Old Salt

Time has been at a premium lately, but when I have a few spare moments I like to read the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Those of us who make a living with words often find them utterly fascinating. Simon Thomas’ post, “Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’” brings a number of interesting facts to light. Salt, now on the list of public enemies, is essential to our well-being in small doses. His clever post includes “salt of the earth,” a phrase biblical through-and-through. It reminded me of the fact that the Bible’s become so porous that few people can say what’s actually in it. It’s kind of a big book, and who has the kind of time needed to read it all, let alone remember what it did or didn’t say? Many phrases are attributed to Holy Writ that don’t appear within its covers, while others that do come thence are thought to originate elsewhere. Strange but true.

We may never come to an agreement on what Jesus actually said, but “salt of the earth” is a phrase attributed to him. Indeed, he may have coined the term “saltness,” but I haven’t researched that thoroughly. The idea of essences, I’m told, is outmoded. But the idea is fascinating—what is salt that has no taste? Would it work to clear our roadways in winter time? There’s a layer of salt on my car already, and it only just snowed for the first time this year. We all know what salt is, what it tastes like—but what is its essence? (If such things exist?)

Thomas notes that Roman soldiers were paid it salt. I wonder if this was behind a phrase my step-father used to use about work. Although he and I did not get along, now that he’s gone I come back to the hidden bits of wisdom he sometimes shared. He worked very long hours, and seemed happiest when he was doing so. Early in the morning he’d limp through the house and say, “Time to get back to the salt mine.” He wasn’t a literal miner, although we lived in coal country. Salt could mean food, and the salt mine was where you worked to provide food for your family. I may not have gotten along with my step-father, but he worked hard to support a family with three kids not his own. He may have been bitter about that, but today anyone who stays with a family in hard times is considered salt of the earth. And that’s biblical.

Grown up Fish

InnerFishEmbryonic recapitulation. That’s what it used to be called. I didn’t learn about this in biology class, but rather in the Creationist literature that challenged the very concept. I suppose those deep evolutionary roots are what led me to read Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Not that anyone who’s considered the facts can question evolution, but this book nevertheless took me back along my own evolutionary descent from Fundamentalism to a reluctant rationalism. I recall the frequently repeated Fundie catch phrase, “no transitional forms.” Probably what they were looking for was a mermaid-like creature that was half reptile and half bird, divided down the middle. Even at a tender age, while accepting their rhetoric, I wondered why archaeopteryx didn’t qualify. A flying feathered lizard? Sounded pretty transitional to me. Shubin opens his fascinating account with the discovery of Tiktaalik, a transitional form in every sense of the word. Here is a fossil that shows the tell-tale limbs and organs of moving from fish to amphibian. Yes, Virginia, there is evolution.

Shubin doesn’t stop there, however. He traces the various features of human bodies back to our piscine ancestors. From gills to gonads, we are bipedal, air-breathing, mammalian fish. No surprises there, really. One gets the sense that Shubin’s book wouldn’t be such a wonder if there weren’t organized Creationists out there constantly challenging the obvious. All living things on this planet are clearly related. Some of the cousins may be very, very distant, but we are all part of the same family. This threatens Creationists and others who need to feel different, special. People are related to God, they suppose, in ways that mere animals are not. Biology gainsays that concept, so no matter how much evidence we might marshal, the Fundamentalist is duty-bound to reject it. We’re trying to break up a personal relationship here, after all.

While Shubin does a wonderful job of explaining whence our biological features, I was nevertheless heartened to read him referring to the essence of being human. Some scientists reject “essence” as a vague concept that can’t be examined in a laboratory. That may be true, but we all know what an essence is. As a concept it too has explanatory value. It would be very difficult to read Your Inner Fish and come out doubting evolution. At the same time, Shubin realizes that people write books, and fish do not. That’s not to say that we’re superior to our fishy family, but that we are different. We have our own essences. That doesn’t mean we were created this way—maybe we’ve just evolved with them. Either way, Shubin is charming romp though 3.5 billion years of our history.

Neander Valley

Because we can—but should we? This is technological ethics in a nutshell. While we are still debating what it means to be human and the majority of people in the world address that question in religious terms, is it right to play with our own genetics? This is an unavoidable question when considering George Church’s search for a volunteer. Church, currently at the Harvard School of Medicine, would like to grow a Neanderthal baby. With DNA extracted from fossils, it is theoretically possible to clone a Neanderthal with a loving mommy. The usual argument against human cloning is, well, it’s human. Neanderthals are often considered not-quite-human, although our common ancestors hung together in the biological family tree much longer than our chimpanzee cousins. I still recall from my school days that a Neanderthal dressed in a suit and put on the streets of New York City would pass for a large, barrel-chested human. I think I may have seen him on my way to work once or twice, in fact.

Genetics are ethically frightening because they go down to the level of what used to be called essences. Some scientists today dispute that there is anything called an essence; all we have is building blocks. What you make of those blocks contains no essence—you can’t see it in a microscope or cyclotron, or spin it out of DNA. Therefore it must not exist. If there is no human essence, what is the problem with experimenting around a bit? Funnily enough, the question of natural selection enters into this equation. In the arboreal climes of Pleistocene Europe Homo sapiens sapiens bested their big-breasted cousins in the struggle for survival. Would the same be true in our technological era of easy obesity where work is considered tapping on a keyboard all day? After all, Neanderthals had bigger brain capacity—are we ready for that kind of competition? Neanderthal economics might take care of the one percenters even.

I have no insight to offer on such a thorny ethical issue. I do, however, believe in essences. I’ve never seen or measured one, but even concepts like good and evil are meaningless without their essences. What is the essence of a Neanderthal? I suppose it is such a question that leads Dr. Church to seek a volunteer to bring one back into the twenty-first century world. I have to admit I’m a little curious too. Just think of all the opportunities for cute commericals. Still, if natural selection already vetoed the race, maybe we should abide by that decision. This time around we might find ourselves on the losing end—who knows what Neanderthal ethics consist of? Secretly I think their essence might just be trickle down economics and they’ve been among us all along.

Me, on the way to work.

Me, on the way to work.

Cryptid Be Thy Name

While poking around the internet last night to take my mind off the heat and humidity surrounding me, I stumbled across an article entitled “The Religious Struggle over Cryptozoology” on a site called Science and Religion Today. The piece was written by Joe Laycock, a doctoral candidate at one of my alma maters, Boston University. Having just finished Bruce Hood’s Supersense, there was a pleasing euphony in the coincidence. Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, and is not necessarily based on the supernatural (although it may fall within Hood’s definition of it). Laycock notes that two religious elements in society have latched onto this study: New Agers and Creationists. Creationists, it seems, see in certain cryptids, such as the Loch Ness Monster, hold-overs from the Mesolithic Era that prove the Mesolithic Era never existed. God can still make dinosaurs today, therefore the Bible (which doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all) must be true.

The draw of the unknown

One of the most welcome parts of Hood’s thesis was its consonance with Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book I’ve posted on before. Both authors explore how the human psyche reacts against what it perceives to be “strange mixes,” beings that cross-over between readily defined categories. Hood addresses this by tackling the concept of “essence” while Asma notes a dread accompanied by a sense of wonder. Hood demonstrates that from a scientific point of view, there is no such thing as the “essence” of a person, object, or living thing. Such ideas are the cling-ons from the era of souls and radically distinct species and genders. Closer observation has taught us that many such things are more of a continuum than a series of sharply defined types. Religions prefer to have fixed categories. Religious ethics often depend on them.

Laycock suggests that both New Ageism and Creationism “can be read as a religious response to the cultural authority of science.” Religions fear that which can be empirically demonstrated since it throws the god-of-the-gaps into the dryer and he comes out smaller each time. This is so, despite the fact that Creationists crave scientific respectability. While teaching my course on Myth and Mystery at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I dwelt on cryptids for a few sessions. They are indeed often surrounded with a religious mystique. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the possibility of undiscovered species, many new ones are described by science every year. Nor would I say that they are supernatural. Nature has ways of surprising us still, and as Asma clearly demonstrates, we still have a need for monsters.