I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH

 

Is Prince Charming A Hero?

During one of my many ongoing arguments with the ladies at work about the never ending battle between the sexes, I was surprised to hear one very astonishing assertion put forth, at least to me, that Prince Charming is a hero that every boy fantasizes about becoming.  Peggy and Heather were ganging up on me to defend their belief that people are not animals and biology is not the overwhelming motivating force I claim it to be.  I keep trying to convince Peggy that many of her basic beliefs are due to biology and not as she adamantly insists, due to what we choose to believe through free will.

I argued that popular myths often reflect underlying sexual motivations, and that our private fantasies reflect biological impulses to reproduce, whether sexual or romantic.  They countered back that Cinderella is a universal fantasy that doesn’t deal with sexuality, but is about pure romance, and it certainly doesn’t grow out of biochemistry.  I shot back that it was only universal to girls.  Both of them, talking at the same time, essentially said my philosophy was warped by crude sexual impulses and that Prince Charming was indeed a universal fantasy hero for boys.

“You’ve gotta be kidding!”  I said, amazed that both of them could think that.  “Boys don’t fantasize about being Prince Charming.”  Okay, that was over-generalizing, but no friend of mine ever revealed such a desire.

“Of course they do,” the ladies insisted loudly.  “Prince Charming is a hero!  All boys dream of saving women is distress.”  They went on to imply that Prince Charming fell into the categories of heroes like those Joseph Campbell described in his famous books.

“First off, Prince Charming is not a hero.  He doesn’t fight anyone.  He faces no dangers.  He’s just a fancy royal dude that all the courtly ladies twitter over.  Heroes are guys who face great perils and beat unbeatable odds – not guys using glass shoes to interview potential wives.”

My lady friends did not like this at all.  They argued that Prince Charming saves Cinderella, and that little boys everywhere loved to fantasize about rescuing girls.  “You two obviously haven’t spent any time inside the brain of the average male adolescent.”  I didn’t say this, but I also thought of suggesting they rent some porn to see how boys cast Cinderella in their dreams.

Just to get a reality check, I asked my friend Mike about this, and he was also amused by the idea of boys idolized Prince Charming.  Then I decided I should ask another woman, and picked Susan, my wife.  She suggested that Prince Charming was the metrosexual of his day, and wasn’t a hero.  Now that a creative response!

This got me to thinking and it occurred to me that if we used the same motifs as Cinderella, boys fantasies, especially if they hadn’t reached puberty and XXX brain theater time, might consider The Princess Bride a more realistic fairy tale for their mental television inspiration.  Westley is a hero because he fights the evil Prince Humperdinck.  The key element here is not Buttercup – the hot chick to be saved, but swords.  Boys love swords and sword fights, and the real issue will be whether they want to emulated Wesley or Inigo Montoya.  Before puberty, the majority of fantasies will be about using metal swords and afterwards their dominant thoughts will focus on their fleshy swords.

Look at the whole light saber thing for a modern variation.  I assume young boys have spent far more time pretending to fight with light sabers than thinking about rescuing Princess Leia.  It not that Princess Leia didn’t inspire fantasies in boys, but out of the trillions of cerebral performances that Carrie Fisher’s image has given, damn few involved rescue.  At most, the rescue is setup for the real action, either before or after.

I can see how women get confused.  They think saving the hot chick is the whole point of the story.  But it’s not – it’s the violence.  Boys love violence, and its the dominant fantasy element before sex drives them crazy.  Heroes are the last man standing, the alpha male, the winner of the game, the king of the hill, the slayer of dragons, the dude you don’t want to mess with.  Women are the prizes, and what they plan for their prizes are not elegant banquet dining and courtly romance, but the same plans Prince Humperdinck had.

I think Prince Charming is the fantasy that women have for how they want us men to act.  And there are lots of savvy men out there who know this and are willing to play the game to get what they want, but that doesn’t mean they fantasize about being Prince Charming.  Acting like George Clooney is only the romantic costume we all wished we had to hide our wolfish selves.

Our fantasies aren’t about rescuing women, they are fantasies about competing for women.  The Iliad wasn’t about rescuing Helen, it was a major war fantasy.  How many lines does Helen get as oppose to the number of lines glorifying battle?

If you want to know about the inner life of young dudes, look at the LCD screen in front of their faces – first person shooters, sports and porn.  As males mature, they add in dreams of ambition.  Men and women just aren’t on the same wavelength when it comes to personally created fantasies, or the mass consumption fantasies they buy.

I know Peggy and Heather will think my opinions are the representation of some male deviant minority but I don’t think so.  To make my case, how many males like to go to chick flicks?  When I go it’s because I get to earn points with a female, I get to see lots of beautiful female images on the screen, and its hilarious how they portray men.

Of course the reality is real women are not like Keira Knightley characters, and us guys don’t get to act like Daniel Craig.  Prince Charming is not going to rescue you gals from humdrum life, and we guys don’t get to whip out .45s to solve minor disagreements.  We all have to be who we are.

And by the way Peggy, the dream of finding Prince Charming is based in biology.  Females are programmed to search out the best male provider they can find, and I can easily believe Prince Charming is a universal male archetype that females want in their dreams, and those dreams have their seeds deep in your cells.  And male fantasies of violence and sex also come from biology.  Just watch nature shows to see how males fight for the right to mate.

It would be very interesting if we didn’t have these biological impulses.  If males and females were totally intellectual creatures who dated because of shared interests how would society be different?  Can you imagine what life and fiction would be like?  Without the biological impulse would we ever sacrifice our time, energy and money to raise the next generation?  Without the biological drive would we even think kids as cute and lovable to have around?  Without the biological imperative would women want to be seeded no matter how charming the prince?

Would women be more independent without the Prince Charming programming planted into their brains?  Would men consider women as equal souls if they didn’t have the XXX Cinderella programming in their brains?

Of course, I think male humans would have remained uncivilized chimps if it hadn’t been for the Prince Charming myth.  Lady frogs only expect Prince Charming frogs to croak the loudest.  Lady humans expect men  to act nice, give up their weapons, stay home, guard the kids, and bring home the antelope – with Prince Charming the tune we all try to harmonize with our croaking behaviors.  Instead of bashing heads like mountain goats we’re expected to earn lots money and buy sparkling diamonds to prove our worth.  It’s weird, but it’s still biology.

I think in the end, the higher brain functions that Peggy wants to defend has to deal with sex on a different level.  Most of our lives aren’t about reproduction.  As adults we spend most of our time not thinking about sex, but it still taints our actions.  Women want men to give up their XXX fantasies about women – well ladies, men hate to be typecast as Prince Charming.  These are both very hard roles to play.  Peggy, for you to be right about people not being animals, both genders have to give up their fantasies.  I don’t think that will happen, but it’s what’s needed.

Jim

Being the Peacock

It is the male peacock that wears the fancy dress and struts his finery to attract the less flashy lady peahens.  In the animal world it generally appears to be the male that gets all dolled up to catch the female, so why in our species are the females the disciples of Vogue?  With animal courtship the males do all kinds of crazy things to show off because it’s the females who get to make the final decision.  Human females also get to make our final decisions on mating, but it also appears they get to do all the gaudy displaying too?  Or is that true?

Males of our species do show off by making money, showing strength, doing dashing deeds, while only using a modest amount of flashy color and huge tail feathers.  Hell, suits are in by the young men again.  You can’t get less flashy than a suit.  Last night I saw a rock band all wearing black coats, white shirts and dark ties.  Their looks were dull but they were making a big noise to attract women.

In our species it appears that the males are still the ones that show off, but somehow the role of preening was giving to our ladies.  From fashion runways to Vegas shows to Miss America pageants you can see the extremes of female plumage.

I think this biological programming has had a tremendous impact on female behavior and psychology, making women very different from men.  Okay, I can hear all the protests now.  Yes, I know some men love to show off their costuming and some women don’t.  But I think this programming subroutine goes far deeper than outfits.  Women are a thousand times more concerned about their looks then men.  Why is that?

Let me give an example.  Among my lady friends, and I’m mostly talking about women in their fifties, I’m starting to hear the same story repeated independently from all of them that makes me worry.  They all hate to see themselves naked.  One friend said she holds her hand in front of her eyes when she gets out of the shower to shield her vision from the image of her naked body in the mirror.  When she says this I’m thinking I’d loved to see her step out of the shower and towel off, so it’s not that she’s bad looking.  But why has she become so hideous to herself that she won’t look at a mirror until she’s dressed and ready to hide her face in makeup?

If this was an isolated comment I wouldn’t have much evidence for my case, but I hear stories like this over and over again.  We’ve reached an age where my women friends are horrified by their bodies but I’m not, not by mine or theirs.  I still want to look up their dresses and down their blouses to catch whatever glimpses I can.  And another common thing I hear from these women are gripes about men wanting younger “firmer” women.

They seemed obsessed with the word “firmer” too, because they say it with such resentment.  And no matter how much I tell them I’m still physically attracted to women my age and even a bit older they don’t believe it.  They say I’m an oddball and 99% of normal men only want to look at twenty-something women.  Sure we like looking at younger women, but I’ve talked to my fellow boomers, and the consensus is older women can be just as hot.

Women may blame their resentment on men, but I’m starting to wonder if the problem isn’t theirs.  Sure there are men obsessed with sweet young things, but none of my pals are like that.  I think a lot of men have to chase younger women because as they get older the females of their generation stop wanting to be caught, forcing those guys to go further afield to hunt.  But this isn’t the point of my story.  I want to focus on the psychology of being the peacock.

I think both sexes are cursed by their biological programming.  Personally and culturally we’re possessed by the drive to reproduce.  This is understandable from a biological point of view, but why doesn’t the sex drive shut off when the baby making years are over?  When women go through menopause, why don’t they suddenly wake up and think, “Gee, I feel great.  I don’t have to preen anymore for those goddamn males always chasing after me.”  And then relax into a new lifestyle.  Why should women hate their bodies just because the sign “Great Babies Made Here!” gets turned off?

From the male side of things I wished my thoughts weren’t constantly befuddled by my cells urging me to go make babies.  Obviously, the reason why I still want to see fiftyish women get out of the shower is from residual programming to reproduce.  I’m already hearing all those people thinking, “Well men can make babies until they die.”  Just because we can, and just because we have the drive, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.  Evolution designed us to live long enough to reproduce and then die.  Our brains helped us beat those plans and  we live much longer than evolution planned.  At a certain point in both the lives of men and women we get to an age where babies aren’t wanted.  But the damn baby making programming inside of us doesn’t shut off.

Woman feel angst about losing their younger bodies and men feel angst about not getting laid as often.  It appears that the women who looked the best in youth hate themselves the most while aging.  Of course this is well illustrated by Hollywood starlets pursing plastic surgery till they have faces that look like rigor mortis of death.  The nature of women playing the peacock was well illustrated in an old movie I saw the other night, Mr. Skeffington, with Bette Davis as a beauty obsessed woman constantly courting marriage proposals even after she was married.

I feel sorry for my women friends.  Why can’t they accept wrinkles and sags?  Firm tits and ass are only signs that say, “I Make Babies.”  Why can’t old guys understand that the urge to chase young women is your cells tricking you into fatherhood?  In the end, I think the burden of the peacock syndrome on women is far harder than left-over horniness in men.  I don’t hate my body because I can’t get laid.  Being a peacock when the feathers fall out must be painful and pathetic.

I have a long running argument with one of my lady friends.  She says who we’re attracted to is mental, and I say it’s biological.  Well honey, I think if it’s mental you would be able to rationalize yourself out of the peacock syndrome.

Jim