Saturday, October 29, 2022

I Thought I Knew Everything about Abutilon

I thought I knew everything about the velvetleaf plant, Abutilon theophrasti. I even wrote part of my doctoral thesis about it. But I was wrong. During the 42 years since I began working on this species, I knew no more about it than a farmer knows about corn.

Oh, I knew the basic things. Abutilon is perhaps the most abundant weed in the soybean fields of the American Midwest. It raises its large, heart-shaped leaves bravely above the soybean canopy. As a member of the plant family Malvaceae, its flowers have many stamens united into a phalanx by their filaments. Unlike the better-known hibiscus, okra, and cotton, the velvetleaf flowers have small yellow petals. It produces button-shaped fruits, which are round clusters of multi-seeded capsules that look like a giant asterisk. The green fruits turn grayish when mature. The heart-shaped seeds drop out into the soil, where they may remain dormant but alive for many decades. Like most weeds, they grow in places where the soil has been disturbed, such as a current or recently abandoned farm field. It is the emblem I used for this blog.

I also knew enough about it to admire its grim efficiency. The stems and leaves are covered with soft hairs—hence the names velvetleaf, velvet plant, and velvetweed—but these hairs are sticky and, to many of us, irritating. This is probably one reason why it is the rare herbivore that eats its leaves.

Of greatest interest to me was its tremendous photosynthetic capability and its flexibility. Its large leaves absorbed carbon dioxide (which I measured) and made sugar at a rapid rate, translocating it to all parts of the plant. The feeling I still carry for this plant is that it was pumped full of water, pushing out new stems, leaves, and roots, and full of food to nourish them. Down in the shade, it would lose less water into the air, so it grew fewer roots. With less light down in the shade, velvetleaf plants produce thinner leaves, but provides just as much chlorophyll, with the result that the leaves look the same from the outside but have twice as much chlorophyll per unit weight as do leaves that grow in the sun. In the sun, the plant grows short, thick stems; in the shade, it grows long skinny stems that are more likely to thrust the leaves above any surrounding plants. You can read all about its photosynthetic and phenotypic flexibility in the first two chapters of the plain-English version of my thesis.

Abutilon is also one of the most important weeds to evolve herbicide resistance. Due to the enhanced production of a protective enzyme, some mutant plants will not die even when you spray them. There is a cost to this resistance. The mutant plants produce six times as much of the protective enzyme, a cost that they would not bear if herbicides were not used. But since farmers collectively spend billions of dollars to spray for velvetleaf, this cost is an investment that pays off spectacularly, especially in fields of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered soybeans. The mutant weeds grow more slowly than the normal weeds, but they are the ones that survive.

I even knew a little bit about its human history. I knew it had more common names than practically any other plant. Besides velvetleaf, it is also known as buttonweed and crown weed because of its asterisk-like fruits. It is also called stampweed, butterprint, and pie-marker because settlers used the immature green fruits to stamp decorations into piecrusts or pads of butter for commercial sale. It is called Indian mallow because, although it originated in China, somebody thought it came from India.

It is also called pigpenweed because it is the only major Midwestern weed that pigs will not eat. I confirmed this experimentally, though not with adequate replication. Our friend Joe lived on a farm that had a pigpen. The earth was beaten down and no plants remained in their fragrant space. When I threw in a little bit of lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), a weed related to spinach, the pigs would scramble to eat it. The same with pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) and smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum, now Persicaria pensylvanica). As a control, I threw some Abutilon into the pigpen. The pigs did not approach it.

Velvetleaf cannot grow in the hot, dry summers of Oklahoma. But I have found it in Oklahoma, growing in soil along the margins of drainage creeks connected to the Arkansas River. Apparently, the seeds, floating in the water of major rivers, drift up into the creeks when the water rises. In Tulsa, they have formed a medium-sized, viable reproductive population.

But it turns out there were a lot of things I did not know until just recently. One of its common names (Chinese jute) should have given it away. (That makes eleven common English names for the same plant.) Until the twentieth century, it was raised both in Asia and in the American Midwest as a row crop for its fibers. During that time, so many seeds fell into the soil that the farmland, now used for soybeans, was infested with the weeds. I had assumed that the invasion of Abutilon into the Midwest came from plants that escaped from gardens of cottage butter-makers. That would not, of course, explain its incredible abundance, especially since the seeds do not travel very far from one place to another unless carried in soil or turf.

Most amazing of all, Abutilon is edible. “The leaves are edible stir-fried or in an omelet,” says Wikipedia and several websites that have copied it. Since its hairs are irritating, its leaves must be cooked, but the leaves are particularly popular in the cuisine of the Maldives islands, mixed with fish and coconut. The seeds are eaten in Kashmir and China, including as a component of bread. I tried to convince my wife, who makes wonderful and creative types of bread, to try it, but she was not interested.

All a farmer knows about corn is that if you plant it at the right time and the right distance apart from other corn seedlings, it will grow very large and produce big ears with lots of seeds. All I knew about velvetleaf was its tremendous growth rate and flexibility. I cannot estimate how many velvetleaf plants I killed, cutting and putting the fine roots, taproots, stems, and leaf blades into separate little paper sacks, to dry and weigh them. Velvetleaf was more like a photosynthetic machine to me than a real, living organism. Only much later have I stepped away to admire it for its amazing characteristics.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Why Do We Need Higher Education? Some Thoughts from David W. Orr

This essay corresponds to the video I just posted.

I am a recently retired biology professor. I have taught for 43 years at colleges and universities in circumstances where teaching was valued more than research. Professoring has been my life.

I became a professor because I wanted to spend my life enjoying the natural world, especially plants, and making new discoveries about it. I wanted to teach, write books, and do research to open people’s eyes about the wonderful green world. I also wanted to get paid enough to make a living while I was doing this.

But why, in general, do we have higher education? Why should students go to college? Professors will always answer this question by saying that we want to prepare students to live in the world. This is true. The fact that it is true does not mean that it is not trite. But what does this mean? State universities must prepare assessment reports in which we present measurements that show that taxpayer money has been well spent. This is reasonable. But what are the measurements? In every assessment with which I have been involved, the measurements have been job placement and income for our graduates.

But this is not the only thing that students need to be prepared to do. They will also have to run the economy and run the world. And the only way to do this is to take care of the natural world. If ecological crisis occurs, there will be no basis for an economy. In other words, all education must be environmental education. There is no subject of study that can be entirely separated from the environment. Below is a photo of a seaside alder, the focus of much of my research and teaching.

This is the message of
David W. Orr’s 1994 collection of essays, Earth in Mind. Orr, a retired professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, is one of the nation’s leading environmental educators. He has thought more about environmental education than possibly anyone else. And he believes that higher education is falling so far short of what it needs to do that it is practically worthless except for helping some students get jobs.

Orr describes a number of ways in which American colleges are failing to prepare students for realistic environmental responsibilities. We are teaching classes, he says, as if there is no planetary emergency going on. One of those ways is that we have indoor classes. What could be more boring than for a student to sit inside a room and listen to a professor talk? In my experience, the students may be paying attention, or not; they even have numerous creative ways of pretending to be awake. In every class I have taught, about ten percent (God bless them!) of the students have been attentive and enthusiastic. The solution, says Orr, is to get them outside.

In college, the students almost never have classes outside, unless the classes are field trips, which are necessary to learn to identify plants and animals. But otherwise it is just PowerPoints. I can tell you it wasn’t chalkboards or PowerPoints that got me interested in science. It was being out in the forest, and even in artificial landscapes such as orange orchards, that made me want to learn science. In Oklahoma, most class days are too hot, or too windy, or too rainy to be outside. But I found excuses to get students outside whenever I could. When I taught evolution, I took the students to a sidewalk outside, which I had marked off with important dates in the evolutionary history of the Earth. We walked along and discovered that most of Earth history has been bacteria. I had the students shout over and over, Bacteria! Finally, in the last few meters, we experienced the life of complex organisms. Human civilization was a little coat of paint on a metal bar at the end of the sidewalk. But even if it was just the last couple minutes of class, I would get them outside, on a sunny patio, to act out the events of mitosis. I know no other professors who did anything like this.

There are very few colleges that have an environmentally realistic curriculum. I tried to encourage this kind of curriculum where I worked. Only a few other faculty were interested. Whether it was because they were not interested or because they were overwhelmed with other responsibilities, I cannot say. (Randy, if you are reading this, thanks for being one of the visionaries along with me.)

Environmental education does not get much help from textbooks. There are environmental science textbooks, and there are general biology textbooks. I tried to write a general bio text with an environmental foundation. It never went into production, mainly because professors only wanted the same old format in which students were expected to learn the science of biology without thinking about how it related to their lives, and certainly without appealing to their sense of wonder.

Orr also discussed the construction of our buildings. Like any other building, an academic building can be constructed to recycle its own water, or to generate more energy than it consumes. In this way, we could visibly demonstrate to students that we fit in with the processes of the Earth. Maybe they would go on to encourage companies or institutions for which they work to build in an environmentally conscious way. But this seldom happens. My experience is typical. Our university was building a new classroom building. Here was the perfect opportunity to incorporate a green roof. A green roof will almost always pay for itself over the long term. The administration turned down my request, however. They said that it would be too expensive in the short term, while they were doing the bond issue.

David Orr had no more success than I did. During a 1999 talk I heard him describe the library at Oberlin, which had a single light switch: all the lights were on, or all were off. This is the worst possible arrangement for energy conservation. Oberlin is a leading liberal arts college, sometimes called The Harvard of the West. A leading college, and a leading environmental educator, could not solve this problem.

Orr also talked about tenure. He was for it, of course, as almost all professors are. That is, if it does what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to let professors explore new ideas that might or might not turn out to be useful, without fear of reprisal. But for too many professors, tenure becomes an excuse to be lazy. I used my tenure and sabbatical as a chance to try things, such as my too-different kind of textbook and my new curriculum. Orr speculates, would Rachel Carson have gotten tenure? Not if corporations threatened to withhold donations to her university!

I believe that our colleges and universities are incentivized to produce, not graduates who will lead the world into a better state, but consumers and business leaders who will get people to consume more and more of what will harm them and the Earth.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Scientific Fads

Science is a relentless pursuit of truth via evidence, right? Well, more so than most other ways of thinking, but scientists are still human. As explained in my book Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science (what a pompous title), scientific research is specifically designed to keep human scientists from falling into the common frailties of human thought (I have a chapter about each of them).

One example is that scientists are attracted to fads just like anyone else. Here are some examples:

Before Darwin, evolutionary theories were pretty speculative and justly earned the dislike of scientists. Darwin presented not just evidence for evolution but a mechanism for how it could work. All at once, evolution became a scientific theory. (Some problems, such as the objection raised by Fleeming Jenkin, come out of the woodwork with sometimes wild speculations. Herbert Spencer’s version of evolution was quite different from Darwin’s, and has essentially no supporters today, but it was Darwin who made Spencerism briefly viable. Darwinism also opened the door for the application of evolutionary ideas in the interpretation of human history and the evolution of languages (for example, by John Fiske in his 1883 Excursions of an Evolutionist), and theological applications such as those by Henry Ward Beecher.

Once Koch and Pasteur had proven that the diseases that they studied were caused by microbes, then most medical research (about 1880-1910) focused on microbes. This was before the modern understanding of genetics. At least the focus on microbes was a welcome relief from the older concepts of demons, humours, and vapours. And we continue to be surprised by microbial influences on what we thought were simply metabolic diseases. Some researchers think that plaque buildup in arteries, leading to heart disease, may be a response to bacterial infection, and that antibiotics might be used to treat some cases of heart disease.

For a while, it was a fad for scientists to find microbial causes of every disease. The truth, it turns out, is more complicated.

Another example. When the Alvarezes and colleagues proposed that an asteroid caused the Cretaceous Extinction, the proposal was met with skepticism or worse. But as evidence accumulated, a consilience of independent lines of evidence, everyone was convinced that they were right. It wasn’t long before scientists proposed asteroid causes of other Earth events. Colleagues of Luann Becker proposed that the Permian Extinction was also caused by the asteroid that formed the Bedout Crater. The Alvarez group was able to find the Chicxulub Crater in Yucatan, from 65 million years ago; finding the Bedout Crater from 250 million years ago was not as easy, and this might be the reason the Bedout hypothesis is so weak. 

But then other scientists proposed an asteroid cause of the mass extinction of North American mammals at the onset of the Younger Dryas cooling period. Although not all of the evidence presented by Firestone and colleagues has been discounted, it has not proven convincing enough to change most scientists’ minds, especially since this asteroid would have hit less than 13,000 years ago. Scientists (that is, not including me; I am no expert in this field) still prefer to say that the Pleistocene Extinction was caused by an interaction of global warming after the most recent ice age and overhunting—though neither of these factors could alone explain the extinction. Asteroids were a fad.

As with science, so also with technology. Most agricultural researchers, working in labs well-funded by the government and private industry, have jumped on the bandwagon of GM and claim that world hunger can be solved by genetic modification of crops. There are even more scientists, and they are more certain, since the development of CRISPR enzymes. I am not one of the GM technophobes (though I respect those such as Gary Paul Nabhan who do fear it), but our world food problem is way too complex for genetic modification to solve it and, by concentrating the power of agribusiness, will probably make the problem worse, as I explained in previous essays. Genetic modification, and its detractors, are both fads.

I can only hope that the scientific method will help scientists to avoid the pitfalls of human thinking right when everyone else needs our guidance.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Precision, Accuracy, and Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists believe the Bible is absolutely true in every possible way. This includes both precision and accuracy. In so doing, they have utterly sunk the Bible as a reliable source of information about anything. It’s their fault, not the Bible’s fault.

Every sample of observations, and therefore every statement, has a margin of error associated with it. Statisticians assume that, somewhere out there in the universe, there is a true value for everything, whether it is the population of the Earth or the value of pi. (I am, of course, excluding things about which we can be absolutely sure, such as 2 + 2 = 4.) The population of the Earth is constantly increasing, and its true value at any moment can only be estimated. The value of pi is an irrational number; it is 3.14, followed by a literally infinite number of digits. We can never know what all of those digits are. Using computers, mathematicians have figured out the value of pi to trillions of digits—and they are still exactly zero percent of the way to the end. Other examples are endless—the length of a day, for example. Not only is it impossible to calculate the exact length of a day down to infinite fractions of a second, but it is constantly changing. The Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago, used to spin faster. A day, a billion years ago, was about six of our hours long.

Not that you would notice, of course. These “constant” values change very slowly.

Which brings up precision and accuracy. Precision is the narrowness of the estimate. Accuracy is how close the estimate is to the true value, which can often not be known. Scientific notation gets around this problem. Scientific notation is a number multiplied by 10 raised to a certain (positive or negative) power. If we say that pi is 3.14, what we mean is that pi is 3.14 x 100. It is precise to three significant figures. This is more precise than saying that pi is 3.1 (which is 3.1 x 100, precise to two significant figures) or that pi is 3 (which is 3 x 100, precise to one significant figure), though all three statements are accurate. The circumference of a circle is pi x the diameter.

This opens up a funny story in the history of Bible-science conflict. Somewhere in the historical portion of the old testament, the Bible says that Solomon’s temple had a big bowl near the entrance; its diameter was one cubit, and its circumference was three cubits. No problem. This statement is accurate, though not precise. For one thing, there has never been a perfectly standardized cubit. But to one significant figure, pi is 3. What’s the problem?

Apparently some fundamentalists got hold of this and claimed that, based on the Bible, the value of pi must be 3.33, with the threes continuing forever; this is the value of 10 divided by 3. Therefore, they claimed, 3.14 was the wrong value of pi, according to God’s word. Critics of the Bible said that this proved the Bible was wrong. Whatever. The Bible is correct that pi is 3, to a first, and only a first, approximation.

The above story sounds apocryphal to me. But there are some very real examples, with serious consequences, that come from fundamentalists taking Biblical statements that are accurate to a first approximation and forcing them into a precision that was never intended.

The major example I can think of right now is the statement in Genesis 1 that when God created humans, “male and female created he them.” This is a generally accurate statement, as true of humans as of most (but not all) other animal species. In Bible times, nobody knew about genes and chromosomes, but a genetically accurate statement would be that males are XY and females are XX, regarding the sex chromosomes. Accurate as a first approximation, that is. The Y chromosome is important because it has the SRY gene that switches on a cascade of genetic events, resulting in maleness.

But everyone who has taken a genetics course knows that there are a lot of exceptions. There are lots of kinds of alternative genetic arrangements, of which Klinefelter’s and Turner’s syndromes are just two examples. In many cases, the people with these syndromes are not completely male or completely female. But, all told, people with these syndromes make up less than one percent of the species. Klinefelter’s, for example, affects one out of 660 people.

Then there is the story of the guevedoche, which is a Dominican Spanish word for penis at twelve. To be a male, you need functional juvenile testosterone and adult testosterone genes. If an XY individual has a defective testosterone gene, the male characteristics will not develop, and this person may identify all her life as female. But what happens if the juvenile testosterone gene is defective, but the adult testosterone gene works just fine? This person, genetically XY, grows up as a little girl and then, at puberty, turns into a man. The guevedoche man is not completely male, because a great deal of female development has already started before the adult testosterone kicks in. The Dominicans have grown accustomed to these “third gender” people. A similar event independently occurred in New Guinea, where the third gender people are called turnim-men in pidgin.

And then there is the story of the man who had a completely functional SRY gene. But, in one of his parents or ancestors, this SRY gene had translocated (along with its promoter) onto his X chromosome. He was XX, but was entirely male, and did not suspect there was any problem, until he found out he was sterile. Can you imagine being the doctor who, after genetic tests, had to tell him, You are a woman?

Guevedoche, turnin-men, and male women with a translocated SRY gene are very rare, compared even to the sex chromosome syndromes. Let us use one percent as an estimate for all of them.

The Bible is accurate that the human species consist of males and females—that is, it is correct 99 percent of the time. This makes it accurate, though only precise to two significant figures (9.9 x 101 percent). But fundamentalists assume that the statement is one hundred percent precise (1.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 x 102 percent). Therefore, anyone who identifies with a gender that is not completely male or completely female must be lying, or evil, or perhaps a product of the Devil’s genetic engineering. This is not simply some curiosity. These fundamentalists want to control our government and our education and base it on Biblical fundamentalism—that is, fundamentalism with specious assumptions of precision. They hate this one percent of humankind, and all the rest of us who wish to welcome this one percent—and all the rest of the nonbinaries—into the fold of our friendship.

Fundamentalists make this assumption, that truth consists of an infinite number of significant figures, for nothing else in their lives. They do not say that if a jar of mayonnaise, labeled at 32 fluid ounces, contains only 31.9 fluid ounces, it is a lie. Their male-female belief is only one example of their dangerously wrong ways of thinking. God—and pi—save us from this, especially in places, such as Oklahoma where I live, where they have a great deal of political power.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

We've Heard This Before: Agriculture

Modern agriculture, at least the kind that is subsidized by agribusiness corporations, is based on large monocultural fields. This form of agriculture can be traced back, at least, to Jethro Tull. No, not the rock band, but the British agriculturalist of the eighteenth century. His dream was to see every field composed of perfect rows of crops, planted by the seed drill he invented. His dream has become worldwide reality.


But at the same time as Tull, there was a different vision, of crop rotation and strip cropping with pasture. This form of agriculture has prehistoric roots but was defended in the eighteenth century by the Scottish agriculturalist James Anderson of Hermiston. His dream lives on in the form of agrarianism, which is almost the opposite of agribusiness. Agrarianism is built on polyculture and soil health, and on food security for people rather than profits for corporations. As long as I have been bouncing around in the world of environmentalism and alternative agriculture, I never heard of James Anderson until I encountered a reference in an essay, “All Flesh Is Grass,” by Gene Logsdon, in The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba.

Jethro Tull’s vision correctly focused on the health of the soil, but he was completely wrong about how to attain it. The agriculture he championed caused the soil to break down and erode. But Tull thought this was good, not bad. He thought that crop plants obtained all of their material from eating soil—literally, with little mouths on their roots ingesting what he called pabulum. One might call his vision the Gerber’s Baby Food theory of soil. Soil that degraded into paste would, the thought, be easier for the plants to eat. In all fairness, this was a long time before the process of photosynthesis was figured out.

Even though we know so much more today about how plants grow, and how to grow plants, we still have roughly the same dichotomy of viewpoints that Jethro Tull and James Anderson espoused.