Friday, May 13, 2016

Another Arms Race of Social Evolution: Getting Published

In order to get something published, you have to first get noticed, whether by an editor of a magazine, or an agent, or an editor at an academic publisher (these publishers still prefer direct submissions from authors). So when you write a story, you have to catch the attention of the reader—usually, a reader who has already looked at a hundred other submissions that day. This is a process of social evolution.

And it is a process of accelerating social evolution—an arms race of social evolution. As time goes on there are fewer publishers of literary or academic works, and more authors. This means that authors have to keep going to ever greater lengths to get noticed.

To a certain extent, this is good. Take a short story, for example. It has to have an interesting beginning so that the reader, who has many other demands upon his or her time, knows whether to keep reading. It is simple courtesy on the part of the author to have an interesting start to the story. It is truth in advertising: if the story has an interesting middle, it should be visible at the beginning. In chemistry, one would call it activation energy: you have to put a little more energy into the reaction to get it started, and then it will go to completion with its own energy. The publishing arms race is driving poorly-written stories—at least stories with poorly written beginnings—to extinction. But the expectations for what has to happen in the first paragraph are getting excessive, as I here describe.

Unfortunately, one of the unsuccessful approaches to writing a story, which is falling by the wayside, is to begin at the beginning. I recently pulled out of my files a story that I consider one of my better ones. It begins with an interesting scene, in which a food chemist tastes a totally unexpected new kind of honey, and decides to track it to its source. But the beginning does not give any idea of what the story is going to eventually be about (the discovery of a tribe of Homo heidelbergensis people in Madagascar). I realized I had to change this, and start in the middle, where the main male character, the origin of the point of view (which insiders call POV), sees the pre-human woman with whom he develops a complicated and intense relationship. He is in the archaic-human tribe, and thinks back over the events that brought him there. In this way, I offer the reader a glimpse of what they can expect if they read my story. And I have to deliver on the promise in due time.

(As an evolution educator and writer, I consider fiction to be an excellent way of exploring not only the facts of human evolution but questions about what it means to be human—questions that we will never be able to test through direct scientific investigation.)

Getting to know a story is like getting to know a person. It is a relationship. And the most intense relationships, with people or with stories, are the intimate ones. Let us consider the trajectory of a relationship that becomes intimate. How does it develop?

The way such a relationship cannot successfully develop is to begin with the setting—to describe a house, or a neighborhood, or even (despite my botanical inclinations) a forest. In this sense, a story is like a person: if you meet someone interesting, it is not because you saw the person’s house first (unless it is unusual and part of the plot). And the relationship must begin because there is something appealing, to you, about the person. The world is so full of people that you cannot start making new relationships at random. In the case of a potentially intimate relationship, there has to be something romantically enchanting about the person. A good story, therefore, often begins with the appealing person doing something interesting that reveals something beautiful—bodily, or mental, or both. In the case of my story, the main male character looks into the face of a woman who is beautiful but in a way very different from what our species may think. Is her look pity, or is it love?

But as a writer without an impressive list of fiction publications—four of them, all in magazines cheaply published and now extinct—I feel pressured to start with something more compelling. I feel that I have to begin, at least a little bit, with sex. That’s the only thing, it seems, that can make my story stand out among the ten dozen others submitted to the science fiction website that day. The only question is how much sex. My story does, in fact, have a sex scene, though not a graphic one; after all, from the head on down, Homo heidelbergensis was pretty much like us. The other way to start a story these days is with a violent conflict in which the hero or heroine is in the midst of mortal combat—or a chase scene, only my story has no such element in it.

But I refused to begin with the sex scene. Instead, I merely added a little sex—not gratuitous sex, but relevant to the story—to the scene in which the man looks into the woman’s face. He notices her breasts and her strong shoulders. And she caresses him, to help heal his injury. (Stories should not have gratuitous sex or violence because there is no room for any gratuitous anything in a story.)

Getting to know a story is like getting to know a person, as I said. There has to be something appealing to capture attention. But the marketing of fiction by means of sex is unethical for the same reason that it is unethical in the start of a relationship. Try to imagine a society in which the very first step in forming a relationship is for the potential partners see one another naked before even meeting. However common this might be, it is not a good way to start a meaningful relationship, but only as a prelude to a sexual encounter. Open sex is the way to begin porn, not a short story. There are specialized publishers for porn. I do not believe that all short stories will go this far, though, of course, I could be wrong.

So I am going to submit my story with a beginning that has the slight hint of sex but not the full thing. I want my readers to be rewarded with something better in the middle and at the end than they experienced in the beginning. But we’ll see how it goes. My reasonable approach might simply get my story eliminated from consideration.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Nice Spring Day?

I was walking home the other day through the most beautiful springtime you could imagine: just enough warmth to be enjoyable, a slight breeze, sunshine, fresh green leaves everywhere. You would expect that I would have rejoiced at it. And I tried to. But it didn’t work. Here’s why.

Many of the trees were almost barren. They had been stripped of most of their fresh green leaves by a hail storm the previous week. Another hailstorm was predicted for the night before my walk, to finish off the job, but it didn’t happen. Fresh green leaves everywhere? Well, if you count the dried-up green leaves in the gutters. Now, of course this was an act of nature. As I might have said before, Mother Nature can be one tough mama. But the problem is that even though humans have the capacity to come together, to cooperate, to love one another, and help one another against the dangers of the natural world, we often do not do so. We could, as a species, form an altruistic network that could dampen the disruptions of Nature, but we do not.

One house that I walked past illustrated the Oklahoma anti-environmental, anti-altruistic attitude in just about every possible way. Old cars were parked on the lawn. The house is about to fall over. Inside the fence there are very, very mean dogs. An indoor couch was outside, soggy with rain. The dogs ran around in puddles of accumulated water. A tree had been cut down, the chunks left lying around, and beer bottles were propped on the stump. And there were lots of beat-up, dirty toys, proclaiming redneck fecundity. These people neither care about their immediate neighbors or about the rest of the world. Their attitude is not too different from that of their dogs, with the difference that the poor dogs don’t know any better. Nearby, a pickup truck drove slowly down the street, spewing thick clouds of smoke and fumes.

Durant, Oklahoma, is a world center of three things: Trump supporters, Confederate supporters (mostly the same people here), and creationists. Our local state senator is an outspoken creationist, but he sneers openly and loudly at anyone who wants to protect the habitats of non-human animals and—and plants! He believes that God made all of these species so that he and his friends can destroy them. They hate God’s creation and would enjoy destroying as much of it as they can. And with the Trump juggernaut, they might just get a chance to do so. Everyone knows that Trump’s attitude toward biology is, if you can’t eat it or fuck it, what use is it?

So as I walked home, looking at the trees stripped of their leaves and breathing deeply of pickup truck exhaust, I mourned rather than rejoiced in the springtime.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Same Old Anti-Environmentalism

In 1990, Dixy Lee Ray and Lou Guzzo published a book called Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things). Ray was the former governor of Washington state and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as a zoologist on the University of Washington faculty. According to Ray, who was trashing the planet? Environmentalists, of course. The good-hearted industrialists, and the good-hearted conservative politicians who wanted to let them do whatever they wanted to do, were the ones who loved the planet and humankind.

The first chapter is titled, “Who speaks for science?” Not surprisingly, Ray indicated that she was the one to do so, because she was a scientist. She said she was opposed to pollution as much as anyone, but she was also opposed to environmental alarmism. Sounds reasonable, except that she spent the rest of the book saying that almost any environmental concern is alarmism.

Given her background, it is not surprising that Ray focused on nuclear waste issues. Don’t worry about nuclear waste, she said. Her evidence? There are mounds of natural radioactive earth in Gabon and in Brazil, and there are plants and animals that live on them. The fact that the natural radiation does not instantly kill all of those organisms shows that we do not need to worry about nuclear pollution. Why, for crying out loud, there is actually a colony of rats living on one of them! Nuclear, glowing rats right out of the Simpsons (she might have said ten years later). And if rats, which only live a couple of years anyway, do not die prematurely from the radiation, then humans don’t need to worry about it either. Really, you can’t make something like this up.

And she went on. Nuclear bombs kill people, but fire kills people too, so don’t worry about any uses of atomic energy or even nuclear war. She helpfully pointed out that more people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. Gee, I feel better already.

Also, she said, don’t worry about carcinogens and cancer. After all, except for childhood leukemia, most cancer affects old people, who are just going to die pretty soon anyway. Besides, most cancer is caused by smoking. So if you smoke, you deserve cancer; and if you don’t, you deserve no further protection from environmental carcinogens or radiation. She didn’t quite use these words, but the implication was clear. And writers who disagree with her were committing, quote, “sob-sister journalism.”

In another chapter, she demonstrated that the good old days weren’t so good. People died back then, too. So take your penicillin and stop whining about environmental contamination.

Ray was especially upset that people were concerned about acid rain and what she considered the non-threat of ozone depletion. But even Republicans would not listen to those who spoke the way Dixy Lee Ray (who was a Democrat) did. In 1990, the president was George Herbert Walker Bush, who wanted to be remembered as “the environmental president.” And right as Ray’s book was being published, nations were coming together to solve acid rain and to ban CFCs. And even though Ray did not want us to worry about nuclear weapons, the rest of the world went ahead and defused the Cold War.

Unfortunately, what was fringe anti-environmentalism in 1990 has now become the norm in the Republican party, against which Democrats have little influence. The anti-environmental spewings of Donald Trump make Dixy Lee Ray sound mild.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Listen to the Forest

An old friend of mine wrote to me a long time ago about trying to figure out whether to believe in God. What he was looking for, and what he might have expected me, as a scientist, to tell him, was whether there was any verifiable evidence of miraculous activities of such a God, above and beyond the world of nature. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that evolution explains the entire history of life and the universe, and that all mental and spiritual experiences of humans seem to be explainable by the chemical reactions in the brain. I had concluded that there was no proof of God, and probably no Person we could call God, but only Love.

I told my friend that I believed in God because Gustav Mahler believed in God. That is a strange thing for a scientist to say. I do not know if Mahler had a specific theology in mind, but he believed in the kind of God you can encounter by listening to the forest and meadow that surrounded the cabin in which he wrote his Third Symphony. He entitled the first movement, “Summer marches in,” the second movement “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” the third movement “What the animals in the forest tell me,” the fourth movement “What the night tells me,” the fifth movement “What the morning bells tell me,” and the final movement “What love tells me.”

Was Mahler experiencing a delusion of the evolutionary overgrowth of the human mind? We cannot know, since we are limited to our human minds. Long before there was any theology, humans experienced what Edward O. Wilson has called “biophilia,” the love of the natural world; and saw, or imagined, within nature a power beyond human experience.

Whoever listens to the forest is much less likely to pick up a gun and aim it at another person whose theology differs from theirs than someone whose entire faith is based on doctrine.

Originally published on in January, 2008.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I just posted a new video in which Darwin explains biogeography, from a beautiful and educational setting: The Black Hills of South Dakota!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Green Peace

I like to keep a layer of trees between me and the rushing madness of humanity.

Trees do not merely hide the frantic activity of business and politics, but actually absorb the pollution and noise. Psychological studies have shown that patients recover from surgery more rapidly when they can see a landscape of trees, and that children have reduced symptoms of hyperactivity if they play not just outdoors but in a setting of green plants.

But the peace that plants create is not merely a quiet absence of noise. Many people walk through parks and forests without noticing the plants, and while making their own loud noises. If there are no human structures in the forest, they may say “There’s nothing out here!” (Guess how many times I have heard this from my students.) But if you listen quietly and notice the details, you will become aware not just of the absence of noise but the presence of a powerful beauty. Gustav Mahler tapped into this power as he wrote his Third Symphony in a cabin by a forest and a meadow in the 1890s. It is a power that becomes stronger when you learn more about plants, ecology, and the evolutionary history of the Earth.

The world of plants is the real world, unlike the world of corporate boardrooms, paneled by dead trees. The powerful knowledge that you take back with you from the forest into your work and into human society will enable you to live joyously and to make the right decisions.

Originally published on in January, 2008.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Another exploration of science and nature in Oklahoma

The spring field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences was at Beaver’s Bend State Park in extreme southeastern Oklahoma, very close to Texas and Arkansas. In addition to the trip leader (botanist Gloria Caddell of the University of Central Oklahoma), myself, and a couple of other professors (Bill Caire and Clark Ovrebo), we had four students: David Batton (Grayson Co. Community College), Taylor Walker and Gokul Mariventhan (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), and Tracy Holshouser (University of Central Oklahoma).

It was a soft, overcast day with fresh light green foliage all around us. The hickory buds were just beginning to open.

On our various botany hikes, we recognized at least fifty species, and there were many more we overlooked. The canopy trees, much taller than in the central Oklahoma forests, were pines, sweetgums, oaks, and hickories. Lots of hophornbeam and sugar maple grew as understory trees. The last spring ephemerals were finishing up. Perhaps the most striking flowers were the Dodecatheon meadia shooting stars.

One of the students, David Batton, works for the Choctaw Nation and is familiar with some plants of cultural importance to his tribe, as they are also to mine (the Cherokee tribe). We found yaupon holly bushes, which many Eastern tribes used to make the “black drink” for ceremonial purposes (we don’t recommend its recreational use; there is a reason it is called Ilex vomitoria), and one bois-d’arc tree, with strong flexible wood that is superior to others for making bows. We also found river cane, the stems of which are useful to many tribes for making arrows and blow darts.

Our visual senses were satiated with beauty but we used our other senses also. Monarda russeliana leaves had the beautiful fragrance associated with the beebalm genus, and on this trip, as on every other, I never fail to get the students to eat the young shoots of Smilax greenbriar.

The students were very observant. One student noticed that several different plant species, including Oxalis violacea and Monarda russeliana, had red pigment on the undersides of the leaves, which helps plants in deep shade absorb more light for photosynthesis. Another student noticed that the bracken fern leaves had a fractal pattern to them.

But the most observant of us was Clark, who showed us that the easily-overlooked whitish scum on decomposing oak logs was not simply fungal hyphae, as I had assumed, but actual microscopic reproductive structures: the perithecia of the ascomycete Biscogniauxia atropunctata. The natural world reveals wonders to anyone who stops to look closely and ask questions.

There were also zoology field trips. Students and faculty visited the Little River National Wildlife Refuge and Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in McCurtain County. They observed 82 species of birds, as well as herps and mammals. Highlights included American Bitterns at Duck Slough, Anhingas at Red Slough, and Prothonotary, Hooded, and Black-and-white Warblers at Little River NWR. Photograph by Chris Butler.