Opinion: Public assault on science continues — to our peril
With the deluge of news from the current impeachment turmoil in Washington, one could be excused for missing the continuing assault on science from the administration and its supporters. In August, in explaining his no-exception anti-abortion stance, Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King claimed that without incest and rape the human population would have become extinct. Here are his exact words during an Aug. 14 appearance in Urbandale, Iowa: “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?”
Well, the one-word answer is “yes.” The one-sentence, sing-a-long answer is: “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book …” King should hit the pause button on his unschooled rhetoric to read a primer on population biology. Studies estimate that an average of 5% of all rapes result in pregnancy and 4.5% in the birth of a child. Mathematically, that would be insignificant in sustaining the growth of the human population, at least during the past 200,000 years, the age of the oldest known fossil remains of Homo sapiens from Africa.
King should also study up on the incest taboo, essentially hard-wired in our consciousness. In practice, it is humanity’s most basic moral law, more universally obeyed than the six moral commandments of the 10 in scripture. Incest is similarly taboo in nature, observed by animals from beetles to chimpanzees. Ditto flowering plants, many of which have evolved elaborate mechanisms to fertilize only the non-incestuous pollen.
Biology primer No. 2 for King: Incest is a recipe for wholesale genetic malformation. In humans it produces severe birth defects or early death among 45% of children. Rather than growing healthy populations for the past 200,000 years, any significant level of incest would have had the opposite effect, drastically diminishing the size and “genetic fitness” of the population. It’s hard to be polite about this: It takes more than ignorance of biology to condone rape and incest with a clueless claim for population growth.
Unlike King, Exxon and Shell don’t need primers in science. They need primers in social responsibility. Their science is so good that by the 1980s they already knew that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels would cause global warming, climate change and environmental havoc. We learn from The Guardian that Exxon’s internal documents from 1982 predicted a doubling of CO2 concentration by 2060 to 560 parts per million and an increase in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Centigrade. Shell scientists in 1988 shaved 30 years off that forecast, saying that by 2030 the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would break apart, sea levels would rise 15-18 feet, and specific ecosystems would disappear — all told “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.” Exxon tried to be more reassuring: CO2 doubling and climate change would not be “as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine.”
For the next 35 years, Exxon and Shell, in the face of their own research, were adamant climate-change deniers, even when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was issuing report after report with the same warnings. This is familiar, poisoned terrain. Tobacco companies buried their own findings for decades while denying the smoking-cancer link. Chemical companies covered up the deadly effects of DDT on wildlife to deny the series of “Silent springs.” With climate change, the administration is still in denial, despite its Department of Defense’s national security fears: war and famine brought on by global warming.
Speaking of Silent Spring, scientists at Cornell reported in September that America has lost 3 billion individual birds from our skies, lands and waters since 1970, a whopping 29% decrease. If birds were stocks on the Dow Jones, we’d call it the depths of a 50-year ecological depression. Particularly hard hit are grassland birds in Kansas and the Great Plains, victims of habitat loss. Three bird species account for 14% of the decrease: the House Sparrow, European Starling and Rock Pigeon. Bird watchers suspect that the administration isn’t in mourning. All three species are immigrants from other countries.
— Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.