Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why I love amphibians, and hate the iPad

Obviously, I think amphibians are pretty frakkin' awesome.  If I didn't think thus, I wouldn't be doing the research I am.  What exactly do I find so cool about amphibians, you ask?  Well, quite a bit, really.  For one, the huge diversity of amphibians- morphology, ecology and behavior.  Tails, no tails; gastric brooding, dermal brooding, egg layers; vocalization for mating and social purposes; inhabiting rain forests, vernal pools, and deserts; the ability to distinguish kin, non-kin and other species, as well as recognize familiar and unfamiliar.  These little critters can do a lot. 

They also happen to be extremely basal vertebrates.  Some people might refer to them as "ancient", "lower", or "simple", while talking of mammals for instance as "advanced" or "higher" vertebrates.  This framing might work at a superficial level, but the connotations of these terms include a degree of judgment, that for some reason we mammals are better than our less derived vertebrate relatives.  It's not a coincidence, unfortunately.  Our western cultural history still bears the imprint of many centuries of Christian thought, and it was the teaching of the church for many of those years that there was a natural order, or hierarchy.  organisms were ordered from the lowliest of creatures to the most divine, and one of the early theories of evolution posited that evolution was this slow march replacing organisms with other organisms ever more closely resembling the Christian God.

We now know that that's not at all the case, but this idea that newer is better is pervasive.  In contrast, one could argue that the older less derived forms are actually better suited to competing for resources.  After all, if they weren't better, they wouldn't have exerted a competitive pressure that drove evolution of more complicated traits attempting to compete with older versions.  If amphibians had had no ability to compete with the supposedly vastly superior mammals that came later, then they would have ceased to exist long ago, to be replaced by these newer forms.  The identifying characteristics of the major groups of organisms can be thought of as the innovation(s) that allowed a group to successfully compete with the older, more tested organisms already in existence.

It's an important lesson, I think, that progress isn't better simply because it is new.  Technology for the sake of technology may be interesting from a theoretical approach, but practically speaking, unless it solves some problem or improves life, it's just someone's research.  Especially in our current ecological paradigm of a vast population growing even larger, and polluting in ever increasing quantities, I think it's important to consider practicality and functionality.  Technical obsolescence and style obsolescence may encourage the development and adoption of new technology, but is it always better technology?  The Apple iPad and its launch recently is what has made me consider this paradigm, because I have to ask, "What real purpose does this thing have?"  As far as I can tell, it does nothing new that can't be done using some other already-existing device.What does this product do other than pad Apple's coffers and our landfills?  I'm using this one example, but it's only one of many instances which I think maybe the older answer was just as good, and the newer version serves solely for profit and use of resources.  But then again, I'll also never give up my turntable.  Commence the cries of "Luddite!".

1 comment:

  1. Lisa, I love your blog. =)

    Well stated, old chap.

    (apparently, I'm English now)