Mark Siddall: [Full interview transcript]

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Mark Siddall is a curator and professor at the American Museum of Natural History. His research focuses on leeches, and has been published in several leading scientific journals. Read Mark’s full bio here…

Click here to watch Mark’s interview, “With Possibility Comes Responsibility”

Ramona: At the entrance of the renowned American Museum of Natural History is a sign that reads, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” So what is the relationship between environment and innovation?

Mark: With the potential for gain, there’s also the potential for loss. Potential for benefit, there’s always a potential for harm. And a really good example of that is something called niche modeling. Here’s something where you can use remote sensing of satellite imagery, we can use ground cover information from satellites, we can use climatic variables that we can get from local or remote sensing technology, and based on what we know of certain species existence in certain areas, we can actually model, with this niche modeling technique, and show instantly in a map, in a visual way, where that species can exist.

Now, that can be very helpful, for example, to conservation efforts. If you wanted to know, where is the spotted owl, or where could it be, or, in my case, the European medicinal leech and where might its habitats be, it sort of points you to where you can find it.

But with new possibilities come new responsibilities.

The potential nefarious side of that is that with the instant availability of this information, in such a quick visual manner, could also tell other people who are collecting these – are in the pet trade, are in the traditional medicine trade – going out and collecting these animals and killing them in an uncontrolled way, it also could tell them. So places like the American Museum of Natural History, we try to be very sensitive to how that information is put out. Simultaneously being informative to the public but also being sensitive to the needs of conservation, as an example.

Can we have too much of a good thing?

Ramona: We’re trying to find some kind of symbiotic balance between man and machine, environment and innovation, whereby everything is sustainable. One of the examples that’s been haunting me recently is the story of Easter Island. How in the process of creating these incredible monuments, these masterpieces, they also destroyed their civilization and their environment at the same time. The question begs to be asked, “if that was them, what of us?” Are we creating these monuments at the cost of our own future? Or a future that we want to be a part of? And that’s why I think it is important to have the biologists, to have the people with this view of adaptation…

Mark: Right out here in the Hudson River, and in the East River, there used to be some of the biggest great white sharks around. What has happened, what have we been doing to our environment? How are we impacting our environment with technology? And it is with technology – it’s our ability to fish more effectively, it’s our ability to trawl the bottom and pull all kinds of things up and not necessarily throw back the live stuff that we don’t want. All of our advances in technology should have and should, as we go forward, bring some responsibility with it as well. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Because what are you going to do next year when they’re gone?

As technology is accelerating, our relationship with it has to accelerate as well. We deal with the same sorts of problems with accelerated rates of evolution in genomes and so forth. I think it may be an organic way to look at it or to try to understand it.

What can we learn from the case of kudzu?

It can look really, really scary at first, and a great example is kudzu. It was a Japanese plant that became invasive in the southern United States. When it grows, it doesn’t have any of the natural pests or predators or what-have-you around… so it can grow into these huge mats that just completely cover trees and suffocate them and they don’t get any light so the trees will die. Maybe a decade ago, people were very concerned about uncontrolled growth of kudzu in the American south – it’s actually come all the way up to New York now. We now know, though, that it really only does that in environments that we’ve disturbed. It turns out it’s an “edge species.” It doesn’t go invasive into forests, it hangs around disturbed areas like roadways and freeways and meadows that people have made for baseball diamonds and things like that. So, in a sense, once we got to understand it better it wasn’t so scary. But it was only through understanding it, getting to know how it’s interacting with its environment. Is it invasive? Yes. Is it successful here? Yes. Are we benefiting from it? No. But is it as scary as we thought? Maybe not so much.

Ramona: How do you relate that to this relationship between humanity and technology?

Mark: People were afraid of television when it first came out. People were afraid of radio. I’m sure there were people who were afraid of Macintosh computers. (I shouldn’t say Macintosh, that would be bad!) I’m sure there were people who were afraid of the electronic mouse. Certainly technology has the potential – and we’ve seen it so many times, atomic, nuclear technology – we’ve seen examples of technology having the potential for great harm. But I think we’ve also seen examples that once we get to understand it, once we see its potential, and we understand its potential for harm, I think the human spirit comes through and we, generally speaking, will do the right thing and shun those who don’t.

At least I hope we will.

Summary:

  • Niche modelling technology allows for mapping of potential habitats for specific species
  • With any new technology, usage needs to be monitored to avoid irresponsible applications
  • Society needs to consider the environmental externalities associated with any new technology; for example, more efficient fishing methods lead to unintentional extinctions
  • People generally fear any new technology, but once we grow to understand it, we generally put it to good use

Follow Mark on Twitter @theleechguy

 

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