Saturday, March 28, 2020

Altruism, Infectious Disease, and the Future

This essay should be of great interest during the coronavirus pandemic. But I wrote it before the pandemic began, based on reading a book written in 1965.

I first discovered the scientific principles of the evolution of disease by reading the René Dubos classic Man Adapting. Even though I was a professor, I still had never heard of balanced pathogenicity. And it was even later that I began to read some of the many wonderful books about altruism. But it was only recently that I noticed the connection between the two.

Altruism has evolved by at least three mechanisms: kin selection, and direct and indirect reciprocity. Kin selection (Blood is thicker than water) is widespread in animal societies, and direct reciprocity (Let’s help each other) is common among intelligent animals. Indirect reciprocity (A good reputation is worth more than money in the bank) is nearly absent outside of human society.

In human tribal societies, altruism was extremely important. The best way, perhaps the only way, for a person to rise to the top was with help from friends and supporters (direct reciprocity), and with a good reputation (indirect reciprocity). Trustworthiness was rewarded, and cheaters were hated. At least one scientist, Robin Dunbar, speculated that human language evolved largely as a facilitation of reciprocity.

Balanced pathogenicity is where a virulent disease, so long as it is transmitted by direct contact, usually evolves into a milder form over time. This is because even in prehistoric times everyone around the victim knew that the victim was sick—whether from demons or bad air—and stayed away from him or her. A successful germ was one that had mild effects on the victim, who could then get up out of bed and go around spreading the germs. In this way, an acute disease can evolve into a chronic disease or even all the way to commensalism: Dubos speculated that some diseases evolved themselves out of recognized existence. This has been my experience. Like many people who grew up in Tulare County, California, I had tularemia. I did not know it, however, until a skin test revealed it. The doctor told me I had just felt bad one day, and that was it. In earlier decades, it was often a serious ailment.

The first parallel between altruism and the transmission of infectious disease is this. Just as everyone knows who it is that has an acute disease, everyone knows whom you can trust and whom you cannot, in traditional society.

Today, however, massive corporations conduct much of their business in a way that their practices are shielded from public scrutiny. Even corporations that had infamous practices, as many did during the 2008 recession, remain in business and are profitable, since most customers nationwide do not remember what they did. Reciprocity and reputation have not eliminated them or even, in some cases, reformed them. In modern corporations, oppressive decisions are made in boardrooms, decisions that a CEO might not normally make if he actually looked the customer in the eye.

The second parallel between altruism and infectious disease is this. There are many diseases in which balanced reciprocity does not evolve. Cholera is an example. Potential victims cannot know where the cholera germs in the water came from. Did they come from an acutely sick, or a mildly sick, person? Virulent and mild germs spread equally well. This is how Paul Ewald succeeded in getting cholera to evolve into milder form in some locations: if cholera could not spread through water, it had to spread through direct contact, and by doing so it evolved into a milder form.

In the mass of online information about corporations, a customer is unlikely to be able to determine which banks, for example, have a good reputation and which ones have a bad one. They choose banks the way people drink contaminated water. I certainly did, and regret it.

It can get worse. Some diseases spread more effectively if their victim is very ill. This is often the case with diseases that spread by insect vectors. Mosquitoes prefer to bite victims who are too sick to move around or to swat them. Such diseases can evolve to become worse.

In a similar fashion, some corporations actually benefit from social disruption that they and other corporations create. Consumers who are suffering from inadequate sleep, debt, and job insecurity seek pleasures and entertainment that many corporations are only too happy to provide to them.

In traditional societies, anti-altruistic people were ineffective for the same reason that virulent diseases were. But in modern societies, anti-altruistic corporations can equal the profitability of altruistic ones, the same way cholera spreads, or even exceed the profitability of altruists, the same way that insect-transmitted diseases spread.

If I am right about this, altruism faces significant challenges in the immediate future, even after the current pandemic abates.

This may be no more than an analogy. If so, it is a useful concept for teaching the principles of evolution—principles that show up in such seemingly unrelated fields as epidemiology and altruism. As a result, students may be forced to realize that they cannot consign evolution into an easily-ignored little box in the warehouse of knowledge.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Science Education during the Covid Shutdown: The Barack and Joe Comedy Hour

Like most colleges and universities, Southeastern Oklahoma State University is shut down, while classes continue online. Those of us who were teaching entirely face-to-face (F2F, in educator jargonese) have had to scramble to figure out what to do.

One of the biggest hurdles is what to do in place of exams. Exams require security and supervision. “Online exams” are an invitation to cheating. There are all kinds of technological ways to help reduce this problem: “lockdown,” in which a student cannot browse the internet on the same computer while taking an exam; and video monitors to make sure they are not looking at answers within the range of the video monitor. Of course, students could always look things up on their phones, which they can keep out of video range.

A few students would cheat. I could already tell you their names. But I would have to impose measures on all of the students to keep a few of them from cheating. This would make the good students feel that I did not respect them. Instead, I decided to assign essay questions to the students in place of the exams. These are questions that are not easily copied from the internet (and if they try, I will catch them with the help of Dr. Google). In fact, in a few cases, I invite them to search online. For example, on the topic of pseudogenes in my general biology class, most and maybe all information online (even on YouTube) is very technical. I want them to give short, clear answers.

Each student will receive a subset of my master list of essay questions. That way, it is very unlikely for any two students to work together. Also, since they will not be on campus, they would be unlikely to work together. Or if they do, and they don’t use the same words in their answers, I know that their minds were activated.

In my general botany class, I had already assigned projects for them to do online, for (1) their carbon footprints, and how many trees it would take to compensate for that footprint, and (2) how much transpiration a tree carries out, and how much air-conditioning electricity it would take to equal the cooling power of a tree. These assignments will go on as scheduled.

In my systematic botany course, the students have to know how to recognize and distinguish Oklahoma plant species. Since I cannot do this in an exam situation, I will send them images from my own collection of trees, shrubs, vines, etc. that they need to identify, partial credit if they get close. If I show them an image of a slippery elm, and they write American elm, they get most of the credit; winged elm, maybe half credit or a little less; if they write sycamore (a mistake that has actually been made), no credit. This is how I will assess the recognition part.

(Do you know what tree this is?)

I wrote essay questions for the systematic botany students. But I decided to make it fun. I decided to use the Barack and Joe Comedy Hour approach, with special guest stars Mitch McConnell, Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, the Cherokee chief, and the man every farmer (and botanist) loves to hate, Michael Bloomberg. I wanted to share a few of them with you.

  • “Look at this cottonwood tree,” said Barack. “That isn’t a cottonwood,” said Joe. “But, it’s by a river and it has triangular leaves!” said Barack. “But look at the bark,” said Joe. What did Joe notice that Barack did not? (Don’t answer, “The bark, you idiot.” Tell me about the bark.)
  • I received a letter from Barack, which said, “Dear Dr. Rice. I am going through south central Oklahoma on a vacation trip. I heard there was a rare species of tree that grows along the Blue River. Could you kindly tell me what it is, where to find it, and what it looks like. Please give me enough detail so that I can tell it apart from all the other trees.” What should I tell him?
  • Barack and Joe were walking along the creek in Beavers Bend State Park. Being afraid of marijuana trip lines, they stayed on the trail. “I’m having trouble telling hornbeam from hophornbeam,” said Joe. “They’re so easy to tell apart, even a politician can do it!” said Barack. “How?” asked Joe. “You can tell them apart by their fruits and by their bark,” said the man who is retired and no longer needs to worry about leading the free world to the man who still wants to lead the free world. “How?” asked Joe. What answer did Barack give?
  • You’ve never seen a fight like two politicians arguing about how to tell a sweetgum from a sycamore. Joe told Barack three ways to tell them apart. What were they? Answer for each species. (There are actually more than three ways.)
  • “You’re standing in poison ivy,” Joe said to Barack. “Am not,” said Barack. “But it has three leaflets,” said Joe. “True,” said Barack, “but this is box elder.” “But box elder is a tree!” said Joe. “But these are little box elder saplings,” said Barack. How did Barack know they were box elder saplings and not poison ivy? He had at least two ways.
  • “Whar I come from,” said Mitch McConnell, “we know how to reckonize a southern red oak tree.” “But, Mitch,” said Joe, “that’s a northern red oak tree.” “Whah, one look at the lobes, bases, and undersides of the leaves and you can tell it’s a southern red oak,” said Mitch. How did Mitch know the tree was a southern red oak?
  • In retirement, former president George W. Bush decided he would get rich by planting a big plantation of persimmon trees. It was easy; just find some wild trees, dig up the clones growing around them, and plant the clones in an orchard. George waited twelve years, from 2008 to 2020, watching his trees grow. But they never produced fruits. Can you think of a reason for this? (The answer is not just “yes.” Explain.)
  • Former president Jimmy Carter smiled really big as he explained to Joe, “This here tree is a white ash.” “No,” said Joe. “It’s a hickory.” “No,” said Jimmy. “Look at the arrangement of the leaf scars on the stem. Not only that, but the leaf scars themselves look distinctive.” Jimmy smiled even bigger. What two items of information did he give to Joe?
  • “It doesn’t take any brains to be a botanist,” said Michael Bloomberg. “Any more than it does to be a farmer. All oak trees are alike.” He didn’t really say this, but if he had, I would have told him a thing or two. I would have controlled my anger, then told him how and where to find and recognize two rare and unusual oaks found in Oklahoma: Quercus incana, and Quercus durandii. What would I tell him?
  • “My grandpappy ruined his saw tryin’ to cut down this here bois-d’arc tree,” said the man. Joe, coming through Oklahoma on a campaign tour, said, “Oh, I thought that was a white mulberry tree.” “They is at least four ways you kin tell that this is a bois-d’arc and not a mulberry.” Indicate four ways. You have more than four to choose from.
  • “My ancestors were Cherokees,” said Elizabeth Warren. “Oh, really?” asked Chuck Hoskin, Jr., the new Cherokee chief. “Then maybe you know how to mix up the black drink that the warriors used before going to battle. But first, you have to know how to recognize a yaupon holly. Incidentally, there is a reason that scientists named it Ilex vomitoria.” He then told her how to recognize the shrub, and how it was different from other kinds of holly. How?
  • Your supervisor asks you how to tell a saltcedar from a red cedar. “It don’t matter,” you tell her. “We got to cut both of them down.” “But I still want you to know the difference,” she says. You are now on the spot. How do you answer?
  • Your task, to help prepare for the Cherokee National Holiday, is to go out in the forest and find some muscadine grape vines (Vitis rotundifolia) so the cooks can make some grape dumplings ( Instead, you found some Vitis mustangensis by mistake. How could you have distinguished these two species and avoided this mistake?
  • Feather is a young woman who works with the Ethnobotany office of the Cherokee Nation. (No kidding, there is one.) She is passionate about restoring rivercane to its original habitats in Oklahoma. It has many cultural uses, not the least of which is making blowguns for darts. She has to know the difference between the native Arundinaria gigantea and the invasive Arundo donax. How can she tell the difference?
  • “I think the economy needs a great new fruit tree,” said Joe. “Something that grows in Oklahoma, is not already a domesticated tree, and tastes good. It would create a lot of jobs to grow them, harvest them, process them, sell them. Think of how many jobs could be created in Oklahoma!” “Joe,” said Barack, “Can’t you forget for just a minute that you are campaigning for president?” Which species (at least four to choose from) was Joe talking about? Would you invest in such an orchard? Why or why not?
  • A thief thought he dug up a bunch of Echinacea rootstocks from a protected native prairie. But when he got them back to the barn, his accomplice told him, “You idiot! These aren’t Echinacea! They’re Symphiotrichum!” What did the thieves want to do with the Echinacea, and how did the second man know it was Symphiotrichum instead?
  • “What a pretty fern,” said Bernie. “We have them in the great state of Vermont.” “We have them in Oklahoma, too,” said Tulsa mayor G. T. Bynum. “And it’s not a fern—it is Achillea millaefolium.” How can you tell Achillea is not a fern, even before the flowers (which ferns do not have) open?

 Hope you enjoy these examples. Creativity to the rescue during the pandemic.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Springtime Secrets (Something to Do During the Pandemic)

I am posting this from the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in America. Many of us are down two only two major activities: working online, and taking walks. Like most universities and colleges, the one where I work is closed the rest of the spring semester, and students will complete their classes online. My wife and I take walks out away from other people, and watch all the wonders of nature, even when it is despoiled by human activity. This is what we have always done, but for some people, taking a nature walk might be a new activity. If you are one of those people, let me tell you some of the things you might notice.

Spring has been underway for some time in Oklahoma, where I live and work. But it has only recently been making itself obvious. Spring comes, but not all at once. The first thing to notice as you take your walk is that not all the trees open their buds at the same time. The elms opened their buds over a month ago, and they are now fully displaying their green seeds. Whole forests of elms are blushing a light green right now. This color is due to seeds, not leaves, which are only now beginning to emerge from their own buds.

Meanwhile, other tree species appear to still be dormant. In the photo below, the elms are green but the Kentucky coffee-tree (identifiable by its big seed pods) is still dormant.

Notice, then, that each kind of tree follows its own spring schedule.

The trees also display diversity within each species. The photo below shows two cottonwood trees. One is in full bloom (on the right, with clusters of little reddish flowers), the other is not. In this case, the tree in full bloom is a male tree, while the other one is female. Its greenish flowers will open up a little bit later. Just as male birds migrate before female birds, the male cottonwoods open their buds before the female cottonwoods. In trees, as in animals, the males compete with one another for access to the females even when, as in cottonwoods, it is completely without intelligence.

This is also the time of year that birds begin their social activities. In Oklahoma, mockingbirds and cardinals are already singing.

The final thing to notice is the garbage. Before the leaves open and the grass grows, thousands of pieces of garbage are visible all around the “natural” areas of Tulsa. (We have counted some of them; I do not exaggerate.) March is the best time of the year to see one of the ugly impacts that humans have upon the natural world.

Take a walk. It doesn’t cost anything, and it doesn’t expose you to viruses. You don’t need to download a movie. The natural world around you has plenty to see.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

In Praise of Bitterness

In the general biology labs that I teach, the students map out which portions of their tongues can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter chemicals. Of course, they hate the bitter quinine.

The ability to taste bitter compounds, and to dislike them, is of immense importance to our survival today as it has been throughout animal evolution. Most bitter compounds are potentially toxic, and if we taste something bitter, we may need to stop eating it so quickly that disgust, rather than rational decision, is necessary.

One student, however, was unable to taste the quinine. I never found out if he could taste any other bitter compounds. This is not a good thing for him. He has to be extremely careful about what he consumes.

According to a genetics website at the University of Utah, “Humans have about 30 genes that code for bitter taste receptors. Each receptor can interact with several compounds, allowing people to taste a wide variety of bitter substances.” This is because a wide variety of different molecules can be toxic. Many medicines are toxic in large quantities, and taste bitter even in small quantities; and these medicines are not chemically similar to one another. The ability of the human tongue to detect “bitter” is actually thirty different abilities. In this way the human brain has a single response—“This is bitter, don’t eat it”—to a great variety of potential threats.

Next time you taste something bitter, think about this and feel a little gratitude to your nervous system for protecting you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Scientific Method and Reincarnation: The Bridey Murphy Story

I ran across a book that my late mother-in-law had: The Search for Bridey Murphy, by Morey Bernstein, published in 1956.

Bernstein was a businessman who became interested in hypnosis and all of the many medical benefits it could potentially confer. But his interests went beyond this. He was interested in age regression, in which the person who is hypnotized not only remembers early childhood, but relives it. The memories of early childhood, even infancy, are stored away in the brain, some hypnotists claim, and can be unleashed.

If a subject is hypnotically regressed to infancy, he or she may be able to describe sensations and memories from infancy, in words, even though they could not talk during infancy. This brings up an interesting question. How could one determine whether the subject is actually re-living infancy? Bernstein said that, when a subject is regressed back into infancy, their reflexes actually change. Infants and young children have the Babinski reflex, but older children and adults do not.  During age regression, the hypnotist can get the subject to actually change from the adult reflex to the infant reflex. This would be strong evidence of the effectiveness of age regression. I do not know how good the evidence is, having read about it only in this book.

But Bernstein wanted to take age regression back further—not just back to infancy, but back before birth. Just keep going...back into a previous lifetime. If hypnotized subjects had true memories of past lifetimes, this would prove reincarnation. But how can the hypnotist know whether the memories are true, and are of past lifetimes? This brings us to some interesting points about the scientific method.

It is not enough just to dismiss spiritualist assertions on the grounds of inherent absurdity. The most famous agnostic, the inventor of the word agnostic, Thomas Henry Huxley, made this point. What Huxley did was to give spiritualism a chance, after which he (along with E. Ray Lankester) showed that at least the spiritualist seances that he attended were, in fact, hoaxes. He concluded this, rather than assuming it. And he knew this did not prove all spiritualist experiences were hoaxes.

First, consider bias. Bernstein tried very hard to prove that he was not biased. He openly admits that he started off completely agnostic about religious concepts. That is, he claims that his discoveries convinced him despite, not because of, his initial bias. Further, he was rich enough from his business, he did not need to pull a hoax to get rich. These two preconditions are helpful, but do not eliminate the possibility of bias. Some evangelical Christian apologists (most famously Josh McDowell, author of Evidence that Demands a Verdict in which he claims to prove Christian doctrine) say that they started off as atheists and were converted by the evidence that they found. However, despite his lack of initial bias, McDowell definitely developed a bias later. And even though Bernstein was rich enough to not need a hoax, there are plenty of rich people who cannot keep themselves from trying to get richer by unethical means. But at least Bernstein made an effort to begin in an unbiased fashion.

One thing that greatly reduced the chance of bias is that there were independent fact-checkers. This did not completely eliminate the chance of error, however; journalists are looking for an exciting story (even back then, if it bleeds, it leads) and would prefer the reincarnation conclusion over fraud or delusion.

Second, consider how one can evaluate the quality of the evidence of a past life obtained from a hypnotized person. Perhaps the strongest evidence would be if the person provided details that the person could not possibly know. (This is a condition that is nearly impossible to satisfy today. Everyone has a world of information at their fingertips. Give me a little time, and access to the internet, and I could make up a convincing fake story that I am a reincarnated Viking. But in the pre-internet days, this evidence was much harder to get and thus more meaningful.)

Bernstein hypnotized a woman he called Ruth Simmons (she was actually Virginia Tighe), who was born in Iowa in the twentieth century. When he regressed her back before her birth, she revealed that she had been an Irish woman Bridey (Bridget) Murphy who was born in 1798 and died in 1864. She did, indeed, reveal a lot of details that seemed convincing. She even started talking with an Irish brogue during the hypnotic sessions, something she could not do normally. Are you convinced yet? She said that she could dance the “Morning Jig” when she was alive in Ireland. Bernstein gave her a post-hypnotic suggestion: that, upon awakening, she should dance the jig for the observers. And she did. Are you convinced yet? The woman also gave geographical details that a twentieth-century American would almost certainly not know about Ireland (actually, Northern Ireland), including the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the nineteenth century. Are you convinced yet?

The Bridey Murphy story became a sensation after it was published in a newspaper in 1954 and as a book in 1956. It seemed like everyone was talking about it. People with a spiritual (but not fundamentalist Christian) inclination were swept up into believing it. Materialistic people subjected it to ridicule. Even Donald Duck’s uncle McScrooge made fun of it. In her copy, my mother-in-law wrote down the address of the Bridey Murphy Discussion Group of Peoria, which met in Marquette Heights in nearby Pekin, Illinois.

[This is a photo from a movie adaptation.]

The book was rushed into print with too little fact-checking to even satisfy the author. But there was plenty of fact-checking afterward. And here is where the scientific method gets interesting. During the intense discussion, there were two competing hypotheses: that Ruth Simmons was making it all up, either as fraud or delusion, vs. Ruth Simmons really was remembering her past life as Bridey Murphy. (And she even had a vague memory, it seems, of dying as a baby in New Amsterdam, which is today New York, over a century earlier than Bridey Murphy.)

The people who wanted to prove Simmons was making it all up pointed to supposed errors in the facts she recited. But her defenders showed, in every case it seems, that the story was credible. The places she mentioned, and the terms she used, the customs to which she referred, were not inaccurate for the time and place, even when they could not be verified. In a few instances, Bridey seemed to be exaggerating in order to make her husband seem more prominent than he was. She claimed he was a barrister (the highest grade of lawyer), but that he managed accounts for stores, something that only the lowest grade of accountants did. But this may have enhanced the credibility of her account: she was telling—and exaggerating—her life experience, not a mere story.

Besides, someone pointed out, the Bridey Murphy story is, by itself, too boring to be a fabrication. After all, everyone wants to be a reincarnated king, not a serf or something. But Bridey was just a woman who got married, never had kids, and died at age 66 after falling down the stairs. The only interesting thing in her story was that she was in a mixed marriage (she was Protestant, her husband Catholic).

Bernstein provided long transcripts of the tape-recorded hypnosis sessions in the book. In session after session, he asked the same questions, such as what her husband’s name was. One’s eyes start to glaze over. But this repetition was actually quite valuable. They proved that the woman was not just making it up as she went along. The information was deep inside her brain, and came out the same way every time. Even a good liar would have a hard time keeping a consistent story for six sessions of hypnotism. Also, for this reason, it was clearly not a delusion.

In the competition between the fraud/delusion hypothesis and the reincarnation hypothesis, the latter easily won.

This is where it really gets interesting. New evidence emerged. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens? New facts can destroy a nice story.) When Ruth Simmons was growing up in Chicago, an old Irish woman lived across the street. Her name was Bridey Murphy Corkell. The hypothesis that turned out to be true was a third hypothesis not previously considered: that Ruth had learned the story very well from this woman, even learned her accent, and even learned the jig, and then forgot where or even that she had heard it. This is a now-well-established phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, or hidden memory.

There have been other famous cases of possible cryptomnesia from the world of creative arts. The difference between cryptomnesia and plagiarism is whether the person knows that they are recycling the work of another artist. George Harrison of Beatles fame may have plagiarized My Sweet Lord from another musical group (this was the interpretation of the court in the ensuing lawsuit), or he may genuinely have mistaken his memory of the melody for his own creation. This apparently also happened to Umberto Eco, author of Name of the Rose.

In a way, every creative person has a gnawing fear that he or she will unwittingly steal ideas from someone else. I write books; how can I possibly know if I stole an idea from a book that I read maybe forty years ago? I would need a list of every book I have read since I graduated from high school. What kind of nerd would keep a list like that? Me, that’s who. My complete list now contains 1,411 titles, the last of which is The Search for Bridey Murphy. I can always scan the list before sending a final fiction manuscript to a publisher. This does not guarantee that I did not steal a plot from a forgotten movie or an episode of Perry Mason. (In the latter case, I have also kept a list of the Perry Mason episodes I have watched. I used one for an endnote in my most recent book. God, I am such a nerd.) I steal plots from the Bible all the time, but I am aware of what I am doing.

It gets even more complicated. Someone may absorb an idea from the surrounding culture and mistakenly think it is his or her own. This is called a Zeitgeist (a German word for “time ghost”). Science writer Loren Eiseley (Darwin’s Century) famously said that Charles Darwin got the idea for natural selection from Edward Blyth, without realizing it, because it was an idea already floating around in scholarly culture. Probably nobody believes this anymore, since all of Darwin’s contemporaries seemed genuinely surprised at Darwin’s creative hypothesis. Darwin thought of natural selection a long time before Alfred Russel Wallace, but he worried himself sick that it would look to the world as if he had stolen Wallace’s idea. Fortunately, Wallace happily acknowledged Darwin’s priority.

None of this proves that reincarnation does not exist. It just means that evidence, like that of Bridey Murphy, is not good enough.

The scientific way of thinking can help us understand almost anything better than other ways of thinking. This even includes reincarnation.