06 July 2019

breakfast with a teacher

It so happens that R is not only my gardener and my cook but also a science teacher. Last month was our 37th wedding anniversary, BTW,  and that makes him my personal science teacher. Never mind that he is officially retired because, once a teacher always a teacher. There are moments when for me, this translates into once a stroppy student always a stroppy student, but as a lifelong proponent of positive affirmation, he just ignores my antics.

Anyway, breakfast. Outside under the pear tree.
Out of the blue, he tests my knowledge about genotype and phenotype and I bullshit along, mumble something about genotype + environment = phenotype* and so on for a while, waiting for the punch line - knowing full well that he is onto something but wants me to figure it out (see above: once a teacher . . .).  OK, he lectures on in his benign teaching voice, so what do you know about the extended phenotype?
I am in deep water here because biology is not my forte and bullshitting only gets you that far. But I remember something he mentioned a while ago and I reply, oh you mean that stuff about the brainwashed ants climbing trees for the fungus? Yep, he says, that's an excellent example.
 **Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the zombie-ant fungus (. . .) infects a carpenter ant, (. . . ) grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind. Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. It forces the ant to permanently lock its mandibles around a leaf. Eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores. And because the ant typically climbs a leaf that overhangs its colony’s foraging trails, the fungal spores rain down onto its sisters below, zombifying them in turn. (more here)
I didn't quite use all these clever words, but I passed the exam.

But let's take this a step further. Consider the Earth. We humans have been identified as a virus and so, quite naturally, the earth is producing antibodies and stimulating a fever to rid itself of the disease. 
Humans are like any other organism, e.g bacteria, with access to an almost abundant energy source — in our case, fossil fuels. 
By the time we run out of energy and resources to exploit, our population will crash back to something manageable or die off completely. We are the zombie ants.

How stupid is that compared to the clever fungus. And I don't mean we should enslave ants but good grief, what are we thinking!? Where is the extended phenotype when you need it?

Our problem is the fact that we continue to convince ourselves that since we have all sorts of meaningless gadgets we are special and above such natural processes and that describing our violent and cruel ways of trampling around on this planet with the word 'civilisation' means we are onto some sort of noble path. 
We call it progress and think it's normal to be able to buy foods from all over the world when we fancy them and then throw them away when I forget to eat them, to (insert your favourite non-sustainable activity here).

And we all know that this cannot last forever. We pretend we don't, But We Do. Don't tell me you don't. We are skilled in creating delusional thoughts. Anything to stave off the forecast of a much poorer and more vulnerable way of life, while (just look!) nearly every other human’s life on Earth, now and throughout history, has been poorer and more vulnerable than ours. 

The hardest part of this is, really, that we know, WE KNOW, how to solve this. 

(Remember: 1. It's warming. 2. It's us. 3. We're sure. 4. It's bad. 5. We can fix it.)

* https://pged.org/what-is-genotype-what-is-phenotype/


  1. I have always thought that it was easier to DO something about a problem than to have to quit doing something. Like with losing weight- easier to start exercising than to give up certain foods. Unfortunately, that rarely works. But doesn't it sound terrific that we could "just" plant billions of acres of forest to reverse the damage?
    More of the pretending which of course I do.
    Look! It's raining! All is well. No need to worry.

  2. I have to overcome the idea that I am just one person and can barely make a dent in this huge crisis in global warming, and politics, too.I have to embrace the idea that to change the world we have only to change ourselves.

  3. I keep trying to grasp how we can change it with 7.7 billion people who all need food and water. I so wish there was an answer that was truly doable. We're not even letting people who are fleeing the effects of climate into my country. The global impact of our human footprint is so big. It's going to take a global consciousness raising and a global effort, and it's got to start NOW. I'm trying to be hopeful, I really am.

  4. I blame religion, the Abrahamic ones specifically. their god tells them here is the earth for you to use, be fruitful and multiply. no instructions to tend the garden, no, here it is for you to use. also, made in god's image which we are of course but so is every living thing on the planet and we are not any more so than the lowest of the low no matter that they think humans are special.

  5. Yes, our environment, our mother earth, can shrug us off like any invading species. But wait, what if there's an alien species just watching us do all this shameful stuff? (I'm just halfway kidding, and I don't mean immigrant aliens.) I am so glad to learn from your scientist hubby...and sad for all of us. We gotta do it!

  6. Humans are adept at living in a state of denial. Especially when it comes to concepts that are JUST abstract enough to not be immediately evident every moment of every day. (That will eventually change, of course.)

  7. I had to google "stroppy."

    We are in trouble, there's no doubt about it.