I can see the stone wall of the Missouri Botanical Garden from my front porch. It often beckons to me. Though my walks are often brisk, I bring a camera to slow me down to catch a brilliant color, an engaging pattern or a playful reflection. Sometimes, I sit for 5 or 10 minutes and try to meditate.
At the MBG, there’s people watching, of course, and this often causes me to think of the people I care most about–how could this not be the case in such a beautiful place?
But the two things come to my mind almost every time I visit the garden:
1. David Attenborough’s “Private Life of Plants.” (It’s about the only thing I keep my VCR for – it’s not available in Zone 1 on DVD). It’s a beautiful video series that blurs the line between flora and fauna, when plant growth is run in fast-motion.
Fascinating research shows that the traits of light colored skin and the ability to digest lactose (found in milk) as adults evolved recently:
First, the scientists confirmed an earlier report that the hunter-gatherers in Europe could not digest the sugars in milk 8000 years ago, according to a poster. They also noted an interesting twist: The first farmers also couldn’t digest milk. The farmers who came from the Near East about 7800 years ago and the Yamnaya pastoralists who came from the steppes 4800 years ago lacked the version of the LCT gene that allows adults to digest sugars in milk. It wasn’t until about 4300 years ago that lactose tolerance swept through Europe.
When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years. The modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today.
Further research shows that being tall or shorter can each have advantages in different environments:
[S]election strongly favored several gene variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans, starting 8000 years ago, with a boost coming from the Yamnaya migration, starting 4800 years ago. The Yamnaya have the greatest genetic potential for being tall of any of the populations, which is consistent with measurements of their ancient skeletons. In contrast, selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain starting 8000 years ago, according to the paper now posted on the bioRxiv preprint server. Spaniards, in particular, shrank in stature 6000 years ago, perhaps as a result of adapting to colder temperatures and a poor diet.
Jonathan Haidt explains why there are not any civilizations without temples, starting at minute 14 of this video. This is the 2013 Boyarsky Lecture at Duke University. About 10,000 years we went from an almost instantaneous transition from hunter-gathers to Babylon. A huge part of our evolutionary development is this newly learned ability of humans to circling around sacred objects (religious and political objects are two dominant examples) in order to form teams. As we circle around, we generate a social energy that knits the social fabric, but also encourages Manichean thinking–us versus them, blinding us to our own faults and faulty thinking. No shades of gray are allowed when we are intensely groupish. This kind of groupish thinking is radically incompatible with scientific thinking. Science is squeezed out, replaced by sacred objects, groupishness and authoritarian obeisance.
At min 24, Haidt gets to the crux of his talk. Those of us who focus on the “care” (empathy) foundation of morality, often circle about it bonding with others like us, rejecting and denigrating the impulses and ideas that tend to drive those who are politically conservative.
One of the most challenging questions in basic biology and the history of evolution and life stems from the unknown origin of the first cells billions of years ago. Though many pieces of the puzzle have been put together, this origin story remains somewhat murky. But a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge believe they’ve accidentally stumbled on an answer, and a very compelling one at that.
Back in 2008, I read Neil Shubin’s book, “Your Inner Fish.” I posted on it here. PBS has worked with Shubin to present a documentary that covers and expands on Shubin’s work. What a great compliment to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. You won’t want to miss this. It’s a story about plasticity, about how your body is bursting with evidence of your animal ancestors. Another reason to watch this: Shubin’s enthusiasm is contagious.
At Slate, Mark Stern argues that creationism is dangerous:
Creationists reject not just evolution but most of the Enlightenment and pretty much all intellectual development since. Rather than celebrate the brilliance of the human mind, they disparage free thought as dangerous and sinful. Instead of extolling the virtues of creativity and imagination, they malign all unorthodox ideas as immoral and wicked. For all creationists’ insistence that evolution denigrates humanity, creationism is fundamentally anti-human, commanding us to spurn our own logic and cognition in favor of absurd sophism derived from a 3,000-year-old text. It turns our greatest ability—to reason—into our greatest enemy. Using our brains, according to creationism, will lead us to sin; only mindless piety can keep us on the track to salvation.
It’s easy to scoff at all this, to giggle at the vivid weirdness of young Earth creationism and then shrug it off as an isolated cult. But the 40 percent of Americans who reject evolution, as well as the tens of thousands of children or more who are being brainwashed with it in publicly funded classrooms, aren’t laughing
A friend of mind was raised as a fundamentalist, but he was also a relentless questioner. As an adult he questioned his beliefs until there were cracks in the foundation. He is now a free-thinker who describes his fundamentalist state of mind as follows: “I was taught to be afraid to question. It was like there was an electrified fence built around my religious beliefs, and I would be risking death to question those beliefs.” The man I’m speaking of is a ferociously smart man, but mere intelligence is not enough. It wasn’t logic that causes people to be fundamentalists, and therefore logic and facts will not undo the damage. That is certainly my experience.
I have much to say about religion and what it takes to communicate meaningfully with believers in my five-part series, “Mending Fences.”