Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Landscape Thick with Stories

Every landscape is a palimpsest thick with stories. Where I live in Oklahoma is an example.

First, there is the story of its evolutionary past, for example when the part of Oklahoma in which I live was the bottom of a shallow sea, creating limestone filled with seashells, or when the Ice Ages caused Oklahoma to be cold and dry, a place where spruce trees and mastodons lived.

Second, there are the primordial human effects just after the most recent Ice Age. The native peoples who originally lived here were hunters and gatherers, but they deliberately manipulated the environment. They often set fires, which cleared away some of the forests and created grasslands on which game animals could graze and browse. The post oak forests were open and light because the fires did not often kill the large trees, and the oak seedlings could resprout.

Third, there are the secondary human effects caused by later immigrants, not only whites but the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles, and later by dozens of other tribes. Not only the whites but the “Five Nations” of natives displaced from the east brought agriculture and ranching.

Finally, there are the modern effects caused by the exploitative human economy: urbanization, pollution (especially from oil extraction), and global warming.

When I walk or drive through Oklahoma, I think about all of these layers of natural and human effects on the landscape. I see myself as part of that last layer (I hope a less destructive member of that layer than are many other people), and therefore as part of a complex set of stories.

In contrast, when someone drives a big truck as fast as possible, spewing black smoke from the tailpipes, they are experiencing only one story: “me, me, me, me.”

Another place that is a palimpsest of stories is central California, where I will be going to my fortieth high school class reunion tomorrow. The San Joaquin Valley was once a vast marsh teeming with wildlife, with water coming into it from snowmelt through the Kings, Kaweah, and Tule Rivers. Today nearly all of this water has been diverted into agricultural irrigation and (to a lesser extent) domestic use.

The landscape has been totally altered into agricultural fields and weed patches, with just a few exceptions. When I grew up there, I thought I was lucky to live out in the countryside, away from the air pollution of Los Angeles. But today, and even back then, the air quality of the Visalia-Tulare-Porterville area is one of the worst in the nation, and the environment was (is?) permeated by pesticides. The story of human alteration and pollution of the land overlies the natural environment. And part of the human story includes economic injustice: migrant farm workers barely make a living, in that pesticide-drenched land, on vast farms owned by rich corporations.

We need to be able to read the palimpsest of stories on the landscape in order to understand the Earth on which we live and which is endangered by our activities.

Friday, April 17, 2015


We can all think of people that we consider intolerable, whether on the world scene or locally, and that we wish could simply be swept out of the way. The same way with many situations that we consider intolerable. Time to get on our high horses and clean the place up, right?

But of course this is impossible. We know that. What I am saying here is that it is also not a good idea to even try. I realized this while I was reading Robert Trivers’s book The Folly of Fools, a book about deception and self-deception. Early in the book he writes about nest parasitism, in which birds such as cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other species, and the parents of the other species feed and raise the cuckoo chicks. How could natural selection have produced birds that are so stupid as to be deceived by the cuckoos, especially when the cuckoo chicks are often much bigger than the birds’ own chicks? Surely natural selection could have been able to produce birds that could count up to, say, three, and realize that there are too many eggs in the nest, or recognize the big chick as being awfully weird-looking.

Natural selection could have done this but did not. One reason that Trivers provides for this is the cost of false positives. If parent birds start ejecting chicks, they might eject some of their own. The cost of ejecting even one of their own chicks might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasites. Furthermore, in the absence of nest parasitism, it makes sense for the parents to feed the biggest chicks the most, since those chicks are the ones most likely to survive. The risk of a false positive—host birds ejecting their own large chick thinking it to be a grossly oversized parasite—might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasite.

And so when I encounter intolerable people, I will try to just sigh and think of such people as cuckoos, and when I encounter intolerable situations, I will just think of it as a dirty nest. If the problem is easy to fix, I will fix it, but otherwise I will just save myself the cortisol and forget about it. Easier said than done, but that is my goal.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring in Oklahoma: Scientists Go Outside

The Oklahoma Academy of Science had its spring field meeting this past weekend at Sequoyah State Park near Muskogee. Fortunately we missed the torrential rains that started falling today. It was gently cool, and softly overcast—which made the green of the new leaves very intense. On Saturday morning and afternoon we had field trips.We saw beautiful and interesting plants. Examples include the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum in the Berberidaceae):

And spiderwort (Tradescantia ernestiana in the Commelinaceae):

We also saw the mycotrophic orchid Corallorhiza wisteriana. It does not have chlorophyll. It gets its nutrition from decaying wood. But not directly. It is mycotrophic rather than saprophytic because mutualistic fungi absorb the nutrients from rotting wood and provide them to the orchid.

On one of our hikes we visited a nearby Boy Scout camp owned and operated by the family of Andrea Blair, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University Tulsa campus.

We saw a magnificently blooming buckeye (Aesculus glabra in the Hippocastanaceae). But it was on the other side of the creek so I had to wade across to get photos of it. This would have been a simple matter except that the rocks were just the right size to hurt my tender old feet.

Especially in the afternoon, the field trips combined forces to gain a multi-disciplinary view of nature. Liz Bergey of OU found a slime mold. And we all wished for a competent paleontologist when we found abundant fossils near the lake shore. In this photo, you can see many crinoids (a kind of echinoderm, with stalks that look like stacks of coins), corals, and bryozoans (now known as ecoprocts). The bryozoans were of the genus Archimedes and looked more like a fish backbone. That’s what I thought they were at first, but I never saw any “fish ribs” with the “backbones,” which meant I had to be wrong.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, guest speakers provided fascinating presentations. On Friday, Charles Brown of University of Tulsa told us about his over three decades of research into the costs, benefits, and evolution of colony behavior in cliff swallows. You think you’ve had bedbugs? But a single little swallow nest can have hundreds of them. On Saturday, Ron Bonett of University of Tulsa told us about salamanders in Oklahoma, and about the repeated evolution of species in which juveniles become sexually reproductive. In the photo, field meeting organizer Connie Murray (of Tulsa Community College Metro campus) talks with Charles Brown.

Every spring and fall, OAS has wonderful field meetings. There are always lots of interesting things to see, and wonderful people to explore with. My thanks to everyone who made the meeting a success, including our Executive Director David Bass who had to make sure everything happened.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Measure of Manhood in Rural Oklahoma

Evolutionary fitness results from successful reproduction. When mates select one another (in animals), they (consciously or subconsciously) try to select mates that have the best genes. Of course, they cannot see these genes, so they must use indirect fitness indicators as a basis for the choice. In birds, these indicators include bright plumage and beautiful songs. These are reliable fitness indicators because a genetically inferior bird cannot produce either of them.

How about humans? Frequently, human fitness indicators in the modern world make no sense. Maybe they are the modern remnants of fitness indicators that did make sense in prehistoric times. For example, a male driving around a loud car does not indicate anything about the quality of his genes, but a male riding a horse in prehistoric times most definitely did indicate genetic quality.

Modern human fitness indicators can be very unreliable and vary wildly from culture to culture. I do not simply mean geographical cultures, but cultures within cultures as well. The fitness indicators in the academic world (number of publications, number and size of grants, number of teaching awards, etc.) are very different from those in society as a whole.

I present here an incomplete list of some of the male fitness indicators that I have seen in rural Oklahoma, for the benefit of those of you who have not been here.

  • Size of pickup truck
  • Amount of fumes coming from pickup truck. The most prestigious trucks have grossly enlarged exhaust pipes and you can smell them a block away.
  • Amount of noise from pickup truck (same comments)
  • Amount of mud on pickup truck. About half the trucks I see are nearly covered with mud. In most cases, the mud is so uniformly spread across the vehicle that I suspect it was deliberately sprayed on.
  • Size of wheels on pickup truck. Supersized wheels and tires may cause damage to the truck, but in the short term it can be impressive to some people.
  • Frequency of spitting on the ground right where people walk (tobacco spittle preferred but not essential)
  • Amount of garbage produced. Sometimes people will dispose of their garbage in your bin, or in your yard, but more frequently they will have overflowing garbage bins on pickup days. This, rather than expensive cars or suits, is the rural Oklahoma way of advertising conspicuous consumption.

Remember that true fitness is related to the number of successful offspring, not just to the number of offspring. In Oklahoma, many males leave behind a large number of offspring but only minimally support them. These children survive but are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to having a satisfying life.

Let me close by mentioning a good fitness indicator in rural Oklahoma. A lot of men are proud to be employed, even if it is only to mow lawns. One of the problems Durant, Oklahoma faces is a shortage of skilled labor. But doing a job, frequently under unpleasant conditions, and getting paid for it, is a mark of distinction, and a good one.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Update on Oklahoma Earthquakes

Oklahoma has seen a dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma. Oklahoma is on track to surpass California as the earthquake capital of America. In California it is due to the San Andreas fault, at which the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate rub against one another. But in Oklahoma it appears to be overwhelmingly due to wastewater injection, a practice associated with oil fracking. To see just how dramatic the increase is, click here.

Oklahoma has a state seismologist. Part of his job is to investigate the patterns and infer the causes of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Scientists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey know that the evidence that wastewater injection has caused the dramatic increase in earthquakes is very clear. Yet the Oklahoma State Seismologist  Austin Holland has been very hesitant to say anything about it. One reason, of course, is that the fossil fuel corporations do not want him to, and they are major employers and major sources of tax revenue in Oklahoma. As a state official, Holland is caught between the science and the politics. His hesitation to say anything about it caused one Oklahoma Geological Survey official to say in a private email that the state seismologists “couldn’t track a bunny through fresh snow.” Of course, they can, but they dare not say so.

Despite his unwillingness to speak out for the connection between wastewater injection and earthquakes, Holland has also come under criticism for not speaking out against it. The pressure for Holland to speak out against any culpability that fossil fuel corporations may have became very clear when he was called to a conference with oil company executives and with David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma. While they did not tell him he had to speak out against the scientists at the Geological Survey, but Boren made it very clear that oil companies were major donors to the University. You can read about the events in this and the preceding paragraph at this link.

Holland has admitted, in at least one interview (with the Washington Post), that the oil industry has tried to influence his conclusions (see here).

Corporations extract tremendous profits and leave the public with the consequences. The consequences of fracking in Oklahoma are now getting to be as good an example of this as coal mining in the Appalachians for years.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Second Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, part three

On the Thursday of the Second Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip (see previous entries), we went down into the mystical, mythical, misty land of Texas, through fog that shrouded the Red River. We kept driving down to Dinosaur Valley State Park. After a picnic lunch, we looked for dinosaur footprints. This location is described more fully in earlier blog entries (here, and follow the links). We could only see a couple of prints, because the river was up, filling the footprints with sand and gravel. We did find one—one of the best—that was above water level and with which the students had their photos taken.

I did not need to tell the students very much; this brilliant group pretty much figured out all the things you could learn about dinosaurs by studying not just their footprints but their trackways. We wished that we could have been there when the water was low and Glen Kuban was with us. As a consolation prize, the next day I showed them some videos from my YouTube channel in which Glen explains the trackways (for example here and here).

Technical note: since the earlier entries, the Paluxysaurus dinosaur has been assigned to the genus Sauroposeidon.

I also told the students about the “man-track” controversy, in which a relatively small number of creationists claim that there are human footprints alongside and even overlapping the dinosaur footprints. This would show that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time and that, ergo, all of evolutionary science was wrong. Of course, the creationists cannot explain how, in the middle of Noah’s Flood, dinosaurs came out of their hidey holes and left footprints in sediments that had just been deposited by that flood. But we will let that pass. If, in fact, there are verifiable human prints overlapping with dinosaur prints, then evolution has a problem.

So we all went (and paid our admission fees) to Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidences Museum, which I have described in earlier blog entries (for example here). The first thing that I noticed was that the displays (with fake slave shackles) that claimed that evolution led to slavery had been removed. But several of the students went straight to the display that claimed to show a human footprint overlapping an Acrocanthosaurus print. They all noticed that the so-called “man-print” looked fake. All the toes were perfect, and there did not appear to be an arch. One particularly observant student pointed out to me that the silica grains inside the man-print reflected light, while the silica grains outside the print did not, which is exactly what you would expect if the print was carved into the rock. Gotcha! Another alleged man-print did not appear to have any relief, but looked like a layer of paint. Finally, one of the students noticed that the alleged man-print and the (undoubtedly real) dinosaur print had the same amount of relief. But this should not have been possible; the dinosaur would have compressed the mud, and the human footprint on top of it would have been shallower. I’m not absolutely sure about this, but it does look a little suspicious, doesn’t it?

Some of the alleged man-prints were very large and supposedly produced by giants (Homo bauanthropus, which Baugh named after himself). The students also saw the hammer supposedly deposited in Cretaceous limestone. (It might have slipped in a limestone crack maybe a few decades ago and was then cemented by dissolved calcite.) Some of the students were quite skeptical that giants would use such a small hammer. Maybe it was for dental work, one of them said. These students noticed things that, in my previous visits, I had not. I remain grateful for their insights.

We watched (some of us more, some less) a video of Carl Baugh explaining the history of the planet to us. It is an astonishingly different version than what scientists accept, and even most creationists. He explained the red shift of the galaxies, which makes some of them appear to be 13 billion light years away, by saying that God stretched out the heavens really really really fast on one of the days of Creation. Consider that 13 times 365 is 4,745. God would have stretched out the heavens at 4.7 trillion times the speed of light to do this. He would have had to suspend the physical laws of the whole universe to do this, except on Earth, which was unruffled by all this cosmic excitement. A miracle? I suppose the creationists can make up as many miracles as they like. He said the vapor canopy created a pink light. He also said, I think, that ultraviolet light, cycling through the vapor canopy, created the magnetic field. He also said that God increased the diameter of the Earth after the Flood. He also said that Psalm 18 describes a great noise that shot out into the heavens, “which we assume was microwaves.” A biblical literalist claiming that noise is microwaves? Our heads were spinning with the things Baugh just made up. Perhaps the most amazing was his claim that everything in the fossil record is larger than their modern (post-Flood) counterparts. There are numerous counter-examples (one thinks of horses, for example), but, I suppose, Baugh could explain these away by saying that the organisms that are larger today are not, in fact, counterparts of the smaller organisms in the fossil record.

Outside the museum there is what looks like a petrified log, but one which petrified quickly in a mineral hot spring.

The very existence of petrified wood seems to indicate an old Earth; but can petrified wood actually be young? Look at the photo and you will see that it is mineralized, not petrified; the wood is still there, forming easily visible fibers. Real petrified wood (such as this piece from outside of the Goddard Youth Camp museum) is not like this.

The hyperbaric chamber, which I saw on earlier visits, and which looks like a TV set submarine, is still sitting idle. I asked about this. The receptionist said that all they needed was $250,000 more dollars and they could get it up and running. To prove what? They want to prove that the high air pressure that a vapor canopy would have caused makes organisms grow bigger and healthier. They cannot get permission to experiment on humans or animals, so they presumably still plan (as I was told in 2013) to use plants. But couldn’t they build a smaller chamber for plants, one that would not require so much money? The same observant student who had noticed the silica grains also saw what looked like a small pressure chamber back in a corner. One of the members of our group speculated that the hyperbaric chamber was just a ploy to keep raising money.

Afterward, we went back to the picnic area to discuss what we had seen. We tried to figure out the genetics of Noah and his family. How could five people (Noah, Mrs. Noah, and the wives of the three sons; the sons would have had only the alleles from their parents) have contained all of human genetic diversity? Well, maybe they could have, if they were black. Studies consistently show that almost all human genetic diversity is contained within Africa, with other races having subsets of that diversity. One problem is that, if all humans are descended from Noah’s family, shouldn’t human DNA show a distribution pattern centered around Mt. Ararat, which is in modern Turkey, where the Ark supposedly landed? That is, instead of an afrocentric distribution, shouldn’t there be (I am the first person to use these terms, and I claim priority) an araratocentric or turkocentric distribution of human genetic diversity? The Adam and Eve in the Baugh museum mural were pure white. We also discussed whether the Flood water would have been fresh or salt water or maybe brackish. Whatever the case may be, many species of fishes would not have survived, and the Bible makes no mention of fishes aboard the Ark. Finally, the students noted that it was strange that footprints of a race of giants would be found in Baugh’s museum, but no other evidence for these giants is found anywhere else in the world: in particular, no giant human bones.

However interesting dinosaurs are, humans with their ability to invent stories are much more interesting. Having reached this conclusion, we relocated to a famous barbecue restaurant in Glen Rose.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Second Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, part two

On the Tuesday of the second Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip (see previous entry), the students and instructors drove around south central Oklahoma to look at some amazing geological and fossil features. Most of the places were the same ones the participants saw on the first Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip (see links in previous entry). The students were excited to find so many different kinds of shallow marine fossils. We saw ammonoids, some of them quite large, and huge numbers of oyster shells of the species Texigryphaea navia. Some of them had eroded out of the powdery limestone matrix and were just lying around. First photo: notice the ammonoid fossil. Second photo: Dianne  finds the impression of a large mollusk.

At a roadcut that exposed Ordovician deposits, students found crinoids and lots of coral fossils. The corals formed branches, and in many cases the little pits in which the coral animals live were visible. The first photo shows Victoria looking for fossils, and the second photo shows imbedded fossils of coral and crinoids.

We visited the museum at Goddard Youth Camp, where Clayton Edgar showed us a cast of the most complete skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis (similar to T. rex), whose footprints we later saw down in Texas. You can learn a lot about a dinosaur from its skeleton, especially from the wounds that healed, and the ones that did not.

We went to the top of the Arbuckle Mountains and looked down on Turner Falls, a widely popular recreation destination. But that’s not all we saw. We saw fossils of stromatolites also, images of which I have posted previously. Out of privacy concerns I will indicate only the first names of the students. Left to right, front row: Camille, Dr. Stan Rice, Cadence, Brian, Kelvin, Sujana, Dianne; second row: Molly, Hannah, Kandra, Dr. Gordon Eggleton, Bruce, Turner, David, Kelly, Victoria, Jessica.

The Arbuckle Mountains are an anticline, in which the oldest deposits are on top. How did that happen? Geologic forces pushed up the mountains. Subsequent erosion washed some of them away. The oldest layers, on top of today’s mountains, used to have all the other layers above them. Ah, but if we claim that this is how the oldest layers ended up on top, then there should be some evidence, shouldn’t there? And we saw it. We stopped to see Ordovician limestone layers that had not only been pushed over on their sides but had been warped and distorted by the immense pressure. We also saw conglomerate rock that had filled in a valley during the Pennsylvanian period. Large limestone boulders had washed violently down from the mountains that were still huge at that time. Carbonate leached from these boulders had cemented them together into conglomerate, which is a natural analog of concrete. In the photo, you can see the students standing on either side of what had been, about 270 million years ago, a steep cliff.

The most unexpected part was when most of the students, and myself, had to wait about 45 minutes at a famous fried pie restaurant while one of the vans made an emergency side trip. Fried pies are nice, but you can’t talk about fried pies for 45 minutes. So we decided to play a game. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we ended up guessing each other’s spirit animals. One of the students really liked dogs, so I got the students to figure out how dogs were domesticated from wolves. And then I joked about my spirit animal. Who am I? I have not had sex for thirty million years, which means my parasites should have evolved to drive me to extinction, but they haven’t, because I can dry up and blow away like dust in the wind and leave my fungal parasites behind [link to article]. I am a rotifer. I could never have guessed when we left that morning that I would be in a restaurant telling students about rotifers. We also talked about marsupials. In the photo, the students are watching a video of a joey (baby kangaroo) being born.

Our first field trip day was even better than we could have planned.