The Origin Story of Species

Never fear, Hu-Man is here.

I’ve been thinking about origin stories. I love them, and so do a lot of folks. Consider the heroes of literature, from King Arthur to Harry Potter. Their iconic introductions, the way these protagonists became special, are a big part of why their stories ever grew popular in the first place. Religious heroes, too, are imbued with special beginnings. The nativity of Jesus is one of the most beloved stories in the world, and figures like the Buddha and Confucius have been assigned similarly magical infancies. As an evolutionary biologist, I deal with origins a lot. The history of life on Earth is just one big origin story. The word “Origin” is right there in the title of Darwin’s famous book, after all. Now, you might say, “Science is science, and fiction is fiction, and they have nothing to do with each other.” But that’s not really true. As the novel Ishmael cleverly illustrates, even the most factually correct description of the past is still mythical, because we ignore most facts and emphasize others. We construct narrative. Telling stories is a fundamental part of how humans make sense of the world. We can’t help it.

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Failing Bolívar

Make Venezuela Great Again?

Venezuela is bleeding. Grocery stores have no food. Drug stores have no medicine. Protesters and soldiers are clashing, often fatally. Dissidents are in jail. Folks wait in line for hours to buy bread. Neighborhood groups have to physically stand guard night and day over staples like rice and powdered milk in order to thwart looters.

So what, you may ask. Poor people are poor, what else is new? I may take issue with your fatalistic attitude, but that’s a topic for another day. Even cynics should care about this, for two reasons. First, it’s happening because of an autocratic populist nationalist government, something that has recently become very relevant to those of us in the United States. Second, you’re wrong about these people being poor. These are would-be middle class professionals who went to private high school. And I know, because I was there in school with them.

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The Age of Observation

How long have we been counting?

I recently watched Louis C.K.’s latest standup routine on Netflix. One of his bits is that even though all religions are “equal,” he tells his kids that “the Christians won.” His proof: What year is it?

This got me thinking. The Gregorian Calendar does implicitly uphold the birth of Jesus as the Most Important Event Ever. Maybe that’s fine, because all timekeeping systems are invariably arbitrary. And changing the one we’ve got would be a phenomenal inconvenience. But what if we’d rather emphasize values that aren’t uniquely Christian? Science. Reason. Egalitarianism. The kinds of things people are marching in the streets about. Could we do better? Ideally, what would a secular, globally acceptable calendar look like?

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140,000 Words

Too cool for school? Or just cool enough?

When I was about ten, I got a Far Side page-a-day calendar for Christmas. Of course I couldn’t wait a whole year to read the cartoons, so I sat down and flipped through the entire thing. I adored the gags, but I couldn’t understand many of them. My poor parents had to set a rule that they would explain only one joke per month, to minimize my pestering them with questions. That left me to research the others on my own, plunging me into books on prehistory, microbiology, and ecology.

So I learned a lot from Gary Larson. Inspired, I copied his style in my own attempts at humorous line drawing. As the child of two schoolteachers in rural Alaska, I spent a lot of time in classrooms both before and after the other students had to be there, which gave me plenty of access to barren blackboards. Day after day I illustrated scientific puns with chalk. I like cartooning, but my freehand skills are limited. I will never create gorgeous scientific sketches on par with Bird and Moon, American Beetles, or Stated Clearly. Still, I’ve always loved using simple whimsical pictures to share truths about nature.

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Invaders and Recluses

Do these defenses even work?

Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw. An endless struggle. When two species go at it for long enough, they even begin to adapt to each other. Each new weapon prompts a new counter-weapon in your enemy. This constant escalation, as illustrated in this Futurama gif, is called a coevolutionary arms race. The term originated back when the USA and the USSR were busy building missiles and anti-missiles, and it was easily to see evolution in the same light. But it’s still just a metaphor, and perhaps not the best one. After all, the goal of a nuclear arms race is Mutual Assured Destruction: peace because the consequences of war would be unthinkable to either side. An analogous situation might exist in a face-off between two heavily-armored members of the same species, but interspecies interactions are rarely so symmetrical. They are less like The Butter Battle Book and more like Green Eggs and Ham: a persistent and dynamic chase. That matters, because sometimes one of the species is us. Humans often seek to control nature: to kill germs, to eliminate weeds and pests, to stop vectors from spreading disease. If we’re going to get our teeth and claws bloody, we should at least know what kind of fight we’re joining.

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