Tag Archives: science and religion

What Was I Thinking?

The LTEE has run for over 10,000 days and almost 67,000 generations. It’s time to shut it down, as of today.

It’s been a hell of a lot of work, and we have almost nothing to show for it. As some astute commentators have noted around the web, the creatures in the flasks are still just bacteria—creatures, just as they were created.

If you read the first LTEE paper*, you’ll see we predicted the bacteria should become yeast by about 5,000 generations, nematodes at 15,000 generations or so, and fruit flies by 30,000 generations, maybe 35,000 at the outside.

After that, we’d have to stop the experiment anyhow, because we wouldn’t be able to freeze and bring them back alive any longer.

Plus, we’d have to get IRB approval for human experimentation if we ran it much past 50,000 generations.

Well, we’ve given the LTEE all this time, and still … they ’re just bacteria. I guess we’ve proven that Charles Darwin was wrong after all.

As an astute reviewer pointed out when we submitted that first paper, “I feel like a professor giving a poor grade to a good student.”  I should’ve listened and quit way back then. It would’ve saved everyone a lot of time and effort.

Now it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work next week emptying the freezers and autoclaving all those samples.

* Lenski, R. E., M. R. Rose, S. C. Simpson, and S. C. Tadler. 1991. Long-term experimental evolution in Escherichia coli. I. Adaptation and divergence during 2,000 generations. American Naturalist 138: 1315-1341.

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On the Evolution of Citrate Use

Those who follow the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli know that the most dramatic change we have observed to date is the origin of the new ability to grow on citrate. It’s dramatic for several reasons including the fact (external to the LTEE) that E. coli has been historically defined as a species based in part on its inability to grow on citrate in oxic environments and the fact (internal to the LTEE) that it was so difficult for the bacteria to evolve this ability that only one of the populations did so, and that it took over 30,000 generations even though an abundance of citrate has been present in the medium throughout the LTEE. Even after 64,000 generations, only the Ara–3 population has evolved that new ability.

Zachary Blount, formerly a graduate student and now a postdoc in my lab, has spent the last decade studying the evolution of this population and its new ability. His two first-authored papers in PNAS (2008) and Nature (2012) demonstrated, respectively, that (i) the origin of the ability to grow on citrate in the LTEE was contingent on one or more “potentiating” mutations that happened before the “actualizing” mutation that conferred the new function first appeared, and (ii) the actualizing mutation was a physical rearrangement of the DNA that brought together a structural gene, citT, that encodes a transporter and a previously unconnected regulatory region to generate a new module that caused the phenotypic transition to Cit+. These papers presented and discussed much more than these two points, of course, but they are the key findings. More recently, Zack was a coauthor on a paper in eLife (2015) by Erik Quandt, Jeff Barrick, and others that identified two mutations in the gene for citrate synthase—one that potentiated the evolution of citrate utilization, and another that subsequently refined that new function.

So we were keenly interested when we saw a new paper titled “Rapid evolution of citrate utilization by Escherichia coli by direct selection requires citT and dctA” by Dustin Van Hofwegen, Carolyn Hovde, and Scott Minnich. The paper is posted online as an accepted manuscript by the Journal of Bacteriology. What follows here are some overall impressions of their paper that Zack and I put together. We may follow these impressions later with some further analysis and comments.

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Let’s begin by saying that it’s great to see other groups working on interesting systems and problems like the evolution of citrate utilization in E. coli.

Moreover, the actual science that was done and reported looks fine and interesting, though we have a few quibbles with some details that we will overlook for now. By and large, the work confirms many of the findings that were reported in our papers cited above:

(i) the ability to grow on citrate in the presence of oxygen can and does evolve in E. coli (Blount et al., 2008);

(ii) when aerobic growth on citrate evolves, it does not do so quickly and easily (Blount et al., 2008) but instead takes weeks or longer—more on that below;

(iii) all strains that have evolved this new ability have physical rearrangements that involve the citT gene and appear also to involve a so-called “promoter capture” whereby a copy of this transporter-encoding gene acquires a new upstream regulatory region (Blount et al., 2012); and

(iv) genetic context matters—the strain one uses affects the likelihood of evolving the Cit+ function (Blount et al., 2008) and the resulting ability to grow on citrate (Blount et al., 2012; Quandt et al., 2015).

The problem, then, is not with the experiments and data. Rather, the problem is that the results are wrapped in interpretations that are, in our view, flawed and fallacious.

“No new genetic information”

The authors assert repeatedly (last sentence of their Importance statement, and first and last paragraphs of their Discussion) that “no new genetic information evolved.” However, that statement flatly contradicts the fact that in their experiments, and ours, E. coli gained the new ability to grow on citrate in the presence of oxygen. We would further add (which we have not emphasized before) that these Cit+ strains can grow on citrate as a sole carbon source—when E. coli grows anaerobically on citrate, it requires a second substrate for growth in order to use the citrate (a phenomenon called “co-metabolism”).

The claim that “no new genetic information evolved” is based on the fact that the bacteria gained this new ability by rearranging existing structural and regulatory genetic elements. But that’s like saying a new book—say, Darwin’s Origin of Species when it first appeared in 1859—contains no new information, because the text has the same old letters and words that are found in other books.

In an evolutionary context, a genome encodes not just proteins and patterns of expression, but information about the environments where an organism’s ancestors have lived and how to survive and reproduce in those environments by having useful proteins, expressing them under appropriate conditions (but not others), and so on. So when natural selection—that is, differential survival and reproduction—favors bacteria whose genomes have mutations that enable them to grow on citrate, those mutations most certainly provide new and useful information to the bacteria.

That’s how evolution works—it’s not as though new genes and functions somehow appear out of thin air. As the bacterial geneticist and Nobel laureate François Jacob wrote (Science, 1977): “[N]atural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer—a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him, whether it be pieces of string, fragments of wood, or old cardboards; in short, it works like a tinkerer who uses everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.”

To say there’s no new genetic information when a new function has evolved (or even when an existing function has improved) is a red herring that is promulgated by the opponents of evolutionary science. In this regard, it seems relevant to point out that the corresponding author, Scott Minnich, is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and was an expert witness for the losing side that wanted to allow the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution in public schools in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

“Rapid evolution of citrate utilization”

In the title of their paper and throughout, Van Hofwegen et al. emphasize that, in their experiments, E. coli evolved the ability to grow aerobically on citrate much faster than the 30,000 generations and ~15 years that it took in the LTEE. That’s true, but it also obscures three points. First, we already demonstrated in replay experiments that, in the right genetic background and by plating on minimal-citrate agar, Cit+ mutants sometimes arose in a matter of weeks (Blount et al. 2008). Second, rapid evolution of citrate utilization—or any evolution of that function—was not a goal of the LTEE. So while it is interesting that Van Hofwegen et al. have identified genetic contexts and ecological conditions that accelerate the emergence of citrate utilization (as did Blount et al., 2008), that in no way undermines the slowness and rarity of the evolution of this function in the context of the LTEE (or, for that matter, the rarity of Cit+ E. coli in nature and in the lab prior to our work). Third, the fastest time that Van Hofwegen et al. saw for the Cit+ function to emerge was 19 days (from their Table 1), and in most cases it took a month or two. While that’s a lot faster than 15 years, it’s still much longer than typical “direct selections” used by microbiologists where a readily accessible mutation might confer, for example, resistance to an antibiotic after a day or two.

So while we commend the authors’ patience, we do not think the fact that their experiments produced Cit+ bacteria faster than did the LTEE is particularly important, especially since that was not a goal of the LTEE (and since we also produced them much faster in replay experiments). However, in a manner that again suggests an ulterior nonscientific motive, they try to undermine the LTEE as an exemplar of evolution. The final sentence of their paper reads: “A more accurate, albeit controversial, interpretation of the LTEE is that E. coli’s capacity to evolve is more limited than currently assumed.” Alas, their conclusion makes no logical sense. If under the right circumstances the evolution of citrate utilization is more rapid than it is in the LTEE, then that means that E. coli’s capacity to evolve is more powerful—not more limited—than assumed.

“Speciation Event”

To us, one of the most interesting facets of the evolution of the citrate-using E. coli in the LTEE is its implications for our understanding of the evolutionary processes by which new species arise. Part of the reason for this interest—and the one that’s most easily stated in a popular context—is that the inability to grow on citrate is part of the historical definition for E. coli as a species, going back almost a century. But the deeper interest to us lies not in labeling a new species or debating where to draw the line between species—various criteria are used by different scientists, and inevitably there are many cases that lie in grey areas. Rather, as evolutionary biologists, we are most interested in the process of speciation—the ecological and genetic dynamics that lead to changing biological forms that, over time, are more and more like a new species until, eventually, perhaps far in the future, there is no doubt that a new species has evolved.

In short, speciation is not an event. As Ptacek and Hankison (2009, in Evolution: The First Four Billion Years) put it, “[S]peciation is a series of processes, with a beginning stage of initial divergence, a middle stage wherein species-specific characteristics are refined by various forces of evolution, and an end point at which a new species becomes a completely separate evolutionary lineage on its own trajectory of evolutionary change with the potential for extinction or further diversification into new lineages.” We realize that scientists (ourselves included) often use shorthand and jargon instead of writing more carefully and precisely. We have no doubt that one can find solid scientific papers that talk about speciation events; but except for cases that involve hybridization leading to polyploids that are reproductively isolated in a single generation (as sometimes occurs in plants), this is simply an imprecise shorthand.

In our first paper on the citrate-using E. coli that arose in the LTEE, we clearly emphasized that becoming Cit+ was only a first step on the road to possible speciation (Blount et al., 2008). One criterion that many biologists would apply to investigate speciation is whether a later form merely replaced an earlier form (evolution without speciation) or, alternatively, one lineage split into two lineages that then coexisted (incipient speciation). In fact, we showed that, after the new function evolved, the Cit+ and Cit lineages coexisted (and their coexistence was confirmed using genomic data in Blount et al., 2012). We concluded the 2008 paper by asking explicitly: “Will the Cit+ and Cit– lineages eventually become distinct species?” (emphasis added) and discussing how we might assess their ongoing divergence.

By contrast, Van Hofwegen et al. dismiss the idea of speciation out of hand, not only by calling it an event but by treating the issue as though it hinges, literally, on the individual mutations that produced a Cit+ cell. For example, they write: “[B]ecause this adaptation did not generate any new genetic information … generation of E. coli Cit+ phenotypes in our estimation do not warrant consideration as a speciation event.” And in the penultimate sentence of their paper, they say: “[W]e argue that this is not speciation any more than any other regulatory mutant of E. coli.” (We also note that this is a rather bizarre generalization, as though the gain of function that gave access to a new resource is equal in regards to its speciation potential to, say, the loss of regulation of a function that is no longer used by a lineage in its current environment. Both might well be adaptations, but one seems much more likely to begin the process of speciation.)

In conclusion, Van Hofwegen, Hovde, and Minnich have done some interesting experiments that shed further light on the nature of the mutations and ecological conditions that allow E. coli cells to evolve the ability to grow aerobically on citrate, a function that this species cannot ordinarily perform. However, they misunderstand and/or misrepresent the relevance of this system for evolutionary biology in several important respects. 

And the meaning of historical contingency

The paper by Hofwegen et al. is accompanied by a commentary by John Roth and Sophie Maisnier-Patin. Their abstract begins: “Van Hofwegen et al. demonstrate that E. coli rapidly evolves ability to use citrate when long selective periods are provided. This contrasts with the extreme delay (15 years of daily transfers) seen in the long-term evolution experiments of Lenski and coworkers. Their idea of ‘historical contingency’ may require reinterpretation.”

Historical contingency is a complicated notion, but it essentially means that history matters. In Blount et al. (2008), we made it clear what we mean by historical contingency in the context of the evolution of the Cit+ lineage in one of the LTEE populations. Was this an extremely rare event that could have happened at any time? Or did it instead depend on the occurrence of a sequence of events, a particular history, whereby an altered genetic context evolved—a potentiated background—in which this new function could now evolve?

Roth and Maisnier-Patin’s suggestion that our idea of “historical contingency” may require reinterpretation reflects a false dichotomy between historical contingency, on the one hand, and the effects of different selection schemes, on the other. The fact that evolution might be fast and not contingent on genetic background (though the evidence of Van Hofwegen et al. is, at best, ambiguous in this regard) in one set of circumstances has no bearing on whether it is contingent in another set of circumstances. The historical contingency of Cit+ evolution is not mere conjecture. We showed that the evolution of this new function in the LTEE was contingent. In replay experiments, Blount et al. (2008) showed that that the Cit+ trait arises more often in later-generation genetic backgrounds than in the ancestor or early-generation backgrounds. Moreover, Blount et al. (2012) performed genetic manipulations and showed that a high-copy-number plasmid carrying the evolved module that confers the Cit+ function had very different phenotypic effects when put in a Cit clone from the lineage within which Cit+ evolved than when placed in the ancestor or even other late-generation lineages not on the line of descent leading to the emergence of the Cit+ bacteria. In the clone on the line of descent, this module conferred strong, immediate, and consistent growth on citrate. In the other genetic backgrounds, growth on citrate was weak, delayed, and/or inconsistent.

The hypothesis of historical contingency is not mutually exclusive with respect to causal factors of an ecological or genetic nature—it simply says that factors that changed over time were important for the eventual emergence of Cit+. Moreover, historical contingency was invoked and demonstrated in a specific context, namely that of the emergence of Cit+ in the LTEE—it does not mean that the emergence of Cit+ is historically contingent in other experimental contexts, nor for that matter that other changes in the LTEE are historically contingent—in fact, some other evolved changes in the LTEE have been highly predictable and not (or at least not obviously) contingent on prior mutations in the populations (e.g., Woods et al., PNAS, 2006). [For more on historical contingency and the LTEE, you can download a preprint of Zack’s latest paper from his website: Blount, Z. D. A Case Study in Evolutionary Contingency. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.]

Erik Quandt offers this analogy to illustrate our point that contingency depends on context: “It’s kind of like the difference between being an average person attempting to dunk a basketball when all by yourself, with unlimited time, and maybe even with a trampoline versus having to get to the rim in a game with LeBron James and the Cavs playing defense. Just because you can do it by yourself under optimal conditions, does this negate the difficulty of doing it in an NBA game or say anything about the kind of history (training and/or genetics) that you would need for that situation?”

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LTEE lines centered on citrate #11

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Through the Wormhole with Science Communication

As a scientist, I spend a lot of my time trying to communicate subtle ideas and complex results to other scientists who, to a first approximation, share my interests and vocabulary. When I’m not doing that, I also spend a fair bit of time teaching students who are learning about science and, in some cases, trying to become scientists.

But it can be fun and interesting to step outside the usual communication channels by trying to explain our scientific research to people who aren’t scientists or students.

Last fall, I was invited to explain our research on the show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The show’s director Tony Lund spoke with me at length by phone, asking questions about scientific concepts, our work, my personal interests, etc.

Based on our conversation, Tony came up with several ideas for scenes to film, both inside and outside the lab. The people in my lab group organized the props and materials that we would need to film the scenes, and several of them also had cameo roles in the various scenes.

Tony then came to MSU, along with veteran cameraman Max Miller. They spent over 12 hours with me, filming scenes in a studio and the lab, and asking countless questions on and off camera. I was impressed by the combination of creativity and attention to detail they brought to this work. For me, it was both exciting and exhausting.

Tony then had to take the hours of film and edit it all down to just a few minutes, while adding interesting visuals and preparing the script for the distinctive style and perspective of the show’s host and narrator, Morgan Freeman.

You can see the fruit of everyone’s labor here, in this four-minute segment: Evolution is Like Poker.  (Or here on youtube.)

My lab’s portion of the show ran a bit longer than this clip, but this is the bulk of it. A lot of time and effort went into making those few minutes of the show, but I think it was well worth it. I understand the show has over a million viewers, and I hope some of them will have a better understanding of evolution, our place in nature, and the joy of science.

So thanks Tony Lund, Max Miller, Morgan Freeman, Kim Ward in MSU’s communication office, everyone who helped with logistics and production, and all the members of the team, past and present, who have kept the LTEE going … and going … and going.

 

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Science Communication: Where Does the Problem Lie?

When concerns arise about the public’s understanding of science—say, on the efficacy of vaccines vs. their risks—I see many articles, tweets, etc., bemoaning poor scientific communication. Communication involves multiple parties and several steps. The science must be published, discussed widely, explained openly, and eventually stated in terms that non-specialists can understand. It also must be heard—and not merely heard, but fairly considered, carefully weighed, and then accepted, rejected, or put on hold by the intended receiver. That’s not all, of course. There are generally intermediaries—including teachers, reporters, doctors, business interests, politicians, religious leaders, and others—who must also convey the scientific information, but who may block, change, confuse, or distort the message either accidently or deliberately. And none of this is a one-way flow of information. There are multiple voices, and there are feedbacks as questions are asked, answered in new words or with new evidence, and so on. So it’s a complex problem, too complicated for a poll to shed much light. And of course, a poll here will get a highly non-random sample—mostly scientists, students, and others with an interest in science. But perhaps some professional pollster or organization interested in the communication of science can develop a proper poll along these lines (with information about a respondents’ professions, ages, affiliations, etc.), and with proposals about how to improve the situation at the various roadblocks. (Or maybe similar polls already exist. Please feel free to suggest useful references in the comments.) It might also be interesting to run the same poll except with prompts about different issues such as vaccinations, global change, and evolution. So here’s the poll: If you had to say, which one of the following groups shoulders the greatest blame, and thus has the greatest room for improvement, when it comes to the problems of communicating science?

  • Scientists
  • Professional intermediaries such as teachers, reporters, and doctors
  • Other intermediaries such as businesses, politicians, and religious leaders
  • The public

[The image below is from the British Council / BBC World Service site on teaching English. It is shown here under the doctrine of fair use.]

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Infectiously Fun Science

Science is sometimes frustrating. The work is often repetitive and even tedious. It can be hard to explain to our friends and families—and sometimes even to peers—what we’re doing and why we think it’s important and interesting. The current state of the academic job market is terrible.

But science is also often fun. There’s the joy of discovery, which grows out of the quieter excitement of seeing data come together to support or refute an existing idea and, perhaps, to generate a brand-new idea. If we’re lucky, we enjoy the recognition of our peers that comes when a paper is accepted, a grant funded, or a talk well received.

For those of us who study evolution, the frustrations can be magnified by critics and trolls who aren’t interested in evidence or reason, having already closed their minds to even the idea of evolution based on their narrow, literal reading—or, more often, someone else’s reading—of texts written in other languages long before science provided an evidence-based way to understand the world in which we live.

At the same time—and perhaps driven in part by the controversy surrounding evolution and religion—the field of evolution has long been blessed with great writers and speakers who are willing and able to engage the public. Twenty years before he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin had already cemented his place in the public eye with his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle. As a result, the Origin was an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. And while Darwin shied away from speaking in public about his discoveries, Thomas Henry Huxley was a gifted orator who became “Darwin’s Bulldog” in public lectures and debates.

That tradition continues to this day. Some of my favorites include The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Wonderful Life by the late Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, and Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Experts argue about scientific issues, minor and even major, contained in these books. But it’s hard for me to imagine an open-minded reader, someone interested in science and evolution, who would not find these books highly stimulating—even infectious in the sense of wanting to share them and the ideas they contain with others.

And speaking of infectious, new ways of communicating science have burst onto the scene since the printing press. For example …

Baba Brinkman is a rapper who raps about science, literature, public policy, and more. For your scientific enjoyment, here are three of my favorites from The Rap Guide to Evolution:

Performance, Feedback, Revision

Creationist Cousins

I’m A African

Here’s another from The Rap Guide to Human Nature:

Short Term Mating Dance

And here’s a brand-new one—on microbiology and disease—with a cameo appearance by yours truly and three students who work in my lab:

So Infectious

Whether you’re a scientist or not, I hope you’ll agree that these are worth sharing with your students, friends, and families!

[Image source: music.bababrinkman.com/album/the-rap-guide-to-evolution]

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Eppur Si Muove

Over the break, I watched a couple of episodes of The West Wing including one about political attacks on science called Eppur Si Muove.

It reminded me – a lot – of an experience that I had 20 years ago, back in 1995. As in that episode, I received a phone call while at work that began with false praise as a ploy to keep me on the line. I was very upset at the time, and so I immediately wrote about what had happened.

Blogs didn’t exist back then, and so I submitted my essay to Newsweek magazine, which had a one-page feature called “My Turn” that offered the opportunity to reach a large and broad audience. Alas, it was not published. Here it is now:

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Science, Church and State

Today I had a most remarkable, and disturbing, phone call

by Richard E. Lenski

Before I tell you about that call, let me explain why I want to tell you. As a scientist, I know my profession often does an inadequate job of helping the public understand our work and why it is worthy of support. As a United States citizen, I feel compelled to speak out against those increasingly loud voices who denounce science while claiming that only their religious beliefs are the truth.

I am a university professor, and I study the evolution of microorganisms such as bacteria. Bacteria reproduce so quickly that it is possible to study their evolution in the laboratory. The bacteria in my experiments undergo many generations every day, and each small flask holds millions of individuals. Over the course of months and years, my students and I can see actual changes in the physical appearance and genetic makeup of the bacteria. These changes demonstrate the evolutionary principles of randomness – different mutations occurred in different flasks – and adaptation by natural selection, whereby these bacteria became better suited to the environment in the flasks.

A few weeks ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article on our experiments. Today I received a call from a “Washington reporter” who said he had read the article and wanted to talk to me about the effect of Federal budget cuts on science in America. Some of my research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which helps to pay for supplies and wages for student assistants and technicians. I answered his questions about the level of funding (which is public information) and the nature of our research.

The caller suddenly switched gears. He challenged the idea that such research should be supported by the government. He asserted that science is funded by “pork-barrel” politics. In fact, research proposals to the NSF are subjected to rigorous scientific review. Most are rejected; many others are deemed worthwhile but cannot be supported because of limited budgets.

I saw now that the caller had deliberately misrepresented his purpose, but I also knew that this was an important issue. As citizen and taxpayer, he – and you and I – support scientific research. If this research is so important, he argued, why isn’t it supported by private industry? Many companies do support scientific research, especially in medicine, agriculture, and engineering. But a company can only support research that is likely to yield a profit in a short period of time.

Federal agencies, like the NSF, pay for most research that seeks to answer more basic questions. What is the nature of matter? How old is our universe? How do complex organisms develop from a single cell? How do our brains work? How many species are there on our planet? Where did they all come from? Such science is sometimes described as “curiosity driven” and I can attest to that motivation. But curiosity-driven science is also essential to the health of our economy, our bodies and our planet. After all, the discovery of new principles must precede any practical application that uses those principles. Now, for any of you who don’t appreciate curiosity for its own sake, this may seem like a good argument for government funding of some projects, but isn’t evolution just a bit too impractical?

Quite the contrary. Right now, we have very serious problems coping with disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to our antibiotics, and with crop-destroying insects resistant to our pesticides. These resistant organisms pose a real threat and impose a tremendous cost. What’s more, they evolved from chemically-sensitive ancestors within the last few decades! We really do need to learn more about how evolution works.

As I tried to discuss these issues, the caller became more and more belligerent. It was obvious that this “reporter” was not taking pains to write down what I was saying, because he constantly interrupted me. I was concerned that I would be misquoted in anything he might publish. I asked him whether he was taping this phone call – which would be illegal without my consent. But he slickly evaded my question, asking why I wanted to know, etc.

My caller switched gears one more time. He told me that he was a fundamentalist Christian and believed in the absolute and literal truth of the Bible. He then demanded to know my own religious beliefs. I told him it was none of his business! He insisted it was, because tax dollars supported my research. I reminded him of our Constitution’s separation of church and state; he changed the subject again.

The final insult came when this caller told me that I was a “sinner” for my beliefs – despite my insistence that I would talk with him only about my scientific views and not my religious beliefs. At this point, I hung up the phone as he continued his harangue. I realized that I was the recipient of a harassing phone call from the religious right.

Does the physical evidence that the Earth is not at the center of the universe challenge a belief in God? How about the geological evidence that our planet is several billion years old? Or the evidence from both fossils and genes that humans are descended from more primitive forms of life? Such evidence has caused some people to change their religious beliefs, but others feel that these findings are entirely compatible with their religion. Some scientists have even suggested that these discoveries may reveal the beauty and subtlety of the natural universe and its laws as God created them.

Whatever we as individuals may believe, science is concerned only with natural forces in the material universe. Science is incapable of proving or disproving the existence of a supernatural God. In our work as scientists, we assume that what we observe obeys natural laws – and that no supernatural force plays “tricks” with our experiments. This applies to all fields of science, from nuclear physics and inorganic chemistry to molecular genetics and evolutionary biology.

The practice of science does not depend on whether an individual scientist is religious, nor on which religion he or she might choose to accept. For someone to suggest otherwise shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of science as well as a disturbing absence of religious tolerance. The citizens of the United States have prospered greatly because of their scientific enterprise and their tolerance for diverse beliefs. As a nation, we must continue these traditions.

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[Portrait of Galileo Galilei, painted in 1636 by Justus Sustermans. This photographic copy is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.]

Portrait of Galileo

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Valuing Nature

Carl Zimmer has written an excellent piece in the New York Times about a very important study by Robert Costanza et al. on “Changes in the global value of ecosystem services” – in other words, how to place economic value on some of the critical functions that nature provides us for free, and how to quantify the economic fallout when these functions are degraded.

Of course, it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the esthetic aspects of natural ecosystems. And many people see it is a moral imperative to preserve these natural systems for future generations, regardless of their monetary worth.

The Costanza study, though, is based on the fact that natural ecosystems provide us with economic benefits by performing important services that, when diminished, have very real monetary costs in terms of the resulting damages and replacing the services with human-engineered solutions. Alas, many of these ecosystems and services are being rapidly and severely degraded.

Here are three of the several conclusions from Costanza et al., which I’ve taken verbatim from the highlights at the beginning of their article:

  • “Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.”
  • “Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.”
  • “Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.”

That last conclusion reminds me of a similar point that was made by the theologian Philip Hefner in his book The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture and Religion.  Hefner says “… in the situation to which biocultural evolution has brought us … the life not only of the human species, but of the entire planetary ecosystem is made to depend on a great wager going well. This wager is that the cultural systems of information that the co-creator [REL: that’s us humans] fashions will interface with the natural systems and with the global human culture so as to promote survival and a wholesome future.”  Hefner then says “… the wager is not going well. The cultural systems of information are not meshing adequately enough with other systems, and calamity is the prospect.” To prevent calamity, Hefner says we need “… revitalization of our mythic and ritual systems [REL: that is, our religious institutions], in tandem with scientific understandings, so as to reorganize the necessary information. This may help us to put our world together …”

I previously posted that, as a scientist, I could not accept Dr. Hefner’s fusion of science and religion. However, I agree with both Dr. Costanza and Dr. Hefner that our political, cultural, and religious institutions must support the natural ecosystems that provide vital services and valuable public goods to ourselves and to future generations.

Link to Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times

Link to paper by Robert Costanza et al. in the journal Global Environmental Change

Link to my response to Philip Hefner’s Theological Theory of the Created Co-Creator

[The image below is a photomosaic produced by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.]

NASA image of Earth

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