What is adult life really about? In this legendary college commencement speech in 2005, David Foster Wallace attempts to explain. Animation by The Glossary.
In his novels and short stories, and in sharp essays, David Foster Wallace paid careful attention to life, to the truth of being human. Full bio »
Life through Google’s Auto-complete. By Marius Budin
Colgate has created a very ingenious advertising campaign to promote their dental floss, but before I explain to you the main detail of these images, I will let you appreciate them quietly…
Alright, now that you had time to quietly observe the images: in the first one you will now notice that she has one finger too many in her hand, in the second one a phantom arm is floating there, and in the third one the man has only one ear.
The campaign attained its purpose because it proved that food remains on your teeth draw more attention than any physical defect.
Boy, you could have a field day with this one in a perceptual psychology class, anthropology, art history – amazing how our mind works.
PLEASE Israeli, STOP it already! ;( there are many better things to do! or otherwise, why don’t you just shoot yourself instead of taking orders to KILL!
Very strange, as this photo appeared way back in 29 March 2002 in aljazeeraportal (http://arabic.aljazeeraportal.net/News/archive/archive?ArchiveId=29217 from 2002) with the inscription شهيد فلسطيني ملقى على الأرض وجرافاتالاحتلال تواصل عمليات الهدم في رام الله (Palestinian martyr lying on the ground and bulldozers continue demolitions in Ramallah). This photo was in the article الاحتلال يقصف مكتب عرفات ومخاوف على حياته (Palestinian forces vows painful blows to Israel. Israel shells Arafat’s office with fears for his life)
If you decide to fabricate a photo’s explanation, and lie about Israel’s actions,
at least try to make the exposure of the lie a little more challenging.
Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you. So you don’t feel like you wasted your click, here’s a picture of Lenny Kravitz wearing a gigantic scarf.
For the rest of you, I want you to try something: Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything youare (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts). If you found that difficult, well, this is for you, and you are going to fucking hate hearing it. My only defense is that this is what I wish somebody had said to me around 1995 or so.
#6. The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.
“OK, which one is the injured one?”
You ask, “Are you a doctor?”
The guy says, “No.”
You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”
At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.
Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my (wife/husband/best friend/parent) is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”
Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?
In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”
“I don’t get it. Would it help if I put on a lab jacket? Here, one sec, let me just …”
So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.
If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.
“Here’s that shit you needed. Now fuck off.”
Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.
Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere. For you see …
#5. The Hippies Were Wrong
Here is the greatest scene in the history of movies (WARNING: EXTREME NSFW LANGUAGE):
For those of you who can’t watch videos, it’s the famous speech Alec Baldwin gives in the cinematic masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross. Baldwin’s character — whom you assume is the villain — addresses a room full of dudes and tears them a new asshole, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:
“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”
It’s brutal, rude and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.
“First graders, welcome to Mr. Baldwin’s third period art class — is everyone here? Well, I’m goin’ anyway.”
That scene changed my life. I’d program my alarm clock to play it for me every morning if I knew how. Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar for that movie and that’s the only scene he’s in. As smarter people have pointed out, the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”
“If you were in that room, some of you would understand this as a work, but feed off the energy of the message anyway, welcome the coach’s cursing at you, ‘this guy is awesome!’; while some of you would take it personally, this guy is a jerk, you have no right to talk to me like that, or — the standard maneuver when narcissism is confronted with a greater power — quietly seethe and fantasize about finding information that will out him as a hypocrite. So satisfying.”
”I swear, if he mentions my hair, I’ll slap his face so har- Yes, sir, I’m listening. I’m sorry.”
That excerpt is from an insightful critique of “hipsters” and why they seem to have so much trouble getting jobs (that doesn’t begin to do it justice, go read the whole thing), and the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world. For instance, some people want to respond to that speech with Tyler Durden’s line from Fight Club: “You are not your job.”
But, well, actually, you totally are. Granted, your “job” and your means of employment might not be the same thing, but in both cases you are nothing more than the sum total of your useful skills. For instance, being a good mother is a job that requires a skill. It’s something a person can do that is useful to other members of society. But make no mistake: Your “job” — the useful thing you do for other people — is all you are.
There is a reason why surgeons get more respect than comedy writers. There is a reason mechanics get more respect than unemployed hipsters. There is a reason your job will become your label if your death makes the news (“NFL Linebacker Dies in Murder/Suicide”). Tyler said, “You are not your job,” but he also founded and ran a successful soap company and became the head of an international social and political movement. He was totally his job.
It was the irony that many people missed from that movie.
Or think of it this way: Remember when Chick-fil-A came out against gay marriage? And how despite the protests, the company continues to sell millions of sandwiches every day? It’s not because the country agrees with them; it’s because they do their job of making delicious sandwiches well. And that’s all that matters.
You don’t have to like it. I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes.
“This is bullshit. I have a completely clean criminal record, and this is the thanks I get?”
If you protest that you’re not a shallow capitalist materialist and that you disagree that money is everything, I can only say: Who said anything about money? You’re missing the larger point.
#4. What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
Let’s try a non-money example so you don’t get hung up on that. The demographic that Cracked writes for is heavy on 20-something males. So on our message boards and in my many inboxes I read several dozen stories a year from miserable, lonely guys who insist that women won’t come near them despite the fact that they are just the nicest guys in the world. I can explain what is wrong with this mindset, but it would probably be better if I let Alec Baldwin explain it:
In this case, Baldwin is playing the part of the attractive women in your life. They won’t put it as bluntly as he does — society has trained us not to be this honest with people — but the equation is the same. “Nice guy? Who gives a shit? If you want to work here, close.”
So, what do you bring to the table? Because the Zooey Deschanel lookalike in the bookstore that you’ve been daydreaming about moisturizes her face for an hour every night and feels guilty when she eats anything other than salad for lunch. She’s going to be a surgeon in 10 years. What do you do?
“Well, I’m fucking wicked at capture the flag.”
“What, so you’re saying that I can’t get girls like that unless I have a nice job and make lots of money?”
No, your brain jumps to that conclusion so you have an excuse to write off everyone who rejects you by thinking that they’re just being shallow and selfish. I’m asking what do you offer? Are you smart? Funny? Interesting? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? OK, now what do you do to demonstrate those attributes to the world? Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day. The patient is bleeding in the street. Do you know how to operate or not?
“Well, I’m not sexist or racist or greedy or shallow or abusive! Not like those other douchebags!”
I’m sorry, I know that this is hard to hear, but if all you can do is list a bunch of faults you don’t have, then back the fuck away from the patient. There’s a witty, handsome guy with a promising career ready to step in and operate.
“Wait, I said I wouldn’t hit you!”
Does that break your heart? OK, so now what? Are you going to mope about it, or are you going to learn how to do surgery? It’s up to you, but don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar. Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick. You’re like a new movie whose title is This Movie Is in English, and its tagline is “The actors are clearly visible.”
I think this is why you can be a “nice guy” and still feel terrible about yourself. Specifically …
#3. You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything
“So, what, you’re saying that I should pick up a book on how to get girls?”
Only if step one in the book is “Start making yourself into the type of person girls want to be around.”
“Come ooooon. I know I hid some vodka in here somewhere.”
Because that’s the step that gets skipped — it’s always “How can I get a job?” and not “How can I become the type of person employers want?” It’s “How can I get pretty girls to like me?” instead of “How can I become the type of person that pretty girls like?” See, because that second one could very well require giving up many of your favorite hobbies and paying more attention to your appearance, and God knows what else. You might even have to change your personality.
“But why can’t I find someone who just likes me for me?” you ask. The answer is because humans need things. The victim is bleeding, and all you can do is look down and complain that there aren’t more gunshot wounds that just fix themselves?
Here’s another video (NSFW):
Everyone who watched that video instantly became a little happier, although not all for the same reasons. Can you do that for people? Why not? What’s stopping you from strapping on your proverbial thong and cape and taking to your proverbial stage and flapping your proverbial penis at people? That guy knows the secret to winning at human life: that doing … whatever you call that … was better than not doing it.
“But I’m not good at anything!” Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.
Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.
The bad news is that you have no other choice. If you want to work here, close.
Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just “love you for you” — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life.
Step One: Get up.
Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.
And if you hate hearing this and are responding with something you heard as a kid that sounds like “It’s what’s on the inside that matters!” then I can only say …
#2. What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
Being in the business I’m in, I know dozens of aspiring writers. They think of themselves as writers, they introduce themselves as writers at parties, they know that deep inside, they have the heart of a writer. The only thing they’re missing is that minor final step, where they actually fucking write things.
But really, does that matter? Is “writing things” all that important when deciding who is and who is not truly a “writer”?
For the love of God, yes.
I’ve known “writers” who produced less content than what’s on this woman’s grocery list.
See, there’s a common defense to everything I’ve said so far, and to every critical voice in your life. It’s the thing your ego is saying to you in order to prevent you from having to do the hard work of improving: “I know I’m a good person on the inside.” It may also be phrased as “I know who I am” or “I just have to be me.”
Don’t get me wrong; who you are inside is everything — the guy who built a house for his family from scratch did it because of who he was inside. Every bad thing you’ve ever done has started with a bad impulse, some thought ricocheting around inside your skull until you had to act on it. And every good thing you’ve done is the same — “who you are inside” is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows.
Notice how the camera is pointed up, and not at the base of the tree?
But here’s what everyone needs to know, and what many of you can’t accept:
“You” are nothing but the fruit.
Nobody cares about your dirt. “Who you are inside” is meaningless aside from what it produces for other people.
Inside, you have great compassion for poor people. Great. Does that result in you doing anything about it? Do you hear about some terrible tragedy in your community and say, “Oh, those poor children. Let them know that they are in my thoughts”? Because fuck you if so — find out what they need and help provide it. A hundred million people watched that Kony video, virtually all of whom kept those poor African children “in their thoughts.” What did the collective power of those good thoughts provide? Jack fucking shit. Children die every day because millions of us tell ourselves that caring is just as good as doing. It’s an internal mechanism controlled by the lazy part of your brain to keep you from actually doing work.
“I just wanted to tell you that you’re in my thoughts. Good luck — let me know if that cured you.”
How many of you are walking around right now saying, “She/he would love me if she/he only knew what an interesting person I am!” Really? How do all of your interesting thoughts and ideas manifest themselves in the world? What do they cause you to do? If your dream girl or guy had a hidden camera that followed you around for a month, would they be impressed with what they saw? Remember, they can’t read your mind — they can only observe. Would they want to be a part of that life?
Because all I’m asking you to do is apply the same standard to yourself that you apply to everyone else. Don’t you have that annoying Christian friend whose only offer to help anyone ever is to “pray for them”? Doesn’t it drive you nuts? I’m not even commenting on whether or not prayer works; it doesn’t change the fact that they chose the one type of help that doesn’t require them to get off the sofa. They abstain from every vice, they think clean thoughts, their internal dirt is as pure as can be, but what fruit grows from it? And they should know this better than anybody — I stole the fruit metaphor from the Bible. Jesus said something to the effect of “a tree is judged by its fruit” over and over and over. Granted, Jesus never said, “If you want to work here, close.” No, he said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“And then a buffalo will stare stupidly into your soul while slowly chewing grass and softly farting.”
The people didn’t react well to being told that, just as the salesmen didn’t react well to Alec Baldwin telling them that they needed to grow some balls or resign themselves to shining his shoes. Which brings us to the final point …
#1. Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement
The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict.
So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it. From experience, I can say that these seem to come in the form of …
*Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult
“Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!”
*Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message
“Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke! I watched his old rap video on YouTube and thought his rhymes sucked!”
“When you get to where I am in life, you feel free to give me advice! Until then, you’re nothing but meat and guesses.”
*Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content
“I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!”
*Revising Your Own History
“Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!”
*Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self
“Oh, so I guess I’m supposed to get rid of all of my manga and instead go to the gym for six hours a day and get a spray tan like those Jersey Shore douchebags? Because THAT IS THE ONLY OTHER OPTION.”
“Way to leave ‘the hood’ behind, asshole. New house or not, you’ll always be white trash!”
And so on. Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.
Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.
It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.
Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing. “Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I’m going to wait for something good, I don’t want to write the next Twilight!” As long as they never produce anything, it will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they’ll make sure they do it with detached irony. They’ll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn’t their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
Read our article comments — when they get nasty, it’s always from the same angle: Cracked needs to fire this columnist. This asshole needs to stop writing. Don’t make any more videos. It always boils down to “Stop creating. This is different from what I would have made, and the attention you’re getting is making me feel bad about myself.”
Don’t be that person. If you are that person, don’t be that person any more. This is what’s making people hate you. This is what’s making you hate yourself.
What are you going to do with it? Hunt witches or kick off the Olympics?
So how about this: one year. The end of 2013, that’s our deadline. Or a year from whenever you read this. While other people are telling you “Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds this year!” I’m going to say let’s pledge to do fucking anything — add any skill, any improvement to your human tool set, and get good enough at it to impress people. Don’t ask me what — hell, pick something at random if you don’t know. Take a class in karate, or ballroom dancing, or pottery. Learn to bake. Build a birdhouse. Learn massage. Learn a programming language. Film a porno. Adopt a superhero persona and fight crime. Start a YouTube vlog. Write for Cracked.
But the key is, I don’t want you to focus on something great that you’re going to make happen to you (“I’m going to find a girlfriend, I’m going to make lots of money …”). I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.
“Holy shit, by learning Spanish, I just gained the ability to speak to 400 million people I previously couldn’t.”
“I don’t have the money to take a cooking class.” Then fucking Google “how to cook.” They’ve even filtered out the porn now, it’s easier than ever. Damn it, you have to kill those excuses. Or they will kill you.
If you want to make note of your project in the forum thread or the comments and check in this time next year, knock yourself out. I’ll be curious to see if even one person actually does this, but if so we’ll look back, not just on whether or not we actually followed through, but why. You have nothing to lose, and the world needs you. Here’s a video of a corgi rolling down some stairs.
Captured: the moment photosynthesis changed the world. By Colin Barras
BILLIONS of years ago, a tiny cyanobacterium cracked open a water molecule - and let loose a poison that wrought death and destruction on an epic scale. The microbe had just perfected photosynthesis, a process that freed the oxygen trapped inside water and killed early Earth’s anaerobic inhabitants.
Now, for the first time, geologists have found evidence of the crucial evolutionary stage just before cyanobacteria split water. The find offers a unique snapshot of the moment that made the modern world. With the advent of photosynthesis came an atmosphere dominated by oxygen and, ultimately, the diversity of life forms that we know today.
“This was the biggest change that ever occurred in the biosphere,” says Kevin Redding at Arizona State University in Tempe. “The extinction caused by oxygen was probably the largest ever seen, but at the same time animal life wouldn’t be possible without oxygen.”
Photosynthesis uses light and a source of electrons to generate energy and power an organism. In the world as we know it, that source of electrons is water, with oxygen the waste product. But there are no signs that oxygen was being formed when photosynthesis first appeared around 3.4 billion years ago, so early photosynthesisers probably scavenged electrons by splitting other molecules like hydrogen sulphide instead.
That had changed by about 2.4 billion years ago, when deposits of oxidised minerals tell us that oxygen was beginning to accumulate in the atmosphere. Photosynthesis as we know it had evolved.
To help work out how this happened, Woodward Fischer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues studied South African rocks that formed just before the 2.4-billion-year mark. Their analysis shows that although the rocks formed in the anoxic conditions that had prevailed since Earth’s formation, all of the manganese in the rock was deposited in an oxidised form.
In the absence of atmospheric oxygen, manganese needs some sort of catalyst to help it oxidise - it won’t react without a bit of help. The best explanation, say Fischer’s team, is that a photosynthetic organism was using manganese as an electron source. That left unstable manganese ions behind, which reacted with water to form the oxides. Fischer presented the findings at the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco on 6 December.
Every researcher contacted by New Scientist has hailed the significance of the study, in part because the evidence exactly matches what evolutionary theories have predicted.
A close look at today’s plants and algae shows that manganese oxidation is still a vital part of photosynthesis. Within their photosynthetic structures are manganese-rich crystals that provide the electrons to drive photosynthesis. The crystals then snaffle electrons from passing water molecules to restore their deficit. It is this electron raid that cracks open water molecules and generates the oxygen we breathe.
This complicated process must have had simpler roots. In 2007, John Allen at Queen Mary, University of London, and William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, suggested one scenario (Nature, doi.org/bs65kb). They believe that modern photosynthesis was born when early cyanobacteria by chance floated into a watery environment rich in manganese, and quickly adapted to take advantage of the new source of electrons.
Later, because manganese is a relatively scarce resource that can’t be tapped indefinitely, the cyanobacteria evolved a different strategy. They incorporated manganese directly into their photosynthetic structures and used it as a rechargeable battery: draining it of its electrons, but allowing its supplies to be replenished by stealing electrons from another, more plentiful source - water.
What Fischer’s team has found is evidence of the initial step in this process: an anoxic environment rich in manganese that has been stripped of electrons and left in an oxidised state, almost certainly by primitive cyanobacteria. “There had to be some intermediate step in the evolutionary process,” says Redding.
“This is big news,” says Martin. He adds that we can expect publications in the near future that provide more evidence compatible with the theory. “But this somewhat more direct geochemical evidence is really exciting.”
A brief history of the human genome. By Michael Le Page
From the first cells to the dawn of our species, take a whirlwind tour through 3 billion years of evolution
It looks like gibberish, but this DNA sequence is truly remarkable. It is present in all the cells of your body, in your cat or dog, the fish on your plate, the bees and butterflies in your garden and in the bacteria in your gut. In fact, wherever you find life on Earth, from boiling hot vents deep under the sea to frozen bacteria in the clouds high above the planet, you find this sequence. You can even find it in some things that aren’t technically alive, such as the giant viruses known as mimiviruses.
This sequence is so widespread because it evolved in the common ancestor of all life, and as it carries out a crucial process, it has barely changed ever since. Put another way, some of your DNA is an unimaginable 3 billion years old, passed down to you in an unbroken chain by your trillions of ancestors.
Other bits of your DNA are brand new. You have around 100 mutations in your genome that are not present in your mother or father, ranging from one or two-letter changes to the loss or gain of huge chunks of DNA.
We can tell which bits of our DNA are old or new by comparing genomes. Comparing yours with those of your brother or sister, for instance, would reveal brand new mutations. Contrasting the genomes of people and animals reveals much older changes.
Our genomes, then, are not just recipes for making people. They are living historical records. And because our genomes are so vast, consisting of more than 6 billion letters of DNA - enough to make a pile of books tens of metres high - they record our past in extraordinary detail. They allow us to trace our evolution from the dawn of life right up to the present.
While we have only just begun to decipher these records, we have already discovered that our ancestors didn’t just face a harsh struggle for survival in a world red in tooth and claw. There were also epic battles going on in our genomes, battles that transformed the way our genome works and ultimately made us what we are today.
The universal ancestor
In the beginning there was RNA. This multitalented molecule can store information and catalyse reactions, which means some RNAs can replicate themselves. As soon as one RNA molecule, or set of molecules, began replicating itself, the first genome was born.
The downside of RNA is that it isn’t particularly stable, so very early on life switched to storing information in a molecule with a slightly different chemical backbone that is less likely to break apart - DNA. Proteins also replaced RNA as catalysts, with RNA relegated to the role of a go-between. DNA stored the recipes for making proteins, sending out RNA copies of the recipes to the protein-making machinery.
Many traces of the ancient RNA-dominated world remain in our genome. The ubiquitous sequence at the beginning of this article, for instance, codes for part of an RNA enzyme that still plays a key role in the synthesis of proteins.
By around 3.5 billion years ago, a living entity had evolved with a genome that consisted of recipes for making RNAs and proteins - the last universal common ancestor of all life. At least 100 genes can confidently be traced all the way back to LUCA, says Eugene Koonin of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who studies the evolution of life, and LUCA probably had more than 1000 genes in total.
LUCA had a lot of the core machinery still found in all life today, including that for making proteins. Yet it may have been quite unlike life as we know it today. Some researchers believe that LUCA wasn’t a discrete, membrane-bound cell at all but rather a mixture of virus-like elements replicating inside some non-living compartment, such as the pores of alkaline hydrothermal vents.
Split and reunion
One possible scenario for the next stage is that subsets of LUCA’s virus-like elements broke away on two separate occasions, acquiring cell membranes and becoming simple cells. This would explain why there are two kinds of simple cell - bacteria and archaea - each with a completely different cell membrane. “It’s a very appealing hypothesis,” Koonin says. What is certain is that life split into two major branches very early on.
Bacteria and archaea evolved some amazing molecular machinery and transformed the planet, but they remained little more than tiny bags of chemicals. It wasn’t until an extraordinary event reunited the two great branches of life that complex cells, or eukaryotes, emerged - an event that transformed the genome and paved the way for the evolution of the first animals.
Around a billion years ago, a bacterium ended up inside an archaeon. Instead of one killing the other, the two forged a symbiotic relationship, with the descendants of the bacterium gradually evolving to take on a crucial role: they became mitochondria, the power factories inside cells that provide our energy.
Without this union, complex life might never have evolved at all. We tend to assume that it is natural for simple organisms to evolve into more complex ones, but individual bacteria and archaea have never evolved beyond a certain level of complexity. Why?
According to Nick Lane of University College London, it’s because they hit an energy barrier. All simple organisms generate energy using their cell membranes. As they get bigger, the ratio of surface area to volume falls, making it harder to produce enough energy. The upshot is that simple cells have to stay small - and small cells don’t have room for big genomes. Mitochondria eliminated this barrier by providing modular, self-contained power sources. Cells could now get bigger simply by producing more mitochondria, allowing them to expand their genomes and so their information-storing capacity.
Besides freeing cells from this energy constraint, the ancestor of mitochondria was also the source of up to three-quarters of our genes. The original bacterium probably had 3000 or so genes, and over time most were either lost or transferred to the main genome, leaving modern mitochondria with just a handful of genes.
Despite the obvious benefits, the forging of this alliance was fraught with peril. In particular, the genome of the ancestral mitochondrion was infested with pieces of parasitic DNA, or transposons, that did nothing except create copies of themselves. They sometimes landed in the middle of genes, leaving them with big chunks of irrelevant DNA known as introns. It’s the equivalent of sticking a recipe for soup into the middle of a cake recipe.
Yet the result was not always a recipe for disaster, because these introns were “self-splicing”: after an RNA copy of a gene was made - the first step of the protein-making process - they cut themselves out. This didn’t always happen, though, so their presence was a disadvantage. Most bacteria have no introns in their genes, because in large populations with a lot of competition between individuals, natural selection is strong and weeds them out. But the population of the ancestral eukaryote was very small, so selection was weak. The genetic parasites that arrived with the ancestor of the mitochondrion began to replicate like crazy, littering the main genome with hundreds of introns.
Today, each of our genes typically contains about eight introns, many of which date back to the very first eukaryotes - our ancestors never did manage to get rid of most of them. Instead, they evolved ways of dealing with them that altered the structure of our genes and the way that cells reproduce. One was sex.
The benefits of sex
The crucial thing about sex is not just the mingling of genes from different individuals, important as this is for bringing together evolutionary advances made in separate lineages. Simple cells had long been swapping genes without bothering with sex.
It’s also a process known as recombination, in which pairs of chromosomes swap corresponding pieces before being divided into sperm or eggs. Recombination helps solve a fundamental problem with having a genome consisting of many genes linked together like beads on a necklace.
Imagine a necklace with a truly magnificent pearl right next to a flawed one. If you can’t swap one pearl for another, you either have to get rid of the whole thing or take the necklace as it is. Similarly, if a beneficial mutation ends up next to a harmful one, either the beneficial mutation will be lost or the harmful mutation will spread through a population, dragged along by its neighbour.
Recombination gives you the opportunity to swap pearls. Just as you can produce one perfect necklace and one with defects, so some offspring will get a disproportionate number of good genes, while others get lots of bad ones, perhaps with disruptive introns. The unlucky individuals are likely to die out while those with the good genes thrive.
In large populations, so many mutations arise that some will counteract the effects of the harmful genes, so there is no need to resort to recombination. But in a small population, sex wins out. This is why it became the norm for the first eukaryotes and thus for most of their descendants. So next time you make love, remember to thank the genetic parasite harboured by your ancient bacterial ancestor for the joy of sex.
By the time sex had evolved, there were too many introns to get rid of them all. So early eukaryotes soon faced another serious problem: as introns acquired more and more mutations, the self-splicing mechanisms began to fail. In response, these early eukaryotes evolved special machines, called spliceosomes, that could cut out the introns from the RNA copies of genes.
Spliceosomes are the kind of mindless solution typical of evolution: cutting the junk out of the RNA copies of genes, rather than out of the original DNA, is very inefficient. What’s more, spliceosomes are slow. Many RNAs would have reached the protein-making factories before their introns were spliced out, leading to defective proteins.
This is why the nucleus evolved, Koonin has proposed. Once a cell’s DNA was enclosed in a compartment separate from the protein-making machinery, only spliced RNAs could be allowed out, preventing cells from wasting energy by producing useless proteins.
Even this didn’t solve all the problems, though. Spliceosomes often cut out coding sections of genes - known as exons - by mistake, resulting in mutant versions of the proteins. “Alternative splicing was not an adaptation,” says Koonin. “It was something that organisms had to deal with.”
So our ancient ancestors evolved layer upon layer of complex machinery to cope with the proliferation of introns, yet still hadn’t solved all the problems they caused. But unlike simple cells, they could afford this wastefulness because they were flush with energy - and in the long run all this extra complexity led to new opportunities.
Versatility and control
The presence of introns, and thus exons, in effect made genes modular. In an uninterrupted gene, mutations that add or remove sections usually change the way the rest of the gene is read, producing gibberish. Exons, by contrast, can be moved around without disrupting the rest of the gene. Genes could now evolve by shuffling exons within and between them.
Suppose, for instance, that random mutations add an extra exon to a gene. Thanks to alternative splicing, the original version of the protein can still be made, but it also means a new protein can come from the same gene (see “The cutting room”). The mutation might have little effect and so wouldn’t be eliminated by selection, but over time, the new protein might take on a new function. Quite by accident, eukaryotes’ mindless efforts to deal with introns had made their genes more versatile and more evolvable.
If this view of the evolution of complex cells is correct, many of the key features of our genome, from modular genes to sex, evolved as a direct result of the acquisition of parasite-bearing mitochondria. Alternative ideas cannot be ruled out, but none provides such a beautiful explanation. “It’s my favourite scenario,” says Koonin.
All these novel features led to a burst of evolutionary innovation, and eukaryotes thrived and soon began to diversify. Even so, they still faced a relentless onslaught from the invasion of new kinds of parasitic DNA and viruses. Having transcended the size constraints on simple cells, however, complex cells were free to evolve more sophisticated defence mechanisms.
One was to “silence” the transposons’ parasitic genes by adding tags to the DNA that stop RNA copies being made - a process called methylation. Another was to destroy the RNAs of invading viruses to stop them replicating themselves. These defences were only partly successful. Today, around 5 per cent of the human genome consists of the mutated and mostly inert remains of viruses, and an astonishing 50 per cent consists of the remnants of transposons, a testament to the many occasions on which these parasites somehow got into the genomes of our ancestors and ran rampant.
Such defence mechanisms were soon co-opted for another purpose: to control the activity of a cell’s own genes. “Mechanisms for controlling transposons became mechanisms for controlling genes,” says Ryan Gregory of the University of Guelph, Canada, who studies the evolution of genomes.
The stage was now set for the next big step in evolution, roughly 800 million years ago, when cells began to cooperate more closely than ever before. Although a few bacteria are multicellular, the constraints on their complexity have never allowed them to go far down this road. Eukaryotes, by contrast, have evolved multicellularity on dozens of occasions, giving rise to hugely complex organisms such as fungi, seaweeds, land plants and, of course, animals.
One reason was their bigger repertoire of genes, which could be co-opted for new purposes such as binding cells together and communicating with other cells. Even more importantly, the modular nature of their genes allowed more rapid evolution. The proteins that join cells together, for instance, consist of a part that straddles the cell membrane and a part that protrudes outwards. With modular genes, all kinds of different protruding bits can be tacked onto to the membrane-straddling part, like different attachments on a vacuum cleaner. Many crucial genes for multicellarity evolved via exon shuffling.
In addition, eukaryotes’ more sophisticated mechanisms for controlling genes could be used to allow cells to specialise. By switching different sets of genes on or off, different groups of cells could take on distinct roles. As a result, organisms could begin to develop different types of tissue, allowing early animals to evolve from simple sponge-like creatures to animals with increasingly sophisticated bodies.
The next great leap forward was the result of a couple of genetic accidents. When things go wrong during reproduction, the entire genome can occasionally be duplicated - and this happened not once but twice in the ancestor of all vertebrates.
These genome duplications produced lots of extra copies of genes. Many were lost but others took on new roles. In particular, the duplications produced four clusters of the master genes that establish body plans during development - the Hox genes - and these clusters are thought to have played a crucial role in the evolution of an internal skeleton.
Whole-genome duplications are rare, and most new genes arise from smaller duplications, or from exon shuffling, or both. Evolution is shameless - it will exploit any DNA that does something useful regardless of where it comes from. Some crucial genes have evolved from bits of junk DNA, whereas others have been acquired from elsewhere.
About 500 million years ago, for instance, the genome of our ancestors was invaded by a genetic parasite called a hAT transposon, which copies itself using a “cut and paste” mechanism. The cutting is done by two enzymes that bind to specific DNA sequences.
At some point in an early vertebrate, the sequences bound to by the DNA-cutting enzymes ended up near or in a gene involved in recognising invading bacteria and viruses. The result was that during the course of an individual’s life, as their cells multiplied, the hAT enzymes cut bits out of the gene. Crucially, different bits got cut out in different cell lines, generating lots of mutant versions of the protein.
In some cases, this turned out to be a lifesaver, because the mutant proteins were better at latching onto invading pathogens. Soon a mechanism evolved for recognising the cells producing the most effective versions and encouraging them to multiply - the adaptive immune system. The human immune system is now mind-bogglingly complex, but the two enzymes that cut up and rearrange genes - the crucial process that allows it to target invaders - are direct descendants of the hAT enzymes. So we have an ancient parasite to thank for our most effective weapon against disease.
The human genome
Armed with these advanced defences, and with a genetic toolkit that could be tweaked to produce a huge variety of body shapes, early vertebrates were extremely successful. They conquered the seas, colonised the land, took to the trees and then came back down and started walking on two legs.
What made us so different from other apes? There is one apparently big difference between us: we have 23 chromosomes rather than the 24 of our ape ancestors. But chromosomes are essentially bags of genes: it makes little difference if they split apart or fuse together as long as we still have the genes that we need. Rather, it seems a long series of smaller changes gradually altered our brains and bodies. We’ve identified a few key mutations already (New Scientist, 9 June, p 34), but there may be many thousands involved.
Looking back at the bigger picture, it is clear that increases in the complexity of cells and bodies began with increases in the complexity of genomes. What is striking, though, is that many of the initial increases in complexity were due to a lack of evolutionary selection, rather than being driven by it. “Most of what’s going on at the genomic level is probably neutral,” says Gregory.
In other words, mutations arise that have little if any effect, such as a duplicate gene. In a large population, such mutations would soon be lost. But in a tiny population, they can spread by chance, through genetic drift. “This is an inevitable consequence of population genetics,” says Koonin. It is only later that such complexity is selected for, such as when a duplicate gene acquires a new role.
Many key events in our history, such as the genome duplications that produced our Hox genes, may be a result of relaxed selection in a tiny population. Indeed, a population bottleneck right at the beginning of human evolution might explain the spread of some of the mutations that make us so different to other apes, such as our loss of muscle strength.
The other striking thing is that viruses and parasites have played a huge role. Many of the main features of our genome, from sex to methylation, evolved in response to their attacks. What’s more, a fair number of our genes and exons, like the immune enzymes, derive directly from these attackers. “Viruses have been necessary parties to cellular life from the very beginning,” says Koonin.
Necessary but not pleasant. Our evolution has come at a tremendous cost. They say history is written by the victors - well, our genome is a record of victories, of the experiments that succeeded or least didn’t kill our ancestors. We are the descendants of a long line of lottery winners, a lottery in which the prize was producing offspring that survived long enough to reproduce themselves. Along the way, there were uncountable failures, with trillions of animals dying often horrible deaths.
Our genome is far from a perfectly honed, finished product. Rather, it has been crudely patched together from the detritus of genetic accidents and the remains of ancient parasites. It is the product of the kind of crazy, uncontrolled experimentation that would be rejected out of hand by any ethics board. And this process continues to this day - go to any hospital and you’ll probably find children dying of horrible genetic diseases. But not as many are dying as would have happened in the past. Thanks to methods such as embryo screening, we are starting to take control of the evolution of the human genome. A new era is dawning.
Archaeon - one of two kinds of simple organism
Bacterium - one of two kinds of simple organism
Eukaryote - a complex cell with intricate internal structures
Exon - one of the parts of a gene that codes for a protein
Gene - a recipe for making a protein or functional RNA
Intron - a part of a gene that does not code for a protein. Introns are usually cut out of a gene’s RNA copy before it reaches the protein-making factory
LUCA - last universal common ancestor
Splicing - the process of removing introns from RNA
Transposon - a genetic parasite. Contains code for enzymes that allow it to copy and paste itself into other parts of the genome
Michael Le Page is biology features editor at New Scientist
This is a calculator that estimates your life expectancy. Answer the questions and watch your age change in the upper right corner.
It was developed by Northwestern Mutual Life: it’s very USA-centic as it only accepts height in feet and inches, and weight in pounds), and I’m not the USA actuary tables apply to other parts of the world, but - have a go for yourself.
Translation of units on Google:
- KK kilograms in pounds
- M.CC meters in feet ==> F.fffff
- 0.fffff feet in inches
A transformation not seen in 3 million years spells big changes for the unique ecosystem of the extreme north
“WE ARE witnessing the early stages of the transformation of the Arctic,” says Louis Fortier of Laval University in Quebec City, Canada. For millennia, the top of the planet has been the preserve of specialist organisms, from fish with antifreeze running through their veins to bears capable of fasting for months. That’s all changing. An increasingly ice-free Arctic is opening a new frontier for life on Earth.
There are some windows into this warmer future: natural open-water hotspots that have always been present in the Arctic. Called polynyas, they are found in places where wind patterns and natural upwellings of warm water prevent ice from forming. The archetypal polynya is the North Water in northern Baffin Bay, says Fortier, “perhaps the most productive ecosystem beyond the Arctic Circle where marine mammals - including large whales - and humans have congregated for centuries”.
Relatively few creatures have evolved to survive at Arctic temperatures, so the fate of entire food chains can pivot on a few species. Shift things slightly in time, space or volume and everything can tip.
Timing is a particular concern. Climate change means the sun is reaching into Arctic waters earlier. Ice that only formed the previous winter lets light through more readily than a 10-metre-thick floe that has been building for several years. This means the annual cycle of life can kick off earlier, creating a problem for large species like whales, whose migrations have evolved to coincide with the historical onset of spring.
In the Amundsen Gulf of north-west Canada, nutrient upwellings have become a recurrent feature since 2002, boosting local biodiversity, says Fortier. In June 2008, the nutrients triggered a phytoplankton bloom. In just three weeks, local primary productivity shot up to more than twice the annual amount. In the Beaufort Sea to the north of Alaska, the biomass of ice algae - which cling to the underside of ice floes and occupy the lowest link of the food chain - was more than three times that reported in 35 years of seasonal observations (Climatic Change, doi.org/h7n).
Algal blooms are just the beginning. They feed tiny zooplankton, which provide vital energy supplies for organisms higher up the food chain - the polar bears that eat the seals, which eat the fish. Less ice, says George Hunt of the University of Washington in Seattle, could cause a cascade of changes to these food chains.
Some of the transformations have already taken place and appear to be here to stay. Connie Lovejoy, also at Laval University, took water samples from the Beaufort Sea between 2003 and 2010, and used DNA analysis to see what algae, plankton and bacteria it contained. The species composition was constant between 2003 and 2006, but in 2007, when summer ice cover was abnormally low, photosynthetic organisms suddenly seemed to take over. Although the following years saw more summer ice cover, the community never reverted to its initial make-up (PLoS One, doi.org/cfrj9n).
Elsewhere, species are moving in from further south. The polar cod once dominated the Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea, but capelin and sand lance are now making appearances. Pacific salmon are also moving into the Arctic Basin, says Fortier. For now, the local polar cod and Arctic charr seem unaffected. But that could change if further warming brings in more competitive generalists, which can thrive in a wide range of environments. They might be able to outcompete the wildlife that has taken millennia to adapt to the unique conditions of the Arctic.
In the short run, the top of the world looks set to bloom, at least in parts. Some will profit: industrial fisheries are already keen to move in. But at what cost? Fortier hesitantly predicts that Pacific plankton and fish will dominate by 2050 and many marine mammals and birds could be gone entirely by the end of the century.
“It might take decades until we observe the final ‘new state’,” says Rolf Gradinger of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “But once a tipping point has been reached, there might be no way back - although we’ll see oscillations around a new centre.”
For more on the Arctic’s record low in ice coverage, see “Arctic ice low heralds end of 3-million-year cover”
Future not all bad for bears
Thin ice could be good news for some species, at least initially. It’s a habitat in which seals thrive. “They want to slip up on an ice floe and slip back in,” says Peter Boveng of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. Thin ice that formed the previous winter also crumples more easily than thick multi-year floes, forming ridges and gaps that offer breathing holes.
That makes this first-year ice attractive to the animal at the top of the Arctic food chain: the polar bear. Some areas have seen an increase in Ursus maritimus, says David Barber of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Polar bears typically move to thicker ice during the autumn but can move onto land to den as well.
In the short run, then, some polar bear populations could benefit from thinner ice. Others won’t. Melissa McKinney and Robert Letcher of Environment Canada in Ottawa studied polar bears near Hudson Bay and found they ate different seal species in years when the sea ice broke up early. That could be a problem: some species live in water with high levels of PCBs, flame retardants and other toxic chemicals from fertiliser runoff. The contaminants move up the food chain, but the consequences are unclear as yet.
Although the changes might bring benefits in the short term, the long-term picture is very different. Seals could lose breeding ground if the ice pulls away from the shore before they can give birth, for example. And more open water means polar bears need to spend more time swimming than they can afford. As the open-water season lengthens, so will their fasting time. Other species from further south - such as brown bears - may stand a better chance.
THE latest twist in the origin-of-life tale is double helical. Chemists are close to demonstrating that the building blocks of DNA can form spontaneously from chemicals thought to be present on the primordial Earth. If they succeed, their work would suggest that DNA could have predated the birth of life.
DNA is essential to almost all life on Earth, yet most biologists think that life began with RNA. Just like DNA, it stores genetic information. What’s more, RNA can fold into complex shapes that can clamp onto other molecules and speed up chemical reactions, just like a protein, and it is structurally simpler than DNA, so might be easier to make.
After decades of trying, in 2009 researchers finally managed to generate RNA using chemicals that probably existed on the early Earth. Matthew Powner, now at University College London, and his colleagues synthesised two of the four nucleotides that make up RNA. Their achievement suggested that RNA may have formed spontaneously - powerful support for the idea that life began in an “RNA world”.
Powner’s latest work suggests that a rethink might be in order. He is trying to make DNA nucleotides through similar methods to those he used to make RNA nucleotides in 2009. And he’s getting closer.
Nucleotides consist of a sugar attached to a phosphate and a nitrogen-containing base molecule - these bases are the familiar letters of the genetic code. DNA nucleotides, which link together to form DNA, are harder to make than RNA nucleotides, because DNA uses a different sugar that is tougher to work with.
Starting with a mix of chemicals, many of them thought to have been present on the early Earth, Powner has now created a sugar like that in DNA, linked to a molecule called AICA, which is similar to a base (Journal of the American Chemical Society, doi.org/h6q).
There is plenty still to do. Powner needs to turn AICA into a base, and add the phosphate. His molecule also has an unwanted sulphur atom, which helped the reactions along but now must be removed. Nevertheless, a DNA nucleotide is just a few years away, says Christopher Switzer of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s practically a fait accompli at this point.”
That could have important implications for our understanding of life’s origins. Prebiotic chemists have so far largely ignored DNA, because its complexity suggests it cannot possibly form spontaneously. “Everybody and his brother has been saying ‘RNA, RNA, RNA’,” says Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida.
Conventional wisdom is that RNA-based life eventually switched to DNA because DNA is better at storing information. In other words, RNA organisms made the first DNA.
If that is true, how did life make the switch? Modern organisms can convert RNA nucleotides into DNA nucleotides, but only using special enzymes that are costly to produce in terms of energy and materials. “You have to know that DNA does something good for you before you invent something like that,” Switzer says.
He says the story makes more sense if DNA nucleotides were naturally present in the environment. Organisms could have taken up and used them, later developing the tools to make their own DNA once it became clear how advantageous the molecule was - and once natural supplies began to run low.
Early organisms must have scavenged for materials in this way, says Matthew Levy of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “The early Earth was probably a bloody mess,” he says, with all manner of rich pickings on offer.
Powner suggests another alternative. Life may have begun with an “RNA and DNA world”, in which the two types of nucleotides were intermingled. Powner’s co-author Jack Szostak, of the Harvard Medical School, has shown that “mongrel” molecules containing a mix of DNA and RNA nucleotides can perform some of the functions of pure RNA (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi.org/bj8r97). Powner suggests that life started out using these hybrid molecules, gradually purifying them into DNA and RNA.
Benner says it makes more sense for the first life to have used pure DNA and RNA as early as possible. Both work better than the mongrel molecules.
Right now, though, there’s nothing to tell us exactly how and when life first used DNA. “It almost becomes a choose-your-own-adventure game,” says Levy.
BBC Horizon 2012: Eat, Fast and Live Longer
Michael Mosley has set himself a truly ambitious goal: he wants to live longer, stay younger and lose weight in the bargain. And he wants to make as few changes to his life as possible along the way. He discovers the powerful new science behind the ancient idea of fasting, and he thinks he’s found a way of doing it that still allows him to enjoy his food. Michael tests out the science of fasting on himself - with life-changing results.
“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”
“The day of days!,” wrote 29-year-oldCharles Darwin in his journal on November 11, 1838, after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal. But the legendary naturalist wasn’t always this single-minded about the union. Just a few months earlier, he had scribbled on the back of a letter from a friend a carefully considered list of pros (“constant companion,” “charms of music & female chit-chat”) and cons (“means limited,” “no books,” “terrible loss of time”) regarding marriage and its potential impact on his work. The list, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 2: 1837-1843 (public library) and also available online in the excellent Darwin Correspondence Project, was dated April 7, 1838, and bespeaks the timeless, and arguably artificial, cultural tension between family and career, love and work, heart and head.
If not marry Travel. Europe, yes? America????
If I travel it must be exclusively geological United States, Mexico Depend upon health & vigour & how far I become Zoological
If I dont travel. – Work at transmission of Species – Microscope simplest forms of life – Geology. ?.oldest formations?? Some experiments – physiological observation on lower animals
B Live in London for where else possible in small house, near Regents Park –keep horse –take Summer tours Collect specimens some line of Zoolog: Speculations of Geograph. range, & Geological general works. – Systematiz. – Study affinities.
If marry – means limited, Feel duty to work for money. London life, nothing but Society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books. Cambridge Professorship, either Geolog. or Zoolog. – comply with all above requisites – I could not systematiz zoologically so well. – But better than hybernating in country, & where? Better even than near London country house. – I could not indolently take country house & do nothing – Could I live in London like a prisoner? If I were moderately rich, I would live in London, with pretty big house & do as (B), but could I act thus with children & poor? No – Then where live in country near London; better, but great obstacles to science & poverty. Then Cambridge, better, but fish out of water, not being Professor & poverty. Then Cambridge Professorship, – & make best of it, do duty as such & work at spare times – ¶ My destiny will be Camb. Prof. or poor man; outskirts of London, some small Square &c: – & work as well as I can
I have so much more pleasure in direct observation, that I could not go on as Lyell does, correcting & adding up new information to old train & I do not see what line can be followed by man tied down to London. –
In country, experiment & observations on lower animals, – more space –
Several weeks later, in July of 1838, he revisited the subject, with another meditation on the value of a life-partner (“better than a dog anyhow”):
This is the Question [circled in pencil]
Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved & played with. – better than a dog anyhow.– Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time. –
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. – No, no won’t do. – Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps – Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
Freedom to go where one liked – choice of Society & little of it. – Conversation of clever men at clubs – Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. – to have the expense & anxiety of children – perhaps quarelling – Loss of time. – cannot read in the Evenings – fatness & idleness – Anxiety & responsibility – less money for books &c – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool –
He then produces his conclusion:
Marry – Mary – Marry Q.E.D.
…and moves on to the next question:
It being proved necessary to Marry
When? Soon or Late
The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children – one’s character is more flexible –one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness. –
But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house, –fighting about no Society –morning calls –awkwardness –loss of time every day. (without one’s wife was an angel, & made one keep industrious). Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. – Eheu!! I never should know French, –or see the Continent –or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales –poor slave. –you will be worse than a negro – And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money) – Never mind my boy – Cheer up – One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. – Never mind, trust to chance –keep a sharp look out – There is many a happy slave –
Six months later, the two were married. They had ten children and remained together until Darwin’s death in 1882 – a beautiful antidote to the cultural myth that love and meaningful work can’t coexist. As Maira Kalman wisely put it, “in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work – what else could there possibly be?”