Classifying Life

Why do we need to classify things? I guess the human mind needs it to put things in perspective.

Imagine if there was no concept of centuries and half-centuries in cricket. Strictly speaking, there isn’t much difference whether one scores 100 runs or 99 or even 90. A batsman does not require any special ability to score those few extra runs. Worse, the 30-40 runs he scores after the century are not perceived as valuable enough as the previous 10 runs. Strange, but that’s what classification does. Still it’s a necessity. It’s hard for people to remember every individual score of a player, but it’s easy to remember the number of centuries in his career. So in a way classification is a tool to help us humans overcome our limitation of not being able to comprehend and assess randomness in a continuum.

Biology is no different. We have a fancy jargon here – taxonomy – which further creates fancier jargons. There is classification everywhere – vertebrates vs invertebrates, eukaryotes vs prokaryotes, aerobic vs anaerobic, and so on.

Classroom Biology has taught us a classification system which is represented as the Tree of Life. It follows from the Darwinian model of evolution. So we have species grouped as genera grouped as families grouped as orders grouped as classes grouped as phyla grouped as kingdoms grouped as domains. Phew! And then there are subgroups as and when required.

For instance, the domestic cat has this taxonomic signature: F. silvestris -> Felis -> Felidae -> Feliformia -> Carnivora -> Mammalia -> Chordata -> Animalia -> Eukaryota. So starting with Eukaryota, you keep on adding a distinct property to move up a level in the Tree of Life to finally arrive at your species. Thus a cat can be thought of as a living object containing nuclear cells (Eukaryota) lacking a cell wall (Animalia), which has a notochord (Chordata), with female secreting milk (Mammalia), and which feeds on other animals (Carnivora), has double-chambered bones covering middle and inner ear (Feliformia) and hunts alone (Felidae) without roaring (Felis) and is a wildcat. Of course taxonomy is not so simple and not free from debates and disputes either. For instance, not all Carnivores eat meat all the time.

Notwithstanding the opinion of an Indian junior minister, Darwin was a genius because his model of evolution withstood the onslaught of extensive genetic studies carried out more than a century later.

Darwin’s Tree of Life, however, does not cover the entire gamut of life as we now know. It leaves out microbes – bacteria and archaea. Archaea is a newly discovered domain of life consisting of microbes with appearance similar to bacteria but which differ in genetic processes. Bacteria and archaea are together referred to as prokaryotes to distinguish them from eukaryotes. Unlike eukaryotes, they do not possess nucleus in the cell.

The concept of ‘tree’ reaches its limits with eukaryotes and cannot be extended to include bacteria and archaea types. These types – defined mostly using their genetic characteristics – are related to one another more like a network rather than hierarchical branches. Even the notion of ‘species’ is nearly impossible to apply to microbes let alone the “Origin of the Species”.

One may want to dismiss these ‘invisible’ forms of life for their tiny size, but their quantity is mind-boggling (estimated microbes in the order of 1030). There are as many, if not more, bacterial cells in our body as human cells.

If that does not give an indication of the power of microbes, consider this: They are in a state of continuous evolution at a rate much higher than us eukaryotes because they can transfer genes among themselves laterally without having to wait for the arrival of offspring. The process is called horizontal gene transfer which dwarfs the vertical gene transfer we are capable of.

But wait, we haven’t finished with life yet. You haven’t seen anything until you consider viruses – the tiniest of all. Unfortunately, the dogma that viruses do not constitute life persisted in academic Biology for far too long. They were relegated to ‘particles’. That ostracizing was mainly on account of the fact that they cannot reproduce without entering a host cell. What was conveniently overlooked was that they carry the most important ingredient of life – genetic material – packaged inside a protein coating. And they outnumber all other life forms by a huge margin. There is a fresh drive now to include them within the scope of life. Some scientists call this “viral life” an empire, distinct from the other, our own, empire – “cellular life”.

Reverse Swing of Societal Norms

The other day in a near empty car park, I carelessly parked my car across the marked lines covering a few parking spots. I knew that my daughter was waiting to be picked up and that it was only a matter of a few minutes. That might have been a good excuse for a parking officer. Not for my teenage daughter though. She vehemently disapproved of my action.

Stunned by her rebuttal, I remembered another “rule of the road” issue that bothers me often. My experience on roads tells me that most drivers tend to go a bit over the legal speed limits. That ‘a bit’ was a bit too much when I drove in Spain earlier this year with most cars speeding past my car at well over 130 kmph on a 120 road. I have this dilemma. Should I be legally legitimate and drive within the prescribed speed limits? Or be legitimate by societal norm and speed up that little bit? To me the latter option feels safer as I have to negotiate less traffic.

These matters might be trivial but the news I heard on car radio was a bombshell. Steve Smith had admitted to a ball-tampering ploy. The cricketing world was shaken. I went on news hunt overdrive to check the reactions from all over the world.

A news item in a leading Indian newspaper carried this line: “Where Smith and the ‘senior’ group slipped up was that they did it so blatantly with so many cameras in place. And Smith’s admission made things worse.” It then went on listing leading cricketers from many countries who had performed the act of ball-tampering at times and admitted to it later in their lives.

People are tempted to take advantage of a situation to the level of unfairness permitted by the rules. Not justified by any means, but it’s in human nature perhaps. We see all the time soccer players fouling others and feigning injury to gain advantage.

Morally-wrong-yet-politically-correct ways have been accepted by our society for a while now. This had to burst and it’s only a start. The results are not going to be pleasant. Strange political leaders are gaining prominence all over the world. They are mostly by-products of people’s gradual rejection of mainstream politicians’ political correctness – a system where we all know something is part of our lives and yet twist it to suit our game at a time appropriate for us.

By inadvertently being part of this course correction, Steve Smith has unwillingly done us some favour. For there lies a criminal in all of us and this regime of political correctness encourages us to go ahead with the crime. It tells us that the whole problem is only when you get caught. Until that moment, you are perfectly fine in the eyes of the law as well as of people in that business.

Somewhere sometime our inner voice prompts us: In this age of competition, everyone does it. The trick is to fool the system a little bit more than others and yet a bit less than the point where you can be caught. It is that point and not the legal word, which in reality defines the line everyone says you should not cross. Your correct judgement of that line at the appropriate time is a measure of your smartness. If you do a Steve Smith, you are an idiot. If you do a Steve Smith minus one, you are a genius.

We may be leaning towards organic food, but are losing out on the organic ways of life. We are letting marketing drive our values and lifestyles a lot. We need a marketing campaign (#MeToo) endorsed by celebrities to destroy a well-marketed celebrity image. We ingest television shows, media headlines, brand promotions knowing fully well that it is money and only money that is driving these. We ridicule the concept of arranged marriage yet enjoy Married At First Sight. Money matters may well determine the outcome of this entire ball-tampering saga too. The problem will remain and build up further… till someone gets caught again.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not pretend adult celebrities are role models for our kids. Kids who are yet to grow up to the twisted ways of us adults are the real role models. It’s time we seek a better way of life by looking down to them. Let’s kid ourselves, literally. And yes, I did take my daughter’s disapproval seriously and have decided to not park car illegally even for a moment.

Bone of Contention

It’s all quiet after the storm. The storm that could have grown bigger had it not been time to drop Nick to his tennis class. The kind of storm that usually eventuated in them not talking to each other for days. He is relieved that it didn’t go that far this time.

It began with a small issue when he forgot to switch off the bathroom fan after use. What followed was a series of generalisations — about him… ‘forgetting is no excuse’, ‘always leave a dirty basin after morning brush’, ‘never pack lunch for kids’, ‘always buy more alcohol for guests than required’, and so on; and about her… ‘never put lid on containers’, ‘usually leave dress on the bed’, ‘can’t do multi-tasking’, ‘spend freely but never log on to internet banking to check finances’, and so on.

She will be away for the next couple of hours doing weekly grocery shopping after dropping Nick. It’s time he did something. Something to ease the situation.

He loves to cook and thinks that’s the best way he could take some pressure off her. He’ll cook as much as he can in two hours so she need not worry about food for the first few weekdays at least. This would let her devote more time towards writing, something she likes to do but never gets enough time for.

He opens the fridge to see what key ingredients he can use and is immediately repelled by the stink of rotten flesh. He shuts the door back. What was that? Ah it was the lamb bone that was left from last weekend. He had kept the bone after removing flesh from a portion of lamb leg. He thought they could use that to make lamb stock. Making stock out of residual bony pieces of meat was in fact her idea. He had thought he would implement that during the week. That never happened. And she was complaining already, “It will ruin everything in the fridge in a few days. What’s the point of leaving something for future that you can’t do?”

Nah, that’s the first thing he needs to fix. Holding his breath, he takes out the bowl containing the bone and empties into rubbish bin. He then washes the bowl thoroughly with extra soap to get rid of the stench.

It’s time to have another look at the fridge. His eyes brighten on seeing a fresh portion of lamb leg tightly wrapped in clear plastic. His cheeks balloon as the jaws manufacture a big smile.

He prepares a mixture of spices and yoghurt in the bowl he had just washed. Then carves lamb leg into small bite-size pieces ideal for curry. He stirs the lamb pieces into the marinate mixture and when ready puts the bowl back in the same spot in the fridge. This time he discards the leg bone in the rubbish, collects all the daily rubbish and throws them in the council bin outside the home.

He goes on to prepare two vegetarian dishes. But he knows his trump card is that lamb marinate. Relieved, he takes a shower when it’s nearly two hours since she left. He is chuckling to himself imagining how she would be pleasantly surprised to see the marinated lamb in place of that rotten lamb bone. He even starts dreaming about night time reward he will get for this act.

Loud noises emanating from the kitchen breaks his dream sequence. She has arrived. But what is she yelling at? He quickly wipes his body, covers his bottom half with bath towel and gets out of bathroom.

Her yelling is amplified at the sight of him, “Don’t you think you need to tell me what you were going to do while I am out? I mean how stupid you could be! You cut the lamb, marinated it and then placed it in the same bowl and at the same exact spot? How am I supposed to know that? When I was putting vegies in the fridge, I didn’t find much space and then saw that bowl. I thought it still had that goddamn bone. I was so annoyed I didn’t look inside and threw everything into the bin.”