Friday, September 29, 2023

Bigfoot in Tulsa!

A silhouette of Bigfoot against an Oklahoma map is popular iconography on pickup trucks in Oklahoma. Do the drivers of these trucks believe in Bigfoot? I never asked, because I might have gotten the response, “Yeah. You got a problem with that?”

And if that question was put to me, as a retired biology professor, I would be unable to resist answering it. It would give me the opportunity to teach all about genetics, population biology, and evolution.

Bigfoot cannot exist. Believers could say that He exists, but has never been seen. Unless Bigfoot was a single, immortal individual (no animal can be immortal), there would have to be a population of Bigfoots: daddy, mommy, and kids. Each additional Bigfoot would vastly increase the chances of someone detecting them. And Bigfoot, if He exists, is, well, big. He would need lots of food. He is usually depicted as a mammal, which means He is warm-blooded, and probably carnivorous, which means He needs lots of food. Carnivores are at the top of the food pyramid, which means that a few carnivores would need a food base of lots of herbivorous animals and plants. But where is the evidence that extensive browsing has occurred in Oklahoma forests? Bigfoot would mean Bigfood. Even if an individual Bigfoot could hide in a forest, He could not hide his feeding frenzy.

Bigfoot reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash, about a monster from Native folklore, the Wendigo.


The Wendigo, the Wendigo,

I saw it just a friend ago.

Last night it was in Canada,

Tonight on your veranada.


But there are a couple of interesting things about Bigfoot and Wendigo. The first is that it is not interesting to simply say that there is no Bigfoot; it gets interesting when you have to explain why. Food chains, population biology, all of that. Now it becomes a teachable moment. Although by the time the guy was searching around in his pickup for a gun, I don’t think I would feel like being a professor any more. I posted a video about this.

The second interesting thing is that, according to Native mythology, the Wendigo started off as a good person who was transformed by self-aggrandizement into a monster. Could you become a Wendigo or a Bigfoot? Could I? I read this idea in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, in which the Wendigo reference is one of the least important parts.

And of course all of this applies to Nessie, also. The monster (often portrayed as a plesiosaur) what supposedly still exists in Loch Ness, Scotland. One of the largest conventions of Loch Ness Monster believers took place in August 2023. The local officials insist this was not just a publicity stunt.

My final thought is, why do people believe these things? I assure you, the reality of science—genetics, population biology, and evolution—is interesting without having to invent fantasy.


Friday, September 22, 2023

The Climate Has Changed Before, So Don't Worry?

Nearly everyone now knows that climate change is real, and that humans are either causing it or making it worse. So I don’t discuss it with anyone anymore. I had a contract to write Encyclopedia of Global Warming for Facts on File but they discontinued the project. Fortunately I got paid an advance for just writing a headword list.

Now the fossil fuel protagonist argument is, “The climate has changed before, so don’t worry about it. Just keep buying our oil and gas, and let us make our money, and quit whining.” This is a really bad argument. The reason is that, yes, the climate has changed, even within the past millennium, but it has had disastrous effects on societies. So the argument that we don’t need to take any action to prevent climate change is like saying, “The Black Death didn’t kill everyone, therefore we do not need medicine and public health.”

About 800 years ago, a great civilization collapsed. It was the Misssissippian culture, which covered most of eastern North America, centered in what is now Cahokia, Illinois. Never heard of it? That’s because most pre-contact Native American history has been erased from our national consciousness.

Cahokia was one of the biggest cities in the world at that time. The only way it could support the number of people that it did was because of intensive agriculture, mostly corn, squash, and beans. This civilization collapsed because of political unrest but also because of a drought. If the Natives had lived off of hunting and gathering, the way most people think they did, then the drought would have had little effect. But the drought caused the collapse of their intensive agriculture. This is an example of how climate disruption (in this case, a natural one) caused the collapse of a civilization, as explained in this Scientific American article. I will also write about this in Chapter 2 of my upcoming book.

Society enables a stability that allows humans to survive natural disasters. But sometimes these disasters can exceed the capacity of society to rescue the humans. The Mississippian civilization is an example. Most of the people survived, and they continued planting fields (just not as many), and the trade networks survived.

This is all that remains of Cahokia. We can only hope that our modern civilization does not disappear the way theirs did.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Gilcrease, Master of Altruism

As described in Connie Cronley’s masterful and readable biography of the Oklahoma progressive crusader Kate Barnard, young Native men and women who had oil rights on their Oklahoma allotment properties were frequently the targets of white grafters who would stop at almost nothing to get the oil rights of those properties. This would include a kind of gentle kidnapping known as “spiriting away.” The young Natives, usually from the Muskogee Creek Nation, were invited on trips and given a good time. Alcohol was usually involved. The young Natives were kept under constant supervision, and once they were good and drunk, they were asked to sign a contract giving one of the Tulsa oil magnates the rights to their oil. One young woman was taken on a hog-shooting trip, beered up, and told to sign a contract. She said that she had been threatened with jail if she did not sign.

Yes, this happened in the United States, early in the twentieth century. It happened in Oklahoma after statehood. In one case, the oil multimillionaire was Thomas Gilcrease.


I will quote from Cronley’s book (p. 159):

Usually, the minors were taken to neighboring states—Texas, Missouri, or Arkansas—but the case of a Creek minor named Marcus Covey was remarkable for the distance he was taken. Marcus disappeared in late 1911, just as oil was discovered near his allotments. His parents…were frantic to find him. His mother contacted the secretary of the interior, and his father, a member of the Masonic fraternal organization, asked the Masons’ help in finding the boy. The Secret Service searched for four months and finally found Marcus in Southampton, England. “He was sent there by one Thomas Gilcrease,” the Secret Service agent reported, and was found “in company with a hired lieutenant of Mr. Gilcrease’s.”

Nobody in Tulsa, where I live, would fail to recognize the name. Thomas Gilcrease became one of the most famous philanthropists in Tulsa. His money was the basis for what is popularly known as the Gilcrease Museum, which is a museum and historical society of world renown. It even publishes its own journal. Its major emphasis is Native American history and culture. I have attended Native American displays and events at “the Gilcrease.”

Now that your mind has had a chance to process this breathtaking story, let me break it down a little further in terms of evolutionary theory. Thomas Gilcrease was a master of altruism, that is, of doing good things in the service of his own resources and power. In this, he is no different from thousands of other rich people. It’s just the astonishing hypocrisy that makes this story stand out.

In evolutionary theory, there are three levels of altruism, and each of them confers an evolutionary advantage that far outweighs the cost of the good deeds themselves, as I described in my Encyclopedia of Evolution.

  • Kin selection. A rich person can invest in his offspring, or his extended family, which are the only way that his genes can get passed into future generations. Gilcrease certainly made his family rich.
  • Direct reciprocity. Do something generous for me, and I might do something generous for you. You can’t be sure, but it usually works. Gilcrease was good to his friends, and undoubtedly received favors from them in return.
  • Indirect reciprocity. By being generous, a rich person can buy a reputation for generosity. This will make society in general trust him more, which will cause him to get even richer. A good reputation can be worth more than money in the bank. The generosity has to be, however, very conspicuous. Gilcrease raked in the benefits of adoration bestowed upon him by Tulsans. Gilcrease got rich partly by kidnapping a young Native man and stealing his oil, and this allowed him to endow a museum that is a world leader in promoting Native studies.

Gilcrease could have helped the Creek tribe (he was himself one-eighth Creek) more by simply not kidnapping young Marcus than by stealing his oil money and then giving it back to the Creek tribe indirectly through his museum. But it was a lot more fun this way. If he had simply not stolen the oil, who would know it? To Gilcrease, the adulation he got from Tulsans, including Creeks, was a thousand times more satisfying than the quiet knowledge that he simply did not kidnap the young Creek man. Oh, and I bet there were tax breaks for his generosity also.

Thomas Gilcrease ruthlessly stole money then leveraged it to buy admiration. This is the highest expression of the evolution of altruism.

Friday, September 8, 2023