Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Philosophers Thinking about Science: Nothing New

Philosophers have been thinking about science for a long time. Some, like Karl Popper, focused their attention on how science should be done. But many others have thought about what the discoveries of science mean for the future of the human species. One of these philosophers was Max C. Otto (1876-1968), who spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin. Chances are that you have never heard of him. I ended up with an old copy of a 1949 book, Science and the Moral Life, which reprinted some of his previous writings. The pages of cheap paper are turning brown and flaking away. I’d better tell you about it now, before it is lost forever.

One of the most interesting things about the book was its cover. That perennial symbol of science, the chemistry flask, is divided in two. One half has roaring predators, representing the violent animal ancestry of mankind. The other half shows a 1940’s family looking into the brightness of the future: A tall man, his slightly shorter wife behind him, and the two kids, so so blond, the brother slightly older than the sister. It is clear that science, and the philosophy that unveils it to our understanding, is the key to future happiness. Something that looks like a heart is flying away to the upper right.

This book follows in the tradition of other popular works of philosophy, such as Philosophy Made Simple: Everyone has a philosophy. You might as well think about your philosophy, because if you don’t, you might end up with a bad one. Like Philosophy Made Simple, Otto wrote in clear and powerful sentences.

Otto begins by asserting that human nature today is not what it was in our bestial ancestors: “Man is what he is, not what he was.” Evolutionary scientists today dispute this, pointing out that beasts are not always “bestial.” But, regardless, we all agree that humans have some degree of control over how we think and act—over the development of our human nature. But Otto does have a point: “Man is capable of doing and suffering in a way that his animal brother is not. He is tortured by fears and lured by hopes to which the ape is stranger. No ape brews the venom of human hatred nor does he transform passion into love. Apes speak no language, accumulate no tradition, never see the tragic or the funny side of things.” Modern scientists may dispute these last assertions, but not much.

Otto continued. To Francis Bacon, all science had to have a practical purpose. “The idea in Bacon’s mind was simple and clear. It was to domesticate the untamed forces of nature as wild horses had been domesticated; to put them into harness, hitch them to the human enterprise, invite mankind to climb in and ride away to wealth, health, and felicity.” That is why science had to be brutally honest: “It is designed to lay bare the truth, no matter what it hurts, whom it hurts, or how it hurts.”

Many people have said (I was probably one of them, somewhere back in my flotsam of publications) that all roads of sincere inquiry lead to the same place, which some people call God. Otto said, regarding this, “I say frankly that this seems to me plain hocus-pocus...How would it sound if you put it this way? No one can tell where your road leads to; no one can tell where my road leads to; which proves that they both lead to the same place. You and I are fellow travelers who refuse to stop anywhere but in the city the whereabouts of which are unknown. Hence our slogan must be... “Step on the gas!”

In order to let science lead us into a better future, Otto claimed, we have to let go of traditional religion. In 1943, he wrote that religious forces are taking advantage of our confusion. “The springtime of our church religion dates back many hundreds of years. The thirteenth century was its summer. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the bronze and the yellow of autumn. From 1859 on [he just assumed his readers knew this was when Origin of Species was published] the oaks joined in the pageant, and industrialized science was the cold November rain.” Religion, Otto claimed decades earlier than John Shelby Spong, must change or die. Religion has no more facts to give us; only science can do this. We cannot go back to not knowing what we know now, back to the simple faith of the past. For religion and science to coexist, Otto said, religion must become pure feeling, without doctrinal assertions.

Max Otto, emerging from the crisis of World War I and observing that of World War II, dared to hope that science would lead to a new world in which our old, destructive ways of thinking would be extinct. How wrong he was! He wrote, “Pure tribal spirit has been outgrown, and the trend of human emotions is away from it; so distinctly away from it that the outstanding temper of our day may be said to be the audacious hope [my emphasis] of re-creating the world in the interest of all mankind.” He wrote those words in 1924. How disturbed he would be to see the ethnic selfishness that now rules our thinking, especially by those who hate the memory of Barack Obama, one of whose book titles (TheAudacity of Hope) looks like it emerged directly from Otto’s quote!

Alas, in contrast to Max Otto’s assertions, we will be animals forever and we have to learn to make the best of it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Natural Selection in the Meadow of Science

Imagine a meadow full of flowers. Imagine yourself as a bee, looking for flowers that have the nectar that you want to eat. Which ones will you go to? There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to make the best use of your time in the sun. You may choose the biggest and brightest flowers, if for no other reason than that they grabbed your attention.

Natural selection results. The bees choose the biggest and brightest flowers, and these are the ones that get pollinated and produce a lot of seeds. In addition to natural selection, there is also sexual selection. The big, colorful flowers attract pollinators to bring, and to take away, pollen, which is the male function of the flower. I am unclear on the concept of how a pollinator can enhance a flower’s male success without also enhancing its female success, but the scholarly articles about pollination customarily make this distinction.

Now imagine that the meadow is full of graduate students looking for jobs in academia. They want their scholarly articles not to just get published but to get noticed. How can a graduate student do this?

Of course, the article has to be well written and technically accurate. An inaccurate article is as counter-productive as a flower that, due to a genetic or developmental defect, cannot produce seeds.

And this used to be all that mattered. Scientific articles had to be correct, not necessarily interesting. As a matter of fact, old scientific articles seemed to me to compete with one another to see how boring they could be.

But now, scholarly articles have to catch the reader’s attention.

I think this is a positive development. Like many other professors, I am overwhelmed with work. I do not have time to read a bunch of scientific articles. All I can do is to visit the websites of the professional organizations to which I belong (for example, the Botanical Society of America), click on each monthly issue of the journal (American Journal of Botany, AJB), and scroll through the titles. If one catches my attention, I click on it. Right at the top, under the title and names of authors, is a summary, called an abstract. It might be one or two hundred words long. And that is usually all I have time to read. If I want to look at it again, I highlight and copy the title and put it in a digital file to which I can refer later. Even this I mostly do on vacation.

You can see how important it is to have a clear and interesting title. The title might be all that most members of the Society read. Sometimes, the titles sound more like something from National Geographic than from AJB. (I repeat, this is a good thing.) Here are some examples, from 2017 and 2018:

  • There was an article about the beautiful red-spotted golden flowers of Mimulus guttatus. I have long admired this flower, and was surprised to learn that in addition to being beautiful it had a nifty trick. The stigma (the surface on which pollinators deposit the pollen) closes itself up when it is touched. This is valuable for flowers that require pollen from a different flower. The ones that pollinate themselves, however, have lost the ability to close up their stigmas. The title began, “Losing one’s touch.”
  • Plant species related to Amsinckia, which produces flowers on a stalk that unfurls like the neck of a violin, are found in both North and South America. Genetic analysis has revealed that seeds of these plants journeyed from one hemisphere to the other 18 times. Interesting, but I might have missed it were it not for the first part of the title: “Memoirs of a frequent flier.”
  • There was an article about parasites seeking host vines. But these vines might be hard to find, interspersed with many other plants on which the parasites cannot live. The title began, “Reading between the vines.”
  • There was a series of articles about the computer-based analyses of plant evolutionary history. One was about the plant family Campanulaceae (bellflowers). The title began, “Can we build it? Yes, we can, but should we use it?” The title of another article, about the plant family Apocynaceae (milkweeds), began, “Evolution on the backbone.” The author was referring to the backbone of the phylogenetic tree, not animal backbones.
  • The August, 2018 AJB issue focused on how the “tree of life,” which shows the evolutionary relationships of all living species of plants, can be improved by adding in extinct, fossilized species, thus making it “The Tree of Death.” One of the article titles began, “Wanted dead or alive (probably dead).”

Interesting titles are good not just for us scientists, but also for science journalists, who write popular articles for everyday people to read. In case science journalists look over the titles, they will only notice the interesting ones. With a boring title, your research will never get mentioned in popular magazines or websites. One of the world’s leading journals, Science, has popular summaries of its technical articles near the front of each issue. The titles sometimes stretch themselves to the limit to get your attention.

For example, in the August 2, 2019 issue of Science, there is a technical article titled, “Laboratory mice born to wild mice have natural microbiota and model human immune responses.” If you read this title carefully, you can see that it is a pretty exciting article, bringing together two important aspects of modern medicine: microbiota (e.g. in your gut) and immunity. The summary at the front of the journal is titled “Walk on the wildling side,” and the news summary title is “Born to be a wildling.” The news summary titles tell you almost nothing about what the research is about; they exist solely to grab your attention. “Wildling” comes from the title of a 2018 movie.

In the immediately previous issue, there was a technical article about neutral mutations; that is, they are DNA mutations that have no measurable effect on the organism. Geneticists call these mutations cryptic. The title of the technical article is “Cryptic genetic variation accelerates evolution by opening access to diverse adaptive peaks.” The news summary article was entitled “Tales from the crypt(ic).”

Even the technical articles sometimes make a big stretch to gain attention. Several years ago there was a Science article about a Mediterranean volcano. The title began, “Bang!”

This has been going on for a long time, though less than at present. A 2002 article in the journal Oecologia is entitled, “It takes two to tango but three is a tangle: Mutualists and cheaters on the carnivorous plant Roridula.”

But sometimes the titles promise more than they can deliver. One 2017 article in AJB was entitled “Ecological and evolutionary consequences of tri-trophic interactions: Spatial variation and effects of plant density.” The title made me excited. It would make you excited, too, if you are a plant ecologist. It sounded like ecology at its best: biological processes having ripple effects up and down the food chain, that is, three trophic levels. I can almost hear John Muir saying that everything in the universe is hitched to everything else and that he would love to read the article.

But then I looked at the summary of the article. The seeds themselves are the first trophic level; the insects that eat the seeds, the second; and the parasites that eat the insects, the third. But the article simply showed that insects will be more abundant in places where there are more seeds, and that the parasites that afflict the insects are not affected by seed or insect density. The first conclusion was something we have already known for decades; the second conclusion was that the parasites didn’t affect the system. I thought that I was going to learn something new about ecology, in general, and was disappointed. If the authors had entitled the article “Seed predators eat more seeds when there are more seeds, and parasites have no effect on them,” the article would not have been noticed, perhaps not even published. All this, in spite of the fact that there was nothing technically wrong with the article.

If you want a job in the academic world, you have to publish articles with interesting titles (good) and that maybe promise more than they can deliver (not so good). Overall, I am glad that scientific titles are more interesting than they used to be. I certainly made some stretches for the chapter titles in my most recent book. But sometimes, just sometimes, a clever title makes me wonder if the author is hiding something.

Friday, September 20, 2019

New Darwin Video: I Have a Stethoscope and You Don't!

Click here for a new Darwin video in which I explain how some doctors and scientists, whether legitimate or not, use images rather than facts to enhance their credibility. It relates to chapter 14 of my book Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World's Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science.

Friday, September 13, 2019

White Tribalism in America

We like to think that, as modern Americans, we have passed the social-evolutionary stage of tribalism. But we have not. We still respond to other people, and potentially threatening situations, the way our tribal ancestors did.

On August 9, a white man walked into a Wal-Mart in Springfield, Missouri, openlycarrying an assault weapon and dressed in a bulletproof vest. People, their memories fresh of the mass shootings that occurred in Texas and Ohio just days before, fled the building, as did the armed man. He surrendered peacefully when authorities arrived.

The man claimed that he was performing an experiment. He had the legal right to openly carry arms. He wanted to find out if places such as Wal-Mart would respect that right. The authorities informed him that his right to carry weapons did not give him the right to act in a way that alarmed the public.

My point about tribalism is this. The man was arrested and treated respectfully because he was white. If he had been black, I have no doubt that he would have been shot—if not by the police, then by the private citizen who kept him at gunpoint while awaiting the police. The white majority in America view other white people as being part of their tribe, and black people as part of a separate tribe. Tribal identity—us vs. them—overwhelmingly determines how we act toward other people, especially in a threatening situation.

This man acted calmly, never pointing his weapon at anyone. But the news is full of white men who have, very recently, committed acts of mass terrorism. Among white conservative males, pent-up resentment brews to a white-hot intensity, in some cases erupting into open anger.

But resentment against what? What immense burden of injustice have white males experienced—from any level of government, or from the economic system, or society in general—that would justify such extreme anger? The idea that white males have been victims of oppression or prejudice, as a group, is ludicrous.

But suppose a black man loses his cool and gets angry. This happened recently in Tulsa, where I live. A black man parked his car in the fire zone at a library. When an armed security guard told him to move his car, he started screaming at her, accusing her of racism and threatening to get her fired. She did not fire at him, and the situation ended without further incident. Obviously, this black man displayed as much crazy anger as do many white men.

The difference is that black people have, in fact, suffered nearly unending oppression in America. Their anger, though inappropriate, is understandable. They were brought here as slaves; they suffered decades of lynching and over a century of racist laws; and, today, the number of black men (even unarmed black men, even uniformed black security guards) get shot by white police far in excess of black police shooting white people. Understandably, black people are afraid of white police, even the majority of police who would not shoot them, and afraid of white men, any of whom might be carrying a concealed weapon and be willing to use it without thinking.

It is equally wrong for whites and blacks to freak out. But blacks, at least, have a reason to feel that way. White supremacist groups far outnumber black supremacist groups. The black groups possess far fewer firearms, and when they do, they get raided. This is what happened to the Nuwabian Nation of Moors. Meanwhile, white supremacist cults continue to proliferate and to accumulate their weapons. White reaction to real or possible threats is strongly controlled by their tribal identity as whites.

Black people will not continue to put up with this. And when a seemingly minor event ignites their wrath, what the black extremists will do will not be reasonable, pretty, or legal. But whites have been asking for it for a long time. I remain astonished that most black people still like most white people.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Just When We Thought We Had Seen Everything: Sharpiegate

We have become accustomed to Donald Trump considering Himself to be personally inerrant on every subject about which he comments, and that His worshipers believe everything He says even after it has been proven wrong. This is the kind of behavior that you would expect to see from God and His worshipers. Does Donald Trump fantasize that He is God? This started with the very first day of His administration, in which He claimed that His inauguration was the biggest one in American history, photographic evidence to the contrary. And it continues at this moment with Sharpiegate.

At first, there appeared to at least be understandable motives for Trump’s lies. He wants us to think that He is the most popular president in American history, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton got more votes. That is, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. He was one of only four American presidents to win the electoral vote but lose the popular vote. The other three were George W. Bush, Rutherford Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison—all Republicans. (John Quincy Adams, who was president before the modern Republican and Democratic parties existed, also lost the electoral vote, but was selected by the House of Representatives. The fact that Trump legitimately won the election was not good enough. He has a psychological need to be at the very top, not just of votes but of inaugural attendees.

But what possible reason could there be for Sharpiegate? As Hurricane Dorian approached the United States in late August, 2019, the National Weather Service used their standard computer programs and the most current data to predict the most likely path of the hurricane. At that time, they believed that Florida would receive a direct hit. To everyone’s surprise, Dorian turned and went north along the Atlantic coast. At no time did the NWS scientists predict that the hurricane would have a significant impact on Alabama.

But Donald Trump insisted that it would. At a press conference, he held up a placard that showed the NWS-predicted path, which did not include Alabama. But this graph had a line drawn on it that included southern Alabama. It had apparently been drawn on the graph with a blue sharpie. The NWS scientists said that this prediction was wrong. But the top administrators of NOAA, the agency that includes NWS, defended the president. (They, unlike the career scientists, are executive appointees.)

[Photo from the New Yorker]

I, for one, cannot imagine how making His own weather prediction could possibly help Trump’s image. My guess is that He probably did it just because He thinks He can command the winds and the waves the way the Bible says that Jesus did.

At no previous point in American history has scientific thinking been in such danger. For the first time, we have a president Who considers Himself to be an authoritative source of scientific data, literally out of thin air. It is no longer just major concepts such as evolution and global warming that are at risk, but the very data themselves. The Great God Donald Trump creates Truth. I always thought Christians believed that only God could do that.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

As Free as a Cow

Many hyper-conservatives (who used to be the extreme fringe of the Republican Party but are now its mainstream) like to think they are defending freedom against tyranny (for example, the tyranny of the metric system, as in the rant by Tucker Carlson; see a previous essay). They think they are “free as a bird.”

But these hyper-conservatives are not free as a bird. They are as free as a cow. The hyper-conservatives believe whatever the NRA and Trump tell them, without questioning it. They will go wherever their idols lead them. They are like cows walking up the ramp into the truck, then down the ramp into the slaughterhouse, without questioning the motives of the humans who prod them.

Even worse, most rich people (not just rich hyper-conservatives) are only as free as a bacterium. Bacteria have no brains, no awareness. All they know how to do is to metabolize, reproduce, and fill their environment with toxins that may suppress the growth of other bacteria. In most cases, a corporation exists to do just one thing—to grow and to force other corporations out of the marketplace. A corporation then becomes like a bacterial infection in the nation and society. The rich people who own or manage these corporations, likewise, simply want to get more money, even if their greed kills the corporation, the society, the country. They are like a bacterial infection that kills the host animal.

This would seem to be a bad idea for bacteria, and natural selection should cause such ultimately self-destructive bacteria to go extinct. And, in many cases, this is just what happens. But if the bacteria are able to launch themselves onto another host, they will continue to survive on the new animal even as the previous one dies. The situation with rich people is similar. If they can get their money out of the corporation they are killing in time to invest it in a secret overseas bank account, they can continue to enjoy their wealth even after the demise of their corporation. The only victims are the employees of the corporation, and the small investors, and the customers. Right at this moment, there are thousands of wealthy people who never have to work again because they have fortunes that they took from corporations that they helped to kill.

And hyper-conservatives think that this is a good system. They want the very, very rich people to be as free as a cow, or as free as a bacterium, rather than free as a bird. A bird can see danger ahead and fly in another direction. Birds usually do not blindly follow a leader. Each bird makes its own decision about what to do and when to do it. Even migrating flocks of birds have no real leader, but respond to cues from one another about when to take flight and where to go.

Hyper-conservatives are leading our country toward the slaughterhouse. They have already infected us, and our death is imminent unless their strangle-hold on American minds is broken.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Mass Shootings: Everything Is Just as It Should be

Donald Trump has recently announced that there is no need for any strengthening of background checks, certainly no need for any further gun regulation, in the United States. In doing so, he was following orders from the NRA, whose advice he admitted was very, very important to him. Therefore, it appears, everything is exactly as it should be. We have exactly the right amount of gun safety, and the mass shootings that we have had and continue to have—I haven’t checked the news yet today—is a small price to pay for the freedom of crazy people to carry guns around and be ready to use them at a moment’s notice. From the Trump-NRA viewpoint, there should be no legal restrictions on firearms, until the moment the first shot is fired, and then the gunman should be neutralized.

I would like to present here a list of the deadliest mass shootings since 1949, according to an article published August 19, 2019, on CNN.

Number killed
Las Vegas
White man
Arab man
Virginia Tech
Asian man
Sandy Hook CT
White man
Sutherland Springs TX
White man
Killeen TX
White man
El Paso
White man
San Ysidro CA
White man
University of Texas
White man
High school in Florida
White youth
San Bernardino CA
Arab couple
Binghamton NY
Asian man
Columbine CO
White youths
Seattle WA
Asian men
Wilkes-Barre PA
Black man
Camden NJ
White man
Virginia Beach
Black man
Thousand Oaks CA
White man
Washington Navy Yard
Black man
Aurora CO
White man
White man
Pittsburgh synagogue
White man
Santa Fe TX
White youth
White man

*includes unborn child

This, apparently, is an acceptable situation. Let us consider these data a little further:

Ethnicity                     Incidents         Deaths
White man                   15                    279
Arabs                           3                      77
Asian man/men           3                      58
White youth/s              3                      40
Black man                   3                      37
Total                            27                    491

From this tabulation, we can see that all ethnicities are capable of mass violence, but it is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of white males.

These incidents have become much much much much more common in recent years. Consider this tabulation:

Year                Incidents         Deaths
1949                1                      13
1966                1                      18
1982                1                      13
1983                1                      13
1984                1                      21
1986                1                      14
1991                1                      23
1999                2                      25
2007                1                      32
2009                3                      37
2012                2                      39
2013                1                      12
2015                1                      14
2016                1                      49
2017                2                      84
2018                4                      50
2019                2                      34

There has been a huge acceleration of mass shootings. This is also, apparently, a situation that is acceptable to Trump and the NRA. And 2019 isn’t even over yet. I am not predicting that this acceleration will continue, but the rate will certainly not decline. Other countries such as France think we are freaking crazy. Their conclusion is understandable.

What does this have to do with evolution? Quite a lot. Evolution has given the human brain instincts for altruism, as well as instincts for killing. We have a choice as to which ones we will use. We have the freedom to choose peace over racism, yet the vast majority of the killings were inspired by racial hatred. Our instincts of altruism toward members of our tribe and hostility toward outsiders may have served us well in prehistoric times, but we Americans, led by Trump and the NRA, are taking us boldly back to caveman days.