Monday, November 11, 2019

George Washington Carver


You have probably heard of George Washington Carver (1864-1943) as the early-twentieth-century Peanut Man who developed hundreds of commercial products from peanuts, and from other southern United States crops, in his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But these products were probably the least important part of his work, at that time and in his legacy today. He is also remembered as the black man who earned respect from whites who might otherwise have dismissed blacks as an inferior, perhaps uneducable, race. I have recently posted a video about Carver, filmed at his birthplace.

Carver had a brilliant mind for botany and chemistry. He was also a teacher whom his students loved, because he was humble despite his vast knowledge, and he cared individually about each student. He wanted each student to experience scientific discovery for themselves. While most science teachers today take this approach, it was uncommon in Carver’s day.



The fame was as much for his personal story as for his scientific work. He was born into slavery just before the end of the Civil War, then kidnapped. His owner got him back in exchange for a horse. After the war, George’s owner raised him as one of his own children. He struggled for years to get an education from whatever school would allow a black man to learn. He was the only black student at Iowa State University. His mentors there wanted him to stay as a faculty member, but instead he accepted a call from Booker T. Washington to join the Tuskegee faculty.

For much of his career, Carver labored in obscurity. Tuskegee president Booker T. Washington was impatient with Carver’s disorganized approach to college duties. Whenever Carver accomplished more, Booker T. Washington always thought of something more that he ordered Carver to do. At one point, even though Carver spent every waking moment working for the institute, Washington told Carver he needed to repair the bathrooms. Washington’s regimented and disciplined approach to everything conflicted with Carver’s slower and more thoughtful approach.

Then in 1921, Carver testified before the federal House Ways and Means Committee about all the food and industrial products that could be made from peanuts. The committee was interested because World War I had interrupted many imports into the United States, and they wanted to know what “home-grown” products we could have in the event of a future war. Even though these products ended up not being marketed, the committee was very impressed with this humble and brilliant man. From that point, Carver became a celebrity, and his fame spread worldwide.

Once at Tuskegee, Carver showed his ability to produce excellent work with almost no resources. Though he eventually had a lot of glassware for his teaching and research laboratories, he had literally nothing to work with when he first arrived. So, he found a whiskey bottle at the dump. He tied a string around the middle. He cooled the bottle in cold water, then lit the string on fire. The fire made the cold bottle crack in two. The top half was a funnel, the bottom half a beaker.

By the end of his life, Carver was receiving many prizes and worldwide recognition. Meanwhile, in American society, the legal rights for black people were becoming ever more restricted. After an initial period of openness after the Civil War, southern states found ways to prevent blacks from voting, and they ended up with almost no political voice. While Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were widely admired, most white people considered them individual exceptions from their otherwise benighted race.

Max Otto (see previous essay) quoted Russell Lord’s “deeply disturbing” book Behold Our Land. Lord wrote about the soil erosion, which ruined the livelihoods of poor farmers, that was going on “under the eye of a teaching and research staff of considerable distinction; and yet it all was, and is, by them completely ignored. They go right on teaching their geology, their botany, their zoology, their chemistry and physics, their archaeology, their Greek and Latin and English, with no thought or mention of the tragic transformation of the good green country roundabout.” Maybe Lord referred to the major universities, but George Washington Carver was the exact opposite of this disconnected academic lassitude.

Carver never sought fame (though it came to him) or fortune (which he had opportunities to refuse). He lived in a small room on the Tuskegee campus. Books were stacked floor to ceiling in the corner. He had a display case for his crochet work. Rocks and stalactites covered a table, and flowers crowded his window box. His personal space reminds me of my own.

I chose George Washington Carver as my favorite scientist in my recent book. The main reason was not so much because of his scientific research, which was creative but not of the highest quality, as for his motivation. He believed that scientific research at a university should prove directly helpful to the people living around it, and to the world in general. The inspiration of his peanut research (and also research on sweet potatoes and pecans) was to allow poor farmers to produce value-added products, at home, that they could sell for more money than peanuts. He also did research, and taught local farmers, about how to preserve soil fertility, so that they could produce more from each of their acres. This is also one of my main motivations in teaching and research. Like Carver, I am a mediocre scientific researcher, but my heart is in outreach to the wider community, opening their eyes to the wonders and practical benefits of science.

All this, despite the fact that Carver did not really follow what nearly every scientist in his day and today would consider good scientific method. That is the topic of the next essay.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Why I Cheered the Runners


I was about to leave my house and walk to my office one Saturday morning in October. I heard shouts outside and saw runners go down the street. (Not the sidewalk. In Durant, the sidewalks are in dangerous disrepair. So the street was closed by the police for the safety of the runners.) It was a community awareness and fundraising event. I did not know the background story of this event.

I still don’t. I decided that I did not need to know. The most important thing is, in my view, that this event was occurring at all. It was a wonderful example of altruism.
                                     
Altruism is where animals are nice to each other, and they both (or all) benefit from it. It is not necessarily self-sacrifice; it can be mutual benefit. And it is usually enjoyable. We humans not only have the instinct of being nice, but we enjoy it. The runners enjoyed running, their sponsors enjoyed donating money to the community benefit, and everyone enjoyed social interactions with their neighbors.

In Oklahoma, most people aren’t very good at altruism. Many of the Durant, Oklahoma altruists were involved in this event. But at least as many people in Durant are hostile toward altruism. They are hostile to their neighbors. They prefer to throw their garbage into their neighbors’ yards just to prove how hostile they are. (About ten percent of my garbage is what other people throw in my yard.)

So when I see altruism in action, I want to celebrate it. I was unprepared for this event, even though it went right past my front yard. But I stood out in the yard and clapped for the runners, none of whom I actually knew. And they thanked me. I got more “thank you” wishes in a half an hour than I usually get in a month.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

This Land Is Not Our Land


This is the title in one of the songs of the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is about the ancestor I share with Becky: Nancy Ward, a.k.a. Nanyehi. If you get a chance, go see this musical (information at the link above).

In this song, Nanyehi’s warrior cousin Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors has encountered a white farmer on Cherokee land. The farmer showed them the deed which the South Carolina legislature had given him, proving his land ownership. Tsiyu Gansini told him that it was Cherokee land and the legislature had no right to sell it. As a matter of fact, even the Cherokees did not own the land. Nobody can own the land. It belongs to the Great Spirit, or to God, or to all the species, not to any individual human. “This land is not our land, it’s only ours to use, it don’t belong to me, it don’t belong to you.” This is the original Cherokee view (and that of many other tribes), and remained so until private land ownership was forced upon the tribes (in the case of the Cherokees, by the Dawes enrollment of 1904).



For years, I have opened the class session about ecology, for my general biology students, with this song. It expresses perfectly what I want them to understand about ecology. After going over some basic concepts of ecology, such as the Ten Percent Law and biological magnification, I then show them a slide that summarizes ecosystem services, especially as it relates to plants. All the things that plants do for us for free! A forest is worth much more alive than dead. I wrote a whole book about this years ago: “Green Planet.


How do I draw all of this together? If you look at the Earth, or any part of it, from the private ownership viewpoint, then a forest is worth more dead than alive. You, the owner, can get money for the timber. But to the world as a whole, it is worth more alive than dead. A living forest creates oxygen, uses up carbon dioxide, holds down the soil, lets rain penetrate into the soil, etc. But notice that these are all benefits not just to you, the owner, but to everyone else. If you forego the profits from the timber, most of the benefits go to other people and you cannot make a profit on it. Other people, who do not pay you, get to breathe the oxygen.

That is, to see the benefits of ecosystem services, you have to take the original tribal view rather than the modern capitalist view. The rich people who own most of the land do not care if the land’s ability to keep us alive is destroyed, so long as they can live someplace where someone else’s plants are producing oxygen and preventing floods.

Nobody in my classes has ever complained about my attack on unlimited private capitalism. I think it is because I introduced it in the context of tribal world views (in Oklahoma, many of my students are part or full Native American) and through the vehicle of Becky’s music.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Premature Optimism about Science and Religion in America


One of the foremost opponents of all attacks on evolutionary science has been Niles Eldredge, retired from the American Museum of Natural History. One of his many books was The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism (the last phrase was printed backwards on the cover, spine, and title page). When Eldredge wrote this book, he was pretty angry at the creationists.



In recent decades, I’ve stopped getting upset about what the creationists do. You cannot stop them from making false claims, and profiting from the support of millions of people whom they have duped. They are part of the conservative movement which now controls America, and they are not going to step back from the power and money that comes with it. They know they are lying, and it does no good to point out their errors to them, or to the people who willingly believe them.

Instead, what I do is to use creationism as an opportunity to teach science, and to do so by the use of humor. I have now published two articles in Skeptical Inquirer magazine entitled “Creationist Funhouse,” episodes one and two  (readable by subscribers only). More are on the way.

Eldredge allowed himself to be optimistic toward the end of his book, which was published in 2000. He wrote, “The tired old creationism debate—mired as it so thoroughly is in the nineteenth century—simply has not prepared us for the kind of positive interaction between science and religion that I see as eminently possible as we enter the new Millennium and grapple with tough environmental issues.” As Eldredge and the rest of us now know only too well, religion and science are further apart than ever, because “religion” now often means unquestioning devotion to Donald Trump, and there is less hope than ever for environmental problems to be solved, once again because of unquestioning devotion to Donald Trump. Eldredge’s millennial optimism was a good try, but reality has proven worse than we could have imagined back in 2000.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Philosophers Thinking about Science: Nothing New

Philosophers have been thinking about science for a long time. Some, like Karl Popper, focused their attention on how science should be done. But many others have thought about what the discoveries of science mean for the future of the human species. One of these philosophers was Max C. Otto (1876-1968), who spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin. Chances are that you have never heard of him. I ended up with an old copy of a 1949 book, Science and the Moral Life, which reprinted some of his previous writings. The pages of cheap paper are turning brown and flaking away. I’d better tell you about it now, before it is lost forever.

One of the most interesting things about the book was its cover. That perennial symbol of science, the chemistry flask, is divided in two. One half has roaring predators, representing the violent animal ancestry of mankind. The other half shows a 1940’s family looking into the brightness of the future: A tall man, his slightly shorter wife behind him, and the two kids, so so blond, the brother slightly older than the sister. It is clear that science, and the philosophy that unveils it to our understanding, is the key to future happiness. Something that looks like a heart is flying away to the upper right.



This book follows in the tradition of other popular works of philosophy, such as Philosophy Made Simple: Everyone has a philosophy. You might as well think about your philosophy, because if you don’t, you might end up with a bad one. Like Philosophy Made Simple, Otto wrote in clear and powerful sentences.

Otto begins by asserting that human nature today is not what it was in our bestial ancestors: “Man is what he is, not what he was.” Evolutionary scientists today dispute this, pointing out that beasts are not always “bestial.” But, regardless, we all agree that humans have some degree of control over how we think and act—over the development of our human nature. But Otto does have a point: “Man is capable of doing and suffering in a way that his animal brother is not. He is tortured by fears and lured by hopes to which the ape is stranger. No ape brews the venom of human hatred nor does he transform passion into love. Apes speak no language, accumulate no tradition, never see the tragic or the funny side of things.” Modern scientists may dispute these last assertions, but not much.

Otto continued. To Francis Bacon, all science had to have a practical purpose. “The idea in Bacon’s mind was simple and clear. It was to domesticate the untamed forces of nature as wild horses had been domesticated; to put them into harness, hitch them to the human enterprise, invite mankind to climb in and ride away to wealth, health, and felicity.” That is why science had to be brutally honest: “It is designed to lay bare the truth, no matter what it hurts, whom it hurts, or how it hurts.”

Many people have said (I was probably one of them, somewhere back in my flotsam of publications) that all roads of sincere inquiry lead to the same place, which some people call God. Otto said, regarding this, “I say frankly that this seems to me plain hocus-pocus...How would it sound if you put it this way? No one can tell where your road leads to; no one can tell where my road leads to; which proves that they both lead to the same place. You and I are fellow travelers who refuse to stop anywhere but in the city the whereabouts of which are unknown. Hence our slogan must be... “Step on the gas!”

In order to let science lead us into a better future, Otto claimed, we have to let go of traditional religion. In 1943, he wrote that religious forces are taking advantage of our confusion. “The springtime of our church religion dates back many hundreds of years. The thirteenth century was its summer. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the bronze and the yellow of autumn. From 1859 on [he just assumed his readers knew this was when Origin of Species was published] the oaks joined in the pageant, and industrialized science was the cold November rain.” Religion, Otto claimed decades earlier than John Shelby Spong, must change or die. Religion has no more facts to give us; only science can do this. We cannot go back to not knowing what we know now, back to the simple faith of the past. For religion and science to coexist, Otto said, religion must become pure feeling, without doctrinal assertions.

Max Otto, emerging from the crisis of World War I and observing that of World War II, dared to hope that science would lead to a new world in which our old, destructive ways of thinking would be extinct. How wrong he was! He wrote, “Pure tribal spirit has been outgrown, and the trend of human emotions is away from it; so distinctly away from it that the outstanding temper of our day may be said to be the audacious hope [my emphasis] of re-creating the world in the interest of all mankind.” He wrote those words in 1924. How disturbed he would be to see the ethnic selfishness that now rules our thinking, especially by those who hate the memory of Barack Obama, one of whose book titles (TheAudacity of Hope) looks like it emerged directly from Otto’s quote!

Alas, in contrast to Max Otto’s assertions, we will be animals forever and we have to learn to make the best of it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Natural Selection in the Meadow of Science

Imagine a meadow full of flowers. Imagine yourself as a bee, looking for flowers that have the nectar that you want to eat. Which ones will you go to? There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to make the best use of your time in the sun. You may choose the biggest and brightest flowers, if for no other reason than that they grabbed your attention.

Natural selection results. The bees choose the biggest and brightest flowers, and these are the ones that get pollinated and produce a lot of seeds. In addition to natural selection, there is also sexual selection. The big, colorful flowers attract pollinators to bring, and to take away, pollen, which is the male function of the flower. I am unclear on the concept of how a pollinator can enhance a flower’s male success without also enhancing its female success, but the scholarly articles about pollination customarily make this distinction.

Now imagine that the meadow is full of graduate students looking for jobs in academia. They want their scholarly articles not to just get published but to get noticed. How can a graduate student do this?

Of course, the article has to be well written and technically accurate. An inaccurate article is as counter-productive as a flower that, due to a genetic or developmental defect, cannot produce seeds.

And this used to be all that mattered. Scientific articles had to be correct, not necessarily interesting. As a matter of fact, old scientific articles seemed to me to compete with one another to see how boring they could be.

But now, scholarly articles have to catch the reader’s attention.

I think this is a positive development. Like many other professors, I am overwhelmed with work. I do not have time to read a bunch of scientific articles. All I can do is to visit the websites of the professional organizations to which I belong (for example, the Botanical Society of America), click on each monthly issue of the journal (American Journal of Botany, AJB), and scroll through the titles. If one catches my attention, I click on it. Right at the top, under the title and names of authors, is a summary, called an abstract. It might be one or two hundred words long. And that is usually all I have time to read. If I want to look at it again, I highlight and copy the title and put it in a digital file to which I can refer later. Even this I mostly do on vacation.

You can see how important it is to have a clear and interesting title. The title might be all that most members of the Society read. Sometimes, the titles sound more like something from National Geographic than from AJB. (I repeat, this is a good thing.) Here are some examples, from 2017 and 2018:

  • There was an article about the beautiful red-spotted golden flowers of Mimulus guttatus. I have long admired this flower, and was surprised to learn that in addition to being beautiful it had a nifty trick. The stigma (the surface on which pollinators deposit the pollen) closes itself up when it is touched. This is valuable for flowers that require pollen from a different flower. The ones that pollinate themselves, however, have lost the ability to close up their stigmas. The title began, “Losing one’s touch.”
  • Plant species related to Amsinckia, which produces flowers on a stalk that unfurls like the neck of a violin, are found in both North and South America. Genetic analysis has revealed that seeds of these plants journeyed from one hemisphere to the other 18 times. Interesting, but I might have missed it were it not for the first part of the title: “Memoirs of a frequent flier.”
  • There was an article about parasites seeking host vines. But these vines might be hard to find, interspersed with many other plants on which the parasites cannot live. The title began, “Reading between the vines.”
  • There was a series of articles about the computer-based analyses of plant evolutionary history. One was about the plant family Campanulaceae (bellflowers). The title began, “Can we build it? Yes, we can, but should we use it?” The title of another article, about the plant family Apocynaceae (milkweeds), began, “Evolution on the backbone.” The author was referring to the backbone of the phylogenetic tree, not animal backbones.
  • The August, 2018 AJB issue focused on how the “tree of life,” which shows the evolutionary relationships of all living species of plants, can be improved by adding in extinct, fossilized species, thus making it “The Tree of Death.” One of the article titles began, “Wanted dead or alive (probably dead).”


Interesting titles are good not just for us scientists, but also for science journalists, who write popular articles for everyday people to read. In case science journalists look over the titles, they will only notice the interesting ones. With a boring title, your research will never get mentioned in popular magazines or websites. One of the world’s leading journals, Science, has popular summaries of its technical articles near the front of each issue. The titles sometimes stretch themselves to the limit to get your attention.

For example, in the August 2, 2019 issue of Science, there is a technical article titled, “Laboratory mice born to wild mice have natural microbiota and model human immune responses.” If you read this title carefully, you can see that it is a pretty exciting article, bringing together two important aspects of modern medicine: microbiota (e.g. in your gut) and immunity. The summary at the front of the journal is titled “Walk on the wildling side,” and the news summary title is “Born to be a wildling.” The news summary titles tell you almost nothing about what the research is about; they exist solely to grab your attention. “Wildling” comes from the title of a 2018 movie.

In the immediately previous issue, there was a technical article about neutral mutations; that is, they are DNA mutations that have no measurable effect on the organism. Geneticists call these mutations cryptic. The title of the technical article is “Cryptic genetic variation accelerates evolution by opening access to diverse adaptive peaks.” The news summary article was entitled “Tales from the crypt(ic).”

Even the technical articles sometimes make a big stretch to gain attention. Several years ago there was a Science article about a Mediterranean volcano. The title began, “Bang!”

This has been going on for a long time, though less than at present. A 2002 article in the journal Oecologia is entitled, “It takes two to tango but three is a tangle: Mutualists and cheaters on the carnivorous plant Roridula.”

But sometimes the titles promise more than they can deliver. One 2017 article in AJB was entitled “Ecological and evolutionary consequences of tri-trophic interactions: Spatial variation and effects of plant density.” The title made me excited. It would make you excited, too, if you are a plant ecologist. It sounded like ecology at its best: biological processes having ripple effects up and down the food chain, that is, three trophic levels. I can almost hear John Muir saying that everything in the universe is hitched to everything else and that he would love to read the article.

But then I looked at the summary of the article. The seeds themselves are the first trophic level; the insects that eat the seeds, the second; and the parasites that eat the insects, the third. But the article simply showed that insects will be more abundant in places where there are more seeds, and that the parasites that afflict the insects are not affected by seed or insect density. The first conclusion was something we have already known for decades; the second conclusion was that the parasites didn’t affect the system. I thought that I was going to learn something new about ecology, in general, and was disappointed. If the authors had entitled the article “Seed predators eat more seeds when there are more seeds, and parasites have no effect on them,” the article would not have been noticed, perhaps not even published. All this, in spite of the fact that there was nothing technically wrong with the article.

If you want a job in the academic world, you have to publish articles with interesting titles (good) and that maybe promise more than they can deliver (not so good). Overall, I am glad that scientific titles are more interesting than they used to be. I certainly made some stretches for the chapter titles in my most recent book. But sometimes, just sometimes, a clever title makes me wonder if the author is hiding something.

Friday, September 20, 2019

New Darwin Video: I Have a Stethoscope and You Don't!

Click here for a new Darwin video in which I explain how some doctors and scientists, whether legitimate or not, use images rather than facts to enhance their credibility. It relates to chapter 14 of my book Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World's Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science.