Friday, August 08, 2003

When Whales Ruled the Earth

People call me a contrarian, but it's not true. I merely attempt to apply logic and knowledge to common problems, without giving what is called "common knowledge" any place at the table. Just because many people believe things, or scream things, there is no reason to believe these things. But the volume level does draw one's attention. Thus came the news last week about the early population of Whales, as revealed in their DNA. While the original article is not freely available on the web, a pithy summary of it can be found here. The fact that the DNA reveals genetic diversity an order of magnititude greater than that observed by the early Whaling captains is important because international Whaling has been (almost) halted pending the moment at which Whale stocks have risen back up to a level that represents half of their historic levels. Since the (almost) permanent status granted to any animal, once it is allowed entry to an endangered species list, is a favorite subject of mine, I decided to investigate.

Clicking over to my favorite site for scientific discourse, Gene Expression There was a conversation going on about this subject. While I couldn't get the gnxp'ers to engage on this topic at great length, I did get an indication that this genetic evidence refers to Whale populations that might have existed 10,000 years ago. Well, that says a lot! 10,000 years ago the Earth was just emerging from an Ice Age, and many populations were very different from their numbers today.

So, what do we really have here? Some geneticists say that Whale populations used to be ten times their present numbers, so resumed Whaling is not legal, since we must wait for historic populations to regenerate. But the point of the exercise, and the Whaling law, is to return to populations that existed before Whaling began, not to numbers that existed in the last Ice Age! This is a perfect example of junk science: take a grain of truth, make a lot of noise, and hope that you drown out the voices of reason. In the best use of single interest politics, this whitewash depends upon the issue at hand being unpopular, which it certainly is. How many people really want Whaling to resume? But the fact is, especially for Minke Whales, populations are higher today than they were 200 years ago. And if people want to fish for them, the law is clear: they should be allowed to do so. But for those who believe that humans are a blight upon nature, there will never be enough Whales for a harvest to be allowed. And that't the truest fact of all.