Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Ecology of Disaster and Renewal

Nobody likes disaster. I strongly dislike even the smallest inconvenience. But they happen, and they have happened throughout the evolutionary history of life. And all organisms have inherited adaptations to cope with many of them, to a certain extent.

One such disaster (or, in ecological parlance, a disturbance) is fire. To all of us who watched Bambi, a forest fire is a disaster. But even in the Bambi movie, the dead forest had green grass growing after the fire. Disturbance is followed by renewal. This renewal occurs in stages (in ecological parlance, succession). There is no way to prevent all fires. Biomass burns. But most organisms have ways of dealing with fire—perhaps not as individuals, but at least as populations. Even alders, which grow out in the water, have to deal with it, because the flames can spread from the adjacent forest and burn their crowns.

A fire burned a large area of Cross Timbers forest near the Blue River in Johnson County, Oklahoma, in the summer of 2011. Despite its severe beauty, the fire was pretty grim for the plants and animals that experienced it.

There were burned turtle skeletons everywhere.

Yes, even the alders out in the middle of the river burned. But the next spring, in 2012, there was a luxurious growth of wildflowers and grasses, making use of the flush of nutrients released by the ashes of the fire. Many of the trees resprouted from the ground. By the summer of 2013, the growth was so exuberant that I could not even walk through it when doing field work with a visiting scholar from France.

But not all of the wildflowers, at least in 2012, were the same species that one normally finds in the spring. Two species in particular grew abundantly after the fire, but are rare the rest of the time. One is the mustard Selenia aurea.

The other is a member of the Hydrophyllaceae family, Phacelia strictiflora.

This wildflower is a relative of Phacelia grandiflora, which grows abundantly after chaparral fires in California. Now here is where it gets strange. It is no surprise that grasses and wildflowers grow abundantly after fires. What is strange is that a few species, such as Phacelia strictiflora, seldom grow except after large fires. That is, there is something about the fire that makes the seeds germinate. The flowers do not grow just because the ashes have released nutrients or because there is more sunlight as a result of the trees being burned. Many plant species that live in habitats with a fire cycle (such as the chaparral) require exposure to smoke chemicals in order to germinate. Phacelia grandiflora is one of them.

Oklahoma does not have any habitats with fire cycles. It therefore came as a surprise to us that the germination of the Oklahoma wildflower Phacelia strictiflora is greatly enhanced by exposure to smoke chemicals. The results of our research have just been published in the 2013 volume of the Oklahoma Native Plant Record. We demonstrated that very few Phacelia strictiflora seeds germinated—whether scarified or not; whether in light or in dark—unless exposed to a water suspension of smoke chemicals.

It was a fun experiment to do. How does one produce a smoke suspension, without having access to a budget for scientific equipment? You have probably already guessed the answer. Remember, this is Oklahoma. My student, Sonya Ross, who conducted the experiments, had access to a hookah pipe. We burned oak wood in the bowl and drew the smoke through the water. Usually hookah aficionados want the smoke, but we wanted the water, which after a few hours had turned amber and had a smoke scent.

This allowed me to produce a particularly interesting Darwin video. This was a low-budget experiment, but it yielded important results. This may be the first report of a plant species from a habitat that does not have a fire cycle but whose germination is so strongly enhanced by smoke. Many seeds germinate more upon exposure to smoke, but not this much.

There are a lot of interesting experiments just waiting to be done and which do not require a lot of equipment or a budget. Please check out the article. And I have to say, good work, Sonya.

Oh, and by the way, oak smoke is not very enjoyable, even after it has been through a hookah pipe.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I recently watched the movie Contagion. As usual, my review of this movie is several years late.

I thought that this movie hit the right balance of Hollywood plot and sound science. It had the requisite feel-good ending, which I will not spoil, in case there are one or two of you who have not seen it. The reason that it had this ending was that few people can tolerate a piece of fiction, let alone a movie, that tells the story of a population. We need stories about individuals as much today as we did around the Paleolithic campfire. Even nonfiction has a hard time engaging the attention of readers without the information being woven on a personal-story framework. It was such a personal story that made an otherwise flawed book, The Man who Planted Trees (see earlier review from last November 26), interesting. And I understand the producers of the movie relied on professional advice for the science.

The point is not whether the events in the movie are likely to occur. Each step in the sequence of events (bat to pig to Chinese meal to human to millions of humans) is unlikely. But if the entire sequence has odds of a billion to one, then in a world of seven billion people (starting in China, with over a billion people and even more pigs) the sequence is mathematically inevitable. Let’s hope the odds are at least a trillion to one.

The scientific point of the movie was to raise questions about what could happen should such a virus spread through the world. The virus could spread through personal contact and through fomites (pronounced fo-mi-tees; the actors got the pronunciation wrong). What would happen if people in charge of crisis management broke the rules, ever so slightly, to save the life of just one person they loved? What would happen if a lone blogger tapped into the hysteria of millions by saying that the government was hiding a homeopathic cure in order to assure profits for big pharma? And would this blogger merely be profiting from the sales of the homeopathic “cure”? Could the scenario in which the WHO official was kidnapped by the Chinese in return for ransom (vaccine shots) actually happen? Are scientists who violate the rules (like the professor and the CDC scientist), in order to expedite research, heroes? Would there have to be a lottery for the vaccine, which would have a huge black market value? Would people riot and kill in order to get their hands on MREs (meals ready to eat)? Would there be statewide quarantines enforced by military firepower? I think that the message that I am left with is that any such outbreak would have unforeseen consequences.

Evolution protects us from becoming extinct due to epidemics: there is genetic variation in individuals, making some of them (such as the Matt Damon character) resistant; and natural selection operates in populations by balanced pathogenicity (at least for diseases, such as this one, that spreads by direct contact). But it does not protect individuals. And humans have a level of worldwide interconnectedness that is unprecedented in the history of the Earth.

Evolution has given us the ability to plan ahead. As I have written in earlier entries, we seem to have discarded the use of this ability. The federal government of the USA seems to constantly be doing a danse macabre of fiscal cliffs, which are artificial crises. And those of you in other countries who read this—is your government any better? In some cases, yes. Would our government be prepared to deal with a pandemic such as the one shown in the movie Contagion? The producers wisely left the federal government, beyond the CDC and Homeland Security, out of the plot, for otherwise they would have been forced to incorporate sick humor into this movie.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Black Gold

For the last century, the most important source of energy for the human economy has been oil. We hear all the time, not the least from my blogs, about the environmental costs, including global climate change, of our oil dependence. And while it may seem like a distant memory even to those of us who lived through it, dependence on foreign oil has caused immense economic and geopolitical instability. It has taken decades for America to get to the point at which we import less oil than we produce, but we still use a lot of foreign oil. And we spew a lot of carbon into the air.

What I wish to address now is the immense toll of injustice that comes from our dependence on oil. Oil is a highly concentrated source of energy, both in terms of the number of calories of energy per volume and in the concentration of oil resources in specific geographical areas. In contrast, sunlight shines more or less evenly on the Earth’s surface. Although some places in the world are cloudier than others, and places far to the north or south get significantly less sunlight, solar energy is broadly distributed. The same is almost as true of wind energy. Low-level geothermal energy (which can be used to stabilize indoor temperatures) is also widespread, although only a few places have really hot rocks near the surface that can allow steam turbines to produce electricity. The fact that oil is concentrated in a few places means that whoever controls those places (whether governments or corporations) has an immense amount of geopolitical power.

And it is not necessarily the people who live in those places who have the power.

Native Americans from all over what is now the United States were forced into what is now Oklahoma, mostly in the nineteenth century, so that white people could have their land. The white-dominated government of the U.S. supposedly had a constitution, but whites broke every treaty with Native Americans, in complete disregard of the constitution as well as the most basic concepts of dignity and humanity. Then, much to the consternation of the government, oil was discovered on Indian land. While in some cases (as with the Osage tribe) this meant wealth for the Native Americans, what it usually meant was that whites decided to take Native land by any means necessary or imaginable, to treat Natives like vermin, as nothing more than impediments to oil production. By and large, having oil land has been a curse to Native Americans. I am speaking from the viewpoint of Oklahoma, where I was born and where I live, and the experiences of my Cherokee ancestors.

If you want to know about the many devious ways in which whites illegally took Native American land and oil rights, the most definitive source remains Angie Debo’s And Still the Waters Run: TheBetrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. It is about how the land promised and then allotted to Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles was stolen from them (us) during the twentieth century. Lies and forged documents were routinely used to defraud tribal members. The courts appointed “guardians” to take care of the supposedly simple-minded Indians; these guardians would then sell or rent the allotted land and keep all, or most, of the money. In one case, a guardian had 51 Indians under his control. Three of them were children who held title to very productive oil land, but the guardian did not tell them about it. They were living in a hollow tree and begging for food when a conscientious state government agent found them. In this one case, the “guardian” had his privileges taken away; but this rarely happened. And this “guardian” never went to jail. Jail was for drunk Indians, not for the whites who defrauded them. And even today, prison is mostly for poor drug offenders, not for financial crimes committed by the rich, with an occasional exception like Bernard Madoff.

But it wasn’t just fraud that whites committed to get oil land from Indians (and from freed slaves within the Indian nations). It was also murder. The whites would trick the Indians (some of them children) to making them the heirs, and then they would kill them. In Glenn Pool (now called Glenpool, right down the highway from my house in Tulsa) whites dynamited two black Muskogee boys while they slept to get their land. Glenn Pool was the massive oil deposit that made Tulsa famous. In Choctaw County, the next county over from the place where I work, whites killed Choctaws with carbolic acid or ground glass (put in their food to make them bleed to death from the inside) in order to get their land.

When I read this, on page 200 of Debo’s book, I could not do or think about anything else all evening, just devastated by learning about this. For those of you who think that the last time that whites massacred Indians was at Wounded Knee in 1890, think again! Everyone has heard about the four little black girls who got burned in the church fire set by white arsonists in the 1960s, but has anyone ever heard about those two little black boys in Glenn Pool? At least my ancestors were only defrauded, not murdered.

My point is that nobody has ever defrauded or murdered anyone else in order to get a choice spot for putting up a wind generator or a solar collector. There will never be a Koch Brothers of solar energy.

Is it any wonder that so many Native Americans (and Native American freedmen) are so demoralized? Especially the ones who still live in their own ethnic communities. The white governments of the United States and of Oklahoma have driven them into the ground. Toxic waste sites are often near communities of color; and in Oklahoma, that means Native American communities, such as the Cherokee-Quapaw town of Picher, which drips with toxic metal contamination.

I would expect to see Native American rage over these things, but the steamrolling of Native pride by white culture has been so complete that Natives are in some cases embarrassed to not be white. What should Native Americans do? There is no clear answer. In his 1971 novel The Ordeal of Running Standing, Thomas Fall wrote about a fullblood Oklahoma Indian who tried to be white and use the powers of the white economy against rich whites, failed, and then did a useless but heroic act of defiance against the overwhelming white powers. (If you want to know what it was, you have to read my review in my other blog.) But nothing like this ever happened or ever will. The Indian nations are conquered now and forever. And oil was part of the reason.

As I said, I speak from Oklahoma experience. But anyone who listens to the news knows that rich people (some of them black) get even richer from the lucrative oil reserves in Nigeria, while the poor black Nigerians live in desperate poverty. And today the struggle continues in Ecuador, where oil companies take some land from the native tribes of the Amazon, and pour their wastes on the rest of it. El Oriente of Ecuador (east of the Andes) is the new Oklahoma.

Moving away from energy-dense fuel sources is essential for the ecological and economic future of the world, and also so that, at long last, justice can be done in the world. Oil is just too much of a temptation; it makes evil people destroy their fellow humans.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Who Is Important?

Today in my general biology class I taught about the techniques and amazing accomplishments of biotechnology. We only got as far as DNA technology (fingerprinting, archaeological identification, evolutionary studies, etc.) One clear message was that, if you commit a crime, you will almost certainly leave some DNA evidence that can be used to track you down. Only felons have their DNA fingerprints in a national database, but the old Perry Mason days (when Lieutenant Tragg could only testify that the blood at the murder scene was the same type as that of the defendant, for example) are long gone. The DNA on a licked envelope or a hair follicle is enough to catch you.

This past weekend in Tulsa, I saw something truly tragic. Underneath a bridge on 71st Street, I found a lot of garbage, but it was not from a dumpster. It consisted mostly of children’s clothes, dolls, a beauty parlor appointment book, an empty purse, a receipt book, etc. It looked as if burglars had ransacked an apartment, and then had gone through the stolen items under the bridge, discarding anything not of value to them. Or, possibly, a woman had taken her child and fled domestic abuse, only to discover that she could not hide under the bridge, and had to abandon personal items. Somebody’s life was uprooted, and thrown to the winds. The most touching item was a notebook in which a little girl had drawn and colored in pictures of princesses.

Are these two paragraphs connected? I believe they are. The police must have known about all the stuff under the bridge, but had apparently not investigated it. If a lower-middle-class woman and child live in an apartment, and all of their belongings are stolen, the police consider this a crime but not a very important one. The police will probably never get around to investigating this. Their attention is taken up by investigating any crimes committed against upper-class people or against corporations. If you want to see the police spring to action, just try shoplifting something out of Wal-mart. I did not try this, but I saw someone who did. At least three police cars descended on the store, and the suspects were surrounded by uniformed personnel.

We have amazing tools for law enforcement, including biotechnology. Much of the biotechnology was developed at public expense. But on whose behalf does law enforcement use these resources? Mainly for the rich and for corporations; they are important. I do not have any reason to suspect the Tulsa Police deliberately ignore the lower-middle class and poor, but it looks to me as if poorer people get pushed down the priority list. Lower-middle class people do pay taxes, including property taxes (through their rent). The same comment could be made about advances in health care. Amazing medical technologies, developed largely at public expense (at least in the early stages of research) are available mainly to the rich.

It is impossible to teach about biotechnology without dealing with political issues such as privacy of DNA information. But you cannot really understand biotechnology without seeing that the main beneficiaries of biotechnology are the rich. Anyone need some bioidentical hormone replacement therapy? Tell that to the woman whose stuff was under the bridge.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How to Celebrate Darwin Day

At least in Oklahoma.

It has become something of an annual ritual. The Bible uses a phrase something like, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle,” (1 Chronicles 20:1). It is as reliable as the opening of tree buds. Every winter, state senator Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma (I am in his district) introduces a creationist bill. It is not worded as a creationist bill, but that is its intent. It is called the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act (SB 1765). Its stated purpose is to prevent science teachers from penalizing students for their religious views. Therefore, an evolutionist teacher cannot penalize a creationist student. In literal fact, this would mean that a creationist teacher could not penalize a non-creationist student either. Brecheen claims that evolution is a religion, the establishment of which is unconstitutional.

This bill is a solution to a problem that does not exist. The bill specifically states that the student needs to know the scientific concepts. But I have never heard of a case of a creationist student in Oklahoma getting penalized for creationist viewpoints.

So I celebrated Darwin’s birthday by sending emails to the members of the Senate Education Committee. Those of you in Oklahoma might consider doing this also. Here is what I sent to the chair of the committee. I used my AOL email rather than my university email.

Dear Senator Ford,

I wish to express my opposition to Senator Brecheen's bill, SB 1765. I have written to this committee almost every year in the past about this bill each time it recurs. I am a professor and science writer, but am writing this letter as a citizen and using my private email. I am president of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences, but my views are my own.

The bill is unnecessary, as its main points are effectively covered by existing Oklahoma curriculum standards. Nothing in the bill explains why we need a new state law specifying what teachers already (are required to) do and have been doing for decades. Teachers already teach strengths and weaknesses as part of inquiry-based learning. The state of Oklahoma faces numerous challenges and I do not believe the Senate needs to take its time to debate and enact unnecessary legislation.

I realize that Senator Brecheen considers evolution to be a religion, but it is not. It is a scientific theory based on a great amount of evidence, which I have outlined in my Encyclopedia of Evolution and other books. When I teach and write about evolution, I never present it as a dogmatic belief and never require my students to agree with me. In fact, my best student in 2012 (she got 103% on the final grade) was our Southeastern valedictorian and a literal creationist. I did not penalize her for her beliefs, just as I do not penalize my atheist students. I consider this bill to be more of a political statement than an attempt to address any real problem. Have any teachers or students brought up cases of discrimination?

Thank you for considering my request.

Stanley Rice

I got the following response, apparently a form letter, from the assistant of one of the senators:

Thank you for your email expressing opposition to SB1765. Senator Jolley welcomes the input from constituents of all backgrounds and opinions. Hearing your perspective based on the combination of your professional expertise and faith is very much appreciated.

Should this bill receive a hearing this Session, Senator Jolley will certainly apply a sense of balance to his deliberations prior to casting a vote. Thank you for taking the time to write and please feel free to contact me any time I might be of assistance.

Now, I have nothing against a sense of balance, but this is often creationist code for creationism.

For those of you in Oklahoma, here is a list of committee members and contact information:

Name, Room #, Phone, Email
John Ford, 424A, 521-5634,
Gary Stanislawski, 427A, 521-5624,
Earl Garrison, 528A, 521-5533,
Jim Halligan, 425, 521-5572,
David Holt, 411A, 521-5636,
Clark Jolley, 519, 521-5622,
Susan Paddack, 533B, 521-5541,
Wayne Shaw, 513A, 521-5574,
Ralph Shortey, 514A, 521-5557,
John Sparks, 529B, 521-5553,
Ron Sharp, 533, 521-5539,

Meanwhile, enjoy celebrating Darwin’s 205th birthday.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Two Parties of Political Parasites

Cultural evolution has its own versions of parasitism, and these versions are as diverse as they are in biological evolution. I wish to briefly describe two examples of cultural parasites: the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party.

Parasitism is a spectrum, but it can be roughly categorized into chronic and acute parasites. Acute parasites make you very sick very fast, and you either die or you get well pretty soon. Chronic parasites make you mildly sick for a long time. For parasites that spread by direct contact, natural selection often favors evolution from acute toward chronic parasitism.

The Democratic Party is a chronic parasite. Democratic politicians are relatively harmless. But their ideas continue to sap the economy and the country. They do not seem to take the problem of deficit spending seriously. And their solution (more so in the past than at present) is often to create a government bureaucracy to solve a problem. Each component of the bureaucracy has a certain amount of inefficiency, and the whole thing compounds into a tremendous amount of inefficiency. They are like a very big but harmless tick that rides on your back and gives you a massage. You will notice that the Democrats nod their heads toward science and the environment, but take little meaningful action. (One exception: Barack Obama decided to take action on global climate change last week, rather than to wait for Congressional Democrats or Republicans to do so.) At this time of year, we all recognize the IRS as a very inefficient system. We have to pay taxes, but what about the hundreds of hours of our lives required to correctly fill out all of the forms? (Don’t forget the AMT form. It appears to be required.) I think that, for the first time ever, I have gotten the hang of it, and it took only a dozen hours or so for me to complete my taxes.

Do you remember back to 2009, when President Obama wanted to give tax credits to working people? It was $400 per individual, $800 per couple. But to get these credits, you had to fill out a separate schedule, which required more calculations. He meant well, but this sort of thing is a Democrat’s idea of being nice: create a nice new level of bureaucracy.

In contrast, the Republican Party is an acute parasite. They approve budgets that they know they will not go along with, and then when the government tries to pay its bills, they create an artificial crisis. They have one scheduled this month. They plan to not raise the debt ceiling to pay the bills they already authorized. The last time they did this, they led us a few hours into default. If they cause the country’s credit rating to drop, we will be even deeper in debt due to possible hikes in interest rates. They can kill us, and they know it; they apparently plan to take us to the edge of mortality once again.

The Republican Party is the Ebola virus of cultural evolution, and the Democratic Party is the walking pneumonia of cultural evolution. I will take my chances with the pneumonia, but I’m (cough, cough) not happy about it.