Science & Nature Archive

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why I Oppose Organic Food

Organics, Just Say NoOrganic food is becoming increasingly popular. The Market Analysis page of the Organic Trade Association describes how organic food sales were $39.1 billion in 2014, nearly 5% of total food sales in the U.S., and up 11.3% from the previous year. It seems that nearly every grocery store now carries organic foods. I can't even find non-organic fresh herbs in my local grocery store.

There are a lot of hyped up claims about the health benefits of organic foods without a whole lot of data to back up those claims. There's also a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually takes to get classified as 'organic' from the USDA. For example, many organic farmers till use pesticides - they're just naturally occurring chemicals as opposed to synthetic ones. You can read about a lot of these issues in a Scientific American article, Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.

But most of that is just hype, and if people are willing to pay extra money for a product that doesn't live up to all its claims, I believe P.T. Barnum may have had something to say about that*. My major problem with organic foods is where they actively cause harm to the environment. A good discussion on organic and conventional crop yields can be found in the entry on the Jayson Lusk blog, Organic vs Conventional Crop Yields. As Lusk points out, most large scale literature reviews find that organic crops on average give yields around 20-25% lower than conventional techniques (there's a lot of variability in that discrepancy depending on the particular crop). And as Lusk further went on to point out, conventional farming will always have an upper hand on organic, because even if some organic techniques are found to be beneficial, conventional farming can always adopt those particular techniques while still having other options that aren't available to organic**.

So, 20-25% lower yieds means that roughly 20-25% more cropland is required. Or to put that a different way, it means 20-25% more habitat destruction. And that's a big deal. Here's an excerpt from the World Wildlife Fund page on Impact of habitat loss on species.

Habitat loss is probably the greatest threat to the variety of life on this planet today.

It is identified as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered").

Increasing food production is a major agent for the conversion of natural habitat into agricultural land.

I know global warming gets most of the attention now as far as environmental disasters, but habitat loss is arguably worse. There are 7 billion people on this planet right now, and that's likely to increase to around 10 billion in the future, if not more. All those people need food, and most of that food has to be grown on farms. We should be doing everything we can to make those farms as productive as possible, minimizing habitat destruction as much as possible. We shouldn't be pushing for farming techniques that make that production 25% worse.

Most people buy organic foods because they want to eat healthy or because they are concerned about the environment and think organics reduce environmental problems. But they've been misled. The health claims aren't backed up, and the environmental impact is far more negative than most people realize.


*Actually, I still do have a problem with it, the same way I do with all false advertising. Organic proponents are pushing claims that aren't backed up by evidence, which is pretty misleading, though they probably believe the claims themselves so it's not exactly dishonest. And the saying about a sucker born every minute wasn't actually made by PT Barnum, but I'm sure he still had something to say about making money off of suckers.

**It reminds me of the passage from Tim Minchin's poem, Storm, "You know what they call “alternative medicine” / That's been proved to work? / Medicine.”"

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Does Evolution Imply the Meaning of Life Is to Reproduce

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and EverythingI've seen quite a few people who seem to think that evolution implies that the meaning or purpose of life is to reproduce. Just Google the phrase, the purpose of life is to reproduce, and you'll find plenty of examples of people proposing or debating this interpretation. Even Scientific American has a blog entry, Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?, which partially supports this view. While that article does recognize that we can have other meanings besides evolutionary ones, it still implies that this evolutionary meaning is real:

So is making babies -- and having genes survive through the generations -- the meaning of life? The answer is yes -- from an evolutionary gene's eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one's gene, such as protecting one's relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective -- individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole -- the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives -- from life as it is actually experienced -- is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

However, I think any interpretation that says the meaning of life is to reproduce is misguided, since it's an answer to a misguided question. Other than meanings we ascribe to ourselves, life has no meaning. Reproducing and leaving copies of our genetics isn't meaning, it's just a description of what happens. When a boulder falls off a cliff, gravity means it will fall. Does that mean the meaning of the boulder was to fall, or is it just that the act of falling is what happens due to gravity?

Or consider a river. Do rivers have a meaning? Do they have a purpose? Sure, they return water to oceans, but that's simply what happens due to water flowing downhill and collecting in the lowest regions. There's no meaning to it. It's just the result of physics.

That's how it is with evolution. Organisms that are more 'fit' in whatever sense that means for their environment have more offspring, which means their genes become more prevalent. But that's no more a meaning or purpose than a river flowing downhill. It's just a description of what happens.

Meaning and purpose only make sense in relation to a conscious entity. Genes are not conscious entities. Nature is not a conscious entity. Evolution is not a conscious entity. So it makes no sense to describe the results of evolutionary processes as having any meaning or purpose. They're simply results.

Image Source: I made it myself. And if you don't get the reference - 42.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Jurassic World's Naked Dinosaurs

Jurassic World LogoThe latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise comes out this weekend, Jurassic World. There's been a lot of talk among dinosaur fans about how this movie isn't putting feathers on the theropods, even though there's pretty convincing evidence that many theropods were covered in feathers. This controversy goes back to 2013 when the director first announced that the dinosaurs would be featherless, and you can read how many dinosaur fans reacted in the comments to a blog entry on National Geographic's Phenomena, A Velociraptor Without Feathers Isn't a Velociraptor.

Nearly all of the comments condemned the director's decision. But, even on a site like that, there were a few people who preferred naked dinosaurs. Here's one example.

You know, this is a MONSTER movie, not a national geographic documentary. A fluffy dinosaur is a lot less scary than a big scaly monster lizard.

Here's another.

Yeah, that's a great argument and everything, but.... I just don't like feathery raptors. A lot of people don't, and a lot of people do, and it just happens that someone who doesn't is in charge of the film. Fandom and reason don't go together for me. If there was another franchise that did feathery raptors, that'd be fine, but a major change, like turning my childhood favorites from tall and scary to chicken sized and fluffy would cause at least a little grumbling. D: And I hope they have more puppets and robotics in 5.

Seriously? Take a look at this picture of a modern day dinosaur (yes, it is). Even though this animal has feathers, it's not cute and fluffy. Really, it's pretty intense, and if it were a bit bigger, it would be terrifying.

Golden Eagle
Image Source: Smashing Photoz

Now, take a look at these two pictures. They're actually both of the same animal. This time, it's a mammal - a bear, in fact. But if the idea's supposed to be that a soft covering makes an animal less scary, then a hairless bear should look scarier. Instead, it looks sickly, and not particularly intimidating at all.

Hairless Spectacled Bear
Image Source: Daily Mail
Spectacled Bear
Image Source: Daily Mail

Finally, here's one last picture. I don't see how someone could say this reconstruction of a dinosaur is less intimidating because it also happens to have feathers.

Feathered Dromaeosaurid
Image Source: Imugr

Actually, before moving on, let me just recommend following that Imugr link. It's an article by someone else peeved at the idea that Jurassic World didn't include feathers, and goes into more detail than this short entry of mine, including some of the evidence for feathered dinosaurs.

I realize Jurassic World is a movie, and there will always be inaccuracies in movies. But still, this one is science fiction, which should be based on, well, science. In fact, that's much of what made the first Jurassic Park movie so good. It was revolutionary in incorporating so much knowledge from the dinosaur Renaissance and depicting dinosaurs in an active way they'd never been seen on screen before. It really did alter the public perception of dinosaurs away from the slow lumbering beasts of yore. Now, with an opportunity to again advance the public perception of dinosaurs with new discoveries since the first movie, they've abandoned that approach and decided to stay stuck in the past. What a shame.

Jurassic World Logo Source: JurassicWorldMovie.com

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wichita Falls' Historic Drought Ended by Historic Flood

The drought in Wichita Falls is over. I'd mentioned the drought on this blog twice before, in 2011 and 2013. This was the worst drought on record for the region. Our reservoirs had dropped down below 25% capacity, and it had even gotten so bad that the city was recycling treated sewer water directly back into the drinking supply (more info: NPR - Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water).

But since weather here seems to always be a case of extremes, the drought went out with a bang, with the wettest month on record for the city, and 'Moderate' flooding that forced evacuations of a few neighborhoods and actually did flood a few houses. We did dodge a bullet, though. The original forecast for Saturday was another big storm that would have dumped a lot more water into our watershed, and would have probably caused a 'Major' flood, exceeding the record high we had back in 2007 (which I also blogged about). Luckily for us, that storm bypassed Wichita Falls, so our flood wasn't near as bad as it could have been.

But you could read about the flood anywhere. The thing that made me want to write this blog post was a small little event in our backyard. Since the last flood, we'd built a deck over the pond in the back. And as the water came up this time, a bunch of spiders and other creepy crawlies got trapped on the deck with nowhere to go, so I took a few photos and a short video. Here's a picture of two spiders facing off to see who gets to keep the high ground (the bigger spider to the right won the face off).

Spiders fighting for high ground during flood
Click to embiggen

And here's a video showing all the critters on the last high spot on the deck, a corner that was just a bit higher than the rest of the deck (I'm not too ashamed at my workmanship - it was only about 3/4" higher than the lowest corner).

But, me being the softy that I am, I couldn't just leave all those spiders to drown. Granted, it looked like they could swim decently, but since most spiders don't have good vision, and I saw a few heading off into deeper water, I wasn't sure how many of them would actually make it to shore. So I went and found a board long enough to make them a little bridge, and laid it across the water for them. It didn't take but a few seconds before the first spider had found the bridge and made its way over, and a lot of other spiders weren't too far behind. I only got a couple pictures of the bridge. Neither was great, and I probably could have gotten some better ones had I taken more, but right after I took those pictures is about the time it dawned on me that all those rescued spiders were now crawling around my bare feet, and I wasn't sure what type of gratitude they'd display.

Anyway, here's the first picture. You can see one spider fairly clearly on the side of the board close to shore, and a couple out of focus spiders on the board farther out in the water.

Spider bridge to rescue spiders trapped by rising flood waters
Click to embiggen

And here's the second picture, looking out towards the end of the bridge. You can see that the high spot's almost covered. There are two almost in focus spiders about halfway across, and a third out of focus just starting the crossing.

Spider bridge to rescue spiders trapped by rising flood waters
Click to embiggen

There was actually one more spot on the deck where I set up a bridge to rescue spiders, but the picture I took of that was no better than the pictures above, so there's no reason to post it. On the little actual bridge that connects the deck to the shore, there were a few weeds and grass sticking out above the water, and the spiders had a whole series of web bridges along those plants. I set up a board that just touched the plants, giving those spiders a thoroughfare to dry land.

All in all, the weekend turned out about as well as could have been hoped for, at least considering the forecast on Saturday morning. The rain filled up our nearly empty reservoirs, and the flood wasn't close to as bad as it could have been. And I managed to save a few little critters.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Belated Darwin Day 2015

Darwin's BirthdayYesterday was Darwin Day. I meant to post something yesterday, but it completely slipped my mind. But since I don't have the time to come up with something original today, I'm just going to repeat, almost word for word, the post I made last year.

To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start." Today is the 206th anniversary of his birth.

While Darwin is well remembered for his work on evolution, one of my favorite quotes of his from The Voyage of the Beagle had nothing to do with science, but was rather a social commentary on his times.

As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

To celebrate Darwin Day, I'm going to provide links to a few of my previous entries. Since I've written too much about evolution to link to every evolution entry, I'm going to limit these links to entries specifically relevant to Darwin or written just for Darwin Day.

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