And Finally, Some Stuff We Don't Know about Life

Author: Jake Page


One of the best definitions of science I’ve heard was offered by an archaeologist, Lew Binford. Science, he would say, is the most reliable way of diminishing ignorance about the natural world. This is really quite diplomatic: it can satisfy those who believe that there is nothing besides the natural world, but it leaves room for those who believe there is something —a realm, a force, whatever — that is beyond nature, that is supernatural, a place where science cannot go. And wherever science does get to, some new bit of ignorance that lies beyond the old one pops up and calls out for diminishment.

Take the autumnal turning of the leaves, one of the most attractive sights in nature and also one of the most commonplace. Surely scientists know all about it by now — after all, we have had a half-millennium of what can be called modern scientific inquiry since Signore Gallilei. We do know that some combination of temperature, moisture and perhaps day-length may all be involved in when a deciduous tree’s leaves (such as those of an elm) begin to lose their green color. The green is a pigment called chlorophyll and as it disappears it reveals the other pigment in the leaf that chlorophyll has overshadowed — yellow.

But some other trees, sugar maples for example, turn red. The maple leaves start, at this rather late point in their careers, to produce a red pigment called anthocyanin, which was not previously present. Why does the maple tree go to all the trouble and expense of producing a new pigment in its leaves when they are so close in time to floating to the ground and dying altogether?

Several explanations have been offered but there is no agreement as of now. It might have something to do with helping the amino acids in the leaves to slip back into the woody parts of the tree as a protection of the tree against the cold, or it might protect the tree against insects that feed on those very same amino acids. And it might be something else.

So when it comes to red leaves we remain in the dark.

Since there are so many more pressing matters — so many more urgent ignorances for scientists to dispel — we may not learn the answer to red leaves in our lifetimes. Here then are some more unknowns.

Something eerie

Despite a prediction by physicists that it does exist and is a major player in the dance of particles, and that it will explain the very nature of matter, we are yet to find what is called with remarkable specificity the Higgs boson. This is perhaps only the result of the failure of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to function as planned, but we are left at this time not knowing for sure that the Higgs boson exists.

Indeed, it has been suggested by actual physicists that the Higgs boson itself is sabotaging the Large Hadron Collider. How is it doing that? Among the many alleged properties of the Higgs boson is the capacity to turn back in time. So, it is said, the boson just turns back through time and stops the collider from ever making one. Now that is a really eerie bit of ignorance

Something frightful

Less eerie and more frightful is our ignorance about where to put our radioactive wastes while they expend their lethality over half-life after half-life after half-life. Given the restless nature of the planet we live on, seismicity and all that, something is almost certain to go haywire any place and every place on the earth during the next several thousand years. These effluents now accumulate in barrels here and there around the country which, one hopes, people have been assigned to watch closely, but that seems a bit haphazard. The wastes must be contained, and how exactly to do this for millennia is an ignorance worth diminishing at the earliest possible moment.

Prioritizing ignorances is something that should be done from time to time, even though gaining a list of priorities to which we can all subscribe would seem pretty hard to do. I for one do not care a whit if intelligent life — or even unintelligent life — exists elsewhere in our galaxy and even more remote places. It would be nice to know, I suppose, but our history of traveling around our own planet and introducing lethal diseases to unsuspecting tribal people suggests that wherever we all are galaxy-wise we should simply stay put.

The language question

We don’t know how one of our few exclusively human talents came about — language. No other creature known has anything like our language. Apes, dolphins, dogs, parrots — all sorts of animals can perform one or another “linguistic” feat either to our delight or dismay, but none of them can discuss the future or compose poetry or design a bridge.

Plenty of theories exist to explain how language came about. It started with gestures. No, it started with music, with singing. No, with dancing. No, it started when mothers needed to let their babies know they were still nearby, having put them down on the ground to use both hands to gather berries, so they invented “Motherese.” Or could it have been a side effect of the explosion of neurons in the brain caused by an increasingly complex hand-brain continuum involved in making complicated tools? Did it come about all at once with a random genetic mutation?

In the late 19th century, a French academy forbade its members from discussing the origin of language since it caused such bitter argumentation and occasionally physical violence. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”

Those surly teenagers

Why do all humans pass through the decade (more or less) when they are what we call teenagers? This never happens to a non-human species, so far as we know. Chimpanzees don’t go through a time when they are surly with their parent (the mother), or get the chimp version of acne, or can’t wake up in the morning, or simply flat-out rebel. Some say adolescence is a kind of reproductive apprenticeship. Others say it evolved a few hundred thousand years ago followed quickly by a huge increase in the size of the human brain, so it must be important. The linkage there, however, remains unexplained.

On the other hand, science has determined what most parents intuited long ago — that the adolescent brain undergoes a wholesale reorganization. Teens are not, we can all be relieved to know, taken over temporarily by aliens. This reorganization, it is opined, lets them learn to negotiate the complicated social world into which they will emerge as adults. Well, sure, but this seems vague at best if not wholly vapid. Why, for example, girls experience a growth spurt earlier than boys, which in some cases is now occurring not in the teens but the tweens, remains a bit of a mystery.

However tumultuous the teen years appear to be (at least in Western cultures), there are more serious ignorances about the human condition. Why are so many people so often nasty to one another? Why are some people altruistic? What makes a sociopath? And why do some sociopaths go on to become mass-murderers? There is a single gene that appears to be involved in altruism. Called AVPR1, people with it are more altruistic and generous. Is there a sociopath gene? What on earth will we do if there is such a gene?

The disappearing

We do not know how many species of plants and animals live on the earth, and we do not know how many are disappearing without ever having been taken note of by humans. Most scientists who deal with such matters are of the opinion that we are facing another mass extinction of life forms, this one occurring practically overnight, and caused mostly by humans hogging everyone else’s habitat. To have destroyed so much of the cathedral of life is something the human race will one day be ashamed of and deeply regret.

Economic collapse

Apparently we don’t know enough about what is called, in a reified sort of way, the economy to have predicted its latest collapse. According to a friend, the British economist Adrian Wood of Oxford, the Queen of England asked why economists had failed to predict it. The British Academy promptly met, pondered and came up with a wholly unconvincing answer. Indeed, Wood told me, the only thing that all the participants in this global horror story universally agree upon is the statement: “It wasn’t my fault.”


And there are more elusive matters. When it comes to issues such as the survivability of the spirit, I am slightly surprised to find myself of an open mind. Scientists and most fans of science (which I am) tend to believe — indeed, to know — there is no such thing. On the other hand, it is famously difficult to prove a negative. Aside from logic and all that, I have, thanks in large part to my wife, Susanne, experienced things that defy scientific explanation even by our friend Ken Frazier, the ever-resourceful editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine devoted to debunking all paranormal claims.

One such event occurred on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. We were staying in the motel called the Hopi Cultural Center, which has flat roofs like most of the homes and other buildings there. It had snowed during the day and stopped at dark. Later, we were awakened by a loud crash that sounded like a large rock thrown onto the roof. In the dark we listened, and in a few minutes another crash resounded. We heard smaller rocks skipping across the roof. I turned on the lamp next to the bed, and on the third crash the lampshade shook. The racket continued at about five-minute intervals until the sun peeked over the eastern horizon.

I went outside and climbed up onto the roof. The snow was pristine, totally undisturbed. Back on the ground, I saw two men come out of a room near ours. They asked me if I had heard all the banging and crashing and I said, yes, perhaps it was the roof contracting in the cold. It turned out that the two men were roofers hired from off-reservation to repair roofs in one of the villages. “We know roofs, man,” one of them said, “and that was no roof making that noise.”

Later, the Hopi manager of the motel told us that the racket was the work of spirits of teenagers who over the years had died and for various reasons had been unable to leave the area. Every January, he said, they act up like that. The same racket occurred for the next two nights, and we discovered that it could be heard only inside the motel, but not if you walked outside.

Later I had the chance to recount the events in detail to Ken Frazier. The only explanation he could come up with was the possibility that jet fighters from a base in Utah were flying over, causing sonic booms. I asked him if he had ever heard of Air Force maneuvers taking planes over the Hopi reservation approximately every five minutes throughout the night, silently unless you were indoors. He smiled and shrugged.

On another occasion, Susanne and I were in a Washington, D.C., restaurant finishing dinner with a noted anthropologist and friend, Paul Bohannan. That afternoon he had told us about how he, a nonbeliever in such things of course, had handled stories of African witchcraft and spirit activity when he was in the field there. At dinner he was upset because his son was not interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in something scientific but instead wanted to get a degree in sports writing. He went on a bit about his disappointment and even exasperation.

At this point, Susanne felt a forceful shove on her back and a voice, loud in her mind, said “Margaret!” Susanne had friends who were British sensitives, and she knew that it was crucial never to volunteer information about such communications, but she asked Bohannan’s permission and went ahead and asked if he had someone in his family named Margaret. He said Margaret was his sister, but Susanne said, no, she’s older, she had long braids wrapped around her head, lived on a farm and was churning butter.

Greatly surprised, Bohannan said that it was his grandmother, also named Margaret, who had indeed lived on a farm. He told us about her, pointing out that she used to take young Paul out into the fields to slide down haystacks with her. She was a woman who always seemed to have a great deal of fun in life. He asked if anyone else was there and Susanne reported that she heard the name Louis. Louis, Bohannan reported, was his youngest uncle who had died early. Bohannan’s father had said that he wished that he, himself, had died instead of his younger brother because Louis always found such joy in life.

Then dinner was over, Bohannan went to his hotel in Washington, and Susanne and I, neither of whom had ever heard of either Margaret or Louis, drove home.

The next morning Bohannan called Susanne and told her that what had happened at dinner would change his way of teaching forever. It was unmistakably clear to him, he said, that his grandmother and uncle had come to remind him that one should pursue what makes one happy, that it was fine if his son wanted to be a sportswriter.

As a science editor and writer but also as a chronicler of Hopi and Navajo ways and worldviews, not to mention as husband of Susanne, I have had no alternative but to maintain an open mind about this astonishing world about which we have so much more to discover. After all, if a Higgs boson can reverse the passage of time, wrecking a very expensive and large machine in order to hide from us, who knows what is really going on in this universe of ours.

A debilitating ignorance

Meanwhile, on a more prosaic level, I fear that we are severely threatened by another ignorance, the widespread and debilitating ignorance of much of the U.S. public. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe the earth and the human race came into existence 10,000 years ago. At least one member of the U.S. Senate believes that the mountain of evidence showing the climate is undergoing rapid change largely because of the greenhouse effect is all a hoax perpetrated by environmental extremists.

Scientific ignorance is extremely widespread for a country like ours that relies so heavily on technological innovation, but scientific ignorance is merely part of the problem. Polls have also shown that a majority of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, and there are apparently many retired people who don’t know (or aren’t sure) that Medicare is a government-run program.

Such sorry statistics of appalling ignorance regularly appear. One wonders how many Americans could pass the exam administered to immigrants before they can become citizens of the United States. Could all our legislators?

Such ignorance is a shame but it is also profoundly perilous. The writers of the Constitution knew that creating the world’s first full-bore democracy was a dangerous undertaking, and its success would depend in great part on an educated citizenry that could understand and seriously discuss important public issues. They created the Senate in part as a hedge against too direct a democracy. But we hear that the United States is falling behind in all sorts of categories — math, science, history, engineers, teachers, book readers — and may soon be out-competed economically and technically by Asian and European countries.

But suppose some enormous calamity were to take place, something sudden and global in nature, a heretofore unknown climatic tipping point, for example, an irreversible event calling for an informed, intelligent, quick response to a wholly unprecedented cascade of catastrophes. The U.S. military has recently announced that the chaos of rapid global climate change could seriously threaten our national security in any number of ways — resource wars, pandemics, mass migrations, and so forth: catastrophes cascading around the world. This is not the stuff of thriller fiction. It could happen — not tomorrow but easily enough when my grandchildren’s generation is in charge of coping.

Would a large, noisy and ignorant fraction of the American electorate be able to comprehend what was needed in such a circumstance, or would they be captivated by the demagogues who always sprout like nettles in troubled times? Would an unwieldy and super-partisan and financially suborned legislative branch and a bureaucratically clogged and widely beholden executive branch be able to overcome ignorance and demagoguery and act wisely and decisively?

Could we, as presently constituted, keep the trains running on time? Do we know for sure that our democracy would survive?

Jake Page and his wife, Susanne, a photographer, produced the lavishly illustrated book HOPI in 1982, representing the first general photography allowed on the reservation since 1910. A 25th anniversary edition is now available.

Photo of sugar maple: