On Filleting a Fish

 

 

 

Fair warning:  People for whom I have great respect have suggested that this essay is better suited to a sporting magazine than Cereflections.  But it has been over a year since anything new has shown up on the blog. Call it a dry spell, writer’s block, or sloth; the spell needs breaking and this effort aligns with a basic belief that there is much to be gained from thinking below the surface of mundane activities.

Apology – In this essay, the word “fisherman” is not intended to be sexist.  There are plenty of women who love to fish and are excellent at it. “Fishermen” is used in a purely gender-neutral sense rather than fishermenandwomen” or “fisherpeople” simply out of convention.  It is intended to mean all people who fish.

 

You can learn a lot filleting a fish.   Yesterday a flock of raucous gulls telegraphed the arrival of a school of Morone saxatilis and one member mistook a blue and white plastic surface plug for breakfast.  You’d think she would have known better. Based on her thirty inch length she had run this gauntlet at least ten times before and should have come to recognize the vast majority of lures dragged across her path by fishermen as she moved north in the spring and south in the fall along the rocky glaciated shores between the Chesapeake Bay and Labrador.

A fish can be either skinned or scaled.  The latter occurs before any cuts are made and takes advantage of the fact that scales are carefully arranged to overlap like shingles, with the unattached edge pointing tailwards.  This makes sense aquadynamically for the fish and lets the scaler, while securing the fish with one hand, draw the back of a stiff knife headwards, popping off a snowstorm of scales along the way.  

These snowflakes look like simple miniature shingles until the fish slips out of the butcher’s hand leaving it covered with a handful of slippery slime. The first reaction is often “yuck” but on second thought it raises a couple of questions.  Where does that mucus covering the scales come from? Does it do anything besides annoy the fisherman?

It turns out that each scale is not an inert slab but rather a flat piece of fingernail-like material sandwiched between very thin layers of living skin which is loaded with the same kind of tissue which produce slippery surfaces in………us……. lining the insides of our mouths, our GI tracts and the other slippery slidey parts of our anatomies.  That mucus covering of fish is created in situ  from the surface of each scale.

And it serves many purposes.  A slippery fish arrows through the water with less friction than an unslippery one, expending less energy getting from here to there.  Also, It turns out that there are lots of tiny things swimming around in most fish’s environments aiming to settle on a fish and do all sorts of damage.   But since the mucus layer of a fish is constantly being washed off and replaced as the fish swims along, many of those would-be pathogens and parasites trying to hitch a ride are simply sloughed off along with the surface layer before they can wreak any havoc.  And on top of that, chemical analysis of the mucus reveals a protective soup of antibodies and natural antibiotics! With luck, before many species are driven to extinction by ocean warming, we’ll be extracting powerful new weapons against human pathogens from fish mucus!

One can think of “fish” in one of two ways.  Either it’s that delicious and presumably healthful thing on our plate or it’s that whole creature driving bait to the surface, dangling at the end of a fishing line or swimming around in an aquarium.  And if you think about that whole fish’s parts, they include a tail, some fins, a head, some innards and the rest – and it’s “the rest” which ends up on your plate in the form of fillets.

Except for an occasional annoying fishbone,  those fillets are pure muscle. In the majority of fish,  fillets are mostly white but there is often a bit of darker muscle too. The darker red muscles are used for constant, relatively unenergetic exercise like holding position in stiller water.  The white muscle is specialized for strenuous activity that require lots of energy fast. That bass launched at the lure from some fast-moving chaotic surf and wasn’t kidding when she came out of the water and hit the lure with force: all that white muscle in action.

As many cartoons involving garbage illustrate, a fish skeleton involves a central backbone with backwards-slanted fishbones protruding in a single plane from its vertebrae.   The filleter’s job is to separate the muscle cleanly from those bones using a sort of sharp knife – “sort of” because razor sharpness risks slicing through the bones, leaving them in the fillet, while a dull knife makes the job exceedingly difficult and risks wasting large amounts of flesh.  

The process starts at the uppermost part of the fish and involves running the knife edge between the bones and their attached muscle while lifting up the separating flesh.  This process, done well, makes two things about fish anatomy clear. Each fillet, if it is peeled off those slanted fishbones, can be seen to be a series of parallel segments, and each of those segments is devoted to one of those slanted fishbones.  So when that fish blasted through the surf towards what it thought was breakfast those high speed white muscle segments were contracting in a carefully orchestrated fashion to create a powerful back and forth undulation propelling the fish lureward.

Once the fillets are off it becomes clear that for striped bass, the head occupies about a third of the animal.  If we were built like that our chins would be just above our navels. But on closer look (at the fish) that comparison is not bad because the head really extends backwards to include the gills, and the gills, after all, are the fish’s lungs – and our lungs would be in our heads if our chins were down around our navels!   The similarity doesn’t stop there because right between their two gills, tucked under the nape of the fish’s neck (if there is such a thing) is the fish’s heart – like ours – located between the two structures that extract oxygen from whichever medium the fish or we have evolved to survive in.

Under the gill covers – those flat hard semicircles at the back end of a fish’s head – lie parallel rows of hundreds of delicate red finger-like projections.  Looking into the fish’s mouth makes it clear that between each row of these gills is a linear gap through which water can pass as the fish moves forward.

Predatory fish typically pursue their prey by lunging through the water, mouth open like the leading edge of a fishing trawler’s net.  What rushes in is split into two parts. Water and the small particles suspended in it are sent out over the gills to be drained of its dissolved oxygen in the process.  Before entering the gills, however, it must pass through a set of coarse boney fingers called gill rakers which deflect larger material down its gullet: a nice arrangement if you are hoping to catch your dinner while charging through the water with your mouth open.  In fact, you never have to stop eating to breathe!

But once you crawl up on land and don’t catch your food by rushing around with your mouth open, a lengthy commonality between food and air passageways is nothing but an accident waiting to happen.  Nonetheless, in most mammals the route food takes as we eat shares, for several inches, the route air takes as we breath. Considering the number of “cafe coronaries” (adult sudden death from food suddenly lodged in the airway), and the number of childhood choking fatalities (an incidence of 0.66/100,000) one wonders why the slow grind of evolution hasn’t fixed that Darwinian handicap.  

Seagoing mammals with blowholes, however, are way ahead of us.  In whales and dolphins, the airway is completely separated from the esophagus; no deaths from choking for them.  So maybe all that speculation about their brains also being more advanced than ours isn’t so far off. Of course, there is a tradeoff – cetaceans are unable to breath through their mouths.  But whoever heard of a whale with a stuffy nose?

But back to the task at hand.  Most good fishermen after they have filletted their catch, take a look at what it had been eating.  Tucked along the fish’s belly right behind its chin is a cavity containing the animal’s visceral organs  – among them its liver, gonads, and digestive tract. The stomach is easily identified as a muscular pouch which often is bulging with the creature’s last meal.  Opening it can be revealing. Sometimes its emptiness gives a hint that the creature was hungry enough to take a chance on an iffy looking meal. But since striped bass are notoriously unpicky eaters their stomach contents are often more interesting.   Sadly, an occasional plastic straw or tampon applicator comes tumbling out but more typically the stomach contains all sorts of prey fish like menhaden, silversides and herring, as well as crabs, shrimp, mussels, baby lobsters and squid. The more curious fishermen take a closer look and make sure their next lure bears some resemblance to what the fish have been feeding on that day.

Tucked neatly into the same cavity as the fish’s stomach are its gonads.  Since female bass are larger than males of the same age, most keepers are female and the one that fell for that blue and white piece of plastic was no exception.  Just inside her belly two glistening golden, structures bulged with next springs eggs. Most fishermen feel a twinge of remorse on looking at all these future trophies – leading many to advocate for what is called a “split” size limit – restricting keeper bass to those between, say, 24 and 30 inches.   This would allow more wise old “cows” to lay their huge clutches of millions upon millions of eggs, making for more young fish per clutch and possibly selecting for more challenging ones.

Striped bass prefer rocky shorelines and one of the commonest places to clean a fish is right on the shore  using a boulder as a work table. By the time the task is wrapping up the fisherman has typically attracted an audience of those same gulls which had earlier telegraphed the fish’s presence.  Now, as if expecting payoff for their betrayal, they eye the process hopefully. In the event of carelessness on the part of the butcher – a trip to the water’s edge to rinse hands for example – they are not above pulling a double cross and lifting a fillet or two from the pan in which they lay.  More experienced butchers know better than to turn their backs, however, and may even disappoint the audience by taking everything that remains home for stock. A more common finale, though, is to send the fish’s head back into the sea for the crabs to dine on and toss toss chunks of viscera to the waiting avian audience, underscoring the fact that we humans are just one more step in a great ecological loop.              

 

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Sights Sounds Smells and Scotoma

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A good movie draws me in. I soon forget I’m sitting in a large hall surrounded by strangers.  I forget I’m looking at a flat surface from which millions of tiny mirrors are reflecting back the colored light from a projector.  I grimace and laugh at the predicaments of the characters with whom I am identifying or I ooh and aah at the startlingly close scenes of iconic animals and their remarkable behavior.  When I go to an iMax theater the experience of an alternate reality is especially intense.

I occasionally get a visual scotoma https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoma.  When I do I notice a flickering arc of sparkles overlaying  part of my vision.  I can’t look at it directly; if I try, the shimmering rainbow moves so as to remain in the same part of my visual field, always a bit off to one side.   Closing one eye or the other makes no difference.

I know neither the movie nor the flickering rainbow is “real”.  If I reach out to touch the scotoma I feel nothing.  It is well established that the scotoma is originating not in my eyes or in the nerve fibers that transmit the series of blips from individual light receptors in my retina.  Instead it originates in the part of my brain where these digital sequences are being reassembled into a visual image and relayed to my consciousness.  Most of the time, I take for granted that  what I see is exactly what is out there, plain and simple.   But the scotoma makes me reconsider. Here is what I mean.

Right now I am looking at the surface of my desk:  brown wood with sheets of white paper here and there; a shiny metallic pencil sharpener, some pencils, my computer screen with its flashing cursor and below it some black shiny keys on which are printed white letters and numbers.  From past experience I know there is no arc of flashing lights on my desk but it certainly looks to me as though it is there on the surface now.  That part of my brain reconstructing those blips is temporarily malfunctioning.  It is creating its own version of what I am seeing.   Then I imagine that I am a dolphin.

If I were a dolphin, that scotoma might still be there – but this time it would be a stuttering arc superimposed over a somewhat different reality. That reality would almost certainly not be the product of visual inputs.  Rather it would be assembled from the rich series of blips coming back to my brain from my acutely sensitive acoustic machinery as it picked up the returning echoes of the clicks I was sending out.  Instead of a brown grain-patterned desk surface my dolphin brain would be reconstructing a medium hard, ever-so-slightly-rough flat surface, though the edges and general shape would still be that of the desk I am working at. The sheets of paper scattered about would be there but probably perceived as rectangles with a slightly smoother texture than the desktop itself.  That metal pencil sharpener would probably be very “bright” and the pink pencil eraser tip – soft echo-damping rubber that it is – would probably be just a smudge.  The white letters of my computer keyboard  would be indistinguishable, echo-wise, from each hard plastic computer key on which it is printed – unless, of course, they were embossed there as well.  

But there would be more to it. Depending on the strength of my clicks and the sensitivity of my receiving apparatus I might even perceive a second layer  of objects – the stuff in the top drawer beneath the  desktop.  By assembling a second fainter series of returning echoes which vibrated their way back and forth through the desktop and created a sound silhouette of the rulers, stapler, paper clips and cough drops I keep in the underlying drawer, my dolphin consciousness would be “seeing” – or rather “hearing”- through the desk surface much as we see through a window. Of course the distant scene my human self looks at through that completely echo-opaque pane of glass, to my dolphin self, would be invisible.

And then there are bats.  Probably the same deal as dolphins.  After all, they fly around at high speed in total darkness and zero in on thousands of mosquito-sized insects nightly.  And what about the moles chasing earthworms and grubs under our lawn. What does their underground landscape “look” like.  And how would my desktop and computer “appear” to the mole after it had snuffled all over my desk and sniffed its entire surface in order to “see” it.

Any observant dog owner knows that the sensory input of greatest meaning  to their pet is not the incoming photons reflected off the surface of things, or the sounds it is hearing but the molecular traces of organic compounds wafting in the rivers of air through which it runs.

Some years ago, my wife and I were walking along the edge of a pond near our house with Mocha, our sweet labrador retriever.   About ten yards ahead we watched a sinuous brown mink emerge from the pond, run humpy inch-worm style across the path and disappear on the other side – all well out Mocha’s line of sight since she’d fallen a bit behind – probably sniffing the water’s edge for dead frogs she could roll in.  Shortly, she came bounding forward at full speed to regain her traditional position as pack leader.  Then, running pell-mell ahead of us, mid stride she appeared to hit a brick wall.   Head buckling under her front legs she did a full somersault – right where the mink had crossed the path moments earlier.  Like the act of throwing up one’s hands in response to an object flying fast at one’s face, that scent had triggered a set of reflexes just as powerful in Mocha.  After taking a moment to get a sense of where she had ended up, she bounded into the brush over the precise path the mink had followed.  It certainly looked as if that scent had instantaneously constructed in Mocha’s mind a useful version of the reality surrounding us, and one, incidentally, of which we humans were entirely unaware.  

After I began thinking this way I found myself playing this mind game now and then. I wonder what Helen Keller’s mind-map “looked like” to her.  Was it  an exclusively tactile representation of her surroundings similar to the one the blind heroine of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/books/review/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr.html, gets from retracing with her finger the scale model of her town crafted by her father?

So let’s take this one step further.  Most of us are familiar with those eerie recordings of whale sounds.  The deep rumbles and songlike bleeps that carry long distances under water and are presumed to be whale communication.  In the past, when I’ve thought about this, I’ve imagined that what was going on was some sort of message or, if whales are as sophisticated as some believe, a kind of wordy symbolic language.  But if you are willing to imagine that a dolphin or a bat may be reconstructing a three dimensional landscape from returning echoes, what if those whales are actually sending out sounds from which the recipient whales’ brains immediately construct some sort of real-time landscape. Maybe the pitch and timbre of those deep booms paint a picture of the blue green seascape through which the whale is diving,  and those bleeps become, in the recipient whales consciousness, a school of soft tasty squid – the whole forming a virtual copy of the sending whale’s version of reality in the recipient’s consciousness.  Wouldn’t that be something!

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, if you think about it.  If a series of blips from our retina can reconstruct a sweeping visual landscape, if a sequence of four base pairs can recreate an entire organism, if a series of zeros and ones can create in our headset a 360 degree visual “virtual reality” why can’t those booms and bleeps transmit a whole non-visual but equally “real” reality in a whale’s brain. Instead of trying to figure out what whales are “saying” to one another in words perhaps we should try to decode their communications into a wordless but perhaps even more meaningful representation of what is going on in the sending whale’s consciousness.

As I’ve reread the drafts of this piece, I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious of the number of times I’ve put words in quotes. Usually when I read something peppered with this kind of punctuation I find it offputting and wish the writer had just said what they meant.  But when I try – as I have – to avoid using quotes in this essay it weakens my intended meaning.  Words like “appear”, “visible”, “bright”, etc do not have full equivalences for mentally reconstructing a non-visually dominated world.   I am also becoming increasingly aware of how our sensory hierarchy shapes our language and how both shape our “view” of the world – points more deeply explored in David Lukas’s interesting book, Language Making Nature http://www.humansandnature.org/creating-language-that-re-connects-us-with-nature.

But back to the movies.  I do my best to avoid the ones with a typical formulaic series of tropes – couple find each other, fall in love, meet danger, undertake heroic and risky acts, save one another etc.  But sometimes I make mistakes and find myself bored and distracted.  That’s when my dolphin self takes over and I find myself looking at a huge blank monoechoic screen.  Then my attention lurches elsewhere.  All around me sit perfect strangers, many of them quite lovely.   The distracting thing is that their clothing transmits echoes very well.  At that point the details of the reality surrounding me becomes much more compelling than any Hollywood drama.

What Good are Grizzlies and Gryphons?

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“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Aldo Leopold:  A Sand County Almanac

 

Fortunately, there are still ruffed grouse around, but doesn’t the fact that there are no more passenger pigeons mean that the autumn sky over Ohio is dead – or at least deader than it used to be?  Does the absence of those awe-inspiring flocks of birds darkening the skies matter, now that they remain only in our imaginations?  What does it mean when a natural phenomenon which has the capacity to impress and inspire disappears?

 

Monarch butterflies are under the gun across North America.  If that species winks out one of these years our lives will be just a little bit more drab and uninteresting.  And suppose the unthinkable happened. Suppose all butterflies disappeared – not entirely impossible given the widespread use of pesticides and, now, manufactured plants with built-in caterpillar poisons. Of course, with butterflies gone, those flowers which depend on butterflies for pollination would disappear as well.  A generation or two after that happened would butterflies and their pollination-dependent flowers continue to inspire the decorators of children’s pajamas and the animators of the idyllic countrysides of Disney films?  Would those creative souls turn to images of corn fields and combines?  Or would the non-existence of two symbols  of carefree, natural gentleness gradually cause the feeling we get from a warm summer day to atrophy?  Not entirely, of course, but a little bit?

 

And what about bats?  If white nose syndrome has its way, these creatures of the night could be gone one day as well.  Won’t Halloween lose a little bit of its scariness?  Won’t our mind’s eye’s stereotypic image of a dark threatening place be a bit impoverished?  And even though bats apparently weren’t the inspiration for the widespread vampire myths of ancient cultures they do inhabit Graham Stoker’s Dracula, and the discovery of true vampire bats in the Americas certainly lends a degree of tangibility to those stories and their effect on us.

 

Butterflies, bats and a few flowers gone – no big deal, really.  But what if we had succeeded in eradicating whales by 1850 – the year Herman Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest American novel?   Would Melville have been inspired to write Moby Dick?   Would our individual and/or collective sense of good and evil, of mankind’s place in the universe, of our conflict with fate be quite as rich without a literary canon which included that monomaniacal sea captain and his enigmatic archenemy?   One can argue, I think, that the existence of whales has played a non-trivial role in what it means to be a 21st century American human and that without Moby Dick ever having been written and read by so many, our spirit and intellect would be just a bit less than it is.

 

Fortunately, we didn’t drive most species of whales to extinction, and there still are butterflies and some bats.  But consider wooly mammoths.  There’s a good bit of evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and those huge hairy behemoths overlapped for some time after humans arrived in the Americas, though the exact role the latter played in the extinction of the former is still being worked on.  Nonetheless, the woolies are gone.   Wouldn’t we – even those of us working in urban cubicles – wouldn’t we be just a bit more alive if somewhere in the very backs of our minds we knew those hairy beasts with their enormous recurved tusks were still thundering around somewhere on the tundra?

 

Once you start thinking this way, other things come to mind, like those mountaintops in West Virginia being relocated into the valleys to expose coal.  When that state is finally bulldozed as flat as Kansas will stories of the Hatfield’s and McCoys in their respective “hollers” still resonate?   Will sipping Maker’s Mark bourbon still taste the same if we picture those moonshine stills where it was developed exposed for all to see on a prairie?  And then there’s the disappearing Colorado River.  Will our grasp of our place in the universe when we look at the work it’s done sculpting the Grand Canyon over eons remain as secure if we realize that now the Colorado fails to make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez because of those thousands of trickles we’ve tapped off along the way to keep our lettuce growing?

 

Some years ago, my son and I did some wilderness camping in grizzly bear habitat.  During time in the backcountry we did see one grizzly, at a respectful distance, but the knowledge that we might confront one around every bend kept us hyperalert and lent the whole trip an experiential dimension which is difficult to express but, in the retelling at least, was distinctly pleasurable. Of course, I’d be thinking differently if my son and I had startled a grizzly up close.  Very differently, in fact, if he’d been maimed, or worse.  But in the grand scheme the evil of such a rare human tragedy is offset by the spiritual enrichment of all those fortunate hikers who thought hard about but never actually confronted a grizzly.   Experiencing the possibility is enlivening.

 

Like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, do our spirit and awareness atrophy if we come to consider our environment totally tamed and our place in it entirely secure?  Don’t potential predators like the grizzly enhance our personal selves and enrich our collective being – AKA our culture?

 

And then there are the unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, dragons, harpies, sea serpents, yeti, gryphons and the rest of the menagerie of imaginary beasts.  Why have we invented these non-existent creatures?  What makes them such universal characters in stories – especially the formative stories we read as we transition from childhood to adulthood?  Often threatening and  bearing exaggerated combinations of features of creatures we know – fangs, hooked beaks, talons, excessive strength – these iconic creations of our collective imagination have populated our stories from pre-literary oral myths to the science fiction of today.  What accounts for the archetypal universality and longevity of these creations of our minds? Just as our most gripping stories usually involve deep yearning – romanticized love, sudden good fortune, heroism, “happily ever after” etc. – isn’t it likely that the monsters of our imagination owe their origins to some biophilic longing such that our minds create creatures at least the idea of which we need in order to be fully alive?

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions begins his examination of what it means to be dead by making the deceptively simplistic observation that – setting aside considerations of some sort of afterlife – death can be thought of as the end of the constitutive elements of human life namely “perception, desire, activity, and thought.”   Later he concludes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of.”   To the extent that the natural world, with its intricate tapestry of species and its seascapes and landscapes, leads us to think, to the extent that we may actively seek out elements of nature just to experience them, to the extent that they stimulate our imaginations as we read a book or they play a role in our deciding which pair of pajamas might appeal to our children are we not more alive?  

 

So I would say that Leopold was only half right.  His acre of northwood autumn landscape is indeed dead if the grouse is subtracted.  But there’s more to it.  Take away the passenger pigeon, the whale we may never even see but know is there, the bat flitting across our backyard at dusk, the grizzly, the tiger, the raging river, the glacier, the rolling Appalachian landscape,  –  and a part of you and a part of me dies as well.  

 

 

The Loraxes vs. The Once-lers; A Game that Never Ends (Played on a Tilted Field with Two Different Time clocks)

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It’s now coming up on almost 45 years since Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971.  But in spite of his hero’s eloquent pleas, the world lost over 3% of its forest in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. ( Earth Policy Institute’s compilation of data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Resources Assessment. ) Dr. Seuss and his Lorax had it right.  Somebody has to speak for the trees.

 

Perhap it’s the result of media’s need to emphasize conflict, but whenever I come across the word “environmentalists” while scanning a newspaper or hear “environmentalists” out of the corner of my ear while half listening to the radio, I wince. “Environmentalists resist lumbering in the Pacific Northwest”, “Environmentalists line up against XL Pipeline”, “Enviromentalists lobby for reduced fishing quotas.”  “Environmentalists up in arms about drilling for oil in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.”  Seems like the environmental motto must be  “Just say ‘No’ “.  And more often than not the environmentalists are lined up against something that has a fair amount of popular support.

 

And in truth, much environmental activism does involve preventing the doing of something – and often that something has immediate benefits for many, like keeping their houses warm or putting food on the table or providing a nice shopping mall closer to home. And how does one balance inconveniencing a herd of migrating caribou most people will never see against knocking a few cents off the price of a gallon of gasoline for everybody?

 

But here’s the rub.  Those folks with a direct dog in the fight can speak out loudly and they have an immediate incentive to do so;  but as for the environment – well that’s a different matter.  For the most part, the environment doesn’t squawk when it is trampled on – not right away. And nobody has big bucks to make by objecting to an environmentally damaging project. In the long run, however, there is a big price to pay.  But to make matters even more complicated, that price is often in something other than dollars.  Coastlines  slowlyerode and property gradually disappears when all the mangroves get chopped down to make way for coastal resorts. Silt clogs streams when hillsides are clearcut and salmon runs silently disappear.  Or one day someone decides to take their kids camping and realizes there is no open land within a two hour’s drive.

 

Another problem is that the costs and benefits of environment vs development are spread across different timescales. Levelling that West Virginia mountaintop and extracting its coal may reduce electricity costs for some for the next couple of years.   The fouled streams  and ruined landscape, however, will be present for generations. Granted, the contributions to mercury accumulation in seafood and CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere from one coal mine may be small, but it is Death by A Thousand Cuts.    And the only way we have of controlling that dismal fate is putting a brake on the small contributors one at a time.

 

I would like to argue that many of the things environmentalists are working to protect can compete well in a fair fight against the typically vested interests of those clamoring for their exploitation.  The field on which the environmentalists and the exploiters compete, however is not level.  To get away from preconceptions, let’s call them the Loraxes and the Once-lers.

 

When the Once-lers score a goal, their score stays up.  A pipeline gets built and it is there for good.  There is big money to be made cutting down some old growth forest; once it is cut and sold, the money is in the bank.  Same deal if the Atlantic cod is overfished until the breeding population collapses.  And get the OK to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the oil wells are there to stay.

 

Its a different matter for the Loraxes.  Hold up the pipeline now and the battle begins with the next congress.  Block the clearcut this year and  the lumber companies are back at it again next.  And let a species like the spotted owl or the black rhino go extinct and you have lost that game once and for all.  Every time the Once-lers score a point their score gets higher.  For the Loraxes, the point is only secure until the next time the Once-lers make an offensive play.

 

And that’s not the only problem.  Turns out the two sides are playing with different game clocks. When that lumber company fells and sells a couple of acres of old growth trees its quarterly profits go up and the CEO gets his raise that year.  For the Loraxes, successfully holding off that lumbering means that the trees will be there to be enjoyed for the next generation, and the offspring of the salmon that lay their eggs in the unsilted streams of that old uncut forest won’t be back for an average of five years.  Same time warp for developing tropical mangrove shorelines.  Those resort profits start rolling in as soon as construction  is finished, but the loss of a marine nursery won’t be noticed for years, and the impact of the next fifty year hurricane on that fragile environment won’t be felt for, well, fifty years on average.

 

And there’s one more thing.  The players are paid in different currencies.  The stars kicking goals for the Once-lers get paid in dollars and lots of them.  Those dollars let them buy their own piece of undeveloped waterfront or a mountain lodge on several hundred acres.  Those dollars, strategically placed, may even get them on the boards of some high profile conservation organizations and let them steer environmental policy.   The stars playing for the Loraxes get, for the most part, satisfaction for a job well done, handshakes, volunteer of the year awards, the hope that their grandchildren will still have some unspoiled wilderness to hike in – stuff like that.  Makes one think of the Lord Charles Bowen’s musing:

 

“The rain is raining on the just

And also on the unjust fella

But mostly on the just because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

 

But back to the idea of those “environmentalists” being a fringe group trying to hold up progress.  I’d argue that at heart, many people who don’t identify themselves as “environmentalist” value the natural world very much.  By that I mean they value many of the same things that self declared environmentalists do. What, then, does set them apart?

 

Well, some are fortunate enough to be able to buy for themselves the things the self-declared environmentalists are trying to keep available for a broader public.  You needn’t worry about the local salmon population if you can afford to go to Scotland and rent fishing rights on one of the exclusive private stretches of river there.  You don’t have to concern yourself with available open space if you can afford a thousand acres of a mountainside in New Mexico.  These folks share many of the active environmentalists’ aesthetic values but for whatever reason, don’t feel compelled to make satisfaction of them more widely available.

 

Then there are others who are just dealing with a different set of observations.  The fisheries scientists take carefully standardized samples from rigorously randomized locations and conclude an area is being overfished.  Fishermen, on the other hand, may see their catches actually increasing, but fail to take into account that they are constantly searching for the areas of densest population and forget the fact that the new fish-finding technology they bought two years earlier is much more sensitive than the stuff they were using earlier.

 

And something that is difficult to acknowledge and easy to forget, for those of us fortunate enough to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, is the harsh reality facing the large and growing number of people who are in the terrible position of having to scrape by.  If you are an inner city child who never has been camping it’s not your fault that you don’t value nature.   If you don’t bring home a paycheck large enough to put food on the table for your family it is difficult to get up in arms about restricting pesticides which might, after all, make your food somewhat more expensive.  If you and your spouse are trying to meet your utility bills on a threatened social security check and there is a chance that the strip mining in West Virginia will reduce those costs, it seems like a no brainer.  Of course,  there’s no guarantee that that mining is going to do anything more than increase the coal company profits.  So reducing poverty, communicating the aesthetic and spiritual values of exposure to nature, working to assure that policy decisions are based on the best data available and reducing wealth inequality all represent paths towards the goal of environmental stabilization.

 

All this gets me to wondering, is there a way out of this mess?  Is there ever going to come a time when environmentalists can stop their seemingly endless struggle – pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down as they near the top?  Can one hope that someday, us tree-huggers are going to be seen as the good guys?

When I was about ten a wise family friend was teaching me to fish.  “There’s only one sure thing about fishing.” he said.  “If you don’t put your line in the water you’ll never catch any fish.”  Pretty much the same things holds for protecting the environment.  It may never be returned to the pristine state some would prefer, but if we never try to achieve some sort of equilibrium with its exploitation it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen to the planet.  Rachel Carson did her part.  Aldo Leopold did his.    So did Dr. Seuss.  Now it’s up to us.

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Jaguars vs. Tigers

images

A stunning jaguar often prowls across the top of my computer screen when I call up my NYTimes e-subscription.  It is elegance epitomized and one can only imagine how many sales of diamond necklaces it has helped close.  Clearly, the jaguar is to Cartier what Tiger Woods is to Nike (yes, he’s still on their payroll.) And Nike is not alone.  If one can believe the websites, it is commonplace for a corporation to spend tens of millions of dollars to use the image of a celebrity like Woods to promote their product.  Which invites the question, how much does Cartier pay the jaguar?

 

Of course, they probably pay the jaguar owner and trainer, but what do they do to keep jaguars roaming the planet? Or should they do anything?

 

Let’s take on the second question first.  Is there either a pragmatic or philosophical case to be made for Cartier to contribute to jaguar conservation?  From a pragmatic standpoint, I’m not sure. On the one hand, were the jaguar to become extinct, it would be a bit awkward for Cartier.  Suppose some company had used images of the passenger pigeon to promote their product. Wouldn’t they have come in for a bit of ridicule if they had done nothing as the numbers of those birds dwindled and then went to zero?

 

Fifty years ago estimates put the world population of jaguars around 400,000.  Today, the Feline Conservation Foundation puts that number at 10,000. Other estimates get up towards 20,000, and there is general agreement among biologists that the decline continues.  But it is no doubt quite in line with the image Cartier’s ad folks want to convey for the jaguar to remain painfully rare – just like their diamonds and emeralds. So from Cartier’s perspective it is something of a tossup.  Since the jaguar is not yet on the brink of extinction, we  don’t really need to support its conservation.  After all, we don’t want them to become commonplace – like squirrels or chipmunks.  So much for a pragmatic argument.

 

But isn’t there a philosophical case?   Isn’t there an ethical obligation for a company which is profiting from using – dare I say exploiting – a wild animal whose habitat is being nibbled away by palm oil plantations and whose numbers are being reduced by hunters and trappers on the payroll of cattle ranchers to step forward and help tip the balance a bit in the jaguar’s direction?  If Tiger Woods gets tens of millions of dollars to be shown wearing Nike footwear isn’t it fair to expect Cartier to do something for the jaguars that wear their diamond studded collars?

 

Well, there’s a pretty strong headwind against the fairness argument when talking about the treatment of animals as opposed to that of people.  We don’t think twice about stepping on ants on the sidewalk but we certainly tread carefully when little children are underfoot.  And what about the cattle in feedlots and what comes after all that corn?  I won’t even go there.

 

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Cartier really should contribute and contribute significantly to jaguar conservation, and if I can’t make a strong case that they owe it to the jaguars at least I think they owe it to…… me  –  and to the rest of us for whom the continued existence of this iconic animal in big tracts of wilderness is important, and to those for whom the idea that they might actually spot one in the wild some day holds great value.  And what about those indigenous peoples who have considered the jaguar a living deity for centuries – some of whom are probably working for trivial wages in the mines from which Cartier gets its gems?  Isn’t it right that a bit of the money cycling around between Cartier stock owners and the folks buying the diamond necklaces (many of whom are no doubt one and the same) be diverted to support the animal responsible in part for maintaining the speed of that cycle?  After all, if the value of those necklaces is enhanced by this iconic animal shouldn’t some of that added value cycle back to support the continued existence of that icon?  Don’t iconic animals add richness to the world and to the qualities and ideas for which they stand and doesn’t that create an obligation on those who use those animals for economic gain?

 

And if that ethical argument is not watertight perhaps we need a new ethics.  One in which, a priori, value gained by using  – either physically or in imagery – an object of nature would engender an obligation to contribute to the ongoing worldwide welfare of that natural object.  So, Cartier would contribute to the conservation of jaguars, Weyerhaeuser would contribute to the preservation of virgin forests, commercial fishermen would donate some of their earnings to ocean conservation.  The world would certainly be a better place.  Isn’t that the goal of ethical principles after all?  So, even if we have to invent some new ethical principles, I hope I’ve made the case that Cartier should contribute to jaguar conservation.

 

Of course the Cartier jaguar would not be the only species to benefit were this principle to be widely adopted. There’s Gorilla Glue, Jaguar Automobiles, the MGM Lion, the Chevy Impala, the Dodge Ram, the Mercury Cougar, Wolverine Boots, Eagle Claw Fish Hooks.  And then there are those professional sports teams – the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Carolina Panthers. The list goes on and on.  Each of those businesses must  profit, to some degree, from the use of those creatures in their marketing.  Isn’t it reasonable to expect each one to step up to the plate?

 

Well, perhaps they do, but a search of the web sites of several organizations  involved in jaguar conservation – The Jaguar Conservation Fund, Panthera, Defenders of Wildlife, The World Wildlife Fund, Feline Conservation Federation and the Born Free Foundation – yielded no evidence of a Cartier contribution.  The Cartier website, while loaded with jaguar images and multiple jewel-encrusted renditions of jaguars, made no mention of any contributions or activities in the conservation domain.

 

I’ll admit right up front that my search has not been exhaustive.  But just as we all know that Nike isn’t getting those images of Tiger Woods for free, you’d think that it would be common knowledge that whenever the image of some iconic species was used to promote a product or a service, that species would be compensated.  And since that, at the present time, does not seem to be common knowledge, my cynical nature tells me that it is probably not commonplace – even though it should be.


So if any of you gentle readers happen to play golf with the CEO of an outfit that makes use of one of these species, please plant the seed.  If they would just pass the word on to their VP for marketing maybe all those conservation organizations which keep sending me pleas for a tiny contribution wouldn’t need to do so quite as often.

Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.

Neither Black nor White; Vanilla Instead

I am regularly reminded that there has to be more to it.  It happened again just recently at a relative’s memorial service.    The minister, in an insightful eulogy,  highlighted the deceased’s positive attributes and deftly skirted the negatives with quirky humane anecdotes.  Then she got to the part about being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven by the hand of God.  That’s where  I got lost.

Where do those religious images get their power?   How can so many otherwise reasonable people swallow these ancient myths?  Given our species’ proclivity to cook up bunkum, isn’t there a strong case  that, millennia ago, in the smoky murk of their tents, village elders invented these tales to pacify their tribes just as we have invented Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to brighten the lives of our kids, and maybe even, as a side effect, encourage them to  “be good.”  In spite of this,  the most ardently religious among us have taken on the modern scientific community – offering up intelligent design to replace Darwinian evolution.  Sadly, that has so infuriated some scientists that they are now making equally hard-to-believe claims.

Most outspoken among them has been Richard Dawkins.  He responds to the intelligent designers in his book River Out of Eden:  “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. ”  Then, in The God Delusion, he takes the gloves off:   “The only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.”   So now the hand of a personal, all-seeing god has been replaced by blind physics?

Don’t get me wrong.  Physics has explained a lot.  It has given us lasers, computers, and atomic energy.  But can it ever explain self awareness, or love, or fear or the infinitude of other ideas and emotions which are much more palpably part of my reality than, say, electrons.    Dawkins, it seems to me, has made a leap of faith as audacious as that of the minister.  I imagine that, if asked, he would say that these obvious realities have not YET been explained by the forces of physics, but that they soon will be. Well, good luck.

Once upon a time, sages knew that the cosmos rotated around the earth.  Then Copernicus, Galileo and Newton set the record straight, explaining the way the laws of physics explained how the solar system worked.  And now our modern sages say the laws of physics, as they know them, explain EVERYTHING.

Of course this claim, which seems to deny the reality of the very house we live in, gets the religious community pretty animated.  And, indeed, there is blood in the water and the intelligent designers smell it.   They sense the wound in the argument.  They perceive a lack of face validity. And they enthusiastically send their legions into the battle for hearts and minds to knock on doors, run for school board and petition their legislatures with an even more cockeyed weltanschauung.

Like civilians caught in a crossfire between warring radicals, this leaves us common folk running for cover.  Faced with a choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives most of us enter denial and  go about our lives as though there is no need to think about the big picture.  But underneath it all, we know the big picture is pretty important for our peace of mind.  And even though it is tempting to think about this stuff as an either or situation, I think that the truth may well lie elsewhere.

I’m no philosopher and I am certainly no physicist but some writings by NYU Professor of Philosophy Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos, and other recent ideas put forward by some respected physicists in an article in Scientific American suggest alternatives to those conventional wisdoms and they do so coming from very different disciplinary directions.  The philosopher’s ideas appeared in a NYTimes Opinionator piece of August 18, 2013 where he argues convincingly that self awareness and the ability to reason are just as “real” as a chair.  He further makes a strong case that an understanding of these things is simply not accessible to the physical sciences.  At about the same time in the August 2013 issue of Scientific American, Meinard Kuhlman reviews the ideas of several physicists who, addressing the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, argue that the basic elements of reality are not particles and energy but ……….relationships and qualities!

Perhaps we’re getting somewhere.  Or at least we may be on a path out of the two intellectual deserts in one of which we and the rest of the cosmos are a meaningless accident while in the other we are the plaything of a bearded old gent who, like Santa Claus, takes us on his knee and promises to give us what we ask for if we’re good.

I don’t pretend to know where the path ends, or if it ends at all.  But I am tempted to believe that along the way a story emerges that takes into account the 95% of mass in the universe that those brainy scientists tell us is “dark matter”, makes clear to common mortals how Schroedinger’s cat in a box can be both alive and dead at the same time, acknowledges the fact that the feelings I have towards those I love are as real as the chair I’m sitting on and proves, unequivocally, that Descartes was right when he said “I think, therefore I am.”  And so, by the way, are you!

Tilting at Windmills

I was discussing renewable energy a while back with a neighbor.  His politics are a bit more to starboard than mine, but he’s a thoughtful fellow and has reached the conclusion, as have I, that climate change is a significant threat.  We both agreed on the need to develop a portfolio of non-fossil energy sources.  As we enumerated the costs and benefits of each type, we got to wind.

“Now there’s a technology that has a lot of promise.  Cheap, clean, and plenty of it to go around.  But I read the other day that there’s a noisy lobby against it.  Seems there’ s a bunch of people afraid that windmills are going to kill too many………” he paused dramatically and then his face contorted into a look of astonished disbelief   “……birds!   Can you imagine?  Holding America’s energy needs hostage because windmills may knock off some…….birds!”

Here was a tough choice.  Take on a set of values very different from mine and risk ruining the conversation, or move on to solar.  Coward that I am, I chose the sun.  But it got me thinking.

What is it, after all, that made the tradeoff such a no-brainer for my neighbor.  Was he unaware of the mountainous havoc our species is inflicting on Earth’s biodiversity?  Should I tactfully suggest he might enjoy reading  The Sixth Extinction in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes a powerful argument that our impact on the planet’s flora and fauna  is comparable to the asteroid collision of the Cretaceous–Paleogene era which wiped out three quarters of earth’s species and, irony of ironies, allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and flourish in the resultant vacuum?  Might information like this shift his values?

Or is it more a matter of religion?  Is he following his God’s directive to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  If that’s the case, I should have steered the conversation towards what “having dominion” means.  Common parlance would have us think of mankind lording it over the rest of creation but there is clearly an element of husbandry and protection in that word.  After all, if rulers fail in their responsibility to keep their charges safe they don’t remain rulers for very long.

Or perhaps an economic argument would have appeal.  One of the things taken for granted about birds – bats as well – is the prodigious amount of pest control they perform – at no cost to farmers and no increase in the health risk or the price of food to the consumer.   An article in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US in 2012 at 573,000.  And in the December 2013 issue of the Journal BioScience researcher Mark Hays, in a peer reviewed article, calculates current bat deaths from wind turbines in the US to be between 600,000 to 900,000 individuals.  That translates into a lot of boll weevils, corn borers and fat green tomato hornworms still munching away.

And then there’s  the contribution to the national economy of all those birdwatchers buying binoculars, birdhouses, spotting scopes and sunflower seeds.  That might have some sway, especially if my neighbor has some stock in Nikon or Bushnell

Of course none of these pragmatic considerations gets at the heart of what bothers me about  those half million plus birds getting smacked out of the sky each year.  For me and, I think, a good many similarly-wired folks, it’s a bit as if a bunch of Van Gogh paintings were tossed in the dump, or copies of The Sun Also Rises got burned, or the Olympics got cancelled one cycle, or TV programming was reduced by a couple of hours a week – stuff like that.  If one of those batted birds happened to be the brilliantly sun-struck black and gold oriole whose bell-clear note sails down at me from a tall tree as I walk out my door in May,  my world would definitely lose some of its richness and beauty.  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d even be willing to pay a couple of cents more on my electric bill each month so long as that oriole keeps coming back.

There’s an interesting difference between the paintings, the books, the sports accomplishments, the programming coming from a big flat screen TV and that oriole.  Those first four things are all creations by us, and their subjects, for the most part, happen to be……us.  The oriole, on the other hand……. but that’s a subject for another blog.

Thoughts on Catching a Fish

In a reflective moment I asked a close friend why we so loved to hunt and fish. “It’s just anachronistic,” he said, as though that explained it.

Both of us relish our time out of doors – away from cement, asphalt, glass and steel – and especially those priceless moments of intimacy with a fellow creature not of the human race.  The partridge bursting from brush beneath our feet.  The hare zigzagging away at full speed.   And not just during hunting or fishing seasons. The school of bluefish brushing our legs as we swim in the surf also thrills.

He’d rather row the boat while I cast, provided I hand him the rod every other time a fish is hooked.  Once on the line, we are connected to that other being, that beautiful product of evolution, or design – whatever.  And the connection is as intangible as it is material.

The fish has beaten the odds – floating as a defenseless egg on a hostile sea, schooling as a fingerling, evading sharks and gillnets for years in adulthood. It has plumbed dark depths, migrated in response to mysterious forces, felt the draw of mates.  It has a will, to survive.  We feel it directly in each jump and run. We too have a will,  however redundant or anachronistic, to bring it home to feed ourselves and our families in a way so much richer, at least to us, than the finest meal at the finest four star.  And in so doing the fish becomes us, at least in a materialistic sense.  The fact that its will does not brings us face to face with the Great Mystery, though our perhaps-wiser forebears thought it did.

Bringing home a piece of plastic-wrapped chicken from the supermarket has none of that.  Eating it, we sustain ourselves with a nearly synthetic product of our civilized economy.  Hens bred with breasts so huge that their legs give out, raised in warehouses with manufactured food delivered by conveyor, mass slaughtered with Henry Ford stainless technology, quick chilled, aseptically wrapped, transported, presented with Madison Avenue-designed aesthetic.  Is that what we become?

Let me gut my fish barehanded on a rock and toss its roe to the hungering gulls, knowing that in doing so I have sacrificed some of the next generation of bass.  Let me keep fresh in my mind the will that fueled its jumps and runs, and wonder if that spirit is now no more or has instead returned to some larger source from which it was simply borrowed or shared.  Let me ask if my own will may not come from and eventually return to a similar source or maybe the same.  Meanwhile, all those ineffable drives and desires and even thoughts are translated into concrete action by the sparkling synaptic machinery laid out by our DNA.

Anachronistic, yes, but there’s more to it than that.