Tuesday, April 7, 2020

More People Die Each Year of Malaria than Will Die in the Covid-19 Pandemic


You read that right. According to UNICEF, a million people a year die of malaria, over 90 percent of them children n sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, the total number of coronavirus deaths as of today is 1,414,165, with 81, 217 deaths. The link should update daily.

I do not deny the importance of stopping the coronavirus pandemic. But the reason everyone is freaking out about 81,000 deaths is that they are mostly in the white world. The million people who die each year of malaria live almost exclusively in countries that Donald Trump referred to as “shithole countries.”



This can only mean one thing. Many people, including most of the people who worship Donald Trump and believe He is the man whom God has raised up to lead the world at this time, think that the deaths of little African children is not really very important. Only the deaths of white people get their attention.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Altruism, Infectious Disease, and the Future


This essay should be of great interest during the coronavirus pandemic. But I wrote it before the pandemic began, based on reading a book written in 1965.

I first discovered the scientific principles of the evolution of disease by reading the René Dubos classic Man Adapting. Even though I was a professor, I still had never heard of balanced pathogenicity. And it was even later that I began to read some of the many wonderful books about altruism. But it was only recently that I noticed the connection between the two.


Altruism has evolved by at least three mechanisms: kin selection, and direct and indirect reciprocity. Kin selection (Blood is thicker than water) is widespread in animal societies, and direct reciprocity (Let’s help each other) is common among intelligent animals. Indirect reciprocity (A good reputation is worth more than money in the bank) is nearly absent outside of human society.

In human tribal societies, altruism was extremely important. The best way, perhaps the only way, for a person to rise to the top was with help from friends and supporters (direct reciprocity), and with a good reputation (indirect reciprocity). Trustworthiness was rewarded, and cheaters were hated. At least one scientist, Robin Dunbar, speculated that human language evolved largely as a facilitation of reciprocity.

Balanced pathogenicity is where a virulent disease, so long as it is transmitted by direct contact, usually evolves into a milder form over time. This is because even in prehistoric times everyone around the victim knew that the victim was sick—whether from demons or bad air—and stayed away from him or her. A successful germ was one that had mild effects on the victim, who could then get up out of bed and go around spreading the germs. In this way, an acute disease can evolve into a chronic disease or even all the way to commensalism: Dubos speculated that some diseases evolved themselves out of recognized existence. This has been my experience. Like many people who grew up in Tulare County, California, I had tularemia. I did not know it, however, until a skin test revealed it. The doctor told me I had just felt bad one day, and that was it. In earlier decades, it was often a serious ailment.

The first parallel between altruism and the transmission of infectious disease is this. Just as everyone knows who it is that has an acute disease, everyone knows whom you can trust and whom you cannot, in traditional society.

Today, however, massive corporations conduct much of their business in a way that their practices are shielded from public scrutiny. Even corporations that had infamous practices, as many did during the 2008 recession, remain in business and are profitable, since most customers nationwide do not remember what they did. Reciprocity and reputation have not eliminated them or even, in some cases, reformed them. In modern corporations, oppressive decisions are made in boardrooms, decisions that a CEO might not normally make if he actually looked the customer in the eye.

The second parallel between altruism and infectious disease is this. There are many diseases in which balanced reciprocity does not evolve. Cholera is an example. Potential victims cannot know where the cholera germs in the water came from. Did they come from an acutely sick, or a mildly sick, person? Virulent and mild germs spread equally well. This is how Paul Ewald succeeded in getting cholera to evolve into milder form in some locations: if cholera could not spread through water, it had to spread through direct contact, and by doing so it evolved into a milder form.

In the mass of online information about corporations, a customer is unlikely to be able to determine which banks, for example, have a good reputation and which ones have a bad one. They choose banks the way people drink contaminated water. I certainly did, and regret it.

It can get worse. Some diseases spread more effectively if their victim is very ill. This is often the case with diseases that spread by insect vectors. Mosquitoes prefer to bite victims who are too sick to move around or to swat them. Such diseases can evolve to become worse.

In a similar fashion, some corporations actually benefit from social disruption that they and other corporations create. Consumers who are suffering from inadequate sleep, debt, and job insecurity seek pleasures and entertainment that many corporations are only too happy to provide to them.

In traditional societies, anti-altruistic people were ineffective for the same reason that virulent diseases were. But in modern societies, anti-altruistic corporations can equal the profitability of altruistic ones, the same way cholera spreads, or even exceed the profitability of altruists, the same way that insect-transmitted diseases spread.

If I am right about this, altruism faces significant challenges in the immediate future, even after the current pandemic abates.

This may be no more than an analogy. If so, it is a useful concept for teaching the principles of evolution—principles that show up in such seemingly unrelated fields as epidemiology and altruism. As a result, students may be forced to realize that they cannot consign evolution into an easily-ignored little box in the warehouse of knowledge.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Science Education during the Covid Shutdown: The Barack and Joe Comedy Hour


Like most colleges and universities, Southeastern Oklahoma State University is shut down, while classes continue online. Those of us who were teaching entirely face-to-face (F2F, in educator jargonese) have had to scramble to figure out what to do.

One of the biggest hurdles is what to do in place of exams. Exams require security and supervision. “Online exams” are an invitation to cheating. There are all kinds of technological ways to help reduce this problem: “lockdown,” in which a student cannot browse the internet on the same computer while taking an exam; and video monitors to make sure they are not looking at answers within the range of the video monitor. Of course, students could always look things up on their phones, which they can keep out of video range.

A few students would cheat. I could already tell you their names. But I would have to impose measures on all of the students to keep a few of them from cheating. This would make the good students feel that I did not respect them. Instead, I decided to assign essay questions to the students in place of the exams. These are questions that are not easily copied from the internet (and if they try, I will catch them with the help of Dr. Google). In fact, in a few cases, I invite them to search online. For example, on the topic of pseudogenes in my general biology class, most and maybe all information online (even on YouTube) is very technical. I want them to give short, clear answers.

Each student will receive a subset of my master list of essay questions. That way, it is very unlikely for any two students to work together. Also, since they will not be on campus, they would be unlikely to work together. Or if they do, and they don’t use the same words in their answers, I know that their minds were activated.

In my general botany class, I had already assigned projects for them to do online, for (1) their carbon footprints, and how many trees it would take to compensate for that footprint, and (2) how much transpiration a tree carries out, and how much air-conditioning electricity it would take to equal the cooling power of a tree. These assignments will go on as scheduled.

In my systematic botany course, the students have to know how to recognize and distinguish Oklahoma plant species. Since I cannot do this in an exam situation, I will send them images from my own collection of trees, shrubs, vines, etc. that they need to identify, partial credit if they get close. If I show them an image of a slippery elm, and they write American elm, they get most of the credit; winged elm, maybe half credit or a little less; if they write sycamore (a mistake that has actually been made), no credit. This is how I will assess the recognition part.


(Do you know what tree this is?)

I wrote essay questions for the systematic botany students. But I decided to make it fun. I decided to use the Barack and Joe Comedy Hour approach, with special guest stars Mitch McConnell, Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, the Cherokee chief, and the man every farmer (and botanist) loves to hate, Michael Bloomberg. I wanted to share a few of them with you.

  • “Look at this cottonwood tree,” said Barack. “That isn’t a cottonwood,” said Joe. “But, it’s by a river and it has triangular leaves!” said Barack. “But look at the bark,” said Joe. What did Joe notice that Barack did not? (Don’t answer, “The bark, you idiot.” Tell me about the bark.)
  • I received a letter from Barack, which said, “Dear Dr. Rice. I am going through south central Oklahoma on a vacation trip. I heard there was a rare species of tree that grows along the Blue River. Could you kindly tell me what it is, where to find it, and what it looks like. Please give me enough detail so that I can tell it apart from all the other trees.” What should I tell him?
  • Barack and Joe were walking along the creek in Beavers Bend State Park. Being afraid of marijuana trip lines, they stayed on the trail. “I’m having trouble telling hornbeam from hophornbeam,” said Joe. “They’re so easy to tell apart, even a politician can do it!” said Barack. “How?” asked Joe. “You can tell them apart by their fruits and by their bark,” said the man who is retired and no longer needs to worry about leading the free world to the man who still wants to lead the free world. “How?” asked Joe. What answer did Barack give?
  • You’ve never seen a fight like two politicians arguing about how to tell a sweetgum from a sycamore. Joe told Barack three ways to tell them apart. What were they? Answer for each species. (There are actually more than three ways.)
  • “You’re standing in poison ivy,” Joe said to Barack. “Am not,” said Barack. “But it has three leaflets,” said Joe. “True,” said Barack, “but this is box elder.” “But box elder is a tree!” said Joe. “But these are little box elder saplings,” said Barack. How did Barack know they were box elder saplings and not poison ivy? He had at least two ways.
  • “Whar I come from,” said Mitch McConnell, “we know how to reckonize a southern red oak tree.” “But, Mitch,” said Joe, “that’s a northern red oak tree.” “Whah, one look at the lobes, bases, and undersides of the leaves and you can tell it’s a southern red oak,” said Mitch. How did Mitch know the tree was a southern red oak?
  • In retirement, former president George W. Bush decided he would get rich by planting a big plantation of persimmon trees. It was easy; just find some wild trees, dig up the clones growing around them, and plant the clones in an orchard. George waited twelve years, from 2008 to 2020, watching his trees grow. But they never produced fruits. Can you think of a reason for this? (The answer is not just “yes.” Explain.)
  • Former president Jimmy Carter smiled really big as he explained to Joe, “This here tree is a white ash.” “No,” said Joe. “It’s a hickory.” “No,” said Jimmy. “Look at the arrangement of the leaf scars on the stem. Not only that, but the leaf scars themselves look distinctive.” Jimmy smiled even bigger. What two items of information did he give to Joe?
  • “It doesn’t take any brains to be a botanist,” said Michael Bloomberg. “Any more than it does to be a farmer. All oak trees are alike.” He didn’t really say this, but if he had, I would have told him a thing or two. I would have controlled my anger, then told him how and where to find and recognize two rare and unusual oaks found in Oklahoma: Quercus incana, and Quercus durandii. What would I tell him?
  • “My grandpappy ruined his saw tryin’ to cut down this here bois-d’arc tree,” said the man. Joe, coming through Oklahoma on a campaign tour, said, “Oh, I thought that was a white mulberry tree.” “They is at least four ways you kin tell that this is a bois-d’arc and not a mulberry.” Indicate four ways. You have more than four to choose from.
  • “My ancestors were Cherokees,” said Elizabeth Warren. “Oh, really?” asked Chuck Hoskin, Jr., the new Cherokee chief. “Then maybe you know how to mix up the black drink that the warriors used before going to battle. But first, you have to know how to recognize a yaupon holly. Incidentally, there is a reason that scientists named it Ilex vomitoria.” He then told her how to recognize the shrub, and how it was different from other kinds of holly. How?
  • Your supervisor asks you how to tell a saltcedar from a red cedar. “It don’t matter,” you tell her. “We got to cut both of them down.” “But I still want you to know the difference,” she says. You are now on the spot. How do you answer?
  • Your task, to help prepare for the Cherokee National Holiday, is to go out in the forest and find some muscadine grape vines (Vitis rotundifolia) so the cooks can make some grape dumplings (http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/cherokee-grape-dumplings-medicine-for-happy-hearts/). Instead, you found some Vitis mustangensis by mistake. How could you have distinguished these two species and avoided this mistake?
  • Feather is a young woman who works with the Ethnobotany office of the Cherokee Nation. (No kidding, there is one.) She is passionate about restoring rivercane to its original habitats in Oklahoma. It has many cultural uses, not the least of which is making blowguns for darts. She has to know the difference between the native Arundinaria gigantea and the invasive Arundo donax. How can she tell the difference?
  • “I think the economy needs a great new fruit tree,” said Joe. “Something that grows in Oklahoma, is not already a domesticated tree, and tastes good. It would create a lot of jobs to grow them, harvest them, process them, sell them. Think of how many jobs could be created in Oklahoma!” “Joe,” said Barack, “Can’t you forget for just a minute that you are campaigning for president?” Which species (at least four to choose from) was Joe talking about? Would you invest in such an orchard? Why or why not?
  • A thief thought he dug up a bunch of Echinacea rootstocks from a protected native prairie. But when he got them back to the barn, his accomplice told him, “You idiot! These aren’t Echinacea! They’re Symphiotrichum!” What did the thieves want to do with the Echinacea, and how did the second man know it was Symphiotrichum instead?
  • “What a pretty fern,” said Bernie. “We have them in the great state of Vermont.” “We have them in Oklahoma, too,” said Tulsa mayor G. T. Bynum. “And it’s not a fern—it is Achillea millaefolium.” How can you tell Achillea is not a fern, even before the flowers (which ferns do not have) open?

 Hope you enjoy these examples. Creativity to the rescue during the pandemic.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Springtime Secrets (Something to Do During the Pandemic)


I am posting this from the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in America. Many of us are down two only two major activities: working online, and taking walks. Like most universities and colleges, the one where I work is closed the rest of the spring semester, and students will complete their classes online. My wife and I take walks out away from other people, and watch all the wonders of nature, even when it is despoiled by human activity. This is what we have always done, but for some people, taking a nature walk might be a new activity. If you are one of those people, let me tell you some of the things you might notice.

Spring has been underway for some time in Oklahoma, where I live and work. But it has only recently been making itself obvious. Spring comes, but not all at once. The first thing to notice as you take your walk is that not all the trees open their buds at the same time. The elms opened their buds over a month ago, and they are now fully displaying their green seeds. Whole forests of elms are blushing a light green right now. This color is due to seeds, not leaves, which are only now beginning to emerge from their own buds.



Meanwhile, other tree species appear to still be dormant. In the photo below, the elms are green but the Kentucky coffee-tree (identifiable by its big seed pods) is still dormant.



Notice, then, that each kind of tree follows its own spring schedule.

The trees also display diversity within each species. The photo below shows two cottonwood trees. One is in full bloom (on the right, with clusters of little reddish flowers), the other is not. In this case, the tree in full bloom is a male tree, while the other one is female. Its greenish flowers will open up a little bit later. Just as male birds migrate before female birds, the male cottonwoods open their buds before the female cottonwoods. In trees, as in animals, the males compete with one another for access to the females even when, as in cottonwoods, it is completely without intelligence.



This is also the time of year that birds begin their social activities. In Oklahoma, mockingbirds and cardinals are already singing.

The final thing to notice is the garbage. Before the leaves open and the grass grows, thousands of pieces of garbage are visible all around the “natural” areas of Tulsa. (We have counted some of them; I do not exaggerate.) March is the best time of the year to see one of the ugly impacts that humans have upon the natural world.

Take a walk. It doesn’t cost anything, and it doesn’t expose you to viruses. You don’t need to download a movie. The natural world around you has plenty to see.


Saturday, March 7, 2020

In Praise of Bitterness


In the general biology labs that I teach, the students map out which portions of their tongues can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter chemicals. Of course, they hate the bitter quinine.

The ability to taste bitter compounds, and to dislike them, is of immense importance to our survival today as it has been throughout animal evolution. Most bitter compounds are potentially toxic, and if we taste something bitter, we may need to stop eating it so quickly that disgust, rather than rational decision, is necessary.

One student, however, was unable to taste the quinine. I never found out if he could taste any other bitter compounds. This is not a good thing for him. He has to be extremely careful about what he consumes.

According to a genetics website at the University of Utah, “Humans have about 30 genes that code for bitter taste receptors. Each receptor can interact with several compounds, allowing people to taste a wide variety of bitter substances.” This is because a wide variety of different molecules can be toxic. Many medicines are toxic in large quantities, and taste bitter even in small quantities; and these medicines are not chemically similar to one another. The ability of the human tongue to detect “bitter” is actually thirty different abilities. In this way the human brain has a single response—“This is bitter, don’t eat it”—to a great variety of potential threats.

Next time you taste something bitter, think about this and feel a little gratitude to your nervous system for protecting you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Scientific Method and Reincarnation: The Bridey Murphy Story


I ran across a book that my late mother-in-law had: The Search for Bridey Murphy, by Morey Bernstein, published in 1956.

Bernstein was a businessman who became interested in hypnosis and all of the many medical benefits it could potentially confer. But his interests went beyond this. He was interested in age regression, in which the person who is hypnotized not only remembers early childhood, but relives it. The memories of early childhood, even infancy, are stored away in the brain, some hypnotists claim, and can be unleashed.

If a subject is hypnotically regressed to infancy, he or she may be able to describe sensations and memories from infancy, in words, even though they could not talk during infancy. This brings up an interesting question. How could one determine whether the subject is actually re-living infancy? Bernstein said that, when a subject is regressed back into infancy, their reflexes actually change. Infants and young children have the Babinski reflex, but older children and adults do not.  During age regression, the hypnotist can get the subject to actually change from the adult reflex to the infant reflex. This would be strong evidence of the effectiveness of age regression. I do not know how good the evidence is, having read about it only in this book.

But Bernstein wanted to take age regression back further—not just back to infancy, but back before birth. Just keep going...back into a previous lifetime. If hypnotized subjects had true memories of past lifetimes, this would prove reincarnation. But how can the hypnotist know whether the memories are true, and are of past lifetimes? This brings us to some interesting points about the scientific method.

It is not enough just to dismiss spiritualist assertions on the grounds of inherent absurdity. The most famous agnostic, the inventor of the word agnostic, Thomas Henry Huxley, made this point. What Huxley did was to give spiritualism a chance, after which he (along with E. Ray Lankester) showed that at least the spiritualist seances that he attended were, in fact, hoaxes. He concluded this, rather than assuming it. And he knew this did not prove all spiritualist experiences were hoaxes.

First, consider bias. Bernstein tried very hard to prove that he was not biased. He openly admits that he started off completely agnostic about religious concepts. That is, he claims that his discoveries convinced him despite, not because of, his initial bias. Further, he was rich enough from his business, he did not need to pull a hoax to get rich. These two preconditions are helpful, but do not eliminate the possibility of bias. Some evangelical Christian apologists (most famously Josh McDowell, author of Evidence that Demands a Verdict in which he claims to prove Christian doctrine) say that they started off as atheists and were converted by the evidence that they found. However, despite his lack of initial bias, McDowell definitely developed a bias later. And even though Bernstein was rich enough to not need a hoax, there are plenty of rich people who cannot keep themselves from trying to get richer by unethical means. But at least Bernstein made an effort to begin in an unbiased fashion.

One thing that greatly reduced the chance of bias is that there were independent fact-checkers. This did not completely eliminate the chance of error, however; journalists are looking for an exciting story (even back then, if it bleeds, it leads) and would prefer the reincarnation conclusion over fraud or delusion.

Second, consider how one can evaluate the quality of the evidence of a past life obtained from a hypnotized person. Perhaps the strongest evidence would be if the person provided details that the person could not possibly know. (This is a condition that is nearly impossible to satisfy today. Everyone has a world of information at their fingertips. Give me a little time, and access to the internet, and I could make up a convincing fake story that I am a reincarnated Viking. But in the pre-internet days, this evidence was much harder to get and thus more meaningful.)

Bernstein hypnotized a woman he called Ruth Simmons (she was actually Virginia Tighe), who was born in Iowa in the twentieth century. When he regressed her back before her birth, she revealed that she had been an Irish woman Bridey (Bridget) Murphy who was born in 1798 and died in 1864. She did, indeed, reveal a lot of details that seemed convincing. She even started talking with an Irish brogue during the hypnotic sessions, something she could not do normally. Are you convinced yet? She said that she could dance the “Morning Jig” when she was alive in Ireland. Bernstein gave her a post-hypnotic suggestion: that, upon awakening, she should dance the jig for the observers. And she did. Are you convinced yet? The woman also gave geographical details that a twentieth-century American would almost certainly not know about Ireland (actually, Northern Ireland), including the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the nineteenth century. Are you convinced yet?

The Bridey Murphy story became a sensation after it was published in a newspaper in 1954 and as a book in 1956. It seemed like everyone was talking about it. People with a spiritual (but not fundamentalist Christian) inclination were swept up into believing it. Materialistic people subjected it to ridicule. Even Donald Duck’s uncle McScrooge made fun of it. In her copy, my mother-in-law wrote down the address of the Bridey Murphy Discussion Group of Peoria, which met in Marquette Heights in nearby Pekin, Illinois.


[This is a photo from a movie adaptation.]

The book was rushed into print with too little fact-checking to even satisfy the author. But there was plenty of fact-checking afterward. And here is where the scientific method gets interesting. During the intense discussion, there were two competing hypotheses: that Ruth Simmons was making it all up, either as fraud or delusion, vs. Ruth Simmons really was remembering her past life as Bridey Murphy. (And she even had a vague memory, it seems, of dying as a baby in New Amsterdam, which is today New York, over a century earlier than Bridey Murphy.)

The people who wanted to prove Simmons was making it all up pointed to supposed errors in the facts she recited. But her defenders showed, in every case it seems, that the story was credible. The places she mentioned, and the terms she used, the customs to which she referred, were not inaccurate for the time and place, even when they could not be verified. In a few instances, Bridey seemed to be exaggerating in order to make her husband seem more prominent than he was. She claimed he was a barrister (the highest grade of lawyer), but that he managed accounts for stores, something that only the lowest grade of accountants did. But this may have enhanced the credibility of her account: she was telling—and exaggerating—her life experience, not a mere story.

Besides, someone pointed out, the Bridey Murphy story is, by itself, too boring to be a fabrication. After all, everyone wants to be a reincarnated king, not a serf or something. But Bridey was just a woman who got married, never had kids, and died at age 66 after falling down the stairs. The only interesting thing in her story was that she was in a mixed marriage (she was Protestant, her husband Catholic).

Bernstein provided long transcripts of the tape-recorded hypnosis sessions in the book. In session after session, he asked the same questions, such as what her husband’s name was. One’s eyes start to glaze over. But this repetition was actually quite valuable. They proved that the woman was not just making it up as she went along. The information was deep inside her brain, and came out the same way every time. Even a good liar would have a hard time keeping a consistent story for six sessions of hypnotism. Also, for this reason, it was clearly not a delusion.

In the competition between the fraud/delusion hypothesis and the reincarnation hypothesis, the latter easily won.

This is where it really gets interesting. New evidence emerged. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens? New facts can destroy a nice story.) When Ruth Simmons was growing up in Chicago, an old Irish woman lived across the street. Her name was Bridey Murphy Corkell. The hypothesis that turned out to be true was a third hypothesis not previously considered: that Ruth had learned the story very well from this woman, even learned her accent, and even learned the jig, and then forgot where or even that she had heard it. This is a now-well-established phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, or hidden memory.

There have been other famous cases of possible cryptomnesia from the world of creative arts. The difference between cryptomnesia and plagiarism is whether the person knows that they are recycling the work of another artist. George Harrison of Beatles fame may have plagiarized My Sweet Lord from another musical group (this was the interpretation of the court in the ensuing lawsuit), or he may genuinely have mistaken his memory of the melody for his own creation. This apparently also happened to Umberto Eco, author of Name of the Rose.

In a way, every creative person has a gnawing fear that he or she will unwittingly steal ideas from someone else. I write books; how can I possibly know if I stole an idea from a book that I read maybe forty years ago? I would need a list of every book I have read since I graduated from high school. What kind of nerd would keep a list like that? Me, that’s who. My complete list now contains 1,411 titles, the last of which is The Search for Bridey Murphy. I can always scan the list before sending a final fiction manuscript to a publisher. This does not guarantee that I did not steal a plot from a forgotten movie or an episode of Perry Mason. (In the latter case, I have also kept a list of the Perry Mason episodes I have watched. I used one for an endnote in my most recent book. God, I am such a nerd.) I steal plots from the Bible all the time, but I am aware of what I am doing.

It gets even more complicated. Someone may absorb an idea from the surrounding culture and mistakenly think it is his or her own. This is called a Zeitgeist (a German word for “time ghost”). Science writer Loren Eiseley (Darwin’s Century) famously said that Charles Darwin got the idea for natural selection from Edward Blyth, without realizing it, because it was an idea already floating around in scholarly culture. Probably nobody believes this anymore, since all of Darwin’s contemporaries seemed genuinely surprised at Darwin’s creative hypothesis. Darwin thought of natural selection a long time before Alfred Russel Wallace, but he worried himself sick that it would look to the world as if he had stolen Wallace’s idea. Fortunately, Wallace happily acknowledged Darwin’s priority.

None of this proves that reincarnation does not exist. It just means that evidence, like that of Bridey Murphy, is not good enough.

The scientific way of thinking can help us understand almost anything better than other ways of thinking. This even includes reincarnation.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Language and Teaching Science: A Story


In other essays, I have discussed the biological adaptation known as language, and how the communication of ideas is only one of the many functions of language. It is also a medium of social bonding among people who speak the same language. An important part of this bonding is that the people share idioms, that is, phrases that they understand but which makes no sense to outsiders. One example of an English idiom is, “Let’s have a pea-pickin’ time.” My students inform me that this is no longer a common phrase in English. I’m surprised that it ever was; picking peas is not my idea of a good time. A few decades ago, however, this idiom was in common circulation.

About 1972, I was a young high school student in an agricultural part of California. Many Hispanic migrant families moved from one fruit-picking job to another. One day, a girl from one of these families showed up at our high school, unable to speak any English. How was she supposed to take classes, such as biology? Our Spanish teacher, Mr. Jesse Guerrero, had the answer. He knew that I was pretty good at Spanish (for a second language), and at science. He and other teachers agreed that I should translate the English biology book into Spanish. I agreed and set to work immediately.

The title of chapter 1 was “Let’s Have a Pea-Pickin’ Time.” It was about genetics, which is based on the nineteenth-century research of Gregor Mendel, who studied genetic inheritance patterns in peas.  This chapter was about him.

If I translated the title directly, it would be “Tengamous tiempo de recoger guisantes.” This makes even less sense in Spanish than it does in English (“Let us have the time to pick peas”). I brought this problem to Mr. Guerrero, who said a better translation would be “Divertámanos,” or “Let’s have fun.” But then there is no connection to the subject matter of the chapter (Mendel and his peas).

What was the solution to the problem? The girl dropped out. That took care of the problem, for us anyway.

This was when I first realized that different languages, in all their diverse beauty, exist only in part for the purpose of communicating information.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

We All Love Our Hypotheses: A Story of Charles Darwin


On this day in 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Here’s to the next 211 years of freedom and science!



And here is a little story about Charles Darwin.

All of us, especially scientists, love our hypotheses. But what scientists try to do, and often succeed at doing, is to test the hypotheses and then let go of those that do not pass the test. This is why we consider ourselves “objective” (rather than subjective), and this is one of the major ways in which scientific thinking differs from non-scientific thinking.

But, as individuals, scientists often find it difficult to let go of cherished ideas. This is why science is a community; one scientist might cling to a useless hypothesis, but the other scientists can challenge him or her.

One good example of a scientist clinging to a cherished hypothesis was Charles Darwin. I do not refer to evolution; he was right about that. But at the time Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, and for the rest of his life, Darwin did not know how traits could be passed on from one generation to another. That is, neither he nor anybody else understood heredity. Well, one man did: Gregor Mendel. But Mendel did not know that he knew. He died, not knowing that every biology student in the world would learn his name.

Here is why this was such a problem for Darwin. A scholar named Fleeming Jenkin wrote a criticism of natural selection. Jenkin invited us to imagine a situation where a new, superior, but rare hereditary variation was introduced into a population. No matter how good it was, it would get swamped out by the rest of the population before natural selection could save it. Jenkin used a violently racist example which was, we now regret, common in his day.

If heredity acts like a paint pot, then Jenkin’s argument cannot be answered. A drop of white paint will disappear in red paint and is lost forever. But Mendel discovered, and Darwin believed, that traits were not like paint. They were more like (to use my analogy) marbles. White marbles can mix in with red marbles, but retain their individuality, and can someday show up again. Rare traits retain their individuality and can become common. But how?

Darwin, in the course of writing a big book Variation in Domesticated Plants and Animals, came up with an explanation. He believed that all parts of the body produced what he called gemmules, and these gemmules found their way, presumably through the blood, to the reproductive organs, where they were passed on to the offspring. The circumstances of life can cause organs to change the kinds of gemmules they release. This is how acquired traits can be inherited, in Darwin’s theory of pangenesis.

Darwin was not the only person who was excited about pangenesis. So was his younger cousin Francis Galton, often called the childless father of eugenics. Galton knew more about heredity than Darwin; in fact, Galton gathered lots of inheritance data for his book Hereditary Genius. He also contributed to the early development of statistics. He invented the correlation coefficient in statistical regression. And he was ready to subject pangenesis to an experimental test, which he was sure would confirm the theory.

Galton used different breeds of rabbits, with recognizably different coat colors. He took blood from one kind of rabbit and injected it into the bloodstream of a different kind. He was careful to not harm the rabbits, even though he transfused up to one-third of their blood volume. Galton expected that this blood, full of gemmules, would cause the rabbits to have offspring with the characteristics not of their parents but of their blood donors, at least sometimes.

All of the rabbit-blood experiments failed. Galton was not sure what to do next. Darwin was, however, sure. Darwin simply made a post-hoc rationalization. Triumphantly, Darwin said that the gemmules must find their way to the generative organs through some medium other than blood. This assertion led to no further experiments. Pangenesis theory declined into oblivion, and today we all learn about Mendelian genetics.

Darwin was more objective than almost every other scientist of or since his day. But, like any human, he was imperfect. Objectivity failed him in the matter of his beloved pangenesis theory.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Do Non-Human Animals Have Music? A Meditation on Shostakovich


This essay is a personal reflection on my encounter with a specific piece of music, not a general overview of the subject of animals and music, to which other scientists, not I, have devoted their careers. It is clear that many animals (including fruit flies) use sound for communication, especially for territories and mating. The sounds have patterns that scientists cannot resist calling musical. But maybe we are imputing our experiences onto the animal kingdom. We already do this when we call a beehive’s captive egg-laying machine a “queen.”

To me, the defining characteristic of music, rather than just pretty sounds, is the internal, mental effect that it has. In this, the musical experience is closely allied to the religious experience. And this is why the musical experience can be so powerful and so individual.

My first exposure to the Fifth Symphony of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was when the symphonic band I was in, early in graduate school, played a transcription of the finale. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, I bought the record of the Bernstein performance, and listened to it a lot. That was the same year that I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For me, and perhaps nobody else, the music and the novels were closely associated. Especially in the first movement of the symphony, I could hear The Lord of the Rings: the quiet dance of Luthien Tinuviel, in elfin mists and waterfalls, during a quiet throbbing of the strings; I also heard marching armies, attacking orcs, and prancing horses.

It was also at that time that I was experiencing, as young people often do, wrenching emotions, the kind that make no sense in retrospect but which are all-consuming when they occur. It was at this time that, to me, the slow climax of the strings in the middle of the finale (manuscript numbers 113-114) encapsulated my life. I felt this so strongly that I copied out the melody and taped it to my door. Certainly, for me, this symphony was a way of giving substance to my own personal and very intense emotions.



Recently I heard a performance of this symphony by the Tulsa Signature Symphony, led by Andrés Franco. It was certainly an intense performance; the maestro was practically dancing on the podium. The entire concert was, first, Franco’s explanation of how the symphony was written and its musical meaning; and, second, the symphony itself. I was surprised how many people besides myself enjoyed the lecture so much. It was from this lecture that I learned that the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony had intense emotional meaning to the Russians under Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship—almost a whole nation experiencing the kind of intensity in 1937 that I felt in 1982. During the first performance in the Soviet Union, many in the audience wept.

I had never thought about this until Maestro Franco explained it. The entire Soviet Union was under the most brutal form of dictatorship—the psychological form. Nobody could trust anyone else, even among friends and family. Any other person might tattle on you to the Soviet authorities, whereupon you would be arrested, imprisoned, and either killed or allowed to die. Millions died during Stalin’s purges and the famine that he directly caused by imposing the totally bogus genetic theories of pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko (see my earlier essay). Under such conditions, not only was it impossible to, without risking your life, to complain about Stalin, but it was impossible to even weep for the agony that he caused. Everyone was supposed to pretend to be happy little Communists. The performance of Shostakovich’s symphony was the only place in the USSR where you could cry in public and get away with it.

Dmitri Shostakovich stayed in the Soviet Union until his death in 1975, writing music that was as daring as he could get away with. After his death, his son Maxim and grandson Dmitri the younger defected to the United States.

The performance of this symphony was, for me, though perhaps less so than for the millions of people suffering under Stalin, a ravishing experience. A couple of parts in Franco’s performance were not what I expected. I have listened to the Leonard Bernstein recording for almost 40 years. The end of the finale, as performed by Bernstein, was like the bird of the spirit of the Russian people flying away into the sky. As Maestro Franco performed it, it sounded like this bird never quite got off the ground, dragged down because a gigantic soviet medallion draped around its neck, and it could barely rise any higher than the missile silos. But the tempo is the conductor’s prerogative.

This is what makes music what it is, as Maestro Franco explained. It unites us, despite the many other things that divide us. “Songs” do not unite birds; it is the means of their competition with one another for territory and for mates. At this time in American history (the performance was right in the middle of Trump’s impeachment trial, though nobody could have predicted this would happen), America needs something to bring us together. It is divided as it has perhaps never been since the Civil War. About half of Americans are perfectly satisfied with Trump declaring himself to be free of any constitutional constraints; to be, as the congressional prosecutors literally said the very day of the concert, a tyrant, a king, a dictator. We desperately need something to unite us. Politics certainly cannot. Even science (which the conservatives openly reject) cannot. Can music unite us? Perhaps it is music that will keep our very souls alive in coming years. It appears that music, especially that of Dmitri Shostakovich, was what kept the Russian soul alive during the dark Stalinist decades.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Decline and Fall of Garrett Hardin


Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Garrett Hardin was a big name in popular science. His fame began with the publication of “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science in 1968, in which he explained how human society, like any animal society, will evolve towards the over-exploitation of any resources that are not privately held. This article was and remains a direct attack on the role of altruism (about which I have often written in this blog). With altruism, members of a population agree with one another to, among other things, share common resources fairly for the benefit of everyone. It is an unstable condition, but has such great benefits that, in numerous human societies, it has worked, even if imperfectly. But to read what Hardin wrote, you would get the impression that it can never work at all.



Today, few scientists agree with Hardin’s approach. Many ecologists and environmental scientists use his Science article for discussion. Chances are that you already know that much of Hardin’s work is now ignored. In what follows, I just want to give you an example of why his views have fallen into disrepute.

In his book Nature and Man’s Fate, Hardin stated his beliefs very clearly. He said that, since mankind is part of nature, then the only way we can hope to solve any of the world’s problems is to let natural selection take care of it. For example, what do we do about diseases? In particular reference to genetic diseases, Hardin explained why eugenics could not work. The reason is that nobody is smart enough to choose which people are superior and should be chosen to breed (positive eugenics) or which people are inferior and should be prevented from breeding (negative eugenics). Today, most people (including most scientists) believe eugenics is an unethical idea; but to Hardin, it was merely impractical.

Even though no human is smart enough to guide the process of eugenics, Hardin said, nature is smart enough. Look at all the amazing adaptations natural selection has produced! Surely the problems of the human species, at least the genetic ones, can be solved by natural selection. But to do so, Hardin said, we have to let natural selection have its way with our species. He praised competition, over and over, and said that natural selection would weed out inferior people.

Let nature take its course: this was Hardin’s fundamental belief. He had no tolerance for the tender hearts of liberals who wanted to interfere with natural selection’s work of clearing away inferior people.

Nearly every scientist rejects this view today. We spend a lot of money trying to save the lives of people with genetic abnormalities whom Hardin apparently believed should die. Indeed, natural selection would solve our problems, but only after the deaths of millions of people and the passage of hundreds of years.

Or not. During the hundreds of thousands of years before modern medicine, natural selection was all we had to solve our genetic problems. And it didn’t. If natural selection is going to save us, when the hell is it going to start doing so?

Hardin went further. He said that we should not interfere with any society that might start performing deeds that we consider morally dangerous. He said that, due to genetic diversity, there are many, many possible “constellations of moral principles” that could assemble themselves in human societies. Some of them we would call good, and some of them we would call evil. But there are far more evil and partly-evil constellations than there are good ones. And we should let the evil ones have their way, do whatever the hell they want to do, and let natural selection choose the winner.

He added one provision: no society should be allowed to threaten the existence of any other society.

One example of what he meant is that if a country has too high of a birth rate, then other countries should just let it starve to death.

Though Hardin did not use this example, his view requires that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped, but only because it started taking over other countries. If the Nazis had just stayed home and killed their own Jews and Gypsies and Slavs and gays, then that would have been, according to Hardin, just fine.

Have I misinterpreted him? Read it for yourself, from page 278 of the Mentor paperback reprint of his book: “The good constellations…are only a tiny fraction of all that are possible, but this fraction is surely a large number. It may be hard to resist trying to punish a society whose moral practices are repugnant to us, but only a policy of live-and-let-live will permit the development of the variety of communities that is needed to insure man’s continued existence…Put bluntly, every community must be free to go to hell in its own way, so long as its action does not endanger the continued existence of other communities. A community must, for instance, enjoy the freedom to breed itself into a state of starvation, if it so wishes, without a finger being lifted elsewhere to interfere with its stupidity. To interfere, to save it from the consequences of its own immorality is but to postpone and aggravate the problem, and to spread the moral infection.”

With regard to what was at the time the book was written called “the population explosion,” Hardin has been proved wrong over and over and over. Developed countries did NOT leave the less developed countries alone to die in their own misery of starvation and disease. Developed countries sent food, medicine, and education to those countries, the very things that Hardin considered to be wrong. By Hardin’s hypothesis, the fertility rates of these miserable countries should have skyrocketed, or at least not declined. But what actually happened was that in nearly every country, nearly every decade, especially the “poor” countries, fertility rates have declined precipitously. About 1953, Guatemala had a fertility rate of 7.0 (that is, the typical family had 7 kids); today the rate is 2.7. In Bangladesh, fertility went down from 6.7 to 2.1; the exact same figures for Mexico. In South Africa, it declined from 6.5 to 2.4. This occurred in hundreds of countries over many decades. This represents a couple of thousand tests of the Hardin hypothesis, and in nearly all cases, the hypothesis failed. By the time of his death by suicide in 2003, he must have already realized this, for the decline in fertility rates had been ongoing for decades by that time.

One problem with letting “a society” choose its own fate is that societies do not choose their fates; individuals do. Natural selection, which Hardin claimed to have known everything about, works on individuals, not societies. Notice the quote above. “A community must…enjoy the freedom to breed itself into a state of starvation, if it so wishes.” Communities do not breed; people do. And as soon as individual people in “poor” countries got the opportunity to be healthy and well fed, they chose to have fewer kids. Hardin not only chose a brutal application of natural selection, but an incorrect one.

Hardly anyone today says, “Let those poor dark countries breed themselves to hell.” We now all know Hardin was wrong. But it is now high time for us to relegate Garrett Hardin’s views to the dustbin of cruel and failed biological theories, alongside the Trofim Lysenko he so vigorously (and correctly) criticized. Good riddance!

In passing, Hardin added something that we all know is usually wrong: that people who have inherited wealth “almost universally” feel an obligation to do good. Let people who have inherited their wealth keep all of it, because they will use it to help society. What a crock. Many do—a perfect example of the indirect reciprocity form of altruism about which Hardin knew nothing—but there are just as many counter-examples. For every Rockefeller there is a Trump.

When I was in graduate school, a fellow student expressed amazement that I had not taken Hardin’s human ecology class when I was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But today, as I look back on it, I am glad I did not.

Hardin tried to steal some glamor from Darwin to polish his views. I have italicized the passages in which Hardin compared his cruel and incorrect view of the world to Darwin’s correct view of how non-human species evolve. This is how he ended his book (page 297 of the paperback): “Out of luxuriant waste, winnowed by selection, come designs more beautiful and in greater variety than ever man could plan. This is the lesson of Nature that Darwin has spelled out for us. Man, now that he makes himself, cannot do better than to emulate Nature’s example in allowing for waste and encouraging novelty. There is grandeur in this view of life as a complex of cybernetic systems that produce adaptedness without foresight, design without planning, and progress without dictation. From the simplest means, man, now master of his own fate, may evolve societies of a variety and novelty—yes, and even of a beauty—that no man living can now foresee.”

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Evolutionary Functions of Religion


Something as pervasive as religion, which is found in every human cultural group, must have an evolutionary explanation. I assert this without proof, but I trust that most scientists agree with me. Even though religion must have served a useful function to enhance fitness in the past, today it might serve no useful function.

Or does it?

I will present three functions of religion.

First, it facilitates altruism. This is a good thing. Altruism is an instinct in animals, especially in humans. But how can you be altruistic? Religious groups provide ways of doing so. Give them your time and money, and they can direct it toward people who need help. It certainly beats walking the street and looking for people who need help. One example is that poor rural villages in Africa need clean drinking water even more than they need advanced medicines. Civil engineers can join a religious organization that sponsors them to install wells in rural villages. (You can’t just dig a hole in the ground. Surface water would contaminate it. Rural villages need civil engineers from advanced countries to help them have healthier lives.) As far as I can see, this is pure altruism. Thank God for this kind of religion.

Second, it impedes the discovery of truth. Throughout history, religions have suppressed truth. So far, it has always been temporary. The Catholic Church persecuted Galileo, but they now celebrate him. By 1843, the cathedral at Strasbourg had an astronomical clock (Horlogue Astronomique) that celebrated the Copernican system it had condemned three centuries earlier.


Religions eventually embrace truth but only after sometimes centuries of resistance. I used to be a member of the American Scientific Affiliation, a group of Christians in the sciences who meet together to confront scientific and social issues from a Christian perspective. After immense angst, they usually end up embracing concepts that other scientists had long before accepted. Never has the ASA presented any new perspective on science. I finally left because I got tired of the endless angst that these fine people put themselves through (usually internal, rather than external, conflict) for reasons that were ultimately unimportant. Thus, I conclude, even good religion impedes the discovery of truth. 

Third, it makes money for religious leaders. This cannot explain the origin of religion, for it only works when altruistic and other instincts are already in place. Charismatic leaders who use religious devices can brainwash people into following them, giving them lots of money, and ignoring the times when they are discovered to have moral failings that they condemn in others. Examples have filled books. This continues because people still have an instinct for credulity, to believe religious leaders, even after repeated proof that many of them are frauds, and there is so much money to be made that there is a big intake of new fraudulent leaders. I used to be in one such cult, and know what it feels like to slowly and painfully extract myself from it.

Religion is part of our nature and will not go away. We need to be aware of it and allow only its good functions to operate.

Monday, January 13, 2020

John Muir's Scientific Experiment with the Animals of the Forest


Almost every hour of every day, John Muir (see previous essay) was busy walking around and looking at everything in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, taking notes, making sketches. But one day he was resting out in the woods, and the animals started coming up to him. What a perfect time to perform an experiment! He had no hypothesis, but he just wanted to see how the animals would respond to different kinds of music. I describe this in my Darwin YouTube video.

First, he whistled and sang Scottish folk songs. (Muir’s parents were immigrants from Scotland.) The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds seemed to love it. One thrush even hopped out on a dead branch to within a few feet of him. “By this time my performance must have lasted nearly half an hour. I sang or whistled Bonnie Doon, Lass o’ Gowrie, O’er the Water to Charlie, Bonnie Woods o’ Cragie Lee, etc., all of which seemed to be listened to with bright interest, my first Douglas [squirrel] sitting patiently through it all, with his telling eyes fixed upon me...”

Then he sang the Old Hundredth, a famous Christian hymn. It begins, All people that on Earth do dwell... One of its middle-verse lines is the incomprehensible For it is seemly so to do. As soon as Muir began to sing this hymn, “he [the squirrel] turned tail and darted with ludicrous haste up the tree out of sight, his voice and actions leaving a somewhat profane impression, as if he had said, I’ll be hanged if you get me to hear anything so solemn and unpiny. This acted as a signal for the general dispersal of the whole hairy tribe...” Muir tested the hypothesis that animals do not like the Old Hundredth. (Muir never hesitated to make up a word, in this case unpiny.)



A scientist might wonder if this was just a singularity, something that happened once and would not happen again. When Muir sang, just one of the animals might have gotten spooked, for any reason or no reason, and started to run, provoking all the others to flee as well. Muir must have wondered the same thing. When he was later resting outside in the Coast Range, about 150 miles away from his original experiment, the animals paid quiet attention to him as he sang folk songs. “I then began to whistle as nearly as I could remember the same airs that had pleased the mountaineers of the Sierra. They at once stopped eating, stood erect, and listened patiently until I came to “Old Hundredth” when with ludicrous haste every one of them rushed to their holes and bolted in, their feet twinkling in the air as they vanished.” Muir had replicated the test of his hypothesis, and done so in a different forest with different species of animals.

Muir did not intend this as serious scientific investigation, any more than my video investigation of “Do Cats Like Mahler” here and hereBut one thing a scientist should not do is to extend his or her conclusions out too far. Muir did not conclude from his investigation that animals are agnostics. I bet that it was just that Muir was happy when he sang the folk songs, and sanctimonious and grand-voiced when he sang the Old Hundredth.

More than anything else, Muir was probably just playing with the animals because he loved them so much. Scientists, too, play with the natural world because we love it so much.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Secret to John Muir's Success


John Muir hiked around in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and climbed a lot of peaks. He wrote about them also. Many of us think of him as the original and the most powerful voice for conservation in California. He and his associates were successful in saving Yosemite Valley from being turned into a reservoir, but lost the battle for nearby Hetch Hetchy. He could be considered the granddaddy of American conservation. As we face the biggest ecological threats since the Cretaceous Extinction, we should consider how John Muir accomplished what he did.



John Muir did not argue that setting aside wilderness was a good investment for society. He did not base his life on the conviction that we need to save wild biodiversity because it might come in handy for agriculture or forestry, or because trees protect watersheds. Thousands of people since Muir’s time, including me, have made this argument in books. Muir’s enthusiasm was based almost entirely on his love of the forests and mountains. If you read The Mountains of California, Muir’s Swedenborgian ecstasy is unmistakable in every paragraph. He loved the natural world so intensely that his thrill was contagious to everyone who knew him and to all who continue to read his writings.

Muir was the kind of man who would visit one of his friends in a cabin in the mountains; then, when a storm began, instead of staying inside, he would run out into the storm and experience the fulness of its power. He would watch the powerful winds bend the trees, some of them almost to the ground. He claimed it was no less safe to be outside in a storm than inside a cabin. Not only that, but during the storm he climbed the highest nearby peak, and climbed to the top of the tallest tree on that peak! He was the kind of man who would, without very much preparation, decide to go climb a mountain: running, leaping, and grasping onto vertical cliffs. When he found himself stuck in a place where he thought he would surely die, his strength was renewed and he scrambled to the top of the peak. The kind of energy that comes out of people in extremis would pour out of Muir all the time.

Muir did not look; he beheld. One way he did that was by thinking about the processes that were going on behind the scenery. He did not just see glacial lakes; he saw the processes by which glacial lakes were gradually filled with sediment and vegetation, and how lakes connected by streams were different from lakes isolated on the tops of granite peaks.

Muir saw a world that has vanished. He saw Native Americans hunting and foraging in the mountains, before the campaign to exterminate them proved largely successful. The California legislature put a bounty on Indians. Some, such as the Chumash, became extinct as tribes, though their genes live on; others, such as the Yokuts, had at least some cultural continuity. Moreover, the major disturbance that Muir saw was shepherds bringing sheep through the mountains, which damaged the vegetation and trampled the clear water of the lakes. He did not imagine the extent of disturbance that we see today even in the most protected places.

Muir’s writing was not, from my viewpoint as a writer, very good. He used every possible superlative and simile and metaphor for everything from a mountain peak to a dormant brown sedge. My soul feels tuckered-out after reading just a page of his book. And when he started writing about squirrels, watch out! I can do little better than to quote some of his description of the Douglas squirrel:

“He threads the tasseled branches of the pines, stirring their needles like a rustling breeze; now shooting across openings in arrowy lines; now launching in curves, glinting deftly from side to side in sudden zigzags, and swirling in giddy loops and spirals around the knotty trunks...punctuating his most irrepressible outbursts of energy with little dots and dashes of perfect repose. He is...a fiery, sputtering little bolt of life, luxuriating in quick oxygen and in the woods’ best juices...”

Muir made no attempt whatever at scientific accuracy. He just jotted down his observations, and how he felt about them; he had no time for scientific description—he used his time instead to make more observations. Sometimes he even got cause and effect backwards. Consider this passage: “The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty.” I think he really meant this; he thought the wind blew as it did because it loved the trees. We usually think of the little trees at timberline to have the shape they do because of their responses to the wind, over evolutionary and physiological time; but to Muir, the winds blew strong because that is what the little timberline trees need. But, you see, he left the scientific description, just as he left the practical values of the trees, to other people. He was too busy being ecstatic.

And it is that ecstasy that made his work successful, and that is why we remember him.

As far as I can determine from his writings, he lived entirely off of tea and bread. I doubt, however, that this was his entire source of physical energy. But the thrill of nature seemed to be his entire source of mental and spiritual energy. Nothing less than this, on our part, can get modern people to save the natural world. People have to love the natural world, which means they have to see us love it. What that means is, if I see you out on a nature trail, I am going to walk up to you and start talking about the plants, and from there, the entire ecosystem. You might think I’m a little crazy, but you might start loving the natural world too.

This does not mean, however, that Muir never performed scientific experiments. The next essay will be about a whimsical experiment that Muir performed on the animals of the forest.