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.

Friday, January 3, 2020

When to Give Up and Trust the Future: My Farewell to the Seaside Alder


As I look into a new decade, I see the imminent approach of retirement. A major focus of my professional work has been to understand, and to save, a rare species of shrub known as the seaside alder (Alnus maritima). My colleagues and I have found that:

  • This species may persist only from clonal resprouts; the seeds, though often abundant, only germinate on wet, sunny gravel, a condition that was common after the last ice age but is now rare.
  • This alder species is less shade-tolerant than other, more abundant alder species in North America.


In the entire world, this species consists only of three subspecies:

  • A maritima var. maritima grows only in small, scattered populations in bogs around the Delmarva Peninsula.
  • A maritima var. georgiensis grows only in a single swamp in northwestern Georgia.
  • A maritima var. oklahomensis grows only in south central Oklahoma along part of the Blue River and a few nearby creeks.


That’s it, for the entire world. Only a few of the populations are protected.


In this photo from the Blue River in Oklahoma, the alder is the right foreground tree.

There are a few of the Delmarva alders in Trap Pond State Park; the others are unprotected. My colleague Phil Gibson and I looked for one population that was documented in the 1970s, only to find that it consisted of just one shrub, in someone’s back yard. We did not tell them about it, lest they cut it down before the much-feared federal government could tell them that they could not.
Most of the Georgia alders are on private land; a few are now, thanks to the work of Catherine Borer, protected by the major utility of the region, which has a large power plant nearby.
Many of the Oklahoma alders are on state wildlife land, and are thus protected.

I did not pursue the option of trying to get the federal government to list this species as endangered. In 2010, I talked with the Southeast district director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She said this species was already on a list which was the subject of litigation; the plaintiffs thought the FWS was proceeding too slowly. The director told me that, even if the suit was won, they could not work on it until 2016. I decided to try other options.

This species produces antibiotic compounds in its branches. Not being a chemist, I cannot identify these compounds, though I have identified a number of their properties. A small pharmaceutical company in Massachusetts was interested in developing it, but just when the papers were signed and they began their research, Little Pharma was bought up by Big Pharma, which is hostile toward the development of new antibiotics, regardless of how much they are needed. Big Pharma, perhaps only by neglect, killed this line of research.

The Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma attempted to grow some of these alder bushes in a portion of the Blue River that they reclaimed from degradation by cattle. This was the vision of Jona Tucker, who saw this eroded stretch of river and saw a new riparian forest. But deer would eat the little saplings. Only deer fencing—which washed away with every flood—could keep the deer out. The Preserve is still there, but without a thriving population of alders.

I then attempted to get Oklahoma gardeners to plant this species in their wetlands. A few of them did, but not many. One such gardener sold the land and moved, and the fate of what the new owner probably thought was a worthless bush is unknown. Few gardeners have the approximately 10-foot-by-10-foot wet area in the sun that a single bush requires. My former student Sonya Ross has planted several of them on the campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Will they be maintained after I am gone and she is gone also? I have also attempted to get the Tulsa Botanic Garden to plant them extensively to hold down the soil of their new plantings and to educate Tulsans about this important native species. As far as I know, only a few alders have been grown and none planted outdoors.

A botanist in Mississippi recently contacted me for some seeds, which I sent to him.

I cannot save this species single-handedly, nor can my colleagues Phil or Catherine, nor can any one person. I was hoping I could have the salvation of this species be my crowning achievement, but this dream has died. This species enriches the soil by harboring nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its roots, and produces medicinally important compounds in its branches. I am just going to have to trust the future. I know that the pharmaceutical angle will not work. Researchers in Oregon seem to have rediscovered the antibiotic compound, which is found not just in the rare seaside alder but in the incredibly abundant red alder as well; the medicinal angle will not help save the rare species. Maybe the FWS will classify the species as endangered. But it was a low priority under the Obama Administration, and all endangered species are now the personal enemies of Donald Trump. Maybe someday someone will rediscover a few of the shrubs at Trap Pond or along the Blue River or in Mississippi. Maybe someone at Southeastern, decades from now, will remember what these trees are.