Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Actually, This Book Can’t Save the Planet

The most prominent endorsement on the cover of Jim Robbins’s The Man Who Planted Trees reads, “This book just might save the planet.” I regret to report that this is not true, despite the book’s interesting and valuable material.

One important premise of the book is quite credible, though unproven. Vast acreages of forests, in America and around the world, have been cut down. Lumber corporations aimed for the biggest and healthiest trees, leaving the runts behind. The perhaps predictable result was that, when the forests began to grow back (which many are, as timber corporations never fail to remind us), the runts were the seed sources. The trees that had the genes that were best for survival were eliminated by this act of unconscious artificial selection. Because of this, the heroes of Robbins’s book are trying to clone “champion trees” from around the world and replant them, to reintroduce good genes into a possibly degenerate gene pool. Of course, this cannot always be true; sometimes big trees were spared because they were remote (as was the case with the dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and sometimes because they were saved in time by popular support (as with the giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum). But I cannot deny the appeal of this hypothesis. I am also fascinated by the suggestion that cloned cuttings pass on some of the epigenetic changes that have accumulated in the adult tree, while seedlings will not. These epigenetic changes may include an improved ability to tolerate heat or pollution or herbivores.

Much of the book is also devoted to a survey of the immense and largely invisible things that trees do to keep the Earth alive. This overview is delightful to read but suffers from two problems. First, the science behind much of it is skimpy. In this way it compares poorly to my book Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive, which is still available from Rutgers University Press and on Amazon (in a new paperback edition). Second, many of the processes the book describes are almost certain to be wrong. I do not think that trees emit volatile chemicals to heal the ecosystem and make humans healthy (they do it to stabilize their photosynthesis at high temperatures). I do not think that trees respond to cosmic radiation. I do not think that their electric potential completes a circuit that maintains the Earth’s magnetic field. You know that when an author approvingly cites The Secret Life of Plants, as Robbins does, something is scientifically amiss.

Still, it was nice to read a book about a man whose passion was altruism rather than violence or selfishness.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Real Creation Model

Most people, including most readers of this blog, think that creationism is the belief that God made all the components of the universe in perfect form just a few thousand years ago.

But that is only part of the creationist creed. There is another part, which they do not openly proclaim, but which they believe.

We all know there is a political correlation between rejection of evolution and rejection of environmentalism. I merely maintain that is correlation is real, not accidental. There is a reason for it.

The full statement of the creation model is that God made all the components of the universe in perfect form just a few thousand years ago for us to use up now.

Creationists believe that the Earth will come to an end soon, so we might as well go ahead and use up all the natural resources, like coal and fish and trees, as fast as we can. Why preserve them, only to have them burned up in Armageddon? Why preserve them, only to leave them behind in the Rapture and let damned sinners have them? Why have a livable Earth in 2100, if the end of the world will already have occurred?

A creationist said to me, several decades ago, that the basis of his belief was time. (That’s funny; I would have expected it to be God.) We know that Jesus is coming soon, he said, therefore just as the future is short so must the past be short. I thought at the time that this was rather strange, but now it makes perfect sense.

So when you look at the full statement of creationism, their opposition to both evolution and environmentalism makes perfect sense.

If you are, or know, an environmentalist creationist, all I can say is, glad to hear it. And I could have a respectful conversation with such a person. But this is clearly the exception to the rule. If anything, conservative creationists probably hate environmentalist creationists even worse than they hate evolutionists. If you are an environmentalist creationist, you are embracing a burden of frustration.

The political correlation between anti-evolutionism and anti-environmentalism is real, not accidental. I believe the reason is that creationists think God made the Earth for us to use up right now. If you have a different explanation, please feel free to post a comment. If your argument makes sense, I would be glad to acknowledge it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Second Worst Idea in the World

I suspect that the second worst idea in the world is to attempt to control global warming by means of geoengineering.

I sometimes think about geoengineering when I walk to work. (Don’t you?) I see the trees around me, just beginning to senesce for autumn, and I think about the (to me) incalculable tons of carbon dioxide that they remove from the air, much of which they store long-term in wood and roots. They do it for free. But geoengineers have a different solution. It is to build “artificial trees” that cost a lot of money. These “trees” are basically carbon dioxide filters on top of poles.

According to a 2009 article, “Each synthetic tree could capture up to 10 tons of CO2 a day, which is thousands of times more than a real tree. Each tree would cost around $24,400, and a forest of 100,000 of them could be constructed within the next couple of decades using existing technologies.” Doesn’t this sound exciting? Only $2.4 billion. Of course, real trees are free, unless you insist on planting certain trees in certain places. The article continues, “The trees would have a special synthetic filter that absorbs carbon dioxide. When the filters had absorbed their load of CO2 they would be replaced with new filters and the old ones would be stored in empty gas and oil reservoirs, such as depleted oil wells in the North Sea.” It occurred to me that the $24,000 price tag did not include removing and storing old filters, and replacing them with new ones. And you can’t just drop something down into a North Sea oil well. This sounds to me like someone wanting to sell huge expensive devices and using the environmental playing-card as a way to sell them.

The only thing that may be worse than this type of geoengineering is to launch hundreds of thousands of mirrors into space, between the Earth and the Sun, to cast a partial shadow on the Earth. There is a reason that the price tag for this geoengineering solution is generally not mentioned.

As I explained in my book Green Planet, trees do lots of things that keep the Earth alive. A tree produces oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, creates cool shade, reduces floods, recharges ground water, holds down and enriches the soil, and many other things. An artificial tree does only one of those things.

Geoengineering scenarios sound like something from the old Outer Limits TV shows. It also sounds like the kind of solution that a Democrat would come up with: a big, expensive government solution. Except that it was the Republican president George W. Bush that, according to this article, promoted the idea of space mirrors.

I prefer “no-regrets” solutions over geoengineering solutions. If we allow trees to grow, and maybe plant some extra ones, we will have good results; this has been assured by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. If it turns out global warming is not a problem, the trees will perform other valuable services. No regrets. But if it turns out that global warming is not a problem (a virtual impossibility), then we will have wasted billions if not trillions on geoengineering fiascos. Lots of regrets.

Of course, the worst idea is to go along with the Republican Party and pretend that global warming is not occurring.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Brave Science Teachers

Today I leave for the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences (OAS) meeting at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Tonight is the Executive Council meeting, and tomorrow is when all the papers, meetings, and the banquet occur. OAS is not a high-powered scientific research organization, but is a way for scientists to connect and share their work, and to talk about what most of us spend most of our time doing: teaching.

And teaching science requires bravery.

Every day when I go in to teach classes, I am undertaking an act of bravery. And I admire all of you other science teachers for doing the same thing. When we teach even the smallest item of scientific truth, we are positioning ourselves squarely against the beliefs of many conservative religious people.

Of course, in part, I am talking about evolution. And global warming. But there are a lot more ways in which teaching science goes against fundamentalist religion.

If carbon dioxide is becoming more abundant in the atmosphere, then it must absorb longwave radiation and cause global warming. To deny this is to deny the basic facts of chemistry. Yet when I teach this, I know I am drawing the ire of some religious person somewhere. And it is not just evolution that requires bravery to teach; just to say that there are pseudogenes and endogenous retroviruses in our chromosomes, even without pointing out the evolutionary explanation for it, is to teach something that is uncomfortable to creationists. To say that our brains work by neurotransmitters, rather than the body being merely a squishy, smelly husk for the spirit is a threat to many religious people, even if we do not claim or even believe that the human spirit does not exist. Religious people openly teach their home school kids that all of science is a vast conspiracy against God. Therefore when we teach the scientific method, of testing hypotheses, we are disagreeing with what some of our students have been told before they come to college. Science is not hypothesis testing; it is hatred of God, according to the view with which they were brought up. To teach them that germs cause some diseases, and that smoking and POPs (persistent organic pollutants) cause cancer, goes against the belief held by some fundamentalists that demons cause disease, and the belief held by adherents of Christian Science that it is some kind of spiritual imbalance. To say that populations have limits is to fly in the face of the fundamentalist preachers who tell their followers to have as many kids as possible because God will always provide resources for humankind. Do you teach embryonic development? Well, the Bible says that God knits babies in the womb. So there. Embryogenesis is a miracle, not a biochemical process.

Not all creationists will say all of these things. I’ll bet there are many creationists who believe in neurotransmitters and Hox genes. But they have to depart from the Bible and accept human authority to do so.

So just try thinking of something to teach in science that does not contradict some fundamentalist religious belief. You can’t do it. Of course, I suppose history teachers cannot, either. Or sociology teachers. Maybe math teachers—yes, nothing in the Bible contradicts math, does it? Don’t be so sure, though: at one time there was controversy over the value of pi because the Bible seemed to indicate that pi was 3.3333 and not 3.1416.

So here’s to all the brave science, math, history, and all other teachers, who teach and show by their lives that knowledge, not just belief, is important.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Only Gorilla in the Room

Being an alpha male is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Ask any alpha male gorilla or elephant seal, if you dare. It is very stressful. (Not that I speak from personal experience or anything.) The alpha male must constantly patrol his territory (which usually includes a harem) to drive away other males who are either sneaking in for amorous visits with females in the harem, or directly challenging his leadership. I have read that alpha male elephant seals lose about half of their weight during the breeding season under the midnight sun.

The alpha male never becomes a dictator, however, because he is constantly challenged by other males. Also, the social group as a whole benefits from a diminution of hostilities within the group. A group that has a greater amount of altruism within the group will therefore prevail over groups that have excessive internal strife. One group prevailing over another because of altruism? This sounds like “group selection,” which was a reviled concept when I was in graduate school. Recently, Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson (no relation), and Martin Nowak have re-introduced group selection to the scientific conversation, particularly as it relates to the evolution of altruism. I am still trying to understand how a group can become altruistic in the first place, but once it does, it will clearly prevail over other groups.

But what happens if there are no male challengers? Then the alpha male can do whatever he wants without fear of reprisal. And what if the group controlled by this alpha male rules the entire species? This would seem to be a formula for disaster. Of course, it never happens in nature.

But it appears to be happening in our species right now. The United States is the only world superpower, a fact of which we constantly remind the rest of the world. The United States can pretty much do as it likes in the world without fear of reprisal, though we could get ourselves into a lot of diplomatic and economic trouble if we took excessive measures. We are, as a country, the only gorilla in the room.

One example of this is the recent revelation that the United States has been spying on the leadership of many of our European allies. No, not just on suspected terrorists in Europe, but on leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany. While the member states of the EU each consider a continued Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. to be in their interests, the EU coalition leader has expressed hesitation (see the Deutsche Welle article). Even under the leadership of a president who has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States seems to be acting like the ultimate alpha male.

And nothing can stop us. If we insist on acting like an alpha male, we can bring the world down into chaos. I doubt that this will actually happen, but the evolutionary and other forces that prevented alpha male gorillas and alpha male Genghis Khans from dragging the world down into chaos appear to no longer be operating. We can express regret that our actions have unfortunate consequences (such as one of our drones killing a 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother picking okra) but it is only our choice, not a necessity, that will keep us from shattering what little international goodwill there now is in the world.