Lazing Around

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.


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.


On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.