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.