Thursday, August 27, 2020

Destroying the Frontier and Native Americans: America in 1700-1900


Some people, unfortunately including some major environmentalists, consider the “westward expansion” of white settlers inevitable. After all, they needed the land for farming, to feed hungry mouths, not just their own but to ship back east to feed hungry mouths in the cities. Native Americans were not using the land efficiently, in their view, so the land had to be expropriated (i.e., stolen) from them. This was certainly the justification that people such as John Sevier used to justify taking Cherokee land to form the Watauga settlement.


But there is more to the story. American farmers were careless of the land they farmed. They allowed soil erosion, precisely because they knew they could always move west and get some more land, as soon as the Natives were cleared off of it. Benjamin Franklin said that Americans were bad farmers because they had so much land. And Thomas Jefferson said that “it is cheaper for Americans to buy new land than to manure the old.”


What do we conclude from this? The westward expansion of white farmers was largely unnecessary. If they had taken care of their land, they could have kept using the land they had already forced the Natives off of. The devastation of Native communities by white settlers was largely unnecessary even for the white settlers. They preferred to kill Indians than to be good stewards of their own land.


This provides an astonishingly different view of American history than you will find in most textbooks. These texts may condemn white genocide of Native communities, but they (erroneously) claim that the expansion was necessary to feed White America.


Monday, August 17, 2020

Scientific (and Other) Insights from a Novelist

E. L. Doctorow, who died in 2015, was one of the most significant American novelists. Several of his books were made into movies. City of God was not one of them. It did not really have a plot that one could follow. It was the convergence of numerous story lines, several of them within the minds of characters whom I never quite identified. But City of God was an astounding book. As a scientist, I was amazed at how beautiful and poetic (without sacrificing accuracy) Doctorow was when he wrote about everything from cosmology to ants. And, of course, about evolution. This is an intellectually challenging book. I recommend it to my fellow scientists. The book is thick with theology, which it neither embraces nor hates.

I just want to mention some examples. Unlike most people in the arts, Doctorow understood how evolution works. This includes cultural evolution, a process that is very similar to biological evolution except that it uses memes (ideas) rather than genes. Memes live in human minds, and spread from one human mind to another; their fitness consists not only of how many minds they live in, but how effective they are at getting those minds to spread them to other minds. Memes can have a life of their own. Doctorow’s example was movies. Movies propagate themselves; they are a malign life form. He speculated that maybe movies came to Earth about a hundred years ago, forced us to create them. He called them a tapeworm in the planetary guts. I know it sounds strange to us; we believe that we make movies and decide to watch them. But what if they are manipulating us? This is the discombobulating aspect of cultural evolution; ideas and cultural creations can parasitize us. A current example, which Doctorow did not live to see, is how extremely violent ideas can propagate from one conservative mind to another, turning otherwise nice people into people who are a hair-trigger away from killing you.

He also wrote that “…whatever condition God provides, some sort of creature will invent itself to live in it.” (Invent itself is a figure of speech.) This is a fundamental understanding of where biodiversity came from and why. Evolution is not a stepladder toward greater complexity, as both its detractors and supporters often depict it; it is the generation of opportunists that fill previously empty resources spaces, whether deep oceans or minds.


I previously wrote about how white people, in general, carry a burden of guilt for oppressing darker races, and we whites (or almost-whites) need to take extra steps to prove that we, individually, have broken from our sordid heritage. Some cultural groups have more of a burden than others. Doctorow wrote a lot about the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jews, using a little-known example from Lithuania. Doctorow wrote that the Germans “bent the Jews to the shape of their hatred.” They committed any and all atrocities that they could imagine. They even boarded up Jewish hospitals and set them on fire, with patients and staff in side. It was an offense punishable by death for the people of the countries they conquered to keep a record of their brutalities, much less resist them. A major plot within City of God is the search for a box with a diary in it of what the Nazis did in Lithuania.


I think the German people had, and continue to have, a heavy burden to prove to the world that they are no longer Nazis, and that they are as far away from being Nazis as anyone could be. They have repented, and they need to keep showing the world over and over that they have repented. Everyone has to be nice; the Germans have to be extremely nice. And they are doing this. Germany is, today, one of the least racist countries, and one of the most positive forces for good in the world. They are doing penance for their Nazi past. If you want to find Nazis, you are more likely to find them in America, or France, or Austria. Now, if only the modern descendants and defenders of the Confederacy would do penance! It would make the United States a much better place not just for the former slaves, but for white people as well. Germany outgrew its Nazis; can conservative America outgrow its celebration of slavery?


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

An Early and Amazing Scientific Insight

I found something interesting when I looked through my old copy of Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It was about classical Greek science. As strange as it may seem, at the time, many philosophers thought that air did not exist. It was just space. I am unsure how they explained wind, but they must have had some confabulation to make the wind fit into their worldview.

But the philosopher Empedocles came up with an easy demonstration that air was something, rather than nothing. He used a clepsydra, or water clock to prove it. The water dripped down at a steady rate, and was replaced by air at the top. But if air is not allowed to enter the top, the water will not drip. You can see the same phenomenon if you suck liquid into a straw, then close off the top of the straw, the fluid will not drip out. If the air was nothing, then this could not happen.

There are, all around us, many simple ways to test scientific hypotheses. When I wrote my book, Scientifically Thinking (see my website), I had not thought of this particular example. But you can read about lots of others in my book. Science is just, as Huxley said, organized common sense.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Changing the World? Another Prairie Festival at the Land Institute

I went to the Prairie Festival in September 2019. This year’s festival is virtual, due to the pandemic.

The Prairie Festival is an annual celebration at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It is part scientific meeting, part artistic celebration, and part barn dance. The scientific presentations, which drew experts from all over the country, spoke to a crowd in a big barn with sides open to the weather, which is often nice just before and after the festival but usually tempestuous during it. I sat on the dirt floor to listen to the presentations.

The Land Institute has the modest task of saving the world’s agriculture. The standard farming practice of much of the world—planting crops that only live one year, and which require megatonnage of fertilizers and pesticides—have long been causing immense soil erosion and pollution. The Land Institute scientists are busily making discoveries that can allow a transition to an agricultural system that uses perennial crops and in which crop biodiversity can reduce or even eliminate the need for chemicals. These are not just theoretical questions. They have also bred perennial edible grains such as kernza that have market value, that is, unless the big corporations that make money from wheat and corn bury it under layers of misinformation.

The Land Institute also knows that you cannot have an agricultural transition without having cultural support. The hundreds of attendees loved being there. We carry the good news of ecological agriculture back to our homes and lives (I teach university students about it). Hence the barn dance: this event has to be fun.

Some of the best scientists and environmental activists were there. Amory Lovins, founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented mounds of facts (all of them easy to understand, but there were lots of them) that the transition to sustainable energy, leaving behind fossils fuels, is not only possible but profitable, and not someday but right now. If left to themselves without political pressure from the Trump worshipers, citizens and utilities alike will favor energy efficiency. Another major speaker was BillMcKibben. The “minor” speakers were also amazing, such as the quietly confident evolutionary-scientist-turned-environmental-educator Ana Luz Porzecanski from the American Museum of Natural History.

But I cannot imagine that their effort will ultimately be successful. I know they will continue their efforts and enthusiasm—for the alternative is for us to give up and die.

Here are some of the things that make me less confident than ever that the efforts of sincere and intelligent environmentalists will change the world enough and in time to avert disaster.

I have always told my students that global warming itself is not going to kill anyone. It is the consequences, such as agricultural collapse, that are dangerous. I tell them that we simply cannot afford global warming. But Bill McKibben told about a place in the Middle East where the daytime temperaturesexceeded 129 degrees F in 2019. At this temperature, a human will die in three hours. (Be warned that every news outlet that covers this story requires you to enable ads or in some cases to subscribe before you can even look at their website.)

Unlike many of the attendees, I came away from the Festival with an action plan: to continue doing what I already do, which is to teach undergraduates about the problem. It fits right into general biology and general botany; indeed, it would be unethical to omit it. But for many of the others? I glanced over at a woman’s notes. There was very little specific information on them. She wrote, “Need dramatic change.” (She wrote Δ instead of change. In which case, maybe she was a science teacher who will make a difference.) “Must think in new ways,” she also wrote.

Bill McKibben spends much of his time protesting in ways that get him arrested. He is a professional jailbird in this sense. This includes protests against Trump anti-immigration policies. Why? Because many of these immigrants are environmental refugees, for example from drought-blighted farms in Honduras. I teach my students that there will soon be environmental refugees; India already has fences up to keep flooded Bangladeshis out when, someday, they lose most of their farmland. But apparently it isn’t someday; it’s now. But it is fortunate that McKibben gets arrested up in the Northeast, because if he protested in Texas, he would be guilty of a felony and face up to ten years in prison. This law took effect on September 1, 2019.

I have also always assumed that correct information about what is going on in the world is readily available. But I have recently found that many legitimate news sites require you to either enable advertisements to be downloaded to your computer, or that you subscribe. Perhaps the only news you can get is (overwhelmingly) from Trump-worshiper websites or (much less) from flaming liberal websites. Where is this wonderland of information promised by that new-fangled internet?

Whenever I leave a Prairie Festival, I feel good that so many sincere and intelligent people are at work on these vital problems. But as I drove back down into Oklahoma, and saw the hundreds of pieces of garbage on the roadside, my enthusiasm was drowned in the reality of the utter self-centeredness of the majority of people.