Saturday, 11 February 2012

Windows onto the mind of God

It is a source of immense frustration to biologists that the physics department's budget typically has several more zeroes on its end. What is more, biologists are scientifically-minded folk who weren't clever enough to study physics, which hurts. In the end though, the budget gap is due less to the relative profundity of the two disciplines than to a missed marketing opportunity on the part of biologists. Whereas physicists can speak without blushing of striving to understand the mind of god; of reaching for a 'theory of everything' or of 'unifying' the 'fundamental' forces, biologists' grant applications concern the mating system of the Dunnock or the function of the stripes on a zebra's arse (I am not kidding: see here). Ironically, it is biology that shines the brightest light into the mind of god - obviously one and the same thing as the mind of man - and while it might not have a theory of everything, at least has a deeply satisfying explanation for all of life, in its wondrous diversity, which is more than can be said for physicists and their zoo of possibly but probably not fundamental particles.

As my friends know very well, I am a living library of wasted opportunities. The first truly great opportunity that I squandered (ignoring the offer of a blow job to be administered by J, which I fluffed on account of nerves and alcohol) was the possibility of a lifetime spent as an academic biologist, studying tropical rain forests, Dunnock mating systems or pretty much anything I found interesting. My PhD was supervised by Nick Davies, who literally wrote the book on Dunnocks, and who is nevertheless one of the most original scientists alive. He practically invented the field of behavioural ecology, the study of the evolutionary basis of animal behaviour. With hindsight it is almost impossible to imagine asking questions about animal behaviour except in light of this approach. Nick was one of the first to apply it and is one of the keenest observers and among the most brilliant theorists.

In the preface to his book about Dunnocks, Nick quotes Reverend Frederick Morris, who admired this archetypal little brown bird for its apparently unimpeachable moral probity: 'Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.'

As it turns out, Dunnocks are among the most sexually wanton vertebrates ever studied in detail. The average human threesome is positively suburban in comparison with a polygynandrous dunnock family, in which both male and female surreptitiously cuckold the other. In a delightful inversion of orgasm, the female is often induced to eject the sperm of the male who previously inseminated her by her current paramour's 'cloacal pecking', a distressingly clinical term for oral sex, bird style. It's easy to mock Rev. Morris, which obviously isn't going to stop me doing just that. The problem for RM and all previous and subsequent admirers of god's handiwork is that The Maker appears to have been a bit of a sicko.

I have mentioned elsewhere my fascination with what Christians, Muslims or other creationists think the exploding penis of the honey bee reveals about the mind of god. I'm not sure why this particular example of nature's perversity captivates me except perhaps that I cannot help but wince at the thought of my bollocks exploding across the quivering buttocks of some drunken bird in a pub car park. It would certainly make you think twice about that second Bacardi and rum. It is frequently said that Charles Darwin finally abandoned his belief in god as a result of contemplating Ichneumon Wasps, which lay their eggs in the living bodies of other insects. The larvae consume their hosts from within. It's hard to reconcile the existence of such a 'creature' with a creator overflowing with kindness. Mice are occasionally infected by a parasite that causes the infected mouse to lose its fear of cats because the parasite requires a cat's intestine to complete its life cycle. Certain primates tend to leave more grandchildren if they trade their faculty of reason for membership of a cult. One could go on.

God is most certainly dead but the news hasn't reached everyone yet. My friend R has coined the perfect slogan to describe the struggle ahead: one believer, one bullet. I'll see you in hell.

No comments: