This view of life

Spring is such a wonderful time of year, a time of birth and renewal. Something tells me that it is perhaps easier for most of us to appreciate the former of these occurrences. One allows ewes and rams to co-mingle for several weeks in the fall and, come spring, lambs arrive. But perennial plants are able to lay dormant over winter and, at the appropriate time, break dormancy to return to the business of growth and reproduction. Sure we know of diapause and every school kid has learned that bears hibernate through the most difficult weeks of winter. But plants do this in such a remarkable way that it is important to take special note. Consider, in a physiological sense, what a plant must do to ensure winter survival. First, it must manufacture stores of carbohydrate to support some minimal level of physiological activity throughout the winter. No growth. No reproduction. The organism must generate enough ATP (the energy currency of cells) to stay alive. Second, deciduous trees must do chemical inventory and withdraw everything of potential use from their leaves and then jettison them (the leaves) as winter liabilities. All of that material, along with the nutrient stores, must be transported down and into the roots. Once all of this is complete imagine that genes which were active during the spring and summer must be turned off and, at the same time, genes involved in baseline physiological maintenance must be turned on. And, these cascades of activity must be reversed come spring. Consider, that all the genes involved in these activities are in every cell. Have you ever stopped to consider that each and every one of us started life as a single cell? That cell had two complete sets of DNA, one from Mom and one from Dad. That single cell gave rise to the many trillions of cells which now comprise your body. Although the constituent cells of all of your organs have the very same DNA, these cellular sub-populations behave differently. How it is that muscle cells behave like muscle cells and liver cells behave like liver cells if, in fact, all of these cells have the same genetic material? All of the appropriateness of plant physiological response is dependent upon the expression of certain genes and the suppression of others. It turns out that gene expression may be influenced by the cellular environment within which any particular cell happens to find itself as well as in changes in any number of other environmental variables (biotic and otherwise). How wonderful life, in its myriad forms, really is. I find myself, several times during the academic year stopping in the middle of lecture. No matter whether discussing counter-current exchange in the molluscan ctenidium to one group or chromosomal nondisjunction to another, I’ll stop, look up and into the surprised eyes of my students and ask, Isn’t this elegant? I’ll plainly admit that I couldn’t devise anything more so. All of life’s solutions are ancient and optimized. I could continue but will, instead, end by quoting the very last sentence of Darwin’s monumental work, On the Origin of Species. Not many recognize these words as Darwin’s own summary of the elegance and beauty of Natural Selection, the phenomenon he explained to scientists and to the thinking world, more than a century-and-a-half ago.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

All of nature is a wonder. Truly. To be lucky to know just a little bit of how it all works is a joy. To know its secrets doesn’t, to my mind, take away, but rather adds to my sense of wonder and admiration.


16 thoughts on “This view of life

  1. Such eloquence! You explain complex ideas in a very simplistic way so everyone can understand. Your students must enjoy your lectures! A beautiful, simple image. It speaks for itself. Needs no embellishment. I can see my day lilies starting to sprout up. Looking forward to the day when the snow is gone and the ground isn’t so water logged!

  2. Yes, I do think we are running on parallel tracks today, David. I agree with you that an understanding, or even a greater one, enhances the pleasure of being one with nature. I think also that, on occasion, it is nice to just experience what nature presents without an inquiring mind. Both can be meaningful and enhance our pleasure in its own way.

    As well, my small appliance bulb of a mind just lit up … not only are we both thinking along the same lines, but we have decided to express our thoughts visually with buds. This has such a rich yellow … quite lovely. And, according to the color wheel, yellow and blue are a fine combination.

  3. Sublime post – I could not agree more! My first ‘science experiment’ as a child was growing beans at the window sill – I even pollinated them using a small brush (I know I tell this story too often, so sorry if I am repeating myself even in the comments on your blog). Right now, my office desk is also host to several varieties of seedlings, and discovering the first tiny eggplant showing up after three weeks reminded me of that feeling when I once saw the bean seedling.

    • I think you have told that story before Elke, but please never hesitate to retell it here. It is a wonderful story about the joy of discovery. I do not tire of it. I wonder why, in only some of us, that joy of ‘finding out’ continues to be expressed in our professional lives as scientists? So many of my students do, when pressed, show genuine interest in science and in discovering answers to nontrivial questions. I wonder why it is though that when you ask them they’ll say that they don’t like science? D

      • They say they don’t like science? I’m flabbergasted! I feel that ‘liking science’ has become a new cool movement – although one maybe dedicated to sharing ‘cool’ pop-sci stuff only.

        • An interesting observation. I think that you are correct when you point out that most will only go so far as admitting enjoyment of only the ‘cool’ pop-sci stuff on YouTube or the television. I also agree that, when pressed for the real science behind the ‘cool’ stuff (meaning … the mathematics or chemistry or physics or biology) they quickly lose interest. I wonder why … that’s the best part! D

          • I think that such science demos unfortunately not only show people how cool it is, but also that the theoretical part behind is so hard – so that you need to be a genius. Think that stereotype blackboard with tons of equations on it.
            Another pet peeve of mine is ‘cool’ lab work – as in crime scene cop shows. I think everybody who has ever worked in some sort of lab can only laugh out loud. Even if the task as such may be an interesting challenge the details of the work as such can often only be described as repetitive, manual, grunt work. I would even say so for theoretical research, which is today actually ‘computational’. Many theoretical physicists with ‘exotic’ backgrounds go into the finance sector to become quantitative analysts – as the math is similar. Most of the time you spend with writing and debugging code – just as they did at the university. I saw the main similarities between experimental physics and IT in the skill of being patient and stubborn and not giving up on working through endless series of trial and error, trying to figure out the underlying rules from that.

  4. I think this is one of my favourites of yours. I love it for it’s own merits–elegant!–I have to echo Maurice. I love it because it also resonates with many thoughts and a few astonishing conversations I had this week. One of those discussions contained an idea that went something like, ‘there is beauty in truth. We should be able to be honest with each other and not be afraid that this will make the world ugly.’ It is interesting that Maurice mentions disconnects in association with truth, and your lectures disconnect from the normal academic flow for a human moment… it all reminds me of one of my favourite university professors, who has spent many years cultivating a sensitivity in his students to notice margins, things between the lines, and the unsaid words within a silence. Disconnects and gaps offer up all of the possibilities.

    • Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment M. So many use that word (thoughtful) without fully appreciating its qualities. I don’t use it so much here to mean ‘kind’ but, rather, as a way of thanking you for always thinking about my posts, often deeply. Your comments always reveal this (literal) thoughtfulness, and I very much appreciate it. Margins are really interesting places, aren’t they? Ecological margins are dynamic places and the phenomenon of parapatric speciation occurs when species form at the margins of ranges of distributions. It is at these margins that isolated populations may experience changes in environment which drive population-level responses which, over long periods of time, manifest as genetic differentiation and, perhaps, in the formation of new species. Intellectual margins are just as dynamic and full-of-potential. D

  5. Very nicely put and the word you chose is so fitting. Elegant. I had to write it myself. Small wonder so many can be convinced that what we see is all part of some over-riding plan rather than the playing out of an incredibly complex set of interactions on behalf of the Universe’s fundamental forces. Just today, in a quiet moment I was caused to reflect on the disconnect that has to exist between an excessively functionalist view of the brain (brain as deterministic machine) and that which views us as sentient beings. How else could we have free will if not for that disconnect? More and more, it seems to me, that the greatest truths are located within those disconnects. Perhaps, instead of seeking such finely pointed answers to life’s questions we need rather to develop a better way of knowing where the questions are and also perhaps the nature of the answers rather than the answers themselves. It’s snowing outside. 10 cm before it changes over to freezing rain and then back to snow tomorrow. I’m wishing for some of your spring but for now, the “off” genes and the “on” genes will remain as-is until a little more sunlight provides the needed enthalpy.

    • You make an excellent point about questions and answers regarding the human brain. One must keep in mind the organ we employ to enter into and to complete such formulations. There’s a tantalizing paradox … for the only way we can study the brain is with the brain itself. Is there analogy to be made to designing a computer capable of programming itself? If so, can that same computer then ask and answer questions about it origins and function? Thanks for checking in Maurice. I wish more folks like you could read a post such as this as a call to answer some of these (really interesting and) deeper questions. I’m afraid, however, that some would tout the divine.

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