Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Natural Superiority of Women

I have never actually read the book by this title, edited by the famous twentieth-century sociologist Ashley Montagu, but I am going to attempt an evolutionary scientific defense of an idea that may not have even been widely circulating when Montagu published his volume. And that is: neoteny.

Neoteny, broadly defined, is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. We have all noticed that juvenile animals differ from adult animals in consistent and very noticeable ways. Juvenile animals have big heads and big eyes and are generally smoother than adult animals. While it is difficult to define an exact list of neotenous characteristics, we all know them: the way puppies and kittens and children are different from dogs, cats, and adult humans.

These are precisely the ways in which humans differ from the other apes. Human and chimp babies look more alike than human and chimp adults. As humans grow, our heads (and brains) continue to grow for a much longer time than is the case in chimps. Baby chimps even have relatively flat faces, like humans, rather than the sloping faces of adult chimps. Baby chimps are pretty hairy, like adult chimps, but the relative hairlessness of humans (in which we have as many hairs as chimps, but many of them do not develop) can be considered not just a neotenous but a fetal characteristic that we maintain into adulthood. In addition to this, adult humans usually retain into adulthood the juvenile playfulness and creativity of children. We humans consider ourselves superior to chimps because of our neotenous characteristics.

And these are also some of the ways in which women differ from men. While it cannot easily be demonstrated that women have bigger brains (relative to body size) or are more creative than men, they have many juvenile characteristics such as relative hairlessness and smoothness. The smoothness comes from having more subcutaneous fat than men. Because women make a bigger physical investment into each child than do men, women think more about the future prosperity of their children than do men. Because of this, I believe, women are more likely to find peaceful and constructive solutions to problems than are men, whose first reaction is often violence. I think the world would be a more peaceful and a fairer place if it were run by women.

There are, of course, exceptions, and I am making only a generalization from my own biased point of view. My experiences have convinced me that, in general, women are superior to men. Matter of fact, I don’t see what women see in men. But I’m glad you like us men. To my male friends, I merely say that I’m not referring to you personally.

Yes, women are babes, and that’s why they are superior. Women are superior to men for some of the same reasons that humans are superior to chimps. I am defining superior, of course, from a human-centered viewpoint; all of you crawdads out there, and Klingons, forgive me, but the human viewpoint is the only one I can have.

Someone asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg how many women are enough in the Supreme Court. She said nine. She then explained that when the Court consisted of nine men, nobody thought it strange, but a nine-woman Supreme Court would raise at least a little bit of consternation. Nevertheless, I think that we need to have more input from women in governing our countries and our corporations (and our universities).

It can work. I am a member of the Cherokee tribe, and our traditional government (before about 1800) had women as well as men in leadership councils. Of course women made important decisions in times of peace, but there were a few women, such as my sixth great grandmother Nanyehi, who made important contributions in times of war also. When Attakullakulla, Nanyehi’s uncle, visited England in 1830, he met with the King and Parliament. One of his reactions was, where are the women? How can you ignore the input of half of the population? He might have been more pleased had he met Queen Elizabeth I, but the all-male Parliament would still not have met with his approval. I am squarely with Attakullakulla, and with Nanyehi, on this one. Of course, eventually the Cherokee tribe was vanquished. About 1829, just before being dispossessed from its homeland, the Cherokee tribe adopted a white style of government, modeled after the United States, including restriction of suffrage and offices to men. So the pre-1800 woman-intensive Cherokee system did not work? The only reason it did not work is that the white people—that is, white men—had more guns.

Back in the 1970s, a pollster asked schoolchildren who the worst man and worst woman in history had been. The most common responses were Adolf Hitler and Anita Bryant. You kidding me? In case you don’t remember Anita Bryant, she got to be famous for making anti-gay statements. I am not here to attack or defend Anita Bryant (she is certainly no Hitler); but if she is the worst woman the kids could think of in all of history, that tells you something about the differences between men and women. Islamist jihadists are mostly men, plus some women who have been practically brainwashed by men.

Another famous Cherokee, Will Rogers, said he never met a man he didn’t like. Well, I could introduce him to a few. And a few women, too. But I have truly liked and admired nearly all of the women I have ever met, and most, but not nearly as many, of the men.

Here’s to women! May it be a good year for you!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Evolution of Imagination

One of the things that humans have more than any other animal, we think, is the ability to imagine. That is, while our brains are continually processing an ongoing stream of information from the real world, we are able to carry out a parallel process: to generate an imagined world with its own series of events. Eventually our ability to imagine a parallel world gave rise to art, music, and literature, first oral and then written. When I am writing, I feel as if I am in a heavenly realm. Creativity and imagination feel like supernatural gifts.

But, as with so many other human capacities, imagination probably had an extremely practical and immediate function when it first evolved. The people who were most successful in the game of both biological and cultural evolution were those who were ready for whatever happened: very little caught them by surprise, and they always had a backup plan to deal with events. And the only way to accomplish these two things was through imagination.

In primitive society, and today, you  could not and cannot assume that everyone who is acting nice really is nice. They might be concealing an imminent attack upon you. You may not have much of a factual basis for suspecting them of this, so you cannot actually do anything about it. But your imagination will give you an early warning of it, should it happen. Furthermore, you will already have a script worked out in your head about how to handle the attack, should it occur. And as a result, you can probably handle it more calmly, rather than being outraged by shock.

There is very little cost to using your imagination in this way. Of course you cannot imagine every possible attack, but you can imagine many. If you spend too much time imagining things that people might do to you, you will be bogged down in paranoia, sort of like a computer that is using most of its working memory for virus checks. As with anything else you do, maintaining a suspicious imagination is a matter of moderation. If it subtracts from your happiness, you are doing it too much. If you imagine the same scenario over and over (as I sometimes do, against my own better judgment), you are doing it too much.

A lot of fiction serves the function of anticipating possible difficulties before they actually happen. The “nightmare future” stories and novels, especially those that depict a future that is just a little different from the present, help us to be less surprised at the actions of powerful evil people, and maybe take preventive measures. Nightmare future novels can be very grim, but a good writer can use humor in a way to make you think without making you depressed. That is, imagining hopeless scenarios can be very unhealthy.

The main conclusion of the 9-11 Commission, which investigated the September 11, 2001 attacks, was that we had a failure of the imagination. We simply did not use our imaginations enough to conceive of someone using a hijacked jet as a weapon. This is what can happen if we do not imagine the perils of the future.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Another trove of fossils in Oklahoma

Creationists have to close their eyes very, very tightly and keep saying “Na na na I can’t hear you” when they encounter evidence, which surrounds them, of evolution. One of the places of which this is most true is Oklahoma. Oklahoma has lots of fossils that demonstrate the old age of the Earth, and is also one of the hotbeds of creationism. Oklahoma creationists are, therefore, some of the people who are most skillful at selectively ignoring whatever they do not want to see.

Yesterday I took a hike with Nature Conservancy members at Nickel Preserve, near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. If you do not know about this wonderful organization, please follow the link provided. We climbed a very steep slope with loose soil to some limestone bluffs, from which we could look out over the bottomland flats and the forested hills. I felt like one of my Cherokee ancestors (Tahlequah has been the capital of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma since 1839) who thought nothing of running up and down hills in search of game. Near the bluffs, but not elsewhere in the forest, there were lots of sugar maples, which are abundant in the eastern deciduous forests but in Oklahoma are mainly found near cliffs.

Certain layers of the limestone had crinoid fossils. Crinoids are echinoderms (related to starfish) that like inside of limestone stalks that they create. The stalks look superficially like a stack of coins.

Some of the limestone layers were crammed with the fossils.

But other layers were not. In this photo, you can see that the crinoid fossils are restricted to one narrow layer.

There were just a few lampshell fossils:

The reason that some layers had lots of fossils and others did not was probably that the fossiliferous layers are remnants of shallow water environments, while the other layers are remnants of sediments deposited farther from shore. Shallow water, permeated by sunlight, often has more and larger sessile organisms, because there is more food at the base of the food chain, than in deeper, darker waters. These limestone layers are a record of changes in sea level over the course of many thousands of years. The reason that the fossil deposits are almost entirely crinoids in this location, and almost entirely mollusks in other locations, in Oklahoma, may be due to the advantage of numbers. Once crinoids are abundant, their massive reproduction keeps mollusks from literally being able to gain a foothold; and vice versa. This is one reason why crinoids and nearly every other kind of sessile invertebrate are rare today in mussel beds.

The point is that these fossils could not possibly represent the random sloshings of Noachian flood waters. If all of these layers were deposited during a single Flood of Noah, why do some layers have fossils and others do not, and why are the fossils not a random selection of animals that lived on the Earth the day that Noah went into the Ark and closed the door? Creationists have no explanation whatsoever for why the Flood waters would have sorted out fossils into an evolutionary order.

A cache is where you hide a lot of things (from French cacher, to hide); a trove is where you find a lot of things (from French trouver, to find). The crinoid cliffs northeast of Tahlequah, Oklahoma is definitely a trove of evidence, one which tells us about the past history of the Earth.

Friday, December 11, 2015

New Video

Find out why on YouTube Darwin's favorite magazine is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report! What you don't know about evolution can kill you!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Was Moses a Scientist?

Turn the clock back to 1976. I was a creationist student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Our little creationist group, at that time called Creation Society of Santa Barbara (later Students for Origins Research) had organized a debate, which, as it happened drew a crowd that nearly filled Campbell Hall, the major event center at the university. On the creationist side were Henry Morris and Duane Gish, both now deceased, and who remain the iconic figures of modern young-earth creationism. On the evolution side were geologist Preston Cloud and cellular biologist (later a scholar of Judaism) Aharon Gibor, both on the UCSB faculty.

It is nearly impossible for any such debate to yield any insights. First of all, it converts a continuum of belief into two armed camps. The creationist side considers itself the sole representative of religious belief; therefore, if there is anything that evolution cannot explain, it proves that their 6000-year version of Earth history must be right.  Furthermore, in such a debate, a creationist can make a large number of wrong statements, which an evolutionist could not possibly set right in an equivalent amount of time. Would Darwin debate? The guy who pretends to be Darwin says, no way!

The 1976 UCSB debate was no exception. Of course, I thought the creationist side won. But I remember a couple of statements Aharon Gibor made which, in retrospect, I understand to be very wise. One statement was that there are hundreds of creation accounts in the world; which one are we supposed to believe? (Maybe the Yoruba one, which I described in the previous post?) Debunking evolution does not lead straight to fundamentalist Christian creationism.

But his second statement really made me think, even at the time, when I was not in a habit of really thinking about this issue. He said that Moses was a sort of ancient society’s version of a scientist. When he saw the burning bush, he turned aside to see what it was. He did not simply assume what it was, but wanted to investigate. This is what science is about. Of course, Moses was a very religious man. But religious people can be inquisitive and seek data to test their beliefs. This describes many religious people today, but does not describe fundamentalists.

Just this morning I received a term paper in my Evolution course. I quickly determined that it was plagiarized. I have, in my nine years of teaching evolution, received two creationist term papers; both were plagiarized. The first one, from a Christian fundamentalist student, was bought from a term paper website for $15.95. The second one, which I just received, was reworded from the website of the Muslim creationist website run by the flamboyant Adnan Oktar, who goes by Harun Yahya. On this paper I noted that it was OK to disagree with me but not to plagiarize.

I conclude from these experiences that creationists do not reach their conclusions by investigating the world but by repeating what their leaders say. This is as true for Muslim creationists as for Christian ones. For those of you who are religious, might I pass on Aharon Gibor’s suggestion: be like Moses, and turn aside to see the evidence before you proclaim your conclusions.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Creation Story from the Yoruba People

When I teach evolution, I have a brief section about evolution and creation. It is a science course and I do not spend a lot of time on this. One of the things I do in this course is to introduce the students to versions of creation from outside Christianity, such as the new Native American creationism espoused by Vine Deloria Jr. and the Muslim creationism of Harun Yahya. But this semester, I had two students from Africa. One of them told me about the creation stories of her people, the Yoruba. I would like to present the account that she gave to us, the ÌTÀN ÌSÈDÁ ÃYÉ.

“In the beginning of the world, there was nothing except a ball of water. And Olódùmãrè (the Almighty) sent Õdùduwà to Òbìrí Ãyé (the round Earth) to plant the earth. Õdùduwà left heaven with a horn full of sand and a chicken. He poured (planted) the sand on the surface of water, so that he can step on a ground. He then placed the chicken on the ground. The chicken helped spread the sand all over. The areas where the chicken was able to reach are the land we have today. Õdùduwà saw to it that the surface of the earth was covered part land and water so that there is a form. And several years passed by………………..

“Meanwhile, Sokoti (the blacksmith of heaven) has been assigned to mold every form of creature he could imagine to fill the formed earth. Sokoti used his artistic ability to mold different kinds of creatures with different colors and skins. Unfortunately, Sokoti was a drunkard. This made it hard for him to get his job done right. One day in his drunken state, he molded different forms of creatures and sent them to earth without a quality test of assurance. These creatures were the monkeys, baboons, chimps, and gorillas.

“On one of his sober days, Sokoti framed out a fine creature and made different forms it in various colors and diversity with sand, clay, and mud. Some he fashioned them with large breasts, and left some bare. He created them such that they were like a puzzle that could fit into each other. These creatures were the most perfect of all he had made. He sent them into the world and they were called Eniyan (humans).

“After few years, there was conflict between the apes and humans. They couldn’t live together in harmony. The apes were rejected and ignored by humans. They decided to end this conflict by consulting with each other. They chose a representative who will go to Olódùmãrè on their behalf. Olódùmãrè gave instructions that they should congregate at the mountain in three days time, where he would prepare a potion of oil in a giant basin. They are to rub their skin with this oil to become human. The apes were so excited that they drank, danced and forgot what day it was. By the time they remembered, the oil had almost dried up. They managed to rub their faces, hands, and feet with the remaining oil but it wasn’t enough. Some rub their butts and chests against the basin, but still not enough. This is why apes have faces, hands, butts, and feet that are almost bare.”

This story illustrates two things. First, it shows that there are many creation accounts. Christian creationists assume that disproving evolution would prove their version of Christianity. Second, it shows how a supposed harmony between creation and evolution can be forced, no matter what kind of creationism it is. It can be Christian creationism, as when generations of religious scientists have tried to harmonize Genesis and geology. But it can also be done with the Yoruba account. As my student explained, the primordial Earth was mostly water (the continents arose later); this is the Òbìrí Ãyé of the legend. The adiye chicken could have been a tyrannosaur or an archaeopteryx. It took time for Sokoti to perfect the design of the human, just as it took evolution a long time to produce us. Sokoti used different materials, such as sand or clay, of different textures and colors to produce different species, and different human races, just as evolution has produced diversity. And Sokoti, like sexual selection, produced genders of humans who fit together like puzzle pieces. See? The Yoruba legend fits together with modern science!

Attempts to reconcile religion and science, from Augustine to Francis Collins in the western world, and all over the world, is an exercise in creativity rather than a discovery of truth.

I appreciate the contribution that my student made to our class, and I think no one in the class (except the other Yoruba student) had experienced anything like it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bible Faith and Bible Understanding

This fall, I administered a questionnaire (as per guidelines of our Institutional Research Board) to my classes. I have tabulated the results from my evolution class. I work at a small regional university in the jewel at the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt. This year, I kept two groups of questionnaires separate: those who accept the Bible as a, or the, holy book, and those who do not.

You probably expect that the class had a lot of creationists. But, when you think about it, you realize that this is unlikely to be the case, since the class is an elective and creationists tend to stay away from it. Even within this class, I have noticed that one student who expressed a distaste for the subject (maybe he thought it would be an easy A) signs his name on the attendance sheet and leaves (and seems to think I don’t notice). Not only does this suggest that he does not want to deal with the evidence, but he is being dishonest by taking credit for attending a class when he was not there after the first minute. On the other hand, I have had some very smart and honest creationists in the class over the years. Still, one should not be surprised at the makeup of the class. Of those who accept the Bible as holy, about 75 percent are theistic evolutionists (who believe God created the world through the process of evolution). Only one respondent identified him or herself as a young-earth creationist. Of the non-believers, three of five said evolution was responsible for the world being the way it is. My class is hardly polarized at the extremes; most people are somewhere in the middle.

First, those who consider the Bible to be a, or the, holy text. Eighty-two percent said that they know a lot about the Bible, and 45 percent said they had read the entire Bible at least once. Sounds like these people should know their religion, at least. However, they did not do so well on the general questions about Biblical knowledge. These questions included:

  • Who David was, or who Abram was
  • How many tribes of Israel there were, or how many plagues of Egypt there were
  • About how many books are in the Bible
  • That the prophets of the Old Testament called for the rich to stop oppressing the poor
  • That the Old Testament prohibits eating shellfish

I also included, in the general Bible questions, a couple that should have been very easy to answer: about whether the Catholic and Protestant Bibles have the same books, and whether the Bible was originally written in English. This last questions sounds really strange, and in fact all respondents knew the Bible was not originally written in English, but there is a church right outside of town that considers the King James Bible to be the inspired Bible—not the earlier versions.

I also asked some specific questions that are very interesting and relevant to modern issues.

  • The Old Testament commands agricultural land be left fallow every seven years, a practice known as the “Sabbath of the fields.” That is, the Old Testament commands sustainable agriculture.
  • The Old Testament commands that all debts be forgiven and all land returned to its original owners every fifty years (a practice known as Jubilee). If this command were really carried out, it would mean the collapse of the capitalist system. Can you imagine Bank of America doing this? Not only will they not forgive debts, but they make sneaky policy changes to trick customers into having even more debt. Thanks, Moses.
  • The Old Testament permitted slavery and it actually says, regarding the slave-owner, “The slave is his money.” Guess what: the Confederates (who still fly their flags proudly in Oklahoma) believed that black slaves were not people, but property. Thanks, Abraham Lincoln.
  • Most religious people consider abortion to be murder. Inconveniently, the Old Testament says that if a man injures a woman such that it causes a miscarriage, this is not treated as a murder but as what we would call a misdemeanor, requiring monetary restitution.
  • The Old Testament specifies certain rights that foreigners residing within Israel have; it does not prohibit foreigners from living in Israel.

Second, the students who do not consider the Bible to be a holy text. Two-thirds of them said they know a lot about the Bible. And 38 percent of them said they had read the Bible at least once. Some of these, at least, were raised in a religious tradition and then left it.

This chart summarizes the differences between the Bible-believers and the non-believers, first in terms of general knowledge then knowledge of the specific questions.

Percent correct responses

General knowledge: mean
General knowledge: range
Sabbath of the fields
OT permits slavery
Killing a fetus is not murder
OT does not prohibit aliens

These results indicate that (if these students represent the general population) the non-believers know just as much about the Bible as the believers do. In fact, when it comes to Bible passages that are relevant to modern issues such as agriculture, economics, slavery, abortion, and refugees, the non-believers know more about the Bible than the believers do, sometimes by a wide margin.

The tentative conclusions I draw are the following:

  • Believers believe the Bible but are no more likely to know what it says than non-believers, in terms of general Biblical knowledge that is not directly relevant to modern issues.
  • Believers know less than non-believers about those parts of the Bible that address modern issues. This may be because their preachers actually feed them misinformation, proclaiming that the Bible champions capitalism and prohibits aliens from living in God’s land (which many of them consider to be the United States). That is, I suspect that preachers have actively led their followers to believe more wrong things about the Bible than do non-believers. Conversely, non-believers are more likely to know things about the Bible that are embarrassing to modern believers.

My main recommendation, from these responses, is this. If you base your political and scientific opinions upon the Bible, you should read it first.

Friday, November 27, 2015

National Buy-Nothing Day

The human species would not have survived without the instinct of acquisition. We are all descendants of people who got what they needed—alas, often at the expense of other people. But we also have an instinct of contentment, of being able to be satisfied with what we have, to be happy even if we do not have everything that we might want. Imagine Paiute Natives in the Mojave Desert in pre-Columbian times, living in a manner that was beyond frugal, just barely surviving. But the most successful Paiutes, with greatest evolutionary fitness, were those who felt that the land was beautiful and who loved their lives. They were the ones who did not give up, they were the survivors. It may not have occurred to them to spend time thinking about a Big Rock Candy Mountain with all of the things they could not have.

Modern civilization has given us conditions in which the ability to be satisfied with what we have has nearly been strangled. We want everything not just because we want everything but because other people will look down on us if we don’t have everything. Gone is the “Desiderata” of “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” to be replaced with “Buy things you don’t want with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.” We all know this.

A writer named Colin Beavan decided to live for a year in a way that would produce no net impact upon carbon emissions. He describes his experience in his book No Impact Man. He found it was very difficult to have no impact, but quite easy to have less impact, on Earth’s resources. And he discovered, as have thousands of people who have sought a simpler and more spiritual life, that he was perfectly happy without many of the things that he had previously considered essential. He discovered that part of the reason we think that we need mountains of stuff is that advertisers, through every medium and all day, tell us that we need the stuff. In Beavan’s words, a summary of every advertisement would read, “You suck, but if you buy our product you won’t. Then everybody will love you.”

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the traditional beginning of the Christmas season, which has for modern society become a time of unrelenting advertisement. As Dave Barry said, “Once again, we come to the holiday season: a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”

Black Friday is a time when, just one day after giving thanks for what we already have, we are willing to claw over the bodies of other people in order to buy what we do not have.

Please join me in National Buy-Nothing Day. Consuming less (and on some days buying nothing) is the only thing that will free us from the overuse of energy which is bringing on global warming. No amount of energy efficiency can compensate for the simple fact that we use too much of everything.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What is Faith?

Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a science essay. But I assure you it does fit in with science. I want to share a story that I heard on Krista Tippett’s On Being, an NPR show, on September 24 of this year. I retell this story from memory, since I do not have time to listen to the whole podcast over again, but you can hear it at this link.

Dr. Guy Consolmagno is the current Vatican Astronomer, at the Vatican Observatory, and Dr. George Coyne is the recently retired astronomer. Now, whoa. You may not have known there even was a Vatican Observatory. Wasn’t this the church that condemned Galileo for believing the Earth was not the center of the universe, and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake? Well, it took a while for the Vatican to catch up with science, but in 1891 Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory. (Now you know what the URL suffix “.va” stands for.) Instead of resisting science, the Catholic church decided to pursue it.

Dr. Coyne told a story of speaking at a convention of astronomers one time. He was wearing his priestly vestments. Then someone in the audience asked him, “Father,” not Dr. Coyne or George, “What does it feel like to go to work each day with the realization that you already know all of the answers?” Coyne’s response was swift and sure. He tore off his robe (I assume he was clothed underneath, and not in Mormon magical undergarments) and let everyone know that faith is not about knowing the answers, but about the assurance that the universe can be, as each day and year passes, better and better understood: our efforts at research will be rewarded. Even if we never understand it fully.

That is a way of describing the fundamental faith that all scientists have. And it is a leap of faith: there is no logical reason to believe that our brains, which evolved to maximize the fitness of genes and individuals, should have any way of understanding the universe. We evolved intelligence because it gave us a better ability to survive and to form associations with or to dominate other human beings. It evolved as a tool for evolutionary success, in the pursuit of which rationalization was just as good as reason. What our minds tell us need not be true, except in the matter of telling us where the edge of the cliff, or the next meal, is; it can be total fantasy, and natural selection favors it, so long as it allows us to form associations and to dominate others. I consider it an astonishing thing that our brains just happen to be suited for understanding the universe also. Even though very few people can actually understand dark energy or superstrings, at least we can understand the reasoning.

Keep the faith, brethren. We can understand the world, despite the political and religious and economic forces of hatred and unreason that try to keep us from doing so.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

The 104th  Annual Technical Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences has just concluded, and with it my term as president. I am now the Immediate Past President. The president for 2016-2017 will be Terry Conley, a dean at Cameron University. The new president elect, who will become president in 2018, is Adam Ryburn of Oklahoma City University. During Adam’s term I will devolve from being Immediate Past President to being Le Président Ancienne, and then after that I will be Le Président Vieux.

The OAS Technical meetings are an excellent venue to connect with our fellow scientists from around the state. It is also an excellent place for students to present their first research results in a non-threatening environment. Our passion at OAS is to nurture an ongoing culture of science in Oklahoma.

But I need to comment on a student presentation in the Science Communication and Education section. The two students, from Oral Roberts University, gave a presentation that was clearly not research. It was a scripted presentation that was very similar to one given by the science dean at ORU (who was a co-author on this presentation) back in 2012, only this time it was incomprehensible. Perhaps this was because it was redacted from a longer version. But unlike the dean’s presentation back in 2012, this presentation had sock puppets. Well, a PowerPoint slide of sock puppets.

The sock puppets told us that there is an “invisible hand” behind everything in the universe. Evidence? None was presented. Perhaps the sock puppets, and their friend the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster, are all the evidence you need.

Next, without visible connection to what had come before, the presenters claimed that engineering can come to the rescue to help solve the alienation between social sciences and natural sciences (and they showed a cartoon to this effect). Once again, they did not explain how engineering was supposed to do this.

Then they claimed that the cosmos was obviously designed. Evidence? The evidence was that water says “drink me” and woman says “love me.” (No, really. You can’t make something like this up.) So it was obvious to the presenters, and they assumed it should also be to us, that the purpose of water is to be drunk by humans and maybe other animals. Presumably evaporative cooling of animals and leaves, and erosion of sediments, are not part of water’s purpose. And, of course, the purpose of a woman is to be loved. Does this refer to carnal love by a man? If they were referring to spiritual love, they would have said people say “love me.” But the statement (which they were quoting from a book I had never heard of) gave it a specific gender. Maybe this is not what they meant, but they (and whoever wrote the script) were incredibly naïve to think that their listeners would not make the inference of carnal love (presumably within holy matrimony).

Then they explained the part of the presentation that, in the interest of time, they had to omit. In their presentations to audiences, they present the evidence for evolution and the evidence against evolution and allow the listeners to choose. As anyone who has read this blog or any legitimate books about “creation vs. evolution” must know, it is dishonest to polarize all viewpoints into these two extremes.

But it gets worse. If the presenters were deeply convinced that evolution is utterly evil and creationism utterly true, as appeared to be the case, then they could not possibly present an unbiased assessment of evolution, any more than an atheist can present an unbiased assessment of religion. I could only imagine that they presented something such as “Evolution says that you get ahead by using and subduing other people, survival of the fittest, red in tooth and claw, while creation says you should love other people.” What is a person to think when offered such a choice? If that really is what evolution is about, even I would reject it. (Interestingly, this was merely hours before the Paris terrorist attacks, for which ISIS took credit, and carried out in the name of religion.) I brought this point up during the brief question/answer period afterward. (There was no time for questions, but I was the next presenter and gave up some of my own time for it.) All the students said was that they really tried to present a fair version of evolution.

The presenters also indicated, as nearly as I could understand, that the funding they had received required some kind of assessment at how effective their presentation had been. They presented the results of audience feedback from previous presentations. The audiences had overwhelmingly liked their presentation.

Now, suppose that they had, at this time, conducted a survey of their presentation with our group. They did not, but had they done so, they might have gotten a more positive response than they might otherwise have simply because they told us that previous audiences had liked it. This is almost a textbook definition of bias. That would be like me telling my students, before semester evaluations, “All my other classes for the last 17 years have loved me,” implying, “so if you don’t there’s something wrong with you.” (I don’t do this.)

I asked the presenters who the audiences were who gave them their positive evaluations. They claimed they had given presentations at two previous scientific meetings, and that the other presentations had been to church groups and Bible studies. To me this indicated that the vast majority of their sample was from carefully-selected religious groups. I very much doubt they gave their presentation to any Unitarians, or to mainline denominations (including the twenty-first century Catholic Church) which have, for the most part, made their peace with evolutionary science. If they separated out their presentations to science meetings from the others, would the results have been so positive? Well, I can tell you that if I were them and the feedback from scientists had been positive, I would certainly have said so, and with pride. I doubt that they held this information back due to modesty.

This project was sponsored by Biologos, which claims to defend an evolutionary interpretation of God’s creation. Unlike organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Biologos does not appear to be simply a front for Intelligent Design, which is by no stretch of the imagination evolutionary. ID (as it is known) is top-down, in which a Great Engineer in the Sky designed the world, while evolution is bottom-up. However, Oral Roberts University apparently convinced Biologos to give them a grant in order to promote ID. I very much doubt that Biologos likes the creation/evolution polarization that ORU appears to promote. This presentation would have been better if it were merely old-fashioned ID. As it was, it was merely confusing.

My presentation, following theirs, was about Lee Smolin’s idea of fecund universes, that is, the natural selection of universes. I have written about this previously. I think it offers a truly clever example of natural selection at work on things other than organisms. Ideas, music, technologies (in general, memes) evolve, and do so by natural selection. Computer programmers often use evolutionary computing to design things from the bottom up rather than the top down. Why not universes? The difference between my presentation and the one preceding it was that I admitted there was no evidence, since this universe (sample size = 1) is the only one we know about. The ID proponents never admit that there is no evidence for their beliefs.

OAS encourages student research. But the ORU presentation sounded very much like student indoctrination, the recital of a script that sounded suspiciously like what the ORU science dean had presented before, than research. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New video

See my latest Darwin video. A Tale of Two Gavels: one from an Academy of Science, and one from the KKK. Science can help us overcome racism.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nanyehi: The Continued Evolution

It has been two years since I first saw the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is based on the story of the last Cherokee ghigau, Nanyehi (also known as Nancy Ward). She lived from about 1738 to about 1822. I have a particular interest in this woman because she was my sixth great grandmother. Nanyehi was caught between the worlds of Europeans and Cherokees, and between peace and war. She was a war heroine who, all of her life, led the way to peace. Of course, for the Cherokees, neither the path of war nor of peace ultimately worked; both paths led to the United States conquering the Cherokee. We remain a conquered nation today.

The first set of performances was supported by the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in Hartwell, Georgia in 2012. The second set was sponsored by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in Tahlequah in 2013. This was where I first saw it. There were other performances in 2014: in Tulsa, Oklahoma (I saw this one), and Kingsport, Tennessee. The fifth set of performances has just ended in Tulsa, where I saw it last night.

In 2013, I wrote rapturously about this musical in this blog. After seeing it three times my opinion remains unchanged. Each time it is performed (with Michelle Honaker as Nanyehi and Travis Fite as Tsiyu Gansini) it gets better and better in every way. Becky and Nick have added a couple of new musical pieces since the first performance, which are among the best: “Love Doesn’t Come in Colors” and “War or Peace.” These pieces focus on some of the most important themes: the warrior Tsiyu Gansini is displeased with his peaceful cousin Nanyehi marrying a white man (Bryant Ward, my sixth great grandfather) or with her championing of the way of peace. You can find all information about this musical, including the stories and lyrics of all the pieces, at the website.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the evolution of this musical is that it has already become a classic.  There are already famous lines from it, such as when peace chief Attakullakulla says that “Cherokee women have always done and will always do whatever they want.” But most of all it has become a new tribal tradition. In its first performances, it needed support from the tribe; the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma paid for every Cherokee citizen who wanted to attend the 2013 Tahlequah performance. But last night the performance hall at the Cherokee Casino was totally filled. And what was the most common thing that I heard people talking about after the performance? The most common words were “Aren’t you glad you came?” and “Wasn’t that good?” and “See you again next year right here.”

The story of Nanyehi is only sparsely documented in books. Search for “Nancy Ward” on Amazon and you find only old books or children’s books or chapters within other books. I believe it is time that someone write a really good popular book about this astonishing woman who was important not only in Cherokee but in American history. Actually, I have a manuscript that I hope to market very soon. The words at the end of the theme song of the musical are “You will be heard!” but most people have never heard of Nancy Ward. I hope that my future writing, and the continued success of Becky and Nick’s musical, will fix this problem.

The issues faced by Nancy Ward and her warrior cousin are still with us today. Does war lead to peace, as Tsiyu Gansini said, or must we pursue peace as our primary goal, as Nanyehi said? This exact same story is going on in the Middle East today.

Another important aspect of the story of Nancy Ward is what some writers have called the sacred feminine. Civilization and organized religion have enforced male domination and crushed women into a subservient role. For example…well, look at all of recorded history. And look at the world today. But in many tribal societies, including the Cherokees, women often had important positions of leadership. As ghigau, Nanyehi could decide the fates of war captives. Primitive Christianity, when the church first started, was dismissed by outsiders as a religion for women and slaves. But eventually women lost their power: the church became entirely patriarchal, and in the early nineteenth century the Cherokee Nation reorganized itself to imitate American governance. Once the Cherokee Nation had a constitution, beginning in New Echota in 1827 (now in Georgia), only men could vote or hold office. The sacred feminine of nurture and peace was lost in the Cherokees just as in almost all other tribes, nations, and institutions. In a world that is still largely patriarchal, Nanyehi (Nancy Ward) remains a heroine worthy of our admiration. She was not perfect, but who was?

You don’t have to be Cherokee to be totally swept away by the story of Nancy Ward. If any of you ever get the chance to see the musical, don’t miss it! Hey you people in California, get on a plane and come back here next year to see it! Watch for information on the website. It just might restore a little faith that humanity has some goodness left in it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Human Nature in the Bible and in Lucretius

It is interesting that the pagan philosopher Lucretius, a Roman living in the early Christian era, had a better understanding of human nature than did any of the writers of the Bible. Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, usually translated On the Nature of Things, although I sometimes wonder if a better translation might not be On the Backside of Nature. Ha. It is a long poem about what Lucretius thought was everything. All about matter (he said everything was made from particles), every aspect of science, and the entire history of the world, ending with the Plague of Athens (which leads historians to believe that he died before finishing the poem). As is any work  from two millennia ago that attempts to be scientific, it has some howling mistakes, but was a pretty good try. In later essays I will tell you more about this remarkable work, even though I find it difficult to read. But for now I would like to focus on his theory of the origins of human society.

Lucretius described prehistoric men in Book Five. He said they were stronger than modern men, “of larger bones and heavier frame” (Book Five, line 927), their strength not sapped by exposure to heat or cold, and without agriculture. They would sleep at night under blankets of leaves. Night did not frighten them. They lived off of wild fruits and seeds, which, it so happened, were bigger than modern wild fruits and seeds. They slaked their thirst from streams and springs, which Lucretius poetically described (“living water…Laved the moist rocks…O’er the green moss it trickled…”). They hadn’t figured out how to use fire or make clothes from animal skins. In addition, each man looked out for himself, unconcerned about the common good: “Whate’er chance offered unto each he took, well schooled to live and thrive each for himself alone.” Not only that, but they made reckless love: men and women either chose their lovers or else men would fight for women—or sometimes buy their love by giving them “arbute berries, acorns, [or] gathered pears.” They hunted wild animals with clubs or by throwing rocks at them. The certainty of death did not frighten them; in fact, if they knew they were going to die, they would drink poison.

Then, said Lucretius, humans began to get soft when they formed families and started living in huts and forming pacts with neighbors. They had primitive languages, at first just imitating the sounds of things, in a manner not entirely different from the way animals (including mythic Molossian hounds) communicate by making different sounds for different meanings. Then, humans received the gift of fire not from a god but from nature, and once they had it, they could cook and soften their foods.

The next step was when humans with the best ideas began to persuade other humans to follow them, and begin to live together in cities, which led toward civilization but also toward oppression; in particular, whoever had the most gold had the most power, regardless of the fact that other people were smarter or lovelier. Lucretius notes that true happiness is to be found in “simple modesty with heart content; For where a little is, there is no lack” (lines 1124-1125), but civilization glorified the rich. Within and between nations, men fought one another for gain: “So it is now, and evermore shall be” (line 1138).

So kings did fall, and all the ancient pride
Of lordly thrones and haughty scepters lay
O’erturned in lowly dust; and stained with blood
The glorious diadem of kingly heads
Beneath the feet of swarming mobs…

(lines 1139-1143). Sounds like the poem Ozymandias, doesn’t it? Only Lucretius wrote this almost two millennia earlier than Shelley. But in some cases, Lucretius said, people “might of their own accord submit themselves to regulations” (lines 1152-1153), allowing the rule of law to create peace rather than having constant war. Men grew weary of a life of violence, he said.

Next Lucretius explains the origin of religion. It began with dreams, in which people saw great and powerful beings. It was not a big stretch to attribute to these gods the origin and operation of the heavens and the Earth. It almost sounds like Lucretius was an atheist—not only because, throughout his poem, he attributes everything that happens in the natural world to particles, but also because in Book Five he wrote, “O hapless human kind, when unto gods such deeds it hath assigned…” (lines 1194-1195). He describes religious practices, such as sacrificing beasts at altars, with scarcely-concealed disdain. It is far better, Lucretius says, “To view all things with heart and mind at peace” (line 1206). Lucretius implies that it is pretty stupid to believe that lightning bolts and storms at sea are caused by angry gods; so if you are caught out in one, you may get lucky or you may not, but don’t bother with supplications to the gods.

To finish out Book Five, Lucretius writes about the history of metallurgy, then of war, culminating in the use of elephants as fighting machines. He speculated in lines 1343-1345 that things might have gone differently on some other world. He said men, not women, made the technological advances and invented agriculture. Then he ends his discourse on the history of civilization with the intention of the flute. Isn’t that nice?

Very well. From our modern viewpoint, Lucretius’ history of humankind is pretty weird, especially the part about men buying love from prehistoric whores by offering them arbute berries (genus Arbutus, family Ericaceae). Where the heck did he get that idea?

But remember that Lucretius was working from a position of having absolutely no data about human prehistory. The only other cultural groups of whom he knew, such as the Etruscans and Gauls, were not substantially different from Romans prior to civilization. (Gauls were, we must remember, an agricultural society that replaced previous tribes in what is now France at least six thousand years before Lucretius wrote.) Lucretius had no information about primitive people. (Do we? The supposedly primitive Amazonian tribes are actually the remnants of a collapsed Amazonian civilization.) As Lucretius wrote, the bones of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal and the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were hiding, completely unknown, in European caves. So he resorted to speculation. It was either that or not write anything at all.

But, against all odds, Lucretius’ picture of human prehistory and history is not too different from our modern understanding, and strikingly different from Genesis. Genesis does not even recognize a prehistoric phase of human history: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were already completely modern, had the capacity for language, and within one generation their children had the ability to raise crops and livestock. Today we understand that the human body has, indeed, evolved to be more gracile largely because of the invention of cooking and of society. According to Richard Wrangham’s “cooking hypothesis,” cooking allowed more protein for the evolutionary expansion of the brain. And most paleoanthropologists understand that, since primitive humans fought with weapons or, sometimes, figured out ways to not fight, their canine teeth evolved to be smaller. That is, we have bigger brains and smaller teeth because of cooking and cooperation—which is exactly what Lucretius said two thousand years ago. And Lucretius explained how religion evolved. He didn’t quite get it right—his version omits the role of sexual selection in the origin of religion—but at least he understood that it evolved, which Genesis says nothing about. In Genesis, religion began because God walked around in the Garden of Eden and chatted with Adam and Eve. And Lucretius had the same disdain for religious practices that most modern scientists have.

There you have it. With regard to the origin of humans, and of human society, the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius was more correct than even a figurative interpretation of Genesis.