Monday, December 30, 2013

Slashing Orcs (An Anticipation of the New Year)

Back in September, I wished everyone a Happy New Year, according to the nature-based French Revolutionary calendar. We have now arrived at the end of one year and the beginning of another, based on an arbitrary calendar. By the Revolutionary calendar, January 1 is nothing more than the eleventh day of NivĂ´se, the snowy month, but it is a date on which a lot of people are looking back and looking forward in an attempt to make sense of both the past and the future.

Usually, when we humans attempt to predict what will happen in the coming year, we try to understand the past year. But if we have learned anything from the past year, it is that our future will follow a largely arbitrary trajectory. Was there any progress on rebuilding our economy or on preventing global warming or on enhancing science literacy? It doesn’t matter, because for any reason or for no reason Congress can simply decide to cause our economy to collapse. They actually started the process in October, taking us a few hours into government default, just to prove to us that they could. They want us to remember that they have the knife to our throats. Therefore, to use just this example, default is not something that might occur as a result of deficit spending or of depleted resources or of not taking care of long-term environmental problems, but something that extremists in Congress can impose arbitrarily. How can one possibly plan ahead for that?

Therefore, many people look ahead into 2014 with a numb astigmatism. We know that some emergency will come along, but we cannot guess what it will be. We must remain tensely vigilant, ready for anything, and as far as we know, we have to remain under these stressful conditions forever. We will not be able to see the emergency until it arrives. It was bad enough to have nearly insurmountable long-term problems, and to be prepared for the actions of crazy dictators and extremists, but now we also have to consider our own unpredictable government.

All you have to do to see this vision of a future filled with unpredictable emergencies is to go to the movies. My family and I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The main thing that happened in this movie was that the good people (humans, elves, and dwarves) slashed and impaled orcs. The orcs looked like half-decomposed monsters. The special effects were good, but after about the six hundredth orc was killed, I was pretty much satiated, even though the movie was only half over.

I believe that The Hobbit, as well as several 2014 movies whose previews we saw, reflect the kind of conflict that many people anticipate for the immediate future. After all, studios do not make expensive movies unless market research shows that millions of people will be attracted to them. And not necessarily to enjoy them. People sometimes go to movies to deal with the demons inside their minds. Specifically, in these movies:

·         The conflicts consist of totally unpredictable attacks. Gandalf could sense that something evil was emerging from under the earth, but no further prediction was possible. You cannot anticipate these conflicts.
·         The foes are incomprehensibly evil. They seem motivated primarily by their love for evil, which makes them even more unpredictable. And they are all alike. The orcs all look nearly alike and have the same voice and the same feelings. You cannot negotiate with them collectively nor can you find even one of them who is not totally evil and with whom you might be able to reason.
·         The governments are totally dysfunctional. The elves cared only about their walled kingdom, and the humans dwelling beside the lake had an inept and hedonistic king. The only possibility of salvation was from little militia groups (in this case, a little band of dwarves) taking matters into their own hands.
·         The response can be only to slash the evil foes early, often, and perhaps forever. There is no time to negotiate or understand; if you hesitate for even a moment before slashing, you will be dead.

It occurred to me that this is the kind of future that the moviegoers anticipated for 2014. Our government will not deal with or perhaps even admit any predictable long-term issues such as global warming or gun violence or immigration, and are likely to create new and unpredictable conflicts; we cannot trust our government to deal with any emergencies that come along, even those that they themselves create; and the only possible response is to remain stressed-out, ready to instantly respond to emergencies by extreme and perhaps violent measures, on our own. We know we have to get and keep our own personal finances in shape, because we cannot individually succeed if we do not; but we cannot know whether personal financial wisdom will keep us alive in a chaotic economy. Over the long term, many people actually expect a dystopia, a grim future in which there is no altruistic society but in which each individual, or each little band of people, has to look out for himself or itself. If our popular entertainment is any guide, a lot of people actually expect to descend into a future of chaos.

Few people will openly admit this. Financial and policy prognosticators make it sound like we know where we are going and how to get there. That’s their job. And Congress wants us to think that they have suddenly become good people. They want us to think that the budget deal worked out by Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray is the beginning of a Congressional lovefest during which Republicans and Democrats will become comrades. But, as indicated by the kinds of movies we will be seeing in 2014, deep down we anticipate that the future is an incoherent mass of emergencies for which we cannot prepare.

Oh, and Happy New Year. Actually, it might be a happy year. But if it is, it will be because we got lucky. We should all plan ahead responsibly, and be kind to our fellow humans, and tread lightly upon the Earth—because it is the right, and satisfying, thing to do, not because it will guarantee success.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Altruistic Gas, or, How Mary Roach Saved My Marriage

Mary Roach (author of Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and, most recently, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) is the funniest science writer. It would be difficult to write a book about the alimentary canal that is not at least a little bit funny (think back to the 1930 book Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera by George Chappell), but it took Mary Roach to do it right. Imagine Dave Barry as a science teacher, and you get the picture. Here is a potpourri (or digest) of some of her topics: Fletcherizing, which was the fad for chewing each bite of food hundreds of times into a slurry, supposedly for more efficient absorption of nutrients; research at U.C. Davis, using fistulated cows, which may allow various kinds of agricultural waste such as lemon pulp and almond hulls to be used as cattle feed; all of the kinds of things that prisoners smuggle in their rectums and why; pyroflatulence and the origin of the myth of fire-breathing dragons; the early twentieth century craze for colonic irrigation; Elvis Presley’s megacolon; and the curious case of the holy water enema. (Enema, as you know, is the opposite of friend.) I learned some interesting new words along the way: for example, borborygmus is the gurgling sound of an active intestine, and alvine means intestinal. The trivia are priceless also: for example, the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology is in Flushing, New York, and among the medical researchers who have studied intestines are Dr. Colin Leakey and a certain Dr. Crapo.

One item that especially caught my attention was her description of a nutritional supplement product called Devrom. It is a product that eliminates the odor from intestinal gas. Even the most well-stocked drug stores seem to not carry it; I had to order it from Amazon. (I have no financial connections with the company that markets it.)

I had assumed, like most people, that you need to take Beano to avoid polluting your immediate environment with fragrant flatulence. But this is not what Beano does. Most intestinal gas is hydrogen, which is odorless, as is the methane produced by about one-third of people. These gases come from bacterial metabolism. The bacteria ferment complex carbohydrates that our intestinal enzymes cannot digest, and hydrogen is a by-product of bacterial activity. Beano provides an enzyme that digests these carbohydrates without producing gas. Beano will therefore relieve you from the pressure of gas, but only from gases that have no odor. The odor of flatulence is caused by such gases as hydrogen sulfide, which are produced in minute quantities (0.01 percent) but to which the human olfactory nerves are exquisitely sensitive (down to 20 parts per billion). The smelliest components of flatulence are the mercaptans, which also contain sulfur. (I have sometimes thought that the sciences need mascots and superheroes. A few years ago, the American Society for Microbiology was promoting Mighty Microbe and Microbe the Magnificent, but I think Biofilm Boy might be a better mascot. And for organic chemistry, what could be better than Captain Mercaptan? Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s…phew!...Captain Mercaptan!)

You would think there would be a market for a supplement that specifically targeted the production of sulfur gases. At the very least, you would expect Devrom to be at least as popular as Beano. But I have never seen an advertisement for it. Mary Roach speculated about what the reason for this might be. Her informants suggested that it was because most people are not bothered by the scent of their own gas; it is only other people’s gas that bothers them. There appears to be no significant market for something whose only purpose is to make your gas less bothersome to other people. In fact Devrom is used mostly by people who want their ostomy pouches to be less offensive to their caretakers.

That is, Devrom is a product that makes your flatulence altruistic.

I have for years tried to find ways to make my own emissions less bothersome to my long-suffering wife. Various things have helped me to eliminate almost all of it: I now eat healthier food (not including beans) and have lost weight. (In fact, red meat is the main cause of flatus odor.) But the last few puffs of miasma keep coming. Now, with Devrom, I can uninhibitedly release bacterial by-products without bothering anyone around me.

To make myself less offensive to my fellow humans is a direct source of pleasure to me. Alas, products whose sole effect is altruistic have only a limited market appeal. We don’t want to spend money on everyday altruism that brings us no recognition. We are generous to other people, when we get recognition for it; but no one wants recognition for taking pills that freshen their flatulence. We will open doors for one another in public, but if it costs money (about 20¢ per pill), we won’t do it. It is possible that the sales figures for Devrom could be used as a measurement of altruism.

Meanwhile, have a blessed New Year as you go with the flow. New Year’s Resolution: out with Beano, in with Devrom!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Darwin at the Mall

Ho ho ho. The Christmas shopping season is upon us. Greetings from someone who doesn’t enjoy shopping. I’m no Grinch or Scrooge; I just do not enjoy materialism. A walk in the woods, or reading or writing something creative, is much more enjoyable to me than a trip to the Mall. I enjoy receiving gifts, but not all that much. I am sort of like the Dalai Lama on his birthday in the cartoon: he said, “Just what I always wanted! Nothing!” as he looked into an empty box. But it was recently necessary for me to go with my family to the Mall, and when I did, I decided to use it as an opportunity to observe the human species from the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist.

In Tulsa, “The Mall” usually refers to Woodland Hills Mall at 71st and Memorial. The first thing I noticed was how many clothes retailers there were, each with its own brand. As far as I could tell, all of the clothes that they sold were more or less alike, except for either (1) a status label, or (2) subtle messages that are meaningful only to the sender and the receiver of the message. Right away this reminded me of the 1981 discovery by Nancy Burley that the simple act of putting a red leg band on a male zebra finch would enhance its success of mating. Although this effect has recently been called into question, it remains a memorable example of how something as arbitrary as a leg band can turn out to be a social signal to animals. In many birds, bright feathers are indicators of health. But the exact form of the indicator in one animal species may be meaningless to another. We think it quaint when we read about the Mayoruna tribe in the Amazon decorating their faces with cat whisker tattoos and even embedding palm fibers in their lips like cat whiskers. But to them, our flaunting of brand name clothing would seem as incomprehensible as their decorations seem to us. Of course, they are probably now wearing American brand-name T-shirts and shorts, having been brought into the splendor and comfort of western civilization.

At the same time, many of the businesses appeared nearly desperate to come up with something new other than just to sell the same items as everyone else. In these cases, it is innovation, not just a label, that is the status marker. However, innovations can be just as arbitrary as labels. Just how much innovation can you have in a wristwatch? You can make them into timepieces with atomic accuracy. Or you can replace the hands with little bubbles on an analog face; a large and a small bubble revolve around the center of the watch face. And there was a shop that sold many interesting and wonderful flavors of tea. But after awhile, all the different fruit and flower flavors start seeming alike. Enter monkey-picked tea. This is tea made from the youngest leaves of the tea trees, which grow on branches so delicate that only trained monkeys can harvest them. I tried some; it tasted like tea. The only value of this type of innovation would be if the recipient knows that the tea leaves were picked by monkeys. These innovations are mostly valuable as status symbols.

Perhaps the main products being marketed at this mall are placebos. The labels and innovations do not produce a qualitative difference in the products, but the shoppers can easily imagine that they do. They imagine that monkey tea tastes different from ordinary tea if, in advance, they know that it is monkey tea. It is well known that even many expert wine-tasters will choose wines they think are expensive, even if the wines are cheap brands in expensive bottles. In one corner of the Mall, there were a few shiatsu-massage chairs into which you could insert a dollar and try them out. I gave one of them a try, and found it to be annoying, perhaps because I am not shaped like a typical American and the pokes and nudges touched me in the wrong places. It goosed me a couple of times. I wonder if  “shiatsu” is Japanese for “placebo.” While there is no doubt that massages feel good, I am skeptical that there are “shiatsu points” of special significance on the body. I watched a young Thai mother of four trying out the chair as her kids pommeled on her. The chair evoked an artificial lordosis from her as she was transported into ecstasy. It worked for her. Or maybe it was just her kids tickling her. I wondered whether I should even be watching her.

Finally, I noticed that even though I’d come without the intention of buying anything, I ended up spending a couple of hundred dollars, largely on status and placebo items. Social forces act upon our behavior in ways of which we are hardly conscious, and sometimes despite our best efforts to be conscious of them.

I bought some items at See’s Candies. At last here is something that is truly different and superior: I have tasted many kinds of candy, but none can measure up to See’s. As I tried a sample, I kept asking myself if I was merely experiencing a placebo effect. If I was, it was despite my best effort to be objective. But this purchase accounted for only about twenty dollars of my total expenditure. When I got home, I was not sure how I ended up spending sixty dollars on candles. Evolution has adapted us with flexibility to adjust to changing social environments. The social environment is our human environment; we create it, and it creates us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

New video

I posted a new video on the StanEvolve channel: Barbecue with Wranglin’ Rich. It presents Richard Wrangham's cooking hypothesis of human evolution. And it has the approval of Wranglin' Rich himself. His email from Harvard noted, "Dear Stanley: I love it! Thank you for sending the link, and for promoting the cooking hypothesis. I will proudly share with my family. Actually I have a question. You cited an article from Life Magazine from the 1960s, but I don't think I know it. Can you give me a citation? It sounds like something that Carleton Coon might have said. I looked at some of your other productions. Great stuff! Appreciatively, Richard." I told him what I could of the article. Hope y'all enjoy the new video.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three Science Archetypes from E. O. Wilson

I recently read E. O. Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. Those of us who value everything that Wilson writes have read this book with eagerness. However, if I were a young scientist just getting started, or a student considering whether to become a scientist, this book would not give me clear guidance or inspiration. One of the best parts was the part quoted on the back cover: his advice to new scientists, “The world needs you—badly.”

But I did very much appreciate the three “archetypes” that Wilson presented: the stories or images by which scientific research resembles those that inspire people in all walks of life. Science is an adventure, and Wilson gives us three specific ways in which this is the case.

His first is “the journey to an unexplored land.” The same feeling that makes adventurers climb mountains, explore rivers, search for uncontacted tribes, even to look for Shangri-La also makes scientists look for new species, study the sea floor, search for life on other planets, and look for the fossil remains of our pre-human ancestors. I must testify that Wilson’s first archetype is true, for me, every day of my life.

His second is the “search for the Grail.” The same feeling that made people in earlier centuries look for the Holy Grail, the philosopher’s stone, or the fountain of youth also makes scientists look for the origin of life, try to create artificial life, try to create controlled hydrogen fusion, or try to explain dark matter and energy. This is the search for unity of explanation, as opposed to diversity of discoveries.

His third is “good against evil.” Heroes, champions, and martyrs of the past are reflected in the scientific world of the war against cancer, the conquest of hunger, the campaign against global warming, and the development of better forms of forensic DNA sequencing.

As I have frequently written, science is not just something that scientists do, but is a compelling adventure. And there are a few pages in the middle of Wilson’s small book that resonate strongly with this understanding.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An Unusually Creative Place

In 1987 I had the privilege of earning my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in what was at that time called the School of Life Sciences. Having nothing else to which to compare it at the time, I did not realize what a privilege it was.

At that time, the biology faculty at the U of I included some truly creative thinkers, who were not merely competent at advancing knowledge in their fields but also investigated the connections among different fields of intellectual inquiry. That is, these remarkable individuals contributed greatly to what E. O. Wilson calls consilience. I would just like to mention a few of them here.

One of them was my advisor, the late Fakhri A. Bazzaz. He saw plant ecology as a complex and global set of processes that included human effects on the natural world. He was interested in anything and everything that affected plants and anything and everything that plants did in the world. He brought together graduate students and professional collaborators who were interested in ecophysiology, population genetics, conservation, plant reproduction, coevolution, and global climate change. He was not the world leader in any of these fields, but was incomparable in bringing them together. He was always enthusiastic. His booming happy voice was a mainstay of our lab.

Another unusually creative person at Illinois was the late Carl Woese (see my earlier essay about him). He was good at doing the (at the time) tedious work of determining base sequences of microbial genes. But his goal was to understand the evolution of all of life. This is what led him to recognize the Archaea as a separate line of evolution. But he also speculated about the origin of life and how evolution fit in with the basic physical processes of the universe. I took a seminar from him in which we discussed some basic ideas about evolution, including some possible overlaps with eastern religion and philosophy.

Another such person was Mary Willson, who now lives in Alaska. She first showed her creativity by moving her research interest from birds to plants (which she called “sessile green birds”). She was looking for ideas that united evolutionary lineages as unrelated as plants and birds. One of those was sexual selection. She, along with Nancy Burley, was one of the pioneers in the study of sexual selection in plants. Most of us simply learned about double fertilization in flowering plants, in which one sperm nucleus fertilized an egg nucleus, producing an embryo, while the other sperm nucleus fertilized the two polar nuclei, producing a triploid endosperm. That’s just the way it is. Willson wondered why. If the endosperm is simply a source of food, to be eaten by the embryo, why should it be the product of fertilization? And, moreover, why should it be triploid? Did the double dose of genes from the female parent allow it some extra measure of control over the embryo inside the seed? A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided some evidence that a close genetic relationship between embryo and endosperm facilitated altruism. This astonishing idea had its roots in what Mary Willson had written three decades earlier.

A fourth example is May Berenbaum, who is still a remarkably productive member of the U of I faculty and the National Academy of Sciences. Her enthusiasm for understanding the coevolution of plants and the insects that ate them spilled over into a zeal for opening the eyes of the public to an understanding of insects. She has written numerous popular books about insects, and about 1981 started what has become an annual tradition at the U of I: the Insect Fear Film Festival.

Of course, every faculty member I knew at Illinois in the 1980s was remarkably competent in their fields, a tradition that continues today. But these four individuals stood or stand out for their creativity. As a result, I was inspired to think creatively about the big picture, and to ask big questions, rather than to focus exclusively on a narrow range of research. What a remarkable privilege this experience was.