Evolving to Valhalla

How I wish that cells’ ancestors were not, now, being named after Norse gods.

The whole of Norse mythology is dark, superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Giving names of non-existent quasi-humans to hypothetical organisms inferred from metagenomes is an obstacle to thought, and an open invitation to anthropocentricity.

The usually admirable Ed Yong in The Atlantic, 11th January 2017:-

In Norse mythology, humans and our world were created by a pantheon of gods who lived in the realm of Asgard. As it turns out, these stories have a grain of truth to them.

No they don’t. Not a single grain. They are complete tosh.

The precedent for the terminology seems to be a fascinating mid-ocean hydrothermal field gratuitously named “Loki’s Castle” (Pedersen et. al., 2010) – by researchers, as it happens, from Norway. From Science Daily:-

The field has been named Loki’s Castle partly because the small chimneys at the site looked like a fantasy castle to the scientists. The Loki part refers to a Norwegian god renowned for trickery. A University of Bergen press release about the discovery said Loki “was an appropriate name for a field that was so difficult to locate.”

That explains it, then… Give me strength.

The origin of eukaryotes itself is unsolved, interesting, and raises many important questions. There is progress.

But is there not an element of parochial atavism in Nordic researchers claiming ties to their local demon-haunted world? Might one reference The Mabinogion for no better reason than happening to have some connection with Wales? Who else might wish to get their oar in? Terms from classical Greek and Latin were chosen for their wide intelligibility, not as cultural appropriation.

For the prokaryotic host in the symbiosis that produced eukaryotes we now have an array of proposed, whole phyla – Lokiarchaeota, Thorarchaeota, Odinarchaeota and Heimdallarchaeota. “We decided to name this archaeal clade Asgard, after the realm of the gods in Norse mythology.” (Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka et al., 2017). Who next? Freya must surely get a mention soon. Perhaps in the origin of sex?

And could Darwin and Wallace have been inspired by Yggdrasil?

I fear that we may be working towards the super-kingdom Valhalla. That was the location, in the after-life, of warriors who had died in combat. It could be appropriate. A reminder that there is no evolution without extinction? A tribute to the branches that led nowhere?

Or could Valhalla become the metaphor of choice for discarded evolutionary hypotheses?

References

Pedersen et. al. (2010) Discovery of a black smoker vent field and vent fauna at the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge. Nature Communications doi:10.1038/ncomms1124

Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka, K. et al. (2017) Asgard archaea illuminate the origin of eukaryotic cellular complexity. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature21031

McInerney, J. O. and O’Connell, M. J. (2017) Mind the gaps in cellular evolution. Nature doi:10.1038/nature21113

In Our Time, The Photon

What an informative and inspiring edition of BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time, The Photon on 12 February.

Steve Jones sometimes refers to biologists as having “physics envy”. I suffer from this. Steve suggests it is because biologists know that physicists are cleverer than they are. Hard to know. However, as a group, physicists use terms clearly and consistently, and don’t waste time on trivial disagreement. They seem to wish to understand each other, and always strive to know how the world really is.

I’d intended to write on my own experience as a guest, last May 15, on In Our Time. BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time, Photosynthesis. I’ll try to get back to this. Just for now, let me record that Melvyn Bragg – surely the perfect host and chairman – wrote:

I think it was John Allen who said that the United States aerospace industry is giving quite substantial support to research into photosynthesis. The reason that NASA is interested is because they are looking for ways in which they can identify on the surface of planets what may be the origins of life as we know it. Seems a terrifically oblique way to subsidise science, but in my view, the more oblique the better. John ended the programme with a wonderful quotation from Priestley about the practical discovery of photosynthesis. It was, he said, as a result of Priestley’s curiosity. All of Priestley’s research was curiosity-driven. Again and again research has been curiosity-driven.

I’ve picked up from academics over the past few years a feeling, sometimes of sadness, sometimes approaching despair, that that sort of research – i.e. intellectual curiosity, knowledge for the sake of knowledge – is not in favour at the moment. Why on earth have we become a box-ticking, bureaucratic, over-managed society wherever you look? Why don’t we follow the talent, instead of (as in the case of universities and elsewhere) driving the talent out because of ways of managing which only make sense in some sterile boardroom…?

How strongly I agree.

How clearly is Melvyn’s last point illustrated by subsequent events.

Politics and the English Language

The essay focuses on political language, which, according to Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell believed that the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless because it was intended to hide the truth rather than express it.

Wikipedia contributors. Politics and the English Language. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. July 25, 2014, 20:54 UTC. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Politics_and_the_English_Language&oldid=618464041. Accessed September 2, 2014.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

George Orwell. Politics and the English Language. Wikilivres. Available at: http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language. Accessed September 2. 2014.

Use of words in misuse of power | John F. Allen’s blog