Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thomas More's Solution, part one

In the previous essay, I explained that we are heading toward a nation and world in which rich people do little work, and poor people are desperate. What can we do to prevent this? The only solution just might be communism.

I do not mean Marxist communism. Marx’s ideas have been demonstrated to be wrong. And both Leninist and Maoist communism failed. One important reason that they failed is that they were not really communism. They were simply oppression. Stalin and Mao lived in luxury. The only thing Marxist about them is that they should have quoted Groucho Marx and said that they would refuse to join any club that would have them as members.

No, the kind of communism that I refer to was described by one of the most famous Catholic scholars of all time: Sir Thomas More (St. Thomas More to you Catholics). You have heard of him. He was the scholar who would not consent to Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Ann Boleyn. Fat King Harry would not just leave More alone in the silence that he maintained on the subject, but had him beheaded. You can learn about this story by watching the best movie ever made, A Man for All Seasons. The Paul Scofield version is infinitely better than the Charleton Heston version.

Catholics have not generally (except for some Liberation Theologians) been associated with communism. Nor, before Pope Francis, were they likely to criticize rich capitalists. But wait till you hear this.

In his 1516 book Utopia, Thomas More described a fictitious land in which life was perfect, something that More said he wished more than hoped for. This book is where the term “utopia” came from, and it could mean either “good place” or “noplace” depending on which Greek derivation you chose. More meant it both ways. More put his opinions into the mouth of the fictitious Raphael Hythloday, rather than to publish them as his own opinion. That way More could claim that he was simply reporting what this man told him about Utopia and what this man said about England. Below, when I refer to what More said, I mean that he said them through Hythloday.

Utopia was a city in which every man has abundance. More modeled the city of Utopia after the Biblical city foursquare but also after Marco Polo’s Hangzhou, with wide streets, bridges and canals. As in Plato’s utopia, nobody locked their doors. At the time, England had 15-hour workdays, from 5 am to 8 pm, but in More’s Utopia they only worked six hours (this is still more than they worked in Oz). Despite such short workdays, all the necessary work got done because nobody was idle—there were no monks or nobles sitting around and consuming resources while producing nothing of value. Only the essentials were produced, nothing superfluous. The recreation of the Utopian people was learning at home. And there were socially-imposed population limits. If a family had too many kids they had to leave Utopia. Everything was free at the markets since nobody took more than he needed. Hospitals were ample and clean, with isolation wards to prevent contagion. They all ate together in cafeterias, because they loved to eat good food together rather than bad food at home. Even in hospitals, women nursed their own children (unlike B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two). Everyone needed permission to travel, but if a visitor stayed more than a day, he had to work where he was visiting. Nobody had much privacy in More’s Utopia (this sounds like Cuba to me). There was no bank credit, only public credit. Gold had no value to them, unlike iron, air, water, and earth, which are useful. In Utopia, diamonds were for kids to play with. Foreign ambassadors would come wearing a lot of gold, and were mistaken for fools. More pointed out that in England someone with the wits of an ass could rule good people because he had gold. More pointed out that Plato and Francis Bacon also said gold is worthless. Why should anyone admire gold, opined More. Everyone can enjoy the sun and stars for free! Why should anyone admire wool? A sheep once wore it. The counterfeit jewel looks the same as the real one. The Utopians did not wear fancy clothes. With fancy clothes, said More, you “do doubly err,” thinking your clothes are better (which is mere convention) and thinking yourself better for wearing them.

In the next essay, I will continue describing Thomas More’s view of a perfect society, and which might be the only society that can allow the world to avoid massive future crisis.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Future Depopulation

Two of the basic facts about natural selection, a process in which even creationists believe, are that populations grow exponentially and that resources are limited. An inescapable inference from this, according to Ernst Mayr’s outline of natural selection, is the struggle for existence.

All of us hope that the human population will level off, without any catastrophic crashes. And most projections of world population show a leveling off, perhaps at nine billion people. This is because, although our population continues to grow, the rate of growth is decreasing. We have passed the inflection point (where the second derivative = 0, for you math types) and we hope to eventually reach a stable maximum (where the first derivative = 0).

Unfortunately, I fear that this is not going to happen. I fear that the world will experience massive, catastrophic depopulation. Here’s why.

More and more jobs are being done by robots and computers. Robots can build cars mighty well. Someday computers may replace all physicians except specialists. I recently talked with a student who had just given up the idea of being a radiologist, because X-rays will soon be something a computer can do with minimal supervision by a lower-level staff member. Of course, only large corporations can afford the computers and robots, but there is an increasing trend for large corporations to drive small companies out of business. Indeed, it seems that many people are beginning to work like robots. They go through the motions of work without thinking about what they are doing. That’s why there are so many basic mistakes and malfunctions in the products we buy.

Eventually, I suspect, job opportunities will greatly decline even while population continues to grow. We are facing a massive unemployment problem. There are only three things that can prevent this.

The first is continued economic growth. If an ever larger proportion of jobs are being filled by robots, the economy has to grow even faster so that people can find the jobs that robots cannot do. But this cannot happen indefinitely. Remember the basic fact that resources are limited. As economist Kenneth Boulding said, anyone who believes that exponential growth can occur forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. Of course, government can create jobs, but the tax and debt burden is becoming unsustainable, and government job opportunities are decreasing.

The second is for consumers to insist on patronizing only small businesses. But we already find this difficult to do. It is more expensive and less convenient—not much, but enough so that not enough people will do this to make a difference in the long run.

The third is for most people to become desperately poor and willing to work for almost nothing. Right now, robots are cheaper (once the corporation has made the initial investment). That is because employees have rights, such as minimum wage and now including health care. But as the number of unemployed people grows, aid becomes scarce. For example, House Republicans insisted on vastly cutting food stamps, and also insisted on creating an artificial crisis in order to destroy health care, both in September 2013. Most people will embrace even the lowest-paying jobs. They can work 19 hours and 58 minutes a week for less than minimum wage, have no health care, and have no recourse for getting safe working conditions (should unions all perish), if the alternative is starvation. They would even embrace indentured servitude, a form of slavery, if it meant that they would survive. I know I would. “Live free or die” sounds like a stirring motto but how many of us would do it? Indentured servitude would be good for business, and anyone who opposes it would be labeled as a big-government interventionist. As the mass of people get poorer while the top one percent get richer (a trend that is occurring rapidly right now), people will either have fewer kids or more of the kids will die, thus “reducing the surplus population,” as Scrooge said.

But this creates a circle that feeds on itself. This is because as more and more desperate people accept really bad jobs or even indentured servitude, more and more corporations will reduce their employee costs accordingly. And any generous corporations will find themselves losing money. It is a struggle for existence among the poor and among the corporations.

And then add the food shortages caused by global climate change on top of that.

How can we prevent this from happening? In the next entry, I will share an idea that comes from a most unexpected source.

Of course I hope I’m wrong. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Does Humankind Belong on Earth?

Does Humankind Belong on Earth?

Happy Earth Day. Do we, as destructive humans, have a right to wish the Earth a happy Earth Day?

Is humankind a legitimate part of the natural world, belonging to the Earth’s ecosystems and ecological communities, or is mankind a diseased scab upon the planet? This question is meaningless, because here we are, like it or not. Meaningless, that is, unless you are God and capable of wiping out life on Earth and starting over.

What follows is one blogger’s review of the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins and other very good performers. I review it primarily as a writer and as a scientist who thinks about Big Questions. My verdict is that it was better than the original. The reason I say this is that the original Flood story (Genesis 6-8), which is a gigantic epic even more worthy of immortality than the Odyssey, addressed issues of major importance, but left some questions unanswered. The movie filled in the missing issues.

The major point of both the original and the movie is that human evil had defiled the Earth, and the human stain needed to be cleansed away. In the original, God recognizes Noah and his family as uniquely virtuous on the entire face of the Earth. In the movie, Noah recognizes his own sinfulness, and concludes that his job, and that of his family, is to facilitate the rescue of the innocent animals, and then to vanish into obscurity after the job is done. This is why, as he saw it, only his eldest son was married, and this son’s wife was barren.

But then Noah’s wife implores Noah’s mystical, magical, and still-living ancestor Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins; who else?) to restore Mrs. Shem’s fertility, and he does. Thus, while the Ark is floating on the face of the waters, Mrs. Shem becomes pregnant. Noah decides that, since his duty is to bring the human blight to an end, he must kill the child if the child is a girl (a boy would just grow old and die without issue). So what does he do? Wouldn’t you like to know!

As a result of his decision, Noah concludes that he has failed God. This is why, in the movie (something left totally unexplained in Genesis), Noah goes off to live in a cave and get drunk. But Mrs. Shem convinces him that in fact he made the right, not the wrong, choice. Noah returns and is reconciled to his wife. It is a supremely touching scene. Mrs. Noah was working in the garden, so that human life might continue on Earth. Noah walks up to her, places his hand on hers, and then begins gardening with her. You will not be surprised to hear what I did when I got home from the movie. My wife was out in the garden planting delicate parsley seedlings. I did with her exactly what Noah did with his wife in the movie. Then I gently, oh so gently, watered the seedlings, seedlings so delicate that too much water would plaster them to the sticky ground.

The ecological theme was clear. Sinful humankind had created an industrial civilization (a sticks-and-stones version of it, at any rate) that had made the Earth a barren wasteland. And Noah had to save biodiversity—all of it, not just the species Noah deemed useful.

The problems that creationists leave unexplained in their literalistic interpretation of the Flood story are similarly left unexplained in the movie. But that’s okay, since it is just a story. It is the creationists that turn it into a problem. It is a story that reveals deep truths, and might be considered truer than literalism.

Even the little touches were good. Hopkins, playing Methuselah, had a craving for berries, and was out grubbing for berries in the forest. He finally found one (judging from the leaves, I’d say it was a bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) just as the Flood waters overtook him.

So I invite you to leave doctrinal arguments aside and go see this movie, in which a modern reinterpretation of great fiction addresses some of the most important questions in human history and in the world today.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Good Friday Gospel

Announcement: the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip has been postponed until further notice. Now for the essay.

How did you spend your Good Friday? I spent the period between one and three pm listening to Science Friday on public radio. This show had lots of interesting things, except for one segment in which a science writer insisted that, as I interpreted it, it is impossible to say that God does not not not exist. Whatever. But even this person, who is creating something of a pro-religion stir in science communication circles, admitted that the God of western religions is mythological. He was defending Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God, a God that or who makes no difference whatsoever in the daily operation of the world or of anyone’s life.

Meanwhile, millions of Christians were reliving in their minds the story of Jesus dragging his cross through the streets of Jerusalem and then being crucified. This is supposed to be what the gospel is about: a man who was supposed to be the son of God getting killed so that all the sin in the world is potentially atoned for. I say potentially, because these Christians insist that a person must assent to a detailed list of beliefs before the Christians will permit the blood of Christ to actually do any atoning. But if you leave out the part about human Christians anointing themselves as the filter to decide whom God can or cannot save, the story itself is quite beautiful, a story of fallen creatures being redeemed into goodness. Who would not want to believe this?

Jesus was also an articulator of one of the most advanced visions of altruism (which is a recurring them on this evolution blog) in the ancient world.

But actually, to thousands of fundamentalist Christians, the supposed gospel of redemption from sin is quite secondary in importance. So is Jesus’ message of altruism. To the fundamentalists, the most important things to believe are: first, that the United States is God’s Chosen and Holy Nation on the face of the Earth; and second, the most important thing in life is that Jesus wants them to do is to collect assault weapons. If you are a liberal or a Muslim, they do not believe that Jesus wants you to collect assault weapons, however. And certainly, if you are a foreigner, your nation is not God’s Chosen Nation.

You may rightly wonder if I am making this up. But a gripey-looking old man left a flyer on my screen door handle a few days ago announcing an upcoming conference at a Baptist church in Durant, Oklahoma. (I hesitate to name names, but I am getting this information from the flyer.) It is called the Patriots Conference. Its avowed purpose is to reclaim America’s Christian heritage (the beliefs of deists such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams apparently do not count, and the religious neutrality of the constitution must be ignored). One of the speakers is apparently going to talk about how accumulating assault weapons helps to prevent “the threat of tyranny.” There is something called the “Black Robe Regiment” about which nothing is said and apparently all the fundamentalists around here already know about. Their declaration of values includes the “use [of] firearms as central to the preservation of peace and liberty” (emphasis mine). And to make the emphasis on assault weapons absolutely clear, the conference organizers are going to give away a DPMS Panther Oracle ATACS .223 16” BBL. 6-Position Stock to one lucky attendee.

Now, if a Muslim group held such a conference, you can be damned sure that there would be an armed uprising in rural Oklahoma. It would widely be considered an open call for terrorism.

Visibly missing from their declaration of values is any mention of peace, either international or domestic. The death and resurrection of the Prince of Peace, and the reconciliation among people of the world that this supposedly made possible, is simply not mentioned. It appears to me that the main work that Christians believe Jesus did on the cross has no effect whatsoever on this conference or the list of values associated with it. To judge from this conference, Jesus came to Earth so that we could all have assault weapons. That is the rural Oklahoma version of the Easter story. (But their list of values does include a rejection of progressive taxation. What this means is that poor people and the Koch Brothers should pay the same amount of tax.)

I actually wish that I could attend this conference as a sort of sociobiological observer. But I will be out of town at an artistic celebration of blood, violence, murder, and passion. I refer, of course, to the Tulsa Opera production of Carmen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


See below for the essays about the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences field meeting last weekend.

There are some people—the exact number is hard to determine—who care nothing for their fellow world citizens. Some of them are psychopaths, whose brains make them incapable of empathy, but psychopaths are only part of the problem. There are many others who are anti-altruists even though they may not be clinically psychopathic. One example, and I’m sure you can think of many in your own experience, is the people who left beer bottles and cans on the beach and under the trees at the state park where the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences had its meeting last weekend. They left their litter—some of it dangerous broken glass—not by accident but deliberately. They were sending a message to the rest of us. They wanted to make it perfectly clear that they hate the rest of us and the planet that we share with them.

I’m not talking about careless litterers, of which Oklahoma has a large number. A lot of people put trash in their truck beds and seem totally unaware that this trash can blow out of the truck bed and onto the road. One time, as I drove at full speed down an interstate highway, a plastic door lifted up out of a truck bed and slammed against my car. I wonder if, sometimes, Oklahoma drivers lose furniture out of the backs of their trucks (maybe a couch with Granny still sitting on it). Just yesterday someone lost a truck wheel out of the back of their truck and left it on a busy street. Instead I refer to deliberate litterers. Deliberate litterers are on a par with chimpanzees flinging their shit at people. They are worse than if they were children who never grow up.

What do we do about such people? There is nothing we can do. Laws do not stop them. They will not listen to any appeals to reason much less empathy. All we can do is to tolerate them. All we can do is to clean up after them and hope they don’t shoot us. Empathy is one of the greatest capacities that has evolved in the human species, and we must simply accept that there is a margin of losers who do not possess this most important human trait. We are accustomed to thinking of mutations such as trisomy 21 as a deleterious mutation. But Down’s syndrome people are almost always cheerful and nice. The lack of empathy, socially and perhaps genetically influenced, is a truly bad part of human variation. You may have heard about the psychologist who discovered that he was genetically psychopathic but had grown up training himself to be empathetic. We can only hope that some of the kids who have received anti-altruism in their genes and upbringing may be able to similarly overcome this curse. We continue to offer messages and examples of altruism in the hope that this may, once in a while, occur.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Scientists Learning from Nature: Oklahoma Academy of Sciences Field Meeting Spring 2014, part two.

See the entry below for the OAS field meeting, part one.

Since there was such a small number of people at this field meeting, most of the field trip activity involved the whole group at once instead of numerous separate field trips. We took morning and afternoon trips on April 5 at Lake Murray State Park. It was a lot of fun to have everyone together, because wherever we went we could learn about everything all at once (mostly about plants and insects). There is a lot of fascinating conglomerate rock around Lake Murray, and I wished there was a geologist along to tell us about them.

Lake Murray is surrounded by a perfect example of a cross-timbers forest consisting mostly of post oak (Quercus stellata). This species of oak grows slowly on poor dry soil. The cross-timbers forest, found mostly in Oklahoma, is the only kind of forest that post oaks dominate. We also saw blackjack oaks, white ashes, black hickories, and chittamwoods, all of which had leaves that were just beginning to expand. It was beautiful to see how leaves and flowers are neatly packaged into buds. This was a late spring; back in 2012 the leaves of these trees were already fully expanded by this time. Because these forests are open and dry, cactus plants grow in the understory. Among these are Coryptantha missouriensis, a tiny cactus down in the leaf litter, the bright red fruits of which were mature and falling from the stem.

The sporophytes were emerging from the mosses.

Mosses and cacti growing together? The mosses are dormant during the dry summer when the cactuses are fully active. We also visited a transition zone between forest and prairie, where we saw forest edge trees such as chittamwood and persimmon, as well as grasses from tallgrass, midgrass, and shortgrass prairies.

We pretty much knew which plants we would find, but when it comes to animals, you have to wait until you stumble across them. We saw a leaf-footed bug that smelled like almonds, because it produces cyanide as a defense against predators. We saw a large moth almost perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter, except for the big predator-scaring eyespots.

We saw cottony fluff on a beavertail cactus, produced by cochineal insects as a defense against predators. These insects were the original source of carmine dye, and the skillful use of a knife can reveal the bright crimson color under the fluff. One group of explorers even surprised a nest of shrews.

We benefited immensely from the expertise of botanists Gloria Caddell of University of Central Oklahoma (see photo below) and Suneeti Jog (behind the mosses in the photo above) of Northeastern Oklahoma State University and entomologist Ken Hobson of the University of Oklahoma. Mycologist Steve Marek of Oklahoma State University helped us find mushrooms and understand the lichens, which were astonishingly crowded all over the oak branches and bark (see photo below). David Bass of the University of Central Oklahoma looked for aquatic invertebrates, and Michael Shaughnessy of Northeastern Oklahoma State University showed us how to interpret animal tracks. Gregory Plumb of East Central University brought his computer and screen to demonstrate how geographers integrate many kinds of digital information and also brought his telescope for viewing Jupiter. We pretty much searched all of heaven and earth we could find at Lake Murray.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the field trips for me was that six of my students took these trips, and were able to learn from scientists other than me (they already hear plenty of stuff from me). The three morning students were Maryam and Nasim Akhter and Brian Ridgway; the three afternoon students were Bobby Long, Ben Singleton, and Kristin Brooks.

One of the students told me that she had never been out in the woods before. Clearly, for her, the most important part of this trip was just getting out in the forest and noticing how much is in it. And I wanted them to experience nature as fully as possible without compromising safety. I induced them to eat greenbriar shoots, wild mustard, and cactus fruits (which is what the students are doing in the second photo). Some of these students plan to study medicine. Therefore I and Connie Murray, a botanist at Tulsa Community College, talked with them about wild medicinal plants. There were also a few students from other Oklahoma universities.

Also, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is life after being OAS President. We found past president Craig Clifford, of Northeastern Oklahoma State University, lying in a gutter. But he was not there for the usual reasons a man might be in the gutter; like many of us, no posture is too embarrassing to get that perfect photograph.

I believe it was also important that I got to demonstrate what a good ecologically-minded citizen does. A lot of people who come to the lake deliberately leave behind huge numbers of beer cans and bottles, some of them smashed. With help from others, I collected as many of these as I could (not, of course, broken glass) to take back and recycle. The attitude of responsible stewardship, which we all felt, could not contrast more greatly with the deliberate offense that litterers show to nature and to the other humans with whom they live. One of my favorite experiences at Academy meetings is to be among people who care about the Earth and the other humans who share it with us.

Scientists Learning from Nature: Oklahoma Academy of Sciences Field Meeting Spring 2014, part one.

When you get these three elements together, something good is bound to happen: First, the minds of people who know a lot about nature and want to know more; second, the minds of people who care about nature and want to talk about how to protect it; third, a beautiful natural ecological community. Such a convergence occurred this past weekend at the field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Science at Lake Murray State Park in southern Oklahoma. I will post two blog entries about this meeting. The first essay is about the two evening presentations.

On Friday, April 4, Jona Tucker from the Nature Conservancy gave a beautifully-prepared presentation about the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, the Blue River, and TNC’s restoration of what had once been a beautiful riverside forest in Oklahoma.

The Oka’ Yanahli Preserve on the Blue River is not what you would think of when you hear The Nature Conservancy’s slogan of “the last great places.” It was until recently a cow pasture where even the very streams had been mashed out of existence, and where a thin layer of trees lined the river. But historical evidence and old maps clearly indicate that it used to be one of those great places. TNC wants to make it back into such a place.

The main impression I got as I listened to Jona’s presentation is that you cannot understand, protect, or manage anything by simply reducing it to its component parts. The Blue River is a perfect example of this. Almost all of its water comes from springs that emerge from the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer, but you cannot understand either the river or the aquifer merely by knowing how much water flows from one to the other. (Alas, governing bodies often do not even correctly consider the amount of water flow when making decisions about how much aquifer water can be pumped and used.) It is a system that changes over time, as when the river itself changes course. Water flow and quality are affected by the riparian forest along the river. If this forest has been damaged or destroyed, it must be restored before you can have a healthy river. But restoring the river is also a complex system. You cannot just go out and ceremonially plant a tree or two; the beavers will chew them down. So what do you do? You could put up a fence to keep the beavers out. But even this does not work; when the river floods, a fence can be knocked over and crammed with debris. The Conservancy, and two graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, are using fences that can be quickly dismantled if a flood is coming then reassembled after the waters have gone down; and you can only hope the beavers aren’t bright enough to recognize their narrow window of opportunity before and after a flood.

But because the river and aquifer and forests are a system, it is not necessary to replant the entire thing. It is important to get a few trees started, but after that, just keep the cows away and most of the plant and animal species will return. This can be seen at the nearby Blue River Public Hunting and Fishing Area, also on the Blue River, which was pretty much just a pasture until a few decades ago. Now it is lined with, among other things, a healthy population of rare seaside alder trees.

And you have to think of the way the entire natural system of the Blue River interacts with the human system. It doesn’t work for a government (e.g. a court or the Fish and Wildlife Service) to impose rules on land owners, rules with which the land owners may minimally comply (or not). Instead it is important to get the land owners to want to protect and improve their land. Humans can be a positive part of the system. Once when I was studying alder trees along this river, a fisherman asked me about the trees. Then he said that maybe fishermen were causing damage by walking around among the trees. I told him that the fishermen were causing no damage at all, and in fact their license fees maintained the state land, which is where most of these rare alder trees survive. We need for people to feel welcome to do harmless things in the natural world, thereby becoming aware of its beauty and being more likely to support its preservation. I believe the fisherman was delighted to hear that rural Oklahoma has a rare subspecies of tree found nowhere else in the world.

I am definitely proud to have served as Jona’s undergraduate advisor when she majored in botany at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. At the same time, it is clear that nearly everything Jona knows she has taught herself, and most of what she does she has figured out for herself. She is one of our best examples of a student whom we got started on a professional path but who has made most of that path herself. Her work is not necessarily what she was trained to do; a lot of it involves talking with and arranging agreements with land owners. This requires the kind of positive spirit that Jona has, and is something you cannot simply learn by taking a public relations course. For example, it was necessary to consider the public impact of choosing a name for the preserve: they chose a Chickasaw name, Oka’ Yanahli, that recognizes the efforts to bring the river back to what it was like in the nineteenth century when the Chickasaws first arrived, and recognizes rural Oklahoma’s increasing pride in its Native American heritage. Now the only problem is that we might get complacent and expect Jona to do the whole job by herself, which nobody can.

On Saturday, April 5, Matt Bolek of Oklahoma State University described his research into all aspects of the life cycle and ecology of hairworms. We did not have a show of hands to see how many of us scientists even knew what hairworms were, especially since they do not live in humans. They live primarily in insects. They are one of those phyla of animals that people seldom see. But they can be quite surprising. A single large tropical roach can be the host of a 4.3-meter-long hairworm tangled up into what looks like a Gordian knot (after which one of the genera is named). They have amazing adaptations for surviving and dispersing from one host to another. Matt is an active member of a very small worldwide group of hairworm experts.

Small and (to us) obscure organisms are also hard to study. One example of this is the swallow bug. Usually, Valerie O’Brien is at our field meetings, but this weekend she and Charles Brown were marking individual swallow bugs to track their dispersal patterns. That is, each bug has to have its own individual mark distinguishable from the others. Now, how do you mark a swallow bug? I assume it cannot be a radio collar or a GPS transponder. I’ll be interested in finding out how to mark a bug.

In the next entry, I want to tell you about the OAS field trips.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Roots on the Prowl

The Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is April 26-27. You can read about it here and the direct registration link is here.

And now for a story that you will probably think must be an April Fool’s joke. But it is real. We usually think of animals, especially charismatic predators, as foraging for food. They ramble through the underbrush looking for cute furry things to eat. In contrast, we usually think of plants as being passive. They are mere surfaces into which molecules and sunlight enter, and from which molecules exit: green leaf surfaces above ground, white leaf surfaces below ground. It is part of our bias, which goes all the way back to the first chapter of Genesis, of seeing animals as alive but plants as being merely a covering on the landscape.

But plants are active. They respond to their environments in many creative ways. Rather than to tell you about them, I will refer you to an interesting book by Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows. He stops short of endorsing the Trewavas idea that plants are intelligent, but Chamovitz certainly expands our view of plants as active respondents to their environments.

My own small contribution to this topic has been to develop a botany teaching activity in which students investigate foraging by roots. You can find this module online on the PlantEd page of the Botanical Society of America website; click on the document link at the top.

Roots do not just grow down into the soil. They have some kind of physiological feedback (which, not being a physiologist or molecular biologist, I cannot investigate) that allows them to proliferate when they encounter rich soil. They proliferate by growing a lot of branch roots. In contrast, they produce fewer branch roots and simply get on with the business of growing downward when they encounter poor soil.

Students can investigate root foraging by growing a sunflower seed in a clear glass cylinder that is filled with layers of rich soil alternating with nutrient-poor perlite. While soil and perlite are not identical in their physical properties, they are pretty similar (so long as the soil has enough peat in it to maintain air spaces); the main difference between them is the presence vs. absence of nutrients. Students can watch the roots grow downward through the perlite but proliferate in the soil.

Not only can they watch this process but they can measure it. They can measure the length of the roots using a map wheel. Of course, they can only measure the roots that are exposed to the glass, but this is likely to be the same in soil as in perlite. They can also, at the close of the experiment, harvest the plants and weigh the roots. And since, for each glass cylinder, they have a set of numbers, they can perform a statistical analysis.

This project also allows the students to consider experimental design. For example, it might make a difference whether the top layer is soil or is perlite. In other words, a cylinder with soil-perlite-soil-perlite might give different results from a cylinder that is perlite-soil-perlite-soil. So they try both arrangements. (It turns out to not matter.) Also, seeds placed on perlite might mold; soil microbes will prevent this. Therefore every cylinder has at least a thin layer of soil on top. Furthermore, it matters which species of plant you use. If you use a grass such as wheat or oats, the fibrous roots will not grow all the way down to the bottom of the cylinder. If you use beans, the roots will show no preference for soil over perlite, since the large seeds already have plenty of nutrients stored in them and the roots can form mutualistic associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. For both of these reasons, you would not expect bean roots to “care” whether the medium through which they are growing is rich in nutrients or not. It turns out that sunflower (which is a relatively small seed and does not form nitrogen-fixing nodules) is just about right.

This project also allows students to think of applications of this principle. Perhaps the most readily apparent application is that some plants are “hyperaccumulators” whose roots actually seek out toxic ions such as zinc or cadmium. Genetic engineers can make hyperaccumulator plants into superhyperaccumulator plants, if I may so call them. The roots of such plants seek out metal toxins in contaminated soil and remove them. This is fundamental to the process of bioremediation—the use of plants to clean up toxic waste sites.

What does evolution have to do with this? Natural selection has favored plants whose roots have ways of diverting their resources to areas of greatest benefit—e.g., that do not waste their resources growing roots in poor soil when there may be rich soil nearby. Presumably plants that grow in soil that is nearly always poor do not have this response (if anybody wants to investigate this, let me know at But why would plants seek out toxins? Some plants accumulate these toxins in their leaf vacuoles where they are not in contact with the metabolism of the cell cytoplasm but where they can spill out in the mouth of a herbivore that begins to eat the leaf. They constitute a chemical protection for the plant.

Just like my earlier report about the smoke-induced germination of wildflowers, this experiment required almost no budget. The most expensive part was the glass cylinders. But our department happened to have inherited a bunch of glass cylinders from the USDA. If you have some glass cylinders and a couple of map wheels lying around, consider trying this hands-on minds-on project.