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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“You are what what you eat eats”*…

 

Fruit3-1396x1536

 

Eating is paradoxically completely normal and pretty weird at the same time, once you start to think about it. We eat other beings constantly, in order to remain ourselves. In modern Western logic, the potential oddity of this situation has been dealt with for the most part by assuming that the things we eat stop being themselves after ingestion, that they become fuel or building blocks for us.

However, deep in the detailed pages of journals such as Cell Host & Microbe and Nature Reviews Endocrinology, a profound transformation is occurring in scientific ideas about food and eating that promises to undo assumptions about the relationships between eaters and what is eaten. This transformation, which we might characterize as a shift from a “machinic” to a rather hallucinogenic model of food and its incorporation, endows foodstuffs with much more agency and potency than they ever had in the standard “fuel + building blocks” model, where they were just burned and redeployed.

Rather than mere nosh, provender or raw material, food and its components are now being investigated for communicative and informational properties and for roles in gene regulation, environment sensing, maintaining physiological boundaries and adjusting cellular metabolic programs. Food speaks, cues and signals. Bodies sense and respond in complicated processes of inner conversation only dimly intuited by conscious thought.

Eating as interlocution is a conceptual development that carries with it potentially disorienting new representations of human interiority and autonomy. It is at the same time an immensely practical development, with implications for nutrition and metabolism as sites of potential technological interventions in health and longevity…

Food is being reunderstood as a currency of communication– social (a la Instagram), but more impactfully, biological: “Eating As Dialogue, Food As Technology.”

With this as background, see also: “The Future of Our Food Supply.”

Tangentially related– but entirely fascinating: “Putting Order In Its Place.”

* Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

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As we take a taste, we might spare a thought for William A. Mitchell; he died on this date in 2004.  A chemist who spent most of his career at General Foods, he was the inventor of Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites; over his career, he received over 70 patents.

MITCHELL source

 

“If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other”*…

 

species

 

The prevailing belief in a separation between humans and everything else is an essential function of a contemporary global economy which has permitted unprecedented levels of unsustainable resource extraction. The increasingly complex challenges human beings face in relation to the non-human world call for a paradigm shift: it is becoming ever more urgent to embrace new stories about ourselves and our relation to each other. This is the aim of ‘Stories on Earth’, Failed Architecture’s project for the parallel program of the Dutch Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2021. Stories on Earth is an experiment which brings together spatial designers and writers to devise new spatial narratives that accommodate the inherent interrelationship between humans and the non-human. We selected three designers whose works challenge humans’ relationship with nature, and three writers with personal and professional connections with Caribbean storytelling…

Six designers and writers participating in FA’s project for Venice Biennale 2021 speak with one composite voice about nature, humanity, and storytelling at: “Stories on Earth: A Collective Voice for the Human and Non-Human.”

On this same topic, check in with musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel, ecologist Carl Safina, technologist and novelist Jonathan Ledgard, prominent author and speaker on animal behaviour, Temple Grandin, and others…

We are pleased to announce the Interspecies Conversations Public Event 2020 in collaboration with the Coller Foundation, Google and MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. We would be delighted if you could join us and contribute to the conversation!

Interspecies I/O’s mission is to encourage, explore and facilitate interfaces for interspecies communication and approaches for deciphering the communication of non-human animals. With the aim to positively impact species conservation, welfare, empathy, compassion, enrichment, sustainability and understanding. It brings together a multidisciplinary group drawn from the sciences, arts and humanities in a rich collaborative forum, to advance the understanding and appreciation of the mental lives and intelligence of the diverse species with which we share our planet…

… at “Interspecies Conversations Public Conference 2020.”

And to complete the hat-trick, Matt Webb’s “On speaking with dolphins.”

* “If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear. What one fears one destroys.”  – Chief Dan George

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As we “Talk to the Animals,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that the first “test-tube baboon” was born; as The New York Times reported

A female black baboon, believed to be the first nonhuman primate conceived in a laboratory dish, has been born at the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education in San Antonio. The baby, named E. T., for embryo transfer, was born July 25, six months after its ”test-tube” fertilization and, coincidentally, on the fifth birthday of Louise Brown, the first human conceived ”in vitro.”…

Screen Shot 2020-07-21 at 11.17.16 AM source

 

 

“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”*…

 

death

Death Table from Tuberculosis in the United States, prepared for the International Congress on Tuberculosis, September 21 to October 12, 1908. Image: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Recent history tells us a lot about how epidemics unfold, how outbreaks spread, and how they are controlled. We also know a good deal about beginnings—those first cases of pneumonia in Guangdong marking the SARS outbreak of 2002–3, the earliest instances of influenza in Veracruz leading to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–10, the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Guinea sparking the Ebola pandemic of 2014–16. But these stories of rising action and a dramatic denouement only get us so far in coming to terms with the global crisis of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has blown past many efforts at containment, snapped the reins of case detection and surveillance across the world, and saturated all inhabited continents. To understand possible endings for this epidemic, we must look elsewhere than the neat pattern of beginning and end—and reconsider what we mean by the talk of “ending” epidemics to begin with…

Contrary to hopes for a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic, history shows that outbreaks of infectious disease often have much murkier outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem: “How Epidemics End.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

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As we contemplate the end, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Nettie Maria Stevens; she was born on this date in 1861.  A geneticist– and one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research– she built on the rediscovery of Mendel‘s paper on genetics (in 1900) with work that identified the mechanism of sexual selection: its determination by the single difference between two classes of sperm—the presence or absence of (what we now call) an X chromosome.

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“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo”*…

 

flamingo

Flamingos (alive)

 

Why do flamingos stand on one leg?

… because it’s the easiest way to stand: their knee locks up and they balance perfectly, so they don’t have to engage any muscles. They can sleep standing one one leg.

Scientists tested whether they really didn’t have to use any muscle tension by getting dead flamingos and trying to balance them on one foot. Which apparently works.

The reason flamingos sleep on one foot is because the waters they live in are toxic. They live in lakes that are either filled with blue-green algae (usually a menace, its poisonous to most animals) or lakes so salty they can strip off human skin. (I imagine this is an advantage because there’s not much competition for food and nesting space in a toxic lake.)

Their legs are covered in tough, scaly skin, but their bodies are softer. If they were to sleep floating on the water like ducks do, the water would burn them. This idea of living your whole life perched…

Via @mckinleaf and her ever-illuminating newsletter The Whippet: “Dead flamingos can stand on one foot.”

* Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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As we achieve balance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

 

 

Bray source

 

 

Written by LW

June 12, 2020 at 1:01 am

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim”*…

 

universe

 

What does it mean to be alive? Science, shockingly, still doesn’t have a consensus. For example, is it fair to say that the novel coronavirus now sweeping the world is alive? The short answer is there isn’t one agreed-upon answer — for something so basic, you’d think life would be easier to define.

The first recorded definition of life came from Aristotle in ancient Greece, around 350 BC. He posited that to be alive, something must grow, maintain itself, and reproduce. In contrast, the most well-known modern definition is probably NASA’s, which says living things must be “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” Take, for example, great apes: given appropriate resources like food and water, the “machinery” of a great ape — its organs and nervous system — regulates itself, keeping the great ape functioning in most conditions. They are also capable of evolution — just look at us. But this isn’t the only accepted definition of life. There are actually over 100 published definitions!

A lot of the debate comes down to the fact that the various fields of science approach the topic quite differently. A geneticist, whose focus is on known organisms and their genomes, will very likely have a different view on what constitutes life than an astrophysicist, who considers a more expansive, universal definition.

But beyond that, most of these definitions of life fall short in another, very subtle way: They are based on the origins of life on our planet. This means our hypotheses for what sentient and conscious aliens look like almost always reflect humankind. You only have to look at a Star Trek episode to see it — humanity likes to make the world in our image, which is partially why in sci-fi and fantasy a lot of the “aliens” look a lot like ourselves. (Okay, and because it’s easier to dress a human up as a humanoid alien)…

Cal Tech scientist (and published poet) Alison Koontz explains why none of the 100 definitions of life we have may be accurate away from “home”: “Our concept of life is too Earth-centric — alien life might look totally different.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

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As we confront our chauvinism, we might send speculative birthday greetings to Harlan Jay Ellison; he was born on this date in 1934.  A member (with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Roger Zelazny) of the American “new wave” science fiction vanguard, Ellison wrote more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media.  Some of his best-known work includes the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever“, his A Boy and His Dog cycle, and his short stories “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman“… for which he won many, many awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.

Ellison is also remembered for his outspoken, sometimes combative personality, of which Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho) said “[Ellison is] the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.”

200px-Harlan_Ellison_at_the_LA_Press_Club_19860712_(cropped_portrait)

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Written by LW

May 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

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