Monday, December 27, 2021

Where Has Optimism Gone? Reflections at the End of the Year

In the process of downsizing my library, I ran across a book that was important in 1990: The Decade of Destruction, by Adrian Cowell. The decade he referred to was the 1980s, and the destruction was of the tropical rainforests. And he was optimistic. As Cowell explored the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s, he saw that there were no groups who were trying to save the Amazon from destruction. By 1990, things looked very different. There were many rainforest conservation groups, not just in developed countries (think Rainforest Action Network) but also many local groups in the Amazon. Cowell wrote his book just as Lula da Silva was coming to power as Brazil’s prime minister, and he had appointed a sincere conservationist, Jose Lutzenberger, as Secretary of the Environment.

I think it is safe to say that optimism related to the Amazon rainforest is receding quickly. Lula da Silva was a disappointment, and “Lutz” quickly departed the scene. The 1980s was the time of the movie The Emerald Forest, when it seemed like the way to save the rainforest was to allow tribes to go back to their primitive way of life and leave them alone. But few such people exist anymore. Further, we cannot protect the Amazon rainforest merely by leaving it alone. Global warming is already causing destructive wildfires in the Amazon Basin, a process that is predicted to get much worse in upcoming decades. Already, the Amazon is a net emitter of carbon dioxide.

While I was mourning the inexorable destruction of the Amazon rainforest, I followed the news about the wildfire destruction of the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada of California, which just barely missed Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. When I was a child, Giant Forest seemed the closest thing I could imagine to Heaven on Earth. I thought this when I was a Christian fundamentalist, and continued thinking it when, later, my religious views were less well defined. But there is no more hope for the ancient North American forests than for the Amazon.

Here is an image from Rainforest Action Network, in which you can see the border of Guatemala and Belize, with rainforest destruction on the Honduras side.

I feel, and I sense that many others feel, a sense of resignation. We live in a dysfunctional economy and society, in which I feel lucky each day to simply not be killed. Wildfires in the west and almost weekly hurricanes in the southeast are the new normal. It is now almost normal in the summer, in Oklahoma, to see the sun dim and red while it is yet far above the horizon, because of smoke from western wildfires. I am giving away Cowell’s book in part because I can hardly bear the thought that there was a time when many of us felt optimism.

And I thus end 2021.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Adaptive Stories: Another Message from Fluff the Cottonwood Tree

This is Fluff the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers). I think this is my sixth message that Stan has agreed to post for me on his blog. I live about a half block away from his house in Oklahoma.

Adaptation is the process or the outcome of evolution in which populations become more successful in their habitats. If you want a more detailed discussion of adaptation, read about it in Stan’s Encyclopedia of Evolution. But you get the point.

Adaptations sometimes seem obvious. For example, leaves are flat because this allows the green cells inside them to absorb more light and allows them to absorb the yummy carbon dioxide more quickly. For such adaptations as these, it is easy to figure out the reason for the adaptation.

But other characteristics are more difficult to explain. Look at this photo of cottonwood leaves. Aren’t they beautiful? I have now shed all of my leaves for the winter, but about three months from now I will grow thousands of new ones.

Notice the teeth along the edges of my leaves. Truly artistic! I’m not bragging, but do you humans have anything this beautiful about your bodies?

But are these teeth an adaptation? Stan insists that they are. Toothed leaves, said Stan, are better in cooler climates, and he showed me a website that made this very point. But there are plenty of exceptions to this pattern. Maybe this is just an adaptive story, insightful but not necessarily true. Maybe trees of the genus Populus, including me, just have a genetic tendency to have toothed leaves, and we also happen to live north of the tropics. These two facts may not be connected at all.

An even better example of an adaptive story is about fluttering leaves. My leaves, as those of all cottonwoods, poplars and aspens, flutter in the wind, creating a delightful shimmering sensation. All leaves move in the wind, producing a sound called susurrus (one of Stan’s favorite words), but my leaves and those of my evolutionary relatives don’t just rustle in the wind; they almost twinkle. Some aspens are called quaking aspens, or trembling aspens, because of this most obvious and beautiful characteristic. This occurs because our leaf petioles are flat rather than round.

Botanists like Stan say that this fluttering movement increases the rate at which carbon dioxide gets into our leaves. Sorry, Stan, but that is almost certainly just an adaptive story. Of course, fluttering leaves absorb more carbon dioxide; and almost any fast-growing plant benefits from having lots of carbon dioxide. Why, then, is it just us members of the genus Populus that have this characteristics? Why don’t sycamores, which like us grow along rivers, have fluttery leaves? There are some that live only a few meters away from me.

To tell the difference between an adaptive story and a scientific explanation, you need to not only explain the advantage of the characteristic, but why you don’t see all organisms that live under the same conditions with that characteristic.

Cottonwood leaves flutter, and as a result we have more photosynthesis. But other trees achieve the same result in different ways. There is no answer to the question of why my leaves flutter in the wind more than those of sycamore trees. Meanwhile, just look at my leaves and admire them.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Science: Close Observation Reveals a World of Wonder

However, without science, close observation is just tedious. There is no point in looking closely at the world if you are just going to make a compendium of random things that you see without understanding how they work.

I was reminded of this recently when I ran across my copy of The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. He called it a novel. But it had no plot. Or, as David Gates, a reviewer for Newsweek, said, “a plot that is completely out to lunch.” [2 January 1989]


Here is the plot. A man (Howie) rides an escalator during his lunch break to buy something. Then he went back to work. I think that’s pretty much it. I don’t think I missed anything in the plot.

It was not a novel. But that’s fine. It might have been better marketed as an exercise in close observation. Baker was encouraging his readers to start looking closely at and noticing even the most ordinary aspects of the world around them.

This is a wonderful objective. The problem is that Baker did not seek to understand anything that he saw. When Howie saw something that he did not understand, he simply speculated about it based on random and inadequate knowledge. I wrote in the margin of the first page, “I love it when someone writes awesome things about ordinary events; but this author writes ordinary things about ordinary events.”

For example, Howie wonders about how perforations are made in commercial paper. But, lacking the inquisitiveness of a scientist, he just makes up random speculations, without trying to find out how perforations are actually made in commercial paper.

When Baker wrote about the beautiful sounds of farts, I laughed out loud, because it stood out as the only thing interesting in the whole book.

Maybe somebody should write a book in which the first-person observer looks as closely at things as did Howie, and then thinks about the scientific explanations for them. Science is hiding in every little cranny of ordinary life. Baker wrote about farts. Why not write about the incredibly fascinating world of intestinal bacteria—nearly all of them beneficial to our bodies—that produce the gas? He wrote about his unsuccessful attempts to conquer insomnia. This was not merely counting sheep, but an entire discourse—in a footnote—about how the sheep are delivered to his apartment by a sheep dispatcher. But he could have written about the two entirely separate sets of motor nerves, one of which awakens us, the other of which relaxes us, instead of the details of his failed attempts to sleep. Instead of annoyingly trivial guesses, the result would be a new appreciation of our bodies.

Baker has made a career out of taking fascinating ideas and making them dull. His novel—maybe this one actually was a novel—The Fermata was about a man (named Arno, even more annoying than Howie) who found that by sliding his glasses down his nose he could make the whole world go into suspended animation except for him. This is an astonishing premise. What wonders a competent writer could create from this! But Arno just piddled around with not-quite-sex. I wish I could write a novel about how a man with this ability might change the world or at least have exciting adventures. But I cannot because Baker already ruined the premise.

Yes, a scientist should write a book like The Mezzanine or The Fermata and make it actually interesting. But it won’t be me. Nicholson Baker has already poisoned the water. If I proposed such a book to my agent, she would probably say Baker already did that, and ruined any possible chances of anyone else doing it better. That is, assuming she remembers either of these books. She told me the publishing industry has a short memory.

A short memory can be, in certain cases, a blessing.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Was Love Born in a Manger?


A church sign I saw out in the country in Oklahoma recently read, “Love Was Born in a Manger.” I will briefly explain why this is wrong.

Most of my life, devoutly Christian, I was deeply moved, almost suffocated, by my belief that Jesus represented the manifestation of God’s love to humankind. I was wrong. The stories of Jesus are wonderful—certainly, in my mind, Jesus represents some of the finest of human love—and I wish I could still believe that love was born in a manger at Christmas.

But I will now explain why this belief is wrong.

The statement implies that, without Jesus having been born, or foreordained from the beginning of Creation to be born, then there would be no love. But it is quite clear that love evolved. I do not mean  in some vague way as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote about decades ago. I mean that love evolved by means of natural selection.


I am talking about altruism. Love promotes altruism which promotes fitness. Not always, but often. To love your offspring and, to a lesser extent, your relatives increases fitness through inclusive fitness. To love your friends increases fitness through direct reciprocity. To have a reputation for being kind and generous increases fitness through indirect reciprocity. Natural selection favors whatever increases our fitness. Often this is hatred, but often (perhaps even more often) it is love. Natural selection gave us the instinct of love. The evidence is that it feels so good. We need food; natural selection favored millions of years of animals who, when hungry, love the taste of food. We need water; natural selection favored millions of years of animals who, when thirsty, love water. Love is an appetite, just as much as sex, food, and water. Whether we decide to use the instinct of love or not is up to each of us individually.

There is another problem with the belief that Jesus is the origin of all love. It implies that those of us who do not accept the doctrines about Jesus (however much we may love Him) do not really love other people, the natural world, or God. We are either faking it or are totally deluded. What I experience, when I feel love for Jesus or for other people or for the creation, is not genuine, according to this view.

But I know what I am thinking. I know for a fact that I am not faking it. Billions of people who are not doctrinal Christians love people, the natural world, and God very passionately. Some are lying, but we can’t all be lying. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it would be the height of arrogance to claim that I am the only non-doctrinally-Christian person who sincerely loves other people. Many doctrinal Christians would claim that those of us who reject their doctrines might sincerely believe we are sincere, but it is in fact a delusion. I am not deluded. The burden of proof is on doctrinal Christians who claim that all who reject their doctrines are either liars or lunatics.

If, in fact, love does not exist apart from a doctrinal Jesus, then it must come from somewhere else. It must be part of human nature. And, as I wrote above, I believe that evolution put it there. Love is a basic instinct.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and though you may not think it possible, I believe Merry Christmas.