Monday, December 28, 2020

Just How Strong Is Altruism? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, part 2

In my columns and books, I have written extensively about altruism. Altruism is doing well by doing good. It is what happens when one animal is good to another animal in the same species. Altruism has been studied extensively by evolutionary scientists, not only via mathematical theory, but with lots and lots of examples from the animal, including the human, world. Altruism occurs because, very often, the best way for an animal to pass its genes on to the next generation (which is what natural selection is all about) is to cooperate with other animals. It often pays to be good. Not only that, but natural selection has favored many positive emotions to encourage altruism: it feels good to be good.

But in order for altruism to work, there has to be a dividing line between the inside and the outside of the group in which altruism occurs. Natural selection may favor altruism inside the group, but favors behavior that is merciless, and feelings of hatred, outside of the group. An undeniable trend of human history has been the uneven and gradual extension of the dividing line, so that we incorporate more and more people as insiders. A lot of us include the whole world, even the non-human world, in our inside group, or at least we think we do. The question, therefore, is not whether altruism is beneficial or even possible, but how common is it? That is, altruism is part of human nature, but so is brutality. Is human nature good, or bad? I believed that it is both. One of my students, however, drew upon his military experience, in which he was traumatized by what he saw in Bosnia and Afghanistan, to say that human nature is evil. I thought he was wrong. Now I’m not so sure. After reading The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (see previous essay), I wonder whether altruism might be fragile and might even go extinct in our world of the immediate future. Are, as the author Ibañez said, the Four Horsemen the reality of the world?

For those of you who may not know, The Apocalypse is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which a man named John described a vision. In just part of this vision, he saw four supernatural horsemen. One was war, another was disease, another was famine, another was death. Can altruism really keep these metaphorical horsemen from galloping around the world? Or is the world actually theirs? I’m no longer sure.

Ibañez envisioned the Four Horseman galloping freely over the Earth. In one scene, Ibañez described an apartment in Paris in which a Frenchman was married to a German woman. As soon as the war began, the Frenchman went off to kill Germans. He did not consider his wife to be part of the hated outside group, despite her nationality. But she felt the guilt of knowing that she was a German surrounded by the French who did not deserve to be attacked by her people. She jumped off her porch and died in the plaza. It was the Four Horsemen, said Ibañez, who pushed her.

A French servant woman, having seen the devastation of war, said something that might summarize the thoughts above: “God has forgotten the world.”

Monday, December 21, 2020

Who Is to Blame for War? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (novel) Part 1

As humans culturally evolve to a point of greater knowledge and understanding, one would expect war to become obsolete. There is probably nothing that war can accomplish that cannot be accomplished better through less violent means. But nations, unlike some individuals, have almost never been known to resolve conflicts peacefully. When they do, it is a cause for celebration; the European Union got the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for simply not having war for six decades.

But wars are not just things that happen. Somebody has to start them. I thought about this as I read, in English translation, the classic novel about World War One: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, written in 1916 even before the war was over. I will tell a little about this novel in a later essay.

Seldom are wars started solely by ordinary people who may want to take resources from, or who feel animosity toward, people of other countries. War is started by governments, who then stir up masses of ordinary people into a frenzy of patriotism, fueled by religion. And, sometimes, fueled by something else as well: scientists and other intellectuals. As a scientist, I hate to admit this, but…well, let me give you an example.

The war that is now called World War One (The Great War, prior to the second) was a war that, as it happened, and even a century after it ended, has been hard to explain. Ask anybody what caused World War Two, and they will say Hitler and Mussolini and the imperialists of Japan. But World War One? Most people would guess Germany—and that is the correct answer—but that is about as far as they could go. I didn’t know much more about it than this before I began reading the novel.

Germany started World War One. It arose from the unresolved animosity from the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, Prussia insisted that it had the right to rule France. The German Prussians had to retreat from France, except for Alsace. Then, in the Great War, the Germans attacked France again. This time the Allies beat them back past Alsace, to the east of the Rhine River. Then they did it again. Full resolution did not happen until Germany’s unconditional surrender after World War Two. Since that time, peace has been maintained in most of Europe.

German aggression did not result simply from economic and military leaders ordering German troops to attack France (as well as Belgium and other countries). The German people (not all of them, but millions of them) believed with all their souls that Germans were the master race and deserved to rule as much territory as they could get, by whatever means they could get it. They believed whole-heartedly in the war, and the German soldiers fought ferociously. According to Ibañez, German soldiers killed anyone they could find in Belgium, even cutting off women’s breasts and nailing them to doors, or spiking babies on bayonets and parading them around town. Only religion—in this case, a religion of German superiority—can so strongly parasitize the human mind as to make people believe and do things like this.

The Germans began World War One with the claim that the war would be brief and intense. They claimed that by beating down the other countries, particularly France, with utter ferocity, they would make it impossible for any European war to ever occur again. They thought of it as the war that would rid the world of future wars. This was their justification for utter, and often insane, brutality. According to Ibañez, the Germans said that cruelty was actually kindness. Cruelty would force an earlier surrender and an earlier end to the sufferings. It was necessary to kill even the children because, if left behind, the children would grow up as Frenchmen who did not worship the power and glory of Germany.

Who stirred up the Germans to such an intensity of evil? The government and military leaders deserved most of the blame. Religion, far from engendering careful humanitarian thought, became just a rallying point for bloodthirstiness. Ibañez said that, to the Germans, “outside of Germany everything was despicable, even their own religion.” That is, the Germans were proud of their Christianity but hated that of the French. He also said that one of the kinds of people who vanished during the war was the man “of complex spirituality,” whose beliefs could not be summarized by a flag.

I now explain why I include this essay in a science blog. At this point in history, Germans considered themselves the most civilized people on Earth. Theirs was, they believed, the greatest music and the greatest art. And they fancied themselves to be the leaders of the intellectual world. Ibañez makes it perfectly clear that German scholars created a framework of intellectual justification for the brutality. Ernst Haeckel, the biologist, claimed to be inspired by Darwin. Actually, Haeckel took most of his inspiration from the Englishman Herbert Spencer, who believed that Darwinism proved the superiority of the white race. Haeckel substituted German for white. The German intellectuals had prepared the way for the war, giving it a “varnish of scientific justification,” in the words of Ibañez.

As I am an intellectual, this sent a chill down my spine. The words that I write in my books and blogs, and the things that I teach in my classes, might be ignored by most people. But, even if I do not intend it, some of my words might take on a life of their own and become a scourge to history. Those of us who have the holy duty of seeking and telling the scientific truth about the world need to be proactive, and always frame our statements in a context of humanitarianism, even of love.

I will next post an essay about The Four Horsemen and altruism.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Some Thoughts from Darwin's Dangerous Idea, part 2. Breaking the Spell

In the previous essay, I shared some ideas from my quick read of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. A discussion of mimetic evolution was one of the main objectives of Dennett’s book. But an even more important objective, found also in his book Freedom Evolves, is that you do not have to have a spirit in order to have free will.

If we do not have free will, does this mean we will go wild? If we do not have a spirit, does this mean that everybody wants to get away with everything? Only God can keep us from going freaking crazy? Dennett says no. Most humans want to be morally responsible; benefits accrue from it. We choose to be good because when our evolutionary ancestors chose to be good, they reaped evolutionary benefits.

Another important Dennett book is Breaking the Spell. The meme that has grasped the minds of billions of people is that religion cannot be questioned. But Dennett says that if we don’t question religion, it might come to exist only in toxic forms. Many people consider religion to be good, a mimetic mutualist. If religion is a cultural parasite, it will conceal its true nature from its host. Only by examining religion can we consciously kill the toxic ideas and let the good ones reproduce.

Religion, Dennett suggests, is a placebo effect. We like it because it makes us feel better. But is this such a bad thing? Isn’t religion okay even if it is a placebo effect? In medicine, the placebo effect causes the body to unleash all of its healing capacities. Dennett discussed belief in believing in God, that is, the belief that believing in God is a good thing for an individual and society.

In his book Homo Mysterious, David Barash says that a sweet tooth was adaptive in prehistoric days, but now it is dangerous because it leads to obesity and diabetes; maybe religion is the same. The same idea was suggested centuries earlier by historian Edward Gibbon: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” If religion is a placebo, then has it outlived its usefulness? Or is it still a good placebo?

Sometimes. But perhaps more often religion inspires people to do heinous things, as with the Puritans and the Taliban. It depends on the side-effects. “The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment” (Breaking the Spell, 195). To assure faithfulness, and to keep out the pretenders, religions have high entry and exit costs. Like a virus, a religion can shed the antibodies of skepticism. Dennett says the moderates of any religion are being used by the extremists as a cloak of respectability (page 300). When Christians are quietly shocked by the deeds of Christian extremists, “expressions of dismay to close friends are not enough” (page 301).

The statement that “God exists,” says Dennett, is not even a theory, since God cannot be defined.

What should we teach about religion? Should we teach atheism? Dennett is one of the most famous atheists in the world, so you probably think you know the answer. You probably think he believes we should teach atheism. But his answer is that we should not teach atheism as truth. He says, Let’s have more religion rather than less religion taught in classes, and cover all religions, the positives and negatives of each. Let us reasonably choose our religion, or our lack of it, and give our students and readers the information they need to make a reasonable choice.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Thoughts on Darwin's Dangerous Idea and other books by Daniel Dennett, part 1

I recently skimmed through Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It is a huge book and I would have had to devote a significant chunk of my life to read and understand it. But I did get a few ideas from it that I will pass on to you now.

One of the really significant things about evolutionary science—indeed, about any science—is that it does not matter who makes the discoveries. Dennett said that Darwin was the midwife of an idea. Without Darwin, somebody else would have discovered evolution (actually, somebody else did right about the same time: Alfred Russel Wallace.) Without Newton, somebody else would have discovered the laws of motion, optics, etc. Without Einstein, somebody else would have discovered relativity. This is the reason that we scientists are so forthright in proclaiming our messages as truth: If we are wrong, our error will be revealed. History is full of scientific blunders, but scientists don’t care. We sort of expect them.

In contrast, artistic creations would never have happened without their creators. There would have been no Gran Partita without Mozart. The same is true of religion: There would have been no Islam without Mohammed, for example. The credibility of a piece of art or of religion depends on its creator. That is why if somebody finds an error in evolution, we’ll just fix it, but if someone claims to find an error in the Bible or the Koran, watch out!

Also, Dennett wrote extensively of the evolution of memes. Memes are concepts that can replicate, for example ideas in the minds of people. They spread by a process very similar to natural selection in organisms. There are some differences, however. The evolution of memes does not depend on random mutation, as does the evolution of genes. Humans invent new memes. However, both genetic and memetic evolution involve transmission of information with modification.

Another interesting similarity between genes and memes: Memes disable anything that hinders their spread. The ultimate example is conspiracy theory memes, which claim, well, you wouldn’t expect to find any evidence for the conspiracy, because that’s what makes it an effective conspiracy. In this way, the conspiracy-theory meme disables any conceivable evidence against it. A current example is that Donald Trump claims massive voter fraud; there is no evidence for it, but that just shows what a massive fraud it was.

In addition, there is frequency-dependent selection on memes. In a population of genes, a rare gene might be favored by selection. The same thing happens with memes: the faith meme stands out in a society without faith, but in an environment of faith, it blends in.

And there’s more. A meme or idea can evolve as it does because it is advantageous to itself. An example is the meme that smoking cigarettes is cool. How could such a meme become popular? Who benefits? The tobacco corporations, of course. If an idea spreads, Dennett says, instead of an epidemic it can become an epimemic. Sometimes things can go far enough that people lose their biological fitness for a belief. In such a case, the memes are reproducing.

One of Dennett’s main objectives was to show that memes can evolve just like genes. He said we (humans) are the planet’s nervous system, and science is the new sense organs of the planet.

The foregoing makes it very clear that science is not just another way of thinking, equally admissible among all other ways of thinking.

I will leave you with a jolting thought from Dennett. “In the next century it will be our memes, both toxic and tonic, that will wreak havoc on the unprepared world.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Human Side of Science: Watson's The Double Helix

When first published in 1968, James Watson’s The Double Helix received extensive praise and comments. The only contribution that this current essay has to add to the discussion is what a biologist, me, thinks about it 52 years later. It is the autobiographical story of how Watson and his friend Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Before this discovery, it was possible for biologists to think that DNA was not what genes are made of. After the discovery, it became obvious how DNA could contain, and transmit, genetic information. Francis Crick was not exaggerating very far when he said that they had discovered the secret of life.

When it was published, this book was a best-seller. Today, no editor or agent would touch a book for the popular market that contained the word pyrimidine. At the time, Watson was hailed as a hero, and he, along with Francis Crick and others, received the Nobel Prize for this discovery. He was a young American scientist working in England. Today, the general public has largely forgotten Watson, in retirement at age 92, especially after he made comments that were interpreted to mean that some ethnic groups were genetically superior to others. The truth, not surprisingly, is in between these extremes. He deserved his acclaim, although he was and is a flawed hero.

The main cause of his book’s success was that readers in general were surprised that scientists are regular people who have motivations in their day-to-day lives that are like anyone else’s. They get up and go to work, and some days are better than others. Some days are filled with elation, others gloom, most in between. The way scientists evaluate their colleagues is, as for everyone else, based partly on merit and partly on personal likes and dislikes. For example, Watson said that British scientists looked down on him as an uncultured American with unkempt hair.

Watson also felt antagonism toward one of the few women scientists, Rosalind Franklin (“Rosy”), because she seemed to him temperamental. He and other scientists built their schedules around not having to share a cab ride with Rosy, which took some effort since younger scientists at the time earned so little money they could not afford a car or even a single-person cab fare across town. At one point, in Watson’s recounting of events, a fistfight nearly broke out with Rosy. Shocked by Rosy’s untimely death, Watson re-evaluated his view of her, and concluded in the epilogue that Rosy was honest and generous, and before her death all hostility and bickering between them had been forgotten. I wonder if Rosy thought so. Watson was dismissive of women in general; he thought many of them were pretty (especially French exchange students) but, speaking of Crick’s wife Odile, he said that any idea of putting science into Odile’s head went against her convent upbringing. Even today, women scientists encounter a little bit of perhaps subconscious “Don’t bother your pretty head with this stuff” from male colleagues. Watson had a little, maybe more than a little, of this prejudice, which was common at the time the book was written.

The general public thought, and perhaps still thinks, that we scientists advance our understanding of the world in a step by step and entirely logical fashion. This is partly the fault of us scientists: we present “the scientific method” as something that an unemotional computer could do. This myth of science has been recently exploded by two books: my Scientifically Thinking [] and James Zimring’s What Science Is and How It Really Works. But in reality scientists have lurches forward and backward in our understanding, and a seemingly trivial event can open the door to understanding.

Watson struggled mightily to force the data to fit ideas that turned out to be totally wrong. The first was that DNA was a triple helix, not a double helix. The next was that the strands were held together by magnesium ions. It was Rosy who pointed out his error to him: water would just wash away the magnesium. The next was that the bases met in the middle of a double helix, but they were the same bases: A opposite A, T opposite T, etc. He got very enthusiastic about his ideas which quickly crashed. He told his colleagues all about the triple helix, but was quickly proved to be wrong, a very public humiliation; and as for his same-base pairing, he wrote a letter to the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, twelve hours after thinking of it, and within 24 more hours he knew it was wrong. The idea for complementary base pairing, rather than same-base pairing (the now famous A opposite T and C opposite G), came to him when he was fiddling around with cardboard models of the bases on what had promised to be yet another ordinary day.

Scientists also confront prevailing political prejudices. Today, climate scientists face the unbridled hostility of political conservatives about global warming, and even medical scientists are told to shut up about insisting on Covid masks. Back in the 1950s, the most famous chemist in the world, Linus Pauling, could not get a passport to England because Sen. Joseph McCarthy considered Pauling a communist, because Pauling called for world peace rather than a nuclear arms race.

Science also has its own internal esthetics. Once Watson and Crick figured out the double helix structure with complementary bases in the middle, it not only explained all the known facts (such as Chargaff’s rule and X-ray diffractions) but he felt that “…a structure this pretty just had to exist.” Apparently even Rosy agreed, which, he implied, she seldom did. As shown in this image, Rosy’s careful work with X-ray diffractions was a major step in understanding the structure of DNA.

Most younger people today, even science majors, may never have heard of Watson. They may not know that there was ever a time when the structure of DNA was not known. The Double Helix gives us a glimpse back into a world that was eager to know the secret of life, and into a life that exemplified the episodic nature of science.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Opus 700: When Botany Was All the Rage


Throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and America, botany was extremely popular. It was not unusual for a popular botany book to sell a quarter million copies. It was not uncommon to see someone taking a botanical hike, carrying a vasculum on a strap around the neck. The vasculum was a metal cylinder with a little door. Inside the cylinder, the collector would place fresh plant specimens, which would stay moist by means of damp cloths. The collector would go home and press the plants in a plant press in order for them to dry and be suitable for mounting on paper for a collection. Doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time? It would have 150 years ago. In this drawing, a wise old botanist is explaining plants to some utterly fascinated young men.

Why was “botanizing” so popular? Elizabeth Keeney, in her 1992 book The Botanizers, gives some reasons. The drawings and quotes posted in this blog come from her book.

First, botanizing was a mentally and physically good form of exercise. Looking at and collecting plants was a good way (and still is) of getting people to think about the world around them. It helped them to notice the tremendous diversity of life that they would otherwise not notice. And this would, in turn, make them more relaxed. We know from scientific studies today, as they knew from experience 150 years ago, that walking in the woods leads to relaxation. People also knew, especially if they had indoor jobs, that they needed exercise. One man even got his exercise by carrying shovelfuls of soil from one side of his basement to the other, then back to the first side. This was just boring, repetitive exercise. But taking a botany hike was also exercise (especially if you climbed a hill) and was interesting. One author wrote, “Many boys and girls go through the world, almost without seeing it. Now he who has eyes and does not use them, in such a beautiful world as this, is very much to be pitied. But the study of Botany will learn [sic] him to keep his eyes open…” especially to keep from blundering into the poison ivy.

Second, it was sometimes a popular way for men and women to meet one another. In one case, a man and a woman met on a botanizing expedition, later got married, and spent their honeymoon collecting plants. It was not unusual for colleges to keep men and women entirely separate—separate gardens, separate sidewalks—except on botanizing expeditions, where males and females could mingle. I wonder how many first dates today would go better if the couples went botanizing rather than to a dinner or a movie. On a similar note, botanizing was considered a safe form of recreation for delicate young women, as in this drawing. One author wrote, that botany was sufficiently refined for female attention. Flowers, with their “fragility, beauty, and perishable nature,” were like “a pure-minded and delicate woman, who shrinks even from the breath of contamination.” Males and females were not supposed to meet in bars, and meeting in a parlour at home was stuffy, so why not meet on a botany trip? Sounds fun to me, especially if the young man and woman have to hide under a bush to get out of a sudden rainstorm.

One author wrote, “In botany all is elegance and delight. No painful, disgusting, unhealthy experiments or inquiries are to be made. Its pleasures spring up under our feet [and] reward us with health and serene satisfaction. [No one could] pollute its lovely scenery with unamiable or unhallowed images…[Botany is] among the most innocent things in the world.” At least, so it would seem, until you realize that flowers are sexual structures with their organs all out in the open.

Finally, to some religiously-minded scientists, botany was an excellent way to see the mighty hand of God in the natural world. Studying plants will incline your mind to holiness. One botanist who championed this approach was Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who, incidentally, was the major American proponent of the theories of Charles Darwin. Here is the cover page of Asa Gray’s botany book for young people.

The good news is, you can still go botanizing. Just find a like-minded friend for a hike, or take a hike by yourself. Even if you take the same hike over and over, you will see things changing over the seasons. Gotta go now; my wife and I are going to take a botany hike.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

General Biology Education: The Same Old Same Old


There was a time when dozens of general biology textbooks flooded the college market. They were expensive to produce, but the market was huge. Students did not like buying them, since they were expensive, but they did it. Writing a general biology textbook that was widely adopted was a ticket to at least moderate wealth. From 1992 to 2006, I was on that yellow-brick road. But I never got to the Emerald City, as publishers canceled my contracts. (I got to keep the advances, though.)

This is no longer the case. One editor, who had once worked with me on the general biology textbook that never went to press, said the market had imploded. This is because the textbook itself is no longer very important. Is it well written? Are the explanations clear? Nobody really cares anymore. The most important things now are the online resources, such as homework and quizzes. I believed that my textbook, focusing on world issues, was the best-written manuscript, and I continued to believe it until the contract was canceled in 2006. I still believe it. But now nobody seems to care whether the book is well-written, and relevant to world issues, or not.

At the time I started, as today, general biology textbooks were almost all alike. They have an utterly predictable chapter order: The scientific method; cells, genetics and biotech, evolution, an overview of organisms, then ecology. Last, inexplicably, comes human anatomy and physiology.

One problem with this approach was that the instructors sometimes did not get all the way through the book, with the result that the very important ecological concepts, such as overpopulation and global warming, get overlooked. Students think that biology is all about memorizing the steps of mitosis and get no idea that their decisions about how to live, what to buy, etc., all have immense impacts on the ecosystem of the Earth. The most important concepts get left to the end and get lost. Two authors, Joel Levine and Kenneth Miller, disagreed, and published a textbook that began with ecology and ended with cells and molecules. But, at least on the college level, their textbook was not prominent in the marketplace.

My textbook took a very different approach. In my original chapter order, the book both began and ended with ecological concepts. The first chapters were about what happened to energy and atoms: sunlight, photosynthesis, the cycling of nutrients, etc., what is sometimes called autecology. Then came the chapters that worked their way up through the typical chapter order, until reaching ecology again at the end. This time it was about species interactions and ecological communities (often called synecology). I thought it was a brilliant, circular alternative to the typical linear approach, whether the standard cells-to-Earth order or the reverse Levine-Miller order. At first, one major textbook publisher liked it too. But as they did their market analysis, they found that my chapter order would not sell. They got me to change the outline of the book until, just before they canceled it, the chapter order was the same as everyone else’s. This company still does not have a general biology textbook. They figured they could not penetrate the market, especially with a book as unusual as mine.

This approach, imbedding cells-to-heredity into an ecosystem context, had been successfully used decades earlier, in the 1960s, in the “Green version” of High School Biology, prepared by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) committee of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. I am not aware that this book is still in print; it may have last been in print in 1992. This version of the book began with something that many kids had seen—a rabbit hiding under a raspberry bush—and started asking questions about. Learning biology was, therefore, a natural outgrowth of instinctive curiosity. There is a good reason that this book remains one of the most famous in the history of biology education.

I had another original and, I thought, unique feature. I did not separate animal from plant anatomy and physiology. There were no chapters about the digestive system, the nervous system, and plant growth. Instead, I identified four common themes, then used both animal and plant examples of each. These are four problems every organism must solve in order to survive and reproduce:


  • Energy going into and out of the organism
  • Molecules going into and out of the organism
  • Internal integration of processes in the organism
  • Response to external events in the environment

It turns out that the famous evolutionary scientist George Gaylord Simpson had written a textbook (Life: An Introduction to Biology) that put animal and plant anatomy and physiology together: organic maintenance (procurement, use, transportation, excretion), internal organization, and responsiveness, including behavior.

My proposed merging of plant and animal topics was even more radical than my chapter order. Reviewers liked it but found it very inconvenient.

I have before me a textbook written by a prominent scientist, Gordon Orians. It is The Study of Life: An Introduction to Biology. His organization was different from everyone else’s, including the Levine-Miller organization and my own. His three themes were time, energy, and information.

  • Time: Evolution, and an overview of organisms in an evolutionary framework
  • Energy: Where it comes from, e.g., photosynthesis, and how organisms use it (and matter)
  • Information: How organisms are organized, e.g. DNA, how cells develop, how organisms perceive their environments, and social and ecological community organization.

At a conference of the Botanical Society of America in 1995, during a symposium that I helped organize, I heard Orians talk about this book, which was published and of which sample copies were sent to people and committees for their consideration. He said he had no adoptions. “I mean this literally,” he added. I think he should be proud of his book: it showed his integrated understanding of biology and its relation to the physical and human world. Its failure was caused by the market.

I can’t go around blaming biology teachers for getting into a rut of same old same old. They are busy. I certainly am. I barely have time to manage classroom duties, which now includes online interfaces. I certainly don’t have time to rethink biology education anymore. Looking back on it, I was surprised that (out of dozens of reviewers) so many of them were willing to reorganize their entire courses to accommodate my chapter order, had the book been published. I would have had, I estimated, about twenty adoptions. But since it takes a million dollars to bring a textbook to the market, no company could make a profit from this. I am not a failed idealist, but just a busy one, as I teach the same old same old order of topics. We would have to completely revise the lab schedule otherwise. The person who manages the labs does not have time to do this, nor am I willing to volunteer my time to do it.

And to most students it doesn’t matter. If they are willing to learn, and if the instructor is willing to make the concepts interesting and relevant, they will benefit immensely from general biology, no matter what the order it. Is one chapter order more logical than another? The students do not, and probably should not, care.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Creating Our Own Stereotypes


In Oklahoma, we do things that sound like they come out of an SNL routine that was expressly designed to ridicule Okies. That is, we seem to want to create a stereotype of ourselves that fits the widely-held images. The events I am about to describe are all exactly what you would expect from benighted rednecks, and the odds against all of these things happening at once are huge. I can only conclude that rural Okies want to make themselves look stupid. They sound like they come straight out of a book by Billie Letts or out of Tracy Letts’s screenplay. Chance cannot explain this.

All of these news items were posted on May 22, 2020. All of them occurred in Rogers County, three of them in the same town (Inola). Remember that rural Oklahoma is the buckle of the Bible belt, exactly where you would expect people to behave in a religious, even if not sanctimonious, fashion.

  • First, the pastor of the Cowboy Gatherin’ Church in Inola was arrested for raping and molesting three underage girls. That’s really the name of the church. It meets either outside, amidst cattle barriers, or under the tin roof of an auction barn.
  • Second, there was a fatal stabbing at a rodeo.
  • Third, a man sustained burns when he set fire to his estranged wife’s house.
  • Fourth (this is the only one not in Inola; it was in the Oologah-Talala school district), a former special education teacher was arrested for having sex with one of the girls in his class.

These things all fit our stereotype: fundamentalist religion, illegal sex, cowboy culture including cowboy churches and rodeos, stabbings, deadly marital strife, and arson.

If I wrote these things—separately, or together—into a novel, an editor would rightly accuse me of creating stereotypes, and ask me to remove at least two or three of them. But in Oklahoma we feed our stereotypes, and that is why all four of these things appeared in the news on the same day.

One inescapable conclusion is that the prevalence of the Christian religion does not make people behave any better. Creationists like to claim that believing in evolution will make us behave like apes. But does fundamentalism make us behave better? Are evangelicals more moral? Remember they believe they have the Holy Spirit living within them to empower them to act righteously.

There is actually a tragedy in the making here. As René Dubos pointed out in So Human an Animal, humans individually and collectively have an almost unlimited capacity to adjust to circumstances, no matter how dismal. While this has helped us to survive and prosper in any and all circumstances, they create a tragedy today. He said, people are accustomed to being immersed in pollution and in the stress of modern life, and hardly notice that anything is wrong. In Oklahoma, the particular version of this that we have is that sexually corrupt preachers, stabbings, arson, and marital strife seem normal, something to be forgotten as soon as we hear it on the news. They have become as normal a part of Oklahoma culture as cowboys and rodeos. We will not solve these problems, because we hardly recognize them as problems. We are comfortable with keeping these problems with us forever.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Why I Love My Small Car

One of the main reasons I drive a small car (a Toyota Prius, in my case) is that, for each mile that I drive, I am emitting less carbon dioxide from the tailpipe. I am doing my part to reduce global warming. But this is not the only reason I drive a small car. Here are some other reasons, which are highly emotional and celebratory. The photo is a stock photo, but this is the model I have.

I can fit my small car into spaces that a larger vehicle could not go. This has proven useful on several occasions. Just recently, when I was in the parking lot of a grocery store, a delivery truck parked in the lot and blocked a bunch of cars, including mine. The delivery people did not care if the store’s customers were inconvenienced. A bunch of other cars were trapped, but there was about a six-foot gap through which my car, but no others, could escape. Similarly, when I stayed at a motel one night (back when I traveled), some a-hole parked his horse trailer in the main lot, taking up eight spaces. He paid the same price I did, but I had no place to park. I got permission from the desk to park my car in the garden. This week, the city of Durant began road construction, without advance notification to the university, and several parking lots became inaccessible. If a car was already parked in the lot, that was just their bad luck. But not mine. My car is small enough I can drive it around barriers and between trees to get away if I have to.

Gasoline is processed, distributed, and sold by a few large corporations. We are pretty much at their mercy. They abuse their powers, imposing their will on us, in direct contradiction to the principles of free enterprise. By buying less gasoline, I take away some of the profits of these oppressive corporations.

Briefly, near the beginning of the current pandemic, gasoline was cheap. The price of oil actually became negative, which means the oil corporations would pay other corporations to take their oil. (The other option was to pour it all into the Gulf of Mexico. Hey, it worked last time, during the 2010 oil spill.) But this did not last very long. Gas prices have again increased. Getting fuel efficiency that is twice the national average saves me about $12 per round trip between Durant, where I work, and Tulsa, where my family lives. This saves me about $300 a year over the average American fuel efficiency.

And, of course, it was cheaper to buy the car in the first place, compared to the cost of a bigger car.

Of course, in a smaller car, I am at greater risk of getting killed by someone driving a larger vehicle. But if we all wanted to be one hundred percent safe, we would all have to drive armored vehicles around, like this man did in 1995 in San Diego.

Despite the American love of big vehicles, and despite the hand-wringing of the oil corporations, who fear that fuel efficiency will put them out of business, Americans have been choosing smaller vehicles more and more each year. How can the oil corporations, and the government that serves their interests alone, reverse this trend? I came up with a fictional idea, which I used in one of my novels. The government could require every vehicle owner to use a minimum of 1000 gallons of gasoline a year; or else, just forfeit the money if they cannot. I called this law the “Koch Quota” after the famous anti-conservationist oil baron brothers. It would be the ultimate socialism, but oil corporations would, I believe, embrace socialism rather than to lose a single dollar in profits.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

What Do You Do with Your Scientific Knowledge?

 Scientific knowledge is not just a private pleasure. It is something to be shared.

A few months back, in my other blog, I shared a story about a kind of Republican you seldom see any more, and I used my childhood optometrist as an example: Dr. James E. Miller of Exeter, California. I recently found an old newspaper clipping about him, from about 1972.

Dr. Miller loved astronomy. Not just looking at stars and planets, but understanding how far away they are and the motions of the planets. He must have felt the kind of excitement that Galileo and Copernicus felt when they realized that the story of the stars was very different from what they had heard when growing up. Dr. Miller was a conservative Christian, but I suspect he must have agreed with Galileo that the Bible told us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

He bought a transparent celestial sphere, with planets and stars, not for his own enjoyment but to teach young people about the heavens. Two places he did this was at Boy Scout camps, helping boys earn their astronomy merit badges, and at SciCon, a science camp from back in the days when there weren’t very many science camps.

On two occasions this month, I got out my telescope (which I keep in my university lab) to look at Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I cannot see them very well, and my telescope is very difficult to use. Mars, though at its closest approach to Earth, just looks like a pink disc. I could just barely see Saturn’s rings. I invited students to come and look at the planets. Two of them did. The excitement was not in the quality of the image, but in the experience of having photons from the planets go straight to your retina. One of the students exclaimed, on seeing Saturn’s rings, exclaimed with great excitement, “I see it!”

I also asked the two students why Mars is red. The red comes from oxidized iron. On Earth, this usually means a reaction with oxygen. But Mars has no oxygen. What caused the iron to oxidize, that is, to lose electrons? I hinted it was something that an oxygen derivative largely shields the Earth from. It was the student who was not a science major who guessed right: UV radiation. The red surface of Mars is only a few centimeters deep.

On those evenings last week, I was doing what Dr. Miller did. And I’m pretty sure that I got a lot of my enthusiasm for all the rest of my science teaching from Dr. Miller.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Beautiful Planet


Imagine yourself on an alien planet, with weird rocks and an almost barren surface. The scene can be very dramatic, as in this example:

But for most of us, a beautiful green forest as seen from a mountain top, with blue skies, or else a green tropical forest from which rain drips refreshingly, is much more beautiful. This is a photo from a forest near my home in Tulsa.

Yet there is no logical reason why the second scene should be better than the first. It is impossible to define beauty in logical terms.

But it is possible to define it in evolutionary terms. To the extent of their mental capacity, all animals have evolved to feel that their environments are beautiful. Because of our large brains, which allow a feeling of spirituality, we humans are the animals most powerfully moved by the sense of beauty. And it is our natural environments that we find most beautiful.

Why would evolution create a sense of beauty in our minds when we see our natural environment? Because if we feel inspired by the beauty of our natural environments, we are more likely to endure its occasional hardships and to live productively within it, finding all the resources we need for our fitness. Someone who thinks that their environment is ugly is unlikely to try very hard to find resources within it. More generally, if we are happy, we will be healthy and get along better in our social circumstances.

But that almost never happens with humans. No matter where people live, they find their environment beautiful. Even on the barren steppes of Siberia. I had a student once from northwest Kansas. There are beautiful parts of Kansas, but this was not one of them. Yet she said, “It is the most beautiful place on Earth.” Probably, even the poor people who search for usable garbage near the landfills in South America think that a mountain of trash can be beautiful, even as they see the peaks of the Andes in the distance.

I find that beautiful natural scenes from this planet are the scenes that move me with the greatest sense of beauty. And evolution is the reason for it.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, part two.

One of the most important ways in which denialists use a deliberate misunderstanding of multiple causation (see previous essay) is to ridicule global warming. In this essay, I will look at just one example of an effect of global warming that is dominating the news now (September/October 2020): the wildfires in the west, particularly in California.

Scientists are certain that global warming, primarily of human cause, is already increasing the number and severity of wildfires. Of course, global warming is not the only cause. Another factor that makes wildfires in California so big and deadly is the accumulation of dead wood in the forests. I have seen first-hand that buildup of dead wood is also a problem in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I taught field botany for eleven years. Once a fire gets started, there is an incredible amount of fuel for it to burn. (Then, of course, yet another cause is whatever ignited the fire. It is usually lightning strikes, though in one case it was sparks from fireworks at a gender reveal party.

This is hierarchical causation: a spark starts a fire, which burns a massive accumulation of dead wood. This is multiple causation: once the fire starts, it is more likely to spread if global warming has made hot, dry conditions worse than they would otherwise have been.

But some people who deny global warming like to ignore multiple causation. They blame the dead wood, then ridicule one of the other causes, global warming.

According to an article, California has been allowing dead wood to accumulate in its forests for decades.

Why has the dead wood accumulated? Because there is no easy way for humans to get rid of the dead wood. Nature’s way of clearing away dead wood is, in fact, fire. Fire is a part of all natural ecosystems, particularly coniferous forests in California. Almost without exception, scientists claim that we need to have natural fires to reduce the accumulation of dead plant matter. In Oklahoma, where I work, fire is the best way to control the spread of red cedar.

The ash from the fire releases nutrients back into the soil, actually promoting the forest to grow back more vigorously (see my YouTube video). Some species of trees actually require fire in order to germinate, as shown in another of my videos.

The problem is that there is no safe way to start control burns, that is, small fires that burn away the wood in wild forests but not on private land holdings. It is so easy for a control burn to get out of control. If California conservation officials started a control burn, which would clear away wood and reduce the risk of future fires, and if a puff of wind sent the fire onto private land, where it destroyed a house, the state might be on the hook for millions of dollars of liability. The article linked above said that, in order to bring California forests back into a stable fire balance, it would be necessary to set fires to wild forests the equivalent of the area of Maine. There is simply no way to do this safely. Having participated in control prairie burns in the Midwest, I can tell you they are risky undertakings. We have a university class in which an expert fire manager was teaching techniques of control burns; the fire got out of control and burned a fence, for which either he or the university (or insurance) had to pay. This was a scientific expert, in a grassland. Imagine what would happen with a fire crew in a dry forest full of dead wood.

It appears to me that California has allowed wood to accumulate in its forests because of the fear of lawsuits. Anyone who lives in a fire zone, let me know: would you be happy if a control burn, which would make life better for future generations, destroyed your home?

The article took an extreme position, however. The author accused the fire control agency CalFire of letting wood build up in order to create new wildfires. Why? Because the money and the glamor comes from fighting wildfires, not from doing control burns. The firefighters get lots of hazard pay, and, friends have told me, it is nearly a carnival atmosphere. The author of the article compares it to “the Halliburton model.” This is a conspiracy theory that says Dick Cheney, who headed up Halliburton corporation, fanned the flames of the Iraq War when he was vice president of the US, in order to get billions of dollars of contracts from the federal government. I am willing to believe almost any conspiracy theory about Dick Cheney, but even I am a little skeptical about this one. Cheney starting a war to get contracts for Halliburton? I haven’t seen quite enough evidence for this.

We’re stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place. We need to burn that dead wood, but we need to avoid destroying human habitations. This is a problem created by human civilization. The Natives who lived in the forest before Smokey the Bear got there had temporary dwellings, and could usually just get up and move if they saw a fire coming. If you have a big house back in the woods (or, worse, in the chaparral), you can’t do that. You may save your life, but nothing else.

The article also says that California should adopt the model that is successful in the Southeast: namely, control burns. The author seems unaware that control burns are easier in the Southeast because it rains more, and fires are less likely to get out of control.

The denialist problem is this: Denialists say that dead wood causes wildfires and global warming (which doesn’t exist, and they ridicule it) does not. The simple fact is that both of them are causes, just waiting for that spark. Denialists should stop twisting the truth by focusing on some causes and ignoring others.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, Part One


In my book Scientifically Thinking (Chapter 9), I explain the different kinds of cause and effect. Almost everything that happens has more than one cause.

Consider the example of hierarchical causation. An example of this is AIDS. If an AIDS victim dies of pneumocystis pneumonia, then you could say he was killed by the Pneumocystis carinii germ. But the reason the germ got a chance to spread was the depletion of the immune system, caused by HIV. The hierarchy of causation is, therefore, HIV—immune depletion—Pneumocystis. You cannot say “HIV does not cause pneumocystis pneumonia; Pneumocystis does.” The simple fact is that they both do, in a hierarchical fashion.

A very real example of people using hierarchical causation to mislead public opinion regards gun laws. I have heard “gun rights” people say that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The simple fact is that people use guns to kill people. It is hierarchical causation. Nobody believes that guns jump up and start shooting all by themselves. It is just a deliberate argument by the gun lobby to heap ridicule upon even mild versions of gun control.

Washington Post photo

This can lead to a dangerous situation. Many people have lots of guns and are ready to use them at the slightest provocation. And the social pressures against them are dwindling. Some white separatist groups openly display their weapons, clearly wanting us to know that they are ready to use them if something happens that they do not like. During the September 29 presidential debate, Donald Trump said that white supremacist groups should “stand by.” He clearly wants them to be ready to use their guns at some unspecified time in the future.

Another kind of causation that is misused by conservative denialists is multiple causation. This is one that has been deliberately propagated by Donald Trump. Covid-19 is caused by the coronavirus. The United States has now had more than 200,000 coronavirus deaths. But Donald Trump did not believe this. He believed that anyone who died of coronavirus but had previous underlying conditions should not be counted as coronavirus deaths. If you die of coronavirus, but you are old, then you died of being old, not from the coronavirus. Or if you have diabetes, and die of coronavirus, then you died of diabetes, not of coronavirus. Read about it here []. I have not heard whether, since his diagnosis and return from the hospital, he has changed his mind about this.

The simple fact is that coronavirus deaths, in fact all deaths, have multiple causation. If a diabetic dies of coronavirus, the diabetes had weakened his or her health, and the coronavirus finished him or her off. Both the virus and the diabetes caused it. By Trump’s line of reasoning, if I (a pre-diabetic over 60 years old) die of coronavirus, it is not a coronavirus death. The simple fact is that I am getting along fine right now and am not on the brink of death; if I become ill with coronavirus, this is the spark that starts the fire. It would still be a coronavirus death.

Science denialists like to claim that, in cases of multiple causation, they can choose one of the causes and ridicule the others. This is especially true of global warming denialism, the subject of the next essay.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Evolution of a New American Religion


In America today, a new religion has evolved: the worship of Donald Trump. Many or most of his supporters (or should I say His?) worship Him. They do not merely support Him. They have made Him into the representative of God upon the face of the Earth. Not all Trump supporters do this, but several million of them do. I will explain and give five ways you can tell that, to many Trumpers (His word) it is a new religion.

Religion is an instinct. Everyone has it, though some people (who consider themselves atheists) have psychologically diverted it into a different form. And religion is a universal instinct within the human species: all humans, and only humans, have it. Religion must provide a strong evolutionary advantage, or else it would not pervade the human species.

Religion evolved because it promoted evolutionary fitness of individuals. First, individuals who are members of a religious tribe benefit from the success of that tribe; a tribe whose religion causes them to fiercely fight other tribes, slaughtering them not merely as enemies but as heretics, benefit from the resources they get from the other tribes. Second, leaders of the religious tribe benefit within the tribe because they get more resource and reproductive opportunities. The rest of the tribe reveres them for their spiritual leadership. Today, many charismatic religious leaders get lots of money and sex from their brainwashed followers; this must have happened thousands of years ago also. The genes of the charismatic leader, including the genes for having intense religious experiences, are thus over-represented in the next generation.

Consider this photo, taken in rural Oklahoma in September 2020, in the run-up to a presidential election many of us are nervous about, since Donald Trump has not been very clear about whether he would give up power even if He loses. In this photo, a rich Trumper (a large house is a mile away surrounded by lawn which must take a couple of thousand dollars to mow, which is done frequently) has two flags: an American flag, and a Trump flag, both at the same height. In flag display protocol, the American flag should be highest, the state flag next, and other flags below them. This supporter, first, considers Trump to be equal to the United States in importance; and, second, that the United States has no value apart from Trump.


Here are the five characteristics that make Trumpism a religion:

  1. They believe that everything Trump says is truth. Truth consists of His sayings, just as the Chinese recently considered the words of Mao in the Little Red Book to be Truth. Trump creates Truth as He speaks. Something that may not have been true before He said it becomes true when He says it. Trump cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound but, to His followers, He is omnipotent in this particular way.
  2. Trump is not only omnipotent, but they think that He is, like Jesus, without sin. Every lie He tells, every promise He breaks, every sexual sin, all are holy in the sight of God. The brainwashed followers of many Christian evangelical leaders feel the same way about their evangelists; Trumpers do the same, which makes it a religion.
  3. Trump’s followers know and care nothing about His policies. It is His image, not His substance, that they worship. Many of these followers (not the one in this mansion, but most of the run-down houses I see that fly Trump flags) are poor, and they cannot explain how His policies have made them any richer in the last four years. This is because Trump has no policies. What passes for policies are whatever Trump happens to get mad about on any given day. In this way, Trumpers are like many evangelical Christians, who follow Jesus but never read the Bible and thus have no idea what Jesus said. They are like the followers of the three generations of North Korean dictators.
  4. There is no good-natured humor allowed. Many of us progressives allow ourselves to be ridiculed in a friendly fashion, and even do it ourselves. On my YouTube channel I often make fun of myself. But Trump hates anyone who makes fun of Him. He can’t stop the flood of anti-Trump cartoons, but if He ever gets the chance to silence them, He certainly will. In this sense, Trumpers are like the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France who dared to make fun of Mohammed.
  5. There is no middle ground. You either adore Trump or else you are a heretic. Just look what has happened to moderate Republicans. Just as in the late Middle Ages Catholics hated Protestants more than they hated Muslims, so Trumpers hate free-thinking Republicans more than they hate Democrats. Well, except Hillary, whom Trumpers consider to be the devil incarnate. In my lifetime I have watched the destruction of a middle ground, progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats, a process that Trump has deliberately accelerated.

There are my five reasons. One of my Facebook contacts just wrote, “God is all in all. He will guide Trump.” This is a statement of faith—not in God, but in Trump. Why not just admit that Trump is merely a human being, whether you support Him or oppose Him? Because He has made Himself into a Messiah. Fortunately, not all Trump supporters worship Him—I know some who do not—but enough of them do that America could be in for some severe problems.

Could this turn violent? Might Trumpers get out their guns? I hope not. But some Trumpers are piling up weapons—one of them told me so. And it has happened before, when religion has inspired mass slaughter. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572, Catholics killed thousands of protestant Huguenots in Paris. Then as now, Paris was one of the most civilized cities in the world. This isn’t ancient Babylonians we are talking about here, much less savages. Germany was very civilized when the Nazis arose to power.

If the Trumpers do attempt to grab power (if they lose the election) through violence, they will fail. The armed forces, sworn to defend the Constitution, will not support them. But they can cause a lot of domestic terrorism on the way down.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Listen to the Scientists! A Look Back at Harrison Brown


Harrison Brown was a twentieth-century nuclear chemist who developed some of the most important processes that went into making the bombs that fell on Japan at the end of World War II. His role in ushering in the age of nuclear war bothered him, however, and he became an activist not only to work against nuclear proliferation but one of the leading scientists of his time to analyze the prospects for the human future.


One of the earliest books that faced the ecological challenges of human survival was his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future. Remember that this was more than a decade before the environmental movement began. Starting about 1968, dozens of books, some reasonable, some alarmist, came out claiming that human civilization and industry was going to destroy the world. One of these books, by Gene Marine, was called America the Raped, and the cover picture showed a bulldozer destroying the entire natural world. But Harrison Brown’s book predated the alarmism. On the cover, H. J. Muller, Albert Einstein, and (of course) Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas praised Brown’s book.

Brown took into consideration all the data he could find to make projections about the future. First, about human population. He took a close look at human demography: female survival and childbirth rates, for example. His book was one of the earliest to have population pyramids which are now standard in every text. He considered that birth rates might decrease if contraception was made widely available. But he also shared the view of the Malthusians, among whom was a physicist of whom I had never heard (Sir Charles Galton Darwin, who wrote a book in 1953; guess whom he was descended from), that people will have as many kids as they can unless restrained by law.

Then he considered food production. How much food can we produce? Although neither he nor anyone else actually foresaw the Green Revolution, he did consider technological advances in food production, including the possibility, then new, of large-scale hydroponics. He even considered the possibility that humans could get most of their calories from Chlorella, a single-celled alga that does not need farmland to grow. He said the Earth could support 100 billion people if everyone ate Chlorella, but he knew this would never happen.

He also considered the availability of energy and raw materials for transportation, industry, etc. Nobody knew how much, or how little, coal and oil there was. He said that there was a lot of coal and oil, as well as mineral ores, but that we were rapidly depleting the easily available materials. He made his estimates of mineral availability, even such rare minerals as vanadium, based on the assumption that we will not recycle them. Many modern “conservative” economists also do not believe that recycling is worthwhile. Brown said there is a lot of oil, if you are willing to spend a lot of money to extract it. No more gushers. He could not foresee fracking, but this is what happened: fracking is not cheap. Brown considered biofuels. For example, he said that 10 tons of sugarcane have as much energy as 6 tons of coal, but once again it is hard work to use biofuels. Natural petroleum, he concluded, will be a memory of the distant past.

Considering all the data, Brown made predictions of what the human population of the Earth would be in the future. His predictions were pretty good for 1954, but he underestimated human population growth. He predicted 6.0 billion people by 2025, and 6.7 billion by 2050. But we are, in 2020, rapidly approaching the 8 billion mark.

Overshadowing everything, in 1954, was the real risk of nuclear annihilation, something about which he knew a lot. He considered war to be inevitable. It was “...likely that industrial civilization is doomed to extinction.” The elimination of war, as impossible as it was and is, he considered to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the persistence of civilization. War could, Brown said, destroy civilization, and whatever might emerge in the aftermath would be something very different from civilization as we know it. For example, much of our technical knowledge would be valueless if society collapsed, and would then be forgotten.

Brown said that the United States had a special role to play in the future of the world. “...the destiny of humanity depends upon our decisions and upon our actions. We still possess freedom, our resources, and our knowledge, to stimulate the evolution of a world communtiy within which people are well fed and within which they can lead free, abundant, creative lives. Or we can refuse to take constructive action, in which case man will almost certainly start down the steep incline... Never before in history has so much responsibility been inherited by a group of human beings.” America needed to be a peacemaker. This fantasy is becoming less likely every year.

My conclusion is this. Listen to the scientists! Not to the talking heads paid by corporations, nor to environmental extremists. Listen to the people who analyze and try to understand the data! Listen to the International Panel on Climate Change. And realize that, if the past is any guide, the scientific predictions will be underestimates of the perils we will face, just as Brown’s underestimated our current population by two billion people.