Sunday, January 3, 2021

Lesson In A Stinging Nettle

                                                                                             written 27 December 2020

                                                                                               published 3 January 2021


            In high school biology, we studied the details of how the stinging nettle defends itself.  The surface is covered with small crystalline spikes: hollow tubes which are capped at the outer end by an offset blob.  At the root of the spike, below the plant surface, is a flexible sack filled with formic acid.  An animal pressing against the spike compresses the acid in the sack.  At some point the pressure exceeds the strength of the spike, shearing away the offset blob, leaving a surgically sharp point.  The compressed acid shoots up the hollow center as the spike tip penetrates the skin of the animal.  The resulting sting encourages the animal to go away, protecting the nettle.

            The elegance of the design struck me even at that young age.  The entire protection system is powered by the aggression of the animal, like an organic Aikido.  Each part is exactly sufficient to its task.  The crystalline material is strong enough to compress the acid, but brittle enough to shear to a functional point.  The sack is flexible, yet sturdy enough to keep the corrosive acid contained, preventing damage to the rest of the plant.  There is no waste, and everything is fabricated in its correct place using sunlight, water, and a few soil minerals.  What magnificent design: in a plant!

            Agricultural science has discovered that a new insecticide gives only short-term relief, as insects begin evolving immunity within a few years.  One grasshopper was found to take this evolution a step further.  It not only developed a metabolic system unaffected by a common insecticide, but used the poison for its own goals.  The insecticide was metabolized and added to the protective foam around the grasshopper egg case, helping to defend the eggs against other insects.  This indicates an awareness and intention of great subtlety: in an insect!

            In 1988, British biologist Dr. John Cairns published results of an experiment on bacteria which showed capacity to selectively repair its own DNA.  They took bacteria that could only metabolize the lactose sugar molecule, and then disabled the gene that expressed the enzyme which breaks up the lactose, providing energy for the bacteria.  The bacteria were then put in an environment with only lactose.  Traditional biological wisdom at the time said mutation was due to random errors during cell division, and cells can't divide without energy, so it was expected they would all die.

            Surprisingly, the colonies thrived, and detailed investigation showed specific mutations in just the genes that had been disabled.  The evidence suggested the bacteria had read the environment and modify its biological hardware appropriately.  This caused quite a stir at the time, being labeled "bad science, if not fraud".  But it has been replicated many times in other labs, validating the conclusions.  The living world is not just a mindless preprogramed machine.  In everything, there is awareness and an ability to respond: even in bacteria!  

            The Church held Europe in philosophic tyranny for ages, killing anyone who questioned their dogma, while preaching Christ's message of love.  But waves of black plague, beginning in 1350, and growing institutional corruption, culminating in Luther's Protestant 1517 challenge, weakened the Church, allowing western science to strike a bargain in the 1600's.  Science investigated the material realm, while leaving consideration of "spirit" and "meaning" to the rigid dogma of the Church.  This birthed the scientific and technological revolution, but at the price of a growing scientific dogma assuming reality is meaningless and consciousness is just a by-product of biochemical activity in the brain.

            A century ago, science experienced a revolution in physics with the rise of quantum mechanics, which showed that consciousness is central to matter.  At the same time the study of psychology arose, recognizing the power of the unconscious mind.  Eastern religious thought continued to make inroads into western thinking, with the understanding of a profound unity.

            There is increased understanding that the foundation of reality is immanent, potent, and wise, something mystical spiritual traditions have always known, but is now entering scientific consideration.  It is time for an evolution of thinking, which recognizes the power of both spirit and matter, but transcends the dogmatic limitations of either science or religion, which have brought the world to the current point of collapse.