Once We All Had Gills: Growing Up Evolutionist in an Evolving Worldby Rudolf A. Raff
In this book, Rudolf A. Raff reaches out to the scientifically queasy, using his life story and his growth as a scientist to illustrate why science matters, especially at a time when many Americans are both suspicious of science and hostile to scientific ways of thinking. Noting that science has too often been the object of controversy in school curriculums and
In this book, Rudolf A. Raff reaches out to the scientifically queasy, using his life story and his growth as a scientist to illustrate why science matters, especially at a time when many Americans are both suspicious of science and hostile to scientific ways of thinking. Noting that science has too often been the object of controversy in school curriculums and debates on public policy issues ranging from energy and conservation to stem-cell research and climate change, Raff argues that when the public is confused or ill-informed, these issues tend to be decided on religious, economic, and political grounds that disregard the realities of the natural world. Speaking up for science and scientific literacy, Raff tells how and why he became an evolutionary biologist and describes some of the vibrant and living science of evolution. Once We All Had Gills is also the story of evolution writ large: its history, how it is studied, what it means, and why it has become a useful target in a cultural war against rational thought and the idea of a secular, religiously tolerant nation.
Indiana University Press
"Science teachers and students, as well as working scientists and laypersons with some knowledge of biology, will find this an interesting and inspiring book, not only about the life and work of a scientist, but the importance of science to society as well." —Foreword Reviews
"This biography-history-travelogue-defense-of-science-and-the-scientific-method should appeal to readers of Sean Carroll and Stephen J. Gould—to anyone who is fascinated by scientific exploration.... An engaging story told with verve and style." —Brian K. Hall, author of Evolution: Principles and Processes
"Raff has written his story, he tells us, to inspire others to be excited and ask questions and become scientists. Science is fun, and real people do it, he shows us with his stories about the perfectly ordinary and enticing world of nature, science, and discovery." —Jane Maienschein, author of Whose View of Life? Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells
"Raff's book is... a fascinating story of how a young boy interested in natural history became a scientist... and also a polemic arguing about the importance of science and its defense against the powers of ignorance." —www.skepticblog.org
"This is an excellent introduction to evolutionary thinking and an inspiration to those who may be just starting on their career (or those in need of a bit of encouragement to keep plugging along).... Highly recommended." —Choice
"Once We All Had Gills strikes just the right balance of drama, humor, good stories, and science that makes not only for entertaining reading, but also delivers important insights into evolutionary biology research." —Quarterly Review of Biology
"This is an excellent introduction to evolutionary thinking and an inspiration to those who may be just starting on their career (or those in need of a bit of encouragement to keep plugging along).... Highly recommended." Choice
"Once We All Had Gills strikes just the right balance of drama, humor, good stories, and science that makes not only for entertaining reading, but also delivers important insights into evolutionary biology research." Quarterly Review of Biology
"Raff has written his story, he tells us, to inspire others to be excited and ask questions and become scientists. Science is fun, and real people do it, he shows us with his stories about the perfectly ordinary and enticing world of nature, science, and discovery." Jane Maienschein, author of Whose View of Life? Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells
"Science teachers and students, as well as working scientists and laypersons with some knowledge of biology, will find this an interesting and inspiring book, not only about the life and work of a scientist, but the importance of science to society as well." Foreword Reviews
"Raff's book is... a fascinating story of how a young boy interested in natural history became a scientist... and also a polemic arguing about the importance of science and its defense against the powers of ignorance." www.skepticblog.org
"At once a cri de coeur from an eminent scientist on behalf of his profession, Raff's work is also an engaging and informative jaunt through the richly diverse history of evolution as a phenomenon and a course of study." Publishers Weekly
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Once We All Had Gills
Growing Up Evolutionist in an Evolving World
By Rudolf A. Raff
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Rudolf A. Raff
All rights reserved.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF A LONG TIME
I am enthralled by time. As long as I can recall I've wanted to know how the familiar world we take for granted came about. This has been a lifelong fascination because the past is truly not just another country but a chain of linked and ever stranger other worlds. Our evolutionary origins lie in these former worlds, which grow not only more alien but also fainter and more elusive as we look ever deeper. The passage of years and the eclipse of memory also obscure our personal origins. Like detectives, we have to tease out our pasts from imperfect and concealed evidence. On the greatest earthly scale, the geological record of the planet and the record of the evolution of life upon it have been likened to a book left to us with most of its pages torn out. On a personal level we suffer from lost family records, deceased witnesses, and the erroneous illusion that our own so-certain memories are accurate. Our efforts to answer questions on these vastly different scales will succeed with some, but others will remain elusive, and new questions will arise like dimly seen specters, shyly but persistently standing at the edge of our vision.
To start somewhere, I'll begin egocentrically with the place I was born, the Quebec city of Shawinigan. Throughout my life this obscure town has remained in my imagination not only as my birthplace but also as a symbolic dividing point that marks the end of the road with the unknown North of bleak arctic Canada stretching into the time and distance beyond. Shawinigan has no long pioneer history, and its founders were not noble frontier settlers living in rough log cabins, bravely hunkering down in isolation to weather the long winters. This was a town founded in 1901 by a hydroelectric power company that exploited the roiling water of Shawinigan Falls to turn its generators. The city had grown to twenty thousand people by 1941, the year I was born. Even now, only the road to La Tuque runs north out of town, and I have only seen the country lying far north of Shawinigan from thousands of feet in the air, gazing out from flights from Iceland or Europe that cross over the glaciers and icebergs of Greenland and over northern Canada.
Quebec is a beautiful but hard country, hard in its climate, hard in its bones, its people enduring. Its history starts with the enterprising explorer Jacques Cartier staking a claim to the place by planting a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula in 1534. French pioneers colonized Quebec for its value in trading steel tools, firearms, and dyed cloth for beaver pelts with its original Algonquin and Huron residents. Quebec City was founded in 1608, but the promising French empire in Canada ended in disappointment in the next century at the end of the Seven Years' War. French Canada was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763. The British government attempted to assimilate the Québécois and blocked Catholics from holding office. Not surprisingly, the policy caused alienation, and it was abandoned with the Quebec Act of 1774, which restored religious rights and French civil law to French Canadians. When American revolutionary armies invaded Quebec in 1775, French Canadians did not support them. Québécois stubbornly remained French speaking and Catholic, with religion a force of conservativeness as well as of unity and cultural salvation. In the mid-twentieth century, Quebec began to liberalize, and to play a lively role in Canadian politics with struggles over its status, control of its economy, and even whether to separate from Canada – from the Plains of Abraham to Quebec libre. It's not clear where that's going, but at least road signs across Canada are now bilingual, which I guess looks quaint to Americans. Several Canadian prime ministers have been from Quebec, even one, Jean Chrétien, from Shawinigan.
The map of Quebec covers an area over twice that of Texas. It is endowed with a geological setting that speaks the origin of the world. Its surface makes up part of the Canadian Shield, a land of ancient crust, bent, heated, compressed, turned into tortured stone stretching in bare places as great tapestries of light- and dark-banded schist. We see a surface produced by the scouring of mile-thick Ice Age glaciers only a few thousand years ago. They left behind smoothly polished hard rock pavements, and the rocks record many insults over the ages. Large meteor craters remain as scars indicating where millions of years ago mountain sized asteroids plunged into the already ancient Canadian crust. From the right-hand side of the plane on flights coming south from Greenland, one can see three large meteor craters in northern Quebec, the paired Clearwater Lakes and Lake Manicouagan, which are sometimes visible below. Manicouagan crater is one hundred kilometers in diameter and visible from space as a prominent ring of water. The crater was blasted out by an asteroid or comet 212 million years ago. Farther south are the old and rounded Laurentian Mountains, composed of twisted billion-year-old metamorphic rocks. The vast scattering of blue-water lakes across Quebec is the glittering gift of recently melted ice sheets. Laurentide Quebec is largely greened by expanses of forest, the maple, spruce, fir, and decorative white birch woods in which that I spent a part of my childhood.
Admiration for one's own birthplace is a common form of narcissism, part of our highly evolved human self-centeredness. Still, the Canadian Shield, a part of a primeval continent that geologists call Laurentia, has cachet as one of the first regions of crust to have formed on the cooling early Earth. Rocks on the Canadian Shield are among the oldest found on Earth (4 billion years – not bad considering that the age of the Earth has been estimated at 4.55 billion years from dates obtained for meteorites). To put these numbers in perspective (as if we, who suffer pangs of eternity when we spend three hours in the molded plastic seats of an airport terminal waiting for a delayed flight, could really have any sense of such spans of time), astronomers have determined that the universe came into being about 13.7 billion years ago in the "Big Bang." The oldest crust in Laurentia is just shy of a third the age of the universe. The events leading to that first bit of Canadian crust reach back to the earliest giant stars and their violent ends as supernovas, explosions that created the heavy elements of the universe.
The dust and gas surrounding the early Sun came from the violent deaths of the first two extravagant generations of stars of the young universe and supplied the materials necessary to form the solar system. The primordial stuff included the rocky elements of our planet – silicon, calcium, aluminum, potassium, sodium, and iron. It also included the oxygen that combined with hydrogen to make the water of the oceans, and with silicon to make the hard clear crystals of quartz. The atoms of carbon and other elements that formed the molecules of life were themselves born in supernovas. Planets formed through the accretion of the disc of dust circling the Sun. The Moon arose through a violent collision of the proto-Earth with a Mars-sized neighbor. Then following a final drumbeat, a spasm of asteroid collisions, our planet's surface and oceans appeared and geology began to keep its long record.
Laurentia was one of the first continental plates to form as things calmed down and a stable planetary surface emerged, but none of this is to suggest Laurentia has been unchanging for the enormous time since the days of its birth. Its history is more a story of endurance in the face of continuing inexorable and sometimes violent change on a geologically active planet. The old crustal fragment is a remnant of an Earth before life, of a world with no oxygen in its air, a world with a recently formed moon that looms close and large in a smoggy sky and causes enormous tides. It is a world that is just beginning the geological cooking that will fractionate the lighter density rocks that produce the continents from the heavier basalt of the ocean floors. It is a world where about the same time as the birth of the Canadian Shield, life appears by 3.4 billion years ago and begins its billions of years of biological modification of the atmosphere and oceans.
For an agonizingly long time, all life on Earth was made up of single-celled microbes that thrived without oxygen. Then, 2.5 billion years ago, single-celled organisms that harvested energy from sunlight started transforming the atmosphere into one that for the first time contained oxygen. At first, oxygen was a pollutant, a waste product of photosynthesis spewed out by green bacteria called cyanobacteria. Oxygen was a lethal poison to the other life forms, the anaerobes that existed up to that time. The emergence of an atmosphere with oxygen would in time change the composition of the air and cause a revolution in the history of life. It eventually made possible the emergence of all the life we see on the Earth's surface, because it provided ample oxygen for highly efficient aerobic metabolism and allowed the production of ozone (O3), which blocked deadly ultraviolet light from blasting any organism that ventured to show itself on the surface. Yet an atmosphere flooded with oxygen at levels similar to those of our present atmosphere did not finally appear until about 700 million years ago. Animals then quickly evolved in the newly oxygen-rich seas. And yet, microbes that can't stand oxygen did not become extinct. They are still with us, and doing just fine as microbes always seem to do, but they have retreated to inhospitable environments such as the airless black mud of bogs, the inside of our guts, and the vastness of the deeply buried rocks that lie under the continents and beneath the ocean floor. Nonetheless, these old anaerobic creatures may make up most of the mass of life on Earth. Bacteria have been recovered from South African gold mines at depths of almost three miles. A vast hidden ecosystem of bacteria that have their own energy sources and no contact with the world of the surface lives in the abundant rock of the crustal underworld.
Laurentia's geology also records the growth of the continent through long-ago additions of pieces of crust that collided with the continental core. The collisions threw up great ice-covered peaks formed out of rocks rumpled like layers of putty by the inexorable force. In the vastness of time, these mountains have been weathered away by ice and water and wind, grain by grain into gravel and sand and mud. The polishing of recent Ice Age glaciers, which ground and scoured the continent, reveal the remnants of the compressed and folded roots of the ancient mountains. These rocky hieroglyphs are the only witness we have to the presence of those billion-year-old peaks. The continental glaciers melted away only about ten thousand years ago. With the retreat of the ice, the trumpeting of the last mammoths faded away from the warming Quebec tundra.
A history of magnetism frozen in once-molten rocks as they solidified shows something even more remarkable. Laurentia itself has moved, and through three billion years it has danced slowly over the Earth's surface along with the other continents, now colliding to make a larger continent, now breaking up into smaller continents. The continents drifted in position over the globe through the inexorable power of plate tectonics driven by the internal heat of the Earth. This process continues. Europe is presently moving away from North America as new crust erupting at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge expands the sea floor and carries the two continents apart – at more or less the rate at which fingernails grow. About 200 million years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean began to form, Europe and North America were fused and still part of a huge northern supercontinent. Going further back in time to the age when animal life was diversifying, about 500 million years ago, what is now Quebec was located just south of the equator.
A LONG HISTORY OF A BRIEF TIME
As for my more recent origins, I know the place and date of my birth, but not from a birth certificate. That never existed. My start in life took place in the gloomy autumn of 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor, and is recorded officially on a handwritten baptismal certificate in the name of Rudolf Albert Joseph Raff. A few days after the event, this document was filled out in hand by my mother's parish priest and entered the church baptismal record. What a medieval kind of approach to keeping birth data in a modern country. How inconvenient it would be for the unbaptized. It seems so early for an ambiguity to have appeared in my own documentary fossil record, a tenuous connection to my actual birth. Rudolf came from my father's name, Albert for my grandfather Dufresne, and Joseph was my "saint's name." The saint's name was later mercifully dropped as an excessive frill on the U.S. side of the border upon my naturalization.
My father, Rudolf August Victor Raff, was born in 1908 in Mödling, Austria, a modest village under a scenic mountain twenty kilometers southwest of Vienna. Gerd Müller, a professor of zoology at the University of Vienna and a generous host, took my wife Beth and me there while we were visiting the Conrad Lorenz Institute as his guests in 2006. It was a visit of curiosity and trepidation. Mödling has narrow streets and one of those strange and elaborate early-eighteenth-century "plague statues" that commemorate the last visit of the bubonic plague in 1713. These statues have an intricate symbolism, concoctions of grimacing skulls and dying victims topped by a cheerful angel. The plague swept its scythe through the people of Mödling just a generation after the same treatment by the Ottoman invaders who laid siege to Vienna in 1683. The old townspeople had managed to express hope in that angel. In the living town that hope has evolved into an excellent coffee and pastry shop with tables on the town square. We easily found the building at 20 Elizabeth Strasse, where, as my father's birth certificate records, his parents lived when he was born. It felt strange to be standing there at this intersection of past and present just two years shy of a century after my father's parents first brought him home. It is still an apartment building and looks much like a family picture from the early twentieth century.
My father took his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Vienna in 1932. His intellectual roots lay in the rich history of science in Vienna, and his dissertation committee included the eminent paleontologist Othenio Abel. Abel was one of the founders of paleobiology, the study of how extinct creatures we know only as fossils once lived. Abel seems to be most remembered for proposing that fossil skulls of dwarf mammoths found on Mediterranean islands may have been the source of the Cyclops legend of the ancient world. Perhaps the downside of fame is to be remembered for the trivial. The family liking for paleontology apparently ran at least one generation deeper. Although my grandfather was a lawyer, as a student he had some interest in science. I have a modest geological hammer that my father told me had been given to his father when he was a student at Vienna by the geologist Eduard Seuss. This was the same Professor Seuss who became famous for proposing the existence of an ancient southern supercontinent he called Gondwanaland after the Gond tribe of India. Gondwanaland (now called Gondwana) is an important component of understanding continental drift. That little hammer has drifted across time, an ostensible relic of ancient rocks once lovingly pounded by the great geologist.
My grandfather's name was Rudolf Ignaz Raff. My grandmother was Emma Steidler Raff. Her father was apparently a physician. I have no history of my father's Austrian family before them, and few stories even of my grandparents' lives. Judging by photographs of my father (an only child) with his parents, they were somewhat or, I suspect, quite reclusive people. My father had a cousin, but in the late 1930s the family was bitterly split by his cousin's support of Hitler. Contact never was reestablished after the war. When Beth and I were in Vienna in 2006, I looked in the city telephone book for any Raffs. I expected to find dozens, but there were only four listed; it was seventy years later and I couldn't bring myself to try dialing any of them. I could only imagine that awkward English-German phone conversation. As for more remotely possible ancestors, my father alluded to the Swiss composer of syrupy music Joachim Raff as a possible relative. Joachim was born in 1822. However, he makes a poor ancestor as his only child, a daughter, left no descendants – so surely this story is just one of those family legends and elusive false clues.
Excerpted from Once We All Had Gills by Rudolf A. Raff. Copyright © 2012 Rudolf A. Raff. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Rudolf A. Raff is James H. Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University and one of the founders of the field of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). He is director of the Indiana Molecular Biology Institute, editor-in-chief of Evolution & Development, Guggenheim Fellow, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is author of The Shape of Life: Genes, Development, and Evolution of Animal Form and author (with Thom Kaufman) of Embryos, Genes, and Evolution.
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