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Origins, Worms and Germs E-mail
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Sunday, 12 August 2007

Origins, Worms and Germs

July 27, 2007

By Erich Vieth

I recently visited New York City, where I attended a business conference. 

After the conference was over, I was able to spend three hours at the American Museum of Natural History. It was well worth a visit for numerous reasons.  For instance, the ocean life exhibit contains a full-size model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling.  You might think that you would rather see a real blue whale, but that is unlikely because so little is known about blue whales.  The suspended model of the blue whale was as long as three school buses.  A real blue whale weighs as much as 24 elephants.  It was incredible to behold even the model of such an immense animal, the heaviest animal that has ever lived on earth.

My main goal was to view the newly-opened Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, and I was not disappointed.  The exhibit contains numerous well-designed displays of fossil evidence. Additional exhibits presented information regarding DNA, the geographic distribution of our ancestors and lots of information regarding the development of language, music and various human cognitive capacities.

Smack in the middle of the human origins exhibit is a replica of the Australopithecine footsteps discovered at Laetoli. Rather than simply show a large cast of the footsteps, the exhibitors included models of a male and female adult Australopithecus in the process of walking along the path of the Laetoli footprints.  The Australopithecus people were surprisingly short, not much taller than my waist.  They were naked, walking in a dignified way, side-by-side, along the path.  I found myself transported by that exhibit, imagining what it would of been like to live three or four million years ago.  I also thought of how lucky we are to have access to fossils that allow us to visualize what people looked like 3.6 million years ago as they walked on wet volcanic ash.

While I was standing there, thinking about the exhibit, a tall, obese, slovenly and loudmouthed couple walked up and looked at that same Laetoli exhibit.  The woman looked at the man and said “That’s just stupid.  It just is.”  They stayed for three seconds before leaving.

Not everything was so unpleasant that day.  One exhibit included a monitor that played video clips of well-known scientists commenting on evolution. Kenneth Miller appeared to remind me that without evolution to tie it all together, “biology is little more than stamp collecting.”

The Hall of Biodiversity contains preserved specimens of many hundreds of animal species.  I found myself looking at the earthworm portion of the exhibit and marveling at Charles Darwin’s quote: “It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world.”  That quote got me thinking.  Without the earthworms to work the soil, many plant species would not have thrived.

This brought to mind Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel.  One of the main points of that work is that huge-seeming human accomplishments would never have happened without innocuous-seeming precursors.  As Diamond describes in detail, it was not that Europeans were so smart that they ended up controlling much of the world.  Rather, it was a matter of great luck.  They happened to have a terrific combination of food plants and herding animals available to them.  This combination served as energy packed sources of nutrition that many other cultures lacked.  What did the Europeans end up doing with that extra time on their hands, now that they didn’t have to work all day long hunting and gathering?  Here’s what: Reading and writing and exploring and all those other incredibly important cultural things.

Without earthworms, then, I wouldn’t have been able to go to a great museum. There wouldn’t have been any museum.  There wouldn’t have been cars or airplanes or electricity. 

Which brings us back to the humble earthworm.  Without earthworms, we couldn’t have made use of all those plants and animals upon which we relied so heavily, according to Diamond.  We wouldn’t have had that extra time and energy for developing additional tools that enabled the development of a culture that was unlike anything the world had seen previously.

Or is that “just stupid” too?

 
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