Unexpected Science: Sixth Grade Edition

Lionfish live in the ocean
Little Lauren gets a notion:
Might they live in rivers, too?
Would they thrive in brackish water?
Lauren, ichthyologist’s daughter,
Knows just what to do

Slowly starts desalination
Learns some brand-new information
Of which we’re now aware
New understanding’s always great
So, never underestimate
The sixth-grade science fair! [Read more...]

The Paradox Of The First Common Ancestor

We have no appropriate label
And it seems, well, insulting, a bit
But I really can’t see
Using “He”, or else “She”,
And it almost feels weird using “It”

It’s the most insignificant being
Just a blip—microscopically small
It may not have been strong
But it passed life along—
It’s the ancestor…thing…to us all!

The precise “when and where” it existed
Back some three and a half billion years
Can’t be known, quite precisely
(We’ve asked really nicely),
But just one was the first, it appears.

It was likely short-lived and untraveled
Left no record in stone for today
It was so un-colossal
It left not a fossil
Except, as it were… DNA

No one ever was less influential
No one ever has been so unknown!
So uncommon, so small,
No disciples at all!
And it died—or divided—alone.

No one ever was more influential
More than Presidents, Prophets, or Kings
From completely unknown
How this “first thing” has grown
To the grand-it of all living things

Ok, so this one is inspired by a really annoying post–just a small part of a post I really wanted to vivisect and devour, but which ultimately I found just too distasteful. A theologist–indeed, an associate minister–who, in this post, claims he is “not religious”. Because, you see, his particular approach to christianity is different from all other religions–in fact, he agrees with atheists about all those other religions!

He begins by invoking the muse… that is, by making the tired claim that as soon as a believer says something online, the ravenous dogs of atheism will attack. This will allow him to dismiss anything, say, I might write about his argument. A silly argument is a silly argument, and that is not an attack on a believer–it is calling a pig a pig.

He spends some time making sure you know he has seen those silly other religions, and that he finds them as silly as you do. He refers to Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane”, and allows that it describes religion quite well… though it does seem to have failed to encompass Protestant Christianity! Well, of course his own faith is categorically different from all these other religions! (Mind you, I read “The Sacred and the Profane” back when I was a Protestant Christian, and I was astonished at what similarities my own religion had with all these others! Indeed, Eliade is one of the eye-openers that showed me that my teachers were wrong–that my religion was not, in fact, categorically different!)

Yes, Protestant Christianity is different, because of its rationality. Seriously. Well, because of its apologetics, actually, but those are really the same thing–arguing from premises to conclusions or from conclusions to premises is just quibbling.

Which leads us to “transcendence”. Which cannot possibly be explained without a god. Order, hope, play, humor, and damnation are transcendent because ipse dixit. Evolution could not select for a belief in the transcendent, after all! (Nor peacock’s tails, nor altruism, nor pareidolia, given a sufficiently simplistic understanding of evolution.)

Lastly, he speaks of the “Paradox of Jesus”, which is the inspiration for today’s verse.

How is it that a man who lived a short life, died as a criminal, left no writings and few followers, never travelled more than a few days’ walk from his birthplace, and lived and died in an obscure corner of a vast empire end up having so much influence in the world? No other religious leader lived a life like this—all others lived lives from which you could explain their influence. And yet few have come close in terms of global and historical impact.

Really? The humble beginnings of the First Common Ancestor are more remote, more humble, more improbable by every measure than some cult-leading rabbi some mere thousands of years back. And that rabbi is followed by tens of thousands of splinter groups that interpret his words differently–globally, about a third of the population of one species. The First Common Ancestor has influenced every creature currently living on earth, from archaea to bacteria to fungi to plants to animals to the top of the evolutionary ladder, cephalopods.

Ok, if you really want to see the original post, it’s here. But if you get as annoyed as I did, don’t blame me.

On Coughing And Sneezing My Way Through Valentines Day

It’s Valentine’s Day (and that never gets old)
I could give you my love, but I’d give you my cold
So, much as the Hallmark folks wish to inspire us
I’ll stick to my couch, here, alone with my virus
You’d think some affection is not much to ask
But a kiss ain’t a kiss through a surgical mask
And hugging’s not hugging, I think you can tell,
If, immediately after, you bathe in Purell;
With Lysol’s protection, and thick nitrile gloves
We’ll just have to trust in each other’s true loves
So my gift, from my heart, on this Valentines Day
On behalf of my germs, is to stay far away.

For those who prefer the older Cuttle-valentines, the more-or-less complete collection is here.

Backyard Dinosaur Count This Weekend

It’s time to count the dinosaurs—
It shouldn’t be that hard
Just grab yourself a window
That overlooks your yard
A pencil and some paper
To make a little list
A “field guide to the dinosaurs”
To name the ones you missed
The count begins this Friday,
And by Sunday night, it’s done
It’s time to count the dinosaurs…
So won’t you join the fun?

That’s right, this weekend (which has already started in Australia, so I’d better post this!) is the annual Great Backyard Dinosaur Count (ok, they call it the Great Backyard Bird Count, but as cool as birds are, everything about them is cooler when you remember that they are dinosaurs).

It’s very easy to do, and can take as little as 15 minutes at some point over the weekend, or (if you happen to be an obsessive birder… which phrase might well be redundant…) you can spend every waking moment and a substantial portion of your dreams, from Friday morning to Sunday night, looking out your window and noting the different dinosaur species.

You can guess which end of the spectrum I fall on.

Did You Ever Consider The Possibility That Maybe God Is A Parasitic Worm?

There’s a little kid, infested with a parasitic worm
His extremities are swollen and in pain
But this doesn’t pose a problem, or disprove a loving God
As philosopher Plantinga will explain:

See, God created Eden, which his favorite—Man—beheld,
But of course, the fruit of knowledge, He forbids
It was absolutely perfect, but humanity rebelled
As a consequence, there’s parasites in kids

You can treat the kid for parasites, and have the worms removed
And observe their squirming bodies, tightly curled…
Rejoicing in the agony that must be God-approved,
Knowing this is His created perfect world

From the horrible interview at the NY Times Opinionator Blog:

A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

I would *not* say that such a world would be truly magnificent. Far more people are suffering than in a world I would create if I could. But then, I care about people; I am a person, myself, when I’m not a cuttlefish.

Maybe it is a perfect world, for parasitic worms.

Genesis II (Or III, or IV, or…)

A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.

Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.

It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.

I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.

Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.

But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?

I gotta work on the screenplay.