Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wonderful Diversity: The Shifting Lives of Plants

I just finished reading Jonathan Sauer’s Plant Migration: The Dynamics of Geographic Patterning in Seed Plant Species, published in 1988. In this book, the author was manifestly attempting to explain large-scale patterns and principles that governed the way in which plant species moved from one place to another. He tried to classify the different processes and kinds of habitat. He failed spectacularly. In some cases, he ended up with very, very short chapters when he found almost no examples of what should have been a general principle. The closest he came to a general law was the (trivially obvious) fact that dispersal is centrifugal (outward from a seed source) while natural selection is centripetal (getting rid of plants from places to which they have dispersed but cannot survive). Duh. He admitted that the conclusion he reached is that there are no general rules of plant migration. Each plant species has migrated during its history, and that every plant species has its own story. And he said he was pleased to have failed in his quest. I, also, am pleased. What a beautiful, diverse, quirky world this is, as illustrated by the history of each different plant species.

I enjoyed this book because I love stories. I read the Bible for its stories, not for the theological frameworks that have been imposed upon it. I read history because of its stories of unpredictable directions, not for some overarching theories.

Here are some examples from Sauer’s book that I found interesting.

  • The true cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylandicum) is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon; hence the name zeylandicum) and southern India. Then why is there a patch of it in Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar, about 3000 km away from Sri Lanka? A botanist might try to think of a way that cinnamon seeds might float on ocean currents and end up on Mauritius. But this is the way it actually happened. The Dutch had a monopoly on the spice trade, including cinnamon. The French wanted in on the trade, and managed to get some cinnamon plants to Mauritius, an island that they controlled. They planted some groves there. But in the face of an impending British invasion, they destroyed the garden. Too late; the birds had already spread the seeds from the garden to the surrounding forest.
  • Matricaria discoides is the little pineappleweed that grows in disturbed soils in Siberia but is also “native to” North America. Ever since I first saw this tiny plant growing in the compacted dirt of our junior high track in California, I have loved it: you can step on it, but it keeps growing. Its response to maltreatment is to release a beautiful pineapple scent. One might think that this plant was brought from Siberia to North America the same way as many other invasive plants such as Russian thistle (tumbleweed), by industrial transportation. But archaeological studies show that Matricaria was present in western North America before the arrival of Europeans. This indicates that it might have dispersed naturally or might have been carried by Native Americans when they first crossed the Bering land bridge.
  • Fennel is usually a small garden herb, but now that it has escaped from gardens into the disturbed grasslands around Santa Barbara (and on Santa Cruz island) they grow two or three meters tall and are almost the only large plants around.
  • The story of eastern Australia being taken over by Opuntia cactus from America in the early twentieth century, and their subsequent biological control, is well known to nature-lovers. What is less well known is that the Australian government blamed the spread of the cactus on emus, a large flightless native bird, eating the fruits. So, they set bounties on emus, which resulted in 335,000 emus being killed. The cactus only spread faster, up to 100 hectares per hour.
  • One of the ways that cactus spread in Australia was by the cactus pads sticking to livestock, falling off in a new location, and rooting.
  • Dam construction in the American southwest, at fever pace from the 1930s and 1960s, has led to the spread of the invasive tamarisk (salt cedar) in two ways. First, there are no longer downstream floods that would wash away the salt cedar thickets. Second, sand accumulation above the dam created new habitat for the tamarisks.

One theme that does recur over and over is that nearly all of the changes that humans have inflicted on the natural world have been disruptive. The natural world is incredibly complex, and whatever happens in one part causes a change in another part. Humans have tried to impose simplicity on a system that was never meant to have it, whether it was sheep ranches on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands or farms in the Midwest. To force nature to stay within the conceptual boundaries we have set for it is like getting a two-year-old to always do exactly what you want. Only it’s worse, because every species is like a squirming toddler. Just about the only example of humans doing something constructive was that the goats which overran Santa Catalina Island off the California coast stayed away from the resort town of Avalon, perhaps scared of the people, and this allowed the native chaparral and sage to grow back.

A major example of human interference has been fire suppression, about which I have previously written in this blog. Foresters wanted to control all wildfires but, Sauer said on page 130, they “quickly realized…that they had grabbed a tiger by the tail.” In the absence of small fires, dead wood builds up, with the result that any fires that do start will be infernos.

Another recurring theme is that colonial powers have repeatedly kicked out native peoples who were living sustainably, whether Native American or native New Caledonian people, and then impose a system unsuited to the land and which inevitably fails. Fire suppression is a good example. David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir is named, saw Natives burning savannas in 1826.

Sauer brought part of the confusion on himself. He included migration in space, whether it was migrations of just a few meters or migrations halfway around the world. He included migration in time, whether just since the last ice age or since the beginning of plant life on dry land. The result was a mishmashed compendium of fascinating stories. But I liked it anyway. Long live diversity!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Our Continuing Shame of Racism: A View from 1964

 The days are counting down here in Tulsa for the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which started on May 31, 1921. For many years, is event, in which white Tulsans burned to the ground the prosperous Greenwood district, in which black people created thriving businesses. It has been difficult to get very many facts about what happened, even a total count of how many were killed (mostly? all?) black, of what kinds of atrocities may or may not have been carried out. Newspaper accounts from the time vanished from microfilms, and a police box of photographs has vanished. You can, and I plan to, read more about it in Scott Ellsworth’s The Groundbreaking.

The commission that has planned the commemoration used to include Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, but when he signed the bill that effectively outlawed teaching the history of racism in Oklahoma, the rest of the commission removed him from membership. Stitt attempted no defense of his actions.

The oppression of blacks (and even more so of other minorities) in America has tarnished our international reputation, even now that the president who at least went along with it is out of office. Every time there is a new police shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, especially when no action is taken, as recently in North Carolina, the world thinks more and more of us as a land of racial oppression. This is something that even Joe Biden cannot change, and the world knows it.

My point in this essay is that this has been going on for a long time. In 1964, Jorgen Bisch visited China, in the heyday of its Maoist oppression, and wrote an article about what he saw for National Geographic (published November 1964). One of the things that he saw, and that alarmed him, was “communist propaganda.” Schoolchildren had written essays about how white Americans oppressed blacks. The author saw some of those essays posted on a wall, and took a photo of them.

In one of the essays, a white Uncle Sam is walking away from a black man. In another, a black American is holding up a red flag of liberation from racist oppression. Look at this photo, because I very much doubt you will see it anywhere else.

At that time, white Americans really were oppressing and sometimes killing blacks, and worse was to come. This bad image of Uncle Sam was justified. Resentment toward America was justified.

We recognize, of course, that the Chinese government was far worse, not just toward its own citizens who appeared to even slightly differ from Chairman Mao’s views, but also in the way it treated its own minority groups—to the extent that you may not have even known that there were minority ethnicities in China. Even the normally meek Joe Biden has called China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority “genocide.”

I believe we are not as bad as the communists were and are. But it sure doesn’t help much when we project to the world the racist hatred that we do have. Our right-wing extremism plays right into the propaganda machines of our competitors and potential enemies.

And we use Christianity to justify it. I recently went to a fundamentalist church meeting in Durant, Oklahoma, where the speaker proclaimed that the new requirements to teach about racism were satanic. He meant this literally. His evidence was that the watchwords for the fight against racism were Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity—the first letters of which spell DIE. This shit is so extreme that you can’t make it up. The speaker digressed from his theme only long enough to proclaim that Biden stole 41 million votes (I did not make this number up) from Trump.

This is a blog about science and evolution. This essay, like many others, reinforces the theme that there is no biological or evolutionary justification for racism.

Armed protests are planned for the Race Massacre commemoration. What could possibly go wrong? As a white-presenting Tulsa resident, I’m getting a little nervous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Big Headlines! Why America Will Never Convert to Electric Vehicles

It’s the big headline today! Ford is going to formally announce its new all-electric F-150 pickup truck! Oh, can’t you just barely contain the excitement! Yesterday, President Biden took one for a test drive in a lot where everything a 78-year-old man might run over had been removed.


This year, General Motors announced that it plans to phase out electric vehicles by 2035 and manufacture only electric vehicles. (Note: this site may have a paywall.) I here briefly explain why this will not happen.

It is true that hybrid and electric vehicles get much better fuel efficiency, without sacrificing maneuverability, than gasoline vehicles. Anyone like myself who has driven one will attest to this. I enjoy my hybrid more than any car I have ever owned. Mine is a Prius but I have no reason to doubt the quality of other brands.

But it will never happen in America, or at least in Oklahoma.

This is because, in America, the purpose of a vehicle is not only, perhaps not mainly, transportation. At least where I live in Oklahoma, the major purpose of a vehicle for many people is not transportation, but to express dominance, fury, and frustration to everyone within hearing or collision range.

Redneck Okies love to drive around big, noisy, fuming trucks even when they have nowhere they need to go. They drive them fast, which means they sometimes cannot control them. For this purpose, an electric vehicle simply will not work.

First, the vehicles have to be big. Size itself should be no deterrent to the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles. Rednecks think that nobody can admire them if they drive a small vehicle. By actual count, about one-third of all vehicles I have seen in Oklahoma are big pickup trucks. Therefore, most electric vehicles will be unacceptable to redneck Okies though perhaps to other Oklahomans.

Second, the vehicles have to be heavy. One of the ways in which hybrid and electric vehicles get good fuel efficiency is by using lightweight components. But redneck Okies want to have not just large trucks but heavy ones. The reason for this is that they want to express their fury by driving around a vehicle that can bash other vehicles without harming their own. To them, the entire system of roads is a potential demolition derby. This, at least, has been my experience. In my family, we have had collisions that were not our fault on four occasions in the last couple of decades. In each case, the driver was a white man with a larger vehicle, on two occasions a large truck. One of those collisions—very recent, and an ongoing source of grief—was a hit-and-run in which the white man with the big pickup drove away from the scene, after causing an injury. The victims were my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. In another case, my vehicle was totaled by a pickup truck that did not get even a scratch—and the driver had false insurance cards. In none of these cases did the police actually seek out the drivers. It was, instead, the insurance companies that did so. Public safety does not matter; only profit. But at least there is profit in the service of public safety, from time to time. In order for a pickup truck to crush a smaller vehicle, it does not need to just be large but to be heavy. Electric and hybrid vehicles, even when large, are relatively light.

Third, the vehicle has to produce a lot of noise. The redneck drivers want everyone around them to hear their dominance, fury, and frustration. At both of my residences in Oklahoma, there is nearly a constant stream of big pickup trucks that are extremely loud. The drivers want us to admire them—and they assume everyone admires a loud truck. Maybe the redneck guys think they can get a gal that way. “Oh, wow, he must be such a man—he can push down a gas pedal!” Whether there really are any women who are that stupid or not I do not know. When I see the looks on the faces of the drivers, I sometimes see fury and frustration. Electric and hybrid vehicles are quiet. By actual count, at least half of the beg pickup trucks I see are loud. The technology exists for even a heavy truck to be quiet, as about half of them are. But a quiet truck is, to the rednecks among Oklahomans, unacceptable.

Fourth, the vehicle has to produce a lot of fumes. A truck with good fuel efficiency cannot produce fumes. Fumes are a way for the driver to create a space of dominance around him an to antagonize other people.

For these four reasons, hybrid and electric vehicles will never predominate in Oklahoma, unless there is a complete, and nearly impossible, shift away from the redneck culture. Here in Oklahoma, we still fly confederate flags, for God’s sake (at least the rednecks think it is for God’s sake).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Arizona Ballot Audit: Miracles in the Service of Racism

This week, the Arizona re-audit of 2020 election ballots received international attention. This is a science blog. The Arizona re-audit of ballots provides a good opportunity to examine the process of scientific inquiry, in fact the process of determining the truth, and the results are not pretty. They indicate a strong tendency within the Arizona Republican Party, and the Republican Party in general, toward racism.

AP photo

Most Arizona Republicans are, we assume, not racist. But enough of them are that they have started a conspiracy theory: that 20,000 ballots were flown in from China pre-marked for Biden and Harris; that these ballots were stuffed into ballot boxes, thus contributing to a Democratic victory in Arizona. And the rest of the Arizona Republicans, even those who call the conspiracy theorists crazy and unhinged, are going along with them in support of the re-audit. 

I will apply some of the ideas in my recent book, Scientifically Thinking, to this claim, not because the conspiracy theory deserves any examination, but in order to learn some things, some very disturbing things, about Republicans.

First, there is open and obvious bias in the re-audit. The contractor conducting the audit is called CyberNinjas. With a name like that, the far-right Republican bias of the contractor is obvious. They are looking only for things that will, in their estimation, prove the Chinese connection, and can easily overlook any evidence to the contrary, even if individual employees do not intend to do so.

Second, the conspiracy claim is untestable. If the Republicans find any ballots that they consider to be fraudulent, they will claim that they have proven that the election was stolen—a claim that Donald Trump still makes, and that about half of Republicans believe with religious fervor, even if they do not believe the China theory. But if they do not, they will merely claim that the fraud was so perfect that it left no evidence. That is, the conspiracy theorists have already decided that they are correct, no matter which conclusion is reached by the audit.

Third, is their scenario even possible? How could China have gotten 20,000 ballots slipped into ballot boxes in Arizona? Did Chinese nationals carry ballots with them to the United States, travel to Arizona, and cram the ballots in? Is there any evidence that there was an influx of Chinese nationals going to Arizona? Or, perhaps, the Chinese government sent them to Chinese nationals who were already here. Since there is no evidence of Chinese nationals visiting Arizona or stuffing ballots, then it must have been Asian Americans who did it and did so without leaving any evidence. Sneaky devils! And that is my point. This conspiracy theory is racist because it buys in with widespread hatred of Asian Americans, which came to national attention in 2021. It would require supernatural powers for the Asian Americans to sneak the ballots into the boxes, and to coordinate this activity among themselves without the use of social media. That is, they would have to be demons. This is something that some Arizona Republicans believe, and the others are willing to consider as a possibility.

Fourth, what are the criteria for the evidence? I can hardly say it, it is so weird: they are looking for bamboo fibers in the paper on which the ballots were printed. Bamboo fibers in the paper would, they think, prove that the ballots were printed in China. Most Chinese paper is probably made from the wood of poplar, of which China has large plantations. But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the paper. One question is, how much bamboo would they consider to be enough bamboo to call it bamboo-based paper? But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the first place. A microscopic view of bamboo xylem (found here but which I cannot copy for this essay) looks almost the same as any other xylem, which is the kind of fiber from which paper is typically made. My point is that the conspiracy theorists never bothered to specify how bamboo fibers were to be recognized.

None of this really matters, of course. The Arizona Republican racists will continue to claim that Trump won the state and national election, even without ANY evidence to back it up. To them, it is a matter of religious devotion. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake (warning: this site has a paywall and may demand money from you to look at the article) said in a radio interview on May 14, 2021 that his party (if they allow him to remain) is in denial of reality. I would go further and say that they do not believe there is such a thing as reality except whatever Donald Trump asserts. That is their entire reality.

This is such an extreme position—not simply unscientific, but against the very basis of human consciousness—that some Republicans are calling for others to form a new party.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Bring It On, Comrade: We Love Being Vulnerable

Our energy system is wide open to Russian cyberattacks and we are just fine with it. Go ahead, comrade, bring it on. Shut us down so that we don’t have any oil and gas. We’re lying here with our fat bellies to the sun just waiting for you to stab us.

By now everyone has heard about the cyberattack on the pipeline in the eastern US that briefly shut down supplies of oil and gas to the southeastern US. Colonial Pipeline paid $5 in ransom to the attackers in cryptocurrency. The cyberattackers were merely identified as Eastern European.

But what if the price they asked was too high, and the pipeline continued to be shut down?

Or what if the cyberattack had been on Cushing, Oklahoma? This is the town through which all the oil and gas for the entire country flows, or so I am told, though I find this hard to believe. It does, however, have an effect on the oil industry all out of proportion to its size: it stores 13% of the oil in America.

Most of the problems with the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack was panic buying by people who feared that they would be temporarily without gasoline. But what if the cyberattack was prolonged, or if it shut down Cushing?

Because of pipelines, our oil supplies are vulnerable to attack—formerly physical attack by terrorists, and now cyberattacks by our comrades overseas. There is not much we can do about this. Oil comes from wells, travels through pipes, to refineries and then to retail points.

But renewable energy is not usually so vulnerable. You can collect solar energy, either passively through mirrors or directly into electricity, anywhere. It can be distributed on a local grid. And the wind blows everywhere. I suppose cyberattackers could shut solar and wind energy down, but it would take thousands of attacks.

We have known this for decades. I grew up in Cushing. We moved away in 1964. My parents told me, while we were there, that Cushing was at the top of the Soviet nuclear hit list, because of the oil “tank farms” and pipelines.

Not only to prevent global warming, but also to prevent cyberattacks that can cripple our energy system, we need to make a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, even if Comrade Trump insists that we should not.

Another Message from Fluff: This is Exactly How I Feel!


Fluff the cottonwood tree asked me to pass this on to you from The Onion.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Reforestation: The Miyawaki Method

A popular new method of replanting forests that have been devastated was developed many years ago by a Japanese botanist, Akira Miyawaki (now 93 years old). This method is now being used around the world and is especially popular in the tropical parts of India.

The method is supposedly simple, but of course there are a lot of details. Nevertheless, the basic idea is very simple: plant a thick growth of seedlings of native tree species and let them thin themselves out into a diverse forest. It is the exact opposite of a tree plantation, which consists of a single tree species, each tree spaced out enough that it will probably survive. We have a lot of plantations in Oklahoma, mostly loblolly pines used by Weyerhaeuser Corporation for wood pulp, mostly along State Highway 3 on the east side of the state. Instead, the Miyawaki method is an almost exact replication of natural forest succession, except that it skips the weedy and shrubby stages, going directly to the forest stage. If you use a mixture of native species, they will not only be adapted to local conditions, but will interweave themselves into different layers and roles.

But this is not what I found the most interesting about the method. To me, the most important part was that this method allows nature itself to do the thinning-out of the trees. You know that a lot of them are going to die, but the result will be astonishing.

Plant ecologist K. Yoda found that a thick growth of plants would thin itself out as the bigger plants grew bigger and the smaller ones died. This is hardly surprising in itself. But Yoda found that in a graph in which the average plant weight is a function of density, both on logarithmic scales, the slope of the line was very close to -3/2. The confusing thing about such a graph is that the time axis goes backwards: you have to read the graph from right to left. Or is it backwards? Remember that in Japan they traditionally read right to left. This discovery, like the Miyawaki method, came out of Japan. Here is a recent article about this pattern. Yoda used monocultures (a single species) but it apparently works with polycultures as well.

My message is simple: If you want to restore nature, let nature do it, giving it just a little help.