Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Nearly Infinite Capacity for Adjustment

The human brain has a nearly infinite capacity for adjustment to circumstances, so long as these circumstances are not immediately lethal. And this is not necessarily a good thing.

People often think of the environment in which they grew up as beautiful, even if such an environment is, by any objective measure, not beautiful. I keep thinking back to the student I had who considered northwestern Kansas to be the most beautiful place on Earth. To me, it seems that most of the rest of Kansas is actually more beautiful than the flat, agricultural northwest portion of the state.

And people have the ability to adjust their thinking and attitudes even to painful circumstances. They will rationalize to think of their sufferings as blessings. Without their sufferings, they claim, they would not have had certain important spiritual insights. One quick example is a book that was published, and had a very limited circulation, in the 1970s: Thank God I Have Cancer was the title. The author said that were it not for cancer, he would never have discovered the wonders of laetrile.

This is an obvious survival mechanism. We are descendants of people who considered their circumstances good enough in which to make a successful living, or at least to not give up. Even slaves developed a culture of stories and music, not allowing themselves to be turned into mere machines.

But there is a bad side to such irrepressible optimism. It doesn’t take many generations, perhaps only one, for people to forget beauty and blessings that are lost. As a botanist and lover of forests, one example I immediately think of is that we no longer notice that our American and European forests are ghosts of what they used to be. It is true that there are forests all over the place in the eastern U.S. and in the western mountains, but most of them are second-growth forests that have recovered from logging. Gone perhaps forever are the huge old trees that once dominated these forests. The two-meter-thick tulip poplar trunks that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw on one of their horseback trips were not all that unusual. We assume that the forests of comparatively small trees that we see today are the way these forests have always been. Our minds invest them with great beauty; the grandeur of the old forests is forgotten. This bur oak tree in Oklahoma looks big, but by the standards of an earlier century would be small for an eastern deciduous forest.

Global warming is starting to kill our forests. But there will still be forests in the next century. It is nearly certain that all of the sugar maple and beech forests in America will die; these species will persist only in Canada. Maybe most of the oaks will die also. There are oaks that can persist in relatively warm and dry conditions, such as post oaks. But post oaks cannot disperse to and grow up in dead black oak or white oak forests fast enough to keep them looking like oak forests. There are, however, trees that can grow rapidly and adjust to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture that come with global climate change. Examples include introduced mulberries (such as the white mulberry) and trees of heaven. There may be hikers in the twenty-second century who will exclaim at the beauty of the forests of mulberries and trees of heaven dominating the Appalachians, not realizing that the great, diverse forests that persisted into the twenty-first century—the ones we see today—have disappeared. They will have grown up loving the beauty of the depleted, skeletal forests around them.

Our ability to love what we see as we grow up may cause us to forget the beauty that we have lost. Oppressed people may grow up loving life despite their circumstances of poverty. Prophetic voices may arise to stir them, but unless they are actually suffering pain and starvation, they may feel that their circumstances are just fine, even beautiful, and they may not rise up to demand release from their oppression. Already the new generations are accepting the fact that they cannot aspire to improvements in life that my generation took for granted. Many people simply accept that having two jobs will barely keep them alive. The stories about well-paid unionized workers may seem like fantasy to them.

Our ability to make the best of, and find beauty in, our circumstances may lead to a world in which people accept, and even enjoy, blighted ecosystems and chronic oppression.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Drama of Global Warming

Well, today I started teaching my general biology class about global warming, as I do every semester. Since I write science books (of which I have published four) and novels (thus far unpublished), I began thinking about why global warming is not a more prevalent theme in fiction. I thought about this as I walked to work. Walking is a good way to promote health but also to save energy and reduce carbon emissions. It is also a good time to think.

Global warming does figure prominently in most of the future scenarios of science fiction novels. However, the global warming that is occurring right now is largely absent from fiction. Why?

The main reason is that global warming is very real and is accelerating, but is still a largely gradual process. It is occurring over a time scale that does not lend itself to a plot line very easily. You can’t see it. You can see weather, but you can’t see climate change. You could write a novel about a big storm, but there have always been big storms; the novel would be about the storm, not about climate change. It is impossible to say that any particular storm (such as the one occurring right now in the Northeast) is or is not due to global warming. Any particular storm may or may not have occurred even without global warming. All we can say is that global warming is making storms stronger in general. How do you get a plot out of that?

There have been at least three movies or books based on global warming, and they illustrate three approaches to making fictional drama out of global warming.

First, in the 1990s, there was a TV movie called The Fire Next Time. The approach it took was to show how global warming shattered a family’s personal economy (the main character was a gulf shrimper) and how they came back together in the end. The plot was about the family, with global warming just being the background setting.

Second, a few years back, the movie Day After Tomorrow showed incredibly dramatic weather events. The movie started with a sudden fracture of an ice sheet and ended with a huge storm paralyzing New York City (even worse than the one that is descending upon them this week). This movie derived its plot line from exaggerating the trends of global warming. The ice is indeed melting (according to a study I read about today in the French media but have not seen in the American media yet), but it is usually hard to see. Antarctica still has a lot of ice.

Third, who could forget one of Michael Crichton’s last novels, State of Fear? In this novel, Crichton depicted all scientists, except a few brave outsiders, as filthy liars who have not merely invented global warming but who are actually causing the breakup of glaciers by setting off bombs! Scientists are part of a worldwide conspiracy, and they track down the true heroes (the ones who believe everything the Koch Brothers say) by following them in their evil blue Priuses. It was a poorly written novel that strained credulity so much that it was a third-rate piece of hack work. Every plot component was weak. This, from the man who wrote much better books such as Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park?

None of these works are actually about global warming. Is it possible to have a novel about global warming that is realistic yet also dramatic? Maybe one that is set in Bangladesh. Rising sea levels may inundate half of the country—including their incredibly productive agricultural land—this century. Could Bangladeshis flee over the border into India? India is already building a big fence to keep them out.

(Photo from Brisbane Times)

Maybe a young Indian man and young Bangladeshi woman could meet one another and kiss through the fence…I see plot potential here…Aside from something like this, global warming remains a major threat that is huge but slow, and which even those of us who study it have to measure its components rather than actually seeing it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Despite Science and Despite Humanitarianism, Racism Continues

I am writing this in late August, 2014, even though I am posting it later. (As of the posting date there have been no new developments.) The flames of racial unrest are burning in localized pockets across the United States right now. In three separate incidents—Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis; Staten Island, New York City; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I live—white police officers have killed unarmed black men. (The black man shot even more recently in Berkeley, Missouri, appears to have been armed.) Wait; you haven’t heard about the Tulsa one? I guess I will have to tell you about it, since Tulsa has no violent protests such as in Ferguson and no Al Sharpton as in New York. You expect this sort of thing—police killings of unarmed citizens—once in a while, but three at the same time seems a bit unlikely.

A Tulsa policeman, Shannon Kepler, and his wife (also a police officer) adopted a girl with a troubled past. After many years, the girl’s troubles were apparently too much for the couple to handle. They took her to a shelter for homeless adults and left her there. Things like this happen sometimes. But what happened next was astonishing. The young woman went the house where her boyfriend, 19-year-old Jeremey Lake, lived. What would you expect her to do? And if you have just kicked your adopted daughter out of the house, you at least need to let her decide where she is going to live.

But Shannon Kepler did not do this. He drove over to Jeremey Lake’s house and shot and killed him, and then shot in the general direction of the young woman also. Was Lake’s killing murder or was it manslaughter? And was Kepler actually aiming for his stepdaughter with the second shot? That is, was there premeditation? Police investigators found that the step-parents had, in their home, a copy of Lake’s arrest records, on which they had written his address. This would seem to be premeditation. Kepler’s defense attorney said that the shooting was understandable because Lake was a sexual predator, which as far as I can determine was not the judgment of any court. So the defense attorney asked for a bail of only $50,000. The prosecutor asked for a bail of $1 ½ million. The prosecutor’s request that Kepler be fitted with an ankle bracelet for monitoring his location was denied by the judge, who imposed a bail about halfway between the two requests. The judge must have considered that this police shooting was not much of a continuing danger to the community. This decision was issued August 22, the same day that Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri were in the news.

What the Tulsa World newspaper article of August 22 did not mention—and which I had to locate finally in the New York Daily News—was that Jeremy Lake was black.

I know that if I were a young black man I would be worried right now, especially if I lived in Oklahoma, a state where apparently police shooting young black men does not get noticed very much by national media.

When are we going to stop thinking of white police shootings (or, in Staten Island, strangling) of black men as normal? (The authorities seem to have thought that the Staten Island victim was manifestly guilty of a dangerous, dangerous crime: selling untaxed cigarettes. That deserves getting someone killed, they seem to think.)

As most readers of this blog will know already, there is no biological basis for considering one race inferior to another. Pseudoscientific claims of black inferiority have been repeatedly discredited. And even if there was such evidence, it would not justify members of one race killing members of another and having it treated lightly by authorities.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Junk DNA

One of the strongest evidences of our evolutionary ancestry is that we carry around, inside of our very chromosomes, DNA that is left over from our evolutionary ancestors. Most of it is DNA that functioned as genes in our evolutionary ancestors, but today are inactivated (pseudogenes). One example among many is our olfactory proteins. We have about 350 of them, which means that we can distinguish about 350 primary odors (and a very large number of odor combinations). Other mammals such as dogs and mice have about 1000. They can distinguish many more odors than we can. Dogs and mice depend on scent information to survive, while primates such as humans depend more on vision, which is why we can get by with fewer of them. But here is the evolutionary part. We have about 650 olfactory pseudogenes. That is, we have the genetic material for all 1000 scent genes, but 650 of them are sitting in our chromosomes unused. We also have vestigial centromeres and telomeres in our chromosome 2, left over from the time when two ape chromosomes merged together into one.

This noncoding DNA was, in the past, called “junk DNA.” This term is now seldom used, however, because it turns out that, although pseudogenes and other noncoding DNA are no longer used for their original function, they often have a regulatory role. That is, they don’t do what they originally did, but they do something. A big group of scientists, Project ENCODE, recently published their results that indicate that at least 80 percent of noncoding DNA has some function.

So it turns out that much of the noncoding DNA is not junk after all. Creationists jumped up and down with joy at this announcement. They claimed that the newest genetic evidence shows that God created all the DNA to be useful.

But not so fast. What, exactly, is that use? As I noted above, many pseudogenes now have a regulatory function. For example, the olfactory pseudogenes no longer produce olfactory proteins, but they do something. As one creationist article said, “Over 80 percent of the human genome is actively involved in at least one or more biochemical reactions associated with gene regulation in at least one type of cell. Nearly all of the genome lies within close proximity to some sort of regulatory event and, therefore, very little of the genome can be considered extraneous to its full function.”  However, these pseudogenes are still recognizably similar to the olfactory genes of other mammals. Their structure is mostly suited for the production of scent detection proteins, a function they no longer have. Their regulatory function is largely unrelated to their structure; the regulatory function is incidental to their structure. That is, the genes became pseudogenes and then later took on a regulatory function. They are still pseudogenes and are still evidence of evolutionary ancestry.

Let me draw a parallel that will make this clearer. Like many of you, we have a ski machine. We used to use it when we lived in Minnesota, where the year was divided into ice vs. mosquitoes. In order to get walking exercise, we needed the machine. We brought it with us to Oklahoma, but today it stands in the bathroom where its major function is for drying towels and washcloths. We can actually take walks outside most of the year, and no longer need this piece of exercise equipment. Now, a drying rack does not need belts and wheels and foot rails and a digital distance monitor. It is not junk—it is a perfectly serviceable drying rack—but its ski-machine structure is vestigial. It is a pseudogene of a ski machine, so to speak.

And this is why the creationist use of Project ENCODE results as supposed proof of intelligent design is invalid. Noncoding DNA is not junk but neither was it designed in detail for its current function. It is not junk but it is vestigial. In this sense it is no different from other vestigial characteristics. Staminodes in female flowers used to be stamens. They no longer produce pollen, and are therefore vestigial, but they still function in attracting pollinators. They are now just sticks, their original function gone, but they are pretty sticks that attract bees. They are not junk, but they are vestigial.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Does Science Kill the Spirit?

Just posted: a Darwin video about global warming, soil, with a mole joke at the end.

Some people in the humanities perceive science as a threat. They think that it turns all human creativity into the mere operation of neurons, the product of a complex brain computer. A scientific explanation of creativity, in terms of action potentials and neurotransmitters, may, they fear, kill the spirit.

When I was an undergrad, I took music theory courses. I learned about the overtone series, and how the notes of major chords blended together within that overtone series, whereas the notes of a minor chord created discord because they differed from that series. An overtone series occurs when the vibrations at a certain frequency, say 256 Hertz for middle C, also create resonant harmonies at higher frequencies, first at the octave (512 Hertz, or twice that of middle C), then the fifth above that (G), then another octave (high C, at 1024 Hertz), then the third above that, which is E. C major contains C, E, and G, while C minor contains C, E-flat, and G; the E-flat grates against the natural overtone of E. Major chords make us feel at peace, while minor chords make us feel on edge. This is usually interpreted as happy and sad. This is not quite true; Andean music, for example, consists largely of minor-mode melodies that are happy. Even if you do not know anything about chords, your emotions can be affected by hearing these chords. One could say that the human mind, with all its happiness and sadness, is the plaything of the laws of physics, particularly the overtone series of vibrations.

Furthermore, the overtone series can explain the differences in what musicians call timbre, which can be figuratively described as the color of the sound. A flute and a trumpet playing the same note, for example 512 Hertz, sound very different, because the trumpet has more of the high, piquant overtones than the flute. So also, the overtone series explains why you need to avoid certain compositional mistakes, such as doubling your leading-tones or having parallel fifths.

I learned this, and knew it, yet at the same time I was able to participate in the near-magic of musical experience. I knew that all of music could be explained by the mathematics of vibrations and by the human brain’s response to them. But I still imagined music as magic. At the time, I was a creationist, and believed that music was literally divine. It never occurred to me to worry that my knowledge of the physics of sound might destroy the magic of musical experience. I knew just enough about music to be able to write some mediocre stuff of my own, and just enough to be frustrated when I heard works of true genius, such as those of Mozart. You think Mozart’s music is nice; I understand why it is not only nice but profound. (You’ve never heard my “Emmaus Road” symphony of 1977? Thank God it was never performed or recorded.)

And so it is with all of science. A biological explanation of the working of the human brain in no way destroys the wonder of human creativity. Explaining religion in terms of stimulation of the right temporal lobe does not negate the transcendent experience of religion. Franz Schubert put the poetry of Wilhelm Muller to music in Die Winterreise, proclaiming that all our joys and all our sorrows, “alles eines Irrlichts Spiel,” they are all the playthings of illusion. Everyone who has sung Die Winterreise, including the late great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, could experience the transcendent beauty of this line of music, even while proclaiming that this beauty is a mere illusion of the mind. You see, when we are participating in music, or in the world of nature as explained by science, we are inside of it, and the mathematical and physical explanations do not destroy the evolved capacity to experience them as transcendently inspiring experiences. We can analyze our animal evolution, but we are still animals, exulting inside of those experiences.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Have an altruistic new year!

Oh, no! Not another essay about altruism! But I have a couple of ideas to share with you about what might be the most important evolutionary adaptation of the human species.

The first regards radio interview I heard recently. The interviewee was a man who had published a major article about how our economic system saps the middle class and oppresses the poor while making the rich richer. He made specific reference to raising the minimum wage. Almost all recent economic growth has gone to the now famous top one percent; if that growth had, instead, gone to the average worker in the form of a higher minimum wage, each worker would earn $20,000 a year more—and this would bring back a healthy middle class.

A caller then made a point about altruism (he didn’t use the term) as a resource. He said that for him to pay his workers higher wages than other companies was a good investment: he gets the better workers, who are more productive, and keeps them longer, lowering the costs of training, etc. But then he said he was opposed to raising the minimum wage because then employers would be forced to treat their employees right—something that he saw as his special niche.

Leave it to an American businessman (who sounds like he is nicer than most) to turn altruism into something entirely selfish, the purpose of which is to make him rich. But this is better than no altruism at all.

The second point is that you can’t legislate altruism.

In recent years in Oklahoma, new road signs have appeared. When there are lane closures on turnpikes and interstates, orange signs proclaim “State law merge now” almost a half mile back from the place where the lanes merge. The reason it became necessary for such a state law is that some altruistic and courteous drivers would merge early, while the demonic and selfish ones would wait until the last few meters and crowd in, not only gaining them a direct advantage but pushing the courteous drivers even further back. Simple common-sense courtesy would have made such a law unnecessary.

Oklahoma does not have big mountains, but Idaho does. When I drove through Idaho last summer, I saw road signs on steep portions of two-lane highways: “State law slow vehicles pull over when three vehicles following.” For most drivers this is common sense, but a few selfish drivers will hold up huge lines of traffic as they chug slowly along the mountain roads. This is a new twist on the old “Keep right except to pass” policy for four-lane highways. Hundreds of times during my travels I have had to put on my brakes uphill as a truck going 51 miles per hour pulls out immediately and dangerously in front of me to pass another truck going 50 in a 75 mile per hour zone. Many truckers consider the interstate highways to be theirs, not the property of the American people.

It is impossible to translate all the common sense principles of courtesy and altruism into laws. Altruism is an instinct. We all know its subconscious dictates. But it is impossible to codify them into laws that cover every detail. And it is not merely a matter of writing laws. Selfish people can ignore a law that dictates some minor component of altruism unless the penalty is sufficiently steep.

Trusting altruism in society seems hopelessly naïve but there is no realistic alternative.