Where Have All the Scarecrows Gone?
July 13, 2011

Crows have long been a major source of production loss in agriculture. They also eat eggs and young birds of other species, which is why you hardly ever see a crow that is not being chased away and attacked by some other kind of bird. Scarecrows are human-like figures filled with straw and hung up on a pole, to scare away the crows. Right, you knew that.

Many people still think of scarecrows as a part of the agrarian landscape in America. But they are not there anymore. Where have they gone? I have not seen any recently, except as decorations in small gardens. Apparently, they remain common in rice paddies in Japan, China, and Korea. I do not have a definitive answer to this question, but I suspect that the reason is that our farms are now drenched with agricultural chemicals. They are toxic environments in which wild species of organisms (including crows) cannot live very well, and in which humans spend as little time as possible. Ironically, the pests themselves seem to frequently thrive in modern agricultural fields. Some small organic farms use scarecrows as an alternative to pesticides.

It is more common to see crows in suburban and small town settings. Where I live in southern Oklahoma, there used to be American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), but they have been largely replaced by fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) that have moved in from the south, perhaps as a result of global warming. The places we live are also toxic, but not as toxic, I suspect, as the fields where we raise our food. Furthermore, crows, like other birds, need trees in which to hide and nest. When there are many square miles of wheatfields or cornfields uninterrupted by trees, there is no place for birds to live.

I am not saying that we should yearn for the days when we lost more of our agricultural production to crows. But if we had more trees around our farms, there would be more predatory birds that would eat insect pests. We would have more crows, it is true, but we would also have more of the innumerable species of birds that eat insects. We would, I believe, come out ahead in our agricultural production if we planted fencerows (or just allowed the trees to grow along the fences). We might lose more of our grain to crows, but less to insect pests.

I used to think I was so lucky to have grown up out in agricultural country. But I now see my childhood environment as toxic and artificial, from which I am lucky to have emerged without cancer. The agricultural environment may never again look like a Van Gogh painting with crows flying over fields of grain.

Less Hope Now than Ever?
July 25, 2011

The year was 1993. Bill Clinton had just taken office, and Al Gore was Vice President. This was, of course, back in the days when Al Gore was still idealistic, rather than giving into the pleasures of wealth as he is now doing. This was right after the Rio Summit and it seemed that the whole world, led by a proud and innovative America, was ready to do something about the destruction of biodiversity and about carbon emissions.

That fall, I headed off to the annual Nobel conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. The theme that year was "Earth Out of Balance." (I worked in Minnesota at the time.) One of the speakers was Dr. Tom Lovejoy. He spoke about a federal biodiversity initiative. As he was speaking, he mentioned that the situation for protecting the species of the world and for avoiding a catastrophic greenhouse effect was unbelievably good.

Eighteen years later (this summer), I heard Dr. Lovejoy again, speaking at a symposium at the annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America ("Botany 2011"). He again addressed the prospect of saving species, especially in the rainforests, which have half of the world's species. Of everything. He saw a few signs of hope, but it is clear that we are losing the battle. Mass extinction is underway and will not be stopped.

After the symposium, I asked Tom Lovejoy whether there was any hope of getting back to his optimism of 1993. He simply said, "We have to." This, of course, did not answer my question. Or maybe it did: he must have meant that there is essentially no chance of us even having the chance that we had in 1993 of rescuing the planet from disaster.

What does this say about our chances for having a world that does not sink into one prolonged ecological disaster that will uproot the lives of millions of people around the world? What does this say about the political party (guess which one) that blocks every attempt to do something to save the world from this disaster? And what does this say about American leadership, when virtually every other country in the world (except possibly North Korea) to do more than the United States at addressing this challenge?

Well, Mr. Lovejoy, the United States is not going to address this challenge, or even go along with nations who do address it. Congress does not listen to you. Certainly not to me. This website gets thousands of visitors, but they are largely people who are already convinced. Hey readers: Congress doesn't listen to you either. Maybe the president would, but he is too busy dealing with economic emergencies artificially created by Republican Congressmen who already approved (last March) of the expenditures that they now refuse to fund. We would have more luck trying to convince Congress that the sun goes around the Earth (which some state legislators believe) than to convince them that there even is an ecological crisis.

Oh, have a nice day. I actually saw a few mockingbirds who dared to fly around in the sixth uninterrupted week of temperatures above 100 degrees in Oklahoma. Go out and enjoy the global warming the Republicans insist is not happening.

You Can’t Do Just One Thing
August 4, 2011

As I write this essay in Oklahoma, it is 112 degrees F outside. It is the 43rd consecutive day of with a heat index (and almost always an air temperature) above 100 F. By the time you read this, it may be more. Almost everybody seems to be aware of it, although someone called into the Diane Rehm Show this morning from Tulsa (where I am) to question whether there was any global warming. The guy must live in a basement without windows or something.

I try to be stingy with the use of air conditioning, partly to save money, and partly as a patriotic duty—I do not want to contribute selfishly to the possibility of electrical failure by overloading the grid. But simple air fans can help a lot, by moving the cool air around inside the house, and by reducing the layer of unstirred air that traps heat around your body. We sleep with one fan. We decided we needed two. I found the second one in the attic, where the temperature far exceeds 120.

Here is my point. Suppose I had needed to do just one thing: to get in the car and go buy a second fan. I would have exposed myself to high temperatures not only outside but in the artificial greenhouse of the car, and I would have incurred the expense of gasoline and would have added to the greenhouse effect. You cannot just do one thing. Everything you do causes many other things to happen. That’s ecology. That’s the way the world is. Or I could crank the a/c and endanger the power grid and contribute even more to global warming than I would by driving my little car to someplace other than WalMart. You can’t “just” use electricity or throw something out; because there are nearly seven billion people in the world, every little thing you do is going to affect someone else.

Our Great Big Opportunity
August 13, 2011

One morning recently, Diane Rehm (on NPR) had a discussion about global warming. One of the guests (Amy Seidel) had just written a book, Finding Higher Ground, in which she says that the current global warming crisis is an opportunity for us to re-invent our way of doing things, including our technology and economy. She and the other guests assured all of us that the transition was going to be difficult, but that the final result will be a better world.

Lest there was anyone who took this as an opportunity to sit back and relax, thinking that the problem will ultimately take care of itself, I want to bring up something that the discussants did not mention. The Black Death (1345-1350) was also such an opportunity. The bubonic plague (or, more likely, pneumonic plague) spread through Europe, starting in 1345 along the Mediterranean coast and passing through Scandinavia by 1350. In that brief period of time, one-third of Europeans died. In any one location, the plague took about a month to go through town. The people did not understand disease, and their view of the world was totally disrupted. It was one of the worst things to happen to the human species.

But any historian will tell you that the Black Death was the catalyst of major innovations. Feudalism might already have been in decline, but the Black Death gave feudalism a lethal knockout blow, because so many people died that the few remaining peasants could demand to be employees rather than serfs. It was also the beginning of the end of the monopoly that the Catholic Church held over Europe; the Reformation followed soon after. This was because the people could see that the Church was helpless to prevent the Black Death. New ways of thinking could at last displace old dogmas at universities, since there were suddenly a lot of new faculty openings for younger scholars.

Global warming will spur innovation in the same way that the Black Death did. I do not consider this good news. You see, we are ready to innovate right now. The technology for solar and wind power, for example, are ready to go, just as new economic and religious insights existed before the Black Death. Too bad that humans, at least the ones who make their profits by having power over the rest of us, need severe crises before they will act.

The discussion on Diane Rehmís program occurred on the same day that Congress finally acted to end the debt ceiling crisis, which had totally consumed all the attention of Washington D.C. and, therefore, the rest of us. It was, as President Obama explained later that day, a totally "manufactured crisis." There was no leadership in Washington on this issue, just as there is none to prepare us for global warming. President Obama would provide such leadership, I believe, but his time is entirely taken up by crises manufactured by his political enemies. When there is no leadership, we have to let nature take its course, as it did in the Black Death.

Have a nice day.

What Rick Perry Thinks About Science
August 20, 2011

The new Republican candidate, Rick Perry, is what many Republicans (such as Michele Bachmann) call a liberal. He speaks smoothly and politely. But his approach to science, and therefore perhaps to all of the data of reality, puts him in with people like Bachmann who just make things up and expect us to believe them.

First, Rick Perry tells us that global warming is not happening. He says this despite the fact that his state, Texas, has already suffered $5.2 billion of damage from a year-long drought and its current heat wave. It is an unprecedented environmental catastrophe in Texas. He offered no evidence. He simply said, "from my perspective," global warming is not reliable science. He used that phrase twice. Has he studied the issue? No, nor did he make any such claim. He just chooses not to believe it, and that settles it. But his position is rather frightening. Not only does he oppose taking actions to reduce our carbon emissions and to promote alternative energy sources, but he says we should not even be studying the issue. This seems to imply that he would have NASA and NOAA discontinue their investigations. Or else, might he require them to reach his conclusions?

Of course, Michele Bachmann uses even worse logic about global warming. In 2006, she said that we do not need to worry about global warming because Jesus has already saved the world. Of course, she does not say, "We do not need to worry about the economy, because Jesus has already saved the world," or "We do not need to worry about terrorism, because Jesus has already saved the world." She just picks out environmental issues and says, "Don't worry, be happy."

Second, Rick Perry has come out against evolution. Typical of his smooth style, he did not say that anyone who accepts evolutionary science is going to Hell. His words were almost innocuous. He said "It's a theory that's out there, and it's got gaps." He went on to say that "...in Texas, we teach both creation and evolution, and I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right." The problem is that he just presented his personal opinion as being the final conclusion of the matter. It does not require any further thought. He was even wrong about what is taught in Texas. They do not, as a matter of fact, teach creation in Texas (at least, according to the state guidelines). He has a right to his opinion, but he wants to make his opinion into federal policy if he is elected president.

The rest of the world should be alerted that, if we have a Republican president starting in 2013, the United States will do absolutely nothing about global warming, and if Obama remains president, the Republicans will continue to prevent him from taking action. Rest of the world, take note: You will have to take the lead on resolving global warming, because the United States will not, and we may even discontinue researching it or paying attention to it. You will have to solve the problem without us. The same is also true of scientific leadership. Scientific research, in the United States, may soon become a mere restatement of Republican beliefs, no more to be trusted than Lysenkoist genetics from Soviet Russia. Rest of the world, take note: You will have to take the lead in scientific research, because the United States will not. The United States will ride the falling stars of fossil fuel dependence and creationism until they, and we, crash.

The Murder of Altruism?
September 5, 2011

On August 16, billionaire Warren Buffett announced his belief that rich people, such as himself, should pay higher taxes than they currently do. This was a direct statement of altruism. He was almost immediately attacked by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who said in a loud, sarcastic manner, "I have a suggestion. Mr. Buffett, write a big check today. There's nothing you have to wait for. As a matter of fact the president has redefined millionaires and billionaires as any company that makes over $200,000 a year. That's his definition of a millionaire and billionaire. So perhaps Mr. Buffett would like to give away his entire fortune above $200,000. That's what you want to do? Have at it. Give it to the federal government."

Not surprisingly, Bachmann was wildly inaccurate. The president does not want people to earn only $200,000; he just wants slightly higher tax rates on people earning more than $200,000.

What Bachmann did not say, but clearly implied, was "Sucker." Any rich person like Buffett who would actually want to pay more taxes to help his fellow citizens must clearly be a sucker.

In encounters between animals of the same species, there are cooperators and there are defectors. Whenever a cooperator encounters a defector, the cooperator loses (becomes a sucker) and the defector wins. It would seem inevitable, in a world that consisted only of simple and direct interactions, the defectors always win, even though they cause themselves to become extinct. The world, however, is not that simple. Intelligent animals such as humans can recognize and remember one another as individuals, and they can remember the bad reputations of defectors and the good reputations of cooperators. In a world of complex interactions, cooperators can work together and drive the defectors into obscurity. In ways such as this, altruism (animals being nice to each other even if they incur a cost) can evolve.

Republicans clearly hate altruism. Some hate it more than others. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry do not make statements as extreme as those of Bachmann. It seems inconceivable to extremists like Bachmann that citizens should ever want to help each other. The Tea Party tirade of anger is not so much against "big government" as it is against a societal expectation that we, as fellow citizens, should be expected to help one another out, and that government should be a mechanism to facilitate altruism.

This conclusion is obvious not just from Bachmann's statement, but from statements by the founding mind of modern extremist conservatism, Ayn Rand. She wrote, "If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject." She was as wrong as anyone could be about anything, and so are her modern disciples. Humans are the most altruistic species, and the most successful, in evolutionary terms. Our survival cannot be assured if the Republicans succeed in destroying altruism.

Don't wait for an apology or clarification from Bachmann. This is not the first time she has stuck all eight of her feet in her mouth.

How I Spent September 11
September 14, 2011

Around the country, on September 11, there were commemorative services to honor those who died and to reaffirm patriotism. But I attended none of these. Instead, I went down to the river. I joined with my University of Oklahoma colleague, Phil Gibson, to study populations of the endangered seaside alder, the riparian shrub after which this website is named. Phil was showing two of his students where the populations of these shrubs are located so that they can estimate the number of shrubs. This is an essential step in saving the seaside alder from extinction.

All four of us were spending the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in a patriotic manner. We were patriots doing our part to help rescue a species from extinction. The many species that live in America's natural areas are among the greatest blessings that this nation has, and we want to save them, as part of our patriotic duty to our fellow citizens. Alders, for example, hold down the soil along the riverbanks, helping to prevent erosion and floods (and the economic losses associated with them), as well as maintaining a clear-water habitat for fish and other aquatic animals.

Buildings destroyed by terrorists can be rebuilt. Nations can recuperate from recessions. But when a species becomes extinct, it is gone forever, because its DNA has been lost. You know perfectly well that terrorists would just love to see America lose its natural resources, including its wild species. Take Saddam Hussein, for example. He was not connected with the September 11 attacks, but he was an environmental terrorist. He destroyed the Tigris-Euphrates wetlands (which are now slowly recovering, along with the people who traditionally occupied them), set dozens of oil wells on fire, and poured oil into the Red Sea. People who hate America's wild natural world also hate America. People like me, Phil, and his students love America and show our love by working to protect its wild species.

A Celebration of Evolutionary Science
September 25, 2011

This past June I attended the Evolution 2011 meetings in Norman, Oklahoma. This is the pre-eminent meeting of evolutionary scientists in the world, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society for Systematic Biology. Anyone who thinks that evolutionary science is based on very little evidence should experience the flood of data reported at the Evolution meetings every year. All over the world and in every group of organisms, the evidence continues to pour in that evolution is occurring all around us and has been occurring for billions of years. Those of us who have been around longer took special effort to encourage the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who have done amazing and creative research.

The Evolution meetings were also a sort of altruism-fest, in which (as far as I am aware) all of the participants encouraged the work of the others, rather than trying to critically tear anyone down. In particular, those of us who are older made special efforts to encourage the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

The meetings were a kind of celebration that might become increasingly rare. The meetings were at a big hotel. And there was lots of food, sometimes huge piles of it left over. Much of the expense was paid by federal and state governments. My university paid for my registration, and the rest of the costs were covered by NESCent, an organization funded by the National Science Foundation. This organization also sponsored a free lunch for those who attended one of the symposia. Many attendees were supported by grant money, usually from the federal government. Now, I believe it was money well spent: getting students and faculty together from all over the world has immense benefits for the progress of science. But as federal funds run dry (not just in America), scientists may not be able to afford such meetings for very much longer. Scientists, being the meek people that we are, will get our funds cut before the oil companies will have their subsidies reduced, and governments will still fund soirees that are far more lavish than any scientific meeting, for the benefit of diplomats and business leaders. There will continue to be piles of food and armies of caterers, but it will not be for scientists. I fear that the golden age of science is coming to an end, at least in America. Our government leaders are attacking scientific research, which they do not understand, as frivolous, while considering their own lavish expense accounts to be essential for the survival of the world.

And it is not just Republicans who attack science, as Senator Tom Coburn has, but also Democrats. In an email to supporters last spring, Vice President Joe Biden targeted a federal website devoted to the desert tortoise as an example of wasteful government spending.

I am not saying that every piece of scientific research can be defended as essential to the world. But I will not believe the attacks that politicians make on scientists unless or until politicians reduce their own expense accounts or limit the incredibly wasteful spending by defense contractors.

Evolutionary science, and all other branches of science, are alive and well. But for how much longer?