Friday, August 26, 2011

Do Conservatives Hate Altruism?

On August 16, billionaire Warren Buffett announced his belief that rich people, such as himself, should pay higher taxes than they currently do. This was a direct statement of altruism. He was almost immediately attacked by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann who said in a loud sarcastic manner, “I have a suggestion. Mr. Buffett, write a big check today. There’s nothing you have to wait for. As a matter of fact the president has redefined millionaires and billionaires as any company that makes over $200,000 a year. That’s his definition of a millionaire and billionaire. So perhaps Mr. Buffett would like to give away his entire fortune above $200,000. That’s what you want to do? Have at it. Give it to the federal government.”

Not surprisingly, Bachmann was wildly inaccurate. The president does not want people to earn only $200,000; he just wants slightly higher tax rates on people earning more than $200,000.

What Bachmann did not say, but clearly implied, was “Sucker.” Any rich like Buffett who would actually want to pay more taxes to help his fellow citizens must clearly be a sucker.

In encounters between animals of the same species, there are cooperators and there are defectors. Whenever a cooperator encounters a defector, the cooperator loses (becomes a sucker) and the defector wins. It would seem inevitable, in a world that consisted only of simple and direct interactions, the defectors always win, even though they cause themselves to become extinct. The world, however, is not that simple. Intelligent animals such as humans can recognize and remember one another as individuals, and they can remember the bad reputations of defectors and the good reputations of cooperators. In a world of complex interactions, cooperators can work together and drive the defectors into obscurity. In ways such as this, altruism (animals being nice to each other even if they incur a cost) can evolve.

Republicans clearly hate altruism. Some hate it more than others. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry do not make statements as extreme as those of Bachmann. It seems inconceivable to extremists like Bachmann that citizens should ever want to help each other. The Tea Party tirade of anger is not so much against “big government” as it is against a societal expectation that we, as fellow citizens, should be expected to help one another out, and that government should be a mechanism to facilitate altruism.

This conclusion is obvious not just from Bachmann’s statement, but from statements by the founding mind of modern extremist conservatism, Ayn Rand. She wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” She was as wrong as anyone could be about anything, and so are her modern disciples. Humans are the most altruistic species, and the most successful, in evolutionary terms. Our survival cannot be assured if the Republicans succeed in destroying altruism.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What Rick Perry Thinks about Science

The new Republican candidate, Rick Perry, is what many Republicans (such as Michele Bachmann) call a liberal. Maybe that just means that he does not scream and condemn all his opponents to Hell. He speaks smoothly and politely. But his approach to science, and therefore perhaps to all of the data of reality, puts him in with people like Bachmann who just make things up and expect us to believe them.

First, Rick Perry tells us that global warming is not happening. He says this despite the fact that his state, Texas, has already suffered $5.2 billion of damage from a year-long drought and its current heat wave. It is an unprecedented environmental catastrophe in Texas. He offered no evidence. He simply said, “from my perspective,” global warming is not reliable science. He used that phrase twice. Has he studied the issue? No, nor did he make any such claim. He just chooses not to believe it, and that settles it. But his position is rather frightening. Not only does he oppose taking actions to reduce our carbon emissions and to promote alternative energy sources, but he says we should not even be studying the issue. This seems to imply that he would have NASA and NOAA discontinue their investigations. Or else, might he require them to reach his conclusions?

Of course, Michele Bachmann uses even worse logic about global warming. In 2006, she said that we do not need to worry about global warming because Jesus has already saved the world. Of course, she does not say, “We do not need to worry about the economy, because Jesus has already saved the world,” or “We do not need to worry about terrorism, because Jesus has already saved the world.” She just picks out environmental issues and says, don’ worry, be happy.

Second, Rick Perry has come out against evolution. Typical of his smooth style, he did not say (as did the church marquee; see previous blog entry) that anyone who accepts evolutionary science is going to Hell. His words were almost innocuous. He said “It’s a theory that’s out there, and it’s got gaps.” He went on to say that “…in Texas, we teach both creation and evolution, and I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” The problem is that he just presented his personal opinion as being the final conclusion of the matter. It does not require any further thought. He was even wrong about what is taught in Texas. They do not, as a matter of fact, teach creation in Texas (at least, according to the state guidelines). He has a right to his opinion, but he wants to make his opinion into federal policy if he is elected president.

Conservatives just make stuff up. To a conservative, it is not what you know, but what you believe. You can create reality by believing something to be true or untrue.

The rest of the world should be alerted that, if we have a Republican president starting in 2013, the United States will do absolutely nothing about global warming, and if Obama remains president, the Republicans will continue to prevent him from taking action. Rest of the world, take note: You will have to take the lead on resolving global warming, because the United States will not, and we may even discontinue researching it or paying attention to it. You will have to solve the problem without us. The same is also true of scientific leadership. Scientific research, in the United States, may soon become a mere restatement of Republican beliefs, no more to be trusted than Lysenkoist genetics from Soviet Russia. Rest of the world, take note: You will have to take the lead in scientific research, because the United States will not. The United States will ride the falling stars of fossil fuel dependence and creationism until they, and we, crash.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Does God Hate Darwin?

According to a church marquee in Durant, Oklahoma, where I work, God must be really mad at me. I teach evolution at the local university, and according to this church, I am calling God a liar. If this is true I better watch out. Of course, that is not what I am doing. I am saying that fundamentalists are (often willfully) wrong about how to interpret the Bible; but if I disagree with them, then I MUST be calling God a liar. They think that their opinions are inerrant. I suspect that it is they who should be worried about offending God.

See this YouTube video of Charles Darwin making a response!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why is Evolution so Slow?

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, released earlier this year by Prometheus Books.

As we have seen in previous entries, evolution can occur rapidly enough to account for the diversity of life on this planet. Why, then, has evolution occurred so slowly? There are lots of mutations out there in populations, and selection can operate rapidly. If all of the conditions had been just right, life could have evolved into its many complex forms within just a few million years. Why didn’t it?

The answer to the question just posed is that the environmental conditions in which each population lives keep changing back and forth. Sometimes warm, sometimes cool. Sometimes wet, sometimes dry. And the interactions of species with one another keep changing. Evolution could make rapid progress, if there were some force directing it toward a goal, but instead it wanders around aimlessly—because evolution has no goal.

Consider one of the best-studied examples of evolution: the finches of the Galápagos Islands. In 1835, a British naval ship, H. M. S. Beagle, stopped at the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. The young naturalist on board, Charles Darwin, had just enough time to explore some of the islands. Based on what he saw, and what he heard from others, it appeared that each island may have had its own species of birds and tortoises, even though the islands all had a similar climate—brutally hot and dry, except in the misty mountains. When Darwin got back to England, the ornithologist John Gould identified many of the birds in Darwin’s collection as finches. It became obvious to Darwin that all of the finches, which differed greatly in size and in the way they gathered food, were the recent descendants of a kind of finch that lived on the mainland of South America. Evolution had occurred; it had occurred rapidly; and before long Darwin had figured out how it occurred: by means of natural selection. The original immigrant finch populations evolved different ways of getting food. These finches, now called Darwin’s finches, have become famous as the group of organisms in which the process of evolution was discovered.

American evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant began an intensive study of these birds in the 1970s. They established their base on the island that the British called Daphne Major to study the process of natural selection, mostly in the medium ground finch Geospiza fortis. In order to study natural selection, it is necessary to demonstrate that the offspring of some of the birds survived better, and laid more eggs, than the offspring of other birds. Sounds easy? Not on your life. In order to do this, the Grants had to keep track of each bird. They had to know which birds mated with which other birds, how many eggs they laid, and then keep track of their offspring. And then do it again and again, every year. Even on that small island there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of medium ground finches. The Grants, with the help of colored bands that they placed on the birds’ feet, became personally acquainted with hundreds of birds each generation, over the course of more than thirty generations.

In order to study natural selection, you have to choose a trait or feature that evolves and that can be measured. The Grants chose to measure beak size. Why beak size? Because a small difference in beak size, as little as a half of a millimeter, can make all the difference in what kinds of seeds the birds can crack open and eat. With a slightly larger beak, a finch can crack open and eat the seeds of puncture vines; with a slightly smaller beak, a finch can eat smaller seeds from other plant species.

The birds with the larger beaks preferred to crack and eat the larger seeds: they could get more food with each bite that way. Their beaks, however, were a little too unwieldy to efficiently handle the smaller seeds. The birds with smaller beaks simply could not eat the larger seeds, but were fairly adroit with handling the smaller ones. The population of finches always contained a mixture of small-beaked and large-beaked birds—in fact, a whole range of beak sizes.

Enter El Niño and La Niña. El Niño is a set of conditions in which strong ocean currents from the warm waters of the west bring lots of rain to the Galápagos Islands, as well as to much of North and South America. As a result, plants that produce small seeds grow profusely over the ground. El Niño is not necessarily a time of plenty for all organisms. During La Niña periods (when El Niño conditions are not occurring), strong ocean currents bring up cold water from the depths along the coast of South America, feeding marine life such as shrimp and fish and offering a bonanza to birds that eat them. El Niño (and the storms that come with it) is a blessing to some organisms, and a catastrophe to others.

The Grants measured finch beaks during a La Niña drought that began in 1977. Small seeded plants became rare, and large seeded puncture vines became common. Because more large seeds were available, it would make sense that natural selection would favor large beaks at that time. The Grants did not simply find that the average beak size in the finch population increased during the drought. They found that large-beaked parents laid more eggs, and their large-beaked offspring also laid more eggs, each generation. They had observed natural selection in the act of occurring.

Then in 1982 El Niño brought lots of rain. Very quickly, plants with small seeds sprang up all over the island, and puncture vines became rare. This time, natural selection favored the smaller-beaked birds, and it was the larger-beaked birds that went hungry and laid fewer eggs.

The fluctuation in beak sizes—first larger, then smaller—that the Grants observed was very small, on the order of about a millimeter. But this small change is very important to the survival of the birds. A change of a millimeter could occur within just a few years in a population. The Grants had observed rapid evolution: a rapid increase, then a rapid decrease, in beak size. The Grants had seen, and showed the scientific world, how rapidly evolution could occur.

Even more importantly, their work revealed why evolution usually does not occur rapidly even though natural selection does. The direction of natural selection changes often. Every ten years or so, the climate flops back and forth between El Niño and La Niña. The changes in beak size, on the order of a few years, are rapid; but on the order of centuries, the changes largely cancel one another out. The course of evolution wobbles rapidly along a very slow and often unvarying path. If Nature would just make up its mind, the way animal breeders make up their minds, Nature could breed its species a lot faster than it does. If only Nature had a mind and a purpose, which it does not.