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
I’ve never thought of bugs as an ethical concern. Well, not directly anyway. I had some truly frightening encounters with insects and arachnids as a child, so I tended to avoid bugs when I could. At times, I hesitate to admit, I took advantage of my size and smooched them. I did, however, mature out of that. Many years ago I stopped killing bugs that got inside, choosing instead to favor capture and release. I’d trap them in one of a variety of empty peanut-butter jars we kept around the house expressly for that purpose. The imprisoned intruder is then escorted outside and released. It seemed the only fair way to handle the situation—I don’t believe in exploiting size, and hating things with too many legs is prejudicial. Then I heard that insects are dying out.
Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Instead of bringing glee, this instilled a kind of panic. According to a story in the Washington Post, scientists have noted a 75% drop in bug biomass over the past several years. Stop and think about that. Insects contribute so much to our lives that we barely pay them any mind. Everything from pollination to breaking down decomposing organic matter, bugs do it. We need our insects. As with most things these days, it seems that we humans are the likely culprits. We destroy habitat, we spread pesticides everywhere, we try to take all kinds of land and make it in our own image. And we’ve sacrificed our insects along the way. As the article states—driving around country lanes on a summer night doesn’t bring up the windshield splatter that it used to. I stopped to think about that. It seems to be true.
The tiny members of the animal kingdom do a tremendous amount of work. I know they’re not doing it for us, but the things they do we don’t have to—and oftentimes can’t—do. All fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. Honey has been the main place where some of this shortage has been felt most directly. Bees have been disappearing. So have monarch butterflies. The fact is, we can’t live in a world without bugs. This does make it an ethical issue. If we’re going to claim dominion over all things we have no right to overlook the smallest creatures. Sure, they can, well, bug you. They fly in your face or bite you while you’re sleeping. They’re only doing what they evolved to do. I don’t mean to bug you about it, but we need to look after the minuscule and vulnerable among us.
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.
Posted in Animals, Books, Evolution, Monsters, Posts, Science
Tagged Biology, developmental evolution, Evolution, Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, Mark S. Blumberg, Monsters, sexuality