Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, plans to terstify before Congress today. According to a January 23 news release, LaPierre told a Weatherby Foundation awards ceremony that the Second Amendment gives Americans the unfettered right to own firearms. “Absolutes do exist, words do have specific meaning in language and in law,” he said. “No government gave them to us and no government can take them away.”
It is not clear from the news release what LaPierre was referring to when he said no government gave “them” to us. Did he mean that government did not give us the right to own firearms? If so, LaPierre is utterly and frighteningly wrong.
Absolutes do exist. The speed of light. The charge of the electron. In fact, a whole list of physical constants. But the right to own firearms is not an absolute. The federal government has, in fact, given us this right in the Second Amendment. But the Constitution provided a mechanism for amending the Constitution. Therefore the Constitution, and the Second Amendment thereto, are not absolutes.
Furthermore, there is no absolutely clear definition in the Second Amendment of what these “arms” are supposed to be. It is illegal to own nuclear weapons or missiles. Are these arms? It is illegal to use, and in most cases to own, machine guns. Even the NRA has not dared to call for the legalization of private ownership of machine guns and nuclear weapons. The right to bear arms is therefore limited, not absolute, even if you were to interpret the Second Amendment as an absolute commandment from God.
One could interpret arms, within the Second Amendment context, as whatever is necessary to maintain a militia. But we don’t have militias anymore. There are groups of people who think that the government is restricting their rights, for example, to polygamy. Does the Second Amendment give them the right to have arms to resist the federal government from enforcing laws against polygamy? Could not Warren Jeffs claim that the Second Amendment gives his followers the right to armed resistance? Would this be an example of a militia? And, if so, his followers could most certainly use machine guns and cannons and nuclear weapons to defend their compounds, since the Second Amendment does not prohibit them from doing so. I am sure this is not LaPierre’s interpretation. But he has told us that it is not a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of absolute truth.
LaPierre, and many NRA extremists (a term LaPierre rejects), are using absolutist terminology that is usually associated with religion. Conservative religious leaders consider all of their beliefs to be absolute, and that God has given them the right to enforce their religious beliefs on others. This is why religion has been such a successful component of human evolution (this blog is about evolution, remember): it is an adaptation (genetic and memetic) that allows some people to subdue others and to gain evolutionary fitness at their expense. The NRA is promoting a new religion: the absolute right to bear arms, as absolute as God Himself. The absolute right to bear arms is not found in the Bible, by the way. Jesus said, “Put away your sword, Peter; for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But the NRA is promoting a new religion in place of Christianity. And, like many other religions, the NRA religion sways people to adhere to its claims with visceral emotion rather than with facts. I am not saying that gun-rights advocates have no facts; I am just saying that whatever facts they may have are irrelevant when LaPierre talks about “absolutes.”
The talk of “absolutes” has made reasonable dialogue impossible. From the NRA viewpoint, there are only two choices: unrestricted ownership of weapons vs. total helplessness. The NRA has not permitted any discussion of intermediate possibilities. For example, what about stun guns? Could those be used as an intermediate form of school protection? I know that stun guns have a very limited range. But at least they provide some protection without actually killing people. At close range, a teacher’s stun gun could incapacitate a school shooter and allow his gun to be confiscated and for him to be subdued. What would be the strengths and weaknesses of a school stun gun policy? I would be interested in hearing this. But there can be no such discussion so long as the NRA divides the issue into helplessness vs. a full armor of assault weapons. I might want to hear a discussion of some intermediate possibilities regarding gun ownership and restriction; but I do not believe I shall ever hear such a discussion.
This is exactly the same approach used by creationists. They claim that if you do not accept a young Earth then you are an atheist. The NRA says you either accept unrestricted availability of weapons or else total defenselessness. Nothing in between. They have insisted on absolutes: an absolute dividing line between darkness and light, as between sun and shadow on the Moon. But this is Earth, with twilights and dawns.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Carl Woese died on December 30, 2012. He was the scientist who discovered the archaea, or “archies” (pronounced “arkies”) as we called them when I knew Woese at the University of Illinois. Archies look like bacteria under the microscope, but they usually live in extreme environments, such as deep ocean vents. But, in terms of biochemistry and DNA, archies are as different from bacteria as they are from us; in fact, archies are a little more closely related to humans than they are to bacteria.
Biochemical characteristics marked the archies as unusual: they have a different kind of phospholipid than either eukaryotes or bacteria have, and their DNA is associated with histones, just like that of eukaryotes. But DNA sequence analysis was required to truly demonstrate the uniqueness of archies. Woese was one of the first scientists to do DNA sequencing and apply it to evolution. This was back before PCR and all the other kinds of automation that genomic analysis now has access to. It took Woese the better part of a year to determine a DNA sequence that now can be done overnight. Woese’s work established that archies had a separate line of evolution from that of all other organisms. Based on his work, scientists and scientific amateurs know that life consists of three domains, rather than five kingdoms. We can no longer lump bacteria and archies together into the Kingdom Monera.
When Woese’s work was getting into full swing about 1980, he made a bunch of shirt pins that proclaimed “The 80’s belong to the archies.” This was parallel to the University athletic slogan, “The 80’s belong to the Illini,” referring to the football team. Only Woese’s promise came true.
An important consequence of Woese’s work was the way it fitted together with the insights of Lynn Margulis, who died in 2011. Margulis showed that important cell components (mitochondria in most eukaryotes, and chloroplasts in many protists and most plants) were the evolutionary descendants of bacteria that invaded, then formed a mutualistic partnership with, eukaryotic cells. Since Margulis first demonstrated this, many scientists have concluded that the nucleus itself was a mutualistic invader: an archie that moved into a eukaryotic cell. This would explain the (slight) genetic similarity between archies and eukaryotic nuclei, as well as their shared histones. Woese and Margulis disagreed on many things but most biologists have accepted the insights that both of them revealed and which have revolutionized our view of the history of life.
I took a seminar from Woese about 1982. He was very interested in some of the basic ideas and assumptions of science. As a young grad student (and also going through a period of withdrawal from various forms of creationism), I did not understand much of what we discussed, based as it was on the writings of David Bohm. But Woese was convinced that there was an ecstatic aspect of science, a deep meaning which he associated with a Buddhist view of the universe. (I do not know if he was a practicing Buddhist.) Woese’s view of science opened his mind to creative thinking; he wrote a paper once in which he suggested that life began in the clouds rather than in the ocean. And he questioned assumptions; for example, he said, perhaps there was a first “life state” rather than a first cell.
Many scientific colleagues considered Woese to be unconventional and strange when he first began his work on the archies. But he had at least two decades to see his ideas incorporated into the fundamental understanding of the evolutionary history of life. There is a pedestal outside of the life sciences complex at the University of Illinois commemorating the Archaea that Woese discovered there (see the photo).
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The discoveries and insights of science can cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance. If it reveals something that contradicts what we have always believed, especially if it involves our identity, it can be deeply disturbing. We as scientists cannot expect everyone to accept what we say about evolution, threatening as it does the idea that humans are in the image of God, with perfect good grace. Many religious people react against us for this reason, and we should not treat them as if we think they are stupid.
Consider the example of Native American religions and identity. I refer here to the tribes that have clung to traditional beliefs, unlike my tribe (the Cherokees) who have been mostly Baptists for over two hundred years. And the branch of science they have the most trouble with is the study of DNA.
Several books have described the picture of human history that has emerged from the study of DNA. Among these are the books by Bryan Sykes. His most recent is DNA USA, about half of which is about DNA, and the other half about his train trip across the United States. Y chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA, and alleles of genes on chromosomes (or variants of the markers that are near them) can be associated with European, African, or Oriental origin (which includes Native American). Hundreds of people have now gotten their DNA analyzed (which need not entail a complete genome) and some surprises have emerged. For example, most Southern whites, however pure they consider themselves, have African genes. And most blacks have Oriental (Native American) genes. There are even Hispanics with Jewish genes (inherited from Sephardic ancestors). Most racial groups, however defined, have welcomed these analyses. One would expect proud Scottish clans to be devastated to discover they have Viking Y chromosomes rather than Celtic ones, but they just shift the focus of their pride and keep on playing their bagpipes.
But Native Americans are not pleased, by and large. Of their four major mitochondrial “clans,” as Sykes calls them, three are from Siberia, and one is from China. This indicates that the ancestors of Native Americans mostly came from Siberia, and some came perhaps by boat along the western coast of North America. But traditional groups within some Native American tribes cling to their beliefs that they originated right here in North America with even more seriousness than a creationist clings to his or her Bible.
The reason is not hard to understand, as erroneous as it is. It is cognitive dissonance, reinforced by a history of exploitation. Whites have taken Native American land, usually in a violent fashion. Some tribes, such as my Cherokee ancestors, adopted white ways, only to find that this did not protect their land rights. Others were nearly exterminated. The argument that the white powers, most recently the United States government, used could be summarized in Garrison Keillor’s version of the Woody Guthrie song: This land is my land, it is not your land, I’ve got a shotgun, and you ain’t got one. And now along come primarily white scholars with their DNA kits and try to tell you you aren’t even natives in the true sense of the word.
People have all kinds of reasons for rejecting scientific explanations. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. As I teach evolution in rural Oklahoma, I try to be continually aware of the discombobulation that can be caused by cognitive dissonance when students hear about evolution and discover that there is evidence for it and the professor who tells them about it is not an evil, selfish sinner. (Really.)
Thursday, January 17, 2013
The ability to plan ahead has always been an immense benefit to our species. Our mental capacity allows us to decide where to go, and to prepare for seasonal changes, even to prepare for disasters which, while individually unpredictable, are nearly certain to occur at some time. Other species, with less mental capacity, have other ways of preparing for the future. Trees lose their leaves in the autumn because phytochrome in the leaves measures the length of the night, and long nights triggers the onset of leaf senescence. But for humans, individual and collective intelligence allows detailed and flexible advance planning.
In most cases, the people who are best at planning ahead were also those who rose within the ranks of society. Their plans allowed their villages, and later their nations, to be successful, and they were rewarded by having positions of leadership. This is individual, not group, selection. Individual selection has also rewarded leaders who have been disastrously deluded about the future, but only temporarily. For example, Napoleon had stunning individual successes (and a little bit of fitness, mostly through illegitimate children) but his ill-planned invasion of Russia was not one of them.
Everyone knows that, except for rich brats, the most successful people are those who manage their financial affairs most carefully. One of the greatest tragedies of the 2008 recession (which is supposedly officially over; have you noticed?) is that it consumed the wealth even of people who did plan ahead. Many homebuyers thought they were being responsible when their agents told them that the house was affordable and the banks offered them enticing loans. One could say that the homebuyers should have been suspicious of a loan with payments in excess of their income, but the experts (the agents and the bankers) told them it was OK. And even as corporations collapsed, the CEOs made off like bandits, at the expense of hard-working and carefully-planning employees. Under such circumstances, planning ahead seems like an almost useless thing to do.
And as of this year, there is another reason why planning ahead might be almost useless. The House of Representatives sent our nation over the “fiscal cliff.” This “cliff” was not averted at the last minute; it was averted after the last minute. Congressmen, especially right-wing Republicans, were willing to allow possible financial collapse of the nation in order to enlarge their own power within the artificial world inside the Beltway. Their individual fitness may have been enhanced by their power struggles; and if they own stock in the banks that might have charged the federal government a higher interest rate on loans, these Congressmen might have even made a profit from the country going over the cliff. We will never know. And they threaten to send the federal government into default if they do not get their way.
But what the fiscal cliff meant for Americans was that we cannot plan ahead. People planned their 2012 budget on the assumption that their mortgage interest was deductible. Then the fiscal cliff would have eliminated this deduction for their 2012 taxes. Had this deduction been eliminated for 2013 taxes, we may not have liked it but we could have planned ahead. But Congress is so chaotic that we can never know if their decisions can retroactively make our previous year’s plans to have been worthless. Our dysfunctional government has created a situation in which individual responsibility no longer carries the benefits that it once did.
We need leaders who can plan ahead. At least in Congress, we do not have them. They may be enhancing their fitness by carving out their own political empires, but they are plundering our individual fitness. At the moment at least, we have the ability to send them packing, though not until 2014. Meanwhile, as even the new 113th Congress is likely to be dysfunctional, what can we do?
I will continue to plan my finances. Debt reduction is always a good thing, because it liberates me from the power of the banks. But I absolutely will not count on Social Security or even my own savings for my future. My wife and I chuckle at the little Social Security mailouts that tell us how much money we will get when we retire. The principal component of my financial plan is to spend as little as possible and save a little. Investments? To trust investments is like trusting group selection. You are trusting that the powerful corporations will relinquish their individual plunder and, instead, keep their word to you for the good of society.
So what can we trust? Nothing deserves absolute trust. But there is an investment that has proven successful for a hundred thousand years, and that is the investment in altruism. When bad luck is forced upon you by incompetent leaders or greedy corporations, what do you do? You just might know someone who has somehow temporarily escaped bad luck, and they might help you out. But they will not do so if you have ill-treated them in the past (thus messing up your direct reciprocity with them) or if you have a bad reputation (thus messing up your indirect reciprocity with them). And since you never know who might help you, you need to live a life in which you are altruistic toward everyone around you—not so much financially (although that is a part of it) as just in the way you act. You should spend your life sowing the seeds of goodwill around you. This is the way I try to live, and I succeed more often than not. It is the right way to live. And it just might save me if governments and corporations make my careful planning useless. Of course, I might have to help to save other people, for altruism is a two-way street. We cannot trust governments or corporations; we middle-class people have to create our own network of altruism. We already know that, even under the best of circumstances, a good reputation is worth more than money in the bank. In our upcoming chaotic future, the value of a good reputation can only increase.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
As several recent books have shown, humans have behavior patterns similar to those of other apes, although we dress it up and use the power and complexity of language to perpetuate them. These patterns can be good (as described in de Waal’s Age of Empathy) or bad (see parts of Conniff’s Ape in the Corner Office). There are two ways in which alpha males get to the top of their societies, and in nearly all cases the alpha males use a combination of the two. The first is sheer bluster and violence. The second is altruism (in this case, acquiring the friendship of supporters). Gorillas use more of the former, chimps more of the latter. Different human societies throughout history have used more of one or more of the other. The spread of freedom and democracy supposedly entails the growth of the latter and diminishment of the former.
Democracy is the formalized requirement that leaders attain power by the consent of the governed. This would make it appear that our leaders would want to do things that would make us support, or at least approve of, them. Why is it, then, that our leaders do things that make themselves objects of ridicule? In sociobiological terms, the behavior of America’s leaders is dysfunctional.
So it is not surprising that Congress has, as of this past week, an approval rating of 9 percent. This is the first time that Congress has had a single-digit rating since approval ratings began to be monitored decades ago. UPI listed ten things that have been more popular than Congress now is:
• President Obama has a 46% approval rating.
• The Internal Revenue Service has a 40% approval rating.
• Lawyers have a 29% approval rating.
• The airline industry has a 29% approval rating.
• At the nadir of his scandals, Richard Nixon still had a 24% approval rating.
• Banks, even at the worst of the financial scandals, had a 23% approval rating.
• The oil and gas industry has a 20% approval rating.
• Even during the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP had a 16% approval rating.
• Paris Hilton has a 15% approval rating.
• Even the idea that America should become a communist nation has an 11% approval rating.
Other sources report that colonoscopies have a higher approval rating than Congress, although gonorrhea is still less popular. That is, the antics of Congress (which columnist Jack Anderson used to call the Washington Merry-Go-Round) are obliterating the one and only thing from which they can obtain their social power: the goodwill of the citizens.
As a progressive, I attribute most of this to the Repuglicans. They could defend a truly conservative viewpoint, but instead they are just the Party of No. They will oppose anything Democrats want. The worst example of this was when Senator McConnell filibustered his own bill. It was the Repuglicans who took us not just up to but over the fiscal cliff. And now they promise to do so again, with the debt ceiling argument scheduled for a few weeks hence. They took the federal government to the brink of default before, in the summer of 2011, by refusing to allow payment for projects they had already approved. This is the exact equivalent of refusing to pay bills for items you have already purchased and used. To do this would cause the credit rating of the federal government to decline, perhaps causing the government to have to pay millions of dollars more on debt interest. It is principally because of the Repuglicans that America sneers its own Congress.
But the solution is not to give our allegiance to the Dismal-crats. For it is from their Treasury Department that a breathtakingly stupid idea has come. Or, it would be stupid if they actually intended to do it. But if they think it is a funny joke, they might want to reconsider. I refer to the idea of the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Apparently it is entirely legal for the Treasury Department to mint a commemorative coin of whatever denomination they choose. They would then deposit such a coin (or two of them) and use that “money” to pay bills, even if Congress votes to authorize no payment on programs they have already approved.
Inside the Beltway is a world that is total fantasy, as far as most Americans are concerned. Washington does not have the power to force us to be their friends, as an alpha male gorilla might, nor have they any inclination to earn our approval, as an alpha chimp might. Even Genghis Khan tried to gain some measure of approval among his victims. He allowed a measure of autonomous rule and religious and cultural freedom to conquered territories, so long as they paid their ransom. If our romper-room Congrass (oops) is the flower of democracy, then what faith can we have in the future? There is no species of animal that has this dysfunctional kind of social leadership. And if there ever was such a species, it is now extinct.
Monday, January 7, 2013
On January 4, unknown vandals burned two large eucalyptus trees in Australia. The ghost gum trees (Corymbia aparrerinja) in Alice Springs, in the middle of the Outback, were not among the largest trees in the world, but were the largest in these desert springs. Aboriginal people revered them, and Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira made a famous painting of them. These were the trees on the species Wikipedia page for this species.
This is just the most recent of the tree-killings focused on iconic ancient trees. An unknown vandal used a pipe bomb to blow up the nation’s largest elm tree (Ulmus americana) in Louisville, Kansas, in 1998. In 2000 a vandal attacked Luna, a large coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), that had become famous when Julia Butterfly Hill had lived in it for many months in protest against the logging of old growth forests.
While such acts of vandalism remain rare, they are disturbing because they appear to be aimed at discrediting the people who wish to protect the Earth for the future of all of us, not just of a particular interest group. Trees produce oxygen that Republicans, Democrats, Buddhists, Islamist extremists, and Moonies all breathe. They are indicators, I believe, of a much more widespread discomfort or even fear that many people (often the same ones who oppose evolutionary science) feel about environmentalism. In short, they know that we are disrupting the Earth in such a way that the survival of technological civilization is in jeopardy and they do not want to face this fact. I see this as the more credible alternative to the idea, which I sometimes believe until I tell myself that it is unlikely to be true, that these vandals are working in the interest of particular large corporations. While it is credible that the vandal that nearly cut down Luna might have worked in the interest of a timber corporation, this is probably not the explanation for the recent attack on the ghost gum trees.
Another possibility is that the ghost gum trees were important to aboriginal peoples, and that the spirituality of aboriginal peoples (everywhere) is a threat to our modern, individualist, selfish civilization. I am not saying that the religious beliefs of Aborigines are any more likely to be true than those of my own Cherokee tribe. But they provide at least a framework of response and adaptation to a threatening world, a framework that individualists do not have.
My response? I decided to redouble my efforts at planting trees. My wife and I walk along Joe Creek in Tulsa. Creek is an undeserved honorific name for a big drainage ditch. (I thought about renaming it the Sir Francis Creek, but that is even more honorific.) When we find persimmon seeds (Diospyros virginiana) inside of dried raccoon droppings (fresh seeds will not germinate), we stick them in the ground in places that they are likely to thrive. Actually, my wife lets me do this while she walks around and pretends to not know me. Maybe someday a little grove of clonal persimmon trees (which can spread from even one surviving seedling) will prevent clumps of Tulsa from eroding down into Joe Creek.
And I also decided to donate some seaside alders (Alnus maritima) left over from my research to Up With Trees, a Tulsa urban forestry group. Tulsa is outside of the current native range of this species, but as one of the world experts on this species I can say the following. First, it is probably within the pre-historical range of the species. Second, it is unlikely to become invasive. Although it produces thousands of viable seeds, the seeds only germinate under conditions that rarely occur.
Botanist William Libby has planted California coast redwood seedlings in New Zealand and giant sequoia seedlings in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. Who knows if these seedlings might be the only survivors of their species, if California (the native home of both) becomes too hot and dry for them? I will probably not, within my lifetime, see the deaths of the giant sequoias that I admired as I grew up in California and on my many visits back to them. Limited as I am to Oklahoma, I cannot plant redwoods—they would most likely die. But I can plant a few trees, which may not amount to much but they are a defiance against the tree vandals. And who knows that the seaside alder might survive, a century from now, only around some wetland in Tulsa?
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
In this final essay of the series, I will consider the difference between a religious view and a scientific view of the future. It is a superb way to start the new year, is it not? In one sense, there is a similarity between science and religion in this respect. Both religion and science accept that the future is more or less determined: in one case by God, in the other by the laws of nature. And there is a little bit of uncertainty about the future. In religious traditions, a prophecy of destruction can actually fail if people hear the prophecy and repent. This is the plot of the really witty story of Jonah. (Most people just know the whale part, but I recommend reading the whole story.) In science, there are historical contingencies that can alter the outcome of a course of events.
The big difference is in the way that we can “know” what the future will bring. Scientists can study current rates and processes, and project them into the future. We can predict how much global warming will occur, or how much rainforest loss. But with each such projection there is uncertainty. With regard to global warming, climatologists typically make a set of projections: one projection for “business as usual,” that is, if we do nothing to reduce carbon emissions; another with moderate carbon emission control; and another if we get really serious about controlling carbon emissions. And there are always uncertainties caused by unmeasured variables. For example, Brazilian rainforest loss may be correlated with the Brazilian economy.
But fundamentalist Christians claim that there is no uncertainty about the future. They believe that every detail of the future is foreordained. They read the book of Revelation and tell you exactly what is going to happen. With this assumption comes a great deal of arrogance. They believe so strongly in their Bible-based predictions that they ignore the evidence right in front of them. For example, Revelation does not mention global warming, therefore it is not happening—even when the data are right there to be seen.
Scientists reject any pronouncements about the future that are based on assertions of authority. Indeed, even if there were scientists two thousand years ago as good as those today, two-thousand-year-old predictions would be found to be wrong today, because the range of uncertainty gets greater and greater with the passage of time. We can predict 2025 quite accurately, but not 2125.
Many religious people believe that their scriptures describe human nature but do not make specific predictions of events. This generalized religious view is not the one that I am here criticizing.
A major problem with “Revelation thinking” about the future is that fundamentalists interpret the visions and then assume their interpretations cannot be wrong. They calculate timelines from it, and declare when the world will end; and then it does not; but, with no apparent sense of shame, they predict it all over again. Harold Camping had to be wrong three times at predicting the end of the world, most recently in 2011, before he admitted he wasn’t very good at it. One student at our university, in the freshman class of 2004, believed strongly that the battle of Armageddon had in fact begun when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Many people in Durant, Oklahoma, where I work, are confident that Barack Obama is the antichrist and they adjust their Revelation timeline to the dates of his presidency. They claim it is because he is a Muslim (which is not true) and Revelation describes Islam as the ultimate attack on Christianity (which it does not).
In 1917, a book published by the Seventh Day Adventists confidently predicted that the Great War (now called World War I) would be the end of the world and the beginning of Christ’s rule. They even drew a picture of what the Battle of Armageddon might look like (see above). They confidently predicted that the Imperial Russians would be on the same side as the Americans, against the Chinese. The year had not even finished before the Russian Revolution changed the geopolitical landscape.
Therefore the conservative religious approach to predicting the future follows this series of steps, all of which science rejects: 1. Assume that Revelation accurately predicts the future. 2. Make wild guesses about what the visions of John the Revelator actually mean. (Visions? They are more like hallucinations. John must have gotten some bad hash from Damascus when he had those visions.) 3. Derive a timeline from combining these two processes. Despite these wildly off-base assumptions, religious fundamentalists are confident enough in their predictions that they are willing to bet the future of the world on it. For example, why try to save the planet if God is just going to kick the hell out of it next year? (Well, what if God isn’t going to kick the hell out of it until the year 2500? They cannot imagine that God could wait that long.)
This way that religion and science differ is the most dangerous of all.