Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Putting Us In Our Place

Humans are accustomed to being arrogant. We take what we want and dump the wastes. We assume that the Earth will just clean up the mess and keep providing everything to us. But we are about to exceed the capacity of the planet to do this, if we have not already done so. We are about to be put in our place as just another species that cannot exceed its limits.

But if we had paid attention to the wild plants, we would have known this already. In my recently released Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive, I describe the way the world used to be, the realm of wilderness and, in many places, huge trees. One cannot approach the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, the largest living thing on Earth, and still feel arrogant. Its base is as large as a small house. Its largest branch is bigger than the biggest tree east of California. Nor can one remain arrogant in the presence of the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains of California. Though they are small, they endure cold, dry conditions. Many of them were already two thousand years old when Jesus was born.

Plants live almost everywhere on the Earth. Almost anywhere you could go, you will find plants. Tundra plants survive long winters and fierce winds; desert plants survive long periods of drought. Plants have evolved many different ways of surviving these conditions. For example, some desert plants store water; others have deep roots; others are small and complete their life cycles during the brief rainy seasons. But there is more. In the process of adapting to the different climatic conditions of the Earth, plants have created the diversity of habitats that we see: for it is the plants that make the forests, grasslands, and deserts what they are.

Plants defy our human arrogance. It is they who keep the Earth alive, and who create the habitats in which we live. If we pay attention to them, we will have a little bit more of the humility that we are going to need to survive on this planet.

Humans are just one tiny twig of the animal branch of the vast tree of life. We are the most intelligent species on the planet, but it has yet to be seen how successful we will be. We think that intelligence is the greatest adaptation. But species that have little or no intelligence have persisted for billions of years and have altered the face of the planet. Our intelligence might lead us to destruction even more quickly than it has led us to prominence, and turn out to be merely a bright flash in the long evolutionary history of the Earth.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Trying to Interfere with Natural Selection

We spend a lot of time and effort and money interfering with natural selection. It is a good thing that we do this. We do not just let nature take its course. We do not wait for natural selection to bring about resistance to a disease in a population, after the deaths of thousands of people who lack the resistance. We invent medicines. We do not wait for natural selection to other forms of knowledge. Some people point out that we are contributing to the accumulation of bad genes in human populations by interfering with natural selection. This may be so, but it is irrelevant—since the most important human adaptation to have evolved is our cultural transmission of knowledge. Not only do we have big brains, but we have cultures that allow the availability of more knowledge than any person could possibly have. Among the items of cultural information that we share with one another and that we pass down to future generations is the knowledge of medicine, and other ways to keep the hands of natural selection off of our human bodies.

The situation becomes a little less clear when we consider interfering with natural selection that happens in non-human species. We want to relieve the suffering not only of our fellow humans but all of our fellow creatures, so long as we do not spend too much time or money doing so. Well, at least bleeding-heart empathetic people like me do. But it usually doesn’t work. My wife and I were walking one morning, and as we went under a bridge, we saw a giant wasp carrying a paralyzed cicada as big as itself. The wasp was looking for a place to bury the cicada and lay eggs in it, allowing the wasp grubs to have fresh meat (the cicada was paralyzed, not dead) as they grew up. But there was nothing but cement under the bridge. I got the bright idea of trying to scoop up the wasp and cicada with my hat and move them out to the grassy embankment where the wasp could bury its victim. But I succeeded only in making the wasp drop the cicada, get confused, and possibly angry. I was just wasting its time and energy and possibly endangering its life.

The very same day, I found that a spider had built a little web in my sink, right under the faucet. There is no way it could survive there. So I scooped it into a spoon and put it under the drying rack. (My house, as you may have guessed, resembles a natural ecosystem in some ways.) Now, I thought, the spider could live in peace and continue its good work of eating insects that I did not want in my house. But there was already another spider there, and it came out to fight off the intruder that I had forced upon it. The intruder was bigger but retreated. I hope it survived. (These spiders are too small to pose any threat to people.)

In both cases, I tried to interfere with nature by helping its creatures out. It just didn’t work. This reminded me that nature is not ours, to destroy, to enslave, or even to help out. There is only so much we can do. Saint Francis of Assisi would pick up earthworms stranded on the road after a rain. I used to stop and rescue turtles from the middle of the highway. But we just have to accept our place. Our hands are full just helping one another. It is the integrity and beauty of whole habitats and ecosystems that we must protect—and let the individual animals and plants take care of themselves.

(This essay also appeared on my website.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Social Evolution: Capitalism Works Except When It Doesn't

This entry is recycled from myprevious evolution blog (March 2009) that I have now closed.

One of the hallmarks of the human species is altruism. There are three kinds of altruism: generosity toward one’s family; generosity toward others who might someday reciprocate; and generosity to poor and perhaps unknown strangers, which gives the altruist an enhanced social standing. All three forms of altruism are really enlightened self-interest rather than pure sacrifice.

As events in the past year have vividly shown, bankers and “financial services” executives seem to be outside of this universal human realm of altruism. (“Services,” in this sense, appear to have the same meaning as “servicing” a livestock animal.) The insurance giant AIG has received so much federal bailout money that it is now mostly owned by us, the taxpayers. In 2009, they announced their intention to give $165 million of the taxpayer money as executive bonuses, much of it to the very executives who bankrupted the company. They claimed that they have no choice in the matter, that they had already promised these bonuses before they received bailout money. The outpouring of rage from the American people was nearly unprecedented. USA Today had a picture on its front page of the AIG logo with a tomato spattered on it.

Some writers have applied the concepts of natural selection to the economy. Their view is “the survival of the fittest,” and their system is called capitalism. Strangely, some of the people most enthusiastic about survival of the fittest in the marketplace reject evolutionary science. There are several problems with doing this. One is that human individuals and societies have options open to them that other animal species do not. We have an intricate form of cultural evolution. We can decide to say no to our genes, and to do what we think is right even if it is not in our selfish individual interests. Richard Dawkins quoted the intentionally childless Steven Pinker as saying, “My selfish genes can go jump in the lake.” Another is that extreme capitalists have applied only part of evolutionary theory: they have applied “survival of the fittest” but totally omitted altruism. The result is true stupidity: for example, AIG seems to be totally clueless that being mindful of their civic duty could be worth billions of dollars of customer revenues to them. If they think they can make us their customers by hitting us atop the head with a club, they are following the 1950’s-B-movie version of evolution, not the scientific version.

Capitalism works except when it doesn’t. Republicans have said to just let companies do whatever the hell they want to. Senator Phil Gramm has been especially vigorous in removing federal oversight and underfunding the Securities and Exchange Commission. Then, when outrageous selfishness causes an economic collapse, these same capitalists come with lugubrious faces and outstretched palms asking for socialist handouts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Welcome to the Republican Climate!

In an earlier post, I requested ideas about the possible future directions of evolution. Humans are not the first species to change the Earth; photosynthetic bacteria filled the air with oxygen billions of years ago, which forever altered the planet and the course of evolution, and most of this oxygen may have come from one species. But the abuse of human intelligence and technology has transformed most of the Earth into a disturbed habitat, which is best suited to weeds and pests (like Kurosawa’s giant dandelions I mentioned previously).

Right now the biggest human impact on the Earth is habitat destruction. We destroy entire ecosystems and replace them with cities and monoculture farms. The only species that thrive under these conditions are humans, weeds, pests, germs, and our crops and livestock species. Compared to millions of wild species, the list of organisms that might be ancestors of the future is pretty short.

But in less than a century, the major environment in which evolution will take place will be a planet transformed by global warming. Already, species are being affected by it—some have become extinct, while others have evolved new adaptations. Global warming is nothing new, and past global warmings have resulted in lots of new species (especially back in the dinosaur days). But today it is happening so fast that the only species that can respond to it are those species that are already good at responding to disturbances: once again, weeds and pests. Will trees of future forests be the evolutionary descendants of today’s weeds, just as some of the “trees” of St. Helena are descendants of sunflowers? Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing (in her book Mara and Dann) described an African continent in which the rainforests were gone and the earth crawled with dangerous animals, as well as with many new races of humans (who were usually at war with one another). Global warming does not need to be catastrophic, but it will be if it occurs faster than evolution.

There is one major reason that we have not taken further action against global warming. That reason is the Republican Party. In fifty to a hundred years, when the effects have begun to devastate human civilization, people will remember the Bush Administration and Senator James Inhofe (from my state of Oklahoma) and blame them, and their party, for the disaster. And they will blame the rest of us for letting the Republicans get away with it.

On December 7, Republican Congressmen issued a statement that asked, in effect, which was greater: the greenhouse gases emitted by Air Force One taking President Obama to the Copenhagen climate conference, or the hot air emitted from his mouth while addressing Congress. Think about that. That is simply a childish insult. Republican leaders are not only scornful of all scientific evidence, but also of anyone who dares to disagree with their presumed omniscience. Democratic Congressmen never talked like that about Bush. Republican leaders are, besides being destructive, simply embarrassing brats. I wish I could say to those of you outside the United States that the Republican leaders do not represent America. I wish the rank and file Republicans would stand up against them. But even though they are a minority they can still destroy the efforts of those who want to save the Earth from the devastation that humans are bringing upon it.

That is why I wanted to introduce a new phrase into public discourse: Republican Climate. Use it when you get a chance in conversation and writing.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Creationism: Selective defense of Bible literalism

Creationists defend a literal interpretation of just certain parts of the Bible, while ignoring others. Here are a few examples that demonstrate this inconsistency.

Creationists defend a literal reading of Genesis 1 as referring to 144 hours (6 consecutive days of 24 hours). But they skip over the word “firmament.” As anyone who consults a Biblical concordance and dictionary will discover, the Hebrew word used for firmament (raquia) refers to a thin dome of metal, beaten out by a hammer. A metal dome. We all know that there is no metal dome in the sky, and creationists conveniently ignore this word, or interpret it figuratively. The Answers in Genesis website chooses the figurative interpretation, for the literal one is preposterous. The author claims that the word is used figuratively in other parts of the Bible. But this is not a defense of the creationist position; it merely demonstrates that the Bible itself permits figurative interpretations, and that literalistic ones are not necessary.

Creationists insist on interpreting the Flood of Noah as literally covering the Earth, as described in Genesis 6-9. However, in the very next chapter (Genesis 10:25), the Bible says that in the days of the patriarch Peleg “the Earth was divided.” The Hebrew word used for Earth is the same as the one used in the Noah account—the Earth that was completely covered by water; that is, from the creationist view, the planet. And the word for “divided” literally means a splitting, as with a cleaver or sword. The only literalistic interpretation possible is that the entire planet was cut into two or more pieces. This obviously did not happen. The Answers in Genesis website claims that the passage referred to a figurative splitting of peoples into different cultural groups. They insist that Genesis 6-9, but not Genesis 10, be taken literally.

There are many other examples, such as where Daniel tells the Babylonian king that his rulership extends to the ends of the Earth (Daniel 4:22). This clearly indicates that the king ruled the entire land surface of the planet, that there was no frontier of the empire. Everyone knows this is not the case. In fact, both Daniel and the king knew it. The king certainly knew he had soldiers at the frontier. This indicates, once again, that the people who wrote the Bible did not intend a literalistic interpretation.

Creationists and fundamentalists choose which passages to take literally, and which not, in order to produce the most effective propaganda. In the process, they lose any chance of the rest of us considering them to be honest.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Creationism: Turning the brain off

One of the major components of creationism and fundamentalism is that it mesmerizes its adherents into turning their brains off. By accepting literalistic biblical authority, creationists do not even notice evidence that contradicts their beliefs. But it goes beyond even the acceptance of biblical passages about the distant past. Creationists uncritically accept even beliefs that have no biblical basis and which can be easily disproven by observation in the present.

During the question and answer period of Francisco Ayala’s talk at the University of Oklahoma (see previous entry), one faculty member (who teaches freshman biology) reported results of student surveys in his class. (The new “clicker” technology allows an instant computerized display of student answers to survey and quiz questions.) He said that about 60 percent of the students believe that men and women do not have the same number of ribs.

This belief comes from the Bible story about God creating Eve from the rib of Adam. These students apparently thought that if someone’s rib is removed, that person’s descendants for the rest of time will have one rib missing. That is not how genetic inheritance works. It is not evolution that these students are rejecting; it is basic genetics. You cannot pass on things that happen to your body to later generations; the only thing you pass on is your genes. Moreover, the Bible nowhere says that because God removed a rib from Adam, all men will have a rib missing. The creationists have just made up this story, which contradicts all of biology, not just evolution.

The adherents of the missing-rib idea have turned off their minds. It is a perfectly straightforward procedure to count the number of ribs in men and women and verify that they are the same (unless there is an injury or a mutation in certain rare individuals). But they do not bother to do this. An intelligent creationist would instantly recognize (as many do) that the missing-rib theory is wrong and totally unnecessary for a Bible believer to believe. But mentally-lazy creationists, of which there are many thousands, do not bother with such mental exertion. They figure they already know everything they need to know: They believe the Bible, even if they do not know what it says, and they do not need to learn anything else. The result is a brain that is accustomed to not think.