Where Have All the Scarecrows Gone?
July 13, 2011
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Evolutionary science, and all other branches of science, are alive and well. But for how much longer?