Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Death of Expertise, a rant by Tom Nichols

Democracy means that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” This is the classic quote from Isaac Asimov. This is the point from which Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security at the U.S. Navy War College, begins his book The Death of Experience. Nichols advanced Asimov’s point by adding such statements as “The United States is now obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” and “we’re proud of not knowing things” (emphasis his).

This situation pisses me off as much as it does Nichols. An important example is the science of global warming. Anybody with a little bit of education, or no education at all, can simply claim that there is no evidence for global warming, when in fact there is. I have written before about how a certain Republican Congressman said he has never seen any evidence for global warming; there were piles of scientific papers on the table next to him that provided the evidence, but he simply did not look in that direction. My own study of global warming, which examines the budburst times of deciduous trees, has over 4000 lines of data. My countless hours of research mean no more to many people than someone’s antiscientific opinion not only based on a lack of evidence but even a lack of even looking up from the table. Somebody with no data at all can simply call me a liar (this has happened).

Another point that Nichols makes is that educators such as myself assume that if we explain things to people, they will believe us. But greater access to information has led to greater, not less, ignorance in the general public. Do you think that the Earth is the center of the universe? You can find a website that confirms your opinion. Really. But if we educators assumed that we cannot change people’s minds by informing them, we could hardly drag ourselves to work in the morning. I’d rather stock a produce shelf at a store (which requires intelligence, by the way) than to do work that is as meaningless as Nichols implies.

But very quickly Nichols’s book degenerates into a rant. He must be the most cynical professor on the planet. Here are some examples.

Nichols says that college is not about education anymore, but about pleasing the clients. We professors want the students to have a good time, even if they learn nothing. College cash flow depends on this. If colleges told half of their students that they had no business being in college, then all institutions of higher learning except the Navy War College would, I suppose, have to close its doors. But I consider this position to be extreme. It is true that I entertain my students, but I also give challenging exams. I firmly believe that students learn better when they enjoy the course. If they hate the course because the professor is cynical (not naming any names here), they will have irregular attendance, will not study, and will not complete assignments. My biology labs are full of laughter but also of learning. When I walk past the lab rooms, I see that this is also true of the labs of my colleagues.

Nichols says that many students can get good grades in courses by simply “exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide for a set number of weeks.” I was expecting Nichols to provide some data to back this up. He doesn’t even provide anecdotes, except one or two in the notes at the back of the book. Most of his references are like-minded screeds.

Nichols says that colleges have been bloated with majors that are meaningless and a waste of taxpayer and private money. He refers to this as “majors that shouldn’t exist.” Name one! He doesn’t. The long-standing joke is underwater basket-weaving, but it is a joke because no such major exists.

Nichols says that many little colleges have turned themselves into universities by adding meaningless graduate programs. Once again, name one!

Nichols implies that colleges are black boxes from which students emerge with degrees, and that a prospective employer cannot know whether those students have learned anything in college or not. He literally says this is academic malpractice. But he ignores two important processes that he must know about. The first is accreditation. Any college that had worthless programs would risk losing their professional accreditation and, as a result, their students’ access to financial aid. Everyone recognizes an unaccredited “diploma mill,” or at least they should. The second is transcripts. How can an employer tell which graduates are good and which are mediocre? Look at their transcripts! If the student got a lot of bad grades, then the employer has no right to complain if they hire a bad employee.

I teach biology, and even Nichols admits that the sciences are challenging for students. But he implies that students turn away from such challenging majors and instead go for the easy majors. There are two problems with this assumption. The first is that they usually don’t. I just saw the enrollment report for September 2017 from our university registrar, and biology is the number one identified major for incoming freshmen. Nichols may be right that many freshmen with undeclared majors might drift into a meaningless course of study. And as a matter of fact, our university provides a “general studies” major for these students. Any employer that hires a general studies major and expects him or her to know how to fly a plane has no right to complain. But most students choose challenging majors such as biology. Which brings me to the second point. What exactly are these dumbed-down (a term Nichols uses, as do many others) majors? Just last night at the supermarket I ran into an art student I remembered from a laboratory I taught. He does not sit around making papier-mâché bunnies or something. Our art program is rigorous and he would not complete his studies if he was lazy, at least not with good grades. He told me how busy he was with art shows and juried competitions. And I teach at one of these little rural universities that Nichols implies strongly should have just stayed a little college.

What we do, at our university and almost all others, is to give students a chance to succeed—or to fail. We do not tell them at the outset that they should just give up and go get on welfare or something.

Occasionally, as Nichols correctly points out, somebody who is intent on misinforming the public in order to get money or influence will graduate from college, or even get a Ph.D., and then go out and lie to people while citing their Ph.D. as evidence that they are telling the truth. But what can you do about this? A young-earth creationist named Kurt Wise got a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard, from no less a scientist than Stephen Jay Gould. But he kept his religiously-based antiscientific views a secret. Now Dr. Wise is out there telling everybody evolution is a hoax. Another creationist, a Moonie named Jonathan Wells, also got a Ph.D. while pretending to not be a Moonie. But is this the fault of educators? God forbid that a future terrorist should ever complete a course of study at the Naval War College or take a course from Nichols—I suppose it would be Nichols’s fault! One of the best students I ever had in my evolution class was a young-earth creationist (and valedictorian) who can now claim that she got her biology degree while keeping her brain intact from contamination by scientific evidence. But this is not my fault. For me to have rejected her would have been, as I understand it, against the law.


I had to stop reading this book on page 90. But before I did, I checked the index for accreditation and transcript, which were absent. The publisher, Oxford University Press, is usually careful about selling accurate books, but this time they dropped the ball.

Friday, September 15, 2017

New Video: Darwin kicks!

You always knew that Darwin was a sh*tkicker, but here is the proof! Charles Darwin helps persimmon seeds, previously transported by a raccoon, to disperse. See this link to the Darwin YouTube channel.

Just Under the Surface


In the current political climate, where Christians consider Nazi racism to be one legitimate viewpoint even if they do not themselves embrace it, it is certainly possible to believe that the time is not far away when conservatives will institute an evil reign of terror. It seems unlikely that this will happen, but could Germans in 1933 have guess what Hitler would do? And he did it because they let him.

We are surrounded by nice people all day every day. But occasionally we get glimpses of the evil that hides in human nature and which can come out under the right circumstances. Here are some examples.

First example. I had a student a few years ago who was very smart and dedicated, and very nice. Strange topics sometimes come up in individual conversations during laboratory sessions. For some reason, some of us were talking about Vlad the Impaler and this student, with a straight face, made the case that he deserved to be the national hero of Romania. This student, so nice on the outside, harbored at least this bit of evil in her heart. If she should ever in a future dictatorship be in a position to make decisions about what to do with political dissidents, such as myself, what would she do? I doubt she would come up with the idea, but I also doubt she would resist it if a future dictator liked the idea of impaling his enemies.

Second example. In Durant, Oklahoma, a white man who identified himself as “Goofy” went on a verbal rampage against all Mexicans, and said that World War III is going to begin right here with whites against immigrants. Most white people do not feel the way he does, but there must be at least a couple of million people who do and who can cause an immense amount of terrorism once they get started. All they need is some event that will unleash their currently latent fury, like (in this case) hearing a woman speak Spanish on a cell phone. (The woman has been in America legally for 40 years.).

We all have evil in our hearts; evolution has made human nature both good and bad. While altruism is part of human nature, we must understand that we are altruistic only toward those people whom we consider to be inside of our group. Slowly through history we have expanded the boundaries of what we consider our group to be. To many people, altruism extends not only to all humans of every race, but to higher animals, to trees, etc. But there are millions of people who still consider other races to be outside the realm of altruism and therefore not deserving even the simple decency of being allowed to live.


Even a small terrorist minority can ignite the worst elements of human nature and cause a wave of terrorism. Let’s hope (stupidly, perhaps) that this does not happen.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Evolution of Language...and Manipulation

What are the evolutionary purposes of language? Most people would, without further thought, assume that the principal purpose of language is communication of information. That is, indeed, one of its purposes; but, I believe, it is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose of language is social interaction: to influence others to do what you want them to do, to create a good (or bad) impression of yourself in the minds of others, to identify yourself as a member of their particular group.

This is the principal reason that there are languages, plural. Each “tribe” even today has its own language. These languages are much more complex than they have to be, and the main reason is that if you cannot master the complexities of the language and its pronunciation, you are probably an outsider.

But even within a society, language is primarily a tool of social interaction, and often of manipulation. We can see this in the current eruption of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiments in the United States. The use of these terms would prejudice a reader against them, and I would avoid them, except that the right-wing extremists are proud of them. Some of them carry Nazi flags, and the others allow them to.

1.      When a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, President Trump vacillated between condemning neo-Nazi activities and considering them to be merely part of the spectrum of political opinion. At no point did he or any other member of his administration call this an act of terrorism. But it fits all definitions of terrorism. The terrorist was not targeting a particular individual with his car; he was attempting to create terror among the people who were protesting against the white supremacists. And he used deadly force. If he had been Muslim, he would have been instantly branded as a terrorist. The selective use of the word “terrorist” against Muslims but never using against white Christian extremists is a clear use of manipulative language.
2.      The white supremacists call their cause and their rallies “free speech rallies” rather than neo-Nazi or white supremacist rallies. By getting millions of people to use this term for their activities, they project the message that, “You can’t possibly be against free speech! So you have to allow us to shout out our hatred against our fellow citizens.”

Technically, they have the legal right to say whatever they want to, so long as they do not incite people to violent action. But they are evil. We cannot allow them to depict their actions as mere defenses of free speech. All of us who are not aspiring Nazis must keep calling these people, and all who sympathize with them or speak out in their defense, what they are: the modern defenders of Adolf Hitler.

Some conservatives have tried to excuse the terrorist by saying that he had suffered abuse as a child. I have no opinion about this. But a black man could not have used this excuse.

Hitler himself was a master of language manipulation. (He wasn’t a master of much else. His leadership was disastrously delusional and destructive for his own German people, for example.) Most of us think of the phrase “Deutschland über alles” (Germany over all) as being Hitler’s phrase for world domination. But it was originally used to unite the German kingdoms (such as Saxony and Bavaria) into a single country: Germany was more important than its constituent kingdoms. Hitler stole the phrase and all the sympathy that went with it. Also, if Hitler had publicly proclaimed that he planned to slaughter millions of Jews, if he had called it an attempt at extermination, he would have had much less support from the German people. But he called it a “solution,” and who wouldn’t be in favor of this? A person is as likely to support a “solution” as “free speech.”

Political conservatives hate, viscerally hate, our modern language practices in which we attempt to counteract the racism of the past. They call it “political correctness,” which implies that anyone who does not use racist terms is doing so only for political influence. Our use of “black” instead of “nigger” can only mean, to conservatives, that we want political power; they think it cannot possibly be because we want to show respect and love to people who people who have been oppressed and slaughtered in the recent past. Conservatives want to refer to what happened in Tulsa in 1921 as a race riot, implying that black people were doing the killing and burning. In reality, it was a white mob hunting down and shooting blacks. Prominent Tulsan and KKK member W. Tate Brady was pleased to see a black man being dragged behind a car with a noose around his neck. It is not “political correctness” that makes us refer to the 1921 incident as a massacre or as an act of terrorism rather than a riot. It is a desire for truth, and to try to make up for the white massacre of blacks in the recent past.



To test the hypothesis of “language exists largely for manipulation,” all we need to do is see the spectacular failure of invented languages. Esperanto was invented to create world peace under the misguided notion that a common language will prevent miscommunication. But liars can lie in Esperanto. Charles Bliss created a system of symbolic communication that, he believed, would prevent language from being manipulated. He printed up six thousand copies of his book and sent them to government and other leaders all over the world, and got no response whatever, until some nurses noticed that this system might help children with cerebral palsy, who cannot communicate what they are thinking, to connect with the world. Bliss’s system thereby escaped extinction. But soon it was being used, not in place of other languages, but as a way of learning them, leading right back to the manipulation that Bliss, an escapee from World War Two, hated so much.

So when humans have created new languages for the express purpose of avoiding social manipulation, the new languages become the venues of social manipulation. This is an experimental confirmation of the hypothesis that languages evolved for social interactions, one important component of which is manipulation.


And there is nothing we can do about it, other than to keep using language in such a way as to try to counteract evil people from using their words to oppress others in their attempt to revive Nazi sentiments and make them palatable.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You Have to See This to Believe It

Here is a photograph of the Barents Sea floor, where kilometer-wide methane blowouts have occurred as a result of global warming. Remember that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It appeared in the June 2, 2017 issue of Science.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Common-Sense Solutions and Win-Win Situations

Yesterday I heard an online presentation by Paul Hawken, a long-time expert on integrating environmental concerns (particularly carbon emissions) into economics. His theme, including that of his new book Drawdown, has consistently been that solving the global warming crisis doesn’t cost; it pays. In particular, he says that the most important things we can do are things we are already doing for other reasons, and things that will save us money in the long (or short) term. Although this book has been criticized (Science, 26 May 2017, page 811) for the questionable way in which the actual numbers were calculated (no one can produce an adequate numerical summary of the whole world economy), no one disputes the general conclusion. (I have not provided hyperlinks to the Science articles, which are only available to subscribers, even the news items and book reviews.)

Here are some particularly good examples that caught my attention.

  • One of his photos showed a Bolivian woman who lives on a floating mat of straw in Lake Titicaca. She had been heating her grass hut with a kerosene lamp, which poses an obvious fire hazard. She had just received a solar panel and was very happy. She was probably not thinking, “At last, I get to do my part in reducing global warming!” The solar panel helped her life and, incidentally, helped to reduce global warming.
  • Another photo showed cows eating kelp. Apparently, this helps them grow bigger because kelp is converted to animal mass more efficiently than is grass. The cattle produce more meat and less methane. Incidentally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Another point was that by reducing food waste, and by having a diet that is more plant-centered (contains less meat), we can feed more people and be healthier, a double win. Incidentally, it also means we will produce less agricultural carbon dioxide and methane. Hawken’s calculations do not include methane from landfills where the food waste is dumped.
  • Having more efficient cooking stoves in rural India will make everyone’s lives better, because the people (mostly women) will have to spend less time gathering firewood, and they will be healthier because their huts will have less smoke. Incidentally, this also reduces carbon emissions.
  • A lot of methane emission comes from rice paddies that are kept flooded (anaerobic) throughout the growing season. But by periodically releasing the water, the growth conditions become aerobic and the plants grow better. Incidentally, the aerobic conditions result in lower methane emissions.


One proposed solution to global warming is carbon sequestration, that is, to burn fossil fuels in power plants but then to scrub the carbon out of the effluent. This was, until very recently, an expensive process, using up to 30 percent of the electricity that the power plant produces. But recent technological advances have greatly improved the efficiency. You can read about one of these on page 796 of the 26 May 2017 issue of Science. Another idea, described on page 805, is to use the carbon dioxide itself, rather than steam, to turn the electrical generation turbine blades.

And the technological innovations go on and on. In California, scientists have improved on the efficiency of algal biomass production for fuel (see the 14 July issue of Science, page 120). We currently use corn biofuels in most of our gasoline, which is a government perk that corn farmers love, but corn biofuel does not reduce carbon emissions very much. We now have improved methods of cellulosic biofuel production, for instance in switchgrass. Switchgrass and other cellulosic biofuels can be produced without cultivation, and without fertilization, in marginal land, leaving the good farmland to raise food (such as corn) for people (see Science, 30 June 2017, page 1349).

But none of this matters, because the Trump Administration has removed all incentives for reducing carbon emissions. Just when we were about to meet the goals, the goals vanish. American ingenuity down the drain.

The best example of all was that allowing women in poor countries to have access to education and to contraception greatly improves their lives because they can then have fewer children (and provide more resources and attention to the (usually) two that they do have). Their lives are vastly improved. According to Hawken’s calculations (similar to those of Michael Bloomberg, J. P. Morgan Chase, and the World Bank), helping women in poor countries is the single most significant factor in reducing greenhouse emissions.

What’s there not to like?

Win-win and common-sense solutions almost never work because, while they are in the interests of almost everyone, they are not in the interests of political and religious leaders. Political leaders think only of how they can get more power or campaign contributions. And religious leaders (such as fundamentalist Christian and Muslim preachers) actively oppose birth control. The blindness created by and parasitized by our political and religious leaders will keep us from even doing the things that would make life better for all of us for reasons unconnected to global warming. Led by the United States, the world will plunge into a global warming nightmare.

Dieter Helm’s Burn Out (reviewed in Science, 19 May 2017, page 709) explains that our economy will shift away from fossil fuels unless, or even if, we actively try to keep it from doing so. I hope that the dedicated efforts of the conservatives does not totally prevent this from happening.


What hope can we have if, each day, we are relieved when President Trump has not yet started a nuclear war?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Intelligent Design vs. Writing a Novel

In summer, I have time to write novels. Maybe someday I will actually publish one.

Writing a novel is one of the closest experiences a human can have to being a Creator. The writer creates a world that must make internal sense, and in which something meaningful happens to characters about whom a reader can care. There has to be what one agent called a “redemptive arc,” in which the character’s struggles are resolved, even if the character dies. There has to be a balance; if I introduce some important force into the story, I have to have it as part of the resolution, and not leave it dangling. Perhaps most important, every scene must advance the plot in some way. Especially in today’s fiction market, there is no room for casual “asides.” (One famous example of an “aside” occurs in All the King’s Men, the novel about a corrupt governor in the early twentieth century, in which Robert Penn Warren inserted a totally unrelated story about adultery in the Civil War era.)

In three of my novels, I have imbedded a short story. In Edd’s Land, I imbedded Plantation Odyssey; in Nancy’s War, I imbedded Strangers in Green Hollow; and in Q’s the Name, I imbedded Seaside Alders. Each of the imbedded stories is a piece that was conceived as an independent novel but had no chance of surviving to term on its own. But I couldn’t just stick them in; I had to make them advance the main plot of the novel. In all three cases, I figured a way to do so.

In one of my novels, I realized that I needed to introduce the two main characters on page one. I had introduced one of them on page one, the other on page three; I realized this was a defective structure.

I also have a tendency to put in intellectual speeches, usually about religion and botany. But when I do so, I make sure they, too, advance the plot.

To have a careful structure that carries the reader along on a journey of understanding without confusing them or tripping them up or making them have to work hard to figure things out; most readers are tired, even the ones who seek understanding rather than cheap thrills. This is what it means to be a Creator.

But when you look at the universe, this is not what you see. I will give just one example. Genes of DNA (the genome) encodes the proteins that do the work of the cell. But in every case, the gene is broken up into fragments by introns, and separated by non-genetic DNA. As a matter of fact, the non-genetic DNA comprises at least 98 percent of the DNA in the cell! In some cases, as with the photosynthetic enzyme ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase, part of the enzyme is encoded in the nucleus, and another part in the chloroplast, before being assembled. It is a jumble of confusion. Nobody understands it. Nobody can look at the structure of genes and say, “Behold! Now I understand the mind of God.” Francis Collins tried, bless his heart, but it didn’t work. It looks like a Rube Goldberg apparatus. The only reason that gene expression works at all is that natural selection gets rid of any that do not work, and there must have been, over billions of years, a lot of failures. In addition, the genome contains lots and lots and lots of dead viruses.

In other words, God is either a Rube Goldberg, or is not a Creator in the fundamentalist sense.

Whoever “wrote” the genome of a typical human (or flatworm or tree) was not doing what a human creator does, giving it a logical or even comprehensible structure. The genome is more like a computer drive in which not only is the final document saved but also all of the fragments and editorial comments appear in the form of blockout print. Who would ever think of sending “John walked down the road This part is confusing. Why was he walking down the road toward isn’t it supposed to be towards? his destination Well where else would he be walking but his destination? Insert the scene from the beginning of chapter 3 here” to an editor?


The creation is not like a movie, even a bad one. It is like a movie in which all of the outtakes from the cutting-room floor are inserted at random places in the movie. No competent author would look to the genome for inspiration about how to write.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dinosaur Trackways on the Blank Slate of the Mind

The last couple of days, I have had the privilege of working, again, with Glen Kuban down in the bed of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas (Dinosaur Valley State Park). Usually we work alone, or with a couple of other people, but this time there was a little crowd. A BBC film crew brought their cameras and even a photographic drone to get video footage of the dinosaur trackways, which I have written about numerous times previously in this blog, for example here). They also came to interview Glen, who has worked on these tracks (and knows each footprint by name) for 37 years, and he will not get some worldwide recognition for the work he has done. Congratulations, Glen! You deserve it.

Watch for the BBC video when it comes out. It will be called Rediscovering T Rex. The trackways in the park are not T. rex, but there are very few verified footprints of T. rex. But in the Paluxy river bed you can see long trackways of Acrocanthosaurus, which was similar to T. rex in many ways. The BBC does not yet have an American distributor for this video, so far only Canada and France, but I’ll bet that within a year or so you can find the video on Amazon or your local library.




I have posted a YouTube video of Glen and the film crew, if you want to experience what it was like to be there.

We were at the trackway site that was made infamous in the 1970s-era creationist movie Footprints in Stone, where creationists claimed that human footprints overlapped dinosaur footprints, thus proving, they claimed, that the entire evolutionary timetable of Earth history was wrong. The evidence of human footprints in 110-million-year-old mud (now limestone) was skimpy and some of it faked. Most creationists, even those who have not publicly disavowed the “manprints of the Paluxy,” pretty much ignore them. The son of the producer of the creationist movie, when he discovered that his father had misled his viewers about these footprints, destroyed all remaining copies of the movie. There was no discussion of this uniquely American controversy with the BBC crew, even though they knew about it, because it is such a dead issue even among creationists; certainly European viewers would wonder why anyone took so much as two breaths to talk about the supposed man-prints.

But there are still passionate creationists, mostly in the Glen Rose vicinity, who believe that the supposed man-tracks are real and that they prove that not only are all evolutionary scientists wrong, but even most creationists. They are a crazy little cult. They still have a museum right near the state park, although it appears to be on the skids and is now only open two days a week. I have posted essays in this blog about the Mantrack cult in the past (for example here). The state park personnel who were with Glen, me, and the BBC crew told me that this little cult has so effectively spread the hoax that lots of visitors still ask them how to find the man-tracks. It gets pretty intense sometimes, and rather than to create a confrontation, the park personnel sometimes have to simply walk away or busy themselves with some other park visitor.

We sort of expected that some members of this cult would come and try to disrupt the BBC filming. This did not happen, however, perhaps because there were a half dozen park employees on the scene. This track site is hard to find but the cult members, some of whom own adjacent land, can get there. They act as if they also own the river bed, and have in the past tried to keep Glen from studying the tracks. Actually, the river bed belongs to the state of Texas.

But one of the cult members came by, claiming that he was taking photographs for the City of Glen Rose. I very much doubt that the city government actually sent him, however. They might have posted some of his photos in the past, but he was acting in no official capacity. Of course, this man, whose name I forgot, and just as well, started going through his little speech about how belief in the man-tracks took less faith than belief in what he called “strict evolution.” Glen had told me beforehand almost verbatim what this little speech would be. It is as if the cult members are programmed to give their little speeches, and they will not respond to anything you say. They act as if they are brainwashed.

But that was not actually the precipitating event. The man started by saying that a cold front was coming through this weekend, and that it would only be about 92 degrees instead of the normal 97 degrees. This, he claimed, disproved the entire science of global warming. As I am one of the climate scientists that Donald Trump hates and Emmanuel Macron loves, I had to point out that this was an invalid conclusion. Global warming does not mean that temperatures never decrease; it means that they increase more, and more often, than they decrease. Well, this was all the cue he needed to self-identify as a right-wing extremist (or words to that effect; I did not yet so label him) and launch into his speech.

This man went on to comment on the fact that paleontologists have stopped using the genus name Paluxysaurus and started using Sauroposeidon instead. This shows, said the man, that scientists are wrong about this and, why not, everything else also. But changing names of organisms reflects the ongoing process of coming to better understand the evolutionary history of the organisms. And, of course, science advances because scientists make mistakes and then learn from them, something that religious cults almost by definition cannot do. Cults believe themselves to be directly inspired by God, and to admit one mistake totally undermines their reason for being.

I wish to make two points from this. First, the religious fundamentalists are now attacking all of science and education on two fronts. Formerly, they focused all their attention on evolution. Now, they also consider climate scientists to be servants of Satan. This is why scientific and educational organizations, all the way from national and international organizations such as the AAAS and NCSE to local ones such as the Oklahoma Academy ofScience and Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, of both of which organizations I am a past president, disseminate as much information about climate science as about evolutionary science.

The second point explains the title of this essay. The lumpy limestone of Dinosaur Valley State Park has proven to be one of the most creative blank slates upon which a religious cult can write its own version of the history of the universe. The dinosaur footprints are real enough. The supposed man-tracks are incomplete dinosaur footprints. On some of these prints, the dinosaur toes have eroded away. On others, the creationists have deliberately ignored the dinosaur toe prints. Early creationists film footage and notes show clearly that they knew the dinosaur toe marks were present. In a few infamous instances, creationists have even carved human toes on the dinosaur prints, or carved entire fake human footprints in the limestone. Rather than getting insights from the evidence in the limestone, they have used the limestone as a blank notebook on which to write their own version of reality, a version not even shared by most creationists.


It is unclear whether these cult members are dangerous. Of the hundreds of videos I have posted on my Darwin Youtube channel, the only ones on which rabidly angry comments have been posted were those in which I showed Glen Kuban at work in the Paluxy riverbed. A couple of times I have wondered whether to report these creationists to the FBI, but their comments were just short of personal threat. Of course, there were atheist comments also, which insulted the creationists. The creationist comments did not threaten the atheist commentators, Glen, or myself with any violence; they merely hoped that God would rain down fire and brimstone from the sky to destroy us and our children, that’s all. The blank pages of limestone on which this cult writes its version of reality includes at least the hope that everyone who disagrees with them will be destroyed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Consider the lilies

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus, many of which were later condensed into a single Sermon on the Mount, is to “Consider the lilies of the field.” It is Biblical passages such as this that are a much more fruitful source of dialogue between science and religion, rather than haggling uselessly about whether the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

The lilies to which Jesus referred were the wildflowers that blanketed the Galilean hillsides briefly in the early spring, before withering away in the summer—just as they still do in the Middle East and other similar climates such as that of California. As a botanist, I really like this passage. Many of these spring wildflowers are, in fact, lilies.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then forget about them, or to walk past them while you are looking at a scroll or a cell phone. You have to stop and look carefully at them. They are so small that you will probably have to get down on your knees to do it. You will have to pull one of them apart to see the full glory of their structure hidden inside. When you do so, you will find Jesus’ promise fulfilled: “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” That is, the most amazing creations of humankind cannot compare with even one of thousands of short-lived flowers.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then believe whatever your preacher says they should look like, but to consider what they actually look like. But there are millions of fundamentalists (not quite all of them in Oklahoma where I live) who will believe whatever their preachers say, even regarding things they could easily go and look at for themselves. These deluded followers will not even bother to read the Bible, about which they actually know very little, for themselves, but just believe what the preachers tell them it says.

Jesus did not say to ignore the lilies of the field while driving your tractor or four-wheeler over them, or while pouring chemicals on them, or while paving them over or peeing on them.

I recommend that you actually get down on your knees to look at the flower, rather than picking it and holding it in your fingers. By picking it you have already vanquished it and made it into a thing, an expendable resource, rather than a living being with which you share the world. Pick it only if you are dissecting it for closer study.

I like to believe that if people who consider themselves Christians will actually get down on the ground and look at a wildflower, this will begin a cascade of consequences that will make them start thinking for themselves rather than just believing their preachers. This is important since some preachers, most famously Pat Robertson, tell them that God wants them to believe everything that Donald Trump says. How can you worship Donald Trump once you have looked closely at the intricacy of a flower?


In case you missed my video on this topic, see it here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is There Any Hope for the Climate Future?

As I have previously written (see the Real Ecology Manifesto at this permalink), I believe that there is no hope for the world to avoid climate catastrophe, from which the human species will survive, but human societies will not; and from which the Earth, even though minus many of its species, will recover. Nevertheless, I also believe that we need to live in such a way that, as individuals, we do the best work we can at avoiding this catastrophe. That is, even if there is no hope, we can feel that we have lived in the right way (and we can stand before God, if there is one, in the knowledge that we have done the best we could).

We cannot do this if we know our actions to be utterly futile. But what if I am wrong, and there is hope? Or, what if the good things we do will reduce the intensity of the inevitable catastrophe? What we need is some good news, even if the news is not good enough for us to be fully optimistic. But this news has to be factual, not just a fleeting hope.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (which consists of citizens who want to effect federal-level policies that will reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, and who know that the apostrophe belongs at the end of the word citizens’) had an online national meeting today, in which Drew Jones, the co-founder of Climate Interactive, gave us some reasons to be optimistic. I happen to believe these reasons are not good enough, but they are verifiably true. I hope that I am wrong in my cynicism, and if I am, these will be the reasons. Here are some of them.

  • While Trump has pulled America out of the international climate accords, many cities and states have declared their intention to follow the Paris guidelines. More than half of Americans live in cities or states (or both) that have declared their willingness to cooperate with the rest of the people in the world by reducing carbon emissions.
  • World carbon emissions have actually stabilized in the last three years, after decades of not only increasing but accelerating. In 2013, global carbon emissions increased by 2.0 percent over 2012; by 1.1 percent in 2014 over 2013; and actually decreased by 0.1 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, in a report prepared by the Netherlands for the European Union. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions, but this leveling-off of carbon emissions has happened seldom since records have been kept. Meanwhile, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (not the same thing as carbon emissions) continue to increase, from 405 ppm in 2015, to 409 ppm in 2016, to 413 ppm in April of this year.
  • As of today, the Climate Solutions caucus in the U. S. Congress, in which members of both parties agree to do something to reduce carbon emissions, has 24 Democratic and 24 Republican members. (Anyone who joins needs to partner with a member of the other party.) Of course, these few Republicans are easily ignored by the leadership of their party. (John Huntsman said “Call me crazy, but I believe what the scientists say about evolution and global warming.” Guess what. His party called him crazy!) But at least a few responsible Republicans exist!
  • China’s use of coal has declined slightly.
  • The Paris Agreement still has 194 signatories even after the United States has pulled out.
  • Perhaps the most important point is that long-term social change looks impossible until it happens. For example, state bans on interracial marriage seemed like they would never be lifted until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that interracial marriage must be permitted. If you were a black person in South Africa in 1985, it might have seemed that apartheid would never end, but within a decade it ended. A social consensus that we must do something about global climate change is building, and could quickly become the norm. As Gandhi said, “First they will laugh at you then they will ignore you then they will fight you then you will win.”


I must point out, though, that social change doesn’t always work. As explained by Peter Watson in The Great Divide, a quixotic attempt to summarize all of world prehistory and history, human sacrifice used to be the norm in all known prehistoric societies. In the Old World, in separate locations, human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice and finally by the elimination of physical sacrifice, as religious awareness grew. In the New World, however, human sacrifice grew at a dizzying pace, so that the Aztecs carried out entire wars just to get sacrificial victims; they captured tens of thousands of victims each year, cut their hearts out, threw the hearts in a bowl, tumbled the bodies down the pyramid steps, and made stew out of the bodies. There was a brief attempt by one Mayan leader, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, starting about 968 CE, to bring the vicious cycle of human sacrifice to an end. But he failed. Human sacrifice ended only with the conquest of the Aztecs by the equally brutal Spaniards—brutal, but at least they didn’t carry out human sacrifice.

I will add one of my own to Drew’s list. The other major economies of the world recognize that Trump’s refusal to cooperate on climate issues makes America an outsider. Some of the G20 nations now refer to the group as the G19 + 1. It is possible that international pressure will make enough people rethink their position and at least cooperate with the rest of the leading nations of the world. This is extremely unlikely; I think America will cooperate with the rest of the world only if forced to do so. But, again, I hope I am wrong.

What will NOT happen is that Christian Americans will suddenly feel the Spirit of God calling them to show love to their fellow humans and to God’s Creation by preventing climate catastrophe. Some Christian Americans feel this way; most do not, and are in fact furious at their fellow Christians who do. To wait for this to happen would be like waiting for a decomposing bone to turn back into a cow.


Join with me in trying to make the world a better place for everyone, even if this effort fails, and just in case it succeeds!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Patriotic Message

At least, as close as I ever come to one anymore.

It is difficult to be patriotic anymore. The word “patriot” is loaded to mean conservative; to mean Republican; to mean “follower of Trump.” Even though I was born an American, and my Native American roots go back ten thousand years, I do not feel as though I am a real American, because I do not sing “Praise the Lord!” after every Trump tweet.

I consider the American flag, the one that we are supposed to wave and fly today, to be an embarrassment to the world. It used to be something positive, back in the days when Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. But today the American flag merely proclaims Trump’s ego to the entire world. Trump proclaims “America First” to the world. Not too surprising; all countries put themselves first. But what Trump means is “America Only,” that is, America will make all of its decisions as if no other countries exist except to be our markets, our sources of raw materials and cheap labor (so long as they don’t come here). He pulled us out of the Paris Accords and implies that NATO consists mostly of freeloaders. He is insulting everyone he can think of and seems to think that, if it were America vs. the rest of the world in a conflict, we would win.


Not everything is bad in America. So far, we still have laws that restrain even The Donald from grabbing absolute power. And, to me, the principal cause for faith is that many, perhaps not most, Americans remain good people. This includes the younger generation. When I think of my daughter and son-in-law, both of them powerful forces of good that make the world better for everyone around them, and their friends, who are also good people, and of my better students, or my fellow scientists, I feel good about the future. The feeling doesn’t last very long, however, since such people are not abundant. But since the future will not be improved by my worrying about it, I prefer to focus my attention on the good people whom I know.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Not a Scientist

According to Dave Levitan, author of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, it was Ronald Reagan who first used the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but...” and then proceed to make outrageously false statements that were easily disproved by scientific evidence. The plague of false statements has proliferated until now politicians, almost all of them Republicans, seem to feel obligated to tell lies and pretend that they are being scientific in doing so.

Politicians, like most other people, can be forgiven for not understanding science. It can sometimes be very complex. But what any reasonable non-scientist would do is to trust scientists to understand science. It is reasonable for politicians and others to demand to see some evidence, and I think scientists are obligated to provide evidence. I present evidence to my students and readers all the time. But once this is done, the non-scientists should at least acknowledge that the evidence has been presented. It would really, really, really bother me if I made a statement outside my field of expertise, only to discover that 99.9 percent of the experts disagreed with it. But this never seems to bother Republicans.

Levitan goes through lots of examples of Republican politicians lying and trying to cover it up with the appearance of scientific fact. He classifies the examples into a small set of patterns. I mention just six of them.

One of these patterns is cherry-picking. In global warming, a Republican can pick the warmest year in the 1980s and the coldest year in the 2000s and point out that the temperatures are not very different—deliberately ignoring the fact that all the other 1980s temperatures were cooler and all the other 2000s temperatures were warmer. It’s like finding a seven-foot-tall giantess and a four-foot tall male dwarf and saying that women are three feet taller than men.

Another pattern is to ignore the follow-up. For a while, the so-called Climategate scandal circulated around the conservative pseudo-media. When the news first came out, there was the possibility it might have been true. Subsequent investigations have shown, however, that there was no scandal at all. But Republicans still talk about it as if it is true.

Yet another pattern is to praise scientists and then, behind their backs, undermine them. Many Republican representatives have praised NASA then said that NASA’s climate data are false.

Yet another pattern is for the politicians to claim that if we do not know everything about a subject, then we know nothing about it. Republicans demand absolute certainty about every aspect of climate science—every ocean current, every glacier, every local slight variation of temperature—or else we can say nothing at all about climate science. This is, of course, hypocritical, because these same Republicans make statements about things regarding which uncertainty remains, in fact, they make stuff up without any evidence at all.

Yet another pattern is for Republicans to make fun of anything they do not understand. Following the lead of Sarah Palin, they love to make fun of biologists who study fruit flies. What Republicans deliberately ignore is that fruit flies have many of the same genes, and mutations in those genes, that we do. Biologists can study the effects of those mutations in fruit flies, which have two-week life cycles and regarding which there are no ethical concerns. There is an autism-related mutation in fruit flies. Fruit flies don’t get autism, but we can experimentally study the gene in them, which we could not do in humans.

The last category that Levitan considers is the straight falsehood, in which a politician just makes something up. His first example is Todd Akin saying that a woman’s body can spontaneously abort a fetus that resulted from rape, and that therefore abortion laws should not contain any exceptions for rape—since rape pregnancies simply do not occur. But I think Levitan missed something here. Todd Akin must have heard, somewhere in a biology class in which he was half asleep, about what biologists call the Bruce Effect. Some mammals, such as mice and monkeys, are, in fact, able to abort unwanted fetuses. In geladas, for example, when a female is taken over by a new dominant male, her body aborts fetuses that were fathered by a previous dominant male. This must have been what Akin was thinking about, only it does not happen in humans.

Of course, there are examples of Republicans just making stuff up. Mike Huckabee (who fancies himself a highly ethical Preacher of the Gospel) said that a single volcano can produce as much carbon dioxide as a hundred years of human activity. In actuality, the biggest recent volcano, Pinatubo, released 0.05 gigatons of carbon; but human activity releases 10 gigatons per year, that is, 1000 in a century. Huckabee’s numbers were off by a factor of twenty thousand. But, if you are a preacher, who’s counting?

Understandably, in the infinitely tortured world of Republican political thought, there are examples that may not fit into any of Levitan’s categories. One example that he did not (as I recall) mention comes from Michele Bachman (whom he did mention in a different connection.) She said, in 2006, that we should not worry about global warming, or any other environmental issue, because Jesus has already saved the world. You will notice that Bachman did not say, “Don’t worry about terrorism; Jesus already saved the world,” or, “Don’t worry about the economy, Jesus already saved the world.” She used—deliberately—a line of reasoning that she would not use in other contexts.

The only problem I have with Levitan’s book is that it is too timid. The Republican politicians he cites are not merely making mistakes, or bending the truth, or even merely lying. You can pretty much summarize the entire Republican position as, “I’m not a scientist, but I don’t need to be, because God has made my brain infallible and utterly incapable of error, so I can just make stuff up and God is obligated to make it true.” Republican politicians do not merely mangle science. They are blasphemers who consider the possibility that they may be wrong to be as unthinkable as God Himself being wrong. Of course, if Levitan had said this, the publisher would have rejected it. (Maybe Levitan tried and had to back down.)


Republicans have guns and consider themselves to be incapable of error even after thinking about something for only a few seconds. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Will Not Talk with a Climate Change Denialist

That is, if I can reasonably avoid it.

I live and work in Oklahoma, the hotbed of creationism and climate change denialism. I feel like I am a missionary in a hostile tribe just because I accept scientific evidence. I am, for the most part, personally reclusive about my knowledge of evolution and climate change. I, of course, am quite clear about them when I teach and write, but I seldom engage in discussion about them with people who disagree. The only neighbors who know my views are those who have first declared their similar views to me.

I tell everybody I can about botany, the science of plants. But the reason I seldom speak in person about the sciences of evolution and global warming is that I will almost certainly experience personal attack if I do. Today, I joined in with other activists at an information table outside a farmer’s market to tell people about global warming. This is something I have not done before and probably will not do again. Most of the people who went by were supportive, to varying degrees. This is something you might expect from the visitors to a farmer’s market. But there was one climate change denialist who decided to subject me to a barrage of lies and tried to make me feel like I was a force of darkness and repression.

Okay, I started it. A man and his wife and baby were leaving the farmer’s market. Our information table was not within the market itself, but in the lawn of a nearby church that had specifically invited us to be there. I spoke first. I said, “Thank you for coming to the Farmer’s Market. By doing so, you have helped to reduce your carbon emissions, because you have bought local produce that has not been trucked across the country for thousands of miles.” I thought this was a positive thing to say.

But this was when the man decided to launch his attack. He said that there has been no global warming for the last ten years. I told him that my own research has clearly demonstrated global warming over the last twelve years. (I will present some of my data in another essay.) He simply said that I was lying and had made all of my data up.

But he did not stop there. He said that the government must have paid me thousands of dollars to do my research, and that I was being paid to say that global warming was occurring. I told him that I had done my research entirely for free. I would have told him that I gathered my data about budburst dates in deciduous trees by simply writing them down almost every day for two months each of twelve years, something that required no money. But I didn’t have a chance to do this. He just called me a liar again.

Next he said that Barack Obama was an evil man, a liar, and a hypocrite because of all the fuel that he burned in Air Force One to go to Paris to sign the climate agreement. Of course, when Trump uses a lot of jet fuel to fly to his personal vacation resorts at taxpayer expense, it is just fine. According to an AP report by Chad Day, published last month, “Flying Trump to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One twice cost at least $1.2 million.” The report continues, “...documents made public Thursday by Judicial Watch are some of the first to put even part of a price tag on Trump’s frequent visits to his Palm Beach, Florida, club. The numbers reflect only the costs associated with the president’s plane, Air Force One. Not included are expenses for Secret Service protection or support vehicles provided by the Department of Defense, which must be airlifted into place.” This is just fine, according to Oklahoma Republicans, but Obama flying to Paris to sign the climate agreement was evil.

Why did the man criticize Obama flying in Air Force one? The key was that the man called Obama a hypocrite. You see, the reasoning seems to go like this. Democrats say that burning unnecessary jet fuel is bad for the climate. Republicans, however, say that they can burn all the jet fuel they want for any reason whatsoever. Therefore, if a Democrat ever burns any jet fuel at all, it is hypocrisy. For Republicans, however, it is not, since they say it is not a problem. This is like a thief saying that it is okay for him to steal money, but not okay for a person who disapproves of theft to do so.

So the only time a denialist will so much as listen to someone who disagrees with him or her is if that person lives in a hovel and is not responsible for any carbon emissions. Well, I don’t quite live in a hovel, but I am very frugal in my energy use. I didn’t get a chance to tell him this, but if I had, I imagine he would have called me a liar, just as he did regarding my research.

The man also claimed that, unless every other country in the world becomes perfect, the United States should not try to do anything at all. We will be, if he and Trump have their way, be the very last country in the world to reduce our carbon emissions. So much for America being a leader.

The man’s final attack was to say that environmentalists wanted to keep Africans poor and diseased and miserable because we want them to not have any electricity, any at all. This is, of course, not true, but I didn’t have a chance to say this. Another person who was with me started to say it, but the man refused to listen to it. We tried to tell him that locally-generated solar and wind energy makes electricity more accessible to rural African villages than would building billion-dollar power-plants, precisely because it would save the expense of thousands of miles of transmission lines from point of production to point of use.

I did get a last few words in to the wife with the kid. She told me she came to the market for safe food. I said that, even though we disagree, she was part of the solution to the climate problem. What she was doing was good for more reasons than she had known. I think she might have been inclined to agree with me on that one point—I sensed a distinct lessening of tension—but I think she did not want her husband to see her agreeing with me about anything.

There are some evolution and climate change denialists who are reasonable people, not necessarily in their approach to the information but at least in their approach to me. There are denialists who will not call me an evil liar. But they are rare enough that I think I will just stay away from any personal discussions on these subjects.


I think it is about time for this old missionary to retire. At some point, it is time to move to some place in which one is not constantly in fear of personal attack. France looks like a pretty good place, especially since the new prime minister has specifically invited climate scientists such as myself to move there. As explained above, if you accept science in Oklahoma you are subjected to the same kind of verbal attacks as black people were throughout the South in the pre-civil-rights era. If I had been black in the 1950’s and France had invited me to come, I would have taken the invitation very seriously.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Did Lucretius Foresee Natural Selection?

Historians of science often point out bits and pieces of philosophy from the ancient world that were possibly ancestral to modern science. It is not hard to find ancient philosophers who believed in an ancient world that has changed over time, which is a rudimentary form of evolution. But perhaps Darwin’s main contribution to science, and one that took a lot of his fellow scholars by surprise, was natural selection. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, natural selection brings the world of chance and the world of order together into perhaps the most powerful idea that has emerged in the history of human thought. For those of you who do not know what natural selection is, it occurs when replicators (such as organisms or ideas) have heritable diversity, and then some of them replicate more than others.

I ran across one possible precursor of the idea of natural selection in De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. His view of the universe most closely resembled that of the atomists, although he did not use this term. He believed that these atoms, or elements, or particles came together to form everything that we see in the world. But there was no divine hand assembling them together into the right or the best forms. Instead, they came together at random. Some of these random assemblages worked better than others. This would, in fact, be an ancient statement of natural selection. Lucretius did not say it quite this clearly, but…see what you think. Lines 1025-1031 of Book One of De Rerum Natura reads, referring to atoms, “…but in numbers vast, shifting now here, now there, throughout the whole, harried by blows relentless down the course of endless time, trying now this now that of motion and of union, they at last come into patterns such as those whereby this world of ours is built…” In Book Two, Lucretius says that because atoms came together to form great things in our world, they might also have done so in other worlds, and done so differently. Whether this is just a Star Trek view or a multiverse view, I cannot say, but it is an example of a rudimentary form of this idea almost two thousand years before Darwin made it explicit.


I am nearly certain that Lucretius’ ideas had little influence on the development of science. His manuscript was almost literally an example of the cliché of the last copy being saved from the kindling pile. But the strength of the idea may be illustrated by the fact that it occurred independently in more than one great mind.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Alas, Hugh Macmillan

When I took up my first, temporary, full-time faculty position (at The King’s College in 1987), I discovered some fascinating books in the library. They were exactly what I wanted to read at the time. I was (and am) a botanist, and I was also an enthusiastic evangelical Christian. (My religious views are now less specific.) They were the writings of a Scottish minister of the Free Kirk (Presbyterian) of Scotland, who was also trained as a botanist. Hugh Macmillan (1833-1903; he lived the perfect Biblical lifespan of three-score and ten)  wrote numerous books in which he saw the signature of the Creator in every aspect of the cosmos, especially in the botanical world. To him, a forest was not just a forest but a cathedral of God, and an alpine meadow (the subject of his first book, First Forms of Vegetation (first edition 1861)) was not just little plants but living creatures who defied the harshness of their environment to create green beauty. It was not just his love of God and of plants that attracted me to read book after book of his, but his passion for seeing blessings arise out of adversity, a subject on which I wrote two articles for the American Scientific Affiliation (1987 and 1989. I have seldom read books with such pleasure as I experienced from reading Hugh Macmillan. I wanted to write a biography of him, something that has apparently still not been done; I even got a grant from The King’s College Alumni Association to partially cover the costs of travel to Edinburgh to look for his biographical information (a grant that I ended up not using).



His books, which were widely published and translated into several languages, included:

  • The Ministry of Nature
  • The True Vine, or, The Analogies of Our Lord’s Allegory
  • Sabbath of the Fields
  • Two Worlds are Ours
  • The Clock of Nature
  • The Spring of the Day
  • Gleanings in Holy Fields
  • The Poetry of Plants


There is much to like in Macmillan’s approach to the natural world. He wrote a whole book about The Sabbath of the Fields, which is an ecological commandment in Exodus, inseparable from the much-vaunted Ten Commandments, to let agricultural fields rest and recover their fertility every seven years; a commandment totally ignored by today’s Bible-waving fundamentalists. Two Worlds are Ours referred to the Bible and to Nature, from both of which humans can gain inspiration. In The Clock of Nature, Macmillan noticed the seasonal patterns of organisms, a science now called phenology, which is one of my areas of expertise; and of which Rev. Gilbert White had written in the late eighteenth century in The Natural History of Selbourne, which was one of Darwin’s favorite books. Perhaps most importantly, Macmillan for the most part steered clear of the evolution controversies that attended the publication of Darwin’s works. He was also so observant and thoughtful, very much like Darwin, and very different from the broad sweeping generalizations of Herbert Spencer. Of course, Macmillan fell into a few traps, which is nearly inevitable since scientists must use the best information available, even if this information turns out to be false. Macmillan quoted Job 38:31 in the Bible, in which God challenged Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?” To Macmillan, this meant that the Pleiades were the center of the universe which, he pointed out, astronomical observations had confirmed. Oops.

But the major flaw in Macmillan’s approach was that he forced Christian beliefs upon the natural world. Unlike the prevarications of modern creationists, Macmillan’s statements were not demonstrably false, except the Pleiades statement and maybe a few others. But he imposed all of them, rather than letting the natural world inform him. I was doing the same thing at the time I read his books, of course. Macmillan was happy, and so was I, in our shared and (unlike those of modern fundamentalists) harmless delusions. It is therefore with sadness that I must say that the entire opus of Macmillan’s natural history writings was wrong. Gloriously, beautifully wrong.


But that does not mean his life was wasted. As a leader in the Free Kirk, he did a lot of good things and spiritually nourished a lot of people. Though diluted by the passing of over a century since his death in 1903, Macmillan’s influence might yet be felt in people whose lives he made better.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Introducing a New Philosophy: Real Ecology

As of this week, it is official. Trump has declared that we will part ways with the rest of the world and produce as much carbon dioxide as we possibly can. Far from just permitting coal and oil, he is encouraging it, even demanding it. The United States is going to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as possible and happily watch the environmental consequences wreak havoc on the Earth. Trump is delusional and sees Himself as the Great Messiah presiding over the End Times, which he is trying to create as rapidly as possible, in this way as in many others. I think He will enjoy watching the rest of the world, as well as many Americans, suffer.

This seems to be the appropriate time to announce a new philosophy. In 1972, Arne Naess started the Deep Ecology movement, which said that humans had no more rights than other species. He and others who followed him were careful to not seem anti-human. It is now clear that this movement did not go far enough.

Here follows the first draft of the Real Ecology view of the future.

I.                The human species

A.    Good and evil. Evolution produced a human species with amazing intellect but with a nature that consists of both love and hate, both altruism and a desire to massacre fellow humans, especially those of a different ethnicity. Human history has always consisted of both and always will. However, the hate and massacre component has always been predominant. In the past, notably evil people could cause only local destruction. Ivan the Terrible massacred an entire city (Novgorod) but was unable to massacre an entire people. Hitler massacred millions but only in Europe. Now evil people have the ability to cause worldwide destruction, because of our technology. They will, and the good people will be unable to stop them. There is utterly no hope for a peaceful human future.
B.    Environmental destruction. Humans, all over the world and throughout time, have caused environmental destruction, and always will. This destruction will continue until the ecosystems of the Earth become unsustainable, which will be followed by the collapse of civilization except in isolated places. Environmental destruction has almost always occurred as fast as it possibly could. In a few instances, as with the life of Wangari Maathai in Kenya, individual heroes and heroines have inspired widespread progress, but these examples are far too few to make any difference in the overall trend. The only thing that has slowed environmental destruction has been economic collapse. Humans have destroyed as much of the Earth as they could economically afford to.
C.    Religion. Humans are unique in having religion. The main process of religion is that leaders claim that God has given them permission, even commandments, to oppress and destroy all people whom they consider heretics, and to destroy as much of what they consider to be the Creation as they possibly can. The good side of human nature makes it difficult to actually kill a person; but because of religion, it is easy to kill a heretic. In fact, religion is the most potent force that creates a widespread sense of glee at inflicting suffering on entire heretic populations. The number of religious people who revere God’s creation and, out of respect for God, and for the good of other people, wish to maintain the ecosystems of the Earth will not only be outnumbered but wiped out by the dominant religious oppressors. Though not the only such religion, Christianity has been the most destructive religion in human history on a global scale. Religious leaders decide what they want to do, then claim that God wants them to do it; in effect, they are blasphemously using God, should one exist, as their tool. Nothing short of the extinction of this form of religion can change the inevitable outcome of misery and destruction.
D.    Science. Humans are unique in having science, but it has always been and will remain an insignificant component of human thought and action, except insofar as it contributes to the technology by which humans oppress and destroy one another and the Earth. Science has revealed the genetic unity of the human species; but, particularly when inspired by religion, humans have created as many barriers as possible, whereby they justify the destruction of other humans and the habitats on which they depend.

II.              The United States

A.    The United States is the most powerful country that has ever existed. Acts of good or evil committed by the United States have determined the course of world history starting in the second half of the twentieth century, and will continue to do so. The United States has the ability to destroy the human and natural world.
B.    The leaders of the United States, with the support of approximately half of its people, have made the decision to impose their will on the world, even if it means the destruction of that world. These leaders, particularly those who have sworn loyalty to Donald Trump, believe that they will remain safe and prosperous even in a world that they have shattered. There are a few Republican environmentalists, but they are irrelevant in their Party. The United States produces the most carbon emissions per capita, but will suffer fewer consequences of global climate change than most other countries. American leaders have decided that they will intensify this situation.
C.    Accordingly, the United States will prove to be the greatest force for evil in the history of the world and will lead the world into destruction.
D.    Other countries should not attack the United States, which has a military and a nuclear arsenal larger than those of the rest of the world combined, or attempt to change its chosen trajectory. This would be futile, especially as long as it remains under the leadership of a delusional man who does not recognize the constitutional limitations of presidency. The United States will destroy itself. With appropriate preparations, the rest of the world can contain the damage to a certain extent. The rest of the world should prepare to fill in the vacuum that will be left by the inevitable collapse of the United States.

III.            A green future

A.    Nature has always recovered profusely from human activity. It always has and it always will. Jungles grow over ruins. Wild plants and animals have even returned to the area damaged by the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl.
B.    The human species may or may not survive, but human civilization certainly will not.
C.    Therefore, there is nothing to worry about regarding the ultimate future of life on Earth.

IV.            How should we live?

A.    As individuals and as nations we must live responsibly on the planet, because this is the right thing to do. It is consistent with the good part of human nature, even though it is inconsistent with the evil part. Those of us who live in a way that shows love to our fellow humans and all other species do so because we believe it is the ultimate joy.
B.    But we do not need to worry. Nothing we can do will prevent greedy and religiously delusional people from nearly destroying the Earth. We recognize that no amount of enlightened ecological economy, no amount of love, can prevent world catastrophe. And no amount of destruction can prevent the ultimate recovery of the post-human Earth.


Though cynical, this manifesto is no more negative than the facts demand.