Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape, part one.

I realize that I am adding my voice to the discussion about Sam Harris’s book long after its initial publication and after many others have spoken. My excuse is that I have only recently read it.

Harris spends a lot of time in his book going over what I consider the prolonged and painful contemplation of the obvious. Of course there is a difference between right and wrong. Of course we should all act in ways that contribute the most to the general well-being. I am astonished that cultural relativists still exist and stand ready to exonerate evil practices simply because one society or another may consider them a cultural norm. If a tribe somewhere practices human sacrifice, it is simply wrong, even if it is a cherished tradition within that culture. I am astonished that some liberals defend the right of Fundamentalist Mormon polygamists to invite thirteen-year-old girls to be one of their many concubines (unofficial wives). (The mainstream Mormon church abandoned this practice in the late nineteenth century.) The thirteen-year-old girls cannot freely choose to be “multiple wives.” They are too young to understand what they are doing, and are easily overwhelmed by the powerful church leader who tells them that they will go to hell if they do not submit to being a multiple wife. (I obtained this information from a different book, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.) We all know this and there is no point in wasting time discussing such points with cultural relativists. They have had a field day attacking Harris with their own brand of fundamentalism: the unswerving belief that there is no absolute morality. So one problem I had with Harris’s book was that it defends an idea nearly all of us already know.

But there was a problem with Harris’s approach. He said that science can determine what is right and wrong. I do not believe that science is equipped to do this. I suggest that it is much easier if we take an evolutionary approach. Perhaps our major human evolutionary adaptation is altruism. Therefore, for our species, and probably for all other intelligent social species in the universe, things are good if they promote general altruism, and bad if they erode it. By general altruism, I mean for everybody, not just for your own rapacious tribe. Altruism can be scientifically studied. The only assumption we have to make is that this adaptation is not only successful but good. We have to start with some assumption somewhere. Harris points out that scientists assume the scientific method is good; that it is good to be honest about data and to be logically consistent about reasoning.

So I believe that Harris reached the right conclusion, and did so by the right path. He just apparently misnamed the path, calling it science instead of altruism. And we can scientifically study the degree to which any given behavior enhances altruism. Anyone who questions the goodness of altruism does not understand our species very well.

I have now begun to lose faith in the pervasiveness of altruism in the human species. It exists, it is an instinct, and there are many individuals who have it. I once considered it almost ubiquitous, now I consider it a rare cause for celebration when it is found. Whether altruism is common or rare, I believe the argument above remains unchanged.

I understand why creationists and those in the business of using religion to control the minds of others get mad at Sam Harris. But it is even more repulsive when supposed free-thinking liberals attack him, the subject of the next essay.

Check out the most recent YouTube post, in which Darwin explains punctuated equilibrium! Also, remember that the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is now available for registration! More information on this in upcoming days.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We All Love Stories, Even about Oaks

If you came to this blog seeking more information about the summer evolution road trip, it can be found in the previous entry, and more information will be available in upcoming days.

You could almost define Homo sapiens as the species that loves stories. We evolved that ability around African stone age campfires, where the ability to tell and to understand stories conferred social advantages. We interpret our lives as stories; we could not imagine ourselves as eternal beings. And in science, we love stories also. Stories about how the digestive system works. (The epitome of this approach was the book, published about eighty years ago, entitled Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera. And apparently Mary Roach, author of Bonk and Stiff, is coming out with a new contribution to the literature of alimentary expeditioning, Gulp.) Stories about how ecosystems work. And stories about evolution. We are (well, most of us) much more interested in the stories of evolution than in the theory. We have to be careful to not read too much into the stories. It is all too easy to think of Tiktaalik crawling out of the water toward life on land, as if he were Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. At least, we have to be careful to keep that kind of thinking out of our science; but it remains part of our folklore.

I sometimes like to imagine the saga of the oaks. Somewhere in Eurasia, maybe 80 million years ago, there was a population of trees that produced acorns: the first population of oaks (genus Quercus). What was the secret of their success? Was it the acorns, or was it something else? These early oaks may have resembled the white oaks (section Quercus), which have spineless leaves and acorns that mature the same year that they are produced, for these oaks are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Then geological and climatic changes occurred throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Atlantic Ocean formed, and the Rocky Mountains arose, and the arctic climate got colder. This separated the oaks of Europe, Asia, California, and eastern North America from one another. Unique oak species evolved in each of these locations and in others. In some cases, this produced new species of white oaks, such as Q. aliena in eastern Asia; Q. robur in Europe; Q. macrocarpa (the bur oak) in eastern North America; and Q. douglasii in California. In other cases, isolation resulted in whole new sections of the genus. For example, the black and red oaks (section Lobatae) have spines on their leaves and their acorns mature the year after they are produced. They apparently evolved in North America, but then diverged into different species such as Q. rubra (red oak) in eastern North America and Q. kelloggii in California. The ring-cupped oaks (section Cyclobalanopsis) evolved and diversified in Asia. Sections Mesobalanus and Cerris evolved and diversified in Asia and Europe, and section Protobalanus in western North America. What was the story here? Did the divergence between white and black oaks have anything to do with the spines or lack of spines on their leaves? Or with how long it took their acorns to mature? We might never know. In some cases, oak species ended up isolated in unusual places, such as Q. copeyensis in Panama.

Climate changes were also important. The Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains not only separated eastern and western oak populations in North America, but also created rain shadows; the resulting deserts further isolated the oak species. In dry regions (of which there were almost none until about 30 million years ago), many oaks evolved into evergreens, keeping their leaves over the winter. In many places, some of the oaks are evergreen and some are deciduous. All the oaks in eastern North America are deciduous except Q. virginiana (the live oak), and in California they are all evergreen except Q. kelloggii.

The oaks represent just one of many thousands of evolutionary stories: of genealogy, of migration, of response to adversity (such as changing climates). Just as Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh in the nineteenth century about five generations of the Pontifex family, an oak expert could write The Way of All Leaf.

Pick any group of trees, whether walnuts or sycamores; or any group of wildflowers, such as the phlox; or any group of animals; or any other group of organisms. Each has an evolutionary story, indeed an evolutionary saga.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Evolution in Oklahoma, a Road Trip: First Announcement

I am pleased to announce that Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education and the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences are sponsoring an evolution road trip in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas this summer. That is, so long as we get at least nine registrants. The dates are Thursday May 30 (my 56th birthday) to Sunday June 2. Our home base is the University of Oklahoma Biological Station on the shores of beautiful Lake Texoma. The cost will be $350 per person; for participants who want a single room, the cost is $400. You can’t beat that for a four-day weekend of outdoor science! The trip is open to anyone interested in science, regardless of background, but we particularly want to draw local pre-college science educators. If you are a schoolteacher and want to go on this trip, you can get professional development credit and (if we get enough participants or donations) a partial refund of the costs. Furthermore, if we have enough participants, we may be able to give partial refunds to everyone.

For reasons that I will explain in upcoming entries, I am pretty excited about this trip. I realize that many of my readers live far away from Oklahoma. But if you’ve never been here, you might be surprised. No, it doesn’t look like the flat dry set of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It is a fascinating concatenation of ecology and geology (which is part of the reason that there is so much oil and gas here). Y’all come, y’hear?

The trip is designed especially for pre-college science instructors, although anyone with an interest in science is invited to participate. We expect to get together a group of people who will enjoy talking with one another and investigating some perhaps little-known highlights of southern Oklahoma and northern Texas—perhaps little-known even to people who live around here. I admit that, until Dr. Gordon Eggleton showed me around, I had no idea how many exciting bits of geological evidence there are in southern Oklahoma. There is a dramatic and hidden history underneath the Oklahoma dirt. Today, Oklahoma sits quietly in the middle of the North American plate. But a hundred million years ago, it was a pretty exciting place.

You can read all about it at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station website ( The full brochure, with photos, is there, along with a registration form and instructions.

In upcoming blog entries, I will write about some of the things we will see on this trip. If you want to read about it how, visit the website above. If you cannot come but would like to make a donation to help defray the cost for participating schoolteachers, you can make a donation to the University of Oklahoma Foundation. Contact me at if you are interested. You will be provided with a letter to acknowledge the tax-exempt status of your donation.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Teachable Moment

At a recent meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers, Dr. Shirley Malcolm, one of the leaders of modern science education, gave a keynote presentation about the direction that science education is going vs. the way it should go.

During the question and answer period, a creationist sympathizer got up to the microphone. She said that at Mt. St. Helens in Washington large canyons had formed very quickly after the 1980 volcanic eruption. She said the creationists used this as evidence that entire landscapes, which we assume take millions of years to form, can be formed quickly. Perhaps, she suggested, we could learn something by listening to the creationists.

Dr. Malcolm’s answer was a simple put-down: We will not discuss creationism in our classrooms. Applause.

But I think a teachable moment was missed here, and such a moment would be missed if a teacher crushed a creationist student’s comments. I would perhaps have said, “Yes, canyons formed at Mt. St. Helens that look similar to canyons that took millions of years to form elsewhere. But deposits such as those revealed by the Colorado River have thousands of layers, some sedimentary, some volcanic, and the volcanic layers can be dated; and they are millions of years old. If you use the same procedures to study the Mt. St. Helens deposits, you would find them to all be volcanic and all young.”

Such a response would not have been a put-down, and it would have challenged the creationist side to undertake a scientific investigation. It also invites casual observers to look beyond the mere resemblance between canyons at Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon.

My sincerest thanks to all of you who supported my candidacy for Pope (see previous entry). Now we will just wait and see what happens. If green smoke comes out of the chimney, that might mean that they chose me.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Passing the Consilience Test

In the cult classic movie Harold and Maude, Maude recites a quote, but cannot remember who had said it. “Oh, well,” she said, “I did.”

The statement “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is now famous. I’m not sure who said it first—I have heard it was Carl Sagan, but I’ll bet he was quoting one of the giants on whose shoulder he was standing. What I wish to consider now is, what constitutes extraordinary evidence? An important kind of extraordinary evidence is consilience.

Consilience means that a theory has been supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence—independent, that is, unless the theory itself is true. William Whewell (pronounced “hule”) invented the term, and used Isaac Newton as an important example. Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation were supported by the movement of objects on Earth and of the planets. Whewell rejected the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, even though evolution has proven to be one of the premier examples of consilience. Evolution is supported by fossils, biogeography, the process of natural selection, and now by molecular evidence. Without evolution, there is no reason to expect that older fossil assemblages should be less similar to modern organisms than younger fossil assemblages, for large placental mammals to be absent from Australia and Borneo, or for chimps to have the same pseudogenes that we do.

There are numerous examples of consilience in the history of science, though few as important as evolution. One example is DNA. Watson and Crick figured out the structure of DNA not only from chemistry and crystallography, but also because this structure made it obvious how could replicate and how genetic information could be stored.

The newest example of massive consilience is the theory of global warming. It is a theory because it is assembled from numerous hypotheses, all of which have been tested and confirmed. Among the lines of evidence are:

• Direct temperature readings by thermometers in the last century and a half

• Direct carbon dioxide measurements from the atmosphere in the last half century

• Indirect temperature estimates from ice cores

• Carbon dioxide measurements from ice cores

• Melting of polar sea ice in the Arctic

• Melting of land ice in Greenland and Antarctica

• Rising sea levels (despite the refusal of the North Carolina legislature to permit it)

• Phenological changes in many species of animals and plants

• Warmer winters allowing insect outbreaks in coniferous forests

• Methane bubbling out of Siberian lakes that no longer freeze even in winter

• Storms of increased intensity in coastal areas

• Droughts of increased intensity and duration in continental areas

And so on. I have contributed some of the phenological data to the above list. (Plants and animals have become active earlier in the spring by about two days per decade or, in some local cases such as my data set, two days earlier per year.) There was a time, about thirty years ago, when global warming was an extraordinary claim that required extraordinary evidence. The evidence is now in, and it constitutes consilience. There is no reason to expect all of those separate lines of evidence to converge on the same theory unless the theory is true. Consilience can be thought of as the opposite of pseudoreplication, in which you measure the same thing over and over.

Edward O. Wilson has written many books of great significance, and you all know about most of them. In case you might have overlooked it, I wish to suggest his book Consilience. He indicated that evolution provides a framework for the consilience of all branches of knowledge. This claim was sufficiently broad and sweeping to evoke some strong responses, perhaps most notably from essayist Wendell Berry, who wrote Life is a Miracle in a sincere but, I think, failed attempt to refute Wilson. I am an immense admirer of Berry, but admit that he was wrong about this one.

It is interesting that the anti-science movement has fought against both evolution and global warming. They have taken on two of the aspects of modern science that not only have the most evidence, but the most consilience.