Friday, September 28, 2012

New Video: Darwin Does Not Debate

Should we debate with creationists? Charles Darwin explains why this is a waste of time. It is similar to other pseudoscience debates, such as the Larry King show where UFO believers ganged up on Bill Nye. Poor Bill. What do you think? Post comments and start a discussion. You can find the new video here and other videos are on the Darwin Channel. Also feel free to check out Mitt Romney and Sally Kern on the Republican Climate channel, which is separate from the science-based Darwin Channel.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New Darwin video: A Ghost of Evolution

I have just posted a video on my YouTube channel in which Charles Darwin explains an example of coevolution. Mammals and fruits have coevolved, but the mammal disperser of bois-d'arc seeds has become extinct. To understand the ecology of fruit dispersal you must understand evolutionary history: the extinct mammal is a "ghost of evolution."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reality of Global Warming: The Phenology 2012 Conference

I am in Milwaukee, where the Phenology 2012 conference has just ended, except for a field trip to a bog tomorrow. It is a small but powerful conference, with scientists and science students from 21 countries. It is one of the most remarkable conferences I have attended. Thanks go to Mark Schwartz at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who has been one of the world leaders in phenology research for decades—his hard work made this conference a success in every detail.

Phenology is the study of seasonal patterns of organisms: buds bursting in spring, leaves falling in autumn, animals migrating, etc. This is part of the adaptations that organisms have: they have physiological mechanisms that allow them to do the right things at the right times.

Phenology is not only an international science but an interdisciplinary one. Some of the conference participants study satellite data, which show “greening-up” occurring earlier each year, while others study organisms directly. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject is also what has made this a remarkable conference. We also heard from scientists who specialize in citizen science: they coordinate the efforts of ordinary citizens to collect seasonal data about plants and animals, and put these data into an organized database (see the USA National Phenology Network). We heard from educators who involve the public in phenology awareness.

I gave a presentation in which I documented that the Oklahoma trees I have been watching for the last seven years are, in most cases, opening their buds one to two days earlier each spring, which demonstrates a remarkable rate of global warming. The one exception is silver maples, which (in my sample) all died in the 2011 heat wave. This rate cannot continue; if winters become too warm, the buds will actually open later, not earlier, because cold weather is required to break down their inhibitors (inhibitors are sort of like hibernation hormones).

A couple of years ago, Senator Jim Inhofe from my state of Oklahoma issued a list of climate scientists who should be investigated by the Department of Justice for possible criminal activity because they study global warming at taxpayer expense. Since global warming cannot be happening, Inhofe reasons, these scientists must be making stuff up. One of the scientists on Inhofe’s list is Thomas Karl, our keynote speaker, who did not know he was on the list until I told him. Way to go, Oklahoma. But I think all of us who study phenology should also be on the list. (Technically, I would not be on the list, because I have never received funding for my phenology studies.) I began my talk, “Dear fellow criminals…” That got their attention.

I met two scientists (Steven Running and Kirsten DeBuers) who fully accept global warming, but who wrote a paper that indicated that some trees (up in the mountains) would grow more under warmer temperatures. A global-warming-denial website put them on the list of 3000 “scientists who deny global warming.” So don’t believe these lists, folks! Many of the scientists on these lists were put there falsely!

I also met the woman who blogs about global warming for Huffington Post. You can follow her on Twitter at @climategeek.

What does this topic have to do with evolution, the usual topic of this blog? In the past, normal ecological and evolutionary processes allowed organisms to respond to global climate changes because these changes occurred slowly. Organisms could, over the course of thousands of years, migrate: birds could fly, mammals could run, and seeds could be carried by animals or wind. Over the course of millions of years, organisms could evolve in response to climate changes, such as the spread of grasslands about thirty million years ago. But global climate changes, as great as almost any of those, are occurring today over the course of decades and centuries, too fast for either migration or evolution to adjust. In addition, today, there are roads, cities, and farms in the way. If the ocean rises you can’t just move inland—somebody else already owns the land there. Phenology, therefore, is an important field of study. It shows us that the current rapid rate of global warming is causing remarkable changes in the seasonal activities of organisms. These changes serve as a warning to us about what is going to happen, imminently, in our future.

Back in the days of Gilbert White, phenology was a pleasantly peaceful science. White wrote about the arrival and departure of birds, the opening of buds, and the emergence from hibernation of his female turtle Timothy. Phenology did not rock the world the way evolution did. This is no longer true. Scientists all over the world are documenting that plants and animals are responding to global warming. Ordinary people cannot see carbon dioxide. But they can see that buds that used to always open in April are now opening in March, and doing so nearly every year. They are telling us that global warming is occurring, however much Senator Inhofe insists that it is not.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Two YouTube videos

I just posted a new YouTube video on the Darwin Channel in which Darwin explains the symbiogenetic origin of complex cells using sushi as a visual example. The direct link is here.

Another useful video is one that I posted a long time ago and it has gotten buried under dozens of others. It is called "Darwin eats a hamburger" and it ties several crucial themes in biology together: nutrition (the dangers of eating too much fat), global warming (raising cattle releases a lot of greenhouse gas), and evolution (why we crave fat). In this video, Emma Darwin also speaks from behind the camera. The direct link is here.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Our Overwhelming New Challenge: The Denial of Physical Reality

Science educators have always assumed that we will be challenged by creationists. More recently, we have been challenged by global warming denialists. Major science education associations, whether national (such as National Center forScientific Education) or local (such as Oklahomans for Excellence inScience Education), now consider it their mission to respond to both challenges.

But now the conservatives are attacking every branch of science. And they are attacking physical reality itself. This means that there is nothing that scientists can say or science educators can teach that will make any difference, since we always base our statements on physical proof.

The major example that has been in the news recently is Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) who is running as the Republican nominee for Senate. Even the Republican Party withdrew support for him when he made comments about “legitimate rape.” I am not sure whether the Republicans were all that upset about his scientific claim that a woman’s body can “shut down” a pregnancy. He apparently knows nothing about human anatomy and physiology, nor did he consider it worth his while to find out. Apparently he was satisfied with just making something up and saying it. Apparently reproductive anatomy and physiology is under attack by some conservatives.

And there are some conservatives who use biblical statements upon which to base their beliefs that the Earth is the center of the universe and does not move and that there are Methuselahs living inside the Earth.(Note: my browser indicates that the anti-Copernican website above may be unsafe to visit.) Warren Chisum, who was at one time the second most powerful Republican in the Texas House of Representatives (he is leaving office January 2013), informed some of his colleagues that the website revealed important information indicating that the Copernican view might be a hoax.

I had an experience on August 31 that took me totally by surprise. I was teaching general biology, and the topic was global warming. I was presenting evidence of global warming. In a previous section of the class, I had talked about the Antarctic ice layers, and how scientists could determine global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from them. I was expecting, and got, a challenge about how global warming is part of a recurring cycle; I told the student that yes, indeed, it was, he was right, but I then explained how the global warming that is occurring today is different from the previous cycles of warming.

What I was not expecting, in this section, was loud criticism from two creationist students that, since the Earth is only 4,000 years old (I assume they meant since the Flood) there could not be 400,000 layers of ice in Antarctica. That would mean that 100 layers of ice would have to form every year for the last 4,000 years. This, I said, would have to be a miracle. They were unwilling to defend the idea of God doing such a deceptive miracle. The conclusion was, apparently, that I was lying about there being thousands of ice layers in Antarctica. I showed them a photograph of the ice layers that I had taken (not, of course, all 400,000 of them) but this was not good enough for the students. I suppose photos can be faked. What I had experienced was an attack on the admissibility of physical evidence itself—their religious view simply did not permit the existence of those ice layers. I was totally unable to know what to do next. Fortunately other students told the creationists that they had come to learn from me not from other students, and class went back to normal except that I could not concentrate.

These students had already challenged me earlier in the class. They said that if the atmospheric carbon dioxide readings were made in Hawaii, wouldn’t the volcanoes have messed up those measurements? This was a reasonable question and I answered it, in two ways: first, the Mauna Loa observatory is thousands of feet above current volcanic eruptions; second, the measured increase in carbon dioxide is uniform from year to year, irrespective of periods of volcanic eruption. I forgot all about this discussion until later, since it was a reasonable question. I did not become quietly upset until they attacked the existence of the 400,000 ice layers.

I think we will increasingly encounter such attacks. When we teach about the existence of human endogenous retroviruses (HERV) in our chromosomes, we can expect creationists to criticize their interpretation; but maybe we should now expect them to claim that HERV simply do not exist. Pseudogenes? Perhaps they do not exist either. If we said the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2004 went to the discoverers of the olfactory pseudogenes, the students will perhaps simply say that is an international scientific hoax.

Of course creationists reject radiometric dating. Uranium-lead dating is based upon the fact that zircon crystals do not incorporate lead while they are forming. Perhaps now I should expect creationists to reject the facts of chemistry and say that, in fact, zircon crystals do contain lead when they form, even though uranium atoms have seven shells with a valence of two while lead has six shells and a valence of four. How could I prove this to them? I can’t say, “I just happen to have a uranium atom here, and as you can see it has seven shells of electrons, with two on the outside.” Or, “I just happen to have a freshly-forming zircon crystal, and as you can see there are no lead atoms in it.” How should I handle this? I simply cannot prepare for every possible challenge to the reality of physical evidence. Meanwhile all creationists have to do is to say, for example, “I won’t believe that carbon atoms exist unless you prove it to me right here in the middle of class.”

There are some things I can prove to them, maybe. If they claim that photosynthesis will clean all of the additional carbon dioxide out of the air even during droughts, I can tell them I have actually measured photosynthetic rates in drought-challenged plants and drought does indeed reduce and eventually stop photosynthesis. Or maybe they would just say I am lying. What can I do?

Conservatives have become very good at reinventing reality. Lots of people consider the Republican Party to be the party of fiscal responsibility, as if the administration of George W. Bush (with a trillion-dollar deficit-funded war) had never happened. You will notice they hardly mentioned it during their convention. The only mention was by Jeb Bush, who said, “I love my brother.” Otherwise, for aught we hear from Republicans, the Republican Party was created de novo ex nihilo in 2009 in Edenic perfection.

I fear that we have a new generation of extreme conservatives coming along who do not believe in physical evidence. Truth, to them, is whatever their party or their preacher tells them, even if there is physical evidence or historical records against it. There has, perhaps, never been such a challenge to science or to science education. At least not since the clerics simply refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and see the moons of Jupiter.

Please post comments about your experiences, or suggestions about what to do.