Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.

Fall of the Titanosaurs

If I had it all to do over again, I might well have gone into paleontology. Like most kids, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Then “real life” got in the way and you need to get a job since you can’t spend your time playing with your cheap plastic toys and dreaming Triassic dreams. There’s no future in the past. So I decided to study dead languages instead. Still, the recent discovery of Patagotitan mayorum is exciting. Titanosaurs—the really big dinosaurs—were not even known when I was a child. What we used to call “brontosaurus” was about as big as they got, but we did know that diplodocus was out there somewhere, even a bit longer. We didn’t have to worry about ark space in those days because we knew that extinction happens.

The current evangelical flavor of the day takes a hard line on evolution. Since it absolutely can’t happen and since there’s no denying dinosaurs, they must’ve crowded onto old Noah’s floating hotel along with everybody else. The problem is we keep discovering more and more large dinosaurs. Patagotitan was 122 feet long, without skin. It weighed more than ten elephants, making me wonder about water displacement ratios. Depending on your definition of that fuzzy measure of the cubit, the ark was only 450 feet long. And Patagotitan is only one of the titanosaurs that dwarf the already huge apatosaurus (the correct form of brontosaurus) and brachiosaurus. Even if they hibernated the sheer mass of reptilian tonnage wouldn’t leave much room for the latter ascendant mammals. That is, if mammals had come later and ascended.

Noah, despite being a traveler, never made it to Patagonia. In fact, the ark pretty much stayed still during the flood, coming to rest in Turkey after having been constructed somewhere just east of Eden. And since the Bible doesn’t mention continental drift we can’t even rely on Pangea to have gotten all the beasties to ark central on time. I’m guessing that Patagotitan was probably a slow walker. Since the continents were just like they are today, it must’ve been a fair swimmer as well. And it didn’t mind quarters just a touch claustrophobic for such a massive monster. What with all the home improvement shows these days, Noah might have considered an addition to the ark. But the Bible says God gave him the plan and one thing we know about the Almighty is that what he says he means literally. Dinosaurs or no.

The Rights and Privileges

Bostonia is but one of several alumni magazines that makes its way to our humble apartment. Between my wife and I we have many colleges and universities begging us for money while offering us no jobs. Despite being a denied professor I have little time for magazines. I’ve always been a book man. If I’m going to put time into something I want an ISBN to claim at the end of the day. Still, the cover of the Bostonia asks a relevant question: “Should Chimps Have Human Rights?” I have long argued, based on books I’ve read and on personal experience, that animals are conscious beings, like we are. If consciousness evolved, it has to have its roots in other animals, otherwise scientists are positing “special creation,” call it what you will. If animals share consciousness, they should share rights.

People have used animals for as long as they could figure out how to do so. It may have been a two-way street at first, since we’re pretty good at protecting critters we find valuable and who doesn’t like a free lunch? They stick around us. The earliest domesticated animal seems to have been the wolf, which we made into a dog. Other common mammals joined the mule train after that. Humans: they treat you rough, but they’ll make getting food a snap. There’s a kind of consciousness involved already, don’t you think? If they can’t figure out that we’re not going to harm them (at least not yet) then they’re smart enough to keep their distance. Not all wolves became dogs.

Primates, however, are a special case. They sort of look like us. Chimpanzees, especially, act like us. They don’t get human rights because those are reserved for others of our own species. I mean, consider those in charge of the free world! They believe in the right to acquire as much of the world’s resources as they can for themselves. They guard the use of those resources so they can live in unutterable luxury and make everyone else pay through the nose for the very necessities of keeping alive. The masses pay taxes while those who have more than enough do not. We are a domesticated species, it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong—I do believe chimps should have human rights. Other animals too. We’re all connected. But the real question I have, looking at the headlines from Washington, DC, is turned the other way around: should humans have the rights of chimps? Don’t ask me; universities won’t hire my likes when others will bring them greater glory. They’ll gladly accept my money, however. It’s their right.

Water Bears

Since we should all be busy planning on alternatives to planet earth, my mind has turned to tardigrades. Known as “water bears” these very simple animals are amazingly complex. Don’t go looking for them in your drinking water, however. They’re microscopic. So why am I thinking about tardigrades at a time like this? Because they’re one of the few organisms that scientists believe could actually survive the destruction of the planet. Who knows? They might even be able to survive in Washington, DC. Maybe that’s why they’re in The Washington Post.

You have to look closely to see one.

Able to cling to life at the cusp of absolute zero, in conditions with no oxygen, and at doses of radiation that would leave the human race—among most other species—fried, these micro-organisms are truly remarkable. No wonder scientists are playing with thought-experiments as to how to wipe them out. Hey, scientists are only human after all. Don’t worry—nobody’s really trying to kill these little guys off. The question behind Ben Guarino’s story seems to be what makes these tiny creatures so amazingly resilient. It raises an issue that I often ponder. The will to survive. Evolution is, according to standard theory, without purpose. Natural selection works in a “logical” way: the most successful organism survives long enough to breed and its traits become standard options in the next generation. Nobody needs to want anything (except to mate) and chance takes care of the rest. But that doesn’t explain the will to survive. The “eye of the tiger,” if you will. I’m sure this wasn’t what the Washington Post was intending to trigger, but doesn’t it seem strange that even “non-conscious” micro-organisms “want” to survive?

The desire to exist is dangerous territory. It has a whiff of the divine about it. One of the characteristics of life, if my high school biology isn’t completely outdated, is the ability to reproduce. What it didn’t address, for fear of teenage snickers, I’m sure, is the desire to reproduce. Why does life insist on its own continuation? Is it truly just an eons’ long succession of one-night stands that results in creatures capable of even asking that question? Or is there something more to it? Tardigrades have segmented bodies, legs, and claws. All at less than 40,000 cells per individual. They lack a neocortex (which doesn’t necessarily disqualify an individual from being president). They can’t answer the questions we put to them. As individuals they are remarkably easy to kill. As a species, however, their resilience carries the answers to some very deep questions. If only we had the will to ask them.

Fishy Business

There’s bound to be a logical explanation for how it got there. After all, this is private property and people have been here all day long. Somebody would have noticed if fishermen had stomped up this boardwalk, dropping their catch along the way. There’s no place to dock a boat. And yet here it is in all its Fortean glory. A fish out of water. Literally. It’s a perch, I think. About eight inches long. Forty yards from the nearest water. Other than the flies all over it, it looks in good shape. As if it were out for a swim in the dry air and lost its way back to the nearby lake. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, but I can’t help but think of Charles Fort and his witty takedown of conventional reasoning.

In addition to fish, this lake also hosts ospreys and bald eagles. Just yesterday morning I saw one flapping above the water looking for breakfast. And one of my relatives saw an eagle struggling with a fish the other day—an issue of maintaining air-speed velocity when fully laden, I think—only to have to catch and release. Could that have happened twice? Raptor drops the slippery, heavy fish and can’t fit under the pine trees with that wingspan to pick the thing up. Possibly. It’s not the most fun explanation, but it will do when logic’s non-negotiable.

Charles Fort, the great anomalist, is perhaps most famous for his irrepressible insistence that rains of fish had a more exotic explanation than a tornado sucking them up only to drop them far from water. In his puckish way, he wrote how such “damned facts” were explained away by convention. Fort liked to hold the door open for the wider possibilities. Meanwhile we’re stuck here with the unarguable reality that there’s a dead fish by the boardwalk, far from water and a logic that makes me ask, if it fell from a bird’s talons why does it look so perfect? No twigs or pine needles picked up from its heavenly plummet. No obvious injuries to its piscine flesh. Even had some disgruntled fisherman rowed up unobserved and flung a perch as far as he could, the thing would’ve had to’ve had quite a spiral on it to’ve made it this far from the lakeshore. Science works by sweeping the facts outside the norm off the table. I’m not saying there’s anything paranormal about this fish, I’m just wondering what Fort would’ve made of it, beyond a free lunch.