Badger Bother

Some years ago while following a wide trail through a Yorkshire wood I came across a bunch of roughnecks in muddy boots who were offloading shovels and pickaxes from the back of a rusty van. Terriers were barking furiously in the back of an adjacent truck. I was surprised that none of the little dogs jumped over the tailgate because they have a reputation for valor, and they were there for a cruel ‘sport.’

I remember the confrontation, for which I was scolded later for being stupid. I asked one of the men, “You’re not digging for badgers, are you?” If he scowled after turning to his mates I couldn’t see, but his back made me feel uncomfortable.  There was no other reason why men who had come prepared for digging would be there, and a few yards away was the circumstantial evidence. Outside the yawning entrance holes of a badger sett there were fresh scrapings that proved it was occupied.

“’eck no!” he grinned when turned to me. “What’s yer business ‘ere? You’re no tyke (Yorkshireman)?”

I pretended the land owner was friend and wildlife lover who often watched these badgers. This confused the men who went into a huddle, but I took the opportunity to beat a diplomatic retreat.

I flash-photographed this English badger returning to its sett in 1968


Great Seal of Wisconsin, Badger State
Great Seal of the Badger State

The Eurasian badger (Meles meles) looks like a distant relative of the American species (Taxidea taxus) and though both have head stripes it is, I think, a more handsome beast. Wisconsin is known as the Badger State, although more for historical reasons than any special affection for the animal. Lead miners were called ‘badgers’ in the early days when they lived in caves cut out of hillsides. The nickname wasn’t a compliment, but much later on a badger was depicted on the Great Seal of the state over the shield and a pile of pig lead.

Badgers have rarely fared well when they encountered our species, but were probably better off in North America than in Europe where we have bothered these shy animals for centuries. Since 1835, badger baiting has been banned in the UK, and the species now has the distinction of its own law, the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, which carries a maximum 6-month prison sentence for interfering with them. After digging an unlucky animal out of its sett, the badger men would put it in a pit with a dog to bet on which would survive the contest. Dogs were often mortally wounded because badgers are great fighters with a tremendous bite because their jawbone can’t be dislocated, but a winning badger was always dispatched by clubbing afterwards. Animal welfare organizations suspect badger baiting is on the rise again.

badger, Meles meles
Badgers have a mighty bite because the lower jaw is firmly articulated under the zygomatic arch and jaw muscles are attached to a thick sagittal crest

Although related to polecats, badgers are said to be tasty, which is another misfortune. Badger hams were served in West County restaurants (perhaps still are, covertly), and in some regions of France blaireau au sang is a sett menu.

For a species as nocturnal as the badger, it is currently getting a lot of limelight. Like foxes, white-tailed deer and many other mammals, it can be infected with the bovine tubercle bacillus, but badgers are disproportionately blamed for outbreaks of tuberculosis in English cattle herds. The story goes back to 1971 when the first case was reported, which was presumably because a badger had been foraging in a pasture where an infected cow was exhaling or voiding bacilli. From that time badgers have been blamed for outbreaks of tuberculosis in herds, and a tremendous economic loss for farmers. Infected wildlife suffers too, although the disease is chronic and mainly respiratory in badgers. Humans rarely develop the bovine form of TB because livestock that tests positive are slaughtered and our milk is pasteurized.

As an influential lobby, the farming community has been on the backs of the British Government to do something. Successive administrations set up inquiries which concluded that badgers are at least partly responsible through recycling the disease, and so began a controversial control program. In the first cull thousands of badgers were gassed in their underground homes with hydrogen cyanide, but after the practice was criticized for being inhumane they were shot. The cull outraged a nation of animal-lovers who hold the badger as an icon of the British countryside and voted it the first or second most popular native animal. Objectors petitioned the government to stop the killing, marched through farming country to protest, and formed badger patrols to find and care for animals wounded by marksmen.

Politicians and policy wonks plead that decisions guided by science must be rational, honest, and transparent. But if there is still leeway in data to argue different viewpoints about big issues like climate change, uses of antibiotics, renewable energy, and stem cells we might expect the same with badgers.

Science started commanding enormous authority in World War II, especially in the USA under the inspiring genius of Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), an engineering visionary who became presidential science advisor to FDR and the leading administrator of the Manhattan Project. In his book, Science, The Endless Frontier (1945), he wrote “…without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” The physicist Robert Oppenheimer shared Bush’s optimism, but in hoping that scientists would keep control of discoveries, including the atom bomb, he became a symbol of how clever scientists can fall into folly. Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher-ruler was one of Socrates’ fine ideas but it fatally ignored realpolitik.

Some British scientists have felt a similar disappointment that politics has trumped scientific evidence in the Randomised Badger Culling Trial. They may design the trial and analyze the data, but don’t own the interpretation and can only complain when a government minister offers his explanation and justification for culling. One animal ecology expert was so exasperated that he mocked a ministerial announcement by paraphrasing it, “It is not scientific, we cannot conclude anything, but it is sufficient for policy…” When the minister was challenged in a BBC interview about the failure of the badger cull he famously replied that, “the badgers have moved the goalposts.” The Prime Minister replaced him last week and the cull has been trimmed down to a couple of counties.

So far as I understand, the results are ambiguous. Infection rates in cattle herds are lower at the center of a killing zone, but they are higher at the periphery. When setts lose their occupants they are quickly adopted by immigrating animals, which possibly carry TB, and so culling may aggravate the distribution of disease. Some people argue that improvements in health of livestock have happened too soon to be explained by reducing the badger population, and might be due instead to changes in animal husbandry that reduce cattle-to-cattle transmission. Differences in husbandry may indeed help to explain some of the regional differences in bovine TB. Overall, it’s a very confusing picture. For someone like me whose affection for badgers was nurtured by watching for hundreds of hours as they went about their private lives in the countryside it is a tragic destruction of life with no benefit to show.

Perhaps new attempts to create a more effective vaccine for both cattle and wildlife will bring a truce between warring farmers and conservationists, and cause politicians to sigh with relief. Under the full protection of law again, the police force may then be re-energized for prosecuting badger-baiters. And then badgers will have the quiet life again that they enjoy, as their friend Rat once described: “Badger hates society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing” (Wind in the Willows, 1908).

Wind in the Willows
Rat and Mole visit Mr. Badger in the Wild Wood. From first edition of Wind in the Willows (1908)

Next Post: Here be Dragons


The Genius of Charles Darwin

The gleam of a great idea often glows first and fiercest in an unknown eye and out of a dark corner. How many college dropouts and loners tinkering in their garages have become celebrated silicon entrepreneurs? How many great writers, poets, painters, and composers created their finest works in obscurity?  Even in the sciences the most elemental factor for a breakthrough is a roving and penetrating mind rather than a large, well-funded research lab. Prestigious schools and universities are not nurseries of genius: academies value absorption, conservation, and transmission of knowledge and may even discourage radical thinking. Perhaps it is so difficult to predict scientific revolutions because they start with individuals and outsiders. I was taught neat explanations of how science advances, but Paul Feyerabend offered a seductive alternative: the Berkeley philosopher caused a furor by arguing the narrative is often “anarchistic.”

While visiting Charles Darwin’s home last month I was of course musing about his theory of evolution. That’s why people go there! Down House is a quaint Georgian property outside a village near London. It was walking distance from my childhood home, and on my last visit I was a teenager pondering a career in biology and arguing with a school buddy about biodiversity from natural selection. I thought it was incontestable, but he snapped with the certainty that only a sixteen-year-old can have, “the Bible and The Origin of Species can’t both be right: you have to choose one or the other!” It is still argued over in America, but I think a false choice.

That summer I flipped through The Origin to be sure of my answers for our next spat. But how could I summarize the ocean of data that Darwin had meticulously marshalled for his heavy tome? Had I known at the time I would have simply quoted to my friend from Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I might have cheekily added that he wasn’t only a great biologist but a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church too.  Maybe I was close to Feyerabend when he wrote, Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them.

Stepping across the threshold at Down House I wondered how much had changed in fifty years. When I was last there, Charles Darwin had already been dead for the better part of a century, and recall when standing in his home I imagined the owner had just stepped outside for an hour, perhaps to check experiments in his garden or stroll down his “thinking path,” the Sandwalk. But since my childhood, Down House and its acres have evolved from a hallowed place on a shoestring budget for a few scientific pilgrims to something of a tourist destination since it was adopted by English Heritage and nominated as a World Heritage site.

Instead of ringing the doorbell for the custodian to appear like a Victorian butler, the visitor is now received with a cheerful welcome from the ticket desk and invited to peruse glossy Darwiniana on sale. Down House still looks like a large family home, but most of its rooms are loaded (I won’t say ‘graced’) with information boards and even dioramas. I prefer the more authentic if dowdy interior from my memory. But I wasn’t disappointed with the Old Study, the room that always mattered most and has hardly changed.

The Study feels heavy with dark mahogany and dreary wallpaper. It could make an atmospheric setting for a Charles Dickens story. Daylight struggles to penetrate the windows and the air has the musty odor of an old stone church. At center-stage a table is strewn with old books, stamped envelopes, and yellowed papers; a feather quill stands in a dry inkwell; a glass goblet is inverted out of service; and books are crammed in a locked cabinet. It may look like a reconstruction in a museum, but is in fact fairly authentic.

Down House
The black chair in Darwin’s Old Study

A black leather chair with horsehair poking through its arms rests on castors askew to the table as if waiting for a sitter to return. I imagine a Victorian parson might have taken a break from preparing his homily there or a writer who put down his pen to walk outside and smoke for inspiration. Only the magnifying lens, a few dissecting instruments, and portraits hanging over the marble fireplace hint that a man of science once lived there. The piles of pillboxes point to an apothecary or a hypochondriac (as Darwin was), but you would only find dried beetles and butterflies if you took the lids off. Naturalists have little need of equipment to pursue their passion en plein air where they depend on sharp eyes and a curiosity that fermented when heads rest in comfy chairs. And what a head Charles Darwin had!

He had none of the obvious qualifications for scientific greatness. He never displayed intellectual fireworks as a young man, and his father, Dr. Robert Darwin, thought his lackadaisical attitude to studies and a love of hunting, dogs, and horse-riding would make his son a worthless loafer. Charles was prodded towards the family profession until he dropped out of the Edinburgh Medical School, and no one expected much after enrolling at Cambridge University with the vague intent of training as a Church of England parson. Joining the Beagle expedition changed all that, and arguably launched the greatest modern revolution in the way we understand the world.

Darwin had a different kind of genius to Newton, Pascal or Einstein, and we struggle to find its origins.

First, he came from a radical intellectual tradition through his grandfather Erasmus and by marrying into the Wedgwood family. They were influential figures of the Enlightenment who embraced scientific progress, opposed slavery, and backed grumbling American colonies before the Revolution. When Charles returned from his voyage in 1836 he settled down to family life in London and as a country gentleman for the next forty years at Down House. But even during the distracted years of his youth he was never idle, and a Whiggish background fortified awkward thoughts that later offended staid Victorian society. Unlike Grandpa Erasmus he never sought the limelight and said that expressing doubts about species being immutable was like “confessing a murder.” It helped that he had chronic ill health as an excuse for keeping his head below the parapet when the storm over Darwinism broke.

The Sandwalk at Down House
The Sandwalk

Second, he was painstaking and cautious at work and never felt the pressures that contemporary scientists endure who must focus on minutiae and hurry to be first into print with their discoveries and join ferocious competition for research grants. He had time to exhaustively validate data and ideas. From an early interest in beetles his curiosity expanded to the whole of nature, both living and extinct. He spent years studying barnacles, converted his lawn to experimental beds for studying earthworms and weeds, inquired about artificial selection of domestic animal breeds, and maintained a vast correspondence with other naturalists. All this knowledge built on his seminal observations from the Beagle was distilled for the theory of natural selection. It took time and a lot of shoe leather on the Sandwalk. He depicted his hunch that all living things are related in a sketch of tree-like branches linking species together. That was twenty years before the Origin, and on the same page he scrawled a note, “I think.” It took an abrupt convergence of ideas with Alfred Russel Wallace to force his hand into publishing. But his glacial pace of progress had prepared him for the resistance to come from the establishment. He had left no stone unturned and no detail was too small or arcane to be cast aside. Even barnacles helped to rock the world. In the end there was no risk of being forced into a disgraceful retreat, like some recent “discoveries” in stem cell science.

Third, Darwin was able to tinker at his fireside, though more in head than hands as inventors do in lonely garages. Unencumbered by employment and with servants to help care for his beloved family he withdrew from society for long periods, like St. Jerome in his cave. It was quality time to ponder and speculate. Charles would never have the same peace today with electronic gadgets constantly beeping for attention. Thinking is such a natural process that we hardly give it much thought or any training, and and if our attention spans are shortening we are feebler thinkers in consequence.

Darwin’s chair is still a source of wonder for me. As an ordinary object you would ignore it in the window of a cheap antique store—as you would driving past some unprepossessing garage in Silicon Valley—but it became the seat of something extraordinary. The revolution that began in the sitter’s mind long ago continues to roll forward and explain what had been inexplicable—fossils embedded in mountain tops, elaborate plumage of male birds, vestiges like the appendix, why many genes are similar from flies and worms to humans, and much, much more.

Once upon a time a gauche student was tempted to leap over the security cord at Down House to sit in Darwin’s chair. Others have dreamt of plonking themselves in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey to feel a royal moment before a cop hauled them away. But the student realized the famous chair would never inspire great thoughts again because revolutionary ideas emerge from obscurity.

Next Post: Badger bother


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