Friday, November 27, 2015

National Buy-Nothing Day

The human species would not have survived without the instinct of acquisition. We are all descendants of people who got what they needed—alas, often at the expense of other people. But we also have an instinct of contentment, of being able to be satisfied with what we have, to be happy even if we do not have everything that we might want. Imagine Paiute Natives in the Mojave Desert in pre-Columbian times, living in a manner that was beyond frugal, just barely surviving. But the most successful Paiutes, with greatest evolutionary fitness, were those who felt that the land was beautiful and who loved their lives. They were the ones who did not give up, they were the survivors. It may not have occurred to them to spend time thinking about a Big Rock Candy Mountain with all of the things they could not have.

Modern civilization has given us conditions in which the ability to be satisfied with what we have has nearly been strangled. We want everything not just because we want everything but because other people will look down on us if we don’t have everything. Gone is the “Desiderata” of “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” to be replaced with “Buy things you don’t want with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.” We all know this.

A writer named Colin Beavan decided to live for a year in a way that would produce no net impact upon carbon emissions. He describes his experience in his book No Impact Man. He found it was very difficult to have no impact, but quite easy to have less impact, on Earth’s resources. And he discovered, as have thousands of people who have sought a simpler and more spiritual life, that he was perfectly happy without many of the things that he had previously considered essential. He discovered that part of the reason we think that we need mountains of stuff is that advertisers, through every medium and all day, tell us that we need the stuff. In Beavan’s words, a summary of every advertisement would read, “You suck, but if you buy our product you won’t. Then everybody will love you.”

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the traditional beginning of the Christmas season, which has for modern society become a time of unrelenting advertisement. As Dave Barry said, “Once again, we come to the holiday season: a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”

Black Friday is a time when, just one day after giving thanks for what we already have, we are willing to claw over the bodies of other people in order to buy what we do not have.

Please join me in National Buy-Nothing Day. Consuming less (and on some days buying nothing) is the only thing that will free us from the overuse of energy which is bringing on global warming. No amount of energy efficiency can compensate for the simple fact that we use too much of everything.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What is Faith?

Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a science essay. But I assure you it does fit in with science. I want to share a story that I heard on Krista Tippett’s On Being, an NPR show, on September 24 of this year. I retell this story from memory, since I do not have time to listen to the whole podcast over again, but you can hear it at this link.

Dr. Guy Consolmagno is the current Vatican Astronomer, at the Vatican Observatory, and Dr. George Coyne is the recently retired astronomer. Now, whoa. You may not have known there even was a Vatican Observatory. Wasn’t this the church that condemned Galileo for believing the Earth was not the center of the universe, and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake? Well, it took a while for the Vatican to catch up with science, but in 1891 Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory. (Now you know what the URL suffix “.va” stands for.) Instead of resisting science, the Catholic church decided to pursue it.

Dr. Coyne told a story of speaking at a convention of astronomers one time. He was wearing his priestly vestments. Then someone in the audience asked him, “Father,” not Dr. Coyne or George, “What does it feel like to go to work each day with the realization that you already know all of the answers?” Coyne’s response was swift and sure. He tore off his robe (I assume he was clothed underneath, and not in Mormon magical undergarments) and let everyone know that faith is not about knowing the answers, but about the assurance that the universe can be, as each day and year passes, better and better understood: our efforts at research will be rewarded. Even if we never understand it fully.

That is a way of describing the fundamental faith that all scientists have. And it is a leap of faith: there is no logical reason to believe that our brains, which evolved to maximize the fitness of genes and individuals, should have any way of understanding the universe. We evolved intelligence because it gave us a better ability to survive and to form associations with or to dominate other human beings. It evolved as a tool for evolutionary success, in the pursuit of which rationalization was just as good as reason. What our minds tell us need not be true, except in the matter of telling us where the edge of the cliff, or the next meal, is; it can be total fantasy, and natural selection favors it, so long as it allows us to form associations and to dominate others. I consider it an astonishing thing that our brains just happen to be suited for understanding the universe also. Even though very few people can actually understand dark energy or superstrings, at least we can understand the reasoning.

Keep the faith, brethren. We can understand the world, despite the political and religious and economic forces of hatred and unreason that try to keep us from doing so.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

The 104th  Annual Technical Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences has just concluded, and with it my term as president. I am now the Immediate Past President. The president for 2016-2017 will be Terry Conley, a dean at Cameron University. The new president elect, who will become president in 2018, is Adam Ryburn of Oklahoma City University. During Adam’s term I will devolve from being Immediate Past President to being Le Président Ancienne, and then after that I will be Le Président Vieux.

The OAS Technical meetings are an excellent venue to connect with our fellow scientists from around the state. It is also an excellent place for students to present their first research results in a non-threatening environment. Our passion at OAS is to nurture an ongoing culture of science in Oklahoma.

But I need to comment on a student presentation in the Science Communication and Education section. The two students, from Oral Roberts University, gave a presentation that was clearly not research. It was a scripted presentation that was very similar to one given by the science dean at ORU (who was a co-author on this presentation) back in 2012, only this time it was incomprehensible. Perhaps this was because it was redacted from a longer version. But unlike the dean’s presentation back in 2012, this presentation had sock puppets. Well, a PowerPoint slide of sock puppets.

The sock puppets told us that there is an “invisible hand” behind everything in the universe. Evidence? None was presented. Perhaps the sock puppets, and their friend the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster, are all the evidence you need.

Next, without visible connection to what had come before, the presenters claimed that engineering can come to the rescue to help solve the alienation between social sciences and natural sciences (and they showed a cartoon to this effect). Once again, they did not explain how engineering was supposed to do this.

Then they claimed that the cosmos was obviously designed. Evidence? The evidence was that water says “drink me” and woman says “love me.” (No, really. You can’t make something like this up.) So it was obvious to the presenters, and they assumed it should also be to us, that the purpose of water is to be drunk by humans and maybe other animals. Presumably evaporative cooling of animals and leaves, and erosion of sediments, are not part of water’s purpose. And, of course, the purpose of a woman is to be loved. Does this refer to carnal love by a man? If they were referring to spiritual love, they would have said people say “love me.” But the statement (which they were quoting from a book I had never heard of) gave it a specific gender. Maybe this is not what they meant, but they (and whoever wrote the script) were incredibly naïve to think that their listeners would not make the inference of carnal love (presumably within holy matrimony).

Then they explained the part of the presentation that, in the interest of time, they had to omit. In their presentations to audiences, they present the evidence for evolution and the evidence against evolution and allow the listeners to choose. As anyone who has read this blog or any legitimate books about “creation vs. evolution” must know, it is dishonest to polarize all viewpoints into these two extremes.

But it gets worse. If the presenters were deeply convinced that evolution is utterly evil and creationism utterly true, as appeared to be the case, then they could not possibly present an unbiased assessment of evolution, any more than an atheist can present an unbiased assessment of religion. I could only imagine that they presented something such as “Evolution says that you get ahead by using and subduing other people, survival of the fittest, red in tooth and claw, while creation says you should love other people.” What is a person to think when offered such a choice? If that really is what evolution is about, even I would reject it. (Interestingly, this was merely hours before the Paris terrorist attacks, for which ISIS took credit, and carried out in the name of religion.) I brought this point up during the brief question/answer period afterward. (There was no time for questions, but I was the next presenter and gave up some of my own time for it.) All the students said was that they really tried to present a fair version of evolution.

The presenters also indicated, as nearly as I could understand, that the funding they had received required some kind of assessment at how effective their presentation had been. They presented the results of audience feedback from previous presentations. The audiences had overwhelmingly liked their presentation.

Now, suppose that they had, at this time, conducted a survey of their presentation with our group. They did not, but had they done so, they might have gotten a more positive response than they might otherwise have simply because they told us that previous audiences had liked it. This is almost a textbook definition of bias. That would be like me telling my students, before semester evaluations, “All my other classes for the last 17 years have loved me,” implying, “so if you don’t there’s something wrong with you.” (I don’t do this.)

I asked the presenters who the audiences were who gave them their positive evaluations. They claimed they had given presentations at two previous scientific meetings, and that the other presentations had been to church groups and Bible studies. To me this indicated that the vast majority of their sample was from carefully-selected religious groups. I very much doubt they gave their presentation to any Unitarians, or to mainline denominations (including the twenty-first century Catholic Church) which have, for the most part, made their peace with evolutionary science. If they separated out their presentations to science meetings from the others, would the results have been so positive? Well, I can tell you that if I were them and the feedback from scientists had been positive, I would certainly have said so, and with pride. I doubt that they held this information back due to modesty.

This project was sponsored by Biologos, which claims to defend an evolutionary interpretation of God’s creation. Unlike organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Biologos does not appear to be simply a front for Intelligent Design, which is by no stretch of the imagination evolutionary. ID (as it is known) is top-down, in which a Great Engineer in the Sky designed the world, while evolution is bottom-up. However, Oral Roberts University apparently convinced Biologos to give them a grant in order to promote ID. I very much doubt that Biologos likes the creation/evolution polarization that ORU appears to promote. This presentation would have been better if it were merely old-fashioned ID. As it was, it was merely confusing.

My presentation, following theirs, was about Lee Smolin’s idea of fecund universes, that is, the natural selection of universes. I have written about this previously. I think it offers a truly clever example of natural selection at work on things other than organisms. Ideas, music, technologies (in general, memes) evolve, and do so by natural selection. Computer programmers often use evolutionary computing to design things from the bottom up rather than the top down. Why not universes? The difference between my presentation and the one preceding it was that I admitted there was no evidence, since this universe (sample size = 1) is the only one we know about. The ID proponents never admit that there is no evidence for their beliefs.

OAS encourages student research. But the ORU presentation sounded very much like student indoctrination, the recital of a script that sounded suspiciously like what the ORU science dean had presented before, than research. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New video

See my latest Darwin video. A Tale of Two Gavels: one from an Academy of Science, and one from the KKK. Science can help us overcome racism.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nanyehi: The Continued Evolution

It has been two years since I first saw the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is based on the story of the last Cherokee ghigau, Nanyehi (also known as Nancy Ward). She lived from about 1738 to about 1822. I have a particular interest in this woman because she was my sixth great grandmother. Nanyehi was caught between the worlds of Europeans and Cherokees, and between peace and war. She was a war heroine who, all of her life, led the way to peace. Of course, for the Cherokees, neither the path of war nor of peace ultimately worked; both paths led to the United States conquering the Cherokee. We remain a conquered nation today.

The first set of performances was supported by the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in Hartwell, Georgia in 2012. The second set was sponsored by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in Tahlequah in 2013. This was where I first saw it. There were other performances in 2014: in Tulsa, Oklahoma (I saw this one), and Kingsport, Tennessee. The fifth set of performances has just ended in Tulsa, where I saw it last night.

In 2013, I wrote rapturously about this musical in this blog. After seeing it three times my opinion remains unchanged. Each time it is performed (with Michelle Honaker as Nanyehi and Travis Fite as Tsiyu Gansini) it gets better and better in every way. Becky and Nick have added a couple of new musical pieces since the first performance, which are among the best: “Love Doesn’t Come in Colors” and “War or Peace.” These pieces focus on some of the most important themes: the warrior Tsiyu Gansini is displeased with his peaceful cousin Nanyehi marrying a white man (Bryant Ward, my sixth great grandfather) or with her championing of the way of peace. You can find all information about this musical, including the stories and lyrics of all the pieces, at the website.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the evolution of this musical is that it has already become a classic.  There are already famous lines from it, such as when peace chief Attakullakulla says that “Cherokee women have always done and will always do whatever they want.” But most of all it has become a new tribal tradition. In its first performances, it needed support from the tribe; the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma paid for every Cherokee citizen who wanted to attend the 2013 Tahlequah performance. But last night the performance hall at the Cherokee Casino was totally filled. And what was the most common thing that I heard people talking about after the performance? The most common words were “Aren’t you glad you came?” and “Wasn’t that good?” and “See you again next year right here.”

The story of Nanyehi is only sparsely documented in books. Search for “Nancy Ward” on Amazon and you find only old books or children’s books or chapters within other books. I believe it is time that someone write a really good popular book about this astonishing woman who was important not only in Cherokee but in American history. Actually, I have a manuscript that I hope to market very soon. The words at the end of the theme song of the musical are “You will be heard!” but most people have never heard of Nancy Ward. I hope that my future writing, and the continued success of Becky and Nick’s musical, will fix this problem.

The issues faced by Nancy Ward and her warrior cousin are still with us today. Does war lead to peace, as Tsiyu Gansini said, or must we pursue peace as our primary goal, as Nanyehi said? This exact same story is going on in the Middle East today.

Another important aspect of the story of Nancy Ward is what some writers have called the sacred feminine. Civilization and organized religion have enforced male domination and crushed women into a subservient role. For example…well, look at all of recorded history. And look at the world today. But in many tribal societies, including the Cherokees, women often had important positions of leadership. As ghigau, Nanyehi could decide the fates of war captives. Primitive Christianity, when the church first started, was dismissed by outsiders as a religion for women and slaves. But eventually women lost their power: the church became entirely patriarchal, and in the early nineteenth century the Cherokee Nation reorganized itself to imitate American governance. Once the Cherokee Nation had a constitution, beginning in New Echota in 1827 (now in Georgia), only men could vote or hold office. The sacred feminine of nurture and peace was lost in the Cherokees just as in almost all other tribes, nations, and institutions. In a world that is still largely patriarchal, Nanyehi (Nancy Ward) remains a heroine worthy of our admiration. She was not perfect, but who was?

You don’t have to be Cherokee to be totally swept away by the story of Nancy Ward. If any of you ever get the chance to see the musical, don’t miss it! Hey you people in California, get on a plane and come back here next year to see it! Watch for information on the website. It just might restore a little faith that humanity has some goodness left in it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Human Nature in the Bible and in Lucretius

It is interesting that the pagan philosopher Lucretius, a Roman living in the early Christian era, had a better understanding of human nature than did any of the writers of the Bible. Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, usually translated On the Nature of Things, although I sometimes wonder if a better translation might not be On the Backside of Nature. Ha. It is a long poem about what Lucretius thought was everything. All about matter (he said everything was made from particles), every aspect of science, and the entire history of the world, ending with the Plague of Athens (which leads historians to believe that he died before finishing the poem). As is any work  from two millennia ago that attempts to be scientific, it has some howling mistakes, but was a pretty good try. In later essays I will tell you more about this remarkable work, even though I find it difficult to read. But for now I would like to focus on his theory of the origins of human society.

Lucretius described prehistoric men in Book Five. He said they were stronger than modern men, “of larger bones and heavier frame” (Book Five, line 927), their strength not sapped by exposure to heat or cold, and without agriculture. They would sleep at night under blankets of leaves. Night did not frighten them. They lived off of wild fruits and seeds, which, it so happened, were bigger than modern wild fruits and seeds. They slaked their thirst from streams and springs, which Lucretius poetically described (“living water…Laved the moist rocks…O’er the green moss it trickled…”). They hadn’t figured out how to use fire or make clothes from animal skins. In addition, each man looked out for himself, unconcerned about the common good: “Whate’er chance offered unto each he took, well schooled to live and thrive each for himself alone.” Not only that, but they made reckless love: men and women either chose their lovers or else men would fight for women—or sometimes buy their love by giving them “arbute berries, acorns, [or] gathered pears.” They hunted wild animals with clubs or by throwing rocks at them. The certainty of death did not frighten them; in fact, if they knew they were going to die, they would drink poison.

Then, said Lucretius, humans began to get soft when they formed families and started living in huts and forming pacts with neighbors. They had primitive languages, at first just imitating the sounds of things, in a manner not entirely different from the way animals (including mythic Molossian hounds) communicate by making different sounds for different meanings. Then, humans received the gift of fire not from a god but from nature, and once they had it, they could cook and soften their foods.

The next step was when humans with the best ideas began to persuade other humans to follow them, and begin to live together in cities, which led toward civilization but also toward oppression; in particular, whoever had the most gold had the most power, regardless of the fact that other people were smarter or lovelier. Lucretius notes that true happiness is to be found in “simple modesty with heart content; For where a little is, there is no lack” (lines 1124-1125), but civilization glorified the rich. Within and between nations, men fought one another for gain: “So it is now, and evermore shall be” (line 1138).

So kings did fall, and all the ancient pride
Of lordly thrones and haughty scepters lay
O’erturned in lowly dust; and stained with blood
The glorious diadem of kingly heads
Beneath the feet of swarming mobs…

(lines 1139-1143). Sounds like the poem Ozymandias, doesn’t it? Only Lucretius wrote this almost two millennia earlier than Shelley. But in some cases, Lucretius said, people “might of their own accord submit themselves to regulations” (lines 1152-1153), allowing the rule of law to create peace rather than having constant war. Men grew weary of a life of violence, he said.

Next Lucretius explains the origin of religion. It began with dreams, in which people saw great and powerful beings. It was not a big stretch to attribute to these gods the origin and operation of the heavens and the Earth. It almost sounds like Lucretius was an atheist—not only because, throughout his poem, he attributes everything that happens in the natural world to particles, but also because in Book Five he wrote, “O hapless human kind, when unto gods such deeds it hath assigned…” (lines 1194-1195). He describes religious practices, such as sacrificing beasts at altars, with scarcely-concealed disdain. It is far better, Lucretius says, “To view all things with heart and mind at peace” (line 1206). Lucretius implies that it is pretty stupid to believe that lightning bolts and storms at sea are caused by angry gods; so if you are caught out in one, you may get lucky or you may not, but don’t bother with supplications to the gods.

To finish out Book Five, Lucretius writes about the history of metallurgy, then of war, culminating in the use of elephants as fighting machines. He speculated in lines 1343-1345 that things might have gone differently on some other world. He said men, not women, made the technological advances and invented agriculture. Then he ends his discourse on the history of civilization with the intention of the flute. Isn’t that nice?

Very well. From our modern viewpoint, Lucretius’ history of humankind is pretty weird, especially the part about men buying love from prehistoric whores by offering them arbute berries (genus Arbutus, family Ericaceae). Where the heck did he get that idea?

But remember that Lucretius was working from a position of having absolutely no data about human prehistory. The only other cultural groups of whom he knew, such as the Etruscans and Gauls, were not substantially different from Romans prior to civilization. (Gauls were, we must remember, an agricultural society that replaced previous tribes in what is now France at least six thousand years before Lucretius wrote.) Lucretius had no information about primitive people. (Do we? The supposedly primitive Amazonian tribes are actually the remnants of a collapsed Amazonian civilization.) As Lucretius wrote, the bones of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal and the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were hiding, completely unknown, in European caves. So he resorted to speculation. It was either that or not write anything at all.

But, against all odds, Lucretius’ picture of human prehistory and history is not too different from our modern understanding, and strikingly different from Genesis. Genesis does not even recognize a prehistoric phase of human history: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were already completely modern, had the capacity for language, and within one generation their children had the ability to raise crops and livestock. Today we understand that the human body has, indeed, evolved to be more gracile largely because of the invention of cooking and of society. According to Richard Wrangham’s “cooking hypothesis,” cooking allowed more protein for the evolutionary expansion of the brain. And most paleoanthropologists understand that, since primitive humans fought with weapons or, sometimes, figured out ways to not fight, their canine teeth evolved to be smaller. That is, we have bigger brains and smaller teeth because of cooking and cooperation—which is exactly what Lucretius said two thousand years ago. And Lucretius explained how religion evolved. He didn’t quite get it right—his version omits the role of sexual selection in the origin of religion—but at least he understood that it evolved, which Genesis says nothing about. In Genesis, religion began because God walked around in the Garden of Eden and chatted with Adam and Eve. And Lucretius had the same disdain for religious practices that most modern scientists have.

There you have it. With regard to the origin of humans, and of human society, the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius was more correct than even a figurative interpretation of Genesis.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Consumer alert

STAY AWAY FROM SEARS. I had to buy a new refrigerator today (not Sears) for $750. The one that died was a Kenmore from Sears that was only two years old, just outside of the warranty. I have patronized the Sears store in Durant Okla only twice, and both times were utter disasters. I bought an electric lawn mower from them that melted: someone at Sears decided to put a motor in a plastic casing. Fortunately that was under warranty. We have had troubles up in Tulsa also, where they HALF installed an electric stove and we had to install it the rest of the way. I rescued my food and stored it in the office fridge. STAY AWAY FROM SEARS.