Friday, October 22, 2021

The Deadly Tomato


As I walked through the weeds between the early-successional trees in the field about which I earlier wrote, I noticed a Solanum dimidiatum weed (horsenettle). It was in the same genus as the potato, a close relative of the tomato. And it had what looked like little green tomatoes on it. This is the time of year when tomatoes are really good. But if you think these tomatoes might be delicious, think again. The entire plant is filled with toxins that are dangerous, even deadly, to most animals.


[Photo from Carolina Biological Supply Company] 

The horsenettle plant expends a lot of its energy creating these toxic compounds [what are they]. Expensive they may be, but they protect the plant from having its leaves eaten by most animals. But there is at least one group of animals that can eat the leaves as if they are not toxic at all. The sphinx moth (Sphingidae) caterpillars (hornworms) of the genus Manduca can eat them with little effect on their growth. I know this because I have measured the growth of hornworms when they ate ground-up horsenettle leaves and when they did not; their growth was the same. The toxins do not protect the horsenettles from hornworms, but in many cases, there are no hornworms about. The plant is taking a chance. It invests in imperfect, but usually good, protection.

You may wonder how to compare hornworms that eat horsenettle tissue and those that do not. To what do you compare the ones that do? This is an interesting story. You can purchase little hornworms, special vials to grow them in, and hornworm chow. They do not naturally eat this chow, but if you start them on it when very young, they will eat it and grow grossly big. It is sort of hornworm junk food. The control worms are the ones that eat only the chow; the experimental worms have horsenettle tissue mixed in with the chow.

Herbivores, and the defenses of plants against them, are a constantly moving evolutionary target. They hardly ever get it right, but they come close enough that there are lots of plants, and lots of herbivores, in the world. Any plant that invested too much in defense would grow slowly and die; but if it invested too little, it would disappear down the gullets of extinction. There is a balance of nature, but it is imperfect and shifting.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Deliberate Attack on Altruism

Altruism, within the human species, is where someone does something nice for another person with no calculated expectation of a reward for it. Of course, if there were never any rewards for people doing good deeds, this behavior pattern would never have evolved in humans. Everyone who does a good, altruistic deed at least hopes that he or she will receive some reward, directly or indirectly, but does not do a calculation in advance of the deed. There often isn’t any time for such a calculation. The calculation was done by natural selection in millions of years of our evolutionary ancestors, and today it is instinctual. In the past, doing good deeds was profitable. It remains so today.

But altruism is under attack in Texas. Everyone has heard about the Texas abortion law, which empowers anyone (not even a Texas resident) to sue anyone else whom they suspect, even if they cannot prove, of providing, or even “aiding or abetting,” an abortion in Texas. The Texas law establishes an inducement: the plaintiff can get $10,000. Suppose the defendant is innocent. The defendant has to prove his or her innocence in court, a lengthy process, and legal fees can be very expensive. The law specifies that the defendant cannot recover those fees, presumably even for a frivolous suit. Somebody can sue me because they claim that they think I helped someone get an abortion, even in the absence of evidence, and I am stuck with the time and expense of proving myself innocent.

The major thing about this law is not that it is about abortion. It is that the law takes a Texas aim at altruism. It incentivizes citizens to turn against fellow citizens for profit.

Political conservatives, especially gun-nuts, have long taken aim (literally?) at altruism. They promote a sign in which one neighbor proclaims that another neighbor does not have a gun. This amounts to inviting criminals to burglarize the gun-free house and perhaps to kill the owner. The gun-nut neighbor does not have the guts to go and kill his neighbor himself, so he puts up a sign inviting criminals to do the job for him. This is a totally blatant attack on the goodwill of one citizen for another. This is common enough of an occurrence that you can buy signs like this one on Amazon. I have searched, but found no indication, that this is a joke. Please, let it be a joke—but I fear it is not.

I thought it was against the law to incite one citizen to commit a crime against another citizen. Certainly if I put up signs urging people to kill Donald Trump, I would get in trouble for it. But this apparently does not apply to people who want to destroy all community goodwill and turn America into a madhouse of hatred.

As it turns out, the worst that people like me feared from the Texas abortion law has not yet come to pass. It was too extreme even for most conservatives, except for the legislators and governor who thought that Texans would all admire them for trying to destroy community goodwill. Apparently even most Texas Republicans do not want to see their state become a madhouse of hatred. There have, at the time of this writing, been only two lawsuits filed. One of them was from a disbarred Arkansas lawyer. As you might expect from a lawyer who breaks the law, he was allowed to sue for $10,000 so he sued for $100,000.

The intent of the law was to scare women away from having abortions in Texas, not because it is illegal, but because their facilitators would not be able to afford defending themselves against the lawsuits. It is, in fact, having this effect. This is now The Texas Way. Hey, pardner, we can use this approach for any conservative cause. So giddy up! What else can we do with this legal procedure?

Conservatives all over the country are foaming at the mouth at the fact that there are minority voters who do not share their white supremacist agenda. If an extremist right-wing state like Texas wanted to pass a law against minority voting, it would be quickly declared unconstitutional, even faster than they could wipe their butts with the constitution. But they could pass a law saying that anyone anywhere could file a suit against someone they suspect of voter fraud, and the defendant would have to pay the legal fees. It would take months to resolve the case. This is an easy and, if the Texas abortion law is any guide, legal way to keep minority voters away. Minority voters, rather than to face this kind of opposition that might send them into homelessness, will simply stay away from the polls where right-wing poll-watchers will take their pictures and download them directly onto litigation documents.

Minority voters could use this same law against white voters. I think that, in the court in which money rules, they would not be successful. But what if they were? What if organized minorities suppressed the white vote? That would just be one more example of what I am saying—that the Texas way promotes neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen, even if it is not necessarily an attack of conservatives or whites against others.

Could such a law actually work? We do not know. But it is impossible to not believe that the Texas legislature would be willing to give it a try. While there are lots of nice Texans—I know some—these nice Texans have absolutely no influence on their lawmakers, who are turning Texas into a medieval fortress of oppression. And there are plenty of pathogenic right-wingers who would be delighted to do the same in other states.

The only way I can be safe from lawsuit in Texas is to not go to Texas. I haven’t been there for a long time, and I will never go there again. I encourage all of you to also stay out of Texas. It ain’t a place for nice people.

This is supposed to be a science blog. This essay is about the science of altruism. But I really, really want to get back to writing about trees and stuff. Maybe this political craziness will slow down just long enough for me to do so. Fluff the Cottonwood Tree has another essay she wants me to post. I hope to do it soon.

Monday, October 4, 2021

This Is Starting to Get Crazy


Many of the Americans who oppose covid vaccination and mask mandates are fierce and even crazy. There has been nothing like it in medical history. Never before have so many people vehemently attacked medical science, at least not since Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination about 1800.

On Tuesday, September 28, a man in Wichita Falls, Texas, tried to enter a hospital without a mask. A security guard told him that the hospital required masks. The man became so angry that he attacked the guard and bit his thumb clear to the bone. You can read about it here from a local Texas newspaper.

This is beginning to look like a plague of insanity.