Thursday, August 6, 2020

Changing the World? Another Prairie Festival at the Land Institute

I went to the Prairie Festival in September 2019. This year’s festival is virtual, due to the pandemic.

The Prairie Festival is an annual celebration at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It is part scientific meeting, part artistic celebration, and part barn dance. The scientific presentations, which drew experts from all over the country, spoke to a crowd in a big barn with sides open to the weather, which is often nice just before and after the festival but usually tempestuous during it. I sat on the dirt floor to listen to the presentations.

The Land Institute has the modest task of saving the world’s agriculture. The standard farming practice of much of the world—planting crops that only live one year, and which require megatonnage of fertilizers and pesticides—have long been causing immense soil erosion and pollution. The Land Institute scientists are busily making discoveries that can allow a transition to an agricultural system that uses perennial crops and in which crop biodiversity can reduce or even eliminate the need for chemicals. These are not just theoretical questions. They have also bred perennial edible grains such as kernza that have market value, that is, unless the big corporations that make money from wheat and corn bury it under layers of misinformation.

The Land Institute also knows that you cannot have an agricultural transition without having cultural support. The hundreds of attendees loved being there. We carry the good news of ecological agriculture back to our homes and lives (I teach university students about it). Hence the barn dance: this event has to be fun.

Some of the best scientists and environmental activists were there. Amory Lovins, founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented mounds of facts (all of them easy to understand, but there were lots of them) that the transition to sustainable energy, leaving behind fossils fuels, is not only possible but profitable, and not someday but right now. If left to themselves without political pressure from the Trump worshipers, citizens and utilities alike will favor energy efficiency. Another major speaker was BillMcKibben. The “minor” speakers were also amazing, such as the quietly confident evolutionary-scientist-turned-environmental-educator Ana Luz Porzecanski from the American Museum of Natural History.

But I cannot imagine that their effort will ultimately be successful. I know they will continue their efforts and enthusiasm—for the alternative is for us to give up and die.

Here are some of the things that make me less confident than ever that the efforts of sincere and intelligent environmentalists will change the world enough and in time to avert disaster.

I have always told my students that global warming itself is not going to kill anyone. It is the consequences, such as agricultural collapse, that are dangerous. I tell them that we simply cannot afford global warming. But Bill McKibben told about a place in the Middle East where the daytime temperaturesexceeded 129 degrees F in 2019. At this temperature, a human will die in three hours. (Be warned that every news outlet that covers this story requires you to enable ads or in some cases to subscribe before you can even look at their website.)

Unlike many of the attendees, I came away from the Festival with an action plan: to continue doing what I already do, which is to teach undergraduates about the problem. It fits right into general biology and general botany; indeed, it would be unethical to omit it. But for many of the others? I glanced over at a woman’s notes. There was very little specific information on them. She wrote, “Need dramatic change.” (She wrote Δ instead of change. In which case, maybe she was a science teacher who will make a difference.) “Must think in new ways,” she also wrote.

Bill McKibben spends much of his time protesting in ways that get him arrested. He is a professional jailbird in this sense. This includes protests against Trump anti-immigration policies. Why? Because many of these immigrants are environmental refugees, for example from drought-blighted farms in Honduras. I teach my students that there will soon be environmental refugees; India already has fences up to keep flooded Bangladeshis out when, someday, they lose most of their farmland. But apparently it isn’t someday; it’s now. But it is fortunate that McKibben gets arrested up in the Northeast, because if he protested in Texas, he would be guilty of a felony and face up to ten years in prison. This law took effect on September 1, 2019.

I have also always assumed that correct information about what is going on in the world is readily available. But I have recently found that many legitimate news sites require you to either enable advertisements to be downloaded to your computer, or that you subscribe. Perhaps the only news you can get is (overwhelmingly) from Trump-worshiper websites or (much less) from flaming liberal websites. Where is this wonderland of information promised by that new-fangled internet?

Whenever I leave a Prairie Festival, I feel good that so many sincere and intelligent people are at work on these vital problems. But as I drove back down into Oklahoma, and saw the hundreds of pieces of garbage on the roadside, my enthusiasm was drowned in the reality of the utter self-centeredness of the majority of people.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Unalienable Right to Spread Germs


Yep, folks, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. One of the unalienable rights of Americans is the right to spread your germs to other people. At least, this seems to be the view of American conservatives today, such as Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt who said, “We believe in freedoms.” He said this even while, himself, wearing a mask. While this article is a couple of weeks old, the situation has not changed.



This is hardly surprising. Americans resisted the practice of variolation, which was an early form of vaccination against smallpox. Britain borrowed the idea from Asia in the 18th century. British troops got variolated, but George Washington maintained that we are Americans and we reject British medical advances. As explained in the book PoxAmericana, Washington finally had to reverse course on this policy, and adopt variolation. But modern conservatives would have continued to reject it.

What this means is that if you are someone who lives in a way that puts you at risk of getting coronavirus, and you are symptomless, or you believe yourself to be symptomless, you can walk right up to me and cough in my face. I will be wearing a mask, but the mask does not completely prevent me from getting the virus. It is more useful in preventing me from spreading it. Being in a high-risk group (diabetics over 60), I could die from the same viral load that would not kill you. But you have the right to do this! It’s right there in the Declaration. Or so many seem to think.

This should not be surprising. Many Americans already believe in the right to carry loaded firearms which they can use against other people the moment they feel threatened, especially if the “threat” has darker skin. If they have the right to project bullets, why not viruses as well?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Why Fundamentalists Must Believe the Coronavirus Pandemic is a Hoax


I have posted a video that describes the ideas below.

Thousands, if not a million or more, fundamentalist Christians in the United States believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax that has been started by Democrats to make Donald Trump look bad. Part of this is because white evangelicals have, as the title of a recent book indicates, chosen to “worship at the altar of Donald Trump.” In some cases, fundamentalist belief that there is no coronavirus pandemic has led them to acts of aggression, as certain recent viral videos have shown.

But there is another reason that fundamentalists MUST reject the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is caused by a virus. And that is because the Bible says so. I first pointed this out in a blog entry in 2012.

Actually, the Bible does not say that there is no such thing as viruses, or that they never cause disease. But I present below the evidence that the New Testament describes one-third of all diseases as being demonic in origin.

Here is a complete list of Jesus’ healings, in which I indicate which ones were and were not attributed to demon possession. In order to do so, I have tried to determine which of the parallel Gospel accounts refer to the same event, so as not to double-count them. And here they are (demonic events in bold).


Event
Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
1
Healing a leper
8:1
1:40
5:12

2
Centurion’s servant
8:5

7:1

3
Peter’s mother-in-law
8:14
1:29
4:38

4
Same day: demoniacs
8:16



5
Gadarene swine
8:28
5:1
8:26

6
Forgave the paralytic
9:2
2:1
5:17

7
Resurrected ruler’s daughter
9:18
5:21
8:40

8
Woman with hemorrhage
9:20
5:24
8:43

9
Two blind men
9:27



10
Dumb demoniac
9:32

11:14

11
Man with withered hand
12:10
3:1
6:6

12
Blind dumb demoniac
12:22



13
Canaanite woman with demon daughter
15:21
7:24


14
Epileptic boy falling into fire
17:14
9:14
9:37

15
Blind men near Jericho
20:30
10:46


16
Demoniac near Capernaum

1:21
4:31

17
Deaf dumb man, Decapolis


7:31

18
Blind man at Bethsaida

8:22

9:1
19
Young man in his funeral


7:11

20
Another woman with flux


13:10

21
Man with dropsy


14:1

22
Ten lepers


17:11

23
Official’s son



4:46
24
Lame man at Bethsaida



5:2

I cannot be sure of some of the classifications; item 23 might be the same as item 2, but I have erred on the side of caution in favor of fundamentalists; item 2 refers to a servant, item 23 to a son, which most of us believe could just be a garbled transmission of the account, but fundamentalists do not believe garbled transmission is possible in the Bible. I have omitted the famous account of Lazarus, since it was considered an example of a resurrection, not a healing.



The point here is that seven of the 24 healings were specifically described—in all the parallel accounts available—as the casting out of demons. This is 29 percent. If you count the stories separately, 14 out of 46 involve demons, which is 30 percent. That is, in roughly one-third of the healings, exorcism was involved. In one of them (14), clear symptoms of epilepsy are described.
Creationists make a really big deal about evolution. Decades ago, they wanted to outlaw the teaching of evolution. When that didn’t work, they tried to mandate equal time for creation and evolution. When that didn’t work, they wanted to mandate the inclusion of a mention of creationism. Clearly, over the decades, evolutionary science has been their target. More recently, they have begun attacking the science of global warming with nearly as much fervor as they once attacked evolution.
But they didn’t have any trouble with medical science. Their children learned about how viruses, bacteria, protists, fungi, and parasitic worms cause contagious diseases, and how mutations can cause other diseases—in medical school, in college, in high school, even before high school. In none of these places, except perhaps their own schools and colleges, was demonology mentioned. I have never heard of fundamentalists trying to get legislation passed to mandate the inclusion of demonology in the medical science curriculum. They chose to allow a figurative interpretation of, or perhaps just to ignore, those Bible passages that attribute disease to spiritual causes. Fundamentalists occasionally attempt exorcisms, but they never insist that the rest of us agree with them.
How can the creationists do this? They think that God has given them the right to decide which parts of the Bible to take literally and which parts to take figuratively. “Day” is literal in Genesis 1 and figurative in Genesis 2; “the Earth” was figurative in Peleg’s day but literal in Noah’s day; and natural law accounts for the wind and the rain and diseases but not the origin of species.
I wondered, in 2012, what God would do without fundamentalists to tell us which parts of the Bible to believe and which ones not to believe. But now I know. They have embraced a literal Bible interpretation to such an extent that they reject medical science, except when they get sick. There are more stories than any of us can list of fundamentalist preachers rejecting the coronavirus pandemic, only to themselves die of covid.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Minorities in the Sciences: Fully Welcome?


As I wrote previously, us whites (or, in my case, almost-white) have a burden of responsibility to make the world better for all races—we have to work for good, not merely not be evil.

Academia, and in particular science, prides itself for being progressive in all ways. In particular, we proclaim ourselves (I am a botany professor) to not be racist. And, compared to many other areas of society (government, business, religion) we are correct. But it is not quite so simple. Here are three examples that show that work remains to include all races in the scientific enterprise.

First example. I heard an interview on the radio. A black ornithology student (he studies birds) said that he had been confronted by white groups because he was looking in the trees with binoculars. Of course, that’s what ornithologists do. (Embarrassingly but not surprisingly, this example came from my state of Oklahoma.) Right away, you see the problem. White people seeing blacks looking through binoculars might assume they are up to some criminal activity. Do ornithologists need to carry ID cards saying that they are ornithologists, and be prepared to show those cards to whoever comes along and confronts them? Or is it that black, not white, ornithologists need to do this? See the fascinating article in Orion magazine.



Second example. A couple of decades ago, I was one of the faculty judges of student presentations at the national meeting of the Botanical Society of America. I watched several undergraduate student presentations, and kept numerical scores on each. By keeping numerical scores, the other judges and I did the best we could to avoid bias. When our judging committee met, it was clear from our scores and our overall impressions that the best paper was one that had been presented by a black female. She got the prize and we were all happy. I hope she went on to a great career. However, one prominent botanist, at a major university, was quite upset. He told the chair of our judging committee how upset he was. The chair did not tell us about it until just before the awards banquet, by which time it could not influence our decision. The racist was a prominent enough botanist that, had he known who I was and that I was still a junior professor, he might have talked trash about me and held my career back, had he chosen to.

Third example. This same prominent botanist mentioned above had a brilliant mixed-race undergraduate student who later entered the same graduate program that I was in, with the same advisor, and who went on to a distinguished career. This unnamed senior botanist told my advisor that this student was just fine, the only problem was that he was black.

Incidentally, the Botanical Society link above includes Black Botanist Week.

Racial prejudice persists against scientists of color, both from the general public and among scientists. The main difference is that us scientists (at least, botanists, about whom I know) are doing our best to solve the problem.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Is There Any Such Thing As a Neighbor in Oklahoma?


A lawyer famously asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Just as famously, Jesus did not answer the question directly but told a story. Don’t you just love that?

The connection between this essay and the science of evolution is that a neighbor is someone with whom you exchange altruism, and altruism is one of the most serious topics in evolutionary science.

In Oklahoma, during racial tensions and the pandemic, I wonder just how many “neighbors” there are. Rather than simple neighborliness, we have either one extreme or the other.

  • First, there are the bad neighbors, who are neighbors only in the sense of physical proximity. They are otherwise full of hatred toward their fellowman. Here in Oklahoma, especially in the rural town where I work (in contrast with Tulsa, where my family lives), a lot of people in the immediate neighborhood do everything they can to make themselves bad neighbors. Loud music is common. And twice, people have used my yard as a place over which to shoot their fireworks. They let their dogs run free and bite people (two of my colleagues, not yet me), they throw their garbage everywhere, in their own yards and everyone else’s. They make themselves as obnoxious as possible.
  • Second, there are the good neighbors. But we cannot just relax and be neighbors. My wife and I were out walking and we met one of our neighbors, a black man who was cleaning up branches from his yard. We could have just been neighborly and said Good Morning, but it was the day of the Trump rally and racial tensions in Tulsa, so we felt an obligation to create small talk with him, which we all enjoyed. Those of us who are not part of the problem have to use every opportunity we can to promote the solution, in this case interracial friendship. We cannot just take neighborliness for granted. Altruism is so rare that it might die if we do not actively feed it.


Repeatedly on radio interviews, black people say that they are afraid that white police will shoot them even if they try to be nice to them and cooperate. They feel all white guns pointed at them, and they do not take a single day of life for granted. They fear that, each day they get out of the house, they might get shot. This is a horrible burden to have to bear. Are they overreacting? Actually, the chance of a black person getting shot by a white policeman is very small—but still much larger than the chances a white person faces. After what they have been through, a little overreaction is understandable. I cannot lecture them and say, You probably won’t get shot, so just calm down. My responsibility is to contribute to a solution.


I remember back to a time, not long ago in our neighborhood, when you could just treat everyone the same. But today, under Trump’s leadership of perceived hatred, good white people have to notice which of their neighbors are black and make special efforts to befriend them. People like us are the ones that will keep America from descending into racial chaos.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Fourth of July, Celebrating What? Part two.


As I posted previously, the Fourth of July is a celebration of white supremacy.

The “self-evident truths” about “unalienable rights” applied only to white men, later to white women, and never completely to people with darker skin. Non-white people have very little to celebrate.

I have reached the conclusion, slowly over the years, that the white races have been the primary source of evil in the world. In many places around the world, lighter-skinned people have conquered and enslaved darker-skinned people. This was even true in India, where lighter-skinned people invading from the north conquered darker-skinned southern people and created a caste system to keep the dark people suppressed. The genetic signature—a Y chromosome from lighter races—proves that, in many parts of the world, light-skinned men dominated and inseminated dark women, as described in David Reich’s masterful book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.

We all know that each and every human being is both good and evil at the same time, and that every race, however defined, has both good and bad people. But I have now concluded that the people of the world should make the preliminary assumption that white people are evil. That is, this is what we should assume in the absence of further evidence; the null hypothesis should be that white people are evil. What this means is that white people carry a burden of guilt for being the primary oppressors in human history. It is therefore the responsibility of every white person to present evidence for public examination that they are actively dedicating their lives to making the world a better place. It is not good enough for white people to simply not be bad. White people should have to prove themselves good, or otherwise should be assumed to be evil. The burden of proof is therefore on white people to prove themselves to be good.

For many or most white people, this should be pretty easy to do. Just post on your social media outlets the evidence that you are a good person who loves people of other races. But if you remain silent, the dark majority of the world will assume that you are one of the oppressors.

For dark people, the world should make the preliminary assumption that they are good. This is the null hypothesis, to be accepted in the absence of further evidence. Of course, many of them are not, and the evidence for it comes from criminal records, financial or other scandals, etc.

Therefore, I proclaim to you what we must do. White people must present evidence that they are actively performing acts of goodness, while for dark people, all you have to do is not be evil.

Every person is still responsible for their own goodness or evil. If you are religious, you would say that God judges each of us individually, regardless of race. But the standards of evidence are different. White people have to work to counteract our history of evil; dark people just have to not make it worse.

What about those of us of mixed ancestry? I celebrate my Cherokee ancestry, but I look white. I am ashamed of my white ancestry, but what can I do? I must err on the side of love: I will make myself obviously good, so as to stand out from the history of evil created by my white ancestors. Maybe I don’t have to try as hard as a pure white man, but I still need to work hard. If you are half-white, you might have it easier, but you still have work to do.

When you have a world full of white people and almost-white people trying to make the world better, and dark people just not being evil, that sounds like a much better world than the one we live in right now.



And with all of this, I don’t have time to go around shooting off fireworks and driving a big pickup truck around with a Confederate flag waving from it. Okay, my fellow whites and almost-whites: get busy, and post on social media about the good things you are doing. Maybe you are already doing them. Well, let your neighbors, especially your dark neighbors, know you care about them. This will lead us to the next essay.

This essay has appeared in a blog about evolution primarily because, from an evolutionary viewpoint, human races do not actually exist.