Thursday, July 21, 2011

How the Natural World Really Works

Everybody "just knows" that what is natural is better than the artificial man-made stuff. Everybody "knows" that before Western society brought their brutal colonizing ways to the rest of the world, the primitives and other cultures lived in a natural harmony because nature is good and kind. Like the Bible says: in the natural world the lion lies down with the lamb.

But scientists didn't get the memo. They go out and look at the "natural" world and bring back some real horror stories. Here's a blog post by Robert Lamb on that helps dissolve the illusion that "natural is better, natural is good, natural is beautiful"...
To quote esteemed mad scientist Seth Brundle, “Insects don’t have politics.” Theirs is a world of intricate brutality and wasps have been excelling in it for more than a hundred million years.

This latest example comes to us in this paper from France’s CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange) and it concerns a wasp that not only hatches from its egg inside the belly of a ladybug, but upon emerging forces its eviscerated host to guard its cocoon while it transitions from larva to full-grown horror wasp.

Dinocampus coccinellae is its name and one can only imagine that Zombie author Joyce Carol Oates keeps a few of them as pets.

To recap, parasitism runs big in the wasp world. As I explain in How Wasps Work, the ancient wasps of the Cretaceous period were predatory and carnivorous. They ate arachnids and other insects and they LOVED it. But then the rise of the angiosperms introduced an even better food source: nectar and pollen. So the wasps of old largely abandoned their flesh-eating ways, except for the carnivorous feasts required by their squirming young. Some wasps abandoned this practice all together (and became bees), but you’ll still find countless varieties of wasps that either deposit their eggs inside a living host (that’s what the stinger evolved for) or who fill larval chambers in their nest with stunned meals.

So the fact that that Dinocampus coccinellae hatches inside the belly of a host bug following some makeshift, catastrophic surgery by its parent is nothing out of the ordinary. But when it celebrates its Chest-Burst Mitzvah, that’s when it gets all weird and noteworthy. Normally, the host organism mercifully dies at this point, but DC’s ladybug is not so lucky. Not only does it live, but a little behavior modification forces it to hang around and “guard” its parasite-baby as it grows into adulthood beneath its protective bulk. Scientists believe that secretions left by the larva when it bursts out might play a role in reprograming the host.

But then the ladybug dies right? Surely once the wasp reaches adulthood, our long-suffering host can at last rest in peace. No such luck. This is the insect world, after all. The researchers found that 25 percent of the manipulated ladybugs recovered normal behavior following their ordeal.

I’m really hoping this makes it into the next PIXAR A Bug’s Life movie.
I get a chuckle out of people who believe that "natural" cures are better than scientifically developed drugs. They are so deluded. But the joke is on me. This kind of anti-science and looney thinking is spreading. A hundred and fifty years ago you could have destroyed science and the world would have trudged on to miserable future compared to what we live in, but it would have struggled on without a mass die off. But if you removed science today, something like 80% of the population would die within a few years. We can't feed or clothe ourselves without modern science. Despite this, a rising majority shun science and hold tight to a warm-and-fuzzy lie that "natural is best".

People buy "organic" groceries not realizing that (1) everything is "organic" unless you redefine it from its original meaning of "from organisms" and (2) all plants are loaded with poisons to try to protect themselves from grazers and modern chemicals are really just more of the same (sure some of them are really bad for you, but that's why we have government and regulations to protect us from bad stuff like that).

Nothing is more "natural" than to be parasitized (or at least co-habited by other organisms). Right now I'm host to 100 trillion bacteria and only 10 trillion human cells. I'm ten times more bacteria than I am "human". Bacteria are only one of a range of "natural" organisms that live in and on me. This includes fungi and arachnea. This is the human microbiome.

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