Tuesday, 2 January 2007

A Bird in the Fist

Nothing really grabbed my attention this time around. But I remain committed to the Method. So, World Science posted articles on the diversity of comet dust; Bush's rather surprising decision to label the polar bear as endangered, meaning that oil drilling could be curtailed in the Arctic areas because of global warming, rat dreams, a hormone that increases trust and mind reading, and the one I was thinking on, how we (mammals) might have flown before birds.

Turns out the article is talking about gliding more than flying, and the animal looks suspiciously like a squirrel (but it's in a different order), so I guess I don't feel the shivers down my spine upon reading this. But it's interesting to note how important it is for us. That no matter what the outcome or meaning of the article, it grabs the attention because it's a mammal. We tend to be quite biased in this matter- something Stephen Jay Gould (pbuh) often pointed out. Anything mammalian, or remotely mammalian, gets higher focus and interest. This is certainly true in the popular press and imagination, but even creeps into scientific journals. I suppose this should be no suprise, as the money for scientific research has to come from somewhere, and that's usually not scientists. But also, most scientists tend to be mammals. We care more about those that are similar to us. We care to such a great extent we even extend that maxim to subgroups within our own species, to our detriment. It's important to learn about the earliest flying mammal because it has mammary glands (well, half of them did), hair, live birth (again, half of them)...Better yet, what if we got there before that other group, that has the audacity to do something we can only dream of doing without machines, and we got there before them in the very thing they have the cheek to crow about so much?

I'm reminded of something Van Baer described, that early creationist who first pointed out similarities in embroys between different species. (It was a time when all evolution was believed to progress in discrete lines, so pointing out similarities between species would actually be an argument against evolution.) In 1828 he described a situation where a conference of birds were discussing those horrid mammals. They might say that "'Those four and two-legged animals bear many resemblances to our own embryos, for their cranial bones are separated, and they have no beak, just as we do in the first five or six days of our incubation; their extremities are all very much alike, as ours are for about the same period; there is not a true feather on their body, rather only thin feather-shafts, so that we, as fledglings in the nest, are more advanced than they will ever be . . . And these mammals that cannot find their own food for such a long time after birth, that can never rise freely from the earth, want to consider themselves more highly organized than we'?" It's all a matter of perspective, and bias.

This World Science article is interesting to most of us, and to me, simply out of old-fashioned patriotism. I value the mammals more. Doesn't matter that personally I find invertebrates infinitely more fascinating. Some part of me wants to be the first in the air- or at least to have some part of me having been the first in the air. I always want my group to be first, no matter how I struggle against this desire. It's in my genes, after all- my group first means my genes go forward, in some sense. Perhaps that's the final explanation and cause for all the strife that we have. Our quarrals and fights result from the desires that war within us, for we ask with wrong motives, that we might spend on our own pleasures- the greatest pleasure of all, to have us, our group, supreme. Perhaps then it's the final call, to go beyond our naturally selected drive, and come to the place where we are satisfied immensely, eternally, if the other guy wins.

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