This is a relatively technical book, one whose title, with its definite mechanistic spin, nearly stopped me from reading it. In this Hoffmann begins with a history of science and how we have looked at life as a remarkable process from the days of Aristotle to today and how that has shaped our inquiry and our capacity to understand it. Is life possible only because of some inexplicable, and yet unknown, ‘vital’ force? Are organisms endowed with this gift of life by a creator? or are there physical laws which shape and determine life? There has been a long ‘battle’ waged between the various ‘vitalists’ and mechanists, the later who once viewed an organism as a special machine, popularly comparable to a watch or clock, animated by a ‘vital’ force, who over time evolved their search into that of more recent times of seemingly fantastical molecular mechanisms, ‘engines’, within an organism which, because of their nano-scale can perform and behave in ways that appear incredible to the layperson. Continue reading
Musella lasiocarpa may be the most easily recognized of the 48 species within the small but economically important Banana family, Musaceae. It is distinguished from all others by its small size, its congested, quickly tapering pseudo-stem, which is nearly bulbous at its base, its leaf blades extending upward from its relatively long petioles, shaped much like the traditional blades of Aleut kayak paddles and its unique flowering structure. Like all bananas the pseudo-stem is made up of tightly clasping, channeled, petioles, and its inflorescence which resembles a golden lotus flower in bud, with tightly held yellow to orange bracts having very little separation from one to the next, shielding its later emerging flowers tightly held beneath. The shape of this plant and its texture lies somewhere between the more commonly grown ,and proven, hardy members of its Order Zingiberales, the Hedychium spp. and both Musa Basjoo and Musa sikkimensis, which often fill a role in providing many mild to cool temperate gardens with their ‘tropicalesque’ characteristics. If your garden resides in climatically colder areas than those experienced by topical plants in the wild, then any of these may succeed as permanent contributors to a tropical ‘feel’ in your garden. Of course you can also choose to grow true tropical and subtropical species if you are committed to the necessary protections they will require over your cold season. Continue reading
Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.
I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading
The titular ghosts here are the long extinct mega-fauna species that once roamed the continents for millions of years shaping the plant species in question here and, in their interactions, shaped the landscapes themselves. Now absent their animal partners, these plants still retain the characteristic structures that evolved in their long dance together, the genetic inertia contained within their DNA. These plants remain today as anachronisms, seemingly misplaced curiosities with no existing, obvious, reason for ever being, mysteries of form and function, that only begin to make sense when we look far enough back.
I only recently came across this book while doing research into my continuing interest and focus on what exactly is ‘life’ and what is it that distinguishes living organisms from other matter. This book is a little outside of this topic, but not by much. Barlow here is concerned with the process of natural selection and how species have come to acquire and retain their physical and functional characteristics, how they’ve retained them long after the shaping forces have disappeared. While there is a somewhat random element in the process of evolution, organic forms follow patterns and particular patterns are ‘selected’ over time through the ‘working’ of shaping forces. Forms are supported or not, Once acquired they remain disappearing with a particular species when it is no longer supported enough and goes extinct. This ‘opens’ a niche for possible other species to fill. Each species is time limited. Each is a process or event that continues so long as it is adequately supported. It in turn fills roles in the lives of other organisms, other species. Natural selection is not some process relegated to the past, but an active, ongoing, one, though we tend to fail to see it around us. We have a tendency to expand the ‘now’ and attribute to it a precedence and persistence that it doesn’t have and so we also fail to see our own role in the continuing ‘work’ of evolution. We all know something of the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a process that suggests that today’s species are the ‘best’ fit given the conditions in the world today. Barlow, and the scientists who support this idea, argue instead that today’s species are the best fit for the past as a result of thousands, even millions of years of evolution. Today is just a moment in time. Our imagining of it as something broader and more stable is a problem. Continue reading
The European Honeybee, EHB, and the Common Dandelion, are both ubiquitous in our modern urban lives though the one is portrayed as being both essential to our lives while its future is threatened and dependent upon our constant support. The Dandelion in contrast is a product of our disruption of the natural world and our very way of life and continues on as a pest species despite our efforts to ‘control’ it. They viability of the EHB is often linked to the continuation of a large population of Dandelion individuals. The EHB certainly benefits from the Common Dandelion finding ready individuals across our lawns and gardens, but the dandelion isn’t particularly dependent upon the EHB. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis, is apomictic and doesn’t require pollinators at all. Apomixis isn’t a fancy word for ‘selfing’ or wind pollination either…what it means is that it, in lieu of an available pollinator, possess the capacity to skip over meiosis, the entire part of sexual reproduction in which an organism’s typical double, pair of chromosomes, which exist normally in all cells, and are known as diploid, ‘di’ for two sets of chromosomes, are reduced by half, to one set in ‘sexual’ cells, known as gametes, the sperm and egg cells, their chromosomes now ‘haploid’. Then, after pollination, the two haploid chromosomes are reunited uniquely through the process of fertilization. This is is the process skipped over in an apomictic plant. While it possess all of the ‘accoutrements’ of all flowering plants, stamen with their filaments and anthers, pistils with their stigma, style and fused carpels or ovaries, Dandelions are able to ‘short-circuit’ the process and produce viable seed on their own from their undivided, diploid, cells. Ever noticed how Dandelion seed heads always tend to be filled out? Perfectly spherical? Continue reading
On Pattern, Chemistry and Life
Pattern builds upon pattern. Whatever you start with effects and limits everything that follows whether we are talking about masonry bricks and stone or Eukaryotic cells and organic molecules. A different starting point or ‘decision’ at any point in the process, effects every ‘decision’, or even possibility, there after, effects the likelihood of what is to follow, shapes the possibilities, the future, through the evolutionary process…but does not determine it. To speculate whether other amino acid groups are theoretically possible does nothing to change the course we are on. The capacities and characteristics of your most basic components set the stage for all that follows, the brick analogy only takes you so far. Bricks, no matter what you do with them, are very limited in what they can create…how they will ‘behave’ when structured as a wall. They do not, when combined into a structure, acquire properties that no single brick had before their assembly…their futures were ‘decided’ the moment they were made into bricks. They remain bricks. Continue reading
Because the pace of change in our scientific understanding of our world, and the technology which follows it, is increasing at greater rates in recent decades than at any other time in our history, it has become ever so more important that we have at least some basic understanding of that science and technology, that we as a society wield in this world…without this, we are literally blundering in the dark, blindly upsetting systems and cycles, upon which our lives depend, with little understanding of our responsibility for the decline or grasp of our own agency in setting the world back to rights. The advancement of science is an outgrowth of our curiosity as a society. It is a look behind the ‘curtain’ that too many of us take for granted. The technologies that spring from these scientific advances carry with them consequences which amplify our individual impacts while providing us with promised advantages through a marketplace that too often only wants to sell and profit from its latest innovation, with little concern for its overall impacts. As long as our basic world view, our grasp of science, remains stuck in the past, in the more ‘simple’ classical world of its roots, we are more easily swayed by advertisers and pitchmen who’s business demands that we not look too deeply. We are not, and can never be, ‘experts’ in every field. The demands and rigors of scientific advancement have a very high bar, but it is essential, especially in these days, that we understand basic concepts, that we have some grasp of how science has redefined the world making possible those technologies which we either wield clumsily, like a weapon of destruction, or more tactfully and respectfully like a surgeon and healer. As long as science remains esoteric and remote, ourselves ignorant of its ‘message’ and, by extension, ignorant of our own impact on the world, we place all things at risk. Continue reading
Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading
On Darwin and His Theory
Evolution is a word that can divide the world. Its opponents often claim that all that lives today, in terms of species diversity, did so yesterday…all the way back to the ‘first’ yesterday, which some people claim was precisely 4004 B.C., when ‘God’ created everything essentially in a moment. Bishop Ussher, of Ireland, published his ‘findings’ in 1650 and his ‘documentation’ is that most frequently referenced by opponents of evolution. He has it down to the day, Oct. 23 of that year. This is a problem when a researcher goes in with an ‘answer’ and is only looking for corroborating evidence, evidence which they will eventually find. Science, through the study of evolution, has developed various specialized technologies and techniques to reach back in time and analyze the evidence at hand. It has done this building on the work of those studying paleontology, microbiology, geology, chemistry, atmospheric chemistry; palynology, the study of pollen; astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics, stochastic methods developed around the hypothesis of a molecular clock which posits a rate of genetic change; and cladistics which assesses genetic lineages, the relationships between species and larger classification groups…scientists have collectively been dating ‘life’ back over Earth’s 4 billion years. The creationist argument depends entirely upon belief, denies science and views evidence such as fossils simply as ‘puzzles’ God left to confuse us.…Others accept that lower species may have ‘evolved’, but Man, created in His image, is special, exceptional and exempt, a creation of God, fixed and forever. Modern science does not give a pass to such claims of specialness seeking instead more direct evidence, making connections, following patterns, doing science….
A fellow gardener asked the question about whether there were a list of sure thing Agapanthus, plants that a beginner could confidently choose and have success with in most of the maritime PNW. I’m going to say no. All of these are South African natives and while many of us can grow these in our gardens, because our conditions overall are marginal, a gardener is going to have to possess a good understanding of their site in particular and some knowledge of the cultivars that they are choosing. I’m going to borrow here from Manning and Goldblatt’s book, “The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs”, which discusses the bulbs of the Cape Floristic region and those adjacent areas spilling over into other parts of South Africa. Agapanthus species are native there, endemic in fact, occurring naturally no where else in the world. I’m also relying here on the SANBI website, the South African Natural Biodiversity Institute which has put together an incredible national program, which all countries should be building for their own countries. Being a South African plant aficionado I visit it frequently. To this I add my own observations and speculations, having grown several Agapanthus over the last 25+ years in Portland: These come from warm temperate and subtropical areas in South Africa, 10 species total, 3 limited to the Cape itself, all of which tend to occur in rocky grasslands. Other botanists have downgraded 3 of Manning and Goldblatt’s species and given them subspecies status recognizing only 7 species. Continue reading