One foggy morning

During my vacation this week, I travelled with my kids and my new dog — we’ve changed her name to “Indie” — to visit my parents in Peterborough. We also visited nebcanuck, who attends Trent University in Peterborough.

One foggy morning, Indie and I took a long walk down a set of train tracks, and we got some fine photographs. Click the images to enlarge.






It can’t bite, but that isn’t the end that worries me

skunk with head in jar

Found wandering in the parking lot of a police station in Michigan.

A police officer “rescued” Monsieur le Pew, sort of. It sounds like he did a half-assed job of it.

Rugged country

It has been a while since I posted any of jgrantmac’s photos. Here’s one that superbly captures the spirit of the Canadian landscape:

stick together to survive
some rights reserved

I’ve cropped the photo a little to fit it to the width of my blog without losing any of its height. Click on the image to see its full size.

jgrantmac’s flickr site is here, and well worth a browse! Twenty new photos in the last seven days, which is his typical pace.

The last purr

This morning we took our aged cat to the veterinarian to have it put down. Coincidentally, our page-a-day (Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader) calendar for today’s date says,

The average house cat will spend 10,950 hours of its lifetime purring.

Patches with Moses

At rest.

Our cat’s kidneys had been failing for some time (we hadn’t figured it out yet when I published this photo over a year ago) and he took a dramatic turn for the worst yesterday. He was pretty devoted to me, for a cat, and I’ve shed more than a few tears in the past 24 hours. Not merely for my loss, but because he was clearly suffering at the end.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Jamie recently lost a cat to kidney disease, too. She used the experience as a springboard for some theological reflections on death.

Addofio recently posted three compelling dog stories. Here she tells how she ended up adding a fourth(!) dog to her household (complete with photos). Here she describes losing one of the four dogs in the woods while camping. And here — well, you just have to read the post to find out what happens next in Addofio’s crazy, overrun-with-dogs world.

Mutiny in the beehive

Beekeeper Rodney Dillinger is looking for a swarm of 40,000 honeybees, according to today’s Globe and Mail. They flew away after a mutiny:

Some of Mr. Dillinger’s bees are suspected of having become dissatisfied with their queen, tricking her into giving birth to a replacement and then sending her into exile.

The deposed queen left in the past few days, followed by about half the bees in the southwestern Nova Scotia colony.

The revolutionaries feed a new queen while starving the old one:

When [the rejected queen] is slimmed down from her usual large physique and can fly again, she leaves the hive with her followers. She exits a colony now headed by one of the daughters she was tricked into birthing.

I tell you, it’s just like that movie! — the one where Mel Gibson seizes the ship and Anthony Hopkins is cast adrift with a few loyal crew members.

The new queen is utterly ruthless in dealing with potential competitors — no sisterly solidarity here.

“Usually the first daughter-queen will go around and kill her sisters and become the colony head,” Mr. Phillips explained.

Now I’m reminded of a book in the Hebrew scriptures. I’ve been reading Kings recently. It’s the same story, except it’s usually men who resort to murder to gain power. The hapless beekeeper is God, I suppose.

The mouse’s tale: or, Why I think evolution is true

The first, preliminary attempt to map the mouse genome was announced in December 2002. It provides startling evidence in support of the theory of evolution.

From the print edition of the Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 5, 2002:

The first glimpse inside the entire set of mouse genes shows that humans share 99 per cent of a mouse’s genes — all but 300 from a total package of 30,000 genes. …

The enormous similarity of mice and men … has already led to the discovery of 1,200 previously unknown human genes. If the human set of genes is our “book of life,” says the journal Nature, then the mouse genes form the “phrasebook” that helps us translate it. …

“This is akin to having two books written in two unknown languages, but with the same alphabet. When similarities are recognized between books, we start inferring relationships between languages, which helps decipher what are the words, punctuation marks, sentences, etc.,” [said Dr. Tom Hudson of McGill University]. …

Only now [in late 2002] is the whole set of mouse genes being unravelled and explained, by a team working on the problem since 2000. Today’s version is considered a draft, but it covers more than 95 per cent of the mouse’s DNA. …

A mouse has about 2.4 billion pieces of DNA compared with our 2.9 billion. Where it differs the most is in dozens of extra genes relating to its keen sense of smell. …

Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, said that decoding the mouse’s genes “is like reading evolution’s lab notebook.”

The shared ancestors of humans and mice took separate paths in evolution 75 million years ago, he says. If there are pieces of DNA that remain the same after all those millions of years, these are almost certainly the ones we need to keep in order to survive.

“The text is not being allowed to get scrambled or garbled over time,” he said in a recent interview in Ottawa. “It is being maintained in a legible fashion through many, many, copyings.”

But let’s back up a step. Let’s consider two objections to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution:  one scientific and the other theological.

First, the scientific objection. Darwin’s theory had at least one hugely significant gap. Darwin couldn’t explain how variation occurred from one generation to the next:

Darwin, being the kind of thinker he was, determined to get down to unassailable, rock-bottom, logical first principles, realized only too well that the theory of natural selection did not really satisfy unless an explanation of variation and heredity was added to it. How, in short, had the first primordial microbe spawned a second that was not exactly like it? …

Darwin broke his lance on variation. In his book [The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication] he looked at it from every imaginable angle. He measured it, weighed it, tracked it, but he could not explain it. …

The answer to that enormous question of how it happened was locked up inside the cell and was destined to remain locked there until the next century.1

Evolution was still an open question — merely an attractive hypothesis — when Darwin died. Darwin’s successors — Mendel, de Vries, Watson, Crick, Franklin and others — supplied the elusive mechanism (genes, DNA) which had stumped him.

The objection was thus transformed into an outstanding confirmation of Darwin’s theory.

If the scientists were now satisfied, some Christians continued to be sceptical. This brings us to the theological objection. Actually, it is better described as an alternative explanation of the data.

Anyone can see that human beings look a lot like apes. And we now know that human beings and apes are genetically related:  indeed, there is a 98% correspondence between the genes of humans and those of chimpanzees. But does this data prove evolution to be true?

Some Christians offer a competing explanation. “It’s no surprise that there are points of correspondence from one species to the next”, they say. “Why should God continually reinvent the wheel? Why wouldn’t he use the same basic design for humans that he used for apes, while introducing the variations required to make us, us?” In that way, each species could be regarded as a separate act of creation, however great the similarities between them.

I am not trained in the sciences, so I held both of these possible interpretations in mind for some years. Sooner or later, data would emerge to settle the question, one way or the other.

The data emerged in December 2002. That’s why I still have the newspaper article in my files, four and a half years later. For me, the issue was resolved by this tale of the mouse genome.

Or perhaps I should say tail:

Mice and humans are so similar that we actually have the genes needed to make tails — except we don’t “express” those genes, or switch them on. …

The missing tails actually matter to medical research. Doctors want to know:  why don’t we look anything like mice if we share so many genes with them? The answer is that in any person’s body, at any time, some genes are at work and some are not.

Scientists used to talk about an “on-off switch” that tells genes when to work — for instance, growth genes that work in childhood but stop in a person’s teens.

But there are also different levels between fully active and fully “off”. Those growth genes, for instance, work fast in a fetus and newborn baby, then slow for a while, speed up in adolescence, then slow again and finally stop for good.

“The mouse sequence makes it easier to find the regions that control activity of genes — the ‘dimmer switches’,” says the Wellcome Trust.

In sum, human beings don’t look anything like mice, but 99% of a mouse’s genes are also present in human beings. Moreover, the genes we have in common include the gene for growing a tail:  but it doesn’t express itself in human beings because it is “switched off”.

For me, this datum decisively tips the scales in favour of the scientific explanation. I understand that God might use the same raw materials from one species to the next, instead of “reinventing the wheel”. But if human beings are a separate act of creation (not evolved from mice), why on earth would God provide us with a “tail” gene?

That’s why I think evolution is true.


1Maitland A. Edey and Donald C. Johanson, Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, pp. 91-92.

The Tao of Pooh, part 1

book bingeMonday is the last day of MaryP’s book binge. I’m not an official participant, mostly because I knew I wouldn’t impress anyone with the amount of reading I do in a month. Still, here’s my unofficial contribution.

I’ve been reading Richard Kearney’s The God Who May Be, but my progress has been slow. The language is dense, like reading poetry. In fact, Kearney is a poet as well as a philosopher, so the text features a lot of wordplay, theological and philosophical jargon, and terms from Latin, Greek, French and German. It’s not designed to be a quick read; it’s designed to make one think! I wish I could say I’d finished it in April, but no such luck.

Tao of Pooh coverThe Tao of Pooh is a much lighter read, though it too is a theological/ philosophical treatise!

The concept for the book was perhaps suggested by a linguistic coincidence. Here the author imagines himself in dialogue with his protagonist (p. 10):

“One of the most important principles of Taoism was named after you.”

“Really?” Pooh asked, looking hopeful.

“Of course — P’u, the Uncarved Block.”

“I’d forgotten,” said Pooh.

Hoff explains that the “Uncarved Block” refers to things in their natural, unaltered state. Wise individuals are those who understand and accept their true, inner nature. Instead of trying to force reality into some fantastic shape, the wise work with reality.

Hoff can (and does) explain Taoism by quoting Taoist masters; but he also illustrates Taoist principles by using excerpts from Winnie the Pooh stories. For example, this bit of nonsense verse (p. 39):

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.

A fly can’t bird? Hoff interprets:

It’s obvious, isn’t it? And yet, you’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.

Everything has a function and a place in the grand scheme of things — but only if we accept it for what it is. Try to make it into some other thing, and you will only destroy it — that’s the lesson we need to learn. This is one of the great principles of Eastern thought.

Western thought — indebted as it is to Christianity — points in a contrary direction. Christianity is an eschatological religion: that is, transformation is its core principle.

In one metaphor after another, the New Testament expresses the same idea:  rebirth, re-creation, resurrection, transfiguration; put off the old man and put on the new. The book of Revelation looks forward to a day when the heavens and the earth will be destroyed, to be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.

This is the idée fixe, the bee in the bonnet of the Christian faith. And Western society is saturated in this principle, though we have forgotten its origins in the New Testament. Transformation — progress! — is the ideal that drives us restlessly onward.

The Industrial Revolution is one expression of the ideal. Don’t leave things in a state of nature; master them, improve on them, make them work better for you. Likewise, the scientific revolution is driven by the same ideal.

We certainly enjoy the benefits of this worldview. For example, I’ve been taking antibiotics for the past five days, after realizing that a persistent cold had degenerated into a sinus infection. I slogged my way through each day of most of April, and I suppose I could have kept it up a while longer. But why would I?! Surely it’s better to act, to seek a cure if one is available!

People sometimes suppose that Christianity is a great curse, keeping people in ignorance and slavery. On the contrary, the principle of transformation — the principle underlying both the industrial and the scientific revolutions — was borrowed directly from the Christian worldview.

The principle carries over into the social sphere, too, for those who are able to imagine a better world — improving the lot of the poor, visible minorities, women, homosexuals. In my view, those who work for revolution — those who are impatient with the status quo — they are the true heirs of Jesus and Paul.

That’s why these successive revolutions arose in the West, not the East.

To be sure, the Eastern worldview has a wisdom of its own. It is the wisdom of P’u, the Uncarved Block; accepting that Things Are What They Are; making our peace with reality and, indeed, learning to embrace it.

To give a single example — the principle of transformation, if unrestrained, can do irreparable harm to the environment. Calamity may result, if we don’t learn to respect the rhythms of nature. And that lesson — allowing nature to carry us in its course, instead of diverting it down alien paths — that lesson is best learned from Buddhism, Taoism, or the indigenous peoples of North America.

But I seem to have strayed a long way from the subject of this post — The Tao of Pooh. I’ll return to it in a few days, finish up my thought, and perhaps take a look at a second Taoist principle.

Previous Older Entries