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Stan's Darwin blog
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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