Sunday, February 12, 2012

Quahogs, Darwin, and grace

Today is Darwin Day, honoring a complex man with a stunningly simple idea that replaced the need for magical thinking.

Folks may hold on to their magic, I know I do, but they can no longer use rational thinking to hold on to the idea that the Hand of God was necessary to craft our appearance here.

The theory of evolution cannot disprove God—no science can. That was never Darwin’s intent.

See, if you grasp science, you grasp that it is not designed to disprove anything outside the realm of the natural world.

It’s not science using theology that causes all the trouble. It’s theology insisting that its stories are scientifically sound. 

I like hot sauce and I like  fruit, but I don't splash Tabasco on my blueberries.
I like fables, and I like science. I try not to confound the two.

Yesterday the soft gray wintry sky spit on the flint gray water. The air was chilly, but the water was still mid-40's, balmy for February.

Clamming in February, somewhere in Cape May County

I pulled just over a dozen quahogs out of the mix of muck and sand that gives them life. My hands were numb, too numb to feel the slice of flesh, but not so numb that I could not feel the sure shape of a cherrystone nestled in my hand. Perfect.

The more you look at these critters, the more beautiful and sophisticated they appear.

I gently tucked the oldest one back into the muck, one much older than the students I teach. I also tossed back the smallest, not out of sentiment--the small ones are tasty--but out of respect for the law.

Within a few hours, what was left of them sat in our bellies.

Here's the thing about science, something Darwin knew, something too many today do not--something does not have to be empirically demonstrated and peer-reviewed to be true, even matters of the natural world.

The natural world exceeds our collective imagination. The science world is limited to the parts of the natural world we have bothered to see. Since what we bother to see is influenced heavily by the wages we get to see it, what we look at represents a tiny, biased view of our universe.

This is true of scientists, this s true of the clergy, this is true of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. It's also true of me, and (if I may be so presumptuous) you.

Pulling up a quahog from the muck on a wet wintry day interests me. Quahogs interest me enough to know, from personal study, that many of the chowder clams I toss back are older than me, no matter what science says.
If I had pursued science research as a career, I would not be playing with quahogs, I'd be playing with telomeres--not because telomeres are more interesting, but because telomeres may unlock the fountain of youth, and (subsequently and more importantly)  have some heavy finanacial interests invested in them.

My sophomores feel this. What we call science in high school biology narrows their world view. Their wages (in this case grades) depend on reducing life to a series of incomprehensible and unpronounceable words attached to illustrations of things no human or mammal or any living thing at all has ever seen.

You can tell how old a clam is by checking its rings. I have seen several quahogs well into their 60's and 70's, and I mostly toss them back, again not (mostly) out of sentiment, but because they tend to be chewy.

If you Google northern quahog age you'll learn that until recently, "researchers" stated that the oldest northern  quahogs were around 40. I knew otherwise, as does anyone else who bothers to gather clams in places too shallow for dredgers, but I lack the sophisticated "sclerochronological analysis" employed by scientists. I do have eyes, though, and a large sample size

An hour ago, they were still in the mud.

Less than a year ago, researchers discovered that my quahogs can live over a hundred years:
Annually resolved growth lines in the hinge region and margin of the shell were identified and counted; the age of the oldest clam shell was determined to be at least 106 y. This age represents a considerable increase in the known maximum life span for M. mercenaria, more than doubling the maximum recorded life span of the species (46 y).

I could roll my eyes, but this is how science works. And now the "known" recorded life span has more than doubled.

But this has always been true. Natural selection has always been true. Gravity has always been true. Our understanding is more recent.

What separates science from the rest of what we know is that it depends on faith in the natural world, and faith in the idea that certain patterns have always been true, and will remain true.

God may (or may not) be a human construct--there's no way to test this empirically, and because it's untestable, it's not only uninteresting to science, it can never be science.

When I feel the perfect heft of an ancient quahog in my hand on a mid-winter day, 
when I become part of the gray light, part of the muddy smell, 
when my edge of self blends in with the detritus of life in the chilly mud between my toes, 
I am unconscious of the rational.

Mercenaria mercenaria, Homo sapiens

I am also ridiculously happy, happy to be part of this thing, whatever this thing is, that connects me and the clams and everything that lives to a world we've done nothing to deserve.

Read Charles Darwin's words. Know that he was happiest when absorbing the  incomprehensible variety of life around us, of us. The first love of his life left him because he preferred collecting bugs to meeting her family during winter break at college.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.

 Darwin did not kill God.
Those who persist in using science to prove God exists, though, just might.

Clam photos by us taken yesterday. 
Yes, I know, I fubared the html--still working on it....


Mary Ann Reilly said...

My Darwin moment.

John T. Spencer said...

It wasn't long ago when I felt like I had to defend why I accept evolution. I was surrounded by evangelical Christians. Which, if defined loosely, is still me (if, by gospel, I mean "good news")

Lately, I've had to explain to so many fellow humanist educators why I believe in God and grace and the Jesus story. It can feel like talking about Zombies or the Tooth Fairy. It's not that I'm all that doubtful (skeptical, yes) so much as tired of the battle that doesn't need to be a battle.

I accept evolution. I have my reasons, but I don't want to argue about them. I believe in Jesus. I have my reasons, but it's about as silly as trying to explain why I love my wife and kids. It's deeply personal and should probably stay that way.

I don't see them as separate ideas in a chasm so much as complimentary ideas weaved together but never touching entirely. Call it cognitive dissonance. I'll call it mental crocheting.

But . . . here's where I disagree. Fruit and hot sauce belong together. Ditch the blueberries for mangos and the Tabasco sauce for Tapatio or Cholula and you have something amazing, my friend.

doyle said...

Dear Mary Ann,

It's lovely--may I borrow it here (with a link and attribution, of course)?

Dear John,

I love your posts within a post.

I love the crotchet image, but I will have to empirically test the fruit and hot sauce combination.

The more I think about it, the more I think I going to like it.

(An AHEM post is coming soon--thanks for reminding me about it.)