Evolutionary Views

Acceptance of Darwin’s brilliant deduction on evolution as the source of all biological diversity was brought to the world in 1859 with the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Now, almost 160 later, not all are convinced. The problem of accepting, really a matter of understanding, evolution becomes the sharpest when considering human origins.

All religions have their own take on the origin of mankind, and there are thousands of different stories. Abrahamic religions dominate with over half the world’s population and share the story of Adam and Eve. That said, much of modern religious thought sees no intrinsic conflict with evolution, but fundamentalist wings of many religions persist in denying what is obvious to science.

The United States is arguably the most scientific nation in the world based on the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications. Simultaneously, it is one of the more backward nations of the developed world with 4 in 10 adults believing that God created man in his image, with no evolutionary if, ands, or buts.

Besides the religious conflict about human origins is the problem of diversity itself. Who would ever have guessed that a whale is just a proto-cow that wandered back into the sea and decided to stay? Or that today’s chickens are yesterday’s dinosaurs. Many incrementally small changes over long periods of time have created the diversity we see today. We obviously can’t run experiments over billions of years to prove the concept once and for all, but experiments which prove evolution can be done in real time over the course of just a few years.

Johnathan Losos in his book “Improbable Destinies” described two such studies, one with guppies and one with lizards that clearly demonstrate how mutations and natural selection impact diversity.

The guppy study involved different populations of guppies in streams in Trinidad. It was observed that guppies in pools above waterfalls were much more flamboyant with colorful spots compared to guppies living in pools below waterfalls where drabness prevailed. The hypothesis was that the colorful guppies enjoyed an essentially predator free environment. Those below the falls were in pools which contained predators and therefore only the bland survive.

A simple but elegant experiment over the course of four years showed that transferring colorful guppies to a downstream pool free of other guppies but with predators causes the descendants to become much less gaudy and therefore less likely to be preyed upon. Random mutations among the guppies that produced less visible descendants were less likely to attract attention of predators.

The lizard study, actually brown anoles, also employed moving a population from one isolated locale to another. In this study the anoles from one small island were transferred to other small islands some with and some without predators. In a few short seasons, the anoles’ descendants on the islands with predators had shorter legs that allowed more facile movement into the upper branches of shrubs. Predation was the selective pressure, mutations allowed for the variance in leg length.

Real evolutionary morphological changes can be observed in a short time period, so now just imagine what kinds of changes can occur given millions and billions of years with different mutations and different selective pressures.

Charles Darwin (and Alfred Wallace who independently came to the same conclusion as Darwin) were right. We humans are evolutionarily related to every other living thing on the planet.

Democratic Disparities

Real democracy, where everyone gets an equal vote is just not working in the United States. Twice in the last five presidential election cycles we elected a minority president, George W Bush got half-million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and Donald Trump got three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Blame the construction of the electoral college. Each state is allotted a number of electoral votes equal to the sum of the state’s representatives and senators. This means that voters in small states have more electoral “oomph” than those in larger states. Taking an extreme example, the 266,464 registered voters in Wyoming select three electors. Each elector is selected by 88,213 voters. In California on the other hand, 19,411,771 registered voters share fifty-five electoral votes. Here each elector is selected by 352,941 voters. Essentially an individual vote in Wyoming counts four times as much as a vote in California.

The authors of the constitution had several reasons, but the perception now is that using the electoral college to elect the president gives the smaller states protection from domination by the larger states. Perversely, this allows the politics of the people in smaller states to dominate those in the larger states. Further confounding the disparity is the fact that with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, every state uses a winner take all distribution of its electoral votes.

The composition of U.S. Senate is equally undemocratic, with each state having two senators regardless of its population. One California senator represents twenty million people, whereas one in Wyoming only a quarter of a million, an eighty-fold difference in representation! The structure of the Senate came about via what is called the Connecticut Compromise in 1787 during the writing of the Constitution. It gave more power to the less populace states, several of which were slave-holding states in the south.

The House of Representatives, the people’s house, comes the closest to a federal democracy, but even here there is inequity. In 2016, the Republicans garnered 51 percent of the votes cast in the House elections. That earned them over 55 percent of the house seats. This is the result of how district lines are drawn. Gerrymandering, drawing the lines to favor one group over another is alive and well.

Steps can be taken to fix our undemocratic processes. The Supreme Court has yet to rule in a case where partisan gerrymandering has been claimed as the sole reason for the case but they may in the future.

An interesting attempt to solve the problem in the electoral college is in progress. Called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, it would reform the college by a binding agreement between states to award all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It only takes states holding 270 votes in aggregate, for the system to work. Currently, states representing 172 electoral votes, two-thirds of the number needed, have joined the compact. As soon as the requisite 270 votes are secured the compact goes into effect.

Cities, States, Lead the Way

President Trump, with the assistance of our Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, is working to reverse several steps President Obama took to clear the air and reduce the rate of global warming. The result here in Arkansas means dirtier air. Although the main focus of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is reducing greenhouse emissions, an important side benefit is a reduction of pollution that impacts our health.

Burning fossil fuels especially coal releases not only Carbon Dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, but other noxious substances. Particulate matter, acid-forming gasses, toxic heavy metals, and even radioactivity are dumped into the air we breathe. In terms of human health, the fine particles may be the most important. Tiny bits of ash from combustion processes can be inhaled into the lungs. These very small particles penetrate to the deepest reaches of the lungs where they cause irritation and inflammation. This damages lung tissue and makes breathing more difficult.

Luckily for us, president Trump holds a minority position. The rest of the world is working in the opposite direction to limit greenhouse gasses and clear the air. Many corporations other than the fossil fuel industry are working to clean the air because that is what customers demand.

Cities and states are also doing their part. Here in Arkansas, our shining city on the hill has joined an august group in a Sierra Club sponsored program called Ready for 100. Several cities across the country from Santa Barbara, CA to Concord NH, from Minneapolis, MN to Orlando, FL have joined to clean the air.

Fayetteville, by joining the Ready for 100 program, has committed to a goal of producing 100 percent of its energy for governmental operations from clean, sustainable sources by 2030. The commitment from individual cities in the Ready for 100 program vary. For example, Berkeley, CA has committed to 100 percent carbon free energy for all energy used within the municipality – everything including transportation.

Tiny Abita Springs, LA population about 2500 has committed to transitioning to 100 percent of the town’s electricity by 2030. At the other end of the spectrum is Denver, Colorado with a population approaching 3 million. Like little Abita Springs, much larger Denver is committed to 100 percent of the city’s electrical energy from sustainable sources.

At the state level are renewable portfolios which commit a state to a certain level of renewable energy in the state’s mix. Leading the way, and not surprisingly, is California. Legislation recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown commits the state to the production of 100 percent of the state’s energy by 2045. The challenge will be met by a mix of common sources such as wind and solar but also more unique programs such as waste to energy and ocean currents.

This aggressive approach is needed to stimulate research and in so doing, take California to the head of the class in the development of energy resources for the future. Here in much of Arkansas we will stand back and watch the future evolve somewhere else.

Demographic Transitions

Although there can be more than one kind of demographic transition, the most commonly used meaning is for one from higher to lower birth rates. Frequently this transition is described in four states.

The first, or pre-modern stage was the state of the world for most of history. This stage is characterized by high birth rates and generally high but variable death rates. Population growth was slow and governed by the death rate due to pestilence, famine, war and a simple lack of knowledge if disease prevention.

The first change occurred in Western Europe near the end of the 18th century. This time period coincided with industrialization and urbanization. A number of factors including a stabilization of the food supply were in play. Agriculture itself underwent a revolution in understanding like plant breeding, crop rotation, etc. Also important was the advent of new staples such as potatoes and corn. Equally important was the scientific understanding of disease mechanisms. Clean water and sewer systems along with personal hygiene went a long way to lower death rates. During this second stage, birth rates rose while death rates fell, hence more rapid population growth.

Stage three is characterized by a beginning of the fall of birth rates. Again this was first seen in Western Europe, around the end of the 19th century. As society urbanized the need for and actual cost of children changed. Parents saw that a large number of births were no longer necessary to ensure help on the farm and in old age. Child labor laws in urban areas, and the increasing importance of education meant children were also more expensive in the setting of a nuclear family. By the middle of the 20th-century convenient contraceptive technology greatly improved family planning.

The fourth stage is characterized by stability. Birth rates for all the aforementioned reasons are down. Death rates are down due largely to nutrition and health care practices, especially vaccinations. This is the hallmark of the developed world where low birth and death rates greatly moderate population growth and the age distribution shifts to an older average age. The single most important factor, across all cultures, is the education of women. When women are educated they are empowered to seek an independent income and make independent decisions about their family status.

The decrease in the United States has been so successful that the birth rate is now below the replacement rate. When fertility falls below 2.1 births per female, population decline is inevitable. In the US this has been the case for almost 50 years now. So why aren’t we losing population? Migration.

This migration to the United States comes from all over the world but is most obvious among Mexican and Central American populations. People of Hispanic origin, be they citizens or more recent immigrants of variable status represented just over seven percent of the population in 2000. Currently they represent almost seventeen percent.

Whites, which have dominated all aspects of American society have already reached minority/majority status (non-Hispanic whites are outnumbered by all others) in several south and western states. It is predicted that by about 2040 whites will only account for a plurality of citizens.

The takeaway here is that immigration is essential to our survival and if current trends continue our country will be a lot “browner” in the future. This is causing unease and even fear among the diminishing white population.

Electrifying Transportation

As of 2017, the United States regained the position of the world’s top oil producer. We now produce 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude oil. That’s the good news, the bad news is that we consume 20 mmbd. The difference is made up from imports. Dependence on imported oil puts our markets at risk to forces beyond our control. A supply disruption in any overseas market would affect the price of oil here as oil is traded internationally.

As an example, we don’t buy oil from Russia or Iran, but if some or all of their production is taken off the world market, the price we pay for even domestically produced oil will rise. Oil is a fungible commodity and the price is set by international supply and demand.

Virtually all the crude oil we use goes to the manufacture of fuel- gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for transportation. Conflict overseas could cost us dearly at the pump. All our other energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are produced exclusively here in the United States and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of the international markets.

The sensitivity of our transportation system to price fluctuations could be greatly reduced by a rapid conversion to electric powered vehicles because crude oil is not involved in the production of electricity.

Intense research is increasing the efficiency of renewable batteries. At the same time, economies of scale from increased production is lowering the cost. The technology already exists or is in pilot scale production for everything from passenger cars to big rigs like 18-wheelers.

Most automakers are already producing plug-in hybrids. These are really electric vehicles with a limited range, up to 50 miles. They also, however, have small gas engines that act as generators to power the vehicle after the battery charged from the grid is exhausted. Less common but in production are more exotic vehicles like the Tesla or the more mundane Chevrolet Bolt. These vehicles are total electric cars with ranges between charges of over 250 miles. As charging stations are built out, these total electric vehicles will rapidly replace the passenger vehicle fleet.

The production of electric light-duty delivery trucks trails passenger cars but not by much. Fleet delivery vehicles with limited daily range requirement are an ideal market. Daily round trips back to a station house for overnight recharge would actually help the electrical grid, as excess power already exists at night. Ryder Trucks has just ordered hundreds of electric trucks from a start-up company in – where else – California.

Buses for everything from rural schools to urban transportation systems are coming into play. Blue Bird Bus Company is now taking orders for electric buses to be delivered this year.

Most surprising is the advent of all-electric Semis. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X fame is now building prototypes of electric Semis with 80,000 lb Gross Vehicle Weight. These are the industry standard currently fueled by diesel that fills the interstates and move over half the freight in the United States. Tesla’s Semi is designed for a range of 500 miles and a recharge time of half an hour.

Troubled Water – The Buffalo National River

Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to compile a biennial list of impaired bodies of water in the state. A number of physical, chemical and biological parameters gathered by the ADEQ and other participating agencies are used to determine impairment.

Examples include physical impairment such as sediment, chemical impairment from any number of things but likely nutrient overload, and biological impairment such as fecal coliform bacteria. The standard for any given water body is not uniform but depends on the designated use of said water body.

The highest standard involves extraordinary resource waters, drinking water and water where there is primary (swimming) and/or secondary (wading, fishing) human contact. At the other end of the scale would be cooling water for industry. The objective of the standards is always to protect both human health and the environment in the least restrictive way.

Problems occur when these objectives clash. The ADEQ recently released its 2018 draft 303(d) list and for the first time, a section of the Buffalo National River was listed as impaired. A section of our national treasure and a tributary, Big Creek, are impaired due to elevated E. Coli (bacterial contamination) and low Dissolved Oxygen.

Notably, the area of impairment is adjacent to the controversial C&H hog farm. This farrowing operation raises several thousand hogs a year. Although the farm itself is locally owned the hogs are raised under contract with Brazilian giant JBS S.A, the world’s largest processor of beef and pork. The farm generates about two million gallons of feces and urine annually which is temporarily stored in lagoons before being sprayed on surrounding pasture and hay fields.

The farm was originally permitted by the ADEQ in 2012 and controversy was immediate. Opponents of the farm claimed that there was little to no public notice as required by ADEQ regulations. The farm was shortly thereafter sued for failure to conduct a proper Environmental Assessment (AE) as required by the US EPA.

Upon expiration of their initial permit, a renewal was requested. This was denied and to this date, the farm has been allowed to continue operations during their appeal of the permit denial.

The State has taken several steps to study the issue. First was a scientific group, the Big Creek Research and Extension Team, BCRET funded by the Governor’s office. This study was begun by Governor Beebe and continued by Governor Hutchinson.

More recently created is a type of public interest group, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, BBRAC. This ad hoc committee created by Governor Hutchinson is comprised of the heads of several state agencies.

In a considerable irony, this committee which was created for the sole purpose of addressing the clamor surrounding the hog farm, decided not to include the farm in its purview. At the last public meeting of BBRAC, a member of the audience commented that every one in the room was there because of the issue surrounding the hog farm yet the action plan did not address the farm.

The declaration of impairment of a 14-mile segment of the river and an adjacent tributary is a black eye for the state of Arkansas for its failure to protect the watershed of the Nation’s first federally protected river.

Trump, Military at Cross Purposes

Recently, President Trump without acknowledging the actual name of the bill signed into law the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” The omnibus military spending bill outlines how over 700 billion dollars will be spent by the Pentagon. A number of interesting expenditures will address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) which continues the trend begun by President Obama to ready the military for the effects of global warming.

Language in the bill calls attention to sea level rise and the impact on coastal areas of erosion and possible contamination of drinking water via salt intrusion. Currently, the Naval Academy in Maryland is experiencing increased flooding due to storm surges. The bill specifies that for any new military construction in a 100-year floodplain, the design must include an additional two feet above previous base flood elevation.

Also in the bill is concern for the warming Arctic. The rapid warming has created an increased focus on the north pole as a theater of concern. Both China and Russia have shown increased military activity in the area. Whereas Russia has a fleet of twenty-five icebreaker vessels, the US has only two. Six new icebreakers will be funded in the bill.

A recent Pentagon study discusses not only the ravages of sea level rise but also the effects of drought, wildfires, heat stress, and other extreme weather events at US bases here and around the world. Increasing calving of glaciers means an increase threat of icebergs. A warmer climate is increasing the spread of insect disease vectors which will impact military personnel.

At the same time that Congress is funding military concern for AGW, the white house continues to deny. During the 2016 presidential campaign then-candidate Trump famously decried concern for global warming and climate change by calling it a Chinese hoax, cooked up to make us spend money unnecessarily and thereby put us at an economic disadvantage. As president, Trump has acted on his belief by working to roll back regulations meant to address AGW.

President Trump’s position flies in the face of the global scientific consensus. Every scientific body around the world has agreed that AGW is real and needs to be addressed. Every government around the world agrees and has signed on to a collective effort to address AGW, with the singular exception of the world’s largest economy, the United States. Actually, we are signed on, but President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the earliest possible date outlined in the agreement.

The regulations being challenged are meant to reduce the use of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases that contribute to AGW. Regulations include the Energy Star rating system, increasingly strict emissions standards for cars and light trucks, and the Clean Power Plan.

These absurd conflicting interests, military spending to mitigate AGW and President Trump’s actions to aggravate AGW, do harm to our economy and make us look foolish to the rest of the world. Just another day in Trump’s America.

Controlling Carbon

The United States is responsible for over 20 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, essentially Carbon Dioxide. Our 6 billion tons produced annually comes from electricity generation, transportation, and commercial uses of fossil fuels. There are numerous strategies to reduce carbon emissions, the simplest being energy efficiency and the substitution of wind and solar power for burning fossil fuels. Regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions can take several forms.

Carbon emissions can be regulated via a tax. If energy production by burning coal, oil and natural gas becomes more expensive, use of carbon-free energy production will be favored. This is basically a national sales tax on carbon usage. The tax rate on carbon for the desired reduction of carbon emissions is adjustable, raising the tax rate would lower carbon emissions. The income generated from the tax could be used to increase energy efficiency via subsidies, thus lowering costs. Increased transportation costs could be at least partially offset through infrastructure improvements.

Rather than use the income from a carbon tax for public works, the tax could become revenue neutral with a fee and dividend approach. The increased cost of energy to consumers could be offset by an equivalent reduction in income taxes. A negative income tax would ensure that the poor aren’t disproportionately impacted. Alternately the income could be put in a trust fund which then would be returned directly to consumers via a monthly dividend.

Yet another approach to regulating carbon emissions is cap and trade. Basically, the government sets a maximum level of carbon emissions, the cap, then issues permits to emitting industries. The emission permits could be traded on an exchange. If company A wants to expand an emitting activity, they would have to go to the marketplace and buy additional permits. Company B could profit from increased efficiency by selling their unneeded emission permits. Total carbon emissions would be lowered as the maximum emission cap is reduced.

Both a cap and trade mechanism and a carbon tax can be an effective way of lowering carbon emissions as long as they provide a clear economic incentive to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Of the two cap and trade is more complex in its implementation but can better ensure target emission reductions are met.

For cap and trade, the costs are a little murky because that is determined by the trading market.
Carbon taxes are the opposite. The cost is clear but the amount of emissions reduction is iffy.

Some will argue that the government should not be picking winners and losers. This would be a fair argument except not including the external costs of burning fossil fuels gives it an advantage over cleaner alternatives. Added costs to burning fossil fuels can be thought of as a mechanism to include those costs and level the playing field.

The chance of doing anything to slow the train wreck of global warming seems unlikely with the current administration. In fact, just the opposite is occurring. Trump has stated his desire to undo many policies put in place by previous administrations such as fuel efficiency standards, the energy star rating system and President Obama’s clean power plan.

Iceland – Fire and Ice

When it comes to countries with the lowest dependence on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – the hands-down winner is Iceland. Because of abundant rainfall, about 80 inches annually, and considerable topographic relief they are able to produce over twenty percent of there energy needs from hydropower.

More important however is the production of energy from geothermal heat, almost seventy percent of their usage. Much of this is harnessed to generate electricity but a considerable amount of the geothermally produced steam is process heat for industries and for district heating. The steam is delivered to much of the populated portion of the island via underground piping.

The availability of geothermal heat is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms of the energy available, but a curse do to volcanic activity. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The ash cloud disrupted air travel across Europe for several weeks. This was only a nuisance, but even larger eruptions have occurred.

In 924 CE a volcanic eruption was calculated to produce over 700 billion cubic feet of ash and lava. Human life was impacted only slightly as the island was only first settled in the 9th century, so the population was minuscule. Even today, the population is small for a nation, about 350 thousand. Compare that with the population of the urban area in and around Little Rock, Arkansas at over 400 thousand. Two-thirds of the population on this island the size of Ohio is in the capital, Reykjavik.

The most disastrous eruption was the event from June 1783 to February 1784. Rather than an eruption from one point, a volcano, a rift 15 miles long opened up and spewed lava, ash, and toxic gasses such as Sulfur Dioxide and Hydrofluoric acid. Ninety percent of livestock and twenty-five percent of the citizenry died immediately or over the next year due to starvation. Twenty villages were buried under lava.

All the geologic activity is due to Iceland’s straddling both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other at the rate of nearly an inch a year. Tourists can stroll through the rift zone in Thingvellir National Park. You can even scuba dive in a lake with your hands in a narrow crevice, one hand on North America and the other on Eurasia.

On the opposite side of the globe these and the Pacific plate are colliding, one subducting under the other. This type of subduction causes the volcanoes in Alaska to Central America and western South America and earthquakes in both California and Japan.

Iceland, as the name implies is far north in the Atlantic. Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly national capital, a scant two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Considering just how far north it is, the climate is surprisingly moderate.

Along the coast, especially the south, the summertime highs are in the mid-fifties and winter lows only in the upper twenties to low thirties. The ocean current known as the Gulf Stream delivers warmer water from coastal Florida to moderate the climate in this otherwise northerly clime. The interior of the island is as expected, colder. Eleven percent of the interior is covered with glaciers.

Science Denial

The scientific perspective is that global warming is real, it is causing harmful changes to the climate, and it is caused by human activity. A strong majority of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, and most believe that humans are the cause. A disconnect occurs however when Americans are asked about risk. When asked will global warming harm us, that majority gets much more narrow. When asked will global warming harm you personally, all of a sudden the majority disappears.

We know it’s happening and it might impact others but we don’t believe it is a risk to us personally. Like so much else, the political divide over global warming is widening. As time goes on Democrats and to a lesser extent independents are becoming more convinced of global warming while Republicans less so.

Numbers are slowly increasing over time and across the political spectrum that global warming will have an impact in the future. Not surprisingly there is a strong inverse correlation between age and belief in the risk of global warming. Younger generations express much more concern than their elders. Women are more concerned than men, and the more educated express more concern than the less educated.

Denial of scientific evidence has been around since, well, science. Denial is strongest when the evidence challenges a particular worldview. Evolution of life on earth, especially the part about humans, is still denied by a significant minority of the public. A lot of folks learn their religion long before they learn science and among some religions, evolution is anathema.

John Scopes wasn’t prosecuted for teaching the atomic weight of Carbon. He was prosecuted for teaching that humans have an ancestor in common with apes’ ancestors. This has always been misunderstood as humans evolved from apes.

Galileo wasn’t convicted of heresy for showing that gravitational acceleration was constant (his famous dropping of dissimilar sized balls from a tower in his hometown of Piza.) No, his sin was to challenge the orthodoxy of the church about the sun circling the earth. Work with his invention, the telescope, led him to accept and promote the Copernican view of a heliocentric solar system. It took the church over 350 years to admit that he was right.

Reasons for denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) range from simple ignorance to a purposeful deceit. Surely we puny humans can’t have an impact on the global climate (yes we can.) There is no way we could know what the temperature or atmosphere was like millions of years ago (yes we can.)

Slightly more sophisticated, but equally wrong, are some pseudoscientific arguments. One is that volcanoes emit much more Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) than human activities, therefore it isn’t our fault. Nope, humans produce orders of magnitude more. A true, but immaterial statement is that water vapor in the air absorbs more heat than CO2 . The amount of water in the atmosphere is dependent on the temperature hence it is a result, not a cause of warming.

So why all the denial? H L Mencken put it nicely: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”