Saturday, January 29, 2011

"On the Origin of Feces," or Do Scientists Have a (Sick) Sense of Humor?

Charles Darwin Biography

Well, judging from the last post, I suppose the answer to this question is probably moot (at least the "sick" part).  But I hope you'll indulge me nonetheless for another brief probe into the murky depths of scientific so-called humor, using the sordid story of my own personal (d)evolution as a guiding thread before I move on to other topics in later posts.

Scientists have a reputation among the general public for being strictly rational, fact-obsessed, and devoid of feeling (apart from the "mad" varieties who cackle gleefully as they plan to destroy the world, etc.).  But if you hang out with enough of them for long enough, you'll find quite a bit of humor bubbling up here and there like unexpected springs in a desert. Much of it, of course, is distinctly nerdy in flavor, often salty as well,  and even more often eccentric enough to reinforce the "mad" characterization of our kind.

One of the classic figures in this regard is satirical musician/science-math guy Tom Lehrer.  Perhaps my favorite piece of his is "The Elements," a fast-paced run-down of the first 102 elements on the periodic table set to a Gilbert and Sullivan melody. (listen here, if you dare:

I would KILL to be able to perform this myself, but even after listening to Lehrer's recordings for the last 4 decades I still can't fully wrap my brain around it.  Even so, I suppose I can attribute at least some of my own twisted psyche to having imprinted on this crazed genius at an early age.

During my college years at Bowdoin, my fellow students and I were occasionally stunned to realize that our science profs were at least semi-human enough to attempt humor in front of the class.  My anatomy professor, the late Jim Moulton, once shocked us by bursting into song as a way of illustrating the history of vertebrate evolution, singing about Amphioxus (a primitive marine vertebrate, pictured here) to the tune of "It's a Long Way To Tipperary:"

"It's a long way from Amphioxus. It's a long way to us.
It's a long way from Amphioxus to the meanest human cuss.
Well, it's goodbye to fins and gill slits, and it's welcome lungs and hair!
It's a long, long way from Amphioxus, but we all came from there."

(a YouTube version here:  )

Geology professor Art Hussey used to spice up his lectures by punning on geological terms ("Don't take it for granite.") and occasionally delving into the raunchy side (typically in reference to minerals with such choice names as "virginite," pictured here).

One of our favorite geo-tales from "Huss" was about two paleontologists who lost their long-standing friendship when one of them named a newly discovered fossil creature after his buddy-colleague.  The tiny marine snail was found attached to a fossil crinoid (a kind of stalked starfish), and it later transpired that such snails are indeed typically found with crinoids, usually attached to... the place where, um, waste is excreted.  One can quickly deduce what the snail's diet probably was.  Sadly, the fellow for whom the poop-eating snail was named refused to believe that his former friend hadn't done it on purpose, and never forgave him for it.

As a graduate teaching assistant at Duke, I watched master teacher and biomechanics guru Steve Vogel use vivid imagery to get otherwise abstract scientific points across to his undergrad non-major science classes.

One particularly memorable explanation had to do with "positive feedback loops," in which a process makes itself more and more extreme the longer it continues (a key concept in biology and also in climate change; for example, warming thaws permafrost which releases more methane which causes more warming, etc.).  I'll paraphrase him here.

"Imagine you're in bed, naked, with the partner of your dreams," he'd say.  Nodding heads invariably jerked to attention at that. "The room is chilly, but you've both got an electric blanket over you.  However, in the distractions of the moment, you didn't notice that the control mechanisms for your individual blankets have been switched."


More giggles.  "As you feel the chill, you turn up the thermostat on your blanket.  But all that does is warm your partner up, thanks to the switch.  They feel too warm and turn their own thermostat down, which makes you feel even colder.  Pretty soon, you're freezing while your partner is roasting.  That, my friends, is how a positive feedback loop works."

While on a 3-month expedition through the South Pacific Islands in 1983, botanist John Kress used to lighten our mood by making jokes about potholes in the local tarmac that made travel a trial.  "Those are dug by the Excavatia bird," he'd say. "It digs those holes in hopes of causing an accident so it can feed on unlucky tourists." 

When swerving to avoid said potholes caused an overhanging arm to rip through the pricker bushes lining the  road, he'd say "Ah, that was another species, 'Excavatia talon.' It places the potholes in such a way as to divert cars close to the vegetation where it lurks, ready to reach out and snag pieces of arm with its claws."

And whenever I'm feeling queasy at sea, I think of my friend and fellow Dukie, oceanographer Larry "Caboom" Cahoon, who used gallows humor on any students foolish enough to show up late and hung-over for one of our early-morning sampling cruises along the Carolina coast.  As soon as the breeze picked up and the sea started turning rough, he'd sidle up close to the greenest-looking miscreant and hold forth. 

"So, listen up," he'd say to all within earshot.  "Here's today's physiology lecture. There are three stages of seasickness. Stage one is when you're afraid you're going to die.  That's apparently where some of you are at right about now.  But don't worry, losing a few cookies is no big deal." 

By that, he meant that things were only going to get worse from there on out, as he'd then proceed to explain in his usual deadpan fashion.

"Before too long, you'll probably move on to stage two, which is when you KNOW you're going to die.  But that's nothing.  Just wait until you finally reach stage three, which is when you're going to WANT to die!"

With all this exposure to the twisted side of science, I suppose it's no surprise that I've been terminally affected by it.  During grad school, though, it led me to the greatest  heights (or depths) when my pal/colleague Kurt Haberyan published a paper describing what appeared to be the fossilized dropping of  copepods (tiny, shrimp-like plankton animals) in a billion-year-old rock deposit. He and his advisor got the discovery into print in a major journal because it seemed to represent some of the earliest signs of animal life ever found.

Some reviewers, however, were skeptical because nobody had ever found fossils of copepods themselves from rocks of that age.  "He must have misidentified the pellets," they claimed, "because copepods hadn't evolved yet."

In a flash of inspiration, I experienced my first "eureka moment" as a budding scientist. The skeptics had completely missed the most important aspect of Haberyan's discovery. By finding copepod pellets that pre-dated the origin of copepods, my friend had demonstrated something that would revolutionize evolutionary biology.

Scribbling feverishly, I penned what would later become a short article in the Journal of Irreproducible Results (the very existence of which was a testament to the secret depravity of scientists), under the title "The Origin of Feces."  Its thesis (no almost-pun intended) was that the evidence should be taken at face value; clearly, feces evolved before animals did.

It made sense then and, to my continuing horror, it still does. See if you can disprove it.  If you can, I'll eat a copepod pellet.

Here are the basics.  Feces evolved in the organic, bacteria-rich, primordial ooze at the bottom of the sea; that's why they look and smell as they do.  Animal bodies evolved later as shelters, means of transport, and nutrition-collecting mechanisms that pass resources down into the intestinal breeding grounds from which fecal progeny continually emerge.  Sewer systems which eventually drain into the oceans are actually migration routes along which young feces seek to return to their ancestral home.  Genes are merely the blueprints with which feces construct more host-bodies for themselves.  The primacy of feces over bodies is perhaps most clearly illustrated when an animal is in deadly, terrifying danger.  At such times, notice what often happens at the rear end of the animal, as the small, brown residents slip quickly and quietly out in an effort to escape...

OK, I know it's over the edge, and what little reputation as a serious scientist that I may have had before has surely been demolished now by this posting.  Just remember that I was merely a young, naive grad student at the time, not the all-knowing paragon of professional respectability that I am today.

But there's another reason why I'm confessing this Origin of Feces thing to you-all here.  I think it's a potentially useful teaching tool, not unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Bless His noodly appendages, and learn more about Him at ).  I sometimes use both of them in my classes now that I'm all grown up and can inflict sick science-humor on my own crops of hapless college students.

Like the "F.S.M.," my older but far less famous "O.O.F." hypothesis illustrates an important concept, that just because an idea fits a given array of facts doesn't necessarily mean that it's correct.  That's the problem with most arguments in support of so-called "intelligent design" or climate denial, in which an incomplete set of data is presented and may even seem to make some sense when strung together in a certain way.  But it doesn't really prove the point that the creationist/denier is trying to make.

It's also a reminder to scientists and their supporters that seemingly loony ideas are not always totally irrational or baseless, and that a single array of reputable facts may sometimes yield different yet more or less reasonable interpretations among people who have different worldviews.

So don't worry.  I don't really believe in the FSM, and most certainly not in The Origin of Feces.

No, really.

I mean, it simply can't be true because... um, well, because...