Today’s story is neither long nor complicated, but I think it’s important, because it pops a hole in one of the most common misunderstandings we have in the West. That there is nothing left on this planet to discover. There are no more explorers going deep into jungles to find obscure creatures. There’s just nothing left. Science has it covered, but this is not a discovered world. It’s a world undergoing discovery. Science is not just something that happens in a laboratory with lab coats and sterile rooms. To grow our known universe you don’t have to look to the stars or deep into bacteria. All you have to do is take a walk through the market, maybe even eat a rat. One of the greatest tricks that your mind plays on you is making you believe that wherever you grew up is the standard. It’s the normal place where people do the normal things and eat the normal foods. But you’re not normal. Nobody is – at least no more or less normal than anybody else. As a Canadian it can be hard to remember that we’re 30 million people in a world of 7 billion. That’s half a percent. The world is a giant, complex and incredible place. And the only real way to learn is to go find something abnormal and make it your own. The same is true of science. The era we think of as the golden age of scientific discovery lived by this very principle. Amateur botanists and biologists, much like Charles Darwin, sailed around the world collecting and analyzing species that they encountered on their way. Adding them, so to speak, to the overall body of science. Now imagine that you wanted to find a new mammal. How would you go about it? Chances are you’d head somewhere relatively untouched, somewhere humans hadn’t already eaten virtually everything to extinction. Forests that still had old growths, or a region where people simply didn’t live. Beyond that, you’d want to find a place where Western eyes had spent very little time looking around. And that doesn’t offer a whole lot of places. But it does offer Laos. Laos remains relatively cut off from Western science and has never truly garnered a great deal of interest from foreign powers. Colonial France treated it like a backwater. It’s jungles are malarial and incredibly dense, and its extreme poverty means that locals have yet to catch up to the point that they’re providing a great deal of data on their own. On top of that It’s the most bombed country on Earth. Unexploded ordnance are everywhere. Especially in the jungle. Walking off the beaten path is a legitimate risk to your life, So not a lot of people are doing it –
particularly Westerners. Yet, we’re pretty certain that there are still dozens of mammals in the jungles of Laos waiting to be discovered, and we know this because we keep discovering them. Every half a dozen years or so a researcher trumpets an entirely new species completely unknown to science. Never before seen, never before recorded and sometimes never even envisioned. So how do we keep finding them? Well, the market. After all, Western science isn’t comprised of every humans experience. Most people aren’t collecting and analyzing everything they see. Particularly if they consider it normal. There’s no question that the animals Darwin encountered were already known to somebody. They’d been given names, myths, and undoubtedly even recipes from people who lived nearby, But they weren’t known to science. They weren’t – for a lack of a better word – discovered. Which brings me back to the market. I want to focus on a meat market in the city of Thakhek in central Laos. It’s by no means abnormal in this country, but to me It’s a pretty chaotic and crazy place. For those of us who grew up in the West there’s a certain expectation of what a meat market offers, of how meat is viewed. A few standard staple animals behind glass, refrigerated and carved into cuts that most people can name by heart. Systematic, methodological and repeatable – meat science basically. But that’s not how it is in Laos. Need here is more based on what’s available than a truly repeatable pattern. Food is still seasonal, prices are debatable and stalls still sell bush meat direct from the forest. There’s no government inspector coming to check for health code violations. There’s no brand name to let you know how your prosciutto will taste, but there are wild animals. Unknown animals. To a researcher, a meat market in Laos sells more than dinner. It sells scientific discovery. It’s almost like a crowd-sourced way to find every animal under the sun. Particularly as the classic forms of meat are becoming harder to catch in the face of increased hunting, smaller, secondary animals are showing up more. And as horrible as that is for our world’s biodiversity it’s a blessing to science. In the past few decades alone, the meat markets of Southeast Asia have produced about a half a dozen new species. Here in the market of Thakhek in 2005 a researcher named Paulina Jenkins found something called a Lazarus. Not the biblical version, but the rat. It’s called the Laotian rock rat, and the reason they refer to it as Lazarus is because before her discovery they’d imagined that it was extinct. It’s so different from any other type of rodent that it formed its own classification family. Fossil evidence suggests that there wasn’t a rat like this in the last 11 million years, but it isn’t even rare. That’s the part that really sticks out to me, the Laotian rock rat isn’t extinct. It’s not even endangered. It’s actually quite common in this region. We simply didn’t know about it. And there have been many more examples. Markets of Southeast Asia have produced the saola, the giant muntjac, the Indo-Chinese warty pig and more. There’s little doubt in the years to come that we will see more and more of these creatures showing up in the market. The only question is, who will be here to discover them? It could be you. This is Rare Earth.