Friday, August 17, 2018

How One Scientist Writes Fiction


I am a scientist and I write fiction. (Time will show whether I publish any.) People assume, therefore, I must write science fiction. But this is not the case.

If I did write science fiction, I would probably write about an apocalyptic future in which humans have defiled the Earth so much that it loses its Gaia equilibrium and lurches from disaster to disaster. There is a long history of such literature, from the 1960s The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie to the more recent move Wall-E. Some writers, with scientific backgrounds, have science as part of the plot, especially the rise and rapid spread of new epidemics, such as the movie Contagion.

In these examples, science propels the plot or acts like a causative character. The human characters tend to be shallow and predictable in their responses to science-based catastrophes. The scientific concept is in charge.

But in my fiction, the characters and their struggles are foremost. I like to create characters whom the reader can really love (or sometimes hate) and who interact in complex ways. The characters advance the plot, and whatever does not advance the plot must be excised. In my case, I sometimes stick in didactive passages of science education, which I later remove. Does science play any role in my fiction?

Yes, of course it does. It is always in the background. In my fiction, the characters are (almost) always aware of the world in which they live and know how it works. In my fiction, a forest is not just a forest. The drier forests on the hillsides are different from the moist bottomland forests. My characters know the different kinds of trees. They know about germs, but also about the rich and fragrant microbial life of the soil. In my fiction, soil is not just dirt. My characters learn things from watching plants grow and finding fossils in rocks. In my fiction, nature is not a character but is a force: it is neither malevolent nor safe, but something entirely its own that we need to respect. I wish everybody knew enough science to understand how the world actually works; in my fiction, my characters generally do.

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. But a stage is dead. It has dead props that humans can move around wherever they want. But the world, scientifically understood, is not like this. It is a living planet to whose processes we must all fit our activities.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Consumer Cultures, Right and Left


America consists of a mixture of different cultures. More than ever before, these cultures mix but do not blend. Part of this is because many members of the dominant white culture do not want to dilute their firearm-barbecue-bacon-yellow beer-pickup truck culture. Major store chains cater to their strange and often dangerous wishes.

Much of what these “conservatives” consume is for its cultural value only. Take, for example, pickups. They like to say they use their pickups for work. But this is largely untrue. I am collecting data about pickup trucks. I have not analyzed it yet, but it appears that less than twenty percent of the trucks are used for work. Eighty percent of the pickup trucks in Oklahoma have empty truck beds and are not towing anything. They are just for show. It is an expensive practice that depletes our resources and puts lots of extra carbon in our atmosphere.



But conservatives are not the only people who have a subculture. There is also a largely white subculture of liberals who are proud to eat portabella instead of beef, who do not own guns, who drink wine and dark beer, and drive fuel efficient vehicles. There are major store chains that cater to their strange though usually harmless wishes, too.

To see this, all you have to do is to take a stroll through a Whole Foods. Being a member of the liberal subculture, I could easily spend hundreds of dollars on the things that are available there. But if you look at those things critically, you find that very little of it is actually important, and consuming those things is not necessarily making the world better. How is using Mad Hippie Facial Cream ($26 for 2.1 ounces) or Dead Sea bath salts making the world better? My wife and I buy some of their unpackaged bulk items, and a few other things, but we find most of the products at Whole Foods humorous.



One of these packages shows a homeopathic remedy that contains poison ivy extract (Rhus toxicodendron, now Toxicodendron radicans), and a “soup cleanse” book that undoubtedly contains healthy recipes but they will not “cleanse” you of “toxins” any more than any other healthy diet.

Finally, this package is just salt. But the Indian company that sells it makes it sound that salt is part of the freedom movement of Mahatma Gandhi.



One way to make the world better is to consume less, and make more efficient use of what you consume. Don’t drive big pickups around, and don’t waste your money on Mad Hippie Facial Cream. Consume less stuff, and the corporations that cater to conservatives and to liberals will not be very happy with you.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

One Drop


Throughout the ages, white racists have boasted of their racial purity. In an earlier essay I said that there is no such thing as a pure white race. But it is not only that white racists have racial pride—something that other races often have as well—but they also have fear of contamination.

The example that comes first to mind is the one-drop rule for blackness before the Civil War. From the white racist point of view, you were black if one of your parents was black; or one of your grandparents was black; even if one of your great grandparents was black. That is, even quadroons (one-quarter black) and octoroons (one-eighth black) were considered black. And if your mother was a slave, you were a slave. Sally Hemings, only one-eighth black, was Thomas Jefferson’s slave. However much he may have wanted to free her, he apparently could not afford to do so, because it was against the law to just say, “Okay, you’re free now.” Some black people in the past remarked that blackness must be very powerful, if its power cannot be attenuated even by generations of white ancestors.

This fear of black contamination continued long after the Civil War. In 1890, Louisiana law classified Homer Plessy, an octoroon, as black even though he was seven-eighths white. He was therefore required to ride in the “colored” train car. He refused and was arrested. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) that segregation was not only legal but could be based on the one-drop principle.


The famous French writer Alexandre Dumas, creator of the Three Musketeers, was part black (from Caribbean ancestors).


It was not just blacks who experienced this. My great great great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit was one-eighth Cherokee. No photos exist of her, but she probably could have pretended to be white. But since she was registered as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she had to go on the Trail of Tears, and take her one-sixteenth Cherokee daughter Minerva (my great great grandmother) with her.

Why are white racists so afraid of the genes of darker people? Former president Barack Obama is half black, half white. White racists hate him. But black Americans were happy to accept him. I am not aware that any of them ever objected to his partial white ancestry.

You can send your DNA off to have it tested for your likely ancestry. Often, people who thought themselves pure white found out that they were partly black. I do not know if any of these white people were racists; they might have just found it interesting, and found themselves wondering about what secrets have been lost from their family history. Maybe white racists are afraid to have their DNA tested in case they find themselves to be tainted with blackness.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

My Green, Green Happy Place


Sometimes I like to go to my happy place. This time, it was so that I could relax and enjoy my happiness at being a new grandfather. For some people, their happy place is a fantasy inside their minds. But for me, it is an actual place: the forest. In particular, the forest on Turkey Mountain outside of Tulsa.



The forest is a place with layers upon layers of stories. It is a palimpsest, that is, a document with layer upon layer of writing. On this particular like, I already knew almost all of the stories. One story was the geological history of the landscape. As I looked down from the mountain onto the Arkansas River, I remembered that this mile-wide river was once ten miles wide, as the glaciers up north melted. Another story was about human impact. The forest all around me grew in just the last century, since the time when this mountain was covered with oil derricks. Each species of tree, and each tree, had its own story: an evolutionary story of adaptation, and a developmental story of how each individual tree adjusted to its immediate environment of shade and sun, of deep soil or rock outcrop. The story is written from moment to moment. When I hiked, a drought was underway, and many leaves were wilted. Wilting is not completely a bad thing; by drooping down, a leaf has less of a heat load from the sunlight and avoids some of the damage it would otherwise experience. There are also many stories of food webs, whether it is of insects that have eaten the tender leaf tissue between the veins, or fungi eating dead branches. There is the story of the hard, green, inedible persimmon fruits that keep animals away until the seeds are ready to disperse, and only then do the fruits become ripe and delicious. There is the story of stumps sprouting back to life.

I knew all of these stories, but I just wanted to see them again on this hike. But I kept my eyes open, just in case there was a new story. And I found one—just one. A mimosa sampling was hit hard by the drought. Mimosas have lots of little leaflets which, after being held horizontally to face the sunlight in the day, close upward at night for reasons that nobody knows for sure. The leaflets also close upward during moderate drought, thus reducing their solar heat load. The leaflet movements are caused by bags of water called pulvini (singular pulvinus). When the bags of water exert pressure, they push the leaflets; when the bags lose pressure, the leaflets return to their original position.

But what I did not know was, are the pulvini on the top of the leaf or the bottom? If they are on top, then the water pressure pushes the leaflets open; their nocturnal closure represents only a loss of pressure, a relaxation, going to sleep. If this is the case, then the closure of the leaflets at night does not need an explanation. The plant is saving energy by letting the leaves relax. But if the pulvini are on the bottom, then the nocturnal closure demands an explanation: why would the mimosa leaf deliberately close its leaflets at night? This requires the expenditure of energy. The same is true for leaflet closure during moderate drought. If the pulvini are on the top, leaflet closure is merely the result of drought; but if they are on the bottom, then leaflet closure is a deliberate act to prevent drought damage. Of course, the pulvini are too small for me to see.

But I saw one leaf that was so stressed by heat and drought that the leaflets were starting to curl up and die. And in this leaf, the leaflets were horizontal. This tells me that the pulvini are on the bottom. I know this because, when severe drought causes the pulvini to stop working, the leaflets are horizontal, not vertical. In the photo, the drought-damaged leaflets are on top, the leaflets that are actively responding to drought are on the bottom. The damanged leaflets are horizontal, and the responsive leaflets are almost vertical.



To me, this was a new story that I learned on my hike. But I enjoyed re-experiencing the thousand other stories in the forest that I already knew.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Genetic Record of Conquest and Dominion: A Cherokee Story


Here are further thoughts that came to me as I read David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Pantheon, 2018). See my previous essay for more about this book.

All of human history has consisted of conquest and dominion. One human group, whether tribe or nation, has conquered one or more others for as long as there have been humans. And in the course of these conquests, the conquering men have had children by the conquered women.

That is certainly what happened in America. Europeans came to America and started conquering Native Americans. Except when they intermarried with them. When they did so, it was usually a white man with a Native woman. This happened over and over again in my family. My sixth great grandmother, Nancy Ward, was a full-blood Cherokee who married a white trader, Bryan (Bryant) Ward. Their half-Cherokee daughter, Betsy Ward, married the white general Joseph Martin. Their quarter-Cherokee daughter Nancy Martin married a rich white (German) ferryboat owner named Hildebrand. Their one-eighth Cherokee daughter Elizabeth Hilderbrand (somewhere along the line the r was added to the name) married a white man, James Pettit. Then things reversed temporarily when their one-sixteenth Cherokee daughter Minerva Pettit married Usquuh-ne, a.k.a. Lewis Hicks, who may have been full-blood Cherokee. But at least on the maternal Cherokee side of my family, it has mostly been white men and Native women. The picture is of Elizabeth's grave in Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma (1801-1887).



This is also what happened to black people. Most American blacks (except the Gullah speakers from the islands off the coast of South Carolina) have partial European ancestry, mostly from white men, many of them slave owners.

The historical evidence for this is reflected in the genetic evidence. In your cells, the Y chromosome (if you have one) came only from your father, and your mitochondrial DNA (abbreviated mtDNA) came only from your mother. In a perfectly fair admixture (in which, for example, white-mother-Native-father pairings were as common as white-father-Native-mother pairings), the Y:mt ratio would be 1:1. But among American blacks, the ratio is 4:1 white to black. In some populations in Central America, as in Colombia, the ratio is as high as 20:1.

To put it in personal terms for me: Up to my great grandfather Andrew Hicks, all of the mtDNA was native. At that point, beginning with my white great grandmother Mary Franklin Hicks, all of the mtDNA was white. My grandfather married a white woman too. I got all my mtDNA from my mom, but it was probably all white. Therefore, perhaps all of my Y chromosomes, and all of my mtDNA, are white. My native genes are mixed into the other chromosomes somewhere.

Back to the white Y chromosomes. Did the white Y chromosomes in my family, and maybe yours as well, come from white men raping dark women, or from dark women choosing white males in order to get some of their wealth and status? Undoubtedly some of both. Both of these Y sources constitute oppression of women: rape is absolutely direct oppression, while the appeal of white wealth and status is an indirect, and possibly subconscious, oppression. In the case of white male owners and black female slaves, it is difficult to see it as anything except rape, since the woman had literally no choice in the matter.

But in my family, things were a little more complicated. As musician Becky Hobbs wrote in her musical Nanyehi, which was about our shared ancestress Nancy Ward, “Cherokee women have always done and will always do whatever they want.” Bryan Ward did not rape Nancy. But the white connection gave Nancy Ward status and respect in the eyes of the white conquerors, and she used this status to her advantage. (She already had status in the eyes of Cherokees.) One of the things she did was, I believe, to arrange to have her half-white daughter Betsy married to Joseph Martin, later a general. This gave Betsy influence in the white world far beyond what a full-blood Cherokee was likely to have. General Martin did not rape Betsy. The trader Bryan Ward and the general Joseph Martin got advantages among the Cherokees because they had Cherokee wives, and Nancy and Betsy got advantages from Betsy marrying the general who was in charge of Cherokee-white relations. All of this status and advantage came to a screeching halt when Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit, one-eighth Cherokee and Nancy’s great-granddaughter, had to go on the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory along with all the full-bloods, and take little Minerva with her.

But here is the most complicating factor. In three of the Cherokee-white marriages in my family history, the Cherokee woman was the squaw wife of a man who already had a white family. Bryan Ward had a white family down in Georgia, outside of Cherokee territory, and he eventually returned home to his white wife. General Martin had a white wife and family back in Virginia. Apparently, in both cases, the Cherokee women knew that they were second wives. Nancy’s great granddaughter Elizabeth Hilderbrand, however, did not. By Cherokee law, after about 1829, polygamy was illegal in the Cherokee Nation. When Elizabeth found out her white husband James Pettit had a white family in Missouri, she sued the crap out of him in the Cherokee Supreme Court and won. She was the only woman to do this in the history of the short-lived Cherokee Supreme Court. I’m proud of her. You can read about this in Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women (University of Nebraska Press, 1998, page 151).

The biggest example of male warrior conquerors inseminating female victims was the empire of Genghis Khan. In some areas of western Asia that were once part of his empire, up to eight percent of males carry what was likely to be Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome, many centuries later. But this was not all rape. Genghis and Kublai Khan established empires that produced a lot of public works and other benefits for the conquered people. The men who ruled the empire must have been much in demand by the native women.

In all these cases, it was conquest and dominion, even if the dominion was one that the conquered women thought that they consciously chose. We just need to admit this fact about ourselves, our human species.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Human Racial History


There are some conservatives who believe in the superiority of European genes. But this is impossible. The reason is there are few if any European genes.

What we call “European” is a mixture of several different races, all of which were distinct from one another in the past but which, today, have blended together. Five thousand years ago, there were European races that do not resemble any modern races. One race had dark eyes, dark hair, and white skin; another had blue eyes, dark hair, and dark skin. These races did not become extinct, but all of their genes have been mixed together in Europeans. In addition to different Homo sapiens races, European ancestors also included some Homo neanderthalensis.

Take, for example, the famous “ice man” mummy Ötzi who got shot by an arrow as he crossed the Alps 5,000 years ago. He was a member of a race that no longer exists but was widespread in Europe 5,000 years ago.

At one time, Europe was the home of hunter-gatherers. Then people migrated from the middle east, bringing agriculture with them. In a separate migration, horsemen and herdsmen from western Asia brought Indo European languages. Europeans are the mixture of at least three human races, maybe more.

So, you Eurocentric racists, show me: will the real European please stand up?

The migration and subsequent blending of ancient races helps to explain some genetic anomalies from ancient times. The modern Europeans most closely related to Ötzi are the native people of Sardinia. How did that happen? Did Ötzi’s clan embark on an expedition to Sardinia, or maybe the Sardinians invaded Europe? Not at all. Ötzi’s race lived throughout Europe, but as later races migrated into Europe and intermixed, this intermixture did not occur in Sardinia. Sardinia contains a little remnant of Ötzi’s race. But even there, the Sardinians who most closely match Ötzi have mostly non- Ötzi genetic origins.

Such migrations and intermixtures have occurred throughout human history. People scratched their heads in confusion when it was announced that the natives of Papua New Guinea had up to six percent of their genes from the Denisovans, which were a race of Neanderthals who lived in what is now Siberia fifty thousand years ago. (Unlike European Neanderthals, who had red hair and light skin, the Denisovans were darker.)

I know that I, like others who are not expert geneticists, wondered if some Denisovans got on a boat and sailed down to Southeast Asia. But I should have known better, if only because the Papuans live not just in New Guinea but in the highlands, which is largely a world apart from the coastal plain. Any Denisovan voyagers would probably have left their genes among lowland populations. Instead, what probably happened is that people similar to the Denisovans lived throughout Asia, not just Siberia, and that the Denisovan genes were swamped out by human migrants everywhere in Asia except remote places like the New Guinea highlands.

That is, populations such as in New Guinea and Sardinia have remained partially genetically isolated. There are even some Amazonian tribes who have a little bit of Australian ancestry, even though they are mostly descended from migrants who came from Siberia. This suggests that, when the ancestors of Native Americans arrived, there were already some people living in the New World. This pre-Amerindian ancestry was swamped out everywhere except a few scattered tribes.

I got these ideas by reading David Reich’s book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Pantheon, 2018). His main point can be summarized in this way, largely from his own words: The Tree of Life concept does not work for humans, because the branches of the tree keep rejoining. There has never been a single “trunk” of the tree in the past; it is mixtures all the way down (or up).

So the next time you start feeling racial pride (white power, black power, or frybread power) just remember who you really are.

Monday, July 16, 2018

There Are a Lot of Scientific Questions a Citizen-scientist Can Answer


To get answers to some of the biggest questions in the world today, we need to have literally millions of data points and analyze them with large computers. The best example is global climate change. In order to say that the Earth is getting warmer, we must have measurements from almost everywhere, all year, for many years. You can’t just stick your head out the window and tell if global warming is happening or not.

But there are some scientific questions you can answer by just looking out the window.

One of them is the question about whether there is an infinite number of stars in the universe. Now, we have all heard about the astronomers who have looked far out into space and, starting with Edwin Hubble, reconstructed the history of the universe. But what if you don’t have a big telescope? You can answer the question anyway.



The brightness of a star decreases as the square of the distance; a star twice as far away is four times dimmer. Therefore, very faraway stars are practically invisible to most of us. But if there were truly an infinite number of stars, their light, however faint, would add up to an infinite brightness. (Hard to believe? Well, what part of infinite do you not understand?) When you look out the window and see that the sky is dark at night, you know that the universe is finite.

You could solve the problem by putting it into the form of integral calculus. Maybe I could have done so back in 1976 when I understood calculus. But you don’t need to.

There are probably lots of other fascinating scientific questions that do not require equipment, a budget, or expertise to answer.