Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

1Jan/09Off

Carnival of Evolution #8 – Update

One thing natural selection is powerless against is selecting for or against anything in an organism post-reproduction. Hence, our bodies are fairly impotent when it comes to fighting cancer (with many exceptions, of course). The mechanisms of evolution are simply blind to most cancers.

It is for this reason that I must delay today's edition of the Carnival of Evolution. My grandfather "Papaw" finally and thankfully ended a long fight with lung cancer thirty minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve. He had just received word that day that the cancer had spread pretty much all over and the prospects for '09 were not looking particularly pleasant.

So, in perfect characteristic fashion, Papaw proceeded to thumb his nose at the potential of an agonizing death by having a heart attack that very day.

He will be missed by many.

The next edition, which was due to be published today, will be published as soon as I return from the funeral next week. Much apologies to all contributors. Rest assured - you will all be included.

22Aug/08Off

A Small Example of the Ignorance of (Some) Rednecks

Black Rat Snake (aka "the only good snake is a dead snake")

Today, once again, I witnessed a not-too-uncommon display of ignorance and primitive barbarism in the rural south.

I was driving along a small country back road near my home in North Carolina, listening to a book on CD (no it’s too embarrassing to tell…OK, fine – it was “Twilight” the first novel by Stephenie Meyer about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. Hey screw you – it has amazing character development and who doesn’t like vampire stories?)

Anyway, I was ambling down the road when I saw what I thought might be a snake crossing up ahead. No one was behind me, so I stopped in the middle of the road and got out to check it out. I’m usually the guy who stops to pick up box turtles and carry them across the road – what can I say? I’m a biologist. Sure enough, it was a black rat snake of average length - about 4 feet long – stretched out across the road and moving as if in no hurry. I was glad he had not been run over - usually when I see a snake in the road it’s already dead.

I see a truck pull on to the road a quarter mile down and head right toward us. “Shit,” I think, “This truck will probably aim right toward him.” So I grab the tip of the snake’s tail with the intention of toss him in one quick movement into the ditch. But the snake’s scales were firmly latched onto the blacktop. Plus, he was much quicker than I anticipated. He lashed out at me and coiled into a raised striking position in the middle of the road. He did not find my actions quite as altruistic as I did. Black rat snake bites can be quite painful, considering their row of tiny sharp teeth. I’ve been bitten by one before. They also have a tendency to chew on you once they grab hold. So I backed off.

The truck was not slowing down and other cars were now moving towards us. My car was parked in the middle of the road. I could not see any sticks or anything to handle the snake with, so I decided to leave it to the fates. Maybe the redneck will see that I was just out looking at the snake and will leave it alone, just for my sake (note: I come from a long line of Arkansas/Texas rednecks myself). I get in my car and quickly start it up. I slowly pull forward, and the truck, which had a long trailer attached to the back pulled to a stop in front of the snake. I watched an elderly man get out of the pickup in my rearview. He glanced at the snake, jumped back into the cab, swerved his wheels into the center of the lane, and squashed the snake.

Yet this old man went out of his way to smash a creature that spends its days protecting the man’s crops, or his neighbors. Out here, I’ve seen people swerve to hit opossums, raccoons, snakes, and any other little non-dog-or-cat species.

I saw it writhing over itself - dying - as the truck righted into the lane.

Why do I taste burning rubber?

The black rat snake is non-venomous. It feeds almost solely, as its name implies, on rodents. The land around where we had been is all farmland, the truck was carrying farm equipment, and the man looked himself to be a local farmer.

It makes me sick. I simply cannot understand the mind that would derive pleasure from brutally snuffing out our animal neighbors, particularly considering that these are people that have been raised in their presence. I’m not a hippie PETA activist. And I’m not a vegetarian. In fact, I do experiments on animals for brain research. But the pointless, barbaric smashing of animals with a car for pure fun simply reinforces my own views about large swaths of the human population – namely that in many people, pure barbarism lingers within their psyches, reinforced by superstition, fears of things they don’t understand, and utter unadulterated ignorance.

24Jul/08Off

A bit o’ fiction

The first time I died, I was sitting in a black robe on a brown aluminum chair, waiting for my row to be ushered to the stage. I felt my heart beating faster as the line of whispering graduates in front of me rose amidst the rustle of gowns. They made their way across the football field and I watched as the usher held a hand out to the boy at the end of my row. We were next. My face felt flushed and hot. My chest tightened. The lights seemed to dim before me, though the sun was beating down hot and bright. I felt my gown sticking to the back of my sweaty arms and I glanced toward the bleachers. I couldn’t see dad anywhere among the thousand or so proud faces. Not that I was surprised. He had probably passed out hours ago. I shook my head in an attempt to shake the feeling of vertigo growing in my ears and brain. The chair in front of me lurched toward my face, bringing a plane of green grass along with it. I felt a tugging on my robe, but the force was insubstantial - ethereal - like the distant ringing of an alarm clock. An iris of darkness closed around me as a blurry pain blossomed across my forehead. Even now, I can still remember that last thought – my parting words to my first life: “Oh shit!”