Monday, May 27, 2013

Big Bend: The Little Lines Separating Us

As I related in the previous entry, I saw examples of evolution and natural history during my recent visit to Big Bend. But I also experienced a reminder of one of the peculiarities of human evolutionary history: all humans are descended from a recent common ancestor, therefore the human species is genetically very uniform. When I descended from the Chisos Mountains and went down to the Rio Grande, I came face to face with a reminder that the lines separating human cultures and races is very thin indeed.

When I was in high school in 1974, I was our school’s representative to Boys’ State, a simulation of state government run by the American Legion. Most of the instructors were military officers, and military recruitment was one theme. One of our guest speakers was an astronaut who brought a prepared speech, but when he saw us, he threw down his script and just answered questions. Some wiseass asked him if, from orbit, he could see the little lines separating the countries. He said no, and that he couldn’t see the lines separating race and religion either. He got an ovation from that. Remember that this was back before the fundamentalist culture wars in America, and back when race relations were more strained than they are now.

On May 16, I came right to the edge of the Rio Grande. It was not a grand river at this time; it was more like a large creek, only about thirty feet wide in some places. The challenge to rafters is to find water deep enough to float on. This is the little line that separates the U.S. and Mexico. Technically, the border runs down the middle of the river bed; the river ran in a narrow channel right next to the cliffs of the Mexican side, while on our side there was a wide rocky floodplain. Therefore, I must have actually been standing in Mexico. I reflected on how porous the border actually is, despite billions of dollars spent by the federal government to repel any Mexican who might venture (or any American botanist who might wander) across the border. Commerce is what happens when people try to make a living, and commerce is going to happen across the U.S.-Mexico border whether regulated or not.

Such was my conceptual view, but then something happened that put a human face on it. I met two entrepreneurs, trying a creative way to earn money for their families. “Jesús the Singing Mexican” stood under a tree on the Mexico side of the river and sang folk songs he thought Americans would recognize. He had a donation basket (actually an old plastic bottle) on the American side, and a canoe with which I assume he would slip over to empty it occasionally. His friend Ventura had some trinkets, rocks, and fossils on the ground near the trail. The prices were labeled in pencil on cardboard or rocks. I was about to walk past them when Ventura came running down to greet me and talk me into buying something. Had he seen any federales, I assume he could quickly have gathered his stuff, called for Jesús to bring the canoe, and retreated to the Mexico side very quickly. While I have no desire for trinkets, I really wanted to reward this entrepreneur, who might have been a Mexican and who had not had any business that day, and it was a very hot day. (Note to Border Patrol: I do not actually know whether Ventura was a Mexican national.) I bought some items, which did not include drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or firearms (please note, ATF and DEA) but which included a couple of wire sculptures for my wife and daughter. My $20 bill must have been dynamite on his side of the river, assuming he was Mexican. He said he had walked a couple of miles to set up his wares. He said that now he felt like running home. (To protect these two men, I will not mention the exact location where I met them.) Ventura was a really nice guy. When he found out I was a botanist, we talked about the trees on the tops of desert mountains. We formed the kind of close relationship that people want to have with their customers.

Of course, I have no proof that these two men were Mexican nationals and that our business transaction was illegal. For aught that I could prove to the contrary, they were Hispanic Americans sneaking into Mexico. But assuming that our activity was illegal actually made it more enjoyable. I have frequently commented in my blogs about the state of abject chaos in the American federal government, especially Congress. (The same may be true in Mexico.) I have no respect at all for our government. The feds could have, had they seen us, self-righteously denounced the illegality of our business—the same feds who cannot get anything done except to waste money. That is, assuming that Ventura and Jesús were actually illegal Mexicans.

There is only a thin line, even thinner than the drought-stricken Rio Grande, between me and Ventura and Jesús; there is a deep gorge between me and Congress. I actually respect Ventura and Jesús.

I suddenly realized that I was alone with them, with a pocketbook and an expensive camera. Of course, if they had taken anything, it would have become an international incident and brought their business to an end. It was in their interests to be nice to me. But I never felt uneasy in their presence. I am distinctly uneasy in the presence of the IRS, which has still not given me my tax refund, after over two months since filing, and which admits its own horrible work. (The ousted IRS chief said to Congress on the very day that I met Ventura and Jesús, “We provided horrible customer service.”) I have given up expecting IRS to do anything right. I’ll choose Jesús and Ventura any day.

The last thing Ventura wanted was water. Alas, I had only a mouthful left. I wished I had thought about filling my leaky half-gallon jug at the hotel before I left, then I could have just given it to Ventura—whom I, of course, had not expected to encounter. Jesus (not Jesús) said that if all we have to give is a cup of water, to do so. All I had was cash, so that is what I used. If I also had water, what nice symbol of mutual respect it would have been. Technically, it would have been illegal for me to give him that water, even if he had been dying in the desert. But all he wanted was to not have to drink the green water in the Rio Grande.

Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government considers people like Jesús and Ventura to be dangerous enemies of the United States. I can just imagine the helicopters descending on “The Singing Mexican.” Or more likely a drone. (Okay, I’m exaggerating.) Federal documents distributed to all park visitors say, “Mexican merchants will be arrested for illegal commercial operations which may result in a find and/or additional incarceration while awaiting adjudication prior to deportation.” For poor Jesús, this would undoubtedly mean a very long time sitting in jail before trial, especially since “the sequester” gives the federales an excuse to keep him locked up and leave his family without income for months.

And guess what. The Feds consider me to be an enemy also. “Items purchased illegally will be considered contraband and seized by officers when encountered.” Of course, I do not actually know whether my purchase was illegal or not.

To all this, the U.S. government gives a really bizarre justification. Why are Jesús and Ventura so dangerous? Because when they walk on the trails they will “crush plants along the river and cause erosion of riverbanks, and an increase in garbage and contaminants along the Rio Grande watershed.” What? The government document almost seems to be saying, “Them dirty Mexicans are contaminating everything, their footsteps will hurt the crabgrass and salt cedars, but it’s just fine with us if Americans pull their canoes and rafts up over the riparian vegetation.” By the way, salt cedars are invasive trees that the government spends a lot of money trying to eradicate, and I did not see any garbage that these two men may have left. Maybe they peed in the salt cedar bushes, which is something that Americans never ever ever do.

What advice do the federales give to Americans? They point out, “Lack of water is a life-threatening emergency in the desert.” (I would not have known this had not the wise and benevolent government pointed this out to me.) So what are you supposed to do if Jesús or Ventura asks for water? Jesus (not Jesús) would say, give them some. The U.S. government says to inform government officials of their location. This command comes not in a general location in the park newspaper but in the specific bullet point about what to do if one of the Mexican nationals asks for water. Of course, the nearest officials are many miles away and cell phone reception is poor. So you are supposed to leave Jesús and Ventura behind and drive off quickly to report them so that friendly federales can swoop down and arrest them and give them water. (Note: If they were Mexican nationals, Jesús and Ventura were not immigrants, just visitors.)

The lines separating us are so little that I cannot resist crossing them. They are certainly too small to see from outer space. Numerous races and cultures evolved in prehistory. It looks likely that the future of human evolution will be merger, not further differentiation.

So here’s to “Jesús the Singing Mexican” and to Ventura the trinket vendor and to our common humanity.

Note that the next entries will be about the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, which begins Thursday May 30.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Big Bend: An Isolated Evolutionary World

I just got back from my visit to Big Bend National Park, which is out in the Chihuahuan desert, which has a lot of creosote bushes, and blooming desert willows (not really willows) in the washes. The Chisos Mountains arise from the desert and create their own little world, a little cooler and a little wetter. These mountains are isolated from others. The trees that live there are not only rare but are genetically isolated from all other populations. I hiked among the pinnacles of the Chisos Mountains and got to see some of these rare trees.

This photo is of me beside Quercus grisea, one of the species of oak that lives mostly in the southwestern desert mountains. Though globally rare, this tree is locally abundant. Usually the trees are small but, in moist canyons, they can grow quite large, as in this photo.

There is another oak species, the Graves oak (Q. gravesii), which is abundant in moist desert canyons.

The Chisos oak, Q. graciliformis, is locally abundant in canyons at Big Bend but is found only in the Chisos Mountains and in one range of mountains just over the border in Mexico.

Many oak species, of which I saw at least five, grow in small isolated populations of desert mountains. Cornelius Herman Muller studied them starting in the 1930s, sorting out the taxonomy of these species. He studied their morphology, and was not very receptive to the molecular taxonomy that was becoming the standard research tool by the time he retired. When I met him at UC Santa Barbara in 1978, I did not know that I would one day be retracing some of his steps.

Near the base of the pinnacles, I encountered one very small patch of moist forest that contained bigtooth maple and hophornbeam trees, something breathtaking to encounter in the desert. Tiny isolated populations like these are what make Big Bend a UNESCO biodiversity site.

These rare and isolated trees are little pockets of evolution. They are in danger of extinction. They got there because, as climate changed after the last Ice Age, they retreated from a formerly widespread range. Some of them ended up north and east, where the climate was suitable for them. Others were stranded on desert mountains where only a few square meters can support them. Humans are causing global climate change that is accelerating this process of extinction. In the photo above, you can see that the gray oak trees behind me are largely dead from recent droughts. I saw many dead trees which had had large trunks. My purpose was to see these evolutionary oddities before both humans and nature drove them into extinction; I think I got there just in time. So if you want to see this lost world, better come soon!

I hiked and climbed to the top of Emory Peak, the highest mountain in the entire area. I estimate that my hike on Wednesday May 15 burned over 5000 calories.

I heard reports of other isolated tree species that I did not see. I was looking for the rare lateleaf oak (Q. tardifolia), and thought I had found one, but it was only a Q. rugosa transformed by my bias. I also found some limber pines, probably the southwestern form (Pinus reflexa). Some National Park Service biologists told me there were quaking aspens there also, and the park literature talks about douglasfirs. The soil is so loose and dry that I could not go off the trail looking for them. I tried once, only to fall and almost injure myself.

I got back in time to make final arrangements for the Evolution Road Trip, sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. We have a good group of nine participants signed up. I will let you know what happens!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Science Fiction

I write fiction. (Publishing—that’s a different story.) I realized recently that the fiction that I write is scientific, though not necessarily “science fiction.”

Every piece of fiction is, in some way, a scientific model. The author creates a world, which must operate by its own rules. Even if it is set in a “galaxy far, far away,” it follows its own natural laws. The author sets up the premise and the plot, then lets the simulation run, much as a scientist may run a climate model on a computer to predict the future consequences of global warming. I am somewhat bothered by fiction in which the ending was, even in retrospect, unpredictable. Despite his status as Japan’s foremost living writer, I find the novels of Kenzaburo Oé to be unsatisfying for this reason. In at least two instances, the main character suddenly decides to be good at the end.

Most of my novels and short stories is an experiment in which the world is our normal world but in which I alter just one variable. In How the Mighty Have Fallen, everything is normal except that a little band of Neanderthals—who are very smart but socially clueless—has survived into modern times. In Now You See Me, everything is normal except the main character becomes invisible (he has no other special powers). In Dominion over Time, everything is normal except a graduate student figured out how to travel in time. I can explore the consequences of these experimental manipulations because each of the novels has a control: the world as we know it. And in Darkness at Down House—I’m not tellin’ yet.

So it appears that, even in my fiction, I have the passion for the scientific way of exploring the world.

There may still be room for a few people for the Evolution Road Trip (see here), but we have a nice-sized and diverse group of eleven to twelve participants. I think we will have a grand time for our inaugural run of the Evolution Road Trip!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fundamentalists Equate Fossil Fuel Use with Godliness

Note that today is the tentative deadline for the Evolution Road Trip. We accept registrations after today but space cannot be guaranteed.

If anyone needs yet another example of how religious zeal can lead to intellectual blindness, I here provide one. This example comes from Bryan Fischer and the American Family Association. I am not saying that Fischer is stupid, but simply that his zeal has blinded his presumably latent ability to reason. Nor am I saying that all religion leads to such blindness. However, among American fundamentalists, such blinding zeal is very common. I wish I could say that Fischer’s viewpoint was as singular and ignorable as are those of the geocentrists, but I fear that this is not the case.

Fischer said that fossil fuels are a gift from God, and that by not using these gifts, we are insulting God. Therefore the development of alternative energy systems is an insult to God, in Fischer’s view. Fischer equates those of us who support a transition away from fossil fuel dependence to the “evil servant” whose master gave him some money and he buried it. See the full story here.
So, all of you who try to conserve energy: Prepare for Hell!

Where does one begin to analyze the absurdity of his viewpoint? First, if you believe in God, would you not also say that sunshine and wind and biomass are also gifts from God? Second, there is utterly no chance that we will stop using fossil fuels. Third, it is no insult to whatever God there may be if we use his gift wisely and frugally, rather than wastefully. Suppose I were to give a large sum of money to my daughter. She would accept it, and then use it wisely. That’s the kind of person she is. But I would be disappointed in her if she blew all the money on brief pleasures. Fischer seems to think that God wants us to use all of God’s gifts in an orgiastic fashion. But apparently this does not include such gifts as sexuality and wine.

This should all be perfectly obvious to religious people, even those who do not have a particularly well developed sense of stewardship of God’s good green Earth. But Fischer’s version of religion, which is widespread and infectious, blinds its adherents to even religious reason.

Religion is as powerful as any recreational drug and should be used, if at all, cautiously.