Selenium was in the news this evening. There may be dubious handling of scientific data and reports by officials in the federal government to allow environmental levels of selenium that are unhealthy for humans but healthy for the captains of industry. The dubious handling of scientific data is becoming a hallmark of the Bush administration.
Coincidentally, I called this morning just after they opened Adams and Adams bookstore in Laramie, Wyoming, to order a classic monograph on selenium. This is Sam Trelease and Orville Beath’s Selenium: Its Geological Occurrence and its Biological Effects in Relation to Botany, Chemistry, Agriculture, Nutrition, and Medicine. The book was a vanity publication of the authors in 1949. The copy I ordered was $7.00 and in very fine condition—I shall treasure it.
Selenium came into my house several years ago when there was a telephone call in the early evening. The sheriff at the other end of the line announced himself to my companion, and, when the sheriff asked for me, I could see in my companion’s eyes the dread of my impending arrest for heinous murder. . . no, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a vomiting child in the emergency room of a local hospital. The child was thought to have eaten a plant while playing in a meadow. The child’s physician had diagnosed selenium poisoning and wanted to know the identity of the plant. The sheriff wanted me to call the physician. He FAXed to me a photocopied image of the plant, and I verified that it was Thermopsis. A poisonous plant book in the herbarium confirmed that it was a selenophile. Fortunately, the child had eaten little of the plant and suffered only a riled stomach.
Some plants tolerate soils that have relatively high levels of selenium and, like Thermopsis, can accumulate the element in their tissues. The locoweeds are notorious selenophiles, and, after a day of collecting a few, the back of my truck will have the demented metallic smell of selenium.
The stance and elegance of fritillarias take me to the dancers of Edgar Degas, who painted and drew in pastel ballet dancers at the barre and in performance through most of his career and intensively so in the 1890s. The compositions of dancers move like waves up legs and down arms, across the line of a torso to the curve of another’s skirt, which ends in the curled dancer’s body at the orange highlights of her hair. The dancers of Degas have the rhythm of repeated arms, less Shiva-like than simply musical. The leaves of Fritillaria pudica can have that same rhythm, but it’s the nod of the flower that reflects the dramatically composed dancer’s head and the flare of the perianth that mirrors the bell of her skirt. The perianth of Fritillaria pudica draws me especially to Degas’s dancers—the yellow and orange are the highlights of the dancers. Their hair is the orange of the patch at the base of the Fritillaria pudica perianth.
[The Degas pastel is Ballet Dancers on the Stage (1883) from Richard Kendall’s Degas: Beyond Impressionism (1996); for more of Degas's dancers see also Kendall's Degas Dancers (1996)]
Near the end of the school year, I was invited by a resident assistant in one of our campus dormitories to participate in a panel discussion of evolution and creationism for the students in the dormitory. Two other evolutionary biologists also participated as well as a Lutheran minister, Catholic priest, two Seventh Day Adventist ministers, a creationist chemical engineer, and a latecomer, let’s call him “the late creationist.”
After we introduced ourselves, the late creationist went to a big white board and began to lecture us that the Big Bang was unviable, that evolution violates both the first and second law of thermodynamics, and that no evidence contradicts the six-day creation recounted in the Bible. Unfortunately, he presented no evidence for the six-day creation, the inviability of the Big Bang, and didn’t explain how evolution violated any laws of thermodynamics. The late creationist’s lecture reminded me of the patent medicine hucksters enacted in 1950s movies: beyond his big sound, his spiel lacked soundness.
The panel was not to be a debate, and we didn’t ask the late creationist to explain the first and second laws of thermodynamics and why he considered evolution to violate them. After the late creationist’s lecture, the moderating resident assistant brought the panel back to its focus—to answer students’ questions about evolution and creationism. The students asked great questions about evolution. What I thought was most interesting about the questions was that reflected the creationist perspectives that now get considerable, uncritical attention from the media.
As the panel members spoke in response to student questions, I was struck by the difference between the evolutionary biologists on one hand and the clergy and creationists on the other. The evolutionary biologists provided examples and explained processes of development, heredity, evolution, and fossilization. The creationists told personal stories. The chemical engineer spoke of learning about fossils and evolution from his father and his subsequent conversion to faith. His argument for creationism was personal testimony of faith in a god and disbelief that chance events could result in complex life. His only argument against evolution during the discussion was that there was zero probability he could see for the origin of life. Probabilities for the origin of life may be low—but those probabilities on Earth were (are) clearly above zero because of the preferential bonding properties of certain atoms, the self-assembly of some molecules, and ultimately the capacity of molecules to convey information. What astounded me about the chemical engineer’s statement of probability was its ignorance (or neglect) of the basic chemistry of life and how we might calculate probabilities.
The Lutheran minister and Catholic priest were clearly uncomfortable with the creationists’ rejection of evolution as a means of explaining the diversity of life. They accepted that science provides us with a good understanding of the diversity of life. What the minister and priest couldn’t relinquish to biology (or maybe I should say ‘to chemistry’) was the beginning of life.
When the resident assistant contacted me about participating in the panel, I had both great interest and reluctance—the latter because debating creationism with creationists is akin to beating one’s head against concrete. Creationist arguments are rhetorical rather than logical and evidence-based—but their (un)sound bites are amenable to the format of scoring rhetorical points in debate, if not to logical tests. There’s also the problem that a general audience, even one of college students, is unlikely to have high scientific literacy or knowledge of biology. Understanding evolution, without some scientific literacy and knowledge of biology, is not likely to be conveyed in debate; one would prefer to see students in courses on evolutionary biology where its processes and problems can be described and discussed. One would also like to see those students in courses on the anthropology of religion and the psychology and literature of myth for we will gain from a broader understanding of religion.
From its repetition during the discussion, the clause “for people of faith” continued afterward to ring in my ear. As a preface to any statement made by the clergy or creationists on the panel, it was effectively self-absolution from logic and scientific knowledge. This clause is the rupture we face: for people of faith in any particular dogma or myth, discussions of ideas may have no consequence—faith is an abyss for challenging ideas.