Friday, June 27, 2014

Paleo Made Simple

I recently read Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. I found nothing really surprising in it, but maybe that’s because I know a thing or two about evolution. For many people, this book should come as quite a revelation. It is a good book and I highly recommend it.

I don’t follow fads very closely, but apparently “paleo” is a big fad these days. The idea is that (1) humans evolved under Paleolithic conditions, to which our bodies are very closely adapted, and (2) that very little evolution has occurred since that time. Therefore, to be healthy and happy, we have to live like cavemen or (3) at least like hunters and gatherers.

Zuk takes aim at all three of these assumptions. The first assumption is that humans are very closely adapted to Paleolithic conditions. Zuk explains that there is quite a range of Paleolithic conditions; different prehistoric peoples lived in very different ways. Therefore there is no single Paleo diet that is best for us. Some Paleo faddists think we should only eat meat, others only vegetables; but in reality our Paleolithic ancestors ate both, with different groups having a different balance of local foods. Of course tropical people ate more fruits, and the natives of the steppes consumed more meat and dairy. Some of them chased down wild animals to eat, some of them didn’t. Zuk points out that the human body has a lot of developmental plasticity. If we grow up barefoot, our feet adjust to walking on hard ground; if we grow up wearing shoes, our feet adjust to them. A Paleo faddist who says that we really should go barefoot because cavemen did is ignoring the immense ability of the human body to adjust to conditions.

Secondly, Zuk gives numerous examples of recent genetic changes in the human species, such as the ability of some people to tolerate lactose, and of some people to digest more starch. Both of these adaptations are genetic and have occurred since the beginning of herding and agriculture.

Thirdly, Zuk points out that we cannot really be sure what primordial hunter-gatherer cultures were like. We cannot look at modern hunter-gatherer cultures and assume they are just like our Paleolithic ancestors. While this may be a reasonable assumption for the Hadza of Africa, it is probably not for the natives of the Amazon forest. Apparently only a thousand years ago there was an Amazonian civilization. Although most of the soil in the Amazon basin is very poor, the people of this civilization built up rich soil in some places (terra preta de Indio), and the archaeological remains of their cities are just now being studied. Today’s “uncontacted” tribes may have been refugees from collapsed cities (a collapse perhaps stimulated by smallpox) rather than the pure descendants of hunter-gatherer cultures. Even the San and Hadza have had a long history of contact with agricultural societies, primarily the Bantu tribes, long before European contact.

Of course, at a very basic level, our bodies are adapted to prehistoric conditions. This is undeniable. It is just that we cannot use this as a detailed prescription about how best to live. Instead, awareness of our Paleolithic heritage should lead us to some essential generalizations. Should we run long distances slowly or short distances rapidly? Barefoot or not? What we really need to do, says Zuk, is just to get up off of the couch. What should we eat? Meat or not? Raw or cooked? Clearly we are not adapted to a diet of Twinkies and coke. But perhaps the Paleo prescription that we should follow is the simple prescription from Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Everything All the Time

A few years ago, or was it a few decades ago, Garrison Keillor included the following idea in one of his monologues. The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a season for everything—a time to be born, a time to die, a time to love, a time to hate, etc. Then he pointed out how differently we view things today. There used to be a season for everything: a time for squash, a time for tomatoes, a time for okra, a time for sweet corn. When they were ripe, we ate them, and the rest of the year we looked forward to eating them. You could always can the vegetables and fruit, but eating canned goods only made you look forward even more to the time when fresh produce was available.

But now everything is available all the time. You can have any kind of produce any time of year (except, usually, fresh okra) at the supermarket. It is always spring or summer somewhere, and in these places, western corporations hire poor natives to work in vast pesticide-drenched fields to raise food for us so we can have fresh tomatoes and sweet corn in January. (Well, if you can call those vaguely reddish blobs in the store “tomatoes.”)

This can be very good, of course, but it can have a massive impact on the Earth and on poor people. Large landowners in Mexico and Central America can make more money raising sugarcane for us than food for poor people in their countries. (There is also an epidemic of kidney disease spreading among sugarcane workers that may be associated with their working conditions.) If you wish to read more about how poor laborers are dying to provide us with food, I recommend Angus Wright’s book The Death of Ramón González.

It’s nice to have fresh produce in January. Eating leaf lettuce all year has helped me maintain a healthy weight and enjoy doing so. But it comes with two price tags: first, the economic oppression of the world’s poor; second, the loss of seasonal expectations. Many people keep their homes the same temperature and wear shorts all year, perhaps only vaguely aware that the seasons are changing outside. Instead of winter, budburst, flowering, squash, corn, barbecue, pumpkins, pecans, autumn foliage, and Christmas, some people’s annual cycle seems to consist of Non-Christmas, barbecue, and Christmas. I enjoy bundling up in a chilly house in winter and sitting under a ceiling fan in summer, with just enough heating and cooling to keep my house between about 62 and 85. And I enjoy watching the seasons. I enjoy spring budburst and light green leaves during their brief season. In my world, of which I am sensually aware and in which I rejoice, there is a season for everything. And it is also a world with a lower carbon footprint than I would have if I insisted on everything all the time.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I Dream of Gini

The May 23 issue of Science had several articles about social and economic inequality of people around the world. One way of measuring inequality is the Gini coefficient, in which 0 means that all the people are completely equal and 1 means that they are completely unequal. All of the authors recognized the problems with inequality, whether within or between countries, and whether of income or access to basic necessities or education; they all believed we should have lower the Gini coefficients in all of these measures.

Everyone realizes that we will never have Gini coefficients close to zero, nor should we desire to. I have explained some of the reasons for this in my reviews here and here of Sir (Saint) Thomas More’s sixteenth-century book Utopia. Inequality will always happen in any population or ecological community in the natural world, and among humans some people will always be luckier, or more talented, or both, than others. One article (summary here, full text here in Science even made the claim that inequality is the inevitable outcome of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: there are more ways for people to lose than to win, and entropy produces inequality. And it gets worse. Another article (summary here, full text here) explained how poverty creates a psychological mindset that nearly condemns children in poor families to perpetuate poverty into a new generation.

We are left with the conclusion that Jesus was left with, that there will always be poor people. (Decades ago, in The Fates of Nations, ecologist Paul Colinvaux quoted this Biblical passage as corroboration of the same idea now expressed in Science.) However, this should not leave us powerless. We can address specific problems, such as access to basic health care and education. That is, we can work to keep inequality from becoming dangerous to the people at the bottom. Unfortunately, even this is often an elusive goal.

In all states in the United States, free education is available through grade 12, and most of it is compulsory. It is undeniable that this reduces inequality, though we cannot prove it since there is no control group without basic educational opportunities. But at least in Oklahoma we are undermining public education. The governor has just signed a bill that prevents Oklahoma from adopting the newest set of education standards (CC, or common core, standards) that many other states have adopted and that nearly all are expected to adopt. This puts Oklahoma out of line with other states in terms of the quality of public education.

This might be acceptable if Oklahoma had a process superior to that of the rest of the country in determining the standards of public education—that is, if we could say that the other states are less advanced than we are in knowing what a good education is. But this is not so. The bill signed by the governor specifically allows the state legislature to modify any of the educational standards. The bill states:

"The Legislature may review any rules pertaining to the subject matter standards contained in this act and by concurrent resolution may either amend such rules or return those rules to the rule making authority with  instructions. Nothing in this section shall abrogate any right of the Legislature contained in the Administrative Procedures Act. Should said rules not be approved by the Legislature, the subject matter standards shall remain as before promulgation."

What this means is that state legislators, perhaps in return for campaign contributions from fossil fuel corporations, can determine that global warming is not occurring. In other words, here in Oklahoma, corporate money determines truth. The law opens up a direct pathway for this to happen. You can read all about this at the website of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. Public education that simply reinforces what corporations want people to know will not help eliminate inequality.

It is not just liberal activists who are upset with the new Oklahoma law. As noted by Vic Hutchison, the founder of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education,

“HB3399 was probably the most divisive bill of the legislative session and engendered massive opposition from many groups, including Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), Oklahoma Science Teachers Association (OSTA), Oklahoma Business & Education Coalition (OBEC), Oklahoma PTA, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of Math (OCTM), Stand for Children Oklahoma, United Suburban Schools Association,, State Chamber of Oklahoma, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Collaborative for Student Success, and others.  Two retired Air Force Generals, former commanders at Tinker Air Force Base held a press conference urging Governor Fallin to veto HB3399. Two former Georgia Governors, who supported the development of CC, published a ‘Point of View’ column in The Oklahoman on 4 June (‘Oklahoma should keep education reform effort’).  Numerous messages were sent to the Governor’s office by individuals.”

This bill, therefore, is not just bad for science education but, according to people whose business it is to know, bad for economic growth. My point in this essay is that it will also fail to address inequality. It may lead to Oklahoma high school graduates being less prepared than graduates from other states in the nationwide and worldwide job market.

Higher education (my line of work) also helps to reduce inequality. An article in the same issue of Science indicates that a household led by college grads can expect to earn $40,000 a year more than a household led by high school grads. During recent decades in America, economic inequality has increased; so also has the income gap between high school and college graduates.

Those of us in a line of work—whatever that might be—that helps to reduce inequality can feel good about our efforts, but we should not expect a great amount of support from government or society. A very low Gini coefficient is impossible, dream as much as we want; it appears that even reducing the Gini coefficient a little is also impossible.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Red Queen Laughs

Okay, so my last entry was pretty serious. But economic and social parasitism can sometimes be funny, so long as the intended victims are alert to what is going on and do not suffer from it.

If you want more information about what you and your classes or acquaintances can do to, even in a small way, fight back against tobacco corporations, click here for a PDF of instructions.

I have always been idealistic about science and scientists. Whenever I go to a scientific meeting, I get inspired all over again by the enthusiastic and excellent work done by scientists, whether old professors, young professors, grad students, or undergrads. (The best contributed-paper presentation I ever saw was by an undergrad.) Sometimes you find BS in science, but not often. When I took an ecology course from Joe Connell at Santa Barbara, in 1978, he had us read papers that he claimed were really terrible but got published anyway. Our job as students was to rip them to shreds. Now that I look back on it, I see that the papers were flawed but at least represented a good faith effort by the authors. I remember one of the flaws in a paper by Martin Cody was that he relied on a local fisherman to give him some information about shore birds. We science majors looked down on fishermen. But, I now realize, fishermen may know a lot about nature. The whole citizen-science movement has exploded since those old days of scientific snobbery. Cody may have accepted the fisherman’s testimony a little too readily, but there was nothing unscientific in getting observations from him.

A paper that appeared in Ecological Monographs in the 1980s described the problem of “pseudoreplication,” which is a real pitfall to avoid in research. The author said that too many papers have been published with this kind of error. He described scientific papers as “the coin of the realm” and this coinage needs to have value. He was right and still is. In many universities, the number of peer-reviewed publications is used as one measure of scholarly productivity for hiring, tenure, and promotion purposes.

Since the rise of online publishing—something that was inevitable and can be really good—a whole new kind of problem has arisen that makes pseudoreplication and other statistical errors look totally innocent. I refer to the large number of fake scientific papers. In the old days (I did not say good old days) a fake publisher could be quickly identified and driven out of business, since paper and ink and graphic design and postage are costly. But today it costs hardly anything to set up a “scientific journal” and start issuing online papers. There must be dozens of such journals now on the web. If you pay them, they will publish anything. Joe Connell’s jaw would have dropped at these.

A contributor to the Ottawa Citizen whipped up a fake paper and sent it off to some of these “peer-reviewed” journals. He took half of the title, and half of the material, from geology, and the other half from hematology: the article “Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.” Gotta admit it was creative, especially with the author’s invention of “seismic platelets.” He got several acceptances. A few noticed his plagiarism, but told him to do a little rewording and it could be published.

What’s there to get upset about here? Anyone who hires an applicant or awards a grant to someone whose publications have titles like this has only him or herself to blame. These “peer-reviewed” papers apparently have no peer review, depending on your interpretation of peer. One could interpret “peer” in such a way as to make all of us peers (i.e., micturators). Anyone who is hiring a scientist should give credence only to journals which are known to be reliable, even if not widely read (such as our own Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science and Oklahoma Native Plant Record). You cannot distinguish between real and bogus publishers by asking whether they charge a fee to the author; nearly all journals have “page charges.” Occasionally even the most prestigious journals publish articles that turn out to be hoaxes (such as the work of Woo-suk Hwang) or the work of scientists who jumped to conclusions a little too fast (such as the work of Felisa Wolfe-Simon).

Peer review (in the opinion of any of us who have had papers rejected) is frequently a capricious affair. But at least it is pretty good at catching fakes. I reviewed a paper for American Biology Teacher once that was plagiarized. Lazy plagiarists are often lazy in more than one way. In this case, the author cited articles that were not listed in the references. Fifteen seconds of work on a search engine showed me that the paper was plagiarized straight from the website of a conservation organization. I told the editor to contact the supervisor of the author. Now that I look back on it, I wonder if the paper was generated just to test the internal quality control of the journal review process.

So, go ahead and have a laugh at the articles published by bogus journals; and if you believe them, joke’s on you.

On a related note, I’m thinking about starting a journal called Zeitschrift für Recherches en las Ciencias Naturalistas. I only charge $10,000 per article. If you are interested in publishing there, let me know, and remember I’m a peer.

Thanks to my wife Lee who found this article link through the American Library Association. This post first appeared in the blog of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Red Queen Strikes

Lewis Carroll’s Alice encountered the Red Queen, who had to keep running just to stay in place as the world around her kept moving. Many evolutionary biologists, starting with Leigh Van Valen, used this imagery to describe how populations have to keep evolving just to stay where they are. The reason is that their biological environments keep changing. So if you can imagine a population of animals perfectly adapted to their physical environment, they must keep evolving new defenses against parasites. The parasites, being primarily small organisms with rapid life cycles, can evolve faster than most of their hosts. Confirmation has come from the fact that populations of animals such as snails that encounter more parasites are more likely to have sexual reproduction than populations with fewer parasites, which might reproduce without sexual recombination.

We live in a social environment with its own, and rapidly accelerating, version of the Red Queen. We are constantly evolving (by memes, not genes) new technologies that allow faster information transfer and processing, better medicine, etc. But even if we choose to remain in place—if we decide that what we have is good enough—we cannot do so, because our social environment is full of rapidly evolving parasites. Parasites in cyberspace continually evolve new ways to steal our personal information. Even corporations that consider themselves legitimate are always coming up with new plasmids in the fine print that allow them to charge us extra fees, or new designs that promote built-in obsolescence, or new attractions that make us think that we want their products when, honestly, we do not. You want to buy whole wheat bread because it is healthier? Better check to see just how much whole wheat is in it; the dark color may mostly be caramel. You have to be careful when you run your free AVG virus-check on your computer, because it will automatically sign you up for “protection” that is not free unless you take the initiative to uncheck the box. An anti-virus virus, as it were. You have to be careful when you go to a medical provider. No matter how small your problem, the provider may try to prescribe for you an expensive course of therapy.

Our economy is a jungle of parasitic perils. We have to watch every transaction, every account, all the time to catch entities that accidentally-on-purpose take money from us. Durant City Utilities charged me an extra $100 for water I did not use. I pay these utilities by automatic debit, and had I not scrutinized every transaction, I might never have caught their error, an error they admitted once I pointed it out to them. No matter what I do or don’t do, no matter how much stasis I may choose in my life, the economic environment is coming up with new ways to parasitize me. And you. No wonder it’s hard to get work done; we have to spend our time being paranoid about economic parasites. It’s sort of like a war.

What can we do, not just to protect ourselves but to go to war against the threats we face? I suggest we take stock of our strengths and opportunities, and use them. You may have more power than you realize. One thing we can do is to write letters to corporations and tell them that we know what they are doing to victimize us. In some cases, we can make them take notice. When I sent a nasty note to AIG, back when they were getting government bailout money while paying millions of dollars to their executives, they undoubtedly ignored it. But if I write a letter to a tobacco corporation saying that I teach hundreds of students not only about the dangers of tobacco but also about the illegal tactics that these corporations use (including their 1994 perjury to a House committee), they might take notice. They might take even more notice if I share contact information with my students so they can write letters too. Better yet, I can offer extra credit to the students. Or I can write and encourage others to write to sugar corporations about their deceptive marketing of a product that is dangerous in the excessive uses that they promote. We can, you see, go to war with them in the marketplace of ideas and consumer spending.

The marketplace is also filled with a cultural version of mindless parasites. The “people” with whom you interact may not even be people. When I first opened a Twitter account, I immediately had two followers whom I did not know, who had female names but no bios, and photos without faces (just alluring body parts). They soon disappeared. They were probably “bots” rather than actual people. And every writer has probably had some version of the experience I am about to relate. I sent a query letter to an agency listed in Writers Digest, but which had no website. I got a response back from what sounded like a personable agent saying, your project sounds interesting, send us the first couple of chapters. I emailed back, requesting further information about the agency. In response, I got exactly the same email as before. It appears, based on the online comments of other authors, that this agency is just a front for a law firm that thinks authors will pay them to represent their work to editors whom the author must contact. I wonder how many “literary agents” actually do not exist.

It would be nice if we could leave our parasites behind the way rotifers do, by just drying up and blowing away in the wind, leaving our fungi behind. But for us to survive in a Red Queen world of corporate parasites, we need to be constantly vigilant (trying not to slip into paranoia). We also need to fight back.