Even if it’s not at the front of my mind, the back of my mind is still mulling over February’s young earth creationism (or whatever it’s called) “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I often wonder about the experiences and motivations that lead an individual to any form of science-denial, but the laughable absurdity of young-earth creationism isn’t the topic here. I’m only disclosing that the debate played a part in the curiosity that helped this particular blog entry bubble to the surface. That said, if you get time, please watch the “debate” in the video above.
Of all my friends and acquaintances, I knew of one person who preferred Shaun of the Dead until several weeks ago. But even then the question vexed me. How could even one person feel that way?
Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, along with last year’s The World’s End, are collectively known as the Cornetto Trilogy. All three were directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, and all three feature the young and brilliant British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I’ll set aside The World’s End because it would unnecessarily complicate matters. So what of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead?
Both are quirky comedies with a little slapstick and well-executed over-acting. Both have dark and sad moments that compel the viewer to reflect upon friendship, death, family, and morality. Both are also fast-paced with snappy, original dialogue. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Shaun of the Dead is a zombie comedy while Hot Fuzz is a buddy-cop-action-comedy-thing. I’ve never understood why anyone would prefer the former over the latter. To be clear, while I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead (watched it once), I am addicted to Hot Fuzz (watched it 20+ times, conservatively).
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a tavern enjoying a pint of beer. I finished the glass and was eager to enjoy another when, as I approached the bar, a line of dialogue from Hot Fuzz popped into my head. “Another pint of lager, Mary.” The line probably isn’t funny if you haven’t seen the movie, but don’t worry about that.
I almost threw the line at the bartender but worried she wouldn’t know the movie, so instead, because she and I are pals, I asked if she’d seen Hot Fuzz. She had, but said she enjoyed Shaun of the Dead more. What?!!!
Meet Bob. He’s in his late fifties, a quiet guy, wears rimless spectacles, and likes to read poetry. Do you think Bob is a classics professor or a truck driver?
If you answered classics professor, you’re with the vast majority of people asked this question. Quiet, spectacles, poetry reader, all of it pretty well fits the common image of a classics professor and not so much our image of a truck driver. But while there are approximately 7500, maybe at a stretch 10000 classics professors in the US, that number is blown out of the water by a couple orders of magnitude when compared with how many truck drivers there are. The American Trucking Association’s website says there are 3,500,000 truck drivers in the country, making it much, much more likely that Bob is a quiet, poetry-reading truck driver. He may not fit the NASCAR-loving truck driver stereotype, but it’s still more likely.
It’s much more likely, but that’s not the way we think. Humans look for patterns, make categories, and form stereotypes in order to make sense of the world. If our early ancestors heard a scream, they did not sit down to calculate the probability that their friend Og had trod on a surprise thorn bush versus the probability that Og had just been snack for a saber-toothed tiger. No, they used their learned pattern of scream = bad and got the hell out of there.
Ellie, the younger one, pointed to the sand toy in the shape of a penguin. “Are you being mischievous?” I asked. “A world without penguins would be a sad one!” I got a seriously blank look in return. Then it hit me- they had no idea what mischievous meant. Time to talk little-kid. “It’s the dinosaur,” I said, “all of the dinosaurs died out a long long time ago.”
“When I was a baby?” Abby asked, the three and a half year old. Uh-oh. No concept of time or numbers, either. “No,” I said, “a long, long, long, long, looooonnnng time ago. Before you were born.”
The rainforests of Madagascar highlight, with great clarity, the power the physical environment exerts on evolution. As a study abroad student in the fall of 2006, I was researching the sleep habits of the brown mouse lemur in Ranomafana National Park, a protected tract of land in the high rain-forested mountains of Madagascar’s east coast.
During the day, I bushwhacked through this dense rainforest, attempting to locate two or three of these nocturnal mouse lemurs, who had been fixed with tracking collars, as they slept. In the evening, I waited for the lemurs to wake up so that I could record the size and consistency of their sleeping groups.
One day, as the sun was setting on the bamboo, ferns, and mossy trees of the forest, I watched as multiple lemurs suddenly emerged and attempted to rouse the female lemur I was tracking from her sleep. These lemurs, all male, were attempting to mate with my study subject.
Female brown mouse lemurs, and indeed many species of female lemurs in Madagascar, are only receptive to mating for a very short period of time each year. To make the most of this short mating season, the male lemurs, deathly focused on a single goal, spend the winter months growing testicles that end up being a quarter of their entire body mass. It is no question, given the males’ months of stored hormonal energy, that there would be a significant interest in my study subject that day. Read the rest of this entry »
Caenorhabditis elegans, a millimeter-long nematode or roundworm, has been poked and prodded, dissected and inspected. Every cell in its body has been mapped, the circuitry of its neurons traced, and its entire genome sequenced. For the past 50 years, it has been the experimental animal of choice, the subject of over 15,000 articles on everything from genetics to drug development. Biologically speaking, we know more about this animal than any other in the world—including ourselves.
But for all that we know about C. elegans, one aspect remains a mystery. In an abnormal birth process called matricide, the offspring eat and kill their mother. Researchers have shown that this unusual phenomenon may in fact be an evolutionary adaptation. By committing suicide for the sake of her young, the mother provides them the opportunity to become dauers, larvae that are incredibly stress-resistant.
Sydney Brenner, a biologist at Oxford, first saw the nematode’s potential in the 1960’s. C. elegans, he realized, is the ideal multicellular organism to study in the lab—simple yet possessing the basic tissues common to all animals. Almost all C. elegans are hermaphrodites, essentially female bodies capable of producing and self-fertilizing with their own sperm. About four days after birth, the worm reaches maturity and self-breeds, laying up to three hundred eggs, which hatch outside its body. In a defective worm that is unable to form a vulva or opening necessary to expel the eggs from its body, the eggs hatch inside. As biologists Diana McCulloch and David Gems from the University College London described, “eggs eventually hatch within the uterus, and the emerging larvae devour the mother.”
Such a worm is often called a “bag of worms,” because under the microscope it looks like a bloated worm. (Watch the “bag of worms” in action here.) The eggs hatch inside and, with nowhere else to go, the offspring writhe frantically about and eat their mother’s insides until they pierce their way out of her body. Once they escape, many of the larvae who have inherited the genes involved in matricide will encounter the same fate as their mother.
In the underbelly of the worm, a special cell called the anchor cell signals three precursor cells to form the vulva in preparation for breeding. In a worm carrying the genetic mutation, however, the anchor cell breaks down in relaying its messages to the precursor cells. The worm is unable to form a vulva and is then fated to become a bag of worms.
While matricide has often been cast as a defect, emerging research has shed light on its evolutionary value. In 2003, Jianjun Chen and Edward P. Caswell-Chen, scientists in the department of nematology at the University of California, Davis, found that far from being a rare phenomenon of the laboratory, matricide occurs in nematodes living in the wild as well.
In the lab or the wild, severe stress can cause matricide, even in worms that do not carry the mutation. Starve a pregnant C. elegans, expose it to toxic substances, or transfer it from a solid to a liquid environment, and it is likely to develop into a bag of worms. In their experiment, the researchers starved batches of C. elegans and watched their response under the microscope for several hours. They found that when starved, the mother “sacrifices its body” to provide nutrition to its offspring. Interestingly, they also discovered that matricide is reversible: feeding a starving mother allows it to lay its eggs normally, assuming offspring that already hatched inside did not cause too much damage already.
Most importantly, the researchers found that in matricide, the mother provides her offspring with a mechanism for coping with stress through the dauer stage, a larval stage that is a kind of emergency survival mode. When the mother’s body has been consumed and food is still not available, the larva can enter developmental arrest, reducing its metabolism and increasing its capacity to withstand stress. Compared to the typical two- to three-week lifespan of C. elegans, dauer larvae can survive months without food. In particular, the researchers found that the longer they starved the mother, the fewer the offspring that survived (due to competition for resources), but a higher proportion of those survivors were able to reach the dauer stage.
Leaving behind even a single dauer is an evolutionary fitness advantage for C. elegans. By sacrificing herself, the mother is able to ensure that her young live on. In the survival of the fittest, dog eat dog does not always win the game. Sometimes, altruism goes a long way—even if it means being the one that gets eaten.