Friday, March 24, 2023

What's a Kid to Think?

What’s a kid to think in American science classrooms?

If the teacher dares to present evolutionary science, which few dare to do here in Oklahoma, many parents tell their kids to not believe the teacher. They may have no reason for this other than their staunch membership in the Republican Party. The parents may know nothing at all about science.

On the other hand, if the teacher is a creationist and openly teaches creationism while dismissing evolution as evil (something that at least one high school teacher does in Durant, Oklahoma), the better-informed parents may have to explain to their kids that their science teacher does not, in fact, understand science—which, in this case, is true.

Nor are these the only examples of issues that must be confusing to kids.

  • One example is sexual orientation. Conservative teachers or parents might tell the kids that God made every person either male or female, and that’s that. But some chromosomal conditions cause people to have ambiguous gender. Therefore these conservative parents are wrong. But progressive parents and teachers may say that gender is entirely a social construct, which is also wrong if by this they mean that biology has nothing to do with it.
  • Another example is genetic engineering. Progressive parents and teachers may say that it is evil because it opens up a flood of “Frankenfoods.” But this is not true. On the other hand, some scientists refer to genetically engineered foods as the salvation of the poor of the world. One example is golden rice, which provides vitamin A, developed by Ingo Potrykus as a remarkably selfless service to humankind. It turns out there are far easier and more robust ways to provide vitamin A. Also, the vitamin A in golden rice is of no use unless people are also able to eat a sufficient quantity of oils, which is often impossible.
  • I have known irrational anti-vaxxers from both ends of the political spectrum.

I can understand the kids’ confusion. I do not have a solution to this problem. I am just glad that my grandchildren will be growing up in France, a culture which has greater respect for science. The French aren’t perfect, of course; many French people vehemently oppose genetic engineering based on unfounded fears. But in France, the extremes are less extreme, and are at least open to hearing evidence.

 


The only way to avoid errors at both extremes is to cultivate a sense of honest inquiry in our next generation.

Friday, March 3, 2023

More about Gorilla Lawyers

In an earlier essay "Gorilla lawyers and jury abuse" I wrote about the evolution of gorilla lawyers in the Oklahoma justice system. Then, in September 2022, there was an interesting new development not in the case but with regard to the District Attorney, Steve Kunzweiler, who argued the case against the accused rapist.


I described my experience in the jury pool for a case that Kunzweiler was arguing. It was clear to me that he was enamored of his male-gorilla role over the jury. He insulted all of us, particularly two women who both ended up being excused, and who left the courtroom in tears and hugging each other. This is the sort of thing that a gorilla-lawyer loves to do. Another woman told me, “I felt like I was on trial.” The only person who was worse was the defense attorney, who even looked like Edward G. Robinson.

The interesting new development is that, on September 27, 2022, Steve Kunzweiler was stabbed by his mentally unstable daughter. There had to be a story leading up to that event, which at this writing has not been publicized. Is it possible that Kunzweiler was such a strict and negative person that he drove his daughter to the crime? Or would it have happened anyway? All I can say is, he was not a humble person and may have precipitated the crime in some way, although neither he nor anyone else deserves to be stabbed.

This makes me wonder if, that day in March 2022, Kunzweiler came to the courtroom with family matters on his mind. He took out his stresses on us, the jury pool. This was unprofessional. The jury pool was made to suffer from his anger.

One can only hope that, as he recovers from the nonlethal wounds, Kunzweiler will learn a little humility, and it might make criminal justice in Tulsa County a little more efficient—for lashing out at the jury is a waste of time if their job is to determine the innocence or guilt of the defendant. As a Republican, Kunzweiler is a hard-liner against not only defendants but, it appears, against the jury as well. Might he reconsider his stance? Considering how few Republicans ever change their minds about anything, I am not holding my breath.

Update: The very next day, Kunzweiler broke ranks with all other Republicans in calling for more, not less, government spending—on mental health interventions. Republicans tend to be mean on everything unless it affects their own lives directly, as in these two other examples:

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Long Shadow, part two

In the previous essay, I wrote about the long ecological shadow that Japan has cast upon the rainforests of Southeast Asia since the end of World War Two. The rainforests have been devastated, bringing wealth to major Japanese corporations, and to corrupt governments in Southeast Asia, but economic and natural devastation upon the poor people in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Not even to mention the forests themselves.

But this has not always been the case. Before American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854—in what we would call pre-industrial Japan—Japan was a totally isolated land. Nobody came in, and nobody left, especially since about 1600. Japan needed and desired wood products, but they had to get them entirely from their own land.

Japan consists of four major and many minor volcanic islands. And they were young islands, formed by volcanic eruptions in geologically recent times. Despite profound temperature differences between the cold forests of the northwest and the warm wet forests of the southeast, trees covered the entire archipelago; there were no natural grasslands or deserts.

The mountains are steep and consist of young rock with thin soils. Between the mountains are a few areas of rich soil eroded down from the mountains. Life was difficult in the mountains. The only way to raise food was to create terraces, which had stairsteps of flat, wet rice paddies. Most of the people lived, as they do today, crowded into the small flatlands.

As Conrad Totman has written in The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan, one might have expected Japan to be, by 1854, a devastated landscape. The major natural resource that they had for building was wood. There was no major source of limestone or clay for building. Once the people started cutting down the forests, it took a long time for the forests to grow back. The only reason that Japan was still a green archipelago in 1854 was because the government of Japan, fractured as it was, developed sophisticated techniques of forest management. After World War Two, Japan financed the widespread destruction of Asian rainforests; but before 1854, they carefully managed and renewed their domestic forests. And they did so better than just about any other country in the history of the world up to that point.

Many of the Japanese forests today are not natural forests but are plantations. I noticed this when, as an exchange student, I visited Japan in 1974. My host family drove us along the highways, which led through intensely managed landscapes; there were even rice paddies along the sides of the road. When I looked up at the dark forests, I noticed that they seemed to be flashing as we passed rows of trees. The trees did not form a uniform cover but were all lined up in military precision.

 


I took this photo in 1974. The forests on the mountains are plantations, and the green grass on the roadside is rice.

From about 1600 to 1854, during a time when forests were being destroyed worldwide, Japan was re-growing its forests.

There were two major periods of deforestation in Japanese history. The first was the Heian (old name for Kyōto) period, about the year 700. At this time, powerful lords built huge mansions and castles, all of them from wood. That is, from very good wood, made from the large straight knot-free trunks of hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and sugi (Cryptomeria japonica), both relatives of cypresses and sequoia trees. This was a period of high cultural attainment and the development of a reverence for nature. But at the same time, the people (working for the lords) were cutting down the very forests they revered. After many decades of this, much of the landscape was degraded. The trees that continued to grow were mostly deciduous trees such as oak and chestnut, which were smaller and more suitable for charcoal production than to build great structures. Peasants also used branches and litter as fertilizer for their fields (since there was very little livestock and very little animal manure). The lords continued to build castles but used the good wood for the frames and edges, where it could be seen; they used lower quality wood for the walls, which they covered with plaster. Since warfare was nearly constant, the plaster castles were more resistant to incendiary attacks. Wood shingles were replaced with ceramic tiles, which were also safer from fire. Fine wood floors gave way to cheap floors covered with tatami (woven sedge) mats. Peasants were forbidden to use sugi or hinoki wood for their houses. Fortunately, rural villages could make almost everything they needed from bamboo, which grew rapidly from persistent root stocks. But even these changes did not save the forests.

By the year 718, a crisis was developing. That year, the Yōrō Code advocated tree planting to prevent soil erosion and flooding. In 821, an order explicitly called for forest protection to keep water supplies safe. Deforestation temporarily slowed, but by 1050 rapacious deforestation began in the same area. Pine barrens (hageyama) developed on degraded soil. The Heian period declined, largely due to the loss of forests. This is not what I learned in Japanese history classes, which focused on warriors.

Starting about 1200, the center of power shifted to Edo (modern Tōkyō), which had largely intact forests. Massive deforestation began again. Nobody actually owned land, but had land use rights, which were transferable and legal. Villages had forests they could manage, and villages could determine punishment for people in the village or from outside cutting wood—even breaking off branches—without authorization. This was serious business. Some disputes were handled by trial by ordeal, in which disputants handled red hot sickles or axes, or at least faced the threat of it. Many of the finest forests (the ohayashi) were reserved for the lords—one quarter for the shōgun, three quarters for the daimyō barons. You didn’t mess with these forests either.

According to Totman, the last original forest in Japan was cut in 1692. These figures do not include Ezo (now Hokkaidō), which is still covered with spruce and fir forests, and which has never been until recently an integral part of Japan.

In response to wood shortages, restrictions were severe. The central shogunate government, in 1699, strictly enforced maximum house sizes for villagers: a village headman could have a house no larger than about 4 by 30 meters, a taxable peasant no more than about 4 by 6, and all others only 4 by 4 meters. The poorer people also had to use smaller planks. Forests continued to shrink, especially after earthquakes destroyed major urban areas by causing fires. Edo was rebuilt several times, always from wood. The biggest was the Meireki fire of 1657. At such times, villages could earn a lot of money selling their wood to the cities. The Japanese were serious about saving their forests. Wood poachers could quietly steal wood when they cut it with saws, but axes made a lot of noise. To reduce poaching, the government outlawed the use of saws.

By the 1500s, it became obvious to the leaders that replanting trees was necessary, mainly for wood from which to rebuild castles destroyed in wars. (Sometimes the forests themselves were destroyed in wars.) I am not aware that extensive tree planting happened in any other part of the world. In 1649, the Edo government urged villages to plant trees and bamboo. In 1650, the daimyō of Kuwana said that there should be a thousand trees planted for every tree cut down. Why so many? I explain it below. In 1713, the government issued a major directive for replanting trees.

Replanting was not merely a matter of throwing seeds on the ground. A soil bed was prepared, usually out in nature. Either lots of seeds or a smaller number of slips (branch cuttings) were stuck in these beds. Once the seedlings or slips were about a foot high, they could be transplanted into the forests or into plantations. Every step was carefully done to make sure that transplants would have plenty of roots in contact with moist soil. There were many silviculture manuals in circulation at that time. There were instructions for how to dig the holes, including keeping dead leaves out of the hole, which might impede the contact between transplant roots and soil. The instructions even specified that the planter had to give each transplant a little tug to make sure it was firmly set.

In some places, these superman-Johnny-Appleseeds planted over 300 thousand trees (Totman has the numbers in his book). In just one small part of Kyūshū, in 1824, twelve thousand man days were spent on planting over a million sugi seedlings. In 1820-1865, in the Kikuchi district, 9,327,000 sugi and hinoki seedlings were planted.

Why so many? Because most of them died. In subsequent years, planters would thin out the saplings. When the saplings were large enough, the ones thinned out could be used as poles or tool handles. Who did the planting? At first, it was forced labor or punishment for poaching, but later the planters got paid, or were given permission to cut some of the trees for charcoal. The government preferred labor from villagers who had a stake in the outcome. When forced labor planted the trees, they all died because of sloppy work; when villagers planted them, half survived.

Aftercare, for many years, was important. This included shaking the snow off of transplants that were bent over, and by cutting away vines. Village patrols maintained firebreaks.

Wood sources developed local reputations. For example, the best timber for making ships came from the south, even though this was not the main area in which hinoki and sugi would grow naturally. This is because, in warm moist conditions, the wood grew faster, had bigger xylem vessels, which filled with air when the wood dried—great for making ships. By the nineteenth century, plantation wood was much preferred to wild wood. Plantations grew on the best soil and were in the most accessible locations, near a river for easy transport. Wild trees on high mountain slopes were just not as profitable.

Extensive tree planting centuries ago is one reason that you cannot study forest ecology in Japan by just looking at which species of trees grow where they do today. The range of hinoki and sugi trees today may be the result of planting, not of nature.

Cut off from the world by choice, the Japanese government recognized the need for forestry. It was not an esthetic, but a practical, decision to save their forests. For whatever reason, they led the world in forest conservation. A proclamation in Akita, issued in 1615, said that they needed forests for their future. This changed in the twentieth century, when Japan began its wars of aggression and then, later, financed the destruction of Asian rainforests (see previous essay). But I was astonished to discover that Japan was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in forest conservation.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The Long Shadow, Part One

 

The long ecological shadow, that is.

An “ecological shadow” of a corporation or of a country is when the corporation or country creates ecological damage but exports, or dumps, that damage someplace else. An example that immediately comes to mind is Love Canal, in which the Hooker Chemical Company dumped huge amounts of toxic wastes near Niagara Falls, New York, and simply buried it. The damage affected hundreds of residents of a housing tract that was, later, built over the dump. The company got all the profits, the people got all the damage. That is an ecological shadow.

Well, countries can do this, too. And, according to Peter Dauvergne in his book Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia, this is exactly what Japan has done to the countries of Southeast Asia. Japan has gotten a huge amount of profit from the destruction of tropical rainforests, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Most of the profits from tropical deforestation went to Japan; some of the profits went to corrupt leaders in southeast Asian countries; while all of the consequences of deforestation, such as floods and mudslides and loss of livelihood, were borne by the poor people of those countries. These people were in the ecological shadow of Japan. Dauvergne admits other countries have contributed to the problem, but Japan was the major player.

 


After American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854, Japan could in theory get all the wood it wanted by importing it from other countries. They did not do this very much, at first, because wood is heavy and bulky, not easily imported from China, Korea, or especially from Southeast Asia, even after Japan conquered many of those  countries immediately prior to World War Two. But once Japan surrendered, they were encouraged to build up their peacetime economy, which included vast shipping lanes. By the 1950s, Japan imported vast amounts of timber, first from the Philippines, then from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Because the Allies, particularly America, built up Japan (to insure that they would be an American, not Soviet, ally), and because the Japanese worked really, really hard, Japan became really rich, slowly at first then rapidly. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries were not rich. They had very little money, but they did have a lot of tropical rainforests. The obvious solution was that Japan would buy the wood. This would, in theory, build up the economies of the other Asian countries, which was actually a part of their war reparations.

The Japanese corporations that imported wood from southeast Asia were not wood products corporations. They were the sixteen big corporations (sogo shosha) of Japan, such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Itochu, and Sumitomo. They were just the ones that bought the wood and got it to Japan and sold it to wood products corporations.

This economic relationship was, however, unbalanced. Japan was just about the only wood-buyer with whom the Asian countries had contact. The Japanese corporations set the price, take it or leave it. If the Asian countries wanted to sell wood, they had to accept Japan’s terms. They had to sell cheap, whole logs. These countries could have earned more money if they had processed the logs into plywood, then sold this value-added product to Japan. But the Japanese refused to buy these value-added products.

Japan made full use of its economic power over the Southeast Asian countries. They loaned lots of money to the governments of those countries but made the loans repayable in yen after 25 years, during which time the value of the yen increased faster than the loan interest rate. Thus, even as these countries repaid their loans, their debts grew. The amount of money Japan lent was far less than the ecological costs of the damage. Sometimes Japanese corporations claimed that, “Look we are increasing our environmental investments,” but these were not real expenditures. They just kept the same investments but renamed them “environmental” so they could move them over to the altruistic side of the ledger.

So, it would seem, the people of those countries accepted these terms. Only it wasn’t the people. It was the corrupt government and corporate leaders of those countries. Perhaps the most notorious was Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, dictators of the Philippines. They got stinking rich from selling whole logs and leaving behind barren landscapes that allowed flooding and mudslides that affected millions of their people. The Japanese corporations, and the Marcos family and their network of political appointees, got the money. (Time Magazine reported that Imelda had 1,060 pairs of shoes.) On paper, it made the Philippines look rich, though the wealth was in few hands. Imelda’s “loans to the poor” to alleviate rural poverty were actually rewards to political allies. Logging restrictions were almost meaningless, because there was no one to enforce or even keep track of them. Since timber concessions could be canceled at any time for any reason, Marcos-affiliated corporations had no incentive to harvest timber carefully or to replant; they had no future. They cut trees as fast as they could. After the Marcos regime fell from power, subsequent leaders may have wanted to get rid of corruption, but they could not. The only thing that slowed Philippine deforestation was the fact that they ran out of easily accessible, high-quality trees. This was no problem for Japan; they just switched to Indonesia and Malaysia for trees.

The dictators in Asian countries were not satisfied with legal logging. Since they depended on foreign aid, and lenders such as America wanted to prevent tropical deforestation, the dictators wanted to look like they were conservation minded. One of their tactics was to allow illegal logging on their concession lands. Whoops, somebody cut our trees down. We didn’t do it. But soon thereafter they would buy the timber right back from the illegal loggers. Another tactic was that the dictatorial governments would use their troops to shield illegal loggers. There was also a lot of smuggling out of these countries, facilitated by forged documents, to which the dictators such as Marcos turned a blind eye.

For a while, Indonesia was Japan’s principal source of timber. But in the 1980s Indonesia banned the export of cheap whole logs. Japan had to buy plywood from them instead. This made the economics of rainforest destruction a little better for Indonesia, but the forests still got cut down at an undiminished rate.

The Philippines still suffers a half billion dollars’ worth of damage just from soil erosion. They, and the other Southeast Asian countries, are still suffering from deforestation. Tropical forests do not grow back very easily, so the barren landscapes have remained mostly barren. Japan gives a lot of money to these countries, but it is mostly urban aid (for example, sewage treatment) rather than aid to rural people whose forests have been destroyed by Japan’s ecological shadow.

Dauvergne’s book has a lot of economic detail in it, and I found it to be heavy reading. I think you will benefit from my summary more than from the book itself, unless you are interested in Asian business.

Japan did not always have an insatiable appetite for imported wood. For a large part of its history, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world. The Japanese cut down their own forests, but they could neither conquer other forested countries nor import from them, because of their self-imposed isolation. They had to invent silviculture, in which they conserved and replanted their own forests up through the nineteenth century. How did they do this? That is the topic of the next essay.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Testing a Hypothesis: Sometimes It's Your Only Choice

Plants are dynamic beings that respond continuously to their environments. (Continuous means without interruption, while continual means at recurring intervals.) That is, plants adjust their growth, and even their movements, all the time, day and night, all year.

One fascinating example is called nyctinasty. This is where a plant raises its leaves up, or opens its leaflets, during the day, and lowers the leaves or closes the leaflets at night. Makes sense. During the day they need the light for photosynthesis, and at night they don’t.

Problem is, most plants don’t bother opening and closing, or raising and lowering, their green surfaces. The leaves face the sky in the day, but at night, most plants just leave them where they are. Only a few plants raise and lower, or open and close, their leaves. Examples include the velvetleaf Abutilon theophrasti and many members of the bean family, including the mimosa tree Albizzia julibrissin. This photo shows mimosa leaves folding up for the night, even before sunset. Each mimosa leaf consists of leaflets, each of which has lots of little pinnules. It is, as you can see, the pinnules that close up, and they do so by moving upward.


Why should a plant fold up its leaves at night? Nobody knows, but there is plenty of speculation. Some think it protects the leaves from nighttime rain; others say it hides them from bugs. The most likely reason is that the night sky can be very cold, any time of year, even if the air is not. This could cause the leaves to get too cold during the spring (or fall, but autumn leaves have little value to a deciduous plant that is going to drop them anyway). This was Darwin’s idea, and (working with his son Francis) he made the observations to support (but not to prove) it. Of course, this doesn’t explain why the other plants don’t do this.

This is what mimosas do during under regular conditions: they raise their pinnules each sunset and lower them each sunrise. They do so by the alternate swelling and shriveling of little sacs called pulvini (singular pulvinus). But what I wanted to know was, is the pulvinus on the top side of the pinnule stalk, in which case the pulvinus swells to push the pinnule down, and the pinnule moves up when the pulvinus shrivels; or is it on the bottom of the stalk, in which case it pushes the pinnule down when it swells, and the pinnule moves up when the pulvinus shrivels. The swelling of the pulvinus requires energy; the shriveling does not. Therefore, I wondered, does the pulvinus push the pinnule up at dawn, or does it push it down at sunset?

I looked in the scientific literature and all over the web, and (at least in 2018) could not find an answer to this simple question. So, in desperation, I decided to test a hypothesis myself. And I did so without any fancy equipment or a research grant.

Nyctinasty is not the only process that can make a pulvinus shrivel. Drought can also make a pulvinus shrivel, just as it can make every other cell or structure in a plant shrivel.

There happened to be a drought going on in Tulsa, where I live, in summer 2018. So I went looking for a mimosa tree that was experiencing drought. I had to go up on Turkey Mountain (which is a hill and has no turkeys) to find one. As you can see from the photo, a mimosa leaf experiencing drought during the day raises its pinnules before they start to curl up. This means that the pulvini must be on the top of the pinnule stalks. The pinnules lift up because of tension in the cellulose fibers in the cell walls, unless pulvini push them down.


I wanted to know the answer to the question, but I found enjoyment in answering the question in a way that anyone can do, even without a laboratory.

Another question that you might wonder about is this. After you exercise, of course, you breathe faster, and this helps your body to get rid of carbon dioxide that has built up in your blood. But does each breath have more carbon dioxide? To answer this question, all you need to do is to blow bubbles in slightly basic water. The water should contain some phenolphthalein, which turns pink under basic conditions, and turns clear in acid conditions. If each breath has more carbon dioxide (which becomes carbonic acid in water), then the phenolphthalein should turn clear sooner when you blow bubbles in the water right after exercising than when you blow bubbles in the water while rested. You can answer this physiological question, about lungs and carbon dioxide, without any equipment other than two glass jars, a couple of straws, and a little phenolphthalein. (You can’t just walk into the drug store for phenolphthalein, but it is not a controlled substance. You get it from science education supply companies.) If you can’t afford a carbon dioxide measuring device, you can test the hypothesis in a cheap and easy fashion.

These are actually experiments. In the case of the mimosa, it is a natural experiment: nature imposed the drought on the plants. In the case of breathing, the experiment compares the treatment (breath after exercise) against the control (breath while resting).

And it’s fun, too. Students like it. If you are an elementary school teacher, you can do the bubble experiment in your class.

There are probably lots and lots of questions that you wonder about and for which you cannot find an answer. Rather than to give up, try finding the answer by some simple observation or experiment.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Natural Selection and Slavery

I have been reading the book about runaway slaves by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger. It is an overwhelming book because it contains literally hundreds of stories of runaway slaves in nineteenth century America, with names and whatever scant details may be available from the historical record. The authors attempt some generalizations, but it is very clear that each slave’s story was individual and unique. And the documented brutalities are unspeakably painful.  I considered myself knowledgeable about American history, but this book took my breath away. No wonder the late John Hope Franklin is so famous among scholars and non-scholarly readers alike. This is the painting by Thomas Moran, who lived during this time, which is in the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, where I live, and that was on the cover of the book.


And here is a photo of John Hope Franklin.


As a biologist specializing in writing and educating about evolution, I noticed a generalization that even the late great John Hope Franklin did not, and it has directly to do with evolution by means of natural selection.

Slaveowners and hunters believed passionately that slaves, and black people in general, were inferior in intelligence. Despite this, the racist whites of the South did their best to subject their slaves—and even free blacks, whom they sometimes kidnapped—to deprivations that were clearly intended to keep them physically and mentally inferior. In particular, they seldom allowed their slaves to learn to read and write (a literate slave could write out documentation that said they were free, for example), or to learn simple arithmetic, or to learn to read a map (which could help them to escape, if they should happen to get hold of a map).

Despite this, the runaway slaves proved themselves to be extremely intelligent and clever. As a matter of fact, the deprivations forced upon them by the whites selected for the most intelligent and clever slaves. The only way a slave could be successful was by outplaying their white overlords at their own game. One example that sticks in my mind is the slave who, on his escape route, asked a white train operator which train went to Raleigh. The slave knew that word would soon get around about his escape, and with his description. Asking the train operator how to get to Raleigh was a trick. The slave had no intention of going to Raleigh, but his question would mislead his pursuers into looking for him in that direction. Clever!

That is, the very ways in which whites oppressed slaves were in fact an evolutionary pressure leading to greater intelligence, over the generations, in the slave populations. Not only were black people equally intelligent to start with, but the evil efforts of the whites pushed black populations into even greater intelligence.

It doesn’t take any intelligence to be cruel or to be an oppressor. It takes intelligence to escape oppression. To this day, we are left with the image of stupid racists trying to belittle intelligent minorities.

Friday, January 6, 2023

January 6 and the Legacies of Slavery

Can you believe it, I have only now read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? This was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which began serialization in 1851, about the many ways that black slaves suffered in a country that was still the United States. It is a novel that is today not taken seriously enough, and most of the issues that the book raised remain unresolved. Among the modern consequences of slavery was the domestic terrorism of January 6, 2021.


It is common now for readers to look down upon Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And it is true that this novel could not be published today in its current form. But it played an important role in American history at that time. Stowe pointed out many things that even most northerners did not know about slavery, for example, that slaveowners could abuse their slaves, with no limits, because slaves were property, not people. Few slaveowners killed their slaves, but for those that did, there was no legal consequence. For example, in 1847, a slave owner’s wife murdered two female slaves by bashing their heads in. She was brought to trial. The prosecution, representing the state of South Carolina, called it murder. The defense called it “ordinary domestic discipline.” The judge found in favor of the defense. This was one brief shining moment where slaves might have been considered human beings, and the moment passed.

Slaveowners could break up slave families and sell husbands, wives, and children separately. In fact, there was no such thing as marriage for slaves; slaveowners could dissolve slave marriages and force new ones, just like breeding livestock. Matter of fact, most Americans probably do not know these things even today. Stowe’s mission was to shock America into caring about the slaves and stopping the institution itself. All of the novel’s almost insufferable sentimentality had a direct purpose.

In addition, the title character, Uncle Tom, was completely subservient to his white masters and prayed constantly for their redemption from sin. This is not the image of slavery that we want to believe. We want to believe that slaves were proudly angry at their masters. And most of them probably were, as documented in the writings of historian John Hope Franklin. Slaves like Uncle Tom were rare. Personally, I prefer the slaves who fought back, like Nat Turner. But remember that there were other slaves in this novel who were not so subservient. The way Cassy manipulated Simon Legree was brilliant and heroic. You may pity Uncle Tom, but the way Eliza crossed the frozen Ohio River was worthy of a superhero.

Perhaps most of all, the issues raised by Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not resolved by the end of the Civil War, nor have they yet been. Oppression did not go away, and still has not.

Through most of the history of the United States, the racist South has gotten everything their way, by threat of force against the North. Here is my list:

  • When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he included a paragraph against slavery. When someone pointed out Jefferson’s hypocrisy as a slaveowner, Jefferson said that he intended to free his slaves. The southern colonies forced the removal of this paragraph, thus giving birth to a United States in which it was legal to own slaves.
  • Slaves were not given rights as citizens or even as people, but the Southern states insisted that slaves be counted in the census as three-fifths of a person, thus giving the Southern states a bigger representation in Congress than they would have otherwise had, when the Constitution was ratified.
  • For the Southern economy, thus for the American economy, slavery was essential. The economy simply could not have functioned without the use of slave labor, in two ways. First, the slaves worked for free on the plantations themselves. Second, their owners hired them out to work in factories and shops, then kept the wages that the factory and shop owners paid to the slaves.
  • This amounted to a big pot of money, without which the South would have gone bankrupt. And it was not just slavery that was essential; it was slaves as an expendable resource that was necessary. The slaves on the southern plantations, “down the river,” lived only a few years before they were worked or beaten to death. Had the downriver slaves lived full lives, however miserable, the slave market would have dried up.
  • The northerners did not own slaves, but they were required (by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) to turn in any fugitive slaves that they knew about, and certainly not to harbor any fugitive slaves. This is the reason that the Underground Railroad took slaves to Canada, not just to the North. The southern love of slavery forced the north to support slavery.
  • When the South lost the Civil War, their economy was devastated. But they did not lose all of their money. The fortunes previously made, and which escaped battlefield destruction, were kept. This was the foundation of Southern corporations and banks. Today, many corporations and banks descended from those of the postwar South remain wealthy and have a major role in the modern American economy, because of the money they got from slave labor.
  • Largely because of the direct influence of Southern states, justice has not yet been done regarding the lynchings of black people (in both the North and South) or the Tulsa Race Massacre. Even as late as the centennial of the Massacre, in 2021, most Americans (even me, a Tulsa resident) had not even heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Southerners have supported a conspiracy of silence about our recent past affliction of black people.

The flag of the Old Confederacy still flies in America, mostly in the South, and was the direct inspiration for attacks on modern democracy, such as the January 6 attack on the Capitol exactly two years ago today.

America remains tarnished by the legacy of slavery.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

"The Bible says..." about Slavery

Fundamentalist Christians universally claim, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But this statement is, even from a literalistic view of the Bible, incorrect. What they really mean is, “The Bible says it, I interpret it, and that settles it.” The fundamentalist, therefore, puts Himself or Herself blasphemously into the line of authority. They expect us to believe their interpretation as if it were the very words of God. Literalist Bible believers should not do this. Many of them do, which is why I turn away whenever I hear them preaching.

Examples abound and I have written about many of them, both here (about their attacks on science) and in my religion blog. But the example I am thinking of now is slavery; in particular, black slavery before the Civil War in the United States. I have just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novel that, according to Lincoln, was one of the major causes of the Civil War. In addition, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the brother of Henry Ward Beecher, a famous preacher who stirred up great audiences in the north, and in England, against slavery. Some historians have said that Henry Ward Beecher’s message was an important reason that England supported the north instead of the south, which was a profitable source of cotton, sugar, etc. The southern states had ample reason to hate both of the Beechers.

This novel was written in the hortatory, preachy style found in so many novels of that period. Some of my liberal friends will roll their eyes at it. But it was the novel that captured the attention of most Americans to show that slavery was a complex system of evil that pervaded the economy. This was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s challenge: So, you don’t own slaves? Fine. But you may have invested in businesses that get their money from slavery. And your national laws require you to betray runaway slaves to federal authorities. Slavery was an evil deeply intertwined with the American economy. Many northerners, who could not own their own slaves, supported policies that maintained slavery in the south. These people, Stowe made it clear, were as cruel in their thinking as the slave owners themselves, even the slave catchers.

Many people think that the federal government could not have stopped slavery. The constitution did not delegate that authority to the federal government. It was a state’s right to have, or not have, slavery. This is stupid and evil. Of course the federal government could have done it, via the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. That is, unless slave owners and sellers could prove that slaves did not cross state lines. As soon as a slave was transported from, say, Alabama into Georgia, the feds could have said, federal anti-slavery laws now apply.

And now consider how slavery relates to fundamentalism. The Golden Rule, as stated in the New Testament, is do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You wouldn’t want someone to whip you, or to steal your wages, or to take your child or wife or husband from you; so don’t do that to anyone else. Seems pretty clear.

But antebellum fundamentalists had some contorted arguments that they considered to be absolutely Biblical. Stowe mentions three, and I have added a fourth:

  • One is that Paul told the escaped slave Onesimus to return to his owner, Philemon. This is explained in the Book of Philemon. Never heard of it? Prepare to be surprised.
  • Another is, in Genesis, God said, “Cursed be Canaan,” and said his descendants, whom the fundamentalist preacher in the novel said were African, would be slaves.
  • Paul also told Christians to be content in whatever state they find themselves. The Southern preachers used this to tell slaves that God wants them to be contented with being slaves.
  • Finally, some Biblical scholars came up with a theory that the black race was not really human and found some way or other to justify it with the Bible. This one was not in the novel. But I have known people, within recent decades, who believed this. Of course, this would mean that the black race had to be housed with the animals on the Ark. Fundamentalists don’t have an answer to this. As an evolutionary biologist, I am particularly bothered by this argument, which contradicts all we know about human biology.

To fundamentalist preachers in the antebellum South, these fragile arguments were enough to negate the Golden Rule.

Yes, twisting scripture to make it say what you wish, in utter contradiction to what the God of Love would want, has a long history within fundamentalism. It continues today. I will have more to say about this very soon.