Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christians Burning Bibles?

Christians burning Bibles? You gotta be kidding me. But no. It was for real. Well, almost. The day that Amazing Grace Baptist Church was going to burn books, it rained, and they had to go inside. Also, fire laws prevented them from burning books, so they just tore them up instead. You can read about it, and see a video, here.

I do not know what all the books were that they tore up. I would have been honored if it included my Encyclopedia of Evolution. I know it included The Wizard of Oz. And it also included the Living New Testament. You see, this church believes that the only inspired word of God is the King James Version, published in English in 1611. Did Jesus or anyone he knew speak English? No. And I suppose Jesus could not have known that his words were unauthorized until King James authorized them 80 generations later.

Obviously these people were not using any kind of reasoning at all when they tore up a Bible that was a different translation from the one that they believe. The Bible cannot present any reasonable argument that the Bible should be torn up. Were they brainwashed? If not, pretty close to it.

And it is this type of mindless rage that is directed against evolutionary scientists by fundamentalists. Obviously you cannot reason with them or with anyone who is lured by them. All you and I can do is to present the truth and live honestly.
The event at Amazing Grace Baptist Church included a fried chicken dinner with all the fixins. I guess that is what they think God will serve on Judgment Day when every evolutionist, every moderate Christian, and all those martyrs who built their faith upon scriptures that were written before 1611 are thrown into an immense Barbecue of Fire.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Parasites on altruism

Surely one of the most important developments in human evolution has been altruism, which is animals being nice to other animals of the same species. I do not believe it is too much to say that humans are the most altruistic animal species to have ever existed, and that altruism has been one of the most important factors in human evolution.

Individuals in many species have “kin selection” altruism—being nice to other animals that share many of their genes. Some scientists even claim to see it in bacteria, which form altruistic multicellular structures known as biofilms (or slime). And you will find direct reciprocity in many intelligent animal species—one individual helping another, with the expectation of receiving help in return. This type of altruism requires enough intelligence to remember which other animals are reliable altruists and which are cheaters, allowing the cheaters to be marginalized. But it is probably only humans that practice indirect reciprocity, the type of altruism where an individual gets social status for doing nice things to other individuals who will never be able to repay. Natural selection has not only favored indirect reciprocity in humans, but also the emotions that accompany it. That is, in humans, the normal condition is that it feels good to be good, at least to others in your tribe. Throughout recent human history, we have been expanding the horizons of altruism, so that now it feels good to help people who are far away.

Recently, when my wife and I were out walking, we ran across a perfect example of altruism in action. A church youth group was painting over gang graffiti. They were clearly enjoying the work and the knowledge that it was appreciated by the neighborhood. The leaders were particularly happy that they had painted over the graffiti within 24 hours of its origin. They also enjoyed the thought that they were serving God by doing this.

The group was associated with the ministries of Oral Roberts, the preacher who is famous for having sweet-talked thousands of people (including my wife’s paternal grandmother) out of millions of dollars. The Oral Roberts dynasty revels in its wealth, which includes a private jet. For awhile, the privileges included access to the resources of their university, back before Oral Roberts’ son Richard was forced from the presidency of that institution. (I was recently told by a reliable source, but who must remain anonymous, that the jet that Richard Roberts used had marijuana and pornography on it. This information came from a relative of a security officer at Oral Roberts University.)

Here we see loving altruists helping the neighborhood, and helping young people at the same time, but they are also giving money to big-time parasites. It creates in my mind an image of Jesus hauling his cross to the hill while a big fat pope sits on his shoulders.

Have you seen other examples? Of course, from the realm of religion, there are almost more examples than you can count. Perhaps examples from the business world? I can certainly think of examples from my profession (education).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Natural selection is only a breath away

Natural selection is always right at your elbow, ready to remove some of the variation from the population, and that variation might be you.

It was almost me in 1993. It had been a very moist spring, and the mouse populations in much of the country had exploded. It was my first summer to teach field botany and environmental science at the Wheaton College Science Station uphill from Rapid City, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. I did not know that there was anything unusual about finding mouse feces in the bedroom drawers when we opened the cabins from their winter dormancy. I just assumed that was what always happened. I cleaned out the drawers without taking any particular precautions.

A couple of weeks later, the news broke about the Hantavirus that killed healthy young Native Americans in the Four Corners region, a relative of the Hantaan virus that had killed American soldiers in Korea during the war. The Four Corners victims inhaled dust that had virus from the feces of the very species of mouse that had overwintered in my cabin. Perhaps the droppings in my cabin had not been dusty; perhaps the mice were not infected; or perhaps it was just blind luck.

I am not talking about the Darwin Awards, in which people suffer severe consequences for stupid acts. (The Darwin Awards claim to be natural selection in action, but this is not true, as I explain in my Encyclopedia of Evolution.) I am talking about things that normal people do, and are avoided only by dysfunctionally cautious people, the ones who imagine germs everywhere. They have a point—germs, and all other threats to survival, could be anywhere.

As I will explore in later entries, evolution is not a march towards perfection. It is the survival of the luckiest—perhaps because of their genes, and perhaps not.

When was your last brush with natural selection?

Friday, December 11, 2009

A reminder

Here is one of my favorite quotes, which will remind us why it is important to work against the anti-scientific voices of unreason:

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Being Nice

This is the third and final blog entry about Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy’s final point is that, when we tell people (especially audiences) about evolution, we need to be nice. Communication experts have repeatedly shown that audiences and voters are attracted to the person who seems nicer. Consider when an Intelligent Design advocate appeals to the fairness of “letting both sides be heard, it’s the American way.” Never mind the fact that one of those sides was artificially manufactured by the Intelligent Design people. It appeals to people. If an evolutionary scientist responds in anger or even slight impatience, many people will tune the scientist out.

I am afraid that this is true, based on my own experience. I have been successful at reaching my students sometimes, and sometimes not. The successes were (as I wrote before) when I presented Darwin as a human being. It was this approach that made a success out of an event almost guaranteed to fail—Charles Darwin showing up in person for a question/answer session, open to students and the public, in rural Oklahoma.

But one thing leaves me confused. If niceness is so important, how can we explain the phenomenal appeal of some of the meanest people you could ever imagine? One example is Rush Limbaugh. He openly insults anyone who disagrees with him. His followers love it. His followers remain faithful despite flagrant hypocrisy, such as when he denounces drug abuse, not unlike his own addiction to oxycontin. But, you will notice, Limbaugh does not insult his followers (“dittoheads” is considered a compliment, not an insult). Limbaugh, like limburger cheese, repels most people, but rewards some. This same explanation, however, fails to work (in my opinion) for Ann Coulter. Is there anything she has said that is not with a snarl and a tincture of anger? What is her problem? Even her admirers think of her as a witch in a black dress.

So perhaps niceness (to the audience or readership in general) is not so important after all to the conservative culture in America. But, do scientists have much chance of reaching and teaching these people anyway? Perhaps our audience (for you evolutionary scientists and non-scientists) is the nice part of American culture, who can only be reached by niceness. With any luck, the nice part of our culture is a little larger than the mean part. That’s our only reasonable target.

I recommend Randy Olson’s “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.” It will give you some things to think about.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Scientists, Heads, and Hearts Part Two

I wish to continue a discussion of Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. His points are particularly relevant to evolution. Randy’s point is that many defenders of evolutionary science have been focusing on getting out the facts of evolution, as if these facts would convince evolution’s opponents. The anti-evolutionists have been able to, often deceptively, reach into people’s hearts. They say, in effect, “Be afraid, be very afraid, of the chaos that scientists tell you is in the world. Instead, believe us when we tell you about the Intelligent Designer that has everything under control, which means you can stop worrying about it.” Wow, this sounds good even to me.

But anti-evolution emotions can make facts bounce right off. I see it in my students: they hear me talk about how we carry old leftover genes from our evolutionary ancestors right in our chromosomes, as clear as any evidence can be for evolution, but this information finds no binding site on their brains and slips off like a cat trying to climb a pane of glass. They don’t know what to think about it, so they don’t. They aren’t stupid. They just can’t easily deal with the cognitive dissonance, and a few moments after class is over, they are thinking about something else.

Olson does not think that it is unreasonable to try a stunt or two to get past people’s emotional barriers. I agree. After all, I dress up like Darwin and make appearances all over Oklahoma (see the photo). One time, my assistant wheeled me into a classroom on a gurney, and I rose from the dead to give a lecture. I then told about Charles Darwin the person, who suffered a lot of agony and really struggled with religious beliefs. He was not trying to destroy people’s faith and champion the survival of the fittest. He believed in survival of the fittest, but he didn’t like it very much—it killed his daughter. I have had people tell me afterwards that one of the most meaningful things about my classes and presentations was not the information, of which I provided enough, but the fact that they got to know Darwin the person, who was not the monster that Oklahoma schools and churches portray him to be.

Let me know more of your experiences.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scienctists, Heads, and Hearts

I have been reading Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy produced the movie Flock of Dodos, which many of you have probably seen. In his new book, Randy points out the many ways in which popular perception is very different from the way scientists think. In particular, scientists believe in reaching conclusions by evidence and reasoning, while most people are more strongly influenced by emotions, gut feelings, and hidden (or not) sexual feelings. This doesn’t make them stupid. It just makes them human. The human brain evolved not just to solve problems but to create beauty, to tell stories, to win the affections of mates and the loyalty of comrades by making use of the emotional and intuitional centers of the brain.
(I saw a cartoon one time that contrasted the way scientists think with the way “normal people” think. A man presses a button and gets zapped by lightning. The normal person says, “I guess I’d better not do that anymore.” The scientist says, “I wonder if that happens every time I press the button.” The point is that scientists really think differently than most other people.)

I think Randy’s approach makes a lot more sense than the still-quoted “two cultures” of C. P. Snow. Of those two cultures, science still has a lot of people, but Snow’s humanist and artistic culture is not a major force in the world today. I’m not even sure how insightful Snow was at the time he wrote it. (By the way, I didn’t like C. P. Snow’s novels either.) Instead, popular culture depends on quick impressions, sound bites (bytes), and emotion. Popular culture was not swayed by the evidence that smoking is a deadly habit, but once this evidence had been around for awhile and entered popular experience, there was a watershed change in popular culture and smoking is no longer considered cool to most people.

Reading Randy’s book helped me understand some things. For example, my book Green Planet (released in early 2009) has been well reviewed and deals with one of the most important things in the world. I present eight arguments, each with its own chapter, about how plants keep the Earth alive and how we need to protect them so they can continue to do so. This book is my botanist Gospel Tract that I could hand to anyone who asks, “Of what use are trees?” Why have its sales been modest? Of course I blame the recession. But I now realize that I was presenting a reasoned argument, rather than an emotional appeal. I wrote emotionally and informally, but still structured my book more around an appeal to the head more than the heart. (But hey, it’s still a good book—see my author website.)

If scientists want to reach people, they have to reach their emotions, not just their minds. But does this means that scientists have to be evangelists, or even comics, in addition to being scientists? Scientists do not receive such training. I invite your comments, and invite you to look for installment two on this topic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Bruno Maddox merely deconstructing Darwin?

Bruno Maddox had an article in the November issue of Discover: "Deconstructing Darwin." The article is headed by this sentence: "The best thing we can do for the theory of evolution may be to bring its revered creator back down to earth." And from that point, rather than constructing a clear argument to prove his point (e.g. demonstrating that our admiration for Darwin is actually interfering with the public understanding of evolution) the author just proceeds to not simply bring Darwin back to earth, but to pour on ridicule.

Here is a taste: "Mr. So-Called Charles Darwin, with his dumb beard and his dumb theories, born 200 years ago this very year, was wrong. Not just a little bit wrong. A lot wrong. Wronger than a bluetick hound on moonshine. Wronger than a Dixie Chick wearing a blindfold. And he could, additionally, be a real pain in the you-know-where about it. Happy birthday, smart guy."

What was it that so infuriated Maddox? (I tried to find evidence that he was joking, but he appears to have been serious.) It was that Darwin published an erroneous theory for the origin of Glen Roy, a geological formation in Scotland. Darwin thought it was ancient shorelines. Turns out it was glaciers, as Louis Agassiz had written in 1840.

Yes indeed, Darwin was wrong about Glen Roy. But he admitted that he had made a mistake. Darwin wrote to Sir Charles Lyell, "My paper was one long gigantic blunder from beginning to end." But no, this is not good enough for Maddox. Darwin did not admit his error until 1861. Maddox indicates that Darwin should have admitted his mistake right away, as soon as Agassiz presented the correct explanation in 1840.

The point is well taken that nobody is perfect. And that people like me should remember Darwin's humanness. I have a tendency to be extremely reverential towards Darwin--it was almost a religious experience to be in the presence of some of his first editions at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma, last week, and to actually see his tree-of-life notebook and Annie's little box at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2006, all esconced in their plastic reliquaries. Fine.

But the fact remains, confirmed by overwhelming historical evidence, that Darwin was not only a gentle and humble man, striving to gather all the evidence he could before dumping his theory on the public, but that he was more gentle and humble than any other scientists of his day or ours. He was the exact opposite of the conceited racist Agassiz, who just happened to get the story of Glen Roy right. He got nearly everything else, except the Ice Ages, wrong. And he never admitted his errors. For Maddox to criticize Darwin so abusively yet have nothing bad to say about Agassiz is pretty stupid.

I do not know anything about Maddox's political views, but his choice of the Dixie Chicks as the epitome of stupidity suggests that he is a right-wing firebrand. This would explain why he is taking the very same approach to truth as Rush Limbaugh. This is all the more bizarre since Maddox seems to believe that Darwin was right about evolution. He just seems to have this conservative need to attack someone.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Darwinathon in Oklahoma

Yesterday, November 2, 2009, the University of Oklahoma hosted a "Darwinathon" which was twelve uninterrupted hours of fifteen-minute presentations, mostly about evolution. All the presenters except me were from the OU faculty. It was an intellectually stimulating event. I learned a lot from the talks I attended. When scientists are constrained to fifteen minutes, and when they are told to speak to a general audience, they can be very clear, delightful, and passionate. It was a place to see what an exciting adventure science is.

I gave my presentation ("Darwin never knew how right he was") in my Darwin costume. One question I got at the end was why I (Darwin) had not understood the importance of Gregor Mendel's discovery of heredity, even though I (Darwin) had read it. (Mendel was the Austrian monk who discovered inheritance patterns of genes.) I pointed out that he had also read mine, and not understood its importance. Then I pointed out that Mendel became an administrator in his monastery, after which time he never again had an original thought.

It is not quite right to say that the University of Oklahoma sponsored the Darwinathon. It was the scientists, led by Drs. Ingo Schlupp and Rich Broughton. The student newspaper, infiltrated by creationists, ignored the event, which was attended by (usually) no more than 20 or 30. The creationists presumably did not want people to know that we scientists have evidence for our claims and that we are really nice people. They want people to think we are angry haters of religion. All we can do is to keep up our speaking, writing, and educating. Eventually the truth may prevail.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Evolution of an Evolutionist

Let me tell you briefly how I became an evolutionist. I'd be delighted to hear brief stories from you about your experiences as well.

I started off as a creationist, as fundamentalist as they come. This lasted through my undergraduate days as a biology major. But I gave up these beliefs for two reasons. First, I kept learning more science. I found out that the creationists I had believed were wrong: there is lots of evidence for evolution, from DNA to fossils. Second, and this may surprise you--I kept reading the Bible. And I finally realized that a literalistic interpretation of the Bible just didn't work. So I would encourage creationists to do as I did--read the Bible for yourself, don't just believe what preachers tell you about the Bible. This may very well lead you, as it did me, to a figurative (literary) interpretation.

My evolution was partly gradualistic, and partly punctuated equilibrium. I gave up creationism in stages (gradualism). But there were certain memorable points in time when I had important insights about both religion and science (punk eek). I'll tell you about them sometime.

I have always been a great lover of nature. Hiking in the mountains and riding my bike in the country inspired me when I was young. At first, my admiration was framed in a creationist praise of a Creator who made everything exactly as it was. But I gradually realized that, if God made it exactly as it was and without the ability to evolve, then the world was not built to last. If life does not evolve, it will come to a crashing demise when the environment changes, as it always does. To a fundamentalist, this is no problem: they believe that any minute now Jesus will come back and destroy the world, including nature. I always had trouble with this, even in my fundy days. But I realized that, without accepting evolution, I had to see the natural world as NOT BUILT TO LAST. This seemed to me to be an insult to God.

More later. Let me know what your experiences have been.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This week's evolution celebrities!

The two big evolution celebs this week are Ardipithcecus ramidus and Richard Dawkins (Ardi and R.D.). Ardi is the skeleton of a woman who lived about four and a half million years ago. She was about a meter tall, and walked upright. However, her foot had a thumb-like big toe that allowed her to grasp branches. Therefore this species was perfectly intermediate between four-legged life in the trees and two-legged life on the ground. A missing link that lived exactly where and when we would expect her to, and look like what we would expect, during human evolution in Africa.

Meanwhile Richard Dawkins completed a book tour (to promote "The Greatest Show On Earth") in the United States and once again had huge crowds.

Please comment on your reaction to either of these celebrities.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Welcome to Honest Ab!

Welcome to "Honest Ab," a blog about evolution and related topics--that is, almost anything. Nearly every aspect of life is related, somehow, to evolution. Prepare to be surprised. Recurring posts will include "What's new in old evolution?" and "What has evolution done for you lately?" and "We are not amused." I am Stan Rice, a professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a rural university in Oklahoma, which makes me something of an evolution missionary, I guess. I am the author of Encyclopedia of Evolution and other books. My website (with book information and environmental essays) is "A Quiet Stand of Alders."

So, who is Honest Ab? "Ab" refers to the weed Abutilon theophrasti, which I used in my thesis experiments a long time ago. It is a beautiful but irritating little relative of cotton and hibiscus. I call myself "Honest Ab" not only for this reason but because I want to take an honest view of evolution and modern life, both human and nonhuman.

I will be particularly interested in hearing your responses to the news items, large and small, that will be appearing in this blog.