Monday, June 24, 2013

A Permian Future

On my way to and from Big Bend, as described in earlier blog entries, I drove through the Texas Permian Basin, in west Texas near Midland and Odessa, which is one of the major oil and gas deposits in North America. It has some of the thickest Permian Period sedimentary deposits in the world. I wonder what creationists think “Permian” means in this case or how so much petroleum got there.

During the recent acceleration of “domestic production,” the Permian Basin has been hopping with activity. I could not drive on any highway other than an interstate without continually encountering oil or infrastructure transport trucks. They were always in a hurry and pulled out in suddenly front of other vehicles; everyone seemed to understand this as an essential part of life in west Texas. The entire economy, aside from cotton, peanuts, and wheat, seemed to be based on fossil fuels. (The irrigation water, like the oil and gas, was extracted from the ground.) From the viewpoint of corporations, the Permian Basin is a vision of America’s productive future.

But if so, it seemed to me to be a bleak future. The corporation executives (most of whom probably lived in Dallas and Ft. Worth) were rich, but nearly every town, house, and person that I saw seemed to be middle class at best, and usually poorer. The people were running around, grateful even for employment that did not seem to pay them much. It was certainly not a cultural renaissance, unless you count the Jackalope field house for one of the high schools. Our economy seems to be racing toward greater dependence upon a limited energy source, a dependence that the local residents celebrate whenever they are not working.

And most of this oil goes to Houston, where it is exported, much of it to China. The surge in domestic production has not made gasoline cheaper or more available to Americans. The people who sing the praises of the Keystone XL pipeline talk endlessly about American energy independence, but much of the oil itself goes outside of America, thus enriching mostly the oil executives.

The Permian Basin is not, however, the complete vision of what Texas is like. On my way from the DFW area to Big Bend, I passed through the city of Sweetwater, which bills itself as the wind power capital of America. And indeed wind generators covered the low hills. Sweetwater looked to me like it was much more prosperous than the Permian Basin. (Of course, DFW was pretty prosperous too.)

Side by side in central and west Texas, there are two visions of the future: Sweetwater vs. the Permian Basin. Clearly the sustainable and prosperous future is the one Sweetwater is betting on. But natural selection, whether applied to culture or to biology, does not choose ultimate sustainability but immediate success, and I fear that the Permian Basin option will win in the short term, leaving us in an economic lurch in the only slightly longer term. I can only hope that we do not end up with our own smaller, economic version of the Permian extinction.

Monday, June 17, 2013

An Answer to the Anthropic Principle?

The anthropic principle is based upon the fact that the parameters of the universe (such things as the gravitational constant, the charge of the electron, etc.) are just right. If they were even slightly different, atoms could not exist. How likely is it that our one and only universe just happens to have parameters within these limits? You can see why intelligent-design proponents love the anthropic principle. I’m surprised they don’t spend more time on this rather than on bacterial flagella.

One explanation that astronomers offer is the multiverse model: all possible universes exist somewhere, somehow, and somewhen, and of course if a universe has no atoms it has no brains to think about such questions. However unlikely our universe is, if there is an infinite number of universes, then the existence of ours is an absolute certainty. I cannot refute this argument, but it leaves me unfulfilled: it is sort of like the woman who believed that the world was on the back of a turtle, which was on the back of another turtle…and she told Bertrand Russell, “It’s turtles all the way down.” Just slide through a wormhole and you might find a universe that is just different enough from ours to make an interesting TV program.

A mere 15 years after it was published, I got around to reading a book by Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos made a proposition that really caught my attention. He proposed a natural selection model to explain our unlikely universe. (Unlikely is an understatement. According to Smolin, the chances of a universe having the range of parameters that allow the existence of atoms is one in ten to the 239th power.)

Here is my summary of his proposal. A universe came into existence, sometime before time, and there was a 10 to the 239th power chance that it had the wrong parameters and collapsed back upon itself, stillborn, as it were. The collapse of a defective universe might not have taken very long, just a few Planck times (a Planck time is 10 to the -43 seconds). And then it would explode back into existence. This could have happened even more than 10 to the 239th power times. But finally a universe popped into existence that had parameters that were not too far off from what we observe. Let’s call him LUCA, the last universal common ancestor, and I do mean universal. This universe would not collapse upon itself immediately; instead, it would expand and produce lots of massive stars. The collapse of a massive star produces a black hole. Now within the event horizon of a black hole, a new universe can form. Such a universe can have billions of black holes, each with a universe inside. That is, viable universes reproduce, and have fitness.

Suppose, says Smolin, that each time a new universe forms, it has parameters that are just a little bit different from those of the universe in which its natal black hole formed. This would be the equivalent of genetic variation among progeny universes. Eventually, the overwhelming majority of universes will be those that have parameters that are very close to the perfect values. Therefore, universes like ours are the most common, for the same reason that complex life forms are common: they are the ones with the highest fitness. You don’t need an infinite number of universes. This would be a kind of multiversal Darwinism. The anthropic principle, as an intelligent design argument, therefore makes no more sense than to say that the odds against the existence of insulin is 20 to the 51st power (20 amino acids, 51 residues).

I have no idea whether Smolin’s proposal makes any sense. My understanding of cosmology is pretty much limited to the summaries of Scientific American articles. I admit, further, that I have not read Stephen Hawking’s books. But I thought I would pass on to you what seemed to me an exciting idea. Feel free to comment!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Oklahoma-Texas Evolution Road Trip, part five. Final Discussions

On Sunday morning, June 2, the Road Trip participants met for discussions. I did not prepare much, because I knew everyone—and I mean everyone—would have something good of their own to contribute. I did note that, in the preceding three days of the Evolution Trip, we had not really talked about evolution. But I found that the participants either already knew about or had little trouble grasping the ideas of natural selection (even as applied to languages and computer programs) and sexual selection.

One of the main things that came out of these discussions was that each of us had resources we could share with others. Here are some that were discussed or that were forwarded to me later:

·         I have a YouTube channel in which I portray Darwin making very short and simple points about evolution. If you need something in your class that takes only three or four minutes, consider using my channel.
·         My current popular book about evolution is Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful,Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, published by Prometheus Books.
·         A book that is several years old but has interesting information on the weird things that genetics can confer upon humans is Mutants by Armand LeRoi.
·         TheBattle for God by Karen Armstrong was recommended.
·         Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages describes the concept of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) as a useful approach for dealing with science and religion, although some evolutionary scientists such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins object strongly to it.
·         Fran Stallings recommended this online course about human evolution.
·         Gordon Stallings recommended Straight Dope, a website that answers all kinds of questions including sometimes scientific ones.
·         Carl Rutledge has posted his photos of the Evolution Road trip on his Facebook page: search for Carl Rutledge at Ada, Oklahoma.
·         Fran Stallings recommended Awake, an Australian website, provides psychology-based resources to support sustainability. This month’s featured topic is, why do people lose interest in important environmental issues?
·         I think all participants received a PowerPoint presentation from Mary Kay Johnston about evolution. She also recommended this YouTube video in which AronRa explains the evolution of cats as an example of how macroevolution wouldn’t look very macro if you were there to see it at the instant that it began, e.g. when dog and cat lineages first separated. AronRa’s YouTube channel has many excellent videos about evolution, very well edited, unlike my YouTube channel in which I just turn on the camera and start talking.

To finish up, I want to tell about the wonderful participants in this trip. We felt like a close-knit group as we watched turbulent weather all around us, Thursday night with large storms passing all around us, and Friday night as we followed the news about tornadoes hitting the Oklahoma City area for the second time in less than two weeks.

May 30: To celebrate the birthdays of Lindsay Fluker and myself, I brought little muffins and two birthday candles. Since it was my 56th birthday, I chose a bran muffin. May 31: Mary Kay opened a bottle of wine, but it was no ordinary wine. It was 420-million-year-old Chardonnay from Trilobite Farms. We all wanted to know where she found it but she ain’t telling; that’s where her retirement money is going to come from.

Here are the participants, in alphabetical order:

·         Wilfred Berlin is a high school teacher from Broken Arrow.
·         Lindsay Fluker is a new high school teacher from Austin.
·         Jim Huff is a retired sociology high school teacher from the Oklahoma City area
·         Cora James teaches high school in Haskell and a member of the Oklahoma state science textbook committee.
·         Mary Kay Johnston is an assistant professor of biology at Concordia University in Austin, a doctoral graduate of the University of Oklahoma, and on the Texas state science textbook committee.
·         Drew Marteny, a young man from Bartlesville.
·         Carl Rutledge is an astronomy professor from East Central University in Ada.
·         Gordon and Fran Stallings are a retired couple from Bartlesville who continue to vigorously pursue lifelong learning. Fran, who used to be a university professor, specializes in environmental storytelling and is no relation to Fran the acrocanthosaur we saw on Friday.
·         Sharon Young is a retired biology professor from Southern Nazarene University near Oklahoma City. She is my predecessor as president both of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education and the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences.

I hope our paths cross in the future. For all blog readers, watch this blog for announcements of future Evolution Road Trips.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Oklahoma-Texas Evolution Road Trip, Part Four. Dinosaur Tracks

Dinosaur Valley State Park appears to be mainly a place for kids to go swimming in safe shallow water. There are no longer any dinosaurs there, I think even Carl Baugh would admit. The water was at a normal level, not flood stage, but we could find only a few Acrocanthosaurus prints. They were, however, quite striking.

When I visited this riverbed in September 2011 with Glen Kuban (see entries on this blog for October 7, 14, 21, and 29 of 2011), there was hardly any water in the river. God had not yet answered Governor Perry’s call to prayer for rain. At that time, we could see entire trackways of dinosaur prints.

The Road Trip participants met outside the gift shop, by the dinosaur statues (apparently left over from a movie set). I found that everyone had a pretty good idea what you could tell from dinosaur trackways as opposed to individual footprints. That is, what does an ichnologist study? If you know the size and stride, you can calculate how fast the creature was running. Some trackways were made by dinosaurs running about 30 miles per hour. But it took awhile for the participants to figure out what was most glaringly wrong about the statues. It was this: both the big herbivorous dinosaur and the smaller carnivore were dragging their tails. In the trackways of the riverbed, there are extremely few tail traces. A Paluxysaurus tail could weigh a ton, but the animal held it up above the ground, perhaps for balance, or perhaps to whip it around to knock the living daylights out of one of those humans who was chasing it, in the middle of The Flood no less, with a hammer, which the human dropped into the mud and it eventually ended up in Carl Baugh’s museum. (BTW, how did fresh and salt water stay separate during The Flood? For answers, see my 1988 and 1989 articles in Creation/Evolution, published at the time by the National Center for Science Education. These articles appear to not be on the NCSE website anymore.)

We enjoyed some Texas barbecue in Glen Rose. Someone on NPR said that you can throw a rock anywhere in Texas and hit a barbecue place that is better than anyplace else in the world. That is only a slight exaggeration. But were we just having fun? No. Even this was class time. I told people about Harvard professor Wranglin’ Rich Wrangham’s barbecue theory of human evolution. The ability to cook food, whether of plant or animal origin, allowed humans to ingest more calories; this was essential for brain enlargement.

We drove safely back to the OU Biological Station, arriving after sunset and quickly retiring to our rooms.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Oklahoma-Texas Evolution Road Trip, Part Three. Dinosaurs and the Humans Who Are Still Looking for Them

On June 1, the participants in the Road Trip hopped (or, rather, packed themselves) into the van and I drove them down into the heart of Texas, to the town of Glen Rose, just southwest of Ft. Worth. We arrived at the Creation Evidences Museum in time for the monthly sermon of an infamous creationist named Carl Baugh. Baugh is a smooth talker, and cultivates a friendly, calm, and reasonable image. The image of humility may conceal great pride, however: he seems very proud that lots of scholars, including many young-earth creationists, know him and reject his beliefs. Every month you can expect to hear something different and astonishing from Baugh that you will hear nowhere else, even from the Institute for Creation Research or Ken Ham. Every month the world of Baugh and his followers retreats a little further from reality. I could hardly wait to see what this month had in store. The other time I visited, Baugh said that there had been no lava flows on the moon until after the Flood, and that pre-Flood moonlight promoted longevity before the Flood (see here). What would he say this time? (Photo courtesy of Mary K. Johnston.)

The museum included a replica of what Baugh thought Noah’s Ark might look like, and many other displays, including a model of an Acrocanthosaurus head. Acrocanthosaurs seem to chase Mary K. Johnston around; but relax, Mary, can’t you see that this acrocanthosaur eats plants? You can see them hanging from its mouth. That’s what the razor-sharp teeth are for!

Most of Baugh's sermon was devoted to defending the idea that humans and dinosaurs lived together about 4,000 years ago. This idea is no different than what you will find in Ken Ham’s creationist museum in Kentucky. And Baugh defended at length the idea that human footprints and dinosaur footprints occur in the same layer of Cretaceous rock exposed in the bed of the nearby Paluxy River. Again, this is what he has been saying for years. And he admitted that this belief has undergone some challenges. For example, what he had long considered to be a trackway of human footprints turned out to be dinosaur footprints. He admitted that Glen Kuban, who has studied the Paluxy River dinosaur tracks for decades, was right about that. Even John Morris, who leads the Institute for Creation Research in the footprints, as it were, of his father Henry, has withdrawn his support from this assertion. So is this the end for Carl Baugh?

Not on your life. Baugh insisted that giant humans had hopped along and put their footprints in the middle of pre-existing dinosaur footprints, so of course they looked like dinosaur footprints. These were of course giant humans, with strides as great as those of large dinosaurs. They grew big because the intense atmospheric pressure of the pre-Flood Earth buoyed them up. Of course, he could not prove this, and hesitated to say that he could.

In the end, Baugh’s entire belief system rested primarily on just one piece of data: a supposed human footprint overlapping a dinosaur footprint. The slab of rock with these structures can be seen right in his museum. Some of our group took a look at the “human footprint” after the sermon. The dinosaur print was real; there are still hundreds of them in the bed of the Paluxy River. And there are compression lines below them, showing that the dinosaur footprints have not been carved. But the human print looks both too good to be real and artificially cartoonish. Judge for yourself.

I was still waiting for the surprise. Toward the end of the sermon, I got it—something I had not heard Baugh say before. (Not that I am a regular visitor to his sermons.) Baugh said that dinosaurs were still alive. No, you cladists, he didn’t mean birds. He meant the big ones. The likes of Paluxysaurus and Acrocanthosaurus. Where? In some African jungle, I think; he wasn’t clear about this. I’ll have to look it up in the Edgar Rice Burroughs book. Maybe in a parallel time dimension at the other end of a cosmic wormhole. They are waiting to emerge when the Millennium starts. His evidence? He said that the book of Job, written after the Flood, refers to dinosaurs (leviathans and behemoths) in the present tense. After all, medieval European and Chinese tales told of dragons. Are you calling St. George a liar? That settles it.

In a later discussion, our group considered the cult characteristics of Baugh’s followers. He seemed to have a mental list of things to do to make himself credible. He knows most of the audience members by name, therefore Baugh has formed a community of believers. He has also told them that they are a little embattled enclave surrounded by unbelievers, some of them even fellow creationists. While Baugh said that people could disagree with him and still be good people, some audience members muttered that anyone who disagreed with Baugh could not be a good person. And they seemed to be mesmerized by him. I did not notice this at the time, but when I reviewed the brief video I took of Baugh’s sermon (which is out of focus, sorry), Baugh said something like, “Have you ever seen a human footprint stepped on by a dinosaur…” A big scary man in the front row nodded in the affirmative. Wow. I would not want to encounter that big scary man who thought I was a bad person and who was convinced that he had seen dinosaurs. This is the same guy who said that disagreeing with Baugh was like Pharaoh spurning Moses even after the Ten Plagues. It’s not quite as cultlike as Jonestown, but it has all the defining characters of a cult.

Because it is a little cult, I doubt that their attempts at world outreach will amount to much, especially when the 76-year-old Baugh, whose charisma holds the group together, “graduates” to Heaven someday. Of course, if he gets inside the hyperbaric chamber (their next project, though they cannot legally do human experimentation) he might outlive Methuselah. (The hyperbaric chamber is meant to mimic the high air pressure believed to have existed before The Flood.)

Baugh might have thought that everyone who came to hear him, including trip participant Mary K. Johnston, was there to admire him. We did not tell him any differently. (Photo courtesy of Mary K. Johnston.)

We met outside the museum to see Marlyn Clark’s Flood Tank. About 1980, an engineering professor, M. E. Clark, at the University of Illinois, constructed a tank that could pitch and yaw around. If you put water, gravel, sand, and silt into it, they sort into different layers. Clark considered this to be experimental confirmation that The Flood could produce all the fossil layers. I do not know if he threw the family cat into the tank to see if it would fossilize. I don’t think Thelma and Becky would have let him. You see, I knew him and his family a little bit, mostly because he was one of the people at our church who tried to silence me from teaching a class about evolution, which I taught at the request of the church leadership. He was pretty grim but had a good side. He invented some component that is now used in artificial hearts. As he neared the end of his life, he donated his tank to Baugh’s museum. It sits out on the grass, unlabeled; very few people know what it is. We took a group picture in front of it.

Front, left to right: Carl Rutledge; Cora James; Mary K. Johnston; Lindsay Fluker; Sharon Young. Back, left to right: Jim Huff; Wilfred Berlin; Drew Marteny; Fran Stallings; Gordon Stallings; Gordon Eggleton.

I will skip ahead to a final observation. Before we left the Paluxy vicinity and headed into Glen Rose for some barbecue, we stopped at a little rock house where the proprietor sold fossils: ammonite casts, which were probably genuine; trilobites, which looked too good to be real; fragments of crinoid stalks from Morocco, which is famous for fake fossils (as described by Gould in “The Lying Stones of Marrakech”); coprolites, one of which I bought and do not care if it is real; and other things. This was the very rock house in which George Adams had carved fake human footprints in slabs with dinosaur prints in the 1930s. While we were there, who should pop in but Baugh’s understudy Aaron Judkins, whom Baugh had introduced before his sermon. The proprietor gave Aaron a very nicely made clay pitcher. Let me predict what might happen. Judkins might imbed the pitcher in limestone matrix and put it in Baugh’s museum, claiming that it was used by one of the pre-Flood humans. I may be wrong, but I put the world on notice: in the future, if and when I visit this museum, I am going to watch for that pitcher. I asked Judkins if the pitcher was “from around here.” He said it was from pre-Columbian Mexico. For the record, that pitcher is not pre-Flood; it was obtained from the rock shop, free of any matrix, on June 1, 2013.

After we entered Dinosaur Valley State Park and ate our lunches and discussed what we had seen, we went looking for dinosaur tracks (next entry).

Yesterday’s blog entry got a comment, from Prom Limo Service saying what an informative blog it was. It appears that parasites live in the blogosphere just as in the biosphere.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Oklahoma-Texas Evolution Road Trip, Part Two. The World of the Past, continued.

Note: I corrected the spelling of Texigryphaea in the previous entry.

On May 31, the participants in the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip rode in the van up US 177 north of Dickson. Just south of Lake of the Arbuckles is the road that leads to Goddard Youth Camp, about which more later. Right at that intersection is a large new roadcut right through Ordovician marine deposits. You can find this on the geological map of the Arbuckles. You will probably want to enlarge the PDF to 100% and navigate around. The deposit is labeled in salmon as Osv (Ordovician Sylvan Viola Group) at about 34 degrees 23’ latitude and 96 degrees 58’ longitude. We probably also wandered into the OSDh (labeled in purple) which is the Hunton group, of Ordovician-Silurian-Devonian age. Despite the treacherous footing on loose stones, the participants scoured all over the place for fossils, finding mollusks, rings from crinoid stalks (a kind of echinoderm), and brachiopods, which resemble sideways mollusks. Back when these deposits formed, brachiopods were as abundant as mollusks. But brachiopods were either inferior or unlucky during the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, and since that time they have been rare. I found something that might be a fossil or might be a crystal. Interpreting what you see in a fossil deposit is not always as easy as it looks in the books and documentaries. The photos show Mary Kay Johnston and Gordon Stallings, and a brachiopod fossil found by Sharon Young.

Lots of pickup trucks and rigs drove rapidly and loudly up and down the highway. Were there really a dozen red pickups, or was it the same one a dozen times? About the time we heard but did not see a major automobile collision, we decided it was time to go.

We ate lunch at the museum at Goddard Youth Camp, where Clayton Edgar, son of the camp founder, met us. Many school, scout, and church groups stay at this camp. I asked Clayton whether the church groups expect him to tell them about creationism. He said he would if they insisted on it, but their mission was to teach about the deciduous forest, the prairie, and dinosaurs.

Clayton introduced us to Fran the Acrocanthosaur, or at least a cast of her bones. Cephas Hall found the 90 percent complete skeleton near Hochatown in eastern Oklahoma in terrestrial Cretaceous deposits. The story of this skeleton, which was stolen and reclaimed, is told in this book. Clayton showed us where Fran’s major injuries had healed.

This was not to be the last time that Mary Kay was to have an encounter with an acrocanthosaur.

When we got to the top of the Arbuckle Mountains, we could see the Cambrian period Colbert rhyolite (Cc in red, at about 34 degrees 30’ latitude and 97 degrees 15’ longitude on the geological map; note that “Cambrian” is a C with a line through it). The Cambrian period began about 540 million years ago. We stopped at the overlook to see Turner’s Falls, perhaps the most beautiful view in Oklahoma, and Collings Castle, built by a retired OU Professor in the mid twentieth century. (All of us professors are rich enough to build castles.)

Thousands of people stop there, and very few know that the rocks along the little path are actually Cambrian stromatolites of the Cool Creek Formation (Ccm in tan). Stromatolites are formed by single-celled algae and layers of minerals. They are very rare in the fossil record after the Cambrian period, because animals with jaws (which evolved at that time) could easily graze on them. The reappearance of stromatolites after the Permian extinction was part of the evidence that animal food chains had been disrupted worldwide. Stromatolites are found today only in shallow seas that are too salty for animals to live. They look like brains on the heads of the Star Trek Talosians. Gordon Eggleton and I had previously scouted some out, but it was Gordon Stallings who tracked down some much better specimens.

I can't resist telling you that the living plant beside the stromatolite fossil is Cissus incisa in the grape family Vitaceae.

Also, nearby, we saw the Silurian age Sylvan shale. Shale forms from mud, and is usually a rock, but this shale erodes back into mud very easily.

Next we stopped at a scenic overlook where, about 280 million years ago, a very dramatic thing happened. Today Oklahoma is in the middle of the North American Plate, but during the Pennsylvanian period three plates were moving violently in this area. This movement eventually produced warped wrinkles of anticlines and synclines. This is called the Southern Oklahoma Aulacogen. An aulacogen is an arm of a three-way junction in which a continental plate is breaking up in three directions. During the Pennsylvanian period, forces beneath the plate pushed up the Arbuckle Mountains, raising up the Cambrian and Ordovician layers that had already hardened into rock. Aulacogens can cause whole mountains to collapse to form valleys known as grabens, which subsequently filled in. This was one such place: 280 million years ago cliffs of Ordovician rock (Owk, Ordovician West Spring/Kindblade, cream colored on the map) towered over a deep valley. Violent erosion washed large chunks of rock into the valley, and minerals glued them together into some of the most amazing conglomerate rock (IPcr, Pennsylvanian Collings Ranch conglomerate in blue on the map). Look on the map at about 34 degrees 25’ latitude and 97 degrees 11’ longitude, follow the faint line that indicates Interstate 35. These violent crustal movements also broke up the Ordovician limestone into big chunks.

We then drove east into land in which pre-Cambrian granite had been pushed to the top. It is the pCgg, Precambrian granitic gneiss at about 34 degrees 22’ latitude and 96 degrees 37’ longitude, which is light orange with red x’s on the map. Granite, an igneous rock, has no fossils, and erodes more slowly than limestone. The Blue River flows through this granite, which is perhaps why the water is clearer than that of the Washita which drains primarily limestone.

It was finally time for us to see something alive, not dead. I introduced the group to one of the rarest trees in the world, the seaside alder, Alnus maritima.

The Oklahoma seaside alder is (along with the Georgia and Delmarva seaside alders) one of three remnant populations of a species that had once been widespread. Alder seeds germinate in sunny, wet gravel, of which there was a lot at the end of the last ice age but which is rare today. Today, if the ground is wet it is shady. My research has shown that the alders produce thousands of healthy seeds but no seedlings survive past their first year. You can download a PDF of the article here.

We also compared three different evolutionary adaptations to two different kinds of habitats. Oak trees grow slowly and produce strong wood in stable forests, where they can “expect” to live for centuries. But alders and cottonwoods live in unstable riparian habitats, where floods frequently wash the trunks away. Cottonwoods grow quickly and produce cheap wood, since they can “expect” to live only about a century; a large flood kills them. Alders produce numerous weak trunks, which get killed every few years by floods (or, in this case, a large fire that burned the forest in 2011). The underground clump, however, can survive for perhaps centuries. They start growing back immediately after fires and floods.

Evolution has, therefore, produced a great variety of adaptations. No single adaptation is “the best.” Oaks, cottonwoods, and alders all prosper in different ways. Stromatolite algae, acrocanthosaurs, echinoderms, mollusks, and brachiopods all prospered (and some continue to prosper or at least, like brachiopods, cling to survival) in different ways.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Oklahoma-Texas Evolution Road Trip, Part One. The World of the Past

Ten participants and two instructors met for what might be the First Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station on the shores of beautiful Lake Texoma May 30-June 2, 2013.

As in almost all scientific meetings, the best part of the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip 2013 was the participants getting to know one another and exchange ideas. I will write more about this later, but I wanted to begin with it. What a fine group of people, each with different insights to contribute! Get a group of people like this together, and good things are bound to happen! I hope I speak for everyone when I say that interacting with the participants was the most memorable thing about this trip. I want to thank all of the participants, who made every moment of work I put into planning and execution of this trip very, very worthwhile. Although I have led many long field trips (as an adjunct faculty member at the Wheaton College Science Station in the Black Hills during summers from 1993 to 2005), this was the first trip in which I had to organize everything. I believe I thought of and prepared for everything, but had I not, the strong network of camaraderie in the group would have made up for it. The meeting of minds in this trip is every professor’s, every teacher’s, and every trip leader’s dream. And, starting with this entry, it will be clear to every reader how important a part Dr. Gordon Eggleton, retired professor from my home institution (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), played in opening our eyes to the world of the past.

After we all met for the first of many good meals at noon on May 30, we had a brief introduction to geology, including how we know the age of the Earth and of fossil deposits. Gordon Eggleton showed us how layers of rock can be deformed into arch-shaped anticlines in which, when they are eroded, the oldest layers can end up at the top of a mountain and younger ones at the bottom. (Older layers above younger layers is one of the creationist arguments against an old Earth.) And this is exactly what happened in the Arbuckle Mountains, with Cambrian period rhyolite (the Colbert formation) at the very top, with Cretaceous period layers at the bottom. The Cambrian period began about 540 million years ago, long before the Cretaceous, which began about 120 million years ago.

We saw three Cretaceous layers of limestone in southern Oklahoma on Thursday May 30. The real bonanza was the Kiamichi limestone, which is full of fossils. It is between the younger Caddo limestone and the older Goodland limestone. We visited Ft. Washita, which was built in the early nineteenth century. The slabs from which Ft. Washita was built came from Kiamichi limestone, and there appeared to be more mollusk shells than matrix in them. It is possible that the Kiamichi limestone formed in shallow seas in which a vibrant food base of microscopic algae supported abundant mollusk populations. And almost all the mollusks were probably the same species, Texigryphaea navia. This book about the geology of Bryan County (named after William Jennings Bryan) (see Figure 10 on page 16) shows the layers of Bryan County rocks, with our three layers of limestone near the bottom of the series. The geological description of the Kiamichi limestone indicates that Texigryphaea is a major component of the rock itself. In the second photo, Carl Rutledge takes a close look at the fossil-crammed slabs.

Geological deposits are not jumbled as one might expect from a gigantic flood of Noah. Each contains only fossil species characteristic of the geological period, and even then not all of them. Terrestrial Cretaceous deposits, such as those in eastern Oklahoma, often contain dinosaur bones, but in south central Oklahoma the Cretaceous deposits are all from shallow seas.

Ft. Washita is also interesting for historical reasons. The fort was built in the nineteenth century to defend the Chickasaws and Choctaws, whom the U.S. government had forced from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast, into eastern Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory. The Chickasaws and Choctaws did not want to leave their homeland, which is why this forced migration is called the “Trail of Tears.” Nor did the Caddos and Comanches, who were already in Indian Territory, like the forced influx of other tribes. Another “Trail of Tears” was the forced migration of Cherokees to northeastern Indian Territory, a journey that my great-great-grandfather made. Ft. Gibson was built to protect the Cherokees. The Cherokee tribe sued the United States government for the right to remain in their homeland. The case went to the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, and the Cherokees won! But President Andrew Jackson said, “Let John Marshall enforce it.” Jackson defied the Supreme Court. Ft. Washita also served as a staging area for the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush. The Union abandoned it to the Confederates before the Civil War. Many Confederate soldiers in Indian Territory were Native Americans. The last Confederate general to surrender was Stand Watie, a Cherokee, who held out as long as he could near Ft. Towson in far southeastern Oklahoma.

During the nineteenth century, the Ft. Washita region was mostly prairie, with scattered bois-d’arc (Maclura pomifera) and post oak (Quercus stellata) trees. We saw some gnarled old bois-d’arc trees that, for aught we knew to the contrary, dated back to those times. Twentieth century fire suppression has allowed trees such as elms that had previously been confined to river bottoms to spread over the hillsides. Many of the bois-d’arcs appeared to be several trees growing together. The bois-d’arc fruit has many seeds, and several trees could grow from a fruit lying on the ground. Back before the extinction of the large herbivorous mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age, the seeds could be dispersed and scattered about from the intestines of the mammals. This is an excellent example of a “ghost of evolution,” in which an adaptation (in this case, bois-d’arc fruits) makes no sense because the co-evolutionary partner (the large mammal) is now extinct. You can read more in the book by Connie Barlow. Teachers may find Connie Barlow’s YouTube vid about the ghosts of evolution very thought-provoking and useful for students.

The Caddo limestone also contains fossils. Many fossils have eroded from this layer into a little stream that we visited on a slick muddy back road (Watkins Road south of State Route 199, which connects with Kinlock Road). Members of the Road Trip group scoured the stream bed and found dozens of interesting fossils, including mollusks and echinoderms. The mollusks included bivalves and casts of ammonites. The people in the photo are Sharon Young, Fran Stallings, Jim Huff, and Gordon Eggleton.

We also stopped at a paved low-water crossing that had been built over a natural low-water crossing formed from hard, fossiliferous Kiamichi limestone.

After supper back at the Station, we met to review the history of the Earth. Rather than to go over it here, I will direct your attention to the University of California Museum of Paleontology website, which summarizes what happened on Earth during each geological period. I would also refer you to my revised Encyclopedia of Evolution, but it is available only by subscription from Infobase Publishing, or will be someday maybe when they get around to it. My original encyclopedia is out of print, but you can probably find used copies. We also discussed how to teach this information to students so that they can appreciate it. The way not to do it is to give a lecture, the way I did. Instead, we can get the students to encounter Deep Time by having them walk along a sidewalk that represents the history of the Earth, in which multicellular life emerges only in the last few meters and in which a human life is as thin as a coat of paint. A useful link for teachers is here. We can also get students to think about the different lines of evidence that led to the conclusion that a giant asteroid hit the Earth 65 million years ago, causing the Cretaceous extinction. A good resource for this is the video The Day the Mesozoic Died by Sean Carroll, produced by Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Permian extinction had an even greater impact on the Earth, even though it was probably caused by volcanoes rather than an asteroid. Less is known about it because it occurred 250 million years ago. A very readable account of the Permian extinction is the book by Michael Benton. An appreciation of Deep Time and the use of scientific thinking to figure out what happened in the past—there are endless possibilities here for teachers!

We listened to NOAA warnings about storms passing all around us, but by nightfall the storms had mostly calmed down. The next day we visited more fascinating geological sites, as described in the next blog entry.