This tumblelog is a compendium and virtual commonplace book for my sesquipedalian cogitations on political, scientific, and cultural snippets from across the Internet. Some entries are in Español.
The Mighty Sea Urchin
Some decades after Darwin, a symbolic event messed in concrete fashion with the rules of generation and with gender assumptions. In 1905, to considerable media fanfare, a biochemist named Jacques Loeb induced “parthenogenesis” — a virgin birth — in a female sea urchin via salt and ox blood in a recipe vaguely reminiscent of Paracelsus. The sea urchin was banally sexually reproducing; there was nothing untoward about her sexuality, and yet her fertility, it seemed, could be effortlessly tweaked in the lab. No sperm required!
Her flexible sexual qua reproductive “nature” was deemed uncannily relevant to larger feminist and “New Woman” issues of the day! Literary types forthwith capitalized on anxieties about gender obsolescence. An H.G. Wells character circa 1909 expressed the opinion that it may well be that “it is only the women matter” — “not every creature needs these males.” Feminist utopias happily hinged on the downgraded status of sperm; the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) featured an all-women “parthenogenically-reproducing” utopia a la “aphids” (an explicit reference in her text). Others, including a prominent Christian Scientist named Josephine Woodbury, seized on the virtues of immaculate conception.
I’ve written a piece for the State. It’s an attempt to sketch one area where the affordances of wetware computation might (one day) compliment advanced algorithm ecosystems (and the societal effects that result from those computational ecosystems)
It is good to dream of the simple and the powerfully explanatory. But we are finding out that not all of the world is as easily describable as we might have thought. This is not surprising, as the most easily described features of our universe must necessarily be the simplest. These are then, perhaps, the low-hanging fruit of elegance. We are now left with the more difficult-to-reach fruit, which can only be grasped through a certain amount of complexity and messiness.
In a way, this is frustrating. I want the world to be simple. I want to be able to jot down an equation that articulates the universe.
But that’s okay. The planets don’t nest inside each other like Russian dolls, and the golden ratio isn’t one of the pillars of human aesthetics. The world is messier than that. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not explainable, or even elegant, in its own way. We just need to look a little harder, and prepare to accept truths that don’t glitter like gold.
In his novel The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that there were more paleontologists in the USSR during the grimmest period of the Stalin regime than any other kind of scientist. He told his readers why. Of all the sciences, paleontology allows its practitioners to abandon a hideous present to live in a more fascinating past.
GM plants have progressed tremendously since the first ones were taken to the market in 1996. In 2011, 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries planted 160 million hectares, a sustained increase of 8% annually since 1996.
The growth there is impressive, but what has happened to GM animals? They struggle for approval at FDA, and this has forced scientists in the US to look for collaborators in other countries.
The female of a certain fly species, after mating with a male, dumps his ejaculate back out of her body and onto the ground. Then she gobbles it up. Despite new hints that this behavior may help the female choose which partner fertilizes her eggs, or keep her healthy in times of famine, scientists are still a little perplexed by it.
Paper: Rodriguez-Enriquez, C., Tadeo, E., & Rull, J. (2013). Elucidating the function of ejaculate expulsion and consumption after copulation by female Euxesta bilimeki Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
This wasn’t the first time that David had tried to amputate his leg. When he was just out of college, he’d tried to do it using a tourniquet fashioned out of an old sock and strong baling twine.
David locked himself in his bedroom at his parents’ house, his bound leg propped up against the wall to prevent blood from flowing into it. After two hours the pain was unbearable, and fear sapped his will.
Undoing a tourniquet that has starved a limb of blood can be fatal: injured muscles downstream of the blockage flood the body with toxins, causing the kidneys to fail. Even so, David released the tourniquet himself; it was just as well that he hadn’t mastered the art of tying one.
Failure did not lessen David’s desire to be rid of the leg. It began to consume him, to dominate his awareness. The leg was always there as a foreign body, an impostor, an intrusion.
He spent every waking moment imagining freedom from the leg. He’d stand on his “good” leg, trying not to put any weight on the bad one. At home, he’d hop around. While sitting, he’d often push the leg to one side. The leg just wasn’t his. He began to blame it for keeping him single; but living alone in a small suburban townhouse, afraid to socialise and struggling to form relationships, David was unwilling to let anyone know of his singular fixation.