“My fellow scientists, I bring you astounding news. I have discovered an intelligent species on another planet. In form they are little more than a network of pipes filled with fluid. But these Pipeworks have created a rudimentary civilization, complete with art and scholarship. More remarkable still is their ecology. Though they interact with various other species including prey, pests, commensals, decomposers, and so on, those can largely be ignored as superfluous details. The overarching narrative of Pipework history is one of an ongoing battle with a single other life form. This second creature is smaller, less brainy but more elusive, resembling a rounded pellet. The Pellets and Pipeworks have been at war for tens of thousands of years. Pipeworks have been slaughtered by Pellets in such monstrous numbers that death by any other cause, including murder by other Pipeworks, pales in comparison. The Pipeworks have both invented and evolved striking tactics for evading the Pellets, but always with mixed success. The conflict touches all. The great stories of Pipework history. The fates of their societies. The Pipework nations that have prospered while others have crumbled. Everything has depended on when and where Pellet sieges have been the most devastating. To this day, despite all of their technological advances, the Pipeworks have been unable to win the war, and hundreds of millions of them suffer Pellet attacks. However, for the first time in Pipework existence, victory seems to be within their grasp. If they unite as a species and face their ancient enemy, they may succeed in driving the Pellets to extinction. If they do, it will surely be their single greatest achievement, a vindication of all of their struggles. Simultaneously, it will be a bittersweet loss of their steadfast partner in the coevolutionary dance. Regardless, it will usher in an era of relief and resolution that will define them from that point onward.
“Following protocol, I also provide the relevant terms in the local dialect. The Pipeworks refer to themselves as Humans, the Pellets are called Plasmodium, and affliction with Pellets is a condition known as Malaria.”
Briscoe Cain, a Republican in the Texas state legislature, tweeted this back in December:
I replied, correcting him, and my tweet went viral. You may be surprised to learn that people on the Internet frequently have strong opinions about gender. Lots of folks chose to spend their winter holiday sending me feedback. I explained things further on Twitter, but there’s a limit to the medium. So let’s break it down here, in one easy-to-read place.
I’ve always tried to be intentional about food. I’ve been a vegetarian for nineteen years. I buy organic when it’s affordable and available. I shop locally at farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops. When I was in college and somewhat full of myself, I congratulated myself on my enlightened logic and morals. Today, I’m less convinced that I have stumbled upon the optimal diet for planetary and personal health. Nor am I making a martyr of myself. Truth is, I like what I eat. If tomorrow someone discovered that the most sustainable meal is actually giblet gravy and steak, I’d have a pretty hard time making the switch. Try as we might, food choices are never perfectly rational. Even for the most dispassionate egghead, what we put into our mouths is inseparably tangled up with culture, tradition, emotion, and of course personal taste. I strive to remember this while trying my best to eat ethically.
I’m not the only conscientious diner out there. But rather than feeling empowered, I’m actually a bit dismayed by many of my fellow Michael Pollan fans. The broader movement has become bizarrely focused on my own field of genetics. And not in a sensible way. For countless activists, genetic modification represents the ultimate bogeyman, the apex of all that is wrong with irresponsible agribusiness. The opposite of green. To me, and indeed to almost everyone who understands the science behind biotechnology, this animus appears nonsensical. Genetic modification is simply a tool. Like any tool, it can be applied in helpful or harmful ways. Yes, some unsustainable farming practices involve genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And some involve farmers named Steve. But surely it wouldn’t help anything to rail against all the agrarian Steves in the world. The anti-GMO movement stands on similarly shaky justification.
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.
People ask me why I work on frogs, snails, andstrawberries. Do I just like French cuisine? No. I’m interested in, you guessed it, adaptive diversity. And in that regard, there are common themes across these seemingly unrelated projects. Here’s one of the main ones.
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.