Friday, May 19, 2006

BIOLOGY RECLAIMED...

My life's first love and interest was biology. My earliest recollections are of wonder at insects, including cockroaches, that graced our house and its surroundings. Our house on Fergusson College road is situated in a somewhat unique location. The property behind our society belongs to a cantankerous and eccentric doctor, who time and time again, has refused to sell it to builders willing to pay him an extraordinary amount for such a large space in a key location. The result is that that small part of our F C Road always has been full of trees, wild grasses and weeds, housing the random variety of flora and fauna that such a mini woodland always and naturally does. Ever since I was a kid, I used to wander into this mini retreat, and collect insects, observe the myriad cats and their kittens prowling around, and take note of the calls of birds inhabiting the single, majestic tree, that occupied centre stage in this local ecosystem.

Insects were my passion in school. I used to haunt the old dungeons of the Fergusson College library, an unfettered endeavor made possible only because of my parents, and used to dig out volumes upon volumes of insect anatomy, physiology, and taxonomy. Vetal Tekdi on Law College Road gave me an opportunity to watch the principles enumerated in those tomes put into practice by nature. Entire sessions of 'PT periods' were spent on the fringes of the Law College ground, as also the school premises, hunting and collecting beetles, grasshoppers, centipedes, and praying mantises. While the other boys kicked the football around, I and two dedicated friends kicked away mud, 'congress' grass, and thorns to reveal camouflaged stick insects and monsoon snails. Hours used to be spent at home, housing these denizens of the green in big jars borrowed from my mom. The insect collection streak, exhibited over a considerable period of time, inevitably earned me the worthy title of nerd in school. I often used to have small bottles tucked away in my jacket pocket. These used to be filled with little praying mantises at times, and I had no hesitation about whipping them out at the slightest provocation. One time, a not too kind class teacher failed to appreciate the time I had spent in missing the first period and collecting golden beetles. She promptly asked the class bully to throw out the bugs, and to protest, I spent the rest of the day in search of them outside, an action that was instantly rewarded with a letter to my parents asking for a meeting.

As far as I can remember, I never ever doubted that it was evolution and natural selection that gave rise to the diversity around me. I chanced upon Darwin's book in the Ferguson library sometime in seventh or eighth standard. Even if I did not understand the details, I had read enough about Darwin from encyclopedias to know that here was a book that had really changed the way we look at world around us, and at ourselves. Phrases like variation, mutations, survival of the fittest, and natural selection were ingrained into my mind by then. Although my parents, especially my mom, are not atheists, they never tried to foist their beliefs on me to the slightest extent, and my dad always taught me the paradigm of evolution as almost a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, biology put me off in junior college. By that time, I had become fascinated by chemistry and physics. The fact that there could be cut and dried rules for the living world, based on fundamental laws and constants, thoroughly fascinated me. After setting up a lab in the spare bathroom in our house, I made dyes and soap, created colours and smells, and dissolved handkerchiefs and safety pins. Whatever interest I had in biology was swept away by the lackluster facts of junior college and BSc. biology classes. Most of the texts written for BSc. biology classes look like they have never been revised for a hundred years, and some of them actually have not been. None of the initial texts I studied reflected the revolution and logic in biology in the latter half of the twentieth century, which has brought biology so much closer to physics and chemistry in being an exact, predictable science. I remember studying, actually memorizing, genetics in my first year. But even that text taught the topic as a collection of a facts, as is the fashion for any discipline in our colleges. Almost the only thing I can remember from school and college biology, is an account of the anatomy of every species on earth, including having to draw excruciatingly detailed illustrations of circulatory, respiratory, and reproductive systems. This fact, in addition to the fact that most of my biology teachers were truly terrible, completely drew me away from biology. I also found a small but dedicated group of students who were interested in physics and chemistry. It is always easier to appreciate the logic in these harder sciences, and that sealed my fate as far as biology is concerned. Physics especially, with its reassuringly exact nature, entranced me. So did physicists, with their very much inexact nature. I was never very good at physics or mathematics, but I fortunately imbibed a lifelong appreciation of both.

But as they say, first loves always endure, and not only did I always retain an informal interest in biology, but I have realised that some of the details about bones and muscles have even stayed with me. In fact, I have now come to the conclusion that there cannot possibly be any person who is not interested in biology. Not being interested in school textbook biology and not being interested in biology are two quite different things. The first is almost a necessary consequence of our educational system. The second sounds like an impossibility. Biology is not a subject to be studied after all; it is our worldview. After all, who would not be interested in man's origins, and the workings of the wonderful world around him, and inside him? Who would not be interested in knowing how the almost unbelievable complexity around us obeys the same laws of physics and chemistry as simple systems? Who would not be interested in knowing the story of evolution, a story many times more breathtaking in its complexity and scope than any possible story of creation? Ergo, we are all interested in biology, even if high school and college biology can drive us mad. On a more mundane note, physicists, chemists, and engineers should always find biology interesting. In all these sciences, most systems studied are simple systems, and if they are complex, mathematical approximations are used. Biology is truly the ultimate challenge for any practitioner of these sciences due to its complex nature, and thanks to the spectacular advances in the last century, we are now all in a position to realistically understand the great enterprise of life. Beginning in the late 1950s, a glance at major biological discoveries shows that it is physicists and chemists who have contributed the most to biology, an observation that is not really surprising in light of the physical and chemical nature of biological science. Over the last few years, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists have found biology to be a treasure trove of complex phenomena, of networks, cascades, and structures, begging to be explained, and many of them have contributed to and gleaned insights from the science, that have been applied to disciplines as diverse as manufacturing, circuit design, and artificial intelligence. Biology is no longer the domain of the biologists. That is the real reason why it is the most exciting science of the future.

At the same time, biological insights are in no way restricted to reductionist approaches. In biology more than other science, the sum of the parts is not equal to the whole. That is where ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and systems biologists come in, who can connect the macro to the micro.

During the last year or two, I have found my interest in biology to be resurrected. Two reasons have been responsible for the resurgence. The first one has been my study of biochemistry, a really fantastic field of study, which explains the logic of life like no other. Cascades of molecular interactions in our body are like symphonies, each amplifying the result of the previous one, culminating in a finale that contributes to every emotion that we exhibit, every movement that we make, and even every thought we think, although we are far from actually explaning the details of these most human of all actions. Many of the phenomena in cell biology, immunology, and genetics are explicable by probing their underlying biochemical basis. If anything, an understanding of the biochemical complexity of life enhances our appreciation of the beauty of nature, and I can never see how it dulls it and reduces it to "mere" atoms and molecules, as enunciated by some religious people and artists. Just like a piece of art, there is beauty on many scales in biology, and at some point, the phenomenon called life actually materialises. Where, we don't know yet, but the journey here is as interesting, if not more, than the destination for sure.

The second reason comes from my reading of evolutionary biology. Some of the strongest support for evolution comes from a study of the comparative anatomy of current and ancient organisms. What our incompetent teachers did not teach us in college (or probably did not know- in any case, they never grasped the big picture) is the simple fact known to any chemist or biologist- structure begets function. If you want to know how something works, first know how it is made. When I read about the similarities of organisms and their ancestors as revealed through the fossil records, many mundane details of pure and boring anatomy that I studied so exasperatingly in college came back to me. All those features of frogs, earthworms, rats, and human beings, are there for a reason. A little investigation reveals their intimate connection to the organism's very existence, and brings to light the spectacular logic of those structures, embedded in the fossil record. For example, it is a source of great wonder to know that two of the three major bones of our ear actually came from the jaw of an amphibian, and intermediate and bizarre organisms somewhere between amphibians and reptiles can be found, where the bones actually served the double purpose of both hearing and eating for that organism, now forever frozen in time in the fossil record. I cursed my teachers for not revealing these intimate details between structure and function which we should have learnt in our college biology. The anatomical frustrations we were drawing in our journal were actually anatomical delights, which pointed to a logical fabric of life in the past and present. It's unforgivable that our teachers did not teach us those connections. In that process, the whole logic of life was lost upon us, and knowing that logic is a godsend in the study of life for any intelligent layman.

There is a third reason why I have resurrected my interest in biology. I had never even heard of creationism until I read John Casti's marvelous volume on the great mysteries of modern science and human existence. I was even more appalled to know that about fifty percent of people in the United States don't believe in evolution. How could they possibly ignore something for which the evidence is now all but final, and which has such a simple structure and beauty of its own? I have read about creationism (No, I will not call it ‘intelligent design’- the underlying philosophy, even if implied, is the same) and the eternal battle between religion and science. Thanks to people like Dawkins, Dennett, and Miller who continue to give sensible people hope and inspiration, we have wellsprings of progress. I have much to say about creationism, religion and science, but this is not the post for that. I have already written about it a couple of times.

The conclusion I have really come to, which is related to the post, is that even now, many people don't appreciate evolution because they think it somehow lacks the glory and beauty of the story of creation. They think that it is some great travesty to suggest that we have evolved from 'lesser' organisms. It is disconcerting for them to think that we are here without a purpose, that 'mere' and 'random' laws of physics and chemistry can fashion such great and noble beings as human beings.
I don't think there is anybody who can usurp their solipsistic view of human beings as the greatest of all living organisms.
But what I believe they fail to recognise is that the process of evolution is as wonderful, beautiful and lofty as any tale of creation they can possible imagine. I think that they should appreciate the process of evolution as a gem of logic and structure in its own right. This does not hamper their basic moral faith in other issues in any way. They should realise that as far as biology goes, other living creatures are not 'lesser' to us. They share the same bond with us that we do with each other. I think that we need to know, and tell each other, how evolution emphatically does not undermine our position in the universe, but it should make us feel lucky that we have come about as a result of such random, but targeted random processes. It needs to be emphatically proclaimed that even though mutations are random, evolution is not a random process. The analogy with Dawkins's blind watchmaker cannot be more apt. I think that one of the major reasons why people cannot come to terms with evolution is that they simply think it cannot be 'noble' enough to have produced us. Actually it is more than noble, more than beautiful, and more than awe inspiring, and yet relentlessly general and unsparing. And yet it produces beings who, in spite of having an understanding of their own origins, still are nothing special as far as the general fabric of life is concerned. Evolution, in its sweeping advances, never preferred us to the frog or to the snail. Personally, I find the fact that we share so many things in common with so many unlikely and diverse creatures much, much more enchanting and wondrous than the fact that we may be created and standing alone in isolated splendour. Evolution, for the first time, gives us a chance to revel in our shared heritage, and still appreciate our own unique place in the world. I think we all need to know this, and try to teach this to others. That is the real satisfaction and purpose that I get from having resurrected my interest in the science of life.

After all, who wouldn’t like to be reunited with their first love?

3 Comments:

Blogger gawker said...

PT in Law college? You must be an Abhinavian like me.

You are right about Christians believing in Creationism because it imparts a sense of purpose and deliberateness to life. But I also feel it is a case of "If you can't grasp it, it must be divine" kind of mentality. In either case, it is very strange that 50% of a developed country like the US would believe in this crap.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Nice to know that you are also an Abhinavite? Are you from Pune? What year did you pass out in?

You are right about the 'belief by incredulity' that exists in these people's minds. They need to do only a little thinking and take a few efforts to understand evolution. But before that, they need to believe in it, which they don't.

4:27 PM  
Blogger gawker said...

Ah yes abhinavite. Why the hell did i say abhinavian. Yes, I'm a lifelong Puneite and I'm from the batch of 91.I think.

5:42 AM  

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