Friday, 14 September 2012

Danny's Dinos

There they are: his plastic dinosaurs. Sixteen of them. (Bless his overgenerous mother!) Taking over the front room sofa, my favorite place to read the morning paper. Am I pissed? Absolutely not. It’s as exciting (to me) his fascination at age 5 with snails, bees, spiders—anything small that moves, catching his attention. Is this a future entomologist I see before me? Or better yet, a paleontologist.

His insatiable curiosity is what I entirely missed with my first batch of kids (now in their late fifties) because I was so absorbed in succeeding professionally: Michael (5), Carnegie Postdoctoral grant to create an innovative course on Mass Culture,1957; Catherine (5), faculty at Penn’s Annenberg School, 1959; Timothy (5), founding director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii, 1961. Sorry, kids. I was absorbed elsewhere!

But now I’m also hooked on dinosaurs. Books and magazines on the subject jostle for space on our tables. I, taught 85 years ago that mankind was a mere 4000 years old, must absorb the truth that it took 5 billion years to evolve to our current status. Bless the editors of GEO kompakt Nr 23, “EVOLUTION: Die Ersten vier Milliarden Jahre: Von der Urzelle zum Säugetier” . From single cell to mammal, 152 pages of graphs and images telling the story from era to era.  What a history!

Backed up by my vade mecum , just published by 82 year old retired Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, whose eighth book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (Liveright, 2012) tackles the toughest last chapter of the human adventure—from animal to social being. Take up that story with lightning starting a fire in the woods where our emerging humans were hunting for animals to eat. 

With their still clumsy tools they drag the cooked beast back to their lair where they can defend their take against the competing hungers of other animals. And it tastes so much better. And easier to consume. They even drag a smouldering trunk “home” so they don’t lose their new “tool” fire. Little did they yet know that the cooked food gave them larger brains, so much advanced that the ultimate miracle, speech, is theirs!

So dazzled by his book, I research his evolution. Poor Alabama boy, he hunts the woods around him. An adolescent accident destroyed one eye, making him choose small insects, especially ants, his specialty. He wants to sign up for World War II so a poor boy can use the GI Bill to finance his higher education. 

Rejected because of his damaged vision, he gets his undergraduate education at the U of Alabama, where his dazzling scholarship wins him access to Harvard. He is such a great long distance teacher. If you don’t believe me, read his seventh book, “Anthill: A Novel” (Norton, 2019.) Heh, the queen runs things, with drones and freer workers to bring home the nutrients that makes a huge colony prosper!

Now serendipitously, while we were spending our last week of vacation at the Baltic, Rostock’s Zoo just opened a new $30 million dollar plus “DARWINEUM”, a thousand animals to illustrate the central concepts of Evolution. And they had the savvy to invite the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, a Brit who now researches ancient forests in India, to open the museum. Fossils are at the center of the research they are popularizing. 

Now I’m speculating that the high interest in this Darwinism is one of the DDR’s more positive legacies: a secularism antithetical to the numbskull “Christianity” that, for example, bans the study of evolution in the Texas schools. Such Tea Party foolishness is a discouraging development in America. Devolution before our very eyes. Danny already knows better!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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