Blog #84: From Bats and Whales to Nests and Art

Updated List of Patremoirs

Updated List of Matremoirs

Two weeks of blog silence. Partly this was because of Christmas and the attendant chaos, and partly this was because I accompanied Margo to San Francisco, where she was attending a SICB conference. SICB, for the uninitiated, stands for Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and the papers ranged from hummingbird beak mechanics to collecting whale snot. Margo’s paper on the structural differences between whale and pig arteries was very well received–as well it might be, given the originality of the research and the clarity of presentation.

I took in two plenary sessions and several shorter papers, and of the latter it is Dan Dudek’s talk about vocalization in bats which provides the impetus for this blog. In his talk Dan referenced recent studies about similar amino acid sequences in a gene found both in bats and in humans. The similarity in sequences is apparently the result of convergent evolution, a case of evolutionary forces pushing very separate species to a very specific solution for a technical problem. The studies suggest that bats and whales developed similar amino acid sequences in order to be grow the outer hair cells of the ear which make it possible for them to use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation.

Perhaps because I had been reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn on this trip, Dan’s reference to this convergence in bats and in whales led to a thought about nest building and the human need to collect and arrange. The thought is fanciful and extreme, yet might our need to collect and organize experience be controlled by gene sequences similar to those which direct birds in acquiring and arranging nest material? Might art production not be mutated nest building? Convergent evolution may provide an explanation. So too might divergent evolution. Is the impulse to write, to paint, to compose, to collect and organize knowledge informed by the same amino acid forces which drive the ferruginous hawk to build a nest of twigs, bark chips, and dung, or the eider duck to use grasses and down plucked from its own breast? Art production may just be another form of nest building, as a common gene alters over time to produce very different outcomes from the same impulse.

Whether or not art production and nest building involve similar genes or amino acid sequences, thinking about such a possibility leads to thoughts about the importance of art. Evolutionary theory suggests that art would not have evolved and survived if it did not confer some biological advantage. Is there a courtship advantage to art, and might the production of a bright canvas or lively symphony function in much the same way as flamboyant tail feathers on a male peacock or the pronounced ano-genital swelling of a female baboon? Might the benefits be broader and more complex? The same altered gene or genes might be at play in our ability to build communities and societies. Like a nest built of varied materials, culture is woven out of many strands of knowledge and ability.

Chiral Lyric

Left without the joy illimited of song,
Reason will hardly twist the copy right.
This psalm the bushtit and the peeping Tom
Pairs in implicate praise. Guanine, Thymine,
Adenine and Cytosine, in sequence
Most precise, combine eye fixed to keyhole,
Woven wisp of moss, wary flick of feather,
Lurch of penis stiff. In Florence brazen
Brunelleschi from the Roman Pantheon
Plucked out patterns and the Duomo soared,
Although, marble freighted, the ill fated
Badalone foundered with its massy
Marble blocks. Notwithstanding, unseen urges
Resisted purges and the stately dome
In fearful symmetry arose. Design
Governs in it all. To look in secret
Is locked in secret lust to seek meanings
Deeper than the mind can sense, as the bird,
Without a blueprint, builds a hollow, pear
Shaped gourd, and waves of basic chemicals–
Felicity!– the vague fingered man impel
To Melville’s sinister dexterity.
Reason will harshly twist the copyright,
Left without the joy illimited of song.

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