Thursday, January 19, 2017

Welcome, Science!

With the inauguration of a federal administration that is more hostile to scientific research and understanding than perhaps any in American history, scientists are beginning to feel anxious. Not all scientists; medical research will probably do okay. But climate scientists, ecologists, and evolutionary scientists now feel like a persecuted minority. As a participant in all three areas of research and writing, I feel like I do not want the new government to even know what I think. Fortunately, unlike some climate scientists such as Michael Mann, who has been repeatedly persecuted by the Republicans, I am a small target.

Many other countries are much more open to scientific insights. Make no mistake: they are opening their arms to American scientists. One of these countries is China. In the fall of 2016, at least four Chinese cities bought two-page spreads near the front of Science magazine depicting themselves as wonderful places for scientists to live and work.

  • September 9: Foshan “has an obvious advantage of industrial cluster.” The advertisement proudly displayed the data about how prosperous this city is, its 7.4 million residents and its 170,255 private enterprises.
  • September 23: Nanhai advertised itself as close to the Hong Kong economically-open region, and “a highly civilized city worth visiting. It is also considered as the national sanitary city…and one of the highly-educated cities in Guangdong.”
  • September 30: Sanshui promoted its industrial potential, but mainly depicted itself as a wonderful place to live. “The southern scenery is coquettish and graceful,” says the advertisement. “Here, with picturesque scenery, people live and enjoy the peaceful and prosperous environment as well as the wonderful and leisurely moment. Here, has got the breeze, drizzle and canoes on the river form the beautiful scenery of three rivers in the misty rain.” Thank God for Google Translate.
  • October 7: Shundei advertised itself as a growing hub of manufacturing.

Of course, they mostly want to attract the same scientists that American corporations want. But it has escaped nobody’s attention that China does not officially denounce scientists who study evolution, ecology, and climate science. If I were young and mobile and with a freshly-minted Ph.D. I would give China some serious consideration.

Many American cities could, and do, promote themselves in similar terms, and they are right to do so. Tulsa, where I live, has as its slogan “A new kind of energy,” meaning the promotion of entrepreneurship instead of just the continuation of Tulsa’s twentieth century image as an oil town. The difference is at the national level, where Beijing promotes science and Washington is antagonistic toward it.

In order to prevent the “brain drain” of scientists out of the United States, it is not necessary for the government to spend a lot of money. All we need is for the Republican leaders to quit making scientists sound like traitors. The Republican Congress has relentlessly pursued investigations of climate scientists in order to discredit them, and now they have a president who has proclaimed that global warming is a hoax.

I do not foresee a massive exodus of scientists out of America. But certainly more scientists will leave America than at any time in the past.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Evolution: Using the Hand You Are Dealt

A mistake common among both “creationists” and “evolutionists” is that their preferred mode of origin produces perfection: an adaptation, whether created or evolved, is the best possible solution to the challenges of existence. The exceptions to this view are so numerous that I believe no one could list all of them. I just wanted to tell you about a recently-published example.

Those of us who are enchanted by the beauty of photosynthesis, all the way from the deep emerald color of chlorophyll a to the utter transformation of Earth that photosynthesis has wrought in the last three billion years, are tempted to think that it is a perfect process. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for photosynthesis. But, for all of its elegance and global importance, photosynthesis has several flaws. One is that the light-absorption reactions consist, for no good reason other than evolutionary history, of two cycles rather than just one. Somewhere back in time two different bacterial systems merged together into the chloroplast photosynthetic system that covers the Earth today so much that large parts of the planet appear green from outer space. I suspect that, had a Designer made photosynthesis, this Designer might have made a single, efficient cycle rather than smooshing to previous cycles together. But perhaps the most noteworthy limitation of photosynthesis is rubisco.

Meet rubisco. You gotta love it. About half of the water-soluble protein in a leaf is rubisco. It is an enzyme that removes carbon dioxide from the air and fixes (attaches) it to other molecules, which will ultimately become sugar. This is the major short-term process that removes carbon dioxide from the air and almost the only process that creates food upon which all the food chains on Earth depend. That is, rubisco is a carboxylase. But it is also an oxygenase. Oxygen molecules can get into rubisco and crowd out the carbon dioxide molecules. This starts a whole cascade of reactions called photorespiration. Rubisco does not react very much with oxygen, but oxygen is over 5000 times as common in the air as carbon dioxide, so it turns out that photorespiration significantly inhibits photosynthesis—by as much as one-quarter. If only rubisco were not such an inefficient carboxylase, the world would be a lot greener—probably over 30 percent greener. Forests would probably grow 30 percent more biomass, although deserts and tundra, limited by water and temperature, might not look very different. Most physiologists consider rubisco to be the rate limiting step in photosynthesis, the slow guy that holds everything else up. Come to think of it, this is probably why there is so much rubisco. Each molecule is so slow that chloroplasts have to make a whole lot of them just to get the job done.

But rubisco is not the only game in town. There are apparently at least five other carboxylases that are found in cells. That is, the genes for them already exist, but are not used in the most common form of photosynthesis. And they are all more efficient than rubisco.

Thomas Schwander and his colleagues in Germany have devised an artificial pathway of carbon fixation that they call the CETCH pathway (read about it here and here). While it would be difficult to insert the enzymes of this pathway into living plant cells (in vivo), they are working on a commercially viable industrial system that removes excess carbon dioxide from the air and makes them into organic molecules. This system is not just a little bit more efficient than a system based on rubisco; it is thirty-seven times more efficient!

A Designer would have built photosynthesis on something like the CETCH pathway; or, who knows, maybe something even more efficient that the Designer would be able to think of. But evolution uses whatever hand of cards it is dealt. At the time and place when the prevalent modern form of photosynthesis evolved, rubisco was ready and available to be conscripted for that job. And today the natural world is pretty much stuck with it.

Photosynthesis is no different from any other biological process in being the result of an evolutionary pathway that consists of lucky adaptations. Your DNA is not as efficient as it could be. It is filled with dead genes and dead viruses and repeated elements from nucleotide duplication that went a little crazy. Your DNA is not like an orderly house or office. It is like an attic, or the offices of some of my professorly colleagues, in which piles of papers totter in corners and occasionally fall over but in which they can eventually find the papers they need. And almost all the food in the world (unless you live at volcanoes at the bottom of the sea) comes from photosynthesis, which could be a lot more efficient if only it had not been designed by the brainless process of evolution.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

New YouTube video

You can now watch "Darwin apologizes to Neanderthals" here!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Welcome to Another Year

Welcome to the ninth calendar year of essays on this blog, which has been online for about 100 months. As in all previous years, I will focus on scientific issues related primarily to evolution and ecology, and the way evolutionary and ecological concepts help us to understand ourselves better. If I start to rant about politics or religion, I always try to bring it back to evolution and ecology. These are the things, not politics and religion, in which I have expertise.

I wanted to start the year by providing some permalinks to a selected few essays in this blog that those of you (most of you) who were not reading it in fall 2009 might want to look back at. There are so many entries (496 so far) that right now all I can do is highlight a few of them from 2009 and 2010.

Look back at some of these and enjoy them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Comrade Trump

Donald Trump won the electoral college vote. You would think this would be enough for him. Hillary Clinton got about two million more popular votes than he did. But Trump wants to rewrite history. He claims that he actually won the popular vote, because those votes for Clinton were illegal. See the USA Today article. He wants not only the presidency but wants history to remember him as the recipient of the huge and virtually uncontested adoration of Americans.

And he can do it.

Will Trump, by his endless repetition of his claims, alter the records of history in the United States? Will future generations of American students learn that Trump led an immense popular revolution? This sort of thing has happened before, though not in America.

Joseph Stalin was one of the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917. There were others who worked beside him and were just as important. But when Stalin grabbed power in the Soviet Union, he proceeded to literally rewrite the history of the Revolution. As one by one his former comrades-in-arms began to fall from his favor, Stalin literally had them purged out of the photographs of the period. Consider this set of four images. The original photograph shows four men—Stalin and three comrades who fought with him. One by one, the images of the others were erased until Stalin is left alone, implying that he single-handedly led the Revolution. The others were literally erased from history.

Here is another example. Nikolai Yezhov was the water commissar in Moscow. Here is the original photo of him with Stalin:

But Yezhov later fell from favor with Stalin, who had him erased from the photo:

Trump is arrogant enough, and has enough popular support, that He could conceivably rewrite American history to fit his views, particularly with regard to himself.

You can find more information, and the images I have used, here.

In a similar fashion, Adolf Hitler got everyone in Germany and outside Germany to think that all Germans supported, indeed worshiped, Him. This was to the advantage of Hitler, who pretended that there never had been any serious opposition to Him, and to the Allies, who wanted to maintain the fiction that all Germans were Nazis. History does not even remember that there were Gentile white Germans in 1940 who were not Nazis. There were many thousands of them, as explained here; 77,000 of them were executed by the Nazis.

The human mind did not evolve to reason; it evolved to rationalize. To the human mind, a lie supported by religious fervor (just as most conservative Christians virtually worship Trump) is just as good as, and more useful than, the truth. If history is any guide, Trump and his religious followers can rewrite American history so that future generations of Americans will not even know that those of us who oppose Trump even existed. Remember that images can be doctored on the internet, too.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Evolution of Democracy

It is clear to many of us, in the wake of the right-wing victories in the 2016 election, that democracy is fragile. What might have happened if Trump had lost the election? Would he have gracefully accepted defeat, as Clinton did? Probably not. At least not gracefully. Throughout his campaign he declared that he would accept the election results only if he won. While I doubt he would have called his followers to violent action, he almost certainly would not have told them to restrain their passion; he would, without saying it in so many words, have encouraged his followers to begin acts of violence. Of course, we will never know, unless the Republicans lose big in 2018 or 2020.

My point is that democracy can survive only if the dominant race remains in control. The majority white race (which is actually, as described in another essay, a coalition of minority white races) likes democracy only as long as it leaves this race in control. Sure, Obama was president for eight years, but there was not one moment (except about a half a year at the beginning) when he was not under continual attack and aspersion. The Republican approach to a black presidency was to try to demolish it. They think democracy is nice but don’t let it go too far.

In this sense democracy is like any other animal behavior system. Animal behavior systems can evolve. That’s part of how we ended up with two very closely-related species of chimpanzees: the regular chimp (Pan troglodytes), which is often violent, and the bonobo (Pan paniscus), which is usually peaceful. Chimps spend a lot of time fighting, while bonobos spend a lot of time making love. A bonobo troop is like one long orgy, or so it seems to human observers. As Frans deWaal says, chimps resolve sexual conflicts with power, while bonobos resolve power issues with sex. There is nothing fundamental in primate behavior about either peace or war. It can change over evolutionary time.

In humans, behavior can change over much shorter periods of time. There is nothing about democracy that is fundamental to American character; we have it for now, but (as has happened so often in the past in other countries) humans can quickly abandon it and embrace totalitarianism if that’s what it takes to maintain white supremacy. So far, which path we take remains open to us.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Something We May Never See Again

I discovered a surprising book in my vast library recently: My Wilderness, East to Katahdin, by a certain William O. Douglas. Many of us think of the modern era of environmental awareness as having begun with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. But My Wilderness, published in 1961, has some of the same ideas, though in a less organized form. Rachel Carson organized the concepts into a powerful argument and provided all of the scientific references, but William O. Douglas and probably many others had thought of them earlier.

One of these concepts was the interconnectedness of nature and how modern industrial society can mess everything up by ignoring these connections. One example about which Douglas wrote was the federal government practice, in the 1950s, of dropping poison bait from airplanes to kill off the wolves. But the result was to kill off many other kinds of animals, some of which had kept populations of agricultural pests such as grasshoppers in check. The result was population explosions of insect pests. The answer to this was, of course, more spraying. Another example was the attempt to destroy the sagebrush by herbicides, to encourage the grass to grow for the ranchers to graze their livestock. But wildlife that depended on the sagebrush began to die as a result.

Another concept was the government practice of renting out federal land very, very cheaply to ranchers to graze their livestock. At that point, the ranchers began to act as if the federal land was actually their private land that the government should just let them keep. This continues to happen today, such as the takeover of federal land by the armed Bundy family militia in late 2015. But it is nothing new. Douglas quotes an acquaintance who worked for the federal government (I presume the Bureau of Land Management) who said, “…a permittee who has the right to run sheep on public land pretty soon begins to think he owns the range. Take it away from him, or cut down on the number of sheep or cattle he can graze, or increase the rental, and he hollers as if his property has been confiscated” (page 41). Then as now, ranchers who pretend to be wild west cowboys want to take land that belongs to the taxpayers—that is, as much as to me as to them—and keep it for themselves. This is a practice that they refuse to call socialism.

Douglas was a man who hiked all over the continent. He writes of backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; Zion National Park in Utah; Maroon Bells in Colorado; Baboquivari along the Arizona-Sonora border; Quetico Provincial Park in Canada; The Smoky Mountains; the Everglades; the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal near Washington, D. C.; and the White Mountains, Allagash, and Mt. Katahdin in the northeast United States. He was no stranger to the challenges of survival in the wild. The descriptions in this book are sometimes evocative and help you to feel like you are actually present in a place you will probably never visit. But, although I have no doubt that he saw all of these organisms, his descriptions were usually lists of plants and animals that sound like he copied them out of a guidebook. There were quite a few books of this sort published about the same time, such as The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson, The Near Woods by Millard Davis, and One Day at Teton Marsh by Sally Carrighar. Douglas’s book is highly disorganized, except for each chapter being about his experience in one particular place.

What makes this book unique is the person who wrote it. Who was he? Do the black robes in this portrait give you a hint?

William O. Douglas was, throughout nearly all of the time during which he took the hikes he describes, a Supreme Court justice. He still holds the record of serving the longest on the Supreme Court, almost 37 years, from 1939 to 1975. Aside from Teddy Roosevelt shooting big animals and mistaking it for a love of nature, we have never had—and almost certainly will never again have—a prominent politician who had or will have such a passionate and thorough knowledge of the natural world. Today, with the new “conservative” (vs. conservationist) takeover, it seems that the less you know about science and nature, the more qualified you are for any office, particularly positions in which you are supervising government conservation and scientific activities. But even the few remaining liberals in government seem to think that the Earth is just a stage on which the human drama takes place. Douglas was most famous for writing the “Rights of Rocks” statement. In the Sierra Club v. Morton suit regarding the commercial development of Mineral King, just south of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Douglas wrote, “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” That is, trees should be able to sue for their own preservation. Can you imagine any Supreme Court justice, or any other prominent politician, saying anything like this today?

Douglas considered Nature to be a holy place. Thousands of books are published with such a theme, and millions of people believe it, but none of them in such a prominent position as the one Douglas held. Just read these words: “If we make conservation a national cause we can raise generations who will learn that the earth itself is sacred. Once a person breaks through to the level where love of beauty is the ideal, he will worship the rocks and plains that are America. Then he will look on a tuft of grass with awe. For it has the secret of chlorophyll that man hardly comprehends” (page 32).

The survival of human life as we know it on Earth depends on our leaders having this kind of insight. And it will never happen.