Friday, July 28, 2023

The Brutal Truth

In science, literal truth is enshrined as the ultimate good. We like to imagine that we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth at all times. But most scientists, and all science writers and educators, realize that this will not work on a daily basis. We have to modulate the truth to accommodate those who listen to us.

The main way we do this is by offering our readers and listeners more hope than there might actually be any reason to have. This is especially true, as I wrote on Earth Day (see previous essay) of environmental issues. Probably nothing short of collapse will keep us from destroying the Earth. (Collapse, not extinction.) It is safe to say that nobody would read a book or blog essay in which this brutal truth is the conclusion. Writers like me grab at any little tatter of hope to leave our readers with the motivation to make the world a better place, even if it is only a little better.

But it happens all the time, not just in our major writings. I keep thinking of one example from a recent walk I took along a trail outside of Tulsa. It was a beautiful day in early spring. I was closely watching the buds open. Each kind of tree and bush and vine has its own schedule for opening its buds, some early, some later, so budburst is more like a symphony than an event. I was also noticing the animals. In particular, the rising air currents moved vultures in effortless circles. We find vultures disgusting, even though on days like this they can be beautiful, and we are certainly happy that they help clean up the dead meat.

A young woman was walking toward me on the trail. She looked up into the sky where the vultures had been and smiled grandly. I asked her what she was looking at. She told me she had seen eagles.

Had I been dedicated to brutal truth, I would have corrected her. It was vultures, not eagles, that she saw. I could even have told her how to tell the difference. But I am a retired educator and a science writer. When I see someone enjoying the beauty of nature, I will do what I can to encourage that enjoyment. So I just told her that it was nice that she had seen them. I wanted to leave her with a good feeling that would make it more likely for her to keep coming back to the trail.

Friday, July 21, 2023

La Bête Humaine

This is the title of an 1890 French novel by Émile Zola. I read an English translation that retained the original French title. (The e-circumflex, ê, indicates that there used to be an s in the word. The word is obviously the equivalent of our “beast.”) Zola’s novels were scandalous at the time. This novel has a complex and compelling plot in which the evil desires of nearly all of the characters weave together into a web of murder. I don’t think a single main character was left alive at the end. You like train wrecks? This novel has two.

Zola’s reason for writing this novel, and many others, was to explore what it means to understand that we evolved from wild and savage animals. He makes no mention of evolution per se, but no reader at the time could miss his message. Speakers such as Herbert Spencer, and even preachers like Henry Ward Beecher, went around saying evolution was God’s way of ennobling us. Zola had a different view: evolution condemned us, rather than ennobling us.

This view of the human beast also meant that if someone was in the way of what you wanted to have, whether money or sex, you simply got them out of the way. One of the main characters, the woman Séverine, with whom nearly all of the men were in love and who took advantage of their weaknesses, thought to herself (about killing her husband), “He was in the way, so you got rid of him; what could be more natural?”

But these views were based on an understanding of evolution that we now know to be incorrect. The human beast was not just violent and aggressive; when Zola wrote, “The woman belonged to the [cave]man who could kill his rivals,” he was only partly right. Human nature also includes love and altruism. It is instinctual for us to be bad; it is also instinctual for us to be good. I have written frequently about altruism. Zola was therefore wrong, but so were most scientists. His characters thought, evolution has made me evil; but, in fact, evolution had made them both evil and good at the same time. (One of the characters had a psychiatric disorder; for him, perhaps, being good was impossible.)

The final scene is unforgettable. The only two main characters left alive, two train operators, hated each other because they both loved a woman whom one of them had just murdered. As the train moved at full speed, the men struggled and both fell off the train. The uncontrollable train, full of soldiers headed off to the front in the Franco-Prussian War, flew off to an inevitable catastrophe that even Zola did not dare to write about. This is the picture Zola leaves us with about what the world is like: it is a train on which selfish and clueless humans ride to their destruction.

The real “bête humaine” was society. That is, what some scientists today call the superorganism. No matter what happened, whether murders or train wrecks, the trains were back on their normal schedules with a delay of, at most, one day. The trains, the machine of life, all of society, continue on as if nothing good or (usually) bad has happened in any individual lives.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Just Go Dump Your Mining Wastes on the Native Americans: A Recycling Story


The Quapaw Native American town of Picher, Oklahoma once had the biggest lead mine in the world. Half of all the zinc and lead used by the United States in World War I came from this mine. For a while the mine was extremely profitable. Part of the reason is that the external costs (externalities) were simply ignored: the corporation just dumped their mine tailings in big mounds which leaked contaminants into the water in Picher. The corporation closed the mine and moved out, leaving the local Native Americans to deal with the ensuing health crisis. Many of the children had dangerous levels of lead in their blood. In 2009, the school closed and the town shut down except for a few defiant Quapaws who stay (presumably with clean water trucked in?) and fly the tribal flag.

Our economy needs rare earth and other toxic metals. The computer on which I am writing, and on which you are reading this essay, require them. But currently forty percent of rare earth elements come from China. Just a week ago China announced restrictions on the export of francium and germanium. Now what do we do? Fortunately, Sweden (new NATO member!) found a big deposit of rare elements. (Because of their similar chemical properties, they are often found together in ores.) But it will take at least a decade for this deposit to supply our industrial chain, since unlike China Sweden has careful environmental guidelines.

An alternative is recycling. Already, electronic recycling is big business. If we can get new germanium and yttrium and ytterbium for our new electronics from our old electronics, there is no need for mining. Recycling makes more economic sense in some situations (such as aluminum) than in others (such as plastic). But if the alternative to recycling is to dump toxins on our fellow humans, recycling is always worth the cost. Do we all want to become a toxic ghost town like Picher, Oklahoma?

Even a gorilla can understand this. In a video, I explain this to a gorilla, which was the mascot of the Picher schools before they closed.

To those in France: happy Bastille Day, I guess. Your history is as bloody as ours, but we work with what we have.

Friday, July 7, 2023

The Second Biggest City in the World that You Never Heard About: Spiro

It is the biggest city that you never heard about. It may well have been the second biggest city in the world somewhere between 1000 and 1250. Cahokia was bigger, but you’ve heard of it. We do not know what the population of Spiro was, partly because it may have been a ceremonial center for pilgrims who came but did not stay permanently. Why, then, have you never heard about it?

The city today is called Spiro, in eastern Oklahoma. Spiro is not on the way to anywhere. If you go any further north or east you end up in the Arkansas River. The area is poor and rural even by Oklahoma standards. But it was a center of prosperity and activity eight hundred years ago.

I visited Spiro Mounds in June 2023 (see the video here). They are hard to find. Even many local residents have never heard of it, and those who had could not give coherent directions to find it. We ended up using the Siri app. The day I was there, there was a family visiting. The rest of the time, it was just me and the director of the visitors’ center, who was not at all hopeful that the State of Oklahoma would keep the site running. The biggest remaining mound, Craig’s Mound, is an artificial reconstruction [photo].

I wrote earlier about Cahokia in Illinois and posted a video. All that remains of Cahokia are large earthen mounds built by Native Americans, one basket of soil at a time, in which bones and artifacts were buried. Warrior-priests lived in wooden structures on the flat mound tops. For square miles around the main mound (now called Monks Mound), workers (slaves?) lived in huts and grew vast fields of maize (corn, unknown at the time outside America) and other crops.

The Cahokia and Spiro empires were connected to the other empires by a vast trade network that covered most of the eastern deciduous forest. The trails were of dirt well pressed by thousands of feet. Trade goods were carried by hand, as there were no horses, oxen, or wheels. There was also extensive trade by boat. Spiro was within sight of the Arkansas River.

Trade goods were usually high-value decorative items. As far as we know, food was not usually transported, since the amount needed would weigh too much. Most of the food in Cahokia was corn, beans, and squash, with venison and “wild” nuts for protein. In Spiro, quinoa might have been more important than corn.

Remains of copper, shell, and sandstone artifacts have been found at Cahokia, and it is possible that perishable items such as clothes and blankets may have been imported. The shells came from the Gulf of Mexico. The copper came from the Great Lakes area. Though the Mississippian culture did not extend into Mexico, there was some trade with the Natives we collectively call “the Aztecs.” The artifacts on display at the Spiro Mounds Visitor Center were duplicates. The director explained to me that the location is so rural and high-crime that leaving the real artifacts in the building would invite plundering. Law enforcement would take at least a day to respond, after which time the items would be untraceable.

Nobody knows why the Mississippian civilization collapsed. There was apparently a major drought about 1300, but this might not have by itself caused food production to collapse. There was undoubtedly soil erosion caused by the intensive agriculture needed to feed the population, although this would also probably have not caused the collapse. Most likely, it was these two factors (and others?) working together.

You cannot see the Arkansas River today from Spiro Mounds, and even if the mounds were intact (see below) you probably could not. The view of the river is not blocked by modern buildings. It is blocked by pecan and boxelder trees which have grown back since European and white American occupation. Native Americans cut down small trees and used fire to clear away saplings and undergrowth. The Natives transformed the landscape not only by creating urban centers and by agriculture, but also by fire.

Even less remains of Spiro Mounds than of Cahokia. Spiro was sort of a second city to Cahokia in the Mississippian culture. As a matter of fact, the mounds themselves are gone. Nobody knows how big the mounds originally were. By the 1930s, farmers and ranchers near Spiro (in what used to be the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory) noticed artifacts, some fancy, that showed up when they plowed their fields or grazed their cattle. The new land owners saw this as an opportunity to plunder the archaeological treasures and sell them.

The Pocola Mining Company was the only company whose sole purpose was to “mine” archaeological artifacts rather than minerals. They had no training in archaeology. They dug up artifacts and sold them directly to whoever wanted them. These artifacts went to private collectors and museums all over the world; some are even in the Louvre in Paris. A few have been located; others have been discarded by people who assumed they were fake trading-post items that the old folks left in the attic.

This plundering of artifacts was illegal under a federal law signed by Theodore Roosevelt. Since it was a federal law, it did not apply within Oklahoma until the artifacts crossed state lines—and some of them crossed national lines. But there was no enforcement of this law.

A scientist at the University of Oklahoma discovered what was going on, and he convinced the Oklahoma legislature to pass an antiquities act, one of the first of its kind at the state level. This might have protected whatever artifacts remained undiscovered, but the Pocola Mining Company went into overdrive to dig up everything they could before the law went into effect. They even broke up some shell artifacts into smaller ones, yielding a higher total profit. And then, just before they left, they wired the area and blew it up with dynamite. This was deliberate historical and cultural obliteration.

The state law protected whatever artifacts survived the plundering and dynamite. But then the professor went on sabbatical out of state. He was the only one watching the site, so when he left, the miners came back for more plunder.

We do not know who these people were. They left no writing for us to even try to decipher. We do not know what language they spoke or what they called their city or themselves. Based on artistic similarities in pottery, archaeologists have concluded that the Wichita and Caddo tribes are the physical descendants of the mound builders, although these modern tribes have no tradition or memory of a vast civilization.

Why have you never heard of the Mississippian civilization? This is the important question. Everyone has heard of the Mayans (the contemporaries of the Mississippians), the Aztecs, and the Incas. But popular racist images show Native Americans north of Mexico as being small populations of hunters and gatherers, leaving scarcely a footprint as they gathered berries and nuts and hunted deer. The reason this image is racist is that it justifies the conquest of North American tribes, who were not using the land to its full capacity, by civilized Europeans who transformed the landscape into a fruited plain with whitewashed cities, a process popularly called Manifest Destiny. What is sometimes called “revisionist history” proclaims the facts about the advanced Native American cultures. But this new view of history is attacked and maligned by conservative state legislatures.

The conservative racist (these are not necessarily the same things) viewpoint has been triumphant, because if you ask Americans about major precolumbian urban centers north of Mexico, very few will know anything about it. The myth of the savage, vanishing Red Man persists.