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Stan's Darwin blog
Monday, 6 April 2009
An eventful month for evolution in Oklahoma

March 2009 was an eventful month for evolution in Oklahoma.  It began, as described below, when Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma.  I also mentioned that two resolutions were written for the state House of Representatives that condemned OU for inviting Dawkins.

Now a member of the Oklahoma House has demanded that OU turn over all the records connected with the Dawkins invitation.  She seems to be fishing for something with which to accuse the university of abusing state resources, facilities, or faculty time.  I guess she thinks that OU faculty, paid by the taxpayers, are supposed to spend all their time promoting creationism.  You can read more in the Tulsa World article published on March 30.

On March 26, Edward O. Wilson spoke at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO).  Wilson practically invented the study of biodiversity.  In the 1970s he was famous for promoting sociobiology.  His passion now is to campaign for the preservation and documentation of all wild species.  Time is running out.  He says that, of all the bad things we are doing to the world, the mass extinction that we are now causing is the sin for which future generations are least likely to forgive us.  Wilson also talked about how secular humanist biologists can work alongside preachers to spread a joint message: we need to save the creation.  But to some students at USAO, none of this mattered.  To them, all that was important was that Wilson had not himself proclaimed the existence of God.  One creationist student used up a lot of the question-answer period insisting that Wilson had incorrectly quoted Darwin.  The student said that Darwin had claimed that the Creator breathed life into the first organism.  Wilson said that this was added in later editions, but was not in the first edition.  The student would not give up!  He insisted that his iPhone was right and that Wilson was wrong.  It was really really weird.  In all of this exchange, Wilson's passionate message for saving the world of species was lost.  Thanks, Mr. Creationist.  I hope that in heaven there is an extinct species named just for you.

Then on March 28-31, the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division of the AAAS met at the University of Tulsa.  There were numerous symposia and papers.  I organized one of the symposia.  It was about Darwin's impact on all fields of scientific inquiry: "How Darwin has revolutionized scientific thought."  The speakers talked about biodiversity, coevolution, molecules, geology, botany, and even the understanding of human races.  Speakers included myself, two faculty from OU (Phil Gibson and Rich Broughton), two faculty from the University of Tulsa (Peggy Hill and Jim Derby), and a premiere performance by graduate student Valerie O'Brien of TU. At the end, the man who knows more than anyone else about the challenges to evolution in Oklahoma, Vic Hutchison of OU, brought us up to date. You can find out all about this at the website for the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. I want to thank the participants for making this symposium a success!  There was also a keynote address on Sunday night by Carl Zimmer, one of the nation's leading science writers.

That's all for now.  But I am sure that more will be happening soon!


Posted by stanleyrice at 6:23 PM EDT
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Social evolution: capitalism works except when it doesn't

I mentioned in an earlier entry that one of the hallmarks of the human species was altruism.  There are three kinds of altruism: generosity toward one's family; generosity toward others who might someday reciprocate; and generosity to poor and perhaps unknown strangers, which gives the altruist an enhanced social standing.  All three forms of altruism are really enlightened self-interest rather than pure sacrifice.

I also mentioned in that earlier entry that bankers seem to be outside of this universal human realm of altruism.  It now appears that many sectors of the "financial services" industry are with them.  ("Services," in this sense, appear to have the same meaning as "servicing" a livestock animal.) In the news in the last couple of days has been the insurance giant AIG, which has received so much federal bailout money that it is now 80% owned by us, the taxpayers.  They announced their intention to give $165 million of the taxpayer money as executive bonuses, much of it to the very executives who bankrupted the company.  They claim that they have no choice in the matter, that they had already promised these bonuses before they received bailout money.  The entire federal government is outraged, from President Obama, who pledged to do everything in his power to get this money back, to Senator Chuck Schumer, who said that if AIG didn't give the money back, the federal government would take it back.  The outpouring of rage from the American people is neary unprecedented. USA Today had a picture on its front page of the AIG logo with a tomato spattered on it.

Some writers have applied the concepts of natural selection to the economy.  Their view is "the survival of the fittest," and their system is called capitalism.  Strangely, some of the people most enthusiastic about survival of the fittest in the marketplace reject evolutionary science.  There are several problems with doing this.  One is that human individuals and societies have options open to them that other animal species do not.  We have an intricate form of cultural evolution.  We can decide to say no to our genes, and to do what we think is right even if it is not in our selfish individual interests.  Richard Dawkins quoted the intentionally childless Steven Pinker as saying, "My selfish genes can go jump in the lake." Another is that extreme capitalists have applied only part of evolutionary theory: they have applied "survival of the fittest" but totally omitted altruism.  The result is true stupidity: for example, AIG seems to be totally clueless that being mindful of their civic duty could be worth billions of dollars of customer revenues to them.  If they think they can make us their customers by hitting us atop the head with a club, they are following the 1950's-B-movie version of evolution, not the scientific version.

Capitalism works except when it doesn't.  Republicans have said to just let companies do whatever the hell they want to.  Senator Phil Gramm has been especially vigorous in removing federal oversight and underfunding the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Then, when outrageous selfishness causes an economic collapse, these same capitalists come with lugubrious faces and outstretched palms asking for socialist handouts.

It is true that communism and extreme socialism have not worked either, at least on a large scale.  Communism worked just fine when the early Christians in Jerusalem shared all their possessions, as described in the book of Acts.  But the capitalist liars have told us that our only choice is to either have Uncle Joe Stalin's version of communism or else their version of extreme capitalism.  Well, guess what.  We are not that stupid.  We can work out a system that has enough socialism and enough capitalism to make a vigorous society.  It isn't rocket science.  (Or if it is, we are pretty good at rocket science too.)

It's time for the leaders of the financial world to leave the scene.  Bernard Madoff, for example, is now in prison, but prosecutors agonize over whether to let his wife keep millions of dollars worth of possessions and properties that Bernie got for her.  I suggest taking it all back, and just letting her keep a tea cozy, which she can use as a blanket next winter when she sleeps under the bridge.

Happy St. Patty's day to all of you and I wonder what the Irish think about the English survival-of-the-fittingest them over the last couple of centuries. 


Posted by stanleyrice at 5:32 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 17 March 2009 7:16 PM EDT
Saturday, 7 March 2009
Richard Dawkins has a warm welcome in Oklahoma

Sir Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's most famous atheist in addition to one of the leading popularizers of evolutionary thinking, spoke at the University of Oklahoma on March 6, 2009.

Oklahoma is famous for anti-evolution.  Indeed, just the day before Dawkins's arrival, a state representative introduced two resolutions condemning the University for inviting Dawkins as a speaker.  One might have expected the worst.  (Well, not the very worst; security was tight.) But the vast majority of the crowd was openly enthusiastic, and gave him a standing ovation just for walking in.  There was only one creationist disruption: a man started yelling (to me, incoherently) during the question-and-answer session, but he left peacefully just before being escorted out.  Sir Richard handled it gracefully, saying it was too bad, because he should like to have heard what the man had to say.

Sir Richard did not come to Oklahoma to insult religious people.  He addressed a clear and simple topic: how natural selection can produce adaptations that look like deliberate and conscious designs, but are not; and how these adaptations can subsequently  be used in ways that were not part of the original adaptation. During his presentation, he did have some scathing things to say about particularly outrageous statements by creationists.  But he did not come to try to convert people into being atheists.

I hope both he and the audience were impressed with this aspect of the Oklahoma psyche that is not often seen: an openness to the ideas of others.  Indeed, the prevailing sentiment among the attendees, which included faculty and students from several universities as far away as Texas, was a feeling of mental liberation--not from God so much as from oppressive and abusive religious authority that had been used to promote political and financial interests of conservatives.

See photos of the visit of Sir Richard Dawkins to Oklahoma. 


Posted by stanleyrice at 7:04 PM EST
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
Darwin visits Oklahoma!
Charles Darwin visited Oklahoma--again--on February 18, 2009.  Stan Rice held a question-and-answer session for students and faculty at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.  Despite the kind of reception you might expect for Darwin in rural Oklahoma, the questions from the students were respectful, intelligent, science-based, and sincere.  See two photos of this event.

Posted by stanleyrice at 5:01 PM EST
Friday, 27 February 2009
Evolution and bankers

Evolution, and science in general, seems to have taken a back seat to the ongoing financial crisis.  However, evolution helps us to understand the current crisis a little bit better--in particular, the evolution of human behavior.

The New York Times reported that Northern Trust of Chicago had received over a billion dollars in federal bailout money in late 2008.  On the weekend of February 14, this corporation treated its top executives to a weekend in Los Angeles that included posh hotel rooms, expensive food, and performances by top entertainers.  This was, of course, after President Obama had issued an executive order that placed strict limits on executive compensation and perks for banks that received taxpayer money.  What was Northern Trust's response to this?  They claimed in effect that they had not actually asked for any bailout money, but the feds had given it to them anyway, so they could spend it any way they blankety-blank pleased.

This example of selfishness is an outrageous insult to the American people.  And the people of America and the world are quite aware of it.  A European poll, published today by the New York Times, indicated that the only people that have less respect than bankers are prostitutes and convicted felons.

So what does evolution have to do with this?

One of the universal human traits, that all genetic lineages of people in the world have inherited from our common African ancestral population, is altruism.  Having a conscience, doing good things for other people, and enjoying it, is a fundamental trait of the human mind.  Altruism has enhanced the success of individuals and tribes that practice it, to the extent that non-altruistic evolutionary lineages have become extinct.

And many bank executives seem to have absolutely no concept of altruism or conscience.  This means that they are outside of the range of universal human behavior.  They are, in psychological terms, a different species, like Klingons, if such existed.  The rest of us feel no human bond, or even an animal camaraderie, with them.  I react to these bank executives as if they were tapeworms digging their abominable scolexes into the rectum of the nation. (I refer to the top executives who have made the decisions, not to the mid-level executives or to the ordinary employees, who do not get bonuses and are the ones that get laid off. I know some of them and they are quite within the realm of human altruism.)

Today's New York Times also reported that Bernard Madoff had pillaged the entire life savings and charitable funds of Elie Wiesel, the humanitarian and Holocaust survivor.  It almost seems as if bankers and investment managers are trying their best to suck the blood out of every good person.

As Michael Shermer explained in "The Science of Good and Evil," humans are altruistic, and it feels good to be good.  This is a natural result of evolution.  Humans who do not fit this pattern are psychopaths and, I would say, not even members of our species.


Posted by stanleyrice at 12:19 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 18 March 2009 5:58 PM EDT
Sunday, 15 February 2009
Darwin's birthday weekend

Well, it has come and gone--Darwin's 200th birthday.  I celebrated this anniversary in a creative and meaningful fashion.

On February 12, I went to the University of Oklahoma for a Darwin bicentennial celebration.  John Lynch, a historian of science, spoke at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History that evening, explaining that the development of evolutionary theory was gradual, not really a revolution.

The next day, Friday the 13th, the university and the museum sponsored a whole day symposium, Darwin Across the Disciplines.  I was the only panelist that was not from the University of Oklahoma.   The panel included zoologists, botanists, an anthropologist, a medical researcher, a computer scientist, and a philosopher.  I think it was particularly interesting that Darwinian natural selection has opened up a whole new field of computer science research.  Computer scientists routinely use natural selection, rather than intelligent design, to produce new programs.  This is a major new area of computer science, not just a minor curiosity.

My presentation was about how a Darwinian understanding of science is essential in the classroom.  Recent bills before legislatures, including in Oklahoma, require teachers to "teach the controversy," claiming that student learning is enhanced by debating subjects rather than just learning about them.  The problem is that these bills only call for these debates for certain hot-button conservative issues, such as evolution and global warming.  Even though the Bible teaches that rain falls through windows in the sky which is an inverted bowl of thin metal, and that demons cause disease, the creationists never all for "teaching the controversy" about meteorology or the germ theory of disease.  A creationist approach leads students to major fallacies in thinking, such as the "argument from personal incredulity" and "the argument from personal inerrancy."  These fallacies impair rather than encourage the ability of students to think critically about issues in general.

I gave this presentation in my Darwin costume.

When I got home, my wife Lee had prepared a weekend of Darwin cuisine.  She had found a website that had Emma Darwin's notebook of recipes and she prepared several of them for me, as if she were Emma and I were Charles.  There were events to mark the Darwin bicentennial all over the world, but I doubt that very many other people celebrated Darwin in quite this manner.  We also took a walk in the bright Oklahoma sunshine, just like Darwin on his Sandwalk.

Next week, I will be making a Darwin appearance on my home campus, Southeastern Oklahoma State University.  I will report on this in an upcoming entry. 


Posted by stanleyrice at 11:35 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 15 February 2009 11:41 AM EST
Saturday, 7 February 2009
Evolution and global warming

Global warming is rapidly kicking in, changing the entire face of the Earth.  Global warming has occurred in the past, for example at the end of the most recent ice age--and the ice ages before that.  But this time is different.  Previous global warmings have occurred slowly enough that plants and animals could migrate to new locations with the climate conditions to which they were adapted.  And, to a certain extent, evolution by natural selection could allow them to adjust.  However, today, global warming is occurring too fast for either of these processes to make much difference.  In addition, today, farms and roads and cities block potential migratory routes.

The processes by which organisms adapted to global warming thousands or millions of years ago will not work today.  This is one reason why it is so important to bring carbon emissions under control.  Investment in solar and wind energy is part of the economic stimulus package that the Obama administration is pushing.  This will create jobs, as well as reducing carbon emissions (and reducing our dependence on Middle East politics).  Even if there were not an economic crisis right now, it would be an urgent thing to do.

Investing in renewable energy certainly makes more sense than what we did last year, when we gave billions of dollars to banks to use as they pleased, and they used some of it to pay millions of dollars to their executives who got us in the economic crisis in the first place.  Investing in bank executives is like putting money down various kinds of holes; but investing in "green energy" will pay big returns--some of them now, and even more over the long run.


Posted by stanleyrice at 1:18 PM EST
Sunday, 1 February 2009
Guess Who Was Born in 1809!

The year 1809 was an important one for births of important people in history.  Here follows an incomplete list: Louis Braille (January 4), Edgar Allan Poe (January 9), Felix Mendelssohn (February 3), Charles Robert Darwin (February 12), Abraham Lincoln (February 12), Alfred Lord Tennyson (August 6), and William Gladstone (December 29).  One of the most celebrated of these births will be that of Charles Darwin.  Around the world, universities and scientific societies are marking the bicentennial of Darwin's birth with special publications and meetings.  I will be speaking at one of these, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, on February 13.

The coincidence of Darwin and Lincoln both being born on the same day has not gone unnoticed.  Both led the world towards liberation of thought and understanding, in different ways.  I wrote a story about this.


Posted by stanleyrice at 2:34 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 1 February 2009 5:44 PM EST
Sunday, 4 January 2009
To Darwin with love from Oklahoma
I am Stan Rice, a biology professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University (http://www.stanleyrice.com).  I teach botany and evolution.  An evolution teacher in rural Oklahoma would seem to be inviting trouble.  Actually, I have not encountered any personal animosity.  Oklahoma culture in general, however, is strongly against evolution.  Every year, new creationist bills show up in the state legislature.  To keep up with the latest evolution news in Oklahoma, check out the website for Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (http://www.oklascience.org).  It is not just evolution, but the entire scientific history of the univese that meets a cool reception in Oklahoma.  The photo is of a marquee in front of a church in Durant, Oklahoma.  To see a larger image, go to the photo album (http://www.stanleyrice.com/evolution_photos).  Watch this space for more evolution and Darwin information.

Posted by stanleyrice at 4:36 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 4 January 2009 5:18 PM EST
Welcome to the Darwin blog
Welcome to Stan Rice's Darwin blog!  The year 2009 will be a very exciting one for the followers of Charles Darwin.  It is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth.  All over the world, there are special Darwin events.  I will let you know about some of them in this blog, especially the ones in which I participate.  You can find a permanent page of Darwin information on the home page, http://www.stanleyrice.com.  Watch this space!

Posted by stanleyrice at 4:04 PM EST

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