Monday, February 8, 2016

How We Can Know Them

One of the greatest threats to the future of the planet is the industrial agriculture. Practically every aspect of it is dangerous to the planet. But it feeds the planet? Actually, its main effect is to make corporations like Monsanto rich; feeding the planet is an incidental side-effect. Most agricultural produce, at least in America, goes to feeding livestock rather than feeding people.

Many farmers claim that they actually care about the future of the planet but they are trapped into industrial agriculture—they cannot afford to do it any other way. They would like to convert to responsible agriculture: to interplant their crops (polyculture), to use natural pest control, control soil erosion, etc. But, they claim, they are trapped by the economics of industrial ag.

But let me tell you why I do not believe them. It may indeed be economic suicide for farmers to convert suddenly and completely over to ecologically responsible agriculture. But surely they could do it at least a little bit? They could at least do a scaled-down form of polyculture, by planting wide strips—still wide enough for their equipment to handle—of different kinds of crops rather than huge fields of each. They could reduce their pesticide and fertilizer use a little by precision application. They could choose crops that are better suited for their regions; for example, to grow maize in eastern Colorado or the panhandle of Oklahoma takes a prodigious amount of water, which they pump out of the already-depleted Ogalalla Aquifer. Couldn’t they at least do one or two of these things?

And many farmers do. As I drove in the summer of 2014 many miles through the Midwest, I mostly saw huge monoculture fields with wasteful irrigation, on which crop dusters poured pesticides. Once in a while I would see strips of crops. I saw this just often enough to show me it could be done.

The land is unhealthy. If a person is unhealthy, it might be too much to expect for him or her to suddenly convert to a completely healthy lifestyle: to exercise a lot and eat less fat and sugar and prepare more foods themselves. But at least the unhealthy person could do a little bit of one of them. And many do, to their benefit and (as many of my students have found) their pleasant surprise.

A farmer may not be able to heal an unhealthy land in all possible ways, but at least they can do a little bit of something. And a small percentage of them do. The fact that most of them do not indicates to me that most of them really do not care about the future of the planet—the world that their children (whom they claim to love so much) will inherit.

As Jesus said, by their fruits you shall know them. Not by what they say, but by what they do. Conservative farmers can talk all they want to about how precious are the lives of their children (and all children) but I do not believe them until they start farming in such a way that does not destroy the world those children are supposed to live in.

And for farmers that do what they can, thanks! And try to do more—you can probably figure out how. But the Monsanto sales rep won’t help you to do this.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

New video!

See the video in which Darwin visits Ashfall Beds State Park in Nebraska, a huge pile of mammal skeletons--all the bones still in place--from 12 million years ago!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Keep Me Away from the Facts: The Oklahoma Fundamentalist Mindset

Recently, the Oklahoma legislature voted overwhelmingly to reject advanced placement history courses in Oklahoma high schools. The reason? They apparently felt that AP History was not being sufficiently deferential to white people in American history. AP history dwelt too long on (that is, it mentioned) slavery and the genocide against Native Americans. Instead, Oklahoma legislators apparently feel, history courses should teach students about how America is God’s Chosen Nation (maybe second only to Israel), and teach them that Manifest Destiny (the notion that America was destined to subjugate all other people from sea to shining sea), an idea most people gave up over a century ago, was really true.

That is, the legislature wants Oklahoma teachers to teach racist fairy tales to students. This has long been the case with creationist fairy tales in science classes, and is now true in history classes as well. Somehow they have not yet figured out that the AP Biology Course has evolution as the first of its four “big ideas”.

I believe that the following would be a reasonable catechism for the Oklahoma version of American history:

Q: Why did Columbus cross the ocean blue?
A: To bring the light of God to the Natives, for which they would pay him in gold, and by being raped and butchered, praise God.
Q: Why did God put Native Americans on the continent?
A: To prepare the land for use by Christian whites pouring in from Europe, praise God.
Q: Why did the American government force the individuals of the Cherokee and other tribes, many of them Christians, to march to Oklahoma?
A: So that white people could take the gold that the Cherokees were not mining and the land that they were merely farming, praise God.
Q: Why was this action justified?
A: Because the Cherokees were savages. They merely lived in white-style houses, raised cattle, and had a written language and newspaper, which shows that they were inferior, praise God.
Q: Why did the American government force the Cherokees to divide up their tribal land into individual allotments?
A: So that the godless practice of communal land ownership (communism) could be stamped out, praise God.
Q: Why were Cherokees forced into special schools?
A: Because these ignorant savages merely had their own written language and the highest literacy rate in the world, higher than white Americans, and the whites were embarrassed, praise God.
Q: Why should black slaves have been grateful to their masters?
A: Because black rulers in Africa also kept slaves, and treated them worse than American slave owners did. (This last one I heard from a Confederate flag salesman in Tushka, Oklahoma, last year.)
Q: Aren’t you forgetting something?
A: Praise God.

Oklahoma already is one of the poorest states in terms of education, by numerous measures. For example, Oklahoma teachers get paid well below the national average for any jobs, not just for teaching jobs. What to do about this problem? Obviously, the legislators think, the thing to do is to prohibit these underpaid teachers from teaching the truth. Already, high-tech industries seldom set up shop in Oklahoma because of the shortage of qualified graduates. These graduates not only need to know a lot but need to know how to think. What to do about this? Teach them to believe, and to not think.

To make matters worse, AP courses count as college credit, which means that Oklahoma graduates will have to pay tuition to take history courses when they get to college, which increases the cost burden on students from Oklahoma—students who can barely afford college as it is.

To summarize what the Oklahoma legislature has done by eliminating AP history courses:

  • Students will have to learn false information about American history.
  • Students will be trained to believe rather than to think.
  • Students will have a greater course load and financial burden if and when they get to college.

Stay tuned for what might come next. The legislature has two creationist bills that are ready to enter into committees. This has happened every year for over a decade. But this year, the legislature seems to believe that using critical thinking skills to evaluate facts is, itself, a threat to their power. For the first time in many years I have very little optimism that the spirit of education, as opposed to the spirit of catechism, will survive in Oklahoma.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How Conventional Religion Subordinates Women Even When It Doesn’t Mean To

I have written numerous entries about the bad things that religion can bring upon the human mind and the human experience. I have never done so, as some bloggers have done, in a spirit of contempt or ridicule. I have a background of religious fundamentalism, and when I write negative things about religion it is because I yearn for people who are still within the confines of doctrinal religion to be able to escape from it. For those of you, if any are reading this, who are still bound within the shackles of doctrinal religion (as opposed to spiritual sensibilities and feelings), I really care about you. I fear that you are missing out on anything good that religion might have to offer, as I did for so long.

One of the bad effects of doctrinal religion that I have noticed, especially here in rural Oklahoma, is that it plunges women into a position of inferiority. I’ll bet you’ve never heard that one before. Right. Whether it is overt, as in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, or unspoken, as in conventional Christianity and Islam, women are encouraged to think of themselves as servants rather than leaders.

You knew that already, of course. I just want to tell you what I have directly observed. I have lost count of the number of brilliant and promising female students that I have had who end up dropping out of their professional or graduate programs and becoming more or less domestic servants. And religion plays a role in this, if only because religion pervades the culture from which these women briefly began to emerge. They are not forced to do so by their male partners; I have seen the husbands of these women interrupt their own careers to support their wives in medical school. But these women have grown up feeling more comfortable in the position of servant than in the position of leader. Adam was the leader, and Eve the “help-meet,” and nothing but trouble came from Eve thinking for herself. Religion, even if it does not prescribe a subordinate role for women, feathers the beds that make women feel comfortable at home rather than in the workplace.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Floating Gardens of Science

I think it was 1978. I was a junior environmental biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). I was just beginning to understand, from my classes, the many ways in which organisms, particularly plants, interacted with one another in the vast network of life. For example, I was just beginning to learn about rain shadows and biogeography, and how they produced the patchwork of vegetation types in California.

It was the golden age of environmental education at the University of California. I studied plant ecology with Dr. Bill Schlesinger, who is now PresidentEmeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies but back then he was a new assistant professor. I studied general ecology with Dr. Joe Connell, who is now retired but who was a world leader in understanding the basic framework of ecology and who designed ingenious experiments. I took a course called Plants of California from Dr. Bob Haller, back when there was enough money in the budget for us to take long, expensive, and astonishing field trips. I also became acquainted with Dr. Cornelius Muller, who was a world expert on oak trees (though I did not know it at the time), especially the rare species of oaks stranded on top of desert mountains; and he was an early proponent of allelopathy (plants poisoning one another) as an important process in ecosystems. Though retired, Muller came to his office every day in his tweed jacket, white shirt, and red bowtie. I studied briefly with the eminent plant anatomist Maynard Moseley, and must have seen the other great plant anatomist, Katherine Esau, walking around the halls, without knowing who she was. Somehow I missed the famous human ecologist Garrett Hardin and the parasitologist Armand Kuris. What a place to be!

And I was just beginning to attend scientific presentations. They were mostly over my head, since the audience was mostly professional scientists. Indeed, when I attended my first scientific meeting (Ecological Society of America at Oklahoma State University in 1979) I was pretty lost. But one of the first presentations I attended at UCSB was by Dr. Steve Gliessman, who had been a graduate student of Cornelius Muller. At the time, I thought ecology was something that happened out “in nature,” such as the chaparral on the mountains behind Santa Barbara. It had not yet occurred to me that farms and cities can be ecosystems, something that an urban ecologist such as Steward T. A . Pickett would be able to explain to you. I was expecting Gliesman to talk about wild trees or shrubs or grasses. But instead he talked about his research in the floating gardens of Mexico.

These chinampa floating gardens are not actually floating but are artificial islands with canals between them. The Nahuatl people had to create their own artificial ecosystems in order to grow crops in the bottom of a shallow lake. Without knowing anything about what we call science, the Nahuatl people used the principles of ecology to create a food production system that was very effective and sustainable. Because of the continuous water supply and mild climate, a chinampa could produce seven harvests a year.

It was partly from this very early experience, hearing about Gliesman’swork, that I developed my way of looking at the world that has never left me: science is a way of helping people live on this planet. Science is not a diversion for scientists, but an essential way of helping the world. I have never forgotten this, in any book I have written or any class I have taught.

And finally this idea has caught on in lots of places. Back when I studied music theory at UCSB in the late 1970s, art in general and music in particular was a pursuit totally (as far as I could tell) disconnected from anything useful. The kind of music a lot of people wrote back then was incomprehensible, and if you expected to actually like it, that shows how little you know. But today, artists want to be relevant. The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts is, “Art works.”

We, the scientists and other scholars, are the servants of our fellow humans and our Earth. Or at least we ought to be. I will not forget this. Thanks, Steve.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Never Give Up

I just wanted to share a series of experiences I have had as a science educator. You may never find yourself in a position to do this. I did not seek this opportunity, but have been satisfied that it came.

For almost a decade, I have been exchanging occasional letters with a prisoner in California. He apparently read a book review that I wrote for the National Center for Science Education. I wrote about him a couple of years ago in this blog. I just wanted to mention again that if you have an opportunity to help someone in this way, do it. There are too many prisoners in the world to seek any out, but if one of them writes to you, you may find it rewarding to help them.

A couple of years ago I sent this man a paperback biology textbook that I had received unsolicited from a publisher, back when publishers sent out review copies to professors. He has been studying this book more closely than, I believe, any of my students ever have. He wrote, “The book is challenging. I did the [multiple choice questions] and I missed four out of eight. I grade myself at a C-. I never give myself an F or sometimes a D. Because I figure like this, the only time I should fail is when I do not even try.” Isn’t this an encouraging attitude?

I never asked him what he was in for; none of my business. He’s been in a long time. But how could I say no to someone who has such a desire to learn? He gets no encouragement from his fellow prisoners or from the prison officials, as far as I can tell. We call our prisons penitentiaries, as if they are supposed to make prisoners penitent, and we like to think we are reforming the prisoners. But prison officials have their hands full just keeping themselves alive and, sometimes, keeping the prisoners alive too. The only hope some of them have is to get some encouragement from people like us.

In his most recent letter, this man said he was making flash cards for studying biology.  He noted that some other prisoners were taking college courses and earning degrees, but in talking with them he discovered they did not remember what they had learned. He noted that they have “towering egos.” “I feel that it is better to know a little about something, than to think you know a lot about everything, when in actuality you find that you do not know as much as your inflated ego has led you to believe. For me, it is an honor to say I do not know something when I really do not know.”

I just wrote back to encourage him.

“I am happy that you wrote to me again. We have been in contact a long time. I am glad that you are still studying biology and have not given up. It is a difficult subject and I commend you for sticking with it.

“And it is a rapidly changing subject. The pace of biological knowledge is moving faster and faster. I certainly can’t keep up with it, and maybe nobody can. The technical knowledge is racing ahead faster than our ethical thoughts can handle it. This is especially true of recent advances in genetic engineering (altering the genes of microbes, plants, and animals, but not yet people). It is now easy and cheap to do genetic engineering. But our society has not yet thought about what we should do, and what we should not do. We don’t know. And the top scientists are the first ones to admit, openly, that there is a great deal they do not know. You said that you are happy to admit that you don’t know something. I think this is a good attitude. I and many other scientists are very aware that there is a vast number of things that we do not know. So your attitude is a good one to have. If we don’t admit our own ignorance, we simply stride forward into making mistakes.

“Keep thinking and reading. You probably keep a notebook for yourself too. And feel free to write again any time.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Another Failure of Religion

One of the most spectacular failures of creationism—indeed, of theistic evolution, or any kind of religious explanation of the world—is the inability to explain human nature and human instincts.

The monotheistic religions, which trace human nature back to the Garden of Eden, present the following explanation for what human nature is like. God created Adam and Eve as almost perfect people. They were adapted, physically and mentally, to living in a garden where all their physical needs were met. I say almost perfect because, according to the most conservative literalists, there were two problems. One was that Eve was gullible, and the other was that Adam had this tendency to do what his wife told him to do. So when the serpent told Eve to eat the apple, she just couldn’t resist. Sort of the primordial version of the irresistible expensive handbag, I suppose. It was therefore really her fault that Adam ate the apple; he trusted his wife too much. And from that point forward, human nature has been primarily evil. Sometimes more evil, as with Cain, and sometimes less, as with Abel.Sometimes more, as with Nimrod, and sometimes less, as with Noah. But even the good people had flaws, such as Noah getting drunk. And even evil people have a deep yearning to go back to the garden. Therefore, from a conservative religious viewpoint, human nature is a complex mixture of good and evil.But what kinds of good and what kinds of evil? Religion gives us no way to understand this.

But evolution presents a different picture. Science reveals humans as an evolutionary product of cave-man days. Our bodies and minds are adapted to prehistory, to a time before agriculture, to a time when the availability of food was unpredictable; when we had to run a lot to catch prey or to keep from becoming prey; when we had to be constantly aware of danger; when the only way to survive was to fight our enemies and form intimate alliances with our friends; when the way to evolutionary success was to stop at nothing to leave as many offspring as possible.

We have numerous adaptations to these particular prehistoric conditions. We have strong appetites, which make us eat as much food as we can when it is available, and to store what we do not use as fat; we crave salt so that we can sweat a lot when we get hot; we have a strong sense of awareness of the world around us, which makes us suspicious of every little movement; we are both honest and deceitful; and we have an overwhelming craving for sex. We hate and we lust and we love more strongly than logic could possibly dictate. That is, human instinct is a complex mixture of gluttony, craving, suspicion, lust, hatred, and love. And there is an evolutionary reason for each of these instincts.

Many of the problems that we have today result from the fact that our bodies and minds still work in prehistoric ways, even though these adaptations are now dangerous. Gluttony, with its attendant medical problems, results from our bodies preparing themselves for a famine that never comes, and makes us fat and diabetic; craving for salt so that we can sweat while we run away from non-existent predators now gives us high blood pressure. Anxiety and worry result from focusing on dangers that modern society has largely eliminated, and finding new things to worry about, giving us mental problems that cavemen probably did not have. Today we could get by on altruism and honesty alone, but we still have the habit of violence and deceit. And the things that cavemen had to do to get a mate would land us in jail today.

According to religion, sin is just random bad stuff that happens to be against the will of God. And righteousness is random good stuff that happens to meet God’s approval. We pursue sin because the devil makes us do it. But according to evolutionary science, both what we call sin and what we call righteousness evolved during cave man days.

Both conservative religion and evolution explain human nature as a complex mixture of good and evil. But only evolution gives specific explanations. Evolution gives specific explanations of why humans have gluttony, cravings, anxieties, and violence. If you ask a religious person why we are tempted by gluttony, he or she can give no explanation.  Why do our brains make us crave rich food and sugar and salt? Are these just arbitrary temptations that God has imposed on us as punishment for Eve sweet-talking Adam into eating the apple? And why are we almost crazy with sexual desires? Religious people can only tell us that the devil makes us do it.

According to traditional religion, the cave man days never existed. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they did not have to stuff their faces with food, because the Garden had no food shortages; they did not have to crave salt, or be paranoid, because there were no wild beasts to run away from; they certainly did not need a sex drive strong enough to fight off competitors, because they were literally the only people in the world. Then, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, almost immediately there was agriculture and herding (Cain and Abel, respectively). Humans went straight from sinlessness into civilization. In Biblical chronology, there is no period during which gluttony, cravings, paranoia, and sex drive would have been adaptive. These instincts went straight from being nonexistent to being unnecessary.

Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is evil and desperately corrupt, and that only God can understand it. So there. Just give up and don’t try to understand it.

There can be no religious basis for explaining why we get sick and why we have mental problems. But there are detailed evolutionary reasons for these things. And that explanation is that ninety percent of the time Homo sapiens has existed has been in a cave-man environment, the existence of which religion denies.