Monday, May 26, 2014

Nature is Packed with Chemicals and Wants You Dead

OK, maybe that second part is a bit of an overstatement. Only some things in nature want you dead. Hungry polar bears, vultures, freshly-trodden-upon cobras--they have more use for you dead than alive. "Wants you dead" is just so much catchier than saying  "doesn't want to heal you", which is what I'm actually going to talk about. That, and the chemicals. As the title may indicate, this one may be something of a rant. I apologize in advance for this, but sometimes it just can't be helped. I'll try to at least make it entertaining.

All week long, I've been seeing memes like this:

And this:

And they've been eating at me. They (especially the first one) represent two simplistic, starry-eyed myths about nature that simply must die. These myths are:
1. Natural products are "chemical free."
2. Nature is designed to heal us.
The first is entirely, stupendously, howlingly wrong. The second is only mostly (but obviously) wrong. Both of them, I admit, drive me bonkers. Part of the reason, I think, is that I'm much more of a liberal than a conservative, and this thinking seems a little more common among liberals. I hate that, because it's a blow to our credibility; adding to the "starry-eyed, wishful-thinking, self-indulgent liberal" stereotype. Besides, such thinking can be downright dangerous. Anti-vaxxers who think vaccinations are bad because they're "unnatural" have caused outbreaks of whooping cough and measles, often in liberal enclaves like Boulder. It's really quite scary, and it's a direct result of this kind of thinking.

First, the chemicals. A while back I saw a tube of "all natural" sunscreen labeled "Chemical Free." Listed right next to that astounding statement were its main active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium oxide. That's right--this "chemical free" product works by using zinc (chemical symbol Zn, element 30 on the periodic table), titanium (symbol Ti, element 22), and oxygen (symbol O, element 8). Titanium is quite non-toxic, but zinc and oxygen can both kill you at the right doses. Oxygen is an especially dangerous chemical. It tends to rip electrons from other atoms, and is responsible for corrosion and building fires. It even caused the first major worldwide extinction, around 2.4 billion years ago, when bacteria evolved the ability to photosynthesize. Photosynthesis releases oxygen as a by-product, and soon the atmosphere was filling with it, poisoning everthing. Life eventually adapted, as life does, and incorporated the caustic gas into the process of respiration. That's why oxygen is vital for us--our distant ancestors adapted to a massive, global, and all-natural poison.

The people who make "chemical free" sunscreen are simply lying. They know very well that nothing made of ordinary matter (atoms) is chemical free. I don't want to say everything is made of chemicals (light isn't, for example) but every material thing we encounter is. We're made of chemicals, our food is made of chemicals, and the air is made of chemicals. We can't avoid chemicals. We ARE chemicals. The organic strawberries in the meme above aren't just made of "strawberry" for heaven's sake...they're made of chemicals, and a lot of them. That wonderful strawberry smell is the product of a cocktail of scary-sounding chemicals, as the picture below shows (pardon the blurriness, it's the best I could find).

Aldehydes? Terpenes? 5-hydroxy methylfurfural?! Those are can't be natural, can they? Yes, they can. And I'm glad they are, because I love the smell of strawberries.

Of course, people will respond, "Yes, but if all these chemicals are natural, then they can't be bad. It's the artificial chemicals that will get you." And that brings us to the second myth: that nature wants to heal us, or wants us to be healthy. To hear some people tell it, nature is full of herbs, essential oils, and even (among the kookier sorts) crystals that were put on this earth just to heal us.

They almost certainly weren't. If the theory of evolution is true--and it's stood the test of time for over 150 years now--every living thing evolves whatever features help it survive in a tough world. They aren't there to serve a purpose, as you often hear. They're there because they found an evolutionary niche and filled it, by any means necessary. Herbs didn't evolve to heal us, or even to be eaten by herbivores. In fact, most plant compounds with medicinal properties originally evolved as as deterrents; to keep animals from eating them. They can be pretty nasty about it, too. For example, a lovely flower called the California corn lily will cause sheep who eat it to give birth to monstrous, one-eyed lambs.

Looks kind of unnatural, doesn't it? It's not. Because of its effects, the chemical that produces it is called cyclopamine. It turns out that cyclopamine may be useful for treating certain kinds of cancer, and that's wonderful. But here's the crucial thing: California corn lilies don't make cyclopamine to cure cancer. They don't give a damn about us. Most likely, they make it to attack herds of mammals that try to eat them, and horrible attack it is.

Now, it's true that plants have evolved to have certain parts eaten by animals. This usually has to do with sex. Flowers produce nectar so that bees and hummingbirds will visit them, pick up pollen, and then pollinate another flower. But some flowers are "deceitful." They just smell enticing to pollinators, but they don't actually have nectar. Others entice insects with smells and then trap and dissolve them--which can't be a pleasant way to go. Similarly, many fruits are "meant" to be eaten by animals, because they contain seeds the animals will spread, depositing them with a nice little dollop of fertilizer. That's why so many fruits are so tasty.

However, most plants emphatically do not "want" to be completely devoured, and that's why so many of them are poisonous, at least in partially. Tomatoes are delicious, but if you eat the green parts you'll be in trouble. That's not the part with the seeds that need dispersed. Even many common foods today are only edible because they've been selectively bred for centuries. Ancient people in Peru, who first domesticated the potato, had to eat clay to counteract the poisons in the ancestors of today's nourishing Idaho potatoes. Many wild animals do the same thing so they can eat plants that don't want to be eaten. Cassava, which is a staple for many in the tropics, has to be processed extensively to be edible. Otherwise, it's toxic. Wild almonds will straight-up kill you. It's no coincidence that cyanide smells like bitter almonds.

Nature is neither benevolent or malevolent. It just is. What's going to happen in nature happens, regardless of whether it causes joy or suffering. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there's a sign to remind hikers that they can die out there if they aren't careful. It says, "The mountains don't care." It's a good lesson. People think that because nature is so beautiful, and fits together so intricately and well, that it must also be benevolent. It isn't.

As I mentioned above, this should be obvious. Some of the nastiest, most deadly things on earth were produced by nature: arsenic, strychnine, ricin, leprosy, influenza, liver flukes, pinworms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis...the list goes on and on. People somehow manage to ignore all this; plugging their ears and chanting, "La la la, rainbows and herbal remedies, la la la la la." Why? Maybe it's because of the human tendency to see things in simplistic, black-and-white terms. People want to put clear labels on things, to categorize them as all good or all bad, even though most things can be both. Nature contains most things, so nature is obviously both. To steal Walt Whitman's phrase, it is large. It contains multitudes.

That's really my main point here. I'm not saying artifical chemicals are always good, or that nature is always bad. I love nature as much as anyone I know. Some artificial chemicals are very bad. And "natural" foods (by which I mean the small subset of foods we have learned are safe, or made safe through breeding) may be more healthy than foods covered in artificial pesticides and fertilizers (or natural pesticides and fertilizers, for that matter). Those foods are tried and tested, so we know they aren't toxic, at least in normal amounts, to most people. All the chemicals in nature have in some sense stood the test of time. If they're destructive chemicals like oxygen, nature has neutralized or adapted to them. Synthetic chemicals haven't stood the test of time, so there's always the chance that a new chemical will have nasty unintended effects on our health or the environment. Ozone-destroying fluorocarbons are a good example.

So yes, oftentimes natural is better. Artificial chemicals can be more dangerous than natural ones. But sometimes nature kills and artificial chemicals save lives. What we have to do, then, is think about these things in more nuanced terms, and stop saying ludicrous things like, "I only eat chemical-free foods" or "nature wants to heal us." We have to be smarter than that. Mother Nature is beautiful, creative, ancient, and subtle...and will kill you if you don't respect her. Seeing her in simplistic, romanticized terms is not at all respectful, and if we keep doing it--as the anti-vaccination movement is starting to demonstrate--we'll pay a high price.


Further Reading

Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You / Dan Riskin

Wicked Plants / Amy Stewart

Overview of Plant Defenses / Brian Freeman and Gwen Beattie

Saturday, May 24, 2014

To See a World in a Grain of Sand

To see a world in a grain of sand,
  And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
  And eternity in an hour.

- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

This weekend I went camping at Perdido Key, a barrier island straddling the Alabama/Florida border. The eastern end of the key is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, so it's blessedly free of condominiums and crowds. If you walk at least a mile from the last parking spots, you can pitch a tent and sleep right on the beach. It's pretty glorious. The tourist brochures say the beaches there are some of the whitest in the world, and I believe them. It almost looks like snow.

Sitting on that beach made me think of William Blake's poem. Could he have been on a beach when those lines came to him? I imagined him standing there, listening to the waves, letting a handful of sand run through his fingers, and thinking, "To see a world in a grain of sand....that's got a jolly good ring to it!" OK, it probably didn't happen that way, but it's easy to see how such thoughts could occur to someone standing alone on a beach. Something about the seashore skews your perceptions. Time moves in funny ways. You watch the waves rolling in rhythmically... unceasingly...and you do feel like you can glimpse eternity in an hour. There's a sense that the waves have been rolling in forever. And, by human standards, they pretty much have. They were crashing on shorelines when the earth was still raw and lifeless, and they have been ever since.

Of course, William Blake probably wasn't thinking in terms of geologic time. In his day, scientists were just starting to realize how ancient the earth really is. Besides, he had an uneasy relationship with science. He hated the thought that a narrow scientific view of the world would usurp other ways of knowing, and expressed those worries in these famous lines:
May God us keep
From single vision, and Newton's sleep.
Blake believed there were some things science would never capture, and I think he was right. But I also think he was wrong to be so suspicious of Newton's approach. Blake talked about opening "the doors of perception" And he did, with his poetry and art. That's one approach, and an essential one. But science is essential, too. It can also expand our vision. Science reveals that Blake was right in ways he may not have realized. You really can see a world in a grain of sand, and science offers one way to see it.

Consider the white sand grains that form the beaches at Perdido Key. When I went there this weekend, I didn't know much about the geology of beaches, so I had a shallow, impoverished sense of the place, at least intellectually speaking. All I could do was think: Here's a beach, and it sure does have some white sand. Gosh.

I didn't know why the sand is so white, or how the beach got there. Did it form from bedrock somewhere down below, or did it come from somewhere else? What's it made of? Coral? Limestone? I didn't know. Now that I've learned something about it, my view of the place is both broader and deeper. I can connect the sand grains on that beach to epic tectonic processes that shaped the face of the entire earth. Even more epic are the timescales involved, in which mountain ranges rise and slowly crumble...and then rise and crumble again. Those are the worlds I can now see in those grains of sand, and all I had to do was some reading.

Sands of Time

So, where did that sand come from? Let's start on smaller scales, and work up to the epic ones. The sand at Perdido Key, and all along that part of the Gulf Coast, originated as quartz grains in rocks hundreds of miles away, in the Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia. As the rocks eroded, sand washed down the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers to the Apalachicola River, which enters the Gulf about 180 miles east of Perdido Key. Longshore currents in that part of the Florida Panhandle flow from east to west, so the sand has washed eastward all the way to Alabama.

The sand is white because it's almost pure quartz. Quartz is common in sand around the world, but it's usually mixed with other minerals from its parent rock. Those minerals aren't as tough as quartz (few things are) so they break down, leaving just the quartz grains behind. The Apalachicola River hasn't brought fresh sand all the way to the Gulf for several thousand years (because of glaciers and changing sea levels, but I'm not getting into all that here.) The sand in the area has been churned by waves until all the grains besides quartz (and some coral and shell fragments) have been ground to silt and washed out to sea.

Now let's expand the world of those sand grains a little more. Why was all that quartz in the north Georgia hills in the first place? The answer takes us much farther back in geologic history, and requires a wider, more global perspective. The quartz was first formed when two tectonic plates crashed together.When that happens, one of them is forced under the other, and plunges into the earth. The heat and pressure down there cause it to melt into magma, which then starts to rise back toward the surface. Most quartz is formed in magma that doesn't make it all the way up. It cools slowly underground, allowing various minerals to form large crystals, which interlock together to form igneous rocks; usually granite.

Quartz lasts a very long time, so a piece of it in an igneous rock may be starting a journey through a whole sequence of different rocks and environments. For example, a bit of quartz might form in granite deep underground, then be lifted by tectonic processes as part of a mountain range. The heat and pressure may turn the granite into a metamorphic rock like gneiss, but the quartz will still be there. As soon as the mountain range starts forming, it starts weathering away. Now our piece of quartz weathers out of the mountain rocks and is washed down a river to the coast, where it joins countless other grains of sand deposited on the beach and seafloor. But that's not the end of the story. All that sand can eventually turn into sandstone, which may reenter the rock cycle. Tectonic collisions can into another mountain range, where it may remain relatively unchanged, or it may be pressure-cooked into metamorphic rock like quartzite. Either way, if it's near the surface in those mountains, it will eventually weather out and head for the sea again. Some quartz grains have passed through multiple cycles like this. Quartz is tough stuff.

The ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks of northern Georgia have just this kind of story. Some of the metamorphic rocks there can be traced back over a billion years. That's when they formed from earlier sedimentary rock (made of sediment some earlier, forgotten highlands.) They were metamorphosed when the edge of what would become North America collided with another continent, suturing the two together in a mountain range in an event called the Grenville Orogeny. New rock formed as magma rose toward the surface and froze into great granite structures called plutons. Stone Mountain, outside of Atlanta, is the top of a pluton, though it's a younger one.

Around 700 million years ago, the continent started to tear apart, and the rift turned into the Iapetus Ocean (the Atlantic Ocean was named after Atlas. In Greek myth Iapetus was Atlas's father.) Iapetus lasted about two hundred million years, and then closed again, as the continents coalesced into the supercontinent Pangaea. Their slow-but-mighty collisions resulting in a series of mountain-building events which created the ancestral Appalachian mountains, as well as mountains as far away as Scotland and Morocco.

Pangaea had a good long run, but it began to break up about 175 million years ago. North America went out on its own as the Atlantic Ocean began to form. The ancestral Appalachians eroded into a flat plain, leaving only their hard rock roots below the surface. Finally, just a few million years ago, the area was uplifted again. Rivers cut deeper into the ancient rocks in the Appalachians and Piedmont, and began carrying more sand from those rocks toward the coasts.

The sediments that form the area around Perdido Key are all less than 3 million years old (a mere 30,000 centuries), but they're composed of particles of rocks far more ancient than that; ancient enough to have seen oceans and mountain ranges come and go.

Many Worlds

That's the kind of vast and ancient world science can show us in a grain of sand. Science allows us to see beyond the surface of nature and get a glimpse of its true breadth and depth. It doesn't subtract from the beauty of nature, or art, or poetry. It enlarges it. It only subtracts if we forget there are other ways of engaging with the world, and see it in exclusively scientific terms. The trick (and I admit it can be tricky) is to avoid any kind of "single vision," including William Blake's, and leave your mind open enough to see the world in multiple ways at the same time.

But not, as they saying goes, so open that your brains fall out. Not any point of view is valid. If you believe mermaids exist in the physical world, and not just in myth and literature, science is going to disappoint you. Mythology shouldn't be mistaken for science, and vice versa, any more than a hammer should be mistaken for a saw. The two have different functions.

The function of science, as I see it, is to help us describe and understand the world intellectually. But there's clearly more to life than that. For example, if you had never tasted honey, I could spend all day telling you how bees make it, and what its chemical makeup is, but you wouldn't really know what it tastes like until you tried some.

Explanation can't replace experience. These are also two different things, and they only conflict if we think one can replace the other. William Blake didn't have geology in mind when he talked about seeing a world in a grain of sand. He was talking about experience, not explanation. Both are essential, and they can even compliment each other. They certainly do for me--my experience of nature gets more profound and moving as I learn more about how science can explain nature. I loved the experience of going to the beach before I learned anything about beach geology, and now I'll love it even more, because I understand it better. The two worlds enlarge each other. And a grain of sand can hold more worlds than one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Gay Marriage and the Tyranny of the Majority: Why Judge Piazza was Right

I'm not usually a very emotional guy, but last night I might have gotten something in my eye for a second when a friend of mine from college--who bravely came out as gay while in college in a conservative part of Arkansas, in a more conservative time--posted a picture of himself and his longtime partner, and their new marriage certificate. They looked really, really, really happy. I'm sure they never expected to be able to get married this soon in Arkansas. The reason they could is that Judge Chris Piazza ruled that two anti-gay marriage laws in Arkansas--Act 144 of 1997 and Amendment 83--were unconstitutional. He didn't issue any sort of stay on this ruling, so couples started getting married the very next day in Eureka Springs. My friend got married in Little Rock on Monday.

Needless to say, Judge Piazza's decision has been controversial. Seventy-five percent of voters voted for Amendment 83, a ballot initiative outlawing gay marriage and providing that same sex couples shouldn't have legal status even "substantially similar" to marriage. I was actually in Arkansas in 2004, and was recruited to count votes on the night of that election. I remember counting vote after vote for the amendment, and very few against it. Most people in Arkansas simply did not want gay couples to have the same kind of rights and recognition straight couples do. The majority of them still don't. According to polls, between 50 and 63 percent of Arkansans still actively oppose gay marriage.

So, people are outraged that Judge Piazza is going against the wishes of the majority of Arkansans. Some people, including former governor Mike Huckabee, have even called for his impeachment. Piazza was well aware of the gravity and potential controversy of his ruling, saying, "The issues presented in the case at bar are of epic constitutional dimensions-the charge is to reconcile the ancient view of marriage as between one man and one woman, held by most citizens of this and many other states, against a small, politically unpopular group of same-sex couples who seek to be afforded that same right to marry." He also noted, "The court is not unmindful of the criticism that judges should not be super legislators. However, the issue at hand is the fundamental right to marry being denied to an unpopular minority. Our judiciary has failed such groups in the past."

Indeed they have. Dred Scott, anyone? Plessy v. Ferguson? At the lower court level, in 1959 a Virginia judge sentenced Mildred and Richard Loving to one year in prison for violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Mildred was black and Richard was white. In his ruling, the judge said, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court overruled the earlier judgment in Loving v. Virginia, and ruled that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional and illegal. And here's the thing: at the time of the Supreme Court's ruling, about 73% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage--an even higher percentage than the the number of Arkansans that disapprove of gay marriage now.

So here's my question: if you think Judge Piazza shouldn't be able to override majority opinion in Arkansas and declare gay marriage legal, do you also think the Supreme Court shouldn't have been able to override majority opinion and declare interracial marriage legal in 1967?

Admittedly, the two issues aren't identical. Same-sex marriage is not the same as interracial marriage. But they are similar. In both cases, we have people appealing to tradition, religion, and notions of "purity" (purity of race in the first case, and marriage in the second) to say they're justified in telling people who they can and can't marry.)* I believe that in both cases, they are discriminating against people for something they have no control over. I had no more control over my sexual orientation than the color of my skin, and I don't see why it should be any different for gay people. People disagree, obviously, but I find that most of them have never actually asked a gay person whether they had a choice. I've asked many of them, and most of them say it wasn't a choice. Why would they chose the kind of heartache and discrimination they've had to face?

As for the constitutional issues at hand, they seem pretty much identical to me: does the Constitution protect minority rights against majority rule, and can judges go against majority rule to protect minority rights? The answers are "yes" and "yes" at least in some cases. In the particular case of gay marriage, even the members of the Supreme Court disagree. But it's clear that part of the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and later amendments like the 13th, 14th, and 19th, is to protect people's rights, despite what the majority want. Groups of people can tyranize minorities just as much as individual tyrants can.

As for exactly how majority rule is balanced against minority rights in constitutional law, I can't claim to truly understand that. I've been reading about things like the Equal Protection Clause, substantive due process, and suspect classes, and I don't quite have my head around them yet. But I do know there are times when it's perfectly legitimate for judges to overrule the will of the majority. And you agree with me, unless you think the Supreme Court should not have overruled popular laws against interracial marriage until the late 1980's, which is when the majority of Americans stopped disapproving of it (or until the majority of people in each state stopped disapproving of it, and I don't even want to know when that happened in some states). So, the question is not whether a judge can overrule the majority, but whether he can in this case. 

I think he can and should have. It was the right thing to do. People were being discriminated against and denied equal rights (mostly on the basis of one interpretation of one religion, which brings up 1st Amendment issues as well equality and civil rights issues.) For most people, marriage is an essential part of the pursuit of happiness--a right that is guaranteed by both the Arkansas and United States Constitutions. My friends who were married last night were just pursuing their own happiness, and they look for all the world to have found it. I would be concerned if Judge Piazza's decision narrowed the scope of liberty. But it's not--it expands it. If the majority wants to limit people's liberty, he had every right to tell them they don't get to. The whole point of having a democracy is to protect people's rights, not to take them away.

* No, I don't think everyone against gay marriage for religious reasons is also a racist. Though some of them are. I know that, because I know them.

Judge Piazza's ruling

Gallup Polls on Marriage

Source for polls on gay marriage in Arkansas

Friday, May 9, 2014

Praying in Public

Norman Rockwell. Do Unto Others (click for credits)
By now people who follow such things have heard the outcome of the Greece v. Galloway case. The town of Greece, New York can continue opening its board meetings with prayers, even though most of those prayers over the years have been explicitly Christian--something many of the citizens of Greece are not. The handful of people who read this blog can guess what my humble little opinion will be--it was a bad decision. This is a religiously diverse country. Millions of Americans are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Sikhs, while millions more are non-religious. City board meetings are representative assemblies of citizens, so it seems to me that their official proceedings should be, you know, representative.

There's just no way to have an official prayer that represents all creeds. You could rotate them, I suppose, having citizens of all the faiths in a town open meetings with prayers in their own faith. But that leaves out non-religious people, and it's sure to cause controversy. Imagine what's going to happen if a local Muslim doctor in a small town in West Virginia asks to open a council meeting with a prayer invoking Muhammad as God's prophet. It's not going to go over well. Better, I think, to just leave the prayers outside of government functions. People should be able to pray as often and as loudly as they want--just not as a part of an official government proceeding. By all means, pray all day long if you want to, just don't ask people who don't share your beliefs to stand up and pray with you.

Still, I realize there are bigger issues in the world than this one. Barrel bombs are dropping on children in Syria. Governments are killing people with drones. This is not an issue that will (likely) cause people to lose their lives, their livelihoods, or their freedom. In terms of church/state issues in particular, I can't get as worked up about this as I can about enforced school prayer, creationism in public schools, or religiously-based discrimination against gays (which does dramatically impact people's lives). Also, I know the stereotype a lot of people have about those who object to official prayers--they're seen as whiny liberals who want to impose their weird minority believes on the Christian minority. "Butthurt" is the lovely term I keep hearing. Obviously, I don't agree with that stereotype, but part of me thinks it would be better to save our objections for the bigger church/state issues. Is fighting against official Christian prayers, especially in places where the majority of people will be against you, worth the ill will it generates? Tough question. I know I prefer persuasion, whenever it's an option. Hence this post.

Anyway, even though I'm not religious, but I've stood and bowed my head for many Christian prayers at government functions. Not long ago, Senator David Vitter organized a town hall meeting where I live in Louisiana. At the beginning, he said something like, "First let's all get in the right frame of mind by having a prayer." Then we all bowed our heads, as a member of the local parish council (who seems like a very nice person) said a prayer that ended with, "in Jesus' name we pray." I looked around afterward and wondered how many other non-Christians were in that room. Probably not many, honestly. Out of 250 or so people in south Louisiana--mostly very pro-Vitter--I wouldn't think there were more than a handful of non-Christians. But I also bet I wasn't the only one. I know there are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist Americans in town, even I didn't recognize them in the meeting. Could it be that they didn't quite feel welcome?

As for me, I can handle going along with a public prayer, though I don't particularly like the assumption that I agree with it. It's not like I think I'm "cheating on" my own religion--I don't have one. Besides, if I had objected to that prayer, in that atmosphere, I might have left on a stretcher. But what about people of other religions? Imagine being a Jew in that meeting (and we do have Jewish citizens here). How would you feel if you were asked to stand and participate in a prayer that ended with "in Jesus name we pray?" You would think, "But we don't pray in Jesus' name. If we did we would be Christians, not Jews." Or if it's hard to imagine being non-Christian, let's say the shoe were on the other foot, and you were a Christian in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Would you be OK with standing and participating in a Jewish prayer? How about a Hindu or Muslim prayer?

In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." Do you want to be asked to pray in a religion besides your own? Is that what you would want others to do unto you? Just before that verse, in Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." What would Jesus have thought of official prayers in a pluralistic nation? I don't know, and I know we church/state advocates love to quote Matthew 6:5-6, whether we're Christians or not. But it's a question worth considering. Besides, he did say it.

As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, asking people to participate in other people's prayers at goverment meetings puts them in an awkward position. Very often, they've come to ask for something. For example, I live on a street full of children, but people are always driving through here like they're practicing for NASCAR. I truly worry that someone is going to get run over. What if I went to a council meeting and asked that speed bumps be installed? Would it be a good idea to remain seated, head up and eyes open, during the prayer, before I asked for those speed bumps? It's easy to imagine being voted down just because a couple of council members peaked at me during the prayer, and didn't like what they saw. It's even easier to imagine if you were obviously "different"--if I looked Middle Eastern, for example, or spoke with a non-English accent. Of course, most people wouldn't let that affect their vote, but we all know some would. So, people who feel they're violating their own faith by participating in a prayer have a tough choice--go with your conscience and abstain...and risk retaliation? Or sit quietly, feeling like a traitor to your faith? Not an easy choice to make. And not one that any American citizen should be asked to make.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Under the Seas of Arkansas

Modern Crinoid,
Gulf of Mexico (click for photo credit)
Finding a fossil in the wild is one of the most profound encounters you can have with nature. It makes abstract theory real in a way no book or museum ever will. You can read all day about how dinosaurs once roamed the area. You can go to the museum and see the displays about oceans that once covered the dry land under your feet. But it's all secondhand. It doesn't seem real until you get out in the country, away from the books and museums, and dig the bones of an ancient, wild creature out of a cliff face. That's when you feel in your own bones that it's real. It's not just in books written by people with too many letters after their names. It happened right here, way out in the middle of nowhere; back when the whole world was wild.

I grew up reading those books about fossils and ancient seas, and tromping around the cliffs and creeks near my parents' house, which is on a cliff in the Arkansas Ozarks. I had a vague understanding that the sandstone in the cliff was once the coastal sand of a vanished sea. But it never quite seemed real. I never truly connected the landscape around me with what I was reading until I decided to go fossil hunting. I got in my car and headed about 20 miles north, to a valley near Leslie, Arkansas. I pulled over to the side of Highway 65, and walked over to a line of cliffs along the road, at the base of a noble little hill called Chicken Wilson Knob. 

I had passed those cliffs hundreds of times before, on the way to my grandparents' house up the road in Marshall. It's a beautiful spot. In wet weather, springs gush from holes in the cliff face. Sometimes in the winter they freeze into beautiful ice cascades. But this was summer, so I picked my way through the kudzu, keeping an eye out for copperheads, until I found a streak of crumbling shale between two layers of limestone. Sifting through the debris, it was no time at all before I found my first fossil. It looked vaguely like a piece of petrified bamboo, about as big around as a broom handle. It was sticking about six inches out of the rocks, with the other end disappearing into the hard-packed shale deeper in the cliff. I tried to dig it out, but I ended up breaking off the part that protruded. The other end is still in that cliff, for all I know. 

Fossil Crinoids from Indiana / Indiana State Museum
I had found the stalk of a large crinoid; also known as a sea lilly. Sea lillies still exist today. They do look like big, exotic flowers, but they're actually animals that spend most of their lives fixed in place at the bottom of the sea. And I had just dug one out of a cliff in the middle of Arkansas, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast. That's when it really hit me that all that stuff in the books wasn't just dreamed up by eggheads in universities--it really happened, right where I was standing, in the middle of rural Arkansas, by the highway that takes people to Branson. 

That crinoid had lived right where I was standing; at the bottom of a shallow Arkansas sea, roughly 320 million years ago. That's where it died, was buried, and slowly turned to stone. Rather a lot has happened since then. At first, more layers of muck, composed mostly of the carbonate shells of tiny sea creatures, built up and turned to limestone. Eventually, higher land rose to the north and east. As it eroded and washed into the area, it formed rivers, deltas, swamps, and beaches. The mud from the highlands turned to shale and the sand turned to sandstone--some of which forms the caprock cliffs of the southern Ozarks. The southern continent of Gondwana slowly crashed into what would become North America, buckling the old sea floor into the Ouachita Mountains to the south, and raising Ozarks as a plateau. For the next 300 million years, the area would be dry land. The dinosaurs evolved, ruled the land for ages, and then vanished. Birds, mammals, and flowers spread over the landscape. Continental glaciers came and went (though they never got this far south.) The ancestors of Native Americans migrated from east Asia after the last glacial cycle, about 100 lifetimes ago. Europeans came and spread through the hills, founding the town of Leslie. When Highway 65 was built, they dynamited the cliffs along Cove Creek, exposing that sea creature that lived so long ago. And then I came along and broke it.

I've hunted for fossils off and on since then, but I've always been more careful, and try not to disturb things too much. Now I know some of the most important fossils are unrecognizable in the field to anyone but professional fossil hunters. I started thinking I might break or displace some ancient fish that could have transformed our understanding of evolution, if I had just left it alone and let someone find it who knew what they were doing. Yesterday, I realized just how real that possibility was. I had been hearing about a fossil that's changing the way scientists think about shark evolution. Modern sharks, it seems, aren't the living fossils they're often made out to be. They're highly modified from their ancient ancestors, who had a very different jaw structure, as shown by the new fossil that was making the news a couple weeks ago. Reading up on Arkansas geology yesterday, I saw where the fossil had been found: Leslie, Arkansas. 

It was just a few miles up the road from my crinoid, in a slightly older layer of rocks (the Fayetteville Shale, which is currently being "fracked" to extract its natural gas.) What's most striking about photos of the fossil is how ordinary it looks. It's just another rock, at least to the untrained eyed. The paleontologists studying it had to use high intensity x-ray scanning at the European Synchrotron to see the shark skull inside. I could have picked it up, peered at it, and tossed it aside, or worse, taken it home as a curiosity. Similar things have happened many times, I'm sure. I hate to think how many missing sections in the tree of life are sitting in a box in the back of someone's closet. 

Anyway, these days I'm more careful about fossil hunting (or I would be if I didn't live in a swamp with no rocks at all). Usually I just leave them for someone else to find. Maybe they will know what they're doing, and will know if it happens to be an important find. Or maybe someone like my younger self will find it; someone who's read the books and learned the theories, but never seen for themselves that they were true.