Life Drawing - Female

While literally naval-gazing, one of the interesting things I've been mulling over is that human bodies are made up of a multitude of creatures, working symbiotically together.

This idea has fascinated me for a long time, and was the impetus for my Symbiosis painting, recently featured on The Eloquent Atheist. Only recently did I come across an explanation for where the microflora largely come from.

Most of the symbiotic bacteria are transferred to infants from the mother, mainly during birth, and from the breast-feeding and foodstuffs to follow. I thought this topic would be an interesting counterpoint to these life drawings I did of a model at the Toronto School of Art last spring. Less so simply because the model was female; moreso because of every move, every pose we all make every day, we are a multitude of organisms working together, resting together and just being together.

While reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking The Spell, he makes another arresting point. Not only do you have an entire ecosystem of bacteria in your body, on your skin, "your body is composed of perhaps a hundred trillion cells, and nine out of ten of them are not human cells! (p.86)" The important point is that they are not transmitted genetically.

Some people say we are really all alone trapped inside our own minds and bodies. We seldom think of what organisms we share our bodies with, and that our whole lives, the ecosystem living within us and on us, is still evolving.

Bacteria can evolve at a prodigious rate; and for men, we carry them around, populations evolving as we subject their environments to espresso and fine cheeses, beer and pizza, until our whole system collapses. For women, it goes further. Women pass on their evolved-since-birth microflora to their children, when they give birth. As Dennett points out (p.86 again), since it is not a genetic inheritance, and so a surrogate-mother still gives her infant a large portion of its future health during the minutes of birth.

In an interesting turn in one of my favourite sci-fi series, a few characters in David Brin's Heaven's Reach , part of the Uplift Storm trilogy, find themselves becoming symbiotically entangled not only with other similar, oxygen-breathing aliens, but also with the mysterious hydrogen breathers that live inside gas giants. All of them are swallowed up, to transcend into being part of a new organism known as 'Mother'.

There are more interesting things to learn about this subject. Check out the Wikipedia entry, and more at ScienceBlogs.

Amazing. No person is an island; but we are all ecosystems.

Alex, Scientific Luminary, passes away at age 31

Image used without permission, but with the deepest respect & appreciation.

Alex, the African Grey parrot who taught the world so much about animal cognition, passed away at the end of last week. He leaves behind his friend and co-scientist, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, as well as The Alex Foundation.

As a former parrot owner, I was always feeling a slight bit of awe toward my own avian friend after reading about Alex. There was so much clearly happening inside his mind. And 'mind' is what it is for these intelligent, curious, and vocal animals. Alex showed the world that it was possible for parrots to comprehend and not merely mimic.

As usual, some of the best stories that have been posted about Alex come from members of the Scienceblogs.com community.

Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle has re-posted previous entries about Alex, including an interview with Dr. Pepperberg.

At A Blog Around the Clock, you can find a brief but eloquent obituary by Coturnix.

There is a typical and hilarious story showing just how much Alex understood what he was saying over at Neurontic.

There is a tribute on the Alex Foundation site as well, by Elaine Hutchison.

I do not have a lot more to add, having always been an interested spectator in Alex's accomplishments. I will say that I have always thought of Alex and Dr. pepperberg's contributions will resonate further down through history, for centuries to come.

In David Brin's Uplift science fiction novels, in the far-flung future, humanity becomes lonely enough in the universe that a process called 'Uplift' begins. Chimpanzees and dolphins are selected to receive genetic tinkering and a slow process to become as intelligent as humans, and integrate into Earthly culture. This may sound far-fetched, and I only mean this with the utmost respect, but I often looked at Alex and Dr. Pepperberg's contributions to science as something similar: a true attempt to bridge the species gap in understanding. As has been said when talking about speaking to alien life should we ever encounter it, how will we be able to understand aliens if we cannot yet understand what other species on our own Earth are saying? Alex went further than we did, by speaking in our own language on topics humans asked him about.

Alex's work continues with Wart and Griffin, and all those at the foundation. My deepest sympathies to all those who knew him.

-Glendon Mellow