Monday, April 29, 2013

Evolution in Oklahoma, a Road Trip: Piles and Piles of Fossils

Don’t forget the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, May 30-June 2. We have enough registrants that the trip is unlikely to be canceled, but there is still room! Tentative deadline is May 3, but we can accept a few more applications after that date. We just need to plan ahead about how many rooms and vehicles, and how much food, to provide. Read more about it here as well as in blog entries posted earlier (below).

One of the places we will be visiting, in our search for fossils, is Fort Washita, near Durant, Oklahoma. It is a site of great historical interest. It was built by the U.S. Army to defend the Chickasaw tribe against western tribes, whose land had been taken in order to resettle the Chickasaws from their ancestral homeland that the U.S. had confiscated. Then, in the Civil War, Ft. Washita became a Confederate fort. History and politics back then was a big mess, just as it is today, only there was a war going on right here on our American soil.

Ft. Washita was located on a hill because it allowed visibility across the prairie in order to observe the approach of understandably hostile tribes, or (later) Union soldiers. Today, most of the surrounding landscape is forested, but when the fort was built it was mostly prairie, with some scattered post oaks and bois-d’arcs. It is possible that some of the very large post oaks and bois-d’arcs that are today on fort property were alive when the fort was active. Each bois-d’arc tree appears to be several trees that have grown together. This probably occurred because the animals that originally dispersed the large fruits (e.g. mammoths and gomphotheres) have been extinct for thousands of years. The mammoths would have spread the seeds out in their dung, but since the mammoths were extinct the fruits simply landed on the ground and all the seeds began to grow in a clump.

But the main topic of interest is something that very few visitors notice when they come to the fort. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not take notice of it until recently. Most of the original buildings are made from rocks quarried from an extremely fossiliferous layer. Some of the stones appear to consist almost entirely of mollusk fossils. We’ve all seen fossils, but perhaps nothing quite like this.

So join us for the Road Trip if you can!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Mark Twain, Scientist?

Don’t forget the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip! If you are interested, please try to register by May 3 (click here). See blog entries below for more information. One of the things we will do during evenings when we finish our day trips is to discuss what we have seen, and maybe to discuss science in general. Here are some thoughts I would like to share about science. Feel free to post comments about your insights into this topic.

Novels and short stories are experiments. At least the good ones are. The author creates a character and circumstances, then sets the experiment in motion to see what happens. In the best stories, these experiments test hypotheses. Therefore the writer is not in complete control of the outcome: the plot must follow internal rules of cause and effect, even if these rules are not the same as those on our Earth.

One of my favorite examples is Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). He believed strongly that upper class and lower class people were not different in their basic abilities and character. In particular, he despised slavery because the slaves were as fully human as the slave-owners—an idea controversial at the time even in the North. This is particularly true because a single drop of black blood made you a potential slave: an octaroon (one-eighth black) could justifiably be held in bondage, according to the scholars of the South.

Twain did not simply rail against the unfairness of slavery and class, but ran fictional experiments to test the relevant hypotheses. Most people have heard of The Prince and the Pauper, where a prince and a pauper switched places. Fewer people have heard of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, a quadroon slave mother was taking care of the master’s baby and her own octaroon baby. The boys were visually indistinguishable. So she switched them. Experiment begun. Her baby grew up to act like a typical slave-owner, and the master’s fully-white son like a typical slave.

Enter the local amateur scholar, Mr. Wilson, whose unusual ways prompted the locals to call him Pudd’nhead. He was trying out a new scientific technology—fingerprints. He fingerprinted the two babies before the mammy switched them. Later, his fingerprint records were the convincing evidence that proved what had happened. Experiment ended. The erstwhile slave became the new master, and for the former master was sold “down the river.” These last three words of the book, said one reviewer, would have made a better title. “Down the river” was toward plantations where work and life were harder, though not as hard as in the Caribbean where slaves seldom lived long enough to reproduce.

In addition to using fiction to test hypotheses, Twain was interested in science. Fingerprints, of course. But he also wrote an essay, “Was the world made for man?” which was a direct criticism of Alfred Russel Wallace’s spiritualistic interpretation of evolution.

Twain also performed a literary experiment in The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg. (I read this novel in an original edition with uncut pages that was sold for a few pennies at a garage sale.) In this novel, Twain tested the honesty of local businessmen, and found them all to be corrupt. One wonders whether this literary experiment was entirely realistic, whether a typical set of small town businessmen would act this way. It was from Twain’s later, cynical years. But maybe it was realistic; there are days on which I share Twain’s cynicism.

Both the scientific questions (“What is?”) and the fictional questions (“What if?”) can be approached through hypothesis-testing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Evolution in Oklahoma, a Road Trip: An Encounter with Creationism

Time is running out to sign up for the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip May 30-June 2. Information and links are available immediately below (previous blog entries). More information, and online registration, is available here.

We will also visit a couple of creationist museums on this trip. The purpose is not to create any confrontations, either between us and the creationists or within our group (since there may be some diversity of viewpoints among the attendees). What we intend to do when we visit the museums is to find out what the creationists have to say; to ask insightful questions; and then to afterwards discuss what we have seen. In particular, we will discuss some of the creationist claims that are not even clearly stated in the Bible, but appear to have been made up whole cloth by the creationists. I have met these creationists and they are not stupid; so, what IS their motivation? What makes them believe things that, to anyone outside their circles (even to most conservative Christians) seem ridiculous? Let’s talk about it.

The museums are the Creation Evidences Museum in Bokchito, Oklahoma and Carl Baugh’s dinosaur-and-human-footprint museum down in Texas (which I described in blog entries from March 2011). The Baugh museum is not worth a six hour round trip by itself but it is right next to Dinosaur Valley State Park. We will see many dinosaur footprints there, if the water is low. When I visited in Fall 2011 (see blog entries) the water was very low. We probably will not have such prime conditions on this visit, but we can see at least some dinosaur footprints and discuss what you can learn from them.

We hope to have all registrations by May 3, so we can make a decision about whether the trip will have enough people. We need 9 and we have 6.

Above all, it should be a great group of people for discussion, the kind of people you will enjoy spending a weekend with.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Evolution in Oklahoma, a Road Trip: A Dramatic Geological Past, part two.

I continue now to describe some of the geological things that we will see on the Evolution Road Trip May 30 to June 2, 2013. See here for more information.

Back in Pennsylvanian days, about 300 million years ago, sediments had been building up and turning into rock in what is now Oklahoma for over a hundred million years. Then something dramatic happened. Part of the land rose, part of it fell. Cambrian and Ordovician rocks now looked down into deep valleys. Big rocks eroded down into those valleys. Soon the valleys were filled with what was to become conglomerate rock. And such conglomerate! See the photo. The component rocks are big, and sharp-angled, both of which facts mean that the rocks did not get carried very far before being mashed together. At the scenic overlook north of Exit 47 on Interstate 35, you can see contorted layers of Ordovician limestone right next to Pennsylvanian conglomerate. Two hundred million years ago, this is where the cliff was.

Today, young couples spray-paint proclamations of love on the exposed strata. But do they have any idea what “4ever” means against the backdrop of 500 million years of geological history sometimes hidden, and sometimes exposed, in central Oklahoma?

Even in the gentlest rolling hillsides of south central Oklahoma, there are surprises. There is a very thin layer of limestone crammed with fossils (see photo). This layer is a little harder than the others and creates a shelf that I have driven past many times and never noticed. Thanks, Gordon, for pointing this and all of the preceding things out to me.

I have learned so much since my old creationist days. And I continue to learn. Most of these geological sites are near Sulphur, Oklahoma, which has a whole bunch of youth Bible camps. I am sure that one of these camps was where the Church of Christ cult of which I was a member had its summer youth meetings at which young men and women could meet and marry within the cult. (We were the branch of the C of C that rejected not only instrumental music and Sunday school but even insisted on using a single cup rather than individual cups during communion.) I never went to one. But here I am, perhaps driving right past them, in search of evidence about the evolutionary past that my erstwhile cult so vigorously denied.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Evolution in Oklahoma, a Road Trip: A Dramatic Geological Past, part one.

Breaking news: European Space Agency scientists just announced that the universe is older than previously thought: it is 6,001 years old, not 6,000. (Actually the official estimate was raised from 13.7 billion to 13.8 billion years.)

In a previous entry, I announced an Evolution Road Trip for May 30 to June 2, 2013. See here for more information. I will now tell you some reasons why I am excited about this trip. First, the geological evidence of the evolutionary past.

In the Arbuckle mountains of central Oklahoma, the sedimentary layers have been lifted up and eroded, with the result that the oldest deposits are highest in the mountains. Creationists love to point out this reverse order as evidence against evolution. But you can actually see the angles by which the layers have been uplifted.

Another thing you can see in the deposits is the difference between near-shore and deep-water (near the edge of the continental shelf) deposits. In shallow water, there is plenty of sunlight, a strong food chain, and lots of fossils; in deep water, there are fewer fossils. In addition, coarser sediments accumulate in shallow water, while finer sediments disperse into deeper water. No Flood of Noah could explain why most of the fossils are found in coarser sediments. There is a roadcut that we will visit on this trip that displays this evidence very nicely. See the photo for the Ordovician fossils found at that site. Look closely and you can see disarticulated crinoid segments, branches of bryozoans, mollusks, and even pieces of sand dollars.

At the top of the Arbuckles, you can see stromatolites. They look like lumpy rocks. But if you look closely at the photos you can see some of the splotches that used to be cyanobacterial mats; and you can see the layers inside the lumps that resemble those found in modern stromatolites.

Why are stromatolites exciting? Because a billion years ago, stromatolites were just about the highest form of life.

In the next entry, I will tell some more exciting geological stories about Oklahoma.

Note: There was an ecotour in Big Bend in March that cost $2885 for five days not counting travel, plus $450 for single accommodations. Considering this, the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is quite a bargain. We have a tentative registration deadline of May 3.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape, part two.

An eminent historian, Jackson Lears, published an article in The Nation in which he not only lambasts Sam Harris, but also attacks all of science. Lears is part of a rapidly fading (but not fading rapidly enough) group of delusional scholars who embrace cultural relativism as the ultimate reality. Most of Lears’s fellow historians have embraced science. Scholars such as Lears would be an obscure embarrassment except that their work gets “discovered” and trumpeted in some prominent locations. He published in The Nation, a widely-read magazine that I had until now assumed had some credibility, and Michio Kaku got hold of the article to include in The Best American Science Writing 2012. God help us. If Lears’s writing epitomizes scholarship, then the “real” world outside of academia is well justified in totally writing us off as irrelevant and unworthy of serious consideration (or funding).

You see, Lears’s attack on Sam Harris is not to dispute the particulars of Harris’s arguments, but to attack the very idea that there can be any such thing as objective truth.

Among the claims that Lears makes are that reality is socially constructed and that scientists are no more ethical than any other group, including politicians. He blames scientists for everything bad that has happened in the last century including both world wars. Since truth is only what you think it is, in Lears’s view, then presumably he can just make stuff up about history. If archaeological or (God forbid!) DNA evidence should contradict the stuff he makes up, then he can dismiss it because it is merely the socially and culturally constructed viewpoint of those archaeologists and scientists. After all, who are scientists to say that Neandertals were genetically 96% different from modern humans? Lears’s critique of Harris (and Lears’s entire view of reality) is B.S. (which stands for Blame Science).

So Lears dismisses everything Sam Harris claims by saying that Harris has “faith in the existence of something called human nature.” Lears, in his cultural context, denies that there is any such thing. And that takes care of it. Lears can dismiss evolutionary psychology as a “pop parascience” and the only evidence he needs is that he so believes.

Any of you out there who are not part of the scientific or general academic enterprise, please do not consider Jackson Lears or his cultural-relativism colleagues as representative of science. We actually look for evidence and put our ideas to the test.