Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Beware of Generalizations: A Pollination Story

Botanists teach that wind-pollinated plants produce lots of pollen and do not bother with nectar or pretty petals. Nectar and pretty petals attract bees, which carry pollen efficiently between one flower and another. Wind-pollinated flowers, however, produce lots of pollen and let the wind carry it. That’s the story. That’s what everybody teaches (I did) you will find in every book (including mine). And, in general, it is true.

But keep your eyes open for exceptions to the rule. I was out for a hike, not expecting to see anything out of the ordinary. But I kept my eyes open. This is what I saw:

This ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) produces lots of pollen, but no nectar or colorful petals. Bees are not as stupid as we sometimes think. This honeybee found the pollen, without needing to be attracted to the flowers. She started stuffing as much pollen as possible in her pollen buckets. She probably went back to the nest to deposit bee bread, but no nectar.

I assumed that I could tell what pollinates a flower by just looking at it. If animals such as bees pollinate it, it should have colorful petals. Consider willows. Even though the male flowers have very inconspicuous petals, they have big anthers full of pollen. The female flowers also have very inconspicuous petals. I assumed willows were wind pollinated. But it turns out that the flowers have nectar, and bees can smell it. It is bees that pollinate willows.

Close and repeated observations reveal the truths of nature. Quick glances and generalizations do not.

In the next essay, I will tell a story about another generalization, involving leaves and photosynthesis, which turns out to have exceptions.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

War Against Farmers and the Land

Vandana Shiva, a prominent author in India, titled her essay “Globalization and the War against Farmers and the Land,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader edited by Norman Wirzba (2003).

At first this title seemed to be hyperbole. But she was serious that international agribusiness corporations were actually at war against farmers (that is, poor farmers) and the land. And the more I read, I became convinced that she was right. The corporations, of course, do not see themselves in this way. The essay is outdated only in the numbers that it cites; the basic situation is little changed since 2003.

The kind of agriculture that is promoted by big agribusiness around the world is the kind that requires farmers to buy patented seeds and to use expensive inputs, such as irrigation water, pesticides, and fertilizers. The fields are monocultures, which consist of only one type of crop (the cash crop). There are many poor farmers (especially in India, about which Shiva knows a lot) who cannot afford these purchases or, if they do, they go into debt; and each round of harvest makes them fall deeper and deeper in debt. (I cannot help but think of Sixteen Tons, the song about American coal miners who worked hard only to find themselves deeper in debt every year.) As a direct result of being overwhelmed with debt, Shiva indicates, many farmers in India have committed suicide, often by drinking pesticides. Farmers who are not quite so desperate just sell their kidneys. Agribusiness may provide cheap food for you, American consumer, but brings unspeakable misery to poor farmers who raise it. The situation is little different in Mexico, according to Angus Wright’s book The Death of Ramón González, where farm workers endure (or don’t live to endure) pesticide poisoning so that Americans can have cheap fresh vegetables in winter.

Of course, agribusiness corporations will not say “We make huge profits off of human suffering.” Instead, they have to come up with a justification, and to do so they use creative numbers. Here are some examples.

First, the corporations need to convince people that monocultures (one type of crop) have superior yields to polycultures (different crops mixed together). According to their published figures, monocultures always outproduce polycultures. But the way they calculate these yields is on an area basis: tonnes of yield per hectare. They are hoping that we will not notice their mathematical sleight-of-hand. Of course a hectare of just wheat will have higher wheat yields than a hectare of wheat mixed with beans. All other things being equal, a hectare of monoculture wheat will yield exactly twice as much wheat as a hectare that is only half wheat. That is like saying that nobody lives in your house because, at this moment, your bedroom has no one in it. But if you calculate crop yields over the whole countryside of wheat and beans, polycultures almost always outproduce monocultures. This, according to Shiva, is the correct way to calculate the yields. She calls this the land equivalent ratio (LER). In India, the overall LER is 1.62. That is, polycultures yield 62 percent more than monocultures. Or, if you calculate a polyculture’s yield just on the basis of the actual area used by a particular crop, the yield is 62 percent higher. A cassava/maize/groundnut polyculture outproduces monocultures of these three crops by a factor of 2.51.

Sometimes, polycultures (that is, traditional native gardens) can outproduce monocultures by an even greater factor. Shiva gives an example of terraced fields in the Himalayas, which produce jhangora, marsha, tur, urad, gahat, soybean, bhat, rayans, swanta, and kodo. (You’ve probably never heard of any of these, except soybean, but the people eat them.) Shiva notes that the polycultures produce six times more yield than monoculture rice even during dry years. I would have said, especially during dry years, because different crops have different water requirements, and a drought is unlikely to kill all the different kinds of crops, thus leaving some food—and income—for the poor farmers.

The biodiversity in traditional polycultures can be breathtaking. Shiva notes that in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers (mostly women) cultivate 120 different kinds of food plants in the spaces alongside the cash crops. Of course, this reduces the yield of the cash crops a little, but not as much as you might expect, since the food crops compete only partially for light and moisture with the cash crops.

To top it all off, the monocultures are for cash crops intended for other people, not the farmers, to eat. Would a monoculture of kodo out-yield the kodo grown in polycultures? Nobody knows, since the agribusiness corporations do not sell kodo seeds, and nobody knows whether or how much kodo yield would increase with fertilizer and pesticides.

Clearly, agribusiness monoculture would not survive long if its success depended on feeding local people. Then why does it persist? One reason is that agribusiness has convinced international lending agencies that the only profitable kind of agriculture is based on irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide. The loans, therefore, are for groundwater pumps and chemicals. If you just want to raise food for your village, it is hard to get a loan, and even harder to pay it back. Recently, mostly since Shiva wrote this piece, microcredit has become available to many small farmers, craftspeople, etc. These are very small loans that can be paid back when a farmer, using whatever methods she prefers, earns profits from extra crops or from crafts. The developers of the idea of microcredit (Muhammad Yunus and the leaders of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) won the Nobel Prize for it in 2006. Despite the success of microcredit, there is still a long way to go.

Polyculture on small farms is more profitable, though not to the agribusiness corporations that sell the inputs. In India, according to Shiva, farms up to five acres earned 735 rupees per acre, while farms 35 acres and over earned 346 rupees per acre. These numbers are different now, but the difference is probably even greater today.

Polycultures feed local people, but the very purpose of monocultures is to export food from countries that have a lot of poor people to industrialized countries such as the United States. China is now appropriating land in poor countries to get food and raw materials from them.

Shiva also considers agribusiness to be at war with the land because high-input monocultures often require irrigation, which contributes to salt buildup; pesticides and fertilizers poison the runoff water.

One possible problem is that, as fewer people each year want to farm, the remaining farmers must cultivate more acres. In doing so, they may need more inputs and will be unable to give as much attention to each acre.

Agribusiness says, we are just trying to feed the world. Defenders of small farms say, we are just trying to feed the world, and we can do it better than agribusiness.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Oklahoma, Land of Boastful Ignorance

Are you planning a move, or is your company planning a relocation? Companies like to relocate their employees to states that have a good quality of life. For employees who have kids, this means a good educational system.

But don’t come to Oklahoma.


According to a recent report, Oklahoma ranks 40th for overall child well-being. I think you or your company’s employees would not want to raise your kids here, unless you can afford a private school.

Oklahoma ranks 45th in childhood education. The major reason for this is (according to the Democratic candidate, and one of two Republican candidates, for state superintendent) a teacher shortage. It is difficult to recruit new teachers or to keep old ones. Why?

One reason is that teachers are not paid very well, in comparison to other jobs or states. But many or most teachers enjoy teaching and would not quit just because of low salaries. The Oklahoma teachers’ strike in 2018 was primarily over school funding, not salaries, although the state did increase their salaries that year.

One thing that discourages teachers in Oklahoma is that they are in the crossfire of conservative anger. If parents do not want their children to have to wear masks during a pandemic, it is the teachers to whom the parents complain, sometimes abusively. If teachers dare to mention that people of color (especially Native Americans in Oklahoma, which used to be Indian Territory) have experienced oppression, parents can complain that those teachers have violated an actual state law (HB1775) that prohibits the teaching of historical oppression of people of color. Ostensibly, the law is just against “critical race theory,” but teachers often avoid all mention of racially charged historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in order to stay out of trouble. If teachers even mention LGBTQ, they might find themselves in trespass of SB615. And if a science teacher mentions evolution…well, they just don’t.

Teachers are tired of having ignorant politicians dictate what they should teach and are tired of being the brunt of conservative hatred. There are other jobs at which they can use their talents, that pay more, and at which their opinions can remain private.

The solution, so far, has been to hire teachers on “emergency certification.” This means that the teacher needs no qualifications other than, I assume, to not be a criminal. If they have a college degree in a subject, but no education courses, they can get “alternative certification.” But for emergency certification, you don’t need the subject matter courses either. From what I could tell from state websites, the emergency teacher has to submit a portfolio of experience. But approval is up to local school boards.

So if a qualified teacher leaves, an emergency teacher can replace her or him. This person could then teach creationism, global warming denialism, and hatred (or at least mild disgust) towards LGBTQ people. While they cannot (I think) teach racism, they can teach that there are no problems with racism that require any change in societal thinking.

And more change is likely to come. One of the Republican candidates for state superintendent openly proclaimed that teachers should be required to teach that America is the best country that has ever existed in the history of the world.

Already, 3,600 out of 45,000 teachers in Oklahoma have emergency certification. This downward slide can only favor the indoctrination of children with extreme conservative views. This is already a major problem for recruiting new employees into the Oklahoma work force. For every new company moving to Oklahoma, another leaves.

Where there is the worst, there is also the best. Many high school biology teachers are members of NABT, the National Association of Biology Teachers. They have a new president each year. Three of the presidents in recent decades have been from Oklahoma. All three were high school teachers, though they are now on college faculties or in administrative positions. Three! This shows that, in Oklahoma, to be a good science teacher, you have to be motivated almost as much as a missionary.

I have little personal interest in this, as I have retired and plan to leave Oklahoma. I was just hoping that I could feel good about not only having been born in Oklahoma, having spent most of my career in Oklahoma, and about my Oklahoma family roots that go back six generations. But instead I will have to be at least a little bit ashamed.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Cost of Peace

I think that peace is always better than war in every possible way, including economic benefits. But peace comes with lots of costs, and we should not let them take us by surprise. Here is an example.

Ethiopia has, it seems, always been embroiled in civil war. The Tigray War continues, though it is in the news less than at the beginning of the year. It would seem that everyone would want Ethiopian civil wars to end.

Ethiopia has 1.8 million hectares of irrigable farmland, very little of it being currently used. If civil war ended, they could irrigate most of this land. Right now, nobody would invest in Ethiopian infrastructure that might be destroyed by conflict at any moment. Peace would encourage international investment.

But international investment would not be absolutely necessary. The people could build low earth dams (called micro-dams) that would trap a lot of water in small irrigation ponds. If the only war problems were international, these micro-dams would not constitute a military target—too many of them.

Ethiopia is the source of 86 percent of the water that flows through the Nile. Right now, most of that water is claimed and used by Egypt and the Sudans. But if Ethiopians built all the possible micro-dams, they could use 7.2 billion cubic meters of water per year and could store 50. This would vastly reduce the water flow in the Nile. Egypt’s plans to irrigate large new areas would be jeopardized. The Aswan High Dam is a very visible military target, although Ethiopia could probably not endanger it. War, however, might be unavoidable.

This is an example of how peace can cause more war. If you add on top of this the inevitable droughts, which make people and nations feel desperate, you have an ugly situation. And that is in a part of the world we pretty much ignore.

Peace is worth almost any cost, but these costs must not take us by surprise.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

How We Know Stuff

Now here is a topic about which I could write without end. But I am going to use just one small example, about which I am nearly certain you have not heard.

A few decades ago, I bought an old, torn-up book from a cheap bookstore in Champaign, Illinois called Acres of Books. It (not to be confused with the California store by the same name) seems to have gone out of business. I bought it for five cents. It was Parley’s Universal History, published in 1886 as a children’s summary of world history from the viewpoint of triumphant white American males. It was meant as a catechism for students to recite the facts of history. It started with Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden and ended with Abraham Lincoln and the glorious triumph of the Grand Army of the Republic over the Confederacy which, to the author, was the climax of human history.


Supposedly today we value critical thinking over rote memorization, although in conservative religious schools the latter may still predominate. Here in Oklahoma, teachers are afraid to question creationism, global warming denialists, anti-vaxxers, and those who deny that the Tulsa Race Massacre happened. It makes me wonder if we have made much progress since 1886. Remember, this was almost thirty years after the Origin of Species.

But the most interesting thing about this shabby book is that one of the students, almost certainly an adolescent boy, filled the book with hundreds of pencil sketches, mostly of a woman who must have been his teacher. This was back in the days of long skirts, bustles, frilly blouses, and fancy hair. These doodles showed a fixation upon and exaggeration of the woman’s considerable bust. None of the drawings showed any bare skin except the face, and the face was often unclear. A hormonal adolescent can fixate upon anything even remotely sexual.

My point is that the boy was not thinking critically or carefully about what he was being taught in the book. He just soaked it up. His mind was on other things.

And this is how we come to believe many things. We soak them up uncritically while our minds are wandering over other things.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Was Clements Right for the Wrong Reasons?

Frederic Clements was an important plant ecologist of the early twentieth century. His influence virtually dominated the development of plant ecology. He understood plant communities (such as a deciduous forest, or a desert) as being analogous to organisms, and the process of ecological succession (recovery of a plant community from disruption) as being analogous to a body healing itself. Succession reached a “climax” at a single vegetation type that was best suited to the local environment.

Clements could command assent to his views by means of his strong character. You can see that character even in his signature, which I scanned from an actual letter that I have since sent to the Ecological Society archives.

Starting with scientists such as Henry Gleason, many plant ecologists criticized the Clements view of ecological climax. Gleason said that there were no discrete plant communities. Each species of plant had its own distribution. What we call a forest was where many forest species of plants happened to have overlapping individual distributions.

The plant ecology laboratory of Fakhri Bazzaz, where I got my Ph.D. in 1987, was so strongly influenced by Gleason’s viewpoint that he called it The Gleason Laboratory. We thought it was kind of funny that Clementsian ecologists would refer to an oak forest as a Quercetum (as if, like a species, it should have a Latin name), a pine forest a Pinetum, etc.

But maybe Clements was on to something, though he could not have understood why. Recent research by ecologists such as Suzanne Simard has shown that an entire forest—even the different species—can be interconnected by means of mycorrhizae, the fungi that often live in roots. Hormone messages, minerals, even water and calories, can pass through these connections. In this way, a forest can really be an interconnected whole, in which some of the plants take partial care of other plants the way some organs of your body take care of others. She focused on coniferous forests with birches and alders. While I remain unsure about, say, a cross-timbers oak forest being an interconnected net of mycorrhizae, I can think of several ways in which an alder thicket, such as those on the Blue River that I have studied, form an integrated unit. They live in a habitat where floods frequently wash away the soil, and where underground connections between the plants might be particularly valuable.

Being trained in a lab that saw a forest as individual trees, I resisted Simard’s viewpoint a little at first, and then when I became convinced of it, it was a new revelation to me. Although Clements did study fungi (and wrote a book about them), I have found no evidence that he understood mycorrhizae as a method of making an oak forest into a Quercetum. But if he were alive today (he died in 1945) and read Simard’s book, he might have said, “Told you so.”

Among the letters now at the Ecological Society archives, I ran across copies of correspondence between University of Illinois ecologist Arthur Vestal and other prominent figures in the history of ecology, not only Clements but also Henry Cowles, Cornelius Muller (whom I met), and Liberty Hyde Bailey, who (as author of The Holy Earth) was a big thinker to rival Clements. These were interesting though not significant documents. They show the humorous and human side of these prominent scientists. In the letter from Clements to Vestal, which contained the signature above, Clements was urging Vestal to get a portable typewriter to take with him into the field. It was much better for taking field notes than paper, which can get damp. You can carry a portable typewriter right out to the places you are studying. In another letter, Vestal wrote to Charles Shull that “You will think me a reprehensible discombobulator for not sending you the seeds…” In another letter, Vestal lamented that, with the beginning of the Fall 1926 semester, he was in a disagreeable mood because, instead of having time for his beloved research, he had to teach 200 freshmen. (I enjoyed teaching before my retirement, but many scientists do not.)

These great minds, fumbling through issues that we today take for granted, are now lost to the general awareness even of other scientists, although a few science historians will run across their archives. But these old scientists helped form the ground upon which we now build our work. It’s just that, sometimes, we might have to do a little deconstruction (for example of the idea that each tree is a separate individual struggling for its own existence) before we can continue our construction.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Climate Crisis: Where Should I Live?

Despite the recent passage of a Senate bill, the U.S. is still making almost no response to the challenge posed by global climate change.

Separate from this, I plan to move to northeastern France for family reasons. This by itself is a decisive reason for me to move there.

These situations have allowed me to think about where I would rather live—northeastern France vs. Oklahoma—during the upcoming inevitable worldwide climate crisis, and where I would prefer that my grandchildren grow up. These are personal reasons, but some of them may be useful to the rest of you. (I never post essays on this blog that are only of personal interest to me.)

(Photo from The Guardian)

A. Direct responses to climate change

1.     I want to live somewhere away from the coast, where sea level rise is already causing problems. Oklahoma and northeastern France are both equal in being far from the nearest coastlines. Conclusion: America is about the same as France in this regard.

2.     I want to live someplace that is not prone to floods or droughts. Again, Oklahoma and eastern France are equivalent in this regard. Both have occasional severe floods in recent years, as well as droughts and wildfires. In France, the wildfires are in the south. Conclusion: America is a little less safe than France in this regard.

3.     I want to live someplace where heat waves are currently brief. Here, northeastern France has the advantage that their canicules and vagues de chaud are shorter than in the U.S. Conclusion: America is a little less safe than France in this regard.

4.     I want to live someplace that is not utterly dependent on fossil fuels. Though Europe still largely depends on fossil fuels, such as gas from Russia, there are more alternative sources of energy there than in America, on a per-capita basis. This includes nuclear energy, which is common in France. The stresses of international energy politics will have less effect on France than on America in upcoming decades. Conclusion: America is a little less safe than France in this regard.

5.     I want to live someplace with robust agriculture, since droughts and storms will inevitably reduce agricultural production and national food security. American agriculture is famous for its agricultural output, but it is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel inputs for energy and fertilizer, and to pump groundwater. An interruption of transportation would hobble American agriculture. France has a large agricultural output (it seemed to me that Lorraine was almost one big wheat field, and maize is common in Alsace). A major contributor to stability of food production is farmers’ markets, which are much more common in France than in America. However, agricultural production in France, even the wet part, has been hit strongly by recent droughts. Conclusion: America is a little less safe than France in this regard.

B. Indirect effects of climate change. As detailed in Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos, the world already has many threats to peace and security, and many of these are related to environmental disasters such as drought. Climate change will exacerbate these problems that already exist. For example, there will be even more climate refugees crossing national borders than at present.

1.     I want to live in a society in which people are willing to give up a little personal comfort for the common good. America is not such a place. Almost a third of Americans have refused to do anything, anything at all, to reduce the spread of covid. Fortunately, the public spirit of the remaining two-thirds (vaccines, masking, social distancing) has brought about the evolution of milder viruses.

a.      Would Americans be willing to use less air conditioning, less heating, or less water in order to prevent a society-wide shortage? I do not think so. Europe is already much more frugal in their use of resources than America, and, to compensate for the reduction in Russian gas supplies, has indicated a willingness to use  a further 15 percent less. In both places, whenever you flip a switch or turn on a faucet, it is called “demand,” as if you insist to the death on your right to use as much as you want, regardless of your neighbors. But in America it really is a demand. Conclusion: America is much less safe than France in this regard.

b.     In America, we insist on the right to create as much public nuisance as possible, especially noise and litter. My house in Oklahoma is right under a flight path for vintage airplanes, which fly low overhead all day every day and sometimes half the night. In Oklahoma, we have (by my repeated count) a hundred pieces of garbage for each mile of highway. France also has bruit and déchets sauvages, but not nearly as much. At least in northeastern France, people are quiet and polite, except in Paris. Conclusion: America is worse than France in this regard.

2.     I want to live someplace with lower crime. This is because, as economic stress spreads worldwide, crime will increase everywhere, and I want to start from a lower threshold. Clearly, France is safer in this respect. I want to live someplace with fewer guns. The French have few; but in Oklahoma, gun ownership is epidemic. It is illegal for a judge to order a mentally unstable person to be denied gun ownership. Recent Congressional legislation has helped a little. Conclusion: America is much less safe than France in this regard.

3.     I want to live in a society without underlying racism. Although northeastern France has Nazi sympathizers who occasionally spray-paint swastikas in public places, the U.S. also has this problem, in addition to frequent police shootings of blacks, and mass shootings that are absent from most other parts of the world. In France, Arabs are a minority with whom the dominant culture has friction. But in America, the friction between whites and blacks, and whites and Hispanics, is greater. France has no equivalent of the utter suppression of Native Americans. Racism, all over the world, will get worse. Conclusion: America is much worse than France in this regard.

4.     I want to live someplace with good public infrastructure. I look forward to not having to own a car or drive. In America, you pretty much need a car unless you live in a rest home. This will become more important as gas becomes more expensive. American infrastructure repair is more expensive than in France because France simply does not have as many big pickup trucks (I don’t remember seeing any), although they do have commercial trucks (les camions). Conclusion: America is worse than France in this regard.

5.     I want to live someplace that has no possibility of rulership by religious fundamentalists. So-called Christian Fundamentalists get their way on almost every issue in America, especially in Oklahoma, where a single fundamentalist teacher can get a whole school system downgraded. France has Fundamentalist Muslims, but they have no chance of controlling national politics. Conclusion: America is much less safe than France in this regard.

6.     I want to live in a country that is at peace with its neighbors. Europe is famous for its seamless union of nations. France’s problem with illegal immigration from the south, across the Mediterranean, is less than America’s problem with illegal immigration not only from Mexico but all of Central and South America, without a sea to slow it down. Illegal immigration will get worse with global warming, more so in America than in France. Conclusion: America is much less safe than France in this regard.

7.     I want to live in a country that is not threatened by Russia, led by the obviously insane Vladimir Putin. All of Europe is in danger from him, while America is protected by an ocean. However, Europe is less likely to be a Russian nuclear target. One of the top targets is right here in Oklahoma. Conclusion: America is about the same as France in this regard.

8.     I want to live in a country that is not totally dominated by major corporations. In France, corporations have more influence than individual citizens, but the problem is worse in America, where at least one corporation has stated (according to This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein) that global warming and its resulting threat of international conflict would be a great opportunity to sell weapons. Conclusion: America is much less safe than France in this regard.

One of the things I will miss about America is the number of spectacular places to travel, especially the diversity of natural areas. America has everything from deserts to forests to alpine tundra. But, fortunately, I did a lot of traveling before retirement age. I been everywhere, man. Now, though I am not elderly, I am old enough to find travel stressful. France has forests in the north and dry scrublands in the south, a much diminished range of landscapes than in America. Relative to area, both countries have about the same amount of beautiful coastline. In France, I can get to lots of nice places without a car. I would be really bummed out if I knew that, in moving to France, I’d never get to see the giant sequoias of California, of which France has no equivalent. Fortunately, I have walked among them about a dozen times. I’ll have to be content with the memories.

I would be moving to northeastern France with my family anyway. But, in a traumatic future of global climate change, I have found twelve ways in which France is at least a little better than America and two ways in which the two countries are equivalent. I found no examples in which France was worse.

There are numerous things about France that many Americans would not like, but which do not bother me. I can summarize these ways: “In France, taxes are high and life is good.”

Moving to a new country, with a new language, is difficult, and it is not a reasonable solution for most of you. But think about it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Religion Allows No Gray Areas of Uncertainty (as in Abortion)

Nearly everything on Earth (and probably every place else in the universe) has areas of uncertainty between opposites. For example, there are plants, and there are animals, but there are some protists that could be considered neither one nor the other.

But religion is in the business of creating absolute distinctions. You are either going to Heaven, or to Hell; something is either sinful, or it is not; there are the sheep, and the goats.

One recent example of the difference between science and fundamentalist religion involves abortion. I have written very little about abortion, since I know little about it, and my opinions have little validity. I will let other people get angry on one side or the other. I am more interested in the light band of grayness between the two sides. Here are two relevant stories.

A Texas couple looked forward to having a child and were overjoyed with preparation for its arrival. Then, mid-pregnancy, an unthinkable tragedy occurred. The woman’s water broke, and all the amniotic fluid was lost. The fetus was thus doomed to death. But Texas has a heartbeat law. Abortion is murder if a heartbeat is detectable. In this case, the fetus still has a heartbeat, and under Texas law a doctor cannot abort the fetus. The woman has to carry the fetus, which has no hope of survival (unless God performs a miracle), perhaps risking her own health, until the heartbeat stops, something that could take a long time. What kind of law would insist that a woman carry a fetus until it inevitably dies? Only a law that attempts an absolute definition of pregnancy and allows of no exceptions, that’s what.

In Ohio, a nine-year-old girl was raped, and became pregnant. But Ohio law forbids abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. She had an abortion in Indiana. What kind of law would force a now ten-year-old girl to carry through a pregnancy from a rape? This assumes that her body would even be capable of handling this. Only a law that attempts an absolute definition of pregnancy and allows of no exceptions, that’s what.

I am not saying whether or not a state should or should not have an anti-abortion law. But it is clear to me that individual exceptions must be allowed. But individual exceptions are something that fundamentalist religions will not allow.

The only thing I am absolutely sure about is that we can trust the women. A mother’s love is a force of nature. Mothers are not looking for a chance to kill their fetuses unless an old white man points a gun and tells them not to. Abortion is an act of desperation, as the above examples and thousands of other news items illustrate.

Among other things, life is about gray areas of uncertainty. An absolute light/dark distinction is a characteristic of death. Science fiction writer Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis made this distinction in his Perelandra novels. In these novels, the forces of evil wanted to make everything black and white, as on the Moon; but on Earth, there is a lot of penumbra. Many religious fundamentalists today would side with Lewis’s forces of evil. But Lewis was a Christian and used to be, at least when I was younger, a very popular Christian writer. Times, apparently, have changed, or at least Christianity has.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Are Scientists Saving the World, Or Just Making Work for Themselves?

Ecologists have a lot to do. We are busy studying a rapidly-vanishing natural world and trying to figure out how to save it. But I am increasingly frustrated because a lot of “ecological research” is just a repackaging of what we already know, and which can have no easily-imaginable impact on saving the natural world.

What we need more of is research such as what I am now finishing—a study that demonstrates that temperate trees are opening their buds sooner in the springtime due to global warming and doing so at an amazing rate. My data set has 6,068 observations, all of which I made individually. They show that Oklahoma deciduous trees (in this case, of 22 different species) are opening their buds on the average one day earlier each year. This makes them more vulnerable to the occasional late-spring frosts such as the deep freeze that descended upon Oklahoma and Texas in February 2021. Back when buds opened in March, such a freeze might have had little effect, but buds are now opening in February, and the effect of the freeze on them was profound. I know many other scientists, such as Carol Augspurger, recently retired from the University of Illinois, who are also conducting important research.

I very much doubt that my findings, or Carol’s, would make any difference to politicians, who pay attention only to the contributions made to them by oil corporations who want us to burn baby burn as much carbon as possible, regardless of what the effects might be at some future time—or, as we now know, what the effects might be right now. Oil executives are rich and do not live where wildfires or hurricanes can harm them.

But I ran across a scientific paper—alas, there are many papers like this—in which 12 authors wrote about a phenomenon that they think they discovered called nonstationarity. [https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/fee.2298] What, you may ask, is nonstationarity? It is the confounding of changing properties that govern ecological phenomena. Ecological systems, they claim, are under constant change and exhibit spatially and temporally varying trends. Do you follow me? They claim that ecological research needs to accommodate spatial and temporal variability in ecological patterns and processes.

All of which we already knew. The authors just developed some new software to study it differently. No new data, no new discoveries, just a new kind of analysis that tells us the same things that we already knew. They had no new data about real trees, or real birds, or real lakes, or real oceans.

What is an example of temporal nonstationarity? The fact that tree rings are sometimes thicker and sometimes thinner. They even have a photograph of some tree rings to prove their point. We have known this for almost a hundred years. It is very interesting, but not new. They claim that their work is “key to…translating findings to local policies and practices.”

Politicians, interested only in money, would not be interested in the results of my analysis of 6,068 budbursts and their climatic correlates. But they would be utterly hostile toward the idea of professional ecologists and academics using taxpayer money to repack old news into new conglomerates. The authors list six National Science Foundation grants that went into their paper. The authors came from numerous academic institutions and even from a taxpayer-funded National Laboratory. I suspect that the main effect of this paper is to advance the academic careers of the authors. The paper was prominently published by the Ecological Society of America, the major scientific society of ecologists, which should have a better idea of what ecologists should spend our time doing.

Friday, July 1, 2022

New Video: When is a Leaf a Leaf?

In a new video, Darwin looks at leaves—and leaflets and pinnae. He finds an evolutionary puzzle here.

We all think we know what leaves are. They are the (usually) thin green structures on plants that allow rapid photosynthesis. I, like many other botanists, have studied the plasticity of leaf thickness and size in response to sun and shade. Leaves on individual plants grown in the shade are thinner than those grown in the sun; that is, they have fewer layers of photosynthetic cells. Each cell, however, has more chlorophyll. Therefore, even though a sun leaf and a shade leaf may have nearly equal amounts of chlorophyll per square centimeter, and appear equally green to you, the shade leaves have much more chlorophyll per gram than the sun leaves. Shade leaves tend to be bigger, also. Plant species that grow down in the shade tend to have bigger leaves than plant species that usually grow out in the sun. I studied this pattern in the velvetleaf plant Abutilon theophrasti (Rice, S. A. and F. A. Bazzaz 1989. Plasticity to light conditions in Abutilon theophrasti: comparing phenotypes at a common weight. Oecologia 78: 502-507).

But this argument applies equally well to other photosynthetic surfaces. In many plants, each leaf consists of three or more leaflets. In the video, Darwin explores the leaflets of nandina, a common garden shrub. Its leaflets are divided into even smaller surfaces, known as pinnae.  Leaflets can be larger or smaller, thicker or thinner, depending on their growth environment.

Natural selection favors a flexibility of photosynthetic surfaces. But, it seems, it does not matter whether these surfaces are leaves, leaflets, or pinnae. Natural selection works on whatever variation happens to be available. Oaks do not have compound leaves; natural selection favors flexibility of leaf area in oaks. Plants in the legume family frequently have leaves that consist of leaflets or leaflets that consist of pinnae. In this case, natural selection favors flexibility of leaflet or pinnae area. This is an example of what has been called the phylogenetic effect: natural selection works within the limits of the variation that is available to it, which might be limited by the evolutionary ancestors of the population.

Why do oaks have leaves but nandinas have pinnae? Maybe it is just because of who their ancestors were.

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Role of Chance in Evolution: An Example


I just looked through a book I read a few years ago, Before the Dawn, by Nicholas Wade. It is about the insights that DNA science have provided about human evolution. Published in 2006, it is now out of date, but the ideas are still interesting.

The book does have a few flaws. At least twice, Wade admits his surprise that the genetic basis for enhanced intelligence (microcephalin and ASPM genes) appeared many thousands of years before civilization. He seems to think that any intelligent tribes would invent, and instantly adopt, agriculture and village life. What could hunter-gatherer tribes possibly need enhanced intelligence for? Everyone except Wade seems to know the answer. It takes plenty of intelligence to outwit other tribes, and to secure dominance within your own tribe, even without civilization. At least he did not go as far as Alfred Russel Wallace, who claimed that intelligence had to be divinely created precisely because primitive tribes did not need it.

But, overall, it is an interesting book. One figure in particular caught my eye: 

This hypothetical figure illustrates the fact that evolution is due both to natural selection and chance.

Creationists like to say that evolution is completely due to chance, so how could it produce complexity. They repeat this argument without thinking about it. Scientists point out that, while the genetic basis is produced by chance, natural selection is the opposite of chance. It chooses some genetic variants over others, thus accumulating the beneficial variants. It is chance, followed by natural selection.

But chance continues to play a role alongside natural selection. The winners in the evolutionary sweepstakes are not always the ones with the best adaptations. Any organisms with bad genes fail to propagate, but those that do propagate are not necessarily the best. The successful ones are also the luckiest. David Raup said in his classic book Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? that it was both. In sexually-reproducing organisms, gene variants (alleles) can get lost from one generation to another just due to the luck of the draw in meiosis. This is especially true for genes on the Y chromosome, passed down only through males.

The figure shows an initial population of 17 men. After 21 generations, all of the men have the Y chromosome of just one of the original men (call him Adam). Several explanations are possible.

  • It could be that Adam reproduced but some of the others did not. If another man left no offspring, it isn’t necessarily due to natural selection. It might be, by chance, that this other man had no opportunity to leave offspring.
  • It could also be that Adam had sons, but all of the other guy’s offspring were girls. That is not the end of his lineage but is the end of his Y lineage.
  • It could also be due to polygamy. Adam or some of his male descendants might have had several wives and the other guys had none.

Any of these possibilities, and others, might explain why, after 21 generations, all of the men had Adam’s Y chromosome. One could argue that natural selection would favor a man who would not only leave offspring no matter what, and could get several wives no matter what, but it is less clear that natural selection would favor meiotic drive that produces more Y sperm. Natural selection favors the whole set of genes, not just those that are on the Y chromosome (and there aren’t very many).

There are many other possible examples. One may be, why are brachiopods (lampshells), which were so common before the Permian Extinction, now rare, while apparently-similar mollusks are now so common that, according to Stephen Jay Gould decades ago, HoJo’s can feed a nation on their breaded feet. Did lampshells just get unlucky during and after the Permian Extinction?

Since Gould published this comment, HoJo’s Restaurants have faced their own extinction crisis. The last HoJo’s restaurant is in Lake George, New York, where the most common customer rating is “terrible.”) This does not appear to be due to chance. But is the mollusk domination over lampshells due to chance? Obviously, if they were inferior, mollusks would have suffered decline, but if mollusks and lampshells were similarly well-adapted 250 million years ago, chance could have tipped the balance in favor of mollusks.

There are similar examples in cultural evolution. Today, many music aficionados equally revere Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven died famous, but Schubert was poor and unknown. Schubert apparently even fantasized that he could see the spirit of Beethoven as he was dying. At least from the viewpoint of the quality of the music, the predominance of Beethoven over Schubert was due to chance.

For many people, natural selection provides a feeling of justice in the universe. It may not be pretty, but at least there is a reason why some lineages prosper, and some do not. Darwin struggled with the spiritual implications of the “struggle for existence,” as he called it in Chapter 3 of the Origin. He wrote, “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” Did he really believe this? This was little comfort to people whose children, like Darwin’s little Annie, became the victims of the struggle for existence.

How much less comfort there is to consider that, as The Preacher Qoheleth said long ago in Ecclesiastes, “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does good come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” [New International Version]

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Don't Offend the Extreme Right: The Darwinian Marketplace

Back in 2011, at the suggestion of Oklahoma’s grand old man of science, Vic Hutchison, I started emailing college biology departments across Oklahoma and requesting that they post a statement supporting evolutionary science on their departmental websites. I even provided a sample that they could use as a draft.

A number of universities—usually the biggest ones, who were confident of their enrollment—responded positively: several departments at OU (the University of Oklahoma), OSU (Oklahoma State), and at TU (University of Tulsa). Even some historically religious colleges posted statements, including OCU (Oklahoma City University).

A couple of departments, however, were unable to reach agreement about support for teaching evolution. East Central University (a state university) and Southern Nazarene University (a private university) both had creationist faculty members who shot down the idea.

But what about the universities I never heard back from? I cannot know, of course, but I can relate the experience at my own institution (Southeastern Oklahoma State University). The faculty completely supported the evolution statement, and it perfectly reflected what we teach. But they did not want to post it. We did not want to alarm any prospective students or their parents. This took me by surprise, but when I thought about it, I could see market forces (Darwinian market forces) at work.

The economic survival of our university depends on getting students to register for our classes, and to finish their degrees. That’s pretty much it. We have been doing it better than many other Oklahoma colleges and universities. While others were suffering economic reversals, we continued growing; and we have not shrunk very much during the pandemic. Our success, I think, made our sister institutions a little jealous. If we put an evolution statement (or a global climate change statement) on our website, the students might decide to go somewhere else, or their parents might make that decision for them.

Now, the reasoning goes, once the students arrive, they will discover that evolution is included in their science courses. In my experience, a few of them have been upset, and may have written home about it. But, for the most part, they either did not care, or were surprised to discover evolution was not the Worship of Satan as their preachers had told them it was. The goal of educating students about evolution was achieved, for the most part. (Many of them just ignore the subject.) Therefore, I cannot argue with the decision for our department to remain silent on our website about the subject of evolution.

Let me tell you the story of one of my general biology students. He took every opportunity he could to let me know how stupid he thought I was. One of my exam questions was about Neanderthals. Europeans have a few Neanderthal genes, and Neanderthal bones have some DNA in them. I simply asked if it was possible to clone a Neanderthal. The correct answer, having nothing to do with evolution, is that we have a few Neanderthal genes but no Neanderthal nuclei for cloning. It was a biotech question. But this student said that since you evolutionists think you have some Neanderthal genes, why don’t you just use those genes to clone a Neanderthal? He went out of his way to insult me. My reaction was simply to write down a zero for that question.

I also required a paper, which I graded leniently, about a semester project in which each student chooses some activity to promote their health and reduce their carbon footprint. Nearly every student got full credit. But this student said that he decided to drive his big truck less. He made it clear that the reason was not for health or to reduce his carbon footprint, but because of high gas prices which he blamed on Biden; his citation was #Letsgobrandon. Then he decided to get out his old childhood bicycle and ride it. But it was too small. The seat was narrower than an Ethiopian hunter, he said. The seat broke; the bar under the seat poked him, as he said, right up the butt. He threw the bike in the ditch and gave up. I’m sure you can see as readily as I that he just made this stuff up. But I couldn’t prove it, so I gave him credit for the paper.

This student also took every opportunity to insult the ideas of vaccination, masking, and social distancing. He even emailed me to defend the use of ivermectin as a treatment for covid.

One of our laboratory activities was about the Donner Party. You can learn a lot about human physiology by studying the demographic records of this group of pioneers that was starving out in the snow during the California gold rush. One of the questions in the manual was about possible ways in which men could contribute to the survival of their families or of the group. He wrote that the men could keep the women warm. This was just one indication of his misogyny, to go along with his racism.

He seemed to be doing his best to get as bad of a grade as possible without actually failing the course. He wanted a D and he got it.

My point in telling his story is this. The only way our university can survive economically is by pleasing students like him. He cannot tell us to not teach evolution, global climate change, and public health. And we already do not penalize students for their religious beliefs. The ability of other students to learn about science is not obstructed by this student’s quiet resentment. But if I challenged him, privately (as his insults were private), he could complain to the university administration, and the administration would tell me to back off. So I took the easiest—and perhaps wisest—approach: I calculated up the points for the things he got right, and calculated his grade, making no comments.

This is how the Darwinian marketplace works. We have to get students to come and pay us. Any university that gave students an inferior educational experience would lose enrollment. But so also would any university that proclaimed scientific truth. The students who want to learn—or, more often, do not care—will still come. But our survival may depend on that marginal recruitment of angry right-wingers, who would almost certainly not come if we had website statements supporting the science of evolution, of global warming, and of public health. We would prefer to have no anti-science racist students, but if they must go to college somewhere, we want them to come to Southeastern, not to East Central.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Who Cares about Global Warming?

Though most of my students approach global warming with an academic seriousness, they do not seem to really care about it. And, semester by semester, they do not take it with academic seriousness either. And, in society in general, people have stopped caring about global warming, at least in the United States.

The global warming problem has not gone away; in fact, it has been happing faster even than the most pessimistic predictions. Even worse, the effects of global warming interact with one another, with potentially catastrophic results.

One example is the collapse of sea ice shelves. This occurred in March 2022 in Antarctica. The usual “conservative” response is to ignore sea ice. They say, when ice melts in water, the water level remains unchanged; thus, melting sea ice will not alter sea level. This is true, as far as it goes. But the sea ice shelves hold back the flowing shelves of land ice. When a sea ice shelf collapses, the land ice shelves are now free to slide down into the ocean. The land ice, when it slides into the sea or just melts, does raise the sea level. A land ice shelf sliding into the sea could cause a massive oceanic wave which would spread thousands of miles before it peters out and would have a measurable effect on sea level. How significant is this? The devil is in the details.

Perhaps the worst problem is that people, in general, do not seem to believe there is such a thing as evidence. They simply ignore anything they do not want to believe. Scientific evidence, legal evidence, any kind of evidence. The problem, then, is to get people to care. And how can you do that?

I heard an interview of an Icelandic scientist who has taken a different approach to publicizing global warming than what most scientists and educators, including myself, have taken. (I cannot find a link to this interview and do not remember the scientist’s name.) He pointed out that the heartfelt pleas of Greta Thunberg have reached more people, particularly young people, than the popular or scholarly publications of thousands of scientists. He said that humans, in general, care more about the people they love than about academic abstractions, no matter how dramatic they may be. He has tried something that I decided to immediately incorporate into my general botany final exam. Here is my version of it:

“What are three scientific predictions (from a valid scientific website) about what global warming will be like in 2100? Imagine someone whom you will know in the future (child, grandchild, etc.) who will be alive in the year 2100. Imagine that person asking you why our generation did not do more than we are doing to prevent global warming. How would you answer him or her? (Be realistic. Avoid a wildly nightmare scenario, like the man who asked me during a presentation if the Earth would become as hot as Venus. That can’t happen.)

There was a separate interview, on the same news program, of a cattle rancher who is well aware that cattle are among the major contributors to global warming, but he has a plan about how to come close to carbon-neutral cattle ranching. I decided to incorporate a question into my exam based on this also. Here is my version of it:

“One of the biggest contributors to global warming is the production and consumption of beef. What are some of these impacts? Indicate at least two. A cattle rancher said, on a radio interview, that ‘It’s not the cow, but the how,’ which means that he had a plan to make his cattle production operation produce less carbon. Indicate at least two things that he was probably planning to do to meet this goal.”

I hope that these ideas may be useful to some of my scientific and educational readers.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Even at Universities, You Will Teach What the Republicans Tell You to Teach...

 …or else you will be fired. That’s what will happen if, in the next session, the Texas legislature passes the law proposed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

The purpose of tenure in higher education is to protect professors from retaliation by politicians for teaching things that the politicians do not like. It is a protection for truth. By doing away with tenure, the Texas legislature will make higher education in Texas an organ of Republican indoctrination, similar to higher education in Soviet (or Putinist) Russia and Communist China. You teach what the Party tells you to teach, Comrade, or you will be sent to the Texas equivalent of Siberia or Manchuria—or, at least, fired.

Occasionally, professors use tenure as a screen for substandard work, or for their own outlandish theories. But the state university systems with which I am familiar have regular reviews of tenured faculty to make sure they are doing their jobs. Since I got tenure in Oklahoma in 2003, I have turned in about five “post-tenure reviews,” which were examined by committees, in which I had to provide documentation that I was not only doing my job but continuing to keep up with, and contribute to, research in my field.

There are occasional tenured professors you just can’t stop. We had one such professor at my institution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is occurring and is caused mainly by human-generated carbon dioxide. But this professor taught his students that global warming is a worldwide hoax the purpose of which was to reduce the money that he got for his patented invention used in the petroleum industry. We just put up with him, told our students that he was wrong, and waited for him to retire. In his particular case, we might have preferred that tenure did not offer him any place to hide. But the tenure process that was meant to protect all of us protected him and his right wing extremist screeds.

On the face of it, Lt. Governor Patrick’s purpose appears limited. Conservatives in Texas and Oklahoma loathe Critical Race Theory. Patrick’s proposed law claims to be aimed just at this theory. But we all know that the law rescinds all tenure for new faculty hires. This means that the state government, which is ultimately in control of tenure (my tenure had to be approved by the state government in Oklahoma), can use any reason they like for denying tenure, if this law passes. I teach evolution. Texas and Oklahoma Republicans hate evolution. It’s easy to see where this is going.

Texas prides itself in its educational system. K-12 teachers are paid well, and higher education is well supported. One of my former Oklahoma undergrad student got a job as a high school teacher and, immediately upon being hired as a high school biology teacher in Texas, was earning more money than I do now as a tenured professor. The message is, or has been, clear: come to Texas and you will find satisfying and well-paid work as an educator, or for corporations (mostly oil). Your kids will get a good education.

But this message is changing. All over the country, new Ph.D.’s are looking for work, and at the moment Texas looks like a good place to go for work. But if this law passes, new Ph.D.’s will suspect that, if they go to Texas, the government will dictate what they are to teach and what they are to research. If you are an historian or sociologist, your research must not reach any conclusions that you suspect the state government may not like. A job offer in Minnesota vs. a job offer in Texas will then be a no-brainer.

Oklahoma is, and has always been, worse. Whatever Texas does, Oklahoma will do a few months later. Our governor, Kevin Stitt, wants to imitate Governor Greg Abbott. I am convinced that the Oklahoma House and Senate will pass bills just like the one that Lt. Governor Patrick demands in Texas. And in Oklahoma, we do not support education very well. K-12 and higher education has always been supported in Oklahoma far less than in Texas. In Oklahoma, we will fall just as precipitously as Texas, but starting from a lower level.

The supply line of academic Ph.D.’s is drying up. We (at a university in rural Oklahoma) advertised for a botanist (to replace me when I retire) and we got only five applicants, four of whom were not interested in teaching. The fifth applicant had his choice of jobs wherever he wanted to go, and he decided not to come here. When I applied for jobs in 1992, one of the institutions said that they had received 800 applications. Being a teaching professor is now a much less desirable career, and for the ever smaller pool of Ph.D.’s who want to teach, Oklahoma and Texas will be off the edge of the Earth.

Professors at private institutions in Texas (hi, Mary Kay!) need not worry. But the entire body of higher education in Texas will be hurt by this tarnished image. And, of course, Oklahoma.

As a retiring professor, my advice to any new Ph.D.’s reading this is, don’t come to Oklahoma or Texas. Matter of fact, the whole field is in precipitous decline. Do something else. For me, doing research and teaching in botany was always my highest aspiration, even when I was in high school. That is a dream from the past.

To whatever extent higher education has served as the conscience of the nation, it will serve that function no longer. I am so freaking glad I am retiring now. For those of you with ten to twenty years more work as teaching professors, good luck. I am one of perhaps the last wave of professors who, by teaching and writing and research, will have been able to make a difference, and to make the world better.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Asymmetry and Fake LinkedIn Profiles

Researchers in human evolution, and writers who present their research to a popular readership, have long known that bodily asymmetry is an indicator of general genetic health. Mutations, toxins, and disease can lead to bodily asymmetry, especially facial asymmetry. In mate selection, one mate can assess the health of the other mate by seeing his or her facial symmetry. If the left side doesn’t line up with the right, that might mean something somewhere is wrong.

People with facial symmetry are esteemed as beautiful and healthy. And these are also the faces that corporations want to present as representatives to their customers. You are much more likely to respond positively to a sales rep with a symmetrical face.

Corporations have used this fact to generate thousands of fake profiles (for example, on LinkedIn). These fake beautiful people will make you want to consider doing business with the corporations that they represent.

How do you know that an online personality is a real person? You can’t. It’s as simple as that. But there are some things you can look for. Back when I used to answer robocalls (something I no longer do; nor do I decline them, since that would tell the spammer that the number they have reached is real) I would listen to the “person” for a few seconds. Then I would say, “You are a robot.” The voice would keep talking for a couple of seconds, then say “I am not a robot.” Of course, you can program a robot to say, “I am not a robot.” I just delete all these calls without even answering them.

It is much more difficult to create a fake online personality if a portrait is involved. But, at the moment, it is possible. Researchers have found that fake LinkedIn profiles have faces that are too perfect. The facial symmetry is utterly perfect. No real human being is utterly symmetrical (see this article).

Of course, corporations will quickly learn how to insert a one percent facial asymmetry generator into their fake personalities. In the near future, we will never be able to tell if the person in the profile is real or not.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Evangelical Religion and Hypnosis, part two.


The following is a creepy story about religion and implanted memories. It makes me shudder because I used to be in a fundamentalist church that did not do anything like this, but could have. I cringe to think how close I came to a fundamentalist psychological hell, the way Paul Ingram did.

In 1988, Paul Ingram, a local Republican leader in Washington state, was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, including ritual satanic abuse, over the course of several years. No evidence has ever been found that these acts of abuse ever happened. Despite this, the daughters’ testimony was accepted as evidence, and Ingram was convicted and given a twenty-year sentence. Ingram pled guilty to the charges. Subsequent research makes it clear that these events never occurred. The memories were implanted, through deliberate or inadvertent hypnotism, by the fundamentalist church to which the family belonged. An implanted memory can seem just as real as a true memory. A church seminar leader apparently asked one daughter, Ericka, to try to remember if she had been abused. This was enough for her to “remember” that it had happened. Then the memory was implanted in Paul.

This is what religion can do, especially the fundamentalist variety that believes that Satan is everywhere and can trick you into doing things that you would normally not even want to do—that is, unless you join and give money to a fundamentalist church. The Satan hypothesis was enough to send an accusation that would have gone nowhere in a mainstream church over the edge into an ever growing series of accusations in a fundamentalist church.

It kept growing. Paul Ingram was accused of killing 65 babies in satanic rituals. And he believed that he had done so. Needless to say, no evidence was ever found. No graves. Of course, the fundamentalist church could always claim that Satan had erased the evidence. By the time Ingram was released from prison, before the end of his term, he may not have been entirely convinced of his own innocence.

Fundamentalist churches use psychological manipulation which can go to absurd lengths and destroy people’s lives. They can do this because the churches believe in a Satan who can manufacture or erase evidence. This is another example of trance logic, which is a characteristic (as explained in the previous essay) of hypnotism.

In addition, psychoanalysts were happy to use three-quarters of a million dollars of taxpayer money to “recover” these “hidden” memories. Fundamentalism uses psychological manipulation and implanted memories to oppress people and destroy their lives, and some unethical psychologists are willing to make money off of this phenomenon.