Childhood Experiences With Nature
October 13, 2009

     Across the country people are beginning to realize that children need to have deep and meaningful experiences with the natural world while they are growing up. Without these experiences, children will miss a dimension of happiness; may find no real relief from the stresses of civilization; and most importantly, may not realize that there is any natural world that needs to be protected. The natural world will be a blur off to the side of their vision. (See essay,
“An Artificial Future.”) Thousands of parents and educators are beginning to incorporate nature exploration into children’s experiences. There are even some landscape designers who believe that access to unstructured natural habitats is an essential part of a community. You can read more about this in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.
     Probably everyone who is passionate about the natural world has had childhood experiences of spending time in nature, or some equivalent of it. I want to share some of my experiences. If you would like to share your childhood nature experiences with me, contact me at the email on the home page.
     I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, one of the major agricultural areas of the world. I thought I was so fortunate to be a country boy, not living in a polluted city. Little did I realize that the environment around me, saturated with pesticides, was one of the most polluted places in the country. It had once been a lush wetland filled with wildlife; now all the water drains into canals, and the entire valley floor is either farmland or former farmland, abandoned due to salt buildup from irrigation. Nevertheless, this environment opened my eyes to the natural world. My parents let me ride my bicycle in the country, safer then than it is now. An orange orchard or an olive grove may serve in childhood imagination in place of a forest. In the hot summer, a cool irrigation ditch can evoke feelings of peace just like a mountain stream. I kept a list of birds that I saw. I climbed hills, occasionally catching a glimpse of faraway mountains.
     I am not sure why I had such a desire to explore the countryside, but it might have been the vacant lot by our street. About a half mile square, this was no ordinary vacant lot. It had been the site of a detention camp for World War II prisoners, or so I was told. It was filled with broken concrete and glass; puncture vines grew abundantly in the summer. But in the springtime it had abundant and diverse wildflowers. I tried to sneak up on meadowlarks. And of course I did all the kid things like raising caterpillars and praying mantises in jars.
     Mine was the bedroom with the nature window. The window faced onto the vacant lot, and I watched the complex societies of ground squirrels. I also watched a blue jay destroy a robin’s nest just a few feet away from me. I learned that nature was not just beautiful but complex and sometimes violent.
     But the best times were those rare occasions when I got to visit Sequoia National Park, on one of those mountains that seemed far away. To see the largest trees in the world! Trees as old as Jesus. To walk on springy forest soil, hearing not even the sound of footsteps! And even though I later became very religious, I never experienced anything as holy as being in those forests. (See
photos in the evolution portion of this website.)
     Growing caterpillars into butterflies in a jar used to be “one of those kid things.” But today many, if not most, children grow up in a world in which all enjoyment comes from things that must be purchased, entertainment that must be downloaded. It will do no good to lecture to them about global warming or rainforest destruction if they have never walked through the woods and noticed how many kinds of trees there are, or at least through an orange orchard looking for birds.

Be Conscious of Image
October 25, 2009

     I do not worry about what other people think about me. I have always been the loner type who would (see essay, “Childhood Experiences with Nature”) prefer to ride a bike out in the countryside than to be with other people. And now, as a professor, I have one of the few jobs in which (within reason) it does not matter what other people think. Professors (at least in the biological sciences) usually wear T-shirts when we teach. The T-shirts are often from professional meetings and fit the theme of the class (in my case, botany and evolution). Sometimes I have an unruly beard, sometimes a neatly trimmed one, sometimes none at all (depending on whether I have an upcoming Darwin impersonation). Nobody expects professors to be fashion conscious.
     But all of us who are concerned about protecting the natural world need to be very careful about the images we create. During the Bush years, we were an embattled minority. Now environmentalism, or at least the image of it, has gone mainstream. But we still have to be careful to not alienate the goodwill of the general public.
     Case in point. It is not uncommon in downtown Tulsa to see someone stopped at a traffic light to throw a cigarette, still lit, out of the window. But when the person is driving a small car plastered with environmental bumper stickers, this act creates a jarring sense of hypocrisy. One cigarette is nothing compared to the pollution produced by the large vehicles that remain very popular in Tulsa (despite the success elsewhere of the federal Cash for Clunkers program). But even such a small act can send a message to conservatives and to moderates that issues like global warming are things we just like to complain about, instead of being a sincere and important part of our lives.
     If we revere the Earth, we need to walk gently upon it, and to be seen walking gently upon it, in every little way.

Not for Profit?
November 9, 2009

     The other day when I was in the post office, I saw that someone had left lots of leaflets on all the tables, inviting the public to a religious service at a local mega-church (of which Tulsa has dozens). A certain Dr. Don (no last name) was going to be miraculously healing people. I considered this to be an example of soliciting for private profit on federal property, and as a patriotic citizen I helped the leaflets find their way into the recycling slot.
     Environmental organizations have nonprofit (or not-for-profit) status, which relieves them from the tax burden that private businesses bear. And in most cases, this is beneficial to the whole country. NGOs (non-governmental organizations), often filled with motivated volunteers, can do a lot more good work than can a government agency and for a lot less money. By letting NGOs do some of the work, in return for tax breaks, the government comes out ahead.
     Religious organizations such as churches also have nonprofit status. It is, however, not as clear what the social benefits are that churches confer upon the community as in the case of environmental organizations. It is true that many churches perform valuable services—counseling, food kitchens, literacy programs. But for the most part, churches proclaim very specific doctrines, collect money from people who have been convinced of those doctrines, and use the money to proclaim their doctrines to yet more people. If the doctrine so replicated is Jesus’ message of love, it clearly confers an advantage on society. But at least here in Tulsa, the doctrine is frequently this: Our church has the truth, and you should give us your money, because God wants you to, and you are going to hell if you don’t. The purpose of many churches is to enlarge themselves, not to help the community.
     It becomes most troublesome when you hear about what some of the mega-churches do with their money. There appears to be no meaningful federal restrictions on compensation given directly to the preachers, nor to the perks that these churches provide to their leaders, who act as if they are little gods upon the face of the Earth. One of the most famous Tulsa evangelists ran a university which has a private jet that he and his family could use for almost any purpose (since wherever they go or whatever they do, they are evangelizing by their mere presence). Technically, such organizations are operating “not for profit,” but clearly these churches are just methods of scraping money up from gullible people and shoveling it into the coffers of rich evangelists. Just what good are they doing for society? (This is the question Republican Senator Charles Grassley asked; see essay, “Looking for a Few Good Conservatives.”) Clearly they are doing a lot less good, tax-free, than do most corporations that pay taxes.
     Corporations do not pay taxes on money they donate to the public good. But there are strict rules about how they can do this. Imagine what would happen if a corporate CEO decided to create a spin-off foundation to “help the environment,” appointed himself director, and gave himself a big salary or a tax-free house. This would be considered illegal. I think. But how is this different from what rich evangelists do?
     I modestly propose that churches no longer receive tax-free status. If they are in the business of raising funds for their own expansion, let them pay taxes for it like the rest of us. This would also apply to all NGOs. But big churches abuse the privilege of freedom from taxes much more often than do environmental NGOs. The Botanical Society of America, for example, does as much good for the world as the big Tulsa ministries, with a thousandth the budget. And most NGOs are run by qualified people, not by some Dr. Don who is not required to prove where his title came from.
     Churches claim to be concerned about, for example, the health of American citizens. If churches paid taxes, except on specific social programs, the federal government might be able to afford health care after all.

Absurd Creativity
November 21, 2009

     Absurd creativity-that is what evolution has. The pathways of evolution follow no course of deductive logic, to design organisms or ecosystems the way an engineer would. Evolution tries all kinds of things, some beautiful, some silly, some ordinary-and keeps the ones that work. There is no Designer/Engineer in control of the process; it just spreads out in a million directions and produces adaptations that are essentially unpredictable.
     This was brought to my attention as I was writing the entry about reptiles for my upcoming Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Like most of you, I just assumed that any legless reptile that slithered through the undergrowth was a snake. But this is not correct. There are about a dozen different lineages of partially or wholly legless lizards, which have evolved the same adaptation as snakes, but independently. Lizards have long tails, whereas most of a snake's length is its body. "Glass snakes" are actually lizards, without legs, and with a long tail. They are called glass snakes because they can break off parts of their tails (like broken glass) to confuse a predator that is pursuing them. Real snakes cannot do this. Legless lizards are examples of evolutionary convergence, where different lineages of animals independently evolve the same adaptation.
     One day about a billion years ago (seems like yesterday), the first plant cells got their chloroplasts. These are the green structures that make sunlight into food. It might really have just happened in one day. Photosynthetic bacteria invaded, or were consumed by, larger cells with nuclei. But instead of killing or dying, these bacteria took up residence inside the plant cell. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; the bacteria made food from sunlight, and the larger cell provided fertilizer and protection. The chloroplasts of plants are cells inside of cells. From this event, the red algae and the green algae separately evolved. Some of the green algae evolved into land plants.
     But there were some other large cells that also consumed, or were invaded by, the red or green algae. And the red or green algal cells became the chloroplasts of what are today the brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas. (Brown algae are the large seaweeds.) That is, brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas have chloroplasts that are cells inside of cells inside of cells. The chloroplasts of dinoflagellates even have little degenerated nuclei inside of them! Just as legless reptiles evolved several times, so did chloroplasts.
     The evolutionary process tries endless combinations of mutations and adaptations, resulting in a living world that has much more variety that is hidden than variety that is obvious.

Fiscal Responsibility -- In Plants
December 6, 2009

     The ongoing economic crisis has focused our attention on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the federal government and of nearly all major corporations. They were the ones that caused the current financial crisis. The principal causes were the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy, and the war in Iraq. The war was sold to the American people as a great investment opportunity, by none other than Paul Wolfowitz who was later rewarded by being made president of the World Bank. First he predicted that it would cost almost nothing to invade and establish a government friendly to our interests; he famously said that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers. Second, he and others counted on oil revenues to pay for the war. But the government and corporations are blaming American citizens for it. For example (in the few remaining weeks before it becomes illegal) banks are raising interest rates and minimum payments on credit accounts on which payments have never been missed.
     The current controversy involves how to pay for a national health care plan. (We will disregard for the moment those conservatives who claim that national health care is socialism and is therefore unacceptable to them-a viewpoint particularly common here in Oklahoma. First, most of the "red states" receive more federal money back than they pay in taxes; the opposite is true of the "blue states." Oklahoma, which receives $1.40 of federal money for each dollar remitted as federal taxes, is on socialistic life support from the blue states like New York and New Jersey. Second, we if national health care is socialism, we are already socialists: almost no one has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are socialist plots.) Republicans and "blue dog" Democrats insist that such health care should be "revenue-neutral." The blue dog Democrats slept right through the huge deficits created by tax cuts for the wealthy and by the Iraq War, but they are snarling at health care as if it were Old Joe Stalin's USSR attacking us.
     The world is merciless about deficit spending. Plants, for example, never get away with it. They can grow new leaves, stems, or roots only if they have stored away enough molecules (such as starch and minerals) to pay for them. When a plant needs to produce new leaves, stems, and roots, and cannot, it dies. A polar bear must eat enough calories to allow it to produce body heat. Ice floes are merciless to deficit metabolic spending in polar bears.
     In humans, the story is not quite so simple. We have invented something virtually unknown in other species: credit. Rather than being a bad thing, it can (within limits) be a good thing, allowing mortgages to buy houses, and other forms of investment. Plants can only invest what they have already saved; humans can invest what they are pretty sure they will obtain in the future. For our species, credit is a resource. Our current crisis has resulted from the abuse of this resource. But there is a proper use of the resource. One of them is to invest in health. It is the crushing costs of health care that drive thousands of people into bankruptcy. The enormous costs generated by uninsured people using the emergency room for preventable problems are causing everybody's insurance premiums to increase much faster than the rate of inflation. Unlike the Iraq War and the tax cuts, health care is a good investment.

December 20, 2010

     Nobody could ever accuse Tom Delay, former congressman from Texas, of humility. When he was House Majority Leader, he was called "The Hammer" because he used political pressure to get all Republicans to vote the same way. This made the Democrats in the House of Representatives pretty much irrelevant, even though they had a larger number of members than the Republican minority currently has. When he was asked to not smoke his cigar in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, because it was against federal law, he answered, "I am the federal government." For a list of his other breathtakingly arrogant quotes, see his
Wikipedia quote page. When Delay resigned over revelations of illegal campaign finance contributions, one would think that he would be a little contrite. But no. He decided that he was still such a celebrity that he could be the hero of Dancing with the Stars. Fractured feet prevented this arrogant dream from coming true.
     Delay holds no esteem for anyone who disagrees with him. Despite his ethical lapses, he still holds himself up as a great beacon of morality. In this, he contrasts himself most sharply with those who accept an evolutionary explanation for the history of life on Earth. In 1999, he opined that one of the causes of school violence (such as the Columbine shootings) was that children are being taught in school that they "evolutionized" from slime. He made this statement with full confidence even though he knows practically nothing about evolutionary science or sociology. Truth, to Delay, is something to make up as you go along.
     Delay considers that the human species is too noble to have evolved from slime. This is incorrect in two ways.
     First, humans (especially those who act as Delay has) are not particularly noble.
     Second, slime is not such a bad thing. Most slime consists of bacteria. There is an amazing diversity of bacteria all over the world and even deep into the Earth, and all of life is dependent upon what they do. Slime is one of the things that keep the Earth alive.
     Not only that, but slime has something to teach us. A visible layer of slime ("biofilm" in science talk) is not just bacteria; it is bacteria that have produced a sticky material that holds them together. It is an example, in fact, of altruistic cooperation. Larger organisms that might eat individual bacteria cannot eat the ones that are protected inside of the slime. The bacteria produce, at considerable metabolic expense, a material that provides for their common defense. Even though bacteria are single, simple cells, they can form multi-cellular cooperative structures. Slime is, sometimes, more internally cooperative than groups of humans.
     Slime, therefore, is a living critique of human arrogance.