Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Same Old Anti-Environmentalism

In 1990, Dixy Lee Ray and Lou Guzzo published a book called Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things). Ray was the former governor of Washington state and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as a zoologist on the University of Washington faculty. According to Ray, who was trashing the planet? Environmentalists, of course. The good-hearted industrialists, and the good-hearted conservative politicians who wanted to let them do whatever they wanted to do, were the ones who loved the planet and humankind.

The first chapter is titled, “Who speaks for science?” Not surprisingly, Ray indicated that she was the one to do so, because she was a scientist. She said she was opposed to pollution as much as anyone, but she was also opposed to environmental alarmism. Sounds reasonable, except that she spent the rest of the book saying that almost any environmental concern is alarmism.

Given her background, it is not surprising that Ray focused on nuclear waste issues. Don’t worry about nuclear waste, she said. Her evidence? There are mounds of natural radioactive earth in Gabon and in Brazil, and there are plants and animals that live on them. The fact that the natural radiation does not instantly kill all of those organisms shows that we do not need to worry about nuclear pollution. Why, for crying out loud, there is actually a colony of rats living on one of them! Nuclear, glowing rats right out of the Simpsons (she might have said ten years later). And if rats, which only live a couple of years anyway, do not die prematurely from the radiation, then humans don’t need to worry about it either. Really, you can’t make something like this up.

And she went on. Nuclear bombs kill people, but fire kills people too, so don’t worry about any uses of atomic energy or even nuclear war. She helpfully pointed out that more people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. Gee, I feel better already.

Also, she said, don’t worry about carcinogens and cancer. After all, except for childhood leukemia, most cancer affects old people, who are just going to die pretty soon anyway. Besides, most cancer is caused by smoking. So if you smoke, you deserve cancer; and if you don’t, you deserve no further protection from environmental carcinogens or radiation. She didn’t quite use these words, but the implication was clear. And writers who disagree with her were committing, quote, “sob-sister journalism.”

In another chapter, she demonstrated that the good old days weren’t so good. People died back then, too. So take your penicillin and stop whining about environmental contamination.

Ray was especially upset that people were concerned about acid rain and what she considered the non-threat of ozone depletion. But even Republicans would not listen to those who spoke the way Dixy Lee Ray (who was a Democrat) did. In 1990, the president was George Herbert Walker Bush, who wanted to be remembered as “the environmental president.” And right as Ray’s book was being published, nations were coming together to solve acid rain and to ban CFCs. And even though Ray did not want us to worry about nuclear weapons, the rest of the world went ahead and defused the Cold War.

Unfortunately, what was fringe anti-environmentalism in 1990 has now become the norm in the Republican party, against which Democrats have little influence. The anti-environmental spewings of Donald Trump make Dixy Lee Ray sound mild.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Listen to the Forest

An old friend of mine wrote to me a long time ago about trying to figure out whether to believe in God. What he was looking for, and what he might have expected me, as a scientist, to tell him, was whether there was any verifiable evidence of miraculous activities of such a God, above and beyond the world of nature. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that evolution explains the entire history of life and the universe, and that all mental and spiritual experiences of humans seem to be explainable by the chemical reactions in the brain. I had concluded that there was no proof of God, and probably no Person we could call God, but only Love.

I told my friend that I believed in God because Gustav Mahler believed in God. That is a strange thing for a scientist to say. I do not know if Mahler had a specific theology in mind, but he believed in the kind of God you can encounter by listening to the forest and meadow that surrounded the cabin in which he wrote his Third Symphony. He entitled the first movement, “Summer marches in,” the second movement “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” the third movement “What the animals in the forest tell me,” the fourth movement “What the night tells me,” the fifth movement “What the morning bells tell me,” and the final movement “What love tells me.”

Was Mahler experiencing a delusion of the evolutionary overgrowth of the human mind? We cannot know, since we are limited to our human minds. Long before there was any theology, humans experienced what Edward O. Wilson has called “biophilia,” the love of the natural world; and saw, or imagined, within nature a power beyond human experience.

Whoever listens to the forest is much less likely to pick up a gun and aim it at another person whose theology differs from theirs than someone whose entire faith is based on doctrine.

Originally published on in January, 2008.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I just posted a new video in which Darwin explains biogeography, from a beautiful and educational setting: The Black Hills of South Dakota!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Green Peace

I like to keep a layer of trees between me and the rushing madness of humanity.

Trees do not merely hide the frantic activity of business and politics, but actually absorb the pollution and noise. Psychological studies have shown that patients recover from surgery more rapidly when they can see a landscape of trees, and that children have reduced symptoms of hyperactivity if they play not just outdoors but in a setting of green plants.

But the peace that plants create is not merely a quiet absence of noise. Many people walk through parks and forests without noticing the plants, and while making their own loud noises. If there are no human structures in the forest, they may say “There’s nothing out here!” (Guess how many times I have heard this from my students.) But if you listen quietly and notice the details, you will become aware not just of the absence of noise but the presence of a powerful beauty. Gustav Mahler tapped into this power as he wrote his Third Symphony in a cabin by a forest and a meadow in the 1890s. It is a power that becomes stronger when you learn more about plants, ecology, and the evolutionary history of the Earth.

The world of plants is the real world, unlike the world of corporate boardrooms, paneled by dead trees. The powerful knowledge that you take back with you from the forest into your work and into human society will enable you to live joyously and to make the right decisions.

Originally published on in January, 2008.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Another exploration of science and nature in Oklahoma

The spring field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences was at Beaver’s Bend State Park in extreme southeastern Oklahoma, very close to Texas and Arkansas. In addition to the trip leader (botanist Gloria Caddell of the University of Central Oklahoma), myself, and a couple of other professors (Bill Caire and Clark Ovrebo), we had four students: David Batton (Grayson Co. Community College), Taylor Walker and Gokul Mariventhan (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), and Tracy Holshouser (University of Central Oklahoma).

It was a soft, overcast day with fresh light green foliage all around us. The hickory buds were just beginning to open.

On our various botany hikes, we recognized at least fifty species, and there were many more we overlooked. The canopy trees, much taller than in the central Oklahoma forests, were pines, sweetgums, oaks, and hickories. Lots of hophornbeam and sugar maple grew as understory trees. The last spring ephemerals were finishing up. Perhaps the most striking flowers were the Dodecatheon meadia shooting stars.

One of the students, David Batton, works for the Choctaw Nation and is familiar with some plants of cultural importance to his tribe, as they are also to mine (the Cherokee tribe). We found yaupon holly bushes, which many Eastern tribes used to make the “black drink” for ceremonial purposes (we don’t recommend its recreational use; there is a reason it is called Ilex vomitoria), and one bois-d’arc tree, with strong flexible wood that is superior to others for making bows. We also found river cane, the stems of which are useful to many tribes for making arrows and blow darts.

Our visual senses were satiated with beauty but we used our other senses also. Monarda russeliana leaves had the beautiful fragrance associated with the beebalm genus, and on this trip, as on every other, I never fail to get the students to eat the young shoots of Smilax greenbriar.

The students were very observant. One student noticed that several different plant species, including Oxalis violacea and Monarda russeliana, had red pigment on the undersides of the leaves, which helps plants in deep shade absorb more light for photosynthesis. Another student noticed that the bracken fern leaves had a fractal pattern to them.

But the most observant of us was Clark, who showed us that the easily-overlooked whitish scum on decomposing oak logs was not simply fungal hyphae, as I had assumed, but actual microscopic reproductive structures: the perithecia of the ascomycete Biscogniauxia atropunctata. The natural world reveals wonders to anyone who stops to look closely and ask questions.

There were also zoology field trips. Students and faculty visited the Little River National Wildlife Refuge and Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in McCurtain County. They observed 82 species of birds, as well as herps and mammals. Highlights included American Bitterns at Duck Slough, Anhingas at Red Slough, and Prothonotary, Hooded, and Black-and-white Warblers at Little River NWR. Photograph by Chris Butler.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Why Do Some Creationists Hate God’s Creation?

I know I have written about this topic previously, but I have a new story to relate to you about it.

There is a certain state senator in Oklahoma, whose name some of you know but which I will not here publish, who is infamous for being an extreme creationist. (He represents me in the state senate.) Every year he introduces legislation that supposedly protects the rights of creationist students, rights that are already protected. He insists on a top-down, big-government solution to a nonexistent problem, something you would not expect from a Republican. He gets little support even from fellow Republicans.

But it appears that he has open disdain for God’s creation, if that is what nature is.

One of our best undergraduate students presented a poster at the state capitol during a research symposium. State representatives and senators were free to roam around and see the exciting scientific research being done by undergraduates in Oklahoma. Our student’s poster was about stream reclamation and the reduction of water pollution. She won a prize for the quality of her work.

The state senator referred to above was one of the ones who went around looking at the posters. He asked the student whether her research was directly related to human health. She indicated that it was indirectly related to human health, through the promotion of environmental quality. The senator derisively wondered who would possibly fund scientific research that was not directly related to human health. The student indicated that it was sponsored, in part, by a federal grant. The senator responded that wasting money was typical of the federal government.

This senator openly sneered at one of the best undergrad students at the university in his own district. And he did so by openly stating that anything having to do with the natural world was not worth studying. He was openly dismissive of both science education and God’s creation.

This is not always the way Republicans behave. Our local state representative, also a Republican, visited with the student and was respectful of the quality of the work.

I suspect that, for this senator, creationism is merely a political tool. When he campaigns, he can say that he is defending God against the evil worshippers of Satan, which apparently includes many or most of his fellow Republicans who do not support his extremism. This senator apparently thinks that God was stupid for having created anything in the world other than humans and those things that humans directly use. God created many species that we not only do not use but do not even know; what kind of stupid God would have created all these species without asking this senator’s permission first? Or, more likely, this senator doesn’t really believe in God at all and just uses God as a political tool.

I could respect environmentalist creationists. I’m still waiting to find one.

Friday, April 1, 2016

New science video

Scientists will pull off ant leg segments and glue spider mouthparts shut...and other the pursuit of knowledge. Find out more from Darwin on my Youtube channel.