Thursday, May 18, 2006

Down the other -- scientific ignorance part 2

As I said in a previous posting, scientific ignorance is endemic these days. Moreover it annoys me even more than usual when it comes from some one who identifies themselves with the scientific world.

A month ago, on Earth Day, I had the privilege of being part of a wonderful conference -- the "Campus-Community Partnership for Sustainability Conference." It was held at Berea College, in Berea Kentucky April 21-23. The conference successfully brought together scientists, activists, farmers, architects, planners and other who are deeply concerned about how we can make a transition to a post-Peak Oil world. The term "Peak Oil" was coined by geologist M. King Hubbert more than 50 years ago: "The term Peak Oil refers the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognizing that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion." Hubbert successful predicted that U.S. Oil production would reach its peak (maximum rate of production) in the 1970's. Others have used his methods to make predictions for world wide oil production which vary from 2015 to 2035. The conference which focuses on sustainability (and not the oxymoronic "sustainable development" deplored by many environmentalists) will be repeated again next year, at Eastern Kentucky University.

My comments here in should not be taken in any way as a criticism of the conference itself.

My role, as a sociologist interested in environmental sociology and community, was minimal. I volunteered to moderate a few sessions and some discussion. The topics I choose to moderate where those that about which I had little knowledge with the hope of learning something (which I did). The afternoon session, which will be the focus of this posting, was entitled "Ecological landscapes and 'going native'" by Portia Brown. Ms. Brown is a self educated "native plant consultant, educator and advocate" (as she describes herself in her first prize winning entry in the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro governments 2005 Low Maintenance Landscape Design contest Portia is an engaging speaker, and she had a valuable thesis, that "by embracing the richness of our regional plant communities in our manage landscapes we can reduce fragmentation and build much needed connections between and within the human and natural communities."

But there was something in her presentation that nagged at me, and which illustrates the same kind of scientific ignorance I deplored (in previous post) in novelist Michael Crichton.

Portia began her presentation by asking those in attendance what a "native" plant was. One member of the audience offered the following definition (with out any facetiousness), saying that a "native plant is one that was here before European settlers came to the Americas." Portia suggested that such a definition was not general enough (too specific to North America) and offered instead this definition: " a native plant is one that evolved naturally (without human intervention) and persists naturally in the wild of a particular region."

As I listened to her talk, and thought about it over the intervening weeks, I realized that the audience member's definition far more accurately portrayed the way in which Brown (and many others) actually use the term "native plants" than her own, more "scientific" sounding definition.

The fact of the matter is, that we have no way of knowing whether or not the various grasses and wildflowers, shrubs and trees, that Portia used as examples of native species evolved in situ without human intervention or not. Human beings occupied north American since some 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. Evidence only beginning to be understood thorough today suggests that the populations of humans in the new world in 1400 just prior to the arrival of Europeans were many times greater than previously believed. North America was in all likelihood a fairly densely populated landmass, that was decimated by diseases of European origin before the settling of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Horticulture was practiced though out north America and Agriculture was practiced in various locations.

This definition of "native" is used (although rarely recognized) through out the world. "Native" plants are those that were in existence when Europeans first arrive in Africa, in Asia, and else where in the world. Part of the definitional process is a subtle form of racism. An assumption that no humans other than Europeans had the knowledge and technical capacity to alter the natural world. The less sinister explanation is that we simply have no knowledge of the horticultural practices of humans in regions prior to the occupation by Europeans because most such "indigenous" people had oral rather than written cultures, and the knowledge of those cultures was lost.

Thus Portia Brown considered elderberry with its white fluffy flowers to be "native" and Queen Anne's Lace with similar flowers as not native. But do we know, for a fact, that humans had no role in the propogation and dispersal of elderberry? We do not.

Moreover, Brown's definition which excluded "human intervention" is scientifically specious on another ground. Distinguishing between the role of humans in propogating and dispersing seed and plants across the landscape from the role of other species, seems artificial and arbitrary. Wild roses existed in the Americas before Europeans arrived. Rosa acicularis or prickly rose, is clearly a part of the same biological family as European cultivated roses (and as blackberries and rasberries). According to "Native Americans made medicinal tea from wild roses which was used as a remedy for diarrhea and stomach maladies. They sometimes smoked the inner bark. The Crow used a solution made by boiling rose roots in a compress to reduce swelling. The same solution was drunk for mouth bleeding and gargled as a remedy for tonsillitis and sore throats; vapor from this solution was inhaled for nose bleeding." How did this plant that shares biological ancestors with European plants end up in north American (or vice versa). In all likelihood because of the transport of plant seeds or other germinating matter by animals such as birds.

Plant species arise in one place and seeds, spores, cones, or other means of germination are transported by animals (and the wind) to new places. Birds are frequent distributors of genetic matter. But mammals and other species may help with the disrtribution of edible plants through their feces. From a scientific point of view the difference between the role of human and of other animals is merely a matter of degree, and perhaps intentionality (although not always).

This unscientific distinction between the role of humans animals and the role of other animals in the dispersal of plant species through the world, is frequently accompanied by an equally unscientific view of the landscape as something that is fixed and unchanging that we, humans need to lock into place and protect from any disruptive influences. This mind set worries extensively about the invasion of foreign species that "aggresively" crowd out "native" species. One example in this region is the mimosa tree or silk tree with its long lived prink tasseled flowers. Mimosa is fast growing, and spreads easily. In the past two decades of warmer weather, mimos have spread at the edges of Kentucky forests, generally along roadsides, often claiming the same general niche that dogwood and redbud occupy. In cooler wetter years they die back, and resurge again in warmer drier springs and summers. These trees which originated in central Eurasia, and came to the U.S. as popular ornamental trees. This has earned the mimosa a spot on lists of dangerous and banned foreign species.

But let us consider this more carefully, 20,000 years ago when the last ice age was winding down, the forests of Kentucky were largely arboreal nondeciduous forests. At some point the oaks and maples, sycamores and dogwood that we love so much were "foreign" invaders themselves. What makes that transition "good" and current transitions in forest species "bad"? What ever it is, it is NOT science.

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