“Noble nature”…?

20161231_184514Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”

– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)

Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.

However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »


Is battling biodiversity decline like tackling terrorism?

brain-512758_640I attended a talk recently given by Dr Sara Savage from Cambridge University entitled “Bad Religion: when is faith healthy or unhealthy?”. The title was a bit of a misnomer, as there was little discussion of religion per se, but there was a greater deal of fascinating psychological research on the drivers of extremist ideology. Dr Savage outlined the theory of “integrative complexity“, developed by Peter Suedfeld over the past 30 years. Integrative complexity is a method of metacognitive reasoning (i.e. being aware of how and what you are thinking, and why) that incorporates empathic and diverse approaches towards the views of others in an attempt to construct a coherent and objective view of a given situation. The argument has been made that extremist ideologies (whether these are religious, political or social) tend to stem from a narrowing of perspectives (a drop in integrative complexity, or “IC”), and that conflict resolution is best achieved by those who “see complexity”. Indeed, Suedfeld and colleagues have published analyses of IC within the context of the Cuban missile crisis and surprise attacks.Read More »

A new MOOC from Leeds: “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”

Picture1It’s a pretty exciting time to be teaching in higher education.  There has been a wave of critical evaluation (mostly by the teachers themselves) which has led to a great deal of progress over the past couple of years.  This has led to a recognition that lecture-based courses are not the “be all and end all” of university teaching, and that there are better ways to do things.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short) are playing quite a large role in redefining how university teachers engage with their students and how we think about delivering the student experience.

The new MOOC from the University of Leeds is called “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”, and is being run by Professor Jon Lovett in the School of Geography. Jon is a charismatic and passionate guy with a wide range of experiences in the interaction between people and the nature world, and it is these themes that are explored in the course.  If you want to find out more, head over to the FutureLearn site and sign up (it’s free!).  Here’s a taster:

There are some key characteristics of MOOCs that make them different from conventional university courses:

  • Variable length – MOOCs can be anything from 1 week to 12 weeks, with the breadth and depth of content varying accordingly.
  • Entirely online – with no need to rely on built infrastructure, MOOCs can (and, indeed, do!) cater for tens of thousands of students, rather than the usual hundred or so.
  • Flexible study – because of the online nature, students can participate whenever is convenient for them.  Sometimes this means that students drop-off entirely (completion rates are relatively low) but that isn’t really the point of MOOCs.  MOOCs are frequently designed to provide access to education for as many people as want it, and any learning is a bonus.
  • Flexible structure – the online platform allows a wide variety of multimedia, interactive, connected resources to form the backbone of a course.  These make for a very engaging learning experience.

All these factors combine to make a new and interested way of teaching and engaging a wider range of students, and I look forward to seeing where the MOOC movement goes.