Saturday, October 13, 2018

Global Warming Denialism: A Religion


The global warming denialists are the controlling force in America. They are economically powerful and their viewpoint reigns in the federal and many state governments, led by the Denialist In Chief, Donald Trump. They deny all scientific evidence of global warming and claim that the vast majority of scientists, who accept the evidence of global warming, are dishonest.

The science of global warming is accepted by nearly all other nations and their political and economic leaders. The United States stands almost alone in rejecting modern science in this and in some other ways as well. It is certainly the only economically powerful nation whose government denies global warming. Most global warming denialist organizations are American. There is an international organization, known as Clexit (named in imitation of Brexit), which has members from 26 countries, but few if any of those countries officially deny global warming.

There is no scientific evidence that could possibly convince denialists that global warming really is happening. Not only is it a pseudoscience, but it is a religion, since most of its adherents cling to denialism with a religious zeal. Some will even go so far as to say that God will not permit global warming to occur. Senator Jim Inhofe cites Genesis 8:24 as evidence, although that verse says absolutely nothing about global warming. God is in control of the weather, he says. So I guess when powerful hurricanes keep hitting the United States and other countries as well, we need to blame it on God. Certainly not on humans. Absolutely not on Republicans.

It is not merely the scientific evidence that American leaders reject. It is the economic evidence. American leaders say that we cannot afford to make the changes that are necessary for us to reduce carbon emissions. (They are probably right; we are spending our money cleaning up after powerful hurricanes, and, soon, building a border wall.) But economists everywhere in the world, including some in the United States, claim that the cost of doing nothing about global warming will be immense. Already municipalities that are not preparing for global warming are receiving lower credit ratings, which means they will have to pay higher interest rates on loans. The reason is simple. If a city does nothing to prepare for rising sea levels and powerful storms, investors might lose their money in those cities.

Not only do most economists in the world believe that global warming is a real threat, but most believe that a carbon tax is the most sensible economic incentive to promote action. This is the belief of this year’s two winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics: William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer, both of them prominent American economists.


[Photo from New York Times]

In economics as in science, American scholars lead the way in dealing with global warming. Certain large American corporations, and the politicians whom they own, however, lead the way toward denialism. Around the world, American scientists and economists are in demand (a university in China wants me to teach for them, and I am not even a prominent scientist), but the world largely distrusts the American government. According to the New York Times, Robert Stavins, head of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program, says, “Any Nobel Prize linked with global climate change will inevitably be seen as an international critique of Mr. Trump’s outspoken opposition to domestic and international climate change action.”

The Republican Party, especially their leader who prides himself on being offensive, has begun to alienate the world. When he says “America first” he means “America only,” as if we can survive all by ourselves. French president Emmanuel Macron tried to befriend Trump, inviting him to Bastille Day celebrations last summer, so much so that commentators started calling it a Bromance. But since that time Macron has denounced Trump, using colorful language, and announced that France would not make further trade deals with America as long as it rejects the most recent international climate change agreement. I cannot find a transcript of his speech, but when I heard part of it, I clearly heard him use the word bêtise, which translates into stupidity.

We have many of the world’s best scientists and economists, but the world increasingly thinks our government is stupid. Can you blame them?

Denialism is a religion because denialists believe it so strongly that they are willing to send us into a future of economic decline and possible collapse. Republican religious zeal will take us to the end of civilization.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Bermuda Triangle: It's a Real Gas


In the twentieth century, there was a lot of popular discussion of “the Bermuda triangle,” a triangular area of ocean roughly bounded by the tip of Florida, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. There have been numerous instances of ships and airplanes simply vanishing without record, without remains, and without explanation. Some writers indicated that, because they could not imagine how such disappearances happened, then it must have been the work of extraterrestrial aliens.

I consider this topic, while of limited value in itself, to be a very interesting illustration of some aspects of the scientific method.

Many criticisms of the Bermuda triangle mystery claim that there is no mystery at all. Millions of planes and ships navigate through this area of the ocean without incident. The disappearances must therefore be very rare. But just because they are rare doesn’t mean they did not occur. Many of the disappearances were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when navigation technology was inferior to what we have today. Now that we have better technology that can explain what happens to vessels that experience trouble, we no longer have unexplained incidents. Some critics attack each example and question the reliability of the documentation.

The assumption that I want to criticize is the one shared by both the critics of and the believers in the Triangle mystery. It is that, if we cannot think of how it happened, then it must have (a) not happened or (b) an explanation outside of existing science. Both the critics and the believers assume that their imaginations can cover all possibilities.

My favorite explanation for the disappearances is the sporadic release of methane gas from underneath the sediments. Decomposing organic matter in the offshore sediments produce methane which, under the pressure of the ocean water, remain in a condensed state. If the pressure is relieved, for example when the water becomes warmer, some of the methane can go back to a gaseous state and erupt from the sediments. As global warming makes the water warmer thus less dense, numerous methane eruptions are occurring in shallow waters. Take, for example, this image that was published in Science in 2017, showing craters from methane releases off the coast of Norway:



Most of these releases are small, but it is possible that some large ones occurred in the twentieth century in the Triangle. Many scientists believe that these massive offshore “burps” contributed to the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago. This illustration is from Penn State:


A methane burp fits the evidence nicely.

  • Almost the entire Triangle is shallow sea with sediments.
  • Methane, diluting the oxygen, would cause engines to fail.
  • The vanishing vessels, if they reported anything, told of extreme disorientation, which could happen if the vessel encountered turbulent methane.
  • The methane would disrupt the sediments, allowing the vessels to sink into them without a trace.
  • This explanation calls for the operation of no processes that we do not already know.


Today, methane is monitored, and if a methane burp caused a vessel to disappear, we would know it. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century.

This explanation is an example of something that neither critics nor believers had even thought of at the time. Sherlock Holmes was wrong. He said that, once you have discounted all other possibilities, then the one remaining possibility must be right. This is, of course, not true. Scientists and everybody else has to face up to the possibility of “unknown unknowns.” I address this topic in my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking though I do not use the Bermuda Triangle example.

The foregoing is not an original idea. Though I believe I thought of it independently, many other people have thought of it also.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Another Useless Message to President Trump


I sent this message to the White House on September 20, 2018.

“Mr. President, you have made many people angry at you, including your fellow Americans and our allies abroad. You are doing your best to make people hate the Republican leadership of America.

“But you will not make me bitter or angry. I will continue to be a force for good in the world. I will continue to spread love even though your work of spreading hatred has a billion times as much impact on the world as do my efforts at helping the world.

“You will never control my soul.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

Somebody had to invent terraces


Human history has largely been the story of destructive human impact on the natural world. Deforestation is at least as old as civilization and is specifically mentioned in Plato’s dialogue Critias. There is indirect evidence for salt buildup, resulting from irrigation, that damaged the grain fields of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Since the explosion of both human technology and population, our impacts have become extensive enough to alter the entire ecosystem of the Earth, ushering in a new geological age, the Anthropocene (the epoch of humans).

Nature will eventually clean up our mess. The problem is that this cleanup can take such a long time that our civilization will not be able to persist while the Earth cleans up our mess. We are like the massive dinosaurs that, at the end of the Cretaceous, required daily masses of food. When the asteroid plunged the world first into a pizza-oven fire and then into darkness caused massive disruption of food chains, life recuperated, but the dinosaurs, who could not persist through this interruption, did not.

Occasionally, however, human cultures have invented technologies that reduced our impact on the Earth. One of the best examples of this is terraces. Agriculture always causes soil erosion, the loss of the very soil on which agriculture depends. But this erosion is greatly reduced by the use of terraces. As the rain water runs downhill, it slows down on each terrace and lets the soil settle before proceeding further down the hill. Sometimes terraces wash away, but they have had the overall effect of reducing erosion. Terrace agriculture, especially of rice, can continue for centuries.




We cannot simply relax and assume that somehow human culture will solve our environmental problems. Terraces reduce soil erosion, but somebody had to invent terraces. Terraces may have been invented over and over in separate locations. It required human creativity and will.

Whoever invented terraces did not do so in order to save the Earth. They did so because they wanted to save their own farmlands from the ravages of erosion. The long-term and widespread effect was to help save the Earth.

Today, one of our biggest challenges is global warming. What can we do about it? We can invent new technologies that allow us to use less energy in order to achieve our goals or find new sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide. Human technological creativity has given us a dazzling array of such inventions, from wind generators to LED bulbs to solar power.




But these things do not simply happen. Somebody has to do them. And it requires an initial investment to get the technology started. In modern society this occurs best with government support of invention and application. And many countries are doing a much, much better job of this than the United States. Western European countries, China, and Japan are examples of places where the government invests heavily in new energy technology. Already, the people in these countries are reaping the benefits of these investments. That is, the taxpayers that supported these projects are seeing the benefits of their tax money. In contrast, the American government seems hostile toward alternative energy development. This has been the case for a long time. Most wind generators come from China and Denmark, not because Americans can’t invent good wind generators but because China and European countries have invested in wind generator development. This is part of a general Trump Administration hostility toward science. Republicans see basic scientific research (e.g., into ecology and evolution) as a threat to their beliefs, and they actively oppose applied research into alternative energy as a threat to the oil companies who give them so much money.

It is as if, thousands of years ago, ancient governments actively opposed the adoption of terraces and insisted on the continuation of soil erosion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Feminist Fluid Mechanics?


According to post-modernists, science is just a social construct. There is no such thing as truth, or at least truth that we have any chance of understanding. These scholars, most of whom are on the political left, keep trying to demolish all of science. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Fundamentalists can walk right in and say, See? Science has nothing to do with truth, which means that you should send lots of money to my Ministry so that I can pay for my whores.

One example is an article by Katherine Hayes about fluid mechanics. Entitled “Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows,” this Duke professor of literature seems to think that fluid mechanics is filled with sexism. I cannot find a link to this article, so I use a Nature review about it. She derived her ideas from Luce Irigaray, so it is not even original. She indicated that scientists feel that fluid flow is feminine. “Men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual fluids and vaginal fluids.” She concludes that fluid mechanics in general, and turbulent flow in particular, cannot be understood except from a feminist perspective.

Now, I can see that maybe behavioral studies of chimpanzees might be sexist, in which the actions of the animals are interpreted differently by male vs. female observers, but fluid mechanics?

Where do you start with something like this? I think it is sexist to say that, because women menstruate, they are better able to understand fluid mechanics. While I am no expert, I wrote an educational article about fluid mechanics (American Biology Teacher 66 (2004): 120-127). I do not feel that my protrusive organs impaired my ability to do so. Besides, male sexual organs are not solid; they engorge with...with...with...fluid!

Academics need to publish papers and there are journals that will publish anything. My favorite example was a fake article written by a newspaper reporter that mixed hematology and plate tectonics together and would have gotten it published had he not voluntarily revealed his fraud. This is especially true with online journals, but Hayes published her article back in 1992 when journals were all on paper.

Sorry, post-modernists. Science discovers truth. Occasionally there is bias, but the scientific method itself is an attempt to get rid of the bias. This is the subject of my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate YourMind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science).

Besides, there might be another reason that women can understand fluid mechanics better than men. My wife just told me that she spends more time than I do cleaning the bathroom (by her choice). I suppose that gives her some insights I do not have.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Science and Democracy: Confusion


I read a pre-publication copy of a book about attacks on science and on democracy, to be published soon by a company that has published two of my books. Because I do not want to give bad publicity to this publisher, I will give no further identification of the book.

The book has no overall theme, because it is a collection of essays from different authors, each one writing whatever he or she wants. The essays contradict one another. That is fine, and is part of the appeal of a multi-author edited volume. One possible theme is that both science and democracy are being attacked by the same people and for the same reason: the so-called conservatives want to control the world, and they want to brush aside or destroy any criticism they may receive from scientists. Another possible theme is that science is essential to a functional democracy: citizens without access to reliable knowledge cannot make the right decisions for running their society. Along these lines, essays range from the extremely pedantic (e.g., John Dewey would not have approved of the modern attacks on science) to leftist pot-shots, with which I agree but I would prefer to make my own rather than to read someone else’s. I may throw potshots into this blog but I try to leave them out of my books.

I see two major problems with all of the essays in this volume. First, there is the assumption that science is essential to democracy. This is true. It was certainly what the Founding Fathers envisioned, especially the very scientifically literate Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The first presidents, all Enlightenment figures, governed with the spirit of scientific reason, even though they were sometimes wrong. But, starting with Andrew Jackson, everything got messed up and has remained messed up ever since. Andrew Jackson despised scientific knowledge, or any knowledge at all. Even when he was shown that the Cherokee tribe had adopted the advancements of civilization, he continued to call them savages and insist that their land be taken by white people. He simply would not look at the facts in front of him. That is exactly what Donald Trump does today. Trump has a painting of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. To discuss the importance of science to democracy is so Enlightenment and has been an irrelevant topic in American politics for almost two hundred years.

A more important problem is that all of the warring approaches to the relationship between science and democracy, whether positivism or Popperianism or Deweyanism or post-modernism or whatever, totally ignore the evolution of the human brain. As I point out in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the human brain did not evolve to reason. It evolved to rationalize in such a way as to promote the evolutionary success of the person with that brain. The human brain creates illusions that may or may not bear any resemblance to the real scientific world. That is, without science, the human brain is open to infection by any and every kind of delusion, whether from the right or from the left. Ideas live in human brains as organisms live in habitats, and the successful ideas are not necessarily the ones that are right but the ones that, for any reason or no reason, people like.

As I plowed through all the approaches to science and democracy in this book, I wondered, which approach is right? Probably none of them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

There Is No Such Thing As a Desert


Or a forest, or a grassland, for that matter. But I think I can illustrate my point most vividly using the example of deserts.

Many different kinds of habitats get lumped together in the category we call “desert.” Unfortunately, once our human minds have created a category, we assume that everything within that category is the same.

The habitats we call “deserts” are very diverse. The most obvious way they differ is that the “deserts” of the different continents are the homes of almost entirely separate sets of species. When you see desert shrubs in California, in the Middle East, and in western Asia, they are not the same species. Leafless, succulent plants in American deserts are usually cactuses, whereas in Africa they are spurges or milkweeds. South Africa has many species of succulent, leafless plants in the Aizoaceae family, different from all the others. The animal inhabitants of the deserts on different continents are also distinct.

But even within one “desert” there is a lot of habitat diversity. Consider the southwestern deserts of North America. The areas that ecologists refer to as the Mojave Desert (e.g., southeastern California) are covered with widely-spaced shrubs. The areas that ecologists call the Sonoran Desert (e.g., in the Phoenix area) has shrubs (but not the same species) and many species of cactus. In fact, the shade cast by acacia bushes is important to the survival of young cactus seedlings. The areas that ecologists call the Chihuahuan Desert (e.g. near Big Bend) has shrubs and succulents (though usually agaves rather than cactuses), but the space between them, unlike the other deserts, is filled with grasses. This makes sense, as this kind of desert intergrades into the high plains grasslands. (No, that’s not where chihuahuas come from.)



Above: Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend National Park; below, saguaro flowers in the Sonoran desert near Tucson.

But even within one of these subtypes of desert has a lot of habitat diversity. The Chihuahuan Desert grow on the tops of hills as well as on the slopes and lowlands. At the tops of some of these mountains in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and in northern Mexico, there are some small oak forests. These forests are the remnants of oak lands that used to be widespread in the countryside back when the climate was wetter. As the climate became drier, the forests survived only as little patches on somewhat cooler and wetter hilltops. Most of these oak species are found nowhere else in the world; some of them live only in one forest. If you scan your eyes over the entire Chihuahuan Desert, you might not even notice these forests. Of course, the oak-patch animals are a lot different than those of surrounding desert land. See here for a link to a 2013 blog entry.


Maple trees in a desert? In Big Bend National Park, maple trees grow in an isolated moist spot near the base of the pinnacles.

Another example is desert arroyos. Arroyos are stream beds that are dry most of the time but which can be filled by flood waters during heavy rain. The soil under the arroyos is usually wetter than in the surrounding desert. Not surprisingly, the species of plants that live there are almost entirely different than those of the surrounding landscape. In southwestern North America, one of the shrubs that grows in arroyos, but not away from them, is the desert willow Chilopsis linearis, which is not really a willow.



An arroyo is the same as the middle eastern wadi, although the species found in wadis are almost completely different from those in arroyos.

All this does not include what scientists sometimes call “polar deserts” in which there is too little snowfall to allow soils to support plant life even during the brief summers.

I find the word “desert” to be a useful category. It is one of the entries in my Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. It refers to a place with too little water to support a thick growth of plants. But I recognize that “desert” is an artificial category that exists only as a way of us making sense of the world. As I explain in my soon-to-be-published ScientificallyThinking, humans tend to lump things into categories, which is find unless we then homogenize everything within the categories.

The human tendency to lump things into categories may seem harmless enough when we lump different habitats into the category “desert.” This makes us overlook much beautiful diversity. But when we start lumping people into racial categories, we start assuming they are all alike, characterized usually by the worst people in each race.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What to Do When the Government Does Nothing Good


What do you do when the various levels of government, which are required by law to protect the environment and its wild species, does nothing? Or, worse yet, if the government actively tries to damage the environment? The environment is what keeps us all alive, yet the federal government, and many other levels of government in America, seem dedicated to demolishing our life support system.

The EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency and one of its jobs is to protect endangered species. Its previous director, Scott Pruitt from my home state of Oklahoma, decided that the EPA had nothing whatsoever to do with environmental protection, and that its purpose was to provide him with a secret telephone and luxury travel. Now he’s back in Oklahoma trying to figure out ways to waste Oklahoma taxpayer money as badly as he wasted federal taxpayer money.

So, what do we do? Just give up? It feels like it sometimes. But, fortunately, there are some large groups of people who really do care about the future and prosperity of humans and nature. One of those is the Cherokee Nation. Just recently, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma set aside a portion of the tribe’s park on Sallisaw Creek as a mitigation and protection area for the endangered American burying beetle. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is supposed to do this but meets resistance from the Trump Administration and from Congress. Instead, all that the Southwest Regional Director of the FWS could do was to happily look on as the Cherokee tribe stepped up to fill in the gap.


"Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker reads an executive order designating a portion of the tribe’s 800-acre park on Sallisaw Creek in Sequoyah County as an American Burying Beetle Conservation and Mitigation Area for the next 10 years as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders looks on."

See the article here from the Cherokee tribal website.

Friday, August 17, 2018

How One Scientist Writes Fiction


I am a scientist and I write fiction. (Time will show whether I publish any.) People assume, therefore, I must write science fiction. But this is not the case.

If I did write science fiction, I would probably write about an apocalyptic future in which humans have defiled the Earth so much that it loses its Gaia equilibrium and lurches from disaster to disaster. There is a long history of such literature, from the 1960s The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie to the more recent move Wall-E. Some writers, with scientific backgrounds, have science as part of the plot, especially the rise and rapid spread of new epidemics, such as the movie Contagion.

In these examples, science propels the plot or acts like a causative character. The human characters tend to be shallow and predictable in their responses to science-based catastrophes. The scientific concept is in charge.

But in my fiction, the characters and their struggles are foremost. I like to create characters whom the reader can really love (or sometimes hate) and who interact in complex ways. The characters advance the plot, and whatever does not advance the plot must be excised. In my case, I sometimes stick in didactive passages of science education, which I later remove. Does science play any role in my fiction?

Yes, of course it does. It is always in the background. In my fiction, the characters are (almost) always aware of the world in which they live and know how it works. In my fiction, a forest is not just a forest. The drier forests on the hillsides are different from the moist bottomland forests. My characters know the different kinds of trees. They know about germs, but also about the rich and fragrant microbial life of the soil. In my fiction, soil is not just dirt. My characters learn things from watching plants grow and finding fossils in rocks. In my fiction, nature is not a character but is a force: it is neither malevolent nor safe, but something entirely its own that we need to respect. I wish everybody knew enough science to understand how the world actually works; in my fiction, my characters generally do.

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. But a stage is dead. It has dead props that humans can move around wherever they want. But the world, scientifically understood, is not like this. It is a living planet to whose processes we must all fit our activities.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Consumer Cultures, Right and Left


America consists of a mixture of different cultures. More than ever before, these cultures mix but do not blend. Part of this is because many members of the dominant white culture do not want to dilute their firearm-barbecue-bacon-yellow beer-pickup truck culture. Major store chains cater to their strange and often dangerous wishes.

Much of what these “conservatives” consume is for its cultural value only. Take, for example, pickups. They like to say they use their pickups for work. But this is largely untrue. I am collecting data about pickup trucks. I have not analyzed it yet, but it appears that less than twenty percent of the trucks are used for work. Eighty percent of the pickup trucks in Oklahoma have empty truck beds and are not towing anything. They are just for show. It is an expensive practice that depletes our resources and puts lots of extra carbon in our atmosphere.



But conservatives are not the only people who have a subculture. There is also a largely white subculture of liberals who are proud to eat portabella instead of beef, who do not own guns, who drink wine and dark beer, and drive fuel efficient vehicles. There are major store chains that cater to their strange though usually harmless wishes, too.

To see this, all you have to do is to take a stroll through a Whole Foods. Being a member of the liberal subculture, I could easily spend hundreds of dollars on the things that are available there. But if you look at those things critically, you find that very little of it is actually important, and consuming those things is not necessarily making the world better. How is using Mad Hippie Facial Cream ($26 for 2.1 ounces) or Dead Sea bath salts making the world better? My wife and I buy some of their unpackaged bulk items, and a few other things, but we find most of the products at Whole Foods humorous.



One of these packages shows a homeopathic remedy that contains poison ivy extract (Rhus toxicodendron, now Toxicodendron radicans), and a “soup cleanse” book that undoubtedly contains healthy recipes but they will not “cleanse” you of “toxins” any more than any other healthy diet.

Finally, this package is just salt. But the Indian company that sells it makes it sound that salt is part of the freedom movement of Mahatma Gandhi.



One way to make the world better is to consume less, and make more efficient use of what you consume. Don’t drive big pickups around, and don’t waste your money on Mad Hippie Facial Cream. Consume less stuff, and the corporations that cater to conservatives and to liberals will not be very happy with you.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

One Drop


Throughout the ages, white racists have boasted of their racial purity. In an earlier essay I said that there is no such thing as a pure white race. But it is not only that white racists have racial pride—something that other races often have as well—but they also have fear of contamination.

The example that comes first to mind is the one-drop rule for blackness before the Civil War. From the white racist point of view, you were black if one of your parents was black; or one of your grandparents was black; even if one of your great grandparents was black. That is, even quadroons (one-quarter black) and octoroons (one-eighth black) were considered black. And if your mother was a slave, you were a slave. Sally Hemings, only one-eighth black, was Thomas Jefferson’s slave. However much he may have wanted to free her, he apparently could not afford to do so, because it was against the law to just say, “Okay, you’re free now.” Some black people in the past remarked that blackness must be very powerful, if its power cannot be attenuated even by generations of white ancestors.

This fear of black contamination continued long after the Civil War. In 1890, Louisiana law classified Homer Plessy, an octoroon, as black even though he was seven-eighths white. He was therefore required to ride in the “colored” train car. He refused and was arrested. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) that segregation was not only legal but could be based on the one-drop principle.


The famous French writer Alexandre Dumas, creator of the Three Musketeers, was part black (from Caribbean ancestors).


It was not just blacks who experienced this. My great great great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit was one-eighth Cherokee. No photos exist of her, but she probably could have pretended to be white. But since she was registered as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she had to go on the Trail of Tears, and take her one-sixteenth Cherokee daughter Minerva (my great great grandmother) with her.

Why are white racists so afraid of the genes of darker people? Former president Barack Obama is half black, half white. White racists hate him. But black Americans were happy to accept him. I am not aware that any of them ever objected to his partial white ancestry.

You can send your DNA off to have it tested for your likely ancestry. Often, people who thought themselves pure white found out that they were partly black. I do not know if any of these white people were racists; they might have just found it interesting, and found themselves wondering about what secrets have been lost from their family history. Maybe white racists are afraid to have their DNA tested in case they find themselves to be tainted with blackness.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

My Green, Green Happy Place


Sometimes I like to go to my happy place. This time, it was so that I could relax and enjoy my happiness at being a new grandfather. For some people, their happy place is a fantasy inside their minds. But for me, it is an actual place: the forest. In particular, the forest on Turkey Mountain outside of Tulsa.



The forest is a place with layers upon layers of stories. It is a palimpsest, that is, a document with layer upon layer of writing. On this particular like, I already knew almost all of the stories. One story was the geological history of the landscape. As I looked down from the mountain onto the Arkansas River, I remembered that this mile-wide river was once ten miles wide, as the glaciers up north melted. Another story was about human impact. The forest all around me grew in just the last century, since the time when this mountain was covered with oil derricks. Each species of tree, and each tree, had its own story: an evolutionary story of adaptation, and a developmental story of how each individual tree adjusted to its immediate environment of shade and sun, of deep soil or rock outcrop. The story is written from moment to moment. When I hiked, a drought was underway, and many leaves were wilted. Wilting is not completely a bad thing; by drooping down, a leaf has less of a heat load from the sunlight and avoids some of the damage it would otherwise experience. There are also many stories of food webs, whether it is of insects that have eaten the tender leaf tissue between the veins, or fungi eating dead branches. There is the story of the hard, green, inedible persimmon fruits that keep animals away until the seeds are ready to disperse, and only then do the fruits become ripe and delicious. There is the story of stumps sprouting back to life.

I knew all of these stories, but I just wanted to see them again on this hike. But I kept my eyes open, just in case there was a new story. And I found one—just one. A mimosa sampling was hit hard by the drought. Mimosas have lots of little leaflets which, after being held horizontally to face the sunlight in the day, close upward at night for reasons that nobody knows for sure. The leaflets also close upward during moderate drought, thus reducing their solar heat load. The leaflet movements are caused by bags of water called pulvini (singular pulvinus). When the bags of water exert pressure, they push the leaflets; when the bags lose pressure, the leaflets return to their original position.

But what I did not know was, are the pulvini on the top of the leaf or the bottom? If they are on top, then the water pressure pushes the leaflets open; their nocturnal closure represents only a loss of pressure, a relaxation, going to sleep. If this is the case, then the closure of the leaflets at night does not need an explanation. The plant is saving energy by letting the leaves relax. But if the pulvini are on the bottom, then the nocturnal closure demands an explanation: why would the mimosa leaf deliberately close its leaflets at night? This requires the expenditure of energy. The same is true for leaflet closure during moderate drought. If the pulvini are on the top, leaflet closure is merely the result of drought; but if they are on the bottom, then leaflet closure is a deliberate act to prevent drought damage. Of course, the pulvini are too small for me to see.

But I saw one leaf that was so stressed by heat and drought that the leaflets were starting to curl up and die. And in this leaf, the leaflets were horizontal. This tells me that the pulvini are on the bottom. I know this because, when severe drought causes the pulvini to stop working, the leaflets are horizontal, not vertical. In the photo, the drought-damaged leaflets are on top, the leaflets that are actively responding to drought are on the bottom. The damanged leaflets are horizontal, and the responsive leaflets are almost vertical.



To me, this was a new story that I learned on my hike. But I enjoyed re-experiencing the thousand other stories in the forest that I already knew.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Genetic Record of Conquest and Dominion: A Cherokee Story


Here are further thoughts that came to me as I read David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Pantheon, 2018). See my previous essay for more about this book.

All of human history has consisted of conquest and dominion. One human group, whether tribe or nation, has conquered one or more others for as long as there have been humans. And in the course of these conquests, the conquering men have had children by the conquered women.

That is certainly what happened in America. Europeans came to America and started conquering Native Americans. Except when they intermarried with them. When they did so, it was usually a white man with a Native woman. This happened over and over again in my family. My sixth great grandmother, Nancy Ward, was a full-blood Cherokee who married a white trader, Bryan (Bryant) Ward. Their half-Cherokee daughter, Betsy Ward, married the white general Joseph Martin. Their quarter-Cherokee daughter Nancy Martin married a rich white (German) ferryboat owner named Hildebrand. Their one-eighth Cherokee daughter Elizabeth Hilderbrand (somewhere along the line the r was added to the name) married a white man, James Pettit. Then things reversed temporarily when their one-sixteenth Cherokee daughter Minerva Pettit married Usquuh-ne, a.k.a. Lewis Hicks, who may have been full-blood Cherokee. But at least on the maternal Cherokee side of my family, it has mostly been white men and Native women. The picture is of Elizabeth's grave in Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma (1801-1887).



This is also what happened to black people. Most American blacks (except the Gullah speakers from the islands off the coast of South Carolina) have partial European ancestry, mostly from white men, many of them slave owners.

The historical evidence for this is reflected in the genetic evidence. In your cells, the Y chromosome (if you have one) came only from your father, and your mitochondrial DNA (abbreviated mtDNA) came only from your mother. In a perfectly fair admixture (in which, for example, white-mother-Native-father pairings were as common as white-father-Native-mother pairings), the Y:mt ratio would be 1:1. But among American blacks, the ratio is 4:1 white to black. In some populations in Central America, as in Colombia, the ratio is as high as 20:1.

To put it in personal terms for me: Up to my great grandfather Andrew Hicks, all of the mtDNA was native. At that point, beginning with my white great grandmother Mary Franklin Hicks, all of the mtDNA was white. My grandfather married a white woman too. I got all my mtDNA from my mom, but it was probably all white. Therefore, perhaps all of my Y chromosomes, and all of my mtDNA, are white. My native genes are mixed into the other chromosomes somewhere.

Back to the white Y chromosomes. Did the white Y chromosomes in my family, and maybe yours as well, come from white men raping dark women, or from dark women choosing white males in order to get some of their wealth and status? Undoubtedly some of both. Both of these Y sources constitute oppression of women: rape is absolutely direct oppression, while the appeal of white wealth and status is an indirect, and possibly subconscious, oppression. In the case of white male owners and black female slaves, it is difficult to see it as anything except rape, since the woman had literally no choice in the matter.

But in my family, things were a little more complicated. As musician Becky Hobbs wrote in her musical Nanyehi, which was about our shared ancestress Nancy Ward, “Cherokee women have always done and will always do whatever they want.” Bryan Ward did not rape Nancy. But the white connection gave Nancy Ward status and respect in the eyes of the white conquerors, and she used this status to her advantage. (She already had status in the eyes of Cherokees.) One of the things she did was, I believe, to arrange to have her half-white daughter Betsy married to Joseph Martin, later a general. This gave Betsy influence in the white world far beyond what a full-blood Cherokee was likely to have. General Martin did not rape Betsy. The trader Bryan Ward and the general Joseph Martin got advantages among the Cherokees because they had Cherokee wives, and Nancy and Betsy got advantages from Betsy marrying the general who was in charge of Cherokee-white relations. All of this status and advantage came to a screeching halt when Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit, one-eighth Cherokee and Nancy’s great-granddaughter, had to go on the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory along with all the full-bloods, and take little Minerva with her.

But here is the most complicating factor. In three of the Cherokee-white marriages in my family history, the Cherokee woman was the squaw wife of a man who already had a white family. Bryan Ward had a white family down in Georgia, outside of Cherokee territory, and he eventually returned home to his white wife. General Martin had a white wife and family back in Virginia. Apparently, in both cases, the Cherokee women knew that they were second wives. Nancy’s great granddaughter Elizabeth Hilderbrand, however, did not. By Cherokee law, after about 1829, polygamy was illegal in the Cherokee Nation. When Elizabeth found out her white husband James Pettit had a white family in Missouri, she sued the crap out of him in the Cherokee Supreme Court and won. She was the only woman to do this in the history of the short-lived Cherokee Supreme Court. I’m proud of her. You can read about this in Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women (University of Nebraska Press, 1998, page 151).

The biggest example of male warrior conquerors inseminating female victims was the empire of Genghis Khan. In some areas of western Asia that were once part of his empire, up to eight percent of males carry what was likely to be Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome, many centuries later. But this was not all rape. Genghis and Kublai Khan established empires that produced a lot of public works and other benefits for the conquered people. The men who ruled the empire must have been much in demand by the native women.

In all these cases, it was conquest and dominion, even if the dominion was one that the conquered women thought that they consciously chose. We just need to admit this fact about ourselves, our human species.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Human Racial History


There are some conservatives who believe in the superiority of European genes. But this is impossible. The reason is there are few if any European genes.

What we call “European” is a mixture of several different races, all of which were distinct from one another in the past but which, today, have blended together. Five thousand years ago, there were European races that do not resemble any modern races. One race had dark eyes, dark hair, and white skin; another had blue eyes, dark hair, and dark skin. These races did not become extinct, but all of their genes have been mixed together in Europeans. In addition to different Homo sapiens races, European ancestors also included some Homo neanderthalensis.

Take, for example, the famous “ice man” mummy Ötzi who got shot by an arrow as he crossed the Alps 5,000 years ago. He was a member of a race that no longer exists but was widespread in Europe 5,000 years ago.

At one time, Europe was the home of hunter-gatherers. Then people migrated from the middle east, bringing agriculture with them. In a separate migration, horsemen and herdsmen from western Asia brought Indo European languages. Europeans are the mixture of at least three human races, maybe more.

So, you Eurocentric racists, show me: will the real European please stand up?

The migration and subsequent blending of ancient races helps to explain some genetic anomalies from ancient times. The modern Europeans most closely related to Ötzi are the native people of Sardinia. How did that happen? Did Ötzi’s clan embark on an expedition to Sardinia, or maybe the Sardinians invaded Europe? Not at all. Ötzi’s race lived throughout Europe, but as later races migrated into Europe and intermixed, this intermixture did not occur in Sardinia. Sardinia contains a little remnant of Ötzi’s race. But even there, the Sardinians who most closely match Ötzi have mostly non- Ötzi genetic origins.

Such migrations and intermixtures have occurred throughout human history. People scratched their heads in confusion when it was announced that the natives of Papua New Guinea had up to six percent of their genes from the Denisovans, which were a race of Neanderthals who lived in what is now Siberia fifty thousand years ago. (Unlike European Neanderthals, who had red hair and light skin, the Denisovans were darker.)

I know that I, like others who are not expert geneticists, wondered if some Denisovans got on a boat and sailed down to Southeast Asia. But I should have known better, if only because the Papuans live not just in New Guinea but in the highlands, which is largely a world apart from the coastal plain. Any Denisovan voyagers would probably have left their genes among lowland populations. Instead, what probably happened is that people similar to the Denisovans lived throughout Asia, not just Siberia, and that the Denisovan genes were swamped out by human migrants everywhere in Asia except remote places like the New Guinea highlands.

That is, populations such as in New Guinea and Sardinia have remained partially genetically isolated. There are even some Amazonian tribes who have a little bit of Australian ancestry, even though they are mostly descended from migrants who came from Siberia. This suggests that, when the ancestors of Native Americans arrived, there were already some people living in the New World. This pre-Amerindian ancestry was swamped out everywhere except a few scattered tribes.

I got these ideas by reading David Reich’s book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Pantheon, 2018). His main point can be summarized in this way, largely from his own words: The Tree of Life concept does not work for humans, because the branches of the tree keep rejoining. There has never been a single “trunk” of the tree in the past; it is mixtures all the way down (or up).

So the next time you start feeling racial pride (white power, black power, or frybread power) just remember who you really are.

Monday, July 16, 2018

There Are a Lot of Scientific Questions a Citizen-scientist Can Answer


To get answers to some of the biggest questions in the world today, we need to have literally millions of data points and analyze them with large computers. The best example is global climate change. In order to say that the Earth is getting warmer, we must have measurements from almost everywhere, all year, for many years. You can’t just stick your head out the window and tell if global warming is happening or not.

But there are some scientific questions you can answer by just looking out the window.

One of them is the question about whether there is an infinite number of stars in the universe. Now, we have all heard about the astronomers who have looked far out into space and, starting with Edwin Hubble, reconstructed the history of the universe. But what if you don’t have a big telescope? You can answer the question anyway.



The brightness of a star decreases as the square of the distance; a star twice as far away is four times dimmer. Therefore, very faraway stars are practically invisible to most of us. But if there were truly an infinite number of stars, their light, however faint, would add up to an infinite brightness. (Hard to believe? Well, what part of infinite do you not understand?) When you look out the window and see that the sky is dark at night, you know that the universe is finite.

You could solve the problem by putting it into the form of integral calculus. Maybe I could have done so back in 1976 when I understood calculus. But you don’t need to.

There are probably lots of other fascinating scientific questions that do not require equipment, a budget, or expertise to answer.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Fiction: A (Potentially) Long-Lasting Record of the World


Non-fiction, especially science, is an indispensable window on the world. But non-fiction generally has a short shelf-life. They become outdated quickly. For example, Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History, which explained how DNA technology allows scientists to figure out human history (origins, migrations, etc.) was published in 2002. However well-written Olson’s book was, it has been totally eclipsed by books such as David Reich’s 2018 Who We Are and How We Got Here, in which the author explains his own research in this same area but which is based on massive numbers of entire genomes, ancient and modern, from around the world and using new kinds of analysis. Compared to Reich’s work, Olson’s seems based on a mere handful of observations. And however well-written was John Gunther’s 1958 Inside Russia Today, the only people who read it now are professional and amateur historians who wonder what the old communist state was like. Some of the best popular sociology books were the ones written by Vance Packard, but they contain very little information that is relevant today. Old biology textbooks are outdated since they contain no mention of CRISPR-Cas9 systems which are already revolutionizing biotechnology.

Where, then, can one preserve the knowledge of the past, and especially the sense of adventure that the old scientists had in discovering that knowledge?

A few works of non-fiction are still in print after almost two hundred years, not because of their science but because of the authors’ enthusiasm. The example that first comes to mind is Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. You can read it and relive the excitement of a time in history when the evolutionary history of the Earth, and even the Earth itself, were largely unknown. It reads like a story.

Which brings me to my point. It is fiction that can preserve the knowledge of previous generations and the sense of scientific adventure. Perhaps the best example is Jules Verne, as explained by Rosalind Williams in The Triumph of Human Empire. Most of Verne’s novels introduced as much scientific and geographical knowledge, as it was known in the nineteenth century, as possible. What was the bottom of the sea like? The middle of Africa? It wasn’t always Verne’s science fiction that explored the world; Michael Strogoff is not science fiction but introduced readers to the vast regions of Siberia with which they were likely to be unfamiliar. Even as Verne wrote about these places, the blank spots on the map, the realm of the unknown, was being filled in. If Verne had written non-fiction books (and some parts of Twenty Thousand Leagues almost sound like a textbook being recited by the scholarly servant Conseil), they would have fallen off the edge of the world at most twenty years after they were written. But in Verne’s novels, we readers willingly assume the mantle of limited knowledge, we pretend that we really don’t know what is under the sea, and we relive the adventure. We are even willing to overlook Verne’s errors that were based on a total ignorance of undersea plate tectonics (we know Atlantis is not really there).

Even the best works of non-fiction get replaced by new discoveries, just as Carl Sagan’s still-famous Cosmos has largely been replaced by the one by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Few scientists could match Peter Medawar’s thrill of scientific discovery, but when I looked through his Threat and Glory, based on his writings from the 1960s, I found almost nothing with which I could connect.

As I hiked along a trail in an oak forest near Tulsa, as I have done many times, I felt a billowing of enthusiasm about all of the trees, all of the other organisms, and all of the ecological processes that I could see. How could I convey this enthusiasm to others? I could write (and probably have to self-publish) The Flora of Turkey Mountain, which a few people would look at and which would survive, if at all, in a library vault. I could write a more popular book on the same subject. Or I could make it the setting of one of the scenes of a novel, in which the characters advance the plot by exploring the forest. With luck, the novel in which I did this will remain part of the corpus of American literature long after I am gone, assuming it gets published. In non-fiction, I would describe and explain the forest; in fiction, my characters live in it.



Therefore, I hope that, as an aspiring novelist, I can help preserve the history of scientific discovery and enhance the popular appreciation of science.