Tag Archives: biology

Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).








Insecta. Hominis. Peregrinator.

IMG_1719I like the idea that we have been underestimating insects, but I think we are on very shaky ground extrapolating our own feelings to beings so different from us (72). – Marlene Zuc, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love & Language From the Insect World

In addition to my other summer job, I am currently interning at an artists’ book publishing house, Granary Books in New York City. It is fascinating and stimulating on many levels, not least of which, strangely enough, is the commute.

Scientists therefore simply rely on the outward behaviour of an animal, often under controlled experimental circumstances, to tell them something about its personality (72).

I split the commute up into equal driving and equal mass transit parts so that I can have time to do what I love – read (as well as craftily avoid the fifth circle of hell – parking in NYC). Hauling The Name of Rose back and forth to NY last week was a testament to my admiration for Umberto Eco, but when I was convinced the other night by my youngest son to take him to a book signing of an author that he loves, I was suddenly in very dangerous territory – a bookstore.

Zuc’s book,  Sex on Six Legs had several irresistible attributes: the title was intriguing, I had just spent a day admiring  rare books of early scientific naturalist studies with beautifully rendered images of insects, at just over 200 pages it was a slim volume, and it was on sale.

While riding on the train has a ‘drone worker’ feel to it, and it is difficult to resist analogies between the strange soulless drudgery of a rush hour commute with insect life, but on the other hand, so far I don’t mind the time reading and observing of the human species in the altered social state of ‘commuter,’ it’s actually fascinating. Just the etiquette of where to put my bag….I want it on the seat, but I don’t want to make another person have to ask me to move it, nor do I want to too openly invite someone to sit down- and how does one decide to sit down (so closely) next to whom? Fashion, cell phones, other books, and stifled or open sleep – the other day a man fell right off his seat in a deep slumber – splat on the floor.

Regardless of its social baggage, however, another problem with calling the ants slave makers is that, as with the army ants, it gives an entirely incorrect view of what the ants themselves are doing (188).

And this is precisely the point that Zuc returns to over and over again in her book: while in ages past, insects, like all of nature which has tended to be inappropriately  anthropomorphised, the compelling thing about insects is that – yes, they are not human, but given that, indeed because of that, what we can learn about ourselves through these creatures that exhibit intelligence, maternal and even paternal urges, murderous tendencies, the ability to learn and communicate, and most important of course – how to attract a mate, is quite compelling.

Insects, in terms of population, dominate the planet. As genetically remote as we are to any six-legged creature, there are so many different insects that within the same genus they can be many times more genetically removed from one another than we are from them. But it is their creepy similarity to us that is at once so mesmerizing and disturbing.

In other words, once we find that ants do something like teaching, we should not redefine teaching so only humans can be said to do it (34).

My attitude has always been live and let live. Many years ago I stepped into a shower and as I was in mid-lather was rudely alerted to the presence of another New Yorker beside me: a very large cockroach, stilled on the tile across from my position under the spout. I looked at her (most of the bugs we see are female, after all) she stared back, blankly, at me. Overcoming my terror of the blank stare, I reasoned with her: “You stay there, and I’ll be here, okay?” I finished my shower, got out with forced calm, and never saw her or any of her sisters again. Understanding is key.

In addition to being excellent subjects for examining cannibalism, insects are perfect for exploring another stark reality of family-life: parent offspring conflict (166).

Zuc manages to make subjects such as matricide, fratricide, suicide, post-coital homicide and all sorts of other human-society frowned upon activities seems almost reasonable in the insect world. Clearly humans have something that insects do not: some call it emotions, some call it a soul…but Zuc warns against even making those assumptions. The thing that really sets us  apart is in fact quite difficult to name, and clearly difficult to understand. As the Bee’s communicative dance and the dance of the commuter show, the line of distinction is fine.

The doors of the train opens in Grand Central Station and we all move as a hive, focused on the day’s work ahead. As much as we are individually concerned, our collective movement affects the progress of each other. Of course, as humans, whether or not we share a smile or nod of human recognition is up to each one of us.  One needn’t deride an insect’s way of doing things to appreciate that our unique capacity to be human, whatever that is, is the only thing that really matters to us. There is something glorious in life and in the way it is experienced in all forms. But I, I have only my way, and if you sit next to me on the train, I will move my bag, smile to you and acknowledge our shared humanity.

*Image of fly by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary/Bestiario: A poem by Pablo Neruda translated by Elsa Neuberger with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi

Speaking Scents

“The first thing to do was learn a lot more about everything.”– Chandler Burr The Emperor of Scent

verdant waves of snow

I was familiar with Luca Turin’s theory of smell from a Ted Talks video that I watched some time ago, but I was wholly unaware of the controversy, the pettiness, and most impressive of all- the difficulty and complexity of trying to prove his theory. Author Chandler Burr has probably left out a lot of the most intricate science, but I hardly noticed. I am really glad I took biology and have at least a small understanding of terms like G-protein coupled receptors with which to make a mental map of what the hell he was talking about.

The story is fascinating, and the theory really very interesting as well. In case you are not familiar with it I will attempt a simplified explanation: the question is “how do we smell?” For quite some time scientists have stood by the idea that our noses recognize the shape of certain molecules and that shape determines the smell. But this theory never really made sense, even to those that clung to it, because many molecules that share a similar shape do not smell the same.

Turin argues that what the nose is “reading” is a vibration. It doesn’t matter what the molecule looks like, if it has the same vibrational frequency, it will smell the same. Just as we see and hear within frequencies, we also smell on a frequency level. So that is what the book is about. That discovery as well as the odd little facts and random opinions of the unique man, Turin, are all very engaging.

“Great lunch in the Tudor dining room (curious how all Tudor looks fake, even the real stuff)” (80)

I can not argue with a man that recognizes the hideousness of the Tudor style.  I immediately took to this fantastically scattered while unapologetically focused man.

Turin is a genius on many levels, not least of all his ability to apply the exact word to the exact scent. Although smell is objective, the words we use to describe them are subjective, which muddles our innate understanding of the sense.  Never the less, a rose smells like a rose- and we all agree (although, no two roses smell alike, we have a  limitless [as far as can be known] ability for nuance when it comes to scent, which the perfumers understand and occasionally sublimate to artistic perfection).

Mixed in with the hard science (what do I know, I’ll call it hard) are anecdotal stories of the history of perfumes and their production- the tale of Dioressence involving whale vomit (aka ambergris) being one of my favorites.

The inner workings of the scientific academic community is…not pretty, but that’s life I suppose: stupid and unceasingly small-minded.

I love the degree to which language is wrapped up in our understanding of smell. The methods by which we experience and express our senses grips the imagination. It is only surprising how little is really understood about this essential sense. After all,  it is such a pleasurable and memorable aspect of our lives.

atavism vision

Flowers Through Swim Googles – photograph by Augie Accardi (age 10)

Synchronicity is an appealing idea. Very likely it is simply an egoist’s fantasy. In reality, everything is already there, just hanging and waiting patiently, until one day we simply look up. Naturally, we mistakenly feel in tune or specially designated. It’s all about ME! I knew it!

Case in point- while I was furiously studying the ins and outs of DNA transcribing and RNA transcription for summer session college, I happened to catch a radio interview with author Sam Kean whose book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb has recently been published. Much to my delight, I understood what he was talking about as he enthused about RNA, DNA, Apoptosis and the like. What are the odds? The very week I am invested in comprehending DNA I happen to hear this interview…oh it’s all too much. Me, universe, we are one.

But the truth is, hundreds of books on DNA have been written and just because I finally noticed one is really not that interesting in the scheme of things, that admission out of the way, I can say – the book is interesting.

The Violinist’s Thumb is  – but this is only a guess because, as I mentioned, I did very recently memorize the mechanisms of protein production and DNA transcription- I think I would have understood the book just as well without this primer, but I can’t know for sure now can I? Too late, I’m already…educated.

Never the less, I think this is the sort of book that is meant for us none to middling scientific comprehension types. It is very readable and fills your heart with a kind of joy to ponder the wonder, complexity, and mystery of the universe- of our personal universe, which is ever the microcosm of the universe. It’s so beautiful. See? It is all about me! I knew it!

“It turns out that universal music does exist, only it’s much closer than we ever imagined, in our DNA”  – Sam Kean, The Violinist’s Thumb

Kean very astutely understands his average reader and early on connects the concept of literacy (musical as well as linguistic) with DNA. Or at least he knows my preference- sitting in class I would often get very excited by the literary-esque nomenclature of the whole process taking place within our bodies. My mind would rapturously start picturing a sort of tRNA His Girl Friday news room with the tick tick tick of the polypeptide news ticker tape – read by Cary Grant of course, “Yes, What? Blue eyes you say? Reddish brown hair, that’ll be just fine. Hurry up with that MHC*. Hold on, this just in, you are not infected with the Toxo virus as the smell of cat urine still repulses you. Right, got it. Here Darling, pass this on to Golgi, that’s a Dear.”

DNA is a news reel, a language. It can be read and understood in exactly the same way as a book or sheet music. To that end not only has DNA actually been turned into music by some clever person, but someone has also turned music into DNA code with nothing lost in…literacy. Perhaps we make sense of the world through stories because that is what we are:  books to be read or sung…kind of a lovely thought.

Kean easily explains all sorts of mysteries you may have not known you were dying to know. Why do we have DNA and RNA? Why will eating a polar bear’s liver kill you? Why do we fall in love with some people and not others (put the blame on MHC), Why doesn’t the female body attack and kill the virus (otherwise known as a baby) growing inside her? And how does said baby share its own cells with the mother? I’m kind of fascinated by that last one- my children’s cells in me, how wonderful!

My son Luke was onto something when he said recently, “Maybe we are the viruses of the universe”  Well- we do have more virus DNA than ape DNA in our code. That explains a lot. If actual viruses make up controlling portions of my DNA, the very story of who I am, then who am I?
There is no me. Damn it. I knew it.

But wait. What about epigenetic change, you ask? Altered DNA after the first draft so to speak? Yes, there is that, (according to Kean it explains why the personalities and physiology of identical twins become more distinct as the years accumulate, why our own personality changes…) but it seems to me that the changes are mostly stress induced, which is depressing – that’s our effect on our own DNA. Oh geez. I wish it weren’t all about me.

*MHC is a busy gene, but one of its functions is to make you smell like you, (the pheromones theory- that an auxiliary nose , the VNO, that in animals fully functions, but while we still may have one after age 16 weeks gestation, whether or not it functions is debated)  the part I find fascinating is that we are wildly attracted to people who have the opposite MHC (or, smell) as our own, which Kean says is one reason why incest is so unappealing. Maybe dating websites should just focus on DNA to accurately predict attraction….

Rhyme or Reason

It’s because her love is artless,
And she, not knowing men are heartless. – Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

If I begin to write in rhyme it will not be my fault. Reading is corrupting, the pattern and rhythm soon invade one’s mind. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is an astounding piece of work. The man wrote in rhyming verse! A novel – in rhyming verse! And perhaps more incredible than that, other people have translated this rhyming verse into different languages. It is a marvel. I read Babette Deutsch’s translation of this devastating tale which is told with exquisite sensitivity and aplomb.

What sort of a man is Onegin? A Misanthrope?:

No syllable of sentiment,
No grace, no flash of merriment,
Lay hid in all the prose they uttered.-
No savoir vivre, no hint of verse;
And when their wives talked, it was worse.

Well, I don’t go in for small talk either, so I can’t hold that against him. But there lies within his core, a certain coolness I abhor (oh dear, a rhyme). But Tatiana is undone completely by her love for him.

For woman is a tender fool,
And love is but the devil’s tool.

It’s painful to witness. And, why? If only we could choose whom we love: command our molecules to paid heed to our senses, not just our sensibilities. I probably should not read Pushkin during my breaks in biology class. But, there must be some molecular explanation for attractions: love, love in the face of hopelessness, the powerlessness to cleave off unrequited love: it’s as if our electrons are fatalists.

‘Complaint will make my pain no less.
He cannot give me happiness.’

Further more, Onegin is a man of inertia. He does not love Tatiana enough to move him to transduction. Later on, when a careless act begins a chain reaction that leads to Lensky’s coffin, there is not enough friction within Onegin to stop it. Does he ever take control of his own life? No. Years later, his feelings are finally pushed along on the wave of societal esteem where Tatiana now finds herself; she is all the more humiliated by his display of wasted dynamic.

Our songs, but are not worth the singing.
Their looks enchant, their words are sweet,
And quite as faithless as their feet.

The absence of love then, is apoptosis: programmed cell death. The cell gets a little messenger molecule that says, “life is not worth living.” Tatiana lives in a state of slow perpetual apoptosis- she deadens herself so that she can live.

This pool we bathe in, friends, this muck
In which, God help us, we are stuck.

And yet, this familiar tale is balanced so divinely on the pen of Pushkin. I think he means to make the reader fall in love with him. Pushkin is a charming flirt if ever there was one. From his hilarious foot fetish of the opening stanzas to the steady interruptions of  commentary on the characters, their actions, and best of all, on his own writing and teasing rhymes.

The frosts begin to snap, and gleaming
With silver hoar, the meadows lie…
(The reader waits the rhyme-word: beaming,
Well, take it, since you are so sly!).

It is a tour de force of storytelling, his pleasure to tell, and ours to read. Pushkin will break my heart as gently as he can, preferably with a glass of Bordeaux in hand and a sweet smile on his face.

I know that life is but a bubble,
My fondness for it is but slight;
I am deceived by no illusion;
But I salute hope’s shy intrusion,


Life as an emergent property (this is what comes from attending a writer’s conference by day while taking biology in the evenings – an exhausting muddled twisting of lexicon and ideas). But, these last 10 days at the Yale Writer’s Conference have been very good.

The fear of exposure, of presenting myself to strangers, has not killed me as I felt it must, or at least, in all fairness-should. We never die of the things we ought to: anguish, heartbreak, doubt…why don’t they kill us more easily?

It is hard to know the worth of something. I tend to undervalue; a disposition that extends into my own self worth or perhaps was born there. I possess an impressive talent for finding evidence with which to confirm my self-estimations. Spending time with lots of talented and smart writers, teachers, and people…it is hard not to be encouraged. That’s worth something.

Meeting so many people all at once I wonder what the newly formed bonds are: weak hydrogen bonds or covalent bonds?  I’ve lost faith in bonds, declared or otherwise- until tested one doesn’t really know the true strength, I learned that the hard way.  But it doesn’t matter in this case, the stimulation and inspiration is enough. It’s the ability to imagine our own worth.