Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined

It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Would We Rather Go to War than to Recycle?

We need aluminum (for those of you in the UK, it’s aluminium). Lots of it. It is a light and strong metal. To make new aluminum, you begin with bauxite ore, and use a lot of electricity. But to recycle aluminum, you start with aluminum, and use ten times less electricity than it takes to make it from bauxite.

In addition to the energy used to refine bauxite into aluminum, there is also the fact that the largest bauxite reserves are in countries that often have low industrial capacity and do not use very much aluminum. They are small countries that would not be able to put up much resistance if a country like the USA told them we wanted their bauxite. The largest reserves (7.4 billion metric tons) are in Guinea, a small poor African nation. Brazil has 3.6, Vietnam 2.1, and Jamaica 2.0 billion metric tons. The only significant industrial power with large bauxite deposits is Brazil, with 3.6 billion metric tons. Industrial countries have far less: China has 0.8, Russia has 0.2, and the USA has only 0.04 billion metric tons of bauxite reserves.

Our extravagant use of raw aluminum, while throwing used aluminum into landfills, makes economic sense only because we can get new aluminum from smaller countries. What if these countries decided to charge more money for it, or preferred to sell the bauxite to one of our competitors, such as China? Would we go to war for bauxite rather than to recycle what we already have? I wonder how many Americans are lazy and selfish enough that they would prefer to see an aluminum war rather than to take a few extra moments and a few extra steps to recycle aluminum cans? Half of our federal budget is for the military. How many Americans consider half of our tax money (and the money we borrow from other places), and the lives of our fellow Americans in the military, to be expendable so that we can throw whatever we like in the garbage? Go ahead. Next time you see a soldier, tell her or him that you would rather see them engaged in open conflict than for you to recycle, then tell yourself what a patriot you are.

There are a lot of rare and expensive metals in cell phones. One example is gold. At present, it is cheaper to mine gold from ore than it is to recycle it from electronic equipment. But that is only because, first, we ignore the environmental costs of gold mining, such as at the big mine in Australia shown in the figure, and second, we assume that we will never run out of ore. It is easy (in most places) to recycle old cell phones; electronics stores have receptacles for them, and some will even pay you for them. But Americans prefer to throw them away: ninety percent of them. Would we, perhaps, be willing to go to war for gold rather than to recycle it?

Some of those elements you heard about in high school chemistry actually have some very important uses. Praseodymium, for example, is a component of metal used in aircraft engines. Cerium is used as a catalyst to refine petroleum. Lanthanum is used in carbon arc lights such as those used in projectors. Neodymium is used in welders’ goggles. Samarium is part of the crystals used in optical lasers, and absorbs neutrons in nuclear reactors. Gadolinium is used in color picture tubes and magnetic resonance imaging. These are highly specialized but very important uses.

The reason I chose these particular metals is that Afghanistan has raw ores for these metals—a trillion dollars’ worth.

Though not a chemist, I can imagine that recycling these metals must be difficult, much more so than recycling aluminum. Imagine getting neodymium out of old welder’s goggles. At what point does it become cost-effective to recycle rare metals? The answer depends, of course, on the availability of raw ores for these metals. If Afghanistan will allow American corporations to mine their ores, and let us do so for cheap, then our industrial and political leaders will probably choose to use new, rather than recycled, rare metals.

But Afghanistan seems to be continually at war; America has had a very active and expensive military presence since 2002. When industrial leaders make their calculations for investing in rare metal mining in Afghanistan, they assume that American military presence will be available to protect them for free, that is, at taxpayer expense.

And, of course, our economic competitors such as China want these metals too.

This brings up the uncomfortable possibility that America might be willing to go to war for raw ores of these important rare metals rather than recycling them. We may choose to go ahead and throw away all those metals and, if we start to run out of them, just go to war and take what we need. As any black or Native American can tell you, American history consists largely of the white American government and economic leaders benefiting from the forced labor of, or taking land and all its resources away from, people of color. I am not suggesting that our current Afghan war is motivated by the desire for these metals at this time. One the other hand, maybe it is, or will soon be.

A war for raw mineral ores can be avoided by recycling, which is very easy to do for aluminum, very difficult to do for neodymium, but always possible.

Recycling is the right thing to do for world peace.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mining the Middens

Wouldn’t you just love to take one of my classes? Oh, the field trips I have taken students on! Not so much anymore, because of liability and financial issues, but in the past. I have taken students to such wonderful places as sewage plants and landfills.

I took an environmental science class from Wheaton College Science Station (almost 13 years ago) to the Rapid City dump. We got to experience it with all our senses. The landfill director told us that there was probably a million dollars’ worth of aluminum in the landfill. Two of my entrepreneurial students instantly began discussing plans to recover it. Of course, they didn’t follow through once they realized what the cost of recovery would be. If you want to get that million dollars, you need to get it before it enters the landfill.

The archaeology books all tell us that some of the richest sources of information about ancient and prehistoric human life is garbage heaps, tastefully called kitchen middens. While the great monuments and cave paintings proclaim what people of those times wanted others, including us perhaps, to think about them. Trash heaps tell it like it is. Archaeologist Bill Rathje is already using our landfills to study our recent history. You want to know what people ate? Look for bones and seeds in their trash piles. You want to know what they consider valuable? Look for what they did not throw out. What do you find when you look at our trash piles? You see that we are throwing away the future.

First, even where it is illegal, people still throw thousands of tons of toxic waste into the garbage and then it goes to the landfill. Some of the toxins, such as heavy metals, never decompose. We do not care if seepage contaminates the water sources of other people besides ourselves today, much less people of the future.

Second, we throw away so many things that have value. Recycling is often a more economical source of materials than manufacture from raw materials. The only reason that, in many cases, recycled paper is more expensive than paper from freshly-killed trees is that the trees are either raised in plantations using sometimes ecologically unsound techniques or the National Forest Service is willing to sell them to timber companies dirt cheap. (Actually, soil is valuable. Try replacing it once it has eroded away.) The only reason that rare metals such as germanium may be cheaper to mine and refine than to recycle is that the taxpayers are paying for military operations in Afghanistan, which has immense deposits of rare metals, and one result of this is that we can have access to those metal ores (more on this in the next essay).

So if someone says that recycling isn’t cost effective, ask some questions, such as:

  • How did you calculate the cost effectiveness of recycling vs. use of raw materials?
  • How did you calculate the cost of depleting supplies and dumping poisons on future generations—or did you do any such calculations?

What will future archaeologists (if any; humans may survive but civilization may not) think when they dig up our trash heaps? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age, Electronic Age, Garb-Age. They will marvel out how little value we placed upon our planet, upon our fellow humans, and upon or descendants.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Some Thoughts on Evolution from My Students

I gave my students extra credit on the final exam for my Evolution course in Fall 2017 if they shared their thoughts about evolution and religion. I wanted to pass a few of them on to you. I did not require them to agree with me; they could write anything they wanted and get credit, so long as they gave reasons for their beliefs. Remember, my university is in rural Oklahoma. Very few of the students actually had to take the course; it was a self-selected sample of students taking an elective. There were actually more anti-religious than religious students. The samples below are from the more thoughtful answers, often some combination of creation and evolution.

“I believe the theories and approaches of evolution are scientific fact, proven to be right, therefore, un-arguable. Evolution has shown prediction of how life flourishes and expands. Personally, I still believe there is a greater “force” that drives life and consciousness, and our intelligence is trying to hint to us there is something more, even if it’s not a white man with a beard.”

“Jesus—Done…I’m kidding. I am a Christian, so I do believe that God created existence. I think that God answers the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Why was there a big bang? Why was there a first cell? Why was there anything? Science can explain how, but not why. That is why I believe in creationism. With that said though, I also know evolution occurs. I mean come on, the evidence is strong for it. I do think that some of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic…”

“I am a Christian…However, I believe that evolution occurred and is still occurring today…We have billions of years of evidence suggesting its validity, so who am I to say it’s wrong. I’ve seen a catfish walk from one pond to another, this makes me believe that they could have stayed on land like Tiktaalik.”

“…if I was to create something then why not create a natural law to creation so you don’t have to keep changing things…Either way I shall always have an open mind and learn.”

“I am a Christian but my belief system isn’t anchored to the infallible bible. I…see the Bible as a book of wisdom…That being said, I believe that God created all that is and allowed the laws of nature to form life as we know it…There is no need to attack timelines because what God gave us was love for one another and never intended on us fighting over when things happened.”

“I have yet to understand why our origin story wants to be dictated by so many institutions. Rather I wish we could look back and appreciate just how amazing the story of our earth and species is. Instead of argue about it, why don’t we try and figure out more about it.”

“I was raised Southern Baptist and thought about salvation…the divine, etc. I had an early traumatic event when I was left alone in my house when 3-4 years old—I, literally, thought I slept through the rapture and was left behind, I went wandering outside crying and could not find anyone…I continued going to church, but things kept happening that made me question everything I’d been told…While I respect the beliefs of individuals I’ve found it increasingly hard because I do not understand how a person can be content…not questioning something that makes up such a large part of our identity…”

“I don’t believe evolution…Science does not care about opinions, it only is concerned with fact. The fact is that evolution has occurred…The idea of a god creating all life that we know is truly insulting to the billions of years of history of life fighting to survive.”

“I don’t know.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New Wine in Old Wineskins

In their 1981 book The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch and John B. Cobb wrote, “It is remarkable how much new wine we can put into old wineskins.” Making reference to the metaphor used by Jesus, they meant that humans have shown limitless creativity when it comes to cramming new discoveries into old world views.

This book, rather tedious and not much read today, a theologian and a biologist joined forces to examine how a spiritual view of life—not a view based on religious doctrine, but on spiritual sensitivity—might transform both religion and science. I’m afraid I missed most of their points, even when I re-read the marginalia I wrote back when I originally read it. But I want to share a couple of insights that these authors presented.

One of these ideas, which sounds like something from the writings of Ernst Mayr, is that it was not so much the idea of evolution by which science changed our view of the world as it was population biology. In the earliest days of science, the “balance of nature” view prevailed. In this view, providence maintained populations and species by creating them with different birth rates. Balance was maintained because prey reproduced rapidly and predators reproduced slowly. This was a view expressed by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Today we understand that there is a struggle for existence, as Darwin called it, and that the rapid reproductive rate of many prey species has evolved as a response to predators. That is, from the pre-Darwinian view, Darwin not only disrupted belief in the orderly realm of supernatural creation by saying that life evolved, but he upset belief in the balance of nature by writing chapter 3 of the Origin: The Struggle for Existence. Darwin’s opponents tried and failed to put new ideas, about the struggle for existence, into old balance-of-nature world view.

Another example is one that remains with us today: the idea of limitless growth. We talk as if we believe that the world economy, and the economy of each country, should grow forever without limit. The alternative gets labeled “stagnation” rather than “equilibrium.” But, as Birch and Cobb pointed out, nobody really believes this. We all know we live on a planet of limited resources. In some cases technology can raise the limits, as with breeding and the invention of fertilizers that boosted crop production. But we all know that we have to make the transition to a sustainable economy—as a whole planet, and as separate countries. The consequences are sobering: the economic and political leaders of the world are lying to us and they know it. And we progressives play right along with it when we say that a sustainable economy, based on solar energy, will continue to allow unlimited growth. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.

The old wineskin of the balance of nature was born from a view of the Earth as a peaceable garden, like Gilbert White’s garden (The Natural History of Selbourne), and the old wineskin of unlimited growth was born from the period when empires were expanding. Empires could expand only because the cultures with powerful military forces conquered and usually killed the people who had less military strength. We need new wineskins (new concepts) in our world. Actually, they are no longer new, but as 2018 begins, we find that they remain largely unaccepted.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Shift in the World

It may not seem like the most important news of recent times, but I believe that Trump’s recent declaration that countries with dark people are “shithole nations” marks a major shift in the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world—not just with the countries that Trump insulted, but also with our European allies. As of this writing, Trump has refused to apologize for his words. (He admits insulting other countries, and only denies using the word shit.) He never apologizes for anything. He just blames Hillary for everything he says.

No longer does the United States, embodied now in the figure of Trump, oppose only its enemies such as North Korea or its economic rivals such as China. Trump, who insists that he is a “very stable genius,” has made it clear that he hates every country that is not pure white. Clearly, the United States no longer wants other countries as friends. We Americans want them to either hate us or to fear us or both.

It is not just Trump. The entire Republican Party, even if not completely sharing Trump’s sentiments, has supported him. America elected him, and knew what kind of person he was when doing so.

The majority non-white countries of the world have been pushed away from the table of friendship with America. Naturally, they will turn to one another for cooperation. And the majority-white European countries such as France and Germany must be perfectly ready to form coalitions with these countries. Perhaps even more importantly, when the United States insults most of the world, the Russians and Chinese will say, “Come and join with us, make special trade arrangements with us, at least we will not insult you.”

I do not mean the other countries of the world will become military enemies of America. But, starting now, and increasingly with time, they will consult with each other but only negotiate with the United States. It is quite clear to them that there is no point in talking with America except from a position of their own solidarity and power. We do not need to be at war with the other countries of the world in order to be overpowered by them.

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s classic novel The Human Factor, about a British double-agent who defects to the Soviet Union. But this man was not a communist. He thought communism was evil. Why, then, did he do it? He did it because, when he was a representative of the British government in South Africa, he fell in love with an African woman. In South Africa, love between blacks and whites was illegal. He had to escape from South Africa in order to marry the woman. The only people who were willing to help him escape were the communists, and in gratitude to them for this help—not because he agreed with their politics—he became a double agent. (Leave it to Graham Greene to make a spy novel into an empathetic exploration of the human spirit.)

In a similar fashion, the countries that will begin to form an alliance against America—whether a few or many or all other countries—do not necessarily disagree with democracy nor do they necessarily agree with Russia or China. They will do it primarily because America hates them.

I imagine a future in which the other countries of the world form a new version of the United Nations, one in which America is not invited to participate. As I have so often said in this evolution blog, human altruism has been the greatest achievement of evolution. It will continue into the future, but the form in which it continues may be as mutual aid among countries who have had their fill of American hatred and arrogance.

And I think that future historians will look back and see that this shift started to take organized form in early 2018.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Welcome Again!

I began this blog in late 2009. For those of you who have begun reading this blog more recently, I would like to continue summarizing some of the previous entries. The first entry for 2017 summarized some of the 2009 and 2010 entries..

I now review some entries from 2011. Please check them out!

  • January12, 2011. Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Three. Goldilocks’s Earth. A continued overview of the ways in which Earth got lucky in its evolution.
  • January19, 2011. Parasite Load. Financial corporations are parasitic upon us the same way that parasites can build up to deadly levels on a host.
  • Starting on February 11, 2011, I posted four entries called The Evolved Capacity for Evil, all based on Barbara Oakley’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.
  • Starting on March 14, 2011, and through April 16, I posted a series of eight reports, My Fun Creationist Weekend, about the weird things I learned from visiting local creationist museums: The Creationist Museum in Rural Oklahoma; Noah’s Ark! Wow!; Into the Land of the Dinosaur Preacher; The Lost Paradise of Carl Baugh; Mysteries of the Cretaceous World at the Baugh Museum; Lies and Damned Lies at the Creationist Museum; The Ghost of Marlyn Clark; and a final instalment.
  • April 26,2011. Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Ples—Your Cabin is Number 10,587,282A. Where would human evolutionary ancestors have fit on the Ark—in the animal pens, or in a cabin?
  • I posted two entries, the first on May 13, 2011, about John Avise’s book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design.
  • Starting on May 27, 2011, I posted a series of four essays that remain even now one of the most extensive critical reviews of the Near Death Experience and how it is an internally-generated experience by the victim rather than a vision into the afterlife. Yes, I present the evidence. I really wanted to believe there is an afterlife, I still do, but my arguments remain unanswered. I also speculate about how it could have evolved.
  • If you want to read about the meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution at the University of Oklahoma, I have a series of entries starting June 22, 2011.
  • On August 19, 2011, I posted an essay, What Rick Perry Thinks about Science, which I assumed would be part of the dustbin of history by 2018, but sadly it is not.
  • Starting on September 1, 2011, I posted a series of brief excerpts from my book, published the next year by Prometheus Books, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World. I think you would enjoy the book, still available for purchase, but alternatively you can check out the essays I posted from it. The first essay is Hurry up and Wait, about how evolution is sometimes fast and sometimes slow.
  • Starting on October 7, 2011, I published a series of five essays called Dinosaur Adventure, my first visit to the Paluxy River with Glen Kuban. This is the set of dinosaur trackways that creationists claim include human footprints. But there are a lot of things to learn from them besides just the tired old conclusion that creationists are wrong. See the photos!
  • On November 10, 2011, I posted an essay, Darwin Has a Sense of Humour. Did you know there was a really funny passage in The Descent of Man? Check it out.

I would like to call attention to an entry I posted on May 24, 2011, about altruism, and how it is fundamental to our human species. Let me repost a brief passage from it:

“On a news program on NPR, one of [the richest people in America] called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.”

I plan to continue the work I started in 2009 as long as I can. Happy New Year to you, too!