Monday, October 29, 2012

On Coelacanths And Tree Snakes

On Coelacanths and Tree Snakes 

In 1938, a South African fishing boat Captain, Hendrick Goosen, brought in a catch that included a five foot long specimen with a distinct azure-blue coloring, a tri-lobed tail, and paired lobe fins which looked like four small legs.  The Captain gave it to Majorie Latimer, who ran a small local fish and reptile museum.  She, in turn, sent a drawing, along with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a local fish fanatic, who identified it as a Coelacanth. 

This find was called the “Discovery of the Century” since Coelacanths were supposed to be extinct for 65 Million years.  Remarkably, these living dinosaurs had survived, almost completely unchanged from the Devonian Era. 

Of course, that was the 20th Century, but there are more living dinosaurs than just the Coelacanths. We can find them today embodied in the platforms, and the standard-bearers, of the two major parties.  There’s not a single idea that hasn’t tried over and over again, not a hint of oxygen in the stale sourness that emanates from the campaigns.

Too harsh?  Not really.  As David Brooks (who, despite many public displays of angst, is supporting Romney) wrote last week, “For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.”

Brooks is inadvertently putting his finger on something that is something unusual in our history.  We have always been a dynamic political ecosystem,  creating new movements, and even new parties.  But ever since Nixon capitalized on the powerful race and class resentment caused by LBJ’s policies on Civil Rights and the Viet Nam war, the two parties have settled down to a trench warfare, not unlike the India/Pakistan partition in 1947, where millions physically moved to safer ground, but ideology and anger stayed undiluted and tribal. 

The problem with that type of an isolated and enclosed ecosystem is that it loses its ability to adapt to new circumstances.   That leaves it vulnerable to invasive predatory species.  There is a fascinating story in Oliver Sacks’ “Island of The Color Blind” about his visit to Guam.  Sacks is amazed to hear the pervasive natural silence in the forest.  There’s no birdsong on Guam, a former tropical paradise.  That’s because there are no birds.  They have all been eaten after an prolonged invasion of brown tree snakes, who apparently stowed away on ships from the Solomon Islands, and with no natural predators, have decimated native populations.

The GOP has become fertile ground for voracious interest groups; the Norquists, the Scolds, and the Tea Party types.  These folk combine an intense drive for power with a nihilistic contempt for government in general, except when they use it to impose their beliefs on others.  They have entered the ecosystem and are devouring everything in sight, including sometimes their own. 

Democrats, however, are still working with last century’s DNA.  While they aren’t quite the tax-loving liberals described in Brooks’ hyperbolic statement, they still can’t break out of the Great Society shackles.   If some in the GOP simply want to eat everything is sight, the Democrats haven’t grasped the most obvious fact, which is unless you have a global reform of taxes and entitlements, and unless you embrace growth, sooner or later, there won’t be enough of anything for anyone to eat.

That ravaged political Earth has no room for big ideas.  Instead we are left with a tactical conflict where “ground game” and voter suppression substitutes for a compelling narrative. Mr. Obama’s campaign methodically makes the calls and gets out the vote.  The Republicans spin angry little fantasies and try to suppress turnout.  In Indiana’s LaPorte County, the GOP Co-Director of Voter Registration, Donna Harris, waited until her Democratic counterpart went on medical leave and then supervised a purge of 16% of the entire district’s voters, about 13,000 votes.  That she was married to the County’s GOP leader, who was also on the ballot, and that the district was in the heart of Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly’s district, who just happens to be running for Senate in a close race, I’m sure was just a coincidence.  After painstaking effort, 11,000 voters have been restored, many after being turned away to vote the first time they appeared at the polls. 

Non-adaptive, heavily armored creatures and predators who eat everything in sight.  Not much to get optimistic about when we need creativity and courage.

Perhaps nature can show us the way?

In Guam,  they have tried dropping dead mice packed with Tylenol into the forest cover.  The omnivorous brown tree snake is one of the few snakes that will also eat something they don’t kill.  It’s not yet clear how effective this is, but the practice is considered comparatively safe, since are few other species on Guam that could be tempted by the mouse bait, as the brown tree snakes have already decimated them.

And, in an exquisite bit of irony, creationists have taken to claiming that the prehistoric nature of Coelacanths is proof that evolution is a fraud. 

More credible is the interesting fact that the huge fish, who can grow to six feet and a half feet and nearly 200 pounds,  has only a miniscule brain that occupies only 1.5 percent of its cranial cavity; the rest is filled with fat.

Life imitating art?