Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten


The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.



Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.



Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.



In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Oklahoma, You Are Famous!


I live and work in Oklahoma. It is one of the reddest and most fundamentalist states. But we could look down our noses at California and say, at least we don’t have earthquakes.

But that has changed recently. And I don’t mean over geological time. According to an article in the March 16 (2018) issue of Science, Oklahoma has had a 900-fold increase in earthquakes just since 2009. Thea Hincke, Willy Aspinall, Roger Cooke, and Thomas Gernon begin their article (“Oklahoma’s induced seismicity strongly linked to groundwater injection depth”) begins with this sentence (in the abstract): “The sharp rise in Oklahoma seismicity since 2009 is due to wastewater injection.” They indicate that Oklahoma is “the most seismically active region in the contiguous United States.”

This process, also known as “fracking,” uses high pressure wastewater to push oil out of tiny pores in the rock. To the Oklahoma government, oil production is the one and only energy policy for the future. Alternative energy, such as solar and wind, or increased energy efficiency, were unthinkable. The only possibility was to increase oil production and to keep using oil, and only oil, as inefficiently as ever, no matter what the consequences. The oil companies could get anything they wanted from the Oklahoma government, including the lowest gross production tax in the country. Of the nine major oil-producing states, Oklahoma has the lowest tax rate for oil companies, according to this graphic from okpolicy,org:



And the government of Oklahoma will do almost anything, including destruction of the quality of education, to keep that rate low, and to discourage energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. Therefore, the Oklahoma government considered fracking to be our only hope.

Starting in 2009, Oklahoma experienced a massive increase in earthquake frequency and intensity, especially in the very locations that had the most fracking, according to this graphic published in the Science article:



For several years, the government officially denied that there was any connection between fracking and earthquakes. When the state seismologist Austin Holland said that the evidence was conclusive, the dean of University of Oklahoma’s College of Earth and Energy told him that the results were unacceptable. A vast amount of the College’s funding comes from oil companies. In 2013 Holland was summoned to a meeting with OU President David Boren and Harold Hamm, CEO of an oil company, where he was also told that he should not say anything negative about fracking, according to this article in the Norman Transcript, the newspaper of the city in which OU is located. Late last year, Holland testified that this pressure was his principal reason for leaving Oklahoma. He was assured that he had complete academic freedom, but the university also had the freedom to make him shut up or leave.

In 2016, the frequency and intensity of earthquakes became so bad that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission shut down 37 fracking sites, but only after a large earthquake caused so much damage that even the oil companies could not ignore it.

According to the Science article, the chance of an earthquake is greatly reduced if the wastewater injection is kept away from the hard, base rock layer underneath the oil-bearing layers. While placing depth limits on fracking, it may be possible to continue fracking without having as many earthquakes. But my point is that it took a catastrophe for Oklahoma to even admit that fracking ever caused any earthquakes at all.

Meanwhile, residents of central Oklahoma continue to experience earthquakes. Oklahoma residents pay all the costs for the damage, while the oil companies get all the profit from the fracked oil. Support structures are beginning to tilt, and floors to crack open, even outside of the earthquake zone. We are simply used to this in Oklahoma; we simply recognize that corporations can do almost anything they want no matter what damage it may cause to ordinary citizens.

Oklahoma is now world-famous. The authors of this study were British and Dutch. Science is read worldwide. I suspect, however, that most Oklahomans do not know or care what anyone else in the world thinks about our state.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Your Evolution Professor Telling You to Read Your Bible

Many of my students are creationists and claim to be Bible believers. But many of them have not read much of the Bible. On the first day of class I always write a passage from the sermon on the mount (“Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these”). Almost none of the students, even the ones in the Jesus T-shirts, recognize it. They go to church and listen to preachers quote select passages of scripture, usually chosen to reflect Republican agenda items. Rarely if ever do members of these fundamentalist churches check up on the preachers, or read the passages that the preachers avoid.

So here is what I did. I teach at a secular university (thank God!) so I could not tell students what to think about the Bible; or even what I think about it. But I did tell them that if they believe the Bible they should read it for themselves—all of it, not just the parts their preachers quote. And they should think for themselves about what it means, rather than the interpretation the preacher insists that they believe.

Their evolution professor, telling them to read the Bible? These students have been living off of tidbits of the Bible that their preachers give them, sort of like pre-Reformation Catholics being unable to read the Latin Bible and having to just believe whatever the priests said. Only this is worse; these students do have access, in all formats (except clay tablet), to the Bible. I have, perhaps, made the Bible fully available to them for the first time, if only by irritating them to read it.

In this way, I am like John Wycliffe or Martin Luther, Protestant reformers of the late middle ages who, along with others, made the Bible available in languages the people could read. I, like them, am encouraging people to actually read the Bible.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Psychological Differences between Liberals and Conservatives


I continue writing about the study of 1,252 people by Wilhelm Hofmann et al. (Science, 2014) that I summarized in the preceding essay. One of the purposes of the study was to compare the moral values of liberals with those of conservatives.

Liberals cared more about fairness, liberty, and honesty, while conservatives cared more about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. That is, the values to which conservatives fundamentally cling are those that make them march in lock-step with one another and believe whatever their religious and political leaders tell them. Many of us would say that the moral values of liberals—try to be fair to and honest with people, and give them the liberty to live as they please, so long as they do not harm others—are superior to the moral values of conservatives, that is, to impose their moral values on other people.

In what I write next, I am going beyond the conclusions of the paper.

It is the conservative moral values that are leading our nation and world into peril. Conservatives are loyal to the Republican party and defend the authority of Donald Trump (though this was not yet the case at the time the article was published). They believe themselves to have sanctity, that is, saintliness, and for anyone who disagrees with them to be impure. Whatever their leaders tell them, they cling to it and are ready to rise up and fight any who differ from them, under the right conditions.

The values to which we liberals cling, however, are not those that are getting the world into trouble. We want to be fair to everybody: for example, it may be fair for you to have a gun, but it is fair for us to not be shot by your gun, and life is more valuable than gun possession. We liberals want liberty for everyone, but we recognize that your gun liberty is restricting our liberty to live. And we want to be honest, which is why our statements are more moderate and cautious than the simplistic and flaming rhetoric of the conservatives, and why such a breathtakingly high number of lies have issued forth from the current Republican political leaders. Practically every Trump tweet contains an easily recognizable lie. Conservatives want to be loyal to their party and to their exalted leader, and will make stuff up to bolster that loyalty.

Of course, there are spectra of liberals and of conservatives. But the liberals are more likely to recognize this. A typical conservative cannot have a decent conversation with any liberal: loyalty, authority, and sanctity are of prime importance. But I would rather have an honest conversation with a thoughtful conservative than spend time with a ranting liberal. I doubt, however, that most conservatives would prefer talking quietly to me to listening to the rants of Rush Limbaugh.

One cannot help being attracted to a political viewpoint that matches his or her psychological inclinations; but some of those inclinations endanger the future of the world, and others do not. Your desire to shoot me, and my desire to not be shot by you, may be equally the products of our inclinations; but your desire is bad, and mine is good.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) said on a February 21, 2018 news program that most mass shooters are Democrats. I wonder if she, and others like her, are beginning to stir up the moral sentiments of conservatives to begin to take physical action against liberals.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Psychological Differences between Religious and Non-Religious People


There appear to be psychological differences between liberals and conservatives—not in the sense of brain dysfunction, but in the sense of fundamental psychological values. That is, neither liberals nor conservatives arrive at their beliefs completely by reason. They base their morals on the way their psychological values incline them to see the world. We all knew this, but a 2014 article in Science (“Morality in Everyday Life,” by Wilhelm Hoffman, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka; Science 345: 1340-1343) confirm this and give us specific examples of what these values are, based on a study of 1,252 people, from whom they received 13,240 responses.

The psychological differences between liberals and conservatives was not the main purpose of the study. It was to study how the moral or immoral behavior of other people can affect your moral or immoral behavior. That is, is there a “moral contagion” in which one good deed catalyzes another? Believe it or not, you can actually study morality and immorality scientifically. Does committing moral deeds make you feel better about yourself? Does committing immoral deeds make you feel worse about yourself? And, finally, are religious people more likely than non-religious people to be moral?

Previous studies of moral values, the authors said, have been based on what they call “moral vignettes.” Subjects are interviewed by psychologists, who tell them a story with a moral dilemma and ask them what they would do. But this is highly unrealistic. What I think I might do, when I am sitting in a chair in a psychology lab, might be very different from what I would actually do. “...virtually no research has taken morality science out of these artificial settings and directly asked people about whether and how they think about morality and immorality in the course of their everyday lived experience.” That is, this study investigated the things that actually happened each day in people’s lives.

The results were unsurprising but, apparently, have not been tabulated previously. People are happier when they are the recipients of other people’s moral acts (such as care and empathy) than when they experience other people’s immoral acts; but their sense of purpose was more strongly affected by what they did rather than by what they experienced, whether positive or negative.

What about moral contagion? Yes and no. People who experienced the moral kindness of others were more likely to themselves commit a moral act of kindness. On the other hand, after people committed moral acts, they were then more likely to do something immoral, feeling that, by having done something good earlier in the day, they deserved the right to be a little immoral.

What does this have to do with evolution? Evolution has conferred upon the human brain the instincts for both good and bad behavior. Studies such as this one illustrate how both kinds of behavior are kept alive in human populations.

The other results of this study were no less interesting. Religious people were no more or less likely to commit moral acts. The only discernible difference was that religious people tended to feel more disgust at their own immoral acts (or to say that they did). The authors conclude, “religious and nonreligious people commit comparable moral and immoral deeds with comparable frequency.” So much for religion making people better.

The authors of the study concluded, “A closer, ecologically valid look at how morality unfolds in people’s natural environments may inspire new models and theories about what it means to lead the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life.” They left it to the rest of us to apply their conclusions to the world around us.

The differences between liberals and conservatives was even more interesting. But that is the topic of the next essay.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Earth First: No Wonder Students Forget Biology


Nearly every biology textbook and course begin with molecules, then cells, and work their way up through genetics to organisms, then if there is time a brief look at ecology and evolution, followed by a big section on human anatomy and physiology. If a student wants to know the relevance and importance of something, they quickly learn by the end of the first week to shut up and memorize molecules.

There have been some exceptions. Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine wrote a Prentice-Hall biology textbook in the 1990s that began with ecology, and worked its way down to cells and molecules. There is a 2010 edition of the high school version of book still available on Amazon. The college version has, as far as I can tell, gone extinct, because college biology teachers didn’t learn biology that way and do not want to teach it that way.

I also had a textbook contract for a while, and I wrote the book (and received part of a nice advance), but the book never went into production. I used a wholly original approach. I began and ended with ecology. The first chapter (after an introduction about what science is) was about the flow of energy from the sun, through the food chains, and into outer space. The second chapter was about the cycling of nutrients through the food chains. But, you may ask, how can students learn about these things without first learning about molecules and cells? Well, you don’t have to know much about molecules and cells in order to understand food chains. Then, starting with the third chapter, I worked up from cells to organisms and then ended with communities and ecosystems. That is, I began with autecology and ended with synecology. For synecology, you do have to know a lot about organisms, but for autecology, all you have to know is that plants eat sunshine and hawks eat little animals and decomposers eat everything after it dies.

By beginning and ending with ecology, I placed humans in the context of the Earth. Earth first. There was no escaping it. Ecology could not be skipped.

I did some other original things also. The anatomy and physiology chapters were built around certain ideas, such as exchange of molecules coming in and going out of the organism; integration of processes within the body; and response to environment. Both plants and animals have to do all of these things, but in different ways. Therefore, each chapter had both plant and animal anatomy and physiology. In this way I could explain how, in many ways, an animal is an inside-out plant.

At first, the publisher signed me up and was excited about how different my approach was. Then one of the editors did a chapter-by-chapter lineup of my book with other texts and said, “Um, your chapters don’t line up with theirs.” Of course, that was kind of the point, I thought.

In general, the reviewers were positive about the book. They probably would not have been positive enough, however, to change their whole class and lab schedule to fit in with it. My book would probably have gone the way of the worthy efforts of Miller and Levine. Alas, for marketing reasons, the publisher probably made the right decision to just pay me off and not go into production.

Gordon Orians also took an original approach in his biology textbook. It had three parts: Time, energy, and information. He built the whole science of biology around these three organizing principles. He said, in a symposium I helped to organize back in 1993, that his book got no adoptions, “and I mean that literally.”

All of us maverick textbook writers, however, might be able to trace our roots back to the “BSCS Green Version” of High School Biology. (BSCS was the Biological Curriculum Study Committee.) There was also a Blue Version, which followed the “molecules to man” organization. The Green Version, however, began with placing the student out in nature and having him or her look around and think about what they saw. It began with a rabbit and a raspberry bush. Right there, you have all the ecological interactions, including the rabbit hiding from predators under the bush. Before the end of the first chapter, the student’s eyes were opened to the wonder of the world. Well, that’s the way it worked for me, when I read that chapter back in high school.

“Rabbits. They keep turning up, in nursery tales and comic strips, in candy shops and cabbage patches....and we know about raspberries...about the bushes along the roadside, which tear skirts and trousers and make a fine place for rabbits to hide.” Page one! And by page two the concepts of producers and consumers, and ecological balance, are introduced.

Modern biology textbooks are thick with condensed information. The textbook we use in general biology at my university is "short," a MERE 620 pages not counting glossary and index. But it is short because the information is crammed in, not because it is readable. My students don’t read them. I don’t read them. We use an occasional diagram, such as the genetic code. The only thing we use is the online, computer-graded assignments. If I had begun science with one of those books, instead of a rabbit and a raspberry bush, I might not have become a scientist at all.

This is Stan Rice, reporting to you from the graveyard where I sit with Miller, Levine, Orians, and BSCS.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Welcome Back to the Cold War


Today, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States, not just because of its nuclear weapons but because of enhanced delivery systems. The Cold War has returned. Those of you who were born after about 1990 have grown up in a world in which mutual assured destruction has always been a possibility but nobody ever thought about it much. The reason for this was because the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia focused more on its own economic development than on wanting to destroy America. Also, at that time, we had a president who was a moderate and thoughtful Republican (George H. W. Bush). But now, narcissistic egomaniacs are in control of both America (Donald Trump) and Russia (Vlad).

I grew up with the threat of nuclear destruction of the world. It didn’t happen. While it is unlikely to happen now or ever, the imminent possibility has returned. All that either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin have to do is have a conniption fit and press the button.

Actually, it is not quite that simple. Only the president can authorize a nuclear strike. He broadcasts an encoded message to missile crews (the message, conveniently enough, is about as long as a tweet, Trump’s beloved form of communication). After that point, there is probably no chance to stop total nuclear annihilation. The five missile crews open safes to verify that the launch code sent by the president matches the one in the safe, to make sure that the order is not from a hacker. According to this report the five crews have to turn their keys at the same time. Then the report says, “There are five different keys, but only two need to be turned to launch the missiles.” Therefore, the president cannot launch a nuclear strike if everyone thinks he is crazy. But Trump has enough people who believe everything he says that it is not at all unthinkable for two keys to be turned to release The End of the World. And the Russian chain of command is even more mindlessly worshipful of Vlad than the American chain of command is of The Donald.

Evolution has given us brains that respond to imminent threat with quick and thoughtless attack. Not until the 1950s was it possible for such instinctual reactions to endanger the entire planet. For a few brief years, from 1990 until March 1, 2018, it remained possible but very unlikely. Now we are back to the panic mode. Living in a constant panic mode can erode your health. But in the evolutionary past, nobody lived long enough for this to be a problem.

We owe a big thanks to Trump and Putin for bringing the world back to the point in which the end of the world could begin at any moment.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined


It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Would We Rather Go to War than to Recycle?


We need aluminum (for those of you in the UK, it’s aluminium). Lots of it. It is a light and strong metal. To make new aluminum, you begin with bauxite ore, and use a lot of electricity. But to recycle aluminum, you start with aluminum, and use ten times less electricity than it takes to make it from bauxite.

In addition to the energy used to refine bauxite into aluminum, there is also the fact that the largest bauxite reserves are in countries that often have low industrial capacity and do not use very much aluminum. They are small countries that would not be able to put up much resistance if a country like the USA told them we wanted their bauxite. The largest reserves (7.4 billion metric tons) are in Guinea, a small poor African nation. Brazil has 3.6, Vietnam 2.1, and Jamaica 2.0 billion metric tons. The only significant industrial power with large bauxite deposits is Brazil, with 3.6 billion metric tons. Industrial countries have far less: China has 0.8, Russia has 0.2, and the USA has only 0.04 billion metric tons of bauxite reserves.

Our extravagant use of raw aluminum, while throwing used aluminum into landfills, makes economic sense only because we can get new aluminum from smaller countries. What if these countries decided to charge more money for it, or preferred to sell the bauxite to one of our competitors, such as China? Would we go to war for bauxite rather than to recycle what we already have? I wonder how many Americans are lazy and selfish enough that they would prefer to see an aluminum war rather than to take a few extra moments and a few extra steps to recycle aluminum cans? Half of our federal budget is for the military. How many Americans consider half of our tax money (and the money we borrow from other places), and the lives of our fellow Americans in the military, to be expendable so that we can throw whatever we like in the garbage? Go ahead. Next time you see a soldier, tell her or him that you would rather see them engaged in open conflict than for you to recycle, then tell yourself what a patriot you are.

There are a lot of rare and expensive metals in cell phones. One example is gold. At present, it is cheaper to mine gold from ore than it is to recycle it from electronic equipment. But that is only because, first, we ignore the environmental costs of gold mining, such as at the big mine in Australia shown in the figure, and second, we assume that we will never run out of ore. It is easy (in most places) to recycle old cell phones; electronics stores have receptacles for them, and some will even pay you for them. But Americans prefer to throw them away: ninety percent of them. Would we, perhaps, be willing to go to war for gold rather than to recycle it?




Some of those elements you heard about in high school chemistry actually have some very important uses. Praseodymium, for example, is a component of metal used in aircraft engines. Cerium is used as a catalyst to refine petroleum. Lanthanum is used in carbon arc lights such as those used in projectors. Neodymium is used in welders’ goggles. Samarium is part of the crystals used in optical lasers, and absorbs neutrons in nuclear reactors. Gadolinium is used in color picture tubes and magnetic resonance imaging. These are highly specialized but very important uses.

The reason I chose these particular metals is that Afghanistan has raw ores for these metals—a trillion dollars’ worth.

Though not a chemist, I can imagine that recycling these metals must be difficult, much more so than recycling aluminum. Imagine getting neodymium out of old welder’s goggles. At what point does it become cost-effective to recycle rare metals? The answer depends, of course, on the availability of raw ores for these metals. If Afghanistan will allow American corporations to mine their ores, and let us do so for cheap, then our industrial and political leaders will probably choose to use new, rather than recycled, rare metals.

But Afghanistan seems to be continually at war; America has had a very active and expensive military presence since 2002. When industrial leaders make their calculations for investing in rare metal mining in Afghanistan, they assume that American military presence will be available to protect them for free, that is, at taxpayer expense.

And, of course, our economic competitors such as China want these metals too.

This brings up the uncomfortable possibility that America might be willing to go to war for raw ores of these important rare metals rather than recycling them. We may choose to go ahead and throw away all those metals and, if we start to run out of them, just go to war and take what we need. As any black or Native American can tell you, American history consists largely of the white American government and economic leaders benefiting from the forced labor of, or taking land and all its resources away from, people of color. I am not suggesting that our current Afghan war is motivated by the desire for these metals at this time. One the other hand, maybe it is, or will soon be.

A war for raw mineral ores can be avoided by recycling, which is very easy to do for aluminum, very difficult to do for neodymium, but always possible.

Recycling is the right thing to do for world peace.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mining the Middens

Wouldn’t you just love to take one of my classes? Oh, the field trips I have taken students on! Not so much anymore, because of liability and financial issues, but in the past. I have taken students to such wonderful places as sewage plants and landfills.

I took an environmental science class from Wheaton College Science Station (almost 13 years ago) to the Rapid City dump. We got to experience it with all our senses. The landfill director told us that there was probably a million dollars’ worth of aluminum in the landfill. Two of my entrepreneurial students instantly began discussing plans to recover it. Of course, they didn’t follow through once they realized what the cost of recovery would be. If you want to get that million dollars, you need to get it before it enters the landfill.

The archaeology books all tell us that some of the richest sources of information about ancient and prehistoric human life is garbage heaps, tastefully called kitchen middens. While the great monuments and cave paintings proclaim what people of those times wanted others, including us perhaps, to think about them. Trash heaps tell it like it is. Archaeologist Bill Rathje is already using our landfills to study our recent history. You want to know what people ate? Look for bones and seeds in their trash piles. You want to know what they consider valuable? Look for what they did not throw out. What do you find when you look at our trash piles? You see that we are throwing away the future.

First, even where it is illegal, people still throw thousands of tons of toxic waste into the garbage and then it goes to the landfill. Some of the toxins, such as heavy metals, never decompose. We do not care if seepage contaminates the water sources of other people besides ourselves today, much less people of the future.

Second, we throw away so many things that have value. Recycling is often a more economical source of materials than manufacture from raw materials. The only reason that, in many cases, recycled paper is more expensive than paper from freshly-killed trees is that the trees are either raised in plantations using sometimes ecologically unsound techniques or the National Forest Service is willing to sell them to timber companies dirt cheap. (Actually, soil is valuable. Try replacing it once it has eroded away.) The only reason that rare metals such as germanium may be cheaper to mine and refine than to recycle is that the taxpayers are paying for military operations in Afghanistan, which has immense deposits of rare metals, and one result of this is that we can have access to those metal ores (more on this in the next essay).

So if someone says that recycling isn’t cost effective, ask some questions, such as:

  • How did you calculate the cost effectiveness of recycling vs. use of raw materials?
  • How did you calculate the cost of depleting supplies and dumping poisons on future generations—or did you do any such calculations?



What will future archaeologists (if any; humans may survive but civilization may not) think when they dig up our trash heaps? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age, Electronic Age, Garb-Age. They will marvel out how little value we placed upon our planet, upon our fellow humans, and upon or descendants.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Some Thoughts on Evolution from My Students

I gave my students extra credit on the final exam for my Evolution course in Fall 2017 if they shared their thoughts about evolution and religion. I wanted to pass a few of them on to you. I did not require them to agree with me; they could write anything they wanted and get credit, so long as they gave reasons for their beliefs. Remember, my university is in rural Oklahoma. Very few of the students actually had to take the course; it was a self-selected sample of students taking an elective. There were actually more anti-religious than religious students. The samples below are from the more thoughtful answers, often some combination of creation and evolution.

“I believe the theories and approaches of evolution are scientific fact, proven to be right, therefore, un-arguable. Evolution has shown prediction of how life flourishes and expands. Personally, I still believe there is a greater “force” that drives life and consciousness, and our intelligence is trying to hint to us there is something more, even if it’s not a white man with a beard.”

“Jesus—Done…I’m kidding. I am a Christian, so I do believe that God created existence. I think that God answers the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Why was there a big bang? Why was there a first cell? Why was there anything? Science can explain how, but not why. That is why I believe in creationism. With that said though, I also know evolution occurs. I mean come on, the evidence is strong for it. I do think that some of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic…”

“I am a Christian…However, I believe that evolution occurred and is still occurring today…We have billions of years of evidence suggesting its validity, so who am I to say it’s wrong. I’ve seen a catfish walk from one pond to another, this makes me believe that they could have stayed on land like Tiktaalik.”

“…if I was to create something then why not create a natural law to creation so you don’t have to keep changing things…Either way I shall always have an open mind and learn.”

“I am a Christian but my belief system isn’t anchored to the infallible bible. I…see the Bible as a book of wisdom…That being said, I believe that God created all that is and allowed the laws of nature to form life as we know it…There is no need to attack timelines because what God gave us was love for one another and never intended on us fighting over when things happened.”

“I have yet to understand why our origin story wants to be dictated by so many institutions. Rather I wish we could look back and appreciate just how amazing the story of our earth and species is. Instead of argue about it, why don’t we try and figure out more about it.”

“I was raised Southern Baptist and thought about salvation…the divine, etc. I had an early traumatic event when I was left alone in my house when 3-4 years old—I, literally, thought I slept through the rapture and was left behind, I went wandering outside crying and could not find anyone…I continued going to church, but things kept happening that made me question everything I’d been told…While I respect the beliefs of individuals I’ve found it increasingly hard because I do not understand how a person can be content…not questioning something that makes up such a large part of our identity…”

“I don’t believe evolution…Science does not care about opinions, it only is concerned with fact. The fact is that evolution has occurred…The idea of a god creating all life that we know is truly insulting to the billions of years of history of life fighting to survive.”


“I don’t know.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New Wine in Old Wineskins

In their 1981 book The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch and John B. Cobb wrote, “It is remarkable how much new wine we can put into old wineskins.” Making reference to the metaphor used by Jesus, they meant that humans have shown limitless creativity when it comes to cramming new discoveries into old world views.

This book, rather tedious and not much read today, a theologian and a biologist joined forces to examine how a spiritual view of life—not a view based on religious doctrine, but on spiritual sensitivity—might transform both religion and science. I’m afraid I missed most of their points, even when I re-read the marginalia I wrote back when I originally read it. But I want to share a couple of insights that these authors presented.

One of these ideas, which sounds like something from the writings of Ernst Mayr, is that it was not so much the idea of evolution by which science changed our view of the world as it was population biology. In the earliest days of science, the “balance of nature” view prevailed. In this view, providence maintained populations and species by creating them with different birth rates. Balance was maintained because prey reproduced rapidly and predators reproduced slowly. This was a view expressed by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Today we understand that there is a struggle for existence, as Darwin called it, and that the rapid reproductive rate of many prey species has evolved as a response to predators. That is, from the pre-Darwinian view, Darwin not only disrupted belief in the orderly realm of supernatural creation by saying that life evolved, but he upset belief in the balance of nature by writing chapter 3 of the Origin: The Struggle for Existence. Darwin’s opponents tried and failed to put new ideas, about the struggle for existence, into old balance-of-nature world view.

Another example is one that remains with us today: the idea of limitless growth. We talk as if we believe that the world economy, and the economy of each country, should grow forever without limit. The alternative gets labeled “stagnation” rather than “equilibrium.” But, as Birch and Cobb pointed out, nobody really believes this. We all know we live on a planet of limited resources. In some cases technology can raise the limits, as with breeding and the invention of fertilizers that boosted crop production. But we all know that we have to make the transition to a sustainable economy—as a whole planet, and as separate countries. The consequences are sobering: the economic and political leaders of the world are lying to us and they know it. And we progressives play right along with it when we say that a sustainable economy, based on solar energy, will continue to allow unlimited growth. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.


The old wineskin of the balance of nature was born from a view of the Earth as a peaceable garden, like Gilbert White’s garden (The Natural History of Selbourne), and the old wineskin of unlimited growth was born from the period when empires were expanding. Empires could expand only because the cultures with powerful military forces conquered and usually killed the people who had less military strength. We need new wineskins (new concepts) in our world. Actually, they are no longer new, but as 2018 begins, we find that they remain largely unaccepted.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Shift in the World

It may not seem like the most important news of recent times, but I believe that Trump’s recent declaration that countries with dark people are “shithole nations” marks a major shift in the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world—not just with the countries that Trump insulted, but also with our European allies. As of this writing, Trump has refused to apologize for his words. (He admits insulting other countries, and only denies using the word shit.) He never apologizes for anything. He just blames Hillary for everything he says.

No longer does the United States, embodied now in the figure of Trump, oppose only its enemies such as North Korea or its economic rivals such as China. Trump, who insists that he is a “very stable genius,” has made it clear that he hates every country that is not pure white. Clearly, the United States no longer wants other countries as friends. We Americans want them to either hate us or to fear us or both.

It is not just Trump. The entire Republican Party, even if not completely sharing Trump’s sentiments, has supported him. America elected him, and knew what kind of person he was when doing so.

The majority non-white countries of the world have been pushed away from the table of friendship with America. Naturally, they will turn to one another for cooperation. And the majority-white European countries such as France and Germany must be perfectly ready to form coalitions with these countries. Perhaps even more importantly, when the United States insults most of the world, the Russians and Chinese will say, “Come and join with us, make special trade arrangements with us, at least we will not insult you.”

I do not mean the other countries of the world will become military enemies of America. But, starting now, and increasingly with time, they will consult with each other but only negotiate with the United States. It is quite clear to them that there is no point in talking with America except from a position of their own solidarity and power. We do not need to be at war with the other countries of the world in order to be overpowered by them.

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s classic novel The Human Factor, about a British double-agent who defects to the Soviet Union. But this man was not a communist. He thought communism was evil. Why, then, did he do it? He did it because, when he was a representative of the British government in South Africa, he fell in love with an African woman. In South Africa, love between blacks and whites was illegal. He had to escape from South Africa in order to marry the woman. The only people who were willing to help him escape were the communists, and in gratitude to them for this help—not because he agreed with their politics—he became a double agent. (Leave it to Graham Greene to make a spy novel into an empathetic exploration of the human spirit.)

In a similar fashion, the countries that will begin to form an alliance against America—whether a few or many or all other countries—do not necessarily disagree with democracy nor do they necessarily agree with Russia or China. They will do it primarily because America hates them.

I imagine a future in which the other countries of the world form a new version of the United Nations, one in which America is not invited to participate. As I have so often said in this evolution blog, human altruism has been the greatest achievement of evolution. It will continue into the future, but the form in which it continues may be as mutual aid among countries who have had their fill of American hatred and arrogance.


And I think that future historians will look back and see that this shift started to take organized form in early 2018.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Welcome Again!

I began this blog in late 2009. For those of you who have begun reading this blog more recently, I would like to continue summarizing some of the previous entries. The first entry for 2017 summarized some of the 2009 and 2010 entries..

I now review some entries from 2011. Please check them out!

  • January12, 2011. Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Three. Goldilocks’s Earth. A continued overview of the ways in which Earth got lucky in its evolution.
  • January19, 2011. Parasite Load. Financial corporations are parasitic upon us the same way that parasites can build up to deadly levels on a host.
  • Starting on February 11, 2011, I posted four entries called The Evolved Capacity for Evil, all based on Barbara Oakley’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.
  • Starting on March 14, 2011, and through April 16, I posted a series of eight reports, My Fun Creationist Weekend, about the weird things I learned from visiting local creationist museums: The Creationist Museum in Rural Oklahoma; Noah’s Ark! Wow!; Into the Land of the Dinosaur Preacher; The Lost Paradise of Carl Baugh; Mysteries of the Cretaceous World at the Baugh Museum; Lies and Damned Lies at the Creationist Museum; The Ghost of Marlyn Clark; and a final instalment.
  • April 26,2011. Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Ples—Your Cabin is Number 10,587,282A. Where would human evolutionary ancestors have fit on the Ark—in the animal pens, or in a cabin?
  • I posted two entries, the first on May 13, 2011, about John Avise’s book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design.
  • Starting on May 27, 2011, I posted a series of four essays that remain even now one of the most extensive critical reviews of the Near Death Experience and how it is an internally-generated experience by the victim rather than a vision into the afterlife. Yes, I present the evidence. I really wanted to believe there is an afterlife, I still do, but my arguments remain unanswered. I also speculate about how it could have evolved.
  • If you want to read about the meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution at the University of Oklahoma, I have a series of entries starting June 22, 2011.
  • On August 19, 2011, I posted an essay, What Rick Perry Thinks about Science, which I assumed would be part of the dustbin of history by 2018, but sadly it is not.
  • Starting on September 1, 2011, I posted a series of brief excerpts from my book, published the next year by Prometheus Books, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World. I think you would enjoy the book, still available for purchase, but alternatively you can check out the essays I posted from it. The first essay is Hurry up and Wait, about how evolution is sometimes fast and sometimes slow.
  • Starting on October 7, 2011, I published a series of five essays called Dinosaur Adventure, my first visit to the Paluxy River with Glen Kuban. This is the set of dinosaur trackways that creationists claim include human footprints. But there are a lot of things to learn from them besides just the tired old conclusion that creationists are wrong. See the photos!
  • On November 10, 2011, I posted an essay, Darwin Has a Sense of Humour. Did you know there was a really funny passage in The Descent of Man? Check it out.


I would like to call attention to an entry I posted on May 24, 2011, about altruism, and how it is fundamental to our human species. Let me repost a brief passage from it:

“On a news program on NPR, one of [the richest people in America] called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.”

I plan to continue the work I started in 2009 as long as I can. Happy New Year to you, too!