I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.
Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons
Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.
Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.
Posted in Animals, Archaeology, Current Events, Environment, Evolution, Posts, Science
Tagged Ben Guarino, extinction, giant sloth, ground sloth, The Washington Post, White Sands National Monument
Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.
Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.
We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Literature, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Duke Farms, Duke University, Hillsborough, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pet Sematary, Stephen King
I’m not proud of it. In fact, truth be told, I tear up a little bit when I think about it. It happened so long ago, but it was a casual act of violence that made me feel big at the time. It wracks me with guilt even today. I killed a bee. For no reason. It was a summer’s day and I was following after my step-father, who’d just taken us for a haircut. Step-dad always wore a crew-cut and disliked hair on boys and men. I’ve always hated haircuts and when I saw a honey bee on a clover flower after leaving the barber shop shorn I stomped on it. I was maybe twelve. That act of senseless violence has never left me.
I’d been stung, you see. Many times, in fact. One incident was particularly dramatic. My mother had driven my brothers and me out to the woods to play with our dog. We made up a game, the way kids will, where my brothers would throw a stick and I’d race our dog to try to fetch it first. I was actually in the lead this time and stepped on a rotting stump to keep my marginal edge. The stump was home to a colony of yellow-jackets and they swarmed out, just like in the cartoons I used to watch. Before I realized what was happening I fell to the ground with multiple stingers burrowing into my bare legs. Our dog was covered with bees and we weren’t sure he’d even survive. At home Mom had me soak in a hot bath because there was a prayer meeting that night at church that we couldn’t miss. I was allowed to take a pillow to sit on over the plain wooden pew.
That incident was in my mind as I stepped on the innocent bee, gathering nectar that summer day. Immediately I regretted what I’d done. Its little body lay twitching in the grass. It had no idea who had killed it or why. My reason for doing so was lame, and long gone. All creatures on this planet are interconnected. We are killing off bees at unprecedented rates. Insect populations the world over are falling at truly alarming speed. We need our bees. We’ve tampered with nature to make it more productive and have ended up with killer bees instead. We’re now warming our globe so they can spread even as we kill off their more docile siblings. That summer sun of memory beats down on me as I consider what I’ve done, and I sincerely repent.
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan, Wikimedia Commons
Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.
Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.
That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.
Posted in Animals, Books, Posts, Science
Tagged Edward Dolnick, From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, science and religion, sex, sexuality, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From, The Seeds of Life