Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sparkle plenty

A holiday ad campaign by J. C. Penny had the tag line "Sparkle Matters." The sparkle they had in mind was the sort that's dug out of the ground in South Africa, among other places. I'm afraid there's no sparkle of that sort in our family, mainly because spending lots of money on tiny bits of carbon never made much sense to me (or maybe I'm Mr. Cheapo), and never made much sense to my true love either. Not much bling around here.

But we have sparkle of our own kind, and it doesn't cost a cent.

We have a myriad of stars that sparkle in a sky still largely unpolluted by artificial light.

We have a surf that splinters into showers of sparkles in the moonlight.

We have fish in extravagant colors that sparkle on the reef.

We have irridescent hummingbirds that sparkle as they hover at the feeder.

We have raindrops that sparkle in rainbow hues.

Does sparkle matter? Oh yes, sparkle matters. The universe sparkles from every corner with thermonuclear light. We wouldn't be here if it did not.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The faith instinct

I remember reading a press report several years ago about an 8-year-old girl in New Jersey who was refused her first Holy Communion because she had a disease -- celiac sprue disease -- that prevented her from consuming even a taste of wheat. So how about a rice-based wafer? Not a chance. It is Church doctrine that communion wafers must contain unleavened wheat, as did the bread served at the Last Supper. No exceptions.

This would all be merely silly if it weren't so typical of organized religion in general. The particular fetish by which charmingly symbolic traditions get turned into occasions of sin must be telling us something about religion -- or about ourselves. As if anyone really knew what was on the menu at the Last Supper, or even if such an event occurred.

We all have rituals of one sort or another. I order my life with an almost monastic regularity. It's when the observance of ritual becomes a necessary condition of "belonging" that the great choo-choo train of religion goes careening off the rails. As when as children we went into a dark little booth to confess the sin of taking a bite of hot dog on Friday. Five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys and don't do it again.

According to an increasing number of evolutionary thinkers, it all has a point. Religious observance evolved as a way of cementing group ties, of binding "us" against "them," of making sure our genes flourish more vigorously than those of the tribe next door. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade is the latest to ply this theme in The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. So far, this is all speculative thinking, but one need only observe the depth and vigor of religious strife in the world to suspect that more is at work than than believers are prone to admit. If religions are really based on revelations from the Creator of the Universe, as the faithful maintain, then the Creator of the Universe must be a very mischievous fellow indeed to have planted so many competing revelations. And he must be a strange fellow too to be offended if an 8-year-old girl celebrates his revelation with a rice wafer rather than wheat.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Doing good

Last week, the New York Sunday Times Magazine had an article about Professor Robert George of Princeton University, a Roman Catholic who has become a leading intellectual light of Catholic bishops and conservatives generally. George has been particularly effective in providing philosophical ammunition against abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage.

It is not my intention to discuss these issues here; there are other more appropriate forums. I would, however, like to comment on the concept of so-called "natural law" that George evokes in support of his philosophical positions -- the idea that there are moral laws built into the fabric of nature that can be known by reason alone.

I first encountered natural law in 1958 as a young married graduate student at U.C.L.A. when I went with my new spouse to Newman House (the Catholic student center) for a symposium on contraception. The gist: Since it was the natural law that coitus should lead to conception, any artificial impediment was intrinsically evil. This stricture was not a matter of revelation, but was available to any right reasoning person.

My spouse and I were skeptical. After all, it is part of the necessary logic of life that individuals must die; why then is it not immoral to use antibiotics, say, to prolong the pleasure of living.

I am no ethicist or moral philosopher, but nothing I have learned in 73 years suggests that "oughts" are built into nature. Altruism within groups would appear to be part of our biological heritage. A tendency toward violence against those outside the group likely has a genetic component. Surely we are programmed for sexual pleasure, precisely to encourage reproduction. And so on. All of this might reasonably have evolved by natural selection, but "ought" -- how exactly might that be imprinted onto nature?

Natural law? We speak of the laws of nature and study them in science. But the laws we have discerned appear to be amoral. An apple falling to the ground is not constrained by ethics.

Which is not to suggest that humans are amoral animals. We are creatures of culture as well as biology. We can aspire to expand group altruism and restrain violence because we have learned that to do so enhances the greater happiness of all. We can endorse the use of contraceptives because it can help alievate abject proverty and disease, or simply to allow individuals sexual pleasure without the unwanted responsibilities of parenthood. We can choose to live by the Golden Rule because we know that our own happiness depends upon the happiness of others.

I like to think that our finest quality as humans is our ability to recognize our genetic inheritance, parse it within a civilized context, and devise personal and collective moral principles by which to live. Indeed, this is what the great religious and secular moral philosophers have been urging all along. The motive is not revelation, or natural law, but a consideration of the common good. And because, for most of us at least, it feels good to do good.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The reality of living

I am greatly blessed here in the Bahamas to have at my doorstep a three mile-long beach with rocky tide pools at its end, and usually nary a soul to disquiet my solitude. As I walked this morning, I thought of something Rachel Carson wrote in The Edge of the Sea (quoted in Linda Lear). It is not enough when walking the shore to pick up the occasional pretty shell, and say "This is a murex" or "This is an angel wing." Understanding, she wrote, "comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of sea and earth that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating always at its shores -- blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold."

That's why, of course, we loved her books. In her 1952 speech accepting the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us, Carson noted the surprise of some people that a work of popular science should reach the bestseller lists. She said: "But this notion that 'science' is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life, is one that I should like to challenge. We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally."

Perhaps as much as anyone else, Rachel Carson made possible my own long writing career, especially those thousand Science Musings essays for the Boston Globe, by showing how technical knowledge can be spun into something that transforms our experience of the world -- that educates "the eye and ear of the mind." As when I stand here on this shimmering shore of carbonate sand and marvel how it was that over the long eons of ice advancing and receding on distant continents, of sea levels falling and rising, these delicate platforms of consolidated windblown sand managed to lift their substance ever so slightly above the waves, and how easily they might be erased as anthropogenic climate change outpaces the "long rhythms of sea and earth."

I imagine that Carson would be rather amazed today to observe how many Americans resolutely close their mind's eye and ear to the forces that have molded us physically and mentally, in favor of a ten-thousand-year-old creation story of prescientific middle-eastern farmers and herdsmen.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Women in science

I mentioned in the last post a story in Time magazine for June 12, 1944, on DDT. Let me note today another story in that same issue of the magazine that relates to Rachel Carson.

The story notes the publication by Dr. Helene Deutsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, of a scholarly tome called Psychology of Woman, based on 30 years of research.

According to Deutsch, the normal feminine woman is passive and masochistic by nature. She enjoys her own suffering. She is always conservative and matriarchal. "Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities," wrote Deutsch. "Everything relating to exploration and cognition, all the forms and kinds of human cultural aspiration that require a strictly objective approach, are with few exceptions the domain of the masculine intellect, or man's spiritual power, against which women can rarely compete."

The intellectual woman is masculinized, said Deutsch; she has yielded her warm intuitive knowledge to cold unproductive thinking. An aggressive woman is often concealing a fear of her own femininity.

Few psychologists today accept Deutsch's view that women are by nature passive and masochistic. She is sometimes accused of having given a stamp of inevitability to self-denigrating female behavior. The feminist writer Kate Millet attacked Deutsch for advocating a "doctrine of female subjugation." Certainly, as Linda Lear's biography makes clear, Rachel Carson encountered these very stereotypes in her own work as a scientist and writer.

Deutsch was a female psychiatrist working in a world of mostly male professionals, dominated by the influence of the great male myth-maker Sigmund Freud, whose student she was. The world was at war -- a war presided over and fought by men. Women were peripheralized as at few times in history. All of this personal and social history was undoubtedly reflected in her work.

Helene Deutsch's science may have been flawed, and its influence pernicious, but she was herself a woman of impressive force and intellectuality. She grew up in a time and place -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- when women were denied access to higher education and important clinical positions. Nevertheless, she carved out for herself a considerable reputation in international psychiatry, and had a long, productive life as analyst, spouse and mother.

Today we celebrate our daughter Maureen's 50th birthday. Her successful career in paleoclimatology puts paid to the notion that science is "the domain of the masculine intellect."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dueling certainties

Reading Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson reminds me of a story I read in Time magazine:
Chemists have announced the discovery of an extraordinary substance that promises to eliminate many of humanity's woes.

Sprayed on a wall, the new chemical kills any fly that touches the wall for as long as three months afterward. A bed sprayed with the chemical remains deadly to bedbugs for 300 days. Clothing dusted with the chemical is safe from lice for a month, even after eight launderings. As a crop protector, it is deadlier and longer lasting than other substances, particularly against potato beetles, cabbage worms, fruit worms and corn borers. It is deadly to such common household pests as moths, roaches, termites and a dog's fleas.

So great is the potential of the discovery that seven US laboratories and hundreds of biochemists are working on it. Manufacturers are now turning out about 350,000 tons a month, and expecting to go higher.

A spokesperson for the US Surgeon General's office exclaimed that the substance "will be to preventive medicine what Lister's discovery of antiseptics was to surgery."
The story is from Time magazine, all right, from the issue of June 12, 1944, reissued in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landings at Normandy.

And then the war was over and the chemical industry had such enormous stockpiles of DDT on hand that on August 31, 1945, without definitive tests to determine the chemical's toxicity, the Department of Agriculture, with the U. S. Army's concurrence, agreed to release it for civilian use. The war against the Axis powers would be replaced by a "war on insects," says Linda Lear. DDT would be the atomic bomb in our war against human pests.

It was, of course, a war against nature.

Can you imagine sleeping in DDT-dusted pajamas, on a DDT-sprayed bed, in a room with DDT painted on the walls, after a dinner of DDT-treated potatoes, cabbage, fruit and corn? No bedbugs or mosquitoes, but not the healthiest environment either. Never mind; manufacturers had been cranking out 350,000 tons of the stuff a month for the Army, and new markets were needed. In 1957 the U. S. Department of Agriculture sprayed 4.9 million acres with the poison, and soon the bluebirds of New England were gone; in 1968, six years after Silent Spring, the number of sprayed acres had dropped to zero, and the environmental movement had begun. Rachel Carson appeared on the scene not a moment too soon.

Today, the bluebirds are back in Massachusetts, but malaria remains as the world's biggest killer of children. With the withdrawal of DDT for malaria control in South Africa, for example, cases of the disease quadrupled. Some public health officials call for renewed use of DDT in certain malaria-ridden parts of the globe, at least until a vaccine or a genetically-engineered fix comes along.

Did Rachel Carson save songbirds (and humans) in Massachusetts and put babies at risk in Mozambique? Albert Schweitzer once said: "Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation." We are not that good at recognizing the angels, either. Let's hope the current generation of young people has more success balancing the perils and blessings of technology than did those of us who lived through the dueling certainties of DDT and Silent Spring.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Peace on Earth

I had not meant to post this morning, but I am up before anyone else, the house is quiet, and I'm thinking of a line I read the other day in Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson, something a reviewer said of The Edge of the Sea: "Carson has shown her remarkable talent for catching the life breath of science on the still glass of poetry."

It's a lovely image. First, to speak of science as a "breath," something alive and growing, but fragile and almost invisible in its deepest significance. Then, to be caught as a visible mist on the cool glass of the senses. With our fingertip we might write our name there.

And now, as I sit looking out to sea with my laptop on my lap, waiting for the house to stir, the Sun -- "that strange flower," "that tuft of jungle feathers" -- gathers its nuclear fire on the horizon out there where the navigational beacon on Stocking Island marks the limit of its annual southern excursion. Each morning now it will rise a bit farther north as the Earth leans into its curve. Each morning now the Sun -- "that savage of fire, that seed" -- will haul those vanished tons of its own elemental substance transformed into energy along the horizon, painting the dawn more directly before our windows with its multicolored breath. A mist. A mist of living energy caught here on the still glass of Christmas morning.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rebirth

Chet, Anne and Tom wish you all a Merry Christmas -- or whatever holiday of lights you celebrate in this solstitial season. The Sun has reached its lowest point here in the northern hemisphere. Now it begins its climb back towards our zenith, bearing heat, light, and fertility. We mark in our various ways what Joseph Campbell called "The Myth of the Eternal Return."

Anne sends a Christmas illumination. Please click the image to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A gram of divinity

Looking back on my 45 years walking The Path, nothing has so boggled my imagination as the metamorphosis of the woolly bear caterpillar. Here is how I described it in Natural Prayers:
This slip of cuteness -- for, yes, they are cute, a favorite pet of children, worthy of a place in the teddy bear stores -- this fragile slip of cuteness survives New England's deep freeze, one of the hardy insects that winter over in the larval stage. In spring, it wakes, has a bite to eat, then rolls itself into a pupa, using its hairs to make the cocoon, lacing them together with silk. Two weeks later, an Isabella tiger moth emerges, presto-chango, like a magician's trick.

A black-and-brown woolly bear goes into the box -- a wave of the wand -- a yellow-winged tiger moth emerges. Somehow, the creature has managed to remake itself, rearranging its atoms, from crawling fuzzball to airborne angel. In few insects is the transformation so stunning, so complete. An insatiable leaf-eating machine becomes a sex-obsessed nectar-sipper. Shape, color, internal organs, mode of transportation -- all changed. It's as if an elephant became a swan, or a rattlesnake became a parakeet.

Of course, the totality of the transformation is to some extent illusory. What remains constant through all the stages of metamorphosis is information. It's all there, at the heart of every cell, in the DNA, blueprints for making a woolly bear and a tiger moth. There are clusters of cells in the larval caterpillar that are destined to become anatomical features of the adult moth, dormant, awaiting a chemical signal that will make them surge into activity. The warmth of spring releases hormones from glands in or near the brain. These cause the caterpillar to build a chrysalis and begin metamorphosis. Previously dormant adult cells begin to multiply. They take their nutrients from superceded larval cells, which are transformed into a kind of nutrient soup for the benefit of the growing adult organs. The woolly bear's six stumpy front feet are turned into the tiger moth's slender legs. Four bright wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouth parts become adapted for sucking. In two weeks, the rearrangement of atoms is complete. The chrysalis breaks.

There's no way to think about this without gasping for breath. It's one thing to understand the biology, at least that part of it that we know something about: DNA, hormones, gene expression, and all that. But knowing the biology only makes the metamorphosis all the more breathtaking. Not magic at all, but a fierce, inextinguishable force driving the universe, Dylan Thomas' "green fuse," permeating every atom of matter, soaking nature the way water soaks a sponge. Call it life, call it God, call it an inch-and-a-half of black and brown fur. It can't be ignored when you hold it curled in your hand, a gram of divinity.
That was a decade ago. The brain-secreted hormone that triggers the transformation had been known for a long time. Now, in the 4 December issue of Science, researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina identify the receptor of the hormone and its signaling cascade, taking us closer to unraveling the chemistry of what would appear to be an inexplicable mystery. Here is the abstract of their report. Don't worry about understanding it; I don't. But we get the drift. Drosophilia, by the way, is the ever-helpful fruit fly.
Holometabolous insects undergo complete metamorphosis to become sexually mature adults. Metamorphosis is initiated by brain-derived prothoracicotropic hormone (PTTH), which stimulates the production of the molting hormone ecdysone via an incompletely defined signaling pathway. Here we demonstrate that Torso, a receptor tyrosine kinase that regulates embryonic terminal cell fate in Drosophila, is the PTTH receptor. Trunk, the embryonic Torso ligand, is related to PTTH, and ectopic expression of PTTH in the embryo partially rescues trunk mutants. In larvae, torso is expressed specifically in the prothoracic gland (PG), and its loss phenocopies the removal of PTTH. The activation of Torso by PTTH stimulates extracellular signal–regulated kinase (ERK) phosphorylation, and the loss of ERK in the PG phenocopies the loss of PTTH and Torso. We conclude that PTTH initiates metamorphosis by activation of the Torso/ERK pathway.
Does understanding the chemistry of metamorphosis disenchant the world. In a sense, yes. But in a more important sense, no. It replaces one enchantment with another -- bigger, more encompassing. The metamorphosis of the woolly bear becomes part of the biochemical fire that animates the world. The two blockquoted passages above -- from Natural Prayers and Science -- do not stand in opposition. They complement each other. Mind and heart. Knowledge and feeling. Science and poetry go hand in hand.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The sea around us

A tidy, quiet shore this, this carbonate island in the tropics. The island itself is a fragile thing, the substance of it so soft one can nearly break it apart with one's hand. Every now and then the crumbling rocks at the back of the beach will reveal a bottle from the last century or so, a sure sign of how quickly the sand consolidates into soft stone, then crumbles again. Our tide pools are sparsely populated, I suppose, compared to the granite shores of the North Atlantic, but the reefs -- ah, the reefs, glorious things those, full of colorful creatures that would have no use for their bright raiment in the dark waters of the north.

I'm reading Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson. She begins with Carson's testimony before a Senate committee on environmental pollution sparked by the publication of her bombshell of a book in 1962, Silent Spring, an event that as much as anything marked the awakening of environmental consciousness around the world. As she testified, Carson was dying of cancer. Lear writes: "Carson could not be silent. She had peered into the fairy caves and tide pools of her beloved Maine coast and had seen the fragility and tenacity with which even the smallest creatures struggled for life against the relentless ocean tides. Her flashlight had captured the unforgettable spectacle of the solitary crab on the rocky beach at midnight, vulnerable yet unassailably resilient. She could not stand idly by and say nothing when all that was in jeopardy, when human existence itself was endangered."

I'm old enough to remember the aerial spraying of DDT in New England, that gentle rain of poison from the sky. When I visited my girlfriend in Florida, now my wife, trucks went up and down the streets bestowing poison on one and all, mosquitos and human babies alike. The chemical industry, of course, wasn't happy with Carson's book, any more than great segments of industry today are happy about those who warn of global warming. Just how all that works out remains to be seen, but we can thank Rachel Carson for teaching us how to have the conversation. Which prompts me to make sure to take a walk down the beach this morning, to the place where tide pools skitter and weave in their fragile vestments of living matter.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Holidays

For the next week or so I will be posting every other day. Not only am I dealing with an almost non-existent internet connection -- the bytes might as well be coming in by mail boat -- three of the kids, their spouses and all six grandchildren will be here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sacred heart

Let me share a page or so of my friend Brian Doyle's marvelous little book The Wet Engine (2005), which is both an account of the heart surgery that saved the life of his infant son, born with a three-chambered heart, and a song of praise for the heart itself and the wizard physicians who mend them.
Consider the astounding journey your blood embarks upon as it enters the pumping station of your heart. It is a healthy heart, a heart that works as it has been designed to work over many millions of years by its creative and curious and tireless and nameless holy wild silent engineer, blood that has been plucked and shucked of its oxygen by the body straggles back into the right atrium, the capacious gleaming lobby of the heart.

The tired blood, dusty veteran of an immense and exhausting journey, shuffles forward to and through a small circular door in the wall, a door with three symmetrical flaps: the tricuspid valve.

This circular door opens into another big room, the right ventricle; but at the very instant the right ventricle is filled to capacity with tired blood the entire ventricle contracts! slamming in on itself, and our tired heroes are sent flying through the pulmonary valve and thence into the pulmonary artery, which immediately branches, carrying the blood to the right and left lungs, and there, in the joyous airy countries of the blood vessels of the lungs, your blood is given fresh clean joyous oxygen! gobs and slathers of it! o sweet and delicious air! as much as those heroic blood cells can hoist aboard their tiny cellular ships, and now they resume their endless journey, heading into the marshlands and swamps of the lungs, the capillary beds, which open into the small streams and creeks called venules, which are tributaries of the pulmonary veins. There are four of these magic pulmonary rivers carrying your necessary elixir back to the looming holy castle of the heart, which they will enter this time through the left atrium, whose job is to disperse and assign the blood to the rest of the body, to send it on its quest and voyage and journey to the vast and mysterious wilderness that is You, and to tell that tale of the journeys of your blood cells through the universe of you, would take a billion books, each alike, each utterly different.
Brian's exuberant prose (which always rubs off on me) matches the exuberance with which he embraces life, life that he doesn't hesitate to call holy, and joyous, and mysterious, and wild. I always love to read his stuff, which seems to pop up everywhere in print, at least in the print I have the habit of visiting, because he has a way of reminding me just how holy and joyous and mysterious is the utterly commonplace, such as that utterly commonplace organ pumping away in my chest, so far infallibly, maybe two or three billion heaves so far, may it keep heaving for another few hundred million beats. Thanks, Brian, for reminding me that it's all gape-jawed marvelous, and that knowing more and more about how it works in no way diminishes the gape-jawed marvel but brings a prayer to the lips, not a petition to Mr. Big, not a cry for attention ("Me, Lord, me."), but a simple spontaneous undirected litany of praise and thanksgiving that gets longer and longer the more we learn, may it never end.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Yikes!

Hopeless connection. Give me a little more time. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Merry Xmas

Exotic X. Most excellent X. Tricksy spirit of the alphabet.

Or should I say, trixsy spirit. Pixie spirit. Ariel, yes. Caliban, too. (Noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight.) Feet apart, arms upraised. Jumping jax.

Give me an X, right here on my lips. X marks the spot. A sexy kiss. An X-rated kiss. Knock my sox off.

Make your mark. The mysterious Mister X. X-Files. X-men. Tic-tac-toe. Xanadu.

What would science do without its X?

Roman numeral, number ten.

Multiplication.

X the unknown. Was it Mr. Descartes who used it first? La Geometrie, 1637.

X-axis. Y-axis. Analytical geometry.

Mr. Roentgen and his mysterious radiation. Black hole Cygnus X-1, spewing X-rays.

Xe for xenon, noble gas, atomic number 54.

X chromosome. Sex chromosome. XX=female. XY=male.

Planet X?

What other letter has such a checkered history? Happily Greek, but not much heavy lifting in basic English. Xylophones on children's blocks.

We love X in math and science, maybe because it loves us, greedy for meaning, bearing on its broad shoulders everything we hope to understand but cannot yet say.

*****************************************

And with that, I head off to the island in the sun. No post tomorrow. Maybe Thursday. Never know what I'll find waiting on the island for an internet connection. Until I know what I have and how the new Comments works, abstain from posting flicks or images.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Under the suns of heaven

A decade of so before he died, in 2006 at age 71, the Irish writer John McGahern wrote of his Catholic childhood: "I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone."

I trust his remark sounds familiar. You have often heard something similar here. McGahern is a year or two older than me. He was raised in the same RC culture, although, as we now know, the Irish schools were far grimmer places than parochial schools in America. Irish civil culture, too, was dominated by the Church in a way that was never part of my upbringing. But as for what we were taught in church and school, it was the same -- that uniquely Roman Catholic mix of pagan earthiness, Irish Jansenism, and supernaturalist theology.

There is no way to shed it all, even if I wanted too. Nor is there any need to. With McGahern, I value the awareness of mystery and wonderment I bear from my youth, the sense of grace and sacrament. I value too the pagan immersion in the thisness of the world -- light and dark, bread and wine, water and flame, wax and chrism. As for belief -- that creaky body of supernaturalist lore, the miracles, the petitionary prayers, the fairytale hagiography, the elaborate calculus of sin and salvation, the paternalism, the misogyny, the homophobia -- it's gone, all gone.

Consider this Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) from a few days ago, a Hubble near-infrared image of the same part of the sky as the visual Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) photograph of 2004. (I have outlined the area of the new image on the HUDF below. Click to enlarge.) The infrared image is not quite as sharp, but shows even more distant galaxies from a time when the universe was only a few percent of its present age. With the exception of two foreground stars that show diffraction spikes, every blur or dot in the picture is a galaxy, a system of hundreds of billions of stars. All of this in a part of the sky that could be covered by the intersection of two crossed sewing pins held at arms length. Go out tonight and hold those pins up against the black night sky and imagine the tens of thousands of galaxies hiding there. Then know that you'd see the same thing looking in any direction into the night.


Anyone who can grasp what it is we are looking at and still believe that a personal creator of the whole shebang has communicated to them -- through whatever holy book, prophet, tradition, or accident of birth -- some body of revealed non-empirical supernatural truth, well, they are certainly more credulous than me.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Storytime


I have blogged my sculptor friend John Holstead on several previous occasions. Here is a photo of what must surely be his most ambitious piece yet, called "The Story So Far", approaching its final manifestation. The chalk lines and numbers presumably have something to do with how John will finish the piece. Click to enlarge.

It has been a year or more in the making. The work is fashioned from laminations of plywood. The shape is based on a double Mobius strip. I can't begin to tell you how many hours of work on the computer were necessary to generate the patterns of the laminae -- many dozens of cutouts of 18 mm plywood, glued together and smoothed by hand. John showed me the computer renditions last summer; they are almost as marvelous as the work itself.

There is something cosmic going on here. I think of John as rather like Plato's Demiurge, a genial, bearded Olympian molding a universe with his hands. What we have is -- according to John -- only the story so far, but it seems to be a story without beginning or end, with enough convolutions and hidden recesses to keep us wondering and busy, and enough confidence in an underlying simplicity to insure that we don't just throw up our hands and walk away. A nice metaphor, I suppose, for the world we live in.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whatever what is is

I watched The Last Picture Show again the other evening, for the first time since it was in the theaters in the early 1970s. Talk about reliving one's past! High school in the south in the early 1950s. All those Hank Williams songs and raging hormones.

I was stuck by something Ellen Burstyn, as Jacy's mom Lois, said toward the end of the film. She is talking about an early fling she had with Sam the Lion, played by Ben Johnson, who has just died. "I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd just about have missed it, whatever it is."

Lois knows she had something special with Sam, who is the moral center of the film and the town, but she's not quite sure what it was. She speaks out of that moral center that is in each of us, part of our biological heritage, a fragile seed of protein-mediated goodness that needs to be sheltered and cultivated if it's to blossom and flourish. Lois knows what's right, and wants it for her daughter, but somehow it slips just beyond her grasp. There's a contradictory part of our biological makeup too, selfish and hormonal.

I'm reminded of a little four-line poem by Galway Kinnell, called Prayer:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only
that. But that.
We start with what we are, with whatever "what is" is, some crazy mix of genes and nurture and environment, and we walk that perilous path from cradle to grave. Some folks think they know what "what is" is. That can be a cup of solace for them, I suppose. It can also be a basin of trouble for those who have a different notion of what "what is" is, or for those who have no idea at all.

I'll stick with Lois and Kinnell. With what Howard Nemerov writes about in this little poem called "A Life":
Innocence?
In a sense.
In no sense!

Was that it?
Was that it?
Was that it?

That was it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Can we be too clean?

As reported in the 3 December issue of Nature, a group of British researchers have shown that baby pigs raised outside in the dirt have healthier immune systems that baby pigs raised indoors.

I mentioned this to my spouse and she just smirked and said, "I could have told you that fifty years ago."

In fact, she did tell me that fifty years ago. She always said, "Let the kids get dirty, it will boost their immune systems."

At the time, I wrote off what she said as an excuse for the fact that she always felt she had something more important to do than be a fastidious housekeeper.

"Get 'em out of the playpen," she said, "let 'em crawl around on the floor." "But the floor's dirty," I said, "they'll lap up germs." "All the better for their immune system," she said.

As it turned out, our kids were never sickly, and maybe the baby pigs explain why.

Some years ago, the Binney & Smith Company introduced Magic Scent Crayolas, with aromas such as chocolate, licorice, cherry and blueberry. Parents complained that the foody scents might entice the kids to eat their crayons. So the crayon-makers changed to nonfood scents, such as dirt, smoke, leather and lumber, forgetting, apparently, that dirt is one of the things kids are most likely to put in their mouths. In announcing the change, a spokesperson for Crayola got one thing right. "Kids love dirt," she said.

Kids love dirt, indeed. Against the wishes of fastidious parents and the conventions of modern civilization, kids love getting dirty. Non-dirt floors are a rather recent development in human history -- not to mention playpens -- and all those millions of years that our soapless ancestors sat in the dirt eating unwashed food with unwashed hands may have left their mark on the immune system we are born with. It is probably worth noting that "human" and "humus" come from the same ancient Indo-European root, dhghem, meaning "earth."

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but too much cleanliness may not be best for kids and pigs.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Through thick and thin

The idea of place has been on my mind since my walk Tuesday with Professor Ives' Buddhist Ethics class. We didn't talk much about Buddhism, or ethics, because I don't know much about the former, and would be reluctant to pronounce on the latter, so we gathered at the plank bridge in a chilly afternoon sun and let the stillness of the place envelop us. I tried to evoke the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect who laid out this property a hundred years ago -- landscape as spiritual nourishment. His talent thickened the place; otherwise our plank bridge, our meandering brook and our blackwater pond might be just any other bridge, brook and pond -- except that we were honoring them by being there. And paying attention.

I quoted Scott Russell Sanders: "There are no privileged locations. If you stay put, your place may become a holy center, not because it gives you special access to the divine, but because in your stillness you hear what might be heard anywhere. All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look."

And Rick Nelson: "As time went by, I realized that the particular place I'd chosen was less important than the fact that I'd chosen a place and focused my life around it. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received."

And Ann Michaels: "If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another."

No need to go gallivanting off across the planet looking for "thin places," those supposed locations where the veil separating us from the divine can be easily brushed aside. Give me instead any place -- my place, your place -- and let it be thick enough to dig and delve for a lifetime without exhausting its bounty. Attention and knowledge. Reliable scientific knowledge of the world thickens any place, opens a door into cosmic space and time, sings us into the dance of the DNA, rubs our noses in the sacred here and now.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Eye in the sky

Before there was Google Earth there was the Photo-Atlas of the United States: A Complete Photographic Atlas of the U.S.A. Using Satellite Photography, published by the Ward Ritchie Press in 1975. Each two-page duotone spread covers an area of land 280 miles wide and 210 miles long. Prominent features are labeled on the photomaps, and a sidebar gives some pertinent geographical information.

I came across the atlas in the college library the other day, and in the back pocket was the check-out card with my handwritten name scribbled on both sides. It appears that I often had the book in my possession in the late-1970s and 80s. Flying around the country on book tours I always reserved a window seat, and I wanted to know what I was looking at. A plane took about 30 minutes to fly over a page of the atlas.

I also used the photo atlas when creating one of my first published books, A Geologic and Topographic Profile of United States Along Interstate 80 (also called in another version Reading the Landscape Along Interstate 80: The Rock Beneath, the Land Above), published by Hubbard in 1982, a thin cardboardy booklet that provided a continuous geologic, topographic and meteorological profile of the country from San Francisco to New York, with explanatory captions. Alas, it has long since gone out of print. It's not listed under "Books" on this blog, and I was hard pressed to find the copy I scanned for the two pages below. (Click to enlarge, then again.) I notice that several copies are available on Amazon from private sellers, for $20-25!

Too bad it's gone; I always thought it was one of the niftiest things I've done. My original plan was an accordian-fold book that would reach right across a classroom wall. The publisher balked at that, but by buying two copies one could easily make a continuous cross-section, as I did for my own classroom. I wonder where that prop is now?

Anyway, back to Google Earth. Quite an improvement over the old photo-atlas. Wouldn't it be lovely if the airlines provided seat-back screens with the option of scrolling, high-resolution, labeled Google Earth imagery of the landscape one was flying over -- a splendid geography lesson for anyone in a window seat.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The One and the Many

The Greeks called it "the Problem of the One and the Many." It was and remains the central problem of Western philosophy, and other philosophical traditions.

We live in a world of a myriad particulars -- ephemeral, mutable, apparently chaotic. Every tree, every blade of grass, every person is unique, and changing from moment to moment. Yet we intuitively recognize something called treeness, grassness, personness. Something deep and profound within us seeks that which is one and enduring -- the constant behind the flux.

The One might be material, as the primordial water of Thales , or the eternal atoms of Democritus. It might be the immaterial mathematical abstractions of the Pythagoreans, the Demiurge of Plato, or the omnipotent, omnipresent personal God of the Christians. In every case, the quest is for the unitary, the fixed, the generality behind the particulars.

Science is the quintessential Western way to seek the One, and is rapidly emerging as a panhuman path. What is sought is called the Laws of Nature -- the minimum number of mathematically expressible relationships that account in principle for the greatest number of particularities. In this quest, science has borrowed from Thales, Democritus, Pythagorus, Plato and countless others who blazed the trail. And for many of us, the quest subsumed the gods and supernatural spirits generally, or at least rendered them superfluous.

Science plies its trade in the realm of the general -- treeness, grassness, personness. Poetry lives in the realm of particulars -- this tree, this blade of grass, this person. Reliable knowledge of the general enhances our experience of the particular. An esthetically experienced particular intimates the general.

Each of us lives out our life somewhere between the One and the Many. As the wisest teachers have always suggested, the art of living consists of finding a balance between that which flows and that which abides.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Tao

One of the few nature-themed books in my parents' library was Donald Culross Peattie's Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists, published by the Literary Guild in 1936, the year I was born. I assume my mother belonged to the Guild, and that the book came as a monthly selection. Certainly, The Book-of-the-Month Club was the source for many of the books on her shelves.

I still own the book, and like all of Peattie's work, it is a good read. I return to it now and then, as last evening, when I read again his chapter on the great French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. The chapter is called "Fabre and the Epic Commonplace," and it occurs to me that Fabre and his wonderful books on insects and spiders had a significant influence on my life.

From him I imbibed a sense that any place can be every place, that nature is all of a piece. Or as Peattie writes of Fabre:
He gave himself heart and soul to the intimate, patient, sympathetic study of that life which live all about us; he saw that the same secret, the same beauty, the same tremendous significances are everywhere. Any life is all life, and the line of attack for the naturalist begins at the front door -- or better still, at the back gate.
Tomorrow, I will visit with Professor Ives' class in Buddhist Ethics. The students will have read my book The Path, as part of a discussion of the spirit and ethic of place, and we will walk the Path together. In the introduction to that book I wrote: "Any path can become the Path if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise." The path, the way, the Tao. I don't know much about Eastern religion, but I do suspect there is a relationship between a physical path and a spiritual path, as the tradition of pilgrimage in all the world's religions suggests.

My Path, like Fabre's, starts at the back gate. It may not lead to heaven, but it has provided satisfying glimpses of the epic commonplace.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Getting from A to B

Biologist and science writer Nick Lane has a new book out called Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. Any list of ten will inevitably be idiosyncratic, but here's Lane's choices:
1. The origin of life
2. DNA
3. Photosynthesis
4. The complex cell
5. Sex
6. Movement
7. Sight
8. Hot blood
9. Consciousness
10. Death
One might reasonably add proteins, fermentation, respiration, embryonic development, multicellularity, smell, and so on, but let's not quibble. Perhaps the most shocking item on any list of evolution's "great inventions" is death, but without death we wouldn't have the other things on the list.

We don't yet have a complete understanding of how any of these things evolved. Lot's of good ideas, yes, such as the origin of the eukaryotic cell by symbiosis of prokaryotes. But those who see the hand of an Intelligent Designer in these "inventions" have lots of wiggle room for speculation.

I have reviewed here Richard Dawkins' new book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Dawkins makes it all sound like an open and shut case, which it isn't. For all we know, some major new concept will be required to give the story completion. And if that's so, why do scientists so adamantly exclude a Designer as a missing factor?

For two reasons. First, it simply applies a word -- "God" -- to get from A to B, a word that has zero possibility of empirical study or verification. "Hocus-pocus" has exactly the same expanatory power. Second, and equally important, is Ockham's Razor: Don't invoke a supernatural explanation until natural explanations have been exhausted. For all of the "inventions" on Lane's list, we are a long way from exhausting natural explanations. In the meantime, we say, "I don't know, but here are some ideas worth pursuing."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

In the hidden world

Bacteria are small. One hundred typical bacteria could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. And then there's Mycoplasma pneumoniae, one of the smallest organisms known, ten times smaller than your run-of-the-mill bacteria. It causes the disease mycoplasma pneumonia. One thousand could march head-to-tail across this period.

The only living thing smaller than Mycoplasma pneumoniae is a virus, and we could debate whether viruses are alive.

That is to say, Mycoplasma pneumoniae is tiny. Wee. Itsy. Bitsy. If you think this period (.) is small, well, it's like a football stadium for Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

It has one of the smallest known genomes, with 816 kilobase pairs, nearly three thousand times smaller than the genome of maize, enough info to make only a few hundred proteins. Not enough genes for much of a life of its own, which is why it has a parasitical eye on you and me.

Three papers in the 27 November issue of Science provide and exhaustive analysis of Mycoplasma pneumoniae, including its proteins and metabolism. Here's Nicholas Wade of the New York Times:
The bacterium is a collection of some 200 specialized protein machines. The machines are composed of individual proteins, which recognize each other and assemble into complexes. Some of the machines make copies of the genes embodied in the DNA of the bacterium's genome. Others, called ribosomes, synthesize proteins according to the genetic instructions they receive. Another class, called chaperones, make sure the new proteins fold up correctly. Then there are processing machines in which each component carries out one step of a multistage chemical process.
And here is an eye-popping schematic from Science of Mycoplasma pneumoniae's metabolism. Click to enlarge, and again if you wish.


The story I want to tell is this: All of this fabulous machinery is humming away in a living organism so small that a thousand could line up on this period. Even the simplest bacterium is wonderfully complex. And, perhaps equally amazing, is that researchers are able to analyze in such exquisite detail what is happening on so small a scale. It's like figuring out the blueprint of a modern petrochemical plant that has been reduced to a size that would let a million petrochemical plants fit on the head of a pin.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Mandala

One more organism yields its genome. This time it's maize, what Americans call corn, domesticated over the past 10,000 years from the Central American grass teosinte, one of the world's most important food crops and an important model organism for research into the inheritance and function of genes. A 2.3 gigabase genome (2.3 billion steps on the DNA "spiral staircase"), 32,000 genes on ten chromosomes. The successful sequencing was announced in the 20 November issue of Science.

Let me draw your attention to two aspects of the Science report.

First, here is the list of authors:
Patrick S. Schnable, Doreen Ware, Robert S. Fulton, Joshua C. Stein, Fusheng Wei, Shiran Pasternak, Chengzhi Liang, Jianwei Zhang, Lucinda Fulton, Tina A. Graves, Patrick Minx, Amy Denise Reily, Laura Courtney, Scott S. Kruchowski, Chad Tomlinson, Cindy Strong, Kim Delehaunty, Catrina Fronick, Bill Courtney, Susan M. Rock, Eddie Belter, Feiyu Du, Kyung Kim, Rachel M. Abbott, Marc Cotton, Andy Levy, Pamela Marchetto, Kerri Ochoa, Stephanie M. Jackson, Barbara Gillam, Weizu Chen, Le Yan, Jamey Higginbotham, Marco Cardenas, Jason Waligorski, Elizabeth Applebaum, Lindsey Phelps, Jason Falcone, Krishna Kanchi, Thynn Thane, Adam Scimone, Nay Thane, Jessica Henke, Tom Wang, Jessica Ruppert, Neha Shah, Kelsi Rotter, Jennifer Hodges, Elizabeth Ingenthron, Matt Cordes, Sara Kohlberg, Jennifer Sgro, Brandon Delgado, Kelly Mead, Asif Chinwalla, Shawn Leonard, Kevin Crouse, Kristi Collura, Dave Kudrna, Jennifer Currie, Ruifeng He, Angelina Angelova, Shanmugam Rajasekar, Teri Mueller, Rene Lomeli, Gabriel Scara, Ara Ko, Krista Delaney, Marina Wissotski, Georgina Lopez, David Campos, Michele Braidotti, Elizabeth Ashley, Wolfgang Golser, HyeRan Kim, Seunghee Lee, Jinke Lin, Zeljko Dujmic, Woojin Kim, Jayson Talag, Andrea Zuccolo, Chuanzhu Fan, Aswathy Sebastian, Melissa Kramer, Lori Spiegel, Lidia Nascimento, Theresa Zutavern, Beth Miller, Claude Ambroise, Stephanie Muller, Will Spooner, Apurva Narechania, Liya Ren, Sharon Wei, Sunita Kumari, Ben Faga, Michael J. Levy, Linda McMahan, Peter Van Buren, Matthew W. Vaughn, Kai Ying, Cheng-Ting Yeh, Scott J. Emrich, Yi Jia, Ananth Kalyanaraman, An-Ping Hsia, W. Brad Barbazuk, Regina S. Baucom, Thomas P. Brutnell, Nicholas C. Carpita, Cristian Chaparro, Jer-Ming Chia, Jean-Marc Deragon, James C. Estill, Yan Fu, Jeffrey A. Jeddeloh, Yujun Han, Hyeran Lee, Pinghua Li, Damon R. Lisch, Sanzhen Liu, Zhijie Liu, Dawn Holligan Nagel, Maureen C. McCann, Phillip SanMiguel, Alan M. Myers, Dan Nettleton, John Nguyen, Bryan W. Penning, Lalit Ponnala, Kevin L. Schneider, David C. Schwartz, Anupma Sharma, Carol Soderlund, Nathan M. Springer, Qi Sun, Hao Wang, Michael Waterman, Richard Westerman, Thomas K. Wolfgruber, Lixing Yang, Yeisoo Yu, Lifang Zhang, Shiguo Zhou, Qihui Zhu, Jeffrey L. Bennetzen, R. Kelly Dawe, Jiming Jiang, Ning Jiang, Gernot G. Presting, Susan R. Wessler, Srinivas Aluru, Robert A. Martienssen, Sandra W. Clifton, W. Richard McCombie, Rod A. Wing, and Richard K. Wilson
One-hundred-and-fifty-seven participants from more than 30 departments or institutions, all but two in the USA. Of particular note is the apparent ethnicity of the names. Of all human activities, science is most successful at cutting across cultural boundaries. Race, religion, politics, gender: All are irrelevant in the face of reproducible empirical data. The predominance of apparently Chinese names deserves notice.

Second, take a look at this graphic from the article, a schematic of several aspects of the maize genome, with a comparison to the genomes of the related cereals rice and sorghum. Never mind the details; just enjoy this one way of representing the hidden beauty of life, a "four-letter" symphony playing out in every cell of every kernel of maize. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Perfection

An article on cybersecurity in the December 13 issue of Science begins with this epigraph:
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
        --Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince
The quote is from Saint-Exupery, all right, but not in The Little Prince. It is from Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of Saint-Exupery's adventures as a pilot for the French national air service flying the mail from France to her colonies in North Africa, in the late-1920s and 1930s.

The quote has been widely used in reference to everything from art to life. In fact, Saint-Exupery is writing about airplanes -- or, more generally, machines.
Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane, but about whatever man builds, that all of man's industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working drafts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
For an airplane, a bare simplicity of form and function is ideal. Anything superfluous adds weight and diminishes efficiency; anything less and the plane falls from the sky.

Saint-Exupery's analogy of the "elementary purity" of the human breast or shoulder invites us to compare human engineering with the "many generations" of biological evolution. Indeed, this is the argument for so-called Intelligent Design; that organisms are masterpieces of form and function -- nothing to be added, nothing to be taken away. In fact, any good human engineer could readily improve on the human organism. For all of the efficiency with which we are adapted to our environment, we carry within our bodies a myriad of inefficiencies inherited from our past. Anyone who thinks we are as perfectly designed as an F-16, say, need only read George C. Williams' The Pony Fish's Glow for a delightful compendium of things in the human organism that appear to be ineptly designed.

For example, you'd never expect a fuel line in an airplane to connect the fuel tank to the adjacent engine by way of a round trip to the other end of the plane -- like the tubes from the testes to the urethra in the human male. The ear is another body part that could use the attentions of a good engineer. Hammer, anvil and stirrup: Where did those crazy little mechanisms come from? Five separate membranes and three fleshy loops that seem, on the face of it, superfluous. It's no surprise that my doctor doesn't have a clue why I have ringing in my ear, or how to fix it. And while we're at it, ask my ten-year-old granddaughter about her recent bout of appendicitis.

Natural selection is efficient at adapting an organism incrementally to its environment, but must work only with what's at hand and with no awareness of the future. It does not "invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity."


(My copy of Wind, Sand and Stars is the 1940 Lewis Galantiere translation published by Harcourt, Brace and Co.. It does not strike me as a particularly adept translation, as the above differences in the quote suggest.)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Are men necessary?

Quite some some ago, James Thurber and E. B. White wrote a classic little book called Is Sex Necessary? More recently, Maureen Dowd refined the question with a book called Are Men Necessary? From a biological point of view, if you are going to get rid of sex, it's the males who will be bumped out of a job. In fact, many species of plants and animals get along quite nicely with self-fertilization.

As Aneil Agrawal writes in the 19 November issue of Nature: "On the face of it, self-fertilization is the efficient way to breed: compared with outcrossing [two parents], there's usually much less fuss, for a start. So why isn't reproduction by selfing far more prevalent than it is?"

It's a perennial question, one that has befuddled evolutionary biologists ever since Darwin. Self-fertilization eliminates the dangerous, difficult and chancy business of finding a mate. One parent -- usually the female -- makes the largest investment in bearing and raising the young. Males, who don't bear offspring, would seem to be an unnecessary "cost" in reproduction. Why in the world did natural selection invent two sexes?

As Agrawal writes: "Among the hypothesized benefits of outcrossing are that it reduces the effects of deleterious mutations, or that it improves the ability to adapt to changing environmental circumstances." A mix of two sets of genes -- outcrossing -- is better than one.

Agrawal's article is by way of introducing a report in the same issue, by researchers at the University of Oregon, that demonstrates quite tidily the advantages of genetic exchange.

They worked with the little nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans that I've written about here many times before. About a millimeter long, as thin as spider silk And just 959 cells. Exactly. About as simple as an animal can be and still be manifestly an animal. Wild-type populations of C. elegans exhibit a low to moderate level of outcrossing.

Our researchers started with two mutant strains of C. elegans, one exclusively outcrossing, the other exclusively selfing. They put them into novel and challenging environments -- a physically rugged terrain, and an environment laced with bacterial pathogens. In both cases, after 40 or 50 generations, the outcrossers had adapted nicely to the new circumstances, the selfers not at all.

What's good for the worms is presumably good for us too. Maybe males are useful after all.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Hedging the bets

Cover description, Nature, 5 November: "The cover shows colonies of the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens that have evolved the capacity to switch randomly between colony types, enabling them to thrive in a fluctuating artificial environment that constantly favors different colonies. This laboratory demonstration of the evolution of 'bet hedging' illustrates a strategy that may have been among the earliest evolutionary solutions to life in fluctuating environments."

It's a dicey world
we live in. War.
Swine flu. Global warming.
The "greatest economic crisis
since the Great Depression."
The guy in the coffee shop
going postal.

                        So
we hedge our bets, buy
health insurance, keep a gun
in the bedside table, money
under the mattress, extra canned food
in the pantry. You never know
about these fluctuating
artificial environments that favor
different ways of getting by.

It's an old story, four billion
years old at least. Our one-celled
ancestors hedged their bets,
always prepared to pull
the old switcheroo, a cache
of useful phenotypes
tucked in the genome, money
under the mattress, so to speak.

Even the lowly bacterium
Pseudomonas fluorescens,
initially comfy in its comfy world,
quickly learns de novo
in the lab to hedge its bets
when subjected to a challenging
new environment -- climate change
of a sort.

                An evolutionary lesson,
I suppose, as we debate
health care, carbon caps,
energy independence, military
escalation: It's always good
to have a stash of alternate strategies
up one's sleeve.