The Ape That Cooks #poem #poetry #nature #evolution #human

Homo erectus - the first cook. Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (except for the hat)

Homo erectus – the first cook. Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (except for the hat)

We are the hunting ape,
But other apes do hunt.
We are the speaking ape,
But other apes do grunt.

What set us on the path
To our enormous brain?
And brought us down
From the trees
To walk across the plain?

We are the ape with fire!
There’s evidence to show
Prometheus brought us his gift
A long long time ago.

With fire, sleeping on the ground,
Protected from the lions,
We shed our dense and furry coats,
It warmed us through the nighttime.

While other apes use their day
To chew and chew and chew
Their tubers, leaves, and wild fruits
We cooked the first fast food.

This new step in digestion
Meant more calories,
Cooked out the germs and toxins
Of wild plants and meats.

Tied to our adaption,
We’d never be the same.
“We are the cooking apes,
The creatures of the flame.”

I recently read Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. I was happily surprised at how fascinating his hypothesis is: that starting as long ago as Homo erectus, humans evolved with fire and cooking. There are lines of evidence I would have never thought about – delightful.

Wrangham is really involved in his subject. He knows how much effort it takes to chew raw wild foods because he’s studied chimpanzees and tried their various foods. With some friends he ran an informal experiment chewing raw goat meat. They found that adding old leaves to their mouths – as chimps do when they eat meat – gave their teeth more “traction” to get the (nasty sounding) mess down.

He also covers a lot of related topics, including raw foodists and modern hunter-gatherers. It’s a great book.

Thanks to Wrangham for the final quote in the poem above.

R&R 3 coversAll my books, including collections of my science-inspired poetry, are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and other major online retailers. You’ll also find paperbacks at Create Space and all major digital formats at Smashwords. Read one today.

That Which We Call a Wolf #nature #biology #words #wolves #language

Mexican gray wolf - a little guy as wolves go, perhaps because life in desert mountains is hard. Looks a lot like a coyote to me.

Mexican gray wolf – a little guy as wolves go, perhaps because life in desert mountains is hard. Looks more like a coyote than the big wolves of Yellowstone.

Can a word become more important than the thing it names? I’ve thought about this before. We humans stuff nature into neat little categories because it makes a complex world easier on our brains.

We divide living things into species.

But what is a species?

A species is often defined as a group of individuals that actually or potentially interbreed in nature. In this sense, a species is the biggest gene pool possible under natural conditions… That definition of a species might seem cut and dried, but it is not… many plants, and some animals, form hybrids in nature.”

If you add deep time to your definition, you’ll find “species” come and go on Earth despite the fact that evolution is a continuum.

Like a lot of the labels humans create, a species is a handy way to mostly-categorize and sort-of talk about an important topic. The word is fuzzy, but that doesn’t usually matter.

Until it does.

In America, we have a law (much loved and hated) that requires we spend money and limit certain economic activities to save “threatened and endangered species.”

Most Americans live in urban/suburban areas and never see large predators, but want to protect them. Rural folk like myself actually live with them, lose cattle and pets to them, and sometimes fear for human lives. My urban/suburban friends may get a taste of living with predators because some wolves (and definitely coyotes) live in their parks and backyards.

Total disclosure – I own no cattle, lost two pets to bears, and am willing to protect predators but think the government often handles the projects badly.

That brings me to the American Wolf. If gray wolves, red wolves, eastern wolves, and Mexican grey wolves are four species, they must be protected in all their various ranges. Science tells us something about this question:

  • Eastern and red wolves are genetically coyote/wolf hybrids – Princeton-UCLA study published in Science Advances
  • Mexican grey wolves come from a tiny captive stock (true as far as I know) and have interbred with coyotes and domestic dogs (common assertion here in Mexican grey wolf country – I can’t say, but it seems plausible.)

Researchers analyzed the complete genomes of 12 pure gray wolves (from regions without any coyotes), three pure coyotes (from regions without any gray wolves), 6 eastern wolves, and 3 red wolves. The results showed that eastern wolves are about 75 percent gray wolf and 25 percent coyote, while red wolves are about 25 percent gray wolf and 75 percent coyote – with almost no unique genetic material of their own.”

(Too bad my local Mexican grey wolf was not included in the study.)

Pro-wolf and anti-wolf groups have entrenched mutual distrust in my area. Their conflict runs so deep that beating the other guy often seems more important than the wolves.

So choose your side and remember that, in government, a word means whatever the law or the courts say it means. Which will not be what science or common-usage says it means. Remember your opponents are probably nice people with reasonable goals – try to keep an open heart so you can keep an open mind.

Maybe haiku will help:

Coyotes mate wolves
But Danes and Chihuahuas can’t
So what’s a species?

Physics & Biology Helped Us Evolve #science #cancer #NASA #Earth #Mars @MarsOneProject

Sixteen cells working together as a species of algae

Sixteen cells working together as a species of algae

For three billion years, life on Earth consisted of single celled organisms. That was so soon after the planet cooled, it leads some scientists to believe life may be common in the universe. Then 800 million years ago, multicellular life burst on the scene and rapidly evolved. Since it took so long to make the multicellular leap, some scientists believe this sort of advanced life may be rare.

Individual cells started grouping up. They collaborated, differentiated, grew in size and ability. Some sacrificed themselves for the good of the many. Compared to the long, dull years of single-celled living, the resulting diversification barely took any time at all. Before long the world was full of trilobites and anenomes, then fish, ferns, pterodactyls, tyrannosaurs, bees, whales, cacti, kangaroos, not to mention us.

Biology: why did life change? How?

A single gene, called RB, studied in a sixteen-cell species of green algae may explain cells banding together into more complex creatures – and may also explain why some cancers grow in us today. Thanks to mutations in the gene, RB can cause cells to clump together into altruistic colonies, or cells in us to selfishly run wild.

Ironically, cancer may be the price we pay for existing at all.

But complex life needed more than variations of RB to evolve.

Physics: life needed Earth to change
RB may have launched complex creatures more than once before our ancestors lasted long enough to evolve.

Scientists think that until 500 million years ago, life on Earth fell victim to high-energy blasts from the sun, [the early sun produced a lot more cell-killing gamma, ultraviolet and x-rays than it does today.] The atmosphere then was too thin to fully protect our single-celled ancestors, whose DNA would have been damaged by such powerful rays. That kept them from becoming more complex.

As the early Earth cooled, heavy metals sunk to the center. Still very hot but now under extreme pressure, the inner core solidified and spun inside the still-molten outer core.

Bingo! A strong magnetic field was generated, deflecting radiation and protecting the atmosphere from being stripped away. Combined with an aging, more-sedate sun, cells were no longer regularly smashed back to their simplest forms.

The details are hard to pin down and studies will continue. “The origin of life remains one of most challenging themes in science.” And, I might add, one of the most fascinating.

Poor dead Mars
The failure to form a proper dynamo of solid inner core and molten outer core may help explain why Mars lost its early atmosphere and has essentially no magnetic field. Perhaps the planet was just too small to manage the trick – Mars is only half the diameter of Earth. The combination makes Mars a hostile planet for life. Whether life ever started there is unknown, and the chance life persists if it did once gain a toehold is unlikely, but NASA and others are working to find out.

Colonize Mars with scifi
The combination also makes Mars a difficult place for us to consider GLORY Ebook 300 dpi (200x300)colonizing, but from NASA to Mars One, people are ready to go. For now, you can only travel to Mars in your imagination – or in mine! Check out my scifi On Mars series at Amazon or your favorite on-line retailer. Tragedy and despair follow the first colonists to Mars, but exploration, optimism, and love await them too. With a clue to survival from a cat! Read today. Or, as we say on Mars, tosol.

Thanks to Washington Post here and here for stories and quotations.

Natural GMO #GMO #poem #poetry #science #biology #evolution

What never livedRotavirus_Reconstruction
But yet evolved?
Retained itself
In species broad?
Shares DNA
But never sex?
Familiar beast
You don’t expect?

Rhyming riddles are hard to write – feel free to offer your own couplets in the comments. I bet you’ll do better than I did. Kate

Researchers from Boston College, US, are studying an ancient group of retroviruses that affected many modern mammal ancestors 30 million years ago. Viruses that colonized our ancestors and, “over the course of millions of years, however, viral genetic sequences accumulate in the DNA genomes of living organisms, including humans.”

Thanks to

Life Is… #surprisingthing in #science #poetry

Newcomers hog the spotlight

Newcomers hog the spotlight

Age of Fishes, Paleozoic,
Age of Reptiles, Mesozoic,
Age of Mammals, Cenozoic,
Age of Man, Anthropocene,
These all miss the major theme.
Outstanding feature of life’s scene
Is a constant domination,
Now, as ever since creation,
Reigning through life’s whole duration.

Count by biomass or cells,
Eon, epoch, era tells
In what period life dwells.

It’s the Age of Microbes!
It’s been the Age of Microbes.
Will always be,
On land and sea,
Earth in the Age of Microbes.

Poem by Kate Rauner

We humans are impressed by big, fierce creatures – but nature is not. “What you see is that the most outstanding feature of life’s history is a constant domination by bacteria.” Stephen Jay Gould

Ancient Beauty of Sight – #poetry by Kate Rauner


Human eye with its weird blind spot at #14

Detecting light is useful
To aim leaves at the sun,
To orient when swimming,
To find, or hide, or run.

Sight drove the Cambrian explosion
Half a billion years ago,
A race of “see” with “be seen”
To tell a friend from foe.

From cells just photosensitive,
Many eyes were built.
Your eye is backwards, upside down,
But right-side out for squids.

A fruit fly has a compound eye,
A hundred little circuits.
A mollusk has a hundred eyes
To search the ocean currents.

The eye evolved before the brain,
For what’s a brain good for
Without a lot of inputs
To process in its core?

So you can think because you see
Reflections, motions, trends,
The beauty of our sunlit world
Through iris, nerve, and lens.

There’s grandeur in this view of life,
From so simple a beginning,
Endless forms most beautiful,
Life’s web continues spinning.

Recent reports on the Chitons sea mollusk with hundreds of eyes embedded in its shell got me thinking about the evolution of the eye – or, rather, eyes. That led me to a favorite quote from Charles Darwin, from the conclusion of On the Origin of Species (1859):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

There are lots of articles on evolution of the eye. For example, here and here.


Humanity Belongs to the #Dogs – #Dog #pets #poetry

cave painting of a wolf or dog

cave painting of a wolf or dog

Humans drop a trail of trash,
Of garbage most enticing.
Wolves followed us across the plains
And with us have been thriving.
Neanderthals all disappeared
When modern humans came.
But wolves survived the journey
And slowly became tame.
Pushed by selective pressure
To tolerate us near,
Some mommas with their litters
Overcame their fears.
Floppy ears and painted coats
And puppies sweet and dear,
Raise alarms with bark and bite
When predators come near.
And so they morphed from pest to pal
Built on returning trust,
Till not a village lacked a dog
Domesticating us.

by Kate Rauner

iflscience reported findings, published in Current Biology this week, that suggest dogs became domesticated thousands of years earlier than previously thought. They may have been our companions for 30,000 years.

That reminds me of what I’ve learned about the origin of the dog and of how experiments breeding foxes for friendliness yield dog-like offspring in surprisingly few generations. We once thought humans domesticated the dog by capturing and raising wolf pups, but it seems more likely they domesticated themselves by moving from our dumps to our firesides to our homes.

Individuals that tolerated us were safer and better fed, and bred more successfully. They rapidly evolved into dogs and followed us around the world. Our partnership is so successful it’s hard to imagine a town or tribe without dogs. I wonder how different we would be today if dogs had never found us.