Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Hike in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

My hike with my daughter and her boyfriend, at about 11,600 feet elevation north of Santa Fe, showed me that I can still push my body to limits that most people my age cannot attain. It felt brutal at the time but almost immediately afterwards the memories were shimmering and beautiful. Here are some of the things we saw.

The trail started off in the douglasfir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) zone and quickly reached the subalpine zone. I didn’t quite make it into the tundra on top of Santa Fe Baldy.

Decades ago, there were large fires, and aspens (Populus tremuloides) quickly filled the spaces. But since there have been, to all appearances, no fires for a long time, the aspens have grown quite large. Each clump of aspen, covering perhaps much of an entire mountainside, is a genetic individual: one tree with hundreds of trunks. These aspens, whether due to age or genetic differences, had tan-colored bark rather than the white bark I have seen so often in the Black Hills. The bark is thin, translucent, and has a layer of green photosynthetic cells under it.

There were many species of subalpine wildflowers. Columbines (Aquilegia) were rare in the shade, and camass lilies (Zigadenus) were more common out in the meadows.

There were lots of mushrooms and mushroom pickers. The pickers were all smart enough to avoid the deadly Amanita:

A huge storm chased us back to the car for the last few hundred feet of our trip.

I have seen montane and subalpine forests in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, and Utah; they all have many features in common but each is unique. We cannot save wild places by just fencing off a token forest or two.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Biology of War

In 2013 scientific attention was focused on a pair of books that addressed why humans have war. Edward O. Wilson, in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, maintained that war was a human instinct, and that humans have had war as long as we have existed as a separate species. (This was not the main thing Wilson’s book was about.) In contrast, science writer John Horgan, in his book The End of War, argued that war is something that humans learned to do and that we can unlearn.

While this seems like an important debate, I fear that it is mostly over semantics. Humans have had violent conflict as long as we have existed (a fact Horgan does not deny), but full-scale wars have occurred only in the last 11,000 years or so. Did I miss something? When human population started to increase, and humans started living in defined locations such as cities, then violent conflicts became big enough to be classified as wars. Isn’t war just a big violent conflict? Was the conflict between the Cherokees and the Creeks, culminating in the Battle of Taliwa in 1755, a war or an intertribal conflict? I don’t think this would have made any difference to Nanyehi, my 6th great grandmother, whose saw her husband killed in that battle, and who became a Cherokee war hero right at that moment. She was a war hero, even though no massive troop engagements were involved. She, also at that moment, became an advocate for peace, because whether it was a war or a mere conflict, she was a widow and her two children were orphans.

Nevertheless, Horgan does get us to think about a few very interesting things. He makes the invalid argument that, if violence is part of human nature, then why has war been so sporadic? I think it is obvious why he is wrong. We all feel the occasional zeal of violence; the fact that we do not always put it into action does not mean that it is not part of our nature. But the interesting point is this: war does not always occur when resources are scarce or when there is hostility. War is an emergent property, I think, that must be induced under the right circumstances. Not every conflict of interests between tribes or nations turns into war, just as not every dry grassy field burns. But when war is induced, the violent component of human nature is waiting there as fuel.

Still, Horgan brings up a good point, when we consider that war is not something that automatically happens but something that we must decide to do. To a certain extent, it is something that we have to learn. Sometimes it becomes a tradition into which we are trapped. That is, war is something that our leaders lead us into. Most people (except psychopaths) have a natural tendency to want to not harm other people. But this resistance to major acts of violence can be overcome by intense training, commands from authority figures, long-range weapons, and propaganda. The long-range weapons allow us to kill others without having to see them die.

Horgan makes the point that we start wars not because we are wolves but because we are sheep. We may be inclined to seek peaceful solutions, but we do whatever our leaders tell us to. This is the aspect that can make a whole population become violent, not just the one to two percent who are psychopathic.

The violence that leads easily to war is part of human nature. But peace is also part of human nature. Because of this, war may not be inevitable, if we can break the cause-and-effect chain that keeps war going. This chain goes all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, which fundamentalists accept as history and I accept as an image. You can think of each human as half Cain, half Abel. Which half will we choose? Perhaps we will always have war, but there is room for diminishing its intensity and frequency.

And to do so we need to cultivate empathy. We need to practice it, think about it, incorporate it into our movies and novels and music and art. We cannot eradicate our violent nature, but maybe we can encyst it so that it does not poison the rest of our collective person. We have to tell ourselves, in celebration, that we all feel the same things. We all love our children and most of our neighbors and most of the people we work with. (As for the ones we don’t love, maybe we can tolerate them.) As Nanyehi said, “The white men are our brothers. The same house shelters them, and the same sky covers us all.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

Our Shared Environment

I am sure I have written about this idea previously: What we do to the environment of the Earth, locally or globally, is directly involved with how we relate to other people. How can we say we love our human brothers and sisters if we pollute the environment we share with them? Love your neighbor—and it is your neighbor’s Earth.

A particularly amazing example of the disregard that some people have for their neighbors, and their neighbors’ environment, has come to my attention in rural Oklahoma, where I live. When I first heard about it, I could hardly believe it, until it was corroborated by a second person. Both of these people, who do not know one another, grew up in and still live in rural Oklahoma. I still find it hard to believe, but I will pass the story on to you.

One way that some rural residents of Oklahoma have of getting rid of their garbage is to put it in the flatbed of a pickup truck and drive around until the wind blows it away. This does not work for heavy objects like beer bottles—those are more efficiently disposed of by throwing them out the window—but it works very well for paper and plastic. There are two reasons for this. First, Oklahoma has a lot of wind. Second, the air pressure is greater down in the pickup bed than in the moving air (moving, that is, relative to the pickup bed) above the pickup bed, virtually guaranteeing that the light garbage will be lifted out and blown away.

People who do this sort of thing might as well have a bumper sticker on the truck proclaiming, “This is what I think of you, you worthless miserable fellow Americans—I will dump my garbage on you.” Of course, they do not want to actually say this, so they pretend that, oh-oh, the wind just happened to lift the garbage out of my truck, oh well. Maybe they are even salving their own consciences by pretending that they are not really dumping their garbage when they do this.

As I said, I would not have believed this story had it not been told to me by two people who do not know one another or live in the same town.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Language is for

I am sure most of us are tired of hearing about the silliness of fundamentalists insisting upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Like you, I have no interest in revisiting this topic. It is quite clear from reading the Bible itself that the Bible does not use literalistic language. The only people who do not know this are probably the fundamentalists who have not actually read the Bible, but have just listened to fundamentalist preachers. This may be most fundamentalists.

What is interesting to me is that fundamentalist insistence on literalistic language is based on a misunderstanding of what language is for. And it is a misunderstanding that also plagues many scientists. Both creationists and scientists often believe that the purpose of language is to convey information; and that language is better when it conveys information more accurately or precisely or correctly. (Accuracy, precision, and correctness are three different things.) A creationist gets all bent out of shape if someone suggests that “day” in Genesis 1 is not a 24-hour time period, or even a time period at all. And some of my fellow botanists get all bent out of shape if an amateur calls a dandelion a “flower.” See? That amateur called a dandelion a flower—that shows how much he knows. In reality, a dandelion of a whole bunch of flowers crammed together, each with its own petals and reproductive naughty-bits. It is a composite inflorescence. I teach about composites because once you see that a dandelion is a bunch of flowers, your eyes are opened to new evolutionary possibilities: new adaptations can arise from previously separate components merging together. But I don’t get bothered by an amateur calling a dandelion a flower. Matter of fact, “amateur” is not a derogatory term; it comes from the Latin for love. An amateur is someone who does something because he or she loves it.

Scientists are generally OK with similes, but generally reject metaphors, unless said metaphor has become incorporated into a standard set of scientific phrases (such as “seed bank”). But when I teach or write for a wider audience, I use metaphors all the time, and say some downright wrong things if they get the main idea across or (perhaps more importantly) get the listener to appreciate and enjoy the world more. (With apologies to Will Rogers, I could say I never metaphor I didn’t like.)

Language did not evolve primarily as a way of communicating information, although this was one of its functions. It evolved as a medium of relationship. The use of imprecise, colorful, sometimes factually incorrect statements helped to negotiate relationships between individuals within a tribe, or between tribes—and it still does. One of the best mediums for this is humor. What little bit of culture I have inherited from my Native American ancestors helps me to understand this. Native Americans don’t worship Trickster Coyote. It is a set of humorous stories that helps us make sense out of an otherwise chaotic universe. A lot of God-talk among tribal peoples is to be understood as metaphor or simile, a human way of picturing something otherwise incomprehensible. As one Anishinabe speaker said, “When we talk about the holiness of a tree, we don’t mean that the tree is a god. We’re not stupid. We mean that the divine represents itself, among other ways, as a tree.”

Even fundamentalists cannot resist using imprecise language. They might say something like, I was just flying down the highway. Does this mean that they have wings, or were in a hang glider skimming too low to the ground? Or flapping their arms as they ran? My guess would be no. And they will say things like, He knocked me over when he said that. Really? If that is literally true, you’d better file assault and battery charges. Especially when, as a fundamentalist might say, he literally knocked me over when he said that. Fundamentalists will use figurative language themselves, but forbid God to do so. But why would a fundamentalist, or anyone else, use such language? Imprecise language usually occurs in little conversational groups in which altruistic relationships are being built, often using humor as a thickener. (I’m not sure that metaphor worked.)

At least scientists have a reason for insisting on literally precise language. We need it in order to understand the actual mechanisms that are occurring in nature. But once we have done this, why don’t we relax a little?

So when fundamentalists insist on literalistic Biblical language, or scientists insist on precise language even after hours, all I can say is, go ahead and enjoy the flowers, even the ones in the family Asteraceae that aren’t really flowers.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Brief announcement: new video

I have just uploaded a new video in which Charles Darwin explains, just in time for the summer cookout season, how to cook up some life!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

We Know What You Are Thinking and We Can Change It

An article in the May 29, 2015 issue of Science (the summary is here, the abstract of the article is here) reveals a new way in which people’s attitudes can be manipulated. The authors note that, even when people try to not have racial, gender, or ethnic biases, they still have them subconsciously. Even if people are trained to reduce their biases, the subconscious scaffolding of these biases remains. Is there any way to rub out these subconscious prejudices? Apparently there is.

  • First, you train subjects—for example with computer exercises—to overcome their prejudices. This has been used for a long time. The difference this time is that you can unobtrusively introduce some sensory signal, such as a sound or a scent, during this training. The subject’s mind then associates the anti-prejudice training with the sound or scent.
  • Second, when the subjects are asleep, introduce the sound or scent. The result is that the sleeping brain clears away some of the lingering prejudice.

What you get is a subject, when he or she wakes up, who is much less prejudiced.

This sounds like a great way that people can use to alter the prejudices that they have trouble getting rid of. Maybe therapists could use it on people who seek help. However, I am sure you have already realized that it could also be used to alter a subject’s attitudes in a way that government or corporate leadership finds convenient. It might not be too much harder to induce subjects to love the swastika than to love people of other races. Though the authors did not note it, this process might be even more effective if oxytocin spray, which induces feelings of trust, is used during the training exercises.

Do I think that any government or industry or interest group is going to make use of this process any time soon? No. But I pass this on to you as an example of how science and technology are moving along faster than our ability to think through the ethical uses of the new information and techniques.

Monday, July 6, 2015

American Exceptionalism

If there is one single idea that is central to the various conservative Republican views of the world, it is American exceptionalism. Let me attempt a definition and description of this concept.

The first component of American exceptionalism is that conservatives in America are, and always has been, God’s chosen people, whom he will exempt from any judgment or consequence. If there is any judgment upon America, it will be because of those whom they call liberals. But anything, no matter how perverse, that a conservative wants to do is, in advance, already approved by God. Modern American conservatives, alone among all people who have ever lived, are inerrant and automatically exempted from God’s judgment. They can say whatever they want, without evidence, and it’s just fine. They can believe that God created the whole world just for them to destroy for their own pleasure right now, and it’s just fine. They can use Jesus as their finger-puppet to wiggle in the air whenever they want the appearance of God’s approval on whatever they say or do, and it’s just fine. They do not worship God; God is their tool, and they sneer at him even as they exploit him. It is themselves whom they worship.

Today is not the first time that some people, calling themselves Christians, have assumed that God has already forgiven them in advance for whatever they might do. When Crusaders sacked Constantinople (which was the capital of a Christian, not a Muslim, land), the pope had forgiven them in advance for whatever brutalities they might perform. And those brutalities, which I cannot bear to list, were far beyond anything the Bosnian Serbs or the Islamic State have been able to invent. One can only hope that modern conservatives are not going to do anything like this, but they apparently believe that there is no higher authority preventing them from doing so.

So that is the first component of American exceptionalism: American conservatives, alone among all the people of the world, are exempted from judgment by God, humankind, or history, for whatever they might do.

The second component of American exceptionalism is that conservatives think that God has exempted them from any consequences of the laws of nature. They think they can release all the carbon dioxide they want to into the air, and this carbon dioxide will not, in fact, do what carbon dioxide always does. Carbon dioxide always does cause and always has caused global warming, but apparently the carbon dioxide released by American conservatives and the corporations whom they worship will not have this effect on the Earth. And if it does? Well, they don’t care. Conservatives can just stay indoors with the air conditioning on, and the heat waves will kill Europeans (as in 2003) and Pakistanis (as earlier this summer), whose lives do not matter to them anyway. The comfort, indeed every sensual whim, of American conservatives is more important than the survival of other people. If American conservatives want to release carbon dioxide, then God had better miraculously exempt the world from the consequences of it, if God knows what’s good for him.

American exceptionalism, then, is the belief that there are no laws of God or man to which American conservatives are obliged; they are excepted from all of them. American exceptionalism is a species of blasphemy. So if a conservative begins his or her line of reasoning with a defense of American exceptionalism, you know that no discourse is possible with them. As for me, I will never have any conversation with a conservative unless he or she is willing to renounce American exceptionalism at the start. And if they do—if a particular conservative individual is willing to admit that the same God (if any) judges all of us and we all live on the same Earth with the same rules—then it might be possible to have an exchange of ideas.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

We Don’t Pay Them Enough to be Heroes

My daughter is a high school teacher in Oklahoma. She teaches English in one of the better school districts in Tulsa, and has a Masters Degree. This means she gets paid better than high school teachers in many other parts of Oklahoma. But she is still barely able to meet her expenses. We buy many of her groceries for her.

Especially in Oklahoma, public school teachers are paid very poorly. And yet we expect our high school teachers, especially science teachers, to be heroes and heroines.

In many ways, science is under attack. The two major attacks are launched by conservatives against evolution and global warming. (Liberals often attack vaccination and GMOs, but at least in Oklahoma they are silent.) In Oklahoma, high school science teachers are required to cover evolution and global warming (even though they are not worded in this way in the state standards). But they frequently run up against opposition from parents and churches who want their children to not hear about these two topics. If a high school teacher wants to teach about evolution, he or she is protected by state policy. If the superintendent sides with the parents and attempts some action against the teacher, she or he could sue in court and undoubtedly win. Science education groups such as Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, of which I am president, would do whatever necessary to assist them. Of course, superintendents can figure out subtle and devious ways to discredit an inconvenient teacher without actually saying that it is because they teach evolution and/or global warming.

But the teachers are so busy that they will almost certainly cave in to local pressure and avoid these topics. One way teachers do this is by assigning the evolution chapter as textbook reading, then allowing the students to write an essay about whether they agree with it or not.

With such low pay, how can we expect high school science teachers to be heroes and heroines and expend the cost in time and stress necessary to defend science education? One of my former students is a middle school science teacher, but I found her working in the credit union across the street from my house. She worked at the credit union immediately after school each day in order to get sufficient income. And I expect her to bravely defend evolution and global warming?

And new science-based issues arise and suffer a similar fate. In Oklahoma, oil is king. There is clear scientific evidence that fracking is the principal cause of the huge increase in the number and severity of Oklahoma earthquakes since 2010. But can you imagine a high school earth sciences teacher saying this? She or he would have a snowball’s chance in hell of success.