Monday, June 18, 2018

Beta Males

I’m a beta male and proud of it. I’ll let the alpha males swagger around and show off their strength and (in Dixie) act like their big trucks prove their virility even if paying for them drives them into bankruptcy. In contrast, I live in a world of quiet intelligence and keep my finances from disaster. Let the alpha males have their alpha females; I like beta females just fine, not the least of whom is my wife, who is as quiet, intelligent, and responsible as I am, if not more. My wife and I have not spent one moment wishing we were alphas.

You might think it would be fun to be an alpha male. But, in nature, alpha males experience a lot of stress because they have to constantly fight off the other aspiring-alpha males. Only in human harems can the alpha male sit back on his cushion and relax as his eunuchs guard him. Elephant seal alpha males lose up to half their weight during the breeding season, not by producing sperm (which are cheap) but by waddling around all day and all night (which is also day in the Arctic) fighting off the challengers. Their cortisol levels are much higher than those of the beta males.

(Photo by A. Friedlaender)

Beta males sometimes save the species. In nature, sexual selection favors alpha males who develop outlandish adaptations such as huge antlers. And the alpha females love it. Sexual selection favors ever more and more outlandish adaptations. One might guess that this process would go on until the males could not even lift their heads, and the species would go extinct.

But this is not what happens. While the alpha males are butting their horns together and injuring each other, the beta males are hanging around the outskirts, so to speak, and they have some action with the beta females. Many of the females in the alpha male harem have some action with the beta males, since the alpha male can’t be everywhere at once. By the time Mr. Alpha has waddled around to chase away the beta intruder, the female has already welcomed his sperm. And if the alpha adaptations ever do become so outlandish as to, it would seem, crash the species, the beta males are always there to step in and do the job.

You’re welcome.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Republicans and Christians: In the Entropy Business

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the overall amount of entropy (disorder) increases over time in the universe. Political and religious conservatives have parasitized this Second Law for their own profit.

The business plan is simple: just create havoc, disorder, mayhem, hatred, confusion (or, as scientists call all of this, entropy) and then sell people the things they need to survive in this entropic environment.

And, by the way, call this entropy “freedom.”

The Republican Party uses this plan in almost every way. Let me just use one example: guns. Republicans want everyone to have guns all the time everywhere. If you don’t have a gun, and somebody shoots you, it’s your own damn fault. What happens when you increase the number of guns in circulation among human beings, some of whom are ready to pull a trigger whenever they get angry? Predictably, you get more shootings. How do you protect yourselves from shooters? You need to get a gun also. The NRA keeps laws that restrict firearms from being enacted, resulting in more shootings; AND they represent manufacturers who will sell you firearms. The Republicans are in the entropy business: they create an environment of gun violence, then claim the solution to gun violence is more guns—then they sell you guns.

This is the plan in Oklahoma, anyway. The Oklahoma House passed a bill that would allow anyone who is legally able to carry a firearm to bring them to school. The governor vetoed the bill, but state representatives are threatening a special summer session to override the veto, and the NRA threatens to mount a campaign against her.

The Republican business plan:
  • Create an environment of gun violence.
  • Convince people that guns are the answer to gun violence.
  • Sell guns.
  • Make profit.

The fundamentalist churches are also in the entropy business. The first thing they do is to tell you that, unless you accept their doctrines and become a Republican and stand your ground regarding unlimited access to guns, then you are going to hell. If you even question Donald Trump, you are going to hell. They make everyone in their churches feel like all of society around them is damned, mostly because of Democrats. But, they offer the solution: give them your obedience and your money. The fundamentalist churches make lots of money and get lots of people to obey the Republican Party by convincing people that the only way to not be overwhelmed by the entropy of the world is to join them.

The Christian business plan:
  • Create an environment of hell.
  • Convince people that Republican churches are the only way to keep out of hell.
  • Sell church membership.
  • Make profit.

These business plans are working nicely. According to a recently updated CNN article, there have been 22 school shootings in the first 20 weeks of 2018.

Most of the progress over evolutionary time has been in the local reduction of entropy. While, according to the Second Law, total entropy must always increase in the universe, it can and does decrease in localized systems, whether cells or organisms or ecosystems. You would think that fundamentalist creationists would celebrate the reduction of entropy as proof of God. They used to. But apparently this is not what they do any more.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A New Creationism

For many decades, creationists have defended the special creation of humans uniquely in the image of God and that animals, while also specially created, are not in the image of God. Recent creationists have considered “human” to be the same as what scientists call Homo sapiens.

This has not always been the case. The “polygenists” of the nineteenth century believed that white people were the descendants of Adam and Eve, but that dark people, while also specially created, were one or more species of animal. As you can imagine, this view was very popular in the United States, mostly but not only in the South.

It has been many years since creationists considered dark people to be animals. But it looks like they are going to have to do so again. The most fundamentalist Christians believe every word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. Many of them even believe that God put Trump in the White House. And Donald Trump has had a couple of things to say about the boundaries of the human species.

  • In January of this year, Trump said that Haitians and Africans were from “shithole countries”. While this does not necessarily mean that Trump has kicked them out of Homo sapiens, it certainly means that he has placed them at an inferior level. Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson would be proud.
  • In May of this year, Trump said that undocumented immigrants (nearly all Hispanic) were not humans, but animals. This was an exact quote.

It appears that creationists either have to distance themselves from Donald Trump or else redefine the human species along the lines that He has drawn.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Fun with Useless Calculations, or, How to Be a Republican Science Expert

We have nothing better to do, so let’s do some fun and useless calculations. To make it even more fun, we will use English units.

Sea level rise:

  • How much has the sea level risen in the last hundred years? It has risen between 4 and 8 inches.
  • What is the average depth of the ocean? NOAA estimates it is 12,100 feet.
  • Therefore, the rise in sea level corresponds to about four inches, that is, one-third of a foot, divided by 12,100 feet; that is, its depth has increased by a factor of 0.0000275. Assuming that the area of the ocean remains unchanged, the volume has also increased by this amount.
  • What is the volume of the ocean? It is 300 million cubic miles.

The volume of the ocean has therefore increased by 825,000 cubic miles.

Volumes of mountain ranges:

Sierra Nevada Mountains:
  • What is the average height of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Each peak has a different height, but we can use a little over 5,000 feet (one mile) as the average height.
  • What is the area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? About 24,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, therefore, is about 24,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down only to 1,000 feet above sea level, typical of the surrounding area, the volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is 19,200 cubic miles.

Rocky Mountains (including Canada)
  • What is the average height of the Rocky Mountains? Many peaks are over 14,000 feet, but we can use about half that amount (7,000 feet, or 1.4 miles) as the average. Many of the trails listed by the National Park Service are over 8,000 feet in elevation [].
  • What is the area of the Rocky Mountains? About 380,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Rocky Mountains is, therefore, about 532,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down to about a mile above sea level, which is the elevation of some cities such as Denver at the base of the mountains, the volume of the Rocky Mountains is 152,000 cubic miles.

  • What is the average height of the Alps? The Alps have about a hundred peaks over 13,000 feet. Grenoble, France, near the base of the Alps, is about 700 feet above sea level. We can therefore use about 7000 feet (1.4 miles) as the average elevation of the Alps.
  • What is the area of the Alps? It is about 115,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Alps is, therefore, about 161,000 cubic miles if you count down to sea level. But if you count only to the base (about the elevation of Grenoble), the volume of the Alps is about 145,000 cubic miles.

Add these three volumes together and you get: the combined volume of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and the Alps, is about 316,000 cubic miles. This is only 38% as much as the volume by which the oceans have increased in the last 100 years.

Meanwhile, enter Mo Brooks, Republican representative from Alabama, a member of the House Science Committee. He claimed, in a recent session as reported in Science magazine, that “soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas” is causing the observed sea level increase.

Rocks tumbling into the sea? Even if the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Alps all fell into the sea, you would get only 38 percent of the observed sea level rise. Rocks tumbling into the sea? Why has nobody seen 825,000 cubic miles of rocks tumble into the sea?

Mo Brooks is on the House Science Committee. At least his theory, that sea level rise is being caused by rocks tumbling into the sea, is less stupid than Dana Rohrabacher’s theory that global warming in the past has been caused by dinosaur farts. Rorabacher is on the Science Committee too.

Of course, my calculations must be all wrong. When a Republican Congressman just makes something up out of thin air, he or she must be right, and all calculations that disagree with them must be wrong.

Four inches doesn’t sound like much, but for the ocean as a whole, that’s a lot of volume. About half of this volume has come from melting land ice, and half from thermal expansion.

It must be wonderful being a Republican. You can just make things up and they instantly become true regardless of any measurements made by any geographers or scientists over the last century. Republicans give themselves God-like, and blasphemous, powers of knowledge.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Failing to Change the World

I have been reading The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. The author ties the biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson around a common theme: Humanity has extended its dominion over every part of the globe, and while this may be inevitable, it results in great losses not only to wild nature but to human nature.

For example, in the writings of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo explores the vast unknown expanses of the oceans, in which he desires to leave behind the conflicts of the human race, which take place on land or on the surface of the sea; but he cannot leave behind his own conflict with the human race. He sees the oceans as the ultimate freedom, but he is not really free. And whether it is Captain Nemo revealing the secrets of the oceans, or riders in a balloon revealing what the unknown center of Africa is like, the very act of exploration brings these wild and unknown spaces into the range of human knowledge and therefore dominion. Verne wanted to explore the unknown world, but at the same time regretted the end of the frontier.

I would like to concentrate on William Morris, a writer about whom I knew literally nothing until I read Williams’ book. He was most famous as one of the leading British socialists of the late nineteenth century. He despised capitalism because it oppressed the poor workers, but also because it substituted cheapness for craftsmanship. He inherited a fortune and also ran a successful interior decorating business, for which he was criticized as being a socialist hypocrite. But he ran his business by artisinal, rather than industrial, standards; he particularly detested artificial dyes, and spent a lot of effort on improving natural dyes.

The triumph of cheapness in the economy was just part of the larger picture of ugliness that was gripping the world, in Morris’ view. He loved the Old Norse sagas, and mourned the loss of ancient heroism. He went to Iceland to see the places where the events in the sagas took place. While there, he was enraptured by the wildness of the volcanic landscape, and enchanted by the relative equality of all the people, country people without a rich class of capitalists. But he also loved sailing up the Thames from dirty London into the agrarian countryside. The countryside was ordered into woodlots and fields, and therefore conquered, but it was still filled with plants and animals. Morris despised the loss of the beauties of a farmed countryside.

So, what did Morris do? He spent a fair amount of time in socialist activism. But he knew that no matter how much he did, socialism would remain an elusive goal: the forces of money and power opposed it, so it didn’t matter whether socialism was better for the people or not. Instead, he spent most of his time writing poems and novels about heroic struggles in faraway or nonexistent lands. That is, he was one of the first prominent writers of fantasy. He was much revered by C. S. Lewis (Perelandra and Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). (Tolkein was also enraptured by the Old Norse sagas.)

This might seem like simple escape. The world is ugly and getting uglier, so we should like in our imaginations. But that is not how Morris saw it. He strongly objected to “escape” as a description of his writings. Instead, what he was doing was to create a vision of what the world could be like, how we could live, if we pursued beauty instead of ugliness. Morris could not convince very many people of socialism, but he got thousands of people to imagine a beautiful world, and many of these, in cumulative small ways, helped to partially reverse the slide toward ugliness. Morris stirred up a feeling of heroism in the minds of thousands; and, through his successor Tolkein, millions.

This is what I am devoting most of my time to, also. I do not spend very much time in political activism. Instead, my main activities are teaching and writing. This summer, my focus is on writing fiction. I have many novels that need to be refined and perfected, and a few that have not yet been written. Am I wasting my time on a dilettante activity while the masses of poor suffer violence and oppression? I hope not. I hope that my writings, about people real or imagined who pursue beauty and peace against massive opposition, will inspire thousands of other people, who will collectively do more to make the world better than I could ever do myself. My fiction is either historical (e.g. about the Cherokee leader Nancy Ward, or about the writer of Ecclesiastes, or about Heloïse and Abélard) or alternative-futures (What would happen if a new Confederacy arose in Oklahoma? What would happen if a man actually tried to quixotically live a life of altruism?) rather than fantasy like the writings of Morris, and I hope that my writings will have more impact than his did (most of which are forgotten today except by scholars).

William Morris failed to change the world. I expect to fail also. But he succeeded, and I hope to succeed, more by writing than would have been possible by a complete devotion to political action. Lots of people can participate in political action, but only I can write the books that are currently dormant on my computer drives. Now that I have finished this essay, that is what I am going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sexual Selection in Dixie

It is pretty much standard fare in the South to see guys driving big pickups around, very loudly, hoping that the girls will be impressed enough to have sex with them, and maybe give them a half dozen kids or so. I know this happens everywhere, but it is particularly common in the South.

I generally have great esteem for women: their capacity for empathy, and often their intelligence, far exceeds that of men. Boys aren’t born inferior, but as they grow up they learn, especially in the South, that empathy and intelligence make them look less manly and might interfere with their chances to impress and impregnate girls.

But sometimes women can make some stupid choices. When a guy drives a big pickup truck around and makes noise and releases a cloud of fumes thick enough that I could run my Prius on them (just the fumes), what does this prove? It only proves that they can push a gas pedal down. It does not prove that they are skillful drivers (I saw one of them get stuck in a ditch, having assumed that his truck was powerful enough to back out of it at a 45-degree slope), nor does it prove that they are rich (the truck might have been bought on credit). Some women actually fall for it. I mean, if it never worked, then guys might stop doing it; natural selection would certainly operate against it. But it works often enough that the dynamo of sexual selection keeps the Dixie stereotype going. The kids pop out and learn to behave like their parents.

Trucks, guns, beer, and sperm: the male characteristics produced by sexual selection in Dixie. The female characteristics? Telling the males how virile they are and having lots of kids. From this list, only the sperm and the kids make any sense from the evolutionary viewpoint. Sexual selection in Dixie certainly does not produce intelligence or skill which might bring wealth or reduce the burden of social problems. This is why Dixie will remain forever poor. In other cultures in America and in other cultures of the world, intelligence and cooperation are sexually desirable traits. The future belongs to those cultures, whether the progressive culture in America, or the prevailing cultures of Europe, China, and Japan.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten

The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.

Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.

Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.

In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.