Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Just not that into you?

(A dance of nurses, but the dance I attended was more exciting than this one appears.)

The call came on a Wednesday and on Friday night my college roommate and I jumped into his red Chevy convertible and headed off to the nursing school down the road.  We met the two girls who had invited us, but they were so short.  It just wasn't going to work.  So we politely cut it off, split up, and reconnoitered the room full of dancing nursing students. 

Within an hour we were each dancing with a freshman student nurse who turned out to be roommates at the school.  Later, we went out for a hamburger in the convertible, which must have been impressive, and by the end of the evening it was obvious that the girl my roommate had been dancing with and I were muy sympatico.  I called her the next week, we went to the OSU homecoming dance the following month, and we were married in three years.  Simple.  Now, four dogs, six cats, and three children later, we are still married 44 years after that Friday expedition.

Meeting the right person seemed so easy then.  But last night I watched "He's Just Not That Into You" on tv for the first time, and I was reminded of how difficult it seems to be for young people to develop satisfying relationships in recent decades.  And finding that ONE right person is nearly impossible, or so it would seem.  My conclusion is also supported by dozens of conversations I have had with my students over the years.  I won't be so pretentious as to offer a solution for these difficulties, but my observations suggest that the older you get and the more experience you have with potential partners, the more difficult this all gets.  It is like trying to choose a cell phone.  There are simply so many models that come with so many different plans that it is difficult to settle on the package that is right for you.

But let's analyze this fundamental issue of human ecology a bit more.  There are two aspects to the "problem".  First, you have to encounter that right person and, second, you have to recognize the right person after you have encountered them.  I'm betting that #2 is a more common problem than #1, given that most of us encounter hundreds of people every month.  There may be dozens of Mr. or Mrs. Rights all around us; we just don't know which ones they are.

But maybe I've made that too simple.  We "encounter" lots of people every week, but we don't really "meet" most of those whom we encounter.  You would never know who the right one is if you sat next to them at Starbucks if neither of you uttered a word.  I used to talk a lot more than I do now, and my wife has always given her words away freely, so this was not an issue for us in 1965.  We opened up completely with our thoughts and goals and hopes; we hid very little.  What's the point of false advertising, given that the other person will eventually learn the truth anyway?

So that is how it went.  In hindsight, it seemed simple and easy, but I am sure there was a bit more to it than that.  There was a huge dose of serendipity involved as well.  If that short girl had not called my roommate, if we had not gone to that dance, if my roommate had not had a convertible, if I had not worn that sexy cranberry sweater, if they had not played the Bristol Stomp at the dance, if she had not moved her hips in exactly that way, if, if, if...........  But I wonder if the movie that I saw last night had been made in the '60s, would we have even understood it?  I just don't think we would have been that into it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The depth of our environmental concerns mimics our evolutionary heritage

(Early humans probably traveled only short distances and only worried about short intervals of time into the future.)

Last year at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association in San Diego, CA, University of Missouri professor David Konisky reported on the results of his survey of 1,000 adults regarding their environmental concerns in a paper titled "Environmental Policy Attitudes, Political Trust and Geographical Scale". “The survey’s core result is that people care about their communities and express the desire to see government action taken toward local and national issues,” said Konisky, a policy research scholar with the Institute of Public Policy. “People are hesitant to support efforts concerning global issues even though they believe that environmental quality is poorer at the global level than at the local and national level. This is surprising given the media attention that global warming has recently received and reflects the division of opinion about the severity of climate change.”

In other words, people are more concerned about what happens in their own backyard than they are about the global environment. “Americans are clearly most concerned about pollution issues that might affect their personal health, or the health of their families,” Konisky said. Global warming ranked 8th among the environmental concerns reported by the respondents.

Is this really an unexpected result? On the surface, it seems surprising that given all the media attention to the problem of global climate change (e.g., rising ocean levels, melting glaciers, demise of polar bears and penguins, mass extinctions, shifts in agriculture, etc.) that it would not rank as the number one concern among a sample of Americans. But thinking as an evolutionary biologist for a moment, something I try to do a lot, the results could be viewed exactly as expected.

Throughout the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 1.8 million years BP until about 11,000 years BP, humans lived in relatively small nomadic groups, or clans, of related individuals. They probably did not live much past the age of 40 and they probably did not travel long distances. The landscape must have been a dangerous place, so I have to presume that individuals went only as far as they needed to obtain the requisites of life: food, water, animal skins for clothing, wood for a fire. Occasionally there would be a dispersal event to colonize new territory, but the world you knew was only as large as the area you walked during your relatively short life. What another hominid clan did three valleys away had no effect on your life whatsoever, and it seems likely that humans living 100 miles apart never even knew of each other’s existence. What I have briefly described here is what evolutionary psychologists call the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” or EEA. That is, conditions of life during the Pleistocene were such that humans were selected to be adapted to that environment, where life was short and known distances and effects were spatially small.

But times have changed. Now, the lifestyle of Americans, or Europeans, or Chinese threatens the well-being of a Bangladeshi living on the coast through the effects of global warming and rising ocean levels. The demand for furniture in Japan made of tropical woods can eliminate the habitat and homeland for native wildlife and humans living in parts of Indonesia. Radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine resulted in resettlement of more than 300,000 people locally, but the fallout was detected in North America. And on, and on, and on.

Somehow we have to rise above our evolved concerns focused on immediate issues of time and space, but I still do not know exactly how to bring that about. We are all at least aware of how local actions can have global effects, and that is a start. And many of us pay lip service to our responsibility to future generations. But it seems to me that overcoming the "small distance-short time" dilemma is critical to solving 21st century environmental problems. The evolutionary problem is simply this: what is best for us and our family right here and right now may be harmful to others further away and not yet born. This dilemma manifests itself over and over again. Recognizing it is a first step to overcoming it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I hate irises

(Just look at this cheap, gaudy flower.  Disgusting.)

I am an avid gardener.  The action of putting a seed in the ground and watching what it becomes is truly amazing, and you don't have to pay for college when it grows up.  In fact, if it is a vegetable, you rip it out of the soil when it matures and you eat it.  Pretty cool.  If it is a non-edible flowering plant, you watch it grow until the day it begins to flower, and you admire it, or smell it, or brag about it.  But there are some flowering plants that are common in human gardens that I don't like at all.  I hate irises, for example, and peonies and gladiolas.

I have long known which flowering plants were on my hate-list; this list is many years old.  But what the heck is this aversion to certain plant varieties or species all about?  After all, I find all living organisms truly interesting and biologically beautiful, including the tick that causes Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria.  So what is it about an iris that would prevent me from ever planting one on my property or buying them in a flower arrangement?

I think these plant dislikes must be an aversion based on childhood experiences or associations with these plants.  My mother had irises in her garden around the edge of our yard as a kid.  I always remember them not doing all that well.  They were often buried in weeds, falling over, and they just looked cheap to me--like inexpensive costume jewelry.  I think I hate glads because they remind me of irises.  And peonies, let me count the ways.  I grew up near Van Wert, Ohio, which at one time was known as The Peony Capital of the World, because of all the commercial peony farms in the area.  They used to have an annual Peony Festival with a huge parade; when I was in high school, the marching band that I was in used to march in this thing every year.  I remember it being hot and humid and exhausting on that day--all in the name of peonies.  My mother also had this plant in our yard and all I ever remember about this plant is the sticky flower buds and all the ants climbing up and down the stems all day.  Heat, humidity, ants, stickiness, and an uncomfortable marching band uniform.  I guess that would do it.

But the flower I choose not to grow or even consider growing is the rose, and this one is complicated.  During the last 20 years of his life, my grandfather became a rose grower par excellence; he had been an auto mechanic all his adult life.  He had a rose garden with over 300 varieties in it, all neatly arranged in raised beds, all labeled with their proper name on a tag that stuck in the soil in front of each plant, and complete with a large water fountain in the middle of the garden.  It was absolutely beautiful, and the Gavin Rose Garden was locally famous.  He gave talks at the local rose society, was written up in the local newspaper nearly every year, tested new varieties of roses sent to him by the big rose companies, and supposedly had a new rose variety named after him (although I have never been able to confirm this).  To this day, my two younger brothers, who are also avid horticulturalists, will not grow roses and have no desire to do so whatsoever, even though we have great memories of playing in that garden as young boys and admiring it as we got older.  (Actually, my youngest brother just told me that he has gotten into growing heritage rose varieties.  Traitor!)

I am interested enough in this question about plant aversions that I wonder if others have experienced the same.  Let me know.  Will an unpleasant interaction with some plant as a child cause you to dislike that plant for the rest of your life?  Do you outgrow such a thing?  Is an interaction even necessary to dislike the species? 

You know, one approach in gardening is to create thematic gardens: a herb garden, a garden containing only blue-flowering plants, a rock garden, etc.  Maybe I should have a garden that contains only plants I hate--call it the God-awful Garden.  I would plant irises, gladiolas, peonies, and a few rose bushes together in one bed and then I would treat it as badly as I could.  I would never weed it, or water it, or fertilize it.  I would walk on it regularly, let the dog urinate on it, and encourage deer to browse there.  Maybe, if the poor plants survived all of that, my aversion would change to admiration, and I would want to grow these varieties all over the property.  Ummmmmmm....nah!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Denial, conspiracy, and the state of the environment

(I just can't figure out where all the oil is going.)

We have all done it. We want to blame someone for nearly everything bad that happens to us. In the case of oil prices, there are several likely suspects. Exxon-Mobil is making huge profits, speculators are driving the price up because of their trading in oil futures, there is too much oil in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and China is hoarding oil.

In fact, a CNBC poll last year during the peak of gasoline prices showed that respondents believed that only 15% of our oil problem was due to consumers; the remaining 85% believed it was due to speculators, OPEC, President Bush, Congress, or big oil companies. It could not possibly be the case that demand exceeds supply, because that would mean that they, or we, or I am using too much oil. If we are using more than can be produced, that might mean that economic growth has a limit of some kind, and that is nothing we have ever had to contemplate.

In fact, we still reject the notion that there is a limit to growth, because, if true, it would adversely affect all types of measures of our “quality of life”: the creation of new jobs, the increase in the value of my stock portfolio, the nation’s GDP, same-store sales this year over last year, and so on. We reject this unpleasant scenario and replace that specter with an attempt to find out who is doing this to us. Once we identify the criminals, we can alert our government who will punish the offenders or pass new legislation and, thereby, fix the problem, or so the thinking goes.

On the other hand, that same week I heard three “experts” on financial markets, all of whom I have come to respect over the past 8 years, come down on the side of basic supply and demand as the fundamental cause of high oil prices---Warren Buffet, Jim Cramer, and Boone Pickens. Pickens, the legendary oil man from Texas, actually said that the world can produce 85 million barrels of oil per day at present, but the global demand is currently 87 million barrels per day. And the International Energy Agency report released earlier that week estimated that by 2030 we will be able to retrieve about 100 million barrels of oil from the ground per day, but the demand then will be about 116 million barrels per day. If the latter number is greater than the former, then there will be demand pressure on the price of oil. Of course, this is not to say that speculation has nothing to do with the exact price of oil at any given moment, but as the adage goes: “Speculation gets the price of a commodity to where it was going anyway, only faster.”

I hear this same conspiratorial sentiment when discussing global climate change with the man in the street. It is all a scam perpetrated by ivory tower scientists and left-wing liberals like Al Gore and weirdo environmentalists. Someone is lying to us because THEY want US to behave differently, so THEY can benefit from our changed behavior. THEY are making up this grand story so THEY can become rich and famous. If THEY were correct that humans are causing climate change and this change is going to be bad for us, then WE would have to do with less, WE might have to curb our growth as a society, WE would have to drive less or drive smaller cars, or WE would have to turn off the lights frequently. THEY are doing something to US!

It should be obvious at this point in this little tirade that I believe as Pogo stated several decades ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There is really no one else to blame for this state of affairs but us: our individual consumption and, likewise, the collective consumption and waste of a huge and growing human population currently numbered at nearly 7 billion. Remember that there is a net annual increase in the human population of about 80 million people per year; a decade ago, the net increase was about 100 million people per year. Currently, that means that every year there are about 100 million new people reaching driving age, regardless of what the driving age is in the country in which they reside. Now, most of those people will probably never drive a car, but I think you get the idea. It is tough to increase the supply of oil, or to reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change, when the demand is increasing inexorably.

Supplies and prices of commodities or other necessities of life will not be resolved easily or quickly. And neither will global environmental problems like climate change or conservation of biodiversity. But I continue to believe that no problem is likely to be solved unless we understand the true cause. Pogo was a wise opossum.

(For a thoughtful essay on economic growth and population growth by Steve Kurtz, click on the title of this blog to find Growth: Salvation, addiction and cessation.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The pooping Labrador retriever

(Zeus and DrTom don't know nothin bout no deer leg.)

I have a dilemma that I would like to share.  Our black Lab Zeus needs to go outside to relieve himself several times a day.  I know, I thought I had purchased the model that didn't need to do that, but I was wrong.  I even thought about not feeding the guy any longer so he wouldn't have to poop or pee, but when I do that he gets all lethargic and isn't any fun. 

But here is the real problem.  I want to just let the dog out when he has to go and let him in when he wants back in.  But Management insists that we walk him on a leash each time (the "we" in that sentence really means "me").  This seems ridiculous, because we live on 12 acres of forested land surrounded by more forested land.  Who wants to walk a dog in their pajamas when there is a foot of snow on the ground and it is 15 degrees, and we are over 100 yards away from the nearest house, and the dog likes to have a little freedom, and I enjoy watching him frolicing around the property, and the traffic on the road is not THAT bad.  But THAT is the problem.  Zeus will go down to the road when he follows the scent of deer that have passed through our woods.  My wife is afraid he will get hit by a car and I understand that.  So Management usually wins this argument, like she wins most of our arguments, and I walk the dog on a leash.

But sometimes, when it is really early in the morning, and my wife is still asleep, and there is almost no traffic, I cheat.  SHE will never know.  So on this frigid Saturday morning, Zeus and I got out of bed, and I let him out the back door.  In a few minutes he returned to the door to be let back in, but he was carrying something in his mouth.  (Dogs only carry things in their mouths.  But if you don't add that phrase, "in his mouth", the reader just might picture the dog carrying an item in some other way, and I don't want that distraction right now.)  When he stepped inside, I immediately recognized the item as a deer leg, a fresh deer leg with hair and skin and sinew and bone marrow dripping out from the femur.  Crap!  You see, there are often dead deer scattered about the landscape, and this Lab can smell one a mile away, and he loves the smell of deer. 

Zeus was so proud of this prize, but you see my dilemma.  If Management discovers the leg, she will know I let the dog out without a leash, and I will receive a tremendously forceful tongue lashing that I would really prefer to avoid.  If I just throw the leg in the woods near the house, the dog will simply bring it back again the next time I cheat.  Remember:  I didn't buy a poodle that never has to relieve themselves.  I bought a pooping retriever.  This leg will be like a piece of scotch tape that you can't get off your fingers.  Throw away, and retrieve, throw away, and retrieve.

So I put the leg in our kitchen wastebasket under the sink.  And as soon as the bag is a little more full, I will tie it up and take it to the can in the garage.  Zeus knows the leg is in there and I know the leg is in there, but Management is clueless.  Thank goodness she does not have a Lab's nose.  I know that Management thought it weird of me to be anticipating when she wanted to throw some trash in that wastebasket.  I immediately jumped to her side as she wiped her mouth with a napkin and said, "Here, let me throw that away for you."  And that is the way I played it, although I replaced her napkin six times for one bowl of soup.  I know she thought that napkin:soup ratio was a little over the top, but it worked.  I kept her away from the leg-filled wastebasket, and the secret was safe with Zeus and me forever.  Until Zeus returns for another helping of that carcass that is out there, somewhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How a customer in a shopping mall is like a predator-prey system

(A dead caribou calf that was picked off by a J.C. Penney merchant as the calf was passing by the front of the store.)

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable, scintillating, and memorable 3 hours walking around the Crossgates Mall in Albany, NY yesterday (can you hear the sarcasm in my voice?).   As we strolled leisurely along (with me complaining bitterly about wasting my life here, and telling my wife that she is not the boss of me), I felt exactly as I did as a kid when I went to one of those old-time carnivals.  As you walked down the midway, you would invariably pass a "barker" who tried to get you to come inside, and spend a hard-earned dime to see the 2-headed cow, or snake boy, or some other bizarre freak of nature.  I'm always on the lookout for blog topics, so I tried to open my mind and absorb as much of the inane trivia as I could in this super-stimulating environment of lights and sounds and food courts.  And then, as I passed in front of the 177th store out of the 250 shops and restaurants in this giant shopping center, the topic for today's blog came to me.

In behavioral ecology there is a concept called "swamping the predator".  The idea goes like this. In any predator-prey system, there is an evolutionary race going on between the predator that wants to capture the prey and eat it, and the prey that is trying not to be captured and eaten.  One evolutionary strategy for the prey is to give birth to their babies within a short, circumscribed period of time.  The result is that these easy-to-capture baby prey are born en masse; predators can capture them easily, but predators can only capture and eat so many babies during any given day or week.  In addition, with every passing day, the babies are growing larger and faster and, therefore, they soon escape the "window of vulnerability" to the predators.  The result is that a smaller percentage of prey are killed than if they were dribbled out over a longer period of time.  That is, the prey have swamped the predator with overabundance during a short period of time, with the result that more prey survive overall than they would if they had been born a little at a time over a longer period of time.  This model is exactly what caribou do in the presence of wolves.  Any female who gives birth outside of the high-birth period has a much higher probability of losing their calf to wolves than if they had enjoyed the relative protection of the high synchronicity of births by all the other females.

Back to the mall.  The shops are the predators and the people walking around the mall are prey.  And we are susceptible prey.  After all, why would we be meandering around that place like a baby caribou if we did not have cash or credit cards in our pockets and some tendency to want to use some of it?  The shop owners know that and we know that they know it.  And if you are carrying packages from purchases already made, it is like the wolf seeing a limping calf. You are dead meat.  Other merchants know by this sign that you are vulnerable, that you have already deposited your big toe in Victoria's Secret, and that you will likely leave a finger with them next.  We can be consumed by many predators on a single day, at least until we run completely out of money. Bits and pieces of us can be consumed by the insatiable appetite of a dozen different stores in an afternoon.

But this system is different than the wolf-caribou system in a couple of important ways.  First, in the mall, the predator is not mobile; the shop stays where it is located within that building.  It can not run us down and rip the dollars from our pants and purses.  Similarly, we can choose NOT to be prey as long as we want; we can choose NEVER to be prey if that suits us.  So the weapon of the predator in this system is their ability to entice us into their lair with music, sexy displays of underwear in their store window, attractive fragrances emanating from their front door, and well-dressed and attractive young people working as clerks inside.  Once inside, they rely on the persuasiveness of those clerks, large 25% OFF signs next to their merchandise, and cash-back offers if you use a plastic card issued by them.  Second, most of us will be prey, sooner or later, but we get to choose exactly who our predator will be--The Gap, Ruby Tuesday, Best Buy.  And the third difference between the wolf/caribou system and that of the shopping mall/consumer system is this.  When we use our credit card, we are not being eaten today, but we are promising we will allow ourselves to be devoured within 30 days, when the bill comes due.  As Wimpy used to say, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

It is said that the holiday season is a season of giving.  As a behavioral ecologist, I see it as a killing field.  I see the frozen tundra, with dead caribou littering the horizon as far as the eye can see.  I see white snow with random scrawling of red blood dripped around a decorated pine tree.  I hear the howling of wolves and the bleating of baby caribou, and the entire scene scares me to death.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A pretty lousy holiday poem for friends and family

(St. Peter's Square at The Vatican.  Every year at this time crowds gather to hear the annual reading of DrTom's holiday letter or poem.)

It’s time to write this ‘09 letter,
I really have no thyme.
But Robin warned me that I better,
Or else I’ll feel her cryme.

The kids are doing pretty well,
In several states they liiive.
The boys out west, our girl is swell,
So thanks we need to giiive.

Our daughter’s still the only wed,
The boys still play the fieeeld.
But she is happy, so she said,
Her loneliness is heeealed.

Our grandkids are a lively gang,
They like to kiss their mum.
“Am I chopped liver?” loud I sang,
Yes grandpa “you’re a bum”.

My wife still works from dawn to dark,
While I trade stocks, do mayle.
But life’s not really all that stark,
Good times they swiftly sayle.

This season is a jolly one,
It’s full of love and joyz.
But watch you do not eat a ton,
Cholesterol destroyz.

If you want more of Tom’s weird proses,
You need to read his blogggs.
He writes of nature, life, and roses,
Of bird, and bug, and frogggs.

We hope this ditty finds you great,
Your heart, your lungs, your headed.
We wish the same for your best mate,
Whose name we have forgetted.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What does cigar smoking have to do with global warming?

(Cover of Cigar Magazine.)

Recently I experienced a convergence of two of my interests that was totally unexpected. I was catching up on past issues of Cigar Magazine when I came across an article in the summer 2008 issue titled “Secondhand smoke and global warming: More connected than you think?” by James M. Taylor. I could not even imagine how smoking and global climate change could be interrelated, so I read on. Realize that CM is a first rate glossy magazine and, in my opinion, is the best rag on the market about all things cigar.

Although CM is a fine resource for finding ratings on various cigars, the history of the industry, new products on the market, etc., there is always a theme running through its pages critical of anti-smoking legislation and the general problem a cigar smoker has in finding a suitable place to indulge in their most cherished hobby. There is plenty of anti-government, anti-Big Brother, and even anti-medical science between the covers of CM. Anytime a writer for CM finds an ounce of reason to believe that medical science got it wrong—that smoking is not as harmful as claimed or that the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is unfounded—they will articulate their argument as forcefully as they can.

So in Taylor’s piece in CM, he uses the “debate” about climate warming as an analogy for the medical science/anti-smoking issue. Taylor claims that there are more scientists who believe that global warming either does not exist or that it is not caused by humans, and he cites the “Global Climate Change Project” and refers us to the website that hosts this project at Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The site claims to have 31,000 signatures from scientists and other highly-educated people who do not believe in the scientific conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activity. Taylor’s argument is that the media often ignores, exaggerates, or misconstrues the “scientific community” in its reporting to the public. Fair enough. But in this argument, he is claiming that the REAL scientific community with respect to global warming is that group who signed the Petition (rather than the climate scientists who authored and signed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report), and that the media is ignoring the Petition Project group. If the media is ignoring these “real” scientists and telling us that climate change is imminent, the media may also be hyping and exaggerating the claims of medical scientists who tell us that smoking is not healthy. His fear is that such propaganda might result in special restrictions and higher taxes for cigar smokers. But this logic all seems to be a sort of anti-intellectual attitude borne out of fear that we may not like the messenger’s message.

There are many criticisms of the Petition Project and these are well-articulated in an essay blogged by Gary J. Whittenberger on eSkeptic in November 2008. I will not attempt to reiterate the points made by Whittenberger regarding what is wrong with the results of the petition, because that is not the point of this essay. My point is that it is usually difficult for the public to know who the real experts are on some topic, to know who is summarizing the experts’ views accurately to the public, and to distinguish what is truth from what we want the truth to be. Taylor does not want the medical profession to be correct about the harmful effects of smoking or its impact on cigar smokers; if all true and the public takes it seriously, cigar smokers might have to change their smoking behavior even more than they have already. Similarly, many people I talk with in the general public do not want climate scientists to be correct that global warming is caused by human activity because, if true, we might have to change our behavior regarding our energy consumption.

Humans have a proclivity to believe what they want to believe, or to continue to believe what they have always believed. I hypothesize that this tendency is usually adaptive, and that what worked in the past is likely to work in the future. But those days may be over. The earth is strained to capacity and changes occur rapidly now. The future may not look like the recent past at all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Paul Sherman's lesson on giving credit where credit is due

(Professor Paul W. Sherman lecturing DrTom once again about giving credit where credit is due.)

I was reminded by my old friend Paul Sherman just today, that I need to make sure I credit those whose ideas I use in these blogs (P.S. Sherman, pers.comm., 12/10/09).  I was always told to give credit where credit is due (R.P. Gavin (father), summer 1955).  I learned to cite references properly a long time ago (Mrs. S. Gingerich (high school English teacher), fall 1963).  I have always believed that we should do what we would like others to do to us (Christian Bible, spring, long time ago).  So from now on, I am turning over a new leaf (Acer rubrum, Linnaeus), and I will not forsake anyone who contributed an idea, or a dime (Philadelphia mint, Ben Franklin, 1778), to making my blogging (= weblog, and from Wikipedia, "The term "weblog" was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997. The short form, "blog," was coined by Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com in April or May 1999.  Shortly thereafter, Evan Williams at Pyra Labs used "blog" as both a noun and verb ("to blog," meaning "to edit one's weblog or to post to one's weblog") and devised the term "blogger" in connection with Pyra Labs' Blogger product, leading to the popularization of the terms.") a success.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Senescence sucks: The final chapter (part 6)

(An elderly Eskimo on an ice floe in the final days of his life.  I would do this now, but I hate the cold.)

Yesterday, I had my follow-up visit with the doc who did the upper GI endoscopy procedure a few weeks ago.  With his scope he looked around in there and took some biopsies.  Turns out I have eosinophilic esophagitis, a disease only discovered in 1978 at the Mayo Clinic.  Not as bad as it sounds.  It is an accumulation of white blood cells in the esophagus, where they should not be, caused by allergens of some type.  It results in food sticking in that pipe for a few minutes on occasion, which is not pleasant.  Treatment is to shoot a steroid inhalant into the mouth twice a day, and then swallow it.  Do this for six months and then see the doc again.

Then, this afternoon, I finally had the follow-up visit to get the results of the sleep experiment I did a month ago.  Remember those 1,000 pages of data?  As expected, I suffer from sleep apnea.  Treatment is to wear this mask that injects air into your mouth while you sleep, a thingie called a CPAP, which reduces the apnea.  We'll find out soon if it makes me feel young again.

So let's summarize.  I have arthritis between two vertebrae in my lower back, I suffer from peripheral neuropathy (which I have not discussed), I have eosinophilic eosphagitis and a hiatal hernia, I exhibit sleep apnea, and I have high cholesterol.  All of this simply proves my point that as you get older, all sorts of systems and parts of your body deteriorate (= senescence).  (J.F. Fries' classic study in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 lays all of this out beautifully.  Over the past century, average longevity has increased dramatically, primarily due to reduction of juvenile mortality due to infectious disease.  But maximum longevity has not increased and is not likely to do so, even if we eliminated all diseases.  Maximum longevity is about 85, with only 1 in 10,000 persons making it to 100.  Organ dysfunction simply takes over with advancing age, regardless of any disease process.  The goal, therefore, would seem to be as vigorous as possible until the predicted, and inevitable, "terminal drop".)  My list of medical afflictions is probably pretty standard and, fortunately, doesn't include anything really serious.  For example, when I was diagnosed with neuropathy, my neurologist said to me, "Tom, this is not what is going to kill you".  Oh great!  I love surprises.  Cancer, heart attack, Mack truck, step bare-footed on a rusty garden rake, or stray bullet from a deer hunter?  The possibilities are endless.

It is said that the Eskimos put their elderly on an ice floe when they are near death and send it out into the frigid waters.  This could be a rural, snowy myth--not sure.  But I hate the cold.  In the U.S., we spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 1-3 months of life, and then die anyway.  So I have been pondering what would work for me.  When it is obvious that I am on death's door, here is what Management can do to hasten the end inexpensively:

1.  put me in front of a tv and make me watch NFL football for 24 hours straight while eating Lay's plain potato chips; to cut the time in half, turn on Fox News

2.  wheel me into a room full of cell phones, which are all ringing, bonging, and vibrating; to speed up the process, make sure that some of the ringtones include the William Tell Overture or rapping by Eminem

3.  have a dozen students who I haven't heard from in 10 years contact me to write them a letter of recommendation for law school

4.  take me to Cornell, and have me sit-in on faculty meetings in five different departments in the Ag College in one day when they are discussing budget issues

All of those suggestions will bring the end more quickly and save someone a lot of money.  But for the finale to be more peaceful, and more pleasant, please do the following for me.  Place one of my blue canvas folding chairs in my forest under a large red maple, and then leave me alone with a bottle of scotch and a lap full of cigars, and a dog.  Latin music playing in the background would be a nice touch, but that depends on the cost.  Don't be too extravagant.  The music doesn't have to be live.  Dominican cigars, not Cuban.  A cocker spaniel, not a French poodle.  And 12-year old scotch, not 18.  Then I can drift off wondering why I had been such a gall-darned cheapskate all my life.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The culture of science and the theory of evolution

(Young Charles Darwin.  For a great read on his early life and explorations, see "The Voyage of the Beagle".)

I find constantly that the general public doesn’t understand how science works, especially how university scientists do their work. For example, the university pays us a salary, gives us an office, and requires us to teach some courses (that applied to me before I retired). Then, they expect us to develop an active research program, but they usually give us no money to accomplish that. We have to find all of that money from funding agencies by writing research proposals, and this is a very competitive process. The National Science Foundation only funds about 10% of the requests they receive. If you do not develop this research program, you do not get tenure, and you lose your job after about 7 years.

This is relevant to the issue of doing research on evolution, or on any other established theory in science. If one of us could disprove Darwin’s theory, we would become absolutely the most famous biologist of the century. We would undoubtedly win the Nobel Prize for Biology, be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, obtain all the grant money we could ever use, be offered the very best university positions, get the best graduate students and that large corner office---in short, life would be really, really sweet. No one gets rich or famous in science by repeating what is already believed to be true; you make a name for yourself by being the first to come up with something new. Scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief. We go to scientific meetings, and we sit there and say to ourselves: “I know I can do better than that guy”, “I just know he is wrong and I am going to prove it”, “That SOB is full of %4$##”.

But after 150 years, Darwin’s theory still holds. There is almost no working biologist out of 10s of thousands who does not conclude that the theory makes sense, that enormous evidence supports it, and that nothing in biology makes any sense without it. Evolutionary biologists (FYI, I am not even categorized professionally as an evolutionary biologist) argue about mechanisms of natural selection all the time---whether meiotic drive is more important than mutation in bringing about change in species, whether genetic drift is more influential than selection, etc. But the overall theory always wins as the best explanation for the data.

Every so often the creationist community finds someone who will write a pamphlet or small book claiming that evolution can not be true. If they are lucky, they find someone with a Ph.D., but this is never taken seriously by the scientific community, because the arguments contained there are easily refuted. The same goes for arguing about the age of the planet. Thousands of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists have spent their entire lives over the past 300 years or so trying to get the best answer possible to this question, and they arrive at an estimate of about 5 billion years. Are all these people in some giant conspiracy to overthrow creationism? No. They did their work and that is their answer.

One more thing---what does the word “theory” really mean. On the street, we use that term all the time: “I have a theory why the Yankees are doing so poorly”, or “I have a theory why it is raining so much lately”. These are not theories in the scientific sense at all; they are hypotheses, which are of lower rank than a theory. In science, a published theory is a really, really big deal. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on universal gravitation and his laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection are considered as close to facts as we ever get in science. They are comprehensive, well-considered, well-tested, well-argued.

It really is time for creationists to give up their reluctance to acknowledge organic evolution via natural selection as the formative process on this planet. Realize that Darwin’s theory never had anything to say about the very origin of life in the universe. Darwinian evolution is about the process of how life changes once it started; the same process would apply regardless of where in the universe life got started, however. So, I suppose, religious folks could then fall back on the role of their creator in the beginning. There are scientists who believe in the existence of some higher power, and who also believe that life evolved on this planet via natural selection. And that is fine if it gives you solace. What happened at the very beginning of the universe is incomprehensible to me. But then, just a few centuries ago, the fact that there was a large body of land west of Europe before you reach Asia (now called North America) was incomprehensible to almost everyone.

One goal of mine on this portal is to stress the importance of conservation, but another is to introduce evolutionary thinking. This will take some time. It is an extremely powerful tool to use to understand life on this planet, and to understand the behavior of all organisms, including humans. All sorts of human behavior start to make sense (e.g., racism, greed, love, aggression, infidelity, etc.) once you begin analyzing life as a cost/benefit ratio with survival and reproductive fitness as currencies. Once you begin to view the world through this lens, I doubt you will ever go back. It is downright fun!