That climate change report, Jane Goodall’s birth, and Richard III’s death


Gloom and doom

As you probably know, the latest authoritative climate change report was released early this week to a world apparently too exhausted, or distracted, to take much interest in the upcoming calamities. Here’s the nut from Justin Gillis’s New York Times piece: “The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

The coverage, or rather lack thereof, infuriated Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn. He wants to know why reporters are not demanding government reactions to the report, especially US government reactions. “The boss [Prez Obama] says we can’t deny the reality that urgent dramatic action is necessary to preserve our way of life. His negotiator says the reality is that the U.S. will not fund most of any response with taxpayer dollars. Where is the press, which should be demanding to know what the reality is, or what the pseudo-reality inside the State Department looks like? Are we going to let these guys off the hook?”

Raeburn contrasts this absence of enterprise with coverage of The Mystery of the Lost Plane. “Every scrap of information about Malaysia Flight 370 is being scrutinized for hours by panels of analysts on cable news and across the Internet. Could we take just one or two members of the Malaysia 370 press corps and put them on climate change?”

At ImaGeo, one of the new blogs at Discover, Tom Yulsman focuses on a complex graphic from the report. He offers interpretations of the very busy image, which uses icons to show how climate alterations are affecting ecosystems around the world.  The hed on Annalee Newitz’s post at io9 forecasts famine and water riots, although her lede refers more sedately to water shortages. The tasks ahead, she says, will include genetic alterations of crops to increase drought-resistance and serious improvements to food and water security to defend them against violence. Her post includes a link to the PDF of the report.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s summary even, oddly, manages to find a ray of hope in the report. If you feel like grinding your teeth some more, Plait also includes links to a few naysayers. But at Technology Review, John Reilly says we can’t just adapt to climate change because the effects will be so specific and local and therefore unpredictable. He complains, “the report is a compendium of things that might happen or are likely to happen to someone or something, somewhere. But what does this actually mean for me, or anyone who might read the report?”

Jane Goodall is 80

Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday was April 3. Tributes abound, of course, for the scientist/activist who stimulated worldwide curiosity about the lives and behavior of nonhuman primates, and who then abandoned her fieldwork with Tanzanian chimpanzees to campaign for more enlightened treatment of animals and the environment. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her work stimulated drastic changes in a number of scientific fields, for example animal behavior, primatology, psychology, evolutionary studies, and medical research.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

See Henry Micholls’ long interview, reprinted at the BBC Futures site. National Geographic, a funder of Goodall’s work that doesn’t mind taking credit for it, has collected several tributes here. NIH Director Francis Collins also pays tribute, praising her for working to reduce the use of chimps in medical research. Maria Popova has collected some of Goodall’s writings on science and religion at Brain Pickings. Mary Bagley has put together a Goodall biography at Live Science.

Poor Richard

A bit of a Brit academic brawl has developed over those bones dug up from a parking lot in Leicester and claimed to belong to the much-reviled King Richard III, last of the Plantagenets. Richard was bloodily slain at Bosworth Field, in the 1485 battle that ended the decades-long Wars of the Roses, led to the Tudor regime, and ultimately produced England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I.

Richard is reviled largely because he has long been blamed for murdering his potential rivals for the throne, the little princes in the Tower of London. There is a good case that he probably didn’t. The charge of child murder against Richard may have been a political lie fostered by the Tudors. It has been promulgated to this day by a sycophantic William Shakespeare–and a long line of skillful actors thrilled at the chance to play one of the stage’s great villains. The case for Richard is laid out persuasively in Josephine Tey’s terrific detective story, The Daughter of Time.

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

In 2013 the parking-lot bones were declared to be Richard’s based on substantial historical and archaeological evidence and a study of mitochondrial DNA extracted from them. The new objections come from a couple of historians with no apparent genetics expertise. They are not saying the identification is wrong, only that it’s not 100% certain, according to Macrina Cooper-White at the Huffington Post.

Of course the identification is uncertain, but the evidence is pretty persuasive, including the genetic evidence. The University of Leicester has posted a detailed description of how the mtDNA study was done by looking at mtDNA in two living people who are descended from Richard’s mother through an all-female line. The description includes a long PDF detailing the genealogy of one of those descendants; the other participated in the study anonymously.

It would be a pretty strong story even without the DNA. The skeleton was buried in the spot where contemporary accounts said Richard had been buried. Radiocarbon dating traces the remains to around 1500; Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Osteology reveals that the man died at around age 30; Richard was 32. The body was wounded grievously in a way that suggests the assailants meant to defile it, as history recounts. A reasonable conclusion is that these are the remains of the last Plantagenet King of England.

They’re doing the complete genome of the bones too. That will of course include the Y chromosome. There is some hope that the Y will confirm that the bones are indeed Richard’s through study of genealogies of all-male descent from his forebears. But there are questions of paternity among those forebears. So whatever the Y chromosome seems to show, we can be sure that it will give rise to more disputes and there will be more to write about. I look forward to it.

Richard’s bones must endure one final Tudor humiliation. They are to be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, a domain of the Church of England. Richard was, of course, a Roman Catholic. The Church of England, you’ll recall, was invented as an aid to divorce decades after Richard’s death — invented by the second Tudor monarch, who was, in his way, as notorious as Richard. Henry VIII’s marital/spiritual flounderings made the wealthy Roman Catholic institutions on English soil ripe for rifling. Which is why the remains of the former Franciscan Greyfriars Priory, where history says Richard was buried, lie under a municipal parking lot.

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One Response to That climate change report, Jane Goodall’s birth, and Richard III’s death

  1. Thank you for the balanced article on Richard III. It was John Ashdown-Hill who traced the descendants of Richard’s sister down to the present line – a family now settled in Canada. His examplary work makes the rest of the Society very proud. The Richard III Society of Canada – a branch of the Society based in the U.K.- was pleased to play a small part in locating the Ibsens – the family whose DNA helped identify the bones.