Monday, June 14, 2010

Cousins of all kinds

In 1987, when I was lecturing in computing out at the Curtin University in Perth, I once told my students (who knew I'd been living in France for most of my adult life) that I'd never knowingly met up with a genuine Tasmanian… let alone visited that southern island. I imagined that certain members of my audience would be surprised by this declaration… but not at all. Just like me, apparently, none of those young people had ever been in contact with that out-of-the-way place.

In an article entitled Tasmanians [display], I evoked Truganina, the queen of the Tasmanian Aborigines. In another article, entitled Ray of hope for our devils [display], I mentioned the terrible cancer epidemic that could possibly wipe out these exotic creatures.

Over the last few years, because of my non-stop intellectual diet of the extraordinary words of Richard Dawkins, I realize that my entire attitude towards Life (with a capital L) has been changing—evolving, you might say—in an unexpected but colossal manner. As a "born-again atheist" with the pretentious conviction that I understand vaguely, at last, what Existence is all about (at least the parts that a human brain can tackle), I'm aware that I've become a totally changed individual over the last few years. The aspect of life that amazes me most is the idea that all creatures—animals, plants, bacteria, etc—can be thought of as "cousins" of varying degrees of remoteness. For any pair of specific creatures—say Truganina and me… or even a Tasmanian Devil and me—we can imagine that we once shared a specific couple of N-great-grandparents, where N represents the number of times you would need to repeat the term "great" in order to ascend to this ancestral couple. In the case of Truganina and me, this couple would have surely looked a little bit like Truganina, a little bit like me, and a big bit like countless folk who were still living over in Africa some 50 millennia ago. On the other hand, in the case of the Tasmanian Devil and me, it would be vastly more difficult to imagine seriously what our last common ancestors might have looked like.

Talking of Tasmanian cousins, I'm particularly fond of this pretty fellow, some ten centimeters long, who apparently still exists today:

Known as a handfish, and located in the waters of Hobart, it uses its fins, not to swim, but to stroll around on the ocean floor. Concerning our common ancestors, I would imagine that, one day long ago, they happened to walk up onto an African beach or river bank, where they were totally charmed by the new environment. So, hand over hand (maybe hand in hand, if we wished to give this tale a romantic touch), they just kept on walking…

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