A home for posts on random subjects that interest me.
Living in Canberra, which lost 500 homes to bushfires in 2003, it has been a pretty sobering experience to watch the catastrophic fires in our southeastern corner. It’s a beautiful place where many Canberrans spend their holidays at this time of the year. I have old work colleagues who live near Cobargo, a town all but destroyed by the fires.
During this national tragedy I have had a profound sense of de javu as I have watched the way people have responded to the crisis. Having just experienced our hottest and driest year on record, and the most horrific bushfires in our history, Australians are now waking up to the fact that catastrophic climate change has arrived and we have caused it. The worn out expression “the climates always changed and always will” now has a very hollow ring. It’s a lie anyway. The earth has never been this hot in the last 20,000 years and that’s twice as long as the entire history of civilisation.
In spite of the magnitude of the fires and the compelling climate science, there remains a core of people, the loudest being politicians addicted to coal lobby money, who will not budge. Rather than face facts, they have blamed the fires on arsonists and greenies and even scientists for exaggerating and twisting the science. I am also keenly aware that some people reading this post may still find it hard to accept the science of climate change. I can understand that, because I’ve been there too. Even as a scientist I have gone through phases of scepticism and agnosticism before finally reaching acceptance.
Watching the responses to the fires has reminded me of the way the LDS Church, in particular its apologists, responded to Thomas Murphy, Brent Metcalfe and myself when we drew attention to the enormously threatening DNA evidence. Mormon scholars responded with ridicule and attacked our motives, intelligence and scientific credibility. They obscured the issue by misrepresenting the science, made false claims of positive DNA evidence and twisted the Book of Mormon narrative to accommodate the science. I believe most of these people are basically good. But their fear of the terrifying conclusions the science clearly pointed to, motivated them to take extreme measures to soothe the cognitive dissonance it created.
I wanted to share some of my reflections during the bushfires. I have observed disturbing similarities between LDS apologetics and what I call climate change apologetics.
I recently shared this image from my mobile phone on my Facebook page. This isn’t normal rain, it’s bushfires. It’s smoke plumes from bushfires, and the rain they create, detected by radar across southeastern Australia. It’s the first time I have noticed this on our weather radars since I became addicted to watching our Book of Mormon (Bureau of Meteorology) radar about 15 years ago. It was alarming to see these plumes appear as the fires progressed on one of the worst days.
Thirteen years ago Australian scientists predicted (Garnaut Climate Change Review) that by 2020 we would start to see the effects of climate change on the length of the fire season and the intensity of bushfires. At the beginning of our fire season our state fire chiefs requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. They had seen the science-based predictions that this year would be a catastrophic fire season. Our Prime Minister didn’t think it was important enough to meet with them. He was probably planning his Hawaiian holiday and his (very well kept secret) trip to New York to attend the opening of a new Hillsong megachurch.
And it came to pass that the scientific prophecies were fulfilled with shocking accuracy during our Prime Minister’s Hawaiian holiday. He returned home in disgrace. I can’t repeat the words hurled at him as he toured the firefighter recovery centres in Cobargo and elsewhere. Australians can be colorfully blunt, but he got nothing more than he deserved. Our Prime Minister leads a party filled with people who deny the climate science his government pays for. A couple of years ago our climate denying Prime Minister mocked the opposition by waving a lump of coal at them in Parliament.
As we have coughed our way through the bushfire catastrophe, I have been peppered with questions from US exmormon friends, desperate to know if what they are hearing in the US media is true. Sadly, a former Australian, Rupert Murdoch, who is now an American citizen (our gain, your loss), has been responsible for spreading misinformation and lies about what is going on in Australia. The Murdoch press (Fox news etc.) immediately blamed the fires on arsonists and greenies, in a pathetic attempt to weaken the case for climate change. This has been deeply offensive to many Australians already feeling distressed by the carnage inflicted by the largest and most ferocious bushfires we have ever witnessed. And we still have two months of bushfire season to go.
Australian scientists and the Rural Fire Service (RFS) have looked at the evidence and it’s clear over 95% of the fires were started by dry lightning in remote regions of national parks that are locked up during fire season. Any local can see this in my phone’s radar image. Scientists simply line up the lightning strikes with the origin of each fire. Murdoch outlets have also blamed the greenies for preventing back burning. This is another lie that climate deniers drag out after every bushfire. Greenies are very aware of the value of hazard reduction burning and are frequently involved in carrying them out! The RFS has clearly articulated the real problem. As our fire season gets longer, the window of opportunity for back burning gets shorter. You can’t burn cold, damp forests. Even if you could you can’t burn them every year because you would destroy the forest.
After posting my radar image I was immediately sent links to YouTube conspiracy theory clips. In the brief segments I could stomach watching, they were claiming greenies were flying planes and dropping incendiaries to start the fires in order to scare people into believing climate change is real. Utter filth and lies. They had even created childishly ignorant maps showing the flight paths of planes flying up and down fires zones in a regular pattern. My radar image clearly shows this is absolutely false. The largely American (sorry it’s true) sewer of poisonous conspiracy lies has reached our shores, and it makes me and my friends feel physically ill. I now know how the parents of Sandy Hook and the residents of New York felt when the heartless conspiracy theories reared their ugly heads. The biggest problem with the bushfire conspiracy theories is that they make mainstream media reports about arsonists and greenies look fair and balanced. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To cap off the week I received a phone call from a TBM sibling who is clearly feeling distress due to the fires. They were not interested in an adult conversation about the root cause of the driest and hottest year on record in Australia. They were tired of the arguments about climate change, after all, contention is of the devil! Instead, I was treated to a lecture on why scientists needed to get off their butts and quickly invent solutions (as if research isn’t being done) to rapidly capture the CO2. They are obviously feeling pain and fear, but rather than honestly facing those fears, my sibling preferred to pile even more blame on the scientists for not working on a real solution. They then went on to slam our two national broadcasters that have told the truth on climate change for the last 20 years. I then changed to subject because my language was about to get colorful.
This sibling’s response to me was exactly the same as their (lack of) response to me when I raised uncomfortable questions about Book of Mormon historicity due to DNA. The issue has been out of bounds for two decades. Their unwillingness to talk about both issues is driven by fear.
My evolution from climate agnostic
You would think that someone who has worked in scientific research his entire career would have accepted global warming after looking at the evidence. It turns out I’m no different from everyone else. I was naturally suspicious of climate science research when I first heard about it, because it was outside my immediate field of expertise. I only became convinced humans were causing our climate to change after I met a unique group of people who knew a lot more about our climate than me.
In 1999 I joined the Division of Forestry at CSIRO, Australia’s national scientific research organisation. Up to that point I had not known any climate scientists, and because of that I hadn’t taken it seriously. I was essentially a climate agnostic. At CSIRO I soon found myself working alongside dozens of scientists who worked across all disciplines related to forest trees. This included ecology, bushfires, native forest management, wood science, water, soils, genetics, carbon capture, plantation management etc. Virtually all of these diverse disciplines are being directly impacted by our changing climate. It may surprise some of you to learn that all advanced forestry companies plan their naturally long term forest rotations with climate change uppermost in their minds.
Because I was living, working alongside and socialising with this very capable group of people I formed very good friendships with many of them. I witnessed their curiosity, passion for truth and commitment to scientific rigour and I soon began to trust them. I knew they weren’t lying to get another grant, as they were women and men of integrity, and they were well funded anyway. That trust drove my own curiosity and I quickly became convinced that our climate was changing and that the science underpinning the forecasts by scientists was utterly compelling. The underlying physics of climate change has been well understood for over a century. There are plenty of websites that describe the science much better than me.
By the time I realised the problem, the fossil fuel industry was well ahead of me. Just like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry knew the science well ahead of the general population and the threat it posed for their future profits. Most of the developed world has headed the prophets of science. The US and Australia stand out as the biggest feet draggers on this issue because of their dependence on the profits from burning fossil fuels. Our two countries are largely responsible for holding back progress on climate agreements and Australia remains the largest polluter per capita in the world. It’s a source of national shame that many of you probably also share.
Unfortunately, some things that are true are not very…pleasant. As a species we naturally avoid facing things that make us uncomfortable. Many of us have faced our fears when confronted by the terrible truth that the LDS church has lied to us our entire lives. But the sooner we face our fears, the easier it is to change and the sooner we can put all our energies into making wise choices and facing the realities of living on this remarkable, but fragile planet.
This is exactly what the European Union is doing because it is heeding the warnings of climate scientists. The EU recently announced it would be committing 1 trillion euros to ensure Europe is climate neutral by 2050. This deal will support economies that, through no fault of their own, have historically relied heavily on fossil fuels for energy.
Maybe I’m dreamin
Wouldn’t it be great if the LDS Church chipped in a lazy $100 billion to help poorer countries adapt to the biggest challenge the world is facing? Maybe if we look away the leaders can create evidence that this was why they hoarded the money in the first place. At least facing the facts can’t stop us dreaming.
Just as recent studies of the human genome have revealed clandestine relationships among our distant human relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans, they can also uncover secrets in our recent ancestry. Like many who have had their DNA tested using the latest DNA technology, I have discovered some “off the record” goings on in my family tree hidden within my genome.
On paper I am a bona fide Brit. My ancestors hail from all four corners of the British Isles. My eight great grandparents were born in rural villages in western Scotland, southern Wales, Northern Ireland and the English counties of Yorkshire, Norfolk, Devon, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Figure 1 shows the birthplace of each of my four maternal (pink diamonds) and four paternal (blue diamonds) great grandparents. According to my pedigree chart I’m about as British as you can get. My DNA, however, tells a slightly different tale.
In 2017 I took a cheek swab and mailed it off to Living DNA, a genealogy company based in the UK. I chose Living DNA because they have an extensive reference database for the UK, an important factor to keep in mind when deciding which company to use for a DNA ancestry test. Living DNA’s database includes over two thousand hand picked individuals from all across the British Isles. They had been selected because their four grandparents were all born within 50 miles of each other. Their DNA effectively carries a signature of the locality where their grandparents were born.
Using this database, Living DNA is able to assign proportions of a person’s genome to various locations in Britain and Ireland. If a person has British DNA, then Living DNA can tell you where it came from. This is amply demonstrated by the agreement between my recorded family history and my DNA genealogy, which is surprisingly accurate, aside from one little glitch. About 11 percent of my DNA comes from Central Europe, the bulk of it (8%) originating in Northern Italy!
Before delving further into my now clouded ancestry, a brief look at some basic biology is informative. While we each receive close to 50% of our DNA from our father and 50% from our mother, the proportions we receive from each of our more distant relatives are variable (Figure 2). We receive an average of 25% from each grandparent and an average of 12.5% from each great grandparent. The reason these numbers are averages is a process called recombination, or crossing over, which occurs between parental chromosomes. It’s a somewhat random process, that often results in unequal proportions of our DNA coming from different ancestors. It’s quite possible, for example, to receive 6% of your DNA from one great grandparent and 18% from another.
Back to my DNA story. When you look closely there is a clear alignment between my written genealogy and my DNA genealogy, at least on my mother’s side. Close to 50% of my genome is derived from regions where my maternal ancestors originate (Figure 3). I was a little unlucky to receive a smaller proportion of Irish DNA than I would have liked, which was made up for with slightly more from each of my other three maternal grandparents.
However, the story becomes more complicated on my father’s side of the family. Only about 40% of my genome could be assigned to regions in the United Kingdom that broadly align with my father’s ancestry. The poorer alignment between DNA and paper genealogy in southern and central England may be due to the fact that this region has been more heavily impacted by Germanic immigration (Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc) than more isolated regions such as Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland. Historically, this part of Britain has also had fewer geographical and political barriers to human movement.
Most surprising, however, is the fact that 10.8% of my genome matches the genomes of Northern Italians (7.9%) and other central Europeans (2.9%). Given that each of my great grandparents on average contributed 12.5% of my DNA, this strongly suggests that one of my four great grandparents on my father’s side of the family was not British.
We will never know for certain which one of my paternal great grandparents was Italian, but it’s fun to speculate. We can effectively rule out my two great grandmothers. It is almost certain the Italian DNA entered our family tree via a male, by far the most common explanation for DNA anomalies in a person’s family tree. In my case this is supported by the fact that I clearly have DNA from two very isolated regions in the UK, namely Devon and south Wales, which is where my father’s two great grandmothers, Emma Jane Stephens and Mary Maud Powell were born, respectively (Figure 4).
It turns out that non-paternity—when someone who is presumed to be an individual’s father is not in fact their biological father—is pretty common, occurring at roughly 4% percent in families. The odds of there being a single non-paternity event in an average family tree in the last four generations are surprisingly high; running dangerously close to 1 in 3. Chances are that one of my paternal great grandfathers, either Job Witchell or R.G. Southerton, isn’t my biological ancestor (Figure 4), and I am beginning to suspect that might be Job.
In order for an Italian to enter my family tree, it was essential for one of my great grandmothers to have encountered Italians, a very rare commodity in rural UK in the late 1800s. Of my four great grandmothers, Mary Maud Powell is by far the most likely to have encountered Italians due to a significant turn of events in her life.
On July 5 1882, Mary Maud Powell married Job Witchell, the son of a coal miner, in Bristol, England. Within weeks they left England for a place about as far away from a British coal mine as they could get. They set sail for Hong Kong where Job took up a position in the Hong Kong police force. Thanks to Hong Kong historian Rudi Butt, and the nature of Job Witchell’s “policing”, we have some intriguing clues that suggest the Witchells regularly encountered Italians in Hong Kong.
Several years after their arrival in Hong Kong, Job was convicted of police corruption (taking bribes from illegal gambling) and served 6 months in jail. Just weeks before his release from jail, Mary died, leaving Job with 5 children under the age of 14, including my grandmother, Edith Ethel Witchell, who was just 2 years old. After his release from prison, Job apologised for his crimes, after originally denying them, and went on to lead a much less exciting life. He married Minnie Goodes from Australia in 1909, and from all accounts was a devoted and admired father to his five children and three stepchildren.
From Rudi’s detailed historical research we know that Job’s grandchildren were schooled at a Catholic convent. From 1858 to this day, the Catholic church in Hong Kong has been served by missionaries from northern Italy drawn from the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Milan (now the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). The Witchell’s isolation from their family in the UK, and their ties to Catholicism, may have led to a close encounter of a Milanese kind on the other side of the world, and the infusion of Italian genes into our family’s genomes.