Synanthropy, and ice cream for crow
BY Rupert Goodwins / 5 March 2008

My new favourite word is synanthropy – the study and practice of creating symbiotic relationships between people and animals. I came across it thanks to the ever-giving Metafilter group blog, a pretty fine palace of symbiosis n its own right. It pointed me at A Vending Machine For Crows, a project by polymath techie Joshua Klein that aims to put some of the hundreds of millions of dropped coins back in circulation. It does this by training crows to realise that if they find coins and take them to the machine, they’ll get food. Crows, and corvids in general, are my favourite birds; they’re impressively intelligent, communicative, fast to learn and innovative when problem solving. They also like shiny things: really, what’s not to love?

The benefits of this idea are manifold. Klein posits that if you can get a few crows trained, then the idea will spread naturally throughout the population – and that means that mostly, human intervention can be restricted to seeding the idea and then leaving enough machines around. That makes it very economical – especially if the crows remain unaware of the true market value of the coinage they find. Although I’m sure that economics will take over if the idea catches on; if it’s profitable for the machine operators, then rival devices will appear offering better deals and a wider range of treats – and I do hope crows really are partial to ice cream. Is it perhaps entirely smart to introduce intelligent non-humans into our economy?

Perhaps the most exciting long-term potential for the Crow Vending Machine is that humans will lose a bit more of that apartness when it comes to other animals, and learn to think in symbiotic terms. That can only be advantageous; currently, our attempts to game the world’s ecosystems are clumsy and full of ill thought out missteps. Co-option is better than control. Meanwhile, watch yourself when you’re counting out change for that lunchtime sandwich at the pavement cafe. If this catches on, avian mugging will spread from the seagulls in no time flat.



Scientists discover coconut-carrying octopus / Dec 15, 2009

Two scientists at the Melbourne Museum have recorded the first case of tool use in an invertebrate animal. The veined octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, selects, stacks, transports and assembles coconut shells as portable armour. Many octopuses use available objects such as shells and rocks for shelter, but that is not considered tool use. Dr Mark Norman says what makes these animals so special is the the planned future use of the coconut shells. “It comes at a cost, carrying these shells in this awkward way and it’s a fantastic example of complex behaviours in what we consider the lower life forms,” he said. “I think these sorts of behaviours are everywhere in nature. There’s really complex behaviours that we write off because we think we’re the clever ones.”

He and colleague Dr Julian Finn spent more than 500 hours diving in remote waters off Indonesia to observe and film the animals. They watched the octopuses dig out coconut shells from the ocean floor and empty the shells of mud using jets of water. Dr Finn says it is not unusual for octopuses to live inside coconuts but it is how the veined octopus uses the shells that is unique. “It gathers them together, it stacks them like bowls, covers its whole body over bowls, lifts them up and then trundles along on its arm tips until a predator comes or there’s a threat,” he said. “Then it closes them over like a ball and hides inside.”

This series of actions are among the most complex ever recorded for octopuses. The veined octopus evolved this behaviour by first using clam shells as shelter. However once humans began discarding large numbers of coconut shells they found the perfect armour to protect themselves against fish attackers. The pair have written a scientific paper on the veined octopus which appears in the scientific journal Current Biology.

Study reveals use of tools by octopuses / 2009-12-15

Researchers often see tool use as a mark of intelligence. Humans, birds, primates and other mammals are all known to use them, and now a report by British and Australian researchers published in the journal Current Biology says that octopuses, an invertebrate, can be added to the list. Until recently, science had perceived invertebrates as lacking the cognitive abilities to demonstrate tool use. While some have been observed using leaves or sand to collect and transport food, researchers have said that these behaviours are different to the tool use seen in mammals and birds.

The new report details a type of behaviour of the veined octopus called ‘stilt walking’: the soft-bodied octopus spreads itself over stacked, upright coconut shells, makes its eight arms rigid, and raises the whole assembly to then amble across the seafloor. The octopus later uses the shells as a shelter, which the researchers say is different to a hermit crab using a discarded shell. ‘There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head,’ said Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia, who worked on the project and led the report, ‘versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly) and assembling portable armour as required.’ The researchers found that the veined octopus exhibits further tool abilities by assembling the coconuts. This confirms the behaviour as tool use, distinguishing it from other object manipulations by octopuses, such as using rocks to barricade a lair entrance.

To study the octopuses, researchers dove for nearly 500 hours between 1999 and 2008 off the coasts of Bali and northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. More than 20 octopuses were studied, and the discovery of the behaviour was a surprise. ‘I could tell that the octopus, busy manipulating coconut shells, was up to something, but I never expected it would pick up the stacked shells and run away,’ stated Julian Finn, also of the Museum Victoria. ‘It was an extremely comical sight – I have never laughed so hard underwater.’ The researchers believe that the behaviour is likely to have evolved using large empty bivalve shells prior to the relatively recent supply of clean and light coconut shell halves discarded by costal communities near the marine habitant of the octopuses. The report concludes: ‘Ultimately, the collection of use of objects by animals is likely to form a continuum stretching from insects to primates, with the definition of tools. However, the discovery of this octopus tiptoeing across the seafloor with its prized coconuts shells suggests that even marine invertebrates engage in behaviours that we once thought the preserve of humans.’

How Smart Is the Octopus?
BY Carl Zimmer / June 23, 2008

Aristotle didn’t have a high opinion of the octopus. “The octopus is a stupid creature,” he wrote, “for it will approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water.” Twenty-four centuries later, this “stupid” creature is enjoying a much better reputation. YouTube is loaded with evidence of what some might call octopus intelligence. One does an uncanny impression of a flounder. Another mimics coral before darting away from a pushy camera. A third slips its arms around a jar, unscrews it, and dines on the crab inside. Scientific journals publish research papers on octopus learning, octopus personality, octopus memory. Now the octopus has even made it into the pages of the journal Consciousness and Cognition (along with its fellow cephalopods the squid and the cuttlefish). The title: “Cephalopod consciousness: behavioral evidence.”

So, is the octopus really all that smart? It depends on how you define intelligence. And if you’ve got a good definition, there are quite a few scientists who would love to hear it. Octopuses can learn, they can process complex information in their heads, and they can behave in equally complex ways. But it would be a mistake to try to give octopuses an IQ score. They are not intelligent in the way we are—not because they’re dumb but because their behavior is the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution under radically different conditions than the ones under which our own brains evolved.

Grady Hendrix recommended that we avoid the giant squid at all costs. Daniel Engber explained why it’s so hard to find a giant squid and wondered if cats can really sense death. Seth Stevenson reviewed the history of celebratory sports gestures, including the venerable “octopus toss” of the Detroit Red Wings. You’d have to go back about 700 million years to find the moment in the history of life when humans and octopuses diverged. Our most recent common ancestor, scientists suspect, was a little wormlike creature with eyespots and little more. Since then, our lineage evolved bones; theirs evolved boneless bodies they control with water pressure. We’ve accumulated so many and such incredible differences over that time that 20th-century scientists were excited to discover a few deep similarities. In the 1950s, for example, biologists demonstrated for the first time that octopuses have massive brains.

Cephalopods belong to the same lineage that produced snails, clams, and other mollusks. A typical mollusk might have 20,000 neurons arranged in a diffuse net. The octopus has half a billion neurons.* The neurons in its head are massed into complex lobes, much the way our own brains are. In comparison with their body weight, octopuses have the biggest brains of all invertebrates. They’re even bigger than the brains of fish and amphibians, putting them on par with those of birds and mammals. In the late 1950s, Oxford biologist N.S. Sutherland decided to put the big brains of octopuses to the test. He would show them two shapes and reward them for touching one but not the other. They might learn to tell a rectangle in a horizontal position from the same rectangle rotated 90 degrees. And once they had figured out this test, the octopuses knew to select any horizontal rectangle they saw, no matter what its particular dimensions. They were learning what to learn. Over the years, octopuses have shown many more signs of intelligence. They proved to have an excellent memory. They were clever and unpredictable. Jennifer Mather, a Canadian biologist, has tossed toys into octopus tanks and watched as the octopuses inspect them and puff them around with jets of water.* They are playing, she argues. Clams do not play. Humans do.

Mather is also the author of the new paper arguing for consciousness in octopuses. She does not claim that they have full-blown consciousness like we do but a simpler form known as primary consciousness. In other words, they can combine their perceptions with their memories to have a coherent feel for what’s happening to them at any moment. Mather bases her claim not just on how octopuses behave but also on how their brains work. For example, one sign of the complexity of the human brain is that we can be left-handed or right-handed. Our preference comes from one side of the brain dominating over the other—a sign of how the two sides of our brains are not identical. Instead, they divide up mental work and communicate with each other to create a unified sense of reality. Octopuses may not be left-handed (or left-armed), but Mather claims that they show similar kinds of specialization with their eyes. In a 2004 experiment, she and her colleagues found that when they looked out from their dens, some preferred to sit with their left eye facing out, others with their right.

But some octopus experts are skeptical of these bold claims. Many reports of weird octopus behavior come from casual observations in aquariums. Even some experiments have not held up to scrutiny. Last year, Jean Boal of Millersville University and her colleagues found fault with Mather’s experiments on left- and right-brained octopuses. The problem was that the scientists had looked at too few octopuses. It was impossible to rule out the possibility that octopuses might not have any preference at all for either eye. The results of the experiments might simply have been a matter of chance. After 50 years, in other words, we still don’t know that much about what’s going on in the heads of octopuses. Carefully designed experiments will be essential for finding out more, but so will a more octo-centric attitude. What we call intelligence is really just a set of behaviors and abilities that evolved in our ancestors as they adapted to a particular way of life. Octopuses evolved behaviors of their own, but they were adapting to a way of life that’s hard for us to imagine—they were naked mollusks in a world of fish.

The earliest cephalopods, which lived about a half-billion years ago, had shells. Over the next 250 million years, they evolved into giant predators. They shot bursts of water out of siphons to swim—a prehistoric form of jet propulsion.* But their glory was cut short by fish with jaws—our ancestors. Fish could swim faster by bending their bodies than cephalopods could move by jetting. Today, only a single shelled cephalopod survives—the nautilus, which spends most of its life lurking deep underwater. The other living cephalopods lost their shells. While they gave up a defense against predators, they were free to evolve new skills. Squids became fast swimmers. Octopuses instead moved to the sea floor, where they could use their shell-free bodies to explore cracks and crevices for prey. But in order to survive in this new niche, they had to become fast learners. Jean Boal and her colleagues have done some experiments that show how good octopuses are at learning geography. Boal put the octopuses in tanks with an assortment of landmarks, such as plastic jugs, plates of pebbles, and clumps of algae. It took only a few trials for the octopuses to find the quickest route to a hidden exit in the bottom of the tank. What made Boal’s results particularly impressive is that the octopuses were learning two completely different mazes at once. Boal would move them from one to the other after each trial. Somehow, the octopuses could keep track of two geographies concurrently. When octopuses are moving across new terrain, they can perhaps learn the best escape from predators.

Octopuses escape from predators not just by hiding quickly but by deceit. One of the most impressive examples of this deception is what marine biologist Roger Hanlon calls the moving-rock trick. An octopus morphs into the shape of a rock and then inches across an open space. Even though it’s in plain view, predators don’t attack it. They can’t detect its motion because the octopus matches its speed to the motion of the light in the surrounding water. For Hanlon, what makes this kind of behavior remarkable is that it’s a creative combination of lots of behaviors, used to address a new situation. Similarly, when an octopus escapes an attack, it may puff up its body and turn white to scare a predator, shoot off puffs of ink to distract it, zigzag through the water, and then suddenly switch its skin to match the surrounding coral.

There’s not much point in trying to pin this sort of behavior to some human-based scale of intelligence, because our behavior emerged as apes adapted to life spent on two legs, in groups, and using our hands to make tools. We’d fail pretty badly at an octopus-based test of intelligence, but surely we wouldn’t hold it against ourselves.


Tiny Crow Camera Spies On Clever Birds / Oct. 10, 2007

A new technique developed by Oxford University zoologists enables researchers to ‘hitch a ride’ with wild birds and witness their natural and undisturbed behaviour. The scientists developed miniaturised video cameras with integrated radio-tags that can be carried by wild, free-flying birds. Using this new ‘video-tracking’ technology, they spied on the behaviour of New Caledonian crows, a species renowned for its sophisticated use of tools, recording behaviours never seen before. Observing New Caledonian crows in the wild is extremely difficult because they are easily disturbed and live in densely forested, mountainous terrain. ‘Video-tracking’ enabled the Oxford scientists to obtain particularly intimate observations of crow behaviour. ‘Everyone thought that New Caledonian crows use tools mainly to probe into holes and cracks in rotting wood and tree crowns, but we now discovered that they use tools even on the ground,’ said Dr Christian Rutz, from the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

One crow was seen probing leaf litter with grass-like stems – a mode of tool use, and a tool material, that decades of observation with conventional techniques had missed. ‘This discovery highlights the power of our new video-tracking technology’ said Dr Rutz, who leads the group’s field research. ‘This is the first time that wild birds have been tracked in this way, and it has already changed our understanding of New Caledonian crow behaviour.’ For the study, 18 crows were fitted with ‘tailcams’ with each unit weighing about 14 grams – only slightly heavier than a conventional radio-tag. The units were attached to two tail feathers with strips of adhesive tape, and were designed so that they did not adversely affect the bird’s movements, and could be removed by the crows themselves or would detach after a few weeks with the birds’ natural moulting process.

‘Observing wild birds this closely in their natural habitat has been one of the final frontiers of ornithological field research,’ said Dr Rutz. ‘Whilst video footage has been taken before using tame, trained birds, it is only now that we have been able to design cameras that are small and light enough to travel with wild birds and let them behave naturally. Potentially, this new video technology could help us to answer some long-standing questions about the ecology and behaviour of many other bird species that are otherwise difficult to study.’ A report of the research, entitled ‘Video Cameras on Wild Birds’ was published in Science Express on Thursday 4 October 2007. The research was undertaken by Dr Christian Rutz, Lucas Bluff, Dr Alex Weir and Professor Alex Kacelnik from the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the Department of Zoology and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).



Josh Klein
email : josh [at] wireless [dot] is

BY Claire Trageser / December 12, 2008

In June, Josh Klein revealed his master’s-thesis project to a flock of crows at the Binghamton Zoo in south-central New York State. The New York University graduate student offered the birds coins and peanuts from a dish attached to a vending machine he’d created, then took the peanuts away. Klein designed the machine so that when the crows searched for the missing peanuts, they pushed the coins out of a dish into a slot, causing more peanuts to be released into the dish. The Binghamton crows quickly learned that dropping nickels and dimes into the slot produced peanuts, and the most resourceful members of the flock began looking for more coins. Within a month, Klein had a flock of crows scouring the ground for loose change. Now Klein is working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine. Although his invention might conjure Hitchcock-worthy visions of crows stealing the loose change from pedestrians’ pockets and hands, Klein’s conception is more benign. To Klein, the machine demonstrates the value of cooperating with “synanthropes” — animals that have adapted seamlessly to human environments. “Rather than just killing off a species, why not see if they can do something useful for us, so we can all live in close proximity?” he said. To pursue his research, he founded the Synanthropy Foundation this year. Someday, he hopes, similar techniques may allow us to train rats to sort our garbage for us.

Vending Machine for Crows / April 12, 2009

An article in the Year in Ideas issue on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on Josh Klein, whose master’s thesis for New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed “a vending machine for crows” that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose change.

The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo.

The reporter never called the zoo in Binghamton to confirm. And while the fact-checker did discuss the details with Klein, he did not call the zoo, as required under The Times’s fact-checking standards. In addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a success. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that Klein’s machine is unlikely to work as intended.

These discrepancies were pointed out to The Times by the Binghamton professor several weeks after the article was published; this editors’ note was delayed for additional reporting. These details should have been discovered during the reporting and editing process. Had that happened, the article would not have been published.



Clever Crows Prove Aesop’s Fable Is More Than Fiction
BY Hadley Leggett / August 6, 2009

Aesop’s fables are full of talking frogs and mice who wear clothes, but it turns out at least one of the classic tales is scientifically accurate. Researchers presented four crows with a challenge from Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”: a container of water not quite full enough for the birds to reach with their beaks. Just like Aesop’s crow, all four birds figured out how to raise the water level by dropping stones into the glass. The crows also selectively chose large pebbles over small ones, and quickly realized that dropping rocks into a container of sawdust didn’t have the same effect. “The results of these experiments provide the first empirical evidence that a species of corvid is capable of the remarkable problem-solving ability described more than two thousand years ago by Aesop,” wrote the researchers in the paper published Thursday in Current Biology. “What was once thought to be a fictional account of the solution by a bird appears to have been based on a cognitive reality.”

The researchers took four adult rooks, a type of intelligent crow, and tempted them with a tasty worm floating on top of a glass of water, just out of reach. Then they placed a pile of small rocks next to the crows. After they assessed the height of the water from the top and sides of the glass, the crows dropped stones into the glass until the water level rose enough for them to grab their prize. Once they’d caught the worm, the birds didn’t keep putting stones in the glass, and they didn’t try to grab the worm until they’d dropped in a certain number of stones. “This number was strongly correlated to the number of stones needed to raise the water level to the correct height,” the researchers wrote, “suggesting that, having assessed the starting level of the water, rooks translated this into an estimate of the number of stones needed.”

Before this experiment, the birds had never been exposed to a glass with water in it, and they’d never used stones as tools. According to the researchers, the only other animal known to perform this kind of task is the orangutan, which has been recorded spitting into a tube to bring a peanut into reach. “Corvids are remarkably intelligent, and in many ways rival the great apes in their physical intelligence and ability to solve problems,” said biologist Christopher Bird of the University of Cambridge in a press release. “This is remarkable considering their brain is so different to the great apes’.” The antics of the four birds — Cook, Fry, Connelly and Monroe — can be seen in the videos below. Cook and Fry snagged the floating worm after just one try, while Connelly and Monroe succeeded after two attempts. Unfortunately, Fry had a bad reaction to one of the worms and gave up in the middle of the experiment.


In the Brevia section of the 9 August 2002 issue of Science, Weir et al. report a remarkable observation: The toolmaking behavior of New Caledonian crows. In the experiments, a captive female crow, confronted with a task that required a curved tool (retrieving a food-containing bucket from a vertical pipe), spontaneously bent a piece of straight wire into a hooked shape — and then repeated the behavior in nine out of ten subsequent trials. Though these crows are known to employ tools in the wild using natural materials, this bird had no prior training with the use of pliant materials such as wire — a fact that makes its apparently spontaneous, highly specific problem-solving all the more interesting, and raises intriguing questions about the evolutionary preconditions for complex cognition. The crow’s behavior was captured on video.



Our experiments on tool selectivity did not examine whether the crows understood how their tools worked. To do this, we gave our subjects a very unnatural material – garden wire – and an unusual problem: some meat in a small bucket, at the bottom of a transparent ‘well’. In the first experiment, the crows were given a choice between a hooked and a straight piece of wire, and could only get the bucket if they used the hook.

As so often in scientific research, the experiment took an unexpected turn. On the fifth trial of the experiment, one of our subjects (“Abel”) removed the hooked wire, leaving the other subject (“Betty”) with only the straight piece. After trying to use this unsuccessfully, she wedged one end of it under a piece of sticky tape and pulled the other end with her beak – creating a hook! – which she then used to retrieve the bucket. When tested with only straight wire, she repeatedly bent it into hooks, using a variety of techniques, indicating that this was not something she just did accidentally on that one occasion (Weir et al. 2002).

These observations were particularly remarkable because it is the first time any animal has been seen to make a new tool for a specific task, without an extended period of trial-and-error learning. It seems that Betty understood that she needed a hook to get the bucket and that she could then figure out how to make a hook from a novel material. We have recently tested her with a different kind of material – flat strips of aluminium – and found that she quickly learned how to modify these as necessary, either to make a hook, or to make them longer or narrower (Weir & Kacelnik 2006). We are currently investigating whether other individuals have the same abilities.

Alex Kacelnik
email : alex.kacelnik [at] [dot] uk

Russell Gray
email : rd.gray [at] [dot] nz

Gavin Hunt
email : grhunt10 [at] hotmail [dot] com

Meet the brains of the animal world
By Rebecca Morelle / 7 May 2009

“In the past, people thought birds were stupid,” laments the aptly named scientist Christopher Bird. But in fact, some of our feathered friends are far cleverer than we might think. And one group in particular – the corvids – has astonished scientists with extraordinary feats of memory, an ability to employ complex social reasoning and, perhaps most strikingly, a remarkable aptitude for crafting and using tools. Mr Bird, who is based at the department of zoology at Cambridge University and is supervised by Dr Nathan Emery, says: “I would rate corvids as being as intelligent as primates in many ways.”

The corvids – a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies – contain some of the most social species of birds. And some of their intelligence is played out against the backdrop of living with others, where being intelligent enough to recognize individuals, to form alliances and foster relationships is key. However, group living can also lead to deceptive behaviour – and western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) can be the sneakiest of the bird-bunch. Many corvids will hide stores of food for later consumption, especially during the cold winter months when resources are scarce, but western scrub jays take this one step further. Mr Bird says: “If they are being watched, they will hide their food, but they will do some ‘fake hides’ as well – so they’ll put their beak in the ground, but not place the food. It’s a bit like a confusion strategy. “Sometimes, if they are being watched, then they’ll even go back and hide the food again.”

Corvids’ cognisance of other birds has led scientists to ponder whether they are also aware of themselves. And to test this, scientists use the Gallup mark test, where an animal is marked on a part of its body that it cannot normally see and is then shown its reflection in a mirror. If it notices this mark and tries to remove it, then it suggests that the animal knows it is looking at itself and could possess some kind of self-awareness. So far, only some species of primates have consistently passed this self-recognition test, although more recent studies suggest elephants and dolphins may also respond. But last year, a German team revealed that magpies, marked with a coloured sticker under their beaks, tried to remove it when presented with a mirror – the first time a bird had been seen to pass this test. Professor Onur Gunturkun, from Ruhr-University Bochum, one of the authors of the Plos paper, says: “It throws out the assumption that only higher mammals were capable of self-recognition.”

While the birds’ social intelligence has continued to impress, it is perhaps their physical intelligence, and in particular their tool use, that has stirred the most interest. Recent studies reveal that corvids’ tool-use may at least rival, and even surpass, that of primates, such as chimpanzees. And one species in particular possesses an extraordinary ability – the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides), which is found on the Pacific island of New Caledonia. Russell Gray and his colleagues from the department of psychology at the University of Auckland have studied this species extensively, and were the first to discover that the birds were crafting tools in the wild. Professor Gray tells BBC News: “They do some really complex looking things. “We have seen that they take a whole branch, chop off the side branches and hone away at the end to create a hook, which they use to get grubs.” Other experiments carried out at field stations have even shown that the birds will use a number of different tools to reach a tasty snack.

Inside the laboratory, captive New Caledonian crows are also helping scientists to better understand tool use and corvid intelligence. And one bird in particular seemed to posses a remarkable ability when it came to solving problems using tools – Betty. Alex Kacelnik, who leads the behavioural ecology group at Oxford University, said: “Betty was captured as a juvenile from the field, and she must have been one-and-a-half years old when she came to us. And we didn’t have any reason to suspect that she was an unusual animal.” However the team discovered, by chance, that Betty was able to perform some remarkable feats that had never been seen before in any other animals. The researchers were testing how New Caledonian crows selected tools by presenting them with a small bucket filled with some food, which was placed in a well, and pieces of wire, some straight and some with a hook at the end. The aim was to see whether the crows would select the bent wire to retrieve the treat-laden bucket. But Betty astonished researchers when she selected a straight piece of wire and then used her beak to bend it into a hook so she could pull up the bucket of food. When she was later tested with just the straight wire, Betty repeatedly bent it into hooks – and other experiments with aluminium strips revealed how she would bend, shorten and lengthen the material to get to her food. This was the first time that any animal had been seen to make a new tool for a specific task, without an extended period of trial-and-error learning.

As scientists discover ever-more intelligent behaviour in corvids, they are now trying to understand why this group has developed these special abilities. And New Caledonian crows’ tool-use is a key focus. Professor Gray explains: “What has led to just this one species in this one little island in the Pacific being able to make these complex tools? It’s an ongoing mystery.” Professor Kacelnik agrees: “This really is the million dollar question. We know that this is heritable – we have demonstrated that if you raise New Caledonian crows, without exposure to any social input, they still would want to use tools to solve problems.” Researchers are also looking at the cognitive processes that underpin this behaviour. Mr Bird says: “The interesting thing is that they can do so many of these clever things that primates can do – sometimes they can do them even better. But their brain is completely different from the mammalian brain. “They don’t have the area of the mammalian brain that is thought to be the area of intelligent cognition – the neocortex. Interestingly, they have another area, the nidopallium, that might do the same job.”

As scientists try to understand this, the research is also driving forward some more fundamental questions about intelligence. Christian Rutz, who also works for Oxford’s behavioural ecology group, says: “There are such enormous semantic issues. How do you define intelligence? How do you define what it means to understand something?” We have to be careful with ascribing intelligence to seemingly impressive behaviours, he says. He explains: “Not everything that looks smart to the human observer is actually smart. “For example, take orb web spiders. These animals build sophisticated structures for foraging, but would we call this behaviour ‘intelligent’? Probably not. He says to understand what the birds are doing and whether this sets them apart in any way, the same experiments need to be carried out, multiple times, on many different species, to properly compare results. Dr Rutz adds: “People tend to think corvid cognition research is now incredibly advanced and we’ve answered most of the questions – I don’t think so, I think it is at the very beginning.”


Unexploded Landmines? Call for The Herorats
BY R J Evans / December 12, 2009

Unexploded landmines still remain a huge problem the world over. What is more, landmine clearance is an expensive business. One man has found a potential solution, however. It may seem like an unlikely combination. Giant pouched rats are not what spring to mind immediately when conversation turns to the global issue of unexploded landmines. However, Bart Weegens, from Belgium has found a low-technology answer to the continuing issue of unexploded mines. A childhood interest in the animals came to mind when he was musing over possible solutions and this led to an extraordinary development.

The idea occurred to Weegens as he realized that rats were both easy to train and had an excellent sense of smell. Combining these two would, he considered, provide a cheap way to detect unexploded mines and – what is more – with limited danger to human life. He founded APOPO, which is a non-profit organization, the aim of which is to train up African Giant Pouched Rats and to deploy them in the field. Not only would the rats be a cheaper alternative to mine clearance methods already in use – he figured that they would be considerably more efficient as well. An army of sniffer rats, would, it seemed save hundreds if not thousands of human lives. Not bad, considering that rats do not generally have a great press with a lot of people.

Having said that, the Giant Pouched Rats used in this project are only a distant relative of the common rat we hold in such great esteem. It is an intelligent species and easy to train – with many new recruits easy to breed. The female of the species can produce up to ten litters a year. Although this is a scary fact, only one to five arrive with each litter, despite the mother having eight nipples. In many African countries they are kept as pets but also are predominantly used as a food source. Perhaps the mine field is a better option than the casserole dish after all.

Initial funding for APOPO was in Belgium. This was given by the Belgian Directorate for International Co-operation. When the rats proved successful in terms of their training it was decided to switch the whole operation to Tanzania in East Africa. There they could be trained in near-to-real conditions and so the team is now based in Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. The training there proved successful and it was while this was happening that Bart thought of another use for the HeroRATS as they were now called. It had been discovered that the rats could detect tuberculosis in human sputum (the stuff you cough up when you have a cold). Research began on this in 2004.

So, how do the rats do their detection work? There are two methods, direct detection and REST. What happens is that they are trained from young to associate the smell of explosives with a treat – such as a banana or peanut. This reward is vital to the rat doing its work as, akin to our own species – individuals do not like to do something for nothing, after all. The rats move up and down an area the size of a squash court and when they locate a mine they usually sit still and scratch themselves. After that the mines can be detonated by their human helpers.

Why these rats though? As well as having the highly developed sense of smell important in this work they are, as we have seen, easy to tame, breed and train. The cheapness of breeding and maintaining them is further helped by their ability to adapt to a number of environments. Once they are trained the rats seem to actively enjoy performing repetitive tasks and they do not get stressed if their trainers are changed in the way that dogs will. Plus of course – one serious advantage over dogs – they are too light to detonate a mine by themselves if they step on it. A living rat is better than a canine cadaver.

Training is a little time consuming – it can take up to a year. They are trained according to pavlovian principles. A food reward is initially associated with a clicking sound – their favorites being bananas or peanuts. It takes a while for them to learn that a click means food but once they do then the real training can begin. The teaching goes that when they find TNT, indicating it by scratching, then they will hear a click and get their food reward. They are initially trained in cages and once they have learned that indicating a positive sample of TNT means food then they are ready to work in a field of mines.

The REST method of detecting does not involve visiting a minefield at all. REST stands for Remote Explosive Scent Tracing and this is when scent is brought from the mines to the rats. The rats can find explosives present in these samples and it helps to determine the actual boundaries of minefields. This means that more land can be cleared at a quicker rate. Direct detection involves harnessing the rats and proceeding with a systematic search of the minefield. The rat is connected, via a search string, to two trainers and this is how the rat is directed. When TNT is detected the rat will give itself a good scratch and safe detonation can then proceed. In order to ensure that all mines have been detected two or three rats will each search the same area. It is important though, to reward the rat whenever it performs its function.

The HeroRATS are currently deployed in Mozambique where they have enabled over one thousand families to reclaim their land. They have also helped with clearing areas so that power lines can be passed through – so bringing electricity which would not otherwise have been possible to over ten thousand local citizens. It is hoped that they will soon be deployed to Zambia, Congo and Angola as well, but negotiations are still underway. APOPO is actively looking for demining partnerships globally, not just in Africa.

The Future
BY Chris Davis / 6 Nov 1998

When scientists first measured how much of the energy of sunlight was
being converted by plants into biomass, they were surprised to find
that only something like 1% of incident energy was being used to
produce new plant material. They were surprised at how “inefficient”
life was. But such “inefficiency” supposes that plants are working to
maximize their size and numbers, to reproduce as rapidly as possible.
They were supposing that Nature, like a farmer, was trying to maximize
the yield of its fields, and the size of its flocks. Is Nature a
farmer? If it was, would there be any need for human farmers to cross-
breed and select and cultivate in order to produce what the natural
world has not produced in 500 million years of evolution? But if
plants, as Idle Theory suggests, are trying to minimize effort, the
conversion of a mere 1% of incoming solar energy into plant mass
indicates a very high degree of “efficiency” of the kind that hundreds
of millions of years of evolution might be expected to produce.

If there is any truth to Idle Theory, then laziness is a virtue, not a
vice. A disinclination to work is not a disorder, but an indispensable
survival trait that evolved with the earliest forms of life. If so,
the modern attempt by governments, industrialists, economists, and the
like, to keep people busy and “usefully employed” runs entirely
contrary to the nature, not only of human beings, but of life itself.
This may begin to explain the anomie of modern Western culture.

“The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is
one of progressive disenchantment… Translated into everyday life,
what does this disenchantment mean? It means that the modern
landscape has become a scenario of “mass administration and blatant
violence,” a state of affairs now clearly perceived by the man in the street.
The alienation and futility that characterized the perceptions of a
handful of intellectuals at the beginning of the century have now come
to characterize the consciousness of common man at its end. Jobs are
stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics
absurd. In the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional values,
we have hysterical evangelical revivals, mass conversions to the
Church of the Reverend Moon, and a general retreat into the oblivion
provided by drugs, television, and tranquilizers. We also have a
desperate search for therapy, by now a national obsession, as millions
of Americans try to reconstruct their lives amidst a pervasive feeling
of anomie and cultural disintegration. An age in which depression is a
norm is a grim one indeed.” (Morris Berman. The Reenchantment of the
World. Bantam 1984)

From the point of view of Idle Theory, modern human society is being
organized to work against real human interests, and such cultural
disintegration is inevitable. Instead of society being organized to
minimize work, it has become organized to maximize work. The mismatch
between what people are culturally required to do – to work -, and
their natural inclination – to play -, results in deepening
psychological conflict, breakdown, and disorder.

An intense sense of guilt characterizes modern life. People feel that
they ought to be happy, and feel inadequate because they are not.
Blaming themselves, they try to reform themselves through counselling,
therapies, guidance. And when that fails, they seek oblivion in drugs
and TV. The therapies all fail because there is actually nothing wrong
with them, and everything wrong with the society in which they find
themselves. It is simply not possible for people to live happy lives
in a society which is organized as a labour camp. It is no more
possible for anyone to live a happy or fulfilled life in modern
Western society than it was for the inmates of such camps.

As Idle Theory sees it, the problem began at the outset of the modern
epoch when Western society abandoned the goal of Christian salvation
of ‘fallen’ humanity – the liberation of humanity from work -, and
began to regard human life as already liberated, as a kind of game,
and the economy as an arena in which human free agents chose to work
manufacturing and trading luxuries and amusements which enhanced
their ‘standard of living’. The inevitable result was that, with the goal of
liberation from work discarded, human life in Western society became
one of increasing rather than decreasing toil. It became ever more
stressed, rushed, hurried, and urgent. Technological innovation simply
acted to shift obligatory work from the production of necessities to
production of luxuries. And the resultant vast absurd productive
effort now loots the world’s resources and poisons its seas and its

Underpinning all this is not science, but an irrational post-Christian
ideology, which is itself arguably a Christian heresy. Almost all
modern economic and political and ethical thinking is built upon this
ideology. And it is precisely because this ideology has no basis in
science, that science holds out the principal hope for its overthrow.
For it requires an explanation of the world which is at least as
coherent and general to replace such an ideology. For science and the
ideological humanities – ethics, politics, and economics – have always
been rigidly separated. The cultural ideologues began to set out their
stall in the late 17th century, with Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The
scientists – Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and their successors – pursued
entirely separate enquiries. Their science had nothing at all to say
about life, human society, ethics, or economics. It has only been in
the past century or so that science has even begun to take a grip upon
the nature of life.

Seen from Idle Theory, what is most needed by modern Western society
are realistic economic theories, which distinguish wants from needs,
and whose primary goal is the minimizing of human toil, rather than,
as at present, the maximizing of production. With effective economic
control, the present obligation for many people to produce luxuries in
order to buy necessities would vanish. The overheated modern economy
would effectively shut down, and the pollution of the planet, the
depletion of resources, and sweated labour would end. It would mean
the end of Big Business and the start of Big Idleness. With little
work, and a great deal of disposable free time, people would be able
to easily acquire the necessities of life. Many people would freely
choose to use this disposable time to make and trade luxuries. They
would determine their own “standard of living”, either opting for a
simple life with few possessions and a great deal of idle time, or a
choosing to work for a materially richer existence, with less free

Human society evolves. Human technology, in the past few centuries,
has broached abundant new energy sources – in coal, gas, oil,
hydroelectricity, and nuclear power. Once machines could perform the
work of men, slavery became unnecessary, and the medieval social
organization of masters and slaves became redundant. Contemporary
human society is in transition from a medieval serf culture to an
automated culture in which most work is performed by intelligent
machine tools, and in which humans themselves will be largely idle.
Politically, this has meant the rise of democracies in which everyone
had a say, and not just the erstwhile slaveowners. Economically,
exponentially multiplying technologies have resulted in a increase in
production and trade unprecedented in human history, and equally
unprecedented economic puzzles and problems, ranging from
unemployment to boom and bust, inflation and stagnation. Socially, it
has meant that, since fewer human hands are needed to drive industry,
previously high human reproduction rates are unnecessary, and the
human families that produced the human workforce redundant. Those
religions which asked their adherents to look forward to bliss in an
afterlife are being replaced by new religions that reach for bliss right
now. War, subjection, and enslavement – the traditional means of
increasing wealth for a minority – have become counter-productive.

The scale of contemporary change in human society is so great, and
disturbs so many aspects of traditional human life, that it has
produced a conservative reaction which seeks to restore traditional
life. Since the family has been the centre of human life for
millennia, attempts are made to bolster the flagging institution.
Since work, from childhood to old age, has been the norm of human life
since remotest antiquity, attempts are made to invent new forms of
employment. Contemporary conservatism attempts to maintain and
restore traditional values, and traditional ways of life, in the face of
social, political, and economic forces which destroy all traditions.
At the same time, much of contemporary thought is still medieval in
character, assuming the values and circumstances of a previous era. A
master-slave mentality still permeates political thought and political
structures. Human technology has far outstripped human political and
ethical and economic thought. This is a time when everything needs to
be rethought, when imagination is at a premium, and when everyone can
contribute. The impending world is one of a human freedom which has
never been experienced in the entirety of human history.



BY Chris Davis / 12 May 2001

A forest fire exhibits metabolism: it burns. Such a fire can also grow
and develop. And it can reproduce itself, by sending out blazing
sparks to ignite new fires. The flame of a fire is a complex, highly
organized, recognizable entity. The fire moves as it burns through the
forest: it moves. The fire responds to external stimulus: it follows
the wind, and is doused by water. And eventually, when it has consumed
all the fuel it can, it dwindles and dies. A forest fire thus exhibits
many of the components of a living creatures!

But a forest fire might not be said to be self-regulating – it is
largely determined by the quantity of fuel available to it. As more
fuel becomes available, it burns more fiercely. Also forest fires do
not evolve over time. They begin in some tinder-dry forest, perhaps
from a lightning strike, the focus of sunlight, or the discharge of
static electricity. And then they burn, producing secondary fires,
until finally they have exhausted the available timber, baulked by
seas, rivers, wastelands, mountains. Forest fires may burn for weeks,
even months, but they eventually burn themselves out. They are like
some life form which grows and multiplies, and then one by one its
offspring die, and it becomes extinct, leaving no further generations.

But not all fires burn with the intensity of forest fires. Slow-
burning, cooler, smouldering embers, that show no flame, can slowly
eat through dry wood, consuming over hours what a blazing fire might
consume in minutes. It is possible to imagine such fires slowly eating
their way through a forest, or some fuel source. And because they burn
slower and cooler, they burn much longer. Such fires might burn for
years, or centuries. And if, in some forest, new plants grew up behind
them, such slow fires might be sustained indefinitely by new plant
growth. The cooler and more slow-burning the fire, the longer it would
burn, compared with hot, quick-burning wildfires.

And it then must be remembered that very, very slow fires burn in
every cell of every plant and animal. In this combustion process,
glucose and oxygen “burn” to produce carbon dioxide and water, and
enough energy to power the continuation of the combustion process,
just like in a forest fire. But in cells, the combustion process is
slowed into a multitude of stages, at a much lower temperature, so
that the energy of combustion (respiration) is released very
gradually, through a series of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, rather than
all at once.

If glucose is burned in air, it produces carbon dioxide, water, and heat.
C6H12O6 + 602 -> 6CO2 + 6H2O – 686 kcal/mole
But in cells, the reaction synthesizes energy-rich ATP molecules which
are used to power the sysnthesis of cell constituents, molecule
transport, and muscle contraction.
C6H12O6 + 602 + 36ADP -> 6CO2 + 6H2O + 36ATP

Each bond of ATP represents 7.3 kcal/mole, so 36 ATP molecules
represent 263 kcal/mole, a conversion efficiency of 38%. ATP is
synthesized in cell mytochondria. When ATP releases its energy (to
power muscular contraction or whatever), it breaks one phosphorus
bond, and becomes ADP, which is cycled back round to mytochondria to
get the phosphorus bond restored to make more ATP. If the reaction of
glucose and oxygen were to proceed as it does in air, plants and
animals would catch fire or explode. Slowing the reaction by taking it
through a series of stages, and using it to synthesize packets of
energy in the form of ATP, makes for a kind of slow burn.

The Natural Selection of Fire
Big, hot, blazing forest wildfires multiply and burn themselves out
very fast. Small, creeping, cool fires last far longer. The slowest,
coolest fires of all may last indefinitely. Life is such slow fire.
And it begins to become possible to consider life as being result of
the evolution of ever cooler, ever-slower-burning, longer-living fire.
With a variety of different fires, those which burn hot and fast lived
brief lives, while slower burning fires last longer. Then what is
called Life is the product of the evolution of fire to burn ever
slower and cooler, and live longer and longer. For paradoxically it is
the least energetic, slowest growing, and slowest reproducing
processes that gradually come to predominate – because high-energy,
fast reproducing processes burn out fast. Somehow, one kind of
continuous hot combustion, by degrees, gave rise to the cooler,
catalyzed reactions that take place in the cells of living creatures.

In plant life, solar-powered photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide
and water into glucose and oxygen, in the endothermic (heat-requiring)
reverse reaction to the combustion of glucose and oxygen. Thus
photosynthesis in plant cells continually feeds the glucose-oxygen
fires that “burn” within them. A forest of plants is already slowly
ablaze, before any forest wildfire overtakes it. And plants which are
made largely of cellulose – linked chains of glucose – in turn provide
the fuel for grazing animals to burn. Such grazing animals act like
forest fires, slowly consuming plants as they grow.

There are plenty of other exothermic (heat-producing) combustion
processes apart from that of glucose and oxygen. The first terrestrial
combustion processes may have involved neither of these. There does
not have to be timber and oxygen for combustion to take place, fires
to burn. If so then the first fire was of cataclysmically explosive
dimensions, and has been succeeded by successively slower and cooler
fires. The first fire was perhaps what we now call the Big Bang, and
the stars were secondary slower-burning cooler fires, and terrestrial
life is a fire several orders of magnitude slower and cooler. The
stars themselves have lifetimes which reflect those of forest fires,
with the largest and brightest stars burning out the fastest, the
smaller and cooler ones lingering longer, replicating themselves in
supernovas whose shock waves create new stars.

From this perspective, life started with the Big Bang, and has
continued ever since, in ever cooler, slower-burning fires. There
never was an origin of life on this inert and hitherto-lifeless
planet, but simply a continuation of the same process. What we call
“life”, the plants and animals that inhabit the surface of this
planet, are simply slow-burning fires which reflect, rather dimly,
their ancestral stars. In this approach, there isn’t really anything
special about terrestrial life. It’s just another kind of combustion
process. It was not that life started on this planet 600 million years
ago, but rather that some 6 million years after the planet had formed,
another kind of self-sustaining combustion process got under way. It
was not the first, and it won’t be the last.

The Internal Combustion model of Idle Life
Idle Theory’s original model of life was that of a continually-running
internal combustion engine which periodically pumped fuel into its own
fuel tank. When the engine was pumping fuel into its tank, it revved
up, and the frequency of combustion – and engine power output –
increased. When the engine idled, the frequency of combustion reduced
to whatever power was required to merely turn the engine itself
against its own frictional resistance.

In this model of life, the internal combustion engine actually
incorporates fire in the combustion of gasoline (refined from crude
oil made up of compressed fossil plants) and oxygen in its cylinders.
Internal combustion “life” fed not on living forests, but upon
subterranean fossilized forests. More deeply, in this conception of
life, the engine “died” when the combustion process ceased, and the
engine stalled. While the fire exploded in its cylinders, the engine
lived – once combustion ceased, the engine died.

In Idle Theory’s energy model of life a living creature works (burns
fuel to provide motive power) to acquire more fuel to sustain the
process. But it does so in a discontinuous duty cycle – first working
to fill itself up with fuel, then idling until falling fuel levels
require another bout of refuelling. The most efficient forms of this
kind of life were those which did the least work (or idled the most)
to keep their motors fueled and running.

Idle life – life that worked the minimum – was in some sense life that
burnt the slowest and coolest. Busy life, hard-working life, was life
in which combustion frequency was high, and which ran the hottest.
Idle life, leisured life, was life in which the combustion frequency
was low, and which consequently ran cool. Busy life was fast bright
fire, and Idle life was slow cool fire.


“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance
accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders,
give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new
problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight
efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert


BY Chris Davis / 16 Nov 1998

Underlying Idle Theory is the incomprehension and disquiet that this
writer felt, looking on this industrious world. Technology, as he saw
it, was meant to free men from work. The whole point, he felt, of
yoking an ox to a plough, was to get the ox to perform the work of
turning earth which would otherwise have had to be carried out by men
with spades and hoes. And those spades and hoes were themselves tools
which enabled men to dig the soil more effectively and speedily than
they ever could with bare hands. And if technology in the form of
spades, hoes, and yoked oxen, and later powered tractors, served
primarily to speed men’s work, to free men from work, then would not
the result be, as technology improved, that men would live
increasingly more idle and leisured lives, free to do as they wished?
And yet this has not happened. Men work just as hard as they ever did.
In Western societies, instead of technology bringing leisure, it
appears instead to have increased the pace of life, so that it has
become ever more frenetic, hurried, leisureless. Why has this
happened? Why is that humanity working so hard, when they ought to be
hardly working at all?

This question is not addressed by political leaders, or economists, or
philosophers, or religious leaders, or even by their political and
economic opponents. For them, the whole point of spades and hoes and
oxen and tractors was not to reduce the labour of men, but to increase
production. If a spade enabled a man to dig a field in half the time
it took for him to dig it with bare hands, they had it that a man
could dig two fields in the same time, and produce twice the crop. And
with yoked oxen he could plough ten fields. And with a tractor he
could plough a hundred. And the 99 other men freed from the land could
then be set to work to make other goods, of great diversity and in
great numbers. Thus men would be supplied not only with food, shelter,
but any number of amusements, toys, games, diversions. They would
have a wealth, not of leisure time, but of possessions, which is – it was
held – what people really wanted. The political goal of contemporary
society is full employment in wealth creation. And the harder everyone
works, the richer they get. The only serious argument is concerned
with the distribution of this pile of goods, with some (the Left)
arguing that the social produce should be divided equally, and others
(the Right) arguing that with an ever-growing pile of goods even the
poorest in an unequal society would be far richer than they would
otherwise be.

These two views of the nature and purpose of economic systems are
radically different. In the first view, humanity is understood as
having to work, and technology in the form of spades, ox-drawn
ploughs, tractors and combine harvesters, acts to reduce their work.
In the second view, the economy is not driven by necessity, but by a
desire not just for food and shelter, but for all the good things in
life. In the first view, it is the physical need for food and shelter
to sustain their life which obliges men to work. In the second view,
it is their psychological disposition, their desire for possessions
and pleasures, which powers the economy.

Economic philosophy, in recent centuries, has been written by men who
saw the economy in this second way. This view also underpins the
principal ethical theory of the age, Utilitarianism, which had men
seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – both of which are psychological
states. It followed from this psychological account of human life,
that if one wanted to understand human nature, one had to understand
the workings of the human mind. This belief is so deep that many
scientists believe that, if science is ever to explain human life, it
will do so by explaining the inner workings of the human brain. This
belief also underpins a whole raft of modern political movements which
hold that if enough people change themselves, adjust their mentality,
the world would be a better place – that all that is required for
change is for enough people to want change. The conviction that
psychological adjustment is the key to a better world drives the use
of psychotropic drugs, and of a whole range of psychotherapies ranging
from Freudian psychoanalysis to meditation and yoga. Change the man,
and you change society.

Modern economic philosophy is not science. It does not grow from a
physical understanding of human life, but from a subjective
psychological account. We simply don’t have an economic science which
is an extension of physical science – real science. Idle Theory,
instead of starting out with a psychological account of human life,
begins instead with a physical account of life. It begins with a life
which must perform physical work to maintain itself. The role of mind
is one of directing that work. Psychological feelings of hunger, or
thirst, or cold, arise in response to real physiological conditions –
low blood sugar levels, dehydration, heat loss. And because they arise
in response to physical states, these psychological events are
secondary. They serve simply to prompt an individual to eat, to drink,
to find shelter.

This sort of approach to life is relatively new. It is found in
ecological studies of the energy flows in biotic systems. It sees life
in terms of energy. The idea of energy only emerged in physics in the
mid-19th century. It only began to be applied to living organisms in
the mid-20th century. Idle Theory is a variant of this approach. The
distinctive feature of idle theory is its description of life as
alternating between being idle and being busy working to maintain

Although Idle Theory started out as an economic idea, it rapidly
became an ethical and political and legal, and even religious idea.
The goal of human society was freedom from necessary work, and human
society, its moralities, laws, political organizations, religions, and
economy, all worked, more or less effectively, towards that end. And
since living creatures in general, as opposed to humans in particular,
fell under the same imperative of acting to increase idleness, the
whole of the natural world of plants and animals came to fall within
the province of Idle Theory. The survival of the fittest became the
survival of the idlest.

Idle Theory is a way of seeing. In Idle Theory, all life is seen as
attempting primarily to stay alive with minimal effort. The first
photosynthetic plants discovered how to capture the abundant radiant
energy of the sun. The first herbivores discovered an easier life
tapping the energy stored in plants. The first predators discovered an
idler existence by capturing the energy stored in herbivores.
Multicellular life was more idle than unicellular life. Human life is
simply another variant form of life, that acts to minimize effort.
Human society, the division of labour, tools, ethical codes, laws, and
trading systems have all acted to increase human idleness. The
subjection of humans by other humans in slavery was, for millenia, the
only way in which some people (the slaveowners) could lead an idle
life at the expense of others.




BY Chris Davis / January 2007

“There is no doubt that if the human race is to have their dearest
wish and be free from the dread of mass destruction they could have,
as an alternative, what many of them might prefer, namely, the
swiftest expansion of material well-being that has ever been within
their reach, or even within their dreams. By material well-being I
mean not only abundance but a degree of leisure for the masses such as
has never before been possible in our mortal struggle for life. The
majestic possibilities ought to gleam and be made to gleam before the
eyes of the toilers in every land and ought to inspire the actions of
all who bear responsibility for their guidance.” (Sir Winston
Churchill at the opening of Parliament, November 1953)

It might be remarked that the Idle Theory of Evolution is only a
slight variant of modern evolutionary theory (sans Darwin), and that
Idle Theory’s ethics is only a variant of Utilitarianism (sans
Utility). But Idle Theory’s Economics offers a radically different,
and perhaps mysterious, account of economic systems to that set out by
Classical and NeoClassical economic theorists.

Probably the principal difference is that, while it is orthodox
economic doctrine that the primary purpose of an economy is as far as
possible to provide work for everybody, in Idle Theory the primary
purpose of an economy is quite the opposite: it is to as far as
possible relieve everybody of the need to work. This is an inversion
of understanding that is perhaps as great as the change from thinking
that the Sun goes round the Earth to thinking that the Earth goes
round the Sun. Such an inversion will strike many people as being
completely upside down, and entirely contrary to common sense, and
with alarming consequences that extend far beyond the confines of
economics. And indeed they do.

The Economic Orthodoxy
Orthodox economic thought, Classical or NeoClassical, might be
described as being primarily concerned with the generation of Wealth –
where what is meant by Wealth is almost exclusively ownership or
access to material goods and services of every variety. The rich
typically own large villas or mansions on large private estates
serviced by maids, chefs, butlers, and gardeners; own a variety of
expensive cars, yachts, and private jets; are dressed in the finest
clothes; eat the choicest foods; drink the finest wines; live long
lives with the best medical care; etcetera, etcetera. By contrast, the
poor live in shacks or hovels; travel on foot; dress in cheap clothes;
eat bad food; drink contaminated water; and die young with inadequate
or non-existent medical care. The rich are held to enjoy a high
‘standard of living’, and the poor a low ‘standard of living’.

And the orthodox political goal of economic growth is to raise
standards of living, by increasing available wealth. If there is
political dissent over the goals of economic growth, it is almost
entirely concerned with the distribution of wealth. Socialist
political systems are generally concerned with lifting the poorest
members of society out of poverty, providing them with housing, roads,
services, education, and medical care, usually at the expense of the
richest members of society. In the extreme, socialist political
systems aim for an almost exact equality of wealth across society. By
contrast, extreme liberal laissez-faire political systems are
unconcerned with the distribution of wealth within society, and regard
personal wealth as the just reward for enterprise, innovation, and
hard work – with the poor usually being dismissed as lazy or feckless.
In between these extremes, there are a variety of political systems
which try to both reward enterprise with wealth, but also to ensure
that the poorest members of society are provided with some sort of
‘safety net’ to keep them from utter destitution.

Regardless of the distribution of wealth within society, socialist or
laissez-faire political systems tend to advocate policies of ‘full
employment in wealth creation’. The busier people are in creating
wealth, the more wealth there is to go round. If the gross national
product of a country is regarded as a cake – as it frequently is -,
then full employment in wealth creation means making a bigger and
better cake, regardless of quite how it is sliced up and divided
within society.

The formal study of the operation of economic systems, in which goods
and services are manufactured and traded, has been an oddly late
development within Western laissez-faire societies. And it has also
been one which has been subject to a variety of radical changes of
approach, which amount almost to fashions, usually associated with
single individuals such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes,
Milton Friedman, or some other guru. In the 18th century Classical
theories of value of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, David
Ricardo, and the like, the exchange value or price of goods was
generally regarded as being a function of the time and effort taken to
manufacture or otherwise acquire them. This is usually known as the
Labour Theory of Value (where ‘value’ means ‘exchange value’)

“If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice
the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver
should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that
what is usually the produce of two days or two hours labour, should be
worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s
labour.” (Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. B.I, Ch 6.)

One consequence of this theory was highlighted by Karl Marx in the
19th century, who pointed out that if goods exchanged at their costs
of production, then it followed that the labour employed in the
production of goods would also be sold at its cost of production, and
that wages must therefore tend to fall to subsistence levels that
simply kept labourers alive. However, at more or less the same time as
Marx was writing, another group of economic thinkers, the NeoClassical
theorists, who included Jevons, Walras, Menger, and others, began to
suppose that the price of goods was not so much determined by their
cost of production, but instead by their value in use, or their
utility – the pleasure or satisfaction derived from their use. Neither
school of theorists, however, had a very good explanation for profit –
the tendency for goods to be sold at prices higher than their cost of
production. At present, profit is generally explained as being the
compensation for the risks taken by entrepreneurs in making and
selling goods in volatile markets. Others have said that it was simply
the consequence of naked greed. Profit was, and has remained,
something of a dirty word.

Idle Theory
At the foundations of both Classical and Neoclassical economic thought
there lies the largely unstated assumption that the time needed to
perform work is the everyday datum of human life – that everyone is in
some sense given a lifetime, to freely dispose of as they will. And if
they are able to freely dispose of this time, it follows that such a
lifetime is a lifetime of leisure. And indeed Neoclassical economic
thinkers have frequently stated this quite explicitly, asserting that
when work is performed, leisure is foregone.

It is this assumption that Idle Theory rejects. The simple fact is
that a human lifetime is no sort of gift at all. Humans have to work
to survive. They have to grow food, haul water, build houses, weave
garments, without which they would starve or freeze to death. And
because they must work, on pain of death, there is no sense in which
their lives can be described as lives of leisure. On the contrary,
given that many societies have historically had one sabbath day of
leisure a week, it would be more accurate to describe such societies
as 1/7th leisured, rather than entirely leisured. To this it might be
added that it is around work, rather than leisure, that human life
revolves. As children they are taught the skills needed for a life of
work, which as adults they perform, and from which they retire in
frail old age.

And so the true reality of human life is that it is made up not solely
of leisure, but partly of leisure and partly of work, and is thus
inherently dual in its nature. And the fundamental dimension of this
part-busy, part-idle life is the degree to which it is idle (or
conversely and symmetrically, busy). And this degree of idleness is
one that can range from a minimum of zero idleness – a life of
unremitting toil completely devoid of leisure – to a maximum of
perfect or unit idleness – a life of complete leisure completely
devoid of toil. In addition, it may be added that a life of zero
idleness, or continual work, is a life lived at the threshold of
death. For if living should get any harder, and more work needs to be
done to survive, there will not be enough hours in a day to do it.
Conversely, the more idle a life anyone lives, the greater their
cushion against the prospect of death. In times of difficulty, which a
busy man might not survive, a relatively idle man merely finds himself
working harder.

And also, it must be pointed out that in work, an individual is
constrained to some particular necessary activity – ploughing fields,
drawing water -, and it is only in their idle time or leisure time
that they can freely choose between a range of leisure activities
which are theoretically infinite in number. And so work corresponds to
complete constraint, and leisure to complete freedom. Or, more
starkly, leisure corresponds with life, and work with death. And this
introduces an ethical dimension. Work and leisure are not
interchangeable. Men who naturally prefer life over death must also
prefer leisure over work. And this, in real life, they regularly do.

The primary economic problem is not the production and distribution of
wealth as it is ordinarily understood, but the emancipation of
humanity from toil, and their liberation into a life of the highest
degree of leisure. Given such leisure, people may well choose to
forego leisure in the manufacture and exchange of luxuries and
amusements, which are valued for the pleasure or satisfaction that
they afford. But this Neoclassical luxury economy is entirely
secondary in nature, and dependent on the amount of leisure available
in society. If no leisure, then no luxuries.

The Origin of Money and Profit
The economic goals of humanity, as described by Idle Theory, are thus
in direct contradiction of the economic goals of humanity as set out
by modern economic orthodoxy. Instead of seeking to keep everybody
busy working to create wealth, Idle Theory seeks to keep everybody as
idle and leisured as possible, while allowing that in their leisure
time they may choose to make and trade amusements and luxuries.

In what ways may individuals reduce their work, and increase their
idleness? One principal way is through the use of tools that speed or
otherwise assist them in their work. For example, if in the course of
their work, someone is required to carry 100 large fruits from one
place to another in a return journey that takes 10 minutes, then if
only one can be held in each hand, it will take 50 journeys and 500
minutes to move them all. But if a bag can used, which will hold 20
fruit, then only 5 journeys and 50 minutes will be needed to move all
the fruit. Thus, in this case a bag will save 450 minutes of work. And
in this saving lies the value of the bag in use. Of course, it will
take some time to manufacture such a bag, but even if it costs 50
minutes of effort to make a crude bag, and it disintegrates after 5
trips, the net saving of time will still be 400 minutes.

In this manner, a small outlay of time – the cost of making the bag –
will yield a larger return in the time it saves in carrying fruit –
the value of the bag -. And what is true of bags will also be true of
ropes, knives, hammers, spades, and every other variety of useful,
time-saving tool. And if someone makes such a bag, but does not use
it, but a second person desires to use it for the same task, then the
first may sell the bag to the second at some price, which may take the
form of a promise by the buyer to work for some period of time for the
seller. At what price should the bag be exchanged? Its cost to the
seller was the 50 minutes it took to make it, and any lower price than
this would result in a net loss of time for the seller. The value of
the bag to the buyer is the 450 minutes of work it will save in
carrying fruit, and any price higher than this will result in a net
loss of time to the buyer. But at some price in between these two
extremes, both buyer and seller will gain approximately equally from
the transaction, and it will be on some such equitable price that they
will settle.

In this manner, both buyer and seller profit from the transaction,
even though the bag has been sold at a price – say 150 minutes – which
is over three times its cost. And herein lies a robust and simple
justification of the origin and necessity of profit in exchange. If
the phenomenon of profit has regularly appeared inexplicable, and
therefore reprehensible, it is because the Classical economic
theorists recognised only the cost, and not the value of some
commodity. Thus while Adam Smith could see the cost to the hunter of
killing a deer, he could not see the value to its buyer of its flesh
as food, nor its skin as clothing. And the value of some item of food
is that it provides the energy required to power continued life for
some period of time.

The monetary unit of such exchanges need not, of course, be unreliable
promises of work. If a fruit, or a knife, or a piece of metal are
customarily bought with some amount of work, then conversely these
commodities can buy the same amount of work, and be used as monetary
units. But fruit rot, and knives are large, and so it much more likely
that highly divisible metal bars come to be used as money, and in the
longer term non-rusting metals such as gold. It is possible to explore
the logic of such economic systems by building computer simulation
models of them, using imaginary tool costs and values. It is also
possible to consider them analytically. Using such models it is
possible to begin to build a theoretical understanding of the
behaviour of such economic systems, and the various malaises that can
afflict them.

The Dual Nature of Economic Systems
As men make and trade useful time-saving tools in a primary, idleness-
generating economy, and thereby increase their idleness, they begin to
have long periods of time in which they have nothing to do. But in
such idle time they can invent and play games, create art and music
and poetry and literature. And as they come to make things like bats
and balls and sculptures and paintings, these also may be exchanged
for money, in exactly the same way as useful tools. And thus a
secondary, idleness-using economy may come into existence, in which
luxuries and amusements are manufactured and exchanged. And such a
secondary economy is the economy described by Neoclassical economic
theorists. And should any economy attain perfect idleness, so that the
primary economy ceased to exist, the resulting secondary economy would
be perfectly well described by modern Neoclassical economic theory.

In the secondary economy, the value of luxuries and amusements lies
not in any work time that they save, but in the pleasure which they
afford to their owners. In many ways, all such amusements simply
provide ways of disposing of idle time. A book takes hours or days to
read. A movie takes an hour or two to watch. A game of cricket may
last for days. A painting or a sculpture may be closely examined for
hours. Such a secondary economy might be regarded as acting in a
completely opposite sense to a primary economy, disposing of idle time
rather than producing it. It is perhaps helpful to think of a primary
economy as being akin to a supply of pure fresh water into a
household, which is subsequently used in drinking, washing, cooking,
and a thousand other ways, before finally being disposed of as waste
water through drains.

In some ways, this analogy with pure and waste water may be more apt
than it might otherwise seem, in that it suggests that just as the
supply of pure water should be kept separate from the waste water
drainage, so also the primary idleness-generating economy should
equally be kept separate from the secondary idleness-using economy.
The two economies, primary and secondary, ought furthermore to be of
entirely different characters. The primary economy is a matter of
profound seriousness, and of cold calculation, and absolute necessity,
and also – as far as possible – entirely equitable in its distribution
of the idle time it generates. The secondary economy ought, by
contrast, to be convivial, playful, optional, and inequitable.

The primary economy ought to be equitable in that everybody in society
has an equal stake in it, and an equal claim to an idle time that is
the foundation of their existence as free agents. But if, in their
idle time, some people choose to busy themselves making and selling
luxuries and amusements, while others opt to do nothing but sit and
talk, then there can be no requirement or necessity for the
industrious former to share their wealth with the indolent latter. Or,
put another way, nobody ought to get rich, in the ordinary
conventional sense, by making and selling the necessities of life; but
anyone may get rich by making and selling luxuries and amusements.

The Modern Dragon Economy
In the ideal progress of society, an innovative and dynamic primary
economy would act to steadily increase social idleness, progressively
and gradually emancipating its members from toil. And as the idleness
of society rose, a separate playful and convivial secondary economy
would gradually emerge to fill idle time with amusements and
diversions and pastimes.

But, in the present day, both primary and secondary economies are
entirely confused together with one another. And the result is neither
equitable nor convivial. The principal problem would seem to be that
in present day economies, a great many luxuries and amusements, which
properly belong in a secondary economy, are sold so as to acquire the
necessities of life generated in the primary economy. There are
artists and authors and musicians who earn their daily crust through
their art. This means that it has become a matter of necessity for
people to make and sell luxuries. And it never ought to be necessary
to perform such unnecessary work. If such a thing is happening, it is
most likely because monopoly producers of the necessities of life
(food, clothing, shelter, etc.) are selling them at such high prices
that they are obliging consumers to work far harder than they would if
prices were reduced through competition to something approaching costs
of production. While monopolies exist, and prices remain sky high, the
result is that a great deal of social idle time ends up in the pockets
of monopolists, who spend it buying the luxuries and amusements that
others are obliged to make, in what is called a ‘trickle-down
economy’. The result is a society with idle and super-rich people at
one end, and toiling poor people at the other, and a great many people
in the middle trying desperately to move from poverty to wealth by any
means possible.

In this kind of ‘dragon’ economy, in which pretty much everybody is
dragooned into work, almost all social idle time is converted into
luxuries and amusements. Dragon economies generate a wide range of
consumer choice, but very little time in which to choose what to do.
And an economic system which should be liberating people from work is
instead forcing them to work, and sometimes to work harder and harder.
And one result of this is that as the primary economy grows, and
generates more idle time, this idle time is simply converted into yet
more luxuries and amusements. And so economic growth, which should be
increasing social idleness, instead results in the ever-increasing
production of luxury consumer goods. And this vast, overheated
economic engine chews its way through natural resources, forests, oil
and gas reserves, and spews out wastes and toxins, at an ever-
increasing pace.

And since ultimately, according to Idle Theory, a society’s survival
demands that it seek to be as idle as possible, it follows that the
harder a society is perversely working, the nearer it approaches
disintegration and collapse. In seeking ‘full employment in wealth
creation’ our political and economic orthodoxies have set the ship of
state on course for the rocks. What is really needed is to reverse
course, and throttle back our overheated, overstressed, overworking
economies. If that were done, then if present day advanced economies
are nominally (rather than actually) over 80% idle (this is a wild
guess), then over 80% of the work now being done, in the obligatory
production of luxuries, would cease. Most factories would cease
production, cease consuming resources, and cease generating wastes.
Real human idleness, as experienced by humanity, would leap from its
present approximate one day a week (14%) to perhaps something like six

days a week (86%). There would be less choice, but far more choosing.

However, given an almost universal economic orthodoxy which regards
full employment in wealth creation as being benign rather than malign,
it is unlikely that any such step will be taken. But if there is a
single iota of truth in the economic vision of Idle Theory, then it
follows that our economic orthodoxy is fundamentally mistaken about
the nature of economic systems, and that we do not have a realistic
economic science, and thus have little or no real control over
economic events. So most likely our vast, overheated, overworking
economies will simply keep barreling on, making life worse and worse
for everyone, rich and poor alike, until they finally hit the rocks.

Idle Theory’s fundamental dualism of busy and idle time results in a
dualistic vision of economic systems. They are regarded as made up of
primary economies which produce idle time, and a secondary economies
(or trading systems) that consume idle time. A primary economy is a
matter of necessity, in which an approximate equality of outcome is
sought, and in which goods are valued in terms of the time labour cost
of making them, and their time value in the labour that they save. A
secondary economy is, or ought to be, a matter of pleasure, in which
there is no requirement for an equality of outcome, and in which goods
are valued according to the pleasure they provide, or the time that
they waste. These two economies, which are entirely different, and
indeed opposite in nature, ought properly to be separated from each
other. And it is when they become enmeshed together that economic
maladies of one sort break out.

And Idle Theory’s vision may be helpful in clarifying the modern left-
right divide between those who, on the one hand, seek a regulated
economy that produces complete social equality, and those who, on the
other hand, believe that the economy should be allowed to take its own
course, throwing up winners and losers. The main problem here is that
the two sides of this argument are generally arguing over the same
single economy. If the economy is divided in two, then the primary
economy is one that should be regulated to produce equality (left),
and the secondary economy is one that should be entirely unregulated
(right). Left and right should learn to stop arguing over these apples
and oranges: they are completely different things.

Idle Theory doesn’t at present propose ways of regulating economic
systems. In the absence of a fully developed economic science, such
regulatory devices are going to be rather hard to find. What is needed
is a complete economic theory, of which Idle Theory is, at best,
another single small foundation stone. In many ways, the principal
conclusion of Idle Theory is that we really don’t know very much about
the behaviour of economic systems, despite the best and honest efforts
of over 200 years of economic thinkers. We are, quite simply,

A further conclusion of Idle Theory is that nobody is to blame for our
present state of affairs. In their ignorance, men blunder around doing
stupid and often murderous things. They are forever acting out of a
partial understanding of the world, and one whose partiality and
incompleteness and uncertainty frequently drives them to become
paradoxically dogmatic. It seems to be almost a law of nature that,
the less mankind knows about something, the more obtusely dogmatic
they become about it. And so none of the foregoing is intended to
point any finger of blame at anyone whatsoever. Our greatest problem
is not human greed, or lust for power, or anything else. Our greatest
problem is human ignorance.

Finally, it might be added that it was in constructing this rather
perverse and upside down view of economic systems that Idle Theory was
born. Everything else – the physics, the theory of evolution, the
ethics, the politics, the law, and the religion – were simply a series
of afterthoughts to its peculiar economic vision. I searched the
libraries for this vision, but never found it. And so I concluded that
it was in some sense my duty to myself try to set out its strange and
paradoxical perspectives.

How to unplug from the grid
BY Gaia Vince / 03 December 2008

“I HAVEN’T paid an electricity bill since 1970,” says Richard Perez
with noticeable glee. He can afford to be smug. While most of us
fretted over soaring utility bills this year, he barely noticed. Nor
is he particularly concerned about forecast price hikes of 30 to 50
per cent in 2009. Perez, a renewable-energy researcher at the
University at Albany, State University of New York, lives “off-grid” –
unconnected to the power grid and the water, gas and sewerage supplies
that most of us rely on. He generates his own electricity, sources his
own water and manages his own waste disposal – and prefers it that
way. “There are times when the grid blacks out,” he says. “I like the
security of having my own electricity company.”

Perez is not alone. Once the preserve of mavericks, hippies and
survivalists, there are now approximately 200,000 off-grid households
in the US, a figure that Perez says has been increasing by a third
every year for the past decade. In addition, nearly 30,000 grid-
connected US households supplement their supply with renewables,
according to the non-profit Interstate Renewable Energy Council. In
the UK there are around 40,000 off-grid homes: the number has also
risen in recent years due to escalating house prices and now to more
expensive home loans, both of which have driven buyers far from
conventional utility networks in search of properties they can afford.

For people who live off-grid, self-sufficiency means guilt-free energy
consumption and peace of mind. “It feels brilliant to use clean, free
energy that’s not from fossil fuels,” says Suzanne Galant, a writer
who lives off-grid in rural Wales. “And if something goes wrong, we
can fix it ourselves.” Now even urbanites are seeing the appeal of
generating some if not all of their own power needs. So is energy
freedom an eco pipe-dream or the ultimate good life?

Whether you live in town or the middle of nowhere, the first
consideration for any wannabe off-gridder is to calculate how much
energy it takes to run your home and whether it is feasible to replace
this with alternative sources of power where you live. The good news
is that the energy you require is likely to be a fraction of what you
presently use, says Tony Brown, head engineer at the UK’s Centre for
Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Powys. The average UK
household uses around 4500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity
annually, plus some 18,000 kWh of gas for cooking, hot water and
domestic heating. In the US the figure varies considerably from region
to region. For example, households in New York City use around 4700
kWh a year, whereas those in Dallas use 16,100 kWh: there are a lot of
air conditioners in Texas. In chillier regions where people use gas
for heating and cooking, on the other hand, they can burn up an extra
28,000 kWh or so per household.

It would be a struggle to generate this much energy from renewables
alone, so an important first step is to dramatically reduce wasted
energy. This may be less fun than installing shiny new energy-
generating gadgets, but it is almost as effective in cutting your
reliance on fossil fuels and the grid. The biggest energy savings will
come from properly insulating your home to minimise heat loss. That
done, you’ll need to work out what is eating up the rest of the power
you consume. The easiest way to do this is to buy an energy monitor
that can provide a live display of your total energy consumption or
that of individual appliances (see “What’s guzzling the juice?”). This
will help you focus on reducing consumption to the bare minimum, not
just by switching to low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient white
goods, but also by turning unused appliances right off rather than

leaving them in standby mode. With a bit of effort and investment, you
should be able to get by on a few hundred kilowatt-hours of
electricity a year.

Now you are ready to start replacing this with home-grown energy. Some
80 per cent of off-gridders rely on the sun to do this, with good
reason: it blasts our planet with enough free energy every hour to
power the world for a year and you don’t need to live in the middle of
nowhere to get it. The simplest way to tap into this is to use a solar
collector for your domestic heating or hot water. In the summer, solar
thermal devices installed on a south-facing roof or wall (north-facing
in the southern hemisphere) could provide all your hot-water needs.
Even in winter, solar collectors can make a worthwhile dent in heating
bills, even if the water needs top-up heating from the grid or from a
stove that runs on logs, wood pellets or other biomass.
The sun blasts our planet with free energy and you don’t need to live
in the middle of nowhere to get it

For electricity generation, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are also a
good option. They convert the sun’s rays into direct-current
electricity with up to 20 per cent efficiency, and most are guaranteed
to retain at least 80 per cent of their original efficiency after 25
years. A 2-square-metre panel rated to give 1 kW per square metre in
peak conditions could provide up to 1500 kWh per year in the UK. In
more southerly and reliably sunny latitudes – somewhere like Texas,
say – it would probably provide 2000 kWh per year.

With enough solar panels it is possible to cover all your electricity
needs with PV, year round; the downside is that it requires a
significant investment up front. Installing 8 square metres of PV
panels, enough to sustain a family of four in the UK, plus storage
batteries and accessories such as inverters to convert DC into
alternating current, can cost tens of thousands of pounds and will
take up more space than is available to most urban households. Until
the cost comes down substantially, switching to a grid supplier that
gets its energy from renewables may be a more realistic alternative –
although it will not free you from the risk of supply interruptions.

Outside towns and cities, though, there are more options. If you have
access to a nearby river or stream with a reliable flow, hydro is an
excellent, cheap source of power, and flow rate is usually greater in
winter when you need more power. Galant’s home, a five-bedroom house
in the second-wettest part of Europe, is powered by a fast-flowing
mountain stream that drives a turbine, plus solar water heating and PV
panels. All this reliably supplies her with around 5500 kWh per year.
“If you came to my house, you wouldn’t know it was off-grid,” she
says. “It’s always lovely and warm and there’s always plenty of hot

Anyone who has an exposed windy hillside can exploit wind power. Tony
Marmont, an off-grid pioneer from Loughborough, in the English
Midlands, gets 40,000 to 50,000 kWh per year from his two 25 kW
turbines. People with a lot of land can benefit from a ground source
heat pump, which works in the same way as a refrigerator, using
electricity to transfer heat from a cool space (the ground, in this
case) to a warm one (the house). A typical installation, with 500
metres of underground piping, will stabilise the temperature of a well-
insulated home, keeping further heating or cooling requirements to a
minimum. If, like Marmont, you have a lake to store the pipes, so much
the better: it saves the trouble of digging up the lawn.

Being completely off-grid, however, does mean you need to store excess
energy for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Most
off-gridders use bulky, expensive lead-acid batteries for this
purpose. These can store electricity only for a couple of days and
their performance degrades over time, but for now they are the best
available option. A few pioneers, like Marmont, use excess electricity
to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water; the gas is then stored in
tanks and used to power fuel cells when needed. This allows
electricity generated in summer to be used in winter, but it is
prohibitively expensive for most: a system like Marmont’s will set you
back around £1 million. What’s more, the hydrogen tanks take up a lot
of space.

For most of us, the energy-storage issue is a major stumbling block to
going completely off-grid. And it’s one reason why, for most people,
it’s not yet worth pulling the plug. Cost is likely to be another show-
stopper – though not for those who live in really remote locations.
“If you live more than a quarter of a mile from the grid, then
installing your own systems works out considerably cheaper than
connecting to the grid,” says Otto van Geet of the US National
Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Perez, for example,
was told it would cost him $280,000 to be connected, which made the
decision to install $25,000-worth of PV panels an easy one. Both of
these barriers are coming down, albeit slowly. Engineers are working
on reducing the size and cost of renewable-energy installations, while
fuel-cell and battery manufacturers are trying to increase power
output and storage life. The cost of generating and storing your own
energy will fall as the commercial and domestic generation market
grows and as new technologies emerge: thin-film PV panels, for
instance, are cheaper to make than existing PV cells, which use
crystalline silicon. For many, the transition is becoming easier and
less costly as newly built houses are increasingly offered for sale
with some of the infrastructure for renewables, such as inverters for
PV panels, already installed.

In the meantime, one way to beat the problem of how to store surplus
power and make good on your investment is to stay connected to the
grid – or connect if you are already off-grid – and sell what you
don’t use to a utility company. It may not be the energy freedom you
had in mind, but it does means that the grid effectively becomes your
battery – there when you need more electricity, and able to take your
excess power. The return you will receive for this varies widely, but
Germany has already shown that such a system can work. There,
homeowners selling back renewably generated power are guaranteed to
get four times the market rate charged to consumers for electricity.
As a result, Germany has a thriving market in domestically generated
energy, with 200 times the solar electricity output of the UK. The UK
is planning to bring in a similar “feed-in tariff” system in 2009,
although it is not yet clear what sort of price power-generating
homeowners can expect. In the US, California and New Jersey are
leading the way with feed-in tariffs in the range of 8 to 31 cents per
kWh, depending on the contract and the time of day when the power was
generated. Most other states have a long way to go.

There is no doubt that being off-grid has its problems and it is not
always the cheapest way to get your energy. Even so, pioneers like
Galant, Marmont and Perez have proved that it can be done, and without
giving up a 21st-century lifestyle. “I’ve got five computers, two
laser scanners, two fridge-freezers, a microwave, a convection oven,
vacuum cleaners – you name it,” says Perez. “There’s an external beam
antenna on the roof for the cellphone and a bidirectional satellite
for internet connection. I’ve got 70 kWh stored in batteries that
could last me five days. I have too much electricity.” Too much
electricity and no more bills. That’s got to be worth aiming for.

BY Chris Davis / 18 Dec 1998

Idle Theory is a slowly expanding way of seeing. A lot of the essays
on this website deal with the remote past, both in those parts
concerned with the theory of evolution, but also those which deal with
early human life. In many ways, Idle Theory as it presently stands has
yet to arrive at the present day, and the modern human circumstance.
This makes it difficult for any conclusions to be drawn. But some
tentative lines can be sketched out. One of these is that human
religious value systems look like they took shape in the remotest
antiquity, long before any modern religion had appeared. They are
survival values. They are values which got humanity through many
difficult times. They are wholly practical in character. They are the
values of low idleness societies – societies in which life was one of
near-continuous work simply to survive. In modern (and by “modern” is
meant of the last 500 years or so) Western society, human idleness has
risen sharply, largely thanks to technological innovations – steam
engines, internal combustion engines, nuclear power, computers. This
has tended to render the ancient values redundant, and has brought the
rise of a liberalism which sets out to overthrow ancient taboos and
restrictions. There is, as a result, a deep collision taking place
between conservatism and liberalism. The collision is more apparent
than real.

Probably the most pressing modern problem is to understand the nature
of economic systems. Almost all current problems are economic in
character: we can put astronauts on the moon, but we can’t feed and
clothe our own people. There remain enormous disparities in wealth
across the planet, and these seem to widen rather than narrow.
Usually, these disparities get put down to “greed” or “human
nature” (by which is meant greed). But, as Idle Theory sees it,
economic systems have their own logic, in which greed plays a minimal
role. As Idle Theory sees it, the inherent purpose of the economy is
to free people from work, and as such “unemployment” is what
economies ought to generate. In the view of Idle Theory, almost all the
economic theory generated over the past 200-300 years makes the
over-optimistic assumption that human life is largely idle, and that
wealth is created by setting people to work.

Idle Theory’s economic model is an attempt to construct another
understanding of economic systems – of values, prices, profits, etc.
But it is very simple, and almost entirely undeveloped. But it offers
an outline way of looking at economies, not seeing them as generating
“wealth”, but instead freeing people from work, providing them with
the leisure in which to do what they want to do rather than what they
must do. The modern economic problem is that technological innovation
has freed people from the production of necessities – only to oblige
them to produce luxuries. The result is that modern Western culture is
no more idle and leisured now than it has ever been.

I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the human future. If we
can understand, and then control, our economic systems, it seems
perfectly possible that there could be a human future of leisure for
everybody, in which luxuries are manufactured and traded because
people want to, and not – as at present – because they have to. In
that time, the vast engine of industry will more or less shut down.
And in shutting down, it will cease to pollute the world. The immense
pressure for everyone to somehow find work will vanish, and with it
all the stress-related psychological and physical disorders that
attend work and the search for gainful employment. At the same time,
the necessity to rob, cheat, steal (which is a form of gainful
employment) will also dwindle. In that idle world, life will become
99% play.

I have no idea what such a world would be like, because I don’t live
in such a world. I have no idea what people would do in such a world.
Since there are perfectly good explanations why some people rob and
cheat in our present condition, I see no reason to suppose that such
people would continue to behave that way in an idle world. There are
no Bad Guys in Idle Theory: there are only ignorant busy people. But
the absence of any realistic understanding of the nature of economic
systems at present is cause for pessimism in itself: economic chaos is
set to continue, for the time being. And war will accompany that
chaos. And since now, as for the past 3000+ years, weapons
development remains paramount, next to no effort will be put into
improving the human state. And human numbers are rising towards
unsustainable levels.




BY Chris Davis / September 2003

The only wealth I’ll ever have is the profound and sweet freedom to
sit idly by some river and gaze across its eddies and ripples on the
sliding water to the far green shore, to pick up and study a few worn
pebbles and leaves, to stroll along the bank and catch the scent of
nameless flowers.

It’s not the river and the pebbles and the flowers and trees that make
up this wealth. No. It’s just as sweet a freedom to gaze across some
parking lot filled with cars and trucks, pick up and study some
discarded hub cap, and smell the odour of oil and gasoline. The sweet
freedom is to be able to choose to gaze, to pick things up, to study,
to stroll around, to do this or that or the other. It is the freedom
to do what one wants to do. It is the freedom to do nothing at all. It
is the freedom to just be.

But human life – this interval between birth and death – has never
entirely consisted of such freedom. Instead it has almost always been
one of choiceless toil: to sow and reap plants, to shepherd flocks, to
grind and bake and eat bread, to haul water, to spin wool and weave
cloth and sew garments. There was little time to sit by rivers
watching the water slip by. If that sweet freedom was ever
experienced, it was mostly on public holidays on which all work was

All that work, all the sowing and reaping, the grinding and hauling,
the chopping and hammering, only ever had as its goal the sweet
freedom to choose what to do. It was never that Sunday was just a day
on which to recover from the far more important and meaningful working
week. No, that idle sabbath day was the reward and purpose of the
working week. Everything else, everything that is ordinarily called
“wealth”, is only icing on the cake of this fundamental freedom to
choose. All those fast cars, elegant clothes, fine houses, landscaped
gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts, are a mere thin veneer upon
the substantive mass of that primary freedom – like the mantle of
vegetation upon the vast sphere of this planet.

And all these things are anyway the product of idle time. A society
that has no idle time can produce no luxuries. For all luxuries are
made from idle time foregone in work to make them. And all these
luxuries require idle time for their enjoyment. What point a tennis
court, if there is no time to play the game. All these things provide
a wider range of choice: that instead of porridge every day, we can
eat bread or fish or lamb rogon josh or Kentucky fried chicken. But an
ever-increasing range of choice is not the same as an ever-increasing
ability to choose. And it is the ability to choose, not the range of
possible choices, that matters. Freedom does not consist in the
ability to choose from a wide range of products on a supermarket
shelf: freedom is the ability to continually choose.

A country is rich to the extent that its people are able to freely
choose how to dispose of their time, not to the extent that they have
the widest range of choice of toys and amusements. And indeed, to the
extent that wealth is identified with wider choice, any increase in
the range of choice only comes with a decrease in the ability to
choose. For all these various delights and pleasures are only ever
bought by surrendering the freedom to choose, by setting idle hands to
work to make them. And therefore it must be the primary purpose of any
society, not to increase the range of choice open to its members, but
instead to expand their ability to choose, by shortening the working
week, and correspondingly expanding the idle weekend. If, on extensive
idle weekends, some people choose to busy themselves making and
trading toys and amusements, so let them – if that is what they choose
to do. And if any society abandons the pursuit of idleness, and
instead sets up some other ambition, it will inevitably become busier
and busier, poorer and poorer, until it can no longer sustain itself,
and disintegrates and dies.

Chris Davis
email : author [at] idletheor [dot] .info

BY Chris Davis / 2 Mar 1998

Physicists have been curiously reluctant to produce a physical model
of life. It is not possible to flick through a physics textbook and
find a chapter on Life Processes appended to those concerned with the
Kinetic Theory of matter, or Thermodynamics, or Newton’s laws of
motion. The omission may be purely an accident of history, that the
study of life became, very early on, the province of naturalists,
biologists, ecologists, and more recently geneticists. Physicists,
with enough on their hands already, were perhaps content to leave the
matter in their hands. Yet one strange result is that, despite
constant complaints that the life sciences are reductionist and
mechanistic, there exists no mechanistic description of life. There
isn’t even agreement as to what constitutes Life. Thus the Idle Life
model will not be found in any physics textbook. Although its
description of life adopts the terminology of physics, it is no part
of the formal edifice of physics.

The Idle Life model attempts to mirror the behaviour of real life. It
has a metabolism that acquires and expends and stores energy. It can
grow and reproduce. It can die. Given such a model of life, it becomes
possible to construct populations of theoretical idle lifeforms, that
correspond to plants, grazers, predators, and simulate variation and
natural selection, and to do so knowing that the unfolding scene is
not physically implausible. Without some sort of model, such
theoretical explorations are impossible. The Idle Life model is a
simple, idealised model of life. There are probably no real living
creatures which are so simple. But a great many real living creatures
appear to behave in roughly the manner it describes. And that is
enough to begin with. Idle Theory is only concerned with the broadest
behaviour of life, not with particular details.

Life. In Idle Theory, life is treated in terms of energy. In Idle
Theory, living creatures are understood to be constantly decaying and
constantly repairing themselves. This is physical work. And in order
to repair themselves they have to extract fuel and raw materials from
their surrounding environment. This also is physical work. In physical
discussions of life, living creatures are quite ordinarily described
as having a power income and a power expenditure . But these incomes
and expenditures are usually implicitly continuous. In Idle Theory
power income and expenditure are discontinuous or intermittent.

The only reason that life manages to keep functioning is because the
amount of energy expended in maintenance and food capture over some
period of time is less than the amount of energy stored in the food it
can acquire from its environment over that period of time. The
creatures can only stay alive because they can acquire energy faster
than they expend it. And if life can acquire energy faster than it
expends it, then life need only work part-time acquiring energy. The
rest of the time it is idle. In Idle Theory, life alternates between
busy and idle states.

Two assumptions underlie the Idle Life model.
1. The creatures are assumed to work continuously at maintaining or
replacing their constituent components. This work is regarded as a
continual background activity, the intensity of which depends upon the
ease or severity of the environment in which these components exist –
temperature, salinity, acidity, etc.
2. The creatures work intermittently to acquire from their
environment the energy needed to power their maintenance work.

One argument for such intermittency lies in a the intermittent
availability of energy in the environment: plants can only acquire
solar energy during daylight hours, and many animals require daylight
by which to find food. Another argument is that even if energy is
continuously available in the environment, the creatures are likely to
be able to meet their energy requirements in a relatively short time.
Included in the assumption of intermittent work is an assumption that
the creatures have a constant sustainable work rate. This is a
simplification. But it reflects the important truth that, although
creatures may be able to increase their work rates by an order of
magnitude, they cannot sustain such work rates for long.

A further argument for intermittency is that if the creatures simply
worked continuously, at whatever rate required, to acquire energy to
power self-maintenance, they would have no need to store energy. But
in the natural world, creatures typically maintain substantial energy
stores, in the form of sugars, fats, starches.

Given these assumptions, it is possible to write some simple
Assume some lifeform continuously works at a rate Pm repairing itself.
Assume that it is able to work at a rate Pe to acquire energy to power

When it works to acquire energy, it acquires a power income of Pi. The
power income, Pi, that the creature gets for its expenditures is
dependent on the energy density of its environent. In an energy-rich
environment, Pi will be larger than in an energy-poor environment.

At equilibrium, it alternates between being busy acquiring energy for
Tbusy time, and being idle for Tidle time, and its energy store level
cycles between a maximum and a minimum.
At equilibrium, over unit time period, energy expended = energy

Energy received = Pi.Tbusy
Energy expended = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
So Pi.T busy = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
and T busy = Pm / (Pi – Pe)

and I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) ( 1 )
where I is Idleness or Tidle/unit time, and 0 <= I < 1.

A variant of this equation is:
I = 1 – ( Pm / Pe(G – 1)) ( 2 )
where G is the energy gain per unit expended, and Pi = G.Pe

Given these assumptions, the Idleness of a lfeform is independent of
the length of the cycle. It makes no difference whether it maintains
its store at a high mean level, or allows its store to cycle more
slowly from a high level to a low level.

The power consumption of this lifeform over the cycle is given by:
(1 – I).Pi ( 3 )
Idle time need not be devoted to inactivity. A life form can work
during idle time to acquire an energy surplus. The power surplus or
work capacity of the life form is:
I.(Pi – Pe) ( 4 )
Where a creature is growing in size, or reproducing, the extra power
expenditure for reproduction, Pr is added to maintenance power
expenditure, and (1) becomes
I = 1 – ((Pm + Pr) / (Pi – Pe)) ( 5 )

Living creatures operate in the range 0 to 1 idleness. 0 (0r 0%)
idleness means working all the time. 1 (or 100%) idleness means they
are idle all the time. In practice, 100% or perfect idleness cannot be
achieved, because no combination of non-zero values of Pm, Pr, Pe, and
Pi can produce I = 1. Zero idleness, by contrast can be very easily
achieved. Inert matter might be construed as perfectly idle, since
(Pm, (Pr and (Pe are zero, and I = 1.

The creatures die when their energy stores empty, and no further
maintenance work or energy-acquisition work can be done, and the
unmaintained creatures disintegrate.

Taking Pm and Pe as constant, then as Pi rises, idleness approaches 1.
In this circumstance a creature spends next to no time meeting its
maintenance energy needs. But as Pi falls, idleness falls, and
continues to fall until idleness reaches zero. At this point, a
creature is spending all its time working to meet its maintenance
energy needs. If Pi falls further, the creature becomes unable to meet
its maintenance energy needs, because it can work no harder. In this
circumstance, it loses energy, and its energy store empties. Thus zero
idleness (I = 0) is the threshold of death for any lifeform. In Idle
Theory, reaching zero idleness is therefore usually taken to entail
death, even though there will be an interval while energy stores are
finally depleted.

All solutions of the equation I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) with values
greater than zero and less than 1 correspond to life. All other values
(I 1) correspond to death. In practice, these absurd values
convert to zero idleness.

Reaching zero idleness is the only way that any life form in Idle
Theory ever dies:
Death by starvation results when the power income, Pi, falls
because there is less energy available in the environment, and
idleness is reduced to zero.
Death by disease entails increasing maintenance power, Pm, to
include feeding parasitic bacteria, which results in idleness falling
to zero.
Accidental damage may result in the stored energy rapidly being
lost – effectively increasing Pm -, or by disabling the lifeform so
that it is able to do less work to get food – reducing Pe -. Again, if
the damage is sufficient, idleness may fall to zero.
Old age entails an increasing inability to work to acquire food –
Pe steadily falls -. At some point, idleness reaches zero.

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]






“Working first with the D.E.A. and then with the State Department,
Wankel helped create the Afghan Eradication Force, with troops of the
Afghan National Police drawn from the Ministry of the Interior. Last
year, an estimated four hundred thousand acres of opium poppies were
planted in Afghanistan, a fifty-nine-per-cent increase over the
previous year. Afghanistan now supplies more than ninety-two per cent
of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. More than half the
country’s annual G.D.P., some $3.1 billion, is believed to come from
the drug trade, and narcotics officials believe that part of the money
is funding the Taliban insurgency.”


New research chal­lenges tradi­tional accounts of why we wallow in
chemical gratification / March 21, 2008

Why do peo­ple abuse drugs? It’s not only a ques­tion wor­ried par­
ents ask their way­ward, sub­stance-dab­bling teenagers. It’s al­so a
deeper ques­tion asked by bi­ol­o­gists. In gen­er­al, na­ture has de­
signed all crea­tures as ex­quis­ite machines for their own pro­tec­
tion and propaga­t­ion. Yet we’re easily and of­ten drawn in­to self-
destruction by noth­ing more than life­less chem­i­cal lures. This
weak­ness seems such a jar­ring ex­cep­tion, such a dis­mal Achilles’
heel, that it calls out for ex­plana­t­ion.

Sci­en­tists typ­ic­ally of­fer the fol­low­ing one. Drugs are chem­i­
cals that in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ly trig­ger ac­ti­vity in brain cir­cuits
de­signed for very dif­fer­ent pur­poses: to pro­vide a sense of re­
ward for hav­ing sat­is­fied or­di­nary needs, health­fully.  The
brain has few de­fenses against this chem­i­cal de­cep­tion, the stand­
ard ac­count goes, be­cause drugs were un­known in the nat­u­ral en­vi­
ron­ment that shaped hu­man ev­o­lu­tion.

This tra­di­tion­al view, though, is com­ing un­der at­tack. A new
study pro­poses the brain evolved to ac­count for and even ex­ploit
drugs. Al­though their abuse is still un­healthy, the au­thors sug­
gest it’s wrong to think they cheat the brain in the sense tra­di­tion­
ally theo­r­ized.

“Ev­i­dence strongly in­di­cates that hu­mans and oth­er an­i­mals
have been ex­posed to drugs through­out their ev­o­lu­tion,” wrote the
sci­en­tists in the stu­dy. The re­search, by an­thro­po­lo­g­ist Rog­
er Sul­li­van of Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­s­ity and two col­
leagues, ap­peared March 19 on­line in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of
the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B: Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences.

The most pop­u­lar drugs of abuse are plant tox­ins that evolved to
pro­tect plants from preda­tors, as ev­o­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists
have “con­vinc­ingly ar­gued,” Sul­li­van and col­leagues wrote. For
ex­am­ple, nic­o­tine, the key ad­dic­tive in­gre­di­ent of
cigarettes, helps ward off an ar­ray of in­sects, mam­mals and other
creat­ures from munch­ing on to­bacco plants. Fur­ther ev­i­dence of
the fun­da­men­tally poi­son­ous na­ture of drugs of abuse, the three
sci­en­tists ar­gued, is that first-time users of­ten re­port un­pleas­
ant re­ac­tions.

Since plants long pre­date hu­mans, the pres­ence of these sub­stances
in plants would seem to in­di­cate we and our an­ces­tors have long
dealt with them, the re­search­ers con­tin­ued. But fur­ther ev­i­
dence of this, they added, is in our own make­up. All an­i­mals pro­
duce mo­le­cules known as cy­to­chromes, whose func­tions in­clude de­
tox­i­fy­ing in­gested plant poi­sons. Cy­to­chromes that spe­cif­ic­
ally neu­tral­ize brain-affecting plant tox­ins have re­mained a con­
sist­ent fea­ture of hu­man ev­o­lu­tion, Sul­li­van and col­leagues

All this shows “our an­ces­tors were reg­u­larly ex­posed to plant
neurotox­ins,” they added, so the view of our brains as un­sus­pect­
ing vic­tims of the new chem­i­cal threat is un­ten­able. It remains
unclear what might be the true ev­o­lu­tion­ary ex­plana­t­ion of drug
abuse, they wrote: the “para­dox” stays of why sub­stances de­signed
as poi­sons, are pleas­ur­a­ble to so many.

One pos­si­bil­ity, the sci­en­tists sug­gested, is that an­i­mals co-
opted some plant tox­ins and used them for their own de­fenses against
para­sites. If this is true, then ev­o­lu­tion, the pro­cess by which
spe­cies adapt and change to meet en­vi­ron­men­tal de­mands, might
have de­signed our brains to en­cour­age some drug use. This could in­
volve shap­ing our brains to as­so­ci­ate drug in­take with feel­ings
of re­ward. “But there are, of course, oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties,” the
re­searchers wrote.

Researchers stumped by drug addiction paradox
BY Lisa Zyga  /  April 16, 2008

Throughout history, plants have created their toxins by mimicking
their own molecules that regulate metabolism, growth and reproduction.
When ingested by herbivores, some of these molecules can interfere
with nearly every step in the animal’s neural signaling process.

In current evolutionary interpretations of drug addiction, these toxic
substances trigger the brain’s reward center by rewiring the brain’s
natural reward circuits, and falsely indicating a fitness benefit and
blocking painful feelings. But, as Sullivan, Hagen, and Hammerstein
show, this explanation makes several assumptions that contradict
evidence from previous studies. Most significantly, it assumes that
humans evolved in environments without exposure to drugs, and that the
brain never evolved to protect itself from plant toxins.

However, the researchers point to several other studies which show
that the detoxification enzymes developed by animals (and which
originally evolved in bacteria about 3.5 billion years ago) expanded
in animals about 400 million years ago – about the same time that
plants were evolving their own toxins. In other words, animals and
plants seemed to have coevolved competitive genes in response to each
other, which contradicts the evolutionary interpretation.

As the researchers investigated further, they compiled other studies
showing evidence that humans inherited these detox genes from their
mammalian ancestors. Interestingly, although many modern animal
species can tolerate plant toxins, different species possess different
detox function levels. Even among humans from different geographic
locations, these functions differ. Often, human populations with
greater numbers of toxin-metabolizing genes originate from parts of
the world that contain an abundance of those plants. For example,
human populations in and near Turkey have a very high frequency of
enzymes that can metabolize opiates, and the opiate poppy is native to
the Turkish region.

To conclude their argument against the evolutionary interpretation,
the researchers explain that (pre-human) animals and plants did appear
to have evolved the relevant genes simultaneously. If that’s the case,
then the brain shouldn’t treat drugs as if they contained a fitness
benefit, giving strong support to the paradox.

“We have been surprised by how robust the paradox is – that is, in
presenting the arguments at scientific meetings for several years now,
no one has been able to refute the basic argument that plant
ecological models and neurobiological models of drug use are in direct
conflict,” Sullivan said.

Many more questions also remain unanswered, but they may contain clues
to an explanation. For example, there is contradictory evidence for
whether commonly used drugs have become more or less potent as they’ve
been domesticated. Also, as the researchers point out, current models
explaining drug reward mechanisms don’t differentiate between
different drugs – even though the pathways taken by opiates, cannabis,
or any other drug are vastly different. Models of multiple-drug
pathways might better explain drug appeal, the scientists suggest.

Based on evidence from previous studies, Sullivan, Hagen, and
Hammerstein note that plant toxins may actually have some kind of
benefit for animals. For instance, because plant toxins are more
harmful to some species than to others, the less affected species
might actually consume levels of toxin that are tolerable to
themselves but much worse for the parasites or pathogens that feed on
them in order to protect themselves. For example, earlier humans that
consumed nicotine (in much smaller amounts than today) could have
received the benefit of fewer parasitic infections. Of course, the
benefits also come with trade-offs.

“The main implications for future research are that neurobiological
theorists must consider facts emerging from plant ecology,” Sullivan
said. “We are also planning field studies looking for relationships
between human drug use and protection from helminth parasites.”

“Neurobiological models of drug abuse propose that drug use is
initiated and maintained by rewarding feedback mechanisms. However,
the most commonly used drugs are plant neurotoxins that evolved to
punish, not reward, consumption by animal herbivores. Reward models
therefore implicitly assume an evolutionary mismatch between recent
drug-profligate environments and a relatively drug-free past in which
a reward centre, incidentally vulnerable to neurotoxins, could evolve.
By contrast, emerging insights from plant evolutionary ecology and the
genetics of hepatic enzymes, particularly cytochrome P450, indicate
that animal and hominid taxa have been exposed to plant toxins
throughout their evolution. Specifically, evidence of conserved
function, stabilizing selection, and population-specific selection of
human cytochrome P450 genes indicate recent evolutionary exposure to
plant toxins, including those that affect animal nervous systems.
Thus, the human propensity to seek out and consume plant neurotoxins
is a paradox with far-reaching implications for current drug-reward
theory. We sketch some potential resolutions of the paradox, including
the possibility that humans may have evolved to counter-exploit plant
neurotoxins. Resolving the paradox of drug reward will require a
synthesis of ecological and neurobiological perspectives of drug
seeking and use.”

Roger Sullivan
e-mail : sullivar [at] csus [dot] edu

Edward Hagen
email : hagen [at] vancouver [dot] wsu [dot] edu

Peter Hammerstein
email : p [dot] hammerstein [at] biologie [dot]







YES, #1 IS NEW YORK,1518,450078,00.html,1518,384456,00.html
Quiet Spanish city is Europe’s coke capital
Miranda de Ebro second only to New York says UN
Study of waste water is mistaken, say residents
BY Dale Fuchs  /  June 29 2007

Miranda de Ebro, a small industrial city in northern Spain, was once
known for small blood sausages, a three-day fiesta after Holy Week and
its strategic location as highway stopover – on the way to somewhere
else. But now the city has a new distinction: cocaine capital of

The United Nations World Drug Report this year ranks Miranda de Ebro
as the city with the highest incidence of cocaine use in Europe and
second in the world after New York, with a rate nearly five times as
high as in St Moritz, London, Zurich and Madrid. The city’s 40,000
residents, mostly factory workers and small shopkeepers, are
astonished by the findings. They can not understand how the UN study
of waste water could have found a consumption rate of 97 lines a day
for every 1,000 people, in a city whose big event is the traditional
Sunday evening stroll. “It’s absolutely absurd,” the mayor, Fernando
Campo, told the Guardian. “This is a tranquil, working-class city.
What the people like to do is have a little glass of wine with their
tapas, not white lines.”

With no large discos and few other clubs to attract a party crowd,
Miranda de Ebro had little in common with the wild atmosphere of
Ibiza, Mr Campo insisted. He suggested the findings were an error
possibly caused by a nearby chemical plant. City waste is purified
before reaching the river, he said. Miranda de Ebro may be in denial,
but nobody in Spain disputes the rest of the UN report, which ranks
Spaniards as the most avid cocaine users in the world. Of the
population aged 15 to 64, 3% inhales the white powder, compared with
2.4% in England and 2.8% in the US. The percentage of youths aged 14
to 18 using the drug has roughly quadrupled in the past decade.

The UN report blames Spain’s avid use of cocaine partly on cultural
and linguistic ties to cocaine-producing countries of Latin America,
and its expansive coastline, especially the dangerous and hard-to-
patrol coves of northern Galicia, which invite smugglers. The UN
report dubs Spain a drug-trafficker’s “gateway to Europe”. The number
of police seizures of the drug far surpasses any other Mediterranean
country. Sociologists also point to the liberal, feel-good youth
culture that blossomed since the end of the Franco dictatorship – now
coupled with historically high purchasing power that keeps suburban
mega-discos and chic city bars doing a lucrative business until dawn.

Parents who came of age under the repressive Franco years are also
generally wary of imposing too many restrictions on their teenagers
and young adults who live at home, sociologists say, allowing generous
budgets for once unthinkable luxuries, such as a breast implants or
trips to Ibiza. The health ministry, alarmed by the trends, announced
this week a €7m (£5m) campaign to take the glamour out of cocaine so
young people no longer associated sniffing with success. The ministry
is also trying to persuade hotel owners to fight against drug use in
their establishments.

Miranda de Ebro, meanwhile, is battling to clear its name. The mayor
has sent a letter to the UN asking for an explanation of the findings.
Police are investigating to see if the river, at a transport
crossroads, could be used by smugglers passing through. Many
residents, though, have taken the report as a joke. “I laughed when I
heard about,” said a youth hostel worker. “There is no nightlife here.
You can run through the town in 10 minutes. Everyone is joking, ‘Who’s
the person sniffing the 97 lines each day’.”










Gary Slutkin
e-mail : gslutkin [at] uic [dot] edu

Blocking the Transmission of Violence
BY Alex Kotlowitz  /  May 4, 2008

Last summer, Martin Torres was working as a cook in Austin, Tex.,
when, on the morning of Aug. 23, he received a call from a relative.
His 17-year-old nephew, Emilio, had been murdered. According to the
police, Emilio was walking down a street on Chicago’s South Side when
someone shot him in the chest, possibly the culmination of an ongoing
dispute. Like many killings, Emilio’s received just a few sentences in
the local newspapers. Torres, who was especially close to his nephew,
got on the first Greyhound bus to Chicago. He was grieving and
plotting retribution. “I thought, Man, I’m going to take care of
business,” he told me recently. “That’s how I live. I was going
hunting. This is my own blood, my nephew.”

Torres, who is 38, grew up in a dicey section of Chicago, and even by
the standards of his neighborhood he was a rough character. His
nickname was Packman, because he was known to always pack a gun. He
was first shot when he was 12, in the legs with buckshot by members of
a rival gang. He was shot five more times, including once through the
jaw, another time in his right shoulder and the last time — seven
years ago — in his right thigh, with a .38-caliber bullet that is
still lodged there. On his chest, he has tattooed a tombstone with the
name “Buff” at its center, a tribute to a friend who was killed on his
18th birthday. Torres was the head of a small Hispanic gang, and
though he is no longer active, he still wears two silver studs in his
left ear, a sign of his affiliation.

When he arrived in Chicago, he began to ask around, and within a day
believed he had figured out who killed his nephew. He also began
drinking a lot — mostly Hennessey cognac. He borrowed two guns, a .38
and a .380, from guys he knew. He would, he thought, wait until after
the funeral to track down his nephew’s assailants.

Zale Hoddenbach looks like an ex-military man. He wears his hair
cropped and has a trimmed goatee that highlights his angular jaw. He
often wears T-shirts that fit tightly around his muscled arms, though
he also carries a slight paunch. When he was younger, Hoddenbach, who
is also 38, belonged to a gang that was under the same umbrella as
Torres’s, and so when the two men first met 17 years ago at Pontiac
Correctional Center, an Illinois maximum-security prison, they became
friendly. Hoddenbach was serving time for armed violence; Torres for
possession of a stolen car and a gun (he was, he says, on his way to
make a hit). “Zale was always in segregation, in the hole for fights,”
Torres told me. “He was aggressive.” In one scuffle, Hoddenbach lost
the sight in his right eye after an inmate pierced it with a shank.
Torres and Hoddenbach were at Pontiac together for about a year but
quickly lost touch after they were both released.

Shortly after Torres arrived in Chicago last summer, Hoddenbach
received a phone call from Torres’s brother, the father of the young
man who was murdered. He was worried that Torres was preparing to seek
revenge and hoped that Hoddenbach would speak with him. When
Hoddenbach called, Torres was thrilled. He immediately thought that
his old prison buddy was going to join him in his search for the
killer. But instead Hoddenbach tried to talk him down, telling him
retribution wasn’t what his brother wanted. “I didn’t understand what
the hell he was talking about,” Torres told me when I talked to him
six months later. “This didn’t seem like the person I knew.” The next
day Hoddenbach appeared at the wake, which was held at New Life
Community Church, housed in a low-slung former factory. He spent the
day by Torres’s side, sitting with him, talking to him, urging him to
respect his brother’s wishes. When Torres went to the parking lot for
a smoke, his hands shaking from agitation, Hoddenbach would follow.
“Because of our relationship, I thought there was a chance,”
Hoddenbach told me. “We were both cut from the same cloth.” Hoddenbach
knew from experience that the longer he could delay Torres from
heading out, the more chance he’d have of keeping him from shooting
someone. So he let him vent for a few hours. Then Hoddenbach started
laying into him with every argument he could think of: Look around, do
you see any old guys here? I never seen so many young kids at a
funeral. Look at these kids, what does the future hold for them? Where
do we fit in? Who are you to step on your brother’s wishes?

THE STUBBORN CORE of violence in American cities is troubling and
perplexing. Even as homicide rates have declined across the country —
in some places, like New York, by a remarkable amount — gunplay
continues to plague economically struggling minority communities. For
25 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African-
American men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, which has analyzed data up to
2005. And the past few years have seen an uptick in homicides in many
cities. Since 2004, for instance, they are up 19 percent in
Philadelphia and Milwaukee, 29 percent in Houston and 54 percent in
Oakland. Just two weekends ago in Chicago, with the first warm
weather, 36 people were shot, 7 of them fatally. The Chicago Sun-Times
called it the “weekend of rage.” Many killings are attributed to gang
conflicts and are confined to particular neighborhoods. In Chicago,
where on average five people were shot each day last year, 83 percent
of the assaults were concentrated in half the police districts. So for
people living outside those neighborhoods, the frequent outbursts of
unrestrained anger have been easy to ignore. But each shooting, each
murder, leaves a devastating legacy, and a growing school of thought
suggests that there’s little we can do about the entrenched urban
poverty if the relentless pattern of street violence isn’t somehow

The traditional response has been more focused policing and longer
prison sentences, but law enforcement does little to disrupt a street
code that allows, if not encourages, the settling of squabbles with
deadly force. Zale Hoddenbach, who works for an organization called
CeaseFire, is part of an unusual effort to apply the principles of
public health to the brutality of the streets. CeaseFire tries to deal
with these quarrels on the front end. Hoddenbach’s job is to suss out
smoldering disputes and to intervene before matters get out of hand.
His job title is violence interrupter, a term that while not artful
seems bluntly self-explanatory. Newspaper accounts usually refer to
the organization as a gang-intervention program, and Hoddenbach and
most of his colleagues are indeed former gang leaders. But CeaseFire
doesn’t necessarily aim to get people out of gangs — nor interrupt the
drug trade. It’s almost blindly focused on one thing: preventing

CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist and a
physician who for 10 years battled infectious diseases in Africa. He
says that violence directly mimics infections like tuberculosis and
AIDS, and so, he suggests, the treatment ought to mimic the regimen
applied to these diseases: go after the most infected, and stop the
infection at its source. “For violence, we’re trying to interrupt the
next event, the next transmission, the next violent activity,” Slutkin
told me recently. “And the violent activity predicts the next violent
activity like H.I.V. predicts the next H.I.V. and TB predicts the next
TB.” Slutkin wants to shift how we think about violence from a moral
issue (good and bad people) to a public health one (healthful and
unhealthful behavior).

EVERY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, in a Spartan room on the 10th floor of the
University of Illinois at Chicago’s public-health building, 15 to 25
men — and two women — all violence interrupters, sit around tables
arranged in a circle and ruminate on the rage percolating in the city.
Most are in their 40s and 50s, though some, like Hoddenbach, are a bit
younger. All of them are black or Hispanic and in one manner or
another have themselves been privy to, if not participants in, the
brutality of the streets.

On a Wednesday near the end of March, Slutkin made a rare appearance;
he ordinarily leaves the day-to-day operations to a staff member. Fit
at 57, Slutkin has a somewhat disheveled appearance — tie askew, hair
uncombed, seemingly forgetful. Some see his presentation as a
calculated effort to disarm. “Slutkin does his thing in his
Slutkinesque way,” notes Carl Bell, a psychiatrist who has long worked
with children exposed to neighborhood violence and who admires
CeaseFire’s work. “He seems kind of disorganized, but he’s not.”
Hoddenbach told me: “You can’t make too much of that guy. In the
beginning, he gives you that look like he doesn’t know what you’re
talking about.”

Slutkin had come to talk with the group about a recent high-profile
incident outside Crane Tech High School on the city’s West Side. An 18-
year-old boy was shot and died on the school’s steps, while nearby
another boy was savagely beaten with a golf club. Since the beginning
of the school year, 18 Chicago public-school students had been killed.
(Another six would be murdered in the coming weeks.) The interrupters
told Slutkin that there was a large police presence at the school, at
least temporarily muffling any hostilities there, and that the police
were even escorting some kids to and from school. They then told him
what was happening off the radar in their neighborhoods. There was the
continuing discord at another high school involving a group of girls
(“They’d argue with a stop sign,” one of the interrupters noted); a 14-
year-old boy with a gang tattoo on his forehead was shot by an older
gang member just out of prison; a 15-year-old was shot in the stomach
by a rival gang member as he came out of his house; and a former
CeaseFire colleague was struggling to keep himself from losing control
after his own sons were beaten. There was also a high-school
basketball player shot four times; a 12-year-old boy shot at a party;
gang members arming themselves to counter an egging of their freshly
painted cars; and a high-ranking gang member who was on life support
after being shot, and whose sister was overheard talking on her
cellphone in the hospital, urging someone to “get those straps
together. Get loaded.”

These incidents all occurred over the previous seven days. In each of
them, the interrupters had stepped in to try to keep one act of enmity
from spiraling into another. Some had more success than others. Janell
Sails prodded the guys with the egged cars to go to a car wash and
then persuaded them it wasn’t worth risking their lives over a stupid
prank. At Crane Tech High School, three of the interrupters fanned
out, trying to convince the five gangs involved in the conflict to lie
low, but they conceded that they were unable reach some of the main
players. Many of the interrupters seem bewildered by what they see as
a wilder group of youngsters now running the streets and by a gang
structure that is no longer top-down but is instead made up of many
small groups — which they refer to as cliques — whose members are
answerable to a handful of peers.

For an hour, Slutkin leaned on the table, playing with a piece of
Scotch tape, keenly listening. In some situations, Slutkin can appear
detached and didactic. He can wear people down with his long
discourses, and some of the interrupters say they sometimes tune him
out. (On one occasion, he tried to explain to me the relationship
between emotional intelligence and quantum physics.) But having seen a
lot of out-of-control behavior, Slutkin is a big believer in
controlling emotions. So he has taught himself not to break into
discussions and to digest before presenting his view. The interrupters
say he has their unqualified loyalty. Hoddenbach told me that he now
considers Slutkin a friend.

It became clear as they delivered their reports that many of the
interrupters were worn down. One of them, Calvin Buchanan, whose
street name is Monster and who just recently joined CeaseFire, showed
the others six stitches over his left eye; someone had cracked a beer
bottle on his head while he was mediating an argument between two men.
The other interrupters applauded when Buchanan told them that, though
tempted, he restrained himself from getting even.

When Slutkin finally spoke, he first praised the interrupters for
their work. “Everybody’s overreacting, and you’re trying to cool them
down,” he told them. He then asked if any of them had been
experiencing jitteriness or fear. He spent the next half-hour teaching
stress-reduction exercises. If they could calm themselves, he seemed
to be saying, they could also calm others. I recalled what one of the
interrupters told me a few weeks earlier: “We helped create the
madness, and now we’re trying to debug it.”

IN THE PUBLIC-HEALTH field, there have long been two schools of
thought on derailing violence. One focuses on environmental factors,
specifically trying to limit gun purchases and making guns safer. The
other tries to influence behavior by introducing school-based
curricula like antidrug and safe-sex campaigns.

Slutkin is going after it in a third way — as if he were trying to
contain an infectious disease. The fact that there’s no vaccine or
medical cure for violence doesn’t dissuade him. He points out that in
the early days of AIDS, there was no treatment either. In the short
run, he’s just trying to halt the spread of violence. In the long run,
though, he says he hopes to alter behavior and what’s considered
socially acceptable.

Slutkin’s perspective grew out of his own experience as an infectious-
disease doctor. In 1981, six years out of the University of Chicago
Pritzker School of Medicine, Slutkin was asked to lead the TB program
in San Francisco. With an influx of new refugees from Cambodia, Laos
and Vietnam, the number of cases in the city had nearly doubled.
Slutkin chose to concentrate on those who had the most active TB; on
average, they were infecting 6 to 10 others a year. Slutkin hired
Southeast Asian outreach workers who could not only locate the
infected individuals but who could also stick with them for nine
months, making sure they took the necessary medication. These outreach
workers knew the communities and spoke the languages, and they were
able to persuade family members of infected people to be tested.
Slutkin also went after the toughest cases — 26 people with drug-
resistant TB. The chance of curing those people was slim, but Slutkin
reckoned that if they went untreated, the disease would continue to
spread. “Gary wasn’t constrained by the textbook,” says Eric Goosby,
who worked in the clinic and is now the chief executive of the Pangaea
Global AIDS Foundation. Within two years, the number of TB cases, at
least among these new immigrants, declined sharply.

Slutkin then spent 10 years in Africa, first in refugee camps in
Somalia and then working, in Uganda and other countries, for the World
Health Organization to curtail the spread of AIDS. During his first
posting, in Somalia, a cholera epidemic spread from camp to camp.
Slutkin had never dealt with an outbreak of this sort, and he was
overwhelmed. The diarrhea from cholera is so severe that patients can
die within hours from dehydration. According to Sandy Gove, who was
then married to Slutkin and was also a doctor in the camps, infection
rates were approaching 10 percent; in one camp there were 1,000
severely ill refugees. “It was desperate,” she told me. Slutkin drove
a Land Cruiser two and a half days to an American military base along
the coast to the closest phone. He called doctors in Europe and the
United States, trying to get information. He also asked the soldiers
at the base for blue food coloring, which he then poured into the
water sources of the bacteria, a warning to refugees not to drink.
“What Gary is really good about is laying out a broad strategic plan
and keeping ahead of something,” Gove told me. There were only six
doctors for the 40 refugee camps, so Slutkin and Gove trained birth
attendants to spot infected people and to give them rehydration
therapies in their homes. Because the birth attendants were refugees,
they were trusted and could persuade those with the most severe
symptoms to receive aid at the medical tent.

After leaving Africa, Slutkin returned to Chicago, where he was raised
and where he could attend to his aging parents. (He later remarried
there.) It was 1995, and there had been a series of horrific murders
involving children in the city. He was convinced that longer sentences
and more police officers had made little difference. “Punishment
doesn’t drive behavior,” he told me. “Copying and modeling and the
social expectations of your peers is what drives your behavior.”

Borrowing some ideas (and the name) from a successful Boston program,
Slutkin initially established an approach that exists in one form or
another in many cities: outreach workers tried to get youth and young
adults into school or to help them find jobs. These outreach workers
were also doing dispute mediation. But Slutkin was feeling his way,
much as he had in Somalia during the cholera epidemic. One of
Slutkin’s colleagues, Tio Hardiman, brought up an uncomfortable truth:
the program wasn’t reaching the most bellicose, those most likely to
pull a trigger. So in 2004, Hardiman suggested that, in addition to
outreach workers, they also hire men and women who had been deep into
street life, and he began recruiting people even while they were still
in prison. Hardiman told me he was looking for those “right there on
the edge.” (The interrupters are paid roughly $15 an hour, and those
working full time receive benefits from the University of Illinois at
Chicago, where CeaseFire is housed.) The new recruits, with strong
connections to the toughest communities, would focus solely on
sniffing out clashes that had the potential to escalate. They would
intervene in potential acts of retribution — as well as try to defuse
seemingly minor spats that might erupt into something bigger, like
disputes over women or insulting remarks.

As CeaseFire evolved, Slutkin says he started to realize how much it
was drawing on his experiences fighting TB and AIDS. “Early
intervention in TB is actually treatment of the most infectious
people,” Slutkin told me recently. “They’re the ones who are infecting
others. So treatment of the most infectious spreaders is the most
effective strategy known and now accepted in the world.” And, he
continued, you want to go after them with individuals who themselves
were once either infectious spreaders or at high risk for the illness.
In the case of violence, you use those who were once hard-core, once
the most belligerent, once the most uncontrollable, once the angriest.
They are the most convincing messengers. It’s why, for instance,
Slutkin and his colleagues asked sex workers in Uganda and other
nations to spread the word to other sex workers about safer sexual
behavior. Then, Slutkin said, you train them, as you would
paraprofessionals, as he and Gove did when they trained birth
attendants to spot cholera in Somalia.

The first step to containing the spread of an infectious disease is
minimizing transmission. The parallel in Slutkin’s Chicago work is
thwarting retaliations, which is precisely what Hoddenbach was trying
to do in the aftermath of Emilio Torres’s murder. But Slutkin is also
looking for the equivalent of a cure. The way public-health doctors
think of curing disease when there are no drug treatments is by
changing behavior. Smoking is the most obvious example. Cigarettes are
still around. And there’s no easy remedy for lung cancer or emphysema.
So the best way to deal with the diseases associated with smoking is
to get people to stop smoking. In Uganda, Slutkin and his colleagues
tried to change behavior by encouraging people to have fewer sexual
partners and to use condoms. CeaseFire has a visible public-
communications campaign, which includes billboards and bumper stickers
(which read, “Stop. Killing. People.”). It also holds rallies — or
what it calls “responses” — at the sites of killings. But much
research suggests that peer or social pressure is the most effective
way to change behavior. “It was a real turning point for me,” Slutkin
said, “when I was working on the AIDS epidemic and saw research
findings that showed that the principal determinant of whether someone
uses a condom or not is whether they think their friends use them.”
Daniel Webster, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins
University who has looked closely at CeaseFire, told me, “The guys out
there doing the interruption have some prestige and reputation, and I
think the hope is that they start to change a culture so that you can
retain your status, retain your manliness and be able to walk away
from events where all expectations were that you were supposed to
respond with lethal force.”

As a result, the interrupters operate in a netherworld between
upholding the law and upholding the logic of the streets. They’re not
meant to be a substitute for the police, and indeed, sometimes the
interrupters negotiate disputes involving illicit goings-on. They
often walk a fine line between mediating and seeming to condone
criminal activity. At one Wednesday meeting this past December, the
interrupters argued over whether they could dissuade stickup artists
from shooting their victims; persuading them to stop robbing people
didn’t come up in the discussion.

LAST DECEMBER, at the first Wednesday meeting I attended, James
Highsmith came up to introduce himself. At 58, Highsmith is one of the
older interrupters. He wears striped, collared shirts, black
rectangular glasses and often a black Borsalino, an Italian-made
fedora. He reminded me that I had mentioned him in my book, “There Are
No Children Here,” about life in a Chicago public-housing project in
the late 1980s. I wrote about a picnic that some Chicago drug kingpins
gave in a South Side park. There was a car show, a wet T-shirt contest
and softball games for the children. About 2,000 people attended,
dancing to a live band while the drug lords showed off their Mercedes
Benzes, Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. Highsmith was the key sponsor of the
event. He controlled the drug trade on the city’s South Side. He owned
a towing business, an auto-mechanic’s shop and a nightclub, as well as
a 38-foot boat. In January 1994, he was sentenced to 14 years in
federal prison on drug-conspiracy charges; he was released in 2004.
Highsmith was just the kind of recruit CeaseFire looks for: an older
man getting out of the penitentiary who once had standing on the
streets and who, through word of mouth, appears ready, eager even, to
discard his former persona. “I’m a work in progress,” Highsmith told

One evening we were sitting in Highsmith’s basement apartment when the
phone rang. It was Alphonso Prater, another interrupter. The two had a
reunion of sorts when they joined CeaseFire; they shared a cell in the
county jail 34 years ago. Prater’s voice is so raspy it sounds as if
he has gravel in his throat. He told me that he became permanently
hoarse after a long stint in segregation in prison; he had to shout to
talk with others. When Prater called the night I was there, all
Highsmith could make out was: “There’s some high-tech stuff going on.
I need you to talk to some folks.” Highsmith didn’t ask any questions.

We drove to a poorly lighted side street on the city’s West Side.
Empty beer bottles littered the side of the road. Prater, who is short
and wiry and has trouble keeping still, was bouncing on the sidewalk,
standing next to a lanky middle-aged man who had receded into his
oversize hooded sweatshirt. Highsmith, Prater and another interrupter
joined the man in a parked car, where they talked for half an hour.
When they were done, the car peeled away, two other sedans escorting
it, one in front, the other in the rear. “Protection,” Highsmith
commented. Apparently, the man in the hooded sweatshirt, whom I would
meet later, had been an intermediary in a drug deal. He had taken an
out-of-town buyer holding $30,000 in cash to a house on the South Side
to buy drugs. But when they got there, they were met by six men in the
backyard, each armed with a pistol or an automatic weapon, and robbed.
The out-of-town buyer believed he’d been set up by the intermediary,
who, in turn, was trying to hunt down the stickup artists. In the car,
Prater, who knew the intermediary, had worked to cool him down, while
Highsmith promised to see if he could find someone who might know the
stickup guys and could negotiate with them. The intermediary told
Prater and Highsmith, a bit ominously, “Something got to give.”

After the intermediary drove off, Prater joked that there was no way
he was getting back in a car with him, that he was too overheated and
too likely to be the target or the shooter. “I’m not sure we can do
anything about this one,” Highsmith told Prater.

RELYING ON HARDENED TYPES — the ones who, as Webster of Johns Hopkins
says, have some prestige on the streets — is risky. They have prestige
for a reason. Hoddenbach, who once beat someone so badly he punctured
his lungs, is reluctant to talk about his past. “I don’t want to be
seen as a monster,” he told me. Hoddenbach’s ethnicity is hard to
pinpoint. His father was Dutch and his mother Puerto Rican, and he’s
so light-skinned his street name was Casper. He has a discerning gaze
and mischievous smile, and can be hardheaded and impatient. (At the
Wednesday meetings, he often sits near the door and whispers
entreaties to the others to speed things up.) Hoddenbach’s father had
an explosive temper, and to steal from Slutkin’s lingo, he seems to
have infected others. Two of Hoddenbach’s older brothers are serving
time for murder. His third brother has carved out a legitimate life as
a manager at a manufacturing firm. Hoddenbach always worked. He did
maintenance on train equipment and towed airplanes at a private
airport. But he was also active in a Hispanic street gang and was
known for his unmitigated aggression. He served a total of eight years
in the state penitentiary, the last stay for charges that included
aggravated battery. He was released in 2002.

In January, I was with Slutkin in Baltimore, where he spoke about
CeaseFire to a small gathering of local civic leaders at a private
home. During the two-hour meeting, Slutkin never mentioned that the
interrupters were ex-felons. When I later asked him about that
omission, he conceded that talking about their personal histories “is
a dilemma. I haven’t solved it.” I spent many hours with Hoddenbach
and the others, trying to understand how they chose to make the
transition from gangster to peacemaker, how they put thuggery behind
them. It is, of course, their street savvy and reputations that make
them effective for CeaseFire. (One supporter of the program admiringly
called it “a terrifying strategy” because of the inherent risks.) Some
CeaseFire workers have, indeed, reverted to their old ways. One
outreach worker was fired after he was arrested for possession of an
AK-47 and a handgun. Another outreach worker and an interrupter were
let go after they were arrested for dealing drugs. Word-of-mouth
allegations often circulate, and privately, some in the police
department worry about CeaseFire’s workers returning to their old

Not all the interrupters I talked to could articulate how they had
made the transition. Some, like Hoddenbach, find religion — in his
case, Christianity. He also has four children he feels responsible
for, and has found ways to decompress, like going for long runs. (His
brother Mark speculated that “maybe he just wants to give back what he
took out.”) I once asked Hoddenbach if he has ever apologized to
anyone he hurt. We were with one of his old friends from the street,
who started guffawing, as if I had asked Hoddenbach if he ever wore
dresses. “I done it twice,” Hoddenbach told us — quickly silencing his
friend and saving me from further embarrassment. (One apology was to
the brother of the man whose lungs he’d punctured; the other was to a
rival gang member he shot.) Alphonso Prater told me that the last time
he was released from prison, in 2001, an older woman hired him to gut
some homes she was renovating. She trusted him with the keys to the
homes, and something about that small gesture lifted him. “She seen
something in me that I didn’t see,” he told me.

Though the interrupters may not put it this way, the Wednesday
meetings are a kind of therapy. One staff member laughingly compared
it to a 12-step program. It was clear to me that they leaned on one
another — a lot. Prater once got an urgent call from his daughter, who
said her boyfriend was beating her. Prater got in his car and began to
race to her house; as he was about to run a stop sign, he glimpsed a
police car on the corner. He skidded to a halt. It gave him a moment
to think, and he called his CeaseFire supervisor, Tio Hardiman, who
got another interrupter to visit Prater’s daughter. Not long ago,
three old-timers fresh out of prison ruthlessly ridiculed Hoddenbach
for his work with CeaseFire. They were relentless, and Hoddenbach
asked to sit down with them. But when it came time to meet, he
realized he was too riled, and so he asked another interrupter, Tim
White, to go in his place. “I was worried I was going to whip their
asses, and wherever it went from there it went,” Hoddenbach told me.
“They were old feelings, feelings I don’t want to revisit.”

Recently I went out to lunch with Hoddenbach and Torres. It had been
four months since Torres buried his nephew. Torres, who looked worn
and agitated (he would get up periodically to smoke a cigarette
outside), seemed paradoxically both grateful to and annoyed at
Hoddenbach. In the end, Hoddenbach had persuaded him not to avenge his
nephew’s murder. Torres had returned the guns and quickly left town.
This was his first visit back to Chicago. “I felt like a punk,” he
told me, before transferring to the present tense. “I feel shameful.”
He said he had sought revenge for people who weren’t related to him —
“people who weren’t even no blood to me.” But he held back in the case
of his nephew. “I still struggle with it,” he said. On the ride over
to the restaurant, Torres had been playing a CD of his nephew’s
favorite rap songs. It got him hyped up, and he blurted out to
Hoddenbach, “I feel like doing something.” Hoddenbach chided him and
shut off the music. “Stop being an idiot,” he told Torres. “Something
made me do what Zale asked me to do,” Torres said later, looking more
puzzled than comforted. “Which is respect my brother’s wishes.”

When Slutkin heard of Hoddenbach’s intervention, he told me: “The
interrupters have to deal with how to get someone to save face. In
other words, how do you not do a shooting if someone has insulted you,
if all of your friends are expecting you to do that? . . . In fact,
what our interrupters do is put social pressure in the other

He continued: “This is cognitive dissonance. Before Zale walked up to
him, this guy was holding only one thought. So you want to put another
thought in his head. It turns out talking about family is what really
makes a difference.” Slutkin didn’t take this notion to the
interrupters; he learned it from them.

ONE JANUARY NIGHT at 11 p.m., Charles Mack received a phone call that
a shooting victim was being rushed to Advocate Christ Medical Center.
Mack drove the 10 miles from his home to the hospital, which houses
one of four trauma centers in Chicago. Two interrupters, Mack and
LeVon Stone, are assigned there. They respond to every shooting and
stabbing victim taken to the hospital. Mack, who is 57 and has a
slight lisp, is less imposing than his colleagues. He seems always to
be coming from or going to church, often dressed in tie and cardigan.
He sheepishly told me that his prison term, two years, was for bank
fraud. “The other guys laugh at me,” he said. LeVon Stone is 23 years
younger and a fast talker. He’s in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the
waist down as a result of being shot when he was 18.

Advocate Christ has come to see the presence of interrupters in the
trauma unit as essential and is, in fact, looking to expand their
numbers. “It has just given me so much hope,” Cathy Arsenault, one of
the chaplains there, told me. “The families would come in, huddle in
the corner and I could see them assigning people to take care of
business.” Mack and Stone try to cool off family members and friends,
and if the victim survives, try to keep them from seeking vengeance.

The victim that night was a tall 16-year-old boy named Frederick. He
was lying on a gurney just off the emergency room’s main hallway. He
was connected to two IVs, and blood was seeping through the gauze
wrapped around his left hand. Mack stood to one side; Stone pulled up
on the other. “You know, the most important thing is —” Mack ventured.
“You’re alive,” Stone chimed in. Stone then asked Frederick if he had
heard of CeaseFire. The boy nodded and told them that he had even
participated in a CeaseFire rally after a killing in his neighborhood.
“We try to stop violence on the front end,” Stone told Frederick.
“Unfortunately, this is the back end. We just want to make sure you
don’t go out and try to retaliate.”

The boy had been shot — one bullet shattered his thigh bone and
another ripped the tendons in two fingers. Nonetheless, he seemed
lucid and chatty. “My intention is to get in the house, call my
school, get my books and finish my work,” he told Mack and Stone. He
mentioned the school he attends, which Mack instantly recognized as a
place for kids on juvenile-court probation. Frederick told his story.
He was at a party, and a rival clique arrived. Frederick and his
friends sensed there would be trouble, so they left, and while
standing outside, one of the rival group pulled a gun on them.
Frederick’s friend told him earlier he had a gun. It turned out to be
braggadocio, and so when his friend took off running, so did
Frederick, a step behind. As he dashed through a narrow passageway
between buildings, he heard the shots.

“Can I ask why you’re in the wheelchair?” Frederick asked Stone. “I
got shot 15 years ago,” Stone told him. Stone didn’t say anything more
about it, and later when I asked for more detail, he was elusive. He
said simply that he had gotten shot at a barbecue when he tried to
intervene in a fistfight. “You doing good,” Stone assured him. “You
got shot. You’re here. And you’re alive. What you do when you get out
of here?”

“You got to stop hanging with the wrong person, thinking you’re a
Wyatt Earp,” Frederick said, speaking in the third person as if he
were reciting a lesson. At that point, Frederick’s sister arrived. She
explained that she was bringing up her brother. She was 18. “He just
wants to go to parties, parties, parties,” she complained. “But it’s
too dangerous.” She started to cry. “Don’t start that, please,”
Frederick pleaded. Mack left a CeaseFire brochure on Frederick’s chest
and promised to visit him again in the coming weeks.

LAST MAY, after a 16-year-old boy was killed trying to protect a girl
from a gunman on a city bus, Slutkin appeared on a local public-
television news program. He suggested CeaseFire was responsible for
sharp dips in homicide around the city. Slutkin, some say, gives
CeaseFire too much credit. Carl Bell, the psychiatrist, was on the
program with Slutkin that night. “I didn’t say anything,” he told me.
“I support Slutkin. I’m like, Slutkin, what are you doing? You can’t
do that. Maybe politically it’s a good thing, but scientifically it’s
so much more complex than that. Come on, Gary.”

Last year, CeaseFire lost its $6 million in annual state financing —
which meant a reduction from 45 interrupters to 17 — as part of
statewide budget cuts. One state senator, who had ordered an audit of
CeaseFire (released after the cuts, it found some administrative
inefficiencies), maintained there was no evidence that CeaseFire’s
work had made a difference. (The cuts caused considerable uproar: The
Chicago Tribune ran an editorial urging the restoration of financing,
and the State House overwhelmingly voted to double CeaseFire’s
financing; the State Senate, though, has yet to address it.)

It can be hard to measure the success — or the failure — of public-
health programs, especially violence-prevention efforts. And given
Slutkin’s propensity to cite scientific studies, it is surprising that
he hasn’t yet published anything about CeaseFire in a peer-reviewed
journal. Nonetheless, in a report due out later this month,
independent researchers hired by the Justice Department (from which
CeaseFire gets some money) conclude that CeaseFire has had an impact.
Shootings have declined around the city in recent years. But the study
found that in six of the seven neighborhoods examined, CeaseFire’s
efforts reduced the number of shootings or attempted shootings by 16
percent to 27 percent more than it had declined in comparable
neighborhoods. The report also noted — with approbation — that
CeaseFire, unlike most programs, manages by outcomes, which means that
it doesn’t measure its success by gauging the amount of activity (like
the number of interrupters on the street or the number of
interruptions — 1,200 over four years) but rather by whether shootings
are going up or down. One wall in Slutkin’s office is taken up by maps
and charts his staff has generated on the location and changes in the
frequency of shootings throughout the city; the data determine how
they assign the interrupters. Wes Skogan, a professor of political
science at Northwestern (disclosure: I teach there) and the author of
the report, said, “I found the statistical results to be as strong as
you could hope for.”

BALTIMORE, NEWARK and Kansas City, Mo., have each replicated
components of the CeaseFire model and have received training from the
Chicago staff. In Baltimore, the program, which is run by the city,
combines the work of interrupters and outreach workers and has been
concentrated in one East Baltimore neighborhood. (The program recently
expanded to a second community.) Early research out of the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that in the East
Baltimore neighborhood there were on average two shootings a month
just before the program started. During the first four months that
interrupters worked the streets, there had not been a single incident.

“My eyes rolled immediately when I heard what the model was,” says
Webster of Johns Hopkins, who is studying the Baltimore project.
Webster knew the forces the interrupters were up against and
considered it wishful thinking that they could effectively mediate
disputes. “But when I looked closer at the data,” Webster continues,
“and got to know more about who these people were and what they were
doing, I became far less skeptical and more hopeful. We’re going to
learn from it. And it will evolve.” George Kelling, a Rutgers
professor of criminal justice who is helping to establish an effort in
Newark to reduce homicide, helped develop the “broken window” theory
of fighting crime: addressing small issues quickly. He says a public-
health model will be fully effective only if coupled with other
efforts, including more creative policing and efforts to get gang
members back to school or to work. But he sees promise in the
CeaseFire model. “I had to overcome resistance,” Kelling told me,
referring to the introduction of a similar program in Newark. “But I
think Slutkin’s on to something.”

Most of the police officials I spoke with, in both Chicago and
Baltimore, were grateful for the interrupters. James B. Jackson, now
the first deputy superintendent in Chicago, was once the commander of
the 11th district, which has one of the highest rates of violent crime
in the city. Jackson told me that after his officers investigated an
incident, he would ask the police to pull back so the interrupters
could mediate. He understood that if the interrupters were associated
with the police, it would jeopardize their standing among gang
members. “If you look at how segments of the population view the
police department, it makes some of our efforts problematic,”
Baltimore’s police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, told me.
“It takes someone who knows these guys to go in and say, ‘Hey, lay
off.’ We can’t do that.”

Like many new programs that taste some success, CeaseFire has
ambitions that threaten to outgrow its capacity. Slutkin has put much
of his effort on taking the project to other cities (there’s interest
from Los Angeles, Oakland and Wilmington, Del., among others), and he
has consulted with the State Department about assisting in Iraq and in
Kenya. (CeaseFire training material has been made available to the
provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq.) Meanwhile, their Chicago
project is underfinanced, and the interrupters seem stressed from the
amount of work they’ve taken on.

THE INTERRUPTERS have certain understandings. At the Wednesday
meetings, no one is ever to mention anyone involved in a dispute by
name or, for that matter, mention the name of the gang. Instead they
refer to “Group A” or “Group B.” They are not investigators for the
police. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid knowing too much
about a crime. When Highsmith and Prater left me the night of the
failed drug deal, they began working their contacts. Highsmith found
someone who knew one of the stickup men and who, at Highsmith’s
request, negotiated with them. Highsmith’s contact persuaded the
robbers to return enough of the money to appease the drug-buyer’s
anger. When I met with the intermediary a few weeks after things were
resolved, he was still stirred up about the robbery. “I was mad enough
to do anything,” he told me, making it clear that he and his friends
had been hunting for the stickup guys. “This could’ve been a hell of a
lot worse than it was.” To this day, neither Highsmith nor Prater know
the identities of anyone except the intermediary — and they want to
leave it that way.

The interrupters often operate by instinct. CeaseFire once received a
call from the mother of a 15-year-old boy who wanted out of a gang he
joined a few weeks earlier. The mother told Hoddenbach and another
interrupter, Max Cerda, that the gang members chased her son home
every day from school threatening to beat him. They had shot at him
twice. Hoddenbach found the clique leaders and tried to talk sense to
them. If the boy didn’t want to be in the gang, he told them, he’d be
the first one to snitch. The gang members saw the logic behind that
but insisted on giving him a beating before releasing him. Hoddenbach
then tried another tack: he negotiated to let him leave the gang for
$300 — and no thrashing. The family, though, was only able to come up
with $50, so Hoddenbach, Cerda and another interrupter came up with
the rest. At their next Wednesday meeting, some interrupters were
critical of Hoddenbach for paying what they considered extortion
money. “It was kind of a messed-up way, but it was a messed-up way
that works,” Hoddenbach said.

It was nearly three months before Charles Mack could find time to
visit Frederick, the young shooting victim. Frederick had since moved
in with his great-grandmother in a different part of town. In his old
neighborhood, he told Mack, “there always somebody who knows you. And
I had a reputation.” He complained to Mack that he had never been
interviewed by the police but then declared he would never identify
the person who shot him anyway. “I’m going to leave it alone,” he
said. As is so often the case, Frederick couldn’t remember the genesis
of the disagreement between his clique and the other. Mack promised to
stay in touch, and as we dropped him off, Mack turned to me and said,
“I think he’s going to be all right.” It sounded like both a
proclamation as well as hopeful aside.

Not long ago, I stopped by to visit with Hoddenbach at the Boys and
Girls Club, where he holds down a second job. It was a Friday evening,
and he was waiting for an old associate to come by to give him an
introduction to a group of Hispanic kids on the far North Side.
Apparently, earlier in the week, they bashed in the face of an African-
American teenager with a brick. From what Hoddenbach could make out,
it was the result of a long-simmering dispute — the equivalent of a
dormant virus — and the victim’s uncle was now worried that it would
set off more fighting. As we sat and talked, Hoddenbach seemed
unusually agitated. His left foot twitched as if it had an electric
current running through it. “If these idiots continue,” he told me,
“somebody’s going to step up and make a statement.”

Hoddenbach also worried about Torres, who had recently gone back to
Texas and found a job working construction. Hoddenbach says he
originally hoped Torres would stay in Chicago and establish some
roots, but then decided he’d be better off in another town. “I kept
him out of one situation, but I can’t keep him out of all of them,”
Hoddenbach said. This may well speak to CeaseFire’s limitations.
Leaving town is not an option for most. And for those who have walked
away from a shooting, like Torres, if there are no jobs, or lousy
schools, or decrepit housing, what’s to keep them from drifting back
into their former lives? It’s like cholera: you may cure everyone, you
may contain the epidemic, but if you don’t clean up the water supply,
people will soon get sick again.

Slutkin says that it makes sense to purify the water supply if — and
only if — you acknowledge and treat the epidemic at hand. In other
words, antipoverty measures will work only if you treat violence. It
would seem intuitive that violence is a result of economic
deprivation, but the relationship between the two is not static.
People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly. On
the other side of the coin, a community in which arguments are settled
by gunshots is unlikely to experience economic growth and opportunity.
In his book “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier argues that one of the
characteristics of many developing countries that suffer from
entrenched poverty is what he calls the conflict trap, the inability
to escape a cycle of violence, usually in the guise of civil wars.
Could the same be true in our inner cities, where the ubiquity of guns
and gunplay pushes businesses and residents out and leaves behind
those who can’t leave, the most impoverished?

In this, Slutkin sees a direct parallel to the early history of
seemingly incurable infectious diseases. “Chinatown, San Francisco in
the 1880s,” Slutkin says. “Three ghosts: malaria, smallpox and
leprosy. No one wanted to go there. Everybody blamed the people.
Dirty. Bad habits. Something about their race. Not only is everybody
afraid to go there, but the people there themselves are afraid at all
times because people are dying a lot and nobody really knows what to
do about it. And people come up with all kinds of other ideas that are
not scientifically grounded — like putting people away, closing the
place down, pushing the people out of town. Sound familiar?”


The cloning revolution  /  By Steve Connor  /  18 April 2008

After Dolly comes a new scientific technique that is being used to save a doomed species of the white rhino. Could this herald a world without extinction?

A revolutionary form of cloning is to be used as part of a last-ditch effort to save one of the world’s rarest animals – the northern white rhino – which is on the brink of extinction with only a few individuals left in the wild. British scientists are to spearhead an attempt to preserve the genes of a rhino in captivity by using a technique that mixes its skin cells with the embryos of a close cousin, the southern white rhino, which is not so endangered. The resulting offspring will be “chimeras” with a mixture of cells from both sub-species, but it is hoped that some of them will grow up to produce the sperm and eggs of the northern white rhino and so boost the animal’s dwindling gene pool.

If the pioneering experiment is successful, the biologists hope to extend the technique to a wide range of other endangered species whose populations in the wild are severely depleted as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Specialists at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh are putting the plan together, with the help of conservationists in the field, who have warned the days of the northern white rhino are numbered with just three or four animals left in the grasslands of north-east Africa. Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, is part of the research project and has stated that the new technique is more promising and practical than the cloning method he used in his famous breakthrough more than 10 years ago.

Professor Robert Millar, the director of the Medical Research Council’s Reproductive Sciences Unit at Edinburgh University, who is leading the study, said: “There are a lot of African animals under the threat of extinction. We want to protect their genomes, but you have to protect their habitats as well. This is one of the ways of dealing with the problem, especially when the animals get to such low numbers in the wild. It is a method we need to start to get into place as an insurance policy – it’s clearly do-able according to the laboratory work.”

Scientists plan to take small samples of skin from the few northern white rhinos kept in captivity, as well as any animals temporarily captured in the wild, and transform them into embryonic-like cells using a new genetic-engineering technique extensively tested on laboratory mice. The technique involves altering a few regulatory genes, which has the
effect of “reprogramming” the adult skin cells back to an embryonic state so that it can then develop into any of the specialised tissues of the body – including the germ-line cells that give rise to sperm and eggs. One scientist warned this week in an interview with The Independent that the technique of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells could even be used on human beings by maverick IVF doctors wanting to help infertile couples, because it has proved so easy to use on mice with few apparent side-effects.

Robert Lanza, the chief scientific officer of the American biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts, also said he is collaborating with Chinese scientists to use iPS stem cells on the giant panda as part of a conservation programme. “The technology could have enormous value in conservation biology. In fact, we have work currently underway using iPS cells to rescue endangered animals,” Dr Lanza said. “We also have an agreement with the Chinese Giant Panda Breeding Group to work with them to use reprogramming techniques to convert giant panda cells – skin or other tissue samples they have stored – into iPS cells in order to rescue genes that would otherwise be lost from the planet forever,” he added. The Medical Research Council’s human reproductive sciences unit is going to work closely with Edinburgh Zoo on breeding technologies that could be used to conserve endangered species, such as the African wild dog, the Ethiopian wolf and the pygmy hippo. A new body called the Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals has been set up in the Scottish capital to bring a number of scientists together to share experience and resources.

Paul de Sousa, a stem-cell specialist at Edinburgh University, said that all mammals appear to share the same genes that can be engineered to reprogramme skin cells to induce iPS cells and that it should be possible to use the technique on the northern white rhino. “No one has done this before, but I’m confident that it can be done. You’d aggregate the cells in an embryo and what you would create would be a chimera of the rhino,” Dr de Sousa said. Conservation biology experts said the problems associated with using the tissue of endangered animals are formidable. “If it’s going to work, it’s still a long way off… It’s going to be very difficult,” said Professor Bill Holt, of the Zoological Society of London.

Thomas Bernd Hildebrandt
emai : Hildebrand [at] izw-berlin [dot] de

The Ticklish Trick of Inseminating an Elephant  /  03 March 2005

A ticklish business, artificially inseminating an elephant. With the help of high-tech ultrasound and computer gear, special protective clothing, wheelbarrows and not a little cooperation from Chai, a 26-year-old Asian elephant, Woodland Park Zoo officials hope the complicated process led by two German scientists will result in the pachyderm giving again birth, as she did four years ago. Chai got pregnant by natural means last time around, but it wasn’t all candy and flowers. She had to endure the stress of getting shipped off to a zoo in Missouri, where some of her fellow elephants showed her hostility. She came home with scars and a few chunks missing from her ears.

There was even less romance this time, but at least she got to stay home at the zoo’s spacious elephant compound and house. Nearby was her calf, Hansa, who was born Nov. 3, 2000, becoming the first elephant ever delivered at the 100-year-old Seattle zoo. Setting the stage was no easy task. Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, one of two world-renowned German scientists called in to help, wore a bicycle helmet, ultrasound imaging goggles and covered himself in plastic protective gear.

Beneath Hildebrandt, his colleague, Dr. Frank Goeritz, sat on a stool in front of a bank of computer screens, electronic equipment and a jumble of computer and power cords. With several zoo keepers helping, Hildebrandt inserted an ultrasound probe into the elephant’s rectum while Goeritz fed a light-emitting tube into a larger catheter that had been inserted into Chai’s ”vestibule.” The vestibule is just one feature of an elephant’s 10-foot-long reproductive tract that makes artificial insemination difficult. Inside it is a dime-sized vaginal opening, two false openings on either side, and the bladder’s much larger opening.

After hours of preparation, examination and a messy enema involving wheelbarrows of dung to make for a clearer ultrasound image, Hildebrandt and Goeritz succeeded in inseminating Chai Tuesday night. ”It went very well,” Hildebrandt told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. ”We’ll see.” Dr. Nancy Hawkes, general curator at the Seattle zoo, said it will be another 15-16 weeks before an ultrasound can confirm if Chai is pregnant. If she is, there will be another 22 months of gestation, with a due date in December 2006 or January 2007.

Anatomy is just one of the hurdles to elephant reproduction. For starters, it isn’t easy to pin down exactly when they’re ovulating – a process Chai goes through only three times a year. There are no male elephants at the Seattle zoo. And because elephant semen can’t be frozen, fresh semen for Chai had to be collected and flown in from a
zoo elephant in Tulsa, Okla., and a donor in Los Angeles, a bull that works part-time in the film industry.

Some experts believe successful reproduction of the captive elephant population may be critical to the species’ long-term survival. The Asian elephant is as an endangered species, largely because of habitat destruction. ”Reproduction technology is increasingly important for saving species,” Hildebrandt said. He and his colleagues at the Berlin Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research apply their skills to many animals, such as the critically endangered Northern White Rhino.

Hildebrandt and Goeritz, nicknamed the ”Berlin Boys” in some circles, may hold the most promise for turning things around. They were responsible for 12 of the 17 successful elephant pregnancies achieved using artificial insemination in the past decade, and the others also used their approach, the P-I reported. Hildebrandt and his colleagues perfected the ultrasound technique of guiding the insemination process by performing autopsies on elephants that had been culled from herds in South Africa because of overpopulation in dwindling habitats. The German scientists also use the ultrasound for visualizing ovaries and other features of the elephant reproductive tract to make the timed rendezvous of elephant egg and sperm as close to perfect as possible.

Pulling species from the brink
by Charles Colville  /  19 March 2007

There are only thirteen northern white rhinos left in the world. The species is hovering on the brink of extinction. But three men are pushing forward the frontiers of science to try to save them. Thomas Hildebrandt and his team, from the Berlin Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research, are world leaders in using artificial reproduction to breed rare elephants, rhinos and even komodo dragons. Their work has never been more urgent. Throughout the history of Earth, 99% of all species which ever existed have disappeared. It is called the natural rate of extinction.

But now scientists think human activity is causing species to disappear at up to 10,000 times this rate. Many claim the last time this happened was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died out. The great conservationist Richard Leakey has called it “the Sixth Mass Extinction”. Only one northern white rhino baby has been born in the last six years. Now, the Berlin team is working with six captive animals, at the Dvur Kralove Safari Park, 110km (70 miles) north-east of Prague, in the Czech Republic.

IVF technique
Last summer, they inseminated Fatu, one of only two fertile females in captivity. She had not been ovulating and needed hormone injections to get her cycle started. Months later, the results came in and unfortunately she did not get pregnant. “Despite the setback, we have to continue and we are very determined,” says Dr Hildebrandt. “We know that the work that we do is very important.”

Dr Hildebrandt is now convinced that artificial insemination alone will not save the species, so he is developing a ground-breaking IVF technique. Working with an international team from the Netherlands, Australia and China, he has already successful collected an oocyte, or egg, from a female of the more numerous southern white rhino species, at Western Plains Zoo, in New South Wales. The egg was fertilised in vitro, in a test tube, to produce an IVF rhino embryo. “Reproduction technology is increasingly important for saving species,” says Dr Hildebrandt, who knows that time is running out.

Egg harvest
Later this year, the team will start to harvest eggs from the northern white rhino in the Czech Republic, and if all goes well, create baby northern whites. With so few northern white rhinos remaining, the researchers hope to use southern white rhinos as surrogate mothers. Dr Hildebrandt and his colleague Frank Goeritz were brought up in the former East Germany. They both suffered under the former communist regime and were initially not allowed to attend university, because of their middle-class background. Instead, they had to work as porters in an agricultural vet college. However, Dr Hildebrandt persuaded the head of the institute to allow him to study for a degree. That is when he started work on artificially inseminating cattle.

Within a few years, the zoologist was working with wild animals. Such was his passion for the subject that when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, he was too busy inseminating rare animals at the East Berlin Zoo to join the millions of his compatriots crossing to the West. Since then, the team has travelled ceaselessly across the world. Zoos and conservation projects from Australia to California have requested their services to boost breeding programmes.

Unexpected obstacles
However, the German scientists often confront unexpected obstacles on their travels. Last October Dr Hildebrandt collected semen from a male elephant at Pittsburgh Zoo, to use for inseminating a female elephant 3,000km away in Salt Lake City. The semen had to be placed in carry-on baggage, to avoid it being exposed to extreme temperatures or cosmic rays. At the time, liquids could not be transported on American planes, following the attempted terrorist attacks on transatlantic planes in August 2006.

Initially, airport security refused to give the go ahead and the project appeared doomed. Only after the intervention of the head of Pittsburgh Zoo did airport security officials relent, and allow Dr Hildebrandt and his elephant semen on board the plane. But even then, Dr Hildebrandt, and the elephant semen, had to be escorted by a bodyguard through the airport. Happily, the semen arrived within the eight-hour deadline, just in time to inseminate Christy, the female elephant at Salt Lake City Zoo.

So far, Dr Hildebrandt and fellow zoologists, Frank Goeritz and Robert Hermes, have successfully created 19 successful elephant calves. They are helping to create a captive breeding programme so that zoos will not be dependent on animals captured from the wild. But their biggest challenge is the northern white rhino where the stakes are far higher. It is the second largest land mammal and has lived on Earth for 50 million years, but is now dependent on Dr Hildebrandt’s team for its survival.


“Pleistocene Park in Sakha region in northern Siberia is an attempt by Russian researcher Sergey Zimov to reproduce the ecosystem that flourished during the last ice age, with hopes to back his theory that hunting, and not climate change, destroyed the wildlife. Russian scientists are restoring the old ecosystem with plants and animals that thrived in the region 10,000 years ago. Japanese and Russian scientists hope to clone woolly mammoths, and to re-introduce them to the park. However, they have yet to find intact mammoth DNA to use for cloning.

So far, the scientific crew has successfully introduced reindeer, moose, musk oxen and yakut horses to the region, and the introduction of American bisons (instead of the extinct steppe bisons) is ongoing. Future introductions include saiga antelopes, yaks and siberian tigers. Pleistocene Park is a 160 km2 scientific nature reserve (zakaznik), owned and administered by a non-profit corporation, Pleistocene Park Association, consisting of the ecologists from the Northeast Science Station in Chersky and the Grassland Institute in Yakutsk. The reserve is surrounded by a 600 km2 buffer zone that will be added to the park by the regional government, once animals have successfully established.”

Animals to be introduced to the park: Wolverine, Lynx, Amur Leopard, Asiatic Black Bear, Brown Bear, Siberian Tiger, Asian Lion or African Lion, Kodiak Bear, Muskox, American Bison, Moose, Reindeer, Elk, Wisent, Bactrian Camel, Llama or Vicuña, Yak, Saiga Antelope

Mammoths to Return? DNA Advances Spur Resurrection Debate
by Mason Inman  /  June 25, 2007

Today the only place to see woolly mammoths and people side-by-side is on The Flintstones or in the movies. But researchers are on the verge of piecing together complete genomes of long-dead species such as Neandertals and mammoths. (See a brief overview of human genetics.) So now the big question is, Will we soon be able to bring such extinct species back to life? Researchers are divided over how they might try to do this and whether it’s even feasible. (Related: “Woolly Mammoth Resurrection, ‘Jurassic Park’ Planned [April 8, 2005].)

At the core of this issue is DNA, which encodes the thousands of genes that tell cells how to build themselves and keep running. Researchers already have deciphered the complete gene sequences—or genomes—for many living species, including humans, dogs, and mice. (Related: “Dog Genome Mapped, Shows Similarities to Humans” [December 7, 2005].)

The DNA of long-extinct species can also be preserved—in bones or bodies found in dry caves or inside ice, for example. “Retrieval of DNA from ancient specimens is relatively easy now,” said Alan Cooper, of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Even though such DNA has degraded into thousands of small pieces, researchers can still read these fragments and piece together much of the original genetic instructions.

Dead to Return?
So many researchers think that assembling the genome of Neandertals (often spelled “Neanderthals”) or mammoths is just around the corner. A team led by Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University and Tom Gilbert at the University of Copenhagen is working on the genome of woolly mammoths preserved in the Siberian permafrost. “I think it’s definitely feasible” to assemble these genomes, said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. But “it’s going to be extremely hard work.”

Svante Paabo, at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues are aiming to assemble a Neandertal genome from bones preserved in arid caves. (Related: “Neandertal DNA Partially Mapped, Studies Show” [November 15, 2006].)

In a paper appearing this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Paabo says that only certain types of errors appear in such ancient DNA, paving the way for scientists to more easily anticipate and correct gaps in their knowledge. But ideas of resurrecting these animals “is for the most part science fiction,” Paabo argued. Cooper, of the University of Adelaide, agrees. “As far as I can see, it is not going to be practical,” he said.

That’s because researchers are reading little fragments of preserved DNA and guessing at what the original genetic instructions were, Cooper said. “You’re not actually physically putting the DNA together, and I can’t see any way of doing that feasibly,” Cooper said. In large part, the problem is that living animals package their DNA with proteins that help it wind up into chromosomes. This packaging is crucial to making the DNA work properly, Cooper argues. Willerslev, of the University of Copenhagen, said the only way he could see of bringing back an extinct species like a mammoth would be to find an extremely well-preserved cell. That’s extremely unlikely to happen, he added, because all parts of a cell break down over time, even in mammoths that have been encased in ice since they died. But, he said, researchers working on cloning have contacted him, wanting to get a hold of mammoth tissue so they could try to clone a mammoth. “I was surprised,” Willerslev said. “I thought it was completely ridiculous.” These cloning researchers are “pros,” he added. “But I don’t think they will find anything they can use” in the frozen tissue. Japanese researchers, meanwhile, have been searching for years for a preserved mammoth with intact sperm, which they say could be used to create a new mammoth. But researchers who work on ancient DNA think this is also unlikely. “This is not the way to do it,” said Hendrick Poinar, of McMaster University in Canada.

Recipe for Resurrection
Miller, of Pennsylvania State University, however argues that we should never say never. “Do they also say that synthesizing a virus will never be possible?” he asked. This was accomplished for the first time in 2005, when researchers reassembled the deadly 1918 flu from preserved tissue samples. “What about a bacterium? A yeast? A fruit fly?” Miller added. “I’m curious where the line can be drawn.” McMaster University’s Poinar has his own ideas of how researchers might revive mammoths and other species—and he thinks it’s only a matter of time before it’s possible. “It’s theoretically possible, and I think it’s going to be done at some point,” Poinar said.

He says that once you have the genome of a mammoth, you could compare it with the genome of its closest relative, the Asian elephant. (Related: “Woolly Mammoth DNA Reveals Elephant Family Tree” [Dec. 20, 2005].)

Then you could genetically engineer the elephant DNA, point by point, so that it matches the mammoth DNA. Then, by inserting this modified DNA into an elephant’s egg cell, and implanting it in an elephant’s womb, you could create a modified elephant that’s nearly identical to the original mammoth, Poinar says. Or it could become possible to make entire chromosomes from scratch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in ten years, you’d be able to synthesize chromosome-length DNA,” Poinar said. “Five years ago everybody was saying you’d never be able to sequence the genomes of extinct animals … but here we are. We’re not that far away now.”

But Poinar isn’t sure we should bring these extinct animals back. “The more poignant question is whether this should be done,” he said. “This needs to be discussed way in advance. And the time is now, because it’s going move very, very quickly.” It’s not clear where we’d put a herd of mammoths, for example, and the natural predators that once
hunted them—other than people—are also extinct, he added. “I can’t think of a good reason to do it, other than the ‘wow’ value.”



Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow (and Sell) Test Tube Meat
by Alexis Madrigal  /  04.11.08

In five to 10 years, supermarkets might have some new products in the meat counter: packs of vat-grown meat that are cheaper to produce than livestock and have less impact on the environment. According to a new economic analysis (1st .pdf) presented at this week’s In Vitro Meat Symposium in Ås, Norway, meat grown in giant tanks known as bioreactors would cost between $5,200-$5,500 a ton (3,300 to 3,500 euros), which the analysis claims is cost competitive with European beef prices. With a rising global middle class projected by the UN to double meat consumption (2nd .pdf) by 2050, and livestock already responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases, the symposium is drawing a variety of scientists, environmentalists and food industry experts. “We’re looking to see if there are other technologies which can produce food for all the people on the planet,” said Anthony Bennett of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. “Not only today but over the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

Rapidly evolving technology and increasing concern about the environmental impact of meat production are signs that vat-grown meat is moving from scientific curiosity to consumer option. In vitro meat production is a specialized form of tissue engineering, a biomedical practice in which scientists try to grow animal tissues like bone, skin, kidneys and hearts. Proponents say it will ultimately be a more efficient way to make animal meat, which would reduce the carbon footprint of meat products. “To produce the meat we eat now, 75 to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue,” Jason Matheny, a researcher at Johns Hopkins and co-founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit that promotes research on in vitro meat, told “With cultured meat, there’s no body to support; you’re only building the meat that eventually gets eaten.”

Researchers can currently grow small amounts of meat in the lab, and have even been able to get heart cells to beat in Petri dishes. Growing muscle cells on an industrial scale is the next step, scientists say. “That’s the goal and it seems pretty clear from this conference that it’s achievable,” said Matheny on Thursday by telephone from the symposium.

Scientists are working on a variety of cell culture procedures. The cutting edge of in vitro meat engineering is the attempt to get cells to grow as if they were inside a living animal. Meat like steak is a complex combination of muscle, fat and other connective tissue. Reproducing the complexity of muscle is proving difficult. “An actual whole muscle organ is not technically impossible,” said Bob Dennis, a biomedical engineer at both North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, who attended the conference. “But of all the tissue engineering applications it is by far the most difficult

While scientists are struggling to recreate filet mignon, they anticipate less trouble growing hamburger. “The general consensus is that minced meat or ground meat products — sausage, chicken nuggets, hamburgers — those are within technical reach,” Matheny said. “We have the technology to make those things at scale with existing technology.” At scale, in this case, would be thousands of tons per year, Dennis said. But once the meat is made, consumer acceptance is far from assured. What cultured meat will taste like is up in the air. Some scientists think it could be used to create novel foods that won’t be quite meat, but won’t quite be anything else either. “I was once at a conference of food designers and they really liked the idea that they were not bound to a certain product that we know,” said Stig Omholt, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and chairman of the In Vitro Meat Consortium. “We could make novel products.”

But most of the trends in food run counter to high-tech meat production. Heirloom tomatoes, organic produce and free-range-raised meat that pack the aisles of Whole Foods harken to previous, lower-tech eras. None of the experts were sure if there is a large market of early adopters who want to eat test tube meat for environmental, health or ethical reasons. For all the talk of high-tech meat production, attendees of the first In-Vitro Meat Symposium didn’t put their stomachs where their mouths were. Instead of sampling early versions of in vitro meat, they stuck to local fare. “We had some excellent Norwegian salmon, which was very tasty,” Bennett said.

Robert Dennis
email : bob [at] bme [dot] unc [dot] edu

Jason Gaverick Matheny
email : jmatheny [at] jhsph [dot] edu

“Cultured meat is meat produced in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal. The production of cultured meat begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating them in a nutrient-rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year. After the cells are multiplied, they are attached to a sponge-like “scaffold” and soaked with nutrients. They may also be mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content. The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.

Why would anyone want to make cultured meat?
Cultured meat has the potential to be healthier, safer, less polluting, and more humane than conventional meat. Fat content can be more easily controlled. The incidence of foodborne disease can be significantly reduced, thanks to strict quality control rules that are impossible to introduce in modern animal farms, slaughterhouses, or meat packing plants. Inedible animal structures (bones, respiratory system, digestive system, skin, and the nervous system) need not be grown. As a result, cultured meat production should be more efficient than conventional meat production in its use of energy, land, and water; and it should produce less waste.

How does cultured meat taste?
Cultured meat contains the same muscle cells that form most meats. However, there are a number of technical obstacles, especially regarding texture, that have to be overcome before cultured meat can be a compelling substitute for conventional meat.

Where can I buy cultured meat?
Cultured meat is not yet commercially available.

When will cultured meat be commercially available?
Within several years, it may be possible to produce cultured meat in a processed form, like sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets, with modifications of existing technologies. Producing unprocessed meats, like steaks or pork chops, would involve technologies that do not yet exist and that may take a decade or longer to develop.

What is the source of nutrients used in cultured meat production?
In biomedical research, most cell cultures have used media made from the blood of cow fetuses. But researchers have now developed media made from plants and mushrooms.

Isn’t this food unnatural?
Cultured meat is unnatural, in the same way that bread, cheese, yogurt, and wine are unnatural. All involve processing ingredients derived from natural sources. Arguably, the production of cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm animals in intensive confinement systems, injecting them with synthetic hormones, and feeding them artificial diets made up of antibiotics and animal wastes. At the same time, the conventional production of meat has led to a number of unnatural problems, including high rates of ischemic heart disease and foodborne illness, as well as soil and water pollution from farm animal wastes.

Is cultured meat genetically-modified?
There is nothing in the production of cultured meat that necessarily involves genetic modification. The cells that can be used to produce cultured meat are muscle and stem cells from farm animals. It is possible, however, that genetically-modifying a muscle cell would allow it to proliferate a greater number of times in culture, and may thus make cultured meat production more economical.

Are any animals killed in the production of cultured meat?
Not necessarily. It is possible to take a muscle biopsy from a live farm animal and culture the isolated muscle cells. If stem cells are used, these would likely be from a farm animal embryo.

How much will cultured meat cost?
Theoretically, cultured meat could afford higher resource and labor efficiencies, which could translate into lower costs, if cultured meat were produced at scale with an affordable medium. However, it is unlikely that cultured meat will soon compete with conventional meat in ordinary markets. There are technologies now found in virtually every household that originally cost too much for mass acceptance. Only after reductions in cost by several orders of magnitude were they mass—produced.

Who are you?
New Harvest is a nonprofit research organization working to develop new meat substitutes, including cultured meat. Our boards are comprised of scientists in biology, agriculture, public health, and medicine.”

“Despite its popularity, meat — both in its production and in its consumption — has a number of adverse effects on human health, environmental quality, and animal welfare. These include: diseases associated with the over-consumption of animal fats; meat-borne pathogens and contaminants; antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to the routine use of antibiotics in livestock; inefficient use of resources in cycling grains and water through animals to produce protein; soil, air, and water pollution from farm animal wastes; and inhumane treatment of farm animals. As meat consumption continues to increase, worldwide, these problems are now a global concern.

As a result, there is an increasing market for meat substitutes that have the taste and texture of meat, but do not cause the problems associated with conventional meat. Meat substitutes can be made from plants such as soybeans, peas, or wheat; mycoproteins; or from animal tissues grown in culture. There are several plant- and mycoprotein-based meat substitutes already on the market.

One novel line of research is to produce meat in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal. The production of such “cultured meat” begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating them in a nutrient—rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year. After the cells are multiplied, they are attached to a sponge-like “scaffold” and soaked with nutrients. They may also be mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content. The
resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.”



Test Tube Meat Nears Dinner Table
by Lakshmi Sandhana  /  06.21.06

What if the next burger you ate was created in a warm, nutrient-enriched soup swirling within a bioreactor?

Edible, lab-grown ground chuck that smells and tastes just like the real thing might take a place next to Quorn at supermarkets in just a few years, thanks to some determined meat researchers. Scientists routinely grow small quantities of muscle cells in petri dishes for experiments, but now for the first time a concentrated effort is under way to mass-produce meat in this manner. Henk Haagsman, a professor of meat sciences at Utrecht University, and his Dutch colleagues are working on growing artificial pork meat out of pig stem cells. They hope to grow a form of minced meat suitable for burgers, sausages and pizza toppings within the next few years.

Currently involved in identifying the type of stem cells that will multiply the most to create larger quantities of meat within a bioreactor, the team hopes to have concrete results by 2009. The 2 million euro ($2.5 million) Dutch-government-funded project began in April 2005. The work is one arm of a worldwide research effort focused on growing meat from cell cultures on an industrial scale. “All of the technology exists today to make ground meat products in vitro,” says Paul Kosnik, vice president of engineering at Tissue Genesis in Hawaii. Kosnik is growing scaffold-free, self-assembled muscle. “We
believe the goal of a processed meat product is attainable in the next five years if funding is available and the R&D is pursued aggressively.”

A single cell could theoretically produce enough meat to feed the world’s population for a year. But the challenge lies in figuring out how to grow it on a large scale. Jason Matheny, a University of Maryland doctoral student and a director of New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that funds research on in vitro meat, believes the easiest way to create edible tissue is to grow “meat sheets,” which are layers of animal muscle and fat cells stretched out over large flat sheets made of either edible or removable material. The meat can then be ground up or stacked or rolled to get a thicker cut. “You’d need a bunch of industrial-size bioreactors,” says Matheny. “One to produce the growth media, one to produce cells, and one that produces the meat sheets. The whole operation could be under one roof.”

The advantage, he says, is you avoid the inefficiencies and bottlenecks of conventional meat production. No more feed grain production and processing, breeders, hatcheries, grow-out, slaughter or processing facilities. “To produce the meat we eat now, 75 (percent) to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue,” says Matheny. “With cultured meat, there’s no body to support; you’re only building the meat that eventually gets eaten.”

The sheets would be less than 1 mm thick and take a few weeks to grow. But the real issue is the expense. If cultivated with nutrient solutions that are currently used for biomedical applications, the cost of producing one pound of in vitro meat runs anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

Matheny believes in vitro meat can compete with conventional meat by using nutrients from plant or fungal sources, which could bring the cost down to about $1 per pound. If successful, artificially grown meat could be tailored to be far healthier than any type of farm-grown meat. It’s possible to stuff if full of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, adjust the protein or texture to suit individual taste preferences and screen it for food-borne diseases. But will it really catch on? The Food and Drug Administration has already barred food products involving cloned animals from the market until their safety has been tested. There’s also the yuck factor. “Cultured meat isn’t natural, but neither is yogurt,” says Matheny. “And neither, for that matter, is most of the meat we eat. Cramming 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and dosing them full of antibiotics isn’t natural. I view cultured meat like hydroponic vegetables. The end product is the same, but the process used to make it is different. Consumers accept hydroponic vegetables. Would they accept hydroponic meat?”

Taste is another unknown variable. Real meat is more than just cells; it has blood vessels, connective tissue, fat, etc. To get a similar arrangement of cells, lab-grown meat will have to be exercised and stretched the way a real live animal’s flesh would. Kosnik is working on a way to create muscle grown without scaffolds by culturing the right combination of cells in a 3-D environment with mechanical anchors so that the cells develop into long fibers similar to real muscle. The technology to grow a juicy steak, however, is still a decade or so away. No one has yet figured out how to grow blood vessels within tissue. “In the meantime, we can use existing technologies to satisfy the demand for ground meat, which is about half of the meat we eat (and a $127 billion global market),” says Matheny.


“Revere is thinking about how to grow meat without the animal. It’s a cool idea that’s been floating around in science fiction for a while now, but, well, of course it has problems, and Revere notes a couple:

‘The two biggest, as far as I can see from a quick perusal of the burgeoning literature, are finding a suitable nutrient to grow the cells in; and then growing tissue that has the proper texture for being a meat substitute. Animal meat is not just muscle cells but a complicated structure also containing connective tissue, blood and blood vessels, nerves and fat. Just growing up masses of identical cells isn’t sufficient. You have to reproduce an architecture.’

I see those two problems as aspects of one much bigger problem. Muscle doesn’t grow in isolation: it’s always in a solid environmental context. It’s made up of cells that respond to activity in a way that enhances performance for the organism, and incidentally promotes flavor and texture and bulk for the delectation of the carnivore. So what do you need to make edible muscle mass, beyond a sheet of myocytes in a culture dish (which, I suspect, would have the texture of slime and would not sell well in test markets)?

An architecture is right. You need connective tissue to form a framework and you need a rigid but motile structure to do work and exercise the growing muscle. Then, because you want a piece of muscle larger than a drop, you need a delivery system for nutrients: a circulatory system, with a pump. This muscle in a vat is going to need a skeleton and a heart.

When I teach physiology, one of the organs I emphasize is the liver. It’s amazing how important a liver is to just about everything: growth, digestion, physical performance, reproduction, the whole shebang. Our cultured muscle will need a liver equivalent to support it. Even if we get rid of the digestive system entirely and feed this muscle mass on delivered supplies of pure glucose, amino acids, and various cofactors and enzymes, the liver is a primary regulatory agent for those substances.

Then we need an immune system. A huge lump of cells growing in a bath of sugar and amino acids is bacterial heaven — it’s going to need major antibacterial/antiviral support.

The more I think about it, the more I think people are going at it backwards. We shouldn’t be thinking about building muscle from the cells up, to create a purified system to produce meat for the market, we should be going the other way, starting with self-sustaining meat producers and genetically paring away the less commercially viable
bits, like the brain. Instead of test-tube meat, we should be working on more efficient organisms that generate muscle tissue with the properties we want.

Guess what? Farmers have already been doing this! Look at the domestic cow and chicken and turkey: they’re far more brainless than their wild relatives, and have been reduced to as much stupidity and helplessness as possible, without compromising their ability to survive semi-autonomously and harvest nutrients from naturally occurring food sources. I don’t see all that much difference in the consequences between building up a functional meat producer from cells in a dish, and stripping down a functional meat producer from a line of domesticated animals. Both starting points are aiming at the same final result; I suspect that the top down procedure is more likely to achieve success in my lifetime.”


U.S. PATENT # 6835390

The field of the present invention relates to producing and harvesting meat products for consumption. In particular, it relates to tissue engineered meat for consumption.

Meat products such as beef, pork, lamb, poultry, or fish are desirable products for food consumption. Meat products are currently produced from whole animals, which is a highly inefficient production method because a significant portion of all agriculturally produced grain is used for animal rather than human consumption. In the United States, for example, livestock feed accounts for approximately 70% of all the wheat, corn, and other grain produced. In addition, to produce one pound of beef, thousand of pounds of water are required for the animal to drink and to grow the livestock feed. Meanwhile, throughout the world, by some account, over 800 million people are malnourished and 50,000 people die of starvation every day.

Current meat production methods are also harmful to the environment. Rain forests are depleted at a rate of approximately 500 square feet of rain forest for every pound of beef to be grown. Likewise, modem techniques for fishing marine life have become so efficient that the oceans and lakes are over-fished. Species that were once common are
now endangered or extinct.

Current scientific efforts to address these problems have focused on increasing the effectiveness of breeding or growing livestock. For example, growth hormones have been used to make livestock grow faster and thus, consume less grain and water. Growth hormones are typically injected into the livestock, but new methods of introducing the growth hormone have also been developed using genetic engineering technologies such as transgenics or cloning of the whole animal. Current meat production methods, nonetheless, require water, grain, and land to raise livestock.

Another problem with current meat production methods involves food contamination. Every year, on average, each American becomes sick and 9,000 people die from something they have injested. To control food contamination, the government’s present strategy is to inspect meat during processing. The USDA and the FDA, however, rarely regulate the farms where pathogens originate because they lack the regulatory powers over the farms. Nonetheless, except for E. coli 0156:H7, dangerous bacteria are legally considered “inherent” to raw meat. Two of the “inherent bacteria,” however,–campylobacter and salmonella– account for 80% of all illnesses and 75% of all deaths from meat and poultry consumption.

In the poultry industry, for example, as much as 25% of broiler chickens and 45% of ground chickens are reportedly allowed to test positive for salmonella. The Center for Disease Control estimates that campylobacter infects 70% to 90% of all chickens. Campylobacter infections cause cramps, bloody diarrhea, and fever. Every year in the United States, campylobacter infection results in about 800 deaths. Infections with campylobacter may also lead to Guillian-Barre syndrome, a disease that requires intensive care for several weeks. The incidence of serious illness and death from these bacteria may increase as more antibiotic-resistant strains develop. This has caused some scientists to question the continued use of antibiotics as a feed supplement for livestock. Thus, there exists a need to produce meat products for consumption that is more efficient, safer, and healthier than the current methods of production.

The present invention is directed to tissue engineered meat products and methods for producing such meat products. In one embodiment of the invention, the meat product comprises muscle cells that are grown ex vivo. These muscle cells may be grown and attached to a support structure and may be derived from any non-human cells. In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the meat product is substantially free from any harmful microbial or parasitic contamination. Another embodiment of the invention is directed to a meat product comprising muscle cells and other cells such as fat cells or cartilage cells, or both, that are grown ex vivo together with the muscle cells. In another embodiment of the invention, the meat product comprises muscle cells that have been exposed to an electric or oscillating current.

Generally, meat products are taken from the muscles of animals. Butchers carve out corresponding cuts of beef, poultry, lamb, fish, or pork to be sold as steak, chicken breast, lamb chops, fish fillet, pork chops, etc. Meat products also include meat-product derivatives such as ground meat that may be processed into meatball, hamburger patty, fishball, sausage, salami, bologna, ham, etc. Meat products may also include muscle tissues or meat that has been seasoned or dried such as jerky.

One embodiment of the present invention involves a method for producing meat products that may be used for consumption. The method may include culturing muscle stem cells in vitro and allowing these cells to differentiate into specific types of muscle cells such as skeletal muscle cells or smooth muscle cells ex vivo. Muscle cells may be derived from any non-human animals consumed by humans such as mammals (e.g. cattle, buffalo, pigs, sheep, deer, etc.), birds (e.g. chicken, ducks, ostrich, turkey, pheasant, etc.), fish (e.g. swordfish, salmon, tuna, sea bass, trout, catfish, etc.),
invertebrates (e.g. lobster, crab, shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels, sea urchin, etc.), reptiles (e.g. snake, alligator, turtle, etc.), and amphibians (e.g. frog legs). Preferably, muscle cells are derived from pluri-potent embryonic mesenchymal stem cells that give rise to muscle cells, fat cells, bone cells, and cartilage cells. The muscle cells may also be derived from toti-potent embryonic stem cells such as cells from the blastocyst stage, fertilized eggs, placenta, or umbilical cords of these animals.

Muscle cells may be grown in culture into muscle tissues that are attached to a support structure such as a two or three-dimensional scaffold or support structure. The muscle cells may be grown on the two dimensional support structure such as a petri-dish forming several layers of cells that may be peeled and processed for consumption. Other examples of two dimensional support structures may include porous membranes that allow for diffusion of nutrients from culture media on one side of the membrane to the other side where the cells are attached. In this type of culture conditions, additional layers of cells may be achieved by exposing the cells to culture media from both sides of the membrane, i.e., cells received nutrients through diffusion from one side of the membrane and also from the culture media covering the cells growing on the membrane.

Muscle cells may also be grown on, around, or inside a three-dimensional support structure. The support structure may be sculpted into different sizes, shapes, and forms, as desired, to provide the shape and form for the muscle cells to grow and resemble different types of muscle tissues such as steak, tenderloin, shank, chicken breast, drumstick, lamb chops, fish fillet, lobster tail, etc. The support structure may be made from natural or synthetic biomaterials that are preferably non-toxic so that they may not be harmful if ingested. Natural biomaterials may include, for example, collagen, fibronectin, laminin, or other extracellular matrices. Synthetic biomaterials may include, for example, hydroxyapatite, alginate, polyglycolic acid, polylactic acid, or their copolymers. The support structure may be formed as a solid or semisolid support.

To provide for optimal cell and tissue growth, the support structure, preferably, has high porosity to provide maximal surface area for cell attachment. A three-dimensional support structure may also be molded to include a branched vascular network providing for delivery of nutrients into and shuttling out of metabolites from the cells at the inner mass of the meat product. In this particular embodiment, the branch vascular network may be edible by using non-toxic natural or synthetic biomaterials as mentioned above. Furthermore, the support structure may also include adhesion peptides, cell adhesion molecules, or other growth factors covalently or non-covalently associated with the support structure. Examples of the peptides include sequences such as Arg-Gly-Asp or Arg-Glu-Asp-Val. Niklason, L., et. al., Advances in Tissue Engineering of Blood Vessels and Other Tissues, Transplant Immunology, 5(4):303-306 (1997). This reference is hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

On the other hand, culture conditions for these muscle cells may include static, stirred, or dynamic flow conditions. For scaled up production, the preferred method is to use a bioreactor, which produces greater volume of cells and allows greater control over the flow of nutrients, gases, metabolites, and regulatory molecules. Furthermore, bioreactors may provide physical and mechanical signal such as compression to stimulate cells to produce specific biomolecules. Vacanti, J., et. al., Tissue Engineering: The Design and Fabrication of Living Replacement Devices for Surgical Reconstruction and Transplantation, Lancet, 354 Suppl. 1, pSI32-34 (1999). This reference is hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

In another embodiment of the invention, meat products derived from muscle cells grown ex vivo may include fat cells derived also from any non-human animals. Fattier meat is generally tastier, but with greater fat content comes greater risk of adverse health consequences such as heart disease. Thus, the ratio of muscle cells to fat cells may be
regulated in vitro to produce the meat products with optimal flavor and health effects. Regulation may be achieved by controlling the ratio of muscle and fat cells that are initially seeded in culture and/or by varying, as desired, the concentrations and ratio of growth factors or differentiation factors that act upon the muscle cells or fat cells.

In another embodiment of the invention, cartilage derived from chondrocytes may first form an underlying support layer or structure together with the support structure. Afterwards, muscle cells or fat cells, or both, may be seeded onto the chondrocyte layer. The interaction of muscle cells and chondrocytes may further provide the necessary regulatory signals required for tissue formation. Examples of meat products that have muscle cells and cartilage cells include chicken breast or pork ribs.

In a preferred embodiment of the invention, aseptic techniques may be used to culture the muscle cells resulting in meat products that are substantially free from harmful microbes such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, prions, protozoa, or any combination of the above. Harmful microbes may include pathogenic type microorganisms such as
salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli 0156:H7, etc. In addition, muscle cells grown in culture may be substantially free from parasites such as tapeworms that infect muscles of whole animals and that are transferred to humans through consumption of insufficiently cooked meat. Aseptic techniques may also be employed in packaging the meat products as they come off the biological production line. Such quality assurance may be monitored by standard assays for microorganisms or chemicals that are already known in the art. “Substantially free” means that the concentration of microbes or parasites is below a clinically significant level of contamination, i.e., below a level wherein ingestion would lead to disease or adverse health conditions.

In another preferred embodiment of the invention, the meat product derived from muscle cells grown ex vivo may be exposed to an electric or oscillating current. Unlike muscle tissues derived from whole animals, muscle tissues grown ex vivo or in vitro may have never been exercised (e.g. never been used to move a leg). Thus, exposing the muscle cells, muscle tissue, or the meat products in vitro to an electric or oscillating current may mimic exercise and increase the similarity in texture between meat grown ex vivo and meat derived from whole animals. The electric or oscillating current may also increase the growth rate of muscle cells ex vivo. The electric or oscillating current may be applied to the muscle stem cells or to the muscle cells after they have differentiated from the stem cells.

In another embodiment of the invention, other nutrients such as vitamins that are normally lacking in meat products from whole animals may be added to increase the nutritional value of the meat. This may be achieved either through straight addition of the nutrients to the growth medium or through genetic engineering techniques. For example, the gene or genes for enzymes responsible for the biosynthesis of a particular vitamin, such as Vitamin D, A, or the different Vitamin B complexes, may be transfected in the cultured muscle cells to produce the particular vitamin.

In another embodiment of the invention, regulatory factors, growth factors, or other gene products may also be genetically introduced into the muscle cells. These factors, known as myogenic regulatory factors (“MRFs”), may stimulate and regulate the growth of muscles in vivo, but may not normally be produced by muscle cells in vivo or in vitro. Thus, expressing myogenic regulatory factors in cultured muscle cells may increase the production of muscle cells in vitro.

In another embodiment of the invention, the meat products derived from muscle cells in vitro may include different derivatives of meat products. These derivatives may be prepared, for example, by grounding or shredding the muscle tissues grown in vitro and mixed with appropriate seasoning to make meatballs, fishballs, hamburger patties, etc. The derivatives may also be prepared from layers of muscle cells cut and spiced into, for example, beef jerky, ham, bologna, salami, etc. Thus, the meat products of the present invention may be used to generate any kind of food product originating from the meat of an animal.

The following examples illustrate how one skilled in the art may make use of the current invention to produce meat products in vitro. Methods in cell biology, cell culture, and immunohistochemistry that are not explicitly described in this disclosure have already been amply reported in the scientific literature.

This example illustrates the isolation of pluri-potent mesenchymal stem cells for use in producing meat products in vitro. Mesenchymal stem cells give rise to muscle cells (myocytes), fat cells (adipocytes), bone cells (osteocytes), and cartilage cells (chrondocytes). Mesenchymal stem cells may be dissected and isolated from embryonic tissues of any non-human animal embryos. In cattle, for example, embryonic mesenchymal tissues that are rich in pluri-potent muscle stem cells are preferably isolated from embryos at day 30 to 40 or earlier. Once dissected, the embryonic tissues may be minced into small pieces about one millimeter by one millimeter in size in phosphate buffered saline (“PBS”) pH 7.45. Five to ten pieces of the minced tissue may be incubated in 300 .mu.l of 0.25% trypsin and 0.1% EDTA in PBS for thirty minutes at C. with gentle agitation. Afterwards, the tissues may be allowed to settle on the bottom of the tube by gravity or gentle centrifugation. The supernatant containing the trypsin/EDTA solution may then be aspirated and replaced with 300 .mu.l of 0.1% collagenase in PBS for ten to thirty minutes at C. Colleganese digestion may be repeated for several cycles as desired. Depending of the viscosity of the solution because of DNA released from damaged cells, 40 .mu.l of DNase I at 1 mg/ml in PBS may be added to the collagenase solution in between cycles.

The reaction may be stopped by adding medium such as DMEM or Ham’s F-12, or both in 1:1 ratio, (Life Technologies, Rockville, Md.) that is supplemented with 10 mM Hepes, 2 mM L-glutamine (Sigma-Aldrich), 10-20% heat-inactivated fetal calf or bovine serum (Hyclone Laboratories, Logan, Utah), penicillin at 100 units/ml and streptomycin at 100 .mu.g/ml (“complete medium”). Cells may be completely dissociated by gently pipetting the tissues up and down followed by washing the cells in complete medium once or twice using a centrifuge. The cells may then be plated onto an appropriate-sized petri dish which may be coated with natural biomaterials (e.g. collagen, fibronectin, laminin, or other extracellular matrices) or synthetic biomaterials (e.g. hydroxyapatite, alginate, polyglycolic acid, polylactic acid, or their copolymers), or both, and may be grown at C. and equilibrated with 5% CO.sub.2.

After mesenchymal stem cells have been isolated, they may be enriched for myoblasts or muscle stem cells in culture. Initially, the cells may be differentially plated on different petri dishes after dissociation and washing as described in Example I. Using a 60 mm petri dish, the cells may first be incubated in complete medium for two to four hours. During this time, epithelial cells will tend to attach quickly to the petri dish while the myoblasts remain in the supernatant. The supernatant may then be collected and the myoblasts may be plated on a different petri dish coated with natural or synthetic biomaterials such as those mentioned in Example I. Myoblasts may be enriched by supplementing the growth media with growth factors such as skeletal muscle growth factor, prostaglandin F.sub.2.alpha. (“PGF.sub.2.alpha. “), and insulin-like growth factor I (“IGF-1”).

Further, myoblasts may be differentiated into specific myoctes or muscle cells by culturing the myoblasts in complete medium or in minimal media (e.g. complete medium less the fetal calf serum) supplemented with muscle specific growth or differentiation factors such as PGF.sub.2.alpha. at concentrations ranging from 24 pg/ml to 28 pg/ml, and insulin from 10.sup.-6 M to 10.sup.-5 M. To more closely mimic in vivo muscle cells, which are normally innervated by neuronal cells, the culture medium may also be supplemented with appropriate neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine.

Alternatively, myoblasts may be enriched from toti-potent embryonic stem cells. Toti-potent cells may be derived from in vitro fertilized eggs of an animal using in vitro fertilization techniques, from stem cells present in umbilical cords or placenta, or from Embryonic Stem (ES) cells isolated from cells at the blastocyst stage. ES cells, for example, may be collected, gently dissociated by trypsin, and cultured in vitro with recombinant leukemia inhibitory factor (Chemicon, San Diego, Calif.) and feeder cells such as growth arrested embryonic fibroblasts cells. These toti-potent cells may be treated with growth factors such as PGF.sub.2.alpha. or IGF-1 to induce the cells to
differentiate into myoblasts.

Using standard immunohistochemistry or in-situ hybridization techniques, myoblasts or myocytes (differentiated muscle cells) may be identified. Briefly, myoblasts or myocytes grown in culture may be transferred into glass slides coated with appropriate extracellular matrix as described above. These cells may be grown to the desired number and differentiation using the conditions described above. After a sufficient growth and differentiation period, the cells may be fixed with 4% formaldehyde. If intracellular antibody markers or nucleotide probes are to be used, the cell membranes may be permeabilized with 1% NP-40 or Triton-X. Antibodies against markers specific for myoblasts or myocytes such as myosin, titin, alpha-actinin available from Sigma.RTM. may be used to identify the cells using standard fluorescent immunohistochemistry techniques. Alternatively, single stranded RNA or DNA probes for these markers may also be used for in-situ hybridization.

In addition, when the muscle cells have been attached to a three dimensional support structure as disclosed below, they may be cryo-frozen, sectioned and identified using antibody markers such as antibodies against myosin, titin, 12101, troponin T, alpha actinin available from Sigma.RTM..

Two or three dimensional scaffolds or supports may be sculpted from natural biomaterials (e.g. collagen, fibronectin, laminin, or other extracellular matrix) or synthetic biomaterials (e.g. hydroxyapatite, alginate, polyglycolic acid, polylactic acid, and their copolymers), or both. Preferably, the three dimensional scaffolds are sculpted with branch pathways for nutrients and culture media to reach the internal mass of the forming muscle tissues. Examples of materials and construction methods for these scaffolds are provided by U.S. Pat. No. 5,686,091, entitled “Biodegradable Foams For Cell Transplantation”; U.S. Pat. No. 5,863,984, entitled “Biostable Porous Material Comprising Composite Biopolymers”; U.S. Pat. No. 5,770,417, entitled “Three-Dimensional Fibrous Scaffold Containing Attached Cells for Producing Vascularized Tissue in vivo;” and U.S. Pat. No. 5,916,265, entitled “Method of Producing a Biological Extracellular Matrix for Use as a Cell Seeding Scaffold and Implant.” These patents are hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

The support structure is preferably sculpted to different sizes, shapes, and forms to allow for growth of muscle tissues resembling different types of meat products such as steak, tenderloin, shank, chicken breast, drumstick, lamb chops, fish fillet, lobster tail, etc.

Adipocytes, chondrocytes, and ostooblasts are all capable of differentiating from pluri-potent mesenchymal stem cells or toti-potent embryonic stem cells. The stem cells may be isolated as described in Example I or III. The stem cells may be cultured in DMEM, or Ham’s F-12, or both in a 1:1 ratio. The medium may be supplemented with thyroid hormone, transferrin, insulin, as well as other growth factors, such as insulin-like growth factor (IGF), basic fibroblast growth factor, and growth hormone.

For adipocytes, differentiation may be achieved by treating the stem cells with bone morphogenetic proteins (“BMP”) such as BMP-4 and BMP-2, which are known to induce commitment to the adipocyte lineage. Ahrens et. al., Expression of human bone morphogenetic proteins-2 or -4 in murine mesenchymal progenitor C3H10T1/2 cells induces differentiation into distinct mesenchymal cell lineages, DNA Cell Biol., 12:871-880 (1993); Wang et. al., Bone Morphogenetic protein-2 causes commitment and differentiation in C3H10T1/2 and 3T3 cells. Growth Factors 9:57 (1993). These references are hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

In addition to BMPs, the differentiation of adipocytes may be enhanced with agonist of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (“PPAR gamma”) such as BRL 49653 (rosiglitazone). Sottile and Seuwen, Bone morphogenetic protein-2 stimulates adipogenic differentiation of mesenchymal precursor cells in synergy with BRL 49653 9 (rosiglitzaone), FEBS Lett, 475(3):201-204 (2000). This reference is hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

In certain situations, myoblasts may even be induced to trans-differentiate into adipoblasts (adipocyte precursors) by treating myoblasts cells or muscle satellite cells with long-chain fatty acids (“LCFA”) or thiazolidinediones, or both Grimaldi et. al., Trans-differentiation of myoblasts to adipoblasts: triggering effects of fatty acids and thiazolidinediones, Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 57(1):71-75 (1997); Teboul et. al., Thiazolidinediones and fatty acids convert myogenic cells into adipose-like cells, J. Biol. Chem. 270(47):28183-28187 (1995). These references are hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

Thus, meat products with the desired amount of fat content may be produced by seeding and co-culturing muscle cells and adipocyte cells at a certain ratio. Alternatively, stem cells may be allowed to differentiate initially into myoblasts and then at a later time, LCFA or thiadolidinediones may be added at different concentrations and different exposure times to trans-differentiate the myoblasts into adipocytes as desired. Furthermore, the growth of muscle cells and fat cells may be regulated by controlling the concentration of the growth and differentiation factors. For example, if less fat cells are
desired in the final meat product, lesser concentrations of BMP factors may be added to the culture while a higher concentration of PGF.sub.2.alpha. and/or insulin may be added to promote muscle cell growth.

Chondrocytes or cartilage cells may also be isolated from an animal’s knee or rib cages. Using similar techniques as described in Example I, dissected tissue from the knee or rib cages may be minced, digested with collagenase, and washed with complete medium. The cells may then be differentially plated to increase the purity of chondrocyte cells.

It is known that chondrocytes differentiate in response to mechanical stress. Thus, preferably, the cells may be subjected to shear flow stress as described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,928,945, entitled “Application of Shear Flow Stress to Chondrocytes or Chondrocyte Stem Cells to Produce Cartilage,” which is hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

Chondrocytes may initially form a first layer of support cells in a three-dimensional scaffold. Myoblasts or adipocyte cells, or both, may then be seeded onto the chondrocyte layer and grown to the desired size. As such, the chondrocyte layer may provide additional adhesion or growth factors to the muscle cells.

Muscle cells grown in vitro differ from muscle cells grown in vivo in that in vivo cells are used during exercise or body movements. As muscles are used in vivo, muscle cells, in limbs for example, contract and relax in accordance with the movement of the limbs. Hence, to more closely mimic the growth of muscle cells in vivo, the cells grown in vitro may be exposed to an electric or oscillating current, or pulses of electric or oscillating current to contract the muscle cells. Electric probes may be immersed into the culture media to deliver mild current. Alternatively, the support structure may be coated with electrically conducting materials. Examples of electrically conducting materials and a method for coating them onto the support structure are described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,843,741, entitled “Method for Altering the Differentiation of Anchorage Dependent Cells on an Electrically Conducting Polymer,” which is hereby incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein.

The preceding examples illustrate the procedures for producing meat products ex vivo. They are intended only as examples and are not intended to limit the invention to these examples. It is understood that modifying and combining the examples above do not depart from the spirit of the invention.

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



Dino-Era Feathers Trapped in Ancient Amber
BY Jennifer Viegas  /  April 11, 2008

Seven feathers that either belonged to a non-avian dinosaur or an
early bird have been discovered encased in amber in a remarkably vivid
state of preservation, according to a recent Proceedings of the Royal
Society B study. The 100-million-year-old amber, excavated from a
Charente-Maritime quarry in western France, was found near the
fossilized teeth of a troodontid dinosaur. Troodontidae is a family of
bird-like, two-legged dinos that, other fossils suggest, had feathers
and laid eggs in nests, just as birds do today.

The teeth of dromaeosaurids — another bird-like group including the
famed Velociraptor — were also found near the amber. “These two non-
avian dinosaur [groups] are currently known to be feathered and are
thus possibly related to the fossil feathers from France,” concluded
the archaeological team, led by Vincent Perrichot, a researcher at
Humboldt University’s Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

In a separate but related finding, Malvina Lak of the University of
Rennes in France recently found 356 prehistoric creepy crawlies —
including wasps, flies, ants and spiders — trapped in 100-million-
year-old amber excavated from a different site in southwestern France.
Both teams used a sophisticated X-ray technique called synchronotron
holotomography to “see” inside the hunks of ancient amber.

“Amber fossils are characterized by an exceptional quality of
preservation that allows a detailed observation of all tiny
structures,” Perrichot and his colleagues wrote. When X-rayed, the
amber chunk with the seven feathers, now housed at the National Museum
of Natural History in Paris, revealed the feathers were lying side by
side and “very probably originate from a single individual.” The
feathers show what the scientists describe as an “intermediate and
critical stage in the incremental evolution of feathers, which has
been predicted by developmental theories but hitherto undocumented by
evidence from both the recent and the fossil records.”

The first feathers, it is thought, consisted of a base shaft securing
many loose barbs, sort of like strands of hair tied together at one
end. Those feathers may have been followed evolutionarily by an
intermediate stage, represented by the feathers found in the ancient
amber. The seven feathers “have a structure unknown in bird feathers,”
but they also have a flattened shaft, which the researchers say is a
“prerequisite for using them to fly.” Feather impressions found in
other fossils of the dromaeosaur Sinornithosaurus and a still unnamed
Chinese theropod had a similar structure.

Kevin Padian, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at
the University of California at Berkeley and a curator at the
university’s Museum of Paleontology, doesn’t rule out that the
feathers could have belonged to a dinosaur, but he told Discovery News
“their structure does not allow us to conclusively determine the
source.” While ancient amber provides a window into ancient life, it’s
an incomplete one, said Lak. Fossils of dinosaurs, birds and other
large creatures will probably never be found in such a way, she noted,
simply because they can “escape from the resin before becoming

Vincent Perrichot
email : vincent [dot] perrichot [at] atmuseum [dot]

You May Be Looking At Remarkably Well-Preserved Dinosaur Feathers  /
April 11, 2008

Following today’s Discovery News story about dinosaur-era feathers
trapped in amber , I had the pleasure of interviewing University of
Kansas paleontologist Vincent Perrichot, who led the research. He
provided a new photo of some of the feathers, which might have
belonged to a dinosaur—probably a troodontid or a dromaeosaurid— that
lived 100 million years ago in what is now France. Just imagine this
feathered creature marching over some tree sap, leaving behind these
downy remains as it went about its business. Here is a transcript of
the Perrichot interview:

JV- Why do you believe the feathers could belong to a dinosaur?

Perrichot- Feathered dinosaurs known from China display either
rudimentary filament-like feathers (not true feathers, merely called
proto-feathers), or feathers of already modern structure similar to
those observed on birds. Thus an intermediate structure, such as the
one displayed by the fossil feathers, could logically exist in
dinosaurs. Furthermore, since the first birds appeared at least 50
million years earlier (cf. Archaeopteryx), the feathers cannot be
assigned to an ancestral bird.

Additionaly, teeth from two species belonging to a group of feathered
dinosaurs have been found fossilized in the same outcrop as the amber
containing the fossil feathers. Thus it is entirely plausible that the
feathers belong to a dinosaur rather than a bird. But it is not
possible to decide based on isolated feathers alone.

JV- What do the fossils reveal about feather evolution?

Perrichot- The feather’s primitive feature – a flattened central shaft
composed of not-yet-fused barbs – differs from all other feathers,
both modern and fossilized, and reveals a key step in feather
evolution towards the ability to fly (i. e., between primitive,
plumulaceous feathers, and flattened, symmetrical ones which are a
condition for flying).

JV- If the feathers did not belong to a non-avian dinosaur but instead
belonged to an early bird, what species, or type, of bird might they
have belonged to?

Perrichot- It could be any type of bird, but since the feathers are
very tiny, they could have belonged to a kind of chick.

JV- If the feathers did indeed belong to a dinosaur, would these be
the first known preserved dinosaur feathers? It’s my understanding
that all other evidence for feathers on dinosaurs is impressions,
rather than actual feathers.

Perrichot- If (the feathers are) from a dinosaur, then yes, they would
be the first and only known preserved dinosaur feathers. What is very
different with fossilization in amber is that the feathers can be
observed in 3 dimensions, and even a color pattern is preserved, which
is not possible when feathers are preserved as imprints in sediments.

JV- Are any future studies planned on the feathers, and could they
possibly even yield DNA?

Perrichot- It is currently not possible to obtain true fossil DNA from
any inclusion in amber. All previous experiments on arthropods
preserved in amber failed in reproducing the DNA obtained, and it is
suggested that diffusion exists throughout amber, so that the original
molecules would not be preserved.

There is a small, unidentified fragment fossil attached with the
feathers in the amber piece, which could be a fragment of skin. Due
to  technical limitation, it was not possible to reconstruct this
using the X-ray synchrotron imaging. But we will continue our
investigations in order to reconstruct it, and maybe this will help to
decide between a dinosaur or a bird.

Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds
BY John Noble Wilford  /  April 25, 2008

In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones,
scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the
closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are
modern birds. The research, being published Friday in the journal
Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held
hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific
team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup
with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like
alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family
tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in
evolutionary relationships. Similar molecular tests on tissues from
the extinct mastodon confirmed its close genetic link to the elephant,
as had been suspected from skeletal affinities. “Our results at the
genetic level basically agree with what has been seen in skeletal
data,” John M. Asara of Harvard said in a telephone interview. “There
is more than a 90 percent probability that the grouping of T. rex with
living birds is real.”

Dr. Asara and Lewis C. Cantley, both of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center and Harvard Medical School, processed the proteins from tissue
recovered deep in bones of a 68 million-year-old T. rex excavated in
2003 by John R. Horner of Montana State University. Mary H. Schweitzer
of North Carolina State University discovered the preserved soft
tissues in the bones.

For the molecular study, Dr. Asara and Chris L. Organ, a researcher in
evolutionary biology at Harvard, compared the dinosaur protein with
similar protein from several dozen species of modern birds, reptiles
and other animals. Dr. Organ was the lead author of the journal
report, which concluded that the molecular tests confirmed the
prediction that extinct dinosaurs “would show a higher degree of
similarity with birds than with other extant vertebrates.” The
researchers said they planned to extend their investigations to
include comparisons of T. rex protein with more species of birds,
reptiles and other dinosaurs. Dinosaur paleontologists were not
surprised by the findings. An accumulation of fossil evidence in
recent years had given them increasing confidence in their contention
that birds descended from certain dinosaurs.

Science 25 April 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5875, p. 499: DOI: 10.1126/
Molecular Phylogenetics of Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex
BY Chris L. Organ, Mary H. Schweitzer, Wenxia Zheng, Lisa M. Freimark,
Lewis C. Cantley, John M. Asara

“We report a molecular phylogeny for a nonavian dinosaur, extending
our knowledge of trait evolution within nonavian dinosaurs into the
macromolecular level of biological organization. Fragments of collagen
{alpha}1(I) and {alpha}2(I) proteins extracted from fossil bones of
Tyrannosaurus rex and Mammut americanum (mastodon) were analyzed with
a variety of phylogenetic methods. Despite missing sequence data, the
mastodon groups with elephant and the T. rex groups with birds,
consistent with predictions based on genetic and morphological data
for mastodon and on morphological data for T. rex. Our findings
suggest that molecular data from long-extinct organisms may have the
potential for resolving relationships at critical areas in the
vertebrate evolutionary tree that have, so far, been phylogenetically

John M. Asara
email : jasara [at] bidmc [dot] harvard [dot] edu

Scientists Find Conclusive Evidence Velociraptor Had Feathers
BY Jessica Berman  /  20 September 2007

Scientists say they have evidence that a ferocious dinosaur made
famous by the movie Jurassic Park definitely had feathers.  Experts
say the dinosaur, called Velociraptor, had a wing structure just like
modern birds. A new study by American researcher Alan Turner and his
colleagues provides the first conclusive evidence that Velociraptor, a
sprinting, vicious dinosaur that lived some 80 million years ago, had
feathers. The Velociraptor in the current study is estimated to have
been one meter tall, 1.5 meters long and weighed just over 13

Turner, a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History
in New York and lead author of the study, says Velociraptor appears to
have been a smaller creature than in Jurassic Park, but just as
nasty.  “It’s sort of as if you scaled up a chicken and then gave it
really nasty teeth and big claws on its feet,” he said. Fossils of
Velociraptor found over the years in Liaoning province in northern
China reveal bird-like characteristics, but there haven’t been any
feathers on the bones unearthed there. One day, while examining the
forearm, or ulna, of a Velociraptor dug up in Mongolia in 1998, Turner
made an interesting discovery. “I just happened to feel these couple
of bumps along the backside. And it was like, ‘Oh, that’s very
interesting,'” he recalled.  “And then I kind of let it pass. And then
I was thinking about it more later on, and that’s when I took it to
the high powered microscopes and realized it has all these other
features that you would expect to see if it was a quill knob.”

The quill knobs found on Velociraptor are regularly spaced bumps along
the ulna where flight or wing feathers would have been attached. “And
when you compare them to the ulna of a bird, you see that they
correspond quite closely to these quill knobs,” he added.  “These
wouldn’t have been flight feathers in the Velociraptor, because it’s
an animal that’s much too big to have flown.  But it still shows that
feathers were attached to the bone there.” Turner thinks Velociraptor
might have used the feathers for show, to shield nests or to keep
itself warm. He says his team did not find quill knobs on other
fossils of the bird-like carnivore, but that doesn’t mean, he said,
that Velociraptor did not have feathers. The discovery of Velociraptor
quill knobs is reported in the journal Science.

Mark A. Norell
email : norell [at] amnh [dot] org

Feathers : Velociraptor mongoliensis

“Fossils of dromaeosaurids more primitive than Velociraptor are known
to have had feathers covering their bodies, and fully-developed,
feathered wings.[26] The fact that the ancestors of Velociraptor were
feathered and possibly capable of flight long suggested to
paleontologists that Velociraptor bore feathers as well, since even
flightless birds today retain most of their feathers.

In September 2007, researchers found evidence of quill knobs on the
forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia.[7] These bumps on bird
wing bones show where feathers anchor, and their presence on
Velociraptor indicate it too had feathers. According to paleontologist
Alan Turner, “A lack of quill knobs does not necessarily mean that a
dinosaur did not have feathers. Finding quill knobs on Velociraptor,
though, means that it definitely had feathers. This is something we’d
long suspected, but no one had been able to prove.[27]”

Co-author Mark Norell, Curator-in-Charge of fossil reptiles,
amphibians and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, also
weighed in on the discovery, saying:
“The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that
there is basically no difference between birds and their closely
related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones,
brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in
feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first
impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.

According to Turner and co-authors Norell and Peter Makovicky, quill
knobs are not found in all prehistoric birds, and their absence does
not mean that an animal was not feathered – flamingos for example have
no quill knobs. However, their presence confirms that Velociraptor
bore modern-style wing feathers, with a rachis and vane formed by
barbs. The forearm specimen on which the quill knobs were found
(specimen number IGM 100/981) represents an animal 1.5 meters in
length (5 ft) and 15 kilograms (33 lbs) in weight. Based on the
spacing of the six preserved knobs in this specimen, the authors
suggested that Velociraptor bore 14 secondaries (wing feathers
stemming from the forearm), compared with 12 or more in Archaeopteryx,
18 in Microraptor, and 10 in Rahonavis. This type of variation in the
number of wing feathers between closely related species, the authors
asserted, is to be expected, given similar variation among modern

Turner and colleagues interpreted the presence of feathers on
Velociraptor as evidence against the idea that the larger, flightless
maniraptorans lost their feathers secondarily due to larger body size.
Furthermore, they noted that quill knobs are almost never found in
flightless bird species today, and that their presence in Velociraptor
(presumed to have been flightless due to its relatively large size and
short forelimbs) is evidence that the ancestors of dromaeosaurids
could fly, making Velociraptor and other large members of this family
secondarily flightless, though it is possible the large wing feathers
inferred in the ancestors of Velociraptor had a purpose other than
flight. The feathers of the flightless Velociraptor may have been used
for display, for covering their nests while brooding, or for added
speed and thrust when running up inclined slopes.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Does evolution select for faster evolvers?

It’s a mystery why the speed and complexity of evolution appear to
increase with time. For example, the fossil record indicates that
single-celled life first appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, and it
then took about 2.5 billion more years for multi-cellular life to
evolve. That leaves just a billion years or so for the evolution of
the diverse menagerie of plants, mammals, insects, birds and other
species that populate the earth.

New studies by Rice University scientists suggest a possible answer;
the speed of evolution has increased over time because bacteria and
viruses constantly exchange transposable chunks of DNA between
species, thus making it possible for life forms to evolve faster than
they would if they relied only on sexual selection or random genetic

“We have developed the first exact solution of a mathematical model of
evolution that accounts for this cross-species genetic exchange,” said
Michael Deem, the John W. Cox Professor in Biochemical and Genetic
Engineering and professor of physics and astronomy.

The research appears in the Jan. 29 issue of Physical Review Letters.

Past mathematical models of evolution have focused largely on how
populations respond to point mutations – random changes in single
nucleotides on the DNA chain, or genome. A few theories have focused
on recombination – the process that occurs in sexual selection when
the genetic sequences of parents are recombined.

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a cross-species form of genetic
transfer. It occurs when the DNA from one species is introduced into
another. The idea was ridiculed when first proposed more than 50 years
ago, but the advent of drug-resistant bacteria and subsequent
discoveries, including the identification of a specialized protein
that bacteria use to swap genes, has led to wide acceptance in recent

“We know that the majority of the DNA in the genomes of some animal
and plant species – including humans, mice, wheat and corn – came from
HGT insertions,” Deem said. “For example, we can trace the development
of the adaptive immune system in humans and other jointed vertebrates
to an HGT insertion about 400 million years ago.”

The new mathematical model developed by Deem and visiting professor
Jeong-Man Park attempts to find out how HGT changes the overall
dynamics of evolution. In comparison to existing models that account
for only point mutations or sexual recombination, Deem and Park’s
model shows how HGT increases the rate of evolution by propagating
favorable mutations across populations.

Deem described the importance of horizontal gene transfer in the work
in a January 2007 cover story in the Physics Today, showing how HGT
compliments the modular nature of genetic information, making it
feasible to swap whole sets of genetic code – like the genes that
allow bacteria to defeat antibiotics.

“Life clearly evolved to store genetic information in a modular form,
and to accept useful modules of genetic information from other
species,” Deem said.

Source: Rice University

mwdeem [at] rice [dot] edu


Phase Diagrams of Quasispecies Theory with Recombination and
Horizontal Gene Transfer

Authors: Jeong-Man Park, Michael W. Deem

We consider how transfer of genetic information between
individuals influences the phase diagram and mean fitness of both the
Eigen and the parallel, or Crow-Kimura, models of evolution. In the
absence of genetic transfer, these physical models of evolution
consider the replication and point mutation of the genomes of
independent individuals in a large population. A phase transition
occurs, such that below a critical mutation rate an identifiable
quasispecies forms. We generalize these models of quasispecies
evolution to include horizontal gene transfer. We show how transfer of
genetic information changes the phase diagram and mean fitness and
introduces metastability in quasispecies theory, via an analytic field
theoretic mapping.


Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD
when he discovered the secret of life

August 8, 2004


FRANCIS CRICK, the Nobel Prize-winning father of modern genetics, was
under the influence of LSD when he first deduced thedouble-helix
structure of DNA nearly 50 years ago.

The abrasive and unorthodox Crick and his brilliant American co-
researcher James Watson famously celebrated their eureka moment in
March 1953 by running from the now legendary Cavendish Laboratory in
Cambridge to the nearby Eagle pub, where they announced over pints of
bitter that they had discovered the secret of life.

Crick, who died ten days ago, aged 88, later told a fellow scientist
that he often used small doses of LSD then an experimental drug used
in psychotherapy to boost his powers of thought. He said it was LSD,
not the Eagle’s warm beer, that helped him to unravel the structure of
DNA, the discovery that won him the Nobel Prize.

Despite his Establishment image, Crick was a devotee of novelist
Aldous Huxley, whose accounts of his experiments with LSD and another
hallucinogen, mescaline, in the short stories The Doors Of Perception
and Heaven And Hell became cult texts for the hippies of the Sixties
and Seventies. In the late Sixties, Crick was a founder member of
Soma, a legalise-cannabis group named after the drug in Huxley’s novel
Brave New World. He even put his name to a famous letter to The Times
in 1967 calling for a reform in the drugs laws.

It was through his membership of Soma that Crick inadvertently became
the inspiration for the biggest LSD manufacturing conspiracy-the world
has ever seen the multimillion-pound drug factory in a remote
farmhouse in Wales that was smashed by the Operation Julie raids of
the late Seventies.

Crick’s involvement with the gang was fleeting but crucial. The
revered scientist had been invited to the Cambridge home of
freewheeling American writer David Solomon a friend of hippie LSD guru
Timothy Leary who had come to Britain in 1967 on a quest to discover a
method for manufacturing pure THC, the active ingredient of cannabis.

It was Crick’s presence in Solomon’s social circle that attracted a
brilliant young biochemist, Richard Kemp, who soon became a convert to
the attractions of both cannabis and LSD. Kemp was recruited to the
THC project in 1968, but soon afterwards devised the world’s first
foolproof method of producing cheap, pure LSD. Solomon and Kemp went
into business, manufacturing acid in a succession of rented houses
before setting up their laboratory in a cottage on a hillside near
Tregaron, Carmarthenshire, in 1973. It is estimated that Kemp
manufactured drugs worth Pounds 2.5 million an astonishing amount in
the Seventies before police stormed the building in 1977 and seized
enough pure LSD and its constituent chemicals to make two million LSD

The arrest and conviction of Solomon, Kemp and a string of co-
conspirators dominated the headlines for months. I was covering the
case as a reporter at the time and it was then that I met Kemp’s close
friend, Garrod Harker, whose home had been raided by police but who
had not been arrest ed. Harker told me that Kemp and his girlfriend
Christine Bott by then in jail were hippie idealists who were
completely uninterested in the money they were making.

They gave away thousands to pet causes such as the Glastonbury pop
festival and the drugs charity Release.

‘They have a philosophy,’ Harker told me at the time. ‘They believe
industrial society will collapse when the oil runs out and that the
answer is to change people’s mindsets using acid. They believe LSD can
help people to see that a return to a natural society based on self-
sufficiency is the only way to save themselves.

‘Dick Kemp told me he met Francis Crick at Cambridge. Crick had told
him that some Cambridge academics used LSD in tiny amounts as a
thinking tool, to liberate them from preconceptions and let their
genius wander freely to new ideas. Crick told him he had perceived the
double-helix shape while on LSD.

‘It was clear that Dick Kemp was highly impressed and probably bowled
over by what Crick had told him. He told me that if a man like Crick,
who had gone to the heart of human existence, had used LSD, then it
was worth using. Crick was certainly Dick Kemp’s inspiration.’ Shortly
afterwards I visited Crick at his home, Golden Helix, in Cambridge.

He listened with rapt, amused attention to what I told him about the
role of LSD in his Nobel Prize-winning discovery. He gave no
intimation of surprise. When I had finished, he said: ‘Print a word of
it and I’ll sue.’

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

“WELCOME to the largest collection of Darwin’s writings ever assembled.
For a basic, non-academic, entryway click here. For a complete list
click contents.

This site currently contains more than 50,000 searchable text pages and
40,000 images of both publications and handwritten manuscripts. There
is also the most comprehensive Darwin bibliography ever published and
the largest manuscript catalogue ever assembled. More than 150
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Most of the editions provided here appear online for the first time
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