Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thirst for Conquest

May 28, 2015, was the 175th anniversary of the Indian Removal Act. On that day in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the bill that required the U. S. Army to evict southeastern Native tribes, including my Cherokee tribe, from their native lands and send them to Oklahoma. Many people think of this as a land grab; that is, the federal government wanted Native land and whatever resources (such as the Dahlonega gold mines) it might possess. That is, the motivation was primarily economic. However, as I will explain, this does not seem to be the case. I believe that the primary, if unrecognized, motivation was the thirst for conquest.

My first piece of evidence for this comes from the Indian Removal of the 1830s. The federal government had to spend a lot more money to send the Cherokees and other tribes on forced marches than they could possibly have recovered, especially since most of the land and its wealth went to the states, such as Georgia, rather than into federal coffers. The federal government had to expend army resources to drive the tribes westward, and had to provide Natives with food and shelter (both barely adequate, but still costly on the whole) during the journey. Then, when the Native tribes got to Indian Territory, the government had to maintain forts to protect the Cherokees and other relocated tribes from attacks by the tribes who originally lived in the region. Ft.Gibson, in northeastern Oklahoma, was built in 1824 but primarily served to protect the Cherokees after the Trail of Tears after 1839. Ft. Washita, Oklahoma, was built in 1842 for the express purpose of protecting Chickasaws and Choctaws from the indigenous tribes in southern Oklahoma.

So the federal government spent a lot of resources to move and then protect the southeastern tribes. It seems unlikely that the federal government came out economically ahead by this. Therefore the Indian Removal was not merely, to use a term from Steve Inskeep’snew book, a land grab.

My second piece of evidence to demonstrate that the federal government wanted to conquer Native tribes rather than to just get their land comes from the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. The army had already taken his tribe’s land, and he and the remnant of his tribe was fleeing to Canada. When they were only forty miles from Canada, the federal army caught them in 1877 and sent them as prisoners to various reservation localities. If the only motive was to get their land, then the federal government would have let them flee U.S. territory. All the rest was unnecessary expense intended only to crush the Nez Perce.

In prehistoric times, the thirst for conquest may have been a profitable adaptation. When one tribe fought another, they did not merely desire the other tribe’s land or resources, but experienced a bloodlust, fully experiencing the other tribe as evil, feeling a desire to make the other tribe suffer before being slaughtered. That is, natural selection may have favored both the behaviors and the feelings of conquest and annihilation. The white American government did not just want Native American land, but wanted to drive Native Americans to extinction or at least to put them somewhere where they could be forgotten.

Another set of behaviors and feelings that may have been profitable to prehistoric humans is to depict the enemy tribe as not merely evil but powerfully evil—that is, to believe and feel that the enemy has supernatural force. A tribe that believes its enemies to be supernaturally evil will fight harder than a tribe that considers its enemies to be merely humans worthy of annihilation. Unfortunately, while the thirst for enemy annihilation is pretty much a thing of the past in America, the belief that one’s enemies are supernaturally powerful is not.

There are two recent examples of this.

  • In 2012, according to the Houston Chronicle, Lubbock County (Texas) judge Tom Head said regarding President Barack Obama, “He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the (United Nations), and what is going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy…Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops. I don’t want ‘em in Lubbock County. OK. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say ‘you’re not coming in here’.”
  • In 2015, Texas governor Greg Abbott feared that President Obama was planning a military takeover of Texas. Not satisfied with words, Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor a U.S. Navy Seal training operation.

In both of these instances, the Texas officials accused President Obama of planning to do things that are very nearly physically impossible. By what possible set of causal factors could President Obama order United Nations troops into Texas? By what possible set of causal factors could President Obama bring about a military takeover of Texas? In both cases, the Texas officials seemed to be giving Obama a kind of infernal, supernatural power. To them, he is not merely a political opponent but the manifestation of spiritual evil. (Strangely enough, a little over a week later, Governor Abbott begged this same President Obama for federal assistance to recover from Texas flash floods.)

The tribes who had a desire to annihilate enemy tribes, and the desire to depict one’s enemies as supernaturally evil, prevailed in the prehistoric struggle for existence. We are their descendants. And their behaviors and feelings live on in us, as manifested in recent history and in current events.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Are We All Deluded?

Sam Kean’s new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain As Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, is a gold mine of stories about the weird things that our brains can make us do, everything from cortical blindness to alien hand and walking dead syndromes. In people with cortical blindness, the eyes and optic nerves work fine, but the portion of the brain that consciously interprets vision is impaired. The brain has a whole separate set of nerves that process the emotional response to vision, however; people with cortical blindness can therefore smile in response to another person’s smile even though they cannot consciously see it. In alien hand syndrome, a person cannot recognize their own hand—usually the left one—as being part of his or her own body; and in walking dead syndrome, the person cannot recognize the body itself as his or her own.

Perhaps most important, although not the most interesting story in the book, was the experiment that demonstrated that our brain’s conscious decision to do something occurred after the subjects had begun to do the action. That is, the brain’s decision was actually a post-hoc rationalization. This calls into question the entire concept of free will. It appears that we choose to do something only after our subconscious minds have decided to do that thing. Of course, this does not mean we have no conscious control over ourselves. Our conscious minds can prevent us from doing the things we have started to do; that is, however much free will is called into question, self-control is certainly real. As the author says, we may not have free will, but we have free won’t. Also, our conscious minds can create a general pattern of thought that, while it may not control every individual action, certainly influences our general behavior.

The main point of all these fascinating stories is, in the author’s own words: “But if the history of neuroscience proves anything, it’s that any circuit for any mental attribute—up to and including our sense of being alive—can fail, if just the right spots [of the brain] suffer damage…your actions, your desires to act, and your conviction of having acted can all be decoupled and manipulated.”

I have, through reading this book, come to understand myself better. Temporal lobe epilepsy includes the experience of auras that are religious in their effects and intensity—religious delusions. While religion does not consist only of delusion, it has been stimulated by delusion. Famous religious figures, such as the Apostle Paul, Mohammed, and Joan of Arc, and writers such as Dostoevsky to whom religion was of overwhelming importance, showed symptoms of epilepsy. Though I do not have epilepsy, I have some symptoms that suggest my right temporal lobe might be hyperactive in something of the same way as certain epileptics. For example, throughout my life I have had experiences of religious ecstasy. I also have to take an anticonvulsant medication that is prescribed, in higher dosage, to epileptics. And I have a mild case of polygraphia—the compulsion to write everything down, all day every day—that some epileptics also have. Finally, there might be a genetic basis for this; my paternal grandfather was religiously crazy. Somehow just knowing this makes me feel more comfortable inside my skin.

Kean’s book, like the books of Mary Roach, show that the best modern science writing is based on stories and are written to be fun. Filled with fragments and imprecise language, this book would make some science editors howl, but is exactly the kind of book that would make anyone want to learn more about science. This is the kind of science book that I have not yet written myself.

The feeling I bring away from Kean’s book is liberation. I feel no need to blame myself for feeling or believing things that may be outrageous, nor do I have to blame others for theirs. What we need to do is to override anything outrageous that our minds manufacture. The idea that we choose our beliefs rationally seems to be entirely wrong, even though reasoning is a contributing factor. As a scientist and educator, I feel liberation, because I do not need to actually convince or convert anyone to my way of thinking. What I need to continue doing is to provide information and opportunity that will allow my students and my readers to convert their thinking, should that prove possible. If I continue to provide information about the world and its history, humans and their history, and continue provoking new thoughts, I have done my entire job.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Best Time of Year in Oklahoma

May in Oklahoma is the most beautiful time to be outdoors. The summer heat has not yet begun, and all the flowers are open. Sure, you have to go out between rains to see them, and you have to dodge a few tornadoes, but this is the time of year that makes me glad to live in Oklahoma. Come about August and I’m not so sure.

This is why the Oklahoma Native Plant Society chooses mid-May as the time for the annual Wildflower Workshop. On Saturday, May 16, a few dozen wildflower lovers took a field trip to three places in south central Oklahoma.

The first was one of the last remaining native prairies in south central Oklahoma. On U.S. 70 west of Durant, it used to be called Carpenter’s Meadow until it was divided up for “development.” Most people saw it as a green and brown square that was a mere canvas for construction. This includes the huge new Methodist Church. However, two of the church members (Dr. Connie Taylor, botanist, and Dr. Gordon Eggleton, physical scientist, both retired from Southeastern Oklahoma State University) are scientists and they managed to convince the church to not convert every last square meter of the property into turf. It was Connie who led the field trip on this little patch of prairie.

After some light rain, the ground was quite soggy, but this did not keep the native plant enthusiasts from walking all over the prairie to find dozens of plant species such as the green milkweed Asclepias viridis (a milkweed that is beautiful even when the flower is not yet open) and Tephrosia virginica, a legume.

The prize, of course, was the prairie orchid Calopogon oklahomensis.

This patch of prairie is threatened not only by churches and businesses but by fracking as well. Notice the fracking well in the background behind this white larkspur Delphinium carolinianum.

Wet and muddy, we got in a bus and went to Ft. Washita, an old fort that was built by the federal government to protect the Chickasaw tribe, which it had forced out of their homeland and into Oklahoma, from the Caddo tribe which was already in Oklahoma. The rocks were crammed with mollusk fossils, as in photos I have posted previously on this blog. It was not long before we were looking for native plants, even right down in the grass beside the picnic tables. ONPS past president Adam Ryburn is always on the lookout for females; this time, it was females of the buffalo grass Bouteloua (formerly Buchloe) dactyloides.

Unlike most grasses, buffalo grass has separate male and female plants.

Down in a low trough in the turf, in the middle of a cemetery full of unmarked Chickasaw graves, there was what looked like little weedy plantains. But a closer look revealed that they were Ophiglossum adder’s-tongues, which are fernlike plants. I took no photos because the lawn mower had not left much.

Our last stop was at the Blue River in Johnston County. Because the granite underneath has not eroded much, the soil is thin and well-drained, which promotes a profuse growth of wildflowers, and allows the Blue River to be relatively clear and have rapids, unlike the usual lazy Oklahoma river that flows past muddy banks formed from limestone soil. The most noticeable flowers were the yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and the deep red Gaillardia pulchella. Down by the river, however, you can also find some magnificent Tradescantia flowers.

Thin gravelly soil on top of the granite boulders allows small plants to grow that would otherwise be shaded out by larger plants. These include the stonecrop Sedum, a flowering plant; velvety smooth mosses; and thin tangles of clubmosses.

A forest fire had destroyed the whole forest in 2011, but many of the trees and shrubs are growing back as thick clumps. Beautiful fungi were sporulating from the dead wood.

Recent rainfall has sent the Blue River into flood stage. However, seaside alders (Alnus maritima, one of the rarest tree species in the world) bravely held their ground (literally! They create the islands they live on) in the roiling waters.

This portion of the Blue River has not been known to have arrowroot (Sagittaria), but some corms of arrowroot had been washed in by the floodwaters and might start a new population there. Forests recover well from, and thrive in the face of, fires and floods. But the prairies cannot survive when the soil is scraped away and turned into parking lots and fracking fields.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Brain Takes a Nature Walk

I am currently reading Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. It is one of several books based on modern psychology that give us new insights into what our brains are like—insights that are both disturbing and liberating.

I already knew that the brain does not present us with an objective picture of reality. I thought that it processes sensory information into a model of reality, one in which the information from the environment is presented to us in a useful fashion. For example, I knew about sensory fatigue, in which an unchanging sensory input is soon ignored by the brain. This keeps the conscious brain from being overwhelmed by information. I also knew that color is an illusion. The brain uses inputs from three kinds of retinal cones to create a false-color picture of the environment, one in which ripe fruits are red so that they can be easily spotted by hungry animals without having to think about the complex mixture of wavelengths reflected from the environment.

And this is what I have been teaching my classes for almost three decades. But it turns out I might be wrong about this. The brain does not, apparently, process sensory information into a model of reality. Instead, our brains (according to Eagleman) internally generate a picture of reality. That is, what we see, hear, and feel is a model that the brain generates from its own memories and expectations. The brain uses sensory input only to modify and adjust this model as needed.

I took a walk in the woods this morning. It was the perfect time for a walk on Turkey Mountain, just outside of Tulsa. A Tuesday morning is almost the only time the parking lot is not full. The temperature was perfect, the sunlight was clear, and the leaves were light green, soft, and profuse (they will later be dark green, hard, and scraggly). It was also the last time for a while: the abundant rains that have suddenly filled our low reservoirs will return tomorrow. I walked on trails I have explored dozens of times. My mind pretty much knew where to make my body go. My mind utilized sensory input only to modulate where my feet moved so as to position themselves correctly on the rocks that my subconscious mind probably already knew were there. I could not have walked blindfolded, but just a few visual data are all that were necessary to allow me to walk—a few more than usual, since I had to avoid mud holes that others before me had not, and fallen branches and trunks.

Every person who was on the trail had a different mental image of it. Some joggers noticed only where the rocks and mud were, as they ran along listening to headphones. Some hikers saw little more than this, perhaps being aware of the vaulted canopy of branches overhead, as they concentrated mainly on their own animated conversations. The brains of dirt bikers had to do quick calculations of velocity and momentum, not having time to notice anything else.

And then there was me, the botanist. I noticed all the different kinds of trees: no matter how many times I see them, I feel like they are old friends. I wonder how many other hikers realize just how many kinds of trees there are. I also noticed the spatial patterns of the trees: the post oaks in higher and drier spots, the red oaks in the lower and wetter spots. I also noticed that poison ivy and aromatic sumac (with which it can be easily confused) never grow in exactly the same place, the former preferring shadier and wetter microclimates. Moreover, pollinating insects do not get poison ivy and smooth sumac (whose flowers look almost alike) mixed up since poison ivy is blooming right now and the smooth sumac flowers won’t open until at least next week; and they cannot confuse either of these with aromatic sumac, whose flowers open before any of the leaves have come out.

Here are photos of poison ivy flowers, and the gigantic leaves!

I also notice the bark of each tree. My daughter thinks I have a picture of every tree trunk in Oklahoma, but I know I’ve missed more than half of them. Bark is beautiful, each species having its own kind, each life stage having its own kind, and each tree having bark that reflects its own personal story of experience, growth, and recovery, as in this post oak that has had to start its life over again at least twice:

I see the forest as a functioning system in space and time, rather than as a backdrop for my own human activities. My brain noticed all these things because I consciously decided to look for them.

But my brain ignored a lot of things that other scientists could have pointed out to me. I am sure there were lots of insects, and insect galls, that I did not even see. To me, an insect-damaged leaf was one to ignore when taking photos, instead of a vital piece of information to understand the food chain of the forest. It was only by chance that I noticed a wild bee pollinating a Phacelia flower.

As for birds, you have to look closely to see the indigo buntings, whose blue backs appear black at first glance. A geologist would be able to explain how processes millions of years ago produced sandstone in some places, and shale in others, on what is now Turkey Mountain, and until recently I walked right past fossilized impressions and even petrified wood of prehistoric lepidodendrid trees without even seeing them. My brain was in plant mode just as the joggers’ brains were in don’t-slip-in-the-mud mode. I, too, entered the forest with an internally-generated model of what it was supposed to be like.

I would like to leave you with this thought. You can always enjoy a place more if you look closely and start noticing things. If you keep your brain in energy-savings mode, so that it responds only to threats and inconveniences, you are  missing the joy of being alive. Of course, I do not need to say this to anyone who is reading this essay right now! And the people who come to the forest only to jog might, in fact, find themselves surprised and pleased at discovering something about the forest through which they had merely intended to run.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Insights from an Old Book

I ran across an old book in my office yesterday. It is not old enough of a book to be historically important, like The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, nor is it a classic like plant ecologist John L. Harper’s Population Biology of Plants. You probably cannot find this thirty-year-old paperback anywhere except in the basement of an archiving library. It is Studies on Plant Demography: A Festschrift for John L. Harper, edited by James White. John L. Harper (1925-2009) was one of the most famous plant ecologists of the twentieth century. The scattershot of 24 papers in this book gave examples of different ways to study plant population biology, and reflect the great diversity of approaches that Harper took in his own research. The papers in the book are about everything from weeds to crops that act like weeds to pandanus trees to temperate forests. They describe processes such as how plants spread by underground runners, to how they space their branches out just right to help them compete against their neighbors for light, to how they invade new continents. It represented the best efforts of plant ecologists in 1985, back when illustrations were still done by hand with mechanical pens and Zipatone.

I planned to glance through the book a little and try to find a general take-home message. I quickly realized there was none. But before I put the book in my give-away pile, I had a sudden realization. The fact that there was no way to summarize the book is the message. Different species of plants, different populations of plants within the same species, and even the same individual plant can have an enormous variety of ways to not only survive but to spread and prevail over their competitors. I looked up from the book and around at the plants in my back yard. Of course! While none of the plants in my yard use all the different possible ways of spreading, each one uses several. I had just finished cutting down hundreds of sugarberry saplings. Birds spread their seeds, but that is not the only way sugarberries persist in my yard.  If you cut a sugarberry sapling, a half dozen others will grow from its tiny stump. Sugarberries thrive in the sun but also persist in the shade. I looked up at the wisteria vines. Not only do they send thick and sometimes enormously long branches through the privet bushes, but also along the ground, where they produce roots at the nodes. I was watching a war of all the plants against all the other plants in my yard, each one using numerous tactics or strategies. My yard is not tidy; I have not forced my plants to keep to their own little patch of ground spaced out like doodads on a blanket. I let them go wild, perhaps naively thinking that they would play nicely together.

While I might have expected simple rules in the natural world, what I beheld was a crazy diversity.

There was one other thing I noticed from this book. Near the beginning was a list of all of John L. Harper’s publications as of 1985. His very first publications, in 1950, were about the ability of different breeds of bananas to resist Panama disease, a fungal pathogen. While Harper and the numerous ecologists who followed him have mostly studied “pure science,” in an attempt to understand nature, Harper himself began with an important concept in agricultural research: we need lots of genetic diversity in our crops in order to save our agriculture from disease. If a disease kills one breed of crop, we need to have another breed to take its place. The crazy diversity of nature, or even of an untidy back yard, is the key to the success of life on Earth.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Darwin at a Class Reunion

Happy May Day! Workers of the World Unite—not for communism, but to make the world better in whatever way we can.

I have just posted a video in which I, in the persona of Charles Darwin, am briefly addressing the 40th reunion of our high school class. Lindsay (California) High School, Class of ’75! I made the video expressly for people who were not there and who might be wondering why I would post what seems to be a personal video on my science YouTube channel. I explain the reasoning in the video, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired (echoes from the walls) so I will write a brief essay on the same subject (not a word-for-word transcript; I want to improve on my words).

I begin by asking the question, What adaptation makes humans unique? There are many adaptations that are very highly developed in humans, compared to other animals. The one that first comes to mind is intelligence. We are clearly the most intelligent animal species on the planet (sorry to those of you who still think dolphins are smarter). But what kind of intelligence? Our brains have evolved a particular kind of intelligence. We do have logical intelligence; we can apply our brains to figure out problems logically, but we have to work at it. But the kind of intelligence that comes intuitively and easily to our brains is social intelligence. In high school, I had the reputation of being very intelligent, in the logical sense, but I was surrounded by a lot of peers who had tremendous social intelligence. And I here claim that social intelligence, in which my classmates were at least as good as I was, is humankind’s greatest adaptation.

One kind of social intelligence is what I call horizontal culture: a network of interconnections among animals in which they can help each other out. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us! This takes a lot of brain power, in order to keep track of each individual and what kind of person each one is. Humans are really, really good at this kind of intelligence. But then, so are dogs and wolves and meerkats and prairie dogs. Ever been in a wolf pack? Neither have I, but we can imagine what it is like. You mess with one of them, you mess with all of them. Humans are really good, but not unique, at having highly-developed horizontal culture.

Another kind of social intelligence is what I call vertical culture, and this is the thing that humans do perhaps better than any other animal species. We can remember—for decades—what our friends are like. Forty years can pass, and we can practically take up where we left off as if no time has passed at all! When I went to my class reunion, I had literally not seen any of those old friends for four decades. (The only ones I had contacted in the meantime were not at the reunion.) Yet there we were, filling each other in on the news of our lives, with cultural bonds undiminished over time. The memories of the time we spent in band, or in Japan during sister-city exchanges, or in Jim Kliegl’s plays, were still fresh.

Perhaps the most unique feature of human vertical culture is we remember our friends and loved ones who have died. Carolyn, who organized the reunion (thanks forever for that!), set up a little memorial for our friends who had died. Does any other species of animal do this? I have read that elephants remember their dead. If you play back a recording of a beloved elephant that has died, the other members of the herd will display actions and sounds that seem, to us, like grief. But we humans are much better at this than elephants. Our social intelligence allows us to not just remember those who have gone before but lots of things about them. And to love them forever.

Our old Spanish teacher, Jesse Guerrero, told us, regarding the invitation to join our reunion, “I needed this.” Social bonds over time are as necessary to our brains as is food and oxygen. All of us at the reunion, not just Jesse, need this. And all of the rest of the readers of this blog.

My reunion was not just enjoyable but it gave me a deep satisfaction to participate in this deeply satisfying and uniquely human experience.