SEED Magazine

Swine Flu Kills, Sometimes

In March, the president of the United States appeared before reporters to discuss the reappearance of swine flu. Worried about a pandemic, he announced the appropriation of funds sufficient to inoculate “every man, woman, and child in the United States,” amounting to nothing short of the largest public health campaign in US history. Disease biologists working closely with the president supported his decision (at least most of them). What The New York Times called “the virus that caused the greatest world epidemic of influenza in modern history” had returned. And so the cost of inaction, the president argued, was too great to countenance.

That was 1976. Gerald Ford was president.

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I Am a Rat and So Are You

Natural selection is stingy in its edits. It takes only three letters to go from “Hamlet” to “ham” and hardly more differences in DNA nucleotides to span the distance back between rodent and Rodin. The entire diversity of mammals reflects a modest tinkering with the original mammal plan. We share 99 percent of our genes with chimps, but we also share 95 percent of our genes with pigs and rats. And so most of the story of humans, our biology and deep history, is told equally well by the body of any mammal — even a lowly rat. Especially a rat.

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The Trouble with Biodiversity

In 1799 Alexander von Humboldt went to see the world. The Sun fell straight down in front of his ship’s bow, and moonlight rose all around him. He watched great pods of whales jump from the sea and surveyed the beauty of night skies bright with migrating stars. More striking to Humboldt than the beauty of the world, however, was the bounty of life it held. And more specifically, the patterns he saw in the distribution of life. The nearer he approached the tropics, he later wrote in Ansichten der Natur (Views of Nature), the greater “the variety of structure, grace of form, and mixture of colors, as also in perpetual youth and vigor of organic life.” Humboldt had discovered the latitudinal gradient in biological diversity. All it took to see the pattern was traveling south for a few years. But as the next 200 would show, that was to be the easy part.

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What Humans Can Learn from Social Insects

Humans have spent millennia suspecting there is something to be learned from the social insects. Everyone from Aristotle to the indigenous Kayapo of Brazil has held them up as positive role models. Even the Bible exhorts readers to “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.”

At this summer’s International Union for the Study of Social Insects—July 30 through Aug. 4 in Washington, D.C. —almost 1,000 scientists gathered, as they do every four years, to report on what they’d found after, well, going to the ant (and the bee and the wasp and a half-dozen other orders). To be around so many like-minded social insect—studiers is a departure for this bunch (or rather, colony), who are accustomed to having to justify what they do for a living: When in mixed company, they can be overheard saying things like, “But ants represent 40 percent of the biomass in many forests” or “Without bees, agriculture would be nearly impossible.”

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