronchioles, the ramifications of the tubes that carry the air from the trachea to the lungs. Additionally, in 24% of these cases, bleeding (hemorrhage) due to the bursting of the blood vessels that irrigate the alveoli was also identified.
“This kind of damage is similar to what was observed in other flu pandemics, such as those in 1918, 1957 and 1968, though in the previous ones and in the first one in particular the death rate was far higher,” comments Thais. Another finding that struck the researchers was that 38% of these patients also had infections by Streptococcus pneumoniae, bacteria that cause respiratory system problems. “In cases such as these, it is important to add antibiotics to the antiviral drug treatment,” says Thais. “This information helps us to understand how the infection sets in and advances and, in the future, it can provide guidance for treatment,” comments Denise.
Natural killers – The concentration of the damage in the lungs does not mean that H1N1 only affects these organs. In almost all cases, the virus invades the cells that internally line the upper respiratory tracts (nose and throat), just causing typical flu symptoms: coughing, pain and a runny nose. Only in a very small number of people does the H1N1 escape the layer of mucus that helps to protect the upper respiratory system and reaches the lungs, which are normally sterile, complicating matters – in 7% of such cases, according to data from the USP team, the lung infection becomes so severe that it leads to death.
Microscopic and biochemical analysis of the lungs, however, indicated that the damage to these organs is not caused by the virus directly. Once infected by H1N1, which takes over control of the genetic apparatus, the alveoli cells start to make a chemical signaler, interferon-gamma, which inhibits the multiplication of the virus and activates the defense cells known as natural killers (NK). The NK, in turn, pour toxic compounds into the infected cells inducing the cells’ programmed death, i.e., apoptosis. At a suitable level, this sequence of actions in the defense system eliminates the infectious agents and helps to reestablish the organ’s health. However, when the level is exaggerated, it damages the organ – irreversibly, in some cases.
In the lungs of the fatal victims of swine flu, Thais and Ludhmila Hajjar found interferon-gamma levels and NK cells in numbers far greater than exist in healthy individuals’ lungs. It is not yet known what triggered the exaggerated response. “Some factor that we haven’t identified yet must have created this imbalance,” says Thais. Out of the 21 people analyzed by the USP team, 16 had already suffered from other serious diseases, such as cardiovascular conditions or cancer, before they caught swine flu. In Thais’s opinion, it is likely that their immunity had already been jeopardized, to the point of allowing the infection’s severity to rise sharply. Until answers to these questions are found, experts worldwide believe that the best protection against the virus is to take the vaccine, which some countries have already started distributing.
The second wave and the vaccine
Countries in the Northern Hemisphere start pre-winter vaccination drive
Weeks ago, the United States and China started vaccination drives against the influenza A, H1N1 virus, of swine origin, that caused the flu pandemic in the first half of 2009 and created panic in many countries. Health authorities worldwide consider immunization the chief means of preventing swine flu deaths and of containing the spread of this virus, which started in the Northern Hemisphere even before the onset of winter and is likely to become the chief cause of flu in upcoming years.
Despite the confidence of health administrators in immunization, in countries such as the United States, part of the population is skeptical about having the vaccine. The same feeling that the virus awakened at the beginning of the year is what underlies this doubt: fear. If before people feared the virus’s aggressiveness, now they question the vaccine’s safety and fear its side effects. This is so because, even before trials for safety and effectiveness had been completed, the FDA (the United States Food and Health Administration) released the production and application of two types of H1N1 vaccines: one in injectable form, made from inactive viruses and suitable for any person aged 1 or above; and another in breathable form, made from attenuated viruses and recommended for healthy people aged 2 to 59. As these only protect against swine flu, they are being applied along with the seasonal flu vaccine.
Danielle Ofri, a professor at the New York University Medical School, published an article in November in the New England Journal of Medicine describing the contradictory behavior of people seen at the Bellevue hospital, the oldest one in the United States. At the onset of the epidemic, fear of this unknown virus drove them to demand a vaccine that did not exist. However, now that it is available, most people, being less anxious and more used to the virus, refuse to take it.
Experts have no doubt that the vaccine works, although some disagree as to the level of protection it provides. “Even if the vaccine doesn’t protect 100% of the people, it should protect at least some 75%,” states Edison Durigon, head of the Virology Laboratory at the Biomedical Sciences Institute of the University of São Paulo. According to him, those who have the vaccine may even catch the flu, but it will be less severe. “The vaccine will only lose its effectiveness if the epidemic’s predominant virus variety undergoes very drastic genetic changes, which is rare.” Should this occur, the loss of efficacy will become known in a while, after more people have been vaccinated and the level of protection provided by the vaccine is analyzed.
Up to mid-November, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 65 million people in 16 countries had already taken the H1N1 vaccine. In one report, the WHO stated that in China 11 million people were vaccinated, with 15 cases of serious side effects being recorded and two deaths, although the latter did not necessarily result from the immunization. As the vaccine production will be insufficient for all (WHO expects world production to reach 3 billion doses a year), the priority is to immunize those who are at particular risk: children from the age of one, people with serious diseases and healthcare professionals. In Brazil, where the H1N1 death rate was 0.8 per group of 100 thousand people (the rate of seasonal flu is 0.5 per 100 thousand), the swine flu vaccine is expected to be available before the winter of 2010.

Hi… come here often?

Latrodectus hasselti (3).jpgResearchBlogging.orgThe dating game is cruel. It can be poetic like in sea dragons or it can be lethal like in the spider on the left but, in general, it is not easy.
If the male of the Australian redback spider Latrodectus hasselti doesn’t try hard enough, he is immediately killed by the female he was trying to impress. Jeffrey Stoltz and Maydianne Andrade, from the University of Toronto Scarborough, in Canada, showed that the maiden demands at least 100 minutes of display (I saw the news here). If the suitor fails, the surviving rival wins. And there is more: in the paper they published in October in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers also showed that a competent male mesmerizes the female in such a way that it becomes easy for a smart sneaker who didn’t make any effort to mate with her without anyone noticing. Cheateries of the wild world.
perus.jpgLess akin to Halloween, but not any easier, is the dance of the wild turkeys of the species Meleagris gallopavo, common in the United States.
In the picture on the right, which I borrowed from flickr (johndykstraphotography, you can see some of the hardship. During the courtship season, the males puff up their feathers, fan out their tails, change their breathing in such a way that their heads become blue, bloodless, and some appendages on the head (the snood, the dewlap and the caruncles) become bright red and engorged with blood. They hold this posture for some time while they take short runs forward and gobble, which can be heard from far away, over the hills. They do this for hours on end, during weeks on end.
During my Ph.D I used to see these animals at Hastings, a research station managed by the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California at Berkeley. My labmate Alan Krakauer was studying the turkeys and I had the privilege of helping him out sometimes. But more then helping, I used to get spellbound by the strutting of the turkeys. Unlike the turkey hens, who pecked at the ground looking blasé. I even took loads of pictures, but can’t use one of them here because they’re on slides. Alan was trying to unravel a mistery: all this work to seduce a hen. The males display in pairs like in the picture. Do both win? Do they compete?
After much following the animals, setting huge traps, marking them, watching them and doing genetic analyses, he found that the wild turkeys are a textbook case of cooperative seduction. Only one of the males, always the same, scores. The other one helps with the synchronized dance, but leaves empty-handed. Genetics make up for it, according to Alan: the partners are closely related, so indirectly the secondary male ends up passing his genes forward. That’s kin selection, or Hamilton’s rule (William D. Hamilton mathematically described the theory). The turkey work earned Alan a paper in Nature in 2005.
manakin.jpgBut helping with seduction doesn’t always come from kin solidarity. Another Ph.D labmate, Emily DuVal (now a professor at the Florida State University, the picture is from her lab’s website), studies the charismatic lance-tailed manakin Chiroxiphia lanceolata, in Panama. There, a pair of males sits on a horizontal branch and they fly over each other like a cartwheel. Until the female is convinced. In their case, the dancing partners are not related. What seems to happen is that the subordinate male gains experience while at it, and some day he just might get there.
Mercival Francisco, from the São Carlos Federal University at Sorocaba, in Brazil, argues that the blue manakin Chiroxiphia caudata, typical of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, follows another system. In a paper published this year in The Auk, he shows that groups of dancing males (several of them in this species, not just a pair) may or may not be related. As he told me when I wrote a story on his work for Pesquisa magazine, they tend to stay where they were born. By chance, they may end up dancing with kin.
When I told my cousin Laura about the manakins, she expressed regret that the males of these birds are so spruced up but not ours aren´t. “Men have Ferraris,” I joked. A guy was passing by, not in a Ferrari but with a blasting stereo, elbow sticking out of the window and watching out for any women who might be watching. I never saw a woman do this.
Imagem0216.jpgRecently, just as I was getting to São Paulo, traffic stopped as it often does on that point. The Ferrari guy was as stuck as I was, but a lot more upset. I couldn’t help thinking that the males of the rest of the animal world face huge costs to impress the ladies. Ours are not much different. I don’t imagine it is very comfortable, much less economically viable, to own such a car in a city filled with potholes and where you can’t push the gas pedal very far down.
Darwin reserved a special room for sexual selection in his theories, it was one of the major disagreements he had with Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer of natural selection. I’ll come back to this soon.
Written by Maria Guimaraes, originally published at her blog Ciencias e Ideias
Stoltz JA, & Andrade MC (2009). Female’s courtship threshold allows intruding males to mate with reduced effort. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 19864292
Krakauer, A. (2005). Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys Nature, 434 (7029), 69-72 DOI: 10.1038/nature03325
DuVal EH (2007). Adaptive advantages of cooperative courtship for subordinate male lance-tailed manakins. The American naturalist, 169 (4), 423-32 PMID: 17427119
Francisco, M., Gibbs, H., & Galetti, P. (2009). Patterns of Individual Relatedness at Blue Manakin ( ) Leks
The Auk, 126 (1), 47-53 DOI: 10.1525/auk.2009.08030

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