Emergency Krulwich: The Evolution of Rudeness

Esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich pulls our bacon out of the fire with a piece on the natural development of rudeness.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So residents of our fair city, New York, have a bit of reputation for…

ALISON STEWART, host:

We have something very important to announce, Rachel.

MARTIN: We do?

STEWART: We're having a little bit of our own personal breaking news.

MARTIN: We are?

STEWART: After 23 days, I think it is, we may have to deploy.

MARTIN: Twenty-seven, I just heard in my ear.

STEWART: Twenty-seven days? The emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of music)

MATT MARTINEZ: When you're doing a live radio show like THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, sometimes things go wrong. Guests sleep through their alarms. They get stuck in traffic. And sometimes, they get better offers. And when they do, the BPP is ready with a piece by NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich.

Unidentified Woman #1: Get me Krulwich.

MARTINEZ: We call it Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of music, "A-Team" theme)

Unidentified Man #1: But Mr. Martinez, you said only to use emergency Krulwich in an emergency.

MARTINEZ: Damn it, man. This is an emergency. Control room, deploy emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of music, "A-Team" theme)

MARTIN: Residents of our fair city, New York, have a bit of a reputation for being rude. Like men who step over pregnant women when they fall on the sidewalk, for example.

STEWART: I don't know what you're talking about.

MARTIN: Well, it turns out being rude is an old habit in New York. According to science - esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich, it's been going on for 10 million years, and not just among humans. Listen up.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So here I am, right in front of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City with my friend the biologist, Guy Robinson. We are not shopping. We are looking at trees.

Professor GUY ROBINSON (Paleoecologist, Fordham University): If you look up now, if you look into the branches up here, you'll see some sprouting out of the branches.

KRULWICH: He is talking about thorns, big spiky sharp-looking thorns, high up on the trees in front of Rockefeller Center right on Fifth Avenue. Local shoppers can just look up…

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I see it.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, I do. I see them there.

KRULWICH: And if you touch one…

Ow, oh, it's really…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ROBINSON: It's very nasty. You wouldn't want to walk in to one of these.

KRULWICH: But if you were Professor Robinson, you would ask…

Prof. ROBINSON: Why are there all these spikes here?

KRULWICH: Trees typically produce thorns to repel something, but what could possibly be bothering this tree?

Prof. ROBINSON: It's protecting itself against what?

Unidentified Man #3: Cab drivers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: No, but it is a puzzle, really.

Prof. ROBINSON: Because there's nothing around here that it's effectively defending itself against.

KRULWICH: So what scientists do in a situation like this is they can ask is there any other tree, anywhere in the world, that produces a thorn that looks just like this? And it turns out there is.

Prof. ROBINSON: Acacias, which you find in Africa.

KRULWICH: Acacia trees have the same size and the same shaped thorns. And why?

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, in Africa, they seem to be protecting themselves against elephants.

KRULWICH: In Africa, elephants like to lunch on Acacia fruit, and then for dessert, they often peel and eat the bark.

Prof. ROBINSON: Bark's very nutritious.

KRULWICH: But it's not, of course, good for the tree. Because without bark, an acacia tree will die. So over millions of years, they have evolved thorns to poke at elephant tongues.

Unidentified Woman #3: You wouldn't want to lick that tree.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, no. No, no, no. Uh-uh.

KRULWICH: So what are you saying here? If Acacia trees developed thorns to fight elephants, then the New York trees did the same thing in Manhattan? Because I'm standing here across from St. Patrick's Cathedral, I just don't feel elephant in this vicinity.

Prof. ROBINSON: Not now…

KRULWICH: But 11,000 years ago, there were elephants in Manhattan. We call them…

Prof. ROBINSON: Mastodons.

KRULWICH: And says Carl Buell, who draws ancient animals, mastodons are kind of hairy and very big.

Mr. CARL BUELL (Artist): Eight foot at the shoulder, maybe, for a female, 10 for a male. This is a big animal.

KRULWICH: And they lived in New York?

Mr. BUELL: Oh, yes. We found mastodon remains in bones literally all over New York State.

KRULWICH: But when I said to shoppers outside of Saks Fifth Avenue, here's a picture of what these thorns are fighting against…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #5: Against the mammoth?

KRULWICH: Yeah. You don't believe me.

Unidentified Woman #4: No.

KRULWICH: But they should. Mastodons and this species of honey locust have been neighbors for millions of years.

Mr. BUELL: Oh, yes.

KRULWICH: So it is totally possible these trees were once attacked by local mastodons. And even though there hasn't been a mastodon in Manhattan for 11,000 years, the thorns stay.

Prof. ROBINSON: It took millions of years for it to happen, and it'll probably take a couple hundred thousand, at least, to get to the point where honey locust said, well, I don't need these thorns any more.

KRULWICH: To be fair, there is no direct evidence that mastodons actually ate these trees.

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, we'd need to look at mastodon dung to know that.

KRULWICH: 'Cause if there's honey locust fruit in mastodon dung, then you know they ate these trees. And guess what? Professor Robinson happens to have a fossilized sample.

Prof. ROBINSON: Yeah, there's this great big bolus, which, to us, could only have been...

KRULWICH: You can say it.

Prof. ROBINSON: Poop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But he hasn't checked his sample - not yet. So, for the moment, this is till a hypothesis. It's not proven. But what a notion.

So for 11,000 years, these trees have been getting ready for the mastodon that never comes?

Prof. ROBINSON: Absolutely. Yeah.

KRULWICH: It's sort of like "Waiting for Godot," and it's sort of sad.

Prof. ROBINSON: It kind of is. They seem a little lonely.

KRULWICH: Standing there on 49th Street, on 50th Street, thorns ready, but no mastodon. Robert Krulwich, NPR News, in New York.

STEWART: And once again, Bryant Park Project listeners, 27 days, and we had to deploy an emergency Krulwich. We went almost a month without having to deploy the emergency Krulwich.

MARTIN: We're all better for it, though, frankly, our esteemed science correspondent illuminating our lives with his insights.

STEWART: Thanks, Robert, for saving our bacon for the last six minutes of our show. Thank you.

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