Christians Burning Bibles?
January 4, 2010

     Many political controversies are not about evidence and reason, but about prejudice, rage, and religious brainwashing. Nothing short of religious brainwashing could account for this news item from last October: a Halloween “book-burning” in which Christians tore up Bibles. If fundamentalist Christians really believe the Bible to be the word of God, only a complete disengagement of their consciousness from reason could make them tear up Bibles. Read more about it
     It was supposed to be a book burning at the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina. (From the video, it appears that the church is mostly white.) They announced that there would be “fried chicken, and all the sides.” Instead, when protestors and media showed up, it rained. Besides, it turned out that an actual book-burning was against the fire code, and the church did not have permission to do it. But the church claimed that it was “a great success” because the protestors and media were outside in the rain while the congregation was inside, tearing up books instead of burning them. Who could doubt the hand of God blessing this event?
     Which books did they feel that God was commanding them to destroy? I can only hope that my Encyclopedia of Evolution was one of them. They burned The Wizard of Oz. And The Living New Testament. Why did they destroy a New Testament? This church believes exclusively in the King James Version of the Bible; apparently, God inspired this translation, published in 1611, rather than the scriptures that Jesus himself read and quoted. Poor Jesus; how could he have known that he was using the wrong Bible, without the wise people of Amazing Grace Baptist Church to tell him? There is no reasoning involved in this act; for there is nothing in the Bible saying that King James was authorized to issue the solely correct version of God’s word (in English, a language not in existence when Jesus was alive.)
     The idea that Bibles other than the King James Version should be destroyed is simply a weird idea that some American preachers made up and with which they brainwashed hundreds of followers. And these people are ready to take action. Being a Christian, even a conservative one, is no defense against them. This sort of mindless destruction, a religious tantrum, is the same force that is behind many of the attacks on this good green planet. Religious extremists are not only eager to rip apart Bibles of which they do not approve, but look forward to the day when the Earth will be destroyed by a Wrathful God who will send everyone but them to the Lake of Fire. Rescuing a planet that God will destroy in just a few years is of no concern to them. They look forward to the big Earth-Burning, and maybe they will all have a fine lunch of fried chicken on that day.

A Beautiful Mind
January 9, 2010

     Altruism is where an animal is nice to another animal of the same species. (When individuals of two different species benefit one another, it is mutualism.) Individuals in many species have kin selection altruism-being nice to other animals that share many of their genes. Some scientists even claim to see it in bacteria, which form altruistic multicellular structures known as biofilms (or slime-see previous essay). And you will find direct reciprocity in many intelligent animal species-one individual helping another, with the expectation of receiving help in return. This type of altruism requires enough intelligence to remember which other animals are reliable altruists and which are cheaters, allowing the cheaters to be marginalized. But it is probably only humans that practice indirect reciprocity, the type of altruism where an individual gets social status for doing nice things to other individuals who will never be able to repay. Natural selection has not only favored indirect reciprocity (generosity) in humans, but also the emotions that accompany it. As Michael Shermer says, it feels good to be good. That is, in humans, the normal condition is that it feels good to be good, at least to others in your tribe. Throughout recent human history, we have been expanding the horizons of altruism, so that now it feels good to help people who are far away.
     In all three types of altruism, the reward to the individual is obvious. This is true even of the third. Having social status, being respected for generosity and kindness, is worth money in the bank. But the rewards, even this third kind of reward, seems like cold calculation. I believe there must be some other kind of reward for indirect reciprocity in humans. I have an idea of what it might be.
     It is the pleasure of a beautiful mind. Humans take pleasure in a world that makes sense, that is good, as opposed to chaotic. Our minds crave beauty, which includes the beauty that results from generous acts that make the world better. When a person has a sense of being surrounded by beauty during his or her walk of life, he or she benefits in many ways that are even more important than social status. A beautiful mind enhances health, for example the immune system, and stimulates the person to keep seeking new opportunities to participate (profitably) in a beautiful world. It feels good to be good-and this feeling itself confers numerous benefits, individually, on us.

Deep Time and Deep Intestines
February 7, 2010

    I should not have been surprised to read that there are Archaea in our intestines. Archaea are the modern bacteria-like organisms that may most closely resemble the earliest life forms on Earth. (They used to be called archaebacteria.) Most of them live in extreme environments, such as very hot, very acid, or very salty water. But they also live in your intestines. Along with bacteria such as the firmicutes and the bacteroides, the archaea help you to break down foods that your own digestive enzymes would not be able to digest. Your digestive system is a cooperative venture of your body and trillions of bacterial symbionts. Of course, the bacteria and archaea derive the most direct benefit-they get to eat some of your food.
    But your intestine is not a cauldron of selfishness. It is also a showcase of mutualistic cooperation, though unintentional. Most of the bacteria in your gut are anaerobes, which are killed by oxygen molecules. But Escherichia coli (the famous E. coli) in your gut are facultative aerobes-that is, they do fine without oxygen, but when it is present they will use it. Oxygen molecules diffuse into your intestine from the blood vessels that are in the tissue lining the intestine. That is where the E. coli bacteria live-where they can eat some of your food and use some of your oxygen. But in doing so they scavenge the last few molecules of oxygen from your intestine, thus (unintentionally) protecting the anaerobes from being killed.
    Our intestines seem like time capsules of ancient bacterial life. They offer a glimpse not only into an ancient past (bacteria ruled the world for its first two billion years) but also into the ancient origins of mutualism. Species doing things that result in a benefit to other species is a very ancient process.

Facing Uncomfortable Truths
February 28, 2010

     This website, as with all my books, is filled with praise of nature. We need to remain aware, however, that the natural world can be a very dangerous place. The generation of Americans that was raised on Bambi tends to forget this sometimes. When I was in elementary summer school, I was in a journalism class. A local newscaster, Ken Clifford, was a forerunner of right-wing talk-show hosts, but also liked to spread alarming stories. But this story was true. Culex tarsalis mosquitoes spread viruses that cause encephalitis, and in fact in our very county there was a hospitalized man who was, Clifford said, a "vegetable" because of what the virus did to his brain. Clifford was calling for mass spraying, right during the time when the environmental movement was getting started. Well, I wrote a little newspaper article about this. (Yes, I even included the Latin name.) When the article came out in our "newspaper," which was fragrantly dittoed in blue, I saw that our teacher, Mrs. Webb, had rewritten it, removing all reference to disease, and substituting the mere statement that when you go outside for July 4, there will be mosquitoes, so you should use repellant. My story, which contained an uncomfortable but very interesting truth, had been defanged.
     But there is an even more uncomfortable (I resisted saying "inconvenient") truth: Our disturbance of the environment has worsened many of our disease problems. Mice spread ticks and thus Lyme disease in disturbed forest fragments more than in forests. Deforestation has chased bats out of intact forests into fruit trees around pig farms, where they infect the pigs with Nipah virus. Schistosomiasis spread in Egypt because the snail that carries the parasite exploded in the reservoir and in the permanent irrigation conditions created by the Aswan High Dam; that snail had not been very abundant in the seasonal flood waters before the dam. Even global warming tilts the balance in favor of the spread of disease, especially when tropical mosquitoes (such as those that carry dengue fever) move northward into the United States.
     The extensively irrigated fields of the San Joaquin Valley, where I grew up, bred lots of mosquitoes. This was not true prior to irrigation. The Valley had originally been a vast marsh, which would seem to be an excellent place for mosquitoes to breed, but there were also lots of fish (absent from irrigated fields) that ate the wrigglers (mosquito larvae). If I had known that, and put that in my article, what would Mrs. Webb have done?

What Will It Take?
March 14, 2010

     Almost all scientists, and about half of Americans (the half that has actually studied the issues) agree that we need to take urgent action with regard to global climate change. There are lots of things we can do right now, without waiting for technological breakthroughs. On the individual level, we can drive smaller cars, and we can walk instead of driving in many cases. We can use less heating and air conditioning. On the level of society, we already know how to build wind turbines. But we are not doing these things enough. What will it take to get us to do them?
     Recycling will also help to reduce carbon emissions, since it takes less energy to make something from recycled materials than from raw materials (especially aluminum). Many of us recycle everything we can. But there needs to be adequate infrastructure to accommodate all of the people who would like to recycle. Even in metropolitan areas (I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma), the bins seem to always be full; the underfunded recycling effort cannot keep up with the willingness of citizens to cooperate. In smaller cities (I work in Durant, Oklahoma), recycling opportunities are limited. Durant recycles only aluminum and cardboard and newspaper; the only other recycling is when I put stuff in my trunk and drive it to Tulsa, or when someone else takes things down into Texas. What will it take to get us to recycle more, and for cities to provide the opportunity for us to do so?
     All of the garbage in Cairo, Egypt is collected by poor people known as zabellin. For them, it is an economic opportunity: they recycle 80 percent of the garbage. They do this not because there is a spirit of environmentalism, but because it is a job. There are very few Americans poor enough that they would set up a for-profit rag-picker company.
     A recent Harvard study indicated that the price of gasoline would have to rise to $8 per gallon before Americans would reduce their driving enough to allow the U.S. to reach its stated carbon reduction goals. The 2008 spike in gas prices barely slowed the annual increase in the amount of driving that Americans do.
     For many people in rural Oklahoma, driving a big, fuming, noisy vehicle is practically the most important thing in life. The fumes from these vehicles could power my car. Many people in our city limits live in shacks, some with asphalt shingle siding, yet drive big new pickup trucks. The truck is more important than the house. In fact, when a tornado comes along, these people tie the shack to the pickup truck. Okay, I just made that last part up.
     Will Americans have to suffer an even more catastrophic economic collapse? If enough Americans are poor enough, trash will be seen as an opportunity. The director of solid waste for Rapid City, South Dakota told my environmental science class that the landfill contained a million dollars' worth of aluminum. A couple of my students thought that sounded like a chance for profit-until they thought about how much work it would be. But I wonder if widespread desperate poverty is the only thing that will get Americans to recycle.

The Evolution of Spite
March 29, 2010

     These are wild times in Washington D.C. The House passed health care legislation. Republican senators and representatives are doing everything they can to sabotage the legislation. Some of the Republican supporters outside the Capitol yelled racial slurs at Democratic congressmen and have made threats against their personal safety. Some Republican congressmen have joined in with them, yelling epithets from the floor of the House and going out to the crowds to stir them up to even greater fury. It appears to me that the fury that is now erupting is nearly as great as just before the Civil War, when (in 1856) a South Carolina Senator beat a Massachusetts Senator nearly to death on the floor of the Senate. It's turning into a jungle.
     Or is it? Is it a jungle? No, not really. A real jungle is not this wild. The fury that is emanating from the Republican congressmen is dysfunctional. A jungle is not.
     Evolutionary scientists have been able to explain the evolution of altruism, that is, why one animal (the actor) would be nice to another (the recipient). There are basically three reasons: first, if the two animals are genetically related; second, if the recipient is likely to return the favor to the actor; third, if the actor can enhance his reputation, and social capital, by being nice to a third party, even or especially a helpless third party that will never be able to repay the favor.
     But an article in the March 12 issue of Science (the major science journal in the US) tells about a fourth kind of interaction: spite. Spite occurs when the actor does something destructive that harms himself and the recipient, but which benefits the third party. There are a few examples of this from the animal kingdom (such as parasitic grubs). But there are no known examples of spite in which the actor and recipient are both harmed, without any benefit to a third party. Any animals that behaved in such a fashion would have become extinct.
     What I see happening in much of the Republican Party is political spite. And it is the kind that is harming the Republican leaders, the Democrats, and the American people -- there are no beneficiaries. As a biologist who studies evolution, I see this as an invitation to extinction. If it were wild animals, it would be biological extinction. For us, it might just be damaging social chaos.