Saturday, August 1, 2015

How I ended up not being a racist

If anyone should have ended up being a racist, it should have been me.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as my parents, used the N word whenever they could. One of my uncles wanted to make sure that his daughter did not have to experience “bussing.” Does anyone remember what that was? It was deliberately transporting schoolkids by bus to a more distant school in order to achieve racial integration. In order to keep his daughter in a white school, my uncle had to get her to take a course that they did not offer at the black school. The course? Russian. In the middle of the Cold War, Alvin Rice the anti-communist wanted his daughter to study Russian so that she could avoid being bussed across town to a black school. (In a recent conversation with that cousin, she does not remember this incident—she was too young to care one way or the other about bussing—but remembers her father’s strong emotions about it.)

I also remember my parents discussing the question of whether black people were even human, and they concluded that they were not.

I remember my parents and aunts and uncles watching a news report during the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey presidential race. Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey was campaigning among blacks and he kissed a black baby. My parents and aunts and uncles were horrified. There, that one act proved that Humphrey should not be president.

Yet somewhere around 1980, this kind of talk stopped. It was rare among my cousins, and even the old folks changed the way they talked. Did they have a change of heart, or did they just finally admit that racism was dying out? I do not know. I just know that I would be astonished if any of my conservative Okie cousins used the N word (at least in my presence) ever again. And I truly believe they do not use it in private.

If anyone should have been a racist kid, it would have been me. I was raised by racists. I had it drilled into me. But, how shall I say it, it just didn’t take.  I remember what I thought and felt during the Hubert-Humphrey-baby-kissing incident. I remember thinking that what my parents said made no sense at all. It was perhaps the first time that I ever considered my parents to be wrong. I couldn’t explain why it was wrong; I just felt it.

These experiences continued. I befriended a Japanese-American guy and my parents were very uncomfortable with it, as they were with my trip to Japan as an exchange student in high school. I was enchanted by Japanese culture and studied it, and the language, intensely for a long time; I also loved the Japanese that I met as individuals. I started an airmail-letter romance with one of the girls from Japan. (Nope, never told my parents.)

Blacks, Japanese, and…Mexicans. My parents also raised me to not like Mexicans very much either. Had I tried to date any Mexican girls, my parents might have stopped me. As chance would have it, I was so timid that I only went on three dates in high school, all with white girls. (There was racial animosity going the other way, too.)

But I couldn’t help but like most Mexicans at least as much as I liked most whites. One particular experience remains in my mind. The whole band, plus the letter and banner girls, was on a bus going on a trip. My friend David and I, both white freshmen, talked with this stunningly beautiful Mexican girl, and we were smitten. I was; I think you were too, David. She was unattainable, of course: a senior. When we were all at our motel, this girl walked through a plate glass window and got minor injuries. I went to her room to wait with her while an ambulance came (I think David was there too) and I realized how much I cared what happened to her. Well, a lot of racism has disappeared from our group; at our 40th class reunion, there did not seem to be much of a white/Mexican racial divide.

Then there remains the fact that I am a member of the Cherokee tribe, although I am mostly white. My Cherokee mother told me about our family’s history, all the way back to Nancy Ward (who died in 1822). That is, we were a racially blended family. On what logical basis could we be prejudiced against blacks, Asians, and Mexicans? This didn’t really sink into me until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the early documentations of white American genocide against Native Americans. Much later, when I told my mother when I was in graduate school that I had a girlfriend (we got secretly engaged after knowing each other about a week and are still married after 31 years), Mom’s first question was, is she white? I said, almost. “What do you mean, almost?” “Well, Mom, somewhere along the line, one of those Cherokees got over the wall.” After a little hesitation, Mom could only laugh. My mom died on the day Barack Obama was elected in 2008, perhaps still struggling with the knowledge that the world was changing in a way she was uncomfortable with.

And today, I find myself more attracted to darker people than to lighter people, who seem somehow to be washed-out and dried up and sun-bleached. I believe this to be a psychological over-reaction against the racism in which I was raised. It is not logical; it is just a feeling.

There’s still a lot of racism around. Each week’s news brings another example of it. But maybe, just maybe, we humans have a streak of anti-racism in us that can make us, as it made me, feel repulsion toward racism. Let’s hope we do.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Hike in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

My hike with my daughter and her boyfriend, at about 11,600 feet elevation north of Santa Fe, showed me that I can still push my body to limits that most people my age cannot attain. It felt brutal at the time but almost immediately afterwards the memories were shimmering and beautiful. Here are some of the things we saw.

The trail started off in the douglasfir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) zone and quickly reached the subalpine zone. I didn’t quite make it into the tundra on top of Santa Fe Baldy.

Decades ago, there were large fires, and aspens (Populus tremuloides) quickly filled the spaces. But since there have been, to all appearances, no fires for a long time, the aspens have grown quite large. Each clump of aspen, covering perhaps much of an entire mountainside, is a genetic individual: one tree with hundreds of trunks. These aspens, whether due to age or genetic differences, had tan-colored bark rather than the white bark I have seen so often in the Black Hills. The bark is thin, translucent, and has a layer of green photosynthetic cells under it.

There were many species of subalpine wildflowers. Columbines (Aquilegia) were rare in the shade, and camass lilies (Zigadenus) were more common out in the meadows.

There were lots of mushrooms and mushroom pickers. The pickers were all smart enough to avoid the deadly Amanita:

A huge storm chased us back to the car for the last few hundred feet of our trip.

I have seen montane and subalpine forests in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, and Utah; they all have many features in common but each is unique. We cannot save wild places by just fencing off a token forest or two.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Biology of War

In 2013 scientific attention was focused on a pair of books that addressed why humans have war. Edward O. Wilson, in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, maintained that war was a human instinct, and that humans have had war as long as we have existed as a separate species. (This was not the main thing Wilson’s book was about.) In contrast, science writer John Horgan, in his book The End of War, argued that war is something that humans learned to do and that we can unlearn.

While this seems like an important debate, I fear that it is mostly over semantics. Humans have had violent conflict as long as we have existed (a fact Horgan does not deny), but full-scale wars have occurred only in the last 11,000 years or so. Did I miss something? When human population started to increase, and humans started living in defined locations such as cities, then violent conflicts became big enough to be classified as wars. Isn’t war just a big violent conflict? Was the conflict between the Cherokees and the Creeks, culminating in the Battle of Taliwa in 1755, a war or an intertribal conflict? I don’t think this would have made any difference to Nanyehi, my 6th great grandmother, whose saw her husband killed in that battle, and who became a Cherokee war hero right at that moment. She was a war hero, even though no massive troop engagements were involved. She, also at that moment, became an advocate for peace, because whether it was a war or a mere conflict, she was a widow and her two children were orphans.

Nevertheless, Horgan does get us to think about a few very interesting things. He makes the invalid argument that, if violence is part of human nature, then why has war been so sporadic? I think it is obvious why he is wrong. We all feel the occasional zeal of violence; the fact that we do not always put it into action does not mean that it is not part of our nature. But the interesting point is this: war does not always occur when resources are scarce or when there is hostility. War is an emergent property, I think, that must be induced under the right circumstances. Not every conflict of interests between tribes or nations turns into war, just as not every dry grassy field burns. But when war is induced, the violent component of human nature is waiting there as fuel.

Still, Horgan brings up a good point, when we consider that war is not something that automatically happens but something that we must decide to do. To a certain extent, it is something that we have to learn. Sometimes it becomes a tradition into which we are trapped. That is, war is something that our leaders lead us into. Most people (except psychopaths) have a natural tendency to want to not harm other people. But this resistance to major acts of violence can be overcome by intense training, commands from authority figures, long-range weapons, and propaganda. The long-range weapons allow us to kill others without having to see them die.

Horgan makes the point that we start wars not because we are wolves but because we are sheep. We may be inclined to seek peaceful solutions, but we do whatever our leaders tell us to. This is the aspect that can make a whole population become violent, not just the one to two percent who are psychopathic.

The violence that leads easily to war is part of human nature. But peace is also part of human nature. Because of this, war may not be inevitable, if we can break the cause-and-effect chain that keeps war going. This chain goes all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, which fundamentalists accept as history and I accept as an image. You can think of each human as half Cain, half Abel. Which half will we choose? Perhaps we will always have war, but there is room for diminishing its intensity and frequency.

And to do so we need to cultivate empathy. We need to practice it, think about it, incorporate it into our movies and novels and music and art. We cannot eradicate our violent nature, but maybe we can encyst it so that it does not poison the rest of our collective person. We have to tell ourselves, in celebration, that we all feel the same things. We all love our children and most of our neighbors and most of the people we work with. (As for the ones we don’t love, maybe we can tolerate them.) As Nanyehi said, “The white men are our brothers. The same house shelters them, and the same sky covers us all.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

Our Shared Environment

I am sure I have written about this idea previously: What we do to the environment of the Earth, locally or globally, is directly involved with how we relate to other people. How can we say we love our human brothers and sisters if we pollute the environment we share with them? Love your neighbor—and it is your neighbor’s Earth.

A particularly amazing example of the disregard that some people have for their neighbors, and their neighbors’ environment, has come to my attention in rural Oklahoma, where I live. When I first heard about it, I could hardly believe it, until it was corroborated by a second person. Both of these people, who do not know one another, grew up in and still live in rural Oklahoma. I still find it hard to believe, but I will pass the story on to you.

One way that some rural residents of Oklahoma have of getting rid of their garbage is to put it in the flatbed of a pickup truck and drive around until the wind blows it away. This does not work for heavy objects like beer bottles—those are more efficiently disposed of by throwing them out the window—but it works very well for paper and plastic. There are two reasons for this. First, Oklahoma has a lot of wind. Second, the air pressure is greater down in the pickup bed than in the moving air (moving, that is, relative to the pickup bed) above the pickup bed, virtually guaranteeing that the light garbage will be lifted out and blown away.

People who do this sort of thing might as well have a bumper sticker on the truck proclaiming, “This is what I think of you, you worthless miserable fellow Americans—I will dump my garbage on you.” Of course, they do not want to actually say this, so they pretend that, oh-oh, the wind just happened to lift the garbage out of my truck, oh well. Maybe they are even salving their own consciences by pretending that they are not really dumping their garbage when they do this.

As I said, I would not have believed this story had it not been told to me by two people who do not know one another or live in the same town.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Language is for

I am sure most of us are tired of hearing about the silliness of fundamentalists insisting upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Like you, I have no interest in revisiting this topic. It is quite clear from reading the Bible itself that the Bible does not use literalistic language. The only people who do not know this are probably the fundamentalists who have not actually read the Bible, but have just listened to fundamentalist preachers. This may be most fundamentalists.

What is interesting to me is that fundamentalist insistence on literalistic language is based on a misunderstanding of what language is for. And it is a misunderstanding that also plagues many scientists. Both creationists and scientists often believe that the purpose of language is to convey information; and that language is better when it conveys information more accurately or precisely or correctly. (Accuracy, precision, and correctness are three different things.) A creationist gets all bent out of shape if someone suggests that “day” in Genesis 1 is not a 24-hour time period, or even a time period at all. And some of my fellow botanists get all bent out of shape if an amateur calls a dandelion a “flower.” See? That amateur called a dandelion a flower—that shows how much he knows. In reality, a dandelion of a whole bunch of flowers crammed together, each with its own petals and reproductive naughty-bits. It is a composite inflorescence. I teach about composites because once you see that a dandelion is a bunch of flowers, your eyes are opened to new evolutionary possibilities: new adaptations can arise from previously separate components merging together. But I don’t get bothered by an amateur calling a dandelion a flower. Matter of fact, “amateur” is not a derogatory term; it comes from the Latin for love. An amateur is someone who does something because he or she loves it.

Scientists are generally OK with similes, but generally reject metaphors, unless said metaphor has become incorporated into a standard set of scientific phrases (such as “seed bank”). But when I teach or write for a wider audience, I use metaphors all the time, and say some downright wrong things if they get the main idea across or (perhaps more importantly) get the listener to appreciate and enjoy the world more. (With apologies to Will Rogers, I could say I never metaphor I didn’t like.)

Language did not evolve primarily as a way of communicating information, although this was one of its functions. It evolved as a medium of relationship. The use of imprecise, colorful, sometimes factually incorrect statements helped to negotiate relationships between individuals within a tribe, or between tribes—and it still does. One of the best mediums for this is humor. What little bit of culture I have inherited from my Native American ancestors helps me to understand this. Native Americans don’t worship Trickster Coyote. It is a set of humorous stories that helps us make sense out of an otherwise chaotic universe. A lot of God-talk among tribal peoples is to be understood as metaphor or simile, a human way of picturing something otherwise incomprehensible. As one Anishinabe speaker said, “When we talk about the holiness of a tree, we don’t mean that the tree is a god. We’re not stupid. We mean that the divine represents itself, among other ways, as a tree.”

Even fundamentalists cannot resist using imprecise language. They might say something like, I was just flying down the highway. Does this mean that they have wings, or were in a hang glider skimming too low to the ground? Or flapping their arms as they ran? My guess would be no. And they will say things like, He knocked me over when he said that. Really? If that is literally true, you’d better file assault and battery charges. Especially when, as a fundamentalist might say, he literally knocked me over when he said that. Fundamentalists will use figurative language themselves, but forbid God to do so. But why would a fundamentalist, or anyone else, use such language? Imprecise language usually occurs in little conversational groups in which altruistic relationships are being built, often using humor as a thickener. (I’m not sure that metaphor worked.)

At least scientists have a reason for insisting on literally precise language. We need it in order to understand the actual mechanisms that are occurring in nature. But once we have done this, why don’t we relax a little?

So when fundamentalists insist on literalistic Biblical language, or scientists insist on precise language even after hours, all I can say is, go ahead and enjoy the flowers, even the ones in the family Asteraceae that aren’t really flowers.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Brief announcement: new video

I have just uploaded a new video in which Charles Darwin explains, just in time for the summer cookout season, how to cook up some life!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

We Know What You Are Thinking and We Can Change It

An article in the May 29, 2015 issue of Science (the summary is here, the abstract of the article is here) reveals a new way in which people’s attitudes can be manipulated. The authors note that, even when people try to not have racial, gender, or ethnic biases, they still have them subconsciously. Even if people are trained to reduce their biases, the subconscious scaffolding of these biases remains. Is there any way to rub out these subconscious prejudices? Apparently there is.

  • First, you train subjects—for example with computer exercises—to overcome their prejudices. This has been used for a long time. The difference this time is that you can unobtrusively introduce some sensory signal, such as a sound or a scent, during this training. The subject’s mind then associates the anti-prejudice training with the sound or scent.
  • Second, when the subjects are asleep, introduce the sound or scent. The result is that the sleeping brain clears away some of the lingering prejudice.

What you get is a subject, when he or she wakes up, who is much less prejudiced.

This sounds like a great way that people can use to alter the prejudices that they have trouble getting rid of. Maybe therapists could use it on people who seek help. However, I am sure you have already realized that it could also be used to alter a subject’s attitudes in a way that government or corporate leadership finds convenient. It might not be too much harder to induce subjects to love the swastika than to love people of other races. Though the authors did not note it, this process might be even more effective if oxytocin spray, which induces feelings of trust, is used during the training exercises.

Do I think that any government or industry or interest group is going to make use of this process any time soon? No. But I pass this on to you as an example of how science and technology are moving along faster than our ability to think through the ethical uses of the new information and techniques.