Friday, 22 March 2013

Nature and Awe


In Walking with Gosse, I asked whether my sense of wonder in looking at Nature was different to that experienced by Henry Gosse. For Henry, it was confirmation of the extraordinary power of the Creator, whereas I feel astonished at the results of evolution and my lack of understanding of the time scale involved in progressing from the first forms of life to those we have now. I had no need for a supernatural explanation. 

Having read John Shea’s interesting article Grasped by God in Nature in The Jesuit Post, I approached him for his view on the question I had posed. John is a Jesuit and also a Biologist with a PhD in Parasitology. This is what I wrote to him:

“My interest in Henry Gosse, and his famous son [Sir] Edmund, developed into a book entitled Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, where I used autobiography to link their biographies, as all three of us share similarities and differences in our approach to religious belief and to Nature. So, now I come to my question. I am an atheist (but definitely not of the proselytising kind) and wonder whether the thrill which I get from looking at living things is different in quality to the feelings which were so important to Henry Gosse. As your appreciation is also clearly enhanced by your religious belief, are my feelings of a lesser kind? Of course, I realise that there is no definitive answer to the question, but I would be interested in your view. I think that Natural History is one of the great soothers, as you point out in the closing section of Grasped by God in Nature.”

John replied:

 You ask if the thrill you get (as an atheist) from looking at living things is of a ‘lesser kind’ relative to someone with religious beliefs.  As you correctly note, there is no ‘definite’ answer to this question.  It’s difficult (impossible?) to make comparisons among individuals’ subjective experiences.  If I had to guess, however, I would say that each of our experiences and feelings of awe are generally the same.  But we interpret them differently.”

So, from this helpful dialogue, I conclude that my question can have no answer, but that we can all experience awe in Nature and that feeling is qualitatively similar whatever our religious beliefs. It is a good feeling and one that we can all share and maybe I’m right in promoting it as something we can used to overcome barriers and conflicts?

John then pointed me to an article on Aweism by Phil Zuckerman, which I had not read before. It gives a perspective that I found valuable and I would like to highlight a quote from the article:

“I am often in a state of awe. Granted, this isn't a perpetual state of being. I don't constantly walk around with my mouth wide open, my jaw slack, and my eyes brimming with tears of wonder and elation. My heart isn't constantly expanding nor is my spine perpetually tingling. However, I do regularly experi­ence awe. How often? Can't say for sure. Sometimes it comes from being in nature; sometimes it comes from interacting with people; sometimes it comes from drinking beer in Scot­land, reading Tarjei Vesaas, listening to Nick Drake, walking along the Kattegat Sea, or picking up my kids from school. Sometimes it comes from contemplating existential mysteries. Both the mundane as well as the profound can, at random times, stimulate a feeling of awe. But whatever the source, it is a feeling that constitutes an integral part of my life experience and is a central pillar of my identity.”

So, as Phil Zuckerman remarks, the sense of wonder in Nature fits in with the other sources of awe which we all experience. He continues:

“Aweism is the belief that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so power­ful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. To be an aweist is to be an atheist and/or an agnostic and/or a secular humanist-and then some. An aweist is some­one who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience.”

Although I don’t like the term aweism, it explains these amazing qualities of life that we all enjoy and which bring emotional refreshment. We have these whether we believe in a God, or not. It’s all down to the explanation which we wish to give to our experiences of awe, while recognising the universal human propensity to be deeply moved. Nature brings us together, but our differences over the interpretation of the awe that we feel in Nature can drive us apart. Why can’t we be inclusive?

With thanks to John Shea - see more of his articles at:

Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts available through Clio Publishing (

P.S. The photograph at the start of this post is of  Henry Gosse - I look rather different. Henry was a fascinating man who deserves our admiration.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Monarchs and milkweeds - wonders of Nature

Like many gardeners, I love scented plants and it is easy to think that the beautiful fragrance of some flowers came about for our benefit. In a way it has, as we bred garden plants from wild stocks and enhanced the nature of their scent as part of that process.

                                                                        Image from 
I have just bought some Asclepias seeds and these will be planted to give masses of vanilla-smelling flowers throughout the summer. It isn’t just me that finds them attractive, as many insects, including butterflies, home in on them and collect the abundant nectar produced by the flowers. In moving from flower to flower and plant to plant, the insects ensure that pollination takes place, so the plants have a lot to gain from the relationship. It’s a wonderful association that has evolved through a number of steps since plants were able to generate, and transport, sugars produced by photosynthesis.

The seeds to be planted in my garden originate from wild Asclepias that grow in North America and their common name is milkweeds. Wild milkweeds are fed upon by the larvae (caterpillars) of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and, indeed, their larvae are largely confined to these plants. As a defence against attack, milkweed leaves contain deterrent chemicals, including cardiac glycosides which cause powerful effects on the heart muscle of vertebrates. The larvae of Monarch butterflies are not affected, but they sequester the toxin in their bodies and this is retained when the larvae pupate and then produce adult butterflies. The adults are strongly coloured (aposematic coloration) and this is likely to act as a warning to any animal which attempts to eat them, as the effects of the cardiac glycoside should act as a deterrent against future predation. 

                                  Image from

Monarch butterflies make long migrations. During winter, they have reduced metabolism (a diapause) and remain semi-dormant in aggregations almost covering some trees in Mexico. As Spring progresses, they waken and begin to fly north, feeding as they go to fuel the flight. They then breed, before a new generation of adults continues the migration, with two further generations being produced before the migration is complete. It is adults from the fourth generation that fly all the way back to the Mexican overwintering grounds and they go into diapause upon arrival.

Just think of the evolutionary steps needed to achieve the biology of the Monarch butterfly, all becoming encoded within their genetic make-up:

  • having larval and adult forms which are quite different and feeding in very different ways;
  • undergoing compete metamorphosis as a pupa, where one body plan is re-organised into another;
  • feeding on milkweed plants as larvae and being able to store the toxins the plants use a defence;
  • undergoing a long-distance migration with the return leg being made by the descendents of the insects that made the outward leg;
  • being able to navigate;
  • being able to exist in a dormant state.
I could go on and on like this, adding to the list.

Rupert Cornwell wrote an article in The Independent on Sunday on 17th March 2013 where he stated [with my paraphrasing]:

"Forget the politicians and the rest of the human activity that makes Washington tick. The real wonders of this place, I have come to realise, are natural... ...the glorious visitation of the monarchs takes place every year. Here in DC, we're on the edge of the migration, but in May a few northbound ones, instanttly recognisable through their gaudy gold and black colouring, usually drop into the garden to refuel. More may be seen in late September or October on their way back to Mexcio, still a month or two's travel away."

It reminds us of the inspiration that Nature brings and how recent is the appearance of humans in evolutionary time. Yet, as Rupert Cornwell reminds us, we humans are having major effects on the chances of survival of Monarch butterflies and their loss can only result in our impoverishment. How appropraite that his article was written from the city holding the centre of power in the World's most powerful nation. How sad that we all allow short-term, superficial interests to override something which is much more valuable and important.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Creation or evolution (again)? - The strange life of hydrothermal vents

Henry Gosse was at the forefront of the growing interest both in sea life and in aquaria during the Nineteenth Century. In The Romance of Natural History (1860) he wrote: “Almost as little known as the heart of Africa are the depths of ocean[s]. The eye penetrates in the clear crystalline sea a few fathoms down, and beholds mailed and glittering forms flitting by; the dredge gathers its scrapings; divers plunge out of sight, and bring up pearls; and the sounding-lead goes down, down, down, hundreds of fathoms, and when it comes up, we gaze with eager eyes to see what adheres to the tallow ‘arming’; the tiny shells, the frustules of diatoms, even the atoms of coral sand,-curious to learn what is at the bottom of the deep. But, after all, it is much like the brick which the Greek fool carried about as a sample of the house he had to let.”

How fascinated he would be by our ability to view the deep sea today, albeit just a tiny fraction of it. There is a huge volume of water in the oceans and most of it is in darkness, descending several kilometres to the ocean floor. Using submersibles, we can venture down to take a look, but it is very different to our ability to explore land, where travel is easy and there are no problems with pressure, or with a supply of air, or with lack of light. To extend Henry Gosse’s analogy, we certainly know much more about the heart of Africa today than we do about the deep sea.

It was only decades ago that we first discovered the presence of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and we now know they take various forms: All produce plumes of hot water, with the hottest having “black smokers” which exude water rich in chemicals from the Earth’s crust, the temperature of the plume being up to 400oC. “Black smoker” is a good description, as the column of water contains many small sulphide-rich particles which are precipitated as the water cools, forming a chimney around the vent and shooting a column of what looks superficially like smoke into the water.

One of the characteristics of regions with black smokers is the abundance of animals that they contain and I will describe just one example - the vestimentiferan worms - that have come to characterise these communities (there are also many bivalve molluscs, crustaceans, and other types of animal).Vestimentiferan worms are long as adults (up to 2 m) and the anterior of each worm can be extended from its tube, and also withdrawn:

What would Henry Gosse have made of them? I think he would have been thrilled to discover these extraordinary examples of God’s Creation existing in such a remote location. They have characteristics of worms which live in tubes elsewhere in oceans, but the tube worms of ocean margins have feeding organs, covered with secreted mucus, which allow them to capture tiny particles. These particles (together with anything else which sticks to the mucus) are conveyed to the mouth by tiny moving hairs (cilia) and are then ingested. The package of particles and mucus passes through the digestive tract and it is from this that the tube worms gain their nutrition. Some of the particles will be algae and bacteria, some made up of dead organic matter, but all will have resulted originally from solar energy trapped by photosynthesis.

Close examination of vestimentiferan worms shows that they do not have a digestive tract, so what do they feed on and how do they gain the nutrition needed to achieve their large size? These are questions that would certainly have puzzled Henry Gosse and it took Biologists some time to provide answers. Like many soft-bodied marine creatures, the worms are able to absorb dissolved matter across their body wall and this is rich in sulphides from the water which emanates from the black smokers. These chemicals are concentrated in some hydrothermal vents, but will not supply much of the nutritional needs of the vestimentiferans. The secret lies in having large numbers of bacteria living within the tissues of the worms. These bacteria lie at the base of hydrothermal vent food chains and they coat all surfaces; explaining why sulphide particles are ingested by bivalves and also by crustaceans (both stripping off these nutritious coatings inside their digestive tracts). The bacteria use sulphides as a source of energy, just as surface-dwelling organisms use light in photosynthesis. It is termed chemosynthesis and the bacteria living and growing within vestimentiferan worm tissues are able to secrete organic compounds that the worms use for their own growth.

Of course, this leads to further questions: how did the association between bacteria and vestimentiferan worms arise and how did the relatives of surface water tube worms end up at hydrothermal vents? Henry Gosse would repeat that this was by the act of Creation and that is a convenient answer. If one doesn’t believe in this explanation, then how did hydrothermal vent communities come into existence and how did their association with chemosynthetic bacteria come about? I think I have the answers, but I’m not sure. That’s the problem with evolution; there are so many developments that we can only speculate about, as they happened over such a long time period so long ago.