Peaches and cream

The revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors is as old as class society. The earliest recorded strike was of the Egyptian pyramid builders. In Rome we had the revolt of the slaves under that marvelous revolutionary Spartacus. In the Middle Ages the peasants revolted against the corvée and other feudal impositions. In England the peasants rose up and seized London in 1381. In Germany the Peasant War was chronicled by Engels, who pointed to the communist tendencies in the teachings of Thomas Muentzer and the Anabaptists.

The forerunners of modern socialism could never bring about the new and equal society that they dreamed of, because the material basis for a classless society did not exist. Thus, the early revolutionary movements of the masses directed against the old oppressors could only serve as the means whereby a new class of exploiters established itself in power.

Alan Woods

For thousands of years of human history, utopian aspiration was ahead of economic means.  But finally in the twenty-first century, technology has leapfrogged ahead of ideology.  For the first time, we have the means to create a world where there is enough to go around, where oppression is not a necessary precondition to comfort.  But the centuries of shortage are fresh in our memories, the rivalries and the cycles of vengeance have a life of their own, and must be soothed from our souls before we are ready for the Promised Land.
— Josh Mitteldorf

Capitalism contains inherent contradictions which inevitably lead to economic crisis.
— Karl Marx

‘When the revolution comes, we’ll all eat peaches and cream.’
— Morris Moshinsky

1 May 2009


“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

— Dr Benjamin Spock, born this day in 1903, helped a generation of American parents and their children to feel good about themselves.

2 May 2009

Steal this joy!

Identify what it is that makes you ecstatically happy, then steal it.  Not the object, but the happiness.  No one is the poorer when you have learned to call forth the happiness that resides within you.

— Josh Mitteldorf

3 May 2009

Inside the baby’s mind

It’s unfocused, distractible, and extremely good at what it does.

This new understanding of baby cognition, and the peculiar ways in which babies pay attention, is giving scientists insights into improving the mental functioning of adults. The ability to direct attention, it turns out, doesn’t merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions - it can also stifle the imagination. Sometimes, the mind performs best when we don’t try to control it.

Boston Globe article

 ‘Genius is but childhood recovered at will.’
                 «Le génie n’est que l’enfance retrouvée à volonté.»

— Baudelaire

4 May 2009

All the time in the world

A billion years ago, when you implanted the first nuclear membrane in the first eukaryotic cell, laying the foundation for multicellular life, impatience was nowhere in your process.

So what if it takes another thousand years to establish utopian peace and universal human empathy?
— Josh Mitteldorf

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
— Søren Kierkegaard, born this day in 1813

5 May 2009

What’s it like to be a human?

What’s it like to be a human
the bird asked

I myself don’t know
it’s being held prisoner by your skin
while reaching infinity
being a captive of your scrap of time
while touching eternity
being hopelessly uncertain
and helplessly hopeful
being a needle of frost
and a handful of heat
breathing in the air
and choking wordlessly

It’s being on fire
with a nest made of ashes
eating bread
while filling up on hunger
it’s dying without love
it’s loving through death

That’s funny said the bird
and flew effortlessly up through the air

~ Anna Kamieńska (1920-1986) ~
from Astonishments, tr Grazyna Drabik & David Curzon

6 May 2009

The best is yet to be

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

– Robert Browning, born this day in 1812

7 May 2009

Committed to empirical science, even when it leads us to strange places

Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These ‘basophils’ release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn’t contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths’ claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflam Res 53:181) suggests that something is going on. ‘We are,’ Ennis says in her paper, ‘unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon.’ If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.

New Scientist article by Michael Brooks

8 May 2009

Is happiness what is left over after we trim away the pursuit of despondence? 

— read more at ehard’s blog

9 May 2009

How to live - the big questions
(Reflections on my 60th birthday)

There is some wisdom I have absorbed and feel comfortable with.  I understand that gratification of personal desires, like acquiring material wealth, leads only to emptiness. I feel comfortable with a life committed to non-violence, intimate connection, and service to others.  I have been blessed to experienced some of the freedom and joy that such a life offers.

I am strong when I have rules, and I do well with discipline, so when I can reduce an insight to a rule for living, I am often successful.  But there are some areas where it is not so easy to reprogram my behavior because judgment is required, and no simple rule will suffice.  Here are three questions that continue to leave me perplexed:

  1.  When and how is it helpful to interrupt violence, to stand up for those who are being oppressed? All too often, I wish to intervene as a peacekeeper, but find myself just becoming one more party to the conflict.
  2. When people are harming themselves, it seems especially dangerous to intervene. The initial effect is almost always to incur the annoyance (or worse) of a friend, and I’ve destroyed friendships by being too helpful. Nevertheless, when the relationship can support it, the loving intervention of a friend can occasionally have a powerful benefit — I’ve experienced that, too(from both sides).  I’ve learned that when people come to me for advice, it is generally a sounding board that they want, not a prescription.  But I would like better to recognize those rare occasions when it is possible to express an uncomfortable truth powerfully and lovingly.
  3. Resolving to serve and to give can lead to paradox: There are others who want to give as well.  Generosity can turn to passive aggression.  Giving can breed resentment in the recipient, and serving can deprive others of the opportunity to serve.  Are there times when the right way to serve is to stand aside and allow someone else to serve?

    Allowing others the chance to give to me has been particularly difficult for me.  I feel caught between a wish to acknowledge generosity and fundamental commitment to an honesty which might be hideously impolite.

    Sometimes it seems that the only honest solution is to grow to a place where I can genuinely feel gratitude.

— Josh Mitteldorf, born this day in 1949

10 May 2009

Without pretension

The world rewards people who play the game, who flatter and say conventional things in charming ways, who support the power and authority of those who already have power and authority.  We are intrigued by Richard Feynman because he was the exception.  He said and did whatever he wanted, and he was so objectively brilliant that that could not interfere with his success.

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. 
— Richard Feynman, born this day in 1918

‘As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.’

11 May 2009

Hidden Gems

We know not what lies in us, till we seek.
    Men dive for pearls—they are not found on shore;
The hillsides, most unpromising and bleak,
    Do sometimes hide the ore.
Go, dive in the vast ocean of thy mind,
    O man! far down below the noisy waves,
Down in the depths and silence thou mayst find
    Rare pearls and coral caves.
Sink thou a shaft into a mine of thought;
    Be patient, like the seekers after gold,
Under the rocks and rubbish lieth what
    May bring thee wealth untold.
Reflected from the vasty Infinite,
    However dulled by earth, each human mind
Holds somewhere gems of beauty and of light
    Which, seeking, thou shalt find.

Helen Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

12 May 2009

Reincarnation in Christianity

The early Christian church accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, which was expounded by the Gnostics and numerous church fathers, including Clement of Alexandria, the celebrated Origen (both 3rd Century) and St. Jerome (5th Century).  The doctrine was first declared a heresy in AD 553 by the Second Council of Constantinople.  At that time, many Christians thought the doctrine of reincarnation afforded man too ample a stage of time and space to encourage him to strive for immediate salvation.

Paramahansa Yogananda

13 May 2009


Late one night in a small Alabama cemetery, Vance Vanders had a run-in with the local witch doctor, who wafted a bottle of unpleasant-smelling liquid in front of his face, and told him he was about to die and that no one could save him.

Back home, Vanders took to his bed and began to deteriorate. Some weeks later, emaciated and near death, he was admitted to the local hospital, where doctors were unable to find a cause for his symptoms or slow his decline. Only then did his wife tell one of the doctors, Drayton Doherty, of the hex.

Doherty thought long and hard. The next morning, he called Vanders’s family to his bedside. He told them that the previous night he had lured the witch doctor back to the cemetery, where he had choked him against a tree until he explained how the curse worked. The medicine man had, he said, rubbed lizard eggs into Vanders’s stomach, which had hatched inside his body. One reptile remained, which was eating Vanders from the inside out.
Great ceremony

Doherty then summoned a nurse who had, by prior arrangement, filled a large syringe with a powerful emetic. With great ceremony, he inspected the instrument and injected its contents into Vanders’s arm. A few minutes later, Vanders began to gag and vomit uncontrollably. In the midst of it all, unnoticed by everyone in the room, Doherty produced his pièce de résistance - a green lizard he had stashed in his black bag. “Look what has come out of you Vance,” he cried. “The voodoo curse is lifted.”

Vanders did a double take, lurched backwards to the head of the bed, then drifted into a deep sleep. When he woke next day he was alert and ravenous. He quickly regained his strength and was discharged a week later.

Article by Helen Pilcher, New Scientist

14 May 2009

Deep question, deep answer

I examine the contents and motivation of my mind during meditation. I have learned that I am not highly motivated on behalf of my own happiness. If there were a pill that would help me be happy all the time with no side-effects, it would not attract me at all.  Modifying my habits and disciplines in a way that will make me happier more of the time holds some appeal for me, but it is not at all compelling.

Here is my question: Suppose I learn that what I am seeking is actually making me unhappy.  I may discover that I am motivated by wanting to best others in subtle ways, or to seek fame and recognition for myself, or to entreat selected others for affection and attention when they really have little of either to offer me.  Do I use this insight to deprogram myself, to squelch behaviors that are deluded and subtly self-destructive?  Should I attempt to right my course by steering toward a set of habits more conducive to my own happiness and longterm wellbeing?

Here is my answer: To declare that my own happiness is a more worthy goal than these others which I find myself pursuing is itself an arbitrary judgment.  In any case, heroic acts of will are likely to engender reaction and resistance.  So my path is not to decide on worthy goals nor to hold myself to a strict discipline in their pursuit.  Rather, I trust my process of growth and transformation based on insight.  It will happen beneath my conscious awareness, and without my willing it.  Pursuing these revelations about my own motives and inner workings is not a mere step on the way toward correcting my misdirections; rather, pursuit of insight is sufficient unto itself.  I will continue on this path, and entrust the rest to an inner capacity for enlightened self-direction.


15 May 2009

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.

- Lin Yutang (1895-1976)

16 May 2009

Take charge

Making a conscious determination how you will direct your attention is the most powerful and also the most difficult undertaking of your life.  First, plumb your deepest values to decide on what you wish to focus. Then you will become aware of the myriad external distractions.  Lights and noises are relatively easy, but our environment is overloaded with stimuli that have engineered to grab our attention for commercial purposes, and detaching from these is much more difficult.  After this, you will have to come to terms with the inner distractions which are yet more insidious. They have not been designed by psychology consultants to be irresistible to the average American brain; rather they have evolved in your own brain, and have risen to the top because they are the most compelling and irresistible for your unique interests and history and addictions.

The reward is not simply greater ownership of your mind. It is the power to direct a process of change from the inside out.

— Josh Mitteldorf

17 May 2009

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin – more even than death... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

— Bertrand Russell, born this day in 1872

The man who created symbolic logic and marched against every major war of the Twentieth Century also had a sense of perspective:

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

18 May 2009

How many mothers does it take?

Sarah Hrdy argues that human cooperation is rooted not in war making, as sociobiologists have believed, but in baby making and baby-sitting. Hrdy’s conception of early human society is far different from the classic sociobiological view of a primeval nuclear family, with dad off hunting big game and mom tending the cave and the kids. Instead, Hrdy paints a picture of a cooperative breeding culture in which parenting duties were spread out across a network of friends and relatives. The effect on our development was profound. 

— Julia Wallace, book review

Raising children in nuclear families has done enough damage.  It is time for communal living to become the norm.  Maybe the coming economic slump will help.

19 May 2009

Just dont think about it

‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.’

‘That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time’
             — John Stuart Mill, born this day in 1806

20 May 2009

Praise What Comes

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather.  Praise

talk with just about anyone.  And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep.  Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended.  At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world?  Learn at least one
of the many names of God?  At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

— Jeanne Lohmann, from The Light of Invisible Bodies

21 May 2009

The Wisdom of Sherlock

Everyone knows that news organs and even scientific journals are subject to political influence.  But that awareness just lulled me into a false sense of my own independence for most of my life.  It’s been a theme of the last several years that I’m discovering ways in which my own beliefs have been swept along by the scientific consensus and the newspapers I had come to count on.

So I find myself quoting Sherlock these days:

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

The point is that there are some things I’m sure of;  basic science I learned in high school takes me a long way.  If I build on that certainty then my former judgments fall away, when they have been based on ‘they can’t all be deceived’, or ‘how could it be that no one called them on that?’ or ‘so many people smarter than I am believe...’

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
— Arthur Conan Doyle, 150 years old today

22 May 2009

From love junkie to universal love

There is a path from the tortured clinging of Western romantic love to the selfless expansion envisioned by Kierkegaard and Gandhi.  Lester Levenson charted that path after his doctors gave him up for dead, and gave to us the emotional clearing techniques known as the Sedona Method.

I sensed that the closest thing related to happiness was love. So I began reviewing and reliving my past love affairs, looking at the points where the little happiness that I had were. I began to pull up and dissect all my high moments of loving.

Suddenly, I got an inkling that it was when I was loving that I had the highest feeling!

I remembered one evening, a beautiful balmy evening, in the mountains when I was camping with Virginia. We were both lying on the grass, both looking up at the sky, and I had my arm around her. The nirvana, the perfection of the height of happiness was right there. I was feeling how great is love for Virginia! How wonderful is knowing all this nature! How perfect a setting!

Then I saw that it was my loving her that was the cause of this happiness! Not the beauty of the setting, or being with Virginia....

Then I immediately turned to the other side. Boy it was great when she loved me! I remembered the moment when publicly this beautiful, charming girl told the world that she approved of Lester, she loved Lester—and I could feel that nice feeling of approval. But I sensed that it was not as great as what I had just discovered. It was not a lasting feeling. It was just for the moment. In order for me to have that feeling continuously, she had to continue saying that.

So, this momentary ego approval was not as great as the feeling of loving her! As long as I was loving her, I felt so happy. But when she loved me, there were only moments of happiness when she gave me approval...

This insight on love, seeing that happiness was determined by my capacity to love, was a tremendous insight. It began to free me, and any bit of freedom when you’re plagued feels so good. I knew that I was going in the right direction. I had gotten hold of a link of the chain of happiness and was determined not to let go until I had the entire chain.

Lester Levenson

23 May 2009

How much is too much?

Pushing our bodies to the limit is good for longevity and builds courage for every aspect of life.  Pushing the wrong way leads to injury.  How do you know when to stop?

It would be nice to say, ‘Listen to your body! Trust your internal sense.’  Listening to the body is important, but for optimizing health and longevity, it is also important to learn when to override the body’s signals. 

It is precisely stress and challenge that leads to vibrant health and longevity.  Your body will ask you to stop, and you must know better.

Exercise that is comfortable is better than no exercise, but it is far from optimal. 

Some tips:

  • Running is hard on the joints.  Long distance running generates endorphins that numb you to the damage you are doing, and it is easy to injure yourself.  Don’t rely on running as your main form of exercise.
  • You can’t beat swimming.
  • Exercise consistently and build up slowly.  Don’t try something that’s far beyond your usual routine without building up to it over a period of weeks.
  • Sprints that feel like you’re dying are powerfully energizing and great for long-term health.  Swim as fast as you can or work out on the elliptical machine or do calisthenics for 4 minutes all-out, while your body is screaming for relief.  You should be panting for several minutes after it is over.  On alternate days, go 20% faster than your 4-minute pace for 90 seconds. 
  • Sprinting before a meal is a great discipline, and damps the insulin surge that comes with the meal  This is one of the best ways to avoid metabolic syndrome and to slow aging.
  • Kundalini yoga exercises are brilliantly designed to make you feel like you really, really want to stop long before your body really gives out.  Kundalini practice builds courage.
  • Don’t worry about heart attacks.  Heart attacks from over-exertion are rare, but make for spectacular news coverage.  It is much, much more likely that you will prevent a heart attack by keeping yourself fit than that you will induce a heart attack by overexertion.

Stretch your limits.  Expand your goals for yourself gradually over time.  Compete with no one but yourself.

— Josh Mitteldorf

24 May 2009

On being asked, ‘Whence is the flower?’

The Rhodora

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, born this day in 1803

25 May 2009

Bacteria have a communal life

Bacteria are the simplest living organisms.  We’re used to thinking of bacteria as single cells, living on their own, but many bacteria have a double life.  They can form into communities with many mutually-adapted species, each performing its unique function to create an environment conducive to all.  Species that cannot tolerate oxygen, for example, will live shielded by species that gobble up oxygen.  Waste from one species will be nourishment for another. 

These are biofilms, and they are ubiquitous — on shower tiles and in pond scum, in the hot pools of Yellowstone and on frozen Antarctic glaciers.

The biofilm is held together by an extracellular matrix.  Bacteria do their part to excrete the adhesives that keep the film where it belongs, and the structural web that gives it strength.

These are tight ecosystems.  The remarkable thing is how well simple bacteria are adapted to communal living. 

How does the community defend itself from invasion by other bacteria that might mooch on the sheltered environment, suck up the nutrients, but not contribute to building or upkeep?

How did so many species, each of which is capable of living independently, acquire the adaptations that make them so supportive of each other in the biofilm environment?

We might extrapolate and guess that macroscopic ecosystems are even more mutually adapted, exquisitely crafted for the stability of the ecosystem as a whole in a grand process of co-evolution.

26 May 2009

What we want

What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names—
now they want us.
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises.
We fall past,
holding out our arms
and in the morning
our arms ache.
We don’t remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there
even in full sun.

Linda Pastan, 77 years old today

27 May 2009

So, this is God...

As a reader and a seeker, I always get frustrated at this moment in somebody else’s spiritual memoirs — that moment in which the soul excuses itself from time and space and merges with the infinite. From the Buddha to Saint Teresa to the Sufi mystics to my own Guru — so many great souls over the centuries have tried to express in so many words what it feels like to become one with the divine, but I’m never quite satisfied by these descriptions. Often you will see the maddening adjective indescribable used to describe the event. But even the most eloquent reporters of the devotional experience — like Rumi, who wrote about having abandoned all effort and tied himself to God’s sleeve, or Hafiz, who said that he and God had become like two fat men living in a small boat—‘we keep bumping into each other and laughing’ — even those poets leave me behind. I don’t want to read about it; I want to feel it, too. Sri Ramana Maharshi, a beloved Indian Guru, used to give long talks on the transcendental experience to his pupils and then always wrap it up with this instruction: ‘Now go find out.’

So now I have found out. And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon in India was indescribable, even though it was. I’ll try to explain anyway. Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way — not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chuck of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (‘All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop,’ wrote the sage Kabir — and I can personally attest now that this is true.)

It wasn’t hallucinogenic, what I was feeling. It was the most basic of events. It was heaven, yes. It was the deepest love I’d ever experienced, beyond anything I could have previously imagined, but it wasn’t euphoric. It wasn’t exciting. There wasn’t enough ego or passion left in me to create euphoria or excitement. It was just obvious. Like when you’ve been looking at an optical illusion for a long time, straining your eyes to decode the trick, and suddenly your cognizance shifts and there — now you can clearly see it! — the vase is actually two faces. And once you’ve seen through the optical illusion, you can never not see it again.

‘So this is God,’ I thought. ‘Congratulations to meet you.’*

The place in which I was standing can’t be described like an earthly location. It was neither dark nor light, neither big nor small. Nor was it a place, nor was I technically standing there, nor was I exactly ‘I’ anymore. I still had my thoughts, but they were so modest, quiet and observatory. Not only did I feel unhesitating compassion and unity with everything and everybody, it was vaguely and amusingly strange for me to wonder how anybody could feel anything but that. I also felt mildly charmed by all my old ideas about who I am and what I’m like. I’m a woman, I come from America, I’m talkative, I’m a writer — all this felt so cute and obsolete. Imagine cramming yourself into such a puny box of identity when you could experience your infinitude instead.

I wondered, ‘Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was here the entire time?’

— from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

* In the book, Gilbert is greeted this way by people she meets in India. 

28 May 2009

Kennedy on Peace

“Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures...

Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living.”

— John F. Kennedy, born this day in 1917

29 May 2009

Grow your own

Elysia chlorotica is a sea slug that does the same trick as green plants, turning sunlight into food for itself.  Part of the way it does this trick is that it eats algae, then processes the algae cells selectively.  The part of each cell that performs photosynthesis is an organelle called a chloroplast.  Elysia can digest the algae, but retain the chloroplast intact.  The chloroplasts are hosted in her/his* own intestinal cells, where they grow and reproduce and do the job of growing food for the slug.

But stealing the chloroplasts was the easy part.  Maintaining and growing them requires a whole suite of chemical supports that plants have and animals generally don’t.  Elysia has the instructions for these chemicals in her/his DNA.  Since they are identical to the corresponding genes in plants, it is considered unlikely that sea slugs evolved them independently.  Instead, the slugs copied the genes, probably from the algae they eat, at some point in their past and permanently incorporated the genes into their own DNA.  This is horizontal gene transfer, and it greatly expands the concept of ‘evolution by descent’ that has been the standard assumption of evolutionary biologists since Darwin.

And how does horizontal gene transfer work?  How is it that one can permanently acquire new genes that were not present in either of one’s parents?  This is, in part, an open question.  It must be a rare event, or it would wreak havoc with biology.  Only very occasionally are genes acquired from a distant species expected to be useful.  One theory is that viruses pick up genes from one species and can insert them into the genome of another.

More on horizontal gene transfer.
Short movie with different kinds of colorful sea slugs
More on Elysia from U of Maine

*Sea slugs are hermaphroditic, with both male and female sex organs.

30 May 2009

Contingency and determinism

The world has reasons that we will discover within our lifetime of search and analysis, and others that will remain mysterious even as we die; but until we expand our minds to the limit, we will never know what new understandings are possible.

Attribute nothing to chance, any more than you would dismiss an event as ‘God’s will’.

— Josh Mitteldorf

(It’s true that the standard interpretation of Quantum Mechanics includes pure, irreducible randomness, but there are other models in which quantum randomness is not truly random.)

31 May 2009

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design