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.
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?
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.