The UnAustralian

Friday, February 06, 2004
Kennewick Man

According to the BBC scientists are going to be able to study the Kennewick Man. For those of you who don't know, the Kennewick Man is an ancient (approx. 9000 year old) skull which was found in Washington.

It's discovery sparked a court case from local Indian tribes, who claimed the skull as a distant relative and wanted it to be reburied.

Personally, I think that the courts ruling was a good one. Because of the age of the specimen, it can't really be said that he belongs to any one culture. Migration and cultural evolution build up over time, and 9000 years is a very very long time. On the other hand, the skull is useful for scientists trying to work out the ancient history of North America.

Another example is the much older Mungo man from Australia. The passage of time has distorted any cultural links beyond recognition (indeed, not even the Mungo man's genes have been passed on). Yet the scientific information which has so far been extracted is massive.

The picture, however becomes much more complicated when we look at human remains which are younger. In these cases, the cultural links are stronger and more well defined, the the potential information which can be gleaned is considerable less.

I don't know the answer. I'm all for sending back human remains from aging museum collections, if the relatives request it. The scientific value is generally negligible and the remains are frequently quite important to the relatives.

I don't really have a firm conclusion to whack onto the end of this post, it's more just a collections of late night thoughts. There isn't really a good set of rules for what to do with human remains. Common sense and lots of consultation between all interested parties is probably the best (partial) solution.
| 12:10 AM
Thursday, February 05, 2004
Lomborg Again

Bjørn Lomborg is a name which comes up again and again on this site. If you are interested in environmental science, then you just can't ignore him. A new website has started an impressive catalogue of errors in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

| 7:08 PM
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Janet Jackson

Did Janet Jackson sacrifice a baby on-stage as well as expose herself? If not, I just can't understand all of the media coverage and hypocritical whining that's going on.
| 10:28 PM
Monday, February 02, 2004
Putting Myths to Bed

Published in today's Australian is a letter which should (but won't, there is always another mule in the wings) put to rest the nonsense on ddt recently peddled by Christopher Pearson.

CHRISTOPHER Pearson (Inquirer, 24-25/1) blames "the environmental lobby . . . with direct responsibility for millions of needless deaths, mostly of children in the Third World, from malaria". The argument is that Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring falsely accused the insecticide DDT of dangers to both human health and the environment, that this accusation led to the banning of DDT in mosquito control programs in areas where malaria is endemic (mostly the tropics), and as a direct result of this ban, millions of people died.

This argument is arrant nonsense, recycled from an article in Quadrant, in turn recycled from a number of unscientific and unsubstantiated websites. As professionals and teachers in the field of parasite disease control, we are only too well aware of how such rubbish can be transmuted from cyberspace junk to popular folklore. Your readers should be aware of the facts:

The manufacture and use of DDT was banned in the US in 1972, on the advice of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The use of DDT has since been banned in most other developed nations, but it is not banned for public health use in most areas of the world where malaria is endemic. Indeed, DDT was recently exempted from a proposed worldwide ban on organophosphate chemicals.

DDT usage for malaria control involves spraying the walls and backs of furniture, so as to kill and repel adult mosquitoes that may carry the malaria parasite. Other chemicals are available for this purpose, but DDT is cheap and persistent and is often a very effective indoor insecticide which is still used in many parts of the world.

DDT is not used for outdoor mosquito control, partly because scientific studies have demonstrated toxicity to wildlife, but mainly because its persistence in the environment rapidly leads to the development of resistance to the insecticide in mosquito populations. There are now much more effective and acceptable insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, to kill larval mosquitoes outdoors.

Reductions in the use of DDT did occur in a number of developing nations after the US ban in 1972. This reflected concerns over environmental consequences of DDT, but was also a result of many other factors. One of the important factors in declining use of DDT was decreasing effectiveness and greater costs because of the development of resistance in mosquitoes. Resistance was largely caused by the indiscriminate, widespread use of DDT to control agricultural pests in the tropics. This problem, in fact, was anticipated by Carson: "No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored . . . The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse."

Malaria is a major, ongoing disease problem in much of the developing world. Increases in the incidence of the disease have occurred for complex reasons. Reduced insecticide usage is one, but others include the resistance to treatment in both the parasite and the mosquito vectors, changes in land use that have provided new mosquito habitat, and the movement of people into new, high-risk areas.

Most nations where malaria is a problem, and most health professionals working in the field of malaria control, support the targeted use of DDT, as part of the tool kit for malaria control. Most also agree that more cost-effective, less environmentally persistent alternatives are needed. There are some effective alternative chemicals for the control of adult mosquitoes, but preventing their further development is lack of invest ment by industry, because malaria is largely a disease of the poor.

Malaria is responsible for enormous suffering and death. The facts are readily available in the scientific literature. To blame a reduction in DDT usage for the death of 10-30 million people from malaria is not just simple-minded, it is demonstrably wrong. To blame a mythical, monolithic entity called the environmental lobby for the total reduction in DDT usage is not just paranoid, it is also demonstrably wrong. Your article is not only poor journalism, it is an insult to the people who work for the control of parasitic diseases that afflict developing nations.

Dr Alan Lymbery
Professor Andrew Thompson
Parasitology Unit
Division of Health Sciences
Murdoch University

| 5:04 PM
Sunday, February 01, 2004
Quote of the Day

I wonder what the Maori who killed the last moa said. Perhaps the Polynesian equivalent of "Your ecological models are untested, so conservation measures would be premature"? No, he probably just said, "Jobs, not birds," as he delivered the fatal blow.

-- Jared Diamond, writing about the extermination of the Moa in New Zealand
| 1:21 PM