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The debate over the fate of Mt. Graham is echoing in Cambridge, even outside Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy Irwin I. Shapiro's Garden St. office.
Professor of Geology Stephen J. Gould was pulled into the debate when one of his theories was cited in a editorial supporting the building of the observatory--which some say will destroy the habitat of a rare subspecies of red squirrels.
In a June 7, 1990, Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Michael D. Copeland, entitled "No Red Squirrels? Mother Nature May Be Better Off," Gould is paraphrased as arguing that 99 percent of all species will become extinct eventually.
Thus, Copeland argues, the extinction of the red squirrel is part of natural order. Building the Mt. Graham telescopes is simply humanity's way of helping nature along.
Arguing that his theories had been misrepresented, Gould blasted the editorial in last month's issue of Natural History.
"And to say that we should let the squirrels go (at our immediate scale) because all species eventually die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as arguing that we shouldn't treat an easily curable childhood infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably mortal," Gould writes.
Gould argues that Mt. Graham should be preserved rather than developed. One reason, Gould says, is the existence of the red squirrel population, which is interesting to students of evolution because it is isolated in the southern-most region where the species is found.
The habitat atop Mt. Graham is unique. Due to the altitude, the climate of northern habitats is reproduced and allows spruce and fir trees, as well as squirrels, to live on the high peaks.
"In evolutionary terms, these isolated pieces of habitat are true islandspatches of more northern microclimate surrounded by southern desert," writes Gould. "Consider the role that islands (like the Galapagos) have played both in developing the concepts of evolutionary theory and in acting as cradles of origin."
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