"....The truth is out there."
-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
Saturday, December 22, 2007
-- A Holiday Reading --
In this season of miracles, in a time of conflict between science and religion, and debate over the state of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, just a reading today from astronomer/physicist Chet Raymo, one of my favorite science/nature writers, focused on the Red Knot (a well known western hemisphere shorebird) --- appropriately enough from his 1998 volume entitled "Skeptics and True Believers," another book I recommend to all (passage highly edited for brevity's sake):
"...Now here is the astonishing thing... The young red knots, by the thousands and without adult guides or prior experience, find their way along the ancient migration route. From northern Canada to New England's Atlantic shore, across the Atlantic Ocean to Guyana and Suriname, then down along the eastern coast of South America, arriving precisely at those feeding grounds along the way where they are sure to find food. At last they join their parents and others of their species on the beaches of Tierra del Fuego for the southern summer.
"How do they do it? How do the young birds make their way along a route they have never traveled to, a destination they have never seen? How do they unerringly navigate the long stretch of their journey over featureless sea? We know exactly what the red knots accomplish --- where they go, when they arrive... But how the uninstructed young birds accomplish their epic feat of navigation remains mysterious...
"This much is certain: A map for the journey and the instrumental knowledge to follow it are part of the red knot's genetic inheritance. Each bird begins life as a single fertilized cell. Already, that microscopic cell contains the biological equivalent of a set of charts, a compass, a sextant, and maybe even something akin to a satellite navigation system...
"How can a map of the globe and the skill to follow it be contained within a cell too small to be seen with the naked eye? Medieval theologians are said to have debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; in the flight of the red knot we are engaged with a mystery more immediately present but no less marvelous...
"In the case of animal navigation, the answer to our question turns out to be quite incredible. The urge to make the red knot's planet-spanning flight, the map of the journey, and the skills to follow it, are written into a DNA molecule in a language of stunning simplicity... The red knot's map and navigational manual are written in a chemical language of only four letters!
"In each cell of the red knot's body, there are identical strands of DNA, about an arm's length in all, a blueprint for making a small russet bird with an urge to fly and the skills to make a 9,000-mile unpracticed journey. Can it be possible?... Believe it or not, several sets of the Encyclopedia Brittanica could be transcribed into the red knot's genes!...
"For some years I have been on the Board of Overseers of Boston's Museum of Science. On my visits to the museum, I always make my way to the ten-foot-high model of a segment of DNA. To my mind it is the most extraordinary exhibit in the museum... I stand in front of this partial strand, gape-jawed at the beauty, at the simplicity --- a simplicity out of which emerges the astonishing diversity and awesome complexity of life. What I feel as I stand before the model cannot be adequately put into words. Call it reverence, awe, praise --- in short, the full range of religious feeling.
"Nothing I learned during my religious training is more wondrous to me than the flight of the juvenile red knot... Such real-world mysteries inspire my awe far more than the so-called miracle on display in the cathedral of Turin. In the red knot's story we catch a glimpse of a God who never lifts his hand from his work, and who leads everything to the purpose for which it was ordained. As the British writer and cartographer Tim Robinson observed: Miracles are explainable; it is the explanations that are miraculous."
--- Every waking moment, of every day, I would argue, we all witness things (which we blissfully take for granted) that are far more miraculous than the continued existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers could ever be argued to be. Such is life... In this season of joy and wonder may we all come to recognize some of those daily miracles continually before us, which dwarf the debate over the Ivory-bill, the outcome of which is yet to be known, no matter who or how many, prematurely consider it settled.
A Merry Christmas to all, and best wishes for a 2008 full of surprises... and awe.
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