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Science Musings 2004

Selected postings, by Chet Raymo

NOVEMBER 24, 2004

You may have missed the story about the pod of dolphins who saved a group of New Zealand swimmers from shark attack. Apparently this behavior is not unique.

To the extent that these reports are true, they are remarkable examples of cross-species altruism by animals without previously existing alliances with humans.

Sometimes it’s easy to get depressed and believe that humans are genetically destined to kill each other. As often as not the killing instinct is reinforced by religion or politics.

But in fact altruism is deeply ingrained in our biology, and apparently not only in our own species. Of course, nature and nurture play off each other both ways, but when it comes to ethics, I trust the genes more than I trust the self-appointed guardians of public morality, who include, I suppose, my blogging self.

DECEMBER 08, 2004

In his book The Future of Life, biologist E. O. Wilson suggests that we are hardwired for the nearby and the short term.

“The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future.” Anything else was counterproductive from a Darwinian point of view.

If Wilson is right, it is against our biological nature to worry about rain forests in Bolivia, higher sea levels in 2100, or AIDS in Africa.

Our capacious, adaptable brains may not have evolved to take the wide, long view, but they make it possible to do so. Our higher human nature is to transcend our biological nature.

DECEMBER 1, 2004
Is religion in our genes?

Notre Dame Magazine has asked me to write an article on geneticist Dean Hamer’s fine little book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes.

Hamer claims to have identified a gene, rather prosaically called VMAT2, that appears to be related to spirituality.

It is not faith in God that the gene correlates with, but a trait called self-transcendence, a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it. Self-transcendent people may or may not believe in God.

I look forward to the assignment. For the moment, in preparation, I am reading again a book I first read almost half-a-century ago, as an intensely religious undergraduate, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work that stands at the root of all attempts to trace the natural origins of religion.

DECEMBER 07, 2004
Core curriculum

  1. The universe is big. Human space is not cosmic space.2. The universe is old. Human time is not cosmic time.3. The universe evolves — galaxies, stars, planets, life, consciousness.4. The universe perceived by the senses is all we can know. The more we learn about the universe — including ourselves — the more we understand the depths of our ignorance.5. The more we learn, the more we appreciate the universe as the revelation of a Mystery worthy of our wonder, awe, reverence, praise.

DECEMBER 10, 2004
Aglet anxiety

There are tens of trillions of cells in my body and every one of them has about an arm’s length of DNA, packed as 23 pairs of chromosomes. Now I know it sounds impossible that molecules several feet long could be packed into the nucleus of a cell too small to see with the eye, but take my word for it, I’ve done the math, and it fits nicely.

Each strand of DNA is terminated at both ends by a sort of aglet (the little plastic cap on the ends of shoe laces), called a telomere. The telomere insures that the meaningful part of DNA is accurately replicated.

Each time a cell reproduces the telomere gets a bit shorter, and many biologists believe that’s one reason we age. All those DNA shoe laces unraveling at the ends.

Now they tell us that the integrity of telomeres is diminished by stress. No surprise there, but I can feel my aglets peeling away even as I write. Just thinking about those diminishing telomeres is stressing me out.

DECEMBER 11, 2004
Feeder Find

A few days ago my wife spotted an unfamiliar bird at our bird feeder. We pulled out our Stokes guide and identified him as a male Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I mentioned seeing it to the expert bird watcher in our family, Chet. I was delighted to discover that he had never seen one in Massachusetts.

My curiosity piqued, this led me to a Google search where I discovered a terrific website called eBird.org. Run by theCornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird allows birders from across the country to record their observations in one central database.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are common in the Southeast United States, but are slowly moving north. According to observations submitted to eBird, Massachusetts is now at the northern boundary of their range.

Using their mapping tools I discovered that the last reported sighting of a Red Belly in my area of Massachusetts was in October. I dutifully reported our sighting using their submission form. I will keep a look out to see if he returns to the feeder…

DECEMBER 14, 2004
Just musing

When a visitor asked the 15th-century zen master Ikkyu the meaning of life, the master responded, “Attention.” “Is that all?” the visitor reiterated, inpatient. “Attention, attention,” said Ikkyu.

“Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul,” wrote the 17th-century philosopher Nicholas Malebranche. “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” agrees the contemporary poet Mary Oliver. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in another poem; “I do know how to pay attention.”

Sounds so simple, but so hard. To stay awake. To see the flower in the crannied wall, the grain of sand. To listen to the almost inaudible glide of black water under the bridge, the tip-tip of the nuthatch.

The world is inexhaustibly strange, beautiful, terrible. John Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters: “The greatest thing the human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw.”