Wednesday, March 30, 2016

It Isn’t Pretty, It’s Ecology

Sometimes we like to think that the natural world is all full of nice animals and plants just waiting to be explored by day hikers like me. We all know this is not true, but it is a nice feeling. On the other hand, certainly in the world of bees and flowers, the world must be pretty nice, right?

It would be nice if pollinators and flowers just helped one another out: the pollinators get pollen and nectar as food, while the flowers get to cross-breed and enhance their genetic diversity. But the reality can be pretty messy. Pollinators do not just need resources, but they need to be the first pollinators to get those resources. The first pollinator to visit the flower gets the nectar, which may or may not be replenished by the time the second pollinator arrives. With this kind of competition, some pollinators may not even wait for the flowers to open. They might chew a hole through the petals to get at the nectar in an unopened flower. In so doing, they do not pollinate the flower, since they do not brush up against either the stamens (which produce pollen) or the stigmas (which receive it). These insects are just like the Sooners in Oklahoma history, who sneaked into Oklahoma Territory to stake out their land claims before the official opening shot.

Not only that, but flowers are specialized for certain pollinators. Wisteria flowers, for example, have petals in the form of a banner, wings, and keel. The pollen and nectar are down inside the keel. The keel is closed up, and only a fairly heavy pollinator, such as a bumblebee, can open it. Honeybees cannot easily open them.

When I walked home from work one recent afternoon, I saw honeybees flying around newly opened Wisteria flowers. Usually I see bumblebees, but this does not seem to have been a good year for them. But why were the honeybees there? It turned out that the honeybees were chewing holes in the side of the flower to drink the nectar down inside, as in these photos.

Mother Nature can be one tough mama. Snakes eat cute little nestlings, parasites are everywhere, and even when bees visit flowers there is a Darwinian struggle for existence going on. Of course, I feel a sense of awe when I behold the overall structure of nature.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What We Can Learn from Plants (and the Bible)

Here is part of the final chapter of a new book I am working on.

Botany, the study of plants, can help us understand the laws of nature, including the laws that govern everything we do in our economic and personal lives. For our prosperity, and perhaps our survival, we need to let the plants teach us how to live.

To learn from the plants, we have to look closely at them. They do not yell in our faces like presidential candidates or preachers. Most people do not so much as glance at plants. But if you are reading this book, you are obviously an exception to this pattern.

There is a long tradition of us who have allowed plants to teach us how to live. Ancient Biblical literature tells of King Solomon who gave lectures about “the hyssop that grows out of the wall,” a plant that not only grew but was beautiful even when it did not have access to rich soil. And this same literature says that Jesus of Nazareth was also a close observer of plants. He said, as if he had read Chapter 2 of this book, “Except a seed die it cannot be born.” He said, as if he had read Chapter 9, that no matter how the weather changes from day to day you know that spring has come when the fig tree opens its buds.

One of the most famous pieces of literature attributed to Jesus is Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he said, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” He referred to the lilies of the field, the ephemeral spring wildflowers that grow briefly in the springtime in climates such as those of the Middle East or California. Actually, he referred to just one of the lilies, of which there could be ten thousand in a field: Solomon was not arrayed as one of these. Whatever other legends may have accreted to the story of Jesus, it is clear that he must have been a man who was willing to get down on his knees and look at, really look at, a flower.

Perhaps Jesus realized that a flower is an investment. He is recorded as speaking disapprovingly of fruits that bear no seeds, that is, which have no return on their investment. While it may seem that a tiny plant could not possibly be making a profit by producing a flower that was more beautiful than any splendid human garment, the flower actually is an investment in attracting pollinators. Solomon’s royal robes were also an investment. Neither Solomon nor any other king actually needed all of those royal vestments. But those vestments were an in-vestment in prestige, which brought all of these kings ample rewards in power and wealth.

As explained in the final chapter, long-term investments (the tree strategy) are not always better than short-term investments (the weed strategy). However, our entire economy seems to be based on short-term investments: quarterly earnings rather than visionary investments, postponing necessary expenditures indefinitely into the future, and perhaps worst of all, making a killing rather than making a living. To make a long-term career, you need to create a support network and please your customers. But to make a short-term profit, these are not necessary: you will be gone before anyone notices that you misled them or provided an inferior product. Our entire economy, more and more each year, is a weed economy rather than a tree economy. The weed economy should fill in the gaps between economic forests, but repeated disturbances (everything from terrorist attacks to politically-motivated government shutdowns) make the tree economy less attractive. And many people in the business world, much to the embarrassment of the others, make a virtue out of short-term killings and proclaim themselves patriots while doing so. “Durable goods” used to be defined as those items that lasted at least three years; now they seem to be items that last no more than three years. As Vance Packard decried in The Waste Makers back in the 1950s, many companies make a lot of profit from built-in obsolescence. This is the tragedy of modern times.

We are not the first people to make nearly all of our investments weedy rather than perennial. Old Testament literature (the ninth chapter of Judges) also tells the story of a man named Jotham, who spoke from a hillside to the people of Shechem about how they had chosen worthless, selfish men as their leaders, men who cared only for immediate advantage and gratification. But he spoke in a parable. The trees of the woods and orchards, he said, wanted to choose a king. First, they asked the olive tree to be their king. But the olive tree was too busy making oil. Then the trees asked the fig tree to be their king, but the fig tree was too busy making fruit. Similarly, the grape vine was too busy making wine. So the trees of the forest asked the thorn bush to be their king. The thorn bush lived fast and died young, and instead of offering shade and creating rich soil, the thorn bush turned dry and brittle, and promoted wildfires, which destroyed the forest. Have we learned anything in the last three thousand years about how to prepare for the future?

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Last night (March 12, 2016) I went to the Tulsa Symphony production of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony. The Tulsa Symphony, together with the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, performed magnificently. The conductor was Benjamin Zander, who is also the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. I have carefully listened to this symphony for thirty years, but I still learned many new things when I actually saw the performance and listened to the conductor explain it.

Most people react to death by not thinking about it: by just going to the funeral and getting it over with. Mahler was not like this. The first movement of his symphony was not a funeral march; the inchoate march was always interrupted when Mahler stopped to agonize, or to appreciate the surprising beauty of life. With excruciating beauty, Mahler wrung out every last insight he could get from the fabric of life, death, and resurrection. Here was neither a facile atheism nor a shallow Christianity.

Mahler's music is not for everybody. I will admit that my writing, too, is not for everybody. I cannot write anything, not even a four-line poem, which does not somehow plumb the meaning of life, revealing both its agony and its beauty, sometimes simultaneously. I am trying to do for the written word what Mahler did for music.

This being a science blog, I am not going to go into any musical details. I just wish to say that, as a scientist, I see resurrection all the time. You have to look for it and think about it, as Mahler did. Here is what I see.

On the cover of a vinyl edition of Bruno Walter's recording of this symphony, there is one simple image: a deep space nebula. A nebula is a resurrection. The old superstar explodes as a supernova and is dead, leaving behind a pregnant cloud of gas and dust. From this cloud, new stars and planets condense, and the second generation of stars ignite. This is where our solar system came from. Our sun is a resurrected sun. And there would be no planets were it not for the engine of creation inside the supernova, the only place in which there is enough temperature and pressure to create the larger kinds of atoms such as iron, phosphorus, and magnesium from which planets and soils are made, and uranium, a radioactive element the decay of which keeps the interior of our planet hot. Our planet is solid and warm-blooded because of the supernova, the death and resurrection, of an earlier generation of star. This is why our sun is only five billion years old, while the universe is over twice that age. Astrophysicists believe in resurrection. It is not the same star, resurrected back to life; it is a different star; but the star-life continues.

I am a botanist and I see resurrection all the time. I don't just mean the opening of tree buds each spring, a process that is in full swing right at this moment. Budburst is not really resurrection; the trees and flowers were just asleep for the winter, and are awakening. But every forest that I walk through is a resurrection. Every forest is one that grew in a place in which an earlier forest was destroyed. Longfellow wrote about "the forest primeval" in Evangeline; but there is no such thing as a primeval forest! Longfellow's "primeval" Acadian forest had not even been there a few thousand years earlier, when the land was covered with glaciers. The forest had grown back after the glaciers melted. A fire or mudslide destroys a forest, and then it goes through a slow process of what ecologists call succession: first weeds, then shrubs, then fast-growing trees such as cottonwood, and finally, after about a century, the slow-growing and long-lived trees such as oaks. This is a resurrection. The original trees are gone; perhaps the new forest is different from the previous forest; but a forest has grown back. It is not a miracle, any more than a nebula is a miracle; it is simply the natural laws of plant growth. To realize this, you have to look closely at the forest, and look at it in four dimensions.

These are the kinds of resurrection that, I think, Mahler believed in. He had a hard time accepting the death of the old, but his faith in the growth of the new was irrepressible.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dark Shadows of Altruism

There are some dark sides to altruism, some of which I have written about before. One of them is rage against cheaters. And another is guilt.

All humans—except the one percent who are psychopaths—feel shame at doing something that hurts other people who are not hurting them; and more shame when they get caught. Shame is a feeling that reinforces altruism. In fact, the intensity of shame might be a rough measure of altruism. People who do not experience shame, and maybe do not even try to fake it, are a public menace.

A Japanese research team in 2013 announced that they had discovered a way to induce body cells to turn into stem cells. If this report had been true, it would have revolutionized medical science. It seemed too good to be true and, of course, it was. I don’t know why scientists sometimes try this, because they will always get found out eventually, often sooner than later. And that’s what happened in this case in 2014.

In the summer of 2014, one of the researchers hanged himself in a stairwell.

This level of remorse is excessive, but is understandable for someone who has not just abused research funds but abused the public trust. Remorse, occasionally extreme remorse, shows that the person has a functioning instinct of altruism, absent which the person may be clinically psychopathic.

The point I would like to make is that I have never heard of a politician or business executive or preacher or lawyer committing suicide in shame over deliberately faulty conduct that is just as abusive of the public trust as anything that any scientist has ever done (except for the Nazi doctors and Stalinist creators of mass famine).

Scientific fraud is relatively rare, compared to the countless illegal actions so common among politicians, lawyers, preachers, and business executives. The prodigious discrepancy between sincere acts of remorse—and it doesn’t get much more sincere than suicide—among scientists and among politicians, preachers, etc., is a clear measure that scientists are much more sincerely altruistic than politicians, business leaders, preachers, and lawyers. I trust scientists—while keeping my eyes open for the remote possibility of fraud—while I assume outright that preachers, politicians, and business leaders are liars—while keeping my mind open for the possibility that individual ones are not.

Might I suggest that some business and political leaders who have blatantly abused the public trust—such as the CEO who oversaw the illegal activities of Bank of America, for which the corporation recently had to pay a $16.65 billion fine to the government, the largest settlement in history between the federal government and a single corporation—consider the suicide option. The same for tobacco corporation executives, who knowingly profit from marketing deadly products. Maybe they should consider seppuku (hara-kiri, which is ritual Japanese suicide). It would make a great YouTube vid.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

How Peoria Changed Human History

We all know that we need to save as much biodiversity as possible because we do not know what a species might be capable of doing. The rare species of tree on which I have done research has turned out to show great promise of producing a pharmaceutical product—a corporation is investigating this possibility.

And it is not just species diversity. It is the diversity of genetic lineages within species. Take the example of Penicillium mold.

We have all heard the story of how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. He was trying to find a way to kill pathogenic bacteria. When he came back from vacation (I hope I am getting this right), he found some green Penicillium mold growing in some bacterial plates he had neglected to sterilize. He saw the clear zone around the mold, in which a chemical produced by the mold had killed the bacteria. And, as far as most of us might have known, this was the triumphant discovery of penicillin, which was quickly ramped up to industrial scale production.

But actually Fleming’s work was mostly a failure. Many strains of Penicillium failed to produce penicillin, and none of them produced enough to allow industrial-scale production of the world’s first antibiotic. In 1940, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain tried again. They decided to sample lots of strains of Penicillium, in the hopes of finding one that produced lots of penicillin. They worked in Peoria, and asked for people to bring in specimens of the famous green mold. Most of them were fairly worthless. But someone in Peoria brought in a cantaloupe that just happened to have a potent strain of Penicillium. That is where the industrial production of penicillin got started.

It is obvious that, were Penicillium to have become extinct, we would never have found penicillin, and perhaps it would have been a long time before anyone would have thought to look for other antibiotics such as streptomycin. Certainly nobody would have deliberately looked in the soil of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) for microbes that produce (?) rapamycin. But apparently it was also important that this particular strain of Penicillium not become extinct. Just saving a random specimen of Penicillium was not enough.

Saving biodiversity is more than just saving species. It is saving genetic strains within species and saving all the microbes that grow on plants and animals.