Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Evolution at the Botany 2013 Meetings

I am writing this entry at the Botany 2013 meetings in New Orleans. These meetings are a celebration of all aspects of plant biology, and nearly all of these aspects tie in with evolution.

One symposium focused directly on teaching evolution. It was a symposium entitled, “Yes, Bobby, Evolution is Real,” organized by Marsh Sundberg of Emporia State University in Kansas and Joe Armstrong at Illinois State University. The Bobby referred to in the title is Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who signed into law a creationist education bill several years ago. One of the presenters was Barbara Forrest, a professor in Louisiana who talked about the creationist law and its consequences in Louisiana. She is one of the leading experts on creationism in America. Another presenter was Zack Kopplin, who was a high school student in Louisiana when the law was enacted, and who is now an undergraduate college student who is leading a campaign to get the law overturned. He has spoken to, and been the recipient of some incredibly illogical comments from, state legislators, which he has posted on YouTube.

I was also a speaker in this session. For my presentation “Confessions of an Oklahoma Evolutionist: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I told of some of my experiences in Oklahoma, and how religion can suppress scientific thinking but how, in some cases, religion can promote a desire to pursue an understanding of the natural world. My conclusion was that, since religion will always be with us, we should try to guide religious feelings that we have, or that we encounter in others, into a constructive direction, of desiring to learn about and to protect the natural world, rather than to continually engage in conflict. Not surprisingly, I wore my Darwin outfit for this presentation.

But nearly all the sessions incorporated evolution in some way. The most common presentations at the botany conference each year are about plant systematics, in which researchers present their phylogenetic analyses, often of DNA, by which they can reconstruct the evolutionary histories of and relationships among plant genera and families. Nearly every plant ecology paper has an evolutionary context also, for example about the coevolution of plants and the fungi that live in their roots. One of the economic botany sessions will have a presentation by Norm Ellstrand about how crops can sometimes evolve into weeds. Even the educational papers had an evolutionary context. Even though none of the papers directly concerned teaching evolution or the creationist controversies, the Teaching Section is planning a field trip for next year’s meeting (which will be in Boise, Idaho) to one of the most famous fossil sites in the world—Fossil Bowl, where visitors can dig up preserved 15-million-year-old leaves that look almost as fresh as if they had been buried yesterday.

I realize that some creationists think that scientists at meetings are plotting to suppress the truth in order to inflict evil upon the world. But the exact opposite is true: we let the facts speak for themselves, and they reveal a natural world in which evolution ties all the different fields of research together, from DNA to the whole history and ecology of the Earth; and we truly form a camaraderie of women and men who strongly desire to make the world a better place for everyone. We find creationism frustrating not only because it is wrong but because it creates such unnecessary conflict. We even find it to be, in some cases, hypocritical: in Louisiana, one of the biggest supporters of creationism and “family values” is none other than the famous client of prostitutes, Sen. David Vitter.

Not that we always agree on how to make the world better. The Botanical Society of America has accepted funding from Monsanto Corporation, and has been hesitant to bring any criticism against Monsanto for the way it aggressively markets its genetically altered plants. Nobody said much about this, and BSA seems to have slipped into a comfortable symbiosis with Monsanto. But one woman from West Africa, who is currently a professor in the United States, has directly observed the negative effects that some of Monsanto’s practices have had on African farmers. She plans to try to get the issue discussed in future meetings, perhaps by organizing a discussion session at next year’s meeting. I doubt that the Botanical Society can reach any consensus, but it may be the ideal place to discuss these issues. As the leading society devoted to the study and use of plants, we are neither an arm of agribusiness nor an anti-GMO activist organization. We are free to have such discussions and I hope we do so.

The collegiality with which evolutionary scientists work together stands in striking contrast with the paralyzing bitterness in Congress.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

This is the subtitle to Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. Those seven words delineate a perfectly adequate diet: for anyone; for anyone interested in saving the planet; and for borderline diabetics.

Last winter I was diagnosed with the beginning of diabetes. I am not yet at the stage that requires any medication, and the fact that since that time I have lost 20 pounds might mean that I am safe. My response is to find creative solutions that I can enjoy. I am posting occasional entries about diabetes on this site if they relate to evolution and/or to the environment in which we have evolved and in which we live. I am not turning this blog into a diabetes forum.

Diabetes is considered to be a disease of civilization. That is, many scientists believe it results from physiological adaptations that were perfectly good in the Stone Age but which are maladaptive for civilized people. I can see that this argument makes sense for obesity. The ability to store food in the form of fat, during a time of feasting, and then use it up later during famine, was utterly essential in the Stone Age, when your tribe might get to feast on a dead mammoth then have nothing for a long time. But today, when food is continuously available, obesity results from fat storage. As Pollan said in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, our bodies are preparing for a famine that never comes. Not only that, but fat storage was a sign of affluence in the Stone Age; being fat was therefore attractive to potential mates. There is a fair amount of Paleolithic pornography to this effect. Therefore both natural and sexual selection favored the potential for obesity in Paleolithic times.

But diabetes? How could the inability to control blood sugar levels be adaptive under any set of conditions? Some scientists say that having high blood sugar levels (that is, a reduced ability of cells to absorb and use the sugar) was adaptive because it kept our Stone Age ancestors from using up their blood sugar too fast. Sorry, but this sounds like one of those just-so stories that modern evolutionary science is trying to get away from. The nascent science of evolutionary medicine would be well served to leave such stories behind. Of course, I could be wrong, in which case I will post a revision of the opinion here stated. Diabetics need to eat lots of small meals; this is precisely what our Stone Age forebears did not always have the luxury of doing, especially when they spent all day chasing down big game and when wild grains, roots, nuts, and berries were unavailable.

Some people propose that we adopt the Paleolithic Diet. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that this is not too useful unless you adopt the Paleolithic Lifestyle—running through the forest or across the savanna all day.

Michael Pollan’s advice, to eat food, not too much, most plants, is good advice for all of us. People with diabetic tendencies could include a bias against starch and sugar.

I will be participating in Botany 2013, the big meeting of botanists, starting next weekend. If I have a chance, I will blog from there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Altruistic Taliban?

It’s enough to tickle the cockles of your heart. How genuinely sweet.

A while back, a Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She has recovered from the attack enough that she addressed the United Nations on her sixteenth birthday, which was July 12. She continued the same message that she had been proclaiming before the attack: that everyone, including girls, deserves educational opportunities, and that the Taliban should stop being afraid of education.

Then today, July 17, a Taliban official, Adnan Rashid, released an open letter to Malala Yousafzai. He did not apologize for shooting her, of course; how could anyone who has a direct connection to the mind of God ever have to apologize for anything? But he said he was shocked at the shooting and wished that it had never happened. He claimed that the Taliban welcomes education, and he invited her to come back to Pakistan (perhaps so that they could have another try at her). He wrote to her, “I was thinking how to approach you. My emotions were brotherly for you because we belong to same Yousafzai tribe.” The sweetness that exudes from his message is enough to make you cry. I suppose that if Rashid had shot his brother in the head, he would have felt a similar degree of sadness.

Obviously, Rashid’s letter was just a publicity stunt, as was pointed out by Mansur Mahsud, a research director at the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) Research Center in Islamabad. But what kind of publicity stunt was it?

It was an attempt to garner the power of altruism to help the Taliban. As many books, including my own Life of Earth, have pointed out, there are at least three ways in which the capacity for altruism can evolve. One of these, indirect reciprocity, may be unique to humans. Indirect reciprocity occurs when someone is nice to someone else, expresses love and respect and concern for someone else, in order to gain the goodwill not of the recipient but from the observers. A reputation for goodness is worth more than a lot of money in the bank. And apparently, according to Rashid, it is worth more than guns and IEDs. The reputation of goodness can be derived either from genuine goodness or from pretense. Rashid’s letter demonstrates that even one of the most evil groups in the world recognizes the necessity of having a reputation for goodness.

Rashid’s letter demonstrates that altruism is such a pervasive component of human psychology that even the Taliban has to tap into its power. It is a desperate attempt that fools nobody, but it is clear testimony to the importance of altruism in the human species. Our species has had the capacity for altruism for thousands or millions of years, but only in the last couple of centuries has this capacity had a chance to reveal itself as fully as it does today. Can you imagine Vlad the Impaler writing such a letter to, say, the family of one of his victims?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Natural Selection for Efficiency

At the moment, I am able to post essays from a different location than what I normally use. My usual location remains unworkable. I now resume my usual series of essays.

In a previous essay I wrote about how our economic system is (almost) forcing us to waste resources. In nature, sexual selection often favors wastefulness (think of colorful bird feathers and flowers), and in the human species, social and sexual selection can favor conspicuous consumption. However, this always occurs within the broader picture of natural selection favoring efficiency.

One example is the evolution of CAM, which is a type of photosynthesis found in many succulent plants. The leaves of most plants absorb carbon dioxide and make it almost directly into carbohydrates such as sugar during the daytime. But CAM plants absorb carbon dioxide at night, make it into acid, store up the acid, then use the acid as a source of carbon dioxide from which to make sugar in the day. Carbon fixation therefore occurs in two phases: the night shift, and the day shift. And, like a factory that might need to hire two sets of employees rather than just one, this system is more expensive than just making sugar during the day shift. In fact, the night shift consists of an almost completely separate set of enzyme reactions from the day shift.

Under cool, moist, or shady conditions, CAM would be clearly wasteful. As my educational mentor from grad school days said, CAM plants don’t have it made in the shade. But CAM plants grow in desert conditions. In order to absorb carbon dioxide during the day, a plant has to have its pores open, and when it does so, it loses water vapor. In a cool, moist, or shady environment, this is not much of a problem. But out in the desert, it might cause the plant to lose too much water. For succulent plants it is more efficient to open their pores at night, when it is cooler, and store it up in the form of acid. The wasted energy is more than compensated by the water that is saved.

Here is an analogous situation. Suppose you have a factory that has to shut down on hot days. But even when the factory is shut, you still have to pay the workers. Is it cost-effective to pay a night shift of factory workers so that the factory can stay open in the summer? It depends. If the factory is in Minnesota, probably not. But in the desert, such a factory would be closed from May through September. Not surprisingly, CAM plants are more common in the desert than in Minnesota.

It seems obvious that CAM photosynthesis has evolved and become common in conjunction with the spread of deserts in the late Neogene period. And it has evolved more than once, as existing enzymes have been reassigned to new functions. However, it appears that CAM may have first evolved as an adaptation to low carbon dioxide availability rather than to hot, dry conditions. How else to explain CAM in primitive aquatic plants such as Iosetes? (See the article by Jon Keeley.) A similar adaptation, C4 photosynthesis, may have first evolved in grasses not because of hot conditions but because of low levels of carbon dioxide during glacial periods especially in tropical highlands. CAM and C4 photosynthesis may have begun as an adaptation to low carbon dioxide availability, and they later proved useful in hot, dry conditions. (I did not explain C4 in this brief entry because it’s more complex.)

Everywhere you look in the world, natural selection has favored efficiency. In many cases, after the needs of efficiency have been met, sexual and social selection have favored wastefulness. But in our society right now, we continue our binge of wastefulness even when we are not meeting the basic needs of efficiency.

We may have to learn not just efficiency but extreme frugality in the decades ahead of us. Of course, it is possible that the very rich, and people with lots of guns, might not have to do this, but then there’s the rest of us. Stories from the past tell us that much human creativity has been employed in the invention of new forms of frugality. I grew up hearing stories about how Native Americans used every part of the bison (in contrast to white Americans, who would shoot a buffalo, cut out the tongue to eat, and let the rest rot), and my Dad telling me that a World War II soldier could clean up, shave, and brush his teeth using one helmet-ful of water. Storing runoff water from the roof in cisterns is a practice thousands of years old. The thrifty Scots did not waste anything from sheep; hence the invention of haggis, which (in its original form) was a combination of oatmeal and sheep lung and other organ tissue and which is reportedly a food item.

We can only hope that, when called upon to do so in the years ahead, we humans can display the kind of creativity in our cultural evolution that CAM and C4 plants have displayed in their biological evolution. Sexual and cultural selection can favor wasteful displays, but only if there is a surplus of energy, materials, and opportunities, however slight, left over from the demands of natural selection. A big colorful male bird that starves is just a dead bird.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Seeing Fossils

My wife and I spent part of July 4 the way Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have approved of: we went looking for fossils. We walked on the Quaternary alluvial bed of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. We have been there many times, but all we saw, or thought we saw, was sand, smooth stones, broken glass (some of it smoothed by abrasion), ultraviolet-bleached plastic, shopping carts, and miscellaneous embarrassing items. But this time we looked for, and therefore saw, things we had previously overlooked.

One thing we found was coal. Just a few fragments of it. We do not know if it washed down from coal deposits no longer being mined, or from piles of coal. That’s the think about alluvial deposits, especially for a major river: you know almost nothing about where they came from. And we saw a few fossils, such as this one of crinoids.

But another experience we had was the opposite of seeing what we had previously overlooked. We saw some rocks that we might have imagined to have fossils in them. Just the day before, I had examined fossil deposits along Lake Oologah north of Claremore, Oklahoma, and I saw what I thought was a fossilized stem. It was a different color from the surrounding matrix and had parallel ridges that looked like wood grain. Then I noticed that the ridges extended past the differently-colored region. I also found what looked like a weird animal fossil. What a strange shape! I’m not going to tell you what it looked like, but it was something that it most definitely could not have been. What we saw among the rocks in the riverbed were structures that we imagined might be fossils. One of them looked like stromatolite layers, with just the right waviness that could not be explained as ripple marks. Were we just imagining this to be a piece of stromatolite? And the thing that looked like a fragment of fish backbone and ribs. Well, isn’t that what we expected to find?

This brings up, again, the important point that the human mind sees what it expects to see, whether (in this case) the absence of fossils or their abundance. Once we started looking for fossils, I wanted to find at least one every ten minutes or so, in order to feel that I was having a good time. Fossils have always been a good medium for observer bias. Today we laugh at medieval people who thought that cephalopod shell fossils were actually thunderbolts turned into stone. But we are no different from those people in seeing what we expect to see. It is sort of like e e cummings who said, so whatever we lose like a you or a me it’s always ourselves we find in the sea, or in this case, the sand of a river bottom.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Are We Being Forced to Waste?

It is clear that large corporations are trying to force us to be wasteful. Here are just three examples I have recently experienced, individually trivial but collectively painting a picture of waste.

First, I tried to buy some of those little paper cupcake wrappers. I tried two supermarkets, and could not find them. Instead, what you had to buy was the paper wrappers and a disposable pan to put them in. (In addition, the pans and papers were inside of extremely durable plastic, the kind that you need a Klingon bat’leth sword to open.) Second, in a major supermarket, there were a couple of shelves of jars of instant coffee, but an entire rack of boxes of instant coffee with disposable cups. If current trends continue, you will be unable to make instant coffee in your own cup at home. Third, there are whole displays of dry laundry detergent packed into individual packets, to save you the trouble of measuring the amount you put into the washing machine.

One can only hope that such wasteful items will go the way of the paper dresses of the 1960s—dresses actually made of cellulose, which could be worn once and discarded. They were uncomfortable and flammable. I have heard interesting stories about what happened when a woman wearing one got caught out in the rain. You cannot readily find them anymore. In the 1960s, few people gave a second thought to throwing everything away; the paper dress market failed because the novelty wore off. But today, one would think, the sheer wastefulness of disposable clothing would make it a market failure.

I do not believe that most people demand to use disposable cupcake tins, to use disposable cups even at home, or that most people are too lazy to measure their laundry detergent. If consumer choice were the driving factor, such wastefulness would sink these products. But manufacturers, and the supermarkets that carry their products, can make more money if you buy a box that contains twelve disposable coffee cups with individual servings of instant coffee than if you buy a jar of instant coffee with ten times as many servings in it, for about the same price. A manufacturer’s paradise would be if consumers had to buy, for each meal, expensive MREs (meals ready to eat) instead of ever fixing their own meals. Corporations will never be able to do this, but they can constrict the more efficient items to smaller and smaller shelf space and present a large display of disposable items to consumers. Consumers prefer the more efficient items but not enough to actively refuse to buy the wasteful ones. It is as if Wal-Mart made a corporate-level decision to market only paper clothes, a highly unlikely but no longer unthinkable prospect. Already, major food product corporations are pressuring the government for restrictions on farmers’ markets, ostensibly for sanitation concerns. Never mind that all the cases of food  contamination on the news involve large corporations.

Individual evolutionary fitness has long been served by the efficiency of resource use. Our prehistoric ancestors almost never threw away stone tools; they kept re-sharpening and reusing them. Recycling was the norm until recent decades; Dickensian rag-pickers were recyclers. Home canning reused the glass jars every year; I doubt that my grandmother on rural northeastern Oklahoma farms ever bought anything in a can until she moved to town. Natural selection rewarded such behavior: less waste meant that you had more resources.

But there have always been evolutionary fitness benefits to wastefulness. A rich, wasteful person (like a bird with outlandish feathers) can attract mates. The difference between conspicuous ostentation and the modern supermarket variety of enforced waste is that the individual cannot readily choose what to do. A person may choose to display their wealth by showing that they are free to generate a lot of garbage. I do not so choose. But I am being pressured by corporations to so choose.

This is an example of the process of individual selection in evolution. I choose efficiency, but corporations choose waste; and they are stronger than I am. Group selection would dictate efficiency as well, but the decisions are largely made by corporations, the individual profits of whose CEOs determine that consumers should be wasteful.

Wastefulness will sink us. We should use less energy and materials—this is an essential component to averting climate disaster from global warming. Our only hope is that the collective feeble insistence on frugality by conscientious consumers (who also want to save money) will out-compete the corporate interests that largely control our society.