Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Winterfylleð and clams again

I have a few problems with October. I prefer Winterfylleð--at least the etymology makes sense.

Many of my colleagues have an unabashed love for science. I don't--not because I don't trust rational thought (I (mostly) do). I have a problem with humans.

I am not talking about misapplications of technology. No one is going to argue that detonating nuclear bombs over cities is, at best, a dubious activity. "Pure" science, however, gets a free pass. It has always bothered me, in the way fishing for sport does. It's fun, sometimes productive, but something doesn't smack right.

I love clams. I kill them, true, to eat them, but I have a fine affinity for my shelled cousins. They are delectable dollops of sunshine, and if there's anything to this human superiority link-to-God thing, well, my clams at least get the benefit of a prayer as they taste garlic. ("My" clams betrays my hubris.)

Last October National Geographic reported that researchers had found the oldest known animal ever. A clam.

A 405 year old quahog.

Hamlet was just published. Sir Walter Raleigh got arrested. Queen Elizabeth died. And a quahog siphoned water in waters off Iceland.

A team of scientists was analyzing clams to study climate changes. They stumbled upon the clam. They counted its rings. The article makes no mention of whether they ate it.

If I found a 405 year old clam, I'd chuck it back into the water.


I studied etymology while a student at the University of Michigan. I wanted to be a bugologist.

We were asked to decapitate a live cricket under a dissecting microscope. It acted just like you'd expect a live cricket to act while getting its head yanked off. I am still not sure what we were supposed to learn, but I did yank off its head.

The legs continued to strum the air.

I left my microscope and a piece of my heart a few minutes later. That I plucked off that head to further my undergraduate career in science shames me. That I walked away from the scope a few moments later helped define me. Didn't do the cricket any good, though.


I teach science to children just old enough to have opinions. My opinion should not matter in the classroom. I said as much today when introducing descent with modification ("evolution" in the coffee klatsch crowd). I am not trying to convince them of anything, just trying to get them to think.

I paraded around a petri dish dotted with bacterial colonies from grown from the students' washed hands.

Say hello to your distant cousins! Can you believe you are related to bacteria?

Some nervous assent.

How many truly believe you are related to this stuff?

Someone muttered "not me."

A start.

I wouldn't believe it either if I knew only what you know now.

I am not a raving Creationist. Evolution is the key to understanding biology. Still, teaching by dogma is not science. Until someone doubts me, I cannot teach science.

We have doubt in the classroom now--not blind faith against evolution, just healthy doubt.

Do not trust your teacher. Make him show you evidence. Make the teacher work. Make science come alive.

And don't kill clams just because you want to see your name in print.


Louise Maine said...

Love this post! I too have a problem with humans and have said in class that we do not do what is right (and hide behind religion, politics, etc.)

I miss clams. Loved them when I lived in VA Beach and usually get some now when friends from Maine come to visit. Our moment of silence is reverence to the clam and what it represents.

Your experience in college reminds me of a comparative anatomy class where we pithed organisms. The turtle stands out in memory as it actually screams during the process. I am sure I learned something in that class but can only remember my abhorrence of Science for whatever the sake of science it represented. Torture is torture no matter where it is and for whatever higher purpose they chose to say it was for.

doyle said...

Thank you for the kind words, and your stories. Sometimes I question my sanity for praying over clams. Your moment of silence gave me solace.

I left out a story that still sickens me. In biochemistry class, we were told it was imperative that we slaughter our lab rats quickly, so we could assay their liver enzymes in a rat's unstressed state. (Cruelty was not an issue.)

A TA attempted to demonstrate the maneuver--grab a rat, and quickly slam the base of its skull on the edge of the lab table.

The rat slipped out of his hands, crashed through some glassware, then staggered through the glass, leaving a red wet trail behind it.

Once the rat was caught again, a second successful attempt was made, and the liver enzymes assayed anyway, despite the stress.

Most of us laughed.

I wonder how many bright people leave the biological sciences because of the cruelty involved.