Saturday, May 30, 2020

Why You Are Not a Prairie Dog: More Insights from Loren Eiseley

I have recently been reading essays by Loren Eiseley, a paleontologist of the middle twentieth century. His books, such as The Firmament of Time and The Immense Journey, were considered epics of popular science writing at the time they were published. Many of his essays are very well-written, and I recommend him to any of you who like classic nature writing.

One of his essays, The Slit, is about a time in which he went down into a cavern and dug out a mammal skull from shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Primates, the order to which humans and other apes belong, started to diversify right after the dinosaurs became extinct. One of the directions that they diversified was into arboreal forms, living in the trees. And that is where most of them still are, except for baboons and people. Another direction was to live by burrowing in the ground out in the newly-spreading grasslands. These primates eventually became extinct. Why? It was probably because of another order of mammals that was evolving and diversifying at the same time: rodents, which includes prairie dogs and ground squirrels. [Here is a photo I took of a prairie dog in the Badlands of South Dakota in 2000.]

Very early in the Cenozoic Era, it was not clear which direction mammalian evolution might take. Out in open prairies, both primates and rodents diversified. But the rodents were more successful, driving the burrowing primates to extinction. Had things ended up just slightly differently, primates might have been primarily burrowing animals, rather than leaping around in trees. And humans might not have evolved.

Another insight I got from reading Eiseley was a possible contributing factor to human intelligence. Our big brains require a lot of oxygen, therefore a lot of blood vessels. Why did our lineage, starting with the amphibians, have such well-oxygenated brains? The answer might be that amphibians evolved not just in shallow water, not just in shallow fresh water, but in shallow fresh anoxic water, so that extra blood vessels were required to keep even their small brains alive. It was this extra vascularization that made the evolution of intelligent terrestrial vertebrates possible.

To me, this was an excellent example of how the slightest change in the course of events can make a huge difference in the evolutionary outcome.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Loren Eiseley and the Fifth Planet

I here continue to write about Loren Eiseley.

One of the finest pieces of nature writing was Eiseley’s essay, The Fifth Planet. Here is the idea. The asteroid belt used to be a planet, between Mars and Jupiter, a planet usually called Phaeton, that was somehow pulverized. Not being an astronomer, I have no idea if this idea is still taken seriously, though online sources dismiss this theory. But it would explain why meteorites, many of which are stray asteroids, are either metallic, like a planet’s core, or volcanic, like a planet’s surface.

But one astronomer, named Williams, took this theory even further. He believed that this planet would not only have had a core and a volcanic surface but would have had sedimentary rocks and maybe fossils. That is, he believed that a meteorite might fall sometime which contained a fossil bone. He was, therefore, an astronomical bone hunter. Most astronomers dismissed him. After all, on Earth, only an infinitesimally small portion of the rock is sedimentary. To find a meteorite with sedimentary rock, one would have to examine perhaps trillions of meteorites. Williams’s response: let’s get started. And to do so, Williams recruited as many citizen-scientists as possible, to track down these meteorites.

His passion went further. Williams thought that, if the vanished planet had life, then life must be almost everywhere in the universe. This would change our whole view of reality. It would mean that we do not live in a lonely universe.

Eiseley centered his essay on the fate of a rural sheep farmer, one of the citizen-scientists Williams recruited. The dry western deserts and grasslands are among the best places to see and locate meteorites in North America. The farmer absorbed the passion and made it his own. He gathered every bit of information he could about meteorites, filling his farmhouse with disorganized sheets of paper. But he eventually gave up the vision and burned his papers. Perhaps part of the reason was that he finally realized how great the odds were against finding an extraterrestrial bone fossil. But it was also the fact that the nuclear age destroyed his optimism about life in general.

Had Eiseley, or Williams, or the farmer, known about the Mars meteorite discovered in 1984 in Antarctica, and studied a few years later, they might have had more, or less, confidence in extraterrestrial life. The ALH84001 meteorite contained structures that might have been what on Earth would be called bacteria. Life, but not bones. Perhaps, then, complex life is vanishingly rare in the universe, even if there are bacteria-like forms all over the place. Perhaps Simon Conway Morris was right about evolution producing “inevitable humans in a lonely universe”.

This essay was one of the best pieces of science writing largely because it began and ended with the life of the rural farmer, who embraced a theory then had to dismally surrender it. The essay was not about the vanished planet, or the astronomer. It was about an ordinary man to whom science could be a source of inspiration and of pessimism. Readers want to read about the human side of science. As a science writer, I have to keep this in mind.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Does Anyone Remember Loren Eiseley?

I here begin a short series of essays about the mid-twentieth-century paleontologist and science writer Loren Eiseley. Does anyone remember him?

The thing I remember most about him was something that I cannot find on the web. He had a Saturday morning program, right in the middle of the cartoons, in which he provided tours of the Smithsonian museum. It was usually their natural history collections, something he knew a lot about, but I remember one of the programs was about the paintings of George Catlin, which depicted Native American life before the tribes were conquered and degraded by Europeans and later by white Americans. I was particularly struck by the (to me) new concept of biodiversity. So many species! I had started a bird list, and I knew there were lots of species of plants as well. But millions? I imagined that every species of organism in the world had its own sheet of paper, all of them gathered together in a filing cabinet at the Smithsonian, and that the deep-voiced Loren Eiseley had the key to it.

Eiseley wrote many, many essays, mostly about his feelings in response to scientific discoveries. Each essay was insightful, and a few of them were masterpieces, about which I write in the next few entries.

One of Eiseley’s insights was that each organism understands only a small part of the real universe. One of Eiseley’s favorite examples was the garden spider. He could walk right up and look at it. It ignored him, because its universe consisted of the insects that landed on its web and finding a mate. To the spider, Eiseley the man was inconceivable. Another example was the “inner galaxy” of white blood cells, which gave their lives to protect us from infection, but they did not even know they were inside of a human body. Maybe our view of reality is as limited by our biology as the views, if they can be so called, of spiders and white blood cells.

Science helps us understand ourselves, but our understanding is always determined largely by our cultural context. That is, we use scientific facts to portray ourselves the way our culture sees us.  As Eiseley wrote in The Inner Galaxy, “In one [historical] period angels hover over our birth, in the following time we are planetary waifs, the product of a meaningless and ever-altering chemistry. We exchange haloes in one era for fangs in another. Our religious and philosophical conceptions change so rapidly that the theological and moral exhortations of one decade become the wastepaper of the next epoch. The ideas for which millions yielded up their lives produce only bored yawns in a later generation.” This happens, whether we see ourselves as created or as the products of evolution.

Eiseley wrote at a time when the scientific as well as the popular conception of evolution was very different from what it is today. For example, he wrote about Boskop Man, which he considered to be a separate lineage from ours, but one in which brain growth and the reduction of facial features—that is, becoming more childlike as adults—had occurred as a separate evolutionary experiment. We consider our pedomorphic species to have the assurance of success; but an entirely separate lineage of humans was even more pedomorphic than we are, bigger-brained than anyone alive today, and became extinct. Nice insight, but it is no longer considered valid; Boskop people were simply a population of modern humans related to the South African San people.

The dominant view was that evolution leads inevitably upward. If, as many believed at the time Eiseley wrote, evolution was about the improvement of species, then this view followed directly. But an individual view of natural selection now shows us that people who are most successful at getting their genes propagated will become more common, even if this causes the society or species to degrade. Eiseley, not considering the ascendency of evil people and the decline of human societies to be consistent with evolution, came up with a different word, a word that never caught on: involution. Human society, he seemed to believe, operated contrary to evolution.

One of the things that Eiseley hated the most was the “deliberate blunting of wonder.” Many scientists did this, by assuming the natural world was only the operation of physical laws. But so did many religious people, who saw the world as merely a stage for the battle between God and the devil; many political leaders, who saw the world as an opportunity for power; and commercial interests, who saw the world as mere resources. If any word can describe Eiseley’s writings, it is wonder.

His was some of the most beautiful science writing, even if it is not technically correct. It is not surprising that he edited a literary journal (PrairieSchooner) before he became a professional paleontologist. Here is an example, from The Firmament of Time:

“Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and a puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real: the thread of life.”

Eiseley got a fair amount of criticism at the time he wrote. This bothered but did not stop him. After all, today, who is remembered most: Eiseley, or his critics? More entries on Loren Eiseley to follow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Whatever Happened to Christian Environmentalism?

It still exists. Good luck finding it.

Christian environmentalists today are largely obscured by the loud cacophany of Christian Republicans who worship Donald Trump and his overt hatred of the Earth. Here are a couple of Christian environmentalists who stand out against the polluted tide of toxic religion:

  • Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, who has stood for decades as a voice of Christian conscience.
  • Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, who believes that Christians should take global climate change very very seriously.

There are others, but you won’t hear about them. If you do a Google search for Christian environmentalism, one of the first hits on your search will be an article from the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson’s platform, one of the major sites for the extreme fundamentalist Republican gospel. They report on one Christian pastor who holds services and wants to “defend God’s creation.” They do not have any arguments to show that he is wrong. But they dismiss all Christian environmentalism with this statement at the end: “the new wave of Christian environmentalists are "God's Greens...waging holy war on behalf of an embattled creation. But, critics ask, is this a truly divine cause -- or the devil's work?” By critics, they mean themselves. A 2017 article in Christianity Today gave loyalty to Donald Trump as one of the main reasons that evangelical Christians have stopped supporting environmentalism. The Cornwall Alliance, a group that sounds British, is actually an American evangelical Christian anti-environmental organization; they call environmentalism “the Green Dragon” which must be slayed.

Things have changed a lot since Loren Wilkinson wrote Earthkeeping in the 90’s. I reviewed it back when it first came out, for the American Scientific Affiliation. I have recently looked at the book again. Wilkinson recently retired from the Faculty of Regent College, a Christian institution in Vancouver, an institute and a city that American evangelicals consider ungodly.

Wilkinson said some things that would get him lynched by American evangelicals today. Good thing that he is Canadian, I guess. Among his assertions were the following:

  • We need to have fewer kids, because of the Earth’s population explosion. Evangelicals, in contrast, often champion the Quiverfull approach: God said in Genesis 1 that Adam and Eve should have as many kids as possible and “fill the Earth.” They ignore the fact that we have already filled the Earth and that it is now time for us to do something else. God also told Adam and Eve to make clothes for themselves out of animal skins. Does this commandment also apply to us?
  • Christians should honor God’s gift of the Earth by honoring the minerals of the Earth, by recycling them, giving them new life, instead of wasting them. God’s natural world recycles everything; so should we.
  • If in fact Earth operates as an integrated system (the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), Wilkinson considered this to be evidence of God. In contrast, most evangelicals consider Gaia to be paganism.
  • The Creator gave independence to creation, and it therefore has its own rights. God never said or intended for the creation to be raw materials for humans to plunder. The Fall of Adam (which evangelicals blame on Eve, and on women in general) created a division between each person and all others, humankind and the Earth, and even divisions within each person—a division Jesus wants to heal.
  • Noah’s Ark was a very clear example of God wanting to save at least part of his creation from the destruction of the Flood which God intended as a punishment for human sin. God might have said, I don’t care, Noah, if you don’t like all these species; I command you to give them refuge. The Ark was in complete contradiction to the Tower of Babel, which was the symbol of mankind glorifying itself.
  • Humans have dominion over the Earth, but Biblical dominion means for the dominator to bless the dominated. How can this be? A good king is supposed to bless the people, just as Jesus, whom Christians consider to be the ruler of the universe, blesses us. He even went so far as to say that humans should be saviors of Creation just as Jesus is the savior of humans.
  • We humans are meant to be stewards of creation, not conquerors. There is no single way that a steward should take care of whatever is in his or her charge. For example, to be stewards of creation does not mean that every bit of natural landscape must be kept intact. Human existence would then be impossible. But it does mean that humans should try as hard as possible to take care of the Creation, and think of creative ways of doing so. In contrast, evangelicals are by and large satisfied with us destroying the Creation.
  • Wilkinson said that Christians must study ecology so that they know how to be effective stewards. Not only that, but Christians should participate in protests to save the Earth.

One can always hope that Christians such as Wallis and Hayhoe can turn the tide within the evangelical community. But I, for one, am not anticipating that this will happen soon, within my lifetime, or ever.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Humans and the Facial Expression of Emotions, or, Can Mike Pence Smile

Primates, especially humans, are very, very good at the facial communication:

Expressing information through facial expressions
Interpreting information expressed facially
Distinguishing real from fake facial information

As with any evolutionary adaptation, there is a range of degrees. For example, there are real, heart-felt smiles, and there are fake smiles. Donald Trump seems to know only the latter. He thinks a smile is to make a face like he is about to pronounce a word that begins with the letter F, or the sound SH. What about Mike Pence? He seems to smile only with great difficulty, making it hard to tell if his smiles are real or fake.

Watch this video and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Battle for Truth: Does It Matter?

No, not really. At least not in America.

In America today, there is only one real question when it comes to science, or society, or politics, and that is: Will you be a devoted follower of Donald Trump, or not? All data, discussions, and debates are entirely secondary. None of it matters if you have devoted yourself to Donald Trump as the Messiah who will save America, and maybe later the world, if he feels like it.

There are a few, but influential, religious groups who see Trump as the personal representative of God and Jesus Christ on Earth today. To question Him (Trump) is as unthinkable as to question God.

Whether Trump Himself actually believes this or not doesn’t matter. But He uses terminology that strongly encourages godlike reverence for Himself. For example:

Trump called Himself “the chosen one” to lead America into a trade war with China
Trump has repeated the endorsements of people who believe Him to be “the second coming of God”.

I still teach and write for the benefit of those who might be interested, but until Trump followers stop worshiping Him, it will really not make any difference.