Populations, Evolution, and the Census
April 11, 2010

     In order to understand how evolution works in populations (of plants, animals, or humans), scientists need accurate population information. This includes not only the size of the population but also information about the animals or plants within the population. They need to know how many individuals in the population are young, middle-aged, or old; how many male, how many female; and genetic characteristics. This information lets scientists know not only whether the population (for example, of an endangered species) is in decline, but also the possible directions that evolution may take in the future.
     Population information is also important as a basis for human societies. Governments need to know how many people live in each area, and their ages, so that they can plan revenues and expenditures. An aging population means lower revenues and higher expenditures, while a young population may mean just the opposite. This is exactly the kind of information that the Census, due this month, obtains.
     Participation in the Census is required by the Constitution of the United States. Despite this, many people refuse to participate in the census, for reasons that are clearly incorrect and sometimes incoherent. Numerous conservative activists refuse to participate because (according to Republican representative Michele Bachmann) they think the government will use this information to locate conservatives and send them to internment camps. They think the Census is a Democratic plot to destroy them. Many of them also think that the government is specifically targeting illegal immigrants so as to increase expenditures in and congressional representatives from areas in which many illegal immigrants live.
     But the opposite may be true. Hispanics, in particular, are being scared away from Census participation. The reason is that they fear that, by submitting their names and the names of family members and guests to the government, they are endangering arrest by immigration authorities. Even if the Hispanic householder that receives the form is a U.S. citizen, some of the residents of the household may not be, therefore the householder may not submit information to the Census even if he or she is a citizen and pays taxes. If you have received your census form, you may notice that the return address on the envelope is to the "Data Capture Center" in Phoenix. Now what is a Hispanic to think when asked to submit personal information to a "capture center"?
     The conservatives, with typical fearmongering, claim that the Census is a trick to over-represent Democratic areas by counting illegal immigrants. However, the opposite is just as likely to be true. This is also part of the general conservative dislike of data. They want people to believe their broad and incorrect generalization, rather than to base opinions upon scientifically-collected data.

My Neighbors’ Earth
May 2, 2010

This is an article I wrote for the April 11, 2010 issue of the Durant Daily Democrat (Durant, Oklahoma).

The Durant Trash-off is approaching. It is our hope that many people will participate in it, and that many more people will become aware of just how much litter there is on the streets of Durant and stop contributing to the problem.

Litter is a big problem in many communities because, as environmentalists remind us, “there is no such place as 'away'.” You can’t just throw things away. Every piece of trash goes somewhere—from garbage container into landfill, from kitchen to compost heap, or from a careless hand into the street. And not just into the street but into other people’s yards. I have a corner lot here in Durant and I always have a lot of other people’s trash on my property. One time there was even a refrigerator box in my yard.

So, you see, throwing trash in the street is a way of telling your neighbors that you do not care about them. Freedom and free enterprise means that we own our land—but you do not own my land, and you cannot use it as a place to throw your garbage. The person who throws garbage in the street, where it blows into other people’s yards, would not be very happy if someone threw garbage into his or her yard. Littering is a way to insult your neighbors. Neighborliness is something that Oklahoma is supposed to be famous for—but the amount of litter in our streets contradicts our neighborly image. On a larger scale, we must realize that the Earth belongs not to any of us but to all of our neighbors.

Each American family produces a huge amount of garbage. Even when the garbage is thrown away properly, it is still a tremendous waste of resources. Everybody probably realizes that it is better to recycle things than to throw them away. However, at the present time it is hard to find a place to recycle many things. Durant has limited opportunities for recycling newspaper and cardboard, and there are places that buy aluminum and scrap metal, but not much else.

But recycling is not the only answer. Environmentalists tell us, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” The order of the words is important. It is better to recycle than to throw away; but it is also better to reuse something than to recycle it; best of all, just use less stuff.

I generate very little garbage. I do not buy things that have a lot of packaging, and I find that I can enjoy life without buying a lot of stuff. Take a look at your garbage and ask yourself, did I really need to buy all that stuff? It is quite easy to simply buy and use less stuff. I also reuse things. For example, I write such things as notes and lists on the backs of old sheets of paper. I also use the back sides of old sheets of paper when I print things from the computer. It works pretty well and is not hard to do. It saves money too. It is easy to reduce and to reuse. If you do this, there will not be much left to either recycle or to throw away.

The main advantage of reducing the garbage that we produce—and especially reducing the amount of trash in the streets—is to increase our own awareness that the Earth does not belong to us. Many people believe that the Earth belongs to God, which means that trash is disrespectful to God. A conservative theologian named Norman Geisler reminded his readers back in 1993 that all humans are brothers and sisters, and that we must take care of the Earth because it is “my brother’s Earth.”

Spring, a Time of Renewal
May 22, 2010

Spring is a time of renewal. This sounds like a platitude, but I would like to develop it into, I hope, a significant insight.

The deciduous trees lost their leaves last fall, and the new leaves have all come out. This is an example of renewal that everybody knows about. The trees shed their leaves in autumn as a way of surviving the winter, and make new leaves in the spring. Some trees (such as live oaks, privets, and southern magnolias) are evergreens, and keep their leaves through the winter. But even these evergreens grow new leaves in the spring. In the spring, they shed the leaves that they kept all winter, and grow new ones. That is, they renew their leaves every year, even though they are evergreens.

Deciduous trees produce new leaves every year because they have to replace the ones they shed. But evergreens produce new leaves every year because the old leaves have become old and damaged. They need renewal. They replace their old leaves, which still worked, with new leaves that work better.

Sometimes we need renewal in our lives because we have to “grow back” from disasters, the way deciduous trees grow back from winter. But more often we need to have gradual renewal without disasters, renewal that makes us better even though we could get along fine without it. We could survive with our old leaves, but will be more vigorous with new ones. This is why it is good for us to look at our lives and think of ways we can improve what we do and how we live, look for new opportunities. We do not need to wait for a disaster in order to do this. We may survive by staying in a rut, but we will not flourish. Yesterday’s habits or last year’s beliefs may be adequate but we might be much happier and more productive if we get rid of them and replace them with something better.

Trying to Interfere with Natural Selection
June 6, 2010

We spend a lot of time and effort and money interfering with natural selection. It is a good thing that we do this. We do not just let nature take its course. We do not wait for natural selection to bring about resistance to a disease in a population, after the deaths of thousands of people who lack the resistance. We invent medicines. We do not wait for natural selection to other forms of knowledge. Some people point out that we are contributing to the accumulation of bad genes in human populations by interfering with natural selection. This may be so, but it is irrelevant—since the most important human adaptation to have evolved is our cultural transmission of knowledge. Not only do we have big brains, but we have cultures that allow the availability of more knowledge than any person could possibly have. Among the items of cultural information that we share with one another and that we pass down to future generations is the knowledge of medicine, and other ways to keep the hands of natural selection off of our human bodies.

The situation becomes a little less clear when we consider interfering with natural selection that happens in non-human species. We want to relieve the suffering not only of our fellow humans but all of our fellow creatures, so long as we do not spend too much time or money doing so. Well, at least bleeding-heart empathetic people like me do. But it usually doesn’t work. My wife and I were walking one morning, and as we went under a bridge, we saw a giant wasp carrying a paralyzed cicada as big as itself. The wasp was looking for a place to bury the cicada and lay eggs in it, allowing the wasp grubs to have fresh meat (the cicada was paralyzed, not dead) as they grew up. But there was nothing but cement under the bridge. I got the bright idea of trying to scoop up the wasp and cicada with my hat and move them out to the grassy embankment where the wasp could bury its victim. But I succeeded only in making the wasp drop the cicada, get confused, and possibly angry. I was just wasting its time and energy and possibly endangering its life.

The very same day, I found that a spider had built a little web in my sink, right under the faucet. There is no way it could survive there. So I scooped it into a spoon and put it under the drying rack. (My house, as you may have guessed, resembles a natural ecosystem in some ways.) Now, I thought, the spider could live in peace and continue its good work of eating insects that I did not want in my house. But there was already another spider there, and it came out to fight off the intruder that I had forced upon it. The intruder was bigger but retreated. I hope it survived. (These spiders are too small to pose any threat to people.)

In both cases, I tried to interfere with nature by helping its creatures out. It just didn’t work. This reminded me that nature is not ours, to destroy, to enslave, or even to help out. There is only so much we can do. Saint Francis of Assisi would pick up earthworms stranded on the road after a rain. I used to stop and rescue turtles from the middle of the highway. But we just have to accept our place. Our hands are full just helping one another. It is the integrity and beauty of whole habitats and ecosystems that we must protect—and let the individual animals and plants take care of themselves.

Putting Us In Our Place
June 20, 2010

Humans are accustomed to being arrogant. We take what we want and dump the wastes. We assume that the Earth will just clean up the mess and keep providing everything to us. But we are about to exceed the capacity of the planet to do this, if we have not already done so. We are about to be put in our place as just another species that cannot exceed its limits.

But if we had paid attention to the wild plants, we would have known this already. In my recently released Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive, I describe the way the world used to be, the realm of wilderness and, in many places, huge trees. One cannot approach the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, the largest living thing on Earth, and still feel arrogant. Its base is as large as a small house. Its largest branch is bigger than the biggest tree east of California. Nor can one remain arrogant in the presence of the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains of California. Though they are small, they endure cold, dry conditions. Many of them were already two thousand years old when Jesus was born.

Plants live almost everywhere on the Earth. Almost anywhere you could go, you will find plants. Tundra plants survive long winters and fierce winds; desert plants survive long periods of drought. Plants have evolved many different ways of surviving these conditions. For example, some desert plants store water; others have deep roots; others are small and complete their life cycles during the brief rainy seasons. But there is more. In the process of adapting to the different climatic conditions of the Earth, plants have created the diversity of habitats that we see: for it is the plants that make the forests, grasslands, and deserts what they are.

Plants defy our human arrogance. It is they who keep the Earth alive, and who create the habitats in which we live. If we pay attention to them, we will have a little bit more of the humility that we are going to need to survive on this planet.