Letters to the Editor: 8.30.13

Last week Mr. G. Ostermann provided an entertaining and intriguing, if not rambling and sometimes hard to follow, thoughtful letter to the editor considering the complexities of biologic and cosmic evolution.

He seemed unsatisfied with the lack of evidence for an Intelligent Designer of some kind in natural processes. Like many nowadays who eschew millennia-old theistic mythological explanations he replaces the big “g” in God with a little “g” in guidance, as to him there must be some “creative brain,” “Super Intelligence” or at very least “software” i.e. some prior agent who underwrites the complexity of the bumblebee’s flight or the later dinosaur’s feathers. Bumblebees don’t explicitly know how they fly any more than most of us know precisely how we keep ourselves upright while riding a bike.

The many portions of our brains that are not accessible to our consciousness produce most of our procedural skills and regulate our bodily and mental functions all without conscious control and awareness.

The intricate patterns of your own breathing, digestion, perception and sleep-wake cycles all hormonally and neuronally mediated, don’t require conscious attendance. 100 million neurons, each with thousands of connections can accomplish such things with nary a thought involved. Neurons are stunningly complex collections of large molecules and chemical processes, strikingly similar in us, bumblebees and all creatures. They run blindly every minute without our intervention and all evidence leads to the conclusion that biologic evolution and cosmic expansion do so as well.

We can accept the fact that our automatic processes are run by the unaware, unthinking parts of our brains, but don’t like the idea that biologic evolution or cosmic expansion both unfold without need of some conscious or at least “programmed” guidance.

Physical laws are accepted by most nowadays as sufficient to direct how complex molecules dissolve in a solvent or an apple falls to the ground, though it wasn’t always so. It was once readily assumed if God didn’t keep constant vigilance on the planets in their orbits they would come crashing down, as surely as there was a god of the wind who must be causing storms and summer breezes.

Children of preschool age begin to assume that such person-like agents must cause all sorts of phenomena in the world. While for many, giving up those childhood ascriptions is easy, letting go of the feeling of agency in the guidance of the cosmos is uncomfortable.

We don’t like giving up our supernatural agents, even when they are watered down to mere “software.” Distressingly to some, the world doesn’t care what we like and science finds what it finds whether we choose to believe it or not.

 

Letter from William Zingrone, Assistant professor of psychology

 

The U.S. EPA has a checkered record when it comes to evaluating pesticides. A case in point is the agency’s slow response in regulating the neonicotinoid insecticides, or “neonics,” despite extensive scientific evidence of the threat to bees, birds and other wildlife.

A 100-page report by the American Bird Conservancy, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” examined the risks to birds and aquatic systems, including extensive comparisons with the older pesticides that the neonics have replaced. The results reinforce the need for immediate intervention.

Neonics are easily the world’s most widely used pesticides. The EPA helped make the neonics best-sellers by approving no less than 595 of these products since the 1990s – including nearly 100 different seed treatments – even though the agency’s own toxicologists were raising red flags about potential environmental threats. In internal reviews conducted by the EPA, agency scientists voiced concerns about how long it took for neonics to break down, how readily they got into water supplies, and how harmful they could be to pollinators and other wildlife.

We believe those warnings would have been even more dire if the scientists who issued them had gone beyond the agency’s antiquated risk assessment protocols. But they did not. Instead, EPA scientists measured the toxicity of neonics to aquatic invertebrates by running tests on a species of freshwater flea that happens to be uniquely insensitive to these chemicals.

They evaluated the potential threats to birds by running tests on Mallards and Northern Bobwhites, even though other birds can be ten times more sensitive to pesticides like these.

ABC’s review of 200 studies turned up ample evidence that the threats posed by these chemicals are more than theoretical. These pesticides are having dire effects on terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates as well.

Astonishingly the EPA does not require that registrants of acutely toxic pesticides develop the tools necessary to diagnose poisoned birds and other wildlife.

Moreover, the EPA does not require registrants to report any bird fatalities involving fewer than 200 of a “flocking species,” 50 of a songbird species or five raptors. These 1997 revisions to federal pesticide laws essentially place the agency in a state of enforced ignorance.

The feeble reporting requirements, combined with the failure to require development of basic biomarkers, help keep the government in the dark on a range of pesticide effects on wildlife.

In April, the European Union announced a two-year ban on three neonics, effective Dec. 1, in light of the ongoing threat to food production systems. ABC is calling on the EPA to do likewise – to suspend all uses of neonics pending independent review of their effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates and other wildlife.

 

Letter by Cynthia Palmer with the American Bird Conservatory