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Graduation Address: After Darwin?

June 18th, 2009 |

Thanks to Greg Morgan, whose daughter was among the graduating students who heard this address by Professor Jere Lipps at the University of California Berkeley.
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After Darwin?
Graduation Talk, May 22, 2009
Jere H. Lipps, Professor of Integrative Biology

Parents and families, Friends and Neighbors, Student Advisors, GSIs, and Fellow Professors—CONGRATULATIONS! YOU did it. You got them through and now you see before you — our—all of ours—graduating bachelors, masters and doctoral students. In a few more minutes, they will walk up these two aisles as Cal Graduates. We are all very, very proud.

And CONGRATULATIONS graduates. You put in the hard work and sometimes it was frustrating and you got mad at all those people who supported and taught you, other times you were so thankful, and that was wonderful.

So here you are about to step out with that fancy degree from the top ranked Earth & Planetary Sciences department in one of the top ranked universities in the world. From now on, every time someone asks you: Where are you from? Don’t say Fresno, or Oakland, or Pasadena, even if that’s the truth. Instead say Berkeley and everyone will know what you are and what that means. UC Berkeley is known around the world like no other University—Why? Because of the accomplishments of its graduates. Cal graduates have changed the world and much of the world knows it.

Now it is your turn to do that. You can change the world too. Let me give you some ideas that you already know about. But maybe your families have not heard all of this. If they have questions, you will be able to answer them.

You all know Irving Stone, the biographical novelist who wrote about Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gough, Jack London and many others. He was an Old Blue, which you graduating students are about to become—a Cal Alumnus. He graduated in 1923 and died in 1989. Among his many books is one called The Origin, 743 pages long, published in 1980. It deals with the life of Charles Darwin. Why Darwin, Stone was asked. Because of the four great men he knew that created the modern world—Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin, Darwin was by far the most important.

So let me tell you a little of Charles Darwin because his books changed the way the humans thought about themselves and the world in which they lived. Also this year is the 200th anniversary of his birthday, Feb 12, 1809, and we have witnessed celebrations around the world, and especially here at Berkeley amongst the biologists. All the students down here know Darwin as the man who wrote “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection”, published 150 years ago this year too. It was one of 19 books that Darwin wrote. Three of those books were about geology and I know our students know about those too—Coral reefs, volcanic islands and the geology of South America. Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation is recounted in every beginning textbook in geology and biology. His later books were about the Descent of Man, Vegetable mould and worms, orchids, insectivorous plants, and barnacles, and while they sound somewhat esoteric, they reveal the man.

How did he do these things? He was a careful thinker, an idea man rather than focused solely on data collection, and he had time and experience. Time because he married well—to his 1st cousin, Emma Wedgwood of the famed Wedgwood porcelain company, and his father Robert Darwin, a doctor, and also well to do; so Darwin never had to work. He bought an estate, Down House, and spent most of his life there studying and writing. You should marry well too!

Experience, chiefly from his voyage on the Beagle.

Keep this in mind—Darwin was not a great student, either before or in college. He went to University of Edinburgh to study medicine but left. Then he tried Cambridge to become a theologian. That didn’t work out either. His father was disappointed but one of his professors, John Stevens Henslow, a botanist saw something in the young man and his interest in natural history.

When Darwin was about the age of our graduating students, he was invited to join the voyage of HMS Beagle as naturalist and as companion to its Captain, Robert FitzRoy. Darwin was only 22 when the ship left England in 1831 and 27 when it returned in 1836. The ship was to sail around the world for two years to map coastlines and locate accurately various islands for the Admiralty. The two years stretched to 57 months, 42 of which were in South America. He spent only 35 days in the Galapagos Islands, which his supporters later made famous, and only 19 on land. Darwin functioned chiefly as a geologist on the Voyage but he also collected many animals and plants that he carefully preserved and sent back to England. The rocks he collected he sent back to Sir Charles Lyell, the founder of modern day geology, and Lyell put them in his garden. Darwin’s big insights on the voyage were about geology—biology came years later after he learned about his specimens from other experts and his own studies.

Darwin was a brilliant biologist, as we all know, but before that he was an expert geologist. Indeed, although he considered himself a naturalist, when once pressed to be more specific, he said he was a geologist. He was Secretary of the Geological Society, London, and regularly took part in its meetings. He learned geology from the great British geologists who formed much of the science as we know it today. Prof. Adam Sedgwick with whom Darwin spent the spring of 1831 doing field work and Sir Charles Lyell whose volumes Principles of Geology outlined geology for generations of geologists, like some of us up here, until plate tectonics rolled in the 1960s.

On the voyage, Darwin wondered about the people, the rocks, volcanoes, earthquakes he saw, as well as the plants and animals. He concerned himself with conservation of biodiversity, including various groups of humans, he worried about invasive species, and he collected the fossil remains of the extinct giant mammals of the Pampas. He understood, as we do, that history matters and that what we see today resulted from a series of different processes operating over a long time. He articulated this best in the Origin and Coral Reefs books, as well as countless articles and letters.

Darwin understood that the world was intimately connected from the rocks to the seas and to the plants and animals, and importantly even to us. His methodology was comparative in both his geology and biology, and it was idea based. He had big ideas that were then supported with hundreds of careful observations. He drew the big pictures, and he left notes and instructions to other field scientists on how to do this kind of work.

I’ve had the good fortune to have walked in Darwin’s footprints in most of the places he went. I have tried to understand what he did, what he thought about then, and particularly what he would think about the world today. Some things he’d really like—faster travel and not by sea—he was sea-sick most of the time on the Beagle and he hated that, and the Internet—instead of thousands of letters, he’d probably send 100,000s of emails to thousands of people.

But he would also be very concerned about the future, and if he were here today, he’d beg you Cal graduates to deal with three major items soon and effectively. He would know that Cal graduates from EPS can make a difference if you put your minds to it. And you should put your minds to it, because it is your world now.

Darwin would be appalled to see how greatly population, energy and global warming have affected the places he went on Beagle. He would know that these three have changed the entire world and that they have already impacted you personally in major ways and they will get worse. EPS graduates know this stuff already but let me remind you that these must rank high on your personal agenda once you leave here.

Population is everything. Darwin knew that because he had read Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principles of Population, which explained how populations grew geometrically and utilized their resources until they were exhausted and the populations declined (extinct). Darwin saw that at work among animals and plants at the Falkland Island, Chiloe Island, the Galapagos, and Tasmania in particular. Populations cannot grow forever.

Let me demonstrate this in another way:

When Darwin sailed in 1831, there were about 900 million people on Earth.
Look at your professors up here too.
When Prof. Emeritus Garniss Curtis (Is he here today?) was born, there were perhaps 1.4 billion people on Earth.
When Prof. Walter Alvarez was born, there were about 2.3 billion people.
When Prof. Jill Banfield was born, there were 3 billion.
When Prof. Doug Dreger was born, nearly 4 billion.

And when you graduating students were born, there were about 5 billion people on Earth. Now on your graduation day, there are 6,781,257,120–that’s about 112 million more than there was at last year’s graduation. By the time you are 40 years old, there will be 8.2 billion people, and when your kids graduate from Cal, there will be closer to 9 billion. It’s growing and many of you and certainly your children will see a world with over 12 billion people, even though the rate of growth is slowing.

There you are—just since Darwin lived and mostly during the lifetimes of the people in this room, we’ve gone from less than 1 to nearly 7 billion people, and there will be a lot more as you grads live your lives.

We knew about this long ago. Darwin could have predicted it. Professor Paul Ehrlich of, dare I say it, Stanford University wrote a famous book called “The Population Bomb” in 1968. He described the increasing world population and its threats to us and our well being. He had a lot of curves in his book showing what is, in fact, happening.

So what? Does it make a difference to me and to you? The same thing will happen in the US (when you were born there were about 245 million and on this day there are 306,476,790); in California there were 28 million when you were born, now over 38 million; and in the Bay Area 6 million and the LA- San Diego corridor now has 16+ million. Everywhere California is growing. Your world will be much more crowded. When I was 16 in Los Angeles, I got a car and whipped down the Pasadena Parkway—that was the only freeway then; we got the Harbor, Hollywood and Santa Ana Freeways in the next few years. Recently, I was at NASA in Pasadena and asked how to get to the airport. “Take the 134, then the 210, then the 5 to the 405, and get off at the 110 and follow the signs.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but with nearly 16 million people in that area now, they need all those freeways. None of them were moving very fast either.
Darwin would tell you that they all will need “Resources”. For modern people, that equates to cars, TVs with Hi Def, cell phones, better houses, travel, and especially food and water. All those people in the world want what you already have.

And that all takes energy, which Darwin would clearly understand.

Energy has already hit us hard. Remember last summer when the average price here was over $4.00 and even $5.00 in San Francisco, and importantly diesel was $4.80. Experts were predicting $12-15/gal in just a short time, and SUVs sat at discount on auto dealers’ lots because no one can afford to drive them when it costs $80 to fill the tank with the prospect of shortly going to $300 for a tank full. Since then the price went down by half due to the economic collapse, but it is now inching its way up again. They say all of this is due to supply and demand, and indeed it is. The demand fluctuates but is again increasing daily, chiefly in the US, China and India.

Darwin would ask is the supply increasing? Geologists would tell him NO. It can’t because we passed the peak of maximum production about Thanksgiving Day 2005 by one informed estimate, and we are on the downhill side of a very steep curve. That curve started around 1900 and grew faster and faster, as geologists discovered super-giant oil field after super-giant field, especially in the Middle East. We had several in California—Elk Hills, Kern River, Signal Hill, but they are gone now. We haven’t found a new super-giant field anywhere in the world in several decades, and the remaining known reserves will not stretch that curve for much longer. The latest big find, in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the continental shelf of Brazil, is so deep and so far below the ocean floor that it will probably cost more energy to get it than it will return. They will go for it anyway, I am sure, because petroleum can be transported easily and they’ll be able to charge a bundle. But the price will not come down. We are fast running out of oil. “Drill baby drill” will not help in the short or the long term. A Shell petroleum geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted all this in the 1950s. He almost lost his job over his conclusions, but he was right on. We knew all about this long ago and we have been continually warned, but we did little. The price will only continue to go up.

Now, we can run our cars on biofuels. So we’ve converted corn production to this and it won’t work. It costs a lot to produce, it produces greenhouse gases to do it, and most importantly to you, it is causing food prices to rise because corn is used for chicken, livestock and human food. And those tractors and trucks that are needed to grow and transport corn all use diesel which costs more than gasoline. I read that popcorn at the movies was going up 20% because of this.

Lastly, global warming. Some people say it’s not happening, but Darwin would know that is untrue if he returned to South America, Galapagos and Tahiti. He’d see that glaciers in Patagonia have retreated miles since he was there in 1834, he’d see that the species he found previously have moved, sometimes quite far, and that the same coral reefs he saw in 1831 off Brazil and those at Tahiti are bleaching and dying. The signs are obvious, not just to trained scientists like Darwin but to just about anyone interested in taking a good look. And we’ve known for decades that it is happening and we predicted what would happen. I remember teaching a Geology 1 class on this subject 40 years ago—I still have the slides. The amazing thing is that those slides are just as good now as they were then. They showed increasing greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) and some others–in our atmosphere that tracked world population growth. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere and cause increasing temperature and increasing rise of sea level as the world’s ice melts. Oh, it was great fun to point out that if this trend continued to melt all the ice on Greenland and Antarctica, UC San Diego, Irvine, Santa Barbara, and Davis (which is only 49 feet above sea level) would be under water and UCLA would be beachfront property, while Berkeley, as usual, remained high above them all and above the rising waters. Global warming is perhaps the most serious problem facing Cal grads. It is affecting us all now—from little things like changing growing seasons (even seed packages have been revised to show the warmer trends) to big ones like more hurricanes and tornados, dying reefs and species, biodiversity declines, sea level rises in your lifetime, and many others. Geologists and paleontologists know what it was like 125,000 years ago when sea level and temperatures were even higher than today. There is a natural cycle related to the amount of sun’s warmth we receive that depends on the shape of the earth’s orbit, the tilt of its axis and where summer occurs each year in the orbit. These change very slowly: warm periods occur about every 125K years. We have seen many of them in the last million years. These are the unusual peaks of warmth and high seas lasting a few thousand years, and we just so happened to have built our modern societies on the last peak. Now we are adding these greenhouse gases at a rapid rate on top of that natural cycle—too rapid for nature to remove from the atmosphere. These are increasing because everything we do produces those two greenhouse gases CO2 and CH4. We exhale CO2, we pass CH4, all 6.7 billion of us, and our livestock—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses do the same, and they are even better than us at passing CH4. We’ve got billions of them too, as well as lots of other mammals. CH4 is a little more than 20 times more effective in trapping heat than CO2, so it’s very important. Most of the greenhouse gases, however, come from burning fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas and coal) in our cars, trucks, ships, trains, planes, and power plants that provide electricity to so much of this country. And we are not alone—China wants to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants, so does India. They can hardly breathe their air now but they need energy to run their new economies. Still the US contributes over 20% of all greenhouse gases. Now, those people who are blind to all of this say it’s natural or it’s not happening. I ask you—if you were sick and you asked 100 doctors what’s wrong with you, and 99 said you would soon die if you took no action, and one said “Oh, don’t worry, you’re okay”–who would you believe? I hope you’d take action to circumvent those 99 doctors’ prediction. And that’s what it’s like in global climate research. 99% of climate scientists say warming is happening. That should be a clue to stop, think and take action. Right now we’re at 380 parts per million CO2 and this may rise to over 450 in the next decade. Darwin would conclude that we’re in deep trouble.

So Cal grads, it sounds grim. But you now have the tools and minds to solve these problems. Take Charles Darwin’s advice: think big, think clearly, create new ideas, gather the data, and then solve the problems. Like Cal grads before you, you can do something for the world. It needs your help badly.

Right now you are joyously celebrating your accomplishments and thinking of grad school or a job. Do those things, but keep in mind the big problems facing you, your children and your grandchildren. You will come to love them beyond belief and you will want the absolute best for them. Make sure population growth declines rapidly, that other energy sources are brought on line fast, and that greenhouse gases are decreased as soon as possible—waiting on any of these will only compound the problems you and your kids will live with.

After you walk up here, go out and have a great time. But next week, think about Darwin and how he’d approach these problems. Don’t wait. You can fix them, Cal grads. Your predecessors here have done exactly that in the past, and you can do it too.

So, CONGRATULATIONS AND Go Bears!!

 

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