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.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Beautiful Scientific Mind: Charles Darwin and His Fossils

I recently skimmed through Adrian Lister’s book Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection that Shaped the Theory of Evolution (Smithsonian Books, 2018). I am not aware that any previous book has gone through all of the specimens that Darwin collected while traveling around the world on H.M.S. Beagle in 1832-1835. Nearly every science-literate person has heard about the finches Darwin saw on the Galápagos Islands, and how these observations eventually led him to think of natural selection. But what about the fossils that he collected and sent back to England?

Previous authors such as Niles Eldredge have noted that Darwin’s fossils included the bones of numerous large extinct mammals from South America, and that it was from this that Darwin concluded what could be called the succession of forms. That is, in the past, the kinds of fossilized mammals lived in the same locations that they are currently found. Glyptodonts (giant armadillos) lived in South America; armadillos lived there today. Giant llamas lived there in the past; llamas live there today. Giant sloths lived there in the past; sloths live there today. Darwin concluded, and scientists widely agreed, that when species become extinct, they are succeeded by similar species in the same location. Today, we can hardly force ourselves to avoid saying that modern species live in the same places that their ancestors lived. But “ancestors” means “evolutionary ancestors” and this is the very thing that Darwin eventually concluded from his observations. But he had to gather the evidence first.

Darwin collected a lot of other fossils as well. He collected petrified wood. He found a petrified forest in Patagonia. He noted that the bases of the trunks were inclined away from the Andes, and so were the sedimentary layers in the rocks, which implied that the Andes had been pushed up out of the Earth since those sedimentary layers had been formed. He also found a few carbonized leaves such as those that can today be found near Clarkia, Idaho, about which I wrote in 2014.

Darwin also found fossilized seashells far above the high tide line, some of them even high in the Andes. The conclusion that was obvious to him, as to us, is that land that was once below the sea has risen. But Darwin was not satisfied with drawing the obvious conclusion. He wanted to eliminate other possible explanations, and to do so before his critics might attempt it in print. Suppose, for example, that the fossilized seashells above high tide were not actually fossils, but were modern middens? That is, what if fishermen hauled seashells up onto land (which they did in fact do) and that what Darwin was seeing was just a pile of leftover shells? Darwin observed midden heaps that were produced by fishermen, and found that the shells were in piles, while the putative fossil shells were individually spaced out, not in piles. In fact, when Darwin asked local fishermen if the putative fossils could have put the shells there, they laughed at the idea.

Darwin suspected that the fossil seashells far above high tide were not deposited in the places where they had lived but had been dead at the time the waves deposited them on an ancient beach. He needed evidence for this. He saw that some of the shells had dead barnacles on the inner surface, which means the shells had been dead for a while before being buried in sediments. If Darwin had not looked for this evidence, he might not later have been able to distinguish fossil shells from an ancient seashore vs. fossil shells from an ancient shell bed.

Darwin also thought that earthquakes caused the successive stepwise uplift of land in South America. But he wanted evidence for this. He got it. In 1835, he witnessed a severe earthquake in Concepción on the Pacific coast of Chile. This one earthquake lifted the land surface at least eight feet. Such earthquakes happen about every century; these earthquakes could easily have produced the Andes. If Darwin had not seen one of these earthquakes for himself, he would have had to depend on second-hand accounts. In fact, an earthquake at least as strong as the 1835 quake, in almost exactly the same place, occurred in 2010.

My point is that while he was on his voyage, Darwin was not just collecting fossils but testing scientific hypotheses about them while he was there rather than wishing he had done so when he got back home. Until I looked through Lister’s book, I had not known this.

Lister’s book also told the story of Darwin’s discovery that coral atolls formed as volcanoes subsided in the ocean floor. This would explain not only their roughly circular shape but also why the atolls were not perfectly circular, like volcanoes, and why they were much larger than volcanoes. The new corals built their reefs on top of old reefs, each new reef being in a slightly different location from the old reef. (A delightful story: When prominent geologist Charles Lyell read Darwin’s theory of coral reefs, he danced around with wild contortions. I’d always thought Lyell was kind of a stick-in-the-mud but I was wrong.) Darwin could not actually prove that there were volcanoes at the bases of coral atolls, however. This was first done in 1952 when geologists drilled a hole down into a coral reef, piercing through thousands of feet of coral limestone, until they hit volcanic rock.

I would not recommend buying this book, unless you are a paleontologist, because it is heavy reading for the rest of us. But it is well illustrated and taught me some new things that, even though I have read dozens of books about Darwin, I’d never known. Get it from your library.

Darwin had a beautiful mind. He was always questioning everything, including his own assumptions. This made him a happy man, because he noticed so many beautiful details of the natural world that he might otherwise have overlooked. The natural world is full of surprises, but only to the person who looks closely and thinks carefully.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Beta Males


I’m a beta male and proud of it. I’ll let the alpha males swagger around and show off their strength and (in Dixie) act like their big trucks prove their virility even if paying for them drives them into bankruptcy. In contrast, I live in a world of quiet intelligence and keep my finances from disaster. Let the alpha males have their alpha females; I like beta females just fine, not the least of whom is my wife, who is as quiet, intelligent, and responsible as I am, if not more. My wife and I have not spent one moment wishing we were alphas.

You might think it would be fun to be an alpha male. But, in nature, alpha males experience a lot of stress because they have to constantly fight off the other aspiring-alpha males. Only in human harems can the alpha male sit back on his cushion and relax as his eunuchs guard him. Elephant seal alpha males lose up to half their weight during the breeding season, not by producing sperm (which are cheap) but by waddling around all day and all night (which is also day in the Arctic) fighting off the challengers. Their cortisol levels are much higher than those of the beta males.



(Photo by A. Friedlaender)

Beta males sometimes save the species. In nature, sexual selection favors alpha males who develop outlandish adaptations such as huge antlers. And the alpha females love it. Sexual selection favors ever more and more outlandish adaptations. One might guess that this process would go on until the males could not even lift their heads, and the species would go extinct.

But this is not what happens. While the alpha males are butting their horns together and injuring each other, the beta males are hanging around the outskirts, so to speak, and they have some action with the beta females. Many of the females in the alpha male harem have some action with the beta males, since the alpha male can’t be everywhere at once. By the time Mr. Alpha has waddled around to chase away the beta intruder, the female has already welcomed his sperm. And if the alpha adaptations ever do become so outlandish as to, it would seem, crash the species, the beta males are always there to step in and do the job.

You’re welcome.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Republicans and Christians: In the Entropy Business


The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the overall amount of entropy (disorder) increases over time in the universe. Political and religious conservatives have parasitized this Second Law for their own profit.

The business plan is simple: just create havoc, disorder, mayhem, hatred, confusion (or, as scientists call all of this, entropy) and then sell people the things they need to survive in this entropic environment.

And, by the way, call this entropy “freedom.”

The Republican Party uses this plan in almost every way. Let me just use one example: guns. Republicans want everyone to have guns all the time everywhere. If you don’t have a gun, and somebody shoots you, it’s your own damn fault. What happens when you increase the number of guns in circulation among human beings, some of whom are ready to pull a trigger whenever they get angry? Predictably, you get more shootings. How do you protect yourselves from shooters? You need to get a gun also. The NRA keeps laws that restrict firearms from being enacted, resulting in more shootings; AND they represent manufacturers who will sell you firearms. The Republicans are in the entropy business: they create an environment of gun violence, then claim the solution to gun violence is more guns—then they sell you guns.

This is the plan in Oklahoma, anyway. The Oklahoma House passed a bill that would allow anyone who is legally able to carry a firearm to bring them to school. The governor vetoed the bill, but state representatives are threatening a special summer session to override the veto, and the NRA threatens to mount a campaign against her.

The Republican business plan:
  • Create an environment of gun violence.
  • Convince people that guns are the answer to gun violence.
  • Sell guns.
  • Make profit.

The fundamentalist churches are also in the entropy business. The first thing they do is to tell you that, unless you accept their doctrines and become a Republican and stand your ground regarding unlimited access to guns, then you are going to hell. If you even question Donald Trump, you are going to hell. They make everyone in their churches feel like all of society around them is damned, mostly because of Democrats. But, they offer the solution: give them your obedience and your money. The fundamentalist churches make lots of money and get lots of people to obey the Republican Party by convincing people that the only way to not be overwhelmed by the entropy of the world is to join them.

The Christian business plan:
  • Create an environment of hell.
  • Convince people that Republican churches are the only way to keep out of hell.
  • Sell church membership.
  • Make profit.

These business plans are working nicely. According to a recently updated CNN article, there have been 22 school shootings in the first 20 weeks of 2018.

Most of the progress over evolutionary time has been in the local reduction of entropy. While, according to the Second Law, total entropy must always increase in the universe, it can and does decrease in localized systems, whether cells or organisms or ecosystems. You would think that fundamentalist creationists would celebrate the reduction of entropy as proof of God. They used to. But apparently this is not what they do any more.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A New Creationism


For many decades, creationists have defended the special creation of humans uniquely in the image of God and that animals, while also specially created, are not in the image of God. Recent creationists have considered “human” to be the same as what scientists call Homo sapiens.

This has not always been the case. The “polygenists” of the nineteenth century believed that white people were the descendants of Adam and Eve, but that dark people, while also specially created, were one or more species of animal. As you can imagine, this view was very popular in the United States, mostly but not only in the South.

It has been many years since creationists considered dark people to be animals. But it looks like they are going to have to do so again. The most fundamentalist Christians believe every word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. Many of them even believe that God put Trump in the White House. And Donald Trump has had a couple of things to say about the boundaries of the human species.

  • In January of this year, Trump said that Haitians and Africans were from “shithole countries”. While this does not necessarily mean that Trump has kicked them out of Homo sapiens, it certainly means that he has placed them at an inferior level. Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson would be proud.
  • In May of this year, Trump said that undocumented immigrants (nearly all Hispanic) were not humans, but animals. This was an exact quote.

It appears that creationists either have to distance themselves from Donald Trump or else redefine the human species along the lines that He has drawn.



Monday, May 21, 2018

Fun with Useless Calculations, or, How to Be a Republican Science Expert


We have nothing better to do, so let’s do some fun and useless calculations. To make it even more fun, we will use English units.

Sea level rise:

  • How much has the sea level risen in the last hundred years? It has risen between 4 and 8 inches.
  • What is the average depth of the ocean? NOAA estimates it is 12,100 feet.
  • Therefore, the rise in sea level corresponds to about four inches, that is, one-third of a foot, divided by 12,100 feet; that is, its depth has increased by a factor of 0.0000275. Assuming that the area of the ocean remains unchanged, the volume has also increased by this amount.
  • What is the volume of the ocean? It is 300 million cubic miles.


The volume of the ocean has therefore increased by 825,000 cubic miles.

Volumes of mountain ranges:

Sierra Nevada Mountains:
  • What is the average height of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Each peak has a different height, but we can use a little over 5,000 feet (one mile) as the average height.
  • What is the area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? About 24,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, therefore, is about 24,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down only to 1,000 feet above sea level, typical of the surrounding area, the volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is 19,200 cubic miles.


Rocky Mountains (including Canada)
  • What is the average height of the Rocky Mountains? Many peaks are over 14,000 feet, but we can use about half that amount (7,000 feet, or 1.4 miles) as the average. Many of the trails listed by the National Park Service are over 8,000 feet in elevation [https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/mileages.htm].
  • What is the area of the Rocky Mountains? About 380,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Rocky Mountains is, therefore, about 532,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down to about a mile above sea level, which is the elevation of some cities such as Denver at the base of the mountains, the volume of the Rocky Mountains is 152,000 cubic miles.


Alps:
  • What is the average height of the Alps? The Alps have about a hundred peaks over 13,000 feet. Grenoble, France, near the base of the Alps, is about 700 feet above sea level. We can therefore use about 7000 feet (1.4 miles) as the average elevation of the Alps.
  • What is the area of the Alps? It is about 115,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Alps is, therefore, about 161,000 cubic miles if you count down to sea level. But if you count only to the base (about the elevation of Grenoble), the volume of the Alps is about 145,000 cubic miles.


Add these three volumes together and you get: the combined volume of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and the Alps, is about 316,000 cubic miles. This is only 38% as much as the volume by which the oceans have increased in the last 100 years.



Meanwhile, enter Mo Brooks, Republican representative from Alabama, a member of the House Science Committee. He claimed, in a recent session as reported in Science magazine, that “soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas” is causing the observed sea level increase.

Rocks tumbling into the sea? Even if the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Alps all fell into the sea, you would get only 38 percent of the observed sea level rise. Rocks tumbling into the sea? Why has nobody seen 825,000 cubic miles of rocks tumble into the sea?

Mo Brooks is on the House Science Committee. At least his theory, that sea level rise is being caused by rocks tumbling into the sea, is less stupid than Dana Rohrabacher’s theory that global warming in the past has been caused by dinosaur farts. Rorabacher is on the Science Committee too.

Of course, my calculations must be all wrong. When a Republican Congressman just makes something up out of thin air, he or she must be right, and all calculations that disagree with them must be wrong.

Four inches doesn’t sound like much, but for the ocean as a whole, that’s a lot of volume. About half of this volume has come from melting land ice, and half from thermal expansion.

It must be wonderful being a Republican. You can just make things up and they instantly become true regardless of any measurements made by any geographers or scientists over the last century. Republicans give themselves God-like, and blasphemous, powers of knowledge.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Failing to Change the World


I have been reading The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. The author ties the biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson around a common theme: Humanity has extended its dominion over every part of the globe, and while this may be inevitable, it results in great losses not only to wild nature but to human nature.

For example, in the writings of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo explores the vast unknown expanses of the oceans, in which he desires to leave behind the conflicts of the human race, which take place on land or on the surface of the sea; but he cannot leave behind his own conflict with the human race. He sees the oceans as the ultimate freedom, but he is not really free. And whether it is Captain Nemo revealing the secrets of the oceans, or riders in a balloon revealing what the unknown center of Africa is like, the very act of exploration brings these wild and unknown spaces into the range of human knowledge and therefore dominion. Verne wanted to explore the unknown world, but at the same time regretted the end of the frontier.

I would like to concentrate on William Morris, a writer about whom I knew literally nothing until I read Williams’ book. He was most famous as one of the leading British socialists of the late nineteenth century. He despised capitalism because it oppressed the poor workers, but also because it substituted cheapness for craftsmanship. He inherited a fortune and also ran a successful interior decorating business, for which he was criticized as being a socialist hypocrite. But he ran his business by artisinal, rather than industrial, standards; he particularly detested artificial dyes, and spent a lot of effort on improving natural dyes.



The triumph of cheapness in the economy was just part of the larger picture of ugliness that was gripping the world, in Morris’ view. He loved the Old Norse sagas, and mourned the loss of ancient heroism. He went to Iceland to see the places where the events in the sagas took place. While there, he was enraptured by the wildness of the volcanic landscape, and enchanted by the relative equality of all the people, country people without a rich class of capitalists. But he also loved sailing up the Thames from dirty London into the agrarian countryside. The countryside was ordered into woodlots and fields, and therefore conquered, but it was still filled with plants and animals. Morris despised the loss of the beauties of a farmed countryside.

So, what did Morris do? He spent a fair amount of time in socialist activism. But he knew that no matter how much he did, socialism would remain an elusive goal: the forces of money and power opposed it, so it didn’t matter whether socialism was better for the people or not. Instead, he spent most of his time writing poems and novels about heroic struggles in faraway or nonexistent lands. That is, he was one of the first prominent writers of fantasy. He was much revered by C. S. Lewis (Perelandra and Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). (Tolkein was also enraptured by the Old Norse sagas.)

This might seem like simple escape. The world is ugly and getting uglier, so we should like in our imaginations. But that is not how Morris saw it. He strongly objected to “escape” as a description of his writings. Instead, what he was doing was to create a vision of what the world could be like, how we could live, if we pursued beauty instead of ugliness. Morris could not convince very many people of socialism, but he got thousands of people to imagine a beautiful world, and many of these, in cumulative small ways, helped to partially reverse the slide toward ugliness. Morris stirred up a feeling of heroism in the minds of thousands; and, through his successor Tolkein, millions.

This is what I am devoting most of my time to, also. I do not spend very much time in political activism. Instead, my main activities are teaching and writing. This summer, my focus is on writing fiction. I have many novels that need to be refined and perfected, and a few that have not yet been written. Am I wasting my time on a dilettante activity while the masses of poor suffer violence and oppression? I hope not. I hope that my writings, about people real or imagined who pursue beauty and peace against massive opposition, will inspire thousands of other people, who will collectively do more to make the world better than I could ever do myself. My fiction is either historical (e.g. about the Cherokee leader Nancy Ward, or about the writer of Ecclesiastes, or about Heloïse and Abélard) or alternative-futures (What would happen if a new Confederacy arose in Oklahoma? What would happen if a man actually tried to quixotically live a life of altruism?) rather than fantasy like the writings of Morris, and I hope that my writings will have more impact than his did (most of which are forgotten today except by scholars).

William Morris failed to change the world. I expect to fail also. But he succeeded, and I hope to succeed, more by writing than would have been possible by a complete devotion to political action. Lots of people can participate in political action, but only I can write the books that are currently dormant on my computer drives. Now that I have finished this essay, that is what I am going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sexual Selection in Dixie

It is pretty much standard fare in the South to see guys driving big pickups around, very loudly, hoping that the girls will be impressed enough to have sex with them, and maybe give them a half dozen kids or so. I know this happens everywhere, but it is particularly common in the South.



I generally have great esteem for women: their capacity for empathy, and often their intelligence, far exceeds that of men. Boys aren’t born inferior, but as they grow up they learn, especially in the South, that empathy and intelligence make them look less manly and might interfere with their chances to impress and impregnate girls.

But sometimes women can make some stupid choices. When a guy drives a big pickup truck around and makes noise and releases a cloud of fumes thick enough that I could run my Prius on them (just the fumes), what does this prove? It only proves that they can push a gas pedal down. It does not prove that they are skillful drivers (I saw one of them get stuck in a ditch, having assumed that his truck was powerful enough to back out of it at a 45-degree slope), nor does it prove that they are rich (the truck might have been bought on credit). Some women actually fall for it. I mean, if it never worked, then guys might stop doing it; natural selection would certainly operate against it. But it works often enough that the dynamo of sexual selection keeps the Dixie stereotype going. The kids pop out and learn to behave like their parents.

Trucks, guns, beer, and sperm: the male characteristics produced by sexual selection in Dixie. The female characteristics? Telling the males how virile they are and having lots of kids. From this list, only the sperm and the kids make any sense from the evolutionary viewpoint. Sexual selection in Dixie certainly does not produce intelligence or skill which might bring wealth or reduce the burden of social problems. This is why Dixie will remain forever poor. In other cultures in America and in other cultures of the world, intelligence and cooperation are sexually desirable traits. The future belongs to those cultures, whether the progressive culture in America, or the prevailing cultures of Europe, China, and Japan.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten


The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.



Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.



Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.



In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.