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
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.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Bibliolatry, Creationism, Current Events, Evolution, Genesis, Just for Fun, Posts, Sects
Tagged dinosaurs, Evolution, Noah's Ark, Patagotitan mayorum, Titanosaurs
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.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Current Events, Environment, Evolution, Posts, Science
Tagged Ben Guarino, desire, Evolution, natural selection, tardigrades, The Washington Post, will
Geology isn’t a great avocation for those of us with an unsettled existence. Having grown up with a fondness for fossils—maybe because they were so transgressive—my initial collection was tossed out because of a family move. Rocks are too heavy to take with you. I made the mistake of thinking, back in my Nashotah House days, that I was settled enough to let my rock-hounding sensibilities loose. Not that fossils were common, but Wisconsin has some great geological formations and I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society and even dragged my family along on some field trips. By the time Nashotah informed me my talents were no longer required, I’d amassed a few boxes that I was embarrassed to admit to the movers that, yes, contained rocks. New Jersey also has some great locations for rock-hounding, but my sense of being subjected to sudden, geologic career shifts has kept me from picking up nearly as many stones as I’d like to bring home.
The Museum of the Earth, here in Ithaca, is a dangerous place for someone like me to visit. I thought I had my fossil-collecting habit under control. The gorges in this region are famous for their fossils. Wandering through the museum, reflecting, as it does, the immense stretch of prehistoric time, it was obvious how arrogant humans are for assuming “control” of the planet. We’re so terribly late as to be classified as invaders on this planet. The world got by just fine billions of years without us. Perhaps that’s why I experienced transgressive fossils so captivating as a child. Ironically I found them in the creek bed right behind the Fundamentalist church we attended and where we were taught that evolution never occurred. I was fascinated by what I’d now call the juxtaposition of evidence and faith. We never questioned the reality of fossils. It was their interpretation that was the problem.
You can hold in your hand the most solid evidence that life evolved and call it heresy. Those delicate impressions of creatures dead for millions of years argue eloquently against Genesis and its mere 600 decades of world history. For me the fossils always won. On trips home from the seminary I would gather more fossils to add to the growing museum of time I’d been amassing in my basement. Then a Fundamentalist administration took the same approach as my exasperated mother trying to pack to move. Jettison the fossils. They’re heavy and they kind of make us uncomfortable anyway. Maybe the idea of too much time is something the biblically constrained simply can’t face. And when I see a fossil right there on the surface in one of Ithaca’s many gorges, perhaps I need to learn simply to let it lie.
Posted in Bible, Creationism, Evolution, Genesis, Memoirs, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Evolution, fossils, Fundamentalism, Ithaca, Museum of the Earth, Nashotah House, New York
While waiting for the bus, now that it’s light out that early, I like watching the birds. They have complex interactions and so many different styles of flying. They have ways that are a closed book to our species. From human eyes they seem so playful that it’s difficult to believe they participate in a struggle for survival. Evolution tells a different story, of course. Living not far from the great human nest of Newark’s Liberty Airport, it’s not unusual to see an engineered flying machine soaring high over their avian heads. Which, I wonder, are the better fliers? Birds, after all, evolved. Flying wasn’t planned, as far as we can tell. Although not so much around here, some birds don’t even fly.
I once read—many years ago and I can’t recall where—that if a person were to fly they would need an enormous chest to beat the very large wings they’d need for lift-off. Birds, apart from being naturally aerodynamic, have hollow bones which make them a touch fragile, but less tied to gravity. Our planes and jets, unlike the escape vehicle in Chicken Run, don’t flap. Bernoulli’s law keeps them aloft, along with some meticulous engineering and heavy fuel consumption. Humans may imitate nature, but they supersede it when they can. Still, I have to wonder why, if birds were a special creation as our literalist friends claim, God didn’t make them more like a plane.
Holding your wings out stiff all day, I’ll allow, would get pretty tiresome. Still, if you’re designing a critter to fly you might as well go with the best parts available, right? If not, I’m going to have a talk with my mechanic and ask for some of my money back. Birds, for all their charm, are very good illustrations of evolution at work. Dinosaurs taking to the air is so poetic that it has an organic feel. Flying is a great way to escape your land-bound predators. That step from long leaping to flying may be a doozie, but it seems to explain the shape of birds better than any intelligent design. Among bipeds, though, only one claims the place of being god-like in shape. Having said that, there are some flaws that a good biomechanical engineer might address. But then, who said God majored in engineering? When I went to college I was firmly under the impression that he’d majored in religion. And that, as many engineers might suppose, is for the birds.
Posted in Animals, Creationism, Evolution, Just for Fun, Posts
Tagged airplanes, Bernoulli's law, birds, Chicken Run, dinosaurs, engineering, Evolution, Intelligent Design