Experiment with humility this Thanksgiving

Diogenes once said, “Blushing is the color of virtue.” I’m not sure he is the one who ought to be instructing us about humility, as he didn’t seem to be long on the virtue of humility himself. Humility is an unusual concept for discussion in a science column since scientists, in general, don’t know very much about it. 

This is because humility seems to be the characteristic of forgetting about oneself, so a truly humble person would probably be unaware of his or her humility, not having focused on himself enough to know. When scientists are focused on their research subject, they are not thinking of themselves. But when scientists are finished researching, they usually feel like they know something no one else knows which is, in itself, a prideful position. 

Thus scientists are peculiarly, schizophrenically humble. Except when we are humbly engrossed in our research, we are perpetually proud. My wife says that just having the nerve to write this column and call it “science” removes me from the list of “the humble.”

Dr. Wade Rowatt, a psychologist at Baylor University, found that humility is very difficult to measure, so he developed a “humilimeter.” Using this, he has discovered that the way people describe themselves is seldom accurate. He got a grant from the National Science Foundation to scientifically verify what everyone already knew to be true. 

Anyway, he has found that humility was more often associated with behavioral characteristics such as gratitude and forgiveness. If you want to appear humble this week, act extremely grateful for everything. Does wanting to appear humble sort of defeat the purpose? 

Humility may not be a desired characteristic in the natural world, at least not in insect-pollinated plants. Quite often the showiest flower is the most successful at pollination. Ironically, one of the successful characteristics for flowers to attract pollinators is by “blushing,” or at least appearing to blush. Oh yeah, plants blush, as well they should, after displaying their reproductive parts so shamelessly.

The way plants blush is through the presence of a pigment called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are sensitive to the pH of the environment and appear quite colorful depending on the pH. When exposed to acid, anthocyanin is red. 

For example, cranberries contain a lot of anthocyanins. They are slightly tart because of their relatively high acid content, and so their anthocyanins are red. It is strange that cranberries have more or less become the official fruit of Thanksgiving while appearing to blush, which is normally a sign of humility, according to Diogenes. So much for Dr. Rowatt’s theory that gratitude and humility are companion characteristics. 

However, anthocyanins change different color when reacting with an acid or a base. Consequently, many blue flowers contain the same anthocyanins as red flowers but are embedded in an environment that is basic. In fact, cranberry flowers have a dark tint to them that is almost blue because the flower is less acidic than the fruit. Many pollinators prefer blue flowers. 

You can test this out for yourself this Thanksgiving. Mix a spoonful of cranberries with a tablespoon of baking soda. The quantity of cranberry and baking soda can vary, so it may take a couple of minutes for the reaction to complete. But you can make blue cranberries or, at least, dark purple. Go slow on the baking soda at first because it is a base and will cause some foaming when it meets the acid in the cranberries. 

Then add a little lemon juice to the mixture and the berries will turn red again. However, it can be a little tricky to get the cranberries to taste right again. Blue cranberries attract a distinctly different type of pollinator and consumer. In fact, blue cranberries may not attract any consumers at all. 

So this Thanksgiving, be sure to blush, be thankful that your cranberries aren’t blue, and make sure you are as humble as you are grateful.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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