Sunday, December 13, 2015

Biological Revolutions: The Green Invasion, Part 2

(Picture from here.)

It's hard to overestimate the importance of the plant invasion of the land. It's the precursor to everything else.

I don't just mean plants, either. The current model of vertebrates invading the land involves the changes in freshwater swamps being the source. What causes freshwater swamps? The plants surrounding the fresh water.

Let's imagine for a moment the world prior to the land invasion.

We have oxidation geology-- that started long before when the cyanobacteria pumped oxygen into the atmosphere. But there was no soil. No fixed nitrates. No decomposing strata. It was bare rock and gravel. Sure, there was slime at the edge of the estuary pools but not much else.

Even fresh water was different. One of the reasons freshwater lakes and swamps have life in them is the washed down organic material from the life on the land. Without washed down material there is nothing to eat. Nothing to feed the bottom of the web of life and without that bottom there's nothing to build anything above it.

The green invasion had to happen first. It was the enabling technology for everything else that came later. The land plants fix carbon out of the air into organic material. That organic material falls and decomposes-- how? It needs fungi and bacteria. Fungi are absolutely dependent other materials to consume. On the land that can't work without the plants, right? Fungi are very old-- they diverged about 1.5 billion years ago. But they couldn't invade the land until plants were there for them. Again: plants are the enabling technology.

Before the vertebrates, the most successful animals invading the land were what became the insects. Again, without plants there was nothing there for them.

Back to the swamp, the vertebrates came out to invade the land and become amphibians. I suspect the very first were there chasing the insects. But they wouldn't have been there at all unless the swamps were fertile first. Oh, yeah. That's due to the plants.

One of the very earliest innovations in plants that enabled this colonization was the development of the alternation of generations. This is analogous to the sperm and egg vs. organism in animals. Animals produce gametes-- eggs and sperm-- that are haploid, i.e., have 1/2 the total number of genes in the full organism. They come together to create a diploid individual with both sets of genes that then goes on to grow into another gamete producing adult. There are a lot of ways this occurs but this is the mechanism boiled down to the roots. (Heh.)

The embryophyta, are the equivalent in plants. There is a sporophyte,  which is diploid, and a gametophyte, which is haploid. Almost every plant you see, from liverworts to sequoias, are embryophytes.

There's been an enormous amount of discussion about haploidy vs diploidy. Why are diploids pretty much universally the norm in highly organized multicellular organisms? Diploid organisms have double the genetic material to work with and the sexual mechanisms are very efficient at presenting new combinations. Yet selection is far more efficient in acting on haploid organisms. Possibly the blending of these two approaches, diploid for organism and haploid for gametes, is the strength of the system.

The bryophytes were very early-- non-vascular plants. We talked about them last time.

Clearly, there were several early innovations but the first one that really enables increase of scale is vascularization-- the creation of a plant vascular system to move nutrients, oxygen and waste products around the plant system. The development of lignin was key for this and it gave structural rigidity to the plant cell walls and from that the structural strength of the xylem and phloem. This happened about 440-360 million years ago. This was a brand new innovation for plants and a significantly more recent than the similar system developed in animals.

It's interesting the plant vascular system and animal vascular system serve similar needs but evolved completely differently and under significantly different environments. In both cases, it enabled the organisms to scale up since it severed the requirement of being intimate with the organisms outside world.

All through the Devonian, these vascular plants proliferated. At some point, they developed an outside material to resist the loss of water. Thus we come to cellulose.

Land plants didn't invent cellulose. Algae did that and how it happened is a long and ongoing discussion. (See here.) But land plants had it in their repertoire. It was a component of their cell wall. (See here.) At some point, that cell wall thickened on the outside. The thick outer wall, likely selected for by the ability to preserve water, had an inadvertent advantage: it gave structural rigidity to the plant. Plants could grow tall.

Now, plants use a lot of mechanisms to support themselves. Trees use a dead rigid inner core (called "wood") they continually encapsulate. Bananas, for example, use a completely different mechanism. Cut a banana tree down and take it apart and you will find no wood. Just what looks like a tightly coiled leaf. In this case, the tree gets its rigidity by hydrostatic pressure-- the same thing that makes a garden hose stiff when the water is blocked.

The lignophytes, those plants that could generate wood, arose very pretty quickly. The first land plants showed up in the Ordovician, about 485-443 mya. Vascular plants showed up in the Silurian period: 443-419 mya. Wood shows up in the Devonian: 418-358 mya. The time from the first known land plants to woody plants that could become trees is about 67 million years. Approximately the time that it took from the meteor drawing the curtain on the Cretaceous to now.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"All Lives Matter" vs "Black Lives Matter"

I was taken by the recent Trump event where a Black Lives Matter protester was roughed up. (See here.) As he was carried away, members of the crowd called out "All lives matter!" as some sort of argument against Black Lives Matter.

This refrain has been echoing across the media quite a bit, apparently without much thought. The idea of the All Lives Matter people is that Black lives shouldn't be singled out since everybody is important. The roughed up BLM protester might think their protest hypocritical.

I have my own point of view on racism in the United States. It's here. It's a problem. We have to deal with it. But that's not what caught my attention here.

The subtle shift from "Black lives matter" to "All lives matter" is a truly diabolical shift in perspective that is not being noticed enough.

First, let's consider the situation. Engineer that I am, I always go to numbers. The Guardian has provided a lovely database of statistics for a horrible collection of facts: police killing constituents. (See here.)

From this, we can determine that, so far in 2015, 775 armed people have been killed by police and 205 unarmed people have been killed by police. For the White, Black and Hispanic people, this breaks down into:

Event Total Wht Blck Hsp
armed people killed by police 775 397 185 125
unarmed people killed by police 205 91 68 32

Which works out to the following percentages:

Event % wht % blk % hsp
armed people killed by police 51.23 46.60 16.13
unarmed people killed by police 44.39 74.73 15.61

Now the population percentages of the USA for these three groups is %77.4 White, %13.2 Black and %17.4 Hispanic.

Given these percentages, we can derive expected numbers of police killings. This comes out to be:

Event Exp. Wht Exp. Blk Exp. Hsp White factor Black factor Hisp. Factor
armed people killed by police 600 102 135 0.66 1.81 0.93
unarmed people killed by police 159 27.1 35.7 0.57 2.51 0.90

Where it gets interesting is the ratio between the expected value and the actual value-- the factor column. From this, I conclude that Whites are under-represented, Blacks are over-represented and Hispanics come out pretty much on the money. The Hispanic statistics serve as a sort of control in this experiment. Black people are getting screwed.

Certainly there are other confounding factors: geography, poverty, etc. Statistics are slippery. If there is a correlation to wealth, perhaps there are enough rich Hispanics driving down the incidence of the police killings in their demographic. However, if that were the case, it would indicate that something was preferentially keeping Blacks in poverty more than Hispanics.

Which brings us back to the Trump incident in a predominately white crowd. The "Black lives matter" has an entire subtext that says: "Look, you f*$&*rs. We matter just as much as you do but you're killing us a lot more often." The "All lives matter" response denies that subtext and makes the (blatantly false) presumption that by someone saying "Black lives matter" implies that lives other than black lives are valued less.

The only rational response to that is pretty much: yes but so what? That has nothing to do with what was said. And the statistics shows pretty clearly that certain lives are valued more highly than other.

I'm very sensitive to how language is used and this is far from the most egregious example of subtly shifting the nature of the debate.

This is not the worst of this debate. Another mechanism is to bring up statistics that show Black on Black violence is far worse than police killings.

Again, the rational response: sure. Yes, non-police killings outnumber police killings. Thank God. Demographic on demographic killing outnumbers cross-demographic killings.  Does this surprise anyone?

But it has nothing to do with the problem at hand. Non-police violence cannot be compared to police violence. The police are the recognized officers of the state. They are our tax dollars and votes expressed locally. They are arbiter and authority in local disputes. Is the best argument supporting police is that they're not quite as bad a road rage?

Police should represent our best selves, not the hunkered down mentality of a soldier being fired on in a foreign land. We must make that happen.

I like how they do it in Canada with the Special Investigations Unit. The SIU is a civilian oversight agency that is called in to execute the investigation of any police circumstance involving death, serious injury or sexual assault.