Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What I Remember about Pete Seeger

The famous folk singer Pete Seeger died today at age 94.

I met Pete Seeger about 1988 when my family and I lived in Ossining, New York. Pete, as I recall, lived in Beacon, just up the Hudson River from Ossining. At the time, I was a young faculty member at The King’s College, a Christian college in Briarcliff Manor. I suspect that I might have been the only faculty member at that college who did not worship the Republican Party. I was not an activist for progressive causes at the time, but I did accompany my wife to some meetings of the Beacon Sloop Club (a sloop is a kind of boat), where you could always see Pete and his wife Toshi.

I actually don’t know very much about Pete’s musical career, nor would it be on-topic for a science blog like this one. But I do remember that Pete was always involved in making life better for the people of his local community. One time, about 1989, he was invited to address a public meeting of a municipal agency responsible for recycling and energy efficiency. While other speakers talked about technical issues, Pete sang some of his songs. To him, music was just part of what it meant to live rightly upon the Earth.

At one of the meetings of the Sloop Club, I talked to him about an annual event that the club sponsored: the Weed Wallow. Members and friends would wade into the Hudson River and remove by hand as many invasive plants as they could. I do not remember what the primary invasive species of aquatic plant was, but Pete told me that it had been introduced by a well-meaning clergyman who thought it could be used as food.

My memories may be slightly inaccurate. But it is clear to me that here was a man with a worldwide reputation but who was contented, even excited, to wade out into the mud and pull weeds. He lived rightly on the Earth, by his music and by his good ecological work.

Monday, January 27, 2014

So Where Is Global Warming Now?

It’s cold here in Oklahoma, though not as cold as in many other parts of the country. Of course this would be the day on which I began teaching my general bio class about global warming. Could I have chosen a worse time?

Actually, it was a good time to teach about this subject. Yesterday (Sunday January 26) it was quite balmy, in the 70s F. Overnight the temperature dropped 40 degrees F. So the weather of these last two days perfectly illustrated my point that weather is not climate. You can’t just stick your head out the window and tell whether global warming is occurring or not. You need long-term and large-scale temperature data, which is what the IPCC has accumulated and continues to accumulate.

So where is global warming now? I told my students that this is a good question, one that critical thinkers should be asking, but I have two answers. First, it’s somewhere else at the moment. Down in Australia, where they are having a big tennis competition, some of the tennis shoes of the participants started to melt on the court. Australia is having a record heat wave. Second, it’ll be back. Oklahoma had record heat waves in 2011 and 2012, but not 2013. But the high temperatures will be back. With global climate as well as local weather, the temperatures go up and down and up and down…but they go up more than they go down, and they go up more often than they go down.

Also, I showed the students some of my data regarding tree budburst times in southern Oklahoma. During the period of 2008-2012, the buds of some tree species opened between 2 and 3 days earlier each year. This period is not necessarily typical of all recent time periods, but it really did happen. I have data from lots of trees of numerous species. The advantage of using budburst times is that the plants integrate the weather conditions. They open their buds in response to the overall effect of warm and cold days in the winter, and also in response to lots of other factors, such as drought damage or disease that may have affected them the previous summer. Four hundred budburst data can integrate the effects of thousands of meteorological data for any given year.

So the “polar vortex” created a teachable moment for me today.

This essay also appeared on the blog of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip First Announcement

First announcement of the
Sponsored by
Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education
Oklahoma Academy of Science
Oklahoma Science Teachers Association

April 26-27, 2014
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Last year’s First Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, during a long weekend in May-June 2013 at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, was a great success. In alternate years, however, we plan to offer a shorter and less expensive version of the road trip that might be more accessible to teachers’ schedules. This year’s trip will include:

  • ·        Visiting fossil deposits in the Tulsa vicinity (e.g. Lake Skiatook, Arkansas River)
  • ·        Visiting an ecological micro-environment near Tulsa (Redbud Valley)
  • ·        Discussions of evolution and adaptation
  • ·        Transportation to field sites provided
  • ·        Continental breakfasts and box lunches provided

Since the trips on both days are in the Tulsa vicinity, most participants will be able to commute. We will arrange accommodations for anyone who needs them, but this is not covered by registration fees.

We are waiting to hear from the Society for the Study of Evolution regarding their sponsorship. We should hear from them by February 15. For this reason, we do not have a final registration cost. But we anticipate the registration cost to be a little more or less than $100. Registration will be handled through the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association website. Watch this space for instructions!

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Congressional Lovefest?

A few weeks ago I posted an entry entitled “Attention All Investors” in which I said that Congrass (oops I meant Congress) was willing to sink the American economy in order to gain political dominance; that this state of affairs was likely to continue indefinitely into the future; and that, therefore, America was not a good place for long-term investment. (The old meaning of the word "congress" is "copulation," and maybe this is what Congress is doing to us.) This essay got more hits than most others. Since there were no comments left, I do not know if the reaction was positive or negative.

Since that time, the budget impasse has been resolved. In December 2013, Paul Ryan (Republican member of the House) and Patty Murray (Democratic Senator) announced a bipartisan budget agreement that has proven acceptable to both parties. Finally, in January, both houses of Congress passed a budget that forestalls any future battles until September of this year. All of the announcements were celebrational; a Congressional lovefest seems to have begun.

Strangely absent was any Republican attempt to destroy the Affordable Health Care Act. This was what they insisted on eliminating in October, absent which they were willing to crash the economy. Also absent was any Republican mention that they have changed their views. There was no repentance. None of them, to my knowledge, said, “We have decided that the Republican Party was a destructive force in the world, and that we henceforward wish to be constructive, and to love those whom we formerly and very publicly hated.” The Republicans just changed their approach, suddenly and without explanation. It is as if Viking raiders in an Irish monastery suddenly treated their former victims to a feast in their honor. It is as if Scrooge became an altruist without ever having been visited by the three ghosts and not having a change of heart.

Republicans, after having tried intimidation, have decided to embrace altruism.

Needless to say, I do not trust them. This is because I see all politicians (Democrats as well, though less dangerously so) as acting solely in their own interests, desiring only to increase their dominance in society. Animals use whatever behavior patterns they can to gain dominance in their societies. In many mammal species, dominant males use intimidation. But altruism can also be used as a behavior pattern to gain dominance. This pattern is mostly known from humans, either in tribal or civilized societies. The altruistic humans benefit from indirect reciprocity, that is, they gain social capital by getting other people to think they are nice and generous. Politicians are now, as ever, simply trying to manipulate their images.

Just in time for an election year, Republicans have tried to change their image from dominant gorilla to cheerful altruist. As voters go to the polls, they will have forgotten what the Republicans did in 2011 and 2013. Every odd-numbered year is a time for Republicans to turn into gorillas. Even-numbered years are times for them to become altruists. I am not accusing Republicans of doing something supremely evil; I am merely calling them human.

But some of us are not fooled.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How Far Can You Trust Religious People?

Pretty far, but not far enough.

I now present a second reason why orthodox religion (as opposed to religious sensibility or mysticism) is really bad for the human species. This is part two of my previous essay.

Fundamentalist religious conservatives believe that God has given them absolute truth; they are God’s chosen, and the rest of us are God’s enemies; they are saved, we are damned.

In the past, religious conservatives took this belief to mean that they have the right to torture and kill anyone who disagreed with them, whether brown-skinned pagans or white-skinned heretics. Today, of course, they do not do this. They will lie about us in order to get their followers to hate us, but they will not torture or kill us.

But why not? If in fact they are God’s chosen, why shouldn’t they kill us? After all, Joshua killed the Canaanites, putting entire cities to the sword. Religious conservatives say this was right. But they will not put us to the sword, because…why? Perhaps, that’s just not done anymore. Or perhaps it is because they recognize the authority of human governments, which declare murder to be illegal, even if it is done in the name of God. But if God is the same for all time, then if he commanded genocide in the past, he could do so again.

So they will not kill us. But the basis for their refusal to kill us is operational, not fundamental. Read that again. They have operational, not fundamental, reasons to not kill us. They believe God gives them the right to, but has indicated that this is not the right time or place to do so.

But even recent history shows how quickly an operational restraint can change. Just a few years after the fall of Yugoslavian communism, genocide was raging across the Balkan states.

However, science provides a fundamental reason to not kill people who disagree with you. And that fundamental reason is that all of our conclusions, about what to believe and how to live, are tentative. Scientists cannot (without no longer being scientists) kill heretics because there are no heretics in science; there are only people who are wrong. We never say “God has proclaimed that…” but can only say “The evidence clearly indicates that…” In science, there always remains a slight margin of possibility that we are wrong, even about the most obvious things. Maybe the Sun really does go around the Earth, and God just makes it look like it’s the other way around. Therefore scientists cannot pass summary, lethal judgment on anybody on account of their beliefs. But religious conservatives believe that there is no slight margin of possibility of error.

Murderous religious zeal, so common in the past and still so pervasive in large parts of the world, remains within American religious conservatives like a tiny population of bacteria, so tiny that most conservatives refuse to believe it is there, just waiting to emerge and cause a deadly disease when the conditions are right. We can only hope that those conditions never occur.

I have deliberately made this essay very stark in its evaluation of conservative religion. Please understand that if you are a religious person but believe that killing people in the name of God has always been wrong, then my comments do not apply to you. These comments do not apply to most people who are religious in the broad sense of the word.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Whose Fault is the Human Condition?

In this essay, I present a very basic reason why I am convinced that orthodox religion (as opposed to religious sensibility or mysticism) is really bad for the human species. In addition, I have another reason, which I will post as a later entry.

There is a famous story about an essay contest in England. The topic was, “What is wrong with the world?” The British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote the winning entry. It consisted of two words: “I am.”

In addressing the question of “Whose fault is the human condition,” I am not going to focus on individuals, as Chesterton did. Instead I am asking about larger human institutions or frames of thought. In particular, I want to consider science and religion: which of these two institutions or frames of thought has had more of an impact on the sad, bloody human condition? The answer is religion. I refer herein to conventional, orthodox religion.

Preachers such as the late D. James Kennedy have been relentless in blaming all human evils on evolution and on science. Of course, this makes no sense. Humans have been killing and oppressing one another as long as there has been evidence of human existence. Humans have always had religion, but have only recently had science. In fact the decline in atrocities has been coincident in time with the spread of science.

But there is another reason that I blame religion as a major cause of human suffering. From a religious viewpoints, either God created human nature, or else God allowed Satan to create human nature. Either way, our nature is God’s will. That’s what makes it human nature; we cannot change it. We can “be saved,” they say. But most of the people I know who “have the Holy Spirit living inside of them” live in just as worldly a fashion as those whom they despise as hell-bound sinners. At the very least, even “saved” people still have human nature, Holy Ghost or no. There are lots of good people, religious or not.

Therefore, from a religious perspective, “is” and “ought” are the same in human nature. Not necessarily in human action, but in human nature. Consider this example. Men are more violent than women. According to religion, this is the way things ought to be; God made us that way. As a matter of fact, it is bad for men to not be violent. I vividly remember a radio broadcast in which James Dobson, a major voice of the religious right, condemned the Berenstain Bears cartoons because they depicted a father bear who was not sufficiently assertive and masculine. It is always men who start wars and who do most of the fighting. And this is the way God made us, religious people claim. Women are supposed to stay home, stay quiet, and stay pregnant with fetuses of future warriors.

Evolutionary science, on the other hand, separates “is” from “ought” in human nature. Darwin proposed sexual selection as the reason that male animals are more “pugnacious.” Males fight more because they evolved that way. Maybe it made sense in the Stone Age. But today it is an evolutionary mismatch—what conferred fitness benefits in the Stone Age is now maladaptive except for a few lucky dictators. Evolutionists do not obtain morals from Stone Age biological and cultural adaptations. Religious people, in contrast, have to obtain their morals from the way God made us. Was God correct in ordering the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, even the kids? If God is unchanging, then either he is wrong or else all of the Old Testament killing was right. If God said it was right in the past, then it is still right. But if an adaptation evolved in the past, it is not necessarily adaptive today.

I believe I am justified in attributing a great deal of modern human suffering to the idea, strongly held by many Christians, Jews, and Muslims, that God made men to be fighters and that is the way it is supposed to be now and forever. For religious people, Homo bellicosus was intelligently designed. But to evolutionists, Homo sapiens is an ape struggling to subdue its old ape behavior with modern cultural evolution.

It has been this way for a long time. An historian who gave a series of lectures about the Paleolithic claimed that, until the start of agriculture, humanity progressed by “extensification,” that is, by moving into new territory and doing the same things as before. But when the territory was all gone, by about ten thousand years ago, humans had to turn to “intensification.” For example, humans could get more food from the same amount of earth by intensive agriculture than by extensive hunting and gathering. But I believe this historian had his dates wrong. With the exception of North and South America (and, of course, Antarctica), the entire world has been filled with humans for a long time. No extensification (aside from the people who migrated over the Bering Strait over 14,000 years ago) has been possible for at least the last 50,000 years. Modern humans, moving into Siberia, encountered Denisovans; and moving into Europe, they encountered Neanderthals. Modern Homo sapiens had to practice intensification to take resources away from other human species and, later, from one another. Before agriculture, intensification took the form of conflict, much of it inspired by religion. There were religion-spewing conquistadores 30,000 years ago in Europe, just as there were 500 years ago in America.

I will take one further step. Orthodox religion is part of the Stone Age adaptation that conferred success at the time but which now needs to be transcended. Not necessarily by atheism; perhaps orthodoxy should be transcended by a different kind of religion. I think the Earth has had about all of the Moses-and-Joshua style conquest that it can handle; maybe it needs some more of the prophetic voice of people like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And, wouldn’t you know it, in the Old Testament there were no female priests; but there were a few women prophets.

Religion is an adaptation, but one which, like so many others, we need to modify in the new world we have created.

A shorter version of this essay appears in the current issue of Humanist.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Our Common Humanity

I have just a brief thought this time. It is about our common humanity. All races and cultures share a lot more things than not. While this fact should be obvious, especially to those who know the fact that all modern humans evolved from a single population that lived in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, scholars in the social sciences seem to not always be aware of it.

One theory that is important among linguists is that human languages are so different from one another that people raised in different cultures and speaking different languages cannot hope to really understand one another. But I suspect this theory (which appears to be less popular now than it was a few decades ago) is wrong, because the fundamentals of human nature had already evolved in that ancestral African population, all members of which spoke a single language. No matter how much linguistic evolution has occurred since that time, all people and all peoples have had more or less the same things to talk about. While some phrases may remain forever untranslatable from one language to others, the ideas and feelings are universal. At least, this seemed to be the impression in a hallway discussion among students a couple of decades ago. An upper middle-class white student, a working-class white-Native American student, two Indonesian Muslim women students, and a Taiwanese student discussed this idea, which they heard in a lecture given by a Francophone African professor. How could they do so if they were culturally unable to relate to one another? Of course, humans are not all alike, but there are more differences between individuals in a culture than between cultures.

I suspect that 2014 is going to be a wild year for human relationships, with a lot of strife within countries and between them. If we see another artificial government fiscal cliff in America, as we did in 2013, the thin glue of altruism may not prevent our society from fracturing. We need to repeat, and keep repeating, the truth that all humans share a psychological core of ideas and feelings, of which altruism is one of the most prevalent, especially when political and social leaders preach intolerance. We have to keep telling this to ourselves, because the people who like to emphasize the differences, and create fractures, are so much more noticeable. For every Islamist suicide bomber, there is a Malala Yousefzai; for every petty African dictator like Kenneth Mugabe, there is a Nelson Mandela; and for every bloviating Republican like Rush Limbaugh, there is a reasonable Republican like Mickey Edwards. Well, it is possible that the bad people outnumber the good, but there are still plenty of good people almost anywhere you look. And (I’m telling myself) instead of getting angry at the dividers (to whom strife is a nutrient), we need to keep in contact with the uniters.