The Inspiration of Science
Jan. 3, 2009
Some people think science is the amassing of
facts about the natural world, and that it takes something else, such
as religion, to tie the facts of life together into a meaningful
story. But this is misleading. Scientific investigation is
a grand adventure and reveals deep meaning in life. I realized
this as I was looking through the August 29, 2008 issue of the journal Science.
Scientific research allows us to reconstruct
the history of the Earth, and human history, from evidence that is so
subtle as to be almost invisible. One article examined how, by
studying charcoal in geological deposits hundreds of millions of years
old, we can determine how much oxygen was in the air at those
times. Another article examined how protein analysis of hairs
found on the leather clothing of Otzi the Iceman revealed that the
people of his culture were herdsmen rather than primarily
hunters. Yet another article revealed that scientists have
discovered earthworks of ancient urban centers spread across thousands
of miles of what is now Amazon rainforest—revealing that the rainforest
now filled with “primitive tribes” was once filled with
civilization. These discoveries alter our understanding of Earth
and human history.
In the past, much scientific research was
based on correlation. For example, in wild tobacco plants, a
greater amount of the attractant benzyl acetone in the flowers was
correlated with more visits from pollinating hummingbirds and
moths. But scientists are always seeking new was to transform
correlational studies into experimental ones. In this issue of Science,
some scientists had produced genetically engineered lines of wild
tobacco which did not produce the benzyl acetone attractant. They
grew these plants, left them outside, and monitored pollinator
visits. The pollinators were not very interested in the plants
without the attractant. This has raised the experimental study of
ecology to a new level.
Nearly every week brings some breakthrough in
human health. In this issue of Science, there was a news
item about a scientist who was able to get regular pancreatic cells to
change into islet cells, which are the cells that make insulin.
This means it is possible to get diabetics, whose islet cells have
died, to grow new ones from their remaining pancreatic cells.
This may lead to a cure for certain kinds of diabetes. One of the
research articles was about a researcher who took cells from an elderly
victim of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and manipulated them to become a
form of stem cell. He then got these stem cells to develop into
nerve cells, the very kind destroyed by ALS. Once again, this may
lead to a cure for a major degenerative illness. Another news
item told about a researcher who has discovered that the debilitating
side effects of chemotherapy might be avoided by something as simple as
Scientists are very active in society and
policy. This issue of Science had an article about
science diplomacy—how scientists in the U.S. can work with scientists
in other countries, and thus promote international cooperation.
Even back during the Cold War, American and Soviet scientists were
working together on non-military research, such as how plants grow and
how to get agricultural plants to grow more.
Science is an international
collaboration. The articles have authors from many different
countries. This issue had a significant new step in this
direction. In the past, scientists have gotten information from
native peoples and then written the articles themselves. In this
issue, the member of the Kuikuro tribe that helped the scientists
investigate the ancient Amazonian earthworks was included as an author
of the paper.
For all of the above reasons—compressed into
just one issue of the world’s major scientific journal—I feel inspired
to the a participant in the scientific community. The above
examples are not mere piles of facts, but revelations into the way the
world works, and ways in which major problems can be solved.
Scientists are not cold calculators of information but passionate
explorers of truth and equally passionate servants of the good of the
human and natural world.
February 12, 2009: An Important Date
Jan. 18, 2009
Two important men were born on February 12, 1809. One was born into a rich family in England, the other in a shack in Kentucky. One became a scientist, the other a statesman.
One was Charles Robert Darwin. The other was Abraham Lincoln.
At first, it may seem difficult to think of two more different people. There are some similarities, however, beyond the mere fact that they were two of the most famous people of their century.
First, both of them championed positions whose time had come. Evolution was just waiting to be explained, and the abolition of slavery was inevitable. Both of these ideas became divisive. Darwinian evolution was a controversial viewpoint among scientists when first published. While nearly all scientists now accept Darwinian evolution, it remains controversial in the general public, for reasons that have little to do with their scientific merit. Emancipation of slaves was controversial enough to cause a civil war.
Second, in both cases, the protagonists were gentle and peace-loving men, who wanted to convince rather than trample their opponents. The process of evolution could have been discovered by someone combative, someone ready to fight for his truth before all of the facts were yet in. Someone like Thomas Henry Huxley, who did Darwin’s fighting for him, against the equally combative Richard Owen. Darwin’s pleasure was to accumulate as much information as possible to show the pattern and process of evolution before publishing it; and when he did publish, he strove to be no more controversial than the facts demanded. He became an agnostic but never tried to convince anyone else to do so. And suppose the United States had had a president other than Lincoln, someone who wanted to conquer the South rather than bring it back into democratic fellowship. Who else but Lincoln could have said, regarding the beaten Confederacy, “With malice toward none but with charity toward all”?
Third, both of them led the thinking of the world towards greater freedom. Darwin liberated scientific thought from the restrictions of theology. He continued a tradition of liberation: Galileo showed that the Earth was not the center of the universe; Hutton and Lyell showed that the Earth was not a recent, supernatural creation. The tradition continues today. For example, neurologists are now showing that our thoughts, feelings, and spiritual sensations are the product of brain function rather than a spirit lurking between the molecules. Scientists are now free to go wherever the evidence takes them. Lincoln, of course, proclaimed freedom for the slaves, but also allowed the momentum of freedom to continue, eventually allowing full citizenship and equal rights for people who had been, or whose ancestors had been, slaves. It took until about 1926 before Native Americans had the rights that slaves had in the 1870s, but it finally happened.
It cannot have escaped your notice that 2009 is not only the 200th birthday of Darwin and Lincoln, but the year in which the first black president of the United States will be inaugurated.
Darwin and Lincoln never met. If they had met, what would have happened? Only fictional speculation will serve us here. On this website, we now introduce a series of stories that I have written about Darwin. The first one is about a meeting between Darwin and the ghost of Lincoln. Please keep checking this website for more stories about Charles Darwin.
The Sabbath of the Earth
Feb. 1, 2009
I show you the future. As temperatures become warmer and rainfall decreases, the forests will die. Eventually they will be replaced by savannas or prairies, but there will be a transition period of a century or more when the old habitats have died and the new ones have not yet established themselves. The trees in our American forests, some of which have grown for hundreds of years, will become dead sticks. National Parks will not be able to preserve the plant and animal species they were intended to preserve. We will leave our grandchildren not only trillions of dollars of debt (incidentally, none of the students in my Honors class at the university knew how much a trillion was!) but also a temporarily dead natural world. It will all work out eventually, but meanwhileÖ
This is not the first time. Ecological mismanagement contributed to the collapse of many earlier civilizations. They were replaced by new ones and life went on. But this fact proved to be of no comfort to the inhabitants of Easter Island, to the Moche, the Tiahuanaco, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Cahokians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Indus River civilization.
In the end, the Earth will get its way. Moses told the Israelites to let the land rest every seventh year; during that fallow time, the soil could recover. It was called the Sabbath of the Fields. The Israelites never did this. According to the Old Testament, during 490 years the kingdoms of Israel and Judah incurred a 70-year debt to the land. The chronicler, at the very end of II Chronicles, described the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the 70-year captivity, and said, “And so the land enjoyed its rests.” This is one of the most chilling passages of the Bible and one of the most important for us today. One way or the other, the land will get its rest. It can rest either as a normal part of economic activity, the way the heart rests between beats, or it can rest all at once after the collapse of economic activity. But it will rest.
Feb. 15, 2009
How many of you would build a home out of cottonwood? I doubt that anybody would do this. This kind of wood is not strong. Although cottonwood trees grow tall and their trunks are large, they do not live very long. They live along creeks and rivers, where periodic floods turn trees into floating logs.
In contrast, most oak trees have very strong wood. Strong wood is more expensive for a tree to produce than is weak wood. Oaks live for centuries, and strong wood is a necessary investment, but it would be a wasted investment for a cottonwood, which would be probably be killed by a flood before a century has passed. Cottonwood trees follow the James Dean philosophy of life: live fast and die young. Oak trees grow slowly and live a long time. Both patterns of life are adaptations to their circumstances: the first to a temporary habitat, the second to a stable habitat.
Yet another approach to life is found in alder trees. Alders, like cottonwoods, live in streamside habitats where floods frequently destroy them. The 2007 floods in Oklahoma destroyed almost every alder tree that I could see. But alders produce numerous small trunks from a strong underground rootstock. Within a couple of months of the floods, nearly all of the alders had resprouted. An alder clump may persist for centuries, even though each of its trunks may live only for a few decades.
The near-collapse of the financial sector resulted from cheap investments that were not intended to last. For a brief time, these investments yielded immense profits to a few people, but failure was built into the system. Financial markets invested like cottonwoods. The problem is that a nation is supposed to survive for a long time, like a forest of oaks, not like a streamside with cottonwoods. If the United States intends to persist, the correct way to invest is for the long term.
In nature, cottonwoods cannot survive in oak forests. But on Wall Street, all of the biggest corporations followed the cottonwood type of investment and, in effect, forced it on the entire system. By investing in the short term, banks and other financial firms forced their environment to become unstable, and took billions of dollars down with them. Their approach to life turned a country, and a world, into a habitat that lives fast and dies young.
Mar. 1, 2009
My mother was born in 1918, and died in 2008 after persevering through a period of debilitation and suffering.
But it is the first time she has not persevered. She grew up in rural eastern Oklahoma during the Depression. The Dust Bowl was in the western, not the eastern, part of Oklahoma, and her father’s farm was largely unaffected by the Dust Bowl conditions. Her father raised nearly all of the vegetables, meat, and milk for the family on his farm. There was no money but plenty of food and, because he built houses himself, a place to live. She did not have to persevere in the face of hunger, because her family had done the right thing from the beginning: they carefully took care of their land, rather than seeking quick riches in the Roaring Twenties. They lived in a calm humility rather than falling from the crest of riches to the canyon of poverty.
She also persevered through World War II. Immediately after she married my father, he was drafted. They spent the war at a military camp in California. They did not have to persevere through the horrors of war, but they fully participated in sacrifice that few Americans would make today: meat, gasoline, and clothing were rationed, to fight wars on two fronts, neither of which the United States was guaranteed to win. When Mom saw one of the rice-paper balloons floating on the upper air currents, carrying a bomb from Japan to America, she knew that the homeland was not necessarily secure, and that she had to sacrifice her luxuries and convenience for the country.
She also persevered through the destruction of my father’s career in the U.S. Post Office. He was in line to receive a postmaster position in Oklahoma, when an unqualified man offered a bribe to a U. S. Congressman and got the job. The resulting stress was nearly intolerable, so my family moved to California, as far away from it as possible. Mom persevered by working at minimum wage jobs, in a country whose government she knew to be often corrupt.
She is the example from which I learned to persevere by doing the right thing over the long run.
Mar. 15, 2009
In the 1930s, Turkey Mountain, right across the Arkansas River from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was covered with oil derricks. Few trees were spared during the frenzy of extracting as much oil in as little time as possible.
When the oil was depleted, the equipment was hauled away, except for a few cement blocks and pieces of metal. Most of the trees on Turkey Mountain, which is actually a small hill, grew after the end of oil extraction. But some of the post oaks, which grow slowly, small, and gnarled, had lived among the derricks during the height of the oil frenzy.
One of the post oaks fell over recently, and revealed 135 growth rings in the trunk. This and other post oak trees, unlike the new generation of ashes, chinquapin oaks, and Shumard oaks, were already growing when the axes and saws came to Turkey Mountain, when the derricks sprouted, when the oil spouted, when America and then the world became dependent upon oil, mostly Mideast oil, and live yet to witness the imminent end of the oil age. At last, many Americans understand that we need to derive our energy from sources that cannot be sucked out of the ground and used up, sources such as the sun that always shines and the wind that always blows. When, at last, the oil age ends—when petroleum becomes a specialty source of material for selected uses, rather than fueling the conflagration that powers everything—these post oak trees will still be watching.
The Fundamental Problem
Mar. 29, 2009
As a professor and author on the subject of evolution, living in Oklahoma, I sometimes come in contact with creationism. Not as often as you might think—my students seem to either like what I teach or internalize their anger. They do so because I tell them that I used to be a creationist—that I was wrong, but not stupid. And I provide evidence. I used to let them write papers to express their viewpoints, but so many of them plagiarized that I quit doing this. (The only openly creationist paper was one that the student bought from a website for $15.) The biggest problem with creationism in Oklahoma will probably be from the state legislature which, now totally in Republican hands, promises a crop of nationally notorious creationist bills.
In my writings and classes, we deal with a lot of evidences for evolution. But the most important concept in evolution is that Darwin did for biology what Newton did for physics: just as the planets move by natural laws, not because God pushes them (a belief for which Leibniz condemned Newton), so species have originated not because God made them but by natural laws. This is why Darwin said “Öthis planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravityÖ” in the final paragraph of the Origin of Species.
The reason that this is so important is that all the aspects of the world, from the stars and planets to the weather to biological life to the experiences in our human lives, the world runs by natural laws exactly as if there is no God. That is the fundamental problem in the comparison of the scientific and religious views of the world. Evolution is just a scientific admission of what we have always known: the world runs by itself, with no divine presence or influence.
The absence of God, or at least of any miraculous action on God’s part, is most noticeable in the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. If you saw a child dying in utter misery and pain, and you had the opportunity to do just one little thing to rescue that child, would you be able to ignore her cries and walk away? God can. Are you more loving than God? He has been able to stop His ears from hearing the desperate cries of billions of people throughout history, most of them innocent, or else has the self-control to block all loving response. Indeed, the innocent suffer much more than the guilty, if only because there are so many of them. This situation is consistent with godless evolution, but not with an all-powerful and loving God. If there is a God, it is not in this physical universe or in any other with which this universe or its inhabitants can have any contact.
The writer of Ecclesiastes (the book of the Bible that preachers like to pretend is not there) identified this problem 3000 years ago: the absence of God in everything from the endless cycles of the oceans to the injustices of daily life. It is a problem that Judaism has had for 3000 years, Christianity for 2000 years. Where is God? This is not something that began with Darwin.