Monday, August 15, 2016

Race as Shorthand, Not as Reality

It has always been impossible to define race. Most humans who have ever lived have had characteristics that were recognizable for their race, although nobody could ever figure out how many races there were. For example, are subsaharan Africans all one race? Bantu people (e.g. Nigeria) look very different from Ethiopians and San (e.g. from Namibia).

But in many societies the dominant people found it extremely important to define race with an exactitude that the concept will not allow. This was particularly true for people of mixed ancestry, as many of us are. This resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule in pre-Civil-War America, in which “one drop of black blood” made you black, and if your mother was a slave, you were a slave, even if you were only (like the children of Sally Hemings) one-eighth black. The former Apartheid leaders of South Africa struggled with this concept so much that, in their pitiful final days of rulership, they had to define people from India as honorary whites. No more needs to be added to this, other than that if you have not read Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (a slave and a master, who were both one-eighth black, were switched in the nursery), you should.

Still, look around you, and you will find that race is a useful shorthand for identifying people. Even the bluest of liberals cannot avoid it. And, for me, seeing all the different races helps me to rejoice in human diversity, more so than I would if I (perhaps more accurately) saw each person as unique. On the trams of Strasbourg, I enjoyed seeing Muslims and Jews, each in distinctive garb, mixing with saffron-robed Buddhist priests.

But many people want to make each race a category of blame. The most obvious modern example of this is that millions of conservatives consider all Muslims to deserve blame for the terrorist actions of a small number of them. The solution to terrorism, they believe, is to keep all Muslims out of America. By which they mean, all people Arabic ethnicity. (I’m not sure what they would do with red-headed white Muslims from Turkey or the former Yugoslavia.)

But I’m here to tell you, from personal experience, how evil this is. I am of partial Cherokee ancestry. My sixth great grandmother was Nancy Ward, the famous peace activist of the Cherokee Nation prior to the Trail of Tears. Her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini, was the last holdout of Cherokee warriors, whose Chickamauga warriors did not surrender until 1794 on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors committed numerous atrocities, and Nancy Ward could not stop them. Nancy Ward said “My cry is all for peace,” while Tsiyu Gansini said, “We are not yet conquered.” Today we would call the Chickamauga warriors terrorists.

And yet the United States considered all Cherokees to be guilty of the Chickamauga terrorism. In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and all Cherokees, not just terrorists (of whom none remained by that time) were forced out of their homeland by the United States Army in 1838. Even though the Cherokees by that time had their own written language, newspaper, constitution, Supreme Court, and they lived in white-man houses and had white-man agriculture,
the United States still considered them savages and took their land. It was the category of “Cherokee” that allowed the government to hold all members of the category responsible for the terrorist acts of a few.


When I think about the really nice Muslims I have known, including the couple who struck up a really friendly conversation with us on the tram in Strasbourg, I know none of them approved of Islamist terrorism, any more than my ancestor Nancy Ward approved of the terrorist acts of her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Homage to Abélard

France, part 6.

At the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on July 23, the lines were very long just to get through security inspections and enter inside. This was only to be expected, since it was a Saturday during tourist season, and was also a response to the nearly daily terrorist attacks, such as a few days earlier (July 14) in Nice, and more recent ones in Germany. But I had already seen enough ornate cathedral decorations (see an earlier essay about the Strasbourg cathedral, also called Notre Dame). What I wanted to see and experience inside was something that was probably either off limits at the best of times, or maybe locations now lost to the historical record.




I wanted to see the chamber in which Peter Abélard lived in the twelfth century, and the classroom in which he taught.

Abélard was most famous for being the 35-year-old monk who had a torrid love affair with the 19-year-old nun Heloïse, in revenge for which her Uncle Fulbert arranged to have Abélard castrated. But Abélard was also one of the planet’s major scholars of his time, and Heloïse was an accomplished scholar herself.

And the thing that made Abélard different from all the other scholars was that his primary rule, first, last, and always, was to question what we think we know and what the authorities have told us. His famous quote, preserved in various forms, was this:  “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” This was the closest that any scholar had yet come to the scientific method.

Abélard’s world was extremely limited compared to ours today. He could not have imagined the vastness of the universe, or even that Earth was just a planet like the others that revolved around the sun. He could not have imagined Copernicus, much less Darwin. To him, the universe was as orderly as an astrolabe, the little device that calculated the time and the phases of the moon and the positions of the planets based upon a geocentric model. He and Heloïse even named their love child Astrolabius! But he stretched his mind as far as anyone could at the time.

So I satisfied myself with seeing Notre Dame de Paris from the outside. It was splendid, as the photos show, but not as significant as the contribution that Abélard made to the history of scientific thought.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

What I Learned in the Forests of France: About Humans and Nature

France Part 5.

Our entire July 14 hike (see previous essay) was inside of a national park, the Parc naturel régional des Vosges du Nord (Northern Vosges Regional Natural Park). With a name like that, you would expect such a park, if it were in America, to consist only of natural areas and trails, with limited development, by contractors, to accommodate visitors. In America, a National Park (Department of the Interior) excludes human economic activity as much as possible. National Forests (Department of Agriculture) allow logging and recreation (such as ORVs) other than hiking. In America, you find nature and only nature (for the most part) inside of National Parks.

Meanwhile, outside the National Parks in America, the private land is often being destroyed in an unsustainable fashion. Not only that, but if you trespass on private land, you risk getting shot. This is as true of wolves as of humans. The federal government has re-introduced wolves into federal land, but the moment a wolf strays onto private land it can be, and probably will be, shot dead.


In America, there are usually absolute and hostile lines between the human world and the natural world.

But in France, the Regional Parks (at least this one) embrace humans as a part of nature. First of all, why not? Humans have been farming and ranching and living in villages in France for thousands of years. There is virtually no place left of “unspoiled nature” in France. When you look at the fir forests ear the tops of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, the trees appear to be lined up: they are not forests, but plantations. The Regional Park area has not only been transformed by human cultivation and habitation, but ravaged by war, as shown by the World War I cemetery in this photo.


Therefore when the French government established this park, they did not drive out the humans. The old farms and pastures for dairy cattle are still there, and they are productive. And I don’t mean just a nominal amount of economic activity. This park is actually the highlands of the Muenster Valley, the place of origin of the famous French cheese, about which I will write more in a later blog essay. And it was beautiful. The small towns, such as Pairis (not Paris!) and Orbey, were as picturesque as any “undisturbed” forest.





This has happened for two reasons. First, it reflects a faith in forest succession. No matter what happens, the forests will grow back. Most of the forests of Europe and North America were destroyed just a few thousand years ago by glaciers. They have all grown back. When Longfellow wrote (in his poem Evangeline) about “the forest primeval,” he was actually referring to a forest that was only about ten thousand years old. If you stop abusing the forest, and instead use it in a sustainable fashion, the forest will grow back into a beautiful, functional entity, even if not entirely natural. As a result, the forests of the Vosges Mountains supports, and has supported for centuries, pastures and villages. Everywhere we went, we found great stacks of firewood that had been harvested from the forests with no apparent damage to it. Timber harvest, but no clear-cutting!

Look, folks, it can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you that the timber companies have to clear-cut. In France, there are plenty of firewood and paper products without clear-cutting. A quick online check will show you that the paper products industry in France is very much alive and profitable. Nor do ranches have to have soil erosion! Look at these pictures—do you see any? But these farms are profitable!

Second, private landowners are required to simply accept the fact that hikers will be walking right past their houses and cutting across their lands. In America, signs may warn that “we shoot first and ask questions later” but in France, private land owners must accept the proximity of hikers on their land. Private driveways are marked as “privée,” and hikers stay away from these places. But if hikers were to trespass (which I never saw them do), there is no danger of them being shot. What I did, by walking right through fields and past houses, crossing private land, is virtually unthinkable in America.

The integration of humans and nature in the regional parks not only works but is a major source of enjoyment and income. There were at least a dozen people in our group, and we encountered lots of other hikers. None of us said, “This place would be beautiful if it weren’t for those ugly pastures.” And one of the major aspects of the local economy is for the farms (les fermes auberges) to host the visitors for sumptuous meals (and/or spartan accommodations). In order to gain the right to call themselves fermes auberges, the farms must raise all of their own milk, meat, and vegetables. (They can import things such as coffee and chocolate that cannot grow in France.) Many people drive to the inns, but we hiked for hours to get to one of these inns, where we spent as much time eating as we had hiking. And then we hiked back down.


Patrick Gennetay led and treated us to a wonderful feast at Le Musmiss, a ferme auberge in Orbey.

Hikers are not supposed to walk into people’s orchards or yards to eat domesticated fruit. But all along the path there were wild (or planted?) fruits for hikers to stop and eat along the trail. Hiking makes those fruits taste so good! We ate lots of wild cherries and raspberries. And right near the top, in the subalpine meadows, the trail was lined with wild blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus, les myrtelles), which are smaller and tastier than the domesticated blueberries (les bleuets). We were a little bit early in the season for the wild hazelnuts, but if they had been ripe we could have munched on them almost the entire time.


Vaccinium myrtillus, a subalpine blueberry in the Vosges Mountains


Humans and nature can live together not only peacefully but enjoyably. I thought about this the entire time I was hiking, and it gave an extra dimension to my joy. It occasionally happens in America, too. Birdwatchers who visit the Arcata (California) bird sanctuary often do not realize that this wetland is the municipal sewage treatment facility for the city of Arcata. But it requires a shift in attitude among private land owners. The land owners have to realize that they are stewards of the beautiful Earth, which they share with nature and with other people. In order to establish such a park in America, private land owners would have to unlearn the little song that Garrison Keillor set to the tune of This Land is Your Land:

This land is my land
It is not your land
I’ve got a shotgun
And you ain’t got one…

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

What I Learned in the Forests of France: About Biogeography

France, part 4.

On July 14, I went hiking in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France with the Gennetay family of Strasbourg. This was easily one of the greatest days of my life. It is always fun to take a hike with such a happy family (the family of my son-in-law). And it is always exhilarating for a gentleman of a certain age, myself, to be able to hike for seven hours and survive. But in the next two essays I will describe some of the scientific and environmental things I learned on this hike.

First, about biogeography.

The forests of France are just similar enough to those of eastern North America to feel comfortable, but just different enough to feel exotic.



Some of the weedy species were the same, such as yarrow (Achillea millaefolium), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), and cow parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium). The bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and the fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) live all over the Northern Hemisphere. And one of the tree species, widespread at forest edges, is actually a native of North America, and was introduced to Europe in 1601: the black locust Robinia pseudoacacia.



Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum, foreground)


Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)


Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

But in most cases the forests consisted of the same general types (genera) of trees, but different species. Examples of European trees similar to but not the same species as those in America include the following. I provide scientific names for the European species, and French names.

Pines: Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) (le pin)
Firs: Picea abies (le sapin)
Maples: Acer campestre and A. platanoides (les erables)
Birches: Betula pendula (les bouleaux)
Oaks: principally Quercus petraea (les chênes)



European maples (probably Acer platanoides)


European birches (Betula pendula)

The same was true of the shrubs:

Dogwood (Cornus mas) (le cornouiller mâle)
Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) (le noisetier)
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) (les sureaux)
Mountain ash or rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) (le sorbier)


The principal reason that European forests resemble North American forests but not Southern Hemisphere forests is that the Atlantic Ocean began to separate Europe and North America only about 70 million years ago, just long enough for new species but not for new genera to evolve. In contrast, Northern and Southern Hemisphere forests have been separate for about 120 million years; not only do Southern Hemisphere forests have different species, but different genera, of trees and shrubs. Evolution is the reason that the forests of France felt both comfortably familiar and enchantingly different from those I know in North America. I was standing right in the middle of a lesson in biogeography, a field of study largely invented by Darwin’s fellow-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Here are some other interesting biogeographical differences:


But you generally won’t see maples, birches, dogwoods, hazelnuts, or elderberries in Southern Hemisphere forests. You may see trees similar to them, but not the same genera. You will find a few oaks and elderberries in South America and Southeast Asia, and only one maple species out of 128 lives in the Southern Hemisphere.

The forests of France contain no poison ivy or poison oak (genus Toxicodendron). Both Europe and North America have nettles (les orties) but they appear to be more abundant in Europe. European nettle species (Urtica dioica and U. urens) are different from those in North America.
We also saw chestnuts, Castanea sativa. “Sativa” means cultivated. Although these trees grow in the wild, they are the source of edible chestnuts. The sprays of male flowers produce very little nectar but, according to a beekeeper in the family, bees can make it into a particularly pungent kind of honey. This rarely happens, however, since it takes hundreds of flowering trees for the bees to produce just a little bit of honey. In America, most of the native chestnuts (Castanea dentata) have died; a few of them re-sprout before they are old enough to reproduce. This is because of a fungus introduced in the early twentieth century from planted European chestnut trees. Although you can see occasional American chestnut resprouts in the northeastern United States, you will never again see chestnut forests.


Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)


Everybody loved this wonderful hike through the forest; but as a botanist, I experienced a whole extra dimension of enjoyment by seeing the cousins of my plant friends from America.

Monday, August 1, 2016

An Incredibly Beautiful Peace

France, Part 3.

I ended the last essay by describing my beautiful experience in Strasbourg at seeing to what extent the horrors of past war and oppression have been swept away from Europe since the end of World War 2. I grew up hearing horror stories of the German war from my uncle. To people of his generation, the peace that has lasted in Europe since 1945 was unthinkable. But my generation has seen it. A large part of the credit belongs to the European Union, which richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize it received in 2012. And while some countries such as England have questioned the workability of complete economic integration, nobody wants to go back to the days of antagonism, certainly not of war.


I thought about these things in Strasbourg, France, on July 18 and 19. On July 18, I walked from the Wacken tram stop over to the European Union Parliament building. The main building is in Bruxelles (Brussels), but this secondary building is still very big and busy. The flags of the Union and of France were still at half staff in memory of the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice.





Nearby was the Court of Human Rights. In America, we are used to thinking of human rights as something that we choose and impose on the rest of the world. Many other nations, such as Russia and China, believe the same thing about their right to impose their values on the world. But in the European Union, the member countries deliberate together about what is right and wrong. I felt humble as I stood before the court, which also had the French and European flags at half staff, realizing that I represented a country which would never let any other country tell us, or even suggest to us, what to do.



The next day, July 20, we went with our French family across the Rhine River bridge into Germany. No checkpoint for passports. The European authorities have restricted traffic flow, presumably to monitor vehicles that might carry out terrorist attacks like those not a week earlier in Nice. But they have no plans to block the free flow of humans across the Rhine; in fact, they are constructing a new tram line over the river.

We walked through the beautiful German city of Kehl to a park along the Rhine. Of course, France was visible just a short distance away, across the river. This was the frontier of war for a millennium. But today it is just a peaceful park. Best of all, there is a pedestrian footbridge, away from the traffic of the vehicle bridge, which spans the river. We walked across and back. There wasn’t much to see or do; it was the significance of the act itself that will stay forever in my memory. In the middle of the bridge, right on the border, French-German couples have placed padlocks in the chain link, indicating that for them the new peace between France and Germany is not merely an international agreement but the most intense form of love.




The new stage of altruism that awaits the social evolution of our species is international trust and, where possible, love. I felt no hostility as I entered France, or walked between France and Germany. The only hostility I felt was in returning to the United States, where federal officials grilled me with trick questions to make sure that I, an American citizen, was not posing a threat to my own country. In Europe, there is a lot of altruism between nations; in America, especially in this political season, we have very little altruism within our country.

Our species evolved to be altruistic within our group and ferocious to everyone outside of our group. The European Union represents perhaps the best example of large-scale outside-the-group altruism that the world has ever seen, and its greatest success is the lasting peace, and the unthinkability of war, between France and Germany.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Horrors of War, Pleasures of Peace

France, Part 2.

On July 13, my wife and I visited the Musée Historique de Strasbourg. On July 15, we were back in Old Strasbourg at the Place Kléber (Kleber Plaza) and the Cathedral. What I saw at those times was immensely moving and significant and may have been my most memorable experience in France.




The museum documented a thousand years of history in which Strasbourg, on the Rhine River, was nearly always consumed in war between places that are now part of France and now part of Germany. Throughout this time, Strasbourg thought of itself as Alsacian rather than strictly French or strictly German. And why not? Whichever side it took, it would be conquered by the other side within a century or two anyway. And while it was fun to dress up in simulated medieval armor (see photo), there is no avoiding the fact that this constant state of warfare was gruesome and entailed unmeasurable amounts of suffering.


Most striking of all were the centuries of religious intolerance and slaughter. Throughout most of the history of Strasbourg, as in all other European cities, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos; near the museum you can still walk on the Rue des Juifs, which is very narrow just as it was in ghetto days, only it is now clean and free.



Then there was the Reformation, when Alsace was divided up into little enclaves: Territoires passés a la Réforme (territories becoming Protestant at the Reformation), Territories restés catholiques (territories remaining Catholic), Zones où la Réforme a été combattue (combat zones), and (the smallest of all) Territoires où les deux confessions ont été tolerées (zones where both “confessions” were tolerated) (see photo).



Inevitably, toward the end of the tour of the museum, we saw the photos and artifacts of Nazi occupation in World War II. The French did not simply surrender; they had a heavily fortified Maginot Line right in Alsace, ready to defend France from a German invasion across the Rhine. But the Germans invaded Belgium and took over France from the north, making the Maginot Line useless. In the museum we saw a photo of Hitler standing at the base of Strasbourg Cathedral, and of big Nazi military displays in the Place Kléber, which they renamed Karl Roos Platz. There was even a display about brutal Nazi experimentation on living humans. When liberation came, under General Leclerc, the Nazi influence was swept away with great enthusiasm (see the photos).







Here is the part that meant the most to me. A couple of days later, on July 15, when my wife and I happened by the Cathedral—there very Cathedral where Jews were oppressed for centuries, and where Hitler walked—we saw a klezmer band making some of the most joyous Jewish music you ever heard. Everybody loved this Jewish music and its talented performers. Take that, Hitler! And take that, you priests who oppressed the Jews for millennia! Right at that moment, while the lead musician (who played my old instrument the euphonium) was when I felt, more than ever before in my life, the joy of international peace, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human species.