Friday, July 19, 2019

A Science Utopia? Visions of Arthur C. Clarke, part two. Constrained by Evolution

The fiftieth anniversary of the first moonwalk is tomorrow!

Last time, I posted about some utopian visions from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 book “July 20, 2019,” which is the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon walk. Some of Clarke’s ideas have happened, and some were laughably off target. Since Clarke was better than anyone else at speculating about the future, that meant that we were probably all off target in the 1980s.

But why did Clarke get some of these things wrong?

Some of Clarke’s off-target predictions were caused by his assumption that humans would, in general, do what was best for the world. Both history and the process of evolution tell us that the technological advances that occur are those that make some individuals rich, even if it makes life worse for most people in the world. For example, Clarke assumed, reasonably enough, that robots can do factory jobs better than humans. You don’t have to pay them, they never get tired, and they won’t sue you. Clarke predicted, “No factory jobs will be left in 2019.” But the simple fact is that there are millions of very poor people who will work for almost nothing; such workers really are cheaper than robots. Clarke also predicted that there will be “more leisure and discretionary income for many workers.” But natural selection, applied to societies, assures that this could not occur. Workers compete for jobs, and the workers who are willing to take almost-full-time jobs (without benefits) and work at night and on weekends and vacations will get the jobs.

Despite his usual hard-headed careful thinking, Clarke shared some misconceptions that are still widespread. He wrote that overpopulation requires “emigration to distant terrains.” Sounds simple enough; too many people here on Earth, send them to the moon. But a few figures show the absurdity of this belief. The population of Earth has a net annual increase of about 80 million people. (Back in 1969, it was even greater, about 100 million.) There is not enough money in the world to send 80 million people a year to the moon and keep them alive. If, as Clarke predicted, world population growth would have stopped in 1990, something he should have known in 1986 would be impossible, then this whole reason for space colonization would be nonexistent.

Here is possibly the most important point. “Who could have known in 1969,” wrote Clarke, “that the Apollo mission would leave man unchanged?” The answer to this question reveals exactly why so many of Clarke’s predictions were wrong: Humans are the product of millions of years of evolution, and this includes our behavior. One reason that metal bodies of vehicles (as opposed to fuel-efficient fiberglass bodies) still exist is that tough redneck guys consider big metal trucks to be essential to their self-identity. One reason we will never have fake mental sex replace real sex (as Clarke predicted) is that many men use real sex not just for fun but for dominance. Clarke speculated that there would still be wars in 2019 but they would be fought by robots. This has not happened, in part because humans, at least males, like to play the fantasy role of the great warrior, and do not want to let robots do all of it for them. Our future, just like our past, will be constrained by evolution.

The conclusion I reach from Clarke’s book is that, fifty years after the first moonwalk, human nature is unchanged. Therefore the world is even more dangerous and unstable than it was when Clarke wrote in 1986.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Science Utopia? "July 20, 2019" Visions of Arthur C. Clarke, part one.

In 1986, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book entitled “July 20, 2019.” I think it is just the right time for us to take a look at this book.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) is best remembered as a science fiction writer (especially 2001, A Space Odyssey). One of the reasons that he was a great writer was that he thought seriously about the implications of technological developments. Many people foresaw the development of advanced computers, but Clarke invented the computer HAL that passed the intelligence threshold and took control of a space ship.

Though Clarke was insightful and honest about the unexpected problems that might result from technological advance, his 1986 book entitled July 20, 2019 was mostly technological optimism. I recently read this book, and took notes on it with a 50-year-old pencil on a 20-year-old sheet of scratch paper while propped up reading in a 30-year-old bed. This date is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Neil Armstrong moonwalk.

When humans first walked on the moon, anything seemed possible. Among the people who felt this way was, apparently, Clarke, and he still felt that way in 1986. Now that July 20, 2019 has arrived, we can look at Clarke’s predictions and see how close he came.

As Clarke noted, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Clarke’s predictions were much closer than such predictions would have been on July 20, 1969, and certainly better than predictions made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (Paris au XXe siècle). Of course, Clarke was a little off. I’m not criticizing him, but I think an examination of his predictions will teach us something interesting about life and the world.

Some of his predictions were clear extensions of 1986 technology.

  • He knew videotapes would be replaced by a hard digital medium, which he called vidules.
  • In 1986 there were already word processing systems, and Clarke foresaw programs that would tell you when what you wrote was wrong. This technology has come, to the extent that some of us find it annoying.
  • He predicted that hospitals would be competing for patients; that laser surgery would be routine; and that there would be more women doctors. He foresaw more home medical tests, the results of which you could type into a computer, which would send them to your doctor.
  • Clarke foresaw roboticized homes: homes with robot vacuum cleaners, homes that could detect your mood and make automatic adjustments in temperature or even play the most appropriate background music. “The house of 2019 will take care of its owner’s every need.”
  • Clarke foresaw the end of metallic cars.
  • Clarke described international space stations—numerous, not just one.

As you can see, he was not too far off on the above predictions.

In addressing entertainment, Clarke said that the future would be fun. He did not perhaps foresee YouTube and blogs, but he said computers would allow individuals to create and publicize their own work. The only thing about which he was wrong was that he predicted television programs would dub the viewers’ faces into the actors’ bodies.

Most of Clarke’s predictions sounded unbelievable when he made them but were within the realm of the possible.

  • Clarke wrote, “I’ll be only 102 in 2019, which by then will be no unusual age.” Medical research might very well have been able to allow people to live far beyond age 100.
  • Clarke envisioned a commercial moon base, that is, one that was profitable, rather than just a massive drain on the NASA budget. The work on these bases would primarily be done by self-replicating robots. Manufacturing might very well be easier in reduced gravity. We could have done this, though I am not sure that it would have been worth the effort and cost.
  • Scientists knew that neural circuits produced effects that could be measured from outside of the skull. Today, this is the whole basis of brain scans. Clarke envisioned that information from such scans could be used to control the movement of, say, an artificial limb. This is now becoming reality, however far-fetched it seemed in 1986.
  • Clarke foresaw great changes in education, especially that distance education would begin to replace schools. Course papers would be graded and returned by computer. But he was wrong in saying that this education could consist of a professor lecturing (a hologram professor, no less).
  • Clarke predicted that maglev (magnetic levitation) trains would be common—and maybe they could have been, were it not for the self-interest and political power of fossil fuel corporations. He foresaw fusion power, which turned out to be harder to produce than anyone might have guessed.

In some cases, the predictions were almost laughably off target. Most of these had to do with brain technology.

Clarke makes the assumption that everything about our behavior and feelings results from some structural or chemical condition in the brain. True this may be, but Clarke thought that the solutions to all of our mental stresses therefore had straightforward solutions. In 2019, Clarke said, “a mind engineer can look inside your brain and see your insecurities in Technicolor.” He said we would know which drugs were “guaranteed to make your head a nicer place in which to live.” An Oedipus complex could be cured with Oedipills. One pill (mnemosyne) to make you remember, another (nepenthe) to make you forget. Drugs, coupled with the implantation of false memories, can make you forget your miserable past and believe nice, nice things about yourself. Implantation of false memories could, he said, turn bigots into nice people. There would even be a drug (dionysiax) “to shake up a straight-laced libido.” And another drug to eliminate the fear of death once it had become inevitable. At the time, Ecstasy had just been invented, and Clarke wrote about it as if there was no down side to this development. There would be machines to entrain your brain waves to not only eliminate insomnia but also to allow lucid dreaming. In this way, you could go into your own head and purge recurring nightmares. You could even share dreams with a community of other people, including lucid, shared erotic dreams. He thought 2019 would be right in the middle of “the orgasmic age.” (This is not what I expected from Arthur C. Clarke.) These mental experiences, he predicted, would replace religion.

In fact, Clarke speculated that by 2019 the world would be a sexual paradise, without any bad consequences. The reason for this is that most of the bad consequences of uninhibited sex in the twentieth century and, as it turns out, the twenty-first—sexual disease, unintended pregnancy, sexual assault, etc.—resulted from the sex act itself, which by 2019 would be replaced by electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center. If not that, then, for men, a rectal implant that would stimulate penis nerves. I assume Clarke meant that even masturbation would be obsolete by 2019.

I did not make any of these things up.

In the next essay, I will continue the exploration of what Arthur C. Clarke thought the world might be like in 2019.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Flowers: They Aren't Just Pretty

I have posted a new video in the series Silent Struggle of Plants: Flowers, TheyAren’t Just Pretty.

In this video, we take a close look at a trumpet creeper flower (Campsis radicans), an abundant summertime vine in much of the United States. It is certainly a pretty flower. But flowers have to pay for themselves, or else the plant loses its investment in the marketplace of evolutionary struggle, as explained in the previous essay. A plant that spends too much on its flowers faces extinction as surely as a plant that spends too little.

In particular, a flower has to be a successful advertisement to pollinators. The trumpet creeper uses its bright red color to attract hummingbirds from far away, and offers a reward of pollen and nectar at the bottom of a long tube that is perfectly suited to the hummingbird’s long bill. (Of course, no hummingbirds dared to visit during this video.) Other pollinators tend to ignore trumpet creepers; bees, for example, cannot see red, and they tend to not notice these flowers.

I hope to show in this video—and in the next one also—that flowers aren’t just pretty, but are an investment in successful reproduction. A plant cannot afford to produce showy, but useless, flowers.

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Silent Struggle of the Leaves!

I have posted another video in a series, The Hidden Lives of Plants. This inaugural video is the Silent Struggle of the Leaves! The URL is here.

Join me out in a peaceful forest. Actually, it is not peaceful; there are silent struggles going on. I don’t just mean spiders eating insects down where you cannot see them. Animals are not the only organisms that hunt, hide, fight, and feast. The plants do so also, slowly and silently.

Plants deploy their leaf area in order to get sunlight for photosynthesis, which is how they make their food. Natural selection rewards the plants that do this the best. But these are not necessarily the plants that make the most leaf tissue or leaf area. Leaves have to pay for themselves; they must produce enough food to make up for their construction and maintenance costs. Any plant that produces too much leaf material would risk losing the game of natural selection as surely as a plant that produces too little.

That is, the silent arena for struggle in a forest is not so much a battlefield as it is a marketplace.

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

An Independence Day Message from Charles Darwin

How do you celebrate Independence Day? My way of commemorating American history was to visit one of the sites that have preserved the memory of the Trail of Tears, a shameful chapter in American history. Americans tend to forget about the dark side of their history during all of the fireworks, beer, and bloody barbecues.

The Cherokee Tribe keeps alive the memory of the Trail of Tears. In 1838, the federal government under Andrew Jackson (the president so highly esteemed by Donald Trump) forced nearly the entire Cherokee tribe to abandon their homes and lives in eastern Tennessee and adjacent regions and walk (a few rode in wagons) to what is now Oklahoma. One of these many thousands of Cherokees was my great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Hildebrand Pettit, who came with her children on the Hildebrand route of the Trail of Tears. They camped for a couple of very cold weeks in winter at a place called Mantle Rock, waiting for the Ohio River to open up enough for the ferry to take them to Illinois where they continued their journey. I regularly visit Elizabeth’s grave, and have now visited Mantle Rock.

The Cherokees like to talk of the Trail of Tears as a Cherokee experience, although Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles also had their Trails of Tears to Oklahoma. Indeed, similar stories can be told for the approximately five hundred Native tribes. We do not think of the United States as causing the forced marches of refugees, but that is a part of our history, even though an Oklahoma congressman recently referred to the Trail of Tears as a voluntary walk. We pretend we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are, for rich white people, which included most of my ancestors. But not for black slaves. And not for Elizabeth, or her daughter Minerva, who married my great great grandfather Lewis Hicks.

I have posted a video about Mantle Rock, where I explain (in Darwin persona) that human nature has elements of good and evil. We have evolved to be good to those inside our group and evil to those outside. The inside group might be our tribe or our religion. Through human history, we have expanded the boundary outward, to include more people in the inside group: first whole countries, then lots of countries (such as the failed League of Nations or the current European Union), the whole world (the United Nations), and some people even include non-human animals or whole ecosystems.

But in recent years, many nations (most notably America) have retracted the boundary. Many Americans now consider those from outside their country to be unworthy of the most basic human dignity, and those outside their party (or even their extreme faction in their party) to be unworthy of any respect. We are rapidly retreating backwards in history in this particular way. Evolution has given us the ability to expand the boundary between “us” and “them” outward, but we are pulling it back inward.

This is what I am thinking about this Independence Day.

Today, millions of refugees are forced from their homes to places that do not welcome them. The United States is one of the countries that does not welcome them. If their skin is dark, there is practically no way they can enter as refugees. We continue to welcome white refugees.

Back in the 1980s Tulsa welcomed a bunch of Burmese refugees from the Zomi tribe. I am a minority in their neighborhood. Good neighbors! But that was a long time ago.

The video is on my YouTube channel.

I post below some of the images of Mantle Rock, a hauntingly beautiful place now maintained by the Nature Conservancy.

Here is the original Trail:

Here is a photo of Berry’s Ferry, the location where the Hildebrand contingent finally crossed the Ohio River.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Poison Ivy Isn't Poison

Yes, you heard that right. Poison ivy is not poison. I recently posted a YouTubevideo in which I cuddle up next to a poison ivy plant (they are ubiquitous in Oklahoma) to address this topic.

Plants—all plants, all the time—are engaged in a silent struggle for existence. You cannot see it, especially in a peaceful forest, but you can imagine it. Leaves contain thousands of different chemicals that are mildly or very toxic to herbivores. This makes perfect sense, because any plant that did not defend its leaves against herbivores—any leaf that said, “Come and eat me!”—would quickly disappear down the gullets of extinction. Each kind of plant has its own cocktail of poisons.

But when a plant defends its leaves, it is an investment decision. Plants that produce too much defensive chemical, and thus waste their precious resources, risk extinction just as surely as a plant that produces too little. A leaf has to pay for itself by photosynthesis, but also by not having excessive maintenance costs, including defense.

None of this, however, explains poison ivy. In poison ivy and related species within the genus Toxicodendron, a set of chemicals collectively called urushiol harm humans, but not most other mammals. According to this scholarly article (which can be downloaded here), “Deer, goats, mice, and other mammals readily eat poison ivy foliage without apparent discomfort.” I have seen squirrels eating the berries. Clearly, urushol is not a metabolic poison.

The human immune system reacts to urushiol as if it is a pathogen. That is, urushiol is an allergen, not a poison. Poison ivy itch is a massive allergy. Some people are more allergic to urushiol than others, just as is the case with other allergens such as pollen (hay fever), gluten, etc. But why does poison ivy affect only humans? It seems incredible to me that humans might have exerted an evolutionary pressure on poison ivy sufficient to select for the urushiol response.

As far as I can tell, no one has explained why poison ivy plants produce urushiol. It must have some function unrelated to defense. There will always be mysteries and unanswered questions in science!

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Allure of Science

In the eyes of most people, science has a lofty allure. Even people who do not like the conclusions and beliefs of scientists feel this way. Why is this?

The ideal scientists zealously pursue the truth about the natural world, relentlessly cutting away the prejudices that they and others have, and demanding only the best evidence. No sloppy thinking allowed, no reliance on hearsay or single observations. To be a scientist is, in some ways, like being an athlete. Scientific thinking is a discipline. It is available to anyone, but it is usually only professional scientists and science educators who take on the discipline consistently. A scientist exploring the depths of nature, and an athlete running the course, have a kind of golden shimmer quite unlike the sloppy thinker or the armchair athlete.

This is why anti-scientists want to look like scientists. There are numerous anti-scientific think tanks that announce their seriously flawed beliefs in sciencey-sounding jargon. And some religious groups have even started up their own pseudo-scientific journals. They imitate the very appearance and structure of scientific articles: an objective-sounding title; an abstract; a text that cites evidence and analyzes it with reason; a conclusion; and references to other articles previously published on the same topic. They want everyone to think that they are scientists, even as they discredit scientists.

One example is an article in “Answers Research,” the pseudo-journal started by Answers in Genesis, that purports to show that the speed of light has decreased over the last few thousand years. Therefore the red shift does not indicate the universe is billions of years old but that light used to travel a lot faster than it does now. From the link you can download the PDF. The PDF of the article looks exactly like a scientific article, down to the most minute detail of its appearance.

One hallmark of scientific papers is that they are “peer-reviewed,” which means that other competent scientists anonymously review the paper and pass judgment—sometimes fair, sometimes unfair—on whether the paper should be published. If religious pseudo-science articles have “peer review,” it only means that people who share the same delusion have read it prior to publication.

Remember that in such pseudo-journals, anyone can be a peer (in the sense of micturator).

Of course, it is not just creationists who produce fake scientific articles. There are numerous online journals that will print anything so long as it has a sciencey appearance and you pay them. There is no peer review. I discuss this in Chapter 14 of my book Scientifically Thinking. I end that chapter, “I’m thinking about starting a science journal. I only charge $10,000 per article. If you are interested in publishing there, let me know, and remember I’m a peer.”

I suppose I am flattered to be a legitimate member of the scientific community. But, with ever more fake scientific journals, I fear that the public will begin to disbelieve true scientists along with the fake ones. With this, society can no longer benefit from true scientific research.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Trust the Mother

One of the most divisive political issues is abortion rights. I am a scientist, and I can tell you that there is no single point in embryonic or fetal development in which the unborn child “becomes human.” It depends on the indicator that you use: heartbeat, brain activity, etc. all begin at different times. There are even three events that occur during “the moment of conception.” As a result, I have no scientific opinion about “when life begins.” Nor will I speculate about morality or politics. But I do have some scientific insights that you might find useful.

Love evolved. Love is, from the evolutionary point of view, the instinct for helping and protecting other animals in your species. Natural selection has favored animals that protect their offspring. In this way, they maximize their reproductive success. If you want to know more, search for information about inclusive fitness. The most famous examples are from insects such as bees, ants, and termites, and among mammals such as ourselves.

The strongest love in the natural world is the love between a mother and her offspring. It is a force of nature. If you get between a mother bear and her cubs, it might be the last thing you do. This is because the cubs are the mother bear’s entire genetic future. Human mothers are no less motivated to protect their young, including those not yet born, than any other species of mammal.

In the animal world, a mother’s love is, on the average, stronger than a father’s love. The reason for this is because the mother always knows which offspring are hers, but the father cannot be certain. Every ounce of effort that a mother puts into nurturing and defending her young is well spent, but for the father, there is the lingering subconscious question about whether the offspring are his. (“Mommy’s baby, Daddy’s maybe.”) Genetic tests, in humans and birds, show that some of the offspring in the nest or the home, which the father supposes to be his, are not. The offspring may not be the father’s entire genetic future. Most of us fathers love our children, but on the average, mothers love their children more.

And a mother loves her offspring, including those not yet born, more than politicians do.

Given that a mother’s love is the strongest love in the natural world, I believe we should trust the instincts of an individual mother. The idea that pregnant women are eager to kill their unborn children unless white men pass laws and tell them not to is ridiculous. Maybe we should trust the mother to make the right decision regarding her unborn offspring.

Friday, June 7, 2019

What Is a Forest Worth? More Requiem for Nature

Whenever I write about somebody else’s book, I fear that I might have represented it. I sent the link to the previous essay to John Terborgh, author of Requiem for Nature. He responded that my summary was essentially correct. He added, reprinted with his permission:

The world has moved on in a way that is predictable but not conducive to protecting nature. I say predictable, because the fundamental economic goal of nearly every country on the planet is to maximize economic growth. With this as the background to nearly all important policy decisions, nature doesn't have a chance. It is the empty chair at the conference table.

Perhaps the most memorable lecture I heard in college was one delivered by my Freshman biology professor in which he laid out in vivid terms the consequences of unchecked population growth. That, my friend, was in 1955. Here we are, 64 years down the road, and putting the brakes on the human population is still a topic that can't be mentioned in polite company - much less in open political debate.”

One issue in my essay remains unresolved. Terborgh said that a tropical forest is worth more dead than alive. In my book Green Planet, I said that a forest is worth more alive than dead. Which of us is correct? I realized that it depends on who is making the decision. For people collectively, as in a community or a world, a forest is worth more alive. But for individuals or corporations whose only goal is short-term profit, a forest is worth more when it is dead. Alas, evolution (biological or cultural) rewards individual, not collective, benefits. Collective benefits accrue only when they provide a direct and immediate benefit to individuals. For example, altruism within a group of animals offers immediate benefits to most, even if not all, of the individual animals in the group.

In the first photo, I am leaning against a rainforest tree (I have no idea which species, there are so many!) in 1989; in the second, I saw an area in which the rainforest had been hacked away, exposing soil to erosion.

Meanwhile, all I can do is to teach and to write. I continue to do these things even if they are likely to have little effect on the course of the future. As John added at the end of his message, “Carry on with your efforts to prod students into thinking out of the box. It's the only way we'll get out of this mess.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Requiem for Nature?

In 1999, ecologist John Terborgh, of the Duke University environmental program, published a book, Requiem for Nature, in which he convincingly made the case that few of us wanted to hear: There is no hope for the survival of wild nature or wild biodiversity. The conclusion was similar to that of Diane Ackerman, whose book I reviewed in an earlier essay, only Terborgh shows us the dark side.

In 1999, every indicator showed that the forces of destruction, especially in the tropical rainforest, were accelerating. But Terborgh presented plenty of examples from the United States, as well.

Yes, there were many tropical national parks. But many of these parks were “paper parks,” that is, they existed only as designations on maps. (You could now call them “Google parks.”) Many of them had no guards, some had just one guard. Settlers encroached on the parks. The government could take credit (and possibly receive foreign aid) for protecting nature, without spending anything on it. Many of the parks, far from being located in biodiversity hotspots, were in areas that were unsuitable for agriculture and low in biodiversity: they were the easy ones to “protect”.

Even the parks that were protected suffered from “empty forest syndrome.” The adult trees still stood, but (1) young trees did not germinate to replace them, and (2) many animals were missing, producing an eerie silence. The parks existed, they had a certain area, but they were oddly shaped. In 1989, I visited Jatun Sacha in Ecuador, and it was a skinny corridor of land. As a result, most of the forest in the preserves is very close to human-dominated landscape. The human effects therefore penetrated into the protected area, making it unnatural. The landscape was fragmented. Strange ecological imbalances happen in small parks, and on small islands (such as an explosion of leaf-cutter ant populations) that would not happen in a large protected area.

In this photo, a graduate student from Europe classifies orchids rescued from the branches of rainforest trees that had been cut down. There was no time to do anything else at Jatun Sacha except make records of what was killed.

Terborgh used examples from all over the tropical world, and the story is everywhere the same. There were a few exceptions—some nature preserves on Madagascar were respected and protected by local people—but such examples were rare. Wild nature is threatened even in countries that have “charismatic megafauna” wildlife, in Africa and in Nepal, where tourists spend a lot of money.

Many proposed solutions were not working. One idea that was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s was to support the rubber tappers, who made a sustainable living off of wild rubber trees, without killing them, and without plantations. These were the people championed by the charismatic Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988 by a gunman hired by a large land-owner. But the rubber tappers remained poor, and their product could not compete in the marketplace with commercially-produced rubber. Another failure has been forest protection by edict. When the Thai government, alarmed by the loss of watershed forests, prohibited logging, the price of lumber increased, thus making illegal logging more profitable.

In some cases, land degraded by human activity can recover. The processes of ecological succession are amazing and were among the earliest things that inspired me, as a child, to be interested in nature. But it doesn’t always work. If a tropical forest is cut down, and is then invaded by alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica), a cycle of fires can then prevent the forest from ever growing back, that is, in a time frame meaningful to humans.

For many of us, the modern mantra is “sustainable development.” But sustainable development does not require biodiversity. Agroforestry and plantations can be sustainable, even when dominated by just a few species. The conclusion Terborgh reached is that the human future does not depend on biodiversity; humans, and human civilization, can survive just fine without the high levels of biodiversity found in nature. We cannot honestly use “human survival” as a justification for protecting biodiversity. There is no shortcut: we have to save it for its own sake, not ours. “Whether we like it or not, tropical forests are worth more dead than alive,” Terborgh wrote. In strict economic terms, that is—which are the only terms that matter to most governments.

Things have only gotten worse, at rates and in ways that Terborgh did not, apparently, imagine. He wrote, “I am confident that objectivity and popular opinion will eventually prevail in the United States to bring conservation and development into balance.” But even if the Obama Administration might have encouraged this, Donald Trump proclaims loudly that conservation is the enemy of prosperity. Whatever hopeful trends Terborgh saw have been deliberately smashed by people who, perversely, call themselves conservatives. Terborgh called for a redesigning of democracy. Well, we’re getting it: it is being redesigned into a system in which the president can do whatever he wants with no constitutional restraints. I don’t think that’s what Terborgh meant.

The situation can only get worse, as populations increase and conflict over resources escalates.

This does not necessarily mean that the world will go as far as it did in René Barjavel’s novel Le Voyageur Imprudent, in which the human species 100,000 years from now evolved into males with claws, with which they had dug away all mountains and valleys and made the Earth into one vast plain, and females as large as mountains, with thousands of teats, from which the males fed. But a few generations from now, the phrase “natural world” may simply mean a municipal park. “I hope I am wrong,” Terborgh wrote, “but if I had to bet, I would wager that the last gorilla will die in a zoo.”

It is not good news, but Terborgh wanted conservationists to be honest about the problems and not pour time and other resources into lost causes.

To find good news, you can only, at best, read about individual success stories. The United States government refused to protect an endangered species of beetle in Oklahoma. So, the Cherokee tribe stepped in and did it. And, as I took a break from reading Terborgh’s bad news, I opened the May 2019 National Geographic and read about Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where nature is thriving, full of wildlife, because of the support of local people, 180 of whom it employs. Sometimes human ingenuity can surprise us (this was the same issue that had a long article about Leonardo da Vinci). An isolated example the Gorongosa may be, but what else am I supposed to think about? As a writer, I look for the individual stories. It is too depressing to do otherwise.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Family and Friends in Times of Disaster

These last couple of weeks, we have experienced natural disasters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tornadoes have raked through parts of the city. Heavy rain has swollen the Keystone reservoir. The Arkansas River is within inches of being higher than it has ever been. Though relatively few people have actually been harmed by these disasters, all Tulsans have had to be ready to evacuate from either or both of these kinds of catastrophes. Just today, Tulsa was on the national news again, this time because the flood waters are receding as fast as they rose.

And that is where being a member of a family or a network of friends is very important. My wife and I have a sturdy home not far from the river; though not on low land, flooding is possible. My daughter and son-in-law have a flimsy apartment on high land. And I have a second home, the one where I reside when I teach at the university in Durant, 160 miles away, out of the current danger zone.

In the event of flood, we will go to my daughter’s apartment; in the event of tornado, they will come to our house; in event of both, we all go to Durant. We have a plan. Those who do not have family or friends have only one place to go: an evacuation shelter.

My family is really fortunate to have the flexibility of three residences. A network of family and friends is, and has been throughout history, the most important way that humans have survived, and recovered from, disasters.

Natural disasters will become larger and more unpredictable in the future because of global warming. This is Tulsa’s third “five-hundred-year flood” since 1984. The only way the world can survive climate change disaster will be international cooperation. Many nations are cooperating in global warming prevention and adaptation.

The United States used to be one of those nations. But, as part of his interminable anger, Donald Trump pulled us out of international agreements on global warming. And, in several other ways, he has done his best to piss off even our closest allies.

It’s not just tension with China. Trump refused to endorse the joint statement from the 2018 G7 meeting. Our allies in the G7 group of nations seem to have decided that they must cooperate among themselves, leaving America in its self-imposed tantrum. Below is a BBC news photo, available at the link above, that shows a typical moment in what is supposed to be constructive cooperation between America and its allies:

Leaders in this photo, besides Trump and Bolton, include Japan's Shinzo Abe (4), Germany's Angela Merkel (6), France's Emmanuel Macron (7), and Britain's Theresa May (8).

As a result, the United States cannot expect any international assistance in the event that we should suffer a natural disaster, or, for that matter, any other kind of disaster. Trump says that he wants a policy of America First, but what he is actually doing is creating a policy of America Only. In so doing, we are rejecting any help that anyone else might ever be willing to give us. We are like the man who tells his family and friends that under no circumstances will he take shelter in their houses if floods or tornadoes come.

As we have known since the days of Petr Kropotkin, mutual aid (cooperation), a form of evolutionary altruism, is our most important human adaptation. Trump is rejecting nature’s most important evolutionary accomplishment.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Human Age

I have been reading Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age. As usual, I read good books several years after they come out.

The point of Diane Ackerman’s book is that humans have completely transformed the Earth to such an extent that no place is truly natural—nor is there, perhaps, any place that is entirely artificial. Humans have so completely transformed so much of the Earth that even the places we seemingly have not touched are now different, for example by global warming. But at the same time, all kinds of species have “invaded” the human landscape, whether transported by humans such as many invasive species (starlings from Europe, for example) or simply by exploring their way into our cities (as with coyotes downtown in cities).

Ackerman must be the world’s best science writer (in English, anyway). Try these quotes:

About urbanization: splattered balls of mercury whose droplets have begun flowing back together, we’re finally merging into a handful of colossal, metal-clad spheres of civilization.

[The sun] reaches into the mumbling corners of our private universe, spurs growth, sheds light on all our episodes and exploits, transfigures daily life. Its edible rays feed the green plants on land and sea, which animals graze upon, and we dine upon in turn, and so it quivers through our blood. Every molecule of our being, every mote inside us, every atom and eave in the mansion of the body and the penumbra of the mind was forged in some early chaos of a sun.

And finally: Sometimes it seems as if Gaia were so pissed off she finally decided to erase her workmanship, atomizing the whole shebang and flicking our Blue Marble back into the mouth of the supernovas where our metals were first forged.

Years ago, someone who wrote a blurb for the jacket of my second book compared my writing to hers. Only now, upon reading Ackerman for the first time, do I realize what a compliment that was.

Much of Ackerman’s book is filled with small- or large-scale success stories of people who have capitalized upon the increasing desire among humans to reduce our impact on the Earth. She seems particularly impressed by natural buildings and vertical farming. All of this optimism is set against a background of terror, that humans are changing the Earth so much that we will no longer be able to fit our civilization into it, but she doesn’t talk about this very much. It is never very far, however, from the reader’s mind.

It was certainly never very far from my mind as I read the book. I was helping to supervise my ten-month-old granddaughter, who is exhaustingly cheerful. She loves exploring, or having attention paid to her, or being left alone to bang on things, and (we are lucky) she even likes most foods. She must have some incredible smile-muscles. And I kept thinking over and over about what kind of world she will encounter, a world messed up by earlier generations. It is not just my love for nature that makes me write and teach about environmental issues. I can always see her silhouette against our picture window with a view of flowers and leaves whenever I teach or write.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Each of us is Two People: Insights from Earl Nightingale

When I was in high school, I made it a point to never miss the five-minute radio program in which the deep-voiced Earl Nightingale explained surprising and uplifting things about the world. I had to miss a few, but only a few, from 1972 to 1975. Radio stations (worldwide) that carried his program offered to send free copies of his scripts in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Of course, today, the programs would all have been on a website, which Nightingale, who died in 1989, did not live to see. I sent for all of his scripts. The secretary at the radio station wrote to me, wanting to know more about this unusual, perhaps unique, little boy who listened to every show.

Nightingale talked about anything he wanted to. A common structure of his programs was, I’ve been reading a book by x entitled y. I think you would enjoy hearing about it. And he was usually right. He seemed to like Eric Hoffer and Abraham Maslow a lot. He usually talked about successful business and personal life, and how to have a healthy mind—for example, how to not be a mumpsimus. But he sometimes threw in things that were a bit puzzling, such as how there might be UFOs, about the Bermuda Triangle, or about an article called “Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband.” Not sure where that came from. But we all listened to whatever he said, and most of the time were enriched by it. One of his broadcasts was about the dangers of smoking. In the photo above, notice the absence of an ashtray—a noticeable absence in the mid-twentieth century.

Nightingale knew by experience what he was talking about. When he was twelve, in the middle of the Depression, his father abandoned the family, and he lived in a tent city with his mother outside of Los Angeles. But it was not long before he worked his way into successful military and business careers.

Nightingale’s messages were simple, often obvious—at least, obvious after someone says it. They were based upon the secrets of his vast success in business. He would give examples of how you have to treat your customers with respect, give them what they want, convince them that you care about them, and then really do it. As he was the first to admit, his ideas were not new; they sound strangely like the Golden Rule. But at the time, like today, many people in business thought that the path to success was to beat down your competitors and to get every nickel out of your customers that you can. Nightingale explained that this was a sure path to failure.

As it turns out, in the decades after Nightingale’s death, exactly the kind of oppressive corporate atmosphere that Nightingale hated, one that leaves us customers feeling like the scum of the earth, has become the dominant experience in the marketplace. He would not have liked to see what has happened to our economy in the twenty-first century. When Nightingale was recording his programs, he said that executives really deserved getting paid more than the average worker. But at the time, executives got paid only ten times more; today, it is more like two hundred times. I doubt that executives are twenty times as valuable to their companies today as they were in the 1970s. The modern American economy, dominated by TBTF corporations, would have outraged him.

Nightingale was definitely a conservative, as the concept was understood at the time. He was always defending free enterprise, and was puzzled at the counter-culture people who thought that working for monetary reward was bad. He even said that socialist countries like Sweden were an economic disaster and suffered massive crime waves. Maybe they did at the time, but socialist democracies have since that time flourished. He had the typical mid-century male view of women, they should be secretaries etc., but he was also open to them progressing to an equal status with men, someday. He championed female college education. But he never mixed religion with his conservatism, and he never said one word about the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, as I recall. He was the kind of conservative we wish we still had.

This is one of several websites with Nightingale quotes.

One of his images that stuck with me is that each of us is two people. One is the person that everyone sees, which I might call the biological person. This is the person who goes to work and fills his or her role in society. The second person is like a ghost hovering over and around the first, invisible but real. This is the potential person, what he or she could be by using all the creativity and zeal that he or she has, looking for and capitalizing upon opportunities. When I look out over a classroom of students, I sometimes I imagine seeing this second person. In many cases, the first person joyfully fills the space created by the second, but in many other cases I see students wanting to get their education over with so that they can walk unprepared into the world where they will have actual responsibilities and not be ready for them.

In some ways, Earl Nightingale was the world’s first blogger. He posted short essays on whatever topic he wanted. Anybody can do a blog now, for free, but back then, Nightingale had to convince sponsors to pay for his show. Maybe my blog posts are my way of doing what the great Earl Nightingale did.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scientific Pseudo-Understanding

As I explained at great (and, I think, interesting) length in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the scientific way of thinking reveals the deep significance and structure of the world around us.

But sometimes us scientists are guilty of pseudo-understanding. I am about to encounter one example in a couple of hours. I am giving the final exam (which includes a lab practical) for my Systematic Botany course. I expect students to know about 150 different kinds of plants, though in reality I emphasize just the most common ones (still about 70). (If you don’t like plant biodiversity, don’t move to Oklahoma. We have more plant species per square kilometer than any other state.) They can pass the exam with a C if they only know the common names, but to get an A they have to know many Latin names as well.

For me, and I bet for many students, if we can say, “that plant is a mustang grape,” we feel as if we know everything there is to know about it. If we can say, “that plant is a Vitis mustangensis,” we really understand everything about it. But of course just giving something a name does not mean we know very much about it. The Latin nomenclature allows us to recognize the relatives and the evolutionary ancestry of the plant, but that is about all there is to it.

The people who really understand each of the plants are those who can recognize it in the wild (hence the lab practical), and who know how it grows and its place in the community of species. The mustang grape, like other grapes, is a vine that takes advantage of the strong stems of bushes and trees in order to get its leaves up in the sun without having to make its own strong stems. Unlike the other common grape species in Oklahoma, the muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), the mustang grape has thick woolly hairs on the underside of the leaf, which might mean that it grows in sunny locations, being able to reflect some of the light and therefore the heat. The two grape species probably bloom at different times, thus preventing cross-breeding that would be beneficial to neither species. Now that’s understanding. Just reciting the name is not.

Sometimes I catch myself reciting the name and then not looking further at the plant. This usually happens when I am on a walk with my wife. She cannot always remember what the plants are, but she probably looks at them more than I do.

Well, time to go give my final practical. I have to be ready for either indoors or outdoors during Oklahoma’s spring-long potential stormy weather. One of the species is poison ivy, and of course I will not tell them which one it is.

Monday, April 29, 2019

How Biology Is, Or Is Not, Different: Thoughts from Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr was one of the leading figures in modern biology. He was the last surviving architect of The New Synthesis of evolution. And he kept writing books until he died at age 100 in 2005. Because of his age, his writing is fairly clear: he knew he did not have time to go off onto tangents. He had to get to the point, since he knew any sentence might be his last.

One of his main points (expressed in two books, This is Biology and What Makes Biology Unique?, which are very similar but not quite the same) is that biology cannot be judged by the same standards of scientific rigor as the physical sciences. Yes, we all know that biological systems (such as organisms) follow natural laws. But each biological phenomenon is the result of such a prodigious number of interacting natural laws that you can never exactly predict what is going to happen. The best example is evolution. Immanuel Kant said that there would never be a Newton for a blade of grass. Several writers have noted that Darwin became that very person.

But Darwin was a “Newton for a blade of grass” because he changed our view of biology the way Newton changed the view of physics. What Darwin did not do was to establish a system by which the exact course of evolution could be predicted. One reason for this is that each organism is unique, while each electron is the same as every other electron. It is true that the molecules in a glass of water are different from one another; each has its own kinetic energy, and some of them have hydrogen and/or oxygen atoms with extra neutrons. Although one could say that a glass of water has a “population” of molecules, they do not differ from one another in the extreme way that organisms in a population do.

I will let you read Mayr’s books, if you wish. But I want to remind all of us that there are some laws of nature that biological systems always follow. They include:

  • The rate of diffusion (of molecules, heat, electrons, etc.) is proportional to the concentration or energy status divided by the resistance. One of the components of resistance is distance; it takes a molecule four times as long to diffuse twice as far. This is why diffusion is rapid over short distances, such as a synapse, and slow over long distances, such as a room. This is true everywhere in biology. This is why leaves and animal tissues both have numerous, tiny vessels. I am aware of no exceptions.
  • A related concept is that an increased surface-to-volume ratio increases chemical activity. This is why kindling burns faster than a log, and why bacteria can metabolize so quickly. Any exceptions?
  • A third example is from fluid dynamics. The rate of fluid flow is proportional to the fourth power of the diameter of the vessel. This law is always true for laminar flow, such as in blood vessels and xylem. Any exceptions? For larger things, such as water pipes, gas pipes, and rivers, it is almost true, but turbulent flow (when the fluid starts roiling around) slows the fluid down.

Most scientists agree with Mayr. This is the main reason that I am seldom interested in mathematical models of biological phenomena. A few decades ago, various botanists figured out equations for how much transpiration was needed to cool a leaf off, and how big or small a leaf should be to keep from overheating, and other such things. The equations gave a verisimilitude of precision. Actual leaves may or may not follow these equations precisely. They are good generalizations, but no more than that.

I recommend the writings of Ernst Mayr, even if you are not a professional scientist. Even at age 100 he had an all-encompassing mind.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Thinking Back on René Dubos: Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine

For many years, I have been teaching a subject in general biology classes that I call the Ecology and Evolution of Disease. It includes the subject that is now called Evolutionary Medicine (it now even has its own journal). I continue to be amazed that no general biology textbooks seem to mention it.

I grew up thinking what most people still think about health and contagious disease. As Ogden Nash wrote, “A mighty creature is the germ, though smaller than the pachyderm...” It was all very simple. Germs caused contagious diseases. The solution was to kill the germs. Problem solved.

But it is not so simple, and the book that opened my eyes to the real complexity of health and disease was Man Adapting, a 1965 book by René Dubos. It was an old book when I first read it in the late 1980s. It was ahead of its time, and maybe still is.

Dubos’s main point was that health is a creative response. It is delimited by biology and evolution but it is highly personal. That is, a disease can take a different course in different individuals. Dubos said that, when we ask what man is, we should not be satisfied with the answer that he was an ape. Instead, we should think of ourselves as ecosystems in which health is the result of the proper balance of all of our physiological processes, as well as all the microbial species that call our bodies home.

Dubos wrote about how the human body is an integrated whole, and conditions of the body can alter the course of disease. For example, stress can affect the immune system, with the result that bacteria that are already present but unnoticed can flare up into disease. This is now well known. The stress of viral disease can make a person susceptible to bacterial infections such as sinusitis and pneumonia, caused by “germs” that were already present. The stress of allergies caused me recently to have severe sinusitis. We have all seen examples of people who, from stress and its related habits such as smoking, seem to always be sick. Also, Dubos may have been one of the first scientists to write extensively about how an upset to biological rhythms can result in disease, including infections.

And the effects of stress can pass on from one generation to another. A mother animal who experiences stress can have behaviorally abnormal offspring, and it might result in part from the effects of stress on the prenatal environment of the fetus.

Dubos also included a lot of information about how Old World diseases killed up to 90 percent of many Native American and Polynesian populations, because they had never evolved resistance to these germs. Why didn’t the Europeans die of New World diseases? Because there weren’t very many. America was populated by immigrants from Siberia, and Polynesia by people sailing long distances in boats. Only healthy people could have made those journeys. This opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of some parts of human history. After Dubos, many historians have written about this.

An important, and still often ignored, aspect of our body ecosystem is its microbial inhabitants. Gnotobiotic animals (born, raised, and maintained in totally sterile conditions) are abnormal. Their organs develop abnormally, and so do their immune systems. They heal more slowly from injuries.

Many parts of our bodies, especially the skin and digestive tract, harbor trillions of bacteria, most of which are harmless, and some of which are beneficial. Some of the beneficial ones produce molecules which, to them, are wastes, but to us are vitamins, especially B vitamins. In our intestines, the lactobacilli and bacteroides are beneficial, while bacteria such as the famous E. coli are usually harmless. E. coli just seem to be along for the ride. In rodent colonies with normal intestinal bacteria, kept in total isolation from the outside environment and other rodents, the E. coli gradually disappear, leaving the lactobacilli and bacteroides to dominate. But even the merely non-harmful bacteria can do us some favors by crowding out the pathogenic bacteria.

This is the ecology of disease within a human body. (There is also the ecology whereby bacteria spread from one host to another.) But evolution also plays a role. This was the book where I first read about how many disease organisms have evolved to become less virulent. For example, many diseases, such as smallpox, leprosy, and (a disease Dubos and his wife studied) tuberculosis became less and less deadly over the course of many decades even before the introduction of antibiotics and antiviral therapy. Some infectious diseases have pretty much evolved themselves out of existence. One example is the English sweating sickness, which was a severe plague from 1485 to 1551. Its main symptom was profuse sweating. Then it vanished. Perhaps, Dubos speculated, it evolved into such a mild form that nobody noticed it after 1551.

I knew he was right as soon as I read his book, because I could think of my own stories. I had read many gruesome stories about smallpox. But my own grandmother had smallpox. For her, it was a severe but not deadly disease, and did not leave pock marks when she recovered. She had become infected with a relatively mild strain of smallpox. Before the WHO began its campaign of worldwide vaccination to eradicate it, smallpox was already on its way out. I also knew this from direct experience. I grew up in Tulare County, California, after which the disease tularemia is named. It is endemic to the area, and probably everyone who lived there had gotten it. Only, for us in the twentieth century, it was a mild disease that we mistook for the flu. I did not know I had had it until I tested positive for tularemia antibodies when I was a teenager.

How can a disease evolve to become milder? The simplest explanation is that a horrible germ that quickly kills its host cannot easily spread to a new host after it kills the first host. The first host is too sick to get up and spread germs around, and everybody stays away from him if he tries. Also, some people are naturally immune to the disease, and they are the ones who survive the most often. But the main reason is that the mild germs are the ones that are successful at spreading to new hosts.

This is the evolutionary process of balanced pathogenicity. It was scientifically demonstrated by a study on a rabbit virus, myxomatosis, in Australia in the 1960s. The rabbit populations evolved resistance to the virus, and the virus populations evolved into a milder form.

I got the impression from reading Man Adapting that balanced pathogenicity was true of all infectious diseases. Of course, it is not. Cholera has not evolved into milder form, because you get it from drinking contaminated water—water that has been contaminated by very sick, or by mildly sick, people. You cannot avoid the bad germs of the very sick people, mixed in as they are with the mild germs of the mildly sick people. Also, malaria may evolve to become worse, because mosquitoes like to bite sick people who cannot shoo them away, rather than alert people who are busy. (However, Dubos pointed out, a person who is very sick from malaria will die sooner, such that the mosquitoes might bite the mildly sick people more often simply because there are more of them.)

It was this book, Man Adapting, that changed many of my views of science, making them less linear and more holistic.