Monday, May 25, 2009


We are winding up the year --the state "end of course" exams have come and gone, but we still have a few weeks to go.

We have started using Understanding by Design, part of which requires crafting essential questions for each unit. For evolution I asked if humans were inevitable.

Some of the children were understandably upset by the question--good questions will do that. Next year I may tone it down a bit, perhaps ask if wallabies or bees or amoeba or turtles were inevitable. It's really the same question.


I teach in a public high school in a mixed town, but most of our students come from clans that follow either the story of Isaac or Ishmael, both, of course, sons of Abraham. Origins matter.

Several times this year our classes have stumbled on the edge of what is known, or even empirically knowable. How did life start?

Evolution gets you here once you have the primordial ooze teeming with life, but it does not answer the question. The cell theory tells you each cell came from a pre-existing cell, it's turtles all the way down, but it also does not answer the question: how did the spark arise?

I do not know. I am fifty and I do not know, nor will I in my lifetime.

I do know this much, though--I know life ends.


I like to fish, and I like to eat fish. I do not, however, like to slaughter fish. Killing a fish squirming in your hand removes ambiguity--it was alive, it is now dead, I killed it.

I kill hundreds, thousands of organisms every day, as most of us do. We drive. We use coal. We eat industrial food raised using industrial methods. We bathe in chlorinated water. We swipe anti-bacterial deodorants under our arms without thinking.

Killing a vertebrate with my hands, however, still gives me pause.

Stun the fish, then bleed it. Put it on ice. Sounds simple, until you feel the muscle writhing in your grasp.

The western option is to ignore the whole act.

That's why most of us die in institutions now.


When I was a pediatric cardiology fellow, we had an infant that had a bad heart with a good brain. Fixing the heart required multiple surgeries, with no guarantee of success. The family opted not to fix it. After heated discussion, consensus was reached, and the baby went home.

The baby died at home, not unexpectedly.

The father then brought the baby back to the hospital, and once in the nursery announced he had his dead son in his arms. I was called to "fix" the situation.


I was ill last week--not ill enough to stop me, but enough to remind me that energy is a gift. I did most of what is expected of me, but not all.

I'm mortal, as we all are, but it's not something discussed much in the classroom.

Where did the first cells come from? A science question.
Can we replicate it? A technological question.
Should we? An ethical question.
Why? A religious one.

So I teach the cell theory, point out its flaw, and then teach evolution and defend its perceived "flaws." Life might be inevitable, but we're certainly not.

The snow peas are on the bush, the first strawberries are reddening. Taste one, then the other, and the machine, this machine, matters less.

Taste them again, and this machine no longer matters at all.

I may be spending less time here.


Kathryn J said...

I like the question about human inevitability but have heard some interesting stories from other biology teachers about student and parent reaction to the evolution unit.

There is much that calls this time of year. I planted more in my garden today and am happily anticipating fresh herbs and veggies. You will be missed if you spend less time here.

lucychili said...

Imagining a board game where the combination of symbiotic species makes a set. The existence of water, grasses, insects, makes a herbivore possible.
Could be played sort of like canasta, collecting species to make improbable humanity =)

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

Planting trumps words.

Evolution is an interesting topic--it is the foundation of biology, and poking around the theory, even peripherally, reveals its depth. It works splendidly, and it's based on observation.

Having said that, it does not explain everything, or even nearly everything, but it's not designed to do so. There are plenty of things under the sun that matter, and not all of them are empirical.

I had a 40 year old clam in my hands Saturday. 40 years. That's a long time.

I let it go.

Dear lucychili,

Our existence provides evidence of the possibility, true. What we fail to see is the denominator.

The denominator is huge, almost big enough to make the the odds of us playing with photons continents away essentially zero.

Yet we do it anyway.

Kathryn J said...

My ignorance showing here. How do you know the age of a clam? 40 years is a long time for a clam.

In college, I briefly flirted with biochem - loved genetics, cell biology, the whole protein synthesis gig but the course where they wanted me to memorize all the amino acids, stopped me cold. I'm a chem person - fire and glassware, don't you know?

Yet - I love the natural world. Fossils intrigue me and I spend many summer days studying and searching for them. Water chemistry is amazing and the effect of acid rain and other chemical reactions on our environment and personal biology intrigue me.

I have no idea how to tell the age of a clam and as someone who loves the seashore, that distresses me. I don't eat clams, oysters, or mussels though so I am using that as my shield of ignorance; I just don't like them. My children can't get enough of them so I should learn more.

Wayne Stratz said...

I tell my students to feel free to doubt anyone who is certain on the aspect of how life began on this or any other planet for that matter.

And to be glad they live in a universe that will always have mysteries.

Wayne Stratz said...

by the way. by less time, I hope you don't mean no time. peace.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

Some clams it's easy--count the rings. Quahogs have rings, too, but appear to make several a year, and some "experts" say you cannot reliably age a quahog by external rings, though others say you can.

I try anyway. A little neck (1 1/2")is about 3 or 4 years old, and you can see bands of rings. The mud appears darker at the edges of the bands. A little neck around here typically has 3 or 4 "mud" rings. When I get a big chowder clam, I count the dark bands. I don't count every time, and this particular clam was about the same size as another that did have 40+ mud bands.

Dear Wayne,

Great words for your students--certainty kills science (and our imagination).

I'll be back once I get a handle on school and such--we're at the end of the year, and like all teachers, am juggling about 17 balls in the air this time of year.

Good thing I like juggling!