VEGGING OUT: Until humans can figure out photosynthesis, we're going to have to keep on killing things to keep ourselves alive. Every meal we eat is the result of death — whether it's hamburgers, halibut or hummus — leaving us to rationalize which deaths we're comfortable with. The BBC News Magazine sinks its teeth into the issue this week, examining the evolution of vegetarianism and "the rise of the non-veggie vegetarian," particularly those who eat fish and other seafood. Plants are widely seen as our least ethically troubling prey since they don't have brains, but can fish eaters also be called vegetarian? "They cannot," says Juliet Gellatley, director of the vegan and vegetarian group Viva. "The definition is very clear. It's someone who doesn't eat anything from a killed animal." Early adherents of vegetarianism were widely motivated by ethical issues, such as preventing animals' pain and suffering, but modern-day herbivores are often driven at least as much by ecological and human-health concerns — overfishing and mercury poisoning, for example, may cause some people to spurn snapper as much as the idea of making the fish suffer. While "classic vegetarianism" seems to be giving way to the more nuanced views of  "flexitarians," "meat-reducers" or "green eaters," Gellatley says people who start eating less meat are always welcome, even if they aren't technically vegetarians. "People are moving along a pathway," she says. "The positive thing is that they see vegetarianism as aspirational." (Source: BBC News)

BOYCOTT SHMOYCOTT: Vexed by a GOP boycott of talks on the Senate's climate bill, Democrats had to employ a rarely used rule on Thursday to push the legislation through the Environment and Public Works Committee. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, committee chairwoman and co-sponsor of the bill, had appealed to Republicans to attend the markup meetings this week, but in their absence (pictured) she was forced to invoke the the arcane procedural rule, allowing the panel to vote despite not having a quorum, which requires two members of the minority party to be in attendance. The bill passed by a vote of 11-1, with only Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., voting against it, although it's unlikely to make it to a floor vote before next year. World leaders had pressed Senate Democrats to at least move the bill out of committee if they can't pass it before December's U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, for which the bill was supposed to be a sign of the United States' commitment to fighting climate change. (Sources: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Associated Press)

DOUBLE BILLING: Meanwhile, the Senate climate bill's other co-sponsor, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, is working with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., on a compromise that would seem to make the so-called "Kerry-Boxer" bill a bit irrelevant. The tripartisan trio is seeking a middle ground palatable enough to win 60 Senate votes, which many worry the bill that was driven by Sen. Barbara Boxer out of committee on Thursday can't get. Kerry says he hasn't abandoned that bill, and isn't circumventing it, telling the Washington Post that "we're going to build on it." In the coming weeks or months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is likely to stitch various versions together into a final climate bill, the Post reports, but most observers are still doubtful that much progress will be made in time for the Copenhagen climate talks. (Source: Washington Post)

CRYING OUT LOUD: Babies start picking up their parents' accents from the womb, and infants are born already crying in their native dialect, according to a new study in the journal Current Biology. By closely examining the wails of 60 healthy babies born to French- and German-speaking families, the researchers found that French newborns cry in a rising French "accent," while the German babies cry with a characteristic falling inflection. Previous studies have shown that fetuses could memorize sounds from outside the womb, proving especially adept at mimicking the contour of the melody in both music and human speech, but this is the first evidence of them actually starting to learn an accent in utero. Being such quick studies may be an innate attempt by the babies to bond with their mothers by imitating them, the researchers suggest, since the contour of vocal melodies may be the only part of their mothers' speech they're capable of replicating. (Source: BBC News)

GOING VIRAL: Deep in the freshwater lakes of Antarctica, scientists have discovered thousands of viruses thriving in brutal conditions, many of them previously unknown to science. Published online Thursday in the journal Science, their genetic study reveals roughly 10,000 viruses from a dozen different families — a viral diversity the researchers call "unexpectedly high," since aquatic environments are often home to viruses from just three to six families. Most intriguingly, the Antarctic viruses seem to help their microscopic hosts survive in the harsh conditions, the researchers found. The single-stranded DNA viruses transform into double-stranded versions of themselves each summer, and since many were found to contain genes involved in photosynthesis, they may help their algae hosts bloom in the summer sun, which would also give the viruses more, and healthier, hosts to infect. "We are just starting to uncover the world of viruses," one of the researchers says. "And this is changing the way we think about viruses and the role they play in microbial ecosystems." (Source: Scientific American)

PEAK PERFORMANCE: Europe's tallest mountains are still growing, but you wouldn't know it to look at them, according to a new study in the journal Tectonophysics. Movements in the Earth's crust are pushing up the Alps by about 1 millimeter per year, which should theoretically have built them up into even taller, more towering peaks by now, akin to Asia's Himalayas. But at the same time, the mountains are being eroded at almost exactly the same speed, essentially canceling out their continuous growth. "It is similar to an iceberg in the sea," says one of the scientists from the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences. "If the top melts, the iceberg surfaces out of the water by almost the same share." So even as the Earth is regenerating the mountains from below, their tops are being whittled down by wind, water, glaciers and falling rocks, which has led them to be classified as "dead" in a tectonic sense. (Source: e! Science News)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (wild salmon with spring vegetables and salsa verde): ZUMA Press

Photo (climate bill boycott): Harry Hamburg/AP

Photo (Sens. Graham, Kerry and Lieberman): ZUMA Press

Photo (crying baby): John Foxx/Getty Images

Photo (Alps): America.gov

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 11/6/2009
Climate bill beats boycott, babies cry with accents, Antarctic lakes hold new viruses, and more.