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Category Archives: science

Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.

 

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Would you like to auto-recycle all your old items now?

When you’re interested enough in something, and sense that there’s so much depth to plumb and you know so little, the beginning of the pieces coming together, for you at least, can seem like a revelation. Like, maybe this stuff is actually not only the key to my life, the way out and up and on to my full potential (which might not be much, but at least it’s an honest evaluation), but it might explain a while lot more. It might explain the entire span of evolution, of the rises and falls and ultimate future demise of human civilization, and even why Trump got elected.

For you, the defining paradigm might be electrolyte balance. Or maybe a macrobiotic or paleolithic diet. Maybe it’s mindful living, or a growth mindset. Maybe keeping your home fires burning, or an attitude of trust and obey, for there’s no other way (not likely, if you are reading this). I respect your right to choose your own lens through which to see the world, but the one I’m trying on is the biology, my love.

The genes we carry want to carry on. That’s by definition, not necessarily an indication of divine purpose (though I don’t rule out the possibility). According to Richard Dawkins, the ultimate unit of life and the driver of all survival instinct is the gene. How genes operate is by building bodies around them made of cells, in myriad forms which carry them into all kinds of environments so they can absorb resources–atoms and molecules to be made into genes and cells and body copies to carry them around. Doesn’t even matter which kind of body they build, as long as it efficiently does the work of replicating those genes and spreading them around. That can be by reproduction, but also by being a host for the replication of other cells and bodies such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses, or food–a quick remix of ingredients, of another beast carrying around similar genes. It’s not the species that’s trying to survive, or the population, or family, or individual, but the genes inside them all.

So if a species which has so far been successful at allowing the replication of the genes within it starts to threaten the replication of the exact same genes in other species (such as chimps, dogs, frogs, or bacteria, all of which are carrying around many of the same genes in varying degrees) it would make sense that the other carriers of the genes might take it down in some way. Likewise, if a carrier gets off on a side track of thinking and behaving as if replication isn’t so important after all, that it’s the life of the spirit, or culture, or just the individual me, myself and I, that matters, then again, the genes influencing that carrier either directly (from within) or indirectly (in the ecosystem) should interfere and go to plan B.226.3alpha, which is, let that species self-destruct, releasing its genes into the parasites, symbionts, decomposers and predators better equipped to do the job. Fire and the gnashing of teeth, start again.

A bit more about the curbing of reproduction: If the evolutionary success or fitness of a species is defined as its ability to sustainably reproduce, why would a population ever stop trying to be fruitful and multiply? Why is it that as humans become more “educated,” they are less likely to try for large families or engage in polygamy, and more likely to use contraception, delay childbearing, or choose not to have children at all? Not, as in the bees and other species, to take care of the head couples’ brood because it ensures the survival of the genes we share in common. Why would genes, which by definition are replicators, allow the formation of thoughts and behaviors that lead to the reduction of reproductive behaviors?

History shows that it’s the most educated and technologically advanced that use, waste, and pollute the most resources, so it’s definitely in the interests of genes to curtail the reproduction of such beings. And we thought it was a sign of higher culture to exercise choice over our own bodies, and of progress to embrace a diversity of types of love, even if they aren’t centered around procreation! Instead, it could be an adaptation to the rise of extra-destructive variations in the human genome, a function of genes that are cutting down on a bad model. Maybe a subsistence life with a good deal of natural mortality might be better for the survival of the fittest. A cultural agenda focused on the eradication of poverty, disease, and homelessness may be at odds with the agenda of the genes within our bodies and in the bodies around us, from the tiniest virus to the dearest friend or relative.

I don’t want that to be true. I’ve got attached to those aspects of my culture and beliefs. Dawkins says we can “rebel” against our genes, the main example being contraception. I’m not convinced—I think Dawkins is being inconsistent. I think he just wants to believe that being an intellectual is higher on the evolutionary chain of fitness than being the head of a polygamous cult in the desert or one of the throngs of wiry street urchins of the inner city that grows up to leave broods of unwashed, unloved children staring through laundry hanging in urban alleys crawling with rats, disease, and criminals. Just like he wants to believe that there is a divine and benevolent creator, though this belief is differently expressed, as a reckless, headlong plunge into logical analysis of biological evidence to the apparent contrary. I can relate to that.

 

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Ideas, science

 

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