May 08, 2008

Eons

Platypus.jpg

The Lovecraft quote below got me to thinking about what I like about Lovecraft. Like Poe, he was steeped in the scientific ideas of his time; like Poe, he teased from enlightened ideas the darkness of nightmares. Lovecraft maintained a gothic atmosphere, but substituted for the supernatural effects of lesser writers or the psychological terrors invoked by Poe something I'd call natural horror -- the horror of endless time and space, of successive races of monsters dominating the earth (some hailing from distant stars), of humans whose place at the top of the food chain is a temporary accident, one that will soon be remedied when the monsters return.

I am more optimistic than Lovecraft's tales (we certainly shouldn't assume he believed his fictions), but at the same time I can't help thinking that nature is a wheel that turns. The sudden onset of another ice age, a comet collision, a super volcano, and we might be extinct, while primordial life will go on, perhaps producing a species of Cthulhus. We flatter ourselves by thinking that if only we could go and sin no more -- control our urges for sex or, more recently, SUVs -- we could propitiate the gods and control the mighty forces that are eternal and timeless and as utterly ignorant and indifferent to us as we are of the millions of germs that hover about us and on us and in us every day. A turn of the wheel, a diminution of the sun's light or a volcanic eruption spewing ash into the sky, and a thousand years of darkness might follow. And if we were to perish, what creatures might emerge in our place?

But we are a wondrous creature. The western variant in particular: we preserve and study the cultures of others, we investigate and conserve all manner of creatures, we reject the stultifying orthodoxies of a thousand faiths for the far more revealing texts of nature. Consider the platypus, whose genome has just been decoded:

"We're going to be using the platypus genome for the next 50 years," said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England, which was involved in the analysis.

"The platypus gives us a perspective that is deep in time, that tells us what was going on 170 million years ago, when all these traits were being developed," Birney said. "Every time there's a difference in the DNA between human and dog, or human and some other mammal, and you want to know which one changed more recently, you need these outgroup species to be able to answer that."

Posted by Ideofact at May 8, 2008 01:00 AM
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