Trump Order May Open California’s Giant Sequoia Nat’l Monument To Development

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Environmentalists and the outdoor recreation industry aren’t standing for President Donald Trump’s new executive order that threatens to rescind, shrink or resize dozens of recent national monument designations, including seven in California.

Trump’s new executive order requires Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations that are over 100,000 acres and created under Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Trump argues that some national monument designations may “create barriers to achieving energy independence.”

But environmental groups and outdoor recreation companies see the review as the first step in an assault on public lands, with the ultimate goal being to open the land up for oil and gas drilling.

And they say they’re prepared to fight to keep these federal lands free from development.

San Francisco-based Earthjustice, a major nonprofit environmental law organization, says, “Any attempt to reverse or shrink a monument designation by the executive branch is unlawful under the Antiquities Act. Only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument. Earthjustice stands ready to defend the Antiquities Act and the national monuments protected under the law.”

According to Earthjustice, the seven national monuments in California that could be threatened are Giant Sequoia, Berryessa Snow Mountain, Carrizo Plain, Sand to Snow, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains and Mojave Trails.

In Arizona, part of the Grand Canyon is also under review.

The order draws special attention to the latest designation, the 1.3 million-acre Bear’s Ears National Monument in Utah. Republican Governor Gary Herbert and the Utah legislature has asked Trump to rescind the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument.

Ventura-based outdoor retailer Patagonia has not only been a staunch supporter of Bears Ears, but with Wednesday’s executive order, it has threatened to sue.

“We’re watching the Trump administration’s actions very closely and preparing to take every step necessary, including legal action, to defend our most treasured public landscapes from coast to coast,” Patagonia said in a statement.

Trump’s executive order calls for a preliminary report with suggested legislative acts on Bears Ears be provided to the president within 45 days after the executive order was issued. A final report on suggested actions on all national monuments under review is to be provided within four months.

Zinke tried to reassure the public as he discussed the executive order stating, “nobody loves public lands more than I do. You can love them the same. But not more.”

He argued that in some cases, the designation of the national monuments may have resulted in loss of jobs, but when pressed, he didn’t list any specific communities that lost jobs as a result of the monuments. He said that would be looked at in the review process.

Ecuador ‘allows US military planes to use Galapagos island airfield’

Bartholomea Island, Galapagos Islands, EcuadorImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Galapagos Islands are a Unesco World Heritage site

Ecuador has agreed to allow US military planes to operate from an airport on the Galapagos Islands, reports say.

US aircraft will be able to use San Cristobal airport, Ecuador’s defence minister Oswaldo Jarrin has been quoted as saying.

They will “fight drug trafficking” under a deal with Ecuador’s government, Mr Jarrin said.

The reported deal has prompted concerns over the potential impact on the environment and Ecuador’s sovereignty.

The aircraft involved include a Boeing 777 and a Lockheed P-3 Orion, Latin American TV network Telesur reports.

The Galapagos Islands, 563 miles (906km) west of continental Ecuador, are a Unesco World Heritage site renowned worldwide for their unique array of plants and wildlife.

San Cristobal island, Galapagos Islands, EcuadorImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionA pelican spreads its wings on San Cristobal island

Tourists across the globe travel there to see its biodiversity, which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Legislators in Ecuador’s parliament have called on Mr Jarrin and environment minister Marcelo Mata to explain the scope of co-operation with the US in the islands.

They have asked them to elaborate on proposals to extend the runway at San Cristobal airport, daily El Universo reports.

Lawmaker Marcela Cevallos said the plan would be alarming for conservationists, it reported.

Media captionNew giant tortoise species discovered on Galapagos Islands

Opposition congressman Carlos Viteri said the agreement with the US was “unacceptable” and should be prohibited if “it intends to cede an inch of Ecuadorian territory”.

Under Article 5 of Ecuador’s constitution, the country is “a territory of peace” and the “establishment of foreign military bases or foreign facilities for military purposes shall not be allowed”.

Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa also reacted angrily, tweeting (in Spanish) that the island was “not an aircraft carrier” for the Americans.

Mr Jarrin assured critics that “there will be no permanence of anyone” on the island.

He said any modifications to the airfield would be paid for by the US, Telesur reported.

“Galapagos is for Ecuador our aircraft carrier, it is our natural carrier, because it assures us permanence, replenishment, interception facilities and it is 1,000 kilometres from our coasts,” he said.

The BBC has contacted the US Department of Defense for comment.

San Cristobal island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

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David Attenborough Isn’t Sure We Can Save the Natural World. But at 92, He’s Not Giving Up Trying

Sir David Attenborough poses for a portrait at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, in February.

Sir David Attenborough poses for a portrait at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, in February.
Jackie Nickerson for TIME

MARCH 28, 2019

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It’s the voice you notice first. In person, David Attenborough speaks in the same awestruck hush he has used in dozens of nature documentaries, a crisp half whisper that is often mimicked but seldom matched. Ninety-two years of use may have softened its edges, but still it carries the command of authority. Sitting in his home in the Richmond neighborhood of west London for one in a series of conversations, I feel compelled to drink a second cup of tea when he offers. It somehow seems wrong to say no.

In his native U.K., Attenborough is held in the kind of esteem usually reserved for royalty. Over decades–first as a television executive, then as a wildlife filmmaker and recently as a kind of elder statesman for the planet–he has achieved near beatific status. He was knighted by the Queen in 1985 and is usually referred to as Sir David. As he walked into the Royal Botanic Gardens for TIME’s portrait shoot on the day of our interview, the mere sight of him caused members of the public and staff alike to break into goofy smiles.

Attenborough pioneered a style of wildlife filmmaking that brought viewers to remote landscapes and gave them an intimate perspective on the wonders of nature. Frans de Waal, the renowned Dutch primatologist, says he regularly uses clips from Attenborough’s shows in lectures. “He has shaped the views of millions of people about nature,” he says. “Always respectful, always knowledgeable, he takes us by the hand to show us what is left of the nature around us.”

In the autumn of his life, Attenborough has largely retreated from filmmaking on location but lends his storytelling abilities to wildlife documentaries in collaboration with filmmakers he has mentored. His most famous work, the 2006 BBC series Planet Earth, set a benchmark in the use of high-definition cameras and had a budget equal to that of a Hollywood movie. Among its highlights was the first footage of a snow leopard, the impossibly rare Asian wildcat that hunts high in the Himalayas. More than a decade after its initial release, Planet Earth remains among the all-time best-selling nonfiction DVDs.

Attenborough with orangutans at the London Zoo

Attenborough with orangutans at the London Zoo

Now Attenborough is putting his voice and the weight of authority he has accumulated to greater moral purpose. In recent months he has stood in front of powerful audiences at the 2018 U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland, and the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos, in Switzerland, to urge them into action on climate change. These kinds of events are not his chosen habitat, Attenborough tells TIME. “I would much prefer not to be a placard-carrying conservationist. My life is the natural world. But I can’t not carry a placard if I see what’s happening.”

Attenborough and his frequent collaborators, filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, will attempt to show the world exactly what is happening on April 5, when Netflix launches Our Planet–a new, blockbuster eight-part documentary series that aims not just to present the majesty of the world around us but also raise awareness of what the changing climate is doing to it.

Filmed across every continent over four years, the show takes viewers from remote steppes to lush rain forest to the ocean floor. It has vertiginous ambitions in both its scope and intent. “The idea was not just to make another landmark show, but also to move the dial,” says Scholey, who served as an executive producer. “Not only do we engage a large audience but also actually get to the point of changing policy that would lead to global change.”

It’s a show perfectly timed for a global moment in which politicians are prioritizing climate change as never before, students are skipping school to attend climate marches, and governments are attempting to rein in carbon emissions to meet Paris Agreement targets. Although he has been criticized for not speaking up earlier, Attenborough now says that if he has the opportunity to speak truth to power, he has to take it. “It is important, and it is true, and it is happening, and it is an impending disaster,” he says.

Attenborough promoting his BBC show 'The Tribal Eye'

Attenborough promoting his BBC show ‘The Tribal Eye’
Jeremy Grayson—Radio Times/Getty Images

Long before he was a world-famous documentarian, Attenborough was a trailblazer in the medium of television. He went from being a junior producer at the BBC in the 1950s, making programs about “gardening and cooking and knitting,” he says, to becoming one of the first controllers of BBC Two, the corporation’s eclectic second flagship channel. Among his commissions was a quirky comedy-sketch show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He was prouder, he recalls, of commissioning an opera by the composer Benjamin Britten.

Having studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, Attenborough juggled his TV duties with making wildlife films every few months; his series Zoo Quest, which ran from 1954 to 1963, followed the London Zoo’s attempts to gather rare animals for its menagerie from West Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. “I’d go away for three months and make some programs, which was lovely,” he says. “But in between, I had to do all these other things … politics and finance and engineering, which was never my bag.”

In the early 1970s, he resigned from the BBC to dedicate himself full time to wildlife filmmaking. He soon began work on Life on Earth, the seminal 1979 series that traced the arc of evolution from primordial ooze to Homo sapiens. The 13-part broadcast took viewers around the world, bringing them into close contact with a range of animals and using then cutting-edge filming techniques like the slow-motion capture of animal movements. Its most famous sequence shows Attenborough cavorting with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

But while Attenborough’s filmography made him a household name in the U.K., his fame didn’t immediately transfer stateside. He remembers being in a pitch session with a major U.S. network trying to describe Life on Earth to an executive. “I remember saying, ‘We’re going to start from the very beginning of the primordial oceans and see when life begins to appear.’ And he said, ‘You mean the first program’s all about green slime?’ I said, ‘Well, yes.’ ‘No, thank you,’ he said.”

Attenborough with Queen Elizabeth II

Attenborough with Queen Elizabeth II

This skepticism about his appeal would last for decades. When the Discovery Channel decided to broadcast Planet Earth in 2007, his voice-over was replaced with one by the actor Sigourney Weaver. Yet the incredible popularity of the DVD collection–carrying Attenborough’s narration, it sold 2.6 million copies in its first year of release–won him a narrow yet fervent U.S. fan base. Among his admirers was President Barack Obama, who invited him to the White House in 2015 to discuss the threat of climate change in a televised interview.

Attenborough initially assumed he would be the one interviewing Obama. But he was astonished to discover the President wanted it the other way round. “I thought, I mean apart from my work, what’s he doing talking to me?” he says. He desperately boned up on figures on climate change, even calling the U.K. environment ministry to check statistics.

His profile is evidently now high enough for Netflix to tout him as the narrator of Our Planet for English-speaking viewers (Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek narrate for Spanish-language audiences), although he admits his creative role was mostly limited to the voice-over. He didn’t travel to remote locations for the new series, focusing his efforts instead on helping producers craft a script that would suit his signature narrative style while also fulfilling the show’s brief to sound the alarm about a changing planet. “In the old days I wrote every shot,” he says. “These days it’s a lot more … professional.”

Although Planet Earth, as well as his other acclaimed BBC series Blue Planetand Frozen Planet, did raise concerns among some viewers about the state of the environment, Our Planet is more explicit in its messaging. This is in part because the filmmakers, freed from the rigorous impartiality of the state-funded BBC, teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a conservation NGO. In one jaw-dropping sequence, after thousands of Pacific walruses are forced by vanishing ice sheets to crowd on a rocky strip of land, hundreds leap off a cliff to their doom, a scene Attenborough says is “almost heartbreaking” to watch.

Yet there are also scenes of hope that remind viewers that at least some environmental damage can be reversed. We see that Chernobyl–the Ukrainian region depopulated after a nuclear disaster in the 1980s–now has seven times more wolves than the surrounding countryside. Drone-mounted cameras show us one of the largest gatherings of humpback whales ever filmed, illustrating how marine preservation has permitted the species to bounce back from near extinction. To accompany the series, the WWF has created an online information hub so viewers can learn more about how to get involved in such efforts.

And yet even as he tries to spur action, Attenborough confesses that he has trouble staying optimistic. “The question is, Are we going to be in time, and are we going to do enough? And the answer to both of those is no,” he says. “We won’t be able to do enough to mend everything. But we can make it a darn sight better than it would be if we didn’t do anything at all.”

Attenborough with an anesthetized polar bear in Svalbard, Norway

Attenborough with an anesthetized polar bear in Svalbard, Norway

The reality of our changing planet is something Attenborough, who has seen more of it than most people alive, has long been aware of. For decades, he has decried the tendency of human development to crowd out natural habitats. He was present at the founding of the WWF in 1961, he says, even though he was just a “junior pipsqueak” at the time.

But it wasn’t until relatively recently that Attenborough became certain of mankind’s role in climate change. It sounds surprising given his body of work, but as he tells it, he didn’t want to base his judgment on observation alone. “It’s very dangerous to take a worldwide phenomenon and think you’re going to find just one scene in one locality that will prove it’s actually happening,” he says.

It was a 2004 presentation by the late U.S. environmental scientist Ralph Cicerone that convinced him of what was happening. “He showed a series of graphs that showed, with no doubt whatsoever, how population growth and industrial affluence had sent the content of noxious gases in the upper atmosphere,” he says. “And I had no hesitation after that.”

Still, some critics have argued that Attenborough and his colleagues have not done enough in their films to show the devastating effect of climate change. In a column for the Guardian in November, for instance, the environmental writer George Monbiot attacked the veteran broadcaster for “his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defense of the living world he loves,” and said wildlife television “cultivates complacency, not action,” by focusing on beauty rather than destruction.

“What George does is preach to the converted,” Attenborough says in response. By contrast, he explains, television makers have to speak to a wider audience. “You cannot do every program saying the world is in danger. Because they’ll say, ‘O.K., O.K., we get the message’ and go back to listening to something else. But we can say that the natural world is a wonder and a thrill and an excitement. And that’s what we do.”

A wild horse in 'Mongolia in Our Planet'

A wild horse in ‘Mongolia in Our Planet’
Ben Macdonald—Silverback Films/Netflix

There’s evidence this approach is as capable of sparking change as outright activism. Blue Planet II, the 2017 BBC series that explored life deep below the ocean’s surface, inspired a groundswell of activity after its final episode showed in detail how plastics are getting into the marine food chain. At the show’s conclusion, Attenborough told the audience “the future of all life now depends on us.” The resulting public outcry helped pressure the British government to enact restrictions on single-use plastics.

Blue Planet II moved the dial in this country more than anything I’ve ever seen,” says Fothergill, an executive producer on Our Planet. “For a long time, conservation and wildlife filmmaking was about pretty animals. Now it’s about saying that without this biodiversity there won’t be air to breathe or water to drink. It is about empowering people.”

At the age of 92, Attenborough remains committed to that mission. The BBC has announced new sequels to Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, and he says he was recently contacted about a show due to air in 2026, when he will turn 100. After seven decades in the business, Attenborough marvels at the life he’s still able to lead. “I’m very surprised I’m still employed,” he says. “But I’m just very grateful I am.”

River Of Elk Stream Across Eastern Washington Road: Video

River Of Elk Stream Across Eastern Washington Road: Video

ELLENSBURG, WA – Hundreds of elk were caught on camera crossing a rural road outside Ellensburg recently, appearing like a furry, brown river flowing across the snowy high desert landscape.

A Puget Sound Energy worker filmed the elk as they crossed a road near the Wild Horse Wind and Solar facility, about 15 miles east of Ellensburg.

Two types of elk live in Washington. The larger Roosevelt elk live mainly on the Olympic Peninsula and west of I-5. The elk in the video are likely Rocky Mountain elk, whose range stretches across the state, from the woods and mountaintops of the Cascades to the grassy deserts that stretch east to Idaho.

Winter is primarily a food-finding season for elk. After the mating “rut” in fall, elk seek out shrubs and grasses to eat before elk calves are born in spring.


How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution

The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be?

A male Indian peafowl.CreditCreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

By Ferris Jabr

Amale flame bowerbird is a creature of incandescent beauty. The hue of his plumage transitions seamlessly from molten red to sunshine yellow. But that radiance is not enough to attract a mate. When males of most bowerbird species are ready to begin courting, they set about building the structure for which they are named: an assemblage of twigs shaped into a spire, corridor or hut. They decorate their bowers with scores of colorful objects, like flowers, berries, snail shells or, if they are near an urban area, bottle caps and plastic cutlery. Some bowerbirds even arrange the items in their collection from smallest to largest, forming a walkway that makes themselves and their trinkets all the more striking to a female — an optical illusion known as forced perspective that humans did not perfect until the 15th century.

Yet even this remarkable exhibition is not sufficient to satisfy a female flame bowerbird. Should a female show initial interest, the male must react immediately. Staring at the female, his pupils swelling and shrinking like a heartbeat, he begins a dance best described as psychotically sultry. He bobs, flutters, puffs his chest. He crouches low and rises slowly, brandishing one wing in front of his head like a magician’s cape. Suddenly his whole body convulses like a windup alarm clock. If the female approves, she will copulate with him for two or three seconds. They will never meet again.

The bowerbird defies traditional assumptions about animal behavior. Here is a creature that spends hours meticulously curating a cabinet of wonder, grouping his treasures by color and likeness. Here is a creature that single-beakedly builds something far more sophisticated than many celebrated examples of animal toolmaking; the stripped twigs that chimpanzees use to fish termites from their mounds pale in comparison. The bowerbird’s bower, as at least one scientist has argued, is nothing less than art. When you consider every element of his courtship — the costumes, dance and sculpture — it evokes a concept beloved by the German composer Richard Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, one that blends many different forms and stimulates all the senses.

This extravagance is also an affront to the rules of natural selection. Adaptations are meant to be useful — that’s the whole point — and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display? Not only do the bowerbird’s colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators.

A male plum-throated cotinga.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times
A male plum-throated cotinga.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Numerous species have conspicuous, metabolically costly and physically burdensome sexual ornaments, as biologists call them. Think of the bright elastic throats of anole lizards, the Fabergé abdomens of peacock spiders and the curling, iridescent, ludicrously long feathers of birds-of-paradise. To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration — it’s a code. According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate’s advantageous qualities: its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children. A bowerbird with especially bright plumage might have a robust immune system, for example, while one that finds rare and distinctive trinkets might be a superb forager. Beauty, therefore, would not confound natural selection — it would be very much a part of it.

Charles Darwin himself disagreed with this theory. Although he co-discovered natural selection and devoted much of his life to demonstrating its importance, he never claimed that it could explain everything. Ornaments, Darwin proposed, evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection: Females choose the most appealing males “according to their standard of beauty” and, as a result, males evolve toward that standard, despite the costs. Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival. Animals, he believed, could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Many of Darwin’s peers and successors ridiculed his proposal. To them, the idea that animals had such cognitive sophistication — and that the preferences of “capricious” females could shape entire species — was nonsense. Although never completely forgotten, Darwin’s theory of beauty was largely abandoned.

Now, nearly 150 years later, a new generation of biologists is reviving Darwin’s neglected brainchild. Beauty, they say, does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes. In other cases, certain environmental or physiological constraints steer an animal toward an aesthetic preference that has nothing to do with survival whatsoever.

These biologists are not only rewriting the standard explanation for how beauty evolves; they are also changing the way we think about evolution itself. For decades, natural selection — the fact that creatures with the most advantageous traits have the best chance of surviving and multiplying — has been considered the unequivocal centerpiece of evolutionary theory. But these biologists believe that there are other forces at work, modes of evolution that are much more mischievous and discursive than natural selection. It’s not enough to consider how an animal’s habitat and lifestyle determine the size and keenness of its eyes or the number and complexity of its neural circuits; we must also question how an animal’s eyes and brain shape its perceptions of reality and how its unique way of experiencing the world can, over time, profoundly alter both its physical form and its behavior. There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.

A male lesser bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

A male lesser bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Perhaps no living scientist is as enthusiastic — or doctrinaire — a champion of Darwinian sexual selection as Richard Prum, an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University. In May 2017, he published a book, “The Evolution of Beauty,” that lucidly and passionately explains his personal theory of aesthetic evolution. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, but within the scientific community, Prum’s ideas have not been as warmly received. Again and again, he told me, he has asked other researchers for feedback and received either excuses of busyness or no reply at all. Some have been openly critical. In an academic review of Prum’s book, Gerald Borgia, one of the world’s foremost experts on bowerbirds, and the ethologist Gregory Ball described the historical sections as “revisionist” and said Prum failed to advance a credible case for his thesis. Once, over a lunch of burritos, Prum explained his theory to a visiting colleague, who pronounced it “nihilism.”

Last April, Prum and I drove 20 miles east of New Haven to Hammonasset Beach State Park, a 900-acre patchwork of shoreline, marsh, woodland and meadow on Long Island Sound, with the hope of finding a hooded warbler. Birders had recently seen the small but striking migratory species in the area. Before he even parked, Prum was calling out the names of birds he glimpsed or heard through the car window: osprey, purple martin, red-winged blackbird. I asked him how he was able to recognize birds so quickly and, sometimes, at such a great distance. He said it was just as effortless as recognizing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. In Prum’s mind, every bird is famous.

Binoculars in hand, we walked along the park’s winding trails, slowly making our way toward a large stand of trees. Prum wore jeans, a quilted jacket and a beige hat. His thick eyebrows, round spectacles and sprays of white and gray hair give his face a vaguely owlish appearance. In the course of the day, we would see grazing mallards with emerald heads, tree swallows with iridescent turquoise capes and several sparrow species, each distinguished by a unique ornament: swoops of yellow around the eye, a delicate pink beak, a copper crown. On a wooded path, we encountered a lively bird flinging leaf litter into the air. Prum was immediately transfixed. This was a brown thrasher, he told me, describing its attributes with a mix of precision and fondness — “rufous brown, speckled on the breast, yellow eye, curved beak, long tail.” Then he reprimanded me for trying to take a picture instead of observing with my “binos.”

About two hours into our walk, Prum, who is a fast and fluid talker, interrupted himself midsentence: “Right there! Right there!” he said. “There’s the hooded! Right up against the tree!” Something gold flashed across the path. I raised my binoculars to my eyes and scanned the branches to our right. When I found him, I gasped. He was almost mythological in his beauty: moss-green wings, a luminescent yellow body and face and a perfectly tailored black hood that made his countenance even brighter by contrast. For several minutes we stood and watched the bird as it hopped about, occasionally fanning white tail feathers in our direction. Eventually he flew off. I told Prum how thrilling it was to see such a creature up close. “That’s it,” Prum said. “That moment is what bird-watching is about.”

As a child growing up in a small rural town in southern Vermont, Prum was, in his words, “amorphously nerdy” — keen on reading and memorizing stats from “The Guinness Book of World Records” but not obsessed with anything in particular. Then, in fourth grade, he got glasses. The world came into focus. He chanced upon a field guide to birds in a bookstore, which encouraged him to get outdoors. Soon he was birding in the ample fields and woods around his home. He wore the grooves off two records of bird calls. He befriended local naturalists, routinely going on outings with a group of mostly middle-aged women (conveniently, they had driver’s licenses). By the time Prum was in seventh grade, he was leading bird walks at the local state park.

In college, Prum wasted no time in availing himself of Harvard University’s substantial ornithological resources. The first week of his freshman year, he got a set of keys to the Museum of Comparative Zoology, home to the largest university-based ornithological collection in the world, which today has nearly 400,000 bird specimens. “I’ve been associated with a world-class collection of birds every moment of my adult life,” he says. “I joke with my students — and it’s really true — I have to have at least 100,000 dead birds across the hallway to function intellectually.” (He is now the head curator of vertebrate zoology at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.) He wrote a senior thesis on the phylogeny and biogeography of toucans and barbets, working on a desk beneath the skeleton of a moa, an extinct emu-like bird that stood 12 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.

After graduating from Harvard in 1982, Prum traveled to Suriname to study manakins, a family of intensely colored birds that compete for mates with high-pitched songs and gymnastic dance routines. In 1984, he began graduate studies in biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he planned to reconstruct the evolutionary history of manakins through careful comparisons of anatomy and behavior. In the process, a colleague introduced him to some research papers on sexual selection, piquing his interest in the history of this fascinating yet seemingly neglected idea.

Yellow plumes from a male lesser bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Yellow plumes from a male lesser bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Darwin was contemplating how animals perceived one another’s beauty as early as his 30s: “How does Hen determine which most beautiful cock, which best singer?” he scribbled in a note to himself sometime between 1838 and 1840. In “The Descent of Man,” published in 1871, he devoted hundreds of pages to sexual selection, which he thought could explain two of the animal kingdom’s most conspicuous and puzzling features: weaponry and adornment. Sometimes, males competing fiercely for females would enter a sort of evolutionary arms race, developing ever greater weapons — tusks, horns, antlers — as the best-endowed males of each successive generation reproduced at the expense of their weaker peers. In parallel, among species whose females choose the most attractive males based on their subjective tastes, males would evolve outlandish sexual ornaments. (It’s now well known that all sexes exert numerous different evolutionary pressures on one another and that in some species males choose ornamented females, but to this day, many of the best-studied examples are of female preference and male display.)


Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful “in the struggle for life,” Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being. The peacock’s many-eyed aureole, mesmerizing yet cumbersome, was a prime example and remains the mascot of sexual selection today. “A great number of male animals,” Darwin wrote, “as all our most gorgeous birds, some fishes, reptiles and mammals, and a host of magnificently colored butterflies have been rendered beautiful for beauty’s sake.”

Darwin’s peers embraced the idea of well-armed males dueling for sexual dominance, but many scorned the concept of animal aesthetics, in part because it was grounded in animal consciousness and female desire. In one critique, the English biologist St. George Mivart stressed “the fundamental difference which exists between the mental powers of man and brutes” and the inability of “vicious feminine caprice” to create enduring colors and patterns. The English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently formed many of the same ideas about evolution as Darwin, was also deeply critical. Wallace was particularly tormented by Darwin’s suggestion of beauty without utility. “The only way in which we can account for the observed facts is by the supposition that color and ornament are strictly correlated with health, vigor and general fitness to survive,” Wallace wrote. In other words, ornamentation could be explained only as a heuristic that animals use to judge a potential mate’s fitness — a view that came to dominate.

In the early 1980s, while researching the history of sexual selection, Prum read a seminal 1915 paper and a 1930 book on the subject by the English biologist and statistician Ronald Fisher, who buttressed Darwin’s original idea with a more sophisticated understanding of heredity. At first, Fisher argued, females might evolve preferences for certain valueless traits, like bright plumage, that just happened to correspond with health and vigor. Their children would tend to inherit the genes underlying both their mother’s preference and their father’s trait. Over time, this genetic correlation would reach a tipping point, creating a runaway cycle that would greatly exaggerate both preference and trait, glorifying beauty at the expense of the male’s survival. In the early 1980s, the American evolutionary biologists Russell Lande and Mark Kirkpatrick gave Fisher’s theory a formal mathematical girding, demonstrating quantitatively that runaway sexual selection could happen in nature and that the ornaments involved could be completely arbitrary, conveying no useful information whatsoever.

Although Fisherian selection was certainly not ignored, it was ultimately overshadowed by a series of hypotheses that seemed to rescue beauty from purposelessness. First, the Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed a counterintuitive idea called the handicap principle, which put a new spin on Wallace’s utilitarian explanation for sexual ornaments. Extravagant ornaments, Zahavi argued, were not merely indicators of advantageous traits as Wallace had said — they were a kind of test. If an animal thrived despite the burden of an unwieldy or metabolically expensive ornament, then that animal had effectively demonstrated its vigor and proved itself worthy of a mate. Similarly, in 1982, the evolutionary biologists W.D. Hamilton and Marlene Zuk proposed that some ornaments, in particular bright plumage, signaled that a male was resilient against parasites and would grant his children the same protection. Many scientists began to think of sexual selection as a type of natural selection. Scores of researchers joined the hunt for measurable benefits of choosing an attractive mate: both direct benefits, like better parenting or more desirable territory, and indirect benefits, namely some evidence that more alluring males really did have “good genes” underlying various desirable qualities, like disease resistance or higher-than-average intelligence.

A male Guianan cock-of-the-rock.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

A male Guianan cock-of-the-rock.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

After more than 30 years of searching, most biologists agree that although these benefits exist, their prevalence and importance is uncertain. A few compelling studies of frogs, fish and birds have shown that females who choose more attractive males typically have children with more robust immune systems and a greater chance of survival. On the whole, however, the evidence has not equaled the enthusiasm. A 2012 meta-analysis of 90 studies on 55 species found only “equivocal” support for the good-genes hypothesis.

Prum thinks the evidence for the heritable benefits of choosing a beautiful mate is scant because such benefits are themselves rare, whereas arbitrary beauty is “nearly ubiquitous.” Over the years, the more he contemplated runaway selection, the more convinced he became that it was a far more powerful and creative evolutionary force than natural selection, which he regards as overhyped and boring. “Animals are agents in their own evolution,” he told me during one conversation. “Birds are beautiful because they are beautiful to themselves.”

In the summer of 1985, around the same time that biologists were rekindling their interest in sexual selection, Prum and the nature documentarian Ann Johnson (who would later choose him as her husband) traveled to Ecuador to continue studying manakins. The first morning, while hiking through a cloud forest, Prum heard odd bell-like notes, which he took to be the murmurings of parrots. Later that day, on the same trail, he heard the strange sounds again and followed them into the forest. He was astonished to find that the source was a male club-winged manakin, a small cinnamon-bodied species with a red cap and black-and-white mottled wings. The manakin was jumping around in a showy manner that suggested he was courting females. Instead of singing with his throat, he repeatedly lifted his wings behind his back and vibrated his feathers furiously against one another, producing two electronic blips followed by a shrill buzzing ring — a sound Prum transcribes as “Bip-Bip-WANNGG!”

At the time, Prum had not fully developed his evolutionary theory of beauty, but he immediately suspected that the club-winged manakin was emblematic of nature’s capacity for pushing creatures to aesthetic extremes. The bird’s singular vibrato haunted him for years. In the early 2000s, when Prum had become a professor of biology at the University of Kansas, he and his graduate student Kimberly Bostwick revealed that the demands of courtship had drastically altered the bird’s anatomy, turning it into a living violin. Male club-winged manakins had feathers with contorted shafts that rubbed against each other 100 times a second — faster than a hummingbird beats its wings. Whereas a vast majority of birds have light, hollow bones in service of flight, Bostwick has recently shown via CT scans that male club-winged manakins have solid ulnas — wing bones — which they need to withstand the intense quivering. Female manakins have inherited related anomalies as well.

Although there are no published studies of the club-winged manakin’s aeronautics, Prum says it’s obvious from observation that the birds fly awkwardly — even the females. The self-perpetuating pressure to be beautiful, Prum argues, has impeded the survival of the entire species. Because the females do not court males, there can be no possible advantage to their warped bones and feathers. “Some of the evolutionary consequences of sexual desire and choice in nature are not adaptive,” Prum writes in his recent book. “Some outcomes are truly decadent.”

In the following decade, as Prum’s hearing declined, he withdrew from field research and birding, but he still managed to make a series of groundbreaking scientific discoveries: He helped confirm that feathers evolved in dinosaurs long before the emergence of birds, and he became one of the first scientists to deduce the colors of a dinosaur’s plumage by examining pigment molecules preserved in fossilized feathers. All the while, he never stopped thinking about sexual selection. Prum formally presented his theory of aesthetic evolution in a series of scientific papers published between 1997 and 2015, proposing that all sexual ornaments and preferences should be regarded as arbitrary until proven useful.

Despite his recent Pulitzer nomination, Prum still stings from the perceived scorn of his academic peers. But after speaking with numerous researchers in the field of sexual selection, I learned that all of Prum’s peers are well aware of his work and that many already accept some of the core tenets of his argument: namely that natural and sexual selection are distinct processes and that, in at least some cases, beauty reveals nothing about an individual’s health or vigor. At the same time, nearly every researcher I spoke to said that Prum inflates the importance of arbitrary preferences and Fisherian selection to the point of eclipsing all other possibilities. In conversation, Prum’s brilliance is obvious, but he has a tendency to be dogmatic, sometimes interrupting to dismiss an argument that does not agree with his own. Although he admits that certain forms of beauty may be linked to survival advantages, he does not seem particularly interested in engaging with the considerable research on this topic. When I asked him which studies he thought offered the strongest support of “good genes” and other benefits, he paused for a while before finally responding that it was not his job to review the literature.

A male painted bunting.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

A male painted bunting.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Like Darwin, Prum is so enchanted by the outcomes of aesthetic preferences that he mostly ignores their origins. Toward the end of our bird walk at Hammonasset Beach State Park, we got to talking about club-winged manakins. I asked him about their evolutionary history. Prum thinks that long ago, an earlier version of the bird’s courtship dance incidentally produced a feathery susurration. Over time, this sound became highly attractive to females, which pressured males to evolve adaptations that made their rustling feathers louder and more noticeable, culminating in a quick-winged strumming. But why, I asked Prum, would females be attracted to those particular sounds in the first place?

To Prum, it was a question without an answer — and thus a question not worth contemplating. “Not everything,” he said, “has this explicit causal explanation.”

Prum’s indifference to the ultimate source of aesthetic taste leaves a conspicuous gap in his grand theory. Even if we were to accept that most beauty blooms from arbitrary preferences, we would still need to explain why such preferences exist at all. It’s entirely conceivable that an animal might be inherently partial to, say, a warbling mating call or bright yellow feathers, and that these predilections would have nothing to do with advantageous genes. Yet such inclinations are inarguably the product of an animal’s neurobiology, which is itself the result of a long evolutionary history that has adapted the animal’s brain and sensory organs to specific environmental conditions. In the past two decades, a cohort of biologists have dedicated themselves to studying how an animal’s “sensory bias” — its ecological niche and its particular way of experiencing the world — sculpts its appearance, behavior and desires. Like Prum, they don’t think beauty has to be adaptive. But where Prum celebrates caprice, they seek causality.


Molly Cummings, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, is a leading researcher in the field of sensory ecology. When I visited her last spring, she drove us to one of her field laboratories: a grassy clearing populated with several large concrete basins. The surface of one basin was so packed with woolly algae and pink-flowered water lilies that we could hardly see the water. Cummings began pushing some of the vegetation out of the way, forming shady recesses that permitted our gaze at the right angle. “Let me see if I can find a big, beautiful boy,” she said.

A paper-clip-size fish swam toward us. I leaned in for a closer look. His silver body was decorated with a single black dot and a stripe of iridescent blue; his lengthy tail, shaped like a knight’s blade, was streaked with yellow. “Oh, yeah, there’s a guy courting,” Cummings said. “He’s coming up to that female, trying to impress her.” The fish, a male swordtail, seemed almost manic in his effort to be noticed. He darted back and forth in front of the female, shimmying as he went, his scales reflecting whatever light managed to breach the murk.

A little while later, we drove the few miles back to her campus laboratory, where shelves of fish tanks lined several rooms and Ernst Haeckel’s resplendent illustrations of jellyfish undulated across the walls. As we toured the facilities, Cummings told me about the arc of her career. While an undergraduate at Stanford University, she spent a summer scuba diving in the giant kelp forests at Hopkins Marine Station, adjacent to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. After college, she moved to James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, where she studied marine ecology and discovered the work of the biologists John Lythgoe and John Endler, both of whom were interested in how the type of light in an animal’s environment shaped its visual system.

Cummings thought about the fish she had observed in California and Australia. She was astounded by the dynamic beauty of surfperch in the kelp forest: the way they communicate through the color and brightness of their skin, flashing blue, silver and orange to attract mates. Equally impressive was the diversity of their aquatic habitats. Some patches of water were sparkling and clear; others were cloudy with algal muck. In Australia, sunlight bathed the many vibrant species of reef fish almost constantly, but they lived against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of coral. How did fish evolve effective and reliable sexual ornaments if the lighting and scenery in their homes were so variable?

The tips of the outer tail feathers of a male king bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

The tips of the outer tail feathers of a male king bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

After earning a postgraduate degree in Australia in 1993, Cummings began a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For several years, she studied various species of surfperch, repeatedly diving in the kelp forests with a Plexiglas-protected spectrometer to quantify and characterize the light in different habitats. At night, she would use powerful diving lights to stun surfperch and take them back to the lab, evading the hungry seals that routinely trailed her in hopes of making a meal of the startled fish. After hundreds of dives and careful measurements, Cummings discovered that water itself had guided the evolution of piscine beauty. A female’s preference for a blaze of silver or blue was not arbitrary; it was a consequence of the particular wavelengths of light that traveled farthest through her underwater niche. Whichever males happened to have scales that best reflected these wavelengths were more likely to catch the eye of females.

In her studies, Cummings showed that surfperch living in dim or murky waters generally preferred shiny ornaments, while surfperch inhabiting zones of mercurial brightness favored bold colors. Later, Cummings found that Mexican swordtails occupying the upper layers of rivers, where the clear water strongly polarized incoming sunlight, had ornaments that were specialized to reflect polarized light — like a stripe of iridescent blue. These findings parallel similar studies suggesting that female guppies in Trinidad prefer males with orange patches because they first evolved a taste for nutritious orange tree fruits that occasionally fell into the water. “Some people think female preferences just somehow emerge,” Cummings says, “but what has been overlooked is that in many cases, it’s a result of environmental constraints. It’s not always random.”

What a creature finds attractive depends on more than the unique qualities of its environment, however; attraction is also defined by which of those qualities cross the threshold of awareness. Consider the difference between what we see when we look at a flower and what a bumblebee sees. Like us, insects have color vision. Unlike us, insects can also perceive ultraviolet light. Many plants have evolved flower parts that absorb or reflect ultraviolet light, forming patterns like rings, bull’s-eyes and starbursts. Most creatures are oblivious to these ornaments, but to the eyes of many pollinators, they are unmistakable beacons. There is an entire dimension of floral beauty invisible to us, not because we are not exposed to ultraviolet light, but because we do not have the proper biological hardware to perceive it.


Michael Ryan, a professor of zoology whose lab and office are just a few floors below Cummings’, has spent more than 30 years investigating how the quirks of an animal’s anatomy determine its aesthetic preferences — a career he details in his recent book, “A Taste for the Beautiful.” Since 1978, Ryan has been traveling to Panama to study a mud-colored frog called the túngara. Like the club-winged manakin, the túngara has a unique form of beauty that is not visual but aural. At dusk, male túngara frogs gather at the edges of puddles and sing to seduce females. Their mating call has two elements: The main part, dubbed the whine, sounds precisely like a miniaturized laser gun; sometimes this is followed by one or more brief barks, known as chucks. A long and complex mating call is risky: It attracts frog-eating bats. Yet there is a high payoff. Ryan has shown that whines followed by chucks are up to five times as appealing to females as whines alone. But why?

According to the adaptive model of beauty, the chucks must convey something about the males’ fitness. As it happens, larger males, which produce the deepest and sexiest chucks, are also the most adept at mating, because they are closer in size to females. (Frog sex is a slippery affair, and a diminutive male is more likely to miss his target.) Moreover, the túngara frog has an inner organ tuned to 2,200 hertz, which is close to the dominant frequency of a chuck. Together, these facts seem to indicate that the túngara’s puddle-side serenade is an example of adaptive mate choice: Females evolved ears tuned to chucks because they indicate the biggest and most sexually skilled males.

Ryan’s research revealed a stranger story. When he examined the túngara frog’s family tree, he discovered that eight frog species closely related to the túngara also have inner ear organs sensitive to frequencies of about 2,200 hertz, yet none of them produce chucks in their mating call. Ryan thinks that eons ago, the ancestor of all these species probably evolved an inner ear tuned to roughly 2,200 hertz for some long-abandoned purpose. The túngara later revived this neglected auditory channel, probably by happenstance. Male frogs that happened to burp out a few extra notes after whining were automatically favored by females — not because they were more suitable mates, but simply because they were more noticeable.

Like the glistening scales on the surfperch and swordtails that Cummings studied, the túngara’s costly mating call did not evolve to convey any pragmatic information about health or fitness. But that doesn’t mean that these traits were arbitrary. They were the result of specific, discernible aspects of the animals’ environments, anatomy and evolutionary legacy. “I took a real beating when I suggested this idea in 1990,” Ryan says. “It was very widely criticized. But now sensory bias is considered an important part of the evolution of these preferences.”

During our walk at Hammonasset, while admiring seabirds from shore-side cliffs, I asked Prum about sensory bias. He said it could not possibly explain the staggering diversity and idiosyncrasy of sexual ornaments — the fact that every closely related sparrow species has a unique embellishment, for example. Prum sees sensory bias as just another way to maintain the predominant “adaptive paradigm” that refuses to acknowledge his theory of aesthetic evolution. Tellingly, Prum and Ryan do not discuss each other’s work in their recent books.

A male king bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

A male king bird-of-paradise.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

While mulling over the similarities and discrepancies between Prum’s ideas and those of his peers, I kept returning to a passage in his book. In 2010, Prum and his colleagues revealed that a crow-size dinosaur called Anchiornis huxleyi was beautifully adorned: gray body plumage, an auburn mohawk and long white limb feathers with black spangles. Why dinosaurs originally evolved feathers has long perplexed scientists. At first, layers of fuzzy filaments, similar to a chick’s down, most likely helped dinosaurs repel water and regulate body temperature. But what explains the development of broad, flat feathers like those found on Anchiornis? Flight is the intuitive answer, but the first planar feathers were probably too primitive for flight or gliding, lacking the distinct asymmetry that makes birds’ feathers aerodynamic. In his book, Prum advocates for an alternative hypothesis that has been gaining support: Large feathers evolved to be beautiful.

The aesthetic possibilities of fuzzy down are limited. “The innovative planar feather vane, however, creates a well-defined, two-dimensional surface on which it is possible to create a whole new world of complex color patterns within every feather,” Prum writes. Only later did birds co-opt their big, glamorous plumes for flight, which is probably a key reason that some of them survived mass extinction 66 million years ago. Birds transformed what was once mere frippery into some of the most enviable adaptations on the planet, from the ocean-spanning breadth of an albatross to the torpedoed silhouette of a plunging falcon. Yet they never abandoned their sense of style, using feathers as a medium for peerless pageantry. A feather, then, cannot be labeled the sole product of either natural or sexual selection. A feather, with its reciprocal structure, embodies the confluence of two powerful and equally important evolutionary forces: utility and beauty.


Most of the scientists I spoke with said that the old dichotomy between adaptive adornment and arbitrary beauty, between “good genes” and Fisherian selection, is being replaced with a modern conceptual synthesis that emphasizes multiplicity. “Beauty is something that arises from a host of different mechanisms,” says Gil Rosenthal, an evolutionary biologist at Texas A&M University and the author of the new scholarly tome “Mate Choice.” “It’s an incredibly multilayered process.”

The environment constrains a creature’s anatomy, which determines how it experiences the world, which generates adaptive and arbitrary preferences, which loop back to alter its biology, sometimes in maladaptive ways. Beauty reveals that evolution is neither an iterative chiseling of living organisms by a domineering landscape nor a frenzied collision of chance events. Rather, evolution is an intricate clockwork of physics, biology and perception in which every moving part influences another in both subtle and profound ways. Its gears are so innumerable and dynamic — so susceptible to serendipity and mishap — that even a single outcome of its ceaseless ticking can confound science for centuries.

On my last day in Austin, while walking through a park, I encountered a common grackle hunting for insects in the grass. His plumage appeared black as charcoal at first, but as he moved, it shimmered with all the colors of an oil slick. Every now and then, he stopped in place, inflated his chest and made a sound like a rusty swing set. Perhaps dissatisfied with the local fare, or uncomfortable with my presence, he flew off.

In his absence, my attention immediately shifted to something his presence had obscured — a golden columbine bush. From a distance, its flowers resembled medieval illustrations of comets, big and bold with long, trailing streamers. Up close, I was struck by the complexity of a single blossom: a large yellow star wreathed a cluster of five tubular petals, shaped like angel’s trumpets and pooled with nectar. A tuft of pollen-tipped filaments fizzed through the very center. Viewed from above, the flowers looked like huddles of tiny birds with their beaks pressed together and wings flared. The name “columbine” comes from the Latin for “dovelike.”

Why are flowers beautiful? Or, more precisely: Why are flowers beautiful to us? The more I thought about this question, the more it seemed to speak to the nature of beauty itself. Philosophers, scientists and writers have tried to define the essence of beauty for thousands of years. The plurality of their efforts illustrates the immense difficulty of this task. Beauty, they have said, is: harmony; goodness; a manifestation of divine perfection; a type of pleasure; that which causes love and longing; and M = O/C (where M is aesthetic value, O is order and C is complexity).

Evolutionary psychologists, eagerly applying adaptive logic to every facet of behavior and cognition, have speculated that the human perception of beauty emerges from a set of ancient adaptations: Perhaps men like women with large breasts and narrow waists because those features signal high fertility; symmetrical faces may correlate with overall health; maybe babies are irresistibly cute because their juvenile features activate the caregiving circuits in our brains. Such claims sometimes verge on the ludicrous: The philosopher Denis Dutton has argued that people around the world have an intrinsic appreciation for a certain type of landscape — a grassy field with copses of trees, water and wildlife — because it resembles the Pleistocene savannas where humans evolved. In a TED Talk, Dutton explains that postcards, calendars and paintings depicting this universally beloved landscape usually include trees that fork near the ground because our ancestors relied on their conveniently low branches to scramble away from predators.

Of course, it is undeniable that we, like all animals, are products of evolution. Our brains and sensory organs are just as biased as any other creature’s. Our inherited anatomy, physiology and instincts have undoubtedly shaped our perception of beauty. In their recent books, Richard Prum and Michael Ryan synthesize research on animals and people, exploring possible evolutionary explanations for our own aesthetic tastes. Ryan is particularly interested in the innate sensitivities and biases of our neural architecture: He describes how our visual system, for example, may be wired to notice symmetry. Prum stresses his conviction that in humans, as in birds, many types of physical beauty and sexual desire have arbitrarily co-evolved without reference to health or fertility. What complicates their respective arguments is the overwhelming power of human culture. As a species, we are so thoroughly saturated with symbolism, ritual and art — so swayed by rapidly changing fashions — that it is more or less impossible to determine just how much an aesthetic preference owes to evolutionary history as opposed to cultural influence.


A male Mandarin duck.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

A male Mandarin duck.CreditKenji Aoki for The New York Times

Perhaps more than any other object of aesthetic obsession, flowers expose the futility of trying to contain beauty in a single theoretical framework. Consider how flowers came to be and how we grew to love them: 150 million years ago many pollen-producing plants depended on the wind to spread their pollen and reproduce. But certain insects, perhaps beetles and flies, began to eat those protein-rich pollen grains, inadvertently transporting them from one plant to another. This proved to be a much more efficient means of fertilization than capricious air currents. Plants with the richest and most obvious sources of pollen were especially successful. Likewise, insects that were particularly adept at finding pollen had an advantage over their peers.

Through a long process of co-evolution, plants and pollinators transformed one another. Some plants began to modify their leaves into proto-flowers: little flags that marked the location of their pollen. Bold colors and distinctive shapes helped them stand out in a tangle of green. Strong aromas and ultraviolet beacons played upon pollinators’ senses. Nectar sweetened the deal. Insects, birds and mammals began competing for access, evolving wings, tongues and brains better suited to the quest for floral sustenance. As the pressure from both parties intensified, plants and their pollinators formed increasingly specific relationships, hurtling each other toward aesthetic and adaptive extremes — a bird that hums and hovers like an insect, an orchid that mimics the appearance and scent of a female bee.

Many millions of years later, flowers enchanted yet another species. Perhaps the initial attraction was purely utilitarian: the promise of fruit or grain. Maybe we were captivated by their consonance of color, form and aroma. Whatever the case, we adopted numerous flowering plants into an expanding circle of domesticated species. We brought them into greenhouses and laboratories, magnifying their inherent beauty, creating new hybrids and tailoring their features to our individual tastes. We contracted orchid delirium and tulip mania, and we have never fully recovered. The flower began as a plea and became a phenomenon.

If there is a universal truth about beauty — some concise and elegant concept that encompasses every variety of charm and grace in existence — we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. What we call beauty is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful nor entirely random, neither merely a property nor a feeling. Beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world’s answer to the audacity of a flower. It is the way a bee spills across the lip of a yawning buttercup; it is the care with which a satin bowerbird selects a hibiscus bloom; it is the impulse to recreate water lilies with oil and canvas; it is the need to place roses on a grave.

David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves

Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”. But, as his latest interview with the Observer reveals, David Attenborough sticks to his line that fully representing environmental issues is a “turn-off”.

His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.

For many years, wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world. It has created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse. The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.

You cannot do such a thing passively. Wildlife film-makers I know tell me that the effort to portray what looks like an untouched ecosystem becomes harder every year. They have to choose their camera angles ever more carefully to exclude the evidence of destruction, travel further to find the Edens they depict. They know – and many feel deeply uncomfortable about it – that they are telling a false story, creating a fairytale world that persuades us all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis. While many people, thanks in large part to David Attenborough, are now quite well informed about wildlife, we remain astonishingly ignorant about what is happening to it.

What makes Attenborough’s comments particularly odd is that they come just a year after the final episode of his Blue Planet II series triggered a massive effort to reduce plastic pollution. Though the programme made a complete dog’s breakfast of the issue, the response demonstrated a vast public appetite for information about the environmental crisis, and an urgent desire to act on it.

Since 1985, when I worked in the department that has made most of his programmes, I have pressed the BBC to reveal environmental realities, often with dismal results. In 1995 I spent several months with a producer, developing a novel and imaginative proposal for an environmental series. The producer returned from his meeting with the channel controller in a state of shock. “He just looked at the title and asked ‘Is this environment?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ve spent two years trying to get environment off this fucking channel. Why the fuck are you bringing me environment?’”

I later discovered that this response was typical. The controllers weren’t indifferent. They were actively hostile. If you ask me whether the BBC or ExxonMobil has done more to frustrate environmental action in this country, I would say the BBC.

We all knew that only one person had the power to break this dam. For decades David Attenborough, a former channel controller widely seen as the living embodiment of the BBC, has been able to make any programme he wants. So where, we kept asking, was he? At last, in 2000, he presented an environmental series: State of the Planet.

It was an interesting and watchable series, but it left us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Only in the last few seconds of the final episode was there a hint that structural forces might be at play: “Real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies, in our economics and in our politics.” But what change? What economics? What politics? He had given us no clues.

To make matters worse, it was sandwiched between further programmes of his about the wonders of nature, which created a strong impression of robust planetary health. He might have been describing two different worlds. Six years later he made another environmental series, The Truth About Climate Change. And this, in my view, was a total disaster.

It told us nothing about the driving forces behind climate breakdown. The only mention of fossil fuel companies was as part of the solution: “The people who extract fossil fuels like oil and gas have now come up with a way to put carbon dioxide back underground.” Apart from the general “we”, the only distinct force identified as responsible was the “1.3 billion Chinese”. That a large proportion of Chinese emissions are caused by manufacturing goods the west buys was not mentioned. The series immediately triggered a new form of climate denial: I was bombarded with people telling me there was no point in taking action in Britain because the Chinese were killing the planet.

If Attenborough’s environmentalism has a coherent theme, it is shifting the blame from powerful forces on to either society in general or the poor and weak. Sometimes it becomes pretty dark. In 2013 he told the Telegraph“What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land … We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”

There had not been a famine in Ethiopia for 28 years, and the last one was caused not by an absolute food shortage but by civil war and government policies. His suggestion that food relief is counter-productive suggests he has read nothing on the subject since Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798. But, cruel and ignorant as these comments were, they were more or less cost-free. By contrast, you do not remain a national treasure by upsetting powerful vested interests: look at the flak the outspoken wildlife and environmental presenter Chris Packham attracts for standing up to the hunting lobby.

I have always been entranced by Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves. His revelation of the wonders of nature has been a great public service. But withholding the knowledge we need to defend it is, I believe, a grave disservice.

 George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

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Bears’ dip in pool caught on camera in Sudbury

Sunday in Sudbury was hot. How hot? A momma bear and a cub felt compelled to take a quick dip in Vip Palladino’s pool.

Palladino, vice president of Palladino Honda, located on the 990 Kingsway Sudbury, said the bears used his backyard in-ground pool Sunday afternoon.

“Even bears need to cool off on a hot day,” Palladino joked.

Palladino said he was inside his house reading a new novel in his south end home when he heard his neighbour knocking on the door Sunday.

His neighbour asked if he knew he had two bears swimming in his pool. Palladino said no, ran to the window, but the bears had already left. Thankfully, his neighbour took some shots of the momma bear and cub swimming in his pool.

The bears didn’t wreck the lining in the pool and must had only been swimming for five minutes before they decided to leave, Palladino said.

Bears sighting, of course, are not that unusual here, the City of Greater Sudbury said on it website, the city said. The city’s website provides a link for residences who are curious to learn and understand bear behaviour, as well as take steps to avoid any encounters.

According to, if you feel a bear poses an immediate threat to personal safety, and either enters a school yard when school is in session, enters or tries to enter a home, wanders into public gathering, kills livestock or pets, and stalks people, you should call the local police service.

“Generally bears want to avoid humans. Most encounters are not aggressive and attacks are rare,” the province said on its website.

Non-emergencies should be reported to Bear Wise between the months of April and November at 1-866-514-2327.

Non-emergencies include bears roaming around, checking garbage cans, breaking into a shed where garbage or food is usually stored, in a tree and moving through a backyard or field, but is not lingering.

During December to March, contact your local Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry if you have a concern.

If you want to avoid bear encounters, the website gives you the following steps:

– Do not put your garbage out at night.

– Fill your bird feeders during the winter months.

– Do not leave pet food outdoors or near screened-in areas.

– Pick up fallen and rotten fruit off your property.

– Lastly, make sure your barbecue has burned off any food residue, empty grease trap and remove all dishes after eating if you want to eliminate any possible bear encounters.

If you do happen to encounter a bear, the website said not to panic and assess the situation as a sighting, a surprise or a close encounter.

“When bears are caught off guard, they are stressed and usually just want to flee. Generally the nosier the bear is the less dangerous it is, provided you do not approach the bear. The noise is meant to ‘scare’ you off as a warning signal,” according to the website.

Do not scream, turn your back on the bear, run, kneel down, and make direct eye contact. Also don’t try to climb a tree or retreat into water — a bear can swim much better than you.

School field trips to creationist Ark? Sink that idea right now

A view from the front of the gigantic Ark
Pseudoscience inside

John Minchillo/AP/PA

In a quiet corner of Kentucky, what claims to be the world’s largest timber-frame structure is hard to miss – a “life-size Noah’s Ark” that reportedly cost $100 million.

Called Ark Encounter, the 155-metre long “theme park” features stuffed creatures and a petting zoo. It opened its doors last month, billing itself as a family-oriented educational treat. That makes it sound like a good place for schools to send students.

Not so fast, though. The park’s promotional material also describes it as “a Christian evangelistic outreach intended to bring the Ark of Noah’s day to life,” which “equips visitors to understand the reality of the events that are recorded in the book of Genesis”. It is, in fact, a hard-core creationist extravaganza replete with pseudoscience. It is no place for field trips.

But that hasn’t stopped its founder Ken Ham from urging publicly funded schools to come and take a look.

One of the exhibits inside the Ark showing a dinosaur-like creature in a small wooden pen
Inside the Ark

John Minchillo/AP/PA

Throughout the Ark, wordy signs, animatronic mannequins and strident videos all insist that it is no Sunday school tale, but a “historically authentic” boat that existed just as Ham and others on the young-earth creationist fringe imagine it.

Perhaps because of disappointing visitor numbers so far, it is offering reduced rates – $1 a student and free tickets for accompanying teachers – to tempt schoolchildren through its doors. Schools and parents should know that a visit wouldn’t educate or entertain, it would misinform and browbeat.

Publicly-funded schools certainly should not take their charges to the park. The US Constitution prohibits government bodies, including schools, from endorsing one particular religious belief over others. Ark Encounter is all about endorsing Ham’s particular reading of Genesis as the literal truth. The constitutions of nearby states, from which a trip might be feasible, echo that proscription.

Flood of misinformation

What’s more, everything in the park is designed to promote scientifically impossible ideas that contradict everything that scientists know. From astrophysics to zookeeping, the visitor is deluged with misinformation. It may be impossible to find a single sign in the park that is free of scientific errors.

To give a single example, Ark Encounter is founded on the notion that all the walking and flying animals alive today descend from specimens caged aboard a boat so unwieldy that it surely would have twisted apart in the roiling waters of a biblical flood. It is a notion that founders on the rocks of genetics, biogeography and naval engineering.

Just as pernicious as the scientific errors and the religious proselytising is a subtler form of indoctrination. The relentless message to visitors is that our world is as fallen and wicked as Noah’s, and that the destruction of the flood – including the obliteration of all humans other than a virtuous few – was not just acceptable but praiseworthy.

Under the pretence of illustrating a beloved tale shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, Ark Encounter presents a message as socially divisive as it is scientifically inaccurate, instilling fear, hatred and hopelessness. Those are lessons no school or parent should want their students or children to take on board.

Mankind has eaten into its year supply of natural resources – in just seven months

Harry Cockburn 20 hrs ago
Logging machinery sits in a pine plantation in Angol city, south of Chile, June 8, 2016.© REUTERS/Gram Slattery Logging machinery sits in a pine plantation in Angol city, south of Chile, June 8, 2016. Humans have used up a full year’s worth of Earth’s ecological resources in just over seven months, its fastest rate ever, according to an annual environmental report.

“Earth overshoot day”, marks the date at which humanity’s demand on the planet exceeds that which it can regenerate in a year. This year it will fall on Monday 8 August, its earliest date yet.

Earth overshoot day is calculated by the international think tank Global Footprint Network, which measures the world’s demand for resources against ecosystems’ ability to supply them.

The organisation uses United Nations data on thousands of economic sectors, including the energy industry, transport, fisheries and forestry, and calculates the number of days of the year the earth is able to provide resources for humanity’s ecological footprint.

The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot.

According to the network, greenhouse gas emissions are the largest and fastest-growing environmental impact, accounting for 60 per cent of humanity’s entire ecological footprint.

“We continue to grow our ecological debt,” Pascal Canfin of WWF, told AFP in response to the annual update.

“From Monday August 8, we will be living on credit because in eight months we would have consumed the natural capital that our planet can renew in a year,” he added.

In 1993, Earth overshoot day fell on October 21. In 2003 it fell on September 22 and last year on August 13.

Back in the 1960s, humans only used about three-quarters of the earth’s annual replaceable resources.

But since the 1970s, economic and population booms combined with modern consumer demands have meant the planet has subsequently been in annual overshoot.

However, the speed at which we are depleting resources has dropped, the network said.

In a statement, Global Footprint Network said: “The rate at which Earth Overshoot Day has moved up on the calendar has slowed to less than one day a year on average over the past five years, compared to an average of three days a year since the overshoot began in the 1970s.”


These Sloths Need Our Help Immediately!!

Shocking news broke two days ago that the Sloth Sanctuary Costa Rica has allegedly been mishandling, abusing, and otherwise neglecting sloths. Further, the “sanctuary” has been confining sloths in small pens and using them for photo opportunities, rather than rehabilitating them and releasing them back into the wild.

Click here and sign our petition today demanding the Costa Rican government investigate the allegations made by the Sloth Sanctuary’s former veterinarians. 

Only the Costa Rican government can intervene and assist in the rehabilitation and release of the animals currently confined at the Sloth Sanctuary compound. They must take immediate action to ensure the health and well-being of the ever-increasing number of sloths that are captive there.

Please sign today and demand the Costa Rican government take action!

For the animals,
Carrie LeBlanc, M.A.
Executive Director
CompassionWorks International