Understanding life, or at least, trying
by Rob Tiller
It was sunny this week, and warmer. After I recovered from my bout with the flu, I got to spend more time outside with the birds, and made a few images I liked.
I admit, one of the things I like about nature photography is fiddling with the amazing technology, which allows for harder and closer looks at everything. But for me, the deeper purpose is connecting with the animals, vegetables, and minerals. It is quite possible to be surrounded by nature and barely see it, as I have done many times. On the other other hand, if you start looking and keep looking, there’s always more to see.
Nature photographs are, of course, distinct from nature itself. Even the best are only tiny slices of the whole, and, for better or worse, always incorporate human choices on technology and aesthetics. At the same time, there are aspects of nature, like a bird catching a fish, that we could barely see except in a photograph.
In Mark Bittman’s new book about the human food system, he makes a point I found semi-comforting about the misery that humans have inflicted on the rest of the earth: it wasn’t planned. There was never an evil genius or plan directing mass slaughter of animals or destruction of their habitats. There were, of course, strong cultural forces at work, such as capitalism, religion, and imperialism, as well as greed and fear.
At the end of the day, though, there was no conscious decision to exterminate billions of wild animals. We just didn’t notice. We didn’t bother to look closely at the lives of other creatures, or think. Even as it was happening, we didn’t really understand the extent of the damage we were doing to them, and to ourselves.
But now we are starting to understand. Maybe. I hope. There could still be time to change our course.
We’ve been thinking more about viruses, but curiously scientists are not in agreement on whether viruses are alive. According to Carl Zimmer’s recent piece in the NY Times, there is actually no well settled definition of where life separates from non-life, and viruses can arguably fit in either category. No one ever saw a virus until there were modern electron microscopes, and no one knew much about how they operated until the advances in understanding DNA and RNA of the late 20th century.
We now know there are a lot of individual viruses. According to Zimmer, there are more of them in a litre of seawater than there are humans on the planet. And there are more species of viruses than of anything else — possibly trillions of them. In our own guts, there are at least 21,000 viral species.
This sounds kind of scary, since the only viruses most of us have heard of are those that cause disease. But a lot of them are harmless, and some of them are essential for life. Some important ones assist our gut bacteria, and some of them have become part of the human genome.
As to bacteria, we’ve come a long way from when I was a kid in the mid-20th century. Back then, bacteria were all considered dangerous enemies. Kitchen and bath cleaning products as well as medicine embodied the view that the only good bacterium was a dead one. Now we understand better that bacteria are an essential part of our world, and, indeed, essential elements of our own bodies. It sounds like we’re starting along a similar learning curve as to viruses.
Apropos of misunderstood and unfairly despised inhabitants of our home planet, I’d like to say a word on behalf of octopuses. They are not, to human eyes, very attractive, but they have extraordinary talents, as I’ve noted before. My Octopus Teacher, currently on Netflix, is a wonderful documentary about an octopus and a diver who develop a surprisingly intimate relationship.
I was very disappointed at the New York Times this week when it published a story whipping up octopus fears. In a nutshell, the Times breathlessly reported that an octopus “angr[ily] lash[ed]” a tourist in Australia. Later in the story, the Times finally made clear that the tourist was not seriously injured, and was more likely stung by a jellyfish.
I am more grateful than I used to be for slow news days, when there is no particular political scandal, mass shooting, or other disaster, and newspaper editors are straining a bit to fill the paper. But that doesn’t justify the Times’ tall tale of the angry lashing octopus.
As those with any interest in the world’s deteriorating coral reefs already know, octopuses and other reef creatures have more than enough problems already. Those who know nothing about octopuses, except that they look alien and scary, need education, rather than fear mongering. Dear Times, such anti-nature pseudo journalism is bad for animals, humans, and your reputation, and should be discontinued.